The pilot made the decision to try a landing and I think I recall to this day that he said, “Hang on chaps, this is liable to be a controlled crash.”
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I am William Kondra. My part in World War II was with the Canadian air force, which subsequently I ended up being a crew member in a Lancaster bomber. Not everybody could or should be a pilot. There are other categories of air crew that were required as well. As things turned out, I was eventually… I gradually did as a bomb aimer, front gunner and assistant navigator.
Oh, we were terribly excited that we were trained on a Lancaster. Its performance was just outstanding. We were sent to 100 Squadron in one group, at an airbase called Waltham, Waltham air base, Grimsby, on the east coast of England.
We were initially equipped with early bombsight, which wasn’t practical when we started night bombing. There were too many manual settings and insufficient light in the aircraft for accurate settings. So we were equipped with a new bombsight for night bombing. Some of the manual settings that I did on the old bomb sight were taken right from the aircraft instruments.
As we approached the target, all I had to set on my bomb sight was wind speed and direction, which was… the navigator… they tried to get as accurate a wind speed direction as they could. Therefore, some of the planes were sent on weather reconnaissance and they would broadcast an estimated wind speed direction to the radio officer, who then received it in Morse Code and then passed on to the navigator and myself.
Our targets were in industries. Any factory that was involved with armament production was a target and we were to destroy it. It’s impossible to identify a target from 20,000 feet at night, so we had planes who flew ahead of us, called the Pathfinders. And they released markers to mark the target. They had a little more sophisticated in navigation aids than we did, so we relied on their accuracy. Over the target, I aimed at those target markers that were released by the pathfinder aircraft.
Actually, a bombing mission was a terrifying experience because you’re trying to get to your target, the enemy defenses are trying their best to destroy you before you get to the target. If you do succeed to get to your target, it is ringed with anti-aircraft guns, by just patrol the perimeters, so it’s just a very dangerous situation. But you don’t dwell too much on that, you are involved in carrying out your duties, so you try and complete your bombing mission.
The one that will live with me was a mission to Berlin. Now, Berlin was a very different target, very heavily defended. However, planes from our squadron… Now, at one time a squadron consisted of 24 Lancasters, in peacetime I understand it’s only 12. But a squadron was, a wartime squadron consisted of 24 aircraft. All our aircraft from that particular mission returned safely. However, during briefing, because you’re briefed before every mission, the weatherman spoke of some atrocious weather that we would experience upon our return. But he said that, now he used a different word but that is what he meant. Told us at briefing that we would just beat this atrocious weather, meaning that we would land before it really affected our landing. That didn’t happen because on our return, the whole area was under heavy fog, deep clouds, drizzle. Wartime bases were not lit up. Runway lights were hooded, so that a pilot could see it on his approach at a certain angle when he lands.
Now, upon return, we couldn’t even identify our landing base. It was under heavy cloud. And also, you’re only given 15 minute fuel safety margin. Meaning, you have about 15 minutes of fuel when you return. That fuel was rapidly decreasing, the control tower’s stacked us up 500 feet above each other. We circled... Finally, the flight engineer told the pilot our fuel gauges are reading empty, so pilot had to make a decision as to what to do next. They even laid a searchlight along the runway for us to aid us in landing. That didn’t help much because all it gave us was a glow. The pilot made the decision to try a landing and I think I recall to this day that he said, “Hang on chaps, this is liable to be a controlled crash.” However, it wasn’t. He set that Lancaster down and we came to a screeching halt about a few feet from the end of the runway and landed safely. However, two Lancasters trying to do the same thing collided, trying to land. Two more came too low, hit some high ground and crashed. And next morning, we had 26 dead airmen. There was only two survivors. That particular bombing mission will live with me until my days are over.