The Stars Will Remember Us
by John E L Brett, BEM
These are a few personal memories of one RAF Bomber crew who flew. laughed, lived, cried and did just about everything to make life bearable together; only being parted finally by death.
Not really parted even then, by those of us who still remember
The stars will remember the night we said goodbye, the stars will remember, so will I.
Now as I walk again along the lonely lanes, in my silent prayer it seems I hear you call my name.
The world may forget you as years go slowly by, but the stars will remember and so will I.
I dedicate this small offering to my crew: to "Skipper", to "Dickie", to "Tubby", and "Cobby" who all gave up their young lives on March 6th 1945 after flying and living together as a bomber crew for nearly three years, also to "Jock and "Nobby" where ever they may be now.
This is a small tribute to 6 of the bravest men I ever had the great honour and privilege to be able to call "Mates" during the 1939 - 1945 war.
MAY WE THE LIVING NEVER FORGET SUCH MEN AS THESE.
Once daily inspections on our aircraft "G-George" were finished and these were over by 0.10.30 hours then March 5th 1945 began for us like any other day had been doing for the past two weeks, going back to the mess to write some letters home and then perhaps a game or two of snooker and waiting for the mess bar to open for some liquid refreshment; the six of us "Taff" our Skipper who was going to the Adj's office for a chit to get his new flying boots, the other ones having worn nearly through after practically living in them for the last couple of months with the weather being so ruddy cold, in fact I think most of the flying types including ourselves on 207 Squadron which was stationed at Spilsby in Lincolnshire had all been doing the same since early January because of the cold, operations had been kept down to a minimum. There had only been 4 or 5 raids since December last and now all of us were beginning to kick out heels a bit hoping that before long we could get onto "Ops".
Just after we had finished our lunch in the mess, the tannoy system blared out that there would be a "War Call" tonight at 16.30 hours and that all the aircrews had to stand by, no one to leave the station after the message. It wasn't more than a few minutes after this that "Taff" (FO. A P J Wakeling) came to our mess and collected us up like a mother hen with her brood of chicks!!
We were then told that this Op was so far on and that we should go to our different sections for the latest "Gen". So "Nobby" (Sgt. A P J Clark), "Jock" (F/Sgt. J Beattie) and myself (F/Sgt. J E L Brett) all went off to the W/T and Gunnery section whilst "Tubby" (Sgt. D Browne) went to navigation, " Cobby" (Sgt. W T G Cobden) to bombing section and Skip and "Dickie" (F/Sgt. D Dickinson) went to pilots and engineers section.
Once we had all the information on what to expect in the way of weather, flak, codes and what sort of defence the Jerries were likely to be putting up against us tonight, we all met again in the main aircrew mess for tea and of course discussed or rather betted as to where the target was likely to be. But even the most experienced aircrew would have lost their bets today as this place hadn't ever been "got at" before as we all found out once we were in the main briefing hall where we assembled at 18-30 hours. Altogether on this tonight there were to be 65 aircraft from our station alone as oneside housed 207 Squadron and on the other side was 44 Squadron (South African). Our squadron were putting up 34 aircraft and 44 Squadron were putting up 31 but with other squadrons of 5 Group Bomber Command there was to be a total of 350, mostly with the very latest mark 3 Lancaster's flying to the very farthest borders of Germany tonight. The target was to Bohlen which is almost on the Polish/Czech borders. The duration of the operation was to be 9 or 10 hours allowing for any delays of the PFF boys marking the target etc. Take off time was to be 20.10 hours at two minute intervals which would allow each aircraft to clear the runway before each the next in line took off.
Our bomb load was to be a total weight of 25,000lbs, two thirds of which were high explosive bombs and the other third of incendiaries (of the self fusing type) plus a few marker flares of our own which were stored next to the bomb bay nearer to the "flamer" racks. Had those flares accidentally detonated whilst flying it would have only been a matter of seconds before the whole aircraft had been blown up (the reason that I have made mention of these flares will be seen further on).
The O/C of our squadron WC. Black told all of us that tonight's "Do" was an all out effort with maximum aircraft flying, also that the target was quite an easy one and although there was a moon, there was also enough cloud to be able to bomb through quite nicely and as he said, quite safely.
After briefing, our next job was to collect the flying rations for the trip before going in to our meal again in the aircrew mess. The meal consisted of large steaks, eggs and masses of chips, this is a memory that is very hard to forget as I think that all of us had double helpings and Tubby even went around for third helpings. We had often had ham and eggs before a flight but tonight the cooks had really excelled themselves. Although we didn't know it of course, this was to be our last meat together and this memory is still as clear as though it was only yesterday instead of 18 years ago now.
Once we had left the dining hall, our next stop was the crews dressing rooms on the airfield, there we had to get all togged up in the load of flying gear that was very necessary for our long and cold flight ahead. Skip and Dickie were the two lucky ones as far as getting dressed was concerned as in the "Glasshouse" of the Lanc it was always pretty warm, so they just had to put on their Irvin jackets over their battledress and after that just the "Mae West" and parachute harnesses, while the rest of us struggled with polo sweaters, electric under-suit, then a kapok under-suit after the flying overalls, flying boots and finally the "Mae West's" and of course the parachute harnesses as well, with three pairs of gloves. Once all this had been done, out into "Garry" that took us out to our dear old "George" who was patiently waiting our arrival at the dispersal point.
Having unloaded all our gear, we began to walk our aircraft and luckily we had an half-hour to spare as almost as soon as we got to the kite both Cobby and Tubby said almost together "Bloody Hellfire, I've forgotten the bombing area/map". Then like two black bats out of hell, they both charged off back to the crew rooms to find their lost property. Soon after this Dickie who had been checking the aircraft came back to the Skipper and reported that the Port inner engine had an oil leak that didn't look so hot to him and the fitter/rigger had told him that a spare part was needed for the engine but could not be obtained until the next day. Also the hydraulic system to the rear turret was a bit dicey and had been playing up on its test earlier today. By the time Cobby and Tubby had puffed their way back to the rest of us, the ground crew F/Sgt. fitter had also arrived on the scene and said to "Taff" that it was up to him as to whether he classed our kite U/S for this trip or not.
All seven then held our own private "Council of War" and wholeheartedly agreed to take the aircraft as it was, agreeing that should the engine or rear turret go completely U/S then we would turn back to base providing that we had not already reached the "point of no return". Soon now we were all in our different positions in the aircraft after having stowed our rations and chutes away in the right places. Then Skip called each of us up in turn, our replies: "Bombardier...OK, Engineer...OK, Navigator...OK, Wireless Op...OK, Mid- Upper Gunner...OK, and last but by no means least, Tail-End Charlie...OK"
Now skippers voice again over the intercom, "Righto Dickie lad, do your stuff, prime engines Port 1, now Starboard 1, right, now Port 2, and Starboard 2". "Dickie - Right Skip, all engines primed, ready to cough".
" Hello Johnnie, ask for our permission to take off" "Roger Skip, hello control this is Floxet George, Floxet George, may we take off please"
"Hello Floxet George, control here, your take off is two minutes after Floxet Fox, take off in6 minutes from now"
"Roger control, wilco 6 minutes, as now listening out"
Now suddenly the four great Merlin engines burst into life with an almost deafening roar which crackled through the earphones of us all. The bomb doors slowly closed together locking in all concentrated death cylinders, holding them to the belly of the great aircraft until such time that were to spew out in sticks onto the "Third Reich". Soon now we began to trundle forward just following Fox who was now revving up on the 2 - 4 runway. Then very suddenly it seemed we were at full revs also and slowly moving down the runway, then gathering more and more speed until with a sudden burst of throttle on all four engines, the grim blunt nose of "George" lifted skywards and in doing so the wheels clicked into place in the inner engine nacelles.
The sky was now quite dark and by the time we reached Beachy Head, we climbed to a height of 20,000ft and like all the other squadrons were orbiting around this point until the Master Bomber told us to set course for our target. The time now was 20.45 hours and the moon was well up in the heavens with the stars by the million twinkling away in the night sky. For three of us this was going to a night that we would remember for the rest of our lives and when even we are forgotten, then there will always be the stars to remember this night of nights on the 5th/6th March 1945.
Once we had all crossed the French coast, W/T silence was maintained until we crossed the German frontier and then beyond the allied lines, then the air was alive again with routes, instructions, etc., mostly coming from "Grassgreen" the master bomber calling up to us all by the code name "Fairylike". Just after crossing into enemy held Germany, the light flak started up. All colours, red, yellow, green. and blue looking very pretty when it wasn't near you. It wasn't long before they found most of our heights and range, then it began to get uncomfortably close and Jock who had the mid-upper position suddenly gave a yell of pain, he had been hit in the shoulder and arm by stray pieces of flak that had come through the turret front. I got up to him and helped him back to the wireless seat and then dressed his wounds before going into the mid-upper myself for the rest of the trip. Looking about me now I could see that some of the boys had already "Bought" it as the Jerry gunners were pretty accurate and our aircraft in from of us and below was on fire and hovering in the air while the crew were bailing out. Suddenly, it just nose dived straight for the ground where it hit and exploded in a vivid sheet of yellow flame.
Flying on our port side and level with us was one of the 44Squadron boys, as it dived to dodge some flak that was coming up, a stray shell must have hit its bomb bay as this simply disintegrated in the air. As suddenly as it started, the flak barrage stopped and in its place was searchlights and night fighters mostly FW 190's. They were buzzing all over the sky it seemed, their cannons blazing away at any Lanc that was on its own and there were quite a few like that, going down like flaming arrows to the earth below. Nobby began yelling, "I got one of those bastards on our tail Skipper, he's coming in now, 500yds, 200yds. Now you cow-son take that lot", so saying he fired a quick burst from the four Browning's and he hit the fighter amidships. There was a crack like thunder and the fighter became a ball of flame in seconds. Soon both Nobby and I were firing away at another one that had spotted us and this time I managed to knock this one down just as his belly went over the top of us as he pulled up and away. For a second, he seemed to stall, then nosed dived to the deck.
Soon now we arrived over the target with most of the others and it was not long before it was out turn to go in and bomb. Then Cobby was in charge of the aircraft while on the bombing run. By this time the flak and blinding searchlights had started up again and it was not at all pleasant. Just as we started our run in to the target (which was marshalling yards and an oil refinery), the flak got worse and one shell exploded very near the aircraft tearing a gash in the side of it and also taking with it most of my heel and part of my foot. Also a few pieces in the shoulder and back but with the coldness of it in the air, I didn't lose much blood nor consciousness which turned out to be a bit of luck for us all.
Cobby was now giving his orders to Skip, "2 degrees to port Skip, now stay like that, blast, this drift is taking us away from the target, 10 degrees to port now, sorry, 6 degrees to starboard now, hold her steady now, right Skip bombs away, right on target, whoa what's this, I'm getting a "Red Signal" on the bomb board, Johnnie nip down and see what it is will you?"
I hadn't told any of them that I had been hit, I thought that the least said the better. So I crawled down to the bomb bay and found that 2 of the incendiaries had got caught up in the bomb release wires and as they had been primed by the master switch, were now fused to 2 minutes. Telling Cobby that I had found the trouble and that could do it, I crawled up and got the fire axe, then began knocking away at the wires that were holding the them in but it didn't budge them . So with my one good foot I started to kick down on them for all I was worth and the last kick freed them and as they fell, they exploded. To say that I sweated blood for a while is an understatement!!
Cobby then dropped the last stick of bombs and then said, "Bombs away Skipper, lets get the hell out of it now" With a great feeling of relief Skip now turned our nose for home and as he did so another shell hit us, this time in the port engine and set it on fire. Dickie quickly feathered the engine and got the fire out. Soon one more shell this time over the top of us which penetrated the "Glasshouse" and knocked all the instruments for a Burton, so now it meant almost flying blind but Tubby came to the rescue by taking stock of where we were by the stars and this way he was guiding us and the Lanc home, the Skipper using his small hand compass as well.
When we got over allied territory we breathed a little easier again but only for a little while as somewhere below us, although supposedly on our side, someone was firing at us. We flashed our signal to them but they took no notice of it and continued to fire at us, hitting us quite a number of times. Skipper was hit in the legs, Cobby got it in the arms and Tubby was hit in the shoulder, all luckily not badly but a lot of cursing was being done on board. Now as the Lanc was getting very hard to handle with all the knocks it had taken in the last couple of hours or so. Soon now we were passing over the French coast again and over the Channel, then turning to fly in crippled fashion up the east coast and onto home base. Luckily the W/T was still in working order and Skip got Jock to call up base and get the cloud base so that if possible we could fly under it so then we could see where we were going.
The reply came back that the cloud was 500ft at base and this was repeated two or three times, so we flew up the coast gradually losing height and when we had the last message from base the cloud was at 400ft. But somehow and something was wrong because as we came out of cloud, all I had the time to see was the base of the cloud and then one very loud and thunderous explosion and then I was thrown suddenly into a black oblivion, for how long I could never tell not even now but on coming round, found myself with part of the tail plane in my mouth as I appeared to be lying on my back on some sort of rock.
As soon as I had managed to extricate myself from under the wreckage, I dragged myself up as by now my leg and other wounds were giving me hell. Now in the dim half-light before the dawn I could just make out the jagged shape of the lower half of the Lanc which had snapped off from below the mid upper turret and it was now standing up on end with the rear turret buried in what appeared to be sand. Feeling my way along the side, slowly making my way towards the front of the plane I fell over and into the emergency dingy which meant that we must have hit the sea as the dingy would automatically come out on contact with salt water. All this time I could hear the hiss of escaping steam and oxygen and smell very strongly the petrol fumes and oil. Apart from these noises, there was a sinister silence and I felt as though I was the only person left alive in this world, it was a very scaring thought.
Gradually I could see a bit more wreckage, this time one of the wings with only one engine left on it, the other was quite a distance from the aircraft, to the left was the main part of the planes fuselage with the pilots cabin broken off and it lay in the front a few yards. After crawling out to the cabin and getting inside it, it was quite evident that for Cobby and Dickie also Tubby, this had been their last flight. But the Skipper was not in the cabin and after looking around outside again, I found Taff still in his pilots seat with his hands still gripping the wheel, this for him had also been the last trip.
Whilst I was still undoing the Skippers safety straps, I hear a faint call for help, it came from inside the main part of the plane, getting back there seemed to take me ages with having to crawl all the time. Once inside I saw Jock in a rather nasty attitude near the bulkhead with his legs doubled up in front of him. He was only semi-conscious and moaning with what must have been terrific pain as both his legs were broken in a few places. I managed to drag him into the dingy and there I took off my "Mae West" and made a splint of it the best way I could. Then I sent up a number "Very Lights" from the pistol and also set the emergency radio going to give anyone an idea of our position. Then I crawled along to where the rear turret was in the sand and to my amazement found that Nobby was still alive and the sea was now almost washing over the turret.
Getting back into the aircraft, I got hold of the axe that I had used earlier and at the turret again I frenziedly began hitting it for all I was worth. When I got Nobby free, he was in a very bad state with all his injuries, legs and arms broken with deep gashes in his head and face etc. Now it was getting lighter and the sea was getting much deeper now as the tide was coming in, as in the far distance I could now see the coastline of Boston, Lincs. After getting Nobby into the dinghy I only had time left to get two bodies into it before the sea became too rough for me to get to the other two. Then I had to strap myself on to the outside of the dinghy as there wasn't any room in it for me as well.
After what like hours of signalling, we were finally picked u by a fishing boat out of Boston. Once ashore it wasn't long before we were on our way to the RAF hospital at Rauceby and within a week or so I was sent back to the squadron with a plaster cast on the whole of one leg and thigh. Two days later I was assigned to another crew and was on another op with the plaster an all!!
I managed to see Jock and Nobby a few times whilst they were in hospital but once they were moved away, I never got the chance to see them again and sorry to say have never seen either of then since or even heard of from them although I have tried to contact them by letter and RAFA etc. So all that I can hope is that they are still both alive and well where ever they may be now.
So ended an unforgettable chapter in my life, I often think now of all the happy times that we shared as a crew in those days and also think how lucky I was to have had such a very good crew to work with as a team. May I just say in closing to Skip, Cobby and Tubby also Dickie, thank you a million for the memories that I have now and will always treasure of you all.
John E L Brett, BEM (1963)