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RAF Bomber Command 1939 - 1945: Memories

The RAF's bombing offensive against Nazi Germany carried out mainly through RAF Bomber Command was one of the longest, most expensive and controversial of the Allied campaigns during the Second World War. Its aim was to severely weaken Germany's ability to fight, which was central to the Allies' strategy for winning the war.

Created in 1936 it comprised the RAF's light and heavy bomber squadrons. Over the course of the war, it developed from a limited and relatively ineffective force into a weapon of immense destructive power. It received a major slice of Britain's economic and technological resources, and many of its brightest and best young men.

Bomber Command crews suffered a high casualty rate: 55,573 were killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew, a 44.4% death rate. A further 8,403 men were wounded in action, and 9,838 became prisoners of war.

Following is an account by one Australian Bomber Command crew member of life as he saw it, adapted and enhanced by Aircrew Remembered editors.

'It was a real lottery where one finished up in WW2. Of the 50 bods on 25 Course RAAF who were inducted on 1 March 1942, only 5 went to the UK; I was one of them. The remaining 45 spent the rest of the war in Australia or the Pacific Islands, and of these, one wireless operator (W/Op) returned to Clontarf to paddle out morse for new recruits. Initially, we went to RAAF Pearce for 2 weeks before 5 ITS (Initial Training School) was transferred to Clontarf in Manning.

When we arrived at RAAF Pearce confusion reigned: Japan had entered the war three months earlier; Darwin had just been bombed and a Japanese invasion was a distinct possibility. There was a large group of trainees who had been selected for pilot training, but because of the perceived threat, the authorities were not prepared to have fit young men leaving our shores - in one instance, a draft was removed from a ship just before it sailed. Eventually, overseas training resumed and RAAF squadrons in the UK and the Middle East continued to receive reinforcement; in fact aircrew in the pipeline were still arriving in the UK after VE day in 1945!

Training Schedule

Aircrew trainees in Australia were selected for training as pilots, navigators and wireless operator/air gunners (W/Ag). In 25 Course 49 wanted to be pilots and one chose to be a W/Ag. I got my second choice of being a W/Ag, and graduated in early 1943. After some time at Mt Gambier South Australia and Nhill in Victoria, Australia flying as a wireless operator (W/Op) on Ansons with trainee navigators, I was put on a draft for the UK. We later learned that on the 4-engined heavies of the RAF the turrets were manned by full-time gunners, so we became W/Ops - however we would be expected to take over a turret in an emergency.

The first posting in the UK for the W/Ops in my draft was to 2 RS (Radio School) at Yatesbury in Wiltshire, to familiarise us with RAF gear and give us some operating practice; we did a few hours in Proctors and Dominies. The next step was to 3(O)AFU ({Observers} Advanced Flying Unit) at Halfpenny Green in the Midlands. The primary object was to familiarise navigators who had previously trained in the broad expanses of Australia, Canada or Rhodesia, with the very different conditions in the UK and Europe - mainly in regard to map reading - and to give W/Ops practice with RAF radio gear and systems. I did 22 hours flying at AFU.

From AFU we moved to 30 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at Sighford which was the satellite of RAF Hixon in Staffordshire. ('Here we give you the good guts!' we were told). Pilots, navigators, bombardiers, W/Ops and gunners were brought together and left to sort themselves into crews. The pilots and W/Ops in our draft were all Australians, including West Australian pilot brothers Jack and Reg Franklin, W/Ops Alex Robinson (of cricketing fame), Matt Gillespie from Collie and Bob Chester.

Pilots going to a Bomber Command OTU would have been trained on Avro Ansons or Airspeed Oxfords, so the first 15 hours were devoted to day circuits for pilot conversion onto Wellingtons; half dual and half solo.


During this time, of the other crew members, only the W/Op could gain any practice at his trade. The crew was then sent on daylight cross-countries of about 5 hours. The next step was night circuits dual and solo, and then night cross-countries. Without doubt the most important crew member in a Bomber Command aircraft was the navigator; if you did not stay on track your career on Bomber Command would be very short, so OTU was almost entirely devoted to navigation practice. The W/Op was fairly well occupied obtaining a quota of QDMs, loop bearings and radio fixes. Locating your position using radio is increasingly inaccurate as your distance increases, but is better than nothing. In extremis, knowing the bearing to a known transmitter, even inaccurately, will at least guide you in the right direction until you get close enough for a more accurate assessment.

  • QDM is the magnetic bearing to the station.
  • QDR is the magnetic bearing from the station.
  • Loop bearings involved turning an external loop antenna for maximum signal strength, thereby indicating signal direction
  • radio fix measures signal strengths from 2 or more known transmitters and uses triangulation to calculate your location

Corkscrew Evasive Manoeuvre

There were 5 main circumstances that could spoil your day, the first being serious aircraft malfunctions such that you could not get back to safety. It would be the job of the Flight Engineer to monitor onboard systems to guard against these, such as the failure of an engine, or a leaking fuel tank and take corrective action where possible.

The second is being hit by anti-aircraft fire (AA or flak). Pilots would be given tracks to target circumventing known flak concentrations and could take elusive measures if flak was seen to be close, but during the actual bomb run itself, the pilot had to hold the aircraft steady for a nerve-racking time during which his plane would be extremely vulnerable to flak. The Germans perfected radar-guided flak and massed huge numbers of guns around key targets, making the risk of being hit much higher.

Bomber Command employed many ruses to trick the Germans as to where tonight's attack was aimed, including routings that might be interpreted as heading for target A, when the real target was B, leading to the Germans massing their nightfighters around A. By the time they realized the attack was going in elsewhere, their nightfighters would be low on fuel and distant from the bomber stream. Other ruses included electronic simulations of a large attack on C by using specially trained bomber crews dropping reflective strips to give the appearance on German radars of real aircraft: meanwhile the attack on the real target was hopefully going in unmolested.

The third threat to the bomber would be a collision with another aircraft: imagine several hundred lumbering bombers aiming at a specific city, at night, with flak explosions filling the sky, and the likelihood of clouds blocking out the moon and you can appreciate the chances of bumping into comrades was too high for complacency. Planners tried to allocate specific times over targets to groups of planes to avoid a mass arriving at the same time but the chaos of war and the vagaries of the winds made sticking to schedule no easy task. The risk did not disappear once you had left the target area either because many collisions occurred as planes straggled back to base with exhausted crews and possibly damaged planes all trying to land.

The fourth was being hit by bombs being dropped from colleagues flying higher than yourself, and whilst route planning was designed to eliminate this risk, again the chaos of contacts with the enemy often rendered such planning redundant and you just had to hope for the best as you sailed along.

In many ways the fifth circumstance was the most terrifying and that was being raked by gunfire from enemy nightfighters. Consequently much effort was invested in ways to mitigate this threat, including manoeuvres the pilot could take once an attack was underway, and technical measures which could help avoid an attack in the first place.

There was a limited amount of practice bombing and gunnery training; the latter involved being 'attacked' by a Spitfire, and while the pilot executed the standard evasion manoeuvre known as the corkscrew, the gunners endeavoured to 'shoot' the Spitfire down with their cine-camera-gun (CCG).

Mastering the corkscrew manoeuvre was a key to survival when the time came for action over enemy territory, so the better a pilot got at it during his practice sessions, the higher his chance of survival later. The technique used by RAF heavy bombers to evade the clutches of a nighfighter closing in from behind for the kill was dramatic for all involved.

On the command of the rear gunner who was at that time staring down the multiple barrels of a nightfighter, the pilot would throw his aircraft into a sequence of violent manoeuvres which, if successful, would expose the nightfighter to fire from the bomber's rear gunner and the top turret gunner whilst at the same time throwing the fighter off his aim, hopefully so much so that he would give up and seek another victim. Close coordination over the intercom was required between the pilot and the rear gunner if the gunners were to maintain their bead on the enemy during these wild manoeuvre. A typical exchange might be as follows:

Rear Gunner shouting, 'Corkscrew Port, Go!' (if the fighter was coming in from the port (left) side; otherwise it would be, 'Corkscrew Starboard, Go!', and the exchange would change appropriately).

The pilot would immediately put the aircraft into a steep diving turn to port saying as he went, – 'Down port!'.

He would keep this diving turn going. until he had lost some 600 to 1000ft. Then he would say, – 'Changing!' as he pulled out of the dive and converted to a steep climbing turn to port, saying, as the climb started, 'Up port!' At the top of that turn, by which time he would have regained maybe some 700ft of the height lost in the initial dive, he would say, 'Rolling!' as he converted to a climbing turn to starboard, saying, as the climb commenced, 'Up Starboard!' At the top of this climb, he would have regained all the height lost and then it would again be, 'Changing!' as he changed to a diving turn to starboard and went through a similar manoeuvre with appropriate calls on the other side of his track.

From the start of the initial dive until the time he changed to the dive on the other side there would have been a time-lapse of about 30 seconds; his airspeed would have fluctuated from, say 140 knots at which he would have been cruising to a extreme peak of 350 knots at the bottom of the first dive and back to about 160 knots. (crews were told the wings fell off at 300 knots, but it didn't stop them going as fast as they could!) All of his calls would have been significant to the gunners who would change their aim and deflection accordingly through each stage of the manoeuvre. In practice, particularly at night, the fighter was usually lost in that first dive. Hopefully he would have concluded that there were easier pickings than continuing to tangle with a bomber that was obviously well aware of his presence.

Corkscrew Manoeuvre assuming an attack from the Starboard side. It would be reversed if the attack came from Port.

In a post-war interview a German nighfighter pilot said he tried to follow a Lancaster bomber for a full 30 minutes and never once got into a firing position.

Time In Training

A break down of the 80 hours flying we did at OTU show 30 hours dual and solo circuits by day and night for pilot conversion, 5 day cross-countries, totalling 19 hours, and 3 night cross-countries totalling 15 hours. There were 4 hours devoted to 3 sessions on the practice bombing range, though sometimes a cross-country ended with a simulated bombing of the Immingham docks in the Humber estuary. An infra-red source in the docks recorded the result on an on-board camera. There were 3 CCG sessions totalling 2 hours, although there were dedicated CCG sorties by groups of gunners.

At the end of OTU, as a graduation exercise, a crew would be sent on a 'Nickel', which was the code name for a leaflet raid. In this exercise, each aircraft had its own 'target' - but more on the 'Nickel' later. This, and a diversion exercise known as a Bullseye, totalled 9.5 hours; the latter involved an approach to the enemy coast as a diversion while a real operation went in at another point. At this time, there were two happenings that were to change the composition of our crew. Our mid-upper gunner, Jock Gilhooly, a Scot from Bathgate, West Lothian was on a dedicated CCG sortie with a number of other gunners when the aircraft caught fire in the circuit. With fabric covering and nitrate dope Wellingtons burned like torches, and a number of the gunners, including our Jock exited by the upper escape hatch while the aircraft was rolling along the runway at a rate of knots. They suffered some burns, much bruising and loss of skin, but survived to fly again some months later. Unfortunately the pilot and two others were killed.

Then, Jack Crone, our Australian pilot was hospitalised with pneumonia, so that when we moved on to 1668 CU (Conversion Unit) at Bottesford near Nottingham we acquired a new pilot, and a mid upper gunner by the name of Jim Donoghue from Kent. Jack Crone later lost his life on ops with another crew.

All else being equal, a good pilot was better than an ordinary one - and there were some very ordinary pilots in the Air Force - but on the whole the chances of pilot skill getting you home in an emergency were not great. However, what was highly desirable was a pilot who was cool and calm when the going got rough, and who had the ability to reassure the dependant crew.

Here we had the good fortune to have six feet five inch New Zealander John (Lofty) Groves (NZ414613) assigned to us. Lofty was a farm boy from Masterton, and as a pilot, captain and crew member he was superb. He was unusual in that he had done a lot of instructing, logging more than 3000 hours when most experienced pilots at this stage probably had 300 to 400 hours total. He came to us after an extended period of instructing at a Beam School. (The term Beam referred to the blind approach system using the Lorenz Beam, always referred to by the RAF as SBA - Standard Beam Approach). His DFC was awarded 21 September 1945 for action as a pilot.

Heavy Conversion Unit was where the crews converted to four-engined heavies. ('They don't seem to have taught you anything at the OTU (Operational Training Unit). Here we give you the good guts!!')

The aircraft at an HCU were pensioned-off Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters, aircraft that had frequently performed many live sorties to enemy territory, often experiencing fire damage from flak (anti -aircraft fire) or had fought themselves out of the clutches of the dreaded nightfighters.

L-R: Halifax Stirling Lancaster

We had the good fortune to go on to Lancasters, in every way the superior aircraft. This conversion involved 37 hours flying, and apart from 2 cross countries totalling 10 hours, it consisted of day-circuits and night-circuits. Because crews who had trained and or operated on Wellington bombers had no mid-upper gunner because the plane lacked a turret in that position, during the time at OTU the gunners shared time in the rear turret, though they decided between themselves who would man the respective turrets on ops.

It was at HCU also that we picked up a flight engineer (FE or Fl/Eng), another position missing on Wellingtons, in our case Syd. Faggetter, a Londoner. FEs were often 'scrubbed' pilots who had failed to get through pilot training. Their duties were monitoring the complexity of gauges common to heavier bombers, logging readings, selecting fuel tanks, and generally assisting the pilot, and because they had some flying training they would be expected to take over if the pilot became incapacitated.

And so, in our case, with 117 hours flying together as a crew, half of it on simple circuits for pilot conversion where the rest of the crew more or less were along for the ride, we were posted to 550 Squadron at North Killingholme situated on the south bank of the river Humber.

'I don't know what they are doing at OTU and HCU. Here we give you the good guts!!!'

Second Dickey (2nd Dickey)

Before a pilot took his own crew on an operation over enemy territory, he had to do a trip with another crew for a look-see; this was known as a 'Second Dicky'. This put the pilot one operation ahead of the rest of his crew, so at some time during the tour, senior officers such as the squadron Officer Commanding and the flight commanders who were only permitted to fly once a month, would 'appropriate' a crew by replacing the pilot and putting themselves on the 'battle order' to restore the balance.

Our Officer Commanding, Wing Commander Avis, took us on the 9 hr 15-minute journey to Dresden. He was positively ancient - or so he seemed to us - he must have been at least fifty. He only flew when it was full tanks, and at regular intervals would remove his oxygen mask to have a smoke. At the briefing for Dresden we were taught to parrot the phrase, which, as I recall, came out phonetically as ‘YA ANGLA- SHAR-NEEN (I am English) in case we bailed out and were picked up by the Russians (who probably would have shot first anyway).

Wartime Airfields

During WW2 there were two distinct types of airfields in the UK. One was the permanent peacetime stations (like RAF Waddington) built between the wars, where buildings of brick construction were grouped together close to large hangars, and while very convenient were also vulnerable to attack. These permanent stations, because of their superior facilities usually accommodated two squadrons of two flights.

The other was wartime airfields such as RAF Witchford in Cambridgeshire which were built on 'converted' farm land and used Nissen huts for living quarters, messing and administration; all of which were often a mile apart. However, in both cases the aircraft were dispersed over the whole airfield, and all servicing was done in the open. Imagine that in the depths of an English winter.

RAF Witchford 1943
HK545 was later lost 12/13 June 1944 during an attack on the German city of Gelsenkirchen.

There were three special aerodromes known as crash dromes, which were especially set up to provide assistance for badly damaged aircraft returning from operations. These were RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk, RAF Carnaby in Yorkshire and RAF Manston in Kent. Their runways were extra long, extra wide, with undershoot and overshoot areas, fire tenders, cranes and even the capacity to bulldoze wrecks off runways if necessary. As a measure of how essential these crash dromes were, consider this diary for a single day at RAF Manston:

56 emergency landings on the night of 28th August 1942 left devastation that would lead to the approval for a new runway to be built. The Station Commander Wing Commander Gleave had already seen the increasing numbers of emergency landings increasing, with damaged aircraft of Bomber Command trying to make it to Manston in every kind of imaginable trouble. At the time, the airfield was comparatively limited for such landings, with many aircraft overshooting, adding to the damage to them, increasing casualties, and also damaging the airfield and buildings. The undulating surface made matters worse, although Gleave had already pleaded for the construction of a really large runway with 'lead in' lights, so far he had not been successful. The scene of carnage eventually led to the approval of the new runway.

The night began when an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber crashed close to the airfield. The crew was uninjured but they were checked out in the sick quarters anyway. Further details or confirmation of this aircraft are yet to be found.

20:15hrs: The Northolt Polish Spitfire Wing, consisting of 302, 306, 308 and 317 Sqd started landing without warning in the gathering darkness, 45 aircraft in all.

Amongst the action and unannounced arrivals, were a large number of movements by 3 Sqd Hurricanes and 23 Sqd Mosquitos.

23:59hrs: A Wellington IV Z-1460 – SM-N of No.305 (Polish) Squadron crash-landed on the beginning of the flare path. They had been attacked on their way to Saarbrücken by 3 night fighters in succession before reaching the target, one of which was thought to have been shot down, and after the aircraft caught fire, the bombs were jettisoned.

00:30hrs on 29th August: A Wellington from 101 Sqd landed, having failed to reach its target in Nuremberg. It was desperately short of fuel.

01:50hrs: A Wellington from 460 Sqd landed, also out of fuel. The pilot overshot the runway and the aircraft was totally wrecked, but the crew escaped without injury.

02:30hrs: Another Wellington, X3718/Q from 115 Sqd landed owing to a fuel shortage, after bombing Saarbrücken.

03:30hrs: One of the larger four-engined Short Stirlings landed from 149 Sqd.

03:44hrs: A Stirling from 214 Sqd landed with one unserviceable engine and another failing.

03:57hrs: another Stirling from 15 Sqd landed.

04:00hrs: 218 Sqd Short Stirling I N3717 HA-S crash-landed at Manston after taking off as one of six crews from Downham Market at 2050hrs for operations over Nuremberg. They had diverted on their return to Manston due to a fuel shortage, but after being told to avoid the obstruction of the first Wellington (305 Polish Sqd) by keeping to the right of the main runway, when they were on final approach, their aircraft was illuminated by a Chance light. With his night vision impaired, the pilot (Du Toit) landed too far to the right. The Stirling careened through a line of the Polish Wing Spitfires, destroying one Spitfire Mk.Vb (BM566) of 17 Sqd which burst into flames and damaged many others. Wrestling with the controls, the pilot on only his second operation as captain, swept on into a dispersal bay already occupied by a Fleet Air Arm Fairey Albacore (X9112), ending in a tangle of metal. The crew emerged uninjured but their aircraft was beyond repair and struck off charge. Despite the efforts of the station’s fire service and local firefighters that had been called in, little could be done to save some of the Spitfires.

On Arrival At An Operational Squadron

'We spent the day going around the various sections getting first hand gen from the very helpful officers and NCOs in charge. There were also a lot of curious but friendly grins from the other ranks who had probably seen a lot of sprogs doing their orientation..... The Intelligence Officer issued us with an astonishing array of escape gadgets, including the standard knife to conceal in the fleecy-lined flying boots, a little torch with a red night screen, and some French and German money which may have been counterfeit, and a map of Europe printed on a silk handkerchief. We also received a replacement brass button with reverse thread which revealed a compass and two magnetic fly buttons to sew on our battledress trousers. The drill was to cut the buttons off and suspend one above the other by a thread to line up the little north dot. What we were supposed to do about a gaping fly was not revealed..... Some water purifier and glucose and wakey-wakey pills completed the 5×4 inch packet that fitted the battledress pocket..... The notice board was the first thing to look at when entering the Mess, and not just because ‘failing to be aware of standing orders and DROs (daily routine orders) is no excuse for failing to carry them out.’ On DROs we had two issues to collect, a bicycle to make it easier getting around the station, and a Smith and Wesson revolver with some ammunition, a reminder that we could be called upon in emergencies to assist in aerodrome defence.' Bombs On Target, by Ron Mayhill, DFC

And so began our first tour. A first tour required 30 ops, and if you made it through, after a rest period varying from 9 months for gunners to 18 months for pilots and navigators, individuals were required to do a second tour of 20 ops. If you survived two tours your war was over, although you could volunteer to do an extra 5 on each tour, or carry on doing complete tours.

One of the most famous Bomber Command pilots, Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, of Dambusters fame, was unhappy at being stood down after completing a tour, and wangled himself onto a Mosquito squadron so he could continue his personal fight. And it was in a Mosquito that this celebrated pilot lost his life over Holland: decades were to pass before a guilt-laden Lancaster gunner - Bernard McCormack - revealed it was he who shot Gibson down, mistaking the Mosquito at night for a German nightfighter.

When Bomber Command ‘body snatchers’ were addressing a new crop of ‘lambs’ they would tell them that Bomber Command’s losses averaged 4%. When one considered that out of every 100 aircraft that went out, 96 would make it home again, the odds seemed reasonable – and so they would be if you only went once!

