Veteran Stories:
William “Bill” Bissonnette

Air Force

  • Pages from Raymond Bissonnette's Flight Log Book from June 1944. Note that the night flights are marked in red and those in green are day flights.

    Ray Bissonnette
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"He says, how’d you like to be my navigator? I said, I’d love to. Boy, that was the best thing I ever did."

Transcript

We [Royal Air Force No. 166 Squadron] went from there to an OT [Operational Training Unit], operational training unit; and this one, when an operational training unit started a new class, they would send equal numbers of pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, rear gunners and wireless operators. And you all milled around together on ground school for about a week or 10 days. And you picked your own crew. I can still remember, well, like I was an officer, and I was in the officers’ mess, that all the other were sergeants and I was milling around. This one evening I was in the officers’ mess and this little short fellow come over; and he said, I say, he said, have you got a pilot yet? I says, no. He says, how’d you like to be my navigator? I said, I’d love to. Boy, that was the best thing I ever did.

We formed a crew. We were going to go to a squadron. First of all, we were going to go on four engine planes [such as the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber] and so we had to go to a conversion unit [training crews on different aircraft]. Basically for the pilot to learn how to fly four [engine planes] and that’s where you needed two more crew members. You needed another gunner and a flight engineer. So they just issued us, well, they said, yeah, the pilot’s from Birmingham, here’s a flight engineer from Birmingham. And they handed us a mid-upper, we got a 19 year old mid-upper gunner from Scotland. And there we were, a crew.

And then it was time to go to a squadron. Now, everywhere you looked in England, there were airports of all different descriptions, but there was a list of the squadrons that had openings for crews and my pilot’s looking at the list. Oh, he said, well, there’s Bill Grant, he was a pilot that he’d gone all through his pilot training with, and he was his best buddy. And Grant had been picked at [RAF] Kirmington. And he said, you don’t mind if we go to Kirmington, do you? We don’t care if we go to Kirmington or not. It’s all the same to us, so we went to Kirmington.

When the navigators were finally finished and we were coming out and the bus was going to drive us around and I’m walking out with Bill Grant’s navigator. And I said, I bet you a bob (that’s a shilling or a quarter), I said, I bet you a bob we beat you back. He said, you’re on. So when you got back, the busses picked up each individual crew and as soon as you got to the debriefing room, the pilot went and signed the board up there and that’s the order, because there was only three or four officers to talk to all those crews, so whatever, who’s turn it was… We looked at it, hey, he owes me a bob. Only problem was, they never came back. It was Gelsenkirchen [Germany]; it was our fifth trip and they just went missing on that one. Nobody ever did know what happened to them, blew up, whatever. They never came back.

It was a daylight [flight] again. Lucky, if you could call getting hit by flack [anti-aircraft fire] lucky. But we got hit, but we were all right; the motors were all working. And we got back to the base, and this is where we’re getting ready to go on final approach and the flight engineer says, look at that starboard wheel; and the starboard wheel was just going flop, flop, flop, flop, a flat tire on it. I went, oh, shit. So we called up the tower and said, we’ve got a flat tire on the starboard wheel, what do you recommend? Now, we were the first ones back. He said, don’t land here. And wartime England, there was three special aerodromes [airfields] made for emergency landings. There was [RAF] Woodbridge in the south, [RAF] Manston in the Midlands and [RAF] Carnaby in the north.

And basically what these were was one big long, long runway, you could land with no brakes and just, you had enough room to coast until you stopped. Not only that, if you got in there in a dead fog, you knew you were there because your radar said, I’m right over top of it, but I can’t see it. They had pipes down both sides of the runway and both ends with holes in them; and they’d just run gas in it and set it on fire, and it burned the fog away. I remember one pilot saying that he’d had to land once like that, burning the fog away, and he says, it’s just like trying to land in the gates of hell.

Anyway, we got up to Carnaby. We told them our problem: we’ve got a flat tire on the starboard side, and have you got any recommendations? And he said, well, you’ve got two choices. He said, you can leave the wheels up and just belly it in or you can try and land it on the one wheel and the tail wheel like a bicycle. My pilot said, we’re not going to belly it in. He says, everybody in crash position. Well, my crash position, I’m sitting on the floor, my back against the wings bar, it was right, big, fairly high; and the wireless operator was sitting on one side of me and the mid-upper gunner was sitting on the other side of me and their intercom cord would reach their station, so they knew what was going on. Mine wouldn’t reach. I’m just sitting there waiting for it to happen. And he just, oh, the best landing he ever made. Just greased it down. It was a nice bright sunny Sunday afternoon and he just greased it on there just like a bicycle, and down.

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