Chapter 13: 'He will be greatly missed and mourned'
On the Wings of the Morning
By Vincent Holyoak
Following the end of the Hamburg raids August 1943 saw a very mixed bag of targets: Cologne, Genoa, Mannheim, Nuremburg and Milan. On a follow-up raid to Milan on the night of 14/15th, Flying Officer Marshall’s crew, on only their second ‘op’, got into difficulties. Problems began when a run-up of the engines a few minutes before take-off revealed a glycol leak. With little time to lose they switched to the spare aircraft, ‘Q-Queenie’, a battered and uninspiring veteran of many operations. Airborne some minutes behind the rest of the squadron, they were late for the rendezvous off Brighton. Then the flight engineer reported that the temperature on the starboard outer was rising alarmingly. Nevertheless, it was agreed to continue. They avoided two fighter attacks over France by dodging into cloud, but were now lagging further behind. By the time they reached Milan the main force had long gone, and although fires could be seen below there were neither searchlights nor flak. However, no sooner had they begun their bombing run when the gunners called out ‘Fighter closing in and firing! Corkscrew starboard – Go!’. Marshall stood the Lancaster on its wingtip, at the same time pushing the nose down sharply. He repeated the manoeuvre until they were at low altitude, and although there was now no sign of the fighter, a second failing engine testified to accuracy of its burst. With only two engines there was now little chance of re-crossing the Alps, besides a fuel tank had been punctured. The only remaining option was to attempt to reach one of the aerodromes in North Africa used in the recent shuttle raid. To add to their problems the navigator had no suitable maps. The wireless operator, ‘Ginger’ Hallam, remembered:
There followed a period of calm after which I was asked for details of wireless stations in North Africa. After about an hour I commenced wireless transmission with no immediate reply. However, after about two hours of this a station answered HFY, from which I got a QDM – ‘course to steer’. The station could have been anywhere south along this course. I remember Bill saying, ‘Where is this station, Ginger?’, to which I replied, ‘I haven’t got a clue’. Bill grumbled ‘We could be flying to bloody Fremantle’. To cut a long story short, the aerodrome was No. 72 Staging Post at Biskra on the edge of the Sahara. There were no night flying facilities there but by plain language communication we arranged for buckets of sand soaked in petrol to be lit on one side of the runway to give liS a guide. We landed safely, and when we got out, were of course dressed in blue battledress. Suntanned figures stood around us the half-light wearing khaki drill shorts and we were pounded with questions. ‘Where arc you from, mate?’. ‘ Bottesford’, ‘Where’s Bottesford?’, ‘Near Grantham?’. ‘Grantham? Bloody hell! They:re from Blighty!’. The story about the fortuitous radio contact was that the operator was a ‘ham’ at home, and when he couldn’t sleep would go up to the radio cabin and search the dial. He came from New Mills in Derbyshire, and we become good friends. It was very fortunate for us!
Biskra was little more than a dirt strip with a handful of tents, so ‘Queenie’ could not be repaired there. After four weeks of unbearable heat and ‘hard tack’ biscuits, Marshall and his crew joined a convoy heading for Maison Blanche, Algiers. As Arthur Hallam remarked, it was an eye-opener for a Cheshire lad who had never been further than Blackpool before in his life. At Maison Blanche they collected a Lancaster which had been damaged in the shuttle raids, and from there flew to Rabat, Morocco. On the 25th September they took off for England, but during the flight, icing made the Lancaster uncontrollable. It went into spin and lost several thousand feet before Marshall managed to recover. When they eventually returned to Bottesford they had been away for six weeks, and recognised almost none of the faces on the squadron.
It must have been with some apprehension that Wing Commander Gomm learned on 15th August that Milan was to be the target for the third night running. It always paid to keep the element of surprise, but sometimes two, three or even four visits in succession to the same target were unavoidable. By August 1943 Italian resolve to continue the war was crumbling, and cities such as Milan – containing heavy industry and light defences – presented inviting targets. Dusk en the Sunday evening therefore saw ten 467 Squadron crews bound for Italy, led by Gomm. The last hours of the 15th saw the bomber stream heading southwards over France. The post-raid summaries talked of surprisingly accurate flak near the city of Chartres, and witnesses on 467 apparently saw at least two Lancasters receive direct hits and disintegrate. However, evidence suggests that the losses were actually due to fighters. On board Gomm’s ED998 PO-Y a sudden, vicious burst of fire ruptured the fuel tanks and enveloped it in flames. Gomm shouted ‘We’ve been hit! Get out!’, but as the crew made frantic attempts to clip on parachutes the Lancaster was torn apart by an explosion which scattered debris over two square miles. At Gomm’s side throughout the flight, and for 23 operations beforehand, had been the youngest crew member, James Lee, the 20-year old flight engineer from Hull. After the explosion he remembered nothing until finding himself floating down under his smouldering parachute. He was falling rapidly, and with badly burned hands could do little to control his descent. Severe injury seemed inevitable when he crashed into a hay rick. Injured and suffering from shock, Lee saw no chance of evasion and decided to give himself up. Painfully he dragged himself to a nearby farmhouse, but the occupants were too afraid of German reprisals to allow him in. This was repeated again before he was eventually taken in by the Paragot family in the town of Chaisnes. At Lee’s request they called the local doctor to tend his wounds, knowing that he would inform the Germans. Sure enough Lee spent two weeks in hospital before being transferred to Stalag IVB in Germany. In 1957 he returned to the field where he had landed, at the request of the Paragots who presented him with his parachute and goggles which they had kept. Back in 1943 it had been two months before Lee’s mother knew that he was still alive, and her immediate reaction had been to ask for news of the rest of the crew. The squadron adjutant wrote:
Dear Mrs Lee
In reply to your letter I am deeply grieved to have to tell you that the remainder of the crew, without exception, were killed. Your son was the sole survivor.
Wing Commander Gomm was the pilot mid captain of the aircraft, as well as the commander of the squadron, and was a pilot and officer of the very highest type. His loss is indeed a heavy one, for we can ill afford to lose men of his ability and charm, and he will be missed and greatly mourned by all those who knew him.
Cosme Gomm and the remaining five members of the crew were buried at St. Desir near Lisieux. In June the citation for Gomm’s DSO had ended, ‘ … through his magnificent efforts (he) has built up a Lancaster squadron which is probably second to none’. In support of this the August edition of 5 GroupNews noted that over the past month 467 had flown the most operational hours within the Group (1178), dropped the greatest tonnage of bombs (710), had the greatest average of serviceable aircraft (21.9) and had produced the greatest number of target photographs (82 out of 163 attempts).
Whilst 467 was coming to terms with Gomm’s loss, the post of squadron commander was temporarily filled by ‘A’ Flight’s Squadron Leader A.S. Raphael. The diminutive Londoner was immediately thrown in at the deep end. For weeks now 5 Group’s squadrons had been practising ‘indirect bombing’ techniques at Wainfleet range, carrying out runs at fixed speeds and heights from identifiable landmarks, and dropping bombs on the stopwatch rather than using a bomb sight. Crews guessed that an attack on a precision target was in the offing. Pilot Officer Bill Close, navigator on Flying Officer ‘Fish’ Whiting’s crew wrote:
On the afternoon of 17th August the whole squadron was briefed for a night attack on a place we had never heard of before – Peenemunde – described by the intelligence officer as German Radio Direction Finding Station. We were surprised at this as we knew that all available aircraft of Bomber Command were going to be operating either on this target or on a few others (to create a diversion ill the hopes of concealing our main target). The importance of the raid become obvious when the Group Commander himself (Air Vice Marshal Cochrane) paid a lightning visit to the briefing room to give us a pep talk. The main theme of this was that Peenemunde had to be destroyed that night, otherwise we should have to go out nightly until the job was completed. This news did not cheer us at all. Visions of the pitcher and well come before us.
Marie Cooper recalled:
I had a premonition that Raphael would not return as he emerged from the briefing with his usual calm gone, muttering, ‘Too many fighters on that route!’. When the rest came out they all looked a bit ruffled and one chap said ‘He got more than a bit worked up about the fighters,’ and then, shaking his head in an aside ‘almost hysterical he was’.
Raphael’s fears were to prove more than justified. The bombers were being sent out despite the fact that it was a moon period, and whilst the moonlight would increase their chances of bombing accurately, it would also make them vulnerable to fighter attack. Peenemunde was being used for the production and testing of V-2 rockets, seen as a serious threat to the progress of any invasion, which therefore had to be eliminated at all costs. 5 Group’s crews were told to bomb on the markers if visibility allowed, or if not, to follow their ‘indirect’ method. Either way, they were to bomb the target. Bill Close recalls that:
We left base just before nine that evening and flew eastwards. The night was clear and at our flying height of 20,000 feet the sky was alarmingly light. Behind, in front, and on each side we could see other bombers, black outlines against the light grey of the sky. It was really no night for night bombers, who rely so much for safety on the cover of darkness. Running over the western end of the Baltic, our bomb aimer, lying in the nose of the aircraft was able to call out accurate ground positions from the map, so clear was the view below. Our turning point, the little island of Bornholm came into view. By now there was a little cloud with more building up to the south. Probably, after all, we should have to bomb blind. Thirty seconds before our time to bomb, however, there was a break in the clouds and the red target indicators were there amongst much smoke and a few fires. So far we were satisfied and relieved, but we were taking no chances. Immediately after the bombs were released the pilot turned sharply to starboard on a north-westerly course and issued a reminder to the gunners to keep their eyes skinned for enemy fighters. Our own return flight was uneventful, but we had the unpleasant sight of seeing many of our bombers being attacked by fighters. Dawn was breaking as we landed after a flight totalling seven hours. All the post-raid reports confirmed the success of the attack, and the heavy price we had to pay for that success.
For 467 the price was indeed heavy, amounting to a fifth of those dispatched. A small force of Mosquitoes had been sent to Berlin in order to draw German fighters away, and whilst this initially worked, by the time the third and last wave of attackers arrived, comprised of 5 and 6 Group crews, the defences had recovered and the fighters were waiting for them. Amongst those killed was ‘Ray’ Raphael. His Lancaster crashed into a lake next to the Peenemunde research station. Of those on board, the rear gunner fell clear and was washed ashore in Poland, and four others including Raphael and Martyn Parry, squadron bombing leader, were recovered from the wreck and buried locally. After the war they were almost certainly reinterred in the Berlin War Cemetery as ‘Unknown Airmen of the 1939-45 War’.
The other loss over Peenemunde was that of Flight Sergeant Frank Dixon RAAF and crew in Lancaster ED764 ‘N-Nancy’. Soon after completing their bombing run a burst of cannon shells killed the wireless operator and set fire to the port wing. The Germans had recently equipped some of their Messerschmitt 110 nightfighters with upward firing twin cannons so that the fighter could carry out its interception from below, undetected and making full use of the Lancaster’s blind spot. This devastating method of attack (called ‘Schrage-Musik’ – ‘Jazz Music’) was used for the first time at Peenemunde when six aircraft were accounted for. Bottesford’s ED764 therefore has the distinction of being one of the first, if not the first bomber brought down in this way, but there would be many hundreds more. After the initial attack the surviving crew members took to their parachutes, all to became prisoners of war. But this was not quite the end. ‘Nancy’ was usually flown by Flight Sergeant Des Sullivan RAAF, who takes up the story:
Our crew did three raids to Hamburg in July/August, with an Essen raid in the middle (in my opinion Essen was the toughest target in Germany), but for Peenemunde they gave us the night off. A close friend, Fred Dixon (an Australian) asked if he could borrow our ‘N for Nancy’ as his own ‘plane was playing up. I don’t lend golf clubs, tennis racquets or girlfriends, but I reluctantly said ‘Yes’. He didn’t come back, and I thought he must have got the chop, but 37 years later called me when I was administrator of Rottnest Island (off the coast of Australia). As he come down the passage of my residence I recognised him. He held out his hand and said, ‘Hello’ etc., but I just said, ‘Where’s my bloody aeroplane?’. I hadn’t heard of him since he took off for Peenemunde. I was given a new Lanc, but it wasn’t the same as our ‘N for Nancy’.
As if this were not enough drama for one night, Warrant Officer ‘Pluto’ Wilson’s ED545 was also attacked soon after leaving the target. The first burst hit the rear turret, knocking it out and putting a round through Sergeant Pat Barry’s heel. A fire broke out in the fuselage and the Lancaster went into a steep dive. In the mid-upper turret Sergeant George Oliver from Gedling, Nottinghamshire, continued to fire until the fighter was seen to go down in flames. By now the heat was intense, and ammunition exploding beneath his feet, so Oliver grabbed his parachute and made his way up front with the intention of baling out, collecting the navigator and wireless operator on the way. By now, however, Wilson had managed to control the aircraft, and when told the fuselage was on fire replied, ‘Well put the bloody thing out then!’ (or words to that effect!). Oliver and the others returned aft and, braving heat and smoke, managed to put out the flames. They then used the fire axe to free Pat Barry from the wrecked turret. Pat Barry said:
As regards the raid, I spent all of the return journey on the rest bed, and I remember five or six of my colleagues coming in at intervals to talk to me, and each said, I think, ‘Cheer up, we’re just crossing the coast’. Well, we had to cross three coasts, two of Denmark’s and the U.K.’s one – but six? That was too much. After returning to base I went first to the sick bay and was then transferred to Rauceby. After about a month I went to East Grinstead for plastic surgery, and of course to become a ‘Guinea Pig’, but I never flew operationally again. We always considered Pluto flew like all angel after a pint or two. When we were dressed for battle he called me ‘Mister Five by Five’, ‘ … he’s five feet tall alld five feet wide!’. I always carried a personal bomb load, maybe a half brick or some such thing to throw throw the clear vision panel as a parting gift when leaving the target.’
As the only married man on the crew George Oliver had more to lose than most, but as their Lancaster fell out of the sky his only thought had been to shoot down their attacker. For this act of determination he was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross in order of precedence. In addition Pluto Wilson received an immediate DFC, and when the crew finished their tour three weeks later the other five members each received a DFM. This made them the most decorated first-tour crew on 467, a record still standing when the Squadron was disbanded in 1945.