Tuesday, 21 July 2009

old photos, old memories

Hullo there ma wee blog,

some photos of Operation Manna April 1945

Crowds pick up the dropped food even from the ditches

people were on roofs, at windows and in the streets

Dads position as tail gunner

plaque to 153 Sqn in Scampton church

RAF and Luftwaffe graves, Scampton kirkyard.

I am typing with two fingers due to me accidentally trying to chop off three fingers on my right hand yesterday in the garden.

{Aye, that bloody hedge again!}

I'm sitting in my library, my own little sanctuary , surrounded by my books and my collection of antique maps of Scotland. I have always been fascinated by history. I don't know why, I just am. Being a bit of a magpie too I have also a fair wee collection of memorabilia relating to the family: a set of dominoes my Grandfather got from his Dad and which he carried through WWI, in Gallipoli and the Western Front, the reading frame made by an uncle for him to set on his bed table which went across his legs - he suffered from shellshock as a result of his experiences in the Somme and was bedridden for the last 30 years of his life. I have a portrait of the family { Mum, Dad, me and G, Gordon, Charlotte and their kids} made about 15 years ago and given from dads house when he died. Its sitting in the corner as I haven't made up my mind where it should hang yet or found the courage to look at it every day if I do. There are many other little things in drawers or cupboards around the house too.

I have been typing , - oh so very slowly .................

{ due more painkillers now I'm reminded - back in a mo....}

I have been looking at an old photo of Dad in his RAF days. I think it was taken in 1944 at Scampton. It shows Dad and his crew posed formally under their Lancaster. Just seven young men; 4 at the rear and three crouched in front , their looks and postures a mix of serious, bravado, self conscious. Above them all is a Lancaster, poised over them like a protective brother. -they are standing or crouching under the nose cone and it looks like the engines are swept up beside them in defensive mode. Dad is at the front on the right. It looks like it was taken on a cold day but Dad of all the front three is the only one with bare hands, the others sheathed in leather gloves and I find myself reminded of how he often complained of hot hands { a trait I have inherited from him} even in the coldest weather.

He was twenty when the picture was taken. I wonder if they knew that it was almost all over, or that the rate of loss of Bomber crews was a deadly average of 5%. It doesn't take much working out to see that that is equal to the whole front line force going down in just under three weeks. Of the 125000 who served in Bomber Command 60% { almost 74000} were casualties. I wonder too if he knew that tail gunner losses were much, much higher than that { I have read that tail gunner casualties were in the region of 76% as this was the preferred and safest method of attack for the German fighters until some were fitted with a vertical firing gun to allow attacks from directly below.} I imagine in all likelihood he must have, but he never spoke ofthat side of it.

He spoke of things like winning the crew a 2 day pass to Lincoln as first prize for an airborne gunnery competition with a score of 92% and of nearly shooting down another RAF plane that was towing a target in one of the early training missions.

He must have got better with practice.

He didn't get posted operational until quite late due to injuries sustained in a crash landing during training when a Wellington they were using had engine failure and came down in some trees on approach to the airfield. He spoke of training on low level flights when based at Scampton, flying at full speed across lakes at 60 or 70 feet, of being scared witless at the closeness of the water at first and telling the pilot that " if he went any bloody lower he would have his bloody feet in the bloody water" {Lancasters normally bombed at 10,00ft or higher }.

He told of having fallen asleep shirtless at the base on a sunny day and getting his back absolutely roasted with sunburn and then not being able to go to sick room because as operational aircrew it would have been considered as self inflicted injuries and potentially been a court martial affair. The others in the crew treated his back by liberally applying all the brylcream hair lotion they could lay their hands on before they went up that night. He said it was the most painful experience of his life and the only time he was glad that the turret was so small the rear gunners couldn't wear their parachutes but had to hang them up behind the closed door of the turret.

He told me a few stories, mainly in his last few months, about Operation Manna food drops to occupied Holland where the people were dying of starvation due to lack of food - the Germans had flooded the polders and stopped all transport except essential military stuff . It was something he was very proud of and he seemed to have clung to those memories more than others.

The crew took part in three or four drops at very low level and at almost stalling speed. Paw said the first one was terrifying as although they had been briefed that the German forces had agreed safe passages of access { they must have known the end was near} the aircrews didn't really believe it. They thought they would be fired on because of what they had done to German towns and cities. He said it was so scary to be flying so slow and so low. He could clearly see the manned anti aircraft guns tracking them, could see the expressions of the German soldiers they were so low. He said it felt like they could have reached up and slapped his backside, but he said that once you knew they were not firing { although they did take some small arms fire on one trip but no one was hurt} there was a really great feeling on board, especially when you saw the reception.

People were everywhere, at every window, in the streets, in the fields, on the rooftops, all yelling, screaming and waving things: flags, towels, hats. In the countryside people made huge thank you messages out of tulips and some of the braver ones put Dutch or even British flags out across their rooftops which must have been a bit risky since they were still occupied territory.

After the initial drops many of the pilots became quite show offs and would fly in and out with, as described in the Sqn records, "great panache"

At one dropping zone they had to make a tight turn to miss a church steeple nearby on entry or exit, which the pilot did but so so close that it felt like you were spinning round on the steeple.

But one flight, {to the Hague I think Dad said} the pilot said " Right lads, SMILE!" and dropped the Lancaster down, right into a big wide boulevard, and down to zero feet. Paw said you had to look up to see the people in the houses as the plane cruised very slowly up the street with the crew waving and laughing and crying back at the people.

What a feeling that must have been........ and I bet he was glad of all that extreme low level practice after all!

Apparently even today the Dutch people celebrate not VE day as the end of the war celebrations, but the Operation Manna food drops by RAF and USAF in April and May 1945.

Shortly after Dad died my brother and I took a trip south to visit his twin brother and as he lives quite close to where Dad was stationed in the war, we decided to visit some of the associated places. We visited Scampton air base, Lincoln cathedral, which houses the bomber command memorial, and the local pub and church the aircrews used in Scampton village. Scampton air base museum was a bit disappointing as it focused mainly on the fact that the Dambusters raid had departed from there and there was little else relating to WWII , but the guide suggested we go and look at another museum where they have a Lancaster bomber on site.

So we went to East Kirkby and had a look around. Its an old WWII bomber base and they have many of the original buildings and a great little museum as well as a complete Lanc which you can sit in as they taxi onto the runway.
It was the first time I had seen a Lancaster up so close and actually felt the impact of the scale of it. Its large, but even so I imagine it must have felt like sitting in a cardboard tube waiting to get blown out of the sky. 76 ft long with 4 engines and guns front top and rear. It certainly looked lethal.

It was cordoned off as they were doing some mechanical maintenance and I couldn't get very close to Dads rear turret so I spoke to one of the guys working and he said to me to hop across the barrier and take some photos if I wanted. I was across in an instant and took some good photos. It struck me how isolated from everyone else in the crew he was and again I felt that I was getting to know a bit of Paw that I had never had the chance to appreciate as I grew up. This young man had actually put himself in harms way and was clearly also prepared to defend himself and his crew to the utmost.

It made me compare this with the cheerful, sociable and gentle gentle man that was my Dad every day that I knew him. Amazing, absolutely amazing.......

Walking around the museum there were a series of display boards set up with one side of each board dedicated to an individual squadron of bomber command. From Scampton I had found out which one Dad had served in and I easily found the display dedicated to 153 sqn. In pride of place there was a long photo of the entire squadron posed in front of a Lancaster bomber. The photo was dated June 1945. It took only a few seconds for me to identify Dad amongst the many men in the photos. Maybe as a son or daughter its something genetically programmed into you to be able to do, to help you find the familiar face in the crowd so quickly. Of course I had a huge lump in my throat and once it had passed I called Gordon over and we looked at the display and talked a bit about Paw. That little museum with all its exhibits and detail and its very personal feeling { set up by two farmer brothers in honour of their brother who had died on active service in Lancasters} was a little gem of a place and I think its somewhere I may return to again and again.

Gordon and I separated again and went off in different directions, probably lost in our own thoughts. Later I found myself in the NAAFI and looking around at photos around the room. The museum was about to close for the day and I was waiting on Gordon coming back in. As I looked around a man asked me if I had found the place interesting and of course I said yes and explained that I had never expected to see a photo of my father in a museum. I think I said it felt a bit bizarre. He smiled and said he understood and asked which photograph it had been, and as I had found another copy of the photo on the wall in the NAAFI, I said "that one there". He went over and we looked at it for a moment and he said to me " Would you like a copy of it? " I hadn't realised he worked there. Actually he was one of the family that still own and operate the museum. Of course I said yes and we arranged the details very quickly. He had a contact who could reproduce the picture despite its odd shape and length and we could expect to get a copy within a few weeks. I ordered two, one for myself and the other for Gordon.

Since then there have been problems with computers and kit needed for making the photos, but I received a phone call from the man at the museum a couple of days ago saying he had finally got the two copies we ordered and that he thinks they look great. So they are on their way to me and I expect them to drop in through the door tomorrow. I'm so excited and in fact I think I probably feel better somehow that they have taken a bit longer to come as perhaps it would have been more emotional if it had happened sooner. It feels like this is just the right time somehow.

I will let you know how they are when they get here. I am planning to have a local professional picture framer fix up both of them and I am going to give one of them to Gordon as a present.

Listening to............Supertramp, Even in the quietest moments.

I found the photos of operation manna on the internet. Not sure of any copyright but if anyone knows I would be happy to list accreditation. I think they are just in the public domain though.


Bovey Belle said...

What a fascinating post and so personal, with your dad's involvement. He must have had guts to go up time and time again as rear gunner. . . . It sounds like that Museum is definitely a place to visit again and again.

I grew up in Southampton and often used to walk past the house where R J Mitchell of Spitfire fame, lived. Southampton has, of course, a very strong tie to the Spitfire and is justly proud of it. Back in 1981? or so, I can remember there being a fly past of a Hurricane? and a Spitfire. The noise of the Spitfire's engine was one of those once-heard never-forgotten memories and tears pricked my eyes back then (I'm a very emotional sort).

My dear friend Rowan has recently included a photo of a Lancaster and a Spitfire and a Hurricane over on her blog: http://www.circleoftheyear.blogspot.com/

Unknown said...

A wonderful tribute. I am retired from the USAF and spent several happy years stationed in Oxfordshire UK(1985 - 1992). I am fascinated with RAF and USAF history from WWII. Your perspective on it is great.
Thanks for sharing

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