Meeting His Fate
Among the Clouds Above
By Catherine Fleming, Joe’s niece
In 1939, Joseph ‘Joe’ Kiernan left his home in Mullingar for a new career that would take him above the clouds of Nazi Germany.
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Regarded as the ‘brains’ of the family, Joe left his family home after completing his studies at St. Finian’s College; he was 19 years old. He left behind his parents, Elizabeth and Joseph, and four siblings, Bridie, Willie, Kathleen, and Lilly. He was talented at drawing and travelled across the Irish Sea to train as a Draughtsman with the Ministry of War. The black clouds of war were gathering on the horizon and with its inevitable beginning in September 1939, Joe joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) and due to his academic skills, he was selected to be a pilot. We know of Joe’s story because of the many letters he wrote to his cousin May who lived in England. These letters would later be sent to Joe’s family in Mullingar. Due to the strict censorship at the time, Joe clearly could not always write about what he was doing. At times he just mentions where he was based and comments on things like the accommodation, but little else.
RAF Boscombe Down: Aircraftman
Our journey begins with him in early December 1940. He is on his way to the RAF base at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire where he would stay for a little over a month. The base had four grass runways and the trainees stayed in Nissen huts laid in precise rows. The huts were made of corrugated iron on the outside and lined with wood on the inside. With concrete floors Joe found he could get no sleep but shivered despite being buried under the five blankets he had been allocated. That winter was on record as one of the coldest since 1889, with temperatures dropping to -21 F in Cumbria. For this young man the cold and the feeling of constant hunger was his introduction to Boscombe!
In the early morning the lads had to walk about a mile in freezing conditions to wash and get their breakfast. A lorry did come to collect them, but Joe found that it was always too early or too late. All the young men were anxious to begin their flying course, but knew they had to wait until a vacancy arose in one of the flying schools. They were really disappointed as they were ‘stuck on ground defence’. Sometimes they were allowed down to the huge hangars to look at the planes and dream of a time they would be at last able to get some flying time. During this period several units were stationed at the base. No. 35 Squadron operating Handley Page Halifax; No. 56 Squadron operating the Hawker Hurricane I; No. 109 Squadron operating the Whitley, Anson, and Vickers Wellington; and No. 249 Squadron operating the Hurricane.
Joe met with two sergeant pilots one afternoon walking across the grass runway and had a good chat with them about the course. They told him the mathematics part was of primary school level and one of them kindly gave him a loan of some books to study. This pilot wrote home for more books to be posted to the novice. Joe was a little overawed at this kind gesture, but one can imagine a seasoned pilot being empathetic with the enthusiasm of these ‘young whipper –snappers!’ Anxious to keep on top of his studies, Joe had already written home to Ireland for his geography books to be sent over. At this time one letter to his cousin May, he mentions a young blonde WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) he saw in the dining hall but felt she was out of his league.
1/7 Flight No. 9 Receiving Wing: Aircraftman 2nd Class
By February 1940, Joe was with 1/7 Flight No. 9 Receiving Wing, S Stratford on Avon. The receiving wing units were for new entrees to receive their uniform and kit, and for their paperwork and medicals to be processed. Joe and his fellow recruits were billeted in the Stratford Hotel. Here Joe comments that they had ‘hot water’ and ‘indoor games’ and ‘football’. The men however, were bored and frustrated and a valuable lesson was soon learnt. His letters indicate he had been refused a weekend pass twice. He also applied for a five day leave pass. This was ‘thrown out’. He decided that he would ‘rip off to London’ with three other chaps for the weekend. However, he had no idea that 48 other trainee pilots had the same idea! As he tells us in his letter ‘the o/c thought it was mutiny and a general alarm was sent out’. The allure of a weekend in the cosmopolitan capital must have had a strong pull for these young men. Joe knew nothing of the furore that was going on at the base until he returned after the weekend.
All of the miscreants were ‘confined to barracks’ for one week and fined one day’s pay. The routine for the week was quite punishing. The men rose at 5.00 am. in order to be properly shaved, dressed and buttons gleaming for Reveille at 6.30am. They had to then march to the guard room for inspection which was a mile away. After a 7.00am breakfast they were assigned fatigues: scrubbing, polishing, sweeping etc. From 10 until 12 noon they had drill and at no time were they allowed to ‘stand at ease’. The day continued with each minute carefully planned; more fatigues, drill, inspection more fatigues and tea at 5.30pm. Even then they were not allowed rest but endured instruction and final bout of fatigues! Then they marched back to the guard room for final inspection and walked the mile back to their hotel. ‘Lights out’ order was given for 10.00pm.
Writing this to his young cousin, Joe was very philosophical and resigned about it all: ‘I survived and feel better for it. Now, if you join the RAF, when the time comes, don’t lark about and piss off for 48hrs, it’s not worth it. We lost our privileges and were going to be taken off our course’. No. 4 Elementary Flight Training School, RAF Brough: Leading Aircraftman His next letters put him over a year later stationed in Brough near Hull, East Yorkshire, with RAF Training Command, 51 Group, 4 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School). When he started flight school, we are not exactly sure. What we do know from his letters is that he had been learning to fly the de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth. This was the standard RAF biplane trainer. Joe made his first solo flight in a Tiger Moth on 2 July. Joe writes that the runway was grassy and wind-swept as it bordered the River Humber.
‘It was a marvellous feeling; I took off lovely, circled around the aerodrome, but coming in to land was about 400 feet too high. Round again I went, and this time I got down all right. Today I had 20 minutes of flying solo and did very well. Tomorrow we have mid-term exams…. not much time to study’.
The days for the student pilots were spent continuously learning long-distance map reading, and the theory of night flying. Joe had to learn Blind Approach Training – that is flying on the sound of radio beams. In a poignant statement he noted that it was ‘really interesting and might save my life one day’. It would be at Brough that instructors decided, upon examining the pilots’ style of flight and confidence, who would go on to join Bomber Command.
In his letters, Joe was quite concerned about the bombing of Dublin which took place on a beautiful starry night in May 1941, some weeks previous, at precisely 2.05am. 40 people were killed among terror and pandemonium and over 100 were seriously injured.
‘That’s not too far from Mullingar and I think ‘Gerry’ must surely have passed over there, at some time’,
During the second half of 1941 and into 1942, Joe seems to have moved around quite a bit. By now he had learned how to fly twin engine aircraft, most likely the Avro Anson, and is learning the various skills as a bomber pilot, one of which is flying at night. His letters indicate that he has now been promoted Sergeant Pilot.
RAF Middleton: Sergeant Pilot
A letter dated 3 January, 1942 from the Sergeants Mess at RAF Middleton, St. George, Durham. This base was opened in 1941. It was the most northerly bomber base in England used for the night bomber offensives against Germany.
‘We had a time getting here. On Dec. 29th we left Brize Norton to go to Topcliffe, Yorks. (Brize was the largest station of the RAF 65 miles west north west of London). After a lot of fooling around at Kings Station we eventually got under way with our kit bags gone on another train! Some idiot put them on the wrong one. Finally, we disembarked at some God forsaken dump where an RAF lorry arrived and picked us up about 3.00am on 30th Dec.
On arriving at Topcliffe a short time later, we got ‘supper’ and there nobody knew anything about us. That night or morning we slept on the chairs in the anti-room as there was no accommodation for us elsewhere. The following morning after breakfast we had to pay our abominable mess fee. We are to train for Blind Approach- flying on the sound of radio beams. It’s very interesting and may help to save my life someday, if it doesn’t drive me ‘scatty’ before then! Now we leave here on Tuesday, so we weren’t told whether we go back to Brize Norton, or go to OTU or get a few days leave…I don’t know. The OTU’s are all over the place so like Eddie Byrne I too may go to Scotland. Here I met one of the EFTS boys, he’s going on Halifax 4 -engine bombers and he has just finished OTU on Whitleys. What’s in store for me I just can’t
imagine. Remember me in your prayers, JOE’
By early January 1942, one can sense a sort of maturity and fatalism entering his letters. The Battle of Britain was over with the RAF suffering losses of approximately 544 fighter pilots. Joe and his comrades were well aware that ‘the chop’ could strike at any moment. He showed his Catholic roots by thanking his cousin for the Rosary beads she had sent. These would be returned to his mother after his death. He begs for letters stating, ‘You’d be surprised what a difference a letter can make’.
RAF Finningley: Sergeant Pilot
A letter dated 4 February 1942, puts Joe at RAF Finningley in south Yorkshire. At this time No. 25 Operational Training Unit (OTU) was operating out of Finningley and at the time was phasing out Handley Page Hampdens for Vickers Wellingtons and Avro 679 Manchesters. The flying conditions are not pleasant with ‘slushy snow’ and ‘winds’. OTU’s were one of the final steps in an aircrews’ training period before they reached an operational squadron.
‘The powers-to-be are rushing us through the ground course. We are scheduled to fly on Sunday next starting on Wellingtons. The flying equipment has been issued to use battle-dress included. After three or four weeks on Wellingtons we go on to Manchesters’.
During training, one of his friends, Tommy, was killed at take-off. According to Air Ministry over 8,000 men were killed in non-operational flying; training or accidents during war years. Another close friend Bill McCleod was lying seriously ill in hospital. His plane had pronged when he was coming in to land. Two of McCleod’s crew were killed in this accident. Joe wrote ironically: ‘That’s Life-Luck of the game! I guess’. The crews were now being picked and Joe found himself in ‘a motley crew’. The co-pilot was a Scotsman, the navigator an Englishman, and the wireless operator an Australian. Although the crew may change again Joe hoped not ‘as the fellows are real diggers!’ The crews flew with an experienced pilot and either Joe or a recovered McCleod would act as co-pilot. At this stage in the war, the RAF had stepped up its bombing campaign on Nazi Germany. Bomber Command had a regular front line strength of around 400 aircraft. They were in the process of transitioning from the twin-engine medium bombers to the newer more effective four-engine heavy bombers such as the Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster. To imagine today what the bomber crews had to endure over the skies of Nazi Germany is unconceivable.
The first ever 1,000 bomber raid by the RAF was conducted on Cologne on the night of 30/31 May 1942. Codenamed Operation Millennium, the massive formation had to be augmented with aircraft and crews from Operational Training Units and from Flying Training Command. Some crews had to be made up of student pilots, just like Joe. For 90 minutes, starting at 00.47am on the 31st, 868 bombed Cologne in a ‘bomber stream’; the first time this tactic had been used. It was hoped that such a concentration of bombers would overwhelm the German defences. The 1,455 tons dropped, two-thirds of which were incendiaries, started 2,500 separate fires. These fires quickly engulfed the city in a firestorm which left 12,840 buildings damaged or destroyed. Residential buildings suffered the worst with some 13,010 destroyed, 6,360 seriously damaged, 22,270 lightly damaged. The RAF lost 43 aircraft.
RAF Scampton: Sergeant Pilot
Joe’s next letters place him at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire. We are not exactly sure what unit he was with here or since when. We do know that at this time 83 Conversion Flight and 49 Conversion Flight were operating from this station and converting crews to the four engine Avro Lancaster. By July 1942, Joe’s mood is one of frustration. According to his letters the waiting for active service seems intolerable. His wait would soon be over.
RAF Syerston, 207 Squadron: Sergeant Pilot
An operational tour for an RAF bomber crew consisted of 30 non-aborted, operational sorties. Joe’s first foray into the heat of battle finally came in late August. As part of 207 Squadron, based at RAF Bottesford, his plane was one of 113 bombers to head out over enemy territory to bomb Nuremberg on the night of 28/29 August. Nuremberg was dear to the Nazi heart as it was the site of their great pre-war rallies. Incendiary bombs were also used in this raid. Over Nuremberg, Pathfinders used ‘target indicators’ for the first time, to mark the aiming point. These were tiny little incendiary balls released from a single bomb which burned brightly for five minutes. This was deemed long enough to guide the bombers to their target. Approaching from the south, the squadron’s crews were able to make fixes from the river, canal and autobahn which were clearly visible in the bright moonlight. The town received only moderate damage despite the accuracy of the markers. Again, the force suffered heavy losses with the Wellington Squadrons bearing the brunt of the casualties. Of the 159 aircraft dispatched, 23 were reported missing – 14 Wellingtons, 4 Lancasters, 3 Short Stirlings and 2 Halifaxes. Joe’s crew was not one of them. The squadron relocated to RAF Langar on 21 September, owing to the Bottesford runway surface breaking up and needing urgent repairs. Joe’s second mission was a night-time bombing raid on Munich which took place on the night of 19/20 September.
The distance was enormous at 2,000kms round trip mostly over enemy territory. 68 Lancasters and 21 Stirlings took part. In a German letter dated 19 October 1942, Prof. Carl Muth stated the raid over Munich was apocalyptic. More than 400 people were killed: ‘Houses toppled over like boxes. Whoever experienced this single hour will never forget it as long as they live’. Joe found the killing of civilians deeply disturbing and on his last visit home told his mother as much. He said he always thought he could hear the screams of the casualties on the return leg of the mission. Of course, he knew that was impossible but in those days, no one had known of ‘post-traumatic stress’ one just had to get on with it and do what was expected.
