I’m afraid, in truth this ‘update’ is probably the last of 4 that Ian has sent me over the last few couple of months, but as I have much discussed (and should probably shut up now), work demands got the better of me. But, here it is, the latest version of the database, covering all of the Wellingtons, Stirlings and Lancasters that flew with 75(NZ) Squadron RAF.
The Stirling Bomber.
This was the first 4 Engine Bomber to go into operation and some people claimed that it was “The Queen of the Skies” but it proved to be far inferior to the Lancaster. The Short Stirling was a victim of its own specification. Its wings were of such low aspect ratio, so that it could be housed in the standard hangar, that its operational ceiling was fatally limited. It could carry a 14,000 lb. bomb load but the largest it could carry was 2,000 lb. although later models were modified so that larger bombs could be carried. The aircraft did tend to swing to Starboard on take off and I am not sure if this tendency was ever cured. There were 7 Fuel Tanks in each wing and was armed with 4 x 303 Browning in the rear turret and 2 in each of the front and mid-upper turrets. Total fuel was 2,254 gallons.
As mentioned its operational ceiling was low and we usually bombed at 10,000 feet as against the Lancaster at 20,000 feet. Jim Davis an ex Warrant Officer and Air Gunner on Lancasters with 90 Squadron wrote:-
“In the glow over targets we often saw them below us
And didn’t all Lancaster Aircrews always say
“Thank God we’re not down there with them”
They survived shells from below and Lancaster Bombs from above
Flying at their low height over targets that really “taunted the Reaper‘
For me, they were the Elite, those men who had the sheer guts to fly,
night after night, the Mighty Stirling Bomber.”
13th November 1942 to 23rd May 1945. – On an Operational Squadron.
The main runway was grass in the East West direction and was 7,500 feet long and other landing strips were SE-NW 5,400 feet and NE-SW 4,800 feet. As several crews discovered the Devils Ditch or Dyke constituted a very tangible hazard on take off. Several aircraft crashed because of this obstruction. Originally N.C.O. aircrew lived in the Grandstand but later on more comfortable quarters were built. The Officers were in the Jockey Club or Sefton house.
Although I was on “Ops” on the 16th and 20th April I managed to celebrate my 22nd Birthday on the 18th with our crew and others in the Golden Lion in Newmarket.
Our Pilot was a N.Z. F/Sgt, the Navigator was a N.Z. P/O, the WOP/AG was a N.Z. F/Sgt. and the remaining 4 all English Sgts. Our Pilot was Commissioned to P/O in Jan. 1943 and I received my Commission the 23rd February 1943.
Some of the crew had already completed 2 or 3 Operations on Wellingtons when I joined them and they were a first class set of comrades to have and made me feel very welcome to the crew. We did tend to go out as a crew on evenings off and did not make very many close friends with other crews. I think that it was because losses were so heavy in those days that other crews did not make close contact with each other outside of camp so that it was not so hard when planes did not return.
When we started Operating on Stirlings some of the crews had already done various numbers of their 50 for a tour on Wellingtons but we were one of the first to complete a tour due to losses. I was the first on the Squadron to complete a Tour all on Stirlings – although I only did 28 as all the crew finished when the majority had completed 30.
Flying as a Crew
On the 14th November 1942 I flew with another Pilot and crew with other new Bomb Aimers on a practice bomb flight in a Stirling in daylight for 2 hours. Then on the 17th I had my first flight with my crew and this was at night on a Navigational Exercise lasting 4¾ hours. We got well and truly lost and in fact landed at Castle Camps which was an airfield a short distance away from base and returned to Newmarket the next day. We were told that we had caused the London Sirens to be sounded but I never found out if this was true or not. I do not think that I was of a great deal of use on this flight but then of course up to then I had only had 1½ hours night flying experience – map reading at night is not so easy as in daylight.
After this far from satisfactory start to our flying as a crew we did a half hour Air Test on the 19th and on the 20th November we were briefed for our first War Operation to Turin. Before Turin I had still only flown in a Stirling for 3 hours in daylight and 4¾ hours at night making a total of just over 6 hours of night experience. All our Bombing Operations were carried out at night and it took us 6 months to complete our tour as many times we were briefed to fly but Ops were cancelled due to bad weather and our maximum flying height. Most bombing was carried out at about 10,000 feet except Mine Laying which was at 600 feet as the mines were dropped by parachute.
