A retrospective - Bomber Command No 625 Squadron

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A retrospective - Bomber Command No 625 Squadron

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Opens with some details of 625 Squadron and introduction with reasons for writing. Writes of beginning of the war when still at school and experiences before joining up. Mentions activities with Air Training Corps and being awarded an RAF bursary to attend Cambridge university as a member of the RAFVR. Relates experiences on the university air squadron. In 1943 departed for training in Canada describing the journey and training as navigator. Goes on to describe training back in England on Anson, Wellington and Halifax. before going to No 1 Aircrew Officers School at Hereford. Was posted to 625 Squadron on 2 March 1945 at RAF Kelstern flying the Lancaster. Writes of his experiences on the squadron including operations to Misburg , Nuremburg and other targets. After cease of hostilities describes operation manna sorties to Holland and prisoner of war repatriation flights. Concludes with peacetime activity and reflection on his time in the RAF. Includes some photographs of people, a target and aircraft.

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IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2011-02

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This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

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Twenty-two page document with photographs

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BBrookMBrookMv1

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Transcription

[centred]By Request
A RETROSPECTIVE [/centred]

Bomber Command No. 625 Squadron
[picture of a Lancaster]

No. 625 Squadron
[picture of badge] Motto: “We avenge”. Badge: Within a circular chain of seven links a Lancaster rose. The Lancaster rose is indicative of the aircraft used by the squadron, and the seven links the number of personnel comprising an aircrew.
King George VI, March 1945. Authority:
No. 625 Squadron was formed at Kelstem, Lincolnshire, on 1st October 1943, as a heavy-bomber squadron equipped with Lancasters. It formed part of No. 1 Group and between 18/19th October 1944, and 25th April 1945, took part in many major raids on enemy targets. Following its final bombing mission it helped to drop food to the starving Dutch people, ferry British ex-POWs home from Belgium and British troops home from Italy.

Bomber Command WWII Bases:
Formed 1.10.43 as No. 625 (Bomber) Squadron at Kelstem. Main nucleus-posted in about middle of month-was “C” Flt of 100 Squadron.
Kelstem, Lincs: Oct 1943-Apr 1945
Scampton, Lincs: Apr 1945 onwards

Bomber Command WWII Aircraft:
Avro Lancaster B.I,B.III: Oct 1943 onwards

Code Letters:
“CF”

[centred] Maurice Brook February 2011 [/centred]

[page break]

For years I resisted family requests to talk about my experiences as a navigator in Bomber Command. Apart from a natural reticence of not wanting to “shoot a line”, to use RAF slang, I knew that memory alone could mislead, as proved to be the case. More important was a selfish concern that real but unpleasant and perhaps unmanageable memories would emerge. Virtually daily, in quite[sic] moments, I have brief flashbacks. Conventional wisdom is that this is evidence of post traumatic stress disorder. My argument, which disconcerted a conference of psychiatrists, is that it is a biological mechanism for coping and providing there is no evidence that it interferes with normal functioning there is no need for treatment, which might undermine effective coping.

Last year, I was told that, “I owed it to the grandchildren at least, to make them aware of what an earlier generation had done in extreme youth. Ever son-in-law, Clive, remembered a wish I had once casually expressed for a final visit to Lincolnshire, a Lancaster bomber and perhaps visit the hotel where the Dambusters were housed. Out of the blue, he telephone last Autumn to say he had booked a VIP day in April at East Kirby airfield. There, among other things, there would be a ride in a Lancaster on the ground. The previous night was to be spent at Woodhall Spa, the very hotel used by the Dambusters. With that breathtaking announcement made, in his usual persuasive way, he suggested that as a quid pro quo I might respond to the requests to write about my experiences.

My navigator’s log book was stolen when we moved house from Effingham and memory can be false after over 60 years. To be as accurate as possible, I got my service record from the RAF and paid a researcher to cull the squadron records in the National Archives. I had tried to do this some years ago, but found the microfiches almost unreadable. The experienced researcher did a reasonable job, but may have missed some operations. To my surprise, it proved the unreliability of memory. I would have sworn I joined 625 squadron in the winter of 1944, but the record shows I did not do so until early March 1945. What I recollected as months was only weeks, which itself says something about the impact on me of the experience.

So, as they say, “to begin at the beginning”.

[centred] 1939 – 1941 [/centred]

I was on school holiday when my mother and I listened to Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast, September 3rd 1939, telling us we were at war with Germany. A neighbour came in, whose husband, like my father, had been permanently damaged by service in the first world war, which had ended only some 20 years earlier. I remember her saying to my mother, “at least your lad is too young to have a go.”

At school there was an awareness of the threat to freedom from fascism. We had Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Mussolini’s biography in the school library and were urged to read them. One master was a Jewish refugee who had escaped with his young daughter in 1938. Some of the boys had been on a school trip to Germany in 1938 and returned with Nazi

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memorabilia given to them by members of the Hitler Youth. Throughout 1938 preparations for defence were apparent, such as air raid shelters being built on the school playing fields, gas masks being issued and air raid practices.

I was able, with bicycle, to join the Air Raid Precautions Service as a messenger boy. This involved spending nights in the control centre at the local council offices, waiting to be sent with messages if telephones were put out of action. Not much happened and my usual duty was to be sent out, in the blackout, to buy fish and chips. One night, in early 1940, there was a raid on Leeds as I war returning with fish and chips. There was a drone of engines, searchlights and then anti-aircraft guns opened up. A piece of shrapnel hit my steel helmet, but somehow cut my lip. That was my initiation which, of course, gave me status in the control centre as their first real casualty. I told my parents that I had, “bumped into a wall in the blackout” and was told to be more careful.

During 1940, the school summer holiday was cancelled and the staff arranged a special programme: learning to play bridge, producing a play, music appreciation, outdoor games etc. One highlight was a demonstration of unarmed combat by the headmaster with the school caretaker. The Home Guard was being formed, initially called the Local Defence Volunteers. Our headmaster was the captain and the caretaker was the senior warrant officer. A squadron of The Air Training Corps was also formed, with the headmaster as CO and the caretaker as warrant officer. We were taught basic navigation, mathematics, aircraft recognition, morse code, drill etc. We had a week at Holme on Spalding Moor, then a base for Hampden bombers. We saw them take off after dark one night on a leaflet raid. Our first flight was on an Avro Anson and I was airsick. I was never airsick again until May 1945. Fooling about with my school-friend Walter Murton, I jumped through an open window in the NAAFI but didn’t duck enough and cut my head on the upper frame. The MO stitched it up and I was swathed in a turban of bandages, which gave rise to all kinds of speculation when we were back at school. Unfortunately, it put Muriel, who was in the same class, off for a time.

Dunkirk brought home to us all how desperate the situation was. We had a military hospital not far away and the head used to arrange for groups of wounded soldiers to come to the school and be given tea by the girls. We had a young staff who were beginning to leave, to go into the army or air force. They were being replaced by men from retirement and young women. Older brothers were already involved, one as an air gunner, whose schoolboy brother brought a clip of live machine gun ammunition into school and no one turned a hair. The brother of one of my primary school teachers was a Halifax pilot and cycling home from school I sometimes saw his plane circling over my home village of Outwood before going off on a raid. He was lost after a few operations. The headmaster had some of the older boys to his home at weekends where we were taught and practised rifle shooting. We also spent hours cleaning grease from case loads of old American rifles and making sure they were in working order. All this activity was a practical response to Churchill’s call, “to fight on the beaches and the landing grounds, etc., - we will never surrender.” Invasion really seemed imminent and we were preparing for it.

I had become a sergeant in the Air Training Corps and the RAF were offering university bursaries for suitable candidates volunteering for aircrew. The minimum age was 17 ½ , which I was in October 1941. My father agreed, reluctantly, to sign the papers and I made

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an advance application. This was accepted, after a long medical and intelligence test, in July 1942, at a centre in Viceroy Court outside Birmingham. I was then sworn in as a member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, becoming the property of the RAF.

CAMBRIDGE

The RAF deal was that their bursary covered attendance at a university first year engineering course, and completing the initial aircrew cadet training at the RAF proper, by simultaneously being a member of the university air squadron. Long vacations were suspended during the war, so the normal degree was covered in two years. The first year equivalent was from October to March.

In October 1942, almost 18 years old, I arrived at Christ’s College. Walter Murton, accepted under the same scheme, went to Corpus Christi. I had two rooms with coal fires. A ‘scout’, old enough to be my father, cleaned, made the fires, got the coal in etc. One of the many new and not entirely comfortable experiences. Wearing of academic gowns was compulsory for undergraduates and you had to be back in college by 10-30pm or the gate was locked on you. The lecturers were first class and eminent in their fields. We did aeronautical engineering, applied mathematics, some meteorology, physics and electronics. Practicals were done in the Cavendish laboratories. To be in these famous labs and lecture theatres was something to remember. Other aspects of university life were enjoyed. I joined the Harriers and went running every Wednesday afternoon, likewise rowing, another new experience. Sunday evenings were often spent at the University church listening to first class speakers. There were many free lectures in the evening by well known politicians of the time, often firebrands: Krishna Menon I remember: Lord Gort, ex-governor of Gibraltar talked about his angel and god experience when governor of the beleaguered Rock, and communist Harry Pollitt. Sundays, arranged by the Communist Society, I spent with many other students on a bench at the Eye factory mindlessly stamping out rivets or washers to aid the war effort. It was a useful insight into the monotony of unskilled factory work.

The university air squadron was commanded by the headmaster of the Leys public school, but the staff were all RAF. We wore RAF uniform with a University Air Squadron shoulder badge and a white flash in our caps. The training was intensive. The New Zealander drill sergeant told us that when he was posted to the CUAS the CO said he was to remember that, “these cadets are the sons of gentlemen and are to be treated as such”. An interesting insight into prevailing snobbery. Amusing and tedious but it had a purpose. The CO’s comment I suppose had some substance in that period. We had several titled members, some sons of very senior RAF officers and army generals, the son of the then chairman of ICI. Needless to say, the effect on this New Zealander (colonial was we all then saw him) was that he made life really tough for us. We became good at drill and his inspections made sure we were super smart with polished buttons etc. Morse signalling was practised until it was second nature and we learned to take down messages with interference fed into the system. Aircraft recognition was practised by a brief flashes on the screen. In time we got to be over 90% accurate. More navigation teaching and an introduction to astronomy by learning the main

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constellations and important stars and planets. With Britain blacked out star gazing was easier than it is now. Social aspects were not neglected. Formal mess dinners were held with speeches and silly games afterwards and etiquette rules taught about behaviour in the officer’s mess - never go in your greatcoat, or wear your hat or fail to speak to the CO if he is in there, how to pass the port and so on. The whole ethos was that we were to show that we were demonstrably better than the normal RAF intake and I suppose it rubbed off in encouraging higher achievement.

After university and air squadron exams most of us had about two weeks at an aircrew reception centre, in commandeered luxury flats at St. John’s Wood eating in the zoo restaurant. From the RAF records I have obtained, I see my character was then rated as “very good” and “ recommended for a commission”. You were never told about your appraisals in those days. Time was taken up by more medicals in the pavilion at Lord’d: tests for night vision and ability to cope with spin. We did daily PT in the open under the shadow of anti-aircraft guns in Regent’s Park. One of the group in my ex-luxury room with eight airmen was a dedicated member of The Oxford Movement, who rose early every morning to say his prayers, but he was well tolerated and no one made fun of him.

