BOMBER COMMAND MEMORIES 1943-1947
who was a flight engineer in Lancasters
of 189 Squadron, 5 Group, based at Fulbeck, Lincolnshire
I often thought that I should apply myself to the task of putting down on paper the events of what, looking back, was a most exciting period in my life. It is said that we all have a book within us, waiting to be let out. I make no claim to be a budding author, seeking to spring upon the world a literary wonder destined for the Booker Prize short-list. It is simply a desire - almost a duty - to record those events, in my own way, at least perhaps for my family to read, and to provide an answer to that oft-repeated question, “.... and what did you do in the war?
I should do this before the memories become too dim easily to recall, and while some of my friends and colleagues of that time are still around; sadly, not all are. Friends and colleagues are descriptions which hardly do justice to them - perhaps there is no ideal way, for it is difficult to find words adequate to describe the bond which grew between us, in those often difficult and dangerous times.
So, to those who take a little time to read - please accept these writings for what they are: the Wartime Memories of one who was privileged to serve, with pride, in a magnificent branch of the Armed Forces - the Royal Air Force - when the need arose.
The Band of Brothers
After initial training as a flight engineer at No 4 School of Technical Training at St Athan, I was awarded my brevet, promoted to Sergeant and posted to 1654 Heavy Conversion Unit at Wigsley, to commence in-flight training on Stirlings. Up to this point, apart from a thirty-minute flight in an Anson at St Athan during my training, I had never flown before, so from now on life was due to change somewhat dramatically! After checking in at various departments on the station, and collecting my flying gear, helmet and fur-lined flying boots, I was now ready to go to war (or so I thought).
First (we 30 flight engineers) had to "crew up"; this was done quite simply by the RAF putting thirty pilots and flight engineers into a hangar and told to sort ourselves out, or they would do it for us! Now this is when good luck and fortune smiled on me, for a tall Canadian Flying Officer came over and asked had I found a pilot yet? "No", I replied. He then introduced himself as John Gilmour and asked if I would like to join his crew? I agreed; and later I was to discover that I was flying with one of the best pilots in the Air Force.
This team, which was to remain together for most of the time was: Johnny Gilmour the pilot, Mike Burrington, bomb aimer, Bill Steadman, navigator, Peter Boyko, mid-upper gunner, Ken McKinnon, rear-gunner - all Canadians - Doug Pretty the wireless operator was Australian and I was the British flight engineer. We were, in fact, a mini league of nations.
Familiarisation with the Stirling now began in earnest; circuits and landings, corkscrews and steep turns, practice bombing and fighter affiliation. We were very quickly becoming accustomed to flying four-engined aircraft. The only incident during this period of training that nearly caused our demise was when, on a night training flight, the starboard inner engine exploded and we had to make an emergency landing at East Kirby. As we touched down the port outer engine throttle jammed open and we started to career off the runway and across the aerodrome in total darkness. We finally stopped after closing all fuel cocks and ignition switches.
Such was the pace of training that in four weeks we achieved forty hours flying and we were then posted to No 5 Lancaster Finishing School at Syerston. After fourteen hours on Lancasters we were now classed as fit to join an operational squadron.
On the 25th November 1944 we were transported from Syerston to 189 Squadron (code CA) at Fulbeck – and what a station! The whole place seemed to be under water; perhaps they should have called it HMS Fulbeck. 189 Squadron was formed in 1917 as a night flying training unit and was disbanded in December 1919. In 1944 No 5 Group Bomber Command received two new squadrons, No 227 on the 7th October and No 189 on the 15th.
189 Squadron had now received some of 9 Squadron's Lancasters, and working up to operational status began immediately under the watchful eyes of the A and B flight Commanders, S/Leader Gordon and S/Leader McCracken. On the 29th November 1944 we had our first flight in one of the squadron aircraft, to familiarise ourselves with high level practice bombing and fighter affiliation, and in the process learning how to do the 5 Group corkscrew.
On the 4th December, Johnny was on the battle order to fly as second pilot (2nd “dickey”) with F/Lt Abbott and his crew for an attack on Heilbronn in Lancaster CA-R. This aircraft was named “Spirit of Russia” and had already completed 97 ops with 9 Squadron before it was transferred to 189 in November 1944. It went on to complete a further sixteen ops with 189 Squadron and its last sortie was to Karlsruhe on the 2nd February 1945. In 1950 it finished up at the RAF Fire School at Sutton on the Hill where it was used for fire-fighting practice - an ignominious end to such a long flying career.
On 23rd December the crew was granted five days' leave over the Christmas period and on our return we heard that two crews from the squadron who were on an attack on Politz were missing without trace. I lost a very good friend called Ginger Miller (Rhodesia) who trained with me at St Athan and who was flying with F/Lt Magowan and crew in CA-B. So far in the last two months the squadron had taken part in five ops and had lost four aircraft; three to enemy action and one that crashed just after take-off. On the 29th December we finished our training with a cross-country flight to Skitten, one of the most northerly airfields in Scotland, nine miles from John O'Groats!
It was now the 1st January 1945 and we were on the Battle Order for a night attack on the Dortmund Emms canal at Gravenhorst. The first thing we had to do during the morning was to air test Lancaster CA-U, which had been allocated to us, to make sure that all the equipment worked and there were no snags with the aircraft. Now we were ready to go to war?
Darkness was approaching and we were about to board the aircraft but first we all had a pee on the tail wheel - just for good luck of course! The engines were started up and there was a feeling of tension, excitement - and the noise! Everywhere was the sound of sixty Rolls Royce Merlin engines being run up, from the fifteen aircraft of 189 Squadron which were taking part in the raid. After the run-up the chocks were signalled away and we moved onto the perimeter track. We were the 14th aircraft to take off and during the taxi out, Johnny and I carried out the take-off checks. We lined up on the end of the runway and at 17.04 precisely Johnny opened the throttles. The Lanc started to roll forward, sluggishly at first due to the combined weight of the twelve 1000lb bombs in the bomb bay and the 1200 gallons of fuel on board.
As Johnny and I fed more power to the engines we slowly gained momentum and I took over the throttles, pushing them through the gate for maximum boost. Each gauge showed 3000 rpm, the tail was now up and Johnny eased the aircraft off the runway. With a positive rate of climb established, Johnny ordered me to raise the undercarriage and I reduced the power to 2850 rpm plus 9lbs boost. Throttles were moved first, to prevent overboosting, and I then started to bring the flaps in at 5 degrees at a time, at 145 knots.
As we neared the enemy coast we climbed to 12000 feet, our bombing height, and we were now on our final approach to the target. At this point I started to throw out bundles of 'window' - metallic foil designed to upset the German radar, guns and searchlights. We could see in the distance that the Pathfinders had already illuminated the target for us. Now Mike took over on the final approach and informed us when all the bombs had been dropped and that they appeared to have exploded around the target area. As we left, we ran into some enemy flak, however the aircraft seemed to be in one piece so we pressed on back to the UK.
Two days later we were on the battle order again, this time a raid on Royan at the mouth of the river Gironde. Royan was occupied by a German garrison which was preventing the Allies from using the port of Bordeaux. Three hundred Lancasters were employed and some fifteen hundred tons of high explosives were dropped on the target. Our load was one 4000lb “cookie” and sixteen 500lb bombs. As we approached the target we ran into a lot of enemy flak and just in front of us a Lanc took a direct hit and exploded into a million pieces. One moment there was an aircraft with seven men on board and the next, it was gone - a terrifying experience!
We landed back at base at 07.30 on the 5th January, after a seven-hour flight. Four Lancasters were lost on this op, two to enemy action and two which collided on the way back across France. One of them was CA-P from 189 Squadron and all but the rear-gunner, Sgt Powell, were killed.
Later on the 5th I was admitted into the station hospital with a badly infected throat and was hospitalised for a week. Unfortunately, during this time I missed three ops that the crew took part in - Houffalize, Merseburg and Politz. On this last one they were attacked over Denmark by a Junkers 88 which managed to put a line of bullet holes six inches away from Ken, in the rear turret - how lucky can you get?
I resumed ops with the crew on the 1st February with a trip to Siegan, a nice quiet six-hour flight except that the rear turret went u/s just after take-off and Ken had to crank it manually during the whole of the flight.
Not so lucky with the next op on 2nd February. We were again on the battle order for a raid on Karlsruhe with 250 Lancasters taking part, of which nineteen were from 189 Squadron. We were approaching the target at 16000 ft which was completely covered by low cloud. Above us was a layer of high cloud and what with the sky markers hanging between these two layers of cloud, all of our aircraft stood out like little black flies. The German night fighters came in and very quickly shot fourteen of the Lancasters down.
It was a complete disaster for 189 Squadron, which lost four aircraft: CA-F - killing F/O Lock and three of his crew: CA-E - killing F/Lt Davies and all the crew except the rear-gunner, F/Sgt Cromarty: CA-K - killing F/O Kelly and all the crew except the rear-gunner, F/Sgt Dyson, and CA-Q - killing F/Lt Bains and all the crew, again except the rear-gunner, F/Sgt Clement, who was blown out of the aircraft when the bombs exploded.
