"We got coned in searchlights one night over Berlin, which was rather unpleasant, you can imagine what seems like a hundred searchlights focused on you, you’re blinded, you can’t see instruments or any damn thing"
Canada had 15 bomber squadrons and [No.] 408 [(Goose) Squadron] was the second of these to be activated. We were flying Lancasters on 408 Squadron. These were rather bad days: we lost 936 men in four years of operations.
We got coned in searchlights one night over Berlin, which was rather unpleasant, if you can imagine what seems like a hundred searchlights focused on you, you’re blinded, you can’t see instruments or any damn thing, and you know that the searchlights are focused on you, the radar has you, the flak [anti-aircraft] is geared to the radar and it has your altitude. And the flak they had, all you could see at night was a little red burst. But you knew that that red burst represented a lethal area from where the explosion was of some 40 or 50 feet. So if you were within that radius of that little red, you could sustain lethal damage. You would certainly get some damage and all the stuff coming.
So you couldn’t see anything, you were blinded and you knew that the night fighters could see you because you were quite visible in the sky with all these searchlights on you. And you had to take and keep, change your altitude so the flak wouldn’t get you, you would try to break out of the cone of searchlights and you would have to take and keep moving so that a night fighter couldn’t get his gunsight on you and shoot you out of the sky. So it was rather unpleasant until you broke out of that cone of searchlights. But we went in at 20,000 feet and I finally got out of that at 8,000 feet, then we went and did our bombing and went home.
But our track home took us between two German cities of Osnabrück and Münster and they had a radar and the radar picked us up. We had radial engines in this Lancaster and a piece of flak – the radial engines had a chamber, it looked very much like this (gestures) but larger, which wrapped right around all 18 cylinders of this radial engine and picked up all the red hot exhaust gases and fed them off out behind the aircraft. And on this port in our engine, about eight or nine feet from where I’m sitting, a piece of flak hits this chamber and knocks a piece of the metal outside, knocks a piece of this off, and we then have a great big candle, if that’s the right word, of odd gases shooting up into the sky as we’re driving along. And of course, it’s the kind of advertising in Germany that nobody is really wanting. So our options are to fly with the advertising or to shut down the engine. Now, we are already getting a little tight on fuel because we’ve had to find our way back to about 14,000 feet from the 8,000 feet that we were when we shook off the searchlight cone. And so I have to shut down that engine and so we’re going home and we’re going across Germany on three engines, as close to the ground as we can get, and we see the first creeping fingers of sunlight breaking through the cloud and we hope that all the German night fighters are out of fuel and home in their berth and we managed to get down as close as we can to the North Sea and make our way back to the emergency landing [aero]drome. And we landed there before we ran out of gas. So some of these things were a little tight, but I’m here.