1940 October 21st/22nd
Nine Squadron Wellingtons, Colin in Wellington 1C AA-B, serial T.2820, set out on a 6 hour flight to attack the docks at Hamburg which, at that time, contained the German battleship ‘Bismark’.
Colin’s crew were:
Second pilot: P/O N.J.Edwards
Navigator: Sgt. M.G.Harris
Wireless Operator: Sgt. F.Haigh
Front Gunner: Sgt. Broad
Rear Gunner: Sgt F.J.Read
Colin reported that results were not observed due to glare from the searchlights.
Three 500 lb bombs were dropped to facilitate escape from searchlights and A.A. Inceduries retained and dropped on railway sidings N.W.of Hamburg. Fire resulted with a few small explosions.
The Bomber Command War Diaries relate that:
“The largest single raids were about 20-30 aircraft against the larger German cities and on two nights, 20th/21st and 24th/25th October, Hamburg was bombed by a number of Wellingtons which started 12 and 13 fires respectively although the loss of life was slight. German fighters also started marauding flights, whether intention or not, near Bomber Command airfields as the aircraft were departing for their night's mission.”
Colin and crew had an eventful return, later related to his parents in Australia by letter. That ketter was quoted by the Adelaide Advertiser on 17th June 1941.
“We took off after dark and made for the ‘other side.’ We duly arrived over the target, and after a period of searching, identified the place. Just as we were about to drop the first bomb, we ran into “merry Hell”. There seemed to be literally hundreds of searchlights, all of them right on us, and the most terrific and accurate A.A. fire I have seen. We were hit by the first salvo, and we went down and down, completely blinded by the searchlights. In desperation, I dropped my bombs, and was able to regain control. We then limped home.
Engine in Flames
“Just off the English coast we ran into shocking weather. The port engine burst into flames, and by using an automatic fire extinguisher I confined the fire to the engine. The next shock was when the ‘prop’ began to wobble and finally fell off, taking the front of the engine with it. I could not maintain height with one engine owing to our damaged condition. There was a thick fog, and we went down until the altimeter showed ‘0.’ Suddenly two trees loomed up in front ... and then came a splintering crash.”
Colin's co-pilot described his experience of the crash in a letter home date October 26th.
Oct 26th 1940
Goodness knows what you're all thinking so in case the official cable scared you, I sent one this morning.
I'm alright, just my left shoulder smashed up a bit but they are sticking me together and I'll be up aloft
before long. Boy, was it a crash!
We went to Hamburg that night and over the city one motor gave trouble
so that search-lights got us and they opened up on us with every gun they had. It was hellish but they
didn't get a direct hit and we squirmed out somehow. However, on the way back one motor burst into flames
and the prop fell off. We got the fire out and tried to get home on one engine but she wouldn't do it and
we gradually lost height. Then the good motor started to go and we flew in the ground in the middle of a
thick fog only 10 miles from home. There was a most awful crash. She hit 2 pine trees first smashed them
up and then spread all over a field. I was out first, tried to fix up the others who were pretty bad and
then went for help in the dark and the fog. They were all knocked about but all are getting better.
Quite miraculous really as you'll see from my snaps. As this is Airmail, I'll leave it at that and write later.
So don't worry - all is well under control.
Love to all Norm.
Nick, the son of Colin's navigator says that his father, Malcolm Harris, described how, anticipating the crash, he moved to behind the main wing spar and hunkered down with the radio operator between his knees.
The editor of the newspaper article had Colin conclude his account in a rather cliched sentence:
“I was carried off to sick quarters,” he says, “patched up and put to bed. The next morning I had an X-ray taken to verify that no bones were broken, and then got a lift home.”
As a result of their injuries the crew were taken off operations for a month.
Two photographs of a crashed Wellington have been handed down through the family. To those Nick Harris' added more photographs and in 2017
correspondence with Norman Edward's nephew, Ian Carswell, revealed Norman to be the crew's photographer.
The photographs were of an aircraft with the squadron code AA-B which conflicted with a website that stated T2820 carried the squadron code AA-A. So, it was possible the photos were of a generic wreck. However, Colin's navigator's son has been in contact and has added five photographs, two of which are duplicates of the images in the family archive. The collection of images fit entirely with the account of the crash, one photograph even depicting the tree the aircraft collided with.
The Feltwell Station Flying Log (the Control Tower Diary) recorded:
2302: "B" 75 Sqd. S.O.S. One engine failing. QDM 323.
2314: "B" 75 QDM 344. BFX NOH.
2345: "B" 75 crashed near Methwold. Crew injured. Ambulance & doctors dispatched. Thick Fog
A telegram was sent to Colin's wife, Daphne, addressed to her grandfather’s home in Cornwall:
[Colin had actually been promoted to the rank of full Flight Lieutenant on 21st September 1940.]
The fate of the other aircraft, Serial R3158, to crash, on Manston airfield, on the night of October
21/22nd is related in the book ‘Forever Strong’ by Norman Franks. Curiously the book incorrectly
identifies Colin Gilbert as the captain of that aircraft. Flying Officer R.P.Elliott captained R3158.