Bomber Command target Hanover

An RAF Whitley bomber undergoing maintenance earlier in the war.

It was thirteen months since Ralph Wood had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Airforce as a navigator. He had not unpacked his bags after his arrival at No 102 Squadron on 24th July 1941, when he was told that he was on that night’s raid on Germany. Then a more experienced navigator volunteered to take his place and he spent the evening following him as he made his preparations before take off. The navigator and his crew never returned from that operation. The next night, on the 25th, Ralph Wood made his first operational mission, a bombing raid on Hanover:

So here we were, a crew of five – two pilots, a navigator/bomb-aimer (observer), a wireless operator and a tail gunner. I never used a bomb-aimer during my tours – they appeared later on in the war, and there weren’t always enough to go around. I felt that if I could get us to the target I should have the pleasure of bombing same. My navigator’s table was behind the pilot’s seat in the cockpit.

As we neared the target I unplugged my oxygen lead and my intercom and, dragging my parachute with me, made my way to the bombsight in the nose of our ‘flying coffin’.

It was a long crawl in the darkness, and without oxygen the going was tough. Reaching the bombsight and front gunner compartment, I searched frantically for the oxygen connection to restore my strength. With the aid of a flashlight, partly covered so as not to attract any wandering fighters, I found my connection and began to breathe more easily.

I was now lining up the target with the bombsight as I directed the pilot on our bombing run: ‘Left. . . left. . . steady . . . right. . . steady . . . left. . . left. . . steady . . . Bombs gone!’.

Our Whitley leapt about 200 feet with the release of tons of high explosives. Now we flew straight and level for 30 seconds, the longest 30 seconds anyone will ever know, so that we could get the required photo of the drop for the intelligence officer back at base.

Picture taken – now let’s get the hell out of here. Still in a cold sweat with the flak bursting around us and the searchlights trying in vain to catch us, I crawled back to my plotting table.

The pilot was still taking evasive action as I gave him the course for home. Those black blobs of smoke surrounding the aircraft were flak, and when you could smell the cordite it meant that they were bursting too damn close.

Ralph Wood’s account of surviving 77 operational missions appears in RAF Bomber Stories: Dramatic First-hand Accounts of British and Commonwealth Airmen in World War 2.

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