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    Tony Winser - Ace Gunner 

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Tony Winser - Ace Gunner
 

 

 

The account below is from the BBC web-site  http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/03/a4365803.shtml  and was contributed by Clare Hardy.

 

The account below is from the BBC web-site  http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/03/a4365803.shtml  and was contributed by Clare Hardy.

 

 

I have submitted my great-uncle's story of life as a Rear Gunner, as it's a story of great heroism from someone who just leads an ordinary life, and it encapsulates something of the spirit of that time.   

 

 

As Tony Winser eased himself into the rear turret of his Lancaster Bomber, Peter II, and waved farewell with his guns as he bumped along the runway for his next night mission over Germany, no doubt he thought to himself, “Well, at least this will be something to tell the grandchildren about.” As circumstances turned out, I never had a grandfather to tell me about his wartime adventures, as my own, Tony’s brother Trevor, was not one of the lucky ones to come back, falling victim to a torpedo attack as he travelled to Africa for active service in 1942.

The loss of his brother provided the impetus for Tony to join the Royal Air Force at the first opportunity when he reached the age of 18 in 1943, just as the war was reaching its most decisive phase, as far as the air was concerned. In his determination “to get back at Jerry for taking my brother,” and impatient to confront the enemy, Tony took the quickest but most dangerous course on offer to him - that of Air Gunner in the exposed rear turret where bullets could whip through the clear vision panel, and escape in an emergency was next to impossible. “I joined up in ‘43. And I was on ops by September ‘44,” explained Tony. “I got called up July, so I was 18 on the 15th of July, and I had my calling up papers to report on the 16th: the next day.

It was a fairly quick course, Air Gunners.” Tony’s report describes him as “An average gunner.” Faint praise for a teenager whose experiences would provide a bloody initiation into manhood, and remain with him for life.

Tony was one of the few to complete a tour of 31 ops and return to tell me about it one day in the summer of 1999. Sitting down with Tony’s log book, Air Gunner’s brevet and photographs, I had to comment on the impassive remarks in his training record. “I like this - it’s like a school report!” I exclaimed. “Oh yes - I was average. I don’t know what that means actually, but anyway, I got 75.6. I was at Air Gunners’ School, Andrews, The Isle of Man.” Taking up position in his armchair with his imaginary guns trained on an innocent vase of chrysanthemums, Tony explained how, in training, he had to have his bullets painted different colours, “so that when you got back, you’d know whether you’d hit them or not, because there’s so much deflection, you see. Because if you’re sitting in the turret like this - you fire the guns - the bullets go straight ahead; but as you rotate your turret round, they tend to go back, that’s why you had to have a certain amount of what they call - so many bull, so many incendiaries - and that sort of thing, so you could see where the bullets were going.”

The chrysanthemums, still sitting in the line of fire, looked unconcerned as Tony swivelled in his chair. “And the further you go round this end the more the bullets go that way.” “Was that to do with the air speed?” asked my husband, Giles. “Yes, that’s right,” replied Tony. “It’s pulling the bullets round. So the bullets are going like that,” he explained with an arc of the hand. “So you have to allow so much for deflection for the bullets to hit the target, you see. You’ve got your ring and bead in there and you’ve got to know exactly what aircraft it is to know where you’ve got to fire the guns at. So I thought I’d just get my ring and bead firing the guns, because if you rotate them round there’s going to be more deflection on the bullets.”

“So who are those people in the photograph?”.

“Well there’s Les on there. And that’s Bill, that was the bomb aimer. That’s Les, my skipper; that’s me. I was 19 then. Can you see a resemblance? A proper Winser! Yes, sitting on a dugout or something - we were on the Squadron then. Can you see my stripes? They should be on this side. Should be there, my stripes. My brevet is just underneath my hat. Because I’ve got my hat tucked in there look. I eventually finished up as Warrant Officer. I could have got a commission, you see, if I had stayed in. Never mind. I done all right.”

“Do you still keep in touch with many of your friends from that time?”.

“Not a lot. There’s just Paddy, he’s the only one I’ve got, because Les, my skipper, he was killed over Biggin Hill several years ago now, doing a demonstration. Robbie told me, my Mid-Upper Gunner. He used to live at Littlehampton; I used to go down and see him when I went down to Kent. He kept in touch right up until he died, he died of a bad heart. He was older than me, because they used to call me the baby - the baby of the Squadron. I was only 19 and some of them were about 23, 24, some even more - Bill Cox, I think was about 30. No it’s just Paddy I’ve got, because Les was killed over Biggin Hill. Robbie rang and told me. And then I lost Robbie; he died. And then of course there was three Australians, you see: Phil, Bruce and Barry - they all went back to Australia, and there’s only Paddy, and I didn’t know that Paddy was even at Ipswich.

