I wrote this article about my decision to leave full-time work in the Air Force for the ABC Open’s 500 Word project.
Ruddy Hell, I don’t fancy flying in this weather, Roger exclaimed as he pulled on his heavy wool trousers. His Australian Air Force (RAAF) uniform is a distinctive dark navy blue so they stand out from the blue grey RAF chaps. Mind you boisterous behaviour and an inveterate disregard for authority also distinguished his countrymen from the Brits and Canadians here. Grabbing his battledress jacket, Roger headed out into the drizzle towards the Mess.
After pilot training in Australia, Roger completed an operational conversion on to the Hudson, a light bomber Lockheed developed from a 1930s civil airliner. A lumbering lightly armed beast compared to the Luftwaffe fighters but still a vast improvement over the Avro Ansons 48 Squadron flew at the start of the war.
Arriving at RAF Station Wick during the summer, Roger flew his first operational sorties in glorious northern sunshine but as summer waned constant drizzle punctuated by periods of cold driving rain seemed was becoming normal.
Hey Skipper, looks like summer days are behind us.
Yeah, Huey was really sending it down last night.
We see less rain in a year back on the farm.
Hugh’s crew walked towards him through the rain. Bill and Jack, grew up together in South Australia before joining the Air Force in 1941. Almost inseparable, they trained together in Canada then somehow both wrangled postings to 48 Squadron.
This weather reminds me of our farm in Ontario.
Gordon a plucky Canadian Navigator arrived in Scotland a couple of weeks before the three Aussies.
I talked to Ronnie’s crew, they couldn’t see a ruddy thing through this soup.
Do you think our op will be cancelled, Skipper?
Weather’s supposed to clear but I’ll check with Operations after breakfast.
OK Skip, we‘re off to get our eggs and toast before they realise no one’s flying today.
Meet me in Ops in an hour.
A final meal for the condemned Roger thought drily as he headed into the Mess.
The van dropped Roger and his crew next to their aircraft (callsign M for Mike), newly painted blue on its upper surfaces with a white belly to camouflage it against the North Sea. Hefting their parachutes out they headed towards the old girl, and the waiting ground crew.
Any problems I should know about, Chiefie?
No Sir, she’s in tip top condition, Erks worked through the night to replace that engine and it’s running like a Doncaster winner.
Magazines full, tracer every third round as normal. Gunnies cleaned ‘em twice so they look like new.
Wizard Chiefie, anything else?
Just bring her home in one piece so the lads can get some sleep tonight.
No promises Chiefie but we’ll do our best.
The crew climbed into the Hudson to start their pre-flight checks, running methodically through each checklist, and cross checking critical items. Last thing anyone wants is to end up in the drink because they forgot to check the oil or fuel levels.
Checklist complete, Skipper. Guns and wireless are good to go.
Nav checklist complete.
Ok, before start checks complete. Starting number one.
Roger opened the throttle, pressed the starter and the 1200hp Pratt & Witney engine roared into life belching smoke before settling into a satisfying rumble.
Starting number two.
Engine two roared to life. Hugh’s hands and feet moved lightly on the controls, looked down at the Crew Chief who gave him a thumbs up. Everything looked good except the continuing rain but Ops is adamant they launch as planned. He squirmed to get comfortable in his seat, tightened his harness and waited for the signal to taxi.
Green light, chaps. Off we go into the muck.
Assigned to fly a low-level patrol along the Norwegian coast between Bergen and Trondheim, M for Mike would be searching the deep fjords for German Naval ships.
In July, Convoy A107 suffered unrelenting attacks by German surface raiders, U-Boats and the Luftwaffe. Almost every ship included their destroyer escorts now rests below the waves, and hundreds of sailors lost their lives in the freezing Arctic waters. RAF patrols provided convoys with vital information about German naval dispositions but the lonely maritime patrols were dangerous. Weather, anti-aircraft fire and fighters conspired to keep the Hudson crews from their task but they pressed on regardless knowing their job would save many sailor’s lives.
Roger pushed open the throttles on the twin Pratt & Whitneys, and M for Mike gathered speed across the runway. The tail raised itself into the airflow, and as airspeed edged past 80 knots, Roger pulled back gently on the column and climbed into the drizzle. His hand dropped instinctively to the undercarriage lever, and the wheels clunked into place as he turned east towards Norway.
Herdla airfield sat on a stark peninsular north of Bergen, as remote an airfield as any used by Luftwaffe fighters. Windswept and cold even in late summer, the rain turned the grassy runways into softening fields of muddy clods. Werner was used to rough airfields after flying Army cooperation missions during the Low Countries offensive, spotting for artillery and transporting senior personnel in his tiny Fieseler Storch. During Operation Nicht-Wissen, ground fire forced Werner down behind enemy lines where the Belgian Army captured him. A few short weeks as a POW was a sobering reminder about the fortunes of war.
Idle during the Battle of Britain, Werner converted to fighters in 1942 as the Luftwaffe regenerated their decimated fighter squadrons. Now he flew the new Focke-Wulf Fw190A Butcher Bird with Jagdgeschwader 5 (JG5). Its powerful radial engine made it faster than the Messerschmitt Bf-109F he flew during training, and with a wide undercarriage more stable on the ground. Armed with two machine guns and four 20 mm cannons, it is a formidable aircraft and deadly effective against the lightly protected British bombers.
Today, like most days, he will lead his rotte (a flight of two fighters) on defensive sweeps along the coast. Increased British reconnaissance over the Norwegian coast was hindering the German Navy’s operations against Allied Arctic convoys. Werner’s squadron was tasked with stopping these British intrusions. Although Werner won the Iron Cross Second Class in France he is yet to score his first aerial victory. Some days he thought he never would succeed as a fighter pilot.
After 20 minutes, Roger realised they had to abort.
Lads, this weather isn’t fit for flying, even if we find Norway we won’t be able to see any flogging ships.
We’ll land at Lossiemouth, Navigator plot a course.
Skipper, head One eight three degrees for Lossiemouth.
Roger, one eight three degrees.
Werner flew his first patrol in rain and low cloud, barely able to see his wingman let alone the enemy. On landing he could feel the muddy runway sucking at his undercarriage as he taxied back to the flight line. Another unsuccessful patrol.
As Werner shut down the BMW radial engine, his ground crew moved in to refuel his aircraft and polish the perspex canopy in readiness for the next sortie. He grabbed a quick lunch washed down with a bitter cup of ersatz coffee before settling into a chair next to his wingman.
I hate ground alert, Werner, we should be in the air and hunting.
Why waste gas in this weather, we’ll wait until it clears to have a chance of finding our prey.
Werner thumbed through an old copy of Der Alder (The Eagle) but his mind drifted back to Germany.
You know my parents sleep in the cellar. The British come every night to drop their bombs. They’re frightened but unwilling to leave their home.
Lets request a transfer to defend the Fatherland.
We have a job to do here, Christoph. Yours is to stop a Tommy shooting me in the back.
Ja ja, I know.
Werner’s eyes fell on a picture of General Galland, the Knight’s Cross hanging at his throat. He could almost feel his throat redden at the thought of joining the ranks of Luftwaffe heroes before he shook it off, tossed the magazine aside and stalked off to ops.
Righto lads, weather’s clearing east and the Old Man wants us airborne in an hour. Truck’s waiting outside to take us out to the flight line.
Roger Skipper, the three Sergeants said in unison, pulling on their jackets before heading outside.
The grey clouds are giving way to a blue sky, great for flying but makes it harder to avoid the fighters over Norway. His crew knew the odds but no one dwelled on the possibility of not coming home. Too many squadron log entries contained the words:
Aircraft failed to return from operation.
The Hudson rocked and vibrated as they taxied then shuddered to life as Roger pushed open the throttles for their take-off run. Airborne again he turned east and climbed to 5000 feet for the initial transit to Norway. Gordon studied his charts and continuously plotted their course, as Scotland dipped below the horizon he used the sun to navigate much like the mariners who delivered his forebears to the New World.
Jack and Bill scanned the skies for the Luftwaffe, it’s unlikely they’d see fighters this far out but the cautious survive longer than the foolhardy. Roger monitored his engines, feeling their strength through the controls and watching performance on the gauges arranged across his instrument panel. He settled in for the long flight to Bergen.
