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At First Sight

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At First Sight
'Mayday Only 20 Minutes Fuel Left' - 'Fly West For 30 Minutes' - Frank W. Boyle DFC* RAAF

I was lucky to navigate for two such good operational pilots as Johnny Grey and Leo (Pop) Devigne on 627 Squadron; different personalities, but both with the same dedication and coolness under fire; different too in build -Johnny squarely built, Leo less so, but both physically strong.

I teamed up with Johnny on 139 (Jamaica) Squadron before we continued on 627 and we completed 31 trips (including the “pregnant Mossie efforts with the 4,000lb “Cookies”) before 627 was detached from 8 PFF Group to Woodhall Spa in 5 Group.

Johnny was laconic in speech - typified by his quiet query “Nice sleep?” when I came to on the climb to 25,000 feet after he had reconnected my oxygen supply which I had accidentally disconnected; and by coolly remarking that the German anti-aircratt batteries were “Damn good” when heavy flak hit us as I dropped our “Cookie” on a Berlin trip.

Almost imperturbable, although he did look startled (so did I) at La Roche alter marking on a rare daylight raid and then assessing the main force bombing; we saw a very late bomb-load raining down on us and really sweated as he avoided them: and after another night raid on Berlin we were both speechless - we had broken cloud on the way home and it was quite comforting to see another Mossie about a mile ahead, until we saw the Me462 above us. The speed and efficiency with which it closed on its unsuspecting quarry was chilling - and we could do nothing about it.

He was disconcerted once in a pub at Homcastle: by the land-lady’s quick response to his banter that “many a good tune is played on an old fiddle” adding the necessity for a good supply of rosin. “Bill” Steere and “Windy” Gale were with us - our usual foursome when on stand-down and we saw Johnny blush for once - the retort and from whence it came floored him.

His sense of humour was a little wicked - like calling up base on return as “M for Mother calling Birth Control” and telling Coltishall (when diverted there through weather and getting a bit short of fuel) that he had only two engines, after a Fortress tried to get landing precedence because he was “flying on only three”.

We were not amused when, upon the occasion of the Squadron’s welcome to 5 Group, at the Kinema-in-the-Woods, a very senior officer informed us we were joining very experienced aircrews, some having flown 35 sorties (I had already done my first tour before the 31 with Johnny had started my third. Johnny was just as experienced as I, with 65 sorties to his credit at the time).

The necessary mutual confidence and trust between pilot and navigator was typified on our last Berlin trip with 8 Group; the flight plan route was over southem Scandinavia, then starboard on to a southerly track to target. It went well to our last Gee fix but the next visual pin-point showed we had been blown way south and tracking into Berlin; a 95 knot jet Stream from the North, instead of the forecast 30knot Westerly had been the cause. Johnny soon accepted that the change of wind not only meant we could continue (without the planned time-wasting) to Berlin on time, but that our return flight would be quicker than planned. so we completed the operation. The other crews, apart from one, had aborted it.

On 8 June 1944 Bill and Windy were shot down at Rennes and their deaths were hard to accept - I was not surprised when Johnny finished operating - we had completed 48 trips together and a lot of new faces appeared. Also he had not been pleased when I had volunteered for the new marking duties, which meant detachment from 8 Group and moving from Oakington, (where he had good friends outside the services) to Woodhall Spa. I have great respect for him and hope he was suitably decorated; I heard no more from him after he left 627 and suppose he returned to New Zealand - I wish him well.

I was a bit disillusioned by the changes to the Squadron; a new CO who was so desperate to assure Air Commodore “Razor” Sharp that he had marked first that he had called us out of our dive at Villeneuve St. George after Johnny had given the “Tally Ho”. We waited over ten minutes for the markers to go down and it was 14 minutes from our first “Tally Ho” before we could back up. The main force must have been cursing - I know I was!

I had done 78 operations and felt like packing it in but Norman Lewis had finished operations with 100 trips, leaving Leo Devigne without a navigator and I stayed on. I was glad I did because he was an outstanding pilot and we got on fine together. Physically strong (like Johnny} and cool under fire (like Johnny) but extrovert - e.g. his Victory roll over base on return from a successful trip.

We were legitimately beaten to a target only once - by “Buzz” Browne’s navigator, F/Lt R. H. Cowan, on 27 September 1944 at Kaiserslautem; our target, the Railway Workshops, was on our port when “Buzz” called “Tally Ho” and dived to mark. He was hit by the flak cross-fire and we saw him crash - ploughing along the ground with an awesome display of exploding coloured TIs; we followed him down and marked the target as he exploded, I was a Squadron Leader by this time and I made it very clear at de-briefing that if ”Buzz” had not been ahead of us we would have been the target of that cross-fire.

