With grateful thanks to George Baker, former Navigator of Stirling BK701
This is an account (as remembered by the navigator) of how the crew of
Stirling bomber aircraft BK-701,
designated G-George of 149 Squadron, 3 Group, R.A.F.,
took off from Lakenheath in the early evening of Sunday, February 28, 1943, with the intention of
causing serious damage to the German U-boat servicing sheds at St.-Nazaire,
but went to a party instead and returned to base by train.
something funny going on in the starboard outer."
The voice of our flight-engineer, "Wiz"
Wiseman, in my headphones carried a hint of concern. The
flight so far had been according to the book. We had
taken off at 6.23 p.m., and climbed on course to Start
Point with a mixed load of high explosive and incendiary
bombs. The Gee signals were strong and unjammed, and it
wasn't long before I had an accurate measure of the wind
direction and velocity at 8,000 feet. I had taken
advantage of the straight and level flight to get in some
sextant practice, and the astronomical observations and
Gee readings all confirmed that we were on track and on
There had been little talk over the intercom until Wiseman spoke five minutes before ETA at Start Point. Our skipper, Squadron-Leader John Stephens, replied that his instruments indicated nothing out of the ordinary, and asked Wiseman to let him know if and when he had anything definite to report. Right on ETA, Bill Combs, our bomb-aimer, reported Start Point directly below, and Stephens turned on to the new course I had set on his compass repeater, and we were on our way to the French coast.
Not long after we had settled on our new course, Wiseman spoke again, warning that the oil pressure in the starboard outer engine had dropped almost to zero, and the cylinder head temperature was increasing. Stephens assured him that everything appeared normal, and queried whether the gauges were giving accurate readings. Wiseman's reply was that the Skipper should shut the engine down and feather the airscrew. Stephens said he would carry on for a bit longer. Two minutes later, Wiseman, abandoning the prescribed form in which a sergeant addresses a squadron-leader, shouted, " Skipper, you're ruining that engine; for Christ's sake, shut it down." Stephens drawled, " Oh, very well," and then in a different tone, as he pulled the throttle lever back and stabbed the feathering button, "Jesus wept (his favourite expletive), it's on fire!" I pulled the blackout curtain aside and looked across the starboard wing, and was horrified to see yellow and orange flames streaming from the outboard engine as far back as the tail.
Many things then seemed to happen simultaneously. The bomb load was jettisoned, and Wiseman shut off fuel to the engine. Stephens put the aircraft into a steep diving turn to port, levelling off at 4,000 feet on a northerly course. He then ordered Combs to the starboard seat to assist him with the controls while he operated the engine fire extinguisher. The flames diminished and then expired. I passed Ted Court, our wireless operator, a note of our position, and Ted transmitted a distress signal to base. Stephens then asked for a course directly to base, and said he would continue on a northerly heading until I had worked it out.
Normally, the Stirling flew quite well on three engines, but it soon became apparent that something was wrong, for pronounced rhythmic shudders were running the length of the airframe. As I busied myself with the chart and Dalton calculator, Stephens spoke words that set my scalp a-tingling -- "Captain to crew, stand by to abandon aircraft!" A voice I did not recognize as my own expostulated, "Skipper, it's freezing out there; we won't last five minutes in the water," to which Stephens replied, "I'll try to hold on until we are across the coast, but it feels as though the starboard wing will break off at any moment."
Emergency procedures were instituted. Rear gunner "Curly" Copland, aided by mid-upper-gunner "Fergy" Ferguson, opened the rear door, and Bill Combs did the same with the forward escape hatch. Ted Court repeatedly transmitted SOS with our identification and position, while Stephens tried to raise "Darkie" on the radio-telephone. Each crew member donned his parachute pack, and clipped on his K-type inflatable dinghy. I made sure the Skipper's parachute and dinghy were close at hand for his use if and when he had to vacate his seat.
It then came to my mind: Here we are in a crippled aircraft with all interior lights on, blackout curtains drawn aside, the two main escape hatches open, and the three gun turrets unmanned. What a target for a prowling Messerschmitt!
Another danger then showed itself. Heavy smoke emanating from under the chart table filled the cabin. A metal cabinet containing the tubes and capacitors of the Gee receiver was jammed under a warm air duct insulated with felt. The casing was red hot, and the felt was smoldering. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed foam on the burning felt while yelling to Bill Combs to throw the main switch which, for some unexplained reason, was installed on the bomb-aimer's panel. With the switch off the the unit cooled, the fire was put out, and the smoke was dissipated by the gale blowing through the aircraft.
In the confusion the airplot and log were neglected, and I failed to note the time of our re-crossing the coast. We were now down to 2,000 feet and our situation was rather eerie. It was black as pitch, and nothing was visible below. Despite many appeals there had been no response from "Darkie". It seemed that the fuselage was being torn apart by this terrible vibration, and there was no doubt that we needed to be on the ground soon. I was about to suggest to the Skipper that in a minute or two he should alter course to 090 degrees when we were illuminated by a cone of three searchlights, while others, with beams depressed to their lowest angle, directed us easterly. Our distress calls were answered. Stephens banked the aircraft to starboard, and followed the searchlight beams as more and more came on ahead. A short time later a white flashing beacon came into view and was identified as that marking RAF Station Exeter.
There was no reply to Stephens' repeated request for landing instructions and assistance, but after a while the circuit and runway lights came on at half power. Stephens told Exeter flying control that he was trying to land an almost uncontrollable aircraft, and would they please answer and do everything possible to help. Again, complete silence. Bill Combs was now in the starboard seat, assisting Stephens with the flaps and wheels. On the down-wind leg there was still no response from Exeter, but as we turned into the funnel, with a barely discernable runway before us, the lights came on full power, and Stephens, with a skill we had witnessed many times, placed G-George almost gently on the concrete. It was 9.38 p.m.
At the end of the runway there was a "Follow Me" van, which guided us to a dispersal point. On vacating the aircraft we were greeted by a flight-lieutenant wearing dress uniform and a worried look. To Stephens' question, "What the hell's going on here?" he replied, "This station's on a three-day stand-down, and there's no-one on duty." After a further exchange in which Stephens made it clear that he was far from pleased, it was agreed that he should be taken to the officers' mess and his crew to the sergeants' mess, and that perhaps matters could be ironed out in the morning.
As we approached the sergeants' mess we heard sounds of revelry, and on entering found a noisy party in full swing. Word had got around that a badly shot-up Stirling had landed, and we soon had an audience wanting to know every detail. A solicitous warrant officer said that a meal was being prepared for us, and that after we had had a wash-and-brush-up perhaps we would join him in a drink. The bar was packed. There appeared to be more commissioned officers, both RAF and WAAF, than NCOs -- some of quite senior rank. A group were singing bawdy songs around a piano, with the whole room shouting out the choruses. As if by magic, each of us found himself holding a half-pint mug of beer, which was refilled as soon as it was emptied. After fifteen minutes of describing our recent harrowing experience we were conducted to the dining room where we were served a hearty meal, following which we were given the choice of either retiring or joining the fun. The effects of the excitement, beer and food being felt, we intimated that perhaps we should take our leave, whereupon we were ushered to the door where a crew bus awaited.
We were driven two or three miles outside the station to a house standing well back from the road, which we were told was accommodation for visiting NCO aircrew. Upstairs we were shown three rooms each containing two beds, and told that the bathroom was at the end of the landing while being provided with towels, soap and razors. It now being midnight, we were quite content to doff our clothing and slide beneath the covers.
Eight o'clock the next morning saw us refreshed and bright-eyed. The crew bus was summoned, and we were soon back in the mess facing a breakfast that was the equal of the dinner the evening before. While savouring my second cup of tea I was called to the phone. Squadron-leader Stephens, sounding in not too happy a mood, advised that he would like to see his crew immediately at the aircraft. The crew bus was again put into service, and we were transported to where G-George was parked.
The starboard outer engine and adjacent wing area were blackened, and the airscrew was clearly not as it was when originally installed. The blades were not in the feathered position, and the whole assembly appeared to be off-centre. It was the general opinion that the vibration had been caused by a "windmilling" unbalanced airscrew.
