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At First Sight
The Lowdown From Down Under -Wallace 'Johnno' Gaunt. DFC*

My track to 627 Squadron was via 466 (RAAF) Squadron, 30 OTU and 1655 Mosquito Training Unit. On 466, with Wellingtons, I completed 33 operations, being part of the first crew on that squadron to complete a tour, losses being horrific at the time. A tour was, in fact 30, but due to a severe shortage we did three extra before the Station Commander called a halt - the excuse for an almighty party. There followed a period as “aircrew cooperation officer” at 30 OTU, sorting out the navigators who were getting completely lost on cross country flights. After two crashes and a number of other incidents I needed no persuasion when volunteers were called for to transfer to PFF Mosquitoes. I met up with my Pilot, Peter Mallender, for a stint on 1655 where we Navigators were asked to calculate time taken for fixing position, finding a wind, working out new course and ETA and passing to pilot. All Navigators agreed 4 1/2 - 5 minutes. We were advised in no uncertain terms that 2 1/2 minutes was to be the time in future, due to the greater speed of the Mosquito.

On completion at 1655 volunteers were required for “this special squadron in 5 Group” (Thank goodness someone knew we existed-Ed) and we never regretted it, but after we had been doing numerous cross country training flights at high altitude, we found that low level operations with 627 were the order of the day.

When Peter and I arrived at Woodhall Spa we were allotted two beds in a large new Nissen hut. I think there were six beds each side and we took the two at the end furthest from the door. We saw that hut fill up and empty twice whilst we were there - then we went to the Adjutant and got two single rooms.

I was the PMC for our officers mess for part of the time - a thankless task but I did get the use of a truck once a week which I drove into Horncastle where a friendly grocer supplied a few “off the ration” extras.

Guy Gibson was a brave man and did a good job leading the Dambusters, but he came back from the USA too full of his own importance. He walked into our mess one night and everybody was talking, playing liar-dice, drinking etc., so he called out “Don’t you know who I am?”. He got very annoyed as he had expected everyone to stand up and cheer him. In the end he was debagged and put outside. He persuaded our CO to let him fly a Mosquito - against his better judgement. A week or so later Peter and I were told he wanted the aircraft we were due to operate in that night. He did not return.

Several flying incidents stick out in my memory, for instance, on a wind finding and met. reconnaissance in daylight over Brest for Main Force, we circled low to find out what some “little green men” were doing. Eventually they wheeled out a gun and started shooting at us. Some days later marking gun sites, again at Brest in daylight, we very nearly got ourselves shot down by Americans, who mistook us for a ME-110 - the sky was full of planes milling around! Again in daylight a couple of months later, whilst acting as Controller for 102 Lancasters of 5 Group attacking gun positions on Walcheren Island we received flak damage in wing, flaps and tail.

On 28th October 1944 the squadron was detailed to mark the U-boat pens at Bergen, on the Norwegian coast. The weather was poor and steep mountainsides loomed menacingly over us, causing Peter to bank violently immediately we had dropped our target indicators. On returning to advanced base we learned that we had been the only aircraft to locate and mark the target that night, due to the foul weather.

Another notable operation for us was Oslo Gestapo Headquarters, described fully in another paragraph, where we had been briefed to expect flak from the hillside of the fjord. In fact the Prinz Eugen with its flotilla of destroyers was just to starboard of our low level mid-day attack and they were most unfriendly. We suffered massive damage and I got a cannon shell through by right leg - exposing but not breaking the bone. I later found a small arms bullet in the left hand breast pocket of my battle dress - it had travelled through the tube of gentian violet and a field dressing. Peter was doubtful whether the aircraft would make it back to UK so flew north for several minutes debating whether to turn right and head for Sweden, but the engines kept going and we gained height slowly, so went west over the mountains. After crossing the coast Peter experimented and found we stalled at about 170 knots so he had to fly the aircraft onto the runway at Peterhead at high speed, with his head up and with me calling out height and airspeed all the time - a magnificent landing which terminated with a ground loop just short of the perimeter fence. I was told later that all aircraft returned, but all were damaged.

I was put into an ambulance and taken to a Naval Hospital just north of Aberdeen. They sewed me up in the last hours of 1944. Got a bar to the DFC for that escapade - notified by telegram whilst in hospital. Eventually the Admiral i/c of the Hospital, on his official visit said I could go - and report to the nearest RAF Station - so I asked him to issue the clearance and railway warrant etc., which he did with the remark that we were snowbound and nobody can get in or out for a few days yet.

With the connivance of other officers in the ward, who distracted the VAD on late afternoon duty, I took my papers from the nurses station and walked out. I trudged through deep snow for some way and then came across a car with chains on its wheels, which gave me a lift into Aberdeen.

In Aberdeen it was nearly midnight but I found a hotel, unfortunately they were full. Two girls saw me in the lobby and asked me if they could help. I explained I had to get a train next day but wanted a bed for the night, as I was exhausted. After some giggling and conferring they each took one of my arms and walked me through the streets to a large three or four storey house near the station, where they lived. I was given a hot drink and then passed out. I woke next morning in a bed in a corridor - they had undressed me, but I found my clothes and a bathroom etc. I was given breakfast and asked the elderly lady if the girls were her daughters - she laughed and explained that I had spent the night in a brothel! - what a wasted opportunity!

A train with a snowplough on the front left Aberdeen later that day - the first for several days, going up the coast Northwards and reached the RAF station where I was put in the station sick bay - a large room with a WAAF in a bed at one end and me at the other. I was still too weak to take any advantage of the situation and got home on sick leave as soon as the weather permitted. I returned to 627 in February 1945.

Back at Woodhall I recall the CO at the time W/Cdr George Curry sending all the aircrew for a run round the perimeter track, presumably for the good of our health. There was a pub tucked away at a convenient spot just outside the airfield, and out of sight of the control tower and squadron offices, and it suddenly became very well patronised.

In December 1944 Peter and I had the dubious pleasure of taking the Base Oxford to deliver a boffin back to Farnborough. We set off with only a map, no radio and no navigation aids. After about an hour we entered a blinding snowstorm and lots of turbulence. I calculated we were in the vicinity of Radlett aerodrome and worked out a course from St. Albans Cathedral. After casting around we located the tower of the cathedral and flew blind with a brief glimpse of Radlett to enable us to land. It was much later that we learned that we had been buzzing around the cathedral precisely as Sunday evensong was in progress.

I recall seeing Barnes Wallis wandering around the station at Woodhall Spa - especially at the time the tallboy bombs were being developed for 617 to drop. He was a friend of my Father’s - they had worked together on the geodetic construction used in the airships and later in the Wellesley and Wellington, but unfortunately I never introduced myself to him.

Referring back to the Oslo raid, my wife and I visited Norway a few years ago and the Norwegian Ambassador to Australia, where I now reside, arranged for her Father-in-Law to meet us. He was a spitfire pilot during the war and was shot down over the Channel and became a POW. The Norwegians proudly showed us where we had destroyed the Gestapo Headquarters and left the adjoining buildings virtually intact. The building has now been rebuilt and made into their Foreign Affairs Department.

He also arranged for his cousin in Bergen to meet us, and show us the U-boat pens we had marked and the heavies had tried to damage. He was able to get a permit for the Duty Naval Officer to show us round - he had never been allowed inside before, but our visit got the right permit. Although the concrete was far too thick to damage we, or rather the Lancasters we marked for, did destroy the fuel tanks on the adjoining hill which immobilised the U-boats for quite a while. 627 Squadron’s visual marking had certainly played its part in the precision bombing carried out by Bomber Command in the latter years of the war.

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited