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At First Sight
In At The Deep End - Peter Mallender D.F.C

As briefly as I can and trusting that readers will make all due allowance for approaching senility and fairly advanced Alka Seltzers, I will attempt to tell you how it all began for me.

I was about four years old when I saw an Avro 504, from nearby Kenley Aerodrome, crash into the neighbouring house. I was sent upstairs so that I should not watch the burning building, but there was a better view from my bedroom window, Whilst at preparatory school I bicycled past the aerodrome twice daily watching Siskins, Gamecocks and Bulldogs taking-off and landing.

I was bitten badly by the flying bug and eventually saved enough money for a flight at Surrey Flying Services, Croydon, Following an unspectacular public school career I joined Brooklands Flying Club and under the careful tutelage of one Leslie Cliff and occasionally Ken Waller, the CFI, I obtained my “A” Licence. At Cambridge, reading Engineering, I joined the University Air Squadron, with free flying in the best trainers in the world. Then the balloon went up.

On receiving my Commission there followed Initial Training Wing at Hastings and Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, with Hawker Harts and Hinds. A period followed as an instructor at Montrose and thence to Southem Rhodesia instructing on Airspeed Oxfords for three years, Returning to UK I had a period on Oxfords and Wellington Xs - and then a posting to 1655 Mosquito Training Unit at Warboys.

A Crew of Two

It was at Warboys that I met up with F/L Wallace Stanhope Gaunt DFC, ‘John O’, to most of us. He had completed a tour on Wellingtons and for some reason best known to himself considered that I would mould well into his way of doing things even though I had never flown on operations.

Before the war he had been a forester and, I learned a lot later, a glider instructor. He wore a full Observer’s brevet and was a bit of a perfectionist. He had but one serious fault, he could not stop himself making dreadful puns! This was not much of a disadvantage as we did most of our communication whilst flying by sign language and on the ground I could throw a boot at him. He was a stickler for accuracy and would pull me up for the slightest deviation from his planned height, speed or direction. We were never late over the target area and his ability to work with Gee at extreme range was uncanny. He lowered us down through cloud into the fjord at Bergen enabling me to mark the submarine pens there. Typically, the powers that be (were) at the time awarded me, the pilot, the decoration for that fine piece of navigation and radar operating genius!

You can read elsewhere in this anthology of our operations about 6127’s own “Little Do” at Oslo in daylight on New Year’s Eve 1944. F/O Bob Boyden has written up this sortie and I would not argue with his reminiscences of the events. Only to say that I raised vociferous objection to the planning of the final attack on the Gestapo Headquarters in Victoria Terrasse but our Death or Glory boy squadron commander intimated that I was being cowardly, so, like a fool I shut up. Bob Boyden writes: “...I have often wondered if someone, somewhere has recorded what German ships were in the Oslo Fjord that day. Our diving technique certainly fooled their gunners as the next time they would have been right on target .”

How right Bob was, I was briefed to lead the second wave of that ill-conceived attack. Instructed to follow our intrepid leader after an interval of five minutes. I did and the German naval gunners had quickly learned how fast a Mosquito can travel in a dive. All the aircraft in my flight were hit. My navigator was hit in the soft muscle of his upper leg by a hot cannon shell, it missed the back of my head and went out through the Perspex top. Another hit removed the whole of the curved part of the port leading edge outboard of the engine leaving the very flat and unstreamlined bare main spar to face the force of wind of a Mosquito in a dive. I did manage to regain control from the violent yaw to port by slapping the starboard Merlin right back. I called to my No.2 to take over and I flew through the smoke and dust still obscuring the target. I cleared flying low over the Royal Palace and poor old “D-Dog” received another load of shot from a machine gun sited on the roof, just beside a huge Red Cross. “D-Dog” still wanted to make circles to port and I thought that perhaps I would have a little more control if I were to jettison the drop tanks. I tried that; the starboard tank dropped away but apparently the wiring to the port drop tank had been severed, that one stayed there, The yaw was exacerbated by this and my right leg was very cramped but pushing as hard as I could we sidled our way home to Scotland. Not unnaturally we were very late back to Peterhead. I had jettisoned our bomb load after crossing the Norwegian coast near Stavanger. I stuck John in the backside with the little tube of morphia that we carried. Even so he managed to remain conscious and helped me to get home until I told him that I could see the Scottish coast. I had managed to crawl up to five thousand feet whilst crossing the sea and thought that it was about time I found out if I was going to be able to land the old lady. I dropped fifteen degrees of flap and throttled back the port engine a bit but before I had time to ease back to reduce speed much she shook violently and I noted that we were still flying at one forty knots.

All the other aircraft had got safely home so I had the runway to myself. Rather unwisely, I now admit, I put the undercarriage down and the pre-stall shaking began immediately. I put down about fifteen degrees of flap (previous experiments had taught me that this seemed logical). I jettisoned the top hatch and powered her over the boundary at something near one forty knots. She stayed down alright but was burning up runway much too fast.

I touched the brakes and that did it. She spun round and around like a Dervish, collapsed the under-carriage and finally came to rest in what I thought was a heap of ply, balsa wood and aluminium. I was really quite pleased to see George Curry’s grinning visage looking down through the open hatch. He helped me out and together we lifted from his seat a very comatose, if rather battered, navigator.

It was forty five years before l learned that dear old “D-Dog” was repaired and lived to a ripe old age. I left poor john O' at Peterhead to get sewn up and I flew back to Woodhall in the nose of another Mosquito. I can’t say that I enjoyed that flight back home. I sent the pilot hack to Warboys for a refresher course in Mosquito flying.

