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Account of last mission by Pilot Officer V.A.Robins 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE LAST PERFORMANCE

August 1943

The briefing room is crowded as this is a ' maximum effort ' night. We all stand up as the Station Commander comes in

accompanied by the Squadron Commander and Flight Commanders.  " Sit down gentlemen".

We resume our seats, those of us that have them! The Station Commander mounts the rostrum as the Intelligence Officer draws

back the curtains which covers the wall map. For the first time I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The red ribbon

stretches straight across Europe to Berlin! The spasm is quickly past as I concentrate on the briefing.

 

This is my 30th trip and I have the most experienced Captain on the squadron. The 'C' Flight Commander with whom I now fly is

nearing the end of his second tour and looks like adding a D.F.C to the D.F.M which he won on his first.

It is getting on for a year since the Frankfurt trip when the Rear Gunner was killed. In the meantime I have been Commissioned an

am filling the post of Deputy Signals Leader. Still a spare bod. I have flown on operations whenever a Wop/Ag. was required to

make up a crew, regardless of which Flight was concerned.

 

At one time, some three months before, I had been allocated a crew as a permanent member. This was a brand new outfit,

captained by a young New Zealand Sergeant. He was a big chap, well over six feet tall, and his training had been fighter

orientated until by some slip on the part of the postings department, he wound up at a bomber O.T.U ( Operational Training Unit ).

Being keen and a capable pilot he made the transition to bombers with no problem and then passed through the Halifax H.C.U.

( Heavy Conversion Unit ) where he picked up his crew. However he arrived on the squadron without a wireless operator so I was

given the job. He certainly had the confidence of the chaps he brought with him and although lacking experience the crew worked

well and I was quite happy with them , particularly as it looked as if I was going to get on with my tour. It didn't last! We did two trips,

one to Bochum and one to Dortmund, then I contracted a dose of flu which grounded me for a fortnight. Back fit for duty, 'Ops were

on that night I consulted the crew board and found my stand in was still in the crew. I went to and saw my Flight Commander. He

said "Let him do this trip, He only needs a couple to finish his tour". The following morning I discovered that the crew had been

posted 'Missing'.

 

I joined the 'C' Flight Commander's crew when the Signals Leader, who had been his wireless operator, completed his tour of 30

trips and was 'Screened' ( rested from operational flying ). This was my sixth trip with this crew and I had volunteered to stay with

them for the few extra trips they needed to complete their tour. It was a well knit experienced outfit with which I was very happy.

Needless to say I was very much looking forward to completing my tour, particularly as I had been promised pilot training. I had

been nearly two years on the Squadron, a long time to spend in the front line and although I had not been flying consistently over

that period, the tension had always been there. Would I be required tonight? Would that crew that I was to fly with be a 'sprog' outfit

or an experienced one? Ah well, shouldn't be long now.

 

We left the crew room with our kit and sat on the grass to await the transport. This was another of the wartime airfields with aircraft

dispersed on the 'pans' far and wide. The buildings were mostly Nissen type except on dispersals where little half round canvas

structures, rather like igloos, provided shelter for those 'Aces of the bases' the overworked ground crews. They worked out in all

weathers. There weren't enough of them to provide for a proper shift system so they simply worked on until the aircraft was

serviceable or lack of spares or a major defect or even pure exhaustion caused the 'Chiefy' ( Flight Sergeant in charge of each

ground crew ) to declare the aircraft not fit for operations and ask for Second Line assistance.

 

The crew buses arrived and we climbed on board. The usual chatter and clouds of smoke from last minute cigarettes filled the

inside. The driver called out the aircraft letters at each dispersal and the numbers on board decreased seven at a time.

"Z Zebra" and we climbed out. The skipper walked over to meet the 'Chiefy' of our ground crew. He was looking cheerful which

indicated that the aircraft was fully serviceable, loaded and ready to go.

 

He also had another cause for satisfaction. The car, a second-hand Ford Eight ( the 1938 L100 new model ) which the skipper

had bought in anticipation of finishing his tour and which the ground crew had been refurbishing in their spare time, was also

serviceable and would await our return.

 

Not time to get onboard yet. The skipper and flight engineer were discussing weight and likely fuel consumption with the Flight

Sergeant. the Navigator and Bomb Aimer had their maps out discussing pin points on route. while I checked again the contents of

my ' gen ' bag. The Skipper looked at his watch and called " Time to go time". We all got on board through the rear entrance hatch.

The Halifax had a high ground angle which made it quit a climb up to the front of the aircraft. Therewere two spars to climb over

and in full flying kit on a warm evening, with parachute, gen bag and in-flight rations, with the precious flask of coffee to safeguard,

one arrived at one's crew station sweating and a bit out of breath. Once settled in, with everything stowed it become easier. On

this night my rather cramped quarters in the wireless operator's office were more cluttered than usual.

 

When ' Window ', the small metal strips that were dropped in bundles to confuse the enemy radar, was first introduced it had to be

dispensed through the flare chute. This meant that one crew man had to leave his station for most of the time over enemy territory.

This was, of course, very undesirable so as quickly as possible all the aircraft had been modified with a special chute in the step

alongside the wireless operator. While this was a sensible solution it did turn the the poor old wireless man into the proverbial '

one armed paper hanger '. When the time came to dispense the window one was faced with keeping wireless watch, maintaining

the log. taking loop bearings as required, tinselling, watching a stopwatch and popping the packets of window down the chute at

the specified intervals. Added to this one tried to keep track of what was going on outside by a quick listen to the intercom from

time to time. The packets of window were piled into every bit of floor space within reach of the WOP which rather fenced him in!

Ours was one of the last aircraft to be modified so I had not encountered this particular problem before and I wasn't sure I liked the

idea much! However there it was and I had to make the best of it.

 

Having completed my pre-flight checks, re-stowed the window to my satisfaction, I reported all O.K, left my seat and climbed up to

the 'second pilot's position'. I swung the retractable seat into position and joined the skipper in the 'front office' for taxying and take

off. I was one of the squadron's authorised co-pilots. Ever since the shortage of pilots had forced the reduction from two to one

qualified pilot per crew, certain members of aircrews had been selected as 'pilots mates'. I did regular sessions in the Link

Trainer, the forerunner of today's simulators, to practise instrument flying. The theory was that not only should we act as co-pilots

during taxying, take-of and landing, but, should the pilot be injured over enemy territory, we would have sufficient skill to fly the

aircraft back to friendly territory and bale the crew out. It was a long shot and the chances of a novice being able to handle an

aircraft which had been damaged by fighter or flak and the pilot injured were slim indeed. I have never heard of being done, but it

was another possible life line, albeit a tenuous one!

 

We started the engines and completed the pre-taxying checks, waved the chocks away and moved slowly forward. Loaded as we

were we needed a lot of power on the outboard engines to negotiate the bends in the perimeter track but eventually reached a

point just short of the runway behind another aircraft. We watched him get a 'green' from the runway controller, turn on to the runway

and slowly gather speed. Our turn now. We moved forward to the holding point and awaited our 'green'. There it was. The Skipper

taxied forward and turned onto the runway, applied the brakes and completed the pre-offs checks. He called "Stand-by for take

off", he opened the throttles and I followed them up with my left hand. He released the brakes and as the aircraft moved forward

and started slowly to accelerate he kept it straight by using 'differential throttle', that was varying the power on the outboard

engines. I had to re-act to the changes until the tail came up and gave him rudder control, then the throttles were pushed to the

stops and I held them there while the skipper used both hands on the control wheel. The end of the runway seemed to coming up

awfully fast and the wheels were still firmly on the ground. We finally lifted off just short of the perimeter track. The undercarriage

was immediately selected up. There were the usual 'clunks as the up locks engaged and then a violent pitching motion as one

wing dropped. " Christ!" ejaculated the skipper as he fought to regain control. At maximum all up weight and only just on flying

speed we had hit the slipstream of the aircraft which had taken off ahead of us. The trip could well have ended there with any

lesser pilot. As it was he managed to straighten her up and establish a steady rate of climb. Having set climbing revs and boost I

checked with the Skipper, left the co-pilots seat, which I folded down, and went to my own seat directly beneath the Captain.

 

A certain amount of re-organisation was necessary as some of the stacks of window had fallen over. I then had to open my gen

bag and get the code books and other documents out and arranged. Finally I opened my log book and signed on watch. I listened

to the Group broadcast, which contained nothing of interest, but one had to listen right through to the time signal which always

concluded it. I set about selecting the most suitable radio beacons for loop bearings. This was not so essential these when the

'GEE' system could ensure accurate navigation for the first couple of hours or so. This was enough to validate or otherwise the

forecast winds and to a certain extent the 'Met' forecast,at least for most of the outward leg.

 

I switched over to intercom and checked with the navigator the 'Window' start time and then went back to Group frequency. After

the next broadcast, I took a few sets of loop bearings for practise really as the Nav. hadn't asked for them, but I passed them

forward on a message chit and got the 'thumbs up' from him. I tuned through my 'tinselling' frequencies but as expected they were

quite. We still had quite a way to run to the enemy coast and anyway , most fighter control had gone over to V.H.F which I couldn't

cover. I switched over to intercom to check progress.

 

The Navigator and Pilot were discussing the latest wind and deciding on a small change of course. I looked at my watch. Time to

listen to the next broadcast. Off intercom and back to the radio. Apparently nothing new, just the usual callsigns, then the call-light

to the left of my radio started to flash indicating I was wanted on the intercom. I switched to intercom "Wireless Op".

" Oh, Wireless Op, Nav here. Approaching enemy coast. Time to start 'Window'. One packet every 2 minutes until I give you stop

time". "Roger Nav. Wilco". I switched back to the radio to get the end of the broadcast, made an entry in my log and opened the lid

of the 'Window' chute. I put my pencil down on the side of the chute and picked up a packet of 'window'. I slid the retaining band to

the 'one third from the end' position and put the packet into the chute. It smartly disappeared and at the same time my pencil

hopped over the lip of the chute and followed it! It was a good job I saw it go, could have lost a lot of pencils that way! I got a spare

pencil from my pocket and made an entry in the log to the effect that I had started 'window'. Like all good Wireless Ops., I carried a

plentiful supply of pencils, all sharpened at both ends in the traditional manner! I had learnt from experiences that if you drop a

pencil in an aeroplane you rarely found it again, even if it doesn't go down a chute!

 

Dispensing 'window', monitoring the tinsel frequencies and keeping track of the broadcasts kept me busy but we seemed to be

taking a long time to get to the target. On most of our previous trips we would have been turning for home by now. I couldn't see

anything of what was going on outside and my few brief moments on intercom every now and again didn't add much to my

knowledge. I looked at my watch and estimated that we had about half an hour to run to the target. I confirmed this with the

navigator and then asked the flight engineer to pass me up some more 'window' as my stocks were running low. I settled back to

routine for a while and then switched over to intercom for the start of the bombing run.

 

I didn't consider there was much point in pushing out the 'window' while the bomb doors were open as I reckoned that most of it

would end up in the bomb bay. I restocked the 'window', checked the accessibility of my parachute and listened to the patter

between the Captain and the the Bomb Aimer. They were discussing the positions of the groups of marker flares and trying to

decide which of them were closest to our briefed aiming point. We turned on to the selected group of target indicating flares ( T.Is.)

and started our run up. The bomb doors were opened , there were a few corrections and then "Bombs gone, Steady for camera

run". This was always a tense moment ; then "Bomb doors closed. Turning onto course Nav. Confirm 340".

 

I was just about to switch off intercom and go back to the wireless set when the fighter opened fire. Flashes, crashes, the smell of

cordite, the sudden hot flush followed by shivers, I had had it all before! It didn't need the shout of one of the gunners to tell me "

Fighter dead astern". Then " 88 breaking port below. Turn port go".

"Port Outer engine on fire Engineer. ---------- I've lost the ailerons! Standby to bale out!"

The curtain between the Navigator's department and my position billowed out as the escape hatch came up. god bless the

Navigator, he must have jettisoned the hatch before getting his parachute. I pulled my 'chute' from its stowage and clipped it on.

the rising crescendo of the engines almost drowned the Skipper's shout of "Get out quick!".

I pulled myself out of my seat and fought the billowing curtain which defied my efforts. I dropped onto my knees and precipitated

myself forward,helped, I have no doubt, by a forward pitch of the aircraft. I dived through the hatch - silence it seemed - I didn't

bother to count but just yanked the ripcord. It was just as well it seems the tug of the harness when the 'chute' opened and the feel

of the trees beneath my feet was all but simultaneous. I crossed my legs as per instructions for landing in trees. Fortunately the

trees were young conifers and the branches broke my easily but they also did little to slow my decent. I landed heavily with my legs

still crossed. Not a recommended method of arrival!

 

I lay for a while on the pile of broken branches. My knees ached and I seemed to have had most of the wind knocked out of me.

There was a steady drone of aircraft overhead and the thunder of gunfire sounded quite close. Listening to the sound of aircraft, I

was assailed by the thought that I had jumped too soon and that the rest of them were now on their way home. A deep depression

set in and I started shivering. It took several minutes to pull myself together, run the events through my mind and steady my nerves. I

eventually got got to my feet, pulled in my parachute and buried it under the branches. I should have destroyed it but I wasn't

thinking to well as evidenced by the fact, having opened my escape kit and got out the compass, I set off in a westerly direction.

This from a point just north of Berlin!

Walking wasn't easy, but at least I was alive. ( I learned many months later that the rest of my crew were not ).

 

 

V.A.Robins