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

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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

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