A HALIFAX BOMBER CREW OF WORLD WAR II
I urge all of you to read the following and then watch the video produced by the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial at former RAF base Elvington. The video is titled The Last Flight of Halifax L 9561 and can be found on You Tube.
This is an amazing video that describes the workings of this heavy bomber from the engines, electrical, guns, outer skin, hydraulics and the fuel tanks and fuel along with where the remaining fuel was following the mission and in preparation for landing at base. It also describes what the crew members were responsible for on a mission and where where they sat. It describes in detail the responsibilities of each crew member along with the equipment they used to achieve a successful mission.
It describes the bombs used and how those handling these weapons kept the bombs safe until loaded on the aircraft.
I would think that the crews of Lancaster bombers would have the same duties and use the same or similar equipment that a Halifax crew used.
This is a very detailed video and as the son of a man who served in RCAF Group 6 - Bomber Command it was quite an eye opener for me.
Please make the effort to view the video and enjoy.
The Crew of a Heavy Halifax / Lancaster / Short Stirling and B-24 Liberator Bomber
The crew of a heavy 4 engine bomber flying over enemy territory had to work as a team on the outbound leg, the bombing run and the return leg to base for a mission to be successful. Each crew member was dependent on the other crew members and each had to fulfill his duties so the aircraft successfully returned to base. They endured the same dangers and experiences.
The bond amongst the crew was strong, the crew varied in age, came from different walks of life and different countries. The bond a crew had was important as it kept morale and efficiency at a high level.
From 1939 until the second half of 1941 each aircraft had two pilots along with a double-duty aircrew. The Observer or Navigator also acted as the Bombadier while the Wireless Operator also acted as an Air Gunner. When the heavy bombers came into service the Flight Engineer replaced the co-pilot and the other crew members dealt with single specialized duties.
From late 1941 a heavy bomber crew was as follows.....
This man flew the aircraft and could have held the rank of Sergeant or a rank as high as Group Captain. He was in charge of the aircraft and the crew. He would have flown the aircraft throughout the mission and ensured the crew was working with one another. He was responsible for the lives of his crew and if there was an emergency that arose during the mission it was his duty to remain at the controls and be the last crew member to leave the aircraft.
His responsibilities were to keep the aircraft on course at all times, reach the intended target and the get the aircraft safely back to base. His concentration level during the whole mission would have been very high and this could be up to 7-12 hours. His position in the aircraft was behind the pilot and flight engineer. He had a curtain around him as he needed a lit area to carry out his duties. Had he not have had a curtain his light would have attracted enemy fighters to his aircraft. He would have used astral navigation, map reading and wireless positional fixes to and from the target.
As the aircraft went into the bombing run this man would take over control of the aircraft. He would be lying flat in the nose, directing the pilot until all the bombs had been released and the bombing photographs taken. The photos were the proof the operation had been completed and this counted toward the total number of operations the crew had carried out. In times of emergency this man could act as a reserve pilot. His position in the aircraft was at the very front of the aircraft and below the level of the pilot. He could also have been the front gunner.
He had the responsibility of controlling the aircraft's mechanical electrical, hydraulic and fuel systems. He also assisted the pilot during take off and landings by controlling the throttles. During an emergency he would be required to provide the pilot with accurate fuel calculations. Should the bombadier be injured he would take over those duties. He would also have been watching for enemy aircraft. When the aircraft was on the ground at its dispersal pad the Flight Engineer would have had a working relationship with the ground crew who serviced and maintained the aircraft. His position was beside the pilot
The duties of this crew member were to transmit all messages coming from base and going to base. He had fewer duties than his crew mates as missions were in radio silence. However, he was a reserve gunner and attended to minor emergencies in the aircraft if needed. If there was an emergency he was responsible for sending out the position of his aircraft on a regular basis. If they were ditching at sea it was imperative he remain at his post and send out distress signals to improve the chances of being rescued. His position was just in front of the main spar at the back of the cockpit. He would assist the Navigator with triangulation fixes to obtain information on where exactly their position was.
