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Obessions with Aeroplanes, Part 2

by epsomandewelllhc

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Mr Shaw
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Royal Air Force
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12 December 2005

This is a synopsis of my time in the Royal Air Force after the time of Dunkirk and is a continuation of WW2 People’s War story A4403198. If anyone wishes to read my entire story, it can be found at RAF Museum Hendon under reference no. X 003-8863 and my log books are listed under
no. X 003-7856/003 and 004.

After Dunkirk and the threat of invasion a distinct possibility the Squadron stood by on a rota basis ready for instant action. Our Bristol Blenheims were parked near to the crew room and fully armed and bombed-up with four 250lb and four 40lb bombs. Once we even had a practise take-off and interception out to sea, but of course there was no hostile action. The Squadron’s role was to carry out bombing and photographic reconnaissance flights by day over enemy territory making use of cloud cover. On 23 August 1940 a sortie in P6960 to Ypenburg airfield in Holland we encountered thick cloud over target area and were obliged to return with our bomb load. Had we been over Germany the outcome might have been different.

Late September 1940 saw more reconnaissance sorties over Gravelines, Dunkirk, Niewport and Ostend and we bombed oil tanks at Dunkirk encountering both heavy and light flak. After we had landed back at base it was found that one of the 250 lb. bombs had hung up but all the others had been dropped on target.

Continuing our roving commissions, we encountered 14 enemy small ships three and a half miles off Dunkirk, two parallel columns of seven with a larger ship at their head, escorted by four E-boats. We started our bombing run and released all bombs straddling the two lines of ships being slightly diagonal to their course. On turning, we found that one of the ships was sinking and three more had been damaged and the rest of the vessels had scattered. When debriefing back at base, we were informed that German W/T signals had been intercepted confirming that the E-boats had picked up survivors and some bodies. A satisfactory result.

On 3 November, we carried out another roving flight in very bad weather conditions. A strong wind was gusting up to 80 mph. We located the dock area at Flushing and dropped the bomb load on the installations. This was my last operational flight in a Blenheim.

Shortly after this, pilots were gathered together in a crew room for a talk by a recruiting officer from Fighter Command, and asked who would like to fly fighters and we all stood up. He then said ‘night fighters’ and we all sat down again! Having flown daylight missions none of us was too keen to fly in the dark. Shortly after this, the Squadron was transferred to 3 Group Bomber Command at RAF Marham and would be flying Wellingtons on night operations. On this basis a lot of us thought we may well have been better taking up the offer of flying the new Beaufighters with their new airborne radar facility for intercepting enemy aircraft.

On 10 November, I flew P6960 to RAF Watchfield near Swindon to attend a course at No. 1 Blind Approach School. This was my last actual flight in my old aircraft with our good luck emblem painted on the nose. It was a small demon-like figure with stunted wings and a long doleful looking face. We called it our Mugwump. It was copied from a cartoon in a magazine and bore the caption ‘Harbinger of Doom’. Aircrew are a superstitious lot.

It was around this time that I took some leave to visit my Mother. There was an appeal for aluminium pots and pans for producing Spitfires and my Mother, being very RAF minded, took all her aluminium utensils to the collecting point. Going to the local ironmongers for replacements from other types of metal, she was more than a little put out to find that all the stock held was made of aluminium! From what we were told many years later, I suspect that few of these items were made into Spitfires but no doubt boosted morale on the Home Front no end.

On 5 December the weather was bad with thick overcast cloud and a call was made for a crew to fly to Oakington to pick up some much needed medical supplies and our crew volunteered. We were obliged to fly below cloud level which made for an interesting trip. We reported to flying control at Oakington while the crew loaded the medical supplies. We did not hang around longer than necessary and returned to Marham as visibility was poor. I must admit to feeling a degree of satisfaction on completing the mission as we watched the medical supplies being off-loaded, until an NCO shouted an order to his section, “You’d better get this bloody bog-paper to the latrines!” and the sanitary squad did just that. For some time after that we were known as the ‘bumph crew’.

On 22 December, the Squadron became operation on Wellingtons and thinking back to our old Blenheim I requested a Mugwump to be painted on the nose of our aircraft. Unfortunately, the airman was no artist and we ended up with a devil complete with a pitchfork painted on in red ‘dope’. I suggested we should change it when we got back but the crew stated emphatically that this was lucky and in no way should it be changed. We really are a superstitious lot!

On 10 February 1941, we were at last briefed on a target in Hanover, Germany and we carried a mixed load of bombs and incendiaries as well as two packets of nickels — i.e. propaganda leaflets. This was the first of many trips to Germany for the Squadron. On occasions, when weather was bad, or not as clear as forecast, we had to bomb on ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival). Although 10/10 cloud prevented the use of searchlights, there was always plenty of heavy flak. This was not an ideal bombing situation, but this was Germany and there was a chance that the bombs would cause some harm to the enemy.

On one occasion, when we were due to fly in bad weather, I asked the Met. Officer which direction would be best to take if there was a weather clampdown on our return and he said North. When we returned from our raid, the weather was bad and so we continued North. Being unable to land in Lincolnshire, we overflew the Humber and Brough airfield, where I had done my reserve training and we eventually landed at RAF Driffield. It was at times like this that DARKIE was brought into operation. This was a system of searchlight signalling not unlike a lighthouse, designed to aid returning crews to identify airfields.

Before take-off one day, one of the station personnel whose home had suffered enemy bomb damage requested that we throw out a large brick with a rude message for Herr Hitler as a personal act of defiance and we were more than happy to oblige.

Bomber Command’s contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic was frequent raids on occupied ports and shipping in them. In March we attacked the port of Brest. The target was a Hipper class cruiser. Although we located Brest without difficulty, we could not visually identify the cruiser and therefore after some time searching, we were obliged to drop the bombs across the dock area from 11,000 ft.

On a raid to Hamburg on 13 March, a new Flight Commander came as second pilot to gain some operational experience. We encountered much heavy flak and received a peppering of shrapnel in the rear and tail assembly, a piece of which severed one of the wires connected to the rear gun turret electric sighting device and put it out of action. The return flight to the English coast was trouble-free and we crossed the coast at 1500 ft. On our way back to base, with navigation lights still switched off as was normal, I suddenly saw the faint glow of two engines dead ahead on a rapidly closing collision course and pulled away just in time recognizing the other plane as a JU88 equipped as a night fighter. The German then tried to attack from astern and passed close by to starboard, giving our rear gunner, Pilot Officer Byng-Hall a chance to fire the twin Brownings. As the reflector sight was not functional, he ‘hose-piped’ the JU88 using the tracer bullets for sighting but the intruder was able to carry on and we lost sight of him. At least he knew that we were alert.

On landing the rear gunner reported an unidentified aircraft was following us from astern and thought it could be our intruder, so decided to get off the flare-path quickly and took a chance of twisting the undercarriage. The aircraft did not open fire at all, and made off. It was most likely an intruder on the ‘prowl’. The Flight Commander thanked us for the experience, and next time he flew it was as a Captain with his own crew.

On 25 April I took part in another blitz on Kiel, dropping six containers of incendiaries and two GP bombs from 15,000 ft. and had our usual rough and noisy ride through the concentrated heavy flak and searchlight defences. As we left the area, many large fires could be seen in Kiel. We landed safely at Marham and after debriefing followed by the operational cooked breakfast, retired to bed. This was my last operational flight with 218 Squadron, which meant a posting away from the Squadron to another unit.

I had one last flight in my Wellington taking three non-flying personnel as passengers: one sergeant and two aircraftwomen duly authorized to get experience in the air. It was a nostalgic flight for me and our red devil crest was still on the nose, which had brought good luck to our crew, but I suspect the next owners would replace it with their own idea of a good luck charm and I sincerely hoped it would work for them as well.

After this, I made my farewells to 218 and took up my duties with No. 22 OTU at RAF station Wellsbourne Mountford, near Stratford on Avon. Shortly after acting as the Flight Commander, I was officially appointed in this capacity with the rank of Squadron Leader with effect from
7 May 1941.

A Wellington crash landed at Wellsbourne after a day-time training flight and along with others I was able to assist in saving the crew. We got the Pilot and Wireless Operator out but the rear turret with the injured air gunner inside was jammed and we could not get him out. In spite of the prompt arrival of a Fire Tender crew, petrol from the badly damaged fuel tank caught fire and soon the whole fuselage was ablaze. It was imperative to get the turret clear, which was achieved by hacking it free and dragging it clear of the flames and intense heat. When clear of the fire, it was possible to force the door open and get him out and away to hospital. He had a badly injured leg but recovered after a period in the hospital. I received a mention in dispatches but as so often in these circumstances, all taking part in the rescue deserved one as well.

Some time later, one of the pupil pilots involved was able to carry on with the training programme with another crew and returning from a night flight, touched down on the flare path, swung off the runway and collided with a Wellington waiting to take off. There was only one survivor, a staff pilot in the aircraft waiting to take off. Unfortunately he was very badly burned and became a patient of the famous surgeon Archibald McIndo, later to be knighted for his brilliant skills in treating service personnel suffering from severe burns.

On 22 April 1942, I was posted to No. 11 OUT at Bassingbourne, and once again said goodbye to all my colleagues and was able to fly to Bassingbourne as part of a training flight. During May the training programme was halted for a time and our Wellingtons were brought up to operational standards. Air Marshall Harris, Commander in Chief of Bomber Command received permission to carry out his proposed ‘1000’ plan and used OTU aircraft with staff and pupil crews to build up the required numbers. On 30 May over 1000 bombers took off for an attack on Cologne which was a great success. For some reason, Flight Commanders were not allowed to fly on this operation but my opportunity came on the second 1000 raid. There was considerable flak over the target and on the route there and back but we were lucky and had no trouble. Not so others. Of 956 aircraft that took part, 31 were lost. The experienced crew members were pleased to notch up one more ‘op’ safely and pupils were exultant at having an ‘op’ to enter in their log books before joining a Squadron.

Training programme continued as normal until 30 September 1942 when No. 11 OTU moved to RAF Westcott in Buckinghamshire. This was done to enable units of the American Air Force to move into Bassingbourne.

One bright morning, while driving around the perimeter track, I saw a replacement Wellington which had just been flown in by a ferry pilot. Much to my surprise and pleasure, I found it to be my old 218 Squadron battle-wagon R1025 and was able to acquire it for my flight. The next thing I noticed about it was that the big red devil mascot we had on the nose had been removed, but it had still survived. At the time, we considered it to be a lucky aircraft and so it proved to be for us and also for the air crews who took it over.

In 1943 the training commitment at Oakley had increased and the post for an officer in command had been established with Wing Commander rank and I had been ear-marked for the job. However, before this took place, I received a phone call from Wing Commander Gilman who knew me in pre-war 218 Squadron days at Boscombe Down and who was now commanding 83 Pathfinder Squadron at RAF Wyton. He offered me B Flight with Wing Commander rank if I would like to volunteer to join the Pathfinder force, but I had to make my mind up quickly and said yes. So yet again I was on the move and on 2 March 1943 I made my farewells, having collected my chocolate ration and a bottle of Gordon’s Gin from the officers’ mess staff as a good luck present and off I went to 83 Squadron.

Continued in Part 3, A7719078

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