Life as a RAF Navigator in RAF Bomber Command in WW2

The fighters of World War Two are justifiably lauded for their brave exploits during the Battle of Britain and many other memorable dogfights. However, the exploits of the equally brave and skilful bombers are sometimes overlooked. Here we have some exclusive extracts from the war diary of Navigator Ken Dodwell, who served in Bomber Command from 1940-1946 and ended the war a Squadron Leader:

This picture was taken by the National Press following the famous 1000 Bomber raid on Cologne on the night of 30/31 May 1942. The crew of ‘Q’ for Queenie are pictured


Hundreds of aircraft were lost through navigational errors in the early days of the war, often resulting from inaccurate meteorological information being given, since the subject of meteorology was not an exact science at the time; it still isn’t today, though certainly much improved.

To illustrate the above point of how hazardous navigation was in the early years of war, if a navigator was given westerly winds of say 50 mph at 20,000ft, when in fact they were coming from the east, you would be pointing the aircraft in the wrong direction. You could therefore be 100 miles off your intended path of flight every hour. Aircraft were lost in the North Sea this way, off the coast of Scotland, instead of returning to Norfolk where they were based.

It was therefore the navigator’s task to determine this sort of error before it could occur. This was difficult in the earlier days. The navigator could only determine the error visually, by noticing for instance, where he was crossing the Dutch coast in the black out. To omit the possibility of error, the navigator might note that the existing winds had blown him 20 miles north.  If so, he could then calculate by the ‘solution of triangles’ the ‘true wind’ that had blown him there. If he missed his point, that is, failed to map read accurately, then the resultant error would escalate and make the situation even worse.

I remember an incident when ordered to attack Rostock in the Baltic. Rostock was a station experimenting with heavy water in the search for a nuclear bomb. We were flying north of the Frisian Islands, off northern Germany, when my calculations said we were drifting south. We were to fly over the middle of Denmark, but our present course would take us over Flensburg on the German/Danish border – heavily defended with antiaircraft guns. My action therefore was to give an alteration of course to combat the southerly drift, some 10 degrees to the port side or to the north.

A few minutes later my gunner called on the intercom. “Ken, I can see a Wellington still steering the old course”. I think he was saying, “Are you sure you are right?” I replied, “He’s wrong”. Some 10 minutes later, whilst still almost on our beam, he flew straight and level over Flensburg. That was a gift for the radar controlled German guns. The aircraft was shot down in flames

The Experienced Navigator

As a navigator and bomb aimer, perhaps the raid I feel most proud of was one against a target in Mannheim.  It was a relatively long flight in those days.  Having navigated to within some 25 miles of the target, I took up my position behind the bomb sight for the ‘run in’. On the ‘run in’ our two gunners started shouting: “You’re wrong Ken, the target is 5 miles to starboard; the whole area is on fire!” To which I yelled back: “They’re wrong!”

By then I could see the outskirts of Mannheim coming into my bomb sight. I could then see the river Rhine by the light of the moon, winding its way through the suburbs. Strangely, I noticed that all of the searchlights were in the doused position, or not shining upwards. They were making a dim circle around the outskirts of this large city.  And above all, there was no attacking gunfire. They were giving us a free run not to expose their position. The enemy did not want to ‘disturb’ the mass of Bomber Command bombing their fire ‘decoy’ in a forest some 5 to 6 miles outside Mannheim!

The target came up, and still not a shot fired. As we were able to fly straight and level, we took a perfect photograph.  When printed, this showed our bombs straddling the target area, which became the only photograph in the Squadron. 

The next day came a new target briefing, and the Squadron Commander snarled, “What happened to you lot over Mannheim last night? Fancy bombing a forest!” He then told the rest of the squadron that there was only one photo from the whole of 115 Squadron and out of some 200 aircraft of Bomber Command there were only 9 photos of the target. 

He turned to our pilot Brian Slade and said, “Well done Slade!” There was a voice at the back of the briefing room, in a complaining tone that said, “What about the Navigator?”  I hope the Squadron Commander heard it. I believe it was an Australian Rear Gunner. The Commander still said nothing to me. You see, it was still a Pilot’s air force, dating back to WWI and to between the wars.  From this, you can understand why the Navigators were accused of having a ‘union!’ Any Pilot would tell you, that when we were some 30 miles from a target, they saw nothing below, only the horizon well ahead.

Over Mannheim, I reckon that I learnt a life’s lesson. There were other times when the Gunners reported actions by other aircraft which did not fall in with my own calculations. The lesson was - and I’ve made use of it several times - if you are sure, having checked your calculations, stick to your result and never follow anybody else. 

115 Squadron Marham – photo taken by National Press following 1000 Bomber raid on Cologne 30/31 May 1942. Far left Ken Dodwell with maps and navigation bag, next to him Brian Slade (pilot), then Ken Swann (front gunner), last person on the right - rear gunner Sam Lowry.


The missions that scared me in particular were those to the Ruhr Industrial area. This was one of the most heavily defended areas in Germany, known as the Ruhr Valley. We nicknamed it ‘happy valley’. On five operations, one after the other we returned with damage to the fuselage, mostly holes from shrapnel with some holes very near to where I was sitting.  One piece of shrapnel embedded itself in the ply wood floor exactly below where I was sitting. It had hit an aluminium strip reinforcing the plywood floor. This bent upwards and splinters from the floor shot up my trouser leg.  The shrapnel had just about lost its momentum; otherwise it would have pierced my backside! The next day a member of the ground crew presented me with the piece of shrapnel.

The Squadron Commander was always pleased to let Group HQ know he had a number of aircraft hit by flak (anti-aircraft fire) – it said “my boys press on to the target, despite the opposition”.

The worst operation over Essen was when we were ‘coned’ by all the searchlights. It was when the master searchlight got you that you knew you were in trouble.  All the other searchlights would point at you, and then every gun in the area would take aim. The good side to it was that most of the other bombers nearby would get a free run and thank you later, if you made it back to base. The reality was that most people who were ‘coned’ were shot down. On this particular occasion, Brian Slade took retaliatory action by throwing the aircraft all over the sky. We did a severe ‘corkscrew’ to deceive their radar, and continually changed height and direction so that the shells burst where you were a moment before. I would hear the shells, from my position on the aircraft, bursting above the noise of the engines. During close-calls I could even smell the cordite from the explosions all around me. On reflection, one wonders how an aircraft could possible manage to escape such a barrage when there were probably fifteen guns firing at us.

On another occasion we were all but shot down on our return from Bremen as we crossed the Dutch coast. Just as we were feeling that we were nearly home, a German fighter shot out of the blue and we were attacked. It was a Junkers 88 with four cannons built into its nose. Soon, we had a small fire near the wireless operator, who managed to put it out. This first burst of canon fire also damaged our hydraulic system, putting our rear turret out of action, thus rendering our four rear machine guns useless. Furthermore, the undercarriage had dropped half way down and the aircraft control surfaces were damaged. 

The wireless operator sent out an SOS giving our position, as we could have fallen into the North Sea at any time. I took up a position in the Astro Dome where I could see what was going on. There, I spotted the JU88, which was about to make another attack. He had to get his nose onto us and attack us on the beam since all his guns were in the nose. My strategy was to decide when he was going to open fire and then tell the pilot to turn into him. I would shout “turn now” at the critical moment and the JU88 would flash past us, but could not get his sights on us. In total, he made some four attacks and each time we turned into him just as I thought he would open fire.

I mentioned the damaged hydraulic system, but in fact we still had two machine guns operating in the front turret. Just before the JU88 flashed past, our front gunner gave it a burst of fire. I could see the lighted tracer bullets accurately in its path. He had to fly into them. I will never know whether the JU88 was hit. Luckily for us, Brian Slade saw some low cloud, and then flew into it. We were able to lose the JU88, but were now precariously only 100 ft above the sea and unable to climb any higher. As the navigator, I was concerned about the cliffs on the East Anglian coast, but fortunately we were heading straight for Norwich on a clear path. We crossed the English coast where it was still dark, and where all our own search lights would point their light in one direction, thus leading us into the airfield. We managed to ‘belly land’ without wheels at R.A.F Horsham St Faith, near Norwich. We landed at approximately 110 mph, but soon came to a stop with all the crew braced for disaster. When we had acknowledged our survival, we were taken to the Mess, given a double brandy and discussed how incredibly lucky we were to have made it.

During the 30 operations that I took part in with 115 Squadron, we lost 29 crews. In other words, the squadron was completely wiped out, twice. After eight months we achieved the chilling and dubious distinction of being the first crew to finish a tour of operations. Upon reflection, I realise just how lucky we were.  Though, as in anything else, experienced counted to a great degree. We knew crews who were lost on their first, second and third operations. During the last few months on 115 Squadron we therefore became the “gen” crew (the experienced crew) and new crews would approach us for advice, asking how to survive and what tactics we used.

Soon after we joined 115 Squadron November/December 1941 we had done the same and spoken to the most experienced crew for the same sort of advice. However, after about a further 6 weeks they were shot down after some 23 operations.  Most demoralising for the less experienced crews - mind you they did push their luck – on the way home from targets they would fly low, probably 1000ft, and sought out German airfields, fighter airfields if possible.  They would get onto the airfield circuit, machine gunning anything they could see.  They would say “Well, we have to give our gunners some practice”. Regretfully, they did it once too often – the enemy were waiting for them, probably had fighters airborne on the circuit. They were a very good, determined crew but sadly all were killed.

The point which is not often appreciated was the fact that Bomber Command was standing by every day of the war. If the weather was good enough, we would attack the enemy. No other force did that. Bomber Command, in total, lost some 55,000 aircrew. At an operation on Nuremburg, on which I luckily was not flying, we lost some 650 men in one night. You can contrast this with the fact that during the Battle of Britain, 500 pilots were killed over the whole period of the battle, comprising the summer months of 1940.

None of my close friends made it during the war. A few near friends perhaps, but not many. My friend during training, Arthur Sims, my 115 Squadron pilot Brian Slade, my very young Australian rear gunner Sam Lowry and my second pilot Jack Reynolds. Jack was an introvert, we never knew what he was thinking. He was still under training, flying with us on some 7 operations. I would have loved to have had these young men as my lifelong friends. They were the ‘best’ and as I said previously, were all volunteers. Only volunteers were accepted as aircrew.

Looking back, it was all such a great waste of life, and all very sad. It becomes even more sad as one gets older and can look at things with a more mature and experienced perspective.  History certainly tends to repeat itself. We can once again see politicians as they really are, not acting at the right time until the problem is staring them in the face. In retrospect, we can see that we did not prepare ourselves properly against Hitler and the Nazis, who were obviously preparing for aggression long before the outbreak of war.

1657 Heavy Conversion Unit, Stradishall, Suffolk in front of Stirling, 4- engined bomber. Ken Dodwell, an instructor in the unit, 2nd from left on front row.






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