To bale out or not to bale out? (7)

In a previous post in this series, “To bale out or not to bale out? (3)”,  I told the story of Harold Pronger who baled out of a Lancaster bomber when the aircraft looked likely to crash because of mechanical problems. But like the rest of the crew, Harold survived. And so did the pilot, Flying Officer B.C. Fitch, who stayed with the aircraft. It was as if Lancaster LM360, like a living being, seemed to have made a sudden recovery from all the problems that had previously beset it:

And so, Fitch was able to land without incident at RAF Winthorpe, despite repeated episodes of losing height, an inability to climb, the mid-upper turret out of commission and an engine on fire. Here is RAF Winthorpe today:

What the members of the crew did not necessarily know was that this Lancaster, LM360,  somehow was aware that it had a glorious destiny in its future, and it was making damned sure that it survived to achieve it.
That day, or rather night, of destiny began for Lancaster LM360 on November 3rd 1943, when O for Oscar took off from its base at RAF Syerston, piloted by Flight Lieutenant William Reid. He and his crew were tasked with bombing industrial facilities in and around Düsseldorf.

On the way, just after they crossed over the Dutch coast, at 21,000 feet, they were attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 night fighter:

The Luftwaffe fighter caused enormous damage to the front gun turret and the aircraft’s steering system, but most importantly, the pilot’s windscreen was smashed and it was no longer able to protect the crew from the cold of a November night at 20,000 or so feet above the ground.

What a pity that the aircraft’s heating system had not been working before the attack, so that the rear gunner, his hands frozen and stiff, had been unable to open fire on the German aircraft or even to warn the pilot over the intercom about the night fighter’s arrival. The stricken Lancaster lost more than 15,000 feet of altitude but Bill recovered, fortunately, just before they hit the ground.

Bill was badly wounded but said absolutely nothing about his own injuries. The intercom system was not working and the compasses were unusable. The decision, though, was made to carry on to the target:

The Lancaster was then attacked for a second time by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 single seat fighter which raked them with cannon fire from nose to tail. The navigator was killed outright and the wireless operator received severe wounds. Bill was hit for a second time and so was the flight engineer. The starboard section of the tailplane had been shot off, the bomber’s communication system didn’t work and there was no oxygen supply.  The flight engineer, wounded in the arm, found a bottle or two of oxygen and held them up for Bill to breathe from. Bill, who, as always, had previously memorised the course to fly for the mission, still kept to the plan. He reasoned that turning round now would entail crossing through a bomber stream of 600 aircraft, which would have been rather dangerous, and that their aircraft would then have become a vulnerable unprotected lone sitting duck. Here is a tiny part of a bomber stream:

So on they went for the next 50 minutes and 200 miles and they bombed their target at Düsseldorf successfully. It was a ball bearing factory which Bill actually recognised.

And then, they turned for home. By now Bill was weak from loss of blood, lack of oxygen and the cold icy blast coming through the broken windscreen. That cold icy blast was actually freezing the blood from his head wound as it seeped into his eyes.  There was a very real risk that Bill would not be capable of lasting all the way back to Syerston. The flight engineer and bomb aimer took over control of the plane, when Bill lapsed into semi-consciousness. But on and on they flew, despite the heart stopping moment when all four engines stopped but then just as quickly restarted. Heavy anti aircraft fire over the Dutch coast missed them. Minute by minute, mile after mile into the darkness. The first moment of happiness, the English coast. And then as they flew over Norfolk, the crew noticed the lights of the airfield at Shipdham, 5 miles south-south-west of Dereham:

Despite vision limited by blood in his eyes, Bill revived somewhat and he carried out a fine landing, although the landing lights were hidden by fog rising in the early morning. The Lancaster’s undercarriage gave way on one side and they skidded down the runway. The wireless operator was taken immediately to the medical centre, but, unfortunately, he died there of his injuries. The story of Bill Reid’s bravery is repeated many times on the Internet, but this was the website I used as the skeleton.

I must have looked at more than 20 websites. Only one named the rest of his crew. They were:

Flight Sergeant J.A. Jeffreys (Navigator)

Flight Sergeant L. Rolton (Bomb Aimer)

Flight Sergeant J.W. Norris (Flight Engineer)

Flight Sergeant J.J. Mann (Wireless Operator)

Flight Sergeant D. Baldwin, D.F.M. (Mid-Upper gun turret)

Flight Sergeant A.F. ´Joe´ Emerson (Rear gun turret)

Flight Sergeant John Alan Jeffreys, the Navigator, was killed outright during the attack by the Fw 190 night fighter. He was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force and he was 30 years old.  He came from Perth in Western Australia, and he was the son of John Alfred Jeffreys and Amelia Jeffreys. He was the  husband of Florence Isobel Jeffreys. John was buried in Cambridge Cemetery.

Flight Sergeant John James Mann was the Wireless Operator who sadly died in the medical centre at Shipdham. He was only 22 and he was the son of James Mann and Dora Mann, of Liverpool. He was buried in Bootle Cemetery.

Here’s the Lancaster that brought them back, looking a little the worse for wear :



Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

19 responses to “To bale out or not to bale out? (7)

  1. Another amazing, tragic, story

  2. What a dramatic tale, John. The hows and whys of aircraft malfunctioning and correcting is almost paranormal. As I’m always saying, the more I learn about that generation, the more totally amazed and fascinated I become.

    • Absolutely. In England people were a lot more obedient then, and would never have thought of objecting to what they were told to do. With my own father, he had the form belief that “Death happens to other people” as they all did. He was also terrified of being declared “LMF” or “Lack of Moral Fibre” which meant disgrace and a posting to somewhere very isolated, cold and wet.

      • I think that LMF goes through the thoughts of most every militaryman [or woman]. He most certainly raised quite a man in you.

  3. That is quite a story John. Lest We Forget.

    • It certainly is, Lloyd. I have always wondered just what mechanism drives men to carry out such amazing acts of bravery.

      • I was at the Imperial War Museum or RAF Hereford years ago and read about someone who had 70 bullets go through him and he completed the bombing mission. Returned to base, landed, went underground for medical attention and died. Incredible feats and so sad.

  4. What brave and dedicated young men they were. The story reminds me of the Wellington in “One of our aircraft is missing” in which the crew bail out as the Wellington is about to crash, then suddenly it picks up and flys itself ‘home’.

    • I think aircraft of that era were a lot more human-like than the jet airliners of today! The most extreme case I have heard was of a B-17 which was, quite correctly, abandoned by its crew somewhere off the coast of East Anglia. The aircraft then flew on across England, then the Irish Sea, and then across the whole of Ireland, finally crashing into the Atlantic Ocean.
      I think that one day they’ll have intelligent machines that can heal themselves like we do. That would be really something!

      • That is pretty amazing but I suppose if it has fuel and all is ok, then they should fly for a very long way. I think one day we will have materials like that, it really would be something and I think quite scary too.

  5. A story that should have made front page of the Victor!

  6. What a riveting tale, John! Incredible determination these men had and to keep going under the circumstances you just described are unfathomable to me. Some people have no idea what “real” problems are! I read stories like this and it makes my life problems small in comparison. Another exceptional write. Thank you!

    • My pleasure, Amy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I don’t really understand how they kept going but I think it was a lot to do with the fact that the crew were often a lot closer than a family because they all depended so much on one another. Nobody wanted to be the one who let the rest down.

  7. Chris Waller

    Completely incidental, but while out creosoting the fence today (Sun. 24th June, 13.30 hours) the BoBM flight Lancaster flew over again, travelling in south-easterly direction, followed shortly afterwards the Hurricane. Altitude was about 1,500 feet. You wait 75 years for a Lancaster and then two go past inside a month.

    • You were very lucky! A colleague’s wife went out for a walk about a fortnight ago, and she had it fly over so low that she took a photo with her phone and even captured a recognisable City of Lincoln coat of arms near the cockpit. I was just a few miles away, in the garden, and saw absolutely nothing!

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