The crew’s first op’

8 December 1944. Daylight attack against Duisburg.

Bomber Command Diary: 163 Lancasters of No 3 Group carried out a G-H raid through cloud on the railway yards at Duisburg. 30 Mosquitos of No 8 Group attacked the Meiderich oil plant near Duisburg, probably using the Oboe-leader technique. No aircraft lost.

75 Sq ORB: Weather: Fair becoming cloudy with slight intermittent rain, sleet or drizzle; becoming fair during early night.
Twenty one aircraft took off to make a daylight attack on Duisburg Marshalling Yards carrying 1,000 lb M.C, 1,000 lb A.N.M, and Monroe Bombs*. All aircraft successfully attacked the target and a very concentrated attack was reported, but apart from one report of smoke coming through the tops of the cloud at 15,000 feet, no results were observed.
One aircraft “D” captained by F/S Wood, J. landed at Woodbridge** on return.

Lancaster I HK601 JN-D “Snifter”
Up 08:37 Down 12:41

F/S Wood, J. NZ426235, Captain (2)
F/S Pauling, J. NZ422976, Nav
F/S Hooper, N., A/B
F/S Newey, G. NZ425285, WO/Air
Sgt Williamson, D., F/Eng
***Sgt Sparrow, R. R263518, MU/Gnr
***Sgt Cash, A. R147817, R/Gnr

Bomb load 13 x 1,000 lb M.C.

Captain’s remarks: Primary target Duisburg. Slow speed of our aircraft prevented us formating in target area.

* M.C. = Medium Capacity bombs.
* A.N.M. = American ANM 44 bombs, widely used in 1944 due to shortages of British bombs. 
* Monroe bombs were bombs filled with leaflets, by this late stage of the war usually calling for the Germans to surrender.
** RAF Woodbridge Emergency Landing Ground ELG), not far from Felixstowe, Suffolk, was one of three built by Bomber Command along the east coast of England for damaged allied aircraft returning from operations over Europe.  The others  were Manston in Kent  and Carnaby in Yorkshire.

A longer and wider than usual runway (3,000 yards long x 250 yards wide) with undershoot and overshoot areas could handle crash-landings and aircraft with critical damage, or without hydraulics and brakes. Cranes, fire tenders and medical teams were on standby. Once safely on the ground, aircraft were quickly removed to a series of dispersal loops along the south edge of the runway, by bulldozer if necessary. 

In the slang of the day, Woodbridge was a “prang drome”.
*** Jack Cash was usually Mid-Upper and Ralph Sparrow was usually Rear Gunner. We long wondered if this was a mistake in the ORB, but Dave Sparrow says his grandfather had mentioned that one day he and Jack swapped places, for no particular reason!
75 (NZ) Squadron Lancaster HK561 AA-Y landing at RAF Woodbridge on only two port engines, 1 March 1945.
Note white streaks on engine nacelles from Graviner fire extinguishers.
Film clip credit IWM, ref. ARY 131-1-2, 4-5.

Flight Engineer Doug Williamson’s memory of their first trip, from his book:

”I went out to dispersal to run up the engines, check the oil pressures and mag. drops. All OK.
Then, I returned to the briefing room to learn where we were off to. The rest of the crew had already been briefed. It was a daylight op’ and we were to rendezvous with the main force at 10,000 feet over the coast, then fly in a gaggle at 20,000 feet to a target in the Ruhr. 

All went well until we started to climb to the prearranged height. The standard revs. and boost of 2650 and 4lbs was quite insufficient to get us up to our ceiling. We had to increase the revs and the boost as much as we dare, but we could only tag along at the back of the gaggle and 2000 feet below them. By the time ETA on the target arrived, we could only see them in the far distance, like a swarm of bees with lots of little puffs of brown smoke from the flak amongst them.

Now some crews bought it on their first op’, and others led a charmed life. We definitely led a charmed life. About twenty minutes later, after the main fleet had blasted the target, we wandered in, aimed and dropped our bombs, then skedaddled without a single shot fired at us. It can only be assumed that Jerry had sounded the all clear and were fortifying themselves with a nice cuppa’ ersatz coffee when we dropped in. 

The Japanese say that the most dangerous moment in a battle is when you take off your helmet and rest. The Germans learnt that lesson that day.

As we neared the coast, my fuel log, calculated on the revs and boost we had used, showed very little fuel left, and we decided to put down at Woodbridge on the coast. 

We spent an enjoyable night there and in the morning were told that far from being short of fuel, we had had two hundred gallons in the port tanks and three hundred in the starboard tanks. With this strange information we prepared to take off. We did not, of course have our ground crew, and we had to start the engines ourselves using the internal batteries. The pilot would press the starter button in the cockpit, while I had to climb up onto the wheel and prime the engines with the Ki-gass pumps in the nacelle. 

Both starboard engines and the port outer started OK, but no matter how I primed the port inner it just would not start.

I was about to give up when I wondered what would happen if I primed the port outer and gave it a couple of pumps, and was immediately rewarded with a great roar from the inner engine. The priming pumps had been reversed. We were off. 

When we landed back at the squadron, a joyful ground crew greeted us, but their faces fell as we disgorged from the kite, calling it ‘a dog alright’. 

The engines were stripped, and it was found that a thick layer of grease had covered the flame arrestors, thus preventing an easy flow of air to enter the carburettors. The problem was fixed, and the skipper suggested that we give a party for the ground crew, as our lives depended on their good work. 

The Canadians and New Zealanders got parcels from home, and we had quite a jolly party, much appreciated by our hard working ground crew who kept JN Dog in good trim for the rest of our tour.”

– The Nazi & The Luftgangster, by D. B. Williamson and Lutz Dille.

G-H bombing

G-H was a British radar-based navigation system using triangulated radio beams, developed for more accurate “blind” daylight bombing through cloud or smoke. It required the bomber to fly an arc equidistant to one fixed radio station until intersecting a radio signal a fixed distance from a second station. A ‘trigger pulse’ was generated at the point of intersection, the designated aiming point, potentially accurate to within 100 yards.

A sophisticated transmitter-receiver had to be carried in the aircraft (often referred to as ‘special equipment’ in the ORBs) and in December 1944 75(NZ) Squadron was slowly fitting these units across its fleet.

To make the most of the available units, 3 Group adopted a G-H leader-follower system.

The bombers flew to the target in a loose formation called a ‘gaggle’, and within that, there were smaller sub-formations, ‘vic’s or ‘boxes’ of three or four aircraft each, according to the detailed pre-op’ briefing.

The gaggle had an appointed leader, and each vic or box was in turn led by a ‘G-H Leader’, whose aircraft carried the G-H equipment to locate the aiming point.

75 (NZ) Squadron’s G-H Leaders had their tail-fins painted with twin horizontal yellow bands to enable those following to easily identify and attach themselves.

As the gaggle neared the target, formations were tightened up, then as each G-H Leader detected the trigger pulse, he would drop his bombs, and the two or three aircraft following him would bomb visually on him. 

The leader-follower approach was similar to the system used by the Americans, where several aircraft formated on a single navigator. However having G-H units in multiple aircraft and navigators in all, allowed more flexibility, and G-H could also be used at night.

Prior to G-H, RAF bombers had mostly flown night operations with aircraft navigating their way to the target individually in the dark.

Once G-H was developed, it allowed 3 Group to carry out more daylight operations, requiring less navigation expertise and less reliance on the Pathfinders, but requiring new skills in formation flying.

Top photo: A gaggle of 75(NZ) Sqdn Lancasters, daylight op’ 1944.
– NZBCA archives, Jack Meehan collection.

Returning from an op’

About an hour from home there would be a weather report to listen for, and occasionally, a diversion to another airfield when fog closed the crew’s base.

We were at 3,000 feet already and not surprised at our place in the queue as we had been listening to the other kites reporting. The skipper, tired but keyed up, checked supercharger M ratio, air intake cold, brake pressures OK, as he listened to the circuit chatter. There was no doubt the WAAFs and men in air control were bang on, being quite used to bringing the 25 or so squadron aircraft down in rapid succession, with coolness and authority.

“Mawkish* to Uncle, turn five, Angel two,” and we followed the aircraft ahead in the sweeping 20-mile orbit down to 2,000 feet.

“Mawkish to Sailmaker Uncle, turn three, Angel one,” and the skipper banked onto the downwind leg, undercarriage down, the hooter and the engineer confirming fully locked, flaps 20, the aircraft lifting momentarily, revs 2,900, the sound of engines being throttled back. 

“Sailmaker Uncle, three plus,” The aircraft ahead sank slowly towards the runway, our turn next.

Jake called, “Uncle funnels”, control responding, “Uncle pancake.”

The glide path indicators winked green for a moment as we dropped, green and white, then white, correct angle of approach, aware that reds meant too low and we would be powering on an overshoot, losing our turn to land. We continued down in the friendly white, engines crackling as excess fuel burned and popped in the exhausts, over the fence, throttles right back, 120, 110 mph, the blurred runway between the tapering yellow lights rushing at us.

A skip and squeal of rubber and we were safely down. A touch of brakes, the airframe seeming to compress, another touch and then another and we rolled slowly to the end, a short burst of motor and we turned off, ‘Uncle clear’.

Then came the long taxi around the blue-studded perimeter track, past control tower to our dispersal where the loyal and patient ground crew waited, torches guiding us to the correct position, torches crossing, signal for a final burst to clear the plugs and switch off, the props reluctantly milling to a halt.

Jake had opened the bomb doors slightly so the ground crew could confirm no malfunction concealed a wayward bomb. The rear exit door was opened from outside, the ladder put in position, the twins leading the procession to clamber out.

We were back safely, savouring the sheer joy of having knocked off another op.

– Bombs On Target, by Ron Mayhill, DFC

* ‘Mawkish’ was the radio call-sign for home base, RAF Mepal. ‘Uncle’ was the radio call sign for any a/c coded ‘U’, and to ‘pancake’ was to land.

There would be a crew bus at their dispersal to take them back to Operations for briefing. The traditional welcome back was a mug of tea, laced with rum. Then the crew would be called to sit down around a table with a couple of intelligence officers, who would do the de-brief. 

”They would want to know: how much fuel we’d used; what we’d encountered with night-fighters and flak; had we seen any aircraft go down – the navigator would answer this, giving the lat and long, and the time when these aircraft were shot down. They then asked about the target, whether the flares had gone down on time and so on.

Most of what they wanted was just factual stuff. They’d ask us if we went in on the heading, for example. This would be shown on the photograph, so there was no point in lying. We would just detail what had happened to us, as a crew.

They’d ask me if I had received all the Bomber Command messages, about wind speeds, for example. These I would pass on to the navigator. And that would be that. 

Then we would get rid of our gear, go back to the mess, have some eggs and bacon and then go to bed.”

from “Piece Of Cake” – A Conversation with Rob Marchment,


Between op’s, the boys had a very busy social life.

The station put on dances, movies, ENSA shows, sports fixtures and sports days; the messes catered for drinking and snooker.

Going by Gerry’s diary, “Percy’s Pub” in Sutton was the crew’s favourite watering hole, and sometimes The Three Pickerels in Mepal (aka. the “Muddy Duck” after the dirty river that runs past).

[ We’re not entirely sure of the identity of “Percy’s Pub”, but it was probably The Crown in High Street, Sutton, of which the landlord was a Mr Percy Nicholas. It’s also possible that Percy’s was The Anchor at Sutton Gault, which was run by a Mr Percy Murfitt, however that would have been a much longer walk and/or bike ride away from camp. And W/Op Gerry Abrahams says that Percy’s doubled as a bakery, which makes the High Street location seem more likely. ]

Further afield, Chatteris, Ely (favorite pub “The Lamb“) and Cambridge were within bus or taxi drive, with the attractions of more pubs, restaurants and dances.

The Lamb Hotel, 2 Lynn Road, Ely, still in operation. Ely Cathedral in the background, a popular landmark for the bomber crews.

The crew lived together in their own Nissen hut, and got along very well, but didn’t always socialise together. A lot of downtime was spent gambling (pontoon) and drinking, as Doug remembers it.

He describes their hut as extremely messy and casual. As ‘Brylcreem boys’, they felt a certain air of privilege and glamour about themselves.

From Doug’s book:

Life on the squadron was pleasant. Aircrew were somewhat coddled with extra chocolate rations and good food. There were regular pissups in the mess and the local boozers. It all became a cosy routine.
We were billeted in Nissen huts, one to each crew. They were basic but quite liveable. In winter, we needed to have the round coke stove going to keep life comfortable. Fuel was at a premium. At the onset of winter, a load of coke would be dumped adjacent to the billets where we could fill up our coalscuttles, but supplies were never sufficient to last the winter.
Word came through that a load of coke had been dropped at our dump. The bomb aimer disappeared, and moments later the door of the hut banged open with wily Snatch pushing a wheelbarrow he had scrounged. To the rest of the crew’s astonishment, he dumped a load of coke in the corner of the hut.

Our dismay and protests were soon dispelled by the pragmatic thought that, well, a little disorder was more acceptable than a cold billet.

There was one inspection of our billet by a too-keen orderly officer, investigating complaints that the lights in the billets kept dimming.

He entered our hut. Not one bed was made up. Snatch, only dressed in his flying longjohns, was frying a piece of steak scrounged from some farmer’s daughter, on an element plugged into the lights. Water was boiling with an immersion heater, ready to make tea, using the same source of power. A couple of us were stretched out on our bunks listening to the radio.

“Ah!… This is a bit of a shambles, what?” observed the officer.
“Well we only got back from Essen this morning” replied Snatch, flipping his steak in the pan.
“Ah, yes. Well……. tidy it up a bit chaps, there’s good fellows” was all he said on departing.

– The Nazi & The Luftgangster, by D. B. Williamson and Lutz Dille.