Friday, 30 April 2010

Through These Portals Go The Bravest Of Men.....


Plaque to 153 Sqdn. Scampton Church.

Hullo ma wee blog,

I'm not sure where this is going to go so you'll have to bear with me on this one. It may be a bit of a ramble. The title will have to come later.

When I started blogging about 153 Squadron I did so, not quite on the spur of the moment, but also not in a properly planned and organised way either. As I said in the first of those posts - and I can't believe there have been forty three since January - I was inspired by the way a fellow blogger, in the run up to remembrance day, had followed a relative across months of WWI experience using family letters. It was personal, but it also drew you into the timeline. I felt I too was almost waiting for the next letter, and found myself worrying, as if personally connected, looking forward to a bit of good news which tragically didn't come. I thought that if I could find enough information that perhaps something similar might evolve here. I didn't know much of Dad's RAF history so I knew it wouldn't be quite so immediate.

Now, as I sit in the bolt hole of my 'library', I can reflect that for 153 Squadron at least, the story is nearly complete. With 'Operation Manna' underway there were 10 days to the end of war in Europe. Unlike some other squadrons, 153 sqn didn't undertake any more offensive bombing raids. They had given their last and there would be no more losses although they didn't know that. Their final missions would be the safest - and happiest - of their war.  So, the Berchtesgarden op was the squadron's final bombing raid.

Probably there is one more post to do to tie up some loose ends and carry the story forward to a proper end, but no more.

I can look around the room at the photo of Dad and his crew posed under their Lancaster and feel a deeper appreciation of what aircrew went through. I understand much better now some of the stresses;  The fear of ops, suffering from extreme cold for hour after hour, flying in close proximity in the dark, bombing in a congested night-time sky, corkscrew maneuvers to escape night fighters or flying into flak and searchlights and flying over ice cold seas are all things I have come to consider from a new perspective. So too on what drove one man to hang out of a burning aircraft in a desperate attempt to reach and put out an engine on fire while being held by the legs by fellow crewmen, or others to evade capture when lost in enemy territory. Men from every background and all walks of life, who faced terrors and watched friends die in front of them in terrible ways yet continued on, day after day. Ordinary men - Extraordinary circumstances.

Dad 3rd row back 5th from right


I can - and have - spent time looking at the formal photo of the Squadron aircrew taken in June 1945 and although I can't put names to faces, names echo familiarly back at me from the information I have found. Powley, Gee, Tobin and Freeborn, Freddie Fish, 'Perspex' Purvis and Whizz Wheeler among others. Some will be there, I know others are not. I can see Dad though, young, slim {or is it gaunt ?} standing near the propeller of the port outer engine of the machine they're all posed under. I remember an early post describing a photo of Dad's crew as 'under the protective arms of the Lancaster' and here again, the feeling is the same.  153 squadron was never huge. There are 148 men in the photo. In one of those odd coincidences that sometimes happen,  this is almost exactly the same number as of those who were killed in just 7 short months of 153 Squadron's existence. The photo therefore, puts that number into a physical and tragic perspective.

Even more so as my own father looks out at me from the ranks.

 In those few months of the squadron's existence, from a total of  82 crews ( 574 men ) comprising 408 RAF, 125 Canadian Air Force, 26 Australian Air Force, and 15 New Zealand Air Force, who flew operationally, 147 were killed. This was just over 25% of those who served.  Many more, possibly the same again, were injured on top of that.  Had the squadron been formed earlier and fought without benefit of the technological advances that war inevitably brings, that figure would undoubtedly have been much higher. It was a time and place of extraordinary courage, extraordinary resilience. One of my posts remarked on the harsh treatment meted out to those poor souls who's courage broke, marking them in the eyes of the RAF and wartime public as LMF {lacking moral fibre}. One of the comments I received back replied that those who remained showed 'OMF' {outstanding moral fibre}. I think perhaps that's as good a description as I will find.

Scampton Church Yard - some of  153 Sqn's 'Lost Boys' who made it home.

The loss of 147 men during the final seven months of the war in Europe, underlines the perils they all faced when flying on bomber operations, even at that late stage of the war.  Most were very young - the average age of aircrew was 22 years old -  Dad wasn't yet 21.  Lets not forget too that there was an even greater number of ground-based Sqdn personnel behind them who also worked phenomenally hard to ensure the aircrew had the very best chance of safe return; Armourers, Mechanics, Fitters, Bomb-Handlers, WAAFs, admin and medical staff, ambulance drivers; the list goes on. These were people that went through agonies of their own , anxiously waiting on 'their' crews returning from missions. They grieved for the lost boys, and many were deeply affected by the sights and the reality of war writ large on damaged man and returned machine.

By wars end the publics' awareness of the reality of  'area bombing' caused opinion to pull back in horror at the casualties among Germany's civilian population, especially after the Dresden raid had been reported in detail. While the technology of the day never allowed pinpoint accuracy in bombing and despite the Luftwaffe having unwaveringly used exactly those tactics on numerous equally unfortunate European cities including London, Sheffield and Coventry in the previous years, criticism was levelled at 'Bomber' Harris and his steadfast belief in delivering total war by levelling German cities as the quickest way to end it. This tactic forced more than 1 million men of fighting age to be diverted away from the frontline and our troops,  to national defence, fire-fighting, reparation of transport and maintainance of political and social infrastructure. Few aircrew would criticise him for it.

 After Dresden, Churchill carefully withheld his support - previously freely given - perhaps with a politicians canny eye, ever mindful of public and international opinion. In his comprehensive end of war address, along with the rest of the Armed Forces, every part of the RAF was singled out and praised with the exception of Bomber Command. It was never even mentioned.

Despite the huge losses of man and machine, and both Winston Churchill's involvement in setting the bombing policy - his order to Harris had been to take the war to Germany "without restraint" - and his earlier completely public endorsement for the bomber boys which said,

"after the Battle Of Britain had been won and Britain stood isolated, only Bomber Command could carry war to the enemy."

at wars end he would not give public acknowledgement, nor approve a medal in recognition of their contribution. Operational aircrew would instead qualify for the 'Defence Medal'. The men saw it as a callous betrayal. Harris raged against the decision.

"The only task we have not been asked to perform, other than negatively, has been that of defence."

 He went on to warn that if Bomber Command were not offered its own medal,

"then I too will accept only the defence medal and no other - nothing else whatever,  neither decoration, award, rank, preferment or appointment, if any such is contemplated. I will be proud indeed to wear the defence medal and that alone - and as bitter as the rest of my personnel. I will not stand by and see my people let down in so grossly an unjust manner without resorting to any and every necessary and justifiable protest which is open to me."

No medal has ever been awarded. It is an argument which painfully rankles to this day. Remaining aircrew still campaign to have the decision reversed.

The bomber boys suffered a huge change in wartime public opinion. They never had the kudos of the fighter pilots, those chivalrous 'knights of the air', who fought single and heroic combats. They were the heavy hammer of resistance against Germany's war machine and when things were at their darkest and the country truly did stand alone against the Nazis, then they really were the blue eyed boys of the country. Vast tracts of the nation stood witness every day to the bomber boys setting off in their aircraft  Ears reverberated to the sound of engines straining under heavy weights of bombs. They read newspaper accounts every day too, of how Hitler and the Nazis weren't getting it all their own way as a result. And yet, by the end of the war, they had become almost a pariah, killers of innocent men women and children. It's a predjudice that many people carry even today, with our modern concept of technological warfare, pinpoint accuracy and thankfully low acceptability of casualty rates of civilians and our forces. While we can each have an opinion on the need and acceptability of night-time area bombing rather than daylight raids attacking specific military targets - and those arguments raged in Churchills Air Ministry too despite the move to night attacks due to huge losses of man and machine - you cannot deny the courage nor the losses sustained by the relatively small part of our armed forces that was Bomber Command.

More men were lost in just one raid  in 1943 than fighter pilots killed in the whole of the Battle of Britain.

In total, 55,000 members of Bomber Command lost their lives. 20,000 of them have no known grave. These were the highest percentage losses of any branch of the forces. Today they are remembered at the memorial at Runnymede and by the statue of Bomber Harris outside the RAF church of St Clement Dane’s in the Strand, London, a statue so controversial that it needed 24 hour police protection for several months after installation to prevent it from being attacked. It took until 2006 before a memorial window was installed in Lincoln Cathedral, that ancient landmark so well known from the sky which gave powerful emotional support to the men of 153 Sqdn, and others, as a visible sign of home and safety. It now provides a focal point for commemoration. There is no national memorial to the men of bomber command even yet, exactly 65 years later, although one is now planned - to be paid for by public fundraising, not by Her Majesties Government.


A Lanc Over Lincoln Cathedral


The international flavour of the squadron's manpower arose from the fact that aircrew were provided by the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Royal Air Forces. Moreover, even more nationalities were represented; among the RCAF were men from the USA: the RNZAF included Maoris: the RAF had South Africans, Dutch, West Indians, and Southern Irishmen, in addition to men from every part of the four home countries. Some of the international personnel mistakenly believed that because of conscription (officially the " Direction of Labour"), British fliers had no choice in the matter. This wasn't so. Every aircrew member volunteered to undertake flying duties - in fact, many had first to relinquish the shelter afforded by a ' Reserved Occupation ' status, in order to do so.  Even given the international flavour, the Squadron was basically RAF by a ratio of 3:1.  I remember asking my father how his Dad, left disabled after WWI had reacted when he had asked him about volunteering for the RAF. He said simply, " I didn't ask. It wasn't his decision to make."  With hindsight of those days it wasn't perhaps the unusual answer I originally thought it was.

 Aircraft losses had been significant too. Over the seven months the Squadron flew 54 different machines, initially starting with 15. When hostilities ceased, only 6 original machines remained.  'A' Flight contained two "Centurions"- aircraft which had completed a hundred or more missions over enemy territory.   At the end of the war only 35 of these auspicious 'centurions' existed across Bomber Commands 79 Squadrons out of 7377 Lancasters built.  Chadwick's inspired design delivered incredible performance in bomb load, in flying endurance, in ability to withstand enormous damage yet stay airborne and in its ability to withstand stress far beyond planned capabilities as desperate men threw it around the sky to escape enemy fighters or searchlights. It inspired confidence and admiration in the men who flew in it. For all its qualities of strength and agility more than 4,100 were lost in action.

After the end of war in Europe the Lancaster would never again be used as an offensive weapon by the RAF. The Last true RAF Lancaster flew its final mission in 1955 before being sent to the scrapyard. The last official flight of a Lancaster by the RCAF was flown by F/L Lynn Garrison in KB-976, on 4 July 1964 at the Calgary International Air Show. It had already long since become an international icon.




After the war ended Dad never set foot in another aircraft ever again.


His rear Gun postion

I feel I've done what I set out to do and I've had some fun at the same time.  It  has been emotional at times too of course, but I've thoroughly enjoyed my wee project.  Chunks of  information have been simply quoted from sources with a minimum interference from me, some has been my interpretation and imperfect understanding of information read or heard. Through it I've come to a much better understanding of the men and machines of 153 Sqdn and the part they played in the bigger picture, present as they were at some key moments in our history. I'm glad too that I managed to stick to the original timescales in the main. As I hoped it has helped me in some small way to come further to terms with the loss of my father and what went to make him special.

As for Dad and 153 Sqdn in 1945?

They still had work to do.

But that's for another day and another post.............

see you later.

Listening to Supertramp 'Even in the Quietest moments'

12 comments:

Kat_RN said...

Wonderful.
Kat

The Scudder said...

You may have noticed Al that I have mostly refrained from commenting on your very personal mission. I have however read it all ,,, every painful & sometimes tearful word, brilliantly written. All I want to say is, you sure as hell got the message across.
Your Dad would have been so proud of you, just as you are of him.

Morning's Minion said...

Al,
I have yet to go back to where I had to leave off regular reading in mid-February--just as I've had to put my own family research on hold.
I do feel, although you have taken "chunks" of information from existing sources, that your account has its own validity.
I beleive that in some final form it should be published--even if privately so, as my cousins and I hope to do with our g-uncle's WWI letters. War--or any other huge event--is so often seen in an over-view--bringing it "down home" helps us to understand what happened, and how it affected the lives of those who were invovled and the lives of their families for several generations.

OldTrumptonian said...

Thank you for giving me this often deeply private insight into your Dad and the men he served with and their exploits.
I hope you preserve it somehow, it is a goldmine of information for anyone in the future who wants find out about 153 Squadron.

Alistair said...

Thanks for your comments here. That was the toughest one to write. I'm almost sad its coming to an end.

God knows what I'm going to post after all this.....

Thanks again.

How 'bout you Old Trumptonian. Have you done anything on yours yet?

