Prepared and submitted to Aircrew Remembered March 2017 via his son, John Dodwell:
The following memoirs resulted from a request from one of my Grandsons, who asked me some 20 questions about my wartime service with Bomber Command in the Royal Air Force.
He told me that he needed help with a school project which he was asked to carry out on the events of the Second World War.
As I pondered these questions, I thought that I could best help him by telling him my story, or a part of it, as there was much more, of course.
As I write this, I shudder at the absolute reality and truth of the words which fall upon the page. I do not know how we stood up to it. It was another world. A far cry from the comparative easy life of today. In all my six years in the RAF, I knew of only three young men who asked to see the commanding officer to declare that they could not carry on flying.
These men were seldom treated well. They would be stripped of their rank and declared to LMF - ‘lack moral fibre,’ a dreaded three letters in the RAF.
1940 – The beginning:
I was sworn into the RAF in May 1940. Then, I was sent home to await a vacancy on a training course. The training programme of the RAF had expanded somewhat since the outbreak of War in September 1939, but still had a long way to go.
I returned to my home in Northwick Park, Harrow, in time to witness the German attacks on London and the “Battle of Britain” fought by Fighter Command. In this position we could only see the glow of fires, mostly in the London Docks area and the East End. As the crow flies we were some 10 miles from this area.
Being North West of London’s centre we were the recipients of a small percentage of bombs – those were dropped by “bomb aimers” who had overshot their targets (not the normal experience, as crews tended to undershoot, being plastered with anti-aircraft fire)
This is why the southern suburbs of London suffered much more, as the German bombers approached from the south-east. The Croydon area particularly suffered for this reason. In fact I remember a report that low flying aircraft machine gunned Croydon High Street.
Even in Northwick Park it was rather nerve-racking, at night one could continuously hear the throbbing of the bombers’ engines. The nearest house destroyed at the time was some 300 yards away as the crow flies.
During the latter part of the war the V1s (doodlebugs) were coming over in daylight. I remember on one occasion when I was on leave that one approached our house; you crossed your fingers that the engine would not stop just before that position.
Right: V1 Damage in London (courtesy IWM)
You felt safe when it was right above you with the engine still running. In fact this particular V1 flew right above us, 13 Lapstone Gardens, and within seconds the engine stopped. They travelled at some 400 miles per hour and so it had this momentum and travelled about 1 mile, hitting the house of a family I knew – they were members of the same tennis club. All in the house were killed.
After an apprehensive wait, I was finally called back in October 1940 to attend Initial Training Wing, or ITW. This was a six week course of general RAF training.
After ITW was posted to No.3 ANS, an Air Navigation School at Port Albert, near Goderich, Ontario, Canada on the shore of Lake Huron. This transatlantic posting was to avoid interruption from German bombing in the United Kingdom.
I must mention an impression that has always been with me. An impression which has remained with me since that day in early January 1941 when we left the port of Greenock on the western Scottish coast, near Glasgow. We proceeded down the Clyde, on our vessel the Duchess of York, passing Dunoon and Rothesay on your starboard side and then around the island of Arran and the Kintyre peninsula. What struck me, was that it was a clear, sunny winter’s afternoon with the sun shining on the heather that covered the mountainous Scottish landscape as we passed.
The colours were amazing. Especially to a youngish twenty year old, whose world travelling amounted to a few journeys south of ‘The Wash,’ Kings Lynn and once to Calais, France from Folkestone for the day. That was how it was in those days, and there was certainly no money for foreign holidays or ‘Gap Years!’
Yes, what colours they were. Peach, and coral mixed with blue and yellow. I imagined how very sad it would have been for earlier Scots emigrating to the new world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How sad it would have been to see this last glimpse of their beautiful homeland. From Kintyre our ship took us to a position north of the Northern Irish coast and then from there, into the silence of the Atlantic. We hoped that it would remain silent, though we knew it could easily be broken by the ‘big bang’ of an enemy torpedo, fired from an enemy ‘U-Boat.’ We did not need any reminding, my navigation course were sleeping on hammocks slung below the water line.
I experienced my first adventure whilst crossing the Atlantic in the first week of January 1941. There were gale force winds as our convoy made the crossing, with one battleship in particular, the Repulse (shown above), some 400 yards ahead of us. The sea was such, that we could see the Repulse from bow to stern at the same time, as she rode the waves. In fact, we even had to ‘heave to,’ or stop, not for the convoy in general, but for the heavy Repulse as it battled the waves.
After about 500 miles, the Repulse and many of the destroyers left us. It was soon after, that aboard our ship the message spread of an apparent armoury raid on the Duchess of York by German prisoners of war who were onboard. One of them I remember having been a U-Boat captain, and together they had decided to raid the armoury and attempt to take over the ship. Afterwards, they intended to signal for Atlantic U-Boats to come and rescue them. Fortunately for us, and many others in the convoy, the ship’s crew were given some sort of warning and so were able to negate the operation.
After an arduous journey, we landed at Halifax, Nova Scotia and boarded a train for a four day journey to Toronto. It was on that train, that an enterprising German officer and prisoner of war took advantage of the fading evening light, and escaped at a small ‘halt’ near the shore of the St. Lawrence River, as the train was slowly moving out. He achieved this with the help of two friends, who held up a blanket, pretending to shake and fold it. The covered German officer was thus able to open a window and throw himself out onto a snow drift. He was soon walking over the frozen river and escaping into the United States of America, who were not yet involved in the War and were thus neutral. There, he was able to contact a German Consulate, who passed him down from America into Mexico where he caught a neutral ship back to Germany.
Despite his escape, this story had a sad ending for the prisoner of war. Hitler was so pleased to hear of his escape, that he sent him on a year’s tour, lecturing on “how it was possible to escape.” The sad part being that after the year he was sent to the Russian front where he lost his life. Ironically, his life as a prisoner of war in Canada would have been a soft touch. There he would have experience wonderful food against a rationed Europe. Maybe he was just a good Nazi.
