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At First Sight
Low Flying - High Jinks  - John Whitehead

A Rather Dicey Trip.

Target for tonight is Munich, 17 December 1944. We had taken off from Manston, as I advanced base, and were climbing through a rather nasty cloud when both the ASI and the Altimeter simply froze up. The only time in my flying life where I’ve ever lost an Altimeter. Mother didn’t tell us that could happen!

We carried on, judging height by temperature and we also had the one positive check that the superchargers went into high gear, THUMP, at 13,500feet and judging the speed by power setting, gyro horizon and by our ears.

There is a clear sky high up, disturbing contrails much of the way and its quite a long trip of course. Arriving over Munich a trifle late, we must have been a bit higher than we had thought because the superchargers were rather tardy to get back into low gear. There was a very strong wind sweeping the flares away to the south east. But “Ceremonies” were in progress; a classic 5 Group operation!

The aiming point was the “Oktoberwiese”, in fact the band stand on that wiese where they have the beer feasts, and I believe we still managed to back up sombody else’s primary marker. My memory is dim on this. But then, streaking over the town on the way out, things began to happen: An odd phenomenon had appeared, a spotlight in the sky that seemed to keep us in focus and as I was following Johnny Watt’s instructions to twist and tum, we went into some serious aerobatics; we thought it was a night fighter with some new system of finding his prey; persistent, aggressive!

It eventually dawned on us that the light we were trying to escape from was some kind of spoof hanging in the sky, and we rather ashamedly “broke off the battle”, this weird one-sided dogfight in the dark; I did a very tight last tum to get the light into view myself; I had only reacted to Johnny’s instructions up to now, and to really ball things up I had toppled the gyro horizon. But Munich was lit up enough for us to have a good sense of where up and down was while the gyro got hold of itself again.

Back on course for home, instruments still frozen solid; on nearing England I had informed the Bomber Fixer of our predicament and we were told to approach and land at Bradwell Bay. While we were letting down through cloud both instruments thawed out just before we broke through at six hundred feet or so.

Before going in for our bacon and eggs, it was dawn by then, we were debriefed by Intelligence, then wandered into the mess; Bradwell Bay was, I think, a Coastal Command training station of some kind, there seemed to be lots of “Sprogs” about.

Halfway through that wonderful breakfast, the thick salty bacon with two deep yellow eggs, and tea unequalled elsewhere in the world, a type appeared at the door and called “Flight Lieutenant Whitehead?” And as I raised my eyes and my hand he asked, very loudly, “Did you attack at five hundred feet or at five thousand?” “Five Hundred!” I almost shouted and then, with studied nonchalance reverted my attention to the breakfast.

A sweet little victory, all the faces were turned on us, the bleary eyed and dishevelled pair! Wow! Worth the tribulations of the night.

Mayhem in the Briefing Room

I was duty officer one night and prior to the briefing session I lit the iron stove so the room would be warm when the crews came in. There seemed to be a lot of paper and things packed in the stove, but I paid little attention to that, it would bum away no doubt so I could then put in the coal. But the stove began to get red hot and spouted red and green smoke and flames through all its openings and eventually blew off the cooking ring of the top plate. The room was filled with impenetrable smoke and with ominous smells, unusable for the planned briefing; and it was getting late and everybody was looking at me as the fool, the culprit, the saboteur possibly?

In the previous weeks it had become the “IN THING” to climb onto the roof of the Admin. Building and drop the flare part of a Very Pistol cartidge down the chimney of the Adjutant’s office into his burning iron stove. This was done several times with great success; the Adj. rushed out of his office, pursued by red or green smoke and everyone enjoyed it hugely. Was the chief joker a F/L Devigne?

The prank, however, needed some preparation; the cartidges were carefully disected in the briefing room to extract the flaring substance and the non-essential parts were dumped in the iron stove.

A Sad Ending

We were returning one night from mining the Elbe River in the very north of Germany. Three of us four Mossies had identified to the bomber fixer at Coltishall, at three degrees east as was the form. Only about fifteen minutes later a broad New Zealand voice came on the air; “I lost an engine over the taaarget!” he reported and there was instant response from each of the three of us; ‘Line!” - “Line!” - “Line!” it sounded clear as a bell over the VHF circuit, as if we were all four flying in loose formation over friendly ground. It is difficult for readers who were not in the RAF at that time to understand that the poor pilot, struggling with his remaining engine, was being teased by us for “having shot a line”! The crew in question was a big towering New Zealand Pilot and his navigator was Australian - F/O Bamett and F/S Day. The sad ending to this story is this: They did not make it. No more was heard of them.

Until recently - read later chapter (Comp).

A Sunny August Day.

A wonderful sunny August day in 1944, marked forever in my mind: Woodhall Spa; flirting with girls around a swimming room. It was time to go and dress (we had been briefed before) to get into our Mossies and to take off for France; this time I had a photographer, F/O Herbert, aboard instead of my usual navigator Johnny Watt. The idea was this time to cross one of our bomber streams that was on the way to bomb a V1 bomb dump, cross it diagonally, to get some of their fighter protection, then to descend steeply and mark a V1 dump for the heavies.

We were late off the ground, NOT as I must assure you because of the WAAFs at the swimming pool, I do not remember what the reason was, but we were late and the poster that was displayed at all RAF stations during the war years: “The Straggler is Lost!” came to mind and worried us.

We crossed at the rear end of the 5 Group Lancaster stream, being turned nearly upside down a couple of times by the slip stream of one of them, hundreds of them were silhouetted against the true blue sky, glistening here and there in that extraordinary day’s sunlight. A stream of Messerschmitts appeared high up, not interested in us Mossies, and some Spitfires streaked after them.

I simply do not remember why we had two five hundred pound bombs aboard in addition to the markers, but they also had to be delivered, in a second dive onto the same target. Was it tojustify the existence of the photographer? I don’t remember and it is not part of my story.

But the area had become somewhat of a wasp nest, it seemed everybody was shooting down on us from the surrounding hills while we were, by now, hugging the ground at 300 knots awaiting a quiet stretch before I would dare to pull up sharply at full bore to gain height and get away.

And there, an apparition, a scene, a happening! We whizzed by a tea party in the garden of a Chateau! I believe to this day that I recognised the pattem of Sevre china and clearly saw the butler holding a silver tray, he was looking up frowning with disapproval. I am not quite sure whether the surprised people actually waved, but they certainly looked up ,.... that’s the least they could do, wasn’t it, to express their support for my, for them no doubt surprising and not quite understood, war effort?

I was stunned for a moment by this dissonance of war and peace, those three seconds of it, then we started to try to get up to height, twisting and tuming while the flak still followed us; and once it had thinned out, flew home happily to Woodhall Spa, hardly even looking back to France, confident and relaxed, who would try to go after a lone Mosquito going home?

That wonderful August aftemoon gave the impression that all those planes, all that roar of engines, all those trails in the sky were just a pantomime, not serious, not true; a diversion maybe from the humdrum of life?

The sun was still up, the sky still cloudless, when I returned to the swimming pool to continue my flirt with the girls. The number had shrunk to only one by now, and she was somewhat sunburned; but she was therel!

Brunswick-Braunschweig

Johnny Watt always got us there on time and so I don’t remember what excuse I had for dropping my markers from far too high, so that they fell wide. It was one of those nights that resembled most closely what was shown to us in the building in Coningsby that was fitted up with all the trimmings to demonstrate what would happen on a typical night; shall I call it the Path Finder Trainer? With searchlights, light flak, markers, spoof markers and drifting clouds, garbs of light flak tracers, another classic “5 Group evening”.

After debriefing at about 0400hrs already depressed by the “black” I had put up, I am addressed by Group Captain Philpott, the Station Commander, who had been listening to the sad story. With disdain on his face and in his voice he said “Whitehead, you are the sort of chap who would wear coloured socks!” And at the time I thought that maybe he was right!

A Tight Evening

One evening during the winter of early ‘45 there was snow on the ground in Woodhall Spa. Our friend Jock Walker had had a bit too much ot something, or lets say he had had just a little more too much of something than the rest of us. But it was time to go home to our quarters that were about a quarter of a mile away in Nissen huts and so we put Jock on a stretcher and carried him along the slippery snowy road.

But presently, for the first time ever, a couple of German night intruders started to strafe the airfield and its surroundings. We cowered down in a ditch to wait until the intruders had gone, having deposited jocks stretcher next to us in the snow. After about twenty minutes of awaiting the end of the shooting we picked up the stretcher again and only then it was noticed that somehow in the excitement the stretcher had been turned upside down and Jock had been lying with his face in the snow! It was too cumbersome to turn the stretcher right side up again, (have you ever tried to do this with a body hanging in it?), so we carried the stretcher upside down to our hut and deposited it, Jock still strapped to it, onto his bed, lace down, to continue his slumber!

I hope you enjoy my reminiscences as I have done just thinking ot the events.

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited