A letter to my grandchildren
I find it rather difficult to begin to tell you something about my brother Ralph who was a bomber pilot in the Second World War. I know you will want to hear about his time in the RAF and how he came to be killed.
Mostly, we think of heroic people as very strong, powerful and even rather big. He wasn’t like that. Physically he was fragile, he was quite shy and very thoughtful. He was 16 months younger than me and had started working in a bank when he was 16-years-old in 1930.
By 1932, we were hearing about Hitler and the Nazis, about their huge rallies, and the persecution of the Jews. Ralph was sure there would be a war and by 1937 had joined the RAFVR and was learning to fly at Shoreham, near Brighton. When war was declared in 1939, he was a sergeant pilot, ready to fly twin engine bombers with his Canadian co-pilot Bob.
During the first year of the war he was stationed in the Grantham area with 61 Squadron. He and Bob flew together, mostly on recognizance flights. It was a happy time with plenty of leave. He came home to Sussex and took my mother’s car because he could get petrol, and she couldn’t, so he and his crew could get in and out of town easily.
Then came the fateful mass German raid on the London docks and the East End. I was staying in Hampstead, and from there we could see the bombs exploding and the fires that raged so fiercely that the sky was red, and the smell of burning very strong even up in Hampstead. Our searchlights looked green against the red glow – and sometimes picked up tiny shining crosses, that were the German bombers. Of course there were explosions in the air from ground gunfire, too. In our squat men in the fire service had to leave immediately and didn’t come back for four days. When they did, they had changed so much, they looked as if they had lost their youth.
Soon came the battles in North France and Belgium which led to Dunkirk. I was at home in Seaford that day – and at night we could see Boulogne burning. So I hastily got going and joined the WAAF. It was something I had in common with Ralph – he thought WAAFs very funny – like birds with their peaked caps and spindly legs.
I was posted to Fighter stations in Kent and Sussex from where I could hitchhike home easily and sometimes Ralph was there too.The bomber pilots did so many hours flying on operations that they were given longer leave on the ground. They did two operational ‘tours’ and then were grounded permanently on instructor or admin jobs.
Ralph and Bob were commissioned after their first tours, and as pilot officers took over heavy bombers called Manchesters that carried two pilots and five crew. Coming back one night after a raid over Germany, as dawn was breaking, Ralph realised his aircraft had not enough fuel to get home. So he told the crew to bale out, and all got down safely. Ralph went on as long as he could, and then got out. He said that as he floated down he saw where his aircraft had crashed, so when he landed he rolled up his parachute and made for the nearby road.
He stopped a passing bus, and asked the driver to take his to where the crash was. It was burning when he got there, and he was surprised to find his CO – come to make sure nobody was stuck inside.
After that, he and his crew had extra leave for baling out ( and a Caterpillar badge of honour).
We were at home then together and that was the last time we talked about our lives. He was 26 and at the end of his second tour, and one of only four men who had volunteered at the beginning in his Squadron. But he said he didn’t think he would come through, and could imagine his last dive, saying to himself ‘This is it”
I didn’t agree with him, but in my heart, I felt he was probably right. He talked about the marvels of watching the sunrise and light in the dark sky, of flying above woolly clouds, and recognizing his home station on the green earth below
No doubt, although he never had any illusion about the ghastly effect of his bombs, he loved flying and the RAF.
Well, what I have to tell you next in detail came from the crew after the war was ended and they returned from the prison camp where they lived after they bailed out on Ralph’s last flight.
They said that on March 26, 1942, Ralph’s co-pilot went down the flu and couldn’t fly. Bob wasn’t flying and offered to take his place. Their mission took them over the Schelte estuary in Holland. There was flak from the ground and search lights; a German fighter picked them up, and shot away part of the left wing and wounded Bob badly. Ralph signaled to the crew to bale out and they all got down safely. They said Ralph could have baled out too, but he didn’t even though he was unhurt. So Bob and he went down to their deaths together, and are buried in the same plot in the cemetery.
I hope this gives you some idea about my younger brother; it has been good for me to remember him; it was all so painful. It gives me such gladness that you, my grandchildren, want to know about him.
See you sometime
The author died in 2000, aged 86.
So moving….. Ralph, my husband’s uncle whom he never met. I adored my mother in law Mary and was lucky enough to meet her sister Beth. May their souls rest in peace.
Nil Okan Paniguian