Memoirs of Wireless Operator F/Sgt Bertie 'Butch' Lewis

Courtesy of Roger Lewis

 

                                       
I was unable to be accepted for aircrew in the Canadian Air Force because you had to have completed High School (which in the USA meant being in school until 18 years of age). Hearing that most people in Britain quit school at 14 (like me) I went to the main Canadian seaport of Halifax and got a job as a trimmer on a small Norwegian ship carrying timber to England. The job required shoveling coal to the stokers below. As it was amidships and below the waterline I could see why the job was open. These small ships it seemed, were more expendable and were placed alongside of the slow moving convoys. However, although it was at a time when losses at sea were great, we got away without loss.

Putting in on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides we took on a couple of anti-aircraft gunners as we were going down the North Sea, open to roving enemy planes. But none showed and it was interesting to see at times, pairs of British fighter aircraft hovering over us.

On a bright summer’s day we could see many masts of sunken ships sticking out of the waters of the Thames estuary. We docked at Surrey Docks in east London and noted how the area was flattened – by bombing no doubt.

 

F/Lt Bertie 'Butch' Lewis

Photo courtesy of Roger Lewis

                                       
By coincidence, the name of the ship was Berto and our first landing was on the Isle of Lewis. The one lesson I learned was how the real unsung heroes were the engine-room staff, who would receive no decorations, see no sights and had very little chance of getting out if the ship was sunk. Being four hours “on” and eight hours “off” I figured I had a 2 to 1 chance of not being in such a dangerous area if we were attacked.
                                       
After passing the air crew selection board in London I was on my way towards my purpose; striking a blow against a vicious enemy. If I had known that it would be two years before I saw any action, I would have about-face and re-join my ship. Being a target wasn’t to my liking however, unlike the Air Force where we can also strike a blow at the enemy.

At OTU (Operational Training Unit) we formed ourselves into crews for a three-month course using the now obsolete Whitley bombers. Two of our 15 crew course were lost; one over the Irish Sea and another crashing on take-off.

Finally arriving at our squadron (102 at Pocklington) in mid-summer 1943, we found that they didn’t need any more crews for the time being. Others that had arrived earlier said it was because there was something really big coming up. Bomber Command was waiting for a week of perfect weather when, for the first time a new event was to take place. The enemy radar was to be blacked out (by Window) which handicapped fighters and reduced our losses from the average 5% to less that 2%.

Disappointed, we went on leave. This operation was a great success as for a whole week Hamburg was blasted and as expected the flak proved not so effective. This was the one time in the whole war when bombing nearly won the war by itself – the dream of Bomber Command. Sent around the squadrons was news that the authorities in Hamburg were saying to their government that if this was to happen many more times, the war should be called off. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to happen. The Germans were to reorganise their air defences which took a terrible toll on us, much greater than with their old defences.

                                       

Bertie 'Butch' Lewis and his crew

Photo Courtesy of Roger Lewis

  My first bombing operation was as a Wireless Operator with an experienced crew of eight “ops”. I felt that they weren’t going to be lost on their ninth. It proved a routine trip; seeing light flashes on the French soil pointed out to me for the first time that the enemy were shooting at us. Very few aircraft were ever brought down in this way and we arrived at our target of Mannheim – for the first time I saw a city on fire. We lost two planes from our squadron, one of them from our OTU course who we later found out were all taken POW. 10% loss (from out 20 Pockington base) was not too good.
                                       
Not so routine was our first op as a crew. The tactic was for the bomber stream to head towards Frankfurt but turn away before reaching Frankfurt and head for Ludwighaven, drawing away many enemy night fighters to an empty Frankfurt.

By bad navigation we failed to turn and found ourselves alone, coned by searchlights and with every gun in Frankfurt shooting up at us alone. I thought, “Damn it, we are going to be shot down on our first op”. The hardest thing for me as a wireless operator was to forget we might be blown to pieces and concentrate on picking up a morse-coded message from England. I said to myself, “Get that message else you’re deadwood”. These messages giving direction and wind speed were given to the navigator, to keep the aircraft together in the stream; safety (somewhat) in numbers. By a miracle we weren’t even hit and an enemy fighter coming in to shoot us down was exposed by their own searchlights, so we saw him in time and disappeared into the darkness.

                                       
At the time I thought we should lighten our load and dump our bombs on Frankfurt, but that would have done little damage as we were carrying mostly incendiaries and the fires caused could easily be put out by fire-watchers on the ground. Alone we headed for Ludwighaven (outside Mannheim) which was risky but when we arrived over the target we were so glad to re-join the stream. The target was the giant I.G.Farben chemical works and all the colours of the rainbow were shooting up from the works; we really hit our target for that night. When we got back home the other crews couldn’t believe it was us, a sprog (new) crew that they saw alone over Frankfurt. Our status was high indeed!

Another op was against the Big City – Berlin. Instead of flying over 800 miles of heavily defended territory (over Holland and North Germany) it was less dangerous to fly over the lightly defended Denmark, through the Kattegat, over the Baltic Sea and cross the enemy coast east of Rostock before a 150 mile dash for the target. However, we got iced up on entering the Baltic area and dropped from over 20,000 feet to below 5,000 feet. Luckily, now below the icy cloud, the ice dropped off our wings and we were on our way. Now we realised that after losing so much height and a slow climb back to our operating height, we were far behind the end of the stream. It would be almost impossible to reach Berlin, as alone we would stand out as an easy target for any roving night-fighter. Even if we were fortunate enough to reach the Big City the fires would make it like daylight and the fighters would be queueing up for such an easy target.

“Press on regardless” does not win wars so we dropped our bombs on the first likely target on the coast and returned home safely. Another night we bombed Berlin without incident to us. Although we lost 45 planes, that was average for that period of the war.

On Xmas eve 1943 we were to do our first mine-laying op. It was odd leaving a bright sergeants mess that was being readied for a Xmas dance and party, to go off with a couple of other planes to mine along the Dutch-German Fresian Islands. What if we end up floating in dark icy waters having missed the party? We did pass over a small enemy convoy of a few ships; we left them alone and they did likewise. Minelaying ops were not as dangerous as regular bombing ops so we were glad to include them in our logbooks. It was great to come back in the middle of a happy Xmas party.

                                       
January 1944 – there was some groaning when we were told at Briefing we were to fly over Holland and Germany heading straight for Berlin and then fool the Germans by turning about 80 miles short of the Big City to bomb Magdeburg. It was felt that the enemy would not believe we were headed for Berlin. We’d be in for a bad night. Unexpectedly, when we got over Magdeburg there was little enemy night fighter activity. We could hardly believe our good luck; the trick worked!

But shortly afterwards on our way back there were exploding planes all over the sky and it was fighting all the way back to the coast. It seemed the enemy, knowing we would not really aim for Berlin, ordered their fighters to the likely target of Leipzig. That guess meant the enemy night-fighters crossed the bomber streams route home. We lost 55 aircraft that night, our squadron got the wrath of it losing seven planes out of about 17 – phew!

Our squadron hit a bad patch. We were the last of the Group to receive the new Mark 3 Halifaxes that could as high and fast as the Lancasters, and we were grounded until we got the new planes.

We missed the terrible night Bomber Command lost almost a hundred aircraft against Nuremburg, which made up for our past bad luck. The enemy defences had reached the height of success. It seemed impossible to carry on with night bombing of Germany. Luck cropped up however. Preparing for a “second front” at last, French railway marshalling yards were to be reduced to impotence. There were very few enemy fighters that could be spared so losses over France were greatly reduced, to about 2%. Minelaying was also increased which also meant smaller losses. Bomber Command was saved from a massacre!

On 5 June 1944 we were bombing the Boulogne forts on the Channel to make the enemy think the landing would be in the Calais area. It was to have been D-Day but the weather postponed the invasion by another day. The next day our target was a gun battery facing Omaha beach. We were not told it was D-Day. The navigator could not believe it when he saw a big island off the Normandy coast. It turned out to be the huge landing fleet. Passing further over the Cherbourg peninsula we could see firing on the ground which told us that the landing was taking place (they were paratroops landing).

Oh yes, nearly forgot another interesting op. 20 December 1943 – at Briefing we all cheered when it was revealed that the Halifaxes were to be at the front of the stream and first over Frankfurt; as the bombing progresses, more and more fighters would be arriving. Following us were to be 400 Lancs who would by-pass Frankfurt, turn east of Leipzig and head for Berlin, surprising the enemy and hopefully sending the Berlin defending fighters to Leipzig. The Lancs would then do the 150 miles to the Baltic. It worked beautifully. We felt sorry for the Lancs doing such a long “Cooks Tour”. We would be over the Channel when they would still be fighting their way out of Germany. 45 planes were lost, 15 Lancs and 30 Halifaxes. It seems that fighters diverted to Frankfurt, seeing no more bombers coming in, chased the Halifaxes well into France.

On one of our last trips the Squadron was ordered to bomb St.Lo; it was to be the breakthrough that sent our armoured supporting columns on a Blitzkrieg that liberated Paris and threw the enemy out of Belgium and France. However, our crew was ordered to lay mines off Brest to keep E-Boats (motor torpedo boats) away from the Channel invasion shipping. We were disappointed as we wanted to take part against the German army.

This being our last op but one, the weather was terrible and coming up to the centre of England to pass over the Pennine hills we depended on our radar as the clouds, full of dangerous ice and lightning, forced us to fly low. Without Radar there was a big chance (almost certain) we could plough into a hill.

The Radar conked out. After all our ops were we to perish on our penultimate op? It was my duty to fix it and every second counted. As I was struggling with the set, almost every other second the crew were saying “Haven’t you fixed it yet?”. So when I did, and the radar came on again everyone heaved a great sigh of relief. I had saved the whole crew! I felt great and would not take a million pounds for that feeling. It deserved no decoration as bravery didn’t come into it. I was saving my own life afterall.

The last op was in beautiful moonlight, minelaying off LeHarve. A great sight – watching our ships shooting at flares some enemy planes had dropped over them.

From then on happy landings until long after the war.

Of our 15 crews that started at OTU, five were killed in accidents, six crews lost on ops and one crew POW. One crew shot down over France managed to get home via the French Resistance and Spain.

Since the war so many know-it-alls claimed bombing was a waste of resources. Butch Harris (Bomber Harris) was many times demonised for bombing “innocent civilians”. Many French were also killed in our bombings. We certainly didn’t “go after” civilians. We were not that stupid to waste our lives on such a long shot of breaking the enemy’s morale. Many criticised Bomber Command in Britain. Never the Red Army. They know. On the road to Stalingrad in the summer of 1942 the Germans heavily out-numbered the Red Army in tanks, guns and planes. A year later in the biggest tank battle of all time at Kursk, it was the other way around. More Red Army tanks, guns and planes. That was the bomber’s victory as well!

Bertie “Butch” Lewis

Flt. Sgt 102 Sq.

                                       
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