You will find, herein, the account of Wallace Gaunt’s spell in, and eventual escape from, Naval Hospital and his experiences on the way back to Base.

A few amusing Musings

Is it perhaps too much of a truism to say that we recall the bad parts of wartime flying. The more hairy the incident the deeper it is etched upon our memories. Now we are older only the very deeply etched incidents remain.

When the idea was first mooted that we should all have a go at recalling some sortie, incident or other I admit that my mind jumped to the times when the Grim Reaper seemed to be taking a well aimed swipe in our direction. How about some of the better times. All our aircrew must have had a few narrow escapes when practising at Wainfleet or Ingoldmells (the bombing ranges). I had had a good session at Wainfleet and was standing by watching Ronnie Churcher finish his eight dives. I was to formate on his right as he led us back to Woodhall at something under fifty feet. He was a exuberant youth and he decided that he would show the Control Tower just what a Mosquito looked like close up, still in the air, of course. He made a low straight run from West to East really very low. It was John O’ Gaunt who shouted to pull up and I did. Lucky it was that I did or we would have gone through the top windows of the Control Tower at Woodhall.

I called up Ronnie, “Hey, Boss, Remember me?” His answer was too sacrilegious to print here. Nevertheless I stood John O’ a beer or two that day and Ronnie paid for mine.

 

It was one of those operations that kept being put back and back and it was getting dangerously late to have Lancasters flying about the place in daylight without fighter cover and in no semblance of formation or even in a ‘gaggle’. We were getting itchy and stiff- necked looking over our shoulders. I caught a glimpse of the sky to the east just then and I had to point it out to ‘John O’. The colours were fantastic and we were able to make out dozens of Lancasters well below us.

“Very pretty” he said “now lets get home”. We still had a fair amount off fuel aboard and for once I broke my own rules. I trimmed my aircraft into a very shallow dive but I did not throttle back. A Mk BIV Mosquito really did do nearly four hundred miles per hour! It was not funny initially but the outcome was a happy one. I cannot remember what the target was but as Marker Leader I went down low over the first TI down to check its accuracy before calling the other marker pilots to ‘back up’. I was pulling away and at no more than six or seven hundred feet when the blast of a ‘Cookie’ turned us upside down and fortunately the whole target area was illuminated well enough for me to roll out visually. All the gyro instruments were ‘toppled’, of course. Very, very frightened, I began to swear at that Lancaster crew and my language was not pretty. (The ‘safety height, of a 4000lb bomb was supposed to be about 3000 feet; we were rather lower than that). The operation, however, proceeded satisfactorily. We were de-briefed on our return as usual and I reported the incident.

Not a little surprised next morning to receive the order “5 Group HQ, Best Blue!” I saw the AOC’s Adjutant and he was no help. He just ushered me before Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane and I saluted and stood there apparently un-noticed. The great man looked up, unsmiling, which was rare.

“Listen to this Mallender! This was recorded last night by the Link Aircraft” and he switched on the Wire Recorder, the early equivalent of the tape recorder. All that beautiful blue language, most clearly enunciated by yours truly. And it went on far too long and all I could say at the end was “I’m very sorry for all that, Sir, my only excuse is that I was very frightened at the time”.

“I expect a very high standard of behaviour from my leaders, Mallender. You should be setting an example to the younger men, not teaching them that sort of language...You may go”.

I saluted as smartly as I knew how and as I was about to turn to leave, he said “Oh, by the way Mallender, congratulations on a fine piece of airmanship”. I muttered my thanks and left that serious and religious man for whom I had a great respect.

There is a sequel to the story.. .I was helping the ground crew to change an engine on one of our Mossies and was approached by a very young Flying Officer in Best Blue. He saluted very smartly as soon as I noticed that he was standing there. “Hello, who are you?” I asked. ‘I’m Smith, Sir. It was our aircraft that bombed early the other night and I’m told that we nearly hit you”. “That you did. It is a great pity that without VHF you couldn’t hear what I said at the time”. “Sir, the AOC has given me the gist of your transmissions and he has sent me to apologise to you. I had no idea that there would be any of our aircraft below us and our Bomb Aimer said we were 'bang on, and I told him to bomb”



He was a very nice young man and I took him to the Mess and stood him ajar or two. Sir Ralph had gone up even higher in my estimation. I was very sorry when he moved on although I was later to get on famously with his successor, Air Vice Marshal Constantine. He really did listen to his pilots (As did his prettily precocious daughter!).

Let me bring you back to the present. As a substantive septuagenarian I need something to prevent my mind from atrophying. Since retirement I have taken to writing novels. Originally, I thought that I would have little difficulty in finding a publisher keen to buy the gems that fell from my pen and I paid for having my very first effort, a story about flying, professionally ‘read’ by a recommended publisher’s reader. It was a costly experiment. The man not only ‘panned’ the story but he wrote to say that he was once a pilot himself and my book contained much too much minutiae of flying and not enough about actual operations. I believe that anyone who has served on an operational bomber squadron will agree that ninety per cent of our lives was abject boredom and the cups of tea, the games of  soft ball, and darts probably saved our sanity. Who doesn’t recall that unseemly scramble at the call “NAAFI ip”? Quite the antithesis of the lack of movement when Mr. Mills called “TIME!” at the Abbey Lodge.


Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited