At the end of May 1943 RAF Bomber Command had attacked the Ruhr city of Wuppertal. The concentrated attack had started a firestorm, probably the first occasion that RAF bombing achieved this effect. Around half of the city had been destroyed then.
On the 24th June 1943 they returned to finish off the rest of the city. A force of 630 aircraft took part. In the post war bombing survey they were estimated to have destroyed 94% of the Elberfield target area – 3,000 houses and 53 industrial premises were destroyed. Almost the same number were seriously damaged. Around 1,800 people died.
Amongst the 34 aircraft lost was the Lancaster piloted by Gordon Stooke:
We could see Wuppertal, ablaze, in front of us and still ten miles away. Dozens of searchlights speared skywards around the familiar box barrage of exploding anti-aircraft shells. Green and red target indicators confirmed the presence of our Pathfinder force. Heavy bombers were as thick as flies, thankfully all going in somewhat the same direction.
Some above us, possibly early or late arrivals, were getting ready to drop their bombs on the target and on D-Donald as well. Others below us, silhouetted against the fires, were positioned to accept our load. The seemingly impregnable wall of fiery anti-aircraft bursts were closing fast.
Probing searchlights seeking their prey, flashed by much too close. Only a few Luftwaffe fighters, though. Too dangerous over the target for them, I guessed. Most attacked the bombers before the target or afterwards on the trip home. Only the bravest and most dedicated member of a Nachtjagdeschwader (Night hunter squadron) faced his own flak (Anti-aircraft guns).
Possibly we were too close to Dusseldorf. Or maybe it was just that “Jerry” was everywhere that night. Suddenly night was turned into day. We were coned by searchlights. The evasion procedure was:- nose down, throttles wide open, go like hell. The faster you go the harder you are to hit. Get out of the area as quickly as possible.
I dived D-Donald and it flapped its wings, its motors screamed in agony and its fuselage shook violently. The navigator reported our air speed as “over 400mph.” Heavy with bombs, we quickly dropped from 20,000ft to 15,000ft and were just about clear when I saw two bright yellow flashes, in quick succession, over the nose of the aircraft.
I heard the “clump, clump” of two exploding flak shells. Then a noise like hail on a tin roof. I swore I smelled cordite.
We had received multiple direct hits from a German anti-aircraft battery.
“Bloody hell, the starboard inner engine’s on fire, Skipper,” yelled the engineer.
I glanced to my right. Tongues of red hot flames were already straddling the wing and number two fuel tank. High octane petrol could explode at any moment.
“Kill it fast, NOW!!” I ordered.
The engineer immediately throttled the engine back and feathered its propeller. He quickly pressed the red fire extinguisher button for that engine. Thank Heaven the extinguisher did its job and the fire went out. The port inner engine had simply stopped. Two left out of four.
“Feather it as well,” I ordered. Hell, what next?
Quickly I opened the bomb bay doors. There was an ominous glow coming from the area where the cans of incendiaries were hanging.
“Jettison the bomb load FAST, I think the incendiaries have been hit and are alight.” The bomb-aimer did not have to be told twice.
I felt the Lancaster jump up as 11,000lbs of bombs fell away. There was no doubt we had jettisoned them just in time!!
Suddenly we were free of the searchlights!! Maybe they could not hold us any longer. Perhaps they knew they had clobbered us and went looking for other game.
“Anyone hit?” I checked the crew. All OK up front. None hurt. “Gunners OK?” God, no reply!
Fearfully I sent the wireless operator back to check. They were all right. The intercom to the gun turrets were out.
We were down to 12,500ft as we flew over the target. At this height we were as vulnerable as Wuppertal down below. We could have been hit by any one of thousands of bombs and incendiaries raining down on us from our own bomber force 7000ft above.
“Skipper, the bomb bay doors are still open,” the bomb-aimer reported.
There was no way of closing them on this aircraft with both inner engines stopped.
“And I can see the starboard undercarriage hanging half way down,” the engineer said.
“The port under-cart too,” said the navigator looking over my shoulder.
“We can’t retract them without hydraulics,” I said.
Corkscrewing was ‘out’. Even flying straight and level, we were losing height. The extra drag of the open bomb bay and the undercarriage was the problem.
The two remaining engines were flat out. Boost +9lb/sq.in., 2850rpm. (1 hour limit). Desperately we tried other throttle and pitch settings but D-Donald continued to lose height.
We jettisoned everything moveable, even some of our fuel. Later we released the carrier pigeon with a message. Maybe it would find its way back to England. I doubted it.
The Lancaster could hold its height at 10,000ft on two engines according to the pilots notes. I had done this as an exercise plenty of times at the Conversion Unit. But not with bomb bay doors open and wheels half down. The crew reported extensive fuselage damage, mostly holes and rips in the aluminium skin. Possibly the wings were holed as well.
Someone must have been looking after us. We were very lucky:-
Two simultaneous direct hits by anti-aircraft shells.
Both inner engines knocked out, one on fire.
Considerable damage to the fuselage and possibly the wing surfaces.
The bombs had not exploded.
It seemed that the incendiaries had burst into flames.
We were still flying and under control, albeit loosing height.
Nobody had been seriously hurt.
With very little encouragement, the thin-skinned, 4000lb ‘cookie’ could have blown us to kingdom come and back, with the help of even the smallest piece of shrapnel.
If we were attacked by a fighter, the gunners had no way of contacting me with evasion instructions.
It seems we were a sitting duck for even the Red Baron in his Focker Triplane.
“Unfeather the port inner engine. Maybe it’ll rotate fast enough to generate hydraulic pressure and raise the bomb bay doors and under-cart.”
No joy!! We lost height even faster.
“Feather the bloody thing again,” I said.
Straight and level, we flew around Cologne and at 0125hrs we crossed over the German/Belgian border.
Ever losing height, we were now down to 3500ft. I could make out features on the ground below, through the darkness.
Thankfully no fighters. They were, most likely, taking care of the main stream above and in front of us.
Soon I would have to make a decision. Either I give the order to bail out straight away or hold on, hoping D-Donald would maintain height in the lower, heavier atmosphere. The trouble was we were approaching the point of no return. Soon we were going to be too low to take to our parachutes anyway. The other alternative was a forced landing at night. I quickly ruled this out as a quick way to oblivion for my six crewmen.
Still we dropped and at 2500ft the engineer reported the temperature of the starboard outer engine was off the clock and it could seize at any moment.
” No oil pressure,” he said.
That did it!! Without hesitation I ordered,
“ABANDON AIRCRAFT! ABANDON AIRCRAFT!”
We were about 20 miles North-North-West of Liege, Belgium. The bomb-aimer jettisoned the escape hatch in the floor of his compartment, clipped on his chest parachute and without hesitation rolled out of the aircraft into the night.
Next it was the engineers turn. With a brave smile and a nervous wink, he stepped down to the waiting hatchway, knelt on the edge and was gone.
“The gunners have bailed out from the rear door, Skipper,” the navigator reported. “They’ll be OK.”
The wireless operator followed the engineer out through the open hatch, leaving just the navigator and me aboard.
“Good luck, Skipper,” he said courageously as he handed me my parachute. “See you in Spain.”
He checked twice to make sure my parachute was clipped on securely, then with a reassuring glance, disappeared into the night.
D-Donald and I were alone.
Just for a moment the ship’s captain syndrome almost overcame me. I felt sadness and shame because I was about to desert my mighty Lancaster. Soon D-Donald would be no more. It was no consolation that many had gone before me and there would be many more to follow.
D-Donald and I were still loosing height. Hurry, hurry, we were down to 2000ft.
I stood up to the right of the control column, keeping the aircraft straight and level with my left hand. Below the open hatchway waited. I hurried down and knelt at its edge.
Then for a moment I thought of the hundreds, no thousands of aircrew who had attempted and were yet to attempt, to save their lives by abandoning their stricken aircraft, as I was about to do. For the vast majority, their desperate bid to stay alive would have been so different from my relatively orderly exit. The stark terror of a spinning aircraft with all those on board gripped by irresistible centrifugal forces preventing escape, flashed through my mind. Maybe their aircraft was on fire, adding to their desperation. If wounded comrades were left behind, what future nightmares would memories of a ‘last glance into terror stricken eyes’ generate for he who survived? What turmoil invaded the minds of those who knew they were trapped and could do no more than wait the inevitable?
But I was lucky, all my brave crew were clear. All I had to do was roll forward and kindly D-Donald, still flying straight and level, would free me.
The escape hatch on the Lancaster was 23in wide and 26in deep. As I squatted there ready to jump, I found it difficult to imagine how anyone could get through such a small hole. Resigned to losing the top of my head as I rolled out or worse getting stuck, I committed myself to fate and fell forward with my hand tightly gripping the rip cord.
The full account of that night can be found online at Gordon Stooke’s ‘Flak and Barbed Wire’, where you can also order the complete volume which covers his experiences as a POW.