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The do-or-die dive which saved RAF man Ted

By Toby Neal | Nostalgia | Published:

Coned! The nightmare for bomber crews - the moment when the enemy searchlights locked on to them, filling the fuselage with blinding light and, more seriously, pinpointing them in the darkness for all the anti-aircraft guns.

The Lancaster desperately twisted and turned to try to evade the beams as shrapnel peppered the aircraft, but there was no escape, and it seemed only a matter of time before the fatal blow fell.

There was, recalls flight engineer Ted Watson in the latest book by Telford author Ken Ballantyne, just one more card to play.

He pushed the throttles fully forward as the pilot banked and dived.

"The engines drove the aircraft down towards the earth, quickly reaching 300mph," said Ted.

"I kept the power on as we spiralled through the hail of flak and cannon fire that was coming up towards us.

"We passed 360mph, knowing that at this speed the wings were very likely to be ripped off. I kept my hand hard on the throttles as down the blinding shaft of light we plunged.

"The engines screamed in protest, the airframe vibrated in sympathy, and the buildings rushed up towards us.

"If the lights held us now we would either hit the ground or be blown out of the sky. I don't think anyone drew breath in those moments. It was now or never.

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"I eased the throttles back, Jerry (Jerry Monk, the pilot) pulled the Lancaster out of the dive, and we flashed across the rooftops at an unimaginable speed. Then suddenly everything was dark again. We were out.

"We had all thought we were going to die."

The dangers were not over, but they managed to limp back to their base at RAF East Kirkby in Lincolnshire.

The target that night, March 5, 1945, had been the Bohlen synthetic oil refinery, and what had threatened to be Ted's last flight did prove to be his last flight in another sense, because afterwards the crew was stood down. Ted had completed 37 operational missions.

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As with all bomber crews, luck decided who would live and who would die, and luck was on Ted's side the day before his 20th birthday. One of the crew was ill, so they were given a night off and a different crew "borrowed" their Lancaster, which had just returned from a major service. However, just after take-off the port inner engine failed, followed by the port outer, and the plane crashed while attempting an emergency landing, killing two crew members and badly injuring the five others.

"We were never sure, and never have been sure, that this crash was not caused by sabotage. It was something that we were often warned to guard against," said Ted.

Ken Ballantyne's book telling Ted's story is called "Through The Gate" - a reference to a maximum boost throttle setting.

"I've been writing this book up with Ted over four years," said Ken, from Admaston.

Ted, who is 93, hailed from Cockfield, a village in County Durham, and lives not far away even today.

During the war he served with 630 Squadron based at RAF East Kirkby, which is today home of Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.

"I got to know him because his daughter Julie kindly bought all the other titles I have written," said Ken, who has written a number of books telling the stories of World War Two airmen.

"We were chatting on the phone one day and she invited me to talk to her dad. I said that would be great, we made the arrangements, and it went from there.

"The more he told me, the more I knew there was a story which needed telling.

"He is just a delightful man. It was only as I got to know him better, and he got to know me better, that I got below that surface and got under the skin of the man to see what he had really done and really felt, and the great courage he, and all of them, exhibited in getting back in the aircraft time and time again when they knew what was waiting for them.

"Ted was awarded the French medal of Chevalier in the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur in 2016. At least the French Government appreciated what Bomber Command had done, even if our own never has."

Through The Gate is being launched at BookShrop in Whitchurch on Saturday, March 31, between 11am and 2pm, when Ken will be joined by a Shropshire Bomber Command veteran, John Trotman, DFC and Bar, as Ted can't get down from County Durham.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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