15 August 1997

LIKE PARTRIDGES

OVER THE GUNS

THE sound of a Merlin coughing into life at East Kirkby has a special resonance for Lincs farmer, and ex-bomber boy, John Chatterton. John was born in the middle of the airfield when it was his fathers farm, Hagnaby Grange.

Slumping beef and cereal prices occupy his thoughts today at Manor Farm, Low Toynton, Horncastle. But more than 50 years ago, aviation – not agriculture – was paramount as he struggled to complete a tour of 30 operations piloting a Lancaster for RAF Bomber Command.

Johns aircraft was only one minute ahead in the bomber stream that March night when the Halifax crewed by Christopher Panton, Fred and Harolds brother, was shot down.

John remembers the evening well. "It was a bright moonlight night with none of the clouds wed been promised to hide in. The German controllers got their calculations right and mustered hordes of night fighters to two radio beacons which happened to cross our track. We flew into their waiting arms like the coveys streaming over the guns on a partridge shoot."

Before that night came months of intensive training. Flying in cold, clammy British skies was a world away from cloudless Arizona where John learned to fly the four-winged Stearman trainer before graduating to the North American Harvard advanced trainer.

Nine months later, back on the drizzly side of the Atlantic, he was made operational flying first twin-engined Oxford trainers and Whitley bombers before taking the captains seat of a four-engined Lancaster from RAF Swinderby in Lincs.

And he will never forget his first operational visit as second dickey or co-pilot to Leipzig. "We were in cloud all the way and saw nothing of the defences or target marking. But I learnt all about icing and how to land without an air speed indicator."

That wasnt good enough for his flight commander. "He said I hadnt learnt anything on my first trip so off we went again with a laid-back New Zealander. This time to Dusseldorf in the industrial heartland of the Ruhr."

Johns second operational sortie received a livelier reception. "This time we saw everything including masses of searchlights and the Pathfinder marking technique. We were attacked twice by fighters and watched their tracer bullets arching round to us and were bounced about by flak."

Deadpan humour

More than 50 years later John can still remember the New Zealanders deadpan humour. Seeing John crouching in the flight engineers seat after a particularly brutal burst of flak, he chided: "You wont see anything if you dont sit up. Youre supposed to be enjoying this."

Fear was a constant companion during those years and John always felt grateful to be a pilot. "We were all afraid. But as the pilot, there was always something to do."

Recognising his farming background, Johns crew painted an ace of spades on the nose of their Lanc. In recognition of their skill, particularly that of the navigator, says John, the crew were picked to become wind finders. Their job was to fly ahead of the bomber stream reporting differences between actual and forecast winds so that met reports for group broadcast, sent out every half hour, could be as accurate as possible.

John ended his RAF career serving as a instructor, with a Distinguished Flying Cross, training about 60 pilots to fly his Lancasters. Back in civvy street he lectured in farm machinery at Sutton Bonnington college before returning to the family farm.

During the war years, he always kept in touch with the family farm which overlooked East Kirkby airfield. John particularly remembers the code his mother used in her letters to tell him about planes using the airfields.

Bullocks were bombers

"Of course the censors would never have allowed any mention of aircraft in her letters so she invented her own code," explains John. "Sheep stood for fighters. Bullocks were bombers and Aberdeen-Angus, because of their colour, were night bombers."

Smiling at the memory, John recalls how his mother told him about the disruption caused when a bomber crash-landed. "There was a lot of trouble last night at our old farm, wrote mother. Another Aberdeen-Angus bullock broke through the fence."

Above all John remembers the comradeship of his crew and their beloved Lancaster. It is a bond he has been able to renew in uniquely personal circumstances.

"Every year since 1943/44 has been a bonus but the past 10 years have brought a golden bonus as my son, Mike, has been flying the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster from RAF Conningsby. So my old crew has been able to go flying with two Chattertons at the controls.

"The only trouble is, after Mike lands the Lanc, they keep asking me "Why couldnt you land her like that?"

lYou can visit Just Jane, and other exhibits, at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, East Kirkby, near Spilsby, Lincs. Tel: 01790-763207. Open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm until Nov. From Nov to Easter, 10am to 4pm.

Fred (left) and Harold Panton say they could have retired or taken several world cruises on the money they have poured into the project.

Vintage aero engine specialist Ian Hickling, one of the team who restored the engines (which had not run for 20 years), says it was a mammoth job.

John Chatterton, now a beef and cereal farmer at Horncastle, clearly recalls the fateful bomber mission in which Fred and Harold Pantons brother was killed.

Lancaster B MK V11 performance

Max speed 275 mph

Cruising speed 200mph at 15,000ft

Service ceiling 25,000ft

Take-off run with full load about 4000ft

Range 2350 miles with a 7000lb bomb load. Normal bomb load 10t

Rate of climb 250 ft per minute