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518 Squadron and the Key to the D Day Landings!

Warrant Officer John BristowThe following account from a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner attached to 518 Squadron based on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides in WWII has never been published previously. I came by this story of eight men's bravery as a result of the chance purchase of an RAF Irvin Flying Jacket, which led me to repatriate it with its original wartime owner, one Warrant Officer John Bristow. A part of John's own amazing story is already published on our website and if you have not already read it, I commend it to you. When I met John for the first time he mentioned as well as his brush with death in the North Atlantic in November 1944, he had previously been directly involved with an extremely "hush hush" operation which impacted on the timing and strategy for the allied invasion of Europe known as Operation Overlord.

The impact of this flight, carried out in horrendous conditions nearly 60 years ago, is recounted by Warrant Officer G.F. Wilkes, the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner aboard the same Halifax in which Warrant Officer Bristow was the navigator. WO Wilkes is now deceased, but his account lives on as testament to eight men's dedication and bravery under very difficult conditions. The following is his story of that Op that has lost none of its impact in the intervening years:-


Halifax LL510 flying over the Caladonia Canal - Click for a bigger picture"During the Second World War I was assigned to 518 Squadron based at Tiree in the Inner Hebrides, a group of small islands off the west coast of Scotland. We flew in Handley Page Halifax aircraft of Coastal Command in the main flying meteorological patrols out over the North Atlantic. Our skipper Flight Lieutenant Freddie Green was deemed to be the number one pilot on the squadron and although I am biased, we his crew, believed we were the best of the bunch.

In the late evening of 5th June 1944 our crew were summoned by the Duty Officer to ready ourselves for an urgent and special briefing. It was to be attended by Wing Commander Morris the Squadron Commander and Squadron Leader Young the Flight Commander. It appeared "the flap" required a very special task to be carried out needing the skills and expertise of the Squadron's number one crew that was made up of the following personnel:-

Pilot Fight Lieutenant F.R. Green RAFVR Deceased
2nd Pilot Flying Officer D. Newton RAFVR Unknown
Flight Engineer Flight Sergeant S. Loader RAFVR Deceased
Met Observer Flight Sergeant E. Ozaist Polish Deceased
Navigator Warrant Officer J. Bristow RAFVR  
Wireless Operator/Air Gunner Warrant Officer J. Drought Canadian  
Wireless Operator/Air Gunner Warrant Officer E. Ellacott Canadian Deceased
Wireless Operator/Air Gunner Warrant Officer G. F. Wilkes RAFVR Deceased
The crew of Halifax LL123 - Click for a bigger picture
We soon learned at the briefing this was to be a very special "Bismuth" patrol - a one off. The first leg was to be extended to 650 nautical miles out into the Atlantic then a second leg of 400 nautical miles north east, then the return flown back to our base, turning on that leg, approximately 150 nautical miles south of Iceland. Instead of the routine number of ascents to the aircraft's ceiling, we had to fly in two climbs to approx. 18,000 feet and with one more extra ascent on the second leg. We were instructed to send coded weather reports at far more frequent intervals than normal and especially after each ascent to our operational ceiling. This almost trebled the workload of the wireless operator and met observer. We were issued with our flight charts, recognition signals and identification codes for the day whereupon we returned to the Sergeant's mess for the usual pre-flight aircrew meal after which we picked up our butty boxes and flasks of steaming hot coffee and having kitted up, we were off.
"Dusty" Drought - Click for a bigger picture
It wasn't a long wait before the aircrew truck arrived to take Freddie and the crew to our dispersal where we found our faithful Halifax aircraft LL123 standing glistening on the perimeter in the light rain that was starting to fall. She was swarming with fitters of all trades making sure everything was A1 prior to the mission. In my own department the 1154/5 Radio Transmitter was found to have a defective VT40 valve that was hurriedly changed. Finally we were ready to go and the skipper fired up the four Bristol Hercules XVI engines, he was given the thumbs up, chocks away and we were ready to go.

We taxied to the end of the runway and everything was made ready for take off. The pilots applied full brakes and the throttles were pushed to the gate and we could feel and hear the enormous power and noise of the engines with the airframe straining and groaning. The green Aldis light was fired, the brakes released and with the belly tanks slurping their full load of fuel, we were off! The engines on maximum thrust pressed us into our crew positions and the aircraft surged forward for a bumpy half mile down the runway and we were suddenly airborne. The time was 0550 on 6th June 1944. The skipper circled the airfield once, we carried out a final radio check and a course was set for the first leg of the Bismuth mission. The weather at this stage was moderate.

Map of weather patrol courses showing the Bismuth sectorWe approached 200 nautical miles out and we set down to approximately 50 feet above sea level to take our first set of meteorological readings. In the meantime the weather had deteriorated quite rapidly and we had already passed through a front in which we experienced violent rainstorms and much higher winds than had been forecasted by the station Met Officer. To take barometrical readings at a height of only 50 feet in these conditions was extremely hazardous above a raging and angry Atlantic Ocean. It seemed at times that those massive waves, with the white caps forming huge plumes of spray, would engulf the aircraft. It is recorded that in similar conditions other 518 aircraft returned to base with bent propellers caused by touching the wave tips churning below.

Tiree Coastline - Click for a bigger pictureIt doesn't take much of an imagination to realise how difficult it was for Flt Lt Freddie Green to maintain a steady height of 50 feet above such a tempestuous sea with no horizon to get a visual on, the cloud base virtually down to sea level and compounded by heavy and relentless rain. His task was to hold the aircraft steady for approximately 5 minutes to assist the Met Observer with his calculations. It took a lot of skill, daring and guts especially when you consider the handling difficulties in the Halifax caused by the twin tail units that didn't take kindly to these adverse weather conditions and which caused ongoing control problems to our two pilots when flying at such low levels.

The wind speed had strengthened considerably, way above the predicted levels and the rain had turned to hail. Meteorological reports coming from the met observer got longer and longer and with the buffeting of the aircraft, keying the information became extremely difficult. Each set of coded figures and letters had to be repeated twice to Group to ensure accuracy. When the weather was at its worst, we received a signal from Group in plain language (this was the first and only time I had ever heard of non-coded signals being used on an operational sortie), to the effect that our met observations were so extreme they couldn't possibly be correct! Flight Sergeant Ozaist, with Flt Lt Green's permission, replied in very plain language briefly explaining to the desk wallahs at Group exactly the conditions we were operating in at that precise time. The message was concise and to the point - something along the lines that if they did not believe our hard won data, they could b****y well come and do the job themselves!!

John Bristow's wartime memorabilia - Click for a bigger picture
Our navigator, WO John Bristow was also having a very difficult time of it, keeping us on course and determining our exact position with wind speeds and drift at this stage being estimated only by visual observations. The smoke flairs that we dropped in the very rough seas either became unsighted or were quickly extinguished. Radio beams from the mainland were only able to give us very approximate fixes as one of the three transmission masts was out of service. From the information Bristow could obtain he was able to establish we were still approximately on course to an accuracy of plus or minus 50 miles.
"Deac" Ellacott - Click for a bigger picture
Prior to our final climb on the first leg, we ran into some extreme weather with lashing hail and rain and with lightning forking through the clouds into the angry seas around us. Halifax LL123 made a laborious ascent with the hail turning to sleet and snow resulting in the airframe icing up forcing the climb to be aborted at 10,000 feet. We descended slowly into lower cloud levels whereupon huge chunks of ice started to fly off various parts of the aircraft and crash worryingly into the aircraft's fuselage, twin tail units and mid upper gun turret manned by Warrant Officer "Deac" Ellacott. Our rear gunner Warrant Officer Jack Drought ensconced in the "Arse End Charlie" position could see these massive ice balls shooting past his position and expressed his "concern" about the situation in very flowery language over the plane's intercom providing a welcome diversion for the rest of the crew!

Freddie Green eventually got us down to sea level (and sometimes below it!) and commenced circling for 10 minutes or so until the worst of the storm had passed through. He then recommenced our ascent with heavy snow at some levels slowing the climb and at 18,000 feet we reached the aircraft's operational ceiling. The temperatures inside the fuselage were sub zero and we could only imagine how FS Ozaist felt as he stood within the glazed nosed section taking and recording his observations. It was again time to transmit the latest forecast information back to Group, the job being made even more difficult keying the messages with fingers stiffening from the cold. Transmissions were nothing like normal speeds and the skipper had to maintain our height until all the data had been cleared and acknowledged by Group.

