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At First Sight

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At First Sight
Transition – Skylarks To Quail - William M. De Boos DFC. RAAF.

The job of Navigation Officer at the small satellite station of an Operational Training Unit in Derbyshire in 1943, which involved night cross-country flights with trainee crews, lost its attractiveness after a few months, so in August I applied for posting to a Mosquito Squadron. When the acceptance came through, I wrote to my mother in Australia saying that I was envied very much by everyone at the OTU; because flying “Mossies” was considered to be one of the sweetest jobs in the Air Force. As they could operate at 30,000ft and fly as fast as a German fighter aircraft, this belief was not difficult to understand.

In due course, after saying farewell to Church Broughton and Lichfield, I arrived at Marham for navigation training under S/L Bill Anderson, an old friend from Canada days. After some weeks of training with F/O Denis Tayler, lots of cross-country flights, and the usual decompression chamber test of 1.5hrs at 37,000ft., Denis and I landed up at 139 Mosquito Squadron at Wyton. Here we really felt on top of the air force world, usually operating above 25,000ft on nuisance raids or “spoof” raids (to mislead German defences, and divert attention from the heavy bombers) on German targets, with comparatively small losses. Even after I was posted in November to 627 Squadron, at Oakington,  Station and Squadron Navigation Officer, the same feeling persisted. With a comfortable station, very experienced pilots such as W/Cmdr Roy Elliott, S/ Ls Guy Lockhart and Norman MacKenzie and F/Lt Douglas Peck and minimal losses, I wasn’t disheartened even when they enlarged the bomb bay of the Mosquito, making it look like a pregnant seagull, and loaded it with a 4,000lb “cookie”, so that the poor old kite could barely get off the runway.

As we were now part of 8 (PPE) Group, we were under the watchful eye of Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett, who made a point of attending briefings and interrogations. Being no mean air navigator himself, he could be relied upon to see that navigation standards were right up to scratch. AVM Bennett was proud of his “Light Night Striking Force' of Mosquitoes, which kept the German defences and civil defence units constantly in action on nights when the heavy bombers couldn’t operate. The losses even against heavily defended and distant targets such as Berlin, were only about 1%.

One morning in the middle of April 1944 all this changed. AVM Bennett, obviously very upset, stood before the Squadron crews in the briefing room and informed us that we were to be transferred to 5 Group, Bomber Command, in Lincolnshire, to do some new, unspecified, task. It was obvious then, and is a matter of history now, that the detachment, which took place concurrently with the detachment of two Lancaster Squadrons, was very much contrary to the Group Commander’s wishes. He later described it, in his book “Pathfinder”, as a “slap in the face”. Hints were given that the new task would be dangerous and, possibly, not altogether effective, We all listened in silence, and a feeling of grim foreboding settled on the Squadron like a patch of low stratus.

Next day W/Cdr Elliott and I and an advance party flew to Woodhall Spa, a satellite station of Coningsby, to survey our new home. What a change! Sleeping accommodation in Nissen huts one mile from the airfield, no established mess, and a small army of catering staff under the command of Section Officer Sheila Adamson (my future and present wife - still after 40 years) desperately trying to get things in order for this sudden invasion from a rival bomber group. The Officers’ Mess was actually at a spot on the map called Tattershall Thorpe, but until it was ready we ate at the “Petwood” Hotel, which had been taken over by the RAF for 617 Squadron, and which was at Woodhall Spa village, 3-4 miles away. This was a brief taste of comparative luxury before we settled into our war-time mess at Tattershall Thorpe.

We returned to Oakington, and a day later flew north once again with the remainder of the Squadron aircraft. Next morning we were assembled in the briefing room at Coningsby and told what the new job was to be.

Horror of horrors - no more cruising at 30,000ft, but a system of visual target marking from a height of 500-100ft, underneath the flares dropped by the heavies, amid all that nasty light flak, and among the barrage balloons and German fighters. We were fairly well accustomed to dodging heavy flak at cruising height; but this new system sounded like “dicing with death”. Not one of us wanted to he a posthumous hero, and we returned to our messes in a mood of deep gloom. The fact that this method of marking had been initiated and used by Gp/Cpt Leonard Cheshire, Squadron Commander of 6l7 Squadron (the Dambusters), who was already a legend for his determination and achievements, did nothing to soothe our anxiety.

It was decided that we should drown our sorrows. That evening we all fled to a little pub at neighbouring Horncastle, where after a pint of watery beer, things seemed marginally better. The silence was oppressive, so someone switched on the pub radio. It was the BBC, of course. In Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”, the dear departed first wife is supposed to have expired in a fit of laughter while listening to a BBC musical programme; but this was definitely not such a programme. It sounded like the middle of a very serious Brahms symphony. “Dread Music! Switch it off” said Benny Goodman, and it was duly switched off. In an attempt to dispel the gloom, I went to the piano keyboard, and began to pound away - possibly “Roll out the barrel”, or something similar. This lasted for about two minutes. The pub proprietor came out, closed the piano lid. and said that piano music particularly of that class, was not permitted on the Sabbath.

This was absolutely the low point of Squadron morale.

Within a couple of days we were settled into our sleeping quarters, had our own officers’ and sergeants’ messes, and had begun training for the new type of operations. Marking was to be carried out in a steep glide, and pilots had to learn to use a bomb release on the control column at what they judged to be the appropriate instant. Therefore, practice bombing at Wainfleet bombing range, more practice bombing, and still more practice bombing. Generally 4 to 6 aircraft were to act as markers, with one experienced pilot acting as “Marker Leader” and directing the others over the target area.

About a week later, on 26th April we made our first attempt at visual night marking over Schweinfurt, site of an industrial area including an important ball-bearing factory. This had been the subject of attacks by the US Air Force, resulting in heavy losses. The German defences used smoke generators to put a smoke screen over most of the industrial area, so it was difficult to locate any particular part of it. It was a strange sensation, very different from what we had become accustomed to, to be cruising around above the cloud of smoke, in the light of the flares, and to see the top of the church steeple poking through the smoke, apparently just below the wing-tip. The attack appeared to be successful, In this attack, and a previous attack two days earlier, Bomber Command claimed to have destroyed 43% of the target area.

 The next operation, to the Kjeller Aircraft works at Oslo, operating from an advance base at Lossiemouth, offered some variety. After a comparatively long flight over sea, mountains and fjords, we dropped our red and green spot fires on the roof of the factory building, and through the side windows the markers could be clearly seen blazing inside the building.

Shortly after this attack W/Cdr Roy Elliott, having completed his third tour, and a total of 8l operations, handed over command to the late W/Cdr George Curry who met his death during a Battle of Britain display some time after the war.

Eventually the Squadron settled into a series of attacks, mainly against French targets, in preparation for “D Day”, on 6th June 1944. German coastal batteries were successfully targeted on the night prior to “D Day” and important rail junctions were attacked very accurately in the weeks immediately following. Attacks were later mounted against heavily defended German targets.

In his biography of Gp/Cpt Leonard Cheshire. VC. DSO. DFC., Andrew Boyle, refer- ring to the Munich attack marked by Cheshire, says “Later, other Squadrons, notably 627, achieved far more striking successes with the same method”. The most spectacular success was the breaching of the Dortmund-Ems Canal aqueduct, which carried S/Ldr Rupert Oakley an immediate DSO. I remember well an attack on the port of Bremerhaven, when our markers were very accurate, and the subsequent fire-bombing appeared to follow closely the outline of the built-up dockside area.

In other words, the high-flying skylarks had become earth-skimming quail.

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited