So, on Easter Monday 2014, which happened to be the 21st the event happened.
I have always thought that those who served in Bomber Command in WWII had been badly treated, in fact shunned because of the aerial bombing in spite of both sides employing it. In addition, it seemed to me quite a hazardous job being aircrew â€“ bombers make very large targets, they are far slower than fighter aircraft and therefore easy prey, and this is evidenced by the number of casualties.
On the day I arrived at the centre and checked in and told to report to a certain place for a briefing at 12:45. This started with the now normal H&S talk and we were reminded that we had signed that we were fit and could do certain things. We were informed that there were parts of the aircraft that we would have to clamber over so take care.
Inside the thin skin of the aircraft was fixed to the various bulkheads and provided no protection from bullets and shells.
Having been assigned places for the ride we were split in to two groups. Those with places towards the front of the aircraft going to the cockpit and those, like myself, who were assigned places towards the rear climbing in to the tail of the aircraft.
The tail gun was spoken about and we were each given the opportunity to sit in the turret. Getting in to it involved climbing up on to a shelf from which a ramp descended in to the turret. By going down the ramp feet first entry was made. It is an extremely confined space and the gunner would be in here for about 8 hours.
The temperature inside the turret could be -40 to -50 degrees. Whether C or F was not disclosed but since -40F equals -40C it was irrelevant really. Flying suits with heating elements were used but often the elements broke and in at least one case the suit caught fire.
Due to the temperatures the perspex windows in the turret would ice up making visibility impossible. This was simply cured by removing the perspex!
The location of a chemical lavatory was pointed out and we were told that the only two members of the crew could not leave their positions â€“ the pilot and tail gunner. The inevitable question was asked and the answer was that the tail gunner would take an old tin from the NAAFI whilst the pilot had a funnel attached to a tube that discharged outside the aircraft. One of the unfortunate things was, due to the aerodynamics of the aircraft was that what had been discharged at the front would come in to the rear turret â€“ but I suppose it was warm.
The question was raised as to whether the pilot was the only one who could fly the aircraft. The reply was that often members of the crew had failed their flying course so had some ability and astute pilots would make sure that another member of the crew could fly the aircraft.
We were informed that crews only normally socialised with their fellow crew members as other crews might not come back so this reduced the emotional drain.
It was now time to take our places and I was one of three in the middle turret. This is now far larger than the original gun turret which was replaced when the aircraft was used by the French for maritime patrols.
After a little wait the propeller of number 3 engine started to turn slowly and then it suddenly sped up and the aircraft was filled with noise and the whole thing started to vibrate. Slowly the rest of the engines were started and the sound levels increased along with the vibrations.
With the engines warmed the aircraft started to move forward and after a couple of brake checks we taxied to one side of the field, turned round, the throttles opened and a high speed dash made across the field.
It was then back to where it is normally parked. After some running the engines at a largish throttle opening the engines were turned off and suddenly the world was a much quieter place.
So now it was time for those at the front to come to the back and those of us at the back to go to the front.
Each of us took a turn to sit in the pilots position and it was very surprising how light the controls were and how taut the mechanism was.
The bomb aimer had quite a bit of space with padding on the floor so that he could lie down to look out of the window so as to aim correctly.
We were informed that an RAF tour of duty was 30 operations. Once the bombs had been released the aircraft would fly straight and a flare would be dropped that was designed to ignite at 4,000 feet and a photograph taken of the bombed area â€“ no photograph and the mission would not count towards the 30. Apparently, the flares sometimes did not drop so checks were made to ensure they had (no doubt crews were not always sure whether the flare that had gone off was theirs or another aircrafts). Apparently, there had been some cases of the flare not dropping, the aircraft returning home and when it descended to 4,000 feet the flare had gone off.
The two brothers, one of whom died last year, who bought this aircraft did so as a sort of memorial to their brother was had died in WWII as part of a bomber crew. Their intention was to get it airworthy so as to become the third one still flying. They have amassed a large quantity of parts including 4 zero hour Merlin engines. The pilot did wonder if this will happen as it could affect the taxi rides.
Overall, an emotional experience. Whilst most of us were about three times the age of the crews and hence not as agile clambering over the bits of aircraft to gain access we were not wearing thick flying jackets to keep out the cold nor wearing parachutes in case our luck had run out that day.
And what chances of survival. The tail gunner did not wear a parachute and if he needed to bail out then he had to position the turret so as to gain entry to the fuselage so as to get his parachute, put it on, rotate the turret and bail out â€“ the turret is hydraulically operated but with a wheel to do this manually if need be. There was the entrance door towards the rear, an escape hatch above the cockpit and a hatch in the floor where the bomb aimer was located although this was quite small.
If the aircraft was hit then it must have been absolute pandemonium trying to get out.
So I take my hat off to bomber crews of WWII of either side
"Don't think of them as problems, think of them as opportunities."
"OK, I think I've hit an insurmountable opportunity!"