J. J. ‘Jack’ Lee
How often have those of us who operated over Europe during the war years seen an aircraft in distress, either coned by searchlights, mauled by fighters, or shot up by flak, wondered if the aircraft and its crew ever made it back home?
J. J. Lee, rear gunner, Lancaster PB797 VN-Z-‘Zebra’ on 50 Squadron. On 22 March 1945 227 Lancasters and eight Mosquitoes of 1 and 8 Groups raided Hildesheim railway yards. Some 263 acres – 70 per cent of the town – was destroyed and 1,645 people were killed. Four Lancasters were lost. Another 130 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 4 and 8 Groups bombed Dülmen in an area attack, which was without loss and 124 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 6 and 8 Groups bombed rail and canal targets at Dorsten, which also was the location of a Luftwaffe fuel dump, again without loss. One hundred Lancasters of 3 Group carried out a ‘G-H’ attack on Bocholt, probably with the intention of cutting communication. All returned safely. 138 Another 102 Lancasters of 5 Group in two forces attacked bridges at Bremen and Nienburg without loss. The bridge at Nienburg was destroyed though no results were observed at Bremen.
‘We were engaged on a daylight raid over Bremen on 22 March 1945. The aircraft was piloted by Pilot Officer Pat Reyre and crewed by Flight Sergeant Ken Shaw, navigator; Flying Officer Jack Andres RCAF, bomb aimer; Flight Sergeant Alan ‘Shorty’ Thorpe RAAF; Sergeant Gerry Jones, flight engineer; and Sergeant Alf Robinson, mid-upper-gunner. ‘Z-Zebra’ was at the rear end of the ‘gaggle’ formation and bombs had been released over the target. It was a perfect day for the operation; the sky was cloudless. Anti-aircraft fire can only be described as moderate and fighters were conspicuous in their absence. We were escorted by American air force ‘Mustangs’.
‘Like most crews ‘flak’ was not an undue hazard unless it got too close and it was only by a stroke of misfortune should an aircraft fall victim to the big guns. Having said that, as we left the immediate target area I saw bursts of flak creeping dangerously close to the Lancaster directly below and astern of me. ‘Poor Blighter’ I thought. No sooner had this thought passed through my mind when two almighty explosions shook our aircraft. A dark trail of smoke appeared from the starboard wing, at the same time the aircraft swung to starboard and began to descend rapidly. I watched as we descended and saw the gaggle drift further and further from our view.
‘Within seconds of our being hit those dreaded words came over the intercom; ‘Jump, Jump.’ I swung my turret to the beam, snatched the doors open and prepared to make a hasty exit. I can’t recall to this day why I hesitated but I replied to the skipper; ‘Did you say jump?’ Back came the reply; ‘No, hang on.’ In the course of further conversation it transpired that both starboard engines were damaged and the props feathered. Our descent continued and then, by some great fortune, one of the engines was restarted and our sided descent was corrected. It now became obvious that we had suffered serious damage. However, we were fortunate not to have any casualties. In a matter of minutes we were on our own at a height of about 5,000 feet on a perfectly clear day and a sitting duck for enemy fighters.
‘As I surveyed the sky for fighters my attention was drawn to what appeared to be long strips of brown paper drifting from the aircraft and spiralling earthwards. I was completely puzzled at the appearance of this phenomenon. I rotated the turret and peered into the fuselage where I saw the wireless operator ‘Shorty’ Thorpe and the mid-upper gunner Alf Robinson engaged in stripping lengths of ammunition from the ammunition tracks situated on the starboard side of the aircraft. Both tracks had been damaged by flak which rendered my two left hand guns U/S. On reflection this course of action would have virtually no effect on lessening our overall weight. However, it did seem a good idea at the time and was good for morale. By the time we had reached Holland some considerable height had been gained. Further assessment as to the amount of damage inflicted to the aircraft drifted over the intercom to the effect that the ‘George’ control system had been shot away, numerous fuel lines had been severed, our starboard aileron was useless and we had no brake pressure.
‘Our situation was bad, but not hopeless. However, it was decided to discharge a distress signal with a view to obtaining assistance from any of our fighter escort who may still be in the vicinity. I watched as the red flare ascended then fell gently away. It was within a matter of seconds after the flare had been discharged that three ‘Mustangs’ appeared on our port beam, two of the fighters peeled off whilst the third positioned himself some fifty yards to the port side of my turret. The pilot waved his hand as a gesture of encouragement and maintained his position. This ‘Mustang’ escorted us right across Holland and over the Dutch coast. The Frisian Islands came into view. Later as we flew over the islands our aircraft was once again subjected to heavy anti-aircraft fire. As the flak opened up the ‘Mustang’ pilot opened his throttle and headed out to sea. No further damage was sustained to ‘Z- Zebra’ and we made headway towards the English coast.
