Plt Off Derek G Lovell.
197 Squadron June 1944 – August 1945
NERO ONE NINE – Just Another Op.
This is the story of a typical operation of a 2nd Tactical Air Force Typhoon Squadron during the winter of 1944/45, following the break out from Normandy and the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945.
A November day in 1944 at Antwerp where our wing of five Typhoon squadrons had been based on a pre-war airport called Deurne in Belgium, since October. The wing had arrived here via Lille after the battle of Normandy.
Of the five 146 Typhoon Wing squadrons, four were rocket firing squadrons (193, 257, 263 and 266 squadrons) and one was a specialist dive / low-level ground attack bomber squadron: 197 Squadron – call sign Nero. My call sign was Nero 19.
“Mr. Lovell! Mr. Lovell! Mr. Lovell!”
Slowly I come out of deep sleep in a nice warm camp bed.
“Mr. Lovell, it’ s half past five, briefing in three-quarters of an hour.”
It was Taffy our batman and the call to action.
Tumble out of bed, don shirt, thick white sweater, battledress top and trousers, sea boot socks, escape flying boots, gun belt, revolver and silk scarf.
Out into the dark, cold, frosty morning and to the mess for early breakfast. Who wants breakfast at this hour in the morning? Stomach and nervous tension say a definite no to porridge, greasy egg and bacon and sawdust-tasting soya sausage. But to a good mug of hot sweet tea? Yes!
In saying no to food one is only too aware that one ought to eat in case one gets shot down, taken prisoner and, perhaps, has a long wait for the next meal.
Look around the mess to see who else has been called for the first operation of the day. See that I am in good company. The Squadron C.O., B Flight Commander and five of B flight’s old hands, plus me. Not much chatter. So down to the operations tent and briefing.
On the blackboard are our eight names under the heading of Nero, two sections of four. Green section is led by the CO. Yellow section, the flight commander. I am yellow three with Paddy behind me as my number two and Jock in front, yellow leader’s number two.
Next to the list is a map with the target marked on it – the railway marshalling yards at Utrecht, again. It is where the enemy brings the V2 rockets on their way to the launching sites directed at Antwerp or London.
The C.O. briefs us after the intelligence officer explains where the rocket wagons are placed and, importantly, where the anti-aircraft guns (flak) are placed.
The attack is to be a dive bombing attack from 8000 feet. Each aircraft carries two 1000lb bombs, one under each wing. We are to approach from the South avoiding the 88mm and 40mm flak sites across the Rhine as best we can.
“Check watches, press tit time( engine starting time) in 20 minutes.”
We all pile into and onto the C.O.’s jeep, which was designed to seat four not eight, and out to aircraft dispersal. We dismount at the 3-ton truck which acts as the flight sergeant’s office. We each sign for our aircraft. I have OV – S which I consider to be mine. Into the next truck to collect parachute, life jacket (called a mae west), my flying helmet and fireproof gloves. Then out to our aircraft. I hand my chute to one of my mechanics who puts it into my aircraft.
Meanwhile I, like the rest, have a “panic pee” near the tail wheel, taking care to avoid the tyre as urine tends to rot the rubber. Then check over the outside of the aircraft, making sure that the main wheel tyres are okay – a burst tyre on take-off can be lethal.
Tie up my mae west, clamber up into the cockpit and with the help of the two mechanics, strap myself in, on with helmet and gloves, plug into the radio socket and oxygen.
At this point, my engine mechanic hands me another mug of hot sweet tea for a welcome swig to moisten a dry, anticipatory mouth. Up until now, nervous tension has been dominant. That is about to change as I begin the start-up procedure which keeps me busy – and busy I will be – for the next hour or so.
Oxygen on; radio on and to the right channel. Check flying controls are moving freely and in the right way. Trim wheelset, propeller pitch fully fine, throttle slightly open, flaps 15 degrees, petrol tanks full and switched on to main tanks, engine primer pumps open and ready, harness tight, oxygen flowing okay, bomb switches off, gun button off, gun sight on.
Check time – one minute to go before “press tit” time. Prime engine, switches on, fingers on starter buttons – ready. The seconds tick by. I hear the hiss and coughing roar as the CO starts. Then we all join in.
The starter cartridge fires, the prop turns, hesitates, and then continues. Flames and smoke belch out of the exhausts, and the mighty Napier Sabre engine’s 2400 horsepower bursts into life. Press home the primer pumps. Check all instruments are working; set the giro compass against the main compass, set the altimeter, oil pressure okay, brake pressure okay, now we’re ready to go.
Wait for the CO to move. There he goes, followed by the rest of green section. Waive the chocks away, thumbs up to the mechanics and I follow yellow one and yellow two.
We all zig-zag towards the runway – zig-zagging so as to see ahead around the massive sabre engine in front of the cockpit.
At the end of the runway, we all turn half left, heave back in the stick and open the throttle to test all is well by switching off and on the two magnetos one at a time. The revs don’t drop so all is well. Set 15 degrees of flap, and close the hood. We are ready.
“Nero Leader to Bradshaw (flying control) clear to take off?”
“Bradshaw to Nero Leader, clear to take off, wind 250 degrees, 15 knots over”
The CO lines up on the right of the runway with green 2 on his left and slightly behind. The rest of us follow suit – green three right, green four left and so on.
There is a mighty roar as the CO opens up to full throttle and off he goes, with green two close by, slowly at first but quickly gathering pace, half way down the runway they are followed by green 3 and 4 then the rest of us follow.
