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The Amazing Story of Ted Robbins, Lancaster Pilot Extraordinaire

By Martin Bowman (used with permission)

The Unwanted ‘Hat Trick’

Edward A. ‘Ted’ Robbins was born on 26 February 1923. During his early boyhood the family moved from Wormley, Hertfordshire to Vancouver in Canada. His lifetime interest in flying began during many hours spent at Lulu Island aerodrome (now Vancouver International) and building many model aircraft. The family returned to England in 1938 and in August 1941 the slim, eighteen-year-old six footer joined the RAF.

In October he returned to America for flying training on the PT Stearman primary trainer at the Institute of Aeronautics at Tuscaloosa in Alabama. ‘Ted’ completed his flying training at Gunter Field, Montgomery, Alabama flying BT- 13 basic trainer and was then sent to Craig Field at Selma Alabama to fly the AT-6 Harvard advanced trainer. He gained his ‘wings’ on 3 July 1942.

That same October ‘Ted’ was posted to 19 OTU Kinloss on the Moray Firth where he ‘crewed up’ with four other sergeants. Leslie ‘Cal’ Calvert, the 30-year old bomb aimer remembered his skipper as ‘a bit strait-laced’.

‘Ted lived a narrow life. He didn't go out with girls and wouldn't listen to jokes about them. He didn't swear and never went into a pub; he would rather visit a church bazaar and have a cup of tea. He was a very close person. We didn't know much about him except where he came from. He never allowed pictures to be taken of the crew. Sometimes WAAFs wanted to look over the kite. When that happened ‘Ted’ made himself scarce, but for all that he was a very good skipper and a lovely man.’ Calvert had also trained as an air observer and was qualified to take over the controls if the pilot was killed or badly injured. At just 5 feet 4 inches in height and weighing less than 8 stone, he always kept his sleeves rolled down because he was embarrassed by his skinny arms. He was married and a trainee industrial welfare officer for a Manchester dyestuffs manufacture. Leslie C. ‘Les’ Carpenter, the equally diminutive navigator, was a pleasant, straightforward and good-looking lad from Birmingham. George F. Calvert the wireless operator, no relation to the bomb aimer, was known as the ‘Bolton Wanderer’ because he supported his local football club, Bolton Wanderers. He also liked girls and beer. John N. ‘Jack’ Denton, the cheery 23-year old rear gunner was from the Cornish village of Mousehole. He was always hungry and gobbled every meal as if it were his last. [1]

After 25 hours of day flying on Whitley IVs, the crew training switched to bombing practice, cross-countries, photo flashes, loop bearings and QDMs at night. On 9 December 1942 ‘Ted’ took Whitley BD222 ‘T-Tommy' off at 16.45 hours for a night cross-country exercise. It was already pitch dark with strong winds and snow flurries adding to the unwelcome conditions. Soon after climb-out the port engine caught fire and had to be shut down. Les Calvert recalls:

'We had to fly over the Grampians and lost an engine about thirty miles from the airfield. It cut out and we flew like a brick, losing height all the time, so we turned round smartish. With the weather getting worse ‘Ted’ fought to keep the aircraft in the air. Kinloss told us to fly around and await further instructions, but that wasn't possible. The only thing to do was crash-land on the grass at the airfield. ‘Ted’ called me from the nose to sit beside him and we were only doing around 50 mph when he made a beautiful wheels-up landing about half-way across the airfield beside the dimly-lit runway with full flaps. We were carrying some small flash bombs which were stowed externally, port and starboard and they went off when we touched down. They gave off a flash and didn't set the aircraft on fire, but it was a bit frightening. The medics snatched us out and checked us all over to make sure we were still alive.’ [2]

The Whitley came to rest only a hose length away from the waiting fire tenders. The only slight injury was suffered by George Calvert, who bruised his knee on his table when the aircraft touched down. Less than three hours later the crew were airborne again in another Whitley for an hour's local flying!

On completion of the OTU course and after enjoying a spot of Christmas leave, the crew was posted to 1661 Conversion Unit at Winthorpe by Newark. There they collected a flight engineer, John Seedhouse and mid-upper gunner, Bertram M. ‘Bert’ Manley, nineteen, from Basildon, Essex. He was deeply attached to his bed, never interrupted sleep for breakfast and sometimes slept through lectures. Seedhouse, a Geordie, had joined the RAF two years before the war. Les Calvert described him as a ‘shortish’ fellow, not a glamorous type, quite unattractive but he could pull the ‘birds’. He never went out with us because his first aim, no matter where we were, was women and it didn't matter how young or old they were. He was a loner and was off the first day at a new station when he would find a woman somewhere. He didn't go out with girls on the camp; she would have to be a civilian.’ [3]

Photographs of the crew courtesy Dick Breedijk

On 9 January 1943 all seven crew members made their first flight together on Manchester R5838. After fifteen hours on type, they finally got to fly the Lancaster when on 8 February ‘Ted’ flew R5547 on a 1½ hour local conversion trip. There followed two weeks of intensive familiarisation train­ing, being airborne every day until, having completed 12½ hours they went off on their own without instructors for the first time, on a cross-country. On 21 February ‘Ted’ Robbins took Lancaster R5892 off at 11.20 hours for what was to be a simulated bombing raid on the Ruhr with eight sand-filled 1,000lb bombs in the bomb bay to give them the feel of the aircraft with an operational load. They had been briefed to drop two of the bombs at each of four practice ranges dotted round the English and Welsh coasts and which would be their en-route turning points; the first being in The Wash. From there they were to head south and alter course at Southwold, Suffolk to drop two more bombs on The Naze before turning southwest for their next objective, to Newquay, Cornwall. This was to be the longest leg of the flight. Finally, they were to turn north for Penrose on the Isle of Anglesey.

'We got to Southwold at 20,000 feet in sunshine’ recalled Les Calvert. ‘The sun was shining right in the nose of the aircraft. It was lovely, basking weather. I got my maps out and for the first time took off my Ingersoll watch and put it on the spur to the bomb sight. I forgot the watch later when we had to get out in a hurry, but for now I could see the time, I could see my maps and I could see the 10/10ths cloud below which hid the ground.’

‘Ted’ Robbins adds: ‘We could already see the predicted cloud cover and now had to completely rely on the navigator. We would have no reason to have more visibility on the return to the base! When we were well on track, we decided to get something to eat and drink while we climbed to 20,000 feet. It was sunny and bright above 7,000 feet, perfect flying weather.’

'Everything was going well’ adds George Calvert. ‘Each member of the crew was thoroughly enjoying himself, getting to know each other. Two hours out and the wireless was working perfectly. I had tuned in to some pleasant dance music for relaxation and I was warm and comfortable. Then suddenly, everything changed. There was an almighty bang, as if the Lanc had received a near miss from flak. It immediately plunged into a very steep spiral dive - virtually a spin - from which no-one thought it would recover. We'd never experienced anything like it before. Looking out through the window opposite my seat, I could see the starboard inner engine had lost its cowlings and the wing leading edge had disappeared right back to the wing root; a lot of skin from the top surface of the wing had also gone and it was fortunate none had hit the tailplane or fins. All four engines were going full blast.’

‘Ted’ Robbins says. ‘We were over Reading, west of London at 19,000 feet, when we heard the terrible blow. I was stunned by this sound, until Jack called me from the tail turret and asked what had happened and what the hell I was doing. I did not answer him, I had my hands full with the controls, which abruptly turned right and threatened to get us in a spin. When I got the plane under control, we had lost 6,000 feet. Now we were able to take in the damage. The entire plating and all piping between the fuselage and the right engine in the wing was gone. We were glad that the tailplane was not damaged. It was obvious that we could not finish our mission. George sent a SOS and tried to contact Air Sea Rescue. Les Carpenter reported that we had flown ten miles over the Channel and Leslie Calvert dropped the rest of the bomb load.’

Les Calvert says: ‘Between them the pilot and the flight engineer got the aircraft level again and continued on the same course. We then considered what to do. Bailing out was an option, but we were running parallel to the coast and didn't want to land in the drink. The skipper said to me: ‘Cal, I'm going to put the undercart down, will you check?’

'The undercarriage came down and I looked out of the port side. Everything was all right, the engines were ticking over; the wheels were fine. I peered out of the starboard side. Oh, my God! All the leading edge of the starboard wing had gone. All the cowlings of both motors had gone, so had part of the starboard wheel, the rubber and the mechanics. The rear gunner thought it was flak from British guns; he had seen bits and pieces flash past the tail. I believed that the aircraft had been sabotaged, probably by the IRA.’

‘On ‘Ted's instructions’ continues George Calvert ‘I contacted our home base to report what had happened. We were advised to head for Manston, which had a huge runway specially provided for such emergencies. Manston offered advice on speeds, etc and gave a heading to steer, but we were losing height and wouldn't make it; and in any case, it was found that the speed required to prevent the Lanc stalling was too high, even for Manston. Closer examination of the starboard undercarriage revealed that not only was the tyre flat, but also one of the legs was bent upwards at a 30-degree angle. So ‘Ted’ decided the only thing to do was put her down on the sea and this was relayed to both base and Manston Control before heading out towards the Channel at 160 mph, which was judged to be the best speed for maintaining a degree of stability and control. A lucky cloud break revealed the sea below and enabled us to jettison the remaining dummy bombs, thus relieving us of one problem. The crew set about ditching preparations. Our training was to be put to the test. I concentrated on sending a Mayday distress call, first ensuring the trailing aerial was out and the correct ‘South Coast MF/DF’ frequencies selected. There was a lot of Morse on the air, but it immediately ceased once the SOS had been tapped out and suddenly, I had the frequency all to myself, a tribute to the high standard of RAF discipline. It was comforting to receive a response and confirmation that bearings had been taken, with approximate position given. Our nav had also worked out our position which I transmitted back to the ground station. The routines were operating splendidly. By this time the Lanc was low over the sea and we were warned by our skipper to take up crash positions, so I clamped down the Morse key and crouched against the wing root bulkhead. We hit the sea with a great bump and water gushed rapidly into the fuselage, the aircraft soon coming to a halt.

‘The crew was preparing for the emergency landing’ continues ‘Ted’ Robbins ‘and I flew as low as possible at a speed of 150 mph. The blow on the water broke the tail off about the middle turret. John Seedhouse opened the hatch above my head. George Calvert pulled the cord on the inside of the fuselage to inflate the dinghy.’

‘We pushed off the escape hatches on top of the fuselage. On my way out I picked up the Very pistol and a couple of cartridges and struggled through the hatch to see the dinghy inflating - a welcome sight. ‘Ted’ was scrambling along the top of the cockpit and by this time the Lanc was already beginning to sink nose down. The sea must have flooded in quickly through the damaged starboard wing. Six of us got into the dinghy relatively easily, stepping-in without even getting wet, but poor Bert Manley, the mid-upper gunner, was in the sea in full Irvin suit and flying gear, already very heavy. We had difficulty pulling him aboard and only managed it after a struggle. The aircraft was sinking rapidly and we cut loose the tethering rope. The Lanc suddenly plunged nose down, followed by its tail section which had broken off on impact, the twin fins dis­appearing like the tail of a great whale. We estimated she had been on the surface 2½ minutes at most.

'There was a lot of jagged debris floating about, which we gingerly pushed away from our dinghy in case it got punctured. There was a gentle swell; at the top of which we could just see what we were fairly sure was our coastline on the horizon. After checking our Mae Wests and other bits and pieces of equipment and stores we started to paddle, somewhat hopefully. Already, I think we were grateful for all the dinghy drill we had done in training and which, at times, had seemed something of a chore. We felt quite elated and considered we had come out of it all rather well so far, with no injuries. We began to discuss what had happened, when we might be picked up and by whom. Being in mid-Channel, it could be either side we reckoned. At least we had the satisfaction of knowing someone knew we were down, our distress call having been positively acknowledged.

‘We hadn't been in the dinghy long when suddenly three fighters looking very like Fw190s head-on were coming straight for us at low level in a ‘vic’. Several of us prepared to dive into the sea, fearing a machine gun attack. The fighters banked steeply round us and with relief were identified as Typhoons, a type fairly new to us. Two of them maintained a protective orbit overhead while the third made off towards the coast, reappearing in our direction several times, obviously acting as a guide.

'Before long, we saw a column of smoke on the horizon and thought it a good idea to fire a Very cartridge, following which we watched the direction of the vessel. After a while, there was no doubt it was heading our way, so we fired our other cartridge. Someone was definitely coming for us! Soon we could see its outline and it grew into a small ship, which eventually stopped 100 yards or so away. Quite a few sailors lined the deck rail, their uniforms unfamiliar to our eyes and looking German-like.’

Les Calvert said: 'We wondered if the ship was one of ours and if it had seen us. When it turned towards us we could see it was flying an unusual tethered balloon, like a small barrage balloon with thin fins. It got within hailing distance and circled us. The sailors wore hats with tails at the back and a word at the front we couldn't read. We knew they weren't Royal Navy and wondered, a little fearfully, if they were German. They stood at the side of the ship looking at us. Some carried rifles.’

‘A large man with a big red beard and who we guessed was the Captain’ continues George Calvert ‘bellowed out:

‘Are you English?’

‘Not knowing any other language, we could only answer: ‘Yes, we're English’. What would be his reaction to this? The answer really surprised us: ‘OK - We Dutch’.

