"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:-
|Name & Rank||Position||Regiment||Status|
|Fight Lieutenant F.R. Green||Pilot||RAFVR||Deceased|
|Flying Officer D. Newton||2nd Pilot||RAFVR||Unknown|
|Flight Sergeant S. Loader||Flight Engineer||RAFVR||Deceased|
|Flight Sergeant E. Ozaist||Met Observer||Polish||Deceased||Warrant Officer J. Bristow||Navigator||RAFVR||Deceased|
|Warrant Officer J. Drought||Wireless Operator/Air Gunner||Canadian||Unknown|
|Warrant Officer E. Ellacott||Wireless Operator/Air Gunner||Canadian||Deceased|
|Warrant Officer G. F. Wilkes||Wireless Operator/Air Gunner||RAFVR||Deceased|
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.
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.
We 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.
It 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!!
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.
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.
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.
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!"