Friday, 15 July 2011

Wellington Bomber raid October 1941

Oh God our help in ages past, Our hope - this unfinished line of the popular hymn is written in pencil in the back of my dad's journal which he kept when starting training with Bomber Command early in World War Two. Despite his deep concern about the political decisions being taken and pacifist leanings this account of one of his first ever raids, pretty much written in real time, is most revealing. I have only edited some spelling and minor grammatical errors.

Feltwell – Harwell 10-10-1941

It is just past midnight. We are droning away towards the East. Behind us, slightly to starboard, small spasmodic pin-points of light denote the bursting of flak over Heligoland. But we are not looking back, we are looking ahead. Already the front gunner has remarked on the presence of a huge red glow ahead to which we seem to get no nearer.

I return to the set (radio) and see if the generator is still charging. Then I switch the set off and, for something to do, earth the aerials. The navigator taps me on the shoulder, he jerks his thumb backwards in a suggestive manner. Automatically my left hand jerks away my helmet plug whilst my right twists off the oxygen connection and, hardly pausing, I plunge back over the navigator's back. I charge at the main spar and sweep past the 2nd pilot who's in the astrodome. At the 'K' guns, although barely 15 feet away, I am breathing heavily, owing to my exertions.

I plug in and a babel of voices greets my ears. '500 yards, Starboard quarter, own level' raps out the rear gunner. 'I've got him' yells the 2nd stooge. The oxygen plug must have moved, for my fingers, gloved and clumsy, can't find it. Ah, here it is, in goes the bayonet joint and turn on the juice. I grasp the gun firmly and rest my chin on my left hand. The draught whips at my face. It is icy cold and seems to pry open my eyes as I sweep the moonlit sky.

We appear to be suspended in space, away down is a bank of clouds, above, the stars. Just behind us is a dim, unrecognisable shape, oscillating up and down and forging slowly ahead. I swing the gun onto this shape and yell 'I can see him, slightly below'. It drifts nearer and as I glimpse the shark like tail the 2nd pilot and rear gunner both yell 'it's a Wimp'... The tension is broken. Our comrade loses height and drifts away below us and is soon swallowed up in the mist.

We have crossed the coast now, I am back in the astrodome resting on the arms of the supports. The 2nd pilot is pumping oil. Behind us some searchlights are wavering over the sky. Ahead there is a gigantic fire on our port bow. Searchlights are coning and heavy flak is bursting lavishly and vehemently around the cones. The light flak coming up in a shoal of multi-coloured trace: Red, Green, Yellow, a fascinating sight.

We are turning in, running North. The fires have split into three distinct groups. The largest and most savage on the East side, two smaller but, nevertheless still very large, on the West. A heavy pall of black smoke is seeping up and drifting North East, covering the inlet. There are three cones now, one is following a kite out to the west. Heavy flak is bursting with horrible accuracy, bang in the cone. The cone gets lower. It is further away still from the target. There is a brilliant flash, a slight trail of flame. The searchlights douse suddenly, as an object, like a comet, blazes a trail to earth. The searchlights come up over the town again.

Will we never reach the target? It seems ages...

Away on the right is another cone. Going up very, very slowly is a faint red trace. It reaches the centre of the cone and bursts. Queer, fascinating. I watch it again, very, very slow – then, poof! I must tell 'Steady, Graham, running up to the target now!' There is a steady tension, the kite steadies, the throttles are cut right back, we drift in, slower still.

Momentarily there is a blinding white light inside the aircraft. 'Searchlights dead on the tail'; 'Light flak, port quarter below'; 'Searchlights on starboard beam'; 'Heavy flak just ahead'. Crump! - 'Jack, that was close!'; 'Slightly above, heavy'. Crump... Crump! The kite shudders.

I see a flah of reddish light, from which chases away pin-points of red light in all directions. 'Just above us'; 'Left, Left'. My knees are knocking together. It's strange, I can't stop them. I'm quite ok. 'Right a bit'; 'Steady, steady'; 'Bomb doors open?'; 'Bomb doors open'. Clunk – time seems to stop still. There is a jerk and a movement under my feet. 'Bombs gone!'

We jerk around in a split turn to port. Below I see a raging inferno. Yet another stick of incendiaries are growing up into an angry red bunch of flashes on the ground guns. We are bathed in brilliant light. They are coning us... Crump, Crump, Crump! The flak is coming up pretty thick. The kite goes mad. It plunges down and turns to port, it sweeps up and over to starboard with a sudden jerk. The engines cut off, we glide. Away down we go again. I seem to be suspended in air. As the nose goes up I am pressed hard down on the floor. 'There they go'. Yellow, red flashes split the ruddy glow behind, six of them, we have left our mark. We are still weaving violently, but our cone has left us. There is still plenty of scope for them over the target. Only the outlying guns are now taking sporting pots at us.

We can see the coast ahead. The whole peninsula lies behind, dull, murky, grey-green, shrouded slightly with a faint mist. The moon on our port shows up a thin silvery trace below. The canal. A bevy of searchlights below spring and waver towards us. A light flak gun opens up. His red trace, which he splashes in all directions, is well wide of us. We laugh at his impotency. We feel supreme, masters of ourselves and sole rulers of our new sphere.

The coast has been crossed. I return to the set to send 'Operation successfully completed, returning to base'

Douglas George Banks 1920-1989 (back row - left)

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nevell said...

That was breathtaking, lyrical! It must be humbling too - the "comet" could just as easily have been your Dad's "kite", and then we wouldn't be reading this... I sensed a hint of "suspended animation" at one point in the commentary. This is a gem - it doesn't glorify the raid, but you get a sense of the adrenalin rush - and the relief afterwards.

rod said...

I absolutely concur with Nevell.

my father Sydney (1918-200) signed up for 12 years in the Royal Navy in 1937, which could be easily construed as very bad career move. Fighting on destroyers in the North Atlantic & the Med. Whilst not an erudite man, unlike Mr Banks senior by evidence of his vivid communicative skills, he never lost his basic true humanity after being involved in the most appalling carnage and the loss of his close friends. And I suppose a lot of families have these experiences of loved, missed ones packed away. Sorry, beginning to ramble...

Peter Banks said...

Thanks, Tim. I'm thinking of releasing some more excerpts from his book, so much of it is deeply profound for such a young man at the time.

Also thanks to Rod, rambling is sometimes very good! I imagine some of my Dad's further writings would concur exactly with your thoughts.

Best, PB

Anonymous said...

It IS breathtaking,Peter;your earlier correspondent was correct.If this is typical of the material,you ought to move to Kindle publication as soon as you can find time;it deserves a wider audience than blogging. I cannot tell you how much good your call did me today, without sounding guilty of overstatement;I can only thank the impulse that encouraged you to make it.I look forward to our meeting very much and will be in touch with a suggested Nov date. All the best,Anthony(Anton)Lavers.

Unknown said...

I agree with Anthony. This deserves a much wider audience. It is so amazingly descriptive and you almost feel you are there. Looking forward to reading more of your Father's experiences.


Doug Bowles said...

He was and is a super hero. See you again, Gramps.

Siegfried, the German said...

Thanks for sharing. It is definitely worth a wider audience. If it has been a fictional novel, you would believe it was real. And you would read it with fascination just to hear how it went on. But this was real! And that makes it even more remarkable, but also kind of depressing, because it shows the contradictoriness of war:
With honest great respect to your father, I disagree with Doug, because there are no heroes in war. War never breeds good, but yes, somehow we have to deal with it until it's over.
(Sorry for my bad ability to express myself in English. I'd love to comment in my native tongue, but who would understand either?)

Peter Banks said...

Thanks, again, for posting, really appreciate your perspective. I have responded in more length to your other comment.

I hope that my father's writing does attain a wider audience yet, I realise that he, as a relative youngster of 21/22 years old, may have drawn some incorrect conclusions at the time!

Vielen Dank

Siegfried said...

Of course. In the retrospective you always know better. And in the end it's useless to say who was rigt and who was wrong. War is wrong in any way. The more I was touched standing in front of a memorial of young british fighters who died in Afghanistan these days.

I am glad for the German-British friendship. Let's strengthen Europe together!

(BTW: Sometimes I have a grin on my face, how the British try to keep their "island mind" alive.)

Allan Breckell said...

Hi Peter, I am Allan Breckell, Grandson of the navigator in the above, John Adam Breckell 60077 1910 -1985. I was very close to my Grandfather and have gathered some of his history. We spoke often about the war and Darkie Parker his best friend and piolot, i have been informed your farther flew with him and been led to your blog.My Grandfather is Back Row 2nd from Right
And Noel parker ( Darkie) I believe is between your father and My grandfather.
allan "at"