The Halifax Instructor - Waite

At the outbreak of War, Ron Waite was married with one daughter and running his own business as an opthalmic optician in Bristol. As a result of the first bombing raid against Bristol, he felt an overwhelming desire to seek revenge and, despite his age and reserved occupation, he volunteered and was accepted for RAF pilot training. Undergoing elementary flying training at No 6 EFTS, Sywell, his first flight was on 21 April 1941. On 12 May, he flew BB697 for the first time with his regular instructor, Plt Off Maxwell. 20 mins dual forced landings and 35 min dual navigation were followed by a solo flight of 1 hr and 5 mins.  In his 1991 book, ‘Death or Decoration’, Waite documents with affection his time at Sywell and his experience of the Tiger Moth.

Waite’s next course was ‘Service Flying Training’ at the RAF College Cranwell, flying the Airspeed Oxford. During the final stages of his approach to land at Barkston Heath during his first solo on the Oxford, another solo student approached Waite from behind and collided with him, causing both aircraft to crash.  Waite’s only injury was a cut hand; the other student pilot was less fortunate, and never flew again.

By September 1941, Waite was learning to fly the Whitley bomber at 19 Operational Training Unit, RAF Kinloss. This course lasted until November 1941, after which he joined 76 Sqn at RAF Middleton St George (now Teeside Airport). Pilot Officer Waite’s first flight in the the Handley Page Halifax 4-engined heavy bomber was on 7 January 1942 as second pilot to Sgt Dennis Stark and his all-NCO crew. Waite’s transition to the status of an operational bomber pilot was slow; the policy of training crews together prior to their posting to a squadron had not yet been introduced and 76 Sqn had suffered heavy losses, so Waite found himself in the situation of being a partly-trained pilot without a crew of his own. Nonetheless, Waite was pleased to be initiated into the Squadron in its traditional ‘Jugalug’ style, downing his pint of beer in 3 and a half seconds. In April 1942, he was sent to 1652 Conversion Unit at Marston Moor, where one of his fellow students and instructor in the game of ‘liar dice’ was a Belgian, Count D’Ursell, who was killed on operations very shortly afterwards.  Waite did not complete his Halifax conversion as he was recalled to 76 Sqn to to join FS Kenny Clack’s crew as 2nd pilot for forthcoming operations. Clack was barely 19 years old and sported adolescent pimples; he was already an accomplished heavy bomber captain.

Waite did not have to wait long. On 22 April, the Squadron deployed to Tain in Scotland, awaiting suitable conditions for the planned raids. On the night of 27 April, armed with one 4000lb bomb and six 500 pounders, Clack and his crew set off for Trondheim in Norway, their target the Tirpitz and other battleships. Due to some navigation difficulties, they arrived in the target area too late to attack the Tirpitz as low-level attacks by other aircraft would be in progress. Therefore, they made for the Von Scheer and Prinz Eugen, which were in a fjord south of the Tirpitz. The crew worked hard to avoid both flak and the wall of the fjord, only to find that their 4000 pound bomb did not release, ‘hung up’. A second attack was made but, just as they turned off-target after releasing their bomb, they found themselves over the Tirpitz and, running late, the sole target for its heavy flak. Waite describes this moment as akin to putting one’s foot into a hornet’s nest. With one engine damaged and shut down, a fuel tank holed with the consequent loss of fuel and the bomb doors stuck open causing extra drag, the crew was faced with a choice between diverting to neutral Sweden or attempting to return to Scotland on 3 engines, low on fuel in a damaged aeroplane, with the strong risk of ditching in a very cold sea.  Over 9 hours after taking off from Tain, Kenny Clack squeezed the aeroplane onto the runway at Wick; Waite had survived his baptism of fire. Shortly after landing all three engines cut as the last fuel tank emptied. Clack was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for this operation.

Apart from the damage already described, the aeroplane sported 58 holes caused by shrapnel, so the crew took a different aeroplane for their next visit to Trondheim, the very next night. During this raid, one of the Halifaxes shot down was flown by Wg Cdr Don Bennett, who managed to land on the frozen fjord and, with four of his crew, escape to Sweden. Bennett later achieved fame as the leader of the Pathfinder Force.

