Pilotless bomber

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Master Sergeant
Nov 9, 2004
Bristol, UK
Here's a strange story about what happened to a Lancaster...

When something whent wrong on take-off it could mean disaster for an aircraft laden with high-explosive and incendiary bombs.
In April 1944, P/O Jimmy Griffiths and his crew arrived at Elsham Wolds to join 576 Squadron as 'new boys'. To their dismay, they were allocated the oldest Lancaster on the station.

One week and three operations later, their Flight Commander, whose posting to PFF had just come through, yielded to their protests and let them have his new Lanc BIII, LM527 UL-U2. It was a decision which very nearly cost the crew their lives.

Following the abortive take-off described below, the young Scots skipper and his crew reverted to their original BIII, ED888 UL-M2, in which they went on to complete their tour. Indeed this veteran Lanc was later to become Bomber Command's top-scoring 'heavy', with 140 operational sorties to its credit.

Briefing was over, final checks had been made on the aircraft and the crews were relaxing in the few minutes left before take-off time, on a lovely spring evening, April 30, 1944 - target Maintenon.

I was thrilled at the prospect of flying one of the latest Lancasters, so much superior to old M2, the veteran aircraft I had flown on my first three operations. The runway in use was the shortest one on the 'drome and necessitated revving up aginst the brakes, almost to full power, before take-off, similar to the method employed on aircraft carriers.

Time to go - always a tense moment - and we are soon lined up on the runway making the last quick cockpit check. "Rich mixture", "Propellers in fine pitch", "Flaps up", "Fuel gauges OK". Ready to go! Throttles are opened slowly against the brakes until the aircraft throbs with power, straining and vibrating until the brakes can barely hold her. brakes are released and we leap forward. Keep straight by use of throttles and rudder and ease the control column forward to bring the tail up. "Full power!" the engineer takes over the throttles and opens them fully, locking them in that position. The tail is now off the ground, giving full control on the rudders for keeping straight, and the airspeed indicator is creeping slowly up towards the take-off speed.

Something's wrong! We are nearing the end of the runway and haven't yet reached take-off speed. We should be airborne by now! A glance at the instruments shows that, whilst all four engines are running smoothly, they are not giving maximum power. Too late to stop - the fence at the end of the runway is right under our nose - speed is dangerously low.

I yank back on the stick and the aircraft labours painfully off the ground. We are on the point of stalling and I have to level out, praying that I'll miss the small hill beyond the fence. I have just time to shout "Wheels up!" when - Crash!!!

The aircraft shudders violently; the nose kicks up at a dangerous angle and I instinctively push the stick forward to avoid stalling. I ease the stick back quickly, flying a matter of inches above the ground which, providentially, is sloping downards. I nurse the aircraft along, still hugging the grass. The speed slowly increases beyond the danger mark and very gradually the altimeter needle creeps away from ZERO in answer to a slight backwards pressure on the stick.

I start to breathe again, brushing the perspiration from my brow and feel a cold chill up my spine as I think of the load of high explosive bombs beneath my feet hanging on their inadequate-looking hooks. "A fine start to an operation," I was thinking; but more was to follow.

We were climbing very slowly and I realised from the sluggishness of the controls that all was not well. Charlie Bint, the bomb aimer, climbed down into his compartment in the nose and was able to inform me that the starboard wheel had not fully retracted! It must have taken the full force of impact into the hill. No amount of pumping would budge it either up or down, and I knew we would not be able to continue the mission as it was taking too much power and consequently too much fuel to overcome the drag of the damaged wheel.

I flew east, still climbing very slowly, meaning to jettison the bombload in the North Sea and return to make an emergency landing.

One hour after take-off we had reached 9000 feet and were circling a few miles east of Grimsby, the North Sea looking cold and deserted underneath. I depressed the lever which should have opened the bomb doors but no red warining light appeared! This was serious. I dived steeply and pulled out quickly in the hope of shaking the doors open, but to no avail. The flight engineer reported that the tank for the hydraulic fluid was completely dry. It was obvious that in our attempts to retract the damaged wheel we had pumped all the fluid into the atmospshere through a broken pipeline.

There was no alternative but to return to base for instructions. It was safe to break radio silence now that the rest of the squadron had been on their way for almost two hours. The WAAF radio telephonist lost no time at all in passing my message to the Flying Control Officer and very soon I was talking to the Station Engineering Officer and finally to the 'old man' himself.

We were ordered to make further experiments, but when we had tried everything it was finally apparent that we were saddled with a bobmer fully laden with bombs which couldn't be released and a damaged undercarriage which would make landing a hazardous affair not to be contemplated when our bombload was enough to blow an aerodrome to pieces!

"Stand by," I was ordered and we circled round, wondering how long it would take them to reach a decision. Tommy Atherton, the navigator, brought me a cup of coffee out of his Thermos flask and we had a quiet crew conference. "What do you think they'll decide, Skip?" - this from Taffy, one of the gunners.

