Leonard Cheshire wins the DSO

Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber in flight

The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber was the RAF's principal night bomber from the beginning of the war. Powered by the the Rolls Royce Merlin engine it was regarded as reliable, some pilots described flying it as 'like driving a London bus'.

Bomber Command flew 489 night bomber sorties during this week. The Air Situation for the week up 14th November gives just an indication of some of the difficulties encountered:

Attacks on German industry and armaments have been maintained whenever weather conditions have permitted and, though on one night no operations were possible and on another they were restricted to harassing attacks on French aerodromes by a few aircraft, the total number of night sorties has considerably increased. Low clouds, magnetic storms and severe icing conditions have been frequently encountered.

Damaged Whitley bomber

Damaged Whitley bomber successfully flown back by Pilot Officer Cheshire on 13th November.

No. 102 Squadron was foremost in these operations. Amongst its officers was Leonard Cheshire, later to win the V.C.:

On the night of 12/13th November 1940, Pilot Officer GL Cheshire was captain of Whitley V P5005 “N – Nuts” detailed to attack an oil refinery at Wesseling, not far from Cologne. It appears that he arrived in the target area within a few minutes of the ETA but owing to intercom trouble was unable to discover his exact position until some twenty minutes later, by which time the target was blanketed by cloud.

He decided to attack the railway marshalling yards at Cologne instead and while he was approaching this target his aircraft was suddenly shaken by a succession of violent explosions. The cockpit filled with black fumes and Cheshire lost control of the aircraft, which dived about 2,000 feet, with its fuselage on fire.

Cheshire regained control, the fire was extinguished and the Whitley, with a gaping hole in its fuselage, was brought safely back to base after, being in the air for 8 1/2 hours.

Cheshire was awarded an immediate DSO, Sergeant Davidson won a DFM. Cheshire was later to give an account of the night:

The anti-aircraft gunfire, which had been very severe and accurate for the last hour, slowed down, and it seemed as though we could not miss our new target. The bomb doors were open, the wireless operator was standing by to drop the great flare and the bomb-aimer had started giving the usual alterations of course.

Then anti-aircraft fire opened up intensely again, and one shell burst very close. It was what is technically known as a near miss, but it was near enough for fragments to hit us. There was a blinding explosion from the front, the perspex of the front turret was blown away, and there was another terrific explosion in the fuselage. The shell had touched off the flare.

The explosions had hurled the control column out of my hands, and the cabin filled with dense black smoke. I remember asking the bomb-aimer if he had dropped his bombs, but the only answer I got was, “I’ve been hit.” Very soon the smoke cleared a little, and to my amazement I saw that, not only were the engines still there, but that they were both running.

Then the bomb-aimer came up through the well, his face streaming with what looked like blood. He was holding his head, and could not stand upright. I could not possibly help him, since it was all I could do to regain control of the aircraft. Suddenly he shouted ” fire ” and staggered towards the tail.

A little later I looked round and saw the wireless operator coming through the door with flames licking his flying suit. He was on fire himself. The bomb-aimer dashed up to him and beat the flames out with his hands. Then he disappeared down the fuselage again. He seemed to have recovered completely, and it turned out that what I had taken to be blood was only oil.

Then the cabin cleared of smoke, and things seemed to be fairly all right, except that the aircraft was flying in an erratic sort of way. Back in the body of the machine the crew were working frantically to get rid of the incendiaries and anything that might explode.

We carried on and dropped our bombs. We hadn’t made the journey for fun, and the job had to be done as best we could do it.

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