Notes: British aircraft & 214 (FEDERATED MALAY STATES) SQUADRON RAF

Sergeant ERIC H COOPER Air Gunner


The "Heavies"
Short Brothers' Stirling was the first to be introduced in late 1940. Restricted by the Air Ministry to a maximum wingspan of 100 feet (so it could fit inside the then-standard hangar!) it was a very strongly-built aircraft which suffered from insufficient speed and altitude. Also, its split length bomb bay could not accept the large 4,000lb "cookie" blast bombs which were now becoming standard. Although operated well into 1944 as a heavy bomber it also performed extremely well as a glider tug and paratroop carrier.

Its short wingspan made astonishingly large flaps imperative, but the tall spindly-legged electrically operated undercarriage was less than reliable. It also had a proliferation of fuel tanks and the crew were constantly switching between them.

The Stirling's performance was a maximum of 270 mph at 14,500 feet, a maximum height of 17,000 feet, and a war load of 3,500 lbs of bombs over 2,010 miles.

Many operationally tired Stirlings could not climb above 13,000 feet where they were sitting ducks for both light and heavy flak defences. Also, many Stirling crews consisted of eight men, including a 2nd Pilot as well as a Flight Engineer.

It has been reported to me that a skilled Stirling pilot could turn the 4 engined bomber inside an “attacking” Hurricane or Martinet, on fighter affiliation exercises.  This was apparently due to the Stirling's very high wing loading which allowed astonishingly tight turns.

Three Stirling Aircraft on a training flight

The diagram below shows the size differences between the three types of heavy bomber; Stirling in light yellow, Halifax in pink and Lancaster in light blue. The substantially larger and more ponderous outline of the Stirling is clearly evident.

Few bombers saw the inside of a hangar, being dispersed around the aerodrome's perimeter track. A typical Bomber aerodrome was 750 or 1,000 acres of former Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or Cambridgeshire farmland, with a "population" of 1,000 or 1,200 people. Ground staff outnumbered aircrew 10 to 1, and many valuable jobs were done by members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, or WAAFs.

Explosives and bomb design improved to match. The new explosive compound RDX, and later Torpex, was developed, and with a much higher charge : weight ratio and better primers, timers and detonators, the entire focus of night bombing began to change. The great bombs of the day - the 4,000-LB"cookies" - were nothing but steel dustbins packed with RDX and designed to destroy an entire street. Magnesium and phosphorous incendiary bombs of various configurations set fire to anything they touched.

Most bombers were inadequately heated, with only one heat outlet, with the result that one lucky crew member sat in a sweat and everyone else froze. The air gunners were equipped with electrically heated oversuits, boots and gauntlets, but these were notoriously unreliable. The stunning cold at high altitudes often froze equipment solid, leaving guns unable to fire at a crucial moment, or crew members injured when they touched metal with their bare hands. Thus, enemy action was not the only hazard they faced.

At the peak of heavy bomber production in December 1943, the aircraft industry employed 1,711,600 workers, and expenditure in 1942 was £690 million.  At least £200 million was spent by the RAF in constructing the new concrete three-runway aerodromes, with a heavy bomber, two squadron base costing £1 million in 1941.

Wartime figures showed that the average number of operational sorties completed by a bomber aircraft was between thirteen and fourteen.

The mighty Stirling outlined in yellow was the biggest bomber operated by the RAF

A vast number of airmen from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other parts of the British Empire and its Dominions (such as South Africa, Rhodesia and so on) served in the RAF, RCAF, RAAF, or RNZAF. Even before the USA's involvement after Pearl Harbour (7-Dec-1941) many United States nationals also swelled the ranks, usually by the simple expedient of crossing into Canada and joining the RCAF. Provided that the man concerned forsook his US citizenship, and took allegiance to the Crown, this practice was winked at by the authorities. A very large number of Canadians served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Specific units were formed to accommodate Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, and such units as 460 Sqdn RAAF, 75 Sqdn RNZAF, and 428 Sqdn RCAF (to name but a few) sprang into existence. Having said that, a great number of such men also served in RAF units, the Australians soon earning a reputation for assertiveness and aggressiveness - as much on the ground as in the air!
Volunteers also came from the Caribbean and West Africa. Approximately 500 black and coloured Caribbean aircrew, as well as 6,000 ground crew, served with both Bomber and Fighter Commands during the war. About one third of these men were killed on operations and 102 of the volunteers were decorated. The most senior served as Squadron Commander with 139 (Jamaica) Squadron, based at RAF Marham.
During the celebrated “Battle of Brighton” a large contingent of RAAF airmen took on an equally large number of RAF men, during which time the Police and Military Police kept well clear.  At the height of the battle, a diminutive RAF wireless-operator was engaged in close combat with a large Australian navigator.  Thump! went the Ozzie’s fist against the Englishman.  "Have you had enough yet you Pommie bastard?"  "No" came the reply.  Thump! went the fist again.  "Have you had enough now you Pommie bastard?"  "No" came the reply.  Thump! went the fist again.  "Have you had enough now?"  "Yes" came the reply.  "Bloody good", said the Australian, wrapping his arm round the Englishman's shoulders, "Let's go and have a drink."
After the Japanese attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbour, and once the United States 8th Army Air Force (8AAF) arrived in Britain and began to operate against the enemy, many former US nationals were wooed back into the Army Air Force olive green uniform, tripling their rate of pay. The 8AAF needed experienced fliers, and made the unusual concession of both (a) allowing those men who chose to finish their tour of duty with the RAF to do so, and (b) continuing to wear RAF brevets and decorations, provided that such were worn physically lower than any USA insignia.
Many French, Poles and Czechs joined the RAF and similar bomber units to the RCAF / RAAF / RNZAF existed. The Free French Air Force had Nos. 346 and 347 Sqdns and the Poles operated with great determination in such Squadrons as 300, 301 and 302. Many Poles and Czechs also flew on "Special Duties" flights, dropping arms and agents into occupied territory.
A typical Bomber Command crew could readily consist of a spectrum of nationalities; an Australian pilot, English bomb aimer, and flight engineer, Canadian gunners and New Zealander wireless operator.

Although conscription was in effect - all healthy males between 18 and 40 had to be in either uniform or reserved occupation - all aircrew were volunteers. But once trained, you flew operations until your tour of duty was complete - or you were regarded by officialdom as a coward - or you were killed or taken prisoner.
Any member of aircrew could at any time go to his commanding officer and decline to fly on further operations, but the concept of "operational fatigue" popularly, "flak happy" was not officially recognised. Those who broke under the strain were rapidly branded "LMF: Lack of Moral Fibre"; de-ranked, de-breveted (sometimes publicly), and whisked away to menial tasks. Usually, a man asking to be withdrawn from flying duties was instantly removed from the squadron.
Pilots, navigators and bomb aimers took two years to train and tended to be drawn from the University and Grammar School element of aircrew intakes. Under the PNB (Pilot / Navigator / Bomb Aimer) scheme, most of these were trained in Canada, passing through the well known RCAF Depot at Monckton, New Brunswick, and then on to various training units.  The Arnold Scheme in the US allowed RAF airmen to be trained alongside US airmen despite, at that time, the US not being involved in the war.   South Africa was also a venue for training, and after the wide open spaces and clear skies of Canada, America and South Africa, the crowded, cloudy and dirty skies above Britain were quite a shock for the returning men.
Everyone wanted to be a pilot and those who failed the aptitude and preliminary flying tests were remustered as navigators and bomb aimers. Air-gunners, flight engineers and wireless operators were trained in about nine months. Except in the early days, all aircrew on completion of training were given the rank of Sergeant or higher, the top third of a training course intake usually being offered a commission.
The popular expression "Gone for a Burton" meaning "dead" referred to Burton on Trent. This was (and still is) home to a very substantial brewing industry. "Burton Ale" was advertised at the time on a billboard in two parts - two men carrying a ladder - one at each end and then in the second panel one man carrying but the other had disappeared with the slogan - "Gone for a Burton" under it. Hence went for a beer, became RAF slang for "buying the farm" "getting the chop".
Another tale describes how Blackpool was said to be the largest RAF camp during WW2 and amongst other units there was No. 10 SRC (Signals Recruiting Centre). Many establishment were requisitioned, such as the Tower which had 10 foot removed to fit a radar aerial, another was Burton's which was a restaurant come ball room and was used from testing WOP on their morse code hence gone for a Burton.

After completion of flying training, the individual airmen were posted to an Operational Training Unit, where the new intake was paraded in a hangar and told to form themselves into 5-man crews of pilot, navigator, wireless-operator, bomb aimer, and one air gunner. Here they flew mainly Wellingtons and acquired team skills and did a lot of training, sometimes with an "easy" operation (dropping mines or leaflets) thrown in. After this, those destined for four-engined aircraft - which by late 1942 was almost every one of them - were sent to a Heavy Conversion Unit where the crew was joined by the flight engineer and a second air-gunner.
Whilst many crews formed quite happily on this ad-hoc basis, it is clear from my very large database of aircraft losses that some men crewed up simply because their names were alphabetically close. This may have been mere convenience, or it may point to the hand of officialdom. It was not unknown for a crew to fail to weld into a team, and to split up or even be separated by the flight commander or commanding officer, if necessary. Some men "tried several crews for size" until they were happy. A misfit quickly became apparent.
At HCU instructors converted the crew onto the four-engined bombers, Halifaxes or Stirlings, and after a short course the crew was posted to an operational Squadron. Crews destined for Lancaster-equipped units did a very short course at a Lancaster Finishing School at Syerston (No 5 LFS) or Hemswell (No 1 LFS) before an operational posting. Most OTUs fed a particular Group - for example, 27 OTU at Lichfield fed No 1 Group.