‘We paddled alongside and were hauled aboard along with our dinghy; and were now in very high spirits; lots of back slapping. We noticed the rifles being stowed away and I don't think German aircrew would have got quite the same reception. The ship was the Dutch mine-sweeper Hr. Ms. Rotterdamof the Klondyke Marine. ‘Captain Red Beard’ [Kapitein Gallandat de Hüet] told us he was heading for Portland Bill. Our luck was holding. Our wet clothes and flying boots were taken down to the engine room to dry. We agreed to let the crew have our flying boots and in exchange they gave us various items of footwear. I received a pair of gaily-painted wooden clogs. Until this moment, I had never seen skipper ‘Ted’ smoke or touch alcohol; but here he was now with a cigarette in his mouth, mug of coffee in one hand, a cognac in the other, with the rest of us! The Dutch crew were a happy crowd; we didn't envy them their job.

'We heard the sound of aircraft engines and again wondered what we were in for. The plane was soon identified as an Air-Sea Rescue Walrus. It made a few low passes and headed for home, no doubt now as to our whereabouts and position being known. Shortly afterwards an ASR launch came speeding our way and its Captain tannoyed for details of how many airmen picked up and destination, etc. He decided not to transfer the seven of us, but to escort us into Portland. We were being so well looked after and were quite content to remain with the Dutch crew. On arrival at Portland and after thanks all round, we were taken to the Naval hospital for a bath and a short medical at which we were all pronounced fit and well. I was still wearing my newly-won clogs which were clumsy and awfully noisy. We were then taken to the ASR base at Warmwell for debriefing, this being where the launch had come from and where our SOS had been picked up. We also learned that an Army colonel, who had been walking along a cliff top, had actually seen us come down a few miles off St. Albans Head [ on the Dorset coast five miles WSW from Swanage] and had immediately reported it. So, we had many things going in our favour on that day. We returned to Newark by train, a rather motley looking bunch and me in my clogs. At King's Cross station we were stopped by MPs who talked about putting us on a charge because of our appearance. We felt we had earned the week's survivors' leave which we were eventually given.' [4]

At the Court of Enquiry held into the loss of the aircraft, ‘Ted’ Robbins and John Seedhouse were made to stand to attention for 1¾ hours while questions were fired at them. The theory eventually reached and accepted was that the starboard tyre had burst. The pilot and crew were highly praised for their actions. An extract from ‘5 Group News’ later reported that ‘a u/t pilot on his first Conversion Unit cross country ditched a Lancaster successfully. The conditions under which this ditching was made should give confidence to anyone who may have to repeat this performance. Although the aircraft ditched at 150 mph no ill effects were felt by any of the crew who carried out their dinghy drill religiously and with obvious success, having been instructed the previous day. The aircraft floated for 2½ minutes.’ They had earned their Goldfish Club brevets.

In mid-March 1943 the crew joined 106 Squadron at Syerston where Wing Commander Ronald Edward Baxter had taken over from Wing Commander John Searby as CO and Squadron Leader Peter Ward-Hunt was the ‘A’ Flight commander. Previously, the squadron had been commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson DSO DFC* before he left to form 617 Squadron. ‘Ted’ Robbins, Les Calvert and Les Carpenter had each been promoted to Warrant Officer and the rest of the crew were now flight sergeants. On 22 March ‘Ted’ Robbins flew the first of two ‘second dickie’ flights when Flying Officer E. A. Edmonds was at the controls of ED360 on the trip to St. Nazaire. A few days later, on 26/27 March, he was aboard W4842 ZN-H Fema Dora (RAF slang for ‘Fuck-EM - All Dead-OR-Alive’) for the raid on Duisburg. Fema Dora had been taken on charge on 106 Squadron in December 1942 and had been one of the aircraft flown by Flight Sergeant Lewis J. Burpee DFM RCAF when he was on the squadron. Burpee, 25, recently married and from Ottawa, Ontario, received his commission shortly after Guy Gibson requested that he and his crew join him on 617 Squadron for the famous raids on the Ruhr dams on the night of 16/17 May. They were one of eight ‘Dam Buster’ crews that failed to return. [5]

On 28/29 March meanwhile, ‘Ted’ Robbins and his crew flew their first op when they were one of 323 aircraft - 179 Wellingtons, 52 Halifaxes, fifty Lancasters, 35 Stirlings and seven Mosquitoes - that were detailed to bomb St. Nazaire. One Halifax and a Lancaster failed to return but Lancaster W4156 and ‘Ted’ Robbins’ crew returned safely. W4156 went missing shortly afterwards, on 8/9 April when the aircraft and Pilot Officer John Lawrence Irvine’s crew failed to return from the raid on Duisburg. There were no survivors. It was Berlin on 29/30 March and W4842 Fema Dora returned safely once more. Within two months ‘Ted’ Robbins’ crew had completed a total of sixteen night ops. Some were to distant targets such as Pilzen in Czechoslovakia on 16/17 April - a long 'flog' of over almost ten hours ten hours on Fema Dora. It was the night that young Bert Manley the mid upper gunner nearly distinguished himself by shooting down a British bomber, as Les Calvert recalled. ‘The weather was terrible, very heavy cloud and we went across France at 5,000 feet. We had to climb to 20,000 feet after crossing the Rhine at Strasbourg. Bert was first through the cloud and he saw an aircraft which he fired at. Luckily he missed. It was a Halifax, which fortunately did not reply. ‘Ted’ Robbins told him mildly: ‘We'll have less of that’.’ [6]