In those days, on twin-engined heavy bombers, the navigator was also the ‘Bomb Aimer,’ so I was to take both courses. I was also taught to use a machine gun from an open cockpit in a Fairy ‘Battle’ aircraft, (shown above) which greatly resembles a large Hurricane aircraft, but with two seats and a sliding roof.
Initially, our course of trainee navigators comprised of twenty members, who were not far from school-age. I had not been training for more than seven weeks when the first serious accident occurred. In March 1941, Two Anson aircraft, each carrying two of our trainee navigators, collided in mid-air. They were carrying out a training exercise at the time, reporting what they could see in the docks of Lake Huron. It was during the course of this exercise, that it was thought that the pilots had been blinded by the sun, with disastrous consequences. Four of our trainee navigators were killed, and so our course of twenty was now down to sixteen. It was then, that the sixteen of us who remained, realised how dangerous flying was in those days. The pressure to get as many people trained, as quickly as possible, came with a tragic human cost.
Subsequently, there were many accidents at 31 Air Navigation School (shown below). For example, during the following month, two of the surviving navigators were flying through cloud in bad weather conditions, when they hit trees on a hillside. As a result, both were seriously injured, but survived. Our class continued with only fourteen of the original figure. A foreboding reminder to all of the survivors of what was still to come...
It was unfortunate that our flying training commenced in winter conditions (January) and again arriving on squadrons in November/December. It’s bad enough motoring in these conditions let alone flying. Commercially today’s technology is such that a pilot can fly through 20,000 foot of cloud and arrive on the airport circuit, knowing, every second, his position.
Another incident stands out in my mind, when an aircraft landed on the ice of the lake at night. It was thought at the time, that the crew attempted to walk to the shore, but were tragically lost and never found.
We subsequently learnt, about six weeks later, that an airman from the Navigation School had been walking along the shore of Lake Huron, when he noticed a large ice flow near to the river mouth. Four men were encased in it. He ran for help and a rope to secure the flow, but by the time he returned to the site it had flowed past, drifting out to the middle of the lake. The men were never found. Interestingly, there was another occasion which could explain the loss of life on Lake Huron during our training. The sheer size of the lake meant that standing on the shore was similar to being at a seaside. The nature of the night-time navigation exercise where the trainees were lost meant that its fate remained a mystery. All that was found of the wreckage was a seat cushion.
A story which connected to this mystery was that reported by other pilots, who had reported an occurrence when night-flying in this area of a detailed ‘mirage’ of the Port Albert airfield which they had mistaken for the true airfield. A cottager living in the same area on the shore of Lake Huron reported he had heard an Anson aircraft circling, and then heard the engines of the plane rev down, as if the pilot were approaching to land. The result being that the pilot thought he was lining up for the runway when in fact, he was headed straight for the centre of the lake. The question of whether he had seen the mysterious mirage remains a mystery.
My best friend during my training period in Canada was Arthur Sims, who came from Bristol. He was 25 years old at the time, and I myself was a rather young and naive 20 year old. I remember how he always said at the time that he had to look after me. Arthur was a very academic chap and always top of the class. He had the bottom bunk in our mess and myself the top. When I was posted into Operational Training Unit (OTU) in Lossiemouth he was posted to a Blenheim OTU in Cambridgeshire. He was killed soon after. It was the old story, he had hit a hill whilst coming down through low cloud and mist on November 2nd 1941. I had just arrived at 115 Squadron and still have a letter from him written the day before November 1st. On reflection, it was all incredibly sad.
(webmaster notes: 25 year old, P/O. Arthur Thomas Sims 104414 RAFVR. Son of Bertie James Sims and Rose Sims, of Fishponds, Bristol. Blenheim IV Z5947 17 OTU the 23 year old American pilot, P/O. Charles William Bush J/5768 also killed (grave shown right) as was the air gunner, 28 year old Sgt. Edward John Bush 1375816 RAFVR from London England - crashed at East Leake, 8 miles south of Nottingham)
Arthur had written another letter, about 3 weeks before, telling me of another of our 20 navigators with him at OTU. His name was Bayliss (I remembered him well); he had been killed in a flying accident that week. A case of bad weather again. So with Arthur himself, out of our class of 20 pupils, six had been killed and two seriously injured and we had yet to be posted to squadrons.
(webmaster notes: 21 year old Sgt. Frank Raymond Bayliss 1153744 RAFVR. Son of Vivian Joseph and Elsie May Bayliss, of Penn, Wolverhampton. Blenheim IV V6013 17 OTU the pilot 21 year old Sgt. Harold William Taylor 1377674 RAFVR from Bexleyheath, Kent also killed as well as the air gunner, Sgt. John Alexander Hedley 1117288 RAFVR from Consett, England - crashed at Gayton, 6 miles north east of Stafford)
Of the 20 men who made up my navigator course in Canada, having checked as best I can, only three of us survived the war, including myself. Who said ‘suicide bombing’ is a 21st century expression?
It became obvious there had been mistakes made pre-war. Those responsible should have developed more navigational aids. They had plans for new Bombers, Wellingtons, Stirlings, Lancasters etc, but not the necessary equipment to keep them in the air. This is a familiar story, still existing today. A lack of equipment costing lives.
As it was, Whittle, (shown left in 1946) an RAF Engineering Officer, the inventor of the jet engine, was cut back in funds in the 1930’s, in spite of having a brilliant invention. The Germans carried on with the idea resulting in a jet fighter in production and of superior and advanced design, well before ourselves – the Me 262 (Messerschmitt). This had swept back wings, whilst our own first jet fighter, in production much later, had straight wings, and therefore a slower aircraft.
