When their country called, thousands of Canadians answered. This is just one of their stories.
As an elite pilot with No. 35 Squadron of the British Bomber Command, Victoria resident Reg Lane completed 63 operational sorties between 1942 and 1945 and went on to a distinguished senior-level career with the RCAF. His story is among those profiled in Four Who Dared, a collection of wartime accounts highlighting the contributions of Canadian flight crew in the Second World War. The excerpt below takes place in early 1944, near the start of the campaign to destroy the German industrial powerbase.
On February 16 and 24, Reg completed two operations to Berlin and Schweinfurt, both in Lancaster III, ND412 LQ-X. Over Berlin, there had been 10 /10ths cloud, and the target had to be identified by using the H2S radar after confirmation taken on bearings of nearby turning points.
The squadron ORB [operations record book] provides a good account of Reg’s other trip to the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories. Bomber Command split the night-fighter force into two parts, separated by a two hour interval.
The ORB says of Reg’s part in the raid: “The weather was clear over the target, and the target identified visually. Many adjacent towns and countryside identified. Load released on aiming point at 2305 hours. Ran up river from south-west, and TIs of white flares, and greens over woods to south. Circled to starboard and made second run south-east along railway. Identified one red marker on aiming point, another red marker marshalling yard, and another in the new town. Own TI undershot 600 to 700 yards to south-east. By 2310 [hours] whole town area well covered by incendiaries with three very good fires, but some TIs and incendiaries were spreading up to five miles to west of town. Good route marking.”
Then, after two familiarization flights on March 22 and 23, he had the opportunity to take up a new experimental Lancaster, JB713. It was a Lancaster Mk VI, one of only seven built, all converted by Avro from standard Mk III airframes, having higher-rated Merlin 85 or 87 engines installed, really designed for use in fighters.
The visual difference on the aircraft was the fitting of “annular” radiators, which wrapped around the nacelle, such as would be common on the Lancaster’s successor, the Lincoln. Reg told this author: “It handled beautifully, just like a fighter.”
The Lancaster VI was taken by Reg on his next two operations; on April 18, it was to Paris—the marshalling yards at Noisy-le-Sec. The target was well covered, and delayed-action bombs continued to explode for a week after the raid. Sadly, as these types of targets tended to be surrounded by residential property, over 450 French civilians lost their lives. With Reg were seven other aircraft from the squadron. A further eight were sent to another rail target at Tergnier.
This type of split of the Pathfinder Force resources was typical at this period. Two days later, they were off to Lens, another rail target. Reg’s crew included his regulars: long-time gunner Jim
Scannell, now a pilot officer; Squadron Leader Langley; and navigator, Squadron Leader Ellwood. For this strategic target, like the previous ones, Reg acted as master bomber, using the performance of the Mk VI Lancaster to maximum effect. It was a full squadron effort, with fourteen aircraft detailed, and it proved an effective strike.
These raids were part of the dedicated plan issued by Winston Churchill to Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, as Chief of the Air Staff, to wreck the enemy transport infrastructure in the build-up to D-Day. At the same time, raids were continuing on the German cities, both to destroy the enemy’s will to carry on and to detract from the specific nature of the transport targets.
The sortie to Montzen on April 27 was Reg’s sixty-third and penultimate operation. This time, he was in Lancaster III ND855 LQ-V. Another rail target, and Reg was master bomber again, as eight No. 405 Squadron aircraft were detailed on the raid.
This time it was not as straightforward as the previous trips. The force was attacked by German fighters that were waiting for them; in total, fourteen Halifaxes and one Lancaster were lost. However, the Lancaster was JA976 LQ-S, that, of Reg’s friend Squadron Leader E.M. Blenkinsop, DFC, who was blown from the aircraft and the only survivor of the crew. He subsequently made contact with the Belgian Resistance, and fought with them until he was captured in December 1944 and sent to a forced labour camp. He eventually died in Belsen concentration camp of “heart failure” and has no known grave.
Reg told this author he felt his loss deeply, as he much admired his colleague, whom he regarded as the best pilot in No. 8 Group.
British adoptee Kenneth Cothliff first learned about his birth father, a Canadian airman killed in the war, after adoption laws in Britain changed in 1977. An aviation enthusiast since childhood, he made it his mission to find out all about his father, from which came the idea for this book. He has helped organize several Canadian Air Force Reunions since then and become a friend and advocate of numerous Canadian veterans of the conflict. He lives in Liverpool, UK.
Four Who Dared: Inspiring Stories of Canadian Aircrew in the Second World War
Copyright Kenneth B. Cothliff, Heritage House, 2019
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