The importance of Ernest
On 17 January 1942 a diminutive man, standing at 5ft 7in and aged 32 was placed on reserve status for a position in the RAF. He was one of many thousands entering into service with Britain’s rapidly-expanding Bomber Command. His name was Ernest Frederick Lewis, known to friends and family as Ernie.
A married man and a plumber by trade, Ernie was a happy-go-lucky adventurous type. He lived in southwest London – now battered from the Blitz – where he had made his living. Ernie was also something of the joker in the family pack and was the sort of person who was always willing to have a laugh.
In the brighter days before the war, the family often took weekend camping breaks at Hatfield, outside of London. Heather, Ernie's niece recalled that the adults used to frequent ‘The Green Man pub on Saturday night and [would] come home back across the field (very often in a wheelbarrow)’. They would then sit around a camp fire and sing ‘questionable songs’.
‘Ernie used to give me “flying angels” – me sitting on his shoulders with both of us holding our hands out together and dashing round the field,’ Heather recalled. ‘He was always considered the tearaway of the family and really very different from the others.’
Ernie was also extremely keen on motor bikes and the sport of scrambling, in which he won a number of prizes riding an Enfield 500. He met his wife, Billie, through motorbikes in 1938. ‘Ernie was a great motorcyclist’, she remembered, ‘and all the boys he knew used to collect in one of their gardens and tune up the bikes, and of course exchange views on everything.’
Billie would ride with the Battersea Boys Motorbike Club, which Ernie belonged to, as her ladies club was, she felt, a bit ‘stuffy’. They hit it off straight away, with Billie calling Ernie ‘Lew’ after his family surname. ‘When I first met him we were instantly attracted to one another and met as often as we could…he was a fun person and we were just two halves making up the whole being.'
The world at war
Once the war started, Ernie volunteered as a member of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) rescue party at Wandsworth. For the first year – in what was known by many as the ‘Phoney War’, because of its relative inaction – the job would have entailed practising what we today would call disaster relief. ARP volunteers were taught the rudiments of first aid, made aware of the dangers of gas, water and electrical mains and taught how to deal with them.
In early September 1940, the training became a harsh reality with the beginning of the Blitz. In the months before, France had collapsed and Britain now found herself facing the might of the Axis powers alone. In preparation for a possible invasion, the Luftwaffe was charged with destroying Britain’s fighter defence through attrition and by bombing the southern airfields.
The ‘Battle of Britain’ was not, as often presented to the British public then and since, a simple turkey shoot where British Hurricanes and Spitfires shot down 10 enemy aircraft for every loss taken. While it is true that the RAF held a number of key advantages in the Battle, including the ability to keep their machines up in the air longer and the advantage of fighting over friendly territory (meaning pilots who bailed out could return to service), the destruction of friendly aircraft was still too high for British manufacturers to keep up with the loss of machines.
By the start of September 1940, Fighter Command faced the threat of being defeated through attrition: it would take a miracle to turn the tide. This ‘miracle’ occurred, although it was a lifeline that was to involve the suffering and deaths of thousands of civilians. Hitler demanded a sudden change in Luftwaffe tactics after RAF bombers managed to hit Berlin on a small-scale raid. Enraged that capital of the Third Reich had been targeted, and already seething that the British were refusing to come to peace terms, the Luftwaffe would bomb Britain’s cities, crushing the will to fight.
Not surprisingly, London topped the list of targets. The Luftwaffe frequently chose the areas of Wandsworth, Clapham, and Waterloo – with its vital railway lines running from London down to the southern ports and the West Country – for special attention (click here to look at an interactive Blitz map of London). Although it should be noted that nothing like the tonnage of explosives fell here when compared with the East End. Nonetheless, the work of rescue parties in this part of London would have been fairly constant. It was also common practise for the civil defence authorities to send spare ARP rescue parties from one area of London that had escaped damage to an area that had suffered particularly bad devastation. Therefore, Ernie may well have found himself working in areas outside his district.
One of the objectives of the bombing urban areas was not only to destroy the factories and industrial sites of an enemy nation, but to also destroy the surrounding homes, the work force. (As an aside, Ernie's sister and her husband, Joan and Les - my grandmother and grandfather - were bombed out of their home and had to resttle outside of London, coming into the city every day to run one of their shops. Imagine this effect timesed by the million and one can understand the scale of the daily disruption, never mind the fear, damage and death). Often both objectives were achieved together due to the inaccuracy of the bombing technology at this time. In 1940 there was no such thing as precision targeting even in daylight. At night, flying through tracer and flak, while trying to avoid searchlight beams, most bombers would arrive over the target, ditch their ‘cargo’ and then head for home as quickly as possible.
