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Norman Jackson VC: Lancaster Flight Engineer

8 April 1919 - 26 March 1994

Norman Jackson, who has died aged 74, was one of 10 Lancaster aircrew awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War and the first RAF flight engineer to be so honoured: he won his decoration for an exploit described in the citation as 'almost incredible'.

By April 1944 Jackson had flown 30 missions and was a "tour expired" flight engineer with the rank of sergeant in 106 Squadron. Although not obliged to fly, he volunteered to accompany his crew, who still had operational sorties to complete.

On the night of April 26, shortly after receiving news of the birth of his youngest son, Jackson took off for a raid on Schweinfurt.

The Lancaster dropped its bombs over the target but was then lacerated by cannon-fire from a Focke-Wulf 190; a fire erupted on the upper surface of the starboard wing, adjacent to a fuel tank.

Jackson, despite being wounded by shell splinters in the right leg and shoulders, immediately tackled the potentially catastrophic blaze. Pushing a small fire-extinguisher inside his jacket, he clipped on his parachute pack and jettisoned the escape hatch above the pilot's head. With the Lancaster still flying at 22,000ft and 200mph, he climbed on to the top of the fuselage and began to inch towards the blazing wing.

Almost immediately his parachute opened and the canopy and rigging spilled back into the cockpit. The pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as Jackson crawled aft. But he slipped and fell from the fuselage on to the starboard wing.

He held on by grasping an air intake on the leading edge. The extinguisher fell from his jacket and was lost; the flames burned Jackson severely. Then the Germans strafed the Lancaster once more. Jackson was hit, lost his grip and was sucked through the fire and off the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind him.

For a while Jackson hung in the slipstream; then his surviving comrades released the parachute and he fell towards earth, his canopy in flames. The remaining crew baled out; four landed safely, but the captain and rear gunner perished with the aircraft.

Jackson's parachute canopy was two-thirds burned and he was fortunate to sustain only a broken leg on landing; but his right eye was closed through burns, and his hands were horribly burned and useless.

At daybreak he crawled towards a village on his knees and elbows. He knocked on the door of a cottage, whose occupant spat at him and shouted: "Churchill gangster!" The man was then pushed aside by his two beautiful daughters, who bathed Jackson's wounds. "I was lying there like a lord," recalled Jackson. "I began to think I was pretty lucky."

After 10 months in hospital he was sent to a prison camp. He made two attempts to escape; the second time he succeeded in penetrating the German lines, and met the Americans near Munich.

The citation for his VC pointed out that, even had he been able to extinguish the fire, there was little prospect of his regaining the cockpit: he had undertaken an act of unquestionable heroism.

"It was my job as flight engineer to get the rest of the crew out of trouble," recalled Jackson. "I was the most experienced member of the crew, and they all looked to me to do something."

He was decorated by George VI at Buckingham Palace. Jackson's mother was delighted: "The only other outstanding thing he ever did," she told reporters, "was to ride in a procession through Twickenham on the smallest bicycle ever made."

Victoria Cross Citation

Extract from Fourth Supplement, The London Gazette No 37324 of Friday 26 October 1945:

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS in recognition of most conspicuous bravery to:-

905192 Sergeant (Now Warrant Officer) Norman Cyril Jackson RAFVR 106 Squadron.

This airman was the flight engineer in a Lancaster detailed to attack Schweinfurt on the night of 26th April 1944. Bombs were dropped successfully and the aircraft was climbing out of the target area. Suddenly it was attacked by a fighter at about 20,000 feet. The captain took evading action at once, but the enemy secured many hits. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine.

Sergeant Jackson was thrown to the floor during the engagement. Wounds which he received from shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder were probably sustained at that time. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain's permission to try to put out the flames.

Pushing a hand fire-extinguisher into the top of his life-saving jacket and clipping on his parachute pack, Sergeant Jackson jettisoned the escape hatch above the pilot's head. He then started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit.

Undeterred, Sergeant Jackson continued. The pilot (Fred Mifflin), bomb aimer (Maurice Toft) and navigator (Frank Higgins) gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. Eventually he slipped and, falling from the fuselage to the starboard wing, grasped an air intake on the leading edge of the wing. He succeeded in clinging on but lost the extinguisher, which was blown away.

By this time, the fire had spread rapidly and Sergeant Jackson was involved. His face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Unable to retain his hold he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind. When last seen it was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places.

Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon aircraft. Four of the remaining members of the crew landed safely. The captain and rear gunner have not been accounted for.

Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns and his hands were useless. These injuries, together with the wounds received earlier, reduced him to a pitiable state. At daybreak he crawled to the nearest village, where he was taken prisoner. He bore the intense pain and discomfort of the journey to Dulag Luft with magnificent fortitude. After ten months in hospital he made a good recovery, though his hands require further treatment and are only of limited use.

This airman's attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat. Had he succeeded in subduing the flames, there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his parachute and the risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum. By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.

Norman Cyril Jackson was born in Ealing on April 8 1919. When a few weeks old he was adopted by a family named Gunter; the same family adopted another boy, Geoffrey Oliver Hartley, who was later awarded the George Cross while serving with the police in Malaya but was eventually killed by bandits.

Jackson qualified as a fitter and turner and on the outbreak of war was in a reserved occupation. None the less he volunteered for the RAF and enlisted as a Classified Fitter IIE (engines).

He was posted to No 95, a Sunderland Flying Boat Squadron at Freetown, Sierra Leone. This was a ground crew job, but Jackson applied to train as a flight engineer in bombers. "I don't know why," he recalled "because I wanted to live!"

In July 1943 he joined 106 Squadron, then at Syerston, as a sergeant. In November the squadron moved to Metheringham.

After the war Jackson worked as a travelling salesmen for Haig whisky. He overcame the handicap of permanently scarred hands, and with the help of a friend built a house for himself and his family - his own adoption made him a passionate family man.

He was periodically haunted by nightmares of his brush with death, and confessed to bouts of melancholy. But he reflected that he was more fortunate than many of his compatriots, who had either perished or had struggled to adjust to civilian life. He rarely spoke of his VC.

The war left him deeply religious: "Nobody prayed harder than I did before we took off and after we landed," he recalled. "So did all the rest of them, though nobody mentioned it."

Jackson was married and had six children.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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