Project Propeller – In the Presence of Heroes
Shiny silver buttons polished to perfection, blazer ironed to within an inch of its life, immaculate tie, and always a glint in the eye…I can spot an RAF airman a mile off.
Tom Sayer was no exception.
“Are my medals straight?”, he asked me as I handed him a cup of tea and sat down at the table next to him.
“ Can you see them all?”
I leaned forwards and gently adjusted the lapel of his blazer to expose the purple and white diagonal striped ribbon, and the oval silver medal dangling below it.
“There – you can see it now.”
Tom grinned back at me , “Good! That’s the most important one!”
Tom (who had piloted Halifax Bombers with 106 Squadron, and completed 35 operations, many over the heavily defended industrial areas of the Ruhr) was understandably anxious to display this particular honour; it was his Distinguished Flying Medal.
There aren’t a lot of those around these days.
Except there was one on the next table. And the next. On the one after that there was a Distinguished Flying Cross and two more DFMs. On almost every table in the large aircraft hangar where we had assembled, there were DFMs and DFCs galore; each hard won and proudly worn by the very elderly bearer; each a testament to survival, bravery, hardship and bloody good luck.
I had been invited to attend Project Propeller on 17th June to interview surviving members of Bomber Command and RAF WW2 aircrew, for a book I’m writing about my late Uncle Jack. Jack Clyde DFM was a 21 year old wireless operator on Halifax bombers, who flew a full tour of bombing operations between 1943 and 1944 with 10 Squadron, based at Melbourne in North Yorkshire.
For 20 years, Project Propeller has hosted a reunion for veterans from all over the country, flying them in on light aircraft piloted by volunteers, with lunch and entertainment and of course a fly past by a Lancaster Bomber. It is both a celebration, and a remembrance. For the second time, the event was hosted at Halfpenny Green Airfield, on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border, just near Wolverhampton.
Over 100 veterans attended, flown in on 80 light aircraft. Their numbers are dwindling, year upon year – the youngest was 93, the eldest 97. Some are very frail now, but many are still spritely. All were happy to share their experiences and to talk about their memories, good and bad. I spoke to pilots, navigators, wireless operators and gunners, bomb aimers and flight engineers. Some had survived their tours unscathed, but a fair number had not, having been shot down over enemy territory, seeing out the rest of the conflict as prisoners of war. Four of the gentlemen present had not seen each other since 1945 when they were prisoners in the same camp. Every man had a tale to tell, each one different to the next, each a hero in his own way.
96 year old Harry Winter had been a wireless operator on Halifaxes, like Jack Clyde, and they had flown on many of the same operations, including the raid on the German city of Kassel on 22nd October 1943. Jack and his crew made it back in one piece but Harry wasn’t so lucky. Twenty four aircraft and their crews were lost on that raid, and Harry was shot down over the city of Hamelin on the return trip. Three of his crew were killed; he told me how the rear gunner had half of his head shot away, how the mid upper gunner had died through his oxygen supply being cut off, and how the pilot went down with his aircraft.
Despite being wounded, Harry managed to bail out, landing in a tree and breaking his right femur. He was eventually found by a local farmer and his sons and transported by horse and cart to the nearest military post. His next recollection is of waking in hospital and asking where he was. Upon being told he was in Germany, he announced, “I can’t bloody stay here, I need to go home!” But Harry didn’t go home, and he spent the remainder of the war living in often desperate conditions in POW camps, including the infamous Stalag Luft VII where incredibly he bumped into 2 lads from his street back home in Cardiff, with whom he had gone to school.
It was not difficult to imagine Harry and Tom and the other gentlemen present, as they once were – young men, boys even – some no older than 18 or 19. Laughing, joking, ribbing each other, flirting with the WAAFS, sometimes sick with fear, or unable to speak with the shock of what they had witnessed, often numbed at the thought of the terrible things they had done. All Bomber Command crews were volunteers, and they paid an inestimable price. A new inexperienced crew had only a 20% chance of surviving their first 5 missions, and roughly a 30% chance thereafter of surviving a full tour. Average survival time was 6 weeks, and a staggering 55,573 bomber command crew members lost their lives, including Jack Clyde’s best friend and the navigator on his crew, Roy Tann.
We are all of us familiar with Churchill’s quote about “The Few”, but not many people realise he was paying tribute to the airmen of Bomber Command as well as the fighter pilots.
” Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily…”
– Winston Churchill.
It wasn’t one particular veteran’s story that brought a lump to my throat though. As I sat at one of the tables going through my notes, waiting for them all to arrive, I spotted a long row of empty wheelchairs lined up at the entrance to the hangar.
Ready, waiting, for the very last of the heroes of Bomber Command.
You can read more about the work of Project Propeller here
Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story will be published in Summer 2020, and is now available to pre-order.
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017) – a bestselling true story of 19th century migration from the mining villages of north east England to the Queensland rainforests.