The overall theory was simple: if enough bombers made it through the enemy defences and dropped a sufficiently heavy tonnage of bombs, then the target would be destroyed in the general conflagration. The aircraft following the lead wave would aim for the fires already started. They would drop their bombs into the nascent inferno, hoping to stoke the flames further and cause the maximum damage possible.
But if the first wave’s bombs fell short of the target, a serious problem could occur. The following aircraft would release their munitions into infernos now springing up away from the target, the error becoming amplified with the passing of every wave dropping their bombs short. The term for this effect was called ‘creepback’. Creepback would often mean very little damage done to the primary objective.
To make their raids more efficient, both the Germans and the British would send their most able bomber units to lead the assault. In the lead aircraft was the master bomber who, it was hoped, would at least reduce the risk of creep back by hitting as close to the target as possible. Later on, the British would seek to increase the efficiency of their bombing raids with the introduction of elite pathfinder squadrons, often flying the excellent Mosquito aircraft, which was rolled out in 1942. The pathfinders would drop coloured-coded flares to guide the waves of bombers to the target. The pathfinder’s job was exceedingly dangerous: they were the first into the area and they would often stay in the danger zone until the bomber stream had passed. They would relay information back to the approaching waves in order to make sure that their approach was correct and on target too.
Meanwhile, on the ground, meteorological conditions could cause serious problems for those combating the blaze. If enough fires took hold over a district, vortexes and spirals of flame could occur, sucking in oxygen from the surrounding areas. The oxygen would then feed the flames further. With the right atmospheric conditions, temperatures more likely to be found in the heart of a steel furnace could be reached. Lampposts would buckle, the leaden tiles of church roofs would melt – even the asphalt was seen to bubble and boil. Those who had fled into basements or bunkers would often be suffocated, if they had not already succumbed to the heat. Others were simply incinerated. An early and deadly example occurred on the night of 14 November when the city of Coventry was almost obliterated. Joseph Goebbels, German chief of propaganda, subsequently used the term Conventriert, or Coventried, to describe towns that also suffered serious damage and destruction from bombing.
But to return to London, one of its worst days occurred on 7 September 1940, just after the Luftwaffe had been ordered to target British cities. In his work on the Thames, the historian Jonathan Schneer records how the waters became a river of fire as 350 bombers, with 600 fighters as cover, flew up the estuary during the day in tight formations from 14,000-20,000ft. The London docklands – the warehouse of England – was their target.
Dropping a mixture of regular explosive bombs (500kg and 1,000kg) and thousands of incendiaries and high-explosive splinter bombs, the fires started by the Luftwaffe were soon raging out of control. Around 1.5 million tonnes of softwood became kindling, the tea burned with a sickening smell, while rubber created voluminous clouds of toxic smoke. Vast stores of alcohol exploded sending out arcs of lethal flame. There were countless other goods that added to the misery of the emergency services. In the Woolwich arsenal, the firemen and ARP had to work among ammunition boxes and nitro-glycerine. Famously, one fire officer sent out a distress signal that ran: ‘Send all the bloody pumps you’ve got, the whole bloody world is on fire.’
Later that night, the Luftwaffe’s forces returned, their bombs adding new vigour to the blaze that was already raging. Schneer writes: ‘Flames leapt so high and long that they blistered the paint of fireboats three hundred yards away on the far shore of the river. They created hurricanes of wind that tossed burning embers across roads, over rooftops and trees, to set new fires wherever they landed.’
Fortunately for London, such massed raids initiated in daylight (and more accurate because of this) soon became a thing of the past. Fighter Command, rejuvenated by the breathing space it had been given by the German focus on urban bombing, went on to win the Battle of Britain and forced the enemy to fly only nocturnal missions. The night time raids, however, continued with little interruption as Britain's nightfighters and other defensive measures, still in their relative infancy, struggled to cope.
Once the flames of a bombing attack had been doused and the utility mains secured, the rescue parties could begin their grim but vital job. One of the most dangerous aspects of working in the rubble and looking for survivors were unexploded bombs (UXB) that had failed to detonate. Deadlier still were the bombs with delayed action fuses designed to explode long after they had fallen, but just in time to kill the rescue parties and emergency service crews. Explosive teams were on hand to defuse any UXBs discovered, although this was time consuming. UXBs must have been severely frustrating to the rescue workers, who were well aware that every second counted in order to save lives.
A useful source on Wandworth during the war comes from the council records. Their oral history unit took down the recollections of Elsie Young, who had been an ARP warden based at Battersea town hall. Her job was to take down details from other ARP wardens reporting where the bombs had fallen and to where the emergency services should be directed. 'If the bombs dropped in places where a lot of people had been killed,' she recalled, 'they [would tell] us how many bodies had been picked up. How many limbs they had found – how many heads – horrible things like that.' With this in mind, it is worth pausing to reflect on the horrors that Ernie would have faced and the courage and determination he had to call on when he clambered through wreckage of homes, searching for survivors, but often finding human remains instead.
By the middle of 1941, the bulk of the German Luftwaffe had been diverted to the Eastern Front and the ‘Big Blitz’ was a thing of the past. German bombs had left large swaths of destruction and death. From the start of August 1940 to the end of May 1941 their bombs had been responsible for 43,000 civilians killed across the country.
By 1942, Ernest probably felt that the time was now right for him to volunteer for a role that would allow him, in the parlance of the time, ‘to do his bit’. Being in his early thirties was no particular hold up: plenty of men his age, and even older, were at the ‘front end’ in the RAF.
Arriving at the 2 Recruitment Centre (RC), Cardington, Bedfordshire, in mid-January 1942, Ernie was tested in mathematics, English and other skills. After facing a recruitment panel, he was put forward on 14 January to become a wireless operator, ranked Aircraftman Second Class (AC2). On 17 January, however, the authorities made an about-turn and placed him – as we have already seen – in reserve. He had to wait until late July for the RAF to determine which ‘trade’ he should join.
The role they eventually found for him was one almost at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder, but nevertheless essential to its needs. Ernie was recalled and on 22 July he arrived at 3RC Padgate, Lancashire. Two days later it was decided he would be trained as an Aircraft Hand Flight Mechanic Engines (ACH/FME). The job would entail Ernie working on aircraft engines and keeping them primed and in a well-serviced state.
On 4 August, Ernie moved to 20RC for further appraisal and basic training. Although he was there for just one month, the work was tough. In his letter dated the ‘9th’ (probably the 9 August), Ernie wrote: ‘We have good billets up here and the grub is good, although they keep us at it all day long and when we finish at night we are dead beat.’
He was soon forwarded to 4 School of Tactical Training (4 S of TT), St Athan, Wales, to undertake full FME training. Arriving on 3 September 1942, Ernie was probably brimming with confidence and pleased that he was now getting closer to being a fully-fledged member of the RAF. But within a week of arriving disaster struck: Ernie is listed at the RAF General Hospital from mid-September to 9 December. Billie states that he had broken his leg. It must have been a serious breakage for him to be laid up for so long.
The next official mention of Ernie comes on 8 March 1943 after he volunteers (with recommendation) to become a Flight Engineer. One day later, he was passed fit for a job that would take him into the heart of Britain’s air war. The Flight Engineer’s role was a complex one. Ernie's days would have been filled with thoughts of fuel levels, engine performance, rates of consumption, and the general workings of a bomber, including the mechanics, hydraulics and electrical systems. Maths, of course, was an important element within all of this. He would have learned to estimate flight time left from the reserves of fuel and the rate of consumption as shown on various dials and meters.
Flight Engineers were also expected to be ‘fix-it’ men during the operation. With tools always near to hand they would have to be prepared to clump off in freezing temperatures to patch up faults – a task made incredibly nerve jangling if the problem occurred when the aircraft was flying through heavy flak.
At this stage, Ernie would have received a limited number of flying hours flying in obsolete bombers that had only a few years back had been at the front line of operations. Flight Engineers only received what was considered the minimum flight training for experience-building purposes – time was tight and RAF volunteers could not be afforded the luxury of ‘career development’. On numerous occasions a Flight Engineer would have been a volunteer who had failed to make the grade as a pilot. Towards the end of the course Ernie sat his Flight Engineer exams. He scored 64.4% – not too bad for someone thrown in at the deep-end and who had also recently recovered from a major injury. Ernie's character was recorded as ‘very good’ and his next stop was the HCU – the Heavy Conversion Unit.
Today it is difficult to appreciate how busy the skies of the North East of England were in 1943, and how the countryside – peppered with airfields and filled with the buzz of aircraft – was at the frontline of the strategic air war. Every morning the hum and bustle of the airfields would begin as the vast effort to prepare hundreds of four-engined giants for training flights and the bombing strikes into enemy territory.
It was into this world that Ernie arrived on 11 September 1943, joining 1663 Conversion Unit. On the same day his promotion to T/Sgt (Technical Sergeant) came into effect. He would have been fairly anxious to meet the crew of five men that he had been assigned to. Along with the Flight Engineer, the mid-turret gunner also joined the crew at this point.
Although men in their 30s made it to the bomber war, they were something of a rarity and the crew’s eyebrows must have raised a little when Ernie was introduced. After Ernie, the eldest among them was in his mid-twenties, while the pilot, a Canadian called Arthur Johnston – Johnny to his friends – was either 22 or 23. Johnny had come a long way from his home on the Great Plains of Canada in the small town of Culross, near Winnipeg. Meanwhile, Ernie, short in stature and affable, was soon called ‘granddad’ by the rest of the youthful crew.
The HCU must have been a somewhat daunting place for novice crews. It was here that they got to grips with the giant four-engined bombers they would soon be flying over the heart of the Third Reich. Johnny and his crew had been selected to fly the Halifax bomber. Those who flew in this aircraft came to love their machine. It was a relatively manoeuvrable beast and one that had undergone a number of modifications by the time Ernie flew.
The Mk.I Halifax had begun life with a serious design flaw in the tail, although this danger had been fixed by the time Mk.II and III arrived. The Mk.I had a maximum speed of 265 mph at 17,500ft, with a ceiling of 22,800ft. Ernest eventually flew in the Mk.III, a type that his squadron, 76, had converted to during May 1944. Ernest’s last aircraft was manufactured by English Electric, registered as LW644. In 76 Squadron it was ‘Aircraft O’. The Mk.III was powered by four Bristol Hercules XVI air-cooled engines that improved performance over the older types of Halifax. For protection, the Halifax had a set of Browning .303s in the mid-turret position and a set in the tail of the aircraft. Unlike the famous B17 Flying Fortress, there was no belly gun to protect the underside of the aircraft. This left the Halifax (and the other major British bombers, which also went without belly guns) prone to attacks from below, a weakness that the Germans took advantage of with lethal efficiency.
Flying in the Halifax was also cold business – there was no heating in the modern sense. The crews would wear thick flying suits that were electrically heated. Thick fur-lined boots were worn, as were oxygen masks, leather ‘helmets’, thick gloves, ‘Mae West’ life jackets and, if needs be, goggles. Ernest would have also worn chest-type parachute and, for good measure, carried an escape pack.
The finishing course Johnston’s crew took lasted five weeks and, importantly, Johnny would have been given the chance to practise a number of key survival techniques. He would have learnt, for example, to fly a gentle weaving course rather than straight and level, which would have given the enemy a better chance to ‘lock on’ to his aircraft. To negate the danger of the belly’s blind spot, the pilot would carefully bank the aircraft at regular intervals to allow the gunners to scan for enemy fighters moving in for an attack from underneath.
Should an enemy be spotted, a warning would be shouted and the pilot would make a rapid evasive manoeuvre known as ‘corkscrewing’. He would spiral the machine downwards, before flinging it back up to operational height; he may have repeated the manoeuvre if he felt it necessary. It was vital to try and stay in the bomber stream – the conglomeration of hundreds and sometimes (but rarely) thousands of bombers. Clumped together en masse made it difficult for German radar controllers to pinpoint aircraft to guide attacking nightfighters in on. Those who slipped out of the bomber stream for too long would find themselves in the dangerous position of advertising their presence to even more of the enemy.
The ‘corkscrew’ was physically and mentally demanding manoeuvre. Swinging a machine with four engines at maximum torque through the inky blackness combined with the stomach churning thought that a hunter is on the tail required a steely resolve, steady nerves and strong arms. There were no power-assisted controls.
THROUGH THE FLAK
Ernie in his younger days, standing proudly in front of the camera wearing what looks like a new suit.
Doing his bit
Ernie earned a living as a plumber, working hard to make ends meet. When war came, he joined his local ARP unit and was involved in the dangerous but vital rescue party work.
St John's hill, Wandsworth, near Battersea, suffers the effects of German bombs. Ernie worked trying to save survivors in this strange world of dust, collapsed buildings, twisted metal and, at times, bodies.
Balham high street
Another area that would have been in Ernie's area of operations. In this photo, a bus has fallen in to the bomb's crater, while shop fronts have been ripped off.
Closer to war
Ernie in uniform – with cap at a suitably rakish angle – before he became a flight engineer.
Ernie is back row, second from the left. Harold Earl is seated first from the left and the pilot, Johnny Johnston is seated in the middle. The other men can not be identified; their 'trade' wings are blurred due to the poor quality of the photo.
An artist's impression of a Halifax bomber from a postcard of the time. The version here is an early type, which suffered a number of teething problems, particularly with its tail. Once the difficulties were overcome, the Halifax became a dependable aircraft much loved by its crews.
A Halifax bomber is serviced by engineers out on the tarmac.