May of 1944 was the last „quiet” month before a decisive strike against Atlantic Wall was made. Thousands of Allied bombers taking part in night and operations softened the ground before the major onslaught. Two Polish Fighter Wings (131 and 133) were ready for immediate action.
I commanded the 133 Wing, which was based on an Advanced Landing Ground at Coolham, near Horsham, 50 miles north of Southampton. Every day we took part in long range flights, escorting American Flying Fortresses and Liberators on their missions to attack strategic targets deep in the heart of the Third Reich.
It was a memorable day in May when, from the early morning hours we were receiving a number of conflicting orders from the Headquarters. Something was not quite right. Our ground crews were working hard alternatively mounting long range tanks or the 500lb bombs. To make things worse, after two weeks of typical hot African weather, the sky was invaded by dark, low clouds. The changing weather was one reason why conflicting orders were being issued.
Finally, at 8am, a messenger brought us the final order, which was the “D” form. Although in appearance it resembled a roll of toilet paper the “D” form contained secret information pertinent to the ensuing operation. I set the briefing time for 8:30 a.m. in the Operations Room, which in reality was a large tent suspended between tow heavy lorries. Pilots from the 306, 315 and 129 squadrons filled the room. I looked at them from a raised platform and saw a group of young, suntanned, determined faces, whose excited eyes, directed towards me, were anxious to know where we were going and what was our target. My briefing was naturally conducted in English, because our Wing consisted of two Polish and one British squadron and because in the air we had to communicate in English.
Addressing the squadrons I told them – “Our objective is as follows: We are assigned to escort the middle box of the Fortress on their way back from Hamburg – our target for today. We will rendezvous with the Fortresses over Hamburg at 12.00 hrs. When over enemy territory I will order the Wing to form the battle formation, i.e. each squadron with three sections of four aircraft, and on meeting with the Fortresses we will position ourselves on the right side of the box. Strict radio silence, until over enemy territory, shall be observed. I will lead the 306 Squadron, close target, at an altitude of 30,000 feet. Above us will be 129 Squadron as middle over and above them, 315 as top cover. From Coolham to Hamburg our route will be Coolham-Dover-Hague-Hamburg. All section leaders will receive maps with calculated courses and times. From the Hague, at an altitude of 30,000 feet, we will face quite a strong headwind. At present the cloud ceiling is 600 feet with layers of clouds ending at 24,000 feet. We will climb, each squadron in tight formation, until we are through the clouds, at the speed of 220 mph. We will enter the cloud layer simultaneously, line abreast, with each squadron one mile apart from the other. When we break through clouds over the English Channel we will set course for The Hague. Take off time 10.10 hrs. Please synchronize your watches. We will take off in the following: 315 – top cover squadron; 129 – middle cover; and 306 – the lead squadron.
Any questions?” There were questions, only silence. Everybody, a little nervous, begun talking at once while collecting maps and route information from Intelligence Officers and then proceeded by car or foot to their respective dispersal areas.
All around the airfield engines could be heard, either still idling quietly or emitting a mighty roar of the maximum rpm. Soon the noise became unbearable and the nearby wood reflected their echo into surrounding countryside. The Mustangs, with the underslung long range fuel tanks, begun rolling towards the starting location on the steel-net runway. Each squadron was on the runway in the take off position before the signal was given.
Suddenly, a green rocket was fired and the first squadron took off, then second and finally, the 306. Before I completed the first turn over the airfield, I had the whole formation in place. As we approached the clouds I set the course east and saw all the aircraft flying in their respective formations, each of them in their proper place. We entered clouds and it was quite dark. We continued to climb, still wrapped in by a thick, nerve ending cloud. The altimeter indicator was moving steadily, showing our progress upward. From the corners of my eyes I could see my wingmen. We were experiencing a little turbulence but the heavily loaded Mustangs took it in their strides. The flight was quite tranquil; there was no surprises. As we gained altitude there was more light and the surroundings seemed more pleasant; pilots liked that much better and they felt much happier.
Suddenly the Mustang’s body shuddered. Not to worry, we just went through 21,000 feet and the second supercharger kicked in increasing the engine’s power. In our ears we could hear the difference – the pleasant, more rhythmic sound of the classic engine. It was getting very light and sunrays began to penetrate the clouds. Outside cockpit was quite wet. Radio silence continued to be strictly maintained. I realized that all pilots were under tremendous stress but nobody interrupted the radio silence.
On everybody’s mind was the thought that somewhere close by there were two other squadrons trying to break through the cloud cover at the same time. Any deviation from the set course could end in a disaster – air collisions have been known to happen during flying on instrument. Nothing was heard from the Ground Control, nothing interrupted the deadly silence, except the regular hum of the engine.
We had reached 24,000 feet. It was very light and yet we were not through the clouds. I knew everybody was very impatient, for we had reached the estimated altitude. However, our pilots were very skilled in formation flying and would not dream of breaking formation while still in clouds.
Suddenly, at 25,000 feet, I seemed to have jumped out from the cloud, as though from a catapult, and immediately began to look around for the rest of the formation. Like black beetles, Mustangs were popping out from the clouds below. The two other squadrons, still in parade formation, appeared on my left and my right, respectively. I checked my watch – we were on time. I set the course for The Hague holding a map in my lap, knowing that it would come in useful, but then I realized that the cloud cover extended all the way to the target and the dead-reckoning navigation as out of the question. I put the map away and concentrated only on holding the calculated course setting and on the time checkpoints.
We were flying at an altitude of 28,000 feet. I would have preferred to fly higher because, from experience, I had a lot of respect for the German ack-ack. Besides, higher would be best altitude for our Mustangs. In a flight over the unending cloud cover the rhythmic sound of engine and the monotonous panorama created boredom. There were no landmarks for one’s eyes to observe, nothing but an expansion of a great white ocean below and the blue sky above. Time passed so slowly, although our true airspeed was steady. Every few seconds I glanced at my watch to check whether it was time to change the course. We were still a long way from the target. Four minutes more and I set course for Hamburg a 109 degrees. Since nothing was happening around us I chose not to announce changing of the course on the radio, but simply made a gentle turn to the right and proceeded along the new course. The sun was now above and a little to our right. The middle cover (129) and the top cover (315) squadrons, after changing their respective formations, took their new positions on my left, in two echelons, all the way to 30,000 feet.
As soon as we had completed our manoeuvre we were greeted by the German artillery fire (88 mm cannons), black smoke puffs exploding below at about 25-26,000 feet. Soon the salvos became more frequent, more accurate, approaching our formation at the correct altitude and perhaps a little above and in front of us. I began gentle manoeuvres changing our speeds and altitudes.
“More gas everybody”, I announced over the radio. After a few isolated salvos behind us we were out of their range. In the sky above us there was no sign of the German Luftwaffe. Our Ground Control was completely silent. By this time we might be already out of their range.
Steadily we were approaching German territory, not far from the Ruhr region, which meant concentrated antiaircraft defence. I surveyed the sky for signs of the German fighters. I was positive that the they would not let us through easy. Suddenly, radio silence was broken. “Hello Oxo Leader, Carmen one eight – a formation of bogey (unidentified) aircraft at 3 o’clock below!” I looked over and indeed I saw over 30 black spots rapidl gaining altitude. “Oxo Leader speaking. They are probably ours since they are flying on the same course as we are. Keep them under observation”. The bogey aircraft did not try to close their distance between us but continued flying on their own course. They were probably ours, flying towards the target with possibly the same assignment as ours. For some time we were flying in parallel. Suddenly I saw black smoke puffs as several accurate artillery salvos were being fired at the bogey aircraft below us. At once the whole formation scattered all over the sky. I could not tell whether any of the aircraft had been hit though after few seconds I could no longer see any aircraft below us at all. In order to avoid the German ack-ack I made a slight turn to left, changing course by 4 degrees, from 109 to 105 degrees.
After a few minutes there was a concerned reaction on the radio waves. It was Dziubek (S/Ldr Horbaczewski) Squadron commander of the 315 Squadron, enquiring: “Hello Oxo Leader, Rainbow 14 speaking. Is your compass OK.? What is your course?”
„Hello Rainbow 14, Oxo Leader speaking. Course 105 degrees, my compass is OK!” But Dziubek was not convinced.
“Hello Oxo Leader. Why are changing course?”
“Hello Raibow 14. Don’t worry”.
Actually Dziubek was right to worry and to question my decision because, if we did not keep the original course, which was calculated taking into consideration the speed and the wind direction, where the heck would we end? An I had absolutely no reason to change the course in the first place, especially that without seeing the ground there was no way to confirm our position, nor did I have any additional information from our Operations Room, which continued to remain silent.
At 11.30 hours I changed the course again by five degrees to the bearing of 100 degrees. This time my decision was too much for the Squadron Commander of the British 129 Squadron, S/Ldr Haw. “Hello Oxo Leader – Bad Hat 14 speaking. What is happening? Why have you changed the bearing again? We will miss our target!” With a noncommittal reply I managed to pacify Haw and although it was quiet again I could only imagine how worried everybody must be, listening to this conversation and thinking thus: “We were still half an hour away from the target and our Wing Commander is leading us into an unknown territory. With a considerable distance away from Hamburg, any small deviation from the course could have tragic consequences. Where the heck is he going?”
As for myself I was convinced that the new bearing selected by me was the correct one. So I thought, “Let them worry a bit, they still have to follow me! There must be strict discipline in the air! Without team work we cannot expect positive results! After all, I am responsible for executing the task assigned to me by my Command.” In spite of my defiant thoughts, I was still sweating it out, thinking perhaps they had been right and that I might have been wrong. After all, I was responsible for the 36 aircraft and the 36 human beings – my experienced and brave pilots. I agonized with my negative thoughts, but I stuck to my last bearing. There was not much time left, for we were only 10 minutes away from the designated target. What if I made a mistake? What if we were already over the North Sea flying towards Denmark instead? I did not want to believe that.
At 11.54 hours – there were only six minutes left. I had to control my nervous tension! After a while, however, on the horizon ahead, I spotted some aircraft sparkling in the blue sky, but then they disappeared in the cloud cover. With confidence I did not feel I decided to break the heavy silence.
“Oxo Leader speaking – everybody look out – observe the horizon. The target is in front of us. In three minutes we will be at the randezvous region.” In the meantime, I had been straining my eyes, scanning the sky for any sign of American Fortresses and Liberators which would fly in a “box” consisting of three columns of 250 aircraft each. Surely we couldn’t possibly miss such a “tiny” formation unless, due to my decision to “adjust” the course, we might have passed Hamburg some 70 to 100 miles to the left?” Nevertheless, I continued to strain my eyes even harder. Finally, in front of me, on the horizon, I saw some black spots. I carefully checked whether, by chance, these were not small oil drops on my windscreen. But no, I was not mistaken.
“Hello Carmen, Rainbow and Bad Hat aircraft. A large formation of planes straight ahead.” But as we flew closer, the mirage dissolved, like a soap bubble. There were no planes, but a heavy concentration of black smoke puffs from the German anti-aircraft salvos. I was really getting nervous. I looked at my watch, it was exactly 12.00 hours – the time of the randezvous. They had to be somewhere there otherwise why the anti-aircraft gunfire? By that time they must have completed their bombing run over the target, and should be on their way back! As yet I could see nothing. Where were they?
Once more I “hit” the radio. “Oxo here. Look out for the Fortresses formation. They have to be in front of us! Scan the skies carefully.” We flew straight through artillery barrage and they let us have it! I saw black smoke exploding all around us – above, below, on the left and on the right. I was getting very hot! Then I yelled in the microphone again (although my mouth was full of saliva, and my message probably came out like confused bubbling), “Oxo here. Everybody make 45 degree right turn, the Fortresses are to our right at 14.00 hours. Watch out for German fighters in the sun! OK boys?”
They were executing a right turn in a wide arc – that great mass of silver, four-engine giants, looked very imposing. It was when the sunrays reflected on their silver bodies that I spotted them first. Right away I felt 10 years younger. A few Messerschmidts or Focke-Wulfs would made our day. Unfortunately, the whole sky was full of our own fighters. We then began the process of taking over from the fighter squadron, which escorted the bombers to the target. The task was completed, so they started back, on the way to their respective bases. Their job might have included additional tasks and if the weather on their operational altitude was good, they would fly high, possibly looking out for some air encounters with the enemy. Other times they would sweep down to the ground level and attack targets of opportunity such as enemy airfields, railway yards, military columns or factories. Hopefully they would return home safe and sound.
In the meantime, we had began to take our proper positions, approaching the “box” very carefully, for we did not want to be shot at by nervous American air gunners. Any single aircraft, friendly or otherwise, approaching them from the rear, was immediately fired upon.
“Oxo Leader here – Carmen, Rainbow and Bad Hat – take your assigned position in relation to the Fortresses and Liberators.” Each squadron took their respective position on the right side of and above the column, echelon starboard to the rear. From their gun turrets American air gunners were greeting us with “thumbs up” signs. We could see their faces peering at our Mustangs with looks bordering on worship. They certainly appreciated us! By that time I was not worrying about navigation, letting the bombers’ Commander take care of the detail. Our job was to protect the bomber group from the German fighters’ attacks. I scanned the skies for any sign of their presence, hoping for an opportunity to shoot one or more down. However, all was well, there was no sign of any Luftwaffe aircraft.
In the meantime the bomber formation, probably to avoid some known anti-aircraft nests, made some course adjustments. I checked my watch and was surprised how quickly the time had passed. Naturally, when there are now worries time passes quickly. Since the return route had a slightly different bearing we were probably over France already. And since the Germans did not do it over their own territory it was unlikely that we would be attacked by German fighters over France, although one could never tell. Sometimes they were known to surprise us over our own coastline.
The group began its descent so we had to be over the English Channel. I checked my watch again. We would be landing in an about half an hour. As soon as they entered the cloud cover again all the fighter groups disengaged.
“Attention! Oxo Leader here. All aircraft make a left turn and each squadron re-form into parade formation.” We began to form tight formations before re-entering the clouds. “Hello! Oxo Leader here. Begin descent through the cloud cover, with one mile spacing between each squadron.” In a minute we were enveloped by thick white clouds. I decided to give it more gas, since I had had enough of the sitting around and of that strange, somewhat confusing flight. I felt my nerves relaxing though by that time I felt very tired. I was anxious to be safe on the ground.
I saw buildings through a break in the clouds, dived through it and then in a low flight approached our airfield. “Prepare for landing.” Everybody knew what to do. My Mustang landed hard on the steel net and continued to roll to the end of the runway. We were back!
Passing the dispersal tent I heard Dziubek’s voice grumbling: “How the hell did he find the target? That I don’t understand! Let’s go to the de-briefing, maybe we will learn something!” The Operations Room was full of noise. Almost everybody was there. Immediately I assaulted our Intelligence Officers with questions, but they would not let me speak. Everyone was talking at the same time. Finally, I silenced them, so that I could address the Intelligence Officer.
“Why don’t you tell me where I would end had I stuck to the course that you gave me? Go on – tell me! Why don’t you re-calculate?”
“But let me explain old man….”
“Don’t say anything! Just re-calculate!”
With reluctance the Intelligence Officer began re-calculate our original course. Something certainly did not fit! “Sometimes following the tip of one’s nose is better than badly calculated course” said F/Lt Potocki, illustrating statement by pointing to his own outsize schnozzle. S/Ldr Haw, the Englishman, addressed me: “I really don’t understand anything about this flight! What do you say to that!”
“I don’t really understand it mayslef, what made me adjust the designated course the way I did” I replied. “I have re-calculated the course!” interrupted F/O Przymienski, the Intelligence Officer. We looked at the map. “Just as I thought! If I stuck to the course we would have drifted towards Magdeburg.”
“May I explain something?” asked F/O Przymienski.
“When you were approaching The Hague I received a new metrological forecast. It turned out that the wind at your altitude had suddenly changed by 90 degrees and the original course was calculated with the headwind.” We all looked at one another. I felt that Haw and Dziubek had forgiven me.
“Having the latest information, and realizing the seriousness of the situation, we calculated the new course. Then we called Operations Room to give you new data. Unfortunately, you were already out of range. Could you hear anything?” asked F/O Przymienski.