Celebrating Freedom by Riding

I sat struggling to start this post, not for want of what to write, but actually deciding what to leave out, such has been the emotional roller coaster of the last 36 hours and our little trip to Brittany.

So I suppose the beginning is a good place to kick off . . . 

The night ferry from Plymouth to France was the usual fare offered by Brittany Ferries, yes it was the MV Amorique again; not my favourite ship by a long way,  but hey, better than a six hundred mile motorway thrash via the Channel Tunnel!

We were rudely roused at  6am by the ship’s awful “wake up” music, it’s a sort of electric version of Breton folk music, I sure some people love it, not me. On the bright side, breakfast was served in our cabin shortly afterwards, travelling in Posh Class has it’s benefits! 

I couldn’t resist popping up on deck to stand in the grey dawn and watch the French coast grew nearer, reflecting on how my Grandfather must have felt exactly 100 years ago watching the same landmass appear on the horizon. 

 

Of course the big difference was that he was going to war, I was just riding a motorbike. . . 

Once off the ferry and through passport control we were free to ride; well we first had to deal with the usual bunch of inept Brit car drivers panicking about driving on the “wrong” side of the road and mixing it with the French locals trying to get to work. The weather was a bit subdued and to be honest kind of related my mood.

Cutting across Brittany we rode onto the Crozon Peninsular crossing wonderful Pont De Térénez.

Regular blogonaughts will know of my love of brilliant bridges and this little beauty is right up there! At just over 500metres long it’s not the longest cable stayed bridge in the world, but with it’s curve and location it’s got to be one of the sexiest! The photo is bit dark, but you’ll get the idea! 

  

It was only another few miles to our first destination, the cemetery at Lanvéoc, but in those scant miles the sun came out and the day cheered up immensely. 

We parked up outside the cemetery gates and I tentatively walked inside. The place is typical of a French village graveyard, they are always immaculate and absolutely crammed full of stone memorials, headstones and family vaults; we had come to remember the young men who had died in the skies above us 71 years ago and initially I couldn’t see any sign of their headstones.

An elderly lady was tending one of the graves, I nervously approached her and asked if she knew where the airmen lay. Without hesitation she stopped what she was doing and took me across the cemetery to where the graves were clearly visible against the perimeter wall. We stood together and she looked at the poppy wreath that I was carrying.  Madame went on to explain that the local community took pride in maintaining the graves and remembering the young men lying there. I thanked her for that and said that I was sure that the families of the men appreciated their work. “Êtes vous famille, monsieur?  “Are you family?” I explained that no, we weren’t, just a couple of guys who wanted to say “Thank you.”  

 “Vous êtes deux hommes très spéciaux, il est bon ce que vous faites.” “You are two special men, what you do is good.” I felt humble and muttered an embarrassed thanks, congratulations was not what we had come for however well intended, but on reflection I realise how much it means to those people in the village and in a way we were also honouring them and their devotion. Madame left us and we stood in reflection of the young men buried at our feet, yes, we had a small chat with them as well, laid our wreath and walked back to the bikes.

Free. Free to ride because of young men like them. I put my helmet on and fired up the engine, sat and said a quiet prayer of thanks before kicking in first gear; freedom is a wonderful thing it means you can shed a tear whenever you need to.

We hit the road, the sun was warm and now the day seemed much brighter. The road to Châteaulin seemed to fly by, well actually it really did as we were not hanging about! The appearance of a Motorcycle Gendarme did cause a moment of concern, but he seemed to be enjoying the day as much as us and sped off. Time for a coffee break, so one American legend met up with another! 

 
Suitably caffeine fuelled, we set off to Carhaix, a pleasant little town slap bang in the middle of Brittany and a regular stopover of mine. The N164 road certainly gave me chance to really get the feel of what my new steed can deliver when it comes to touring; miles and miles of effortless road munching, this bike is superb and soooooo comfy!

There’s an old friend of mine in Carhaix, apologies if you’ve seen her before, but here’s another photo of her! 

 
More fun in the sun followed as we turned North back towards the ferry port, this really was a brief trip, but time enough to enjoy the run over Roc Trévezel, the highest point in Brittany, via the ‘bike friendly D764. Some people think that the TV transmitter mast spoils the hill, but I kinda like it! 

 
Time then for a quick bit of shopping in Morlaix, well this is France, so cheese and fine wine featured heavily. Then things went a bit sort of “pear-shaped.” If you see me in a supermarket queue, always go to another one, because I’m cursed . . .tills break, people faint, loose their wallets, forget their card codes, that sort of thing and it happened again.

We got out of the car park at 14:00hrs, last check in for the ferry 14:15hrs and we were 18 miles away with a small town in the way as well! Lets just say that after a “spirited” run we made it with one minute to spare! That new bike of mine doesn’t half go well when she needs to!