What they failed to point out was that by the time you had done 25 ops you were fresh out of luck and were probably dead. Indeed at one stage Bomber Command was turning over its entire force every 25 ops, so the chance of surviving two tours were not good - it had been calculated that losses of up to 6 or 7% across the entire Command were sustainable, and each new aircraft was considered to have a budget of 17 ops. In spite of this bleak prospect, 34 individual Lancasters remarkably notched up over 100 ops.

'The Phantom of the Ruhr' (B-Baker) of 550 Squadron survived with a record 124 trips, and F-Fox and V-Victor also of 550, topped the century.

Phantom of the Ruhr (courtesy

The darkest periods for Bomber Command was the second half of 1943 during the Battle of Berlin, and the first half of 1944 during the lead up to D-Day, reaching the low point with the disastrous attack on Nuremburg at the end of March 1944 when 95 aircraft failed to return. Another 12 crashed or were written-off after they returned home. Bomber Command lost about 700 bods that night.

We started to operate after D-Day and so missed the worst of it as losses tapered off towards the end of the war, though we did suffer a 10% loss on Nuremburg just a couple of months before the war ended. But back to the beginning…..

There were 3 flights on 550 squadron, and the flight commander of C flight to which we were attached was a New Zealander who was coming to the end of his second tour with some 60 ops to his credit. Up to that time, no New Zealander had managed to complete a tour on 550, so, in a rare show of compassion, rather than tempt fate, C flight was detached from 550 and sent to Fiskerton to re-form 150 Sqd. (It was a common practice to detach a flight from an established squadron to form the nucleus of a new squadron). After two weeks at Fiskerton we re-located to Hemswell (a 'permanent') 12 miles north of Lincoln on Irmine Street (the Roman road between Lincoln and York), in a locality with the curious name of Spital in the Street.

Nickel Operations

Of the 35 ops we flew on Bomber Command there are a few that still come vividly to mind, although our first foray into enemy territory was not counted as an op - that was a 'Nickel' flown while we were still officially at our OTU. ('Nickel' was the code name for a leaflet drop, which was just as dangerous as one carrying bombs: the enemy gave no special favours to leaflet droppers!)

It was after D-Day, but before the breakout from Normandy that we were briefed for a leaflet drop on Chateaudun situated about 60 miles south west of Paris. We were naturally apprehensive about our first continental excursion, but I guess we rationalised that because it was a benign operation it would not be too dangerous. As were to discover, nothing could have been further from the truth: a lone aircraft wandering around over enemy territory stood out like a sore thumb. Here I will make a few points about the Wellington which are pertinent to this story:

  • There was a reserve oil tank in the mid fuselage, and the Wireless Operator had the job of topping up the engine oil after about 4 hours - using 35 strokes of the reciprocating pump as I recall.
  • It was usual for the pilot's seat to be armour plated, but because the Wireless Operator sat directly behind the pilot in the Wellington, the designer, Barnes Wallis - bless him - decided you may as well have two for the price of one, so there was this magnificent piece of armour plate from floor to ceiling behind the Wireless Operator's seat instead - a thoroughly sensible arrangement!
  • Because there was no mid-upper turret in the Wellington, the mid-upper gunner spent the entire trip standing with his head in the astrodome looking backwards. (We had lost our mid-upper gunner at this point and had a 'spare bod' for the 'Nickel') The astrodome was set in the upper escape hatch which was a panel of about 2 feet by 5 feet, hinged on one side, with 2 draw bolts on the other, and, when the bolts were withdrawn the panel swung down into the fuselage.

And so we set forth. It was a quiet trip out; we didn't see a thing, and when the navigator said we were in the right spot we dropped our load of leaflets and turned for home. We were tracking up the Cherbourg peninsula heading for the relative safety of the English Channel when it came time to pump oil, and during this time I was off the intercom. I was pumping away when I heard the rear guns open up. To say it came as something of a surprise would be an understatement. With all that lead flying about the thought of that armoured seat suddenly became very attractive, so I decided that the oil could wait, and scarpered back to my bolthole. We had been attacked by a Focke Wulf 190, and when the rear gunner let fly the 190 caught fire and went down. We did not see him hit the ground, but there was an excited bunch of lads on that Wellington.

About half an hour later in mid Channel, we were beginning to simmer down when we lost an engine and with it we lost Gee which was our primary position finding device. The navigator called for a radio fix, but to transmit on medium frequency I had to reel out the trailing aerial which was 150 feet of wire; this was also located in the mid-fuse, near the reserve oil tank. We made our landfall midway along the south coast of England near Bournemouth, and the pilot decided to land at the first decent sized aerodrome near our track because we had also lost hydraulics which meant a flapless landing. Conveniently, RAF Tarrant Rushton filled the bill. We were on descent into Tarrant Rushton when I suddenly remembered the trailing aerial was still out. The service took a dim view of aircraft landing with trailing aerials dangling (a not uncommon occurrence) as they tended to get wrapped around telephone lines, power lines, and end up strewn along the runway. I tore down the back and managed to get the thing reeled in, but once again I was off the intercom. Suddenly, the fuselage was full of smoke, and I naturally assumed we were on fire. Having seen a Wellington burn I was somewhat alarmed (to say the least), and tried to get the upper escape hatch open, but the drawbolts seemed to be stuck. While all this was going on the bloody gunner was standing there like a dummy with his head in the astrodome either unconcerned or unaware of danger. For some reason this annoyed me greatly.

As we landed the 'smoke' cleared and I discovered the cause of the trouble. In an emergency, the undercarriage was blown down by compressed air. This caused a surge of oil back into the header tank, which was situated on the bulkhead above the Wireless Operator's position. Vapour, fumes and a quantity of oil were forced out of the tank vent, and my seat and radio gear were covered in oil. Perhaps I was lucky to be out of position after all! It was a very wound-up group of young airmen - average age about 22 years -who made a report when we landed.

The pilot, Jack Crone, got a green entry in his logbook (commendation for a job well done), and the writer got two awful frights he could have well done without. Some months later, Alan Johns, the rear gunner, was credited with the Fw 190 kill. How this came about we never discovered, because confirmation of kills was not given lightly. Later, during an op on Hanover, Alan was credited with downing a Ju 88. Why this outstanding performance did not rate a DFM I do not know.

When night ops were laid on, the Battle Order (the list of aircraft and crews) was posted at about 10 am and while the target was a closely guarded secret, the fuel load would be known to everyone and his dog. 1700 gallons would mean a trip to the Ruhr or somewhere on that radius, 1900 gallons somewhere middle distance, and when it was 2154 you had hit the jackpot. The 4 Merlins consumed 180 gallons an hour, and the aim was to get one mile to the gallon.