John Bristow's wartime Log Book - Click for a bigger picture
The entire crew worked extremely hard under exceptionally poor conditions, but the pressure had been put on us at the pre-flight briefing and we did our best to maximise data obtained during the Op. Not one of us left our posts during those first two legs of the trip and in my opinion everyone on the crew gave it their best shot. The two other WOPAG's took it in turns to man the rear turret, the others keeping the crew supplied with hot coffee and sandwiches that we took at our posts.

The winds at our maximum height were in excess of 150 mph blowing from the west in a south-easterly direction. This played havoc on Bristow's hopes of keeping us on course, but as it turned out we discovered after the mission he had never been far out with his dead reckoning estimates and he came through with flying colours.

On the second leg we flew across the weather fronts rather than head into them, although the storm did not show any signs of abating and it was both turbulent and cold on board, while our pilots struggled at the controls trying to make the roller coaster ride for the rest of us as smooth as possible.

On the third and final leg we turned approximately 150 miles south of Iceland as planned but the weather continued to harass us. Our Skipper pulled the aircraft up on her final climb to 18,000 feet but the port outer Hercules engine began to misfire badly and almost at once it failed completely. Freddie Green had no choice but to feather the prop and for the rest of the sortie, and as well as contending with the weather, he and our second pilot had to fight with the controls to maintain our course on the remaining three operational engines.

We had another hairy moment when the plane became alive with the electric fantasy of St Elmo's Fire. The aircraft's flying surfaces took on a blue hue with dancing lights everywhere playing havoc with both the navigational instruments and with radio reception. It was once again down to our pilots to fly on instinct alone. Two hundred or so miles out from Tiree we at last managed to pick up radio fixes from our base and to the relief of WO Bristow, our overworked navigator, was able to put us on a steady course for home. Our Halifax landed safely after an Op of 9 hours and 35 minutes. This compares with an average "Bismuth" patrol of about 7 hours. It is safe to say the entire crew were extremely grateful to the navigator as out in the North Atlantic the air crews of Coastal Command do not get a second chance and the wearing of parachutes in case of an emergency was regarded as a total waste of time.

Crew of LL123 back at base - Click for a bigger picture
Our debriefing session was a lengthy affair due to the unprecedented weather patterns we had found. All our met reports had to be rechecked with Group for complete accuracy and our pilots and crew quizzed over the weather conditions that existed over the northern reaches of the Atlantic. Our Squadron and Flight Commanders attended the debriefing and congratulated us all for our efforts and achievements that night.

It was then that we learned that one of the Coastal Command crews engaged on a met sortie from RAF Brawdy in South Wales piloted by Flying Officer H. Aveling, had failed to return to base and was presumed lost at sea with his entire crew after reporting the same horrendous weather conditions we had just experienced.

It appeared to those of us who undertook these arduous and dangerous Met Patrols that our task was regarded as the soft option for aircrew. If the truth be known, many crews perished during these operations and when you compare the statistics between Bomber and Coastal Command, in relation to flying hours per operation, I don't believe the fatality rate was significantly different. On 518 Squadron alone, 10 aircraft "bought it" on Ops during 1944. We unfailingly flew our tasked missions on either Mercer and Bismuth patrols while other squadrons would not even consider flying. During '44 we flew every single day of the year except two when heavy snows prevented take-off, even though both aircrew and ground staff attempted to clear the runways. Were it physically possible we would have flown on those two days as well!"

It was only in retrospect the crew discovered the true importance of their actions that day back in June 1944. The selection of the invasion date was restricted as it had to be at low tide, timed at dawn with a partial moon and most importantly, the weather had to be set fair. These criteria dictated the invasion for early May or the first or third week of June. The "window" selected by the Allied Commanders was the first week of June - the date: 5th June 1944.

Secret Naval Message - Click for a bigger picture
The weather, however, proved to be the wild card. The forecast for 5th June was dire. A maximum cloud base of 500 feet and force 5 winds were predicted for the Channel. Without dominance of the air, the whole invasion was at risk. The decision to postpone the invasion for 24 hours was made by General Eisenhower at 0415 on Sunday, 4th June. This decision proved an opportune one as the weather worsened all that day. The allied commanders met again at 2130 and all awaited Group Captain James Stagg, the Chief RAF Meteorologist. He was later to be quoted "no one could have imagined weather charts less propitious". He indicated that two depressions were situated over the North Atlantic. There had, however, been some rapid and unexpected developments in the general situation, and in two or three hours the rain should cease followed by up to 36 hours with moderate winds that would allow limited air operations on 5th June. The bottom line was simple: adequate weather conditions for an invasion could be anticipated but for a very limited time before the second front arrived.
John Bristow's wartime memorabilia - Click for a bigger picture
Once Group Captain Stagg had finished his meteorological summary; he was cross-examined by Eisenhower, Montgomery and others. Could the forecast be wrong? Had the weather reports been checked with all the resources available? Finally, Eisenhower asked Stagg "what will the weather be on the 6th June in the Channel and over the French coast?" The room fell silent for a full two minutes while Stagg considered his reply which was "to answer that question would make me a guesser, not a meteorologist!"

Group Captain Stagg returned to the room at 0415 on Monday, 5th June when he advised Ike "I think we have a gleam of hope for you sir". He confirmed the depression in the Atlantic was moving west faster than expected. The latest met reports suggested the front passing through late that day with falling winds and a cloud base of 3000 feet. A full eight minutes passed before General Dwight D. Eisenhower broke the silence and spoke in a very quiet voice "OK let’s go". Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe was on. The allies had a window of opportunity lasting a maximum of 36 hours after which the second depression would sweep in over the Channel. It was a "now or never" decision.

It can be reported, as can be seen from the story of Halifax LL123 and the crew from 518 Squadron Coastal Command, that they provided the critical data on the second cold front. The information they transmitted from the eye of the storm Tuesday, June 6th had a very direct bearing on the destiny of some 7000 vessels, 3,000 aircraft and no less than 250,000 allied airmen, soldiers and sailors.

The crest of 518 Squadron - Click for a bigger picture
It was some time after the end of the war that 518 Squadron’s crest was finally approved by the Air Council and duly authorised by Her Majesty the Queen. It consisted of a clenched fist holding a key, the implication being that 518 Squadron held the key, thus giving the planners all the necessary information they required for the planning and implementation for the invasion and subsequent liberation of Europe.

The impact of this mission had clearly stuck with WO Wilkes in the intervening years and it is apparent he felt, I think with some justification, that Churchill’s comments concerning the "Few" could equally well be applied to the performance of Coastal Command. While they operated in the main away from the public gaze and media attention, this should in no way detract from their dedicated endeavours as Wilkes’ description of this single mission illustrates. The critical importance of their role and the dangers they faced should never be underestimated.

In talking recently with the navigator of Halifax LL123, John Bristow, he told me that as a young man of 23 he could not believe how he handled the pressures and technicalities of guiding his pilots and crew deep out into the blackness of the North Atlantic and then returning men and machine safely back to Tiree. The lives of seven colleagues depended upon the accuracy of his calculations and plots.

I hope in some way, by publishing this account here for the first time shortly before the 60th Anniversary of the D Day Landings, we may at last give thanks and appreciation for the contribution made by the crew of Halifax LL123 and all the other unsung heroes of RAF Coastal Command.

I will let WO Gordon Wilkes have the final words in this saga:-

We were part of the "Few" who risked their lives in a different way from the boys in Spitfires and Lancasters, but never forget our tasks in the RAF were strategically as important. We were never glamorised on the front page of the daily newspapers or talked about in clubs or bars, but we were always there whatever the weather and in June 1944 "we held the key…."

Acknowledgements

This story is based on a longhand report written after the event by Warrant Officer Gordon Wilkes RAFVR now sadly deceased. Without his foresight in recording his memories, this critical account may have been lost forever.

I should also like to thank Warrant Officer John Bristow RAFVR (Rtd.) in giving me his time freely and with good humour and in recounting his memories of this Op and others. In addition, he has allowed me to use this personal archive to bring this story to life.

Finally, I have also been assisted by the one other known surviving member of the crew of LL123, Warrant Officer Jack Drought RCAF (Rtd.), who has provided some very useful anecdotes from his home in Canada.

I hope Flight Lieutenant Freddie Green and the remainder of the crew would have approved of this feature and my report on their mission.

Geoff Pringle
December 2003


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