Thursday, March 01, 2007

Lest We Forget

During his ninth mission in the Second World War, on the night of February 24th 1944, my grandfather who I would never meet was killed in action. It would be years before my grandmother would accept the fact that he was gone.

Douglas Eastham, pictured on the left in this crew photo, was a pretty interesting guy. As a mid 30 something recently married and fathered Canadian my grandfather had the option to take the road more often travelled during WW II and stick to the relative safety of air traffic control in England.

Thing is though his heart wouldn't let him.

On each operation day as an air traffic controller he would see 20 or 30 aircraft go out and 15 or 25 return. Eventually he convinced those that needed convincing that he needed to do more. On July 29th, 1943 he began training as a mid upper gunner in a Canadian Lancaster bomber and 2 months later, on Sept. 27th, flew his first mission - Operation Bochum.

From that first mission to February 24th 1944 (5 months) my grandfather flew a total of nine 'operations' with his final one being Operation Schweinfurt.

The flight from the south of England to Schweinfurt Germany in the dead of a winter night proved to be a long, cold and fateful trip for my grandfather. At 25,000 feet, roughly 10 miles west of Bermering France and 60 miles west of Karlsruhe Germany his Lancaster was spotted by a German fighter pilot patrolling several thousand feet above.

I spoke with the pilot of my grandfather's Lancaster several years ago about the attack that, in a moment of time shorter than a commercial break during the Oscar's, would kill 4 of the 7 Canadians in that aircraft. Basil Jackson's recollection of the encounter, one that 60 years later birthed a monument in Bermering, France (48'55'52.94 N by 6'42'37.04 E - Google Earth), was fascinating to listen too and I wish I had had the foresight to have recorded it.

An hour or so out from their bombing run over Schweinfurt Germany they were spotted. The German fighter pilot high above them dropped into a deep dive to gain momentum and speed. The overture to a manoeuvre that I'm sure by then had been given a name. The "Lancaster Killer" maybe.

At nearly the speed of sound, engine screaming from the RPM and with the airframe of the fighter nearly ripping itself apart the German pilot shot past the Lancaster and dived beneath the slow lumbering bomber. Pulling several Gs the fighter pilot turned the momentum of his dive into an upward roll, focused his guns on the soft underbelly of the Lancaster and let loose.

Guns blazing he sliced the bomber in two.

The three in front (pilot, navigator and bomb aimer) were ejected and spent the remainder of the war at the Stalag Luft 3 POW camp. My grandfather and the other three in the back of the doomed bomber were unable to escape in time and were killed instantly as the aircraft, fuel, oxygen and munitions exploded.