2003 History Conference - Air War Europe

Lancaster “G for George”
Peter Burness

The existence of the Australian War Memorial’s historic Avro Lancaster bomber, “G for George”, is remarkable. Not only did it get through extensive front-line use during the height of the bombing war, but it also survived the peacetime fate of old warplanes – the melting pot. It has survived more than sixty years, through war, apathy, and as a museum object. For decades it has been one of the Memorial’s best-known exhibits. Its prominence will be further enhanced when it becomes the centre-piece to a new, permanent object-theatre presentation in Anzac Hall.

“George” is impressive as a machine. But for the Memorial it is even more important as a reminder of the men who flew in aircraft such as this – the Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings, and Wellingtons – in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War.

Flying bomber operations over Germany and the occupied countries during the Second World War was extremely dangerous, and the casualty rate was terrible. At the height of the bomber offensive of 1943–44, when the main targets were in Germany, crews could not hold a reasonable expectation of survival. Although “George” was regarded as a “lucky” bomber, more than eighty men who flew in it were later killed flying in other aircraft.

“George” may be sixty years old, but the living survivors of the bomber offensive of Second World War are all older, and their numbers are thinning. Unlike “George”, they cannot be restored. They may be old men now, but they were notable for their youth when they flew their tours of wartime operations. They were the young pioneers of the new main battlefield – the sky.

Most of the wartime bomber crewmen were in their early twenties, and some were even younger. But as one former Australian bomber squadron commander later said, age was not as important as experience. It was not years, but flying hours that mattered.

The case of Wing Commander John Douglas DFC AFC is notable: he flew Halifaxes and Lancasters from 1942. When aged 22, he was appointed to command 460 Squadron RAAF in May 1944, and 467 Squadron RAAF from October. He was killed on operations on 8 January 1945, the youngest Australian to command a bomber squadron. Just as some were very young flyers, there were the old men too: these were those in their thirties. The oldest of “George’s” pilots was Chad Martin, who was 33 in 1943.

A quick look at the ages of those who flew “G for George” reflects the trend across Bomber Command: the average age of “George’s” crews was 24, although each had already been in the RAAF for about two years. Looking just at the pilots, we see no deviation from this: the average was again 24.

The youngest pilot was Flight-Sergeant Richard Power, who was 20 when he was at the bomber’s controls. He forms part of another standard statistic – the death rate. Thirty-seven per cent of those who flew in “George” at some time were later killed in the war. This is close to the across-the-board losses of RAAF men serving in Bomber Command. Power died in 1944 before he had turned 21.

Wing Commander “Chad” Martin was the first Empire Air Training Scheme graduate to command a RAAF squadron. He only flew “George” once. He explained, “As Commanding Officer of 460 Squadron, I flew a different Lancaster each time I did a raid, so to check the degree of serviceability maintained by the ground staff responsible for each aircraft.”

The second youngest of “George’s” pilots was “Cherry” Carter. He was only a couple of months older than Power. He was a 20-year-old Flight-Sergeant when he captained “George” for his first time; he flew it to Leverkusen on 22 August 1943. It was “George’s” 46th operation. Carter and his crew went on to fly the bomber more often than anyone else.

Twenty years ago I had the privilege of interviewing Carter’s Australian crew: they had gathered in Canberra for a Bomber Command reunion. A couple of them are still alive today, but they are frail. Carter and his crew flew the aircraft just as the bomber offensive against Germany was stepping up a notch, and the main target became Berlin. They are an interesting case study.

Harry Carter had trained as a country school teacher before joining the RAAF. He was young and looked even younger. Crew members laughed when they told me that he got his nickname “Cherry” because he was young and innocent and went red whenever a girl spoke to him. Although he, as pilot, was captain of the aircraft, he was out-ranked by the crew’s navigator, Gordon Peters: this situation was not unusual.

This crew was typical in most respects. Although 460 Squadron was an “Australian” unit, some of the crew were members of the RAF. As was usual, this included the flight-engineer; Australia produced very few men for this posting. It is hard to establish, but probably more than twenty per cent of those who flew in “George” were RAF. There was also a New Zealander and a Canadian.

“George” was already a veteran when Carter and his group joined it. It had done 45 operations. By the standards of that time this was a lot, but not enough to make it venerable. It also meant the aircraft was getting old.

Bob Coveny, the radio operator explained,

It was actually an accident that we were allocated “G for George”. When we joined the squadron … the Flight Commander had to have an aircraft and the new crew had to have one … the Flight commander chose the new aircraft and gave us the old one. We were the junior crew so we got the oldest aircraft.

Carter’s crew flew in other aircraft when required to, but they did most of their tour in “George”; they took it to 21 targets, including 7 trips to Berlin.

The German capital was the most strongly defended target in Europe – various crews took “George” there 16 times. The most dangerous period was the series of intense attacks through the winter of 1943–44 that became known as “The Battle of Berlin”. Aircrew called this dreaded target “the big city”; they said that three trips qualified for the “key to the city”. Carter was promoted to Warrant Officer, then to Pilot Officer, and was awarded the DFC. Others in the crew were also decorated. After the war Carter went on the fly Qantas “jumbos”.

The raid on Christmas Eve 1943 – again against Berlin – was significant because Carter and most of the crew completed their tour: thirty operations. This added greatly to the squadron’s Christmas celebrations, for it had been a sombre time of strain and loss. The bomb-aimer, Pilot Officer Harris, recalled to me:

Everybody came to see us because, apart from the fact that I don’t think anybody finished for quite awhile – it was sort of a rarity for anybody to get through – we finished on Berlin.

“George” had also now completed 75 operations, and people were beginning to take notice of it. This score was already quite the exception. Losses on operations were usually about five per cent each time – one in twenty. It was not hard to see that an aircrew, being required to fly thirty operations, was working against the odds.

For “George” to go on to reach its figure of 89 operations – or 90, as it was then claimed – was almost beyond the realm of possibility. Some other aircraft did fly more than this, but mostly they continued to operate into 1944–45 when the odds improved a little. “George” was retired in 1944 and was flown to Australia – not an insignificant feat itself – and took part in War Loan promotions in the south-eastern States until the war ended and it was retired.

Seventy-four hundred Lancasters were built. “George” was one of an early order for 200 Lancasters from Metropolitan Vickers. These were given serial numbers in the range W4761–W5012. From this number, apart from “George” (which was W4783), only 13 operated long enough to be sent to training units and so survived the war.

The remaining 187 of the 200 (that is, 94 per cent) were lost: they crashed, were shot down, or exploded in mid-air while on operations, often with the loss of their seven-man crews. At least four of these were shot down on their very first operation, with a total average flying time of just fifteen hours.

Some of the crews that flew “George” were experienced veterans. Many of them felt that skill was a main factor in survival. There were pilots who said that the key was to get to, and away, from the target as early as possible. Others felt safer being in the main stream. One very experienced pilot said that he always flew as high as the plane could, ignoring what had been taught in training about changing course and altitude regularly. Another pilot who believed in flying to the target as high as possible said that the only one flying higher than him was his mid-upper gunner. A crew member from “George” said the ground crew always scrounged a little extra fuel to make sure the aircraft could afford to use power when needed.

Keeping a sharp look-out into the night sky was vitally important. The rear and mid-upper gunners had the best views and were to give the pilot early warning of trouble. Crews kept watch not only for the approach of fighters, but also to avoid mid-air collisions and hits from bombs falling from aircraft above. On one occasion, “George” suffered damage from falling incendiaries.

No one doubted that good luck was an important factor in survival. There were times when “George” was flown by novice crews, and they still brought it back. Still, Wing Commander Martin commented

Not long after taking over command of 460 Squadron … our medical officer informed me that he had applied to be transferred to a non-operational unit as the losses we sustained were affecting him mentally. He said he could almost pick out the crew most likely to be early casualties.

After the war, “George” would stand at Fairbairn RAAF base, neglected for a decade, before it was installed in the Memorial in 1955. A person who remembered its sad days recently recalled how he would eat his lunch in it; birds flew in and out, and there were pools of water inside. Most interior fittings were stripped, or stolen, during this period.

“George” has been re-installed in the Memorial following extensive conservation work. It will shortly begin a new exhibition life, which includes object-theatre presentations. Through the effects of a sound and light show, visitors will see “George” on an operation: the one chosen to base this version on is a raid made on 16 December 1943.

The reasons for choosing this particular raid were:

  • The target was Berlin and could be seen as a symbolic blow against the heart of Germany. This was the most heavily defended target in Europe and the raid was part of the “Battle of Berlin”. Air losses were on such a scale that the British Official Historians concluded that the battle was more than a failure; it was a defeat.

  • This night became known as “Black Thursday” because losses were so heavy. Twenty-five bombers were shot down and a further 29 were lost in crashes caused by the weather conditions over England. One of “George’s” former pilots, Flight-Sergeant Godwin, and his crew were among those who crashed but survived; they were lost in action a couple of months later, in February.

The pilot on 16 December was, once again, Cherry Carter, who flew with most of his regular crew.

The rear gunner was a stand-in that night. He was Sergeant John Worley, who had flown in “George” on a previous occasion. This young man’s medals and letters are in the Memorial’s collection. They provide a poignant view into aircrew life and expectations. In one he says

I have got quite a few ops up now (and) will soon be finished my tour. (I) have the “key” to both the front and back doors of Berlin. It takes three trips to a city to get one key. In other words the Battle of Berlin is on now and (I) have been there six times.

Worley was flying with his regular crew a month later on another operation to Berlin on 27 January 1944 when they failed to return.

There was an encounter with a night-fighter that night. Such engagements were usually heavily in the fighter’s favour. The bomber’s best defence was to “corkscrew” into the darkness. Fortunately the fighter did not try to force its advantage – it was reported, no doubt with some relief, that “it left smartly”. Nevertheless, “George” did get a hole in the fuselage that night – either from the fighter or from flak.

A famous German night-fighter pilot was active that night. Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer shot down at least 121 night bombers during the war. That night he shot down a 7 Squadron Lancaster flown by Warrant Officer Wallace Watson – this pilot had previously served in 460 Squadron and had been one of “George’s” pilots. The tail fin of Schnauzer’s Messerschmitt Bf 110 is in the Memorial’s collection.

In many other respects, this was a typical bomber operation – and “George” carried a normal load of one 4,000-lb “cookie” blast bomb, 48 x 30-lb incendiaries, and 840 x 4-lb incendiaries. The raid was conducted from 20,000 feet; the target was indicated by coloured sky markers; and the flight time was seven hours and six minutes.

This was “George’s” 73rd operation and marks the period that the bomber was becoming a celebrity. It had participated in major raids such as Pennemunde, had taken part against the “Battle of the Ruhr” targets, and now was heavily committed to the “Battle of Berlin”.

The Memorial wants “George” to be seen to represent all bomber crews. The RAAF operations in Europe have sometimes been overlooked. In recent times a greater focus has been given to actions fought against the Japanese when Australia seemed under threat. However, it is worth remembering that when Australia went to war in 1939 it was to assist in the defeat of Nazism. In the end, no group of Australians played a fuller role in this than did the bomber crews.

 

Peter Burness is Senior Curator, Gallery Development, at the Australian War Memorial. He led the team that developed the Striking by night – Lancaster “G for George” exhibition in Anzac Hall.