THE GERMAN flak burst around his Lancaster bomber and behind his aircraft another Lancaster had exploded into a ball of flames .. it was time to get the hell out of death alley.
Seventy five years later, Lancaster bomber navigator and Epping RSL Sub Branch member John Eppell is writing his memoirs and gave The Weekly Times an exclusive insight into the life of a Lancaster bomber crew.
“Behind our aircraft another Lancaster had been hit by flack and exploded into a ball of fire,” ninety five year old Mr Eppell said.
“Suddenly our rear gunner got on the wireless and warned us that the German flak had locked onto our Lancaster and was following us.
“It was time to drop our bombs and get out of there!”
Mr Eppell and his six member crew flew missions of Nazi occupied Europe as part of Number 17 Bomber Command and it was his job as navigator to keep his crew on a carefully pre-prepared flightpath.
“The navigator had the important job to keep us out of trouble,” he said.
“If your aircraft was on the edges of this flightpath the German night fighters could pick you off.
“My crew were impressed with me, they knew had a good navigator.”
Mr Eppell’s Lancaster crew flew missions into the Ruhr Valley, over German cities and into the Rhineland.
They were almost going to pass into legend as a dambuster crew but their mission was called off at the last moment due to heavy fog over the target.
His Lancaster bomber – marked DBQ – flew in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Liberation of France for which France honoured him with the Legion of Honour medal.
“We flew four operations against a heavily defended German enclave just outside of Calais,” he said.
“The French appreciated us but it wasn’t until 2015 that we were awarded the Legion of Honour.”
His longest mission was a dangerous five hour flight to the German city of Leipzig and he recalls facing the stiffest German resistance over the Rhineland.
Many Lancaster crews speak of their fear of bailing out from a stricken aircraft over enemy territory and Mr Eppell explained why.
“If you fell into the hands of the Luftwaffe they would treat you as another airman but if you fell into the hands of German civillians they would regard us as terror flyers and take you and kill you,” he said.
In contrast, Mr Eppell has nothing but praise for the British civillians, especially the women of Britain.
“I remember the little towns and villages where we rode our bikes and the women of Britain who supported us, they were our tower of strength.”
He also remembers the comradeship and the culture of the Royal Air Force and how the RAF let Lancaster bomber crews select their own men for each aircraft.
“Our crew got on well together but this was the RAF way,” he said.
“The were always some very proper and correct RAF types, of course, but it didn’t happen on our aircraft where we were all on a first name basis and there was no captain this or captain that.”
When the war in Europe ended Mr Eppell was among the crowds at Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King!” and to this day recalls Britain with nostalgia and still follows that very British pastime of making model aircraft from kits.
“I love looking at the shows from England and seeing the Britain we knew,” he said, holding a scale model of his own aircraft Lancaster DBQ.
“We had a lucky aircraft and a lucky crew,” he said.
He also remembers fallen comrades.
“One of my friends was Robert Edward Harding, son of a Mayor of Hunters Hill and now listed on the Council Chamber’s Roll of Honour.
“He was shot down with his crew of a 166 Squadron Lancaster over Stettin on August 30, 1944 at the age of 19.
“They all now rest in the Posen Old Garrison Cemetary in Poland.”