An even longer ‘flog’ was to La Spezia on 18/19 April when Fema Dora made a round trip lasting ten hours and ten minutes. The aircraft received a flak hole in the bomb aimer’s compartment but made it back safely. The crew rode their luck on Stettin and Duisburg: coned by searchlight for eight minutes over Stettin; an engine knocked out over Duisburg; but always, ‘Ted’ and the Lanc brought them home. They were stood down on Tuesday the 27th when 160 aircraft in the biggest mine laying operation of the war so far was carried out and 458 mines were laid off the Biscay and Brittany ports and in the Frisian Islands. One Lancaster failed to return. The threefold purpose behind the mine laying trips was to seriously impede the flow of men and materials passing through Baltic ports to the Russian Front; to dislocate U-boat training, which was carried out extensively in the Baltic; and to interrupt and delay the highly important shipments going into Germany from Sweden and Norway via the Baltic.

On Wednesday 28/29 April ‘Ted’ Robbins and his crew were one of 68 Lancasters in a force of just over 200 aircraft detailed to drop mines off Heligoland, in the River Elbe and in the Great and Little Belts. Low cloud over the German and Danish coasts forced the mine-laying to fly low in order to establish their positions before laying their mines and much German light flak activity was seen. [7] ‘Ted’ Robbins’ Lancaster was caught in a cone of searchlights as he passed over one of the Frisian Islands. ‘There seemed only one thing to do’ he recalled - ‘shoot them out. My gunners fired right down a beam and I saw the bullets hitting the projector. The searchlight went out. My front gunner sprayed another light ahead of us and the beam twirled away as if the crew had abandoned their post and were running for cover.’ Twenty-two aircraft - seven Lancasters, seven Stirlings, six Wellingtons and two Halifaxes were lost. This was the heaviest loss of aircraft while mine laying in the war, but the number of mines laid was the highest in one night.

On the night of 30 April/1 May ‘Ted’ Robbins and his crew rounded off the month with a raid on Essen and followed this raid with visits to Dortmund, Duisburg, Pilzen and Dortmund again and Düsseldorf. On the trip to Dortmund, on the night of 23/24 May, they made an early return after 2.55 hours had elapsed after the port inner engine failed while climbing out from Syerston. That same night Wing Commander Baxter was forced to abandon the operation when his port outer engine failed and he jettisoned the 4,000lb bomb but brought his incendiaries back. On the night of 25/26 May Fema Dora’s crew hauled a 4,000lb ‘cookie’ bomb and 125 (4lb) SBCs (small bomb containers) to Düsseldorf. There were two layers of 7/10th cloud and haze over the target and the Path Finders experienced great difficulty in marking it. No yellow TIs were seen the target area, which was located by a cluster of Green TIs and Les Calvert got the bombs away at 20,000 feet at 0209 hours but no results were observed. The attack failed, probably due to the PFF Red TIs being exceptionally scattered. Very few fires were seen and these were over a very wide area. Heavy flak was predicted and accurate and 27 aircraft were shot down.

Two nights later, on 27/28 May when 518 aircraft - 274 Lancasters, 151 Halifaxes, 81 Wellingtons and twelve Mosquitoes - were detailed to raid Krupps of Essen, the most hotly defended of all targets; fate took a hand. ‘Ted’ Robbins’ mid-upper gunner, Bert Manley, reported sick with a throat infection but ‘Ted’ Robbins was keen to go and he asked Wing Commander Ronnie Baxter for a spare mid-upper. The Wing Commander was not flying that night, so he offered the services of his own regular mid-upper, Sergeant Howard John 'Spud' Taylor, adding, ‘he's a nice boy from Birmingham, only nineteen, make sure you take great care of him.’The offer was accepted but ‘Spud’ came in for some leg-pulling because some of ‘Ted’s crew thought he was ‘disgracefully upper-class’. [8]

‘Ted’ Robbins took Fema Dora off from Syerston at 2150 hours in fine weather for their third trip to Essen. In the bomb bay was a 4,000lb ‘cookie’ and twelve SBC (4lb) small bomb containers. ‘By the time we were on course’ says ‘Ted’ Robbins ‘it was already pretty dark and as far as we could see we were the only aircraft in the sky, even though we knew that at least there had to be 400 to 500 other aircraft in the air. Over the North Sea, as usual we tested the guns while still climbing.’ Photograph courtesy Dick Breedijk

Their route out was via Egmond and the return would be made via Bunschoten and landfall would be made at Cromer on the Norfolk coast. Fema Dora arrived at the target, which was cloud covered, at 0042 hours at 20,000 feet. Flak over the target was intense and skymarking had to be used because of the cloudy conditions. The main bombing was scattered, with many aircraft undershooting.

