Sunday, 11 November 2012

The next instalment of my amazing journey with my Dad

Today, being Remembrance Sunday, seemed a fitting time to update you on my Blog.

Having watched Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance this morning, I was in floods of tears, a wonderful and extremely moving tribute to all our heroes, past and present, but the bit that really moved me was the piece 41 minutes in, when Bomber Command finally got  the recognition they deserved. When those heroes of a Lancaster Squadron crew stood on a projection of their beloved aircraft in their relative positions, I was in bits. 

Some of you may have seen my Twitter and Facebook posts over the last few weeks about the soon to be published book by Chris Keltie, the true life story of his neighbour and very good friend, Bill North, a Lancaster Bomber Pilot from 61 Squadron. Sadly Bill died last year but he was able to encourage and help Chris with it in the early stages. It is called “Riding in the Shadow of Death” and it is an amazing and touching story of courage and comradeship. Extracts from the book can be found here. Extracts from Riding in the Shadow of Death  I was in tears when I read it and every time since. 

I first “met” Chris Keltie on Twitter as I had seen this tweet in my Twitter stream of the Daily Telegraph article “Lost Lancaster crew identified after 68 years by wireless operator's wedding ring”. Daily Telegraph article

I tweeted Chris that I had read this incredible story and checked my Dad’s log book to find that Dad actually flew in that aircraft ND 739 just 3 weeks before ND 739 was shot down on 6th June 1944, D-Day.  

It was one of the most highly decorated crew to be lost. The crew members who died were led by Wing Cmdr Carter, DFC, with Sqdn Ldr Martin Bryan-Smith, DFC, Flt Lieut Albert Chambers, DFC, Flt Lieut Henry Jeffery, DFM, Acting Flt Sgt Guy Dunning, DFM, Acting Flt Sgt Frank Watson, DFM, Australian Flt Lieut Ronald Conley, DFC, and Canadian Flt Lieut Herbert Rieger.

As you will see from this page from Dad’s log book Wing Commander Carter was his pilot on a couple of occasions. Dad also knew Squadron Leader Martin Bryan-Smith.

After a few chats with Chris on Twitter he asked me if Dad would mind meeting up with him as he would love to have a chat with him about his Bomber Command experiences. We arranged it the following week and I was there too and had a wonderful time listening to Dad chatting to Chris. One thing that Chris wanted to do was to cross-check Dad and Bill’s log books and we quickly realised they had actually flown together on a few missions. This was incredible to see as Dad and his crew, being the Pathfinder Force were marking Bill’s targets for him, adding colour and depth to Chris’s book. How amazing is that! There were a few times that we all got tears in our eyes.

Dad was answering Chris’s questions about the role of the Pathfinders and how they marked the targets and even set him some homework!

Not changed much has he!

Me, Dad and Chris Keltie

When Chris was ready to leave, I was helping him get all his papers and books together. One of the books, "Bomber Command Losses", fell open on a page as if it was *willing* us to read it …. it showed two losses from Dad’s 97 Squadron on the same day, 23rd June 1944 (my birthday but not in 1944 I hasten to add!!) It was a formation training exercise where two aircraft tragically collided mid-air. Dad was in that very same formation and he immediately recalled the names of the two pilots involved, Perkins and Van Raalte - see later on in this blog for details of what happened.  

Chris K and I are still trying to get over the shock of why that page should have flopped open eerily like that! Chris said he has had some surreal experiences whilst writing his book, and is very sure that Bill is looking over his shoulder, guiding him.

The following weekend we took Mum and Dad to the annual reunion of 97 Squadron in Horncastle. Chris K asked if I could possibly do some “networking” and chat to some of the veterans to see if there were any stories he could use in his book, so that was my homework … not that I minded at all - I love meeting those wonderful veterans, all heroes, every single one of them and some of them quite cheeky too!

It was a wonderful evening and we ended up being sat on the “naughty table”. Funny how that always happens!!  Kevin Bending and his other half, Bev were on our table and we all hit it off immediately and had such a lovely time. I think we laughed all night! Kevin met Dad a few years ago whilst researching his book, Achieve your Aim (97 Squadron’s Motto) Achieve Your Aim

The Naughty Table

                                               Having a giggle with the Veterans

Whist at the reunion I met Bob Lasham, DFC and Bar. He flew 53 ops, so between him and Dad they did 100. Incredible!  Dad and he have met on a couple of occasions before. 

Bob was a pilot and his crew used to call him Dad as he was the oldest, at 23!!! I asked Dad if he remembers Bob being at Coningsby with him. He said he knew of him but didn't know him that well although on checking Dad's log book, Bob is down in Dad's log book as his pilot on three occasions during training ops (20.4.44, 4.7.44 and 10.7.44) Dad asked Bob if he remembered his pilot, Bill Reid .... he said he remembered him very well. 

They spoke about the tragic accident which took place whilst training on 23rd June 1944 as mentioned above. Van Raalt's Lancaster was caught in the slipstream of another aircraft with the result that Van Raalt's Lancaster side-slipped over Perkins' Lancaster, then as everyone in the formation watched in utter horror (can't believe Dad and Bob witnessed this!), Van Raalte's Lancaster then dropped suddenly and collided with Perkins' Lancaster, removing the entire tail section from Perkins' plane and smashing the nose section of Van Raalte's plane. Both aircraft disintegrated and plunged into the fields below (near Crowland, Peterborough). Dad said the aircraft missed them by inches! There was just one survivor from the two crews, a wireless operator who managed to parachute out, suffering burns, very nearly landing on the burning wreckage. He never flew again. Dad said the station hushed it up and the surviving crew member was posted as LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre). So sad. 

On checking Dad's log book I see he was up again later that evening on a mission to Limoges…. so just HOURS after witnessing that horrific accident, they all went up again! It just goes to prove that these brave young men suffered so much heartbreak and saw so much tragedy but they still managed to carry on with their duties. Absolute heroes, all of them. I am so unbelievably proud of them all.

A moment of reflection

Dad's plane bottom right - Pilot "Bill Gee DFC" is incorrect. It should in fact be "Bill Reid DFC"

Remains of the two aircraft can be found at Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby. The picture above is taken from there.

Then the Deelen op came up in conversation. Bob and Dad were both on this op. Dad remembers this one very well as it was his last op of his second tour, 15th August 1944. It was a daylight trip. Bob said one of his gunners saw a bomb from above fall past and hit the aircraft below, completely severing the rear turret and remembers vividly the aircraft fall apart and the turret tumbling down, with the rear gunner still inside it. Dad said two bombs falling from aircraft above them passed within about 5 feet of their tailplane. Their plane was damaged from the explosion of aircraft behind and the perspex in the rear turret shattered. A memorable experience for Dad's last mission!

Bob also mentioned another op to Munich in April 1944 (dad was on this one also). He said that they had just completed their marking run when they were coned by searchlights. He put the Lancaster into a dive and applied full power, they then heard loud thumps and bangs, not knowing what had hit them but knew they'd lost an engine. He managed to keep control of the plane flying on three engines. On landing they realised that they had been struck by incendiaries falling from one of their own aircraft..... it could even have been Dad's plane!  Makes me go cold listening to these stories.

Last weekend we visited East Kirkby for their annual Fireworks Display and Night Taxy Run where you can really get the feel of a WW2 airfield at night. It was such a shame that there was a technical hitch with the searchlights as that really would have added to the atmosphere.

