Last week I wrote about Sergeant later Squadron Leader Kenny Clack DFC and the attack by Halifaxes of 76 Squadron on the German battleships Tirpitz, Prinz Eugen and Admiral Scheer on April 27th/28th 1942. Afterwards I found an account of the raid written by the co-pilot Pilot Officer later Squadron Leader Ron Waite DFC. I sent it to my mother. She said the name of the Flight Engineer, ‘Tubby’ Lawes, rang a bell. Grandfer had drawn a sketch of him sleeping, on the back of a squadron photo. It shows Tubby Lawes asleep in the Sergeants’ barracks when 76 Squadron was based at RAF Fayid in Egypt supporting the Allied campaign against Rommel in North Africa. Grandfer has written underneath. The battle for Egypt is on… They also serve…!! Tubby is obviously snoring.
I’ll give Sqn Ldr Waite’s account in full. It’s an amazing story, typically understated. We watched 633 Squadron the other day, about a fictional attack on a target in a Norwegian fjord. A line like ‘Kenny took a violent turn to starboard – to avoid the mountain’ is really vivid. Also the image of Norwegian civilians flashing the morse ‘V’ for Victory by opening and closing their curtains as the planes flew over. Kenny Clack and Tubby Lawes are the heroes of Waite’s story. Clack for flying and landing the plane on three engines and Lawes for regulating the leaking fuel so precisely that it ran out just as they touched down safely back at RAF Tain.
“I had scarcely embarked on my course of training, when I was recalled to 76 Squadron, my log book being endorsed ‘course incomplete’. Back at Middleton St George, I was included in the crew of Flt Sgt Kenny Clack. A few days later, we were briefed to fly to Tain in Scotland. Earlier in the year, the squadron had operated against the German battleships sheltering in a Norwegian fjord.
We knew that Tain was to be an advanced base for a similar mission. The previous operations had not been to successful so, this time we had to wait for ideal conditions; this meant a full moon and Aasen fjord free of fog. After waiting for several days at Tain, on the 27th April, weather conditions were ideal and the operation was on. I felt calm as I looked forward to my first operation against the enemy. It seemed an awesome responsibility for the nineteen year old Kenny, as Captain on such a mission. My position in the crew was that of 2nd ‘dickie’ as the second pilot was called. I was being taken more for the operational experience than the simple duties I had to perform.
It was a perfect evening, as the Halifaxes queued behind each other on the perimeter track, waiting for a take off signal. The aircraft had a rather odd appearance because, as well as the six 500 pounders on board, a specially designed 4000lb ‘blockbuster bomb’ was being carried. This bomb looking like a huge dustbin, was so large it could not be contained inside the bomb bay with the doors closed- these had to be pumped up by hand until they rested on the belly of the bomb. The armourers had a difficult, sweaty job, winching these monsters on board and one described the Halifax’s appearance as that of a pregnant mayfly.
We observed strict radio silence as we waited in the evening sunshine for the green very light to send us on our way. The atmosphere inside the aircraft was expectant rather than tense; I looked around at the other aeroplanes, with their four propellers gently turning over; they resembled patient gun dogs, awaiting their masters command to go. I glanced at Kenny, his face almost hidden by the oxygen mask; his eyes alert and ready for the operation ahead.
Our C.O. Wing Commander Young, was the first to turn on to the runaway and take off. I felt – we probably all did- an inward excitement at the sound of the Merlin engines as they opened to full power. Within a minute our turn came.
“Alright chaps here we go” Kenny announced quietly over the intercom. Soon S for Sugar* was pounding down the runway.
[*Sqn Ldr Waite is remembering a later aircraft; Grandfer’s logbook confirms it was Q for Queenie]
My only duty was to lick the throttle levers and adjust the revs when instructed by Kenny. The aircraft was performing well and we felt more relaxed, now that we were on course for Norway. The long flight over the North Sea was rather tedious. Way ahead, I could just make out the WingCo’s aeroplane, steadily on course; not far behind were three other Halifaxes being flown by Mike Renault, Hank Iveson and Johnny Harwood. The sun was sinking behind us and the full moon, pale as yet, was climbing into the darkening sky. I could no longer see the other aircraft. The four Merlins, with perfect synchronisation, seemed to be purring in the cold air, their exhausts glowing dull red against the dark sky.
As we approached the Norwegian coast, Tommy Thomson, our Canadian navigator, was looking for a well defined island, which was to be our first turning point. From his position in the nose of the aircraft, he called on the intercom; ‘Skipper this is the navigator, I can’t be certain of the particular island yet, will you maintain the present course;’ ‘Roger Tommy,’ replied Kenny.
Several minutes later Tommy called again; ‘ Hello skipper I cant see the island but have identified Kristiansund, about 30 miles south of our correct turning point, will you steer a new course 068 degrees’.
The pilot made a gentle turn to port, straightening up when the compass heading was precisely on 068 degrees.
‘Hello navigator on course now’ Kenny confirmed.
A brilliant moon lit the snow capped mountains which rose sheer from the fjords. Although a romantic sight in other circumstances, tonight, the moonlight was ominous for ourselves- the attacking force- and the enemy.
The Norwegians in their isolated farms, and hamlets, hearing the sound of our engines, were aware that British bombers were overhead. Now and again lights appeared from windows, several times we saw curtains being drawn and withdrawn. These brave people were sending us the famous victory signal. I wished we could have let them know what terrific encouragement it gave to us, death would have been the penalty had they been caught.
The time was approaching 0015 hours, during briefing, we had been instructed not to bomb the Tirpitz a moment later than 0030 hours, because 10 and 35 squadrons were flying in with a low level attack. Realising we could not meet this deadline, our Captain decided we must bomb the alternative target – the battleships Von Scheer and Prinz Eugen, which were sheltering in a fjord, south of the primary target.
A few miles ahead, the sky was filled with the flashes of exploding ‘flak’. Our spot in the sky seemed unnaturally quiet when, with frightening suddenness, searchlights started appearing form nowhere – flashing across the sky searching for us.
Tommy’s voice came over the intercom; ‘Skipper the target is coming up keep her steady’ two searchlights flashed across us,
lighting the cockpit with a split seconds brilliance but were unable to hold us.
‘Skipper I can’t see the ships they are down there in that smoke keep steady on this course’.
‘Ok Tommy’ replied Kenny, his voice showing only slightly the strain he must have been feeling. As we rapidly approached the mountain side of the fjord, Tommy’s voice calmly said, ‘Steady…steady…steady, bombs gone’.
Immediately Kenny took a violent turn to starboard – to avoid the mountain and the light flak we were flying through. As we were escaping from the target area, Tommy’s voice came urgently over the intercom; ‘Kenny that bloody 4000 pounder has hung up.’
‘Right, we’ll do another run in, we haven’t come this far to drop it in the sea.’ There was surprising fury in Kenny’s boyish voice.
‘Skipper get back on course 080 degrees.’
The turn took us temporarily away from the flak guns. A minute or so later Kenny called the navigator, ‘On 080 degrees now’, ‘OK skip’ replied Tommy, ‘a few degrees left, steady…hold that. I’m going to release manually’
‘Steady… Left a bit.. Stedy.. Bomb gone’.
We felt a distinct lurch upwards, Kenny and I looked at each other hopefully – the bomb had probably gone.
For the second time, our pilot took a steep turn away from the target, then straightened up, climbing to clear the mountain. As we did so a large black fjord appeared below. All hell was suddenly let loose. The sporadic flak became a barrage we were flying over the Tirpitz. The rest of the squadrons were almost certainly on their way home and, because we were late we were now a target for the Nazi’s fury.
It was like putting a foot in a hornets nest. Venomous red jets were flashing from the Tirpitz’s guns; shells were exploding all around us. Kenny through the Halifax all over the place, but there was no evading all the gunfire. He banked so steeply, I thought I would fall on top of him. At times we were flying so low that searchlights appeared to be pointing down on us. Several shells exploded so close that we could hear the pieces of shrapnel puncturing the fuselage.
As we were desperately trying to escape from the fjord, ‘Tubby’ Lawes, our flight engineer, broke in over the intercom; ‘Skip, the port inner temperature is winding itself up – we’ll keep it going till we are out of this shit.’
‘OK Tubby – bomb door lights are still on too’ said Kenny.
Every second seemed an age, as we gradually left that hellfire behind us.
‘Hello skipper – flight engineer- feather the port inner, the port inner now’.
Almost as he spoke, my hand was moving to throttle back and put the ‘prop’ in fine pitch.
All gunfire had now ceased, only one or two searchlights fingered the sky in a belated attempt to find us. For a moment, no one in the aircraft spoke, Kenny, our Captain, was the first to break the unnatural silence.
‘ Well chaps whats the situation? I’m maintaining height on three motors’
It was Tubby Lawes who answered; ‘A petrol tank has been holed, the fuel gauge is going down rapidly. I will feed the other engines as long as i can on the holed tank’
Tommy Thomson, our Canadian navigator, added to the bad news; ‘Bomb doors have been damaged, Skipper, they won’t close’.
Kenny was still adjusting the rudder trimmer to correct for the loss of the engine as he said; ‘We’re still over 600 miles from base, do you think we will have enough fuel, Tubby?’ ‘It will be a close thing’.
‘The alternative is to make for Sweden’ said Kenny ‘We’ll put it to the crew.’
‘There are two destroyers in the North Sea, spaced on our return flight path, in case we’re in trouble,’ I observed.
It was Tommy who forward the first firm proposal; ‘ I suggest we make for Scotland.’.
We all agreed and settled down to face the formidable journey back.
Once Kenny had trimmed the Halifax for straight and level flight, his task was to remain awake and alert during the tedious four hours ahead, the flight engineer now had the most important task of watching his fuel gauges, working out the best use of the fuel and changing the tank cocks as required. The only thing I could do was to adjust the revs levers to keep the three engines synchronised.
The hours dragged on and fuel was getting dangerously low; we had to face the possibility of ditching in the sea, we were almost resigned to this, when Tubby, who had been peering out from the astrodome above his head , almost yelled; ‘Good God Kenny I think I can see a light in the distance’
just a vestige of dawn light was appearing as we all scanned the sky.
‘I can see it too’ called the wireless operator.
‘What do you think it is?’ I asked Tommy, who had the best view from the nose of the aircraft.
‘It must be – yes, it is -Wick’.
We were all babbling with excitement over the intercom, when Kenny cut in; ‘Hold on a minute chaps – I am not sure we can get down at Wick’.
In our enthusiasm we had forgotten it was Kenny’s formidable task to put the Halifax down safely on three engines.
‘Whats the petrol situation now? Kenny asked the Flight Engineer, ‘Do you think it will last out to Tain?’ ‘ Just about’ replied Tubby, ‘but with damn all to spare’
It had been nine hours since we took off from Tain. When we spotted the airfield again no one spoke. We all felt the tension Kenny must have experiencing as he concentrated on making the landing. There was no room for error- the first attempt had to be the only one. There could be no second chance.
On the approach Kenny quietly gave me instructions; ‘Twenty six fifty revs- undercarriage down-full flap.’
I watched tensely as Kenny held the aircraft straight till the final squeal of the tyres indicated that we were safely down, almost everyone shouted ‘Hooray’.
‘Jesus’ exclaimed one.
‘Bloody good Kenny’ said another.
Suddenly, all the emotional relief at having survived this baptism of fire came to the surface.
Shortly after landing, all three engines cut- one after the other- as the last petrol tank became drained. I am not sure whether I felt pride, satisfaction or relief at having completed my first operation.
A few days later, we heard through the grapevine that Kenny Clack had been recommended for an immediate D.F.C for this operation.
The good weather held and the squadron was ordered to operate against the Tirpitz again on the following night. Our previous aircraft had 58 holes caused by shrapnel, apart from the damage to the bomb doors, so we took the spare machine.”
(c) Squadron Leader Ron Waite DFC, 13th July 2005 http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/67/a4445967.shtml
Kenneth Clack was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his actions on that mission, and promoted to Pilot Officer in May that year. Later he was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On March 31st 1944 as Squadron Leader and on his first mission as a Flight Commander he was shot down over Germany and killed. He was only 21. Five of his crew were also killed, including his navigator, Flight Sergeant Thomas Thomson RCAF, Tommy the Canadian navigator in the Tirpitz attack.
Ron Waite survived the war and published ‘Death or Decoration’ in 1991, an account of his time as a pilot in Bomber Command. My grandfather wireless operator/air gunner Sergeant (later Flight Lieutenant) Alexander Oram survived the war with a DFC. They were very lucky.
I don’t yet know what later happened to the three other crew members of Q for Queenie, Sergeant Payne the tail gunner, Sergeant Williams wireless operator/air gunner or to Sergeant Tubby Lawes the Flight Engineer. If anyone knows I’d be very glad to hear.
The superb site http://www.archieraf.co.uk/archie/27_28april1942.html gives a full account of the Tirpitz raids, including the details of the aircraft and aircrew.