460 Squadron’s Wanne-Eickel raid in 1944

Flying Lancaster Bombers from 460 Squadron Binbrook 1943-44
The story of a raid by 460 Squadron on Wanne-Eickel on the 9 November 1944. This raid incorporated Bomber Command’s experimental Base Column formation and was the raid that Laurie Woods, our current 460 Squadron’s president, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.


Background to the Wanne-Eickel raid

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Wanne-Eickel 1944

Wanne-Eickel was a small city in the Ruhr between Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen. Its interest to Bomber Command lay mainly in its possession of a Krupps synthetic oil refinery, a GAVEG chemical factory and the Hannibal coal mine.

An early raid was staged on the night of the 22/23 November 1940 but it was not until after D-Day in the latter half of 1944 that it received serious attention. It was then that Bomber Command launched a concentrated offensive against Germany’s synthetic oil production.
We did two trips to Wanne-Eickel both of which were somewhat memorable but for different reasons.
The first was a daylight raid on the 9th November. The ‘powers that be’, either at Base or at Group Headquarters, had been experimenting with the concept of a Base Column: a loose ‘gaggle’ of planes flying behind a leading ‘vic’.
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Lancasters in formation

The Americans, of course, always flew in formation and they were perhaps considered the experts in daylight bombing because that was what they always did and had done since the entry of their 8th Air Force into the European theatre from their bases in Britain in August 1942.

The R.A.F. had abandoned daylight raids early in the war after disastrous results particularly in the Augsburg raid on 17 April 1942 when German fighters shot down seven out of twelve Lancasters. They did not resume them until after D-Day by which time the Allies had such superiority in numbers and types of daylight fighters that, within  range, our fighters could give the bombers adequate protection.
The Base and Group Column was the British attempt to emulate the Americans and for the same reason: to keep the planes together and achieve a greater concentration of bombs on the target.
Air Commodore A M Wray www.rafweb.org

At least one other attempt at a Base Column had been made before the Wanne-Eickel raid and that was on the 6th November against Gelsenkirchen. The official Squadron comment was that “the new Base Column procedure was not altogether successful. Formation was satisfactory to the target, but the leaders lagged too far behind over the target and then put on too much speed (presumably through the target) to make formation practicable on return.” (1)

The leaders, on this occasion, did not come from 460 and, maybe, it was decided to give 460 a go next time to see if they could do any better. The fact that the Base Headquarters was at Binbrook and that the Base Commander, Air-Commodore (Hoppy) Wray (2), had a closer contact with our crews than he did with those of Walthan/Grimsby or Kelstern, the other 12 Base Stations, may also have contributed to the decision.

The night of the raid

In the event, Bob Henderson (3), the “B” Flight Commander, was chosen to lead and Clarrie Gardner (4) and myself were to be the other members of the ‘vic’. Both Bob and Clarrie were second tour men and I was on my 19th trip so, why I was chosen I do not know. Our respective planes had their tail fins painted red so that others in  the column could  recognise us as leaders and, no doubt, so that we could recognise one another.
We took off independently, found each other over Base and headed slowly for Skegness on the coast just North of The Wash.We were flying on Bob’s left. The other planes of the column, twenty-three from Binbrook, caught up and fell in behind and the column was decently formed by the time we left Skegness, climbing steadily on the next leg to Orfordness, on the coast East of Cambridge, and towards our briefing height of 20,000 feet.
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The crew from left to right – Ian Hall (engineer), Henry Baskerville (pilot), Harry Ellis (wireless operator), Jack Golding (mid upper gunner), Jack McQueen (rear gunner), Jack Trist (bomb aimer) and Fred Smith (navigator).
But at 14,000 feet we entered thick cloud. I lost sight of Bob despite the fact that our formation was reasonably tight. One could only assume that he would maintain his course but, to leave a reasonable margin for error, I edged off to the left a little and then maintained course and speed. I expected that, when we broke through the top of the cloud, it would be easy to form up again.
None of us knew that the cloud would persist up to 22,000 feet and that we would never be out of it until we reached the target. So much for a Base Column! As we climbed higher so did the temperature drop. It fell to 26 degrees below zero. The windscreen frosted up both outside and in. We were able to activate a jet of glycol to clear the outside but the inside could be cleared only by immersing a cloth in glycol and wiping it across the screen. Ian Hall, the Engineer, produced the cloth and glycol from somewhere and it was then the task of Ross McMaster (5) to keep up the wiping.
McMaster was flying with me on his ‘ops familiarisation’ trip. When a new crew arrived on the Squadron, the pilot always did his first trip as a passenger with an experienced crew. The intention was to give him, at least, some indication of what an operation was like before he had to take his own crew on their first. I suppose it had value, depending on the trip. I did my first trip with Arch Campbell (6): a night attack on Keil.
I saw searchlights and flak, the planes all crowding together above the aiming point. I heard reports from the gunners of fighters being seen, whether or not they were, and I experienced the workings of a crew in battle conditions. Yes! I think my trip was worthwhile.
But for Ross! all he saw was cloud and when we arrived over the target there was no aiming point: all we could do was drop our bombs as Fred steered us in on his H2s Radar set. The fact that there was some flak bursting in the cloud was an indication that we were close to something of significance.

Coming home behind Laurie Woods

The Laurie Woods story

We turned for home and I began to lose height. There was no point in flying all the way home in cloud if I could get underneath it. We probably broke clear at the 14,000 feet mark and found ourselves flying, still in relative ‘murk’ over the fields of Holland. In the distance, below me, I spotted another Lancaster and, thinking it might be Bob or Clarrie, I tried to catch up. But, no matter how much I increased my speed, it  kept going away from me. Eventually I gave up. There was no point in putting our engines under stress just for the sake of company on the way home.

After we got home we learned something. The pilot of the plane we were chasing was Ted Owen (7). He had been hit in the face, on the cheek bone, by a flak splinter; his left eye ball had fallen out of its socket; and he was in no condition to fly the plane.
Laurie Woods (8), his bomb-aimer, got into the seat and, at full speed headed the plane for the emergency landing ground at Manston in Kent.
Lancasters carried no second-pilots but we always taught our bomb-aimers to, at least, fly the plane in the air. They were not experienced or skilled enough to land a plane but, if they could get the plane home, they could head it on a course out to sea with ‘George’ the auto-pilot engaged and everyone could bale out. That, at least, was the theory.
In this case, they did not need such drastic action. Phil Coffey (9), the Navigator and Squadron Navigation Officer , a second tour man, administered first-aid to the wounded pilot and, by the time they had reached Manston, he was able to get back into the seat and land the plane.

Laurie is today the former President of our 460 Squadron Association and he still re-lives this experience. He is always keen to remind me that we tried to catch him and couldn’t. Their plane was K2. We took it on our next Wanne-Eickel raid on the 18th November. This trip is the subject of another account. Ross McMaster and his crew flew on this raid and another crew was lost; the pilot was P/O Walter (10) . K2 was lost with another crew on 6th December on a trip to Merseburg to bomb another oil refinery; P/O Walter was the pilot.

Bob and Clarrie and I led another column, this time a Group column of 51 aircraft, on 27th December. The target was Rheydt. In certain respects, this was more successful and it is the subject of another account. As far as this first attempt is concerned, the comment in my log-book sums it up as “a hopeless failure due to poor met forecast.”

References


1.460 Squadron ’Operation Record Book’ Form 541
2.A/Cdre A.M.Wray, DSO, MC (16/8/17), DFC and BAR, AFC (1/1/19),MD (1/1/43, 1/1/45, 1/1/46) VM5 (24/7/42)
3.S/L J.R.Henderson, DSO, DFC – Sqn Ldr J. R. Henderson DFC, of Mosman, NSW is to the right of Group Captain Parsons (gloveless, holding a pipe) in the center of the front row .
4.S/L C.C.Gardner, DFC and BAR
5.P/O R.F.McMaster, KIA 21/11/44
6.F/O A.W. Campbell, DFC
7.F/L E.C. Owen, DFC
8.F/O L. W.Woods, DFC
9.F/L P. J. Coffey, DFC, DFM
10.P/O P.O.Walter
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