The crew of B for Baker were posted to 467 Squadron on the last day of 1943. They arrived at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, on the first day of 1944. It follows therefore that 2014 marks seventy years since the crew were operational. To mark this anniversary, I’ve planned a special project to be published on SomethingVeryBig over the next few months: 467 Postblog.
Drawing from a range of sources I’ve compiled a timeline, or a daily diary if you will, looking at events in Bomber Command as a whole and RAF Waddington and the crew of B for Baker in particular during the time that they were on the squadron. From tomorrow I’ll be publishing a post almost every day, following their story from the time they arrived in January 1944 until the fateful Lille operation some four and a half months later.
This period encompasses a good cross-section of Bomber Command operations, and includes some very significant raids. In the first couple of months we will see the crescendo of the Battle of Berlin, with the last mass raid on that city taking place on 23 March amongst a larger campaign of mass city-busting attacks. A week after the final Berlin raid comes the infamous Nuremberg operation. As we move into April, we will see how Bomber Command’s strategies change, in line with the Transportation Plan and other operations aimed at preparing the way for the planned invasion of occupied Europe. While the occasional large raid still happens on a big city like Munich in the latter part of April, for most of that month and the early part of May attacking forces become smaller, trips become shorter and marking techniques become increasingly more accurate. The changing tactics make this a particularly useful and interesting period to look at in some detail.
There were significant periods early on – in early February in particular – where the weather badly affected the bomber offensive. And it was a very long war so there were also days when, simply, nothing much of note happened. So there will be a few days for which I will summarise events into a single post – but all the important ones, particularly the operations in which any member of the crew was involved, will have their own entry to be published seventy years to the day after the events it covers. There will be descriptions of the big events of the time, but also some discussion of everyday life on the squadron and, where the information is available, what the crew themselves got up to.
Almost a year in the making, this is a type of project well-suited to digital publication. Sections will be added in close to real time and the whole project will grow as time goes by.
While the Imperial War Museum undergoes significant redevelopment in preparation for the centenary of the First World War, some of its bigger and most well-known exhibits have been removed from its main site on Lambeth Road in London and temporarily installed at Duxford. Among them is the forward section of a rather significant Lancaster.
Avro Lancaster Mk I DV372 of 467 Squadron flew its first operation on 18 November 1943. The target was Berlin. Over the next seven months the aircraft would fly on 50 raids,  including the entire Battle of Berlin period, the infamous Nuremberg Raid and the Transportation Plan operations on French railway targets in the lead-up to D-Day. Old Fred, as it was known on account of its squadron code letters PO-F, was on the strength of 467 Squadron at the same time as the crew of B for Baker, and indeed Phil Smith and most of his crew took it on its 16th trip, to Berlin on 28 January 1944. But the man with whom Old Fred is probably most associated is Flight Lieutenant Arnold Easton, a 467 Squadron navigator who flew 20 trips in the aircraft from March until May 1944. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Arnold’s logbook a few years ago. Befitting his civilian career as a civil engineer, it is one of the most detailed and comprehensive wartime logbooks I’ve seen and forms the basis of a book, We Flew Old Fred – The Fox, compiled by Arnold after the war.
After its front-line service it appears that the aircraft was damaged in an accident, requiring repairs that took several months to complete. It was sent to 1651 Conversion Unit where it saw out the war before being broken up in October 1945. Happily someone thought to save the nose section which eventually is how it became part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum. It was one of three Lancasters I ‘visited’ while in the UK in 2009.
Among the people I met at the recent Bomber Command Panel Discussion event held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne was Arnold’s son Geoff. As well as discussing the intriguing possibility of reissuing his father’s book (now out of print and extremely difficult to get hold of), Geoff told me a lovely story of what happened when he was in the UK in June 2013.
Like many surviving Bomber Command aircrew, Arnold kept some bits and pieces relating to his wartime service when he returned to Australia. Geoff used to play with his flying helmet, putting it on and pretending to connect the intercom cable, with its distinctive bell-shaped Bakelite plug, into an imaginary ‘aeroplane’. Somehow it never stayed plugged in.
Since his father’s death some years ago, Geoff and his wife decided to donate his leather flying helmet and metal circular navigational computer to the Imperial War Museum, unique relics with a direct connection to Old Fred. They arranged to take the artefacts to Duxford where the IWM’s Andy Marriott is taking the opportunity, while it is out of London, to clean and conserve the remains of the aeroplane. Indeed, Andy asked Geoff at one stage whether his father had chewed gum. While ferreting around in various locations under the navigator’s position he had found some lolly wrappers, a chewed-up wad of gum and a NAAFI form with aerodrome weather written on it:
Andy allowed Geoff and his wife to crawl into the aeroplane through the bomb aimer’s escape hatch in the nose. They then used the yellow handrails on the side of the fuselage to move up underneath the flight engineer’s position into the cockpit proper. There, just behind the pilot’s seat, was the navigator’s bench and, tucked in underneath it, attached to a swinging arm, the unpadded metal bucket chair in which Geoff’s father sat for twenty operations over enemy territory. Pulling the chair out, Geoff sat down and placed the helmet on the desk. He looked around, soaking up the atmosphere. Among the instruments and equipment remaining in the cramped compartment, hanging from the bulkhead to his left was a rather familiar-looking bell-shaped Bakelite plug. Could it be?
Geoff picked up the end of the intercom cable on the helmet. He pushed the two bell-shaped plugs together.
There was a snug click.
For the first time in nearly 70 years, the flying helmet was reunited with Old Fred.
Geoff stood up, stooping somewhat under the low roof of the fuselage. He exited the aeroplane the same way he came in, leaving his father’s flying helmet on the desk.
The Pathfinders of Bomber Command used a variety of techniques and tactics when marking targets for the Main Force. These were all referred to by codewords. Here is an alphabetical glossary of some of the many Pathfinder terms I’ve come across in the course of my research:
Backers-Up: Pathfinder crews scattered through the Main Force who dropped secondary target indicators (usually green) visually on the red primary target indicators. This was aimed at ensuring that the target remained marked for the entire attack, even after the primary markers had burnt themselves out.
Blind Marking: Aiming bombs or target markers by means other than visually – usually referring to the use of an electronic aid like H2S, Oboe or Gee.
Blind Marker-Illuminators: First Pathfinder aircraft on the scene during a NEWHAVEN attack who used H2S to drop illuminating flares and target indicators (usually green or yellow). The light provided by the flares could then be used by the Visual Markers.
Controller: Officer who is in R/T contact with the Pathfinder Markers and Illuminators, and W/T contact with the rest of the Main Force. The Controller decides which markers are accurate and instructs the Main Force crews accordingly.
Emergency Parramatta: Used where the Visual Markers could not see the aiming point due to cloud or haze. They would hold on to their markers and the Backers-Up would instead aim their secondary target indicators on the markers dropped by the Blind Marker-Illuminators.
Emergency Wanganui: Pathfinder aircraft carried a single WANGANUI flare for use where unexpected heavy cloud precluded the use of ground markers.
H2S: Airborne ground-mapping radar carried by bombers. Could distinguish built-up areas and most effective where a clearly-defined feature – such as a coastline – existed.
Illumination: Dropping of parachute flares to light up the target area, enabling the aiming point to be identified visually by Pathfinders or by the Main Force. Carried out by the Flare Force.
Main Force: ‘Ordinary’ rank-and-file Bomber Command crews.
Markers: Generic term for Target Indicators or Wanganui makers. Confusingly, could also refer to the crews actually doing the marking.
MUSICAL: Prefix codeword for raids marked by crews (usually in Mosquitos) using OBOE. Distributing marking Mosquitos throughout the bomber stream aimed to ensure that the target was always marked by primaries. Eg MUSICAL NEWHAVEN, MUSICAL PARRAMATTA or MUSICAL WANGANUI.
MPI: Mean Point of Impact. The estimated ‘centre’ of a cluster or target indicators, sky markers or bombs.
NEWHAVEN: A method of ground-marking whereby the target was first located by Blind Marker-Illuminators, then backed up by Visual Markers dropping Target Indicators. Since the markers were aimed visually this could only be used with clear weather prevailing over the target. If a Newhaven attack was impossible an Emergency Parramatta would be used instead.
OBOE: Navigation/blind-bombing aid using beams from two base stations in England. Extremely accurate but could be used by only a small number of aircraft at a time, so was used primarily to drop target markers.
PARRAMATTA: Classic area bombing technique where the primary markers (red or yellow) were dropped on the target by H2S-equipped Blind Markers. Backers-Up would then aim their (usually green) Target Indicators at the MPI of those primary markers for the benefit of the Main Force.
Primary Markers: Target Indicators or flares aimed at the Aiming Point itself. As opposed to Secondary Markers.
Release-point flares: Parachute flares, usually red with green stars or green with red stars, used in WANGANUI attacks. Also called skymarkers.
Secondary markers: Target Indicators or flares aimed at Primary markers. Dropped by Backers-Up to keep the target marked before the primaries burned out.
SUPPORTERS: Experienced Main Force crews briefed to go over the target and bomb at the same time as the leading Pathfinders, to ‘swamp’ the defences and make it difficult for radar-predicted flak to lock onto one individual aircraft.
Target Indicators: Ground markers consisting of a small bomb case which was set to burst at a certain height above the ground (3,000, 6,000 or 10,000ft), scattering up to 60 small ‘candles.’ The candles then ignited and cascaded slowly to the ground. Once on the ground they continued burning with a distinctive colour – red, green or yellow. Most burned for about three minutes but some burned, less brilliantly, for up to seven. Called ‘Christmas trees’ by the Germans.
Visual Markers: Pathfinder crews that identified the aiming point visually, and dropped their own markers (usually red) on it. Usually the most experienced crews in the Pathfinders.
WANGANUI: Blind bombing skymarking technique used when aiming point is covered in cloud. H2S-equipped aircraft dropped parachute flares and the Main Force aimed at the flares themselves (or the MPI of the flares if they were being scattered by the wind), bombing on a pre-arranged heading. Not terribly accurate and very susceptible to the wind. Flares used could variously be referred to as ‘skymarkers’, ‘release point flares’ or, simply, ‘Wanganuis’.
On Tuesday a large crowd of at least 150 people gathered at the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne to take part in perhaps the largest of the events to be held in conjunction with the Bomber Command exhibition currently showing at the Shrine. I was particularly looking forward to this one, and it didn’t disappoint.
The occasion was a Panel Discussion about Bomber Command, chaired by Air Vice Marshal Chris Spence (Retd), Chairman of the Shrine Trustees. The panel was made up of three veterans, covering the entire period from the beginning of the war to the end. Jack Bell was a Wireless/Air Gunner who served in the Middle East early in the conflict before being shot down in a Bristol Bombay and becoming a prisoner of war in Italy and then in Germany. Peter Isaacson was a Pilot with 460 and 156 Squadrons, later famous as the man who flew Lancaster Q for Queenie to Australia (and under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) on a War Bonds tour in 1943. And Maurie O’Keefe was a Wireless/Air Gunner who served with 460 Squadron at the tail end of the war.
With Air Vice Marshal Spence asking questions and gently prodding the veterans along, over the next fifty minutes or so the discussion covered the entire war: from enlistment to training to operations and beyond. Peter joined up, he said, after seeing a mannequin wearing an Air Force uniform in a recruitment display in the window of Myer in Bourke St, Melbourne. It was a very smart blue suit, he said, and he decided that he would like one of those. So he enlisted. Maurie concurred. “You used to go to dances,” he said, “and the girls made a bit of a fuss of you if you’d joined up… so that was the main attraction, really!”
The theme continued. Peter related a story of landing a Tiger Moth in a farmer’s field so he could sneak an illicit smoke while at 8 Elementary Flying Training School. Unfortunately he was seen by an overflying aircraft and was as a result confined to barracks, the indiscretion, he said slightly wistfully, “rather spoiling a little romance I had going with a girl in Narrandera…” Once aircrew, always aircrew.
But there were also some desperately sad stories. Jack was shot down after his aircraft stumbled over the German 15th Panzer Division in Libya. The navigator was killed in the ensuing crash and, after he returned to Australia following three years, three months and three days as a prisoner of war Jack went to visit his dead crewman’s family. He could see in the mother’s eyes the unasked question, ‘why my son and not you?’ It was, he said, the hardest thing he ever had to do.
Following the formal part of the discussion, the microphone was opened to questions from the floor. And there were some very good questions, too. One was relating to Schräge Musik, the fixed upward-firing guns fitted to nightfighters which were so devastatingly effective and utterly unsuspected by Bomber Command until quite late in 1944. What was it like, the questioner asked, to encounter Schräge Musik? Incredibly enough, a first-hand answer was available. In the audience were at least ten other veterans, and one of these – Jim Cahir – was actually in Stalag Luft III with Jack Bell. Jim’s aircraft was shot down by Schräge Musik over Germany one night. He first became aware of it – “too late, of course” – when shells started hitting his aircraft. Having someone there who, well, was there, gave the answer a real meaning and brought the subject home in a very personal and tangible way.
Inevitably at a public event of this nature the discussion eventually turned to Dresden and, as Peter Rees emphasised both in his book and in his talk last week, there were some passionate defences of the rationale and of the attack itself, both from the floor and the panel.
Following the discussion someone suggested organising a group photograph of all of the veterans present. In all there were thirteen in the photo, though I suspect one or two others may have slipped off before we had a chance to get everyone gathered near the front of the room. Unfortunately I was unable to get everyone’s names so only the following are identified in the photograph below: Back row, L-R: Peter Isaacson, Bruce Clifton, Wal McCulloch, [unknown], Gerald McPherson, Allan Beavis, John Wyke, Gordon Laidlaw, Jean Smith, Maurie O’Keefe. Front row, L-R: Bill Wilkie, Jack Bell, Jim Cahir Other veterans who were present but for whom I cannot match a name with a face were Jim Carr, Col Fraser and Ron Fitch. (If you are able to identify any of the unknowns in this photo, please get in touch)
The opportunity then arose to mix a little bit over a cup of tea. I knew a few veterans (among them Allan Beavis, a Mosquito navigator who I visited at home in Geelong earlier this year) but most were new to me. Most notably, I recognised a tiny golden caterpillar with ruby red eyes on Bill Wilkie’s tie. When I asked him about it he immediately opened his wallet and pulled out his Caterpillar Club membership card, which he carries around with him everywhere even today. He had been a 15 Squadron rear gunner flying out of Mildenhall when his Lancaster was shot down over Germany in January 1945.
There were of course other people to see as well. Robyn Bell was there and I finally got to meet Neil Sharkey, the curator at the Shrine responsible for the current Bomber Command exhibition. Happily I was also able meet a man named Geoff Easton. His father was Arnold Easton, a 467 Squadron navigator who was operating at much the same time that my great uncle Jack and his crew were at Waddington. Arnold’s logbook, which I have a copy of, is one of the most precise examples I’ve ever seen and has been a great help in my research so far. But apart from a few emails about five years ago I’d never actually met Geoff. We had a good chat and he offered to send me copies of his late father’s wartime correspondence and a few photos of a very special visit he made recently to what’s left of ‘Old Fred’, Lancaster DV372 in which Arnold completed 20 sorties (and Phil Smith flew at least once), at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford site. That will be the subject of a future post (it’s a wonderful story). Geoff has since sent me the files and I’m going to enjoy diving into them to see what nuggets come to the surface.
On my way out, I saw Gordon Laidlaw, the 50 Squadron pilot who I first met when visiting the exhibition a few weeks ago. He was waiting for his lift to arrive and I couldn’t resist one last photo of him: In all, a fantastic event. The Shrine of Remembrance has embraced the Bomber Command theme in the last few months and the interest from the public has been obvious, with big crowds turning out to the two events which I’ve been able to attend in the last week. Peter Rees said to me in an email after his talk last week, “It really feels like the book has tapped into something out there. Maybe people have long sensed [the airmen] were given a bum deal; if I’ve made it accessible for them to understand, then that’s a good outcome.”
The same could be said of the Shrine’s efforts over the last few months. It’s quite strange – but also very encouraging – to see big banners around the city of Melbourne emblazoned with the legend ‘BOMBER COMMAND’ with a photo of a crew in front of a Lancaster. It’s far too late for the vast majority of those who were there, of course, but while we still have some left, events and exhibitions like these allow the stories to be told and the memories to live on.
Download a podcast of the discussion from the Shrine websitehere.