The final op’

Sunday 1 April 1945.

D.I.’d the spare a/c this morning but the boys didn’t get off. I don’t know why, but perhaps they don’t just know how far the army has advanced. The war looks as if it may pack up in the next few weeks. Perhaps even days. It appears to me that Bomber Command has had its day. Went to the camp show & stayed in the hut for the rest of the night.

Monday 2 April 1945.

As crews are a penny a doz here right now we were given a day off.
Jack, Jock & I hitch hiked into Cambridge. Had a couple of good meals to make up for the vitamins lost during camp life & then went down to the Red Lion for a couple of hrs. Stepped into the Dorothy dance hall at night & had two hrs of good dancing before catching the 10.40 for Ely. Arrived in Ely at 11.30 & met Skip. Came home in a taxi together.

Tuesday 3 April 1945.

Were supposed to fly on fighter affiliation at 11.15, but after waiting all day didn’t get up. Detail washed at 4.15 just in time to miss the football match in which I was supposed to play for “C” Flight.
Met Betty at the mess at 10 & saw her to the WAAF site & retired early.

Top photo: Lancasters queuing on the Mepal perimeter road.
– NZBCA archives, Ed Ware collection.

What turned out to be their 32nd and final op’ as a complete crew, was on the night of 4th April 1945, an attack on the IG Farben Leuna synthetic fuel plant at Merseburg, not far from Leipzig, one of the last few 75 (NZ) Squadron bombing raids of the war. The same target that skipper Johnny Wood had visited on his Second Dickey op’.

As mentioned earlier, Leuna was the second largest of the German synthetic oil plants and protected by the heaviest flak concentration in Europe. The complex covered three square miles of land (757 acres) with 250 buildings, including decoy buildings outside the main plant, and employed 35,000 workers (including 10,000 prisoners and slave laborers). More than 19,000 of Leuna’s workers were members of the air raid protection organization which operated over 600 radar-directed anti-aircraft guns.

The bombing of Leuna from May 12, 1944 to April 5, 1945 had already cost the USAAF Eighth Air Force 1,280 airmen. Air crews viewed a mission to Leuna as the most dangerous and difficult assignment of the air war.

4/5 April 1945. Night attack on Merseburg.

We were on the Battle order to fly early but it was finally made into a night op. Took off at 18.43 for Merseburg.

Bomber Command Diary: 327 Lancasters and 14 Mosquitos of Nos 3, 6 and 8 Groups attacked the Leuna synthetic-oil plant in the town of Merseburg, west of Leipzig in East Germany. The target was cloud-covered, the bombing was scattered and only minor damage was caused. 2 Lancasters lost.

75 Sq ORB: Twenty one aircraft were detailed to make a night attack on Merseburg.  AA-R (F/O Stevens) returned early through total intercom failure 10 mins after take-off, aborting when they reached the French coast. The squadron proceeded across France and Germany without difficulty, and reached the target on ‘H’ hour only to find the PFF (Pathfinder Force) was late and there were no T/I markers in place. Cloud was 7 to 10/10ths.
HK601 JN-D (F/O Wood and crew) was hit by moderate to light flak in the target area. Shrapnel pierced the de-icing tank causing fire to break out which damaged several electrical circuits, including the ASI  (air speed indicator) heating. The Bomb Aimer (F/S Hooper, N) received slight burns about the face and the Pilot’s hands were slightly burned, the Flight Engineer (Sgt Williamson) apparently fell through the M/Under/Turret. 
Crews bombed glows of fires on Master Bomber’s instructions. Fires were fairly concentrated though reports indicate a rather scattered raid. Flak was moderate to light. Decoys were easily identified. A jet aircraft was seen on the way home, otherwise no fighter activity.

Lancaster I HK601, JN-D “Snifter”
Up: 1832 hrs. Down: 0202 hrs. Flight time 7 hrs 30 mins.

F/O Wood, J. NZ426235, Captain (33) 
F/S Pauling, J. NZ422976, Nav 
F/S Hooper, N., A/B 
F/S Newey, G. NZ425285, WO/Air  
Sgt Williamson, D., F/Eng
F/S Cash, A. R147817, MU/Gnr 
F/S Sparrow, R. R263518, R/Gnr

Bomb Load 1 x 4,000 lb H.C, 4 x 500 lb ANM, 1 x 350 Monroe.

