True story of wartime adventure

Morpeth Rotary member Brian Gott, speaker David Baker and President Andrew Hamnett.
Morpeth Rotary member Brian Gott, speaker David Baker and President Andrew Hamnett.

Morpeth Rotary Club

David Baker told Morpeth Rotary a true story about a wartime pilot, born in the North East.

It related to a Lancaster bomber raid on Dortmund in 1945. The pilot had been in the Army Cadets and joined the Army. He later transferred to the RAF and rose to the rank of Squadron Leader. After the war he went on to surveying and managing roadworks.

The Avro Manchester, made around January 1941, was not successful, but the airframe was enlarged and four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines used. The Mark II was developed in May and the name changed to Lancaster in case the Germans worked out that Manchester was where most of them were built. It was delivered to squadrons in September 1941, with the first production contract going to Armstrong Whitworth.

The Lancaster had eight machine guns, a crew of seven and a speed of 287mph at 24,500ft. It would carry the heaviest bombs of World War II.

Their most famous mission was the Dam Busters’ Raid of May 1943, where eight planes were lost out of 19. A total of 22,000 were built — they flew 156,000 sorties and dropped 608,000 tons of bombs.

In the Dortmund raid they were to cross the Channel and pass over the French coast at Dunkirk. When they got near the target a German fighter came up behind. There was a massive explosion. They fought with the controls, but the port engine caught fire. The bomb aimer had been hit. This took place over five minutes. The bomb aimer’s leg was severed at the knee. He was suffering from shock, was given morphine and a tourniquet applied.

The port outer engine shut down and the tail fin was damaged. They did not want to bail out as they would have to leave the bomb aimer. They tried to point towards England, but were without compass or radio. The port petrol tank was holed and they were losing fuel.

Eventually they got a weak signal to say they were on course for Manston, but were told to head out to sea and bail out. They said they were coming in. It was not possible to leave the runway lights on, but every 15 seconds they would flash a searchlight pyramid pointing at it. They tried to lower the undercarriage, but one leg would not lock. They came in again on two engines, with the petrol gauge showing empty. The undercarriage collapsed and they made a belly landing. Sparks set the aircraft alight. The crew jumped out and the firemen got the bomb aimer out.

Many years after, the daughter of the pilot got a letter from the family of the bomb aimer, saying he owed his life to the pilot. He had gone straight to hospital and had his leg amputated and had always wanted to find the pilot to thank him. He was no longer well, but had lived another 50 years.

The pilot, who already had the DFC, was awarded a Bar for getting the plane and crew back home.

A vote of thanks was given by Brian Gott. Members found the story very moving and were thankful that in the UK we now live in quieter times.