The Crew - Navigator

 It took a team to fly a bomber in WWII, and one of the most skilled and most vital was the navigator. Because the RAF did not operate large, tight formations in daylight, there was no simple "follow my leader" kind of flying. Instead, each aircraft was expected to reach the target and return on its own. This meant that the success -- and survival -- of RAF bombers depended in no small part upon the skills of the navigator.

 

Harry Lomas, Navigator

The RAF learned very early in the war that bombers, even flying in formation, could not defend themselves against fighter attacks. Yet until early 1944, there were no fighters with the range to escort bombers to targets inside Germany. In order to strike at Germany -- as the strategic air offensive must -- the RAF switched to night bombing. When flying in darkness, close formations were a hazard not a benefit, so the RAF evolved the concept of the "bomber stream." This entailed sending large numbers of bombers on roughly the same route to the same target at roughly the same time. Squadrons took off at only slightly staggered times to reduce the risk of collision but at sufficiently close intervals to overwhelm the German defenses. What this meant was that each individual aircraft had to find its way to the target -- and back -- on its own. Flying in the dark over enemy (blacked out) territory without a navigator would have been insane.

The recruiting posters for aircrew described the navigator as:

...the man they all rely on to get them there and back. If the Pilot is the Heart of the aircraft, the Gunner is the Eyes, the Wireless Operator is the Ears, then this man must certainly be the brain.

Navigating in the dark, often in extremely adverse weather conditions, with the primitive navigational aids available in WWII was a huge challenge. Yes, the first radar based navigation systems such as "Gee" and "H2S" were introduced in this period, but the Germans rapidly learned how to jam "Gee" over the North Sea, so it was only useful at the start -- and fortunately! -- at the end of journey. H2S, which relied on onboard radar equipment that bounced a signal off the ground was very primitive, hard to interpret and subject to frequent technical breakdowns. At its best, it helped provide periodic "fixes" -- but only over land. When over the featureless North Sea, it was useless.

Fundamentally, navigation for RAF bombers was about dead reckoning based on the airspeed and course steered corrected for wind speed and direction. At its simplest, an aircraft flying dead into a 50 mph wind at 150 mph would make good only 100 mph. Things were rarely that simple! 

The wind usually came at an angle to the course cause not only an impact on speed but also on the course made good. It was also rarely steady, so the speed and direction was constantly changing, with changing impact, in the course of a six to eleven hour trip. 

Keeping track of wind changes, calculating the impact and correcting for it would have been challenging enough under perfect conditions, but since the bombers were flying over enemy controlled countries most of the time, they were flying over territories where no weather stations were reporting actual conditions back to their headquarters. Nor could RAF aircraft obtain weather updates of actual weather conditions as they approached an specific position. They were, effectively, flying blind into weather conditions that no one on their side of the conflict knew about for sure.

This meant the navigators were dependent on the predicted winds forecast by the dedicated (and for its time sophisticated) meteorology service, but weather forecasting then as now was highly unreliable.  The weather over Europe, then as now, could and often did change rapidly. In short, the navigators might be briefed to expect 30 mph winds out of the SW and yet find themselves buffeted by 60 mph winds out of the WNW instead. The difference that made on the "course made good" when flying a set course and speed is not only enormous it could be the difference between life and death.

The weather interfered in other ways. Thunder storms or icing might force the pilot to alter his course. Low cloud or fog might prevent a navigator from getting any kind of ground visual to verify his calculations. But weather wasn't the only thing "interfering" with the navigator's work. Flak and fighters might force the pilot to take evasive action, and these changes in course and speed all had to be accounted for in the navigator's plot.  And, of course, all the navigator's plots were based on the assumption that the aircraft's instruments were working -- and working correctly. Yet very often they were not due to technical failures, weather conditions or enemy action. Navigators were, therefore, trained and expected to periodically check their dead reckoning using celestial navigation, this entailed "shooting the stars" with a sextant from the astrodome of the aircraft -- assuming there was no high cloud above them, blotting out the stars.

Navigating was both so complex and so important that the RAF spent nearly as much time and money training navigators as pilots, i.e. as much as two years. Navigator training was grueling and meticulous and there were many young men lost in training accidents because they had not mastered their trade well enough in time -- or were just unlucky. As with pilots, fledgling navigators were often sent overseas for training, but on their return from the sunny skies of Texas, California or South Africa, they underwent special, additional training in the vagaries of navigating in English/European weather.

While we will never know how many aircraft that failed to return in the course of the war were lost due to poor navigation which resulted in fuel giving out before safe shores could be reached, one of the most famous airmen of the Second World War, Wing Command Guy Gibson, was killed in September 1944 when his aircraft ran out of fuel some 70 miles off course. I would appear that the navigator, although experienced, had encountered some difficulty that made it impossible for him to navigate correctly.

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. The navigator on Kit Moran's crew is one of the most important secondary characters in Moral Fibre.

Riding the icy, moonlit sky, 

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles


 

  

 

 

 

 

"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

For more information about all my aviation books visit: https://www.helenapschrader.com/aviation.html




 

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