Ian Archer Wynn

HERKENBOSCH 2013

My father was the Flight Engineer on LM 320 of 100 Squadron. They had taken off from RAF Grimsby (Waltham) at 23.23hrs to join 758 other aircraft in the raid.

On Thursday 27th May 1943 The Daily Mail reported, under the headline “5 “COOKIES” a minute by RAF, Dusseldorf pounded for an hour in war’s greatest bad-weather attack” The report then gives further information about the raid on the night of 25th/26th May and reports the loss of 27 bombers during the mission.

On 24th May 2013, 70 years later, a memorial was unveiled in Herkenbosch, Netherlands in memory of the crew of Lancaster LM 320 that crashed that night and the crews of all the 5 other aircraft that came down in the vicinity of the village during the war.

My father was the Flight Engineer on LM 320 of 100 Squadron. They had taken off from RAF Grimsby ( Waltham ) at 23.23hrs to join 758 other aircraft in the raid. The previous night he had flown in a raid on Dortmund. The crew were:-

S/Ldr. P R Turgel DFC aged 22 Pilot
P/O I A Wynn aged 35 Flight Engineer
F/O D Harvey aged 32 Air Gunner
Sgt. J Hudson age unknown Air Gunner
F/O J M Marnoch aged 30 Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner
F/O H N Petts aged 25 Navigator
F/O G Russell aged 22 Bomb Aimer

My mother was told that the plane had been brought down by Flak at 01.36 on the 26th May and as the Germans would not allow anyone to approach the crash site he was reported as missing. It wasn’t until April 1946 that he was confirmed as dead and buried with 4 other crew members in a collective grave. Two of the crew were identified and buried separately.

We now know that the plane was not brought down by Flak but was shot down by Hauptmann Manfred Meurer who later lost his life in the war, aged 24.

Ian’s family have generously allowed us to digitise their father’s extensive collection which can be seen here 

In 2012 I wrote to the local authority in the area of the crash to see if anyone could give me more information as I wanted to visit the site on the anniversary of the crash.

They put me in touch with a Dutch family from the village who have researched the wartime plane crashes in the area of their village, HERKENBOSCH.

My brother and I together with our wives arranged a visit which we thought would be a family remembrance event.

We could not believe the welcome we were given by the family and people of the village. It can probably be summed up by the following extract from an E-Mail sent to me by the family,

“WE WOULD LIKE TO THANK YOU ON BEHALF OF THE WHOLE COMMUNITY FOR WHAT YOUR FATHER AND HIS CREW MEMBERS DID FOR US TO END THE OCCUPATION OUR PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS WERE LIVING UNDER DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR”

The Dutch family talked to eye witnesses to the crash and located the actual crash site where, using metal detectors, metal from the plane was found.

A local hotel gave us free accommodation and the Dutch family did everything they could to make our visit a memorable one.

Unbeknown to us until a few days before our visit, the village had banded together to erect a memorial to all the planes and crews that were killed in plane crashes near their village.  (They pointed out that not one aircraft had hit the village; a further tribute to our pilots who they believe did everything in their power to avoid crashing on their homes.)

They had obtained from a museum part of the engine from a Wellington, together with the propeller, and this is now mounted at the entrance to the village. There is a plaque showing the names of all 27 aircrew who were killed in the locality, together with an information board giving details of the various aircraft, dates of the crashes, etc.

My brother and I were invited to unveil the plaque at a ceremony on the evening of 24th May.

It was attended by, amongst others, Mayor E Hanselaar; Alderman C Wolfhagen; a delegation from the RAF at North Brunssum; General- Major L Van den Born of the Royal DutchAir Force; a representative of The Royal Air Force Association; The Union of War Veterans Association; Ceremonial Home Guard; the local Band and hundreds of local people.

The Royal British Legion in Exeter, Devon had provided me with a RAF Roundel at short notice and my brother and I laid it alongside 6 or 7 other wreaths and floral tributes.

We understand that it is now proposed to have a service at the site every year and to visit the War Cemetery at Jonkersbos near Nijmegen where all the aircrews were eventually buried.

The whole visit was very memorable but in particular the warmth and friendship of the Dutch is something we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Life with a Lancaster

From the Memoirs of F/Lt Peter Baxter while he was a Flight Engineer with 12 Squadron out of Wickenby.

Kindly donated by Mike Baxter

It may be of interest to hear something of the details and routines of Lancaster flying which lie behind the entries in my log book. Some of these facts and figures were part of my role as the flight engineer, but the pilot was also inescapably involved in many things as, being the captain of the aircraft, his word was law.

I will start on the ground under the general heading of accidents. During my time at Wickenby very few aircraft actually crashed on the airfield, although there were several landing incidents. The reason for this was in part due to the availability of so many other airfields in the vicinity, so that if an aircraft was short of fuel, a landing could be made elsewhere if necessary. The same situation also applied to aircraft which had been damaged, and in this respect several airfields with long runways were set aside for emergency use (the most notable of these being Marston in Kent). In spite of these facilities though, numerous crews did try to get their aircraft home, only to crash in the circuit whilst attempting to land. Wickenby was no exception to this and at least two accidents occurred for this reason. I saw one of these aircraft afterwards and it was completely burnt out. Of the landing accidents, the worst one I remember happened to a Halifax which broke up on touch-down, fortunately with no loss of life. A few aircraft force-landed with their wheels up which often meant ruined engines when the propellers hit the ground. In addition to these unavoidable “prangs”, there were others that could only be put down to pilot error, such as swerving off the runway (which often meant the collapse of the under-carriage) or, amazingly enough, the retraction of the under-carriage whilst standing in dispersal!

Taxiing accidents were few, but a heinous crime was to swerve off the perimeter track and get bogged down. This resulted in forced labour for the ground crew, and the pilot was always “fined” a minimum of ten shillings to compensate them! I cannot remember a take-off accident whilst I was at Wickenby, apart from one occasion where a pilot swerved but was able to pull up before any harm was done. Another occurrence which merited a fine was to pick up a parachute from the ground by the ripcord instead of the carrying handle if one was not paying attention, and this had the embarrassing result of one having to collect the parachute together and take it to be repacked at a cost of at least 2/6d!

I will now move on to deal with the fuel and oil. The fuel used was always 100 octane petrol which was coloured green for identification purposes, and also to prevent theft. The aircraft had six tanks, all in the wings, which contained a total of 2,154 gallons. A cross-feed pipe was fitted which allowed the transfer of fuel from one side to the other if a tank had been damaged. On later aircraft from about 1944, nitrogen was supplied to the tanks as the petrol was used up, minimising the risk of explosion. All the tanks were self-sealing. 150 gallons of lubricating oil were carried, 37½ gallons to each engine. The oil consumption was one to two gallons per hour per engine, depending on its condition. An engine exceeding a usage of more than two gallons per hour needed changing.

Now to the actual flying procedure. Having done all the external and internal checks we were ready for take-off. The flaps would be set at 25 degrees if the aircraft were laden, or 15 degrees if light. The engines would be progressively opened up by pushing the throttle levers forward whilst the pilot held the aircraft against the brakes. At about zero boost, the brakes would be released and the throttles opened fully, with the port side slightly ahead to counteract a tendency for the aircraft to swing. The pilot opened up the throttles, and in case his hand should slip, I had to follow up behind him. The tail would be raised as we charged down the runway with the engines straining away at the maximum power of 3,000 rpm and +12lbs boost, and making a fearful noise. (Engine development allowed an increase to +14lbs boost during 1943, and later +18lbs in 1945.) Some indication of the power the engines produced can be imagined from the fact that 40 gallons of petrol were used up on take-off alone! Take-off speed was 95-105 m.p.h. and on the runway at Wickenby (other than the short north-east one), the aircraft would lift off without effort. As soon as we were airborne I was instructed to retract the undercarriage, and then to raise the flaps when at about 800ft. At 1,000ft the power was reduced to 2,850 rpm +9, and shortly after that to 2,650 +4, staying at that while we were climbing. At 10,000ft it was necessary to put on our oxygen masks. During the climb I would be monitoring the gauges and filling in my log sheet. The rate of climb depended on the air conditions and the engine power, which in turn depended on the engine coolant temperatures, so a certain amount of juggling would take place with the controls. The normal speed in a climb was between 145 and 175 m.p.h.. No doubt the word “boost” is a mystery to most people, but it is quite a simple term which indicates the pressure in the inlet manifold in pounds per square inch above the normal atmospheric pressure. An automatic boost control would advance the throttle levers as we climbed up, but there would come a time at about 13,000ft when the supercharger ratio would have to be changed to a higher one (known as ‘S‘ gear) to maintain the power.

If we were flying on operations we would probably be crossing the English coast by now, and the pilot would normally call out this piece of news, followed by an instruction to the gunners to take the safety catches off their guns. At this point one of them might ask permission to make a test firing of their weapon. Soon after this would come the time-honoured phrase “Enemy coast ahead”, and we now had to keep a very sharp look-out as trouble could be expected at any time. Having reached our operations height of 20,000ft plus, the engine revs would be reduced to 2,550 rpm and the throttles adjusted to give +3lbs boost, this being the normal cruising power necessary to maintain altitude. The speed would be about 150 m.p.h., but might require some alteration on request from the navigator if his timings were out of step. We were constantly reminded that we flew in the best aircraft of its type in the world, and to reinforce this view we would usually see the other types down below us struggling along! To clarify the word “see”, this would only apply in moonlight, but on dark nights we could see the pattern of exhaust flames and identify the aircraft by this method. The poor old Stirlings were usually the lowest, but I must admit that we did pass them occasionally at our own height. They had radial engines, and one could see their exhaust rings glowing in the darkness; often was the time that we could see four red rings flying along and knew that we were actually looking at a Stirling. If we could see them, so could the Jerries, and I wondered why more of them were not shot down.

On arrival at our target I was often amazed to see the ferocity of the anti-aircraft fire. Searchlights were everywhere as well, and the scene was compounded by the fires already on the ground and the various coloured flares hanging in the sky. The flak appeared as a sheet wall of bursting shells with no way through, and it was here that we benefited from the experience and calm manner of the pilot. The bomb doors were opened and our bomb aimer would be in position to sight the marker flares and guide us in the right direction. By now we were in the thick of it and the noise was deafening – a veritable vision of Hell! We heard the aimer giving corrections, and shortly afterwards it was “bombs gone”. It was hardly necessary for him to shout this as the aircraft leapt upwards when they were released and I was nearly knocked off balance. Far from the danger now being over, the next few moments were potentially the worst of the raid, for there now came a photographic session! Simultaneously with the bomb release, a flare was dropped which lit up the ground sufficiently to show on a photograph taken by a special camera so that the target area could be confirmed. The film was exposed for several seconds as the bursting of the flare, planned to occur when the bombs were half-way down their descent, could not be predicted to a second. The object was to obtain a record of where the bombs were likely to have fallen, not necessarily the explosion itself. So in order to allow for this variation in the operating time of the flare, it was crucial for the pilot to hold the aircraft straight and level for a period of eleven seconds. As can be imagined, they were almost unbearable as there was an irresistible temptation to spin away and get out of it.

We will now assume that we have closed the bomb doors and are “getting the hell out of it”! The navigator would have been on the ball and would now be giving us the course to fly on the homeward leg. As I have mentioned before, this was usually flown on a gradual descent accompanied by much twisting and turning. Our speed would have increased to between 180 and 220 m.p.h. and the engines set to 2,400 rpm +4. I would have to be alert to change the superchargers back to normal ratio at the appropriate time, but there would be no problem in remembering to take our oxygen masks off at 10,000ft. This would be to the accompaniment of three cheers from all and sundry! Throughout the homeward journey I would be keeping my log and changing the fuel tanks at intervals, and of course not neglecting my other duty as spare look-out. Apart from the unwelcome sight of an occasional night fighter, there was always something of interest to see in the night sky. If there was a touch of moonlight or the glow of the setting sun, there would be scenes of great beauty to behold with the clouds lit up in fantastic patterns; on several occasions I saw the Northern Lights at play. A starlit night was very pleasant to contemplate, and sometimes useful to the navigator too if he required to take an astro shot. There were other, more sinister things to be seen, an example of which were sudden flashes of fire on the ground which more often than not signalled shot-down aircraft crashing. Sometimes flares would light up the sky, and as these usually heralded fighter activity, we had to redouble our vigilance to guard against sudden attacks. At times like this I was reminded of the huge notice in the crew room “Eternal vigilance is the price of safety” – we couldn‘t help reading it often enough, and there were a multitude of opportunities to practice it. On some raids marker flares were dropped by our pathfinders to indicate a turning point, but these were usually used on the outward leg only.

Having braved all that the enemy could throw at us (and having faced our own defences more than once!), we would proceed to our bases in a more relaxed frame of mind, helped on our way at intervals over England by radio beacons transmitting a call sign in Morse which we could identify. Shortly before reaching home we would don our oxygen masks again, this being the second most dangerous part of the trip as collisions could easily occur, and we had to be completely alert. On landing we were whisked away to be debriefed, via the locker room where our flying kit would be deposited. The aircraft captain did most of the talking on these occasions, but the rest of us had our say if there was anything of note to report. Later on when Flight Engineer Leaders were in existence, the engineer would also report to him briefly and hand his log in. The F/E Leader would subsequently work out his air miles per gallon ratio, and if it was unsatisfactory a later meeting with the captain would be held to try and improve matters in the future. Normally a figure of one air mile per gallon was acceptable and this rested on the engineer‘s powers of persuasion over the pilot if it was to be achieved. The crews‘ lives often depended on it; hundreds of aircraft crashed unnecessarily when a bit more attention might have been paid to fuel conservation.

The final item to mention is that the bombing photographs were displayed in the intelligence department on the following day, and were usually perused with great interest. Often they would be unintelligible or spoilt, but many of them would show a hit near to the target. If a crew had achieved a direct hit it would be an occasion for celebration, and although no prizes were given, it would compensate for the terrible experience one had suffered. During my tour we were fortunate enough to score two bulls!Lancaster two bomber

A BOMB AIMER’S STORY – 576 SQUADRON

Bill Jock Wishart

My father’s account of a 576 Lancaster Squadron operation

We had recently moved from Elsham Wolds to our own airfield. On the morning of 4th November 1944 I saw the Skipper’s name was on the battle order which meant our crew were on operations that night. At briefing we learnt our target was to be Bochum in the industrial Ruhr. We duly took off over Lincoln Cathedral and set course for Germany. Approaching the target I could see the searchlights sweeping the sky and what looked like sparklers in the darkness were in fact exploding anti-aircraft shells. I had just dropped the bombs and we were about to leave the target area when a searchlight caught us in its beam and immediately all other searchlights concentrated their beams on us – we were “coned”. If you were in the cone for any length of time your odds of survival were pretty low as all the ack-ack guns in the area concentrated their fire on what was now a visible target. The standard evasive action to escape the cone was to “corkscrew”. This probably lasted only seconds till you hopefully escaped the cone. Meanwhile during this violent manoeuvre anything not strapped down was just flung about the aircraft and that included me in the nose, the navigator and wireless operator, the gunners being confined in their turrets! As soon as we escaped the cone we set course for home. At the debriefing that night the tot of Navy rum with the mug of hot tea was more than welcome! Then off to the mess for a flying breakfast which included a REAL egg! On that operation 28 bombers were lost.

W/O Ron Jennings

My first op from RAF Dunholme Lodge. 619 Squadron As seen through the eyes of W/O Ron Jennings

Two married friends of mine were keen to visit Lincolnshire in June 2012 and asked me to join them for a few days. They were keen to stay at the Petwood Hotel and also to visit the BBMF and asked me to arrange this.

The only convenient dates I could get at the Petwood were the 27th. and 28th of June so off we went.

On the 28th. we arrived early at the BBMF only to be told that it was not possible to see the Lancaster as it was due to do a Fly Past during the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial. something I had forgotten about.

However, after I had explained the position the three of us were Introduced to the CO of the BBMF at the Coningsby base and given the full VIP treatment for the rest of the day. We saw the Lancaster take-off and were then taken into the mess to see the Service on TV. When this was over I was asked to do a broadcast for Radio Lincoln and in the meantime the word had got around about my poem. The CO was very interested and asked if I had a copy, which I had as I was going to visit Brian and Margaret Wykes and give it to them. After reading it the CO told his PRO to put it on the station website where it would be seen world-wide. It has been on there ever since.

When the Lancaster landed we were taken aboard and I was able to sit in the seat I used to sit in 68 years ago.

When it was all over we visited Brian and Margaret.

A truly unforgettable day out.

Givors is a small town in France with a population of around 24,000 and was important because it had a large rail network and marshalling yards, ideal for troop movements.

As this was precision bombing our height over target was 7,000 ft and when we arrived the visibility was so poor that all aircraft were ordered to switch on their navigation lights to avoid any collision.

Our flying time on this operation was 9hours 32minutes.

As a crew we did 32 ops together and our crew members were as follows:

Pilot ………………….. R. Bateman
Flight Engineer …… E.Dutton
Navigator ………….. A. Cameron (Australian)
Bomb Aimer ………. B.Shepherd
Radio Operator ….. R.Jennings
Mid Gunner ………… H.Vanderkelen (Belgium)
Rear Gunner ……… L.AIIen (Australian)

A special tribute must be paid to our pilot Ray Bateman whos undoubted flying skills enabled the whole crew to complete this tour unharmed.

In all, 669 crew members who flew from Dunholme Lodge Never returned.

One by one each mighty Merlin burst into life
It was 1944,our losses were high,a time of great strife
The noise was shattering the silence of the night
This was our very first op,there was no time for fright
Our last letters home had been written with care
Then placed in our lockers for our loved ones to share
Whilst each word we had written was truly meant
We all fervently hoped they would they would never be sent
As we waited for take-off I looked into space
Alii had learnt then fell into place
Now we were airborne and struggled to gain height
Check the equipment again, it would be a long flight
Our target-Givors-would be shortly in sight
Waiting to bear the RAF’s might
The Pathfinder boys had done their job well
The buildings they had identified would soon be a shell
Our bomb doors were open, the bomb aimer took care
It depended on him now to hit that red flare
At 7,000ft we began our bomb run
This was for real, our practice was done
The searchlights were weaving as though doing a dance
If you were caught up in those you stood little chance
Night fighters were prowling like birds of prey
Take your photographs Bill and let us be on our way
Now Dunholme Lodge lay beneath us with a welcoming arm
Our first op was completed, we had come to no harm
After de-briefing and all had been said
My only thought was to get into bed
Friendships were made, then quickly lost
We were all volunteers, this was the cost
No time for reflection, no time for a tear
Our cloak of bravado hid many a fear
A memorial now stands close to where the control tower once stood
Built by Brian and Margaret, as only they could
Each year a Remembrance Service is held there
To remember the airmen who are now in God’s care
When the time at last arrives for my final flight
I shall wing my way to Heaven at the speed of light
There to greet me will be comrades of mine
From Dunholme Lodge and 619

John Pearl

Had I not been thrown off my seat, the top of my head would have been sliced off like a breakfast boiled egg.

Hit by flak on a daylight raid over Leipzig Sergeant John Pearl – aged 19 in 1945 when he served with No 207 Squadron based at RAF Spilsby, Lincs.


‘Pathfinder marker flares were going down as we began moving across the target – the railway yards at Leipzig. Some light flak appeared ahead of us but it was spread thinly around the sky and did not look too formidable. However, black puffs of smoke from the bursting shells of predicted heavy flak seemed dangerously close and as we continued our run across the target it was one of these shells that exploded alongside, between the two starboard motors.

It shook the plane, throwing us around the sky, causing me to slip off the little hammock that served as a seat in the mid-upper turret. I fell backwards on to the floor of the aircraft. I lay there for a few seconds as shrapnel ripped through the aircraft, sounding like hail stones on a tin roof. The skipper steadied the aircraft and I climbed back to my turret to find it badly holed with most of the cupola Perspex blown away. A lot of the metal framework which had been supporting the Perspex was twisted and mangled and I sat there like a World War I air gunner with my head out in the fresh air. Had I not been thrown off my seat, the top of my head would have been sliced of like a breakfast boiled egg.

It was freezing in the shattered turret now and it could only be rotated by the winding handle as the hydraulics had been shot away. My guns did not work either, so I was reduced to the role of lookout.

Both starboard engines were damaged, losing oil, and had to be feathered but after a quick discussion amongst the crew as to what we should do, we continued on two engines and bombed the target from 14,000 feet. Leaving the target area, we were hit by flak on the port side. Ninety, limping minutes later, oil pressure began dropping fast on the port inner engine and the pilot told us to prepare for baling out.”

The crew baled out successfully, except for the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Peter ‘Andy’ Anderson, who was killed when the aircraft crashed near the village of Burgbrohl. The rest of the crew were picked up by American GIs and quickly repatriated.’

Don Charlwood

Flight Lieutenant Don Charlwood (Royal Australian Air Force) 27 years old in 1942-3 when he served with No 103 Squadron based at RAF Elsham Wolds, Lincs.


In the seven months during the winter of 1942-43 whilst Don’s crew was serving with 103 Squadron, it was the only crew to complete a full operational tour of 30 missions. Of the 20 men from his training course who qualified as navigators with him, only five survived the War.

‘We were briefed to bomb Mannheim. We meandered across Europe weaving all the way, found our target and bombed it. On the return journey, about an hour out from the target, an astro fix showed us about 40 miles south of track. I regarded this fix with extreme doubt – astro navigation on operations was a different proposition from during training. Getting another fix was then complicated by the development of high cloud obscuring the stars. Our GEE and our radios were both out of order and, in any event, we were beyond the range of British transmitters. I continued with dead reckoning navigation for almost two hours. For all that time a stronger than forecast wind blew us further south of track. There was still cloud above and below us and no sight of the ground when there was a cry from the rear turret. “Flak, dead astern!” I jumped to my feet. We should by now have crossed the English coast. “Flak coming straight up.” Called the rear gunner. We swung away from it and the pilot called on the intercom, “Navigator, where the hell are we? When we get out of this muck what about a bit of astro?”

I shuffled to the astrodome. The dome was almost over the wireless operator’s head, being shielded from his light by a black curtain. The curtain was tightly drawn, as beneath the light Max, the wireless operator was trying to find the fault with his set.

“I need a star shot”, I said.
“How the hell am I going to work in the dark?” he complained.
“We must have a check”, I replied.
“Do you want this set fixed, or don’t you?” he continued.
“Give me two minutes.”

Growling something, he switched off his lights. I pulled back the curtain and raised my head into the Perspex bubble. I could hear on the intercom, the pilot and the flight engineer discussing how little fuel we had remaining. I am to blame for our predicament, I thought – for throwing away the lives of our crew. I realised that my chief fear of ops had been this fear, the fear of wasting the lives of other men who were relying on me.

Somehow we reached Waddington, our six hours of fuel stretched to seven hours forty-five minutes.’

From Beneath the Bombs

Herr Klaus Schwerk was sixteen in February 1945. Before the war his father was a doctor in Bautzen, 50 km east of Dresden, and had been conscripted to be a medical officer in the Wehrmacht. In February 1945 he was serving in Italy and his wife and five sons (of which Klaus was the eldest) were still in Bautzen. As the Russian Army approached, and the guns could be heard, the family decided to move westward towards Dresden.

Mother and the four younger boys were there staying with friends when the firebombs started dropping. Klaus had cycled further westward that day, before the attack started, to find the next stopping point for the family, as they wanted to continue their journey. The fires could be seen from where he was, some 20 km to the west of Dresden, and he returned to find his family still alive at around 10am the next day. Then the high explosive attacks by the Americans started and they all repaired to the basement of the house where they were staying. Soon smoke became a problem for them, and Klaus ventured into the street above to see whether he could find a way out.

In the event, he did, and the whole family were lucky enough to be led by him to comparative safety outside the bombing zone and eventually they were able to walk away to the west.

Having left his bicycle behind, two days later he returned to Dresden to look for it and found it in exactly the same place as he had left it. He then saw the full effects of the devastation.

He kept a diary and has written down his experiences, a copy of which he gave me. All the family survived the war, and the father went back to his medical practice in Bautzen. There was not a sign of recrimination against the British or Americans, and at least two of the brothers have lived for many years in the US. Klaus himself studied architecture, but has been an aid worker for some time in India, which is where he learned to speak English. He is now retired in Berlin, and uses his architectural skills to design, for instance, an organ which he plays in his house, and he does other DIY work.

Billy’s Story – Part 5

Part 5

The Aftermath.

On his return to Stanton Harcourt, Gunner B was rushed to hospital at Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, then onto the RAF hospital in Halton.

He had already lost a lot of blood when his crew discovered him slumped and unconscious in his turret.

Him and the mid upper gunner would have been feverishly, yelling instructions at each other over the intercom, directing each other towards German fighters that would be hurtling in from different angles. German flack shells were bursting all around them, leaving a heavy stink of cordite in their turrets. It is reported that they had taken on a couple of German Messerschmitt 109 fighters and shot one down. There were 31 German fighters waiting for them in La Rochelle that day. These fighters attacked our aircraft relentlessly and with hardened determination, on the run up to the bomb drop. They were trying to protect Germany’s most valuable and dangerous naval asset. I can just imagine Gunner B roaring and spitting all sorts of profanities as he fired back with his four 303 Brownings. He really was that sort of man, fearless and determined also. The noise from his guns, the constant drone and vibrations from the 4 Merlins, Flack bursting all around them and fighter bullets raking their fuselage must have been horrendous. It is little wonder that his hearing was impaired later on in life.

Unfortunately, German fighters managed to hit the target and put two bullets clean through Gunner B’s plexi-glass turret and right through his left shoulder. A few inches lower and it would have been his chest….No hope.

The flight home must have taken around 3 hours or so. That’s a hellish long time to be up there with his shoulder almost blown off and his life’s blood draining out of him. I would expect his crew would have dragged him farther back into the aircraft to administer first aid and plug the bleeding wounds, both front and back. Whether or not he was given morphine by his crew is unclear, but I sincerely hope that that was the case.

The next day, on the 25th of July, his wife Nell received a telegraph from the RAF telling her that her husband had been shot in action and had shoulder wounds, but not critical. Later that day, she got another telegraph, this time from Gunner B himself, telling her, ‘not to worry, it’s only a scratch’.   He must have been in terrible pain when he organised this telegraph, but he would’ve known the RAF would already have informed her and she’d be frantic with worry.

Gunner B was later transferred again, to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead on the 1st of December.

This would be where he came under the specialist care of the famous and pioneering, plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, who had been appointed Consultant in Plastic Surgery to the RAF.

Gunner B, I believe, became one of the 1st hundred men to receive the pioneering plastic surgery during WW11.  For this he received the Flying Guinea Pig Badge

I am pleased to say at this point, that this badge along with Gunner B’s Fur collar, complete with his dried blood and bullet holes is in the safe hands of his Grandson, retired RAF Warrant Officer, John Brough. The son of Helen (Begbie) Brough. John, and now two of his sons, David Brough and Jake Brough have followed in their great grandfather’s footsteps. David and Jake are both Senior Aircraftsmen in the RAF and who knows where they can go from there. (Per Ardua Ad Astra).

The collar shown in the picture, complete with his dried blood and bullet holes, buttoned on to Gunner B’s leather flying jacket. I remember, as a young lad, slipping my index finger through a bullet hole. A German bullet from an ME109 fighter and was surprised at how small it was. I also remember studying the actual bullets, there were two. One was a bit bent and the other was straight. I looked at Gunner B with some confusion in my eyes. He grinned as he told me that his crew had dug the bullets out of the backrest of his seat in the bullet ridden turret. They later presented them to him in his hospital bed. They had taken them to a local jeweller first and that’s why I saw his name etched upon the straight one…….. W Begbie.

Upon leaving the RAF, Gunner B came home to Kirkcaldy to re-join his wife, Nell and his baby girl Helen, named after her mother. Her Sister, Patricia (Trish) came along a little later and me a few years later still. He went on to have successful career as a Chief Engineer with the National Coal Board (Aye, doon the pits), Alexander’s Bus Garage, and finally Thomas Nicol Salvage in Kirkcaldy.

During his time at Thomas Nicol he worked as an engineer on a salvage vessel that the firm had bought, in order to salvage German warships that had been scuttled by their own commanders at Scapa Flow in 1918.  How ironic that in the very early 1970’s he was involved in raising German warships, when in 1941 he was trying to sink them.

Flight Sergeant William Begbie died in 1974 aged 59. He had been troubled with blood clotting and heart problems since the death of his beloved wife, Nell.

It is with a heavy heart that I conclude this story with this thought.

The respect I have for this man and all his comrades who fought for this country, goes beyond the realms of respect, pride and sincerity.

I would once again, like to take this opportunity to thank my wonderful sister, Pat (Begbie) Croll, for taking care of the family pictures and Gunner B’s medals, badges,etc.

Author ……Bill Begbie Jnr.

Billy’s Story – Part 4

Part 4

 Attack on the Sharnhorst.

 The date is 24th of July 1941

This is a likely sequence of events, up to the point where the attack took place…..

The crews of RAF squadrons 35 and 76 are likely to have worked through the night, preparing the aircraft for the mission.

Breaks throughout the night would have filled them up with porridge followed by bacon, egg, sausage and fried bread and chips. Maybe some toast, marmalade and a few cups of hot sweet tea and followed by a few cigarettes. A good chance for a blether and time to discuss any fears or faults that may have arisen.

They would have visited the squadron gunnery section and been briefed on the day`s intended activities. It is my understanding that all inward and outward-bound telephone calls to friends or family was forbidden at this time and indeed, telephone kiosks were under lock and key. Mission secrecy assured.

Next, a visit to the Squadron Armoury to be issued with a set of 8 x .303 Browning machine guns. 4 for the tail gunner and 4 for the upper mid turret gunner. A registry was kept on each and every visit gunners made to the armoury. Gunners were trained and needed to maintain the weapons and carry out stringent checks on all weapons to ensure they were in perfect working condition.

Their lives may depend on it.

Leading up to take off, crews would assemble in the locker room to get dressed for the flight ahead. The standard attire for the day was silk/wool Long Johns, woollen socks, an electric body suit. This suit, which connected to electrical plug points in the aircraft would ultimately be their survival suit. Finally, the standard battle-dress trousers tucked into heavy fleece lined flying boots and topped with a thick jersey and leather flying jacket with fur collar. Last but not least, was the Mae West life jacket and a parachute. The word encumbered springs to mind. However, I understand that the temperature could fall to -30 on some of these missions, especially at night.

(I wore a parachute during training flights when I was a wee lad in the ATC, 13 years old. I remember walking like a duck, bent over, at 45 Degrees from the backside up, over the grass towards the aircraft and 2 airmen lifting me up on to the wing to get me in. I felt like I was wrapped in a Python).

In the very early hours of that morning, Gunner B and his crew boarded Aircraft No L. 9531 at RAF Middleton St George and flew South to RAF Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire to take on extra fuel. Their target lay a farther 200 miles away more than the Halifax normal fuel load could carry them.  The crew that day was Sgt Drummond, Sgt Hutchin, Sgt Dawson, Sgt Fraser, Sgt Barret, Sgt Wood, and Flight Sgt Begbie.  He would have made his way along the narrow fuselage towards the rear of the aircraft and into the tail gunner turret. He would have felt isolated and a long way from the rest of his crew.

Once settled in, he would carry out a series of important checks on the equipment.  He would plug in the intercom connection, oxygen and power supply to his electric suit. He would then confirm communications open with the pilot and the rest of the crew. (Interestingly, Gunners and Pilots only, were on full oxygen from take off to landing. Crew didn`t need to until they reached a ceiling of 10,000 feet).

The 4 Rolls Royce Merlin engines came to life, one by one with a roar and the whole aircraft vibrated with a life of its own. This must have been a foreboding experience for a lad that had been guiding a couple of Clydesdale horses, pulling a large wooden, two wheeled cart along Scottish dirt paths in order to go to work, not that long before.

Gunner B could now test the hydraulics that allowed him to swivel the turret to port and starboard. Gun sights would be set, and the guns would be swung up and down, as far as they could go before the turret was locked down again, ready for take-off.

This small, isolated, cold and exposed space, which had open apertures for the guns to be raised and lowered, would be his domain for the next seven and a half hours. Gunner B settled into his seat and tried not to think about his new wife, Nell and his baby daughter, Helen.

The sudden roar of all 4 Merlins must have jolted him back into reality as the huge aircraft began to motor down the runway. Seconds later, he is travelling backwards at over a 100 mph and he can feel his stomach drop as the Halifax lifts herself from the safety of home and onto La Rochelle in France and the Sharnhorst.

This report/excerpt from RAF Operations Record Books recorded that Gunner B`s “Aircraft attacked the German battleship “Sharnhorst” and bursts were seen slightly short of the jetty with the end of stick (bombs dropped) very close alongside and astern. One yellow explosion was seen. The aircraft was damaged by Ack Ack fire and German fighters. One enemy fighter was claimed, destroyed. There was intense damage to own aircraft (the Halifax). Weather over the target was very hazy. Aircraft took off at 10.35am and returned to Stanton Harcourt safely” at 17.45.

Other reports claimed that the two British squadrons that attacked the Sharnhorst had hit her with five armour piercing bombs along her starboard side

Three 1000lb bombs and two 500lb tore through her decks and caused significant damage. Two bombs failed to detonate. The other three exploded and caused major flooding of the ship. She developed an 8-degree list to her starboard and was left sitting a metre farther down in the water. Two German sailors were killed and fifteen injured.

On our side there was one Halifax from 35 Squadron and 3 from 76 Squadron shot down.

Four of the 31 ME109`s that had ferociously attacked our bombers were shot down

The operation was a success but Billy had been hit.

To be continued in Part 5

Billy’s Story – Part 3

Billy’s Story

Part 3

Part 2 can be read here

After many hours of research, I have pieced together a pathway through the life of Gunner B, or William (Bill) Begbie.

I know that he flew on several missions before his last, which we will read about in the next chapter. There are some rather sketchy MOD records on a couple of missions he was part of but I reckon it would take too much time and probably get a bit tedious for the readers to go through it all. I do believe he took part in around 10 missions. I remember looking at his Record of Service book many years ago and I know it was into double figures. His Campaign Medals also back this memory up.

His last mission is what makes this story a bit more interesting. Due to the historical value of it and the importance laid upon it by the RAF and Mr Churchill.

Early July 1941, Germany’s largest battleship/destroyer was spotted in a harbour called La Rochelle, in France. A Spitfire had taken pictures over the port and there she was.

This ship was Germany’s most famous and powerful naval Battleship to date and a top target for Britain. She was launched in 1936 after she took less than 2 years to build, a mammoth achievement. She operated together with another large German battleship called the Gneisenau (pronounced “Nize n now” with a silent G). The Gneisenau was laid down and built in 18 months. When you look at the pictures, it’s nothing less than astonishing that a ship as complex as this could be built in such a short time.

Together they wreaked havoc in the Atlantic during the early part of the war. Destroying any Merchant shipping they came across, leaving the crews to drown or float around in a lifeboat for days and weeks. Some of these crewmen were only 14 years old and others as old as 70. I just discovered that abandonment was standard practice by the enemy. All that mattered in the destruction of an enemy ship was the removal of the asset. The crews’ mortality didn’t matter a jot. This may have applied to the German Navy only but somehow, I doubt that.

Even so, some discoveries such as this leave the writer with a heavy heart.

In 1940, both German ships were involved in a battle with the Royal Navy off the coast of Norway. The British battlecruiser, HMS Renown and the aircraft carrier, HMS Glorious were to suffer heavy defeats by the German Navy’s best. The Glorious was sunk along with her two escort destroyers, Acasta and Ardent. During that battle, it was reported that Germany’s famous battleship achieved the longest-range naval gunfire hit on a target at sea. The destroyer was called the Scharnhorst.

Now that the RAF knew that the Sharnhorst and Gneisenau were in La Rochelle moored to the jetty, there was a mad rush on. They needed to plan a bombing raid and quickly destroy them before they could leave La Rochelle. Apparently, there was 30,000 Canadian troops ready to sail from the other side of the Atlantic. Tensions were high in Bomber Command. If the Sharnhorst and Co were able to get out of La Rochelle and into the Atlantic….It was a hellish thought to entertain.

I would imagine that trying to hit a warship that was steaming at 33 knots from 19,000ft was almost impossible.  Especially when the aircraft was going at 200mph or more, trying to stay in the air with cargo of 58,000lbs of bombs. It would make sense to attack the German ships whilst they were berthed.

The decision was made to attack them immediately. “Strike while the iron is hot”.

Two RAF squadrons were faced with the complicated task of bombing both targets in a daylight raid.  Squadron 35 and Squadron 76 were elected to carry out that strike.

Between them there would be 15 Halifax Bombers carrying thousands of pounds of bombs.

As I wrote this, I thought to myself, that’s 60 Merlin engines…. 120 x 303 Browning machine guns and around 435 tons of explosives and………..Gunner B was flying with Squadron 76 as Tail Gunner.

To be continued in Part 4

Billy’s Story Part 2

Billy’s Story

Part 2

Part 1 can be found here

The year is 1937

Billy has joined the R.A.F. The images with the story show that he was issued with his uniform and kit on the day of 27/7/37. He is 22.

There is a period of around 4 years before Billy surfaces again. According to my research, during this time period it is believed that he was initially trained as an aircraft mechanic after passing many exams.

In 1940 decisions were being made by the Air Ministry, regarding the need for Flight Engineers.  Specialist, trained men to service and repair the planned 4-engined bombers, such as the Halifax which was about to enter service.

The Halifax was a new Bomber Aircraft, built by Handley Page and had 4 Rolls Royce Merlin engines. Capable of 265 to 285mph at 17,500 ft, it could carry around 5,800 lbs of bombs and had a range of 1,860 miles.

It was recognised that the Pilots of these larger aircraft would require assistance as there were no Co-Pilots. Should the Pilot get injured or killed during ops, there was no-one to fly the aircraft. Flight Engineers were introduced in order to reduce their workload. Personally, I do not see the sense in losing such a large and expensive aircraft along with 7 highly trained crew because nobody else could stand in for a disabled Pilot.

Flight Engineers were to be trained in all aspects of the aircrafts mechanical characteristics, fuel systems and gunnery systems.

Flight Engineers were also to be used as replacement gunners during active service. This didn`t go down well with the Squadron Leaders. It took a few years to train Engineers and they regarded this directive as an unnecessary risk. It would have a diminishing effect on the amount of highly trained Engineers at each squadron.

As it happens, there came about many stories about acts of heroism, post war.  Flight Engineers were a rare and tenacious breed, performing unbelievable acts of heroism in flight when the proverbial hit the fan. Taking over the controls of aircraft whilst the Pilot had either been killed or injured, bring the aircraft back to base and even landing the aircraft.

Here is an excerpt from a document I found on the Internet whilst doing my research.  This truly defines the words “awesome and tenacious” and it seems that some of the old black and white movies got it right….

Typical awards:

DFM to Sgt Robert Currie of 199 Sqn: “This airman was the Flight Engineer of an aircraft detailed to attack Berlin one night in August 1943. Whilst over the target area, the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and, whilst illuminated by the searchlights, was attacked by an enemy fighter. The controls which regulated the petrol supply from 2 of the tanks were severed. Sergeant Currie, displaying much resource, cut an aperture in the fuselage by means of an axe and then crawled into the wing to turn on the petrol supply so essential for the completion of the return flight. His coolness and resource set a very fine example.”

CGM to Sgt James Norris of 61 Sqn: “This airman was the Flight Engineer of an aircraft detailed to attack Dusseldorf. Soon after crossing the enemy coast, the aircraft was attacked by a fighter and sustained damage. A few minutes later another fighter attacked. The bomber was struck by a hail of bullets. The windscreen was broken, the wireless apparatus and other important equipment were destroyed and the oxygen system, was rendered useless. The Pilot, the Wireless Operator and the Flight Engineer were wounded, and the Navigator was killed. The aircraft became difficult to control but, despite this, the Pilot continued to the target, being greatly assisted by Sergeant Norris, whose strenuous efforts were invaluable. Shortly after the target had been successfully attacked, the Pilot collapsed owing to his wounds. Sergeant Norris took over the controls and, at times aided by another member of the crew succeeded in flying the damaged bomber back to Britain. When an airfield was sighted, Sergeant Norris and his comrade succeeded in rallying the semi-conscious Pilot sufficiently to take-over and land the aircraft safely. Not until then, did Sergeant Norris disclose that he had been wounded in the arm. In circumstances, fraught with great danger, this airman displayed courage, fortitude and determination of the highest order.

It’s now 1941.  He is 26 years old.

Billy has been through all the extra training and courses including gunnery and is now a Flight Sergeant / Engineer.

Billy has opted for Tail Gunner during active service. It may be that Tail Gunners got paid an extra shilling day. I think he told me that, but I can`t be sure. But knowing him, he was going to be exactly where he chose to be…Where there was doubt he could, and he would engage directly with the enemy.

Billy is now known as Flight Sergeant Bill Begbie…Gunner B.

To be continued in part 3…….

Billy’s Story Part 1

Billy’s Story

It is a true story with a few embellishments in this chapter only. There are no accurate records of this period in Billy`s life.

“Gunner B” A Fifer

The year is 1929, Billy is 14 years old.

It`s 5 o clock in the morning.  It’s dark, it’s freezing and it’s December. Billy snuggles deeper into the old wooden cot that his Uncle Jim made for him. An old oak outhouse door and wooden props nicked from the pit. Nail it all together and there you have it, a bed.

The mattress is a starched, linen sheet that his Ma stitched together to make, what looks like a huge pillowcase. It’s stuffed with old wool. Wool that was blown across the fields during the shearing season, a few summers ago. His Ma and his sisters would all go searching the fields around Fife during the summer, hunting for that precious wool to turn into pillows, cushions and mattresses. They’d share some of it with their friends and neighbours, or barter it for herring, tatties and coal. On a good day. they might even get a rabbit or a hare. Food was scarce.

As usual, his Pop is already up and Billy can hear him throwing some more coal on the fire in the kitchen, getting it ready for his wife, Annie, to come through and make the porridge and tea for the men of the house, before they faced another 12 hour day of toil at the bridge. Coal that Billy had riddled out of the dross that came up from the Milton Mine on his only day off, which was a Sunday.  Sunday was a “lie in” day and Billy would snuggle under a wool blanket and a big pile of coats that belonged to his sisters. Thank Christ his parents didn’t attend the Kirk. A day of rest? Aye sure.

It’s the start of another week and if Billy doesn’t shift his backside and get up quickly, his Pop will come through and roar at him from the bedroom door. Maybe chuck a lump of coal at him. He was like that, or so I was told.

Having left the school just a few weeks ago, at the start of the summer, Billy, like most other lads in the village was immediately pressed into employment. He joined Pop and his crew and went off to build bridges and sea walls. Most of his pals and classmates were either sent down the coal pits or were working on local farms for a shilling a day. 12-hour days. A penny an hour. Billy didn`t fancy either for a full-time job and that’s why he persuaded his Pop to let him work in the family firm. There wasn’t going to be any pits or farms for Billy. Wages amounted to the same, a shilling a day and free digs. Billy had to learn to pay his way.

His Pop was a well-known construction engineer and bridge builder who travelled all over Fife, building small, stone, iron and wooden bridges over streams and burns, mostly in the countryside.

Billy had already worked with his Pop and the crew ever since he was allowed to wear long trousers. At 12 years old, weekends and school holidays meant Billy would be up at the same time as Pop, 5 am. It felt like it was the middle of the night, but he loved working outdoors, especially in the countryside. It was a welcome change from school and the crew continuously wound him up, kidding him on every chance they got.

Pop was a hard boss. He was mostly a blustery old beggar and ranted at the men for the smallest infringements. Billy was regularly cuffed around the earhole or had his backside kicked for not paying enough attention.

His Pop had always drummed it into him that he must “stick in and pay attention” at his lessons at school or he could end up like the others,  “doon the pit”, or worse.

Even at 14 years old, Billy was into everything that the crew were doing, and they would let him take part in building the stonework on the bridges or digging foundations. He was a strong wee lad and full of confidence. One of his first jobs was to look after the two Clydesdale Horses that pulled the firm’s wagon. They were housed in an old shed at the back of the house in the Milton. Billy and his sisters would take turns to feed, brush and groom them. Pop would come out and make sure the horses were being looked after properly. God help anyone who veered from his strict instructions.

Without the horses, there would be no work.

Billy was a fast learner and even though he was a nuisance sometimes, the crew relished having him around. He had a “face full of cheek”, as they would say in Fife. But he was a comical distraction at times, especially at “piece time”, when the men would tuck into cheese bannocks that were toasted over the fire, each man had an old tin full of scalding tea which young Billy had brewed over a fire in a charcoal black kettle earlier. Sometimes the men would send Billy into the surrounding fields to pinch a few big potatoes that went into the fire an hour or so before piece time.

Billy would regale them with stories of what he got up to at school with his pals. He always had a big smile when he told his tales, and they were received with some scepticism and wry smiles.

Aye, Billy was a grand wee lad.

