I Was the Wireless Operator. . .
Fierce flak, bombs that wouldn't drop, flaming plane ... A wireless Joe tells you his thrilling story of night bombing over Germany
FLT.-LIEUT. COLEMAN PERKINS
As Told To
IT WAS moonlight as we crossed the North Sea to Juist in the Frisian Islands that lie north of Holland. Our task was to mine the sea lanes off
the Dutch coast around the Islands. We carried two mines of a ton each and two 250-pound bombs.
Our Wellington was one of Number Nine Squadron, RAF, one of the oldest and finest, and one of the first squadrons to attack Germany in this war. I was the wireless operator.
When all goes well the wireless operator on a Wellington has about the easiest of the five jobs aboard. Usually, after the flight is under way, the wireless operator takes up observation position in the astro dome, the greenhouselike half sphere amidships, and just before and during the attack he stands facing the rear of the aircraft, in the dome, to watch what’s developing and report to all hands, especially the pilot.
As we neared the “gardening area”—that’s what we call the area to be mined—I went on the intercom to report, “There seems to be a strange aircraft above . . . Let you know if it gets any closer.”
Sergeant Vic (Trusty) Trustrum, Toronto, our pilot, left further observation of that shadowing plane to me and to our tail gunner, Bill Hall, Newcastle, Eng., while he and Kerry Kermode, the navigator, who came from the Isle of Man, studied the charts. But as the minutes passed there was no further sign of the strange aircraft. We kept stooging on around 800 feet. I could hear Trusty and Kerry talking about the various peculiarities of the island’s shape. No sight or sound came from below.
Then, as we flew over the tip of Juist, like a flash of lightning we were trapped by 10 searchlights. Trusty immediately threw the stick forward and the nose dropped down and we were into a steep dive.
Flak thumped around us. It was green and yellow and red—all sorts of colors. The searchlights that held us were a kind of purplish white.
The violent dive threw me against the steel of the
astro tower. My intercom plug came out of the socket and I lost contact with the rest of the fellows. There were so many explosions right outside the aircraft I couldn’t count them. 1 was thrown against the side of the ship. I knew we were too low to bail out.
It was an all-out dive, the steepest I’d ever been in. We were diving so fast the Nazi gunners couldn’t keep us in their sights. I was still pressed against the side of the aircraft, not able to do anything. I wasn’t particularly frightened. Everything was happening too quickly. But I remember mumbling to myself, “Well, this is it. I guess it’s all over ...”
All of a sudden there was a terrific wrench. Trusty had pulled her out of the dive and we started to climb.
I picked myself up and plugged into the intercom. The first thing I heard was the excited voice of Joe Miesen, Arkansas, our front gunner, saying, “Hey, I’ve got a fire here in my front turret!”
I picked up the fire extinguisher that was near my wireless set and started forward. The thought of a big fire in the front of the aircraft made me a little shaky. We had to lay our mines and we had to get away from there, but the most important thing to be done was to get the fire under control. I plugged into one of the intercom sockets near Joe’s door and said, “Okay, Joe, I’ve an extinguisher here.” But his voice came back over the intercom, “I think it’s all right. I think I can handle the fire myself.” Just at the minute he said it, Hall, the rear gunner, started to shout, “Weave, for heaven’s sake, weave! They’re firing at us. And closer. Let’s get out of here.”
I rushed back beside the pilot and then realized his intercom had been shot away. He was staring ahead, concentrating on getting us out of that mess. His hands actually looked as if they were stuck to the stick with glue. I nudged him and made a weavy motion with my hand to indicate an evasive course. Trusty threw the ship about. I reached over and plugged his intercom plug into another socket. The flak kept going by in big red bursts.
I started back to the astro dome. By the time I had got there Trusty had thrown the searchlights off. Over the intercom I could hear him muttering to himself in amazement over how our wings could pull out from such a steep dive just a few feet from the sea with a full load of explosives. We were so low the waves had ripped off my trailing aerial.
Then I heard Trusty say, “There seems to be something wrong with the starboard engine.” But he decided to proceed with the mine laying. He brought her down to 500 feet so we could lay the mines.
We got the mines safely into the sea roads, then Kerry gave us a course and we set off for home. Back at base as we started to come in to land the weather was a bit tricky, with a ground mist making things
difficult, and Trusty found we were coming in too high. He pranged the throttles forward to go round again and just then there was a terrific shudder from the starboard engine. We had to stick the nose down and make a forced landing.
When we got out we found just a stub of a blade on the starboard prop. A shell had gone straight through her. We had suffered 19 other hits, yet our Wellington was back in the skies two or three nights later, good as ever, out on a bombing raid.
MILITARY bombing is never haphazard. It’s as scientifically accurate as skill and experience can make it. We know before going out what we’re supposed to hit and we take pictures, immediately after the bombs are gone, to see what we do hit. Next day a chart in the briefing room shows the score: what we went after and what we got. No secrets are held back and each crew knows how the other crew scored. Although it doesn’t happen very often, the crew consistently off aiming point gets a ticking off from the CO.
Dropping the photoflash flares to take those pictures is one of the less pleasant jobs of the wireless operator. Bombs go down heavy and fast and true. The flares go down more slowly and explode at a predetermined height set by a fuse cap. The flares are, roughly, four feet long and about six inches in diameter. They’re black with little fins on them.
It’s the wireless operator’s job to extend the flare chute out the side of the aircraft and, when the words “Bombs gone” come through the intercom, to see that the flares get away properly. They burst at the proper height above the ground to light things up below so the camera can get the picture.
Flare dropping is no fun. The flares are worthless if released before the bombs, and after the bombs have gone the pilot generally has to take violent weaving or evasive action, twisting and turning at 300 miles an hour. So the flare dropper gets tossed and upset and spilled about.
One night in our Wellington we were carrying four big flares and many bombs to Essen, home of the Krupp works. It was a clear night. Over the intercom came word from the navigator, “Okay, we’re coming up to the target now.”
The pilot brought us over the target on the first run; the bombardier reported “Bombs gone” and I dropped a flare. Then another and another. The fourth and last flare stuck.
I guess it was because the flare didn’t get into the chute properly and also that we were weaving so violently. Maybe that combination did it. Anyhow, while we were trying to duck the multicolored flak at 200 miles an hour, I tried with all my strength to push that flare through the chute. It wouldn’t go.
I picked up the stick used to extend the chute and pushed at the flare. That didn’t work. And any minute now the flare might explode. The explosion would have been equal to that of being hit by a 75 mm. shell.
Everybody was intent on his own job when I reported, “Skipper, I’ve got a flare stuck here in the flare chute. I can’t get rid of it.”
Flak was bursting around us so it didn’t surprise me to hear Trusty say, “We’ve got troubles enough of our own. Keep heaving.”
Between trying to keep my balance in the twisting ship and keep from getting my head bashed in as we pitched about and trying to push that flare through the chute, I was in a lather. Already the flare’s period of usefulness was gone but we probably had good pictures from the other three flares.
Then Miesen, the front gunner, came up from behind his two guns to help. We both pushed at the flare, but it still refused to budge. Trusty and
Kerry, from the front, kept asking how we were doing. We were doing badly.
To this day I don’t know how the flare failed to explode. But I do know that after what seemed an hour—actually it was only about 20 minutes—that photoflash flare finally got away. I stood there for a minute after it had gone, not doing anything or thinking of anything.
THAT was a pretty close call. I still feel a little funny sometimes when I think of it now. However, the only time that Wellington of ours got us into any real trouble was because of her stout heart, and that was during a raid over Bremen when she brought us to target too soon.
That night everything seemed to be going so well we were all surprised when Kerry, the navigator, went on the intercom to say, “We’re going to be on the target in six minutes, Trusty . . . That’s going to be far too early.”
“I can’t go any slower.”
“Well, I’m afraid we’re going to be there too early.” We really didn’t know then what it was going to be like to be first on the target. At the moment everything seemed quite peaceful so we kept on. We went in by ourselves, well ahead of the others.
As we ran up on the target, lights seemed to spring up from everywhere. I suddenly knew we were going to have a tough time and that we’d be lucky to get out of it alive. I braced myself against the sides of the aircraft. The flak seemed to be all around us. There were ugly red flashes, which left trailing black puffs of smoke. They seemed to be so close you could reach out and touch them.
The front gunner, who was new with us on that trip in our Wellington, suddenly got out of his turret, thinking we were out of control. He stood near the pilot, putting his parachute pack on. Trusty said to him, “Everything is okay. They haven’t got us yet.” But the gunner just stood there. He didn’t get back into his turret or do anything.
We might have been in the missing category but just then the other aircraft began to wheel in and the Nazi weren’t able to give us their undivided attention. We dropped our bombs and set course for home.
Shortly after that trip to Bremen I was transferred to a Lancaster, D for Donald. I was sorry to say good-by to that old Wellington. When I first crewed up on her she was already a veteran of the war in the skies. She was just the sort of ship I looked forward to being on when I left my home in Fonthill, Ont., to enlist in the RCAF on Aug. 14, 1940. I trained at Brandon and Calgary and went overseas in July of the following year, and was posted to Number Nine Bombing Squadron a few months later.
At first I took a dim view of my new skipper on the Lancaster, D for Donald. He was Gordon Fry, a Londoner, five years in the RAF but never on ops. I thought he’d be game but inadequate and probably too proud to ask the rest of us for advice. I was wrong. He turned out to be one of the finest and coolest pilots I’ve ever met.
OUR first briefing with the Lancaster was for Bremen and I had a feeling that this time we’d catch it. I’d had a rough time over Bremen before and here we were going in with a green chief.
I was glad the wireless operator on the big Lancaster had one of the busiest spots in the ship. I had to check all gear before the take-off, making certain the demolition equipment was in order because it is imperative that secret apparatus should not fall into enemy hands in case we are downed. I see to the photoflash flares, and, of course, the wireless.
On this assault on Bremen our Lancaster was in the last wave over the target, and looking ahead at the flak we had to fly through it seemed to all of us an impossibility. They were throwing everything up. Nothing, you’d think, could move through that and live.
The flak was coming up from many miles outside Bremen and concentrating over the aiming point, which was the harbor. We stood there in the plane and looked at it with more detachment than we felt.
“Is it always thus bad?” the skipper asked.
“No, sir, this looks worse than usual.” Coming into flak is like approaching a big hill. As you come near
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the hill in a motor car it looks steep, almost insurmountable. Then as you get close it seems to flatten out. That’s how it is approaching a flak-protected target. You stand there and swear no aircraft ever built can fly through in safety. Then you drone onward, weaving this way and that and after what seems an end leas length of time you emerge at the other end of the target and defenses thin out. That’s how it was this first night with Gordon Fry as our pilot.
As we started into the heavier part of the flak I thought this was a real test for a new skipper. Everywhere I looked there were searchlights—there seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of them, and in some places there were 20 or 30 concentrating on one aircraft.
The flak was thick. The red flak, that burst in big clusters, seemed the most frightening. Below them were streams of yellow and red tracer that were coming up to discourage anyone coming in below 10,000 feet. It was like a nightmare and it was all colors and you stiffened and got ready for the worst to happen. You didn’t think of anything or say much; you just waited there, clinging to the sides of the aircraft as it twisted. All around were the searchlights and all the colors of the flak. We came through it all right—how we managed to I suppose I’ll never know.
Our second Lancaster assault was over Essen and we saw the “flaming onion.” This is a phosphorescent projective, which looks as big as a large bomber as it twists at you. Momentarily it seems to float along beside you. It’s a big shell in its own right, but, in addition, from it shoot tails of flame, it looks like a whirling onion of white fire or, perhaps, like a vast flying octopus, with grasping arms of fire probing into the night.
On one hand I suppose its purpose is explosive, like other shells, but it is also an incendiary. But they are so big and spectacular to watch that no one can miss them.
A few nights after the encounter with the flaming onion our squadron was briefed to bomb the Heinkel works at Wismar on the Baltic. I didn’t fly. The chaps came back with good reports but intelligence was dissatisfied and after two nights we were ordered to return and hit harder.
This time D for Donald was briefed to attack at 5,000 feet. We carried a 4,000-pounder and hundreds of incendiaries. With a block buster it’s dangerous to fly lower than one mile; otherwise you might get crippled by your own explosive.
Because of the earlier dissatisfaction we were determined this night to reduce the place to a shambles. All hands were tense and silent as we neared the target. Then the bombardier reported, “Sorry, skipper, all I can see is fields. Better do another run.”
“Okay, we’re down to 4,000, a bit low, anyway.”
“Upper gunner here, sir . . . Fighters to starboard.”
“Bombardier here. We’ll bomb this time. I can see the target.”
Our four motors roared, flak burst around and below us yet the silence in our aircraft seemed intense when the
bombardier again reported, “Okay, skipper. Right . . . Right a bit . . . Steady . . . Steady . . . Bombs gone.” I was standing amidships by the flare chute and observed that the photoflash flare dropped properly as the words “Bombs gone” came over the intercom. I stooped down and shone my flashlight into the bomb bays to check that the bombs were gone. The first can of incendiaries I saw was full. Then I noticed the other cans seemed to be full as well. I reported at once.
Flak kept on bursting beneath us as the pilot’s voice came over very coolly, “Has the 4,000 pounder gone?”
As I hurried up to the inspection panel over the block buster the intercom buzzed with a warning, “Tail gunner, here . . . We’re into the
balloon barrage . . . Wires on both sides.”
I got to the inspection panel. I had a quick sinking feeling. There was the huge bomb still aboard.
“The 4,000 pounder is still here!” I reported.
“Well, we will have to do another run,” Fry said. “But let’s check everything.”
There was a pause.
“Okay, bomb doors open.”
But as the pilot said this I noticed that the bomb doors were not opening. I reported:
“Bomb doors still shut, sir.”
“Better get on the hand pump,” the skipper said. “See if you can pump them open.”
I went to the pump beside my wireless seat and began pumping. But the pump refused to take hold. I reported: “This pump’s not working. I see hydraulic oil on the floor.”
By now all the planes should have left. We were still in the target area. We’d been there about 14 minutes. Nobody spoke for a minute after I reported the pump wouldn’t work. Then the bombardier broke into the intercom, “The bomb weighs two tons. Two tons will force the doors open. I’d say let her go.”
We all seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Nobody said anything. The gunners were at post. The skipper was stooging around near the target. Then, after what seemed a long time, one of the gunners said, “Well, have you fellows made up your minds yet or do we stay here all night?”
Just then, cool as ever, the skipper spoke over the intercom:
“We will just have to take it back.”
Headed For Home
For a minute I was half sick as I thought of all the defenses we’d have to fly back through along the Baltic coast. Nobody else said anything. We turned and headed for home.
We were all pretty quiet on the way back. But luck was with us. The defenses were quiet and we got through without trouble. A few miles from home the pilot reported to our base, “D Donald here . . . We have all our bombs aboard . . . What are your instructions?”
“Hello, D Donald . . . This is
Jetty. Stand by.”
We proceeded to circle base. It was forbidden to land an aircraft containing a block buster, not so much because that plane and its crew would vanish if the bomb detonated, but because the entire drome would be seriously damaged. In our case we couldn’t get rid of the bomb so we rather expected they’d order us to head for sea and bail out.
Soon, however, came the impersonal command, “Hello, D Donald . . .
Jetty here . . . Pancake . . . Pancake.”
This is an order for a routine landing. It is used rather than the word “land” because “pancake” cuts through static or other interference with clarity. The order puzzled the skipper. Had base forgotten we’d gone out with a twotonner? Then, after a minute, he said:
“Going in for a landing, chaps ...”
We had been circling our own base for about 10 minutes. Now we started down. All of us seemed to be gripping our seats or our chute harness. I think I whispered a prayer under my breath. I heard the skipper say, “If I’m not careful I’m going to make a mess of this.”
Now we were almost down. Everything seemed to be taking longer to happen than it should. There was a heavy bump. I braced myself, pushing my feet against the floor. Then the gunner said, “Gently did it, skipper. Nice work.” Then we all seemed to be talking at once.
After that trip we hit Berlin. Our raid was the second big one after Berlin had been free of raids for a while.
There seemed to be an ominous quiet as we neared Berlin that night. They must have known we were coming because our planes had been there the night before. We’d been warned that the Germans might try to lead us astray by faking pathfinder tactics and bombing their own fields, so we sped straight forward to our aiming point.
The skipper was more calm and determined that night than I can ever remember him before. He kept emphasizing that we were going to hit the target at all costs. He said, “Take your time. Remember, make this one sure.”
The flak, weak at first, opened up with fury after we’d dropped our bombs and the skipper chose to leave by a different route. The flak tossed us like corks and one shell passed clear through the plane. But we got through.
Shortly after that I completed my 200 operational hours with Number Nine Squadron. I was posted to Number Sixteen Operational Training Unit in England and applied for remuster to pilot—I hope as a fighter pilot because they are the lads who have the fun and get a chance to show initiative.