Ops could be scrubbed at any time; sometimes shortly after they were laid on, sometimes during briefing or while we were having the last smoke before boarding the aircraft. Indeed, on rare occasions the aircraft would be recalled after take off, though we never had that experience. A scrub-announcement was always greeted with a wild cheer, and shortly after there were very few aircrew to be found. Strictly speaking, stand down was 5 pm so if you did 'disappear' it was a good idea to call base late in the afternoon in case day ops had been laid on for the next day. On two occasions, someone I know fell into bed at 4 am, only to be woken a couple of hours later to be told that briefing was at 8 am. It was the only time this person ever managed a short snooze in the air - so I'm told.

As night bombing evolved, it was decided that the way to go was to 'saturate the defences'. To this end, all aircraft were on the same track, tossing out Window (left: metal strips which reflected enemy radar signals in a confusing manner) when appropriate to clutter up the German radar, and the bombing time was compressed until a thousand aircraft could go through a target in half an hour. The track was never a straight line to the target, and sometimes involved a 90-degree turn in the vicinity of the target.

Inevitably, at night, the stream spread out, and this is why you needed a good navigator; lone aircraft straying to the edge of the stream were soon picked off by nighfighters. For the most part you could well imagine your aircraft was the only one in the air - until you hit someone' s slipstream. When this happened it felt as though the aircraft was standing on its wing tip, though it probably only rolled about 60 degrees, and while it always came as a bit of a shock, it was also comforting to know there was someone else about.

Probably the greatest hazard from our own aircraft was at turning points. Because the stream spread out, if an aircraft on the outside of the turn turned early, or one on the inside turned late, they would be flying across the stream. Such near misses were frequent, and were probably the most common danger that we were aware of.

The bombing run was always a tense time because it meant flying straight and level and maintaining the heading for about half a minute after bomb release to get a photo. Even at night, the reflection of the fires on the underside of aircraft above made them clearly visible, and every aircraft above with bomb doors gaping appeared to be directly above you. Once you had turned for home, you felt you were as good as there.

With two notable exceptions, all our ops were conducted in the 16 to 18 thousand foot bands. For large-scale operations the aircraft were stacked at 5 levels in 500-foot increments between 16000 and 18000 feet. If you were on the bottom level today, you took a step up on succeeding ops until you reached the top, and then dropped to the bottom again. Lofty always flew strictly as briefed, but many did not; they resorted to the 'Jack' system.

We are unsure what is meant by the 'Jack' system: is it derived from 'I'm all right, Jack', indicating crews did whatever they wanted? Information on this point welcomed via the Helpdesk!

The average op could be said to be seven hours of apprehension punctuated by moments of terror, but an op on an oil target at Pölitz near Stettin on the Baltic coast north-east of Berlin began with two hours of terror. The plot was to head out across the North Sea at 3000 feet to the coast of Denmark, start the climb to operational height and cross the German coast near Rostock heading south east towards Berlin. About 60 miles (20 minutes) from Berlin, a sharp left onto a northeasterly heading would put us on track for Pölitz. The problem was that the first two hours were flown in cloud on the same track as 474 other aircraft. I recall making the comment that we were probably quite safe because it was likely that we were the only bloody idiots flying as briefed. It was 2 hours of sustained terror when any second could have been our last. After bombing we headed north across the Baltic to southern Sweden (neutral territory) where the Swedes were sending up tracers in victory Vs. The intelligence officer had told us at briefing that the note of apology for some RAF aircraft' straying over Sweden' was already on its way. It was also on this op that Noel Collins, now living in Banbury, who was one of three 25 Course pilots who went to Europe, was shot down on his 30th and last Op.

Without doubt the most dangerous area in which to operate was southern Germany. Targets such as Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Mannheim and Schweinfurt consistently took a heavy toll. It was a long haul over hostile territory and the night fighters could get you coming and going. On March 16/17 1945 less than two months before the end of the war we had a 10% loss on Nuremberg. For about the last hour into the target, some miles to our right, the same scene was repeated many times: the blue tinged beam of a predicted (radar controlled) searchlight would snap straight onto one of ours. Immediately a half dozen other white lights would 'cone' it followed by a twinkling of flack bursts and a flaming end. We lost 24 aircraft that night. The bombing photo of this op was acquired as a momento of our worst experience over Germany.

There was a rule of thumb for low level bombing that allowed one foot of height for every pound of the heaviest bomb carried, and since we always carried a 4000-pounder our 'lowest safe' was 4000 feet.

Kleve, near the Dutch border, about 10 miles from Nijmegan, was wiped off the map from this height in support of the British Army after operation Market Garden, and was one of the two instances when we flew at other than our usual height. The other occasion was a daylight attack on an oil target at Bremen. When the RAF resumed day bombing to a limited degree after D-Day, it was done in the same way as night bombing: every crew did their own thing!

Gaggle Flying

However, when you could see where the other aircraft were, the tendency was to tuck in close and join the stream, and so evolved the Gaggle. Since everyone was going to follow the leader, the thing to do was to select crews with the best navigators to form a leading Vic. of three to lead the way.

'At the briefing we were told that as Bomber Command had been venturing into Germany and particularly Happy Valley in daylight, and, unlike the Americans, had not been attacked by large numbers of fighters, there was concern that because of our techniques in Bomber Command, with each aircraft making its own way to the target in the Bomber stream, we might be very vulnerable to fighter attack. We could not possibly adopt the American system of flying in mass formations and so some boffin somewhere had come up with the ‘brilliant’ idea that we should indulge in gaggle flying. No practice for us, mind, just – this what you do chaps – get on with it. The idea was that 3 Lancasters would have their tail fins painted bright yellow and would be the leading ‘Vic’ formation. All other aircraft would take off, find another squadron aircraft and formate on it. Each pair would then pack in together behind the leading ‘vic’ and the lead Navigator would do the navigating with the rest of the force following. The route on the flight plan took us across Belgium crossed the Rhine between Duisburg and Dusseldorf then passing Wuppertal and North East into the target area. All went well until we were approaching the Rhine when the lead navigator realised we were two minutes early. It was important not to be early or we would arrive on target before the pathfinders had done their job. The technique for losing two minutes was to do a two minute ‘dog-leg’. When ordered by the lead nav, this involved doing a 45 degrees starboard turn, two minutes flying, 90 degree port turn, 2 minutes flying, 45 degree starboard turn and we were then back on track.'

On the Bremen op mentioned above, we had the doubtful honour of being the starboard element of the leading Vic. It was one of those rare days in Europe when there was not a cloud in the sky, and the force of 104 Lancasters went in at 12000 feet. The reason was that a couple of miles to our left, 19 Lancasters of 617 Sqd (Dambusters) were heading in to attack a railway bridge with some heavy metal.

Shortly before bomb release all hell broke loose. The sky around the leading Vic. was black with flack, and although we sustained considerable damage to the aircraft, of the crew only the bombardier, Doug Fellows from Newcastle, copped some minor shrapnel wounds. I clipped on my parachute pack ready to go.

In the course of our tour we averaged 3 ops every 2 weeks, and although we frequently operated on consecutive days, at times there would be extended periods of inactivity due to weather. During one such period when ops were being laid on and cancelled almost daily, when we went for our pre-briefing bacon and eggs, there were no eggs dished up because the catering officer said ops were sure to be scrubbed. ‘We couldn't have aircrew getting eggs under false pretences.’ Oi/c (Officer-in-charge) Eggs was very smartly removed.

