A Memorable Festive Season
By G.R. Waver
December 1944; Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, England; home to two RCAF heavy bomber squadrons, namely No. 426 and No. 408. Ours is No. 408 "Goose" Squadron. We flew in Halifax aircraft; each of the four engines gave a 1,650 hp output. We are members of 6 Group, which has 14 RCAF heavy bomber squadrons in Yorkshire.
Here's a wee bit of background information. On 25th August 1944, our crew was posted to No. 408 Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse, from 1659 Conversion Unit, Topcliffe, Yorkshire.
Pilot F/O R.M. Armitage J.35566 “Bob”
Navigator F/L W.G. Heughan J.13150 “Gord”, or “Brother Heughan”
Bomb Aimer F/O S.R. Lloyd J.36908 “Lloyd,” or “Roy”
Wireless Air Gunner F/S G.R. Waver Rl66339 “Gordie” or “Chorchie”
Mid-Upper Gunner Sgt H.W. Sullivan Rl15588 “Sully”
Rear Gunner Sgt K. Beresford R69482 “Ken”
Flight Engineer Sgt J. Green (RAF) 1895570 “Jack”
(Ranks shown are as of 23 December 1944)
The three commissioned officers have living accommodation on the base. The four of us NCOs are billeted in Beningbrough Hall located about two miles from the field. Beningbrough Hall was commandeered during the war by the military. The Hall is the home of Lady Chesterfield; she currently lives in an adjacent building on the property. The Countess makes periodic inspections of the Hall accompanied by a senior air force officer. We have a room on the “attic” floor. Our Sergeants Mess is located about a ¼ mile from the base. Via bicycles and trucks for transportation, we survive.
Now, let's get back to the story. On the 24th of December we have a big party planned in our Sergeants’ Mess.
On the 23rd, a battle roster is posted for tomorrow’s operation—and our crew is on it. Why would anybody want us to go on a bombing trip on Christmas Eve, especially when we have a big mess party planned? Obviously we're going to miss the groggy shindig, and end up celebrating Xmas by having people shoot at us whilst we spoil the festive season for them.
December 24th: It’s foggy out. It’s pea soup weather; why even the birds are walking. Initial briefing is at 0800 for pilots, navigators, and bomb aimers; this is followed by the general briefing with all the crew members present. Unfortunately Sully is late reporting in to the Gunnery Section prior to briefing, and, as a consequence, a spare gunner is assigned to take over the mid-upper turret duties for this operation — F/Sgt A.W. Greig is the incumbent.
Fourteen bases used by German air force single-engine fighters operating over the Ardennes battle area are to be attacked today by both the 8th USAAF and the RAF Also, the objective is to hinder the movement of supplies by transport aircraft from the Ruhr to the German forces pressing forward in this area. Lohausen Airfield (now the civil airport for Dusseldorf) is the target allotted to RCAF Six Group. The American ground forces are having a rough time at St. Vith and also at Bastogne. The “Battle of the Bulge” is in full swing!
At briefing, we are told that there should be no problem with take-off. Visibility is at least 150 yards, and to assist us there will be three 45-gallon drums of burning oil spaced out along the left side of the runway to guide us. After passing by the third drum, you have a maximum, often seconds to lift off.
Our bombload? It’s 9 x 1,000 lb, 2 x 500 lb, and 2 x 250 pounders.
After briefing, a lorry drops us off at our dispersal unit where "L-Love” is parked. A pre-flight inspection is made by all crewmembers. A trolley accumulator is wheeled into position to relieve the aircraft's internal batteries of the initial starter load. One after another, the stone cold engines cough into life; it takes 50 gallons of petrol just to warm the four of them up.
Bob gives a hand signal. Chocks away. The entrance hatch is closed and secured. Our kite slowly moves to join the others wending their way along the perimeter track to the runway for take-off. Which runway to use? Why, the longest one of course; in fog there is no wind, no crosswind to cause troubles. Taxiing these heavy bombers is not easy. The pilots have to keep them on the narrow 50-foot wide perimeter track using the brakes, rudders and carefully judged bursts of power on the outer engines. If an aircraft should wander off the concrete, it could have problems in this wintertime Yorkshire muck.
The Thunderbird types, No. 426 Squadron are also on this do. They are coming around the perimeter from their dispersals across the field. Aircraft from the two squadrons alternate turns at take-off. There is radio silence. No R/T or W/T (radio telephony & wireless telegraphy). Visual instruction is received via a control van that is located to the left of the runway. As one bomber begins its take-off run, the next one turns onto the active runway, and is held there by the controller's red Aldis lamp until the runway is clear.
Finally it's our turn; there's the "Green" signal from the control van. At the side of the runway there's a small group of station personnel to wave us, "safe trip”. Keeping the bomber on the runway requires intense concentration; if it swings off at any speed the undercarriage could collapse. Bob opens the throttles slowly at first, then fully as the aircraft accelerates. There is a slight tendency to swing to starboard but the aircraft can be kept straight initially on the throttles, and, as the speed increases, by the rudders. The tail comes up easily as speed develops.
Jack is beside Bob assisting him with take-off. I'm in the Flight Engineer's section to operate the engine cowling gill controls. As we took off, we were watching the left side of the runway and counting. It seemed like an eternity until we saw the first drum of burning oil and we shouted “ONE”, a seemingly long pause followed, and then “TWO”, and finally “THREE”. In a few seconds, we lifted off in dense fog at 1145. Our speed was 110 knots. Upon gaining altitude, bright sunshine greeted us. This December 24th operation was our 17th and it was the one and only time that we took off in fog out of 34 operations.
It was rather an uneventful flight all the way to the target, and then things got a wee bit hairy with all the heavy flak coming up. We were continually flying through these huge black balls of smoke lingering in the sky, with the accompanying acrid smell of cordite that permeated the aircraft. On our bombing run at 16,000 feet, I was standing beside Bob (pilot), when all of a sudden there was this huge red ball of fire right in front of us that instantly turned black. There was a sound like hail rattling against our aircraft. I've seen enough of this scary tomfoolery, and I stepped down into my wee cubbyhole located right below Bob. I closed the curtain over my small window, held my breath, and quietly said "let's get the hell out of here". At 1452 hours, I listened to Roy's chatter via the intercom, "left, left, steady, s-t-e-a-d-y", and finally, "Bombs Gone".
On the way back to base, I received a coded Morse Code message instructing our squadron to divert to an airfield by the name of Earls Colne. It appears that we're going to miss the big Christmas Eve party in our mess, What else can go wrong?
Earls Colne, Essex. It's the home of two RA.F. Halifax squadrons, namely 296 and 297. They are actively involved in towing Horsa gliders. We landed at 1610. Being an RAF station means that the food is just on a par with our home field. We prefer to make a diversionary landing at an American Air Force base—the food is better, or at least it's prepared in a tastier manner.
It's Christmas Eve, and we are stuck down here in Essex. We have to stay overnight. It so happens that most of the station ground personnel have been granted Xmas leave. From some of the WAAF gals on the station, we heard that the “erks” are having a big party on New Year’s Eve, and furthermore, that they already have seven kegs of beer on hand for the occasion. After a bite to eat, we are assigned a bunk and given a blanket.
We tossed off our flying toots, and then it's goodnight; we are tired from our harrowing trip.
On Christmas morning, with not much else to do. Ken and I sauntered over to the Airmens’ Mess to check things out. Not a soul was around, and sure enough those seven tubs of joy were sitting there, just waiting to be plucked. We lifted one keg off its stand, and rolled it over to the Sergeants Mess, but alas we had forgotten all about a tap for the keg. So back we traipsed to the Airmens’ Mess, and, by this time, a chap was on location. We inquired if he could let us have the loan of a spout as we needed one for a keg of beer over at the Sergeants’ Mess. He checked around and finally came to the conclusion that the brewery had left him an extra one, as there were six kegs and seven taps. He handed us the extra tap, we thanked him, and returned triumphantly to our Mess. Catastrophe had struck. The impatient lads had emptied the round-bottomed fire pails of sand, hacked the keg open with the fire axes, and as the beer spewed forth, they rinsed out the fire pails with beer, refilled them, and drank heartily. The floor in one corner of the Mess was awash with beer and sand. So much waste, and Ken and I never got a drop of the suds for our efforts; it's just another wartime frivolity that went sour.
The best thing that is going to happen this Christmas day is that the Glenn Miller band has a radio program at 1 PM. Glenn is the greatest of the great band leaders of the ‘40s. The program began with the announcer reporting, "Major Glenn Miller, Director of the United States Army Air Forces Band, is missing. No trace of the plane has been found". The band duly made the promised broadcast from Paris on Christmas day - but without its devoted leader. The first number played was a special rendition by Glenn of an Old English ballad, “Oranges and Lemons". His band played as usual; it sounded better than ever. The announcements were made in the same clipped American drawl by a voice that was quite unmistakably Glenn Miller. It was a recording. The band had recorded six programs to ensure there would be no interruption in the weekly BBC broadcasts whilst the band was in France.
