"During the period before I arrived on the squadron and afterwards, our honour list shows 359 names. These were boys that were killed; and I say boys because many of them were 19 and 20, and 21."
On the crew, we had three wireless air gunners; and that meant that you had a fellow sitting on the radio machine and then you had a guy sitting on the radar, and a guy in the turret. And every hour, the fellow in the turret would leave and go up, and go on the radio. The radio would go to the radar, so someone was always on the lookout. And believe it or not, the tail turret on this aircraft, there’s where the gunner was sitting out there and there was no perspex [also known as plexiglass] on a lot of them at all. It was open because they would fog up and with your four guns in the back here and your sight, if somebody attacked you, you don’t know what you’re shooting at. You’d know what you were shooting at, but you wouldn’t be able to get your guns aimed properly. So they took all the perspex out and the guns were all bare. You were sitting out in the elements.
It was a bit scary sometimes when you were out there because you’d fly through lightning storms and whatnot, and lightning would be dancing everywhere. The guy up here would have the shortwave radar out and there were these big beads, about an inch in diameter, and they would be the weights; and they were supposed to keep the aerial hanging down, but the speed of the aircraft offset the balance and so they trailed out here. You’d look out of the turret and you’d see it, it would be a row of beads out behind you. If it was an electric storm, they’d be right full of electricity. If it was icy, they’d get as big as baseballs. The ice would form up on them.
A little trick that we used to do, and maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but you weren’t allowed to smoke in those aircraft. Some of the boys smoked, and they’d get on the intercom, even the pilot, and the copilot would take over. He’d say, I’m coming back for a puff and the guy would leave the turret, and let him in; and he’d get out and find a place to sit maybe up by one of the operators. He’d go in and light up a cigarette and have a few puffs ;and then he’d get on the intercom and said, I’m leaving the tail turret, anybody else want to go out for a puff? [laughs] That’s the way we did it. [laughs]
My first tour was anti-shipping with [No.] 407 [(Demon)] Squadron [Royal Canadian Air Force] and this is where we had the highest percentage of casualties. During the period before I arrived on the squadron and afterwards, our honour list shows 359 names. These were boys that were killed; and I say boys because many of them were 19 and 20, and 21.
I often think of the boys you would be playing bridge with one night and having a beer, and they were gone the next day. The funerals for these boys, they were kept very low tone because it would nerve everybody up; and they usually had their funeral from a special little hangar they had there. The padre was there and the officers, OCs [officers commanding], and what have you.
We had one run-in with a machine gun nest on Alderney Island, that’s in the English Channel [one of the Channel Islands]. We honed in there at about 1,000 feet and they opened up there. They had several machine guns or 88 mm small [German anti-aircraft] cannon on a platform up on the top of the lighthouse tower. They waited until we got within I would say 200 or 300 yards. They opened up on us and because of the geodetic [spiraling basket weave] construction of the [Vickers] Wellington [long-range medium bomber], I think that practically saved our lives because they were made from aluminum diamond-type things and the cover on the outside was canvas, wasn’t very much metal. A lot of the shells would just pop through it and out through the other end, and didn’t explode. There was one exploded on our captain’s seat that he was sitting on. It came up through the bulkhead and exploded and filled his legs and his butt full of shrapnel that broke off and we had to get the copilot in, took over flying the plane. We got him in the walkway and see what we could do for him. And he was still conscious and he had a large splinter of wood sticking up below his eye. It went out there about a foot and it was quite a bit larger than a pencil. We got a jackknife and cut it off closer to his face, so he wouldn’t bump it and whatnot. But he lost his nerve and he had one trip after that, and he couldn’t fly anymore. We had to get a new pilot.
We lost a lot of the crews because next to the Bay of Biscay, at a place called Brest, in France, the Germans had an operational training unit and they had twin motor or twin engine bombers, or fighters, they were really, Ju 88s [Junkers 88: German multi-role aircraft], and we had to watch them. They got several of our planes flying at low level; and they would come in cloud cover and scoot down on them, and they didn’t have a chance. So that’s the reason our casualties were so high. Of course, with the shipping strikes, we were flying on [Lockheed] Hudson [light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft] bombers; and the Hudson bombers would attack, two and three at a time, would go in on one ship. They sank a lot of tonnage, ammunition and food, and everything else, as they [the Germans] were moving their troops and their forces to Norway. So we got quite a lot of them, but they got quite a lot of our planes too.