The Wartime Diaries of a Mosquito Navigator – Part 1

My uncle, John C. Pickford, served in the RAF from 1941 until 1946. Between October 1944 and the end of the war in May 1945, he flew about fifty missions over Germany as a Navigator/Bomb Aimer in Mosquitos. With the aid of his flight logs and entries in Operations Record books, over the coming months I will provide an insight into those missions and his war-time experiences in “The Wooden Wonder”. In this first instalment, I will cover his first missions, which took place in October 1944.

Alan Pickford – Director of Finance, The People’s Mosquito

Background

John Pickford

John Cranmer Pickford was born in Somerset on 16th June 1921. He was educated at Yeovil School and Sexey’s School, Bruton and, prior to the war, was the junior partner in the firm of Messrs. Cranmer & Askew Opticians in Minehead. In February 1941, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR). After some initial training as a navigator in England, he went to South Africa for a further six months of training, returning to England in 1942. On 29th September 1942 he married Joyce Bulstrode at Abbey Road Baptist Church, St. Johns Wood and, after a brief honeymoon (typical of those married during the war) he embarked on a 10,000 mile flight to India in Wellington bombers. This flight lasted from October 21st to November 28th (including several delays caused by weather and illness), and is detailed in a diary which John kept of that entire flight, which makes fascinating reading today. The start of his diary entry for Thursday October 29th sums up his feelings at that time: “Married a month and here I am 36 hours from blighty heading ever Eastwards!!”

As they were not able to fly over either enemy or neutral territory, the flight – in Wellington HX769 ‘F’- Freddie – took him via Gibraltar, Freetown, and Accra before a fortnight spent in Lagos as the pilot “had, and recovered from a mildish attack of malaria!” They then continued on to Heliopolis (a suburb of Cairo) where they “said farewell to the old kite – she was going to be stripped, modified and taken over by BOAC!!” (although John understood HX769 was destined for BOAC, it was in fact, a short time later, taken on to India for use by Coastal Command). At that time, John thought that his trip was over, but, two days after arriving in Heliopolis he found out that he had been posted to India and so took off in another Wellington (HX736 ‘N’- Nuts) and headed off up the coast of Israel, before turning east and passing to the north of Jerusalem.  At this point, there was a fire in the aircraft, which John describes quite vividly in his diary:

F for Freddie HX769

Crew of HX769 prior to the ferry trip to Heliopolis (L to R) Rear Gunner: Bob Stay; 2nd Pilot: Johnny Palmer; Navigator: John Pickford; Captain & 1st Pilot: Ian Culpan; W/Op. A/G: John “Jock” Gibbons; Front Gunner; Dick Howard. Bob Stay did not make the flight as he was “lost” over Bremen having flown on the “1000 Bomber Raid”. (Family collection)

“Just after hitting the Euphrates with only about 1050’ on the clock, Jock picked up the Very Pistol and accidentally fired a double-star “green” cartridge in the cabin!! Clouds of acrid blue smoke and two bouncing, burning balls of fire. One star leapt under Johnny Palmer’s seat over the step into the forward compartment and finishes up lying between Dicky Howard’s legs, who was peacefully sleeping in the bomb-aimers position! This was eventually kicked through the fuselage side, and blew away in the slipstream. The other star shot in behind the electrical panel and just stuck there burning brightly and very merrily! Eventually, by aiming a jet from the fire extinguisher just behind it, I got it wedged against the fabric and it burnt its way through the side of the fuselage and got carried away in the slipstream: BUT – we were still on fire somewhere! Could we find just where; we could smell it, but I’m blessed if we could track it down! Sammy calls up on inter-comm, “I don’t know if there’s anything wrong, Ian, but there’s quite a bit of smoky fumes in the tail here”! Good old Sammy!! By this time we were over Habbaniya and, did we bind, because Dicky Watson had cut an engine on landing and couldn’t get off the runway. We were still afire and had to circle for 30 minutes before Watson was towed off. When we eventually got in and parked on the tarmac we found a chunk of one of the stars had flown up above the radio and that was where our little fire was still burning. Old Maurice might easily have collected little charred bits of J.C.P. for the mortuary that evening instead of being able to yarn with him!”

The fire damage clearly wasn’t too bad as they took off the next day and continued on to Karachi via Kuwait, Bahrein and Sharjah. After staying in Karachi for a few days and doing a couple of air tests they flew on to their first squadron and operational base, so ending their eventful “ferry trip”.

John remained in India for almost two years, being mainly engaged in operational flights over Burma from Bengal. He returned to England in September 1944, having already clocked up a total of over 364 hours of flying. Upon his return, John was assigned to “D” Flight of 1655 MTU, based at RAF Wyton. He had risen through the ranks, and was a Warrant Officer when he arrived at Wyton. He took has first flight in a Mosquito (B Mk.IV, DZ462) with F/O Heitman on September 15th, 1944. For the remainder of September John continued to fly with F/O Heitman in Mosquito B Mk.XX aircraft, flying a total of 11 hours and 10 minutes of day flying and 7 hours and 25 minutes of night flying.

October, 1944

At the beginning of October 1944, John transferred to his first operational Mosquito squadron, joining 128 Squadron, who were also based at RAF Wyton. 128 Squadron was a Mosquito light-bomber squadron of No. 8 (Pathfinder) Group, RAF Bomber Command, and had reformed at Wyton on September 5th, 1944. It formed part of the PFF’s Light Night Striking Force (LNSF), whose main role was to carry out diversionary raids to draw the German fighters away from the main force. Typically, around 40 Mosquitos from No. 8 Group would attack a secondary target, using the speed, range and ability of the Mosquito to catch the Germans pretty much unaware.

105 Mosquitos

Loading 500lb bombs into a 105 Squadron Mosquito at RAF Marham – ©IWM (CH10089)

After a 40 minute night flying training run during the day on October 3rd, John’s first mission was to Kassel that night, flying in Mosquito KB199 with F/O Etherington. KB199 was a Canadian built Mosquito B Mk.XX bomber. For this mission, they were carrying a load of four 500lb general purpose (GP) bombs, one of which was fitted with a long-delay (LD) fuse, designed to explode as the Germans returned to an area after a raid. The total flying time for that mission was 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Further night flying training flights on October 4th and October 5th (both with F/O Etherington in KB199) were followed by John’s 2nd Mosquito mission on the night of October 5th. This one was to Frankfurt, with F/O Etherington in KB199, carrying two target indicators (TIs) and two 500lb GP bombs, and lasting a total of 3 hours and 40 minutes. The target indicators were used by the Pathfinders to mark the intended targets for the remainder of the strike force, improving the accuracy of the bombing.

Fortunately for him, that was John’s last flight in KB199, as that aircraft went missing on a mission to Berlin on October 31st. Although no reason for the loss of the aircraft is known, and the exact location of the crash was never established, the pilot (F/O King) was killed and the navigator (F/O Arrieta) was captured and became a Prisoner of War.

John’s third mission was on the night of October 10th, and followed further night flying training during the day on October 7th (with F/O Heitman in KB 363, another Canadian built Mk.XX bomber) and October 10th (also with F/O Heitman in KB353). The mission was to Cologne, lasting 2 hours and 50 minutes, again navigating F/O Heitman in KB353 and carrying four 500lb GP bombs, with one again being an LD. This was the typical bomb load for these raids and was indeed the load carried on every mission that John flew during the month.

John and Joyce Pickford

John Pickford and his wife Joyce after their wedding at Abbey Road Baptist Church, St. Johns Wood, 29th September 1942 (Family collection)

Further missions with F/O Heitman in KB363 took place on the nights of October 12th (a 3 hour 55 minute round trip to Hamburg), October 14th (also to Hamburg, but 30 minutes quicker than the previous mission) and October 16th (a 3 hour 5 minute round trip to Cologne) before John took a well-earned leave and went home to spend some time with his wife.

The raid on Hamburg on October 14th was significant as it was on that day that Bomber Command flew the greatest number of sorties in one day of the entire war (1,576) as part of “Operation Hurricane”, a maximum effort attack on Germany. The main target was Duisburg, where 9,000 tons of bombs were dropped in two attacks.

John returned to Wyton on October 26th and was airborne again with F/O Heitman for the remaining days of October. Night flying training took place on October 27th (in KB345) and October 28th, 29th and 31st (all in KB343) with missions flown on the nights of October 27th (a 4 hour 25 minute flight to bomb Berlin in KB345), October 29th (another 3 hour and 5 minute visit to Cologne in KB343) and October 31st (a 3 hour 40 minute round trip to Hamburg in KB343).

John’s total flying times for the month of October 1944 were 6 hours and 35 minutes of day flying and 31 hours and 25 minutes of night flying, covering nine missions over Germany.

The next instalment of John’s diary will be posted soon.

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9 thoughts on “The Wartime Diaries of a Mosquito Navigator – Part 1

  1. Very interesting reading this, Alan. I have my grandfather, W/Cdr R J Burrough’s logbooks which I have been reading over the last few months. He was the C/O of 128 Sqn in Oct ’44 so I’ll be reading your future instalments with intrigue!

    • Thanks for your comments, Will. Afraid that there will not be much more info on 128 Squadron as my uncle was transferred to 142 Squadron in late November 1944, but you will certainly be interested in the next part, which I hope will be ready for publishing soon. Do you have any photographs of 128 Squadron? Those would be most useful, if you have any!

  2. The Observers brevet was the oldest (longest serving) brevet which the RAF issued. It even pre-dates the Pilot’s Wings brevet, as it was originally issued to balloon bound observers. The pilot’s brevet appeared very early on in WW1.
    As mentioned above, other aircrew trade brevets were issued in 1942, but those who had mustered as aircrew before that date were permitted to continue to wear the “Flying Arsehole”.
    My Father Sqn/Ldr M.G. Harris wore his Observers brevet, until he finally retired in 1975.
    He served as a Navigator with 75 New Zealand Squadron, 35 Squadron and finally 139 Jamaica Squadron (Pathfinder) . . . Mosquitos.
    His complete Flying Log Book is available on the 75 (NZ) Squadron web site.

    Nick Carey-Harris

    • Nick,
      Many thanks for the info on the Observer badge. John must have been one of the last to receive this badge as I believe it would have not been until 1942 that he received the badge, after completion of his Navigator’s training. I found your father’s log book on the 75 (NZ) Squadron web-site (https://75nzsquadron.wordpress.com/malcolm-george-harris-rafvr-755984-102977-navigator-1940/) but that doesn’t appear to include details of his flights with 139 Jamaica Squadron. Would love to see those logs if you have them!

      • Hi Alan,

        I’ve just stumbled across this thread again and was wondering just why I jumped in with a diatribe about the Observers brevet !

        You are completely correct when you say that the 75 Sqn site doesn’t include anything other han 75 Sqn logs . . I thought it did.

        I’ll have to find a way of publishing the rest of Dad’s log book.

    • Glad that you liked it, Christine! I’m so grateful to your Dad and Uncle for giving me so much of the information on your Great Uncle John to include in these articles (and, of course, to Petrus for scanning the flight logs!).

  3. Very interesting, Alan! I am looking forward to more of these fascinating diaries. It is of note that your Uncle wore the much loved ‘Observer’ badge, of a semi-winged ‘O’, which was replaced by the ‘Navigator’, N, in 1942.

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