The belated bomber command memorial.
Besides, I was not a happy warrior in Bomber Command. Even in my high school days I was a history buff and knew enough about our WWI peace treaties that allowed Hider and his Nazi party to be such a scourge on us as well as on the German population. I knew my responsibility was to assist in Hitler's defeat, but deplored the means. I joined the RCAF and trained as an observer (navigator, bomb aimer, gunner). But, on being posted to a Bomber Command Operational Training Unit (OTU) on 20 July - 20 September 1942, I was channelled into the bomb aimer stream as it had now become a separate trade.
With inadequate navigational aids I would have to and and bomb assigned targets, mainly cities, in utter darkness illuminated only by flak and exploding bombs. Defeating the guilty by killing the innocent pained me deeply. Circumstances gave us no other way, compounding the pain of our sacrifices.
While at this OTU, near Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, my pilot, Pat Porter, and I frequented on our nights off the local dance halls. One night Pat and I were surveying the girls seated along the walls facing the band and dance floor when Joan and her girlfriend arrived. I nudged Pat saying, "That's for me!" These dance halls were ideal for meeting scores of the opposite sex. Most went stag and the music was soft, encouraging the art of conversation. The agreed practice was to ask a girl for a dance, dance three numbers, return her to her seat, then select a different partner.
If there was one you particularly liked, you would try to get her in the home waltz that permitted you to ask if you could walk her home. There was no problem on the way home as she knew the way, but getting back in total blackout was often a nightmare. All street signs had been removed to thwart invasions of Germans, who did not invade, but Canadians did and we were thoroughly confused. However, I did get her in the home waltz, walked her home, did not find my way back to base until 0400, but was still a very happy boy as I had her agreement for future dates.
Soon I had to stand her up. The base was sealed, no phone calls out. Bomber Command had launched its "thousand-bomber raids," but to attain this number they had to use still-under-training crews from OTUs. This would be our Charge of the Light Brigade.
Our Wellington aircraft were old and discarded by squadrons that had later models as well as four-engine bombers. Our targets were heavily-defended cities in the Ruhr Valley. Our first was Dusseldorf Our ageing Wellington would climb to only 9,000 feet, could carry no more than one tonne of bombs, and refused to go faster than 135 knots, so we were a lifetime in that very impressive flak that stretched all the way from the coast to our target. Night fighters also kept us alert. Somehow, we bombed it and got home. Two of our OTU crews were among the 32 that did not. We, in our OTU alone, were to lose a hundred good boys and a dozen instructors before this misguided policy was dropped. It was a frightening introduction to Bomber Command, so Joan's arms were a miraculous tonic.
Ten days after my posting to 419 Squadron in Croft, Yorkshire, my cold Nissen but that had held 12 officers when I arrived, had two survivors. So, squadrons also endured heavy losses. Empty rooms were soon filled with new faces. I was forever making new friends only to lose them. We knew it was stupid, and potentially cruel, to marry during a war but we did. I was uniquely fortunate when my CO, Mery Fleming, let me live off base so I would cycle the mile, usually in the rain, to and from the single room we rented in a home owned by a widow who lost her husband in WWI. When taking off in the evening to bomb Germany we would detour slightly to fly over the house to warn Joan that I would not be home for another 7 hours. We continued to frequent the dance halls, this time in Darlington, where Joan met and danced with many squadron members who were soon to be shot down to drown in the cruel North Sea, plough into the ground, or be blown apart. With me she suffered their loss.
This existence continued until the morning of March 28, 1943 when Joan awoke to find my side of the bed empty. Alone, she had to have and raise our first daughter during the 800 days she awaited my return. Knowing they were there for me gave me a burning desire to survive. Assessing my small contributions to Bomber Command: when the average life expectancy was five operations, I survived 17 but it took me 6 months due to lots of bad weather during the winter months, our conversion from Wellingtons to Halifaxes, and being selected for the month-long bombing leaders' course.
On my three-night mining operations, at night usually in the rain, and 100 feet above the waves and the numerous flak ships that consigned many of us to watery graves, I was able to plant six 1,500-pound mines exactly where the Royal Navy wanted them by flying over quite unfriendly islands with ever-changing tidal coastlines, identifying pinpoints, and doing timed runs to shipping lanes. I was later informed that they sank two German ships. I often think of their crews. Of my 14-night bombing operations I managed to find and bomb the docks in Kiel, Lorient, and Saint Nazaire. Over Wilhelmshaven, Duisberg, the Ruhr, Hamburg, Cologne, and Berlin, in spite of dangerously lingering amid the flak while looking for military targets, I could see no ground detail so, with heavy heart, bombed the cities as ordered. During these 17 raids I was on we lost 184 aircraft and 982 crew. Only 17 per cent survived to become POWs.
A great friend to Joan and me was Pat Porter from northern British Columbia who sacrificed his life by staying at the controls to fight the plunge long enough to permit us to cut our way out of a burning and plunging aircraft with an axe. He saved six lives. I was last out. My parachute jerked open and I was in a tree. Pat did not make it. He is buried in Hamburg. Post-war, we Bomber Command veterans were shunned because the politicians who gave us this nasty duty were now ashamed of what had to be done to win the war.
Joan lived through all of this with me so, after 70 years and still being on my honeymoon, there was no way I could go without her to the London unveiling that was quite impressive but far too late for the vast majority of us who have left this life.
During WWII, George Sweanor served in the United Kingdom with Bomber Command in No. 419 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. His Halifax was shot down on his 17th operation and Sweanor spent 800 days as a POW. Since 1986 he has been the editor of the bimonthly newsletter for 971 RCAF Air Marshal Slemon Wing of the Air Force Association of Canada (www.971WingAFAC.com).
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|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2012|
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