Wednesday, February 17, 2010

the navigator

The Navigator
Hagai Cohen

Captain Ben Feldman and I were enjoying a glass of Koelsch, 'brewed on location' at a small Beerstube in front of the Köln Cathedral, when Ben remarked, "This cathedral is quite old, you know. It has catacombs, escape tunnels, many buried secrets and relics dating back to Roman times." I looked at the two steeples and remembered from the flight charts that they tower to a height of 700 feet.

"Did you notice the marks of bomb fragments on the two stone steeples?" asked Ben.

The year was 1980; thirty-five years since the end of the war, yet several war-damaged buildings were still to be seen. "We were very careful not to bomb the cathedral," Ben added. He had been a flight Leader in the Royal Air Force and had flown the Lancaster bombers for his majesty.

"How is that?" I asked. "Don't tell me you had a religious conscience."
"Not at all" said Ben "The two tall steeples of the cathedral usually protruded out of the stagnant morning smog giving us a positive position update for further bombing or returning home. The congested anti-aircraft German guns were in several strategic spots around the town and the Rhine; the cathedral enabled our navigator to avoid the guns. Thanks to those steeples, the Germans never got us.”

With this, Ben launched into his story:
"The squadron policy was to keep the same crew together; my navigator, my engineer, my bomb aimer, and my radio operator were always the same people, though the gunners were not a part of the permanent crew. The boys called us 'the lucky bastards'. The average number of missions per crew never exceeded 31. My crew and I flew over a hundred sorties. As I once said to an outsider, it looked like we were lucky. In fact, we were very lucky, but for a different reason.

Our crew’s charm, and in my opinion, the reason for our survival was our genius navigator. Before the war, he had been a postgraduate mathematician working on his PhD in Oxford.
He was a man with an unbelievably fast and accurate analytical brain, and a photographic memory to boot. One scan over the intelligence report charts was enough for him to memorize all the coordinates of the anti-aircraft batteries, and the temporary Luftwaffe bases. Another short scan of the weather reports and he remembered the synoptic charts, the location of the storms, the fog and the wind. He usually managed to take us to the targets from an unexpected direction, and the headings he gave me after our bombing missions avoided all anti-aircraft fire. Sometimes he took us so low that we flew on the deck, almost touching the meadows.
By the way, he was a Jew. In fact, he and I were the only Jews in our base’s four squadrons.

One winter morning our target was the Central Train Station of Köln, the one not far from where we sit now. Many of the German industries were situated along the Rhine and this train station served them. That day there was stagnant fog over the Rhine valley, up to a level of 600 to 700 feet. It was a very good day to approach the targets. We were invisible to the anti-aircraft guns, and could therefore ‘lay our eggs’ from a low level, right onto the target. The tip of the two protruding steeples gave us a very good indication of the location of the train workshop. That day I was leading a flight of four Lancaster's in close formation. We stayed together while dropping the bombs. The target was small and I did not want to risk a second bombing run.

After releasing our payload, our tail gunner spotted five Messerschmitt interceptors behind us, diving towards our tail. My navigator immediately took control and instructed me: 'Fly to the steeples, over the cathedral steer to heading 360 degrees. Descend to flight level 500 feet and increase your speed to 230 knots.' He continued: 'No 2 follow us, maintain speed 215 knots flight level 470'.' He instructed the other two planes accordingly and within less than 20 seconds we all were in the fog, flying in line one after the other with speed and altitude separation.

I trusted him with my life. The ‘sonofabitch’ flew us into the fog for one full hour. He knew our location every given second. He knew there would be no drift, as there is no wind in this kind of weather. He knew of every obstacle along the valley. He also knew that the Germans would wait for us on route home over the sea, where there is no fog. However, he took us all the way up to Borkum Island. Funnily enough, it was a German island. Who would believe we would escape into German territory.

It was a nerve-breaking hour that I'll never forget. As I said I trusted my navigator, I knew how he thinks and I knew how he works. He tuned our 'direction finder' to civil radio stations for which he remembered their exact location. With this information and his unbelievable quick brain, he could tell our position at any time.

