The afternoon of 30th January 1944. our few days of familiarization and practice were over. Graham and I were included in tonight’s Operational Schedule, to fly our ‘Freshmen’ sortie. The time had come at last to set off somewhere far away into the unknown, to seek trouble. We knew not where it might be, not at this stage, but our Mosquito DD 712, code letter ‘R’, was fully air-tested and fit for action, awaiting us out on the field in its parking bay close to dispersal.
We had a ‘date’ for the very first time with a genuine Bomber Command Briefing Room at 14.00 hours sharp. Night fighting here would have one distinct advantage over Predannack, Exeter, Colerne and Wallop! You would know exactly where you stood once you had been detailed for duty. A set programme for a change – the aircraft serviceability test during the morning, Briefing in the afternoon, a stipulated time for take-off, and always provided that you returned in one piece, four hours later, just the de-briefing, supper and bed. A vast improvement upon all that lounging about, becoming progressively more tousled, sticky and hot in a dispersal hut from dusk until midnight and beyond, waiting for something – anything – to break the monotony!
So – this is what a real Briefing Room looked like. We entered from broad daylight into a room, brightly lit, all of its windows closely shielded by blinds drawn tight against prying eyes.
There were serried rows of double desks, so that pilot and navigator could work out their plan of campaign together, facing a dais backed by still more tightly closed black drapes. Crews from both of Raynham’s Squadrons, 141 and 239, drawn together now for the night’s business, took their places at the desks, laying out maps, Gee boards and note-pads in readiness, and exchanging ribald opinions upon the probable ancestry of the gentlemen responsible for the choice of tonight’s target. No matter what it might turn out to be! Bursts of forced merriment rose amidst the general hubbub, then dwindled self-consciously away to an awkward silence as the Briefing Party entered briskly and made for the dais. The Met Officer, Intelligence and Armaments specialists, the Padre for those in need of solace (weren’t we all!). Both Squadron Commanders, and finally, the Station Group Captain to take the chair. Along the entire length of the back wall, a ruled blackboard listed every crew present, each pair of names carefully printed in coloured chalk. Our two names brought up the very foot of the column, the only ones written in green.
Once the party on the platform had sorted itself out, the Group Captain welcomed us, and invited Wing Commander Roberts to open the proceedings. He duly picked up a long, thin pointer from the single desk in front of him, and crossed to the closed curtains.
In the instant, the hush in that room was electric. There was an atmosphere of anticipation sufficient to tingle the scalp! The curtains parted, noiselessly to a tug on the draw-cord, revealing a large map extending from Norfolk to the far eastern limits of the Third Reich, criss-crossed by pretty lines of marking tapes in a variety of colours, painstakingly pinned in position. The Squadron Commander’s pointer traced the course of the single black tape along its zigzag path, across the North Sea, over the Dutch Coast, north of the Ruhr, and onwards still.
Until it rested, finally on – Berlin! A crescendo of murmuring. ‘What have I been trying to tell you!’ – ‘Another bloody great long one!’ – ‘God Almighty, the idiots are at it again!’ A large force of heavies, returning for one more crack at the Big City! Not the most popular choice, it ensured a trip of four hours plus, with plenty of good opportunities for the enemy flak! Four or five additional lines of variously coloured tape marked each supporting course of our 100 Group Mosquitoes, matching the chalked printing on the Ops Board. With a single exception, they all traced the route of the Strike Force, although at an interval of distance sufficient to clear the Bomber Stream itself, where radar would be swamped with responses and unable to distinguish friend from foe. Only the green tape seemed to have a mind of its own. And that was ours!
It stretched in a straight line, out from Cromer across the entire width of the North Sea, clear of all land, to a point just short of Heligoland, where it turned abruptly towards the south on a single short leg, ending mid-way between Bremen and Hamburg. This was nowhere near to the main action of the night at any stage of the journey. It was customary to route all inexperience ‘Freshman’ crews on their first sortie to give flak areas and the main Bomber force as wide a berth as possible. This was not wholly a matter of consideration for the welfare of the crew, the Serrate Mosquitoes carried a great deal of secret and expensive equipment as we have seen, and there was nothing to be gained by throwing newcomers into the thick of it before they had learned their way around.
