Our First Operation was on “U” Uncle on 8th September 1944
There is a first time for everything and for me on 460 Squadron it was flying the Lancaster “U” Uncle on my first operation. This operation was on the German troop positions on the outskirts of Le Havre in France. Here is that story …
Introduction to 460 Squadron
460 Squadron was one of eighteen Australian Article XV Squadrons
, set up under the Empire Air Training Scheme (the EATS
), and that served with the Royal Air Force in the Air War of 1939 to 1945 against Germany and Italy. Of these eighteen squadrons, seven served at some time with Bomber Command and four of them, 460 in 1 Group, 463 and 467 in 5 Group and 466 in 4 Group, exclusively so.
From March 1942 till the end of the war these fought through the ‘heat and burden of the day’ (‘of the night’ would be more appropriate), particularly in the great offensives of 1943 and early 1944 against The Ruhr, Hamburg and Berlin, when ‘the levels of death and destruction’ (to quote Middlebrook and Everitt in ‘The War Diaries’), both in the air and on the ground, mounted dramatically.
My story deals with only a short phase in this total war which was the four months from the end of August to the end of December in 1944. At this stage the allies had air supremacy over the Luftwaff, targets were attacked by day and by night and, though there were still losses, just as grievous for those who suffered and for those who mourned, they were not to be compared, in number, with those suffered in the years referred to above.
But, we were proud to have played our part in a great Command, however it might be denigrated by the revisionists who were not there; to have upheld the honour and reputation of a great Squadron; and to have been numbered amongst that splendid company of men who willingly went in jeopardy of their lives.
“U” Uncle – My first Lancaster
#1 – “U” Uncle Lancaster by Mike Garbett and Brian Goulding
Our First Operation was on “U” Uncle on 8th September 1944 PB 407 arrived on the squadron from 32 Maintenance Unit in August 1944 and I saw it shot down over Emmerich on the 7th October 1944. It received a direct hit from incendaries falling from above which set its right wing on fire and, as it went cart-wheeling down, we counted seven parachutes opening as the crew bailed out; all of them became Prisoners of War. Eric Greenacre was the pilot on this occasion. He was a Flight Lieutenant, on his second tour and this was their fourth operation. After the war Eric became a doctor and practiced as a GP in Bathurst until the early 1980s.He died at Manly in December 1986.
But the plane really belonged to Tony Willis who, at the time, was “B Flight” Commander. We all had planes which we considered our own and generally, when we flew on ‘ops’, we flew in our particular plane. Sometimes, however, the plane might be in for a service and we would be allocated another; sometimes, when we were not on the Battle Order, some other crew would take our plane.
Each aircraft had its own ground crew to look after it: usually four aircraftmen under the control of an NCO. These men were responsible for maintaining the plane in a serviceable condition. One was an Engine Fitter, another an Airframe fitter another a rigger and the NCO was probably a jack of all trades. Generally they acquired as much a proprietary interest in their plane as did the aircrew.
“U” Uncle’s ground crew were under the control of Flight Sergeant Harry Tickle, probably the most senior of the Australian N.C.O’s on the station. He was quite an identity and the stories which were told concerning him became legendary. Eventually he was to fly home to Australia in “G” George,
the plane which is now in the Canberra War Museum.I can still recall the look on his face and the attitude of the other ground crew members on the morning of the 8th September 1944 as the tender disgorged our crew on the dispersal under the wing of “U” Uncle. We were to take this plane on our first operational flight – an early morning ‘milk run’ to Le Havre. To Harry Tickle and his men we were a ‘sprog’ crew, still wet behind the ears. In actual years we would have appeared to them as a bunch of boys. What perverse fate had entrusted their plane and the plane of a veteran flier like Tony Willis to a team such as this?
It was well known that the loss rate amongst crews during their first five ‘ops’ was higher than at any other time
during their tour. This was due to inexperience in many areas. The pilot might have only a little over ten hours flying time on the Lancaster; the other crew members are also just getting familiar with their equipment and their crew positions. None of them have any experience of battle conditions, of flying in a sky crowded with other aircraft to say nothing of enemy action: flak, searchlights, night-fighters.
David Sandell, a good friend of mine, was posted to 467 Squadron at Waddington, in 5 Group just weeks before I arrived at Binbrook. One of his earliest trips, his first as Captain with his own crew, was to Konigsburg in East Prussia
on 30th August 1944 – a target, at extreme range for a Lancaster, that was covered by low cloud when they got there which caused a twenty minute delay in opening the master bomber controlled attack. One hundred and eighty nine planes circling the target while German night- fighters sought them out. What a trip on which to send a new crew! Fifteen planes were lost and David’s was one of them.
We were to be part of a force of 333 aircraft predominantly Lancasters with some Mosquitoes and three Stirlings. This was to be the last occasion on which Stirlings were to carry out bombing operations. 460 was contributing 21 aircraft.
We took off soon after seven o’clock in driving rain and climbed to our cruising height of some 3,000 feet in cloud all the way. As we settled down on course to the south of England, I was unhappy about the conditions. There was nothing to be seen outside except the murk and I didn’t know what other aircraft might be groping their way through it close to us.
I climbed up a thousand or so feet but we were still in it. I decided then to come down and try to get under it. At 500 feet we were still in it. I crept lower and lower hoping for a break and conscious that I still had a hundred feet more than was shown on the altimeter to play with. Binbrook
was a hundred feet above sea level and we always set our altimeters at zero on the tarmac before take off.
But at 300 feet there was no change and I felt that I was stretching my luck to go any lower so I climbed back to 3,000 feet and stayed there. This is another example of how inexperienced pilots can get into trouble. I was taking greater risks of collision with all my climbing and descending than I would by staying where I was. Eventually the cloud dissipated in the south of England and steadily climbing to reach our bombing height of 6,000 feet we crossed the coast in clear air except that there was higher overcast and poorer visibility towards the ground.
Our target was German troop positions on the outskirts of Le Havre. They were defending the port and were being gradually pushed back, by British and Canadian Divisions, towards the city, into which they eventually entered and managed to hold out for another three days.
When we arrived at 0815 we could see the markers which had been dropped by the Pathfinders
burning on the ground. Jack Trist immediately began to give directions for the bombing run, I opened the bomb doors and we dropped our load of 13 thousand pounders
and four five hundred pounders. The bombs had hardly gone when we heard the voice of the Master Bomber declaring that the visibility was too poor to continue the attack and ordering all aircraft to take their bombs home.
When we got back and were being interrogated there was obvious concern on the part of the Intelligence Officer, Squadron Leader Leatherdale. He was a fine stamp of an Englishman and a pilot whose flying days were past because of his age. He fitted in well into the Australian scene and had an apparent sympathy
for the young men who flew in peril of their lives. His concern arose from several facts: one, that we were an
in-experienced crew on our first op; secondly, that the attack had been called off and yet we had bombed; and thirdly, that there had only recently been a disaster, when Bomber Command had dropped bombs on Canadian ground troops in the same area, with very serious repercussions: Our C/O, Wing Commander J.K.Douglas had lost his command as a result and so had every other commander whose squadron participated in that raid. As for the crews that bombed: they were henceforth relegated to
night raids only.
So it was with some degree of apprehension that he awaited the target photo which would show where our bombs had dropped. Jack Trist was sure we had no cause for concern as he had definitely bombed on the markers. Nevertheless, we were there with controlled eagerness as soon as the photos were released
and were relieved to be given a clean bill of health by an equally relieved Intelligence Officer.
The end of an earlier “U” Uncle
|#7 Image Source – “U” Uncle Binbrook
Here is a photo donated by P Patrick to the Australian War Memorial
that shows the moment when “U” Uncle disintegrate in a fireball.The huge column of smoke billowing over the dispersal area of the base was caused by exploding ordinance from ‘T’ Tommy (DV172) which had it’s entire bomb load accidentally released onto the ground on Binbrook station.’T’ Tommy’s 14 boxes of four pound incendiaries (with contact fuses), began to burn immediately but once the 4,000 pound ‘cookie’ exploded it disintegrated ‘T’ Tommy and nearby ‘U’ for Uncle.Substaintial damage was done to five other Lanacsters, later written off, and four others were holed to some degree, including ‘G’ George.Despite the devastation, no one was killed and Lancaster ‘G’ for George (W4783) was repaired and returned to operations on 14 August 1943.
#1 – This photo appears in a Book entitled “Lancaster at War 2” by Mike Garbett and Brian Goulding. They hold the copyright from 1979. The photographer was “E.D.Evans”. It is a safe bet that this is the plane I flew on that first raid.
#2 – Painting by: Brittain, Flight Lieutenant Miller Gore, 19710261-1436, Night Target, Germany
#3 – Image from home.st.net.au/~dunn/htickle1.jpg