How would the average day begin?
Well, you’d get up in the morning and go and have breakfast and wander down, it was a pretty, I wouldn’t say undisciplined, but you were left to yourself. You didn’t have a lot of ‘bull’. You just wandered down to the flights and went off to your various sections and hung about there. The Signals Officer was sitting behind the desk and the rest of you were just sitting there. We had cartons of raisins everywhere, from which we helped ourselves. We waited for the news of what was going to happen that day. The phone would ring at around about ten and, of course, he would pick it up. You were all sort of… well, you can imagine, you were thinking: ’Oh, Christ, what’s the score?’ He’d say: ‘Working.’ Right. So, of course, my friend and I would get back into the hangar, get out of the door, then we’d cycle down to the Spring café. We did this every morning, whether we were working or not. We’d get the Daily Express, sit down with a cup of tea and do the crossword. Then we’d get back, go out to our aircraft. One of the wireless operator’s jobs was to change, every day, the accumulators for your intercom. They were glass and you had two of them. You disconnected them, having brought two fresh ones with you on your way out to the aircraft. Then, what I used to do was check my trig stop, to make sure we were all set up properly. You had different frequencies and you wouldn’t know what you would be using that night. Check that the equipment is working. Sometimes the pilot would think you would need to do and air test.
You might have had something done to one of the engines, some little thing done and you wanted to check that it was all right. You couldn’t just take it on yourself to do that, you’d have to get permission. You’d go on an air test and see that everything as OK.
What feelings would you have when the signals officer said: “You’re working tonight!”?
The problem was that there was this intense fear. This was the truth. Obviously we didn’t show it. We all had different ways of hiding it. Some blokes would crack jokes. Others would tend to be very quiet. We all had to find our own way of trying to remove as much of that fear as we could. I’ll give you an example. I found, walking down to the flights one particular night, on a particular raid, meant going past the station cinema. It was about seven o’clock in the evening and there were all these blokes and erks and whatever, queuing up to go the pictures. Now that was a completely normal peacetime sort of happening, wasn’t it? This made no sense. There we were, going down to pick up our gear. So from then on, I used to take a walk out of my way to avoid seeing them, because it only made me think. The other I noticed was that was that most chaps smoked. I didn’t, even though cigarettes were free, of course, for operational aircrew. There was invariably a bomb trolley at our dispersal and it was useful to sit on it. We would be sitting on this thing, some of us smoking. The Medical Officer would come round, asking: “Anybody for wakey-wakeys?” These were pills to keep us awake. I had them once, but all they did was keep me awake when I got back after a raid and just wanted to sleep! But there would be seven of us sitting on this trolley and there would be very little conversation. We’d maybe sit there for half an hour, waiting for the signal to climb in your aircraft and start up.
At about 3.00 in the afternoon, the navigators and the pilots would go for a briefing. At bit later on, it would be the bomb aimers’ turn. We wireless operators would go to our section, where our signals officer would give us the frequencies that we were using that particular night. These would be on rice paper. Then it was back to the mess for a bit of tea.
Then all aircrew would go down the main briefing room, where the whole squadron would be briefed. It would start off with the Group Captain.
As you walked into this briefing room, there was an enormous map on the rear wall. You didn’t know where you were going until you got to this point. They’d pull back this curtain. You did know if you were going on a long trip, however, by the amount of petrol they put in the aircraft. Maximum petrol load meant you were going a fair way. So you had a rough idea if it was going to be a long journey. If it was 1500 gallons, you’d think ‘the Ruhr’, and you were usually right. But when you got to the briefing room, it still came as a shock whenever you looked up and saw Nuremburg, or Berlin.
The Old Man would just give a bit of a ‘pep’ talk and then the Group Wing commander would say how many ‘waves’ there would be and you would be told what wave you were in. He’d then give you the headings, the ETAs and heights for bombing and so on.
Then the weather bloke would come on and give you – well, it was usually pretty false or the opposite of what he said! If he said it would be clear over the target, you’d reckon it was going to be cloudy! Then the Squadron Leader would discuss the tactics for the night. For example, if we were going to Berlin, we wouldn’t take off and go straight to Berlin. We’d change course at various points to try and fool the Germans as to where we were going to finish up. They wouldn’t know what town we were going to bomb. We would try and avoid areas of intense flak. And search lights. There were certain areas that were pockets of this stuff. The Squadron leader would explain all this to us. He would ask us to stick to certain headings. The reason for this was common sense, to try and avoid collisions. If we were coming in from a similar heading, it created a stream, whereas if we came in from different directions, it caused collisions, which used to happen occasionally. We were also told what height to bomb at. And then the heading out of the target. And that was it – it was down to us to get back home.
Now you had to be bombed up. In my case, I would help the gunners take their guns back to their section where they would clean these six Browning 303s. Then they would take them back out to the aircraft again. Then it would be lunchtime and so we would have a bit of lunch.
What was it like when the signal came to get in and start up?
When the rockets went up for us to get in and start up, I found I just had this feeling in my stomach – the whole thing just turning over. We got into the aircraft in the same order: the bomb aimer first, then the pilot, the flight engineer, the navigator, the mid-upper gunner, the rear gunner and me. I found that I used to ‘tighten up’ as I got in. I’d get into my position, climbing over the two spars, get to my desk and go through my bits and pieces. I’d check the frequencies for the night and so on.
Then he’d start the engines up. The noise was unbelievable, with those four engines! We would taxi round to the end of the runway, with all these aircraft getting ready for take off. In our case, it was thirty-six of them, two squadrons.
Did you ever do anything that might be called ‘superstitious’?
We all did. The Pilot had a koala bear hanging up in the cockpit – he wouldn’t take off without it! I used to take a photograph of my wife, which we weren’t supposed to do!
Take Off There would be this great crowd of people standing by the truck, the chequered wagon at the end of the runway, waving us on. There might be as many as fifty people from the station. We would turn on to the runway and wait for the bloke in the wagon to give us the ‘green’. Every minute or two, there was somebody taking off. I used to stand up in the astrodome as we took off and I used to look at the tail plane of the Lanc and think: “that’s going to bloody fall off one day!” The bloke I used to fly with (PO V.A. Baggott) used to hold it down on the ground until the last possible minute to gain as much speed as he possibly could, so that the aircraft virtually took itself off! I used to think: “come on, get this bloody thing off the ground!” The navigator used to call out the speed – “70, 75, 80, 85, 90, 95…” I thought: “crikey, we must be coming up to those big sheds at the end of the runway!” Then we could feel it come off the ground and we’d think that at least we were airborne! As soon as we’d got wheels up and flaps up, we’d go this radius of action.
The Outward Journey
I would now get back down into my seat, switch my gear on and check that everything was working all right. This in itself was a sense of satisfaction. Everybody would call up each other and make sure we were all in touch. Of course, I only had to look round the corner to see the navigator. We’d then go off, come back and then set course. We would have gained about 8,000 feet. We would be climbing all the time, at about 155 airspeed. We used to try and get up to about 20,000 feet, which we usually managed. Thus we were away from the light flak. By the time we got to the Dutch coast, if we were going that way, we would be at our desired height, because we had a good aircraft.
Once we got across the enemy coast, we would start to see aircraft going down…the attacks on us had begun. The Germans at that time, 1944, had overrun virtually the whole of Europe and so were everywhere. So they had fighters stationed just inside the French and Dutch coasts. There were night-fighters and flak batteries ready to meet us. So, as soon as we crossed the enemy coast as it was, it ‘started’! The night-fighters were always a menace. They were there all the time we were over enemy territory and back here, because they would sometimes follow us back! So these fighters were an ever-present danger, for which we had to keep alert all the time. It was this that kept us alive. We had to be on our guard from take off to landing. The adrenalin just flowed!
What was flak?
