Monthly Archives: June 2011

Waiting for the next train

“If you live on the brink of death yourself, it is as is those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination, and whatever that destination is, you will certainly be sharing it soon, since you will almost certainly be catching the next one.”

F/Lt Denis Hornsey, 76 Squadron, 1943

Hornsey was shot down, but survived the War and wrote The Pilot Who Walked Home

See him in this newsreel. 


No writing home

Most of the crews of Bomber Command fought an unending battle with fear during their tours. Here, three pilots recall the fractured life between warm, summer afternoons spent playing cricket and the nightly hell over Germany:

“I was not troubled in my conscience because we were fighting a very ruthless enemy. We all knew this. Our families were home behind us and we were rather like a crusader with his sword in front of them. My thoughts at the time were that I have a family, and a bigger family – the public – and I was going to do my damnedest to stop the Germans coming across.”

Wing Commander,
Rod Rodley DSO DFC AE, Bomber Command website

‘It was a Jekyll and Hyde existence really, and it was funny to just ride around your bike among the fields, and think, well, it’s not many hours since we were in another, completely different world. And probably thinking maybe just once or twice about friends who hadn’t come back. It was a schizophrenic life really. You had to have two caps, one to enjoy yourself and one to get serious.’
Roy MacDonald (as quoted on BBC History site)

‘When the flight crews arrived in the Mess you got an idea from their general behaviour and attitude how long they would last. We would bet among ourselves – “Oh, he’ll make it” or “He won’t make it”. Sitting in a corner writing home was not the sort of thing the average chap did. There were too many things to do to worry about your mother. The young marrieds were the ones who suffered most. We just enjoyed ourselves in our free time. We loved flying. There were sadder times, if a crew didn’t return. One night we lost three aeroplanes, 21 people. There was the ritual of moving their kit from the room. Not 24 hours later, or even less, a truck would come through the gates with the new crews to replace those lost. They would come into the Mess where those who had been on the Squadron for a month or two were considered old hands.

I don’t think we worried about it at the time. We had a job to do. Our role was flying aeroplanes to do whatever we could for the war effort. Of course, one never got to know people for any length of time. On the Squadron we knew that it was short-lived, that we would move on if we survived to the end of our tour. We sorted out our friends. The loners, the ones who sat writing letters home, these were the ones that didn’t seem to last. The ones who enjoyed life, who seemed a bit juvenile at times, survived. My best friend on the Squadron survived with me. There were others that I knew very well who were killed. That was Mess life. Squadron life. It was an odd feeling – I could look back and think I was very hard, that people were hard, but they weren’t really. It was a matter of accepting it. This is what happened in war.”

Maurice Chick,
Bomber Command Pathfinder pilot

Sixty years ago, they were just as ordinary

This article in The Telegraph ponders the question of the ‘war hero’ and refers to John Bufton’s letter…

” I am wary of some men who are branded “war heroes”, because they seek out glory for their own aggrandisement. The real heroes were surely those who never wished to leave their firesides – the vast majority – but who nonetheless did what they perceived as their duty, leaving us a debt for our freedom which we can in some small measure acknowledge on this day...”

Read the full article:

Sixty years ago, they were just as ‘ordinary’

Dear Jenny: a letter from John Bufton

This letter is excerpted from Hasting’s book Bomber Command (103-104).

It is written by 23 year-old John Bufton. He was a pilot, flying Hampdens with 83 Squadron. He addresses it to his girlfriend, Jenny and it seems the perfect introduction to our next topic: bravery.

“Poor Jenny, I’m so sorry you were upset by my last letter. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so blunt in what I wrote, but I only wanted to put things to you as fairly as I could. You’ve got such wonderful faith, dear, in my chances and I mustn’t upset you be being pessimistic.

Anyway, I’m not pessimistic- I’ve rarely felt happier and more set on a job in my life, and my chances are as good as anyone else’s. But I’m not ass enough to assume I’m going to be okay and everyone else will be unlucky, as it’s a sheer gamble in the game, but damn good fun while it lasts… If anything happens to me, I’ll want you  to go and have a perm, do up the face, put the hat on and carry on- it’ll take a lot of guts but I know you’ll tackle it in the right way. And remember that I’d be wanting you to get happily married as soon as you could. And don’t worry for me these nights more than you can help. It may buck you up to know that I’m feeling bung full of confidence in my own ability, but if I’m to be unlucky, well, I’m prepared for anything. Over the last three months I’ve got used to the idea of sudden accidents- they’ve happened so often to friends and acquaintances that the idea doesn’t startle one now. Realizing fully what one is up against helps one along a lot.

I’m not really windy about anything now. Anyway, there’s too much to do to get windy. I’m longing to see you again, Jenny, and we must make it soon! Keep writing, and when you come up, wear your hat please, and the smile that cheers me up!”

John and Jenny were never married; he was killed just a month later.

Hastings’ conclusion on Bomber Command’s leadership

“Bomber Command was very well served by its aircrew, and with a few exceptions very badly served by its senior officers, in the Second World War. The gulf between the realities in the sky and the rural routine of headquarters was too great for most of the staff to bridge….High Wycombe was fatally isolated from both the front and from sharp critical debate on policy. Even after all their bitter experience in the early years of the war, senior officers were unwilling to face unacceptable realities” (457).

A for Apple calling

A pilot gives a gives a glimpse into not only the chaos and confusion of battle, but the chatter and cooperation between crew members doing their best to get each other home:

“It was a moonlit night; we could even see the fingers of the docks. I said, “This is too good a chance to miss. Let’s get some of those barges. We’ll drop just one bomb at a time.” The bomb aimer went down to his bomb sight and lined up some of the barges. We were bombing from about 15,000 feet, and with a bit of “left, left, steady and right and steady”, I felt a little leap of the aeroplane and number one bomb went. I proceeded inland and did what was called a procedure turn: 45 degrees to one side for about a minute and a half and then a turn back and you come over your old track. On the way out we did “left, left, steady, steady, bomb gone”, and that was two bombs. There were 13 to go.

I began to notice in the perspex of the cockpit little flashes, like someone lighting a cigarette down behind me, and I asked the rear gunner, “Can you tell me what that light is behind us?” He said, “There’s some flak behind us, Captain, but it’s well behind us.”

We did three or four more runs and all the time these flashes were getting brighter and brighter and I was beginning to hear a crump each time. I became suspicious and said, “Jack, are you sure that flak is safe?”

He replied, “Oh yes, skipper it’s a good 25 yards off yet!”

On that run I said “Drop the lot”, and off we went back across the North Sea.

We were so inexperienced. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was sent the next night to Calais again as a punishment for being so stupid. This time the weather wasn’t so kind. From the English coast you could see underneath a layer of cloud the lights of Calais and the searchlights, but as you approached you came into the cloud and the target was hidden. I realised we weren’t going to be able to bomb visually and unless you could see the actual target you had to take your bombs back to base, which was a dangerous thing. I said to the crew, “We’re not going to be able to drop these on the barges at Calais. Let’s go home.”

I turned north, got the coffee thermos, and the smell of forbidden cigarettes began to waft up the fuselage from the back. I lost a bit of height and said to the navigator, “What time do you think we’ll reach the English coast?” With a tone of utter surprise, he said, “Have you left the French coast then?” “Yes,” I said, “I told you we were giving it up.” “How long ago was it?” he asked. I couldn’t imagine – half an hour, quarter of an hour. I told him 20 minutes. “Right,” he said, “we should be coming up to the coast in about 5 minutes’ time.”

I’d lost height from 15,000 down to about 8,000 feet by then and sure enough a coastline came up dark velvet against the silvery sea. I didn’t recognise the huge river mouth, with large islands. Panic hit me then, because we simply didn’t know where we were. It was certainly not England. I didn’t realise that in losing height the scale of everything had gone up and that the mouth of the river I saw looked like the Emden or the Rhine. The navigator came up to look at the coastline with me and as we came in over it to my horror guns started firing at us and searchlights waved around in front of us.

I turned out to sea to give a bit more thought to this. I asked to have any maps passed up to me and I looked at the coastline from Scotland to the Bay of Biscay trying to find this river mouth. We used to have an emergency frequency on the radio which was called “D for Darkie”, which you could call for help. I pressed the button and called “Hello Darkie, this is Lifebuoy A for Apple calling do you read?” A voice came back, “Allo, Lifebuoy A for Apple, zis eez….vill you land pleeze?” This proved they were hostile down there – there was no question of an RAF character talking like that!

We were utterly lost and in German territory. The end came when my gunner called, “Skipper! I think I can see a beacon.” There were networks of beacons flashing all over the country at night, and we had been given a code on a sheet to identify them. I set a course north from there and much to my pleasure our own home beacon came into view and we were able to land.

Now my Wing Commander was very unhappy about this whole procedure because he’d had to wait up for 6 hours unable to go to bed because he had a missing aircraft. He tore me off a strip. I said, “But sir, Darkie, I’m sure it was a teutonic accent.” “Yes,” he said, “there’s a Polish squadron down there!” So that explained that.'”

Wing Commander,
Rod Rodley DSO DFC AE

(Excerpted from the Bomber Command website)

Fully operational crews

Bomber crewsWhile there may have been failings at the highest level of command, the fate of Bomber Command hung on the integrity and mutual confidence of the operational crews :

“At the Operational Training Units they were being brought together. There was no more arbitrary assembling of men for odd operations… every possible step was taken to allow like-minded souls to fit together. In the first few days at OTU, a milling herd of assorted aircrew was left to crew up by natural selection:

‘I hear you want a gunner? Can you fly a Wimpey without making me throw up?’

‘We’re looking for a wireless operator and you’re the only bloke here who doesn’t look as if he’s got DTs..’

‘Our driver flew into a hill this morning so we wondered if you might do us for a new one…'” (Hastings 173)


Bomber Command Pilot Peter Sarll recalls the strength they drew from each other in dreadful circumstances:

“I don’t remember how many we lost then, the awful moments I do remember were going back into the village of Watton (in Norfolk) where the young wives were waiting for their husbands who had not returned, and never would.

I do not think that anyone who did not experience what we were called upon to perform… could ever visualize the tremendous courage of our people, so many of whom died. We were three to a crew, twelve crews to a squadron, and our lives depended upon one another. We reached out to one another for strength and support: when one was low, we tried to boost him up. I remember seeing many of them vomiting before getting into the aircraft – a sure sign of physical and mental exhaustion. There was, too, the toll of the stand-bys, at 30-minute readiness in the aircraft, taxying to take-off, and then being recalled because the square that was chalked on the observer’s map was the position of our own troops; and so back to dispersal, switch-off, and then that awful waiting again . . . Having a second tour on Lancasters and experiencing the smoothness of the higher organization and its tremendous efficiency, I used to look back on the old Blenheim days and wonder how any of us survived.”