A Veteran’s First-hand Account of Surviving World War Two as a RAF Bomber Pilot
Capt. Donald Macintosh flew over 40 raids from D day until May 1945. These attacks included 3 attacks on battleship Tirpitz, 1 destroyer in Gdynia harbour, 2 heavy gun emplacements, 3 dams, 2 oil refineries, 4 viaducts, 3 bridges, 3 submarine pens, 1 ammo dump, 2 flying bomb sites, 2 cities and finally, hitting Adolf Hitler’s home at Berchtesgaden on April 2 1945.
After the war he flew for another 30 years in civil flying some of which was almost as lethal as wartime. Based in the Bahamas, he flew Yorks and Lancastrians for British South American Airways and then went on to fly the world’s first passenger jet, Comet 1, to Africa and the Far East.
Learn the true account of life as a World War 2 bomber pilot in this intense book presented to us by www.worldwarbombers.com. In this spellbinder, all 14,300 words of it has been written with revealing honesty, imagination, insight and candour. To get you started and provided an glimse, the interview below was conducted with Captain F/L Donald Macintosh RAF Bomber Pilot in October of 2006
Donald, can you just explain to everyone how long you were in the armed forces, what year it was etc.?
I volunteered and joined actually in September 1941 and I got out in July 1946.
You started in 41. Was that training or…
Well, first of all there was quite an extensive ground course, and that was done in Newquay during the Winter of 41 / 42, and then we were sent overseas. Eventually I trained in Florida, number 5BFTS.
And how long was all this?
Florida I was there from…, it all takes time, because you get held up at holding places. Don’t forget there was bit of a… almost like a factory there. Thousands and thousands being trained at various schools there. Anyhow, very briefly I arrived in Florida in 1942 in September, the hurricane season. I went through from 42 to about 9 months actually in training then. There was still a ground school there. I had a selection course in England for 10- hours on Tiger Moths and then the complete course in Florida. I was starting on PT…
Stearmans, PT17…What kind of planes are those?
It was about twice the weight of a Tiger Moth there, a biplane, a primary trainer right. And then we graduate on… if you were OK, graduated on to Harvards. You know what a Harvard is, do you?
That’s a AT6A, a steel monoplane there…
Does that look a little bit like a Spitfire?
Well… (chuckle) vaguely. The thing about it was a mono-plane and it was metal, so in that case yes. We did a total of somewhere about 220 hours there.
So, that was enough to be a bomber pilot?
No no, no no, that was just the start, right? Then we went up to Canada across the Atlantic and then back to England, and then from the… from the Autumn of 1943 we went on to twin engine Oxfords there, to start to bring us up to heavy bombers, right? So that was a light-twin there. We did some number of hours. If I can find it in my log book there.
Did you fly over into Europe or…?
No no, this was purely training, right? And then we went the biggest step of all actually was from this light twin on to Wellingtons, which was a bomber in which we did do one trip. We called it a Nickel, that’s to drop leaflets. That was in early 1944, right?
Why did they call it the Nickel?
Because it didn’t count on your tour of duty there. It was to get you, it was supposed to get you used to flying over enemy territory. The theory was that they wouldn’t pay any attention to you, which was partly true.
From then on we went to Stirlings, the only reason went to Stirlings was that it was an obsolete bomber, large four engine bomber, which was rather badly maintained because all the best people were on the front line squadrons. We had some.. very very… what’s the word.. hairy sort of experience on that because we lost three engines on training once. That was due to… let’s just say it was a fuel mishandling, but we got away with it because the engineer was clever enough to put all the fuel tanks on, and we picked up about two, three hundred feet at night time which was a little bit close really.
You got down to two, three hundred feet from the ground?
Yeah, at night time yeah, because some of the… three of the engines cut, but he… we got them back very quickly.
If they cut does that mean you just.. you don’t plummet…
They started to die because they just (chuckle) they started going “bluuuur” on me and first of all there was the starboard outer, then the inner, and I shouted to the engineer and he obviously heard all of this going on. Incidentally, his total flying… the engineers, they were shoveling them through very quickly, was a total of 12 hours and he was turned loose on this large bomber. Then after that, I went on to a short course in lancasters. It only took us about a week, we flew everyday and then immediately on to the squadron on just about D-day.
