Veteran Lancaster pilot Rusty Waughman acts as navigator in the competition Pooley’s Dawn to Dusk, taking in the RAF bases from which he flew during World War II. Pat Malone tells Rusty’s adventure along with David Monks
Even after 73 years, Rusty didn’t need the chart. The 93-year-old remembered every inch of this territory – every landmark, wood, crossroads and farmhouse on the Lincolnshire Wolds had been committed to memory during his training flights, for use when the chips were down.
Back in 1943, he was bringing a Lancaster home to this area, not always in one piece, from Berlin, Munich or Nuremburg. Now, Flt Lt Russell ‘Rusty’ Waughman DFC, AFC, Legion d’Honneur, was navigating a Robinson R22 in the Pooley’s Dawn to Dusk challenge, and seeing RAF Ludford Magna from the air for the first time since the night before D-Day.
The airfield was hard to spot, having reverted to farmland fifty years ago. Helicopter pilot David Monks had spent hours poring over Google Earth and OS maps to ensure he could identify the exact site, but it wasn’t necessary. “Straight ahead here,” said Rusty. The old runways had left the vaguest outline on the land south of the village of Ludford, but the buildings had all gone. Rusty shook his head sadly. “They closed the Black Horse too, you know.”
The pilots who flew from Ludford Magna are now few in number and soon there will be no-one left to tell the story of what happened here. They flew for Bomber Command, which suffered the highest casualty rate of World War II (with the exception of the German U-boat service), but not only that, they flew for 101 (Special Duties) Squadron, which had the highest casualty rate in Bomber Command.
Out of all the Lancasters that flew out of Ludford Magna, 113 didn’t come back. Each one went down with seven or eight men on board ? boys, really, dying as young as seventenn or eighteen.
Rusty Waughman’s thirty missions included some of the most disastrous self-inflicted wounds of the war, such as the raids on Nuremburg and Mailly-le-Camp, but he lived to tell the tale.
David Monks – Chairman of the Helicopter Club of Great Britain, R22 owner and captain of the British team that won Silver in the World Championships in Moscow in 2012 – is a neighbour of Rusty’s in Kenilworth. He grew concerned that the memory of these men, like Ludford Magna itself, is slowly being erased. “They were ordinary men who did extraordinary things. Those who died were robbed of sixty or seventy years of life, and we owe them everything. As aviators we must make sure they are never forgotten. We have a lot to live up to.”
As a participant in the Pooley’s Dawn to Dusk – a challenge for pilots to step beyond their comfort zone and test all their aviation skills – David decided to fly with Rusty around every one of the wartime airfields with which he was closely associated during the war. “It dawned on me that I couldn’t waste any time, because while Rusty is remarkably active, he’s 93 and I didn’t know whether he’d be up for putting in an eight-hour day in an R22.”
He needn’t have worried. Rusty, who had never been in a helicopter before, loved every one of the eight hours and two minutes the trip took. “Marvellous,” he said. “Like flying in a glass bottle.”
Planning for the flight took time. Some of Rusty’s airfields are defunct, while others are major airports or in busy military zones, so getting permission proved time-consuming. Netheravon, with its parachute drop zone and the Salisbury Plain danger area, was especially sticky.
Finally setting off from Wellesbourne Mountford in mid July at 0820, David flew G-ZAPY towards Brize Norton, home of 101 Squadron, now flying refuelling tankers. The Squadron’s motto, mens agitat molem, means ‘mind over matter’. “We used to say, they don’t mind, and we don’t matter,” Rusty quipped.
He learned to fly on Tiger Moths and Stearmans in Canada, before going on to the Airspeed Oxford and converting to Wellingtons, Halifaxes and Lancasters in England. When Rusty joined as a sergeant pilot, 101 Squadron Lancasters carried radio technology (code-named ‘Airborne Cigar’) to seek out and jam German fighter control frequencies. Apart from the complex equipment, which took 3,000 hours to install, each plane carried an eighth crewman, a German speaker who could tell enemy communications from, say, Polish or Czech chatter, and disrupt the channel using static from an engine.
Rusty’s ‘Special Duties Operator’ Ted Manners had done three years’ German at grammar school, but some aeroplanes carried a fluent German speaker, who could actually misdirect fighters. These men, in particular, had no hope of survival even if they bailed out – their bravery is unimaginable.
Once David had overflown Brize Norton, Rusty set course for Abingdon, where he instructed in 1947. Then he pointed west towards Bristol and the home to the Bomber Command Flying Instructors School, formerly RAF Lulsgate Bottom, where Rusty was sent to become an instructor after his operational tour was over. “In the distance, it was becoming clear a warm front we were expecting had moved a little faster than hoped,” David later recalled. “The cloudbase was lowering and light rain started, but we were cleared through Bristol’s Class D between inbound commercial traffic, took a quick picture and headed for Netheravon.”
In 1947, Netheravon was the Transport Command Practice Camp where Rusty converted to the Dakota for paratroop-dropping and glider-towing. He later flew Dakotas on the Berlin Airlift.
After a refuelling stop at Thruxton, David and Rusty flew on to Biggin Hill, with Rusty telling a puzzling story of his time there. “I was sent for an assessment, but nobody ever told me what was being assessed and I never thought to ask.” But south of London, he vividly remembered flying back from the Nuremburg raid, making landfall at Selsey Bill and being fired on by anti-aircraft guns around the capital. “We fired off the colours of the day and the guns stopped,” Rusty said. “But after what we’d come through, it would have been a pity to be shot down by our own side.”
Nuremburg was the raid that never should have happened. With bright moonlight all the way, it was a turkey-shoot for German night fighters. Cloud obscured the target and the Pathfinders marked some ploughed fields ten miles away. Of the 700 bombers, 117 were shot down or crashed. 101 Squadron sent 26 Lancasters – seven didn’t come back and 56 crewmen died.
They were distributed through the bomber stream so that, with their fifty-mile radio range, they could always jam German communications, but the Germans didn’t mind as it was almost as bright as day. It was the RAF’s introduction to Schräge Musik, the upward-firing guns, allowing enemy fighters to creep unseen under RAF bombers. “I personally saw sixteen bombers shot down around me,” Rusty recalled. “We were attacked by fighters several times and corkscrewed, and if you made a good job of it they’d go and find an easier target, there were so many.
“When we got back and described what we’d seen, the debriefers ridiculed us ? they couldn’t believe what we were saying. But as time went on, and the aircraft didn’t come, it became clear we were telling the truth. A sort of dead atmosphere settled on the place. The base was just silent… you couldn’t eat, you couldn’t sleep. We went down to the Mess where the WAAFs had left some food out with a sign saying, ‘Please help yourself’. They were out the back crying their eyes out, every one had lost a boyfriend that night.”
The next stop for David and Rusty was to the north, Debden in Essex. In 1946, it was home to the Empire Radio School, but is inside the Stansted Zone today. David said: “We nearly never got the chance to return because when asked to squawk by Essex Radar, they were unable to see a conspicuity code for us and only had a primary contact. A small amount of negotiation ensued, and we were cleared to route over Debden via Audley End before we routed north to Cambridge.”
Cambridge held mixed emotions for Rusty as it was there he resigned his commission in 1952 in order to look after his terminally ill wife. In modern times, it is the workplace of a certain royal personage who flies an air ambulance, so the management is jumpy about cameras. No doubt the Duke would feel privileged to have his picture taken with Rusty Waughman.
“We managed to convince them we weren’t interested in anyone but Rusty,” joked David. “He became the centre of all attention and admiration. They gave him three large chocolate cookies, for which we really didn’t have room in the helicopter.”
Most of their next targets were disused airfields, some nothing more than co-ordinates on an internet site or a ploughed field with a sliver of concrete dispersal. They were Oakington, where Rusty was Wing Flying Training Officer from 1947 to 1949 responsible for four squadrons; Desborough, where he met his first wife in 1946; and Bramcote and Nuneaton, where he converted crews to Dakotas and Wellingtons.
“The front that might have caused us to postpone the flight if it were not for the urgent need to get it done made itself felt again here,” said David. “Rusty told me I’d done very well in the weather, and it reminded him of the many times he flew under cover of cloud on bombing missions, sometimes on instruments, at night, for up to ten hours at a time. I felt my little excursion around some light rain was not worthy of a mention.”
On Rusty and David went via RAF Hixon, Church Broughton and Ossington – all Wellington bases, long defunct – before landing at Gamston for fuel. Here David discovered that Doncaster, his next fuel stop, had a broken avgas pump. “That presented a dilemma,” he said. “I thought I might have to miss out Dishforth, our most northerly base, to be able to return to Gamston for fuel. Sherburn-in-Elmet indicated they might be open later than published because they planned to fly late, but if the weather changed they’d go home early and we’d be stuck. We were running out of options. The pilots at Heli Air and the Airfield Manager at Wellesbourne pooled their knowledge and suggested Breighton, which had a credit card machine for fuel. So we were back in the game.”
After Gamston came the main event, Ludford Magna. “Rusty decided we didn’t need a map as he could tell me every river, road junction, village, and the hall where the pretty girls used to be all those years ago. And he was on the money with his navigation. Looking at the rising ground in the distance Rusty knew exactly where he was and how long it was going to take to get there.”
Rusty came here in 1943 after being told blandly at the OTU that 101 Squadron had the highest attrition rate in the RAF. He was a couple of days late and his friend Paul, who went on ahead, had been shot down and killed before Rusty even got there. On the first five operations, against Berlin, the casualty rate was forty per cent. “We were fatalists,” Rusty said. “We knew we had no hope of survival. We’d quote to each other, ‘Death put his bony hand on your shoulder and said, live, boy, for I am coming…’
Death reached out a bony hand over Belgium when a Lancaster came up beneath Rusty’s aircraft, named Wing and a Prayer, and collided with his underside. It chopped off part of the port wing, including the pitot, and took off one of the main wheels, killing all the instruments and damaging the tailplane.
“A piece of propeller came through the fuselage and landed at the navigator’s feet. The other bomber fell away ? it felt like we were stuck together for ages and the controls went limp in my hands, but it was only a couple of seconds. I found the engines were okay and she would still fly, but I feared she wouldn’t hang together for long, so I told the rear gunner, Harry Nunn, to grab his parachute and get up front in case we had to bail out. Harry refused, he said he’d be better off sticking to his post to protect our rear. That was the kind of people I was flying with. The pilot was only one man in a Lancaster, and the other seven never get enough credit.”
Back at Ludford Magna, Wing and a Prayer came in on one wheel, crashed and slewed towards the tower, where a WAAF sprained her ankle running away ? the only injury in the whole episode. Rusty was recommended for a medal for his exemplary flying, but had to be content with a Mention in Despatches.
In his replacement Lancaster, Oor Wullie, Rusty took part in a massive raid on the biggest German military depot in Europe, at Mailly-le-Camp in France. “There were 170 bombers in the first wave, and another 175 were to go in ten minutes later,” he said. “Leonard Cheshire’s Pathfinders went in to mark the target, but Cheshire wasn’t satisfied with their accuracy and went in to do it again. So we had 345 bombers milling around, at night, and the Luftwaffe fighters got among them and it was absolute carnage. When we went in, another bomber blew up right underneath us and turned us upside down, so I can say I’ve barrel-rolled a Lancaster. We lost 42 Lancasters that night, four of them from 101 Squadron.”
Rusty’s thirtieth and final mission was on the night before D-Day, 5 June 1944, when he bombed Sangatte in a diversionary attack intended to telegraph to the Germans that the Pas de Calais was the intended invasion target. Unable to get back to Ludford Magna because of weather, he landed at Faldingworth, thirty miles away. Next morning he was planning to get back in Oor Wullie and fly her home but was stopped by the Station Commander: “You’re never going to fly a Lancaster again.”
“That’s when I realised it was all over for me,” Rusty recalled. “It was a very strange feeling, because we’d all been genuinely convinced we’d be killed, it was just a matter of when. And now there was a chance we’d live. It turned out we were the first 101 Squadron crew for six months to complete a tour.” At the end, he was 22 years old.
Beyond Ludford Magna, David and Rusty headed for RAF Snaith, north of Doncaster. “We nearly took a picture of the wrong patch of ground,” said David. “It’s now a vast solar farm.” In Rusty’s day it was home to the Pilot Distribution Centre. he was posted to the Far East Air Force for ‘VIP Duties, RAF Far East Command Squadron’.
Then on to RAF Dishforth ? easy to find ? where Rusty served with the Heavy Transport Conversion Unit flying Dakotas. Finally it was just a matter of dropping in to Breighton for fuel and getting back to Wellesbourne.
David remembered: “Going home, Doncaster International cleared us to cross straight through their zone even though our transponder appeared not to have been working for the whole journey. We took the opportunity to take a selfie around Nottingham and post it via social media to Rusty’s grandson Ed. Not only was Rusty very happy in his seventh hour in the air, but he is natural selfie taker.”
“It was a day’s flying I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and I hope it makes people think more deeply about the pilots of Rusty’s generation, and the fact that in most cases, for the rest of their lives nobody even said thank you.”
After leaving the RAF, Rusty went into the packaging business, remarried, had four children and lived quietly in Kenilworth, where he remains to this day. As an officer in the RAF Reserve he kept up his flying skills until, in the 1960s, the country decided we couldn’t afford it any more. He has not flown since.
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