It was just before 17:25 hours, November 3, 1943, as the summer of wartime England faded from deep purple to the black embrace of a Lincolnshire winter night.
Snuggled down for the night was the small village of Kelstern, one of many similar English villages that found themselves central players in the Second World War as air warfare created new battle zones in once pastoral places.
In 1943, Kelstern was the home of RAF Squadron 625. On November 3, some 15 four-engine, heavy-duty Lancaster bombers were lined up at one end of the main runway awaiting permission to take off for a several-hour flight to Dusseldorf, deep in Germany.
At the head of the queue when we begin our observation of this night’s operation was Lancaster W4833. Pilot for the flight is Flight Sergeant Reg Price, 22, born in Lloydminster in 1921. He joined the RCAF in 1941. Tonight’s flight is his second in command, his third in combat. On the two earlier flights, he was “second dickey” to the pilot on the flight deck.
The night we catch up with him, he’s in the lone seat upfront watching the oil lamp runway lights mark a path through the dark and waiting for a green “take-off” light signal.
Logbooks tell us this was a raw crew on their second op after an initial grind to Kassel a few days earlier. This would be a flight to test their mettle … their battle-fatigued aircraft was at its maximum gross take-off weight with fuel and bomb load, including a 4,000-pound high explosive “cookie” and a full load of incendiaries.
Given the green light, Price “applied full boost to the four Merlin engines and accelerated down Runway Six in almost total darkness. And the flight engineer, standing beside the pilot because there never was a seat on the flight deck for a co-pilot, reported flames spewing from the starboard inner engine. The fire was extinguished, the prop feathered. The Lancaster faltered as fire broke out in the port inner engine. It, too, was extinguished, and the prop feathered. But the Lancaster flying on two engines with its full load of bombs was still in grave danger.
The order was given to lighten the aircraft, and everything that could be discarded was. The 4,000-pound “cookie” and the heavy clusters of incendiaries fell into the North Sea. So did ammunition and the guns. And even the navigator’s sextant.
Still several miles from the English coast PO Price held his course until he caught a glimmer of air strip lights. “It wasn’t difficult landing,” says. “We still had two engines and confident control. My tail gunner later told me it was a nice landing….but then all successful landings are.”
The fight to get home had taken one hour and 15 minutes from take off to safe landing. Chatting with me over coffee in Berwick Royal Oak close to 100-years later Reg said “at the time it seemed to last for ever.”
Pilot Officer Price was awarded the distinguished Flying Cross. The official citation notes that he completed 31 sorties comprising 213 operational flying hours as the captain of a Lancaster aircraft. “This officer has carried out his tour of operations displaying quiet persistence and a cool, determined endeavour over a long period sometimes under the most trying circumstances.” The citation noted his “cool and skilful” handling of a double engine failure.
But maybe his own citation is the one that really counts, the one where he says, very quietly: “Well, I got the medal, and I cherish it, but it was the crew that won it. We knew what we had to do, and we did it.’’
It’s a frame of mind we could all profit from.