After the Canadian training, we returned to England by sea. I clearly remember my twenty-first birthday on 25th July 1941. We were just off Newfoundland with icebergs in sight. I remember vividly coming up on deck and saying to myself “happy birthday Ken, you are twenty-one years old today!” I was looking forward to the luxury of two weeks leave, which was a wonderful thought, considering that we had been given no time off during our training. The simple truth was that navigators were in such short supply, and therefore urgently needed, that leave from training was simply out of the question. After our leave, I was sent to the Operational Training Unit in Lossiemouth, Scotland.
It was at OTU that we were crewed up. Pilots and navigators, wireless operators and gunners. We were put into a room en masse and by chance crewed up by our own choice. A very good selection process when you think about it, as we were the men who would entrust each other with our lives. This was a process that was initiated by the Pilot and Navigator, who had already decided to join each other. It must be remembered that at the time, no one was conscripted into Air Crew, since everyone was a volunteer.
I recollect that my pilot, Brian Slade (shown right), had put a year on his age to get into the RAF and was therefore only seventeen years of age when accepted for pilot training. He said when he joined the service that he was in fact eighteen years of age, which at the time was the earliest age for entry. In fact, he was so young that he didn’t even have a driving license yet. He’d been to grammar school and then straight into the RAF, a fairly typical occurrence at the time. I recall that the authorities tended not to ask too many questions if they thought you were the right type and keen to fly.
Luckily, it turned out that Brian and I were a good combination. He with his flying skills, and although no one was officially told of their flying category, someone from the “office” told me he had been given an “above average category”. Not many had that, he was a natural. He got the nickname “Boy Slade”; he was a “chirpy” boyish character and sometimes I had to constrain him.
For instance flying low over the Norfolk countryside, “beating up” farms and stampeding the cattle. And me with my newly acquired navigational skills. It must be remembered that being a navigator at the time was extremely hazardous, since it meant navigation in the pitch black of night, as all the lights were extinguished across Europe. Furthermore, the situation was exacerbated in the early years of war due to the fact that navigational aids were relatively primitive, or even non-existent.
Thus, hundreds of aircraft were lost through navigational errors in the early days of the war. For example, errors often resulted from inaccurate meteorological information being given, since the subject of meteorology was not an exact science at the time. The subject still isn’t, may I add, in 2009, though certainly much improved.
To illustrate the above point of how hazardous navigation was in the early years of war, due to wrong weather forecasts, if a navigator was given westerly winds of say 50 mph at 20,000 ft, when in fact they were coming from the east, you would be pointing the aircraft in the wrong direction. You could therefore be 100 miles off your intended path of flight every hour. Aircraft were lost in the North Sea this way, off the coast of Scotland, instead of returning to Norfolk where they were based.
It was therefore the navigator’s task to determine this sort of error before it could occur. This was difficult in the earlier days. The navigator could only determine the error visually, by noticing for instance, where he was crossing the Dutch coast in the black out. Another problem arising when needing to keep the radio silent, otherwise we could give away our position to the enemy.
To omit the possibility of error, the navigator might note that the existing winds had blown him 20 miles north. If so, he could then calculate by the ‘solution of triangles’ the ‘true wind’ that had blown him there. If he missed his point, that is, failed to map read accurately, then the resultant error would escalate and make the situation even worse.
I remember an incident when ordered to attack Rostock in the Baltic. Rostock (shown left) was a station experimenting with heavy water in the search for a nuclear bomb.
We were flying north of the Frisian Islands, off northern Germany, when my calculations said we were drifting south. We were to fly over the middle of Denmark, but our present course would take us over Flensburg on the German/Danish border – heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns.
My action therefore was to give an alteration of course to combat the southerly drift, that is a course some 10 degrees to the port side or to the north.
A few minutes later my gunner called on the intercom. “Ken, I can see a Wellington still steering the old course”. I think he was saying, “Are you sure you are right?” I replied, “He’s wrong”. Some 10 minutes later, whilst still almost on our beam, he flew straight and level over Flensburg. That was a gift for the radar controlled German guns. The aircraft was shot down in flames.
Fortunately for us, our 115 Squadron was the first to be fitted with the new navigation aid, code name ‘Gee.’ (shown right)In the early days, ground position indicators were not determined by the use of satellites, but were determined by timing high frequency radio waves from that station to the aircraft. This was done automatically, giving a very accurate fix near the stations, such as those at Norfolk which deviated by a quarter or half mile or so over the Ruhr in Germany. This was not comparable with Ground Positioning Indicators of today, but a tremendous improvement to the accuracy of finding targets and the correct path home. As a result, ‘Gee’ must have saved the lives of many hundreds of aircrews.
As aforementioned, my early squadron was 115 at Marham, Norfolk, which flew Wellington Bombers. We were fortunate enough to get early delivery of the MK3 with new and more powerful engines. The MK1C engines were 1250 horsepower each. The MK3 delivered 1800 horsepower each. This development was met with relief from aircrew, whom having flown aircraft with the old MK1C engines were delighted at the prospect of being able to carry a 4000 lb. bomb load and full tanks of fuel (and at the same time being able to take off clear of the hedge at the end of the runway with ease!)
I was operating with 115 Squadron from November 1941 to July 1942. I flew 30 operations with Brian Slade and a total of 38 by the end of the war.
What is not general known was the fact that there was a lull in operation in November and December 1941. Very few and selected targets were undertaken. The reason for the lull was doubts by the hierarchy as to whether our bombing strategy was a waste of resources. We were taking heavy losses for very little gain. This was mainly due to the lack of navigational aids.
At 115 Squadron, following some six operations on Wellingtons with MK1C engines, we attacked targets with the use of ‘Gee,’ including Essen, Dusseldorf and the docks at Emden, Bremen and Wilhelshaven. We operated against the Krupps Arms factories many times.
In the May of 1942, as we are the first squadron with ‘Gee’, we acted as the original ‘pathfinders;’ marking the very successful raid against Cologne. This was the first bomb raid ever consisting of around 1000 aircraft. We completely destroyed 36 industrial factories with complete loss of production. Also we damaged another 2500 industrial and commercial buildings. We hoped the population had plenty of time to get into their air raid shelters. (Data German Records)
Previously to that, on 12th February we had operated a daylight mission against the German Battle Cruisers Schanhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugene. This was done on DR navigation (Direct Reckoning). There were no other aids. We were the only crew in the squadron to find them as the flying conditions were terrible. We broke cloud over the Flak ship at 500 feet. The crew could hear us descending and began firing at us. As soon as we broke cloud one of our engines was hit, there was little opportunity to ‘line up’ the bombing run. Our bombs missed by 25 yards. Had the cloud been absent, we could have dropped our Semi Armour Piercing bombs from 6000 ft. The operation thus turned into a farce. We made many more attacks on Essen.
We also participated in three operations dropping mines by parachute off the north German coast.
(webmaster notes: Mining operation also used various codenames under 'Gardening' - further details on area can be found here)
115 Squadron Marham – photo taken by National Press following 1000 Bomber raid on Cologne 30/31 May 1942. Far left Ken Dodwell with maps and navigation bag, next to him Brian Slade (pilot), then Ken Swann (front gunner), last person on the right - rear gunner Sam Lowry.
(webmaster notes: The aircraft shown above and below, Wellington III X3662 was later lost - tragically another training casualty. Aircraft was then with No. 20 Operational Training Unit based at Lossiemouth, Scotland. Taking off on a navigational exercise on the 08th October 1943 with a crew of 5 - 3 from the RCAF and 2 from the RAFVR when it crashed at around 06:00 hrs off Skye. The pilot, 21 year old, Fl/Sgt. Glen Frank Smith R/109983 RCAF of Sherman, Texas, USA was posted as missing believed killed with 2 others, the other 2 crew members bodies were recovered for burial.)
There were many missions that scared me in particular, mostly those to the Rhur Industrial area. This was one of the most heavily defended areas in Germany, known as the Rhur Valley. We nicknamed it ‘happy valley.’ On five operations, one after the other we returned with damage to the fuselage, mostly holes from shrapnel with some holes very near to where I was sitting. One piece of shrapnel embedded itself in the ply wood floor exactly below where I was sitting. It had hit an aluminium strip reinforcing the ply wood floor. This bent upwards and splinters from the floor shot up my trouser leg. The shrapnel had just about lost its momentum; otherwise it would have pierced my backside! The next day a member of the ground crew presented me with the piece of shrapnel.
The Squadron Commander was always pleased to let Group HQ know he had a number of aircraft hit by flak (anti aircraft fire) – it said “my boys press on to the target, despite the opposition”.
The worst operation over Essen was when we were ‘coned’ by all the searchlights. It was when the master searchlight got you that you knew you were in trouble. All the other searchlights would point at you, and then every gun in the area would take aim. The good side to it was that most of the other bombers nearby would get a free run and thank you later, if you made it back to base.
The reality was that most people who were ‘coned’ (shown left) were shot down. On this particular occasion, Brian Slade took retaliatory action by throwing the aircraft all over the sky. We did a severe ‘corkscrew’ to deceive their radar, and continually changed height and direction so that the shells burst where you were a moment before. I would hear the shells, from my position on the aircraft, bursting above the noise of the engines. During close-calls I could even smell the cordite from the explosions all around me.
On reflection, one wonders how an aircraft could possible manage to escape such a barrage when there were probably fifteen guns firing at us.
On another occasion we were all but shot down on our return from Bremen as we crossed the Dutch coast. Just as we were feeling that we were nearly home, a German fighter shot out of the blue and we were attacked. It was a Junkers 88 with four cannons built into its nose. Soon, we had a small fire near the wireless operator, who managed to put it out. This first burst of canon fire also damaged our hydraulic system, putting our rear turret out of action, thus rendering our four rear machine guns useless. Furthermore, the undercarriage had dropped half way down and the aircraft control surfaces were damaged.
The wireless operator sent out an SOS giving our position, as we could have fallen into the North Sea at any time. I took up a position in the Astro Dome where I could see what was going on. There, I spotted the JU88, which was about to make another attack. He had to get his nose onto us and attack us on the beam since all his guns were in the nose. My strategy was to decide when he was going to open fire and then tell the pilot to turn into him. I would shout “turn now” at the critical moment and the JU88 would flash past us, but could not get his sights on us. In total, he made some four attacks and each time we turned into him just as I thought he would open fire.
I mentioned the damaged hydraulic system, but in fact we still had two machine guns operating in the front turret. Just before the JU88 flashed past, our front gunner gave it a burst of fire. I could see the lighted tracer bullets accurately in its path. He had to fly into them. I will never know whether the JU88 was hit.
Luckily for us, Brian Slade saw some low cloud, and then flew into it. We were able to lose the JU88, but were now precariously only 100 ft above the sea and unable to climb any higher. As the navigator, I was concerned about the cliffs on the East Anglian coast, but fortunately we were heading straight for Norwich on a clear path. We crossed the English coast where it was still dark, and where all our own search lights would point their light in one direction, thus leading us into the airfield. We managed to ‘belly land’ without wheels at RAF Horsham St Faith, near Norwich. We landed at approximately 110 mph, but soon came to a stop with all the crew braced for disaster.
When we had acknowledged our survival, we were taken to the Mess, given a double brandy and discussed how incredibly lucky we were to have made it. Luck, however may have only been a small part in it, for it was our experience and training which was really tested and made all the difference to our success.
During the 30 operations that I took part in with 115 Squadron, we lost 29 crews. In other words, the squadron was completely wiped out, twice! After eight months we achieved the chilling and dubious distinction of being the first crew to finish a tour of operations. Upon reflection, I realise how lucky we were. Though, as in anything else, experienced counted to a great degree. We knew crews who were lost on their first, second and third operations.
During the last few months on 115 Squadron we therefore became the “gen” crew (the experienced crew) and new crews would approach us for advice, asking how to survive and what tactics we used.
Soon after we joined 115 Squadron November/December 1941 we had done the same and spoke to the most experienced crew for the same sort of advice. However, after about a further 6 weeks they were shot down after some 23 operations. Most demoralising for the less experienced crews - mind you they did push their luck – on the way home from targets they would fly low, probably 1000 foot and sought out German airfields, fighter airfields if possible. They would get onto the airfield circuit, machine gunning anything they could see. They would say “well, we have to give our gunners some practice”. Regretfully, they did it once too often – the enemy were waiting for them, probably had fighters airborne on the circuit. They were a very good, determined crew but sadly all were killed.
After the tour of operations, I became a Navigation Instructor for 7 months, and then was asked to take up a staff position at Three Group Headquarters with responsibility for some 16 squadrons. As a result, my promotion was quick; probably on the basis that they had decided I was leadership material. After all when I was young I could get things done. We grew from 19/20 year old boys to toughened men in 2 years. I was never afraid to take on more responsibility. Sure enough, I was rapidly promoted to Squadron leader, equivalent to a major in the Army, or lieutenant commander in the Navy. Hence, I progressed from Sergeant to Squadron Leader in some eighteen months. In peacetime, such promotion would take twelve to fourteen years, but of course it was a bigger air-force then and we had to compensate for the terrible loss of life.
Later, I flew another 8 operations on Wellingtons and Lancasters. I was then a Station Navigation Officer, though I was not part of a crew. I flew only when a navigator was sick or when I wished to see what the new tactics were when working on new target marking.
As Station Navigation Officer, Three Group HQ would give our time over target. I would calculate the time it was going to take to target and then lay on the operation for the squadron on the station. Working back from the target; Briefing times, meal times, take off times etc. And of course, I would brief the navigators on the route and defended areas to be avoided. Following an ‘operation’ (later termed ‘Battles’) I would want to check the standard of navigation and that targets were in fact reached, all by back-plotting and studying navigator’s logs and plotting charts.
There were other close shaves before the end of the war. For instance, when flying on a daylight raid in a Lancaster formation, the aircraft next to us received a direct hit from Flak (88mm). I remember the aircraft was carrying something like 1500 gallons of high octane fuel and only 20 yards or so from us. As you can imagine, the whole plane was on fire from front turret to rear turret in about 10 seconds. In fact, our wing tip flew through the burning petrol which had spilled through the air. We watched the burning Lancaster in horror as it went down, spinning out of control and flying in circles. We were shouting “jump! Jump!” to the crew, but we didn’t see a single one get out.
The fire would have killed them all before they had a chance to escape. If the German flak shell had burst 20 yards to one side, it would have been us spiralling uncontrollable to the ground. Such a sight was a reminder of how advanced the German’s anti aircraft and naval gunnery was. To some, the best in the world.
Throughout my service with the RAF I flew with many different types of aircraft. I was trained on Ansons and carried out my bombing and gunnery course on ‘Fairy Battles,’ which was like a large Hurricane with two seats. Then, I progressed onto Wellingtons at Operational Training Unit. These aircraft, though relatively modern, were worn out 1C’s and the new Wellingtons at 115 Squadron were met with great relief. The Wellington III’s were new and more powerful.
As an instructor I flew in Stirlings, a strong aircraft which had been built by the ‘Short’ Company, who also built the Sunderland Flying Boat. The design however did not work. The story being that the Stirling would not fit into the RAF standard hanger, so they had had to cut off six feet of each wing, which ruined the design. They needed to put it in the hangar for a major service. With bomb load and maximum fuel, the aircraft was failing to get above 15,000 feet.
1657 Heavy Conversion Unit, Stradishall, Suffolk in front of Stirling, 4- engined bomber. Ken Dodwell, an instructor in the unit, 2nd from left on front row.
Then, of course, I flew in Lancasters, without doubt the best bombing aircraft in the world. It could carry 12,000 lb of bombs.
I think every pilot and navigator would like to fly in ‘Mosquito’ aircraft. It was a small bomber, but also used as a fighter too. It could carry 4,000 lbs. of bombs, which was the same as the American B17. It was a beautiful aircraft and literally built around two Rolls Royce ‘Merlin’ engines. When it was tested, the test pilot reported to the designers that “it was faster than the Spitfire”. Consequently, weight was saved by the removal of any defensive armament. This aircraft carried two crew members sitting side by side. Well, in the middle of 1944, a pilot I knew earlier on 115 Squadron called on me at Stradishall, where I was Base Navigation Officer. He said what about you joining me on ‘Mosquitoes,’ flying for the ‘Pathfinder Force.’ If you joined this force, you would be permitted to keep your rank. My response was, “Sure, when do we start?”
I did not mention such a move to my Base Commanding Officer, Air Commodore Sylvester. Also, I first had to take a decompression test. This was a test in a decompression chamber, as Mosquitoes sometimes flew above 30,000 ft and atmospheric pressure is half of sea level at 18, 000 ft. In the chamber, I was taken up to 40, 000 ft so that I could get an idea of what atmospheric pressure existed at this height. I was on oxygen of course, but the pressure was literally pumped out of the chamber. There was more pressure inside your body than outside. Most aircraft today automatically even out the pressure to a reading of 6,000 ft, which is more comfortable for passengers. In short, after being in the chamber for about an hour and still at 40,000 ft I began to suffer with the ‘bends’ and felt incredibly ill. I spoke to the medical officer on the intercom, who looked at me through the porthole. He saw me pale, beginning to sweat and slump in my seat. I told him that I must lie down.
He took immediate action. He could not open the door to let me out as the change of pressure would have killed me. So, he brought me down at the maximum permitted amount at a rate of 8,000 ft per minute. So it took five whole minutes to get me down to sea level pressure again. As soon as I was out of the chamber, he laid me down and used his stethoscope.
Later he told me that my heart had all but stopped. Deadly nitrogen had entered my blood stream, giving me the notorious ‘bends.’ As quick as a flash I was in an ambulance heading for Ely hospital where they kept me on my back for seven days. In short, I had experienced an enforced heart failure. The doctor was anxious because there had been an Air Ministry Order issued a week before, telling of the death of an aircrew member in the decompression chamber. Future precautions were advised.
You know, I believe that there are no coincidences. It was all meant to be. It was not intended that I should fly with that pilot on Mosquitoes, the later medical board limited me to flying below 40,000 ft. So you see, another dangerous adventure successfully traversed. Makes you think.
The Experienced Navigator:
Some raids turned out to be more efficient than others, often this was dictated by the weather. We flew in weather that would result in a cancellation in peace time, so if enemy gunfire did not get us, there was a chance the weather would instead. As a navigator and bomb aimer, perhaps the raid I feel most proud of was one against a target in Mannheim. It was a relatively long flight in those days. Having navigated to within some 25 miles of the target, I took up my position behind the bomb sight for the ‘run in’. On the ‘run in’ our two gunners started shouting: “you’re wrong Ken, the target is 5 miles to starboard; the whole area is on fire!” To which I yelled back; ‘they’re wrong!”
By then I could see the outskirts of Mannheim coming into my bomb sight. I could then see the river Rhine by the light of the moon, winding its way through the suburbs. Strangely, I noticed that all of the searchlights were in the doused position, or not shining upwards. They were making a dim circle around the outskirts of this large city. And above all, there was no attacking gunfire. They were giving us a free run not to expose their position. The enemy did not want to ‘disturb’ the mass of Bomber Command bombing their fire ‘decoy’ in a forest some 5 to 6 miles outside Mannheim!
The target came up, and still not a shot fired. As we were able to fly straight and level, we took a perfect photograph. When printed, this showed our bombs straddling the target area, which became the only photograph in the Squadron.
The next day came a new target briefing, and the Squadron Commander snarled, “What happened to you lot over Mannheim last night? Fancy bombing a forest!” He then told the rest of the squadron that there was only one photo from the whole of 115 Squadron and out of some 200 aircraft of Bomber Command there were only 9 photos of the target.
He then turned to our pilot Brian Slade and said, “Well done Slade!”. There was a voice at the back of the briefing room, in a complaining tone that said, “what about the Navigator?” I hope the Squadron Commander heard it. I believe it was an Australian Rear Gunner. Despite this, the Commander still said nothing to me. You see, it was still a Pilot’s air force, dating back to WWI and to between the wars. From this, you can understand why the Navigators were accused of having a ‘union!’ Any Pilot would tell you, that when we were some 30 miles from a target, they saw nothing below, only the horizon well ahead.
Over Mannheim, I reckon that I learnt a life’s lesson. There were other times when the Gunners reported actions by other aircraft which did not fall in with my own calculations. The lesson was - and I’ve made use of it several times, even when sailing in bad weather - if you are sure, having checked your calculations, stick to your result and never follow anybody else.
The most traumatic day:
Having told of my many experiences in the RAF and some of them quite frightening, I realise that I have failed to mention the most traumatic day of my life.
It was the spring of 1942, when the U-Boats were winning the war of the Atlantic. We could see by the rate of merchant fleet sinking, that we would soon be short of war materials, namely food. We were therefore in a desperate situation. Remember that the U-Boat campaign had nearly starved us out and won the war for the Germans in WWI.
In this situation, the Squadron Commander called Brian Slade and myself to his office at about 10.30 am. He said that only nine aircraft in the whole of Bomber Command had been chosen to carry out this particular mission, with only one aircraft being chosen from 115 Squadron.
He said that he had personally chosen us, as though it was some sort of honour, and informed us that it was a ‘Gong or Box Trip.’ In the RAF, this was slang for a grim sentiment that you would either return and win a high decoration for courage, or return in a coffin. He then continued to tell us that we would be attacking the U-Boat pens in Hamburg. Remember, these pens were the highly protected servicing depots for U-Boats at the time.
We were told that we would be briefed to fly at 1500 ft, just north of the Frisian Islands in northern Germany. As we approached the estuary of the River Elbe, we were to follow the river into Hamburg at only 500 ft. Remember, the operation would be in the pitch black of night, and of course, we were not reminded of the Barrage Balloons which were released from barges on the river. To put the task in perspective, this would be like flying at 500 ft at night up the River Thames to bomb London’s Docklands. We had to fly low, as there was 30 ft of concrete to break through on top of the pens. We would literally have to toss the bombs into the entrance in order to be successful.
I can remember the Squadron Commander asking us, “Well? What do you think?” I was the first to speak, and in true RAF tradition, I replied, “Well, we’ll have a go sir.” Meanwhile, trying not to let on that we were scared stiff. Anyway, we went to the general briefing, which was of course, top secret. We would there discover that the main contingent of aircraft would be bombing at 15,000 ft above us. A somewhat bleak prospect for those aircraft trying to complete the mission without being blown out of the sky by their own comrades.
The squadron crews were subsequently informed of the little party below them at only 500 ft, and they responded by blowing through their teeth. As I mentioned, it was top secret, and you could not imagine anyone talking. The silence spoke volumes.
However, after the meeting, someone approached my girlfriend Jean, then a member of WAAF, and told her, “I wouldn’t like to be in your boyfriend’s shoes tonight.” Though not giving much detail away, even this was a risky comment to make at a time when enemy spies were suspected of being in the vicinity.
A little later in the day, I spoke to Jean’s Flight Sergeant, and told him that I would like to see Jean who would be working at the time. He seemed to understand my reasoning, suspecting that something big was in the midst. He allowed us to use his office. Jean came through the door and saw me standing there. I told her that I had a very difficult operation that night, which we both secretly knew meant that chances of my return were slim.
As you can imagine, it was a very sentimental moment between me and my future wife. It was incredibly traumatic and surreal, the sort of scene you would expect to find in a film or a novel. After I bid Jean farewell, the day proceeded as normal. After the second briefing I had an hour with my charts plotting our courses for the night. Then, we went out to the aircraft, started the engines and taxied to the runway. We were ready to go.
