Library Reference Number: 147
Air Gunner with No.514 Squadron, RAF
Despite warnings from all and sundry on the dire consequences of becoming a Rear Air Gunner, I decided to volunteer for that specific category of RAF aircrew. With the advent of the four-engine heavy bomber during worldwar two requiring fire power to defend the aircraft from enemy attack, the widely held belief was that enemy fighters would `pick off' the Rear Gunner first to enable them to make a safer and closer attack from behind. Despite all the well-intentioned advice to the contrary, it was on the 3`d September 1943 that I enrolled as a u/t (under training) AG at No. 1 Air Gunnery School, Pembrey, where I subsequently qualified as a fully fledged Air Gunner. Then on 22nd November 1943, I was posted to No.84 Operational Training Unit, Desborough, where we `crewed up'. The Crew consisted of:
Pilot (Capt) F/Sgt Arthur Holland (Aussie) Perth WA Navigator
F/Sgt Mike Mullholland (Welsh) Cardiff
B/Aimer F/Sgt Sillard Knotz (Hungarian Jew) Budapest. A.K.A. Roy Barrett
F/Engineer F/Sgt Donald Douglas (English) Silloth, Cumbria
W/Operator F/Sgt George Halliwell (Welsh) Preston
M/Upper G FJSgt Charles O'Brien (Scot) Glasgow
R/Gunner F/Sgt William MacDonald (Scot) Callander
Although all categories of Air Crew were rigorously selected as possessing specific aptitudes for their future role, I was soon to discover that volunteering as an Air Gunner was no easy option. Not only was the applicant required to have first class physical fitness including 20/20 eyesight, but many other attributes were essential. Hand and eye co-ordination, knowledge of gunnery and turret manipulation, aircraft recognition, ability to judge distance, ability to make quick decisions, concentration, and for many people who were inclined to be claustrophobic, shut inside a small turret was not an option. On the other hand, flying backwards looking into space for several hours with no apparent sign of structural support could produce severe air sickness in others.
I had already flown in Avro Anson's and Vickers Wellingtons, but on the 5th February 1944 I was posted to No.1647 Heavy Conversion Unit, and then No.3 LFS to become more acquainted with the multi-engine heavy bomber the Lancaster, which was to become the main air weapon in overcoming Nazi Germany.
German bombers had already mercilessly devastated the City of Coventry for ten hours non-stop, and had taken no pity on the London population by ruthlessly bombing them for 57 consecutive nights, forcing women, children and the elderly to sleep on underground railway platforms. Clydebank had also been bombed viciously and it was certainly not the time for false sentimentality about dropping bombs on Nazi Germany's aggressive strategies.
After completion of my flying training on the 16th April 1944, I was posted to No.514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire. I was to discover that 514 Squadron had joined Bomber Command's mounting campaign to fight back in November 1943 when they bombed Dusseldorf and subsequently Berlin, Kiel, Frankfurt and over 40 other targets in which I was to take an active part. It has never been fully admitted by some observers that when all allied troops had been thrown out of France, RAF Bomber Command had taken over the role of being the 'Front-Line' in providing any serious hope of freeing Europe from Nazi aggression and occupation.
During my time with No.514 Squadron, I completed an operational tour of 35 missions, this included 7 extra operations with crews other than my own, because as earlier predicted, rear gunners seem to be more prone to becoming fatalities while on operational missions. I did however even up the score a little on one operation, when I shot down a German JU88, which had been threatening our Lancaster.
