Thirty Missions - John Coutts
(Best printed in landscape)

The story of a tailgunner's tour of duty in 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF

Introduction

Click on image to enlarge

A "sprog" in Morecambe, 1941

(A sprog is a new military recruit. This sprog is John Coutts)

This is a story about my Dad, and his experiences in the Royal Air Force and particularly during the Second World War. Early in the war he was a motorbike despatch rider, and bore a long scar on one leg from a nasty accident on black ice as he approached a bridge. But what marked him for life even more was that he was a tailgunner in an Avro Lancaster bomber.

Dad qualified as an air gunner after his A.B. Initio Gunnery course at No. 2 AGS Dalcross (27/08/43 to 09/10/43, having trained on Avro Ansons. The official remarks on his assessment were:

"Average intelligence, has worked hard."

He then trained on Vickers Wellingtons at 29 OTU, RAF Bruntingthorpe (29/10/43 - 13/12/43). This was when he first met his future Avro Lancaster pilot, trainee pilot Sergeant Merrick Heath. The Chief Gunnery Instructor commented:

"Steady and reliable Gunner - should be an asset to his crew."

Later exercises at 1654 Conversion Unit RAF Wigsley were on the Short Stirling (25/04/44 - 19/06/44). Dad's brief training on Lancasters was from 04/07/44 to 17/07/44. 

In RAF Bomber Command the normal tour of duty for a bomber crew was 30 operations ( i.e. missions). This is the story of a typical tour of duty in a Lancaster, in mid to late 1944.

RAF Bomber Command

By April 1943 RAF Bomber Command was organised into a number of Groups, each with various squadrons of bombers, as follows (Lake, 20021):

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No. 1 Group had 5 Lancaster squadrons, and 5 Wellington squadrons

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No. 2 Group had 3 Ventura squadrons, 3 B-25 Mitchell squadrons, 2 Mosquito squadrons and 4 Boston squadrons

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No. 3 Group had 1 Lancaster squadron, 1 mixed Wellington / Stirling squadron, and 6 Stirling squadrons

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No. 4 Group had 4 Wellington squadrons, 4 Halifax squadrons, 2 mixed Halifax / Whitley squadrons, and 1 Whitley squadron

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No. 5 Group had 10 Lancaster squadrons

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No. 6 Group  (RCAF) had 6 Wellington squadrons and 3 Halifax squadrons

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No. 8 Group (Pathfinder Force) had 1 Lancaster squadron and 1 Halifax squadron (and was also equipped with Mosquitos and Wellingtons)

It is not uncommon today for the crews of downed aircraft to be honoured and remembered where they fell, as demonstrated by web this site from Belgium - Wings of Memory. This commemorates the crew of a Hampden from 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron shot down over Waasmunster on 14th October, 1941, as well as crews and aircraft from other squadrons.

By April 1945 the Avro Lancaster reigned supreme (Lake, 20022):

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No. 1 Group had 13 Lancaster squadrons

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No. 2 Group transferred out of RAF Bomber Command to 2 Allied Tactical Air Force.

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No. 3 Group had 12 Lancaster squadrons

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No. 4 Group had 11 Halifax squadrons 

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No. 5 Group had 17 Lancaster squadrons

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No. 6 (RCAF) Group had 9 operational Lancaster squadrons, 2 non-operational Lancaster squadrons, and 2 Halifax squadrons

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No. 8 (PFF) Group had 6 Lancaster squadrons (and was also equipped with Mosquitos)

That's 59 Lancaster squadrons! Dad was in 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF, a Lancaster squadron in No. 5 Group.

A total of 7,377 Avro Lancasters were built  - including 430 in Canada - and 3,836 were lost (around 52% of the total built) including 2,508 against Germany (Lake, 20022). Lancasters dropped 608,612 tons of bombs during the war which is almost 64% of overall Bomber Command war time total of 955,044 tons (Lake, 20022).

44 (Rhodesia) Squadron - History

44 Squadron was originally formed during the First World War. The squadron was equipped with Sopwith Camels

Arthur Harris (known in the Second World War as "Bomber" Harris) had served with the army in Rhodesia in the First World War before returning to England in 1915 to serve with the Royal Flying Corps. By the end of the First World War he was the  commander of 44 Squadron.

Re-formed in 1937, the squadron was based at RAF Wyton (March 1937-April 1937) then at RAF Andover (April 1937-June 1937). The squadron was equipped with Hawker Hinds (March 1937-December 1937) and later the Bristol Blenheim (December 1937-February 1939) and the Avro Hanson (February 1939-June 1939).

When the Second World War started the squadron was based at RAF Waddington and equipped with Handley Page Hampdens. The squadron was now commanded by John Nelson Boothman, formerly with the High Speed Flight RAF and winner of the 1931 Schneider Trophy. In 1941 the squadron was renamed from 44 Squadron to 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, to honour Rhodesia's contribution to the war effort and in recognition of the fact that roughly a quarter of the air and ground crew were Rhodesian. 

44 (Rhodesia) squadron, of 5 Group,  RAF Bomber Command was the first bomber formation to be equipped with the new Avro Lancaster heavy bomber, with the delivery of 3 Lancasters on Christmas Eve 1941 (Lake, 20021). From May 1943 the squadron was based at RAF Dunholme Lodge near Lincoln, and from 30th September 1944 they were based at RAF Spilsby, near Skegness.

In September 1939 Harris took command of 5 Group. It was in February 1942 that the former 44 Squadron commander "Bomber" Harris took command of RAF Bomber Command. I wonder whether Harris, with his links to the squadron and Rhodesia, had anything to do with the renaming of his old squadron and ensuring they were the first to get the Avro Lancaster?

On 17th April 1942 a precision bombing raid on the (U-Boat) MAN diesel engine factory at Augsburg comprised Lancasters from No's 44 and 97 Squadrons. Of 44 Squadron's Lancasters, only Squadron Leader Nettleton's KM-B returned and Nettleton himself was awarded the Victoria Cross. 44 squadron also participated in the 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne, and the precision bombing and sinking of the Tirpitz (sister ship to the Bismarck).

Here are links to the official RAF histories of these famous raids:

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Augsburg Raid

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1,000 bomber raid on Cologne

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Sinking of the Tirpitz

Here is the official RAF history page for 44 Squadron:

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No.44 Squadron

After the war, the front-line 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron continued to fly the Avro Lancaster (until June 1947), then the Avro Lincoln, the B-29 Superfortress (called the Washington when in RAF service) and the English Electric Canberra. The squadron took part in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and was disbanded in 1957. The squadron reformed on 10th August 1960 at RAF Waddington and was equipped with eight Avro Vulcan B Mk I bombers. Finally, in 1982, the squadron took part in the Falkland's War with the extremely long range bombing of Stanley Airfield. In December 1982 the squadron, the last of the Vulcan bomber squadrons, was disbanded.

Squadron Organisation

44 (Rhodesia) squadron's identity code and call sign during the Second World War was KM. A Lancaster squadron comprised 26 operational aircraft, comprising two flights, allowing individual aircraft their own unique call signs (used for radio communication, and marked on the side of the aircraft). These call signs followed the RAF Phonetic Alphabet as follows:

A Flight   B Flight  
KM-A Able KM-N Nan
KM-B Baker KM-O Orange
KM-C Charlie KM-P Peter
KM-D Dog KM-Q Queenie
KM-E Easy KM-R Roger 
(or Robert)
KM-F Freddie KM-S Sugar
KM-G George KM-T Tommy
KM-H Harry KM-U Uncle
KM-I India KM-V Victor
KM-J Jig KM-W Willie
KM-K King KM-X X-ray
KM-L Love KM-Y York
KM-M Mother KM-Z Zebra

All Lancasters were also given a unique designation. The unique designation for Dad's KM-R was PB417. This designation was used in conjunction with the aircraft's call sign. Thus, Dad and his fellow crew members flew the bulk of their missions in PB417 KM-R (a Mark III Lancaster). They also flew in KM-L, KM-O and KM-S (though I don't have their unique aircraft designations).

Due to a very high casualty rate, a given call sign could be one Lancaster one week (with its own unique designation), and entirely different Lancaster (with its own unique designation) the next. For example, according to William Dives, DFC, KM-Q had been replaced five times between September 1942 and soon after 15th July 1944 (when Dives' "Queenie" replaced the downed PB206 KM-Q).

According to the RAF Museum (see references below), a Lancaster might be expected to survive an average of 21 missions before being lost.