I think it was Robbie who rang me once and said, ‘Have you heard from Paddy, because he lives near you?’ And I said, ‘No - where is he then?’ And he says, ‘Well, he’s in Ipswich.’ So Mabel and I went down there and saw him. He’s rung me no end of times, to see how I was and that. So he’s the only one really left. When I used to go the Wickenby Reunions which we used to call ‘The Register’ - there was a memorial there with all the fallen on and we used to have a Reunion every year - September, and it was getting to the stage where you’d go there and there was nobody there you knew because they’d gone. I was only 19, you see, and a lot of those were in their 30s. I was quite a youngster you see.”

Tony gestured to the crew photograph. “300 Squadron that was called, and that was at Faldingworth, just outside of Lincoln, and we did a fair bit of training: circuits and bombs, that sort of thing, just to get used to the aircraft. I didn’t like it there because the Polish food was awful. You didn’t have any English food, and the Polish food was all old sloppy stuff.”

“Was that the mosquito base?” asked Giles. “That was up there too,” Tony replied. “Oh my goodness, they were like vultures up there! In the summer time you could go into the Mess, and what was left over from tea, you could just help yourself to. And if you weren’t there at half past seven, and if you wanted something to eat, you ought to have seen the queue! They just took the lot! You’d hardly ever get anything! They were a nice crowd actually, the Polish were. I got on very well with them: I felt ever so sorry for them because they had been through an awful lot. We weren’t there long. We didn’t do any ops from there, and then they transferred us over to 626 Squadron, Wickenby. That’s where we did our ops from.

There was 12 Squadron there as well. There were two Squadrons on the same base, because they wanted full battle order - every aircraft had to go. Old Bomber Harris had given his instructions, you know, saying ‘I want full force up tonight - hundred per cent,’ and whatever he said went.”

“Most of the aircraft you were shooting at, were they ME-109s?” 
“Fokker Wolf 190s. Most of them were ME-109s,” 
“And they always attacked the rear.”
“They always attacked from behind?” 
“Curve and pursuit attack, yes.”
“Underneath?”
“Above.”

Giles began, “Isn’t it when you’re pulling away you get the best...”

“Well then you get the corkscrew action,” Tony cut in. “You see, you’re flying along like that. You can spot him up there, and then all of a sudden he’ll start coming in. It’s what you call a curve and pursuit attack. He can get you, because you’re still going along like that…” (Tony described his flight path with his left hand) “…but once he gets to a certain speed, and you know by your ring and bead exactly what distance he is away, I have to give the corkscrew action, so when he comes in with his fixed guns, your aircraft’s gone down there.” Tony’s right hand, representing the enemy aircraft, had entered the engagement at this point. “I’ve got my rotating turret, I can get him. But their guns are fixed into the wings...”

“So he’s got to chase you round,” said Giles.

“That’s right,” Tony replied. “He’s got to get round, really, because he’s doing a hell of a speed and he can’t manage it, he can’t get round to get his guns on you - but you could. Then if you don’t get him, he’ll shoot off, and then there’s the Mid-Upper Gunner to finish him off! See what I mean! He’s got two guns, I’ve got four. You don’t fire until you’re in distance of your guns, and then you have a go, and he’s still coming, you’re still going along like this, you’re having a go at him, rotating your turret around like this, he’s got fixed guns, and then, when he gets to a certain distance, if he starts to open fire, I give evasive action - corkscrew - to the skipper. You see he’s coming down at such a speed, from a height, because that’s how they do it, he can’t get round, you see. He can’t get round to me because his guns are fixed in the wings. But I can get him! Because I’ve got all my guns, and I can manoevre it up, down, or whatever. And if you get the evasive action right, you can get him before he’ll get you - if you’re on the ball. And I did seven times.”

