A Rookie Pilot's Nightmare

Bomber crews who flew toward the end of the war, when there were fewer German fighters in the air, were sometimes considered to have an easier ride. But not always, as told in this hair-raising excerpt from Leo Richer’s memoirs called I Flew the Lancaster Bomber.

Before his death I was fortunate enough to interview this very articulate and personable man, and that’s when he gave me a much-appreciated copy of his book.

I wanted to write about a Canadian veteran this week, because today, September 10, 2014, is our seventy-fifth anniversary -- not of the outbreak of  World War Two, but Canada's entry into the war.

Britain declared war on September 3, 1939. Canada's Parliament, to demonstrate our independence from the Mother Country, deliberated for an entire seven days, and then declared war on September 10.

*****

Leo Richer grew up in a small town called Iroquois Falls in northern Ontario, where his father worked for a paper company. He was one of eight children, so he had to leave school early and work in the mill to help support his family.

Although he had his heart set on being a pilot, at the start of the war the RCAF would only accept university graduates.

But by 1942, the RCAF was recruiting anybody with a Grade 8 education. Leo passed the IQ test and the physical with flying colours and trained in Canada until May 1944 before arriving in England to start flying heavy bombers. Here’s the cover of Leo’s very battered logbook.

This page shows his first solo flight on a Tiger Moth, near the bottom right, dated July 12, 1943, at No. 10 Elementary Flight Training School in Pendleton, Ontario.

On September 8, 1943, he began his next level of training on Harvards at No. 2 Service Flight Training School at Uplands, just outside Ottawa.

In spring 1944 Leo finally set sail for England and began to train on twin-engine bombers, and then on the mighty four-engine Lancaster.

Here is Leo, standing at the centre, surrounded by his crew. (To read my previous post about another Lancaster bomber pilot, who coincidentally also flew with RAF Squadron 90, click: The Case of the Reluctant Bomb Aimer.) 

Leo was still quite inexperienced during his training flights when he crashed his Lancaster in December 1944. He was trying to land at RAF East Kirkby with only two functioning engines and misjudged his speed. Although the Lanc crashed into a pasture and broke into two pieces, luckily everyone survived with minor injuries, except a poor horse that died when it was struck by the starboard wing.

The entry in his logbook on the bottom right reads: “TARGET HARD TO SEE. CRASHED AT EAST KIRKBY. NO-ONE HURT BAD. COMPLETE WRITEOFF.”

Leo still had little practice with formation flying when he finally made his first bombing mission to Wesel, Germany on February 18, 1945. Here’s how he describes it:

“Flying a Lanc in formation was a formidable task. I had only about six to eight hours of formation flying on single-engined Harvards at Uplands Air Force Flying School in Ottawa.

"I soon learned that you kept at least 50 feet behind the Lanc ahead of you. His slipstream could stand you on your tail. We hadn’t been briefed on formation flying in a Lanc. Just get up there, chaps, and have a go at it. Typical English!

"You had to try to anticipate the deceleration or acceleration of your leader. With a wallowing, overladen aircraft, you worked your ass off just to keep within sight of him.”

(For an idea of how frightening it was to fly in formation, watch the movie Memphis Belle. Read more by clicking: Ten Flyer Flicks Worth Watching.)

This wartime photo shows about eighty aircraft in one photograph. It's difficult to imagine one thousand of them flying together in a gigantic bomber stream. (To read my previous post about the only four remaining Lancasters with operational engines in the world today, click Love Those Lancasters.)

To continue Leo's story:

“We took off individually and formed up at a designated rendezvous, or so we were supposed to. Trust me to screw up on my first Ops. I stooged around at the 10,000-feet level, looking for my squadron, finally saying to hell with it and deciding to go it alone.

"There were lots of Lancs aloft – it was a 1,000-bomber raid – so I just latched on to the nearest squadron and joined in the fun . . . I don’t recall how many Lancs went down my first Op. I was scared shitless and just wanted to drop our bombs and get the hell home.

