Things didn’t get off to a promising start when I met Col Fraser. It was October last year, and I was fishing for IBCC interviewees at the Empire Air Training Scheme luncheon in Melbourne.
“I was”, Col said when I asked if he had been in Bomber Command. A navigator, in fact, with 460 Squadron. But he politely declined my request for an interview, saying “I gave most of my stuff to the people in Canberra a few years ago and I think I’ve told my story enough. Besides, I didn’t do much anyway.” Disappointed but respectful of his decision, I thanked him for his time and moved on to see who I could find at the next table.
But about fifteen minutes later, when I was talking to another veteran in another corner of the room, Col came lurching up to me out of the shadows. “Adam!” he announced. “I’ve changed my mind.”
“That’s great”, I said.
“Yeah, I got shot down on Anzac Day 1945 so I thought I should say something.”
I’ll say. Anzac Day, 1945. The day of Bomber Command’s final raids of the war. And the day of Bomber Command’s final losses. Col Fraser, as it turned out, was in the second last Lancaster to be lost during WWII. And one clear spring day a few weeks later, he told me about it.
25 April 1945 was, as Col remembers it, a lovely day:
“Beautiful blue sky, no clouds, green fields and lakes and rivers down below, and on the right was the majestic Alps with snow shining on their tops. Absolute picture-book.”
Under the command of Flying Officer HG ‘Lofty’ Payne, Col and his crew were off on a daylight trip to visit ‘Hitler’s hangout’ near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps.
On a mountain overlooking the town of Berchtesgaden were mountain retreats and chalets belonging to elite members of the Nazi Party like Herman Göring, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer. Hitler’s own alpine lodge known as the Berghof was also there, and an SS barracks was nearby. While it is now known that Hitler himself was in Berlin at the time of the raid, there were very real fears that fanatical Germans would set up a mountain redoubt for a bitter and bloody last stand centred around the Berghof. So more than 300 bombers were sent to destroy it.
Approaching the target, Col got up from his navigator’s position and moved into the cockpit to have a look at the view. The flak looked light to moderate; “no worries,” he said. Then the bomb aimer took over:
“He said, ‘left, left’ and then ‘bombs gone, bomb doors closed’ – and as he finished that word we were hit.”
Something flew up past Col’s face and out over the roof, and when he looked down there was a jagged hole in the bundle of Window which was stashed under his navigator’s desk. The decision to come out of his little ‘office’ saved his life, at least for the moment – but they were not safe yet. The “light to moderate” flak had scored a direct hit, and though none of the crew were injured three of the Lancaster’s engines were destroyed. The pilot told everyone to get out.
“But we can’t do that Lofty,” said the flight engineer, “we’re over Germany!” Nobody wanted to jump while they still had a chance of making it back to the Allied lines. But then that last engine also gave up the ghost. “We were gliding”, said Col, “and we had to go.” And so out Col went.
Col Fraser always wanted to be a navigator. He reckons he’s not very good with his hands but was skilled with figures and calculations. And while actually flying an aeroplane could be “deadly” boring, as a navigator he’d be working steadily all flight. He got his wish, was selected for navigator training and earned his N brevet in Australia in February 1944. Then he went to war.
Like so many Australians Col crewed up at 27 Operational Training Unit, Lichfield. He’d run into a mate named Dan Lynch, a Tasmanian bomb aimer with whom he had been training in Australia, and they decided to fly together. “We discussed having a pilot and decided we wanted one who was big and strong, and he had to be mature – about 23 or 24 years old!” The man they chose was West Australian Harry ‘Lofty’ Payne, so-called because he was 6’3 tall. The wireless operator Bill Stanley was from Melbourne and both gunners, ‘Shorty’ Connochie and ‘Buck’ Bennett, were Sydney lads.
After their very first flight in a Wellington, the instructor got out and told ‘Lofty’ to take it up for three more circuits. “Well we took off and landed twice,” Col recalled, “and the third time as we reached height the port engine failed.” This, I’ve learned, was not an uncommon occurrence with the battered old Wellingtons then found on OTUs. And they were in a particularly old one: when Col operated the emergency landing gear extension system it also disabled the aircraft’s hydraulics, a quirk that had been engineered out of later versions of the aeroplane. So having struggled around the circuit, when the pilot tried to lower the flaps for landing nothing happened.
“He finished up banging the aircraft down halfway down the strip, and we ran through the fence, across a road, through the fence on the other side and a bush or two, and finished up in a ditch with the [aircraft’s] back broken and up in the air.”
They all managed to walk away virtually uninjured, and the following day they were flying again. This experience left Col confident that he had made a good choice: “We’ve got a bloody good pilot who didn’t panic!”