Captain’s remarks: Primary target – Merseburg. Aircraft hit by flak in target area. Flak pierced de-icing tank causing fire which destroyed several leads including heating to ASI. Pilot and Air Bomber received slight burns. Flight Engineer believed fell through mid under gun turret. Bombs jettisoned 51 51N 11 03E from 19,000 feet at 22:30 hours. Landed at Manston.

Gerry’s diary: Ten minutes before the target we collected a hit by flak & all the nose of the a/c caught fire from the burst de-icing cylinder (alcohol). Bomb Aimer badly burnt. Skip slightly & Engineer fell through the mid-under gun position. He had his chute on luckily. Nav. finally put fire out. Good work by Nav, Skip and B/A.
Finally contacted group after my key had been smashed. Landed at Manston with brakes u/s.

Gerry’s logbook entry for 4/5.4.45.
– Gerry Newey collection, thanks to Phil & Bruce Newey.

Interestingly, the official “Bomber Command ORS AIR14 log of aircraft lost and damaged on operations” records the damage to HK601 D-Dog under “NOT DUE TO ENEMY ACTION”, with details given as “(AC) m/g fire (1y)“, which means “machine gun fire, 1 x .303 calibre British bullet”!  This suggests that the incident was due to “friendly fire”, rather than enemy anti-aircraft shell (flak) damage, and that a British bullet was found afterwards. The ORBs record several instances of rear gunners on night op’s mistakenly firing at Lancasters behind them in the bomber stream. However, all other accounts refer to flak as the cause.

The RAF Mepal Station Log records: “… JN-D (F/O J. WOOD), was hit by flak before reaching the target. Flak pierced the de-icing tank causing fire which destroyed the heating. The Bomb Aimer F/Sgt. N.R. HOOPER was burnt about the face and the pilots hands were slightly burnt. The Flight Engineer Sgt. D. WILLIAMSON apparently fell through the Mid under gun turret, but this is not certain. The aircraft landed at MANSTON on return.”
A hand-written note in the margin adds: “Note by Station Commander: Sgt. Williamson definitely left the aircraft and is missing”.

Lancaster cut-away showing Jim Hooper’s position and the step (glycol tank) leading up to the cockpit where Doug was standing when the fire started, alongside Johnny.

Doug’s disappearance was clarified slightly in the ORB Form 540 entry, which states that “Sgt Williamson was standing next to the pilot on the bombing run, when flak pierced the de-icing tank directly beneath him. He managed to move aft and grab a parachute before falling through a gun hatch opening.”

The glycol in the de-icing tank, which served as the step down to the Bomb Aimer’s position in the nose, caught fire, burning Jim’s parachute and clothing. In a desperate attempt to get away from the flames, he opened the escape hatch in the floor of his compartment, creating a terrific through-draft, feeding the flames and blasting them up at Doug.

He describes it in his book – he had been feeding Window strips out of the aircraft and had taken his oxygen mask off:

Well I relaxed, took out a bar of chocolate and was feeding my face, when there was a loud bang. I stood up and noticed small flickers of flame in the bomb aimer’s compartment, much like you see on a Xmas pudding.

I was surprised to feel warm blood running down my face, as I had not felt any blow. I pushed my oxygen mask to my face and started the routine we had been instructed to carry out in training.

“Oxygen to emergency! Close all doors and exits!”

I was thinking what a silly thing it was to say with that great big hole for the under gun emplacement at the back of the kite, when suddenly there was a wooof and a huge burst of flame completely filled the whole passage down from the front of the kite. It was like a massive blowtorch.

I turned my back to the flames and in doing so pulled out my intercom, and so was unable to hear any order from the skipper. I grabbed the plug and turned to replace it, but could not see where it was due to a wall of flame. I had memories of the blaze at the SMT works and assumed the whole kite was burning.

It looked as if we had little time to get out, but I assumed the order had been given with little time to act. The escape hatch was in the bomb aimer’s compartment and blocked by flame.

I turned, moved back towards the rear, and shouted to the wireless operator that we would have to use the under turret to get out, clambered over the main spar, and collapsed.

I lay there in a sort of stupor, probably lack of oxygen, waiting for the rest of the crew, but none came.

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

Doug remembered that recently a mid-under machine gun position had been created by removing Dog’s H2S radar, a circular hole in the floor for a downwards-pointing 0.5 inch machine gun to counter German night fighters who liked to attack the Lancaster’s blind spot with their upward-firing cannons. He made his way down the fuselage to the hole and pulled himself out, still believing the aircraft was on fire.

It wasn’t until the fresh air hit him and his parachute popped open that he woke up and realised that Dog wasn’t in flames – he was “horrified” at what he had done.