“It was a horrifying experience, watching a mortally-hit Lancaster go slowly spiraling down, trailing a dark plume of smoke, hoping against hope that he would be able to bail out and stay alive.”

Leo made it back to base with crew and aircraft intact, but he was surprised to find that his crew was marked down to go out again the very next night, to the same target of Wesel, Germany.

However, this time the raid would be led by an expert: Peter Francis Dunham.

“Today was to be a red-letter day. Wing Commander Dunham was to lead our squadron and the whole 1,000-bomber raid on this operation.

“Wing Commander Dunham had enlisted in the RAF in 1935. He was an air gunner when war broke out and did thirty ops in that capacity. He then remustered as a navigator and completed another tour.

"The man seemed to have a charmed life. The German fighter planes were plentiful in those early years and they were deadly. Many crews got shot down on their first mission. He had a lot of fight left in him so he asked to be sent to a pilot training school. He flew another thirty missions over Germany.”

(Peter Francis Dunham had already received the Distinguished Flying Cross. An item in the London Gazette on December 23, 1941, read: “This officer has displayed great courage and leadership, often descending to low altitudes to ensure accuracy of bombing. On two occasions, when acting as captain, his aircraft has been attacked by fighters, but in both instances the enemy was destroyed and the mission completed. Flight Lieutenant Dunham has displayed great ability and devotion to duty.”)

“When my crew and I reported in at Tuddenham, 90 Squadron, (which we soon called Muddenham because of the rain), there he was. A very personable man, with a thatch of red hair and a handlebar moustache.

“He introduced himself right off the bat, bellied up to the bar and bought me a beer. He plied me with queries: my hometown in Canada, where I had trained, what planes I had flown, was I married or single, what did I think of the Lanc, etc.

“I was impressed that a wingo would even take time out to talk to a lowly sprog, let alone buy me a beer. Of course, I had no idea then that he was a 100-mission man. He never so much as hinted at that, but I guessed he’d been around a while by the ribbons under his wings and on his dress uniform, and the fact that he was a wingco.

“He drank gin and orange and, if you used the phone after him, you first had to wipe off the mouthpiece. His generous moustache would always tell you he’d been there. He lived life to the fullest; always had a smile and a cheerful greeting. And if one of us had a problem of any kind, he would gladly sit down and sort it all out with you. All air crews thought the world of him and were happy to have such a man as our wingco.

“The group captain, overall commanding officer of 90 Squadron, was dead set against Dunham flying any more missions. He had been a World War One pilot and he realized the odds could work against you if you pushed your luck too far. So when Dunham volunteered to lead this raid on Wesel, the C.O. tried his best to dissuade him, but to no avail.

"Dunham was determined, as was his crew, to be on this mission. Of course, he could be very charming and persuasive when he chose to be. The group captain, having been there himself many years ago, finally gave in and gave him the green light.

“After briefing, my Lancaster called WP-Y was to be on the left of the leader, Dunham. That was the Lanc assigned to us that day, my crew and me. Boy, was I ever excited! I couldn’t wait to catch up with Dunham and shake his hand and thank him. I knew he had done this to make it easier for me, being at the head of the formation, with no slipstream to worry about.

“Luckily, the cloud base was fairly high on takeoff, so I was able to catch up with Dunham and stay in half-decent formation while we struggled for altitude. A Lanc, with a 12,000-pound bomb in her belly, some 2,000 gallons of high-octane gas aboard, plus her own weight, added up to a staggering 35 tons or so.

“I think I probably lost five or six pounds on some of those first trips. I’d be wringing wet after every operation and couldn’t wait to get to the bathhouse. Showers and soaking relaxed those jangled nerves.

“Wesel was heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns and they were plentiful and fairly accurate. We were at 22,000 feet, well over thick cloud cover, when those same guns opened up, peppering the sky with their exploding black puffs. My eyes were glued on Dunham’s Lanc, waiting for his bomb doors to open when we would do the same.

“Then it happened. I think I screamed over the intercom to the bomb aimer: “Bomb doors, open!”

“About two seconds later, BOOM! Dunham and his crew were blown into eternity!

“We felt the shock wave; we were that close. I think I was in a kind of shock. The deputy commander on Dunham’s right took over, and we both dropped our bombs.

“I knew it had happened. Dunham was gone.

"His lucky streak finally strung out, but the irony of it all: here I was just on my second operation, flying erratically 30 or 40 feet away from Dunham, scared all to hell, and he gets the direct hit.

“Since then, I’ve been a firm believer in that popular saying: “When your time is up, you’re gone.”

Leo’s logbook shows the history of that fateful raid:

"CLOUD ALL THE WAY -- 9/10 OVER TARGET. FORMATION GOOD 'TIL TARGET. FLAK -- VERY ACCURATE -- SQD'N WING-CO. BLEW UP IN P-PETER."

Readers, I went looking online for a photograph of Peter Francis Dunham. I didn’t find one, but amazingly, a photograph exists of the very explosion that blew him to bits, taken by one of the automatic cameras installed in every bomber to assess bomb damage.

I found a reference to the accident online, and ordered the book from my public library called Lancaster at War 4: Pathfinder Squadron, by Alex Thorne, and scanned the photograph here. (The checkered effect results from the grain of the paper.)

When you look at the tiny Lancasters flying around this gigantic fireball (and one of them shown here, I’m betting, is being piloted by Leo Richer) you appreciate the magnitude of the explosion.

The commander’s aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire before he dropped his bombs, which exploded on impact. Death for all aboard would have been instantaneous.

The caption below the photograph reads:

“ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING: A common announcement on BBC Radio most evenings, exemplified here by the “death” of Lancaster PD336 of 90 Squadron over Wesel on 19 February 1945, as its 10,000-lb. high-explosive bomb load detonates after a direct hit from German flak. Crown Copyright.”

This incident was excerpted from Leo’s short but interesting 76-page book of memoirs, I Flew the Lancaster Bomber, describing his early life, his days in the RCAF, and his later years.

It has been reissued by his family and is now available as a paperback from Amazon. To order it, click here: I Flew the Lancaster Bomber. The cost is about $7.00 for a paperback, and $1.00 for an e-book.

Leo Richer flew until August 1945. One of his duties after the war ended was bringing home the freed prisoners of war from the continent in his Lancaster.

After his return to Canada, he moved west to Windermere, British Columbia, where he started a water taxi business with his sister Edmae, a former Wren (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service). He named his water taxi R-Roger after the Lancaster.

In 1947 he married Winnifred Foster of London, Ontario, who had served in the Wrens with Edmae. They eventually purchased the general store and post office in the village of Windermere. Leo was also a well-known local musician who played in various bands all his life. The couple had two children, Roger and Sherry. Roger is now a successful lawyer in Vancouver, and daughter Sherry is a retired teacher in Ontario.

Leo died on August 18, 2000. Rest in Peace, Leo Richer.

            MY FAVOURITE VETERANS

Leo Richer's wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in printed book form.

To read more about the book, click: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes. To order a signed copy for $35.00 Canadian, email me at elinor1@telus.net or call me at 250-342-1621.

You may also purchase a copy from Amazon by clicking here: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes.

                            * * * * *             

                  STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image dated October 18, 1941 showing an RAF bomber dropping bombs on a Nazi camp. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

                        About My Novel

  • Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction about a young Canadian woman who serves as an aerial photo interpreter in World War Two. In 2016 it was named a Canadian bestseller by both The Globe & Mail, and The Toronto Star. It's available as a trade paperback through any bookstore, and also as an ebook. To order online from Amazon, click Bird's Eye View. It's also available from Amazon's U.S. and U.K. websites.

                    About My Website

  • All blog posts are indexed by subject and title on this page. Scroll to the top of this page to see the list, and enter your email address to subscribe to Wartime Wednesdays. If you enjoy it, please share through Facebook, Twitter, email or just an old-fashioned phone call!

                     About My Events

  • You can see a complete list of my upcoming events on my Events page by clicking the link at the top of this page. You can also see a list of discussion questions for Book Clubs by clicking: Events.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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