I’ve been desperately trying to work through my pile of Squadron related books and to be honest, its been as successful lately as posting on the blog…….
Dipping in and out of about 10 books is not a good way to absorb information, but it means that you are constantly trawling and sieving and whilst flicking through ‘A Noble Chance’ by Maurice Mcgreal, I saw a photo that I remembered seeing elsewhere.
The picture below shows the Ops board for 16th July 1941 and it caught my eye because of what looked like a fairly extensive list of 75(NZ) Squadron aircraft, listed with serials, designators letters (a real rarity for the Wellington years it would seem) and the Pilots that flew that night. Given my efforts for the past twelve months with the Op History Database, it seemed an amazing chance to add some of the all too commonly missing letters to some of the Squadron’s aircraft………..
Feltwell ops Board 16th July 1941. Notable NZers in the list of aircraft captains are F/Lt. Frank Gill, P/O Artie Ashworth, P/O Graham Hamlin, Sgts Jacky Joll, Ian Reid, Pip Coney and Bob Fotheringham. From “A Noble Chance”, by Maurice McGreal
Opening the book at the relevant page and scrolling through the database, I hit an instant panic – there is no Op listed in the ORB’s for the 16th July. Two options flash across my mind – ANOTHER missing piece of information form the ORB, or perhaps the caption is wrong – surely not, that couldn’t have happened………..could it?
A digitally corrected version of the photograph above – looking at this image now, I realise that actually towards the bottom of the image you can actually just make out that the board does say ’16-17 June 1941’………….
Scrolling up and down the database rows, it finally dawned on me that the only possible Op this could be a record of was in fact the 16th of June 1941. Scanning and correctively distorting the image to make it ‘head on’ gave me a more workable image and based on legible, half legible and what remained, I came up with the following list of aircraft and Pilots for the June 16th Op to Dusseldorf.
||Thomas Francis Gill
||Graham Noel Parker
||Alan Murray Hobbs
||Graham Wellesley Hamlin
||George William Curry
||Phillip Ronald ‘Pip’ Coney
||Reuben Pears Widdowson
||William Jeffrey Rees
||Robert Ewen Ernest Fotheringham
||James Williamson Thomson
||Ian Laurie Reid
||Frederick Thomas Miniken
||Francis Charles Fox
Now, all this aside, I have to also highly recommend ‘A Noble Chance’ (as if my recommendation is worth anything). Long out of print I suspect, but I picked a perfectly serviceable copy up form Amazon for about £20.
I have no idea if Maurice is still with us – if he is and/ or anybody knows him, I’d love to hear from them – taking a polite gamble with the normal warning in a printed book, I have decided for the benefit of you all to present the 3rd chapter of “A Noble Chance” .
75 Sqdn/ 1941
It was very much an home” feeling on 75 Squadron. There were New Zealanders all around; men whose names I had read in the news since I was a boy. Maurice Buckley and Cyril Kay (who was always referred to as Cyrus), ‘Popeye’ Lucas who’s name already a legend, Frank Gill, and Dave Pritchard who had been an Air Force trainee at the Auckland Aero Club when I started. He was from the Dannevirke district.
Back in November, when the Tamaroa draft had first reached the bright lights of London, I had met up with a Sergeant navigator who was down on a few days pass from 75 Squadron; Hughie English and he came from Napier. Over many pints of beer in the Tartan Dive of the Sussex Hotel he told us, the ‘new boys’, about life on the squadron and how there was a strong sense of being “at home” there. I made up my mind, there and then, that that was where I was going to get posted.
We were given a “nickel raid“ as a starter. This was a ﬂight over France to drop thousands and thousands of leaﬂets, hopefully to encourage the natives to turn on the Nazis and disrupt the war effort in any way they could. Perhaps too, to encourage a few Parisians and maybe a few Parisienne, to come across to our side.
The rest of the squadron was briefed for the real attack; Hamburg I think it was, and when they had all gone off to get ready for the night’s work, we were given a brief on our job.
It was made clear to us that France was not considered “enemy” territory and that we should not carry out hostile actions. Even the necessary dropping of a single incendiary bomb for the purpose of taking a navigational drift check was frowned on.
Great bales of paper bundles were already loaded into the fuselage of the Wellington when we climbed aboard and the aircraft almost leapt into the sky as we set out on this first raid because although the load looked bulky, it really wasn’t very heavy. Our course took us over the East Anglian coastal town of Aldeburgh and from here we turned south for Paris.
Frank had climbed out of the pilot’s seat soon after take-off and I ﬂew the aircraft throughout the climb to 12,000 feet aiming for a point some twenty miles to the north of the city. The wind was northerly and the navigator, Davie Florence, had calculated a line which would, he hoped, let the leaﬂets ﬂutter down into the city.
Throughout the climb Frank kept coming up on the intercom with calls for great vigilance because although we thought this was French airspace there was no guarantee that the enemy took the same high view of wartime rules. There could very well be some Nazi on a training ﬂight who would be willing to have a go at us.
We stared into the darkness until our eyes were sore. Frank climbed back into the left hand seat and Davie and I were sent aft to prepare for the task of pushing the leaﬂets through the ﬂare tube: a large steel pipe about 10 inches in diameter and about four foot six long. Normally this was for the dropping of ﬂares over a target but tonight we were to use it as a great airborne toilet pushing a ton of paper through.
Alas for the plan. The 140 mph slipstream that raced past the exits was like a wall and after several minutes we could see that we would be all night getting the job done. I called Frank and said that we would have to open the wide hatch that covered the hole in the bottom of the aircraft where a mid- under turret; a ‘dustbin’, could be installed and push the paper through that. The skipper was getting a bit tense because he was already flying the second leg of our drop line and Davie and I hadn‘t even started our job. I had never heard him swear before. “Get the fucking stuff out any way you bloody well want. But I’m not sitting up here stooging up and clown thirty miles of French sky waiting for someone to come up and find out what the hell we‘re doing.”
Davie lifted the lightweight frame that covered the hatchway and now we had a three foot wide hole with the French countryside far below showing in the light of the half moon. Together we started pushing out handfuls of paper but they blew back and within minutes the interior of the aircraft was plastered with loose leaﬂets!
I made a command decision; I told Davie that we would keep them tied in their bundles and dump them en masse. Within ten minutes we had cleared the load but still there were thousands and thousands strewn about the fuselage.
Both of us were gasping now for we had had to rely on occasional gulps of oxygen and red lights were dancing before my eyes. Davie dropped the hatch cover into place and I called Frank to say we were finished. In a ﬂash we rolled over and started a shallow dive on a course towards the White Cliffs of Dover. Davie and I just lay among the wasteland of paper and we took great sucks at the oxygen outlet tube and after a few minutes the red lights had gone and I crawled over the wing spar and rejoined Frank up at the front end.
I flew the return leg until we were in sight of the winking code of the Feltwell Pundit* which told us we were over home territory Frank did one more of those bouncy sort of landings we were coming to recognise as his trademark and after a few kangaroo hops past the Chance light, we came to a stop in the darkness on the other side of the aerodrome by the southern dispersal. For some reason he didn‘t like landing in the swathe of the Chance light saying that it put him off and he preferred to land in the darkness well off to the side. I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea.
Our debriefing didn’t take long. Nobody seemed very interested in our problems because within half an hour the crews would be returning from the hell that had been the skies over Hamburg. It had all been a shambles, I thought, as I climbed into bed sometime after 0200 hours, but the crews who had been to Hamburg and with whom we had talked as we sat in the Mess tucking into bacon and eggs, seemed to know much more about what they were doing; so perhaps we would learn to do it better. We needed to.
For two days we stood down and in my little Standard we explored the ancient villages and the scenes that Constable had known. At Brandon and Thetford we drank beer in the tiny pubs and watched love story films at the cinema – love stories that took us far from the world of war.
On 18 March Frank called me on the phone to get the crew rounded up for an NFT (night ﬂying test) and we knew that we must be down for a raid that night because an NFT was always flown in the morning to check out the aircraft, if ops were laid on that night.
For fifty minutes Frank gave us a good working over as we practised drills for avoiding enemy night fighter attacks and for dodging searchlight cones and the associated ﬂak. I had the job of standing; braced, with my head high in the astro dome (plastic bubble on top of the fuselage) and from there calling over the intercom, warnings of aircraft attack. Frank then would respond with violent dives and banks to simulate our necessary response to an enemy attack.
After about five minutes of this both the air gunners were sick and their breakfast had been sprayed all over their turrets. Davie and Syd weren’t much better but I was fine, I think because I was standing up and could watch the world turn upside down; or almost so. Then Frank suddenly called; “Diving . . and rolling the aircraft over into a vertical bank we dived steeply towards the ground 8,000 feet below.
Our guts took some moments to catch up with the rest of our bodies and my feet were inches clear of the floor as he twisted and turned thoughout the dive simulating an escape from a searchlight cone.
Back at dispersal the Corporal silently handed a hose and scrubbing brush to the gunners. For half an hour, then, they hosed away the remnants of their breakfast from the guns and the handlebar controls and all the nooks and crannies in their turrets as they meditated on the realities of the air war!
Frank and I and the rest of the crew went off back to the Flight Office and heard the whisper that we were bound for the docks at Rotterdam that night.
The big Operations Room was already filled with loud jesting and banter as we came in; perhaps the crews did this to hide their nerves. Each of us stood to attention and saluted the Room as we entered; a bit like saluting the bridge on a Naval vessel when you first step aboard.
Being the new boys we sat quietly close by Bob Fotheringham and the lads of his crew. A hush settled as Group Captain Maurice Buckley and the Wing Commanders, followed by the Intelligence Officers and some minor officers came in from a side entrance into the brightly lighted fore part, in front of the big wall map of Europe. A bit like a procession before High Mass it seemed to me.
The jesting was done now and the crews listened carefully to hear the word as to where they would go tonight to meet the enemy. Kiel – some low whistles and the hissing of indrawn breath. A tough one, Kiel, with a reputation for massive concentrations of searchlights and flak.
Coloured wool drew lines across the North Sea to the target; the epidiascope threw great enlarged pictures on the screen where the precise target points had been outlined and where the tons of high explosives were to be aimed. The codes for identification on return and the colours of the day were given, as too were those for the enemy. How on earth they were known I have no idea. The routine warnings reiterated the need to clear our pockets of anything that could be of value to the enemy Intelligence in case we were taken prisoner.
Our crew briefing was last and we were told that there were nineteen aircraft going to do over the docklands of Rotterdam that night and some of the lads on Bob’s crew whispered to us that it was considered to be an easy target.
Frank said, “Don’t take it easy because we can still attract the interest of a night fighter. ” Anyway it was another one towards the thirty we had to do before we finished our tour. Two hours later, dressed in our warm high level flying gear; and underwear of silk; and trousers tucked into our shining black leather knee boots warm lined with New Zealand sheep wool, we walked from our Barrack Block to the Flights in the last light of the dying sun. A WAAF rode by on her bicycle with some papers in her hand. Some sparrows fossicked about in the weeds and the dead leaves of a neglected garden space. How normal it all seemed. I thought, “In an hour we will be crossing the Channel bound for the enemy. Do we look any different?, and will the WAAF wonder where we are, and really, did she even notice us this evening?
With a call of “Here we go” Frank pushed open the throttles and we raced across the darkened aerodrome along the line of lights and climbed into the air. It was a heavy aircraft tonight, with fuel for six hours or more and the bomb bay filled with 500 pound bombs and canisters of strange, hexagonal black sticks about the size of a relay runner’s baton that were deadly phosphorus incendiaries.
I took over the climb towards 12,000 feet, or higher if we could make it, and Frank stood watching all about, from the vantage point in the astro dome. The crew were all silent and there was no useless chattering over the intercom. They all seemed to know that this trip was the first real one. The shambles of the nickel raid must never be repeated.
The coastline of Holland showed up ahead and Frank climbed back into the seat while I took up station in the astro dome. We were going to go in a bit north of the target and then turn due south for the bombing run; at least that was the plan. The stars were bright and the pale light of the half moon showed scattered cloud far below.
Davie, as the bomb aimer, was now prone by the bombsight and with his carefully shaded torch was trying to match faint ground features with the map of Rotterdam he held. A searchlight came on away to the right and after waving about for a few seconds went out. Suddenly in the same place six beams sprang to life and then swung swiftly into a cone. Flak bursts filled the apex but we could see no sign of an aircraft in the trap — there were eighteen others with us here tonight and perhaps it was one of them.
We droned on towards the target now on the southerly leg. Suddenly close beside us two strong beams sprang to life and wavered about for a few moments and then went out. Then like six great angry fingers, a cluster came swiftly to life in the same place and in one sweep they all moved across to us and locked on.
The cockpit was filled with harsh bluish light: The shadows were all hard edged and sharp. In a ﬂash it was the morning NFT all over again and Frank’s force on the controls was brutal. He dived and rolled away from the cone; then with a savage heave, dragged the aircraft over and away from the lights as they strove to follow. Then a fierce pull up and a corkscrew down again. Anything to try and baffle the radar and the trackers down below.
I worked my way forward to be close to Frank in case he should be hit and as I reached him he threw the aircraft into another steep dive and I ﬂoated weightless; but we had achieved the blessed darkness of the nameless world outside the cone of light. Frank climbed to regain some of our lost height and turned in towards the target in reply to Davie’s calls. There were no tired eyes now. No one said they were sick; no funny remarks came across the intercom.
Davie asked if anyone could pick up the bend in the river we had been briefed to look out for as a guide to the aiming point. From his voice you’d have thought that nothing had happened over the past few minutes. The routine drawl of his Toronto accent came clear through to our ears as we all stared down into the darkness to try and identify something that would be of help. There were glimpses of the river water in the reﬂected light of the moon.
We were certainly over Rotterdam, but just where?Frank pulled his mask-mike aside from his mouth and shouted, “Go back and stick a ﬂare out. It should show us something.” I gave him a thumb and turned to go aft and at once my head jerked sideways the oxygen tube and the intercom connections, which I had forgotten to unplug, nearly dragged my head from my shoulders. Syd looked up from his dimly lighted desk at the radio as, clumsy in my multiple layers of clothing, I struggled across the main wing spar and aft along the catwalk to where the ﬂares were stacked in racks on the starboard side.
Each was about four feet long; black and finned at the end. The trigger end had a safety fork and a lanyard that tugged the safety fork clear and armed the thing as it slid out of the chute. I unclipped one from the rack and in the dim light slid it into the chute and engaged the trigger. It was minus 15°C outside and my thick gloved fingers were clumsy, and by the time I had got all this done I was gasping for lack of oxygen. The outlet point nearby was just too far away and I had unplugged while I was working on the flare.
I ﬂicked on my torch to check that all was right and from the front I could see that Frank was getting more and more shitty. I fumbled with the trigger but the beast would not slide free. I rechecked the small lanyard and wriggled the trigger.
Syd Parrott, the wireless operator, was now making all the signs to showjust how irritable Frank was becoming. Their fingers and the signs were saying, “Get the bloody thing away.”
I pulled again and again. Suddenly in the darkness I saw, and my subconscious knew, that I had triggered the thing. It was doing a sort of fizzing and that meant that we had something like a minute to go before a million candlepower bomb burst in the aircraft. It would be worse than being hit by ﬂak. It would be the end.
But none of these thoughts really went through my mind and with the numbness of shock I kept on blindly fiddling with the mechanism that would free it. Then suddenly it was no longer the the lanyard was dangling by the tube. Almost at once there was a great flash
close below the aircraft and MacMillan the tail gunner called that he thought we’d been hit.
I ﬂopped down beside the intercom and oxygen point and plugged in. Les Gore in the front turret said that it was pretty close, whatever it was, and Frank reassured them when he said that as far as he could feel from the controls all was well with the aircraft.
I added nothing to assist their guessing. Then again came the calm voice of Davie Florence saying, “I think I have picked up the pinpoint we were looking for.” He told Frank to turn left about thirty degrees for a run into the target. Then, “No; That was the wrong river bend.” Once more we began the search for something that would give us a lead.
I had recovered now and rejoined the front end team. Les Gore said he had a view from the turret of something and Davie couldn’t pick up what part of the terrain he was talking about. Frank called up on the intercom, “For God’s sake, Davie, get a move on. I’ve had a gutsful of this bit of sky for tonight.” Then Les Gore again had a helpful sighting from the front turret.
