Wednesday, 3 February 2010

153 Sqn. 3rd Feb 1945 - Bottrop

Don Freeborn and crew at rest.
{photo courtesy of Frank Powley}

These posts follow 153 Sqn operations from Jan '45 to the end of hostilities in real time.

February ushered in what squadron records recall as 'the nine most momentous weeks in the Squadron's history'. Over the period 1st February to 4th April the tempo quietly quickened; operations became more frequent; losses mounted and strains began to show. Shortages of aircrew and serviceable aircraft reflect the mounting losses suffered through the bad weather of January and the fact that training units could not operate effectively to deliver replacement crews fast enough. This meant that the strain of ops on a depleted force increased, with the knock on threat to morale and the mens physical and emotional ability to cope with the stress of combat and its inherent threat to life.

Despite this, entering the spring of 1945, morale in 153 Squadron was high. Crews were able to survey losses without undue concern. W/Co Powley exerted a paternal discipline, which recognised the need for young men to let off steam occasionally as a safety valve against the frightening reality faced in their operational flights.
{One way of doing so was the traditional 'end of tour' party, the major feature of which was to hoist a tour-expired individual up a mixed pile of furniture and bodies to plant his naked footprints (liberally smeared with black shoe polish) on the Mess ante-room ceiling where they remained for many years.}

It was generally conceded that there were two periods during any crew`s operational tour of 30 sorties which were more 'accident-prone' than any other. These were the first five and the last five sorties. Crews in these parts of a tour were often more 'touchy' and on edge about chances of survival with some experiencing extreme levels of stress and even a nervous condition known as 'operational twitch'.

Of the fourteen raids mounted in February,three were in furtherance of 'Operation Thunderclap', four required precision dropping of mines in enemy sea lanes (a novel venture for the squadron), six were against the more familiar Ruhrgebiet and Western Germany, and the final one would be 'scrubbed' when crews were well on their way to the Fatherland. The impact of raids every second day into occupied territory would take its toll on man and machine.


In August 1944 plans were drawn for an operation code named Thunderclap but it was shelved and never implemented. The plan envisaged a massive attack on Berlin that would cause 220,000 casualties with 110,000 killed, many of them key German personnel, which would shatter German morale but on consideration it was decided that it was unlikely to work and it was shelved.

The plan was reconsidered in early 1945, to be implemented in coordination with the Soviet advance, but again was rejected again as impractical, and instead a number of co-ordinated smaller attacks against cities in the communications zone of the Eastern Front, through which key routes to the east converged, were chosen. The cities designated as choke points where the bombing would be most effective were Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig. Intensive bombing of these targets was carried out with the intention of disrupting the rear areas of the German Eastern Front lines, to aid the Soviets advance as had been requested by the Soviets at the Yalta Conference.


Leaving Scampton at 1600hrs the primary target on 3rd February was the Prosper benzol plant at Bottrop in the Rhur, coupled with the local railway marshalling yard. Despite the inevitable murky UK weather, remarkably clear conditions over the target allowed a very concentrated attack by 16 Squadron aircraft, pressed home in spite of a moderate flak barrage, many searchlights and heavy fighter activity.

Having narrowly escaped the attention of night fighters just two nights earlier when attacking Ludwigshaven, F/O Freeborn and crew were again targeted but this time with more serious consequences.

Junkers JU88 nightfighter

P/O Freeborn had been injured on the first Stuttgart raid in early October - in an incident which left him requiring plastic surgery and won him an instant D.F.C., and he returned to Scampton on 14th January to reunite with his original crew. They flew two 'routine' operations on 22nd (Duisburg) and 28th (Zuffenhausen), but on 1st February came under repeated nightfighter attack when leaving Ludwigshafen and had successfully nursed a stricken aicraft and a badly shaken crew back home. Two nights later, after bombing Bottrop, they were caught completely by surprise by a JU88 night fighter employing 'schräge muzik' tactics - the system whereby the enemy fighter climbed steeply into the blind spot of the Lancaster (i.e. directly below, and therefore not visible to anyone within the aircraft), from which its two specially mounted upward-aimed cannons fired straight into the bomber, without hindrance or distraction.

Especially on dark nights, when the fighter was hard to distinguish against a total blackout, this practice was devastatingly effective; consequently, few crews survived to return to the UK, and no counter-measure was developed to meet the tactic. On discovering this tactic and having no effective counter measure, aircrew were at first not told of the danger from this type of attack by Bomber Command.

Freeborn's aircraft, PD 378 (P4-L) was hit in the starboard wing, and the outer engine was soon ablaze. He tried a shallow dive in a vain attempt to put out the fire, but in so doing caused the flames to reach the fuselage via the heating duct. Fearing that the intense heat would create an explosion, he ordered abandonment of the aircraft. His crew acted on the order - all except the rear-gunner, Jerry McNamara, who said "hold it right there skipper", and proceeded to open fire on the JU88, as its pilot had carelessly allowed the stricken Lancaster to draw ahead, and in so doing exposed himself to view and was promptly shot down. McNamara then baled out, as did the wounded navigator, 'Steve' Brodie. The aircraft was passing through 4,000 feet when Don Freeborn scrambled down to the nose escape hatch, and slid out, feet first; the whiplash of the parachute opening snapped him into a vertical position, and in so doing tore off both his boots. He saw two bright flashes on the ground showing where both aircraft had exploded on impact, before, swinging wildly in his parachute harness, he abruptly landed in water. In a panic, he quickly inflated his Mae West only to discover that the water was less than two feet deep. Bootless, soaked, he set off westward but soon found it impossible to continue. He knocked on a cottage door, was admitted and found he was in liberated territory - safe, and made welcome. He returned to Scampton to learn that his Canadian navigator had died from injuries suffered during the attack.

F/O Brodie was taken to eindhoven (Woensel) General Cemetery. He has been subsequently re-interred at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery.. F/O D.B.Freeborn RCAF Sgt D.a.R.Morley F/O W.A.Brodie RCAF KIA F/S H.V.Constable F/S J.a.Eastman Sgt J.L.Stalley Sgt T.O.McNamara

Freeborn also faced the unpleasant fact that on their return from Survivor Leave, three members of his crew - Sgt D Morley (F/E), Sgt H Constable (B/A) and Sgt T Stalley (M/UG) (already a survivor of a previous bale-out) - announced that following a 'shaky-do' on their 3rd op, then kicking their heels for several weeks, only to be badly shot up on their 6th op and shot down on their 7th, they wished to move out of the crew. Hoping to persuade them to retract, Wing/Co Powley granted them a further period of leave, but they remained adamant. F/O Freeborn therefore assembled a revised crew to replace the three men. I think this represents a clear example of the stress the men were under and the moves made to accommodate them. It would be interesting to know how their wish to leave the crew of a pilot who had seen so much action was viewed by the rest of the men. Would they be regarded as having signs of operational 'twitter' {nerves}, or would Freeborn have been viewed as a pilot that 'attracted' bad luck.

Men traumatised by action who wanted to withdraw from further operations due to stress were treated harshly by RAF Bomber Command. They would be classed as 'lacking moral fibre' stripped of rank and pay, their flight crew insignia would be ripped off their uniform and they would be put on menial duties - often still on the operational base - in contact with serving aircrew and clearly identified by the altered uniform. It smacks of at best a lack of understanding of the effect of warfare on the mind, and at worst of deliberate humiliation of unstable men and intimidation of serving aircrew. It was a rare occurrence but often at the front of mens minds.

{Dad recounted a tale of accidentally being heavily sunburned when he fell asleep outside on a hot day but felt unable to report sick for fear of the injury being classed as a deliberate self inflicted injury by operational aircrew in an attempt to avoid ops. His crew treated him by applying all the 'Brillcream' hair lotion they could lay hands on before flying that night. It shows how seriously the men took the threat of being classed as 'LMF'}

see you later........

1 comment:

Morning's Minion said...

I feel at a loss to comment adequately on these pieces. My muscles tense as I read them and I can't begin to imagine [nor do I really want to!] the strain of taking part in these operations.
In the over-all history of any conflict or combat, there are so many "stories" and personalities who don't make news as individuals. I shouldn't wonder if being labeled a "hero" has its burdens--of a different kind than, perhaps unfairly, being termed a shirker.
Medals, parades, speeches, never repay or validate the efforts of either those lost in combat or those who survive and try to cope with the remainder of their lives as "whole" people.
I appreciate your labor of love in presenting these chapters of history.

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