I was fortunate enough to be given a signed copy of Gus Belford's autobiographical account of his training in the RAAF and his time with 463 squadron by his flight engineer, Horrie Burchett. In his book "Born to Fly" Gus has written in detail about some of the routines that all crews went through as they prepared for operations and of the raid to Bohlen on 5 March when his Lancaster, JO-G (Fuller George), was badly damaged by flak and had to be navigated to the emergency airfield at Juvincourt, France , landing under extremely difficult conditions, a feat for which Gus was awarded the DSO.
Much of what is written below is based on Gus's account but I have adapted it to tell the story of Rowland Ward and his crew preparing for what was to be their final operation to bomb the Dortmund-Ems canal, complementing Gus's words with information that I have gathered in my research. I have tried to make this as accurate and true as possible, however I acknowledge that any mistakes that occur are entirely mine.
Tom's diary entry for 2 March says "D.I.s as usual". These were regular checks that each crew made in their Lancaster - these aircraft were not stored in hangars but out in the open on exposed, wind-blown dispersal areas and subjected to the worst that the English winters could throw at them. It was therefore essential that items of equipment, engines and control surfaces were all checked to make sure that they were all operating properly. The Lancaster represented the cutting-edge of technology at that stage of the war, but it had to be maintained as such.
There was little warmth in the weak wintry sun that had been struggling to shine for the past two days. Rolly Ward buttoned up his battledress jacket against the penetrating wind as he huddled against one of the massive wheels of Avro Lancaster “L-Love”, which at five and a half feet in diameter, matched him almost exactly for height. He gazed pensively around at the slush and mud of the dispersal area at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. His home was the North Bondi area of Sydney; he recalled previous youthful years in early March playing ball games on the nearby beach with friends and his cousin Frank Wintle, enjoying the early autumn day which still retained the summer’s heat. Over here in wartime England, the seemingly endless winter months of January and February 1945 had seen regular heavy falls of snow, rain or fog such that few bombing operations had been carried out.
Rolly mused on the advice of fathers' and uncles' who had fought in the First World War in the infantry in France, freely and forcefully given to those volunteering for the Second:
“Keep out of the trenches laddy, join the air force! Airmen have hot meals, warm, dry beds, less mud, a base which is safe beyond the range of enemy guns and, if you see the war out, a rank and skill to take into civilian life.”
Rolly thought they were probably right about most of those points, although the cold air as it sliced like a knife unchecked across the North Sea from Europe over the flat featureless Lincolnshire countryside chilled him to the bone and made him long to feel the warmth of the sun of his native country.
But after over two years of rigorous and often dangerous training and having travelled halfway round the world, he was here now, determined to fight the megalomaniacs in Germany, to save his King and country and to “do his bit”.
Rolly had left his job as a clerk in the Customs Office and turned up on 10 October 1942 at No. 2 Recruiting Centre, Sydney, two months short of his nineteenth birthday, to offer his services to the Royal Australian Air Force. Perfect health was a pre-requisite for aspiring aircrew, and of course everybody wanted to be a pilot, especially a fighter pilot, having avidly read the accounts of the Battle of Britain that had taken place two years previously. He had been an active member of the Bondi Junior Rugby Union Football team; in the year that he enlisted his team was undefeated club and State Junior champions. So it was with little surprise that after the most comprehensive medical examination that he had ever had, he was passed A1B, the top category necessary for pilots, and sent to the Orderly Room to sign the Oath of Allegiance. He was, he realised, now committed. Just over a month later, on 30th November, Aircraftsman Second Class Rowland Telford Ward, A428814, left his home in Brassie Street, and his parents Edwin and Emily with a mixture of excitement and trepidation for his initial training at Lindfield, New South Wales.
Rolly was pulled out of his reverie by a loud call from above, he looked up and saw his flight engineer Max Venton leaning out through the cockpit window asking him good humouredly if they were going to get on with the D.I.? The daily inspection normally took about an hour to do and involved each crew member being at his battle-station thoroughly checking his equipment and all ancillary functions of the aircraft that could be done on the ground. Their lives may depend on such attention to detail later on that day.
Rolly walked towards the rear of the Lancaster, glancing up at the mid-upper turret where he could just see the ever-smiling face of Bill Chatters, the gunner. Bill had already removed the ammunition belts from his twin Browning .303 machine guns and was busy testing the firing mechanism. With the breech blocks forward, he replaced the belts and set the safety catches “on”. Once the engines were started, he would be able to check the traversing and elevation of the turret and guns.
At 22 years old, Tom Drennan was the “old man” of the crew. Tom, who hailed from Cork in Ireland and not surprisingly was known as Paddy, entered his turret and had a close look around to ensure that all was in order, before moving back into the rear of the fuselage to check that the ammunition belts were all clean and laid correctly so that they ran freely in their ducts. The last thing that the crew needed was a blockage in the feed caused by dirt. He then went back into his turret to make sure the floor was clean and dry. If the ground crew had failed to cover the turret quickly enough during some of the recent rain and snow, water collected on the floor and this then froze when the Lancaster reached operational height. Having finally checked the hydraulics to ensure the system was free of air, Tom was polishing the Perspex casing to ensure clear vision as Rolly passed the turret, often said to be the loneliest and most dangerous place on the plane. Tom was remembering as he rubbed the cloth over the perspex his initial feelings at OTU when he went on his first "air experience" flight in the rear turret of a Wellington. Though he was overwhelmed by the view of the countryside slipping past below, he was also very frightened when he rotated the turret to the beam because he felt that it was about to detach itself from the plane as it rattled and roared in the slipstream! Tom used to joke that he should be paid extra because he put in more flying time than the rest of the crew, for his part of the plane was the first to be airborne on take-off and the last to touch down on landing!
As Rolly approached the main door in the side of the fuselage, he thought of the coincidence of fate that this particular Lancaster had been delivered to 467 squadron fresh and new from Avro factory at Yeadon on 3rd February, only one day before he and his crew had been posted here to “A” Flight from No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School just down the road at Syerston. The plane was, he remembered, looking at the serial number of ME453 painted in red on the fuselage side, in No. 3 hangar having an acceptance check and some extra gear installed as he was given a quick tour of the station just after arriving. Its normally elegant but business-like lines were compromised by every hatch and inspection cover being removed, and dozens of hoses and wires festooned around it to check that no malfunction of the aircraft or equipment would increase the odds already stacked up against the crew who would be flying it.
After its squadron code letters of PO-L had been painted on the fuselage sides the Lancaster, a Mk III with American-built Packard Merlin engines, was allocated to John Boyd Clark. John, a fellow Aussie from Williamstown, Victoria, had taken it on its first operation to Dresden ten days after its delivery. The following day, they took off for Rositz, but had to turn back because the rear guns were inoperable unless very high revs were maintained on the port outer engine which provided hydraulic power to the turret. Once this was fixed, John’s crew had flown the Lancaster on three further operations, attacking the synthetic oil-producing plant at Bohlen and on two occasions the German canal system at Gravenhorst and Ladbergen. The canal system was a priority target because it was a vital link between the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany, the coal and iron-producing areas of central and eastern Germany, and the North Sea at Emden. Was it another quirk of fate, Rolly wondered, that John Clark’s crew had gone on a well-deserved leave, entrusting their still-new plane to Rolly, where it was thought by those “in the know” that the target would again be the Dortmund-Ems canal at Ladbergen?
Clambering up the ladder, Rolly turned right to grope his way past the flare chute along the narrow confines of the fuselage, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the interior darkness before attempting to negotiate the main spar which spanned the fuselage between the wings, on which many an airman had barked his shins and cursed loudly.
Ron Smith, the bomb-aimer, had been first into the Lancaster, making his way carefully to his position in the nose of the plane. Prior to Rolly starting the engine run up, Ron commenced his checks, firstly having tested the releases and equipment, initially checking the bomb carriers and release gear followed by ensuring that the master switch and all other switches were in the “OFF” position. It was also Ron's responsibility to see that there were smoke and signal cartridges in the Lancaster. He then turned his attention to the MkXIV bomb sight. Firstly he made sure that the reflector glass was clean and swung freely when lightly touched. He then switched on the graticule to make sure that it was clearly defined and that the drift line ran along the fore and aft axis of the reflector glass. When this was established, Ron switched the graticule off.