The rest of the crew had no idea what he was doing and were scared to death. They did not say a word. My engineer was sweating heavily and nervously sliding back and forth on his seat for no reason. The radio operator, very agitated, got up every 30 seconds to look through the cockpit windows into the fog. With the British Air Force discipline and hierarchy I am not sure if their silence was because they were afraid of me or of the situation. The navigator on the other hand was cool, calm and very professional. He didn’t say one unnecessary word.

The heavy breathing of the crew consumed all the oxygen and what we breathed at the end was contaminated lung tickling smog. After a tense-full hour, my navigator suddenly announced:
'In five minutes we will be out of the fog, gunners wake up and watch out.'
Four minutes later, we saw the Borkum Island in front of us. 'Take heading 270 degrees. Descend 200 feet. Resume normal speed.' He than gave instructions to the other three planes, directing them to close into a formation.

We turned westbound before we were over the island and soon we were over the North Sea. We entered England way up north far away from our base, but also far away from the German fighters that were waiting for us in the channel. During this saga, we kept radio silence. The first time we used the radio was about fifty miles from the English coast. We landed almost two hours later than planned. For Bomber Command, we were already lost in action. It was a happy day for my people, but not so for the squadron. Two Lancaster's had been shot down and both crews were missing. We lost two more Lancaster's when they were too crippled to fly home and had to land on the shoreline not far from Brighton. The crews survived with little injuries.

During the debriefing, our Squadron Leader screamed at me and at my navigator. it was not clear why he was screaming when in fact he should be happy we are back.
'Why didn't the radio operator 'Morse' to base?' he shouted. With a very straight face, I answered ‘Damn it sir we were so frightened and I could not risk the radio operator’s shaking hands on the 'Morse' key. The Squadron Leader did not take the joke well. Rather he increased his volume and threatened us with court martial. "I'll discuss it with the wing commander," he said, "and may be we will separate the two of you." The cold-blooded navigation officer, to further annoy the Squadron Leader said: "We did our job sir; we hit the targets and came back safely, in one piece." Then he added innocently, 'Did the other four Lancaster hit the target sir?' The Squadron Leader, looked like he was going to explode. He made a sharp turn and left without answering.

We did not need to get an answer from him, as we already knew they had dumped the bombs, just to get rid of the heavy load when they were attacked. The Germans had been waiting for them over the sea and had shot them all. Two crews had survived.

Later on, the surviving crews that had landed in Brighton arrived back at the base after getting medical treatment. Those people were welcomed like heroes. "They had crashed and yet still managed to walk away from the wreckage on their own feet." A real achievement and a wonderful forced landing on the shoreline pebbles," said the Squadron Leader in his speech during the party they gave the survivors. The wing Commanding Officer authorized liquor and even champagne.

My crew and the crews of the other three planes under my command were not invited. I was angry about this and decided to join the party uninvited and talk to the StationWing Commander. I got to him after his blood was well diluted. As a good friend of my father, he was always willing to listen to me. He and my dad had gone together to Eton. I told him my version of the story and he was very attentive. "Disregard the court-martial threat". He said and dismissed me.

"Just watch your step. One day, you'll make a mistake and I’ll get both of you!" said the squadron commander after reluctantly assigning us to fly together again. Everything returned to normal except for one thing, my Flight Lieutenant the navigator was never seen again in the officers club and did not socialize with anyone. Nobody liked successful Jews. After that incident, we flew together about thirty more missions, and never had even one bullet hole in our planes.

The war ended a few months later. On the day, Germany surrendered, at the victory party I spoke again to the Station Wing Commander and suggested that he give citations to the crews with the maximum sorties. He agreed and assigned twenty people to research the logbooks, my crew and I were the aces of all of Royal Air Force bomber squadrons. King George the sixth gave us the medals in person. My navigator sent his medal to the squadron commander with a note saying something like: "We stayed alive despite your lousy command." There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the Air Force at that time. Even the Air Attaché to the British Embassy in Washington, was a notorious anti-Semite.

Open mouthed I listened to Ben's story until I suddenly interrupted him. "What happened to your navigator?" I asked
"I don't know," said Ben "He was originally from Czechoslovakia who studied in England. After the war, he went back to Prague to look for his family and found nobody. I kept in touch with him for a year and lost track of him after that. In 1948, I volunteered to serve in the Israeli Air Force and fought in the War of Independence. I flew the Mosquito, became a wing commander, I tried to find him with my contacts but had no luck."
"What was the name of your navigator?" I asked.
“Sam, Samuel Cohen was his name.”
"Wow" I said very much excited, "I suspected that much from your story, if I am not mistaken your navigator Sam Cohen is in Israel and I even know his address in Jerusalem."
"What? How come you know him?" he asked surprised.

"Sam Cohen was my English teacher in high school from 1950 to 1952. At that time, I was already interested in aviation and even learned to fly gliders. When Sam Cohen heard about it, he made me spell words like, atmosphere, altitude, sound barrier, dead-reckoning, wind-component and more. One day he saw me at a library in his neighbourhood and invited me for tea at his home. He showed me a navigation calculator and a shiny sextant he took out of a wooden box. He explained to me how it was used but did not say a single word about his military service or his flight experience."

A few months after the beer at the beerstubbe in Köln, Ben retired. Since that afternoon in Köln, I had made plans to bring the two ex RAF officers together for a surprise meeting at my home. "A retirement party for Ben sounds like a good idea" I said to my friends. My plan was to screen a movie about the Royal Air Force and the Battle of Britain, to have live baroque chamber music, which I knew they both liked, and to listen to their stories. Sam still lived in the same house. When I called, I got his daughter who arranged the meeting.

She greeted me at the door.
"He is not in" she said "he will be back soon, come in please."
I told her the purpose of my visit. She was very surprised
"Did he ever tell you his war time stories or speak of his flying experiences?
"No" she said, "not about the war and not even about his parents and the sister he lost.
I felt it was my duty to tell her word for word what Ben Feldman had told me. I explained to her the burden of the responsibility and the need of internal strength, to fly a flight of four Lancaster's in a fog with almost zero visibility. "Your father was a decorated hero; he got his citation from King George in person." I said at the end of my story.
I could see the tears in her eyes. She was sobbing quietly. "He never spoke about the four years he was in the army." She said. "Until today I didn't even know he was an officer. He never kept in touch with his Air Force friends and no one ever came to visit. You are the first one to uncover that hidden part of my father's life. Thank you so much."

It did not go so smoothly with Sam. First, he did not remember me. When he did, he did not want to participate with anything related to the Royal Air Force. Only after I had reminded him of the escape into the fog, and how Ben Feldman described him he agreed to come'

Sam and Ben challenged each other and told stories using the Air Force language and the slang of the forties. Ben told us that without Sam, the navigator, they would never have lived to attend this party. He also told us that from all of the recruits who had joined the squadron in 1941, only five people had made it to the end of the war: “ Sam, the navigator, my radio operator, my engineer, my bomb aimer and myself."

At some point I brought them back to the steeples and the escape in the fog.
Why didn't you 'Morse' home any messages? I said.
They looked at each other and started to laugh as if I had told a joke.
"Sending a message was very dangerous" said Sam. "Very very dangerous."
"Why?" I asked. 'Nobody could intercept an HF transmitter.'
Yes, you're right, but communication meant getting orders and disobeying orders in war time meant court-martial. Obeying orders on the other hand meant putting your life in the hands of some jerk in the command post who couldn’t assess your condition."

The evening was concluded with a long speech by Ben.
"In the squadron we were known as the 'old-peoples-home recruits.' We were five years older than the rest of the pilots. Nobody older than 26 was still flying. We did not explain why or how we survived. Had we explained it; nobody would have believed it. We kept it to ourselves, even my engineer and my radio operator did not always understand what Sam and I were doing. Many times I followed Sam's directions without understanding his logic myself. As you see, we are still here.
I said in the beginning of this meeting, and I will repeat it again I owe my life to Flight Lieutenant Cohen.

That evening at my place allowed Sam to finally live with his past, in peace. The four buried years of his Air Force service had come to life. The bond between Sam and his daughter tightened as she started to write down his stories.
Bringing Sam and Ben together again, after so many years was my greatest reward.

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