Harry Irons’ logbook has been heavily used. The yellowing pages present information in a simple, emotionless context, but each and every entry has a story attached to it. In amongst the numerous training flights and air-tests are red entries, denoting an operation – no fewer than sixty. Steve Smith speaks to Sergeant Harry Irons DFC about his service with Bomber Command between 1942 and 1945, for AeroResource….
In total there are more than sixty operations entered, but some have details recorded against them – “Engine failure – DNB”, “Oxygen failure – DNB”. In fact, unless the crew brought back a bomb release photograph, the operation did not count towards their thirty operation tour of duty. And Harry Irons completed two full tours of duty.
Harry signed on in 1940 aged 16. His first posting was to Bridgnorth, for six weeks “square-bashing”. At the time there was no real demand for aircrew so all those who’d signed up as aircrew were assigned to menial duties such as working in the cookhouse, in stores and so on. Harry Irons takes up the story;
Then they sent me up to Blackpool on a wireless course. I got up to twelve words a minute and we had to do eighteen. So, instead they sent me to a proper RAF base and they said, we’re short of straight AG’s, that is Air-Gunners, so just like that they said, you squad, you’re all Air-Gunners now, just like that.
By the time Harry had commenced the Air-Gunners course at RAF Manby it was April 1942. At the time, all crews usually went to an OTU (Operational Training Unit) for 4 or 5 months. However, as the Lancaster was just entering service (and replacing the Wellington) these converting crews were one gunner short.
I had 19 hours flying as a gunner…which was nothing. From there, they sent me to Waddington, as 9 Squadron were just converting from Wellingtons to Lancasters. I was very lucky when I got there, this pilot, he’d only just turned 20, but he was on second tour, he came over and luck of the draw, he said ‘you’re flying with me’. We picked up a Flight Engineer as well, to make a crew of seven.
The pilot was Pilot Officer Stubbs and Harry was to be a tail gunner, as the existing Australian tail gunner was really too tall for the turret.
On the 10th of September 1942, we were told we were on Ops.
Prior to every mission in the log-book is a flight marked ‘NFT’, which was a half hour or so shakedown flight to ensure the aircraft was serviceable for the night’s operations.
As we was getting out the aircraft (from the air-test), the bomb aimer (a veteran of 13 trips)…looks at the bomb load and he said ‘There’s a 4000 pounder and 1400 incendiaries…that’s Happy Valley’. I was so green and raw I thought, well that doesn’t sound too bad. Anyway, we went and had our grub and then to the briefing room. As we walked in there’s a big sheet to cover the map over, we all stood up and in they came and the first thing they did was pull the sheet down. And there it was – Dusseldorf. The bomb aimer he said, I told you…it’s Happy Valley. I still didn’t know what it was all about.
After briefing the crews would get dressed in their flight gear. This took far longer for the gunners as the rest of the crew had hot air in the aircraft, but the gunners had no such luxury. There were long-john style silk under garments, a shirt and pullover, then an electrical heating suit, a very thick fishermans jacket and the full Irvin sheepskin jackets and trousers. Similarly there were four pairs of gloves for the gunners.
When we was in the Mess Hall having our bacon and eggs, we were all shouting, laughing and joking, you know, but when we got down to the crew room, where we all got dressed, it was dead silent. Everyone was looking at each other and wondering who was going to be next.
We get out to the aircraft and had a chat and it’s getting a bit apprehensive then. We start the engines and trundle round to the caravan, where there’s a green and red light – there was always a little crowd to wave us off, always.
The green-light denoted the operation was still ‘on’ and the Lancasters left the runway.
I was in the mid upper turret for that trip. Anyway, we get to the lighthouse off Lincoln (thought to be Spurn Point – ed.) , that we all met at and circled round before heading to Holland. As we approached the Dutch coast and remember I’m pretty raw, we’re up to about 12,000 feet, the bomb aimer said “Coast ahead…..flak underneath. This light flak was beautiful, just like Christmas lights, in every colour you could think of and I thought to myself, if that’s the flak, we’ve got nothing to worry about.
Navigational aids at the time were limited. In late 1942 the system known as H2S, which provided crews with a basic image of the ground beneath, was a long way off. Effectively the crews had navigation to the Dutch coast, but going onwards to the target they were on their own. Navigators used dead-reckoning, along with any visual clues provided by the air-gunners sightings of rivers, towns and so on. If it was a clear night, sometimes the Navigators would rely on the stars to find their way.
Later in the war “Pathfinder” crews equipped with H2S would lead the force to the target and drop an array of colours flares onto the correct spot for the remaining force to drop onto. As a further development to this, often a “Master Bomber” in a high flying and rapid Mosquito (or maybe a Lancaster) would circle the target as the whole force passed through and advise the bomb-aimers which flares were the most accurate. Harry Irons continues;
There was a little light flak over Holland and then the bomber aimer says, ‘Target ahead skipper.’ So I swung the turret round and I’m not kidding you, I had the fright of my life. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was just one solid mess of explosions, shells and searchlights. I thought to myself, Christ almighty, we ain’t got to go through all this.
Above us one had been hit, he was well alight, there was one underneath us, he literally exploded, must have been hit right underneath in the bomb bay. We started our bombing run and the pilot said to me, ‘Keep an eye out above us, you’re liable to get a bomb dropped on you from above’. As we’re going in there was a Lanc….well I think it was a Lanc….yeah, it had a big bomb bay, must have been a Lanc …and his bomb bay opened right above us. So I told the skipper ‘Dive port’ to get out the way of the Lanc above.
The thing is, it’s so dangerous as there’s 300 planes all in that area, so to start jiggling about was dodgy. We straightened out and the bomb aimer said ‘I’ve lost the aiming point skipper, we’ve got to go round again’. The skipper, he said ‘You are a silly chap’…or something like that he said…
Harry’s Lancaster continued through, over the target and dog-legged before re-joining the very rear of the bomber stream coming over the target.
By that time Jerry had cottoned onto us, there were searchlights flying about, trying to get hold of us and we took a right shellacking, I tell you. But, they missed us, we went right through that, opened the bomb bays, flying straight and level and dropped our bombs.
The tactic at that time was for the bomber, as soon as bombs were away, to dive to starboard or port, out of the way of the searchlights. This was often fatal, as any trailing fighters would now have the crucial height advantage over the lumbering aircraft, which often made them easy to pick out against the background of a blazing target.
Coming back, we were about 18,000 feet and I could hear the shrapnel clunking through the fuselage…the wireless operator said he’d lost oxygen. Apparently shrapnel had hit the pipelines. The skipper automatically went down below 10,000 feet…and then we hit those beautiful coloured lights again, and it was horrendous…we went right through them, down to about 4,000 feet and landed back at Waddington. I was shaken out of my bleedin’ life. You cannot believe how an aircraft can fly through all that flak and come out the other side. I must have seen about eight or nine aircraft going down.
This was followed by a three day break, before a six hour bombing raid to Bremen. The target this time was the submarine pens, which were of very thick concrete construction and at the time, the effect of bombing, even a direct hit on one of the pens was limited. Bremen was also ferociously defended by anti-aircraft guns. No fighters were spotted and the raid was completed by Harry’s crew without major incident. The next day, they flew a raid to Wilhelmshaven, for submarine pens again.
On a flight to Essen, on the 16th September 1942, the bomb load was identical to the first mission to “Happy Valley”.
We had a full bomb load … as we were going over Holland the two engines on the starboard side just cut out. The Flight Engineer changed the tanks over to the inner tanks and the two engines started up, but the other two stopped. So he changed them over to the inner tanks and they started up. Then we went along a bit further and the whole bleedin’ four packed up and we was at about 18,000 feet. The Flight Engineer was quite experienced, realised what was happening and switched them all over to the outer tanks and the whole four started up.
The crew chose to abort this mission due to a lack of fuel and it turned out to be a bad raid for Bomber Command. It also did not count towards Harry’s tour of operations as they had not bombed the target. The issue turned out to be a design defect in the pump that fed fuel to the engines and was eventually replaced on all Lancaster’s with a gravity feed system.
Harry goes back to his log book and flicks the page;
Now this is what a call a lucky one….Munich. We flew over to Munich in ten-tenths cloud and I still don’t understand how the navigator got us there. As we got to Munich the cloud broke and we bombed the target.
The pilot and navigator reassured the crew on the flight back that they could fly through cloud and should be well hidden in doing so.
We flew for about an hour, through ten-tenths cloud. The only thing we had to worry about was predictive flak from beneath. Anyway, we broke cloud and believe it or not…. this JU-88 was right there (Harry points ten yards out of the front window of the house to the opposite side of the road.) “As close as the road.
I had the fright of my life. He opened fire, but I think being so close to us he over-shot. I could see these coloured shells flying right up over my turret. I opened fire, mid-upper opened fire, we hit him and down he went, just spun away. I think that was one of my luckiest escapes.
The Lancaster had previously been installed with a new piece of apparatus that was a small radar and if it detected a night fighter nearby, a red light would show.
The thing was…on the first time they used it one of our Lancs got shot down with the apparatus in it.
The device was captured and night fighters were retro-fitted with a device which allowed the fighter to home in on this radar. Soon after, the radar apparatus was removed from all the aircraft.
Part Two of the interview will follow shortly, detailing Harry’s experiences of Cologne, scarecrows, daylight raids and Milan.