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At First Sight

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At First Sight
The Sheer ThrilI Of Being A Member Of An Operational Marking Team
W. W. “Bill” Burke. 

In no way did I want to join 627 Squadron. I ended my first tour of operations with 207 Squadron as a non-commissioned navigator on Lancaster Main Force bombers of 5 Group, operating out of Spilsby in Lincolnshire. To be precise, my last operation was an attack in the early hours of 4 January 1945 on the Germans holding out in Royan, which was, incidentally, marked hy 627. As I remember it, the beleaguered garrison had irritated the local populace by venturing out to rustle cattle. lf that was so, then a visit by 5 Group’s 200-250 bombers was a heavy price to pay for their fillet steak!

At the time I was twenty years of age and had been flying on operations continually since August 1944. It had been an exciting tour, full of experiences which I can still recall with astonishing clarity. For example, until I die, there will be imprinted on my mind the memory of attacking Bremen on the night of 6 October 1944. We were ‘coned’ by searchlights and hit by anti-aircraft fire which, amongst other things, cut the oil pipelines to the rear turret rendering the turret virtually inoperable. Then - almost immediately - the rear and mid-upper gunners began screaming that a JU88 night fighter was commencing a stern attack. We were all but defenceless and I sat there waiting for a hail of machine gun and cannon fire to come streaming down the fuselage putting paid to my life. But no - the fates were kind. Suddenly we flew into dense cloud and were lost to the night fighter.

As a consequence of such experiences I was a shade “flak happy” In other words the strains and stresses of going into battle some 30 times and seeing so many comrades in the Squadron fail to return from raids had affected my nerves. For example, my hands had a typical “Bomber Command Twitch” which sometimes called for an effort to light a cigarette. In these circumstances you might well think that l would have been more than happy at the prospect of a safe posting possibly to an instructor’s job in Training Command. But far from it - I liked the life on an operational squadron and wanted to stay there.

This may seem surprising, but my 21 st birthday was still five months away and at that age one can crave excitement - danger, like drugs can become habit forming and one wants a regular ‘injection’ of danger and the enormous elation which one experiences when the danger is past and one is still unharmed. It was also a glamorous life. The contract was that you flew the RAF’s aeroplanes with the statistical likelihood that you would be killed, wounded or taken prisoner. In return the RAF paid you well, gave you a great deal of freedom and time off, with leave every six weeks and extended to you a variety of privileges which few enjoyed in war-time Britain. These included such things as air crew meals of bacon and eggs, special sweet rations, petrol for use in private cars and sheets to sleep in. If you weren’t required for flying you could do more or less what you liked; large numbers of air crew in “Bomber Counties” such as Lincolnshire largely spent their spare time in pubs and dance halls, getting “stoned” and chasing the ladies. Cities such as Nottingham were an air crew paradise and the “White Hart” in Lincoln was like a 5 Group Headquarters. To tum one’s back on this sort of Boys Own Paper life and the conscious pride that goes with being a member of an acknowledged corps d’elite was unthinkable to me at the time. So I decided to volunteer for an immediate second tour of operations.

Looking back with the benefit of a life time’s maturity it was an utterly foolish and foolhardy decision akin to applying for and then signing one’s own death warrant - but one doesn’t think that way at twenty. One then has a supreme confidence and a belief that it will be the other guy who doesn’t come through safely. However, I did decide that although I wanted to continue fighting, I wanted out of Bomber Command. Instead I decided that I would like to fly in Beaufighters in Scotland on anti-shipping strikes. I thought that would be exciting and also that it would be satisfying in the sense that one would know whether or not one had been successful. Either a boat was there or it was sunk. Unfortunately my application for a switch to Beaufighters was turned down out of hand. I say “unfortunately” but, in fact, it might be more appropriate to use the word “Fortunately” as I later discovered that there was a very high ‘chop rate’, amongst air crew attacking enemy shipping guarded by flak ships.

At the same time as my transfer application was rejected I was told that if I did want to continue operational flying I could be fixed up with a navigator’s job on 627 Squadron of Path Finder Force, based at Woodhall Spa. If I accepted the offer I could have a commission and so a deal was done.

Having accepted the switch somewhat reluctantly and unenthusiastically my initial impressions, when I arrived at Woodhall Spa, were not especially favourable. At Spilsby with two squadrons of Lancasters, each with seven to the crew, there was a very considerable number of air crew personnel to chum up with, whereas at Woodhall there was a single squadron (617 messed quite separately from 627 Squadron) with only two crew per aircraft. So the total number of air crew with whom to make friends and associate was quite small. Having said that, it was obvious that, on average, the flying personnel were generally more battle-hardened and experienced than those of a normal main force bomber squadron. Shortly after my arrival I moved over to the Officers’ Mess and soon found that although I had joined a smaller ‘family’ I was with excellent comrades for whom I quickly acquired considerable respect. One really did feel that one was a member of a ‘crack’ unit.

On the morning of February 1945 I went airborne for the first time in a Mosquito with F/O Sam Fletcher at the controls. I was to crew with Sam and regarded myself as fortunate in that respect. He was a year or two older than I was and seemed to me to be very mature as well as likeable. As I was to discover he was a most competent pilot who stayed calm in action. The only occasion I can remember him being perturbed was on a take-off from a Scottish aerodrome which had banked snow on each side of the runway. We swerved badly on take-off and the port wingtip went through the snow bank as we headed straight for a hangar, which was narrowly missed. As I was paralysed with fear his perturbation was of little account.

However, back to my first flight in a Mosquito. As I stood on the concrete I looked at the aircraft and thought what a beautiful looking aeroplane it was - so sleek and pretty compared with a Lancaster. Then I spotted that the NCO in charge of the ground crew was F/Sgt Jackson who lived just round the comer from me in my home town of Preston in Lancashire. Needless to say we chatted away until it was time for me to get aboard, I have to confess that my initial impression of the Mosquito as an aircraft in which to fly - as distinct from look at - was one of absolute horror as compared with aeroplanes such as Ansons, Wellingtons, Stirlings and Lancasters in which I had flown previously.

To begin with, the engines were warming up as I climbed up the short ladder, through the trap door and into the nose of the plane. I was aghast at the proximity of the revolving propellers which seemed only a few inches away from me as I had a very healthy respect for their killing capacity. I thought to myself that there would not be much future in attempting to bale out with the ‘props’ so close to hand.

At this stage I should say that I stand about six feet tall and I am a shade clumsy and awkward to boot. So a clamber into the nose of a Mosquito and then, in flying kit, scramble through an opening about the size of a large rabbit hutch door into the cockpit was a thoroughly uncomfortable experience. I contemplated what chance there would be of escaping alive if the aircraft started to burn. Taking account of how difficult it would be to squeeze my frame through the opening into the nose with my parachute, dive through the trap door and dodge the propellers, I decided that the answer was - not much. Moreover, I rather fancied my skill as a navigator and I was accustomed to sitting in my curtained office aboard a Lancaster with a generously sized table at which to work on my charts, surrounded by my ‘Gee’ set, Air Position Indicator, H2S and other navigational aids. There, I could concentrate on calculating my wind speeds and course corrections almost impervious to what was going on elsewhere aboard the aircraft. I simply could not credit that, in a Mosquito, I was expected to navigate using a chart clipped to a board across my lap. I sat there and thought to myself - “My God. what have I let myself in for?” and devoutly wished to be back aboard a Lancaster!

We taxied to the end of the runway. Sam ‘opened up the taps’, we sped down the runway and hurtled into the sky. What a change it was compared with a Lancaster, where I scarcely ever saw light of day, to being able to view what was to be seen around me and to have the sensation of really flying, which I had only experienced previously and less comfortably during my twelve hours on Tiger Moths. After an hour or so of playing amongst the clouds we returned to base for my very first ‘pilot’s eye view’ of a high speed landing.

So I emerged from my first Mosquito flight with extremely mixed feelings. As an aeroplane in which to play at flying I thought the Mosquito was fantastic. As an aeroplane which I was to navigate in action, I was filled with foreboding.

A further half dozen familiarisation flights passed by and then I went operational with a 5 Group attack on the Mitteland canal. It was then that I discovered yet another reason for thoroughly disliking the task of navigating a Mosquito, as opposed to a Lancaster. Light. In a Lancaster one was able to flood the navigating table and instruments with light as curtains prevented light entering the cockpit. In a Mosquito I was expected to navigate with a small insignificant light playing on my chart. I wanted as much light as possible. Conversely, Sam, concerned about attracting night fighters, wanted  little light as possible; indeed, if it had been feasible he would have preferred me to work in the dark.

One way or another I was totally uneasy and lacking in confidence as I navigated us towards the Mitteland canal and then I had an extraordinary stroke of good fortune. At ‘H-10’ I announced to Sam that by my calculations we were precisely over the target and precisely to time. Hardly had I spoken than the first batch of illuminating flares hit the sky and came cascading down around us. Never having seen them before I mistakenly supposed that they were parachutists and shouted out accordingly. To have been brought to the target with such exactitude in terms of time and position must have made Sam think that he had acquired one of the best navigators in Bomber Command, a misapprehension which I certainly put right on a later operation when I missed the target by 40-50 miles!

Be that as it may, the next ten minutes proved to be exciting to a degree which I find difficult to put into words. The illuminating flares and searchlights made the whole area as bright as day or at least as bright as the brightest moonlight. The sky was a mass of exploding anti-aircraft shells and lazily moving streams of tracer amongst which we played a com petitive game of ‘who can find the target first? Scudding above the ground at well below 1000feet we heard one of the other markers shout “TaIly Ho” and saw his marker strike the ground and burst into coloured fire. I listened as Marker Leader inspected the accuracy and gave us instructions for backing up the marker on the ground. As Sam and I dive bombed with our marker I could see the ground in almost minute detail. With our marker released and bomb doors closed we hurried off for home as fast as our two Merlins would take us. As we did so, and still hyped up from the excitement of the attack, I thought of what we had done, marvelled at the smooth organisation and knew that I would never do anything else in life which could match the excitement and elation which this form of flying offered -and I never have. It made the adrenalin run like a ten minute ‘white knuckle’ ride!

The operation against the Mitteland canal was repeated the following night and it proved equally exciting. Unfortunately, I was not given the opportunity to fly operationally as much as I would have liked and I had to wait until 14 March before flying again operationally. This time I was to be a Wind-Finder for the attack on the oil plant at Lutzendorf - not part of the marking team.

To he frank, I hated the job. The purpose of windfinding was to establish an accurate measure of the wind speed and direction, at attack height in the target area. which could he fed into the bomb sight mechanism of the main force bombers. One flew to a pre-determined point close to the target, a marker was put down on the ground, and using the Mosquito’s bomb sight the navigator guided the pilot over the marker noting the precise time and air position. By repeating this operation three or four minutes later the navigator could make the required wind calculations. Three aircraft were used and by R/T the three navigators’ assessments could be broadcast, with one navigator determining a mean. This would be relayed to the ‘heavies’ which would be closing in on the target.

My reason for detesting the work was that I simply hated having to crawl into the nose of the the aircraft to crouch over and use the bombsight in such a confined space and to slide back hurriedly into the cockpit - all in full flying kit. With my height I just found it physically difficult. Fortunately I was assigned to windfinding on only two other occasions - a repeat attack on the Lutzendorf Oil Plant on 8 April and an operation against Cham in the Sudeten Land on 17 April. Whereas, as a marker, I flew against Wurzburg, Hamburg, Molbis and Komotau in Czechoslovakia during March and April.

Additionally, I flew on the ‘Gardening’ operation in the River Elbe on 22 March. For me that operation was so unusual that I can still recall it clearly. The illuminating flares were hanging over the river as our attacking Mosquitoes skimmed over the water passing by a variety of ships - at mast level - before unloading our naval mines, then disappearing into the darkness homeward bound. The scene had an eerie unreal quality about it. In the bright  but artificial light one was close enough to see the faces of individual sailors. 

Komotau was my last operational foray before the European war ended and with the cessation of hostilities I expected to be able to hang up my navigators’ kit like the proverbial cowboy’s boots. But it was not to be. I was picked to crew with S/L Topper to go out to Okinawa, in a Master Bomber role, for the attacks which Tiger Force - with its Lincoln bombers - was to launch on the Japanese mainland and other Far East targets. Fancy the prospect I did not - as I detested the thought of snakes, the jungle, the heat, Japanese treatment of air crew prisoners, etc.

Pending this overseas posting I concentrated on making hay in my leisure hours. Bill Topper was the proud owner of one of those long bonneted, open topped. quality touring cars - a Bentley I believe - which he drove over to his home in the Manchester area. So I was always good for a lift most of the way home. It was on one of these home visits that the news broke of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I had travelled from Preston to Manchester early in the morning and was waiting for Bill Topper to pick me up when I heard of the new weapon being used for the first time. It was quite obvious that no nation could sustain attacks of that kind and that the war with Japan must rapidly reach its end in some way or another. So it was, my fighting war, thankfully, had come to an end; indeed by the end of July I had ceased flying.

I ask myself what are my most outstanding memories of my time with 627 Squadron asl look back after more than forty five years. Without a doubt THE memory is the sheer physical thrill of being a member of an operational target marking team, flying below the illuminating flares, hunting for the aiming point with desperately little time to spare - seeing the gun-fire flashing past - dive bombing the target - and finally rushing off into the night. A package of thrills which few people ever experience in an entire lifetime.

But I do have other memories, especially of people who were such good friends and with whom I had so many good - and wild - times when we were not flying. So wild that as many of them will still be alive and now be sedate, respectable, grandfathers that it is probably wise not to elaborate on that theme or name names.

I also remember how ‘cool’ some of these individuals were. For instance. I’m not likely to forget flying with F/O Endean in a 'clapped out’ Lancaster which we were using for H2S MkVI trials when he calmly proposed to loop the plane. Had he not been persuaded, with not a little difficulty, to refrain, I am sure that the wings would have dropped off. Nor S/L Topper flying under cloud and descending bombs to establish the accuracy of a blind bombing attack. Nor the coolness of F/ L Armstrong when, on a sight seeing trip after the war had ended, we ‘lost’ an engine over the Rhine and had to make an emergency landing at Melsbroek, near Brussels.

All in all those few months which I spent, so long ago, with 627 Squadron were among the most significant - and formative – of my life.

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited