Going Around in Circles
Man is never lost - his circle of uncertainty just increases
November 30, 1944 was a clear sunny day in all of England, which helped the outlook of our crew as we entered the briefing room for our first night operation. I was the Navigator for a crew captained by Flight Lieutenaant Rod Gould, an excellent pilot and very conscientious leader. We were the new crew attached to 427 Squadron based at Leeming, Yorkshire, part of the Canadian 6 Group.
With only one trip to our credit, a daylight to Munster where we had some "flack" damage, the first night operation briefing received our full attention. The stomach butterflies gave way to concentration on the details I would require to get to and return from the identified target "Duisburg". The designated route, forecast weather and winds, time over target and turning points were transcribed to my charts and log sheet very carefully.
The route to the target would take the Squadron almost due south from Leeming to a point on the English Channel near Southhampton, keeping the Bomber stream west of London. Crossing the Channel, landfall would be south of Dieppe and into France before turning northeast to the target. Duisburg is approximately the same latitude as the south of London.
Wing Commander Gandy Ganderton wished us well as we waited for transport to our aircraft.
We were assigned the aircraft ZL "Y" , a Mark III Halifax which had just returned to the line after engine work. After being dropped off at the aircraft the crew boarded and did their pre flight inspection before getting out for a last breath of fresh air and relieving themselves on the tires or having a cigarette.
Take off time was 1630hrs and uneventful. Flying south in daylight hours we were on track and could see other bombers on the same course. After flying for some time and before reaching our turning point on the coast, smoke started to come from the main navigational aid the "GEE" box. The wiring to the back of the box got hot and soon the signals disappeared and the tube went black. The Wireless Operator, Frank Manzo took care of the fire with an extinguisher.
The other navigational aid the H2S set was still working so the decision was made to continue the flight. Crossing the English and French coast we were on track and on time, this was verified by clear images on the H2S and visual siting.
In France we turned to a northeast course for the target area when we started flying into heavy rain and turbulence. The pilot identified a variation in degrees between maqnetic and the DR compass. The decision was made that the maqnetic compass would be the most accurate and was used for the rest of the trip. It was approximately in the same time frame that our problems increased with the H2S set shutting down, the scanner stopped rotating and the tube also went black. All electronic navigation aids were now out of service.
As my last fixes showed we were on track and on time, we continued with the mission hoping the rain would stop and an astro fix could be obtained to verify out location. If this "dead reckoning" did not work we would fly to the searchlights and antiaircraft fire generated by the rest of the bomber stream.
The scheduled "time on target" for the bomber stream, came and went without a sign of anything lighting up the sky so we started to fly in large circles to increase our search area with no results. We were lost. As a navigator it gave me a feeling of failure that I had let the other six others in the aircraft down.
The rain had stopped and the clouds were breaking up when German fighter flares started dropping in the area. Rod requested a course for home, which I could not give because out location was so unknown and I now had no faith in my navigation. I suggested we fly west until we reach the coast and then our wireless operator could request a fix from stations in England.
The pilot and I had no faith in the compass so to have a westerly course I stood by him and kept the north star over my right shoulder when ever we would come out of the broken clouds. After flying this way for about fifteen minutes we sighted a coastline through a break in the clouds. Assuming this was the coast of Belgium, the wireless operator, Sgt. Frank Manzo, sent an "SOS" to verify out position.
An immediate reply came back locating the aircraft over the north end of the Zuider Zee. Due to the occasional dropping of fighter flares in the area we were forced to wait for some time before transmitting for another fix of our location. A second request was sent which was quickly answered and verified that we were over Holland, north of Amsterdam. With these two fixes and an alteration in course we got back to England and with the fantastic support of the ground wireless operators, back to base.
Our aircraft was the last to return and we were met and interrogated by Wing Commander Ganderton. The next morning I was told to report to 6 Group Headquarters at Allerton Park where I presumed they shot you for getting lost or sent you for more training. Air Vice Marshall McEwan conducted the interview and wanted to know what happened and why we were cruising around northern Germany. After hearing my story he told me not many aircraft from 6 Group had been successful due to the heavy cloud cover. I was told not to worry about the trip and returned to the Squadron.
Returning to the Squadron Rod Gould and I were told to report to W/C Ganderton. He had ordered an inspection of the aircraft that morning and found that after the engine changes no magnetic compass swing had been completed. This oversight created large variations and compass error especially on northern headings. My respect for Gandy was increased by the initiative shown in getting to the cause of this nightmare.
Two nights later we took the same aircraft to Hagen without a problem. That one night of being lost made me respect the navigators in the early war years when radar and wireless were not available and they had no help when when navigating through stormy weather and lost.
That night also taught me to pray with emotion.