- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Don Street, Geoff Gilbert and Doug Boothby
- Location of story:
- Over Germany
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 July 2005
On the night of 21 June 1944 RAF Bomber Command sent 133 Lancasters and 6 Mosquitoes to attack the synthetic oil plant at Wesseling, in Germany. I was the captain of one of the Lancaster crews detailed to take part in the raid. That morning I had been briefed about a new enemy combat tactic, where the German night fighters operated in pairs, one committing the bomber to an evasive move with the other seizing an attacking opportunity when the bomber was at its most vulnerable point, the top or bottom of the corkscrew. Discussing tactics with my crew, I said:
“Apparently they find a victim then one of them will attack from the rear along a standard fighter curve and of course if the bomber doesn't see him or have time to take action he is in trouble.” Both my gunners were lost for words at such a suggestion. “On the other hand,” I continued, 'He is picked up and the corkscrew port or starboard is committed - now his number 2 is holding off waiting for a good opportunity to come in, which we will try not to give him by adding a bit of rough flying at the roll-over points. Let's get airborne and try it out.”
This they did during the night flying test. When this was completed the aircraft was parked at dispersal to be fuelled and bombed up, and the crew went to the briefing, where the squadron commander revealed the target for the night.
“It's the Ruhr tonight chaps,” said the C.O.
“Happy Valley,” whispered my wireless operator. A sardonic nickname given by aircrews to this heavily defended highly industrialised area of Germany.
Following the briefing I gathered my crew and discussed details of the operation. It was their eighteenth trip and despite having such experience behind them I was keen to keep them on their toes.
“This is our eighteenth trip, it's a time when you think you know it all - get cocky - we don't, from now until the twenty fifth is a danger period remember! To survive we have to work at it - all the time.”
I lifted my Lancaster into the air at 2309 hours that night and gained altitude. On the way to the target I felt concerned that the sky was bright that night and warned my crew: “Pilot to crew - its like daylight up here - keep a good lookout.” I took my crew and aircraft on and we neared a turning point on the river.
“How are we doing Dave?”
“Next course coming up skipper- it will be 089 degrees compass.”
A minute or so later the intercom sounded.
“Turn onto 089 degrees - now skipper.”
I set the new course on the electro-magnetic repeater compass and turned to starboard onto the new heading for turning point 'J' which was the last one before the run into the target.
“How are we for time?”
“We are about three minutes ahead of time skipper.”
The significance of the navigator's reply was immediately obvious.
“We're ahead of the stream and must be a sitting duck for night fighters - sharp look out everybody.”
But where? How did the gunners see anything in these conditions, to the starboard side of the aircraft was a black void - somewhere forward was the target - over to the port side the sky was light, a bright twilight with a background from the aurora-borealis flickering beyond the top end of Norway. Searching was almost impossible when our dark night vision was broken each time we swung our gun turrets. Perhaps the night fighters were having similar problems, even though the bombers would appear to them as silhouettes against a lighted screen.
I kept my Lancaster on course, occasionally calling up and checking on the crew. The next turning point approached.
“Turning point 'J' in one minute skipper, the new course will be 162 degrees,” called the navigator.
“Thanks Nav 162 degrees compass, this is the run-in track to the target chaps, how long is the leg Dave?”
“Twenty minutes Skip.”
I had a mixed feeling of relief and tension, the potentially dangerous leg was nearly over, but the target? What awaited there along the 'happy valley'?
The course change was made and now the black sky was to port and ahead leaving the bright sky astern on the starboard side. As I lined up the needle on the aircraft compass, the clear unhurried voice of the wireless operator broke the silence.
“Bandits skipper, one above rear on the port side, and the other one same on the starboard - range about 1,000 yards.”
“Right - see them rear gunner?”
“Not yet skipper.”
“The one of the starboard is coming in,” said the wireless operator, reading the range on his Monica screen.
“Eight hundred… seven… six.”
“Got him skipper, corkscrew starboard,” a pause by the rear gunner.
“Up the revs engineer, twenty-seven fifty.”
“A hundred on Skip,” said 'Wag’.
And the engines’ synchronised drone changed to a drumming note of emergency as the practised drill commenced, down and turning, making it difficult for the fighter to turn inside the curve and bring his guns to bear on target.
“He's broken away, the port one is coming in Skip, seven hundred… six… five,” said the wireless operator, sedulously occupied with his screen, now a key member of the little battle group.
“Trying to catch us at the bottom when we roll”, I thought.
As I turned the aircraft from a starboard downwards curve through to the port upwards curve I pushed the control column forward violently causing the nose of the aircraft to drop momentarily, then up into the lumbering climb to port, thus creating an air turbulence that together with the six .303 Browning guns that were now filling the plane with acrid fumes, would encourage the enemy to keep at safe distance.
“Port bandit broken away Skipper”, came the voice of the wireless operator.
“They're both FW 190s,” broke in the Scottish brogue of the mid upper, as I hauled the heavy machine back onto course.
“They are still there - one port and one starboard - high and rear about 1,000 yards.” Despite the violent flying the wireless operator was keeping a good watch of his screen.
“Port one coming in 500 yards.”
“Got it,” picked up the rear gunner.
“Corkscrew port - Go! Go!”
And so the evasive action went through its paces, every change in flying attitude intoned by myself to keep the crew informed that everything was under control. The same pattern as before, with the Lancaster's Brownings hammering away. Only part of the corkscrew pattern was flown, as before, when the Yorkshire voice of the wireless operator came over the intercom.
“They have broken off.” Then: “Sitting on our rear port and starboard - high-range 1,000 yards.”
Then the third attack, this time from starboard again; it appeared that they were taking turns in committing the bomber whilst the other waited to come in for the kill. The 'kill' was once more elusive and the game returned to the starting pattern. As the fourth attack commenced, now tired and fed up with the whole business, I said:
“Pilot to rear gunner, let this one come in a bit nearer and shoot the damn thing down.”
“No Skip no!" said a horrified gunner.
“Why not Gillie?”
“Look out and back to port.”
I dipped the port wing and took a quick look to the rear through the side perspex blister.
“See what you mean - OK let’s go” and the evasion commenced. The quick look had shown a sky that was seemingly full of bullet and cannon tracers curling inwards to the bomber as the FW190 closed in its attack, a sight that the gunners had witnessed on the occasion of each attack.
Back again on course: “Where are they now?” I asked.
"They're - er - one to port and the other is - yes got him - both there again Skipper.”
“Thanks Doug. On your toes gunners they must be getting low in ammo now.”
“Skipper?” A new voice came through the intercom, that of the bomb aimer, who together with the navigator and flight engineer had played no part in the past 10-12 minutes drama.
“Do you think we should drop cookee?” (a 4000lb bomb)
“No certainly not! We haven't been hit; we'll drop it where it’s supposed to go - on target.”
My reply was brusque, edged by the tension of fifteen minutes of action. I had total trust in my plane and crew and there had been no time to dwell on the consequences of getting hit by enemy shells. Was it a lack of imagination, or the youthful certainty that it will not happen to us? Those that were not actively engaged in the battle could understandably be apprehensive - wondering whether the next attack would strike home and blow the plane apart. The fifth attack developed, ran the course and died away. By this time after fifteen minutes of violent exercise, heaving at the controls of the heavy bomber, flying on instruments, I was getting angry and hot, my 'lucky' unlined pigskin gloves - strictly non service pattern - a present from an old aunt, were wet with perspiration. The thought 'they will be difficult to put on the next time I fly', flitted across my mind as the wireless operator called.
“Port bandit Skipper.”
The rear gunner picked up the drill, “Got him Skipper- stand-bye - corkscrew port Go! Go!”
From the wireless operator: “Starboard one closing Skipper” and almost immediately:
“Both breaking away downwards - they're out of range - had enough I suppose.”
“Thanks Doug! Well done everybody,” I acknowledged as I bought the plane onto course and edged it up to 20,500 feet ready for the run into the target.
“Twenty-six fifty revs engineer, everything OK Wag?”
The engineer who had stood by me during the engagement, except on a few occasions when he had floated off his feet in a negative 'gee' created by a violent down thrust of the aircraft, reached down and adjusted the propeller controls down a hundred revs on each of the four engines.
“Twenty-six fifty Skipper and all OK.”
“Target in four and a half minutes,” from the navigator.
“OK Dave - how are we for time now?”
“About right now, but don't lose time like that ever again will you!”
A Canadian, just out of college his plaintive plea was semi-serious as he suffered with air sickness that afflicted him on nearly every trip. We braced ourselves for the run up to and through the target, where careful straight and level flying was required and a period when the aircraft was most vulnerable to enemy action.
“Rear gunner OK?”
“OK Skip - but out of ammo.”
“Nay worry” growled the mid upper. “I've got twenty rounds left.”
“Keep an extra sharp look out everyone,” I said.
The bomb run and flight home proved uneventful for us but for many their engagements with the enemy proved fatal. From the force of 133 Lancasters, 37 were lost, a staggering 28%!
By Pilot Officer Don Street, DFC also available in Steve Darlow’s book D-Day Bombers: The Veteran’s Story.
See also more of Don's stories:
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Becky Barugh of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Don Street and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
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