We got back to base at 03.30 after a seven-hour flight and I went to bed. When I woke up the next morning there were just two of us who had slept in a billet containing twenty beds - the rest had not returned from the previous night's operation.
By this time we had completed several ops together and we began to bond well together as a crew. The success of any bomber crew was almost entirely dependent upon the proficiency of its crew as a team. We quickly learned that Johnny was a natural leader, as well as being a skilful pilot; and something of a professional about his flying ability, although he was the first to admit that his night time landings were always far better than his daytime ones!
We also learned that the aircraft intercom system was only to be used when there was something to say - no “idle chatter”. Our lives really depended on the speed between Ken and Peter, our two gunners, giving instructions to Johnny on what evasive action to take when we were under attack from enemy fighters.
The training was straight and level flight, climb and descent and “rate one” turns. I am not sure what would have happened had I been called upon to land the aircraft - but that's another story! Johnny must have had great faith in my flying abilities because when we changed seats he had to leave his parachute and harness for me to sit on - I was still wearing my back type parachute.
Our targets were now attacks on German shipping, troop concentrations and synthetic oil plant. In fact, we made three separate attacks during February and March on the synthetic oil refinery at Bohlen in Eastern Germany. The bomb load, fuel and flight duration was the same for each operation - the load was one 4000lb "cookie" and twelve 500lb bombs, 2154 gallons of fuel, with an approximate nine hours flying time.
On the second operation of 5th March, 250 Lancasters set out for another crack at the oil refinery but cloud prevented the attack from being a total success. As we left the target area, a radar-controlled searchlight locked onto us and very quickly we were completely illuminated by several more. Try as we would, we could not break loose from them and then, just to make life more difficult, a piece of shrapnel pierced the windscreen just above Johnny's head.
Drastic action was called for and Johnny took it by putting the nose down and pushing the throttles wide open. We literally fell out of the sky, losing thousands of feet. We all thought we would lose the wings, what with the Merlin engines screaming at full power and the speed of our descent. The Lanc however, was a tough old bird – suddenly we lost the searchlights and were again in friendly darkness. We made it back to base without further incident.
On the third operation, on the 20th March, the final attack on the oil refinery was mounted. An assault by 200 Lancasters sealed the oil plant's fate, for it produced no more oil; it was captured by the Americans a few weeks later. Nine Lancasters failed to return however – one of them was 189 Squadron's CA-K, the eighth in the month and the final casualty of the war. F/Lt Miller and all his crew lost their lives. Sadly, no trace of either the aircraft, or its crew was ever found.
On 7th March I was on the battle order again but not with the crew. I was listed to fly with F/O Utting and his crew in CA-E. The target was the oil refinery at Harburg. There were 230 Lancasters taking part in the operation, sixteen of them from 189 squadron. This operation turned out to be a disaster, equalling that of Karlsruhe a month earlier.
We lost four aircraft which failed to return: ME452 - F/O Kennedy and two of his crew survived: CA-G - F/Lt Ormston and crew all survived: CA-M - F/O Smith and two of his crew were killed: CA-P - F/Lt Abbott and all of his crew were killed. (This was the crew that Johnny did his first op with in December).
The thing that sticks in my mind about this op was that as we were travelling towards Harburg somebody in the group had left their radio on, and all the aircraft taking part in the raid could hear the crew chattering away. Suddenly a voice shrieked over the ether, "Fighter! Fighter! - Dive port!" I think that if it had suddenly become daylight we would have seen 230 Lancs all diving to port!
Note: F/O Clem Utting survived the war and in 1949 was flying an Avro Tudor for AVM Bennett on the Berlin Airlift, delivering coal to one of the Berlin airports. He got out of the aircraft, was walking across the tarmac when a lorry suddenly appeared, ran him over and killed him. Years later Don Bennett told me it was thought he was flying the aircraft, and they had killed the wrong man!
Our last-but-one op, on 23rd March, was on German troop concentrations in the town of Wesel, on the east bank of the river Rhine This was to be one of the most important raids we had taken part in. On the west bank of the Rhine were two British and American divisions ready to cross the river at dawn on the 24th March.
There were 250 Lancasters from 5 Group plus a force of 8 Group Mosquitos, to carry out this final raid, on Wesel. We were in CA-B - take-off was at 19.40 and arrival in the target area 22.34. Flying at 11300 ft on a very bright moonlight night, we all had a very long run-in to the target, with the Mosquitos marking the town ahead of us. It was the most fantastic sight; to see all the buildings completely destroyed within the space of a few minutes. We landed back at base at 01.11 after some very exciting low level flying across Belgium and France. This was the last time during March that 189 Squadron was called into action, and just five more operations before the end of hostilities. On the 8th April 1945, 189 Squadron moved its aircraft and ground personnel from Fulbeck to Bardney.
