Sid Burton DFC DFM RAFVR and crew – 103 Sqn
Jack Harding was born in London, Ontario in 1919 and raised in Windsor. He enlisted in the RCAF in 1941 and qualified as an Observer with the rank of Sergeant. In April 1942 he arrived in the UK and was soon to meet his wife to be, Olwen, at a dance at Bournemouth. He was posted to 20 OTU at Lossiemouth where he crewed up with an English pilot called Sid Burton. From there they were transferred to 1656 HCU and then to 103 Sq in December 1942.
The crew consisted of Sid Burton RAFVR (pilot), George McKenzie RAFVR (F/E), Pat Baird, RAFVR (WOP), Spence Cartwright RAFVR(B/A), Bob MacCrae, RAFVR (Rear A/G), Les Brady RCAF(MU A/G).
The following is an edited account of this crew's 27th operation on the 28th April 1943 taken from his book "The Dancin' Navigator".
Our 27th Trip by Jack Harding DFC
"For some strange reason I awoke. Perhaps it was the horrendous dream I was having. That same recurring dream where I was falling endlessly, powerless to help myself. I could hear the sound of a throbbing compressor. A quick squint at my watch showed 7 a.m.
Struggling out of bed, I peered through the thicket of scrub trees that separated our sleeping quarters from the main runway. An Air Ministry Works Department crew were spraying a tar-like solution on the already camouflaged surfaces of the taxiway and the runway.
I dressed and gathered my shaving kit together. I had decided to pass up the cold water taps at the nearby ablutions building, newly built for us. I slung my towel over my shoulder and made for the Sergeant's Mess washroom where at least there was hot water for shaving.
Walking down the narrow road to the mess I could see one woman among the noisy tar spraying workmen, handling the long metal spray hose. She was about 40, clad in heavy gloves, overalls and high wellington boots. Her long platinum blond hair was completely uncovered except for a
hair net, despite her work.
There were other aircrew who wouldn't stand the cold, poorly equipped washing facilities provided for us. In the mess washroom I was surrounded. Luckily, an Aussie crew, who regularly exhausted the hot water supply taking showers, hadn't been in yet. When they'd finished there was usually little left for others.
In light of the food on offer I ate only a light breakfast. Toast, tea and jam. Spence sat at a nearby table. I waited for him to finish and we walked to Operations together.
Spencer Cartwright was from Stoke on Trent. A slim, energetic, 21 year old Englishman of average height. Very quick mentally, he always wore his air force wedge-cap at a jaunty angle. He had an eye and a ready smile for the girls. He prided himself on the fact that he'd once been ball boy to the great Stoke football team and knew Stanley Matthews, his great boyhood idol, personally.
The two of us usually worked together on our route. I'd lay out the track as dictated for that night by Bomber Command on my plotting chart. He'd be at my side in the Nav's room, if his duties permitted, scribing those same tracks in pencil across our topographicals. We were stunned to find that our crew was about to do the longest flight of our entire tour. A low level mining trip to the Gulf of Danzig! Gardening was the RAF term. It was the first trip of this nature we had been called upon to do. Special plotting charts had to be distributed to the navigators because of the extended distance. No one liked these trips as they were felt to be unlucky.
At a main briefing we found that we were one of 3 aircraft from 103 Sq mining in that particular area. Low level flying there and all the way back, a quick climb was required in the target area to 4,000 feet. The mines, to be effective, had to be laid from a prescribed height. This was an unprotected bay where untrained Nazi submariners practised tactics before being assigned to North Atlantic duties.
Take off at 2100 hours was rather late for the distance we had to cover. Because of the darkness and height, the 3 skippers were instructed not to attempt formation in any way.
We all 3 had the same track, set course time, ETAs, route and time over target. The RAF were sending 207 aircraft on numerous mine laying missions across Europe that night. 22 were destined not to return.
Routed out over Mablethorpe we found conditions bumpy at our height of 200 ft so Sid pulled "W" Willie's nose up another 50 ft. When we cleared the English coast "Jock" McCrae asked if he and Les Brady could test their guns..
"Keep it bloody short then," replied Sid testily. He had his hands full at this height and did not want to attract attention with tracers. I could smell cordite, after the short bursts, even at my position.
We were on an extremely long sea leg. Gee was intermittent and fading at this height. Running mainly on DR winds, I was relieved when hawk eyed Spence, in his usual deliberate manner, alerted me. " Pin point coming up Jack. Take the time, NOW!" would be Spence's lead in. I had a mental picture of him, with his pen light torch up front.
We were crossing Jutland, over Danish territory, keeping north of Germany. The pin point put us 20 miles south of track. A quick correction to Sid, we pressed on, south of Copenhagen and over Bornholm island. A fairly clear night, we could see the Gulf of Danzig ahead of us. Our run up to the dropping point was to be along Hel peninsula, a spit of land pointing like a finger south east into the gulf. The name became an omen.
As we crossed into Polish territory we began our climb. Itwas a "bitch" of a height to be given as it made us sitting ducks for all manner of flak. A moment later Sid and P/O Perrot, the flight engineer, spotted our other 2 aircraft slightly above us. One was already beginning to turn towards the objective. Looked like we'd be third aircraft in, so we circled and hung back in deference to the others.
The lead aircraft was almost immediately hit by flak and, in an instant, blew up. We watched in horror as the flaming wreckage fell near the coast. We'd hardly recovered from the shock when the second aircraft pressed in, successfully releasing his mines at the ordered spot.
Immediately after, he started his north turn. As his wing dipped, in his descending turn to port, he too was hit and went plunging in. The blazing hulk hit the sea's surface and the burning fuel was quickly extinguished, except for a few flickering traces.
Now it was our turn. We braced ourselves knowing that the flak batteries below were well aware of our height. I retreated behind my blackout curtain, in my insecure fashion, to check again our course out of the area.
Spence began his countdown as we passed the end of the spit and then, after a long count "Mines gone". At once Sid plunged into a breathtaking 150 degrees turn to port. I could feel a sickly sensation overtaking me. I had never fully beaten airsickness
Our route back kept us over water as far as Peenemunde, then near Rostock and north of Hamburg and Wilhelmshaven. We were right down on the deck and our gunners were having a crack at everything that looked threatening. We followed a flexuous pattern over flak towers and power lines. Near the coast we passed over a heavily manned fortress where German troops emerged on the run pulling on their trousers. Our gunners peppered their scrambling ranks.
Then it was out over the North Sea at last with Sid pouring the coal to "Willie". It was almost beginning to break daylight. We feared night fighters and everyone struggled to stay alert.
Our intended west bound track across the North Sea lay about 40 miles south of our outward plot. Gee flickered and then dying out again as the various chains began to reappear Working backwards, I pre-set the expected reading at this position on a "chain" whose position lines ran coincidental to our track. My eyes watered as I strained to pick up a signal from "grass". Finally I began to pick up blips close to those I was striving for. We were able to establish latitude. As we neared the English coast Pat Baird picked up a signal. We were diverted to Cottesmore. Elsham was socked in by fog.
We hastily established Cottesmore's position and its beacon ident letters. It was an American base near Leicester, about half an hour south. Fuel was getting tight after almost 9 hours in the air. Mistakes could not be made. I gave Sid a course to steer and an ETA. At 6:30 am we landed and were led by a Jeep to a dispersal area along their hanger line.
After a huge breakfast of pancakes, syrup and bacon, seven young American airmen were rudely dislodged from their beds and we fell into them After about 6 hours rest we were awakened by an American officer who waited patiently while we dressed. Refusing an offer of another breakfast, we were driven to our aircraft that had been guarded by 2 sentries while we slept.
As we taxied out, it seemed the complete station was out to see us off. Very few of them had seen a Lancaster before close at hand." JH
See Operations - 28/29th April 1943 - Mine laying off coast of Northern Europe.
Jack Harding with his skipper Sid Burton and his crew were to fly one more operation with 103 Sq, the 30th April 43 to Essen. This was completed successfully but not without incident. They were extremely fortunate to survive a near fatal collision with a Halifax over the target. Some damage was inflicted to the tail of the Lancaster aircraft but Sid Burton carefully and skilfully nursed his damaged aircraft back to Elsham Wolds. The crew were screened the next day.
Jack was posted to 1656 HCU navigational section and then retumed to ops with 550 Sq at North Killingholme in December 1943. He finished his second tour on the 30th April 1944 and was awarded a well earned DFC for completing 2 demanding tours.
He was seconded back to Canada in August 1944 and was attached to 168 Sq RCAF in Ottawa flying Canadian forces mail across the Atlantic and up to the front lines. These flights were not without incident and he was lucky to survive a bad take off crash in a DC 3 at Biggin Hill in January 45.
Leaving the RCAF in November 1946 Jack joined Air Canada as a line navigator on trans Atlantic and Caribbean duties where he served for 30 years. He then retired and lived in the city of Guelph with his wife Olwen.
Sadly both Olwen and Jack have passed away, Jack in the Spring of 2001. They left 3 sons and 2 daughters.
Sidney Burton was awarded the DFM for service with 103 Squadron, Gazetted on 15th June 1943. the citation reads.
"Sgt Burton has obtained some excellent photographs. This airman has completed numerous operational sorties, including attacks on targets as Milan, Essen, Munish and Spezia". In late April 1943 his Lancaster collided with another over the target which damaged the tail of his aircraft which he nursed back to Elsham Wold, he may well have been put forward for the DFM partly for his actions on this night.”
He was posted to 1656 HCU at Lindholme and eventually ended up at 170 Squadron where he completed a second tour. He was awarded the DFC for service with 170 Squadron, Gazetted on 17th July 1945.
Spencer Cartwright was commissioned and later awarded a DFC. With his wife and 3 children he emigrated to Australia in the 1950s. Here he was involved in a most horrific family event and later he returned to England where he died in tragic circumstances. Whether his experiences as an Air Bomber in Bomber Command contributed to this series of tragedies one can only guess but it seems likely.
We are very grateful for the permission of the Harding family to publish this chapter from their late father's book