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Flying the Vickers Wellington bomber in 1941 — 1942 : poems written by a former Wireless Operator / Air-Gunner (WOP/AG).

by John Cocker

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
John Cocker
People in story: 
George Edward Cocker
Location of story: 
Marham, Norfolk
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A8927382
Contributed on: 
28 January 2006

George Cocker in the RAF uniform of an Air Gunner in 1941.

I joined the RAF as an 18 year old cadet, from my job as a telegraph boy in the Post Office in Liverpool, in December 1939. I had been a member of the Civil Air Guard which allowed me to obtain experience of flying on a part-time basis. I had had 8 hours dual flying experience at the cost of five shillings an hour when the War intervened!

Whilst on a training flight on the 14th November 1940, I saw the air attack on Coventry. I have recounted this experience in “Training flight, 1940.”

From January to July 1941, I was with an operational squadron, number 218, based at Marham in Norfolk. As part of a crew of six, I was the wireless operator / air gunner on Wellington 1C R1496 O-AH (O for “Orange”) in a squadron of twelve aircraft. My first operational flying experience was on a leaflet raid on the 31st December 1940, as described in "Nickel Raid 1940."

My tour of 30 operations included several night-time visits to Brest in France in which our objective was the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which were in harbour there. The poem, “Briefing,” relates to this experience. Other flights took me to various targets in Germany, including the main naval base at Kiel as narrated in "Waylaid."

My final two operations, in a total of thirty three, were in 1942 when I was an instructor and involved me in the so-called "thousand bomber raids." The poem “Cologne 1942” describes one of these raids.

Subsequently, I was posted to the Middle East as an instructor before returning to the UK, and ending the war as an Adjutant.

Post-War, I married and became a school teacher.

____________________________________________

'Training Flight 1940.'

“That’s Coventry,” the pilot bawled.
His gloved hand jabbed to port.
The navigator conned his map
And nodded in support.

We cruised along at ninety knots,
Three thousand feet of height,
And watched the stricken city burn,
On that November night.

The wavering searchlights picked us up
As we veered from the fray.
Then, certain of our friendly shape,
They doused or swung away.

Our flight, a practice training run,
To find our way by night,
For the time when we would qualify
To set Cologne alight...
____________________________________________

'Nickel Raid 1940'

"Sprog Crew ...
What’s the flamin’ Air Force coming to ...
To risk a precious kite on such a night
To drop a load of bum paper over France...
Whilst the Jerries dance and whoop it up,
And the French sit in the dark and shiver.."

The Chiefy binds away ..
And the ground crew mutely listen..
Plug in the starter ...
Peer out of balaclavas ...
Cough, spit, and shuffle in the snow..
"The Air Force isn’t what it was…
Before these political bods
Thought to even the score
With another war ..."

He kicks the starbord tyre..
Walks around the tail
And kicks the port..
"Pilot's O.K. ... pre-war ...
Survived the Heligoland show..
Another bloody disaster
To add to our victories ..."

We climb aboard ...
A crew of sprogs ...
Stiff in our new issue flying togs.
Self-conscious, cold and wondering ...
The ground crew stamp their feet ...
Impatient to get back to the warm fug
Of the crowded N.A.A.F.I.
And what’s left of New Year’s Eve..

The engines cough, snarl and roar ...
The Wimpy shakes, quivers, and vibrates..
And just when it seems
That it must tear itself apart..
The noise subsides..
The chocks are pulled..
The waving torches guide us to the fray..

Somewhere ahead the Germans drink French wine..
Toast the Fuehrer in brandy..
Sing ‘Gott strafe England’…
Write letters home...
And man the guns...
We freeze at minus thirty...
Curse the cold, the Air Force,
And the war...
Drone on, and on across endless clouds...
And see nothing ...

Published by the Salamander Oasis Trust and Orion Books (formerly J.M.Dent) in “Poems of the Second World War” Everyman series, 1985.
___________________________________________

“Good show, chaps…”

“Good show, chaps…” the Winco drawled...
He fumbled for the score ...
A heavy silence drowned his words.
He was a very charming man ...
The very essence of elan ...
True blue to the core ...
He never took an easy trip ...
He did his share and more ...

“I thought I ought to say a word
About the ops last night ...”
Dawn grey faces met his gaze
He stumbled on without support,
Longing to be gone ...

“Our casualties last night were grim ...
But war is war ... I won’t say more..
My thanks to everyone.”
And glancing quickly at his watch,
He made his getaway ...

“Good show, chaps,” an Aussie mimed,
To raise a weary laugh ...
We grimly thought of trips to come,
Of more good shows to match this one ...
And lumbered off to meet the day..
Red eyed and sleepless from the fray.

With Tommy lying in the morgue...
All but cut in two ...
As though a scythe had done its work,
To slice him cleanly through.
Whilst standing by the pilot’s seat
To watch the grand attack,
He fell a victim to Fate’s whim,
A shell of heavy flak
Cut through his taut spare youthful frame ...
And in a trice snuffed out his flame ...
To leave the plane a wreck.
The wonder is they nursed it home ...
To pancake on a bed of foam.

The second victim of the night
Lay like a crumpled bird ...
The evidence of shot and shell
For all to see, and some to tell,
Of a brief encounter that went well
For an intruding ’88 ...
He stalked them coming from the coast..
Had them on a piece of toast ...
Raked them from below ...
The first they knew that he was there,
Was when his burst hit fair and square
And almost laid them low.

The Kiwi, Mac, shared in the fun,
With three nine-millies in the bum ...
Which caused no end of mirth.
As, standing on his blood stained legs,
He tucked into his breakfast eggs ...
Before they carted him away
To live, and die another day ...

'88' : Junkers JU88 nightfighter.

Published by the Salamander Oasis Trust and Orion Books (formerly J.M.Dent) in “More Poems of the Second World War” Everyman series, 1989.

____________________________________________

'Briefing.'

“Scharnhorst and Gneisenau..
Holed up in Brest…
Quite a tough target,
But don’t be depressed.”
Intelligence beamed
And turned on his charm,
To have us believe
We would come to no harm…
With their fireworks alone,
Some sixty-odd guns,
And a similar number
Defending the port,
It would hardly come under
The heading of sport !

“It is also reported..”
He now went dead-pan,
“Four squadrons of fighters
Have been moved in support -
But on this we are waiting
A final report ...”
“An approach from the sea
Would seem the best plan ...
The searchlights, too,
Have been strengthened of late ...”
Sotto voce, the Skipper ...
“Jeeze, I can’t wait
For the fun to begin ...”
Intelligence paused
For his gen to sink in.

“They are ringing the targets,
As you would expect,
With formidable cones..
So treat with respect ...
The whole area here
Is on special alert ...”
As he waved with his wand
His confidence grew.
As he breezily spoke
Of the secrets he knew..
Of balloons here and there…
“So don’t go in low ...”
And other surprises above and below.

“A smokescreen is likely,
And camouflage nets ...”
We won’t be made welcome,
Was the surest of bets ...
“You think he’d been there ...”
Quipped the volunteer Yank
Forgetting the difference in
Status and rank ...
“Any questions ?” he asked
As he spread his gaze wide.
“Yes..” a wag from the back
“Is God on our side ?”
____________________________________________

'Waylaid.'

Like felons of the night
We sped from Kiel,
Leaving our mark of destruction.
Harried by flak, thankful to be gone....
No thoughts of joy or jubilation,
As westward we fled the ebbing night,
To race and pace the rising sun,
Leaving behind the wrath of the enemy
Stung in his "Hornet's Nest,"
Wounded in his might and pride.

Yet we were glad - just glad to be alive -
Not pay the forfeit for the night's destruction.
One more off the fateful score...
One more nearer to leave,
And reprieve for someone else's death.

A course to steer for base -
Hopes rise to meet the coast,
The Norfolk coast - somewhere ahead.

A slash of tracer streams across our path...
"Bloody Hell !" from Chidge,
And aims the Wimpy down,
Almost to the vertical -
Heading for the drink and swift oblivion.
Two 88s curving in
From the high beam, squirting destruction...
Swing the turret ... fire the guns.
Electric thoughts ...."Bloody Huns !"

They break away, flash overhead...
They should have had us cold ... and dead.
We plummet into soft grey cloud ...
Thumping hearts now speak aloud.
"Christ, that was close...
To jump us now, it's bloody nearly day."
Brittle mirth compounds with fear ...
Down to fifty feet and clear.
We cross the Norfolk coast.

'88' : Junkers JU88 nightfighter
____________________________________________

'The 31st Operation.'

We might have known
That there would be a catch ...
To match the occasion.
Thirty ops they said
Completes a 'tour.'
Sounds like a picnic ....
Or a leisurely perambulation
Around the scenic margins of the coast ...
Where teas with Hovis
Are the major hazard ...
And rural deans preside
To serve the host in splendid isolation ...

"Sorry, chaps," the Flight Commander droned ....
"But Group stress maximum effort ...
Every kite to go.
It should be quite a show."
He spoke his awkward lines
Without conviction ...
His words struck like a shower of ice
To freeze our hearts
And add a weight of doom to inner thoughts ...

"You have my word ..."
His twitching eye-lid froze
For just an instant.
"Your passes will be waiting on my desk ....
Signed, for your sure return ...
First thing .... tomorrow."

There was nothing more to say ...
Tomorrow was a night of fear away.
And sure returns
Were not the order of the day ....

Published by the Salamander Oasis Trust and Orion Books (formerly J.M.Dent) in “More Poems of the Second World War” Everyman series, 1989.
____________________________________________

'Poor Jones....'

"You admit the charge ?"
"Yes, Sir..."
His eyes were fixed
On the wall behind...
His mind on yesterday's date.

"When you should have been
With your squad on the range,
Getting off your quota...
You chose to break camp
To meet your girl in Worcester ..."

"Yes, Sir."

"Four hours night flying ... tonight.
Rear turret ... Circuits and bumps.
'D - Dog' ... 2200 hours...Alright ?"

"Yes, Sir."

Instead of ballast ...
Jones in the rear-turret ...
Time to think of his next date,
And the joys of night flying
With a couple of trainee pilots.

Poor Jones ....
They found him at dawn
In the mangled wreck ....
His rabbit's foot charm about his neck
His Aussie pilots crumpled, dead ...
His girl friend warm, asleep in bed.

The ways of Fate are surely strange,
He merely fled the firing range
To meet a new-found Worcester lass.
Then strolling down the Foregate Street
A smart S.P. he chanced to meet,
Who questioned him about his pass.
Poor Jones ....

'S.P.': Service Policeman.
____________________________________________

'Cologne 1942.'

The briefing room was crowded
With twenty crews or more ...
We saw the target map and route,
And guessed what was in store..

The C.O. enters briskly,
We clatter to our feet ;
The air is thick with rumour
Of a “Happy Valley” treat !

“A message from the C-in-C...”
We raise a hollow groan :
“A thousand aircraft on tonight,
Your target is Cologne.”

“Your job tonight, to start the fires —
First there will find it tough ...
Make it easy for the heavies
To drop their back-room stuff..”

“A thousand aircraft !” echoes round ...
A rousing cheer is raised.
“Four hundred Tiger Moths..” one quips
But still we are amazed.

“A thousand aircraft on Cologne..
Christ help the bods below ...”
“With a full moon and a clear sky..
Christ help the sods that go ...”

The banter crackles back and forth,
Weak jokes that mask strong fears ...
For some, tonight will end in death,
With horror, grief and tears ...

So we saunter to the flights —
Each with his thoughts alone.
Warsaw, Rotterdam, London burned…
For them tonight ... Cologne.

With acknowledgement to “The View from the Turret,” published by the Airgunners Association, in which this poem first appeared. Booklet available from the RAF Museum at Hendon, north of London.
____________________________________________

'L.M.F. Case.'

"You wished to see me
For personal reasons?"
I waited and scanned his face,
Searching for a clue.
"I am sorry to bother you ..."
His anguish gave pause,
Then stumbled on ....

"I can't continue with the course ..."
He made his declaration -
The affirmation of his fear ...
"I cannot fly ...."
"Cannot fly ... " I queried .. "Why ?"
But knew the answer ....
"Because I am afraid ..."

He spoke the simple fearful words ....
The Truth that most men lie.
Confused, I sat in silence,
Weighing up the cruel alternatives.

"How many hours have you flown ?"
"Twelve ..."
"Pity you didn't come to me before ..."
The pity was with him.
His eyes searched mine in hope.
Rather than betray, I looked away ....

"If you had decided on this course last week,
You could have withdrawn.
Unfit for further training ..."
"And now ... ?" he choked on his words.
"I can only refer the matter
To the Chief Instructor."

He looked beyond me
To the shame that lay ahead ....
"I kept telling myself
That I would get used to it ..."
He quietly said.
"But each time I flew,
I froze with fear ..."
"I'll do my best ..."
I lamely volunteer.

"Clear case ..." the C.I.
Gave the lead.
The M.O. and the Padre both agreed.
It was agreed ....
Confirmed by all on high.
Stripped of his rank ...
Cashiered ....
Disgraced ....
'Refused to fly.'

L.M.F. : "Lack of moral fibre."
____________________________________________

'Kiwi.'

If you should pass this way
And see this grave ...
A stone, a name, a number
Mark his place ....
Pause and reflect
Why he lies far from home,
Among the fallen of our Island race.

A child of peace,
Reluctant man of war ...
He sought not glory,
Or the fateful hour.
War's fearful rage
Embroiled him in its strife ...
His youth he gave
To break a tyrant's power.
_____________________________________

'Epitaph.'

Remember us not by a day
Extolling war's horror and blight ...
No prayers will restore us from clay ...
No anthems will shorten death's night ...

In the dust, we are brothers in dust ...
Death treats us the same, friend and foe ...
Our weapons are soon turned to rust ...
On our graves, the same grasses grow ...

Remember our youth at the dawn ...
At twilight, remember our pain ...
Plead not that we fought the good fight ...
For we are all brothers of Cain ...

Let the word prevail o'er the sword ...
And the lowly and meek have their say ...
The future is yours - we are dead ...
Remember us not by a day ...

Published by the Salamander Oasis Trust and Orion Books (formerly J.M.Dent) in “More Poems of the Second World War” Everyman series, 1989.

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