Darmstadt, Germany, September 11 1944:
“How does that target look, Stan?”
“Like daylight, skip - remember Cologne?”
“Remember it?” We’re still bombing it by the looks of that lot!” chipped in Billy Caldwell, the flight engineer.
“Flak doesn’t seem so bad, mind,” replied the bomb aimer from the nose of the aircraft.
The Lancaster bomber shuddered and rattled with every shell burst that came near, although everyone on board was sensing that the bomb aimer was right and the flak was nowhere near as intense as they were used to. They remembered, with chilling thoughts, the flak they had encountered on previous raids to the likes of Cologne and Hamburg, when even the most optimistic among them thought that their luck would finally run out. The shell fragments hit the bomber as if someone was throwing large handfuls of gravel at it. As this crew and the rest of 5 Group were streaming through the bombing run to Darmstadt, another wave of Halifax bombers were flying over the German coast to confuse Luftwaffe fighter command into thinking that they were the main attacking force, heading for Berlin. The crews of every ’plane on this raid tonight hoped that the diversionary tactic was working . . .
Flight Leutenant Jim MacLaren and his crew from 5 Group were on their twenty second ‘op’ and were in the second wave of this raid over the historic town of Darmstadt, just South of Frankfurt. The city below was ablaze, looking like a steelworks furnace in the distance, in full glow after the flames have died down, the fires pulsing almost in perfect time to the rumble of the aircraft’s engines. Stan Jeffrey, the bomb aimer, watched the run up to the drop zone through the Perspex bubble in the Lancaster’s nose, totally exposed to the white hot
fragments of shrapnel exploding all around him. He could even see the glow of the target through small gaps in the thin metal panels that made up the aircraft beneath him. There was no armour plating in this area of the aircraft and Stan was always acutely aware that the thin aluminium panels below him were all that stood between him and certain death from flak. Stan watched the city burn with a reddish, orange glow that seemed to contract and expand, punctuated by bright yellow bursts of flame as another ‘cookie’ bomb landed in amongst the inferno to blast away what was left of anything still standing.
MacLaren guided the Lancaster into its bomb run, and all the crew fell silent, lost in their own thoughts and prayers that the searchlights and flak would not home in on them. The rear gunner was always the last one to see the devastation to the target, but very little else in the way of other bombers. The rear gunner on this crew was John Robertson, another Scot, who always made a point of not looking at the glowing target as they flew over. Robertson always maintained that once your eyes adjusted to the dark, it was imperative not to look into this bright light, as it would take longer to readjust to the dark again. This, Robertson reasoned, could mean the time difference between seeing a night fighter and it blowing you out of the sky. It was this logic that had saved him and the rest of the crew on a number of occasions, when night fighters would suddenly appear as shadow, or a hail of tracer from one of their deadly cannons would suddenly come streaking towards them. Robertson had with him his own personal ‘bomb’, which he took on every trip. He, like many other rear gunners of the time, regularly carried a personal missile to throw out of the turret when they were over the target. It was usually a half brick, or some other piece of debris that might be lying around the airfield. For some, this futile gesture made them feel that they were making a personal contribution to the devastation below and somehow made them feel better. Robertson was no exception. On this occasion, he had obtained a part of a hydraulic strut from the wreck of another aircraft, and as they came into the bombing run, he dropped it through the large
cutaway in the front of the turret, between his four machine guns, wondering what effect it might have.
The bombing run was always a crucial time in the trip. MacLaren could not deviate from course, even to avoid flak or fighter cannon. If they were ‘coned’ in searchlights, then they would just have to hope and pray that the flak gunners on the ground were lousy shots. As the designated target time drew nearer and the bomb aimer concentrated on the bombsight the crew listened intently for the familiar dialogue to come over the intercom, provided, of course that his job wasn’t interrupted by a direct hit from flak! Stan had set the wind deviation into the bombsight and had set the release switch. The bomb doors were opened and the cargo of 22,000lbs of high explosives and incendiaries was now totally exposed to the barrage of flak and tracer bullets streaming up towards them. No one, at this time, was more aware of the vulnerability of the bomb load than Stan as he said his own silent prayers to himself while MacLaren made final adjustments to their speed and approach. Stan watched intently, as the devastated city of Darmstadt crept back further and further, while looking for the aiming point, which was a military parade ground, the kavallerie exerzierplatz, its chalky white soil a clear visual site on the maps. While it was clear on the maps in the briefing room, once there was a raging fire all around and thick smoke, it became difficult to pick out among the carnage.
“Directly over aiming point at +25, skip,” Charlie Philips, the New Zealand born Navigator called down the Intercom.
“O.K, Stan,” MacLaren said,
“She’s all yours.”
The aircraft continued to shake and rumble with each shell burst as each second felt like an hour to the crew, most of whom were no more than twenty two years old and each hoped to see twenty three at least! Stan, the rookie bomb aimer from Wetherby in Yorkshire, and relatively local to the Squadrons home base at Swinderby, Lincolnshire, stared down the bomb sight with all the concentration of a scientist looking for Micro-organisms on a slide of glass under a microscope. He watched intently at the two white parallel lines on the bomb- sight and
watched for the target to come in to view at any second. The gunners, in their turrets, meanwhile, were still scanning the sky for fighters, rotating the turrets and swinging the guns up and down constantly, ready to fire on the slightest change in the tone of the darkness around them. They listened to the drama on the intercom being played out in a place far away and not easily accessible to them in the front of the aircraft. They were isolated and freezing cold in their turrets, and while they knew that the fighters would be more likely to be waiting for them after the bombs were gone, they had to remain watchful and alert.
“Steady, steady, left, left, . . .steady . . . steady, I can’t see the parade ground . . .steady. I can’t see it for the bloody firestorm . . .steady . . .oh, shit, there it is. Bombs gone!”
Stan pressed the release button with a lot more force than it actually needed and a red light went out on MacLaren’s instrument panel to confirm that 22,000lbs of deadly high explosive had been let go on the population of the city below. The aircraft reared up, released from its load of one 4000lb ‘cookie’ and clusters of 4lb incendiary bombs. The ‘cookie’ was, basically, an oil drum shaped bomb which was high explosive and designed to blast open walls and windows - the incendiaries would then cause large fires, which combined with open walls and windows created a devastating fire storm. The effect of the firestorm in laying waste to an entire city had been recognised in early raids on the likes of Hamburg, and was continued in other raids throughout the bombing campaign. MacLaren’s bomb load was one of many that Darmstadt was receiving.
That night, Darmstadt would receive 399 tons of high explosive and 580 tons of incendiaries that would obliterate the old town, over a timescale of just less than an hour, but ironically leave most of the industrial areas relatively undamaged. The Americans would come along in a day or two to hit these areas along with the railway marshalling yards. Long after the war, critics would use facts like these to argue that Bomber Command bombed cities with less thought to strategic bombing of military targets than had always been
claimed. For MacLaren and his crew, however, this was just another raid, notable only for the fact that it was one more towards completing their operational tour and getting some well earned rest.
Stan checked for any ‘hung up’ bombs (bombs that failed to release), closed the bomb doors and then MacLaren made a climbing turn for home with the familiar words,
“Watch for fighters lads, we’ve pissed them off a bit, now remember. Give us a course for home, Charlie,” he added to the navigator, whose job now became one of the most crucial in the difficult flight ahead to get the crew home with the fuel they had left.
They had just turned around amongst some heavy flak and had levelled off when a shell from one of the heavy, 88mm anti-aircraft guns, exploded on the port side and took out the port inner engine and part of the wing. Since the port inner engine was the source of providing the power for the rear turret, Robertson found himself unable to scan for fighters and was effectively out of the action. He used the hand crank to laboriously square the turret up to the fuselage and continued to scan the skies and man the guns. He would commentate to the rest of the crew where the fighters were so that at least MacLaren could take evasive action.
“Shit!” MacLaren cried out as the blast reverberated through the cockpit. As the engine burst into flame, Caldwell, the flight engineer, immediately shut off the fuel to the engine and ‘feathered’ the prop, turning its blades side on to the air stream to reduce drag, and activated the fire extinguishers. MacLaren and the rest of the crew knew that a Lancaster could fly on three engines, so as long as the fire could be put out, the situation wasn’t at a desperate stage, yet. The combined problem of the damage to the wing, however, was making the aircraft sluggish and unpredictable in turns. After a few agonizing minutes, watching the fire from the damaged engine, the flames went out and MacLaren breathed a sigh of relief, for now. He had no sooner got over this when there was another loud bang, which jolted the aircraft and a scream came down the intercom, followed by some choice language! MacLaren immediately
called all the crew on the intercom to confirm if they were uninjured, and it was only Robertson that didn’t respond.
“Someone get back there and help John! And give me a report on the state of the kite back there,” MacLaren shouted down the intercom. There was an immediate response of, “I’ve got him skip!” from Billy Logan, the mid upper gunner, who had gone back to assess the damage. The aircraft was now defenceless, both in firepower and manoeuverability.
Nothing more was heard from the back of the ’plane for a few minutes until, eventually the mid upper gunner came back on the intercom to tell MacLaren and the rest of the crew,
“The rear turret is out. Must have been hit by some flak. John’s o.k, though. His leg’s taken some shrapnel, but it looks worse than it is. I’m just going to give him some morphine and put him on the rest bed.”
Another disgruntled voice on the intercom added,
“Aye, it may just look worse to you, but it’s still bloody agony!”
MacLaren turned to Caldwell and said quietly,
“Shit! We’re wide open for the fighters, now!” and then added, down the intercom,
“O.K, Billy. Get John comfortable and get back in your turret to keep a look out for those damn fighters. They’ll be out there somewhere.”
