My name is Archibald Hamilton Dick
I was fifteen when WW2 started and can remember the day war was declared but as a schoolboy at Brentwood Grammar School the war had touched me even earlier because I can remember before breaking up for the summer holidays we boarders were employed issuing gas masks to the citizens of Brentwood. At 16 I felt very adult making a contribution from the start.
My family then lived in a residential hotel called Ruskin Manor at the top of Denmark Hill SE London. The day war was declared, I recall the air raid syrens sounding about eleven o'clock shortly followed by the all clear. It was presumably a warning to the public as to what it could expect subsequently. Of course it was not until the following spring that the war really hotted up.
I continued at school until the summer of 1940 when, having gained my School Leaving Certificate with credit, my father was forced to remove me because the family finances only allowed my brother's education to continue if I left.
The real war started for me with the retreat from Dunkirk when the facts of war first became serious and personal. A few months later I witnessed the Battle of Britain taking place over my head in the July, August and September 1940. Being in SE London we had a grandstand view of the titanic struggle going on day aftr day with the intricate patterns of the contrails the most evident witness to the dog fights taking place. We could also hear the distant sound of machine gun and cannon fire. Little did we realise the critical nature of the danger the nation was in nor how close the call would be. We listened nightly to the radio to learn the outcome of the day's battles and were cheered by the German losses and grieved at our own.
Then after the RAF bombed Berlin, the Luftwaffe turned its attention on to London and SE London was subjected to virtually nightly air raids. We would hear the bombs screaming down, the thump of their explosions and the Anti Aircraft guns barking their reply. Periodically we would hear the spent fragments of AA shells tinkling as they hit the roadway outside and we would collect the jagged fragments in the morning and also the occasional fuse timer caps of the shells. I do not recall any feeling of overwhelming fear, rather a sense of fatalism combined with the conviction that we would not know much about a direct hit and in any case it would be the chap next door who would cop it. As we lived in a bungalow annexe our sole precaution was to sleep under the bed rather than on it.
In the autumn of 1940 I got my first job as a clerk with the South London Electricity Company just off Coldharbour Lane and on reaching the age of 17 I joined the company's Home Guard platoon whose duties were mainly those of firewatching at night on a rotational basis. My most memorable event at this period occurred on the night of 10th May 1941 when I was in the section detailed to firewatch at South Bank Power Station. It turned out to be the night of one of the heaviest raids on central London. I had to go out with my shift and dispose of any incendiaries landing on the flat roof of the power station either by shovelling them off or trying to douse them with buckets of sand and our stirrup pumps! The area around was an inferno of bursting bombs and buildings on fire. I actually saw an aircraft on fire crashing on the other side of the Thames. What a night! My cousin, who was a RNVR Lieutenant on Corvettes on the North Sea convoy run, had spent the night at our home on a visit. He declared he would rather be at sea than suffer the bombing raids.
I had volunteered to join the RAF at 17 but was not called forward until I reached 18 in March 42. My interest in flying had been aroused when I was 12 and at Prep School in Old Woking when the school was visited by a group of WW1 pilots who, seeing that war with Germany was inevitable, went around schools getting boys interested in aviation. They called their organisation the Empire Air League. They distributed postcard pictures of the latest British aircraft and issued leaflets and distinctive badges which of course were popular with the boys.
My entry into the RAF was via a scheme called the University Short Course which was open to those who had gained university standard entrance qualification. I chose Glasgow University because I had relatives in that city. So after the general RAF induction process carried out at St John's Wood London I found myself a member of Glasgow University Air Squadron in April 42. It was a gentleman's entry to the Service avoiding the system similar to that now known as boot camp conducted at Initial Training Wings around the country. We were given the basic RAF training such as drill, weapons, signals and aircraft identification but in addition we received lectures on aviation allied subjects at university level such as meteorology, aircraft engineering and maths. The scheme offered those who attained a sufficiently high level of results in these subjects the opportunity to re-enter the University after the war. I have to admit that I was not anxious to take advantage of this offer because flying was what I wanted most and in any case my maths, which I had abandoned at age 16, was not up to university level. We lived like university undergrads in halls of residence across Kelvin Park from the university. The University Air Squadron was commanded by Sqn Ldr Bill Peck who had suffered injury from being shot down in his Hurricane in the North African campaign. Apart from the work one of the major events during this time was that on a social visit to one of my distant relatives I met a girl, Agnes, who was to be my wife - and is my wife to this day. On completion of the course we were reviewed on our Passing Out Parade by Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. I was to meet her again many years later and she was just the same sweet lady - definitely one of my favourite Royals.
The next phase of training was the Grading School. This was where the aspiring aircrew were given basic training on the De Haviland Tiger Moth biplane to determine who was considered to be fit for further pilot training or reselected for navigator or bomb aimer training. In my case this took place at 7 Elementary Flying Training School, Desford the airfield home of Reid And Sigrist makers of flying instruments. My instructor was a Flt Lt Robb who I believe had been a WW1 pilot. Happily he saw fit to send me solo after about 10 hours instruction and to grade me as fit for pilot training. I was billet orderly the momentous November morning before I was sent solo and remember the tune which was being played on the barrackroom Tannoy was Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" - which was a good omen. One's first solo flight is an experience no pilot ever forgets. It's scary, it's exhilarating to be in sole charge of an aircraft for the very first time, even a Tiger Moth, and finally it's immensely satisfying.
7 EFTS was followed by a 'holding' period pending our next move. This took place at Brighton where we were billeted in the Grand Hotel one of several hotels owned by Lord Critchley which had been stripped and turned into barracks. I understand the deal was that the governemnt would in return refurbish them free after the war. Whilst at Brighton, we would occasionally have to take cover when German fighter aircraft, usually solo, would make intrusive raids and strafe the waterfront presumably for nuisance value since they were not very damaging. Eventually after a month of drilling, lectures and fitness runs along the waterfront to Hove and back our next postings were published. Mine was to Canada for pilot training.
So it was in January 1943 that I found myself bound under the Empire Air Training Scheme for Canada on the RMS Queen Mary. Beyond home aircraft range it was not escorted because its speed combined with zigzag courses wss deemed to be sufficient to elude any u-boats. Unlike the return trip later it was an uneventful crossing and after four days we docked in New York harbour in the evening. I had volunteered for baggage unloading and the baggage party was given the treat of going on the baggage truck all the way up Broadway to Central Station. What a sight that was to see Broadway all lit up after years of blackout! From Central station we went by train to Monckton , New Brunswick, which was the holding depot. There we were kitted out for the Canadian winter and our pilot training. My first impression of Canada was one of unbelievable freshness. Apart from the pristine beauty of the landscape covered in deep crisp snow, the barracks and mess hall were built entirely of fresh smelling pinewood and the kitchen serverys were of stainless steel and all was the last word in hygeine. Amd food was plentiful!
After a month at Monckton a crowd of us were transported by rail to Saskachewan a journey of three days via Winnipeg where we were generously regaled with refreshemnts by the ladies of the local WI equivalent. Our final destination was Assiniboia a small town less than 40 miles from the border with Montana USA. To the accompniment of the clanging bells of the Canadian Pacific Railway engine we disembarked at the station which was a low wooden platform with a building not much bigger than a garden shed and driven through Assiniboia town. The town was straight out of the wild west movies: a dirt main road, hitching rails. a wooden sidewalk and wooden buildings. But in the shops you could buy Parker pens and silk stockings. The nearby airfield was by contrast right up to date. Its hangars and barrack blocks ruggedly built of wood but centrally heated and with every modern convenience.
It was here that our flying training started in earnest. The aircraft we flew was the De Havilland Tiger Moth 2c., the only distinction from the UK version being a sliding cockpit canopy and some elementary cockpit heating as protection from the cold. My flying instructor was Sgt Greenland who, as an introduction to the course, flew me over a nearby field with a burnt patch in the middle for which he claimed responsibility! From this I gathered that distant Assiniboia was where the 'naughty boys' were sent to instruct. Of course the 'naughty boys' often made the best pilots and instructors. Flying training took place alongside ground training in navigation, meteorology, morse signalling, airframes and engines, physical training and such. We were of course marched everywhere. Elementary flying which was what this stage was called seemed to proceed without too much concern except that I could not master the coordination needed to execute a 'slow roll' aerobatic and on one solo flight so mishandled the aircraft that I found myself diving vertically at nearly 140 mph well in excess of the maximum speed with the airsteam screaming through the wing wires and the wing spars creaking in protest. I eased the aircraft on to an even keel very gently! Although I was obliged to report the overstrain to have the aircraft checked out, I heard no more about it thankfully. But my difficulty with the more advanced aerobatics convinced my instructor at the end of three months that I was not fighter material and so, whilst he considered me suitable for further training, it would be on twin engined aircraft - The Airspeed Oxford.
The sheer grandeur of the prairies had a strange effect on some people: the wide horizons, the glorious sunsets through the suspended dust, the spectaculsr thunderstorms and the sense of solitude made a distinct impression. Sgt Greenland was one such and he vowed that he would return after the war and settle there. I met him shortly after the war and he could not believe he had said that. Some people are similarly affected by long stays in the desert.
In April the EFTS course finished and we were sent to No 39 SFTS to complete the more advanced stage of training. This was at a town called Swift Current some 100 miles north of Assiniboia but still in the province of Saskatchewan. Swift Current was a pleasant town of some 15000 people with paved roads and modern facilities. The fact that it had trees was noteworthy because outside the town the nearest tree was a solitary blasted oak some fifty miles north in the middle of the prairies. Flying training was carried out on the Airspeed Oxford an aircraft derived from the Airspeed Courier(?) a small pre war passsenger carrier. It was a low wing twin engined monoplane with an enclosed cockpit having flying controls for two pilots side by side. One of its characteristics was that the engine starter motor had to be hand cranked by someone outside kneeling on the wing. Although produced in some numbers for the Empire Air Training Scheme in the war, so far as I know not one has survived even in a museum. It was a pleasant aircraft to fly.
Flying training at Swift Current included such techniques as cross country navigatiion, bombing and instrument flying, the last being supplemented by the use of a Link Trainer, the first predecessor of the modern cockpit trainer. On the ground we were taught more advanced meteorology, aircraft recognition and to send and receive morse code. During this phase three incidents stand out in my mind.
In the middle of the course I was detailed to fly a long solo cross country navigation sortie accompanied by another pupil in a second aircraft. The first leg of the route was uneventful and after our flight paths criscrossed from time to time, we reached our first turning point and turned towards the next one. But here we started to drift apart and I complacently scoffed my companion's navigation skills until I began failing to get the ground features to match my map. There was little excuse for navigational errors because all the fields on the Prairires were bounded by fences pointing due north, south, east and west other than where boundaries came to a natural feature such as a river. We had been told that when in doubt as to our position we should locate the nearest railway line fly up it until we came to one of the many grain silos on which the name of the halt would be prominently painted. The first one I came to had the name 'POOL' and not finding it on my map I flew to the next one only to find that too was marked 'POOL'. They were grain pools and I had clearly flown off the map! I was now concerned but had sufficient sense to steer the reciprocal of my last course until I could once again recognise the ground features and set course directly for base as I was getting low on fuel.
The second memorable event was our final night cross country navigation exercise which was to the city of Saskatoon and back. For some reason the bulk of my course were on the same exercise so beforehand we got together and decided to ginger up the lives of the inhabitants of Saskatoon. Hence as we arrived en masse at Saskatoon which we could see clearly in the moonlight beside the river of the same name, we switched on our landing lights which gave out a strong beam and proceeded to beat up the town. What the town thought of this attention I do not know. I suspect the citizens were good sports because we did not get the collective raspberry we expected when we got back to base. One of my chums lost his maps out of the aircraft window during the beat up and had to formate on me to get back.
The third memorable occasion was of course our passing out graduation and award of our 'wings'. This was on the 8th August. No sooner was the parade over than we were treated to a prairie thunderstorm the like of which I have not seen since. The hailstone were literally as big as pigeon eggs and best avoided. That night I got tight for the first time in my life. Thus it was as a proud Sergeant Pilot that, with the rest of the course, I journeyed back by rail via the Great Lakes and a dead Toronto (it was Sunday) to Monckton to await our shipment home to the UK.
The flavour of the period was reflected in the popular music of the time; 'Brazil', 'That Old Black Magic' and Glen Miller's 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'.
We were held for a month in Monckton before we boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Halifax. This journey turned out to be a complete contrast to our journey west. For a start the complement included 17,500 servicemen, the vast bulk of whom were American soldiers doubtless destined for D Day some seven months later. We were consigned 24 to a cabin of four three tiered bunks on the basis that 12 would sleep in the bunks one night and in the passageway the next. For each person there were two meals a day 12 hours apart. My allocation was at 6 o'clock am and pm. The food was ample so what one did was make up sandwiches to eat in between. As things turned out eating was not the priority of the great majority on board because we hit what must have been the mother of all storms about a day out of Halifax. The sea was running so high that the spray was breaking over the bridge. The ship carried a small anti submarine gun on the foredeck and the waves had caused the decking to spring so that it would have been better as an ack ack gun! I was detailed to do a bulkhead guard in the bowels of the ship. In the event of an emergency you were required to shut and lock the bulkhead to provide a watertight seal and hope that you finished up on the right side. I could see down almost the full length of the ship and the force of the storm was such that the complete corridor was twisting like a corkscrew whilst at the same time you were subjected to G forces that made you weigh a ton one second and be light as a feather the next. Fortunately I had done a couple of crossings before and was a good sailor. But most of the passengers were not and spent alot of the time with their heads over the rails. I seem to redemember that the storm lasted 24 hours and even afterwards the sea was pretty rough. What made matters worse was that the QE had to maintain speed since she was unescorted all the way. Eventually, after some three days we sailed into into the Clyde and disembarked. I seem to recall that we were given instant disembarkation leave and I made my way to the Midlands home of my sweetheart, Agnes, to whom I was able to deliver a treat of the silk stockings and Chanel perfume I had bought in Canada.
There followed six months of spasmodic air and ground training which included periods in holding units of which the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate (another of Critchley's 'barrack blocks') was one. I can only suppose that this deferment was because the RAF casualty rates must have fallen below expectations. Some of the air training took place along the southern coast of the Moray Firth. On one occasion when I was detailed to be duty runway controller at RAF Lossiemouth, a Beaufighter aircraft was cleared to land on one engine, the other having failed. The pilot lost control on the final approach to land and crashed straight into the village cemetery, sadly killing the crew. It was a sobering sight and my first experience of an aircraft loss.
Finally I was posted to No 19 Operational Unit (OTU) at Kinloss, still on the Moray Firth, to begin my preparation for eventual operational flying with Bomber Command. The most significant event here was the formation of air crews. One morning shortly after arrival everyone on the course, be he pilot, navigator, flight engineer, wireless operator, bomb aimer or air gunner, was assembled into one large room and in effect told to sort themselves out. There was no preselection process. Incredibly, in a short time crews were formed. Perhaps because I was a Sergeant Pilot and most of the other trades were also Sergeants, birds of a feather flocked together. The consequences of this haphazard method would be serious enough because we would have to depend on each other for our very lives. Somehow it seemed to work.
My crew were Douggie Copland, navigator, Cyril (Ricky) Rickard, flight engineer, Bob Panter, bomb aimer, Stan Berwick, wireless operator, Geordie Preston and Rolly Whittle air gunners. Douggie Copland and Stan Berwick came from Edinburgh: Ricky Rickard from the Home Counties: Bob Panter from Canada: and both Geordie Preston and Rolly Whittle from Newcastle. We all seemed to hit it off rightaway but sadly half way through the course it was found that Bob Panter had an ear defect which permanently grounded him and so we lost him. He was not immediately replaced. We were detached to the satellite grass airfield at Forres, near Elgin, for our flying.
Operational training was done on Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys, a pre-war twin engined lumbering all metal monoplane affectionately known as the 'Flying Coffin' not because it was innately dangerous but because in side view it resembled an elongated box in a slightly nose down atitude and its progress was funereal. It had carried out early wartime operations, minelaying, leaflet dropping some bombing but was no match for German Fighters such as the Me 109 so it was now employed in the training role. It was grossly under powered but was very stable in flight. It took an age to climb to height but took almost as long to descend because of its thick high lift wings. Access from front to rear was via a small metal tunnel barely big enough to crawl through on hands and knees. It was on this aircraft then that the crew was welded together and finally graduated. The 'Screen' gunnery officer who had to assess the capability of the two gunners said he hoped I could understand their Geordie accent because he could no way interpret their directions when they had been simulating enemy aircraft attack! Happily I could. Shortly before leaving Kinloss I was granted a commisssion and became a Pilot Officer.
