(Part 2 of 2)
The following is an excerpt from Stonewall author Jim Shilliday’s latest book, My Brother’s Ghost: The Life and Times of a Missing Airman, which is a biography/ military history. For more than six decades, the author lived a kind of who-dun-it puzzle, wondering what, or who, killed his brother one terrible night on a bombing run over Germany. Extensive research, log entries and the airman’s letters home, now provide an almost full account starting in 1943 and ending with his brother Bob’s death, near war’s end, having no known grave.
Shilliday is a former editor of the Real Estate News.
My Brother’s Ghost
This is the prelude period, that worst hour or so before take-off. Tension mounts. During a last look round in the fading light, nerves really stretch. Climb aboard, the doors shut irrevocably behind you, the moment of truth arrives, the instant when stark reality replaces the sense of unreality that prevailed all day since names appeared on the battle order.
Now the ritual of preparing for take-off after the crew climbed into the narrow door on the fuselage’s right side, near the rear of the bomber, (the pilot and bomb aimer had the option of climbing a ladder into the nose section) ...
Bob went a little to the right, climbed up to his sling under the mid-upper turret, checked the operating mechanism. Getting in was a squeeze; getting out in an emergency could be difficult. He knew that there was little armour protection, and the roundels on the outer fuselage below him, on either side, seemed natural targets for enemy fighter pilots ...
The pilot, bombardier, flight engineer, navigator, radio operator all took their positions at the front end and made their particular checks. Byers, the pilot, checked Ground/Flight switch on “Ground” — when the electrical power surged in, he didn’t want his bombs dropping out accidentally; throttle, pitch settings and so on. Behind him and the navigator, the wireless op, Crow, switched on his H2S, a downward scanning radar set beneath the fuselage used for navigation and night bombing (that pop of energy, along with hundreds of others in the rest of the air fleet, would prove deadly for some of the boys setting out on this op) and was satisfied it was ready for business ...
Preliminary checks over, one-by-one the crew straggled out again, masking anxiety, stretching out on the grass, or sitting cross-legged, or back to one of the giant tires, having “nervous pees” on the tail wheel (the ritual spot) and waiting for the final met report that was being compiled from weather checks over the continent by swift aircraft such as Spitfires and Mosquitoes. Nothing is done hurriedly. Some of the crew, in the unusual bated-breath silence of the airfield, sit on the grass by their bomber to smoke a last “fag” (until they get back, they hope), stare at what’s still visible in the after-glow — control tower, scattered Lancs’ canopies glinting feebly in the low light, until the distant Lincolnshire horizon of hills and trees fades into dusk. This contemplative period may be the worst time.
The Lancasters sit back on their haunches like hounds, shivering in anticipation of the horn calling them to the hunt. Finally, a green light flashes and all the crews start climbing back on board their Lancs and then the take-off ritual of checks.
Byers looks over his instrument panel, flight engineer Kelleher checks fuel tank settings, electrical breakers and switches.
And then there is the green flare arcing from the control tower: Start your engines ...
When they get the green light, the bomb-laden aircraft is taxied onto the perimeter track, brakes squealing time after time in protest, into a line of Lancs, a herd of pachyderms moving slowly along the perimeter track to the runway’s end.
They are just part of a much larger bomber force attacking tonight, and are told to shut down engines and wait. Bob’s crew dismounts and kills time, some lighting up, others — what the heck — taking another “tinkle” on the tail wheel.
Then it’s time to get back in through the small door on the right-hand side of the fuselage that also serves as a bale-out exit ...
Freddy Irving, the bombardier, or bomb aimer, mans two positions up front, mainly lying prone in the nose with his bombsight; he also assists navigator McLenaghen with map reading by using the transparent nose cupola. And if necessary (but unlikely), he will stand up to man twin .303 machine guns. At his feet is the nose parachute exit. Behind and above him, over the bomb bay and under the large Perspex canopy sits Pilot Byers, left, on a raised part of the floor. Flight engineer Kelleher sits to the pilot’s right, on a collapsible seat, various gauges and fuel selectors on a panel in front. During take-off, he stood beside the pilot and held his left hand behind the throttle levers, to make sure they didn’t slip back (take-off, fully bombed-up, was no time to lose horses). Behind them, behind a curtain that allows him to turn on a light to work, hunches navigator McLenaghen, facing to port in front of a chart table. Providing his navigation data is an instrument panel on the fuselage above the table showing airspeed, altitude and so on.
Mounted on the left side of the navigator’s table, facing the rear, are radios and radar for wireless operator Crow, who is parked on a main-spar seat facing forwards. Above him is the astrodome for visual signaling, and for celestial navigation by the navigator. Well aft of this position, at the end of the bomb bay, the floor drops and this is where mid-upper gunner Shilliday does his job in a Frazer Nash turret providing a 360-degree range of view from above the aircraft’s fuselage, and armed with two .50-calibre Browning machine guns to protect against attack from above and the sides. Once in the turret, he’s there until they land back at base. At the very rear, sits tail gunner Michael Frank, protecting against fighters attacking from behind. He mans two .50 Brownings. Both gunners are glad they’re wearing heated suits to prevent hypothermia and frostbite ...
The Lancaster bomb bay was the largest of any British bomber at 33 feet long, allowing it to carry the heaviest bombs made, including 4,000-pound “cookies,” then with modifications, 8,000-pound and 12,000-pound cookies. Then, near war’s end, it carried the 21-feet-long Tallboy, or the 25.5-feet-long, 22,000-pound “Grand Slam” earthquake bombs. The crew always knew when the bomb bay doors opened, because noise of the slipstream altered; and when the bombs went, the Lanc gave a little jump, like a frisky racehorse.
As they had fingered switches and eased throttles forward, flames had exploded in 864 cylinders and the familiar rumble, shudder and then high-pitched roar combined into a steady thunder as the 18 aircraft trembled, then steadying and becoming even as the Lancs trundled one-by-one onwards to the end of the runway and, wings flexing, lifting their own 66,000-pounds loaded weight into the air, left behind a pungent odour of burned 100 octane aviation fuel. The gunners and pilot were on full oxygen from the start; the rest would go on full oxygen above 10,000 feet.
Their bomber had edged forward and joined the gaggle of 153 Squadron Lancs heading to the active runway. Each heavily-loaded aircraft did its run-up, checked out magnetos, lined up down the runway with another squeal of breaks, finally howled away, on wings and prayers, the runway flashing backwards, followed by the next, until all had lifted off to join the growing stream of bombers from other stations. From now until the bomb run, everyone, particularly the gunners, would be on the lookout for other Lancs that could fly into them, or vice versa.
Dusseldorf was a relatively short-range target, and the Lancs couldn’t get to the required 20,000 feet bombing altitude in that distance. So, after take-off, the Scampton Lancs had to circle over base and climb until reaching 10,000 feet before setting course — a sobering experience as all those huge explosive-laden planes gyrated together in the looming darkness above the Lincolnshire countryside. As Bob’s Lanc and the other 153 Squadron kites finally crossed the French coast, they joined one of the many waves of the attacking force at a steady 150 m.p.h., and Bob had his turret unlocked and was busy at his job for the next six hours — the 360-degree square search pattern, with a never-before-experienced feeling of intense apprehension that wouldn’t go away on this, his first operation ...
Bob’s aircraft climbed ever higher into the cumulous-dotted evening sky, and wireless operator Crow dutifully switched on his H2S radar again, and that spurt of energy, along with all the others sent out by hundreds of Allied bombers, was picked up by German radar operators. The give-away bomber signals had been picked up as much as two hours before take-off. Night fighter squadrons were alerted that a large attack was on its way. By the time German ground radars had located the incoming bombers, night fighters already were up there moving to intercept them. German ground controllers vectored the fighters until their aircraft radar locked on to the bombers’ H2S sets and led them to their victims ...
The crew of Flying Officer Clyde Byers’s Lanc, “Peg,” is one of four crews on this mission who are having their first go at attacking and surviving. The eighteen 153 Squadron Lancs endured a rough time during the Dusseldorf raid. NE 113 had to abort the flight early, due to complete loss of power in the starboard outer engine; PB 515 came under a sustained attack from a Ju-88; F/O Bob McCormack, flying PB 639 on his first solo operation, was shot down together with his four fellow Canadians and two RAFVR crew. There were no survivors. The raid itself was deemed successful, despite the heavy Ack Ack (anti-aircraft) fire and intense fighter activity.
Bob’s plane was one of 561 Lancasters, 400 Halifaxes and 31 Mosquitos winging to target. The main attack fell on the northern half of the city, destroying more than 5,000 houses, seven industrial plants, including important steel mills. This was the last major Bomber Command raid of the war on Dusseldorf. A fierce battle raged high above the darkened city. Eight Lancasters were lost, four crashing behind Allied lines in France and Belgium. Night fighters intercepted the bomber stream and harassed it to target, and all the way back to the French coast. So gunner lookouts like Bob didn’t have a moment’s respite the whole way.
Total effort for the night was 1,131 sorties, 19 aircraft lost (about 133 young men). Bob now had five hours and thirty minutes of air battle against Nazi Germany.
By 1944, the Luftwaffe night-fighters and their skilled crews had become adept at intercepting the British heavy bombers under cover of darkness, with sophisticated electronic range-finding and navigation equipment fitted to their aircraft. As the war progressed and enemy night fighters got better, the greatest fear of the RAF bomber crews as they approached their targets was the ever-present danger of the marauding Luftwaffe. Each night a deadly game of hide-and-seek, and run-and-hope was played out in the skies above the Reich.
Messerschmitt 110s, JU-88s, and the specifically-developed Heinkel 219 would rise up into the darkening skies from bases in the Ruhr to await the arrival of the RAF heavies. Loitering singly and in pairs, they would infiltrate the bomber streams, each crew using their own individual method of hunting and attack. They seldom came home empty handed. Based in the Ruhr Valley in 1944, NJG-1 (Nachtjagdgeshwader) was among the most successful night-fighter units, being credited with 2,173 night victories and another 145 scored in daylight.
(My Brother’s Ghost is available from McNally Robinson Booksellers, Winnipeg, or directly from the author Jim Shilliday, e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org By mail: Jim Shilliday, 325, 622 Centre Ave., Stonewall, MB, R0C 2Z0. Phone: (204) 467-2042. Payment ($19 plus post) is by cheque or money order: include your mailing address, and if you would like the author to sign your copy.)