A little right rudder


Autobiography by Bill Smyth

As I am one of the last remaining Lancaster Bomber pilots still breathing, this tale should be most unique.

A massive daylight raid was laid on for the city of Cologne, Germany, after the Battle of the Bulge. The target was to be just one city block from the west end of the bridge. Unfortunately, that also happened to be just one city block from the back door to the Cologne Cathedral, one of the Architectural wonders of the world.
bill smith both then and now
The trip over was fairly uneventful until we were a few miles from the city. The day was clear but the target could not be seen because the Germans had laid down a smoke screen all along the west side of the Rhine river, and as the wind was from the east, it covered the entire city in a blanket of dense white smoke. Unfortunately, it also outlined the bank of the river perfectly for our bombers. And since the blanket was only about a hundred feet deep, it allowed the spires of the Cathedral to stand up proudly through the smoke as if to shout, "Here 'tis". Any Bomb-aimer could easily line up on a spot exactly one city block away in broad daylight.

Because the target was so precise, and there were so many of us, our aircraft were stacked in layers about two thousand feet apart. This meant that the upper layers would drop their bombs through the layers below. A very, very, bad idea!

I told my Bomb-aimer, "Stay lined up on the spires and when you count down to 'two', I'll kick a little right rudder and that ought to put the eggs right in the basket.”… And then I looked up!

Directly above me, and a little to the left, was another Lancaster. As I watched, I saw the bomb-bay doors open and the full rack of bombs were in plain sight. "If he drops them on us we're dead meat". I looked to the right. There was a Lane just behind my right wing. I looked to the left. Same thing. Looking up, the bombs were beginning to fall like a string of beads on a necklace. By the time they reached me they would straddle my plane like a gigantic inescapable chain of death. “God Almighty, our bomber is about to be bombed!”

The string of deadly beads approached in slow motion. I could actually see the individual bombs. In the middle of the string there was a little space with one big five hundred-pounder in the center. The two little spaces on either side of the big bomb were the only possible escapes. But that was only two chances in a billion. The end kept coming but I kept focused on the two spaces.

At the last possible moment, I cranked the controls fully to the left and kicked rudder. The Lancaster responded as though it had entered a giant vortex. It turned completely over on its side and to my utter disbelief, it slipped through the space just ahead of the big bomb which fell between the wing and the tail so close I felt I could reach out and touch it. The next bomb fell on the right side exactly where my starboard engine would have been. The string of death had actually straddled the Lancaster and not one bomb had touched it. As I write this I still have trouble believing it.

Back on the level. I aimed at the spires and, at the count of 'two', I kicked a little right rudder and hoped my bombs would miss the Cathedral.

Photographs taken the next day were quite astonishing. Every conceivable structure for miles around was demolished with the sole exception of the Cathedral. Fifty years later, I was climbing the steps to the incredible building when I heard a tour-guide announce to her group that only God could have saved it on that fateful day. I thought:

The Lord works in mysterious ways
His miracles to perform
A little right rudder never hurts.

M. R. Smyth
Bill Smyth is a resident at Peninsula Retirement Residence in Surrey.

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