It was back to Harrogate for two months before we were sent to Langar near York for Operational Conversion ie converted to an operational aircraft, in this case the Handley Page Halifax mkll. This aircraft was one of the two heavy four engined bombers in current operational use so we were getting close to the sharp end in earnest. Other than running out of runway one wet,dismal night due to aquaplaning, fortunately without damage to the aircraft or ourselves,the course was without incident. We did at this stage acquire our replacement bomb aimer, coincidentally another Bob from Canada. He had married just before leaving Canada and was a little older than the rest other than Ricky. We graduated at the end of one month awaiting the information as to which operational squadron we were to be posted to. To our surprise we were told that we were being converted to the Lancaster aircraft and so found ourselves sent to Feltwell, near Cambridge, instead. We completed this conversion in three weeks during which I managed to 'adjust' a cross country exercise to include a visit to the home of my sweetheart, Agnes, and give her and the local villagers a close look at the Lancaster in flight! For a large bomber, the Lancaster mk ll was a delight to fly, the controls being particularly well balanced, and the aircraft both powerful and manoeuvrable. It also had a very large bomb bay. From Feltwell we were at last posted on 17 December 1944 to an operational squadron No 115 Squadron at Witchford, near Ely.
Up to now I had had few qualms regarding my safety in the air but now I had a crew to think of and we were engaged in a real life game of Russian Roulette. Happily, though at all times fearful, we did not then appreciate the extent to which the dice was loaded against us.
Our first ten days were spent settling in and learning the routine of an operational station. Then on 31 December 1944 came my baptism of fire. I wondered if I would see 1945. It was the practice that captains first undertook two trips as second pilots to observe what was expected of them and their crews. So I flew with
an experienced captain on a daylight attack on a railway junction at Vohwinkel a short distance behind the German front line. This was the time of the German Ardennnes offensive. We flew in a loose formation called a 'gaggle' and it was reassuring to see other aircraft around. Over the target there was a fair amount of ack ack which in daylight always seems worse because the smoke of the bursts remain giving the impression of an impenetrable wall of shellfire. The raid was otherwise uneventful and I was much relieved; only to find that our raid had not been effective and I was detailed to do another second pilot trip to Vohwinkel on New Year's Night. This time it appears we were more accurate. At night ack ack appears as star bursts, a twinkling effect, but nonetheless lethal. One also feels more lonely being unable to see the accompanying aircraft. I remember, having nothing else to do but observe, feeling distinctly vulnerable and afraid. Back at base we were reinvigorated with a tot of rum in our tea before being debriefed and going to bed.
Two days later we flew as a crew on our first raid, a daylight sortie to Dortmund. It was one of the biggest bomber operations up to that time and reported in the press as a '1000 bomber' raid. As a Ruhr target it was much more heavily defended and so more frightening but because all had a job to do it was oddly not quite so nerve wracking.
I do not propose to describe each raid we carried out, only one. For one thing with advancing years the details seem to merge into a 'blanket' memory. Howeever,one or two vivd memories remain.
On one night raid. as we were on our way to a target, I saw an aircraft going exactly the opposite way probably no more than hundred feet to port and slightly above. Despite the total darkness I recognised its silhouette as a Halifax. One has to wonder how many of our losses were due to collision. Certainly I lost a friend, Tom O'Halloran, this way when, on his way to Meurseburg, he and another companion aircraft collided with the loss of two complete crews other than the other tail gunner who survived to tell the tale after the war. Other hazards included being bombed by a friendly aircraft above. On one diversion to Exeter, Witchford being closed for weather, I saw a Lancaster with its tail turret neatly removed as if by surgery due to a bomb from above. Also we were given to understand that the Germans had an ack ack shell which simulated an aircraft being hit, its obbject being to demoralise the bomber force. It was known anmong crews as a 'Flaming Onion'. After the war it was found that there was no such shell and what we saw was in fact aircraft being shot down. Of course in daylight there was no disguising a direct hit.
Landing back at base could also be exciting. At that time of year we had regularly to carry out an instrument descent down to 200 feet above ground over the airfield and carry out a circuit following lights laid out on the ground called the Drem System. Neither were we free of possible enemy action. Two of our Squadron's aircraft had been shot down the year before whilst in the circuit returning from a raid, by an enemy intruder aircraft. On one occasion we were diverted because of bad weather to Woodbridge on the Yorkshire coast and landed in fog using Fido, a fog dispersing system which was simply a perforated petrol pipe down each side of the runway where petrol under pressure was set alight literally burning the fog away. What the pilot saw on his final approach was a flaming inferno with a black tunnel in the middle in which he had to land despite the inevitable air turbulence.
Life on an operational station was in many ways strange. We would go into action with all the accompanying dangers and return to the comfort, such as it was, of the Mess and our billets all in one day - and then repeat the exercise a couple of days later. We spent any spare time we had with our crews with the result that other mess members were, with few exceptions, really acquaintances rather than friends. This to some extent reduced the sense of loss when crews did not return. Obviously superstition was rampant and crews would take mascots with them or observe particular rituals which had seen them through their first 'ops'. I wore a white silk scarf which Agnes had embroidered with the word 'Mizpah' taken from the Old Testament
story of Ruth. One ritual on our squadron was not to be photographed as a crew for the Press. Sadly I still have the press photograph of Tom O'Halloran's crew, taken for press coverage of a raid on Dortmund, shortly before he was lost. All was chance. I have a current friend who carried out 96 operations as a tail gunner without so much as a scratch! Yet when he was grounded with a heavy cold which prevented him flying, his crew was shot down and lost. It was said that after 8 'ops' we were paying for our training though how this was arrived at is beyond me. But many a good crew did not even make this target. All was chance and one had to persevere in the face of it.
When we had a break on a Saturday we would go as a crew to Cambridge and have tea at a little teashop where they served guinesa fowl eggs. These were off rations. I think it was as much the atmosphere of normality as anything which gave us relief because as operational crews we were treated to egg and bacon meals before and after raids as a matter of course. Being mid winter the abiding memories of this time were of a cold, dull, grey environment and living for the day. It was a tribute to our ground crews that they worked, often outside, at all times and in all weathers servicing and repairing the aircraft.
The one raid which was for us exceptional was the contentious raid on Dresden on the night of 13 February 1945. To us it appeared as just another gut wrenching operation over an uncomfortably long distance. We were briefed that the German war administration had been transferred from Berlin to Dresden and we were to deal a significant blow to the capability of the Germans to continue.
From early on the trip was ill fated. We lost our main navigation aid, 'Gee', before we had even reached the English Channel. Moreover the Bomb Aimer could not get the secondary aid, H2S, to work. H2S gave a radar picture of the ground below but could be detected by enemy night fighters so had to be used with discretion. Further due to cloud we were unable to positively identify our point of crossing of either the English or the French coasts. We therefore proceeded entirely by dead reckoning navigatiion. Unable ot detect any wind changes we were forced to use the met forecast winds given at briefing and to fly speeds headings and heights with the utmost accuracy. Neither could we be sure we were in the main stream of bombers which we relied on for protection. Over the centre of Germany Douggie tried the H2S in desperation and found it to work! He got a radar picture of a large town or city but could only relate it to where he expected to be and proceed accordingly. Eventually we turned towards Dresden. From about a hundred miles away we could see a distinct glow in the sky and as we got closer it became a city on fire the like of which I had not seen before. Everything was aflame and the smoke was billowing thousands of feet and cast a crimson canopy over the whole scene. We could see the street plan in ribbons of fire and down below I could see a small aircraft which I thought might have been a fighter but could have been the Master Bomber whose instructions we were now following. The town was so well ablaze because there had been an earlier wave of pathfinder bombers. We made our run and dropped our bombs adding to the inferno just 15 seconds before the time allocated to us. Douggie's navigatiion had been quite outstanding.
We turned for home and a few minutes later heard a bang and felt a thud below our starboard wing. The crew all reported being OK so we proceeded when after another few minutes Ricky, the flight engineer, reported that the starboard inner engine was losing oil pressure and the temperature was rising. This could only mean that the engine lubricating oil pipe had been severed. So according to procedure we closed down this engine and feathered its propellors by turning the blades into the airstream to offer the least resistance. This we could only do once because we had exhausted the oil reserve by which we could do this.
On three engines we made our way back across Germany along the briefed route conscious that now being slower we would be dropping further behind the main stream and become vulnerable to any night fighters which might be directed our way. Happily after some time we crossed the battlefront into re occupied France and approached the French coast. Here we were required to make a maximum rate descent down to 5000 feet ostensibly to get below German radar preventing them from sending up night fighters.
At the bottom of the descent for some reason the feathered engine began 'uneathering' ie the blades started to turn against the slipstream. Having no means of stopping this the blades went full fine, becoming in effect a disc, acting like an airbrake. The engine revs went off the clock creating a crescendo of noise and, with no lubrication it quickly becanme red hot with sparks flying past the tail gunner. Soon the engine cowling was cherry red and flames were appearing. It was only a question of time before
one of the fuel tanks caught fire or the wing main spar failed. So whilst the aircraft was under control I gave the order to abandon the aircfaft.
The crew went out by parachute in order from the front escape hatch, bombaimer, flight engineer, navigator, signaller,mid upper gunner and tail gunner; and with the aircraft suitably trimmed, myself. I counted to five and pulled the parachute ripcord. There was a comforting
'crack' as the chute opened and a blessed silence after the scream of the engine.Ilanded in a farmer's field close to Courtrai and in the early dawn made my way to the farm. The farmer,whose name was M. Poissonier. and his family made me a hearty breakfast and escorted me to the local Mairie in St Quentin where I was put in touch with the nearest British Services authority. I was sent to a nearby RAF unit where I met up with the rest of the crew with the exception of Geordie, the mid upper gunner. Since he had baled out two before me, we were not concerned at that stage. We were booked into a hotel in Paris for a night and given an advance of pay and transport. We celebrated our good fortune in style on champagne and returned to camp with a sizeable hangover. There I was told that an airman's body had been found not far from where we had baled out and was asked to identify if it was Geordie. Sadly it was. For some reason his chute had not opened correctly and he had fallen directly through some trees in a wood onto leaf litter on the ground. Remarkably he appeared totally unscathed and at peace in the attitude of sleep I had occasionally seen him in his billet back home. We could only think that he had pulled his ripcord too early and caught his chute somewhere on the aircraft and been ejected through the harness. We buried him next day, a miserable wet February day which reflected our mood.
And then we flew home and went on leave in time for me to celebrate my 21st birthday wth Agnes'family and the champagne I had brought over from Paris.
Much has been said and written about the RAF raid on Dresden. The city had already been bombed by the US Air Force on a few occasions without comment. It was obviously the firestorm which distinguished this raid from its predecessors. It has since been revealed that the city was by no means the 'open city' it was claimed to be at the time. Although a participant, whilst I naturally regret the casualties and suffering caused, I do not have a sense of guilt. I had been at the receiving end of German bombing earlier and had been inured by Warsaw, Rotterdam and the German tactics of gunning down fleeing refugees in the conquest of France ie the early introduction of Total War. For three years Britain had sufferd one defeat after another and had only survived by the slenderest of margins. We could not let up until the Germans surrendered. What was distasteful was the way Churchill subsequently distanced himself from the action he had himself sanctioned.
The crew, now reconstituted, went on to do three more operations without further mishap. But before the war ended we flew five trips to Holland on 'Operation Manna' dropping food from low level to the starving Dutch. After the destruction we had been meting out, it was a delight to be on a mercy mission even though we could see we were being tracked by German 88m anti aircraft guns. The Dutch were so grateful that they held an annual remembrance and 25 years later gave a celebratery party at the Dutch Embassy for the veterans who had taken part which I attended.
Strangely I cannot remember anything special of the celebrations for VE Day other than an all ranks dance in the Airmens' Mess. Of course we were earmarked to take part in the Far East War but VJ Day thankfully intervened.
Thus ended my part in World War 2
With peace came disbandment and the crew went their various ways and lost touch. I elected to remain in the RAF as,for a spell, did Douggie. He was my best man at my wedding to Agnes in 1947. But he subsequently joined the Colonial Police and as an Inspector he was stabbed to death in 1951 by two coloured men he caught robbing a warehouse in Mombassa. Such a sad end to such a fine fellow. I made the RAF my career and retired in 1975 as a Wing Commander. Ricky also made the RAF his career and reached the rank of Squadron Leader in the Supply Branch but I only saw him a couple of times fleetingly.
(To be continued)