OldTrumptonian said...

Err no not yet, lots of excuses though...

Alistair said...

Received by email onto original post and re-posted here

Hello
my dad was the Reggie Morris F/Eng in Noel Crane's crew mentioned in the item about the gardening trip on 12 March 1945. Unfortunately he died age 50 in 1975 so I cant give you any more information. He never mentioned this incident although he did say that they had been badly shot up twice - once by flak and the other by night fighter. And he used to talk about "brown trouser" missions. He also hated the sea and the wind - which may well have been a result of this incident! He must have known your father.
Phil Morris

Alistair said...

Received by email from F Powley, 153 W/Commander Powley's nephew.Dear Al - Just to tell you how much I enjoyed your very informative and equally moving blog on 153 sq's career during the final months of the war. Your blog is certainly the most comprehensive and personal history of the squadron I've come across. I salute your time and effort in producing such a document, and your ability to compile a complicated story from diverse sources. I noted especially your moving account of the fateful night of 4 April. Though, of course, I never met my namesake uncle Frank, and the family rarely spoke of him - at least in my presence - nevertheless, my research, including your blog, has afforded me a peculiar at-a-distance acquaintance with the man. Perhaps, more importantly, these war stories have made me appreciate all the more the courage, determination and seeming tirelessness of the men like him and your Dad who were caught up in that emergency of civilization, which is total war. My own father, too, was a navigator in 61 squadron in the final two years of the war, having left secretly for duty in England just days after his wedding. My mother, not one to be left behind to keeping the home fires burning, went to Washington to work for British Intelligence at the embassy there. Meanwhile, her brother, my uncle Jack was listed as missing in 1943 after his Halifax was shot down over Holland. As it turned out, he sat out the rest of the war at a POW camp just outside Auschwitz. He only recently posted his harrowing story on the BBC website dedicated to personal remembrances of WW2. My own father hardly ever talked about his war experience, although I knew he had crashed twice returning from sorties and still had shrapnel in the one leg. My mother, talkative as she is, signed the official secrets act, which I suppose still applies. Anyway, when I think what a relatively easy time of it I've had, especially in my wild 60s youth and since coming to live in welfare state Denmark, I can almost blush.
So thanks again for your wee blog.
There is one thing I wanted to ask you about the final entry. That is your reference to a group squadron photo. I don't believe I've ever seen it, unless somehow I missed it on your blog. I am wondering if you would be so kind as to scan it and send it to me as an attachment. Oh, and thanks for including in your blog for 4 April that group photo of Major Werner Husemann and crew, the first I'd seen. Let me know if there is anything more I can help you out with in your research.
I raise my glass, cheers,
Frank

John Dighton said...

Very well written and very much appreciated. As I said in a previous comment, your father and mine flew together in 153 sqn from October 1944 to Jan 1945 when dad transferred to 582 pathfinder sqn. I found the latter blogs very touching and was reduced to tears as I considered deeply what you had written. If you would like to make conatct with me I would very much like to hear from you. My email address is jdighton@hotmail.com. I have just recently started to research my fathers time in the RAF and hence I came across your wee blog.

Sincerely,

John Dighton

StevenT said...

Just found your blog. I am the son of William Ian Hamilton Turner, the radio operator in the Lancaster piloted by Whiz Wheeler. Dad passed away in 1994, and he was very reticent to speak too much about the war, but he did mention he saw a bomb go through the wing on one mission - and the rest of the crew would not believe him. Also that he had a forced landing in Eindhoven... but hadn't mentioned opening the hatch! Would like to know any more there is to know about his crew and his time in the UK. I am contactable on turner.steven@abc.net.au Many thanks,
STeven Turner (sydney aust)

Alistair said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting Steven. I'll have a look and see if there is any more info about the crew. Pretty much all the info I have about operations is included in the posts covering Jan to May but I may have some info about prior to that.

I'll have a look and email you direct when I have something - but shouldn't be too long. If you don't hear from me get back in touch - I'm getting forgetful in my old age {ha ha}

JOHN WOODS said...

Excellent Blog. My Sister in Laws Grandfather was the first Pilot of 'Fair Fighters Revenge'PSF while she was still with 166 Sqn. He had completed his Tour prior to her moving to Scampton with the formation of 153 Sqn. 'LEST WE FORGET'

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