102 (Ceylon) Squadron

Tentate et perficite (Attempt and Achieve)

Flying Officer Basil Spiller DFC

Main Page - Halifax to Liverpol - Stuttgart and More - Goodbye 102 Squadron

Operation 17, 24th/25th July, 1944

When Basil Spiller returned to Australia at the end of the war, he took with him all the navigational charts he had made on his forty bombing missions over occupied Europe and Germany. He kept them until ten years ago when he moved house. Believing that no-one would be interested in them, he threw 39 of them into the incinerator in his back yard. He kept the chart of his 17th mission, the Stuttgart raid, because it was a varied and complicated flight plan which he believed was a perfect example of his craft and skill as a navigator. In this chapter from his autobiography, Basil talks the Stuttgart raid.

461 Lancasters and 153 Halifaxes to Stuttgart. 17 Lancasters and 4 Halifaxes lost, 4.6 per cent (sic) of the force. This was the first of 3 heavy raids on Stuttgart in 5 nights and the only report available is a composite one for the 3 raids. The 3 raids caused the most serious damage of the war in the central districts of Stuttgart which, being situated in a series of narrow valleys, had eluded Bomber Command for several years. They were now devastated and most of Stuttgart's public and cultural buildings were destroyed. The second of the 3 raids, on the night of 25/26 July was the most successful.

RAF Bomber Command campaign diary, 24/25 July 1944

The Stuttgart raid was our seventeenth mission.

I kept the log and chart of this raid. On the 25th of July we were briefed to attack Stuttgart. It was our seventeenth operation and the longest flight we ever did, eighteen hundred miles, and it took eight hours and twenty minutes. We got back at 5.45am. We took off at 21.25 and we carried four thousand pounds of bombs. That was one of our lightest bomb loads. We had to carry an overload fuel tank in our bomb bay and that took up room that would otherwise be taken up by bombs. The Halifax had the capacity to do that – to put in an extra tank.

There were three navigational aids that were available to a navigator on a Halifax bomber. There were three navigational aids that were important. The first was a Gee Box from which we could obtain accurate fixes up to the French coast. The Germans jammed it beyond the French coast.

The second was H2S which was an airborne radar system from where we could obtain accurate fixes from coastline promontories and estuaries and also from the roofs of dwellings in the cities that we flew past. The other one was an Air Position Indicator which I haven’t spoken at all about.

It was a most important navigational aid because when you operated that successfully you didn’t have to keep a manual air plot. It was connected to the gyro compass, to the air speed indicator and to the magnetic compass that the pilot used, and also to the altimeter. It gave you an accurate air position at any time regardless of whether you had to corkscrew or not. It recorded all of the changes in course, and height and speed and accurately gave you an air position whenever you chose to read it off the dial. Unfortunately on the night of the Stuttgart raid our air position indicator was u/s, unserviceable, so naturally I had to do a manual air plot all the way to Stuttgart and back. That was very hard work and probably why I kept the log and chart of that mission.

Everything went all right until the target. As far as I know we didn’t have one attack. Bill doesn’t mention it in his diary and so we were pretty lucky. Prior to turning on our last leg to bomb Stuttgart we did a feint attack on Manheim and Ludwigshafen and the defences there were already waiting for us. The searchlights and fighter flares were in evidence. Just thirty miles short of the target we did a right-hand turn and flew down and attacked our real target at Stuttgart. That’s why we did the feint. Our target on Stuttgart that night was the Daimler-Benz aircraft engine factory which powered the Messerschmitt fighters. I didn’t see any of the bombing run.

We bombed on Wanganui flares. They were aerial flares that hung in the middle of the sky. We used them because it was ten-tenths cloud. I saw neither any searchlights or fighter flares. The searchlights couldn’t penetrate ten-tenths cloud so weren’t bothered by searchlights. After the target we did a right hand turn and flew past. and as Bill says,“.... we dived from twenty thousand feet to six thousand feet at two hundred and forty miles an hour to evade enemy night fighters” and “it proved to be a great success” because we were not attacked even though he saw fighters about. We lost Flight Lieutenant Page’s crew from our squadron at Pocklington and Weaver’s plane was damaged. Although it was a long trip, it was pretty uneventful as far as we were concerned.

After we bombed our target at Stuttgart we did a right hand ninety degree turn and headed towards Karlsruhe. It was fifty miles from Stuttgart in a north-westerly direction. Then we had to do another ninety degree right hand turn to avoid the defences at Karlsruhe. Then we resumed our flight plan.

It is good to go through the chart and look at the tactics that were involved. All the way we led the Germans to believe that we were attacking Mannheim and they were fooled into that because the searchlights and flares were already waiting for us. Then we did a right hand turn and that is very evident from the air plot that I did on the map.

The Pathfinders laid down sky markers that were labeled as Wanganui. They were parachute flares that hung in the sky above the clouds. They were bright red or bright green and that was what Don saw in his bombsite when he dropped his bombs. We would not have had any line overlap photography from our bombing run because of the cloud. After Don said, “Bombs gone!” we still had to stay on and do the camera run. That was standard procedure.

We always had to bomb the flares that the Pathfinders laid down. That’s what Don would always aim for. So over a target like Stuttgart that night when it was obscured by ten-tenths cloud, we would still bomb the flares but they were different flares. We would bomb on Wanganui Sky Markers. That was the difference. Wanganui Sky Markers would hang in the air above the clouds by parachute but if it was clear the Master Bomber marked the first flare on the target and the Pathfinders would put their flares down as backup and make a clearer target to aim for. But in cloud like this it was different. The Pathfinders couldn’t see the target either. They would lay the Wanganui Sky Markers by flying on a bearing and distance to Stuttgart. The would take into account the course that the main force was flying and the prevailing wind speed and direction and the height at which we were bombing. All this would be taken into account before they released their Sky Markers. Once they released their sky markers all we had to do was have them in our bombsight when we released our bombs, bearing in mind that we were flying on a prescribed course at a prescribed height at a prescribed speed. It was all very technical.

Wanganui was specifically for this type of target, that is, when there was ten-tenths cloud when the Master Bomber and the Pathfinders couldn’t see the target.

This was a long flight and if the cloud had cleared when we arrived, they would have marked on the ground. The Master Bomber would have marked on the ground and the Pathfinders would have backed him up with Ground Markers. Their planes had different types of flares and markers that they could lay down. The master Bomber never ever laid Sky Markers. The Pathfinders’ Lancasters would do that. I would imagine that the Master Bomber would arrive at the target found that it was ten-tenths cloud, decided that it was useless to mark at ground level, instruct the Pathfinder Lancasters to lay on Wanganui Sky Markers.

Harry and Bill’s descriptions of this mission are different. Harry says that the weather was bad and there were masses of German fighters that attacked the flight both going in and coming out. Well we didn’t suffer any attacks. Bill mentions that the defences were “pretty hot” and that he saw a “kite go down in flames”. We lost one crew from Pocklington and one was shot up a bit, so there must have been some attacks. We didn’t suffer from any attacks, otherwise Bill would have said so.

Harry also said that we were turning just after we bombed the target when Charlie, our mid-upper gunner, called out that another Halifax had turned at the same time and just missed us by a few feet. I don’t know anything about that. It might have happened – it might have - but I have no recollection about it but it was quite on the cards. There were over six hundred bombers on that raid so there were a lot of aircraft in the sky that night.

The Stuttgart raid was a long trip and relatively uneventful. The worse part about it was that I didn’t have an air position indicator and I had to employ a manual air plot all the way there and back so it was pretty hard work for me. I used the Air Position Indicator all the time. We used it in conjunction with Gee and H2S. Every time we took a fix on Gee or H2S we would take an air position, join them up and obtain a wind vector. I mentioned it for the first time on this raid because I didn’t have the Air Position Indicator working and I had to do a manual air plot. It was the only time that the Air Position Indicator didn’t work. It was u/s – unserviceable - and it was an important aspect of this raid for me. All of my charts were the same though. Even though it gave me the position I used Gee and H2S to do the air plot instead, except that when the Air Position Indicator was working you I didn’t have to plot and calculate our air position like I did on the Stuttgart raid. It was the longest raid I ever did and the most difficult as far as I was concerned.

Map of the Stuttgart - 102 Ceylon Squadron
Map of the Stuttgart

The Stuttgart Raid

Map of the Stuttgart raid from the website of the WW2 Diary of Lancaster Pilot Bruce Johnston of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Basil Spiller was the navigator aboard Halifax bomber N-Nan on the same operation.

Research: Map http://lancasterdiary.net/July%201944/july_24_1944.php

 

 

 

Operation 19, 28th July, 1944 - Foret de Nieppe

Four days after the Stuttgart operation, Basil Spiller’s crew was sent to bomb a V-1 flying bomb site at Foret de Nieppe in the Nord-Pas de Calais of France. On their bombing run, flak exploded in front of the plane, shattering the perspex nose. A piece of shrapnel burst through the floor between Basil’s legs severing the femoral vein in his upper inside thigh. Basil’s pilot finished the bombing run and turned towards England. Abandoning the flight plan he decided to land at the first airfield they sighted. With Harry Brabin, the wireless operator kneeling over him, his two thumbs pressed into Basil’s wound to stem the flow of blood, Basil Spiller continued to navigate the plane, keeping it clear of the flak batteries in the built up areas. This chapter from Basil’s autobiography tells the story of the operation.

199 aircraft - 159 Halifaxes, 20 Mosquitos, 20 Stirlings - of Nos 3, 4 and 8 Groups attacked two launching sites and made two further separate raids on the Forêt de Nieppe storage site. All bombing was through cloud but the various methods used were believed to have led to accurate results. 1 Halifax lost from one of the Forêt de Nieppe raids.

RAF Bomber Command campaign diary, 28 July 1944

On the 28th of July 1944 we were briefed to fly to the Foret de Nieppe in northern France, carrying seven thousand five hundred pounds of bombs and the operation only lasted two hours thirty minutes. We got away at 16.10, late in the afternoon. It was a daylight mission and we were briefed to lead a main force of only three squadrons from Four Group. The fact that we were to lead the formation was due to the new Wing Commander flying on his first mission deciding that Bill’s crew would lead the formation.

The idea was that we would fly to Flamborough Head just off the north of the Humber, then proceed down through the North Sea to approach the Belgian coast and there we would rendezvous with two Oboe Mosquitos of the Pathfinder force and they would lead us to the target. On arriving at the target they would each release a flare and immediately we sighted the flares we would drop our bombs and the whole of the formation would drop ‘em in unison.

I was the lead navigator and had to lead the formation to rendezvous with the two PFF Oboe Mosquitos. It was obvious right from the word go that the Met. Winds were out and we were gaining time. I had to instruct Bill to fly at the slowest possible speed so we could lose time. I didn’t want to do a dogleg because I was leading three squadrons of bombers behind us.

On daylight missions RAF aircraft flew as a gaggle. They did not formate like the Americans. We just circled around our base as the squadron got airborne and when it was time to go, away we went. Whether or not a pilot took a position near another plane was purely voluntary. Each navigator was navigating individually. On several operations, Bill talks about formatting on the wing commander. It was his choice. I knew nothing about what he was doing on those occasions and navigated as normal according to the flight plan knowing he would put the plane where I told him.

When we got to the rendezvous point we picked up the two Mosquitos and tucked in behind them. They were dead on time and we were dead on time as well. We had no trouble sighting them. They were on their great circle track to take advantage of the Oboe instruments that they carried and in doing so they led us right over Ostend. The weather was perfect and you could see for two hundred miles. There was not a cloud in the sky and the German ack-ack defences must have been able to track us for quite a considerable period. When we crossed the coast at Ostend we were immediately attacked by very accurate anti-aircraft fire

The Foret de Nieppe was about twenty-five miles in from the coast so Don was already over his bombsight

Immediately the first burst of anti-aircraft fire erupted, a piece of flak shattered the whole of the perspex nose of the aircraft and in doing so severed the intercom cord between Don and Bill, our pilot, so Don was no longer able to give bombing instructions. The second burst exploded right under our plane and I was hit by a fragment of flak high up in the inner left thigh. It entered the aircraft directly between my shoes. There was a neat hole equidistant to my feet. It felt like somebody had hit me with a baseball bat. I felt no searing pain. I immediately got on the intercom and told Bill that I’d been hit. I got no answer so half a minute later I repeated the message and was told to shut up because he was too busy on his bombing run.

I don’t know how the bombs were released but by then Bill would have been informed that Don had no communication with him because of his severed intercom cord. I don’t know when he dropped his bombs but we were on our bombing run at the time. The pilot had an overriding bomb release mechanism that he would have used to release the bombs on sighting the flares. Whether the flares went off or he dropped the bombs I don’t know because it was all chaos in the navigation compartment.

Immediately I was hit, Harry sat directly to my left and I swung around and he applied both his thumbs to the hole in my left thigh. He didn’t take my trousers off. He just punched his thumbs into the wound and held them there all the way back to England. He just held both his thumbs to my wound. It was bleeding profusely. I didn’t know then that it had hit the femoral vein.

Immediately we knew that I was severely wounded, Bill decided to get back to England and get me to medical attention as quickly as possible. So we left the main formation deliberately. We left them there. The flight plan was to fly in a fairly crooked zigzag path back to England but we Bill decided that in view of the fact that I needed medical attention we he would fly a direct route and get us back as soon as possible. So we peeled off and left the formation and swung away to starboard.

