Reg Harrison at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, October 2012.Historica Canada
"I better keep this thing straight, it's my first trip on the Lanc. I looked up there and I see all this flame and there's a Halifax burning and, “Oh god, I better stay in between these walls of fire.”"
I know everything went fine until the thirteenth trip, and my rear gunner; it had been raining that night and we had to go back to the briefing room twice because it was raining too hard. Then on the way up the third time he wasn't saying very much and I said, “What's the matter, Kenny, don't you feel good?” “You know, Skipper,” he said, “you know what trip this is?” And I said, “Yeah, it's 13.” “Gosh,” he said, “I don't like 13.” He said, “Can we call it 12A?” “Yeah,” I said, “Kenny, if it'll make you feel better, we'll call it 12A.”
Pilots, when they’re taking off, no matter whether you're OTU [operational training unit] or whatever you are, one thing you dread is losing an engine. I got three quarters of the way down the runway and I wasn't even airborne, and bang. The starboard engine quit. And then when it quit, you've got full throttle here and then you just veer off like that. Pitch black, I'm the third aircraft off, there's about 21 aircraft from each squadron. They take turns coming in.
So I knew the aircraft were still on the perimeter track, winding their way around to take off. Couldn't see a thing and you have not much time to think. So I didn't know whether to throttle back because I had a full bomb load and I didn't know what would happen if I throttled back. Would I get stuck in the mud? So I shoved the throttles through the gate for extra power and when I did that, these two motors were full bore and the aircraft went like this.
So I knew we were going to crash. So I yelled at the crew. It's the last thing I remember, I yelled at the crew to brace themselves. The aircraft stalled and then we crashed off the aerodrome about a quarter of a mile, heading for a farm house but there was a big stone wall up about as high as this table, and we smashed into that. My bomb aimer, I didn't have time to tell him to get down. But when we hit, he went right into the instrument panel and one of the knobs went into his forehead.
The cockpit was all mangled, and I was actually thrown out and I don't remember anything about the crash because I was out on the wing and my wireless operator and the mid-upper gunner, they were still conscious. And then another thing, the crash truck and the ambulance were coming out and the ambulance got the crash truck. They were doing drainage ditches. They dropped into a drainage ditch and stopped there and the ambulance behind, it slammed into that and killed the two men in the ambulance.
So there was really nobody there then. So my wireless operator and mid-upper gunner, they found me on the wing and then they pulled me off the wing and the rest of them, they got out the back. Then the bomb load went up, blew up. But I don't remember. I remember coming to in the ambulance, the hospital was about 50 miles away, and I remember regaining consciousness and I heard this terrible screaming and I guess my bomb aimer was still alive but there was pressure on his brain. I didn't know at the time, I found out after. They really weren't prepared to do a brain operation on him but they did. But he died on the operating table.
I think some of them were so scared they couldn't hardly get into the aircraft, they'd be sick. Mind you, for pilots I don't think, maybe we were more apprehensive, but the pilots have so many things to do. Flying the aircraft, you have to know a little bit about everybody’s job so when the searchlight… The scariest part was when you saw an aircraft going down in flames or see the thing blow up, that was the scariest part. But you always figure well, it's not going to be you, you're going to come through it. You had to feel that way, otherwise, well, a lot of them were scared. They couldn't do it, they were just too afraid to go.
Plus my raids were at night and I was kind of glad because I went on probably three or four daylight raids. The first one, you probably heard about the Falaise Gap [major battle, 12 to 21 August 1944]; I was on that raid where they bombed short, killed Canadian soldiers and Poles that had moved up into this quarry. The fires were still burning. They told us if you don't know where you're dropping your bombs, bring them back. And my Hal was a good navigator, so he had the coast to the canal, from the canal to the aiming point were critical. We were probably about a minute and a half from the aim point but the master bomber got shot down that day to drop the target indicators and the deputy bomber, see, then he took over.
There were 13 bombers dropped those bombs short and I can still see that [Handley Page] Halifax sitting up there, wasn't very far from me, and I could see all the markings on the bombs, like the painted white, I could see them, I was that close to the Halifax. I said to my navigator, I said “There's a Halifax here, he's got his bomb doors open.” I said, “He's dropping his bombs.” He said, “Well, you're not there yet,” he said, “You've got a minute and a half to go.”
Then when he dropped his bombs, then some more started to drop them. So there were 13 all told that had dropped their bombs. So when we got back to base, there was a message, “All pilots,” it came over the intercom through your headset, “all pilots, navigators and bomb aimers report immediately to the briefing room.” All the aircraft have cameras on, so as soon as the bomb aimer presses the switch to release the bombs, then the camera starts working. So they knew exactly the aircraft that had bombed short and they found out that most of them were inexperienced crews. They should never have sent them on a raid like that. They had the Germans hemmed in. Their only escape route was to the south and it was a hot sultry day and I can remember they were even using horses then, they were so short of petrol. There were horses in the ditch, there were tanks burning and lorries burning and there was just chaos. But we didn't know what had happened down below till we got back.
