Raid on Berlin (Pathfinders): 1st March 1943

"Q" for Queenie - Peter Isaacson

A few minutes after ten o'clock on the evening of 1 March, 1943, the RAF's Pathfinders including "Q" for Queenie had lead 400 Lancaters to Berlin, dropping their powerful pyrotechnic target indicator flares, bombs and incendiaries to illuminate the aiming point for the main force to follow. Bomb Aimer, Alan Ritchie, DFM, had called "bombs gone" and Isaacson was flying the Lancaster straight and level waiting for the photoflash, to indicate their photo had been taken, thus proving their aiming point when they had returned to base. Seconds before the flash was due to go off there was a terrific explosion of a heavy ack–ack shell near the tail. At the same time the plane was hit by incendiaries from a plane above blowing out the top gun turret with its twin machine guns and wounding Sgt Joe Grose in the face. The incendiaries failed to detonate but jammed the elevator cables. The Lancaster dived out of control, cascading  parachutes, radio spares, navigation equipment including the damaged sextant into the nose of the aircraft. With his feet planted squarely on the instrument panel 22 year old Pilot Officer Peter Isaacson, DFM, struggled desperately to pull the Lancaster heavy bomber out of a steep dive as it plunged through bursting flak for the heart of Berlin.

The aircraft was diving so fast the airspeed indicator had locked at the limit of the dial. Sergeant Don Delaney quickly use the tail  trim to stabilise  the aircraft, but to no avail, as it hurtled toward the ground at around  twice its permissible speed. Fighting against the pull of gravity Alan Ritchie forced himself out of the debris in the bomb aimer's position and up the steps to the main cabin to join Isaacson in trying to drag the stick back. He managed to get leverage beyond the control column from the top and pushing with his right hand reinforced the effort made by Delaney and his almost exhausted pilot.

As the aircraft raced toward the ground, the searchlights followed it down, and the ack–ack guns continued their cannonade. Isaacson, Delaney and Ritchie risked  having the aircraft's wings torn off, but unless they could pull the Lancaster out of the dive, they all faced certain death. Gradually the aircraft responded to Ritchie's extra effort levelling out at approx. 3,000 feet. The wireless operator air gunner in assessing the damage from the astro dome reported the mid–upper turret had disappeared and possibly the gunner with it, however Joe Grose staggered forward to the cockpit, where he was given a shot of morphine and assisted to the emergency stretcher in the rear of the aircraft. With the damage done to the plane Isaacson could not get above 4,000 feet nor could he get more than 140 knots from the engines.

The aircraft blundered on into the night unaware of their exact position, the pilot steered a general Westerly course, while crew members on the look out in an attempt to pin point "Q" Queenie's position. Suddenly, everywhere there seemed to be searchlights. The aircraft was far from where they thought they were, or hoped they were. They had flown into the Ruhr, the heartland of Germany's industry and its massive anti–aircraft defences. To escape the searchlights Isaacson first turned South but when another lot of lights appeared ahead he decided to go through them. Isaacson felt it was better to fly low, having in mind the condition of the plane, and bore his way through. If he flew low the searchlights could not cone on the Lancaster, and it would be a more difficult target for the ack–ack gunners. He decided to put the nose down , get up as much speed as possible and fly as low as he dared.  Descending to 99 feet they charged into the forest of searchlight beams. A score of lights picked up the aircraft and held it in dazzling beams.  His hope to dodge them quickly evaporated. As the searchlights coned the plane the ack–ack gunners opened fire. The noise of the explosions was deafening and the pungent smell of cordite strong as the exploding shells rocked the crippled plane, as once again the plane faced imminent destruction. Lowering his seat as far as it would go to shield himself from some of the glare, Isaacson, flying blind on instruments, called on the bomb aimer to guide him through. Lying on his stomach in the nose of the aircraft, 29 year old Ritchie called every move. Fearfully conscious of the exploding shells, of the searchlights, and the danger of collisions with ground objects, he did his utmost to guide the pilot. The plane was so low he could see the roof top of houses dangerously close. He knew a church spire or an unseen hill could end their flight, without any help from the ack–ack gunners, but Ritchie did not falter.

"If they had scipted it in Hollywood, no one would have believed it," says Nielsen, " The searchlights locked on us and the shrapnel started to fly . I could hear it hitting on the roof and could smell the cordite"

"Climb starboard.....200 feet," Ritchie called to Isaacson, "Higher, higher, the roofs are getting pretty close," To the thunder of bursting shells, the drumming of the shrapnel and with Ritchie guiding him on the way Isaacson zigged and zagged the crippled aircraft across Essen, home of the heavily defended Krupps works, and the scene of one of "Q" for Queenie's more terrifying flights three months earlier when it was hit by both heavy anti–aircraft fire and a German fighter. That had been a terrible night . This was much worse. In a period of just over ten minutes an estimated 60 heavy anti–aircraft shells exploded around the plane. One burst right under the starboard wing almost turning the Lancaster on its back.

For seemingly endless minutes the battered aircraft was over Essen its anti–aircraft defences the most feared in Germany. Then abruptly there were no more searchlights. The flak stopped. "Q" for Queenie flew on in darkness and quiet, the crew stunned and silent. Isaacson had nursed the plane back to 4,000 feet when they spotted the lights of Brussels and a quick calculation put them 120 nautical miles off track, at last they knew where they were. Neilson could plot a course for home base that none of the crew had expected to ever see again. The wireless operator Bill Copley was at last able to raise Warboys and sent thje following message ""Aircraft badly damaged . Mid upper gunner wounded. ETA 0225"

Peter Isaacson was not generally known for the quality of his landings, but, precisely at 0230am "Q" for Queenie came in smoothly and taxied toward the waiting ambulance and fire cart at the end of the runway at Warboys. The ambulance took the wounded Grose to hospital. When they had seen him off, Isaacson and the rest of the crew looked at the punctured Lancaster and marvelled at their luck. Neilson's description of the barrage they had gone through was no exaggeration. The top turret had disappeared. Holes three feet in diameter had ruptured the side of the aircraft just forward of the rear turret where Robin Heazlewood has fired at the searchlights. Other large holes were near the rear door. The rest of the fuselage had been peppered with hundreds of bits of shrapnel. The wing and starboard outer engine had been hit.

For their part in the night's event Copley and Neilson were awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. Ritchie, who played such a major part in pulling the plane out of its dive, and in guiding Peter Isaacson through the searchlights, and anti–aircraft fire over Essen, missed out, having been awarded the DFM for his part in earlier raids. Isaacson received an immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, (a rare honour).

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