We were on duty continuously (between disappearing acts) and got 6 days leave every 6 weeks. Aircrew had the rare privilege of a petrol ration, and although this ration was quite modest, it conferred the right to be on the road - which was the main thing. I acquired a '34 model 2 door Ford 8 which was a popular car with aircrew. It came in handy and was put to very good use.

When we reached the high 20s in ops and anticipating tour's-end, we were told we would be required to do a total of 36. Presumably, because the end of the war was in sight and it was obvious that they would not get another tour out of us, they decided to stretch the first one, although at this time they were really flush with bods. Then, when we had done 35 we were suddenly told we had finished - at least we were spared the agony of the last op.

Altogether, I consider I had my fair share of luck. By pure chance I flew with a better than average pilot, a good rear gunner (often referred to as the 'gunner rear') who earned, but did not get a DFM, and most important of all a Scot, David Buchanan, a really first class navigator who had the uncommon distinction of being awarded a DFC on a first tour for his proficiency as a navigator. Pilots were automatically awarded a DFC, referred to as the NAAFI Gong on the completion of a tour, whilst other crew members would only get an award for some extraordinary act or achievement. (NAAFI was the organization supplying the food on an air base)

Noel Collins, mentioned earlier, who was shot down near Pölitz on what was to have been his last op, stayed at the controls of his aircraft until the 5 surviving crew members bailed out, and got out himself at 1000 feet. Noel missed out on his Gong - presumably because he failed to return his aircraft when he finished his tour!

LORAN, H2S, Monica, Oboe

Then we had the good fortune to have the passive Loran radar rather than the active H2S radar which probably doubled our chance of survival.

LORAN was a land-based navigation system designed in the USA. Equipment on board Allied bombers could detect Loran transmissions from ground stations in the UK and use this information to establish their location with great accuracy. The bomber itself transmitted nothing and therefore could not be detected as a consequence of using Loran.

H2S (right) was the first airborne, ground scanning radar system. It was developed for Bomber Command to identify targets on the ground for night and all-weather bombing. H2S transmitted radar signals which were reflected off the ground and then detected and processed back on the aircraft. H2S allowed attacks outside the range of the various radio navigation aids like Gee or Oboe, which were limited to about 350 kilometres (220 mi). It was also widely used as a general navigation system, allowing landmarks to be identified at long range.

In March 1941, experiments with an early Airborne Interception radar based on the 9.1 cm, (3 GHz) cavity magnetron revealed that different objects have very different radar signatures; water, open land and built-up areas of cities and towns all produced distinct returns. In January 1942, a new team was set up to combine the magnetron with a new scanning antenna and plan-position indicator display. The prototype's first use in April confirmed that a map of the area below the aircraft could be produced using radar. The first systems went into service in early 1943 as the H2S Mk. I and H2S Mk. II, as well as ASV Mark III.

Crews were provided with astonishingly clear images of the ground over which they were travelling (left: the Zuider Zee on H2S) which led to the expectation of much better nighttime navigation and more accurate target bombing.

However, common sense suggested that if you were radiating a signal from your H2S-equipped aircraft the German night fighters could ‘home' on it, but right until the end of the war, authority assured crews that this was not so - not that anyone believed them. Post war it was revealed that not only were the Germans homing on H2S, but our lot knew about it from mid 1944 when a Ju 88 with the requisite gear inadvertently landed at Woodbridge. (see Captured Ju 88 Nightfighter)

In fact the author has possibly confused H2S with another British airborne radar system codenamed Monica. H2S was detected by German ground locations who would then feed information to German fighter controllers who would in turn pass it on to the nightfighters. Monica, on the other hand, was equipment fitted to the rear of RAF bombers which gave warning of nightfighters manoeuvring for an attack. The captured Ju 88 had equipment onboard which allowed it to ride down a Monica beam right onto the transmitting bomber. Once the British realized this they instructed bomber crews to activate Monica only in short bursts, enough to detect fighters but too short for the fighters to use as guidance onto the bomber: a procedure fraught with its own difficulties at night when the rear gunner had no way of knowing what was creeping up behind and the temptation to switch Monica on 'just to check' must have become overpowering.

Oboe was a British aerial blind bombing system in World War II, based on radio transponder technology. The system consisted of a pair of radio transmitters on the ground in the UK, which sent signals which were received and retransmitted by a transponder in the aircraft. By comparing the time each signal took to reach the aircraft, the distance between the aircraft and the station could be determined. The Oboe operators in the UK then sent radio signals to the aircraft to bring them onto their target and properly time the release of their bombs. The system only worked when the aircrft was on a line-of-sight to the transmitters: the further the distance, the higher the aircraft had to be to maintain line-of-sight.

An illustration of the Oboe navigation system. The aircraft uses some other form of navigation to place itself in the general area of one end of the pre-computed arc from the 'Cat' station and then is directed to follow the arc.
'Mouse' watches the aircraft approach the target and tells it to drop the bombs at a pre-computed point.

The system was first used in December 1941 in short-range attacks over France where the necessary line of sight could be maintained. To attack the Ruhr, only the Mosquito flew high enough to be visible to the ground stations at that distance. Such operations began in 1942, when Pathfinder squadron Mosquitos used Oboe both to mark targets for heavy bombers, as well as for direct attacks on high-value targets. In an attack on 21 December 1942, Oboe-guided bombers dropped over 50% of their bombs on the Krupp factories in Essen, an enormous improvement over previous efforts that resulted in less than 10% of bombs landing on their targets. Versions using shorter wavelengths demonstrated accuracy on the order of 15 meters (49 ft).

Oboe was used extensively by Pathfinder marker aircraft during the Battle of the Ruhr in 1943. In December 1943 Bomber Command began the Battle of Berlin, which was beyond the range of Oboe. For this campaign, Bomber Command was forced to rely on H2S instead, which never was able to provide the consistent accuracy of Oboe. A later development was the Gee-H system, in which the transponder remained on the ground but the transmitter was mounted in the aircraft where the readout was made. This system allowed around 80 aircraft to be guided at the same time. Neither H2S nor Gee-H could provide the accuracy of Oboe, which demonstrated the highest average bombing accuracy of any system in the war.

Oboe missions were clearly identifiable to German radar operators; the aircraft would start some distance north or south of the target and then approach it on an arcing path they referred to as 'Boomerang'. Although the operators quickly became accustomed to these aircraft, actually arranging an interception of the high-flying and high-speed aircraft proved extremely difficult.

It took the Germans more than a year to decipher the operation of the system, led by the engineer H. Widdra, who had detected the British 'Pip-squeak' Identification Friend or Foe [IFF] system in 1940. The first attempt to jam Oboe took place at the end of August 1943 during an attack on the Bochumer Verein steelworks in Essen. A system set up at the Maibaum tracking station in Kettwig broadcast false dot and dash signals on the 1.5m band, hoping to make it impossible for the pilot to figure out if they were at the right position. This was the same technique that the British had used against German systems during The Blitz.

