Before they flew their first operation as a crew, it was standard practice for the skipper to fly an initial bombing operation as second pilot with an experienced or ‘gen’ crew, a familiarisation sortie commonly known as a “Second Dickey” trip.
F/S Johnny Wood flew his Second Dickey on 6/7 December with F/Lt. Tom Waugh and crew, on the last op’ of their tour, flying in Lancaster ND801 JN-X, “Get Sum Inn”. (The aircraft had originally been coded JN-A, and still carried her “Astra” nickname as well).
Coincidentally the target was the same as it would be on Johnny and the boys’ very last op’, a night attack on the Merseburg Leuna Oil Refinery.
However this time was the RAF’s first major attack on an oil target deep into Eastern Germany. Leuna, near the town of Merseburg, just west of Leipzig, was 250 miles from the German frontier and 500 miles from the bombers’ bases in England, near the extremities of their range.
The IG Farben Leuna synthetic fuel plant, covering more than a square mile, was the second largest of the German synthetic oil plants, protected by the heaviest flak concentration in Europe, operating over 600 radar-directed anti-aircraft guns.
So it would be a ‘hot’ introduction to op’s for Johnny, and an uncomfortable one, seven and a half hours as the extra man standing in the cockpit of a Lancaster, already cramped for space when there was just the pilot and flight engineer.
In the event, the trip would be made even more treacherous by bad weather on the way to the target; icing, clouds, electrical storms and snow.
6 December 1944 – Attack against Merseburg Leuna Oil Refinery
75 Sq ORB: Twelve aircraft took off as detailed to participate in a night attack on the Merseburg Leuna Oil Refinery, carrying 8,000 lb, 4,000 H.C., 500 G.P., 500 G.P.(LD) bombs. The target was covered with 10/10 cloud, tops about 14,000 ft and all aircraft were successful in bombing the target with navigational aids. The attack was considered to be concentrated, though bombing results could not be seen, apart from the glow of fires seen beneath the cloud. Flak was intense in the target area and a few enemy fighters were seen en route but no attacks were reported. One aircraft, AA “R” captained by 1585981 F/O D. Atkin*, had engine trouble after leaving the target, the starboard inner catching fire, and it was with great difficulty that the crew managed to keep the fire under control. When approaching this country the starboard inner engine went u/s and after jettisoning all equipment and with the aircraft losing height at 100 feet per minute, the Captain made a very good ditching in the River Orwell. None of the crew were hurt.
Lancaster Mk.III ND801 JN-X “Get Sum Inn” / “Astra”
Up 17:04 Down 00:36
Flight Time 07:32
F/L Thomas Christie Waugh, RAFVR 159174 – Pilot.
F/S John Henry Thomas Wood , RNZAF NZ426235 – 2nd Pilot.
P/O Colin William Hannam Woonton, RNZAF NZ429055 – Navigator.
F/S Robert Irwin Swetland, RAFVR 1098818, 186577 – Air Bomber.
F/S Peter Kidd, RAFVR – Wireless Operator .
Sgt. N. Southgate, RAFVR – Flight Engineer.
F/S James Baird Nickels, RNZAF NZ425852 – Mid Upper Gunner.
F/S David Frank Sage, NZ424824 – Rear Gunner.
There was significant cloud in the target area but post-raid photographs showed that considerable damage had been caused to the synthetic-oil plant.
|* The Atkin crew were on their way home at 14,000 feet at 21.33 when HK574’s starboard-outer engine suddenly developed a runaway propeller that could not be feathered. They were approaching Giessen at the time, south of the Ruhr and heading for the Belgian frontier with a long flight still ahead of them. The engine caught fire, and, although the flames were eventually extinguished, it continued to glow and give off sparks. The crew were on standby to bale out, but luckily the aircraft was flying well on three engines.|
Then as they were crossing the Dutch coast the starboard-inner engine also failed, and the Lancaster began to sink at the rate of a hundred feet per minute. They didn’t think they were going to make it across the Channel and two of their ‘chutes had already opened inside the aircraft, leaving some very unpleasant choices for all concerned. Everything move-able was thrown out to save weight, and the Lancaster (AA-R, “Rio Rita”) crossed the English coast at only 700 feet, finally running out of altitude between Ipswich and Felixstowe, where it was succesfully ditched in the River Orwell by Don Atkin without injury to the occupants at 01.30. Rear gunner Gordon Johnson recalled the “shock wave of noise and then freezing black water everywhere”.
Fog and darkness had led the crew to believe they had ditched in the Channel, and after five hours sitting in a dinghy in strangely calm water beside a Lancaster that seemed reluctant to sink, it was the mooing of a cow on the riverbank that finally gave away their true location!
Johnny and the Waugh crew made it back safely and two days later the rest of the crew made their debut.
Preparations for an op’
First notification of an op’ was when Battle Orders were posted on the Flight noticeboard in the morning. This listed crews and allocated aircraft, but not the target.
A Daily Inspection (DI) and often an Air Test was carried out by each crew on its nominated Lancaster, and the Captain had to sign it off as airworthy (using Form 700) before it could be flown on an operation. Aircraft were then refuelled and bombed up.
At about 3.00 in the afternoon (for a night operation), the navigators and the pilots would go for a briefing. A bit later on, it would be the bomb aimers’ turn. Then the wireless operators would meet with the Signals Officer who would provide the frequencies that were to be used that particular night, radio call-signs for the day, and ‘colours of the day’ (I.F.F. – Identification, Friend or Foe recognition flares to be fired by Very pistol from a position to the right of the astrodome).
Then it was back to the mess for a bit of tea.
At the nominated time all aircrew would go down to the main briefing room, where the whole squadron would be briefed. It would usually be started off by the 75 (NZ) Sq Commanding Officer, W/C Newton. A curtain would be pulled back to reveal the enormous map on the rear wall and the target for the day’s (or night’s) mission marked out with black route tapes, converging on a red arrow.
“Gentlemen, the Target for tonight is …”.
Crew already had a fair idea of the range of the target by the amount of fuel that had gone into the aircraft that morning – 1500 gallons suggested the Ruhr; and full tanks (2154 gallons) meant you were going deep into Germany. The crews were given precise courses, known defences, tactics to be employed, timing, operating altitudes, permissible radio frequencies, and weather forecasts. Watches were synchronised.
Following the traditional pre-operational meal of bacon and eggs, the crews were issued their flying gear, escape kits, and parachutes in the Crew Rooms. Usually smoking a last cigarette, crews were then driven out to their aircraft on a crew bus or truck, their bombers being dispersed all around the airfield perimeter road.
Crew buses were driven by WAAFs, who called out each crew by a/c code as they arrived at their particular dispersal. A, B and C Flight dispersals were each in different parts of the airfield; each a/c had its own nominated ‘pan’, identified with a small signpost at the edge of the perimeter road.
Crews had to be at their aircraft one hour before take-off, to re-check all systems. After an external inspection of the aircraft, the men climbed on board and found their way to their stations in the dark, narrow Lancaster fuselage, stowed their kit, and settled down to carry out the long pre-flight checklists.
Engine start-up: starboard inner first.
When an op. was on, strict radio silence was observed. Start-up and taxi were signalled by Verey pistol. Aircraft taxied in a line from their dispersals anti-clockwise around the perimeter road, then waited their turn at the end of the runway. Take-off was signalled to each aircraft at approx. one minute intervals by a green light from the flight caravan at the side of the runway.
– These screen-grabs are from the excellent documentary “Maximum Effort”, filmed at Mepal in June 1944. It gives a good taste of a 75(NZ) Sqdn operation, using real aircrew (the Eric Witting crew) and even a cameo from the CO, W/C Jack Leslie: