FREE Chapter from Bomber Command: The Thousand Bomber Raids

FREE Chapter from Bomber Command: The Thousand Bomber Raids

The Final Bombs

The very last aircraft to attack Cologne, according to the briefing, was meant to be that of Wg Cdr Tait, the officer commanding 10 Squadron at the controls of Halifax II, W1052 ‘K’.

Talk of suppressed and overwhelmed defences did not apply to Tait’s sortie and whilst on the final bomb run a large number of searchlights were still operating and the flak was no less relenting as numerous holes in the Halifax’s fuselage would confirm.

With the target a mass of flames, Tait’s bomb aimer, Sgt Gill, pressed the ‘tit’ at 0234hrs from 13,000ft and that was meant to have occurred in the 100th minute of the raid. After nearly six hours in the air, Tait carefully landed W1052 safely within the confines of the relatively small Coastal Command satellite airfield at Docking, northwest Norfolk, at 0520hrs.

78 Squadron’s commanding officer, Wg Cdr A H S Lucas (who only took command on May 18), at the controls of Halifax II, V9991, had an eventful evening. Lucas had been briefed to take a number of photographs and his determination to complete this task resulted in the bomb run taking place later than planned. As a result, Lucas became the last to drop bombs on Cologne that night at 0238hrs from 14,500ft under a bright moon onto one of the few remaining ‘black’ areas in the midst of a world of flame below.

Bombs were dropped southeast of the Marshalling Yards, although their bursts could not be confirmed despite a number of fresh fires breaking out, contributing to the inferno below. All seemed well until, on the trip home at 0358hrs at 12,000ft, the Halifax began to ice up and, one by one, the instruments began to fail.

Lucas continued to handle the situation until 0430hrs when he gave the order for his crew of five to bail out from 1,600ft. Lucas kept the bomber flying on his own until, at 0450hrs, he made a delicate belly landing on the long emergency runway at Wittering with little damage to the bomber or himself. His crew all came down near Spalding unhurt with the exception of the rear gunner Sgt E Webb who landed awkwardly and broke his neck; he died on the way to hospital. V9991 was a lucky bomber for 78 Squadron as it was repaired, later served with the CF and back on the squadron and was not SOC until late December 1945; a real survivor.

The Tail Enders

For many bombers, their sortie was far from over as they turned for home after attacking Cologne. It was literally a wing and a prayer for many who sought safe haven at the nearest airfield available. The risk of aerial collision over the target had been accurately predicted by the boffins at one per hour and those two incidents did happen. There was also always the risk of a collision on their return to home airfields especially if conditions were poor.

With much of England covered by a band of cloud which topped out at 2,000ft, the safest place to descend was over the vast Fens of Cambridgeshire and south Lincolnshire where the odds of hitting anything high was slim. The odds of crashing into another aircraft, even with so many of them in the air at once, was equally as slim but this theory was challenged as the first of many tentatively descended through the murk.

For Plt Off G C Foers and his crew in Halifax II, W7761 of 78 Squadron, the operation had gone well. Everything had gone as planned; the target had been bombed successfully and a single package of G23 propaganda leaflets had been scattered, as briefed, over the target. Likewise, the experienced Sqn Ldr D B Falconer, who with one tour with 49 Squadron under his belt was now serving as an instructor at 14 OTU, had also had a positive operation hitting the target in his Hampden I, P5321. Unbeknown to each other, Falconer and Foers approached the Norfolk coast at around a similar time and slowly descended to a point over central Fenland where they would set the final course to their respective stations at Cottesmore and Croft, the latter 150 miles further north. It was quite logical that a number of aircraft would be taking a similar route towards The Fens as all 4 Group aircraft based in North Yorkshire had been directed via Spalding on the way out so as to concentrate the bomber stream as much as possible before it set out from the East Anglian Coast and across the North Sea. The 4 Group machines were under instruction to fly the same route on the return journey rather than being tempted to make landfall further north over the Lincolnshire or Yorkshire coasts.

One crucial difference between the two bombers’ instructions was that the 78 Squadron crew were briefed to descend no lower than 3,000ft when making the turn over Spalding while it was 5,000ft on the route to the target. For the 14 OTU this would have definitely been a lower altitude as Cottesmore was only a few minutes’ flying time from the Spalding area and, as such, the Hampden crew would have been readying themselves for a landing while the Halifax crew would have had nearly one hour’s flying time remaining. With these factors in mind, the last thing that Falconer would be thinking about was the risk of an air-to-air collision but as he broke cloud his cockpit went strangely dark as the Halifax above descended on the same course. Seconds later, the starboard Merlin engines scythed their way through the Hampden, shredding Falconer’s cockpit to such a degree that he was literally turfed out of his aircraft leaving his three crew to their fate. Without Falconer playing a hand in his own survival, his seat-type chute opened itself, delivering the Hampden pilot safely to the ground. In the Halifax, the flight engineer, Sgt H Curtiss had just asked for the bomber’s altitude for his log, ‘2,000ft’ was the reply from his pilot and then all hell broke loose.

There was a crunch as the two bombers met and Plt Off Foers went from a situation of calmness and control to one where he was fighting the control column and losing. The Halifax crew had no idea what had just occurred but they soon heard the order to bail out and they responded as quickly as they could. Curtiss was the only man who managed to jump out of the Halifax and even then he could see the ground closing rapidly while Foers somehow managed to keep the bomber on an even keel despite the fact that at least one of the starboard engines had detached itself. Curtiss landed hard, a mere 200 yards away from the remains of his aircraft. He ran instinctively towards the wreckage in the vain hope that he could help some of his crew mates but, on arrival, two were already dead; however, miraculously, two others were alive but with serious injuries. This just left his pilot, Foers of which there was no trace when Curtiss entered the remains of the cockpit. Looking around, Curtiss eventually spotted his captain wandering around the edge of a field with severe concussion from a serious head wound; he was alive and somehow on his feet.
For Falconer’s crew, there was no chance whatsoever of surviving the collision at such a low altitude and, with their pilot ejected from the aircraft, that final line of communication had been taken away from them. Their burning Hampden was lying a couple of fields away from the Halifax, almost unnoticed as the rescue services focussed on saving those who had somehow come out of the big bomber alive.

The survivors from both aircraft were taken to March police station and it was here that Sqn Ldr Falconer came across Sgt Curtiss, the officer being completely bemused as to why he was there as well. Once stories were briefly exchanged both airmen then realised that they had actually been in a collision with each other and only then did the whole situation suddenly made sense.

This chapter is taken from Bomber Command: The Thousand Bomber Raids

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  • Rory Batho
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