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Library Reference Number: 032

A Narrow Squeak over Stuttgart

Gilbert A Gray (Flight Engineer, 106 Squadron - April to August, 1944)

Gilbert Gray is the author of 'Green Markers Ahead Skipper' - a book that is currently being reprinted. He has kindly given us three extracts from his book which are contained in Library Files 032, 033 and 034.

On July 23, Twelve Lancasters from 106 Squadron were briefed to join a force of 614 aircraft in an attack on the industries in the city of Stuttgart deep inside Germany. One of them was manned by us - Flying Officer Peter Browne and crew. We took off at 10.50 at night, reached Stuttgart at 1.30 in the morning guided to the target by brilliant red and green flares and markers dropped by the Pathfinder aircraft and touched down back at Metheringham at 4.10 am, disturbing the sleep of the local population. Although we had met fierce anti-aircraft fire ('flak'), we got home unscathed. 17 Lancasters and 4 Halifaxes had not.

We were sent back to Stuttgart on the night of the 28th and 'enjoyed' a very different experience. In Lancaster LL953 (ZN-C), as we approached the target at two o'clock in the morning Ted Carmichael, our navigator, emerged from behind the curtain at his position behind the pilot and myself to see for himself the heavy 'flak' which we had experienced on our earlier visit. He took up position under the astro-dome, a perspex dome on the 'roof' of the Lancaster from which the stars could be viewed if astro-navigation was required. 'Where is this flak you were talking about last time? I see no 'flak' !! The reply he got over the intercom was clear. 'That's because the fighters are up! Keep your eyes skinned.' Scanning the night sky, illuminated again by coloured flares, his astonishment... surprise... disbelief fear, perhaps... when, on our port side he saw an enemy fighter flying virtually alongside us.....a Ju88.!!!!

Charlie Tate, our wireless operator, had been studying his 'Fishpond' radar monitor and had spotted something apparently trailing us and warned Peter. Fear had no place in such a situation .... only vigilance......and immediate action if necessary. Then it happened!!! 'Dive port!!' shouted Wally Greenwood from his rear turret. Immediate response from Peter....... 'down port rolling.... down starboard. It only took one second . . . streaks of light shattering the darkness ......the clatter and explosions of in-coming bullets and shells... .the clatter of our own machine guns as Wally and, in the upper turret, Eric Stead fought off the assailant. 'Changing...up starboard rolling up port rolling ... down port'... .and so on, until the immediate danger seemed to be past!!

We were still flying! !! Then came the reckoning! 'Everyone OK? from Peter. One by one from each position... 'OK Skipper!' 'Any damage? 'Mid-upper turret u/s' from Eric. 'Some holes in the fuselage behind me, It looks as if the starboard wing has been badly hit', from flight engineer. In the darkness, it seemed as if there were slices of metal sticking up from the wing and in the starboard engine area. This became patently clear as the dawn light broke on our way home. Internal damage we could not assess, except that the fact that the mid-upper turret was out of action suggested some damage in the starboard inner engine nacelle. But.. we were still flying and adjustments to the trimming tabs made control almost normal.. .and no one was hurt!!!

We touched down at Metheringham at 6 am. The approach to the runway had seemed normal. The various pre-landing checks had been done. The undercarriage had locked down and the tyres seemed to my practised eye to be OK. Peter brought ZN-C down in his usual immaculate way at about 90 mph but our starboard tyre deflated and as we lost speed we swung slowly off the runway to come to rest alongside the'Fido' pipes which, on a foggy night, would have been belching flame to clear the atmosphere.

The ground crew gasped. 'How did she get you back?' Large. jagged strips of metal pointing to the sky; holes through the engine nacelle; holes through the inner petrol tank which, at the time of the action, would have held about 300 gallons of high octane fuel ('why did we not catch fire?'); starboard fuselage like a pepper-pot.

Collected by the dispersal 'bus and delivered to the de-briefing' room, we told our story to the interrogation officer who duly noted our story. The gunners gave their version. The appropriate report.forms were duly completed. Many years later, when gathering detail for my book, 'Green Markers Ahead Skipper', I noted that none of the official records made mention of our 'dice with death'. It seemed a strange omission.

A possible explanation came via the postman on May 8, 1977 when he delivered an envelope from an aviation enthusiast (surname, appropriately, Pickup). It contained from his memorabilia a copy of an air combat over Stuttgart on July 29, 1944. He had often wondered what had happened to the crew involved when he came across the reference in my book. Somehow he had had in his possession the original of our report which had somehow 'been liberated from official files'.

It makes interesting reading now seeing the words recorded from our gunners on our return at about 6.30 on that morning in 1944. The 'narrative' states: "Just before bombing run, Wireless Operator warned crew of suspected enemy fighter on 'Fishpond'. Rear gunner on hearing this started concentrated search on port beam andsaw Ju88 closing. He warned Pilot to corkscrew port and they lost this Ju 88, but almost immediately Navigator saw trace coming at them from starboard bow up. He warned gunners who picked up visually the enemy aircraft as it passed below, going away port quarter down. Both gunners fired as fighter continued going away and was not seen again."

Our recorded answers to the questions put to us at de-briefing that early morning remind me that when the fighter attack commenced at 01.59 we were at 16,250 feet on a heading of 102 degrees (slightly south of east) and during the action we lost about 2,000 feet of altitude. There was no moon but the visibility was very good.

Flares had been dropped by the fighters round about the bomber stream. Our rear gunner fired 400 rounds of ammunition, the mid-upper gunner 50, but the damage to hydraulics in the starboard inner engine had put his turret out of action. They each opened fire at a range of 150 yards and pieces were seen to fall off the rear end of the fighter.

Unfortunately, we never flew our beloved 'C-Charlie' again - the Lancaster newly delivered from the factory and which we brought to the Squadron from Coningsby on May 4, 1944. She carried us on ops 23 times. On one occasion she was damaged in our contretemps with two Ju88's over Caen on the night after D-day but quickly returned to action. Now, she was towed from our dispersal point on the outskirts of Martin village to the hangars where she had a complete change of main plane and otherwise patched up to take the air again as ZN-O on October 11 only to be shot down on November 6th. We were, however, given charge of ZN-A (JB663), the old war horse, who carried us safely to complete our tour of 34 ops on her way to achieving herself more than a century of operational trips before the end of hostilities.

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