CONFIDENCE: CONVERSATION BETWEEN A GRANDFATHER AND ONE OF HIS GRANDSONS

Norman Scullard - Navigator ‘B’
61, 97 (PFF) Squadrons
Norman died in 2003


http://www.raf.mod.uk/history_old/h61.html

http://www.raf.mod.uk/history_old/h97.html

‘Grandpa, while we’ve got a few minutes to spare can I have a look at your Log Book and albums again. Tell me any special stories about the planes you flew in, what are these funny looking ones like flying greenhouses?’

‘Ah, James, they are the good old Avro Ansons, used for aircrew training, and then in 1942 for coastal and transport duties. My first flight was in one in South Africa; 5 a.m. in the morning, high hills all round breathtaking it was. Weeks later when flying in formation in very bumpy conditions we had a collision, got back to base OK, bits and pieces missing from each. They were slow but very reliable, just kept on flying.'

'In June 1940 three Ansons were attacked by nine ME 109s, they not only survived but shot down two of the German fighters and damaged a third. Some flying greenhouses, James.’

‘That plane there is an Airspeed Oxford, used as were the Ansons for navigation, bombing and gunnery training. A faster and slightly smaller plane, usually just a raised floor to work on, for maps and charts. The last time I flew in an Oxford was when three of us, recently passed out Sgt Observers, had to fly to a mountainous area to take photos of a crash site. This tempered the jollity of the final party for us.’

‘That’s a Wellington, Grandpa, like the one you showed me in the Hendon Museum, much bigger than the Ansons were they?’

‘Yes, they were and by 1943 mostly used for Operational Training Units for newly completed crews, pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators and gunners met up here and formed into crews, case of pick and choose in a large hangar, and once formed you eat, lived and flew together from then on as a bomber crew.’

‘Wellingtons had been our main bomber for the early years of the war, but were now superseded by the bigger four engined planes. On our first flight on them it seemed as if the wing tips would shake off, but we soon got used to that. We did our OTU at Silverstone, which is now the British Grand Prix racetrack: the runways and hangars are still there and the woods where we had our living quarters – Nissen huts.'

'We soon got used to flying as a team, or crew, in this plane and on one flying exercise had to act quickly to hold down as best we could the cockpit hood which suddenly blew open. Our pilot beat a hasty retreat to base, happily not too far away, and landed safely. We were lucky to be in such a sturdy plane.’

‘What is this next page, Heavy Conversion Unit, all about Grandpa, more trouble there?’

‘HCU was where the crews flew for further training to get used to flying, as a team, in heavy four-engined Stirling bombers. They seemed enormous with the nose stuck high in the air supported by a huge under-carriage. A Flight Engineer was added to the crew at this stage, when we were off on local flying, then cross countries and exercises up to five hours duration without instructors. Wonderful experience for a group of young men.’

‘But what’s this in your Log book - returned to base on three engines twice.’

‘Yes, James, the first time an engine burst into flames, so the pilot and engineer quickly operated the fire procedure and equipment, stopped the engine, and we returned safely to our own aerodrome. The second time there was no fire, just a grinding, horrible noise and smoke, so once again the engine was stopped, and we beat it back home in one piece.'

'You must remember that most of these bombers, now used for training, had been used on operations, flown umpteen miles, probably damaged in some way, and by now a bit worn out.'

'On the second incident the plane swung badly on landing, broke the tail wheel and slithered across the drome narrowly missing the control tower. We got a chewing up as a crew next day in front of the CO, who finished with “good show chaps, now get out”. These incidents did not dent our confidence in Stirlings, heavy bombers or commanding officers.’

‘There are only three entries on the next page, at Lancaster Finishing School, Grandpa, why is that, and what is it for?’

‘Lancaster Finishing School was a training drome where crews that had passed through HCUs on Stirlings, could get about 15 to 20 hours flying on the Avro Lancaster bomber before going on to an operational squadron, where they would be flying Lancasters. It meant you did not have to do a lot of initial flying at an operational squadron before you actually operated.’

‘But it says in your Log book that you crashed, what happened, tell me about it, Grandpa.’

‘Briefly, James, we were practising three engined flying, doing overshoots, and on one we lost height and power, suddenly crashed, narrowly missing buildings, perhaps another engine had cut, I don’t really know. At least one engine and the rear broke off, possibly other parts, but it did not catch fire just smoke and smouldering. The crew all got out OK, including me, but I had a damaged shoulder, as I had been thrown into the nose on impact. We were very fortunate actually. I had to go off to hospital right away.’

‘The rest of the crew had cuts and bruises and after a couple of weeks continued with their flying, picking up another chap to take my place. While I was away at Rehabilitation Centre I head that they had gone on to an operational squadron, were shot down after just a few trips, several of them being killed, including the man who took my place. This was a sad time.’

‘I see from your Log book that you had to do another Heavy Conversion Unit, with a new crew I suppose, Grandpa.’

‘Yes, that is correct James. A bit strange at first but I soon fitted in with a new crew, Australian pilot, as before, and forgot past troubles. We seemed to work together even more smoothly than with my first crew. One notable thing happened there which I can never forget.'

'We were with an Instructor and he said he would show us just how good these Stirlings (and four engined bombers) were. He took us up to about 8000 ft. got our Skipper to go into a shallow dive, then cut all four engines one by one, continuing the dive to build up speed, then very gradually changed to a very slow climb on no engines, until we went back into a dive again, re-starting the engines again one by one, thank goodness.'

'It was so quiet, like being in a glider, and in the middle of all this the mid-upper gunner went to the Elsan (toilet), had no intercom, heard it all go quiet, made for his 'chute to bale out. Happily he was stopped in time. What an experience, though for each of us. And of course we followed this with the Lancaster finishing school, no problems at all there, even with stalling, evasive action (cork-screws) and the three engined overshoots.’

‘Now your Log book has lots of red and green entries, what are these?’

‘These are operations, red for night, green for daylights, first on a main force squadron, then further training and on to a Pathfinder Squadron, marking targets.’

‘Just tell me one or two things that happened at your squadrons, any more problems, I expect you had plenty.’

‘I think every crew and member will remember the first time they flew at night into the German air defences, especially in the Ruhr area or big cities. It was awesome and one thought, you will never get through that lot it’s impossible, but you do, time and time again.’

‘In November 1944 we lost an engine over Trondheim, Norway, and had a rough passage back low down over an even rougher north sea, making an emergency landing in northern Scotland, at a Coastal Command airfield. Then in February 1945 we lost an engine, again on a long eight hour plus trip, near Leipzig, so that was a slow haul back across Germany right at the back of the pack. On three engines you were easy meat for fighters, but we rode our luck on both occasions, I’m glad to say.’

‘It says on this long operation in mid-March 1945, you shot down a JU 88 night fighter, how did that happen, Grandpa?’

‘Well James, we were returning from the target, when almost alongside a Lancaster burst into flames, end to end, falling apart, a fighter still firing into it from close range. Our gunners opened up on the fighter, who turned to attack us but our gunners got the upper hand, seeing him going down in subdued flames. We hoped that some of the Lancaster crew had managed to get out in time, also the German crew.'

'We had confirmation of this from several crews including some from our own squadron. Downing German planes, bombing or marking German targets, was not pleasant business at times, but that was what we had trained for, we just got on with it, our personal contribution to the downfall of Germany and particularly Nazism.’

‘But really there has been nothing unusual about any of these incidents on training or operations, they were the kind of things that happened to most bomber crews from time to time. You knew on operations that the Lancaster was a plane you could trust entirely, they enabled crews to take violent evasive action to elude searchlights and fighters, pilots able to reach very high speeds to get out of trouble. Safety margins were sometimes ignored when in danger, but the Lancs never let you down. Superb planes, no wonder we catch our breath when we see the Battle of Britain Lancaster coming into view at one of the Air Shows.’

‘Come on Grandpa, or we will miss the train. Bring my bat as I want to knock your bowling all over the County ground again. Perhaps the Sussex Skipper will get another ton today.’

How different it might have been if the Third Reich had been able to beat us into submission.

Links & Notes

Wartime memories - RAF Silverstone http://www.wartimememories.co.uk/airfields/silverstone.html
Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster http://www.raf.mod.uk/bbmf/theaircraft/lancaster.cfm

page last updated 28 June 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010