To bale out or not to bale out? (4)

Last time, I talked about a Lancaster, Lancaster LM360, which apparently had a great number of mechanical problems, such that the pilot ordered the entire crew to bale out in an effort to save their lives. This they did, and they all had a jolly time making their way back to their base from Norfolk where the winds of Fate had carried them. Meanwhile, the pilot found that the plane was seemingly recovering from its funny turn and was able to carry on, such that Flying Officer Fitch was able to make a safe landing at RAF Winthorpe. Here it is today, with its fossilised runways:

One of the happy survivors this time was Harold William Pronger. He was a 33 year old married Australian from Bundaberg in Queensland and by March 29th 1944 he was still a member of 61 Squadron. In 2015, Bundaberg had a population of 70,588. It is on the River Burnett in southern Queensland and looks a lovely place to spend a summer, despite the recent floods which reached nearly 30 feet above normal. The town is nowadays famous for its rum, usually sold in special Australian sizes :

During the night of March 30th-31st 1944, Harold was again on board a 61 Squadron Lancaster, serial number EE176, squadron letters QR-M. They took off from RAF Coningsby to attack Nuremburg. This was an extremely long trip from Lincolnshire, some 700 miles at least.

The raid proved to be the biggest disaster in the history of Bomber Command. 795 bombers were sent to Nuremberg but there were very high winds to blow them off course, a clear sky without cloud cover, bright moonlight and perfect meteorological conditions for the formation of contrails:

In addition, the target was clouded over when they got there. All of these potentially disastrous problems had been revealed by a Mosquito meteorological reconnaissance flight just before the raid set off, but the top brass decided that it was best to keep calm, to ignore the evidence the Mosquito had brought back and carry on.

All of these meteorological circumstances helped the German night fighters enormously. They moved into the attack as soon as the bomber stream crossed the Belgian coast. Hardly any damage was done by the RAF to the target and a sizeable number of aircraft were more than 60 miles off course when they bombed Schweinfurt by mistake, immediately after it was target marked in error by two Mosquito pathfinders.

At one point, the bombers were losing one aircraft per minute for just under an hour. Almost 100 bombers were destroyed and around 550 RAF aircrew were killed. You would think it could not get any worse, but for Harold William Pronger, it did. On his way back, after experiencing severe sleet and hail near Hannover, suddenly, at around 0530 hours, just before they would have crossed the English coast, Lancaster EE176 met up with a huge and violent electrical storm:

The storm was too big to fly either over or around, so instead, they were obliged to plough straight through the snow, the sleet, the hail, and the torrential rain. Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, the Lancaster was struck by lightning.

All of the crew were severely stunned. The pilot and some other members of the crew were temporarily blinded. For a short period, with effectively no pilot at the controls, the aircraft careered all over the sky. The pilot, still blind, ordered everybody to bale out, thinking that they had already crossed the English coast. The aircraft continued to plunge all over the sky, but its main direction was earthwards.

When the Lancaster reached just 1,000 feet above the cold raging waters of the North Sea, the pilot suddenly regained his eyesight. Not perfection, not 20/20 vision, but enough to take over control of the aircraft.
He then started to check that everybody was OK.  They weren’t.

The rest of the story, next time.



Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

19 responses to “To bale out or not to bale out? (4)

  1. The intrigue! Sounds like the night of March 30/31 was an all round nightmare where even brave gin drinking Aussies should be tucked up nicely in their beds! Why on earth did they go ahead with that one!

    • I am tempted to say that it was because somebody else was doing it. Perhaps they thought the weather would change, but they were certainly very wrong and a disaster ensued. There are four different books about the raid by Martin Bowman, James Campbell, Martin Middlebrook and John Nichol. Not counting postage and packing, you can buy three of them for a pound, 98p and two at 1p !

  2. Another cliffhanger, giving a real insight, in so many ways, into what they were up against

    • I think most of the time they were trusting too much to luck that things would go OK and that nothing out of the ordinary would happen. The trouble was that things often went very wrong and that on most occasions it would cost seven lives. The average number to escape from a doomed Lancaster never got as high as two out of seven. Other planes were better on that score, but a lot more of them got shot down in the first place.

  3. Oh, you’re cruel to leave us at this point! But it sure ensures that we’ll be back – won’t it?!!

    • I hope so, at least !
      I think you can probably guess how it’s going to progress anyway. Not too many of these stories have a 100% happy ending, I’m afraid.

  4. Pierre Lagacé

    Part 4? I missed the first three!

    • Part 1 was published on April 2nd and Part 2 on April 17th, with Part 3 on April 27th. SOme of the links with Facebook and Twitter were playing up around December-January time, but as far as I know, they were working better of late. I hope you enjoy them, Pierre, and my apologies.

  5. Awesome story, John. I often think about pilots when they have to dodge storm cells, but then add in dodging the enemy in war, and it takes courage to a new height.

    • Thanks, Cindy. All of the Bomber Command men had to do 30 missions to escape from combat flying and I think that they were all loath to turn back or abandon a mission once it was started, hoping that things such as the weather would improve when they got going. In this case everything actually got worse up to and including the lightning, although the raid would definitely have counted towards the magic 30. It’s a little like the plot behind Wyler’s “Memphis Belle”.

  6. Don’t mind us, we’re just sitting here and waiting for the next part. Flying through intense thunderstorms in those planes always sounds terrifying, and we’ve read plenty of those stories.

  7. Look forward to the sequel, by the way you misspelt rum. 🙂

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