Background to our Tour of Ops. – 460 Squadron 1943 at Binbrook
My crew an I were fortunate indeed to have arrived on 460 Squadron when we did. Like the labourers in the vineyard, we were hired close to the end of the day and had missed the heat and burden in which others had sweated.
In every war, it seems, there are significant battles which are long remembered, either because they were critical to the fortunes of one of the adversaries, as were Trafalgar and Waterloo for Britain in the struggle against Napoleon, or because of the tremendous loss of life on both sides for the relatively small advantage that was achieved by one of them. The Somme and Passchendaele in World War 1 and Gallipoli and Kokoda are in particular remembrance here in Australia.
This is not to say that others, which were of a less iconic status, did not take their toll of human life and contribute to the final outcome of the struggle.
|Image #1 – Bomber Command – http://www.awm.gov.au|
For Bomber Command, the Battle of the Ruhr from early March 1943 to late July 1943 and the Battle for Berlin, which lasted from mid-November 1943 to the end of March 1944, were the two major offensives in which the Bomber force was concentrated to achieve a hoped-for outcome. It was the second of these that ‘would prove to be its greatest test of the war.’ (1)
The Battle of Berlin is deemed to have ended with the devastating raid on Nuremberg in which 95 bombers were lost and, not long after this, on the third of May there was another, though smaller, on Mailly-Le-Camp when 42 out of 346 Lancasters were shot down by German Night-Fighters.
460 Squadron participated in all of these offensives losing 34 crews in the first, and 45 in the second, which includes 3 out of 24 despatched to Nuremberg. In the Mailly-Le-Camp raid, 17 Lancasters took off from Binbrook and 6 of them were lost. From September 1943 to December 1943, a like period to the one in which we were operating twelve months later, the Squadron suffered 23.losses as against 13 in the duration of our tour. These figures should be sufficient to illustrate what I have said earlier, that some were called to bear the heat and burden of the day.
|Image #2 – 460 Squadron losses – http://www.w4960.nl|
But, though the losses were less in the period in which we were operating, they were still significant. One third of the pilots in the draft that left Brisbane on the 5th May 1944 did not survive the war. Most of these would have ended up in Bomber Command and it is reasonable to apply the same percentage to the navigators and Wireless Operator/Air Gunners who were part of the same draft.
I could name boys who were my school-mates in the 1938/1940 era who did not survive; others who trained with me who were lost on other squadrons in the Command; and others who were my special mates who didn’t make it through. As an old man who is nearing the end of his days, I reflect with sadness on those who were cut off so early in life and were denied the opportunity to run a full course, to experience the joys of family life and to use their talents in contributing to the well-being of the society to which they might have belonged.
|Image #3 – Lancaster day time raid – wikimedia.org|
D-Day, on the 6th June 1944, brought big changes to the use of the Bomber force. Most crews who served after this date would have a mixture of daylight and of night operations. The former were safer but the latter were more satisfying — at least, I found it so. We flew fifteen day trips and sixteen at night.
Until mid-September Sir Arthur Harris was placed under the control of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. As one minor result of that our first seven trips were daylights to ‘Defended Areas’ at Calais (4), Le Havre (2), Sangatte (where, as I understand it, the cross –channel tunnel has its beginning on the French side), and Cape Gris Nez where we bombed the cross-channel guns. On two occasions we brought our bombs back on the order of the Master Bomber: visibility was so poor we could not see the ground or the target markers. And, on one occasion we were diverted to Spilsby, a 5 Group Station that housed both 207 and 44 Squadrons about the time that we were there.
|Image #4 – Bomber Harris – postalheritage.org.uk|
As I reflect on these seven trips that began our tour, I realise how fortunate we were to have such an introduction to our operations. There were many instances when crews were sent on their first trip to difficult targets. During the Ruhr campaign, 11 crews from Binbrook were lost who had done no more than three trips, and four of them were on their first. Similar statistics could be produced for the Battle for Berlin.
When the thousand raids were on from the end of May till mid-August 1942, the War Diaries record that
‘Harris started to restrict the practice whereby ‘freshman’ crews were introduced to operations gradually by being sent to lightly defended, close-range targets on the French coast. New crews were still allowed their one leaflet flight to France or Belgium but after that they were expected to go to any target in Europe.’(1)
And to some extent at least that expectation remained to the end of the war.
The leaflet raid was later conducted at the O.T.U. and the first raid on the Squadron had to commence somewhere. All would depend on the exigencies of the situation that then prevailed.
|Image #5 – German night fighters – natureonline.com|
By way of illustration that ‘new crews were expected to go to any target in Europe’, my very good friend, David Sandell, whom I have already mentioned, arrived on his squadron, 467 Australian Squadron at Waddington, about two to three weeks before I arrived at Binbrook.
On the 16th of August, he did his second dicky trip to Stettin and then, on the 26th August, the night when I did my second dickie trip to Kiel, he did another to Konigsberg, a city on the Eastern end of the Baltic Sea.
The War Diaries disclose that there was a twenty minutes delay in opening the attack because of the presence of low cloud and that, as the Bomber Force waited patiently, the German night-fighters arrived and took their toll of victims. Then, on the 30th August, his squadron was sent again to Konigsberg as part of the 189 Lancasters from 5 Group and David, flying his first operation with his crew, was amongst the 15 Lancasters that were lost.
A trip such as this would have been a challenge even for experienced crews, but for a crew on their first op. it would have been, in any other circumstances, an unreasonable demand. But this is the war! And who, in war, determines what is a reasonable demand? Certainly not the troops at the front! As Tennyson says of the Light Brigade in the Crimea War:
“There’s not to reason why; There’s but to do and (maybe) die.”
1.The Bomber Command War Diaries; Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt; p.271
- Image #1 – Bomber Command – http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/striking/history/index.asp
- Image #2 – 460 Squadron losses – http://www.w4960.nl/images/memorial.jpg
- Image #3 – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/45/Lancaster_I_NG128_Dropping_Blockbuster_-_Duisburg_-_Oct_14,_1944.jpg
- Image #4 – Harris Bomber Command – http://postalheritage.org.uk/exhibitions/onlineexhibitions/ww2stamps/images/Harris-and-Lancaster-art.jpg
- Image #5 – German night fighters – http://natureonline.com/37/moonhunter_ju-88.jpg