We had an incredible time and were extremely privileged to actually get on Board Just Jane! Sean, who I also “met” on Twitter is the safety officer and historical guide and aircrew for AVRO Lancaster NX611 “Just Jane”. A huge heartfelt thanks to Sean and everyone at Aviation Heritage Centre, East Kirkby

Just Jane firing up her Merlin engines getting ready for 3pm taxy run
 (Pic courtesy of Stephen of Laburnum House)

Video courtesy of Chris Keltie

Immediately after the taxy run Sean whisked Dad and I away for a static tour of Just Jane. He said it was his way of showing everyone’s gratitude of what Dad did for the country and treated him like an absolute hero. Chris K also came up with us to take pics. I had only just stepped on to her and could see Dad way in the distance easily negotiating the main spar! At 89 he puts everyone to shame with his agility!

I found that clambering over the main spar and through the narrow aircraft really gave you a feeling of what those young men did and it went through my head as I got my leg stuck on the main spar, how on earth could those young men, in full kit, manage to get out in an emergency. Incredible!!  As I said to the boys, I had never had my leg over as much as I did that afternoon!

We finally made it to the cockpit with Sean giving us fascinating facts and information the whole time. He asked if I would like to sit in the hot seat which I jumped at!  Sean is so passionate about Bomber Command and so knowledgeable. He is a fantastic guide and I could have listened to him all day … there were indeed a few tears.

Sean and Dad reflecting

Sean, me and Dad - that smile on Dad's face says it all

Sun glinting through Just Jane's cockpit as Dad languishes in the pilot's seat!!

Whilst clambering down from the pilot’s seat, I managed to get stuck or rather “something” seemed to have got stuck between my legs ….I looked down and looked up questioningly at Sean to ask him what it was. He said it was a trim to which I replied “oh good, I needed a good trim!” …. It just came out .... then Dad quipped  “oh did your bush need a trim?” Oh my, I could have died with embarrassment if I hadn’t been laughing so much!!

I then proceeded to get down in the bomb aimer’s position and Sean was telling us about all the bombs, the knobs and switches, absolutely fascinating stuff! I think Dad learned some things too! He certainly is a mine of information!

Sadly our tour was then at an end as Sean had to go and do his Kit Talk which was interesting too! He's so knowledgeable and doesn't come up for air!

Sean doing his Kit Talk

Sean, me and Dad

Sean, Dad and Chris K

After a delicious hog roast, the raffle was drawn. First prize was a 7pm taxy ride. Mum, Dad and Chris were all warming up in the car so I said I would listen out for the raffle armed with all our tickets.

Can you believe that the first number drawn was blue 271 .... the 3 blue tickets I had were on the top of the bunch of tickets I was holding and all I could see was 270 ... my hands were so bloomin' cold I couldn't separate them quickly .... I was shaking so much as I really thought Dad had won! Chris K rang me as he was convinced we had a winning ticket between us, but sadly no. Unbelievably close!!

It was then time for the 7pm taxy run, the highlight of the evening, which we all shared with Chris K and his lovely wife, Wendy. As Just Jane fired up her engines we were totally mesmorised. You can never fail to be moved by such an awesome sound. We all had tears in our eyes as she taxied towards us. What an incredibly moving sight on a cold and frosty night, the airfield lit by moonlight - truly breathtaking and totally overwhelming, tears coursed down our cheeks. Dad was moved too, but Dad being Dad, took it all in his stride! 

Sean with Dad and I in the cockpit - video courtesy of Chris Keltie

The following fantastic photos of Just Jane are by kind permission of Stephen from Laburnum House B&B


The evening ended with an amazing firework display, a perfect end to a perfect day.

Watch this space for news on Chris's book launch.

Whilst I still have your attention I thought you might like to hear about my younger sister, Sharon. She and her partner, Martin, have a small film company called Ermine Street Project .They are  working to produce a documentary entitled "Finding the Pathfinders" where they are attempting to trace any surviving members of Dad's crews, telling their stories and tracing the current family members. They are currently researching and applying for funding and hope to make this documentary early next year. The screening will be at Kinema in the Woods Woodhall Spa which is central to several of the Lincolnshire Bomber airbases.

Watch this space for news!