Article: A Very Black Thursday

by DOUG CURTIS, DFC

16 December 1943 started out much the same as any other day.  Our crew crawled out of the sack in mid-morning and made our way to the mess.  A quick look at the board told us that we were on for later that night.

 

billing crew

L-R: Jimmy Billing, Jock Campbell, Bud Findlay, Mort Moriarty,  Doug Curtis, Erwin Osler – missing from the photo is Tommy Hope – for full details of crew that night, see BILLING CREW PAGE

We’d had a good long lay-off of two weeks as a result of problems encountered on a trip to Berlin on 2 December.  For that matter we had not even seen the inside of a Lancaster since that trip.  It was unfortunate in a way that our layabout could not have lasted one more day as the op that we were up for turned out to be one of the most hair-raising of the war.  Only the raid on Nuremburg would prove to be a bigger disaster for the air force.

97 Squadron had scheduled 21 crews for this target which we learned at briefing was to be Berlin.  I was a tail gunner in Lancaster X-X-Ray, and a member of one of those crews.

The very name Berlin could raise the hair on the back of your neck.  Nothing, however, was mentioned at briefing that would lead one to believe that this trip would be any worse than any of the four previous jaunts that we had made to that target.  In retrospect we should have had at least an inkling that all was “not right in Denmark” as our Met man spent an inordinate amount of time detailing the various weather conditions that we would encounter, not so much on the way to the target but rather that there may be fog on our return.  However, it was not forecast until hours after our return.

What we didn’t know was that the Met people had apparently suggested that as they could not be certain what conditions might be like six hours or so hence, so the raid should possibly be scrubbed.  In any event, off we went.

With hindsight it was determined that there were a number of factors that would impact on this night’s effort.  In addition to the possible fog hazard, there was also a full moon that night.  And, as if that were not enough, our route was a straight line directly to Berlin.  No attempt was made to try and bluff Jerry into thinking that we had some other target in mind.  The raid started out badly.  At Elsham Wolds, two Lancs crashed into each other shortly after take-off, killing all 14 aboard.  It seemed to be an omen of worse things to come.

We had “X-X-Ray” airborne at 16:50 hrs and headed to the assembly point over the North Sea.  As we came through the cloud layer we beheld a beautiful sight as the sun was slowly sinking into the multi-coloured clouds directly behind us.  As the minutes passed, it began to grow darker.  It was a comforting thought to watch the hundreds of aircraft slowly making their way through the clouds reaching for operating altitude.  It was dark as we reached the enemy coastline and it soon became obvious that the welcome mat was out for us.  The enemy fighters quickly determined our flight path and began to lay down a string of flares which reached eventually all the way to Berlin.  A dozen or more bombers were shot down even before we crossed into Germany.

Fighters followed us all the way to the target where more were waiting to take over.  F/L Pelletier was attacked by a Ju-88 which his gunners beat off and were able to claim one damaged.  F/L Brill was shot down and, as was sometimes the case, he was carrying a second dickie with him on his first and last op.  Of the 483 aircraft scheduled for this op, 25 were lost as a result of enemy action.  The worst part of this night’s horror was waiting for us back in England.

It was obvious as soon as we neared the coast of England that we were in trouble.  A blanket of fog extended as far as the eye could see.  The whole country was covered.  The only clear airfields were too far away for anyone to reach as most aircraft were almost out of fuel.  Aircraft began to stack up over the area that they assumed was base and waited for instruction from the ground.

We were number three or four so were told to orbit and wait our turn.  Preference was given to those with wounded on board or those about to run out of fuel.  While orbiting we listened in to two of our crews, P/O Smith and F/O Mooney, who had pushed their fuel to the limit but now had no option but to point toward the North Sea and jump for it.  All 14 landed safely and were soon rounded up by the Home Guard.

As for us, we could do nothing but continue to orbit until at last we heard the welcome words, “X-X-Ray, you may pancake.”  We prayed that we could do just that.  Jimmy began a very slow, painful let down.  Mort read off the elevation as we kept dropping while the rest of us peered through the muck hoping to see the ground or anything recognizable before it hit us too hard.  It was like sitting in a giant ball of cotton batting.

Even though Mort was calling off the altitude we all knew that it didn’t take much of a variance to put us into the turf but it gave him something to do.  After what seemed like an eternity as we got closer to being either down or dead, Jimmy spotted the deck and dropped the kite straight down with a hell of a wallop.  We were down but rolling into Lord knows what.

X-X-Ray bounced violently so we knew that we were not on tarmac, it felt more like a ploughed field.  At last we came to a halt and in less time than it takes to tell we were out on the ground alive, something that only a short time before we felt might not come to pass.  It took several minutes for the thought to sink in that we had actually come through that pea soup and were standing on terra firma.

We soon became aware of two reddish glows reflecting on the fog that we assumed were prangs, and in fact they were.  Suddenly a Lanc roared directly over our heads, so close that we were able to make out his starboard green as it dipped, hit the ground and cartwheeled off into the fog in a flash of flame.  You knew in that split second that seven men had died.  “There but for the grace of God go I.”

After a short while we made out a slight glow moving in our directions.  All seven of us blew on our whistles to direct the truck our way.  We were so relieved at arriving back in one piece that we hopped on board not really caring where we ended up.  The WAAF driver a few moments later dropped us off at the interrogation room.  She must have had a built-in compass to be able to navigate in those conditions.

As we entered the interrogation room, two other crews, none of whom we recognized, were being interrogated.  We assumed that they had touched down at Bourn and you can imagine our surprise when we were told that we were the visitors, having landed at Graveley.  After that flight, we would have been happy to have landed anywhere.  Graveley had had a full list out that night and were not against taking in the odd stray.  As a matter of fact three of our crews managed to touch down at Graveley and were bloody glad to have done so.

Following our session with the intelligence officer we were pointed toward our eggs and bacon, and a spare cot where we were able to log a much needed 40 winks.  Later in the morning we were given a few gallons of fuel, and made our way back to Bourn.  There we were apprised of just how costly the raid had been.  Our squadron had taken a dreadful beating.  F/L Brill had been knocked down over enemy territory.  P/O Smith’s and F/O Mooney’s crews had bailed out over the U.K. when they ran out of fuel.

The list went on – S/L MacKenzie had crashed on the edge of the airfield at Bourn, killing him, F/O Colson and P/O Pratt.  I had flown with that crew back in early October.  F/O Thackway had crashed near Bourn killing everyone on board except Sgts Mack and Laver.  S/L Deverill crashed near Graveley killing all but W/O Benbow.  F/S Scott also crashed near Graveley killing all aboard.  P/O Kirkwood and crew were killed when they crashed near Gransden.

When the final tally came in it looked as though we had lost at least 32 aircraft in England.  28 had crashed and 4 had been abandoned.  Although the total numbers remained a bit of a mystery the count was something like 127 killed, with another 30 injured.  Our squadron, No. 97, suffered the highest losses with 28 killed, 7 injured, plus Brill’s crew lost over the continent.  A total of 8 aircraft of the 21 dispatched were destroyed on this night’s raid.

To all of those involved it will always be remembered as Black Thursday.

(Note: Doug Curtis of Nanaimo, BC, was a tail gunner with 97 Squadron.  He regrets his lack of good wartime photos, and explains that he lost his camera when he bet three queens, only to be beaten by a full house.)

Billing - Doug Curtis

Article originally published in Airforce magazine, winter 1998

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