The next three operations to Nuremberg, Milan and Turin were comparatively easy, although they were all long and tiring trips lasting 7 hours, 9 hours 5 minutes and 8 hours 10 minutes respectively, but flying over the Alps to Italy in bright moonlight was quite a sight.
The next op was a different proposition altogether. One glance at the route marked up on the big wall map at briefing told us it was Berlin, the “Big City”.
I think this one meant a bit extra to Tommy and myself, both being Londoners, our families had had to put up with month after month of sleeping in air raid shelters, windows and doors being blown in, and neighbours and friends killed by our German counter-parts in the Luftwaffe.
Our route took us straight through the middle of Germany: we were in the first wave of the attack meeting very heavy defences of searchlights and flak, but fortunately we got in and out again before the night fighters got up in force. It was the later waves of bombers that were intercepted and caught it very badly as they were silhouetted against the glare of the fires in the city and the PFF (Path Finder Force) marker flares still falling. I believe Bomber Command lost 62 aircraft that night, 8.7%.
30 August was a nice quick op, 3 hours 30 minutes to Munchen Gladbach on which we took Flying Officer Newcombe as second ‘dickie’: he was to be posted missing from a subsequent trip. By this time Squadron Leader Jim Starkie had taken over as our ‘B’ Flight Commander, he was well liked by all.
We had been trying to think of a suitable crew emblem to decorate our ‘Y’ Yorker and to give us some identification as a crew. The basic idea of using my surname, ‘Howell’ along with the aircraft letter ‘Y’ eventually led us to “The Ys ‘Owells”, the original sketch being done by my father. Then an artist friend was pressed into service and he eventually came up with a magnificent canvas 3 ft x 3 ft depicting baby owls as the crew members ‘operating’ from the back of the father owl flying across a huge yellow moon.
I collected it during my leave early in September 1943, but on return to the Squadron I was shattered to hear from Squadron Leader Starkie that my ‘Y’ Yorker had pranged and was a right off.
He had taken it on a trip while we were on leave and was badly shot up by fighters. The aircraft was diving out of control when he gave the order to bale out and only after some of his crew had actually jumped did he managed to regain control at a very low level and fly the badly damaged aircraft back to crash land it at Ford in Sussex.
He managed to salvage Joe’s St Christopher medallion (see above) which we had pinned above the doorway and, as he handed it back to me with a rather guilty look on his face, he said “Sorry that’s all that is left of your aircraft”.
Fortunately, a brand new Lancaster DS 734 had just been delivered, so we christened another ‘Y’ Yorker, the ground crew doped the new emblem onto the fuselage just below my window on the port side, and we were back in business again.
For the remainder of September and the first week in October, the Squadron was stood down from ops in order to test out some new navigational radar equipment and, although we flew every day for about three weeks, it was all daylight flying and a welcome change from operations all at night.
Then it was back on ops again on 7 October to Stuttgart, followed on the 8th when we took Squadron Leader Roberts as second ‘dickie’ to Hanover, and back again to Hanover on 18 October, all three trips being reasonably quiet and successfully completed.
Next it was Dusseldorf, with Sergeant Trevor coming along for the trip, which was a quick one in and out and home again in 3 hours 20 minutes.
After another spell of leave came the toughest part of our tour of ops.
18 November was the start of the Battle of Berlin and, during the next six weeks, we completed nine successful operations to the ‘Big City’, and one to Leipzig and Frankfurt. They were all long, cold, tough, tiring trips during which we could not relax for a moment because of the increased use of enemy fighters and, of course, Berlin was one of the most heavily defended targets in Germany.
Bomber Command losses became very heavy indeed and many of our good friends and comrades failed to return. It was generally considered at this phase of the Bomber offensive that only approximately one-third of Bomber Command crews finished a tour of 30 ops, two-thirds ‘got the chop’.
It took us between 6 and 7 hours to complete each of these trips and most of that time we were vulnerable over enemy territory with the odds stacked against us, with no easy route to the ‘Big City’.
On all of them we carried one 4,000 pounder and either 8-10 or 12 cans of incendiaries.
On one of these operations in November, we had an indicated air temperature of -58 F. Jimmy suffered frostbite on this face and the microphone in his oxygen mask froze so he could not answer our repeated attempts to contact him. I sent Joe back to check what had gone wrong, but unaware that his portable oxygen bottle had not been refilled he was very soon semi-conscious and unable to report back to me. In desperation I sent Reg back to find out what the trouble was, with strict instructions to get on to main oxygen and the intercom immediately he got to them. With Tommy’s help, Reg restored the oxygen supply back onto main oxygen and with Joe having recovered Jimmy’s microphone they all returned to their respective positions. While all this had been going on only Mac, Ron and I were minding the shop and not in a position to see any enemy fighters. Had they attacked we would have been a sitting duck.
On another occasion we took Squadron Leader Baigent as second ‘dickie’ just prior to his taking over as our ‘B’ Flight Commander. He paid us the compliment of falling asleep during the return journey but was rudely awakened when both the starboard engines cut out.
Before dozing off Baigent had omitted to change the petrol cocks over to the other tanks. I gave him a few choice phrases at the time, but we remained good friends and I was later very sorry to learn of his illness and early death back home in New Zealand after the war.
Early in December we moved to another airfield at Witchford near Ely and continued our nerve sapping trips to Berlin, culminating in consecutive flights on 1st and 2nd of January 1944, at the end of which we were very tired indeed.
On the first one of these we were nearly chopped out of the sky by a Halifax diving down out of nowhere. We just did not see each other and he missed us by only a yard or two. After bombing I opened up the throttles and came back at a high rate of knots and very high petrol consumption, we didn’t have a lot left in the tanks when we got back to dispersal.
On the next we had to climb through a lot of cloud with icing conditions and we did not see much of the target, we just bombed on the Pathfinder flare markers and got the hell out of there as fast as we could. We saw a lot of fighters but they were busy with other Lancs not so fortunate as us and we belted for home.
That made 29 operations altogether and we anxiously awaited the last one to finish our tour. Several trips were laid on and then cancelled due to bad weather and we were all on edge at this time.
Then we were briefed again for a trip to Berlin, but before we went out to the aircraft I was sent for by Wing Commander Bobby Annan to be told that a signal from Bomber Command had temporarily reduced the number of operations for a heavy bomber crew from 30 to 25 ops due to the very heavy losses in recent months.
We were immediately stood down from duty, but could not leave the base for security reasons as we knew the target. So we relaxed with a few beers while the rest of the Squadron took off, but I think each of us wished we had been able to do the last one to finish off our tour of ops. Perhaps it would have been one too many.
Flight Lieutenant Barnes and his crew had also completed 29 ops at the same time, but opted to go straight on to No 7 Squadron PFF (Pathfinder Flares) at Waterbeach for another tour. They failed to return from their first trip.
Reg, Mac and I went to No 3 Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Feltwell to train new Lancaster crews. Ron and Joe went to RAF Finningley to train navigators and wireless operators and Jim and Tom went to RAF Brize Norton to train new gunners.
On 5 July1944, Ron and I were recalled to Witchford for an investiture and were both very pleased to receive the DFC from HM King George VI in the presence of Queen Elizabeth and the Princess Elizabeth.
The investiture concerned only 115 Squadron whose crew members had been awarded decorations during the last few months of hectic operation.
Men like Ray Milgate, Geoff Hammond, Len Halley, Bert Boutillier, George Mackie, Bobby Annan, Cyril Baigent and many others we were proud to have known and flown with.
Later that same month I received another surprise in the shape of a presentation wrist watch together with a letter from Air Marshall R Harrison CC No 3 Group, explaining that Senor Adalbert Fastlich from Panama had given a number of watches to the Air Ministry for the recent bombing of Berlin.
Apparently, his brother had been killed during a German air raid on London in 1940.
During our 29 operations we carried 86.7 tons of high explosives and incendiaries, flew with 6 second pilots and carried 3 passengers.
Written by Flight Lieutenant Aubrey Howell D.F.C.