Australian WWII Bomber Pilot Recounts Harrowing First Mission

Leonard Bence flew Lancaster bombers for the Royal Australian Air Force in WWII. He recently recounted his first mission over Germany during a trip to Canberra to see the plane he flew, after all these years.

The Lancaster bombers played a critical role in the war.

“It was very emotional because I was there looking at it when the lighting was on it, [like] in the actual raids,” said Bence, 92, of the trip to see the bomber, G for George.

“It brought back so many memories.”

Inside G for George of No. 460 Squadron RAAF. Lancaster pilot at the controls, left, flight engineer at right. Photo Credit.
Inside G for George,  No. 460 Squadron RAAF. Lancaster pilot at the controls, left, flight engineer at right. Photo Credit.

Bence became a pilot in 1942 because he did not wish to be a soldier and seasickness kept him from being a sailor. His first mission was his worst of the entire war.

“My navigator made a bad error, and we were 20 minutes late,” he said. “If you’re 20 minutes late, you’re supposed to drop your bomb somewhere and go home, but I felt so ashamed about [not going] over the target on [my] first trip that I said, ‘We’re going over.’

“It just looks like hell below; everything’s in flames.

“Three master search lights came on, the blue automatic search lights, and then all the others came on me and then it really started.

Bomb aimer in his position in the nose.
Bomb aimer in his position in the nose.

“I got 33 holes in me, we dropped our bombs and then our bomb bay couldn’t close and that slowed us up, and then two fighters came up and attacked us.”

They made it back to base, but the experience shook him. There were thousands of Allied airmen lost during the bombing campaign over Germany and occupied Europe, to Nazi fighter planes and heavy anti-aircraft fire.  However, this did not stop the bomber crews from going on regular missions over Germany.

The veteran recalls the dangers of those times.

“I do remember saying when I got back to the boss, ‘If they’re all like this, I’m not going to last very long,’” he said. “But fortunately they weren’t quite as bad as that.”

Avro Lancaster over Hamburg.
Avro Lancaster over Hamburg.

Bence has fond memories overall of the Lancaster bombers. “They’re a wonderful plane to fly,” he said. “They don’t seem unwieldy like they might on the ground, you know, they were very maneuverable and a really lovely plane to fly.

The Lancaster was one of the aircraft that helped the allies to win the war.

Mr. Bence was asked about what he thought about the war – and he gave a surprising response.

“I loved every minute of it.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE