Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: November 17, 2005

FLT SGT Len Harris RAF, 166 Squadron

Speaker Photo

Air Gunner, AVRO Lancaster Bomber, ETO. * Volunteered for RAF at 17 - At 18 Accepted At Lord's Cricket Ground for Aircrew Training, * Became Aircrew Gunner & Began Combat Missions In Lancasters In 1944, * Completed 11 Missions to Germany, Including the Last Raid of WWII Air Gunner, AVRO Lancaster Bomber, ETO
* Born in London, England, East End District; A Self-Described "Cockney"
* At 15, Evacuee of London; Sent to Country in 1939; Lasted Two Weeks Only & Returned to London
* Lived Through the Blitz; Messenger for Reuters News Agency, 15 to 17
* Volunteered for RAF at 17; At 18 Accepted At Lord's Cricket Ground for Aircrew Training
* Became Aircrew Gunner & Began Combat Missions In Lancasters In 1944
* Completed 11 Missions to Germany, Including the Last Raid of WWII
* Hit German Army Barracks There; Enroute, Observed Endless Stream of Allied Aircraft--"Unforgettable"!
* After WWII, Reassigned to Sayid Squadron, Based Near Cairo, Egypt; Sent On Two Missions to Iraq fro Intelligence Gathering & Reporting
* Left RAF in 1948; Various Jobs In Writing, Newspapers, Shipping Journalist
* Came to USA in 1961; Editor, Magazine Owner, Strategist for Political Campaigns, Public Relations
* Author of Two Published Books: Cockney (Semi-Autobiography); Russian Roulette (Mystery); Working On Third Book , Artos ("What Really Happened During King Arthur's Time"--Tentative Title)

FLT SGT Len Harris, RAF, 166 Squadron

Air Gunner, AVRO Lancaster Bomber

Golden Gate Wing, CAF - - November 2005

Len Harris is a self-described "Cockney". He was born in London’s east side, just a few blocks from the Tower of London. Of his childhood he says, "I behaved myself very rarely..."

As France was falling in late 1939, all that separated the occupying German Army from Great Britain was the expanse of the English Channel - - as few as twenty miles from Calais to the cliffs of Dover .

"The first thing they wanted to do was to get the kids of out London, because they anticipated bombing raids. So, myself, among many thousand sof snotty-nosed kids fro the East End, were shipped out to the comparative safety of the countryside. Except that they put me on a farm where I was expected to help on farming duties, including milking cows.

"Well, as a Cockney kid, I always thought that milk came in bottles, not from cows. I had a hell of a job. I asked the bloke where I got the milk from. He showed me. I was disgusted."

Len also recalls a farm dog which he swears must have been to the movies, because it was convinced that he was ‘rustling’ the cows.

"I’d drive them out into the field, and he’d drive them back.

"Two weeks of that was enough for me, so I delivered an ultimatum - - ‘Either send me back or I’ll go back anyway’."

Back in East London, Len says his dad gave him a rough time for returning, then told the teenager he might as well go to work. Len went to Reuters News Agency, where he became a bicycle messenger.

The new job offered its own unique challenges during Germany’s bombing blitz.

"I happened to be cycling along near Fleet Street, and I heard this terrific ‘whoomp’. A building that had been there, was no longer... That was my first experience of the Blitz."

For the next two years, Harris kept cycling for Reuters, while being ‘hounded’ by the Germans. The Harris home was bombed and completely destroyed.

"Stupidly, I left a forwarding address. So, I went into an apartment, and they followed me there and bombed that place. This went on for about two or three places. I ran out of friends that had houses. Eventually, I thought I might just as well get a little of my own back, so I went and volunteered for the RAF."

The young man who said he’d always been a ‘cement kid’, who had never even been around airplanes, figured he’d become an ace pilot, one of ‘the Few’ who had won the Battle of Britain. His aspirations were not immediately realized, as Len was about six months short of his 18th birthday.

However, in 1943 the day arrived for Len’s opportunity to join the Royal Air Force.

"I didn’t realize, of course, how desperate Britain was in those days, because they accepted me. I went to train as a pilot, which was one of the many major mistakes Britain made in those early days.

