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