Alright. So if I go back to training then, did that accident happen because the engine wasn’t well maintained or just because…
No, no, no. Well, what happened was that, without going into too much technical detail, he was quite correctly running two engines on each side off two small tanks. There was supposed to be fuel in them, but there was no fuel in them. It wasn’t his fault because they had sight gauges, and the… what had happened was that the fuel had siphoned into the other tanks because it the… it was warm on the ground, there was none on the return valve, and all the sight gauges showed that the tanks were full. They were actually full of fresh air, and they were switched on, four engines with fresh air, with almost disastrous results. They had lost a couple of aircraft presumably under similar circumstances.
So, you were very lucky to get out of that one.
Very lucky yeah.
So, how many were onboard the bomber. Was it a crew of six or seven?
A crew of seven.
What kind of jobs? There was the gunner, yourself and…
OK. Starting at the front there was the bomb aimer / gunner right at the front of the lancaster. There was myself the Captain there. There was no co-pilot. There was only one pilot onboard, because they wouldn’t waste their time in training like the Americans did. I had an engineer who stood on the right-hand side in the gangway. Behind me was the navigator, one of the most important members of the crew. Behind him was the radio / radar operator, then the two gunners, one in the mid-upper and one in the… the tail gunner.
The radar operator, what did he do, what was his job exactly?
Yeah, well, we were very fortunate because we on special duties… we were posted on special duties… On the very first night raid, they had fitted a few days before a thing called Monica which was quite primitive, but rear-facing radar, so you could see… what you could see there… he could see a lot of dots of aircraft, but he couldn’t actually make out enemy aircraft from others whether they were two or four. He could just see that. What he was checking on was that if some… if one of these dots moved very quickly, he assumed that… rightly assumed that it was an attacking aircraft, an enemy aircraft…
That was coming on for the kill?
Yeah, and when he saw this I told him to give me a corkscrew if in any doubt at 600 yards. And on this particular one, a trip to Stuttgart in Bavaria, I think we lost at least 65 aircraft out of around 400.
That’s an awful lot.
They had… it was two raids they had, another one in Nuremberg and that was even more disastrous, I think about 90 aircraft were lost there. What they did then was they regrouped a bit. We had counter-measures and so forth. Sometimes the Germans were lucky and we were unlucky and vice versa.
Were most of those shot down by fighters or by flak?
Almost all of them were shot down by night fighters, almost exclusively JU-88s. Some with upward firing guns and some with, as well, guns firing forward. Mainly cannon, it was 20 mm cannon which we didn’t have actually. It was very lethal there because they could open fire out of range of our gunners, and probably unseen at night time and if it was from underneath they had upward firing guns, and if it was from behind then it was, obviously, their forward guns.
So, you were like sitting ducks really to these fighters?
Yeah. Depends how alert you were. Some people were unlucky there. I also understand that the Germans had aces there who like everything else, like top tennis players, they had some fantastic scores. I believe that some of them had 80 or 90 shot down and the others didn’t get any. So if you were unlucky you got one of these lads behind you.
Oh, it just depended on the skill of the German pilot.
Oh yeah, it was just the same as anything. We had “Cats-eyes” Cunningham, John Cunningham. I met him once, he shot down… there wasn’t so much opportunity, because after a while there weren’t as many aircraft and we were sending hundreds and hundreds of aircraft, but John Cunningham managed to shoot down 22 aircraft at night time, you know.
22? And John Cunningham, he was a fighter pilot or…?
He was an ace… an ace night fighter pilot, twin-engine, he had a radar operator as well.
Would he escort you over the border then?
No, no, nothing like that. There were no escorts because that wouldn’t be possible at night time. That was never attempted. I mean at day time for us… the Americans were always escorted in day time, but it wouldn’t have been feasible to escort, because there was so much going on you were much more likely to take one of your own blokes down.
So you say the Americans then, you they had it safer?
