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Joseph Arthur Ford RAAF - 576 Sqn

576 Squadron Ford

Joe Ford.

576 Squadron Shearer

Max Shearer crew. Max is back row middle to his left is Arthur Biltoft to his right Joe Ford and Jack McLeod. Front row left Vic Fox next to Arthur Jackso. Corb Drewe may be back row left but he is wearing dark blues so maybe not.

Joe Ford was born on the 2nd June 1915 and came from Shepparton, Victoria, Australia where his family ran a mixed diary and fruit farm. He started work at the local Shepparton Butter Company and over 5 years saved up enough money to study at Hawkesbury Agricultural College. After working briefly in the dairy industry Joe enlisted in the RAAF training as an Air Bomber and was then posted to Britain.

After a further period of training he was posted to 27 Operational Training Unit at Lichfield where he crewed up with a New Zealand pilot called Max Shearer.

On completion of their spell at Lichfield the crew flew an operation in a Wellington bomber on the 3rd September 1943 to a target on the Franco-Belgian border. They were later posted to Heavy Conversion Unit and undertook further training on 4 engined bomber aircraft.

On completion of this they were then posted to 576 Sqn at Elsham Wolds at the end of 1943.

The crew consisted of :-

Pilot - Max Shearer from Napier, New Zealand.

Flight Engineer - Corbett Drewe from Nairobi, Kenya.

Air Bomber - Joe Ford from Shepparton, Victoria, Australia.

Navigator - Arthur Biltoft from Sarina, Queensland, Australia.

Wireless Operator - Victor Fox from Costock, Leicestershire, England. Vic joined the crew in early 1944 and was the only member who was married.

Air Gunner - Jack McLeod, from East Kew, Victoria, Australia.

Air Gunner - Arthur Jackson from Adelaide, South Australia.

Just 3 weeks after joining 576 Sqn they flew their first operation to Berlin and followed by another 3 to the same target all in January 1944. During the following 2 months they flew a series of tough operations against other German targets with another trip to Berlin late in March 44.

Many times after briefing the flying was cancelled and this took an enormous toll of physical and mental energy.

Joe noted that everyone behaved differently when under this sort of pressure and he found the emotion of fear hard to put into words. Leading up to and including the briefing he was wound up tighter than a clock but once he stepped into the aircraft he felt secure for some unaccountable reason which, when looking back on it, he found quite ridiculous. Following the briefing he would busy himself making a minute study of the route, any potential navigational problems and the target area.

Berlin was very heavily defended with flak, searchlights and night fighters all co-ordinating. The last 50 miles was brighter than a sunny day but there was no other way than to fly straight through.

Their Lancaster, C2 Charlie, was a good aircraft and if they were bombing from 18500ft they would climb up to 20,000ft thus gaining a bit of extra speed with the nose of the aircraft down on the final approach.

The losses of men and aircraft were hideous and appalling. The concentration demanded of the pilot and air bomber, and indeed all the crew, at the target was so great that no comment could be made about other aircraft being shot down.

The raid to Berlin on the night of the 24th March 1944 proved most eventful. It was an 8 hour trip and the defences right across enemy territory were unbelievably strong. They experienced difficulty defining the target due to smoke and haze and the blue beam of a Master Searchlight caught C2 Charlie just as the call of “ Bombs Gone “ was made. Before Max could take evasive action a number of other beams had vectored in on the Lancaster. He threw the Lancaster round like a night fighter and fortunately they escaped being shot down.

The flak was heavy, hostile, and accurate which created a most turbulent atmosphere. Later Joe noted that the crew were absolutely wonderful: no panic, no chatter and grand company in a crisis.

How they got past the night fighters he never really understood but confidence was rising as they approached the Dutch coastline. Then, without warning, they were hit by a devastatingly accurate burst of fire from a Ju 88 night fighter which knocked out the 2 starboard engines. Max managed to pull out of the dive and it was immediately

apparent that the navigational aids were not functional. Joe picked out the coastline from the front turret and they headed across the North Sea to England. Corb Drewe became alarmed at the fuel consumption and the order was given to prepare to bale out. Joe was assisting his pilot, who was finding it difficult to keep the aircraft under control on just the port engines when Max spotted an airfield below. This turned out to be Ford on the Southern tip of the UK.

Vic Fox radioed for permission to make an emergency landing and, as they made their approach, they received a red flare, as another aircraft was in the process of landing, forcing them to fly round again. With all the red lights showing on the fuel gauges Max made a supreme effort. Just as the Lancaster touched down he pulled up the undercarriage. He did not have to cut the port engines as they were completely out of fuel and dry.

They slewed off the runway and ploughed across the ground. Joe found it extremely uncomfortable sitting in the nose of the Lancaster still holding onto the rudder pedals as soil came bursting in through bomb aimers panel.

The airfield crash crews and ambulances chased the Lancaster across the airfield and the crew got out of the Lancaster in seconds when it finally came to a halt. Arthur Jackson was badly shaken and thought he had hurt his back but otherwise everyone seemed OK.

Squadron Leader Haig flew down later that morning to fly the crew back to Elsham. Max, who was normally pale faced, was looking quite exhausted and a few days later was taken into hospital with appendicitis. He was operated on and neither he nor the crew flew for 4 weeks.

During this enforced rest Joe spent some time practising his parachute drill. Little did he know that this was soon to save his life.

-------------------

Max Shearer and his crew resumed operations on the night of the 6/7th May 1944. During the day they had undertaken an air test and Joe had checked the bomb sight and the guns in the front turret. The target that night was Aubigne Racan which was about 35 km South East of Le Mans in France. The Germans had established a huge ammunition dump near the village which also contained V1 and V2 rocket parts.

Before take off Max announced to the crew that the Base Commander, Air Commodore Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman would be flying with them to observe the effects of the raid. This news was greeted with a roar of disapproval by the members of the crew. Very few aircrew cared to fly with a passenger on board and Max Shearer’s was no exception. All they knew about the Air Commodore was that he often attended briefings and occasional parades and he was an RAF regular officer with a distinguished career in World War 1. It was almost unheard of for an officer of his rank to fly on ops but his private letters show that he wanted to fly on one operation as his squadrons had been badly knocked about during his 6 months as their CO and he felt it would be good for the men’s morale if he was seen to share the risk with them, if only once.

They took off at 0015 and, because of the presence of their distinguished guest, the crew was a little nervous but quickly settled down into their operational routine.

Flying South across England they crossed the coast at Brighton and over the Channel into France. At the assembly point near the target they were 30 seconds late and the markers were just going down. At 6,500ft it was the perfect bombing run for the first wave of bombers and the target exploded in a massive cloud of smoke and fire which reached several thousand feet. It proved an excellent example of night time precision bombing with the target totally destroyed.

Climbing away from the target Max and his crew headed for home with Air Commodore Ivelaw-Chapman  delighted with the whole show. Arthur Biltoft gave a new course to fly and said it would be 30 minutes before they reached the French coast. Flak on the port side indicated the defences of Le Mans which meant that they were right on track. The Air Commodore joined Joe in the nose of the Lancaster. They were flying at 12,000ft in the clear moonlight sky and Joe remembers reporting 2 other Lancasters flying several hundred yards away.

The calm was broken by a desperate shout from Arthur Jackson in the rear turret - “Corkscrew port. Corkscrew port”.

At the same moment the Lancaster shuddered under a sickening mortal blow and cannon shells whipped through the Lancaster close to Joe and the Air Commodore.

The bomber was alight from nose to tail when the dive to port commenced. Although it only took a second or two it seemed an age before the manoeuvre took place. There was no panic and Max gave the order “Abandon aircraft. “

Joe was stood beside the front escape hatch and, as he reached for his parachute, he remembered the Air Commodore nearby clipping on his own parachute. He remembered nothing for the next few seconds. His intense training must have paid off and as he opened the escape hatch and baled out of the aircraft

Joe regained consciousness spitting smoke from his lungs and floating down under his open parachute in the calm night air. His feet felt strangely cold and he noticed that he had failed to clip his parachute on both sides. As he floated down he saw a fire away on the port side. “ Was that C2 Charlie - Did the others get out - I wonder.” A jumble thoughts raced through his mind - the crew, his mother and family, the person who had packed his parachute.

He contemplated his missing boots and put this down to the fact that they must have been jerked from his feet as his parachute opened and arrested his fall. He also thought of what to do if captured immediately and repeated the drill “ Name, rank and serial number only.”

Not able to control his descent he approached the ground swinging like a pendulum. He could see the outline of trees and crashed into one of the larger ones. It proved impossible to untangle his parachute from the branches and so he hit the harness release and dropped down to the ground, fortunately without injury.

Joe decided to get out of the area as quickly as possible but first buried his parachute and flying clothes and emptied his pocket of a few English coins he was carrying. He checked his escape kit for the compass and noted his wallet contained his escape photographs, his little koala bear mascot and his testament.  “ Only socks and no boots” he thought. “ It will be a long walk to freedom. I must prove worthy of the challenge. “

Joe Ford edited by David Fell  Many thanks to the Ford family for this and the photos. Joe goes on to describe his evasion in detail and an amazing account it is. Make a super movie.  However I will save that for another day.

 

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