About The Book

Under a Bomber’s Moon is the true story of a New Zealand navigator-bomb aimer with the Royal Air Force and a German night fighter pilot as they fight for success and survival over night time Germany during the bitterest years of the Second World War. In early 1944, after completing one tour of operations and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits, the New Zealander, Colwyn Jones, was killed during a raid on Berlin.

READ MORE

About The Night War Over Europe

During the Second World War the night sky over Europe was one of the most lethal places to wage war. By 1945 almost half of the airmen who flew with Bomber Command and a third of the Luftwaffe night fighter crew pitted against them had been killed. Many German cities became moonscapes of rubble, their inhabitants the first to experience the reality of ‘total war’ – itself a glimpse of the destructive potential of the nuclear age about to explode in the Far East.

READ MORE

12 - Aboard the "Flying Coffin" EXTRA MATERIAL

This chapter explores the experience of flying a Lancaster - and being shot down in one by a Luftwaffe nightfighter.

 

Lone survivor of the 'Flying coffin' relives the terror of escape

Flying the 'Fabulous Lancaster' - a pilot remembers

Lancaster picture gallery

Lone survivor of the ‘flying coffin’ relives the terror of escape

Flight engineer Sid Giffard was the only crew member to survive the destruction of his Lancaster on 18 March 1944.More than half a century later, in 2001, he described in a letter to the family of his skipper, Flying Officer Ian MacMaster, what happened when the 625 Squadron Lancaster CF-H ‘Howe’ was attacked by a night fighter as it began its bombing run above Frankfurt.

“We approached Frankfurt-on-Main some time just after 22.00 hours to find the target ablaze in the customary reds, oranges and whites, a truly awesome spectacle viewed from twenty thousand or so feet. Added to this vast illumination were hanging flares dropped by night fighters.

“So you can imagine that against this glorious, technicolour groundsheet bombing aircraft were silhouetted like insects crawling across a gigantic bedsheet. In fact, looking down from my observation blister I saw several thousand feet below a Junkers 88 night fighter going like a bat out of hell in the opposite direction. Come to think of it the whole scene was like Dante’s Inferno.

Beginning the bombing run

“By this time we were engaged on our bombing run, bomb doors were open and Dick Forster [bomb aimer] had taken over with his ‘left, left’ then ‘right a bit’ as was a bomb aimer’s wont, when the rear gunner called on the intercom “aircraft passing across our stern – oh it’s alright it’s one of our Halifaxes.”

The feelings of relief were almost tangible but not long lasting, for moments later he urgently cried out “night fighter dead astern – it’s a FW190, DIVE, DIVE, DIVE!”

 

A one-sided fight

 

“Ian [skipper] did just that, which we had rehearsed in training, a lazy eight manoeuver which consisted of a violent dive to the left followed by an equally violent climb to the right (starboard), but it was a very one-sided affair. I saw the enemy gunfire passing just between me and the starboard engines which were both on fire. My job in these circumstances was to cut the starboard magneto switches and then when the engines stopped hit the propeller-feathering buttons closely followed by the fire extinguisher buttons. I saw the propeller blades turn into the feathered position but the fires remained unabated.

 

 Running out of sky

“It was at this moment that someone – I think it was Bob Small [wireless operator] – yelled “he’s right above us!”I looked up through the Perspex canopy and straight into the underbelly of that FW190, a perfect aircraft recognition underside plan view.

“Then we began pulling all over the sky and we did not have all that much sky to play with, for I recall Alan Wood [navigator] calling out as we were well into our evasive action “watch the height, Mac, we’re down to 5000 feet”’ as cool as you like.

 

 Decision to bail out

 “It was at this distressful moment when we saw our destroyer and realised that our fate was sealed that Ian ordered “abandon aircraft!” and then to me “hand me my parachute!” which I did, then got my own on. It had been impressed upon us during training that in an emergency such as this, one speedily and calmly went out in an orderly manner.

“I remember the rear gunner on the intercom calling “I’m coming out of my turret Mac!” In such a mess he and the mid-upper gunner, Charlie Wright, would exit through the main fuselage door towards the rear of the aircraft on the starboard side. The rest of us were to escape through the hatch in the bomb aimer’s compartment.

 

 Fighting gravity

 “By the light from the burning engines I could see Dick tugging at the escape hatch, but then the Lanc’ fell into a dive, causing me to experience difficulty descending into the nose. But it flattened out and I got onto the step leading into the nose, by which time someone was similarly attempting to get to the hatch.

“Then the aircraft dived again, and after Alan’s warning about our altitude I realised we were not far from the ground [so] I braced myself for impact. But it flattened out again and I managed to get my feet into the hatchway.

 

 Floating above a forest by night

 

 

“From that moment I cannot remember passing through that hatch for the natural tendency was to drift rearwards. I can only presume that the aircraft gave a final attempt to lift a little for I was falling feet uppermost and with blazing H ‘Howe’ passing above me. I pulled my ripcord but before I could look up to see if the canopy had opened I looked down and saw a forest of trees coming at me. I just had time to cross my legs and put my arms up to my face when I was no longer falling. Facing me and within arms-length was the trunk of a pine or fir tree or some thing of that nature, which I clasped in a frantic embrace.

 

 The miracle of deliverance

 “When I looked up I could see my parachute canopy was snagged on the branches of this so-noble tree; and that was the miracle of my deliverance. Sadly, those who remained in that aeroplane were less fortunate, for the Lanc’ crashed into the trees, setting the forest on fire.

“After descending from my tree I made my way towards the crash and the inferno, but explosions were making an awful din and I was unable to approach nearer.”

 Copyright: www.underabombersmoon.com

With thanks to Sid Giffard and the MacMaster family of Christchurch, New Zealand, for permission to reproduce this previously unpublished account.

BACK TO TOP

Flying the 'Fabulous Lancaster' - a Pilot Remembers 

by John L. Cox, DFC, FRAeS. 

former Flt.Lt. 622 Squadron, 3 Group, at Mildenhall 1944-45.

John Cox, DFC, completed a tour of operations on Lancasters, then became a pilot of civilian passenger aircraft after the war. He contends strongly that the German night fighter pilots' description of the Lancaster as 'the Flying Coffin' was neither justified nor shared by RAF crews.

To me the Lancaster is the undoubted supreme bomber of World War Two. There are few who would disagree with that assessment. It did the job for which it was designed and it helped to win for us that horrible war.

It truly was a magnificent aircraft, the most successful bomber of the war. It had the speed, ceiling and bomb load no other machine could match. Its usual load in the 33ft bomb bay was a 4000lb 'cookie' plus thousands of small incendiary bombs, though on special occasions it carried 8000, 12,000 and eventually a 22,000lb bomb! A total of 7377 Lancasters were built of which 3932 were lost in action.

Like all other crew members, I was very happy to be flying in the premier machine - and would have chosen it if the choice had been ours. One snag was an increased difficulty in bailing out compared to the other heavies. The fuselage interior was difficult to negotiate and the huge main spar almost split it into two compartments. Not that this worried us very much, we knew that the Lancaster could take heavy punishment yet still limp back to base. More on that soon.

Where it began for me

But first, how did it all start for me? My flying career in the Royal Air Force started in 1942 with a flight from Brough, near Kingston-upon-Hull. This was the first of a short series of flights to see if I might be suitable pilot material. Despite being sick on that initial flight I was very relieved to be accepted. That first flight was in the de Havilland Tiger Moth - a safe introduction into the mystery of flying.

Like so many new pilots at that time, I was shipped across the Atlantic to Canada for most of my flying training. At Elementary Flying School I was taught on the Canadian version of the Tiger Moth, which differed in that it had a closed-in cockpit and the tail skid replaced by a tail wheel. Then came Service Flying School aboard the North American Harvard, much heavier and much more powerful - fully aerobatic, great fun to fly.

Back in the U.K., and posted to an Operational Training Unit, my next type was the Vickers Wellington; a twin-engined bomber. Flying now was with a crew: navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, mid-upper gunner and rear gunner. Then on to the real stuff.

How the Lancaster measured up against other RAF bombers

Just before the war the Air Ministry had ordered the design and production of three different heavy bombers. These were the Short Stirling, the Handley-Page Halifax and the Avro Manchester. Both the Stirling and the Halifax were successful types, though the span of the Stirling was less than the designer wished due to the maximum width of the RAF hangars (100ft). Moreover, the Stirling had a very long undercarriage to increase the angle of attack at take-off and so reduce the field length required.

The Manchester had two engines - Rolls Royce Vultures with lots of power but quite unreliable. Thus the design had to be changed to incorporate four of Rolls Royce's reliable Merlin engines with the name changed to Lancaster. Although of similar weight to the Stirling, and seventeen feet shorter, it had greatly improved bomb capacity and a longer range.  However our first task was to master the Stirling.

All of us new crews (with the addition of a flight engineer), on being posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit, were aghast at our first sight of the Stirling. With its height of twenty three feet and a very long fuselage, we seemed dwarfed beside it (the Stirling was longer, wider and taller than the Halifax or the Lancaster). More than twice the size and weight of our previous aircraft, it was a daunting thought that we had to learn how to fly something so massive.

Master it we did and then moved on to Lancaster Finishing School. In comparison the Lancaster looked sleek and beautiful. Once in the air we found it to be a delight to fly. The controls were finely balanced, giving rapid and positive response for any manoeuvres. Its handling ability has been compared to a Spitfire. We felt privileged to be operating this mighty machine which flew so well.

Flying ops

I flew thirty operational flights over occupied Europe and survived largely thanks to the sturdiness and survivability of the dear Lancaster. Back at base one would always find some holes in the aircraft from fighter bullets or anti-aircraft shells. The German fighter pilots shot down more Lancasters than other types and observed that the crew of seven were seldom all seen to parachute from a doomed aircraft. Thus they coined the phrase 'the Flying Coffin' for the Lancaster. This name was in use by the Germans, but I never heard it while on the Squadron or during my time in the RAF. Squadron members spoke of the Lancaster only in terms of admiration.

During the briefing for an offensive operation we were sorry when the raid was also to include Stirlings and Halifaxes. We all approached the target at the maximum height we could reach. The result was the Lancasters flew at about 22,000ft, the Halifaxes about 20,000ft and the Stirlings down perhaps at 17,000ft. At the lower altitudes there was some risk of being struck by a bomb released higher up.

Research showed that only one in six crew members survived a stricken Lancaster compared to one in four for the other two. However, its chances of avoiding danger were greater, and it was more likely to get home if damaged. Such comparisons did not worry us very much. Most crews flew buoyed up with the optimistic hope 'nothing will happen to us'! However, 55,573 Bomber Command crew members lost their lives  during World War II and the majority of these were flying Lancasters.

I still have a fond feeling for the Avro Lancaster, it did its job supremely well and it did so without all the gadgets and gizmos fitted in modern machines.

Flying civilian airliners post-war is, as our American friends would phrase it, 'a whole new ball game'. It is different but it does have some similar delights, problems and satisfactions.

Copyright: www.underabombersmoon.com

BACK TO TOP