No, they didn’t as a matter of fact because they used to go in formation at the day tie, as a matter of fact I describe that in the book. I was flying along and.. above… they were always flying a bit higher than us. I think I was about 22, 23… we didn’t fly in formation, we flew in what was called a gaggle, but a bomber ahead of me, on this particular occasion in daytime, I saw a formation of American aircraft and they were being attacked by German fighters.They were… I think they were single engine, because we could see them, we didn’t need radar operators. I watched this. It was just like a film. Then I saw the reality. I saw parachutes coming out of the right hand one of this formation of American aircraft. They were on slightly different track to us, but that kind of thing woke me up a bit.
The Americans lost quite a few planes in that raid?
Their losses were very heavy. What happened was that they went in… they crashed in.
They thought, “Right, we’ll go ahead… no escort, we’ve got good gunners and so forth and they had terrible losses until they got the Mustang and they escorted them and the losses were quite a lot less.
Was that a lot later in the war though?
Yeah. As a matter of fact they paused them because they lost so many. There is a point were the losses are unsustainable. The Germans found that daylight bombing over England actually. They had to stop that because they were losing to many aircraft.
So, losing 65 aircraft over one raid over Stuttgart is unsustainable?
I’m talking now from memory, you would have to look it up, but there were times both for us and the Americans that, you know, if we keep on like that we won’t have any force left so they tried new methods and tried something else.It was a constant battle.
Even towards the end of the war, the Germans were still putting up some heavy resistance?
Oh yeah. In fact, more than ever because they were defending their homeland and there were two angles to this. They were producing enormous amounts of… what was the name of that chap?… the armaments… Speer. He produced them in underground factories. They had more single engine fighters than they knew what to do with. The only trouble is that they didn’t have any pilots for them. What they were doing was putting the pilots through… you know, absolutely minimum hours there. They weren’t much good because you’ve got to have some training there. They were just shoving them up in desperation.
So the Germans didn’t have the man power but they had the machines basically?
Well they had man power but it was all killed so they didn’t have the luxury we had of sending people all over the world to get trained and then training them back again. They didn’t have that luxury because the war was closing in on them at that time. But they were doing, especially at night time… they were trying to defend their homeland. The night fighters… there were more night fighters than ever in 1944 before the end of the war.
So when you came into the war as a bomber pilot that was one of the most dangerous times?
I wouldn’t say it was the most dangerous. I’d say it was fairly dangerous then. ’43 was very bad and so forth. Yeah, ’43 and ’44 were not very good.
And so you flew over Germany, Stuttgart and Nuremberg…
We used to fly further afield. We went to after oil tanks and Eastern Europe, and of course the trip to Russia to attack the battle ship the Tirpitz.
Could you get there all on one fuel tank?
Yeah. They actually fitted us with long-range tanks. They took out the mid-upper turret which cheered everybody up. We got there. When we arrived the weather was absolutely appalling and out of, I think, 30 aircraft, 8 crashed landed, but nobody was killed.
So the Tirpitz now… Just explain to everyone what… the Tirpitz was a ship like the Bismarck, wasn’t it?
It was the sister ship to the Bismarck which was a threat to the whole of the North Atlantic convoys. They lost… because it was a threat actually, they had to escort all the ships and materials up to Russia because it… they sent it up to Norway. It was a threat all the time. They used to take it out for a bit and back in again. Everybody had a go at it. I think there were 30 or 40 attacks on it by the Navy and from carriers and so forth.
They couldn’t sink it?
I think it was about 60,000 tonnes, something like that. It was an enormous bloody ship. Anyhow, they invented… the Americans invented this bomb called the Tallboy (Editor: Don is mistaken here – it was a British man named Sir Barnes Wallis) which was a 12,000 pounder, a 6 tonne bomb, singe bomb, and they reckoned that would do the trick. We did… the first one we went on.. we went from Russia, as I said, that was a total disaster. They put up a smoke screen so nothing happened there.
The Tirpitz was based in Norway. Why Norway though?
Well… two reasons. One they wanted to put it out of reach of the bombers from… it would have been much closer to the bombers from England. And the other thing, it was even more of a threat out in the North Sea. It could whip out there. If it got out there it could probably pick off about 20 ships. That’s what they were afraid of all the time during the war that this thing would get out there. In fact, it went out once, a couple of times, it went out once actually, and even the fact that it was out there, they scattered the convoy and they were picked off one by one. Not by the Tirpitz, by aircraft and so forth. So even an appearance of this thing caused tremendous losses.