However, the Oboe system had already moved to the microwave-frequency 10cm Oboe Mk. II, but the British kept broadcasting the older signals as a ruse. The failure to jam Oboe remained a mystery until July 1944, when the older signal was incorrectly set to mark one target while a Pathfinder perfectly marked another. The Germans quickly surmised that there was another signal or system in use. The Germans were well acquainted with the British microwave systems in the 10cm area, but in April 1944 the RAF had already introduced Oboe Mk. III, which resisted German jamming efforts. Mk. III also allowed up to four aircraft to use a set of frequencies (stations) and allowed different styles of approach, not just the arc.

Finally, I had the experience of actually knowing how close I came to oblivion. The Wireless Operator position on the Lancaster was on the port side of the fuselage, abeam the astrodome, so one only had to stand up to look out. One night, literally seconds after I sat down, I heard a tinkle and vaguely wondered what it was. Next morning we discovered holes on both sides, of the dome where a piece of flack had gone through - exactly where my head had been just seconds before.

There were certain beliefs that persisted to the end: that it was during the first 5 and the last 5 ops that you were most likely to get the chop; or that when you saw a huge inky black ball on a daylight op it was not the result of one of ours taking a direct hit, but a device called a scarecrow, thrown up by the Germans to scare us. It wasn't, but it did!'


Following expressions of interest in the method of navigation used by Bomber Command during World War 2, I have prepared the following. Although I was not a navigator, there had to be close co-operation between the navigator and wireless operator (W/Op). Anything electrical or electronic was considered the province of the W/Op; he monitored and logged generator outputs and on occasions made minor running repairs to items electrical - in my case when a gunner accidentally dislodged the power supply to his reflector gun-sight, and when flak severed the loom carrying power and intercom to the rear turret. This had put the rear turret out of action since intercom enabled the rear gunner to direct the pilot in the event of a fighter attack, and the guns were fired electrically.

I will qualify the following with the notation that it is for the most part my best recollection of knowledge acquired more than 50 years ago. Further, it relates to a run-of-the-mill main-force squadron and aircraft without any of the specialised gear carried by Pathfinder Force (PFF), special duties squadrons, or 100 Group which was dedicated to what today is known as Electronic Counter-Measures. However, it should provide the outline of a system that evolved over several years at a considerable cost in lives and aircraft.

In the years between the world wars, the RAF had not tackled the problem of developing a system of aircraft navigation for operations by day or night that could cope with the difficult European conditions. There was the vain hope that bombers would be able to defend themselves on day operations with their power operated gun turrets, and that aircraft could adopt marine navigation with Dead Reckoning (DR) and sextant. This was a difficult task at ship speed, but it was almost impossible in an aircraft for such a system to provide the precise navigation required for target finding.

After the disastrous daylight sorties to Heligoland just before Christmas 1939, it became clear that there would have to be a switch to night operations. The Luftwaffe came to the same conclusions in 1940 during the Battle of Britain and switched to night operations during the Blitz.

In early night operations, RAF navigators had to rely on astro-shots, map reading and drifts to find their way. One method of drift finding was to drop a flame float in the sea (or on land), and the rear gunner would line up his gun sights on the receding light and read off the drift on a scale on the rim of the turret. However, despite the overall inadequacy of navigation in the RAF, they did have some very good navigation related equipment such as the Distant Reading (DR) Compass and the Air Position Indicator (API).

Distant Reading Compass

This was a very important instrument, because, not only was it a very good compass, it provided directional sense to the API, auto-pilot, Mk XIV bomb sight and H2S (mapping radar). The master unit was a gimbal-mounted cylinder near the rear door of the Lancaster, and was a combination magnetic-gyro device: it was not subject to acceleration as was the purely magnetic compass, deviation was eliminated, and, applying variation to a compensating unit at the navigator's station allowed the navigator to work in true headings. It drove repeaters at the navigator's and bombardier's stations, with the pilot's repeater being the larger of the two instruments mounted on the coaming. (The other was a repeater from the loop aerial to allow the pilot to 'home' on a radio beacon).


The API derived its distance component from an air mileage unit regulated by the pilot pressure of the Air Speed Indicator (ASI), and its direction component from the DR compass, to give a continuous air-position readout in lat/long. (I have a notion that the navigator zeroed the API over the target and so started with a clean sheet for the trip home).


In the second half of the 1930s, with the advent of a new generation of aircraft, air travel began to expand and a need arose for a blind approach system. Englishman Robert Dippy proposed a system of synchronised pulsing, but about the same time (1937) the German Lorenz Company produced the comparatively simple Lorenz Beam which became the standard system. When, in 1941, it became clear how ineffective the efforts of Bomber Command had been up to that time, the 'boffins' were given the task of developing a system which would give an accurate ground position without any visual reference. They returned to Robert Dippy's proposal, and the result was Gee.

It consisted of three transmitters - a master and 2 slaves - arranged in an arc about 100 miles apart. The display was a cathode-ray tube, and the numbers deduced were applied to a special Gee chart of intersecting 'hyperbolic lines of position'. Gee was on VHF, and was, consequently, only line-of -sight. It was said to have a range of 300 to 400 miles, but my only recollection is that it always cut out beyond the Rhur, which was close to the western extremity of Germany.

Extending the range of Gee depended on increasing the distance between the transmitters and switching to medium frequency (MF). Such a system, known as Loran (LOng RANge), was developed by the Americans. The wartime European installation had the master station in England with one slave in North Africa and the other in Iceland. Post-war, the installation of very-low-frequency/very-long-wave transmitters world-wide produced Omega, and finally, by the use of satellites, the ultimate system, the GPS.

The Loop Aerial, Radio Fixes and QDMs.

These facilities were of no use over enemy territory, but could be useful for finding your way home in an emergency. The loop could give a bearing from a radio beacon, or allow the pilot to 'home' on it. To provide a radio fix, there were groups of three Direction Finding (DF) stations at a number of points over the British Isles. The W/Op called the control station on Wireless Telegraphy (WT /Morse) requesting a fix,and the three DF stations each took a bearing on the aircraft's transmission. The outstations relayed their numbers to the control station by land line where the bearings were triangulated and the position was transmitted to the aircraft. There were DF stations spread over the whole of the British Isles from where the W/Op could obtain a QDM by WT.

Strictly speaking, QDM meant 'Your course to fly to reach me is ...', but in practice they were mainly used as bearings - at least by Bomber Commnd aircraft. Finally, there was 'Darkie', which was raised on channel D of the TR 1196 - the pilot's Radio Telephony (RT/voice) HF set. This was a low powered channel with a very short range which was mainly used by fighters to ascertain their position. However, it did have the added use of receiving 'squeaker beacons' attached to 'friendly' barrage balloons to warn of their presence.

A sidelight on the use of the loop aerial was that although German radio stations went off the air at the first sign of aircraft activity, the BBC never shut down. The BBC transmission was switched continually between a line of transmitters spread over some distance, so if you tuned to the BBC, the crossed-needle indicator of the loop swung constantly from one extreme to the other.

