Ted ‘the lad’ Cachart relives his Bomber Command days

15 October 2013 15:55

Ted tells us: "We were no longer individuals, we were a unit"

Recently Ted Cachart shared his experiences with us about his passion for the RAF and his days in the service.

At around 2.30am on 3rd January 1944, Ted Cachart was alone in a forest in Northern Germany - cold, soaked to the skin and with severe cramp in his left leg from a knee injury. A member of Bomber Command he had parachuted from the remains of his Lancaster during a bombing mission to Berlin.

Ted Cachart said: "I wanted to join the RAF, rather than be conscripted into the Army or Navy, as it seemed the best option to me. It also appealed as the RAF were known as the Brylcreem boys in those days and believed to be more attractive to the young ladies. There was a poster, which the MOD denies existed, that showed a young woman kissing an Airman and a queue of young women waiting to kiss him. The slogan read: 'The girls will queue for the boys in blue.' And I wanted to be a boy in blue!"

In 1941, although only 15 years of age, to ensure he became one of the boys in blue Ted went to his local Recruiting Office where he was told he couldn't volunteer until he was 17¼, with his parents' consent. He took the forms home and asked his father and a priest to sign them, telling them: 'It's just to make sure I get into the RAF'. No lies passed his young lips! Ted sent the signed forms off having entered his birth year as 1923 rather than 1925.

In April he attended a medical examination board at Edgware Hospital and was passed as A1. In May he was told to report to Oxford University, where, with others, he took a written exam, followed by an interview with the Air Crew Selection Board. Only too aware of his young age Ted declined to train as a pilot and trained as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. He was then sworn in and on 13th May 1941, a month before his 16th birthday, he became a member of the RAF.

Ted continued: "I turned 16 in June and received my call up papers in October. My father was quite annoyed, but when I told him I knew he had joined the Army underage in the First World War, he accepted and said: 'OK, but I'll bet you'll want me to get you out by the time Christmas comes.'

"After completion of training in Wireless and Gunnery I was promoted to Sergeant and proudly sewed on an Air Gunners Brevet and three stripes. I am sure I swaggered home for 10 days leave. Further training followed when I joined with four others to be a crew. They were Flying Officer Johnny Young, Pilot. Pilot Officer Jack Scott, Navigator, both Canadians in the RCAF. Pilot Officer Les Orchard, Bomb Aimer. Sergeant Len Crossman, Rear Gunner. Like myself, all three in the RAF. Two months later we added Flight Sergeant Allen Vidow, Flight Engineer, RAF and Australian Sergeant 'Spud' Mahony, Mid Upper Gunner in the RAAF. As a group we would sleep, eat and play together. We were no longer individuals, we were a unit. It was quite natural to go to the cinema together where we would sit all seven in a row. It made us confident that each person would do their job to the best of their ability."

On 13th October 1943 they were posted to 49 Squadron at RAF Fiskerton near Lincoln City, as part of Base 52 in 5 Group, Bomber Command.

With excitement in his voice Ted continued: "I can only speak for myself when I say what it was like to go on an operation with Bomber Command, and I can honestly say that it was something very special. It was never 'Oh we're on ops' said in a gloomy tone, it was always 'Hey we're on ops tonight!' It started with our regular WAAF driver, Dot Everett, who drove us to our Lancaster, EA-N (NAN), or Nancy Pants as Dot renamed her. The adrenaline kicked in as you thought about the target, the number of night fighters, and if there would be heavy flak and searchlights. It was incredibly exciting.

"During an operation I would stand with my head in the Astrodome as I listened to the radio on a long lead, while also acting as an extra pair of eyes. I can only say it was like watching an exciting film, as everything was going on outside, not in our Lancaster. At least not until our final op! The most critical time in any bombing operation is the last few minutes as the pilot flies the aircraft straight and level at a fixed speed to allow the Bomb Aimer to adjust his bombsight and give instructions for alignment. I am sure we all held our breath until the magic words 'bombs gone'. Targets were bombed on a number of occasions when approaches were made from different directions to ensure that the entire target was attacked. Our approach to the target was via a turning point some 60 miles north of Berlin. As we dropped our starboard wing to turn onto the new course, another aircraft, which had already turned, flew straight into our starboard wing, which snapped off close to the inboard engine. As I looked from the Astrodome I saw part of our aircraft disappear.

"In the collision I lost my helmet and oxygen mask and at that height, if you're lucky, you have about two minutes before you pass out through lack of oxygen. I worked my way along the darkened fuselage and saw both gunners standing at the open door. I couldn't talk to them and don't remember if they gave me the thumbs up to bail out. I do know I sat on the steps and rolled out. I don't remember pulling the rip cord; I just remember descending in the chute. I could have been court marshalled for having abandoned the aircraft without permission. At that moment I was more concerned to see the aircraft fly away into the clouds, perhaps back home, than what lay ahead of me in Germany below.

