Raid on Wanne-Eickel, Germany: 09 November 1944

The Lucky Last Trip

On our excellent record our crew was considered a top crew on the squadron as well as being one of the senior crews, so we were chosen on 9 November, 1944, as the right flank leader, “A” flight commander the centre leader and “B” light commander the left flank leader of an arrowhead formation, leading Bomber Command on this raid.

Our navigator for this trip was the squadron navigation leader as our stand-in navigator, Flight Lieutenant Phil Coffey, DFM, and we joked with him that we were happy because he wouldn't let us get lost, this being his fifth trip with our crew.

We were to attack the Fischer-Tropsch plant and synthetic oil installations at Wanne Eikel, in the middle of the Ruhr Valley, Germany.

Avro Lancaster aircraft K2 “Killer” was the most photographed Lancaster of 460 Squadron on account of the striking emblem of the swastika being pierced in the heart by a dagger, then with the drips of blood leaking down from the wound. It was a unique emblem. We were to take off at 0805.

Avro Lancaster aircraft K2 "Killer"

After climbing to our operating height we were flying just above a heavy cloud layer at 18,500 feet. Looking back over the bomber stream once we had reached our operating height was a terrific sight. The leader to our left, and the whole bomber stream of approximately 1000 heavy Lancaster and Halifax bombers strung out keeping station behind us.

Even though there was about nine-tenth cloud cover just below the height of the bomber stream we had a good run to the target. I had just released our bombs on the target when I heard the first crash of a barrage followed by: “Laurie, Laurie, quick!” from the pilot. I dropped everything, and headed for the skipper.

He was slumped over the control column, and the plane was starting to nose down into a dive. I grabbed hold of the control column and heaved back on the stick to hold the Lancaster from going steeper into a dive. I signalled the navigation leader (our stand-in navigator) to plug in my oxygen, as I had left my oxygen point and needed to be quickly plugged in to the emergency point beside the pilot’s position.

Lack of oxygen at this height impaired the ability to move quickly and slowed down a person’s reactions, and complete lack of oxygen could cause death in approximately four minutes, because of the thin and extremely cold atmosphere. The engineer had plugged in to this point, well knowing this was an emergency point, it adding to my problems while I desperately tried to hold the plane steady.

The skipper had been severely wounded in the face. He was bleeding profusely from the face wound and was only semi- conscious. I directed the navigation leader and the engineer to lift him from his seat, while I climbed into the pilot seat and took complete control of the plane, all in about 15 seconds. With only 10 minutes of piloting a plane I was now faced with the necessity of trying to get the plane back to England.

Being a navigator, and familiar with the course, I pulled K2 up and flew above and over the leading Lancasters clear of the rest of the stream on a due west course. I estimated this course would bring us close to Manston, a special emergency-landing aerodrome on the heel of England.

Lancaster bomber stream (by gifted aviation artist Mark Edwards)

In this violent movement up and over the leaders to get onto a westerly course the gyro compass had toppled, but I set course by my watch and the sun, while opening the four motors up to 2850 revs, plus nine pounds of boost (I think), a maximum power setting from Rolls-Royce for up to two hours. I estimated we would either be home, or not, in under two hours, even though our trip to the target had taken two and a half hours.

Once clear of the bomber stream I put the nose down to get us below oxygen height as quickly as possible, in order that the other crew members could take the skipper’s oxygen mask off, and treat the wound under his left eye, which looked really bad. At the time I had grave doubts whether he would remain alive very long. I requested the navigation leader to give Ted a shot of morphine. He said he had never ever done anything like that and he couldn’t. I said he must do it, as I couldn’t do the injection and try to fly the plane as well. Finally he administered a shot of morphine, as Ted seemed to have lost consciousness.

We were later reported, back at 460 Squadron, as last seen by Flying Officer Henry Baskerville, DFC in a power dive to port of the main bomber stream He had followed us a short way, but couldn’t keep up, and he presumed we had crashed near the target. There was very heavy cloud cover from 18,000 down to 1500 feet. I levelled at 18,000 feet and despite very rough flying conditions, waited for a break in the clouds.

When a break in the clouds showed I put the nose down steeply, (power remained on all the way). We descended in the break to about 4000 ft. and then went into the cloud again. I was determined not to waste valuable time nor try circling because we were still in Germany and very vulnerable if we were attacked by fighters.

The mid-upper gunner became agitated and very concerned and reported the icing was extremely bad over the wings. Icing over the wings is a very dangerous flying condition as icing destroys the ability of the wings to lift the plane and keep it flying. It also was very rough with the plane OK but flying a little lopsided.

With no alternative, I pulled back on the control column bringing the nose of the aircraft up and we climbed out of the clouds. The plane was frightening, listing right over to starboard, with all the instruments iced up, and the airspeed indicator and artificial horizon were not working.

It was rough weather and flying the plane in such conditions I found it extremely difficult. I did wonder a couple of times whether we would get back safely, and whether I would see my family at home again. I didn’t dwell on these thoughts as I was determined to save Ted if at all possible. Surprisingly, I had not much thought for myself, it was a matter of a job to save Ted and the crew.

I levelled the plane and had to wait about a half an hour for another break in the clouds, during which time the skipper stirred and ,became restless seemingly only semi-conscious and wanted to know where we were and if things were OK I ordered the navigator and the wireless/operator to disconnect him from the intercom, as I didn’t want him to become more agitated than he appeared to be. His heavy breathing on the inter-communication was a little disturbing. I ordered the navigation leader to give him a part shot of morphine to settle him down.

The next break in the cloud was showing ahead, so I put the nose down, angling into the cloud before the break and despite heavy icing, even though the mid-upper gunner was getting quite agitated about the heavy icing spreading over the wings, almost pleading in his extremely broad Lancashire accent to get out of it. I held the descent and came into clear air, about halfway down to the cloud base, even though the going was very rough, and the plane was being pitched around like a puppet on a string.

The ice cleared a little from the wings, and I estimated at our height we shouldn’t experience much more icing before coming below the cloud base. I wasn’t going to turn or circle, so I kept the descent going and went into cloud again at about 3000 feet, with another bout of not such heavy icing on the wings. We flew into reasonably clear but very rough air at 1500ft, as we crossed the French coast.

I had been fighting the plane all the way, not game to strap myself in. My left hand was pressed to the canopy to keep me firmly in the seat. It was extremely rough flying weather, and the plane had a definite list to starboard.

We crossed the English Channel with the plane being severely buffeted flying in the very rough conditions. About half way across the Channel, flying at a height of 1500ft. just under the cloud base and estimating we didn’t have much longer flying to reach Manston aerodrome, I requested my first check on our course and requested a position fix from the navigator, which resulted in a 5°starboard correction to our heading.

As we approached the drome I had formulated a contingency and addressed our problem to the crew on what would happen on arrival at Manston. I told them it was my intention to climb to 3000 ft. over Manston (the minimum safety height for bailing out) where they could bail out if they wished, and I would then attempt to land the plane and save our skipper. However, if the skipper felt able to land the plane himself, then I would help him.

The rear gunner immediately volunteered to stay, quickly followed by everyone else. I immediately ordered the wireless/operator to send a Mayday call; “Pilot severely wounded in face, bomb aimer flying, headed for and request straight-in landing Manston”.

The Mayday call was answered and the requested landing immediately “Okayed”.

The mid-upper gunner requested if he could shoot off a few bursts of his guns while we were still out over the sea, as he hadn’t fired them during his tour. I gave permission for a few bursts, but advised him we were still in enemy territory and not to fire too much, but keep plenty of rounds in reserve in case there were enemy fighters around.

We were still all on our own and probably a sitting duck if we were attacked. I ordered both gunners to keep their eyes especially alert for enemy planes, and not to relax just because we were almost home.

Shortly after the runway showed dead ahead, and so I set up for landing, reduced speed, flaps 15 degrees and miraculously the plane levelled up, straight and true. I guessed we had slight damage to the flap-control mechanism or the hydraulics. Just a fleeting thought, I sure hope the wheels were not damaged and that they go down and lock.

At this time, the skipper was plugged back in, and guessed by the reduction in engine revs and the flaps going down we were close to landing and was indicating he wanted to get back to his seat. After dropping the undercarriage, and with relief seeing the indicators showing the wheels were down, and locked in position, I climbed out of the seat and held the control column steady as we lifted him to his seat. With everyone in their designated crash position, I kept a close check on him as we came in for our landing.

In order that his full concentration was on landing, we signalled him not to worry about controlling flaps, engine speed, etc., the engineer, Peter Odell, did all this. He only had one eye for the runway, however, to make sure I stood behind him and rode shotgun while he made his best landing ever. A great sigh of relief went up from everyone hearing the wheels kiss the ground was the most enjoyable sound I ever heard.

As we ran to a standstill, the skipper collapsed over the controls, and I ordered the engineer to cut the motors and turn off the fuel. We were met by fire tenders, ambulance etc. who came screaming along close by, putting on quite a spectacular display, in case we didn’t stop or something happened, like a fire, or explosion, or undercart collapse.

The medics carried the skipper from the plane, and he was operated on later by two eye specialists and a nose specialist. They removed a shell splinter approximately two inches long by a quarter of an inch square, which had gone end on just under his left eye.

He still had the splinter, as a souvenir, with part of his cheek bone fused into it until he died. The specialists’ report was “had it penetrated a fraction of an inch further he would probably have been killed instantly”. He recovered, and apart from sleeping with one eye open for many years due to nerve damage, he was quite all right, with no damage to the eye itself.

What luck! We had made it! We had finished our tour!

When I returned to my home my mother told me that she had been dosing and had a premonition that I was in deadly danger. She woke very startled and headed straight for the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. She was joined there by a visiting minister of religion who was staying overnight with my parents, and he inquired if she was all right, as she seemed very disturbed. My mother explained her premonition and the minister suggested that a good prayer from them both would be the best way to helpif I was in danger.

