“Bomber Command” refers to a key branch of Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II. After Germany had taken over most of the continent of Europe, the Allied forces, led by Britain, had no point from which to launch ground forces; the war in western and northern Europe moved into the air.
Bomber Command’s primary role was to attack German and German-held points on the continent. At first, this was limited to industrial targets and ports, but by early 1943 this had been expanded to include major German cities as well. The role of Bomber Command required huge numbers of aircraft and their crews.
People from Creston served with Bomber Command in all the theatres of the war, including Germany, Africa, Italy, and Norway. They flew in the well-known Wellington light bombers and, later, the Halifax heavy bombers. Their missions were almost always flown at night, and their targets were almost always the industrial cities deep within Germany.
The bombing missions over Germany were extremely dangerous. Aircrews were often lost due to engine or other mechanical failure, or crashed in bad weather. Mid-air collisions between friendly aircraft in the densely-packed bomber formations were common. The bombers were often badly damaged en route to the targets, by anti-aircraft guns which fired flak bursts at the planes. Closer to the targets, in addition to the flak, the bomber crews had to contend with enemy fighters which were aided by searchlights. Often, an airman’s survival was due only to sheer good luck, such as was the case for Lyle Kemp (DFC) of Erickson, who served as a bomb aimer in the big Halifax bombers. Lyle survived being hit by a burst of flak when the steel fragment lodged in his “Mae West” life vest.
Not all the Creston recruits were as lucky. Air gunner Wes Skerik, flying his first mission on 25 February 1944, was shot down over Germany. He spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Most of the Creston recruits joined up with Canadian squadrons, but Glen Clark joined 196 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. This was a night-bombing squadron that flew in the lighter Wellington bombers. The squadron became operational in early February, 1943, attacking enemy ports and industrial centres, as well as laying bombs. Just before one of those early missions, someone snapped a photograph of the aircrew – and within a few days after that, on 14 February 1943, Glen was killed during one of the missions.
The experiences of Glen’s brother, Russell Clark, illustrate what the Bomber Command aircrews went through on these missions. Russell served as a Flying Officer with 408 “Goose” Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying night-bombing missions over Germany in Lancaster bombers. On 18 November 1943, Russell took off on what was probably his first mission: a bombing mission over Berlin. En route, his plane was hit by flak, resulting in holes in the bomb doors. They made it back to England, but were forced to land quite some distance away from the airfield due to a fuel shortage.
Russell and his crew took part in another mission to Berlin a week later, but had to turn back early due to malfunctioning compasses; and on 2 December aborted the mission because of a malfunctioning rear turret – one of the rotating gun platforms that helped defend the bombers from the enemy fighters.
Finally, on 16 December 1943, Russell and his crew made it as far as Berlin and managed to drop their bomb load. But they ran into bad weather on the return, and the plane crashed into high ground near Hawnby, England. Clark and four others of the seven-man crew were killed.
Airplanes were shot down over Germany; they were so badly damaged they could not be repaired; they crashed on take-off or landing; their navigational instruments malfunctioned and they simply disappeared: these losses, to say nothing of the exhaustion and burnout of the men themselves, decimated the aircrews of Bomber Command. New fliers were needed faster than the CATP schools could crank them out. Like Wes Skerik and Russell and Glen Clark, it was often the rookie crews, on their first few missions, who suffered the greatest proportion of casualties.
Bomber crews had to complete a certain number of operational flights before being eligible for leave. Cletus Schade was the first Creston Valley resident to achieve this; in April 1944, he got leave after completing the 31 required flights. Because the bomber crews were getting very badly mauled in the skies over Germany, though, and replacement crews took many months to train, Bomber Command had to increase the number of required flights. By the end of 1944, Albert Shaw needed 34 flights to qualify for leave. In January 1945, it was up to 35 flights for Jack Walker, and Lyle Kemp needed 36 before he got leave in March 1945.
The bomber crews depended on up-to-date information, including photographs, of their targets, and these could only be obtained by sending aircraft over Germany with photographers on board.
Verne Gorrill (DFC) was one of the pilots who flew reconnaissance sorties for Bomber Command, taking photographs and gathering information in an effort to pinpoint targets and reduce the time the bombers had to spend over Germany. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in April 1944 for this work.
Even the end of the war didn’t bring an end to the dangers for the air crews. Tom Crawford was a flight sergeant with the Royal Canadian Air Force. At the end of the war, he apparently visited many abandoned German airfields, inspecting the materiel and equipment, including aircraft, left behind. His last letter to his family, dated 19 May 1945, hints at this work, but he could not be too explicit because of war-time censorship. On 25 May 1945, his aircraft left their base in England, flew to Brussels, then continued on to a point deeper into Germany, but never arrived. The plane was found to have crashed after hitting some trees, probably due to fog or thick clouds. All four members of the aircrew were killed, seventeen days after the war in Europe had ended.