Sqn Ldr Ken Clack was shot down and killed during his second tour of operations with 76 Sqn, during the infamous Nuremburg raid of 31 March 1944, the night Bomber Command suffered its heaviest losses of the War.

Waite remained a second pilot, flying on the first thousand-bomber raid to Cologne on 30 May, where a failed engine caused the crew to jettison their bombs and return early, the second thousand-bomber raid to Essen on 1 June, which he describes in his logbook as a ‘very nice trip’ with ‘defences slight’, Bremen on 3 June, also a ‘very good trip’ where ‘defences seemed erratic’ and Essen again on 5 June: “Defences very intense - many large cones. Accurate ‘flak’ but avoided trouble”.

During July 1942, most of 76 Sqn’s experienced operational pilots were sent on detachment to the Middle East, as a result of Rommel’s Afrika Korps’ offensive against the 8th Army.  Sqn Ldr ‘Jock Calder’ took command of 76 Sqn and sent Waite on his first night solo in a Halifax, bringing his total solo night flying time to 10 hrs 20 minutes, all of which had been in the aerodrome circuit. Thus, Waite was more than  little surprised to find himself nominated as the Captain for a raid on Hamburg on 26 July. After evading a fighter attack, the port inner engine overheated and had to be shut down.  Hydraulic controls for the undercarriage and flaps were powered from the now shut down port inner engine, so could not be retracted once deployed; thus, Waite had only one possible attempt to land from his first ever 3-engined approach, which he did, but not without drama and help from adrenalin.

29 July saw Waite attacking Saarbrucken without incident, but on 31 July his crew were sent to Dusseldorf. Their aeroplane was under performing to a gross degree to the extent that Waite could not make it climb higher than 8000 feet, making it very vulnerable to both flak and fighter attack. The sluggish aircraft came under attack from 2 German fighters, killing Sgt ‘Mac’ McAuley, the mid-upper gunner and injuring Bob Pool, the navigator. Waite himself was saved by the bullet-proof glass fitted behind his head.  Several of Waite’s instruments, including the airspeed indicator, had failed; Waite released his bombs over what he hoped was an enemy airfield in the Netherlands before turning for home, at which stage he realised that the controls had a ’sloshy’ feel and were not responding normally.  The injured navigator refused morphine in order to take star shots, the only way of guiding the crippled bomber back to England. Waite assessed the situation and decided that to land the aeroplane was not an option, so he ordered his remaining crew to bale out, following shortly afterwards and landing in Essex.

Waite’s last operational mission was on 20 August. By this time, Leonard Cheshire had taken command of 76 Sqn. Waite was tasked for a leaflet dropping operation, ‘Nickel’, with the target as Dijon, in mid France. The main purpose of the raid was to test ‘Gee’, a new aid to navigation and target identification. Waite’s was the only crew to operate that night. On spotting the Alps, Waite realised that his crew were experiencing problems in the navigation department. After a major correction, the leaflets were dropped over the target; the crew headed back towards England, crossing Northern France the day after the unsuccessful commando raid on Dieppe.  Short of fuel, Waite landed on the short runway at Sutton Harcourt in Oxfordshire, a flying training station.

Some days after returning to Middleton St George, Cheshire probed Waite as to what went wrong with the Dijon operation. Cheshire appeared to have very strong views on the leadership role of an aircraft Captain and, as a result, Waite was told he was to be posted to twin-engined aircraft.  In fact, he spent most of the remainder of the War as an Halifax instructor with 1658 and 1663 Heavy Conversion Units at Riccall and Rufforth.

Sqn Ldr Waite was released from the RAF in December 1945, having made his last flight in his favourite aeroplane, the Dh84 Dominie. Post war, Waite ran an Inn in Weymouth, a country hotel and a sub post office. In retirement, he re-qualified as an opthalmic optician.

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