I think it’s trained into you but we have to admit, we were scared witless most of the time because of the anti-aircraft fire and at night, the searchlights and one thing or another.
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The first operation was a daylight [bombing sortie] to Essen in Germany. You know, it was, as I recall, not too bad an operation, a lot of heavy anti-aircraft fire, and one thing or another, but we got a bit of shrapnel damage, but no problem. But, yeah, you just sort of learned as you went. And on these operations, just for your information, there would have been anywhere from, on the average, 300, to the most that was on one our operations, 900 aircraft. So there was a lot of aircraft all funnelled into one base to drop their bombs. So each squadron was given a time over target, like say hours. Maximum aircraft we [No. 158 Squadron, RAF] could put up was 24 and we’d get a time over target say of 10:00 am or 10:00 pm or whatever.
And we were all in theory supposed to go over at the time, which was, we did but was hugely dangerous because they [the bombers] were always running into one another. And then of course, all the other squadrons had their own time coming up behind or before and so there was a huge stream of aircraft going all the time. And we could see aircraft running into one another or having bombs dropped on them, which is rather terrifying to watch. And so, yeah, it was a fearful thing to be exposed to, for sure.
I think it’s trained into you but we have to admit, we were scared witless most of the time because of the anti-aircraft fire and at night, the searchlights and one thing or another. But one instance as I say, there was so many aircraft over the target, we were coming up within a minute of our target and my mid-upper gunner said, “there’s an aircraft right above us,” so the bomb door was open. We were within probably 30 seconds of the target. So all I could do was jink off to the port and I had to go around again. So in all the turmoil of anti-aircraft fire and other aircraft coming, this is the sort of thing you had to do and you just did it sort of automatically. And we managed to do that and get around again and drop our bombs and got safely home. But, yeah, it would shake you up for sure.
It all scared the wits out of us I suppose, if you want to put it that way. But once coming back, for some reason or other, I thought we were perhaps going to be short of fuel to get us back home and I asked the [flight] engineer to give me an estimate of our fuel that was left. And so he kept a running log of course of this and he was busily doing his calculations, all of a sudden all four engines cut out. And this is a night operation of course, pitch black dark and then cloud. And here we were, dead quiet and no engines. And so I - the way you react immediately - called to prepare to abandon the aircraft and then called the engineer [and asked] what the problem was. And of course, he immediately said, “oh, I forgot to switch fuel tanks,” because he was doing the calculations, and so he scrambled around and switched onto a full fuel tank and, miraculously, which hardly ever happens, our four engines start again, we’d lost about 10,000 feet I suppose. They all started and we all worrying and wet from fear over that and got back safely home.
We were given minimal training on what to do in cases like that, training on how to abandon the aircraft and how to escape and before we got on the squadron we were given a commando course as such, supposedly to help us in escaping and that sort of thing. But I suppose it may have helped some of the fellows for sure or I don’t know how many actually managed to escape that were shot down, but we had 342 were taken prisoners of war. But we lost 850 men killed in three short years. So yeah, our losses were heavy for sure.
Subconsciously, I think we just, it was never discussed and it was pushed to the back of your mind I think, we didn’t want to dwell on it because we thought we might be the next ones. Just come to mind once, we went on a week’s leave and when we got back, we’d lost eight aircraft while we were gone. So you don’t, but it was never talked about and we didn’t seem to dwell on it, our crew anyway sure didn’t. And I’m sure this was the same for most crews. And then we tend to kill our fears with booze-ups in the pubs and one thing and another, to hide our fears. And I think we dealt with it that way and just knew we had to carry on.
All military training is character building, for sure. And then of course, whether you want it or not, in my position [bomber pilot], had a huge amount of responsibilities dumped on me as a very young man. The crew was my responsibility plus getting from A to B and back again and so on. So yeah, I’m sure it was good in helping to form a person’s character and your outlook on life and we had an unspoken satisfaction that we had some small bit of helping to bring a change in, in the world perhaps and in history and hopefully, the public will remember this. You sometimes wonder. We did the best we could.