- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Sam Brookes
- Location of story:
- England with Bomber command 1944
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 November 2003
They always say you should never go back, nor seek to renew old acquaintances - you will only be disappointed. I don't really believe it, but then a lot happens in a lifetime, and one is sometimes tempted not just to look ahead...
Air Crew Reception Centre, Lords
In the spring of 1943 I was called up and chose to join the RAF for training as aircrew. They said I could elect to be trained as a pilot and wait to join up for a year. Alternatively, they had vacancies for rear gunners - come next Monday. I was keen to get started but... ummm. There was a third choice, be a wireless operator and come in three months. That sounded like a reasonable compromise, and I took it. August Bank holiday 1943 found me reporting to the ACRC (Air Crew Reception Centre), at Lord's cricket ground for induction and training.
I joined a squad of 30 likely lads, all destined to train as wireless operators, and we started initial training. Three weeks of inoculations and square bashing to commence. We lived in commandeered luxury flats along Prince Consort Road, marching to be fed in a similarly commandeered cafe at the zoo just across the road in Regents Park.
Then to Bridgnorth to 19 ITW (Initial Training Wing), where we started the rudiments of wireless training and began to absorb Morse code.
November came and we moved to Number Two Radio School at Yatesbury in Wiltshire - a huge wooden-hutted camp in the middle of nowhere but with a small grass airfield next door, from which we would be flown to do our training for wireless operating in the air. The course we were embarked upon had been of two years duration before the war. Now it had been condensed into six months because of the enormous demand for aircrew in RAF Bomber Command. Enormous? Yes, the Bomber Command strength had built up to an ability to deliver 1,000-bomber raids over Germany on a nightly basis. Losses were significant, sometimes tragically large. They needed Aircrew.
We were all desperately keen and training classes went on from 8am to 6pm, six days a week - Sundays off. Phew! During this time I became friendly with another trainee in the group, Keith Gosling. We were very alike in character and background - Grammar school boys from stable homes, imbued with an ethic for hard work. Middle class, I suppose you would have had to call us. We had similar interests and abilities. Did I say 'desperately keen'? It's worth repeating. We, and most of the other lads around us, were entirely and selflessly committed to becoming the best wireless operators ever! Neither Keith nor I had the slightest difficulty with the theoretical side of the course, but both found it extremely difficult to conquer the required speed barriers in Morse. I came from suburban London; Keith came from Frizinghall, Bradford.
The course ended in the spring and we both passed with excellent marks. My mark on the theory side was 95%, and for operating in the air it was 85%. We proudly became sergeant wireless operators and stood by for posting to OTU (Operational Training Unit), the next stage towards operational flying.
During this time, waiting to be posted, two unusual things happened. First we were both asked to go before a commissioning board with a view to becoming officers. We were not told the results and suspected that we were not selected. The second strangeness came one morning on parade when the NCO in charge called on all those who had learned German at school to step forward. After a moment's hesitation, I did so. So did Keith with two others from the group.
Within a week we four were called in and told that the remainder of our training would be cut by some months - we would be posted to a familiarisation unit to get used to flying in heavy bombers. That we would probably be flying on operations within a month! The job we were to do would be to fly in Lancasters as an extra crew member with the specific task of operating special jamming equipment designed to prevent the Luftwaffe night-fighter pilots from hearing directions from their ground controllers.
Lancaster Finishing School
It was a very exciting time. We were sent to No.1 LFS (Lancaster Finishing School) at Hemswell, north of Lincoln, to fly for 10 hours as passengers in Lancasters, and familiarise ourselves with being carried in large four-engined bombers. This was quite necessary as our air experience previously had been in the stately Dehaviland Dominie and tiny Percival Proctors. The Lancaster was large, loud, fast, and fierce. While we were there, the second front opened with D-Day on 6 June 1944.
Very soon now we went on to No.101 Squadron at Ludford Magna on the Lincolnshire Wolds. 101 was a three-flight squadron, flying up to 24 Lancasters in the bomber stream, armed and loaded with bombs just like the other heavy bombers but with an extra crew member in each squadron aircraft to do the jamming.
Upon arrival the first thing was a few day's introduction to the equipment we were to operate. It went under the codename 'ABC', which stood for Airborne Cigar; I have no idea why they named it that. It consisted of three enormous powerful transmitters covering the radio voice bands used by the Luftwaffe.
To help identify the place to jam there was a panoramic receiver covering the same bands. The receiver scanned up and down the bands at high speed and the result of its travel was shown on a timebase calibrated across a cathode ray tube in front of the operator. If there was any traffic on the band it showed as a blip at the appropriate frequency along the line of light that was the timebase. When a 'blip' appeared, one could immediately spot tune the receiver to it and listen to the transmission. If the language was German then it only took a moment to swing the first of the transmitters to the same frequency, press a switch and leave a powerful jamming warble there to prevent the underlying voice being heard. The other two transmitters could then be brought in on other 'blips'. If 24 aircraft were flying, spread through the Bomber stream, then there were a potential 72 loud jamming transmissions blotting out the night fighters' directions.
The Germans tried all manner of devices to overcome the jamming, including having their instructions sung by Wagnerian sopranos. This was to fool our operators into thinking it was just a civilian channel and not worth jamming. I think ABC probably did a useful job, but who can say what difference it made.
Anyway, it was an absorbing time for keen, fit, young men who thought only of the challenges and excitements of their task and little of the risks they were about to run.
Next step was to get "crewed up". The normal seven-man crews for Lancasters had been made up and had been flying together for months before arrival at the Squadron. We Special Duty Operators now had to tag on to established crews and it was left largely to us to find out with which pilot we, in our ignorance, might wish to fly.
Just before this process started both Keith and I were called into the Squadron Adjutant's office one morning and told that we had been commissioned as Pilot Officers. The Adjutant, a kindly, ageing Flight Lieutenant, advised us to go to Louth, the local town, see a tailor and order an officer's uniform. We were to get the tailor to remove our Sergeant's stripes and replace them with the narrow pilot officers shoulder bands on our battle-dresses. He should finally provide us with an officer's hat! The adjutant gave us vouchers to hand to the tailor to assure him he would be paid! We were told to move our kit from the NCOs' quarters to officers' accommodation and the Adjutant would see us in the Officers' Mess at 6pm to buy us each a beer.
I had imagined that becoming an officer would include some kind of OTU or training course to instruct us what sort of behaviour might be expected of us. Not so, not for newly commissioned aircrew on a Bomber station in Lincolnshire in the middle of 1944. What is described in the previous paragraph is all that happened.
Looking back I can see that all the things we were experiencing at this frenetic time were tremendous shocks to our systems. They left us ill equipped to take the apocalyptic decisions we were about to make and which, as it happened, would decide whether we lived or died.
Canadian pilots in the officers' mess
Crewing up was to follow shortly, but on our first evening in the officers' mess we had met two Canadian pilots, Messrs Meier and Hodgkinson, newly arrived on the squadron with their crews and eager to find their extra ABC wireless operators. Our decisions were made that night. I got on well with both of them, but perhaps had marginally more in common with Gordon Hodgkinson than Meier. Keith felt perhaps closer to Meier and so our choices were made, almost by the toss of a coin: me for Hodgkinson; Keith for Meier.
I started flying with Hodgkinson who, as it happened, did not find it easy to settle down to the conditions over a hostile Germany. Our first operational flight was on 30 June 1944. 'Hodge' managed seven operations, but remained unsettled and had turned back unwell on two occasions. He was finally taken off flying and went back to Canada. I was re-crewed with a succession of other crews and completed my tour of 30 operations on 6 January 1945.
Keith started flying with Meier about the same time as I started. Our other two sergeant colleagues from Yatesbury also joined crews of their choice. One of them, Englehardt, died I believe in a raid on Stettin in August and was buried where his aircraft crashed in Sweden on the way home. I am not too sure about the date here. The fourth of us, Auer, survived like me.
Over the Ruhr
When we were flying on raids to the industrial Ruhr the route for the bomber stream was often from base to Reading; Reading to Beachy Head; Beachy Head to Le Treport; then East across France and into Germany. This was our route on the night of 21 July. After the raid, Meier's Lancaster did not return and the crew were posted as missing. It was less than a year since Keith and I had joined up on August Bank Holiday in 1943 at Lords Cricket Ground.
Keith's mother Florence knew that we had been friends and wrote to me. There was little I could do to help or advise her as to what had happened. For a while I hoped that we would hear that Keith had been taken prisoner but it was not to be. It was some months before I heard the story of the crew's fate that night. Strangely enough it came from Florence. Meier's Lancaster had been caught by a night fighter not long after crossing the French coast and was shot down. Apparently, the damage caused the aeroplane to lose a wing and break up. By the best of good fortune one member of the crew was flung clear and parachuted down into occupied France. A second member of the crew also managed to make a parachute descent to safety. The other six, including my pal Keith, did not escape. All this information was vouchsafed to Florence in a letter from one of the survivors who had felt obliged to write to the relatives of each member of the crew when he was released from a POW camp.
Although she was wrong Florence had thought that it was Meier the pilot who had survived and she could not understand how the captain of the aircraft could have survived when six of his crew had died. She quoted the naval tradition that a captain should be the last to leave his sinking ship.
I had seen our bombers shot down in daylight raids, and knew that once an aircraft began to break up there was absolutely nothing that anyone could do except try to save himself. I tried as gently as I could to get this across to Florence. We continued to exchange letters but our correspondence petered out in mid 1945 when the German war was over and I was posted out to India to prepare for the attack on Japan. Of course the bomb in August made that un-necessary and I spent two years in various parts of the Far East, waiting to be demobilised.
When I came home again I never forgot my friendship with Keith, but I did not feel inclined to re-open an old wound for Florence by trying to get in touch again. Maybe I should have done so, but I didn't.
As the years have gone by life has of course developed in many other directions but I have always been reminded of Keith when a place, or a song, or some other thing has sparked a memory of our close but brief comradeship. He is the one I think of and shed a tear for on Armistice Day. Secretly, over the intervening years, I have felt a need to find out where Keith was buried and to visit the grave to say a sombre and measured farewell.
The opportunity to follow that wish came on the 50th Anniversary of the War's end approached. I made enquiries at the Ministry of Defence as to war graves and received a very speedy and helpful response. He was buried in a cemetery near Cambrai on the road that goes in the direction of Solesmes in grave B, row 31 - all very precisely military.
My wife and I crossed the channel to Calais early on the morning of 21 July 1994, the fiftieth anniversary of Keith's death. We drove to Cambrai past some of the massive military cemeteries from World War One. Through the town we found the road to Solesmes and looked for our cemetery. The only one in sight was a German World War One cemetery, well tended and stark with granite crosses. We passed it by looking for the more familiar British headstones. On to Solesmes, still no other cemetery of any nation and we re-traced our steps towards Cambrai, thinking we must have missed it.
The German cemetery
The German cemetery was on the outskirts of Cambrai itself and in desperation we stopped there hoping to obtain directions. Inside a gardener was cutting hedges and I went to speak to him not knowing whether to try German or my more halting French. After my first words he replied to me in English. He was a Londoner, an employee of the British War Graves authorities. Apparently the gardeners did not always work in the cemeteries of their own nations.
Yes, he did know where World War Two RAF graves might be found. They were in a plot set aside in the civilian cemetery next door - only about 100 yards from where we were speaking. We were quickly there, and sure enough we found a group of some 40 RAF graves. The dates on the headstones told their own sad stories. There were sets of headstones, side by side with the same date - clearly each set from the same bomber crew.
The set for 21 July 1944 had four headstones, one of them Keith's. I did not know the other names in that crew. There were two gaps in the line. I learned later that these probably represented the spots where bodies had been repatriated by relatives, probably to Canada. So that was it, two had survived, four were here, and two had moved on. The whole crew of eight were accounted for.
Still in uniform
In my mind's eye, over the 50 years, I had imagined Keith as having been found, and his body, still in uniform, laid peacefully to rest. I looked at the headstone - carefully carved at the top was the RAF crest, and at the foot the words 'Proud and treasured memories'. That must have been Florence's wording. I read the other words, 'Pilot Officer K. Gosling. Pilot. Royal Air Force. 21st July 1944. Age 19'.
Did I say that one should never go back to renew old acquaintances? Well, as you know Keith was a Wireless Operator like me. Why should it say Pilot on the headstone? How much had they found to bury? I was strangely upset.
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