The Little Old Lady By Wally Kasper
It was a raw November night with just enough broken cloud to reveal a full moon so we aircrew types had been stood down from ops. The Bomber squadrons didn’t operate during the full moon period, they had enough hazards without giving the enemy night fighters the edge which a full moon would provide. So four of the crew shrugged our way into our raincoats and decided to go to a pub which had been discovered by Larry, our expert on pubs and one of the two Brits in a crew on a Canadian bomber squadron stationed near the old city of York.
“It has a pleasant fire, is out of the way and not bedevilled with large numbers of you thirsty Canadians trying to drink up all the beer in the land:” He said.
In truth it was a splendid place, a haven of jollity and good fellowship virtually untouched by the hordes of Canadian airmen who had come over to Jolly Olde to help these poor benighted Brits pull their irons out of the fire for the second time in this half century.
The war had been going on for more than four years now and Bomber Command had been the only weapon the Allies had which had been at the throat of Hitler’s Germany since the war began. Their losses were horrendous, six out of every ten men who had entered the doors of Bomber Command would not be able to answer roll call at the end of the war. But these statistics were far from our minds as we entered this pleasant pub, bid all the locals a “Good evening’” and took a place at a corner table as Mike went to the bar and ordered a round of mild and bitter.
From where I sat I could see, off in the other darker corner of the room, a little old lady. She seemed a bit the worse for wear with shabby clothes and a rather ragged shawl around her shoulders, and looked as if she had not had a decent meal in some considerable time. There was something striking about the hawkish sculptured face which seemed to gaze unseeingly out into space.
Larry saw me looking at her and said “She’s come in out of the chilly evening, I expect”.
So I went back to our table and we prattled on as airmen will do until it was getting close to It “Time Gentlemen, Please” and I remembered the little old lady. A quick trip to the bar and another double gin for the lady, with a curious glance at me from the bartender, and as I came to her table she said “please sit down for a moment” so I did. She looked at me for a very long and almost embarrassing moment before she said “It was very kind of you to be so considerate of an old lady sitting off in the corner. Few people do. I would like to suggest to you that when next Thursday rolls around you should do all of your flying with all the care that you can muster because the stars are not going to be in conjunction and you and the fellows who fly with you will be In greater danger than you have ever known before. Thank you again for your kindness. We will not meet again.”
I said. “Goodnight” and returned to our table a bit puzzled as to how she could have any information of what we were going to be doing next Thursday when we didn’t and no one on the squadron did.
The guys were curious but just then came the “Time Gentlemen, Please” from the bartender and, as we got ready to go, their questions were lost and I let the matter die.
Thursday morning rolled around and after breakfast the usual check on the aircraft was called for and I observed that the bomb load and gas load laid on indicated a long trip, probably deep into Germany. Since this was the time when Bomber Command was in the midst of what history now calls “The Battle of Berlin” it didn’t take a genius to guess where we were going. While doing our aircraft checks the incident with the little old lady in the pub popped into my mind and sort of hung there like a spider web with questions going round and round in my mind, asking how could she have possibly known or even guessed that this would be an operating day for us much less make dire predictions about the trip?
I didn’t know it yet but we were to find out the hard way that she was as right as she could possibly be, to say the least As we walked into the briefing room we saw the large red line on the map showing the route from base to Flensburg and then down to Berlin. Two simple course lines but how fraught they were. We would climb to 20,000 feet and the weatherman gave us a wind which would be blowing right up our backs as we drove down to the big city. About thirty knots he said. Hah? Our navigator estimated a northwest wind about 60 knots by the time we got to the flak ships at Flensburg.
We did our turn onto the 135 degree course which would take us to Berlin and as we flew through the dark night the navigator gave mean Estimated Time of Arrival for the target. As we were in the first wave of main force bombers as we came closer to the city, a few minutes away, we saw the whole world of German defenses open up like a tremendous, orchestrated stage to welcome us to this moment in hell.
We did not know this until much later but the winds behind us were not our estimated 60 knots but 120 knots. Blowing right up our jumpers, as we used to say. Now the Lancaster’s we had, used to cruise at 265 knot” With the 120 knots we had blowing we had a forward speed of 365 knots. The problem-was that our estimated time of arrival was based on a 60 knot wind. We were in fact, going much faster than we thought we were. And we would arrive early. As the German defenses opened up into full flower to extend their welcome to us we flew on from the outer northern edges of the massive ring of defenses around the city and expected the target markers to go down any second so we could drop our bombs. We flew on with my anxiety level increasing by the second and as we reached the southern edges of the Berlin searchlight ring the rear gunner said” The yellow markers have just gone down behind us”.
The navigator had been brilliant in getting the wind estimate we had and no one could have known that we had hit a Jet stream. After all in those days no one had ever heard of a jet stream much less factored it into their weather calculations. As we turned 180 degrees to the left to take another run at releasing our bombs from our overshoot of the target markers we were faced with a new and devastating problem. Our speed had gone from the 385 to 265 minus 120 or just about standing still as far as the German radar was concerned and in the blink of an eye the radar had us and so did what seemed to be 100 searchlights. Since the flak was coordinated with the radar I knew we had to move quickly since not only was the flak coming up our jumper but the place was a-buzz with night fighters who could see us and of course we were blinded by the searchlights and could see nothing, least of all any instruments on the panel which most pilots find it convenient to use in flying at night.
Since the flak was fused for our position and altitude it seemed expedient to vacate the space we were presently occupying and at the same time to take some evasive action which might help us avoid the tracer which the fighters were hosing off in our direction. An interesting but not very comfortable position to be in so we took our evasive action, jinking the aircraft with rapid changes of position, height and direction. We still had more than half of our gas load plus the bomb load so this violent evasive action was a serious test of the plane’s structural strength. We had the searchlights follow us down to nearly ten thousand feet before they broke off and we managed to escape from the welcome the Germans had arranged for us. As we emerged from the engagement and flew into the dark of the outer regions of the Berlin area we turned to go back to drop our bombs on the target markers, which was why we came.
It was not very comfortable flying through that area with all the rest of the main force flying thousands of feet above us and dropping their bombs but we managed and went through the target area and turned west to get on the route back to base.
We were well below the main stream of the bomber force and of course were not protected by the presence of all our buddies at the higher altitude, so we felt as if we were walking down Piccadilly Circus, stark naked, in broad daylight However we started to slowly climb part way up to where the main force was so we could blend in with them but climbing always consumes extra fuel which had not been programmed and it slows you down so you are climbing but gradually falling behind the main stream of the bombers. You have some hard choices to make but discovered that there were even harder ones lying in wait for us in the dark night skies ahead.
Our track out from the target took us between Osnabruck and Munster and of course we were still well below the main force and had fallen behind them so we must have been becoming visible on the radar screens of the good folk below.
Their first burst of flak was disgustingly accurate and a piece of shrapnel took out a sizeable chunk of the exhaust pipe which was wrapped around the outer rim of the port inner engine. Not more than a dozen feet from where I was sitting. We moved rather quickly to vacate the space we had been occupying and this seemed to discourage the flak fellows below but we now had another problem.
When the flak hit the exhaust pipe it tore a piece of metal off which permitted a splendid looking ten foot high “candle” of red hot exhaust gases to go shooting up into the sky. Advertising like this would be a winner on Broadway but was not really desirable in our situation. so now we had to decide to shut down the engine and fly on three or to continue on with four and the advertising we had. The engine was working perfectly well but if we shut it down to give us some level of anonymity in the dark German night sky we would have to be traveling along on three engines and as you can imagine it always takes more fuel to fly on three than it does on four and we had already used up our allowable margin of fuel.
The main bomber force was, of course, by now far ahead of us and we would be fair game for any German night fighter who could find us. We could only hope that all of the fighters which had been up were now low on fuel or back at base. It was now time to cross our fingers and hope that the Germans were as weary as we were and more interested in a bit of rest than some vagrant aircraft in the night sky. Once again The Little Old Lady popped into my mind-I couldn’t guess if she was being a guardian angel or if she was instrumental in causing this. In any case I was too busy to give her much energy at this point.
We were by now at about sixteen thousand feet flying along on three engines so we decided we would trade the altitude we had for a bit of forward speed and headed for the Dutch coast as we saw the first, fine delicate fingers of morning light break behind us as we looked on the lovely countryside below. It looked so peaceful as the coast seemed to accept the caresses of the waves rolling onto the shore. How deceptive this wandering notion of mine was. There was nothing peaceful or caressing in that cold sea and certainly there would be nothing peaceful or caressing if a German night fighter found us.
The odds on evading a German night fighter when you are flying on three engines in a Lancaster must be just about the same as winning the lottery. I asked the Wireless Operator to break radio silence and ask the Fighter Command people to send us some fighter escort. We had crossed the Dutch coast and were now over the North Sea and felt we were agonizingly visible to any German night fighter who might be on patrol in the area. Not many sights in my life have given me the joy that that squadron of Spitfires brought as they flickered in the early morning sun on their upward journey to join us, and then nested around us. How comforting it was to know that these lovely and elegant birds flying beside us had teeth which would discourage any German intruder. They flew with us until we had made contact with the emergency landing field at Woodbridge on the English coast. Then, one by one they flew past us in turn and waved farewell as they left for home. We were unknown to them and they to us but they looked like never to-be-forgotten guardian angels with the pleasant morning sun reflecting off of their wings 88 they carried us to safety.
As I came in to land I wondered about the little old lady in the pub and her advice to be careful. It was indeed a night to remember. I never did go back to that pub so we did not meet again but I have often wondered if she was somehow a gifted fey lady or just a shrewd, wise, little old woman finding a warm place on a chilly night
Editor’s Note: During WWII Wally Kasper completed a tour of operations as a skipper on the Lancaster 2 flying with 408 (Goose) Squadron out of Linton.on-Ouse, Yorkshire.