My imagined view of the start of the Lille raid on 10 May 1944 – 77 years ago tonight. This post was published at 21:57, the time that B for Baker took off from Waddington.
The slim, nuggetty Australian pilot watched as his flying jacket-clad crew got up. At 27 years of age, with short dark wavy hair and a calm, matter-of-fact way of speaking, Phil was a highly experienced and respected airman, the only man among his crew to be on his second tour of operations.
He watched the other six men as they climbed the short metal ladder into the fuselage of the great black-painted bomber. They were a good crew, he thought to himself. He had been a little worried about how they’d receive him when he had first joined them at the conversion unit. They had already been together for several months and had developed into a tight little group. They had met at an operational training unit and had trained together before eventually being posted to their first operational squadron. But before they’d had a chance to start their own tours, their original pilot went on a familiarisation flight to Berlin and didn’t come back. So they’d been sent back to a conversion unit. There, they were a crew looking for a pilot, and he was a pilot looking for a crew. It was inevitable, really, that they’d be allocated to each other. Luckily, Phil thought as he climbed the short ladder into the fuselage of the bomber, they turned out to be a good bunch of chaps and had quickly accepted him as the leader of the crew. He’d now been flying with them for almost six months, and he was proud of how they’d developed.
Phil took a small step up onto the catwalk on top of the roof of the aircraft’s cavernous bomb bay, then squeezed past the machinery of the mid-upper turret, stooping slightly as he climbed the slight incline. Then he clambered over the spars, the two massive steel structures that ran across the fuselage and into each wing to carry the heavy loads imposed on the structures during flight.
He squeezed down the tight passageway along the side of the fuselage, the dangling parachute pack hanging from his harness and banging against the backs of his thighs as he went. He straightened up as he emerged into the great Perspex glasshouse of the Lancaster’s cockpit, the instrument panel glowing in the last rays of the setting sun. In front and to his left, mounted on a slightly raised platform, was the single pilot’s seat.
Reaching for a yellow-painted handle on the top of the windscreen frame, he pulled himself up and into the seat. It had armrests that folded down and a little cushioning on the backrest, but otherwise the seat was completely devoid of creature comforts. It didn’t even have a cushion to sit on. Instead, the parachute pack – which hung behind Phil’s thighs when he was standing – nestled into a deep metal bucket at the base of the seat when he sat down. They didn’t design these things for comfort, he thought to himself as he settled in.
The parachute pack on which he was now perched included an emergency dinghy that had a metal compressed gas bottle for inflation in case of a water landing. No matter how much he squirmed during a flight, that gas bottle always found its way precisely under Phil’s tailbone. He remembered how it felt a few weeks ago when they returned from an operation to Munich. On that occasion he’d been strapped tightly to that blessed gas bottle for more than ten hours.
Luckily tonight’s trip was only short, he thought. Just three and a half hours out and back.
A piece of cake.
In memory of the crew of 467 Squadron Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, who failed to return from the Lille raid on 10 May 1944. Phil Smith was the crew’s only survivor.
(c) 2021 Adam Purcell