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Seven Empty Beds-Life in WWII RAF Bomber Command

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 Lancaster Bomber

Update: 11 May 2017. Sadly Roy Amerena passed away a few days ago. He will be sadly missed by his family and friends.

I was very privileged to be given the opportunity to extensively interview Mr Amerena in 2014/15 and we were able to record some six hours of taped conversations with him which are saved for prosperity.

He was initially sent to Canada to train as an air navigator.

GB 1804304 Amerena R.C.F. qualified on 10 March 1944 at Rivers, Manitoba with Training wing No 1 CNS where he had been flying Ansons since November of the previous year.

In June 1944 he continued with his training in Ansons at RAF Llandrog before moving on to flying Wellingtons with OTU no 29, and Sterlings that autumn, and finally Lancaster III’s from 9 February 1945.

On 27 February he was posted to No 49 squadron at RAF Fulbeck.

His first of six operational sorties came a few days later when his Lancaster took part in the raid to Bohlen on 5 March. He was airborne for nine hours and thirty five minutes.

His last sortie was on 8 April and involved an 8:10 mins flight to Lutzkendorf, and back. Roy being one of the lucky ones.

W Mills

 

Lancaster Bomber RAF Memorial Flight
Lancaster Bomber RAF Memorial Flight

Original written in 2014.

Seven Empty Beds

By William Mills

Roy Amerena, aged 91, tells of his experiences 69 years ago, when as a young man he was a navigator in a Lancaster bomber during World War II.

“Corkscrew hard left!” The tail gunner screamed into his microphone.

Too late! The Lancaster bomber’s interior was suddenly lit with dazzling bright light completely blinding the crew’s night vision.

“A master beam has locked onto us. Hold on!” The skipper shouted as he kicked the rudder petal with all his remaining strength.

In March 1945 in the closing days of WWII the skies over Germany were a hostile place. Right to the very end of the European war Royal Air Force bomber crews died.

Their survival odds were not good. Aircrews were expected to complete thirty missions over enemy territory. Management deemed a 5% loss rate acceptable. That meant that out of Bomber Command’s approximate frontline strength of 1,000 bombers, 50 planes won’t return from a mission.

photo of Roy's wartime RAF logbook
photo of Roy’s wartime RAF logbook- flying navigation training in Canada

Over a tour of thirty sorties, as operational combat flights were known, a total of 1,500 planes could be lost. In plain English, that’s all of this batch and half of next. Although in practice the thousand bomber attacks were more of a rarity when everything was thrown in. Most raids comprised of between 250 and 500 aircraft.

It is sobering to think that many of the survivors only did so because the war finished at the start of their shift.

Roy Amerena was born in Sussex in 1923 of Italian descent. Growing up in the Brighton area he got enthusiastic over flying at an early age.

“It was all the rage then, you see.” Roy explains. “ Most young people couldn’t afford the cost of private flying, so joining the RAF reserves as a part timer was the only way into the air.”

“In Brighton,” he continues, “there were numerous A.T.C. squadrons in the interwar years between 1918 and 1939. They were a natural extension to the boy’s clubs.”

“Once the war started we all volunteered to join the RAF, and I was accepted in 1940 aged 17. After an initial assessment in the UK I was sent by ship to Canada. There, under the Empire Training Scheme I was taught to navigate a heavy bomber.”

Roy returned to the UK in the April 1944. When he left as a fresh faced teenager in 1941 Britain was struggling in the early years of WWII. With all of Europe under the Nazi yoke bombing had been the only effective way of Britain striking back.

Initially the bombing campaign had been ineffective. Before the war night time flying had been a novelty- planes in those days usually only flew on bright, clear sunny days. The first hint of any fog and aeroplanes were grounded, with passengers taking the train instead.

Lancaster Bomber RAF Memorial Flight
Lancaster Bomber RAF Memorial Flight

 

Night time navigation was rudimentary. One famous pilot, Dambusters’ leader Guy Gibson wrote of circling the night sky over East Anglia waiting for the moon to come up in order for its reflection off the Norfolk Broads to guide them home.

By 1944 when Roy moved to an operational training unit, his final step before actual combat flying, it was very different.

Britain now wielded the greatest bomber force ever created. It dropped more bombs monthly than the American 8th Air Force who had also built up an impressive bomber force and attacked Nazi targets  by day. The British flew by night.

Roy was posted to No.49 squadron, attached to the RAF’s No. 5 Group of Bomber Command. They were equipped with the very latest Lancaster II bomber. Made in huge numbers by aviation company Avro it had a cruising speed of around 180 knots ( a statute or land mile is 1,760 yards, a nautical mile or knot is 2,025 yards. Some 15% bigger). It carried a crew of seven over a range of around 1,600 miles enabling them to reach targets eight hundred miles away deep in German territory.

Roy, as the navigator, in 1944 had a whole range of secret electronic devises to help him find the target and get them home again.

However the losses were still appalling.

Roy Amerena May 2014
Roy Amerena May 2014

 

“At our airbase, RAF Fulbeck, near Newark in Nottinghamshire…” Roy recalls, “We were in a metal Nissan hut and it housed 14 air crew, and that represented two Lancaster bomber crews, either side, of a central coal burning stove. Initially there is always a rush to select to the iron bed as close to the stove as possible for obvious reasons, particularly in winter.

“Over the bed is a full length shelf running from top to bottom, which ran the full length of the hut to allow the crews to house their pleasurable things like radios, books, rackets, cricket bats, rugby balls, soccer balls to kick around whenever. It was the only form of exercise we really had because every other night, or sometimes two nights in succession, you could be on operations.

“When you were in the Nissan hut, two crew, seven either side, a new crew would come in opposite, because the last crew were missing, so there were seven empty beds, and eventually a few days later a new crew came into our hut, and occupied the same beds.

Lancaster Bomber RAF Memorial Flight
Lancaster Bomber RAF Memorial Flight

 

“For the first three days a new crew would get used to the airport, its amenities, meet various people, and then have a cross country, one or two flights, for three hours to get used to the runway for take offs and landings. Finally they would be notified of their first operation over Germany and they received their battle orders.  Which are pinned up in the mess, roughly every morning between 11-12 o’clock.

“And off they go on the operation. Well, that crew might return, but there was an occasion when the crew had only been in our hut for three days. One night, we were both sent on the operation – both crews from the hut, but the next morning, the seven beds opposite were empty. And this, in a way, was disturbing because you were always hopeful that they may have had trouble getting back and there landing had been delayed by half an hour. But of course, as the day went on, the beds were still empty and they were reported missing. And it was, to me, my feelings at the time were that, well, in a way, perhaps there is a chance that they bailed out and were now prisoners of war, or perhaps they are coming back to base, perhaps they’ll get back to the front line, cross over into friendly territory.

“Outside there were always numerous bicycles which was useful when all the crew of seven decided to go to the local pub which was about four miles away and while walking there was alright, walking back wasn’t.

“We would help ourselves to them, because these bicycles accumulated, some people bought them to the base and never returned. There were no questions asked. It was an accepted thing that people who were still on base could borrow whatever means of transport that’s there. Wives occasionally came and stayed at the local pub while husbands were out flying  Lancasters, and often they did not return. The Adjutant of the Squadron had the unenviable task of having to go and break the news that the husband never returned last night – was reported missing. That expression always gives hope.”

 

Roy's gang-they signed with honour
Roy’s gang-they signed with honour

 

As the triumphant Russians battered Germany’s shattered armies ever closer to Hitler’s Berlin lair Roy prepared for his tour.

His opening operational sortie was against Bohlen on the night of 5th March 1945.

“Last night it came. We did our first op after being here just over a week.” Roy wrote in his diary the next day.

“It was sticky, long and eventful. During briefing most of us new ones felt nervous and tense, but also very confident. The sooner we were in the air the better.

“On the way out several aircraft were going down in flames and I hoped at the time that the unfortunate crews knew very little about it. On the approach to the target fighters were dropping flares well ahead and to port of us. Errol reported one aircraft going down ahead, probably hit by flak.

“We reached the target after 4 ½ hours passing over Leipzig a few minutes prior to ETA target, was an experience not one of us relished. Over the target Ray (the bomb aimer) wasted no time in releasing the bombs. A few seconds more and we were out again. Setting course for home I found myself 15 miles north of the track, I worried about our equipment not working which compelled me to use Dead Reckoning for two hours. I later discovered it was a change in wind strength which had caused the problem.