Next he moved the collimator handle through its full range, it was vital that it moved freely and returned to rest in a definite position. The flexible drives were examined closely making sure that they weren’t crossed in their connection between the computer and the sighting head. Ron eased the release lever on the right hand side of the sighting head ensuring that the upper part of the head swung freely through the total drift range of 84 degrees. This done, he lowered the release lever and rotated the sighting head until it engaged with the retaining plunger, double checking that it did engage.
He checked the sighting angle shown on the computer agreed with that shown on the sighting head. He would have adjusted the sighting head to agree with the computer if there had been a difference by disconnecting the flexible drive and altering the sighting angle by means of the hand-setting knob.
Ron’s next task was to ensure that the course setting indicator dial agreed with the dial on the computer, adjusting the dial on the indicator if necessary. Then he tested the drift scale lamp and the lamps on the computer unit. On this unit, he then set the TV figure, followed by the target height above sea level against the sea level pressure at the target. Then the wind speed indicator was set to zero and the levelling scales for the sighting head and computer unit were adjusted for the aircraft all-up weight, noting these figures on Form 3073B.
Colin Terras, the wireless operator and the only other Aussie in the crew, was sitting on the port side forward of the rear spar waiting for his transmitter/receiver set to warm up. He would soon be checking carrier wave-lengths on the various operational frequencies used. After that he would tune the set to the BBC Home Service, before plugging it briefly into the aircraft’s intercom circuit. All being well and judged serviceable, Colin would shut the set down until it was needed later in the day.
Further forward, Harry Callaghan, the navigator had pulled on his helmet and plugged in his intercom and oxygen connections. Harry had already switched on his navigational aids of Gee and LORAN then checked his gyro repeater and set his altimeter to zero, ensuring that the airspeed indicator also registered zero. Once the Gee box was warmed up, Harry took a fix on each pair of transmitters on the airfield which when plotted gave the exact position of the Lancaster at its dispersal on the north-east side of the aerodrome and from which their course would be navigated on the operation.
Harry had been an apprentice at Salford Electrical Instruments, whilst also studying at night school at Radcliffe Technical College to earn his National Certificate in electronics. Harry was in his final year of his apprenticeship and had hoped to complete it before getting his call-up, but his disappointment was offset by the knowledge that much of the equipment fitted in this Lancaster was at the cutting edge of electrical engineering.
As Rolly eased past Harry, he went up into “the office”, with his pilot’s seat on the left-hand side and Max’s uncomfortable fold-away seat on the right. Max proudly wore the wings of a pilot on his tunic; he had earned them in Southern Rhodesia in 1943 flying Tiger Moths at his Elementary Flying Training School at Mount Hampden and then Oxfords at the Service Flying Training School at Kumalo, however on his posting back to England he found that there was a surfeit of pilots, people like Rolly who had been trained in the Dominions, as well as in England. Max had been given the option to re-train as a flight engineer at St Athan, which he duly did, though it was reassuring to the rest of the crew to have a “second” pilot, since he would be able to take over from Rolly should the need arise.
Rolly settled himself into his seat whilst Max took up his position on his flip seat to his right, both putting on their helmets and connecting their intercoms. The ground crew had already connected the Acc trolley which housed high capacity batteries to its designated socket, Max switched the change-over switch to “External” and one by one started the engines, the blades turning at first seemingly reluctantly, preceded by a cough and a puff of white smoke, before catching and becoming blurred rotating arcs. The trolley was disconnected and wheeled away for reconnection to the battery charger ready for the next time it was required, whilst Max reset the switch to “Internal”.
