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At First Sight
Shooting High – With a Camera - Brian E. B. Harris. DFC.

Sometime during the 30s I recklessly spent my pocket money at the cinema watching aerial films such as ‘Wings’, ‘Dawn Patrol’ and ‘Hell’s Angels’. The greatest was ‘Wings’, a huge epic which quickly gave rise to a series of aviation movies around the early thirties. They made the aces of World War I into chivalrous knights - dashing and always handsome!

American, William Wellman was an ideal director for ’Wings’, he had seen active service as a pilot in World War l and he brought many new ideas to movie making. No doubt these helped the film to win an Oscar in 1927, the first film to gain an Academy Award. After watching several other such airborne thrillers I found myself in my seat wearing an imaginary flying helmet, a flapping silk scarf and, of course, oil spattered goggles - the schoolboy Biggles.

In now what seems a short space of time World War II was upon the universe and young ‘Biggles’ found himself before a selection board - “So you want to be an Observer, not a pilot - Why?” “Well my present job and my hobby is photography - cine photography to be precise. Taking photographs of enemy lines from a plane is something I am sure I could cope with”. I would dearly like to see what he wrote down on the form, the colleagues beside him gave me the impression they had heard this request many times before, but I doubt it.

Whatever he wrote down may have had some effect on my being called up and having to report to Stratford-upon-Avon, for kitting out, classes and inoculations, then St. Andrews in Scotland in an hotel overlooking the famous golf course, overlooking only, I recall, square bashing and lectures being the order of the day.

After a few weeks we were on board a troopship, the converted French luxury liner “Louis Pasteur” heading for Canada. We were in a tight convoy until well out into the Atlantic when we suddenly made a dash on our own. It was winter time and the Atlantic, sea sickness was prevalent but not obligatory. I can remember to this day, guys lying in the latrines flat out for hours if not days. It was, however, excellent training for withstanding the effects of ‘corkscrewing’ in heavy bombers for the times that lay ahead.

The Canadian hospitality was terrific and we were entertained endlessly while we awaited that vital posting for training in Canada or the States. At last the rumour was leaked - we were going to the States, a navigator’s course at the University of Miami, Florida, for training by Pan American Airways - America was not yet in the War, but we needed to respect her neutrality, so this meant adjustment to the regular RAF uniform. US khaki replaced our light blue but we retained our caps and the white aircrew flash.

The course got off to a brisk start with lectures and ten would-be navigators at a time airborne in a Commodore Flying Boat; how the instructor coped was quite a miracle, but we learnt a lot. Life on the Campus was good, with a college canteen and waiters who turned out to be students eaming their way through University.

American hospitality was soon in full swing, invites to everyone and everywhere, just add your name to the many lists on the Notice Board, transport and hostesses provided. My female company was Marilyn, her old man owned a canning factory - I never knew canning what! I remember her birthday when a large automobile was delivered by the local dealer complete with ribbons on the door handles and a king sized card which read “To Marilyn - Happy Birthday - from Pops”.

I decided to hire a 16mm cine camera from the local photo shop and make a 20 minute colour film of our training activities in and around the University. Naturally this included shots of the planes we flew and views taken from the air of Miami and it’s many islands in the sun.

Good times don’t last for ever and in due course we were back in the UK at Wigtown on the west coast of Scotland. On the ground the wind off the sea was in harsh contrast to the soft gentle Florida breezes. In the air considerable regard was needed for the mountainous terrain after Florida’s flat swampland. Observance of this new environment was undoubtedly the object of the Air Observers AFU eight week course.

Life really began at 12 OTU Chipping Warden, for until now we navigators had lived a somewhat monastic existence, we had heard about pilots, air gunners, wireless operators and the rest - now we were going to meet and join them as a Wellington requires a crew of five. I plucked up courage and approached a Sergeant Pilot Geoff Ware and asked if could be his navigator “Yes OK” was his friendly reply - what a guy he turned out to be! Before long we were flying 5-6 hour daylight trips plus the odd Infra Red Target night flights over Conway. By now I felt sure there must be a camera on board, I never saw it or the IR trace on the film.