From St. John’s Wood it was back to Cambridge as proper RAF airmen. This time living in Selwyn College, part of which had been commandeered. We were there about a month and given Tiger Moth training at Marshall’s field outside Cambridge, before being posted to Heaton Park Manchester, where I was billeted in the spare room of a couple in Crumpsall. He was an ambulance driver in Manchester and had already experienced raids. Other members of the family lived nearby and I soon learned that one son was a Japanese prisoner. I walked each day to Heaton Park for breakfast and all other meals. Apart from frequent daily inspections the days were taken up with useless tasks to keep us occupied as we were there awaiting a troopship sailing to Canada.

CANADA

Late autumn, 1943, hundreds of us were gathered in a large hangar at Heaton Park, given ration packs and marched to board a train, which travelled through the night reaching what some recognised as Glasgow docks the next morning. There we were marched onto a liner (either the Andes or the Aquitania) converted into a troopship. Every inch below decks was occupied with bunks or hammocks. we were given timed tickets for one meal only a day and practised lifeboat drill several times. Late afternoon we slid out of Glasgow and started the lone crossing relying on speed and zig-zagging to escape U-boats. Hygiene was primitive. Showers were just about possible , using special soap for salt water, but it wasn’t advisable in case of attack. Each day, the deck mounted gun was used in target practice. I think the journey must have been about three weeks. One dawn, we saw the impressive Statue of Liberty as we entered New York Harbour. The water was covered in floating debris. Not a pretty sight, but a relief to be there..

Train from New York to Monckton, New Brunswick, another aircrew reception centre. I

[page break]

was there long enough to be accepted into the hospital laboratory as an assistant. That made the days pass, but got me on a disciplinary charge for missing a parade. This remains on my record. From Monckton to London Ontario and the air navigation school, using Avro Ansons and civilian pilots. For the first time, navigation theory was being put into practice. Alongside daily lectures and practicals we flew on given routes around the Great Lakes at night, using ground observation (no blackout there) and code flashing beacons strategically placed. Some astro-navigation was involved, but no electronic aids. The pilots presumably always knew where they were, but they always obeyed trainee navigator instructions. More than once, planes were flown across Lake Erie to land short of fuel many miles from London. I avoided such embarrassment, but learned what it was like to be uncertain of your position and yet get yourself out of the difficulty.

[photograph]

Trainee Navigators Avro Anson. London, Ontario.

Temperatures at ground level of minus 20F were not uncommon as was regular snow, but flying was never suspended. With no blackout and abundant rich food, the contrast with the Britain we had left was marked. The other big impression was how big everything seemed to be, railway trains, cars, buses, wide roads and lots of space everywhere. I wrote to Muriel practically every dyad she did likewise. There was a special form we had to use that was transmitted electronically: an aerogram, I think. You wrote in black pen and the recipient received a photo-reproduction. The process was surprisingly quick, but you had to be careful what was said because they were all censored. The cadets on the course were from all backgrounds. An ex-Newcastle policeman and a miner, both in their thirties and with families. They had reserved occupations which exempted them from normal military service, but volunteering for aircrew always took priority. Also, there were virtual schoolboys like me; a couple of air gunners who had re-mustered after operational experience and a young East End Jew boy with a scar on his face from an air raid in which his girl friend had been killed in his arms. The instructors were Royal Canadian Air Force,
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mainly peacetime teachers, one of whom I met later in the UK at Operational Training Unit preparing to go on operations as navigator.

At the end of February 1944, I graduated from Navigation School and was commissioned as a pilot officer in The Royal Canadian Air Force, aged 19. A free month followed, hitch hiking in the USA prior to reaching Halifax, New Brunswick, to join the designated return troopship (Andes or Aquitania). The only difference in conditions on the return trip was that officers were separated from the sergeants.

[photograph of Pilot Officer Brook in March 1944]
Newly Commissioned

[centred] HOME AGAIN [/centred]

We docked in Liverpool to a quayside military band, before taking a special train to Harrogate, where the RAF had taken most of the major hotels for aircrew reception. It was a bus ride from home and I took advantage whenever I could. With a two day pass I could get to see Muriel wherever she was stationed in the army. I got myself a temporary job in the adjutant’s office censoring mail, primarily so I had access to the blank passes and could write and stamp my own.

Posting to an Advance Flying Unit at Millom in Cumberland followed. Here, navigating in blackout conditions on Avro Ansons without radar aid was the norm, having respect for the mountainous terrain in the area. The given route and height left little room for error. Crashes did occur as a harsh penalty for error. We were taken to swimming baths where we had to wear dark glasses, jump fully clothed, wearing Mae Wests (lifejacket) from the top diving step into the pool, locate a dinghy that was upside down, clamber in then blow a

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whistle to attract other crew already in the water. It was cold, unpleasant, physically draining but obviously potentially a survival skill.

By August I was considered proficient and posted to an operational training unit (OUT) at Husband’s Bosworth, a wartime airfield in Leicestershire.

[centred] OPERATIONAL TRAINING [/centred]

All new arrivals for the OUT course spent the second evening together in a large mess room. We were to sort ourselves out into crews for Wellington bombers. Being cautious and diffident, I did nothing at first but watched the scene with a mixture of amusement and cynicism. Within the first hour a dapper, mature, commissioned bomb aimer (itself unusual), came to me. He said he was Jim, had found a pilot and wanted a navigator, was I interested? So I said yes and joined the pilot (also commissioned) who was not much older than me but I judged him as less mature, but I was committed. Two sergeant air gunners asked to join us and we learned they were the sole survivors from a crash in training. The rear gunner was 18 but the mid-upper was 35, like Jim. Jim has chosen to be a bomb aimer because the statistics showed they had a high casualty rate, like rear gunners, and he had an unhappy marriage and wanted out with some glory! Later, he met a future wife and changed his views. Ron, a bright yellow wireless operator asked if he could fill the vacancy he recognised. He was welcomed as being very experienced, after being a ground wireless operator in West Africa. His colour was a side effect of the anti-malarial treatment used at that time and it took years to fade.