This green tape represented our assignment, a first leg of 300 miles, the second some fifty miles inland, returning by the same route. On arrival at the point between Bremen and Hamburg, we were to patrol the area for one hour, in the vicinity of a known radio assembly beacon used by the German night-fighter force. One whole hour in such a hostile environment is plenty long enough first time out!
Take-off would be
early, 17.10 hours as darkness fell. At the recommended cruising speed, our
total flying time for the trip provided that everything went according to plan,
just short of four hours. This represented a reasonable margin of error. Our
Mosquitoes had an endurance on full tanks slightly in excess of five hours,
although anyone still in the air after the five would be searching anxiously for
the nearest landing strip!
Each of the coloured routes on the map was dealt with at length by the Squadron Commander to the crew concerned. Then the minor specialists followed one by one. According to the Met Officer, we must expect a band of thick cloud with some icing, blanketing all heights between one and three thousand feet the entire way across the North Sea and Germany, although it would be entirely clear above with very good visibility. The cloud would be building up from the West before we returned, but its base was not expected to drop below the 1000 feet. The Intelligence officer produced latest reports on the likely flak concentrations along the route of the main force, the types and colours of the pyrotechnic air markers which the Pathfinders would be dropping at intervals to mark the way to the target. Most of this information was of no concern to us on our northerly solo flight over the sea.
After Armaments had touched on the heavies’ bomb loads and ammunition sequences in our cannon, the Group Captain took the floor, closing the Briefing with his customary pep-talk urging all crews to do their utmost in support of this ‘important operation’ (weren’t they always?)!
‘Good luck to you all’.
The company rose to its feet as he departed briskly from the dais, leaving his retinue behind to answer any unresolved queries.
Right away the attentive silence of the past half hour was broken by a rising swell of comment on yet another maximum effort – which of us had drawn the more favourable routes, and how much dependence we should put on the Met man’s forecast. His cloudbase at a guaranteed 1000 feet might be wishful thinking on his part, if it deteriorated beyond this for our return the situation would be far from comfortable, particularly for anyone in trouble. ‘They’re sending you out paddling, Graham, old boy – mind you don’t get your arse wet!’, from some wag beside us.
After a while preparation began in earnest. Pilots and Navigators consulted together, studying the flimsies provided by Intelligence which listed the night’s colours for aircraft resins and Very recognition lights. The more experienced people drew their individual courses on the maps and Gee boards paying very little respect to the actual line of their coloured tape, they reckoned they knew better where the likely opposition might appear, and very often they proved themselves right. Wind velocities, recommended speeds and altitudes, all were checked and noted for the night ahead.
Resins and Very recognition signals were changed from night to night as near to briefing time as possible, to ensure hopefully that they would not be known to the enemy. The resins were a couple of small coloured lights set into the trailing edge of the wing, a vital assistance to recognition. Assuming that our own were red/red on this particular operation, a visual obtained on any aircraft showing an alternative combination would almost certainly be the enemy and fair game, although the rules still required a positive identification at all times before opening fire. Very lights were contained in a cartridge fired from a fixed pistol set into the roof of the cockpit behind the navigator’s head, another twin colour combination which could be used for identification purposes to the Ground defences if one were to return across the English coast minus R.T communication with which to establish friendly status.
The crews worked together meticulously, and once their homework was completed, there was nothing more to be done, except to sweat it out through the remaining hours until take-off. A light meal was laid on for 15.30.
No-one was ever sent out on an empty stomach unless by his own personal choice. This being our first experience, we were inclined to regard it in a similar light to the time-honoured principle of producing one last meal on earth for the condemned man before leading him away to the gallows! And it raised that eternal, vexed question of the ‘Night-flying Egg”.
