Stories of Remembrance

Air Force, Second World War (1939-45)Valour, Not Glamour...,A Bomber Command story

Tell Jean it is valour, not glamour that distinguishes our group…
Flying Officer, John Alexander Douglas, McGill

I visited the AWM I in 1998 and found my uncle’s name on the Roll of Honour Board. Curiosity provoked and childhood memories aroused about this uncle who had caused such sadness, I ordered his files from the Australian Archives, read histories of Bomber Command and war accounts written by survivors and finally came to a shoe box, relinquished by my mother containing diaries, letters, service medals, the detritus of war belonging to Flying Officer McGill. What had happened to him?

In May 1943, John McGill left Brisbane for his training overseas as a gunner in the RAAF. “Dad, Mum and Jean came to see me off. Mother looking very nice and brave in black. Jean with bright red cardigan and green hat. They all behaved very well, putting on bright faces although I could see they were worried and unhappy”. According to his Flying Log Book, he had commenced training at Lichfield, England as a mid-upper gunner at the end of August. From late September the crew was formed, training continued and he flew on his first mission on 18 March 1944 to Frankfurt. The crew was in 5 Group, 463 (RAAF) Squadron based at Waddington flying in a Lancaster.

Flying a sortie was a terrifying ordeal for all the crew. For hours at a time they were confined to a flying bomb that afforded little protection against flak, enemy fighters or the weather. Out of every one hundred aircrew, an average of 51 would be killed on operations, nine would be killed flying in England, three would be seriously injured in crashes, 12 would become POWs, one would be shot down but evade capture and 24 would survive unharmed. No other branch of the fighting services faced these odds.

The Nurnberg Operation of 30-31 March 1944 was a disaster for the air crews and their planes. His diary: "March 30 Up and down to the flights to complete our D.I as soon as possible. Ops on tonight although the moon is bright and rising early. We were briefed after lunch for Nurnberg. Took off in ‘R’ Robert at 7.30 pm. The choice of target was bad and the moon a disadvantage to us. Very hot trip. Large nos of fighters from the Rhur to the target and half way home. Saw combats on every side and many planes going down in flames. Also searchlights and flak over the target. It was a concentrated attack. 96 aircraft missing. Got to bed about 7.30 am in the morning very tired. We lost no aircraft but 467 sqn lost 2." In a letter to his mother dated 1 April, he added the following uncharacteristically candid postcript: "I am still very well but I am sure that it was only the memories of ‘Rankeillour’ (his home in Brisbane) that brought me home the other night, love John".

The raid on Nurnberg in Northern Bavaria was a routine ‘maximum effort’ operation but bad judgement and bad luck turned the operation into a disaster. The full moon on the route to Nurnberg provided perfect hunting opportunities for the German fighter pilots, cloud obscured the city of Nurnberg and the city of Schweinfurt that was northwest of Nurnberg was bombed by mistake as were small villages to the east of Nurnberg. The planners of the operation knew about the moon and hoped cloud would blow in to protect the bombers. The problems of navigation so far into Germany demonstrated the limited navigational aids the bombers had. The loss of 96 out of 779 bombers was considered a disaster, compared with the overall loss rate of 2.28%. At this time, writing to his mother and responding to something his sister had said about being a member of the ‘glamour’ 5 Group he gently chided: "Tell Jean it is valour, not glamour that distinguishes our group…"

After Nurnberg, the tactics changed and Group 5 squadron under Cochrane, commenced training in accurate bombing techniques where the target was marked from low level and bombing directed by a Bombing Master. In John McGill’s Flying Log Book they undertook operations in April to Tours, Aachen, Paris Juvissy, La Chappelle, Brunswick, Munich, Schweinfurt and Bordeaux twice. On April 24 he wrote "…We were briefed to go to Munich and took off at about 8.30. …Saw Geneva, Lake Constance and the Alps. It was a bright moonlight night and the snow covered Alps seemed to be level with our wings as we went through the passes. It was a wonderful sight. Munich was a tougher target than we have had for a while…” On 9 May he wrote to his father "…..I had completed two thirds of my tour and was looking forward to finishing in the near future. Instead we were posted to another branch of the air force…the famous Pathfinder Force. It is really a great compliment to the crew because it is only the best crews that are sent…however the work is much harder and involves a great amount of hard and specialised training…..another snag is that …we have to complete fifty (tours)." The training was in low level flying to place markers beside targets, an altogether more dangerous operation. His diary stops at the end of April when his Pathfinder training commenced. Operations re-commenced on 6 June. He did not return from the third Pathfinder mission on D-Day, 1944.

Diana Bell, Niece
  • Name McGill, John Alexander Douglas
  • Service Number 429340
  • Date of Birth 03 January 1918
  • Place of Birth Brisbane, QLD
  • Date of Enlistment 11 September 1942
  • Date of Death 10 June 1944
  • Place of Death France

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