‘Coned’ and shot down over Cologne

A gunner, believed to be Sergeant J Bell, looks through the opening in the perspex of the rear turret of Avro Lancaster R5740/`KM-O’. The four guns shown are Browning .303 machine guns.

RCAF crew member George Harsh had not been scheduled to fly and only joined the flight at the last minute on the evening of 5th October. The target for the night was the German city of Aachen. There were problems with navigation for many crews that night but his aircraft got hopelessly lost. When they were trying to establish where they were Harsh looked out, recognised the Cathedral, and saw that they were flying over Cologne. He soon knew that were in trouble:

The eerie purple light of the radio-controlled searchlight, the master search-light of the Cologne air defence system locked onto us and having seen this happen to other bombers I knew there would be no escaping it. No manoeuvring, no ’jinking’, no diving nor turning nor any amount of speed would shake off that relentless finger.

With the range signalled to them from this automatic light the entire search-light complex now locked onto us and we were ‘coned’, the most dreaded thing that could happen to any bomber crew. The sky around us and the aircraft itself were lighted up like Broadway on New Year’s Eve and then it came.

The German gunners had a sitting duck for a target and all they had to do was pour their fire up into the apex of that cone and there was no way for them to miss. In the bright, blinding light there was no flashing coming from the flak bursts now but suddenly our whole piece of illuminated sky filled with brown, oily puffs of smoke. Pieces of shrapnel began hitting us and it sounded like wet gravel being hurled against sheet metal.

Then we started taking direct hits and the aircraft jumped and bucked and thrashed and pieces of it were being blown off and I could see them whipping past me. Then the fire started and I could smell it and see the long tongues of flame streaming out from the wings.

The intercom was now dead and so was the hydraulic system that operated the turret but with the manual crank I quickly turned the turret around, opened the doors and was preparing to push myself backwards out into the sky when a burst of light, fine shrapnel sprinkled my whole back. It felt as though the points of a dozen white hot pokers had suddenly jabbed into me.

My one prayer at that moment was that the flak had not cut the parachute harness draped over my back. The parachute harness! Oh, God get that slack out of your crotch! I dropped, clutching the slack around my midriff with my left hand and pulled the rip cord on my chest pack with my right. I was now conscious of the dead silence through which I was falling.

Gone was the aircraft with its roaring engines and miraculously the flak had stopped. But one searchlight glued itself onto me and began following me downward. Then the chute opened and my fall was suddenly, jarringly halted and I bobbed upward like a yo-yo in the hand of some idiot giant. With a tearing, rending noise the slack snapped taut around my chest and I felt my whole rib cage cave in. Then I passed out.

It was just one more episode in the extraordinary life of George Harsh, already a convicted, and pardoned, killer. See George Harsh: Lonesome Road.

Only the post war assessment of the raid revealed what a disaster it had been. The Pathfinder force was rapidly establishing itself as a vital component of the bomber force. However when things went wrong, they went very wrong.

5/6 October 1942
Aachen
257 aircraft – 101 Wellingtons, 74 Lancasters, 59 Halifaxes, 23 Stirlings.
10 aircraft – 5 Halifaxes, 2 Stirlings, 2 Wellingtons, 1 Lancaster – lost, 3.9 per cent of the force. A further 6 aircraft crashed in England, possibly in thunderstorms.


The weather continued to be bad over Germany. There was little Pathfinder marking at Aachen and most of the bombing fell in other areas. Aachen reports that the raid was carried out by an estimated 10 aircraft and that the centre of the attack appeared to be in the southern suburb of Burtscheid. 5 people were killed and 39 injured.


Many of the bombs intended for Aachen fell in the small Dutch town of Lutterade, 17 miles away from Aachen, and it seems that most of the Pathfinder marking was over this place. More than 800 houses were seriously damaged; 83 people were killed, 22 were injured and 3,000 were made homeless.

Short Stirling B Mark I bombers of No 7 Squadron RAF, lined up at Oakington, Cambridgeshire. The squadron became part of the Pathfinder target marking force in October 1942.

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