The story of a pilot in Bomber Command
At 12.00 on Thursday 28th June the Queen unveiled a memorial honouring the 55,573 aircrew of Bomber Command who were killed during WW2 and all those who died in their attacks. On it is written…
“The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”
Frank was my neighbour and friend. During the 2nd World War he was a pilot in Bomber Command flying Lancasters for 9 Squadron based at Bardney in Lincolnshire.
In the late afternoon of 18th November 1943 Frank and his crew took off for a raid on “The Big City” – Berlin. It was the first of a series of bombing raids that became known as “The Battle of Berlin”. As the closely bunched bomber stream approached the target another Lancaster, piloted by P/O Bill Baker, ran into the back of Frank’s aircraft chopping off the rear turret and most of the tailplane.
Bill Baker’s bomb aimer, Sergeant ‘Jim’ Shimeild, crouched in the nose of the plane, fell to his death as did Sergeant Lesley Harris, the rear gunner in Frank’s aircraft. Jim Shimeild was 24 years old, Sergeant Harris was 19.
The Lancaster was never an easy aircraft to escape from and without a tail section it was virtually impossible to fly but Frank managed to hold the plane steady enough for the rest of his crew to escape – the bomb aimer, the flight engineer, the navigator, the wireless operator and the remaining gunner. All jumped to safety and spent the rest of the war in captivity.
Bill Baker was able to get his Lancaster, DV361, its nose section missing, back to its base at Spilsbury on three engines. Seriously frostbitten P/O Baker was awarded an immediate DFC. His aircraft was repaired and flew again.
I think that Frank was proud to have been in the RAF. In a prominent position in his front room he kept a photograph of himself in wartime uniform. He still held his service documents, flight maps and copies of the newspaper produced by the ‘kriegies’ in Stalag Luft 1 where he was imprisoned. Frank was also able to joke about his time in Bomber Command. On one occasion he flew to Germany to attend a trade convention. The stewardess asked him if he had ever been to Germany before. Frank replied, “Only at night.”
But Frank had one wound that would never heal – a continuing sense of guilt and responsibility for the deaths of two young men – a tail gunner and a bomb aimer – in a collision in November 1943 over which he had no control.
I would imagine that he also felt another emotion – betrayal perhaps? Although over 55,000 of his comrades in Bomber Command had been killed during WW2, the country that they had died for had ignored them. Service personnel engaged in other theatres of war like the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic and Burma had been honoured with campaign medals but the government had deliberately failed to acknowledge the relentless courage of “The Bomber Boys”. Mortified perhaps by the destruction of Dresden in February 1945 when 25,000 Germans were killed or shocked by the recently released cinema newsreel footage of German cities razed to the ground by area bombing Britain had turned its back on Bomber Command, the one group that Churchill had predicted would bring us victory.
Frank’s story took a darker turn early in the late 1980’s when a teenager broke into his house. Although he was now retired Frank’s old wartime ‘press on regardless’ spirit still prevailed and he tried to tackle the boy. The thug just laughed at him. “What are you going to do about it? Nothing!” Maybe it was the humiliation of that moment. Maybe it was the sudden realisation that once again he was powerless – but something triggered in Frank’s head and he was back in that bomber stream on its way to Berlin. Dragged down by his sense of guilt about the death of ‘Jim’ Shimeild and Lesley Harris Frank fell into a deep and permanent depression from which there was to be no return. In an attempt to reassure him that he was not to blame we contacted the remaining members of his old crew. Alec Cordon, the mid upper gunner replied…
“We reached the turning point at Brandenberg. It was then that we were hit by Baker’s Lanc. which left our tail unit a mass of jagged edges… After a short period with the aircraft losing height Frank told us to bail out. He held it level for plenty of time for the crew to abandon the aircraft and there was no way he could have done more…Frank is blameless and conducted himself throughout in the best tradition of the RAF.”
Frank’s wife told Frank about the gunner’s reply…
“I found a moment to tell Frank and I am sure that it gave him pleasure and memories of a finer, youthful kind. I am so glad that after all these years Alec Cordon has such thoughts about Frank and his honour as a man and a pilot.”
Sadly Frank never recovered from his deep melancholy. His plane, ED871, was one of the first to fall in the Battle of Berlin and 40 years later, he was one of the last to die. Now after 67 years of being ignored and overlooked Pilot Office F. J Lees 158114, his comrades in Bomber Command and all those who died, both friend and foe, have finally been remembered and honoured with a memorial in Green Park in London. The only question remaining is why has it taken so long for a nation and a commonwealth to salute their sacrifice…
"Remember us, we would ask you, through sunset's Last red glow Then salute us all with the bugle's call; for The dawns that we'll never know."
JOHN RAY WALSH (Nov. 1985)
- Controversy about area bombing continues to this day but at the time it was the only practical way that the RAF had of disabling the Nazi war machine.
- Between the Battle of Britain in 1940 and the invasion of Italy in late 1943 Bomber Command was the only means that Britain had of taking the war to the enemy.
- Bomber Command personnel won 21 VC’s during the war.
- All Bomber Command aircrew were volunteers. Their average age was 22.
— from Martyn Day