“Did he blow up?” asked Giles

“He just went pssst, like that,” Tony replied. “And you could see then, he’d catch alight, and he just went down. But there was one that got away, and went over the top to the Mid-Upper Gunner to finish off. I got him first. Of course, you claim it, and somebody in another aircraft has to report the position where they’ve seen this ME-109 shot down. And if the moon was up, they would always work it so that they came in with the moon behind them. It was a bit of a job to see, because the moon up in the sky was quite bright at night. And then, towards the end of my tour, Jerry knew that we hadn’t got any Mid-Under Gunners, so they invented a gun that would shoot upwards. Up in the air like that.” Tony jabbed towards the ceiling. “So when you were going along, we couldn’t make out why we lost some aircraft when we hadn’t seen any - I wasn’t one of the victims anyway - but they found out what the ME-109s or the Fokker Wolfs or whatever do: they’ve got this gun, so they get underneath the aircraft and shoot it up like that. And so they briefed us after they found out that what we’d got to do was, as we were going along, we’d got to keep going like this with the aircraft.” Tony swung his arm from side to side. “So that the Mid-Upper Gunner could see each half of the aircraft. Like that. It was awkward flying like that, but we had to do it because we’d got no Mid-Under, see, the Yanks had got Mid-Unders as well, Front Gunners and everything. We’d got a Front Gunner with the Bomb Aimer, but they never attacked you from the front.

I don’t know why the front gun was there really, because they never attacked you from the front. And so, us boys, as soon as we’d crossed the English coast, we were getting sort of keen to get back, we used to start taking our guns out, so that when we got back to base, the guns were out and you could get back and get your meal quick, and get it all over, you see. And then of course, Jerry found out about this episode, and started following us back, and once they started firing, we’d got nothing in the bloomin’ turret! So they were very strict on that, so Les always used to say to me, ‘Don’t you take your guns out, Tony.’ ‘No, don’t you worry, Les.’ And there would be a tap on the back door, and old Robbie, the Mid-Upper Gunner would come: ‘Here you are, Tony,’ because we were below oxygen height then, we didn’t need oxygen, and he’d bring me my thermos of coffee, and I’d take my oxygen mask off and drink my coffee, you see. Silly thing to do really, but we used to think, ‘Well, we shan’t get any fighters now, there’ll be nobody, especially night times.’ Of course, old Robbie used to take his guns out. You used to have to take them out and take them back to the Armoury, you see, in the crew bus.”

“So you had to take your guns in and out every time you flew?” queried Giles.
“ Yes, and you had to go round every morning and harmonise them with a special board.”
“To make sure they’re all lined up and all firing at the same point?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Tony replied. “And of course you have to clean them. Even if you haven’t used them you still have to go down to the Gunners’ section and clean them, make sure there’s no rust, because you see, there were no hangers; you were out on dispersal all the time you see, and of course my part was so open because the rear turret was the only turret in the aircraft that had got a clear vision panel with no perspex at all, so you got good vision.

And of course when it rained, the bloomin’ rain used to come in and get onto your seat and soak everything, you see, and then when you got in there, and you had to put all your flying kit on, and your electrical suit and everything and all the electrical gloves, the electrical socks: they were all connected up to the suit with press studs, and when you put the heating on - because it was so cold - really cold - especially in the rear turret because of this clear vision panel. (I’ve even, many a time, went to use the intercom and couldn’t do anything with it because it was all iced up!) So of course the problem was when you used to put your electrical suit on and your seat was soaking wet, it used to cause problems because it was drawing up what was damp! But if they had only had some sort of coverage over the turret when it was in dispersal, you wouldn’t have got that dampness in. Of course your guns were not in, you see, because you had to take them back to the armoury, and then you had to go out first thing in the morning - you knew, first thing in the morning, whether you were on the battle order or not. And outside the Mess, if your name was on there, you knew you’d got a briefing to come, which, say, would be about 14.30 or something like that. And you’d go into the briefing room - it used to be 12 Squadron on that side, 626, which I was on, that side - and there would be seven chairs in a row for all the crew to sit down and the first thing you would look at... it was all locked up, nobody could look in there to see where you were going, it was all secret - until you got to the actual briefing, they would unlock it to let you in, and then you’d see the map there in front of you, with the red tape going from Wickenby down to Reading, Reading to Beachy Head, Beachy Head right across to the target, and you’d go across and have a look and see: ‘It’s that one tonight.’ And then of course they’d brief you exactly what you’ve got to do, what height you were going to bomb - because it’s a thousand bombers, it’s a lot of aircraft in the air, and dark: there were no lights on your aircraft - it was all in darkness. Mind you, you’d probably take off in the daylight, but by the time you got to the target it was pitch dark.” ...

“So how long would you be in the air?” I asked.

“I suppose the longest one was about eight hours something by the time I’d taken off and came back.” replied Tony. “But the times are all in there actually,” he added, indicating his log book. “But then of course, you see, we’d have to go back to the section to put all our flying kit on. We’d have our Air Crew meal before we had briefing. That was bacon, eggs, that’s all we had. That was a special for us Air Crew boys, because you didn’t get a lot of bacon and eggs. Then we’d have briefing, and then when the briefing was done, we’d go back to the section and put all our flying kit on, electrical suit, electrical gloves and flying boots and that. You used to have flying boots with straps around the ankles, and you used to pull them tight because of bailing out and everything - they would blow off, so you had to have these special straps on the flying boots. Then the crew bus would come along, pick you all up, take you round to the dispersal and you’d all stand outside the aircraft, just waiting for a red signal from the control. We got in the aircraft and they’d come along and they’d start the aircraft with a special thing they’d got. They’d have to put a pipe in and start the engines up. And many’s the time when it was a target I wasn’t very happy about I thought, ‘Oh God, don’t let one of them engines start up tonight - I don’t feel very much like going.’ But of course they’d all start up, and then you’d just taxi out, take off, circle round, and then get in position in the direction of Reading. And en route, it was probably still daylight, and you’d see all the others taking off from other airfields, they would all join with us. Well, it was a thousand bombers, it’s a lot of planes in the air at the same time. And it was all timed right to the split second. Perhaps the first wave in would be at 18,000 feet - so many aircraft do that, and then so many aircraft do 20,000 and some do 22,000 - it goes up to about 24,000 feet. And then the thing is, you’d let all the bombs go together, once you were running on your target. The bomb aimer says ‘Left, left, right, right, steady,’ to the pilot. He was giving all the instructions, you see. And in practically all of them, certainly in Le Havre, we had to try a thousand pound ‘Cookie’ bomb, which is right in the middle. It’s just like a big tank - a huge tank. There weren’t any fins on it. It used to just go down like a beer barrel and no matter how it hit the ground, it would blow up. You’d also have (it would depend how they were loaded up) so many incendiaries with it, or perhaps so many five hundred pounders or thousand pounders. And they all went together. And if somebody in the wave was not running on time over the target, you’d look up, and you could see stuff coming down. Cor! I looked up many a time to see these bloomin’ cookies, just missed us! But you see PFF, that’s the Path Finding Force, light all the target up - and when you’re briefed, you’re briefed to either bomb the centre of the red T.I.s, which is ‘Target Indicators’ on the ground, or the yellow, or the green, the blue, whatever, and you’ve got to do it at exactly that time, and then there’s a Master Bomber above you - he’s searching around all the time, and quite a way up above you, and he’s giving instructions as well, to you to say, ‘Now look, the wind has changed, don’t bomb to the middle of the red T.I.s that you were briefed upon, bomb to the left.’ So it was quite a job!”

“Did your missions all go according to plan,” I asked. “Or did you have any incidents?”

Tony chuckled. “Well, we ditched in the North Sea on the first night trip I went on. But on the way back, when you’re having your briefing, you were always briefed to look out for distressed aircraft in the North Sea, and if you spot them, you’re supposed to circle round them in the dinghy, and flap your wings, to let them know that they’ve seen you and have reported your position. So we knew we’d been spotted, but you’ve got to get out the aircraft very quickly. Once that hits the sea, and then it goes up, and then it hits again, the second time it hits, you’ve really got to get out quick. You’re all trained for ditching stations. Of course, the dinghy inflates inside the aircraft and breaks through the panel and is attached to the aircraft while it’s still there, and you all have to get out fairly quickly. And I think that was about - middle of January time. And it took us about eight hours before we got picked up. So that was goodbye to that aircraft, because that went down soon after we got into the dinghy. It didn’t stay afloat for long.”

“That wasn’t the only one, though”. Tony continued, getting into his stride. “What it was you see, when you joined the Squadron, your pilot has to go with another experienced crew on a bombing mission so he can get used to what’s going to be over the target and he’s in control. So they call that a ‘Spare Dickie’. Well, when he goes on the Spare Dickie that night, the rest of the crew are off - you can’t go without a pilot. 