All the time Harry was holding his thumbs in my wound and his hands were covered in blood. We had done two right hand turns. One after bombing and one to get us heading in the direction of England. We failed to realize that we were flying over the enemy occupied territory of northern France and at one stage we were headed for a heavily built up area in northern France. It was probably Calais. I saw it first on the H2S PPI (Plan Position Indicator) tube. That’s what we called the screen. We got picked up by predicted flak and they shot at us all through northern France.

In the meantime an American P38 Lightning had seen our predicament and formated us the whole of the time. We evaded the predicted flak by skilful flying and eventually crossed the coast. We didn’t experience any difficulty crossing the coast but the P38 Lightning left us as soon as he saw that we were safely over the coast. We flew back towards East Anglia.

In the meantime, when we were halfway across the Channel, Bill who must have thought that we were safe from a fighter attack by then, said to Sandy, “I guess you should go to the nose and see what’s happened to Bas.” The next thing I know Sandy appeared in my compartment and the first thing he did was to pull out a big bladed knife from his flying boot. We had no idea that he carried the knife. He thought it would make a useful weapon if we were ever shot down and had to parachute into enemy territory. It was a fearsome thing!

I can remember saying, “Don’t touch me with that bastard knife,” or some such words. With that he cut off my pants above the wound and immediately a couple of litres of blood spilled all over the floor. He removed the leg of my pants and Harry kept his thumbs jammed into the wound.

When we arrived off the English coast, somewhere south of The Wash, we stooged along parallel to the coast and fired off the two flares – the colours of the day. They were an identification method of establishing whether you were a friendly aircraft or not. They were fired off by a Very pistol that was fired through a small hatch in the top of the fuselage. I don’t know what the colours of the day on that day were.

Immediately after we fired off the colours of the day we turned in and crossed the English coast somewhere in East Anglia. When we saw the first aerodrome we requested permission to land. As luck would have it, the first aerodrome we saw was a B17 Flying Fortress aerodrome of the 8th American Airforce at Great Ashfield. They gave us permission to land.

Bill requested medical help and when we came to rest, after landing and taxiing, the ambulance drove up. The crew from the American ambulance came into my compartment and decided that the best way to get me out was through the front escape hatch which was under my seat. Immediately I stood up I felt the blood drain from my upper body and I felt as if I was going to faint. But immediately it came back and I was all right. They had opened the escape hatch and put a ladder up and on it they had a stretcher. They bandaged my leg up and they maneuvered me down the ladder and onto the waiting ambulance.

I don’t remember any of the journey to the hospital and I presume the crew said goodbye to me but I don’t remember anything about it. The next thing I know, I was in a hospital way out in the middle of the wheat fields of East Anglia. The hospital was an American field hospital that was set up to take the casualties from the D-Day landings and the 8th Airforce. I can remember going into the operating theatre and an orderly or a nurse stuck a needle into my right arm and told me to count. I only got to three and the next thing I know I was awake in a ward. A nurse was alongside me and gave me a shot of morphine straight away. I can remember being in great pain when I woke up but she gave me a shot straight away and I went out like a light. It is vivid in my memory.

Flamborough Head is north of the Humber. It was a prominent headland sticking out into the sea. Whenever we flew across the North Sea that was our leaving point on the coast of Britain.

When I said that the Met winds were out I meant that the wind forecast that was used to draw up our flight plan and turning points were too strong and we were ahead of our time most of the time. It was our way of saying that the winds predicted by the meteorological unit were wrong and they were virtually behind us pushing us on. They were too strong from behind. They were more north westerly blowing us faster to the south east than the flight plan said. The actual winds that I calculated were stronger than the Met winds and we made up too much time. We were gaining time and we had to slow it down because we had to rendezvous with the Mosquitos and they were going to lead us in so I did not want to get there too early or too late. We had three squadrons of approximately seventy aircraft all taking their lead from me. So I was the lead navigator. I didn’t want to dogleg because I had seventy odd aircraft behind me and that would be too much of a manoeuvre. So I decided to get Bill to cut back the speed of the aircraft in an endeavour to lose time. We met the Mosquitos dead on time and fell in immediately behind them. They did a circle track using Oboe.