Leo’s physical strength was needed a month later when one engine was shot out of action by Walcheren gun positions we were dive bombing in daylight; he had to fly the Mosquito back to Woodhall on the remaining engine and land; the ground crew showed us how the pressure from one finger easily broke off the wing from near the engine casing. That cured him of his Victory rolls.

But that physical strength nearly caused serious trouble during a late night “scrounge” in the mess kitchen. Dougie Peck made some wise-crack which so annoyed Leo that a snatched up a large saucepan, flung it at Dougie one-handed and nearly knocked his head off; I had to use both hands to pick up the saucepan.

He was a born pilot - landing like a feather, but I still wonder that we survived the five hour Munich trip on 17 December 1944; we had flown from Manston, as advanced base, to ensure Munich was within our range but on take-off our VHF: radio was only giving strength 3 and Gee soon packed up. From then on I had to get Leo to descend quite a few times to a safe height before my first pin-point - a crescent shaped lake; then I calculated the wind and the course for the target, a football field in Munich.

Leo dived to mark but the power supply was too weak to release our TIs on “Salvo” so I suggested we try again on “Single” and one TI did mark the target. I had only the one calculated wind to use for the return flight to Manston. The weather was still foul and we finally saw helpful searchlights (from Shoreham we discovered) as Leo called “Mayday - I have only twenty minutes fuel” only to be told “Fly West for 30 minutes”, Leo followed an illuminated ground arrow until we ran out of fuel; in total darkness he “felt” his way down to land and we sat there, wondering where we were.

Dawn showed us to be just on a runway - at RAF Ford; remarkable piloting and miraculous luck; then a laugh when we had got clearance later for take-off to Woodhall - a WAAF saw us and remarked “Cor! I thought all navigators were sergeants” as she saw I was Squadron Leader.

Leo got a well deserved DSO after Munich; he pinned it to my jacket, saying it should have been mine too - and I was informed that Norman Lewis and I had been recommended for the DSO. However I had seen the priority list for awards and navigators were at the bottom, which was disappointing because pilots and navigators were mutually dependent upon each other for the success of any operation.

Bad weather, especially low cloud could abort a raid - and such conditions caused the initial flares to be dropped too far South of the marking point on the Dortmund-Ems canal on the night of 1-11-44; but I did manage to see our target and showed Leo. Leo confirmed that, as he requested more flares to the North, but back-up flares were laid further South and the raid became a fiasco.

That was infuriating because our target identification had been visual, definite and accurate (as we iterated at the resultant post-mortem at No. 54 Base, Coningsby); we had not just thought we had seen it, nor were we psychic in requesting flares further North.

Twice within a fortnight we were met at de-briefing by “Cocky” - AVM Cochrane - and a group of senior USAF officers; on each occasion he asked if we had seen any fighters - when we replied “Yes” he asked “Did you have a poop at them?” I first politely pointed out that we had no guns, but on the second occasion my reply was not so polite and very testy; at least Pathfinder Force had known what each squadron did.
I encountered Guy Gibson a few times at Woodhall, and he seemed a lost soul. par- ticularly on the last occasion when he dropped in at the Mess; he was upset by the award of Cheshire’s VC (and I could understand that after his own VC for the Dambuster raid), but he reckoned too forcibly and bluntly that, on the basis of Cheshire’s citation, he would get a bar to his VC, To avoid a scene in front of a junior officer. young P/O John Watts, I persuaded Gibson to leave.

The next I heard was that he was to control the marking of four targets at Munchen Gladbach. Leo and I marked “Blue” target and we saw neither flak nor fighters that night, and I still wonder what happened to Wing Commander Guy Gibson. VC. (see elsewhere on this subject).

On January 1945 Leo and I completed my third tour at Royan and once again gave the first “Tally Ho”, in fact we were only legitimately beaten to it at Kaiserslautern. By “Legitimately” I mean not deliberately ignoring the flight plan (which was devised to confuse enemy defences as to the identity of our target) or to deliberately mark too early (which could initiate the defences before our main force were timed to bomb). To waste x minutes only needed an x minute port or starboard tum of 60 degrees  followed by an x minute starboard (or port) turn of 120degrees - the equilateral triangle.

The CO asked if I would carry on and I agreed to if Leo was made Flight Commander but I was told he was too junior so I packed in. Maybe the Yanks did have something with their up-grading and downgrading air crews according to their operational efficiency. I was sorry to leave Leo needing a navigator but enough was enough with 90 trips.

Leo flew a Lancaster out to Brisbane (Archerfield Aerodrome) soon after I had returned there with my wife and our very young son and daughter. We kept in touch right up to his death from cancer on 12 August 1979 and his daughter and I exchange Christmas Cards - we both still hold him in affection and respect.

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited