Tracking down my dad’s bomber crew
As a boy, Vic Jay was fascinated by his father’s wartime experiences as part of the crew of a Lancaster bomber. But it was only decades later that he realised how little he really knew. Now, though, he has traced surviving crew members and their families
As I gazed out of the Lancaster bomber cockpit, listening to the roar of its engines firing up one by one, my view was hampered as much by tears as by the rain streaming down the perspex. I was suddenly aware of how little I knew about my dad’s role in this iconic aircraft. I decided it was time to put that right.
As a small boy growing up in the 1950s, I hero-worshipped my dad. Bob Jay had been the flight engineer on a Lancaster and I pestered him constantly with questions about aircraft, his log book and the photograph of his crew. I wanted to know what flak was like, how a huge thing like a bomber could fly and if he would meet any of his crew again.
He was incredibly patient, tirelessly answering all my questions, but I realised too late that he never told me the important things. How did he feel? How did the war affect him? What had happened to his comrades?
My interest waned as I grew older and I spent less and less time talking to my dad. The shifts he worked so he could afford to keep three children in further education took its toll; when I was in my 20s, his health started to deteriorate. We never returned to the subject of the war, probably because there were other wars to worry about, as well as the constant threat of nuclear war. In September 1974, he died from advanced stomach cancer.
It was 38 years later that I realised a long-held dream and boarded a Lancaster bomber. On a rainy day in April 2012, I experienced the thrill of a taxi run in Lancaster NX611 at East Kirkby, a former RAF base in my home county of Lincolnshire.
It is difficult to describe my feelings as that impressive aircraft slowly rolled across what is left of the airfield, but I couldn’t help but think of my dad, doing exactly the same thing all those years ago. That experience marked the beginning of a remarkable five-year journey.
I started to record my findings in a blog, Bob Jay’s War, but when I realised his crew had been operational for only the last two months of the war, I thought my research would be completed within weeks. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
All these years later, and I am still putting in place the final pieces of a huge and tragic jigsaw.
Gradually, I was able to discover incredible details of Dad’s training, his postings and the operations in which he took part. I also learned the names of the rest of his crew – four of them from New Zealand – and the names of characters they encountered during their brief spell together.
More significantly, and infinitely more rewardingly, I was able to make contact with all of the families of his crew. They helped me compile an amazing collection of poems, drawings, letters and photographs. I even located the transcript of an interview given by the pilot, Bill Mallon, in 2004. I was beginning to piece together the story, not only of my dad, but of the whole Mallon crew.
Each new discovery brought me closer to my dad. I discovered a photograph of the crew’s aircraft during its final operation, with my dad’s head just visible in the cockpit. However, the elation I felt was tempered by profound feelings of sadness, as more and more devastating stories emerged. I was beginning to understand why, in common with thousands of others, my dad had been reluctant to talk about anything more than technicalities and amusing anecdotes.
Mallon lost both his brothers in the war, while the bomb aimer’s younger brother was killed. A replacement crew member, another New Zealander, discovered his wife had died a few weeks after he sailed from home for training in Canada; it would be three years before he was able to return home to grieve. I met a woman who was born two days after her father left for the war and never returned. Two of the crew lost parents at a very
My dad had talked me through the takeoff routine 60 years earlier. As the aircraft accelerated, it all came back to me
young age, one as a result of them being gassed during the first world war. The pilot my dad flew with before joining Mallon’s crew was killed in a flying accident two weeks before the end of the war. All of these sad stories helped me to paint a picture of the devastating impact of the war on a small group of survivors and their families.
I learned that my dad had invited the crew to his home in Lincolnshire, ostensibly to celebrate his first wedding anniversary, but also to commiserate with Mallon after the heartbreaking news that he had lost a second brother.
My own motion sickness made sense, too, after reading one of the navigator’s many letters. In it, he describes my dad’s nausea during a “corkscrew” exercise to simulate manoeuvres that would be used to evade an attack by a German fighter. I also discovered how he had dealt with the loss of an engine when their aircraft was struck by flak.
As well as artefacts, the families provided moving testimonies. One of them described the damaging experience of being evacuated in 1939, while the daughter of Mallon’s twin sister recently moved me to tears. Describing her memories of attending memorial services as a little girl, after her mum had lost two brothers, she wrote: “Anzac Day here was always a very emotional time. As a child, I stood beside my mother and nanna at the dawn parade and wondered why they cried so hard.”
The daughter of one of the crew told me of the guilt her father felt late in life, haunted by thoughts of what their bombs had done to women and children on the ground, a feeling I know my dad shared. Her father had also experienced terrifying flashbacks when he was involved in a car crash.
Two further events added significantly to my understanding of what my dad had been through. In 2014, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum announced plans to fly its Lancaster from Hamilton, Ontario, to England, with opportunities for members of the public to pay for a 30-minute flight. It was too good a chance to miss.
On 18 August that year, at Humberside airport, formerly RAF Kirmington, there was a huge family reunion as I prepared for the flight. My brother arrived and added a special ingredient to what was already promising to be an emotional event. He handed me a carrier bag containing the jumper my dad had worn on each of his operations. I was deliberating about whether I should wear it when the pilot, on discovering its provenance, said he wouldn’t allow me on board unless I put it on.
As we taxied towards the runway, my nervous excitement couldn’t hide an overwhelming feeling of sadness – this was yet another experience that I was unable to share with my dad. I remembered him telling me he wasn’t brave, just terrified, which in turn made me think of one of John Wayne’s quotes (despite my dad’s view of his politics): “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
My dad had talked me through the takeoff routine 60 years earlier and, as the aircraft accelerated, it all came back to me. I started to visualise the actions of the pilot and the flight engineer. With the speed approaching 100mph, I could see my dad taking control of the throttles with his left hand as the pilot pulled back the control column. We were airborne.
Nearly two years later, I received an email that led to the other important event. It read: “Hi there, I have a friend who is mentioned in your father’s blog. His name is Charles Green DFC. I am trying to find out how I might get a copy of his DFC citation.”
Within two weeks, I was speaking on the phone to the only surviving member of my dad’s crew, one of a dwindling number of men who had served with RAF Bomber Command during the war. He was articulate, his memory was excellent and, at 95, he was only two years younger than my dad would have been.
We met up a few weeks later in his home town in Lancashire. I spent a fascinating day talking to Charlie. Even after 70 years, he was able to give me a graphic description of the horror and discomfort of an eight-hour operation, causing me to reflect on how much my dad had left unsaid.
Thanks to Charlie, my experiences on restored Lancaster bombers and the generosity and warmth of the crew’s families, I now have a better understanding of the impact of the war on my dad and his comrades.
I have now turned my blog into a book, The Mallon Crew. Sadly, my dad will never read it.
Although the crew of my father’s aircraft all survived (and there are more than 80 people alive today who otherwise wouldn’t have been), they were all damaged in some way by their experiences. Like me, they grew up in the aftermath of a world war. What they all had in common was a determination to leave a better world than the one they were born into.
The Mallon Crew by Vic Jay is available at amazon.co.uk
Above: a Lancaster bomber. Below from left: Bob in 1944; The Mallon Lancaster in 1945, with Bob visible in the cockpit; Vic and Bob in 1954; Vic today