I don’t know much about Oboe. It was a navigation instrument only available to the Pathfinder force and it was top secret. But I understand that they flew on a great circle course and they had to stick to it. They would fly in a great arc which would eventually bring them and us around to the target. They brought us in over Ostend and all of the fortifications that were there. I suspect that it was all part of the flight plan. It was a bad plan. We ran into an absolute hail of flak. A lot of the planes got damaged. Ours wasn’t the only one. Bill in his diary says that “the first seven planes of our squadron (were) hit badly”. Harry says that ours wasn’t the only one that didn’t land at Pocklington.

When we were hit, Bill was on his bombing run. We would have been on the bombing run for about ten minutes and travelled forty miles or so. When we came in over the coast Don was already down over the bombsite when the explosion shook the plane and Don’s intercom was severed. We still had bombs to be dropped. Bill would have been trying to concentrate on keeping the plane steady on its bombing run without a bomb-aimer and with about seventy planes behind him when I interrupted him. He told me to: “Shut up!” Somewhere he must have been told that I was not just wounded but that I had a life threatening wound because of the amount of blood and Harry working on my leg. I just told him that I’d been hit.

The Halifax’s nose had been smashed out right in front of Don. Don was lucky that his head wasn’t taken off by the bit of flak. It came through the bottom of the aircraft and cut his communication cord when he was lying down over the bombsight. He had his head out into the glass nose section. The piece of flak came up through the perspex section, cut his intercom and proceeded out through the top and produced a hole about three feet across. We had numerous small holes through the bottom of the fuselage. If Don had been hit by any of the fragments of flak I reckon he would have been dead. The piece that took out the nose was pretty big. Don stayed in the nose. He was totally confused. He was looking around totally confused and stayed there for the whole of the bombing run. He was disorientated by the fact that this huge bit of flak had blown out the nose in front of him. He might have released his bombs or Bill might have. Bill says that “quite a number of us bombed early”. We know why we bombed early.

The other members of our formation were supposed to bomb when they saw our bombs go down so if we were early, quite a few of them would have been early. Somewhere in there Bill has understood that I had a life threatening wound and said, “We’re cutting off from this and making a run for home to try and save Basil’s life!” That’s when we were heading for Arras and that’s when I got my wits together and saw our track on H2S and I could see that we were heading for a heavily defended area and I told Bill to take evasive action and to go around it. All the time we were subject to predicted flak and that’s when the American P38 Lightning formatted on us and shepherded us right across northern France. By shepherding us I mean that he formatted on us off our starboard wing and was there protecting us against attack by German fighters. He was just making sure that Jerry fighters wouldn’t jump us. He was giving us protection.

There I was wounded with Harry with his hands high up on my leg into my groin pressing his thumbs in to stop the blood and I was still navigating the plane. Don, my assistant navigator, had recovered by now and was seated alongside me was assisting me in my decisions. I got my equilibrium back, I’ve got Don there. I’ve got Harry and I was only navigating the plane by H2S. It was broad daylight and we were heading west in the direction of England but I wanted to make sure that they didn’t fly over heavily defended cities so I watched the H2S and warned Bill if we were heading for any built up areas.

In Harry’s account of the mission he says that there were a thousand aircraft on the flight but that is not right. There were only our three squadrons. I can only assume that he went to the archives and the rest of them were on other targets. Harry says that we took off and tacked into the rear of Mosquitos but we rendezvoused with them just off the French coast. Harry mentions that after I was hit Don was getting into his parachute and that I told him that it was on upside down but that’s not true. He also says that we fired a distress flare at the American P38 Lightning and that’s why he came over to escort us. We fired the flares that were the colours of the day. That was just to satisfy the British defences that we were a friendly aircraft. We flew parallel to the coast and just off it. It was just under our port wingtip. I was taken to the American field hospital first and after that I was taken to Ely. Harry also says that upon inspection N-Nan had eighty holes in it but I didn’t know anything about that because I was in hospital. Bill says, “My aircraft suffered numerous holes”. It suffered considerable damage. It was amazing that it could still fly with the nose taken out of it. It was a rugged aircraft and no vital spots were damaged. If the controls had been damaged we would have had to bail out.