‘At one point’ continues ‘Ted’ Robbins, ‘we could see a purple-red glow in the distance. We knew that a bomber had been hit and exploded. [9] When we approached the first flak area we were at an altitude of 22,000 feet. We were on the marker flares and ‘Cal’ took over. He gave me the heading and then he said ‘Bombs gone!’

‘I finished the bombing run ‘smartish - probably quicker than I should have’ Calvert recalled.

‘Ted’ Robbins could just see their bomb load explode on the ground and simultaneously took a picture. ‘Immediately afterwards we were hit. I lost control but finally, after much effort I got things under control, but we were certainly 5,000 feet lower. I called all the crew members one by one and each one said that they were okay. Then everything happened very quickly. George reported that the two left engines were on fire. Johnnie feathered the propellers. I tried to dive to extinguish the flames but unfortunately, this did not work. Johnnie fought the flames with a fire extinguisher. Fortunately there was no damage to the wing or fuel tanks. Luckily, two engines on the right side were still running and nobody was hurt. Then we were hit again and I asked the crew if there was any damage. George reported several holes in the floor. Jack reported that the rear part of the aircraft seemed fine. But I felt the aircraft shake. After releasing the bombs Cal had flipped the switch to close the bomb doors but we were hit and the bomb doors were wide open. I was just over the shock of this information when Johnnie called ‘right inner engine on fire.’ I told him to feather the prop. I would rather not use the fire extinguisher because I wanted the opportunity to restart the engine. I asked Les to give me the shortest course to the coast. Les gave me the route (not the shortest) and I went on track. I gave orders to Cal, Jack and Spud too, because we could fall easy prey to the night fighters. I did not know how long one engine would hold out under these conditions and continuing to fly in a straight line was difficult on full right trim.’

The ‘Viermot’ was claimed destroyed by Leutnant Walter Schön of 3./NJG1 for his fifth victory but they had been hit by flak. (Schön was killed in action on 20 October. He was credited with a total of nine victories).

‘Ted’ Robbins fought to pull the Lancaster out of its plunge, eventually doing so at 5,000 feet. The fire extinguishers doused the flames, there were no injuries to the crew and there seemed a chance they could make it. The Lancaster was shaking severely and the bomb doors were jammed open, creating enormous drag and turbulence. Les Calvert recalled: ‘You didn't normally go out of the target the way you went in because the Germans were waiting for you. But it would mean going further if we did a dog leg out. We decided to come back the shortest way and run the gauntlet. We didn't know if we'd lost any fuel because there were holes all over the place. We were losing height all the time. The skipper was having great difficulty in keeping on a course because we were crabbing, being pulled to starboard by the two starboard engines.

‘Finally’, continues ‘Ted’ Robbins ‘I knew we would not make it and I switched on the intercom and said: ‘This is a good chance for anybody to get out if they want to while we still have enough height. I'll hold the kite steady for them.’ I asked each individual crew member if they wanted to jump. Everyone decided to stay and see if we could reach the North Sea. All except Spud Taylor had been rescued when we had ditched before.’

Les Calvert recalled: We wanted to get back if we could and discussed the options. Our replacement mid-upper gunner, Howard 'Spud' Taylor came on and said he would go and ‘Ted’ told him to leave through the back door. A few minutes after Howard left his turret he plugged into the intercom at the rear door. Howard had his parachute on and the door open, but he was apparently torn by terrible indecision.’

Taylor asked ‘what are you fellows going to do?'

George Calvert replied in his broad Lancashire accent: 'We're going to get down in t' drink.

'In the drink?' Taylor enquired, nervously.

'Ah, if we don't mek it home we'll get down in t' English Channel somewhere.'

'Isn't that dangerous?'

'Nay, lad. We've been in t' drink before. We've done it before we can do it again.'

Taylor cheered up and said: 'Oh, I'll come with you then. I'll get back in the turret.'

‘We decided therefore to throw all excess equipment out of the aircraft’ continues ‘Ted’ Robbins. ‘George, Cal and Johnnie tore out machine guns, ammunition, ladder, bomb aiming equipment; anything we did not need.’

