A Day In My Life When I Was 19 Years Old
This is a day in my life when I was 19 years old the date is the 15th of August 1944 Sgt Gorham 1893961 RAF Mid-Upper Gunner of FO Hiddleston’s crew of Avro Lancaster “J” for Jig of 207 squadron stationed at Spilsby in Lincolnshire.
It is just after 08.00am soon after breakfast and we all retire to the ante-room to read the days newspapers, about 0930am the battle order for tonight’s operation would be posted on the notice board. The battle order is a list of crew’s names that are to be on standby for operations that day. This would cause a flurry of activity as aircrew crowded round to see if there names were on it, reactions varied from relief if your name was not on it, to dismay if you were. My name was on it, my stomach turned over as it did every time I read my name, even though by now I had done this over forty times before today.
About 10.00 we would take a stroll down to the aerodrome to do a D.I. (daily inspection) on our aircraft. Whilst we were there we would see if we could glean any information from the ground crews as to the fuel and bomb load. This information would give an indication as to what sort of target it will be. For instance, Full bomb load of 100 and 500 pounders and minimum fuel would probably mean railway marshalling yards in France or Belgium a trip of about 3 or 4 hours usually fairly cushy but not always. The information we gained today was not at all comforting, full fuel load 2154 galls and bomb load a 4000lb cookie and incendiaries this meant a long flight of 7 hours or more to a large town somewhere deep in Germany usually a very dicey trip but also, not always. We got on with our daily inspection of all the equipment in the aircraft the pilot and engineer would check the engines gauges and controls, the bomb aimer his bomb sight and switches and front gun turret, the navigator the radar and the wireless operator the radio equipment. Myself and the rear gunner our turrets and guns making sure that the Perspex was as clean as possible as seeing our attackers was the best form of defence, all of us would also check our oxygen and intercom.
Next its back to the mess for lunch and to hear that the pilots and navigators briefing will be at 1730pm and the crew briefing at 1830pm there is a preliminary briefing for pilots and navigators as the have to make a flight plan and navigation charts which take extra time, after lunch we retire again to the ante-room for the afternoon for a few drinks play cards table tennis or generally lounge around until tea at 1630. Then it’s a stroll over to the crew room for the briefing. Now is the time when all will be revealed, on the far end wall there is a large scale map of Europe covered at this stage by a pair of curtains. When all are assembled and seated at the trestle tables the doors are locked and an armed guard is posted outside, then the station commander pulls the cord and the curtains open to reveal the map with ribbons to show the route to and from the target and says “Gentlemen your target for tonight is Stettin. He goes on to tell us it is an important port on the Baltic coast and also an industrial town with a large steel works. Those of you who know your geography will know that Stettin is now called Szczecin and is part of Poland. After the C.O. the intelligence officer gives us details of the route to and from the target of the positions and amount of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, then the leaders of each section navigation, wireless ops, bomb aimers, engineers and gunners impart on us all the latest available information, last but not least the Met officer delivers his weather forecast most of which is calculated guesswork and invariably wrong. Then briefing over it is back to the mess for the flying meal of bacon and eggs this is always a noisy affair with lots of chatter and jokes to try and hide the tension that is building up. Everybody wonders if this is going to be their last meal but nobody dares mention it, for some it undoubtedly will be. After the meal we collect our flying rations a couple of sandwiches (usually spam) a bar of chocolate always Fry’s Crème a packet of chewing gum always Wrigley’s. (Chewing gum helped to equalise the air pressure in the ears as the aircraft climbed and descended if you didn’t do this you could burst your eardrums). A packet of barley sugars, for energy and a couple of amphetamine pills, wakey wakey pills we called them for those who thought they needed them.
By now it is 20.00pm in the evening and its back to the crew room to change into flying gear, collect parachutes and escape equipment. This was to help you evade capture if you were shot down and consisted of maps of European countries printed on silk, paper money for countries we will be flying over, a compass, a booklet of common phrases in various languages, a small stick of shaving soap and a razor, and a packet of large Horlicks tablets. Also we are all issued with a Smith and Wesson .38 revolvers, this was to defend against civilians who were known to murder shot down aircrew if they caught them. It is voluntary whether you carried this or not, I opted not to carry it as partly because if you are caught by the military they are more likely to shoot you, but mainly because it was very cumbersome and I have no where to keep it .
Putting on the flying clothing starts with a string vest and silk long johns then a shirt, tie, trousers and battledress jacket. Next came a heated outfit followed by a fleece lined Irving jacket and trousers, or when exceptionally cold (the temperature could be around -40’C at times) a Taylor suit which is padded with Kapok and had a built in Mae West lifejacket this is very bulky. On my feet were a pair of thick woollen socks over your ordinary socks then the heated socks and fleece lined boots my hands are first covered with silk gloves then chamois leather gloves, then heated gloves followed by fleece lined leather gauntlets .Now its climb aboard the lorry which will take us out to the aircraft dispersal, we now have about half an hour before boarding the aeroplane so there is time to chat to the ground crew in whom we have 100% confidence that they have done everything in their power to ensure that the aircraft brings us all home safely. There job goes pretty much unsung I’m afraid as it was not very glamorous they slaved away in all weathers sometimes in atrocious conditions boiling hot in summer and absolutely perishing cold in winter.
