The Peenemunde raid 1943
A personal recollection by Allan Alexander
The following is a transcription of an interview with Allan Alexander, produced by Radio New Zealand, who have granted permission for it to be used on this website.
“One man who did make it back, Allan Alexander, who now resides in Waikanae. Allan was a Flight Lieutenant Pilot, of the 75th New Zealand Bomber Squadron, attached to the RAF for this raid and is now the only surviving member of his crew. For someone who initially never dreamed of becoming a pilot, it’s a testament to his skill and passion for flying that saw him complete no fewer than 27 raids. Our Spoken Features producer, Sonia Yee, recently caught up with Allan Alexander and his wife Margaret in Waikanae.”
Well, we didn’t know anything about Peenemunde, until we had our briefing. Late afternoon, it was explained then that Peenemunde was the place where they were manufacturing and experimenting with the V1 and V2. The V2 of course being the worse because that was the rocket that just came down and you didn’t hear or see that until it exploded on the ground.
Sonia Yee – How was it all mapped out and who was told to go where?
We were given the target of course by the Pathfinders – they dropped the markers so we knew where to bomb. The Pathfinders would be there and of course, the pathfinders were out in front of us and they searched out the target that they wanted and they dropped the markers, could be red, green, white and we bombed on that. So they could change those colours – they might have three colours down and say well, ‘bomb on the white’ or the next lot they might say ‘bomb on the green’ and so on, so it was scattered.
I think about 900 aircraft were on that raid. It was a moonlight night, which was most unusual, because we normally went out in the dark – we preferred the dark. It all seemed a bit of a rush, except the last hour before take off because you had your briefing, well, you’d had your meal then your briefing and everything like that and then you went out to your aircraft and it was usually an hour before take off, so you’d check everything over again and then you’d get the green light from the control tower to start up and away you’d go…..
Sonia Yee – And levels of stress? What are they like?
Well you don’t realise it I suppose we did get stressed, but I don’t realise it…..No I don’t think it did – early twenties you know, you’re 7 foot tall and bullet proof – you sort of carried on, same as the young ones would today I guess….
Sonia Yee – How long did it take to fly out there ?
7 hours, 25 minutes.
Sonia Yee – So by the time you get there, how are you feeling? What’s going through your mind?
Hard work (laughs) – You didn’t have time really to think, you were working all the time – you had your eyes open, looking for fighters and searchlights or anything else and of course over the Baltic there could be ships as well. So, you really, you didn’t have time to worry about what was happening around you – You were looking after yourself and your crew – that was the main thing.
Sonia Yee – And who were you flying with that night?
My normal crew. You had your normal crew all of the time. Anyway, we took off and it was quite a quiet trip to Peenemunde. When we got there, the Pathfinders had dropped some markers, but unfortunately they were in the wrong place – so we had to circle over the Baltic until they dropped a marker in the right place – so you can imagine 900 bombers going around in a big circle over the sea – you’d see bombers in all directions. But, then we got the clearance – and it was low level bombing – so that we went in and as the bombs exploded under us the aircraft was blown up in the air – up and down – It was reasonably low, a few thousand feet – because of the explosions, you know – because normally we were up at about 11,000 when we bombed, but to get down under, say, under 4 or 3,000, anything like that, was getting down, especially with the bombers. We went through and everything went fine as far as we were concerned and we turned out back over the Baltic after the bombing and we weren’t far from the target when there was a huge explosion out on our port side and it was either a Lanc or a Hallifax, because I couldn’t tell – all I could see was the tail plane, because the explosion was so great and the left wing of the aircraft went straight up in the air, and the rest of it just hurtled down to the ground and there was no show of anybody ever getting out of it. That was it; there was just a huge explosion. From there, we had had quite a quiet trip really home – I think we got caught in searchlights for a few minutes over Denmark or somewhere, but you got used to that –
Sonia Yee – So did you have any awareness that there were, you know, Polish labourers working ?
No. No, idea. No Idea – we never did – same as prisoner of war camps – most of the time we didn’t know where they were a lot of the time and they could be quite close to the cities – I believe there was one just out of Berlin even. We didn’t know, – you were told, which city to bomb and then the Pathfinders would tell us which colour to bomb on…
Sonia Yee – But I guess it was at the time of no consequence, because either way, you had to do the job?
That’s right. You started out and you didn’t know what was there – and even if you did, you’d have to carry on anyway – just be as careful as you could. Although we have seen a bit of criticism about it – I think we did do a fair amount of damage and probably held up the construction of the V2 for some time, which was a big help, I think, as far as London was concerned.
Sonia Yee – They say it was 2 months….
Any delay was important because we were getting ahead of it by then in ’43 and the bombers were getting a bigger hold and we could send out a thousand bombers at any time, mainly, well practically all 4 engined bombers – and they made a mess.
Sonia Yee – If they had felt you hadn’t done your job on the night, would they have sent you out pretty quickly there after?
