THE RELUCTANT CRUSADERS
By John Chatterton
“Come to my office after briefing, I’ve got a job for you.” said the new Flight Commander.   I didn’t actually hasten.   I’d nothing against the man, but I was still missing his predecessor, the tour-expired Sqn Ldr Jack Shorthouse.   Ebullient and charismatic, he had been my hero since taking me on my very first raid, in Oct 43, on a very dirty night to Leipzig. We suffered icing more or less continuously for most of the trip and I was impressed by the nonchalant way he landed without the use of the airspeed indicator.   We would have followed him to the Jaws of Hell; come to think of it we often did.
The new man, Sqn Ldr Cockbain (pronounced Co-bain like the port!), indicated towards a heap of kit in the corner of his office.  There were steel helmets with holes in the sides to accommodate an underlying helmet’s earpieces, and waistcoats with strips of steel sewn into them.   “Bomber Command wants us to test out this flak gear that the Yanks use in the B17“ he said, “and I’m told your crew will volunteer for anything interesting.“   “But, Sir“, I protested, “we only volunteer for things like delivering or picking up kites, checking bomb sights, and the odd weather test – nothing that might be dangerous!”   He replied “I’ve seen that leather helmet of yours that you are so proud of – it’s got a two inch cut in the top, don’t tell me that was due to mice!”.   “But, Sir, that was the Royal Navy!”   “Just my point!   Now that they’ve got your range, they’ll be waiting for you!”
As we kitted up in the locker rooms, my crew were less than enthusiastic.   “Why us?   Do they think we go looking for flak?”   Our mates were delighted to find some new banter in what was usually a fairly fraught period and it was suggested that we apply for new parachutes!   The Navigator, with a touch of erudition, said “I feel like Richard the Lionheart all trussed up to set off on the Crusades!”    That was a mistake.    All the way out to dispersal we heard nothing but Turks and Saracens, with a parting shot as we got off – “Watch out for that Saladin!”
We dutifully wore all the clobber for take-off, which was just as well because as we left dispersal the Sqn Ldr’s Hillman swung in and he opened our rear door to say “Good luck chaps!    I’ll have a full report when you get back!”
Luckily it was only a short trip but as we left the target three hours later I had had enough!   The waistcoat was snug enough but the extra weight slowed me down on the controls.   The helmet was a complete pain making my neck ache and clattering on everything when I turned my head or leaned forward.    “OK” I told the crew “ I’ve had enough let’s take the damned stuff off.”   There were exaggerated sighs of relief and I found later that my instructions had been anticipated by quite some time.    After all, the Flight Engineer was the only one in my line of vision.
At Interrogation, the Wing Co as well as the Sqn Ldr were waiting to hear how we had got on.    The Bomb Aimer felt hard done by: “I thought Butch Harris himself would have been here!”    The company generally was disappointed to hear that no shrapnel or bullets had come through the fuselage to be deflected by the armour.    We comprehensively damned the gear on the grounds of restriction of movement and impaired reactions, and were about to depart with a sigh of relief when the Wing Co said: “Since you didn’t get a chance to test it properly, I want you to wear it just one more time – tomorrow night!” Exit crew muttering!
To the delight of the ‘Crusader Comics’ we dutifully carted all the stuff out to the aircraft the following night on what was to be an eight hour trip.   The Sqn Ldr had put himself on the Battle Order so there was no danger of his Hillman turning up in dispersal, and the flak kit was piled up in a neat heap inside the rear door for it’s second trip to the Third Reich.    Fortunately the Navigator noticed that the large heap of high quality steel was directly underneath his precious Distant Reading Compass and with the Wireless Op’s help moved it to a less sensitive part of the fuselage.    What a ‘Deviation’ that might have been!
The flak was accurate and prolonged but again nothing pierced our skin.    However the insecure storage of the flak gear was made apparent, when one of my violent ‘corkscrews’, in response to an attacking Me110 sent the seven helmets rolling the length of the fuselage from the rear spar to the rear turret, and the WOp had to go back to tie it all down.
Again at Interrogation, things were a repeat of the previous night.    The Wing Co said “Whatever am I going to put in my report?    I’ve noted your vigorous adverse comments, but I have to mention the “protection” side.    Maybe something on these lines: this flak gear was taken by an experienced crew on two consecutive, deep penetration raids to heavily defended targets.    They received no wounds or damage of any kind whilst wearing it!”