Anti-aircraft fire. You’d come back and find that you had tiny little holes in the aircraft. Tiny pieces of shrapnel would pierce the aircraft’s skin that you wouldn’t necessarily be aware of. Night fighters shot down most people. You had to be unlucky to get a direct hit by flak. It would look worse than it really was. You would avoid getting caught in the searchlight beams if you could. Once you got in a searchlight beam, it was a job to get out. One would get you and two others would come on to you quickly, because they were radar-controlled. You would dive, but it was difficult, because they had got to make only a small correction to pick you up again. We usually managed to get out if we got caught. You usually knew where these areas were. The whole sky was dark and then, suddenly, the night was illuminated with these searchlights. Hundreds of them. But we were aware of that. The navigator would say that we were coming up to the searchlight area and the pilot used to try and avoid it, because ‘intelligence’ knew where they were, of course. But you couldn’t always avoid them. Plus the fact that, obviously, the Germans would move them from time to time, as we did. So if you were caught, you dived, twisted and turned and hoped you could get out of it. And sometimes, you could hear the flak, like fireworks from a distance. The aircraft would shudder a bit, from the dispersal of the air, I suppose. But it was the night fighters who were the biggest threat. If you were over the target, night fighters very rarely shot you down, because it was too dodgy for these planes to encroach on that area. Because there was an awful lot of flak about and they would have been risking their lives unnecessarily. So over the target, it was flak and searchlights and a general sort of tension.
Corkscrewing - the idea is that if you have an aircraft coming at you from behind, the theory is that you turn into it, so you are increasing the closing speed and then bring it back the other way.
How did that feel, to be in a corkscrew?
Murder! But I don’t think it mattered, because you are trying to save your life. It comes back to that, it’s self-preservation, so that sort of thing doesn’t bother you too much in those circumstances. But that was one of the things, well, the only thing you had, really. Some chaps used to throttle back, quickly, so the aircraft would almost shudder to a stalling speed. That was, in a sort of way, was a good manoeuvre, because a fighter coming at you, going at maximum speed, and suddenly something stops, he overshoots, you see. That did work. But most blokes used to go into a corkscrew.
Of course, all the way to the target, once you got over enemy territory, you weaved. You would turn one way and then the next, which would give the mid-upper gunner a chance to look down. Some didn’t, but we did. So instead of flying straight and level, you turned it slightly. The mid- upper gunner, looking down, could spot enemy fighters, because they used to come up at you. These were just basic manoeuvres; they were the only things you could do, because you were a sitting duck, really.
Apart from anything else, with the size and the speed, whereas a night fighter, you were doing whatever, you were doing about a 150 knots with a full bomb load on. If you had a good navigator, you stayed in the stream, with safety in numbers, because their raiders would pick up the stragglers. If you got off course and you were out of the main bombing stream, it was quite easy for their equipment to pick you up and home a fighter in on you. If the navigation was good and you stayed in that main stream that made all the difference to your survival. Obviously it was common sense and we had a good navigator so we tended, most times, to stay on course and stay in the stream. But that didn’t always mean that you didn’t get attacked. But most of the time it meant that you could go on a raid and come back and apart from seeing other aircraft shot down, and obviously it was like Dante’s Inferno over the target area, you’d come back and hadn’t been attacked at all. There was flak, of course.
You had to keep the aircraft straight and level, with bomb aimers now taking it over, who would wait for their horizontal lines to come to the position they wanted, to ‘make the cross’ before they pressed their lever/release. Once this was pressed, it set a camera of automatically, which would take five shots. This was two before the aiming point, the aiming point itself and two after. On that film would be shown your heading, so what you couldn’t say, for instance, when you got back, that you’d followed instructions and went in on the heading that you were told to because it would be detailed on this strip of film. You did have a ‘creepback’, because what used to happen was that obviously you wanted to get rid of your bombs, because it was quite a frightening few minutes, where your bomb doors were open and the aircraft was very vulnerable. You were making these corrections and the aircraft was going at a minimum speed, with the open doors adding to the drag. Everyone is getting at the bomb aimer to get rid of the bombs. Some bomb aimers, and ours, would at times, instead of getting to the centre, drop their bombs on certain fires that had been created by people that had gone before you. So you did tend to get this ‘creepback’. I think it was fear, as much as anything and wanting to get the job done.
There was a tremendous amount of flak around some of these targets. You would see, silhouetted in this enormous fire the shapes of aircraft, of Lancaster's. You could see them below you. You were anxious to get these bombs away. When you did, you would go up, as if someone was pulling you up with a string. The bomb doors would close; the bomb aimer would shine a torch down the bomb bay to see if there were any ‘hang-ups’. You would do a turn out of the target on a heading out of the target. You could hear the pilot saying: ’Ron. What’s the heading out of the target?’ You can imagine it – the adrenaline’s flowing, you want to get away! The aircraft’s speed would be increased enormously, because of the loss of weight, and you’ve used a lot of petrol. So, you get up to two hundred knots, you see, even more so if you went slightly downhill. Everybody was of that mind – get in and get out!