So the Tirpitz then. It just rattled the cages and for them to be picked off. It was more of a deterrent. It was in the water and they were very scared of it.
Oh yeah, and the other thing, it could… if it got unopposed into the Atlantic it could have probably, especially in 1943, it could have stopped everything coming into Britain.
Could it really have done that?
That was what they were afraid of. It had the capacity to do that.
But it only got out once…
It went out once and back again I think.
So was it built in 1942, 43 was it or…
It was built at the beginning of the war I think actually because it took a hell of a long while to build these things. Hitler wasn’t very keen on the navy anyhow. He was probably quite right. They could have built 1000 tanks with all the metal that they used.
So, did you actually bomb the Tirpitz yourself?
Oh yeah. We had 3 goes and eventually sank it. There were 2 squadrons. There was 617, they were the dambusters, and ourselves actually, their sister squadron.. and eventually instead of going to Russia, what we did was we.. as I said they took out the mid-upper turret there where they fitted long-range tanks. They fitted them inside the aircraft. We were then able to go from the north of Scotland – bomb – and come back again. Only just, I hasten to add.
But one time you said you went to Russia?
yeah, we went to Russia because that.. there were 3 trips altogether. The first one, we went to Russia, landed there to refuel, then come back from Russia and come home. That was before they fitted long-range tanks, you see. A question of endurance.
So you could actually make it and fly over.
So, did you actually see the Tirpitz roll over?
I was last off it actually because the bomb sight went U.S. We had to bomb manually. I was also windfinding. We used to do windfinding.
What does that mean?
Windfinding was that you went ahead of the main force there. Did a circuit.. a little bit technical.. over the spot on the ground and came back and find a wind for bombing, which was extremely important because if you got the wrong wind there, you missed the target.
Oh I see, it’s wind speed and..It’s wind speed and direction, yeah. Anyhow, we went round again, and we were… we were second last off it because, you see, the camera crew were last off there. As I went over there, the rear gunner said, “Oh she’s turning over…” and all the rest of it. I wasn’t sure if that was true, but it was in fact true.
Do you think it was your bomb that got them?
No. Oh no it wasn’t actually (chuckle). I would like to think so, but that wasn’t true actually. We dropped it alright and probably helped to make a bit of a splash and so forth. But I believe it was dropped by the first lot of chaps of 617; three bombs, one by one of our lot actually. But one of the things that happened was that it blew one of these turrets wing (an enormous weight, right up in the air) and so forth like that. I think nobody expected it to turn over. I think one of the bombs hit its side and it rolled there… they thought it would just sink, but there you are.
Was someone flying too low so they had their wing pushed up?
No, no no. The bombing was done from about 12 to 15,000 feet.
That sounds like a long way.
Well, it had to be for several reasons actually. One was that these bombs had to reach the velocity in which to get up speed as it were, right? Anyhow, our type of bombing was… for a variety of reasons, of course, there were loads of mountains round there as well. That was the height, round about 12 to 15,000 feet
.So, you flew on the bombing raid to the Tirpitz, and you flew over to Stuttgart… so that was two missions, how many missions did you do altogether?
Was that normal? Was that the average?
No. That was two tours, but the war finished. A normal tour was about 25 to 28 trips there.
I bet you were glad it was over.
No, I quite (chuckle)… I quite enjoyed it actually. I didn’t get shot down (chuckle).
Did everyone enjoy it? It must have been a bit hair-raising to keep going over there.
Yeah, but… yeah but you might call it an extreme sport actually. You got to… I don’t know.
The adrenalin rush.
Yeah, it’s quite addictive, it was… I mustn’t say it was great fun because it wasn’t really. Because you survived it there. It was one of the best thrills of all time. And you were on your own, you could do something. You could get out of the way, you could shoot..
How did you feel about comrades or colleagues who didn’t make it?
You’ve got to remember we were very young at the time. You had to deliberately cut yourself off, not to get involved, or that would blow your efficiency. I was determined to get through the war, and I felt it at the time that I was going to. I don’t know how I was going to do it, but I felt quite confident, totally misplaced I’m sure.
