The night of 8th/9th October saw RAF Bomber Command mount two big attacks. 504 aircraft, including 26 Wellingtons, now regarded as antiquated and making their last bombing raid, went to Hannover.
The weather was clear over Hannover and the Pathfinder Force was able to accurately mark the town. In turn the bombing was very concentrated leading to probably the most devastating single attack on the city in the war. Nearly 4,000 buildings were completely destroyed and 30,000 sustained damage. But German nightfighters were well organised, the controllers having anticipated that Hannover was the main target – and 27 bombers were shot down.
The record size of the ‘diversionary’ force – 119 bombers were sent to Bremen – had not had much effect. There were three casualties from this force, all Stirlings. One of them almost made it back to crash land in England. Phil Dyson, piloting C-Charlie, had hoped to attempt a landing at RAF Woodbridge, which had been specially built with long runways to accomodate aircraft in some distress:
But hopes were dashed when ‘Bud’ Rattigan our Canadian wireless op calmly informed us that the whole of East Anglia was enveloped in a thick ground mist. We were left with the alternative of ditching the aircraft.
Coming up to the East Anglian coast we were at 3,000 feet and I made a slow turn to run parallel with the shore. It was very dark but the land was more discernible than I thought it would be and the coast ahead appeared to be long and straight.
Ditching was something one could not practise, but learning the ditching procedure was a lesson which each individual crew member took very seriously. The pilot had to be securely strapped into his seat — and I was not and could do little for myself for I needed both hands to control the aircraft.
‘Norman’, I called to the bomb aimer, who occupied the adjacent seat, ‘Fasten my seat belt’. There were four stages which met on a central clip-in device. It was dark and Norman groped around.
Meanwhile, throttle back and reduce speed one-third flap and to the wireless op, ‘Bud’, who had already sent out distress signals, ‘Let the trailing aerial out.’ I needed his instant warning when the aerial touched the water at 20 feet as the signal to cut the engines, pull back on the control column and stall C—Charlie in tail-first.
We were down to 500 feet and Norman was still fumbling around. ‘Norman, strap me in quickly and hold the strap across my chest.’
It seemed no more than seconds after I had throttled right back that C—Charlie hit the water with an immense thud and the impact threw me forward with an almighty bang as my head struck the window in front and we went down.
Momentarily concussed, a flood of cold sea water crashed through the hatch above and instantly revived me and I jumped onto the seat and squeezed my bulky figure through that small aperture. Miraculously, C—Charlie was afloat and I could see my friends climbing out of the mid upper gun escape hatch one by one, all except one.
We found Norman Luff,the bomb aimer, entangled with the control column and we freed him and dragged him out of the pilot’s escape hatch. Down by the port wing the dinghy was there and waiting, fully inflated and we gingerly clambered down, fearful lest we put our feet through the base.
Pete cut the lanyard and Jack and ‘Bud’ inexpertly paddled us towards the shore where we could see a light and hear a voice shouting repeatedly, ‘Steer this way, straight towards the light’. In a few minutes we entered the surf and stepped ashore where the voice continued. ’Now one behind the other and follow me’ and we crunched our way up a steep shingled beach.
At the top we could hear female voices and they led us towards a large house where we took off our soaking uniforms and flying kit and wrapped ourselves in a variety of garments. They tendered first aid to Norman who had a deep gash in his leg. They fed us and eventually provided us with beds for the few hours left before dawn.
These angels were members of the Women’s Royal Naval Auxiliary and ‘manned’ a listening post where they had heard our Mayday call, never dreaming we would drop in to visit them at Hemsby, which lies 10 miles north of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.
In the early hours of the morning I slipped out of the house and saw the huge tail of the Stirling standing like a sentinel 300 yards off shore. Later we all lined up with several of our hostesses to have our photographs taken with our staunch friend C—Charlie in the background. We had been very lucky in a number of ways, not least in the fact that we had landed just off a mined beach.
This account appears in the third volume of Martin Bowman’s comprehensive study of Bomber Command: Reflections of War: Battleground Berlin (July 1943 – March 1944) .