So how does one go about enjoying the Xmas festivities? Well, so far, we’ve had to go on a bombing operation. We had to take off in fog. We had a rough time over the target. We were diverted to Earls Colne; the “Beer Keg” fiasco. And now the sad news about Glenn Miller. Merry Christmas.
It was a considerable time later that I had information regarding Glenn Miller's disappearance. On Sunday, 15th December 1944, he took off from RAF station at Twin Woods, near Bedford, in a Norseman aircraft. The Norseman is a small utility transport plane with a high wing and a radial engine. It is officially designated a UC-64A. On board, in addition to Glenn, were Colonel Norman Basselle and an experienced American transport pilot, Flight Officer John R.S, Morgan of the 35th Depot Repair Squadron from Abbots Ripton. They were flying to France to prepare for a special show, which was to be broadcast live from Paris on Christmas Day. There had been no flying by RAF planes at Twin Woods all day; conditions weren’t good enough for training flights. But the field wasn't technically closed. If the Americans liked to take the responsibility, that was up to them, (the RAF had, in fact, advised them not to go). The fog was drifting in more thickly now, and as the Norseman taxied out towards the runway its outline became indistinct. Soon it disappeared altogether in the mist and fog. As the hours passed and Glenn didn't arrive in Paris it became apparent that he must be missing somewhere and most possibly it was in the vast area of the North Sea. A search was begun along the route from Bedford to Paris, a search which revealed nothing. RCAF aircrews participated in the search.
On the same day that Glenn went missing, 138 Lancasters of RAF No. 3 Group set out on a raid to bomb Siegen (a city about 100 miles east of Cologne), but the raid was recalled because bad weather prevented their fighter escorts from taking off. The raid was aborted south of Brussels, and on the homeward flight the usual procedure was carried out to jettison some of the bombload over the North Sea to get down to safe landing weight. Several RAF crewmembers recalled seeing a Norseman aircraft plunge into the sea below them as each of the bombers discharged a 4,000 lb blast bomb and a stream of incendiaries. While the evidence is inconclusive regarding Glenn’s final flight, it is possible an aborted RAF raid was involved. The jury is still out on this one.
Let's get back to Earls Colne. It’s the afternoon of Christmas Day. Ken and I are itching to do something, anything to alleviate our frustration caused by this unwelcome "Merry Christmas” scenario. So—with the wee little military issued penknife that each of us has "hidden” (stowed away) in one leg of our sheep-lined flying boots, we cut off our "rank" insignia and wandered over to the Officers Mess and spent the afternoon enjoying life as well as could be expected. According to the Geneva Convention (Red Cross), the penknife with the short blade is not considered a wartime weapon.
Boxing Day, Linton-on-Ouse is still fogged in. About a dozen of us chaps "borrowed” bicycles parked around the station. Remember, most of the personnel were on Xmas leave. We peddled our way into the town to visit a pub where we enjoyed a few grogs. Back on base whilst chatting with a few RAF types, I suggested (with tongue in cheek) that possibly we might be taking a few bicycles back home with us to Linton; we would hide them in our bomb bays.
December 27th: In the morning the weather is clearing; we can fly back to base. It will be so nice to get these flying boots off; after wearing them steadily for three days the wool lining in the insoles becomes matted and bunched up under the toes.
Prior to take-off, the local Service Police visited each aircraft and made us open our bomb bays to ensure there were no bicycles hidden there. Finally we are back home at Linton-on-Ouse.
So how did our squadron make out on our operation to Lohausen airfield? The usual interrogation of each crew revealed that the bombing carried out was "bang-on”, but unfortunately a number of our squadron's aircraft were damaged by the vicious flak being thrown up. Of the 13 that bombed the target, eight (including ours) had flak damage. Also, one of our aircraft has not been heard from; the kite captained by Flying Officer Dunwoodie is missing.
It wasn't until after the war that the 'hairy do” Dunwoodie's crew was subjected to, came to light.
The report reads as follows:
This all-Canadian crew took off from Linton-on-Ouse at 11:38 A.M. on the 24th of December 1944, in their Mark 7 Halifax bomber for what they thought was a four-and-a-half hour trip to bomb the airport at Dusseldorf in the heart of Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley.
