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 Mosquitoes. With the aid of his flight logs and entries in Operations Record books, I will provide an insight into those missions and his war-time experiences in “The Wooden Wonder”. In this third instalment, I will cover his missions which took place in December 1944, which was John’s first full month with 142 Squadron, and one which was quite eventful.
Alan Pickford – Director of Finance, The People’s Mosquito
The weather on December 1st was good enough to allow flying, and John teamed up with S/L Basil Jones in KB408 (J for John) for a short formation flying exercise during the day. Basil and John were given the night off, but twelve aircraft from 142 Squadron were dispatched as part of a larger force to attack Karlsruhe. F/O Bill Brown and P/O Alfred Mitchell flew in KB408-J that night in what was their first mission together after joining 142 Squadron at the end of November.
Although a number of the squadron’s aircraft were involved in missions on December 2nd, with two aircraft being dispatched to “window” Hagen ahead of an attack by five hundred aircraft, and a further ten aircraft attacking Giessen, John was rested that day. “Window” was small strips of aluminium foil dropped by aircraft to generate a number of false echoes on the enemy radar and make it difficult to distinguish real aircraft from the echoes.
There were no flights for John on either December 3rd or 4th, with the entire squadron being grounded by bad weather on the 3rd. The weather improved enough on the 4th for twelve aircraft to be sent on a mission to Hagen. The weather was better on the 5th and John took off at 20:14 with S/L Basil Jones in KB437 (F for Freddy) en route to Nuremberg with a bomb load of 4 x 500 lb bombs. Their take-off had been delayed by a number of issues, including one aircraft getting bogged down, having gone off the taxi-way onto the grass. Having reached their operational height over the enemy coast, the port engine suffered a catastrophic failure with a connecting rod punching a hole through the crankcase. That engine was shut down immediately. Shortly afterwards, two rear exhaust stubs blew off the starboard engine and the aircraft began to lose height. S/L Jones was forced to jettison the bomb load over open countryside in order to maintain height and the crew were forced to make an emergency landing at Melsbroek (Brussels) at 21:48. Basil and John were able to spend a day relaxing in Brussels before being flown back to Gransden Lodge by G/C Paul in a Mitchell on the 6th. Their aircraft remained in Brussels for some time, being eventually returned to the squadron in April 1945.
Again, bad weather meant no missions were flown on the 7th, but John was back in the air the following day for a rare daylight raid on the Gelsenkirchen A.G. Works at Meiderich, a suburb of Duisburg. John was again flying with Basil Jones, but this time they were flying in KB455-H. The weather was far from ideal when they took off at 12:37, with ten-tenths cloud topping at around 8,000 feet. Basil and John were the bomber leaders for this Oboe-led formation, and dropped their full load of 4 x 500 lb bombs from a height of 25,000 feet at 15:06. John reported that, whilst he was able to identify the river and the southern part of Duisburg, he was not able to see any results of the bombing due to cloud cover. Whilst over the south of Duisburg, they encountered some heavy flak, but no other defences were encountered and the crew landed safely back at base at 16:13.
This would appear to have been the only mission flown by John which required the use of Oboe. The Oboe system used two ground-based radar transmitters and a transponder fitted into the aircraft to pin-point the location of the aircraft. The time taken for the signal from each transmitter to be sent to the aircraft and be received back enabled the Oboe operator in England to determine when the aircraft was over the target and then send a coded signal which told the crew when they should release their bombs. The leader of the formation would receive this signal and the following aircraft would release their bombs shortly after seeing the leader bomb.
Twelve of the squadron’s aircraft were detailed to attack Berlin on the 9th, but John was not one of those taking part in this raid. The entire squadron were stood down for the day on the 10th, but that date was notable for John in that it saw him promoted from Warrant Officer to Pilot Officer.
December 11th saw twelve aircraft from 142 Squadron detailed to carry out a daylight raid on two specific targets in Duisburg. These were a coking plant and a benzol plant. John was not involved in this raid, neither was he involved in a raid on Hamburg that same evening nor the raid on Osnabrück the following night. Fog and poor visibility meant that no flying took place on either the 13th or 14th, but John returned to the air for a forty minute night flying training flight on December 15th. Again, John was flying with S/L Jones, this time in KB450-E. They did not take part in the raid that night on Hannover, and were again grounded by bad weather on the 16th.
However, the weather improved on the 17th, and, after a fifteen minute night flying training flight during the day, Basil and John took to the air that night in KB487. This was a new aircraft for them, having only arrived with the squadron on December 11th. Like all of the aircraft that John flew in during the month, this was a Canadian-built Mk XXV bomber. It was given the squadron code J for John, replacing the previous KB408-J which had been damaged beyond repair when it overshot its landing on December 9th. On that day, flown by F/O John Whitworth and F/O William Tulloch, it had taken off with the remainder of the squadron’s aircraft for a raid on Berlin, but was forced to abort the sortie due to an engine failure. After jettisoning its bomb load, it made a single engine landing at 21:07. Unfortunately, the pilot came in too fast and the aircraft went through the end of the runway, through a hedge and ended up on its belly, badly damaged. Both crew members were able to get out of the aircraft uninjured.
The target on the night of the 17th was Hanau. Basil and John took off at 16:41. As they climbed to 15,000 feet close to the Kent coast at Margate, the main oil line to the port engine snapped. Basil had to quickly shut down the engine to prevent the prop from seizing and returned to base, where, at 17:32, he made a perfect landing on one engine, still with a full bomb load onboard! No doubt, both crew members were extremely relieved to have survived a second aborted sortie in the space of two weeks.
The following night saw Basil and John back in action, this time completing a successful mission to Nuremburg. Twelve aircraft had been detailed for this raid, which was intended to be a decoy for an attack on Gdynia, in Poland. However, two aircraft went u/s at dispersal, so only ten aircraft actually took off. Basil and John were airborne in KB466 (K for King) at 16:21. The weather was fair, with a very thin layer of 10/10th stratus. John dropped their full load of 4 x 500 lb bombs from a height of 25,000 ft at 18:51, aiming for the centre of a line of four green target indicators (TIs). According to John’s entry in the squadron’s Operations Record Book (ORB), the line of four green TIs was about 4 miles long. He also reported seeing a single yellow TI on track for the target, but about 6-10 miles short of the target.
It was not uncommon for multiple colours of TIs to be used. The first marker aircraft would drop TIs of one colour. If the Master Bomber felt that these had not correctly marked the target, he could call for additional TIs of a different colour to be dropped and would then send a radio message to the bombers telling them which colour TIs to bomb on. On this particular night, the Master Bomber’s message was to bomb on the green TIs.
After dropping their bombs, John reported that the bombing had been well concentrated around the cluster of TIs. He also reported a slight barrage of flak initially, but flak as predicted on leaving the target. They landed safely back at base at 20:54.
There were no flights at all on the 19th or 20th because of thick fog, with visibility on the 20th being as low as 300 yds. The fog lifted enough on the 21st to allow three crews to be dispatched on an “Early Window” operation to the Köln/Nippes marshalling yards. One aircraft KB397-P, flown by F/O Hannigan and F/Sgt Northridge developed a severe shudder in the airframe and returned to base 45 minutes after taking off. The other two aircraft (KB436-A flown by F/O Gosling and F/Sgt Simpson and KB421-T flown by F/O Keogh and F/O Lynde) successfully completed their mission, and returned safely to base by 20:00. By that time, visibility had become poor with thickening fog causing any evening operations to be cancelled.
Poor weather meant that there was no flying on the 22nd, but on the 23rd the weather improved enough to allow flying, and John was back in the air again. During the day, he teamed up with F/L Steve Nolan for a one hour twenty minute night flying training flight in KB468-B. In the late afternoon eight aircraft were dispatched to attack the railway yards at Seiburg, with a further six aircraft (including S/L Basil Jones and John in KB487-J) sent to attack the railway centre at Limburg. Basil and John took off at 16:12 in clear weather, with a slight ground haze. They arrived over the target and saw a single red TI. They orbited to port and at 18:18 saw a succession of red TIs in close formation. They dropped their full load of 4 x 500 lb bombs from a height of 13,700 ft (quite low for the Light Night Striking Force, who typically bombed from between 20,000 and 26,000 ft), with John aiming for the centre of the reds. John reported seeing a “Cookie” (4,000 lb bomb) burst in the centre of the TIs which scattered the marker flares, and a number of 500 lb bombs burst slightly to port of the TIs, although the accuracy of the bombing was generally good. They encountered no defences at all on this mission, clearly catching the Germans by surprise.
Whilst the squadron were airborne, the visibility deteriorated considerably at Gransden Lodge. The first aircraft to return from the Seiburg raid was KB421-T, which was flown by F/O Keogh and F/O Lynde. They undershot their landing in poor conditions, with the aircraft making a belly-landing and bursting into flames as it slid along the ground. F/O Lynde managed to scramble clear, but then realised that F/O Keogh had not followed him, so returned to the cockpit and pulled his pilot clear of the flames. Both crew were taken to Ely Hospital for treatment, and returned to service in early 1945.
With the stricken aircraft obstructing the runway, and the fog reducing visibility, all further landings were abandoned. The seven remaining aircraft from the Seiburg raid were diverted to Ford, whilst Basil and John and the other five crews from the Limburg raid all landed safely at Downham Market. This airfield was equipped with F.I.D.O. (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation). This system was developed by my predecessors in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham and consisted of two pipelines, one either side of the runway, through which fuel (usually petrol or kerosene) could be pumped. This fuel could then be passed out through a series of burners which, when ignited, would produce a wall of flame. The heat from this could quickly disperse the water droplets that formed the fog, enabling aircraft to land safely.
The poor weather continued to hamper operations, and the squadron were stood-down on December 24th. John went home on extended leave to spend Christmas and the New Year with his wife Joyce, who was several months pregnant and no doubt glad to be able to spend some time with her husband. Another crew were dispatched to Downham Market on Boxing Day to collect KB487-J and return it to Gransden Lodge.
The next instalment of John’s diary will be posted soon.
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