David Masters DFC - 576 Sqn
David served in the RAFVR from 1938 to 1946 and was an instructor with the Rhodesian Air Training Group between 1940-1943.
From 1944 to 1946 he served with Bomber Command flying Lancasters completing a tour with 576 Sq at Elsham Wolds and Fiskerton.
In 1946 he joined Fairey Aviation who sponsored him on No.5 ETPS course at Cranfield. He was later appointed Senior Test Pilot at Ringway, flying mainly Firefly and Gannet and giving the Gannet aerobatic display at the Farnborough Air show. He also test flew the then ‘cloak-and-dagger’ ML inflated-wing delta.
He retired from test flying in 1961 and after a spell as Technical Press Officer with the Hawker Siddeley Group became a management training consultant specialising in effective communication, especially for multinational concerns.
To Know or not to Know
Finding targets of opportunity is normal wartime practice, but sometimes there may just be an unexpected personal price to pay.
by the late David Masters DFC
It took Intelligence three days to plot the photo and tell us where it was; and after all these years, I still don't know what to think. It was in 1944, and I was in Bomber Command. It was pretty late in the war; but there was still a lot to do, and our losses were still uncomfortably high. German predicted flak was something to avoid — or, at least, to outwit if one survived the first salvo. Their night fighters never gave up, despite the punishment we'd been able to apply; their day fighters didn't worry us too much.
I mention day fighters, because Bomber Command had taken to using their Lancasters on occasional daylight operations. "Taken to" is perhaps the
wrong expression — Bomber Harris was very much opposed to it. He held, very strongly, that his Command was a strategic weapon, not a tactical one. In his view its job was to continue pounding the enemy's factories and communications, and not to be used as heavy artillery whenever the army couldn't cope on its own. But when the army had discovered that a visit from Bomber Command would nicely soften up an enemy position for them, the demands for the Command's services — and the resultant high-level rows — multiplied.
On 18 November we found ourselves lumbered with a daylight operation. We were required tobomb Wanne-Eickel — a few miles north-east of Essen; but for whose benefit, I'm not sure. Just what the target was, I can't remember. It was however, what we called a 'precision op" for which crews were carefully selected At the briefing, we were instructed to bomb only if the aiming point were clearly visible, and the bombing run good. There would be no opportunity on this op for a second bombing run if the first was not good enough. In any event, a Master Bomber would be monitoring the whole operation from a special aircraft, and we were to obey his instructions.
Up to this point, there was nothing particularly special about this effort, except that it was a daylight, and that even the extreme north-east end of the Ruhr was a somewhat inhospitable place to be at any time. As a matter of fact, we had bombed Wanne-Eickel nine days before; but this had been a night attack, and Intelligence had clearly decided that we hadn't done the job properly and that we'd have to bash the place again, in daylight.
The Met. Officer had given us a slightly depressing briefing: the target should be clear of low stratus, but it might not be (so we might have an abortive trip).
From Base to Wanne-Eickel wasn't a particularly long trip — about average for a `Ruhr-bash', and the flak was only 'slight to moderate'. Our troubles started when we were a few miles short of the target. Johnny, my Air Bomber, came on the inter-corn: 'I can see low stratus ahead, Skip. Looks like it may be over the target.' Damn! I call the Navigator. 'Bill — how far to go?' `Seven miles.' It doesn't look too good. Have we come all this way for nothing? We find out almost immediately.
`Mainforce from Master Bomber. Mainforce from Master Bomber. Target obscured. FREEHAND. I say again: target obscured. FREEHAND.'
That's it, then. We're to forget Wanne-Eickel, and we can go off and bomb anything that looks like a worth-while target. All we have to do is find something.
It's not all that easy. We can see the near edge of the low stratus hiding the target, and it stretches away endlessly to east and west; so where do we go?
Johnny has an answer 'Skip, I can see a hole about fifteen degrees to port. Why don't we have a look?' `OK' I say 'We'll start a run on it and see what comes up. Bomb doors opening.' I select bomb doors OPEN with the lever by the port side of my seat, and tell Jock, my Rear Gunner to centralise his turret and hold it there for the run. Johnny's instructions of 'Left-left. Ri-ight. Steady ...' come through the intercom in his calm Canadian voice until `Hell, Skip. It's just green fields.'
So what now? Better just carry on for a bit in case we - 'Hey, Skip! There's another hole! Way ahead, about twenty five degrees starboard.' `OK. We'll try again.'
We do: and it's the same story. Fields, just fields. Damn that stratus ... But we're not going to cart our bomb-load all the way back to England, so we nose around a bit and look for another hole. And sure enough, we find one - over to port and some way ahead. Third time lucky, perhaps...We line up on the hole and make our run. Same old routine - and same old result: more empty fields. For God's sake, how can there be so much empty landscape so near the Ruhr?
After a bit more of this I get bored with looking for useless holes in stratus, and I want to go home. We've clearly run out of luck, we're rapidly running out of holes, and if we go on with this nonsense we'll probably run out of fuel.
It's decision time. I switch on my mike. `Right' I say, 'Listen everybody. We'll have one more try ahead somewhere, and if it's no go, we'll go home and look for something on the way.'
I've hardly switched my mike off before I spot a dark patch in the stratus some way ahead. It looks quite big. 'Straight ahead,' I tell Johnny. 'Last go.'
We settle down to a long, hopeful run. `Hey! I can see a railway line!' Johnny's voice is more excited now. `... and a little town or something - and a goods yard, I think. Let's go ... Left-left four degrees.' The bombing run is 'normal', with few corrections until 'Bombs going!' from Johnny: and then 'Bombs gone. Steady for the photo.'
This was a bit of the procedure that called for a certain amount of sweaty patience. A vertically mounted camera was programmed to take a picture (with a photo-flash 'bomb' at night) a specified number of seconds after initial bomb-release. The time depended upon the bombing height, and might be, say, thirty seconds. During that thirty seconds one was expected to maintain steady straight and level flight, so that the bombing-photo interpreters could pin-point (sort of ...) where the bombs had hit. That 'photo run' was none too easy, and never popular. For a start, the aircraft quickly became about six tons lighter as the bombs left the bomb-bay, so that it suddenly wanted to accelerate and climb; and the not unreasonable desire to be somewhere else as soon as possible made those few seconds feel like a couple of hours in the stocks. And anyway, no sensible person hangs around after disturbing a hornets' nest.
We did a conscientious photo run of thirty-four seconds, which was easier than usual because there was no flak. Obviously, Johnny's 'little town’ wasn't heavily defended. Hang on, though, what about fighters? Absence of flak usually meant presence of fighters.
This charming thought nudged me into, realising two other facts: first, there was now some stratus above us, and second, we seemed to be the only Allied aircraft anywhere near the Ruhr. God knows where all the others had gone, or when they had gone there (probably, home –and about twenty minutes ago); but we were there, and they were not, which meant a certain absence of safety in numbers through mutually covering fields of fire.
Max rpm, full throttle, turn for home and scramble up into that stratus, convinced that the entire Luftwaffe was being vectored on to our rear turret. (It wasn't).
Back at Base, we were interrogated in the usual way, and given the normal tot of rum (which I can't stand) and the normal de-briefing issue of Martins cigarettes (which nobody could).
`We'll plot your photo, and let you know' they said. And three days later they had the answer.
'You bombed a farm outside Drensteinfurt' they told me. `Good,' I said, 'Where's that?' They showed me the dot on a map. It turned out to be a village on the minor line from Hamm to Munster, about 11 miles north of the much-bombed marshalling yards at Hamm.
`Damage?' I enquired. 'Can't really say. It's a very small place. Don't think there's anything there, really. It's not in the Target Book. Nobody's going to do a recce.'
WHAT DID WE BOMB?
And that was all – just another op; and not very important. We didn't give it another thought. Not, at least, whilst the war was on. But after the war –‘several years after the war – that 'little town or something' began to creep into my thoughts occasionally, if I were in bed and awake in the small hours. Stupidly, perhaps, I began to worry about it; and still, very occasionally, do.
Suppose it were true, that there was `nothing there'; that the place – railway or no railway – was not of the slightest military importance. We could have been the only aircraft ever to have dropped a bomb anywhere near it. And where did our bombs fall? On the railway yard? Or perhaps they were near misses, in some field. Or perhaps – and this is what niggles – perhaps we killed some harmless old lady whose only crime was to knit the odd balaclava for the boys (her boys, maybe) on the Russian front. It's all rather a long time ago, and it's a pretty silly thought anyway.
Silly or not, it still pops up now and again. One day, I tell myself, I must go to this little place called Drensteinfurt to find out. It would be good to know that our lonely load of bombs didn't slaughter somebody's Grannie.
But what if it did?
I can't decide which is better – to know, or not to know.
Postscript - An intriguing and very well written piece as one would expect from the eloquent Mr Masters. The above item first appeared in May 1992 edition of Wingspan which I believe ceased publication some years ago.
David told me that, following that item in Wingspan, he was contacted some months later by some local dignitary in Drensteinfurt. The Masters' bomb load did indeed fall near Drensteinfurt town across some adjacent fields. The only casualty was a large elderly bovine which sadly sustained an abrupt and messy terminal experience as a result. C'est la guerre.
David was asked if he would like to visit the village as honoured guest but he decided that this would be inappropriate and politely declined the invitation.
It has been recorded that the centre of Drensteinfurt was destroyed and 80 residents killed on the 23rd March 1944. The locals blame the RAF. However the Bomber Command target on the 22nd/23rd March 1944 was Frankfurt which is a long way to the south.
I suspect that this was something to do with the Americans whose 457 Bomber Group were detailed to bomb nearby Lippstadt on the 23rd March 1944. David Fell