Chapter 14: On a Wing and a Prayer
On the Wings of the Morning
By Vincent Holyoak
After the Squadron’s mauling over Peenemunde, August 1943 had yet more surprises in store. The first came just two days after the raid when Wing Commander J.R. Balmer RAAF was posted in from nearby Syerston to take over command of the Squadron – a command held by ‘Ray’ Raphael for just 48 hours. Short and stocky, he was 467’s first Australian CO. ‘Sam’ Balmer had no lack of determination or guts, but as with Gomm this was to prove no insurance and luck was ultimately to elude him. He was killed in action in May 1944 on the last raid of his second tour.
The second surprise of the month was provided by the news that Gracie Fields was to visit the aerodrome. Plays and concerts were always well attended, and because they were thought good for morale, no effort was spared with, for example an ENSA concert party putting on an extra matinee performance of Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed for crews taking part in the attack on Peenemunde. Naturally, artistic temperament sometimes reared its head. When on one occasion the station’s unofficial dance band went on strike over pay (or the lack of it), the entertainments officer sent an airman to Nottingham with instructions to buy an amplifier and a stock of 78s with strict tempo dance tunes. The disgruntled prima donnas soon got the message and returned to work! But now that Bottesford had hit the big time in the world of entertainment extra special preparations had to be made. A makeshift stage was hastily erected in one of the hangars and decorated with red, white and blue streamers and flags, and the floors were cleaned with 100 octane fuel (which successfully removed the oil stains but left a distinctly heady aroma). In the meantime the station was scoured for seating and the catering officer began preparing a special buffet in honour of the occasion. Ron Shaw recalled:
My wife, being a Lancashire lass, was most interested when Gracie Fields visited the aerodrome. Gracie came from Rochdale, my wife from Burnley. One of Gracie’s songs, quite popular at the time was ‘Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer’. My wife came to the ‘drome that day, went into my office, and then into the hangar. That night she watched the Squadron taking off for Berlin. We thought ops were off, but they weren’t, and she was near enough to the runway to be able to wave to some of the crews. She regards that as one of her lovely memories, and fortunately that night they all came back. Squadron Leader Gibbs said ‘You’d better bring your wife more often if it’ll bring the aircraft back!’.
The eight crews rostered were far from happy to be missing the show, and with Berlin as their target, who could blame them? Inside the hangar some of the erks had risked life and limb to obtain a good view by climbing the girders reinforcing the hangar walls. There was a strong contingent from the RASC depot in Bottesford village as well as other aerodromes, and bicycles littered the approach to the hangar into which it was later estimated that over 1500 people had been packed.
Now that the weather was better, the number of outdoor diversions to be enjoyed on a rest period or stand-down had increased dramatically. Those on the station had been given the freedom to roam the grounds of Belvoir Castle, including the use of the reservoir for swimming. Bicycles, as ever, were a much sought-after commodity in allowing one to get ‘out and about’, but even without bikes, the more resourceful members of the station could always find something to amuse them. Few would disagree that for sheer physical effort the armourers had one of the hardest jobs on the aerodrome, so for them days off were an opportunity to do as little as possible. Aubrey Tongue of ‘C’ Flight remembered:
There were no ops on this particular day, it was nice and warm, and I was one of the lucky ones to be stood down after dinner. I had about enough cash to buy ten fags and a cuppa, so thought I’d catch up on some reading and writing in the ‘afto’, then go to the camp cinema after tea – provided I could borrow a ‘tanner’! In the billet on 5 Site there were seven or eight of us in the same plight, with the usual small talk, i.e. what we’d do if we came into some money. The hut was thick with smoke, and being armourers there were a few guns knocking around, P14s, 17s, SMLEs, Stens together with a goodly number of rounds (Allsorts-Bassetts!). Boredom soon crept in, various activities were proposed, but alas, no enthusiasm. Then, out of the blue I asked a simple question. Would a 9mm Sten round go through the thickness of the three doors in the billet if fired from one end to the other? I was told to either try it or to wrap up, so I tried it. It went straight through and took out a lump of brickwork! After the usual remarks regarding parentage and lunacy, one or two of the other bods got their guns and went outside, and soon five or six of us were loosing off at an oil drum eighty yards away on the brow of the hill. Quite a lot of ammo was used in the exercise, but the enemy needn’t have feared, because the drum was hit only five times or so! After a quarter of an hour the shooting stopped and we went back inside, at which point Alex Alexander, an armourer from next door came in to tell us that a Sergeant and three Corporal S.Ps had arrived on the site. Next Corporal Sond came in to say the S.P.s were investigating reports of shooting on 5 Site! Eventually our hut was visited and we had to produce our guns for one of the Corporals to see whether they had been fired. He duly reported to his Sergeant that NONE of the weapons had been used, and after a few tremulous minutes (it seemed hours), the ‘Imperial Guard’ upped and went.
Later we were told that the Military Police had been called by a farmer who had reported bullets flying around his farmhouse like hornets. It turned out his farm was on the other side of the hill, behind and below our target! Word had it that the thick S.P. (who had only to sniff the guns to know that they had been fired) was out so thick and had acted in this way to save us going on a ‘fizzer’. We also thought the Sergeant turned a blind eye, because nothing more was heard – apart from much muttering in the Armoury!
As well as the first autumn chills, September brought a continuation of attacks on German targets. Whilst the effects of raids could be variable, in one area at least the results were more predictable: casualties. On the 4th, Flight Lieutenant Carmichael, Pilot Officer Turner and their crews fell victim to the ‘Big City’. On the 24th Mannheim claimed the crews of Pilot Officers Farmer and Long. All four captains died with their aircraft, in Farmer’s case holding the aircraft steady so that five of his crew could take to their parachutes. As an illustration of how difficult it was to get out of a damaged Lancaster at night and in bulky flying gear, of the 29 crewmen on board the four Lancasters, these five were the only survivors.
Towards the end of September ‘B’ Flight received a replacement aircraft which was to earn itself a special place not only on the Squadron, but in the history of Bomber Command. On arrival at Bottesford Lancaster I R5868 had already completed 68 operations with 83 Squadron as ‘Q-Queenie’. Soon re-christened ‘S-Sugar’, today she is preserved as the centrepiece of the Bomber Command museum, Hendon, having ended the war as the RAF’s second highest scoring Lancaster with 137 successful sorties to her credit. Back in 1943 ‘Sugar’ was viewed with far less respect. She flew her first operation with the Squadron on the night of 27/28th September piloted by Alan Finch, who complained that he thought her fit only for training. Two nights later it was Neale McClelland’s turn. Ken Worden, his mid-upper gunner remembers:
We had not been at Bottesford long when we were allocated a new Lancaster, straight from the manufacturer’s. We did one or two trips in it before it was taken from us and given to a Pathfinder squadron. I imagine their need was greater than ours! We were then given another Lancaster from the same squadron which had just returned from a Maintenance Unit after a major overhaul. On our first trip to Bochum, instead of climbing to 20,000 feet to bomb we could only reach 17,000, which didn’t please us much. Neale complained about it the next day, but we still had to use it. We did five more trips in it and then went on leave. In the meantime the aircraft was not allowed to stand idle and another crew flew it to Berlin where it was in a collision over the target. They managed to get it home but it was extensively damaged and sent to an M.U. We didn’t see it again for another 30 odd years.
The need to make good losses, battle damage and wear and tear led to a constant flow of aircraft. To prevent further strain on already overworked engineering sections, severely damaged Lancasters or those awaiting their 500 hours major inspection were broken down into sections, placed on trailers and driven to specialist civilian repair depots. Here spares were combined with cannibalized sections to produce complete airframes. By the end of the war 3,816 aircraft had been refurbished in this way and in 1943 alone 55% of the Lancasters supplied were ‘retreads’. One of four Avro repair depots had been opened at Bottesford’s satellite, Langar, in 1942. However, despite the good work done by repair depots, the Ministry of Aircraft Production recognised the advisability of effecting as many repairs on home airfields as possible. With this in mind between 1942 and 1944 all heavy bomber stations were provided with one of the larger Bl type hangars and their own civilian working parties. Bottesford’s new B1 was situated next to the firing butts across the Normanton/Bennington road. Rather than close the road completely to traffic, level crossing type gates were installed.
Soon afterwards construction also began on three new T2 hangars on the technical site. Along with 23 other bomber aerodromes, Bottesford had been chosen to house some of the growing number of assault gliders being stockpiled for the invasion of Europe. Being constructed largely of spruce, plywood and canvas the 32 Horsa gliders delivered were deemed unsuitable for outside storage, hence the provision of additional hangar space. However, until the hangars were completed the gliders were staked down across the landing ground. It was one of these that Pilot Officer Roberts almost ‘collected’ whilst taking off for Munich on October 2nd. Roberts’ Lancaster veered off the runway and bounced across the grass at 80 mph. He narrowly missed a Horsa but finally managed to pull up after some frantic snaking, which was no joke with 2,000 gallons of fuel and 12,000 lbs of high explosives and incendiaries on board. After a hurried inspection by flashlight he was allowed to come round again and have another go, fortunately this time without incident. That same night, after an otherwise uneventful trip Pilot Officer K.A. McIver OFC and crew in E0530 O-Orange noticed that the fuel was running very low, and at approximately 0150 hours they ditched 25 miles off Beachy Head. Some time later that morning Flight Sergeant McGrath was picked up drifting in the emergency dinghy, the only survivor.
A few weeks after the arrival of ‘S-Sugar’ another ‘celebrity’ had followed her to Bottesford, 24-year-old Squadron Leader Rollo Kingsford-Smith RAAF, posted in to take over command of ‘B’ Flight from Keith Sinclair who had finished his tour. He was the nephew of pioneering aviator Air Commodore Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith of ‘Southern Cross’ fame.
As autumn gradually gave way to winter, diversions due to the weather, particularly fog, began to be more commonplace. Seventeen 467 crews returning from Stuttgart on the morning of the 8th received a signal from Group diverting them to Tangmere. However, when later that same morning orders came through from Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe to provide aircraft for a raid on Hanover that night, 467 found that it could only muster four fresh crews. 207 Squadron at Langar, on the other hand, had more air crews than serviceable aircraft, so S-Sugar was borrowed by their Pilot Officer Barnett for the night. Sergeant Colin Campbell, the mid-upper gunner on fellow Australian Bruce Simpson’s crew recalls that particular raid well:
During the run-in Bruce saw something ahead and instinctively pulled back on the stick. We felt a thump, and then an avalanche of air, and looking down over the starboard beam I saw a twin engined aircraft diving steeply away. It seems that a part of that aircraft had struck our bomb aimer’s position, taking with it the perspex bubble and the bomb sight. Ken, the bomb aimer, was hurled backwards and showered with perspex. The nav Roy, had his charts and equipment blown away and his oxygen tube disconnected so that he had to hold it in his mouth to breathe. I looked forward to see a head sticking out of the fuselage. I thought at first that the astrodome had been smashed and that Snowy, the wireless operator, was looking out. But as I watched he climbed further and further out. I called to Roy who shouted to him, but it would have been impossible to hear with the noise of the wind blowing through the hatch. The next moment he came bowling along the top of the fuselage. I ducked as he struck the turret a glancing blow and out of the corner of my eye saw him go over the tail turret. Both myself and Taffi;, the rear gunner, saw Snowy’s chute going down behind us, and a crew later reported that they had seen a parachute coned by searchlights at about this time and place.
By now we had lost height from 19,500 to 18,000 feet, so Bruce decided to go back through the target area as it was the quickest way home. Roy remembered the course out and we weaved towards the coast. Monica was pipping all the way and I was bursting to relieve myself. Bruce, Roy and Charlie were all frozen, but Ken was better clothed and got up into the front turret, sitting above the hole until we were in the circuit. I tried to relieve myself, but with frozen hands – too late. A miserable time from then on. We couldn’t find a place to land. Bruce was about to climb to 5,000 feet and lob us out, but Roy managed to fix our position as just off the Humber and gave a course to fly. Then Ken spotted a lit aerodrome (Grimsby), and we made for it calling ‘Oarkie’. We received permission to pancake and Taffi; and I took up crash positions in case the undercarriage was damaged. We spent the night in hospital and subsequently found that we had brought the ‘Cookie’ back. The next afternoon Group Captain McKechnie flew over with Lewis’s crew to take us back to Bo ttesford. Roy and Bruce went to Rauceby with frostbite where they spent some weeks as walking wounded, enjoying the hospitality of Bert and his wife at the White Hart in Sleaford. They were subsequently awarded a DFC each.’
Unfortunately, 467’s time at Bottesford was to draw to a close with a reminder, if any were needed, that experience was no insurance against misfortune. On the 20th October eight crews took part in a raid on Leipzig, an attack at extreme range not helped by a weather front forming over the target area. Whilst still an hour west of Leipzig, Pilot Officer Ernie Fayle’s Lancaster was attacked by two fighters. The rear gunner returned fire and claimed hits, and that was the last of them. However, danger was still close at hand.
In the murk a nervous gunner in another Lancaster mistook them for a fighter and let fly. Fayle’s bomb aimer was wounded, an oil pipe was severed, flooding the fuselage, and the instruments rendered useless. At the same time the Lancaster rolled onto its back and fell 3,000 feet before Fayle managed to regain control, going on to bomb the target despite a windscreen covered in ice and a rear gunner unconscious through oxygen starvation. As the raid summary put it, ‘Bombs were jettisoned all over Germany. Not at all a successful raid – far from it. Today was a stand-down. It will give the boys a chance to recover after yesterday’s hectic do.’
But the recovery period was a short one, for on the 22nd 569 ‘heavies’ attacked Kassel, 15 of them from Bottesford. Despite .early problems with marking there was a sufficient concentration of bombs for a fire storm to break out in the city centre, causing extensive damage and thousands of casualties. But the raiders also paid a heavy penalty and were harried to and from the target by nightfighters. Forty-three failed to return, among which were 467’s Gerry Godwin and crew, shot down into the sea. They had been on their 27th operation, just three short of finishing. Weather brought about a succession of ‘scrubs’ over the next few days until November 3rd which saw a return to the Ruhr, this time Dusseldorf. It was another heavy raid, with over five hundred aircraft taking part. Squadron Leader Bill Lewis and his crew had been posted in from 44 Squadron in July so that Lewis could take command of 467’s ‘C’ Flight. At 1700 hours on November 3rd they took off with the rest of the Squadron for Dusseldorf on what was to be their tenth operation since arrival. Two hours later they were crossing Belgium at around 18,000 feet when they received a flak hit in the bomb bay, setting it on fire. Struggling for control, Lewis gave the order to abandon the aircraft. Sergeant Ron Morley, the 22-year-old wireless operator from Leicester, left his position and made for the forward escape hatch. As he passed the pilot, Lewis took a hand off the control column and gave a thumbs-up for encouragement. Thinking all was well, Morley followed the engineer and bomb aimer out through the hatch. Taken in by the Resistance, he was smuggled across Belgium, France and eventually arrived back in England on 29th December to discover that the Squadron had since moved to Waddington, and that Lewis and the two air gunners had died in the burning Lancaster. He recalls that his family really had something to celebrate that New Year. His escape had been miraculous, he and the Navigator, F /Sgt Garvey, being the only airmen out of the hundreds to be shot down flying from Bottesford to successfully evade capture and make it back to Britain. Nevertheless, Morley’s escape almost went wrong when, on a crowded railway station in Paris, he accidentally bumped into a German soldier and exclaimed without thinking ‘Christ! Sorry mate!’. Fortunately the German was too preoccupied to take much notice.
467 had been warned at the start of November that it would be moved to Waddington once work had been completed on the new runways there. There were no complaints, for as 207 Squadron knew, Waddington was a much cleaner, warmer, more comfortable pre-war station close to the delights of Lincoln. Work in moving equipment to the Squadron’s new home began on November 10th, not helped by the fact that operations were scheduled for that night. The target, Modane, was a large railway junction on the French side of the Franco/Italian border. Sixteen of the seventeen Bottesford crews available managed to take off, although one returned early due to engine failure. The remainder found the target easily, and with no flak, fighters, or searchlights to distract them they were able to inflict considerable damage, borne out by the fact that all were awarded ‘aiming points’ after the raid. This was to prove the Squadron’s last raid from Bottesford, for on the 12th they began moving to Waddington where they remained until the end of the European war. On the day that the Squadron moved to Waddington their ‘C’ Flight was detached to form the nucleus of a new sister squadron, 463. Bill Lewis had originally been told that the Squadron would be his, but his loss meant that command went instead to Rollo Kingsford-Smith. Group Captain McKechnie became commanding officer of the newly opened Metheringham, taking with him several members of the Intelligence Section. He was killed in January 1944 flying with a 106 Squadron crew, ignoring, as ever, the order not to fly on operations.