A night to remember

Wireless Operator
9 Squadron, 7 Squadron, 20 OTU, 75 Squadron

In July of 1941, having completed 33 operations on 9 and 7 squadrons, I was posted to Lossiemouth 20 O.T.U. in Scotland where I became a screen wireless operator. While at Lossiemouth O.T.U. I went out on 2 one-thousand-bomber operations in the Wellington aircraft – Cologne on the 30 of May and Essen on the first of June 1942.

After 20 O.T.U., I returned to operations one year later at which time I met F/LT Sandeman – a screen pilot – who was looking for a crew. He managed to gather a complete crew together with me as his wireless operator. We were posted to Mildenhall 75NZ Squadron on mark three Wellingtons with Merlin engines. We thought this was going to be great but only did one cross-country in one of these super Wellingtons. We then had to convert to Stirlings so were posted to Oakington R.A.F. base to do our conversion, however we had a problem. Wellingtons do not require an engineer: Stirlings do, thus leaving us a crewmember short and none available for another two weeks. In order to get on with our conversion, they decided to put the wireless op in the engineer’s place for circuits and bumps. This explains why I ended up sitting in the second pilot’s seat, which was normally done by the engineer with only one pilot. All I had to do (after the skipper had got his throttles in the position he wanted for take-off) was to put my hand on the throttles and hold them in that position then select ‘under carriage up’ on the skipper’s order and the same with the flaps, on the landing it was the same thing under carriage and flaps down. After two weeks our new engineer arrived, a young Yorkshire lad whose surname was Abbot. Naturally we called him Bud after the comedy team of Abbot and Costello and we all liked Bud because he was a lot of fun.

The time came when we finished our conversion and had to think about operations now that we had our engineer. I expected I would revert back to being Only a wireless operator but the skipper said I had started doing these duties, so should continue doing them as it did not interfere with my wireless duties. After our conversion we were posted to Newmarket on the racecourse at the beginning of December 1942. Newmarket was a long grass strip with the   Devil’s Dyke crossing the end of the runway. This was a deep ditch and a mound about twenty feet high, which we had to make certain we cleared on take off. I never did learn how it got the name Devil’s Dyke (*). We did our first op. together as a full crew on the 9th of December 1942 to Turin – a nine-hour trip.

On the morning of 3rd March 1943 we were informed our crew was scheduled for operations that night. The gunners and wireless operators went out to their aircraft to do their D.I.s (daily inspections); wireless operators had to change the two-volt batteries for the radio set. There were eleven of them to change, which was a problem of carrying eleven batteries out to the aircraft. After the inspections and chat with the ground crew was complete, it was time for us to do our NFT (night flying test). We took off and made sure everything was in good working order. The wireless operator had to work three stations and the rest of the crew tested their equipment ready for the nights’ operation.

At the 1400hr briefing we were told our target that night was Hamburg, a heavily defended target and our take off time was 18.30 hours. The time passed and our turn for to take off came, I sat in the second pilot’s seat as we lifted off at 18.35 hours. Once the under carriage and flaps were up I went back to my wireless duties where I kept a listening watch on the group frequency in case of recall and switched off the IFF (identification friend or foe) 50 miles out from the English coast.

The skipper took the aircraft to 15,000 feet. On the way to the target (Hamburg) the sky was clear with no moon – perfect flying for a night raid. As we approached the enemy coast the wireless operator’s duties were to listen on frequencies he had been given at briefing and listen to German broadcast waiting to hear the word ‘enda’, which was the same as our word for ‘over’ at the end of a transmission. When we heard that word we had to back-tune our transmitters to that frequency and turn the transmitter to R/T (radio telephone). There was a microphone fitted in the port inner engine nacelle so when I switched to R/T it transmitted engine noise on that frequency and would hopefully interfere with the night fighters’ instructions.

As we got close to the target area the skipper called me up front to take the second pilot’s seat. Hamburg looked like a battleground, searchlights swinging all over the sky trying to locate the bombers, lots of flak streaking up from the ground, and fires on the ground from the bombs already dropped. There were two cones of searchlights ahead of us when the skipper ordered the bomb bay doors to be open and as everybody got ready for the run in he said, “We will go in between the two cones”. One was in the north part of the city, the other was southeast, and so we began our run in, doing well until we got between the two cones of searchlights. There were ten or twelve beams in each cone and one beam in each cone had a bluer tint than the others – the master beam. Just as we got between them, both cones switched on to us.

Searchlights are very frightening and pose a serious threat to aircraft once they are caught in the illumination. There is an eruption of brilliant light and you feel naked with nowhere to hide. In order to get out of the beam the skipper pulled the bomb jettison handle and put the nose of the aircraft down hoping to make a quick turn out of the lights but all four engines stalled. Now, not only are we going straight down but the tail came further over than was expected and I was suddenly heading for the canopy. I managed to find two small spaces where the back joins the seat that I could get my fingers in to hold on to brace myself in order to avoid going to the canopy.

By this time the engines had picked up again but we were still headed for the ground at a high rate of speed. The skipper asked me to pull on the stick but if I let go my handhold I would go to the canopy so he had to manage the task alone.

As we got closer to the ground, I could see through the canopy, the tracers hose-piping up at us and all I could think of was, I won t feel a thing when we hit the ground’, but the skipper managed to get the aircraft back under control and on an even keel at a very low altitude – less than 1000 feet – and what is more, we had not been hit! The skipper weaved and dodged all the flak and flew out over the North Sea, the dark wonderful North Sea. Luckily there were no flak ships out there but one lonely gun opened up on us from one of the Frisian Islands.

Now that we had recovered from our ordeal – which in reality only took about five minutes but that seemed much longer – we had to get things in order and start our way back to base. The wild movement of the aircraft as we eluded the flak had flung anything that wasn’t tied down around the confined space so we now had to gather up pencils, log books, etc. and once we found nobody was hurt we went about our duties.
I had to get a fix on the MF DF (medium frequency direction finding); this gave us our exact position at the time so we could then set a course for home base. I switched on the IFF (identification friend or foe) at 100 miles from the English coast then I could get QDNTs (a course to steer to reach base with zero wind) from our HF/DF (high frequency direction finding) at Newmarket. This brought us right over base where we made a good landing.

Getting out of the aircraft we found the duck boards that are located just inside the door were all jammed up against the plywood draft screen. The DR compass gyro had come unhooked from its bracket and was hanging by its wire. The elsan chemical toilet had emptied on to the walls and ceiling; it was a mess. At debriefing everyone was excitedly talking about the four engine Spitfire they had seen over Hamburg. We let them go on for a bit before finally telling them it was probably our plane with our skipper doing a lot of weaving as he got us out of the beams of the searchlights.

The next morning the whole crew had to report to the medical section and were all sent to the R.A.F. hospital in Norwich where they performed hearing tests on us. They sent me back to Newmarket but kept the rest of the crew in hospital. When I got back to base they gave me a light duty job called spoofing. I had an aircraft transmitter and receiver in an out-of-the-way horse-stall. The transmitter had a small motor attached with an off-balanced wheel and there was a sliding resistor to change the speed of the motor. The job I had to do was to go to the flight office in the morning, get the letters of aircraft that were unserviceable and would not be doing a night flying test, then I would go to my hide-away and work the three stations those aircraft should have worked. Every time I changed a call sign I had to move the sliding resistor a little so the vibrations changed on the transmitter giving the difference in engine rpm. I was told the Germans could detect whether the signals were coming from an aircraft with its engines running or not. It was an interesting job especially if the weather was bad and no aircraft could fly, and then I had to send signals for the whole Squadron, which took the best part of the day.

After the ordeal at Hamburg the crew never flew together again. I became an ‘odd-bod` flying with different pilots during the month of April 1943 and finally after fifty-seven operations, I was posted to Wing 26 OUT, near Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire as a screen wireless operator again.

H.W. ROSSITER (CANADA)Wireless Operator, 9 Squadron, 7 Squadron, 20 OTU, 75 Squadron

(*) It is the largest Anglo-Saxon Dyke in Britain… The Dyke stretches in a near perfect straight line for 7 and a half miles (12 km) from the Fen edge at Reach, across the open chalk landscape near Newmarket and towards the more wooded landscape on the clay ridges, ending at Ditton Green.