- Contributed by
- Yvonne Weiden (Lipman)
- People in story:
- Sidney Lipman
- Location of story:
- The skies over Mailly le Camp.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 November 2005
Warrent Officer Sidney Lipman 166 Squadron
Just before the war broke out, in September 1939, I was contacted by the District Surveyor’s office in Stepney where I lived. They were in the process of setting up a Heavy Rescue Party, as war was imminent, and I was asked I was willing to join them. This would mean that if we had any bombing I would be in a group of men whose job would be to shore up dangerous structures, cut off main water and gas supplies in buildings and of course rescue people who were trapped. I was suited to this work as I was working for my father in the building trade. I willingly accepted the task and also took a course and passed out as a PT instructor, to keep the men fit and active for their arduous tasks.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience in the Heavy Rescue Party and we were on duty 24 hours on, 24 hours off. Many of my colleagues were lost on those long and dangerous nights when we had to pull people out of the wreckage. We thanked G-d if they were alive and unhurt, but all too often it was too late to save them. On one occasion my own house was bombed to the ground and another night I was called upon to rescue relatives of mine out of a bombed building.
After 2½ years there was a lull in the bombing and four of us from the Heavy Rescue Party volunteered for the Royal Air Force as aircrew. In the interview I was told that I would be accepted. Unfortunately the other 3 men did not pass the selection procedure. I had another hurdle to pass, which involved 3 days of rigorous mental and physical examinations. I got through these to their satisfaction and was given an RAF volunteer reserve badge and told that they would call for me. I didn’t have long to wait! The training was an exciting and mind-broadening time for me. I had the opportunity to test my physical strength and abilities to the limit and was very proud of studying at Clare College, Cambridge for a few months for Initial Training Wing. At this period Lancasters had just come out and flight engineers were being trained for them. It sounded an exciting challenge and I volunteered to go for training, which was at St. Athan, South Wales.
After passing out as a Sergeant I went to Wratting Common and it was there that I met my crew. I was walking towards a sterling aircraft when a voice from behind said “hello, my name’s Ron. Have you got a crew yet?” He explained that he was looking for a flight engineer to make up the rest of a seven man bomber crew in which he was a wireless operator.
I went with him to meet the other chaps, all looking very young and keen. We were a cosmopolitan group; included in our numbers were a New Zealander pilot and an Australian bomb aimer. We started on our training with the sterling 4-engine bomber and after passing out we were transferred onto Lancasters. After a 9 day conversion course with them we were sent to 166 squadron Kirmington which is in Lincolnshire. It was from there that we started our tour of operations.
There were 21 Lancasters on our squadron. On the first operation that I was involved in, to Essen, Germany, we lost two Lancasters and were down to 19. On the second raid, over Nuremburg, Germany we lost another 4. This Nuremburg raid was known as the massacre because 94 air force planes were lost that night. The loss of 6 Lancasters out of 21 in my first two flights brought home to me the full extent of the terrible odds that were stacked against the bombing crews.
The first two raids that I flew in were with strange crews which were short of a flight engineer while waiting for my own crew to be ready. Subsequent to those first two flights I flew a further 29 operations with my own crew, piloted by Alan Gibson (Gibby), the new Zealander. Many of those flights were very eventful and hazardous; the most dangerous of all being, perversely the very last one, but that is another story. However, the flight which will be forever etched in my mind is the trip to Mailly le Camp.
The raid against Mailly le Camp on the night of 3rd/4th May began well. The briefing was optimistic — a “piece of cake”, we told each other afterwards. We collected our parachutes from the stores, took our log books and made sure we each had our lucky mascots. The uncertainty and danger bred an atmosphere of superstition and I never flew without a little toy monkey to bring me luck. We were looking forward to getting going as we fastened our flying helmets, donned silk gloves and pulled on leather fur-lined boots to protect us from the severe cold of the altitude. The code name for our Lancaster was “K” for King and we waved regally to the loyal WAAFs who stood outside the runway to wave us off.
As usual we flew in formation like a flock of birds each protecting the other. We were birds of prey tonight, carrying in our bellies the weapons of destruction. The flight across the channel was uneventful and the raid went according to plan, although the searchlights were out over the target and there was a great deal of flak in the area.
Approaching the target, the bomb aimer gave instructions to our pilot to enable him to line up directly above the garget in readiness for dropping the bombs. Gibby managed this time to avoid being caught in the searchlight, although others than night were not so fortunate and we watched them helplessly as they weaved and turned like moths around a flame. Bombs were dropped and the ”K” for King lurched up sharply, relieved of all that extra weight. Our mission had been accomplished; now for the return flight home.
We congratulated ourselves on a job well done and were looking forward to a well-earned tipple when we arrived back at base. However, as we came away from the target we saw really heavy flak; tiny sparks of light shooting up into the sky like beautiful fireworks. We had no time to admire the display. They were German anti-aircraft guns, aiming at us with German thoroughness and German precision. We watched in horror as two of our companion planes burst into flames. We managed to pick out a tiny figure escaping from his inferno, looking like a little toy parachutist suspended in mid-air. We weaved in and out to escape the same fate, when a German fighter flew across from starboard to port and then came into port quarter down. He hit us and we opened fire at him. The enemy aircraft continued to strafe us. We experienced damage to the control surfaces, petrol supply system, edging starboard mainplane, coolant, flank, magneto system and engine structure and the pipelines to mid-upper turret were severed. Apart from these minor irritations we were unharmed!!
The German fighter followed us for about 8 minutes, taking pot shots from approximately 600 yards, and our pilot weaved and lost height. He attacked us again from Port Quarter down, determined to finish us off this time. At 500 yards our rear gunner, Alf, opened fire with a three minute burst and tracer was seen to enter the fighter’s front cabin. A huge explosion followed when the enemy aircraft burst into flames. “I’ve got the basket” shouted Alf and we cheered with relief as we watched the enemy aircraft plunge to the ground. We were out of immediate danger but were conscious of the terrible damage that had been inflicted on “K” for King and aware that the bomb aimer’s parachute had opened during the fighting and was strewn about the cockpit. This meant that he would be unable to parachute out in an emergency as we didn’t carry spare parachutes. The conflict had lasted about 12 minutes over a distance of 35 miles, but we still had a long way to go home.
We were down to 2000' and climbed up to 14000' on track. Taking stock of the damage, I feathered the starboard outer engine as it was giving trouble and noticed that the fuel gauge was very low, obviously due to the leaking pipeline. I tried to balance the fuel to no effect. We crossed the French coast and set off for Selsea Hill, losing height. Fuel was now very low and we sent out a distress call. We were desperate to cross the channel before the fuel gave out, but all we could do was hope. For a long time we received no signal but at last, to our relief, we received confirmation that our distress call had been accepted.
Finally, our hearts in our mouths, we crossed coast at Selsea Hill. As Gibby knew that our engines were about to cut, he lowered the wheels as all the red lights had come on. He gave the order for the crew to assume the crash position. Although it would have been perhaps safer for us to have baled out, no order was given to parachute because the bomb aimer would not have been able to parachute with us as his ‘chute was damaged. So we stayed in the Lancaster and took our chances with him.
Shortly after crash positions were taken, all engines cut as fuel ran out and Gibby decided to make a glide landing. As we came in to land, an aerodrome with 3 ambulances was seen, prepared for the inevitable casualties. Incredibly, the landing, with 30° flap and no engine assistance, was faultless (one of the best we ever made) and none of us needed medical assistance.
“Miraculous” was the word the newspapers used to describe the landing, which was carried out in darkness and without any engine assistance. I felt very keenly that nothing short of a miracle could have brought us through our ordeal unscathed. Although I am not an emotional person, instinctively I kissed the ground with relief after jumping down at last from the aircraft. I shall never forget the moment of truth when each of us knew that our innermost prayers had been answered.
“K” for King
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.