With the engines running at 1000 revs, the propeller pitch levers at full fine and the fuel/air mixture control levers at rich, Max and Rolly went through a comprehensive check of each engine in turn. Starting with the port outer, which provided hydraulic power to Tom’s rear turret, the engine was run up to 2850 revs and the throttle set at plus 9 boost. Both magnetos were tested, Max noting that the drop of 70 to 80 revs with each turned off was within the acceptable limit of 150 revs maximum. The oil pressure showed 75 psi, the coolant temperature 90°C and the oil temperature 75°C. As the propeller pitch lever was moved to full coarse, the engine speed dropped to 1800 revs as a result of the blades’ increased angle of attack. The auto-boost pressure dropped to plus 7, which was normal. The pitch control was returned to full fine, the revs and boost resuming their original settings. Rolly closed the throttle to minus 4 boost, reducing the engine speed to 1000 revs and moved the supercharger switch from moderate ‘M’ to supercharge ‘S’. The clutch between the planetary gears in the epicyclic chain shifted from one face to the other, which increased the supercharger speed to ten times that of the engine. As soon as this was proven the switch was returned to the ‘M’ position. The radiator gills, which were opened or closed as necessary by thermostats in flight, could be manually controlled by an overriding switch, this was checked and found to be serviceable.
With the outer engine tested and found to be satisfactory, Max and Rolly’s attention was turned to the port inner which drove an hydraulic pump for the landing gear, flaps and bomb doors as well as other ancillary services. This was tested in a similar manner and found to be also ok. Next came the starboard inner, driving another hydraulic pump for the main system, a 24 volt generator for the plane’s electrics, a compressor for the pneumatic system and an hydraulic pump for the front turret. It too proved satisfactory on test. Finally, the starboard outer, providing power for the mid-upper turret and an alternator for some of the radar systems proved fully serviceable.
The four engines had to be synchronised to achieve optimum fuel efficiency and to make the flight, often 6 or more hours long, feel as smooth as possible to the crew. The engine synchronising light, which stayed on or off, indicated identical speeds for the two inner engines and was checked aurally and visually by the rev counters. The outer engines could be synchronised visually by looking through the spinning discs of the inner propellers. When the engines were running at the same speed, a ghost propeller appeared which seemed stationary. Adjustment of synchronisation was achieved by use of the propeller pitch controls which varied the load on the engines and hence rotational speed.
The flaps were fully extended and when completely down correctly showed 55° on the gauge. The Sperry panel containing the six flying instruments was tested, and the gyros in the turn-and-bank indicator and artificial horizon were seen to be operating. The altimeter was reset to zero and a check was made that the rate-of-climb indicator showed zero. The gyro-compass repeater was set to the magnetic compass heading plus the variation and deviation to show the true heading of the aircraft. The inside temperature gauge showed +3°C and the outside one showed +1°C.
The brake pressure gauge on the receiver for the main wheel brakes showed 90 psi, and when Rolly placed his feet on the rudder pedals and applied full rudder in either direction whilst operating the control lever, he was able to determine the differential pressures in the wheel cylinders varied from 0 to 80 psi.
Forward of the cockpit, Ron Smith was down in his bomb-aimer’s position. Ron switched on his bomb-sight and looked at the sword-shaped graticule in the gimbal-mounted reflector which was connected to and controlled by the air speed indicator, the altimeter and the gyro-compass. Ron could set data into the instrument that allowed for all flight variables so that he could view the aiming point through the clear glass, with the sword image reflected in it. On the bomb run-in, Ron directed the pilot so that the target appeared to run up the blade, releasing the button to drop the bombs when the target reached the cross-hairs represented by the hand-guard of the sword. Each bomb dropped one at a time, so a stick of bombs would span about 200 yards. Pressing the bomb-release button also activated the automatic camera that was set to open for ten seconds. Ron checked his bomb hook indicators for lock and release, then stood up to check the twin-gun nose turret which he manned when necessary.
Like Tom in the rear turret and Bill in the mid-upper, once the engines were running and providing hydraulic power, he was able to ensure full elevation and traverse of the guns and turret. All reported back to Rolly that everything was running smoothly, at which point silence and stillness returned to the Lancaster as the engines were shut down.
With their individual tests completed satisfactorily, they joined the ground crew outside the Lanc., Rolly reporting to the sergeant-in-charge that everything was working well and that they’d see them later to prepare for take-off. The same scene was being enacted on airfields across Lincolnshire as 212 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitoes from 207, 189, 227, 50, 49, 619 and 9 squadrons, as well as 463 which shared Waddington with 467 squadron, all of 5 Group were checked, and in Norfolk 214 squadron of 100 Group with their Flying Fortresses specialising in electronic countermeasures were prepared for the night sortie.
As they walked across the dispersal pan to where their bikes were leaning against the ground crew’s hut, Rolly glanced back over his shoulder at the imposing bomber which since 1942 had been Britain’s main weapon of retaliation against Hitler.
He recalled with a wry smile and a remark to Max about how they’d met at Swinderby and had their first encounter with a Stirling. Swinderby was an HCU, a Heavy Conversion Unit where crews had their first experience of flying a four-engined bomber. Prior to that, Rolly, Colin, Bill, Tom, Ron and Harry had “crewed-up” at No. 29 OTU Bruntingthorpe. Operational Training Units were designed to bring the various “trades” together that made up a bomber crew and to start to weld them into an efficient team. At Bruntingthorpe they flew Vickers Wellingtons, or Wimpys as they were known, after Popeye’s pal J. Wellington Wimpy, many of them ex-squadron veterans and clapped out. Wimpys, being twin-engined, didn’t require a flight engineer, so Max had been allocated to the crew, who had already flown together for 46 hours at OTU, at 1660 HCU Swinderby in November 1944.
One of Rolly’s instructors at OTU had advised him to spend time on each new aircraft thoroughly familiarising himself with the cockpit layout prior to a first flight, and in particular to pay attention to the height of the pilot’s seat from the ground when on the tarmac. This was especially important when going from a relatively small aircraft, like an Airspeed Oxford, or “Oxbox” as it was universally known at about 10 feet high, which Rolly had flown at South Cerney, to a Wellington at over 17 feet. The Mk X Wellington had two-speed superchargers, the change-over being effected by two levers behind and below the throttles. These levers were viciously spring-loaded in both directions and required great attention when being moved,especially into low gear, to avoid trapping your fingers.
But the Short Stirling was such an enormous aircraft that it made the Wimpy look like a toy in comparison! The pilot sat nearly 23 feet above the runway, Rolly couldn’t imagine how he was going to be able to fly this immense beast whose wing roots were thick enough for a man to stand upright in, let alone judge the right height for touch down. The undercarriage legs were like girder-bridge structures, and yet they proved the aircraft’s weakest point and great care had to be taken when landing in cross-winds if an undercarriage wipe-out was to be avoided.
Max reminded Rolly of another of the Stirling’s endearing foibles, the “Exactor” hydraulic controls which controlled the throttle, mixture and pitch settings. Exactors needed careful and frequent priming; if this was forgotten, they could easily kill you. Stories were told of pilots who had failed to adhere to this rule who, on take-off, had opened the throttles to full power with no response whatsoever from the engines, or perhaps even worse, who coming into land had cut the throttles only to find them still roaring at full power.
The seven young men struggled, heads down against the biting winds whipping across the airfield as they slowly cycled the two miles around the perimeter track back to “A” Flight office. Rolly recalled as he did so the warning from the squadron commanding officer, newly promoted Wing Commander Eric Le Page Langlois at the 9 o’clock aircrew parade that morning, for pilots to take particular care when taxiing their fully laden bombers because the thaw had finally begun. This meant that the unpaved ground either side of the dispersals and taxiways would no longer support the weight of an aircraft. It required considerable skill and concentration to manoeuvre the Lancasters around the narrow taxiways, this was done by judicious bursts of power from the port or starboard engines and the careful application of brakes whilst flight engineers kept an anxious eye on radiator temperatures. One aircraft going off the hardstanding, getting bogged down and causing a “traffic queue” could jeopardise the whole operation.