As we waited to receive the green light from the control tower for takeoff, we suddenly received a red light instead. This informed us, that for some reason, we were not to take off. Later on, over the intercom, we were informed that the operation had been cancelled.
Later on, we learned that there had been gossip in the local village of Marham. Some of the details of the operation had been leaked. Therefore, there was a fear that there might have been a German spy around, which meant that he could have prepared the enemy to defend our attack in advance. And so, we breathed again. I said it was the most traumatic day of my life, because one of the worst parts of an operation was the time spent after the first briefing, when you knew the target. The day was then full of apprehension awaiting dusk and departure. In this operation, the odds of surviving were small. To this day, I am thankful for that red light.
The men at work:
As we did night operations, it was not so much how early we got up in the morning to start the day, but a question of not getting much sleep. Many times the first briefing for the night operation was say, 1 pm, the second roughly 3 pm, then the navigator would go to the navigation plotting room to mark the route on his Mercator chart (a plain chart on which we could more easily plot the tracks and calculate the courses to steer.) There would be many different “legs” (tracks) to the target. The motive for this was to try and fool the Germans as to which target we were intending to bomb.
After the Navigator had completed his pre-flight planning there was a quick meal and then out to the aircraft. Hence, the navigator was always busy while other crew-members were just kicking their heels waiting to go. Brian, the pilot, would come into the plotting room and look over my shoulder to get the picture of the route and where I had marked the flak or defended areas. The pilot and navigator were always close and in constant touch with each other in the air via intercom. In my case, Brian and I shared the same bedroom and so were pretty close friends.
The procedure was that we would take off for the target about one hour before sunset, then down to Southwold in daylight, and then across the North Sea to the Dutch Coast, hoping that by then it had become dark. We would have been climbing since takeoff, and therefore may be at 10,000 ft when we went over the Dutch coast. Our very young Australian Rear Gunner would tell me when we had cleared the Dutch coast. His name was Sam Lowry, and he was only 18 years old when he came all the way from Australia to defend the ‘mother land.’
The pilot, my friend Brian Slade and the rear gunner Sam Lowry were both killed about a year later. They were flying in different squadrons at the time, but were killed within ten days of each other. Brian lost his life over Berlin and Sam lost his whilst struggling to get back home on a damaged aircraft which crossed our coast, but crashed about a mile from Exeter Airport whilst trying to land.
(webmaster notes: 22 year old P/O. Samuel Keith Lowry AUS/400559 RAAF from Victoria, Australia killed whilst with 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit on Lancaster I R5492 GP-N during a training exercise - all 8 crew killed - epitaph reads: “We Cherish His Memory.”)
(webmaster notes: 19 year old P/O. Ivor Charles Brian Slade DFC 121451 RAFVR of Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire was killed whilst with No. 83 Squadron on Lancaster III ED984 OL-A on an operation to Berlin - also lost were 5 of his crew, - epitaph reads: “And In The Morn Those Angels Faces Smile Which I Have Loved…And Lost Awhile.” his rear gunner Fl/Lt. Ronald Frank Weston DFC 126809 RAFVR surviving as a PoW - eventually retired as a Wing Commander on the 11th July 1975)
Our second pilot, Jack Reynolds was killed whilst we were still with 115 Squadron. He was flying locally from Marham with two other second pilots, therefore still not with their own crews. Sadly, they were lost in misty conditions and tried to come down in cloud. They hit a 200 ft radio mast, resulting in their tragic deaths. I carried Jack with the other members of the crew to his grave in Marham Cemetery. You can see, therefore, that it was all a very dangerous business.
(webmaster notes: 21 year old John Gilbert Reynolds 1376649 RAFVR from Broadstairs, Kent killed in Wellington III X3602 in circumstances described above on the 11th May 1942 - all 3 crew killed - epitaph reads: “He Lived And Fought To Establish A Better Social World.”)
We often returned from an operation at 6 am following debriefing. Some had breakfast, but I was often too tired and went straight to bed. We would often be shaken by a batman at midday, only to be told that we are on operations again that night. We rarely managed to get more than 5 hours sleep, with the prospect of working throughout the night again. It was fortunate, then, that we were young and determined!
The point which is not often appreciated was the fact that Bomber Command was standing by every day of the war. If the weather was good enough, we would attack the enemy. No other force did that.
Bomber Command, in total, lost some 55,000 aircrew. At an operation on Nuremburg, on which I luckily was not flying, we lost some 650 men in one night. You can contrast this with the fact that during the Battle of Britain, 500 pilots were killed over the whole period of the battle, comprising the summer months of 1940.
Looking back, it was all such a great waste of life, and all very sad. None of my close friends made it during the war. A few near friends perhaps, but not many. It becomes even more sad as one gets older and can look at things with a more mature and experienced perspective. History certainly tends to repeat itself. We can once again see politicians as they really are, not acting at the right time until the problem is staring them in the face. In retrospect, we can see that we did not prepare ourselves properly against Hitler and the Nazis, who were obviously preparing for aggression long before the outbreak of war. There is only one thing to do if a nation has built up a huge army and airforce, as the Germans had, and that was to use it.
I mentioned earlier the unofficial “Navigator’s Union”, resulting from the fact that so much responsibility was placed on our shoulders, especially in Wellington aircraft where the navigator was also the bomb aimer. As the bomb aimer it was he who “pressed home” the attack or otherwise. Sometimes gunners might shout out “let’s get out of here” – the flak getting much too close with shrapnel hitting the aircraft. But most bomb aimers pushed on – it was their job.
The navigators “union” reckoned we got the blame if anything went wrong (failing to find the target or getting lost and landing away from your own airfield - before Gee). But we got no credit if the operation was very successful.
Well, I’m pleased to tell you that things began to change late 1943, early 1944. I knew of a navigator who had been in the RAF from pre-war days (1937/38) who became a Wing Commander/Squadron Commander, up till then the prerogative of a pilot. I’m sure he was not the only one.
However the great advance occurred after the war ended. A top pupil who went through the ‘Stirling’ Conversion Unit where I was instructing (I probably taught him to use the ‘Gee’ apparatus) did well when he arrived at a squadron and obviously quickly advanced in rank. He remained in the RAF when the war ended – must have attended the RAF Staff College, and went on to become the Commander of the ‘V’ Bomber Force (Vulcans and similar aircraft). This was the period of the ‘Cold War’. He was responsible for the readiness of the nuclear bomb, you may know that at this time we had an aircraft airborne or “at ready” 24 hours a day. He then held the rank (the highest ranked navigator) of Air Vice Marshall. In other words there was only one man above him who could order the ‘pressing of the button’ - the Prime Minister. There would be more senior officers above him, but this sort of action had to be ‘one to one’.
Meeting my Wife:
Having retraced my own journey through the war, I must now mention my WAAF girlfriend, later my wife, who joined the squadron at Marham before I arrived.
On one occasion, the station air raid siren sounded and Jean hastened to the door of her billet, when a bomb exploded near enough to knock her to the ground. She got up, shook off the dirt and made for the air raid shelter.
It was soon after that the Marshal of the German Air Force changed his tactics and started bombing London again. This was one of the German blunders of the war. We were having difficulty repairing runways and had he decided to target the airfields instead, we would not have been able to get our aircraft into the air. He bombed London again because we bombed Berlin. He was thinking with his emotions, and not his head. The order could of course have come from the mad man himself – Adolf Hitler.
In my opinion, the other great blunder of the German’s was the attack on Russia with whom they had a non-aggressive pact. Had he used all those forces to attack England after Dunkirk he would have overwhelmed us, and my grandchildren today would be fluent in German. Let’s face it, we could do nothing when the three German pocket battleships escaped from Brest and navigated the ‘Straight of Dover.’ Our navy was too spread out.
Grandson, Jean your Grandmother says she first met me at a dance in the Sergeant’s Mess – and I of course remember the occasion well. She says I phoned the next day to make a date.
Previously, not knowing they were friends, I’d had one date with Anne, Another blonde.
Actually Anne became known as the “chop girl” – every young man she had been out with got the chop – failed to return from operations. This terminated after our second pilot, Jack Reynolds, was killed, when he and two other second pilots hit a radio mast in cloud. Jack was an introvert, and a very shy young man, which suited Anne. She became very fond of him, but after he was killed she said she would not go out with an aircrew man again.
Jean says that when I was commissioned we had to meet away from the station, “Officers were not allowed to consort with mere other ranks” – Jean’s own words.
She says she remembers meeting me in the village outside a pub, and continues that I bought a large basket of strawberries, which we consumed on our walk along the bank of the local, not very wide, river. We bumped into Eric Boon who was the current British Welter weight champion boxer. He was an RAF PT instructor but never seemed to be doing much instructing. He was fishing at the time – nice chap. The war had interfered with his career, a boxer has only a limited number of active years and at the time he was at the pinnacle of his career.
Jean recalls that she was then posted to Chedburgh. This was a Nissan hutted satellite station of Stradishall. The Nissan huts (rounded corrugated metal) she remembers were very damp and cold in the winter. Heated by a central coal burning stove – she adds “when you could get it”. They keep chickens in Nissan huts today.
“In October 1942 Ken was posted to Stradishall the pre-war station, some five miles from Chedburgh. He would pick me up on his motorbike when we could have an evening in Bury St Edmunds. About March 1943 he was posted to 3 Group Headquarters at Exning, near Newmarket when we would meet in a village midway between Chedburgh and Exning – Ousden. He was later posted back to Stradishall as Base Navigation Officer – the Base was responsible for Stradishall plus two satellite stations, Chedburgh and Ridgewell – flying Stirlings”.
Of course, the only problem from my war service was my resulting deafness, which was very noticeably experienced from my early thirties. I used a hearing aid by the time I was forty years old. I saw an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist, who it turned out was a Squadron Leader medical officer in the RAF during WW2. He said I know why you have this problem... “Noise from powerful aircraft engines”. He said no more, only that the high frequency nerves of my ears had been permanently damaged and that there was nothing to be done about it.
Eighteen years later a friend sent me a cutting from the Daily Mail, telling how it is ‘never too late.’ A Wellington pilot who was always overlooked for promotion at work (he knew it was because of his deafness) had applied and received a war disability pension. Like the Wellington Pilot, I had never seen any publicity about such war disabilities, but I immediately applied. The authority said, “Why have you not applied before!?” I had been deaf for a long time and nobody had even told me about this!
I was, of course, for a long time experiencing difficulty at work. It became quite a strain. Anyway, they were good enough to award me a 70% war disability pension. But grandson, I’m still here at 89 years old. That makes you think. The pension was not back dated.
Reading through my notes, it might appear that I’ve sounded a little frivolous about all the death and destruction I experienced. Of course, this is and never was the case. We all lived with a stress and strain, and we did not show it to each other. Some talked of getting the “chop.” This was dealt out by a little “Gremlin” who walked along the wings of your aircraft and when your time came, he chopped off your head.
I still think about those good friends of mine who were killed. My friend during training, Arthur Sims, my 115 Squadron pilot Brian Slade, my very young Australian rear gunner Sam Lowry and my second pilot Jack Reynolds. Jack was an introvert, we never knew what he was thinking. He was still under training, flying with us on some 7 operations. I would have loved to have had these young men as my lifelong friends. They were the ‘best’ and as I said previously, were all volunteers. Only volunteers were accepted as aircrew.
I cannot believe that they were lost forever. I do believe though, that there is another ‘plane.’ A spiritual ‘plane’ that exists alongside our own. I’ve had evidence of it during my long time on the planet. Some might call it, heaven.
I left the RAF in June 1946.
Squadron Leader RAF (retired)