- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- Goronwy Edwards
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 July 2005
“This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bob Davis from the Burgess Hill Adult Education Centre and has been added to the website on behalf of Goronwy Edwards with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions”
Bomber Command aircraft flew with one pilot and a navigator, but in Coastal we flew two fully-qualified pilot/navigators, alternating the roles each trip. The winter of 1939 kept 233 Squadron quietly busy, and during this time I came of age.
On 8th.November, with Bill Tacon doing the flying, we took off for Norway in lousy weather, which became so awful that we packed it in, and turned back.
As a precaution against the day when I might have to ditch in that cold North Sea I carried a hip flask of strong ration rum that I’d scrounged from the Navy, and at the time that I reckoned the world had been fortunate enough to be graced by my presence I produced the flask and offered it to Bill.
“My birthday, Bill, have a swig.”
“My twentyfirst for God’s sake! Won’t happen again.”
“Thanks, but I can’t stand the stuff.”
Which was true; Bill wasn’t a drinking man. I wasn’t awfully fond of rum myself, but this was an occasion. I took a swig.
“Many happy returns of the day, though,” said Bill.
“Is this course OK?” he continued suspiciously.
I took a look at the wind lanes on the sea.
“Well, the wind has veered a bit. Stick on 3 degrees to starboard while I go below and twiddle the knobs
From the navigator’s table in the nose I returned to the cockpit.
“Four degrees to starboard, Bill. Steer 237 magnetic.”
“237 magnetic it is. This weather’s getting worse. By the time we get to Peterhead even the birds will be walking.”
“Some coming of age,” I thought to myself. “Hope we don’t hit a bloody hill.”
On 15th. February 1940 the notorious German blockade-runner Altmark was sighted off Bergen by one of our squadron. She’d been a supply ship to the pocket battleships operating in the South Atlantic, and was suspected of having some of our merchant navy prisoners on board. Surprisingly, she sailed into Josing Fjord - Norwegian territorial waters - and equally surprisingly, the Norwegian authorities would not co-operate in searching her.
After acrimonious international exchanges we gave up, and Captain Vian in the destroyer Cossack, in true Captain Horatio Hornblower style, went into the fjord, boarded the Altmark, and liberated 299 prisoners.
A further bit of ‘good’ news was the torpedoing of a neutral ship just off the Bell Rock. She had been laden with a cargo of tins of ham and kegs of butter, presumably destined for America. After a few weeks the tides broke her up, and some of the precious cargo washed ashore at our practice bombing range.
For weeks we scoured the shoreline, salvaging the precious flotsam, and until Customs and Excise stepped in and ruined things, we carried sandwiches on our patrols in which
quarter-inch-thick slices of ham squelched in a sea of butter. We openly pitied Bomber Command, flying their lumbering Whitleys on the asinine, but often dangerous, leaflet raids over the 3rd. Reich.
As Bill said, “I’ll bet those poor buggers only have bully-beef sandwiches.”
On 9th. April 1940, as we neared the Norwegian coast, I noticed that one of the retaining bolts of the emergency hatch above my head was loose, so I made a note on my kneepad to tell the rigger after we landed.
Then we sighted a Heinkel 115 twin-engined floatplane.
I closed up in an astern attack, and opened up with my front guns. His rear gunner returned the compliment, and tracer trails flew backwards and forwards. I thought I’d got home on one of his petrol tanks, as when he turned a plume of spray streamed from one of his wings.
But he was getting home too. As one stream of his tracers swung in on me, very accurately, he got home on the already-weakened bolt above my head. There was an almighty bang as the hatch flew out, and the roaring of the slipstream and the crackling of the 115’s gunfire became dominant. But were forgotten as the immense draught flowing out through the roof brought every bit of dust, grit and grass seed from the cabin floor swirling round the cockpit and into my eyes and mouth.
Half blinded, I realised that the controls were incredibly stiff, and stole a quick look at the airspeed indicator. I was in a screaming dive, and had already exceeded our maximum permitted speed. I didn’t want to tear the wings off my Hudson, so chopped back the throttles and pulled out of the dive. But by the time I’d sorted things out the Heinkel had vanished.
We took stock: it was devilishly cold and noisy in the roofless cockpit, but nothing untoward showed on the instrument panel, so we completed the patrol, and made a reasonably accurate landfall back home, though the North Sea in April is not the ideal place for tanking round with your sunshine roof open, and we were frozen to the marrow by the time we landed.
We had an exciting story to tell, but in the operations room were well beaten to the post, finding ourselves at the end of a queue of other Heinkel 115-fighters.
“What’s up, Tubby?” I asked the chap ahead of me in the queue. “We must have shot down half the bloody Luftwaffe this morning.”
“Gosh! Haven’t you heard? Germany invaded Norway this morning.”
“So that’s what it’s all about. Bit rough on the Norwegians, isn’t it.”
It was very rough on the Norwegians, and was going to be reasonably rough on us too, though we didn’t know it yet.
The Norwegian Expeditionary Force crossed the North Sea on the forlorn and familiar too-little-and-too-late effort that was all that we could manage in those early years of the war. The demand on us for air escorts escalated, but it was obvious that Germany had complete air superiority and something, however minimal, had to be done. Squadrons of Luftwaffe fighters were stationed at Stavanger, and were causing us disproportionate casualties, so it was decided that the cruiser Suffolk would bombard the place with its eight-inch guns, firing shells each weighing 250 pounds.
HMS Suffolk was the centre of a current “knock-knock” joke. She’d been stationed in the West Indies for three years and had at last come home, so that the crew were connecting with their families again. Then trouble blew up in the Far East, and she was sent off to the China station, a highly unpopular move with the crew. As she went across the Bay of Biscay she passed a destroyer homeward bound from Gibraltar.
“Knock, knock,” signalled Suffolk.
“Who’s there?” obediently replied the destroyer.
“Suffolking long way to China”
The day before the operation there was a long planning session in the Operations Room. Suffolk was to shoot off one of her Walrus amphibians to spot for the gunfire, and if there was any ‘difficulty; - “ie when the poor sod is shot down” muttered Bill — a second Walrus would take over, and if he had any difficulty, then we would take over, Hudson No. 2 taking over if we got the chop.
Perhaps sensing a certain amount of unease, the Ops Room Controller added “We might be able get a fighter Blenheim over to give you backup.”
“How many ‘lls’ in bullshit?” muttered my navigator. “A Mark IV Blenheim with enough petrol to get to Norway, have a scrap with a Hun, and still get back!!”
If they were laying on four spotting aircraft they obviously considered that a few of us were going to cop it
We were to carry a load of incendiary bombs, the idea being — in the pre-dawn light - to start a fire of some sort on which Suffolk could sight her opening salvo.
With a Naval Lt. Commander to spot for the fall of shot, and a naval signaller on board we took off just at 0115 hours and circled Leuchars with our navigation lights on, waiting for our No. 2 to join us. But could see no sign of him, so after a few minutes we switched off our lights and set off for Norway without him. We’d miss his backup.
(On our return, we learned that he’d had complete electrical failure, so had had to go back.)
Having made our landfall and met up with Suffolk, we ran in on the aerodrome. Some anti-aircraft hate came up at us, but after we released our incendiaries we carried on and dropped a flare over the centre of the aerodrome as a further mark for Suffolk.
I took up my spotting line just out to sea, saw the first four gouts of ruddy flame as Suffolk fired one gun from each turret, and handed over the direction of things to the Navy, being now fully occupied with anti-aircraft lookout. Also wishing that my No. 2 would appear to give me support if I was jumped by anything.
The gunner came up on the intercom. “Aircraft coming up astern. Looks like a fighter Blenheim.”
So they’d kept their promise…
Tracer smoke streaked six feet beneath me and spiralled ahead.
I went into an immediate steep turn, slamming open the throttles.
Then the gunner’s belated ”He’s opened fire. It’s a Junkers 88,” came over the intercom.
It was a forgivable error: in the still-poor light before sunrise the frontal views of the Blenheim and the 88 were much the same. But it had enabled an aircraft of similar
performance to get on my tail, and the pilot soon proved that he was no tyro. Try as I might, he remained on my tail, and I just couldn’t get on his.
A bullet going through the cabin of a metal aircraft makes a noise like cracking a whip and smashing a window at the same time, and they were now coming at depressingly close intervals. Then, as I looked over my left shoulder, I saw some of McAdies’ bullets going into the region of his port engine. It looked as though he’d connected. Either that, or he had shot off all his ammunition, for he broke away and vanished to the south.
Apart from the holes in the metalwork all seemed well with our Hudson. We’d kept no navigation log during the scrap, so it took a bit of time to find ourselves - about 20 miles south of Stavanger. Hurrying back to the shooting match, our reward was that Suffolk, apparently thinking that the 88 had won, let fly at us with her anti-aircraft guns.
(Three times during the Norwegian Campaign the Navy shot at me, but you could hardly blame them. In difficult weather conditions and poor light mistakes were often made, and when you consider that a ship like Suffolk had a crew of about 600, an aircraft and its crew of four, was low priority.)
We fired off a recognition flare, indicated our profound displeasure on our Aldis signalling lamp, and carried on with the spotting.
We got home in time for breakfast.
Investigating matters at the Public Record Office years later, when writing my book, I was distressed to learn that ‘Operation Duck’ had been a complete disaster. (I felt that Donald Duck must have had a hand in the organisation.)
The biggest single error was the Navy’s opting for a wireless frequency that Coastal Command had already dropped as a night frequency as it was so unreliable. When my wireless operator pointed this out we could not signal a change of frequency to Suffolk as she had already left Scapa Flow, and complete wireless silence was imposed. On the day of the shoot Suffolk read one spotting correction from Walrus No.1, and nothing at all from No. 2 or from us.
This mystifies me, as my naval officer made no complaint whatsoever at the time.
Apparently the anti-aircraft fire which the aerodrome defences shot off at us as we went in on our incendiary run was enough to prevent Suffolk from identifying our sighting flare — to them it appeared to be all part of the general Guy Fawkes performance you can expect when you fly over a chap’s aerodrome at four in the morning and drop bombs on him. Which we found odd s the flak wasn’t all that bad, and was an integral part of one’s contract of employment, so to speak.
To cut a long story short, Suffolk had to fire almost blind and did, I suspect, very little damage.
After the shoot Suffolk had been ordered to go further north to investigate reported German destroyers, so turned 30 miles out the sea before turning northwards. The long-range fighters by now laid on to escort her expected to find her close inshore, so never connected, and throughout the whole day was subjected to intense and damaging air attack. She crawled into Scapa Flow in such a state that her captain ran her ashore to prevent her from sinking.
When you read about this sort of thing you wonder how we ever won the war. The simple answer is that the other side do exactly similar things, and in the case of the Nazi
dictatorship far worse inefficiencies were heaped from above by Hitler’s personal inter-vention on their military planners’ existing mistakes. Just think of Hitler’s colossal error in sitting back and allowing the Expeditionary Force to get out of Dunkerque in 1940. On the credit side, actions that seemed to be of no consequence at the time were found later to have had bonuses. You can’t practice all the real aspects war in peacetime, you just have fight it to find out.
But it was a great disappointment to find that I had played a lead part in one of the cock-ups. And no-one told me about it at the time. I thought we’d done quite well.
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