So, you didn’t have any Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, or anything like that?
Well, I used to get drunk now and again (chuckle). No, the only thing, some people… no there wasn’t so much of that. I think there was a reason, everyone was in it together, everybody was doing something, so it didn’t appear to be anything special. In fact, you felt very lucky to have been picked for, you know, flying, and on a good squadron, all these sort of things. I mean there were thousands and thousands of people doing it so it was a bit better than just a few of you doing it.
So, nobody cracked under pressure then?
Not in our squadron. One or two did. That’s understandable. It depended on your luck actually. There was one lot who were attacked twice and they were badly beaten up by fighters there and got away with it. I can well understand it could happen if you got shot up a lot there. You feel rather different and make you very nervous, you think “Christ!”. The next time it happened, and it happened twice it hits you.
So, how did you escape fighters? You went out alone, with no fighter escort. You were slower, I presume, than the fighters, so how did you actually escape them?
Yeah, yeah, two things actually. One was that there was a bomber stream. Let’s say there was… there were anything between 200 and 300. I’m talking about night raids, I stress, only night raids. I did on occasion go out on my own in daytime ahead of the main stream, but at night time…
That sounds even more dangerous.
It could be, but when you’ve got more experience, you have a lot of things going for you. At night time there was a bomber stream there, maybe 400 or so. It was just a question of luck there. The other thing was an experienced crew there. You could be really alert there. Another great thing was the Corkscrew. If he latched on to you, you dived immediately and you lost them, so he would pick somebody else. He would have to go through all the radar business about finding someone, and there was lots to find there, you see.
So, if you dived away there…
Yeah, a corkscrew, which was dive one side, dive again, and come up so you were changing speed and height there which… I spoke to John Cunningham. What was needed at night time was to creep up steadily, you had to be fairly steady and do it on radar. And then, I understand it, I didn’t do it, the radar operator would hand over and maybe see the aircraft in the distance. He was looking for it at a certain place and then shoot him down. But if he started weaving… if you started weaving at night time or changing speed and height and that, the chances of hitting would be very very small
.So it was a bit like a spiral. You dived down like a spiral and come back up again?
Yeah, you dived down right, then dived again and pick up to the left hand side.
And shake them off hopefully.
Yeah (chuckle). Hopefully.
So, were you successful on these missions? What missions were there? Was it mainly factories, or cities…?
Well, yeah, all the ones I did, just trying to think back. The only thing is, on just one occasion we brought our bombs back. Generally speaking, there was ethos then that once you started there, you must make all attempts, press on. You know it would be considered very very bad to make excuses to bring your bombs back again, unless it was a genuine excuse.
I understand that. So basically, the bombing targets were cities, factories, bridges, and military installations as well…
Yeah, yeah. The one we did in daylight on our very first trip was the German communications headquarters at Cyn Serre, Paris. That was round about after D-day and they wanted to screw up their communications, which we did.
And you did? You hit them?
Yeah, I think. I plastered it. One of the nicest things we did, Alastair, was we were sent in daylight to bomb a German fighter airfield. We thought that was great fun.
And you just put big holes in the runway?
Oh, we plastered it with holes all over the place. We hit their Mess. I’m sure that would cheer them up.
But they just rebuilt it then eventually?
Yeah. That’s one of the things that bombing runways sounds very good, but it doesn’t do much good. They fill the bloody holes in the next day. I think they were operating 24 hours later.
It’s very quick isn’t it? Would you say bombing in the war had a dramatic effect overall?
Eventually. In the beginning actually, they were bombing, but it was pretty useless because they found out they weren’t hitting the target. We are talking ’42 and so forth. Then there was a big change there. They went for pathfinder force with targets, lit by the flares etc. and, what’s the name for it… bombing masters telling them and directing the parachute flares and things like that. They got better and better at it. The other thing too was that they diverted enormous amounts of material like anti-aircraft guns and aircraft fighters from the Russian front. There was no question about that.
Anti-aircraft guns and…?
Fighter aircraft. And then the communications and railways and everything else made life extradinarily difficult for them and held them up there so they couldn’t get stuff through to the Russian front.
