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Jim Allen
Jim Allen DFC: Pilot


Aircrew life on the Squadron begins at the end of Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) when one is told one's posting. I was told mine was to 578 Squadron Burn. First question was "Where is Burn?", with the next question "What aircraft?" Answer - Halifax III- much joy. We'd been flying Halifaxes II & V at Conversion Unit which did not impress with a rate of climb of 250 feet per minute from take-off and no load! However we did survive and looked forward to an aircraft with four Hercules engines.

On arrival at Burn the first few hours were spent in booking in, finding our hut - one per crew, collecting bedding and sorting out the geography of the camp. There was a good indication hat there would be no problem keeping fit as walking distance from any point A to any point B was highly measurable in paces.

The first full day on the Squadron began with meeting the Squadron Commander and Flight Commander and for me a morsel of information to digest -I was to fly as second pilot to Flight Sergeant Harrison on an operation that night, just get the idea of what squadron life was about. For me this was followed by half an hour dual instruction in a Halifax III just to prove that I could bring the aircraft back without bending it. Then it was time to be allocated lockers and get our flying kit sorted out and hung up. While walking back to the hut our Bomb-aimer asked me to return ten shillings (half a day's pay) that he had loaned me a few days earlier (I did).

A couple of hours peace and quiet now until briefing: this was my first Operational Briefing (as distinct from training briefings) - this was the real thing. Major apprehension, of course, what would be my first target? The curtain was drawn back to reveal that the target for tonight would be Trappes - a railway yard in Belgium. No-one was unduly put out so why should I?

Bacon and egg supper, then to the locker room to get dressed. Pockets emptied, Pandora (escape) packs inside blouses, Mae West and parachute collected, then outside to await the aircrew bus to take us to our aircraft. At the aircraft the skipper had a word with the crew chief then conducted me round the aircraft to carry out the external checks, no cuts in the tyres, no pool of oil below an engine for example. The 'new boy' taking careful note of the master's words and actions.

Meanwhile the rest of my crew, in company of a large number of ground crew, went to the base of the Control Tower to watch the Squadron take-off, As we climbed aboard our ground crew gave us the departure greeting "Have a good trip". (In badly written books I have seen this given as "Have a good time": no aircrew expected that).

For take-off the second pilot sat in the rest position, being no more than a passenger. He was allowed up front next to the pilot after we set course. Now he was another pair of eyes to look out - otherwise keep quiet, look and learn.

Approaching the target the new boy got his first view of markers going down and flak coming up. Clearing the target area, bomb doors closed, camera has operated, new course set, a feeling of mild surprise that no great drama has occurred; and a small voice murmuring in the ear, "You're not finished yet, only half-way". An uneventful return flight, then debriefing followed by bacon and eggs and so to bed.

The rest of the crew was very interested to hear the story over breakfast, and any lessons learned. The main point being one that one that we had practised since we first flew together: "Unless you have something worth saying, keep quiet," The next few days on the Squadron were spent in listening to experienced aircrew and asking advice, speaking with the Tactics Officer, how to survive flak and searchlights, talks on evasion and escape.


The first indication that a crew was detailed for an operation appeared on the 'Battle Order' in or near the Flight Commander’s office. The crews detailed would then get on their cycles and go out to their aircraft to have word with the ground crew and have some discussion about the last problems with the aircraft (if any) and to learn if any modifications or new equipment had been fitted. Each crew member would look to his own station and when satisfied that nothing was amiss all would depart to leave the ground crew to get on with fuelling and bombing-up, both lengthy jobs and left to the experts. Bomb doors were often left open so that the aircrew could view the load and be sure that the safety pins were in place.
A simple load of high explosives might be 12 x 500 lbs in the fuselage plus 6x500 lbs in the wing roots - total 18 x 500 lbs. A raid on a city would call for a mixed load: l x 2000 lbs plus 13 canisters of incendiaries. The cans were 6 feet long taking three bombs length- wise with a total of 90 bombs per canister. Each incendiary was 2 feet long, hexagon in section which allowed them to be packed without spaces in the canisters; some of them contained an explosive charge. Thus one Halifax would carry 2000 lb high explosive and a maximum of 1170 x 2 lb magnesium firebombs.

The aircrew now departed until assembling in the Briefing Room to learn details of the operation, - the route out, time at turning points, time of markers going down, types of markers, route home, beacon codes, etc. Usually the whole Squadron attacked the same target, but occasionally two targets were detailed and crews were briefed separately on items which were not common, (the weather of course was common).

Briefing over then to the dining room for a meal of bacon and eggs. Next, to the locker room to get dressed. Dress was governed by a number of factors. A long night drag in cold weather called for the polo neck sweater, perhaps inner and outer flying suits, for the gunners heated inner suits three pairs of gloves (silk, chamois, leather) helmet and oxygen mask of course. Then outside to await transport in the aircrew bus to the aircraft, each member carrying his parachute, the navigator with his nav-bag containing maps and Gee charts- rolled not folded, pencils (sharpened at both ends). Then there were flying rations, Mae Wests, pandoras (escape & evasion kits containing Horlicks tablets, a tiny compass, silk maps and folding money), and the thermos flasks with coffee; in fact a group of walking Christmas trees. At each aircraft the relevant crew dropped off to the farewell greeting from the others, "Have a good trip" then into the aircraft to stow the gear.

Crews were always at the aircraft in good time - often nearly an hour before take-off, time to do an external check all windows clean enough, tyres OK, Oleo undercarriage legs OK. Then time to water the tail wheel for luck (a bit awkward if a well-meaning WAAF came out to wish the boys well) then get aboard. Close the bomb doors, plug into and check the intercom, strap oneself in, if it is dark navigation lights on for taxiing. At the briefed time "Chocks away" and move onto the peri-track.

On first reading the local Pilots Notes I was somewhat shaken to read ‘Recommended taxi speed 60 mph’, (I didn't have even a full motor cycle licence), but in fact that was a comfortable speed to get round the peri-track. Now take your turn to move onto the runway, a final check that correct take-off flap was selected and on the green from the caravan open the throttles against the brakes for a few seconds, then brakes off and smoothly to full throttle, the Bomb aimer holding the throttles fully open while the pilot controls the swing and holds the aircraft straight down the runway, tail up hold her down to lift-off speed (and a little bit more) ease her off call "wheels up"; a thump as the undercarriage locks up then flaps gently up to zero degrees and navigation lights off. Target for tonight, we're on our way.

Our first take-off with a full bomb-load was met with some apprehension, mitigated by an extra ten knots on the lift off airspeed. All went well, we found the target comfortably in ‘Gee’ range, markers down exactly on time: we had a clear run, first aircraft to bomb - lovely photo on the notice board next day. All went according to plan except that on the homeward leg we experienced continuous vibration from one or more engines - rather worrying, but we got home OK . We told our ground crew about this and they said they would take a look. Later that day they advised us that the sheet of armour below each engine was held in place by four small brackets, some of which had broken. They then cured the vibration by taking all the plates off. We didn't mind as it was half a ton of iron that we felt was pretty useless.

As our target photo was assessed as 'across the aiming point' we felt happy about our first foray. Experienced crews advised us not to be too pleased with ourselves as things could (and did) get worse.


There was a certain amount of social life on the station, a lot of weak beer was drunk, but among aircrew not to excess. A fair number of WAAF were on the station, but very few Great Romances flourished; the girls didn't want to get emotionally involved for fear of disappointment in ‘missing ‘aircraft.

Sometimes members of a bomber crew would be asked, "How do you feel when you drop bombs on a town, perhaps killing women and children?" The answer was always the same, "We don't think about that. What matters is to do the job we're briefed for and survive". When flying especially in darkness one considers only the next few seconds and how to cope if something goes wrong. And sometimes things do go wrong, in the book "Based at Burn MkII" are many examples of troubles, which will not be a subject of discussion here.

Sufficient to say that some effects of troubles are very deep-seated and have strange results. I know of one case of a wife telling her husband in 1984, "You were thrashing about in bed and shouting all night and I could not wake you", but the husband considered that he had had a very good night's sleep.

Sometimes one is asked, "Did you have any deep religious feelings?" To be honest one has to say, "No". This does not make one an atheist or inhuman: it was always a matter of self-preservation. Aircraft sometimes were missing or known to have been destroyed (say mid-air explosion), then one felt very sad, but always a little thankful, - there but for the Grace of God go I. On a bomber squadron one had a lot of acquaintances, but outside the crew very few friends.

We got one week's leave every six weeks. This was always an event to look forward to often dampened by the fact that one's wife/fiancé was unable to take the time off too. The most noticeable aspect was the realisation of the difficulty of providing meals for the family. A wife or mother had to go shopping every day simply because items might be in the shops one day, but not the next. Shopping was a chore and a bore tramping from shop to shop to buy items not on the ration. No supermarkets in the 1940’s! Trying to run a home was quite a strain. Plus the fact that the news was listened to every morning and women wondered if an OHMS telegram was on the way. But leave was always a happy event, certainly no gloom or foreboding about it.

On the Squadron life tended to follow a pattern. If we had operated the previous night we would go to the Intelligence Library where the photos were on display. We would identify our own with lots of joy if the interpretation had marked the bombs as straddling the target, a less happy feeling if the target was obscured or marked, "Believed target area". Losses were suffered mostly people just didn't return, new faces appeared, a hut had new occupants and life carried on without fuss.

Sometimes a crew had to land away due to damage; they might return by train and a repaired or replacement aircraft would arrive in a day or two.
In each Flight Commander’s office a wall chart showed the number operations completed by each crew. There was always a feeling of excitement, not to say apprehension, when one was scheduled for the last operation of a tour. The first and last trips were considered rather dicey. On completion of the tour some crews would have a farewell thrash, others just a quiet drink after the crew photograph, an exchange of addresses, then clear the station and depart with a heartfelt word of thanks to our Guardian Angel who had looked after us so well.

source:  ‘Jim Allen DFC' Pilot