John Ford - Bomber Captain
In our May contribution, we described how a 57 Sqn Victor crew formated on the Lancaster now housed at East Kirkby as a memorial to the crews of 57 & 630 Sqns who operated from that airfield during WW2; we hinted that we had more of a story to tell with regard to 57 Sqn and its Lancasters. In October, we described the exploits of Flying Officer John Ford in India at the very end of the War and his subsequent career in commercial aviation. 19 year old Ford joined the RAF in December 1941 and, after a brief period flying Tiger Moths with 22 EFTS at Cambridge, he went to Canada to complete his flying training under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan on Tiger Moths, Harvards and Oxfords. Gaining his wings on 9 July 1943, he trained as a night bomber pilot on the Vickers Wellington with 16 OTU at Upper Heyford and Barford St John, both in Oxfordshire, between February and May 1944. During June and July 1944, he was trained to fly the Stirling at 1660 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Swinderby.
106 Sqn Lancaster at Metheringham (Lincolnshire Life)
Loading Bombs to a 106 Sqn Lancaster at Metheringham (IWM)
Ford left training to join Bomber Command at an important and dynamic point in its history. During 1943, under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, it had gained expertise and grown from a force suffering systemic inaccuracy to a sizeable force capable of inflicting severe damage on German cities, its strategic focus. The Battle of the Ruhr had been effective but costly and Winter’s Battle of Berlin costly in the extreme for Bomber Command crews, few of whom expected to survive a complete ’tour’ of 30 missions. Bomber Command was continually honing its accuracy through the use of the ‘Oboe’ and ‘Gee’ radio navigation aids, the airborne H2S radar and the formation of No 8 Group, the Pathfinders. By Spring 1944, the German Night Fighter Force was at its peak, with well-trained and experienced crews guided by shrewd controllers and airborne radars cutting swathes through bomber streams with their upward firing cannon - ’Shrage Musik’ - a weapon not revealed to bomber crews until 1945.
Logbook - August 1944, 106 Sqn Metheringham
To counter German defences, the RAF developed a number of countermeasures, including chaff (known as ‘window’), german-speaking airborne radio operators who misled the German night fighters on their own frequencies and the formation of 100 Group, a specialist Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) group, which included Beaufighter and Mosquito long-range night fighters.
Within Bomber Command’s 5 Group, its Air Officer Commanding, Ralph Cochrane, had been developing alternative marking techniques to those used by 8 Group. In addition, he had formed ‘Lancaster Finishing Schools’ to hone his crews’ skills before they joined their squadrons, both of which would influence John Ford’s operational career. Ford completed Lancaster Finishing School at No 5 LFS, RAF Syerston during July 1944, where his Flight Commander was Michael Beetham, later to become Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael, Chief of the Air Staff at the time of the Falklands conflict in 1982, and the architect of the use of the strategic bomber in that war.
By Summer 1944, Harris had surrendered operational command to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and thus Bomber Command’s focus moved from the strategic bombing of German cities to targets in support of the allied invasion of Europe. By the time John Ford joined 106 Sqn at RAF Metheringham, its tasks were fourfold; the tactical support of allied armies attempting to breakout from Normandy, bombing targets identified under the ‘oil’ and ‘transportation’ plans and attacks against V-Weapon sites in Northern France. The tempo of operations during this period was brutal; 106 Sqn’s exceptionally detailed Operational Record Book (ORB) includes such phrases as ‘rush job’ to describe short-notice tactical missions in addition to the daily pre-planned efforts. During Autumn 1944, Harris was able to return to the strategic bombing of cities, while still under the remit of the ultimately-successful Oil Plan, with the addition of distant targets in support of the Eastern Front; Ford’s list of 30 missions speaks for itself:
106 Sqn, RAF Metheringham
01. 2 Aug 44 2nd pilot to Fg Off Mauvaut (Canadian). Target: Trossy St Max. Flying bomb sites at La Breteque and Siracourt. All 106 Sqn aircraft recalled due to low cloud over target. Two nights later, Sqn Ldr Ian Bazalgette was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions over this target.
02. 11 Aug 44 Target: Givors (Marshalling Yards, the last day of the Transportation Plan). Landed Mildenhall. A concentrated and accurate attack by 178 Lancasters; large fires and explosions were seen. Ford Bombed on red Target Indicators (TIs) from 8000’.
03. 13 Aug 44 Target: Falaise Gap. Tactical support to allied armies - a ‘rush job’ of great tactical importance against German troop concentrations & road junction. Ford bombed on green TIs from 8000’ at 0222 (including one 1000lb bomb with 6 hr delay).
Mission 03 - Falaise Gap (www.battleofnormandytours.com)
04. 14 Aug 44 Target: Brest Harbour (To assist in the capture of a port to which supplies could be brought direct from USA; the aim was to sink ships in positions which would not hinder allied use of the port). Ford bombed from 18000’; his aiming point photograph was oblique due to bank to avoid heavy flak. Bombs seen straddling battleship which was down at one end.
05. 15 Aug 44 Target: Gilze Rijen. 1004 aircraft attacked 9 Night Fighter airfields in Holland and Belgium in preparation for a renewed night offensive against Germany, 106 Sqn leading 102 Lancasters against Gilze Rijen. Ford bombed the aiming point on a runway from 17000’. Heavy flak encountered and aircraft holed.
06. 16 Aug 44 Target: Stettin Bay (Docks). One of 461 Lancasters involved of which 5 were lost. An accurate attack, with much damage in the port and factory area. Ford bombed on a single red TI from 19000’ at 0113.
07. 18 Aug 44 Target: L’Isle Adam (Flying Bomb Site). 158 Lancasters and 11 Mosquitos of 5 Group attacked a supply depot near Paris with the loss of 2 Lancasters. The weather was good, target easily located, bombing accurate. Ford bombed visually from 10000’ at 1411. (That day, Bomber Command also attacked an oil target in Belgium and rail yards in Connantre, Eastern France. The main raid of the day was against Bremen).
L'Isle target notes
08. 10 Sep 44 Target: Monchengladbach (Ruhr). A devastating raid without loss; large Fires seen in target area.
09. 11 Sep 44 Target: Darmstadt. City centre almost completely destroyed; current city guide says “12300 dead, 70000 homeless. The Germans cited this as an extreme example of RAF ‘terror bombing’ due to lack of industry in the city. Bomber Command cited railway lines passing through Darmstadt, although directive to target communications had not yet been issued, although advance notice may have been received. Flt Lt Mavaut and crew missing on this raid (see Mission 01).
Mission 9 Darmstadt
10. 12 Sep 44 Target: Stuttgart. Ford bombed on red TI with 13 sec delay from 17000’ at 2328. ‘Northern and Western parts of the centre were erased’. Cultural buildings, including Schloss Rosenstein and the Prinzenbau destroyed. 1171 killed, Stuttgart’s highest fatality figure of the War.
On 13th September 1944 - 106 Sqn ORB reports its new role as that of ‘Pathfinder Nursery’. Crews given the choice of volunteering for Pathfinders or posting to another Main Force squadron.
Pilot Map - Stuttgart Bombing Mission
11. 17 Sep 44 Target: Boulogne (Gun Site), in preparation for attack by allied troops on Boulogne. (Same day as Arnhem / Market Garden). Clear, no cloud, target identified visually. Ford bombed from 8400’ at 0948.
12. 18 Sep 44 Target: Bremerhaven. Ford bombed a cluster of red Tis from 12000’ at 2105. Fires from the target could be seen from 200 miles on the return journey. Records describe this as the one ‘knock out blow by a comparatively small force’ to destroy the centre of the town.
57 Sqn Lancaster with One 4000lb 'Cookie' and incendiaries - a typical bomb load for an 'area' target
57 Sqn RAF East Kirkby
13. 27/28 Sep 44 Target: Kaiserslauten. The only major raid of the War on this medium-sized target. Ford’s aircraft was damaged and at least one crew member injured during this raid. His logbook states ‘awarded DFC’ but more research is required as his DFC citation is an ‘end of tour’ award where Kaiserslautern is specifically mentioned. One theory is that Ford declined the immediate award as he felt it had been earned by the entire crew.
14. 14/15 Oct Target: Brunswick 2246-0626 5 Gp attacked Brunswick with 233 Lancasters and 7 Mosquitoes; 57 Sqn was support to Pathfinder Force. Earlier this day, Bomber Command had mounted Operation Hurricane, a massive effort against Duisburg by day and night. Spoof raids were mounted against Mannheim, Berlin and Hamburg, while 100 Gp deployed a ‘Mandrel screen’ over the North Sea. At Brunswick, a new tactic - descending to 3500’ after bombing to fox enemy fighters - proved successful. German reports normally described the damage in terms of numbers of buildings destroyed; on this occasion the damage was measured in hectares; local officials estimated that it was a 1000 bomber raid.
Mission 14 Pilot Map
15. 19/20 Oct 44 Target: Nuremburg 1712-0125; landed Syerston. 6-9/10 cloud with tops at 10000’ prevented attack from being very successful. Attack heights 15500-19250’. Slight to moderate flak but not troublesome, no fighters. Jet propelled aircraft reported South of Stuttgart on return journey.
16. 28/29 Oct 44 Target: Bergen (submarine base) Overall, the attack not a success due to cloud over target and inability of crews to identify red TIs; crews made 2 or 3 bombing runs. However, bombing from 6000’, Ford's was one of only two 57 Sqn crews to bomb; subsequent photos showed bombs fell in target area. Landed Bury St Edmunds (interestingly, one 57 Sqn ac landed at base, most at Burn, with others at Hall Sutton, Snaith and Rufforth in Yorkshire).
57 Sqn Groundcrew refuel a Lancaster at East Kirkby prior to an attack on a Transportation Plan target (IWM)
17. 1 Nov 44 Target: Homburg, synthetic oil plants (Meerbeck). Marking confused by bad timing and accuracy not assessed due to cloud. Moderate to intense flak over the target; One mid-upper gunner from 57 Sqn killed by flak, the rear gunner in the same crew injured, as was the bomb aimer from a second crew.
18. 2 Nov 44 Target: Dusseldorf 1642-2151 The last major raid of the War on Dusseldorf, 992 aircraft, of which 19 were lost. Good marking and weather led to a successful attack, with large fires seen from 100 miles away on the return journey. Some decoy flares spotted, flak and searchlights ineffective. Some fighter activity on the return journey.
19. 6 Nov 44 Target: Gravenhorst (Mitteland Canal, junction with Dortmund-Ems Canal) 1635-2245 Fg Off G Kirton carried as 2nd pilot. Abortive raid due to bad marking; flares dropped too far West. One marker dropped so accurately that it fell into the water and was extinguished. Crews ordered to abandon attack and RTB. Negligible ground defences; some fighter activity near the target. 10 of the 235 Lancasters dispatched were lost; one 57 Sqn crew lost on their 9th mission.
20. 11 Nov 44 Target: Harburg (Rhenania-Ossag oil refinery). Marking accurate but late. Smoke from burning oil tanks obscured TIs. Ground defences moderate, dying out as the attack progressed. Little fighter activity. One 57 Sqn crew missing on their first sortie. 7 Lancasters lost out of 237 despatched with 8 Mosquitoes.
Mitteland Canal Pre Attack (www.bomberhistory.co.uk)
Mitteland Canal Banks Breached (National Archives)
21. 21 Nov 44 Target: Gravenhorst. Marking punctual but Controller’s orders confusing, with some aircraft descending to 4000’ below cloud and some then re-climbing to briefed bombing altitudes. Bombing well concentrated and canal banks breached. Light flak only, no searchlights and some fighter activity in the vicinity of target and return journey.
22. 6 Dec 44 Target: Giessen (Marshalling Yards). Successful attack Strong fighter opposition including jet-propelled aircraft; 57 Sqn lost 2 of the 15 ac sent on this mission.
Mission 22 - Damage to Giessen Marshalling Yards (National Archives)
23. 8 Dec 44 Target: Urft Dam, Heimbach. Landed Tarrant Rushton. Attack considered unsuccessful due to inaccuracy caused by cloud over target.
23a. 10 Dec 44 Target: Urft Dam Heimbach. All 57 Sqn aircraft recalled due to poor weather over target. 14 x 1000lb MC; 4 jettisoned.
24. 17 Dec 44 Target: Munich. Severe icing conditions forced two 57 Sqn aircraft to turn back. Severe Flak and searchlights. Successful attack.
Mission 24 Pilot Map
25. 18 Dec 44 Target: Danzig Harbour (Mining). The main raid of the night was on the Baltic port of Gdynia in the same area. Ford’s was onene of two 57 Sqn aircraft ‘gardening’; the remaining attacked the Baltic Fleet including the battleship ‘Ludzow’ at Gydnia.
26. 21 Dec 44 Target: Politz (Synthetic Oil Refinery near Stettin). Attack by 207 Lancasters and one Mosquito; 3 Lancasters lost and 5 more crashed in England. Post raid recce showed power station chimneys had collapsed and other parts of plant damaged. 57 Sqn reported attack unsuccessful due to delayed but inaccurate marking. Landed Strubby.
27. 28 Dec 44 Target: Horten - Oslo Fjord. One of three 57 Sqn aircraft to set off from Strubby to attack enemy shipping in Norway, landing at East Kirkby.
28. 31 Dec 44 Target: Friedrichshaven (mining) Lancaster I NG410 6 x Mk IV Mines. Bomber Command sent 10 Lancasters minelaying in the Kattegat, of which one was lost. 57 Sqn’s main effort (11 aircraft) was to bomb Houffalize in the Ardennes, as part of the Battle of the Bulge; Ford’s was one of two 57 Sqn aircraft sent ‘gardening’.
29. 1 Jan 45 Target: Gravenhorst (Mitteland canal). Carried Fg Off Pauling as 2nd pilot. Landed Kinloss FS George Thompson, a 9 Sqn Flt Engineer, awarded a posthumous VC for his actions during this raid. 57 Sqn reported a very successful attack with banks breached and canal emptied.
30. 5 Jan 45 Target: Royan. Controversial raid on German garrison in French town; many French civilians killed.
Tour completed. Total flying experience 793 hrs 50 mins.