WW2 – Bomber Command 1944

The period from March to December 1944 was one of relentless operations carried out firstly against targets in the German heartland, and then in support of Allied ground forces as they prepared for and then executed the invasion of Europe in June 1944.

Crews were posted into 100 Squadron after completing training at the Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) at Hemswell, or from other 1 Group HCU’s, and also from 3 Group HCU’s. Many of them completed a full tour, many did not. During this part of our journey, we include recollections from some of the men who flew with 100 Squadron so providing a ‘human’ insight into our tribute to the Squadron. When a new crew was posted to 100 Squadron, they were often accompanied by an experienced pilot for their first operational sortie. One ‘sprog’ crew were fortunate enough have the company of Air Commodore Arthur Wray to show them the ropes. Air Cdre Wray, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC, was the No 12 Base Commander and was affectionately known as ‘Father Wray’. During this particular op, due to navigational errors and the radar being jammed, the aircraft strayed off course. Wray helped the navigator to plot a course for the target by dead reckoning, whilst also piloting the aircraft. They bombed the target at Stuttgart alone as they were fifteen minutes late. Wray was not happy with their approach so they went around again in heavy flak before bombing. What a splendid but frightening example for a new crew!

The night of 30th/31st March 1944 was disastrous for Bomber Command. An attack on Nuremburg was ordered with some 795 aircraft, including those from 100 Squadron in the main force. During this raid, some 105 aircraft and their crews were lost, mainly due to German night fighters. Although 100 Squadron came through this operation unscathed, the recollections of Flt Lt Gillam shed some light on the underlying reason for this disaster. The force had been ordered to fly at 19,000 feet, and at that height, the aircraft were leaving contrails. With the night clear, they were highly visible targets for night fighters. Gillam’s recollection indicates that, as an experienced crew, they decided to disobey orders and climbed to 22,000 feet, and then watched as a Lanc below them, leaving a large contrail was attacked by a night fighter. The German pilot attacked the Lanc from below, probably using the upward firing cannons fitted to the ME110. The bomber crew would not have seen the fighter approaching from below in their blind spot and took no evasive action; there was a huge explosion as the Lanc was blown in half. Gillam tells us that “…his stomach turned over and we tried to get even higher. By then I was feeling really cheesed off with the powers that be for sending us out on a night…[where]… protective cloud cover was unlikely to be present.”

Of course there are many similar recollections, but this example clearly reveals the courage of the bomber crews in pressing home their attacks during such conditions. We must never forget the heroism of these men, and in the words of Cherry Herrington’s poem ‘One Hundred at Ninety’, “Back in old England with Lancs, Night after night we paid dear.” This sad loss of life was to continue for more than another year, and Bomber Command Squadrons suffered the attendant losses. There are many more examples of 100 Squadron crews performing remarkable feats of heroism and superb airmanship during operations against Occupied Europe. There are far more than we have the time or space for.

The crews of 100 Squadron developed a keen awareness of ‘jinxes’. Flt Lt John Raper recalls how crews became aware that whenever an NCO pilot received his commission, he and his crew went missing on the very next op, this had occurred on six consecutive occasions. On 22nd March 1944, their crew were briefed for an op on Frankfurt, and shortly after the briefing the Squadron Adjutant told John that their skippers’ commission had come through and that his kit would be moved to the Officers Mess whilst they were flying. John reminded the Adj about the sequence of losses, so it was decided to postpone telling the skipper about his promotion, and not to move his kit until after the sortie. The trip was made without mishap and the spell was broken!

The crews of 100 Squadron also made use of mascots, or good luck charms, to help them through the long and dangerous flights. These mascots took many forms. One of particular interest involved a young lady who lived close to the base at Waltham. Her name was Sally Lancaster, and she knitted small dolls, which she gave to the airmen to bring them good luck. The good luck mascots and avoidance of the jinxes did not always work. During the night of 24th April 1944, Plt Off Armon and the crew of ND328 HW-W WILLIAM, was shot down over Belgium. This crew including Sgt Bowden, a Canadian, were initially buried at the cemetery of St Truiden on 27th April, but were re-interred at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Heverlee near Leuven after the end of WWII. There were many other Commonwealth airmen flying with 100 Squadron, but the Canadians were with 100 in some strength.

On 3rd May 1944, 100 Squadron joined a joint 1 Group and 5 Group operation in a precision night attack against a German military camp some 75 miles east of Paris. During this operation, two ex-100 Squadron aircraft, which were now part of the 1 Group Special Duties Flight (SDF), had orders to mark the special target, which was a tank depot in the German camp. Sqn Ldr Breakspear, who was also ex-100 Squadron, led the SDF on this mission. It is worth noting that a number of crews and Lancasters were posted out of their Squadrons to the SDF in March 1944, and remained with the SDF until it was disbanded in August 1944, when the aircrews were either posted back to their Squadrons, or on to pastures new.

There were major problems that night. The Master Bomber delayed marking the target, and also the Main Force Controller’s broadcasts were being drowned by an AFN broadcast! During this delay, the Main Force were kept circling the target under a full moon for almost 25 minutes, whilst the German fighters took a heavy toll on the bomber force. When the attack eventually went in, under the direction of the Deputy Controller, 1,500 tons of bombs were dropped with great accuracy. Severe damage was inflicted on barrack blocks, transport sheds, vehicles and most importantly the tanks.

On 14th April 1944, General Eisenhower had assumed Supreme Command of all Allied Forces, including Bomber Command. The emphasis changed to preparation for Operation Overlord and, although Bomber Command maintained its strategic role, it was to be heavily involved with bombing tactical targets in support of preparations for the Normandy invasion. Initial concentration for Bomber Command was to be the railway system in northern France, and more than 42000 tons of bombs were dropped on such targets during more than 8,800 sorties. 100 Squadron also carried out attacks on ‘V’ Weapon sites, and helped to open up the Normandy invasion by attacking German gun emplacements on the Normandy coast during the night of 5th June 1944.

100 Squadron was extremely busy during June 1944, dropping 1,197 tons of bombs during the month, followed by a further 1,206 tons in July 1944. The Squadron continued making attacks on railway centres, ‘V’ weapon sites and some strategic targets as participants in 1,000 bomber raids. On 15th August 1944, a 1,000 bomber raid was made in daylight against a large number of German airfields. 100 Squadron carried out an attack against Volkel airfield as part of this operation.

During the night of 13th August 1944, LM658 HW-W WILLIAM was shot down over Bergentheim, with two of the crew being killed. The navigator, Fg Off Gerald Hood baled out, and a young Dutch resistance worker, Bote van der Wal, and his family hid him. Eventually, the Gestapo captured both of them, shooting and burying them in a wood. The site of the murders is now marked by two memorials, which are regarded by local people as a sanctuary and decorated with flowers. Recollections of this event have been published in ‘The Hornet’.
Two of German officers, Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger, who carried out the murders, were captured, tried by a British military court, and executed.

Many airmen lost their lives over The Netherlands, where there are several memorials to100 Squadron aircrew. Since the war, these have been looked after by dedicated groups of Dutch villagers and school children, and through these groups the 100 Squadron Association has forged strong and lasting relationships with the Dutch people; we shall return to this aspect later.

The combined weight of British and American bombing was, by now, taking its toll particularly on German air defences, resulting in the withdrawal of German fighter squadrons. This meant that Bomber Command became able to mount daylight raids in support of Allied ground forces. During a major Bomber Command raid on Frankfurt on 12th September, 100 Squadron lost another aircraft ME828, HW-F FOX piloted by Fg Off Cole. Frankfurt was also subjected to another major attack on the night of 6th of January 1945, when the suburb of Hannau was bombed.

Often, what was a very dangerous and testing situation could also have its funny side, and crews laughed and joked about such events. A good example of this occurred when Sqn Ldr Dave Robb, with his mixed RCAF and RAF crew carried out a raid on Emmerich on 7th October 1944. The crew were flying HW-H HOW named ‘Hellzapoppin’, the kite regularly used by Flt Sgt Harry Brown and his crew. Their bomb aimer, Stamper Metcalfe, had spent hours painting the name on the nose of the aircraft. Just as Fg Off Mo Mosure released the 4,000-pound ‘cookie’, incendiaries from a Lanc above them hit the plane. One of the incendiaries came through the cockpit, wrecking most of the pilot’s instruments, and rolled down into the nose where it ignited. After a scramble to put the fire out, Dave Robb was still heading east, and Arthur White the Nav, quickly called for a westward course for home. After further scares with fuel leaking from wing tanks, and flying at reduced speed to conserve fuel, Robb finally landed at Waltham with the Lancaster still carrying all of its incendiaries.
Waiting at the dispersal was a reception committee, which included the Boss, Wg Cdr Hamilton. Robbie’s crew waxed lyrical about their experiences, fully expecting Robbie and Mo to be awarded immediate DFC’s, but the Boss just said, “Well Robbie, maybe next time you’ll look up!”

Operation Hurricane commenced on 14th October 1944. This was to be a series of concentrated attacks on the industrial cities of the Ruhr. Twenty 100 Squadron Lancs, each loaded with a maximum bomb load of 13,000 pounds of bombs, joined a 1,000 bomber raid against Duisberg at 06:45 with a fighter escort. Flak over the target was heavy, and fourteen aircraft were lost with crews reporting aircraft exploding over the target. The crews returned to bases by around mid-day, and were called to briefing again at tea-time for second attack on Duisberg with take off scheduled for midnight.

Between the two Bomber Command raids, American aircraft had also attacked the city, and fires from these earlier attacks were still burning. In the two attacks, Bomber Command had dropped more than 10,000 tons of bombs on the city.
At 15:00 hours 100 Squadron was called yet again for a third operation, this time against Wilhelmshaven. In less than 48 hours, 100 Squadron had flown three major operations, and all without loss.

During the remainder of October, 100 Squadron carried out attacks against Bochum, Cologne, Stuttgart and Essen. November commenced with attacks against Gelsenkirchen and Wanne-Eickel as bombing priorities had now shifted to German oil refineries. Attacks on oil refineries continued with operations against Karlsruhe, Essen and the refineries at Leuna in early December.

Christmas Eve 1944, and 100 were involved in another operation against Cologne. This proved to be a sad ending to 1944, as Fg Off Griffiths and his crew failed to return. 1944 ended with the Allied ground forces closing in on the Rhine, although it would be a full three months before the Rhine would be crossed. The attacks and operations we have talked about, carried out by night and by day during 1944, brought two more well deserved Battle Honours for 100 Squadron. These honours were ‘Fortress Europe’ and ‘Normandy’.

1944 had been a costly and difficult year for 100 Squadron. Many dangerous and difficult operations had been undertaken, yet the Squadron were still ‘keeping it going’. More was still to come in 1945, as 100 Squadron would play its full role in clearing the way into Germany. 100 Squadron’s contribution to the Battle for Fortress Europe, and the Overlord Invasion had been of great importance. 100 Squadron aircrews and ground crews had again performed above and beyond the call of duty. The courage of 100’s airmen in pressing home their attacks had been exemplary. Despite the odds, and the obvious dangers involved, the crews of 100 had gone out and ‘paid dear night after night’ flying their Lancaster bombers.