The Memoirs of James Colin Burch, Air Bomber – Young Crew.

James Colin Burch Autobiography

Enlisting and Aircrew Training – 1940 to 1943
Initial Pilot Training- ITW Stratford on Avon and Southern Rhodesia. EFTS 1941/2
Observer Training in Southern Rhodesia. No 2 AOS – 1942/43
Bomber Command Wartime Operations – 1943 to 1945
Transport Command – India and Pakistan Independence – 1946 to 1948
Transport Command in UK inc. The Berlin Airlif – 1948 to 1950
Navigation Instructor – 1950 to 1953
Technical Training Command Apprentice Training, SQN CDR – 1953 to 1956
Transport Command Operations Officer – inc Suez Crisis – 1956 to 1958
Home Command Staff Officer – Cadet 1958 to 1959
Bomber Command Strategic IR Ballistic Missiles – The Cuban Crisis – 1959 to 1963
Fighter Command Surface to Air Missile (SAM) Acceptance Trials – 1963 to 1966
Senior Administration Officer- Flying Training Command – 1966 to 1969

Whilst in my teens, in the 1930‘s, I became an avid collector of cigarette cards depicting many and varied rail locomotives and aircraft of all shapes and sizes, both military and civilian. This was probably what first gave me the urge to fly, an ambition which was hardly realisable as there were so very few aeroplanes to be seen around the skies, or on the ground for that matter, and in any event I hardly knew where to start.

As the outbreak of war drew ever closer, I became even more interested in aviation but felt that I had little or no chance of ever becoming a pilot. Had I been fortunate enough to attend university I most certainly would have joined a University Air Squadron, a sure way of achieving my ambition. Having left school at the age of 14yrs my formal education extended only to four more years attending night school where I religiously studied mathematics, engineering drawing, and engineering science which I thoroughly enjoyed. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, doing particularly well in the drawing; I managed third (prize winning) place in the final examinations which included entrants from the whole of the Sheffield region.

When war was declared in September 1939, l was aged 18 years and had just arrived back home in Sheffield from my first real holiday in the Isle of Man the day before. I was now faced with the dilemma of what to do and after pontificating a while I decided to join the Royal Engineers along with a few friends with whom l played cricket in a Church Youth XI. Several of them were enlisted but l was rejected because of my height – l was rather small for my age and I now felt that my prospects of choosing a worthwhile service career where somewhat limited. However, following discussions with some old schoolmates, one in particular who had been accepted for pilot training, I turned my thoughts to joining the RAF, after all, they (or the King) had lots of aeroplanes and they surely required someone to fly them. So in late 1940 I enlisted at the Employment Exchange in Sheffield and was provisionally accepted for pilot training. I was now classified as a pilot U/T – i.e. under training, and joined the Air Training Corps – one of the very first recruits. There were no uniforms or firearms and the only training we received was in mathematics, science (again) and some basic navigation at the Sheffield City Technical college, the instructor being a retired schoolmaster. At least it past the time productively whilst awaiting ‘call-up‘ to full-time service.

My employers, Messrs. Daniel Doncaster and Sons, a family of Quakers, were not too amused when they learned of my intentions and claimed that I was  employed in a ‘reserved occupation’. Technically they had a point because I was employed at weekends in the forging of rifle barrels in addition to my normal duties as a Cost and Works Accountant clerk. However, on reporting for formal induction into the RAF, I informed the Recruiting Officer of the circumstances pertaining to my civilian job and he made representations on my behalf and was subsequently allowed to proceed to RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire, being placed in charge of a contingent of 20 or so other recruits all heading in the same direction and for the same purpose.

In April 1941 I arrived at RAF Cardington and was billeted and fed in a manner to which I had now become quite unaccustomed; eggs and bacon, and porridge with sugar (not on ration) for breakfast, and meat and potato pie with unlimited amounts of bread and butter for other meals. On the second day I sat some written examinations and was interviewed by a panel of officers chaired by an Air Commodore. I was duly accepted for training as a pilot and ‘ sworn in’, given the service number 1434570 and placed on ‘deferred service‘ as an ACHGD 2nd  Class, the lowest of the low, and then sent home to await call-up to full time service.

1st September 1941
I reported for full-time service at the Aircrew Reception Centre (ACRC) St Johns Wood, North London with headquarters at the Lords Cricket Ground, the reception being held in the, not now so sacred, pavilion. Quite a large number of the new recruits were policemen, the first allowed to enlist as they were considered to be in a ‘reserved‘ occupation. We were all billeted in some most luxurious flats on Prince Albert Road, my room being on the top floor of six which could be reached only by the stairway as the lifts had been decommissioned for the ‘duration‘ and on entering our room we had to take off our boots in order to protect the highly polished floors. We paraded three times a day, marched to the restaurant in Regents Park for meals, a distance of about 1/4 mile, and then back again. Visitors to the zoo seemed more interested in us than the caged animals nearby, but at least we were much better fed, and there we little difficulty in getting second helpings. We were issued with uniforms and marched hither and thither for the sole purpose of breaking-in our new boots – there appeared to be no other valid reason, and it was a great relief to shed them on returning to our billets. Sore feet were a regular feature of our existence, and being marched to the medical centre was not for medical treatment but for the purpose of being inoculated against smallpox, typhoid, and tetanus. We were also marched to the ‘barber‘ who ensured our hair was cut to the required service length and style, ie that which he thought appropriate.

During my brief stay in London I managed my very first visit to the West End, courtesy of a friend from Sheffield who was stationed nearby and had been in the army for almost a year. As this part of London was out of bounds to we U/T pilots, I was obliged to remove the distinctive white flash from my head gear which would identify me as such. My daily pay of 2 shillings and 6 pence, of which 1 shilling was sent home, was quite insufficient to support such a life style, so this was my one and only sojourn to that ‘renowned‘ place. Fortunately there were no major air raids during my brief stay in London although there was the occasional alert.

ITW Stratford-upon-Avon.
In October 1941 I was posted, along with a detachment of recruits, to the Initial Training Wing (ITW) at Stratford-upon-Avon and was accommodated along with six others in a private house on Rother Street, the remainder being billeted throughout the town in hotels which had also been commandeered for the ‘duration’. The ITW HQ was close to the parish church where we assembled each morning after breakfast taken at a hotel in the town centre, and from there we were marched to and from lectures etc. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and several schools in the town centre, were utilised for our classroom studies which accounted for most of our daily life. However, before the ITW course was completed we were all posted onto the Empire Air Training Scheme (overseas) and within a few days transferred to the aircrew holding unit at Heaton Park in North Manchester to await embarkation to either North America, or South Africa.

Aircrew Dispersal Centre
October 1941 at Heaton Park I was billeted in a private house in Danes Hill Cresent, close to the park, with the owners still in residence. They received just 6p per day for each lodger, the Air Ministry providing the bed and bedclothes. Our meals were provided by RAF Catering staff in the Park restaurant where there was no shortage of volunteers for cookhouse duties as they had first servings. We were a permanently hungry bunch with little to do except ‘mark time‘ until the next meal and await transportation to an overseas destination. One of the daily chores for anyone who happened to be out of favour for any small demeanour , such as an unpolished button, was to help clean boilers at the WAAF camp at Wilmslow – this was at least a change of scenery and a relief from the general boredom of simply hanging around awaiting the next meal. Another chore with which we were occasionally lumbered was to serve notice on local residents who were known to have spare accommodation which could be commandeered for the purpose of housing more RAF personnel in the area.

Transfer to Overseas 1941.
My next move was to a holding unit at West Kirby on The Wiral to which we marched off with full pack enroute to the railhead at Bessess O’th’ Barn. On arrival at West Kirby we witnessed a massive air raid on Liverpool to where we were very soon moved. We then embarked on the SS Mataroa, a meat boat of some 12,000 tonnes displacement – Draft Code ‘XXXX’.  Our accommodation on board ship was on a meat storage deck complete with meat hooks from which we slung our hammocks. The smell of previous cargoes was so nauseating that most of our time was spent on the open deck where we frequently slept on a spread out blanket but without a mattress. Sailing into the North Atlantic the convoy was joined by more merchant vessels and a Royal Navy escort believing our destination to be either Canada or the USA, the tropical kit with which we had been issued was considered to be a ruse to fool the enemy into believing we were heading for South Africa. After two weeks at sea when the weather began to moderate, it became apparent that we were in all probability heading for South Africa. This was more or less confirmed when some distant islands were sighted off the port beam and eventually identified as the Azores. During a storm in the North Atlantic, I was caught by a very heavy sea breaking over the deck where I was relaxing , and was washed down a gangway onto the Well Deck, narrowly missing being washed overboard where rescue would have been impossible. We sailed into Freetown, Sierra Leone, a most filthy harbour resembling an open sewer. The convoy was replenished in 48 hours and we again set sail into the South Atlantic where we were soon to be confronted with the threat of submarine attack, the battleship taking up position among the ships in convoy to obscure its presence. Shortly afterwards all the escort warships left the convoy and the 32 cargo and troopships were ordered to disperse. It was later learned that a German surface raider was at large in the vicinity of the convoy and had been engaged by the RN warships and sunk, along with a German submarine. This was fortunately achieved without any loss to the convoy, which reassembled 48 hours later. These were tense days and there was much elation when, on the 10th  December we learned that the USA had declared war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and had now joined the Allies. A few days later we entered Durban harbour to a royal reception.

December 1941.
We encamped in bell tents at Clarewood on the outskirts of Durban, each tent accommodating eight airmen with all their kit – a bit of a squeeze. The local population was most apprehensive about a possible Japanese naval attack, and it was no reassurance for them when we were ordered to carry helmets and gas masks. Things quickly settled down, and my mate and I were ‘adopted ‘ by a family in Durban for the remainder of our stay, which covered Christmas and the New Year. There was no lack of offers from the local populace to entertain RAF airman and take them on sight-seeing tours, picnics, and to parties, and there were always cars lined up at the camp entrance with offers of lifts. We were frequently taken to a beautiful beach at Isipingo where the bathing was quite magnificent, the only problem was a long tailed blue jellyfish which was reputed to have a very nasty sting. The climate was ideal, and though there was good food and entertainment we were beginning to run out of funds as we had not received any pay since leaving the UK. When an offer came for the chance to go to Pretoria to continue our training there was no lack of volunteers, and many of us were soon heading for the Transvaal by rail.

January 1942.
I arrived at a South African Air Force station near to Johannesburg in the Transvaal, after a most uncomfortable three days train journey having spent much time riding on top of the carriage in order to keep cool. On arrival we were made aware, by some South African nationalists, that we were not particularly welcomed, and there was a distinct anti British feeling. Daily Routine Orders were printed in Africaans and English on alternative days which did not endear us to the SAAF, but after three days we were transferred to Roberts Heights near Pretoria. There we stayed for two more days before leaving by rail for Southern Rhodesia, entailing another two days on the train, stopping at Maffeking and the small town of Zeerust where we were made most welcome – what a change from the Transvaal.

Pilot Training 1942
On arrival in Bullawayo in Southern Rhodesia, we were transferred to the ITW at Hillside Camp, a former animal market, where we were billeted in what had previously been pigsties. The roof was of corrugated iron and the front screened with a series of roll-up blinds. Nonetheless it was comfortable and clean and the climate was most pleasant, although the temperature at night did drop considerably, necessitating several blankets on the bed. Breakfast was taken in a dark cookhouse, reveillle being at the unearthly hour of 05.30, with studies starting at 06.30 hours in classrooms constructed of straw and canvass. It took us quite a time to warm up at such an unearthly hour, but if there were any complaints we were taken for a quick run around the camp. This had the desired effect of getting us warm enough to concentrate on the lectures. Hillside Camp was, without doubt, an ITW with a difference, and though our normal duties terminated at 12.30 hours, we were occasionally scheduled for 24 hours guard duties (2 on and 4 off). Standing guard at the camp entrance had its moments, what with large flying beetles frequently landing on ones person after they had crashed into the security lights overhead.

There were around 12 Greek Air Force officers at this ITW who attended all our lectures, their tuition being given through an interpreter. This was somewhat disconcerting, but we managed to get through ITW despite the delays that it caused. On one occasion they were confined, under guard, to their living quarters because they refused to carry out their normal duties for some obscure reason, but it all ended peacefully some 24 hours later.

The ITW course was unexpectedly extended after we had taken our final exams due to a lack of vacancies at the Elementary Flying Training Schools. This gave me the opportunity to visit several places of interest including Cecil Rhodes’ grave and the Victoria Falls where several of us were accommodated in a private residence in Livingstone, free of charge. Although the owners were away, the household servants were left behind to cater for our needs. This was a memorable occasion  never to be forgotten, the Victoria Falls and the rain forest being close by and frequently visited.

It was during my time in Bulawayo that I took up soccer seriously and played in the RAF Hillside Station XI alongside several professional players from teams such as Liverpool, Everton, Notts Forest and Sheffield Wednesday et al. Eventually I was selected to play in the RAF  Rhodesia XI although there were very few teams of a similar caliber against which we could play. Many RAF Stations did however turn out top class teams whose matches were watched by thousands of servicemen and the civilian population alike. My football career was curtailed after I tore the lateral ligaments in my right foot having kicked at a sunken water spray nozzle which was located just below the turf on a ground in Bulawayo. It was not until 1954 at RAF Halton Hospital that I underwent an operation to transplant a ligament from my right leg to replace the torn ligaments in my ankle, reputed to be the first such operation to be a success.

On completion of ITW, I was posted to Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at Belvedere, near Salisbury where I was to fly my first aeroplane – a Tiger Moth. These were delightful aircraft to fly and it would have taken some suicidal manoeuvre to crash one. In order to avoid the more turbulent weather, reveille was 05.00 hours when breakfast was taken in candlelight. The first take-off was around 06.00hours, each session taking abound one hour. It took me just 10 hours dual flying before I was allowed to fly solo, but after completing around 50 hours mostly solo, I was transferred to No 24 Air Observer School at Moffat, near Gwello in central S Rhodesia. This was a great disappointment for me as I thoroughly enjoyed piloting. but unfortunately there were far too many would-be pilots under training and a dearth of navigators. Factors which had a bearing on my transfer were that I was top of the course in navigation and was not a Rugby Union player, the sport which took precedence over all others in this part of the world and counted quite a lot in the social calendar. The game of soccer was not recognised as a significant sport – the top brass being from the ‘old school‘ and concerned more with the social image than the sport itself. However, it was not long before I once again became airborne, this time in Avro Ansons, for navigation, bombing and air photography training and in Oxfords for air gunnery training.

In November 1942, during an Air Observer/ Bomb Aimer exercise, I inadvertently dropped 12 practice bombs over a wide area of S.Rhodesia with one falling on the Gwello to Salisbury railway track. This occurred because of a malfunction of the bomb doors where the sequence of opening and closing had been reversed and on release of each bomb it was caught by the closed bomb doors. Then, not seeing the bomb leave the aircraft I called for the doors to be closed thus causing them to be opened – each bomb being inadvertently released sometime after passing the target and well outside the range perimeter. The range controller had no R/T contact with the aircraft, so on returning to base the crew was surprised to find the bomb bay empty and a somewhat agitated OC waiting for an explanation.

Another exceptional occurrence was a crash in an Anson when, whilst taxying a little too fast over soft grassy ground it collapsed bringing the aircraft to an abrupt halt. The landing gear came up through the engine nacelles and the tail plane appeared over the cockpit roof, it had broken its back. The pitot head was so badly damaged it most probably would register acres, not mph. Having had no time to to‘ belt-up‘ I was catapulted from my 2nd  pilot seat and badly injured my knee on the rudder bars which were in the raised position. My injuries looked much worse than was the case being dressed only in khaki shorts but there was blood everywhere. Both the pilot and I were obliged to walk back over a mile to air traffic control from where the incident had been observed but not considered serious enough to dispatch an ambulance. The pilot, however was more concerned about the subsequent Court of Inquiry which was bound to question his high speed taxying which was largely responsible for the complete write off of the aircraft.

We also had a ‘near miss‘ when carrying out some air-to-air gunnery practice when our Australian pilot, flying too close to the drogue towing Fairy Battle caused it to break off the engagement and dive beneath us. In an attempt to locate the Battle he put the nose down sharply only to miss a collision by a matter of a few feet. The target drogue had been jettisoned as an indication that the exercise was over and we returned to base somewhat shaken by the event.

My rank was now Acting Sergeant (unpaid) having progressed from AC2 through LAC to become a privileged member of the Aircrew Sergeants’ Mess. The reason for a separate Sergeants Mess was that we were considered to be potential ‘officer material’ although ultimately only around 5% were commissioned on completion of the course, not as a result of the examination results, but more to do with their pre-service background. The training at 24 AOS was not made easier by still having several of the Greek Air Force officers training alongside us, thereby causing delays. This Greek contingent created other difficulties because Gwello had a large Greek population and on one occasion when a night-flying programme was cancelled and we had all made our way into Gwello for an evening out and subsequently the flying programme was reinstated, the whole course was rounded up and returned to base with the exception of our Greek compatriots who were obviously being ‘entertained’ privately.

Upon graduating l was placed 10th  out of 30 and considered that I had done fairly well, but l became somewhat apprehensive when, just prior to the passing-out parade, the CO summoned me to his office only for him to tell me that there had been some irregularity in the examination marks. I was somewhat relieved when told that I had obtained much higher marks than those originally awarded and in fact had finished fourth in order-of-merit and I was duly presented with my Observer brevet as a qualified navigator/bomb aimer, with qualifications as an air gunner and air photographer in the rank of Sergeant on full pay.

March 1943
All the graduates were expecting to be sent to the Middle East for operational duties in North Africa and we were all somewhat surprised to learn that we were posted back to the UK. We then travelled by rail back to Cape Town but on this occasion we were issued with arms as a precaution against possible attacks by extreme nationalists. On arrival we spent almost two weeks awaiting a troopship, which gave me time to explore the area and meet many of the local inhabitants who were most friendly, so much so that one of our number met and married a local girl who subsequently rejoined her husband in the UK. I embarked on the SS Britannia, a luxury liner converted into a troopship, but we were all confined to ship at the dockside for nine days before sailing, supposedly for reasons of security. There were around 1,200 Italian POWs with a few of their female camp followers on board so there was no shortage of volunteers for waiter and batman duties. There was a slight problem of having to keep the Royalist and Fascist POWs separated,the former were quite passive and trustworthy and on one occasion one was actually seen sitting on an unattended Sten gun which had inadvertently been left unattended. We were not completely happy with the Fascist element although they never caused the RAF contingent any real worries.

The journey home was largely uneventful due mainly to the high speed of the convoy which consisted of just two converted liners, escorted by the battleship HMS Warspite and its two attendant destroyers. The trip took only 10 days including a short stay in Freetown after which the convoy took a relatively direct route sailing between the Canary islands and the NW African mainland. This was thought to be a bit of a risky as we must have been silhouetted against shore lights displayed on either side of the convoy.

May 1943
The contingent arrived in Liverpool and we were all quickly transferred to the Aircrew Holding Unit at Harrogate where we were billeted in a hotel in the town centre with the HQ at Pannal golf course . Our CO was a Wg. Cdr. Leslie Ames, a former Kent and England cricketer. He became somewhat unpopular when insisting that we discarded our Observer ‘O’ Brevets for either the Navigator ‘N’ or the Bomb Aimer ‘B’ brevet, a somewhat new innovation frowned upon by all who had so diligently worked to earn the ‘O’ It was during my disembarkation leave from here that I first saw my nephew, David, in Walkley, Sheffield.

