At this stage of the war there was only slight enemy air activity over the United Kingdom at night. This meant that the nightfighter squadrons had little to do and were contributing nothing to the attack against Germany. So it was not surprising that 410 Squadron was given a minor offensive role.
When I joined the squadron it had just begun to carry out "Ranger" operations, these being low level daylight flights over Europe at times when cloud cover was sufficient to enable a Mosquito to escape if attacked by single-engined fighters. So far as I can remember the squadron only made one successful deep penetration Ranger sortie. Prior to the one recorded above, Bud and I did three training flights, first going out to sea then coming back in, flying very low and looking for trains on which to make dummy attacks.
The memory of my first Ranger trip is still vivid. I had no particular liking for daylight flying and I know that I felt a sense of relief when the cloud cover ran out just before we got to the Dutch coast.
We turned and climbed. A few miles off our own coast we passed over a large convoy. As the guns of the escorting warships turned towards us I frantically loaded and fired the colours of the day. We went on safely.
It soon became clear that daylight operations over Europe were not going to be fruitful for 410 Squadron, so Ranger attacks were then made at night. It was optimistically expected that pilots and navigators would be able to map read their way across Europe at a low level, keeping within a mile or so of a pre-determined track. It certainly did not work out like this.
For our first Night Ranger we flew to West Malling from Coleby Grange at a high altitude on a wonderfully clear evening. We were routed across the estuary of the Thames at Tilbury and for the first time I saw London from the air in daylight.
We took off from West Malling and as one of the pilots on the squadron later described the trip, "You flew into France, did a slow turn to port, shot up two trains, got lost and came home." This correctly summarises what happened.
The second of the trains was standing in Abbeville station and as we came in for the attack we could see that the platforms were crowded with people. In later years I went through Abbeville on several occasions and each time I wondered whether the passengers had been Germans or French civilians. I cannot now recall why we came back after attacking the train for although we did not know exactly where we were this was not an unusual situation to be in and should not have caused us any worry.
The second Night Ranger ended in disaster. There had been German activity over England and therefore when we flew into France and saw a brightly lit airfield we kept it to port, realising that to fly over it would be inviting trouble. However, what we did not know was that near the airfield was a heavily defended area (I believe it was an operations centre). As we went over this at a very low level we were caught by searchlights and a lot of light flak came up. Bud threw the aircraft violently to port and I can remember seeing a searchlight shining at us through the trees, so we must have gone down very near to the ground.
In the book "The Mosquito Log" (1) Bud is quoted as saying that when the tracer came up, "My navigator said: isn't that pretty!" I did and it was!
The aircraft had been hit, but fortunately was still controllable. I gave Bud the course to head directly home, but soon realised by looking at the North star that we must be well off our track. However, I recognised where we were when we reached the French coast; this was Le Havre, a long distance from where I had expected to start the Channel crossing. We headed across the sea, making what seemed to be a suitable allowance for the trouble we were obviously having with the compass.
Again I was lucky, because landfall was at Littlehampton, which I recognised by the river mouth. We could have landed at Tangmere, but decided to press on to West Malling. From the amount of activity we judged that an air raid was in progress on London, which was confirmed when we arrived at West Malling and asked for permission to land. Bud said that we could not wait in the circuit as we were in trouble for by this time our petrol supply had become very low, which we presumed was because a petrol tank had been holed.
We made our approach, the runway lights being switched on at the last minute. As soon as we touched down there was a tremendous shuddering and a great deal of noise. The aircraft eventually came to rest and I jettisoned the roof exit in order to get out. Bud and I had finished up in an aircraft consisting only of a cockpit, the tail having been left behind on the runway with most of the wings.
A fire engine had reached us and I immediately got on it and told the driver to take me back to the Watch Office, an ambulance crew remaining to deal with Bud. I burst into the Watch Office, gasping for breath, and said "We've crashed on your runway'', to which the response was, "Are you blocking the other runway as well?" Politely I said I did not know.
Bud was put in hospital for the night, but I had to seek out a bed which I found in a Nissen hut where some pilots from No. 1 Squadron were sleeping prior to a morning attack. When I got up I went to look at our unfortunate aircraft. As I was doing so Wing Commander Cunningham ("Cat's eyes"), the commander of 85 Squadron stationed at West Malling, came up, looked at the wreckage and said, "We're they killed?'' Falteringly I replied, "No.'' Subsequently it was confirmed a shell had exploded in or near the port engine nacelle bursting the tyre, there were numerous holes under the cockpit, a piece of shrapnel was lodged near the compass and the port tank was hit.
P/O MacCormick picked me up that evening and flew me back to Coleby Grange. The next day I went on a flight with S/L Ferguson, which included a climb to 25,000 feet, to test an aircraft that had a bad reputation for not flying well. It cannot have flown very well for the climb took so long I missed my tea!
The Lancaster co-op was the usual daylight exercise of making attacking runs on the bomber whilst it tried to prevent us getting into a firing position. The "Wings for Victory'' beat-up was very enjoyable.
Chapel-en-le-Frith is a small town hidden away in steep valleys. Having been given permission to fly low over the town we had a wonderful time, flying lower and more dangerously at each pass. We certainly did our best to advertise that there was an air force!
On 17 June Bud and I were sent to Predannack, an airfield at the Lizard in Cornwall, to switch with one of the squadron's crews. Here I was to participate in another "Wings for Victory'' week, not so dangerous as the one at Chapel-en-le-Fhth but a lot more nerve racking.
(1) 'The Mosquito Log' by Alexander McKee, Souvenir Press 1988.