You asked about my feelings when those ominous puffs of black smoke suddenly appear in the sky around you. Well, Iíll try and give you an idea -- but no one, unless he has actually been fired upon can actually picture it. The black balls of smoke themselves, donít damage the plane. Itís just what they represent that bothers you. Behind each puff of smoke are countless pieces of flying metal from an explosion of a projectile shot up at us. Itís a helpless sort of a feeling, believe me. Maybe like being used as a target for some duck hunters on a spree. You donít know what to do. If you use evasive action you are liable to fly into a barrage of it. And then again, if you continue on the same heading, you are just as liable to be hit. So, you just have to pray a little and sweat it out.
One minute the sky will be clear, except for the formation of planes around you, and then over the intercom youíll hear, flak at three oíclock low. All eyes, with the exception of the pilot, who is much too busy keeping the plane in position, look in that direction. The chances are you will be expecting enemy action at just about this area, because most of the locations of major flak batteries are known and the navigators have them plotted on their maps. Someone came up with the idea of dropping chaff -- strips of tinsel -- to interfere with the German radar tracking us. (It was very similar to what we used when decorating our Christmas trees back home.) The correct procedure is to coordinate the releasing of the chaff so that it will fall down as a carpet and give a false reading on their radar screen. Intermittent release of the tinsel is almost useless. It is most effective when flying above a complete overcast and the gunners below do not have the opportunity to visually correct their aim. Its success was not guaranteed, but we would try anything new.
If you encounter any flak before you reach the IP (Initial Point) and turn to the target, you can slide a little to one side to avoid it. But once you have sighted the target and proceed toward it, all you can do is to ride it out. The first bursts were probably to test your altitude and you shrink a little even though youíre wearing a heavy flak vest over your electrically heated suit. The puffs of smoke can be compared to the explosion of a giant firecracker. Gradually, the smoke expands and looks grayish as it is blown away. Only to make room for more black ones. If a four-gun battery is fired at you, each distinctive burst can be seen and a series of four bursts can be expected to appear at short intervals.
When the shells burst close to the plane you can actually hear it and can feel the plane lurch a little. I think the queerest feeling is when it explodes directly in front of you and you have to fly right through the black cloud. It envelopes your whole plane and you sit there waiting for the next burst. A million and one thoughts are rushing through your mind. You suddenly recall silly little things you might have done years ago and forgotten until now. Stomach muscles tighten up, your heart beats a little faster, and you instinctively hold your breath. Then, before you realize it youíre in the clear again.
If a barrage is sent up over the target area it can easily be seen as you approach it. They simply fill the space with as many shells they can possibly load and fire, knowing that the formation must fly through it on the way to the target. If they are tracking the formation, the black puffs of smoke will be around your altitude and will follow you to the target and then pick you up again on your way out. Once you are on the bomb run there is no swerving to avoid it. Everyone stays in close formation until bombs away, regardless of how much stuff comes up. Right after you release your bomb load the formation begins a sharp turn off the target, heading for the RP (Rally Point) to re-form and head home. This is to avoid the shells still on there way up to you.
On your way back to England itís a matter of good navigation in order to avoid any known flak areas. Finally, you can see the Channel up ahead and breathe a little easier. Once you are over the Channel everyone relaxes a little and you begin removing your heavy and cumbersome flak vests. You canít wait to lose enough altitude so you can also get rid of that tight oxygen mask. Before you realize it, youíre in the traffic pattern and ready to land. You canít wait to get out and stretch your legs. One of the first things you do is to look for holes in the plane. You recall the flak that you flew through and want to check the damage, especially in the part of the plane you flew in. You always feel so lucky when you spot the holes and canít believe that they missed you. It immediately brings to your mind a silent prayer of thanks.
This was more or less repeated on every mission. Depending on the target and opposition you
receive, the damage would vary. The possibility of fatalities and wounded men was always present.
But thatís a different story.
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