44 (Rhodesia) Squadron - Sorties and Casualties

44 (Rhodesia) squadron suffered the third highest casualty rate of RAF Bomber Command, and the highest casualties of No. 5 Group.

44 (Rhodesia) squadron total sorties and losses for the war were:

bulletHampdens - 2043 sorties (43 lost)
bulletLancasters - 4362 sorties (149 lost, plus 22 destroyed in crashes)

11 Lancasters were lost in June 1944 alone, and 11 more in July 1944.  As there are 26 operational aircraft in the squadron, that's over 36% in bomber losses per month.

Dad's position as Rear Gunner (or tailgunner) was perhaps the most dangerous position, with the lowest life expectancy of the 7 crew positions. For a start, the rear turret was a tight fit meaning that the parachute was stored outside of the turret. Bailing out was thus very challenging for a tailgunner. In addition, fighter pilots often favoured attacking a bomber from the rear. Although more dangerous for the attacking fighter (due to the bomber's rear gunner) it was also more effective. It was the tailgunner's job not just to shoot at attacking fighters but also to get on the intercom to the pilot for evasive manoeuvres, without which the tailgunner could be a sitting duck. After all, a typical German fighter had 20mm cannon compared to the four 0.303-in machine guns of the rear turret.

Another effective technique developed by the Luftwaffe from 1943 was Schrage Musik ("Jazz Music"), whereby Lancasters were attacked from below by the upward firing guns of specialised night fighters.

The Thirty Ops

The following table shows Dad's thirty missions. The Op (Operation = mission), Aircraft, Date, Base, Target, Flying Time and Day/Night entries are based on my Dad's log book, and so apply to his official tour of duty. The Overall Forces [which included many other squadrons besides 44 (Rhodesia) squadron] and Overall Result entries are based on the official RAF History for those months of the war.

Op Aircraft Date Base Overall Forces Target Flying Time Day/Night Overall Result
1

KM-S

19/07/1944 DL 132 Lancasters
12 Mosquitos
ST LEU D'ESSERANT, Thiverny, Creil, France. V-1 doodlebug 4 hours,
20 mins
Day Targets hit, 
no aircraft lost
2

KM-S

20/07/1944 DL 302 Lancasters
15 Mosquitos
COUTRAI, France. Rail troop marshalling yards 3 hours,
40 mins
Night "Both targets devastated",
9 Lancasters lost
3

KM-O

24/07/1944 DL 461 Lancasters
153 Halifaxes
STUTTGART, Germany. Industrial target 8 hours,
30 mins
Night Central districts "devastated", 
17 Lancasters lost,
4 Halifaxes lost
4

KM-O

25/07/1944 DL 412 Lancasters
138 Halifaxes
STUTTGART, Germany. Industrial target 9 hours,
5 mins
Night Central districts "devastated", 
8 Lancasters lost,
4 Halifaxes lost
5

KM-O

26/07/1944 DL 178 Lancasters
9 Mosquitos
GIVORS, France. Railway yards / troops 9 hours,
25 mins
Night Accurate attack,
4 Lancasters lost,
2 Mosquitos lost
6

KM-O

28/07/1944 DL 494 Lancasters
2 Mosquitos
STUTTGART, Germany. Industrial target 8 hours,
5 mins
Night Bright Moon, German fighters intercept bombers on outward flight, 39 Lancasters lost
7

KM-O

30/07/1944 DL 462 Lancasters
200 Halifaxes
30 Mosquitos
CAHAGNES, France. German stronghold / resistance 5 hours,
35 mins
Day Due to heavy cloud, only 377 aircraft able to bomb, so only 2 out 6 targets hit. 
4 Lancasters lost
8 KM-O 31/07/1944 DL 127 Lancasters
4 Mosquitos
JOIGNY LA ROCHE, Bourgogne, France. Railway yards / troops 5 hours,
30 mins
Day "Accurate raid",
1 Lancaster lost
9 KM-O 1/08/1944 DL 385 Lancasters
324 Halifaxes
67 Mosquitos
SIRACOURT, Arras, France. Railway yards? 4 hours,
30 mins
Day Poor weather, only 79 aircraft able to bomb. No aircraft lost.
10 KM-O 3/08/1944 DL 601 Lancasters
492 Halifaxes
21 Mosquitos
TROSSY ST MAXIM, France. V-1 Site (later found to be decoy) 4 hours,
50 mins
Day Clear weather, "all raids successful", 6 Lancasters lost.
11 KM-O 5/08/1944 DL 257 Lancasters
469 Halifaxes
16 Mosquitos
ST LEU D'ESSERANT, Thiverny, Creil, France. V1 doodlebug 4 hours,
20 mins
Day Bombing conditions good, 1 Halifax lost.
12 KM-L 15/08/1944 DL 599 Lancasters
385 Halifaxes
19 Mosquitos
1 Lightning
DEELAN, Holland. Fighter airfield. 3 hours,
50 mins
Day Perfect visibility, 9 airfields attacked, all raids successful.
3 Lancasters lost.
13 KM-R 16/08/1944 DL 461 Lancasters STETTIN, Germany. Baltic sea port to Russian Front 8 hours,
15 mins
Night Accurate attack,
5 Lancasters lost. 
14 KM-R 18/08/1944 DL 158 Lancasters
11 Mosquitos
FORET DE L'ISLE ADAM, near Paris, France. German supply depot. 4 hours,
20 mins
Day 2 Lancasters lost
15 KM-R 25/08/1944 DL 190 Lancasters
6 Mosquitos
DARMSTADT, Germany. Industrial? 8 hours,
50 mins
Night Raid a failure, master bomber had to return early. 95 buildings hit, 8 people killed. Russelsheim successfully bombed by some aircraft. 
7 Lancasters lost.
16 KM-R 26/08/1944 DL 174 Lancasters KONIGSBERG, Germany (East Prussia). Supply port East Front 10 hours,
30 mins
Night Eastern part of town hit, 4 Lancasters lost.
17 KM-R 29/08/1944 DL 189 Lancasters KONIGSBERG, Germany (East Prussia). Supply port East Front. Master bomber Wing Commander J Woodroffe. 11 hours Night "One of the most successful No. 5 Group attacks of the war", heavy opposition over target, 15 Lancasters lost.
18 KM-R 31/08/1944 DL 418 Lancasters
147 Halifaxes
36 Mosquitos
AUCHY LES HESDINS, France. V-2 rocket stores. 4 hours,
15 mins
Day 8 sites found and bombed. 
6 Lancasters lost.
19 KM-R 3/09/1944 DL 348 Lancasters
315 Halifaxes
12 Mosquitos
DEELAN, Holland. Fighter airfield. 3 hours,
55 mins
Day 6 airfields attacked successfully, 
1 Halifax lost at Venlo.
20 KM-R 10/09/1944 DL 113 Lancasters
24 Mosquitos
MUNCHEN GLADBACH, Germany 4 hours,
25 mins
Night "...devastating raid on centre", no aircraft lost.
21

KM-R

12/09/1944 DL 204 Lancasters
13 Mosquitos
STUTTGART, Germany. Industrial target 4 hours,
10 mins
Night Attack successful, firestorm occurred. 
4 Lancasters lost.
22

KM-R

17/09/1944 DL 370 Lancasters
351 Halifaxes
41 Mosquitos
BOULOGNE, France. German garrison. 3 hours,
5 mins
Day Garrison surrendered soon afterwards, 
1 Halifax lost, 
1 Lancaster lost 
23

KM-R

5/10/1944 SP 227 Lancasters
1 Mosquito
WILHELMSHAVEN, Germany. Baltic port. 4 hours,
55 mins
Day 10/10ths cloud, bombing scattered. 12 people died. 18 Lancasters also attacked a group of ships. 
1 Lancaster lost.
24

KM-R

7/10/1944 SP 121 Lancasters
2 Mosquitos
WALCHEREN ISLAND, Dutch coast. Break sea wall / flood artillery 2 hours,
50 mins
Day Sea walls breached near Flushing, no aircraft losses.
25

KM-R

14/10/1944 SP 233 Lancasters
7 Mosquitos
BRUNSWICK, Germany 8 hours Night 5th attempt on destruction of Brunswick - this time successful. Old centre completely destroyed. 
1 Lancaster lost.
26

KM-R

19/10/1944 SP 263 Lancasters
7 Mosquitos
NUREMBURG, Germany 7 hours,
55 mins
Night Target was  cloud-covered, partial success only.
2 Lancasters lost.
27

KM-R

24/10/1944 SP 25 Lancasters
9 Halifaxes
KATTEGUT nr Denmark. Sea mine laying  - "Gardening" - against U-Boats 7 hours,
20 mins
Night No aircraft lost.
28

KM-R

28/10/1944 SP 237 Lancasters
7 Mosquitos
BERGEN, Norway. U-Boat pens 7 hours,
5 mins
Night Target was cloud-covered, bombers descended to 5,000 feet but still cloudy, so only 47 Lancasters bombed. 
3 Lancasters lost.
29

KM-R

4/11/1944 SP 174 Lancasters
2 Mosquitos
DORTMUND EMS CANAL, Ladbergen, Germany. Supply line. 5 hours,
15 mins
Night Both branches of canal breached, preventing the smelting of coke for war production. Albert Speer stated later what serious setbacks these attacks were. 
3 Lancasters lost.
30

KM-R

6/11/1944 SP 235 Lancasters
7 Mosquitos
DORTMUND EMS CANAL, Gravenhorst, Germany. Supply line. 6 hours,
10 mins
Night Marking force markers are over-accurate and hit canal and sink, so only 31 Lancasters bombed and raid abandoned. 
10 Lancasters lost.

DL = RAF Dunholme Lodge, SP = RAF Spilsby

What surprised me about Dad's thirty missions was how intensive it was. It was completed in just under 4 months in mid to late 1944. Another surprising point is that Dad flew 13 daylight missions, and 17 night missions. So over 43% of his missions were flown in daylight, which blows away the common perception that the RAF only bombed at night. 

Overall figures for RAF Bomber Command are 66,851 day missions (and 876 losses) and 297,633 night missions (and 7,449 losses) [1]. That's roughly 22.5 % day missions over the course of the war, though the bulk of the day missions are from 1944 onwards.

Dad's 44 (Rhodesia) squadron operational flying time was 56 hours 35 minutes (Day) and 130 hours 40 minutes (night); training flying time was 49 hours 35 minutes (day) and 3 hours 10 minutes (night).

Dad apparently carried a brick with him on each of his first seven missions, and lobbed them out of his "clear vision panel" (which is a panel open to the elements) when over the target. He then had second thoughts, worried he might hit an innocent bystander!

Prior to Dad's official tour of duty he also completed two operational (but non-bombing) pamphlet drops over France. Thus, Dad and the crew actually completed 32 operational missions. 

Strategic bombing during the Second World War for RAF Bomber Command followed the Area Bombing Directive until 14th January 1943. From that date the new priority was the  U-Boat pens, such as those at Bergen in Norway (see mission no. 28), or sea mines (also known as "vegetables") such as those at Kattegut (see mission no. 27). After the war, Dad actually met a German whose U-Boat was sunk by a mine - soon after Dad's mission - in the area mined by PB417 KM-R and the other Lancasters on that mission. Dad and the U-Boat survivor shared a few beers together.

Other strategic targets during Dad's thirty missions include sites that launched the German V-1 and V-2 rocket terror weapons (one of which turned out to be a decoy site - see mission no. 10). These were known as "crossbow targets" (White, 2007, p.158).

German industrial cities were still targeted however, in an effort to "de-house" the German war factory workers. Dad's missions to Stuttgart, Munchengladbach and Brunswick (particularly those like mission no. 21 to Stuttgart that caused a firestorm) confirmed "Bomber" Harris's prediction that Germany would "reap the whirlwind".

Guy Gibson, of "Dam Busters" (Operation Chastise) fame, was to die in another raid on Munchengladbach on 19th-20th September, 1944.

Of course, bombing was also conducted in support of ground operations by Allied troops. Dad's missions all take place after D-Day (06/06/44) and well before The Battle of The Bulge (which started on 16/12/44). Notice the bombing of rail marshalling yards after D-Day, to disrupt German reinforcements counter-attacking the invasion beaches. 

Dad's missions include the period leading up to Operation Market-Garden (17/09/44 - 25/09/44), such as the bombing of the German fighter base at Deelan in Southern Holland (mission no. 19). The bombing of Boulogne (mission no.22) was in preparation for an Allied attack on the German garrison there, which surrendered soon afterwards.  The attack on Walcheren Island (mission no. 24) was in support of the Battle of the Schedlt

Perhaps the most impressive are the extremely long-distance (950 mile each way) missions to Konigsberg (missions 16 and 17). This included flying over neutral Swedish airspace "escorted" by Swedish fighters, and seeing light flak fired into the sky (in protest of this breach of their airspace), but not fired at them. 

On the first Konigsberg mission there was a delay in marking the target, leaving the Lancasters vulnerable to flak and enemy fighters and increasing the chances of collision as the bombers stacked up over the target. Dad told me of two occasions when he yelled through to intercom to Merrick Heath to avoid collisions that would have smashed the rear turret clean off. John Laforest recently told me of how they avoided several mid-air collisions, including over Konigsberg. 

Weather often played a crucial role in the success or failure of a mission, though sometimes the results were good despite the weather. Bomb Aimer John Laforest told me of "the worst storm of my life" over Givors (see mission no. 5, which was listed in the RAF History as an accurate attack). It was a big electrical storm, so bad that aircraft had to switch on their navigation lights to avoid collisions (usually not a wise thing to do over a target). He describes the experience in some detail in the official operational history of the squadron. Here is a short excerpt (White, 2007, p.154):

"At least an hour before arriving at Givors the sky was continuously lit up with dazzling brilliance and fearful rapidity. Never before or since have I seen a more vicious electrical storm. It grew more frightening as we drew nearer; the rain was unceasing and as we entered the storm our aircraft was tossed in every direction."

John Laforest also recounted how their Lancaster got shot up a number of times, including incendiary holes from flak and fighter 20mm cannon shells. Dad told me once of some flak that punched a hole in his turret just between his legs, and somehow missed him. Any closer and I wouldn't have been around to write this article!

On 1st November 1944, Dad witnessed a 207 Squadron Lancaster  - with technical problems - that skewed off the runway into three parked Halifaxes. Despite enormous explosions from fuel and bombs, all the crew survived. This incident is described in this RAF Spilsby article.

RAF History

Read the official RAF campaign diaries (including aerial photographs of some targets) for the months of my Dad's missions:

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July 1944 

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August 1944 

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September 1944 

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October 1944

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November 1944

The Crew

Rank / Name Nationality Crew Position
Flt Lt Merrick Heath DFC Rhodesian Pilot
Flying Officer John Laforest Australian Bomb Aimer
Sgt. Albert Smith Irish Flight Engineer
Sgt. Bill Bennett Scottish Navigator
Sgt. Ron Parkinson English Wireless Operator
Sgt. Paddy Pyper Northern Irish Mid Upper Gunner
Sgt. John Coutts Scottish Rear Gunner

Click on image to enlarge

The Crew of PB417 KM-R. 

Front row: Bill Bennett, Reginald 'Merrick' Heath DFC and John Laforest. 
Back-row
Paddy Pyper, John Coutts, Albert Smith and Ron Parkinson.
 

Here is a photograph of Dad with his fellow crew members and ground crew just prior to their final mission:

The Crew of PB417 KM-R, with ground crew, before their last mission.
Their motto, which matched the aircraft motif, was "Pull your finger out".

My Dad is in the bottom right corner. Although this is Dad's story, it is also their story. They all shared the experience of those thirty missions together, and forged a bond unlike any other. A large framed copy of this photograph has been donated to RAF Waddington. The Lancaster was KM-R, and either R for Roger or R for Robert

Sadly Merrick (as Dad called him) and all but one of his civilian crew died on 22/11/1948 during a crash in heavy fog at Chute near Andover, flying Lancastrian G-AHJW of Flight Refuelling Ltd as part of Operation Plainfare during the Berlin Airlift. I took Dad to see their grave, which was in a sad state, on several occasions. Thankfully, in time to hold a commemorative  service for the 60th anniversary of this tragic accident, my brother Peter was behind the move to restore the grave in 2008 - see Fallen Heroes' Lonely Grave from the local Andover Advertiser. The sole survivor - Vincent Stanley - attended the service, as did my siblings including Peter. The inscription on the memorial reads "They gave their lives for the cause of humanity."

Bundu Boy - William Dives, DFC

Dives was based at RAF Dunholme Lodge (23-08-44 to 30-09-44), and RAF Spilsby (30-09-44 to 04-04-45) around the time my Dad was there.

Having acquired a copy of Dives' memoirs from his days in 44 (Rhodesia) squadron, it appears that he flew his very first Op as co-pilot to Merrick Heath, DFC, on Dad's mission no.16 to Konigsberg. This was over and above the normal crew of seven, and was known as flying "second dickey". A crew might typically be expected to accommodate 2-3 second dickeys on a tour of duty, but the experienced PB417 KM-R accommodated 11 or so over a number of missions! Dives includes the official squadron operational report provided by Merrick Heath (Dives, 2003, p.230):

"F/O Heath Attacked at 01.22 hrs from 7,000 ft. Target identified by ground detail of the bay and the south of city. Pilot remarks: No delay - at target: marking ready and controlling good: no fighters seen at target or on route very numerous S/lights at target. Moderate amount of flak."

Dives flew KM-Q on some of the same missions as PB417 KM-R:

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03/09/44 - DEELAN, Holland (Dad's mission no. 19)

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10/09/44 - MUNCHEN GLADBACH, Germany  (Dad's mission no. 20)

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05/10/44 - WILHELMSHAVEN, Germany (Dad's mission no. 23)

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14/10/44 - BRUNSWICK, Germany (Dad's mission no. 25)

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19/10/44 - NUREMBURG, Germany (Dad's mission no. 26)

Dives even piloted PB417 KM-R a few times, when Dad and his fellow crewmates were on leave:

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23-24/09/44 - Target Handorf / Munster

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26-27/09/44 - Target Karlsruhe

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27-28/9/44 - Target Kaiserslautern

He must have taken good care of her.

Thomas Starkie - A Lad From Accrington

Since writing this article in 2007 I have been contacted by many people interested in, or connected with, 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron. It was great to hear from John Porter in 2009 who has since published an account of his wife's uncle, Thomas Starkie - a Flight Engineer who flew with 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron from July through September 1944 (Porter, 2011). Sadly Thomas Starkie 'failed to return' from a mission over Darmstadt on 11th September. It was his 18th mission, and he was just 25 years old.

John Porter and I like to think that Thomas Starkie and my Dad probably knew each other.They flew on many of the same missions:

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30/07/44 - CAHAGNES, France (Dad's mission no. 7)

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31/07/44 - Joigny Laroche, France (Dad's mission no. 8)

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03/08/44 - TROSSY ST MAXIM, France (Dad's mission no. 10)

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05/08/44 - ST LEU D'ESSERANT, France (Dad's mission no. 11)

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25/08/44 - Darmstadt, Germany (Dad's mission no. 15)

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26/08/44 - Kongsberg, East Prussia (Dad's mission no. 16)

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27/08/44 - Kongsberg, East Prussia (Dad's mission no. 17)

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31/08/44 - Auchy Les Hesdins, France (Dad's mission no. 18)

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03/09/44 - DEELAN, Holland (Dad's mission no. 19)

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09/09/44 - MUNCHEN GLADBACH, Germany (Dad's mission no. 20)

From the squadron's operational records it sounds as though their second mission to Konigsberg was particularly harrowing:

"Konigsberg not attacked. Bombs jettisoned following combat and flak damage. Starboard inner engine on fire after canon shell or flak hit. Exploded flak shell through port outer engine nacelle. Returned in emergency. On the run up to target, given order to stand by. Commenced left hand orbit and was coned (by searchlight). Heavy and light flak. Lost height to about 12,000 feet, attempting to evade searchlight. Starboard inner caught fire and was feathered. Port outer engine giving problems."

Here's a link to an article in the local press on the Isle of Man including a picture of John Porter: That vital role of Bomber Command.

After the Thirty Missions

PB417 KM-R was lost during a mission over Harburg, Germany on 07/03/45. I believe all the crew  - but not Dad's crew, who completed their thirty missions together - were taken as prisoners of war.

On completing his thirty missions Dad transferred to the South East Asia Air Forces (RAF), in India. He was a nose-gunner B-24 Liberators in 1683 Conversion Unit, Kolar (03/05/45 to 28/05/45). He again flew in B-24 Liberators (in 355 Squadron) as a nose gunner from an airbase near Salboni (September 1945). This was prior to the Partition (and India's independence) of 1947. At some point in May 1945 Dad's aircraft strafed a Japanese base in Burma, as the soldiers fled into the jungle.

In 1947 Dad was back in England at 17 OTU RAF Swinderby, as a gunnery instructor on Vickers Wellingtons. In 1948 he was back on Avro Lancasters, transferring to 115 Squadron (call sign KO) on 19/11/1948. By July 1949 he'd clocked up another 392 hours and 10 minutes (day) flying, and 298 hours 43 minutes (night) flying, as an air gunner in Lancasters. From August 1948 Dad also flew in Avro Lincolns, also with 115 Squadron.

Dad was based at RAF Akrotiri  in Cyprus during 1958 - 1961, at the time of the unsuccessful Enosis ("union") campaign to unite Cyprus with Greece. I was born there in the RAF hospital on 26th December, 1959. By now Dad was an Air Defence Operator (using  radar equipment).

We were also based at RAF Stanmore Park in Middlesex, England from 1961 to 1965.

Dad left the RAF after 22 years service in 1965. As he had joined in 1941, he must have left and rejoined at some point.

Dad lived at a time when the end of the British Empire was in sight, and witnessed that end first hand in both India and Cyprus. He was a son of the empire. 

An Ordinary Bloke

Dad and his crewmates were by no means unique, but nonetheless they were lucky to have survived. They lived in extraordinary times. 

Dad was just an ordinary bloke, who survived his thirty missions against the odds. 

Dad lived for 44 (Rhodesia) squadron, and was a member of the No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron Association until his death. 

Click on image to enlarge

44 (Rhodesia) Squadron reunion, RAF Waddington. Dad is second from the left.

Dad died aged 84 on 15th August 2006. Ron Parkinson was at his funeral, which was attended by a standard-bearer from the Royal Air Forces Association

The No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron Association can be contacted via the RAF Register of Associations for squadrons.

Dad also lived for his family. Married to Patricia in 1952 after meeting at an RAF Yatesbury dance, they had 5 children - Suzanne, Gordon, Heather, David (me) and Peter. 

After Dad left the RAF we emigrated to Melbourne in 1965. Following a serious incident involving extensive burns to my maternal grandmother Rose, we moved back to England in 1968 so that Mum could be near her family in Calne, Wiltshire. We lived in Chippenham. Dad, a Scot, spent most of his life away from Scotland. He was proudly Scottish until the end.

Bomber Command Memorial

On 28th June 2012 the Queen unveiled a long overdue memorial was to the 55,000 men of Bomber Command who lost their lives in World War II. Refer BBC article Queen unveils RAF Bomber Command Memorial.

Churchill

I'll end with a quote from Sir Winston Churchill, in relation to "Bomber" Harris and RAF Bomber Command:

"All of your operations were planned with great care and skill. They were executed in the face of fierce opposition and appalling hazards. They made a decisive contribution to Germany's final defeat. The conduct of these operations demonstrated the fiery gallant spirit which animated your aircrews, and the high sense of duty of all ranks under your command. I believe that the massive achievements of Bomber Command will be long remembered as an example of duty nobly done."

 

 

References

Dives,William DFC. A Bundu Boy In Bomber Command. Trafford. ISBN 155395879-9. Trafford Publishing. 2003. These are the memoirs of a Rhodesian pilot from No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron.

Porter, John. A Lad from Accrington: The story of Flight Engineer Thomas Starkie. LFHHS. 2011. Available from Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society.

Lake, Jon. Lancaster Squadrons 1942-43. Osprey Combat Aircraft 31.ISBN 1-84176-313-6. Osprey Publishing Limited. 20021.

Lake, Jon. Lancaster Squadrons 1944-45. Osprey Combat Aircraft 35.ISBN 1-84176-433-7. Osprey Publishing Limited. 20022.

White Bsc, Alan. The King's Thunderbolts, No 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron Royal Air Force. An Operational Record and Roll of Honour 1917-1982.ISBN 978-1873257-85-2. TUCAN Books. 2007.

Web Sites:

RAF Museum - Avro Lancaster article

RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight - Lancaster article

RAF 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron article

RAF Avro Lancaster article

Australian War Memorial - G for George - Lancaster article

Bomber Command Museum of Canada (includes excellent material on the Avro Lancaster)

This page makes extensive use of links to Wikipedia

Send an email to dacoutts@optusnet.com.au with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 2007 David A. Coutts.
Last modified: 19 July, 2012