Squadron Leader Ken Dodwell was a Navigator and Bomb Aimer with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He qualified on the Vickers Wellington medium bomber and later became a Navigator Instructor and a Station Navigation Officer, though he still managed a few flights aboard Wellingtons and even Avro Lancasters.
In his diary, published in the Forces War Records Historic Documents Library, Squadron Leader Dodwell takes us through his entire RAF career, from training in Canada to remembering his lost comrades at the war’s conclusion. About half-way through, he introduces us to his girlfriend and future wife serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at the time and a traumatic day that very nearly saw them torn apart:
Meeting my wife
Having retraced my own journey through the war, I must now mention my W.A.A.F. girlfriend, later my wife, who joined the squadron at Marham a while before I arrived.
On one occasion, the station air raid siren sounded and Jean hastened to the door of her billet, when a bomb exploded near enough to knock her to the ground. She got up, shook off the dirt, smoothed her uniform and made for the air raid shelter.
Jean says she first met me at a dance in the Sergeant’s Mess – and I of course remember the occasion well. She says I phoned the next day to make a date. When I was commissioned we had to meet away from the station. “Officers were not allowed to consort with mere other ranks” – Jean’s own words.
She says she remembers meeting me in the village outside a pub, and continues that I brought a large basket of strawberries, which we consumed on our walk along the bank of the local, not very wide, river.
The most traumatic day
Having told of my many experiences in the R.A.F., and some of them quite frightening, I realise that I have failed to mention the most traumatic day of my life.
The Squadron Commander called my pilot, Brian Slade, and myself to his office at 10.30 a.m. He said that only 9 aircraft in the whole of Bomber Command had been chosen to carry out this particular mission, with only 1 aircraft, ours, being chosen from 115 Squadron.
He said that he had personally chosen us, as though it was some sort of honour, and continued to tell us that we would be attacking the U-Boat pens in Hamburg, flying down the river Elbe at 500ft into Hamburg itself in the pitch black of night. We had to fly low, as there was 30ft of concrete to break through on top of the pens. We would literally have to ‘skip’ the bombs into the entrance in order to be successful.
I can remember the Squadron Commander asking us, “Well? What do you think?” I was the first to speak, and in true R.A.F. tradition, I replied, “Well, we’ll have a go sir,” meanwhile, trying not to let on that we were scared stiff. Anyway, we went to the general briefing, which was of course top secret. We would there discover that the main contingent of aircraft would be bombing at 15,000ft above us. A somewhat bleak prospect for those aircraft trying to complete the mission without being blown out of the sky by their own comrades overhead.
After the meeting, someone approached Jean and told her, “I wouldn’t like to be in your boyfriend’s shoes tonight.” Though not giving much detail away, even this was a risky comment to make at a time when enemy spies were suspected of being in the vicinity.
A little later in the day I spoke to Jean’s Flight Sergeant, and told him that I would like to see her. He seemed to understand my reasoning, suspecting that something big was in the midst. He allowed us to use his office. Jean came through the door and saw me standing there. I told her that I had a very difficult operation that night, which we both secretly knew meant that chances of my return were slim.
As you can imagine, it was a very sentimental moment between me and my future wife. It was incredibly traumatic and surreal, the sort of scene you would expect to find in a film or a novel. After I bid Jean farewell, the day proceeded as normal. After the second briefing I had an hour with my charts plotting our courses for the night, then we went out to the aircraft, started the engines and taxied to the runway. We were ready to go.
As we waited for the control tower to confirm, we suddenly received a red light. For some reason, we were not to take off. Over the intercom, we were informed that the operation had been cancelled.
We learned later that there had been gossip in the local village. Some of the details of the operation had been leaked, and there was fear that there might have been a German spy around, which meant that he could have prepared to enemy to defend our attack in advance. And so, we breathed again. I said it was the most traumatic day of my life, because one of the worst parts of an operation was the time spent after the first briefing, when you knew the target. The day was then full of apprehension awaiting dusk and departure. In this operation, the odds of surviving were small. To this day, I am thankful for that red light.
Make sure you have a “red light” this Valentine’s Day and keep your loved ones close.
Reunite with your loved ones and search Forces War Records' database of 9 million records: