Bomber Command Aircrew Chronicles
Looking out the rain flecked Perspex, down below I caught the line of the French coast as it slid beneath our wing. It was just past midnight and " black as Toby's ....," ahead. We were all relieved to be on our way back to base at Scampton, Lincolnshire, and all in one piece. At this stage, Jack Munday, our flight engineer was in the right-hand jump seat next to me, chattering over something or just keeping a look-out in the starboard area, until we would be well over the Channel and hopefully clear of coastal flak or JU-88's, (German night-fighters.)
It was January 8, 1945, and the fifth mission of our tour. I was ready to pull out the Cadbury bars, which along with a shot of coffee usually hit the spot about this time, after the "dry mouth" adrenalin stretch over the Target. But Jack, our volunteer coffee pourer, was doing his busy-beaver routine at the wall panel which showed our fuel condition, etc. I could see him crouched on his haunches, tapping gauges and apparently not happy about something.
Suddenly I realized that he had been concerned and had made a comment shortly after we had left the Ruhr, (in his Norwich accent) to all who cared to listen. that "the old kite was burning more petrol ........., a lot more than usual, but not to worry..." Now his voice came on the intercom, loud and a bit high-pitched, "Skip, ... Fellows.. I, ... We have a problem! We can make it nicely, by my calculations, but not to Base. This bloody kite (our usually dependable 'H') is going through petrol like s... through a goose, ....!" His voice trailing off. Harv Gottfried, our navigator ( and senior man), came on "blower," suggesting he'd have a firm compass course for me in a minute, "but to fly 335 degrees magnetic for now." That should head us towards the emergency drome at Manston, near Margate on the nearest tip of the southeast coast of England. A fast natter with Jack, then between us throttles and pitch were set for most economical cruise and best altitude to maintain for the four big Merlins droning reassuringly outside our dimmed out aircraft.
Mike Chalk, our wireless operator, sent his signal to Base, a brief emergency report for the "Brass," It was now quite evident that we were running into a very unexpected head wind and a major weather front.
Ernie Croteau, down in the bomb aimer's "basement" in the nose, confirmed our time of crossing the French coast with Harv and once again assured us that there were no bomb hangups. We had delivered them "all" on Target, according to "the quiet man from Kapuskasing!"
We hadn't heard from Burke Thomas in the mid-upper turret, other than his Utah-Cardston drawl answering his teammate-tailgunner, "Size 14" (feet that is) George Stow, of Manitoba, Manitoba, fame. No panic calls for me to "DIVE PORT SKIP!" for the start of the "corkscrew" manoeuvre for avoiding an initial German might-fighter attack. Not tonight, looks like we've got enough trouble just trying to stay out of the "Drink."
We had been on time at the Marshalling Yard target and our bomb load went down as called for by the Master Bomber, just ahead of the target indicators, where the first wave of Lance and Hallies had obscured the actual target. Ernie had sounded his usual confident self as his "bombs gone" shout came up from his brightly lit cage.
Now we waited for the English coastline to come up. Hoping like hell that our many times practiced ditching procedure wouldn't become reality tonight!
"So Harv, how does it look?" I ask. He summarises confirmed by Mike on the radio and Jack on the gas gauges. "We're bucking a high head wind (not predicted by the meteorological dept.)...we'll have to nurse the engines to stretch a low fuel situation as far as possible...bloody hell!"
On course toward Manston, the first glimmer of light was a miniature checkerboard way off in the distance, through turbulent black cloud, long before we saw the coast. What a temptation it was to give the old Merlins full power to speed us at maximum to the little bull's-eye. Forget that, as it would be madness, confirmed by Jack's reports on his "juggling and balancing" act with our rapidly depleting fuel supply. Silence now reigned as we allowed him to concentrate fully on getting us there without any of the four big engines coughing out. I had the "feathering" procedure jumping around in my head, my right hand was ready to hit the correct button. The original tiny lighted square grew beautifully in size and intensity, while appearing and disappearing alarmingly as the Lancaster rode the turbulence toward Margate Holiday Beach.
Jack hollered that it looked like we had several gallons left, and if "they" didn't cut out as we went over the beach in our dive for the aerodrome beyond (about 3 miles), "we might just get lucky as usual!"
The Manston people below had the FIDO. (Fog Intensive Dispersal Of) on. Always, everything described in a backwards manner. This was a complete necklace of burning gas around the huge mile square asphalt landing area, burning a beautiful bright light and dispelling the ground fog and rain. I brought our plane in very fast and low over the edge of the field, dumping the throttles in the process. Waited impatiently for the speed to burn off, then down went the under carriage and flap...told George to "drag his feet at the rear." We finally touched down...a three pointer!
As we taxied in, the nicest Christmas snowflakes started drifting down between us and the land rover that had arrived to lead us clear of the huge "parking lot" runway. By the next morning a foot of snow covered the base, and we had a lovely five-day holiday from the war. We held our lucky hand to the end of our tour and of the war.