Pilot Officer Les Bellinger
Unit : "A" Flight, 295 Squadron, 38 Group
Training for Bomber Command
October 14th 1943. O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit) Kinloss - Scotland.
Crew: Armstrong Whitley v H189
Pilot - Les Bellinger (English)
Navigator - John (Scottie) McBain (Scottish)
Bomb Aimer - Lea Gardner (English)
Wireless Operator - Maxie Burns (New Zealander)
Rear Gunner - Sandy Ewen (Scottish)
It was the dawn of quite an exciting day for us as a crew, one of the qualifying trips to hallmark our competence as a calm, smooth running, highly trained, dedicated team, well something like that. Today, even more stirring than the station commanders flight test, was the day we took off to drop a live 500lb bomb into the North Sea. It was to be a simulated operational flight, with full petrol tanks, maximum bomb load, and just one bomb programmed to drop and primed to explode
Perhaps it would be just as well to explain at this point how the bombs were normally dropped. This country made a great variety of superb bombs. Some bombs were designed to penetrate before exploding, others with a probe detonated just above the ground giving a huge blast effect, others were high temperature incendiaries and so on. Bombs are a very interesting subject. Because the main effort of bomber command was, “maximum damage to target.” Very experienced specialists selected the bomb load - usually mixed - and programmed their release from the aircraft. Each individual bomb, and each batch of incendiaries, had it’s own release mechanism, actuated by an electrical relay connected to the programmer held by the bomb aimer. All the 13/A had to do with the target in the bombsights was to press the button. The programmer would release the bombs in small groups, in fairly quick succession so that the aircraft remained stable in flight and there was a creeping barrage causing maximum damage on the ground. If you had to jettison your load - (engine fire or something similar) then you pulled the RED jettison lever, which operated steel cables to the bomb release mechanism. The complete load then dropped as one salvo.
After briefing, the crew wagon dropped us alongside Whitley ff189 and as Les, the bomb aimer, and myself began our external P.F.C. (Pre Flight Check) the rest of the crew climbed aboard. The bomb bay doors were open and the lines of black 500lb bombs were quite impressive, Les, as part of his training had helped the armourers winch the bombs into the racks, and although he pointed it out to me, there was no mistaking the live bomb. Being primed and ready it looked quite sinister. With the ground crew standing by, having plugged in the power accs (mobile accumulators) we completed our external checks, climbed on board and with Maxie (wireless operator) priming I started the two Rolls Royce Merlins, and completed the normal checks. Giving the thumbs up signal, the ground crew unplugged the power and removed the wheel chocks.
Radio contact with flying control released us to taxi, and very soon we had moved along the perimeter track to the end of the main runway. I cleared the engines, made the final cockpit and crew checks and we were ready for take off. A green aldis flash from control gave us permission to swing onto the main runway, line up and trundle off. I opened the throttles smoothly and as the Merlins roared into life, and the props in fine pitch, bit into the cold morning air, we gathered speed. Acceleration was not rapid and I was pleased we were on the longest runway. There was no question about it, the additional operational weight had certainly slowed H189 down. However, just before the runway disappeared under our nose we lifted clear and as we gained height I maneuvered to pass over the drome on course to our dropping zone.
H189 droned on at 140 m.p.h, 2000 feet above the North Sea, and we were able to relax and gaze over the starboard wing at the small fishing harbours slipping by, Buckie, the home of Jock, a tail gunner in Roy Scotts crew, Cullen and Macduff. We were waiting for Fraserburg harbour, and as it appeared on the now distant coastline we knew we were near our dropping zone. “Skip, Scottie calling, two minutes and we should be there.” “Hello crew, Skipper calling, Don’t forget to keep a look out for anything floating.” Les was in the bomb aimers compartment laying down and peering through the clear vision panel, and soon “Skip, all clear to bomb.” came over the intercom. Les had already prepared a smoke flare for Maxie to launch down the shute, and as I turned on a reciprocal course, Scottie checked his bearings and gave the launch signal.
Down below there was a mild splash and almost immediately a plume of white smoke. we flew on our reverse course for four minutes, turned and swung onto the heading for the big drop. “Les, Skipper calling, ready to bomb, height 2000’,” Speed reduced to 110 m.p.h, bomb doors open, and flying straight and level on course.” “O.k Skip everything’s set up on the bomb sight. I can see the flare but it’ll be a couple of minutes before it’s in the guide wires to lead us in. “I concentrated on flying ‘spot on.’ Suddenly the intercom crackled “Skip, flare in bomb sight, turn port two degrees and hold, steady, steady, starboard a whisker, steady, steady, bomb away! As planned I banked steeply to port and we all gazed down at the grey North Sea and the gushing smoke flare 2000 feet below. I didn’t spot it falling, and it’s taking a long time to hit the water. Where is that beautiful golden, crimson flash, the eruption of shredded salt laced water, the vanishing smoke flare and the dead fish? “Les, old chap what happened?” “Sorry Skip, we may have a ‘hang up.’ Can we repeat the run in and I will do a double check of the release pattern, my trigger relay button, the cables and connections.”
We retraced our route giving Les an extra few minutes before turning for the new drop. “Skip, I can’t find anything at fault, it should release, perhaps it will this time.” Once again we completed our run up, and once again we banked to look down on a smooth, empty sea and a lone, belching smoke flare. “Les, we seem to have a problem, can you release the bomb manually?” “Skip, I can remove a panel on the fuselage floor located over the bomb bay, but I am not sure we have the right equipment to trigger the release mechanism.” Ten minutes or so later Les and Maxie had to admit defeat, the only probe they had was quite useless. “Les, there is still no shipping around so I am climbing up to 3000 feet and diving fast enough to make the bomb bay doors vibrate which in turn should vibrate the bomb and release mechanism. If you press your release button as we pull out of the dive, the G forces and the vibration might do the trick. It’s worth a try.” The recommended maximum speed to fly with bomb doors open was 120 m.p.h, I intended to try 150 m.p.h. or more and see what happened.
As we circled and climbed we all kept a sharp look out for stray boats, nothing in sight. “O.k Les, we have 3000 feet, I can see the smoke flare and I’m beginning the dive, press your button when I shout...’ now’.” We gathered speed and a vibration started through the aircraft. Gosh those bomb doors were flexing, I desperately hoped they would keep in one piece. “O.k pulling out, 'NOW’.” I had already set the elevator trim for maximum lift and by pulling back the control column with all my strength ff189 shot up like a fighter. But no joy, the bomb was still on board! “O.k Les, we’ll try the dive once more and if it doesn’t vibrate free we’ll return to base for instructions.”
The second dive was unsuccessful and so I reduced speed and very tentatively closed the bomb doors and we headed for base. It says a lot for British engineering that the bomb bay doors moved at all! “Hello control’ ff189 reporting, We have a live 500lb hang up. We have tried to shake it off, feel it is secure, but please advise.” There was a pause and then control came back. “Circle out to sea.” Heavens I hadn’t thought of that, what a chump, we might have bombed our own drome! “Control to captain of ff189, the armament officer will be here in a moment to check the bomb release procedure step by step with your bomb aimer.” I listened, patiently completing rate one turns, as the senior armament officer and Les discussed every point. Full marks to Les, he was ‘bang on’ nothing had been missed. “Flying control to captain, keep orbiting and wait for instructions.” Some minutes later the S.A.0. made contact, “Captain, fly out to your dropping zone and pull the jettison lever.” He must have sensed my sudden intake of breath because he added, “You are flying with a maximum load of petrol, and a maximum load of bombs. We cannot risk you making a heavy landing and dislodging the live bomb. If that happened we have almost certainly lost an aircraft and a crew.” “O.k chaps back to square one. Les we shall need a new smoke flare and then the same procedure as before.”
A short time later with bomb doors open we were once again on the bombing run and heading for our smoke flare. “Bombs away Skip.” The jettison lever clunked back into place and as I banked steeply to port we all gazed below and followed the graceful arcs as the clusters of 500lb bombs, in impeccable formation, curved down towards the grey north sea and the waiting smoke flare 2000 feet below. abruptly the surface of the sea fragmented into several volcanoes of foam and froth and quickly settled. No explosion! Hells Bells the rogue 500 pounder was still on board!
“Les, Skip calling, could the bomb have fallen and not exploded?” “No chance Skip, but keep the bomb doors open, I’ll lift the floor panel and look at the release mechanism.” A few minutes passed in silence and then, “Skip, It’s still with us!” Closing the bomb doors I heaved a sigh, and we returned to our orbiting spot near base and called control. “ff187 calling, extremely sorry but all your bombs have gone except the live one.” You could almost hear the groan and feel the tension at the news, and I had a mental picture of the anguished, haunted look on the armament officers face at the loss of a complete set of training bombs without a worthwhile gain, poor chap
Silence reigned and I could imagine the heated discussion going on. Suddenly the intercom burst into life. “Capt. you must order your crew to bale out, and then land the aircraft at the grass satellite drome. We will have all the necessary equipment waiting for you”. Necessary equipment, what did that mean? Fire tender and ambulance, I suppose. I hope they send a crew wagon! Oh well, let’s get cracking. I was getting fed up with this damned bomb; I had a strong feeling it was going to lower our passing out grading. I also had the feeling, because we had given it such a rough time, that it was firmly stuck. However, I suppose I could be wrong so let’s follow orders. “Capt. to crew, Abracadabera (special code word to leave aircraft in emergency) prepare to abandon aircraft”. There was complete silence on the intercom and no movement of bods. Hm, that’s funny it’s a straight forward command, I had better repeat it. After the second order Scottie said, “Could we noo stop with you skip?” I felt a sudden inner glow, my gosh what a superb crew spirit. I glanced around to give them the thumbs up, only to see pairs of big St. Bernard eyes looking at me. What in the heck is the matter with them, what are they worried about?
I turned around and glanced down at the landscape below, and suddenly it seemed full of tall spiky trees, barbed wire fences, deep streams, stone buildings, hard concrete runways, and the North sea looked very cold, very grey and very near. The only green grass was the size of a postage stamp! All became clear. Now, could I as captain disobey a direct order from control. Well yes I think so, the intercom was very crackly. “O.k crew, take up crash positions. We will keep together, but I don’t think there’s much danger. I’m going to float this old crate down like a piece of gossamer.”
We made our approach to what seemed to be a deserted drone. However as we gently brushed the grass to one side, touched down, and rolled to a halt, a fire engine emerged from behind the hangar and slowly headed in our direction. “Righto, chaps disembark.” “Les will you stand by the bomb bay doors and I’ll open them step by step. Give me a wave when you can see the confounded bomb and I’ll come down.” The bomb doors inched open and a few minutes later we were glaring at our problem. We didn’t attempt to touch it but it looked pretty safe to me. The fire tender gave us a lift to the hangar and eventually a crew wagon took us back to base for a long debriefing. We never completed our ‘big drop’. I think the ‘powers that be’ thought that ‘enough is enough’ but we did complete our commanding officers flight test and finished with a grading of average plus which in the RAF is not bad.
If I might digress for a moment it is to mention that I never gained a rapport with the bombing leader, which was a pity, because he was a decent chap and we had six more five to six hour night cross country flights in the flying programme to finish our O.T.U training. On each of these night trips, on the last leg of a triangular route, as we approached base we were detailed to request a Q.F.E. (barometric pressure reading) from Flying Control, reset our altimeters to read accurately and then, using small practice bombs, demolish (?) a flare target positioned in the centre of the grass satellite drome. We then had to decrease height and fly fairly low over the North Sea to an excluded zone, for the rear gunner to blast off his four brownings and for the bomb aimer to poop off the twin nose guns. Ammunition belts at that time were made up of four types of .303 bullet solid ball, tracer, armour piercing and incendiary in repetitive order. When you remember each gun could fire 1150 rounds per minute there was quite a lot of bullets on the move when the six guns were firing. Normally this shooting practice and gun manipulation took place about 3 am, but although pitch dark we could usually see the white, fluorescent wave tops just below the aircraft.
With the smell of cordite drifting into the cockpit, the sense of speed because we were low down, the hammering of the guns and the spectacle of streams of tracers and incendiaries hitting the waves, some disappearing, but others bouncing of f in all directions, I found it really exhilarating, and really sorry we were not blasting a German F boat, or a U boat sneaking up the channel on the surface. Certainly I was always reluctant to call it a day and return to the base for debriefing, egg and bacon fry up and kip.
A final digression. Our most important and last cross country flight. Incidentally I often wondered why the trips were labelled cross country when we spent a lot of time over the sea. All cross country trips were triangular in shape, and on the first and most important leg of this flight we had to fly virtually due west from Kinloss, plot our last pinpoint using the lower outer Hebride island of North Uist and then make our way to an outcrop of rock approximately 320 miles into the North Atlantic using D.R or Dead Reckoning navigation. Our brief, to take a night photograph of “Rockall”, one of the last outposts of the British — Empire! Our aircraft was fitted with the same set up used by bomber command on their nightly raids, a photo flash linked to a camera and the bomb release button to obtain a photograph of the target and the bomb pattern. All training crews on this flight had just the one photo flash, one chance to get it right.
We were lucky that night, because as we droned west the build up of cumulus clouds over the Scottish mountains gradually dispersed and we were able to take astro shots which helped us to confirm our position, and as the clouds thinned it also revealed a thin, melon slice section of the moon. We were able to fly towards the moonlight, dim though it was, and silhouette Rockall in all it’s craggy glory. We made our bombing or photograph run, Les pressed the button and we had that solid lump of rock plumb in the middle of the frame. It was very good team work. From Rockall we headed south of east for Mull island and back to base for the final flare target bombing and the north sea shoot out. For that trip we were awarded full marks and each member of the crew received a photograph of Rockall. I still have mine, somewhere!
That was the last time we flew from Kinloss as a trainee crew. We completed the station commanders test, and then we were fully qualified for bomber command, Would it be Lancasters or Halifaxs? Our grading was quite good and we felt confident it would be Lancs. the ultimate in our view. However, in the R.&.F you were never sure what would be printed on the D.R.O’s (Daily Routine and posting Orders). Like all the other crews we had to wait and see and keep our fingers crossed. After a few days the postings came through and we thought “a deadloss” until we met the men of the first airbourne. Although fully qualified for bomber command, being typically British, the “powers that be” decided that our group of 24 crews would be essential to develop 38 group, the rapidly expanding Airbourne Division.
Unfortunately the new training squadrons were fully manned, so we would have to wait our turn and instead of doing the sensible thing and sending us home on indefinite leave!! We were posted to the Driffield Battle School in Yorkshire to train for three solid months, (1st November — 26th January) with the Commando and Airbourne divisions. (I thought it was much longer than that but those dates are in my log book.) We thought we were fit until we met the 1st Airbourne, then we found out we were not very fit at all. Mind you three months later, things had changed. We were fit, a young commando captain had made sure of that (the first human dynamo I had ever met) in fact you could say without any exaggeration that we were very, very fit, with muscles that bulged in every direction. We could toss tree trunks around, climb sheer quarry walls, absail down cliffs, cover rocky ground on elbows and knees with controlled machine gun fire to keep our heads down, and thunder flashes to liven things up. We had to admit whether we liked it or not, the airbourne had done their best to make us feel at home and mould us into one of them. We wished on many occasions that they hadn’t been so damned keen. But that’s another story.
38 Group - 295 Squadron - ‘A’ Flight
Stirling Mark 4 ‘K’ King
P/O Les Bellinger - Pilot (English)
F/Lt Scottie McBain - Navigator (Scottish)
F/Sgt Les Gardner - Bomb Aimer (English)
F/Sgt John Pritchard - Engineer (Welsh)
F/Sgt Maxwell Burns - WiOp (New Zealand)
F/Sgt Sandy Ewen - Tail Gunner (Scottish)
Looking back over my RAF flying experiences long since buried in the dust of time, several trips sift themselves to the surface. The operation destined to involve, not ourselves so much but many fine men will perhaps be the most interesting. These men by fighting so ferociously for days against impossible odds, created a legend for themselves. The men were the 1st Airborne Division, the place was ‘Arnhem’, and the operation code was named ‘Market Garden’.
We were briefed as one unit, RAF and Airborne together, for the North route of a twin pronged thrust into Holland to capture and hold bridges, and shorten the war by months, possibly a year. The South thrust via Hatfield, Margate, Ghent and Eindhoven involved C42 aircraft and the US 82 Cnd Airborne. The North thrust, the British responsibility ~ was routed via Hatfield and Orfnes Schiewen on the Dutch coast, for the landing and marshalling at Nimigen. Having formed their groups, the men were briefed to move, mainly on foot, to what proved to be the “Bridge too far” at Arnhem.
My logbook records at 0945 hrs on Sunday, 17 September 1944, our Stirling K King lifted its huge bulk, plus a fully laden Horsa glider, clear of the Harwell runway, and we climbed slowly over the green Berkshire downs turning on course. The weather was superb. Below, smoke curled lazily from village chimneys, tractors ploughed the stubbled fields, and people were strolling to church. It was difficult to remember we were at war and the Airborne were on their way to very serious fighting.
The trip over to Holland was for us, uneventful. We saw aircraft with engine trouble dropping out of the main stream, casting their gliders clear, turning and heading for land or the North Sea not too far below. Waiting below was a small armada of boats. Some were stationery with beacons to keep us dead on course, but the majority were air/sea rescue craft. (Later at briefing we found some of the cast off gliders carried vital equipment and its loss helped to change the balance between success and failure).
In crowded company, we reached our dropping area, and over the intercom line wished our glider boys the best of luck. Once they recognized their nominated landing zone, they released, ‘K’ King surged forward and we knew our lads were on their way. Following the main stream we dropped our towrope at a prearranged spot and set course for base. The flack had been light but persistent.
The next day, information came through that all was not well, and our squadron was briefed for a low level daylight drop with arms, ammunition and medical supplies our lads were going to need so desperately. The operation was code named ‘Market Garden Resupply’ Low level, low speed in daylight was not the most popular way to spend the afternoon, but the first day of the re-supply although there was a greater variety of flack, the losses were not as bad as we expected. Obviously the Germans had one hell of a fight on their hands and possibly didn’t expect us. We found our marked zone, unloaded our containers on target, wished our chaps the best of British luck and turned for base. Sadly ‘K’ King had been damaged and we had to use the spare aircraft.
The second day of the Operation Market Re-supply was rather different. Again it was low level, low speed and daylight but this time the Germans were waiting. We were reasonably bunched as we made our approach, but already ahead of us several aircraft were in trouble. One of our flight had received a direct hit in the petrol feed system. All engines had stopped and as a Stirling glides like a brick he was lucky to pull the nose up at the last moment and plough through the soft earth. We thought he had made it, but a wing tip collided with a farm building, the nose crunched round and a fire started.
We found our target marker, made our run and dropped our containers. As we climbed away, we were hit by several chunks of flack. One piece came through the bomb bay doors through the bomb carrier sections and hit the armour plating under my seat, where it shattered and ricocheted up front into the bomb aimer’s space and behind me around the navigator’s cabin. Scottie, the navigator, leaped up yelling and later we found a piece of very hot metal had landed on the back of his hand raising a decent sized blister. ‘O’ Orange like ‘K’ King, a very tough customer, had shuddered, slowed, but now seemed unperturbed. A quick intercom check confirmed plenty of holes, but no one wounded and no serious damage. The engines were turning, controls were working, all was well.
Another of our chaps on the port side had a starboard engine on fire, but just ahead F/O Simmonds (Simmo to his pals) was in real trouble. The port inner engine was on fire but seriously. We formated on his port side climbing with him as he desperately gained height for his crew to bail out. This was an engine oil fire and we had been warned you had approximately two minutes, once it had taken hold, before the main wing spar burnt through and separated from the fuselage. He had gained enough height and as he leveled out and trimmed the aircraft, spinning the gyros for George the automatic pilot to take over, his crew was already jumping clear and floating safely away. We were counting heads and it was just Simmo to go. We saw him drop down from the pilot’s seat and mentally followed him through the navigator’s cabin, past the wops nook, over the main wing spar and down the long fuselage. “Come on Simmo, hurry up, there isn’t much more time”. Suddenly he was at the rear door and falling clear, “Good old Simmo, pull your cord old lad”; but Simmo turning slowly over and over, was getting smaller and smaller, and abruptly, for Simmo, there was no more time at all. Just after Simmo left the Stirling, there was a small explosion, the port wing broke away and the fuselage, with the two starboard engines still turning, curved away in a downward spiral to join Simmo. The two partners in war were side by side on Dutch soil.
We carried on climbing and set course for home. Eventually, just ahead we spotted the Stirling with the engine fire problem. The paint on the cowlings and wing was charred but the fire was out, the prop was feathered and he was happy on three engines. We weren’t in a hurry, he might have problems over the sea, so we reduced speed, tucked in alongside and escorted him home. We watched him land and then made our own circuit for approach but all was not well. We had a problem. Remembering the nudges we had received, I planned to make a longer down wind leg than usual, to test in easy stages the full flap movement. I took this precaution because in the crew room we had news of a Stirling on returning from a trip had flipped upside down on the final approach.
Talking between ourselves, we decided the most likely explanation was that only one side of the flaps had operated, the other side having been damaged by flack. Flaps are very large metal panels, part of the main wing structure but designed to swing down and form an air brake to slow you down more quickly after landing. Full flap is only selected at the last stage of the approach, and certainly if anything went wrong there would be no time for any correction!! Taking a aim view or having 30 tons of Stirling sitting on our chests and feeling that it certainly reduced our chances of drawing the OAP we completed our flap check. All was well. We set the flaps to 12° down, this position gives maximum lift with no extra drag and selected under carriage down. Red warning lights, replaced by green. Good show, this meant the undercarriage was locked in position for landing. That was a relief, I expected trouble. However, glancing out of the port window at the drome below, I looked across at the port tyre and something wasn’t right. Yes we had a problem.
On the intercom I called on Les (B/A) and John (F/ENG) to have a good hard look at the starboard tyre and then come over and look at the port. The starboard tyre seemed fine, like the port tyre it was turning gently in the slipstream and it looked normal. Les and John came over and with Scottie joining us, four pairs of saucer-sized eyes peered intently at the offending tyre. Hmm the flack had definitely nudged it, but was it flat? It still looked round. Well, do we land with the wheels up? Even using the grass between the runways the ground was so hard the very least damage would be props and engine and heavy bruising underneath the fuselage, and what if when they lifted ‘O’ Orange the tyre was found to have a decent pressure!!! It would take some living down. Leg pulling was a favourite past time and went on forever. Lets call the control tower and get advice. Hmm, fly past, low level and low speed they will check the tyre using binoculars and report back. We were climbing back to circuit height as they reported “Sorry old boy, there are a few holes here and there in the fuselage but the tyre looks in good shape, you must make up your own mind. Either way, we will have the crash wagon and the ambulance watching your approach in case things go wrong!”
What could go wrong? Well this question had been churning through my mind since the glance from the window. Bearing in mind the tyres were almost 6’ tall with a very fat girth, a flat one on touch down would certainly wrap itself around the undercarriage leg and act as a very effective brake. The enormous dragging load generated would snap the leg off, the wing with its heavy motors would drop, hit the ground and break away and certainly because of the side pressure, the other side would follow suit. O Lord what a mess. Well we can’t cruise around all day, so crash positions chaps, check the fire extinguishers and axes; we’re going for a normal landing. Say a prayer and keep your fingers crossed.
Luckily it was a perfect flying day. Crystal clear visibility and a steady breeze down the long runway. We made a power approach to have positive control over the landing speed, 95 knots, and have the aircraft in almost the three-point position on touch down. We came over the boundary fence, plenty of power holding ‘O’ Orange just above the stalling speed, full flap to reduce our speed smoothly after touch down, and port wing slightly high. The starboard wheel gently kissed the tarmac, the tail wheel settled and I gradually reduced the power. The port wing settled lower and lower and lower, and we started on ever increasing swing to port. I yelled to Les to cut the engines, we weren’t going anywhere and it reduced the risk of fire, and warned the crew to hold tight and wait for the crunch. But that day luck was very much on our side, there was air in the tyre and although it was moving out fairly quickly and the tyre was dragging and pulling us round, the tyre was keeping a reasonable shape and turning!! We were covering ground and the speed was coming down quickly but smoothly.
Suddenly a rumbling and vibrations started and we knew that we were on the hub. There was a terrific groaning from tortured metal as the undercarriage and wing spar took the enormous strain, but everything held together, the noise subsided, the huge cloud of dust settled and ‘O’ Orange was in one piece. We gave him our heartfelt thanks. Flying control were bleating over the intercom that we were too close to the main runway, could we taxi away!! There were WAAFS in the tower and to spare their blushes I didn’t answer. The crash wagon and ambulance came alongside and took very little persuasion to drop us outside the de-briefing room. We dropped in to answer the usual questions and more important, collect a very welcome mug of hot, strong, sweet tea. One way and another it had been quite a day.
The pilot of the Stirling that had lost power on all engines and hit the farm building came back to the Mess on crutches to say hello. He told us that when the wing hit the building the nose crunched around against a high wall, and the dashboard was pushed back trapping his right leg just below the knee. The fire started, but although he wriggled and pulled, he was trapped. Then the pain became so severe he fainted. He regained consciousness in a German army field hospital. A German doctor had almost certainly saved his life by immediate, superb surgery on his leg. Actually, his life had been saved twice that day, because the Dutch farmer and his son, watching events from the shelter of the barn had witnessed the whole incident. Without hesitating and ignoring the fire they had grabbed axes, climbed on to the wing of the Stirling, chopped away the canopy and pulled him out of the cockpit. His right leg, now completely severed below the knee was left in the aircraft. Using the farm tractor and trailer they had taken him to the German field hospital not far away. The German doctor apparently, gave preference for attention not to nationality, but severity of the injury and he gave our lad immediate attention. When he was fit enough to travel, he was repatriated home. Before he left us, he cheerfully mentioned that he was being fitted for a new leg later that week!
One arrangement that gave us a lot of pleasure, and we think might be unique, was that we towed the same glider crew to Caen on D Day, to Arnhem, and across the Rhine, each time they came back there was a bigger party. They told us about their experiences at Arnhem, that eventually volunteers mostly wounded, unable to travel but able to pull a trigger, stopped behind to cover the retreat, and the survivors, under mortar fire, crossed the river at night holding on to a rope. Very sobering. The other sober news was that this last drop, involving Simmo and the other lads, had been in vain. The Germans were well entrenched and their cross fire was so severe it was quite impossible to reach the containers!! He said that some of his pals, almost at the end of their tether, had tears running down their cheeks as, with heavy caliber machine gun bullets whistling around their heads, they stood in the boundary ditch facing the dropping zone, waving their arms and shouting for the RAP to “go back”.
Scottie acquired a lot of beer showing people his ‘wound’. For a pint, he would peel back his plaster and show off his blister. The pilot we escorted home met us in the mess and brought us beers. He said “Thanks, it was good to see you there”. We replied “A pleasure, anytime”. Of Simmo and his crew no ‘gen’ at all filtered through. After an op. if someone didn’t return, the conversation in the mess or crew room followed a similar pattern. “Simmo bought it today, but his crew should be safe”, “Hm, pleased about the crew, but a pity about Simmo, he was a good type, we shall miss him. By the way what are you doing tonight, how about a party?” The mental curtain had dropped, and the crew was seldom mentioned again. Rooms and bunks would be cleared, flight commanders would write letters, and a replacement crew would arrive. For me there were just two men I couldn’t completely forget. One was Group Captain Surpliss, our Station Commander and one of the finest men I had the good fortune to serve under, and the other was Simmo.
The Groupie was lost on the first trip to Norway, an operation to parachute on to a frozen lake, containers loaded with guns, ammunition and medical supplies for the Norwegian Underground movement. Group Captain Surpliss was not expected to be operational. He had completed tours of duty several times over on the way to his command: His value to his squadrons was in his experience for planning and advising. But from the early weather forecast, Norway was obviously going to be a rough trip and being a born leader, without doubt this weather information was paramount in his decision to head the list of crews selected. Only three crews were briefed. Group Captain Surpliss, Squadron Leader Bill Stewart and ourselves. But that is another op., perhaps to be printed at a later date.
The other person I found difficult to forget was Simmo. Most crews lost were on night operations; the crews took off but didn’t return. Somehow it was a clean separation and this made it easier to drop the mental curtain. I think the reason Simmo kept in our thoughts was because the events happened in daylight, we were there close it hand, and yet uncertain why be didn’t parachute to safety. Breaking the unwritten rules, we as a crew talked over the possible reasons why, for him, things had gone so very wrong. At times, luckily not too often, flack enters the aircraft from different directions and can damage not only gear but also parachutes. When aircraft damage becomes serious, on the repeated order from the Captain (pilot)~ “Abracadabra abandon aircraft” each crewmember acknowledges the command on the intercom, or if that is not possible, personally, and then follows the unwritten but inflexible abandon aircraft procedure. First, the wounded are attended to and helped out of the aircraft. The rest of the crew follow while the pilot attempts to fly the aircraft straight and level. If a crewmember’s chute is damaged, he can use the pilots with a clear conscience. Usually the emergency is at night, there is very little time, and the top priority is to save the maximum number of crewmembers. In conclusion, Simmo’s chute may have been damaged.
The second possibility was attributable to the poor climbing ability of the Stirling using three engines. With recommended revs and boost, gaining height was painfully slow. Simmo was in a hurry. We were at 600 ft for the container drop and at low speed, and he wanted 1000 ft at least for his crew and himself to bail out with safety. He obviously selected fine pitch and pushed the throttles through the gates for maximum plus power. Unfortunately, with only the port outer engine on full power, and the port inner engine and wing on fire and dragging, the two starboard engines on full power pulled the Stirling on a climbing curve to port and we headed back to the perimeter of the fighting zone. The heavy flack didn’t engage us, they were intent on the other lads coming in, but a number of high caliber machine guns were having a go, and tracer was zipping past in all directions. Heavy black smoke from the volatile blazing mixture of 42 gallons of engine oil, 100 octane fuel and Aluminium, was cascading down the port wing, billowing along the fuselage and past the rear door. At times it was difficult to see what was happening and we couldn’t be certain that Simmo had his navigators type chute clipped to his chest harness when he jumped clear.
But, without doubt, during that climbing turn to port and in effect flying into the burning engine and port wing, he would have felt the searing heat from that pulsing mass of flames, and if his chute had been damaged, he may well have chosen the cleanest way of the two choices available. However, our second solution was, we felt, perhaps the most likely explanation, that as he jumped clear he’ was hit by bullets intended for the Stirling. -. Scottie and I are, to say the least, very disappointed that having made enquiries at the time and since, we traced no ‘gen’ at all of Simmo or his crew, and it seems now we shall never know the true answer. At the time we were very concerned that as the crew parachuted down, the Germans might have looked on them as reinforcements for the 1st Airborne boys fighting below. If this was so, the chances of the crew surviving the drop would have been extremely remote.
A True Story of the First Operational Underground Supply Trip to Norway
‘A Piece of Cake’
We were in ‘A’ flight crew room when we heard the first rumours linking, our next ‘drop’ with Norway, instead of France or Holland. Apparently the Norwegian underground movement were quietly marshalling and organizing their forces and a regular supply of guns, ammunition and medical supplies would be essential. The dropping zone would be a frozen lake somewhere in the mountains. Later after a few beers in the warm mess we savoured the idea of lifting clear of the Essex farmland and heading in clear moonlight to the North Sea; This North Sea, of course, was not a mass of foam and white-capped waves, but a smooth lake with moon rays leading us direct to Norway. Our height was a comfortable 3000 feet before climbing over the snow covered, timber clad mountains to spiral down to our frozen lake and the waiting underground agents.
There would be a quick check of the marking light colours and the flashed coded signal before the steep turning curve round for the final ‘drop’ approach. Height 500 feet, speed reduced to 130mph, 12 degrees flap, fine pitch, bomb doors open, red light ‘on’, guidance by the bomb aimer for the green light and a cascade of containers with their brightly coloured parachutes dead on target. Bomb doors closed, maximum climbing power and over the mountains to head back for base before the Germans realised what was going on. No balloons, no searchlights, no flack, no night fighters, we couldn’t wait to see our names on the ops. list. That evening in the mess, we decided it was going to be a ‘piece of cake, my boy, a piece of cake.’
The names of crews detailed for the first operational flight to Norway were pinned to the ops board the day before the briefing. It read; The following crews will report for briefing at 1000 hours on the 2nd November, 1944. Group Captain Surplice, Squadron leader Bill Stewart, Flying Officer Les Bellinger. Group Captain Surpliss was not expected to be operational. He had completed tours of duty several times over on the way to his command. His value to his squadron was in his experience for planning and advising. But as this was the first operational trip to Norway he obviously wanted first hand confirmation that the arrangements made by top command and the underground for the flight, and the drop, were the best possible and to his own satisfaction. Also, from the early weather forecast Norway was obviously going to be a rough trip, and being a born leader, without doubt this weather information was paramount in his decision to head the list of crews selected. We all had a tremendous liking and respect for Group Captain Surplice and fervently hoped he would be the first to ‘drop’.
Next morning after breakfast, we made our way to ‘A’ flight, met up with Bill Stewart and his crew, and together headed for the briefing room buffeted by a cold, gusting, rain laced wind. The briefing room, normally crowded, full of cigarette smoke, and noisy with good-tempered banter, was empty and quiet. Tonight, with the Groupie, we were the only crews flying. The Group captain was already there with his crew, to, as usual, finalise last details of the operation and supervise the briefing. Tonight, by his own choice, he would be flying and his crew would be all the heads of sections; Navigation, signals, engines, bombs/containers and guns. It was a crew of high rank, hard earned medals, and experience.
It was 0955 hours on the large round-faced briefing room clock as we saluted Group Captain Surplice and sat down. Facing us alongside the route map was the cloud formation chart and the marked zones of rain, snow, clear ice, and ice crystals that could be expected. Blue marked the cold, danger zones. I gazed at it with fascination, awe, and a strong element of dread, it seemed to be all blue. Hells bells! the whole route seemed to be covered in cumulus nimbus clouds up to 20000 feet and beyond. Heavens it’s worse than I expected. I looked across at Bill and caught his eye he grimaced and shook his head. Bill wasn’t happy and neither was I. “Gentlemen,” The groupie was speaking, “your attention please, the met. Officer would like to say a few words.”
The meteorological officer, a grey haired, middle aged, normally chirpy Scot., wasted no words. “A very large cold front is approaching, the clouds over base, the cold rain and gusty wind is just the fore runner. In a few hours the main front will be over this area, the rainfall will increase, the wind will be more turbulent and the cloud base will lower. However, as you’re not taking off until later it should pass over base and there should be reasonable conditions for take off. Rain and gusty wind of course but not too severe. You should overtake the cold front on the way to Norway and there should be ample time to make the drops and clear the mountains for the return trip to base. “Hm, looks a bit tight to me for we were going to be the last over the frozen lake.” Each member of the Groupies crew gave their briefing and their advice. These were the most experienced aircrew in the squadron, and each in their turn detailed the possible problems linked to their particular fields with the expected snow, ice, thunderstorms and lighting.
Our take off times had been spaced so that in the event of drops the Norwegians would not be overwhelmed with too many brightly coloured parachutes and their all important canisters and contents. When you remember we could carry a full load of containers, the underground, with luck, would have a lot of equipment to move.
Group Captain Surplice was scheduled to take off at 1900 hours, squadron leader Bill Stewart at 1930 hours, and ourselves at 2000 hours. We had up to ten hours flying ahead and it was important to take care of our normal bodily functions. We had an Elsan anchored way down the fuselage close to the entrance door but dropping your trousers to use the Elsan at 13000 feet, in turbulent winds and below freezing temperatures was a highly dangerous experience. It was rumoured with great relish in the mess, that in really extreme icy conditions there was always the danger of severe frostbite and things dropping off to place your future offspring very much in doubt. “Scottie, we may be able to keep below the cloud base until we approach Norway, by then the petrol load will be lighter and we should be able to climb fairly quickly through the clouds to clear the mountains and drop down onto the lake.” “O.K Skip, I’ll make out the flight plan for the first four hours to be at safety height 2,000 feet.” Les, will you see if there’s a low level route down a fjord or something we could take for the trip home.”
There was silence for a time and I carefully studied the expected cloud formations and ice conditions. Les broke the silence; “Sorry Skip, no chance of a low level exit, we have to climb the mountains again.” “Gentlemen,” the groupie was speaking, “I’m sorry about the met. Charts, it doesn’t look good, but the met. Officer is confident we shall be ahead of the cold front as we approach Norway, and we should find moonlight and clear skies over the dropping zone. May I remind you that you have been carefully selected for this first trip to Norway, the medical supplies, guns and ammunition are urgently needed. The underground movement is waiting for you, I know if it’s humanly possible you will be there. Good Luck.” Good Luck, boy oh boy, we’re going to need all of that and something extra tonight.
After briefing, we returned to the mess for a quick meal and then leaving Scottie to recheck his flight plan, Les, John, Maxie, Sandy and myself were picked up by the crew wagon for a pre flight check in daylight, and a chat with our resourceful ground crew. Even now with the wind gusting and the rain pelting down they were still cheerful. Ground crews never received enough recognition for the dedicated hard work put in, day after day, night after night. Our lives depended on their skills and thoroughness and they never let us down. A great bunch. We took them out for drinks occasionally, but in hindsight not often enough. “Skip, this is unusual, what are you doing here?” It was Phil, the leader of the ground crew team. “Hello Phil, it’s going to be a sticky flight tonight and I wanted to complete a pre-flight check in daylight and have a word with you that all was well, all tanks full, cowlings on tight etcetera.” “Skip, the loading is finished and I’ve made sure everything else has been double checked.” “Sorry Phil, that’s good enough for me.” We completed the internal checks, arranged to meet Phil an hour before take off, and left for a quick kip down before tucking into our pre flight meal of bacon, eggs and all the trimmings. We collected our Spam sandwiches, chocolate, chewing gum, flasks of coffee and escape kits (silk map, compass hidden in plastic comb, Horlick tablets, raisins and money) and boarded the crew wagon, our destination, the crew room. Once there we climbed into our full flying gear, picked up various lucky mascots and with everything checked and double checked once again climbed into the strangely empty, silent crew wagon to trace the ever patient ‘K’ king.
As we moved clear of the hangars the full force of the gusting wind rattled the wagon doors, the rain glinted in the headlights and splattered on the perimeter track. What a night! What was the old saying ‘Only birds and fools flew, and birds didn’t fly at night.’ Suddenly ‘K’ king glistened in the headlights and Phil stepped from under the shelter of the port wing to open and hold the wagon door. As we stepped down, ice cold rain stung our faces, and as we gazed up at the black, somber, blurred outline of ‘K’ king, dripping the same ice cold rain from props to gun turrets, I thought, that tonight, even ‘K’ king, our very strong member of the crew, would need all the help we could muster.
Tonight we had two old adversaries sitting on the sidelines, the ever patient, totally unbiased pair, content to treat friends and foe alike. Together, they had shuffled the packs and had dealt the cards with forbidding expertise. First, and in my opinion the most dangerous, was ‘Old Man Weather’ always unpredictable, and always holding a very strong hand. Night or day, summer or winter, ‘Old Man Weather’ can call on the rain, wind, fog, mist and blend them how he pleases. He can build huge clouds to form cumulus Nimbus fortresses, and safeguard them with powerful, swirling currents of air, strong enough to shatter small aircraft and spew them out of his stronghold as ruptured, wood, fabric and metal fragments. In these clouds, waiting his bidding is the rain, snow, ice crystals, and above all ‘super cooled water droplets’ suspended in liquid form until nudged by a climbing aircraft. The agitation turns the super cooled liquid into clear ice, which rapidly forms on the props, wings and fuselage. The aircraft stalling speed rises rapidly; the controls cease to function, the nose drops and the aircraft spirals down out of control. The experts warn, that you have two minutes to make your move to safety. The other opponent, Isaac Newton, the mystic shadowy figure always waiting on high ground, shrouded by his friend in a cloak of mist and clouds, waiting patiently for the injured plane unable to gain height, the lost crew with the wrong altimeter setting searching for a gap in the clouds, the too confident navigator or the over confident pilot. All are pawns in the ungodly pairs never ending game.
Tonight, their ‘Big Book’ would open, a name would be entered, they would be quietly content. As we settled in our seats I intended to pay particular attention to each engine check, the pitot head heater and the ‘blind flying panel.’ Tonight once the cold, wet Essex soil had dropped below our nose and the drome lights had faded, we would face a bowl of black ink with only five instruments to keep us suspended in mid air. First the artificial horizon (a pilots best friend), the air speed indicator, the rate of climb and descent indicator, the bank and turn indicator and the altimeter. The other superb instrument was the D.R compass repeater. The main compass was fixed in the least magnetic part of the aircraft, way down the long fuselage away from the engines. The repeater was a reading of the main compass heading without the swinging needle variation.
John and I concentrated on starting engines. The port and starboard inner engines were always first. They each supplied a 24-volt, 1500-watt generator to charge the batteries, hydraulic pumps to operate the nose and tail turrets, compressors to operate George the autopilot and help operate the MK14 bombsight, and vacuum pumps to operate the blind flying panel and MK14 bombsight. Phil and his crew were standing by with the power accs plugged in, and very soon, following our own well tested after dark routine all four engines bad been started, warmed, run up and magneto drop checked. No problems. After the power accs were removed and we were switched to our own electrical system, each crewmember rechecked their own equipment. Then a final full intercom check and we were ready to move. I flashed my torch to a drenched Phil, the wheel chocks were removed and a member of the ground crew stood out in front of the aircraft with torches to guide ‘K’ king from the unlit ‘hard standing’ to the perimeter track.
Contact with flying control gave us permission to taxi and following the perimeter lights we splashed our way to the end of the main runway & final engine and crew check, a watery green aldis flash from the runway control van, and a surge forward as I opened the throttles and ‘K’ Kings engines burst into full life. As we lifted clear of the runway and Les selected u/c (under carriage) up, flaps in, engine gills closed, I set the revs and boost and started a slow climbing turn to port to pass directly over the drome on course for Norway. Already the Drem system, a bright circle of lights surrounding the drome, although turned up to maximum brilliance had almost disappeared into the murk, and we had difficulty picking out the drome outline as we swung onto course. We gained safety height, 2000 feet, and I reduced to cruising power intending to retain this level over the North Sea until we approached the Norwegian mountains. However, we were already in cloud, ice cold rain was hammering down, it was very turbulent and pitch black outside. The navigation lights glowed faintly and eerily, until reaching the coast, not seen, but confirmed by Scottie on a ‘Gee’ fix all unnecessary lights were switched off and we settled down to sort out a new plan of action. “Scottie, we must climb through this lot, can you give me a new course to steer using climbing speed.” “Aye, I have it here Skip, I had made out two flight plans, just in case.” Good old Scottie. “John, I’m selecting climbing revs and boosts, will you keep a close check on the fuel consumption.” The turbulence was too violent, the cloud base too low and the prospects of ice conditions too serious to keep our original plan. The North Sea was waiting just a few hundred feet below, very rough, very cold, and very big. No, we had no choice, we had to gain height.
The next three and a half hours flying was a constant battle to slowly gain height and keep on course in a sea of black ink broken occasionally by glows of lightning deeper in the cloud formations. ‘K’ king was being blown around like a dried leaf in a March wind. Everything loose had long since been battened down but Scottie had been complaining for some time of heavy thuds against his section of the fuselage. Unfortunately the navigators cabin was directly in line with the propellers and chunks of ice were forming on the props, breaking away, and some of them were slamming against the side panels of the fuselage.
The one thing giving me real cause for concern was the blind flying panel. Because of the turbulence the panel was over stretching it’s rubber anchor mountings to such an extent that it was colliding with the recessed metal frame in the main instrument panel. If the artificial horizon collapsed then I had a real problem. Flying on the other instruments was possible but, my gosh, not easy in these conditions. “Skip,” Sandy was calling, “Canna noo come up the fuselage and thaw ma sandwiches?” Blast it, I had been so involved in flying ‘K’ King that for the first time I had forgotten all about Sandy. I have a lot of sympathy for tail gunners, it’s a very isolated spot in the rear turret and although conversation was cut to essentials I always made a point of calling Sandy every half an hour or so to let him know we hadn’t forgotten him and to make sure he was O.K. “Sorry Sandy, I should have called you ages ago. There’s nothing you can do back there, fix your turret and keep Maxie company, he’s got the warmest spot. You can pass messages to and fro if the intercom crackling get’s worse.” The electrical build up outside was getting stronger and it was affecting the intercom. Maxie had already warned me that he had lost contact with base. The lightning flashes had been more numerous, but luckily had moved from ahead to slightly port of track. “Skip,” Les was calling, “Shall I drop down and recheck the front gun turret?” “Good idea Les, and will you check for ice or snow on the guns,’K’ King is definitely heavier, something is happening.” A few minutes passed there was a click as an intercom was plugged in and then a very aggrieved voice spoke; “Skip, there’s snow piling through the front gun slots.”
Hells bells, I knew it would be there but after flying in daylight through snow storms in Scotland and at Rivenhall I had been able to watch the snow build up on the front leading wing edges, the air scoops, propellers and screen, and it had been less than I expected. Checking the snow on the ground, each time it had been powdery and crystallised. I was sure that with our outside temperature the snow now would be powdery. No, at the moment snow was not my greatest concern. We were now at just over 11000 feet. If we didn’t break cloud by 13000 feet we could meet the ultimate hazard, ‘Super cooled water droplets.’ Somehow we had to carry on climbing to break cloud and miss them at the same time. It was going to be more luck than judgment.
Suddenly, the intercom interference increased dramatically until it seemed a rolling surf was surging along the cables and into the earphones. Blue twinkling flashes climbed over the fixed radio aerial mast, the gun turrets and all metal projections. Saint Elmos fire, blue pixie gremlins dancing electronically in all directions. Very amusing on another occasion but not tonight. Luckily they disappeared as quickly as they had arrived and with the last ones skidding down the gun barrels and dropping off into the black void, the intercom cleared in time to hear John talking with just a trace of anxiety in his voice. “Skipper, we have coring on three engines, the two outers and the port inner have high cylinder head temperatures and low oil pressure.”
On a very interesting trip to the Bristol aircraft factory where we saw the radial air cooled engines being assembled, we had been warned by the Bristol engineers that this could happen in very low temperatures. The oil cooler positioned underneath the centre of each engine was a maze of three quarter inch diameter coiled pipes. Normally the very hot engine oil was pumped through the pipes at full bore, was cooled during transit, and returned to the main storage tank for the recycling action. This cooling process was essential to retain the oil viscosity, and keep the oil, engine, and cylinder head temperatures at the correct functioning level. When coring occurred the oil flowing against the metal pipes congealed, leaving a small bore of oil in the centre of the pipe to feed the engine. The result was extremely hot oil that changed its viscosity to a very thin quality, resulting in the low oil pressures and the high cylinder head temperatures, which John was reporting.
The remedy, against all engineering instincts, was to increase revs and boost. The increased oil flow pressure and higher oil movement through the pipes thaws the frozen congealed oil and everything in theory returns to normal. How long could we hold these high revs before the engines exploded in a ball of flame. The pilots and engineers flying notes stated 20 seconds, after which time the engine must be feathered. What bothered me was that logically if one engine cored there was a good chance all four would follow suit. It was impossible to feather all four engines and keep airborne!!! Actually, it was just possible on two engines with no load and not too much fuel, but you slowly lost height. Twenty seconds to me just wasn’t enough time to thaw the oil, and as there was no low temperature exclusion zone in the flying manual, it was a flying risk we had to accept. I had to find out more.
After the lecture I managed to sidetrack the engine specialist; “When coring, how long can we really hold these high revs?” He had looked at me steadily, decided that I was deadly serious, and then said; “The figures in the pilots and engineers handbook are pessimistic. Each engine when running at 2200 revs per minute has at least six gallons of oil in constant suspension as a thick mist, that will help you, but even so your maximum time will be one, to one and a half minutes, but, and remember this, if the oil temperatures reaches one hundred degrees centigrade you MUST close down and feather. Otherwise you risk a complete engine seizure and an oil fire. You know what that means don’t you? Two minutes to get clear of the aircraft.
“O.k John, selecting high revs and boost on all engines. Don’t forget the one hundred degrees centigrade is a deadline, if we reach it we must feather, keep in touch.” I had no intention of the good engine going the same way, and I knew the extra revs and boost would be a safeguard. Our rate of climb had been slowing and I was sure we had taken on more ice. At least the extra power was extremely useful.
As I lifted the revs and boost I glanced at my watch to check the second hand as it swung slowly around the dial, somehow I had to plan our next move. Ten seconds gone, mentally to me the engines were in the green zone, twenty seconds, now the colour had changed to amber and after sixty seconds the colour to me would be red for danger. Thirty seconds gone. I was watching the rev counters like a hawk. I couldn’t believe that the engines could explode in a ball of flame without first giving a flicker of warning from the rev counters. Forty seconds. Hells Bells, how much longer? Several times over in the last few seconds I had mentally clarified the feathering procedures, and located the feathering and fire extinguisher buttons, for I knew if I had to move, the movement had to be fast and accurate. Fifty seconds gone, still no change. We had one good engine, we needed two to keep W King stable but we would be losing height but we needed three to get home. Sixty seconds, with three engines we could keep our load until clear of the Norwegian coast before jettisoning our containers.
I could feel my pulse quickening, we were running out of time but I had decided that I was not going to feather, that would give us very little chance, but reduce power to minimise pressure on the engines, turn away from the mountains and head towards the coast, lose height and trust that with higher outer air temperatures the engines would recover. If the engines didn’t recover and we were still over land, the crew would have to bail out and hope to be located by the underground agents. Seventy seconds, and then John was calling; “Port inner and starboard outer returning to normal Skip.” Relief flooded through my veins like vintage wine, fantastic, now we had three good engines which left just the port outer below par, we couldn’t ask for much more. “John we will give the port outer twenty more seconds and then if there is no change I’ll reduce revs and boost to light cruising. We can’t afford to feather it unless it sounds really rough, or your temperatures go over the top.” The port outer was still coring as twenty seconds later I reduced the revs and boost. “John, we need that engine to give some power otherwise we must turn back. I’m still watching the rev counter like a hawk, will you keep me up to date with temperatures and pressures. Don’t forget the one hundred degree centigrade is a deadline for the oil., if we reach it we must feather and turn for base.
The minutes passed and then a thin banshee wailing emerged from the darkness. What the heck is that, blast it must be the port outer engine in trouble, but no flicker from the rev counter, that’s strange. “John, is the port outer Ok?” “Yes Skip, no change.” The whistling wailing noise increased and suddenly Scottie was on the intercom, “Can yee noo hear a whistling sound Skip?” “Yes Scottie, I’ve been listening to it and trying to decide what is happening. Can you pass me the big torch, I’ll look outside at the engines, something is happening out there.” The torch gave the answer. The carburettor air scoops - fitted with a thick wire mesh to stop the intake of birds, - riveted on top of the engine nacelles and facing directly into the air stream had completely iced over on three of the engines. On these engines the automatic air duct controls had moved from the cold air to the hot air intake, and apart from a small loss of power there had been no change. However on the port inner engine the automatic control was not working and air was being sucked through the partly ice covered scoop and into the carb, via a three inch diameter hole. No wonder we had a whistle. Hm, I hope it doesn’t ice over completely!!! Perish the thought.
“Skip, we have used half our fuel.” I had been expecting this news. Climbing with full load in these conditions played the devil with fuel consumption. However we had a big bonus, plenty of height. “Scottie, can you give me an E.T.A (expected time of arrival) for the dropping zone?” “Should be there in twenty minutes Skip.” Hm, that’s forty minutes flying time over the limit, longer if we drop. If we drop, and I thought that extremely unlikely, we shall be a few tons lighter but we have to climb over the mountains again, it looks like a diversion to Kinloss our old O.T.U. “Scottie, have you the maps out for Kinloss.” “Aye Skip, and it will save us at least one and a half hours. I’ll make out a flight plan.” “Thanks Scottie.” Trust Scottie to think ahead.
We were now at 13600 feet, the highest we and ‘K’ king have ever been, the violent turbulence had eased for some time but it was still pitch black outside and king was floundering. We had hit the dreaded super cooled water droplets and already I had to make massive column control movements to keep ‘K’ king level on course. I could feel the ice breaking away from the hinge points and partly jamming the controls. We hadn’t much more time. It was at this point that I said my prayer. “Lord, we have a few problems and really need your help.” Almost immediately the action to take seemed clear. “Scottie, I’m changing course 30 degrees to starboard.” “John, I’m increasing power on the three good engines to just below take off boost and revs and holding it for five minutes.” The lightning had moved to the port of our track and so turning to starboard seemed the sensible way ahead.
I couldn’t risk dropping a wing to turn; the loss of lift would have changed the delicate flying balance. I had to gently skid king around on a flat turn with rudder pressure. It seemed to take a long time, but at last the repeater compass notched around onto the new course, and I was able to try to gently ease the nose of ‘K’ king down to gain extra speed. At this point it was impossible to drop our containers. Opening the bomb bay doors would have destroyed the aerodynamics and we would have dropped like a stone. The minutes ticked by and I was listening to the engines and by the same massive control movements was helping ‘K’ King to keep airborne. Gradually I sensed it was not quite as dark, and then things happened quite quickly. We had flown into an occlusion a bank of warm air forced up by the cold front. John came onto the intercom shouting; “All engines clear Skip.” The banshee wailing died and vanished, and King began to fly again, gaining speed and climbing.
I reduced power to normal cruising and continued on course. It was definitely lighter and suddenly we brushed aside the clouds and burst into beautiful brilliant moonlight. What a relief. The memory of that moment remains with me just as clearly to this day. Glancing around, on the port side we had the black, billowing cumulus clouds towering up into the heavens, but in front and all around as far as we could see was a flat glistening sea of white undulating cloud. It was a very special view. “Turning onto original course, Scottie, and flying straight and level.” Les had already moved into the astro dome, and Sandy was there to pass the readings to Scottie. Minutes passed and then Scotties intercom crackled. “Skip, we are there, the frozen lake dropping zone is over to port underneath that mass of cloud.” “Thanks Scottie, there’s no point in wasting time, with 10/10 cloud and mountains underneath, we’re going home.”
“Scottie, at the moment, as you know, we are low in fuel, can you change your flight plan marking a turning point for Kinloss, an hours flight time from now. ‘K’ king and I have something up our sleeve, we might still reach base. Can you give me the new heading and I’ll turn onto course now.” “Maxie, will you check on the call signs and frequencies for Kinloss, but don’t call them yet, there will be plenty of time later.” “Ok Skip, no problem, I’ve been in contact with base and given the no drop signal.” Hm, they will be disappointed. Hope the Groupie and Bill made it. Right ‘K’ king we’ve got to do our stuff.
When we first joined our squadron we were issued with our own aircraft, this for us was ‘K’ King. My most interesting challenge was to fly King to use the least amount of fuel. This meant very careful selection of manifold pressures, propeller pitch settings and carb mixture. But also, and this was very important, the aircraft trim settings. With Stirlings I found, although they were reluctant to gain height,- in fact on our particular missions where we had to lose height to 500 feet we seldom climbed over 6000 feet,- Stirlings were also reluctant to lose height if you went about the right way. After a good deal of patient experimenting I found the design of the wings with their low aspect ratio was perfect for speed and retained height if the nose was inclined down at exactly the right angle. It was possible to gain and hold a high speed, reduce your throttle settings and manifold pressures quite substantially and lose very little height. It was remarkable and exhilarating.
As we settled on course for base, I set King for this best flying angle - I had an indelible mental mark on the artificial horizon, honed the trim settings to fly ‘hands off,’ reduced the power, made the final trim setting and having spun the gyros, clicked in ‘George’ the automatic pilot. By the greatest of good luck, or the grace of God, the cloud formation behind the cold front was tapering down and the flying angle of King and the tapering angle of the cloud matched perfectly. King was in his element, no vibration, engines quiet and yet we were moving fast in brilliant moonlight, seemingly to be gliding down a snow slide of cloud. “John, will you take a close petrol consumption check over the next hour. You must be certain of your figures, otherwise we must change course for Kinloss.” “Les, how about coffee and sandwiches?.. Good lad.” I sat there munching and drinking while Les took regular astro shots for Scottie to plot. Half an hour passed and John broke the silence; “It’s looking good, Skip, can we hold these settings to base?” “Yes, down to the 2000 feet safety height, John, we’re at 12700 feet now so it should work out just about right.”
We still had our containers on board but we were hanging on to them unless something drastic happened. The engines had taken a beating, but at the moment by the sound of the exhaust they were almost snoring all was well. Half an hour later John confirmed the petrol position as OK, and we really relaxed. Kinloss, our best hope, was almost certainly involved in that mass of cloud, and although there was an approach over the sea to the main runway, the wind would have to be in the right direction and the runways could be a trifle short for Stirlings. It could have been a tight squeeze.
It was over four hours later when I clicked out George and took over controls as we sank into deep cloud at 5000 feet, wet and mildly turbulent cloud but friendly and not a problem. Scottie was on ‘GEE’ and it seemed very little time before we were in contact with base, had confirmed our Q.D.M (course to steer) set our new Q.F.E., and were approaching the drome circuit lights switched to full brilliance. “Control, K King, permission, please, to join circuit and land.” “Pleased to hear from you K King, you are on your own, no one else flying. Just let me know when you are on the final approach and I’ll have the crew wagon standing by.”
My gosh, we’re getting the red carpet treatment tonight chaps. As we peered through the cockpit screen at the rain twinkling in the runway lights 600 feet below, Les selected full flap and I called control; “‘K’ King in funnel final approach.” “All yours, ‘K’ King, by the way there is rum at briefing, I let them know you were in circuit.” Rum at briefing, that didn’t happen very often. We taxied to our hard standing with the help of our patient, wet but cheerful ground crew, switched off engines, and then contrary to our normal practice, just sat in silence. My thoughts had wandered back to my plea for help, and the immediate answer. It had to be more than coincidence. Today, I am still convinced that help is always there if you genuinely need it and ask for it sincerely and clearly. I never mentioned my plea to the crew, it wasn’t the sort of thing you talked over, which in hindsight was a pity. The meditation was broken by Phil, “Hi Skip, we want to get to bed, and the crew wagon’s waiting.” “Sorry Phil, it was quite a trip, and the containers are still on board. We will tell you about it over a beer, but tomorrow, will you check the engines, they had a rough ride. By the way, thanks, you and your lads did a wonderful job.”
We left Phil and his crew to fix the waterproof engine covers, lock all the movable controls and various other tasks. We boarded the crew wagon and very soon had splashed our way to the crew room discarded our flying gear, and were now entering the debriefing room to be greeted by a small group of strangely quiet people. Piping hot, strong black coffee laced with rum was shoved in our hands with the welcome; “Pleased to see you back, how was the trip, we understand you didn’t drop.” “Just a moment”, I interrupted, “how did the Groupie and Bill Stewart manage?” “Well S/LDR Stewart after an hours flying, developed severe engine vibration due to iced up propellers and had to return. Group Captain Surplice flew into severe ice conditions over the target area. He managed to control the a/c for his crew to bail out and they landed on the frozen lake. The Norwegian underground have taken care of them. Apparently there are no casualties in the crew. However it would seem that Group Captain Surplice went down with the aircraft. The underground will be searching the area and will radio back more information as it becomes available.
In the event, it was not until the spring and the thawing of the snow, that Group Captain Surplice was found still at the controls of the crashed Stirling. George, the automatic pilot, wasn’t designed for coarse movement of controls and so there would have been no chance for Groupie to reach the parachute exit hatch in the nose before the Stirling started its curving dive into the deep, snow filled ravine. Meanwhile, by means not divulged, and we didn’t ask, the Groupies’ crew were returned by the underground to the squadron to resume there duties. Unfortunately, one man had lost two toes because of frostbite. One flying boot had fallen off when his parachute opened, and although the underground reached them fairly quickly and found a bag for his foot, it was already too late, it had frozen on the way down.
Crews very seldom talked about trips unless they were easy ones, but when the Groupies crew returned Scottie and I had a quiet chat with the Groupies navigator. “It was rough going”, he said, “but we were coping very well and hoping to break cloud over the frozen lake, when out of the darkness came this silent, invisible opponent, clear ice. You really have very little time, and before we could change course or take positive evasive action the Skipper called ‘abandon aircraft.’ We hated leaving him but we had no choice. But jumping out over the mountains in the dark and into cumulus cloud was no picnic, I wouldn’t want to do it again.
The next day after debriefing a squadron member just back from leave shouted across the mess, “The Norwegian trip, old boy, a piece of cake?” Scottie and I looked at each other before commenting; “Well yes you could say that, ‘a piece of cake.’” It was the following evening after the early morning debriefing. We had kipped down, awakened late afternoon, completed our ablutions, dined in a very subdued mess, and were now as a crew sipping our final beers in the local pub. We were relaxed and not in a hurry for we had no ops the next night, and were not even listed for a morning test flight. Phil and his crew had mentioned during the evening that ‘K’ King was OK apart from some loss of power on the port outer engine. It had to be stripped for a check, and so with extra work to their normal daily routine they had reluctantly retired earlier. At a moment when conversation was flagging and we were each occupied with our own thoughts John said, “We did well with the engines, Skip.” I had wanted to congratulate my crew for a job well done, but wasn’t quite sure how to approach the subject, until Johns comment gave me an opening.
“John, you were superb. I hadn’t discussed with you the possible extra time we had in hand for decoring the engines, I honestly didn’t think it would happen, but you didn’t flinch when we went over the 20 seconds with the high revs, although you must have known the consequences if I had it wrong. You carried on without comment as if it was a purely routine engine setting, and that took a lot of courage and discipline. Additional to that your petrol consumption figures for the trip back were ‘spot on’. It was a very professional effort. In fact everyone in the crew were top class and I am very proud of you all. Scottie for his flight plans and anticipating our diversion to Kinloss, Les and Sandy for having paper and pencils to hand when the Saint Elmo’s Fire temporarily blocked the intercom, Maxie with the calm way he dealt with base and Kinloss, Sandy for making himself useful all the time, and Les, for his astro shots and after his front turret snow report, accepting without question that we were ‘pressing on’ instead of making the sensible turn back to base. However I promise not to place your lives at risk for weather reasons again. I now know the outside temperatures, to be avoided at all costs. We shall avoid them. Last night we faced all the weather perils, and with help came through. I always knew we were a good team, now in my book you are without question the best. Certainly I wouldn’t change any one of you for all the tea in China.”
This was an unusual speech coming from me, and as I finished I thought the ending was a bit lame, but it was the only thing I could think of on the spur of the moment. However, everyone seemed very pleased, and finishing our beers we were in a exuberant mood, with a fair amount of good natured banter, as we ambled outside to head for base and kip. As we approached base Scottie and I waved cheerio to the rest of the crew and were heading for our Nissan hut quarters when Scottie asked, “What help did we get Skip?” “One day I will tell you, Scottie, but not tonight.” There was silence for a few moments then Scottie said; “We’d go through hell with you Skip.” “Thank you Scottie.” It was my turn to feel very pleased, very proud, and at the same time very humble.
In ‘Stirlings at war’ by Johnathon Falconer, published by Ian Allen, London, there is a reference to Group Captain Surplice.
‘Stirling IV LK171. (was) skippered by 32 year old Group Captain Wilfred Surplice DSO, DFC, Station Commander at Rivenhall Essex. Because LK171 was placed at the personal disposal of Surplice it did not carry the regular squadron code of either of the Rivenhall squadrons, instead bearing his personal initials, WES. These it bore until the day it crashed in bad weather on a supply drop to Norwegian resistance forces on the 2nd and 3rd November. Surplice ordered his crew to bail out after the Stirling iced up and became difficult to handle. All of the crew managed to escape from the doomed aircraft before it crashed into a mountain near Rjukan at Skarfjell, killing Surplice.’
© BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.
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