Then another time we went on a daylight raid to bomb a German night fighter aerodrome midway between Rotterdam and Amsterdam [Holland] and it was a real sunny day and I forgot my sunglasses and the sun was beaming in and we flew right over Hull [Yorkshire, England] where my aunt and uncle were, I remember that. That was the route they took us and I thought, “Oh, I wonder if my aunt’s out looking to see these bombers.”
We flew over there and then of course in the daytime, when the anti-aircraft were shooting, when the shell explodes, you could see all the black puffs. Like at night if the shell was close, the aircraft would kind of bounce like that so you knew that it was close.
Another thing that was scary, if you ever got coned with searchlights. They had what they called a master searchlight. If a searchlight, not the master searchlight but another searchlight, happened to cone an aircraft, then the master searchlight would zero in on that aircraft and you'd be just blinded, it was so strong. And then of course, if there was a night fighter around, then of course you were a dead duck.
But the only way you could get out of that was to stick, even if you had a full load of bombs, you had to stick the nose down and just dive down with the thing and then pull up quick and go on your way. But we got coned once and it was a scary experience.
First trip out, and then we converted to [Avro] Lancasters, Canadian Lancs. The very first trip I did on a Canadian Lanc, we got diverted. Landed at Tottenham [England] on FIDO [Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation]. Ever heard of FIDO? It was foggy, they had these two pipes with holes in them and they forced high-octane petrol through there, set fire to it and the heat disperses the fog up to 600 feet. Well, when we went the advance flying course for six weeks, it was all beam approach training. You had to use your Morse code. We took Morse code in Canada. I’ve often wondered why a pilot needs Morse code. Well, to get in line with the beam, you had to know your Morse code. On the Halifax, the controls were up there and when I looked up there and I can't find them and I'm in the circuit and they're calling my number. I look around and holy gosh, I can't find the runway and then I looked up and there I find that. Then I couldn't remember which was left and which was right because it had been a year and a half since I had used it.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I finally figured out what it was that came in. Got on the beam, then you get a steady beep. Came in and I was 700 feet, and holy smokes. Then you break through the fog and there's two big walls of fire. So I better keep this thing straight, it's my first trip on the Lanc. I looked up there and I see all this flame and there's a Halifax burning and, “Oh god, I better stay in between these walls of fire.” Anyway, to make a long story short, I got the thing down.
We had breakfast, flew back to Croft[-on-Tees, Yorkshire, England]. Two days later, then we went on another trip to Duisburg in the Ruhr [industrial region of Germany]. To start with, we got a new mid-upper gunner. I didn't know the crew very well. I'd just been on a cross-country, and he said “Skipper,” he said, “there's a Halifax shooting at us. What'll I do?” “Well,” I said, “it can't be.” “Yes,” he says, “it's a Halifax, I can see it.” I said, “Well, shoot back at him.”
Anyway, about that time the firing stopped. We found out later it was a crew from Skip on their very first trip and they thought they were shooting at an unidentified four-engine German night fighter. This was on a bombing run. And then of course, one engine was on fire, they'd set an engine on fire. We found all this out later because they had recorded this. My navigator recorded the time of the attack and then they coincided.
Anyway, I kept it straight and level, the engineer got the fire out, dropped the bombs and went to close the bomb doors. Only got them closed part-way so I flew home with them like that but we didn't know at the time, but when the Halifax… Oh, and we also got hit with flak [anti-aircraft fire], too. When they fired at us, the hydraulic lines are all down the port side of the aircraft. These machine gun bullets, they punctured the lines.
So I got back to base and then of course the engineer puts it [the wheels] down. I said, “Wheels down?” He said, “No wheel there, Skipper.” I said, “Okay.” So did he have an air bottle charged to draw on and why don't we use that? Couldn't get it down. Crank it down, it wouldn't come. So then I told the control tower, I said, “We've only got one wheel down. Can't land here, the runway’s too short.” “Stand by.” So I stood by and then they sent me to a crash drome on the east coast, [RAF] Carnaby, for my last landing over there. So I landed on one wheel.
Anyway, I had an Englishman then for an engineer and he said to me, “Skipper,” he says, “Christ,” he says, “we're going to have to bail out,” he says. “We don't have enough petrol to get there.” I said, “Don't worry,” I said, “we've got enough petrol two or three times.” He was scared, you know. Anyway, that was my last trip.