In the years that followed, the firm found steady work and were building sea walls as well as bridges.  Where there was water, there was work.

Billy grew into a strong, clever and extremely driven young man. He was a team player and judging by the photographs that accompany this chapter, it`s fairly obvious that he was accepted as one of the crew, even though he was the boss’s son.

It is rumoured that the relationship between Billy and his Pop became quite fractious as time went on. Billy may have come up with better ways to engineer the bridges. He had a natural capacity for engineering.

At some point in Billy`s teenage years, his Pop forced a job on him that meant, Billy getting into an old Atmospheric diving suit and being submerged into deep water at a work-site, maybe a sea wall.

One can only imagine what a terrifying experience that may have been for a young lad.  No training, no health and safety and probably very little knowledge on diving.

This story was passed on through the family for many years after and it may have been a turning point in the waning relationship that Billy had with his Pop.

At school, Billy had excelled in arithmetic, maths and English and kept up with his studies long after leaving school. He couldn’t see himself as working in his father’s shadow for long and, furthermore, he wanted to work with mechanical engineering and possibly engines. Billy had dreams. He wanted to be a proper engineer. He wanted to fly, literally.

Whilst still in his teenage years, we don’t know exactly when, Billy disappeared. He left his job, family and home in the Milton.

To be continued in part 2

LAC FRED PERKINS

Liberator Bomber

The passage below has been transcribed from the dictated 2015 memories of Fred Perkins, aged 94.

Frederick William James Perkins

Leading AirCraftman (LAC) 1143173

Main Service: Fitter Armourer General, Liberator Bombers, Middle East Theatre.

Joined Full Time Service 23 May 1941

Began Overseas Service 13 August 1943

Ended Service 26 May 1946

Joining and Basic Training

I volunteered to join the Royal Air Force in February 1941. I went to Worcester to volunteer and I wanted to be an aircrewman. I was enrolled and sent up to Padgate, in Lancashire, to be tested for an aircrew roll. Straight off, I could see what I was up against for a place in aircrew training. Everyone else was from a university at a time when being a student meant you were the cream at the top, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance.

They accepted me into the RAF but put me on deferred service for aircrew. I got sent back into civi-street and I had a card that said I was in deferred service so I couldn’t be put into another branch of the military, but could get called up at any time to the RAF. Eventually I was called up and sent to a different airbase for training as an engineer, instead.

First Posting

I had my first proper posting down in RAF Christchurch, by Bournemouth (the airfield no longer exists). It was a radar research place, then, and they were experimenting on improving the radar system that had just been invented. I was assigned as general ground crew to part of the Telecommunications Flying Unit (Later the Radar Flying Unit).

It was civilian billets at that point, a couple of us in each house: one airman and one technician. They were quite big houses and they looked out over the sea. Being on the south coast, the beach and the bottom of the gardens were strung with thick barbed-wire in case of invasion by boat. On a Friday, I went to the Paymaster General, to collect the rent, twenty-four and sixpence for the week, bed and breakfast.

Often, in the morning, we would have to go out and round up the New Forest ponies that would wander onto the airstrip in the night. We had to get the tractor and move them off before the planes could take off.

One day, I was walking past the Flight Officer’s office, an old cricket pavilion, and he said to me “You wanted to be aircrew, didn’t you?” I said I did. He said “I’ve got just the job for you. Go down to the flight office and pick up a parachute, then go up to the end of the runway”. When I got to the end of the runway, not much more than a grass strip, there was an aircraft called a FaireyBattle. It was a lovely aircraft with a Rolls-Royce engine, and it was all metal. They were supposed to be a fighter-bomber but weren’t very good, so they were being used for training radar. It was perfect for radar testing as the metal body was great for screwing all these little di-pole reflectors into.

So I got in this thing, in the back as an observer and lookout, and off it took, the wing-tips wobbling as it went over the grass. We went out over the Channel and I was to look out for German fighters. In those days, the Germans were there, only twenty nine miles away in France. We flew out over the Channel, then came back in and they would test the radar detection zones with the aircraft to determine the distance and direction that the early warning system would work. We would go out into the Channel, come back in, then down towards the west coast and over Torquay, then come back to Christchurch.

As we came back in, the pilot said “How do you feel, you look a bit green?” I told him “I feel a bit green!” He told me to come back the next day, and sure enough we went up again, almost in the same area, then off towards Southampton to test that coverage. Southampton was an important area with all the docks. I felt a bit ill, then, with all the ducking and diving there, what with having to avoid all the barrage air balloons and the like.

I went up a number of times, as a look-out. When I wasn’t in the back of the FaireyBattle, I would work on the petrol bowsers. They carried a thousand gallons of high-octane petrol, with a fifty gallon oil tank dragged behind. I would fill up the aircraft fuel and make sure the engines and controls were well oiled.

I had a few days leave, then. When I came back, I asked if there was any chance of going up again in the ‘Battle. The Flight Officer said “You’ll be lucky, the aircraft was shot down over the Channel!” No-one knew what had happened, it had disappeared over the Channel, and that was it. They carried on the effort with several other planes, but I didn’t get to go up again.

We weren’t at Christchurch for that long. We built some dome huts to live in, moving out of civilian billets, and I remember one night playing cards in one of these huts. The Germans came along and dropped some bombs right down the back of us and I thought they’d hit us directly. The explosions blew out the candles and plunged us into darkness and I thought for a moment that I was dead. We had a lot of aircraft there: Beaufighters, Mosquitoes, FaireyBattles, others, all fitted up with radar and camouflaged with trees and nets. Parts of the airfield were hit, but the bombs missed all the planes, they didn’t touch any of them.

I nearly got hit several times. One night I went to the cinema and there was a raid. The Lyon’s Cafe, on the corner, got hit and when we came out of the shelter, the cafe wasn’t there anymore. Another time, I was cycling from Christchurch to the nearby airfield of Hurn. I heard the sirens go off, so I was peddling like mad, and all of a sudden I heard a swissssh. A line of bombs was dropped in front of me, in between Christchurch and Bournemouth.

Of course, now the Germans knew where we were. They knew we were developing radar in such a way, and that it was such an important technology. They knew where we were, and seeing as we were just the other side of the Channel to them, it was too dangerous to stay. We had to move.

We spent three days getting everything into the back of lorries, three dozen of them, and we moved up to Salisbury Plains. From there, we used the cover of darkness to go north. The lads in the back had no idea where we were going. We just piled into the back of some jeeps and followed the lead truck. Eventually, we arrived at Defford, in Worcestershire, just east of Malven. It was just fields of tall grass and broad beans, when we got there, and the sweet smell hit us as we got out of the jeeps. We had to get the farmer out to plough the fields before we could use them. After the planes had arrived, we built a better runway and we stayed there for some time. RAF Defford was born and we carried on with radar work. You can still see some of the radar dishes there, today.

One day, I was helping the top engineer with one of the fighters. He was having problems getting the oil pressure up in the engine and was revving the engine very high. The plane was jumping up and down with the vibrations until it jumped right over the chocks holding it in place. It started off down the runway with the engineer inside. It took him to the bottom of the runway to put the breaks on and get it stopped. We had to tow it back up the field with a truck, eventually, when everybody had finished laughing!

Full Time Fitter Training

After that, I was called up to Kirkham, in Lancashire (what is now HM Prison Kirkham) for a training course for fitters and armourers. The course would normally have run for several years, but was condensed down into about fourteen months for us. (Between 1939 and 1945 RAF Kirkham trained 72,000 British and allied service men and women. In November 1941 Kirkham became the main armament training centre for the RAF, with 21 different trades and 86 different courses on equipment and weapons varying from 22 riffles to 75mm guns.)

We were trained by Rolls Royce civilian trainers. There were about five hundred of us in a big hangar, twenty five in a row, each section with an instructor. The training was great, there was no better training than the RAF. I used to enjoy it, I was quite keen on the job.

We were trained in a number of different trades including blacksmithing, tinsmithing, coppersmithing, hydraulics, the lot. They took you from scratch. We had weeks of filing and grinding six-inch blocks of steel. You would file it flat, by hand, or make dove-joints, splits, rivets. Then you would start over on a new piece. The raw material would come on a tip-up truck and would be dumped in a pile for you to grab a piece when you needed it. It was easy to take a bit more of the metal off, but if you made a mistake and took too much off, you couldn’t put it back on, you’d have to start again!

We had the best tools, too. We had some lovely sets of tools, especially later when I was working on the Liberators. I had a big leather wallet with about twenty files in it: flat, smooth, round, square. We had to work with very fine tolerances, when we made or filed the work, because these things would end up as crucial parts of an airplane and if they failed, or didn’t fit properly, the plane could crash and the crew could die.

Right from the start, the trainer came over and said “That’s not the first time holding a hammer, is it? You seem to know what you’re doing.” I told him that I had come straight from making ceramic and steel fireplaces, on civi-street, so this was something I had been taught before.

We had lots of planes to train on, too. There were six big hangars at Kirkham. Six big hangars with full sized bombers, spitfires, hurricanes, and a night-fighter called a Boulton-Paul Defiant with a turret at the back and painted black.

About half-way through, the Adjutant called me into his office and said “You volunteered for aircrew when you joined.” I said “Yes, but they didn’t seem to be too eager at the time, there was no place for me on the aircrew course so they sent me to another squadron to be ground-crew.” The adjutant said “Well, there’s a place for you now.” I told him I wasn’t very interested now, I was training to be a fitter and was halfway through the course. He said “It’s not what you want, Perkins, it’s what the air force wants!” This was fair enough. They were keen, at that time, to get people onto the aircrew section because by that point, the Germans were shooting people out of the sky faster than we could train new men. However, because I had spent so long training to be an armourer, already, they had me finish my course.

By the end of the fourteen weeks training, I was a Special Armourer, as opposed to the basic Armourer I was to begin with, which meant that I could work on just about anything and put me into the top group. As soon as I was finished, I was put on the list to be called up for posting overseas.

Leaving Liverpool for the Middle East

As soon as my training was finished, I was to report to Liverpool, which was close to where I already was. On Sunday afternoon, we set off for Liverpool. When we got there the docks were full of all these big ships. We were headed for the Empress of Australia, a former cruise liner converted to a troop carrier. There were lots of men getting on her, very few were air force, most were army, marines and commandos. There were, I think, four thousand of us.

We set off at around 8pm in the evening, three or four tugs pulling us into the Mersey. By 9pm, the Navy dropped two depth charges because they thought there was a German submarine in the vicinity. We didn’t know what was happening. They dropped these depth charges and I thought we’d been hit by a torpedo! I thought “Oh well, we won’t be going any further.” But instead, the Captain throttled up to full power and we shot out of the area as quick as the ship could go.

Everyone was vaccinated, before we got onto the ship, and a few days later my elbow and arm swelled right up with vaccine fever. It took two days for the doctors to get to me, there were only a few on board and if you missed them on their round you had to wait until the next day. When they found me, they put me straight into the hospital quarters where I was waited on for a couple of days, which was lovely. Of course, when there were so many of us on the ship, finding a space for a hammock was very difficult. They were strung up everywhere with no space in between. If you weren’t there to keep a claim on your slot, like if you spend several days in the hospital, you lost your place.

We left British waters and went out into the Atlantic, where we sailed around for about a month. We had some ships on the left of us, some on the right, but we were waiting to make up a big convoy. I think we joined a Canadian convoy to make up the numbers. We eventually went down towards Gibraltar. There were, I think, two aircraft carriers, three destroyers, us, some others. About forty odd ships in the convoy as we went through the mouth into the Mediterranean. I think we were the first allied convoy to go through the Mediterranean. Before that, to get to Egypt, the ships had to go all the way round Africa.

We could see Gibraltar in the mist, with the Germans on the left, and we knew they had fast boats with torpedoes on them. We went through the strait on the North African side, down passed Benghazi. We spent about a week sailing along there because it was quite a way. I constantly thought we were going to get hammered as soon as the Germans realised we were there but we never saw more than a few German planes in the distance. It was a miracle, really. I heard the ships behind us, in later convoys, got hit, and I remember seeing a tanker in flames, on the horizon.

The thing that I remember the most, about going though the Med, was the heat and smell when we hit North Africa. From spending a month in the cold Atlantic, the heat that hit us, coming of Morocco, was like an oven. The smell was strong, too, like spices. Every country I have been in has its own smell. We were so close to the coast, following it all the way around, that you could see people walking on the beach.

Palestine and Egypt

We pulled into Port Said, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, on Sunday morning. We had to use pontoons to disembark and walk across to the land because the ship was so big it couldn’t get close enough to let us off. We all had two kit-bags and a Sten gun each. Of course, when we went across the pontoons it was a bit wobbly as there were so many troops getting off.

Most of the troops got off first and went along the Suez Canal. Thousands and thousands of them, marching twenty miles down the side of the Suez. We didn’t go that way, there were maybe fifty or sixty of us from the RAF and we went straight to Cairo. It was a Sunday afternoon, but for the people over there it was like a weekday. We drove up to Cairo airport and there was a transit camp for RAF personnel. We were posted, from there, all over the Middle East. It was just tents on sand and we were posted off individually as needed. I was there for two or three weeks.

I got to see the Pyramids, at that point. I went right inside with just a little wick candle to light the way. If you blew out the flame it was pitch black. Right inside, as far as you could go, I got. Right into the King’s Chamber. I also saw the small hole that went up to the sky and lined up with a certain star at a particular time of the year. I was able to go back, as well, in 1943.

About twenty of us were eventually sent off, by train, through the Sinai to Palestine. I was stationed at RAF Lydda (now Ben Gurion International Airport) in Tel Aviv. We stopped there in a small camp, just a tent village. It was a small airstrip to begin with, only small aircraft could use it, so the RAF built it up. We stripped out all of the orange trees, levelled the land and built a proper runway for the bombers. It was probably one of the first parts of the Middle East Bomber Command. We were attached to the Special Airborne division for a couple of months. At that point, we were sending off the bombers on bombing runs to attack the Germans.

I broke my leg in Palestine. It had been raining and the ground was very slippery, but we were playing football. I played a lot of football in the RAF, and a lot before too. We had some big games when I was overseas: it was something to entertain the men so it was very popular. I always played Inside Right for the RAF teams and on that day we were playing the Army. They were all tough as hell and just as rough. I got the ball and played it down the wing. I went to kick the ball across the pitch and these two army guys both tackled me and fell across my leg. I broke both the leg and the ligament. They just moved me to the side line and didn’t take me off anywhere else until the match had finished!

There weren’t any ambulances over there, so I was put in the back of a pick-up wagon. It felt like part of my leg was going in one direction, and the rest in another. They drove me to Nazareth to the make-shift hospital. It was a convent, converted for military use for injured servicemen in the Mediterranean. They fixed me up and plastered my leg. The next day, I thought my leg was itching. The hospital was riddled with bugs and they had gotten into my cast. I had to push them out with sticks and flush them out with water because they were eating my leg. A day later, they took us all out of the hospital, because of the infestation, and put us on a first-aid train. It was like a cattle-wagon full of stretchers. It was open-sided and I thought it would be chilly but as it was Palestine it was nice and warm. They brought us all cups of tea, bread, cheese and a pickle. The train took us to a huge hospital in the middle of Palestine, a huge place, full of all the wounded troops from all over the Middle East.

I had my leg in plaster for quite some time, so I was in a wheelchair for a bit. There was this one guy who said they had a cinema, so he took me off to see it. We had to go down a steep hill to get to the cinema. He was pushing me in the wheelchair and fell over as we were going down the hill. Off I went, bouncing down the hill and there was a ditch at the bottom of the hill. I hit the ditch, the chair went over and the wheel was spinning in the air – I can still see it now. All the others did was stand there, laughing their heads off!

After that, I joined the 5th Bomber Conversion Unit, working on Liberators. This eventually changed to the 1675 Heavy Conversion Unit and moved back down to RAF Abu Sueir, in Egypt, near to the Suez Canal. I was there for two and a half years. From that airfield, you could see ships going through the main canal. Most of the time it was the tops of the ships in the distance. We couldn’t see the water, just the dunes between us and them, so it looked like the ships were going through the sand.

I went swimming in the Suez, on more than one occasion. The last time I did was when I nearly drowned. My mate and I watched a big ship go by and waited for about five minutes before we went in, but it wasn’t long enough. I went in and the undercurrent from the ship’s wake dragged me under and pushed me down. I fought it but didn’t get anywhere and I didn’t think I would ever come back up. Luckily, I eventually got out of the current and made it back to the surface, but my lungs were burning like mad.

The Planes

For most of my overseas time, I worked on Liberators (American B-24s). We had nine Liberators and six fighters: three spitfires and three hurricanes.

Liberators were my favourite. They had a good payload and were easy to get inside when you were ‘bombing up’ with the bomb trolley. They weren’t too far up in the air, so you could almost walk in and you pushed the bomb trolley right into the bay. You would put the swan-hook of the winch through the eye of the bomb and you would roll the winch up until the bomb sat in between the two saddles, one on each side. Then you would tighten the saddles on the bottom to keep the bombs steady when the plane was flying. After that, you would put in the detonators into what we called the pistol, at the back of the bomb. You’d put the arming vane into the pistol, followed by the safety pin. The vanes and pins would be kept in a box, fifty yards away from the plane, in case anything happened, and you‘d put the arming vanes into the bombs, to make them live, before the planes took off.

I remember one time, we had just finished ‘bombing up’ one side of a Liberator. Everything was in place, all ready to go, and a flight technician went into the aircraft to go through the checklist. He accidentally pulled the wrong lever and all the bombs suddenly fell out onto the ground. Of course, we ran in every direction to get away from the bombs. Not only could they have gone off if the safety pins came out, but they were damn heavy chunks of metal that would roll, as well. You could either get crushed or blown up. Or both. We shot off in every direction and didn’t stop until we were hundreds of meters away. Finally, the technician came out with a red face. I’ve never run so fast in my life! We were more angry, though, about having to sort it all out afterwards. It took us hours to check the bombs, make sure they were safe and then re-fit them. There was lots of sweating, swearing and blinding.

We kept the planes and bombs separate, most of the time. The planes were spaced out a long way apart, sometimes it was a fifteen mile round trip to fit all the planes, a mile or so there and back for each separate plane. They needed to be spaced in case there was a bombing raid on the airfield. You didn’t want all the planes and all the ammunition to go up in one lucky hit.

We had a big building, in Abu Sueir, that was just for the armoury. We had guns and ammunition and other such things stored there. A big brick place. I was in charge of the munitions and there were three or four guards posted there at all times. There was thick netting and wire, all the usual things, and the guards were supposed to patrol around the outside. I went there, early one mourning, with an officer to inspect the building. When we got there, there was this big hole in the wall, at the back, where all the guns and ammunition were kept. The guards were there, and I asked what was going on, but they just mumbled.

Someone’d stolen it all! They left about two or three camels and donkeys there. They had loaded all the guns and ammo they could carry on donkeys and stole off into the night. They must have been disturbed because they left a couple of animals. They’d broken through a double brick wall! They probably waited for an aircraft to come and then hammered like wild on the brick wall under cover of the noise of the aircraft engine.

The Liberators were very loud when they took off, they had four engines, and would go on lots of bombing runs over the Mediterranean countries. Sometimes they would drop saboteurs into Italy and Albania. The Liberators would go over in the middle of the night and drop these guys, they were SAS or similar, that type of person. When they did raids in Turkey, we would fit them up to drop leaflets over the enemy territory informing them we would be bombing there in twenty-four hours, giving the civilians time to clear out of the area.

For fun, sometimes we would add old crates of waste from the naafi. The crates would be wooden and would whistle when they were dropped, like bombs, and the enemy wouldn’t know if it was a bomb that hadn’t exploded.

We dropped supplies, too, all kinds of supplies. Medicines, ammunition and supplies for allied troops. We dropped a lot of medicine in all the areas. They had yellow parachutes on then so you could see them. Of course, the people would gather these parachutes and keep them. The local blankets and beds were rough as hell, so people would take the parachutes as they were nice smooth silk.

As a Special Armourer, I also worked on the guns. They were mainly .5’s (0.5 calibre, 12.7mm Browning Gun) which were a good gun. On the Liberator, you’d have probably about 6 stations where you had at least two .5 guns. They did away with the rear-turret’s upper guns because when they fired, the crew would have two guns firing each side of their ears, and they didn’t like that very much.

But, as I said, the Liberators were easy to work on. You had two side gunners, two .5’s in a side slot. The swivel range of these was limited with a cable. If the gunners were new or got a bit panicky, they could swing the gun round hard and break the cable or stretch it. We would have to reset the cable after each run. We’d get a guy with a long rod, stuck in the end of the barrel, to simulate where the bullets would go. The guy outside would walk around and we would clamp up the new cable inside to where we wanted the range of movement to be. You’d have to stop the range about six feet from something you didn’t want to hit because when you fire the guns, you get a cone of fire and had to build in some leeway. You also had to make sure that if the cable stretched again on the next flight, the gunner couldn’t shoot off the plan’s wing or tail if the cable allowed the gun to turn further than it should.

The Spitfire was another one we had to change the guns on. They had .303 guns, there were eight of them. A lot of the British planes had the 303’s, which were no good at all, they had no firepower, they were like pea-shooters. The Americans used all .5s, they were definitely a better firepower. With the fighters, you would put the plane on a trestle, in the flying position, and you had a target about five hundred and fifty feet in front. You had a periscope on the gun and you lined it up to the target so that all the bullets converged in the same place.

On occasion, we fitted a 20mm canon, one on each wing, but you had to have a little bit more of an anchorage if you did that on a Spitfire, because of the extra recoil. The 20mm had a special recoil-spring, a square spring. You had to have a special clamp to squash and compress it, as it was so strong to deal with the extra force of the canon when it fired. You’ve probably seen the canons in the old war films where the 20mm would strafe enemy trains.

There were different types of ammunition, too. You’d have armour piecing shells, but we never liked them because they would wear out the barrel on the canon. You’d have incendiary ones, normal shells, they were both fine. But we used the canons more on the Hurricanes because those planes were more substantial. So we used to like to put them there. The Hurricanes also had a bit more room to move about with. The Spitfires were cramped to mount the guns.

You had to be careful on the Spitfires, more than the Hurricanes, because the Spitfires used to catch fire. There was excess oil, sometimes, in the Spitfire exhaust cylinders, that could be left behind. So the flight mechanics would stand by with fire extinguishers in case the thing caught fire when it was started. The mechanic who was testing the plane would keep the engine going to blow out the flames because it was too late by that point to do anything else.

We had a lot of problems with the Spitfires, out in the desert, because they were so light and flimsy, compared to the Hurricanes. You’d see them land at the end of the runway and not come any further. When you got down to the end of the strip, the thing would be tipped up on its nose! The front end would be dug into the ground. It was too front heavy and easily caught gusts of wind. It caused no end of trouble for us and the pilots.

All sorts of things would happen, or go wrong, when I was out there in the Middle East. One bomber came back late, from a run over Greece. It finally came into view, coming from the Sinai towards us in Abu Sueir, over the Suez Canal. As it was nearing the end of the runway, there was this tremendous bang and the plane just blew up! We never found out what had happened. When we got to the site of the wreckage, it was all just burning fragments, too little to find anything else. It wasn’t like now with forensic teams to check every last millimetre.

On another occasion, a plane came in without the undercarriage down. It scrapped along the ground and everyone was okay, but the plane was a write-off. We had to winch it up, put it on a large lorry and take it off for spares.

We often had to clean out the planes, once they had returned from a bombing run. The aircrew would be trapped in these things for many hours and there was often waste that needed cleaning out. Some of the crew would get airsick and there would be vomit. Sometimes the Germans would attack the planes and shoot at them and if the plane was hit, there may be blood as well. What ever it was, we sluiced it all down with paraffin.

One time, a Liberator came back with fewer crew than it left with. The plane didn’t get into combat, but the rear gunner was missing. The hatch was open and the guy was gone. We thought he must have had enough and jumped out. It happened, sometimes, if someone decided they couldn’t take it anymore. Being an aircrewman could be very stressful and sometimes someone would just snap.

Local Wildlife

The difficulties of living out there were not limited to the aircraft. I went to a lot of places, but they all taught you to get used to varied, tough conditions. In one place there were four of us sleeping on a concrete hangar floor. Out in the desert, it was just sand and dust and tents. You had to check your bed, or hammock or what ever, for snakes before you got in for the night. Every morning, you‘d have to turn your boots upside down and hit them with a stick to get any scorpions out! You’d get bedbugs and things, the way we got rid of those was to thrown paraffin over the bed and blankets, then watch all these things come scurrying out. The paraffin evaporated off quickly in the desert.

I slept in the armoury, quite often. I remember having to turn the light on, at night, because the scorpions would come in under cover of darkness and run across the floor. The light would dazzle them and you could hit them with a stick.

I remember, as well, one night I was lying in a bed and a snake fell onto the mosquito net. I was in Palestine at the time and thought a terrorist had lobbed a grenade into the room. But I thought “If it is going to go off, it goes off, I’m not getting out of bed!” The next morning, the Palestinian guard came round, whilst I went off for breakfast, and he found the snake coiled up in the warmth of my blankets. When I came back, he’d already hit it with the butt of his rifle and laid this four foot snake out on the floor.

We’d get eaten alive by mosquitoes, too, quite often, especially in Abu Sueir. We would work at night, as often as not, refitting the bombers for an early morning raid. We’d work under arclight, the Sweetwater Canal ran right along the side of the aerodrome and the light would draw the mosquitos right to us.

There were bigger animal pests, too. There were a lot of stray dogs there, and they had a lot of diseases. Every Tuesday morning, early, I had to go around with a rifle and shoot any strays. On one particular day, I was doing my rounds and some wild dogs were running across the field. So I got my rifle and shot all three of them. When I got closer, to collect the bodies and burn them, I saw that one of the dogs was an alsatian. It was only then that I realised that only two of the dogs were wild, and they were chasing the alsatian. The alsatian was the pet of the Chief Engineer, and I had shot it, too. The Chief was okay about it, the dog should have been locked up and had gotten loose, but I still felt bad.

What ever the problems you dealt with them because you were all in it together. You had comrades. You didn’t fight amongst yourselves, the comradeship was so unique, you stuck together as a unit, you had a great temperament and it all blends in to those harsh conditions. You put your life in everyone else’s hands, so you trust them, you look after each other. It’s hard to understand when you are in another walk of life.

Iraq

When the European war ended, there was nothing left for us to do in Egypt, so I was allocated to another post and taken into the Navy Fleet Air Arm. I was sent to Basra, in Iraq: RAF Shaibah. There wasn’t much of anything there, before the RAF got there. It was built for the war. They were short on fitter-armourer generals. There were only five of us there. When you were a fitter general it meant that you could do everything. The work ranged right from the cameras that were fitted along side the guns for reconnaissance and records, to the fluid for the hydraulic systems that operated the turrets. You had to bleed and feed that fluid at different times of the day because it would expand and contract with the big temperature ranges you got in the desert.

I taught some of the local Iraqi army how to shoot. They had guns but they didn’t have any proper training on how to shoot correctly. Every Friday afternoon I would take these guys to the range and teach them how to sight up a gun, how to adjust the fore- and back-sights to correct the bias. The foresights would often take a bashing, being on the tip of the barrel, and the men would be rough with the guns and knock the irons. Teaching the Iraqis to keep the gun sights lined up meant the difference between being able to hit their targets and missing by miles.

One day, one of the recruits shot wide at something. The round ricocheted and hit a tractor in the fuel tank. There was a hell of a bang, a lot of shouting in different languages, and a tractor on its side, blown over by the explosion.

The Iraqis were friendly, but the Sudanese were a problem. We had an open-air cinema and we were all sitting round watching a film. There was a lot of banging going on and we thought it was the film. That was until someone shouted “Duck!” It was the Sudanese, driving around in the desert nearby, shooting off their rifles! Everyone was more annoyed with the disruption than with the threat of being shot!

Then the Japanese war ended and there was no more use for us at all.

Coming Home

I was in the RAF until my last posting in Iraq in 1946.

I remember leaving Shaibah in a Dakota transport plane, heading back to towards Egypt. We took off and the plane was overloaded with troops and gear. After a short while into the flight, there was a huge sandstorm right in front of us, thousands of feet high and tens of miles wide. We couldn’t get over the top as we were already overloaded, so the pilot tried to go through. I felt the pressure of the sand hit the plane, then there was a huge gust of wind and the plane went over on its side and scythed through the air, dropping like a stone. We were lucky we didn’t hit the deck and all get killed. I thought I’d been out there for four, five years, survived the whole war and nearly been wiped out on my way home!

Once I got to Egypt, I came back across the Mediterranean on a ship from Alexandria. It took a week to cross the sea to France, Toulon. I remember the harbour was absolutely packed with ships that had been sunk. (The French had scuttled their own fleet to prevent the Germans from getting their hands on them). The locals had very little to eat, at that point, and almost no bread. On our ship we had so much bread that it had gone stale by the time we arrived in Toulon and it was all thrown overboard into the sea. I don’t know why it wasn’t saved, but I remember loads of loaves of bread floating in the sea. When we got into port, you couldn’t buy even a biscuit!

We stayed in what was left of the German’s camp, there, for a week or so before heading to Calais. It was several days across France, by train, mostly at night. I remember it was a moon-lit night as we passed Paris and I could see the Eiffel Tower in the moonlight. I also remember taking a walk out into the fields, when we stopped for an hour at one point, just walking through the crops.

We finally crossed the Channel, back into Dover, at about ten at night. The next morning, I was de-mobbed in Stratford. I got my de-mob suit, a quick medical, my money and was out of the gate. As quick as that I was out of the Air force. Done.

When you come out of the service, you do feel a bit lost. You had a regimented life in the service, and they looked after you. The RAF looked after you really well, but when you leave, it’s all down to you. You have to completely adjust yourself. It’s probably harder to come out than it ever was going in. You had to work all times of the day. In the service, you are paid to work 24 hours a day and you work for 23 hours 59 minutes.

I wasn’t relieved to be out of the air force, to be honest. We travelled so much, spent so long in different countries, that I felt immune to much of the feelings of ‘home’. No matter where you went, you were the same person, you weren’t excited, you weren’t depressed, you just went with it. I never thought “Thank God I survived that” or “I made it through”. You had to be immune to all of that, if you wanted to keep your sanity. So much happens to you, and you are pushed and pulled in all directions that you just had to go with the flow. It was almost like brain-washing, in a good way. “Do as you are told, go where we tell you and you will be taken care of” was the feeling you got in the RAF. They looked after you, as much as they could. You never knew what the enemy was going to do, but you knew those around you had your back. If you didn’t keep that in mind, you would have gone mad.

I had about six weeks of leave stored up, when I was de-mobbed, at the end of which they called me and asked if I wanted to go back into the air force. I would have been sent back to Iraq but I’d already done several months over my time. Twice they asked me back, but by then I’d had enough. We all had.

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RONALD JAMES AUCKLAND MBE DFC

Ronald James Auckland

Ronald James Auckland MBE DFC was born: 8 January 1922, in Portsmouth and died: 22 July 2016, in Guildford, aged 94.

Educated at Portsmouth High School, Ron Auckland joined the Civil Service in June 1938, working for the Admiralty within the then Royal Naval Dockyard Portsmouth. When war came he perhaps experienced more than most, he and his family were bombed out of their home and on duty as fire officer he had to carry out the dead and rescue the injured after an enemy bomb exploded on a crowded air-raid shelter. Although in a reserved occupation he was determined to join up as soon possible. Like most young men he wanted to fly and so enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserves and after the normal basic training he was shipped out to Canada and the USA for basic and advanced flying training. He returned home with the rank of Sergeant and more importantly his wings. He was promoted Pilot Officer in December 1943, Flying Officer in June 1944 and Flight Lieutenant in December 1945. He was nominated to fly the Lancaster bomber and was posted to 61 Sqn, RAF Skellingthorpe, part of Bomber Command’s 5 Group based in Lincolnshire.

He was to stay with 61 Sqn until early 1945, completing 38 operational missions. May 1944 was a particularly challenging period for 5 Group and 61 Sqn and it was during this period that on two separate occasions PO Auckland brought home both aircraft and crew after suffering severe damage to his aircraft. On 19 May, during a raid on the Tours marshalling yards, on final approach and waiting for the bomb-aimer to order ‘Bomb doors open’ his aircraft was hit by another Lancaster flying in almost the opposite direction. Another foot or so and there would have been one almighty bang. He managed to maintain control of the aircraft, continue the run and drop their bombs. Quiet an achievement given that he was now flying on only two engines, the port outer propeller was bent backwards and 12 feet of the port wing was missing. The Perspex top of the cabin just above the pilots head was also smashed which reduced the cockpit temperature dramatically. It was a long, slow, cold and dangerous return for the crew especially as German night fighters were on the look out for damaged aircraft such as his. He landed safely at RAF Tangmere in Sussex although 61 Sqn base was in Lincolnshire. Later that month during a raid on Toulouse, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and sustained much damage. The rudder control was severed, the elevator trimming tabs were shot away, the bomb doors could not be closed, the fuselage was pierced in many places and worst of all the bomb-aimer had been killed and the engineer badly wounded. Although the aircraft became extremely difficult to control and the general direction was difficult to maintain he managed to get aircraft home. Home on this occasion was a crash landing at Exeter and a citation for the award of an immediate DFC. The aircraft piloted that day was O for Oboe, which had also been the 61 Sqn Lancaster piloted by Bill Reid when he won his VC. O for Oboe would never fly again. When the war was over, he returned to the Civil Service and the Admiralty soon to become the Ministry of Defence. His work took him from Portsmouth to Bath and then to London with the Defence Sales Organisation. It was with this organization that his dedication and energy was rewarded with the award of the MBE. After retiring from the Civil Service he worked for the Defence Manufacturers Association (DMA) for a several years before calling it a day. Some of his war-time memories are recalled by John Nichol in his book entitled ‘The Red Line’

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SGT JOHN SARGEANT DFM

Sergeant John Sargeant DFM from Frithville near Boston, attended Boston Grammar School – aged 19 in 1943 when he served with No 106 Squadron based at RAF Syerston, Notts.

The story from which these words are taken was found by John Sargeant’s widow after his death in 1970, written in pencil in an old notebook he had kept in his desk. He called his story “Just another night out”.


As usual combats with fighters could be seen going on all around by the lights of tracers from each aircraft.

‘We arrived over Berlin one hour after avoiding a few searchlights and near misses from flak bursts that seemed pretty close on the starboard side. When we turned on, I saw quite plainly two or three aircraft, each coned by about twenty or thirty searchlights on our starboard side, having hell knocked out of them by flak. It was the same on the port side where half a dozen searchlights were doing their best to pick us up in their beams. As usual combats with fighters could be seen going on all around by the lights of tracers from each aircraft.

Now it was our turn for the run up to the target. As we got to our positions the skipper’s voice came over the intercom: “Everything okay? Turning on”. Then the bomb aimer’s voice, “Bomb doors open, Skip”.

Suddenly the whole aircraft shuddered and Mac, the rear gunner, called out, “They’ve got me, Skip. I can’t get out, the doors are jammed.” The aircraft shook, lurched, rolled and dived steeply as the skipper took evasive action to get away from the oncoming fighter. The bomb aimer had already dropped the whole bomb load without a moment’s notice and then the wireless operator’s voice was heard, “Okay, Mac, going down.”

We were still doing violent evasive action when the fighter attacked again, this time from below, raking the aircraft from stem to stern. I was on the floor, having been thrown there from my standing position beside the Skipper by the sudden evasive manoeuvre and having seen the fighter attacking the first time from the rear starboard quarter with his tracer rounds entering the rear of the fuselage. I stayed on the floor, unable to do anything to help, waiting for ‘my packet’ if it was coming, while watching my panel of engine and fuel gauges for any trouble that may suddenly break forth. Fortunately, at that moment they were okay.

As I lay there during the second attack, an explosive shell burst immediately below my position and shrapnel whirled through the floor and out through the roof. A few pieces of shrapnel ripped into the back of my left knee. The lower part of my leg went numb and I thought I had lost it, but I managed to stand up on my right leg. My other leg was intact but I was unable to put my weight on it.

Sax, the bomb aimer, climbed out of his compartment and fell on the floor in front of me. The intercom was u/s so I hadn’t heard him say anything but when I examined him, I discovered he had been seriously hurt in the attack – he was unconscious but he was still warm and had a strong pulse. Later, however, he died. Meanwhile, the wireless operator had got ‘Mac’, the injured rear gunner out of his turret and into a more comfortable position against the rear spar. His injuries meant that bailing out was not really an option for him so we headed North up to the Baltic Coast and towards Denmark and then out across the North Sea. I checked the fuel situation and found that we didn’t have enough to make it back to base. The Skipper decided to carry on and ditch to give Mac the best chance.’

The pilot, Squadron Leader David Howroyd, successfully ditched the aircraft when fuel was almost exhausted. After rapidly exiting the floating aircraft on to the starboard wing, despite his own injuries, John Sargeant and two others went back inside the aircraft for the injured rear gunner. Unfortunately, the rear gunner, Sergeant Les McKenzie died in their dinghy before the crew was rescued by an Air Sea Rescue launch. Whilst John Sargeant was recovering from his leg wounds in hospital the remaining survivors of his crew continued on operations and were reported missing on the night of 8/9 October 1943 on an operation to Hanover – they were all killed.

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SERGEANT BOB PEARSON

Lancaster tail gunner

Sergeant Bob Pearson writes about a memorable Op

“When a bomber corkscrews the worst place to be is in the back”

‘We would be flying at 250 mph and the wind tore through the clear view panel in the turret – the piece of Perspex that had been removed from the turret canopy to improve vision. My face was exposed to the slipstream – the temperature of which plummeted the higher we went – but it was better to freeze than not to see the enemy. Some rear gunners greased their cheeks with lanolin to ward off the effects; we were often exposed to temperatures of minus thirty or minus forty degrees. My breath froze into an icicle in front of me. I waited until it was three or four inches long before breaking it off with my hands; they, at least, were warm thanks to the four pairs of gloves I had on – a white silky pair underneath, then mittens and a pair of ordinary black gloves and finally gauntlets. My trigger fingers were twice their normal thickness!

We had electrically heated flying suits if we wanted to use them. It plugged into the aircraft like an electric blanket but it was a mixed blessing and I never used mine. It had no thermostat and would never remain at a steady temperature. The danger was that it would get too hot and send you to sleep.

When we coasted in over mainland Europe and were over enemy territory the skipper would say, “Keep your eyes peeled, Bob”. We were trained to spot different [aircraft] silhouettes, the shape and size of their wings. In the classroom they flashed slides in front of us for two seconds and we were supposed to know instantly if it was friend or foe. But it was very different 18,000 feet up in the pitch black. You see something. You know instantly it isn’t a Spitfire or a Hurricane. Your heart jumps. This is for real. But you can’t just blaze away. You have to think clearly. If you fire, the tracer will give your position away to the enemy for sure and, anyway, you might hit another Lancaster in the stream. Also our .303 machine guns were like pea shooters compared with the night fighter’s cannons. So you wait and it gets closer, until you can make out a head and shoulders in the cockpit. Is he going to keep coming? Is he going to start firing? Sometimes he peels away out of sight and that’s the worst moment of all. All you can do is sit tight, wait and pray he’s really gone away, that he hasn’t dived below you and is coming back underneath with his guns blazing away at you. The horror was waiting and not knowing, wondering if you were about to die.

If an attack came, I would yell, “Corkscrew” on the intercom to the skipper and he would throw the Lanc into a steep dive. When a bomber corkscrews the worst place to be is in the back. As the wings go down the tail comes hurling up. Facing backwards, you go up too, and then you plunge back down as the skipper pulls back on the stick and the plane climbs steeply in the opposite direction. The G-force clamps on your head like a ton of concrete. Your chin is pressed hard into your chest and at the same time you are still trying to fire at the enemy fighter on your tail!’

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Sergeant Bob Pearson aged 19 in 1944 when he served on a Lancaster Squadron based at RAF Grimsby, Waltham, Lincs.

Jack Dye Followed His Star

Jack Dye

1924-1944

By Elinor Florence

Jack Dye, a brave young bomb-aimer from Regina, Saskatchewan, saved everyone on board his Halifax bomber in this terrifying incident that took place on June 3, 1944.

Jack Dye was born in Regina on July 16, 1924. His parents were Clarence and Gladys Dye, and his sister, Betty was four years younger.

Jack joined the Royal Canadian Air Force on his 18th birthday in 1942, received his commission in July 1943 and went overseas. He flew with RAF 77 Squadron in Elvington, Yorkshire.

Jack Dye with his motherThis is Jack with his mother, taken just before he went overseas.

On June 3, 1944 (just three days before D-Day) 105 Halifaxes were sent to attack the marshalling yards at Trappes, southwest of Paris, and another sixty-three aircraft to raid coastal gun batteries in the Pas de Calais.

The attack was part of the D-Day deception plan. The raid on Trappes was carried out in clear moonlit conditions, and was to prove costly.

The German night fighters were able to take full advantage of the clear conditions and they ravaged the Halifaxes. Fifteen were shot down. No. 158 Squadron lost five crews, 76 and 640 lost three each.

Flying Officer Doug Morrison from Calgary, Alberta, was pilot of a Halifax Mk111 from 77 Squadron. Doug Morrison had reasons to recall the events of that night.

“Quite suddenly, as we approached the target area, but while still some distance ahead and below, it became increasingly bright as flares and marker flares exploded into action.”

“As we closed in on the target and began our bombing run, we could see aircraft above and below and on both sides of us. The cloud, smoke, flares and markers below us, and the aircraft all around us, presented a most impressive sight.”

“A few verbal course commands over the intercom from our bomb-aimer, Flying Officer Jack Dye, and we heard the familiar: ‘Bombs Away!’ We cleared the target and then made a turn to starboard to head for home.”

“Suddenly the urgent voice of the rear-gunner, Scotty MacRitchie, shattered the steady drone of the engines: ‘Corkscrew port!’ I responded immediately as tracer laced overhead. We continued evasive action until Scotty gave instructions to level out.”

“About two minutes later, there was a blinding flash and an explosion. Smoke, dust and pieces of aircraft flew in all directions. We began to corkscrew to port, but soon realized it was too late for this fighter pass.”

“A quick check revealed the port inner engine to be on fire, and a large, gaping hole in the side of the fuselage above the navigator’s table. Our flight engineer, Sandy Moodie, announced that he was shutting down the port inner and activating the fire extinguisher button. The fire was soon out.”

“I then initiated a crew check and all replied “okay” except bomb-aimer Jack Dye, who had been hit. Jack was still lying in the bomb-aiming position, so navigator Tommy Melvin assisted him to the rest position aft of the wireless operator’s table.”

“A short examination of Jack’s injuries disclosed multiple shrapnel wounds to his legs and back from the cannon shell that had exploded over the top of him. Tommy stopped the bleeding and made Jack as comfortable as he could before returning to his navigator’s position.”

“In the meantime, I had adjusted course according to the magnetic compass since the gyro-compass was acting up. A further check of the aircraft revealed that all the flight instruments had been knocked out, and all our charts as well as the navigator’s bag had been sucked out of the hole in the fuselage.”

“By this time we had left the brightly-lit target area behind us, and were feeling more comfortable with the darkness all around us as we continued on our northerly heading.”

“After a period of time, perhaps thirty or forty minutes, the wounded bomb-aimer asked if we would move him up to the second pilot’s station, which he normally occupied during takeoffs and landings.”

“He was moved into the seat beside me just as we emerged from under cloud cover. Above us we could see the stars shining clearly overhead. Jack asked what course we were on, and I replied that we were flying due north by the magnetic compass.”

“His quick reply was: ‘We are not flying north, we are going due east! Look, the North Star is directly off our port wing!’ Sure enough, we were heading straight for the heavily-defended Ruhr Valley!”

Jack Dye“A rapid calculation by Tommy Melvin based on an estimate of present course, time and speed, indicated that we would need to alter course 120 degrees to port to reach England. This eventually turned out to be very accurate, considering that he had no charts or instruments to work with.”

“Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, we crossed the coastline and before long we saw the welcome shores of England. We knew we would need identification to enter England but our list of ‘colours of the day’ had been lost with the navigator’s bag.”

“We fired off several white signal flares as we crossed the coast, hoping our fighters would identify our Halifax as friendly. We broke radio silence to request an emergency landing, and received landing clearance. At least one fighter could be seen following us. The lights came on below us and we began a descent without any flight instruments to guide us.”

“As we circled around trying to judge our height, the runway lights came on. This helped, and we lined up for a landing, not knowing our airspeed or height, and flying on only three engines. Our first approach failed, as we came in a bit too high and fast.”

“The next approach we got down okay, just stopping as we reached the end of the runway. We later learned that we had landed at West Malling aerodrome, a fighter field with short runways.”

“An ambulance rushed up to where we stopped to assist the injured. Jack Dye insisted on walking unaided to the ambulance.”

“He turned, saluted, and was then whisked away. We never saw him again.”

“He died two hours later – a gallant man who had saved our lives.”

See Jack’s entry in our Losses Database here

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