An extract from 'It's Pull To Go Up' by Jeff Gray

Jeff Gray instructing from the R/H seat of a VC10

In early December we made our first attack on Berlin in G for George. We didn’t know it then, but we had been launched on the first of a series of attacks against the German capital that was to take up most of the winter of 1943–1944. This soon became evident to all, including the Germans, and the battle lines were drawn. This battle was clearly of the utmost importance to both sides. It seemed to me, as a newcomer to it all, that the odds were with the bombers. The Pathfinder force was becoming well established and equipped with navigation aids to enable them to find and mark their targets. Their techniques were forged in action and they were brilliantly led by Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett, a most remarkable and experienced aviator. Although they had formed out of necessity and not as an elite, they were drawn from the ranks of battle- hardened and experienced crews in their mid-tour. The main force squadrons were now equipped with their new heavy bombers, Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings. Mosquitoes were being introduced in numbers for target marking and photo reconnaissance, and even as fighter escorts. We looked on this latter development sourly. To have to differentiate between the Mosquito silhouette and its opposite number in the night-fighter force was more than we were prepared to do.

Jeff Gray at the controls of a Harvard

At first, every man and his dog joined in. Although concerned primarily with our own affairs, we felt sorry for the Stirlings and Halifaxes struggling below with their shorter range and lower ceiling. Gradually, though no one told us, they were withdrawn from the battle, leaving the Lancasters with their longer range and heavier punch to carry the assault. To the German defences, it was soon obvious what was afoot and at the briefings we were told that four thousand heavy guns, along with ten thousand light and medium guns, ringed the Big City. We had, perforce, to adopt the same route, time after time, until it became known as the tramlines. It must have been just as well known to the night-fighter force deployed to inflict the maximum damage on us. Using the techniques of spoof and diversionary raids to confuse the defences became increasingly unlikely to succeed as attack followed attack. The decisive factor was the weather. It should have been neutral, but to the bomber crews and particularly the Pathfinders, it didn’t appear so. We needed one or two occasions with the target clear to start the fire storms and wreak a massive destruction.

Jeff Gray (second from right) with his Lancaster crew

Time after time, the weather obscured the city and forced the Pathfinders to use sky markers. These parachute flares, unless dropped with extreme accuracy and making due allowance for the wind drift, were a poor substitute for target indicators on the ground. The Germans were not above setting spoof fires around the city and lighting their own markers. The Pathfinders, taking the early brunt of the defences, didn’t always survive to mark the target as planned, and the bomber crews, seeing nothing but the glow of fires through the overcast, were not inclined to dally and await further markers but bombed whatever they saw. The attacks also tended to trail back from the markers as crews, anxious not to stay too long so balefully exposed and under fire, bombed short and turned away for the comparative safety of the dark night skies. Memory is a poor guide and very fallible. In all this, my flying logbook gives hard detail of dates and places, bomb loads and flight times. Some things are forgotten or half-remembered, or are distorted and out of sequence. Other things are recalled with great clarity, although hindsight must also play a part. It was obvious, however, from the number of trips we did to the Big City that our masters were not content. If we had destroyed the city they would not have wished to go on turning over the rubble. In this sequence, we had a little light relief with a trip to Frankfurt and one to Stettin. This latter was the longest we did: nine hours and twenty-five minutes. Under the logbook column, ‘DUTY’ including ‘Results and Remarks’, I have noted, ‘Port wheel failed to lock down on return’. This is a rather unsatisfactory remark as it was, presumably, only an indication fault, but it does help to show that we were having what was known as a quiet tour. By that I mean we were not hit or injured or shot to pieces. Although subject to the same dangers as the others, we had come through, so far, unscathed. The Frankfurt trip, however, turned nasty. It was a fine night and very dark. Outbound towards the target the calm was broken by a sudden alert from the rear gunner. Out of the pitch black below came the silhouette of a night fighter filling his sights and breaking away to port and above us. Undetected, he had made his approach and, by some quirk of fate, some failure on his part, or of his equipment, not a shot had been fired. The realisation of what might have been cast a chill of fear upon us that went through the aeroplane. I urged them to keep a look-out and made one or two small turns to scan below in a gesture of defiance, but to little purpose.