Over the target, the bomb aimer had just released the bomb load when a German 88 mm shell came through the aircraft and on its way out the top took with it the pilots control column, blinding the pilot and leaving him unconscious. Other No. 408 Squadron aircraft were near enough to see the roof of the aircraft explode as the shell and debris tore through on the way out. They were also close enough to see five of the crew toil out a moment later and then slowly disappear from sight as their parachutes carried them safely to the ground.
Dusseldorf was no stranger to Bomber Command and No. 408 Squadron had visited there 11 times previously. The total damage inflicted in the area had been widespread and serious; serious enough to enrage the local population to take action of their own. The five crewmen who were seen to safely bail out were soon reported dead by the German authorities. The evidence is, of course, not clear but the family of one of the dead crewmen received a letter from a German padre years later asking forgiveness for the rash and hasty action the local townsfolk had taken.
When the pilot regained consciousness a few moments later, the aircraft was still in stable flight. He was unable to see but after he got no response from the nearby crew stations, he pressed the signal key to indicate bail-out to anyone still in the aircraft. As it happened, the rear gunner was still in the turret but somewhat uncertain as to what had happened in the front office.
When the rear gunner received the signal to bail out, he rotated his turret to get out and after getting part way out he found that his parachute had become caught and had partially opened. He struggled his way back into the turret and as he did so he saw the parachute holding the pilot go drifting past. Finally he was free of the aircraft. The pilot and rear gunner landed, not together but nearby, about 18 miles from where the rest of the crew had landed. The pilot, with the splendid kind of irony the gods of war sometimes use, landed in a farmer's pigpen - unable to see but his other senses were receiving loud and clear. The farmer soon had him in the hands of the local authorities and after some hours in a barn with cows for company, he was taken to the hospital in Krefeld where he spent the next few months.
With partial sight returning in one eye, the local hospital authorities gave him a treatment which again rendered it of no use and so Dunwoodie was unable to move far from his bed. The next time there was some partial sight recovery, he somehow forgot to bring this to the attention of the staff.
Allied air raids brought the sirens into play and all the patients were locked into their rooms while the staff went to the air raid shelters. One day, a thoughtful United States Army Air Forces pilot blew a hole in the wall of the hospital and Dunwoodie, accompanied by a British Marine from the next room, casually vacated the premises, and made their way out into the unfriendly German world. They were recaptured later that evening and sent to Dulag 111 to be guests there until General Patton and his army were able to persuade the German authorities to release them. Dunwoodie found himself back in England on Easter Day, 1945.
Upon landing, the rear gunner was quickly taken prisoner by some of the local army who proceeded to beat him with their rifle butts. He was saved from certain death by the fortuitous arrival of a Luftwaffe officer whose un-holstered pistol persuaded the soldiers to desist and hand the prisoner over for more normal treatment. It meant marching, with a crowd of other prisoners to the Polish border where they were kept until the arrival of the Russian Army. An American Army group was nearby but there seemed to be more friction than cooperation between the two "Allies”. No prisoners were released and it was only after some of the prisoners, including this rear gunner, provided themselves with forged exit authority cards that they were able to get past their illiterate guards at the camp gate and make their way to the American camp and so back home.
As a small footnote to history, the two German soldiers who were intent on beating the rear gunner to death shortly after his capture, were later tried and sentenced to 10 and 20 years in prison.
So - it's still the 27th of December. We missed the big party on the 24th, but we're back home at Linton. Living in Beningbrough Hall and flying from Linton down the road gives a contrast to life, which is paradoxical. One night we enjoyed the peace and tranquility of country life and the next, sweated it out over Germany.
There's a battle roster posted, and we are on it. We've been assigned to fly in "N-Nan"; our regular kite is undergoing repairs. It's an early morning take-off on the 28th, and when I say early, it’s real early. Our bomb load is 1 x 2000, 3 x 1000 and 8x 250 pounders. Our target was Opiaden, which is located about 12 miles north of Cologne.
We began our take-off at 0325. As we picked up speed down the runway, we heard a loud explosive noise, and the aircraft tilted to the starboard. Our speed was about 95 knots. Bob quickly lifted the starboard wing and got us airborne. It was nip-and-tuck as we seemed to “float” until we had sufficient speed to gain altitude. There was dead silence for a few minutes, and then someone asked, “What happened?" "The starboard tire blew!"
I thought to myself, this is going to be an uneventful bombing raid. The enemy is not going to give us any trouble at all, we're going to have to come home to Linton and land on one wheel—the port wheel.
Bombing was carried out at 0630 from 18,000 feet, now we’ve got to go home. We arrived back in the Linton circuit shortly after 0900, and Bob, via the R.T. radio, advised the control tower of our problem. All the other aircraft from both squadrons were permitted to land prior to us; we were stacked at the top.
At 0943, we received permission to land but— not on the runway in use. We were instructed to land on a cross-runway, and not to touch down until after we had passed over the runway in use. This shouldn't be any problem, we've only got a few hundred yards available for landing, but we aren't going to travel too far. As we made our approach the undercarriage was lowered. A visual inspection revealed the starboard tire was in shreds. The crew took our “ditching positions”, the same as if we were preparing to ditch in the North Sea (my instruction sheet is attached). The fire engines and meat wagons (ambulances) were parked on the perimeter, and as we passed overhead on our approach, they followed us down the runway. Bob brought "N-Nan" down on the port wheel, and as we lost a wee bit of momentum, he gently lowered the starboard side of the kite onto the damaged wheel. We made a long swing off the runway onto the green infield. It was a spectacular landing. Our crew was able to walk away.
On the 29th, there is a Battle Roster posted, and yes, we're on it. The target is Troisdorf marshalling yards near Bonn, We took-off in "H-Harry" at 1526K. Our bombload was16 x 500 pounders. Upon returning to Linton, we landed at 2203. There was nothing noteworthy about this trip.
On the 30th of the month, we're on another raid. The target is Cologne Kalk-Nord marshalling yards. We took off at 1740 in "H-Harry"; our bomb load was 1 x 2000, and 12 other smaller bombs. We landed back home at 0022 on the 31st. Unfortunately upon landing, the tail of our kite came in contact with the runway first, resulting in the tail wheel being pushed up into the rear turret (the gunner is not in his turret during take-offs and landings). It was soon determined that the longerons were sprung (the fore and aft members of the framing of the aircraft fuselage), not to mention the damage to the tail turret. That's just one more of our kites undergoing repairs. There's no Battle Roster posted; we're going to be home for New Year's Eve - HOORAY!
In our Sergeants Mess, we were bragging that we're the only crew that has three kites; two in the hanger undergoing repairs, and one out at the dispersal unit.
Early on New Year’s Eve, Bob, Brother Heughan and Roy came over to the Sergeants’ Mess for a couple of drinks. Brother Heughan was noticeably upset; there were a few tears in his eyes. He had just received word that his brother had been shot down and killed on a raid to Politz, near Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) on 21st/22nd December. It was a sad moment. Gord Heughan was not an imbiber, but he had a few groggs, and possibly a couple more than he should have, to drown his sorrows.
Later the seven of us sauntered over to the Officers’ quarters. We visited in the sleeping quarters; not being officers, we NCOs were not permitted in the lounge area. As all of us were a wee bit “oiled”. Bob loaned me one of his uniforms, and he and I entered the lounge. Bob told me to sit down, don’t move, and be quiet, whilst he got us a beer from the bar. A "happy" F/L Andy Scheelar sat down beside me. He recognized me but he couldn't remember where we (pilots) had met. For him, everything was out of context as I was sporting pilot's wings on my borrowed uniform. He questioned me about various places “we” had trained. The guy sees me just about every day but didn’t twig that I was Bob's WAG. Bob suggested we return to the sleeping quarters before either of us got in trouble; impersonating an officer is a “no-no”. We tucked Brother Heughan in bed; he was drunk and sobbing. We called it a night. Happy New Year!
On the 5th of January we went on our 21st bombing sortie, it was to Hannover. There were 664 aircraft on this raid; of the 340 Halifaxs participating, 23 were shot down. One of them was Andy Scheelar's kite from our squadron. Data obtained later offered the following info:
F/L A.F. Scheelar, piloting “A-Able” of the Goose Squadron, had bombed the target and was setting course for home when a night fighter made a surprise attack from below. One engine caught fire as the Hally dived steeply. Scheelar then leveled out while he and the flight engineer sought in vain to extinguish the flames. The side of the fuselage was red hot when the pilot gave the bale out order. Three of the crew jumped but immediately after they left, the Halifax exploded in mid-air. The others were lost.
During these harrowing times, one seems to become oblivious to the horrors of war and isolates his feelings accordingly.
This ends my thoughts of "A Memorable Festive Season".
For any given 100 aircrew in Bomber Command, 1939-45, the daunting breakdown was:
Killed on operations........................51
Killed in crashes in England............9
Prisoners of war...............................12
Evaded capture................................ 1
Survived unharmed......................... 24