Stephens was in an irate mood. "How were you chaps treated?" he asked. When we recounted all that had happened to us, and how we thought it was first class, and how we had enjoyed every moment, Stephens became even more irate. He told us that he had found the officers mess deserted. He had had no food, and had spent the night on a settee. He had had a breakfast of sorts this morning, we gathered, and the sooner we were out of this place, the better. He said he had telephoned our squadron commander, and that an aircraft was on its way to pick us up.
After about an hour, a Stirling appeared on the circuit. Apparently, someone was in the watch tower this time, because it made another circuit, landed, and taxied over to where we were parked. The rear door was opened, and a couple of crew members helped us load our gear aboard. The crew, all NCOs, were new to the squadron, and I had not yet become acquainted with them. The pilot, a flight-sergeant, asked Stephens if he wished to fly the aircraft back to Lakenheath, to which Stephens replied rather roughly, I thought "No, show me what you can do." It was obvious that Stephens tone rattled the pilot. After all, Stephens was the flight commander.
With Stephens beside him in the second-pilots seat, the flight-sergeant began to taxi towards the end of the runway, and in doing so managed to stall both inboard engines. Re-starting the engines required outside electrical power, and we soon discovered that the station did not appear to have the equipment to supply that power, or, if it did, there were no personnel around who could operate it.
At this point, Stephens lost his temper, and uttered words like "heads are going to roll". Using the R/T he called for transport, got out of his seat and made for the rear door and yelling at us to follow him, leaving our hapless would-be rescuers to look after themselves. The driver of the crew bus that came for us was ordered to drive to the orderly office, into which Stephens disappeared to reappear a short time later with a handful of paper which he said were warrants for railway transportation and a meal back to Lakenheath. The crew bus then took us to Exeter railway station.
It was now about two oclock. We had had no lunch, and the train to London was not due to leave until four oclock. We had no money, of course, but Stephens said he had obtained some in the orderly office, and he marshalled us into the buffet where he provided us with a sandwich and a cup of tea, saying we would have dinner in the dining car on the train.
Just before four oclock, the Cornish Riviera, the Great Western Railway Companys express train to London, came alongside the platform, and we went aboard. Stephens vanished into a first class compartment, leaving us to sort ourselves out. On time, at exactly four oclock, the train began to move, and gradually accelerated until we were going Londonwards at a pretty good lick through the darkening countryside.
In the dining car we met up with a half dozen soldiers who had a couple of cases of beer with them, and which they generously shared with us. By the time we had helped polish off the beer and had our meal, the air force and army members of His Majestys forces were all jolly good pals together, and rather noisy as they made their way back to their seats. While going through the first class cars, singing at the top of our voices, a door slid open and out came Stephens, who grabbed me and told me to "bloody well shut up". My comrades magically vanished, leaving me to face the full force of Stephens invective. He really was in a bad temper. However, I did get to our compartment in time for a short nap before our arrival at Paddington.
From Paddington we hustled across London to the Liverpool Street terminus of the London and North Eastern Railway Company, where we had a quick supper of beans on toast in the Salvation Army canteen, and boarded the eleven oclock "milk train" to Norwich, which stopped at every station and halt along the route. Three hours later, we arrived at Lakenheath Halt, where we joined a crowd of personnel returning from leave, and boarded a small bus that took us to the airfield and the Nissen hut we called home.
Something about the crew. They were:
Captain and Pilot Squadron Leader John Stephens, R.A.F.O.
Navigator Sergeant George Baker, R.A.F.
Bomb Aimer Sergeant Willis (Bill) Combs, R.N.Z.A.F.
Flight Engineer Sergeant Walter (Wiz) Wiseman, R.A.F.
Wireless Operator Sergeant Edward (Ted) Court, R.A.F.
Mid-Upper Gunner Sergeant Daniel (Fergy) Ferguson, R.C.A.F.
Tail Gunner Sergeant George (Curly) Copland, R.A.F.
It was by pure chance that Stephens, Combs, Court, Copland and I came together at No. 11 Operational Training Unit at Bassingbourn at the end of August 1942. Stephens was a pre-war graduate of Cranwell, and a serving R.A.F. officer who had recently returned from a tour of duty in the Far East. The rest of us were NCOs who expected to serve only for the duration of the war. In age we were in our early twenties to early thirties, and Ted Court was the only married man.
At Bassingbourn we were introduced to the Vickers Wellington twin-engined bomber. I, being the navigator, was taken aside and, in conditions of great secrecy, initiated into the mysteries of Gee, the earliest of the electronic aids to navigation.
Bassingbourn was a very comfortable berth, but we were not there for long before it was handed over to the Americans, and 11 O.T.U. was moved to Westcott two runways, some roads, and a few thousand acres of mud. We did quite a lot of cross-country flying from Westcott, most of it at night, during which we bombed designated targets with a camera. Occasionally, we dropped practice bombs on, and the gunners fired thousands of rounds of ammunition at, floating targets in the Wash.
At the beginning of December we were posted to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit at Stradishall to become acquainted with the Short Stirling which, to our eyes, was immense. Also, at Stradishall we welcomed two others into our little group "Wiz" Wiseman, our flight engineer, and :Fergy" Ferguson, a Canadian from Cape Breton Island and our mid-upper gunner. Wiseman was "regular R.A.F.", having joined prior to the outbreak of war, and served an apprenticeship as a fitter at Halton. Thus commenced an extraordinarily close-knit group of comrades which, for those still living, persists to this day, 57 years later.
Stephens was soon certified as competent to fly this huge aircraft, and the rest of the month was devoted to more cross-country exercises, air-to-air firing at a drogue towed by a Lysander, and fighter affiliation (also known as playing silly buggers) with one or two Hurricanes. The course at Stradishall was short and concentrated, and at the end of it we were all certified proficient in our several duties. On Boxing Day 1942 we travelled to Lakenheath to join 149 "East India" Squadron. Stephens was appointed "A" Flight Commander, we became the flight commanders crew. We also became very much aware that this was IT, the real McCoy an operational squadron.
On Monday, March 22, 1943 we found our names on the Battle Order for that nights operations, and again the target was St.-Nazaire. At the afternoon briefing we were told that there was a possibility of fog in our area during the night. If this turned out to be the case we would be recalled, and the wireless operators were warned to listen carefully to the groups half-hourly broadcasts.
We became airborne at seven oclock in a repaired and refurbished BK-701. This time everything went off as planned. Before crossing the coast, Ted Court passed me a message he had received which, when decoded, did not make sense. Stephens decided it was not meant for us, and we pressed on. As we approached the target we expected to see some action, but there was none. We flew over the city, and Bill Combs said he could identify the target area. H-Hour had come and gone, and we should have seen the Pathfinders target indicators on the ground, but there were none. We flew out to sea, and it was decided to do a timed run from a small island four or five miles off the coast. Before the time was up, Bill Combs said he had the target in view, and for the next minute or two we waited breathlessly, listening to Bill directing Stephens. Flying straight and level at a constant speed over a defended area was a chancey business. Finally, Bill ordered, "Bomb doors open", and then, "Bombs gone!" After Bill had checked there were no hang-ups in the bomb bay, the doors were closed. Stephens increased our speed by 10 knots, and we were "outa there", leaving behind a sparkling white pattern, turning to red in places, of our incendiaries on the ground. There had been no response from the enemy, apart from a single searchlight waving aimlessly, and some gunfire that arced and fell away below us.
The flight home was uneventful. At Lakenheath we were told to land immediately, which we did at twenty minutes past midnight. As we taxied to our dispersal point we passed parked Stirlings, all with their engine covers on. At "A" Flight headquarters we were greeted with, "Where the hell have you been?" We then learned there had been a general recall, and we should have been back three hours ago. All we could do was shrug, and make our way to the mess for supper. Within the next hour, the whole of East Anglia was blanketed by thick fog!
As to G-George, which had given us more than a few scares during its time in our care, well, it was lent to a rookie crew for a mine-laying sortie off La Pallice on the night of May 17/18, 1943, from which, sadly, it did not return.
The crew of HK701 on the night it was lost was as follows:-
Pilot ....P/O ....HILL ...........................J E ........................POW
Engr ...Sgt ......SMITH .......................T........................... U
Nav .....Sgt .......BIDDULPH ..............S........................... U
B/Aim Sgt .......BOYES .....................J E........................ U
W/Op .Sgt .......BOLAND .................J A ........................POW
AG ......Sgt .......SHANKSTER ..........S R .......................POW
AG ......Sgt .......SCOTNEY ................C C D...................U
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