Taking an example of 100 airmen:-
55 killed on operations or died as result of wounds
3 injured (in varying levels of severity) on operations or active service
13 taken prisoner of war (some injured)
2 shot down and evaded capture
27 survived a tour of operations.

These figures are generated by my database and are slightly different to the official ones.
It was customary that when an airman successfully baled out of an aircraft and landed safely by parachute that he would find and thank the person who had packed the parachute and pass a pound note to the airman or airwoman concerned. In one such incident the WAAF recipient replied that she had packed five of the six parachutes that a bomber crew had been compelled to use after being forced to abandon their Lancaster when it suffered an engine fire during a fighter affiliation exercise. The flight engineer of the crew had not taken his own parachute, saying that it was "just another training exercise". He was killed, being unable to bale out as the aircraft crashed.

A Tour of Duty, and Losses
Once on an operational Squadron, a tour of duty was 30 completed operations. An "op" was a successfully completed flight or sortie, where the primary or secondary target had been attacked. Crews turning back early through technical problems did not count as having successfully operated. The loss rate was around the 4 to 5 per cent mark, so mathematically it was impossible to survive. Yet about 25 per cent of crews survived a first tour, after which they were classed as "tour expired" or "screened", trained as instructors and sent to HCUs and OTUs to train more crews. After a six month rest, they came back for another tour of 20 operations. If they survived this, they could volunteer for more; but if they chose not to, they remained as instructors unless promoted to higher things.
Many airmen were awarded what they laconically described as a "routine" decoration after a successful tour of duty, and perhaps a commission for an NCO pilot, bomb aimer or navigator. Others seemed to float though an uneventful tour and pass soundlessly and without decoration or promotion into a training unit. A great deal depended on the mettle of the crew, luck, and whether or not they had come to the attention of the squadron's senior officers, perhaps to their own disadvantage by disgracing themselves too often down at the local pubs. A significant number of NCOs, happy with life in the Sergeants' Mess and not willing to lose the companionship of their fellows, declined commissions.
During the first five operations the new crew ran ten times the risk of the more experienced men, simply because they did not know the ropes. Having survived 15 ops, the odds were reckoned to be even. In many squadrons the rule was "no leave until 5 operations are complete" but normally, aircrew received one week's leave every six weeks, and would be issued with a return rail pass to a destination of his choice, plus the necessary temporary ration cards. Most airmen went "home" to wives or parents and it was nothing unusual for a son or husband to turn up at little or no notice with a crewmate or two along, especially if such were Canadians or Australians, sampling British home life.
Others teamed up with friends and went on expeditions to London or York. The latter were termed a "bash" and usually involved considerable quantities of alcohol and the companionship of the opposite gender. In the main, though, it was high rather than alcoholic spirits which spurred them on. The concept of "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" was ever present, if rarely mentioned.
The bomber offensive progressed at such a rate that six months' instructing could leave aircrew thoroughly out of date with their knowledge and techniques. A return to operations after such a break was a traumatic time, with no small number lost at the beginning of a 2nd tour. Yet, most aircrew found the dull and repetitive life of instructing completely boring after squadron life, and usually pulled strings shamelessly to return to operations.
Such was the comradeship of aircrew that many of the men, doing a second tour with a different crew to their first, would find that they had finished a tour before the rest of the crew. Most would volunteer to do a few extra so that the crew's unity was preserved; this was rarely spoken of, but illustrates the bond between such men. A smaller minority, thinking that it was foolish to push their luck, would quietly ask that they finish at the proper number of trips. There were many cases of a man doing one extra as a favour to a comrade, or a tour-expired crew stepping in to make up the numbers; and then failing to return.
Heavy bomber crews had a ten percent chance of baling out after being shot down. The German anti-aircraft system was extremely well organised, with the Kammhuber Line, a strong belt of radar-controlled 88mm guns and powerful searchlights extending along the German / Dutch border. Many aircraft came down in the Zuider Zee (Ijsselmeer) and are still being discovered as the land is gradually drained. The Luftwaffe's night fighter force was also very highly developed, with ground radar stations directing airborne radar-equipped night fighters into the bomber stream, freelance roving fighters, and high-flying Luftwaffe aircraft dropping flares to mark the bomber stream's progress.
There is an excellent video called SOME OF OUR AIRMEN ARE NO LONGER MISSING which can be purchased from specialised video retailers, or bought at air shows. This depicts the sterling work carried out by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Recovery Team, then headed by Gerrie Zwanenburg, during the draining of the Zuider Zee.
Aircrew prisoners of war were generally well treated by the Germans, in line with the Geneva Convention. Held in camps called Stalags (Stammlager, or permanent camps) run by the Luftwaffe, they were not generally mistreated by their counterparts.