Odd that we
referred to it in that way, a ‘night-flying egg!’ It had become a ritual on
every operational Squadron for that commonplace, though very scarce commodity,
the humble farm egg, to be awarded as a ‘perk’ – and greatly appreciated it was,
too, surprisingly as that may seem in the present days of plenty. Anyone flying
on night duties was so entitled, but a keenly momentous decision always arose
Did one take it with the pre-flight meal, thereby making absolutely certain of one’s due? Or did one ask the cook to put it aside as a supplement to the de-briefing supper? The latter was the preferred gamble of those who were sufficiently confident that they would be coming back, although many of them often faltered at the last moment and ‘bequeathed’ it to some particularly favoured beneficiary.
It was as well to let the cook know at the same time, otherwise there would inevitably be a problem with Probate! We had an Egg Book in the Mess, and without the individual’s signature alongside his name, his egg stayed put on the rack!
That night, and throughout all the months to come, I saved mine. Basically, it was pure superstition! I looked upon it as an ‘eggs-traordinary’ talisman with an in-built power to bring me home every time to claim it! How silly can you be? Yet it would have seemed disastrous to me to ever tempt Providence by doing otherwise, although I never subscribed to the more prevalent type of fetish to which so many of my colleagues succumbed, the rabbit’s foot, lock of hair, or pair of lucky dice!
I imagine that the general pattern for the remainder of that January afternoon was precisely similar to what would become our normal routine from now on.
What an effort of concentration was required, to keep the mind comfortably occupied when one’s thoughts were intent upon drifting away towards the imagined horrors of the night ahead. How difficult indeed to do any sort of justice to the specially prepared pre-flight meal.
But at least there were obligations to be met, which helped in passing the time when one finally returned to one’s room to ‘put the house in order’.
Dressing in appropriate gear was more or less mechanical, and seldom varied. Battle-dress trousers and blouse, with a heavy turtle-neck sweater underneath. Usually two pairs of gloves, loose pure silk ‘inners’ topped by leather gauntlets, very snug even on the coldest of nights, except that they often had to be discarded altogether in the air to facilitate knob-twiddling! On the feet, black ‘intruder boots’ which were stout walking shoes with suede, lambswool lined cuffs stitched on to them, extending up to the lower knee for warmth. And they thought of everything! In a small pocket inside the upper boot, a knife was provided, so that in the event of an enforced and successful parachute descent, the wearer could slash the knee-length cuff entirely away, and set out on a nice long hike home across Europe in his sturdy footwear! Having dressed, be sure to empty every pocket of any evidence which might assist an enemy interrogator in the event that you are shot down and taken prisoner during your walk! And then, finally, the worse chore of all. Nothing ever concentrated the mind more acutely upon the job in hand than this piece of macabre ritual! All private papers and letters had to be carefully sorted, and torn into shreds where appropriate, on the assumption that you would not be coming back, with the object of avoiding any possibility of embarrassment to those who would be left behind!
After which, there was nothing left! Just hang around, like a spare part, and wait patiently for the transport, which arrived like a tumbril to carry the condemned to dispersal.
pace quickened at last. Adjust the Mae West, check that it is reasonably intact
and liable to inflate properly if your luck runs out on you. Pull on the
parachute harness, strap it up, comfortably but tight.
Assume always that you are likely to be using it, and unless it is correctly adjusted, you may be a tenor or even a bass when you take off, but it will be a mezzo-soprano who touches down in the Third Reich!
Grab the helmet – the Gee board – the maps – the flashlight – tuck the clumsy parachute under one arm.
Saunter away, in silent contemplation, to the aircraft, standing patiently there in the fading light of early evening.
If you are sure in
your mind that it helps to pee on the undercarriage, now is your last chance to
And you will be ready – or as ready as you are ever likely to be – for the ‘OFF’.
So now we have scaled the rungs of that narrow, flimsy ladder, squeezed our way through the open hatch, and at last here we are!
Seated side by side, pilot and navigator, in our familiar R for Robert, dark and silent. At least there is this reassurance, this instant companionship, shoulder to shoulder together in the cockpit. More comforting than the ‘class’ system of both Beaufighter and Havoc, where the pilot sits so superior, on his tod way up front, whilst you languish in the second division back in the ‘dickey’.
From somewhere underneath, remote-sounding voices begin to echo unintelligibly. No doubt the Flight Sergeant is on the top line as usual, ensuring that his gang are watching their work. Kick those wooden chocks more firmly into place against the tyres. Lay the ropes well wide of the props so that they can be pulled clear in safety when the time comes. Wipe the screen once more.
A dull ‘thunk’!
connector socketed into position, where it will supply the inertia to turn the
Momentarily it is quiet once more.
something. Clattering metallically on to the macadam. A pained voice swears –
There is no mistaking the effing word!
I help Graham with his straps, kick my ‘chute back beneath my feet. And check whilst I am still able to bend forward that the hatch door is securely closed. Now swing the radar control unit forward on its hinges where I shall be able to reach it and twiddle the knobs and switches once I am strapped in.
I settle into my seat, my dinghy pack already in place, and attach the oxygen pipe bayonet lead into its socket close by my right elbow. Clamp the stout harness hooks on to the lugs of the dinghy pack.and remember to attach the dog-lead from the dinghy itself to the ring on my Mae West. Forget that one, and if you are going to be unfortunate and have need of it in the drink, it will have disappeared with the harness. Tighten the straps now, and pull on the helmet.
All the distractions from below cease abruptly. I am cocooned in this familiar world, where tonight I shall live (I hope!) alone with my driver, for the next four hours.
high-pitched whine intrudes upon the helmeted silence as the port propeller
begins to turn.
Hesitant. Reluctant. There is a barking cough. White wisps of smoke swirl back from the exhaust, the exhalation of a dragon, before the Merlin fires, crackling into a smooth, throaty rumble of contained power. Its propeller has become a whirling blur, the aircraft trembles uncertainly for a while, as though awakened prematurely from a heavy sleep and protesting its displeasure. Now the starboard fan just beyond my window moves more briskly, this time into a swift, uncomplaining rush, anxious it would seem to join its fellow. The kite has come fully alive, straining now against the chocks and eager for action.
White faces appear dimly around us in the gathering dusk as our Ground Crew move clear, their duty done, until they will come again to look for our safe return in four hours time.
My driver Graham eases himself still more comfortably into his seat, there is a lot more of him! He stirs the control column, swings the rudder pedals to left and to right, re-checks the brakes, and runs the engines briefly in turn to the upper limits, before finally pulling the two throttle levers fully back. The Merlins reduce as though disappointed, into a sullen idle. His ungloved hand moves forward, pressing flat against the cockpit window. I sense, rather than hear, the rattle of the wooden chocks being dragged aside by the ropes hauling them clear beneath us.
‘All set?’, over the intercom from Graham.
I acknowledge by raising my right thumb.
Look around. Check fuel supply. Turn on the oxygen. Check the instruments once more. All O.K.
The engine note increases sharply, we slew steadily to port out of the parking bay, and rolled away along the perimeter track, to the starting hut at the end of the runway-in-use.
We shall be first off tonight.
It is now almost totally dark.
First one, then the other engine screams up to maximum revs with the straining Mosquito shuddering beneath us to escape from locked brakes. The roaring subsides. The props ease with it, until they are calmly slicing the air to either side of the cockpit.
A green light flashes at the windscreen from an Aldis in the hut, down there beside the port wing.
Both Merlins build high in unison to a crescendo of power, off come the restraining brakes, and our momentum begins to increase, steadily, as we thunder forward between the white streaks of light ruling our path into the distance. There is a brief, nudging swing sideways from the vicious torque of the propellers, taking its cue from a slight cross-wind. It is corrected instantly. Now a hardly perceptible shift in attitude as the tail begins to rise towards the horizontal, one final ‘thump’ as the wheels bounce and clear the tarmac. The last bar of light marking the extreme end of the runway slides swiftly below, and we are rising, swaying to the cross-wind, labouring steadily into the blackness above.
