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Roy Keen, fifty-six years agoAn Airman's war

This is Sergeant Roy Keen's war, one typical of thousands of unsung heroes who risked their lives nightly over the skies of Germany in the Second World War. Medals may not have been won, but their courage was undeniable. In 1944, Roy was flying with 166 Squadron, from RAF Kirmington near Grimsby (today Humberside Airport). On 24 March, flying in Lancaster III ND620/AS-I, he was shot down on a raid to Berlin. One of 44 Lancasters lost that night, his was one story from over three hundred downed...

Joining up

Originating from Redhill in Surrey, where he met his first wife, Roy was a fitter in the RAF for a couple of years before becoming aircrew. "It was a bit of a cold and dirty job! I actually signed on the dotted line at Oxford at the end of 1940 but I wasn't called up until July '41. I didn't like the thought of the army, I thought I would like to fly, and when I got to the interview they said 'Why do you want to join?' and I said 'I want to fly'. 'That's what everyone says' they said. 'We know that! But you'd make a very good flight mechanic'. I've no idea why he said that! I had been to a technical school, but I remember I had a test before I went in. They obviously picked for what they had a shortage of at the time. I did my flight mechanic's training in Blackpool and later my fitter's course at Cosford."

"It was the same for being a flight engineer - I first joined 116 Squadron as a fitter, based all around London, but got a bit fed up with it and put in for flight engineer. They were screaming for them at the time and within six weeks I was on the course at St Athan. I used to fly as flight engineer, before becoming fully qualified, in Albemarles from 511 Squadron at Lyneham. I flew in several types - Oxford, Lysander, Anson, and Halifax. I had a total of nine months training - six weeks for Flight Engineer. I felt quite happy with the knowledge I had of the aeroplane - I made sure I knew it as my life depended upon it."

Onto operations

"I only did eight missions. Our mid-upper gunner had done thirty-two trips before he came to our crew. The pilot, nav and bomb-aimer got together before we all met, then the wireless operator and gunners joined them, last to join being me. I met these guys at Lindholme's Heavy Conversion Unit and my skipper said 'I chose you because you've got a dirty overcoat on; you must have been on a squadron!'. My skipper's name was Bill Jackson, but we called him 'Rex'. He was a Canadian. The silly thing was that there weren't enough Lancasters to go round, and we did our course in Halifaxes! Not very good for the engineer; I was trained on Lancs, but you suddenly get in a Halifax and have to do the business! I remember once looking at my oxygen bottle and noticing I'd got about a minute left before it ran out. I thought 'I've just got time to change the tanks' - now, in a Halifax you have to climb underneath the restbed, where you've got a bank of six levers each side, about twelve tanks from memory. I thought 'I've got to do 3 and 4 I think', but all of a sudden the plane pitched down, so I put them back and said 'Sorry, Skipper!'"

166 Squadron badge"I wasn't at Kirmington that long - I got there just before Christmas '43, and they stuck us on a few little trips around the locality. I spent Christmas in a hotel in Doncaster. I used to go into Grimsby - I teamed up with the wireless operator more than anyone else as the pilot, nav and bomb-aimer were all officers, so they weren't allowed to mess with us. I taught him how to do my job, well loosely, in case there was any trouble, and the skipper taught me how to fly straight and level in case he got knocked off. I'm quite glad that I never had to take over! If I had have done, we weren't supposed to land, just point it out to sea and bale out. But between us, we had agreed that I should try and land it, as I used to operate the landing gear anyway. We perhaps stood a fifty-fifty chance that way as the guys didn't particularly want to bale out!"

Life at Kirmington

"If we were flying that night, I'd have to spend the morning with the ground staff looking at the aeroplane, run up the engines, check they didn't blow up! Then we'd go back and have a sleep before taking off at six or seven o'clock. I did one or two back-to-back night raids, but I haven't got my logbook to recall. Operations did affect some people worse than others, I smile sometimes when I hear there's been a slight accident and everybody has counselling - we didn't get any if we'd had a foot blown off! We hadn't a hope of getting leave - I got married during the war and asked for a week off. I got forty-eight hours, and was told I was lucky to get that. We were on call seven days a week. If we were flying that day, we had to stay on station. Every morning was the same - at ten we'd see if we were flying, and if not were allowed off the airfield. We used to go to Grimsby, Scunthorpe or Lincoln, and be back to report the next day."

"One day the skipper collared us as we were leaving the airfield and said we were going test-flying. I went up in just my battledress - we were up three hours, and I was frozen stiff! I've never been so cold. Normally we had three pairs of gloves, silk, wool and leather, flying boots, long pants - it was uncomfortable. I used to stand up on takeoff, I was never strapped in. The seat was like a little camp stool with a canvas strap, if you did want to sit down. The skipper was strapped in, of course!"