The .303 inch (7.9mm) calibre machine guns of the RAF air-gunners were outgunned by the 20mm and 30mm cannon carried by the Luftwaffe - but the RAF air-gunners would not open fire unless attacked by a night-fighter; their guns were defensive. Although the .303's rate of fire was 12 rounds per second, and its effective range reckoned to be 400 yards, at night if within visible range, the night-fighters were also within range of the .303s.
Mid-upper and rear-gunners were isolated from their crewmates except via intercom and had to stay alert for long periods in subzero temperatures. Their fields of fire overlapped somewhat; the mid-upper could rotate through 360 degrees. Helped to some extent by the Taylor combined electrically-heated suit and Mae West lifejacket, as well as heated mittens and gloves, their alertness was vital. They could call for a corkscrew (violent evasive action) at a moment's notice. The trick was to take evasive action inside the attacking curve of the fighter, forcing him to steepen his turn in order to be able to shoot into the space where the bomber was expected to be by the time the bullets and shells arrived. The corkscrew manoeuvre was so described because when view from directly astern, the pattern created by the bomber was corkscrew-shaped. Dive port, climb port, roll, dive starboard, climb starboard, roll … and good air-gunners, knowing what was happening next, could fire into the space where they expected the night fighter to be.
Few night fighter crews persevered with an attack after the bomber had spotted them, and fewer still night fighter pilots had the skill to stay with a corkscrewing bomber and shoot it down as they danced together. A determined and experienced bomber pilot could make the evasive manoeuvre so violent that rivets popped out of the aircraft. Aircraft were actually only borrowed by the aircrew; the aeroplane "belonged" to its ground crew.
The Luftwaffe soon developed the "Schrage Musik" upward-firing cannon fitted to some Me110 and Ju88 night fighters. Attacked from directly below, many heavies were lost, and it was not until late summer 1943, when returned bombers showed vertically pierced damage that the new threat was realised. This technique was so effective that night fighter pilots would not shoot directly into a bomber's fuselage, for fear the bomb load would explode immediately above, destroying both aircraft. Thus, they preferred to aim at wing petrol tanks or engines.
Later, some "heavies" were fitted with .50 calibre machine guns; notably the Rose rear turret fitted to a few Lancasters. The Halifax's electric-hydraulic Boulton-Paul mid-upper and rear turrets carried 4 x .303s but the Lancaster and Stirling had Frazer-Nash hydraulic turrets; twin .303s for the nose and mid-upper, and 4 x 303s for the rear. A few aircraft, mainly Canadian units, had a mid-under gun position, but this was not a common feature and was only fitted where there was no underslung radar dome. Mk III Halifaxes often had a single .303 or occasionally a .50 gun mounted in the nose dome

Gadgets and inventions
Many new electronic devices came into service. "Gee" was a radio navigation system with three transmitters in England sending a synchronised radio pulse at precise intervals. By comparing the slight time difference of arrival time of each pulse, navigators could check a chart and calculate their position very accurately. It did not extend over the radio horizon, and the Germans soon started to jam it; but it was very effective over the UK and the North Sea. Modern developments of Gee's radio triangulation system are still in use today as geostationary satellites at 22,000 miles from the Earth provide GPS or Global Positioning System. The principle – TDOA or Time Difference of Arrival - is very similar to the wartime Gee.
"Oboe" was a pair of radio beams transmitted from England with their intersection angled to cross over or near the target. One beam transmitted continuous Morse code dots, the other continuous dashes. Specially equipped Mosquito aircraft flew down one beam until at their intersection the pilot could hear a steady continuous signal of combined dots and dashes. At this point he released his marker bombs and the system was so accurate that allowance could be made for the forward travel of the bombs as they fell. However Oboe could only be used by a small number of aircraft at any one time.
"Paramatta" was the code name given to attacking aircraft bombing ground markers and it was even possible for the timing of an attack to be such that sky markers on parachute flares could also be used against cloud-covered targets by attacking aircraft. Named "Wanganui" the technique of using sky markers, which looked like a shower of coloured blobs, was often used and provided the sky flares were periodically refreshed after hitting the ground, proved accurate. When used in conjunction with markers dropped by Oboe-equipped Mosquitos, "Musical Paramatta" and "Musical Wanganui" were valuable steps forward in improving accuracy.
A "Master Bomber" was the method of one crew acting as director of an attack, instructing other aircraft in the main force to concentrate their airming points at specific markers, which he could observe and confirm for accuracy, even by radio ordering inaccurate markers to be ignored, new ones laid, or shifting the focus of the bombing to a different point. For example, "Master Bomber to all attacking aircraft, ignore the green spot flares, bomb the red flares a mile and a half to the north."
"H2S" was an downwards pointing radar scanner in the rear belly of the aircraft; a large perspex black-painted blister contained the rotating scanner. It gave a reasonable "picture" of the ground below; water, buildings and roads showed up clearly. It could not be jammed, but specially-equipped Luftwaffe night-fighters could home in on any aircraft using it. Once this was known, H2S was only used by a bomber for very short periods. RAF intruders (counter-night-fighters) homed in on Luftwaffe aircraft using airborne radar, and shot them down, often over their own bases.
The popular explanation for the strange name of "H2S" is that a top brass Air Staff officer was visiting the factory where the units were being built. On being told of the device's expected performance, he was openly sceptical. "It stinks," he said bluntly, "call it H2S" [hydrogen sulphide, or rotten-egg smell].
These devices, and vastly improved training for aircrew - especially navigators - brought about a dramatic increase in bombing accuracy. Still operating by night, RAF Bomber Command could now find their targets, which were by this time very often city centres as well as specific military targets.

In the early days, pilots were given a main target, a couple of alternates, and left to plan their own take-off times and routes based on their own experience and preferences, but within a year the defences were sharpening and it was necessary to co-ordinate tactics, not just for pilots in one squadron, but for the entire Bomber Force.
By mid 1941 it was possible to send many hundreds of medium and the first of the heavy bombers together in large numbers, and brief the crews to attack over a short time period. This swamped the defences and decreased losses. But RAF Bomber Command's accuracy was still not good enough and the Command was losing prestige. Its new Commander in Chief, Arthur T Harris, mounted the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne. By dragging in every possible aircraft and crew from the Squadrons and training units, 1,046 bombers attacked Cologne on the night of 30th / 31st May 1942, delivering a devastating blow. This set the scene for the great and terrible bombing offensive which was to follow.
As Harris said of the enemy, "They sowed the wind and now they will reap the whirlwind."
Until Path Finder Force was formed in August 1942, and crack crews syphoned off to form this elite unit, target marking had been hit-and-miss. After initial problems, PFF soon began to mark targets with great precision and the general accuracy of bombing improved further. Mistakes were made, and wrong targets attacked; but gradually RAF Bomber Command grew to what Guy Gibson (of Dam Buster fame) called the Mighty Lion.
A second 1,000 bomber raid took place against Bremen on 25th / 26th June 1943, but this was not so successful due to adverse weather. On the night of July 30th / 31st 1943 "Operation Gomorrah" took place on Hamburg and over the next four nights, with daylight operations by the Americans, the city centre was almost destroyed by a firestorm brought about by great fires merging into one firestorm conflagration. This technique was repeated at Dresden on February 14th / 15th 1945, and the city was almost completely destroyed. Controversies surround this attack, even today, as Dresden was not a military objective. Popular opinion is that Stalin wanted a final knock-out blow against the Germans, and the attack was made to appease him.
It was on the Hamburg raids that the radar jamming device "Window" was used. Window was strips of tinfoil cut to such a length and width that clouds of it, dropped at timed intervals by the heavies, corrupted the ground radar signals. All heavies carried dozens of bundles of window and the crews were briefed to throw out a packet of foil strips every minute. Over the nights of the Hamburg raids the German ground radar was rendered completely useless, and for a few months, Bomber Command enjoyed greatly reduced losses. Gradually the German scientists and radar technicians were able to overcome the jamming produced by huge clouds of Window, and losses rose again. Nowadays Window is still dropped by aircraft to disrupt enemy radar and air-to-air / ground-to-air missiles - but now it's called "Chaff".
Interestingly, Martin Middlebrook voiced the opinion that the introduction of Window was a strategy which although successful in the short term, forced the Germans to greatly strengthen and improve their airborne defences as well as push forward development of ground radar. This led to very serious losses for Bomber Command in 1944. I can see the logic behind this opinion and I think he was right.
Huge controversy rages today about Bomber Command's contribution to the war. I have recently come to accept the argument that by the middle of summer 1944, with vastly improved navigation and advances in electronic and other general equipment RAF Bomber Command was an unstoppable machine, directed by Harris and treated as his personal weapon. Although able now to attack decisive military targets with devastating force, he persisted with area city bombing when it wasn't necessary any more.
Whilst purely military targets were attacked, area bombing did no more to fatally weaken the enemy's capacity to wage war, and to destroy morale, than did the London Blitz in 1940. But having said this, war production (factories and installations) and especially communications (railways and canals), suffered massive destruction, forcing the enemy to deploy manpower from the fighting areas to the home front as well as reducing manufacturing capacity.
One unforeseen and highly useful by-product or area bombing was the disruption of telephone and teleprinter landlines. This forced military communications traffic onto wireless, and the RAF listening stations and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park made good use of the infomation gained this way.
Post-war analysis showed that insufficient importance had been placed on attacks to communications, especially railways, their bridges, tunnels and marshalling yards. Without transportation, you can't effectively move troops, fuel, supplies or equipment. You may have these in abundance at mustering points, camps and depots - but without canal, road and especially rail, they are going nowhere.
It's interesting to note that the first war to be won solely by air power was not until the NATO conflict with Serbia in Spring and early Summer of 1999.

Bomber Command


Ju 88C series heavy fighter in flight

The Ju 88C was originally intended as a fighter-bomber and heavy fighter by adding fixed, forward-firing guns to the nose while retaining some bomb carrying ability of the A-series bomber. The C-series had a solid metal nose, and retained the A-series style vertical tail, as well as the ventral Bola gondola under the crew compartment, although this was sometimes removed at unit level in order to reduce weight and drag and thus enhance aircraft performance. The Ju-88C was later used as a night fighter and this became its main role.
The first night fighter version of the Ju 88 was the C-2, based on the A-1 and armed with one 20 mm MG FF cannon and three 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 machine guns placed in a new metal nose. These examples entered service in Zerstörerstaffel of KG 30 and the unit was renamed II./NJG 1 in July 1940.

Some reference web links for most of the preceding articles are listed below -;  video of Stirling  article - JU-88 extract from Bomber Command Diary for July 1942 article - Jack Dempsey Peel  article - size matters! Nationality too  video of post war recovery of crashed aircraft from Holland

Sgt Eric Harold Cooper

Extracts from the 214 Sqn operational Log for just July 1942. From this log we can see that each aircraft departed at different times and had different bombing altitudes and so on.

Night of 7/8th  July 1942

We can see that on the 7/8th he is on R 9355 aircraft with some of the same crew plus a second pilot. Gardening is the term used for mine laying.


Night of 8/9th  July 1942
On the 8/9th the same crew on the same airframe with Jack Peel the only pilot on board. Attacking Wilhelshaven.

Night of 21/22nd  July 1942
Now on airframe R9356 attacking Duisburg. Same crew plus an extra pilot.

The Duisburg raid on the night of 23/24th July involved 215 allied aircraft from numerous squadrons and bases in UK. I do not know how deconfliction between aircraft was managed but I would suspect that ‘slot’ (ToTs or the time when each aircraft was scheduled to be overhead target and releasing weapons) times were pretty much vital. Attack directions and target areas must play a part in the plan. Bombing altitudes are clearly a function to mitigate AAA (Flak). The German gunners would need to know the height of the bombers in order to set the correct fuze setting on the shells – alternating each bombers altitude mitigated some risk from Flak. It is likely that 2 or more bombers were over target at anyone time otherwise the whole raid at 1 minute ‘slot’ time intervals over the target would take 3 hours and 35 minutes to complete it is feasible though the risks of fratricide are increased.

It is interesting that the Bomber Command Diary suggests the weather on target was cloudy. My guess is that it probably was when the lead aircraft (Pathfinders?) dropped the flares as they were reported as ‘scattered’.

The exact weather for the 23/24th is still unknown but the Sqn log for the aircraft that returned shows that it was a fairly clear night. See below 2 images for that fateful night. See the two images below -;

23/24th July (page 1)

23/24th July (page 2)

The sun and moon state for that night is also significant given that it would appear the skies were reasonably clear (from the 214 Sqn log entries). Theoretically the moon would have set before 214 Sqn aircraft overflew the Dutch town of Oss. However morning twilight (astronomical twilight = 1.5 hours before sunrise, nautical twilight = 1 hour before sunrise and civil twilight about 30 minutes before sunrise) would be enough (?) to silhouette aircraft against the eastern sky or create glints from Perspex canopies – particularly an aircraft flying at 9,000 feet. The table reproduced below is for the 23rd July 1942 – but the slight change in timing for twilight would be more or less 3 minutes.

The image below shows (for scale) in blue the Rotterdam P&O terminal, Werkendam and the place we had lunch on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. In purple is the area of the Junkers attack (circled) and the crash site south west of Werkendam. A scale in red is also marked.


Below is a Dutch map showing all the crash sites immediately south and south west of Werkendam.  Each red outlined cicle has a number and letter above it and a year below it. The number represents the chronological order of the crashes, the letter represents the nationality of the aircraft. A = American, B = British, C = Canadian, D = German, etc. The year marker is the year the crash happened.

The marker for 6B  1942 is the crash site for the aircraft that Eric was the rear gunner.

Below is the Dutch explanation for the ‘6’ crash site.

