Last flight

Matty couldn’t understand his feelings when his crew got called in from their daily training flight to be briefed for an operational flight.

I had been waiting for this trip since the seventeenth of December as I needed one more trip and then a question of whether I should pack up or not. I figured the war was coming to an end soon and felt a certain justification to stop operating.  My skipper backed me up on this idea and thought I had done my bit.  If I had remained ground crew, my repatriation would have been through and so back to Canada.”[1]

It was only three days until Christmas, 1944, but somehow the thought that he might get home in time for Christmas didn’t take hold.

He needed one more mission, so why not this one?

I had a certain premonition about this last trip,” he wrote later. He packed cigarettes, tobacco, his pipe and light and two English pounds. Then he found the Chaplain to take communion before heading to the briefing.”[2]

Biggs, their radio operator, didn’t think they would fly either.

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“On December 22nd, the battle order was up about eleven in the morning, and much to our surprise, Joe Tite’s name was on the list, so it was an early lunch and down through a gripping fog to the big, main briefing room. All the lads expected it to be scrubbed, but after donning flying kit and scrambling on the transport, with the best wishes of the lads and I’m sure a silent prayer in each of our hearts, Jerry, Joe, Matty and the rest of us climbed up the little ladder into faithful “D” for “Donald.” [3]

The seven men climbing into the Lancaster marked 405/D were among 98 others.

The fourteen pathfinders flew out of Grandsden Lodge to mark a small railway freight yard in Bingen, Germany just prior to four in the afternoon.  Their target was within the Rhine Valley next to the Rochusberg mountain. Today, the town falls within the UNESCO Rhine Gorge World Heritage Site.

By the time, the crew from Lancaster 405/D left at 3:49 p.m., the weather looked bad enough, they thought the flight would be cancelled.

When take-off time came around, it was so foggy and misty that the crews were walking. Barney, our mid-upper and I, didn’t even bother getting dressed for this one. We just carted our clothing and dumped it alongside the plane. Other members of the crew had this feeling also, so I learned back in Canada. We changed our mind in a hurry-when the skipper shouted “all aboard.”  We were taking off. It was a mad scramble to get dressed in time for it took us some time to put on all our flying clothes. I made it for take-off time and was in place when we started rolling down the runway.  As per usual, all the ground crew were lined up along our take-off path to see us off.  I said good-bye to the boys on the ground and we were off.[4]

According to official logs, five aircraft successfully marked the aiming point about three hours after they left England and returned to base that night. One didn’t mark the target, but returned to base anyway.

Six planes marked their target late, and then joined the crew from a seventh plane to land at Downham Market and stay there overnight.

According to the logbook, four aircraft crews reported one plane dropping from the sky at 50:02 N. 06:25 E.

Blind Sky Marker failed to return from this operation and nothing has been heard from any member of the crew since time of take-off. This was F/O Tite’s 35th operation.” [5]

Soon, with oxygen, compasses, turrets checked and all the other necessary odd jobs finished, I looked out to see the runway sink slowly from sight in a murky sea of fog and in a few minutes it was set course and off on our 4th trip to Bingen, a small marshalling yard.[6]

When the tail of the ship reached its position, I couldn’t even see the ground for the density of the fog. When I had to pray for take-off, I knew I would have to pray again before we returned. [7]

The first event was the beam going unserviceable, but of course that didn’t seem much and on we pressed through much clearer starlit skies, everything going fine and good old Red taking fixes every three minutes on his radar equipment. I sure would be hopeless without him.[8]

Since the special equipment stubbornly refused to function, our engineer Fred was quite happy to drop visually. [9]

In two more hours I told him that our estimated time of arrival was up in four more minutes and in front he could see the red and green target indicators; with “steady, left, left” the great ship settled down and soon shuddered in fright as the flares came along the bombsight to the graticule and down spiralled the bombs, leaving number one position filled with flares.[10]

The first leg from the target took just three minutes and off on the long leg to the coast, all the lads confident that soon another trip will be over, until suddenly Matty says calmly “better go port Joe” and so off we got to the accompaniment of chattering guns.[11]

Then Joe mutters “Gosh I wish I had a gun in the nose” while Fred sputters at not having the front turret guns on “fire,” as the fighter boy zoomed straight across our nose.[12]

With an “Aw Hell, that guy hasn’t got a clue, he’s gone away off to starboard” Matty made me a lot happier boy, but just a split second later there was a terrific crash in our bomb bay. [13]

We arrived at the target uneventfully and were returning home when I spotted this night fighter trying to sneak in on our port side down. He tailed us for some time and was too far to be a menace. All of a sudden, he turned in on us and it was time to move.  I notified the skipper to get going, He dropped the port wing and we just dropped out of the sky.  This fighter passed to the rear so fast that I couldn’t rotate my turret fast enough to take a shot at him. The mid-upper being in a better position polished him off in fine style. Then I spotted another to starboard side and away we went again. Just after this mad scramble, I passed out.[14]

Red looked at me and grinned as we snapped on chutes and began to move up. I can plainly recall sitting for a few seconds on the edge of the seat feeling blindly for Joe, to no avail, then ripping the helmet off and starting down the steps. [15]

It seemed then that the old bird twisted in agony and began a horrible spin. I was tossed back and vividly picture by the flickering light of the grasping flames, the nose Perspex shot away and one lad lying full length, struggling to get out the small opening.[16]

With a supreme effort, I tried moving as the hungry flames caught my hair, but it seemed hopeless and my mind decided that this was the end, while my body desperately tried to escape. That is all that comes back through my memory, the next was floating down, pulling the rip cord and being on mother earth just fifty feet from the blazing kite and right in front of a farm house.[17]

[1] Mathieu, John Charles, personal documents, “All of This Heaven Almost” manuscript, 1947-1950.

[2] Mathieu, John Charles, personal documents, “All of This Heaven Almost” manuscript, 1947-1950.

[3] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[4] Mathieu, John Charles, personal documents, “All of This Heaven Almost” manuscript, 1947-1950.

[5] No. 405 R.C.A.F. Squadron (P.E.F.) Operations Record Book, Gransden Lodge, photocopies of secret book, December 22, 1944, Appendix 212.

[6] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[7] Mathieu, John Charles, personal documents, “All of This Heaven Almost” manuscript, 1947-1950.

[8] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[9] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[10] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[11] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[12] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[13] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[14] Mathieu, John Charles, personal documents, “All of This Heaven Almost” manuscript, 1947-1950.

[15] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946

[16] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946.

[17] Biggs, Herbert Darell, J36325, personal documents, Life In Kriegeland manuscript, 1946.

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Tracey Arial

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