THE LAST SORTIE OF ED771 Neil Buchanan

Our relatives served in 467 Sqn RAAF which was formed in 1942 and based at RAF Bottesford in Leicestershire. These young men flew in a Lancaster bomber designed by Roy Chadwick with a serial number of ED-771, Sqn identification letters Peter Orange and radio call sign letter E for Edward. E for Edward had a wing span of 31 metres, 4 x Merlin Rolls Royce engines a 10-meter-long bomb bay, could fly at over 280 mph and had a skin of 0.7 mm thick aluminium. E for Edward's crew comprised:

Using the account that Rex provided to my father in 1982 and the experiences of other crews, I offer you this account of the E for Edward's mission nearly 80 years to the day, on the evening of 30 Apr/1 May 1943. It is an account that deserves to be told because it is a story of professionalism, bravery and sacrifice.

Probably around lunchtime on 30 Apr 1943 the crew would have found out that they were on an operation that evening. The Squadron members would have congregated in the main briefing room that afternoon speculating on their target for the night. Air Chief Marshall 'Bomber' Harris had initiated the Battle of the Ruhr Campaign in Mar that year so it would not have been a great surprise that the target was the Krupp's iron works in Essen - positioned in the very heart of the German industrial basin - but there would have also been considerable trepidation as it was also the most heavily defended area in Germany. The pilots, navigators and bomb aimers would have had additional brief from their respective role leaders.

After trying to get some rest and an evening meal, the crew would have gone through the list of preparatory tasks for the mission which included sharing NOK details with each other in case they didn't' return. Once kitted up in their flying gear, they would have boarded the aircraft and adopted their respective positions, the engines would have been fired up, the chocks removed, and then the aircraft would have been taxied to the start of the runway in the specified order and waited for the signal to go - each man would be feeling a combination of excitement, anxiety and nerves with adrenaline would pumping through their bloodstreams. E for Edward was loaded with a 4000 lb cookie bomb and 4300lbs of incendiaries. At 0022 hrs, E for Edward was positioned at the start of the runway and Rex, with the 4 throttles positioned between the fingers of his right hand would have pushed them fully forward with the additional support of Billy Fair's left hand. The 4 Merlin engines would have roared as they powered the Lancaster down the runway with an 8000 lb load.

E for Edward would have initially lumbered along in a heavy, ungamely manner but eventually the wheels would have left the tarmac, the aircraft becoming airborne and it started to gain altitude until it was flying above 20,000 feet.

Once over the channel the gunners would have test fired their guns, confirmed no stoppages, and settled into position to scour the skies for the enemy. Soon the words 'enemy cost ahead' would have been heard on the intercom - the crew was now over hostile territory and likely to face an enemy that was determined to halt their progress. They safely flew over the Dutch coast avoiding the flak batteries, both fixed and mobile, and proceeded on route to the target.

Over 300 aircraft were on this mission - all the crews would be looking for the marker flare dropped by the 10 Mosquito pathfinders or the impact of the bombs from the aircraft that had gone before them. E for Edward must have been one of the first aircraft on the scene as official records state that bombing took place between 0230 and 0315 and Rex remembered being in the target area sometime after 0200. Roggy Capron would have told Rex that they were approaching the target, and no doubt the sight ahead was daunting - fingers of white light that prodded the darkness emanating from the ground below, a maelstrom of flak exploding in air around the plane, some so close that the tinkling of shrapnel piercing the aluminium fuselage could be heard and the smell of cordite filling the air and, on the ground, the glow of the burning marker flares left by the pathfinders. When in close proximity to the target, Rex would have initiated the bomb run and John Phillips would have moved from his turret to position himself behind the bomb aiming equipment and camera in the nose of the Lancaster.

It was at this point, over the intercom, that Tom notified the crew that they had been spotted by a German night fighter, a FW190. At this stage of the war the FW was not normally used in a night fighter role and it was not equipped with radar, but E for Edward's silhouette would have stood out against the light generated around the target area. The plane was now in an extremely perilous position. Despite the imminent threat of attack, Rex and the crew continued with the bomb run - if they had panicked and turned they risked collision with other bombers following on behind them and taking normal evasive manoeuvres would have made the accurate delivery of the bomb load impossible resulting in a failed mission. They were committed to the bomb run and although braced for the pending attack, the bomb doors were opened.

The FW attacked from the rear, Tom and John engaged at the same time as the German fighter unleashed an extended burst at the Lancaster. The smaller calibre armaments of the Lancaster were no match for the FW cannons. The cannon fire ripped through the fuselage of E for Edward killing John Proctor and Harold Edwards and although his perspex was smashed and the hydraulics were hit, effectively preventing Tom from moving his guns, he was not injured. Rex would have felt the juddering impact of the cannon fire, felt the deterioration of the responsiveness of the aircraft and would have tried to find out the condition of his crew. Despite the turmoil within the aircraft Rex positioned the Lancaster in line with the target and 30 seconds before the target, at the set speed and altitude he would have handed over control to John Phillips. John would have confirmed bomb doors open and have given the final refinements to the aircrafts direction - steady, steady, right a bit - bombs gone. One cannot overstate the incredible focus and concentration required by the crew to control and protect a damaged aircraft under attack and release the bombs on target.

Rex should have felt the controls become more responsive and the plane lift in the air once the bombs were released but this was unlikely due to the damage sustained. Nevertheless, they were still under attack and started to take drastic evasive manoeuvers. Billy and Roggy left their positions to assess the damage and found that not only was the middle of the aircraft was on fire and spreading up and down the fuselage, but the night fighter cannon fire had damaged the release mechanism and a canister of incendiary bombs remained stuck in the belly of the aircraft. These bombs, made up of magnesium alloy with a thermite centre, burned at a temperature that melted steel and they were on fire in the middle of the Lancaster. Furthermore, the hydraulic oil from John Proctor's mid-upper turret was pouring into the fire making the situation worse.

At this point, when everything seemed so desperate, their troubles became even worse as Tom warned that a second FW had joined in the fight with the Lancaster and was attacking from below. Billy and Roggy, heroically tried to release the incendiaries manually but to no avail and continued to fight the fire in the confines of what was basically an aluminium coffin. The heat they must have endured whilst trying to save the aircraft would have been incredible. In fact, it was so hot that the oxygen bottles stored in the fuselage started to explode ripping holes in the aircraft - and it was the explosion of one of the oxygen bottles that killed Roggy as he bravely fought the fire. Meanwhile Rex tried to close the bomb door to starve the fire of oxygen, but without success, whilst Tom continued to engage the FWs and deter further attacks from his dysfunctional turret.

Rex's account of the action say that it was either because the night fighters thought the plane was finished or because they lost sight of the Lancaster in cloud that the engagement broke off. The crew's navigator, wireless operator and mid upper gunner had been killed, the rear gunner had effectively been incapacitated and I have no doubt Billy would have been suffering burns from the fire, but as the engines were not damaged and they were still over 20,000 feet Rex was still hopeful of limping home. He then appreciated that the exploding oxygen bottles had damaged the main wing flaps further limiting control and the main undercarriage and bomb doors had dropped causing immense air resistance and reducing speed.

E for Edward was losing altitude and responsiveness, despite the valiant attempt to get back to base, at 5000 feet Rex told his remaining crew members to abandon the aircraft. The drill for the rear gunner when bailing out of the aircraft was to go back into the fuselage to collect his parachute as the turret doors could not close if it was worn in flight, then rotate the turret and roll out backwards from the plane. As Tom's turret could not turn he was forced to try to exit the plane from the entrance door just in front of the tail wing. Whether it was due to the fire or other battle damage we do not know, but Tom must have thrown himself out of the door rather that adopting a sitting position, forming a ball and rolling out. His body was found on the ground, his parachute unopened, with a severe head wound indicative of being struck by the tail wing. How incredibly unlucky to have survived the night fighter attacks and to die in this way.

Meanwhile, Rex kept the aircraft as steady as possible enabling John and Billy to bail out. Eventually Rex evacuated the aircraft at 1100 feet above ground level. 30 seconds longer and his chute wouldn't have time to open. Rex, John and Billy were captured by German patrols and although I don't have the records I believe Rex was hospitalised for injuries and burns. They were destined to spend the rest of the War as POWs and the memorial unveiled today is just a short distance away from the spot where E for Edward finally crashed at 0315 on 1 May 1943. Interestingly the war records attribute the kill to a local flak battery - they could have indeed shot at the crewless plane flying at 1000 feet - but we know the damage was done earlier.

When one considers the actions of these young men, their commitment to each other and the cause they fought for you cannot help but be inspired and impressed. We are proud of their actions and the sacrifices they made, as with thousands of other men and women, in the cause of freedom. We should all appreciated that freedom is a fragile and precious commodity especially at this time when the shadow of tyranny is once again caste over an innocent population in Eastern Europe.