In the early hours of 15th February 1943 140 RAF Lancasters were converging on Milan, in northern Italy, having made the long trip over the Alps. They would start fires that could be seen by returning aircraft when they were 100 miles from the target. A concentration of bombers arriving on target in a short space of time was intended to overwhelm the defences but it also increased the risk of other hazards.
Now there was the risk of being hit by bombs falling from another aircraft. One aircraft from 103 Squadron piloted by Squadron Leader Walter Powdrell, a New Zealander, was hit by a stream of small incendiary bombs. The Flight Engineer Sergeant John Duffield recalled
We were just turning off to clear away. All of a sudden I heard this awful battering noise. I don’t know what he thought he was bombing because we were a minute clear of the target so he wasn’t bombing that. All the engines stopped. I heard the pilot say ’We’ve had it. You’d better jump’
I was very lucky that I had my parachute with me. So I made my way to the rear door. But I couldn’t open it. The aircraft started to twist and I put my back against the bomb compartment on the fuselage floor and braced myself there. The aircraft was spinning like mad by this time. I was just stuck there with the force of the spin.
Suddenly the spinning stopped I made my way to the rear door and leapt out. My haress was loose and the jerk of the opening parachute ripped into my groin. The pain was something to be believed, agonizing.
Powdrell and three other other crew members didn’t get out of the aircraft before it crashed.
Another aircraft, from No.9 Squadron, had a very narrow escape from a similar situation. John Moutray DFM the Wireless Operator / Air Gunner recalled:
Jimmy Geach the bomb aimer was in charge as he called out directions on the intercom to Jim Verran. His calm voice was saying ‘Left, left … Right a bit … Steady …’as we started the most dangerous part of any bombing raid – the straight and level bombing run, which had to be held for another twenty seconds or so after the bombs had gone, waiting for the photoflash to go off.
At that point my job was to stand on the step ahead of the main spar and put my head up into the astro hatch to assist the gunners in keeping a look out for fighters. For some inexplicable reason, I did something I had never done before; I looked directly above and got the shock of my life. In the glow from the searchlights and target I saw another Lancaster 30 feet above us on exactly the same heading and, like us, his bomb doors were open! The 4,000lb bomb looked enormous and I knew it could be released at any second.
I yelled into my microphone, ‘Hard-a-portl’ Somewhere I had read that it was a natural reaction of pilots to go to port; anyway our crew was well-trained and Jim stood ED495 on its wing tip and we got an unusually good view of Milan! We went round again to do another bombing run.