"So we couldn’t do anything about it other than watch them go into the sea. And that was a horrible, horrible, horrible experience for all of us."
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I started flying Lancasters. And once I had completed the training on the Lancasters, I went onto a squadron in Yorkshire, a placed called Croft. And that was the No. 434 Squadron where I spent all of my time until the war ended.
The squadron itself was under No. 6 Group, which was the Canadian, the RCAF’s [Royal Canadian Air Force] No. 6 Group as opposed to the RAF [Royal Air Force] stations. And it was very crude because it had been sort of built quickly, hastily. And the only good feature of it was a very, very good long runway; I think it was over 6,000 feet. But there, the conditions were rather primitive but we all put up with that; that was pretty standard there in England in wartime. But the key there was the morale was quite bad at the time I got there because they had been suffering very, very heavy losses. My squadron consisted of top strength would be twenty aircraft and twenty crew - normally. Well, what happened was, it was always reduced to perhaps fifteen to twelve.
Anyway, the people I flew with, I had crewed up prior to coming to this squadron and they were all Canadians except one. The flight engineer was RAF and he was a very young man and he had six hours’ training. So he turned out not to be very helpful to me, although he did very well at anything I requested he do. But the other members of the crew were just fine Canadian guys and they were very, very helpful, very keen and very, very brave. Anyway, we had a very good cohesive crew and we got along well and I put that to some degree to why we survived.
It was the final operation for the squadron in the war. It was on April 25th, 1945. And it was a trip to a place called Wangerooge, which was in the Frisian Islands and it was the coastal batteries of the Frisian Islands. They controlled the approaches to Bremen and Wilhelmshaven [Germany], so the Allied forces were desperate to try and knock out the coastal battery so that they could have access to those ports.
And so this was at daylight we took this trip and there were I think 450 aircraft. We started out I think in the morning and the trip to the island took about three hours I believe; two and a half to three hours, and the problem was, we were flying in a very loose gaggle. And there was a lot of turbulence in the air because you would be behind another bomber generally and there was a lot of pitching and tossing of the aircraft, you know. There was quite a number of airplanes out there. And 434 Squadron shared the airfield with 431 Squadron, which was our sister squadron. And so we were roughly together, the 431 group and the 434 group in the gaggle. And two of the Lancasters just ahead of me, belonging to 431 Squadron, collided with each other. And they in turn fell out of the skies and one of them had its wing torn off and so on and headed for the North Sea, obviously, and so en route, they caught two other aircraft because there was such a group of us out there, so four of them fell into the sea, into the North Sea. And we couldn’t break radio silence at the time to signal where these people went down because it would have prejudiced or compromised really the whole operation for everyone. So we couldn’t do anything about it other than watch them go into the sea. And that was a horrible, horrible, horrible experience for all of us. Anyway, it ended up that day there was a total of six aircraft lost by collision. And only one was shot down by the anti-aircraft fire. But it was just a very sad sight to see the parachutes and in some cases, just the bodies falling out of the aircraft.
Anyway, the operation was reasonably successful. Some of the batteries were knocked out by bombing. We carried on and bombed the target and we received a lot of anti-aircraft fire and then nothing from fighters except it was reported, one of the German aircraft that had just been developed, called an [Messerschmitt] Me 262, which was a jet fighter - the first in the world, I gather - and it was up that day they say. Thank goodness I didn’t see it; neither did any of my colleagues in my squadron at least. Anyway, that one was quite a sad end to the war for, you know, pretty well all of us.