The commander of No. 106 Squadron RAF Bomber Command, Squadron Leader Guy Gibson, had been transferred to unspecified duties in mid March. The remaining Lancaster crews of the Squadron were now heavily involved in the the Battle of the Ruhr, a concerted series of attacks designed to destroy the centre of German heavy industry.
On the night of 4th May 1943 Bomber Command made its largest raid yet, apart from the 1000 bomber raids which had used training aircraft in 1942. The target was Dortmund, a steel and engineering centre in the Ruhr. A total of 596 aircraft were involved, including 255 Lancasters. The raid was considered a success, over half the aircraft dropped bombs within three miles of the aiming point, destroying over 1200 buildings in the industrial centre of the city.
One aircraft had a narrow escape as Bomb aimer Geoffrey Willat was to recall:
Having reached maximum height, we headed for the coast. Quite soon we were approaching Holland. Soon, I could see a large expanse of water which was the Zuider Zee, then again, surprisingly quickly, the flashes, flares and searchlights over the Ruhr, which was our destination.
There was no need for any navigational course from the navigator; Robbie just steered straight for the brilliant fireworks ahead. I think that I had not been given a specic aiming point but had instructions to aim our bombs where there were the most fires, pillars of smoke and brightly lit areas where buildings had been set alight by incendiaries. There was a steady, breathtaking approach after opening the bomb doors, until my bombsight coincided with an area lit by many fires.
I was lying on the floor with my eye fixed to the telescope-like bombsight. When the critical moment came, after the agonising few minutes of the run—in, I pressed the ’tit’, calling out ‘Bombs gone!’ as the plane lurched upwards after shedding its load. The pilot immediately pushed the nose down to build up speed and we rushed forward out of the target area — an enormous relief to all of us.
A few minutes later he asked the navigator for a course home. No answer. Then, after a few minutes, Frank came up with a vague and rather dreamy answer, which was really no help at all. Robbie decided arbitrarily to take a course for home and turned west towards the North Sea and England, calling out the course he had taken.
Out of the target area and again over Holland, I saw the Zuider Zee again and the sea but as we droned on the flight engineer spotted one engine badly overheating. His job was to concentrate on all the dials (several for each engine) to detect any malfunctions. This engine became so hot that it could have burst into flames and it had to be doused with foam.
Once dealt with in this way, it was impossible to restart it. An adjustment in flying altitude was necessary but then, without a bomb load, there was no real anxiety. However, a second engine began to misfire and had to be throttled back. When a third engine began to behave poorly, there was real danger of being unable to get home. It was possible, of course, that one or more of the engines had been hit by shrapnel from anti- aircraft fire, although we hadn’t detected anything like that.
How could we maintain height and was it any use jettisoning guns or anything heavy? We needed every gallon of fuel and couldn’t afford to lose any that was left. By this time, we were so low I could see the waves on the sea and we were not yet near the coast of England. Where we should arrive was unclear, because the navigator, we discovered,had recorded nothing on his flight plan since his written record of the time we arrived at the Dutch coast on the way out!
We were involuntarily and gradually descending to a dangerously low level when the coast, perhaps Essex, appeared in front. Robbie asked our advice what to do and I said we should ‘ditch’ if we could find a sandy beach, which would probably mean shallow water.
However, the decision was up to him and he decided to cross the coast and told the wireless operator to give the ultimate emergency call, ‘Mayday’, which meant a desperate situation and higher priority than SOS.
Almost at once, a voice out of the blue said, ‘Docking — emergency landing ground speaking. I will put up a canopy of searchlights. Land east/west immediately when you see the canopy.’
We had looked for ‘pundits’ and other ground lights which were usually visible and could help navigation over England but a German air raid over Norwich had caused all lights to be turned off.
We could hear the ’squeakers’ (warning of barrage balloons flying to intercept enemy bombers). The squeakers could only be heard by Allied aircraft.
Up came a flood of searchlights and, after a brief half-circle, Robbie cleverly landed us on a very small grass landing strip.
This is part of a much longer account that appears in Bomber Command: Live to Die Another Day: Volume 2.