What sort of dangers lay in wait for you, from bombing to getting home?
Obviously, the night fighters were waiting, but the thing was you were going much faster. You were more confident, because of this added speed. So the fighter had to be on his mettle because, though they were faster than you were, with the Junkers 88 being supercharged and capable of about two-fifty, you had more chance. So once you had got rid of the bombs and if you were alert, you were sort of charged up by the fact that you had survived by what you considered to be the major part of the job that is bombing the target. Now, you were on a sort of survival course. You wanted to get home, so all seven of you were absolutely focused. I used to watch the radar screen for fighters. I would never take my eyes of it. As soon as I saw a blip come up, I’d inform the gunners immediately and they would pick it up. Most times, we’d take evasive action. The night fighter, if he knew he had been spotted, he’d tend to go off for some easier prey.
Could these night fighters steal up on you unawares?
Yes, they could. This was the problem. Coming back to being alert. They’d come up behind you or up underneath you and fire upwards. If you were alert, you could probably pick him up before he got to that point, on your radar screen. This instrument covered the whole of the aircraft apart from the front. The fighters wouldn’t attack from the front. It would be too dangerous for them. So they would come from behind, the quarters and the beams. The equipment we had covered that, you see. So if the wireless operator was alert, and I just did not take my eyes of it, you’d see it. It was a round Cathode ray tube with a centre line. The background of the tube was green. The centre line was calibrated. An aircraft would show up in the form of a blip on that centre line. If it were one of yours, which more often than not it was, it would be moving at the same speed as you were. So it would stay put. But if it were a fighter, with the intention of attacking you, it would be coming in, much faster. So if the line was in the middle of the blip, the bloke was dead behind you. But if was to one side or the other, in the port quarter or the starboard quarter, which it invariably was, you’d see it coming down the screen, at a fair speed, and you could say: ‘Aircraft approaching from starboard quarter!’ The gunners would train their eyes in that particular area and they’d spot it, long before the fighter could attack you.
So, that’s what happened. They’d spot it. You would take evasive action. They wouldn’t fire at it, because the tracers from your guns would give your position away. It was a question of evasion, if you were sensible. So, we just evaded and when we did have this problem, we got away with it. There were times when they did fire and you saw the tracer rockets they used, going over the top or underneath you. Most times, they did not bother to persevere, because there were so many other bombers about.
Was there ever an occasion when an enemy fighter did persevere?
Yes, we did have one, I remember, from the whole tour, which did follow us all the way to the Dutch coast. He made a number of attacks. It must have meant that their radar was picking us up and he was being guided onto us. But our rear gunner had wonderful eyesight. He was very fortunate, as his night vision was fantastic. So, with the help of the radar equipment that I was operating, we were able to pick him up, before he tended to fire his guns. But then they would fire at a greater distance, so, of course, they had less chance of hitting you. This is what happened to us and we were turning the aircraft all over the sky. The pilot, a big, strong Australian chap was doing this, who said: ‘If he follows us all the way back to bloody Waddington, he’s not going to get us!’ In the event, we lost him. He obviously went off over the Dutch coast. We’d had about half an hour of this bloke. We were all at our ‘limit’, bearing in mind we were tired, because we had been flying for about five or six hours.
What were your chances of survival if hit by a night fighter?
Not a lot! We might be lucky and get blown out of the aircraft. We had only then to pull our ripcord and we might be home and dry…
What happened when you finished the raid?
We didn’t just get out of the plane and go to bed! It was actually very difficult to describe the feeling of touching down. It was a fantastic sense of elation. I’m speaking for myself now, but I’m sure other chaps felt the same.
We’d taxi round our dispersal, the ‘frying pan’, switch off and get out. There would be a truck there to take us back for briefing. When we got back to the briefing room, everybody would be talking at once – mostly nonsense! We were ‘high’, really, like somebody taking drugs.
We had this very attractive WAAF officer, who had been a film star. She would be there with this great urn of tea, laced with rum. This was the first thing presented to us! We looked around and there would be all these chaps coming in. We would all have this black ring over our noses. It was from our oxygen masks, where the rubber had melted a bit, with perspiration and heat! So there would be this babble, an excited babble.
