FRIEND AND FOE
The weather in the British Isles on Saturday May 10th 1941 was fine with little or no cloud. Visibility was good and similar conditions obtained on the Continent with some high and medium cloud over north-west Germany. There would be a full moon that night. On the bomber squadrons the usual morning routine activities were taking place. Marham air base in Norfolk was reverberating with the noise of Wellington bombers bearing the code letters KO as 115 Squadron crews lifted off on short cross country flights to air test their machines, equipment and guns.
Twenty-six-year old Sgt John Anderson touched down on the grass airfield around midday in Wellington R1379 KO-B having completed his air test. After taxiing to his dispersal point he and his five-man crew clambered down the ladder to wait for transport back to the Flights. John Anderson, an experienced operational pilot, had recently taken command of this new, combat inexperienced crew. He had flown three operational flights with them. The second pilot was a 20-year-old Australian, Sgt Alex Kerr. Sgt David Fraser, also aged 20, was the rear gunner. The observer, who carried out the dual role of navigator and bomb aimer, was Sgt Bill Legg. Sgts Geoff Hogg and Bernard Morgan as wireless operator and front gunner respectively completed the crew.
Back at the Flights John Anderson noted that instructions were chalked on the boards for the ground crew to fuel and bomb up his aircraft.It signified they would be on operations that night. In the late afternoon in the company of other participating aircrews he and his crew attended briefing and learned that orders had come through from Bomber Command HQ for an attack on Hamburg. One hundred and nineteen bombers were being despatched to bomb the general city area, Altona power-station and the shipyards. Sixty of these aircraft would be Wellingtons. Hampdens and Whitleys, plus one Manchester,the forerunner of the Lancaster bomber, would make up the complement. The target for the crew of KO-B was the dock area at Hamburg.
Swinging round to line up with the take off strip at 2217 hours the crew members of KO-B were very much preoccupied with thoughtsof their immediate future. They could not know that the Luftwaffe had already begun a devastating fire-bomb attack on the City of London. This attack,aided by good visibility from a full moon, and an abnormally low tide in the River Thames leaving firemen short of water, would create a "second"Great Fire of London. They could not know that a lone German fighter was within six minutes' flying time of the British Isles. Bf110 coded VJ+OQ with Rudolf Hess the Deputy Fuhrer of Germany at its controls was fast approaching its zero hour.
An uneventful outward flight punctuated only with a flak burst from an isolated battery along the route brought them to the port of Hamburg. Homing in on the target at a height of 11,000 feet they began to make their bombing run but fierce opposition from the defences in the form of close proximity flak threw them off course. Sgt Anderson turned to make another run across the target and this time Sgt Legg was able to release his bombs. Weaving out of the intense flak barrage they turned onto a predetermined course at full boost. Almost immediately they were picked up by three radar controlled searchlights and coned in the beams of their attendant searchlight batteries.
The heavy flak now located and started hitting them. Hydraulic pipes in the aircraft were ruptured releasing hydraulic fluid,which caused the rear turret to jam at an awkward angle. David Fraser also reported over the intercom a fire in his turret. Further, his vision was obscured by hydraulic fluid and oil, which had spread over the perspex windows of the turret. His electric gun sight had been put out of action. The observer,Bill Legg, made his way towards the rear turret with the cabin fire extinguisher. In the meantime David had stamped out the fire. As Bill made his way back to the cabin he could see Kerr standing in the astrodome watching out for fighters. In the event of an attack Kerr would direct the pilot in his evasive action. Suddenly the flak batteries stopped firing. It signalled the immediate presence of a night fighter.
27-year-old Leutnant Eckart-Wilhelm von Bonin of the 11./NJG1 piloting a Bf110 night fighter had been vectored into the vicinity of the enemy aircraft. His task had been eased by the searchlights outlining the Wellington bomber. He was now manoeuvring into position for an attack from the rear starboard quarter. This was his first operational interception. He was keyed up and very apprehensive of the two guns in the bomber's rear turret. Von Bonin would eventually become a night fighter ace with 41 victories to his credit but he was now to be tested in battle for the very first time.Closing fast on the bomber he could not understand why the rear turret was not swinging in his direction. The enemy gunner must have seen him at this range. Tense, with the adrenalin pumping, he opened fire. As he did so he realised only his machine guns were firing. He had overlooked the firing button for the 20mm cannon. It was a blessing in disguise for the British crew.
Back in the bomber Alex Kerr heard David Fraser's terse voice over the intercom,
"Night fighter on our tail."
He swung round in the astrodome and saw a dark shape moving rapidly into position on the starboard quarter. As he shouted instructions over the intercom to the pilot he felt Bill Legg brush against him as he returned from the rear turret. The fighter's wings danced with pinpoints of flame as the German pilot opened up. Kerr felt a heavy blow as though he had been punched simultaneously all over his body. He was knocked backwards on to the canvas bed in the aircraft. Before he lost consciousness he noticed a fire had started in the reconnaissance flares which were amidships on the starboard side. They were close to the oxygen bottles. The machine gun bullets had wounded him in ten places including a bullet in his liver. Bill Legg was standing next to Alex Kerr when the fighter attacked. He was off intercom and didn't know what was happening. A hammer-like blow hit him in the lower part of the back. He twisted involuntarily and received several other hits. With blood oozing from his back and stomach he crumpled and fell unconscious to the floor.
