207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
ONE OF OUR AIRMEN IS NO LONGER MISSING
by Sgt FR Haslam
Chapter 6 - SHOT DOWN
On the 20th June 1944, after five days of being grounded because of inclement weather, we had some great news. We were to go on a daylight raid.
Eric Raffill of 57 Sqn recalls that apparently there was to be some sort of obliteration raid on BERLIN with huge numbers of bombers and fighters; in the event the Americans went but not the RAF (conversation with FWH 2.12.91)
All personnel were confined to camp and each crew member had to do his Daily Inspection on his aircraft. The powers that be told us to get to bed as early as possible, as we would be called in the early hours of the 21st. I got down at about eleven o'clock and just put a couple of blankets over me, as I expected undressing wouldn't be worth it, for about three hours. I fell into a deep sleep and awoke at the usual time next morning - ops had been cancelled so no one was sent to call us.
Everyone was disappointed, as daylight raids were to be rather a novelty for us, a new experience. The weather cleared and we were informed that operations would be on that night. Everybody felt a bit seedy after six days of expectancy.
LOG BOOK ENTRY
21.6.44 - 23.30 - LANCASTER M' - P/O SOLLY - W/OP - OPS: - WESSELING - A/C FAILED TO RETURN
Dad's log book is signed by Squadron Leader Pattinson OC A Flight No.207 Sqdn. and by Wing Commander JF Grey OC 207 Sqdn. On his return to England Dad added the comment (ABLE TO SEE THIS AFTER A HAPPY EVASION - WITH AMUSED FEELINGS). The ORB entry is shown overleaf.
Our aircraft was to be 'M'-MIKE; we'd already done four trips in her [two ops; SAUMUR on 1st June, CAEN on 12th June; the abortive trip to ETAMPES on 9th June and an NFT on 11th June].
Norman Turton, Navigator in Brady's crew, who also went on WESSELING, remembers:
This was my fourth op so the crew were relatively new boys. We used to get an announcement over the Tannoy system "The Hockey match is on" but we already knew that ops were on that night through the usual channels.
We were off to the Mess at least three hours before scheduled take off time for the usual bacon, eggs, chips etc. our popular flying meal. Then Navigators reported to the Ops Room where we were given the briefing by the Navigation Leader - all the maps we would require, details of the letters of the day, time of take off, time over the target. In our bag we would have already our French or German money etc. with survival equipment.
The Navigation Leader would give us the route to the target, flak areas to try and avoid etc. The Met Officer gave us the weather, wind details, cloud expected.
We then worked out a flight plan using the estimated winds. These were mostly slightly in error as there was no way to have accurate information unless an a/c had been in the area on reconnaissance. Actually, it was a help, as you could use an error factor in an emergency.
Usually, after about an hour, the rest of the crew would join us and we all received the general briefing from the experts - wireless information, bomb details, fighter activity etc. Finally the CO would wish us luck and then we were away. At the time you always felt excited when you knew what the target was. (letter to FWH 13.11.91).
The crew went out in full strength and by tea-time the aircraft was fit for anything. We knew that everything inside was serviceable and from the outside the perspex had been rubbed so clean that the Gunners almost had housemaids elbow.
Back we went to the Mess for tea and then up to the billet to prepare for the trip, emptying our pockets of letters, old bus tickets and anything which would give any information to the Hun. I was a little pushed for time - not enough to polish my flying boots. Eddie and Arthur gave them a bit of a rub up for me, one boot each. This showed how these small superstitions grew on one.
Arthur Sale, Wireless Operator in P/O Norman Owen's crew NDS55 EM- D also recalls superstitions:
Many members were this way inclined. Lester Levy (Owen's Nav) made friends with a few navigators and whilst waiting for a lorry or coach to take us out to our plane, Lester said to one of them 'Have a nice trip.' They did not return. On our next trip he again wished another navigator to 'Have a nice trip'. That crew did not return either, so Lester was troubled for he thought he gave the two crews bad luck. He then seemed to separate himself from any type of friendship with navigators.
As you well know, superstition was prevalent in many forms, such as carrying personal items etc. Whilst I was not that way inclined, nevertheless I always made sure that I was the last to get into the aircraft. This caused a great deal of laughter between us, especially when Lester went aboard and immediately Norman said 'Let's go'.
Unknown to me, Lester went out again through the forward hatch and when everyone was in position (or so I thought) Lester came in through the rear entrance. We all had a good laugh, but I had the last laugh for I jumped out of the rear exit - it was a long way down for the ground crew had stored the ladder aboard. They had a job pushing me back in. We were a happy but quiet crew. (letter to FWH 17.11.91)
On this occasion my cycle was u/s - I started out to cycle down but my chain broke in the first few yards. A bad omen, but I thought nothing of it at that time. I walked down to the Mess to wait for the transport which was always laid on.
Several crews were stood down that evening and the majority of the bods were hanging around, having final chats with their pals before they parted. A Gunner pal of mine with whom I often cracked a joke (Dave Schwab, a member of 207 Squadron RAF Association, who was a member of Roy Millichap's crew) had had a little altercation with me during the flying supper. He waved us off at the door and said jokingly "I hope you bloody well cop it tonight". I lunged a playful right fist towards him and he made a hasty retreat into the Mess. [I cannot confirm or deny this - I would not argue the point. (Dave Schwab to FWH 1.7.91)]
The truck pulled up and there was the usual scramble to get in. Each crew member would look around to assure himself that the other members were present. Johnny always used to cycle down, so I was alone. It wasn't far down to the small cluster of Nissen huts which formed the briefing room. Two separate lots formed, half Navigators and half Wireless Operators and we went our different ways.
Each Wireless Operator drew his own separate set of flimsies. These included:
1. Call signs and stations
2. Secret Bomber code
3. Two books of coded operating signals
4. Special sheets for Night Bombing signals
5. Sheets of log paper
6. Cartridges for the Very Pistol
All these were obtained in the Signal Leaders Office and we had to sign for them. We gathered in our own Briefing Room to await the arrival of the Signals Leader and Signals Officer, who also had to go to the Leaders briefing.
Each respective Leader would receive his instructions from the Squadron Commander, who in turn had received his instructions from either the Base or Group CO. Usually, in the period between our own arrival and that of the Signals Leader, each Operator busied himself in ruling up his Log and putting a few details in.
The Signals Leader arrived, (John Mitchell) we all stood, he put us at ease and for the next half hour or so we were all ears. First of all he gave us our target - tonight it was WESSELING, a small industrial township standing on the River (Rhine) just South of Cologne. We all knew we were in for a tough time -as we were RUHR bound. Optimism on his part was very high; the target had been attacked before and was very sparsely defended by a few Light Ack-Ack guns. The target was to be radio controlled and both R/T and W/T instructions were to be passed for the bombing.
207 was to be in the second wave [see also the navigation plot done by George Chesworth in LL902 EM-I (pilot Eric Oakes) at Appendix 8] Main Briefing came next. The Skipper, Bombardier, Gunners and Engineer were already seated around our own table. Johnny and I arrived almost simultaneously. Each crew nattered among themselves for about fifteen minutes and then the WINCO got up and asked a few questions of us all. Then he gave us our respective bombing heights. (This was one of our sore points. On every one of our operations we had always been one of the two lowest aircraft. We all used to get on to Solly to have a 'bitch' to the powers that mattered, but he used to say "What's a couple of thousand feet?")
Tonight was no different; 17,400ft - the lowest.
Briefing over we all returned to the Mess for our Ops Supper - as always it was eggs and bacon and as usual we enjoyed it tremendously. Afterwards we spent half an hour or so in the ante-room, someone got on the piano and knocked some of the popular tunes out of it. One chap in particular always played, it was a sort of good luck charm for him. He played by ear and he was a really good player.
The lads who were not 'on' that night were by this time hitting the high spots down in Skegness or Boston. The buses began to roll up to take everyone down to the locker rooms where kit, helmets, parachutes, harness, and Mae Wests were donned. There was half an hour to take-off time.
On arrival there I found all W/OPs had to see the Signals Leader for some more gen. I drew my kit - my parachute was in for re-packing so I had to take a spare one. The rest of the crew went out to the aircraft. I stayed behind to await the Signals Leader. He took quite a time before he appeared and most of us had become restless.
Dad's handwritten account, dating from the 1940s ends here. He took up the story again in an account written in 1981, some of which I have used to supplement the handwritten account.
We were one of thirteen [actually 21] aircraft from 207 Squadron, detailed with other 5 Group aircraft for the raid on Wesseling. I recollect from the briefing that another force was going out to bomb Gelsenkirchen and that we were to go in one stream and then separate over Holland. Unfortunately the H2S navigational radar set, which also provided early warning of enemy fighters, had gone u/s. I had been down into the fuselage three or four times to change fuses and to try and get it working once more. Because of these absences I had not been connected to the intercom and so had not been fully aware of events. It was the Wireless Operator's lot on all operations to listen out for Group Broadcasts etc. and therefore to be somewhat isolated from events.
As a crew we completed ten operations and according to the photographs which we brought back, always obtained Aiming Points on the targets. All in all we considered ourselves set for a successful tour. The Germans had other ideas.
The first intimation I had that something was happening was that the aircraft kept banking from time to time, first to one side, then to the other. When I listened in, it appeared that one of the Gunners thought he had seen something underneath.
Shortly after this there were a couple of muffled thuds, which could have been flak exploding, but I was made aware that something was wrong when the Navigator put his head round and tapped his headphones. At that point I switched back into the system.
Engineer (Arthur Barton): "The Port wing is on fire. Both bloody engines too"
Pilot (Mike Solly, calmly and evenly): "Feather both engines and use the extinguishers"
After a few moments, Arthur again: "Port inner feathered. Extinguishers pressed. Good. The b----- s worked."
A further pause, and then Arthur again: "Port outer feathered. Extinguishers pressed .... It's still burning like a house on fire!"
Mike's voice remained steady and calm: "Hello crew. Bale out. Bale out. Good Luck"
Acknowledgements came in the correct order. As soon as mine had been given, I picked up my chute from its stowage and clipped it on to my harness. Momentarily I saw the white startled face of Johnny Shaw our Navigator as he fixed his own chute and started to move towards the front of the Lancaster.
My exit was from the rear door and because of practice in training I knew how to reach it blindfold. This time was different, the plane was not in its usual stationary attitude on the ground and I stumbled. Again, in practice, the door had always been open, ready. This time of course it was shut and I realised that I had no torch and had never previously had cause to use the fuselage lights in this part of the aircraft. I felt around for the door catch - "Oh God" - fumbling, feverish, excited hands having no success.
Suddenly there was light and Jackie, the Mid Upper Gunner, stood pointing at the door and signalled to me to get out. I noticed that Peter, the Rear Gunner, was climbing out of his turret. I opened the rear door and went out.
Evidently I did not dive steeply enough because I had a glancing collision with the leading edge of the tailplane and then I was falling. My hand had not left the ripcord and now I pulled it. I was again surprised, this time by the pilot chute hitting me in the face, but I was quickly conscious that I was being slowed down in my descent. There was a noticeable tug at my crotch and the billowing of the chute canopy above slowed events down from the hectic, anxious minutes that had just passed.
Our operational height had been much lower than on recent operations - 17,400ft. The sky looked very big, grey, black, vast. Though there was no moon I could see clouds, 10/l0ths cover, far below me. I had caught a glimpse of the aircraft flying with a glow on the Port side but still in what appeared to be a normal flying attitude.
Thoughts passed through my mind that maybe the fire would go out and maybe Mike and whoever had not already left the plane might get it back home. Home! What were Mum and Dad going to say and do when they heard that I was shot down? What would our colleagues say back at Spilsby when we were posted Missing? What was I dropping into now, and where?
Dad, when writing this account in 1981, made the following point: - "Writing this account in 1981 makes me doubt the credence and accuracy that I personally would support if judging others. I am of the opinion that I probably have a more vivid recollection at this time than I had shortly after my return to England, when I first thought of setting my account down on paper."
"It would appear from present knowledge that the shots that ended us came from one of the German fighters with fixed upward firing guns', that surreptitiously flew under their prey and then let fly with their cannon. That is what our Gunners had seen but not been able to identify."
Where was this place that was shortly to be blessed with my presence? I knew that we had separated from the Main Stream and that in turning South Eastwards we could have crossed into Belgium. If we had then re-crossed into the Southern part of Holland, we could possibly have reached the then German border.
The cloud below was not very thick because I could see the glow from what were obviously burning aircraft. I heard a twin engined plane approaching and suddenly the sky was filled with light as he dropped a flare. It seemed so close that I feared that I might drift into it and burn my parachute. In fact it was a long way off and soon burnt itself out.
Other thoughts were for my fellow crew members. Why weren't their parachutes in sight? Jackie and Peter must have come out immediately behind me. Why had the H2S gone u/s?
I was nearing the cloud now and expected to have a little time once I had gone through it, to see what I was dropping into. Would it be wooded country? A built up area? Water? I could see myself in all sorts of funny situations - hanging from a lofty tree, clinging to a chimney for dear life, swimming in a fast flowing river trying to get rid of the chute.
I was now passing through the cloud and the dampness of it chilled me after the clear upper air. The cloud must have been quite thick for it seemed to take ages to get through it. Suddenly I saw the ground below - much too near - a patch of forest, a road, a railway and a couple of houses and then bump. Every bone in my body jarred, all the wind was knocked out of me.
I had arrived.
© FR & FW Haslam 1991, 1992, 2013 - please contact the editor if you wish to reproduce any of the above.