Saturday, 3 August 2013

Appendix XIV: My Lancaster flight - 18th August 2014

Humberside Airport, formerly RAF Kirmington, Monday the 18th of August 2014. My daughter and her flying enthusiast husband had arrived from Cambridgeshire with their two year-old son, who now thinks grandad is on every plane that flies over their house. My wife and our granddaughter had accompanied me from North Yorkshire and my sister and her partner had travelled the short distance from Cleethorpes together with her two grandsons who were over from Cheshire. Then my brother and his wife arrived from their home in Nottingham with a big surprise. In a carrier bag and wrapped in tissue paper was the jumper that my dad had worn throughout his time with 75 (NZ) Squadron. I just had to try it on and when the pilot heard about it he said they wouldn't allow me on the aircraft unless I was wearing it!

In the jumper.
I have to admit that speaking was difficult in the minutes after pulling it on but we were soon whisked away for our briefing and five excited passengers were given instructions on how to evacuate the aircraft if the worse were to happen. We didn't anticipate any difficulties, unlike Bob and his comrades 70 years ago who would have feared the worse. It was at this stage that Bob would start to experience what he described as a tightening, sick feeling in his stomach that would get worse as he boarded the plane and ease slightly only when he became preoccupied with his routine pre-flight checks on fuel, hydraulics, electrics, oxygen...........

At last it was time to take the short mini-bus journey to VR-A (Vera) waiting on the tarmac. We boarded and buckled up in the seats bolted in place just behind the main spar. The first time I had been in a Lancaster, heard the roar of the engines and felt it start to move, at East Kirkby two years earlier, it had been an emotional experience, but this was much more than that. As we taxied towards the runway my nervous excitement could not hide an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Why? Because I would be unable to share this experience with my dad, because he had missed so much since he died almost exactly forty years earlier, and also because of the thousands of young men who had lost their lives after boarding an aircraft just like this.

We taxied to the end of the runway and turned.

Taxiing into position (© Mike Baxter)**

After just a few seconds waiting the noise level started to increase dramatically and we started to accelerate. Like my dad, by this stage my emotions were beginning to subside as practical considerations took over. I started to visualise the actions of the pilot and the flight engineer as we gained speed and the noise level continued to rise. I pictured the pilot pushing the throttles forward evenly with his right hand, controlling the inevitable swing to the left with careful use of the rudders. As we passed the airport terminal the flight engineer would be holding the throttles in position as the pilot pushed the control column forward to raise the tail and achieve take-off attitude. As the speed crept up to 90 knots (just 103 m.p.h.) he would start pulling back on the control column taking the aircraft into a shallow climb - so shallow that I was not even aware that we had left the ground until I looked down and saw the runway receding below.

Take-off! (© Mike Baxter)**

Compared to taking off in a modern passenger jet this was as sedate as a drive in an old and very noisy bus, a feeling that added to the disbelief that we were really airborne. Shortly after take off we banked to the right and we were able to unfasten our seat belts. We soon reached our cruising speed of about 150 knots (172 mph) and continued at an altitude of between 500 and 1000 feet.  The views were stunning, something I doubt Bob would have had much time to appreciate over the fields of Cambridgeshire as he filled in the Flight Engineer's log, but as I didn't have a job to do and had lived most of my life in this part of Lincolnshire I was able to identify most of the landmarks and a couple of the Bomber Command bases the pilot included in his thirty minute flight. Interestingly, our Flight Engineer Craig Brookhouse also spent a lot of time monitoring gauges and filling in a log.
  • RAF Kirmington, home to No.150 Squadron from October to December 1942, No. 166 Squadron from January 1943 and No. 153 Squadron from October 1944. In total 178  bombers never returned, 51 Wellingtons and 127 Lancasters
  • RAF North Killingholme, home from January 1944 to No. 550 Squadron which lost 62 of its Lancasters.

Ulceby in the foreground, the River Humber beyond and the remains of RAF North Killingholme coming up
  • RAF Grimsby (formerly Waltham aerodrome), home to No. 142 and then No. 100 Squadron which lost 48 Wellingtons and 116 Lancasters respectively.
Flying directly over what is left of RAF Grimsby. The 'Jug and Bottle' pub in Holton-le-Clay, visible at the bottom of the picture, was built on the site of one of the airfield's dispersal points
By this time any attempt to identify the rest of the airfields, much less photograph them, was almost impossible with the pressure of my emotions, the need to view the aircraft from different positions and to just savour the whole experience - not to mention the feeling of nausea creeping over me. I have never been the best of travellers but at 150 knots on a windy day in August there was more movement than I was comfortable with. I eventually found the position which gave me the most relief was standing on my seat with my head and shoulders in the mid-upper gun turret. Here I had an amazing view in all directions and plenty of fresh air as it must be one of the draughtiest places in the aircraft. In Chapter 6 I quote Jim Haworth, the navigator, describing his and Bob's air sickness after the pilot had "chucked the kite around". I had no such excuse.
    All too soon the flight came to an end and the aircraft touched down effortlessly on the tarmac. Despite my mixed emotions during my thirty minutes in the air I had felt none of the nervousness that I usually experience when flying, testimony to my faith in this incredible aircraft. Not the most comfortable of trips but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. As we taxied towards the airport building my thoughts returned once again to those young men seventy years ago whose immense relief at returning from a flight into Hell would have been tempered by the knowledge that they would have to do it all again, possibly the next day, and keep on doing it until their tour was complete or the worse really did happen.

    At 6.45 p.m on Saturday, the 14th of April 1945 Bob and the rest of the Mallon crew took off from Mepal on their longest operation, a routine operation to bomb targets at Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin - they didn't touch down until 3.14 a.m., eight and a half hours later. Memorable as my flight was the thought of an eight and a half hour round trip to Berlin, not knowing if you would return, was almost impossible to comprehend. My dad always denied that what he did was courageous and he was not a big fan of westerns but I'm sure he would have appreciated John Wayne's description of courage - "Courage is being scared to death  ...... and saddling up anyway."

    With pilot Dave Rohrer (left) and co-pilot Leon Evans after the flight

    Other airfields close to our flight path were:
    • Kelstern - No. 625 Squadron, lost 70 Lancasters
    • Strubby - No. 619 Squadron, lost 65 Lancasters
    • Spilsby - Nos. 207 and 44 Squadrons, total losses - 85 Lancasters. Bob's squadron (No. 75(NZ) Squadron) transferred there in July 1945, with 44 Squadron moving to Mepal
    • East Kirkby - Nos. 57 and 630 Squadrons, total losses - 121 Lancasters in operations and another 29 in crashes and accidents. It is now home to Lancaster NX611 (see Chapter 18)
    • Coningsby - Nos. 106, 97, 619, 61 and 83 Squadrons and, for 6 months from August 1943, No. 617 Squadron, the 'Dambusters'. (Also VeRA's home during August/September 2014). Total losses - 101 Lancasters, 57 Hampdens and 17 Manchesters
    • Woodhall Spa - Nos. 106, 97 and 619 Squadrons. No. 617 Squadron (the 'Dambusters') carried out its famous 'Tirpitz' raid after being transferred to Woodhall Spa in January 1945, and Guy Gibson, its former leader, was killed flying a Mosquito on an operation with No. 627 Squadron, based here from April 1944 to September 1945. Total losses - 74 Lancasters and 17 Mosquitoes.
    • Bardney - No. 9 Squadron, lost 85 Lancasters
    • Fiskerton - Nos. 49, 576 and 550 Squadrons, total losses - 117 Lancasters
    • Dunholme Lodge - Nos. 44 and 619 Squadrons, total losses - 120 Lancasters
    • Wickenby - Nos. 12 and 626 Squadrons, total losses - 190 Lancasters and 6 Wellingtons
    • Faldingworth - No. 300 Squadron (mainly Poles), lost 37 Lancasters
    • Hemswell - Nos. 61 and 144 Squadrons and later Nos. 150 and 170 Lancaster Squadrons - total losses - 83 Hampdens, 62 Wellingtons, 1 Manchester and 22 Lancasters
    • Blyton - No. 199 Squadron, lost 1 Wellington and 50 Lancasters
    • Bottesford - Nos. 207 and 467 (mainly Australian-manned) Squadrons and in 1944 for the D-Day landings the USAAF. Total RAF losses - 3 Manchesters and 55 Lancasters
    • Elsham Wolds -Nos. 103, 576 and 100 Squadrons, total losses 208 Lancasters, 28 Wellingtons and 12 Halifaxes. Elsham is the setting for much of Don Charlwood's excellent book 'No Moon Tonight'.
      **The photographs are mine but the videos were taken by Mike Baxter who flew two days later and who had the sense to take a video camera with him and the generosity to share his footage with me. The weather was worse for him but Mike's day had an extra ingredient as his dad was a Flight Engineer with No. 153 Squadron based at RAF Kirmington.

      1 comment:

      1. Brilliant post - You captured the emotions really well. Thanks for sharing. Adam