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Three crews have not returned

Sam Brookes served on Lancaster bombers with Bomber Command and flew thirty missions. In this blog, Sam tells us of a daring raid on the Baltic coast of Poland, and remembers the crews who did not return.

About 11.00 am we hear that the Lancasters are being bombed up and fuelled.  Here’s the chance to find out what is ahead. I walk across the fields to where our Lancaster 'M for Mike' stands at its dispersal.  Yes, it is being bombed up and the petrol bowsers are there.  The bomb load is one 4000 lb cookie and eight 500lb blast bombs and the petrol load is 2154 gallons.  

That’s full tanks for a Lancaster, so we are going a long way tonight.

Sam Brookes with Lancaster crew

As the time approaches we all arrive at the briefing room, lining up to show our identity cards to the RAF Police, who check each one of us off against the battle order.

Security is tight, no absentees of course and no one gets in unless their name is listed. Precisely on time we stand, as the station commander enters with the squadron commander.

They take their seats at the front and we all sit to watch the curtain being drawn back from the huge map of Europe that covers the end wall. There we see that tonight’s target is Stettin (now Szczecin), on the Baltic coast of Poland.

We are to fly across the North Sea into Sweden. Then south, into the Baltic, crossing the island of Bornholm, then south to Stettin and the target.  The return route is virtually the same. Looking across the briefing room there are a few surprised and concerned expressions.

It’s a long way and the repeated route home looks like trouble. The briefing continues with bomb-load and weather information and Group Captain King emphasises that the purpose of the raid is to disrupt German troop movements as they prepare to defend against the Russians.

We repair to the crew room where each of us has a locker where the flying gear is kept. I clear my pockets of any items that might be useful to the Germans and store them in the locker. I wonder whether I will retrieve them or if someone will clear the locker for me after I fail to return.

Even though we are in summer the night skies over the Baltic will be cold, maybe -30c or colder. I will be flying in an unheated part of the plane so I don my electrically heated flying suit with electrically heated gloves and socks.

This is perhaps the most stressful time of all.  We know what we are to do and the quite awful dangers we will face but there is still nearly an hour before take-off.  We all check our equipment but there is not a lot of conversation as each man thinks his own thoughts.

Our turn comes and we trundle onto the runway to receive a green Aldis lamp flash from the controller.  Once airborne there is a sharp sense of relief.

My job on board was to use special “airborne cigar” (ABC) transmitters to jam German night fighter frequencies to prevent them from hearing the instructions from their ground controllers. As we near the Danish coast there are early signs of German transmissions which I and other squadron operators are quick to jam.

No sign of flak or combats so far and we cross into Sweden where, almost immediately, there are searchlights and tracer flak ahead. Strangely, that activity ceases as we pass over but re-commences when the bomber stream is well past.

Crossing the Baltic and Bornholm is uneventful and as we see the German coast ahead, Stettin is already lit by the pathfinders target indicator flares.  There is heavy flak but mostly seemingly inaccurate and such searchlights as we see are also ineffective.

We get a good bombing run, take our target photograph and turn sharply to port to leave the defended area and return north for Sweden and home. We have violated Sweden’s neutral airspace on both the outward and homeward trips. This time we are not alone. 

German night fighters have followed our homeward track into Sweden and one of our squadron’s aircraft is shot down near Malmo.   A second is brought down before we leave Swedish airspace. Back across the Kattegat and the German night fighters in Denmark are well aware of us.

We lost another of the squadron’s aircraft from fighters over Denmark, with no survivors. The remaining twelve cross into the safety of the North Sea.

We have lost three aircraft, 24 aircrew killed, 20% of those from our squadron participating in bombing this distant target.   We hope we have given some assistance to the Russians.   

Touch down is at 06.12 hours, exactly nine hours after take-off. A crew bus takes us to the briefing room, now the interrogation room, where we hand in our logs and are questioned by intelligence officers on every aspect of the flight. All that while drinking welcome mugs of tea, spiked with brandy.  

I can now make my way to bed and crawl in, thankful and quite exhausted. It is 24 hours since my head was last on this pillow... oblivion.

Back in 1944 I made the following note sometime after the raid.

Three crews have not returned.  First there was Flight Lieutenant Stewart.  We hear later that his crew was buried with full military honours in Sweden two days later but they did not find Stewart himself. Perhaps he is alive somewhere, but I doubt it.  Next there is Flying Officer Piprell, his fate is uncertain. The Swedes have found his aircraft with no bodies in it.  His bomb aimer was later buried in southern Sweden.  The third crew Flying Officer Foster and all his crew are buried in a mass grave near the east coast of Jutland.  Later Stewart’s name and Piprell’s both appear in the squadron roll of honour so it seems that no one survived.   Fisher and his crew were very new to the squadron, I did not know them.  

By Sam Brookes

0800 169 2942

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