The Last Mission of Halifax bomber LK632

By  | November 17, 2011 | 3 Comments | Filed under: History

In the early afternoon of 18 November 1943, the crew ofHalifaxbomber aircraft LK632, 431 Squadron, had just finished eating their main meal before their preparations for their evening mission.

The crew was led by Flight Sergeant Wally F. Burge, Pilot, from the Royal Australian Air Force.  The Bomb Aimer was Jerry Potts from the RAF Volunteer Reserve, the man with the ready smile.  Another officer from the RAF Volunteer Reserve was the dual trained Bryan Paul.  He was the Wireless Operator as well as a substitute gunner, if needed. Bryanhad grown up inLincolnshire.

The RAF Vol. Res. also supplied Thomas (Taffy) Roberts, the Flight Engineer and closest thing to a co-pilot there was on theirHalifaxbombers.

In the mid-upper gun turret was W.C. (Bill) Gilchrist, Sergeant (Air Gunner), who hailed fromChipperfield,Saskatchewan. In the Rear Gunner seat (tail turret) was Sergeant (AG) Douglas Gordon Addison, fromOtterville,Ontario.

The final seat for this flight was that of Navigator and that day the position was filled by the dual trained W.J. Nickerson, fromEdmonton,Alberta.  Nickerson was also trained as a Wireless Operator 2 and could fill that seat if required.

The original Navigator in the crew had been Jack Fish, yet another officer of the RAF Vol. Res.  It is unknown when Nickerson replaced Fish, be it after the crew formed back in September 1943, or that very day due to sickness or the like on Mr. Fish’s part.

The crew would have eaten a quiet meal, no doubt lost in their own thoughts.  The last 6 months had seen all of them cover tremendous ground in their training and now, right before their third combat mission, those days seemed like ages ago.

Sgt. Addison began his gunner training only back in May of 1943.  They sent him up in twin engine Avro Anson passenger planes, especially fitted with a rotating gun turret for training purposes.  He was also sent up in single engine Bolton Paul Defiants, a fighter plane fitted with a gun turret, unsuccessful in combat but useful in training.  Sgt. Addison received a 74.1% pass rating for his gunnery courses in these airplanes.

By the time the warm weather of June arrived, Sgt.Addisonhad been advanced to training flights in the gun turrets of the Whitely, the twin engine medium bomber.  Two months were spent in this Operational Training Unit, until August 18, 1943.  At that point it appears that the crew had received a two week vacation, prior to moving to the next level of service.

The aircrew was fully assembled at this time with Jack Fish as Navigator.   This is supported by the photographs which Sgt. Addison had sent home.

On September 4th 1943, the crew began their advanced training with 1659 Conversion Unit.  Wally Burge was the pilot from that point on.  For the next eighteen days, the crew flew eighteen flights (non-combat), all in varying marks ofHalifax.

At the conclusion of their conversion to the heavy bomber, the crew would have all been well aware that they were being assigned to a type ofHalifaxthat was becoming known as a death-trap.  All air and ground crew knew that liquid-cooled V12 inline Rolls Royce Merlin engines were inadequate for the job and in fact theHalifaxhad not even been designed for the Merlin engines.  The aircraft’s designer had specified a Bristol Radial engine, but the Air Ministry refused as theStirlingheavy bomber needed them.  The Merlin engine was the only alternative and they were forced to take the lower powered engines; the high powered ones were needed for the Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Even more worrisome than the low combat speed and low ceiling would have been the increasingly believable stories from the returning crews who saw the Halifax planes screaming earthward in an inverted spiral dive, crashing nose first, all hands on board.  In the end, this turned out to be true, the flaw being with the tail stabilizers.  These were changed on all future bombers built, but the originals were needed in service regardless of the problems.

 

However on November 18, 1943 all this made no difference to the crew as they were being taken out to Halifax LK632.  By that time they would have found out that their target for the night wasLudwigshafen, with its collection of industries, ball bearings being the most important one and a primary target.  The nature of this target meant that they would be expecting a hardened line of defense for the city, which was well intoSouthern Germany.  Ludwigshafenis about 90km northeast ofStuttgartand is nearMannheimandHeidelberg.

A mission this length meant that they were facing a 6 to 7 hour flight in and the same returning, most of it at 17,000 to 18,000 ft.  They would have liked to go much higher, but the Merlin engines simply could not pull a loadedHalifaxany higher.

 

At night in November, facing that many non-stop hours of flight at sub zero temperatures ensured they would all take care to suit up properly to avoid both frost bite and getting so cold they could not function in their jobs.  By the time they began climbing aboard the bigHalifax, it would have been about 3 p.m. Wally the pilot would spend his pre-flight time running down the checklist together with Taffy Roberts, the Flight Engineer who functioned as a second pair of hands and eyes for the pilot.   Taffy was responsible for monitoring fuel flow and supply, propeller pitch along with a bank of instruments.

Nickerson was busy getting his Navigator ‘office’ set up and ensuring that he had all his maps, watch, pencils, paper and charting accessories accounted for.  Bryan Paul was also busy ensuring the radios were properly calibrated and his codes were in order.

Jerry Potts, the Bomb Aimer, didn’t have much to do other than ensure that his bomb sight and bomb bay controls were in proper order and that the ground crew had properly installed and serviced the nose machine gun which he also used.  Of course if anyone else needed a hand with something, he was right there to help.

Bill Gilchrist, the Mid-Upper gunner (a misnomer since there was only one upper gun) spent his time trying to get comfortable on what was a poor excuse for a seat in the turret.  He also went over all the gun and turret parts to ensure they were properly serviced.  Even a bit of excess gun oil can become as thick as cold honey at high altitude.

When Sgt. Addison was fully suited up, the crew always got a kick out of watching him try to ease himself into the cramped glass house of the turret.  Yes, when he had first climbed into similar ones back in training units, it was summer, they weren’t flying too high, and Doug could fly wearing pants, shoes, shirt and a jacket.  The place did not seem so cramped and cold then.  Sure, they were warned about it, but a warning isn’t a real thing.  This was real.  After he pulled on his fleece lined flight pants, fastened up his fleece lined boots so as not to cut off any circulation or leave a cold gap, reefed on his fleeced lined jacket, put on his helmet and gloves, the crew thought he looked like a 20 year old kid wearing a down-filled snowsuit.

He would pull aside the sliding door on the back of the turret to enter it.  Looking into the turret from the back could be seen the very basic seat, with two sunken wells where booted feet were inserted.  Once seated, the sliding door could be closed at his back.  Looking directly out of the turret on the level, vision below the horizon was very poor, filled with equipment housing for the machine gun linkage and the gunsight, the turret power mechanism and, of course the ammunition containers.

Directly in front of the gunner, at lower chest height, was a control handle with which the four .303 machine guns were controlled for the up and down movements.  The lateral moves were done by rotating the turret, which was surprisingly quick.  Many Rear Gunners wondered if they could actually get out of the turret if their plane was hit.  Some did, some didn’t, some never had the chance to try.

By about 4 p.m. the pilots would have been given the order to start the engines, the next half hour spent running through the checklist again while the engines and hydraulics warmed up for the flight.  At 4:30 p.m.-1630 hours- they took off forLudwigshafenon their last flight.  When the squadron was well over theEnglish Channel, Wally would have told the three gunners to check and clear their guns, with an order not to waste too much ammunition.  Sgt. Addison fired off a 2 second burst from his bank of four guns, watching the four streams of intermittent incendiary shells disappear into the now dark sky.  Those four streams of fire from the turret were greatly respected by the German Fliers.  Even flying across the bullet streams meant that their plane was likely going down.

The crew would have been put on alert that they were approaching the coast ofFrance, raising the stress level of the crew a great deal.   The Luftwaffe in late ’43 inFrancewere very serious about their air defense and they were good at their job.  The path flown by 431 Squadron was relatively clear of enemy night fighters this time, and they droned to their target,Ludwigshafen.

At this point our hard knowledge becomes scarce, only leaving the circumstances and context.  Due to anti-aircraft fire, enemy aircraft action or the Halifaxgoing into a death dive caused by the design flaw, LK632 crashed with all hands aboard, near a village in Germanynamed Hohensuelzen, located 75km west of Frankfurt on Main.  A map of that area of Germanyshows that this village is roughly in line with both their flight into and out of the target area.  Since it is known that the plane was reported by witnesses to have gone down sometime around midnight, it is therefore unknown whether the crew died on November 18 or on the 19th.  If they made it to Ludwigshafen, they died on November 19th, but if the plane went down on the way in, they died November 18th.

 

It is known that the Luftwaffe recovered the bodies and buried them with a ceremony at the church cemetery in Hohensuelzen.  There they rested until the war ended, whereupon the Commonwealth Wargraves Commission moved all such military graves to theRheinburgMilitaryCemetery, which is about 45 km northeast ofDusseldorf.  The crew rests there today, together.

 

Postscript

 

There was at least one other 431 SquadronHalifaxBomber, LK640, which went down on the same mission, according to the book “Halifax Squadrons of WWII” byJonLake.  While the Air Ministry did eventually define and correct the imposed flaws of theHalifax, it was too late for too many good young men.

431 Squadron was decommissioned in the few years following the end of the war.  It was reactivated with the inception of a new air unit.  431 Squadron is now the Snowbirds Aerobatic Squadron, based inMoosejaw,Saskatchewan.

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3 Responses to The Last Mission of Halifax bomber LK632

  1. curmudgeon November 17, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Great article Wayne. Too bad we only hear stories such as these in November. To me this is what “lest we forget” is all about. My uncle was a survivor of the SS Nerissa and his telling of his war experience will be with me always. If you are interested go to ssnerissa.com and read the “Herb Coles Rememberance Day” story. Thanks again for a touching story.

  2. Scot Ferguson-Barber November 18, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Curmudgeon, I agree about only hearing these stories in November, We’ll see what we can do to keep them going.
    Wayne, thanks. Good story. It’s important that we get as many of these while we can, we are quickly losing the people that were there.

  3. Robert Ross November 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

    As an aviation nut, I love the stories of the crews who flew in these legendary craft.Most people don’t realize how quickly these planes were designed, built and put into front line service. The story relates the inadequacies of much of the equipment our troops used through-out the war.It was not out of disregard for the air-crews lives, but rather a needed expediency to get something in the air and working.The bravery of the air crews, not just for flying into hostile artillery flak and fighters, but for actually climbing aboard these planes in the first place, is amazing.

    On another note, what do people think of having an air museum at the Waterloo Airport? Would enough people come to visit and do we have enough of a volunteer interest in the area?Just an idea I am throwing out there.We have enough space, it is affordable, just need enough interest from the community and politicians.

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