Approaching Frankfurt, the defences were coming alive and the first flak bursts made their appearance. Immediately alongside us a scarecrew exploded. It looked like an aircraft taking a direct hit, shattering in fragments, then hanging in the sky instead of plummeting earthwards. I reassured them easily, myself included. ‘It’s all right, only a scarecrew’. We flew on towards the target. The searchlights were groping for a victim to show him up for the prowling fighters or for the anti-aircraft gunners. A searchlight beam caught us momentarily and overshot, then came back to lock us in its blinding light. His friends came sweeping across to join him and form the cone. I pushed down in my seat, snapped the panel lights to maximum and started to corkscrew for dear life. For a moment we were caught but in our initial steep diving turn we slipped out of the noose and they never really held us again. Reduced to the immediate world of the blind flying panel in front of me, I laid in maximum bank angle and rate of descent, changing from dive to climb, holding in the bank, scanning the dials, trading height and speed, rolling from maximum bank one way to maximum the other, striving for accuracy with maximum effect, while keeping the wings on. When it seemed that he had truly lost us, we settled back to level flight and prepared for the attack. Taffy seemed well pleased with the run, so the gyros must have settled down also and we turned away on to the first heading for home. Thirty-five years later, I read a book about Bomber Command that my wife had brought from the library. It was a most authentic account of that time and I read with interest of places and things I had known and shared. Then I had a shock. Despite the author’s researches of German war material and records, he had come up empty-handed on the subject of scarecrews. No such wonderful pyrotechnic had ever existed. On 19 February we went to Leipzig. We were routed as though taking the tramlines to Berlin. To keep the bomber stream together and assist the navigation, a wind-finding system was under trial. Although we were not especially equipped for it, we had been designated as wind finders. On the long haul out over the North Sea and in the climb to altitude, we knew ourselves to be on track as we buffeted around in the comforting slip stream of unseen aeroplanes, and Geoff was busy fixing on the GEE navigation system. He passed the figures up to me and he seemed troubled. ‘It’s unbelievable’, he said, ‘a very strong westerly. If we send this back they won’t believe it’. We discussed it for a while, debating whether to cut it back or not. In the end I decided to send it back unmodified. After all, the idea was to combine all the winds found, fit them to the synoptic situation and transmit a composite wind back to the bomber force. Sure enough, it came back modified, the wind speed considerably reduced. We droned on through the night towards the enemy coast. Geoff gave me two ETAs for the turning point. The first was his own, based on the wind he had found, and the second was based on the composite. The operational plan was very simple. We appeared to be heading for Berlin. When we came abeam of Leipzig we were to turn off for our real target. It was clear that we would overshoot the turning point. You can’t actually do much to alter an aircraft’s cruising speed. It’s a narrow range, limited at the top by the power available and, at the bottom, by the need to keep sufficient airflow over the wings to stay above the stall. In this narrow band there is an optimum where the lift/drag ratio is at its most favourable. To circle within the bomber stream was not a technique I favoured, but nearer the time, I was prepared to put in a dog leg.

Captain Jeff Gray, BOAC

Barely had we crossed the enemy coast when the port inner engine failed and had to be shut down. I decided to carry on. By hand-flying as carefully and accurately as I could, we kept the height loss within bounds and the slight reduction in airspeed was to our benefit. I decided that we would promote ourselves to the first wave, turn on Geoff’s ETA and risk getting there early and, if need be, stooge about when we reached Leipzig, or put in a dog leg just before. It had the hallmarks of a shambles. We did our little dog leg and made it smack on time. I was two hundred feet short of our regular height of twenty thousand feet when we bombed and I was particularly proud of that. The trip, and its return were otherwise uneventful. There was one difference at debriefing. A senior high-ranking officer was present and was taking an interest. He questioned us for a little while, perhaps because nothing of greater interest offered that night. Geoff affected great indignation over the modification to his wind finding, but no one took him up on it. In all, we did nine trips to the Big City, starting in early December, the last one in mid-February 1944. I feel a little uneasy, as I have told people that we did ten, but that was because one of them never took place and, as it didn’t, it gets no mention as a logbook entry. Our regular aeroplane was G for George, although occasionally, we operated in M for mother. The aeroplanes were not allocated exclusively to one crew. When we stood down or went on leave others flew them. G for George had landed away and it was decided that we would position there and operate as part of another squadron, returning to our own base afterwards. I’m not even sure where this was, but Waddington comes to mind. I recall that it was an Australian squadron. We had a fair sprinkling of Dominion (Commonwealth) aircrew on Number 61, but there were very few Aussies and stories were circulating at the time that all these Dominion squadrons were a bit ropy. This was the kind of rumour that was spread and believed, even if it was entirely without foundation. It is true to say that we were a bit prejudiced and took our place at briefings feeling slightly superior. This characteristic of the British has failed to endear us to our colonial cousins over the years. We trooped out to our machine and made ready. I watched the first aeroplane take-off, thundering by fairly close to our dispersal, then lumbering skyward, his navigation lights gradually fading in the distance. One or two more followed. We had been set a precise time for start up and departure. I called the ground crew chief to start up and a mechanic climbed into the starboard wheel well to prime the KI gas pump.1 I watched casually, as the next aeroplane started his take-off run and came towards us. All at once I could see that he was swinging off the runway and careering towards us. We were right in his path. I shouted a futile warning. On the flight deck, we ducked down behind the coaming in an even more futile gesture. He must have continued turning as he thundered past, taking part of our starboard wing with him. We scrambled out, forgetting the mechanic in the wheel well, and ran for cover, or just fell flat on the grass. I don’t know how long I lay there in the open, but presently, I recovered from my fright, got to my feet and set off towards the wreckage. It had come to rest between a hangar and some sort of shelter and other paraphernalia. All was quiet. I couldn’t leave them there, trapped inside, even if they were Aussies. I scrambled inside and made my way forward. The aeroplane was deserted. I turned and made my way back out. On the way, I met my navigator coming forward on the same ploy. ‘They’ve gone’, I said. ‘Not a bad idea’, he said, ‘this bloody lot could go up any minute’. We collected everyone together and made our way back to the briefing room. There was no one about. We rustled up some transport and made our way back to base. Last we heard, they had located all the crew, and the rear gunner was found wandering across the airfield, distressed because he had got his intercom plug wet.

In our usual way, we made nothing of it. There was, of course, no debriefing and no one interested. We were not a very satisfactory crew at debriefings anyway, preferring to get it over and get to the eggs and bacon, and off to bed. I don’t know who the people were, referred to by the BBC, who left targets blazing and so you could see them lighting up the sky a hundred miles behind them. We concentrated on accurate navigation and keeping up a sharp look out till it was time to descend over the North Sea and then, free of the need for oxygen, someone would take Jock a coffee and light a fag for him and then come to full alert again for the last bit, on a safe arrival at base.

Flight Lieutenant Jeff Gray, DFM

There was another occasion that fortunately also came to nothing. We were briefed for Königsberg. Perhaps this was at Uncle Joe’s request. The ribbon joining East Anglia to the target looked longer than usual. Before the briefing ended, my navigator had cross-checked the fuel figures against the distance and time that would elapse. He began to nudge me persistently, insisting that I get to my feet and say something. His calculations showed that we could make it all right, but would run out of fuel somewhere over the North Sea on the return. Failing a sensible answer, he wanted charts and details of suitable landing grounds in Sweden. It got embarrassing all round.

Somewhere, someone found an out, common sense prevailed and the trip was scrubbed. We concluded that it must have been a political or propaganda stunt of some kind, that the air marshals were under pressure they couldn’t resist and had, perforce, to resort to finding some last-minute technicality to call it off.

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