"Then my thought was 'how do I keep warm?' as I was frozen. The temperature was probably around 300 below that night. It was a snowy, windy night with 75mph winds. I wished desperately that I'd chosen another role as the other crew members had thick jackets, sweaters and gloves. I just wore battledress and boots as mine was the hottest seat in the aircraft. As I looked down I saw a black area among the clouds and thought I was coming into clear air. But my feet crashed through the branches of a tree and I hung there from the parachute straps in the darkness and pouring ran as I tried to work out how far I was from the ground. Eventually I managed to swing over and grab the tree trunk with my legs; I then released the parachute harness and slid about three feet to the ground."

The impact of the landing injured Ted's knee and made it difficult to walk. He has no memory of how long he struggled through the forest, but he eventually found a remote farmhouse.

Ted continued: "I sat on the doorstep and banged on the door. Someone shouted at me to go away. I kept on banging using the handle of my sheath knife. Eventually a woman opened the door. I held the knife up to her, holding it by the blade to show I meant her no harm. She took it from me, helped me up and inside and into a downstairs bedroom where her husband was in bed. He didn't want to know I was there. She sat me in a chair and gave me a towel to dry myself with; she put a blanket round my shoulders and took a piece of wood from the tree out of my hand and bathed and bandaged it. The bandage on my knee was now too tight and as I struggled to loosen it she took over, removed it and re-bandaged my knee. She gave me a cup of cold coffee and although we didn't speak each other's language we made ourselves understood. I learnt that her son had been killed onboard a U-boat. There was a photograph of him on the mantelshelf with a piece of black ribbon round it. I believe she treated me the way she would have wanted her son to be treated had he been captured."

A car arrived and Ted was taken to the local Burgermeister's house where he was briefly interviewed, before he was taken to a nearby Luftwaffe base.

Clearly remembering the time Ted said: "The German Sergeant in the Guard Room let me sit by a fire and shared his rations with me in the early hours of the morning before he locked me in a cell when he went off duty. Later five officers entered and one tapped me on the shoulder and said 'Liverpool fünf times' and another said, 'London acht times'. Another, who spoke good English, put his hand on my shoulder and said 'You're a very lucky young man as your war is over. We have to fight on'. Looking back there was no animosity. They were no different to us; they were just doing the job they were told to do. There was great respect between the RAF and the Luftwaffe.

"I was eventually taken to Trollenhagen Airbase where I was interrogated by the Commanding Officer who asked why I carried a sheath knife. When I told him it was to puncture the tins of orange juice that we drank on operations he said 'You took drink on operations?' He was even more incredulous when I told him it was to wash down the sandwiches and cakes we ate on ops. Needless to say they confiscated the knife. All our crew were brought in one at a time until we were all seven together."

The Commissioned Officers, the Pilot, Navigator and Bomb Aimer were sent to Stalag Luft III, which was the camp of the great escape, where 50 PoWs were executed. Ted and the other NCOs went to Stalag IV-B near Mühlberg, to the south of Berlin. After two months Ted was sent to Dulag Luft for further interrogation when some new radio equipment was discovered in the wreckage of the Lancaster. He was then sent to Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug, on the borders of Lithuania and later moved to Toruʼn in Poland and then to Fallingbostel in Western Germany.

Ted was repatriated in 1945 and continued to Serve in the Royal Air Force until 1949, and for a further six years as a reserve. On his tie below an embroidered Lancaster, he wears the pin badge of a prisoner of war and the small gold caterpillar clasp of the Caterpillar Club that is given to those whose life has been saved by an Irving Parachute. Now he has his Bomber Command clasp, which he wears on his 1939 to 1945 Star.

Asked about the Bomber Command Memorial, Ted said: "It's finally politically acceptable to recognise Bomber Command. Winston Churchill turned his back on Bomber Command at the end of the war when he made no mention of us in his post war speech. From then onwards Bomber Command was a political hot potato. No-one wanted to be seen to do anything to recognise it. It took more than 60 years to get the Memorial. The Bomber Command Association, along with Robin Gibb of the BeeGees and others started a campaign, which was supported very strongly by the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express, and with their help £5 million was raised in two years. The memorial was unveiled by Her Majesty The Queen in 2012 and I had the honour to be there.

"I have feelings of both sadness and pleasure when I visit the Bomber Command Memorial as I remember the comrades who failed to return and those I Served with who did. I think of the 55,573 who made the ultimate sacrifice, 25,000 of whom flew from Lincolnshire. I hope the Memorial will make people appreciate the sacrifices they made. At long last we have been given the Bomber Command Clasp and I wear mine with a great deal of pride, but I just wish it had been given many years ago."

When asked how Blind Veterans UK has helped him Ted said: "I have really benefited meeting and becoming friends with people with similar difficulties. The care and attention from the staff, who are extremely helpful is wonderful, especially my Welfare Officer, Alison Molloy. In the near future I plan to go to the Sheffield centre for further computer training."

Following the sad news of Ted's recent death his book will be available for sale from his niece. We will bring you an update.