On one mission, we were well on our way over the enemy coast, heading for Le Havre, 1 hour 28 mins into our mission, when we were suddenly recalled to base due to the Master Bomber aborting the raid because of low cloud. We were instructed not to jettison our bomb load. (There seemed to be a mistaken misconception that on these occasions, air crews simply dumped their bombs anywhere to get rid of them. This was definitely not the case, as there were strictly designated areas where if the mission was not possible, bombs were jettisoned in a specific prearranged area.) On this occasion we were instructed only to jettison incendiary devices and window etc. as the 40001b cookie and other 10001b bombs on board had 48 hour delay fuses. We were going to attempt landing back at base with our bomb load still in the bomb bay. The prospect of 'landing' with bombs on board was not a pleasant thought and the various crew members comments would be unprintable! As we approached home, we dropped below cloud level, circled the Wash off Boston, Lincs, dumped our incendiary devices, window and excess fuel on our way home to Waterbeach. As we got close to Waterbeach and began to make our descent, the Pilot asked the Flight Engineer for 1/3 flap, the F.E. responded but nothing happened, the Pilot roared instruction for 2/3 flap but still nothing happened. The Pilot then ordered the F.E. to push the lever straight down and try again, during these few moments the flaps had started to creep on and when the F.E. pushed the lever down they went straight off again and the aircraft suddenly 'ballooned' - (That's what they said at the debriefing). We then touched down well over the threshold, ran out of runway and went onto the grass, we had almost stopped when the starboard undercarriage folded up. The M/Upper Gunner and R/Gunner (myself) were first out and started to run due to the popping and cracking noises coming from the aircraft. Once we decided that nothing was happening we ran back to the aircraft which was lying nose down with the starboard wing on the ground. We ran up the wing and opened the escape hatch to the cockpit, the F.Eng, WIOp and Navigator (with cut head) got out. The Pilot was unconscious and the B/Aimer. had a broken leg, at this point we were ordered away from the aircraft by the crash crew who had arrived on the scene. The M/Upper Gunner. and myself refused to leave so the F/Lt. in charge of the crash crew put us on a charge for insubordination. When we reported to the old man (Group Captain Farquharson) all he could say was "typical Scotsmen, you have to have the last word, the F/Lt was only doing his job, experienced air crew are precious people." That was the unceremonious end to Lancaster II (LL666) as she was S.O.C, (Signed Off Charge) broken up and used for spares.
No.514 Squadron had been formed at Foulsham, Norfolk, on 1s' September 1943, as a heavy-bomber Squadron in No.3 Group. Operations began in November 1943 with Lancaster Ils, it gradually changed over to Lancaster Is and Ills during the summer of 1944. Almost all Lancaster's were equipped with three Frazer-Nash (FN) hydraulically operated turrets, each with .303 calibre machine guns. The FN-5 nose turret had two guns, the FN-50 mid-upper turret had two, and the FN-20 tail turret and four. It will therefore be seen that my domain in the rear turret possessed the fire-power of four machine guns.
No.514 Squadron continued flying operations from Waterbeach, the final being 24`n April 1945, when 13 Lancaster's bombed marshalling yards at Bad Oldesloe. The Squadron remained at Waterbeach until the end of hostilities, for much of the time with three flights and a complement of over 30 aircraft. The price of victory over Germany did not come cheaply. Operational losses from RAF Waterbeach amounted to 122 bombers: - 33 Wellingtons, 8 Stirling's, 81 Lancaster's, 73 of those Lancaster's which did not return being from my own Squadron.
In the comparatively short period of 18 months No.514 Squadron flew 3675 operational sorties. It's personnel won 1 DSO, 84 DFCs, 1 bar to the DFC, and 26 DFMs. Immediately before the German capitulation the Squadron dropped food supplies to the starving Dutch people and, subsequently, it's aircraft were busily employed on ferrying liberated POWs to England from France and Belgium. The Squadrons last mission before VE day occurred on the 7th May 1945 when 20 Lancaster's dropped supplies to the Dutch population at The Hague.
Waterbeach Airfield remained in use by the RAF until the 1980s when the station was transferred to the Army. It remains a MOD site to this day. A Hunter aircraft stands guard at the Main Gate in memory of the Hunter Squadrons of the 1950s that operated from Waterbeach. A small self funded museum is open to the public, with displays about No.514 Squadron RAF who were based at RAF Waterbeach from 1943- 1945 and flew Lancasters.