Without doubt, the British were ahead of the field in what today is known as electronics (although sometimes not as far ahead as they thought), but at times this tended to work against them. There were those who were inclined to think if they could not do something, it couldn't be done; such was the case in what became known as 'the battle of the beams'.

There were those who believed that the Luftwaffe was using a system of beams to guide their bombers to targets in the British Isles, while others did not think it was possible to project a beam over such a distance and confine it to the narrow lateral limits required. Airborne detective work confirmed the existence of the beams. One transmitter near Cherbourg projected a beam to the North with cross beams emanating from other transmitters in France and Holland. It was this system which caused the devastation at Coventry.

The great disadvantage of this method of target marking was that the beams indicated the target to the defenders, and were easily jammed. (We were told by our RAF instructors that the British had won this battle by 'bending the beams', and that in at least one instance it had caused the Luftwaffe to drop bombs on neutral Eire. However, one history of WW2 states that although this operation was technically feasible it was never put into practice.)

H2S (Mapping Radar)

H2S was a triumph of ingenuity with the development of the cavity magnetron, cobbled together with' string, sealing wax and the shell chamber of a six-shooter (or was it an eight-shooter?) to generate a radio frequency with a 10cm wavelength for mapping radar. H2S had its limitations. It gave its best result when there was water in the picture, either coastal or rivers and lakes to give a good definition.

Unfortunately, despite assurances to the contrary, the German night fighters could 'home' on it. For propaganda purposes, much was made of the ability of the Allies to bomb through cloud, when in fact, blind bombing was just that. The great weakness of H2S in this regard was that the scanner, housed in a half-teardrop fairing on the underside of the fuselage behind the bomb-bay, rotated in a horizontal plane and produced a blank hole in the centre of the screen. In other words, you could see where you were going and where you had been, but you could not see the bit that was of greatest interest to you - what was directly underneath - so bombing with H2S involved a timed run from some point before it disappeared from view, which was rather hit and miss. H2S was best used selectively and briefly.

Fortunately, our aircraft G George was fitted with Loran instead ofH2S, although the installation of Loran was the exception rather than the rule in main-force aircraft. With the advent of Pathfinder Force (PFF) the aiming point was marked by Target Indicators (TIs). The use of TIs for target marking was code-named Newhaven, and could be ground marking (Paramatta) or sky marking (Wanganui). The story goes that when Newhaven was being developed and they were looking to name the two systems, someone asked an Australian and a New Zealander involved where they came from, and their answers became a part of the history of Bomber Command.

The initial ground marking for Newhaven was done by PFF Mosquitoes flying at 30,000 feet using a system code-named Oboe which, like Gee, was line-of -sight. It was claimed that a marker could be placed within 100 yards of the aiming point. (The Americans claimed they could plant a bomb in a pickle barrel from 25,000 feet using their Norden bombsight). Targets beyond the range of Gee and Oboe were located by the use of Loran and H2S, and marked either visually or with H2S.

The use of TIs also solved the problem of the main-force finding the target. On deep penetrations beyond the range of Gee, even after a long period on DR, the first of the main-force would be able to see the TIs go down, and once the attack started the fires could be seen from far away by the later crews. Control of the attack by a Master-Bomber, which was first used in the attack on the German experimental station at Peenemunde where the V1 and V2 were developed, involved the Master Bomber going down to 3500 feet to see which TIs were closest to the aiming point, and calling the main force to 'Bomb on Red' or 'Bomb on Green' as the case may be. At first this was done in a Lancaster, then in a Mosquito, and on occasions Leonard Cheshire used a Mustang. Other PFF aircraft known as backers-up were spaced along the stream to re-mark the aiming point at regular intervals as the TIs burned out or were blown out by bombs.

The RAF's pyrotechnics were brilliant, with the sky marking being particularly spectacular as brilliant red parachute-flares dripping brilliant green stars or green flares dripping red stars were suspended in mid-air. Unfortunately, sky marking was probably even less effective than bombing with H2S because the parachutes drifted with the wind. I believe it was only used as a last resort, and I only recall it being used on one of our operations, when, having gone all the way to Chemnitz (almost on the Czech border) we found the target under ten-tenths cloud. Presumably, it was better than carting the load home again.

WT Broadcasts to Aircraft

Group made a WT broadcast on the hour and half-hour, and the W/Op would listen out for messages. In the early stages of the outward journey, it was possible that the Operation may be scrubbed - though it never happened to us - and the prospect of pressing on when everyone else had turned for home was an incentive not to miss a broadcast. Sometimes if Pathfinder Force, who were ahead of the main-force, discovered that winds were significantly different to that forecast, this information would be sent back to Group which would relay it to the participating aircraft.

Occasionally, main-force aircraft would take part in jamming German fighter frequencies - known as 'tinselling'. The W/Op would tune his transmitter to a nominated frequency and transmit the noise picked up by mikes placed in the radio power-packs (motor-generators). The din was considerable.

About an hour from home there would be a weather report, and occasionally, a diversion to another airfield when fog closed your base. On one such occasion, we landed on FIDO - 'Fog Intensive Dispersal Operation'. Petrol in pipes on both sides of the runway was ignited to burn off the fog. As I recall, it was said to consume 1500 gallons of petrol per minute at 'start up', and 1000 gpm in 'cruise'. There would have been more than two miles of pipe. I believe that the number of installations and the uses of FIDO were few, but it was considered that under certain circumstances it would be cost-effective. It was also rather lumpy.

Post Script

A remarkable feature of operational flying was that there would always be a gathering of off-duty personnel at the control-van at the starting end of the runway to bid the crews farewell. Occasionally there would be some drama such as when a pilot 'lost it' on take-off, and the aircraft veered off the runway through a fence and across a road demolishing its undercarriage in the process. Not surprisingly, the crew got out and ran for their lives. Referring to the unfortunate incident at the next briefing, the CO said, 'The only redeeming feature was the exemplary speed with which the crew vacated the aircraft'.

In fairness, it must be said that aircrew was instructed never to risk lives to save an aircraft, although the remark 'It is quicker and cheaper to replace an aircraft than train another crew' suggested pragmatism rather than compassion.

The nose-art and names of aircraft was always an interesting diversion. There was the much plagiarised 'Nil Bastardo Carborundum' (Don't Let The Blighters Grind You Down), 'Per Ardua Ad Asbestos' (To hell with you Jack I'm Fireproof), 'We Drop 'em By Night' (illustrated) and 'The Shy Talk' are a few examples that come to mind.

Sources: based partly on a memoir from W/O George Aylmore found on Short Stirling & RAF Bomber Command Forum and elsewhere, on a site dedicated to a Bomber Command veteran Bob Gill DFM, on and on various other Bomber Command sources, and from our own archives, adapted and enhanced by Aircrew Remembered

Pages of Outstanding Interest
History Airborne Forces •  Soviet Night Witches •  Bomber Command Memories •  Abbreviations •  Gardening Codenames
CWGC: Your Relative's Grave Explained •  USA Flygirls •  Axis Awards Descriptions •  'Lack Of Moral Fibre'
Concept of Colonial Discrimination  •  Unauthorised First Long Range Mustang Attack

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