Pilot Officer Don Street:
It was my crew's twenty-third sortie; we were about two thirds of the way through our operational tour, the end of which was not yet in sight but we were cautiously confident that we would become 'tour expired'. Briefing was completed, the trades knew their vital bits of information and all had been put together by myself, still stressing the need for vigilance whilst in the air.
The pre-flight dressing up took place in the crew room with the solemn, but no longer furtive little rituals (we knew each other well by now) of right or left flying boot first, the adornment of scarves not washed until the end of the tour, and good luck charms from girlfriends and mothers. Now we were standing near our aircraft each of us with our private thoughts about the flight to come. Whatever those doubts and fears were they would disappear as 'Y' Yoke lined up at the end of the runway and I would say: “Right here we go - rear gunner all set in the turret - OK inner's up to 2,000 (rpm) engineer.”
The sortie commenced with a take-off time at 2304 hours setting course over base at 2346 hours to join the Lancaster force heading for the target. The first leg south, on a track of 163°, led to point 'A' east of London then onto a track of 150° to turning point 'B' on the mouth of the Somme, then onto the next leg, a track of 163° to a point 'C' just west of the target. The operational height was just under 10,000 feet which was unfortunate as the hazy atmosphere at this altitude reflected the light of a full moon creating very poor horizontal visibility. If vertical visibility was good, there would not be any bombing problems. As we progressed down the flight leg we were heartened to see the occasional - dit - dit - dit - dah V for Victory Morse code sign flashed by the French patriots, plainly visible against the blackness of the ground.
As expected the objective was visible and despite enemy nuisances it was with a feeling of satisfaction and relief that we turned out of the target area onto a northerly track of 026° towards turning point 'D'. In a short time turning point 'D' arrived, then onto a longer run to point 'E' on a course of 349°. The aircraft was, as always, much lighter to fly after the release of the bomb load, the four Merlin engines were harmonized at 2,600 revs per minute, the pressures and temperatures were as they should be. I was not too unhappy with the situation as I put the aircraft through a gentle weave heading for home base.
By now after seemingly years of experience, only actually a few months, the run up to, through, and out of the target area, was a well disciplined drill. A far cry from the first time, when everything was strange and frightening, a difficult target with 42 aircraft lost [the raid to Mailly-le-Camp on the night of 3/4 May 1944], and after the thump of the 'bombs gone' there was the wait for the target photo-flash and getting out of the area. On our current operation it was with great dismay that I saw that our height was 2,000 feet above what it should have been, I had forgotten to trim the flying altitude when the bombs were released. Not really dangerous this time, but a lesson not to be forgotten. I had a mental picture of the flight plan and knew that after the next turning point a further few short legs would take us to point 'G', which was on the French coast some miles south of where we came in. It would be a slight-nose-down for a few extra few mph heading for home base.
There was a hiss of an intercom and the navigator [Warrant Officer Dave Grant RCAF] called:
“Next course will be 280°, turn now skipper.”
I set the new course on the compass and turned to port onto the new heading.
“Thanks Nav, on course, how long to coast?”
My question was for the crew's benefit, to keep them informed of progress, and let them know how long they had to go before their bacon and eggs.
“About eighteen minutes,” said Dave.
By now the moonlight reflecting against the haze was at its brightest and as I gave my eyes a rest from the instrument panel with a quick look up and around, I wondered if our aircraft was clearly silhouetted to anyone flying above the haze level. No probably not: it isn't cloud but a trail. I was about to call the rear gunner [Sergeant Geoff 'Gillie' Gilbert] when:
“Skipper, I've picked up a bandit 1,200 yards astern and to port.”
The wireless operator [Sergeant Doug Boothby] was keeping a close eye on his small radar screen.
“OK thanks. Gunners, sharp look out now.”
My order wasn't really necessary but it established the rapport of the four crew members making up the defensive team.
“Still there, 1,000 yards now skipper, the closing rate isn't high.” And a few minutes later: “800 yards”.
“Any sign of it rear gunner?” I asked.
“Can't see a thing.”
“Mid upper?” [Sergeant Peter 'Jock' Haddon]
“Not yet, skipper.”
“600 yards, still there,” called Doug.
“Gillie, Jock. Any sign yet?” I was getting anxious.
“500 yards, still there,” came Doug's steady voice, and again: “400 yards. No change. Could be one of ours with his IFF [Identification Friend or Foe] not switched on.”
“Yeah, could be. Let's find out. I'm turning 90° to starboard. Now.”
As the aircraft swung onto the new heading I was aware that I was crossing the bomber stream so I held a steady altitude to lessen the chance of collision. I needed to identify the following aircraft; the poor visibility would leave no time for doubt. At the first glimpse the gunners would shoot or be shot! A few minutes had passed on the new heading when:
“I've still got him skip. Right behind 400 yards,” from Doug.
“OK, I'm turning left back onto course now. Any sign yet, Gillie, Jock?”
“300 yards. . . 250 yards.” Doug's voice was now anxious.
Then: “Got him! Corkscrew port go! Go!” It was the urgent voice of Geoff Gilbert, and as the Lancaster dropped down he added: “It's a Ju88.”
There was no sound of gunfire, the evasive action had been too quick and the sighting was lost in the haze. When about 950 feet had unwound on the altimeter I turned the aircraft through 60° to starboard and into a climbing turn.
“Where is he, Doug?”
He replied: “Was over the starboard up. . . now moving to rear. . . across to portside about 300 yards. . . 200 yards.”
The relative position of the enemy night fighter was changing rapidly as I flew the bomber through the evasive pattern. I called over the intercom:
“Have you got it, gunners?”
Doug added: “Still on port . . . slightly down skipper. . . 100 yards.”
“Corkscrew port, Go!” called Geoff.
The Lancaster was still climbing with a slight turn to starboard and as I pulled it straight to commence a diving turn to port:
“Hold it, skip. Hold it!” The Scottish voice of Peter 'Jock' Haddon came over the intercom, and I froze, holding the bomber straight and level. This all happened in a split second within which the Browning guns rattled.
Sergeant Geoff Gilbert in the rear turret met his foe eye to eye:
“We had gone into the violent corkscrew and he was underneath us. Then I saw the Ju88. He was so close. I was looking right at him and I could see the Ju88's crew looking right up at me. I just depressed my guns and fired. The next thing I knew he was going down in flames.”
Whilst taking my aircraft through the evasive manoeuvres, anxiously awaited news from his crew:
“He's breaking away underneath to port,” called Doug. “Going down and away rapidly.”
“He's on fire. We got him,” shouted Jock.
“Are you sure?” I queried, not quite believing the change in circumstances. “We've got him. He's on fire,” came the excited voice of Geoff.
“I can see it. He's hit the deck and there's two parachutes,” from Doug who had stood up with his head in the astrodome and was getting his share of the drama and excitement.
“I can see it on the ground now, and the two parachutes,” shouted Geoff.
I had to be sure and cut across the excited comments: “Where is it?”
All three chipped in with instructions to look over to port and slightly forward. I dropped the port wing and had a quick look. Nothing. Another look and this time yes, I saw a large fire visible against the black ground just slipping under the wing and yes, two grey blobs, visible in the moonlight, that were the parachutes.
“Good show. Well done! Well done! Dave, log the time and the position. A Ju88 destroyed.” The relief and elation were there, expressed on the intercom in the back chat and reconstruction of how it happened. I said nothing allowing the excited tension to ease, then: “OK, fellas, let's settle down now, well done! Let's get home; there may be some more about.”
Back at base on the dispersal pan with the engines stopped, parking drills completed, the sudden silence deafening everyone, little was said about the victory. It was quietly suggested to the ground crew that a swastika would be joining the bomb symbols painted on the side of the aircraft's fuselage, then we were away in the crew bus to the debriefing room. Before sitting down with the de-briefing officer we grabbed a mug of tea perhaps with a shot of rum for those inclined, and I then walked over to the squadron commanding officer, a down to earth, approachable Australian, doing his second tour of operation.
“Well, sir, we finally got one tonight. A Ju88. Saw it hit the ground.”
I was tired after the flight, like all of the aircrew in the room, but people in general were weary, war-weary, and the drama of Lancaster 'Y' Yoke's fight for life had happened before, many times to many people. It was only important to those involved, but even we would quickly forget as each subsequent flight presented its different emergencies. So we were de-briefed and claimed an enemy fighter destroyed. This was confirmed and was mentioned in the bomber group's news sheet some weeks later.
Sergeant Geoff Gilbert would receive a DFM for his actions on the night. Sergeant Doug Boothby and Sergeant Peter Haddon would also be later decorated with DFMs. I received the DFC.
By Pilot Officer Don Street, DFC who piloted a 61 Squadron Lancaster on the raid to St Leu d'Esserent on the night of 4/5 July 1944.
This story is also available in Steve Darlow’s book Sledgehammers for Tintacks.
See also more of Don's stories: