We Weren’t That Low – Were We?
By John Chatterton

In May ’45 my faithful Flight Engineer – Doug Packman and I were at East Kirkby with No 630 Sqn, in the official posts of “ Squadron Instructors”. This meant that we had to fly with each aircrew at “ten sortie” intervals to check their general competence, and make sure that they were not departing from the approved 5 Group procedures. When the German War ended, this developed mainly into checking new crews that were posted in, but I was delighted to have the work varied by other post war tasks. I was sorry to miss the repatriation of POWs from Belgium, but happily joined in with the disposal of bombs in the North Sea – fortunately “Friends of the Earth” were not yet invented! The ‘iron’ bombs were quite safe to store without their fuses, in fact my son Mike dropped some of them whilst practicing for the Falklands War forty years later, but the thousands of incendiaries were getting well past their “sell-by” date.

For all this of course I needed a crew, and luckily I inherited one from a Canadian pilot who had taken early repatriation. The first job we had together was a “Ruhr Tour”. These were 6-hour trips over the devastated cities of Germany, loaded with the dedicated ground crews who had worked so hard to make it all possible. All the other No 630 Lancs were filled with fitters, armourers, wireless mechs etc, but for some reason our load comprised: the Medical Officer, the Dentist, an Accounts Officer, an Equipment man and the Padre.

It was a superb day, just a bit of low cloud over the French Coast, but otherwise clear all the way, and I was looking forward to doing a bit of serious low flying away from the restrictions over our native soil. In France we strayed over an American Air Base and stirred up a hornet’s nest, with the result that we got a prolonged series of simulated attacks from a pair of Thunderbolts. Our two Gunners swung their turrets heartily but manfully resisted the urge to use their triggers. I too was mindful of the fact that my passengers had only one brown paper bag apiece, so although sorely tempted, I restrained from demonstrating my special “corkscrew”.

Back to the Low Level – I achieved my ambition of causing ripples along the Rhine, but my abiding memory is of flying down a wide lane in the Black Forest and looking up at the startled fire wardens perched in their little wooden huts on poles above the treetops. For two thirds of the time we flew at 1000ft or above to be able to get a proper view of what we had come for, and I was particularly keen to see how many chimney pots I had loosened in places like Essen and Dusseldorf.

Having returned to base, the passengers were full of thanks to the crew who had made sure that they got good views from all the turrets etc, but as I found to my cost later, their enthusiasm didn’t stop there, and they recounted their adventures to anyone who would listen that evening in the Bar at the Officers’ Mess. The M.O. was shooting a line worthy of any aircrew: “We flew so low over the sea that I had to stand up to see over the waves!”, not noticing that the Station Commander had joined the group behind him. The Group Captain was not amused, and on failing to get the pilot’s name from the chastened line-shooter, he searched out the No 630 Sqn CO, Wing Commander Wyld, and told him to get to the bottom of this breach of discipline.

Happily ignorant of all this, I spent the night at my parents’ house in the next village, and arrived for work at 8.30 am to be greeted by the B Flight Commander – Sqn Ldr ‘Pil’ Pilgrim, an ex colleague from No 44 Sqn many months previously. “You need to get a good story ready about yesterday’s low flying, Wyld is after your blood! Wants to see you at 9 o clock!”. I hastily found my crew, and asked them to do their best, as we had no time to concoct a story, and then I reported to the Wing Commander. I was not his favourite airman as he suspected that I was ‘living out’ despite not having his permission. He tried to catch me out; “Did you enjoy your low flying yesterday?” I pleaded ignorance, and said after further probing that I had perhaps briefly got below 700ft because of the layer of low cloud on entering France. Frustrated by this dumb (in more ways than one) pilot, he testily dismissed me, ordering the crew to be sent in one at a time.

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As I found out later they came up with some remarkable answers:

Flight Engineer – "I was very busy with my fuel consumption records and keeping my log written up, but when I did look out we were at normal heights Sir!"

Bomb Aimer - "Most of the time I let one of the passengers into my position Sir, and anyway I don't like to look down – it makes me feel airsick,"

Navigator - "I cannot see outside from my desk Sir, and I was kept busy with all the extra course alterations."

W Op - "I didn't have time to look around Sir as the Signals Leader had given me a long list of DF stations to be contacted."

Mid-Upper Gunner - "From my turret it is very difficult to see directly underneath, Sir."

Rear Gunner - "For most of the time I was busy doing sky searches, Sir, as stipulated by the Gunnery Leader, and for the rest I was warning the skipper about the dangerous approaches made by some American fighters."

The Wing Commander then called us all in together and after a short homily on our alleged heinous offence he dismissed us with, “All I can say Chatterton is that you’ve either got the stupidest crew in Bomber Command – or, the most loyal!”

I said, “Thank you Sir”, and saluted on behalf of the company. We smartly about-turned and filed out, shutting the door quietly behind us.

Pil’s office was nearby and he reported hearing sounds of uncontrolled glee as we left the building. I again had reason to be grateful to him, as later that evening he sought out the line-shooters and persuaded them to modify their stories in the Mess when in the vicinity of the Group Captain. Apparently only the Padre demurred, saying, “Surely you don’t expect me to tell a lie?” After nearly sixty years we have tended to alter our opinion of the Wing Co. He probably was quite relieved to have satisfied the demands of the Station Commander whilst preserving intact, the honour of his squadron.

But what about me? This crew had done me proud, and the lump in my throat was matched only by the one that I experienced when saying farewell to my first crew twelve months previously. Something had to be done! Although I'm virtually a non-drinker, the occasion called for a few beers, so the Austin Seven was wound up for the three mile trip to the Red Lion at Revesby. We got four inside and slid open the 'sunshine roof' to provide hand holds for the other three, one on the running board at each side, and the other standing on the rear luggage rack. He was originally on the bonnet, sitting astride the protruding radiator cap, but after the first mile the radiator boiled over, affecting a rather sensitive region, so after an anguished shout for us to stop, he hastily changed places. Over the next two miles the cool night air dried him out a bit, but at the pub the barmaid caused some embarrassment by pointing out the damp area on his trousers. His mates didn't help matters. One opined, "I didn't think he scared that easily!", while another said, "I know he was in the rear turret, but we weren't that low over the sea - or were we?"

With Tiger Force and Okinawa beckoning, I thought: “This crew will do for me!”

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