I stood at the stern of the ship watching the French coast recede into the horizon and reflected on our visit.

Land clouds mark the French coast disappearing.

Land clouds mark the French coast disappearing.


Yes it was a bit of a dash and we weren’t there very long, but we achieved all that I had hoped and more. In retrospect, meeting that French lady was almost preordained and you know, I didn’t see where see disappeared to; perhaps, just perhaps, Angels come in many different forms.

Another thing that made this little trip so special was my travelling companion, known in these pages as “Vifferman.” He’s my oldest friend, we go back over fifty years and first met before we could each walk. Some people would say that we are to each other the brother that we never had, but it’s not like that at all.
No. We are the brothers that choose to be brothers. Sure we have our ups and downs, mostly always my fault, but then I am the annoying younger one. . .by all of seven weeks, but our bond is so strong it can be a bit scary! Anyway, “Viff” gets it, he knows why I had to do the trip and certainly feels as strongly as me about doing what we did, but I do have to publicly say, “Thanks mate, your support means the world to me!”

This morning I wandered in glorious sunshine around the garden here at Dookes H.Q. and found this little gem brightly standing out against the green of the kitchen garden hedge. Narcissus poeticus, Old Pheasant Eye Narcissus one of the last narcissi of the season to flower and certainly one of the most fragrant.

Narcissus poeticus.

Narcissus poeticus.

Nothing special really; except that is was my Grandfather’s favourite flower.

Thanks for riding along with me on this real roller coaster of emotion!

Catch you all soon.

Dookes

71 Years Ago Today

Today is the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, generally known as VE Day. It marks the formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender and the end of World War II in Europe.

Let me take you back a year further, to May 8th 1944.

In Northern Europe things are gearing up towards D-Day; the allied invasion of Northern France, which will eventually lead a year later to the liberation of the occupied countries and the end of this terrible conflict.

19:00hrs
Royal Air Force Coningsby, an airfield in Lincolnshire about 110 miles North of London.

The base has been on “Lock Down” for the last 24 hours, there is an operation planned for this evening. Dispersed around the perimeter of the base, four engined Lancaster bomber aircraft are being readied for tonight’s mission. Fuel, ammunition, marker flares and bombs are being loaded as the engineers carry out final checks and adjustments to the machines. Most aircraft will carry one 4000lb bomb and sixteen 500lb bombs, though on some the load will be augmented with special marker flares to provide an accurate aiming point for the main force. This is 83 Squadron, the Pathfinders of RAF 5 Group, a crack unit that specialises in night-time low-level marking of targets, an extremely hazardous undertaking.

An 83 Squadron Lancaster; OL-Y, in flight.

An 83 Squadron Lancaster; OL-Y, in flight.

The aircrew flying tonight have gathered in the Briefing Room and nervously await their mission, which is revealed by the base Intelligence Officer. Tonight they are attacking the airfield of Lanvéoc-Poulmic, just south of the maritime city of Brest, in Brittany, North West France. There is a buzz around the room, it’s not as risky as going to Berlin or The Ruhr Valley both regular haunts of “83”, but Brest is heavily fortified and the target is a Luftwaffe (German Airforce) fighter base which is sure to give a hot reception. The aim of the raid is to push the German fighter aircraft back from the planned invasion beaches and deny the enemy the use of bases within short-range of the landings.

Navigators take details of the route; Flight Engineers calculate aircraft weights and range; Pilots note the meteorology reports as well as operational instructions and procedures.

The briefing ends and the nervousness in the room is growing. Notwithstanding that every man here is a volunteer, bombing operations over occupied europe are dangerous, there was a better chance of survival in the trenches of World War One than amongst the aircrews of Bomber command. A “tour” comprised 30 operations and the chances of you completing that was only 27%, the death rate was 44.4%. Just time now to pop back to your room and check that things are in order; things like the “If I don’t come back” letter to home.

20:00hrs
The crew of Lancaster ND818, code letters OL-T, gather together and hitch a ride on the crew truck to their aircraft on the far side of the ‘field as dusk begins to fall.

A Lancaster is prepared for action.

A Lancaster is prepared for action.

She’s an almost new Avro Lancaster BIII, this will be her third mission. On arrival the men disembark and are greeted by the “Crew Chief” who declares the aircraft ready for service; Pilot and aircraft commander, Flight Lieutenant Allan Whitford DFC, signs the acceptance papers and the ‘plane is officially his.
Flight Lieutenant Allan Whitford DFC RAAF. Note DFC ribbon beneath his "Wings."

Flight Lt. Allan Whitford DFC RAAF. Note DFC ribbon beneath his “Wings.”

Whitford like three others of his crew of seven is an Australian, from Perth in Western Australia to be exact. Now a seasoned veteran of 39 missions he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in December 1943, before the war he worked as a railway clerk; he is just 23. Helping his Pilot with the pre-flight checks is Sergeant Harold Millard, the flight engineer, his job is to monitor and control the complex systems and help the pilot fly the aircraft.

The Flight Engineer adjusts an instrument on board a Lancaster.

The Flight Engineer adjusts an instrument on board a Lancaster.

Climbing into the rear of the aircraft is Flight Sergeant Leonard Arnold, his is the loneliest and coldest position of the crew, tail gunner. The plexiglass has been removed from his gun turret to give him a better view of the night sky as he scans for enemy night fighters and so tight is it in there that he has to hang his parachute on a hook further down the fuselage; like his Flight Engineer he is from the RAF Volunteer Reserve.

The Tail Gunner in his turret. Cold, lonely, dangerous.

The Tail Gunner in his turret. Cold, lonely, dangerous.

Mid-Upper Turret gunner is Warrant Officer Dennis Cross, another RAFVR man, a veteran aged 22. A sits on a canvas sling seat behind two .303 machine guns in a gun turret halfway along the top of the aircraft and will be constantly scanning the sky for enemy aircraft.

Mid-Upper Gunner in his Turret.

Mid-Upper Gunner in his Turret.

The Navigator is another of the Australians, Flight Lieutenant Watson Loftus DFC RAAF is from Homebush in New South Wales. At the moment he is settling into his position, getting the charts sorted and warming up the various electronic navigation aids. His DFC was only awarded on the 21st April and he too is a 22-year-old veteran.

Almost next to the navigator sits Pilot Officer Newman Higgins from Earlwood New South Wales, the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner who is also switching on and tuning in his radio equipment. He is the baby of the crew at 20 years of age.

Wireless Operator and Navigator at their stations.

Wireless Operator and Navigator at their stations.

Finally there is the bomb aimer, Pilot Officer Robert Dobbyn, 21, from Queensland Australia. He will be up in the plexiglass nose once the plane takes off, but that’s forbidden during takeoff and landing. So he jambs himself into a corner behind the main spar in the middle of the aircraft, he tries not to think about the bomb load directly under his backside.

A Lancaster Bomb Aimer looks down to the target.

A Lancaster Bomb Aimer looks down to the target.

20:45hrs
A green flare from the Control Tower announces that the mission is on. Allan Whitford signals to the ground crew and one by one the powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engines cough into life. Harold Millard, watches the gauges intensely as the pressures and temperatures rise; electrical charge is good all magnetos are behaving and hydraulic pressures look fine. With hydraulic power the gunners check that their turrets move freely.

One by one the pilot calls each crew member on the intercom to confirm their readiness; six “OK’s” reply and now they wait, the air pulsating with the throb from the mighty engines, palms sticky with nervous sweat, throats dry.

21:00hrs
Another green flare and the aircraft begin to move towards their assembly points, ready to thunder down the runway and take off.

21:10hrs
ND818 pauses at the end of the runway as the aircraft in front, OL-V begins it’s take off run.

21:12hrs
ND818 moves into place at the end of Coningsby’s main runway 08/26, at over a mile long it should give the heavily laden bomber plenty of time and space to claw itself into the air.

Last minute checks are called, their voices clipped with tension, now Allan Whitford must safely get his crew on their way. He scans his instruments and glances at his Flight Engineer;
“Altimeter?” “Set.”
“Auto?” “Clutch in, Clock, Spin.”
“Pitot heater?” “On.”
“Trim?” “Elevator forward, rudder neutral, aileron neutral.”
“Props?” “Fully up.”
“Fuel?” “Tanks full, master cocks on, tank selector two, cross feed off, booster pumps on.”
“Superchargers?” “Mod.”
‘Air intake?” “Cold.”
‘Radiators?” “Auto.”
“Flaps?” “Take off, 15 degrees.”
“Mixture?” “Rich.”
“Mags?” “All good.”
“Hydraulics?” “Good.”
“Bomb doors?” ” Closed.”

The radio crackles in his ear, “T – Tommy, clear for take off.” “Roger, cleared for take off, rolling!”

Whitford pushes the four throttle levers fully forward, the Flight Engineer has his hand behind his Pilot’s to ensure all throttles move smoothly together, the port side engines are given a touch more throttle to counter the aircraft’s tendency to swing to the left. Both men watch the gauges as the engine boost pressures rise and the revs climb to 3,000rpm. In the rear of the aircraft the noise is incredible from the four 1280hp engines straining against the brakes.

The flying controls. Throttle levers in the middle, control column on the left.

The flying controls. Throttle levers in the middle, control column on the left.

“Brakes off, rolling.”

The heavy bomber at first slowly, then rapidly accelerating, begins it’s dash along the darkening runway.
The tail rises quickly as Flt Lt Whitford guides the leviathan down the centre of the tarmac strip.

Millard calls out the Indicated Air Speed; “50, 70, 80, 90, 100, 105, rotate.” Whitford pulls firmly back on the control column and the 60,000lb aircraft takes to the sky. It’s 21:16hrs.

Millard, “130.” This is the safety speed. “Landing gear up.” “Roger, gear up.”

At 500 feet altitude Allan Whitford raises the flaps and adjusts the trim. Speed is now 160 knots I.A.S., nearly at 175, the best for climbing.

21:20hrs
On the ground the next aircraft takes up it’s position, a golden sunset lights the western sky silhouetting and caressing T-Tommy as she departs and climbs towards the heavens.IMG_0408

On board ND818 there is still work to be done, but the anxiety of take off loaded full of bombs and fuel is behind them. Soon they reach the rendezvous point and circle to formate with the other squadrons taking part in the mission.

It’s largely an Australian affair tonight. The raid comprises of aircraft from 463 and 467 Squadrons which are both Royal Australian Air Force units, whilst “83” will lead the show by marking the target with flares. Initially the “Master Bomber,” who is flying a super fast Mosquito, will drop small flares known as ground markers, then it’s down to the crew of ND818 to further mark on these with more flares and bombs whilst the other two squadrons will come in at a higher altitude for the main attack.

22:40hrs
T-Tommy crosses the English coast at Portland, heading South West towards Nazi skies.

Robert Dobbyn is now lying at his bomb aimer’s position in the nose, looking down and calling landmarks to Navigator Loftus. Then comes the call that really heightens the tension.

23:20hrs
“Enemy coast ahead!”

The gunners strain their eyes just a little bit more, searching for any enemy night fighter that may be stalking amongst the clouds.

The dark French countryside passes beneath them as ND818 begins to descend to 6000feet and the attack.

The target is located South across the bay from the city of Brest. Originally it was a French Airforce seaplane and training base, but now in the hands of the Luftwaffe it homes German fighter bombers, convoy raiders and possibly a few night fighters. Intelligence reports from the French Resistance, the Maquis, indicate up to 190 german aircraft are resident.

00:01hrs 9th May 1944
The Master Bomber is now almost at the target.

Searchlights probe the sky and anti-aircraft fire, known to the crews as “Flak,” begins to spray upwards into the night.

The sky in the target area has a scattering of clouds, but the view of the airfield is good. The first flares are dropped by the Master Bomber who circles his aircraft to check the accuracy; then he calls in “83” to continue the job.

Ahead of ND818, sister Lancaster OL-V begins its run. Tail Gunner Clayton Moore realises that they are not alone, he has spotted a German Nightfighter closing in on them from below and behind. “Corkscrew left,” he screams into the intercom. His Pilot throws the heavy plane to the side in a desperate attempt to throw the attacker off. Moore can see that the Fighter is still with them; “Flaps!” The plane shudders and almost stops dead in the air as the flaps extend and violently slow the aircraft. Caught unaware the German plane narrowly shoots over the top of the rearing bomber as the Mid-Upper gunner lets fly a burst of fire at it with his twin browning machine guns. “That was bloody close,” someone says as silence returns and V-Victor circles to resume its attack.

The airfield is now well-lit by more flares and smoke rises into the night sky.

Flight Lieutenant Allan Whitford and his crew begin their attack.

Robert Dobbyn lies in the nose concentrating on positioning the flares on the target, the aircraft needs to fly straight and level for ten seconds; the gunners continue to scan the sky; Harold Millard watches the engine instruments in case any show signs of being hit by the shards of metal from the anti-aircraft guns, he’s also ready to assist his pilot in case he is wounded at a critical moment. Navigator Watson Loftus can only sit at his post ready to plot the course home, whilst Wireless Operator Newman Higgins is concentrating on the various radio messages between the aircraft.

The bomb-bay doors of T-Tommy slowly open.

The anti-aircraft fire grows thicker, ND818 is buffeted by the mid-air explosions as evil strands of tracer fire appear to lazily climb into the night sky from all directions.

Dobbyn strains to see the target through his bombsight, line the cross hairs up, then press the release button to drop the flares.

00:15hrs 9th May 1944
Immediately above the target, there is a bright flash in the sky. . . ND818 and her crew vanish in a bright orange ball of light.

8th May 2015
58 Lancaster and 6 Mosquito Bombers attacked the target, only one failed to return.

The bodies of Allan Whitford and his comrades were found the next day by the German defenders and given a full military funeral in the local cemetery. Today their graves are tended by the community of Lanvéoc with support from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Next Tuesday we are going to visit them, pay our respects and let them know that they are not forgotten.

83 Squadron, “Strike to defend.”

Per Ardua Ad Astra.