Nos remerciements au Flight Lieutenant Thomas J Maxwell DFC, du 622 Squadron de la RAF, qui nous a donné l’autorisation de reproduire le récit de son aventure, survenue au retour d’une mission sur Stuttgart, dans la nuit du 15 au 16 mars 1944. L’équipage, qui en était à sa sixème mission, volait à bord d’un Lancaster Mk I, le LL828 GI-J. Quatre membres d’équipage ont réussi à s’évader, trios ont été faits prisonniers par les Allemands. Engagé volontaire, Thomas Maxwell n’avait alors que 19 ans. Bien qu’ayant suivi une formation de pilote, il occupait le poste de mitrailleur arrière.
The take off, in a Lancaster with full fuel and a full bomb load totaling anything up to 65,000 lbs+ (one third of the weight was fuel) was not always straight forward and the aeroplane could be wayward in strong crosswinds
The clearance to take-off came from the Runway Caravan by a steady green Aldis lamp signal and meant only that the aeroplane ahead was safely airborne. The usual group of well-wishers from WAAF’s to Wing Commanders huddled together in the driving rain and were just visible in the green glare, the same faithful would be there up to give a “thumbs-up” what ever the weather conditions.
'Snaking' on take off or when taxiing may have been seen as 'normal' and 'under control' by the pilot and other crew up front, but in the darkness of the rear turret, sitting almost over the tail wheel it was something different! It sometimes felt as if the tail wheel was made of wood everything at the back end strained, banged, shook and rattled, and it was a tense hold on to everything few moments, including the stomach. Ammunition jostled and rattled in the fuselage as the turret swayed shook and vibrated
it was the closest one could get to being airsick on the ground. When the tail of the aeroplane lifted into the air one could then relax.
A 'trip' to the southern German target of Stuttgart on October 19th 1944 had a touch of the déjà vu about it, well not so much a touch, more of a gnawing apprehension, compared to the previous visit. This was my third visit to this engineering city which produced diesel engines for enemy Tanks and U Boats etc.
The times taken to get to the same target and back to base would nearly always be similar if one was to navigate as the crow flies, but it was never like that. Targets were reached and bombed from various compass points. Bombers were routed sometimes towards ‘spoof ‘ targets and then turned away towards the intended area. Sometimes a mission would be flown towards a specific target, then flown past only to return from a different and hopefully unsuspected heading, hoping if nothing else to confuse the enemy defences on the ground.
Constant adjustment to planned tracks was the Navigators task because of head or tail winds, forecast or not, engine malfunctions, airframe icing, known flak areas, or new ones ,searchlights and evasive action and not forgetting 'Gremlins’
Gremlins were wee fellas, like Pixies, and they were invisible. They could get into everything and cause terrible trouble. Their current equivalents would be called bugs or glitches.
The Bomb-Aimer often sat in the right hand seat beside the pilot , if a second or screen pilot wasn't carried. On this Gremlin occasion both the navigator and the pilot were getting edgy because of apparently unnecessary and too frequent track deviations called dog legs (if a delay was needed, or cutting a corner if behind time).
The navigator could not understand it, and the pilot swore that he was flying the headings precisely as instructed. Known pinpoints were not where they should have been or were being reached late or too early. The atmosphere up front was not normal and a bit tense. The intercom provided the running commentary and it appeared that 'time on target' was going to be a hit or miss affair. Someone asked if the compass had been “swung” recently.
Bombing too early or late brought additional hazards and being a 'straggler' was not recommended.
The navigation errors were ultimately resolved when the pilot remarked to the bomb-aimer 'What's that?' pointing to his left boot. The bomb-aimer had been sitting since take off with a heavy metal torch stuck down the side of his left flying boot virtually within inches of the P4 compass. The air was a dark shade of blue for a short period. Gremlins had obviously put this metal object in the flying boot near the compass when the owner wasn't looking.
The three ops to Stuttgart in my logbook are logged in red ink as follows (all night flying was entered into crew logbooks in red and day flying in black):
March 1st 7 hrs 30 mins: March 15th 6 hrs 10 mins: October 19th 7 hrs 10 mins
The difference in over an hour for the March 15th trip is significant for two reasons. The time of 6 hrs 10 mins was entered in a strange hand and the logbook was annotated: 'FAILED TO RETURN.
The thing about bailing out, in total darkness at night, from a crippled aircraft or splashing your 25 ton Lancaster into a raging sea swell was that you didn’t get any practice lessons beforehand, so it was a bit of a new thing. The nearest one got was about a year before was jumping off the top diving board in the warm water and brightly lit baths in Brighton in a flying suit and Mae West.
Then the water had loads of noisy laughter and PT life-saving instructors to help if one got into difficulty.
It was 1.30 in the morning and pitch black, the top board was about 8 000 feet vibrating and descending rapidly, and spewing fuel and oil from ruptured fuel tanks. No friendly life-savers etc, but the reality that our fuel was being exhausted even faster than calculated had now replaced the 'ditching' idea and bailing- out, (and pretty soon at that) was the only option left. We, or certainly I was already well into a personal life preservation situation.
I was personally totally disenchanted when the channel rowing exercise in total darkness was muted as a possibility.
I never found the idea of hitting the English Channel at 100 mph in total darkness ,with sea and swell conditions unknown, and with an indeterminate amount of fuel, to be in the least ,appealing. The idea did nothing for my morale at all. My lack of enthusiasm for swimming, anywhere, but especially in the dark would appear to have been quite realistic.
Six of the crew all landed in an area 40 miles North east of Rouen and all reasonably close, within a kilometre or so of each other, but they left the aircraft I was already on the way down some 20 kilometres further back, representing several minutes. The reason for their delay will never be known, but after 57 years almost to the day it has just been established that the aeroplane crashed within a couple of miles from where some of the crew were taken POW.
Of the four who returned to England on May 22 nd on a DC3 from Gibraltar to Bristol (Whitchurch)
I only met up later with Peter Jezzard. Both of us returned to operational flying with our original Squadron 622, Peter finishing his 'tour' in November 1944 on 35 'trips' and myself on 32, finishing on New Years Day 1945.
Emergency exit from the Lancaster was usually made from either the front escape hatch or the main entrance door. The procedure when leaving from the rear door was to dive out with your head down to avoid hitting the tail plane (I was definitely there and awake the day they told us that), but there were a lot of ‘if’s and buts’. To exit by the main door was going to take time, which I/we didn't have, and I was just as much averse to queuing as swimming I was quickly getting my wits together Get the parachute! Quick glance! Yes its there in the fuselage, an arm’s length away Okay, open turret doors and hope they don't jam (they sometimes did) that's it - drag the chute carefully into the turret (it wouldn't have been the first time a parachute had accidentally deployed inside an aircraft) - consternation ! there's no room to put it on. This situation wasn’t in the design and Hey! You know your lower harness is loose, well you cant do anything about it now so get on! rotate the turret 90 degrees, otherwise you'll be bailing out into the fuselage.
I flew sometimes with lower parachute harness straps loose because
The systems and the training were working ok , but they didn’t tell us there was no room to get the chute onto the harness inside the turret, with the turret now at right angles to the fuselage, the slipstream gale was grabbing, tearing and tugging at the flapping parachute back pack, the spewing fuel whipping past me and there was nothing now but Hobsons Choice, go back into the pitch black fuselage or stick your rear end into
This 120 knot growling wind. They always used phrases like keep a cool head, its dead easy, it’s a piece of cake don’t worry, its dead easy I was thinking what’s all this dead stuff ? I’m only nineteen maybe they knew something and didn’t tell, and I wondered how many times they had ever been in this situation. I didn’t want to know about dead but I did know this wasn’t easy . There was no spare space. I had one parachute hook engaged but with the ‘chute’ at 45 degrees. The gun sight and controls were blocking any progress to get close to the remaining clip engaged. I edged an inch or two into the howling blackness and just as I was about to make fast the other parachute clip I was gone! A sharp chug that felt like a broken neck reminded me about the helmet and intercom lead, and I tumbled into the night clutching the parachute in my left arm
When they told us that bailing-out was dead easy . Its that dead bit again and they said count 'seventy-one, seventy-two seventy.' So that you wouldn’t hit some part of the aeroplane, or its trailing aerial stupid I thought there’s nothing behind me but blackness. Almost immediately after the Indian neck massage I pulled the D ring (rip cord) in the only knowledge that Long John Silver managed with one hook and one was better than none. Life is simplified when there are no options. The crunch as the drag-chute came out and parachute 'woofed' into it's canopy above was great to feel, and it felt that I was being taken back up. I did say 'thanks'. The dangling harness strap found its mark
The loose harness caught more than my breath but the fear that I was spinning brought an added urgency to the situation as I tried to turn myself in the opposite direction. To this day I don't know whether I pulled myself up to the pack and hooked it or I pulled the parachute down towards me, but I was relieved that I was now descending in a more controlled manner with both parachute hooks now firmly in place. Adrenaline achieves great things. It is easy now in old age to make light of some of the , what was it ? It wasn’t fear or terror, more awe, consternation or dread.
All of this sequence - from the moment I aligned the rear turret with the fuselage, reached for the parachute until now when I began for the first time to feel safe, seems, as I write, to have taken ages. In fact it the whole sequence of events could not have taken more than half a minute.
Many things were going in and out of the brain so quickly - but a recurring apprehension of becoming impaled on a church spire, landing in a river lake or a reservoir ( it was that swimming thing again) marshy ground or getting hung up on some tall building or electricity pylons or wires. You had to think of something and I was a born pessimist. As I was falling I was oddly glad of the darkness. I was definitely thinking that I should have gone to church more often, or even occasionally -but I would fix it ,and that I should have written home more often. I will put that right as well, I promise!
Things were definitely better now, and I must be down to about 3000 feet or so, onwards downwards nicely. There was just a bit of moonlight now, and instead of being rent by the roof of some French Parish church, or drowning in somebody’s swimming pool, I was dumped unceremoniously into a ploughed field and a relatively soft landing. I felt nauseous and wished I had tolerated the tighter parachute harness.
There was moonlight now It was mid-March in 1944, still a bit frosty in the early morning it was about 0140 and the piles of manure were in the fields ready for spreading
There is a saying: "It matters not whether you're in the ***t or out of it, it's only the depth that varies."
At this point, I was quite happy to be 'in it'.
The territory was enemy but the ground smelt fresh and friendly in the early hours. Two days later I was told by my French helpers that there was a German garrison just 500 metres away from where I landed.
37 Broken and bent Lancasters and Halifaxes were lying on the ground scattered about Germany and France that night - lost as were many many young lives. I reflected on my situation some days later and how things might have subsequently turned out for us. I was told by the French Family who sheltered me, and took great risks in doing so that Nurnberg had been bombed and 97 aircraft of Bomber Command had been lost. I thought how lucky I was.
I returned to Stuttgart again seven months later and though not uneventful, this trip was by comparison dead easy .
© Thomas J Maxwell DFC
Dedicated to the Memory of
Warrant Officer Peter Jezzard DFM
(Wireless Operator of LL828)
5th April 1948
when his Wellington crashed into the North Sea
If anyone has any information about the loss of Wellington XR504 please email me
Postscript: Looking back now some 60 years later , If asked would I do it all again ?
My answer would be NO! let the politicians who invent wars, DO IT.
Le Lancaster :
Utilisé en masse par le Bomber Command (7356 exemplaires construits), le Lancaster, assure l’essentiel des missions de bombardement sur l’Allemagne. Il est, de par ses dimensions, comparable au B 17 américain, mais ses capacités d’emport sont bien supérieures : jusqu’à 11 tonnes. En revanche, son plafond est inférieur : 24 500 pieds contre 35 000 pieds pour le B 17.
La motorisation est assurée par 4 moteurs V 12 à refroidissement liquide, ces mêmes Rolls Royce Merlin qui équipent les chasseurs Hurricane et Spitfire. L’équipage est composé de 7 hommes : 1 pilote; 1 bombardier, 1 navigateur, 1 opérateur radio, 1 mécanicien et 2 mitrailleurs. De tous les postes, c’est sans doute celui de mitrailleur arrière qui est le moins enviable. Particulièrement exposé, il se trouve confiné dans une tourelle exigue, n’ayant avec le reste de l’équipage, d’autre lien que l’interphone Il doit lutter contre un froid paralysant : à 7 000 m d’altitude, la température extérieure descend en-dessous de – 30° C. C’est pourquoi il porte une combinaison et des gants chauffants. Les missions durent en moyenne plus de 7 heures, dont au minimum 5 heures de vol en altitude, pendant lesquelles l’ équipage doit supporter le froid, et porter le masque à oxygène.
Le pilote, Peter Thomson, qui a été fait prisonnier, a publié son récit The Ides of March 1944 dans Silk and Barbed Wire.- Perth (Australia) : Royal Air Force Ex-Prisonners of War Association, 2000., p. 202-221.
Lejeune-Pichon, Jocelyne.- Nous combattons de nuit au Squadron 622 : RAF Bomber Command 1943-1945.- J. Lejeune-Pichon (17 place des Halles, 78910 Orgerus, France), 2000.
 Le Lancaster LL 828 GIJ a poursuivi sa route et s’est écrasé dans le Bois du Château de Beaulieu, sur le territoire de la commune de Lannoy-Cuillère (Oise).