As it gathers speed the Typhoon, in its eagerness to get going, gives the pilot a mighty push from behind. The rumble of the wheels stops, we are airborne. Wheels up – follow yellow one and two as they slowly turn left as we climb away, 200 feet, flaps up.
Climbing on course for the target.
“Nero aircraft, channel 2” (change of radio frequency to group control)
As we climb, we move into battle formation, to sections of four, green on the right, yellow down sun on the left and slightly above. Each section is in two pairs. The leader with his number 2 on one side and 3 and 4 on the other. The aircraft are about 200 feet apart and slightly behind each other, like the fingers on a hand.
Eight thousand feet, level out and throttle back to cruising speed.
Eyes on swivels, watching out for any enemy aircraft and for flak!
Check all instruments are saying what they should say. Check the map to see where we are. Check in the right position on the right of yellow one, 100 yards away and slightly behind his tailplane.
There is the river Maas and there is the enemy front line, and here comes the heavy 88mm flak. Big black puffs of smoke, in fours, just in front. There’s another four, closer this time, too close for comfort!
“Nero aircraft weave” calls the CO.
We all start by varying our height by 2-300 feet, some go up some down, then change. All this to upset the enemy’s radar and the next bursts show way behind and below. It does not always work, but it does this time. The 88 mm flak stops and soon we stop weaving.
There ahead is Utrecht and just outside the town the target – the marshalling yards.
“Nero aircraft, echelon starboard.”
We get to the right of our respective leaders. Yellow section moves to the right of green. And here comes the medium flak, 40mm with red tracer bullets every sixth one hose-piping round the sky.
“Uh, oh, redskins”, calls out one of the Nero pilots.” (Don’t worry we have all seen them.)
There is the target, to the left and just behind (at 7 o’clock). Check gunsight on, bomb switches on, finger on the release button on the top of the throttle. Gun button on the control column, thumb at the ready.
Up goes the starboard wing of the C.O. and over and down he goes in a 60-degree dive. Followed, on the count of three, by the rest of us in turn.
Flak is coming up thick and furious; now 20mm flak has joined in, bursting grey puffs all around. The ground is coming up fast. Start firing my four cannons aiming to hit some flak sites.
There is a big explosion in front of me – someone is hit and has exploded – a ball of fire tumbles to the ground.
3,000 feet, target in gunsight, ease stick back a bit, 2,500 feet. Bombs away, two clicks and a slight jump as 2000lbs of bombs leave the aircraft.
Now pull out of the dive good and hard, nearly black out; full throttle hard left rudder to skid the aircraft to make it a bit more difficult for the flak gunners to hit – I hope.
8,000 feet again, circling left with the rest of the squadron. A quick look below, lots of black smoke and explosions – target well hit.
Reform in sections and make for home. Quick count, only seven. Who is missing, green four?
Flak has stopped, but still need to keep our eyes open for enemy fighters (“bandits”).
There is the Rhine and here comes that 88mm flak again, weave as before. No one hit thank goodness.
We are now over friendly territory, so can relax a bit. I always started singing to myself “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”
We slowly start to descend, 4,000 feet – there’s flak bursting below us. What’s going on?
We all look hard. There below us is a VI, a flying bomb or “doodle-bug” on its way to Antwerp and our anti-aircraft doodle-bug screen is after it. Suddenly, there is a big explosion and it is gone, so has the flak.
“Nero aircraft, channel one”
“Hello Bradshaw, Nero leader approaching from the north”
“Roger Nero leader, clear to land. Runway 240, wind 20 knots”
“Nero aircraft line astern, go”
Each section gets behind its leader and yellow section is on the right.
Down we come towards the runway, as we reach the beginning at 300 feet the CO pulls up, going left and on the count of three we each follow in what is called a stream landing. The idea is to get us all down as quickly as possible. Up to 1,000 feet parallel to the runway. Throttle back, radiator flap down, undercarriage down (“clonk, clonk” as the two main wheels lock), and three green lights confirm all three wheels are locked. Propeller pitch fully fine, turning left again now down to 500 ft, left again lining up with the runway. In front, the CO, on the left of the runway, green two to the right and so on. Over the boundary, cut the throttle, touch down, keep straight, don’t run into the one in front.
Turn off at the end of the runway. Flaps up, taxi back to dispersal. Waved into position by a mechanic. Stop, brakes on, switch off engine, switch off petrol, radio and oxygen.
All is suddenly very quiet.
Mechanics on wing:” All O.K.”. ” Engine?” Great”. “Any jammed guns?”
“Any flak holes?”
“Don’t think so”
Undo seat harness, unplug radio, disconnect oxygen, release parachute harness, clamber out.
Gather with the rest of the squadron in the centre of a ring of aircraft. Light cigarette. All on a high having survived another op.
Tough about green four, direct hit – new bod too, only his third op. It often happens that way.
De-brief by an intelligence officer.
“Target well hit, big explosions, lots of flak, no enemy aircraft sighted”.
Point out the latest flak positions on his map.
Return flying gear to truck. Tell Chiefy the Flight Sergeant: “All well with the aircraft thank you”.
Wander back to the mess for a much-needed breakfast of porridge, greasy egg, bacon and soya sausage – and more sweet tea! It is still only half past eight. Time to wash and shave. There will probably be another briefing in an hour or so.
Pilot Officer Derek Lovell
May 5, 1922 – March 1, 2019