Oh, They’d have probably sent us straight back, just about – probably that same afternoon, we’d be bombed up again and gone out that same night I think if we, if they hadn’t considered that we’d done enough damage in the meantime anyway.
Sonia Yee – Before you’d gone on any particular raid, did you think about Margaret back home? – I mean, did you ever think, ‘What happens if I don’t come home?’ – or is that something that doesn’t enter your mind?
No, I didn’t let that enter my mind – I had the photograph always in my top pocket, but I never through of that. In fact, before the war, the six boys of the family who all went overseas, we had a party before and before my eldest brother went over in the second echelon – he was the first one to go – and at that party, we all had the same feeling, that nothing would happen to us – and nothing did.
Sonia Yee – Did you ever keep any letters?
(Margaret), No, not really….
I didn’t keep any. Well, you didn’t – you didn’t want other people reading them anyway …
(Margaret) Everything was censored – I mean, you’d get a letter home, and that piece would be crossed out and another piece would be crossed out…
You wouldn’t want to read my letters anyway….. I was a terrible correspondent –
(Margaret)I don’t know about that…..When we wrote letters we were told that we must not talk about such and such – and if you sort of did, well that would be crossed out….
Same from my way – of course, all our letters were censored from England and anything they thought might be sensitive – they’d cross it all out. It was all heavily censored.
(Margaret) It took so long for things to come from England to here.
We weren’t allowed to write about it anyway
(Margaret) And you’d get letters with pieces crossed out, blocked out.
Oh no, it was all very secret, you couldn’t write about it. Of course, you’ve got your log book, that’s…. you had to keep that up to date with everything…..and then, I had a bit of a diary, and lots of bits of paper and things like that – and I came home, I was home December 44 – I was home quite early – and Margaret being a shorthand typist, she kept at me a bit to put these things together and so, I used to tell her, everything that I could remember at that stage, because it wasn’t that long after then, everything was very quite clear and, she took it all down in shorthand and typed it all out and that then we kept right up until 6…7 years ago I think it was….8 years ago…..all the records that I’ve got were back from 1943 to 1944.
Sonia Yee – And you also won a number of medals as well…
Oh…. just the one…..really,……the one that you get paid for……DFC (Margaret – the Distinguished Flying Cross)…2 or 3 raids – I’d got into trouble over and also I’d done it very quickly….coz, see, I completed, although I hadn’t completed the tour, I was still on my tour when I got the DFC, but I did the complete tour in 5 months which apparently, is very very quick. Well, you can understand that when we did 6 raids, Hamburg, Essen, Remscheid, in 9 nights, so we were getting through them fairly quickly.
Sonia Yee – You’re about to celebrate your 90th birthday, you’re the only surviving member of your crew – is that right?
I’m the only one now yes, yes, they’ve all gone. Mind you, some of them were getting on too, some were in their eighties, so we were a very lucky crew really, although we did lose one. We lost Mac, and I’ve tried to find, I’ve had people in Wanganui, he came from Wanganui to try and find any relations and I’ve never been successful . I would have liked to have found some of the relations, because he was a good rear gunner for me and it was bad luck that he got hit over France.
Sonia Yee – What do you remember about each of them?
Phil was,… although he was near enough to my age, he looked about half the age, he looked as if he was too young to be there actually – in fact I don’t think he shaved even at that stage – he looked so young. We sort of wanted to look after him . Tom, very quiet, decent bloke. Tom and I would get down to the local pub and stand there and have a few beers – half the time we wouldn’t talk for 5 minutes or so, but we were great companions – I was with him right up until he died in Te Puke a few years ago. Des was an immaculate type of man – and his work was the same – he was the navigator, and his work was immaculate, every figure you could see perfectly – and he was so accurate – the whole time, he was, really was a marvellous navigator. Unfortunately, he did have a breakdown – after the Berlin trip he came on another one trip I think and then on the next one he had a complete breakdown and he was in hospital and he didn’t, he didn’t fly again and I didn’t see him until 1950 – and he came to see us down at Raumati South and he seemed quite good then, but shortly after that he committed suicide, so he must have still been rankling in his mind. Frank Howard, he came from Birmingham, the Flight Engineer – I think most of the Flight Engineers were from England. We kept in touch for a while, but then, I think he moved and we didn’t hear from him and I’ve tried and tried and tried to get, find out what happened to him – I haven’t had any luck. The American, he came out here in 1990, he and his wife came out, for a visit. I heard from him a couple of years later, although we used to keep in touch a bit, but then I haven’t heard anything since and I don’t know, coz he wasn’t very well, even when he was here, he had had trouble with his lungs.
Sonia Yee – Had your crew become like a family?
Sonia Yee – If they were here now?
They would walk in and it would be just as if we were walking in, then. There wouldn’t be any difference; it would be just the same. We went through a lot together – and you don’t forget something’s – you might forget a hell of a lot in life, but those sort of things, you don’t forget.
listen to the full interview here