"I was flying Tiger Moths. It was a plane which took of at 60 (mph) and in a high wind it would fly backwards. It had a very up-to-date intercom. You had a tube and you yelled into it, and hoped that somebody in the other cockpit would hear."

"I had a slight, unforeseen greeting of airplane and earth, and when I finally got myself out of that they took me before the CO, and he said, ‘You know, Harris, we’ve got something in mind for you. Here you are, thin,’d fit very nicely into a turret. Why don’t you become an Air Gunner?’

Harris said he put aside his goal of being an ace, in favor of being a gunner, and as training continued in this new direction, he encountered his first real mishap while attached to a Wellington bomber crew.

The twin-engine Wellington had a mid-upper gunner’s position, which Harris described as, "just a seat halfway in the fuselage, with portholes - - one on the left and one on the right - - through which you were supposed to operate a free-firing gun. If the Jerry came up on your left, you aimed there, and as he crossed over, you took the gun out and shoved it though the other hole and fired. Except, that sometimes in your enthusiasm, you forgot to take your finger off the trigger. Consequently, life would become a little hectic."

Harris says in its wisdom, the RAF decided for safety reasons to discontinue putting the gun in that mid-fuselage position.

Harris says his Wellington was commanded by a Canadian pilot with a fondness for the bottle. And, whether or not his habit was a factor, his proficiency and flying ‘circuits and bumps’ left something to be desired.

"We took off, and first circuit we landed. Not beautifully well, but we landed. The second time he was more hazardous. The third time, as we came in, suddenly the alarm horn went off. I, being terribly bright, grabbed hold of my guns like mad.

"What had happened was the skipper, instead of attending to the flaps, had pulled up the undercarriage. So, consequently, we skidded along... and he didn’t stay with us very much longer, thank goodness. I think that probably due to that, I survived the war."

Before long, Harris transitioned to the Avro Lancaster. For training purposes, older, tired bombers were used to groom crews for actual missions.

The Lancaster, powered by four Merlin engines, had become the workhorse of the RAF’s night bombing campaign. Harris says he was very fond of the plane, and had no need to question its single skipper’s seat arrangement. Len says the Flight Engineer was also trained as a pilot, and could take over if the pilot was incapacitated.

Harris says 166 Squadron had a complement of about two dozen Lancasters, but due to maintenance needs, the number available for any given mission was less than that.

Len says the crew had great faith in the Lancaster:

"When my skipper, Jimmy, used to take our plane up on air test, he’d cut out three engines and fly on one. Not for long, but... Jimmy was an excellent pilot who’d transferred over from Coastal Command."

In its most common configuration, the Lancaster carried a crew of seven - - a pilot, flight engineer, bombardier (who could man the nose turret) , navigator, wireless operator and gunners for the dorsal and tail turrets.

Harris’ ‘office’ was in the fuselage, between the bomber’s twin vertical stabilizers. He remembers well that once you were in the rear turret compartment and closed the door behind you, you were isolated from the rest fo the crew.

Unlike the Lancasters of most squadrons, the bombers in Harris’ squadron had Rose Brothers tail turrets with twin .50 caliber machine guns instead of the four .303 guns in the Frazier-Nash FN.82 turrets. Harris says the guns were not sighted to converge at any specific range, and every time they were fired, the read end of the Lancaster would shimmy.

"When the plane first came from the factory, the rear turret had perspex near the guns to keep in whatever warmth you had. But we got rid of them because they got scratched and marked. And one thing you needed as an Air Gunner was to keep your eyes open."

While an Air Gunnner’s eyes needed to be unimpaired in the night air, his hands were confined by three pairs of gloves, which allowed him to grasp the grips operating the machine guns, but made it very difficult to use the Olsen, a porta-potty aboard the Lanc.

On eight-hour night missions above 24,000 feet, the temperature in the rear turret of a Lancaster was about 50 degrees below zero. To survive those extremes, Harris says he used to have to wear long-johns, a uniform, a sweater, an electrically-heated flying suit and socks, and three pairs of electrically-heated gloves.