‘At the main briefing prior to our take off it had been stressed that Woodbridge, one of the two emergency runways catering for aircraft in distress, was out of use for reasons which I recall were never disclosed. Only Manston was available. It was due to the set of circumstances prevailing at that time that our pilot was forced to set course for Woodbridge. We still maintained height and the weather remained nigh perfect. At this stage an intercom discussion was held during the course of which our skipper gave us an ultimatum stating there was a fifty-fifty chance of putting our aircraft down in one piece. The two options open to us were either bale out or stay with our aircraft. The response was unanimous and an instant decision was made to stay together.
‘As Woodbridge came into view there were excited comments over the intercom. The emergency runway was lined virtually from end to end with ‘Halifax’ aircraft and various types of gliders. Here was the answer to the airfield being closed. Flying control was contacted and a request for landing made. Needless to say our request was refused and we were instructed to divert elsewhere. Owing to the state of our aircraft, plus the fact our fuel situation was becoming critical, this course of action had to be refuted. Despite an almost superhuman effort by our skipper the kite was becoming almost impossible to control and our crash landing procedure was put into operation.
‘There was to be only one approach to the runway due to the fact alterations to course could not be achieved owing to the failure of our controls system. Wheels were down and the undercarriage locked. The approach was made and we touched down halfway along the runway. We had no flaps and brake pressure was nil, the result being that we careered along the runway at a fast rate of knots. The end of the runway was reached and we carried onto the overshoot area which was in a similar state to a newly ploughed field. The vibration was such that I thought we were going to break up. I had rotated the rear turret facing starboard and as we trundled on I had a shaky view of a football match which was in progress some several hundred yards away. As their attention was drawn to us, players and spectators alike stopped as though riveted to the ground and gazed in amazement as we roared past them. The aircraft finally came to rest with our undercarriage intact. I virtually fell out of my turret, whilst the rest of the crew with the exception of our skipper followed suit via the main door. On making my way to the front of the aircraft I saw our skipper still sitting in his cockpit, no doubt finding it difficult to believe we had made it down in one piece.
‘As we took account of the damage sustained we noticed that the bomb doors had crept open several inches. Closer inspection revealed one of our 1,000lb bombs nestled on the bomb bay doors. It became obvious we had a hang up which had not registered on our instruments and the bomb had broken loose during our bumpy entry onto the overshoot area. Had we known the bomb was still in the aircraft I doubt very much if we would have brought ‘Zebra’ home. Needless to say there was much twittering at the thought of what might have happened had it exploded.
‘Bladders were relieved and the crew then congregated awaiting transport to the flights and our de-briefing. Ken Shaw the navigator produced a fair sized piece of shrapnel. This had become lodged in his ‘Mae West’. He then went on to explain having felt a blow in the lower part of his ribs as though he had been kicked. It transpired the shrapnel had torn through his life jacket and struck the large ‘rat trap’ type of buckle of his battle dress jacket. The buckle had been bent almost double by the impact but had no doubt saved him from serious injury. The emergency vehicles were on the scene very promptly and we were transported to the flights for de-briefing whilst our navigator attended the sick bay where he was given a check up. It was only at the debriefing stage we were informed that Woodbridge was on standby for the forthcoming Rhine crossing operation. This explained the presence of the large numbers of aircraft stationed on the main runway. We were further informed that strict security was being imposed on the station and all personnel confined to base. It was also made clear no mail would be allowed to leave the base until the glider force had left for its destination. After a meal we were billeted and then we commenced to have a look around the base. There were literally thousands of aircrew and army personnel scattered around the station and we met many old friends with whom we had trained prior to our operational posting.
‘The giant armada finally left; a sight we shall never forget as the aircraft set off into an almost cloudless sky. The crew went into Ipswich to celebrate our survival and on our return to the base the following day arrangements were made for our return to our Squadron at Skellingthorpe. We had been absent for several days and some of the other crews thought we had been written off.
‘This brief account of the experience of a Lancaster crew carrying out its duties does not highlight any acts of heroism or brave deeds, but it does bring home the occupational hazards faced by all crews engaged on operations. It also emphasises the determination of a crew and the outstanding efforts of an exceptional pilot to survive and return with their aircraft to continue the struggle.
‘We returned to Woodbridge three days after the defeat of Germany and flew ‘Z-Zebra’ back to Skellingthorpe. She flew for two more years before joining hundreds of other redundant Lancasters in the scrap yard’.