Hours later Roger felt on edge, nerves raw after a long patrol along a hostile coast. His eyes moved across the instrument panel then into the sun looking for fighters. Approaching Bergen the risk of interception increased rapidly, Luftwaffe fighters stationed nearby patrolled relentlessly searching for British reconnaissance aircraft.
Skipper, Navigator. Twenty minutes until we can turn for home.
Righto Nav, lads keep your eyes peeled for bandits.
The two Focke-Wulfs cruised along the coast at 2500 metres, Werner and Christoph scouring the sky for British aircraft. The Norwegian summer twilight provided good hunting conditions late into the evening.
Werner caught a momentary glint of sunlight below the horizon. Dipping his left wing 20 degrees, he concentrated on the area looking for telltale movement across the dark sea. There, an aircraft flying south towards Bergen.
Achtung, Ich berühre Auto (I see a two engined bomber). Pauke-Pauke! (Attack).
Viktor, Ich suche (Understood, I’m looking)
Werner pushed open the throttle and turned towards the unsuspecting Hudson. Christoph flew low on his right about 500 metres away and slightly behind to cover this leader’s tail. Beware the unseen enemy is a mantra fighter pilots learn quickly or perish.
Five miles out Werner could see the Hudson clearly. Its gunners must see me soon he thought, and he pushed the throttles full forward nosing down into a shallow dive towards the enemy.
Skipper, Navigator, Ten minutes to turn point.
Roger felt the hair on his neck prickle as it always did approaching the end of a patrol. No time to relax until we get well away from the coast, he thought weaving the aircraft to help his crew search their blind spots.
Bandits, nine o’clock high.
Roger immediately turned left into the attacking fighters to get his eyes on them then jinked right as Bill opened fire from the turret. His tracer arched low and behind the fighters racing towards them. Roger started a left hand spiral down to sea level.
I’m heading for the deck, lads.
Bandits are following your turn, Skipper.
Roger saw the muzzle flashes of the nearest bandit and pulled hard into the turn.
Werner ignored the tracer whizzing below his aircraft and concentrated on flying the Hudson into the reticle of his gunsight.
Wait until it fills the sight, he mumbled to himself.
At 200 metres the Hudson filled the reticle, and he squeezed the machine gun trigger. Muzzles buried in his aircraft’s nose flashed to life, and he saw his rounds hit the Hudson’s wingtip. He pulled up to walk the fire up the wing towards the engine. The Hudson tightened its turn, and Werner kicked the left rudder pedal to compensate then pressed down on the trigger for the four 20 mm cannons in the Focke-Wulf’s wings.
His aircraft shuddered under the recoil of his guns, and Werner watched as the shells exploded against the M for Mike’s fuselage. At 30 metres he released the triggers and flashed over the top of the Hudson, jinking away from its defensive fire.
Roger felt the Hudson vibrate under the impact of the first shells, and heard the fuselage buckle as they exploded around him. He pulled back on the control column to tighten his turn but the next salvo killed him instantly. Jack and Gordon died in the first hail of cannon fire, and slumped in their stations but Bill continued firing until the aircraft hit the water.
The whole action had taken less than 60 seconds.
Horrido! (Victory) yelled Werner excitedly as he watched the Hudson disappear into the icy water.
Christoph, I’m low on gas. Climbing to 2000 metres, heading home.
Understood, drinks are on you tonight.
As he approached the airfield, Werner’s heart still raced with the excitement of combat. A victory at last, hopefully the first of many kills. He touched down and closed the throttle as his right wheel sank into the soft mud. The Focke-Wulf lurched and ground looped in an uncontrolled ballet of destruction. As the undercarriage collapsed, Werner’s head slammed against the side of the cockpit. Blood flowed freely down is face, dazed and shaken he released his harness and slid groggily out of his broken bird.
An inglorious end to this encounter.
A few hours later the 48 Squadron Operations Officer completed the daily summary. Against M for Mike he wrote:
Failed to return from operation.
This story is dedicated to the Australian airmen who never to returned from operations over enemy territory, particularly the 1421 who remain missing with no known grave.
Lest we forget.