So we’re sitting in the Sergeants’ Mess one lunchtime, - the briefing was about half past two or something like that - we were sitting in the Sergeants’ Mess, and we decided we were going to down to Lincoln because Les was going on a Spare Dickie, and we were going to have a night out down in Lincoln, round the pubs and all the rest of it. And then the tannoy went, and it said, ‘Sergeant Winser, report to Gunners’ section immediately.’ So I said, ‘I shall have to go’. So I got on my bike and biked off to Gunners’ section. And the Gunnery Officer said, ‘Oh, hello Sergeant Winser. I’m afraid you’re on ops tonight.’ I said, ‘I can’t be on ops - I’ve got no pilot.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’ve got to go with another crew.’ I said, ‘Oh dear, I don’t fancy that. I’ve been training with my pilot all this time.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve got no option. You’ve got to go, because Flying Officer Campbell says the Rear Gunner, has gone LMF’ which means his nerve had completely gone. ‘And there’s got to be a hundred per cent take-off from us as well as everybody else. So you’ve got to go.’ I said, ‘I don’t fancy that.’ 

But anyway, I had to go. As I said, I knew the chaps, but I’d never flown with them. Because when you’re training, you get to know what you’re doing in the air. Anyway, that was Frankfurt. Everything was all right until we got over the target. And the flak was coming up, the searchlights were up, but there were no fighters that night. But what happened was, I heard them say ‘Bombs gone.’ And I thought ‘That’s good,’ because once the bombs go your aircraft lifts up a bit you see, because of the weight, and then you put your nose down and get out of the target area as quick as you can. And I looked out of the side of the turret and I said, ‘My goodness, I can see some smoke!’ So I said to Flying Officer Campbell, “Skipper, there’s some smoke coming up on the starboard side.’ And the Flight Engineer says, ‘Oh yes, we’ve got an engine alight.’ So the pilot feathers that engine - stops it - and there’s an extinguisher inside the engine that puts it out. Well, that’s fine, because that stopped. Then I looked the other side, and I could see some more smoke coming that side. And I said, ‘Well I’m sorry skipper. There’s some more coming the other side now.’ So that’s two engines that had gone and of course we’d only got two engines left, and our actual height that we were briefed on was 18,000, and I felt myself going back, and I said, ‘What’s happening?’ And we had gone into a dive. We couldn’t pull it up. And I was just laying there on my back in the turret, and we were going down, and I thought ‘This is it, I’ve had it now.’ And the Navigator, the Flight Engineer and the Pilot, between them, managed to pull the joystick so that we actually came out of the dive at 2000 feet - nearly there - nearly at the bottom - and of course we had to come back with two engines. We had to crash land at Woodbury which was a crash drome in Suffolk. And we had to crash land there because the skipper didn’t think we were going to get enough height or something to get back to base. He was losing quite gradually I think, and so of course I thought then, when we were diverted and crashed there, the rest of my crew would think I’d gone! I’d had it! 

And I was worried because my Mum and Dad didn’t know that I was flying, and I said to my skipper, ‘Well, we shall have to get in touch with base pretty quick so that they don’t report me missing, because my Mother and Father don’t know anything about this.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get into the control tower and we’ll report it.’ So they did. And we had to go back the next day in a Dakota. I had to take all my guns out of the turret. You had to take all your guns everywhere, if the aircraft crashes or anything, you have to take it all back with you. You mustn’t leave it.”

“ So your Mum and Dad knew you were in the RAF, but they didn’t know you were flying?” I asked.

“Well if Mum had known, it would have killed her, what with losing Trevor.” Tony continued. 
“So when did they find out” I asked.

“It was when I got home on leave after my tour,” Tony explained. “Dad was late getting home, and I was home, so I hid all my RAF jacket up and everything out of the way, and I hid under the table. It used to be a big round table. And of course Dad came in and had his meal, sat down, put his feet under the table. And then all of a sudden I got hold of his trousers and started pulling - ‘What’s that under there? Is there a cat under there?’ - And then of course I got out, and he was so pleased to see me. 

So anyhow, Mum went off to bed, and Dad’s sat there in the armchair and I said ‘Oh I think I’ll come up Mum. I’m a bit tired tonight, I think I’ll have an early night.’ So I followed her up and kissed her goodnight by the stairs. And I always like to have some water when I go to bed so I came downstairs and went out in the kitchen, Dad was there, he says: ‘What did you come down for?’ I said, ‘Water, I get a bit dry.’ 

So when I came back through, he said to me, ‘Have you finished your ops yet?’ I looked at him - I said, ‘How did you know about that, Dad?’ He said ‘I’ve known for just a little while - not long - that you’re on ops. Never mind who told me, I know that you’ve been flying on ops.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m pleased to tell you Dad that I have finished.’ He said, ‘Thank goodness for that. Better tell your mother about that in the morning.’ So I said ‘Well, I shall see about that.’ So anyhow, I was a bit late getting up, and I went downstairs. 

Dad was in his armchair, smoking his pipe. Mum said, ‘You’d better have your breakfast. Have a cup of tea first.’ And she was going round the living room, just dusting with her duster, you see, and she got round behind me as she was dusting, and she said, ‘Well, I don’t know, Tony,’ she says, ‘You never, ever tell us what you were doing.’ She said, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ I said, ‘Oh, just the usual, Mum, just the usual.’ 

So Dad said, ‘Well, now’s the chance to tell your mother.’ So I said, ‘No!’ She said, ‘What have you got to tell me?’ I can see her still with her old duster in her hand! ‘What have you got to tell me, Tony?’ I said, ‘Oh, Dad’ll tell you. I’m not going to tell you.’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. He’s completed a tour of ops, and bombed Germany thirty-odd times.’ And she looked at me, she went white as a ghost. She said, ‘Is that true?’ I said, ‘Well yes’. ‘Oh my God!’ She said, ‘However did you do it? However did you keep that away from me like that.’ I said, ‘Well, it was for your own good, Mum.’ I said, ‘You lost Trevor, and I wanted to get my own back for losing him, and it was the only way I could get him back.’ And she said, ‘Oh God, thank goodness you’re all right.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I would never say to you, but after my six months’ rest period, I’ve got to do another tour!’ 

But as luck would have it, the war finished, you see. So I didn’t have to go. And Mum... she was so... she went and told everybody! And they said, ‘We know all about that, Mrs Winser. We know all about what Tony’s been doing!’ So I used to go up the Royal Oak, and I used to have drinks with people. And they used to say ‘Go on, have a drink, because we’ve got to celebrate, you know!’ Practically everybody knew! But I don’t know who told Dad. I’ve no idea from that day to this who told him, but somebody spilled it out to Dad. And he was so pleased, poor old Dad. He had a bit of a job getting around, because he had this asthma, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I know Mum won’t come, but I’m going to take you up to the Royal Oak, and we’re all going to have a celebration drink up there. Get all your friends - all your mates!’ There was loads of us there, and Dad was so proud in the pub. He said, ‘This is Tony, my son, who has done so well. He kept it all such a secret.’ It was really quite a nice evening, you know.”

I asked, “Do you think you were lucky to have got away with 31 ops over Germany?”

“Well, the Rear Gunner is the most dangerous position in the aircraft,” Tony answered. “And I’ve come back off ops with the Rear Gunner being hosepiped out of the turret. As soon as you get back from an op, the crew bus is there to take you back to remove all your flying kit, and your first job is to go to the interrogation room. And once you walk in there, there’s a big black board, and you had to put the pilot’s name up there, and my pilot’s name was Les Titmuss. So they used to call us ‘Tit’s Boys’! So we’d always sign in as Tit’s Boys. And then you’d go to certain tables. You’d have plenty of fags on the table. Loads of fags you used to get. Pile your pockets with them! Coffee, biscuits, and that. And then you’d go to this table, just the crew, and they’d interrogate you on this trip, and all that. They’d want to know if you’d seen any aircraft shot down, if you’d seen any in distress, or in the North Sea, or anything like that. And so that’s how it was with us.”...

“Did you lose any of your close friends?”

“I was very friendly with a chap - Phil Waldon - he was a lovely looking fellow, more or less the same age as me, and he was blond, and he was in another crew, and I always remember this, because when we were sitting for briefing, he was sitting with his other crew, and we always used to look at one another when we knew where the target was, and I remember old Phil looking across at me, and going like this with his nails…” Tony nibbled his fingertips feverishly, “as if to say ‘Strewth, I don’t like the look of that one?’ And we went on this trip - it was quite a nasty trip, and when we got back - because as I told you we had to sign the blackboard - and of course, the pilot, his name wasn’t up there. And I said to Les, ‘I don’t like the look of this. It’s been a long while now and they haven’t come back. They haven’t signed in.’ 

