By the first week of November, we had completed seven trips in the space of nine days and we were
all feeling the strain. On this occasion, the target was Bochum. As soon as we had crossed the Dutch
coast at the Hague the flak started but, as we approached the target, it died away. This could mean only
one thing - enemy fighters! We were buzzed a couple of times and both the mid-upper and tail gunners
exchanged fire with the fighters. In the concerted attack that followed, the tail gunner claimed to have
destroyed a Me 110, which was later confirmed, and the mid-upper saw flashes as his tracer hit a Me 109.
All this was to no avail, and we were attacked yet again. Repeated corkscrewing was insufficient to shake
off this persistent fighter, until we went into a steep dive approaching 300 mph. It is a tribute to the design of
the Lancaster that it was able to take these manoeuvres.
It was apparent that we had been hit and the rear turret was out of action. Standing beside the pilot, I had
seen tracer passing between the cockpit and the starboard inner engine, and it seemed only a matter of time
before something vital would be hit. With both of us trying to pull the control column back as far as we could,
we managed to level out at about 2,000 feet. In view of the damage sustained, and the presumed injury of the
rear gunner, we set course for the first available airfield in England, which was Woodbridge.
My job then was to get the rear gunner out of the rear turret to the rest bay to assess his condition.
He had serious wounds, having lost one eye and suffered splinter wounds to his head, chest and left arm,
but he was still conscious. I applied what first aid was available, and then the wireless operator took over while
I returned to my usual position for landing. The pilot remarked that the tail was difficult to set down, until our
speed dropped lower than usual for landing. A waiting ambulance rushed the gunner to hospital; my inspection
of the aircraft revealed that the starboard elevator together with the rudder and fin had been almost completely shot away.
We spent a cold and miserable night at Woodbridge in consequence. Subsequently, the Lancaster was repaired and
returned to the squadron, eventually surviving the war. The rear gunner spent several months in hospital but came
back to visit us prior to his discharge and return to Canada. His visit was just a few days before our last operation,
which was to Dortmund on the 20th February 1945.
Just after finishing my “windowing” stint and returning to my usual position beside the pilot, we saw upward firing tracers ahead and almost immediately a Lancaster caught fire and went into a steep dive. Minutes later we fell victim, also to upward firing cannons. There was no mistaking the impact of the shells, and the mid fuel tank burst into flames between the starboard engines. The skipper gave the order to abandon the aircraft. The navigator pushed past me to join the bomb aimer at the escape hatch, but instead of throwing it forward into the nose, it was dropped into the hole and jammed. At this moment, the rear gunner called to say his turret doors had iced up, making his escape impossible; I volunteered to go back to free the doors. The mid-upper gunner and the wireless operator had already left by the entrance door and after I had climbed over the tailplane spar, I found the turret on the beam. Hammering on its side got no response.
The skipper was holding the aircraft in a shallow turn to port and had made no move to vacate his seat. The forward escape hatch was now clear and I presumed that both the navigator and bomb aimer had baled out. I signalled that I was also going out but I remember nothing more until I came to, free falling with pieces of aircraft dropping past me. There was precious little time to pull the ripcord. The parachute opened and almost immediately I saw below me a forest of pine trees into which I crashed, reaching the earth with scarcely a bump. Everything was quiet then, but my hearing did not recover until several days later.
I had lost my escape kit during my descent and with no stars visible, could not start walking in the right direction. Not surprisingly, I was picked up by the authorities a few hours later. The rest of the night was spent in the village police station before I was collected to become a prisoner of war.
Some days later, I was reunited with 3 other crew members, the two gunners and the bomb aimer. The rear gunner had been very lucky as the flames had apparently thawed his iced up turret doors, and though he had been trapped by a foot, he finally rolled over and fell clear, leaving a boot behind. Weeks later, at Stalag XIIID, we met up with the wireless operator who had evaded capture for 4 days before being caught trying to cross the Rhine.
I was fairly sure that our skipper had been killed when the aircraft exploded as we still had our bomb load on board, but of the navigator there was no news: years after the war I learned that he had been killed but how, I did not discover.
Few words can express my feelings towards our skipper, F/O L A Blaney, RCAF. With his quiet authority and friendliness he commanded a crew with a tremendously strong bond of comradeship and, as a Captain, he gave away his own chance of survival so that his crew should have theirs.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS
My first posting as a newly qualified Flight Engineer was to a Heavy Conversion unit at Dishforth, Yorkshire in June 1944. It is ironic that although we were soon expected to fly operational missions, almost all experience up to that date had been acquired on the ground. A few weeks of flying whenever possible as a second engineer gave me the necessary experience to join an otherwise all Canadian crew and ultimately we were bound for 419 RCAF Squadron to fly Canadian built Lancaster Xs. First, however, given the convoluted wisdom of the day, we had to learn to fly the rather ageing Halifax IIs and Vs. Our skipper was a very experienced pilot and our daylight circuits and bumps and cross countries presented no real problems. Unfortunately, this was not the case with our first night flight; we were accompanied by a screened pilot and we completed four or five successful circuits and bumps, at which point he got out and instructed us to do a couple more before signing off. The next one was fine, and we all felt that one more should wrap it up. Take off was as successful as all the previous ones, but as we were coming in to land I went to open the radiator flaps to regulate a rather high engine temperature. When I moved the finger like levers to operate the flaps there was no pressure whatsoever. I immediately checked to see whether the undercarriage could be lowered, only to find that one leg was halfway down and the other was still in the nacelle. Panic reigned supreme for a moment, but then I remembered there should be an emergency system for such eventualities. I was right, there was, but the spanner to open the valve to allow air into the system so that gravity could take over was missing.
All sorts of manoeuvres such as climbing and then suddenly diving and generally shaking the aircraft to get the undercarriage down were employed, but to no avail. Control had to be notified of our plight and their best suggestion was that there was a header tank at the rear of the fuselage together with a hand pump which, if the fluid reservoirs were full, might actually get the job done. The only fluid reservoir on board was the Elsan can, and even then, on a short flight, there was no guarantee that the contents would be up to the job, so all those who felt able were requested to make a particularly unusual contribution to the war effort. The resulting fluid, although not that which the manufacturers normally recommended, was tipped into the header tank. The smell was awful and that, coupled with our rather shaky progress, made for one rather green engineer. The plan worked though, and after a short time on the hand pump we were relieved to see the lights indicating that the undercarriage was down and locked into place. We landed without further mishap, but made an effort to keep out of the ground crew's way for the next few days.