6) 24 Juli 1942- Short Stirling. W7567, 214 squ

Crash op de polder van landbouwer Salomon Glerum. In de nacht van 23 op 24 juli 1942, om 02.00 uur stortte een Brits vliegtuig neer nabij de boerderij van Sal Gle­rum nabij de polder Kroon en Zalm. Alleen de gewonde marconist Chyriel Fairhall overleefde de crash en kreeg medische hulp van dokter Schols in Werkendam. Daarna werd hij gevangen genomen door de Duitsers.
My niece Kitty Hallam translated the text for us and is as follows -;
6) 24 July 1942 – Short Stirling, W7567 of 214 Sqn.
Crashed on the polders of the farmer Salomon Glerum during the night of the 23rd / 24th of July 1942. A British aircraft crashed near the farm of Sal Glerum near the polder (called) Kroon and Zalm.
Only the injured wireless operator Cyril Fairhall survived the crash and he received treatment from Dr. Schols in Werkendam. After treatment he was taken prisoner by the Germans.

3rd June 2015
When we drove out to the crash site we ended up about 400 - 450 meters from the position shown on the Dutch map – not within the 200 meters I had told everyone.

There has been a substantial amount of land reclaimed since the Dutch map was printed and the Google image was taken. None the less the navigation error was mine we were just a few hundred meters from the indicated crash site.

Present day birds eye view

The Crew of W7567
We know quite a lot about Eric Harold Cooper – but at this time we know so little about the men he flew with.

Below is an article from the 214 Sqn web page about the pilot. Who in my opinion fought so bravely to keep the aircraft flying after the attack. If I am right in thinking that his aircraft was attacked on the way in to the target (the surviving aircraft stated‘slot’ times on the 214 Sqn log strongly suggest this was the case), and therefore I think that his aircraft was damaged in the attack so that he turned the aircraft around and tried to fly back to base. The wireless operator survived the crash – in my opinion it was a crash resulting from an attempt to land not a catastrophic crash from altitude that no one could have survived. There are not too many Americans that have won my admiration but Jack Peel is one of them.

l recently re-read an excellent short article written by Geoffrey Parsons for the New York Herald Tribune in August 1942 in which he discussed the increasingly important role of Royal Air Force Bomber Command in taking the war to the enemy. While, perhaps rather surprisingly, he expressed nothing but praise for their efforts, he emphasized his grave doubts about the ability of the American USAAF (then establishing themselves in UK) to succeed in their proposed plans for a daylight bombing offensive.
Parsons was allowed to gain 'sharp-end' experience by spending a few days on an unidentified RAF heavy-bomber station (in fact Stradishall and home to No.214 (FMS) Squadron then in the final stage of converting to the Stirling). With obvious restrictions on security and intelligence, the American undertook a local flight in a Stirling, socialised with the crews and wrote of his feelings while watching seven Stirlings being prepared for action before leaving for a night operation. He was soon to sample the reality of the bomber war when only six aircraft returned and was to express his concern for the 'sandy-haired Texan' flying in 'S-Sugar' (W7657 BU-S) which had failed to return. This was not a little „journalistic licence' used to beef up his text for the benefit of his American readers, he really was speaking the truth and very probably knew the young American airman (who was not named).
So who was the 'sandy-haired Texan' and what did he do? Walter Sturdy gave me his original copy of the article in 1980, early on in our Stradishall researches, and as a Canadian and a Flight Commander on 214 Squadron at the time of Parson's visit, he was probably well placed to be given an early copy. (Incidentally, Harold Bidmead the founder of our Association was Flight Engineer in Walter's crew and remained his close friend until Harold's death in 1989). With no mention of any American in operational records, and without the impressive research facilities now available, I first thought Sgt J B Fleming of the Royal Canadian Air Force (one of the air-gunners in
the missing crew) to be 'our man'. Many Americans got into the European War by joining the RCAF, but their Roll of Honour showed Sgt Fleming's home as Mount Dennis, Ontario, a true Canadian. The answer was ever evasive, and even further confusions arose. A CWGC register for 214 Squadron (which actually excluded Commonwealth and non-UK personnel) gave family information for three crew members, and although no family data was given (not unknown) for Plt Off J D Peel and for Sgt D F Dobson their inclusion suggested British citizenship and certainly not American. Plt Off Peel's headstone in Werkendam Cemetery, Holland, shows only his name, rank, role (pilot), date of death and that he was RAF. No age (no true records?) or any family message. The service number and age are shown on the headstone for Sgt Dobson the Flight Engineer.
There was, however, one clue. Plt Off Peel's two first names were Jack Dempsey and whether the use of the two names of the famous boxer - the 'Manassa Mauler' - was deliberate or not, it pointed towards possible American citizenship. Owing to my 'non- computer' status I turned to my good friend Kate Brettell who, apart from being very computer-literate, had just completed some other family research (Flt Lt R A Turtle DFC) and was quite conversant with 'Things RAF'. Kate agreed to help, quickly accessing American family records and although finding Dempsey-Peel families in the Eastern States, Kate 'headed for Texas'. A Jack D Peel was 'found' in Texarkana (actually in Arkansas but right on the Texas border) who had been born in 1920 into a fairly ordinary family (father- a mechanic in a trucking Co) and had probably only received a modest education. For „personal reasons' young Jack moved away from the family and at this point his lifestyle becomes unclear, although there is no indication of any 'higher' education. He must have brushed up against aviation possibly „whelping' at an airfield and learning to fly.
War was already a talking point, and although young men could get to UK via Canada, or under even under their own steam, other arrangements were being created in America to tempt large numbers of young potential flyers from all levels of education including Universities and Colleges. (This was prior to the massive Flying Training Schemes (eg Arnold) of the future, but even at this time the increasing influence of air power and the urgent need for all types of airmen were being recognised). One such scheme was the British Refresher Programme operating in four areas near Dallas, whereby any competent pilot with a set number of hours in his log book (80 and 300 have been quoted) could be graded as of 'OTU' standard.and thus able to enter UK with no problem. Some sources state that they went as civilians, but it is possible that some candidates were actually commissioned as RAF Pilot Officers before leaving to guarantee trouble free entry. As accurate details for these schemes are extemely hard to find, any information would be of great interest.
Jack either volunteered or responded to a vigorous recruitment campaign and his entry into UK to join the Royal Air Force (possibly the RAFVR) is mentioned in the book 'Immigrants of War' which deals with Americans and Canadians who came over to fight.
As a Pilot Officer he was posted to No 21 OTU (Moreton-in-Marsh) and in May 1942 joined No 214 Squadron at Stradishall to take on the mighty Stirling.
At this time squadrons converting to the Stirling trained their own crews via their specialist Conversion Flights. Jack was to make four trips as second pilot before being killed on only his second operation as captain. But he had done remarkably well to achieve this.
So the 'sandy-haired Texan' was in fact Plt Off Jack Dempsey Peel whose strength of character, competitive spirit, and inherent skill saw him move from a very humble background right through to becoming a competent heavy-bomber pilot in a distant war when only 22 years of age.
Although it would be very pleasing to uncover further relevant information, the fact remains that very little solid official material seems to exist which would identify him as an American citizen. He came, he fought, and he died, identified by name only, but in reality he was virtually unknown with now his headstone and various Books of Remembrance as his only probable markers. End of his story, but inevitably there would have been others like him.
Jack was not the only Texan to die whilst on No 214 Squadron at Stradishall in 1942. On 25 June, Stirling DJ973 (BU-A) captained by Sgt Craig had been forced to turn back before reaching the target and had just managed to jettison its bomb load before smashing into farmland on the outskirts of Hundon (my village) literally within sight of Stradishall. Six crew died including gunner Sgt Eddie Hester- Brown who, although from Big Springs, Texas, was flying as a member of the RCAF, which itself provided clear evidence of his journey to UK and the war.
By Jock M Whitehouse With grateful thanks to Kate Brettell for her help.

The rest of the crew remain an enigma with the exception of Thorne – he was married (1942) and I think his wife remained a widow until her death. As for the Wireless Operator – no trace. I can only assume he survived PoW and the death march out of Poland.

I hope that this goes some way to understanding the situation at that time.

The first image is from ‘Nachtjagd War Diaries Volume 1 by Dr Theo Bolten. Read in conjunction with The Bomber Command Diary entry for the same night we can see that the probability is that Flak brought down 3 allied aircraft as 7 in total were lost that night. I am unsure what the nomenclature means in the column  after the name of the German pilot. the NJG probably means Nacht Jar Gruppen and the number of the group. What comprises group and what was the area covered by a group I don’t know. The bit before NJG must be the sub unit or Squadron - but that is a guess. It might be worth plotting out on a map the four attack positions to get an idea of the operational reach of each German Sqn in their fighter box?
In this image I have made assumptions - taken from the German diary I am assuming that the altitude of BU-S was 9,000 ft / 3,000 meters. The diary does not specify altitude for other aircraft - but this may be that each German Sqn reported claims in a slightly different way?
5km SW of Oss - seems reasonable and believable, if you draw a line on the map twixt Duisburg and Werkendam it is almost straight. The 02.21 has to be the time of the night fighter attack? I cannot imagine a fighter pilot following a stricken aircraft all the way into the ground to report the crash time? The German pilot would have to have bloody good eyesight to read the W7567 off the fuselage by the tail? Maybe thats why he was a night fighter pilot….   The flight times are I believe roughly correct for a Stirling flying on 4 engines, the flight time from the area of the night fighter attack to where BU-S finally crashed was probably longer if it had less than 4 working engines ?



With thanks to Mr. Dick Hallam for submitting this well researched article and on-site visit.


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