Slow motion nightmare in a Lancaster over Dusseldorf

A tractor-drawn train of 4,000-lb Mark I HC bombs
A tractor-drawn train of 4,000-lb Mark I HC bombs (‘cookies’) pauses on its journey from the bomb-dump at Mildenhall, Suffolk, while groundcrew chalk appropriate messages on them. In the background an Avro Lancaster Mark I, L7540 ‘OL-U’, of No. 83 Squadron RAF’s Lancaster Conversion Flight, normally based at Scampton, Lincolnshire, undergoes repairs: the unit code-letters of its previous operators, No. 44 Squadron RAF, are still visible under those of 83 Squadron.
Here a B-17 Flying Fortress crew of the 96th Bomb Group, US Eighth Air Force, mingle with Lancaster crews of No 622 Squadron
The ’round the clock’ bombing by RAF and USAAF necessitated closer liaison between the two bomber forces, and even at squadron level goodwill visits between neighbouring units helped foster the spirit of co-operation. Here a B-17 Flying Fortress crew of the 96th Bomb Group, US Eighth Air Force, mingle with Lancaster crews of No 622 Squadron at Mildenhall in the spring of 1944.

The night of 22nd / 23rd April saw three large RAF raids, one to railway marshalling yards in Laon, France, the others to German industrial targets in Brunswick and Dusseldorf. Huge destruction was recorded in Dusseldorf where, a day later, 883 people were known to have died – and few of the 409 people then listed as missing were expected to be found alive. Out of the 596 aircraft on the raid 29 were shot down. These figure were fairly typical of RAF raids on German targets at the time – immense destruction was now almost assured at a cost that was, if not acceptable, then at least sustainable.

Flight Engineer Sergeant C.H. ‘Chick’ Chandler was on one of the Lancaster’s that was not shot down that night. His experience was about as bad as it could get without becoming a casualty. In his memory the traumatic events remained to be replayed in slow motion:

It was 0110 HOURS on the morning of 23 April 1944. We were a XV Squadron Lancaster III crew from Mildenhall on our 17th op and we were hit simultaneously by heavy flak and cannon fire from an Me 109 at the precise moment that our bombs were released on Dusseldorf. Being the flight engineer, I was standing on the right-hand side of the cockpit, as was usual during our bombing run, with my head in the blister to watch for any fighter attack that might occur from the starboard side.

The bombs were actually dropping from the aircraft when there was a tremendous explosion. For a brief period of time everything seemed to happen in ultra-slow motion. The explosion knocked me on my back; I was aware of falling on to the floor of the aircraft, but it seemed an age before I actually made contact. I distinctly remember ‘bouncing’. Probably lots of flying clothing and Mae Wests broke my fall, but under normal circumstances one would not have been aware of ‘bouncing’.

As I fell I ‘saw’, in my mind’s eye, very clearly indeed, a telegram boy cycling to my mother’s back door. He was whistling very cheerfully and handed her the telegram that informed her of my death. She was very calm and thanked the boy for delivering the message.

As I laid there I saw a stream of sparks pass a few feet above the cockpit, from back to front and going up at a slight angle. This caused me some confusion. If the sparks were from a burning engine they were going the wrong way. It was some little time before I realised that the ‘sparks’ were in fact tracer shells from a fighter that I did not know was attacking us.

The illusion that the tracer shells were going upwards was no doubt caused by the fact that our Lancaster was going into an uncontrolled, screaming dive, but because of the slow-motion effect that I was experiencing, I did not appreciate this fact. This whole episode had taken 2 or 3 seconds at most, then the slow-motion effect began to wear off, and I became aware of the screams of the bomb-aimer.

[after the aircraft went through violent evasive dives they threw off the fighter … the order to prepare to ‘bale out’ was withdrawn after they discovered that most of the parachutes had been destroyed]

My task now was to check the aircraft for damage and casualties. My checks started at the front of the aircraft, in the bomb-aimer’s compartment. I am afraid to say that my sheltered life had not prepared me for the terrible sight that met my eyes. It was obvious that this area had caught the full blast of the flak, and Alan Gerrard had suffered the most appalling injuries. At least he would have died almost instantaneously.

Suffice to say that I was sick. At this stage I risked using my torch to shine along the bomb bay to make sure that all our bombs were gone. My report simply was that the bomb-aimer had been killed and that all bombs had left the aircraft.

Next stop was the cockpit. The pilot had really worked wonders in controlling the aircraft and successfully feathering the engine that had been on fire. Then on to the navigator’s department; on peering round the blackout screen I saw that Ken Pincott was busy working over his charts, but that Flight Lieutenant John Fabian DFC, the H2S operator (the Squadron navigation leader), appeared to be in shock. However, once I established that there appeared to be no serious damage, I moved on. The wireless operator’s position was empty because his task during the bombing run was to go to the rear of the aircraft and ensure that the photo flash left at the same time as the bombs. Next, down to the mid-upper turret, where Ron Wilson had re-occupied his position, albeit only temporarily. (Unknown to me, he had suffered a wound to his ear that, although not too serious, would keep him off flying for a few weeks.)

On reaching the next checkpoint I was again totally unprepared for the dreadful sight that confronted me. Our wireless operator, Flight Sergeant L. Barnes, had sustained, in my opinion, fatal chest injuries and had mercifully lost consciousness. It was found later that he had further very serious injuries to his lower body and legs. He died of his wounds before we reached England.

From the rear turret I got a ‘thumbs up’ sign from ‘Whacker’ Mair, so I rightly concluded that he was OK. As well as having to report the death of our bomb-aimer, and the fatal injuries to the wireless operator, I had to report the complete failure of the hydraulic system. The pilot was already aware of the fact that we had lost our port inner engine through fire, and that our starboard outer was giving only partial power. The bomb doors were stuck in the open position, and the gun turrets had been rendered inoperative because of the hydraulic failure.

They had just enough fuel to make it back to England, gradually losing height all the way, only to discover that their undercarriage was stuck as they came in to land. The remaining crew survived the emergency landing. All the survivors remained on flying duties, only the slightly wounded mid upper gunner had a brief respite. See Bowman (Ed.) RAF Bomber Stories: Dramatic First-hand Accounts of British and Commonwealth Airmen in World War 2 for the whole story.

Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Elizabeth standing with a group of RAF personnel, including the Station Commander (standing on the Queen’s right), during a visit to Mildenhall, Suffolk.
Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ME590 'SR-C', of No. 101 Squadron RAF
Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ME590 ‘SR-C’, of No. 101 Squadron RAF, lies on the FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) pipework at Ludford Magna, Lincolnshire, after a successful crash-landing on returning from a raid to Augsburg on the night of 25/26 February 1944. The aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, which disabled the hydraulic system and holed the starboard fuel tank, and was also attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighter which set it on fire and wrecked the elevators. In spite of the damage the pilot, Sergeant R Dixon, brought ME590 back to Ludford Magna for a belly landing, during which some incendiary bombs which had been hung up in the bomb bay, fell out and caught fire on the runway. The censor has eliminated the large aerial masts above the fuselage which indicated that the aircraft was carrying ‘Airborne Cigar’ (ABC), a jamming device which disrupted enemy radio telephone channels.

4 thoughts on “Slow motion nightmare in a Lancaster over Dusseldorf”

  1. all my relatives inform me my dad was a pilot his name is Frank Burkhardt. He was station at Milldenhall Suffolk 1944 1945. went missing. i was born 6 July 1946. trying to get some closure

  2. all my relatives inform me my dad was a pilot his name is Frank Burkhardt. He was station at Milldenhall Suffolk 1944 1945. went missing. i was born 6 July 1946. trying to get some closure

  3. ref the article on sgt Dixon crash landing sadly he lost his life the following month sgt lawn rear gunner was a relative of my mothers family and I researched the crash and have visited all the graves

  4. My late fathers brother Roy Dixon was the pilot of ME 590. First time I’ve seen this photo.

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