I felt as a sailor must feel, having fallen overboard and seeing his ship sailing off without him. “

Some of Johnny’s instruments were smashed, he was almost blinded by smoke and received some burns to his face and hands, but he managed to keep control of Dog. Ralph recalled that Johnny and Jim’s oxygen masks had melted against their faces.

Jack Pauling, next closest in the cramped cockpit space, managed to get down the steps through the flames to put out Jim’s burning clothing and then beat out the fire with bundles of ‘Window’. In later years Jim remembered helping to put out the flames on Johnny’s boots, from his position down below!

Jack (probably with Gerry’s help) would have taken Jim back to the sick bed just behind the W/Op’s station and Gerry would have tried to treat his burns.

Ralph also spoke of the drama from the viewpoint of the two gunners; it would have been frightening, hearing the emergency play out through their headphones, unable to help their mates, knowing that the plane was on fire, and receiving instructions to get ready to bail out.

It must have been a huge relief when Jack managed to get the fire under control, but a shock for all the crew when they realised that Doug had disappeared!

Gerry’s radio was damaged, but he managed to contact Group.

Jack’s charts and logs were destroyed, but he worked out a course for the return flight and Johnny flew Dog back to England. Despite the damage and no brakes, they made a safe landing at RAF Manston’s “prang drome” (emergency landing ground).

Johnny and Jack were awarded immediate DFC and DFM respectively. Their citations read:

Distinguished Flying Cross.
Acting Flying Officer John Henry Thomas WOOD (NZ426235), R.N.Z.A.F., 75 (,N.Z.) Sqn.

Distinguished Flying Medal.
Flight Sergeant John Austin White PAULING (NZ422976), R.N.Z.A.F., 75 (N.Z.) Sqn.

This officer and airman were pilot and navigator respectively in an aircraft detailed to attack the synthetic oil plant at Merseburg. Whilst over the target the aircraft was hit by fire from the ground defences. A fire started in the nose of the aircraft.
Although some of the flying instruments had been put out of action and in spite of thick smoke which obscured his vision, Flying Officer Wood retained control. Meanwhile, Flight Sergeant Pauling had gone to the assistance of the bomb aimer, whose flying clothing was on fire. He succeeded in extinguishing the flames on the clothing of his comrade and afterwards turned his attention to the burning part of the aircraft. Greatly encouraged by his pilot whose example of coolness in these trying moments was inspiring, Flight Sergeant Pauling worked strenuously and finally he succeeded in putting out the fire completely.
Afterwards, Flying Officer Wood flew the aircraft back to this country. This officer and his gallant navigator displayed the highest qualities of determination and devotion to duty in the face of most harassing circumstances.

After over-nighting at RAF Manston, the rest of the crew inspected JN-Dog (she was quite a mess) before being flown back to Mepal :

Thursday 5 April 1945.

Up at 9 to have a look at the kite in daylight. All fuselage forward of wing will have to be renewed. Collected by kite from 75 & landed at 2.20 PM. Paid & collected leave tickets for nine days leave.
Stayed on the camp for the night as it is too late to start on leave. Went down to the ‘Brook’ with Jack for a few pints. Was supposed to see the Group Capt. concerning a commission.

Jim Hooper’s burns were quite serious and required him to be taken to Ely Hospital.

Despite the damage (Category AC/FB), Dog’s Aircraft Movement Card says that she was transferred to No. 54 Maintenance Unit on the 12th of April for repairs but didn’t return to the squadron until the 28th of May, by which time the war was over. After that she doesn’t appear again in the ORB; apparently retired from operations.

N.B. The Operational Record Book records her as completing one more op’, on the night of the 13th/14th of April with the Shaw crew on a mine-laying trip to Kiel. However, as the above Movement Card dates show, HK601 was still being repaired – the Shaw boys must have flown in her replacement, NF981, the aircraft re-coded from JN-Y to be the new JN-D “Dog”.

More about the Shaw crew and the Kiel operation.

The Johnny Wood crew had flown 19 of their 32 op’s together in HK601 JN-Dog, and she had brought them (or most of them!) home safely every time. She had survived eight months on front-line operations and completed 84 ops, one of the squadron’s veterans. Not bad when the average expected operational life of a Lancaster bomber was only 40 hours!

More about Dog here.

Johnny Wood had by now flown 33 op’s; the rest of the crew in theory had flown 32, although Gerry, Doug, Jack and Cash had each missed an op’ for different reasons.

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