Mid-Upper and Rear Turret Gunners
These two men were separated from the rest of the crew who were in forward area of the aircraft. They were confined to their respective turrets in the coldest parts of the aircraft for the complete mission. Their main duty was to inform the pilot of the activities and movements of enemy aircraft which allowed the pilot to take whatever actions necessary to evade the enemy. The mid upper gunner spent the mission suspended on a canvas sling seat and his lower body was in the breezy fuselage while his head and shoulders were in the plexiglass dome on the top of the aircraft. The rear gunner was the most exposed and cold. Here he was very aware of every movement of his aircraft. His position was in a cramped metal and perspex cupola. There was so little leg room that some rear gunners placed their boots into the turret before they climbed in. Some gunners removed the glass so they could see better and temperatures at times were -40 and frostbite was common. The only thing the gunners would hear during a mission was the engines, distant voices of the other crew through their headsets and the hiss of oxygen. The gunners were always rotating his turret and straining their eyes through the darkness for a shadow that could have been an enemy aircraft. The primary role of the air gunners was to act as lookouts It is a fact that some tail gunners completed 30 missions and never fired a shot. If the enemy pilot knew he had been spotted he usually pulled away and looked for a less alert crew.
Tips for air gunners were to search the sky at take off and landing as this was the most vulnerable times of a mission; if gun fire you were to inform pilot to take evasive action; always watch your tail; conserve ammo and never fire at long range; never fly straight or dive when being attacked; use good teamwork; patrol across the sun and never into or away from it; never turn away from an attack but head toward it; using tracers at night destroys your night vision so hold fire until necessary; if on a recon mission return to base with important info and not seek combat; aim of enemy fighters is to destroy you while the aim of the gunners in a bomber is to reach the target and return to base; never fire until you have been fired upon; all approaching aircraft are considered enemy until informed otherwise; to be surprised is to be lost and if your guns fail or are damaged use ingenuity to outwit the enemy.
A Typical Operational Sortie
From mid morning on the day of an upcoming mission the crew knew that "ops were on tonight" or that they had been "stood down". A list known as the "battle order" would have been posted which gave the number of aircraft assigned to the mission, which aircraft that would be flying and the names of the crews for each aircraft. The target for the mission would be known and the latest reconnaissance photos would be available as well as other information such as weather over the target.
At some point in the day the crew would gather at their assigned aircraft to ensure all was working well. The oxygen supply would be checked, the heated suits would be checked as well as the machine guns. The ground crew was available to correct anything the crew reported.
When the ground crew began readying the aircraft, they would know the target and prepare the bombload called for and the required fuel to reach the target and return to base. In addition ammunition was put onboard. The ground crew or "erks" took much pride in their work as what they did and would increase the odds of a crew returning to base.
These would commence during the afternoons and during these times the base would be locked down. When briefings were ongoing in a large room they were guarded by police. The Commanding Officer conducted the Navigation Briefing and he was accompanied by the Flight Commanders. Also in attendance was the meteorologist and intelligence officers. The curtain was pulled back to reveal a large map of Europe. There would have been red tape on the map from the base to a point where there was a "dog leg" to the target and back to base. The dog leg was used to give the enemy the impression that a different target was the intended target in the hope the Luftwaffe would concentrate in the wrong direction. Navigators took notes on flight times, positions for any planned course changes and with their pilots and bombadiers mark their charts and maps adding notations for wind speed and directions, the attack time and known enemy anti-aircraft batteries along with other important and necessary information. Red indicated flak positions and green indicated searchlights. Later in the General Briefing the Bombadiers, Wireless Operators, Flight Engineers and the Air Gunners were also present. At this time there was less Navigational details. Following this briefing the crews had "free time" to write letters" and prepare themselves for the upcoming mission. Some would sleep before their meal which was called the :last supper".
Suit Up and the Move to Dispersal
Crews began collecting their parachutes, their Mae West life preservers and then began suiting up by climbing into their flying suits in preparation for the mission which could take up to 12 hours. Some of the crew were quiet while others were more noisy. They would remove anything personal from their pockets.
They then made ready to climb into canvas topped trucks which then took them to their aircraft on the dispersal pads ringing the airfield. They then checked their aircraft prior to the pilot and flight engineer starting their engines to "run them up". The Pilot then signed a form accepting responsibility for a fully serviceable bomber.
