The coming of war

Sitting ducks

Fighting the cold

Flying over Rotterdam

The first raid on
Germany

An American in
Bomber Command

The Commonwealth
was under threat

Anti-invasion bombing

Bombing the barges

Bombing in the dark

Blenheims at war

Before the Lancs

A ruthless enemy

Massacre in daylight

First Trip in
a Manchester

 


Personal Stories

The following personal recollections of RAF bomber aircrews
are almost exclusively transcribed from interviews recorded
in the making of the two films Bomber Command: Reaping
the Whirlwind
and Bomber Command: Testament to Courage.
(both available on video from The Bomber Command Association).

 

 

 

Early Days

Categories 
   

Early Days
Dangers of war
Operations
Training
Between peace & war
Bomber Harris
The eternal dilemma

 

 

First raids of the war       Flt Lt Ken Doran, Blenheim pilot, 110 Squadron, (later Sqn Ldr) was awarded one of the first DFCs of the war for leading five Blenheims against a German battleship on 4th September, the day after war was declared.

After a bit of feverish map-reading we decided we were in the approach to the Schillig Roads. By an incredible combination of luck and judgement we were bang on our track.

Within a few minutes cloud base lifted to 500 ft and we saw a large merchant ship: just beyond it was the Admiral Scheer (a German pocket battleship)... anchored in shallow water near the bank and protected on the landward side by a pincushion balloon-barrage.

We climbed as high as we could, which was about 500 ft, and made our attack in a shallow dive. As we approached we saw the matelots’ washing hanging out around the stern, and the crew idly standing about on deck. It seemed as though we had literally caught them with their pants down.

However, when they realized that our intention was hostile they started running like mad, and as aircraft No. 1 came over at mast-head height and dropped its bombs bang amidships, their AA guns got into action, and this together with shore-based AA kept us pretty busy carrying out evasive measures. The bombs from the second aircraft undershot by about ten yards and exploded in shallow water directly under the ship.

Flt Lt (later Sqn Ldr) Ken Doran DFC
Bomber Command pilot

Note: The bombs which hit the Admiral von Scheer failed to explode and bounced off her armoured deck. She was back in service within 5 weeks. The German cruiser Emden, struck by a Blenheim which collided with her superstructure, was out of action for just 12 days. However, Bomber Command had lost five Blenheims and 16 aircrew. Half the bombers which attacked their targets had been lost.

 

BACK TO TOP

 

Wonderful dogfights and a lot of casualties       Charles Patterson

'Well, I joined the Air Force when the war broke out. During the 1930's the possibility of another war began to arise, even though I never believed it could ever happen, following the appalling horrors of the First World War another one seemed unthinkable. But when it became a possibility I decided that the only way I wanted to fight was as a pilot. I'd been much inspired by a film called 'Dawn Patrol', with these RFC boys in their famous little aircraft, the Sopwith Camels, going up and having these wonderful dog fights and then a lot of casualties but when they came back going off to Amiens or somewhere to drink champagne and have a good time and then off again at dawn. I thought well if there's another war that's the way I want to fight it.'

Charles Patterson
Bomber Command pilot

 

BACK TO TOP

 

     
 

The coming of war       Air Chief Marshall Sir Lewis Hodges KCB CBE DSO DFC

'In that August of 1939 I was on leave with my family in Wales, and received a telegram from the squadron instructing me to report back to the station forthwith because it looked as if war was imminent. I remember entering the living quarters there and everything had been transformed.

All the electric light bulbs had been removed and blue light bulbs had been installed, which gave it a ghostly atmosphere. No blackout had been installed in those early days.

At the outbreak of war on September 3rd 1939 I was in the hangars at Finningley with other members of the squadron listening to the broadcast by Neville Chamberlain that a state of war now existed between our country and the Germans. I remember this dramatic moment very clearly. We rushed out of the hangars on to the tarmac and looked out towards the east coast expecting to see German bombers coming over immediately.

There was a feeling of the unknown. We were not sure what was going to happen. We were fully occupied because we had just received new equipment. Hampden bombers had arrived and we were geared up to a big training programme, particularly night flying. The first time I flew a Hampden at night it was a great shock, because on take-off one was used to seeing the lights of Doncaster in the distance. But on this occasion it was pitch dark, no horizon, not a light to be seen.'

Air Chief Marshall
Sir Lewis Hodges KCB CBE DSO DFC

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

Sitting ducks       Wilfred John 'Mike' Lewis

'After the war broke out we were placed on standby to attack German naval units if they ventured out into the North Sea and that's as far as we could go. We could not drop bombs on land. Most times we didn't find anything at all. It heated up in the Norwegian campaign, which resulted in a disastrous attack on a cruiser and destroyers in Kristiansund in April 1940. No. 44 Squadron went out with 12 aircraft to attack the cruiser and the Richthofen squadron was sitting right alongside. Out of the 12 that went out only seven came back. It was an error in the Group operational headquarters in not transmitting Bomber Command's operational directive that we should not approach within 50 miles of the Norwegian coast unless we had cloud cover.

We went in under an absolutely cloudless sky. We were literally over the harbour when the next thing people started reporting that fighters were climbing up. The German pilots had obviously been briefed on the ability of the Hampden to defend itself because we couldn't traverse our guns to reach them. They turned in and just sat blasting away at us and blowing us out of the sky until eventually they ran out of gas and had to go home themselves. If there had been more gasoline I think none of us would have reached our home. We were sitting ducks. It was terrifying.'

Wilfred John 'Mike' Lewis,
Bomber Command pilot

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

Fighting the cold       Greg Gregson

'It was freezing! The aircraft used to ice up. We had leaflets to drop and if you cut the pack and touched the knife to your skin it would stick. You tried to put as much clothing on as you could because you couldn't get a lot of movement in the aircraft you can't jump up and down to keep warm. One of the things I remember about the winter of 1939/40 was the absolute cold. If I could get a pair of silk stockings I'd wear those, then woollen socks and then flying boots, which were fur-lined, then an inner jacket like a teddy bear with a canvas coating, then a leather jacket with fur, three pairs of gloves - a silk pair, wool and then leather gauntlets. Sheer cold is one of the worst things. You had to sit there and try to think warm.'

Greg Gregson,
Bomber Command Wireless Operator / Air Gunner

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

Flying over Rotterdam       Air Commodore Wilf Burnett DSO OBE DFC AFC

'When the invasion of Holland took place I was recalled from leave and went on my first operation on 15th May 1940 against mainland Germany. Our target was Dortmund and on the way back we were routed via Rotterdam. The German Air Force had bombed Rotterdam the day before and it was still in flames. I realised then only too well that the phoney war was over and that this was for real. By that time the fire services had extinguished a number of fires, but they were still dotted around the whole city. This was the first time I'd ever seen devastation by fires on this scale. We went right over the southern outskirts of Rotterdam at about 6,000 or 7,000 feet, and you could actually smell the smoke from the fires burning on the ground. I was shocked seeing a city in flames like that. Devastation on a scale I had never experienced.'

Air Commodore,
Wilf Burnett
DSO OBE DFC AFC

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

The first raid on Germany       Larry Donnelly DFM

'Later that day, March 19th, we discovered that we were going to take part in the first bombing raid against a German land target, namely the seaplane base at Hornum on the Friesian Islands. The change in bombing policy was a retaliation for the raid by the Luftwaffe on Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands on March 16th, during which a civilian was killed. The retaliatory raid was to be a "one off"; we would attack no further land targets until the Germans invaded Scandinavia and the Low Countries.

We were called to briefing early in the evening, during which we were given the gen on the impending raid. The force of 50 aircraft would be the greatest number of RAF bombers to concentrate on a single German target to date. The atmosphere during briefing was charged with anticipation and excitement at the prospect that we were going to drop bombs instead of those "bloody leaflets".

The flight over the North Sea went smoothly, but the excitement mounted when 'Nipper' announced over the intercom that we would soon be near the island and the target. He went to the bomb-aiming position in the nose of the aircraft to prepare for the bomb-run from 4,000 feet. The adrenalin flow increased when he reported that he had identified the target and called "Bomb doors open!"

We started the bomb-run and the litany commenced: "Left, left, steady... right, steady" as we ran the gauntlet of the flak and searchlight defences. The Whitley lurched as the bombs dropped away. We were now receiving the attentions of the defences, but the skipper kept the aircraft straight and level to enable 'Nipper' to plot the bursts. Some of the flak got uncomfortably close to the tail and I was blinded by the searchlights, so I opened fire down the beams.

We got away unscathed from our first bombing sortie. Although the bomb-run had lasted only a few minutes it had seemed much longer. Fletch came on the intercom, reporting that one of our bombers had just transmitted an "X" signal to base, which, when decoded, read "The natives are hostile".'

Larry Donnelly DFM,
Bomber Command WOP/AG

(extract from The Whitley Boys: 4 Group
Bomber Operations 1939-1940, Air Research
Publications, New Maiden, 1991, pp 77-78)

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

An American in Bomber Command       Lee Usher

I came out of the town of Mason City, Iowa, (USA). We had ten people come out of that town and join the Canadian airforce because the US Air Force didn’t need people before the States got in the war in 1941. As I understood it, at that stage over 10% of the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) were Americans. On getting your ‘wings’ everyone was wanting posting overseas - to get over to the war and see what we could do.

Lee Usher
Bomber Command pilot

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

The Commonwealth was under threat       Alex Kerr

I was really keen to fly and for us there really wasn’t any doubt about joining up. It seemed to me that Britain was under siege at that stage, a part of the Commonwealth was under threat. We came straight over (from Australia), to me there wasn’t any doubt about where you should be.

Our first taste of World War Two was when I and my good friend Nobby Clarke, whom I’d joined up with, stood on Tower Hill on 27th December 1940 and watched London burning - the whole city was burning. I remember being quite devastated by the sight but we both knew it wouldn’t be long before we would be in action and doing whatever we could about it.

Alex Kerr
Bomber Command pilot

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

Anti-invasion bombing       Wing Commander Rod Rodley DSO DFC AE

'Having joined No. 97 Squadron at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, we had to wait a while until a few Manchesters were delivered to us. We did some training flights and came the night of our first operation. At the time the invasion of Britain was very much on the cards and Hitler was assembling lots of large motorised barges in the Channel ports. My first raid was to bomb the docks at Calais. I carried about fifteen 1,000-pound bombs in the Manchester. It was an easy navigational trip because it was only 20 miles across the Channel. Leaving from Beachy Head I steered a course for about 20 minutes and sure enough up came the coast.

It was a moonlit night; we could even see the fingers of the docks. I said, "This is too good a chance to miss. Let's get some of those barges. We'll drop just one bomb at a time." The bomb aimer went down to his bomb sight and lined up some of the barges. We were bombing from about 15,000 feet, and with a bit of "left, left, steady and right and steady", I felt a little leap of the aeroplane and number one bomb went. I proceeded inland and did what was called a procedure turn: 45 degrees to one side for about a minute and a half and then a turn back and you come over your old track. On the way out we did "left, left, steady, steady, bomb gone", and that was two bombs. There were 13 to go.

I began to notice in the perspex of the cockpit little flashes, like someone lighting a cigarette down behind me, and I asked the rear gunner, "Can you tell me what that light is behind us?" He said, "There's some flak behind us, Captain, but it's well behind us."

We did three or four more runs and all the time these flashes were getting brighter and brighter and I was beginning to hear a crump each time. I became suspicious and said, "Jack, are you sure that flak is safe?"

He replied, "Oh yes, skipper it's a good 25 yards off yet!"

On that run I said "Drop the lot", and off we went back across the North Sea.

We were so inexperienced. I didn't know what I was doing. I was sent the next night to Calais again as a punishment for being so stupid. This time the weather wasn't so kind. From the English coast you could see underneath a layer of cloud the lights of Calais and the searchlights, but as you approached you came into the cloud and the target was hidden. I realised we weren't going to be able to bomb visually and unless you could see the actual target you had to take your bombs back to base, which was a dangerous thing. I said to the crew, "We're not going to be able to drop these on the barges at Calais. Let's go home."

I turned north, got the coffee thermos, and the smell of forbidden cigarettes began to waft up the fuselage from the back. I lost a bit of height and said to the navigator, "What time do you think we'll reach the English coast?" With a tone of utter surprise, he said, "Have you left the French coast then?" "Yes," I said, "I told you we were giving it up." "How long ago was it?" he asked. I couldn't imagine - half an hour, quarter of an hour. I told him 20 minutes. "Right," he said, "we should be coming up to the coast in about 5 minutes' time."

I'd lost height from 15,000 down to about 8,000 feet by then and sure enough a coastline came up dark velvet against the silvery sea. I didn't recognise the huge river mouth, with large islands. Panic hit me then, because we simply didn't know where we were. It was certainly not England. I didn't realise that in losing height the scale of everything had gone up and that the mouth of the river I saw looked like the Emden or the Rhine. The navigator came up to look at the coastline with me and as we came in over it to my horror guns started firing at us and searchlights waved around in front of us.

I turned out to sea to give a bit more thought to this. I asked to have any maps passed up to me and I looked at the coastline from Scotland to the Bay of Biscay trying to find this river mouth. We used to have an emergency frequency on the radio which was called "D for Darkie", which you could call for help. I pressed the button and called "Hello Darkie, this is Lifebuoy A for Apple calling do you read?" A voice came back, "Allo, Lifebuoy A for Apple, zis eez....vill you land pleeze?" This proved they were hostile down there - there was no question of an RAF character talking like that!

We were utterly lost and in German territory. The end came when my gunner called, "Skipper! I think I can see a beacon." There were networks of beacons flashing all over the country at night, and we had been given a code on a sheet to identify them. I set a course north from there and much to my pleasure our own home beacon came into view and we were able to land.

Now my Wing Commander was very unhappy about this whole procedure because he'd had to wait up for 6 hours unable to go to bed because he had a missing aircraft. He tore me off a strip. I said, "But sir, Darkie, I'm sure it was a teutonic accent." "Yes," he said, "there's a Polish squadron down there!" So that explained that.'

Wing Commander,
Rod Rodley DSO DFC AE

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

Bombing the barges       Air Commodore Wilf Burnett DSO OBE DFC AFC

'The Station Commander gathered all officers together one morning in August or September 1940 and told us that it appeared invasion was imminent and that we should be prepared for it. I remember the silence that followed. We left the room and I don't think anyone spoke, but we were all the more determined to make certain that we did everything possible to deter the Germans from launching their invasion.

At the time we were bombing the invasion barges in the Channel ports, undertaking operations almost every other night. I remember one operation in particular against the invasion barges. We had part moonlight, which was very helpful because navigation in those days depended entirely on visual identfication. We flew to the north of our target so that we could get a better outline of the coast. We followed the coast down towards our target, getting down to about 4,000 feet so that we could get a better view of what was below, and to increase the accuracy of the bombing. At that height light anti-aircraft fire was pretty heavy and fairly accurate so we didn't hang around after dropping our bombs. This was done repeatedly over a period of time until the invasion was called off.'

Air Commodore,
Wilf Burnett
DSO OBE DFC AFC

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

Bombing in the dark       Robert Kee

'If I look back at the diary record I made of all my trips by the end of 1941, it reads pretty depressingly in terms of successful operations. I find Brest, but I could see nothing but flak and patchy cloud. The bombs probably fell into the bay. We were trying to hit the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at the time. Here is an attempt to bomb Brunswick, hopelessly dark. Dropped some incendiaries at what we hoped was Hannover. Dusseldorf - also hopeless, bombed searchlight concentration. Kiel, three in succession. Hopeless again, very bad weather, brought a 2,000 pound bomb back. Mannheim, too much cloud. A great number were like that. There were one or two successes. Here's Hamm, a very good trip, in moonlight. Bombed four big fires along the edge of the marshalling yards, flew back at nought feet. But that was rare. When I read about only 5 percent of aircraft getting within 15 miles of their targets, that did not surprise me. Most people who read it were shocked, but I don't think it would have surprised anyone who was bombing in 1941.'

Robert Kee,
Bomber Command pilot

 

BACK TO TOP

 

 
   
     
 

Blenheims at war       Ted Sismore

'2 Group from 1940 into 1942 was the light bomber group in Bomber Command, and was used for a wide variety of things that the medium bombers, the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Stirlings, didn't do. In my tour in the Blenheim we started doing medium-level night bombing, we then did low-level anti-shipping anywhere down the coast from Denmark to Western France. We then did some night low-level on specific targets, mostly ports, canals, close to the coast. Then we did the "Circuses" where we had the fighter escort. We attacked targets usually near the coast because British fighters at that time were relatively short-range. We occasionally pulled up the enemy and were attacked once or twice by Me-109s.

We did hit the sea one night in a Blenheim, off the entrance to the Kiel Canal. It was a misty foggy night. We were looking for a ship that was reputedly in the Canal, and as we turned away from the very flat landscape we hit the water and bounced off. It transpired later we'd lost one propeller blade and we'd bent back the other five. We came back with the aeroplane vibrating badly, and we set off to fly down along the Friesian Islands, really expecting that we would have to make a landing or ditching. The guns were too active, so we said we would risk the North Sea. We set off for home. I had plotted a position in the middle of the sea, and I said, "If we get past there, we'll ditch and Air Sea Rescue can pick us up in the morning."

But we came all the way back. We got to the airfield, but because we were making such a strange noise they turned all the lights out. The RT we had at the time, the old TR9, was notoriously inefficient, and it took us some time to persuade them to put the lights on. Eventually we got them and landed back at base successfully.'

Ted Sismore,
Bomber Command navigator

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

Before the Lancs       Wilfred John 'Mike' Lewis

'I did my first flight and first tour on Hampdens. A beautiful aeroplane to fly, terrible to fly in! Cramped, no heat, no facilities where you could relieve yourself. You got in there and you were stuck there. The aeroplane was like a fighter. It was only 3 feet wide on the outside of the fuselage and the pilot was a very busy person. There were 111 items for the pilot to take care of because on the original aircraft he had not only to find the instruments, the engine and all that, but also he had all the bomb switches to hold the bombs.

I loved the Hampden, two tremendously reliable engines. I was one of the six original pilots to have flown with the first Manchester squadron. That was a disaster. The aircraft itself, the airframe, had many shortcomings in equipment in the beginning, but as we found out Avro were excellent in doing modifications and re-equipping the aeroplane. The engines never were and never did become reliable. They did not give enough power for the aeroplane, so we ended up with two extremely unreliable 1,750 hp engines having to haul a 50,000-pound aircraft. We should really have had 2,500 hp engines. You felt that if you'd lost one, that was it, you weren't coming home. It didn't matter if you feathered the propeller or not. There was only one way you went and that was down. I have seen an aircraft doing a run up on the ground and have two pistons come right out through the side of the engine. The original bearings were made without any silver as an economy measure, so they weren't hard enough. The bearings would collapse the connecting rod and the piston would fling out through the side of the engine and bang! Your engine just destroyed itself.

I finished my second tour on Manchesters, except for one month in July 1941 when they had to ground them and put new engines in them. We went back to Hampdens for a month, but I finished my tour on Manchesters. I had my tour leave of a very generous one week for the end of a second tour; came back and was to be posted to No. 44 Squadron, which was the first Lancaster squadron. My old squadron commander came along and asked me to do one last trip because they didn't have a captain to fly it. My 61st operation ended with my becoming a prisoner-of war. I was climbing at the time because we were early and still trying to gain altitude. There was silence and then the rear-gunner shouting "Fighter! ". Tremendous bursts of cannon fire into the port engine.

My reaction was to slam the stick hard forward to drop the nose and pick up speed, and the second burst came just over the top of our heads with the gunners all firing I broke left and he broke left and the only sound was a momentary one of the aeroplane going back off into the darkness. That was the last we saw of him. The battle was over in about 10 seconds.The only evidence of anger was a lot of holes in the engine cowling and the wing and a great stream of gasoline coming out of the main port gas tank. None of the crew was damaged, no shot actually entered the fuselage. Probably one bullet went through the radiator and shortly thereafter the engine temperature suddenly started to go and bang! It ceased and that was it. We feathered the engine and I started back home, but we were just slowly losing height. I crash-landed the aircraft on the beach of the Dutch Friesian island of Ameland about 1.00 am. I was fortunate. The whole crew survived. No injuries other than a broken bone in one hand of the tail gunner and one who hit the windshield and had concussion. Very short, nothing dramatic except for that 10 seconds and it's all over. That was being shot down.'

Wilfred John 'Mike' Lewis,
Bomber Command pilot

 

BACK TO TOP

 

   
     
 

A Ruthless Enemy      Wing Commander Rod Rodley DSO DFC AE

I was not troubled in my conscience because we were fighting a very ruthless enemy. We all knew this. Our families were home behind us and we were rather like a crusader with his sword in front of them. My thoughts at the time were that I have a family, and a bigger family - the public - and I was going to do my damnedest to stop the Germans coming across.

Wing Commander,
Rod Rodley DSO DFC AE

 

BACK TO TOP

 

 
Categories 
   

Early Days
Dangers of war
Operations
Training
Between peace & war
Bomber Harris
The eternal dilemma

 
 

Massacre in daylight       Guy Gibson (later VC, DSO* DFC*), pilot, 83 Squadron flying Hampdens

The Germans were flying in Messerschmitt 110 fighters, which have one gun which can fire sideways. Their mode of attack was to fly in formation with the Hampdens perhaps fifty yards out and slightly to the front, and pick off the outside man with their one gun, aiming with a no-deflection shot at the pilot. The bomber boys could do nothing about it: they just had to sit there and wait to be shot down. If they broke away they were immediately pounced on by three Messerschmitt 109s waiting in the background. If they stayed, the pilot received a machine-gun serenade in his face. One by one they were hacked down from the wing man inwards. Watts [the CO] said it was a terrible sight to see them bursting into flames at about twenty feet, then cartwheeling one wing into the cold sea.

Guy Gibson VC, DSO*, DFC*
Bomber Command pilot

 

First trip in a Manchester Wing Commander J. Partridge DSO, DFC and bar, pilot, 83 Squadron

We were ordered at very short notice to try to find the battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prince Eugene as they were escaping up the Channel from Brest. Although daylight, the weather was very foggy with a very low cloud base. Very few aircraft found the ships but when we broke cloud we were right over them at under 100 feet. We encountered intense gunfire and received much damage. Unfortunately our hydraulics were hit and we were unable to open our bomb doors, or later lower flaps or undercarriage. We had to set course for base with only one serviceable engine and our rear-gunner was seriously injured and eventually died. We made for the nearest grass airfield and made a belly-landing at Buckland Newton with all our bombs on board. We came to a stop in a hedge on the edge of the airfield. This was my first operation in a Manchester.

J. Partridge DSO, DFC and bar, pilot, 83 Squadron
Wing Commander

 

 
  BACK TO TOP