"We had other flying to do apart from operations - there was air-sea searches, fighter affiliation flying, and so on. You didn't just do ops. You were always training, like on H2S, which came out about that time. It was cold, cramped and noisy - other than that it's a lovely aeroplane! At night, you did have a torch, but in the main you didn't bother. All the controls were up the front, and if one of the gunners wanted anything you had to sneak down the back. The only bother we ever had was taking off once when the rear gunner said 'I'm covered in petrol!' - I could tell why, as we had just taken off and the tanks were venting, so I changed tanks and told him he'd be alright if he didn't smoke! The rear gunner was always the loneliest - very cold, they had electrically heated suits, but were still cold."

"The front turret was officially my job. I never had to use it, but I had done gunnery practice. Most of our training was done in a simulator, you went in a big dome where they showed fighters going across the sky. I never fired a Browning with proper bullets!"

Flying in anger

"My first mission - I think it's like everything else - when you're sitting on the grass ready for take-off, your mind's in a bit of a whirl, you wonder what the hell's going to happen. But once you get in the aeroplane and take off, you're busy. I'll never forget the first trip we did, which was to Berlin. It always had a bit of a name, did Berlin, the 'Big City', and I was absolutely amazed at the sight of the target in the middle of a big raid - it was fantastic. It's like Blackpool lights, times twenty! It's very unreal - you look down and see coloured lights, you see aircraft underneath you, above you. Very hairy. But, you don't think anything's going to happen to you. I've seen quite a lot of aircraft go down, I suppose it can get to you a bit. I was usually intent in looking out for trouble, but I can't say that I was particularly nervous."

"They used to make a bit of a fuss of you when you got back to base. Egg and bacon, and if anyone didn't come back you had theirs! You just had to dismiss it - sometimes four aircraft would disappear off the scene, but the more you did, you realised your time may not be far away..."

Typical wartime scene (almost)The fateful mission

"When we joined the squadron, we took over aircraft that were normally flown by crews who were on leave at the time. We flew in some very nice aeroplanes actually, we could normally get up to about 26,000 feet, the higher the better as far as we were concerned, but on the night of 24 March ND620 was brand new, on its first trip. Before we took off, I'll never forget that the wireless operator said 'We're going to get the chop tonight'. The skipper immediately pounced on him, but of course he was dead right."

"We could not climb above 21,000 feet - I tried all ways to get more height, but we couldn't. The bomb load was normal at about 12,000 pounds. The skipper tried trimming the plane, but nothing would work. It's like a car, you sometimes get one that won't do what it's supposed to. We couldn't get it any higher. We got coned by searchlights on the way in over the Dutch coast and we had to jink about like hell to get out of it, but because the winds were stronger we were over the target twenty minutes early - my navigator was going barmy! He was a spot-on navigator. That was the main reason we got shot down, as we were too long over the target. I don't think it paid to hang about over Berlin longer than you needed to!" One hundred knot winds were experienced that night, instead of the anticipated sixty-knot tailwind - this led to several formations overshooting the target area.

"We couldn't find anything to bomb the first time, so we went round again - we assume it was a fighter that actually took us out from underneath, but nobody saw it, none of the gunners reported anything. There's a step from the Flight Engineer's position down to the bomb-aimer's compartment - I was sitting on that step looking out of the window and we had this horrible crash, a funny kind of sound, very loud, and I looked around and my panel had disappeared. There was a fire between me and the bomb-aimer. We immediately got the order to bale out, which we decided to do. The trouble was it was so quick and violent that there was nothing anyone could do - we were just straight down, screaming down. It was very hard to move with the g-forces."

"Did I feel scared? No, not really, to be quite honest. I got the order to bale out, so I thought I wouldn't argue with that, there was no point in stopping! I can remember putting my chute on, and something said to me 'take your time, don't panic, you've got time'. So I took my gloves off so that I could use my hands properly, put my chute on, and tried to go head-first out of the hatch. I got wedged in it, as the hatch was about eighteen inches wide, and I passed out. Next thing I remember is I woke up some way down, feeling very sick, the straps on my chute were holding my head and I felt like going back to sleep - I must have passed out again and eventually woke up with my arms round a tree trunk wondering what the hell had happened! When I landed, the fur collar of my suit was all burnt, so there must have been fire getting through the hatch."

"I was like a pendulum on the way down - if I had been 'compus mentus' I could have stopped that, but I was a bit woozy. I can't recall pulling the ripcord - I obviously did, unless I snagged it on something. It definitely worked - I'm a member of the Caterpillar Club! I heard afterwards that the aircraft blew up about a minute and a half after my skipper and I got out."