Then we would be called to a table, all seven of us. There would be a couple of intelligence officers, who would do the de-brief. They would want to know: how much fuel we’d used; what we’d encountered with night-fighters and flak; had we seen any aircraft go down – the navigator would answer this, giving the lat and long, and the time when these aircraft were shot down. They then asked about the target, whether the flares had gone down on time and so on. Most of what they wanted was just factual stuff. They’d ask us if we went in on the heading, for example. This would be shown on the photograph, so there was no point in lying. We would just detail what had happened to us, as a crew. They’d ask me if I had received all the Bomber Command messages, about wind speeds, for example. These I would pass on to the navigator. And that would be that.
Then we would get rid of our gear, go back to the mess, have some eggs and bacon and then go to bed. We’d wake up the next day and go to lunch. We never operated two nights in succession – it wasn’t possible, really. Because we had to work on our aircraft all day meant that we couldn’t do it. We would often be on the day after, but invariably it would be a two or three daybreak.
Is there any raid that stands out in your mind?
Well, the one that I remember was when I flew with another crew, when my skipper was injured. I wasn’t very happy about this, because I was the only spare WOP on the station, but I had to do it. It was May 10th and we went to a place called Maille de Campe (?), where there was a large German Panzer division. This was just a few weeks before D-Day. This intelligence had been fed back by the French Resistance. So that was that. I was going on this raid, with a strange crew. It wasn’t a very long trip, only about four hours there and back. We got to the target and – it wasn’t marked! So we had all these bombers milling around. So we had to put our navigation lights on, to avoid collisions. We were milling around this target for about half an hour. It was probably less, but it seemed like forever. We went on to lose about forty aircraft on this raid…Soon I decided to put my parachute on, as I really didn’t think we were going to make it this time.
Eventually the master bomber came up and told us to bomb on the reds or the greens, whatever it was. Once these flares went down, everybody wanted to get in. all the navigation lights went out. We were in a good position when these flares went down, which meant that we could get on the bombing run quickly, get in and get out. The forty that we lost, we watched them go down, all hit by night fighters.
The next day, I went to have a look at the aircraft I had flown in. It was marked all over by the flak. We could hear this stuff hitting us. Bearing in mind the noise in a Lancaster was so intense – the roar of these four Merlin engines – that other noises had to be really severe for you to notice them.
Thirty was the recognised number of Ops on a tour. But sometimes we would do short trips, which would only be counted as half a trip, such as a jaunt into France. In any event, we did thirty-six raids, because amongst those we did some short trips, three-hour jobs, for example. Then we would have six months rest. We would go back for a second tour of twenty. But in my case, we didn’t finish until September 1944 because the pilot was injured and September 7th 1944 was our last trip. The nigh of the 6th, actually. By the time our six month’s rest was up the war was virtually over and there were plenty of aircrew anyway so I wasn’t called back.
How did you know that you had finished your first tour?
Well, what happened was, in my case, we did a short trip, which was our thirty sixth trip. We got back in the usual way, had the de-briefing, came out of that and it was light. It was September 7th. The Old Man, the Wing Commander, was there, stood near his car. There were several of us. He said: “You lads – you’re finished!” That was it – finished…we were tour expired. I had no idea this was going to happen.
In my case, I went back to the Sergeants’ Mess, to have my eggs and bacon and I saw this great big message in chalk to the effect that my wife had given birth to a baby daughter that morning! So I nipped straight back to the Flights and the Old Man was still there. “Ah, congratulations, Wareham!” He got his pad of passes out and gave me a forty eight hour pass to come straight home. My daughter’s name was Susan.
Postscript: ‘A Piece Of Cake’
The Bomb Aimer – his mother used to send him over these fruit cakes, in these taped-up tins. He was very generous and used to share these cakes with us. But there was one tin he never touched… we never mentioned this. It was there and that was that. So, when we finished our tour, we all went round to Johnny’s and he duly got this tin down and said: “I expect why you blokes have been wondering why I haven’t shared this with anyone…I used to put my hand on this tin and say: ‘Don’t worry Johnny, it’s a piece of cake!’ “ He was now able to finally share it round.