As they passed through 10,000 feet, Fauquier notified the crew and they clipped their oxygen masks over their faces. Below them, the mountains were still falling away, but contrary to the forecast, cloud hovered over the Arctic. It didn’t obscure everything, at least not yet, but Moran thought it might make the bomb runs tricky. Soon the German defences came to life and the first bursts of flak blossomed in the sky ahead. It looked harmless and almost beautiful at first, but Moran knew better. With relief he registered no excessive apprehension. He’d always felt tension as they headed into flak; a man would have been mad not to. Yet now, as before, his anxiety did not reach a magnitude beyond his capacity to control or conceal.
The German anti-aircraft gunners started to find their range and the flak crept closer to them. Although it buffeted the Lancaster, the heavy load meant it only caused the aircraft to stagger rather than bounce about the sky. Then, with a near deafening bang, something punched them in the belly. The Lancaster was whipped upwards a hundred feet or more as filthy brown smoke engulfed them. It was like nothing Moran had ever experienced before. Involuntarily he exclaimed, “Christ! What the hell was that?”
“The Tirpitz.” Fauquier answered calmly. “Among other armaments, she has eight 15-inch guns with a range of 17 miles. Happily, they underestimated our altitude.”
“You mean they’re firing at us with ordinance designed to sink a battleship?!”
“That’s one way of wording it.”
“Well, I suppose the good thing is we won’t feel any pain when it hits us,” Moran observed, drawing a deep breath and crossing his arms.
“Exactly,” Fauquier answered with a quick grin in his direction.
The next shell exploded precisely at their altitude. Fortunately, it was leading them by about 500 feet; that increasing cloud cover had its advantages, Moran thought to himself. Not only was the target becoming veiled from view, so were the bombers. The German gunners were just as blind as the bomb aimers, and that forced them to set their guns based on what they heard rather than saw.
Now Fauquier started the bomb run, eliminating the option of evasive action. The shore batteries were hurling volleys of light flak at them as fast as possible, and the Tirpitz was firing with all her guns. The bursts of the shells continued to go off precisely at 18,000 feet and were now just tens of yards ahead of them, forcing them to fly into the smoke and debris. The smell of cordite soaked in through the very rivets of the bomber as it shuddered, trembled and jinked in the shock waves. Moran found himself senselessly counting the seconds, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three….
“Eight-tenths cloud, Skipper,” the bomb-aimer called up. “I can’t see the target.”
“Right. We’ll go around again and give someone else a chance in the meantime.” Fauquier banked away from the target and swung down the fjord. Moran returned to the astrodome to watch the other aircraft make a pass at the target. He found Q for Queen in the queue and watched as it flew steadily through the gauntlet of anti-aircraft and heavy naval artillery fire. Q-Queen released the bomb on its first run, but even with his limited visibility as the ragged clouds plodded across the sky, Moran could see that it fell wide.
Watching these bombs was like nothing Moran had experienced on his previous tour. Aside from the fact that he’d never taken part in a daylight operation, these Tallboys differed dramatically from the standard 500 lb bombs and 2,000 lb ‘cookies’ Moran knew. Because of the fins, rather than tumbling over themselves as they dropped, they spun like gigantic bullets. Even after leaving the aircraft, they continued forward with their sharp noses pointed towards the target. He saw one hit the water, sending up a tremendous plume of water that visibly rocked the battleship. Shortly after D-Dog’s bomb run, a column of smoke rose up through the clouds, suggesting at least one hit had been made. Yet roughly half the attacking aircraft turned away without releasing their bombs at all. The only good news was that the battleship’s 15-inch guns were still firing too far ahead of the bombers.
When they were lined up again, Fauquier took them back in for a second run. The aircraft was pushed up, down and sideways by the air pressure of the explosions going off nearer and nearer to them. Pieces of shrapnel clattered on the metal skin and the smell of cordite again seeped into the cockpit. Moran had nothing to do but count the seconds as they flew straight and level. Again, the bomb-aimer reported he could not see the target in his site, and they aborted to go round yet again.
The flight engineer, who was dividing his time between watching the instrument dials and looking out the starboard side of the cockpit, flicked on his microphone. “Flight engineer to pilot: E-Easy has been hit. Port inner has packed in. Landing gear and flaps are down. I can’t tell if that’s hydraulic damage or if he’s signalling that he wants to land.”
“That’s Bill Carey, isn’t it?” Fauquier associated the pilot with the aircraft. “Is he on fire, Engineer?” he asked.
“Not that I can see, sir. He’s turning back toward land.”
They made their third run at the target, and finally the bomb-aimer felt he could see enough to drop the bomb. On release, the Lancaster bounced upwards, pressing them down on their seats, and then they seemed to float for a second when it stabilised. As Fauquier turned away from the target, the rear gunner reported: “Near miss, sir! Maybe twenty yards off her stern. I could see her rudder and propellers when she lifted out of the water as the detonator went off. The water around her stern is still frothing with turbulence. There may be underwater damage to her steering gear.”
“May be, yes,” Fauquier retorted dryly.
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