The crew were aware of the flying conditions when it came to toilet breaks when climbing from 10,000' to 20,000' when oxygen became thin. A toilet on a bomber was anything from a can, a bottle to the Elsan which the groundcrew hated to clean. Aircrew had developed a superstition of "wheel pissing" which took place before a mission. The crew urinated on the tail wheel prior to the mission. Many felt it was lucky to do so before boarding the aircraft and settling in at their positions.
While an aircraft waited for take off wireless traffic was kept to a bare minimum. If the mission was very distant the aircraft would be topped up while waiting to take off. The aircraft would then taxi in order and the pilot would contact his crew to know all was well. When it was their turn there was a signal from the tower and they would begin to move down the runway and begin to climb slowly to a designated height and then head to the coast to the designated assembly point.
Enemy Coast Ahead
Squadrons operating north of the Humber River crossed the coast at Flamborough Head and Spurn Point and from the southern bases they crossed the coast at Cromer. During the outbound leg crew members would call out landmarks to assist the Navigator. Once over the North Sea they test fired their guns. The first part of the mission was quiet and when the enemy coast was in sight the crews began expecting the enemy. Along the Dutch, Belgian and French coasts the enemy had flak ships and barges which would begin their fire against the bombers. They knew the Luftwaffe night fighters were stalking them. The Navigators were taking readings from the stars and using the wireless as they obtained their positioning. They received assistance from the crew who gave information reports of rivers and bridges below them. At this time other aircraft were in flames after being hit by flak or night fighters. The Bombardier and the Air Gunners were straining to locate enemy aircraft. Depending on the course to the target they could very well overfly heavy belts of anti-aircraft batteries, searchlights, enemy radars and listening positions.
Bomber Command would often arrange diversionary attacks known as "spoof raids" using a smaller secondary force and often used aircraft from Operational Training Units attempting to confuse the enemy and draw the Luftwaffe of the Kammhuber Line. If successful the enemy aircraft would use maximum fuel before learning they were stalking a deception and the not having the fuel to reach the main attack. Another tactic was called "window" where foil strips were dropped on the inbound leg to the target which effectively blinding the German radar.
Aircraft would arrive at the target area under heavy enemy fire and then try to avoid the searchlights and then begin to fly circuits around the target and await their instructions from the "Master Bomber". The Pathfinders had dropped different coloured flares. The Master Bomber could see where the bombs were falling and would guide the bombers to a point in the area marked by the Pathfinders. Aircraft approached at a pre arranged altitude with the pilot following the instructions of the Navigator who was seeing the marker where the Master Bomber wanted the bombs dropped. Once the bombs were released a bomber it would lurch up several hundred feet. Now it was a dangerous time as the aircraft had to fly straight and level before there was a large photo flash as the picture of the target was taken. They were a perfect target now for the enemy gunners and enemy night fighters. Once the photos were taken the bomber would turn sharply and then dive before getting on a course back to base. Sometimes over the target the Master Bomber would have to halt the bombing runs because the markers the Pathfinders had dropped were gone. The Pathfinders then had to drop more markers before the bombing could continue. Sometimes there were violent explosions in the bomber stream after an aircraft was hit in the open bomb bay causing the aircraft to explode. The Germans also used a pyrotechnic type shell which exploded sending sparks everywhere. The aircrews called these "scarecrows" and their intent was to scare the aircrew. The night fighters when they attacked aimed for the fuel tanks or bomb bays.
Following the attack the crew and head away from the target area. On the way back to base they had to again avoid the flak belts and night fighters. The fighters followed the bombers out over the coast and the North Sea and English Channel and even over England. The crews were tired and they would now have to be more vigilant. Some of the crew would now take their Benzedrine of "wakey wakey" tablets. Some night fighters followed the bombers over England and attack before the bomber could land.
Landing and Debriefing
Once back at base they landed according to their fuel reserves, if wounded were on board or if they had battle damage. Sometimes a crew landed elsewhere because of lack of fuel or battle damage. Once back at their dispersal the crew immediately went into de-briefing. Each crew member was interviewed and gave their detailed report. Following the debriefing the crews had a good breakfast.
RAF Bomber Command aircrew had to fly 30 missions which was an "operational tour". Between March 1943 until the summer of 1944 the life expectancy of a bomber crew was very short. New crews were usually lost before they completed 12 missions. Sometimes crews were lost close to the 30 mission mark. A 30 mission tour took between 3-5 months.