Was the anti-aircraft gun… It doesn’t sound to me that the anti-aircraft gun was that effective.
No, they weren’t. I think the losses – I’m just talking off the top of my head – were about 2 or 3 percent there. At day time they were much better, but at night time they made a lot of banging and noise and so forth and occasionally someone got hit, bad luck, but generally it was the night fighter which did all the damage.
What did it look like? Was it a kind of surreal experience with all the banging going on, the fighters, and bombing, and the flames…?
Yeah, it was like a circus ring. First of all when you got near the target there were all these search lights searching away you see. And then there was the fire on the bloody ground. It was quite a sight actually. The there was all the anti-aircraft shells bursting with smoke around. It was quite well-lit actually. And then you would occasionally see a fighter in all this light and so forth, and another aircraft flash overhead or wherever. It was quite a sight.
There were a lot of searchlights?
Yeah, if you got caught in a searchlight you’d probably had it then.
Because the searchlight would just follow you and then…
What they do is cone you. Once they get one on to you, then all the rest of the searchlights would pin you down as well. And then of course all the guns would know exactly where you were and fire at you. You might get out of it, but your chances were not very good if you were coned.
Did you ever see someone get coned and then shot down?
Yes. Someone quite close to me got coned and I kept well, as well I could, out of the way and not fire any guns or anything off that would attract attention.
Did they get shot down?
I’m not sure. I just saw them being coned and I was too busy doing what I was doing (chuckle).
So I just wondered, before I go, why Russia? What was that experience like? What were the Russians like?
Ah, yeah, what shall we say. That was bizarre in many ways. The weather was extradinarily bad. The aircraft which had all the equipment to make a radio landing there. It lost an engine and turned back to England. As a result we got there in absolutely appalling… when I say appalling conditions, I mean low mist. We had no way of… we had no leads in there like you had to do with the landing systems there.
So you didn’t know where you were going basically?
Well, we got to were we going actually, but then we had to get down from there. Most of us managed, but eight… a good proportion… eight out of 28 actually crashed on landing as I said, but they had practically no fuel left, and there was only one big bomb, and nobody was killed there.
The bomb didn’t go off?
The bomb didn’t go off because it was very heavy metal, about 6 inches of solid metal, not like a thing called a “cookie” which is light metal which would go off if you looked at it
.It’s very dangerous isn’t it, to carry one of those?
Yeah. These were for bombing cities.
A blast actually. They knocked houses down. It would be quite useless against a battleship or anything like that.
I see, because it didn’t have penetration power.
No penetration at all, no.
I mean, did you know anyone… you could have accidents with those…
Yeah. I mentioned that in the book that we had an airfield which was 10 miles away from the main base there, and in the day time they came back or from what they were bombing at night time, obviously we didn’t enquire too much… but the next thing there was a terrific bang. The ground was shaking. We all knew what it was actually. They’d been bombing and one of these things had dropped off and all that would be left was a hole in the ground. But during wartime, because of morale and all that, nobody enquired, and they didn’t publicize it.
Was that in storage, or was somebody on the plane at the time?
I think it was bombing up the aircraft, lifting it up, it might have slipped or something.
A quick death then?
Yeah, you’d go straight to heaven among the 42 virgins. I don’t think there were any virgins amongst the WAAFS there (chuckle).
The WAAFS? They were the female crew members? What were they like?
They were mixed, but they were good girls. When I say good, they were always cheery. They came to do the job and all the rest of it, and look after us sometimes, if you were lucky.
It sounds like an interesting time at least.
You know, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
So when it was all over from ’41 to ’46, say ’46, the war ended in ’45, what happened then when it was all over? I mean…
Well, I had absolutely made up my mind, determined to get into civil aviation. After a course in, that’s in my next book incidentally… after a course… I managed to get out of the air force. I did my studying, passed my exams, all in a very short time, and joined British South American Airways in September 1946. I was flying down to South America which I was very pleased about.
So you had a good career in aviation after that?
I did 30 years. I flew the Comet 1 and a lot of other things, and wound up flying Boeing 747s.
Yeah, it was a good life. I was lucky all round.
You sound to be very lucky.
You have to be Alastair.
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