When we were on a bomb run, the idea was that the three leading bombers would release their bombs as soon as the Oboe Mosquitos fired a flare. That’s why they dropped them as soon as we did and we were a bit early because we got hit. I don’t know what the rest of the three squadrons did behind. I do know that they went back to the same target two days in a row after this incident. That’s why I think that our bombing run wasn’t a success. They had to go back twice in the two succeeding days. My pilot, Bill Rabbitt wrote about this mission in his diary. He says:

28th July 1944: “We are very thrilled about getting an aiming point on Wanne-Eickel last night; but today we had a very shady do. We were briefed to lead 3 squadrons on an attack on the flying bomb depot and launching base in the Foret de Nieppe. We arrived at our rendezvous smack on time with the 3 Squadrons in lovely formation behind N-Nan. Here we gave up our leadership to two Mossies who were "oboe" planes using special equipment. They proceeded to take us on to the target but led us over Ostend where we were predicted to very accurate heavy flak, resulting in the first seven planes of our squadron being hit badly. My a/c suffered numerous holes and Bas my navigator was wounded in the thigh pretty badly. We carried on to bomb but through a misunderstanding quite a no. of us bombed early. Bas kept on working but was losing a lot of blood, so Don took over the navigating while Harry & Sandy attended to Bas. I headed for home like a bat out of Hades and the Jerries shot at us all the way out of enemy territory. I landed at Great Ashfield and the Yanks being very efficient soon had Bas away to hospital. We flew back to base, Don acting as navigator. Definitely a poor show.

29th July 1944: Had a good look at N-Nan today and she certainly collected a packet. Don was extremely fortunate as most of the perspex nose had been smashed. Q-Queenie was a wipe off.”

 

Sea Search, Rugby and the Brussels Petrol Run

After 21 days in hospital and 7 days leave Basil Spiller returned to 102 Squadron. More than a month passed after being wounded before his next mission.

In this chapter from his autobiography, Basil tells the story of a sea search for a crew from 102 Squadron who failed to return from a practice bombing exercise in the North Sea. Basil also tells the story of a rugby “test” match between the Australians at Pocklington and the Free French squadron based at Elvington. He also describes a series of petrol runs to Melsbroek airfield in Belgium, soon after it had been abandoned by the Luftwaffe.

After the Munster raid on the 12th of September it was almost a month before we flew on another bombing operation. Bill was made acting Flight Commander while Squadron Leader Ward was on leave so we were on a reduced operational footing.

Sea search

In those first two weeks we flew only once. That was a sea search on the 18th of September. We were airborne for five hours and forty minutes searching for Halifax MZ289 with South African pilot, Captain R C Thompson and his crew. Bill had sent them on an exercise over the North Sea to dispose of some bombs and they failed to return.

Bill as Acting Flight Commander felt responsible for ascertaining what happened to Captain Thompson and his crew so he instituted a square sea search and volunteered to carry it out. We proceeded off Flamborough Head to the area in the North Sea where Captain Thompson was ordered to conduct his exercise. I don’t know what the exercise was - whether it was bomb disposal or practice bombing or practice firing from the turret but I presume it was operated at low level and he had gone into the drink. We took off at 1120 hours in P-Peter. We commenced a square search.

The square search comprised flying up and down on parallel courses one mile apart. We searched for five hours. We did a lot of searching and covered a big area. Each run was approximately ten minutes. You cover a lot of area in ten minutes. We were fifty feet above the ocean. It was hazardous flying. The ocean was like a mill pond this day and there were no white caps to differentiate the surface from the air. It was hard flying. We were all looking out. Gunners, bomb aimer everybody. Everybody except the pilot would be concentrating on looking for any signs of wreckage and any signs of an oil slick. But after five hours we hadn’t sighted anything so we returned to base. I know that Bill wrote in his dairy that we had discovered wreckage “that could have been parts of the plane” but I wasn’t conscious of that. He wasn’t too sure either but you can tell. We never saw anything positive.

 

Rugby – Australia v Free French

In his diary the next day, on the 19th of September, Bill mentions playing Rugby. We only played Rugby once. It was against the Free French from Elvington. They tried to kill us. They tackled fiercely and we were wondering whether we were really at war with Germany or the Free French. We were glad when the game was over and we were all in one piece. Gus Walker as a rugby representative of the UK in rugby refereed the game. The Free French won. They really belted us. We thought they were taking it a bit too seriously. I had been quite a good rugby player at school but Bill was an Australian Rules player. So was Alan Crabb. He would have played in the match. I can’t remember whether Sandy, Don or Harry played. Some of them would have had to play because we only had nineteen to pick from. We had a mixed team whereas the French were all rugby players.

When we had time I played tennis and squash against Bill and we played table-tennis at the YMCA. Bill mentions playing tennis and squash against me and Sampson, the Navigation Leader, who was an RAF type.

Petrol runs

Then on the 25th of September we went on the first of four petrol runs to Brussels.

Gus Walker was the Air Commodore of 42 Base which comprised the aerodrome at Pocklington and our two satellite aerodromes at Elvington and Full Sutton. According to Gus Walker’s widow, Air Chief Marshal, Butch Harris, called Gus Walker to his offices and told him that for the next week all three 42 Base squadrons would be detailed to fly replacement petrol in jerry cans to an aerodrome called Melsbroek, just outside Brussels, to assist the army.

Melsbroek was one of the nine German airfields that Bomber Command attacked on the 15th of August 1944, the same day I left the hospital in Ely and returned to base with Bill. Melsbroek was abandoned by the Luftwaffe straight after being bombed and by the 2nd of September the Germans were driven out of Belgium. Three weeks later the runways were repaired and we were using it to deliver petrol for the army.

Apparently the army was doing it tough at that time and the weather was pretty foul. The airborne operation at Arnhem was in full swing and the main army was trying desperately to link up with the paratroopers who had made it through to the Arnhem Road bridge.

Each Halifax bomber would be able to carry one hundred and sixty-five jerry cans strapped inside the fuselage, held in place by canvass straps. And that’s what happened. The four squadrons of 42 Base spent the next seven days ferrying petrol to the army in Melsbroek. The weather was so bad that we were ordered not to fly above the cloud. So we had to fly below cloud.

On our first trip, on the 25th of September, the cloud base was five hundred feet and we indulged in a bit of low flying. When we got to Melsbroek, there was considerable aircraft in the circuit but eventually we got down.

My immediate impression was about how good the German camouflage of the airfield was. I was also amazed at the amount of damage that the rocket firing Typhoons had inflicted on the German planes that had been parked on the airfield. At this time, Typhoons were the low level ground attack aircraft of the RAF. They would have come in straight after the bombers and continued to attack every day after that.

The German airforce had evacuated the aerodrome only two days earlier. The aerodrome was littered with crashed German aircraft that had been shot up by rocket firing Hawker Typhoons. There were JU 88s and Focke Wulf 190s and Messerschmitts and JU 188s all over the ground. We were instructed not to approach them because they might have been booby-trapped.

We went four times to Brussels on these petrol runs. We didn’t fly every day. Some other crews took our aircraft but the squadron flew every day to Brussels. The first three times were in N-Nan on the 25th, 27th and 28th of September. On the 29th we went on a practice bombing exercise but it only lasted fifteen minutes so it was probably scrubbed. When we got airborne we probably found that the bombing range was closed in by bad weather so we abandoned it ourselves. Bill says that we only did one circuit of the base and it was “very grim landing in the rain and low cloud” but he was able to land the plane “fairly smoothly.” On the 30th of September we made our fourth and final trip to Brussels. On these final two flights we flew two different Halifaxes from our squadron. I did not have the squadron letters for my log book but I did have their code numbers.

I can remember that on the way home that first time, we flew over Ostend and had a look at the pill boxes and defences that had wounded me. Ostend was in our hands by then. When we did these trips, I was navigating but I had a look out as well.

On our second trip, on the 27th of September, we were able to sight a marshalling yard in Belgium that had been bombed by Bomber Command. It was at Courtrai about fifty miles west of Brussels. The devastation was enormous. I saw it. The whole marshalling yard had been taken out. The only indication that there was a marshalling yard there was a set of railway lines coming in one side and going out the other. All in between was complete devastation. It was a tribute to Bomber Commands accuracy. Later we went down into the local village and had a beer in the pub. It was strange to stand in a bar that the Germans had frequented a few days earlier. We were down there drinking with the locals. The blokes in the pub didn’t mind having a beer with us. We took over our chocolate rations and gave them to the local kids. They thought we were marvellous.

On this trip, were able to buy big baskets of grapes from the local farmers and we took a load of them back to England and gave them to our favourite WAAFS. After we left Melsbroek on the way back we had a good look at Brussels and that’s when I noticed that Brussels was surrounded by glass houses and obviously the grapes were grown under hot house conditions. This was approaching winter and the weather would have been too cold to see them grown naturally.

On our third trip on the 28th, we smuggled Trevor, the NCO sergeant in charge of our ground crew, on board and took him down into the village to get some grapes. We also flew around and showed him Brussels, Courtrai and Ostend from the air.

Harry Brabin wasn’t very impressed with the petrol runs because he reckons they didn’t count as operations. We didn’t encounter any flak or fighters or searchlights.

We had been to Brussels and had a look around there. Bill took us to Ostend and went down low for us to have a look at the vacant pill boxes and anti aircraft defences from where the flak barrage which wounded me would have come from and so on. We bought grapes and drank beer with the locals, smuggled Trev on and took him sightseeing, and gave chocolates to the kids, but we never had the feeling then that the war was being won and we could be a little more relaxed as we flew around. We knew we were on a special mission and things would be different when we got on heavily defended targets again.

Map of the Stuttgart - 102 Ceylon Squadron
Hawker Typhoon

 

Fliegerhorst (Air Base) Melsbroek

In the photograph above, a Hawker Typhoon of 181 Squadron RAF is being serviced outside a hangar, camouflaged by the Germans as domestic buildings. Melsbroek, Belgium. © IWM (CL 3981)

Research

Melsbroek Photo: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205023334 19 March 2012

 

Operation 40, 25th April, 1945 – Wangerooge

Basil Spiller and his original crew completed a Tour of Duty together, 35 operations over occupied Europe and Germany. They went on indefinite leave but one by one had returned to Pocklington by mid January 1945. By war’s end Basil had flown 8 missions of a second Tour of Duty.

In this chapter from his autobiography, Basil Spiller, tells the story of his 40th operation which was a raid on the East Frisian Island of Wangerooge. Basil says that prior to the raid there was no talk on the squadron about this being the squadron’s last operation.

Wangerooge: 482 aircraft - 308 Halifaxes, 158 Lancasters, 16 Mosquitos - of Nos 4, 6 and 8 Groups. 5 Halifaxes and 2 Lancasters lost. The raid was intended to knock out the coastal batteries on this Frisian island which controlled the approaches to the ports of Bremen and Wilhelmshaven. No doubt the experience of Antwerp, when guns on the approaches had prevented the port being used for several weeks, prompted this raid. The weather was clear and bombing was accurate until smoke and dust obscured the target area. The areas around the batteries were pitted with craters but the concreted gun positions were 'hardly damaged'; they were all capable of firing within a few hours. Part of the bombing hit a camp for forced workers and the holiday resort and many buildings were destroyed, including several hotels and guest houses, the Catholic church and two children's holiday homes, although these do not appear to have been occupied at the time of the bombing.

Most of the squadrons taking part in the raids on this day were flying their last operations of the war.

RAF Bomber Command campaign diary, 25 April, 1945

On the 25th of April 1945 we were briefed to bomb an island in the Elbe estuary at the entrance to Hamburg Harbour called Wangerooge. This was the last bombing mission that 102 Squadron took part in.

I understood that the mission was to attack U-Boat pens to deter high ranking Nazi individuals from escaping to Argentina by submarine. That’s what I understood from the briefing. It was a big Bomber Command effort and it was made in broad daylight. Probably all of Bomber Command’s available Halifaxes went on this mission.

We took off at 14.40 in the afternoon and the trip lasted only four hours and ten minutes. We flew a direct flight over the North Sea and we carried eleven and a half thousand pounds of bombs our maximum bomb load – all HE (high explosives).

So Bomber Command was definitely making a statement.

We flew in the middle wave. I can clearly remember looking out through the nose at the first wave, and thought I saw two planes in that first wave shot down by flak. They each had one wing shorn off completely and they were in flames and in a mad spiral to the ground. They may have been subject to a mid air collision as the War Diary says. I saw no parachutes.

I was actually looking out through the nose of the plane here as Doug, the bomb aimer, was over his bombsight. I was looking at the flak. It was as intense as anything that I had seen before. That was why two planes immediately had their wings blown off and they were in flames by the wing root. They were probably PFF (Pathfinder Force) Lancasters. They were very much in flames and spiralling madly down to earth in a vertical dive. As I was despairing, those guys had bought it right at the end of the war. I can remember that my immediate reaction was: “Christ! I’ve come this far. Am I going to buy it at the end of the war?” I was very scared. At this time I had a very definite idea that the war was about to end. We all knew that because the Allies and the Russians were knocking at the gates of Berlin and it was only a matter of time. By the time the third and fourth wave reached the target the flak had diminished completely. We completed the raid and proceeded back to base. That’s the last impression of the mission to Wangerooge that I had. We bombed successfully and plastered the joint and returned to base.

This was a pretty big way to go out on our last mission. It wasn’t just a mine laying exercise. It was a full on Bomber Command mission. It was in daylight and there were no fighter attacks. We never had any daylight fighter attacks, ever during the war.

As far as Harry Brabin’s memoirs’ account of this raid goes, I have to challenge his numbers of bombers he said were on the mission. I didn’t think there were two thousand planes, unless the numbers were built up by the Americans. The Bomber Command diary says that four hundred and eighty two aircraft were sent to Wangerooge. We did not know that this would be our last mission. The powers that be knew something that we didn’t know. We didn’t go on leave.

We waited and we drank beer!

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