The Malone column
It was a privilege to hear Lancaster pilot Rusty Waughman’s story
To the Annual General Meeting of the Helicopter Club, a drysounding duty which is actually a barrel of monkeys because it marks the end of winter and the start of a bright new flying season. Old friends venture blinking into the sunlight, fire up machines and fly to a fine hotel to share a congenial lunch.
I’m a clubbable sort and I’ve joined a lot of things, but it’s no disrespect to the rest to say the Helicopter Club stands above all others. They welcome renters like me who have to steal money, sell kidneys and so on to fly, as well as household names you’d recognise from the Sunday Times Rich List, and we all bond over our love of helicopters. We have well-connected members and get to the parts other clubs cannot reach – I’ve been on a submarine and an aircraft carrier, I’ve driven tanks and stood under helicopters firing rockets on Salisbury Plain, I’ve dined in the House of Lords and landed an R44 on an offshore platform, and all this for £57 a year! But guess what... our most over-subscribed club event last year was a visit to Fuller’s Brewery, with samples.
Whatever else we do this year, the 2016 AGM will stick in my mind forever because our guest speaker, Russell Waughman, held us spellbound with stories of his career as a Lancaster bomber pilot in the second world war. ‘Rusty’ Waughman DFC AFC, 93 years old and looking seventy, was a working class kid from the north east who volunteered for the RAF and learned to fly on Stearmans and Tiger Moths in Canada before converting to Lancasters and being posted to 101 Squadron at Ludford Magna. Apart from the German U-boat service, Bomber Command had the highest death rate in the war, and 101 Squadron had the highest death rate in Bomber Command.
Along with a bomb load, each 101 Lancaster carried a German-speaking crewman and radio equipment known as ‘ABC’ with which to jam Luftwaffe ATC. Because it was the only squadron so equipped, 101 almost certainly participated in more raids on Germany than any other squadron. In Rusty’s first five operations the casualty rate was forty per cent. “You quickly got fatalistic”, he told us. “You’d lose friends, you’d go to the Mess and raise a glass, you’d say ‘Here’s to old so-and-so, and three cheers for the next man to die’.”
Rusty was twenty when he took part in his first raid on Berlin. “We were just kids really”, he said. “We knew nothing. When I looked at my own kids at twenty, they were idiots.” Every mission was a nightmare of fighters and flak. “German radar was excellent. They knew when we took off, they knew what our course was and they soon knew where we were going.” Life became a mêlée of night fighters, box barrages and radarguided master searchlights. “I was caught by searchlights for forty minutes over Hanover and had to take evasive action the whole time… at the end I was completely knackered.” In the spring of 1944, Rusty’s Lancaster
Wing and a Prayer was hit from below by another Lancaster which chopped off part of the port wing, took out one of the main wheels, killed the electrics and damaged the tailplane. “The engines were okay and she would still fly but I thought she wouldn’t hang together for long, so I told the rear gunner Harry Nunn to grab his parachute and get up front in case we had to bail out. Harry refused – he said he’d stick to his guns to protect our rear. That was the kind of people we had... the pilot was only one man in a Lancaster, and the others never get enough credit.”
Rusty later took part in the infamous Nuremberg raid, when 101 Squadron provided 26 out of some 700 participating aircraft. It was the worst disaster in the history of the RAF – bright moonlight made the bombers sitting ducks. “We lost 97 bombers shot down over the target, twenty lost elsewhere, and seven men in each one,” Rusty said. “Of the 26 Lancasters sent by 101 Squadron, seven didn’t come back. That was 56 letters the boss had to write the next day.” Rusty’s crew also took part in a massive raid on the biggest German military depot in Europe, at Mailly-le-camp in France. “We had to be accurate in order to minimise French casualties,” he said. “The Pathfinders went in to mark the target, but [Leonard] Cheshire wasn’t satisfied with their accuracy and went in to do it again. So we had 345 bombers milling around, at night, and the Luftwaffe got among them and it was absolute carnage. Radio discipline broke down and somebody shouted ‘for Christ’s sake hurry up, we’re getting torn to pieces up here’. Then a laconic Australian voice came on the radio and said ‘shut up and die like a man’. When we went in, another bomber blew up underneath us and turned us upside down, so I can say I’ve barrel rolled a Lancaster. We lost 42 Lancasters that night, that’s about 300 men.” Remarkably, not a single French civilian was killed.
During a raid on Stettin Rusty suffered double engine failure. “We restarted one but came back very slowly and they were on the point of switching off the lights at Ludford Magna when we landed. We went down to the Mess but there were no WAAFS there to serve us, just a note saying ‘please help yourself’. They were all out the back crying their eyes out, because every one of them had lost her boyfriend that night.”
It’s hard to know how we can express our respect for people like Rusty. British honours have lost their shine; with all due respect to Sir Van Morrison and Sir Kevin Spacey, Winkle Brown went to his grave without a knighthood and that says it all to me. The French recently made Rusty a Chevalier (Knight) of the Légion D’honneur, which surprised him, he said, “because I’ve never been on a horse in my life”. But we honour Rusty, and all those who are left, in our hearts, and at the going down of the sun and in the morning we should remember those who didn’t get so lucky.
No article can ever do justice to Rusty’s story – if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, move heaven and earth. You won’t regret it.
I’ve joined a lot of things but the Helicopter Club stands above all “We lost 97 bombers over the target and twenty elsewhere”