In discussing this with my mother we found that her premonition had occurred at exactly the same time as I took over the controls of the Lancaster from my seriously wounded skipper.

The pilot, Flying Officer Edward Charles Owen, and Warrant Officer Lawrence William Woods, received an Immediate Award Distinguished Flying Cross.

I was immediately commissioned from Warrant/Officer to Pilot Officer (having been a warrant officer for only one month and four days).

The navigation leader, spare crewmember on the trip, Flight/Lieutenant Phil Coffey, received a Distinguished Flying Cross to add to his Distinguished Flying Medal,

The wireless/operator, Flight/Sergeant Steve Turner, received a Distinguished Flying Medal.

My personal opinion was that Sgt. Peter Odell, the flight engineer, should have also received a decoration before the wireless operator. He had been of great assistance to me in setting the motors on the power settings I had ordered and generally had supported me in the cockpit, allowing me to concentrate fully on flying the plane. But my opinion was not asked for at the time.

And so ended a very wild ride, the last trip of our tour of operations, and grounding for at least six months. This was obligatory as laid down by Bomber Command, to let the nervous system recover from the battering of six weeks on duty, followed by six days leave. In our case we were flying this routine of six weeks on, six days off on operations for five months.

Flight/Lieutenant Phil Coffey, navigation leader, and Pilot/Officer Dick Bates, reargunner, were both scrubbed pilots, and were both of the opinion after we landed that there was no way that they could have possibly flown home under such shocking weather conditions and a damaged plane.

We were reported at base (Binbrook) as having been shot down over the target and last seen in a power dive to the port of the mainstream. We had landed at 12 noon and the first plane down after us was at 1240 p.m.

We took off at 0805 bombed the target Wanne Eikel Lat. 51 31 N 7 09 E at 1036 am and crash landed at Manston, Lat 51 20N 1 20 E at 1200 hours, the bearing was 272 Magnetic. We had a 35 knot (41mph) headwind. The outward trip had taken 2 hours thirty minutes and our much faster homeward trip one hour twenty five minutes. Our bomb load was 1 Х 4000 lbs. and 16 Х 500lbs

Next day we were flown to Binbrook in Lancaster K2 by a 460 Squadron pilot, Pilot/Officer Woods (no relation).

Two days later I was sent to London to be measured for my officer’s uniform. On the squadron I kept on getting a greeting “Good show, Gong!” “Gong” was the slang for a decoration, and going to London was good. I would get away from this gong business.

I had travelled to Doncaster to catch the London train, and was waiting on the platform when one of the squadron people came along the platform with the greeting “Good show the other day, Gong, don’t you think?”

I mumbled something about don’t know and excused myself, slipping into the toilet to get away. I got on the other end on the train, away from this 460 Squadron fellow and the gong greetings. I was very wary that he might come and join me and I kept a close watch to make sure he was not in sight when we arrived in London. All I wanted to do was to try and forget the last flight and to thank my lucky stars that I was able to do the job and save our plane, and myself.

Arriving in London I went into a hairdresser, where I had been a previous customer, to have my hair cut. It was just on 1300 hours and the barber said to take a seat, he would only be a moment.

The next thing I remembered the barber was shaking me: “Would you like me to cut your hair now or come back tomorrow, I’ve just closed the shop, it’s 6.30pm. You have been asleep so soundly I didn’t like to wake you”. I replied: “If you would cut it now please, I have a lot to do tomorrow”. He was very sympathetic about my sleeping telling me when I came in I looked dead beat, and as soon as I sat down I had gone out like a light.

Next day I was measured for my uniform, filling out the forms, etc. I then went to the Boomerang Club for lunch. It was a popular meeting place for Australians and was fairly crowded.

After collecting my food I asked a couple of Australian Navy fellows if I could sit with them, as there was a spare seat at their table. I then asked them where they were from, how they enjoyed the navy life and what ship they were on. When they said submarines I immediately said I wouldn’t have that on for all the tea in China. No way would I go in a submarine.

They countered by telling me anyone must be mad flying with everyone shooting at you. At least under the water they only had to worry about depth charges, if the enemy could find them in all that water.

Just a matter of opinion I suppose, but it was interesting talking with them as fellow travellers in another country, and of their experiences.

Many years later noted English historian and author, Mike Garbutt, told me I was only one of three aircrew who had successfully flown the plane back to England after the pilot was either killed or severely wounded.

Front: Steve Turner, W/Op DFM E.C.(Ted) Owen, Pilot, DFC (Immediate award) L.W.(Laurie) Woods, Bombaimer DFC (Immed/award)
Back: R. (Dick) Bates, Rear Gunner, Donald, Hudspeth Navigator, KIA Frank Mayor, Mid-upper Gunner. RAF Peter Odell, Engineer. RAF
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