Ben Knights DFM
104 & 162 Sqns

Between July 1941 and April 1942 I completed a tour on Wellington IIs from bases at Driffield, Yorkshire, Luga, Malta and Kabrit, Egypt. Returning to the UK, via West Africa, I became a ‘Screened Pilot’ at 21 OTU, Moreton-in-Marsh.

In due course, I was offered a posting to a Mosquito Conversion Unit which was conditional on my passing a two-hour test in a decompression chamber at a simulated height of 30,000 feet, that being the approximate altitude at which Bomber Command operated at night with Mosquitoes of the Light Night Striking Force.

Several colleagues had already failed this test and research was in hand as to why apparently fit young men were tripping up. The odds appeared to be against me as a year earlier I had sustained a fractured skull and a broken arm but all went well and I took up the MTU course to be followed by a posting to 162 Squadron at Bourn, Cambridge.

No.162 was a comparatively recent formation and was equipped with Canadian built airframes powered by Packard Merlin engines. No.8 Group was commanded by A V M Donald Bennett, an Australian with a brilliant peacetime and wartime record. He was a developer of Pathfinder techniques and personally acquainted with operational flying. He was an inspirational leader and, to my mind, the most unrewarded of all the Allied senior commanders.

On the night of 12th December, in freezing conditions, I carried out my first Mossie trip to Opladen, a railway centre north of Cologne. My navigator was F/Sgt. Robbie Robjohns, a burly, dry humoured, Australian who was starting his first operational tour. A high proportion of the squadron’s navigators were Aussie whereas the majority of the pilots were British. The operation went according to plan and took three hours forty minutes – a bit shorter than the old Wellington ops – and much more effective.

Our second operation was set for Hanover and thanks to well-[placed route markers we appeared well lined up for a good bombing run at 25,000 ft. Suddenly, Robbie crawled out of the bomb aiming position dangling his oxygen mask/microphone which appeared to have become detached from the supply tube.

He was clearly very distressed and, as the Mark XXV was not pressurised, an early reduction in height was called for if he was not to pass out.

Fortunately, we were well into our run-up on to the TIs and I used my own bomb release to let our load of four x 250 pounders go and to activate the camera. It was then a question of diving to port off the target and heading due east with all speed.

The Mosquito cockpit is very small and narrow so that the two crew need to be slightly offset to fit in. there is no question of the navigator having a proper table – just a wooden flap about 12” x 15”. The tools of his trade have to be attached to his person as it is virtually impossible to retrieve dropped objects.

Robbie was very wobbly and took up a position beside me on the floor facing backwards with the detached oxygen tube rammed into his mouth. Although he was coming round he was somewhat bemused and, bearing in mind the initial steepish bank as we came off the target, may well have thought we had sustained a hit. Let’s face it, there was plenty of flak and searchlight activity around and it was only his second op.

From his position on the floor Rob persisted in pulling at the control column on the supposition that he was improving our flying attitude – which was hardly the case. So far as navigation was concerned we were going in the right direction and I relied on my Pilot Information Card, 6” x 7”, which recorded basic details of the inward and homeward legs especially the courses and times thereon.

This vital card was usually carried in the top of the pilot’s flying boot and was an inspirational aid to situations such as ours. In spite of an erratic flight pattern, we were not doing too badly and picked up the red markers fired by our leaders which guided us between heavily defended Osnabrook and Munster. Also, with the return of Robbie to normality and with the oxygen tube in his mouth, we were able to regain some height.

Our relief, however, was short lived as the port engine made a few horrible noises and simply died on us. It may well have been that I had missed some early warning signs but the instruments now showed acute overheating problems. I went through the rehearsed drill and pressed in the feathering button which should pop out when that cycle had been completed.

Unfortunately, having feathered the propeller it did not pop out and the motor carried on and unfeathered the prop which continued to revolve and cause considerable drag. We were gradually losing height at this stage and were aware that the engine could catch fire and that the operation of the fire extinguisher could be undone if the prop continued to turn.

Whilst the likeliness of evacuation became a possibility, I persevered with the feathering motor button which decided to co-operate and the propeller was safely stopped. The aircraft was now at 11,700 ft. and flying comfortably at 150 knots. The tide had definitely turned – except that the GEE set was on the blink. This was not a great loss as the weather was pretty good and we felt that we could rely on our VHF set when nearer the UK.

In the meantime, we maintained our course and good fortune favoured us as we encountered no opposition. The coastline was obscured and we were probably further away than estimated but gradually we began to get a response and also switched our IFF to Distress.

Several stations responded and the overall offers of help and advice were marvellous. I followed the instructions of a clear decisive station and steered a course of 330 degrees. Our serenity was shaken when another operator with a clear English voice butted in and instructed me to alter course to 095 degrees.

My earlier controller told me to ignore the interloper and I carried on until passed over to Woodbridge (one of the excellent emergency landing airfields o the Norfolk coast). A friendly searchlight guided me to the airfield which was spanned by a small cone of searchlights. Woodbridge, like the two other Emergency Landing Grounds, was equipped with a-11 the latest equipment to assist distressed aircraft make a safe landing and must have been instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of Allied airmen.

Flying Control told me to fly a right handed circuit, gave some good advice about the loss of height I could expect on the final turn and wished me good luck. So all ended well, Robbie was relieved that he had passed through a harrowing experience and it certainly cemented our relationship and faith in each other.

Next morning, we were picked up by the Bourn duty Oxford and returned to base where nobody seemed to know what had happened to us or had any details of our debriefing or the cause of the failure of our Packard-built Merlin. Poor old Robbie’s misfortune with his microphone/oxygen mask called for much explanation before he could obtain new equipment from Stores.

We returned to normal duty and a couple of nights later did a trip to Frankfurt. The following night saw the first of our twenty bombing runs to the major target, Berlin (The Big City). This target formed a high proportion of our total of 37 which ended when European hostilities ceased. The normal tour for Light Night Striking Force aircrew was for 50 operations.

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page last updated 28 June 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010