His name was Flight Sergeant Neville Lloyd Sorensen, and on this day in 1944, the Lancaster on which he served was shot down. There were no survivors.
Although I wouldn't be born for another 40 years, he was my great-uncle. And nothing brings the reality of this stuff home like when it happens to family.
He joined the Royal Australian Air Force in late 1941, passed the flying course at Nerrandera and so was sent to Saskatoon, Sasketchwan, in mid-1942 for bomber training. There he flunked the pilot's course and so re-trained as an air gunner, which is how he saw active service, starting with the historic 115 Squadron of the RAF in late 1943.
115 Sqn is still around actually, today as a training unit, but in 1944 it was at the forefront of Churchill's vision for a flatter Germany, equipped with Mk.I Lancasters. Although I haven't been able to find out exactly which turret he manned, family tradition is that he was a tail gunner, or an "Arse-end Charlie" as they called them, put in charge of a Frazer-Nash FN121 hydraulically-operated turret mounting four .303 Browning machine guns – the same guns that the Spitfire had already shown weren't punchy enough to take down the armoured German warplanes. But the feeble defenses weren't what really raised the hairs on my neck, it was the escape system. The way the turret was designed, once you were in, you couldn't leave until you returned to base. If the order came to abandon ship, you had to open the turret doors behind you, fumble for and clip on your parachute, rotate the turret 90 degrees, and then fall out backwards, like a scuba diver.
It was a job that took considerable sang-froid, as this excerpt from Bomber Command Museum makes clear:
The gun turret of a Bomber Command aircraft during a night operation was the coldest, loneliest, place in the sky. Whereas other crew-members enjoyed some comfort from the proximity of others in the forward section of the aircraft, the mid-upper gunner spent the trip suspended on a canvas sling seat, his lower body in the draughty fuselage and his head and shoulders in the plexiglass dome. The rear gunner was even more removed from his fellow crewmembers and any heating system. Suspended in space at the extreme end of the fuselage, "Arse-end Charlie" was subject to the most violent movements of the aircraft. Squeezed into the cramped metal and perspex cupola, the rear gunner had so little leg space that some had to place their flying boots into the turret before climbing in themselves...The general unpleasantness of the role is brought home by another veteran's memoirs, outlined in a story by the Daily Mail:
When operating on night operations at low temperatures the air gunner's view was often restricted by frost forming on the plexiglass. It became common, despite the added discomfort, for gunners to remove the centre panel of glass to ensure good visibility. So with temperatures at 20,000 feet reaching -40 degrees, frostbite was a regular occurrence.
The Anson took off for the Bristol Channel, where shooting practice would be carried out. The object of the flight was for the three new gunners to each fire 200 rounds of ammunition at a target drogue being towed by a single-engined Martinet aircraft. At a height of 5,000ft, with the Anson rising and sinking at irregular intervals, the instructor called the first gunner to the mid-upper turret. He quickly rattled off his rounds and in the process filled the fuselage with cordite fumes which, mixed with the other smells, produced a nauseating stench, doing nothing to help my stomach, my sweating or my headache.Cordite hasn't been used since WWII, but it was made from the same stuff as nail polish remover, so it must've been pretty nauseating stuff. Further down, there's a vivid description of actual operations as they bomb Frankfurt.
The second boy only worsened the situation. It was with some reluctance that I left my seat to try my hand at this shooting lark.
After struggling to lever myself up into the turret I found myself sitting in the smallest smoke-filled sauna ever seen. My head was stuck up in the Perspex dome like a light bulb in an upturned goldfish bowl. Sweat dripped from my nose.
I had no room to move my foot, let alone my body.
"Commence firing in your own time," the instructor commanded.
I discovered that when the hand grips were twisted towards me, the guns elevated and down went the seat; twist them away, down went the guns and up went the seat. A seesaw, no less. The combination of this, the motion of the plane, the stench and the heat turned me green.
I squeezed the triggers of the guns to get the whole performance over with as quickly as possible. The turret vibrated, the deafening noise drowned the drone of the engines. Cordite fumes invaded my nostrils until I could hardly breathe.
A sharpish turn, followed by a levelling off, brought us in direct line with the target, the last leg of our route. After some 15 minutes I rotated my turret to face forward and could not believe what I saw.Neville flew seven missions like that – Chambly, Le Mans, Dortmund, Duisburg, Aachen, that sort of thing. Seven long, icy, noisy, exhausting missions, too tensed up to be bored, eyes peering into inky deep blue of the night sky, hoping like hell they were well-adjusted enough to see the shadowy outline of a Luftwaffe night fighter closing in before its guns opened up.
Hundreds of beams were searching the sky for a victim, but what staggered me most was the flak.
The sky in front was one mass of bursting shells, never-ending flashes covering the whole of Frankfurt. Surely it was impossible to fly through such a ring of metal without being hit?
In this virtual daylight we could see scores of bombers sweeping across the city, then, to my amazement, a Ju 88 night fighter appeared not 100 yards away. "Ju 88, port side down. See it, Russ?" came Gib's urgent voice.
"Got it," I answered, swinging my sight just in front of the enemy's nose. The fighter was flying a parallel course and never wavered.
We were well aware that our .303-calibre weapons were as pop-guns compared to his lethal cannon, but somehow he had not seen us in the flickering light.
"Let sleeping dogs lie," I said. "We'll watch to see if he makes a move."
He slid underneath us, the dials in his cockpit glowing turquoise. Whipping my head over to the starboard side, I heaved a sigh of relief as he reappeared and drifted away, oblivious that he had stopped my heart from beating for a full two minutes.
"Bomb doors open," called Brick. Wherever I looked, a searing flash appeared every few seconds, followed by a greyish ball of smoke.
The Lanc shuddered time and again, rising and falling as she ploughed on. I could hear nothing of those exploding shells, but the smell of cordite was strong.
Up went the port wing alarmingly as a shell exploded below it. "Blast it," shouted Brick. "Hold the bloody thing steady. Left, left. Beautiful. Hold it. Bombs gone."
The Lanc lifted appreciably as the load and she parted company. We flew straight and level for a minute to allow the camera in the bomb bay to take its photographs, then Brick called: "Bomb doors closed, nose down and home James."
The primary role of the air gunner was not to shoot down enemy aircraft. Rather it was to perform the role of a lookout. After hours of staring into the blackness, his shouting into the intercom of, "Corkscrew port now!" would have the pilot instantly begin a series of violent evasive maneuvers, throwing the heavy bomber around the sky. Generally if an enemy fighter pilot knew he had been seen, no attempt would be made to follow the bomber through its gyrations. Rather he would seek out another aircraft, hopeful that it might have a less alert air gunner. Many air gunners completed their tour of operations without firing a single shot in anger. (Bomber Command Museum)The "corkscrew" manoeuvre was a hard left or right bank with a sharp decent, so that the aircraft described a corkscrew path through the sky. The reason the German night fighters wouldn't try to follow was because the "Lichtenstein" radar they used could only see a cone 60 degrees wide, a fact the British were well aware of because a Bf 110 crew had mistakenly followed the wrong beacon one night and landed at an RAF base instead of their own in France. The machinery had been carefully disassembled and scrutinised by the Allies, discovering the 60-degree weakness that gave the bomber crews a crucial joker to play: with a sharp enough turn you could leave their scopes and escape.
Except when you didn't.
Neville's last flight, in a Lancaster with the tail number LL956, took off from Witchford, East Cambridgeshire, at four minutes past midnight on 1 June 1944. The targets that night were the west railway marshalling yards at Trappes, which for some reason I always assumed was in Germany, but turn out to be just west of Paris. A tough target: probably not especially well-defended, but I remember the Nuclear Warfare 101 essay remarking, "Believe me railway marshalling yards are a whirling son of a bitch to take down. They are virtually invulnerable to airbursts; we have to groundburst a blast directly on the yard." And that's with a nuclear warhead. With conventional iron bombs, you just have to do the sums, work out how many planes you need to send, and then trust to probability. Bomber Command sent 219 aircraft against Trappes that night – 125 Lancasters, 86 Halifaxes and 8 Mosquitos. The raid was a success, but four Lancasters were lost. Including LL956.
The culprit was a Messerschmitt Bf 110, a twin-engined heavy fighter, what Göring had called a Zerstörer or destroyer (literally after a naval destroyer). A classic piece of pre-war theorising that turned out to be wrong, the concept had been that only a bigger plane with space for more fuel would have the range to fly into enemy airspace and wrest control of the sky from them, hence the beefy twin-engine design and two- (or three-) man crew. Their intended mission was to accompany Luftwaffe bombers and engage and destroy any short-range interceptors sent up to interfere. This they did okay from Poland to France, but once up against the Spitfire their day was done – couldn't turn, couldn't climb, couldn't run. You were better off taking a short-ranged but more nimble airframe like the 109 and giving it external fuel tanks, which is more or less what we do to this day.
So instead they were converted to night fighters by fitting them with radar operated by the second crew member, who also reloaded the Schräge Musik rear guns, if any, and operated the radio (though he wasn't called the Funkmeister, I was disappointed to learn – there, my first awful German pun, enjoy it). Busiest man in the air, certainly, and key to their operations. Night interception sounds more like submarine fighting than air battles – vectoring in on instructions from your radarman, seeking the weapon of mass destruction hiding in the black... or conversely, trying to stay hidden in the black while knowing all along there's nothing between you and the predators, holding fire until fired upon because muzzle flashes were like blood in the water...
If Neville really was Arse-end Charlie on that flight, then he'd have been the first to die, hosed out by MG FF 20mm cannon so the German pilot could saddle up on the bomber and shoot it down without further trouble. Exactly who that pilot was we don't know, but it's been narrowed down to either Hauptmann (equivalent to Captain) Hubert Rauth or Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Ernst-Georg Drünkler. I'm amazed and grateful our historians have got it even that specific. At the time, Rauth was flying for Nachtjagdgeschwader 4 (one of those German Franken-words; "Night Hunter Wing 4," usually abbreviated NJG4), while Drünkler was Staffelkapitän (squadron-leader) of a Staffel of NJG5 (1st or 13th, my sources differ). If it was Rauth, it was one of 31 confirmed kills over the course of the war. If it was Drünkler, then it was his 11th victory on his way to a total of 47, 45 of them at night. Both survived the war (Drünkler dying in 1997, Rauth in 2005) with an impressive set of decorations for bravery, both including the Knight's Cross, the second-highest medal an airman could earn – and the highest was given only once, to Göring himself, so arguably it was never earned at all.
|On the left, Drünkler; on the right, Rauth.|
True aerial warriors, then, flying in defence of their homeland, however insane its current leadership. And that night, only 72 years ago, one of them fired the rounds that catapulted my great-uncle and six others into eternity. The wreck crashed at Rambouillet, south south-west of Paris, and the Germans were only able to identify two of them before burial. Then, of course, the Allies landed at Normandy and re-opened ground fighting in western Europe, and the Germans suddenly had other things to think about. As a result, the flight log, which I've seen with my own eyes, lists all six of his previous missions, complete with very British details about rounds fired etc, and then thumps you in the gut with the words "Trappes" and "Missing." Neville's mother, father and sole remaining brother – my grandfather – didn't receive confirmation that he really was dead for another two years. Only once the war was over did the authorities have the luxury of investigating each individual plane crash, confirming that the dead truly were lost, and interring the remains in Dreux Communal Cemetery.
And that was the story of him, over at 21.
That's the real tragedy to me nowadays. I used to get annoyed whenever anyone said, "they lost their lives," or "they gave their lives," because it sounded like a euphemism, which with regard to war is another word for lying. Say what really happened, I thought: they were killed! But now I'm not so sure. As a kid I thought 21 sounded like a ripe old age, but now, about to turn 31, the idea turns my heart to jelly. Being killed is nothing compared to losing your life, to never even having it in the first place; that's too awful for words. Twenty-fucking-one. No wife alternately nagging and adorable, no kids making endless noise until they suddenly go quiet and make you suspicious, no chance to take over dad's gardening business and take it to the next level, or strike out with a new idea to become your own man. He never got to see man land on the Moon, or celebrate the Olympic Games in Melbourne, or see the dawn of the atomic age, or threaten me with a spade at a family get-together like that time grandpa did... none of that. Not ever.
Instead he joined the Air Force, probably thinking it was his duty or a chance to get out and do something grand, and from the stories of the last war, that it was the best option. But the truth was you were probably better off in the infantry this time around; fully half of Arther Harris's aircrew ended up on the butcher's bill, 44.4% of them dead, another 7% wounded in some capacity. That's what happens when you combine the survival rates for Air Crash Investigations and Saving Private Ryan, I suppose. I'm pretty sure only the shtrafniki could match that kind of death rate.
And all for five-eights of fuck-all, as far as I can tell. Neither Bomber Command nor the 8th Air Force really did much to swing the war. The factories they bombed were usually back up to capacity within a fortnight. Railway lines? Ask the boys repairing them today how hard they are to fix. You might crash a train, but only if you timed it right. No, the main contribution of the bombing campaign was that every 88 stacked outside Berlin firing flak at bombers was one less to point at Stalin's T-34s in the east. Seems awfully expensive relative the benefits. I suppose no matter what era, war is cruelty and you can't refine it.
|But you're not gone as long as someone remembers.|
(Up the back, behind the dweeb with the glasses, with the deeply impressed facial expression)