Tuesday, 3 September 2013

11. Denis Eynstone - rear gunner

In November 2014 I had breakthrough. With the help of Geoff Swallow in Australia I concluded that the D. Eynstone listed in the squadron's O.R.B. as the crew's rear gunner was Denis Eynstone and not John, the name given to him by both Bill Mallon and Jim Haworth.

On the 29th November, 2014 I posted a speculative letter to an address in Devon and just over a week later I received a reply. It was from Wendy, Denis's daughter, and she confirmed that the address was correct, that Denis William Eynstone was her dad and that he had served with No. 75(NZ) Squadron - unfortunately he had died in 2011. She informed me that he talked only occasionally about his wartime experiences and was surprised to hear that he was referred to as John, which was his brother's name. She has provided me with lots of pictures and some stories about her dad's recollections of the war.

A number of questions were raised by many of the photographs as they showed that Denis spent several years with more than one squadron after he left 75(NZ) Squadron in May, 1945 but the details are much clearer now that Wendy has received his service record.

Denis, with mother Florence and sisters Eileen and Joyce, about 1931
Denis was born in Oxford on the 9th of March, 1925 and was working as a clerk when he volunteered to join the air force at the age of just 17. He was interviewed and assessed at No. 21 A.C.S.B. (Aviation Candidate Selection Board) in Birmingham on the 26th of October, 1942 and given medical category grade 1. He was also ‘recommended for training as P.N.B.’ (pilot, navigator or bomb aimer), probably because of experience and qualifications gained with the Air Training Corps as well as aptitude. His service started officially on the 2nd of November, 1942 but he was told to return to civilian life and await further instructions.

These came some 5 months later and
  • on the 12th of April 1943 he reported for 5 weeks of basic training at No. 1 A.C.R.C. (Air Crew Receiving Centre) in London, followed by
  • six months of further training with a Preliminary Air Crew Training (P.A.C.T.) Wing from the 15th of May until the 27th of November 1943.
  • His next training took place at No. 3 I.T.W. (Initial Training Wing) in Torquay and ended on the 18th of February 1944 when he was posted to No. 51 Group Pool at RAF Yeadon (now Leeds Bradford Airport)
Denis with fellow trainees at one of his placements
At some time over the next three months his hopes of becoming a pilot, navigator or bomb aimer were dashed as his next posting, on the 26th of May 1944 was to No. 2 Air Gunnery School (A.G.S.) at RAF Dalcross, Inverness. There was a shortage of air gunners at this stage and Denis seems to have volunteered for the role. After 3 months of gunnery training, using a variety of techniques to develop his skills,
One of the more basic gunnery training methods
he was posted to No. 11 O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit) at RAF Oakley in Buckinghamshire on the 22nd of August and it is here that he would have met and 'crewed up' with Bill, Jim, Ken, Frank and possibly the other gunner in the crew, Don. It would be another 4 months before they met my dad and took him on as their flight engineer.

A Wellington bomber
At the O.T.U. the crew would fly Wellingtons and attempt to gel as an effective team in preparation for their conversion to the heavier, four-engine bomber, the Lancaster. This they did at No. 1669 'Conversion Unit' at RAF Langar, but not before Denis had spent another month at No. 3 Group Air Gunnery School in Castle Kennedy, Dumfries and Galloway. They arrived at Langar on the 22nd December and welcomed Bob, who had been there since the 25th of November, into the crew.

On the 6th of March 1945 the crew was posted to No. 75(NZ) Squadron at RAF Mepal in Cambridgeshire. Denis, the youngest member of the crew, celebrated his 20th birthday on the 9th of March with a five and a half hour daylight bombing raid on Datteln, Germany. Details of the rest of his war operations can be found in Ch. 3a.

An insight into the role of a rear gunner can be found here, on the website of the International Bomber Command Centre.

Denis, in his flying gear

..... and in his 'best blues' back in Oxford.
As well as a number of fascinating photographs Wendy sent me this sketch of a 75(NZ) Squadron Lancaster apparently on the Potsdam operation of April 14th, 1945:

The caption explains that the artist drew it some time after the operation and apart from the mis-spelling of my dad's name, possibly a result of Kiwi vowel sounds, there are a number of questions raised by the picture:
  • the artist F/S Ayres was with the squadron in 1941 and not in 1945. When did he draw it and why that particular operation?
  • artistic licence probably explains why the aircraft is AA-L, which was not involved in the operation, but why is the bomb aimer named as F/L K. Barnes? There was a replacement bomb aimer because of an injury to Ken Philp, but according to the O.R.B. it was F/S O. Willetts.
Despite the questions this is a great piece of memorabilia.

When the war in Europe was over all the non-New Zealand airmen were declared 'redundant' as the squadron became exclusively for New Zealand crews and on the 21st of July 1945 the squadron moved to RAF Spilsby. Denis remained at RAF Mepal and joined No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron who had moved in the opposite direction. Both squadrons at this stage were preparing to join 'Tiger Force' to continue the war against Japan in the Far East but this conflict ended a few weeks later and the squadron had to focus elsewhere.
Dennis (R) with a 44  Sq Lancaster (KM-?), 1945 or 46

 One of the operations Denis and the squadron were involved in was 'Operation Dodge' in which large numbers of Lancasters were flown to Italy in the second half of 1945 to help in the repatriation of soldiers of the 8th Army, some of whom had been away from home for 5 or 6 years, fighting in North Africa and Italy. One of the pick-up airfields was RAF Pomigliano, near Naples, and one of the attractions was a sight-seeing trip to Pompeii in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which had erupted the previous year (1944), its last major eruption.

'Operation Dodge': Denis (R) relaxing in Pomigliano in 1945.
While with No. 44 Squadron Denis was awarded the Good Conduct Badge (1st award) on the 12th of April 1946 in recognition of three years service without adverse comments on his service conduct sheet.


No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron remained at Mepal until 1946, when it re-located to RAF Wyton, also in Cambridgeshire, and on the 10th of September 1946 Denis was posted to No. 90 Squadron at RAF Tuddenham in Suffolk where he remained for 2 months until this squadron also moved to RAF Wyton in November 1946. On the 16th of December 1946 he was transferred yet again, this time to RAF Oakington for about a month until his service came to an end at No. 101 Personnel Despatch Centre at Kirkham (near Blackpool) on the 19th of January 1947. He was officially 'released' on the 17th of March, 1947. He would be back in uniform just over 4 years later.

The family know very little about what Denis did in civilian life over the next four years, other than his marriage to Winifred Childs in 1950, but he would have remained on what was called 'Class G Reserve' with the RAFVR for the next 12 years had he not decided to re-enlist in the regular RAF in 1951. His service record shows that Denis was officially discharged from the reserve on the 27th of August, 1951 and enlisted the following day in the Regular RAF. A week later, on the 4th of September 1951, he was posted to No. 230 O.C.U. (Operational Conversion Unit) at RAF Lindholme in South Yorkshire, where he became acclimatised once more to life in the air force, and on the 14th of December 1951 he joined No. 7 Squadron at RAF Upwood in Cambridgeshire. No. 7 Squadron was equipped with Avro Lincolns at this time, the RAF's front-line bomber in the Cold War, but after just 4 months Denis was transferred to the squadron with which he would serve the longest period: No. 35 Squadron.

Having been disbanded in February 1950 No. 35 Squadron was re-formed on the 1st of September 1951 at RAF Marham in Norfolk and equipped with the Boeing Washington, Marham becoming the Conversion Unit for the Washington. This aircraft was known as the B29 Superfortress in the USAAF and had the dubious distinction of being the aircraft that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A Boeing Washington
Denis stayed with the squadron as a gunner with the rank of sergeant for the next two years and Wendy has provided some pictures which were clearly taken during this period. Most of the other photographs are difficult to date.

Another picture from No. 35 Squadron - Denis and two others labelled
  Wendy also had vague recollections of Denis telling her that a number of friends who had flown in these "worn-out planes" had lost their lives when they crashed. Records show that the squadron lost two of these aircraft, both during the time that Denis was at Marham:
  • WF570 crashed at South Acre, near Swaffham, 5 miles north east of Marham on 14th December 1952. Both pilots, the navigator and the radio operator were killed, whilst the flight engineer and one of the gunners were seriously injured. The crash was put down to a fuel leak/missing fuel cap.
  • WF495 crashed in Morecambe Bay on a return flight to the U.S. via the Azores as a result of severe icing. All seven of the crew were believed to have baled out but the body of only one of them was recovered.
These were the two Washingtons lost by RAF Marham but there were others lost by other squadrons.

On the 22nd of March, 1954 Denis left No. 35 Squadron for the School of Maritime Reconnaissance at RAF St. Mawgan in Cornwall and was re-united with the Lancaster bomber, now being used as a reconnaissance aircraft. He stayed there for about 7 weeks before moving to an A.A.U. (?) and being discharged from the RAF once again on the 10th of July 1954. According to his service record and the 'Queen's Regulations/Air Council Instructions' for 1954 the reason for his discharge was that he was "Below the standard for pilot, etc". Did he still harbour aspirations to be a pilot?

Having returned to civilian life Denis became a fitter at the pressed steel car plant in Oxford and in 1958 their daughter Wendy was born. In 1960 he became a successful self-employed builder and when he retired in 1987 he and Winifred moved to Hartland in north Devon where they had many happy years. Denis died in 2011 at the age of 86 and, although he rarely spoke about the war years, Wendy passed on a couple of stories that provided an insight into his feelings all that time after the war.

In 2005, at the age of 80, Denis was involved in a serious road accident and he was trapped in his car. He described having a wartime flashback to an incident when the aircraft was hit by flack and he was trapped in his turret, unable to reach his 'chute as fuel ran through the aircraft. The aircraft landed on the grass alongside the runway to reduce the risk of fire and Denis was hauled out by the ground crew, having thought that he would not get out alive. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the episode with that of Bill Mallon, the pilot, who said in an interview "the flak went through the oil (cooler) core .... one engine is not a big loss on a Lancaster," or my dad, who simply wrote in his log book "port inner feathered - hit by flak".

Towards the end of his life Denis confided in the manager of his care home that he had been a 'bad man', referring to the bombing of German towns and cities and the many innocent people, including women and children, that had been killed. Denis was certainly not alone in feeling guilt for the part he played in the war, no matter how it may be justified on another level.

The sense of isolation from the rest of the crew felt by rear gunners is illustrated perfectly by this poem, written by an anonymous rear gunner and published in the blog http://broodyswar.wordpress.com

Bumping down the runway
With the turret on the beam,
Flashing past well-wishers
Lit by the drem's** dull gleam.

The pulling of the stomach
As we slowly climb on track
Setting course to eastward –
How many will come back?

The clipped command to alter course
As we cross the Anglian shore,
Then extinguish navigation lights
As the engines increase their roar.

The throbbing of the engines
Disturbs the fading light
As onward, ever onward
We fly into the night.

Routine settles to a rhythm,
And those 'up front’ dictate
The course, the speed, the height
And the passage of our fate.

Searching ever searching,
The turret turns to and fro,
Looking, always looking
For our enemy and foe.

The sound of throbbing engines
Envelopes our immediate night,
And the clammy taste of oxygen
As I adjust the dull ring sight.

A quiet statement from the Nav -
‘Enemy coast a head’,
The blood flows quicker thro’ the veins –
Our training stifles the dread.

Searching ever searching,
For that darker smudge of black.
Looking for the fighter
That could stop us getting back

The Nav again is heard to say
‘Target. Dead ahead’.
The tightening of the stomach
Is the only sign of dread

As a lonely, cold rear gunner
I always face the rear
And never see the target.
Till the aircraft’s there.

Flying ever closer, closer
To that awful scene.
Every nerve is strung so tight
You stifle the need to scream

The observer now takes full control
And by his directed call
Keeps the tingling nerves on edge
Till he lets the bomb load fall

With the sudden upward lift
We all expect the worst,
But heave a sigh of intense 'relief
As the aircraft changes course.

Nose well down and increased speed
To escape from that dreadful sight.
We race across the crimson sky
To the safety of the night

As those up front now search the sky
For the fighter that lurks in the dark
While I at last see the target fires
Where we have left our mark.

**This refers to the 'Drem Lighting System' devised by the Station Commander of R.A.F. Drem in Scotland

Some other photographs, squadrons unknown:

Denis (R)

Denis 2nd from right
Denis, on the right
Denis (centre)
Denis, on the left - could be Italy again looking at the weather!
Denis on the left again
On the left again.

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