Mine Laying was usually an easy Op as quite often we did not need to fly over enemy ground. This was referred to as “Gardening” – sowing the seed. However 2 of our Gardening trips proved to be the exception to an easy target and this is mentioned in the separate summary of Operations.
In addition one of these had a sequel almost 40 years later and this is mentioned later on in my notes.
When we were on the Squadron we were on stand by 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week but we were allowed 6 days leave every 6 weeks. While on leave we received a special Air Crew allowance of 5 shillings a day from the Nuffield Fund – this was a worth while amount in the 1940’s. On most of our leaves our N.Z. members of the crew liked to go to London and we often met my Father for a beer or two and our WOP/AG often came home with me for the whole leave. Most nights we ended up at my Father’s Club and we were always made most welcome. It so happened that our first Op to Berlin was the night before one of our leaves. You can imagine the celebration in the club on the night especially as it was my Father’s birthday. One of the members was a Jewish tailor and I do believe that my WOP/AG and myself could have had anything that was possible from him.
Although there was always plenty of “Flak” and Night Fighters to contend with the majority of our Ops were uneventful and we were very lucky to have such a good crew and such a skilled Pilot. However many other crews were not so lucky and we lost so many during my tour but I suppose due to our young age it did not affect us in the some way as it would in later life.
On the 17th December 1942 4 out of 5 aircraft from our squadron failed to return from a raid on Fallersleben one of these missing was Captained by our C.O. W/Cdr V. Mitchell DFC and another one was the plane that Eric Williams (author of The Wooden Horse escape story) was in – he was also a Bomb Aimer. I was not on this raid but I was on a Gardening Op in April in which only 3 out of 7 managed to survive. Both these Ops were linked when I visited Holland in August 1987 and I will detail later.
Many aircraft crashed on take-off and on returning home after Ops and one episode that sticks in my mind relates to a 19 year old New Zealand Pilot Peter Buck. In April 1943 he crash landed on the airfield after a raid on Duisburg, he had been attacked by, night fighters on the way back and the aircraft suffered damage to its rudder by cannon fire. As a consequence it was very difficult to stop the aircraft from flying in circles. His rear gunner had been killed and the Mid Upper Gunner and Wireless Operator both badly wounded. He nursed the aircraft back to base but the under- carriage refused to come down and a wheels-up landing had to be made. What an experience for a 19 year old and what courage and devotion to duty – he could have jumped but he knew that 2 of his crew were too badly injured to make it safely. He did complete his tour and I was to meet him again in New Zealand at the Squadrons 50th anniversary in March 1990.
They were happy days on the Squadron with a great deal of cooperation and friendship between Aircrew and Ground crew regardless of rank and every few weeks we would take over The White Lion in Newmarket for a party – mainly drinks of course. All Aircrew and Ground Crews were invited but we had an arrangement with the bar staff that only men with a brevit could pay for any drinks – this was our way of thanking the ground staff for all they did to keep us flying. They often worked out in the open in very cold weather at all hours to make the aircraft ready for Ops. Sqn.Ldr. A Cheffins of the Royal Canadian Air Force has since written “All Air Crew should never forget the overworked, under paid, seldom mentioned and under appreciated Ground Crews”. I am glad to see that these words are quoted in the issues of Intercom which is the Magazine of the Aircrew Association.
On the night of 4th May 1943 we completed our last Op of the tour and when we returned we could not land at Newmarket – not sure now if it was due to enemy action or the weather – we were therefore diverted to another airfield for the night. Next day we returned to base and our skipper decided to celebrate our end of tour with some low level flying. There was a race meeting at Newmarket and he flew the Stirling at very low level up and down the race course. Not very popular with the race goers no doubt but we enjoyed it. I think we had a mild dressing down from the C.O.
After 5 days of celebrations on the station we were fit enough to go on end of tour leave. Then on return it was farewell to 75 N.Z. Squadron and a posting to a Conversion Unit for odd duties until I was finally sent to an O.T.U. as an instructor.