The aircraft continued to feel sluggish at the controls and MacLaren tried another series of turns and gentle banking to try and avoid being stalked by fighters or the dreaded searchlight ‘cones’. He knew it wouldn’t take long for a night fighter to realise that the impotent rear turret, with it’s guns static, would make the bomber an even easier target. As MacLaren tentatively banked the damaged aircraft, it lurched dangerously to each side with every attempted turn as if it was going to roll right over and MacLaren knew he could not take any evasive action if he needed to. One of the most effective defences against a fighter attack open to a bomber crew was the ‘corkscrew’ manoeuvre, which involved a complex and violent series of turns, which resembled, as its name implies a corkscrew shape. This life saving manoeuvre was clearly out of
the question for this particular bomber, now, and just flying the aircraft on a normal and level path was proving to be a great challenge. The move would be impossible anyway without the rear gunner giving the vital instruction on when to do it and at what side to turn to. MacLaren realized that they may not make it home and called to the Navigator,
“Give me a course for the nearest safe airfield, Charlie, just in case this kite doesn’t make it.”
There was a muffled “Roger, skip,” from the navigator as he calmly worked out their position and looked up the list of ‘friendly’ airfields that were in Allied hands in France, Holland and Belgium, although they were still some time away from them. The navigators were always issued with these lists, but they were not universally taken on trips, being seen as excessive paper to carry around. MacLaren was grateful that his navigator always took them on every ‘op’, because it may aid their survival now. Philips worked out that the nearest ‘friendly’ airfield that could take them was Eindhoven in Holland. It had three runways and had a 24hour emergency radio system, which not all of these emergency airfields possessed.
“Eindhoven is the best we can get, skip,” said Philips.
“Well, Eindhoven it is, then!” replied MacLaren, Caldwell adding calmly,
“I’ve never actually been to Holland before anyway,” as if they were going on a holiday!
No sooner had the navigator given MacLaren a course for the nearest airfield in Eindhoven, when his directions were cut short by a deafening crescendo of cannon fire that raked the Lancaster’s unprotected underside, shaking the fuselage violently. Logan, the lone gunner, despite his normal vigilance hadn’t seen a predatory Junkers JU88 night fighter stalk them after homing in on their position using their ‘Liechtenstein’ radar sets. The aircraft had been too badly damaged to allow MacLaren to bank gently from side to side to enable the mid upper gunner to see any planes coming from below as a result of previous damage. The Junkers had approached from behind and below, in a blind spot and had kept a safe distance until they
were sure that they could make a successful attack and confirm that their rear turret was, indeed, out of action.
The night fighter had been creeping up on them for some time before releasing the lethal volley of cannon fire, as he passed underneath them, with upward pointing guns in the fuselage. Smoke and the smell of cordite now filled the fuselage, starting a fire just aft of the main wing spar, the white- hot shell fragments tearing through control cables and hydraulic pipes. The controls became heavy and unpredictable and MacLaren knew they were now in serious trouble. The fuselage became awash with hydraulic fluid, making the floor slippery and MacLaren was finding it almost impossible to control the aircraft without Caldwell’s help, holding the control column steady in a position that should have been a steep dive.
“OK lads, stand - by to bale out,”
MacLaren ordered, relatively calmly, as he and Caldwell desperately fought with the aircraft while the injured gunners and navigator jettisoned the hatches and began to bale out. Caldwell stayed with MacLaren and Jeffrey, the bomb aimer, to try and keep the ’plane level while the gunners and the navigator attempted to escape the burning ’plane. Robertson jumped with assistance from Logan, the mid-upper gunner, and the rest of the crew were not far behind. After what seemed like hours, struggling to keep the ’plane level, MacLaren took the fireman’s axe from under his seat and jammed it in the control column to keep it from moving again and, in his gutterall Scottish accent shouted to the flight engineer and bomb aimer,
“Bollocks to this - GO!”
All three men crawled down to the bomb aimers hatch, made easier by the fact that the ’plane lurched nose down and literally threw Jeffrey and Caldwell out of it. MacLaren, however, fell into the perspex bubble that the bomb aimer looked through and had to fight against the ever-increasing G-forces as the crippled Lancaster picked up speed on its final dive towards oblivion. MacLaren fought against the force pinning him to the bubble and pondered his imminent death. After all the tension felt before an ‘op’ and being genuinely scared during the raids, he now felt strangely calm and level headed. There
was no fear now. It was almost as if he had accepted his fate and that there was nothing left to fear. The desire to escape, and the instinct to survive, however, naturally overcame any thoughts of giving up and he heaved his way over to the open hatch, eventually dragging enough of his body through it for the slipstream to do the rest and suck him out. He tumbled out of the burning aircraft a good two or three minutes after the last of the crew. He fell quickly through the freezing cold air and after fumbling around with the parachute harness, found the ‘D’ ring on his parachute and pulled hard. There was a violent tug on his harness and he instinctively looked up and was relieved to see the white canopy of silk billow out above him while at the same time, saw his ’plane explode in the distance, and crash to the ground. Floating down in the darkness, there was only the rushing wind and the muted bangs of exploding shells and aircraft. He could hear the anti-aircraft guns in the distance, firing less and less and strained to see the ’chutes of the others in the pitch darkness, but he couldn’t see any other ’chutes in the sky, only the distant pyrotechnics of Darmstadt in it’s desperate, final self - defence. He suddenly felt very alone.