Legendary Heavy Hitter
Avro Lancaster Squadron Leader Clive Rowley MBE RAF (Ret.), a former officer commanding the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, tells the story behind the latest markings for the Flight’s Avro Lancaster bomber.
Monday September 6, 1943, 19:48 hours GMT (21:48 Double British Summer [local] time). A green Aldis lamp shone from the runway controller’s caravan beside the runway threshold at RAF Binbrook, on the Lincolnshire Wolds, signaling clearance to take off. The concrete was damp from a recent shower of rain as, with its four Packard Merlin engines roaring under the strain of full power, a Lancaster surged down the runway and its pilot, Australian Flight Sergeant “Jerry” Bateman, heaved his heavily laden charge off the runway and into the air.
The sun had just set as Lancaster B III, W5005, AR-L, climbed slowly and thundered off into the gathering darkness. This was the aircraft’s 30th operation (op) over enemy territory and the crew’s 10th op flying it. Nicknamed “Leader,” this bomber carried some unusual nose art.
During World War II, the RAAF bomber squadrons in the UK, like 460 Squadron, were operationally and logistically embedded within the Royal Air Force and within RAF Bomber Command. They were mixed nationality squadrons, with the commanders and most of the pilots being Australians serving with the RAAF, but with many British RAF aircrew also posted to serve with these RAAF units. Similarly, the unit’s ground crews were a mix of Australian and British personnel.
Lancaster W5005 was one of 18 from 460 Squadron flying that night, part of a force of 400 bombers (257 of them Lancasters), tasked with bombing the BMW aircraft engine plant on the northern outskirts of Munich, a regular target for Bomber Command at this stage of the war. W5005 carried a 4,000-pound high-capacity (HC) blast bomb, known as a “cookie,” a single 500-pound general purpose bomb, and
600 small four-pound incendiary bombs in canisters, a typical load for this type of target.
The flight from Binbrook to Munich and back covered a straight-line distance of over 1,100 nautical miles (1,270 miles, or over 2,000 km) and the necessary route deviations increased the distance even farther. Lancaster W5005 was, therefore, carrying an almost full load of fuel, about 2,000 gallons of fuel.
The pilot and captain of Lancaster W5005 was Flight Sergeant Jerry Bateman from Broome, Western Australia. Jerry was still a young man who had only recently celebrated his 21st birthday. His all-NCO crew consisted of four other Australians: bomb aimer Flight Sergeant Jack Thomson, wireless operator Sergeant Jack McKay, and his two gunners, Sergeant “Col” Challis in the mid-upper turret and Sergeant “Glen” Douglass in the rear turret. All the flight engineers on this Australian squadron were British RAF men; Jerry’s flight engineer was Sergeant Eric Bailey from Yorkshire. The crew also had a British navigator, Sergeant “Bert” Hemmings. This was the crew’s 12th op of their 30-op tour with 460 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Over Munich, the target was completely obscured by cloud, the tops of which were at 14,000 feet. W5005 ran in to bomb at 20,000 feet at 23:50 GMT. As the ground and the target were not visible through the cloud, the bomb aimer, Jack Thomson, aimed using the red and green target indicators dropped by the Pathfinders under the direction of the Master Bomber—a recent innovation. The crew dropped their bombs successfully and set off for home, later reporting that they had seen a “good concentration of fires
burning in the target area.”
Other bomber crews on the raid reported encountering moderate flak with searchlights illuminating the clouds to silhouette the bombers. Enemy night fighters were highly active “with paths in the sky of three lines of seven fighter flares at regular spacing, showing the bombers’ route.” Nineteen RAF bombers, including three Lancasters, failed to return.
W5005 landed back at Binbrook at 04:13 GMT (06:13 local) on September 7, having been airborne for eight hours and 25 minutes. After debriefing and an operational breakfast of bacon and eggs, the crew got their heads down. Meanwhile, the ground crew worked on the aircraft and during the following morning someone painted a new yellow bomb symbol on the growing ops log on the nose of the Lancaster, which now sported two rows of 12 (the middle row had been painted first) and six on the top row— 30 ops in total so far.
Kangaroo Nose Art
Two days later, on Thursday September 9, 1943, there was a press day at Binbrook, and several photographs were taken of the 460 Squadron aircraft and personnel. Two of those photographs show the nose of Lancaster W5005 with the name “Leader,” the bomb log with 30 symbols for successful ops, and the nose art of a kangaroo playing bagpipes. Jerry Bateman and his crew were not present at Binbrook that day and so they do not feature in the photos. They had been granted leave passes and had far better things to do with their free time, taking a trip to London to enjoy all that the city had to offer to young men who hoped, but could not be sure, that the following days would not be their last.
The nose art on Lancaster W5005 had been “commissioned” by a previous crew who flew nine ops in the aircraft between June 21 and July 29, 1943, before the
Bateman crew inherited it in August. That previous crew was led by a Scottish pilot,
Sergeant (later Flight Sergeant) J.D. “Jock” Ogilvie, one of the few British RAF pilots on this Australian squadron. Ogilvie’s crew consisted of three more British Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) aircrew and three Australians. RAFVR Sergeant
P.W. Moore was the wireless operator, and Sergeant S.F. Hare was the mid-upper gunner; at least one of these two is also thought to have been Scottish. The crew’s flight engineer was 20-year-old Sergeant John “Jack” “Mad Mac” McKenzie, an exHalton RAF apprentice who had a Scottish father and a Welsh mother and came from Pembroke Dock in Wales. Jack McKenzie’s mother and two younger brothers had been killed at their home during a German air raid on May 12, 1941, and Jack wanted revenge. Sadly, he was to be killed flying with a different crew from 460 Squadron on December 16, 1943, which became known as “Black Thursday,” when their Lancaster, JB657, crashed in the Lincolnshire Wolds while trying to land in fog. His father had lost his entire family over two years. The other three members of the Ogilvie crew were all Australians: Sergeant R.J. “Jim” Garrett, the navigator; Flying Officer H.G.D. Dedman, the bomb aimer, and gunner Sergeant J.E. Atherton, who occupied the rear gun turret. This was the crew that came up with the idea for the nose art to reflect their different nationalities.
The name given to the Lancaster was based on the aircraft’s individual code letter ‘L’, which was already present on the side of the nose. They simply added to it to make it “Leader.” Phil Garret, the son of the Ogilvie crew’s navigator Jim Garret, has told the author that his father had said that they originally wanted to name the Lancaster “L for Leather,” but for some reason that was not permitted, so it became “Leader.”
Fortunately, 460 Squadron had just the right man to turn the nose art concept into reality. Flying Officer Thomas Victor “Vic” Watts RAAF, from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, had arrived at Binbrook in May 1943. Vic served with 460 Squadron as a Lancaster navigator for two tours of operations, the first ending in November 1943 and the second from October 1944 to May 1945, by which time he had survived 44 ops and was a Flight Lieutenant with a Distinguished
Flying Cross (DFC) and Bar. As well as being a courageous airman, he was also a brilliant artist, and he painted the nose art on many of the 460 Squadron Lancasters, always with style and humor, often signing them with his initials “V.W.” In addition,
Vic Watts was also a fine singer and a gifted musician who played several instruments and fronted the squadron’s dance band.
Vic painted the kangaroo, as requested by the Ogilvie crew, on the port side of Lancaster W5005’s nose. The animal, of course, represented the Australians in the crew, the bagpipes were for the Scots and the kangaroo’s Wellington boots were a nod towards the flight engineer’s
Welsh background. A remarkable photograph from Vic Watts’s own album, held by his family