Almost at once the first faint wisps of low cloud stroke our windscreen and wing tips. Now we are totally enveloped in a blind, grey mist, sharply reflecting the red and green glow of our navigation lights. A double ‘thump’ somewhere beneath as the undercarriage locks into retract. The aircraft wobbles as it climbs, heavy-laden with fuel in tanks topped to the brim. A thin sheen of ice delicately films the upper surface of the wing, glistening in reflected red and green. Graham is fully preoccupied with his dimly-lit panel of blind-flying instruments.
I switched on the radar, then the Gee box, adjust the focus and brilliance on the screens, and tune in the trusty Raynham beacon. I watch it for a while, as it slides slowly away along the time-base, and think that it is taking our safe haven away from us as it recedes. All is well. The note of the engines has steadied into a reassuring vibrance from the coarser cruising pitch of the propellers.
Outside the cockpit, the view has changed. We are up here in a world of clear, unrestricted darkness, sailing away above an unbroken sheet of dense white cloud lit by myriads of stars, ice-bright, stretching away to the far horizon on every side. Our external lights are all extinguished. The world we knew, ten minutes ago, has vanished, as though it existed only in a dream. Somewhere below us is the open sea.
We have four hours
of hazard ahead of us, for most of them we will be far from home and friends.
Now Graham has a visible horizon on the cloud layer below, and only refers to the instrument panel for a periodic check. I can concentrate my attention on the Gee screen, transferring its readings to the chart-board and amending our course by a few degrees as necessary.
Throughout this first hour, we might be on just another of those monotonous practice flights over England.
There is no sign of life in any direction, only that one continuous opaque layer now far beneath as we cruise onwards towards our Heligoland turning point. No lights. No sign of the North Sea, which must be there. A black, star-spangled backdrop to a softly-illumined white stage, traversed by a single aeroplane carrying a crew of two at twenty thousand feet, riding the night at 240 mph, bound for a hostile place. And we are coming close now, I am fully occupied with the radar screens, searching on the forward transmitter, pressing the black button every half minute to check the rearward response, now and again flicking the Serrate switch on the off-chance of finding enemy fighter activity worth investigating. There is absolutely nothing to be seen. Only the green, shimmering time-base of the Mark IV, supporting its Christmas-tree pattern, and lifeless Serrate pictures.
At the unseen Heligoland turning point, reached by dead-reckoning alone, we head south, crossing the enemy coast somewhere beneath, totally obscured by the still unbroken layer of cloud. There is no challenge to our intrusion! After an hour and three quarters of flying time, we reach the area where our patrol will begin. Complete blackness. This is the limit of the outward journey, a random search for the next hour will occupy us fully, surely something will turn up.
We must take great care to limit the patrol to carefully timed changes of course, so that we shall not stray too far from the presumed position of the night-fighter assembly beacon. The minutes pass. I am lulled eventually into a sense of false security in this dark world where nothing stirs. Casually now, I switch over to a pair of blank Serrate screens for the umpteenth time. Nothing. Nothing. And very abruptly they light up. They spring to life! Flickering herringbone signals are dancing their way along the time-base!
Their origin? Somewhere to our left. And not very far away, either! Close in fact! Most definitely near enough to investigate! And if this isn’t the real thing at last, the one we have waited for, practiced for, then we shall surely never find it!
I give the order to turn hard port, until the herringbone pattern lines up dead ahead on my screen.
‘Steady there. Open up the taps. We have Serrate dead ahead, looks close’.
The signals increase in strength as we chase after whatever it is that we have found. Maybe it will be just as keen to return the compliment! For two or three minutes, whilst the signals remain dead ahead and grow in volume all the time, nothing shows when I change over to the Mk IV channel. Until. Very, very slowly – very, very stealthily – there it comes, nudging down out of the ground response! One big, fat, solid aircraft blip!
There is no doubt about it, either. This must be the enemy.
It corresponds exactly with the readings on the Serrate channel. The time is 19.33. Our altitude is still 20,000 feet, the target dead ahead of us and a few hundred feet above.
‘More speed if you can, and climb’.
I watch the range, slowly closing on the screens as we reach the same height as our target.
The blip now begins to elongate on the left-hand side of the time-base, whatever we are following is moving into a constant orbit to port. It must be a hun, circling that radio assembly beacon and awaiting its instructions before moving off to intercept the Main Force, which will be approaching the sector some sixty miles to the South on its long final leg to Berlin.
Now that its course has become clear from this movement of my blip, there is no difficulty in turning inside its rate of orbit. Together with our superior speed, we are able to reduce the range more quickly, and very soon we are only a thousand feet behind. A voice in my headphones, very calm, very confident!
‘Take a look. It’s slightly above, but I can make it out O.K. – you can see the resins plain enough, green and white – looks like a 110!’.
But we have been too eager! Too hasty in our final approach to visual range! We are so close by now that he has seen us as well! The dark shape ahead, with the promonent twin fins and a subdued glow from the shroded exhausts, cants abrutply over, the mainplane almost vertical, and dives down to the right underneath us and out os sight!
Quick! Back to the box! The blip is still there, to the right and well below, as we follow with an identical blind reaction to the manoeuvre of the pilot ahead.
Check the Serrate channel! For some reason he has switched off! Possibly he is assuming that we have been homing on his transmissions, and that we will no longer be able to continue with the interception. He has reckoned without the Mk IV, and put himself at a serious disadvantage, for I still have him firmly in view on the screens whilst he hasn’t a clue where we may have got to.
His dive has taken us down very sharply by some 3000 feet, and he must have decided that he has done sufficient to throw us off his tail, for he is levelling out now. And going back into that gentle left-hand orbit, just as before, as nice as you please!
All that he has achieved is a gap of some 5000 feet opened up between us. We start to close up again by pursuit on the blip, very much more cautiously at the second attempt, keeping well below where we shall be out of sight. If there is a rear gunner, as there may well be in a 110, he will be keeping a very alert and anxious watch in case something sneaks up behind him once more! The chase proceeds much as before, until we catch up for a second time, that same dim shape 800 feet away in the upper section of the windscreen. No doubt about it! A Messerschmitt 110! The clear outline instantly recognizable from the identification posters on the wall back in dispersal.
Another surge of extra power, to compensate for the short climb up to our target’s height. This time we have arrived undetected! We level out. A pause.
The four Hispano cannon directly beneath our feet hammer out a shocking, shattering rhythm! The Mosquito shakes from end to end, like a dog drying its coat after emerging from the river. My instinctive reaction is a haunting fear that the prolonged vibration will tear this frail wooden airframe apart, and deposit the two of us amidst a shower of debris on to the rooftops of Hamburg! Brief flashes are sparkling now, all along the length of the port engine cowling directly ahead of us. Now they die away. Once more we are back in total darkness.
Suddenly, the inside of our cockpit glows as bright as mid-day, as an exploding burst of incandescent fire envelops the entire port wing where the shells have been striking home. In the instant, the whole shape, now sharply outlined, rears upwards, showering great chunks of burning metal behind it which thankfully stream well clear over the roof of our cockpit. But we are far, far too close! By its appearance and its size that 110 is no more than a hundred feet away! The engine nacelles loom huge in the windscreen, like the gigantic floats of a phantom sea-plane. We are within seconds of disaster in a mid-air collision!
It is so easily done. One of the gravest hazards of night interception. In the heat of the moment, fired by our inexperience, we have completely overlooked that final burst of extra throttle to carry us up to the enemy’s height and our firing position. Whilst Graham has been concentrating on the gun-sight, we have still continued to overtake our victim far too fast. He recognizes the danger at the very last moment, yanks the stick back hard, and pulls us violently up to starboard out of the way.
The stricken Messerschmitt spirals steeply down beneath us on the port side, trailing a thick pall of black smoke illuminated by the ever-increasing fire engulfing the wing. Abruptly, the glare disappears from sight into the cloud far below, quickly followed by a dull spreading glow, strong enough to penetrate two thousand feet of cover, as it hits the ground and explodes. It is 19.50! The whole business has taken little more than fifteen minutes.
Temporarily, the two of us are stunned into silence. Then we remember that we are still somewhere over Hamburg, possibly with damage to the engine radiators from all that flying debris, particularly when we pulled high through its path in that final effort to avoid collision. And it is already almost three hours since we took off from Raynham.
‘Time we were on our way home’.
I give the course to steer which will take us away from enemy territory and back to the Heligoland turning point. There is no sign of reaction of any kind down there. No flak. Searchlights will be unable to penetrate the cloud.
Still in a daze, I turn my attention to the radar screens. I have been ignoring them too long, my mind whirling with the awful memory of the past few minutes. I can scarcerly believe what I see! Whilst I have been busy checking the course for home and surveying the night outside for signs of retaliation, two more blips have appeared, quite separate and very distinct! Concentrate! Assess the latest situation!
These two aircraft are well ahead of us and flying in the same direction as we are, but each is many, many thousands of feet below, one to our left, one to our right. After three hours in the air, Norfolk is still over three hundred miles away. By their position, these may well be two more night-fighters coming up to look for the ‘bandit’ which has just destroyed one of their friends. Any response on the Serrate channel? None!
You have to make a decision! To descend to their present altitude will not only use up precious fuel, which we may well regret in the event that a radiator has been punctured during the combat, but at a mere 2000 feet or so where I judge them to be, our radar will be useless. The engines are both running smoothly enough at present, but then again, loss of coolant never makes itself felt immediately. Native caution persuades me that it will be far better to live with one success, learn from the experience, and fight another day, rather than attempt the near impossible of a chancy low-level interception on fast-diminishing fuel. And so I watch my two screens in stony silence as we cruise steadily onward out to sea. The two blips remain to either side and far below for several minutes more, until eventually we pass clear above them, and they fade from the screens.
Time drags slowly by as we leave Germany further and further behind. For the first hundred miles of the final leg from Heligoland, parallel with the Dutch Islands, Serrate responses show weakly from far away over the land to our left, as though we have disturbed a hornet’s nest and they are up looking for revenge. In fact, it will be activity around the tail end of the Bomber stream still ploughing its perilous way towards Berlin. There is no more we can do to help, at least we have reduced the number by one!
Gradually the skies begin to lose their blackest depths from some distant illumination beyond the far horizon, revealing ahead of us an increasingly awe-inspiring spectacle. If we have to tackle that, the sight of those temperature gauges continuing to read rock-steady is going to be more of a comfort than ever! Towering masses of rugged cumulo-nimbus cloud, clearly outlined by an invisibly-rising moon, reveal great shadowed gullies and canyons deep within their midst, stretching endlessly away into the forbidding distance.
Entering and descending homewards through these labyrinthine arcades, this softly dappled Valhalla, with nerves stretched taut from the euphoria of our first battle fought and won, is a fearsome experience on the grand scale, such as we may never encounter again. The enormity of it suggests that we have passed beyond the normal environment to which we are accustomed, and are trespassing in some stygian galleries where giants lurk. How easily we could be tempted, be drawn from our purpose, by following the beckoning line of these channels and tunnels through the overpowering mass of apparently impenetrable cloud!
Yet, through it all, we follow strictly to our direct line for base, securely guided by the Raynham radio beacon showing bright and clear ahead on the screens.
My driver calls up base, identifies our coming. The cloud is thickening around us. Gone are the open canyons beckoning us to freedom, we are enfolded in a grim, grey shroud, which buffets our brave Mosquito in the constant turbulence of its uneasy air currents and downdraughts. The Met man has done his homework well, this time he has almost got it exactly right.
We break through the overcast into moderate visibility with the altimeter showing 800 feet. Our West Raynham flare-path glows mistily five miles ahead, just as the faithful beacon has indicated, welcoming us back to safety. I can relax. I have done with the gubbins for tonight. Switch off!
One circuit of the airfield, a slight shudder of the airframe as the wheels lock down, and we are starting to bank towards the funnel entrance. The engine note soars with the change in propeller pitch, the Mosquito hangs on the air as Graham selects full flap, and soon there is that reassuring ‘thump’ as the tyres meet hard tarmac, and we roll comfortably down the middle of the runway. We have come back after four and a quarter hours. Taxi-ing smartly to the intersection, and across to our own dispersal bay, my driver turns us sharply around to face the wind with a burst of throttle to the starboard engine.
We sit together – very quietly – side by side. We need to acclimatize for a few moments more, after those long hours of bleak darkness, unbroken but for the brief encounter three hundred miles away. Graham flicks a succession of switches to shut everything down, to an anti-climax of complete and deafening silence. It will always be this way, from now on.
Our emotions have been keyed up by the constant roar of the two Merlins, and now, so abruptly, this empty stillness, to accompany unspoken feelings of gratitude for a safe return, our first genuine sortie completed!
An engine creaks aloud as it cools. Fresh sounds reach us remotely from below as our eager ground crew gathers to greet us. They have noticed the unshielded muzzles of the four cannon, their canvas protection blown away by the first shells fired. Not what they will have been expecting from their Freshman crew!
I opened the door of the hatchway, took the metal ladder from outstretched arms below, and climbed down shakily into the little group of dark shapes, white faces dimly recognizable by the light of torches playing along the fuselage.
‘Did you get it, sir? What was it?’
‘Yes. 110 over Hamburg!’
Congratulations from all sides, Wing Commander Roberts was out there too, all smiles.
‘Doesn’t seem to be a mark on her anywhere, sir, not so far as I can tell!’
So all that flying metal had missed us completely, and I am bound to admit we had been very lucky indeed, coming that close could so easily have spelled disaster. It only needed a couple of splinters in the rads and we would have been down in the North Sea with seized engines instead of standing here ready to tell our story. Graham joined us, and away we went with the Wing Commander for de-briefing.
Throughout the next hour, sustained by cups of tea and a chain of cigarettes, we sat with the Senior Intelligence Officer for the official details to be recorded. These would be studied later at Headquarters to build up the overall picture of the attack on Berlin of January 30/31st 1944. Then we were released to the Mess, far too exhilarated by this time to deal with a waiting egg – it would keep – but not yet too late to keep the unfortunate barman from his bed for an extra hour. The ale flowed briefly.
My driver and I had the honour in turn of telephoned congratulations from the boss himself, Air Commodore ‘Rory’ Chisholm. But the heights of our elation began to ebb away, and we drifted off to the luxury of cool sheets. Tired as we were, sleep was slow in coming.
Looking back almost sixty years later, how did one feel as a mere amateur after a first traumatic experience like this?
At the outset, there was no question of personalities entering into it. That night, as on all the other occasions of a maximum effort by Bomber Command, the record would show a certain number of Lancaster's and Halifaxes reported missing, maybe twenty, maybe seventy, depending on circumstances.
The next day, the general public would hear over the radio a bald statement that a certain number of our aircraft had failed to return. No reference to the hundreds of men who had died in them, suddenly and usually horrifically several miles about the earth!
To ourselves it was the same in reverse. We had destroyed an enemy machine, it was one less to attack the heavies next time out. The men who had crewed it were irrelevant! It had to be that way for sanity’s sake. Even the loss of very particular friends, with whom one had discussed the ritual egg and shared a meal a few hours previously, had to be accepted as a twenty-four hour sorrow. A temporary shock to be dismissed quickly from the forefront of the mind so that the show could go on. And, inevitably, the nagging fear that every time your own odds will shorten, and the same dreadful fate may be awaiting you, just around the next corner!
I am indebted to Louise Broadbent for allowing me to publish this complete chapter of her fathers unpublished book. Louise would welcome any comments and can be contacted at: email@example.com