The tension builds up as it nears time to climb aboard the aircraft, then you hear the skipper say “Ok blokes lets go” now comes the ritual of all seven of us peeing on the tail wheel it’s the last thing we do before climbing the ladder to board the aircraft but it is also a practical thing as the next time you are able to “go” is when you get back possibly some 8 or 9 hours later.
The parachutes and other kit is stowed away and everyone takes up their allotted position in the aircraft helmets are donned and we are now in communication with each other, I do all the routine checks to see that everything is working properly the pilot has his side window open to communicate with the ground crew and one by one the four Rolls Royce Merlin engines cough and splutter into life, each engine is run up to full power and various pieces of equipment powered by each engine checked. The bomb doors are closed the pilot signals to the ground crew to remove the chocks from the wheels and we start to move onto the perimeter track to join the other 16 or so Lancaster’s moving towards the runway ready for take off. I can see other Lancaster’s taking off about one every minute and now it is our turn, we turn onto the runway ready for take off and with the brakes on the engines are revved up to full power the brakes are released and the aircraft surges forward, some of the ground personnel including the station commander gather at he end of the runway to wave us away on our journey this is another ritual which takes place on every bomber aerodrome every time there is an operation. Gradually the speed builds faster and faster the tail wheel lifts the Lancaster speeds down the runway the bumps stop and we are airborne. “Wheels up” says the skipper then “flaps up” and we are on our way. The time now is 21.25pm all around us you can see other Lancaster’s climbing steadily in the late evening sunshine and then heading out across the North Sea towards Holland, all the tension and fear falls away now that everyone has their jobs to do. I have the best view in the aircraft sitting up there on top, as we near the Dutch coast searchlights and little flashes of light from the belt of anti-aircraft defences, some of those in front of us are getting the usual reception reserved for us by the Germans for daring to cross into their territory. Now it is our turn to run the gauntlet! After passing through this zone we enter the territory controlled by a far greater threat to our well being the German night fighter, they are equipped with their own on board radar and machine guns and cannon of a far greater range and firepower than our Lancaster with no radar and only .303in machine guns. The night fighters could see us on radar far sooner than we could possibly see them with the naked eye and their superior armament allows them to stand off out of the range of our guns and plaster our aircraft with fire at will. Sudden bright flashes or long streams of light going downwards would signify the grisly end of another bomber and its crew.
As we approached Stettin ahead of us we can see the pathfinder aircraft are dropping hundreds of flares to illuminate the target and as we get closer the marker aircraft drop target indicators of a bright red colour surrounded by greens. We are now on our bomb run. The bomb aimer Ted‘s voice comes over the intercom “bomb doors open” then all hell breaks loose, all around us as every anti aircraft gun in and around Stettin opens up the aircraft leaps and bucks as we fly into the slipstream of those in front of us. “Left, Left, Steady, Right, Steady, Steady, Steady, Bombs gone!” and the aircraft leaps upwards as the weight of the bombs falls away. Thank god for that!, you think, that’s got rid of them but we still have to fly straight and level for another agonising minute to get a photo of our actual bomb bursts. The few minutes from when the bomb doors open until you turn away and you hear the pilot Sid say “Give us a course for home Les” can seem like an eternity. From 18’000 ft the scene below us on the ground is one of continual bright flashes among areas of different coloured light the flashes are the 4000lb cookies exploding and the photo flashes going off. The patches of light, fires from burning incendiaries and target indicators. What happens down there must be the absolute horror of horrors but we try not to think of that. Firework displays have meant nothing to me since those days.
We are now on our way home and the return journey is much the same as the outward except that we now go faster as we are no longer handicapped by the weight of the bomb load. We cross the English coast and we circle the aerodrome until it is our turn to land we then taxi to our dispersal shut down the engines open the door and all pile out to do again the last thing we did before we left, except this time we just go anywhere but on the tail wheel, great sighs of relief all round at this point a crew bus driven by a young WAAF illuminates the scene. We all climb aboard and someone pipes up “Sorry about that I hope our exhibition didn’t frighten you?” and quick as a flash she says “ I don’t let little things like that worry me!” She drops us off at the crew room where we are debriefed change our clothing then hand in our parachutes and the rest of our equipment. Then it’s another ride to the mess and another meal of bacon and eggs followed by going to our billet and bed, it is now 0730am on the 16th of August 1944 and we have all lived to fight another day.