Col learned an important lesson on another night at OTU when the heating failed in his Wellington, forcing him to work with frozen hands. As a result his navigation log was not up to the usual standard, a judgement communicated to Col in no uncertain terms by the chief navigation instructor. Col protested that given the circumstances it wasn’t too bad. But the instructor disagreed:
“In Bomber Command there are no excuses.”
Col says this lesson stayed with him for the rest of the war.
Col enjoyed England. It was “comforting”, he said (and of course they spoke his language!). One of the great things about being an Australian airman in England was that “there were no Australian army troops to stuff it up… by and large the Australians over there were middle class and educated, and were very popular with the local girls…”, he added with a twinkle in his eye. On leave, he and a small group of friends would obtain railway warrants to either Lands End or John O’Groats, which are at the extreme opposite ends of Britain. This would enable them to get off the train, unplanned, anywhere they wished to explore.
Col flew his first operation in March 1945, attacking a place near Cologne called Brück. The flak was fairly heavy over the target, and Col gave me an impression of his bomb aimer’s reaction after his first run into a target: “Left left”, he said, “steady… steaaaady… bombs gone, bomb doors closed (and here his voice rose an octave)… LET’S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”
“I must admit that the rest of the crew, including me, was feeling the same way that he was,” Col said. “This is no place to be, for us nice blokes!”
On the way home, over France, an ack-ack shell went straight through one wing, leaving a jagged hole but failing to explode. They returned home shaken but unharmed, feeling “a bit guilty at bringing back an aircraft with a hole in the wing… as if we’d been a bit careless about the whole thing!”
Over the next few weeks Col and his crew would fly another five operations, during which they would be coned over Potsdam and recalled while over the target but before they could drop their bombs on a trip to Bremen, necessitating a hazardous landing back at base with a full load on board. And then came Berchtesgaden – Col’s seventh trip.
After parachuting from his aircraft Col landed on a field near a couple of houses. He unbuckled his harness and left it there, attempting to hightail it into a nearby clump of trees. But the occupants of the houses had watched him come down, and pointed him out to the Volksturm. Col was arrested and taken to an Army camp, and over the next few hours the rest of the crew trickled in (except for the bomb aimer who – the first one out of the aircraft – landed in the foothills of the Alps and was captured by mountain troops).
The most amazing story, however, belongs to ‘Lofty’ Payne. After everyone else had jumped, Payne was about to leave the cockpit himself when the rear gunner appeared behind the pilot, carrying his open parachute. He had caught the ripcord on something as he came forward, and the parachute was now useless. Deciding he couldn’t leave the gunner to his fate, ‘Lofty’ made the risky decision to try to land his crippled aircraft. Fuel was sloshing over the floor as they glided down towards a cornfield. A powerline clipped the top off the rudders but they managed to crash in a more or less controlled fashion, exited smartly and ran, expecting an explosion at any moment. None came – it seems the ploughed earth had put out the flames. They were arrested shortly afterwards.
Col and his crew were taken to Stalag VIIa at Moosburg, where after perhaps the shortest time as Prisoners of War ever, on 29 April 1945 elements of the American 14th Division arrived and liberated the camp. General Patton himself arrived on the front of a truck on 1 May, where with a hundred photographers and correspondents surrounding him he promised that all the prisoners would be back in England in two or three days. In the end it took closer to a week (Col was in the camp under the Americans for longer than he was under the Germans), but eventually they were transported to the great airfield at Juvencourt to be flown home in a DC-3. Col sat up the front with the pilot – a New Zealander with whom he had trained at an Advanced Flying Unit in the UK six months before. “All the debris of war was still spread out across the countryside,” he said. “You could see what war had done…”
Col was one of the more organised of the veterans I’ve interviewed. When I’d turned on the microphones in a small sitting room in the great big old nursing home where he lives, he pulled out a thick sheaf of papers – and began reading from a prepared speech. I suppose he wanted to make sure he didn’t forget anything. It worked, because he told his remarkable story in detail and in an entertaining way.
But as happens in these sort of interviews, it’s the unscripted answers that are sometimes more revealing. “The thing that hurt most of all,” Col said when I asked him about the legacy of Bomber Command, “was Churchill deserting Bomber Command.”
“…not one word, one way or the other, was [mentioned] in Churchill’s speech of the Victory over Germany. That hurt most of all… When the war was close to finishing, all of a sudden all the … bishops were saying ‘oh we shouldn’t have bombed… bombing’s not supposed to be that, it’s only supposed to be drop a little bit in their garden or something – look at all the houses you’ve knocked down!’”
“The point is that it should always be remembered,” Col said.
And who can disagree with that?
(c) 2016 Adam Purcell