Planting vegetables – 460 Squadron style

Flying Lancaster Bombers from 460 Squadron Binbrook 1943-44
One aircrew’s story of a Lancaster bomber mission that could have gone so wrong, but turned out aright. The story about ‘planting vegetables’ in the North Sea with 460 Squadron during World War II.

The briefing and the mission

Sea Mine – World War 2

The Air Force had their own particular jargon and whenever they went out to drop mines in enemy waters it was always ‘to plant vegetables.’ 

From the earliest months of the war mine laying had been a feature of RAF operations. The earliest sortie was by 15 Hampdens on 13/14 April 1940 to mine the sea lanes off Denmark between German ports and Norway and the last was by 14 Lancasters on 25/26 April 1945 to mine Oslo Fjord. My only trip was on 6 November 1944 as part of a force of 12 Lancasters, six of them from 460, each of whom was to lay six mines in Heligoland Bight. The round trip took four and a half hours but they were probably the longest flying hours of any that we spent on our tour.
Weather Chart – WW2

At briefing we were told that there was a front approaching rapidly from the West, that we would take off in clear conditions but that, on our return, the front would have passed over the East coast of England and would be out in the North Sea. There would be a band of cumulus cloud form with its base at 2,000 feet and tops reaching to 16,000 feet; icing conditions would exist and the only recourse for safe flying would be to come home under the cloud.

Mine-laying was a delicate business. It was essential that they be put down in the right place and that we be able to tell the Navy just where they had been sown. The boffins had calculated that, given the existing wind conditions, if the aircraft flew at a certain height, a certain speed and on a certain course and then dropped its mines at a certain point on that course, they would land just where they were intended. They were, of course, parachute mines and the amount of drift would have been taken into account.
West Frisian Islands –

To ensure that all these conditions were adhered to, a camera was rigged up in the navigator’s compartment. It focussed on the H2S screen and, no doubt also, on the navigator’s instrument panel (he had a duplicate set of altimeter, airspeed indicator and repeater compass) and its trigger was linked in with the bomb-aimer’s release button. When he pressed his button the camera flashed and produced its picture. The instructions given at briefing were that a timed run had to be made from an identifiable point on one of the Frisian Islands on a particular course and the mines were to be released at the end of that run.

As the met man was telling us about this approaching front, that rain was pelting down on the roof of the nissen hut which served as a briefing room. A loud guffaw greeted his statement that we would take off in clear conditions. Obviously, the front had moved in faster than had been anticipated and was already well over us, with its foremost cloud well out into the North Sea.

Going out

Lancaster Bomber taking off –

We took off in the rain at ten minutes past six p.m. and climbed steadily on course to our briefing height of 12,000 feet. Instructions were to maintain this height on the outward leg and for the dropping of the mines and then to come down for the return trip. I was paying particular attention to the air temperature gauge as we were in dense cloud all the time. The temperature dropped steadily as we climbed, passed the zero degree centigrade and was just under four degrees below when we levelled out at 12,000 feet. This was in the danger area for icing.

We were told in training that there was a meteorological condition of super-cooled water vapour: water drops which were actually below freezing point and yet not frozen -not turned into ice. But, if these drops were disturbed, say by an aircraft wing passing through them, they would immediately freeze. The effect, as it was explained to us, would be for sheet-ice to build up on the wing. The leading edge would, as it were, hit the water drop, the drop would flow back over the top surface of the wing and, as it flowed, would turn to ice.
Lancaster Bomber in flight

Any lengthy period of flying in these conditions would result in such a build up of ice that the aerodynamics of the wing would be altered thus producing less lift and this, combined with the weight of the ice, would cause the plane to drop out of the sky. If, as it dropped to lower heights and warmer atmosphere the ice melted, it could recover its flying ability. If the ice did not melt before it reached the ground: too bad! Well this was the theory and I truly believed it.

I was determined not to stay at 12,000 feet but to climb still higher until I reached colder air where, if we were still in cloud, the water drops would be converted to ice crystals. These could build up like a rime frost on the leading edge of the wing but would invariably break off and cause no real flying hazard. So up we went. I failed in my captain’s responsibility by not specifically telling Fred Smith , the navigator, of my intention although, if he had not been so engrossed in his charts, he should have heard me talking with Ian Hall, the Flight Engineer, and saying, “Ian, we are not staying here.” 
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).

As it happened, when Fred looked up from his charts to check his instruments. Navigators are a breed all of their own: they keep a careful eye on their pilot to ensure he is flying the course, speed and height as instructed and do not hesitate to come on the intercom with,

“What course are you flying, pilot?” when he might be just one or two degrees off the one they have given him. He saw that we were flying at 17,000 feet he almost had a fit.
“What height are you flying?” he shouted down the intercom. “How do you expect me to navigate when you’re five thousand feet over the briefing height?” 
“Fred”, I said, “I’m sorry you didn’t pick up on it, but we couldn’t stay at 12,000 feet.” “God knows where we’ll be on E.T.A. (Estimated Time of Arrival),” he said.
He was navigating by dead reckoning without the aid of any means that could tell him where he was. We were over the sea and we had to maintain H2S silence until the given hour of 2000 hours (8 p.m.) when we should be over the aiming point. I tried to calm him down by saying,
“We’ll come down to 12000 feet on ETA, you can turn on the set and ,hopefully, we’ll pick up some identifiable landmark.
German Night Fighters

It was inevitable that we would find either the Friesian Islands or the Dutch coast. We couldn’t be too far off course even though the winds could be quite different at 17,000 feet from those predicted at 12,000. Eventually we came out into clear air with cumulus tops beneath us and it was time to let down. We were still in clear air at 12000 feet although there was cloud all below us. At 2000 hours Fred switched on the H2S and soon announced that we were right over the aiming point. We should have been, according to his calculations, over the point at which the timed run was to start, so things were not too bad.

But it meant changing course to get back to the starting point and coming over that point at the right height, speed and direction.
It was not a healthy region in which to be wasting time as there were German night-fighter bases on the Frisians and I alerted the gunners to be on the lookout. At one stage Jack McQueen did see what he believed to be another aircraft slipping by in the dark in an opposite direction. He thought it was probably a fighter. But we came around at Fred’s direction and started our run and at 2015 hrs Jack Trist released our mines.
But one hung up! This created a problem because these were things that could not be jettisoned just anywhere. There was nothing for it than to go round again, do the run all over and try a second time to drop it. This we did but again it hung up. I was not prepared to tempt fate by having a third try so we determined to bring it home. We did not know why it had hung up.
Was it an electrical fault? Or was it because the release mechanism had iced up? Would it fall into the bomb bays if and when the mechanism thawed out? What would happen when we landed? Was it likely to fall right through and, if so, what would then happen? Were we likely to go up in a sheet of blue flame?

Coming home

Lancaster Bomber – Low flying

It was no good dwelling on these possibilities because we had no option but to bring it home and hope for the best. Steadily we lost height down through the cloud to try to find clear air under the cloud base. This should have been encountered at 2,000 feet but at that height we were still very much in cloud and now we were encountering very severe turbulence. The aircraft was bucking around as it never had before. We finally found the cloud base at 500 feet and, at this height, with the cloud just above us, the sea beneath us and driving rain squalls all around us we drove steadily on towards home.

Fred, who sometimes was troubled with a squeamish stomach got up at one stage to make his way to the elsan (the toilet) at the rear of the aircraft and be sick. As he was passing the WOP’s position Harry Ellis grabbed him and offered him an empty pocket in his canvas WOP’s satchel. Harry had already used the other pocket. The rest of us were O.K. but I have never had a bumpier ride. My feet and arms were working constantly to keep the plane straight and level and on course.
Binbrook Airfield –

Eventually we crossed the coast and could see drem systems, the circle of lights which surround airfields and indicate the circuit for planes landing at night, but they were of airfields to the north of Binbrook. Fred was able to give a correction that brought us into our own circuit. At 500 feet we circled the drome and told the control tower we had one vegetable hung up.

“Stand by Oboe,” came the response.
No doubt there was much conferring in the tower as to what should be done. But again, what options did they have? We had to land there or at some other drome and I guess, they decided that they could hardly remove the risk, such as it was, to someone else.
Group Captain Hughie Edwards

So the message came through, “Oboe, pancake!” It was still pouring with rain and as I came in on the approach, there was so much water obscuring the windscreen that I could hardly see the runway lights. For probably the only time in my tour I turned on the landing lights to help me see the ground. The rain, in the glare of the lights seemed to be coming like horizontal glass bullets and splattering against the glass in front of me but somehow I felt for the ground and eventually dropped it on without too much of a jolt. And nothing happened. The mine stayed where it was, still hung up. It was removed by the armourers next morning.

We were the last to land – a good half hour after the first of our six and thirteen minutes after the fifth. Group Captain Edwards was waiting just inside the door to the interrogation room and he greeted me as I came in:
“Good to see you Baskerville. We thought you were gone tonight!” 

But, by God’s good grace we made it. Many times we had to fly in bad weather but this was the only trip in which I saw fit to comment in my log book, “Weather grim.”

1 Response to Planting vegetables – 460 Squadron style

  1. Kerri Ferguson (nee Evans) says:

    My father Bill Evans (Adelaide) was in 460 Sqadron but would never speak about W11. We know from his log book that he was involved in bombings over Germany. I do know that he was also involved in dropping food over the Netherlands after the war. Finding information about 460 Sqadron helps to understand some of what he experienced. Thank you

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