And so out of the dark, I just spotted another aircraft just crossing our, we were just on a collision course at right angles. And I just had time, I threw the stick as hard forward as I could and we just went under and when he went over top of us just like that, missed by about 10 feet.
Ernest Baird flew a full tour as a pilot of a Lancaster bomber with 12 Squadron, Royal Air Force. He flew numerous sorties over Germany, including Dresden. He also flew a mining mission over through a Norwegian fjord. Ernest Baird was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “proving himself an outstanding captain and provided a shining example of calm courage and determination.”
Transcript / ShowHide
[While flying Vickers Wellington aircraft as part of his conversion training to Avro Lancaster aircraft] Well, we were on that conversion on Lancasters [main heavy bomber used by the RAF], we were on what was called a satellite station from the main station and the main station was [RAF] Lindholme [near Doncaster, England] and we were posted to the satellite station called [RAF] Sandtoft [England]. And while we were flying, we saw some other planes crashed on taking off at the main station. And it turned out later that that one plane that crashed, it turned out that this crew, one crew that had crashed and the plane burned up and they turned out to be my crew. My friend, Jack East, who was from Keremeos [British Columbia], and his crew were all killed, except the rear gunner.
From there on, about two days later, as a pilot, I was sent on what was called a second dicky trip. They sent the pilot on, there was another crew there that had experience and so I went on a trip with their crew and my crew stayed home. And that was my first trip to over Germany, a place called Freiburg in southern Germany. And then the weather was bad for a long time, it was almost three weeks I guess before we got on an actual operation of our own. And we went to, I think the first one was Ludwigshafen. And I can’t remember where that was in Germany, somewhere in Germany.
Anyway, from there on, we did all our regular trips, usual trips, long trips. I have since worked out that our trips varied. The longest trip I did was just under 10 hours. But the average was about just under seven hours, the average length of trip. And we flew without a second pilot or anything, we flew one pilot. But this particular mining trip [dropping mines along the coastline] was to Oslo [Norway] and you had to fly up this fjord and we weren’t too high but it was a really narrow fjord. And I spoke to him [another interviewer] about that, how when you were dropping these mines in the water, which was to stop the enemy shipping from traveling, and the Germans had a lot of troops stationed in Norway. And the intelligence had word that they were going to be moving a bunch of these down to the front, back into Germany because the front was, D-Day had already happened and so our soldiers were advancing towards Germany. And so we were try to slow these troops from coming out, and that’s why the purpose of the mines.
And our orders were, when we dropped our mines, you had to stay on a steady course for another 30 seconds. And in order to get another picture, because we had cameras to show exactly where it was, and these pictures would go to the navy intelligence [Royal Navy] and they could plot where those mines were, what would have landed and they would know where they were. And so we were supposed to stay nice and steady until we could get that last picture. Well, we were going along and suddenly, they started shooting anti-aircraft [guns] at us and we could see it in front of us. And we were flying right straight towards it and they had us charted, where they were going to putting these up.
And it [anti-aircraft shells or flak] works like a little sparklers you use at Christmastime or Halloween, you see these little sparklers, that’s when the aircraft shells come up and they’re predetermined height, they explode automatically and make a little flash of light and, and the shrapnel that would fly out from those would sometimes be red hot, you’d see this.
Anyway, we were sort of clenching our fists, flying into this and most of the crew didn’t see all of it but I could, and my flight engineer. But we flew right into where this flak [anti-aircraft shells] was all coming up, doing what we were told to do. And halfway through this, we got a sudden bang, just sounded like we, and it shuddered the whole aircraft and I said, “Well, let’s get out of here,” we didn’t stay steady anymore and we did an evasive movement which got us away from the flak.
And we did a check, everything was okay and it wasn’t until we landed back at base afterwards, we found out, we didn’t find anything out the first night when we got in in the dark, couldn’t see anything, it wasn’t until the next morning, we went out and found out that the ground crew had taken the whole wingtip off of our plane. They had found that a shell had gone right through the wing without exploding. And a nice round hole in the bottom with the 88mm shell and a big two foot diameter hole in the top, came out the top. It took a hole right out. But it didn’t affect our flying, fortunately, but it was one of those close things, where I always said, I was at the right place at the right time. Because had it been about three feet further in, it would have hit the outer gas tank and we probably would have had an explosion from that because that was high octane gasoline in that tank. Anyway, we survived that one. That was a close one.
Another close one was, well of course, over the target, always there was this anti-aircraft fire that was coming up and you just had to fly in and ignore it and keep throwing out the Window [a radar counter-measure, aircraft would spread a cloud of small, thin pieces of aluminum, metallized glass fiber or plastic, which shows up as multiple targets on a radar screen]. It was called Window, that chaff stuff. And we never, we had a couple times with little bits of shrapnel come from the anti-aircraft fire but nothing big. And leaving the target one time, this was over Germany, we had to usually make a right hand or left hand turn, whichever we were supposed to do, it was a few minutes away from the target. And we’d made our turn and another aircraft probably hadn’t made his turn yet. And so out of the dark, I just spotted another aircraft just crossing our, we were just on a collision course at right angles. And I just had time, I threw the stick as hard forward as I could and we just went under and when he went over top of us just like that, missed by about 10 feet. And that was the closest we ever came to what we called oblivion. Because you know, a crash like that, you were gone.
I want to tell you about the longest trip that I made, that we made and it happened to be this infamous trip to Dresden [Germany, the Allied bombing of the city between 13 and 15 February 1945 remains a contentious issue due to the level of destruction and number of civilian casualties]. And it was, as far as we were concerned, not a particularly outstanding trip except that we’d been advised that there’d be a lot of German troops who were at that time retreating from the Russians and they would be in Dresden. And the other thing that we were told about Dresden was that they manufactured a lot of porcelain and they were used as insulators [material that does not respond to an electric field and resists the flow of electric charge] and things like that. And that was one of the other targets. The target was generally, I don’t think, I can’t recall exactly where the specific target was but we bombed and we dropped incendiaries [bombs designed to start fires] as well and we didn’t really, there was very little resistance from the enemy at that point. And we came out and on the way back home, we could see the fires, must have been 80 miles away on the way back home. And it was a lot of conflicting information about it but they kind of blamed Bomber Harris [Sir Arthur Travers Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command, implemented British government’s policy of area bombing German cities]. Of course, Churchill said, “Well, we didn’t mean it quite that way,” when Bomber Harris had been told to bomb some of these places and Churchill sort of cleaned his skin by saying, “Well, I didn’t really mean it that way, not quite so bad.” And it was a dreadful trip in a way in the number of civilians that lost their lives at that time. Some of the estimates were from 30 to 40,000 people lost their lives [the current accepted estimate is 25 000]. I don’t know how many German troops were lost in it. And the length of that trip, when we landed, was nine hours and 55 minutes and that’s a long time to sit in one seat.
[Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross] Having done, you’ll see, anything, the citation reads that it had done numerous flights over enemy territory and in the course of which displayed the utmost courage and devotion to duty. That was about all.