The Importance of Ernest
On 17 January 1942 a diminutive man standing 5ft 7in and aged 32 was placed on reserve status for a position in the RAF. He would join Britain’s rapidly-expanding Bomber Command later that year and, in June 1944, was killed in a raid over northern France soon after the D-Day landings. He was one of 55,573 who lost their lives flying in the bombers. His name was Ernest Frederick Lewis, known to friends and family alike as Ernie, a happy-go-lucky type who hailed from southwest London. He was a plumber by trade and was the joker in the family pack, described by those who remembered him as always willing to have a laugh.
Ernie’s niece, Heather, recalled happier times before the war when the family took weekend camping breaks at Hatfield, just outside of London. They would visit a local pub and enjoy themselves on their equivalent of a short holiday. ‘It was the Green Man on a Saturday night and they [the adults] would come home back across the field – very often in a wheelbarrow’. Afterwards, they would sit around a camp fire and sing some ribald songs. ‘Ernie also used to give me “flying angels” – me sitting on his shoulders with both of us holding our hands out together and dashing round the field,’ Heather recalled. ‘He was always considered the tearaway of the family and really very different from the others.’
Ernie enjoyed riding an Enfield 500 motorbike and won a number of prizes at scrambling, a popular interwar sport. He met his wife Billie through motorbikes in 1938. ‘Ernie was a great motorcyclist,’ she later wrote. ‘All the boys he knew used to collect in one of their gardens and tune up their bikes, exchanging views on everything.’ Billie would ride with Ernie’s club, the Battersea Boys Motorbike Club as she felt the local ladies club was too stuffy. They connected straight away, with Billie calling Ernie ‘Lew’ after his family surname. ‘When I first met him we were instantly attracted to one another and met as often as we could… he was a fun person and we were just two halves making up the whole being.’ They got married in 1940.
World at war
Ernie volunteered as a member of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) rescue party at Wandsworth when the Second World War started. There was not much to do at first, the period between September 1939 and May 1940 having an unreal feeling of inactivity compared with the horrors experienced during the First World War. Several tabloids even started calling the conflict a ‘Phoney War’ or ‘Sitzkreig’. Life for Ernie and his fellow ARP colleagues at this stage would have involved continuing with their day jobs and practising what we today call disaster relief. They were taught the rudiments of first aid; made aware of the dangers of gas, water and electrical mains; and informed about the possibility of unexploded bombs (UXBs).
The training came to an abrupt end in late June 1940 as France collapsed and the skies above Britain became the new front line. The Luftwaffe had been tasked with destroying RAF fighter capacity and bombing Britain’s southern airfields in preparation for a German invasion. The resulting Battle of Britain was not a case of Hurricanes and Spitfires shooting down ten enemy aircraft for one friendly lost as the movies sometimes depict; it was a terrifying and desperate war of attrition that nearly overwhelmed RAF Fighter Command. However, the defenders held several advantages, including radar and early-warning systems that enabled Fighter Command to get its squadrons to the right place at the right time. Its aircraft could also stay airborne for longer, while airmen that bailed-out or crash-landed safely returned to combat because they were flying over friendly territory. By contrast, an enemy pilot in similar circumstances would be taken prisoner.
Relief for Fighter Command came from an unexpected quarter when Hitler decided to shift the Luftwaffe’s focus to the area bombing of Britain, hoping to dent civilian morale, disrupt manufacturing capacity and force Churchill to seek terms. The decision was primarily motivated by revenge; Heinkel He 111s had mistakenly dropped bombs on London on 24 August and Churchill, thinking the decision had been premeditated, authorised a counterstrike on Berlin the following day. British bombers reached the German capital but caused no damage of note, although Hitler was incensed and promised massive retaliation. Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, was left red-faced having previously boasted Bomber Command would be unable to meaningfully breach German airspace.
The strategy behind area bombing was comparatively simple: a target would be obliterated in a general conflagration if enough aircraft breached the defences and dropped their deadly cargo on or near it. Those following the lead bombers would aim for the initial fires, hoping to stoke the flames and increase the chances of success. Therefore, the first strike was of critical importance – miss the target and the aircraft behind would drop their bombs onto the wrong area. Worse still, from the attacker’s perspective, the mistake usually worsened with every passing wave, an effect known as ‘creep-back’. That meant most of the bombers had battled their way across enemy territory for limited results. However, area bombing's strongest proponents argued this was not necessarily the case, especially if a city’s other industrial zones, housing or downtown areas were hit.
Indeed, some argued entire urban areas should be considered primary targets, rather than specific factories or works that could be repaired or relocated after the raids. Widespread destruction of a city’s central services, such as telephone exchanges, banks, post offices, roads and rail, would interrupt the industrial heartbeat more effectively. In addition, making people homeless or ‘de-housed’ would force them to relocate and face longer commute times across the damaged infrastructure, disrupting productivity.* It was also believed the destructive force of bombing could break civilian morale, which meant an entire nation’s willingness to resist would be eroded if enough urban zones were heavily damaged. Air Marshal Arthur Harris who led Bomber Command from 1942 to the war’s end firmly believed these theories and his men’s efforts were directed towards area bombing under his auspices.
*This happened at a family level when Joan and Les (Ernie’s sister and brother-in-law) were bombed out of their flat near Clapham Junction. They were forced to relocate to Shepperton on London’s southwestern outskirts and commute back into the war-damaged city. Les later joined the army.
But even broad area bombing needed to strike the right zones of the city – hitting leafy suburbs or parks, for example, was of little use to the attacker. To make their raids more efficient, the Germans and then the British placed their most able bomber crews in the vanguard, hoping their skill would reduce mistakes by striking the target as close as possible. Later on, Bomber Command increased the raids' efficiency by introducing elite pathfinder squadrons during 1942 that would primarily fly the excellent and versatile Mosquito aircraft after 1943. The pathfinders would drop coloured flares and markers to guide the stream onto their target, with some then staying in the area and relaying strike information back to the bombers. All of this helped ensure the approach and targeting was lined up with the main objective, while creep-back could be mitigated by radioed warnings from a Master Bomber to the succeeding bomber waves.
Defenders feared firestorms most. These erupted when meteorological conditions fed giant vortexes of flame that sucked in oxygen from the surrounding areas and intensified the effect still further. On occasion, and depending on wind direction, a constant supply of air would create temperatures akin to those in blast furnaces, with lampposts buckling, asphalt boiling and the lead on church roofs melting. Those who fled into basements or bunkers might become starved of oxygen, suffocating where they sat, while others succumbed to the heat. Some were simply incinerated. An early and deadly example of the firestorms’ effect occurred on 14 November 1940 when the heart of Coventry was gutted, leaving ARP and other rescue units overwhelmed. Ecstatic with the results, German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels coined the term coventriert to describe any location immolated by bombing.
Major British ports, industrial hubs and manufacturing cities like Coventry were often in the line of fire, but it was London that topped the list of German targets. The boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth were of interest because of their vital west and southwest railway lines and they would be repeatedly struck in the coming months, although with nothing like the tonnage of bombs that fell on London’s East End and Docklands areas. Still, the work of rescue parties in Southwest London became fairly constant and it was common practise for the civil defence authorities to send spare ARP rescue parties from lightly-damaged parts of London to areas that had suffered heavily. Therefore, Ernie and his teammates would have worked in areas well outside of Wandsworth.
One of the worst attacks on London occurred early in the Blitz on 7 September 1940. In his work on the Thames, the historian Jonathan Schneer records how it was turned into a river of fire as 350 bombers, with 600 covering fighters, flew up the estuary during the day in tight formations at 14,000-20,000 ft. They dropped a mixture of regular bombs (500 kg and 1,000 kg) on the Docklands area, accompanied by thousands of incendiaries and high-explosive splinter bombs. The resultant fires were soon raging out of control: around 1.5 million tonnes of softwood became kindling, crates of tea burned with a sickening smell, while rubber created voluminous clouds of toxic smoke. Vast stores of alcohol exploded, sending out arcs of lethal flame, with countless other goods adding to the misery. Firemen and ARP across the river at Woolwich arsenal had the additional fear of working among ammunition boxes and nitro-glycerine. Famously, one fire officer sent out a distress signal that ran: ‘Send all the bloody pumps you’ve got, the whole bloody world is on fire.’
The Luftwaffe returned later that night, their extra bombs adding new vigour to the blaze. Schneer writes: ‘[The] flames leapt so high and long that they blistered the paint of fireboats three hundred yards away on the far shore of the river. They created hurricanes of wind that tossed burning embers across roads, over rooftops and trees, to set new fires wherever they landed.’ Daylight raids were more accurate, although the bombers were visible and proved much easier targets for the defenders. The Luftwaffe learnt this the hard way when a rejuvenated Fighter Command, which had repaired its airfields and brought more pilots into the fray, started to decisively win the battle of attrition. This forced the Germans into flying nocturnal-only missions, marking an end to the Battle of Britain.
Down on the ground, once the all-clear had sounded, teams of firemen* would risk their lives to get the flames under control and rescue anyone trapped in burning buildings. Once the fires had died out, and once the mains had been secured, the search could begin for anyone reported lost and thought to be under the rubble. After this, the job of stabilising bomb sites and clearing wreckage away from the streets and thoroughfares would begin. UXBs were a lethal danger for ARP teams and clearance crews, with disposal experts on call to render them safe. Deadlier still were bombs with delayed-action fuses purposefully designed to explode when the rescue parties and emergency crews were most likely to be present. Defusing bombs was necessary but time consuming and a nerve-wracking experience for everyone involved.
*Ernie’s brother Victor was a fireman.
The most harrowing part of the job was undoubtedly the recovery of bodies or human remains. Elsie Young was an ARP warden at Battersea town hall in Wandsworth and she recorded incoming reports on bomb strikes and where local emergency services needed to be sent. ‘If the bombs dropped in places where a lot of people had been killed they [would tell] us how many bodies had been picked up; how many limbs they had found; how many heads – horrible things like that,’ she recalled. With that in mind, it is worth reflecting on the horrors Ernie must have faced and the daily determination he needed to perform his ARP role working at the bomb sites. Relief from the Blitz finally came in spring 1941 when the Luftwaffe’s focus was diverted to Eastern Europe and preparations for invading the USSR started. Around 43,000 British civilians had been killed from the start of August 1940 until the end of May 1941, with thousands more seriously injured.
Ernie probably felt the time was right to volunteer for active service towards the end of 1941. Until then, as a plumber and member of the ARP, it is likely he had ‘reserved occupation’ status i.e. he was not called up because his of his job and civil defence role. With the threat of bombing having receded by late 1941, and with more women taking over the work of those in reserved occupations, men not yet in uniform were told to either volunteer or await inevitable conscription. Volunteering at least had the advantage of securing a place in the service of your choice and Ernie applied for the RAF, which was undergoing massive expansion and preparing to integrate new four-engined bombers – the Stirling,* Lancaster and Halifax – that would dramatically improve its strike capacity.
*The Stirling was not as successful as hoped and was withdrawn from frontline strategic bombing by the end of 1943.
After his initial screening, Ernie was told to present himself at the RAF’s 2 Recruitment Centre (RC) in Cardington, Bedfordshire, in mid-January 1942. He was tested in Maths, English and other skills, followed-up with a recruitment panel interview. He was then listed for wireless operator training effective 14 January and ranked Aircraftman Second Class (AC2), although the authorities made a sudden volte-face and placed him in the reserves effective 17 January. Ernie had to wait until mid-summer 1942 for the RAF to recall him, with orders to present himself at 3RC Padgate, near Warrington, on 22 July. He then undertook two days rudimentary training and assessment before being forwarded to become an Aircraft Hand Flight Mechanic Engines (ACH/FME). This meant the maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft engines, a vital but rather unglamorous job.
Ernie moved to 20 RC on 4 August for further appraisal and was there for about a month, sending a letter to the family dated the ‘9th’, most probably 9 August, detailing tough conditions but decent food. ‘We have good billets up here and the grub is good,’ he wrote, ‘although they keep us at it all day long and when we finish at night we are dead beat.’ He was then forwarded to 4 School of Tactical Training at St Athan, Wales, to undertake full FME training. Arriving on 3 September, he would have been pleased at his progress, but disaster struck a week later as Ernie is listed as a patient in the RAF General Hospital in Wroughton, Wiltshire, from mid-September to 9 December. Billie recalled he broke his leg and it must have been a serious injury for him to be laid up for so long.
The next official mention of Ernie comes on 8 March 1943 after he had volunteered, with recommendation, to become a flight engineer and was passed fit on the following day. Ernie had finally succeeded: he was going to get a chance to fly in the bombers. In training, he learnt about engine performance, rates of fuel consumption and the general workings of a four-engined aircraft, which included mechanics, hydraulics and electrical systems. Maths was important as Ernie was expected to estimate the flight time from remaining fuel reserves and rates of consumption shown on the various dials and meters. Flight engineers were also fix-it men during an operation, patching in-flight faults that could be incredibly difficult task if the aircraft happened to be flying through flak at the same time.
Ernie probably received a limited number of flying hours in obsolete bombers that had been on the frontline just a few years beforehand. Training for experience-building purposes was considered a luxury as the RAF rushed volunteers into Bomber Command to replace its high losses and flight engineers were often those who had failed to qualify as a pilot in their allotted time. Ernie sat his exams towards the end of the course and scored a respectable 64.4%, which was not too bad considering he had been thrown in at the deep-end and had recently recovered from a major injury. His character was recorded as ‘very good’ and his next stop was the HCU, the Heavy Conversion Unit, in northeast England.
Today, it is difficult to appreciate how busy the skies were in this part of Britain during the latter part of the war. The region was home to most of Bomber Command’s assets and the airfields would spring to life every morning as a vast effort got underway to prepare hundreds of aircraft for training flights or bombing strikes into enemy territory. Ernie entered this world on 11 September 1943, joining 1663 Conversion Unit. His promotion to Temporary Sergeant came into effect the same day, with his new rank of Flight Sergeant confirmed not long afterwards. The mid-turret gunner also arrived at this point and both men would have been anxious to meet their other crewmates who had already been assigned together.
Although men in their 30s served in the bombers, they were something of a rarity and eyebrows were probably raised when Ernie was introduced. Short in stature and always affable, Ernie was called ‘granddad’ by the rest of the youthful crew, according to Billie. The next eldest was in his mid-twenties, while the pilot was 23, a Canadian called Arthur Johnston, or Johnny to his friends. He was a long way from his home, the tiny hamlet of Culross, near Winnipeg, Manitoba. They had been selected to fly the Halifax bomber, which was a relatively manoeuvrable beast and a machine that had undergone a number of important modifications by the time Ernie arrived.
The Mark I (Mk.1) Halifax started life with a serious design flaw in the tail, although this danger had been identified and fixed with the Mk.II. The Mk.I had a maximum speed of 265 mph at 17,500ft, with a ceiling of 22,800ft. Ernie eventually flew in the Mk.III and his last aircraft was manufactured by English Electric, registered as LW644 and designated ‘Aircraft O’. The Mk.III was powered by four Bristol Hercules XVI air-cooled engines that improved performance over the older types. For protection, the aircraft had a set of Browning .303s in the mid-turret position and a set in the tail. However, British bombers had no belly gun like the one found on the American B17 Flying Fortress, leaving them prone to underside attacks – a weakness the Germans took advantage of with lethal efficiency.
Flying in the bombers was a cold business as there was no heating in the modern sense. The crews would wear electrically-warmed, heavily-padded flying suits and clumped about in fur-lined boots. They also wore oxygen masks, leather helmets, gloves, chest-type parachutes, escape packs, goggles and Mae West lifejackets.* The finishing course took five weeks and included a chance to practise a number of essential survival techniques. For example, Johnny would have learnt to fly a gentle weaving course rather than straight and level, making it harder for the enemy to lock onto his aircraft. He also needed to bank the aircraft at regular intervals to allow the gunners to scan for the threat of enemy nightfighters moving to attack from beneath.
*Mae Wests was rhyming slang for breasts, a reminder of the actress’ physical assets. The term was used here because the lifejackets gave the wearer something of a busty appearance.
A warning would be shouted if an enemy was spotted and the pilot would often take evasive action by ‘corkscrewing’, a manoeuvre that entailed spiralling the machine down and flinging it back up to operational height. He would repeat this if necessary, although the corkscrew was physically and mentally demanding for everyone on board. It also required strong arms from the pilot as there were no power-assisted controls. In addition, it was vital to return to the bomber stream as flying en masse made it harder for the Germans to pinpoint an aircraft to guide their nightfighters on. Flying alone for too long over enemy territory was akin to advertising your presence for miles around.
Ready for take-off
The crew was posted to 76 Squadron, a unit that was part of 4 Group, based at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, near Market Weighton in Yorkshire. The Squadron had been in the thick of the fighting as its growing casualty figures attested and it was about to get much tougher; 76 Squadron would take part in some of the most gruelling bombing campaigns of the war, including winter 1943/44 and, within this, the aerial Battle of Berlin (November 1943 to March 1944). This was followed by the effort to destroy infrastructure, installations and military positions in northern France prior to D-Day and just afterwards.
The Germans had responded to the increased bombing threat by developing a series of defences known as the Kammhuber Line, which stretched roughly from Denmark, across western Germany and the Low Countries, and down into northern France. The airspace was divided into sectors responsible for monitoring Allied aircraft and alerting relevant units along the chain when a bomber stream was being tracked. Defending aerial forces would be scrambled once the stream was in range, particularly the nightfighter groups that primarily used radar-equipped and specially-adapted Dornier Do 17s, Junkers Ju 88s or Messerschmitt Bf 110s. These machines were guided by ground controllers using a mixture of data supplied by radio intercepts,* radar and listening stations, and other observation reports. Taken close to a target, the nightfighter would switch to using his aircraft’s radar for a final approach, hoping to make the kill. These tactics were called ‘tame boar’.
*Something the Germans excelled at.
Germany’s northern ports, Berlin and the Ruhr possessed the heaviest defences, with flak belts sometimes up to 20 km thick. The Ruhr was ironically nicknamed ‘Happy Valley’ by Bomber Command crews because of the perils they encountered flying over it. Stanislaw Stachiewicz, a Polish bomber pilot with 301 Squadron gave a vivid account of what it was like to be ‘coned’ by searchlights over the Ruhr in 1942 while flying a Wellington bomber. ‘We had just dropped our bombs when a blue searchlight beam shot up from the ground and locked on to us. Other beams followed its example. In two seconds we were coned by at least 30 searchlights and the anti-aircraft fire started to rise up to meet us. One of my crewmates acted as a second pilot. “Don’t get blinded! I shouted. “Concentrate on the instruments and direct me.” So he issued instructions to me and, changing course all the time, I tried to shake off the searchlights and the flak. They stayed on us for 10-12 minutes until we left the defence zone and flew into the safety of darkness. Our aircraft had taken a lot of damage but thankfully nothing important had been destroyed. We counted at least 40 holes in the fuselage after landing.’
The dreaded blue beam described by Stachiewicz was not a master searchlight: it was simply a colouring effect caused by the angle at which light entered the cockpit. Interestingly, German pilots during the Blitz held the same erroneous belief. Searchlights actually worked in small teams, with three or four swinging towards a bomber once it was picked out, both alerting and making it visible for the nearest AA batteries to target. The gunners had already been assisted in estimating the bomber stream’s altitude from the earlier tracking and radar data, which was important because their shells were designed to explode at set heights. The goal was to send thousands of metal fragments hurtling through the air, potentially slicing into a bomber’s fuel lines, engines or other important cables. This increased the risk of causing a fire or another form of catastrophic failure. The unluckiest crews would receive a direct hit, their aircraft either shredded or turned into a torch, falling to earth like a burning meteor.
Getting a badly-damaged aircraft home required immense skill and ample amounts of luck. If this proved impossible, then reaching British waters was the next-best option. The pilot would try to ditch in the sea and order emergency rafts deployed, the crew clambering in and huddling together to ward off hypothermia. Mayday calls and grid references might have been signalled just prior to ditching, giving the search and rescue teams advanced notice and a rough area to head for. If the aircraft was unresponsive, or seemed about to crash, the skipper would order the crew to bail out. Ideally, he would hold the machine straight and level for the others to jump, followed by himself. If the aircraft was breaking up, then it was simply a case of every man for himself. There was a high chance of capture if they landed safely, with extra prayers if they were in Germany as the civilian population was not unknown for harming RAF personnel, spurred on by Nazi propaganda that had denounced them as ‘terror flyers’ engaged in terrorangriffe, or terror raids.
German single-engined fighters were another threat. They would scramble once fires took hold over the target, the pilots climbing above the bomber stream and scanning the orange glow beneath them. They were looking for the silhouette of a bomber, which they would attack on spotting and it was hoped their cannon fire would either take a bomber down or critically damage it, making the aircraft more likely to be picked out by the searchlights or the nightfighters. This method of fighting was called ‘wild boar’ and was quite successful, despite being a relatively crude measure. The run back for the bomber stream was usually the most dangerous period as the enemy was now at full alert and racing to bring every available nightfighter into the area, including the aircraft of more distant squadrons.
Even when the bombers cleared enemy airspace there was one last concern to think about; the long-range nightfighers, or Fernnachtjagd. They had been sent out to attack the bombers over British skies earlier in the war, although their casualty rates started to grow as they ran into increasingly-efficient defences. In addition, Hitler viewed their efforts unfavourably, believing the sight of wrecked RAF bombers on German soil was more important for the purposes of building domestic morale. Thus he ordered this type of operation curtailed, although the Fernnachtjagd still made irregular patrols over the North Sea during Ernie’s time. The danger was far less than Bomber Command and RAF personnel probably realised, although it was still a threat that could not be ignored. The bomber crews could only feel truly safe once their aircraft had landed safely and they were being taken to the debriefing room.