OUR CONTRIBUTION TO THE WAR EFFORT VIA 77 SQUADRON
by William A Foote
We took off at 10.05 on the 24th of August 1944 for our first operational trip, the target being one of the German capital ships in Brest harbour. I will never forget that take off! Someone had thoughtfully warned me that the aircraft would take a bit longer to become unstuck due to all the extra weight of the petrol and bombs! He was not kidding! (This was my first experience of flying a fully laden aircraft and I didn’t do a second dickie trip, I didn’t know what to expect.) Unladen the Halifax MK III jumped off the runaway but this was different as the thing seemed to be quite happy there. Just as I was wondering what the land speed record was the end of the runway disappeared under the nose and I managed to drag U – UNCLE off the ground. Away we went across the fields and as soon as it became apparent that we might stay airborne, I forced myself to take one hand off the control column to raise the undercarriage. ( The surface of the ground was rough anyway). I remembered to press the brakes to stop the wheels from revolving as we didn’t want any vibrations to upset our bombs. No, I wasn’t low flying. I was just easing the control column back very gently in case we stalled. I would never have forgiven myself if our bombs had gone off prematurely. Meanwhile those members of the crew who were privileged to be allowed to sit (or huddle) in what was termed their “crash positions” were wondering if it was safe to leave them. They must have reached a majority decision because I saw them creeping forward. I wonder why they didn’t trust me enough to sit in the nose during take off? They couldn’t have seen my flying reports? It was just about this time that Pat, our bomb aimer, who, having, been strapped to his seat, was forced to sit beside me on take off, started to breathe again and finding that he was able to move he wriggled free and disappeared somewhere underneath with the navigator and wireless op. They were probably holding hands. I never did find out what went on behind that black curtain. Once I had gained enough confidence to climb and turn, which I had to do as Brest lay in the opposite direction, we set course over the airfield much to the relief of those below who had waited long enough to see us, and we were on our way. (They were probably thinking I had defected). Having turned onto the course that Doug, our navigator, gave me I was reassured to find some other aircraft heading in the same direction. Not that I really had any doubts as we had trained well as a crew and had a good deal of experience together, even finding our way back from cross country flights, but this was different, this was the real thing! Just as I was beginning to relax I started thinking about and listening to the engines and suddenly realized just how much we depended on them (What if?) That couldn’t be oil blowing back from the starboard inner? Of course not. Best not to look. The gauges all seemed to be OK but they being truthful? What a comforting thought to know I was wearing a parachute, but wait a minute, I wasn’t! I only were a harness and the chute itself was somewhere down below. Then I remembered the wireless op was supposed to hand it to me before he jumped out and I wondered if he would. I was sure he would try but did he know where it was? ? Mustn’t forget to clip it on with the release handle at the right hand side! I’d heard a tale of an unfortunate airman who had clipped his chute on upside down and when he was dug out of the ground they found it was torn to shreds on the right hand side. Easy to say he was silly but falling out of the sky amidst aerial activity isn’t exactly conducive to clear thinking. Must remember to hold the aircraft steady till all the rest have jumped out (why me?) How will I know when they’ve all gone? Suddenly realized that I didn’t have much experience of flying an aircraft in distress and was pretty sure that “George” didn’t have either. But enough of this negative thinking. We were supposed to be brave young men according to the newspapers and after all I had sat through the whole of the film F for Freddie without flinching. Must set an example to the crew. They wouldn’t see my lips bleeding if I kept my oxygen mask on and “ring twitter” is a secretive and personal thing. It was about this time that I began to establish my relationship with Arthur our flight engineer who knew all about engines and if he wasn’t worried why should I be? (Why did he look so pale?). The rules were that I hadn’t to move the pitch levers or throttles without telling him what the new settings were so that he could compute our fuel consumption. So much for accuracy of the fuel gauges! Anyway it was nice to have someone to talk to in the course of duty and to know that one wasn’t alone. Had to keep checking on the rest of them too just to make sure they were all still with us. Alas! It was short-lived as the intercom packed up and Colin, our wireless op, who had been fully trained for such emergencies, began looking for the fuse box or something. Meanwhile I received changes of course, etc., from Doug, our navigator, on bits of scrap paper which served the purpose but the silence was eerie. I also kept an eye on the little lamps that were supposed to light up if Paddy or Scottie, our air gunners, wished to communicate (hoped they wouldn’t as it was bound to be bad news). What was the code again? Arthur went back to put them in the picture and to try to make them believe that the rest of us were still on board. I understand they only believed him because they hadn’t seen us floating past their turrets. I suddenly realized how comforting it was to be able to hear another human voice in these situations, especially if it wasn’t trembling. On we went, bravely (well anyway we went on) with no really serious thought of turning back. After all we had to prove ourselves on our first op. As I sat wondering what would happen next the thought struck me that they might have set all this up as a test. They wouldn’t would they? Come to think of it they used to do funny things when I was shut up inside the link trainer! Had a quick lock round for hidden cameras but couldn’t find any so stopped smiling. As we approached the target area we, or rather I ( the rest weren’t looking out of the front) saw for the first time puffs of black smoke, that I had been trained to recognize as FLAK. The shells were actually bursting in the space that we were expected to fly through! I was told about FLAK but no one said there would be more puffs than clear air. Maybe it was just as well that we couldn’t discuss the situation. Just then Colin managed to get the intercom working again so I didn’t have to wonder how pat was going to give me bombing directions on pieces of paper. On the “run up” (note the use of technical terms) the target became “obscured” by cloud and Pat had the bright idea that we should fly around and wait for it to clear! Being conscientious, or daft, I complied and we saw it clearly the second time which was just as well. Doesn’t a battleship look small from 14.400 feet? Hoped our Halifax also looked small from the other end. I think we must have had some sort of trouble with our bombsight because we didn’t sink the ship. No one else seemed to hit it either but maybe if enough sea water splashed over it, it would rust. What a disappointment after all the trouble we had had but doubt our bombs scared the hell out of someone or other. Strangely enough, although there was a lot of flash on the run ups and after we left, it all stopped when we were actually over the target. It would be some coincidence if they were all reloading at the same time and I’ve often wondered if they knew that we were on our first op and didn’t want to frighten us in case we didn’t come back again. After all they were paid for firing their guns and I don’t think they were on bonus. What a relief to get rid of the bombs and get the bomb doors shut as I always felt so exposed with them open. Ok, so maybe they wouldn’t have stopped a bit of shrapnel from hitting my bum but at least they might have showed it down a bit. And so we left the target area, nose down and headed for home, hopefully. Just as we were breathing our sighs of relief the intercom packed up again so it was back to the bits of paper and Arthur checking the news and boost in person. I can’t remember now whether or not I was able to communicate with base on return (yes we found it) or whether they thought I had taken the huff but we got down alright after 5 hours 25 minutes flying time with our first op behind us. “How did it go?” “ Piece of cake really” (This was a standard term used by airmen. It was seldom true! Doug tells me now (45 years later) that he was so scared on this first op that his mind went blank and he couldn’t think how to navigate. As he says “Fortunately it was daylight and the met winds were fairly close so we got to the target on D.R.” On the way home, once his brain got back into gear he “cooked” his log to look as though he had done something on the way down. Ah well! I’ll bet pat didn’t do much map reading over the sea either. I know Colin had a rough time trying to find the fault with the intercom (it still puzzles him) and the gunners must have felt isolated. It’s lonely enough in the rear turret under circumstances. It’s only natural that everyone would be nervous on the first op as we didn’t quite know what to expect. Also their lives were in my hands and they didn’t know how I was going to perform. Neither did I! We sure learned a lot on that one and it confirmed our suspicious that operational flying was going to be dangerous. Nevertheless it was the culmination op what we had all trained for, we were an operational crew and were finally a part of one of the greatest teams ever, an operational RAF squadron.
Our 2nd Op was much easier and the take off held no fears. In fact I held the aircraft, R-ROBERT, on the ground as long as possible to make sure that the speed built up enough for us to stay airborne once we got off. The target this time was flying bomb (VI) sites at Cappelle Notre Dam in the Pas de Calais. All I could see on the run up was trees but apparently we bombed on visual identification from 13000 feet so Pat must have seen something more. There was no FLAK over the target itself and the whole trip only took 3 hours 40 minutes. However as we landed at 22.00 it would be late by the time we got to bed.
N°3 was a minelaying trip to La Rochelle. I remember looking at the mines before take off and noting that because of their bulk the bomb doors would not close fully. Our instructions were not to release the mines if we could not get an aiming point as we didn’t want to make the Germans a present of them by dropping them on land. (I believe they were still on the secret list.). As things turned out we could not get a visual A.P. because of thick 10/10 cloud and our H2S was U/S so we turned back in the release point area and brought the bloody things back with us. Unlike bombs they couldn’t be jettisoned so had to land with them on. I wasn’t too happy but I managed to make a gentle touch down and they stayed put. We had been airborne for 6 ¾ hours. What a waste of time and petrol! We went on leave after this one.
On the 9th of September we were detailed for a fighter affiliation exercise with a hurricane and while we (I should say I) were enjoying corkscrewing all over the place an uninvited mustang joined in the fun. This was too much for Pat who being prone airsickness threatened to jump out if I didn’t stop. He meant it too! I landed and dropped him off at the side of the runway then took off again and carried on. When we finally landed he was still lying there so we picked him up. I understand that Pat suffered quite a bit from airsickness on other occasions but he never complained and I didn’t know about it at the time. I can sympathise with him for I was sick on the first two flights I made in Tiger moths. It cost me 2/6° each time to get the planes cleaned up so being a Scot I overcame the problem. It’s a terrible feeling. (Being sick I mean).
For our 4th OP we took part, together with another 16 aircraft from the squadron, in a raid on a synthetic oil plant at Nordstern (Gelsenkirchen). Other plants were also attached and the total bomber force consisted of 379 aircrafts. In addition escort was provided by 20 squadrons of Spitfires 3 squadrons of Mustangs and 3 of Tempests. What a wonderful and comforting sight. However while they may have frightened enemy fighters away they couldn’t protect us from the FLAK which was intense. As the smoke from each burst did not disperse quickly the cumulative built up presented a pretty fearsome sight, and I couldn’t help wondering if there was a way through it. Although it looked worse than it was, it was bad enough and our aircraft Y-YOKE was quite extensively damaged. Seeing a shell burst is not pleasant sight but when you can hear it and smell it, it’s close and when the shrapnel rattles off the fuselage it’s too damn close. Arthur was in the astrodome watching some aircraft going down and looking for parachutes when a lump of shrapnel went through the dome just missing the back of his neck. He caught my attention and pointed to the holes. His face was white above his oxygen mask and I couldn’t laughing (probably hysterics) until I suddenly realized that if I had been flying a few inches higher it would have it me in the face! I stopped laughing as it wasn’t funny anymore. I had no problems flying the aircraft back or on landing but when we went to have a look at it next morning it was standing in a large pool of oil. It must have been sent away for repair as a new Y- YOKE arrived soon after. This new one was MZ397. Paddy wasn’t with us on this trip as he had jammed one of his fingers in his guns or turret or something. (Not intentionally). Sgt Smith replaced him.
Sgt Weston replaced Paddy on number 5 which was another daylight attack on railways and industries at Munster. Again we were escorted by fighters and again the heavy FLAK was particulary intense. 6 out of 16 of our aircrafts were slightly damaged and MZ935 Q-QUEEN piloted by F/O CAVE failed to return. We bombed from 18700 feet on red T.I.S and reported that bombing was concentrated.