By John Chatterton
We were first back, as we had promised the ground crew we would be.
We knew it was our last trip as the Wing Commander had taken me on one side after briefing and told me so. This was far better than announcing it publicly where superstition reigned supreme. The Wing Co shared our Lanc Y Yorker with us, which was a great advantage since he only operated about once a month, and his actual words were “make sure you bring MY aeroplane back safely, as I’ve got most of my second tour to do on her”.
The ground crew got to know somehow - they were the most dedicated bunch you could ever have come across - spot on professionally, but also, always trying to improve our comfort where ever possible. For instance, in place of the crude and totally inadequate devices that Avro saw fit to issue with the Lancaster, our rigger had fitted up the superior Mk 1 Toilet Tube, complete with funnel, that saw a lot of use during the nine and three quarter hours to Munich. Incidentally, I was pleased to hear from the last skipper of Y- Yorker, who took her on her last trip (number 123), that it was still being appreciated sixteen months later.
As we clambered aboard to start the engines, the crew chief, Sgt. Alan Rubenstein, one of the few Rhodesians left on 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron said “Darn if I won’t see you in myself in the morning!” And Wee Jock the rear gunner piped up with “Aye and don’t forget the beer!”
Nine and three quarter hours later we were taxiing smartly around the peri-track to dispersal, Wee Jock complaining as usual about the slight bump on landing, and I promised to do better when we gathered again in six months time for our second tour. We turned a corner and could see our dispersal ahead.
The bomb aimer said “The whole blooming lot have turned out to see us back!” Sure enough, instead of a lone airman with a couple of torches, there was the whole ground crew: engine fitters, riggers, electricians, wireless mechanics and armourers, together with the odd bowser driver. “Hope there’s still some beer left!” said Wee Jock. He needn’t have worried, they had not opened a single bottle.
This was soon remedied however and beer and banter flowed freely. My throat was too full for words, but I managed to get a few mouthfuls down, all the time wishing it was hot coffee.
Many toasts and responses were made amid a lot of leg pulling. The armourer said “It will be a darn sight safer on dispersal now you lot have finished!” referring to the time that our Canadian mid upper gunner had inadvertently loosed off about twenty rounds above everybody’s heads, severely frightening the rooks in the spinney half a mile away.
There was more in this vein, then the crew bus dragged up with a squeal of brakes and a clatter of loose objects: it was our favourite WAAF driver.
“Hi Carol, have a beer and come back in 10 minutes!” “All right then” she said, fishing out from behind her seat one of the standard issue RAF white enamel mugs. She knocked back the beer, and left, letting in the clutch with her usual gay abandon.
She came back after 10 minutes, and again 10 minutes later, accepting the odd half pint each time, but finally decanted us at debriefing.
We heard later that the party around Y Yorker went on for some time, gathering in the neighbouring dispersals. Carol was busy picking up the other 15 crews, the last of whom landed at 7.35, so she contrived to pass Yorker’s dispersal several more times, and each time the enamel mug was deployed.
We enquired about her the next day, and learnt that she was found back at the MT section, immaculately parked between two other trucks. She was still sitting at the wheel, a beatific smile on her face, eyes closed, and singing softly to herself “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” – most appropriate!
At Debriefing we found our favourite Intelligence Officer, Henry Treece, an ex-schoolmaster from Humberside who became a well known author after the war.
I looked round at my crew, sitting at this table for the last time. The crew that I had taken for granted for the last 8 months. The crew that had never let me down. I felt quite humble that they called me skipper, and that night after night they put their lives in my hands. I was very proud of them.
In my euphoric state I just went through the motions answering Henry’s questions, but the navigator, meticulous as ever, filled in the details:
Munich attacked at 01.48. Height 19,000 feet. Heading 155 degrees magnetic. Indicated Air Speed 180. Weather clear – some cirrus haze at 20,000 feet. One red spot fire in bombsight. People came over to congratulate us. Crews with 27 or 28 ops, very warmly - they were our mates of course. Crews with 15 or 16 ops, a little bit enviously. And the new boys looked at us with a certain degree of awe.
Then suddenly it hit me – it was all over. No more gritting my teeth to face the miles of Berlin flak. No more desperate manoeuvres to try and escape the coning search lights. No more sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for “Corkscrew Port Go!” No more groping through the clouds on instruments worrying about the ice. And ……no more FEAR.