Les Calvert adds: ‘Then we came to the music hall bit, throwing things out to help us maintain altitude. I uncoupled the bomb sight, a great big thing and passed it back to the flight engineer who gave it to George Calvert who threw it out the back door. Everything we did not need, including the ladder, was thrown out and George shut the door, but we were still losing height, down to about 2,000 feet and there was flak all over the place, but the marvellous thing was, none of us had been scratched.’ [10]

Only the starboard-outer was left working at full bore and even with full trim, it took both feet on the right rudder for ‘Ted’ Robbins to counter the pull of the one engine. ‘The plane lost altitude and we needed more speed so I unfeathered the propeller on the starboard inner, gave the engine fuel and tried to re-start it. The engine started immediately but began to burn again so I switched everything off, again without using the extinguisher. How long could we still fly on one engine?’

It began dragging the Lancaster on a gently curving track directly over the middle of Amsterdam, where they became a sitting target for what seemed like every searchlight and AA gun in the city. Les Calvert again: 'The Germans let us get over the city centre before switching everything on. We were coned by hundreds of searchlights; it was like daylight. Then their guns opened up. By now ‘Ted’ had called me back into the crash position to release the escape hatch when necessary. We were hit by flak and I saw a row of holes suddenly appear in the port side of the fuselage and the light shining through them but, extraordinarily, no one was hit. It was a question of how far we could go. The skipper did his best to keep the aircraft straight and level and avoid going into a stall, but the single engine pulled him off course. I stood behind the main spar on intercom, chatting to help boost his confidence. ‘Ted’ was a bit unhappy. I had a little joke with him and said he could do it. I reminded him of his wonderful landing when we ditched, but he was worried and said he couldn't really see where he was going.'

‘Les kept me informed about the distance to the coast’ continues ‘Ted’ Robbins. ‘We were at 3,000 feet above the flatlands of the Netherlands. The North Sea was so close yet so far away. George tried to contact base and give them our position and where we thought we would make our emergency landing in the sea but he failed to get through. [The trailing aerial had been shot away so there was no chance of another SOS signal, even if they were to ditch]. Les said that there was a stretch of water southwest of Amsterdam and if we did not make the sea it would make a good crash site. But searchlights and heavy shooting began and I told my crew to take up their crash positions. This was around 1:51 am. We could not shoot back because we had removed all weapons except for the upper turret. Finally the shooting stopped and the entire crew had survived! The aircraft was like a colander. I’d had a number of bullets go through the nose.

‘We were very low and I decided to put the landing lights on. I was hoping to see something. It turned out well. After two or three minutes I thought I saw the waters of the North Sea or the Zuider Zee. I did not care what it was. I had sought and found water! (It was Lakerpolder near Sassenheim, five kilometres north of Leiden in Holland). I cried; ‘Preparing for ditching’. Looming in front of me I saw a church steeple, a sail of a windmill and then another church tower.’

‘The aircraft was difficult to control’ continues ‘Ted’ Robbins. ‘Almost stalling I had to swerve to the right and give full throttle as I jinked round the windmill and the church steeple. I cried: 'Hang on, we're touching down’.

‘The left wing went down’. I saw more water. Down we went. We hit, skipped a couple of times on the surface and water gushed inside the fuselage as we bumped along a low dyke left of the windmill before we flopped on to a muddy island and slithered across a field of barley. The aircraft slid to the right and I gave the starboard engine more power. This caused a sharp turn to the left before we came to a halt in peaceful silence. It was a miracle!’ None was more relieved that Les Calvert, who had looked out and saw the slowly-revolving sails of the windmill above them. ‘The skipper had pulled off yet another copybook belly landing.

The time was 01.59 hours. Les Calvert concludes: ‘It was as quiet and lovely a landing as could be, very soft. It was amazing that the kite didn't turn over; we were not even thrown about. It was as if we had landed on wheels, brilliant flying, probably unique. No one was hurt. ‘Ted’ turned off the engine and we all got out.'

The crew decided to destroy the aircraft but to no avail. When the destructive devices failed to work, they fired off the Very pistols - again to no avail. In their haste to get away they forgot the pigeons, so the bomb aimer and the wireless operator returned to the aircraft. Les Calvert then wrote a message and put it in one of the leg rings before releasing the two birds and never did find out if they delivered it! He said: ‘We wondered what to do because there was no vegetation and no buildings. It was a question of where to hide. I had a map or two but none of that particular area. I fancied my chances, having been in the Boy Scouts, but didn't know we were on an island. I left the aircraft to have a look round.’ He wandered off through the churned-up field. After the war the farmer would make a claim against the RAF for the loss of his crops. George Calvert and Jack Denton joined the bomb aimer and the three men, still light-headed from the elation of being alive, set off along the edge of the water which they believed to be the Dutch coast. Les Calvert says: 'After about twenty minutes we heard the ‘plop-plop-plop’ of a little motorised punt which had two Dutchmen in it. They looked at us and hove to. We made them understand that we were RAF airmen and they gave us a jam sandwich each, which was very kind of them.