June 1943
I was transferred to No. 4 Advanced Flying Training Unit at RAF West Freugh, Scotland for operational bombing training prior to joining a Bomber Command squadron. Night flying in these high latitudes during the summer months was like flying in daylight, where at these high altitudes there was no darkness. The aircraft flown were Bothas and considered to be quite dangerous, especially when carrying out gunnery practice as the escape route from the turret would be quite difficult. The aircraft became known as the ‘flying coffin’.

July 1943
Posted to No. 11 Operational Training Unit, (OTU) RAF Westcott, Oxfordshire, where we were to fly the famous Wellington aircraft and form our operational crews. This was quite an informal affair whereby all crew members were assembled in the operations briefing room to mingle and introduce themselves to one another and mutually agree to fly together as a crew. There was no compulsion to crew with anyone in particular and my chosen crew was a pilot of the RNZAF, Sgt. Russ Young, Wireless Operator Sgt. Ron Axten, also of the RNZAF, Navigator Sgt. Doug McDonald of the RAAF, Sgt. Fred Holt, RAF, Air Engineer Sgt. Mel Sumner RAF, Mid-Upper Gunner and Sgt. Jimmy Burrows RAF, the Rear Gunner. My role now became Bomb Aimer. Only the ground school training wasdone at Westcott the flying training being carried out at the satellite airfield, Oakley to where we were bussed daily.

October 1943
I was posted to No. 1651 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at RAF Waterbeach. Cambs and introduced to my first four engined bomber aircraft, the Short Bros. Stirling – quite a change from all previous experiences. Apart from my bomb aiming role. I now to became 2nd  pilot, primarily for take-offs and landings only, but having had pilot training I was considered capable of acting as 2nd pilot and allowed to take over as 1st pilot on many occasions, and receive pilot simulator training. On one training exercise the captain carried out the practice-bomb dropping whilst l did the piloting with remarkable success!

October 1943
Our crew was posted to No.75 (New Zealand) Squadron for operational duties in Bomber Command and were a little apprehensive at this Squadron‘s reputation for sustaining high losses – born out at the end of the WW2 having sustained the 2nd highest losses in Bomber Command.

It was based at RAF Mepal, near Ely, the name of a small local village, and although closer to the village of Sutton it could not be so named as there may have been some confusion with RAF Full Sutton in Yorkshire. The Squadron comprised of pilots of the RNZAF with one from the RAAF and one from the RAF. Other crew members, i.e. Gunners. Flight Engineers and Radio Operators were mainly RAF although there was one crew comprising all RAAF personnel who shared our Nissen hut accommodation. They were all subsequently posted ‘missing believed killed on their very first mission with a new pilot, their own having been permanently grounded on medical grounds on discovery that he had never passed the ‘aircrew‘ medical. He was quickly repatriated as he looked like he was heading for a nervous breakdown.

On our first day with 75 (NZ) Sqn, the Squadron Commander, Wg Cdr Roy Max RNZAF, placed our crew on the Battle Order for that nights operation; mine laying in the Baltic Sea. At the eleventh hour we were pulled out by the Station Commander, Gp Cpt Wass , who wished us to carry out some simulated operations over the UK. code named Bullseye. before being committed to the main force. All the Squadron aircraft assigned to that minelaying operation were lost, so we considered ourselves very fortunate. Our crew was allocated the Stirling bomber JN ‘X‘ for X-ray in ‘C‘ Flight with the logo, ‘ Excuse please Mr, I go, I come back’, a catch phrase taken from the radio show, Tommy Handley’s ‘lTMA’.

My first operation was a mine laying sortie off the heavily defended Friesian Islands on 24th  November,1943 which was quite uneventful. This was quickly followed with minelaying operations in La Rochelle harbour, the bombing of the V1 rocket launch-sites in the Pas De Callaise area, mine laying in Kiel Bay, where the Royal Navy intelligence Officer hoped the new type magnetic mines we dropped would prevent the Germans from sailing any craft with even one nail in it. When mining Cherbourg harbour the aircraft immediately ahead of us exploded just prior to the release of the mines.

The mining of the River Adour near Bayonne in SW France had to be done twice in four nights as this very first attempt at mine laying from high level – around 6000 ft. was considered a partial failure –  one crew dropped their mines in the wrong river. The second attempt was a complete success.

When tasked to submit a claim for the award of the 1939/43 Star, later to become the 1939/45 Star, it was necessary to list two operations completed before the end of 1943. I gave the Cherbourg operation, along with another but was later informed that the Air Ministry had no record of this particular sortie and was awarded the Star on the strength of other operations. It was not until the early 1990‘s while doing some research into wartime operations I discovered that this particular mine laying operation was not recorded in the archives; the only official record of it being in the Operations Record Form 540 retained by No 75 (NZ) Squadron in New Zealand , a photo copy of which l managed to obtain but now reclassified from ‘secret‘ to ‘restricted’.

Stirling bombers in early 1944 suffered unacceptable losses and were gradually withdrawn from the main stream operations being carried out by the Lancasters which from time to time had a nasty habit of dropping their loads onto the lower flying Stirlings. In March 1944, and still flying Stirlings we were switched to carrying out some covert low flying operations supplying the French resistance movement – The Maquis. These were very hazardous having to fly at around 5000 feet relying on Dead Reckoning navigation and map reading, and having to descend to around 200-300 feet over the DZs. On receiving a prearranged flashlight coded signal and acknowledging it, we dropped the supplies alongside a quickly prepared bonfire and then made a hasty retreat before the Germans were able to locate and reach the dropping zone. The enemy would obviously be alerted to the presence of our aircraft during the time we were circling the area allowing the Maquis to prepare to receive the consignment and light the fire. Many crews were lost on these missions, one being a 75(NZ) Sqn. crew which on several occasions had failed to locate the DZ and vowed before their final attempt that they would succeed or bust; they were lost. This crew was piloted by Sqn Ldr Watson and it was many years later I learned that the only survivor was the mid-upper gunner, Colin Armstrong.

On another occasion a crew managed to drop its very sensitive supply canisters on the base airfield before take-off , necessitating the aid of the army specialists to make it safe. It transpired that this canister, like most of them, contained a lot of nasty, but innocent looking gadgets, such as ‘doctored‘ cigarette packets, designed to kill or injure any inquisitive German soldiers for whom they were left to pick up in cafes etc.

Another 75 Sqn crew shot down on one of these special missions was piloted by F/ Sgt Brown, RNZAF who managed to evade capture and contact the Maquis who then used him as a liaison officer for the duration of the war.

For my last operation on Stirlings I was briefed for another supply dropping mission whilst complaining of severe earache. At this juncture there was no way l could pull out as it could have been misconstrude as LMF, but by the time we returned to base the earache was so severe that l was quickly transferred to the military hospital in Ely. Concern for my possible permanent loss of hearing led the ENT Specialist to severely chastise me not reporting my earache before getting airborne He could not appreciate my predicament of being unable to tell my Sqn OC that I had earache when l had already been detailed to fly – earache is not ‘visible‘ and the wrong conclusion could easily have be drawn.

April 1944
On my return to the Squadron after discharge from hospital l discovered that we were to fly Lancasters, and that our Flight, ‘C’ Flight, was the first to be converted. The new aircraft was equipped with the latest radar, H2S, which together with the Gee made navigation a lot easier. We chose the same aircraft call-sign letter, ‘X’, which seemed appropriate as it had served us admirably on the Stirling, the ‘C‘ Flight prefix letters JN remaining the same, A and B Flights prefix being ‘AA’ My role now became radar operator! navigator! Bomb aimer and part time 2nd  pilot which was more in keeping with my training. I now felt more productive, and as crew members were encouraged to familiarise themselves with other crew duties l was able to fly the aircraft on many occasions thus allowing the pilot to participate in duties other than being the ‘driver airframe’. This proved to be extremely valuable when one squadron pilot was so badly wounded during an operation over Nantes and unable to fly the aircraft, the bomb aimer was able to take control and fly it back to base and land safely, thus saving the pilots life as well as a very valuable aircraft.

We now operated with the main bomber force carrying out bombing missions to Karlsruhe. Essen. Friedrichshaven, and the Normandy beachhead at Ouistraham just prior to the landing of the invasion forces on 6″‘ June. On returning from this raid we were surprised by a formation fighter aircraft which we initially took to be Messerscmitts and were greatly relieved when they were identified as RAF Spitfires. We also witnessed the shooting down of a Lancaster by the naval escort to the invasion fleet when flying well below the pre-briefed height for which we were strongly warned not to do on pain of being fired upon by our own side. The sight of so many vessels at sea was awe inspiring and presented a very unique spectacle, especially on the H25 screen where the sea was hardly distinguishable from the solid mass of shipping.

The H2S proved its worth on a bombing mission to Friedrichshaven, the farthest target we had to reach, and after a considerable period of flying on the return journey without any real pinpoint I managed to identify Paris on the radar screen. We were well off our intended track, and away from the main stream which made us extremely vulnerable to attack. by radar controlled enemy fighters. ‘Fishpond‘ radar, designed to give warning of enemy night fighter attacks, sometimes had a detrimental effect for if the main stream bombers identified an approaching aircraft and suspected it to be a night fighter and took evasive action, other bombers were quite likely to assume that such an aircraft coming toward them was the enemy. This had a domino effect and l suspect many bombers collided, we will never know.

During a bombing mission all radio transmissions were banned, but it was not unusual to hear the occasional transmission supposedly from a bomber which might bring a response from another bomber. These messages were suspected to be of German origin designed to cause confusion and to get responses from unsuspecting crews. This enabled the German defences to take bearings on the trasmissions thus jeopardising the attacking force. Keeping quiet was the only answer.

Enemy searchlights were occasionally encountered but rarely posed any real threat We were occasionally targeted by the London searchlights when flying in their vicinity and they were expecting an air- raid. They would indicate that we were to clear the area immediately by angling all their beams in the same direction. One did not hesitate to heed such warnings, especially when we were returning from a bombing mission.

Other targets we bombed following on from the invasion of Normandy were Lisiuex. Fougers. Dreux and Nantes all carried out without much opposition from either the Luftwaffer or ground defences. The total casualties on 75(NZ) Sqn were very high and are reflected in the book about the Squadrons‘ History, ‘Forever Strong‘, by Norman Franks.

2 thoughts on “The Memoirs of James Colin Burch, Air Bomber – Young Crew.

  1. Mary Thompson

    My father was Melvin Sumner and I have no information of his flying missions other than he said he was a tail gunner in the Lancasters, and i have a New Zealand Squadron Greeting Card with photo sent to his mother and sisters in 1943 with a picture in it of the crew with their names and position in aircraft as mentioned above. I can’t believe just on a moment of ‘I’ll look up 75 Squad’ that I have come across Colin Burch writing the above. It is only a mention of him being part of the crew of my photo but helps with something I wondered of ‘was he in a crew or did he fly missions?, as many questions went unanswered and not a lot was spoken about missions, comrades etc. although my father continued a further 22 yrs service passing at age 59 in 1982. So if anyone else may know the name Melvin Sumner from Leigh Lancashire in wartime RAF 1942-47 then a further 22years after the war, any info would be gratefully received good or bad. regards Mary Thompson (nee Sumner)


  2. Phil Armstrong

    This was amazing to find an article about my Grandad (Taid) Colin Armstrong who was the only survivor of his crew led by Sqn Ldr Watson. He didn’t say much about the crash but spoke very highly about all the crew who passed away on that fateful night. I couldn’t of asked for a better Grandad and a role model. A true hero that we all loved very much.



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