Blue skies over George's WW2 Lancaster bomber; COVER STORY The log book of Flying Officer George Smith provides a poignant reminder of life at war.
George Smith recorded the bare essentials of his missions - the dates, the targets and the weight of the bombs.
On March 12, 1945, his sevenman crew hit Dortmund. Their Lancaster aircraft, attached to 90 Squadron, dropped one 4,000lb bomb and a dozen 500-pounders. It was a daytime raid and George's note records there was no enemy opposition.
The mission's total flying time is preserved in ink - 5 hours and 55 minutes - and that is it.
What George's log book does not mention is the fact that the Dortmund attack established a new record for RAF Bomber Command for the number of aircraft used against a single target - 1,108 - and a record tonnage for bombs dropped, a staggering 4,851.
Dortmund was one of three bombing raids in which George was involved in the spring of 1945. The others hit Hattingen and oil refineries at Mersburg, both attracting flak and on one occasion the unwanted attentions of a German fighter.
There is no specific record of the damage wrought by the bombs dropped by George, who was the bomb aimer, but it seems inevitable that death was discharged from the payload of the Lancasters in which he flew.
After the end of hostilities, George went on a so-called cook's tour of the bomb-ravaged Ruhr, flying over in a Lancaster to get a glimpse of the carnage caused by the RAF bombers.
In later years, he wrote: "I will never forget the damage caused, especially at Cologne, where the cathedral stood undamaged surrounded by skeletons of buildings for miles around, and at Wesel, where not even the walls were standing, just a pile of bricks."
The Lancaster was synonymous with death and destruction, its memory burned into British military folklore by the Dam Busters raid. Less is known about the humanitarian role to which it was put.
Weeks after the bombing of urban centres and industrial complexes, George and his crew found themselves facing an altogether different challenge. By May 1, they were targeting Holland, dropping emergency food supplies for the victims of war. To avoid German radar, the giant Lancaster skimmed the ground at 60ft, some feat while hurtling through the air at 250mph.
"The people were starving, eating tulip bulbs," recalls Veronica Smith, who was married to George for 58 years.
"They dropped big bags of flour on the racecourse at The Hague.
George said it was the most rewarding thing he did in the war. They were flying at only 60ft. They could see the people on the ground waving at them."
Almost 60 years later, the airman took his final flight in a Lancaster in May 2004. In a private ceremony, the ashes of Flying Officer Smith were scattered into the skies over rural Norfolk from aircraft PA474, known as Mickey the Moocher.
George had been based in the county at RAF Tuddenham, a satellite of Mildenhall, and on many occasions would have broken through the cloud cover, to the blue skies, during training exercises and on his way to and from bombing raids over Germany.
"It was a fitting end for a hero," says Veronica, who is now aged 81. During the Second World War, she worked on the production of Lancasters in Birmingham, helping to keep her husband's aircraft airborne.
Of the 7,377 Lancasters made during the war, just two remain in airworthy condition. PA474 is the sole survivor in the UK, the second aircraft being based in Canada.
For obvious reasons, Veronica always retained a special affection for Lancasters, the aircraft in which her dear late husband risked his life, like countless others, for king and country.
Her memories, however, were confined to flicking through the old black and white pictures she will always treasure, showing George lined up with his crew back in 1944-45.
She was bowled over then to discover that PA474, the aircraft from which George's mortal remains were scattered, had flown into the West Midlands to be serviced and refurbished.
The bomber, owned by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, has been undergoing a winter service and repair programme at Baginton airport in Coventry.
The work has been carried out by Air Atlantique and the aircraft, with its new paintwork and markings, will be unveiled at the golden anniversary celebrations of the BBMF at RAF Coningsby next Friday.
Learning of the maintenance and restoration of PA474 has been a cause of terrific personal excitement for Veronica and has brought back vivid memories of George's affiliation with the aircraft.
It has also brought into the public domain a remarkable memoir written by her husband in the last years of his life.
Handwritten on A4 paper when he was 85 and 86, George left behind a fascinating first account of the transformation of a 1940s Birmingham beat bobby into a wartime flying hero.
It is packed with amusing self-deprecating anecdotes, tales of drunken escapades, the minutiae of bombing raids and aircraft love for the wife he called Ve. As we chat inside her pristine flat in Stourbridge, Veronica mentions how she first met George, then a Birmingham copper, at a party in Aston. She was 17 and he was 29.
"George was playing the piano. He was playing Rhapsody in Blue. He loved that tune," she says.
Veronica sang along with George as he played some popular songs. He was smitten and later commented that "Veronica sang so sweetly you wanted to eat her".
In the background, classical music plays on a radio station in Veronica's kitchen. She pops out to make a cup of coffee. While she is out of the room, Rhapsody in Blue, starts playing. Sceptics would say it is a coincidence. I am not so sure; something of George Smith lingers on.
He was born in Leicester in 1913. George had a taste for adventure, nurtured as a child by his love of Tarzan books and he joined the police training school at Digbeth, Birmingham in 1938.
He had been in the force a year when war was declared and being in a reserved occupation he was trained to take charge in emergencies involving enemy bombing raids, backed up by the National Fire Service and the ARP (Air Raid Precautions).
In his memoir, George wrote:
"You would hear the German planes and recognise them from the throb of their engines. They sounded quite different to the British. They did not come all at once, but in waves, thus spreading the alert all night.
"It was frightening to hear a stick of bombs coming down, and hear them explode one after the other. You could tell whether they had dropped in your vicinity or not, and if they had, they were your responsibility."
George recalled attending the aftermath of a massive raid in Coventry and shortly afterwards members of the police service became entitled to join the RAF and the army.
He joined the RAF in the late summer of 1942, enrolling at Lords Cricket Ground. And so began the military career of Air Craftsman 1582409 Smith.
While he was based in Scotland with the Initial Training Wing (ITW), he received a broad technical education in "navigation, gunnery and bombing theory, aircraft recognition etc . . . and plenty of P.T." He was selected for the role of bomb aimer and supplemented his income by playing piano in the Wing Dance Band.
He married Veronica - who he described as "a vision of loveliness" - at Sacred Heart Church in Aston, Birmingham, on August 12, 1944.
George wrote: "The weather was beautiful, I had just married the most gorgeous girl in the world, and many of my friends were around me, so I had every right to claim to be the happiest, most fortunate and delirious guy ever!"
Veronica worked at Vickers Armstrong in Castle Bromwich, helping to supply the parts for the Lancasters whose role proved to be so pivotal.
By July 3, 1945, Flying Officer Smith, had completed 229 hours and 14 minutes of daytime flying - and 115 hours and 40 minutes of night flights. It was the equivalent of more than 14 days and nights' of continuous flight. Veronica's belief that the 1945 aid missions to Holland were George's greatest memory of the war is borne out by his memoirs.
He recalled the tumultuous reaction of the people on the ground as his Lancaster speed over the roof-tops, dropping food parcels: "The reception made one feel very emotional. Each village or town we flew over was filled with cheering, waving people, many sitting on the apex of the roofs of buildings waving sheets and blankets.
"I remember one chap was riding his bike along a street and waving like mad when he fell off, still waving. For the first time, I felt like I was a bit of a hero doing a good job."
On another occasion, his crew landed at an airstrip near Rheims in France and collected 24 British prisoners of war. "They were a very seedy bunch of men, thin and gaunt, but all eager to see their own country again," wrote George.
"I recall many of them cried when they saw the white cliffs of Dover again and said they had given up hope long ago of ever doing so. They had been POWs since the beginning of the war, five years. It was quite emotional at times."
George returned to the police service in Birmingham after he was demobbed, reluctantly seeing his RAF pay drop from pounds 11 a week to pounds 5 back on civvie street. In later life, he became a shopkeeper in Kings Heath while Veronica ran three hairdressing salons in Birmingham.
George died in October 2002, aged 89, his final days spent at the Mary Stevens Hospice in Stourbridge. He left behind a vivid account of his wartime service in the skies over Germany.
The clarity of those recollections surprised his wife. "He used to say he didn't have a very good memory," says Veronica.
"But he was a rock. I have never heard anyone say anything about him other than that he was even keeled and a strong character."
The memories of the RAF bomb aimer remain for Veronica, their past together irrevocably tied to her present. "I always knew when he was coming back on leave,"she says. "We used to meet under the clock at Snow Hill station in Birmingham. We used to write to each other every day. There were hundreds of letters . . ."
She adds: "I went to see the film Brief Encounter yesterday . . .all that saying goodbye on trains . . .it brought back memories."
The Lancaster was the brainchild of Avro chief designer Roy Chadwick and overcame the problems that dogged the twin-engined Manchester bomber.
The prototype made its first flight in January 1941.
Lancasters were delivered to RAF Bomber Command in early 1942 and flew into action on March 3 that year.
Six companies built the aircraft at ten factories on two continents and more personnel were involved in flying and maintaining it than any other British aircraft in history.
Lancasters took part in every major night attack on Germany and by May 1945 a total of 61 squadrons were equipped with the bomber.
They could carry a 14,000lb bomb load although special versions attached to 617 Squadron carried a single 22,000lb "Grand Slam" bomb.
One of the most famous Lancaster operations was the Dam Busters raid in May 1943, which involved 19 of the aircraft. Bouncing bombs developed by Barnes Wallis destroyed the Mohne and Ederdams.
The average age of the Lancaster's seven-man crew was 22 and on average the aircraft completed 21 missions before being lost.
Almost half of all Lancasters delivered during the war were lost on operations with the loss of more than 21,000 crew members.
I always knew when he was coming back on leave. We used to meet under the clock at Snow Hill station in Birmingham
Top, Veronica and George on their wedding day in 1944, right, on their 50th wedding anniversary. Above and left, Veronica now with her son Martin; George Smith's flight log, a treasured possession for his widow Veronica; Above and below, PA474, the aircraft from which George's remains were scattered, undergoes a winter service and repair programme at Baginton airport in Coventry. (Picture, Crown Copywright)
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Apr 21, 2007|
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