On the 16th April we were on the battle order for our final op of the war. This was to attack railway targets at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, and again we were in CA-B. Sadly this was to be our last flight together as a crew. Take-off was 23.38 - we bombed the target at 12000ft and arrived back at base at 07.38 after an 8-hour uneventful flight.
By the time the war ended our crew had survived longer than any other in the squadron that we had started out with six months previously – partly from luck, partly from having a really good crew, who worked so well together. We were the fortunate ones; we all came home without a scratch, having lived through one of the most dangerous, yet exciting periods of our lives.
From the 1st November 1944 to the 25th April 1945, 189 Squadron took part in forty-eight bombing operations - nearly all night raids. During this period the squadron lost seventeen aircraft and crews, missing without trace due to enemy action, and two that crashed in the UK, both returning from operations. We had, in fact, sustained the highest number of operational losses in 5 Group Bomber Command during this period.
Within six weeks of the ending of the war in Europe, the crew was in the process of being repatriated back to their respective homelands, in Canada and Australia. Before this however, we all had a farewell drink in the local pub, promising, now that the war was finally over, to meet up if possible, somewhere and at some time in the future.
In September the squadron was engaged in disposing of our surplus bombs in the Cardigan Bay. We all had a go at being bomb-aimers; even some of the Station WAAFs came with us on the flight and had a go!
On the 10th September the squadron airlifted part of 8th Army in Italy back to the UK. I was listed to fly in CA-K with F/O Chris Malcolm, to pick up 25 soldiers from the 51st Highland Division in Bari, and bring them back home. As Chris was feeling unwell, I had the opportunity of flying the aircraft for two hours across Italy and France on the way back to the UK!
On the 15th October the squadron was posted from Bardney to Metheringham and my last flight was in CA-N with F/O Topping, practising 3-engine landings. I was posted from there on the 17th November, to RAF Weeton, to take a driving course. Three days later, on the 20th November, 189 Squadron was disbanded - it has never been reformed.
As is often the way in the sphere of human nature, I became good friends with some of them, especially one, Heinz Langer, my interpreter. He kept in touch with me for several years after the war, eventually married an English girl and settled down somewhere in Suffolk.
My next posting, on the 29th July 1946, was back to St Athan where, on permanent staff, I was in charge of 54 MU's Medical Centre. Finally, on the 11th January 1947, I was sent to Weeton, to 101 PDC for my release from the Royal Air Force. Now, it was back home - to see what "Civvy Street" had to offer!
Looking back on it all, I wonder would I have had it any different. There were times good and bad: times interesting and times boring: dangerous times - although perhaps we didn't always fully realise how dangerous. You just got on with the job. From a young man, not worldly-wise, I emerged a mature adult, educated by an experience which, mercifully, doesn't always come one's way. I was one of the lucky ones who came back home; many didn't.
Would I have had it any different? I doubt it - and in any case, it was my destiny. And if I am asked what did I value most in this great education in life, I come back to what I said in my opening remarks: it is that indescribable bond which grows among men sharing the common experience of hardship, of danger, often brought into sharp focus by fear - there are few would deny that they were not at times afraid - of terrible sadness, and sometimes a little joy - all of these emotions tempered by a certain carefree outlook on life, for no-one could know what tomorrow might bring. They are the essential elements of what we call true comradeship, and that is something which will stay with me forever.
In common with all RAF aircrew during the Second World War, the men who flew in Bomber Command were all volunteers. Once they had volunteered, and had been accepted, they were committed to finish their tour of operations; for better or for worse, they were in. They could not opt out if things were not subsequently to their liking. For the vast majority of Bomber Command aircrew there were only two ways of leaving operational flying; the first was to complete your tour of thirty ops – the second was – you didn't return from an op. For every one man who lived to tell the tale, there were many who didn't. Around fifty-five thousand from Bomber Command alone gave their lives, flying on operations. Some have graves in foreign countries where they fell; many just simply vanished – without trace.
It would be remiss of me not to place on record how these memories came eventually to appear in print. I owe a huge dept of gratitude to Hazel, my wife, for the unswerving support she has given me throughout the months of painstaking sorting and sifting of the material unearthed from files, books – and various hiding places in the home; for applying her skill in knocking sometimes "rough" text into readable form… to Myra, my daughter, who has contributed to the shaping of the paragraphs, sentences – adding full stops and commas where they should be and taking them out where they shouldn't! And finally, to my very good friend Jim Bellinger who, enthused by a fascination of the aircraft of those times, arising out of his job in earlier days, together with experience with the computer, turned it into a book.
AJS 1 August 1999