On the 3rd July 1943 Bomber Command returned to Cologne, aiming for the industrial centre on the east bank of the Rhine. It was a major raid with 653 aircraft taking part, the target marking was good and the bombs of the Main Force were concentrated. On the ground 588 people were killed, around 1,000 injured and an estimated 72,000 made homeless.
Jack Currie was a newly qualified RAF bomber pilot. The usual procedure was for such men to accompany a more experienced pilot on a bombing mission as second pilot and flight engineer, so that they got an introduction to operations. Currie accompanied fellow pilot officer McLaughlin on such a mission on 3rd July 1943 – not all of the procedure was familiar to him:
Somewhere near Aachen, as I was assimilating a first sight of hostile flak and searchlights, McLaughlin loosened his safety-straps and parachute harness. The roar of the slipstream deepened as he opened his side-window about six inches. Ponderously, deliberately, he turned to the window and set his left knee on the parachute seat. I had no idea what he was doing, and glanced back at the flight engineer for reassurance.
Impassive eyes between helmet and oxygen mask told me nothing. I returned, fascinated, to McLaughlin, whose attitude suddenly took on a familiar shape. Holding himself sufficiently far from the window to avoid frostbite or dismemberment, he made use of the slipstream’s suction to achieve his purpose.
McLaughlin resumed his seat and strappings. A brilliant yellow light appeared dead ahead and flew straight at us.
‘Duck!’ said McLaughlin. Shrapnel pattered on the fuselage. The mid-upper gunner spoke on the intercom. ‘Right through my perspex — just missed my head. There’s a hell of a draught.’
I stared at the sky in front of us. Among the groping searchlight beams, the white and yellow flak bursts formed a sparkling wall. It was hard to believe that we could pass through that unceasing barrage. Was it always like this? Perhaps not; perhaps this was the greatest anti-aircraft barrage ever mustered. Perhaps the enemy had warning of this raid weeks ago, and every gun-battery in Germany had been deployed to defend Cologne.
I looked at McLaughlin. He appeared unexcited, slumped in his seat, hands resting loosely on the control wheel. He grunted placid responses to the bomb-aimer’s sing-song chant of guidance: ‘Steady… steady… tracking in nicely.’ ‘Mm-hm.’ ‘Steady… bomb-doors open.‘ ‘Open.’ ‘Steady… left, left… steady.’ . Mm.,
The flickering wall ahead was now also to our right, to our left, above us and below.
Parallel lines of tracer bullets made an intemiittent winking curve through the darkness. I saw another bomber, exhausts glowing orange, drift across our flight path. Shimmering pulses of light showed the city below as the 4000lb cookies hit the ground. The river gleamed, darkened, and gleamed again.
The bombs dropped. McLaughlin swung the wheel to port as the bomb-doors closed. Gradually the searchlights and the barrage fell behind us. A sense of relief pervaded me; elated phrases bubbled in my thoughts, and I put my hand to the microphone switch on my mask to utter them. I turned to McLaughlin. His posture was unchanged, his eyes looked back serenely, pale blue, slightly bloodshot. I left the mike switch off, the thoughts unspoken, and bent to take the readings on the fuel gauges.
New crews were broken in gently. The pilot usually had his first operational experience as second pilot with a seasoned captain and crew, and his first trip captaining his own crew was often to lay mines in enemy waters.
This type of mission was known as ‘gardening’, and the mines were similarly termed ‘vegetables’. Thus I went to Cologne as McLaughlin’s second pilot on 3 July, and took my own crew mine-laying three nights later in ED414 Easy Two.
The mines weighed l500lb each, dull cylinders to wallow in the water between the Ile de Re and La Rochelle. We dropped six mines at three-second intervals, heading north at 1000 feet from a lucky G-fix in the Bay of Biscay.
Nobody paid us the smallest attention, and it seemed a piddling mission for the mighty Lanc.
The RAF Bomber Command history states that 3rd July was also a first for a new German technique:
This night saw the first operations of a new German unit, Jagdgeschwader 300, equipped with single-engined fighters using the Wilde Sau (Wild Boar) technique. In this, a German pilot used any form of illumination available over a city being bombed – searchlights, target indicators, the glow of fires on the ground – to pick out a bomber for attack. Liaison with the local flak defences was supposed to ensure that the flak was limited to a certain height above which the Wild Boar fighter was free to operate. The new German unit claimed 12 bombers shot down over Cologne but had to share the 12 available aircraft found to have crashed with the local flak, who also claimed 12 successes.