John Anderson aware of the bright yellow flame burning amidships began to throw the Wellington about in an effort to blow out the fire. His efforts were unavailing. The bomber continued to burn fiercely. Fearing an explosion would blow the aircraft to pieces he gave the order to bale out.
Although David Fraser's turret was jammed at an angle he managed to squeeze through the narrow aperture left by the partly obscured door and gained access to the fuselage where his parachute was stored. As he made his way to the emergency escape hatch aft of the beam machine gun on the starboard side he saw Alex sitting in front of the hatch. He was obviously badly wounded and very dazed. A quick examination of Bill Legg who was lying further up the fuselage convinced David that he was dead. He returned to Alex, who in the meantime had managed to remove the cover from the escape hatch and was sitting with his legs dangling through the hatch. David placed Alex' hand on the ripcord and pushed him out. He was relieved to see his parachute open. David followed. By now Bernard Morgan and Geoff Hogg had both made good their escape. Having set the automatic pilot John Anderson scrambled down to the escape hatch and baled out. Unfortunately he landed in the River Elbe and drowned. The aircraft continued on course burning brightly,carrying the badly wounded, unconscious figure of its observer.
The crumpled body of Bill Legg began to stir as he slowly regained his senses. He still wasn't sure what had happened and by an immense effort of will staggered to his feet and climbed over the main spar to get to the cockpit. He was amazed to find the pilot's seat empty.Slowly it dawned on him that he was alone in a burning aircraft some 9000 feet above Germany. He had to get out and get out quickly. His parachute was under his table. Having retrieved it he made his way forward to the main escape hatch. Carrying the parachute in his hand instead of immediately clipping it to his harness he stood over the escape hatch looking down into the night. At that moment his strength seemed to ebb. The chute slipped from his grasp.He watched with dismay as it fell through the escape hatch and into the darkness. His position was now desperate. He had never been officially trained as a pilot and had only taken over the controls of a Wellington briefly for a straight and level flight with one of his pilots.
Weakness brought on by his wounds dulled his senses. He didn't panic. With great difficulty he climbed into the pilot's seat and took over the controls. He released the automatic pilot and switched to manual control. As there was no possibility of surviving he decided to stick the nose down and crash, taking something or someone that was German with him. Losing height rapidly he found he could pick out rivers, fields and buildings in the bright moonlight. He pulled back on the stick and levelled out at about 600 feet. One field appeared to be much larger than the rest. He decided to try to crash land in it. Easing back on the throttles, unable to employ flap because of the damaged hydraulics, he approached at a speed of 100 knots to avoid stalling. At a height of around 100 feet he closed both throttles and braced himself for the crash. About three-quarters of the way along the field the Wellington touched down, bumped along on its belly and stopped. Having released the pilot's escape hatch Bill found he was too weak to pull himself through it. Two German soldiers from a nearby flak battery climbed on to the burning plane and lifted him to safety.
In captivity Alex Kerr recovered from his wounds fairly rapidly and a year later on 11th May 1942 was recaptured after an attempted escape. With Bill Legg it was far more serious. Several operations were carried out on him by a fellow prisoner, Dr. Chatenay. Chatenay was a young French doctor who took a great interest in Bill's case. He carried out miraculous feats of surgery with limited medical supplies under primitive conditions.The open hole in Bill's back never healed, he has it to this day. Bill was repatriated in October 1943 under an exchange of POWs with the Germans. In August 1944 he recommenced flying duties as an instructor. The other crew survivors were repatriated at the end of the war.
In the late 1980's a Canadian holidaying in Hamburg came across an old photo album in a junk shop. The contents of the album included four photographs of a crashed Wellington bomber. The serial and code of the aircraft were plainly visible, R1379 KO-B. He bought the album as a present for a friend back in Canada a WW2 aviation researcher named Steve Martin. Steve Martin managed to find out that the Wellington was a victim of Von Bonin. He traced the German ex-pilot who expressed a wish to meet the surviving crew members of Wellington KO-B providing they bore him no malice. Through the Ministry of Defence Steve Martin found the bomber was from 115 Squadron. Contacting 115 Squadron Association he was able to obtain the addresses of Bill Legg, David Fraser and Geoff Hogg.
Exactly fifty years after the original incident, on 10th May 1991, the three bomber crew members met Von Bonin at Hohn German Air Force base. It was a very emotional occasion. Von Bonin embraced them all. He said that in 1941 when he had attacked their bomber he had been very annoyed with himself because he had forgotten to arm his cannon. Meeting them now he was very pleased that he hadn't set the 20mm cannon button to"Fire".
Footnote Eckart-Wilhelm von Bonin died in January 1992, Bill Legg died in 1996.
Written by Don Bruce - Observer 115 Squadron -POW Stalag VIIIB
© Jean Darley 2013. Please respect the copyright.
This is an article that my father has written and is included in his compilation of 115 Squadron's Roll of Honour.