A painting of a Stirling Bomber commemorating Howard O'Connor's squadron.Howard O'Connor
"“Starboard outer’s gone.” In the meantime, turning it around, the front gunner, I saw one coming head on right at us, head on, and the front gunner hollered, “I’m hit,”"
The [Short] Stirling was designed something like the Sharpe Brothers flying boat. Originally, about 112 foot wingspan, it was 87 feet long, much bigger than the [Handley Page] Halifax here. They found out that they couldn’t get them in the hangars, so they cut off the wingtips until we could get the thing in the hangar, which we ruined as far as I’m concerned, a good airplane. Because that meant we couldn’t get over 15 000 feet height.
Now, it was a good maneuverable airplane with a very high wing loading with that clipped wing. Couldn’t get the height, so the fighters came up in the stream, the Halifaxes would be up above us and above them be the [Avro] Lancasters, so they come up in the stream, we had the highest losses of any group.
The losses were so bad in No. 3 Group that our, at our briefing, we were to fly low level, cross the coast and then drop down, low level over Belgium, Luxembourg and lower Germany. And then as we got down to the lower part of Germany, swing over and climb until we hit the Rhine [River]. And then on the Rhine, we were to turn north and came up on our target. Our target actually was across the river from Mannheim, it was at Ludwigshafen, it was a poison gas works.
The really nice part of it was, usually in a raid like that, there’s all sorts of ack-ack [anti-air fire] and lights and everything going on, planes being shot down and so on. It was completely nothing. We were coming up, nothing, I couldn’t understand this and I don’t know how many hundred planes were involved in this, but no target area, nothing, no bombs dropped, no ack-ack. Except about half a minute before, we had the bomb doors open and the navigator was counting off the seconds, there dropped our chandelier right in front of us. So we were right on target, dropped it off and I let her go. Closed the bomb doors and opened her up and got out of there.
So we were supposed to go probably about ten minutes and then drop back down again and come home. So we just crossed on the north part of Mannheim and three [Messerschmitt Bf] 109s were waiting for me. So the rear gunner called out, “A fighter. Corkscrew port. Go.” Well, that means turn the aircraft right over on its side and start doing corkscrew actions to keep, so they can’t keep their sights on us.
But the first cannon shell right between his legs and cut off the hydraulics. And the four guns went down, never fired a shot. The other one hit the, his parachute over his head and knocked it back up in the fuselage. So the four guns were gone, very first. So I got two mid uppers and two front. So right into the turning of the cone [slang for searchlight] and the first of the corkscrew, another one right just from underneath, as I was laying on the side and took off my armrest and went into my instrument panel. I was diving and wrenching there, playing around as best as I could. Engineer called up, “Starboard outer’s gone.” In the meantime, turning it around, the front gunner, I saw one coming head on right at us, head on, and the front gunner hollered, “I’m hit,” and his one gun stopped firing. The bullets had gone in, taken one belt off of his gun and hit him in the, at the back here. So I just said, “Don, keep firing.”
We continued through, we knew we were getting, they had cannon shells and so on. Another one came in on us and come over and my mid upper gun swung on him and shot him down. Caught him on fire and he crashed. I can see that from up where I was at the front but … And then the engineer phoned in and said, “The starboard, other engine’s gone.” So there we were in combat with these airplanes and I was banking right over. You’re never supposed to turn into a dead engine. But in that, I was doing everything I could to keep from getting direct hits on it. But they all started to roll right over on her back and she started down. And just before that, a cannon shell come through and hit my armoured plating and between that and me trying to get a huge bomber out of the dive, I ripped the muscles, the upper muscles in my back. So I lost all feeling in my left leg.
So I managed to get it out just above ground. Of course, this is at, what, 2:00 in the morning, you know, a little bit of moonlight, but I just got it out, but just made it because we had to come underneath high tension cables, thetension wires, so. Then we got about I think 450 or 500 miles to get home. So you got a good crew and you got them trained well, the engineer said, “Well, it looks like all our tanks are holed, I’m going to use all the gas from the tank that’s been drained the quickest.” And so he did that, and one engine, he could start it and we could run it for about two or three minutes if we had to climb a bit, otherwise, it got too hot, it’d catch fire, the cylinder temperatures get too hot.
So we didn’t have any compass and I brought the bomb aimer up from the front to set beside me. We didn’t know how badly he was hit or anything, but he wasn’t bleeding. So anyway, we had to get our bearing somehow, so we got shots of the stars and we took one bearing and then another shot. We found out we were, instead of heading north, we were heading more west and we come out over the Atlantic rather than over the [English] Channel. So the navigator brought me around and I was just flying on the directional gyro.
And we just flew about 200 or 300 feet all across Germany and then I could see the Channel ahead. And, but I could see all these huge gunning placements and so on. But I was so low. But anyway, I just crossed over those and went down. On the Channel, there was a flagship down there and let us have it as we come down. And then where we were just about out of gas, so I didn’t know if I’d have to ditch in the Channel or whether we could make it. So I was on mayday, calling mayday and a WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] come up and she said to follow this crosses, where the two lights cross in southern England there. So I was over the Channel.
Anyway, we got down.