A Bomber Command veteran, Peter George, wrote in the Daily Mail, 12 June 2012 ‘No one talked about the raids. That’s what it meant to fight in Bomber Command in WW2. Very much alive one minute, in the prime of life; very dead the next, shot down, wiped out, obliterated. The courage needed was breath-taking! It took incredible guts to keep going, time after time, when the odds were so heavily stacked against them!’
50 Squadron: Sergeant Pilot
joe’s last letter is dated 14 November 1942, from RAF Swinderby. Although not in his letters, we do know from family members, that Joe managed a short leave home to Ireland to see his family. His younger brother Willie was serving in the Cavalry Corps with the Irish Army and stationed in Longford. Getting word, somehow, that his brother was home, Willie borrowed a bike and cycled the 42kms home to see him. Both brothers were keen on boxing. Joe mentioned it in his last letter, that he was sore from boxing in his free time in the gym. Willie was to become the All-Ireland Boxing Champion for the Army and went on to start the Ballagh Boxing Club in Co. Wexford. Before he left for England, Joe gave his younger brother his watch and pen and told him not to worry; everything would be alright. When his mother asked him, ‘What if the Germans get you?’ Joe’s reply was ‘Mam, Gerry will never get me alive’.
By the end of 1942, Joe was now posted to 50 Squadron. His third raid was part of the 19-week Battle of the Ruhr. The city of Duisburg was their target. Duisburg was a centre of chemical, iron and steel works. Based at RAF Skellingthorpe all the crews could do was wait on the morning of 8 January 1943. From the moment, usually around 11am, when the crews discovered they were flying that night, until take off they lived the day with strong determination not to show their fear. Like other crews Joe’s probably nominated one of their group to ‘water’ the tail and thus give the aircraft good luck! They had a total acceptance of their fate but that did not stop knees from knocking and a dry mouth from lack of saliva.
As pilot, Joe sat on the left-hand side of the cockpit. There was no co-pilot. Beside him sat 23-year-old Sergeant Phillip Fisher from England; his Flight Engineer who sat on a folding chair. Philip’s position no doubt became very uncomfortable during the long flights. He was in charge of everything mechanical on the Lancaster. Phillip would start the engines, control the throttles, get the wheels up and trim the flaps. The Navigator sat at a table facing left directly behind the pilot. His job would prove all the more difficult this night as fog reduced visibility and cloud was dark and heavy. His unenviable job was to keep the plane on course at all times, reach the target and guide the men home safely. Young Eric Charles from England had to keep transmitting messages to their base as Wireless Operator. Both gunners were only 20-years-old and their job was the loneliest. They were separated from the rest of the crew and jammed into unheated turrets; one mid-upper and one at the rear of the fuselage. Their job was to advise the pilot of enemy aircraft movements in order for him to take evasive action. When the crew heard a gunner shout ‘WEAVE’ it meant the FLAK from the anti-aircraft guns were training them or a fighter had them in its sights.
The night of 8/9 January, there was no escaping the FLAK for Joe’s Lancaster B MK 1 coded VN-T W4800. Despite Joe’s efforts to speed up, weave and twist, the plane and its crew were badly hit. They struggled onwards due south for maybe minutes. It must have felt like a lifetime for the young crew. Finally, they crashed 30kms south near Dusseldorf. All seven were killed. They now became part of the 55,000 men of Bomber Command who gave their lives when fate called them among the clouds. Joe was posthumously promoted to Flight Sergeant. His family were devastated when they received the news.
Joe’s Resting Place: Flight Sergeant
On a country road between Cleves in Germany and Grennop in Holland on the German side of the border lies the largest Commonwealth Cemetery of either World War in terms of area. It contains 7,654 graves and is called the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery. At the end of the war in 1945, the remains of thousands of soldiers and airmen were brought from western Germany to lie here. Nearly 4,000 airmen are buried here, all brothers united. My uncle Joseph Kiernan is one of these.
‘My brief sweet life is over.
My eyes no longer see.
No Christmas tree, no summer walks,
no pretty girls for me.
I’ve got ‘’the chop. I’ve had it.
All the nightly ops. are done.
Yet in another hundred years,
I’ll still be twenty-one’.
RAF Skellingthorpe Memorial
Catherine Fleming is a retired primary school teacher from Scoil Na Mainistreach, in Celbridge, Co. Kildare. While there she set up the history squad encouraging students to explore family and local history. Catherine’s mother Kathleen, Joe’s sister, served in the Auxiliary Transport Service while her father Tom served in Medical Corps of the Irish Defence Forces. They are stories for another time. Thank you to Mike Connock from RAF No. 50 and No. 60 Squadrons Association for all his assistance in helping researching Joe’s RAF service.