"I pressed my parachute release and clambered down from this tree, finding that I couldn't walk as I'd been hit in the leg and backside. I was hopping about, hopping mad shall we say! I was fortunate in that I was very close to a road. I was trying to decide what to do when I heard a whistle, which I thought odd at that time of night as it was pitch black and freezing cold, but it was my skipper! His face was covered in blood, but he said 'How are you?' and I said 'I'm alright apart from I can't walk! I can hop along...' He and I agreed that it wasn't a time to be heroic; we came across a hut on the edge of the forest and we bashed on the door. We heard voices inside but nobody came to the door, so maybe they experienced the explosion of the aircraft above them. Anyway, we struggled on to what was the forester's house - we knocked on the door and the chap came out in a bit of a temper, calling us 'schwein', 'terrorfliegers' and goodness knows what! The lady eventually took us in who bathed my skipper's face and got him tidy; then they phoned the Army. Once they got us, that was the end of it. I was taken to hospital, Stalag 3A I think it was. We travelled by rail, in a cattle truck, it was eight horses or forty men!"

The rest of the crew perished - "I can't understand it, as the bomb-aimer definitely got out before me, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to. He took the hatch off, but he was killed. Somebody said he was very upset at leaving his girlfriend just before, but I wouldn't have thought it had anything to do with it. Six Lancs were lost just south of Berlin by being early, the rest were picked off on the way home."

ClickLife as a PoW

"We were taken to Frankfurt Stalagluft when they interrogate you, then over the next year up to Lithuania, down to Poland, along to Hanover, then to Stalag 11, finally on one of the forced marches until release in May 1945. The reason we were moved around so much is that the Russians were coming from the east and the Americans from the west."

"In Stalagluft 3 I met a guy who was shot down the night before me, but he jumped out without a parachute. The night we were shot down was very snowy, and he fell through trees into a snowdrift. When I met him he'd just got a bit of sticky plaster over one of his eyebrows!"

Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade jumped from his Lancaster at 18,000 feet to escape the holocaust of his blazing bomber, leaving behind his useless parachute that had been torn to shreds by shrapnel. His headlong fall was broken by a fir tree and he finally landed in an eighteen inch snow-drift, without a single fracture. Naturally, the Luftwaffe authorities were highly suspicious of his story of falling from such a height without a parachute, but on investigation they found his shredded and unused ‘chute in the crashed remains of the aircraft. Tail gunners had to stash their 'chutes inside the fuselage, and when Alkemade opened the rear hatch of his turret, he found flames raging inside the plane and his only means of escape a blazing mass of silk. Faced with the choice of falling to his death or burning to a crisp, he rotated the turret and did a back somersault into space, 18,000 feet above Germany. Falling at speeds of up to 120mph, it would have taken him about two minutes to hit the ground. He was fantastically lucky. First, he blacked out during the fall, ensuring his body would not be dangerously rigid and tense on impact. Second, he fell into a dense pine forest, whose branches broke his fall, and then into a deep snowdrift. He survived with nothing worse than a somewhat twisted ankle. Alkemade's case is particularly well-researched because the Germans who found him discovered that his parachute harness had not been used and suspected him of being a spy. A Luftwaffe probe, involving an investigation of the crashed bomber, proved the airman's story, and Alkemade was shipped off into captivity. He survived the war and eventually passed away on 22 June 1987.

"I was fortunate in that I knew that the war looked to be going our way - D-Day was more or less coming up. We didn't know when it was, but we knew something was up. I took a bet with one of the other guys that it would be over within a year - I lost of course! I was only a prisoner for fourteen months, but I always reckon I was lucky, being reasonably well treated. The lack of food was the worst thing - I lost about three stones. All in all, I was very fortunate - I think of the rest of the crew that perished and think I've had about fifty-six more years life than they had. My last trip in a Lanc was coming back from being a PoW - I took the top hatch off as we came over the coast and stuck my head out! The crew didn't know about that!"

Back to normality

"After the war I stayed in for a year as my wife was in hospital. I was thinking of staying in the RAF for longer but they wouldn't guarantee my rank of Warrant Officer, promising me two ranks less for one year. I didn't think that was very good so I came out. War teaches you a lot, especially as a prisoner - material things aren't that important. I've seen gold watches exchanged for half a loaf!"

"For two years I was a steward with BOAC, flying Yorks to Africa, India and the Middle East. We'd fly to Cairo, have two or three days off, then fly to Karachi, have a week there then onto Calcutta. It took three weeks in all! There was a service to Australia, but I didn't do that one!"

"Later I was an inspector at CAV Diesel for about eight years, then I went to Wales and raised Turkeys! I did that for quite a while, until a certain Mr Matthews came along who did it a lot better than we did! I had a friend who was a builder and I learnt how they did it, and so built houses for the next thirty-five years, most of it in New Zealand. Never made much money at it, but it's very satisfying to think you've got houses still standing in both New Zealand and the UK. Our squadron had a lot of Kiwis in it (New Zealand aircrew) and strangely enough we had reunions during my time in New Zealand. However, it wasn't an official 'Kiwi' squadron."

Married to Christina, his second wife for eight years, Roy now lives in Brandon, Suffolk under the flightpath to nearby RAF Lakenheath. 166 Squadron holds a reunion at Kirmington every year, but with each passing one the numbers sadly dwindle.

For another eye-witness account of the Berlin raid of 24 March 1944, see 'Back with a Bang' in the January 2001 issue of 'FlyPast' magazine.


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