This tale, one not often told, is the story of one aircrew’s adventures on the first 1000 bomber raid to Cologne on the night of 30-31st May 1942. They were very lucky. Although the aeroplane they were flying in had a nasty habit of not performing well they managed to return home against all of the odds. The Manchester bomber was well known to be difficult. The unreliable Vulture engines often failed to deliver their full rated power and were prone to overheat which further reduced the power output. They also suffered from lubrication and bearing problems and could ‘blow up’ at the slightest provocation. Whilst the Manchester was designed to be able to fly and maintain height on just one of its two engines few managed to do that. This one almost did, but was really only saved by the cool, calm actions of the pilot. He was Pilot Officer Roy Calvert of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, aged 28 at the time, and had been on operations with No. 50 Squadron since the 16th April. He would go on to win a DFC and bar before the end of 1942 and a second bar in 1944. He survived the war and returned home to New Zealand.
Calvert took off in Manchester Mk1 L7525 of No. 50 Squadron from Skellingthorpe at just after 23:00. The outward trip was entirely uneventful. They had just completed their bombing run over the target at 9,000 feet when a flak shell burst close to the starboard engine. This immediately caught fire. Calvert closed the fuel supply, feathered the propeller and set off the starboard engine fire extinguisher all while diving to gain speed and gently turning to take a course to the west and increasing the throttle on the remaining port engine. The fire died down very quickly. They were then clear of the searchlights and headed towards home, but had dropped to 7,000 feet. As soon as the extra speed built up in the dive reduced they began to lose height. This was the usual pattern for single engine flying in a Manchester. Their chances of getting home seemed to be slipping away all too soon.
Calvert decided to risk restarting the port engine, if it would run at just 20% power he could get everyone home safely. But it was not to be. He reset the feathered propeller to get the engine rotating, turned on the ignition and opened the fuel supply. The engine started easily enough, but burst into flames almost immediately. He was forced to shut it down again. Then he had an anxious few minutes. He knew that the fire extinguisher was empty. If the fire did not go out they were all in serious trouble. After a very tense wait the fire did indeed die out. Time for plan C.
He ordered the crew to throw any unnecessary equipment overboard and then prepare themselves to abandon the aircraft. It almost worked. They were still losing height, but not as rapidly. But they were now much nearer to home. As they crossed over the coast at around 200 feet they were enveloped in a thin mist. Calvert decided that this reduced the risk of being attacked by a German night fighter and ordered that all of the guns and ammunition was to be thrown out too. Again their rate of descent was slowed, but they still could not climb. The sea was now very close to claiming them.
The pilot had one further trick, another risky gamble. He closed the radiator flap on the port engine. This very slight reduction in drag allowed a corresponding slight increase in speed and therefore lift. They climbed back to 200 feet. To prevent the one remaining engine from overheating Calvert soon had to open the radiator flap again. Sure enough they resumed their slow descent to the waiting sea. He was able to repeat this trick several times until eventually the crew saw the English coast approaching. Since they had also burned off some more fuel by then they were now able to climb just high enough to continue over the flat land of East Anglia. Their arrival at Tempsford near Bedford was greeted with cheers and Calvert made a successful landing there.