A narrow escape over Bremerhaven

The Whitley bomber was the main aircraft of Bomber Command during the first years of the war but was now being gradually replaced by the Halifax and later the Lancaster.

On the night of 26/27th October 1941 RAF Bomber Command were again visiting northern Germany. Nineteen year old Canadian Flight Sergeant Dick Lord was a pilot of a Whitley bomber from 77 Squadron. As they approached the coast cloud cover caused navigation difficulties:

My navigator said: ‘Dick, if we are going to prang this place properly, it is about time we started looking for a gap in these bloody fog banks.’ I said, ‘Right!’ and stooged the plane to where the clouds appeared to be less thick. We found a hole in the black mass of tiny water particles.

The Hun found it too with about 30 of his searchlights. The light from them seemed to penetrate the very floor of the Whitley. I made no attempt to evade them… the navigator wanted a landfall. How he took it, glaring into those millions of candlepower, I cannot attempt to explain but he did so. He gave me fresh directions and we began our first run.

An orange-coloured searchlight followed our course, shining through the clouds as if such things never existed. Then the flak came and the tracers and the bomb flashes. Some of the other boys were already on the job. We were flying at 16,000 feet; the remainder of the boys were lower. The shells were exploding at varying heights, mostly, I thought, at about 10,000 feet. I was wrong.

We had just finished a tight turn when it happened. There was a terric explosion somewhere at the back of my head… everything went black and then red, punctured with little green and yellow dots. I heard my radioman say ‘My God!’ Then everything was silent. In the silence I could feel myself thinking ‘This is it! This is the end of your run. . . you have not done so badly. . . what’s this? The seventh raid? You’ve been lucky – some chaps don’t last seven trips…’

Something spoke in my ear. . . I say something because it sounded like a very weak loudspeaker… ‘For Christ’s sake, Dick, pull your-self together. .. we’re not done yet!’ A light ashed by my eyes… it must have been a searchlight. It brought me to my senses with a jerk. I was sprawled over the steering colunm and the second pilot was pulling at me. I struggled into a sitting position. We were diving madly at the ground, spinning as we did so.

The altimeter read 2,550 feet and was fast slipping back to 2,000. Too late to bail out… If only I could have died with the explosion! My head was thumping and my right arm felt as heavy as lead. It was still resting on the joystick.

Two thousand feet. The cloud had gone but the searchlights played on us. Shells burst around us still. In a flash I saw all these things and in the same flash realized that unless we did somethingvery drastic quickly we were going to pile in. The second pilot and I pulled on the stick. After what seemed an age there was a response from the controls. We stopped spinning and flattened out.

The navigator down in the front turret shouted something but I couldn’t make out what it was. The aircraft bucketed and I thought we had been hit again. Somehow we kept control of the old Whitley and climbed slowly into the shelter of the clouds. Someone said ‘Are you OK Dick?’ I replied that I was and was anyone hurt? The second pilot said ‘No.’ ‘We’d better stooge back and get rid of our eggs,’ I suggested.

The navigator laughed. . . ‘We dropped them from approximately 1,200 feet, you ass!’ ‘Oh!’ I said and asked for directions home. Over the North Sea we discussed the dive. ‘We were only over Bremerhaven seven minutes,’ said the wireless-operator, ‘but what a seven minutes!’ ‘What did we hit with the bombs?’ I asked. ‘God knows,’ said the navigator. ‘We were diving straight on to a portion of the docks just before you pulled out!’

The Canadian rear gunner called over the intercom from his turret, ‘The docks ain’t where they used to be, Dick! We’ve gotta small portion in the fuselage right behind me. What the hell d’ya want to dive-bomb the place for? Jeez, we could ha’ made just as good a show from 15,0OO!’

Dick Lord would survive all 30 operations of this tour of duty. But as a young man there would be plenty more opportunities for him to risk his life again. He moved to become an instructor at an Operational Training Unit. Normally not engaged in hostilities, he was one of the pilots from 23 OTU who were called upon to make up the numbers for the 1000 bomber raids in 1942. On the third and last raid he was killed over Bremen on 25/26th June 1942.

This is just one of the remarkable collection of first hand accounts collected by Martin W. Bowman in Bomber Command – Reflections of War:

The rear turret of a Whitley bomber.

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