This time Davie recognised it and started his monotonous litany of the bombaimer as he guided Frank on the final leg of the bombing run. “Left. Left. RI G H T, . . . STEADY; Left Left; STEADY.”
Then the words that all bomber crews greet with joy . . . “Bombs away.” Almost before the words had left his lips Frank was diving and turning away to the west and heading for home. Mac from the tail turret said he believed he had seen them hit the target area and that some fires had been started. Davie was very unhappy because he had intended the bombs to go in two separate sticks with a canister of incendiaries after each, but Frank had reselected his ‘mickey mouse’ (bomb selector) and dropped the whole load in one go.
They exchanged views on this for a few moments and then Frank told everyone to shut up because this was just the time that the night fighters attacked – in the post bombing euphoria when crews were heading home. I thought it was not the time to tell them about the chaos associated with the ﬂare drop earlier on. It wouldn’t have helped.
We switched on the IFF as we neared the coast and dropped down towards Feltwell. There was an air raid in progress in the area and all there and only the bit of cord that was flarepaths had been doused so we turned off to the holding beacon and started circling at 4000 feet above some other aircraft which had returned earlier.
An hour and a half later we got a call from Rocky (F eltwell Base callsign) to return and land. Frank told Les Gore to stay in the front turret because of the possibility of enemy aircraft in the locality and Mac, of course, stayed in the rear turret. It was about the safest place anyway if there was a prang on landing.
I was standing beside Frank as he lined up for the landing but as usual he was aiming for a point well off to the right of the flare path and I felt he was also too high. The undercarriage was down and Frank selected the flap and trimmed quickly to offset nose up reaction.
The boundary passed below us and we were still far too high. Frank dragged off the power and the speed fell away and we started to sink in a ﬂat attitude. The was an almighty bang as we hit the aerodrome and bounced and we hit and bounced again, and then again.
But I was taking little interest now for on the first bounce something had exploded within my right ankle and I had collapsed to the floor onto the entry hatchway door. My whole right leg was numb and I took my torch from my pocket and looked down at my foot but I could see no sign of it. I went cold and my first thought was that it was cut off.
I spoke into my mask mike saying, “Hi, Frank. I think my leg is broken.” This was greeted with a great gust of laughter over the intercom and calls of, “Who is going to pay the laundry bill after this one?”
We were now taxying across to the dispersal and everyone was a bit high because we had got home safely. Then Frank told them all to shut up and looking down at me said, “What the hell are you doing squatting down there?”
I said my piece again and lighted my leg with the torch which showed that there was a foot there OK; but that it was pointing backwards. Frank said, “Oh shit!” and called up for an ambulance because he had an injured crew member.
Cyrus Kay squatted beside me where I lay wrapped in a blanket on a stretcher out by the wingtip and gave me a cigarette. I didn’t smoke but felt it would be rude to refuse the Wing Commander and I puffed away.
The inside of the ambulance was white and warm and I felt snug and comfortable as we bumped our way onto the perimeter track. I felt no pain and at the sick bay I was given some morphia. I was numb and I felt that I knew all the orderlies and we talked as they cut my ﬂying suit and the boot free from my leg . . . Perhaps I slept for a while.
Then I heard the MO say, “It looks like a Potts fracture . . . Third degree I would say . . .”
Long corridors were passing by and the bed was a smooth trolley and there was a girl holding my hand . . . I was sure I knew her. It was someone who had been with me at Teachers College. Yes, that was it. I talked to her about my sisters and brothers . . .
A Royal Occasion. June 1941. Feltwell. The Duke of Kent meets NZ crews of 75 Squadron before the raid on Kiel. G/Cpt Maurice Buckley, Feltwell Station Commander, second from the left and W/Cdr Cyril Kay fourth from left. The Duke is shaking the hands with Bob Fotheringham. The Author is next to Fotheringham. Pip Coney is second from the right. From “A Noble Chance”, by Maurice McGreal
Bob Fotheringham came back in “X” with his hydraulics shot. His landing roll ended when they tore into the rear edge of the left wing of “T”; a 57 Squadron Wellington parked by the perimeter wire. From “A Noble Chance”, by Maurice McGreal