“Almost halfway home and passing north of Stuttgart Errol gave Harry(the pilot) a corkscrew as an HE or FW had come in from dead astern. Errol gave him a quick burst and we ran into cloud and lost him. Thank heavens!

“To be attacked by a fighter on your first op was awful luck. Over France Harry reported crossing the front line. You experience an indefinable feeling when you know you are over friendly territory after five hours of dodging flak over Germany.

“We eventually arrived back at base after 9 ½ hours in the air. Everybody was feeling tired, yet the fact was that we had completed our first operation over the Reich, and then to bed.

“All the squadron returned without damage. Bomber Command lost a total of 33 aircraft out of 500.”

 

Pass certificate-Roy's logbook
Pass certificate-Roy’s logbook

 

“It was the waiting that got me.” Says Roy. “It was then I started smoking. We would climb out of the plane onto the tarmac and smoke one cigarette after another while we waited to see if the raid was on.” The fact that the plane was fully laden with high explosive and incendiary bombs as well as 1,700 gallons of petrol didn’t deter them.

“Things were different in those days.” He wistfully adds.

However the support the fighting men received form their women remained steadfast throughout. In 1939 The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force or WAAF was created. At its height in 1943 some 189,000 women aged between their teens and middle age served along side the men.

Even in the war years there was still time for sexist humour. It was rumoured that flyers were popular with some girls who had ulterior motives. One they had access to petrol which was vital for getting around in a rural community- many airbases were miles from anywhere. Secondly, clothes were rationed in wartime Britain.

Aircrew parachutes took priority in the country’s finite supply of silk. If a flyer came down his parachute was highly prized as it could be made into underwear and stockings.

A saucy joke doing the rounds at the time referred to American servicemen chatting up English girls while our boys were overseas doing the fighting.

“One Yank and they are off!” People laughed.

Women were also on the receiving end of the intense superstition prevalent at the time.

“People were superstitious. I recall meeting a girl at a dance hall in North Street. She confessed to being a Jonah. Her first husband had been aircrew. He was killed on operations. So had her second. After her third was also lost no-one from the base would date her. She was bad luck.

Events of those fateful nights all those years ago, Roy remembers vividly.

His second raid was just two nights later over another oil installation near Harburg.

“Passing well to starboard of the Kiel defences we had 15 minutes to go. The flak that was coming up was light but very nasty. We were in the second wave. To reach the target we had to pass over the Hamburg defences which we had been told might have moved due to the approach of the battle front. This was difficult to believe as suddenly flak started coming up on all sides and was getting increasingly heavy.

Inside cover of Roy's diary
Inside cover of Roy’s diary

 

“We bombed half a minute late and headed for home weaving all over the place dodging searchlights and fighter flares. Ahead appeared another belt of lights containing a vivid blue master beam. Our homeward course took us straight through them. The master beam caught our nose.

“The skipper put the thing into a so violent corkscrew we actually turned over. My charts, instruments and pencils went flying. Ray and I were helplessly thrown to the top of the fuselage. My parachute finished up lying across my table. The upper gunner was left hanging from his straps.

“I had a horrible feeling that it was in an uncontrollable dive but strangely enough I resigned myself to my fate there being very little hope of even baling out in such circumstances.

“We lost 11,000 feet in a matter of seconds finally pulling out at around 2,000 feet. We Had lost them! We reached the coast and base another twenty minutes later. I was annoyed at losing six pencils but at least I still had my neck.”

On the night of 7/8th March 1945 Roy’s returning squadron had one aircraft missing. Their group loses were 13, and Bomber Command overall lost 40 aircraft containing 280 young men.

For aircraft badly shot up and desperately trying to reach home three bases were set up called emergency landing grounds with special rescue facilities and medical centres.

One of these, RAF Manston in Kent was an ideal choice as it was both close to the front line and on a slight hill which helped to keep the fog at bay.

It had a 9,000 foot runway with a good bit extra at either end and was three times as wide as usual enabling plane to land on the southern most runway without control tower permission.

Those that could radio ahead were greeted by a soothing female voice. It was one of the WAAF’s duties to provide air traffic controllers for the emergency frequencies. Young men, badly shot up in the lonely night sky would suddenly hear a English female voice calmly guiding them home.

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