A day in the life of a 460 Squadron bomber pilot

Flying Lancaster Bombers from 460 Squadron Binbrook 1943-44
An account of a day in the life of a 460 squadron pilot inspired by the inquiry of the niece of P/O Francis William Baker.

Background to Pilot Officer Francis William Baker

The niece of P/O Francis William Baker said:
“I knew my uncle (my mother’s brother) had been killed in WW2 and was buried somewhere in France. That was about it until I came across some papers at my parent’s house and found that he had trained in Florida.

With my husband and my brother, I began to research his RAF career and very quickly, thanks to the wonders of the internet, found the Clewiston Museum site and discovered that posted there were photographs of all the Course members. After some trawling we found him on Course 11. Number 5 British Flight Training School – Course 11

Frank went on to train as a Lancaster pilot and served with 460 Squadron (RAAF) based at Binbrook. Tragically he was killed on his first op (along with all his crew) during the disastrous raid on Mailly-le Camp, on the night of 3rd/4th May 1944. He and all his crew are buried in a beautiful churchyard at Dommartin-Letree. We have just returned from visiting their graves.

Can anyone help with more information?”

Crash site of Lancaster JB741 AR-J in Dommartin-Lettree France


Francis William Baker 54076 R.A.F. aged 21 was flying a Lancaster III serial JB741 code: AR-J the night he was killed. JB741 took off at 21.56 hrs from Binbrook, Lincolnshire to join an attack on a German tank training and repair facility near the town of Mailly-le-Camp, France. Seventeen aircraft from 460 (RAAF) Squadron were briefed. 17 x 4000 lb. bombs and 270 x 500 lb. bombs were carried. JB741 was one of six 460 Squadron Lancaster’s lost on the Mailly operation. A problem with the V.H.F. radio communications caused a delay in the raid which allowed the German fighters to arrive and bomber casualties were heavy. JB741 was shot down in the target area and crashed with a full bomb load at Dommartin-Lettree (Marne), 22kms SSW of Chalons –sur-Marne, France.

Also lost with Frank Baker that day were:
  • RCAF PO Thompson, W H (Navigator) 
  • RCAF Sgt W B Martin (Bomb Aimer) 
  • RAF Sgt G E O’Neill, (Wireless Operator Air) 
  • RAF Sgt J W Ranger (Flight Engineer) 
  • RAF Sgt W C Maxwell (Mid Upper Gunner) 
  • RAF Sgt H P Black (Rear Gunner) 

A day in the life …

I and my crew arrived at Binbrook on the 19th of August and eighteen days later I did my first operation. During this time we did a day cross-country, a night cross-country a fighter affiliation exercise, and I did my second-dickie trip to Keil. The last training station before arriving at Binbrook was RAF Helmswell where we spent only four days, being introduced to the Lancaster and doing a few training exercises that included a day and a night cross-country.
Prior to Helmswell we had been at Lindholme, the 1656 Conversion Unit, where we spent almost two months doing a much more intensive course in learning to fly the four-engined Halifax and, for all crew members, becoming familiar with equipment and its operation, such as we would be expected to use when on operations.
Although your Uncle Frank arrived on the Squadron four months earlier than us, I would expect that his lead-up to this big event would have been much the same as ours. His log-book, if that is accessible, would tell the story.
My 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).
Binbrook, I am sure, would have been much the same for him as we found it to be. On the station there was a Base Headquarters under the command of Air Commodore ‘Hoppy’ Wray, there was also a Station Headquarters under the Command of Group Captain ‘Hughie’ Edwards. The personnel in these two sections would have been little changed between Frank’s arrival and our own. Down the ranks there would have been hundreds, maybe a thousand or more of Ground Staff personnel, including a goodly company of WAAF officers and other ranks.
It was only the 460 Squadron personnel who would have been different. They, particularly the Air-Crew, were only passing through and would have stayed — those who survived — only long enough to complete their tour — in our case, just four months. The Ground-staff members would have stayed longer. They were almost all members of the RAF. The Sergeants in charge would, in most cases, been RAAF members. Approximately, at any one time, there may have been, at most, some 250 air-crew and, maybe, slightly more ground-crew.
The Commanding Officer of the Squadron when Frank arrived was Wing Commander H.D. Marsh, an Australian. By the time we arrived he had been transferred to 27 O.T.U at Lichfield and was replaced on the Squadron by Wing Commander A.K.Douglas, another Australian.
Frank and his crew were there for 11 days before going off on their first op. I would be surprised if, during these 11 days, they did not do some training exercises and, maybe, for Frank only, a trip as Second Pilot with a seasoned crew. Again, only his log-book would show this.
We were there for 17 days before we went off on our first op. and, during that time, we did a day and a night cross-country each of four hours and one fighter affiliation exercise of two hours. This involved, in co-operation with a Spitfire from nearby Ingham airfield, practicing the corkscrew as an evading measure to prevent the fighter from getting us within his sights.
Then, I went on my ‘second dickie’ trip to Keil with Arch Campbell and his crew. I have written about this in my other knoll.
All of this was standard practice for new crews whilst I was there.
On the 3rd May 1944 Frank would have left his quarters to have breakfast in the Officers’ Mess –the same mess that I frequented. He would probably have served himself from a table at the side, in front of the kitchen and then, if he wanted bacon and eggs, he would have got this from a kitchen hand who would have given it to him from the servery window. He would probably have shared a table with other eaters.
After breakfast, he may have made his way to the Flight Office where his Flight Commander was ‘playing host’ to other members of his flight. I was in ‘B’ Flight, one of the three flights of approximately 10 crews,that made up the Squadron complement of 30 aircraft. I usually did go up to the Flight Office, saluting Squadron Leader ‘Tony’ Willis, the Flight Commander and mixing with other men already there, some of them playing darts and the others just nattering or writing up their log-books.
Like me, he may have been interested in what was happening out on the airfield where planes would be taking off and landing, in training exercises. I think he would have been interested in the amount of fuel that was being loaded into the aircraft tanks. This would indicate that there was a trip on for tonight. Full tanks meant it would be a long one, not so full might mean a trip to the Ruhr or some other not too distant target.
He might also have been interested in what bombs were being hauled up into the bomb-bays. A ‘cookie’ (a 4000lb. block-buster) along with 14 cans of incendiaries would indicate that some city would be the target. If a ‘cookie’ and 10 to 15 high explosive bombs were being loaded it might indicate a more specific target such as an oil-refinery, or an airfield, railway yards or troop concentrations.
But, though he might speculate as to what was being prepared for that night, he would not know whether he and his crew were to be a part of it. That would be revealed when copies of the Battle Order were posted to the notice boards in the Officers’ and N.C.O’s messes. They would not indicate the target; that would be revealed at the general briefing, when the curtain was drawn back on the target board. There, all the crews would see red tapes mapping out a route to and from the target for the night.
There was generally some reaction from the assembled airmen which indicated whether or not the revelation was accepted with relief or with some apprehension depending on whether those tapes indicated a relatively short or relatively long trip. I think that Mailly-le-Camp, when it was revealed, would not have caused anyone to be particularly concerned, certainly amongst the seasoned crews, some of whom might remember trips to Berlin or to Nuremburg.

Frank William Baker’s last raid

Frank was to fly AR-J, Serial Number JB741 and his take-off was to be at or near 2156 hours (quite late, but this would probably have been double-summertime). After kitting out in the Locker room and being transported to that aircraft’s dispersal in a tender (undoubtedly driven by a WAAF), the crew would have climbed aboard and, after cockpit checks and indications from the crew members that they were in place and ready to go, the engines would be started and Frank would have steered the plane out on to the perimeter track, joined the other seventeen aircraft that were proceeding slowly from both directions towards the start of the runway in use that night.
The take-off and landing were the two exercises that, in normal circumstances, demanded the greatest skill from the pilot and, at somewhere within the range of 95 to 105 mph, he would have eased the plane into the air, set course as given by his navigator, climbing at a speed of 160 mph until he reached the allotted height as given, probably at the briefing. Usually each squadron staggered its aircraft over, maybe, a three or four thousand feet. Those on the bottom would run the risk of bombs dropping on them from above; those on the top, where many pilots decided to fly despite the height given to them, would run the greater risk of collision.
As they proceeded southward, probably heading for Beachy Head, which was the usual point of departure for raids to Southern Europe targets, they would have joined up with the other 345 Lancasters that constituted the ‘stream’. The 1 Group plane, 173 of them, made up the second wave of the attack and suffered the most casualties.
Over the target things went wrong: the plan was for the marker aircraft from 5 Group to identify and mark the target with their flares. This was done correctly. Word was then sent to the Main Force Controller to bring in the Main Force bombers. But he could not communicate with the waiting Lancasters because his V.H.F. radio set was being drowned by an American Forces broadcast and his wireless transmitter was wrongly tuned. This caused a delay that gave the German fighters time to arrive and take a heavy toll of the circling planes both over the target and on the return journey.
In all, 42 Lancasters were shot down, six of them being from Binbrook. The ‘Lost Bombers’ web site says that Frank’s Lancaster was shot down within sight of the aiming-point and crashed at Dommartin-Lettree (Marne), 22 km SSW of Ch_lons-sur-Marne and that all the crew are buried in Dommartin-Lettre Churchyard. The names of the crew members are given, five of them were RAF members and two were Canadians from the RCAF.
Of the six planes from Binbrook, five were from 460 and one was from 101 squadron that was flying from a Special Duties flight at Binbrook. Two of them, including Frank, were on their first op., one on their third, one on their ninth and one on their twelth. The crew of the Special Duties plane were in the last stages of their second tour which would have completed their fiftieth op.
It was generally recognized that crews on their first five ops were at greatest risk due to inexperience but, as you can see, there was no guarantee that trips beyond the first five would be any less hazardous. I knew several second tour men that didn’t make it right through; in fact, Sir Arthur Harris did say in his special tribute to his crews, written immediately after V.E. Day, that it was a ‘mathematic impossibility’ for a crew to get through two tours. But some did.

In conclusion

I trust that this epistle, though somewhat long and probably including information that you already have, might nevertheless answer in some measure the questions that you had concerning your Uncle’s short life at Binbrook. His death was tragic as was the death of the 55,500 aircrew of Bomber Command of which he and his crew formed a part.
A great ache was in the heart of the United Kingdom and perhaps to a lesser extent in the Dominions, that were across the seas, when it was all over. The generation that then suffered is almost gone and, no doubt, time has softened the grief. There will come a day when ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,’ and we can only hope that it might come soon rather than it should be afar off.
With best wishes, Henry Baskerville

2 Responses to A day in the life of a 460 Squadron bomber pilot

  1. Geoff says:

    I am trying to find which squadron the Special Duties aircraft Henry Baskerville mentions. Geoff Raebel Editor BC Australia Newsletter

  2. Jack connor says:

    I have been looking into my brothers history felt Sgt. 911845 Lealie Connor who was attached to 460 squadron based at Binbrook, his last mission was on 12/13 June 1943 when the Lancaster left Binbrook at 2235 hours on 12 June 1943 to attack Bochum he was a member of the following crew
    RAAF 404704 PO Hadley L H M DFC Captain (pilot)
    RAAF 400470 PO Horne U D H DFC (navigator)
    RAAF 412739 Flt Sgt Stanley, (bomb aimed)
    RAF Sgt Bond E H (wireless operator air gunner)
    RAAF 22230 Flt Sgt Baldwin E A (flight engineer)
    RAAF 405504 Flt Sgt Simpson N R (air gunner)
    RAF. Sgt. Connor L N (airgunner)
    The plane was shot down at 0215 over Bocham all the crew were killed and interned in Richwald War Cemertary, Cleves Germany, my brother was on his 29th operation and I would be very interest if any further information was available.

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