On one particular night, Len says he set himself up for trouble, only after he’d been told he wasn’t scheduled for a mission.

"I’d been out the night before, and been somewhat over generous with libation. I was stinking drunk. I got back and went to sleep. Then they told us we were needed in the crew room... we were going to fly after all.

Harris says he went to board the plane, seated himself in the rear turret with his parachute behind him, and promptly went to sleep. A flak burst striking the Lancaster’s left wing woke him from his sleep.

"We got over Germany and were hit. I woke up with a start, peed myself and short-circuited my flying suit and flying gloves. It was the most uncomfortable trip I ever had. It made me swear off beer for that trip."

For the most part, Harris remember flak as the primary danger on night missions. He says if they did encounter a Luftwaffe fighter, usually making a rear approach on bombers, Lancaster plots evaded by entering into a corkscrew.

"We’d dive to port sharply, climb to starboard sharply and continue that ‘round."

"There was a great advantage between a fighter and a bomber. The fighter had a maneuverable gun platform - - any way you wanted to turn the plane, the forward-fixed guns would turn. If the fighter came in from the rear, started his curve of attack from the side, banking to hold you in his gunsight for the longest possible moment, and then he’d take off.

"But then they figured out Muzik, a canted cannon, facing forward and pointing up. They’d go under you, so you couldn’t see them, and rake the entire fuselage. That was a bugger.

The bellies of RAF bombers were not only generally undefended by guns, but were blind to these attacks. Shrage Muzik, or ‘jazz music’ as the Germans called the weapons system, is reported to have been so effective that for several months after it was introduced in Ju-88 and Me-110 nightfighters, the RAF didn’t even know of its existence. Victims of Musik were either destroyed in the air or failed to return because they became prisoners of war.

According to Harris, the average lifespan of a rear gunner was three trips:

"I lost a lot of good friends. One, in particular, was an Air Gunner who had started with me and trained with me. One of the tricks the Germans had was, they would hang around outside our airfield at night, waiting for the bombers to come back, when the lights would be switched on, and then they’d come in. And this night, they hit his plane, and I watched him burn to death on the ground. There was nothing I could do, nothing anybody could do to get through to him.

"The thought of fire was perhaps the thing that scared me most. I’d seen what the British used to call the Guinea Pigs, the airmen who had been badly burned. And in those days, there was no plastic surgery. They tried to cover the burn with as little effort as possible. In some case, they sent them back to their squadrons which was absolutely ridiculous.

In the waning days of the European war the Germans breached Holland’s dikes, the floodwaters isolating Rotterdam. To assist that Dutch city, the RAF made food drops, and Harris recalls taking part on one such drop on May 7th, 1945.

"We went over and one of the rooftops of Rotterdam, some had painted the word ‘tobacco’. In the rear turret I was tossing bars of chocolate out. Below, people were actually starving.

"We went back home, and as we landed, there seemed to be a lot of noise going on. We got to the crew room and there on the crew briefing board was, ‘The War’s Ended’. I’ll tell you it didn’t take us terribly long to get undressed and get into our non-battle stuff."

The celebration that night was hearty, and Harris says the next morning when he got back, he noticed the bomber squadron was wheeling up in the air. Apparently, he’d missed the mission, and his CO told him he‘d missed a battle order and was in for a court martial. The next day, though, the CO had been posted elsewhere... and Harris never heard any more from him.

Harris’ last mission, to Berchtesgaden, was the most amazing sight he’d ever seen.

"It was an actual carpet of aircraft. They filled the sky. As a matter of fact, when we got out of Berchtesgaden, we were so crowded we nearly got bombed by a plane above us. It just missed us."

With that good fortune, Len Harris had not only survived eleven missions over Germany, but had done so unscathed... except for the short-circuited flying suit.

The squadron itself was shortly disbanded and before long, Len Harris found himself posted to RAF public relations work in Cairo, Egypt. In 1948, Harris left the RAF and held various writing jobs.

He came to the USA in 1961, and has worked as an editor, magazine owner, a strategist for political campaigns, and in public relations.

Harris has authored two published books: Cockney, partially autobiographical, and Russian Roulette, a mystery.