We all got into the boat and, after a while, stopped near a lot of residential caravans. In one were three girls of about twenty, one of whom spoke beautiful English. She gave us a cognac each and said they daren't take us inside otherwise the Germans would shoot them. We got back into the punt and eventually came to a small landing stage near one or two buildings. One Dutchman went off and bugger me, he came back with a German soldier. That was the end of our freedom. The other four chaps were picked up a couple of days later. We were taken to Amsterdam jail where, bollock naked, we were minutely inspected, every aperture examined. Even our stools were taken away for examination in case we had eaten coded information written on rice paper. We were taken into separate cells. Mine had no window, there was a po standing in straw on the floor and an arc light fixed to the ceiling. After a few days a German officer ordered me to identify one of my crew. I thought: ‘Bloody hell! One of them's been shot. He took me down the corridor to where a guard was pointing a machine gun into a cell. Inside was a most dishevelled ‘Ted’ Robbins, with a dirty face, no badges of rank and his epaulettes hanging down. He'd been given a bad time. He was wearing Wellington boots and I wondered where he'd got them from. The officer ranted at ‘Ted’, arms flailing, then turned to me and said: ‘Herr Calvert, do you recognise this man?’ I looked straight ahead and just gave him my name, rank and number. The officer bawled triumphantly at ‘Ted’: ‘There's a man who knows his Geneva Convention.’

‘A few minutes after I was marched back to my cell the officer reappeared and said: ‘Herr Calvert, since you know your Geneva Convention we will let you stay with your brother George.’

‘I was marched along to 'brother' George, who was in a black cell, one without a light, it was terrible. We sat together, whispering in case the cell was bugged. We were there a couple of days.’

Amsterdam railway station was cordoned off by scores of Germans when Les and George Calvert were among eighty prisoners waiting to be taken to Frankfurt for interrogation. Les Calvert continues: 'A small Dutchman, not noticing the cordon, ran through it to catch his train. A feldwebel told a guard to stop him. 'The guard hit the poor man hard on the head with the butt of his rifle. He fell face down with blood pouring from a great gash in his skull. No one was allowed to help him. We knew then what we could expect from the Germans.’

The crew endured the rest of the war behind the wire at Stalag Luft III, Stalag Luft VI Heydekrug and Stalag XIB Fallingbostel near Belsen. In 1945 they were flown home. Les Calvert recalls: 'It was marvellous looking through a window of the Dakota and seeing traffic driving on the left-hand side of the road.’

As George Calvert says: 'We owe so much to ‘Ted’ Robbins. If it wasn't for him and his amazing skills as a pilot I wouldn't be here.’ [11]

[1] Quoted in Hell On Earth; Dramatic First Hand Experiences of Bomber Command at War by Mel Rolfe (Grub Street, London 1999).

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] Quoted in Lancaster At War: 3 by Mike Garbett and Brian Goulding (Ian Allan Ltd 1984).

[5] As well as Burpee, Gibson had personally selected Flight Lieutenant Dave J. Shannon DFC RAAF and crew and Flight Lieutenant John Vere ‘Hoppy’ Hopgood DFC* and crew on 106 Squadron. 53 men were killed and three were captured. Burpee’s and Hopgood’s crews were among those lost. Lancaster ED865 AJ-S and Burpee’s crew were shot down at 0200 hours immediately south of Gilze-Rijen on the way to the target while following the Wilhelmina Canal between Gilze-Rijen and the flak defences at Eindhoven.

[6] ibid.

[7]The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational reference book 1939-1945 by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt. (Midland 1985).

[8] On 6 May 1945 Bert Manley, who had joined 467 Squadron RAAF on 9 July 1943 and completed 29 operations by 20 March 1944, received his commission. He was de-mobbed in April 1946. Ted Robbins Bommenwerper Piloot by Dick Breedijk.

[9] Altogether, 23 aircraft - 11 Halifaxes, six Lancasters, five Wellingtons and a Mosquito FTR.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Lancaster At War: 3 by Mike Garbett and Brian Goulding (Ian Allan Ltd 1984) and Ted Robbins; Bommenwerper Piloot by Dick Breedijk (2011).

Martin Bowman is a distinguished aviation author with dozens of titles to his name.

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