News flash!...from another navigator...”Your crew are posted to 1651 Conversion Flight at Waterbeach on four engine Stirlings”. Within a month we were thundering, or so it seemed, around Britain, a mid-upper gunner and an engineer had joined our merry crew. There seemed bags of room in this giant bomber - with it’s bomb doors twice the length of a London bus! It was quite a walk to the back, to the Elsan, but it was handy for grinning and waving to Ginger, the rear gunner, in his cramped turret. We were engaged on day and night circuits and bumps and I was now appreciating the wonderful navigational aid -GEE. We flew ‘Exercise 2a’, a three hour trip at night was a real chance to use this new radar device.

December 1942 and we were on XV Squadron at Bourn, so World War II for me had started. We were broken in gently against the enemy with a spot of ‘gardening’, in other words minelaying, not far from the Frisian Islands with six 1500lb mines dropped by parachute. The 3 February I remember was a day of rumour and plenty of activity on the drome, ground crews busy everywhere - before long “maximum effort” was on everyone’s lips. It seemed all aircrew turned up for briefing, they filed into the Ops Room like a Saturday aftemoon football crowd, already some were trying to guess the target, maybe they heard, modest tanks of petrol, but maximum bomb loads, this often meant somewhere in the Ruhr, the opposite meant deeper into Europe. The tapes on the map led to Hamburg, this led to the usual ‘not again’ gasps. My comfort came from the fact that we were flying with a camera, although I never saw it, but I
think it was our photoflash I saw go off illuminating the ground below us.

All in all February was a busy month, we attacked eighteen German targets, often two nights on the trot, included in that tally were three to Berlin. I had the impression every trip presented a different hazard, technical aircraft problems, the weather, especially fog back at base, oh yes! I almost forgot, flak and fighters. Returning one night our engineer informed the skipper we were short of fuel - I at once started calculating the shortest route back to base - somehow we made it. The next morning our wonderful ground crew were quick to show us two holes in the wings made by ack ack shells on their way up, they had been fused to explode at the height of the Lancasters and Halifaxes above us. We soon realised where the petrol had gone - tanks 3 and 4 had been ripped open. Our Stirling tour ended peacefully with an uneventful raid on Duisberg on 5 April 1943.

In less than a year I had my first flight in a Mosquito at 1655 MTU, Marham, from the RAF’s biggest and slowest bomber to it’s smallest and fastest. A ‘marriage’ occurred when I teamed up with a ‘partner’, a DFC Pathfinder pilot Johnny Thomson from New Zealand, ex 12 and 156 Squadrons, Warboys. He was tall – 6’3’’ - so getting his legs sorted out in the small cockpit of a Mosquito reminded me of a cinema organist leg-swinging on the foot pedals. I am sometimes asked what my reactions were to my first flight in a Mosquito: I usually reply by asking the questioner what his reactions were to his first ride in a motor car. After a glazed look appears he tells me “not a lot”. The passage of time evaporates one’s memory - a pity.

In less than a month we had completed several three to four hour day and night cross country flights and by the 12 February 1944 we heard we were posted: our log books were signed by OC “A” Flight I.G.Broom F/Lt., now listed in my Who’s Who as Air Marshal Sir Ivor Broom KCB CBE DSO DFC**.

Eight days later we were well installed at Oakington on 627 Squadron and within two nights were off to Stuttgart with 4x500lb bombs followed by trips to Dusseldorf- Berlin - Duisberg - Cologne. Mosquitoes took off usually within an hourly interval throughout the night. Unexpectedly we broke the pattem on 24 March by staggering off with a 4000lb “Cookie” to Kiel, a few nights later Kiel again, then Hanover with the big load.

Then on 15 April 1944 my log book has an entry “Thirty minute flight from Oakington to Woodhall Spa’ - we were to become operational with 5 Group, The next day I enter in my log book “Practise dive bombing 10,000 to 4,000ft” Johnny and I carried out thirty six dive bombing practises, but before we had completed half a dozen such dives we had reduced the starting height nearer to 3-4,000ft pulling out at 500-1000ft. This certainly improved accuracy. our practise bombs were much closer to the target, which floated in the Wash near Wainfleet, south of Skegness.

By the time we were due to leave the Squadron we had taken part in twenty six dive marking missions and by comparison to other 627 air crews we were extremely lucky. Obviously we had a few ‘dicey’ moments, for example on one of our early missions we forgot the petrol cocks so we had the Merlins coughing and cutting: when we realised our error my hand, as quick as a snake, shot behind the pilot’s seat to the two fuel cocks and within a few seconds we were on our way home again. On another occasion we got entangled with a cold front, we descended to 7,500 ft, most of the time the eerie blue halo light sat on the propeller tips, and ASI and DR Compass had packed up, both engines cut for a while. We decided to land at Ford rather than risk further problems that night. We had lost all the fabric from the leading edges, and bare wood gazed at us from many angles, more of this treatment and I feel things could have been a lot worse. Not unlike the occasion when the CSU of the starboard engine ran wild as we were making our landing approach. Skilfully Johnny hit the correct feathering button in the dark, then the deck started to come towards us very quickly, “Coming in on the belly” shouted Johnny over the R/T to the control tower: after what seemed an age a young lady’s voice said “Say again please”: seconds after this we were skidding along on the grass beside the runway. The escape hatch was by now opened by your truly and whilst debris and dust hurtled around the cockpit I was preparing to make a hasty exit. The only anxious moment was when we hit a runway which crossed our path, this caused us to become airborne again and our scant audience of onlookers feared we would flip over on our second landing, but all was well. In fact, a perfect landing, the next morning she was jacked up and the undercarriage lowered - nice work Johnny.

Prior to the invasion, transport of every kind was attacked in an attempt to prevent supplies reaching the landing areas. We were briefed to mark the railway yard at Saumur for the heavies of 5 Group. The first Mosquito to mark one end of the yard was flown by F/O “Benny” Goodman and his navigator “Bill” Hickox in “G” George. After the war Benny commissioned the well known artist Don Breckon to depict this episode. Having been on this attack I consider the painting says it all, however, there is another graphic painting, this time by Terence Cuneo, showing Leonard Cheshire marking the Gestapo Headquarters in Munich with a red spot fire, I am most grateful to Benny for allowing me to reproduce his painting on the sleeve of my video called “Mosquitoes Airborne, so on this occasion I had to succumb to an artist’s painting as I have never seen, and doubt if I ever will see, a photograph of 627 putting down their accurate markers.

The War had reached the stage when we could consider carrying out our Path Finder work in daylight and I could hardly believe my luck when Johnny and I were told we were to fly a daylight photo reconnaissance. Our aircraft was to be fitted with two 35mm newsreel type cameras to film 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron dropping 12,000lb bombs on enemy shipping in Brest. I was therefore about to fulfil a minor ambition, to aim a camera from the air at enemy territory. I remembered telling the selection board a while ago that was my desire - all comes to he who waits - with luck!

The next day we were to mark, with four yellow indicators, Deelen, a German Fighter airfield in Holland, we were then to climb up away from the heavies and film the start of the raid, for Bomber Command. We were to have a Thunderbolt fighter escort. On my previous leave I brought back my 16mm cine camera, so I decided to take it along with me and use it on the way to the target and back. Naturally I had to use the 35mm official camera at the target, everything seemed to go very well, and that included keeping well away from the rain of Lancaster bombs. Some weeks later I was delighted to see part of my official film included in No. 3 Edition of the Airfront Gen Film solely for internal Service distribution: this and my colour film I have been able to include in my video about the Mossie. I filmed at least another half a dozen targets before our time was up with 627 Squadron, not forgetting one Master Bomber exercise.

I shall never forget the times spent on the ‘big is beautiful' Stirling XV Squadron, and I shall always remember the times spent on the ‘small but beautifully marked’ Mosquito 627 Squadron. The good Lord put us together on the Squadron and helped workers put together one of this country’s finest aircraft - The MOSSIE.

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited