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  1654 Heavy Conversion Unit - recollections of J A Campbell

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Updated: 11 Sep 10

J A Campbell, a mid-upper gunner who later served in 463 Sqn RAAF and 61 Sqn RAF has contributed his memory of 1654 HCU at Wigsley to the site:

The Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF station Wigsley was a truly dispersed base — we even passed through a small village on our walks to and from the “flights.” I would explain here that the Flights were the office and crew rooms of the squadron or training unit. Here were classrooms, parachute section and changing rooms. Transport to the aircraft dispersal points always left from here, and brought the crews back after flying duties. There were fields of ripening grain all about the Sergeants’ Mess and our quarters. The weather was continuing, hot and dry, and was so for the five weeks we were at Wigsley. We were at last going to start flying in the Lancaster, the aircraft Five Group was equipped with, and which we would ultimately be using operationally.

During the initial days at Wigsley, we were engaged in ground school activities. Our quarters and mess were and easy walk from the Flights, and one day at noon we were hiking to the mess and skirting the upwind end of the runway in use. We saw an aircraft making its approach, which appeared to be a Lancaster, but somehow looked and sounded different. As it came toward us with wheels and flaps lowered, we could see that it had large radial engines instead of the usual inline Merlins. It was a Hercules-powered Lancaster from the Canadian Six Group. This was the Mark II and a few squadrons had been equipped with them. They were an extremely handsome and powerful-looking aircraft, and the big Herc engines were much quieter than the shattering roar produced by the Merlin power plants.

The Lanc IIs unfortunately lacked the altitude capabilities of the Is, IIIs and Xs. The Lanc was the newest and best of the heavy aircraft of Bomber Command — Halifaxes and Stirlings were the other two four-engined types in the squadrons. The Stirling was gradually being withdrawn from Main Force activities. She carried the heaviest payloads, but her design made it impossible to reach the current operational heights. ‘The Halifax compared more with the Lancaster, although she had gone through a number of modifications. I have no doubt whatsoever there would be crew members who flew in the Stirlings and Halifaxes who would argue that they were the best aircraft that ever flew, and, to be sure, each type had some advantage over the other. Even the Lancaster had been developed from an unsuccessful twin-engined aircraft, the Manchester. The Manchester had been powered by two huge twenty-four cylinder engines, Rolls Royce Vultures, which were a pack of trouble from the word go.

Before having our first flight in the Lancaster, all the gunners from our course were posted out to a special gunnery flight aerodrome, Fulbeck, for a special training session.
In aerial gunnery, deflection shooting was the name of the game, and absolutely essential because of the movement of the target as well as that of the aircraft firing. Point blank shots would only come at extremely close range, so deflection had to be applied and accurately, Five Group had developed a new evasive action for their aircraft to take when under attack, which would make it very difficult for an enemy fighter to get his fixed guns to bear.

We were now going to learn about this “Five Group corkscrew” as the evasive action was called, and the deflection to be applied during the action. All the gunners were sent out to the special Group Training Unit at Fulbeck. We were temporarily quartered at the Unit, and our four-day stay was to be spent using camera gun during simulated fighter attacks and evasive action. The second morning, our group of about six gunners went up in a Wellington piloted by a Canadian, Private Officer Oldham. This was a straight and level exercise for familiarization, with a single engined advanced trainer, a Miles Martinet, as the target aircraft. We were slated for a further flight at 1300 hours, same aircraft and pilot, using the corkscrew. Our films would be shown to us so we’d be able to see if our deflection was correct. We reported to the Flights for the one o’clock exercise, and were told that it was cancelled because of group of senior officers were coming from Group to see what this course was all about. They would be flying in the aircraft we’d have been using — Wellington BK235s. We returned to the barrack hut, and I took advantage of the time to write letters. At about 2:30, Dennis, my rear-gunner decided to walk up to the Flights to see what was doing. In about half an hour he was back. He rushed to the door, his face about the colour of plaster, and told me that during the corkscrew action, the Wellington “S” with the senior officers had broken up and gone straight in from about 2000 feet. No one had got out, and all had been killed. I quote from the RAF Historical Branch records:

“Wellington BK235 was engaged in a corkscrew fighter affiliation exercise on the 18th July, 1943 with Martinet HN877 piloted by F/O Jordan. Both aircraft operated with 1485 BG Flight. When F/O Jordan was about 200 yards astern of the Wellington he saw the starboard wing of the aircraft break completely off at the outboard of the starboard engine. The Wellington at once went into a dive, and crashed 1 ½ miles south of Appleby, Lincolnshire, killing the six crew members. The crew details: Pilot – W/O Heard; Instructor – Sgt. Breslin; students on Senior Officer’s Gunnery Course – Group Captain Low; Group Captain Odbert; Wing Commander Matheson; and Squadron Leader Brandon-Trye.”

At Fulbeck that day in July, those RAF senior officers had died in our stead. Now all flying in the Wellingtons was cancelled for them to undergo a major inspection. We returned to Wigsley on the following day, where we’d learn about the corkscrew in our own type of aircraft. Total flying time at Fulbeck: One hour and twenty-five minutes.

The Lancaster was nearly twice the size and weight of the Wellington. Her length was sixty-eight feet, and wingspan one hundred and two feet. All the aircraft at Wigsley had seen squadron service — they were the Mark I Lancs, and had been replaced by the Mark III in most instances. Outwardly there appeared no difference, but the IIIs had slight refinements in engines, equipment and airframe. Armament consisted of four Browning .303 MGs in the rear turret, two in the middle turret or dorsal, and two in the nose turret. The nose turret was operated by the bomb aimer as necessary, while the two gunners stayed in the mid-upper and rear turrets at all times. The rear and front had a turning capability of 180 degrees, while the mid-upper had a full 360. Controls were a combination of hydraulic and electric. Gun sights were of the reflector graticule type, with adjustable brightness for day and night use. I was pleased to finally get into my proper position in the mid-upper. This allowed me a view of the whole upper surface of the aircraft. The guns had an automatic fire-interrupter system, which made it impossible to shoot off the twin tailfins or the tail plane. The bomb load and petrol load were adjusted according to type and distance of the target, and as a general rule, the all-up weight at operational takeoff would be about thirty-two and a half tonnes.

There was a radar navigational device called “Gee” which gave pinpoint locations when read out by the navigator. It was effective all over the United Kingdom, and a good deal further, but faded out as distance from the signal stations increased and could not be used too far into the Continent. The flying exercises at Wigsley became more complicated and longer, and simulated the operational conditions as much as possible. There were day and night trips to the bombing range, and more fighter affiliation exercises utilizing the “Five Group corkscrew.” Night cross-country trips to test the navigator’s skills became much longer, although we were not flying at extreme operational heights. The aircraft were not in tip-top form, being hand-me-downs from the squadrons and consequently there were holdups and delays.

I recall one night our crew was attempting to get in a required number of circuits and landings. Each time round we had to stop by the watch office while a ground staff person checked for leaks. Three times we had to return to the dispersal point while a mechanic searched for a leak in the starboard outer coolant system. It was a long and frustrating night.

Aircraft from our course flew a medium duration cross-country exercise on another occasion when there was a half moon. Arrangements had been made with a force of Mosquito night fighters to add a bit of realism to the proceedings. The Mosquito pilots were going to switch on the white light in the bulbous, clear plastic nose of their aircraft if they considered that they had made a successful pass. We got a sighting of a Mosquito making his attack and Dennis, the rear-gunner, gave the order to corkscrew. The shadowy aircraft immediately disappeared as Alex pushed the Lanc into the maneuver. I was completely disoriented, and suddenly a bulbous white light appeared beside us. I was just about to report the fighter’s success to Alex when I realized I was looking at the half moon! I thought it better to make no comment other than that we had shaken off the “enemy.” We would not have many operational trips longer than this nearly eight-hour flight, and we were now ready for operations.

Read more in "The airborne years", a complete 131 page book covering J A Campbell's training in Canada and the UK. His memoirs span 14 OTU at RAF Cottesmore, RAF Saltby, 1654 HCU at RAF Wigsley, training at RAF Fulbeck and then operations on 61 Sqn RAF from RAF Syerston and 463 Sqn RAAF from RAF Waddington. Download or read the entire book free of charge.

J.A. CAMPBELL, MID-UPPER GUNNER IN 463 SQUADRON, RAAF, AND 61 SQUADRON, RAF

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