And when we went for interrogation, I happened to say about my friend, Phil Waldon, ‘I don’t seem to see he’s signed up on the board yet.’ And they said, ‘No, we’ve got bad news for you. They took off and developed a couple of engine problems, and they couldn’t get the height they wanted…’ One engine you can, with one engine you can still get the height you want, but with two you can’t - and they did say to us at briefing that ‘there may be fog problems when you come back, and you’ll probably be diverted so listen out for your instructions’. And of course, they’d gone quite a way, and they had to turn back, still got their bombs on board, and they came back to base, and were circling round, and of course, it was very foggy - they couldn’t land, and the control tower were giving them instructions of where they were going to be diverted to, but they’d have to go into the North Sea to jettison the bombs. You can’t land with a bomb load. And they were flying around, and apparently it turned over on its back, the aircraft did, and went straight down into our bomb dump. And they were blown to pieces. Blown to smithereens, it was dreadful, they reckoned there was bits of fingernails… 

I couldn’t go down there, I just couldn’t go down to the bomb bay. And anyhow, after I got demobbed, we went round to Ringland, a little village round here, and we went into a pub on the corner, and I sat there drinking my half pint, and I looked across at the mantelpiece. And I said, ‘My goodness,’ I said, ‘I know that fellow’s face.’ It was a photograph of an airman. And I went over; I picked the photograph up, and I said, ‘Well, that’s Phil Waldon!’ And I looked at the barman, and I said, ‘I used to be stationed with this fellow - at Wickenby!’ And he looked at me, and he said, ‘Did you?’ He said, ‘His father lives around the corner.’ And I said, ‘Well, does he?’ And he said, ‘Yes - he’d love to see you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to go round and see him.’ And when I went round, he was exactly like old Phil, you could see that was his Dad, and I introduced myself to him, I said, ‘I was on the Squadron with your son, Phil, and he was a great friend of mine.’ 

Well, he couldn’t have got me in quick enough, and he says, ‘Well, what happened to Phil, because all we’ve had, notification, is ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’? You see, because with all the worry, it’s killed his Mum. I’ve lost her through all the worry of Phil.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know exactly what happened to Phil, your son. If you would prefer to carry on thinking he’s missing, presumed dead, I won’t say anything about it. I’ll just leave you, and not say anything.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s been on a long while now, and I would like to know what happened to my son.’ And then I told him what happened. He just burst into tears. Couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Why on earth didn’t they say what had happened to him?’ It was at base! It wasn’t as though he was abroad and he had bailed out! They had no chance at all. Just blew to smithireens.”

“It was a bit of a cover up, really,” I ventured.

“Well it was,” Tony replied. “You see with only two engines… I suppose he banked over too far, with all his bombs on - there’s a lot of weight there, he just turned on his back. But I thought that was very hard, really, to say that. Because though they were blown to pieces, there was no sign of anybody, I mean they knew very well what had happened. I thought that was very bad, really. I can see him sitting there now, biting his nails.”

Phil Waldon was part of the crew of NG244 skippered by F/O R. R Preece. Airborne 1623 on the 22nd of December 1944 from Wickenby, it was obliged to turn back after the failure of the port inner engine. Approaching base, the crew were told to divert to Leeming, Yorkshire, but in the circumstances the pilot continued his approach, only to stall and crash. On impact, the Lancaster exploded. All are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial..   Tom

“You were one of the lucky ones then.”

“I was, but I was nearly a gonner over Nuremburg. What happened was when we were briefed, they told us that there would be no ground markings at all, that it would be ten-tenths cloud over the target, and that we’d have to bomb on Wanganuie flares, they called them - flares that are suspended on a parachute above the cloud, different colours. We’d have to bomb just one of those, whatever colour you were briefed at, you see. And so we were expecting there to be ten-tenths cloud over the target, and when we were approaching the target, it was nothing like it, there was moonlight - it was as clear as daylight! The fighters were up; the flak was up; we were combed in searchlights for about 20 minutes or so, and once you’re combed in searchlights they pump the flak up at you really hard, because they know exactly where you are. 

It was terrifying. You can see the aircraft coming down all over the place, and it unnerves you when you see that happening; and all the flak was coming up, and the problem was that the flak was getting very, very close. And it was so close that you could actually hear it exploding. And when I got back, the armourer came to the dispersal, and helped me out of my turret, and he says to me, ‘My goodness! Whatever’s happened to your rear door?’ I said, ‘I don’t know,’ because you see, you can’t look round, you can’t move when you’re sitting in the turret there. Anyway, he says, ‘Whatever’s happened to your rear turret door?’ And I said, ‘Well, to be honest, I did feel a bit of a draught when I rotated.’And he said, ‘Get outside, rotate your turret.’ And there was a hole about like that in my rear door!” Tony cupped his hands in a circle, describing a hole of about 6 inches in diameter. “And I said, ‘Whatever’s that?’ And he said, ‘Were you near flak?’ I said, ‘Yes, it was so close to me that I could hear it - it was actually vibrating the aircraft - didn’t hit me.’ So he said, ‘Well, there’s something weird here. We’ll search the fuselage, because I think it’s at the back, it’s come through your clear vision panel, missed your head, and has gone out the door. If it’s in the fuselage we shall find it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to find it because I shall have it as a souvenir.’ 

Well, we hunted and hunted and hunted, couldn’t find it. We went out next day and hunted in the daylight, but couldn’t see it. And he said, ‘Well, I don’t think, Tony, you’ll ever find it because I can guarantee you what has happened, it came through your turret when you were rotating, and went out into the sky.’ In any case, we managed to get back all right. It was a terrible trip though, and the PFF had to eventually do ground markings. They were doing Langanuie flares, but they found they weren’t any good when it was clear like that. And so as soon as we got back, they said, ‘You know, we’ve lost a lot of aircraft.’ And of course we heard later on when we got back to the Mess we’d lost 98 aircraft. 

There were seven in a crew, and I wouldn’t say they were all killed: some of them might have bailed out, been taken prisoner of war, I don’t know really what happened to all the crews, but one of my best mates was in that: Bill Cox, and he lived in London, he was a bus driver - London Transport - he was one of my best mates actually. He was in one of those aircraft and he was a rear gunner. What happened to him, I don’t know from that day to this: whether he was prisoner of war, whether he was killed or what. It’s a shame, but that’s how it is. You don’t know really what happens, when you eventually leave squadron and that, you don’t know.” I was later able to find out from the internet that Bill Cox had indeed perished that night over Germany.

“Did you ever do day raids?” asked Giles.

“We did just one day trip,” recalled Tony. “Well, I say one, it was two actually: Calais and Le Havre. What it was, you see, Jerry was hanging out there and we gave him up to 3 o’ clock in the afternoon to surrender. If they didn’t, we were going to bomb them out. And so we went over, because they didn’t surrender, and of course we had to bomb so low because we only had the thousand pounds; we didn’t have the cookie on; we didn’t have the twelve thousand pounder on; and we had to bomb so low that you could see the old Jerries running about, I was going at them with my guns and they were trying to fire rifles up at us and eventually they did surrender, and that was one. 

And then we did Le Havre as well. But no, the others were at night time. There was no opposition really on the day trips. There were no FE-109s or anything like that coming after us, like when you’re doing night trips. I mean if it was fairly bright moonlight, then you got fighters, you got searchlights, you got everything coming up - flak, everything.”

Reminiscing about the time he spent living on a knife edge between life and death, Tony relived the moment with a justifiable sense of pride. Just two years later, following a television documentary that made much of the human suffering inflicted on the German people by Bomber Command’s policy of dropping incendiary bombs on heavily populated areas, Tony’s pride had turned to shame. “I don’t know what to think, Clare,” Tony sighed. “We were just doing our job - what we were told to do. We went over there, dropped our bombs on the target and cleared off. They weren’t all towns you know. Most of them were military targets. I feel ashamed now.”

“You mustn’t think like that,” I said. “What really counts is that you were willing to give your life for the war effort. You weren’t responsible for the moral issues. The point is that without our air power, we would never have won the war. You had to destroy the transport networks and the infrastructure so that our troops could land safely. If cities were bombed and people killed, you can’t be held to account for that, because you were not the ones making the decisions. It may have been justifiable, or it may not have been, but that’s nothing to do with you. The bottom line is that for the values you believed in, you were prepared to sacrifice your life, and that’s the only thing that matters.”

War rewrites the moral code, and at a distance of 60 years, it is easy to criticise military tactics, and to forget the cost, and that is why I wanted to hear the story of one who was there. Many of those who thought they would have something to tell the grandchildren never even had children to tell, their futures snuffed out in a barrage of flak, a well aimed bullet or an engine failure over hostile territory. For those who did make it back to tell the tale, they have earned our respect, just as they earned freedom for this generation.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author.

 

 

 

Former Sgt. Tony Winser, an RAF rear gunner, would like to make contact with three former members of the RAAF who flew with him on 626 Squadron at Wickenby, UK between September 1944 and January 1945.

They are: W/O W.J. (Bill) Walker, Bomb Aimer; F/Sgt Bruce Spencer DFM, Nav; F/Sgt D.B. (Barry) Parkes, W/Op.

 

From the 'Can you help?' page of "WINGS" MAGAZINE, WINTER 2002









Do you have anything to add to these pages?

We are always pleased to hear from anyone who can add to our knowledge about 626 Squadron. If you have memories, corrections, photographs or just plain observations, your input will be gratefully accepted.         tom.bint2@gmail.com