"You have a tendency to want to forget," said Jim Brown, the former bomber pilot who addressed the May 14 meeting of the Roland Groome chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society on his wartime RCAF career. Indeed, he tried to forget those days, but all of the letters he sent home were kept by his sister, who passed them on to his daughter, who had them typed up. "They brought back some memories."
Brown was born in Seneca, Michigan, but came with his parents at a young age to Saskatchewan's Bladworth district. During the Depression of the 1930s, he worked as a goldminer, a hard-rock miner at Barkerville, B.C., the operator of a dragline on the Fraser River and a railwayman, among other things. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the RCAF, going through manning depot at Brandon and even pulling guard duty at the then-new RCAF station at North Battleford, where one of the chief distinguishing characteristics was the lousy food fed to the 600 Englishmen training there. ("If you want a really good dessert, try sweet, cold macaroni," he observed.) The Canadians were not averse to turning a blind eye to "escapes" by Englishmen who would make for downtown North Battleford for higher-quality meals, then return to camp for the night.
From there, he went in October 1941 to 6 EFTS at Prince Albert. This stint gave rise to a scurrilous rumor raised by Ray Crone (and not denied by Brown) concerning three aircraft from Prince Albert coming in line astern and passing under the bridge over the North Saskatchewan River!
With a mere 38 hours of flying time, Brown left Prince Albert for Yorkton's 11 SFTS, spending some time at P.A.'s 6 Air Observer School, where he once was "under the hood" of an Anson on an instrument training flight when the pilot pulled up much, much, too sharply. The control cables became useless "because we took one elevator off and put a 12-inch hole in the other," he recalled. "Anyway, I got back to Prince Albert and I have an endorsement in my logbook for careless flying."
From there, he was posted to Winnipeg-based 2 (Communication) Flight, a ferry and liaison unit that took him to places ranging from Vulcan, Alta., to Thunder Bay, and points in between. He also flew as a test pilot with 8 Repair Depot and as a flight commander at Portage's 7 AOS, logging 1,400 hours. Among the aircraft he flew were the Tiger Moth, Crane, Lockheed 12, Cornell, Beech Expeditor, Stinson 105 and the Lysander, whose amazing low-speed characteristics "made the biggest fool out of me!"
It was with this background that he was posted overseas in 1944, sailing on the liner Ile de France with 10,000 other airmen. The voyage was largely uneventful save for one violent set of manoeuvres that pitched men out of their bunks. Brown found out the reason a few days later: one airman, apparently oblivious to the submarine threat, had been leaning out of a porthole at night, training a flashlight on the water streaming past the ship.
Landing at Greenock, Brown and some colleagues were waiting to be transported to Bournemouth when a British train approached. One Canadian, used to the much-larger species of rail transport found in Canada, looked with particular disdain at the British train and quipped: "I've always wanted one of those for my kids."
For recruits just off the boat from Canada, Bournemouth brought a rude awakening. Brown and company were in the well-known Grand Hotel for three or four days before being moved into other quarters -- good thing, too, for German aircraft bombed the old hotel, with "quite a few Aussies in it."
"Stay there long enough and you realized you were in a war. You could walk along the beach, with miles of (barbed) wire and Bofors (anti-aircraft) guns." The resort's pier still stood, but the 100 or so feet nearest the beach had been removed to prevent landing parties from reaching shore. Into the water reached pipes that could spew a mix of oil and chemicals designed to incinerate invaders. "Rumor had it that it had been tried out," Brown said. "It gave you a lot to think about."
After being told he was slated for nightfighters or Coastal Command Sunderlands, Brown was dispatched to Bomber Command, training on Wellingtons of 24 Operational Training Unit at Long Marston in August 1944. He also did "beam approach" training on Oxfords based at Troughton. This was a far cry from Canada; his instructor was a sergeant pilot with only 80 hours flying time and the English countryside was dotted with airfields whose identification letters were changed every day or so.
From there, he went to Honeybourn, near Stratford, where airmen of all ranks and specialties were assembled in preparation for the formation of new crews.
This let potential crewmen "find out if they were going to be able to get along together," said Brown, "because a bomber crew is only as good as you can get along." His flight engineer was a policeman who had spent six years with Scotland Yard ("he could pick up an engine manual, read it over, smoke his pipe and quote it to you without giving it a thought") while his navigator was an expatriate Briton who had grown up in the U.S. The bomb-aimer was a former employee of Palm Dairies in Moose Jaw, while the gunners, Stoddart and Graham, were, somewhat unusually, in their early 40s. "Graham was pretty cagey," Brown recalls. "He asked me, 'How much flying time you got?'" When Brown was able to quote 1,400, a very high total when compared with many other pilots, Graham said, 'I'm with you!"
The gunners were worldly in another way, as cardsharks of considerable talent, with the respectable Brown as their "banker." "Every now and then, we used to go on a hell of a good binge with just the money that was put up by the group," he recalled.
It was not your typical crew. The flight engineer 38, the nav 22, the wireless operator 38, the bomb-aimer 41 and the gunners 41 and 44, and between them, they had a total of four wives and seven children. "I was 27, so we were known as the old man's crew, but it didn't hurt us a bit. I think God was with us," said Brown, who added he was told "that if a crew did three 'ops', the command felt you'd paid off your training" and that a crewman's statistical life expectancy was 11 missions. "It give you kind of a fatalistic attitude; the old attitude of eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die."
Their first ops were in a formation of Wellingtons ("which could take a lot of punishment") on raids in Denmark designed "to draw the fighter aircraft from northern Germany," where another, bigger raid was going on.
Tinfoil chaff was dropped to dupe German radar. "It came in a bundle. We dumped out tons of that damned stuff because every piece of tinfoil returned (to) Jerry's Wurzburg radar and it just filled the screen. Hundreds of aircraft!...There was no way that they could come in on anybody with their artillery."
From there, they went to 1659 Heavy Conversion Unit at Topcliffe, flying with the ubiquitous Halifax III, whose four Bristol Hercules radials would take it to 20,000 feet and let it cruise at about 180 mph. Brown says, "I liked the Hally on all the trips I made with it. It could take a lot of punishment. It could take a couple of pots (cylinders) off the engine; with an in-line (engine) aircraft, you lost a little Glycol and it just seized up."
They were eventually posted to 429 (Bison) Squadron, an RCAF heavy bomber unit that shared RAF Leeming with the RCAF's 427 Squadron. They were allotted a seven-man groundcrew headed, ironically, by a sergeant named Brown.
Reminders of combat were rarely absent. Even at that late stage in the war, a Luftwaffe intruder got into the circuit of bombers returning from a raid and shot down two; another raider strafed the field "and one of the waitresses from the officer's mess was killed." When Brown and a buddy went into London for sightseeing, they found themselves sitting on a bench one midnight when they heard the distinctive sound of a V-1 buzzbomb ("it sounded like a motorcycle; when the motor quit, that was the time to duck") They took shelter beneath an enormous concrete bench. "When that thing blew, it didn't kill anybody, but I'll tell you, we got up and that frigging bench was 50 feet away. That's how much power they had," said Brown, who also remembers "spending some nights digging people out."
Another time, he and a colleague were in a London officers' club when the blast from a nearby buzz-bomb explosion blew them away from the window. Says Brown: "After that, we said, 'To hell with that!' and went to Scotland."
Here's a typical op, as shown through Brown's first mission, a trip to Duisburg.
The first tip-off that an op was planned came with a "good feed with bacon and eggs; you never got bacon and eggs unless you were going on an op. Too damned expensive." The briefing would be held in a hut with a high stage, podium and a screen at one end. In would come the CO and the intelligence officer, and the target would be shown on the screen. A map showed the course to be flown, including heights, turning points and bombload. "We were never shown just any old area in the city, just to knock the hell out of them. Sure a lot of them (bombs) went wrong, but we definitely had a target," he said, referring to the CBC series The Valor and The Horror. "This...didn't show that a lot of England got the hell knocked out of it."
Two or three crews would then board a truck for the trip to the dispersed aircraft, parked alone so damage from strafing would be minimized, then chat with the groundcrew, and check equipment and instruments. An engine run-up would cost about 100 gallons of gas, which would be replaced from a petrol bowser. "The procedure was a cigarette and you said a silent prayer, I suppose, each in his own way, and then you'd go out and piss on the tailwheel for good luck. The only guy to complain was the tailgunner, who said 'How you like me to piss in the cockpit?'"
Refueling done, the crew would head back into the aircraft and wait for a flare. Some airmen popped "wakey-wakey" pills; Brown eschewed them because they'd keep you awake later.
A yellow flare meant bad weather, too bad to fly. If that happened, the irrepressible gunners "would sit up all night and play craps, and we'd stay up with them."
But if the weather was acceptable, it was time to switch on the gyrocompass, put the fuel mixture to rich, start the engines and gradually increase the power. For takeoffs at maximum weight, there was an override allowing more than the usual power for about five minutes. Release the brakes and the flight engineer calls out the speed. "A lot of those fields had only two thousand yards and when you're hauling a heavy load, those things didn't get off too damned fast."
Get up the landing gear as soon as possible and watch the little towns slip by. "The stone walls were all rubble and many of the trees were broken off," remembers Brown, who once he saw another aircraft blow up on the runway; he figured the pilot had retracted the landing gear too quickly, then had the aircraft settle down onto the turning propellers.
From there, the aircraft would climb toward a rendezvous point, where anywhere from 25 to 40 squadrons would be concentrating. "The idea was to travel in a barrel formation because it would be difficult for a fighter to fly through it because of the risk of collision and the concentrated firepower." Firepower of a sort, of course, for the Halifaxes carried nothing larger then .303 machine guns. "It was just like using a bloody slingshot," said Brown, who added there was virtually no armor on the Halifax.
On the Duisburg raid, they got good weather, but also the presence of contrails, which meant German nightfighters would be able to see them. Meanwhile, the bomber crews flying east were able to watch buzz-bombs heading west at a much lower level. In time, the "window" was dumped and anti-aircraft fire started. "At night, flak bursts are blinding flashes and they just scare the hell out of you," Brown said. "In the day, they're just black puffs and you don't give them a thought."
"Now," he says. "It was getting kind of serious."
There was only one way to do the bombing and that was to ignore the flak and hold your aircraft steady for the benefit of the bomb-aimer. "It doesn't matter how much (flak) you're getting; you'd scrunch down in the cockpit and hope like hell that you didn't have to look out of the airplane's seat," said Brown. Typically, the bomb-aimer would say "Left...right...steady....hold her skipper." At length, he'd say "Bombs away!'"
Along with the bombs, each bomber would drop a 250-pound parachute flare, "which gave a light for your camera so you could pinpoint where you were over the target. And then, "you'd be going home -- and going for all you'd got."
Now, the trick was to keep up with the stream of bombers, for, as Brown puts it, "anything that was slow or behind, the fighters would pounce, just like a cat on a rat." Let down over England and don't make radio contact with the base until you're nearby. Priority was given to aircraft with damage and casualties aboard -- which gave rise to one bizarre and infuriating incident. In the radio circuit, one pilot was heard to say: "Coming in to land...two engines; short of fuel." It turned out "a damned Dakota came in ... no priority at all ... it was an American Dakota from another station," which, of course, had only two engines in the first place.
After every op, the returning crew would briefly chat with its groundcrew, then head for debriefing, a drink of rum "and off to bed."
On a trip to Mannheim, cold and damp weather cost the squadron two aircraft on take-off. Heavy headwinds at 17,000 feet meant Brown's aircraft, among others, bombed late, behind the main bomber stream, and there was plenty of searchlights.
Radar-controlled flak was heavy, but Brown notes there existed a technique to use the flak predictability against it. "If you were on the bit and they missed, you just had to wait and count 'one-thousand-and-one, one-thousand-and-two, and then (make) an alteration in course and, sure enough, just as God made little apples, there was an explosion just where you were. Just make an alteration of a few degree and you could avoid them."
Equally nerve-wracking was getting caught in a "blue searchlight" because "all of the other ones would join in it." said Brown, adding that if you got caught in it, "you've got to think damned fast because the shots are coming." His remedy was throttling back and opening the bomb-bay doors in order to slow down, then shedding still more speed by circling down for about 7,000 feet. "When we came out of it, you'd wonder if the damned wings were going to come off. But fortunately, they didn't and we never got caught in another one," said Brown, who counted 38 holes in the Halifax after that op.
Another one saw a bomb "hang up" in the bomb-bay. The flight engineer went back to try releasing it manually when a flak round exploded, its concussion knocking him out. The wireless operator went back to check and was able to get an emergency oxygen mask on the engineer and the errant bomb was finally released. "I don't know whose backyard it ended up in, but somebody got it. And I didn't worry about it."
On yet another op, Brown's wireless operator had no sooner left his station than a series of holes appeared near the nav table. Shrapnel! The WOP was reported to have been "stunned, looking at his seat with his mouth open."
One aspect of ops that are still little discussed revolved around "LMF", the air force term for those suspected of a "lack of moral fibre." Brown heard of one case in which a young pilot, with two wounded men aboard and most of his instruments useless, managed to get his aircraft home, then admitted he couldn't fly again. Whether or not he stuck to this, Brown's opinion was that "LMF wasn't treated fairly. To me, these young men are heroes to get back to base with their crews and their aircraft. I had a very deep responsibility because I had, as I mentioned, four wives and seven children.
It was just our responsibility to go out and get back."
Another young pilot was engaged in a "baby derby" with Brown over whose wife would give birth first. As luck would have it, the other pilot won, but failed to come back from the next op. "So he didn't get to meet his family."
There were other sides to air force life, too. Brown remembers a party in the officers' mess that saw aircrew attend in bits and pieces of uniforms; his tailgunner, wearing a grab-bag of clothing, ended up in an argument with the squadron CO and his adjutant. But when the adjutant bumped into Brown the next morning, his only remark was: "Hell of a lot of newly commissioned officers last night."
Besides conventional bombing raids, 429's aircraft were occasionally assigned to "gardening" -- laying acoustic mines -- in Norway and the Kiel Canal. The eight-foot-long cylinders were to be laid from a height of no more than 300 feet lest they be blown off course. "You don't do much horsing around at 300 feet at night over water and you hope like hell you don't have an engine failure because it's awfully damned wet."
Dangerous indeed; Brown's squadron lost two out of seven aircraft one night. "You got everything shot at you that night," he said. "But fortunately, we came through," although shells from a German flakship "were going over our heads -- and for that, you have to be pretty low."
A trip to Hanover, attended by 700 or 800 other aircraft, left vivid memories of "lights and explosions and everything" -- even the sight of a V-2 rocket being shot off toward the approaching Russian armies. A trip to Stuttgart meant 1,600 miles of flying, constantly dropping "window" and no heat for the gunners in their electrically heated flying suits. There were other worries that night, too, for the weather was getting bad and they let down to 10,000 over the English Channel, diverting to an American base at Colchester and proceeding to "clean them out of food and goodies."
"Gardening" over Norway involved a 400-mile trip toward Bergen, then rising to clear nearby mountains. Brown circled the city before setting out for the correct fjord. "It seemed to me like I was missing chimneys and we got hit by something that sounded like the kitchen sink." They dropped the mines, then climbed to 10,000 feet, where Brown noticed a 30-degree difference between the gyrocompass and the magnetic one, and took appropriate compensating action. Good thing, too, for after they landed at Inverness (where one engine quit on the runway), Brown learned that British radar had tracked them heading for Iceland.
Around that time, Brown and his crew were asked if they'd accept a transfer to 405 Squadron, then assigned to the RAF's 5 Group, the famous Pathfinder Force, which used bombs and coloured flares to mark targets for the main bomber force. It was "kind of an honor," but Brown took it first to his crew.
They agreed and they were all off to the RAF station at Gransden Lodge. By that point, the end of the war was coming closer, and when it finally arrived Brown and his crew crammed various and sundry maintenance and groundcrew into a Lancaster and set off for a tour of western Europe from about 10,000 feet.
His crew was also among those asked to volunteer for the force being assembled for raids against Japan. "The crew took one look at me and said, 'Piss on you, skipper!" Brown remembered. "'We're going home!"
- written by Will Chabun