Left to Right: Sgt. R. S. Brown, Sgt. R .F. Millett, P/O. H. T. MacWilliam, Sgt E. J. Thomson, Sgt. J. Masson, Fl/Sgt. A. H. Howell, Sgt. R. Stewart
People in story: F/L Aubrey Howell, Fl. Lt, Sgt. R.S. Brown, Sgt. R.F.Millett, P/O. H.T.MacWilliam, Sgt E. J. Thomson, Sgt. J. Masson, Sgt. R. Stewart
Location of story: Cambridgeshire and Norfolk UK and over Europe
I have entered this account on his behalf. He is currently (in 2005) 84 years of age, ‘hale and hearty’, but now only he and his Flight Engineer Reg Brown survive. They still attend the Annual 115 Squadron Reunion and the Remembrance Service in the Church at Witchford Cambridgeshire and at the Memorial at the end of the former runway at Witchford, the last wartime home of 115 Squadron.
Part 1 of 2 written by Aubrey Howell DFC Detail of a Bomber Command tour of operations carried out in 1943/44 by Flt Lt Aubrey Howell DFC and crew, flying Lancaster Mark IIs with 115 Squadron at RAF East Wretham , RAF Little Snoring Norfolk and RAF Witchford, Cambridgeshire.
After finishing my training as an RAF Bomber Pilot in America, aged 21, I was posted in February 1943 to an Operational Training Unit at RAF Wing in Buckinghamshire.
After a few days of circuits and bumps in a Wellington Bomber it was time to meet my new crew. After an hour or so in the crew room and getting to know each other over a few pints of beer in the mess, I found I had a Geordie navigator Ron Stewart, a Leicestershire wireless operator Joe Millett, a Scottish rear gunner Jimmy Masson, a Cockney mid upper gunner Tommy Thomson, a Canadian bomb aimer Mac MacWilliams, and eventually a Suffolk flight engineer Reg Brown.
After a few weeks of intensive training together in the Old Wimpey (Wellington Bomber) and in the saloon bar of The Sportsman in the village, I knew I had a well-matched confident crew, all keen to get on with the job we had been training for.
Our posting to 115 Squadron in 3 Group at East Wretham in Norfolk was greeted with great excitement when we learned they had recently been equipped with the new Lancaster Mk IIs fitted with the Bristol Hercules engines.
The first two weeks at East Wretham were spent in 1678 Conversion Flight, familiarising ourselves with the Lancaster and welding ourselves into an efficient team, or so we thought. Our ego was sadly deflated when we learned quite by accident that the instructors on the Conversion Flight had made an entry in their secret book that we were not expected to survive more than five operations; but it made us more determined to prove them wrong.
We moved over to 115 Squadron B Flight under Squadron Leader Bazelgette (later posthumously awarded the VC) and met other pilots Flight Lieutenant Tony Prager, Flying Officer Egglestone, Pilot Officer Sammy Small, Pilot Officer Coles and after one second “dickie” trip with Tony Prager to Mulheim, we were ready for our first operation as a crew. This was it.
On 24 June 1943 we were briefed to bomb Elberfeld, flying in Z Zebra DS 631, carrying one 4,000 lb cookie and twelve cans of incendiaries.
Everything was going fine until we were suddenly coned by several searchlights simultaneously. I rammed the control column forward much too hard in my effort escape the blinding light and because of centrifugal force, everything not anchored down flew up into the roof, including me.
I had forgotten to strap myself into my harness and spent several seconds getting back into my seat and getting the aircraft back under control. Once under control I found we had lost a lot of height and incidentally the searchlights as well. We went on to bomb the target successfully and returned to base exactly on track, from which we learned we had a damned good navigator and a pilot who never again forgot to fasten his harness.
The next night we took off again in Z Zebra, with a similar bomb load bound for Gelsenkirchen. There was a lot of cloud over the target but the Pathfinder Force had done a good job with the target indicator flares and we thought it was quite a good prang.
We encountered a bit of flak just after bombing and climbed to about 22,000 ft to be above it, this seemed to work all right and I stayed at this height. We still had a long way to go over enemy territory and every now and again Tommy would ask me to tip up onto one wing tip so he could have a good view of the sky beneath us.
And just as well that we did, for there flying immediately under us about 600 ft below was a Junkers 88, just keeping station with us. As we veered off to one side or the other so he did likewise, but just out of effective range. However, Tommy opened fire from his mid upper turret as I banked up again and again, but the Junkers stayed put. Obviously the German aircraft was attracting our attention while he vectored in the night fighters operating with him.
Jimmy spotted the first ME 109 just a second before it opened fire and he screamed out his instructions for me to corkscrew. “Starboard go go go” he shouted, but we felt the sickening thud of the cannon shells striking home. Then followed a long series of attacks from both the port and starboard quarters, first from one ME 109 then another, and it was only due to Jimmy and Tommy giving correct warning of each attack that I was able to corkscrew out of their line of fire just at each crucial point of the attack. We had now crossed the enemy coast and were over the North Sea down to about 12 to 13,000 ft but they still came at us again and again. By now my arms were just about dropping off with the exertion of the violent evasive action I had been taking for such a long time. Finally, we were attacked from dead ahead three times in quick succession as the three ME109s headed for home. The Junkers 88 was no longer with us either, thank God. Mac in the front turret had a go at them but the closing speed was much too high for accuracy.
All the gunners put up a very good show and we were proud of them. We staggered back to base on 2½ engines. After landing safely and arriving back at our dispersal point we got out to check the extensive damage to the tail plane, fuselage, port wing and both port engines and counted ourselves very fortunate indeed to be alive.
From this trip we knew we had three top class gunners, a very useful wireless operator and engineer, none of whom panicked under fire, but we were badly shaken up and it made me wonder if the Con Flight “book” was going to prove correct after all.
Three nights later we flew ‘Y’ Yorker DS 682 to Cologne without any trouble at all. I instinctively liked the handling of this aircraft and took it again to Cologne on 3 July and back to Gelsenkirchen on the 9th.
These three trips all went very well mainly because Ron’s first class navigating kept us bang on track in the main stream. Mac did not waste any time on the run up and bombing, straight in and out like a dose-of-salts, accompanied by Mac’s laconic drawl “bombs gone — let’s get the hell out of here”. That was the first five ops under our belt and we had beaten the jinx of the Con Flight ‘book’, largely because we now had full confidence in each other’s ability. It also helped to know that ‘Y’ Yorker could now be regarded as our own aircraft and we had become aware and very appreciative of the efficiency of her ground crew team under Sergeant Dick Ingram, Corporal Jack Furber, Syd Rowe, Ginger and Nobby.
They all worked like Trojans in all weathers and kept her performance right up to specification and spotlessly clean.
The next trip was a short fast one to Aachen, just four hours there and back. It was a very successful operation and the first time we had carried a ‘block buster’ 8,000 pounder.
Then in the course of a seven day period we did three of the four big Hamburg operations which devastated that great city.
The first two on the 27th and 29th of July were very accurate concentrated raids, which caused enormous fires gutting the whole area of the city.
The German radar warning system was made useless by the brilliantly simple idea of using ‘window’, bundles of metallic strips of paper which the engineers had to throw out, hundreds of bundles from each aircraft whilst in radar range.
Reg spent hours back in the extreme cold of the main fuselage chucking the loose bundles down the flare chute and it always amazed me that even at those very cold temperatures he always preferred to sit on his fur lined Irving jacket rather than wear it. He must have been frozen to the marrow.
Our third trip to Hamburg on 2nd of August proved to be a complete washout, due to a very extensive electrical storm, which barred our way to the target. The majority of the Squadron jettisoned their bombs at or near the enemy coast and returned to base, sensible fellows.
Warrant Officer Noxon flew his Lancaster at a much lower level through the storm along with some of the No 3 Group Stirlings. I tried to fly through it at around 20,000 ft, but found extreme difficulty due to heavy icing conditions, violent lightning flashes and solid cumulus nimbus clouds which caused by far the worst turbulence we had ever experienced.
My efforts to keep out of serious trouble involved constant changes of course with the result that when we emerged to clearer skies our ‘most probable position’ was a circle radius 50 miles. After flying past our ETA (estimated time of arrival) on target we had to jettison the load and turn round and fly right back through the same storm. To complicate matters the port inner engine began to run very rough and then, due to serious overheating, I had to feather it and run on three, gradually losing height to maintain a reasonable air speed. It was a long slow journey back to base during which Joe’s “QDMs” were invaluable and we eventually landed 1 hour 20 minutes late. (QDM is the magnetic track from the selected ground station to the aircraft) Wing Commander “Turkey” Rainsford thought we had “bought it” and at de-briefing we were reminded of the Squadron motto “Despite the Elements”.