I spoke the thought that had been in my mind since the bomb doors had refused to budge. "How would you like to join the Caterpilliar Club?" (This is a Club consisting of airmen who have baled out to save their lives.) There was a bit of joking, but it sounded rather forced and I called up the 'drome to ask them to speed up their decision.

"Reduce height to 5000 feet and stand by!" I knew then that I had correctly assumed what the order would be - we were coming down to a level where a parachute wouldn't drift too far from the 'drome!

I reported again at 5000 feet and the next instrcution produced a stir of activity. "Fly upwind and order crew to bale out one at a time. Remain at controls and stand by." The crew needed no second bidding. Through they filed - two gunners, wireless operator, navigator, and engineer, filling the confined space of the cockpit, their parachutes fixed firmly across their chests. Charlie was already in his compartment in the nose, opening the escape hatch in the floor. As they stepped quietly out of my sight to take their turn at jumping, each one shook my hand vigorously as he passed.

In a very short time I was left alone, and very much alone I felt. The roar of the engines seemed to grow louder, the controls seemed heavier and the aircraft seemed suddenly to be larger, more powerful, more sinister. "All out," I advised control.

"Circle and stand by," I was ordered. Then folled the loneliest few minutes of my life and I was glad to hear 'the voice' again. "Fly across the 'drome on an exact course of 080 degrees. Engage automatic pilot ('George'). When exact height and course being maintained - bale out!"

I welcomed the opportunity of having something to occupy my attention and spent quite a long time adjusting the controls until the aircraft was flying 'hands off' at exactly 5000 feet on an exact course of 080 degrees. I engaged the automatic pilot, made a few final adjustments and then, as the 'drome appeared ahead, I hurried down into the bomb aimers compartment where the escape hatch lay open, almost invitingly.

I was glad that I had taken the precaution of having my parachute hooked on before the crew had gone and, with a final quick check, I crouched beside the hatch, my hand already clutching the steel handle of the rip-cord. I sat on the edge of the hole and let my legs dangle. The rush of air immediately forced them against the underside of the aircraft and I allowed myself to roll out into space, head first.

I did four complete somersaults, seeing the four exhaust pipes of the aircraft glowing each time I turned over. I was counting one, two, three, four at each somersault and suddenly thought I must be near the ground. I pulled the ripcord handle and it came away so easily that I remember gazing at my hand, which was still holding the handle, and thinking, "It hasn't worked!" Before I could feel any panic there was a rush of silk past my face, followed by a not too violent jerk and I found myself dangling comfortably under the silken canopy.

I felt a surge of absoulte exhilaration and was grinning like a fool. I wish I could describe the feeling of power, of remoteness, of unreality, of sheer exuberance I felt. No wonder our paratroops are such grand fighters!

There was no rush of air to indicate downward speed and it came quite a shock, on looking down, to see a field rushing up to meet me out of the darkness and a few scattered houses taking shape around it. I had hardly time to brace myself when I hit the ground, heels first, travelling backward. I sat down with a bump, rolled over in a backwards somersault and pressed the release catch to prevent being hauled along the ground. There was no need: the parachute flopped lazily over me and I lay still for a few moments, not beliving this was reality.

I bundled the parachute under my arm and trudged across the field in unwieldy flying boots towards a large house about fifty yards distant. Fortunately there was a telephone in the house and the old couple, whom I eventually wakened, plied me with questions and cups of tea until the car arrived from the 'drome.

All the crew had reported safe landings and some had already been picked up by the time I returned. There were many theories put forward regarding the part failure of the engines and it was finally decided that they must have been running on 'hot' air, a device used under icing conditions, which reduced the amount of power to each engine.

All this time the aircraft was flying steadily onwards towards enemy territory and we learned later that the Observer Corps had plotted its journey more than half-way across the North Sea, maintaining the height and course I had set.

The Duty Naviagtor who had given me the course computed that the fuel supply would last until the aircraft was somewhere in the Hamburg area. We can only guess the outcome.

Before abandoning the aircraft I had switched on every available light, and I often wonder what the Luftwaffe and the German AA gunners must have though when they saw a large bomber approaching from the direction of England, lit up like a Christmas tree, flying steadily on a fixed course and blithely ignoring flak, searchlights and fighter attacks.

I like to think that 'George', guided by his saintly namesake, would point the aircraft in its final dive towards some important military objective, the destruction of which may have contributed in some way to the dramatic collapse of the Reich war machine which was soon to follow.
I bet the Flight Commander was pissed off that he let the crew have his brand spanking new Lancaster, only to see it disappear off towards Germany after one flight!
Yeah, I liked the last image of this Lanc with all the lights on batting across Germany not paying attention to anything.
That would be the ironic thing wouldn't it?

By not making any efforts to evade flak or fighters, it would be bound to make it to Hamburg, and crash only when its fuel ran out.
No, they would only fuel the Lancs as much as they needed and no more - the lighter the plane, the less chance of an accident, and there was a war on y'know?
ok i can't actually read that but i know my stuff when it comes to RAF bomber command, is thewre anyway i can help?? would you like me to proof read an english translation of the stuff on your site?? and can i just point out on your dambusters site, the picture you have on the home page, is not of the dambusters mission............

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