Chapter 10: Happy Valley
On the Wings of the Morning
By early 1943 the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, believed that it was now ready for a sustained assault on Germany, the first stage of which began in April with the so-called ‘Battle of the Ruhr’. The campaign lasted for four months with the majority of raids concentrated on cities in the Ruhr Valley. Berlin aside, the Ruhr had the most formidable defences in Europe, and as 1943 continued losses steadily began to increase. Between April and July alone fifteen crews failed to return to Bottesford. Life in the air was all too frequently short and brutal, the squalid conditions on temporary aerodromes offering little comfort. In this sense Bottesford was worse than most. Mud and damp apart, the station had a population twice that of any of the surrounding villages. With its Post Office, church, cinema, barbers, tailors and grocery shop it offered most of the facilities of a village, but on the minus side its 2,000 inhabitants were crowded into prefabricated huts with neither adequate heating nor sanitation. True, the nearby villages were no better provided for and, unlike the aerodrome, did not even have the benefits of electricity or running water. In Bottesford mains water was not supplied until 1951, sewers coming ten years later. Until then the eleven hundred villagers made do with wells, hand pumps and earth closets. The RAF tended to attract those with technical backgrounds, frequently from large cities, and rural life was a revelation to them. LACW Doris George who worked in the Equipment Section recalled:
My friend Muriel Carpenter and I used to go to the dances at Long Bennington and had our dancing polished lip for us by the station barber, Phil Dresman, and by the station cobbler. We also used to visit the pubs opposite the village hall, mainly the Wheatsheaf and the Reindeer. The Black Boy at Foston was also very popular, but the Wheatsheaf was of particular note because it was without mod cons still and had wooden twin seating in the toilets!
Back on the station, unless one was an officer and had a batman to provide it, hot water for morning ablutions was an extremely rare commodity. The Airmens’ Mess provided buckets on request, but the prospect of walking half a mile from the billets for a wash and possibly joining the breakfast queue as the shutters were pulled down appealed to few. Group Captain McKechnie – tired of the endless complaints – declared, ‘If I can shave in cold water – so can you!’. Nevertheless, there was also humour in the degradations. Arthur Cackett, a fitter lIE remembered:
Bottesford was a very primitive station for hygiene. On the communal site there were no flush toilets, just pans which had to be emptied, and so many of the Ground Staff General Duties were paid 3d per day extra to go around with a lorry and collect the pans for emptying in heaps over the surrounding fields. There was a terrible smell if the wind was blowing in your direction! It was rather a crude joke amongst the lads who moved it, who chalked on the side of their lorry: ‘You shoot it – we’ll shift it!’.
There was also a serious side to the situation in that the insanitary conditions could all too easily provide a breeding ground for epidemics. To counter such a threat there were periodic medical inspections, known as the F.E.I.s, or ‘Free from Infection’. One such inspection in early April 1943 revealed a case of diphtheria and led to the aerodrome being sealed off for ten days. Cliff Allen wrote:
It was very late one night, all in our Nissen hilt were sound asleep when the door burst open and a voice bellowed ‘Wakey, Wakey!’. It was totally dark but we found out the interlopers were the Medical Officer, a medical orderly and the duty Sergeant. The M.O. said, ‘A case of diphtheria has been found on the station and I’m here with my assistant to inspect you all. You don’t have to get alit of bed, just throw back your blanket and lower your pyjamas’. He approached the first bed and shone a torch at the head and neck of the occupant who was half asleep. Then he moved to the lower parts, and whilst he shone the light his assistant poked around with a pencil. Everyone in the hut was checked, and as they were leaving someone shouted, ‘Did you find it?’.
Arthur Cackett had less to laugh about:
Everyone had to report to sick quarters for inoculations. Quite a few WAAFs and airmen went down with diphtheria after this, and I was one of them. I was rushed forty miles away to an isolation hospital in Leicester (Groby Road) where I spent six weeks on my back and lost a stone and a half in weight. After I returned to Bottesford I was in and out of sick bay for months before I got really well again, but I’ve never regained the weight I lost. I still have my pay book, and in it are three entries in red ink stating that I refused further inoculations.
For some others the situation had unexpected bonuses. Sergeant Harold Hernaman, wireless operator on Pilot Officer Bill Manifold’s crew remembered:
Being given some leave I decided not to go home for a change, so I collected a rail warrant for Bude in Cornwall. After a long rail journey I arrived, disliked what I saw, so paid my hotel bill and returned to Nottingham. By then I was very short of cash, so I went to the Palais expecting to see some off-duty Squadron members from whom I could borrow a few shillings. However, there was no-one there. By now, with insufficient funds to buy a rail ticket I set out to walk and hitch-hike. On arrival at the Guard Room in the early hours of the morning I was informed that once inside the camp I would be quarantined. The whole camp was in isolation, except, I may add, for aircrew on operations. Interesting speculation, if one of us had been shot down and taken prisoner, subsequently infecting the Germans, would we have been guilty of practising germ warfare? Anyway, during the quarantine period I played endless poker, and by the time my leave had expired had amassed a total of some £80.
By the end of the scare one WAAF had died and several others were seriously ill. During the quarantine, eighteen WAAF cooks had to be isolated, confined to their quarters. The remainder in the cookhouse were therefore forced to work 24 hour shifts until the crisis was over, for which they were highly commended by 5 Group headquarters. But as Harold Hernaman pointed out, operations continued throughout the crisis. To avoid any contravention of the Geneva Convention the crews were advised by the M.O. that if shot down and captured they should inform the Germans immediately of the possibility of their being a carrier. However, the general consensus was that this might lead to an immediate cure by way of a bullet, so it was decided to say nothing.
On April 3rd crews were briefed for an attack on the infamous Krupps works in Essen, marking the start of the Squadron’s contribution to the Battle of the Ruhr. Although producing a better concentration of bombs on this target than ever before, ‘B’ Flight’s Squadron Leader Paape and crew were shot down on the Dutch-German border. Paape always insisted that his Lancaster be referred to as ‘T-Thomas’ rather than the more familiar ‘T-Tommy’. He also assured the numerous sceptics in the Mess that his own method for a successful run-in to the target was to engage ‘George’ the auto-pilot and to close his eyes … After this raid it was decided that Dave Green of ‘A’ Flight had done enough and he was rested from operations, being officially posted ‘Tour Expired’ in June. In the meantime his experience was needed elsewhere, and in May he was seconded to the US EighthAir Force’s 44th Bomber Group at Shipdham in Norfolk as an advisor. The Americans were interested in the feasibility of night operations, and during May USAAF B-24 Liberators were frequent visitors to Bottesford, with Wingco Gomm taking the 44th’s Lieutenant Dickson to Duisberg on the 12th May.
In mid April the Squadron took part in the first raid on the Italian naval base at La Spezia. Opposition over Italian targets was often far less than over Germany, a fact emphasised by the derisive painting of ice cream cones rather than bombs on the aircraft to denote such missions. On the minus side, the long flight over the Alps was extremely tiring, sometimes lasting ten or eleven hours. In the shortening spring nights this meant that a good proportion of the journey had to be made in daylight, increasing the chances of interception. Also hazardous were the notorious electrical storms encountered over the Alps and southern France. Another long distance raid on April 16/17th on the Skoda armaments factory at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia met with disastrous results. Markers and the majority of bombs fell around a mental asylum seven miles from the factory. As well as the large loss of life on the ground, two of the fifteen 467 crews taking part failed to return. When on the 18th the Squadron was stood down, this was therefore taken as a general opportunity to put aside woes in the Mess bar. Unfortunately Group had other ideas, and as the afternoon wore on orders were received for another attack on Spezia. It required a gargantuan effort by the groundcrews to ready the aircraft, but Vern Howarth was far from happy. He told Wing Commander Gomm in no uncertain terms that ‘well oiled’ as they were, he considered the aircrew unfit to fly. A heated discussion followed, and Gomm and Howarth were still arguing beside the runway as the Lancasters took off. Howarth’s worries proved unfounded, and perhaps there was even a lesson to be learned, for almost all of the crews brought back photographs showing the target area …
Despite a spell of bad weather at the start of May there were three further raids on Ruhr targets, with Flight Lieutenant Craigie failing to return from Essen on the 1st. On the 12th Keith Thiele limped back from Duisberg on two engines after a direct hit from flak on his bombing run severed the rear half of the starboard outer, punctured the starboard inner and blew out most of the perspex in the cockpit. In addition he was struck on the head by a shell splinter. Since the starboard inner also drove one of the two pumps powering the hydraulic system he could not lower the undercarriage and was forced to ‘belly in’ at Coltishall from where he and his crew were collected the following day by Group Captain McKechnie. He recalls that McKechnie burst out laughing when he apologized for making ‘such a crook landing’. Despite its seemingly terminal state Thiele’s ‘O-Orange’ was soon on its way to the Lancaster repair organization, eventually returning to service with 106 Squadron. In the meantime Thiele’s determination and skill were rewarded with an immediate award of the DSO, the first on the Squadron. When Thiele finished his tour at the start of June he again offered to revert to Flight lieutenant to return to operations, but had to make do with a posting to Ferry Command (1).
Following a second fruitless attack on Pilsen, hampered by smoke haze, there were a few days respite during which 617 Squadron at Scampton carried out its legendary raid on the Ruhr dams. In a strange twist of fate their first casualty was Pilot Officer V.W. Byers RCAF, who just weeks before had begun his first tour with 467 at Bottesford. He and his crew completed just three operations before being chosen for the new squadron, disproving the myth that all the crews were highly experienced. Briefed to attack the Mohne dam, his was the third aircraft off in the second wave. Having misidentified his landfall in the Frisians he gained height in an attempt to confirm his position, inadvertently coming within range of the notorious radar guided flak on the island of Texel. Only the body of the rear gunner was recovered, a testament to the folly of sending inexperienced crews on such demanding operations.
As a follow up to the Dams raid a ‘maximum effort’ was mounted on Dortmund, the 826 crews taking part making this the largest raid since the ‘Thousand Force’ attacks the previous summer. 467 managed to despatch a record 24 aircraft after a phenomenal effort from the ground crews. Perhaps the fact that it was 24th May, ‘Empire Day’ had spurred. them on, and now that the Squadron was gaining an excellent reputation for itself, journalists were on hand to record the observations of the returning crews:
From a special correspondent. A Bomber Command Station, Monday.
Aircrews of a record-breaking Australian Lancaster squadron who took part in the raid told their stories today. Enthusiastic over the success of their station in the safe return to its base of each bomber, the pilots, observers and gunners unanimously described the raid as ‘the best ever’.
The first bomb fell at one o’clock. Within an hour many hundreds of aircraft, the majority of them four engined, had unloaded over 2,000 tons of bombs, including dozens of 4,000 pounders. They caused huge fires in the industrial part of the city and smoke which billowed up to 20,000 feet.
In the first of the great waves of bombers was Wing Commander Cosme Gomm DFC, the Brazilian leader of this Australian squadron. This tall veteran of 51 raids was coned by searchlights on his bombing run, but flew on and dropped his bombs on the target. ‘They turned everything on us,’ he said, ‘but we were struck only by a couple of splinters. I saw a German fighter hot down in flames over the Channel’.
Also on the raid, making his first trip in a Lancaster, was the commander of the station, Group Captain WN. McKechnie. Pilot Officer Roy Hare said that all he saw were ‘some gondolas going down the high street’ – a sly reference to the devastating Ruhr floods caused by the shattering of the Mohne Dam last week. Great stretches offload water north-west of the target were seen by Flight Lieutenant Raphael of Fulham, pilot of ‘U for Uncle’. ‘We guessed that the banks of the canal had overflowed’ he said. A member of the crew of ‘U for Uncle’ which limped home on three engines summed up: ‘I guess Dortmund isn’t much use for anything else now.’
Despite his comments, Gomm had been fixed by searchlights for over six minutes, blinded by the glare and running the gauntlet of the flak as he concentrated on his run-in. Group Captain McKechnie received similar punishment for four and a half minutes. Station commanders were not supposed to fly on operations because they were far too valuable to lose, but despite suffering chronic air sickness McKechnie flew whenever he could find an excuse. However, because of his airsickness crews used any excuse not to fly with him! The Dortmund raid netted an unusually high proportion of aiming point photographs, and soon afterwards there was further cause for celebration when Sergeant Frank Heavery’s crew became the first on the Squadron to complete a whole first tour at Bottesford. Eddie Foster, navigator on the crew wrote:
We could expect an immediate and much more relaxed nine days leave now we had finished, but before that the long promised party for the groundcrew had to be organized. Most of them had set out as sprogs with us and were a grand bunch of lads. They might play hell with us if we brought back a slightly battered Lancaster, but they would cheerfully work around the clock if it meant getting us back safely. As we adjourned to the village pub in Long Bennington, the seven of us got together a kitty to provide beer for the evening’s festivities. But the erks had other ideas. They were giving us the send-off and soon the pints provided were being augmented by their contributions of the hard stuff The events are a little hazy now, in fact they were not too clear the following morning, but I do recall the landlord calling time, at which point a large Leading Aircraftman tripped me and leapt across my chest with a huge clasp-knife in his hand. Surely, I thought, this silly sod is not blaming me for all the ventilation holes in his hydraulics? I need not have worried,for he turned out to be souvenir hunter and I willingly settled for the loss of my stripes and ‘flying arsehole’ (The ‘0’ wing worn by Observers). Which was why my family were surprised next day when their favourite flyer arrived home a rather dishevelled AC2. They should have been pleased, as I was, that he had not returmed as a boy soprano …
(1) His long standing ambition had been to be a fighter pilot and he was to end the war as CO of 3 Squadron, flying Tempests in the 2nd Tactical Air Force, having been awarded the DSO DFC**.