The next day, training started on Wellingtons and I had an introduction to Gee, a navigation aid that worked by receiving oscilloscope signals from widely dispersed transmitters. By plotting the readings on special maps, a good fix of ground position was possible until, as I soon learned, German counter measures could confuse signals. OTU. Included practice parachute jumps from a tower, lectures on how to contact the underground, how to behave as a prisoner of war and basic survival techniques. We also, in turn, observed other crew members in a tank as the oxygen level was reduced. They showed inability to do simple sums or drawings, yet were supremely confident they were doing well. This taught us the need always to use oxygen about 10,000 feet. It was my job to instruct the crew, “oxygen on.”

As a crew we had to practise bombing on a range almost daily, machine gunning a towed target drogue and fighter affiliation exercises in which the object was to evade a theoretically attacking fighter. Inquests after exercise identified errors. Most al all, we had a series of night raids, under code numbers, to carry out. These specified routes with many turns at sharp angled where sloppy timing of the turn would put you outside the line of the next course to follow. In a real raid this would put you outside the mainstream and therefore increase vulnerability. We were to follow the given routes and return to base exactly on the estimated time of return. Some of these routes took us briefly to enemy territory, which exposed us to searchlight and anti-aircraft activity and kept the gunners alert to night fighters. Sometimes we dropped ‘window’, foil strips, to confound radar. Aircraft were occasionally lost to enemy activity. It was this OTU period that must have created my false impression of when I started operations proper, as the exercises were very realistic.

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Whenever I could get away I went to where Muriel was stationed, meeting her as she came off duty or saying goodbye as she went on duty. The bridge over the Dee, at Chester, was one place, near Western Command Headquarters. Goodge Street station was another haunt, when Muriel was with General Eisenhower’s signals centre located in tunnels underneath the platforms. There was a café near Goodge Street where we sometimes had the luxury of a hot orange drink that was off the ration.

February 1944
[photograph of Maurice Brook with Muriel]

Our young pilot was not good at putting the crew at ease, because his own obvious tensions were transmitted by his tone of voice and forgetfulness. For example, on take off he left his oxygen mask microphone switched on and dangling, so that the engine roar was amplified and transmitted to the whole crew, making it impossible for anyone to pass a message until we were well airborne and passed the critical danger period. He was told about it, but consistently forgot under pressure. On our last training flight an instructor flew with us to assess the crew. It was a filthy night, with thunder and lightning and very strong winds. At one stage, with a headwind, I thought I was in error. My calculation of ground covered suggested we had hardly moved and we seemed to be stationary over Anglesey. The wireless operator received a diversion instruction, away from our weather-closed airfield in Lincolnshire to one in the west country. I calculated a new course and time of arrival at a specified airspeed and we got over the right spot, though the weather was still bad. It then became clear that our pilot was so stressed he could not go through the landing drill and he began to prepare us to bail out. At that point the instructor took over as captain and managed to land just before the fuel ran out.

We returned to Husband’s Bosworth the next day and were sent on a week’s leave prior to being posted to a four engine conversion unit. On return, Jim and I quickly found that we shared serious reservations about our pilot. The gunners, already extra twitchy because of their accident history, and the wireless operator told us they were unhappy and expected the officers in the crew to do something about it. Jim and I went to see the adjutant to say that as a crew we were unwilling to continue flying with this particular pilot. It was a delicate

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task because, although all aircrew were volunteers, refusal to fly was treated as ‘lack of moral fibre’. Reduction in rank and disgrace followed. However, the adjutant surprised and relieved us by saying, “you will be posted as planned but your pilot will remain behind for further training.” “A new pilot will be waiting for you at the conversion unit”.

[centred] Four Engine Heavy Conversion Unit [/centred]

It would have been around October, when we arrived at Sturgate, a base near Scunthorpe, for training on Halifax, four engine bombers. We were introduced to Dave Lennox to be our new pilot and captain. Already a flight lieutenant with many hours of instructor service in Canada, he had joined a Scottish regiment in 1938, risen to regimental sergeant major, been to France and back through Dunkirk. Then he had applied to re-muster as aircrew and trained as a pilot. We also acquired a second pilot as flight engineer, making a full crew of seven.

From our first practice flight, Dave established his authority and inspired confidence in us all. He was calm, ensured we only used the intercom for messages not chatter, repeated my instructions and followed them exactly. Once, on take off just before becoming airborne, he said quite calmly, “We have burst a tyre”. We completed the exercise for the day and as we prepared to land he said, “take up crash positions, I am going to try to put the burst tyre on the grass and the other on the runway, but we might tilt over.” He landed smoothly and stayed upright. What a relief and what a further confidence boost for the crew.

The weather was freezing and the Nissen hut in which we were housed had no fuel. The first night, after dark, a group of us went to the fuel compound, which had a high wire fence with barbed wire. By standing on the shoulders of a big chap on the ground, throwing a greatcoat over the wire, I (being relatively light) was able to get over the top, hang down and then drop. A bucket came over with a rope attached which I filled and returned three or four times. Finally I did a monkey crawl up the tope and was pulled up and over. The whole process took less than 15 minutes and was over before the patrolling guards came round again.
Then, a strange thing happened. I was posted to Hereford to No 1 Aircrew Officers School. I found Walter Murton also had been posted there from his further pilot training. We were given intensive military training by the RAF Regiment and taught to use a variety of weapons, unarmed combat, grenade throwing, stalking a sentry. We had to undergo assault course training over a wall, under wire, through water, jump off the back of a moving lorry in the dark somewhere in Wales and make our way back to the unit. The only explanation we were given for this bizarre treatment was that it was necessary to train a number of aircrew officers so they could lead the defence if an airfield was attacked. The school is now the base for the SAS. I failed to finish the course because I ended in hospital, paralysed, suffering from exposure. A week in hospital with daily physiotherapy put me right, though I had to endure daily visits from the local vicar, who seemed to have got the idea I must have come down in the sea! However, it got me away and back to the proper air force. When Walter returned he was trained as a glider pilot for the Rhine crossing where he would have had to lead his infantry passengers after they landed.

[page break]

[centred] 625 Squadron and Operations [/centred]

The preliminaries

Later than I originally thought, possibly for the reason I explained earlier, the crew were taken on March 2nd 1945 to Kelstern, a wartime airfield in the Lincolnshire Wolds, near Louth. We were met by the squadron commander, who outlined a familiarisation on Lancasters before we would be ready for operations. We three officers shared a small room in a Nissen hut, the sergeants had beds in a barrack room for about 20, heated by a central coke stove. Though nothing was said, we were all aware that we were probably occupying the places of missing aircrew as the squadron commander said nothing about crews that had recently left because they had completed their tours (30 operations). For the sergeants, I felt sympathy. Sometimes, usually during a morning, the belongings of one or more residents from their hut would be removed, because they had not returned the night before. “Gone for a Burton” was the slang expression. This was a derivation of, ‘he went for a beer and hasn’t come back’. A day later, the beds would be re-occupied by newcomers. Thinking back, we all seemed to avoid developing friendships with members of other crews, an understandable defence mechanism. Unlike an army unit, there was no feeling of dependence on and mutual responsibility for one another. The reliance and complete trust was confined to members of each individual crew.

We were introduced to our Lancaster. V for Victor but also V for victory, just returned to service after an overhaul. It had already a distinguished survival record, with over two tours to its record. A “lucky plane” was our assessment, which did great things for morale, even before we got inside. Inside, it was compact, with just enough room for each function. Whereas the Halifax seemed like a spacious airliner, the Lancaster felt like a proper war-plane.

Our first Lancaster. V – Victor [photograph of the Lancaster]

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My ‘office’ was next to the wireless operator and only a step away from the astro-dome. I encountered two new navigation aids. The first was an air position indicator (API). Once set with the latitude and longitude of a start point, it automatically integrated every subsequent movement of the aircraft in direction and speed. This gave a continuous reading of exactly where the aircraft was above the ground, assuming no wind. Of course, there always was wind, otherwise a navigator would have been redundant. The API improved precision, compared with the previous method of noting changing direction, airspeeds and duration of each of them, then doing a series of time consuming mathematical calculations. A second, new navigation aid was called H2S. I had a screen on which a rotating beam showed illuminated ground objects, detected by a revolving aerial under the aircraft that transmitted an electronic beam to earth and picked up the reflections. Towns, clusters of buildings, lakes etc., showed up on the screen as glowing smudges. We had special radar maps that more or less reproduced what the ground objects would look like on the screen.

We were photographed as a crew, for the squadron record.
Don Abbott – flt. Engineer Wally Birkey – rear gunner Ron Wilsdon – wireless op. Ken Cowley – upper gunner Jim Harbord – bomb aimer Dave Lennox – captain Maurice Brook – navigator
[photograph of the crew]

We had to avoid shaving for five days and then were individually photographed in shabby civilian clothing. We were given the prints to carry so that if we were being helped by the underground they could use them to make false permits as foreign workers.
Daily flights took place to become familiar with the aircraft. Dave practised aerobatics and evasive action and said Victor handled like a fighter. We had bombing practice near Gibraltar Point. The gunners had target practice and I had to master the new electronic aid and use of the API. According to the records from the National Archives, we were on the squadron for two weeks before our first operation. My recollection was of a much shorter period. Moreover, I recollect Stettin, Essen, Frieburg and Munich as operations. None of these appear in the archive record, so I could be wrong.

I seem to have spent a long time on the preliminaries in this account. I suspect it has been subconscious behaviour to delay coming to terms with the real thing, which I must now do using the archive record only.

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The real thing.

One would think that our first operation would be one to remember, yet I have no memory whatever. On March 15th., the record shows we attacked Misberg, near Hanover. We took off at 17-53 and landed back at 01-09. Surprisingly, those 7 hours are a memory blank.

There was a routine on an operational station. In the morning a tannoy (loudspeaker) message “all operational aircrew to remain on base”’ meant operations were likely but not certain. The officers mess had a small blackboard headed, ‘Battle Order’. If an operation was confirmed, the squadron commander chalked the names of the captains and navigators on this board and a likely time of briefing. By then, ground crews would be moving trolly loads of bombs to each aircraft and bowsers would be delivering fuel. Jim used to go out to check the ‘bombing up’ and the gunners checked or preferably loaded their own ammunition belts. There would be much speculation about the target as there was a ratio between bomb load and fuel load that helped in guessing the likely distance. I used to go to the intelligence room or the navigation room to collect up to date maps and note reported changes in enemy anti-aircraft and fighter placements.

The Tannoy would indicate the briefing time and crews would amble along to the crew room and change into flying kit. Silk underwear and under gloves, then woollen, then battle dress, a Sith & Wesson 48 and ammunition, Mae West (lifejacket) and parachute harness. During this process, the ample toilets were much used. Parachutes were collected, each directly from the WAAF who had packed it, also a small plastic box of escape kit. This contained forged money, maps printed on thin fabric capable of also being used to strain water, water sterilising tablets, a simple fishing line and some glucose tablets. We also each got a thermos flask of cocoa.

As you entered the briefing room, you read over the door “Press on Regardless”. In the briefing room, each crew sat at a trestle table facing a raised platform A curtain covered the end wall. In would come the station commander and acolytes. The curtain was dawn aside revealing the target and the designated routes in and out. These were never direct, especially inward, with frequent marked changes of direction. The meteorology officer would brief on weather en-route and on return. Bombing leader explained the bomb loads, bombing heights and the target markers (coloured flares) to be dropped by pathfinder force. The C.O. explained the reasons for its target selection and the total number of aircraft taking part in the mission. This was usually several hundred. After questions, all left except the navigators. We made careful notes of the turning points and target times. We were also taken to our dispersal sites in a blacked out bus driven by a WAAF. The engines were usually already running. I would greet the ground crew and clamber aboard.

Once I had reported my arrival Dave would taxi out. As we rolled along the perimeter track, I would pin down my charts, check the API and that the altimeter was correctly set, prepare the first log entry which would read “airborne”. By then we would be at the runway. An airman would check the tyres and give a thumbs up to Dave. Then from a caravan at the other end of the runway a green Aldis lamp would flash. There was complete radio silence and pre-arranged drill had to be followed. The engine would roar with the brakes still on,

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then as the aircraft strained, the brakes were released and we began to roll, gathering speed. Dave would call, “full power” as he with the engineer pushed the throttles forward and held them there. Hurtling down a runway, sitting on tons of high explosive, was always a period of tension. The aircraft seemed to stick to the ground until, slowly, it became unstuck. A steep climb began and the undercarriage was retracted. We were on our way. I had a bit of a ritual in logging the exact time in minutes and seconds that we left the ground.

Each aircraft took off as it was ready. Once airborne we had time to kill. I usually gave dAve a course that took us over my home territory and then turned him to meet our first departure point on the given time. Frequently, the UK legs were Reading then Beach Head, after which the route varied according to the briefing instructions. Residents of Reading would have endured the noise of several hundred aircraft as they formed the stream going south. I could get accurate Gee fixes of ground position and Jim would usually confirm the time of crossing each coast, from which, using the API, I would calculate my first wind speed and direction. This was used to calculate the compass course for the next leg. As we reached 10,000 feet I would check that oxygen was on for each of the crew. Our operational height was usually between 10 and 15 thousand feet.

March 16th., we were briefed for a major raid on Nurenberg involving 277 aircraft. This I do remember. Gee signals were soon being jammed and fake signals were appearing, so I was glad to use H2S, difficult though it was to link the responses on the screen to the charts in front of me. There were many changes of direction towards the target. Precise timing of a turn was essential to remain within the stream. For example, on an accurate turn, 30 seconds wrong could put the aircraft outside the stream when on the new course and therefore vulnerable. We had a drill. I would warn Dave, “prepare to change course to….” and I would give a compass heading. He would acknowledge and repeat the given heading. As the time to turn approached, I would do a verbal count down ending in “now’ and there would be be an instantaneous change of direction. Frequently, the aircraft would vibrate as though running over cobbles. This cheered the crew because it was due to the slipstream of another aircraft and meant that we were still in the mainstream. Only later, on a daylight mission did we realise how close you had to be to get this effect! Ron had a long trailing aerial that he reeled out below the aircraft and this was regularly chopped off by the propellers of following planes. As we proceeded to the target, Jim and others kept reporting fires on the ground. Nearer the target, Jim took over guidance leading to the bombing run. After take off, this was the next certain period of extreme tension. For several minutes, Dave would have to fly level and respond to, “left left, right right, steady, steady” as Jim lined up his bombsight on the target markers laid by pathfinders. I would follow on the H2S, with my thumb on a bomb release button which I could use, if Jim became unable. All the while, we would rock from time to time from nearby anti-aircraft bursts and occasionally a searchlight would light up the cabin, but thankfully pass over without locking on. “Bombs gone” from Jim would be accompanied by an upward leap as the aircraft suddenly became lighter. “Steady, steady,” would be Jim’s calm injunction for several seconds more until the camera had operated, recording our ground bursts. These were analysed on return for accuracy. “Camera off” would be Dave’s signal to open throttles and turn on the course I had given him to pre-set on the compass before starting the bombing run. The long return then began with Dave usually checking that the gunners were awake and alert. We had taken off at 17-45 and landed back at 02-05 and bombed from 16500 feet. Climbing out after landing, as the engines stopped, the overwhelming impression was of a

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peaceful silence and the smell of clean air. A quick briefing of the ground crew about any mechanical problems and into the crew bus and to the de-briefing room. Here, a WAAF intelligence officer sat behind a table and we sat facing her. We had been given a mug of cocoa laced with rum by the chaplain, who had usually had one for himself each time. On the wall was a large table listing crews, take off time, estimated time of return and comments. You noted the ones marked overdue, sometimes crashed, ditched or missing. 3 of the 26 planes dispatched had not returned. The weather observations I had to make en route were reported. Jim gave his report of target marking, etc. When the number of fires was reported, as though the enemy had marked the route, we were told these would be aircraft burning on the ground. These words had schilling effect, reinforced by the news that soon emerged that 24 (8.6%) of the total force of 277 had been lost, an unsustainable rate of attrition. Bacon, eggs, sausage, beans in quantity and it tasted good. Back to the hut and dog tired we were soon asleep.

March 18th., Hanau was the target, taking of 39 minutes after midnight and landing back at 07-47, bombing at 04-35 from the relatively low height of 10,300 feet. It was a lively trip, with several night fighter warnings that caused stomach churning, as Dave took violent ‘corkscrewing’ evasive action. Two members of another crew returned wounded, but safely.

There was a brief closure for very bad weather, then on March 22nd we were off to Bruchstrasse, for a relatively uneventful trip of 6 hours, from 01-08 to 07-05, bombing at 04-19 from 17,000 feet.

The next day we were briefed for a specific target in Bremen : Bremen railway bridge the record says. I thought it was Bremen docks, but I suppose they could be the same. Less than 5 hours, up at 19-47 and down just after midnight, after bombing at 10-05 from 16500 feet. The camera recorded clear direct hits right on target, which reflected well on the crew and especially Dave and Jim.

Target photograph - Bremen - 23 March 1945

[photograph]

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By now, I think as a crew we had acquired some recognition within the squadron and we were selected to radio back to base the wind speeds and directions I was using. Aircraft from other squadrons were similarly detailed. The responses were collated at base and an advisory wind radioed to the mainforce to use or not, as each navigator decided.
Two days after Bremen, we did our first daylight operation. On March 25th Hanover was the target. We left at 06-37 reached target at 09-47 and were back for lunch by 12-26. In daylight on a perfect sunny day of blue skies, we realised how close you had to be to the aircraft in front to feel the slipstream effect. It was a sobering thought. As we left Hanover I looked back from the astro-dome to see a column of dense black smoke rising to nearly our bombing height of 17000 feet. I remember feeling a surge of sympathy for the burgers on that Sunday morning, coupled with the thought that there would have been plenty of warning to give them time to reach shelters.
On March 31st, another clear Spring day, a major daylight operation was directed at long-suffering Hamburg. The bomber stream was accompanied by American Mustang and Lightening fighters, but we soon encountered anti-aircraft fire. The gunners reported an aircraft to our starboard on fire. I looked out of the astro-dome and saw it flying level with thick black smoke pouring out. Then it slowly, very slowly, began a dive. We were all hoping to see parachutes. Eventually, three bundles fell out, all on fire. No parachutes opened. Then it was back to work. There was less dog-legging on the escorted raid, so we were up at 06-35 and back by 11-41, reaching the target at 08-52 from 17,000 feet.
Enthusiasm for escorted daylight raids seemed to be growing in the command, as April 3rd was the day for another. This time to army barracks at Nordhausen, a very specific target which we were to identify ourselves and not rely on pathfinder force. We were up at 13-28 and reached the target successfully at about 16-15. It was cloudy as Jim started the bombing run and just as he was approaching the target it was covered by cloud. Jim, properly and unusually, aborted the run. Anti-aircraft response was desultory and Dave decided to go round again for another try, whilst I would track on H2S ready to act if cloud remained. Cloud remained. I had a good image outlining the barracks and pressed the bomb release. Photographic reconnaissance later that day showed successful destruction.
Two days later, April 5th, we were transferred to Scampton, near Lincoln. This was a permanent RAF base and had been home of 617 squadron, the Dambusters. The officers mess had portraits on the walls of VC’s won from Scampton. Living was more comfortable than Nissen huts and some of us had long serving civilian batmen.
April 9th was memorable and provides one of my regular flashbacks. We were detailed to lay mines in Kiel harbour. Taking off at 18-15, we flew with the mainstream for most of the route, until it turned south to the main target and we carried on alone to Kiel. My job was to navigate to a promontory to the north of the harbour, where Jim would take over visually. This was successfully achieved, and we started the pre-determined time and distance run, along which Jim dropped mines from 14,000 feet at 22-46. Needless to say, as a lone aircraft we had the full attention of both ship and shore batteries, but the drops were made and Dave accelerated on the course I had given him in advance.
Soon afterwards the flight engineer reported an engine on fire. It was quickly extinguished
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and ‘feathered,’ ie. stopped with the propellers fixed in position. It was not long before there was trouble with another engine, fortunately on the opposite side from the first failure, which also had to be feathered. It had probably been damaged by shrapnel from a near miss. For me, the consequence was loss of all electronic aids, as these engines had generated the electric current. I knew that Dave’s course needed alteration, but how? My first priority was to be sure we avoided the fortified islands of the Heligoland Bight, so I gave Dave an alteration that I guessed would keep us over the sea, well to the North. The next problem was how to get back, bearing in mind that we were slowly losing height and were uncertain of what might next go wrong. Ron got radio fixes on European radio stations, the location of which he knew, but these were not very useful. Bearings on the BBC, which would have been ideal, were impossible because those transmissions were revolved continuously and rapidly around different transmitters, precisely to prevent them being used as direction finders. It was cloudy, but breaks appeared. From time to time I could locate the Pole star, so I got out my sextant and got Ron to note the precise time I took a shot on it. Using tables, which I carried, I could work out our latitude from the sextant reading and the time it was made, measured to the second. I made an estimate of the wind from the last determination made outside Kiel and did a judgement modification for the lower height and changing air pressure from which I gave Dave a new course, behaving verbally as though I knew exactly what I was doing.
My reasoning was that if I kept him on the right latitude we would reach the English coast where there were two emergency airfields: Manston in Kent and Woodbridge in East Anglia. If we came down in the sea, Ron would have time to radio base with our course and latitude, that would help air sea rescue. It was moonlight and as luck would have it we reached the coast. Jim soon recognised where we were, virtually on course for Lincoln! We landed at 02-00 and the plane was taken out of service.
No time for worrying about what might have been. The next night we were briefed to attack an oilfield in Czechoslovakia at Plauen. A long. long, way, that was met with murmurs of disbelief when the curtain was drawn aside at briefing. It was a wet night and a visiting orchestra had come to give a concert in one of the hangars. They came to the take off point to wave us off at 18-27. We reached the target, not without incident, and bombed nearly five hours later, at 23-12 from 17500 feet A large fire was raging as we left. I never looked out but the cabin was illuminated and the gunners expressed their awe. It was nearly four hours later, at 03-02 when we landed As we turned off the runway, the engines stopped with all the fuel gone. One aircraft failed altogether en route, one was missing for several days but eventually turned up, having had a forced landing in our zone of Europe after running out of fuel.
Four days later, we had caught up on sleep and had Potsdam as the target, which was much the same as Berlin for opposition. Assuming that Gee would be heavily jammed, I studied the H2S charts and especially the shapes of numerous lakes in the are, [sic] to improve the chances of identifying what I would see on the screen. This also was a long trip. Take off was 18-08 and the heavily defended target was bombed over four hours later at 22-58 from a height of 19,500 feet. This highest operation we did was no doubt intended to make it more difficult for anti-aircraft gunners. In another four hours plus we were back, at 03-20, This was our last offensive operation.
A daylight raid on Berchtesgaden, Hitlers mountain retreat, was next but our crew was
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withdrawn. It was soon after dawn, as we stayed in the crew room waiting for the others to return we saw the trail of a V2 rocket that had been fired. It was an awesome sight and a reminder of the dangers still posed to London and our Southern cities.
On one operation, I can’t recall which, we were asked to take a major from the Royal Artillery responsible for London air defence so he could study German tactics. They had developed sensitive radar controlled searchlights working in groups. A master light was bright blue. Once it located a plane, several white lights locked on, apparently automatically, making evasion difficult. The guns seemed to be linked as well. As we approached the target he was busy making notes and seemed disappointed that we had not been illuminated. Then we were. Instantly, Dave went into a steep corkscrew dive, then climbed steeply, successfully getting out of the beams. Our major was very quiet after that and when we got back said he didn’t know how we coped.
Remaining alert throughout was always a necessity and when the home airfield was reached extra vigilance was needed. German night fighters would try to follow landing aircraft and catch them at their most vulnerable. Although radio silence was observed at take off, there was full radio contact with the controllers on return and their calm warm voices were always cheering, especially if an aircraft needed special clearance to get down quickly. One morning, at about dawn, we arrived at Kelstern when there was low level fog and the airfield was obscured. Dave heard the controller give clearance to an aircraft ahead and then to us. He kept getting glimpses of the one in front and then lost it but picked up the perimeter lights and landed quickly. As he touched down he said, “wrong airfield”. Our perimeter lights were adjacent to those of our sister station Binbrook and his error was understandable.
Mercy Missions
The assumption that the war was coming to an end did not mean there was any significant reduction in opposition. It its not widely known that after Dresden, in February 1945, some 7000 members of over 1000 aircraft of Bomber Command were lost ; over 10% of the total losses of over 55,000 aircrew from the command throughout the war.
Five days after Potsdam, we were called to a special briefing as we saw army lorries arriving. We were told that the Dutch population was in dire straights from starvation. The German Command had refused a request, through the Red Cross, to allow army lorries to cross the border with food supplies. When asked to allow safe passage to an air drop, they had also refused. Nevertheless, we were told that we were not to fire unless fired upon.
The first dropping zone was a racecourse near The Hague. There was a murmur of apprehension when we were told that 50-60 feet was the height from which to drop. This was about what the Dambusters did, but only after a lot of low flying training. Off we went at 11-29 am with bomb bays full of tons of basic food. Normal navigation was not possible or necessary. I stood behind Dave with a map and basically it was like guiding a fast car. As we swept over the houses and streets we could see adults and children waving excitedly. Some were weeping, soon so was I as still do when reminded. You could have recognised anyone, we were so low.
The doors were opened above the racecourse at 13-29 and it was soon covered in crates of supplies. We had a chocolate ration which we tied in handkerchief parachutes, which Wally threw from the rear turret. We saw German machine gunners swing their weapons towards us and Wally did likewise to them, but no one fired. It was probably the combination of emotion and the effect on the eyes of such low flying that I was airsick for the second time in my life. The squadron records say we dropped from 400 feet. This I cannot believe. We were below church spires and just above chimney pots.
There was a sea fret as we turned for home, which obscured the visual horizon. Instrument flying, so low, was hazardous and altimeter readings could not be relied on if there had been a change of air pressure. In the midst, we were aware of a blinding flash ahead of us lasting a few seconds. When we got back and reported this, we learned that an aircraft from another squadron must have exploded on hitting the sea.
The next day there was another flight, aptly named Operation Manna. We were excused, but I volunteered to substitute for a sick navigator in an Australian crew. We were airborne at 11-03 and landed back at 14-33, having dropped supplied near The Hague. The same street scenes were seen. Flying with this Australian crew was a new experience. There was banter and chatter most of the time and the pilot seemed to revel in seeing how low he could get.

As soon as the war had ended, many of our army prisoners were being released in Europe and a quick return home was needed. On May 11th., we flew to Brussels airport as part of Operation Exodus, where we collected 24 released soldiers. They were packed into the back, between the spars and I gave them a lecture to the effect that if they oved none of us would get back. Their weight in the back affected the trim of the aircraft, for which Dave had to correct. Any change in the trim, especially at take off, could be dangerous. One aircraft crashed on take off, killing all on board. A sad homecoming for some. We flew them to Dunsfold, where they were quickly processed and sent on leave.

Our job was done. We never flew together again. Of over 7,300 Lancasters built, V-Victor was one of only 34 to complete over 100 operations.

A final line-up Mary 1945

[photograph of the crew with their Lancaster]

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[centred] PEACETIME [/centred]

We soon had a Labour government, that was keen to arrange orderly release to civilian life and keep the troops occupied, especially with the war with Japan still active.
I spent a lot of time as liaison officer to a Polish squadron at Dunholme Lodge, and heard moving stories of their lives. Most of them had left Poland in 1939, knew nothing of their families and were wary of returning to a communist regime. Many of them had transferable skills and were able to remain in this country.
I also spent time with the unit education section that was preparing to run educational courses in a big way.

The atomic bomb ended the Japanese war and our squadron stand by for Tiger Force to go to Japan was ended. I was called to Bomber Command headquarters to see group captain Neville. The upshot was my promotion to Flight Lieutenant to return to Scampton and create and run a big educational operation. This was a new experience which involved day and evening courses for over 400 men and women. For the domestic science course, I remember sending the two WAAF instructors to RAF supplies at Cottesmore with blank requisition forms, signed by me as Bomber Command HQ. They came back delighted, with rolls of parachute silk, aircraft linen and cotton etc. Needless to say, their classes were well attended and several wedding dresses were created from parachute silk. We were given a large library specially ordered for the Educational and Vocational Scheme. I was busy and stretched, but it worked. Eventually, I was asked to remain and promised further promotion, but this was not what I saw as the future.

With peace assured. Muriel and I arranged to be married in February 1946 against not a little family opposition. In those days, you needed parent’s permission to marry if you were under 21. Muriel was 21 in February 1945 and I reached this majority in October, so we were able to do what we wished and crumble the opposition.

[photograph of Maurice and Muriel when they married in Bude, Cornwall in February 1946]

Collection

Citation

M Brook, “A retrospective - Bomber Command No 625 Squadron,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 8, 2021, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/31022.

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