Pilot, leader, artist, actor, presenter, author – Sqn Ldr Jack Currie could turn his hand to almost anything...
It was only the RAF bomber crew’s fifth mission, when they flew into a brutal storm over their target: Hamburg. The Lancaster was being thrown around violently, and the pilot also had to contend with the intense anti-aircraft bombardment from below.
Then, without warning, through his control column, the pilot suddenly felt something ‘give’. His aircraft was thrown onto its back, dropping into a steep, uncontrolled dive. Through the chaos, he watched 10,000ft quickly wind off his altimeter, and he ordered the crew to prepare to bail out, but, just at that moment, he managed to regain some control and pulled up the Lanc’s nose.
Now in level flight, the pilot realised he had little control over the track of the aircraft. He could change the angle the bomber was pointing, but, with no ability to bank it, he couldn’t change the direction of flight. He was essentially ‘drifting’ the huge bomber diagonally across the sky.
Remaining surprisingly calm for his 21 years, the pilot remembered his recent training regarding the principles of flight, and realised that he could bank his plane by increasing the torque to the outer engine propellor, to lift the wing. Using this rudimentary control, he turned the plane for home –a distant 420 miles away.
The plane rocked and rolled across northern Germany and the North Sea – the crew praying that nothing else would break and that their ‘lame duck’ Lanc wouldn’t encounter any enemy fighters. The exhausted pilot fought with the pitch and yaw control all the way, and, after the longest four hours of their flying careers, the airmen reached England. As they crossed the coast, the pilot again advised his crew to prepare to bail out.
“What are you going to do?” asked the rear-gunner.
“I’m going to put her down… but I might make a balls of it,” the pilot replied.
“No you won’t,” came the response. “This is your lucky night. We’re staying on board.”
As they approached RAF Wickenby, near Lincoln, with almost no control, the Lancaster somehow lined up on the runway, but its wings were rhythmically rocking up and down, and, to avoid stalling, the pilot had to keep the speed high. However, he had calculated that, while he couldn’t control the movement of the wings, he could time it. Coming in fast and low, the huge tyres hammered into the tarmac at the very moment the plane achieved a level stance. They were home, safe and sound.
“Not one of your better landings,” noted the Station Commander at the ensuing debrief.
“No, sir. If I’d known you were watching, I would have tried harder,” responded the pilot.
Shortly afterwards, the Commander learned that the landing had been performed with no ailerons or flap control – the wing control surfaces having been ripped off entirely in the Hamburg storm. By rights, that Lancaster should now be a smouldering wreck, somewhere in northern Germany. He immediately recommended the pilot for a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, though this was rejected. The airman would have to wait a while for his ‘day in the sun’.
Meeting the man
Fast-forward 47 years to 6pm on an autumnal Monday in 1990. It was my first day in a new job – barman at The George Hotel in Easingwold, North Yorkshire. As I prepped the pumps, a well-spoken chap arrived, perched on a stool at the end of the bar, ordered a pint of bitter, placed it to one side, plonked a large notebook in front of him and started writing in it. As the pub began to fill up, the pint was left to sit there, temptingly. Meanwhile, no one approached the mystery man.
Then, after exactly one hour, he put down his pen, closed his notebook and took a well-earned sip of his beer.
Instantly, other locals gravitated towards that end of the bar –a corner decorated with pictures of Lancaster bombers. The banter began – the writer’s genteel tones resonated around the room, and stood out from the sturdy Yorkshire brogue of his affable drinking partners.
I soon learned that this was former World War Two pilot, Sqn Ldr Jack Currie DFC, and this routine was to be repeated night after night – the writer regaling the locals with tales of derring-do in his booming RAF officer timbre. It transpired that Jack Currie also wrote books (hence the notepad and routine) and contributed to television programmes on the subject.
Back to the future
Jump forward another 30 years, and I now find myself editing FlyPast magazine, and, as we started planning this Bomber Command anniversary special, Jack Currie sprang to mind. I decided that the Lancaster-flying, beer-quaffing bon-viveur required further investigation.
It turned out, as a local told me, that after surviving a perilous 30-sortie Lancaster tour, Jack’s penchant for unfiltered cigarettes might have got the better of him.
Having bravely flown a Lancaster through walls of flak, and weather fair and foul, I guess people telling you that smoking is bad for your health must have been water off a duck’s back… Jack ‘took off’ for a better place in 1996.
John Anthony Logan Currie, known to all and sundry as Jack, was born in Sheffield a century ago on December 7, 1921.
At the outbreak of World War Two, Jack, then aged just 17, volunteered to serve in the RAF, scoring highly in his aptitude tests. While he awaited his call up, he volunteered as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver in Blitzscarred London.
Finally, in 1941, he received his call-up papers – initially learning to fly Tiger Moths at RAF Ansty in Warwickshire, before shipping out to Georgia in the USA for pilot training under the Arnold Scheme.
“The rear gunner held strong views, telling Jack: ‘Grog and flying don’t mix’. Currie agreed, which was just as well, as Lanham had punched his previous pilot for drinking too close to take-off”
Jack Currie was not the perfect student, almost getting himself expelled for flying too low, and then unknowingly out-f lying the base’s chief instructor. However, Jack's ‘above-average’ pilot skills meant that he retained his place, by the skin of his teeth.
Despite his penchant for hedge hopping, Jack was offered a commission in return for staying on in Georgia as an instructor. However, he was desperate to get back to England and fight for King and Country, so he graciously declined the offer. So as not to insult the Americans, he told them that he felt too young, at the age of 20, to be an officer.
Shortly afterwards, he returned to England – it was late 1942. Back in dear old Blighty, Jack was posted to Bomber Command as a Sergeant Pilot and received further training at a Heavy Conversion Unit. It was here that all the aircrew were put in a large hangar and invited to divide themselves into seven-man crews. Jack and a navigator, Jimmy Cassidy, met first, then they ‘found’ the other members. No doubt Jack’s flying record and gregarious nature would have attracted many. In the end, his flight crew was Pilot Officer Jimmy Cassidy as navigator;
Sergeant Charles Lanham, rear gunner; Flight Sergeant Larry Myring, bomb aimer; Sergeant Charlie Fairbairn, wireless operator; Sergeant Johnny Walker, flight engineer; and Sergeant George Protheroe, mid upper gunner. Cassidy, Myring and Lanham were Aussies, the rest Brits – all were on their first operational tour, bar Lanham, who had nine sorties under his belt in a previous posting.
The rear gunner held strong views on drinking and flying, telling Jack: “Grog and flying don’t mix – and I aim to survive this war.” Currie agreed, which was just as well, as Lanham had punched his previous pilot for drinking too close to take off – he was put on six-month’s disciplinary duty.
In June 1943, Jack and his crew were posted to RAF Wickenby near Lincoln and furnished with an Avro Lancaster.
As a ‘sprog crew’ – one still in training – they knew that they only had a one-in-three chance of completing a 30-sortie tour. After five successful missions, those odds lengthened to ‘evens’, but the likelihood of survival never improved on that.
These dreadful statistics meant that superstition was rife: “For luck, some crew wore their girlfriend’s underwear around their neck when they flew,” said Jack, in an interview. “Pretty unhygienic some of that stuff.”
Just before his first trip, he’d seen a notice in the locker room: ‘Hand your locker key into the NCO before you depart’. When he enquired why this was the case, he was coolly informed that it was to save them having to break into the locker if he didn’t return. “Oh, no,” retorted Jack, “I’m coming back, alright.” And he kept that locker key with him throughout the war and long afterwards.
In reality, of course, bravery, skill, faith and determination, would only get a Bomber Command pilot so far. Thousands of supremely talented airmen lost their lives through no fault of their own, and, at the end of the day, Lady Luck had to play her part. “The thing that kept me pretty cheerful throughout,” said Jack, “was confidence in the aeroplane and the crew.”
Shortly after their arrival at Wickenby, as part of 12 Squadron’s ‘C’ Flight, Sgt Pilot Currie acted as second pilot on a mission to Cologne with Flt Lt Benjamin McLaughlin DFC, before, three days later, re-joining his crew for their first mission aboard DB200 F-for-Freddie 2. The mission? Laying mines in the Bay of Biscay.
Afterwards began the routine of regular operations with 12 Squadron. That August, Jack was commissioned as a Pilot Officer.
After missions to Mannheim and Milan, on the night of 17/18 August, Currie’s crew was tasked with bombing Peenemünde –a secret facility where, they were told, night-fighter aircraft were being manufactured. Of course, it later transpired that deadly V-2 long-range rockets were really being developed there. This target was heavily defended, and F-for-Freddie was attacked four times by night fighters. Bomber Command lost 40 aircraft on that mission, but V-2 development was set back two months.
For bomber crews, threats to their safety didn’t just come decorated with Balkenkreuz. Jack explained that some missions were: “Lots more trouble. We lost a couple of engines on fire, lost a few chunks in a thunderstorm, ran out of fuel, ran out of oxygen, got lost – all that stuff.”
On November 7, 12 Squadron’s ‘C’ Flight became part of a new 626 Squadron at Wickenby, due to the expansion of Bomber Command.
Tail gunner Lanham ended his tour nine sorties ahead of his fellow crew members, and, as the others got close to their 30th mission, they began to believe they could make it, too.
“After missions to Mannheim and Milan, on the night of 17/18 August, Currie’s crew was tasked with bombing Peenemünde –a secret facility where, they were told, night-fighter aircraft were being manufactured”
Their penultimate mission, though, was destined to be ‘The Big City’: Berlin, the heavily defended jewel in the Nazi crown. Having survived that, Jack and co hoped for a quiet ‘retirement flight’. They were to be disappointed. When they were sent back to Berlin, Jack complained vehemently, but to no avail. Their final tour flight would be to the German capital again.
Weather, winds and cloud base all had to be memorised, then they synchronised watches on the leader’s mark, before 100s of aircraft, weighing almost 30 tons each, headed east.
Fortune was on their side once more, and, in February 1944, the crew of F-for-Freddie completed its first Tour.
After Wickenby, Jack qualified as an instructor on the Handley Page Halifax bomber, training mainly Polish pilots to fly it at RAF Blyton in Lincolnshire, then RAF Sandtoft, Yorkshire. Following that, he was reassigned to fly Mosquitos in the Pathfinder Force of the 1409 Meteorological Flight, which is where he ended the war.
After the war
As Britain reverted to a peacetime status, Jack received a permanent RAF commission, serving at RAF Lindholme in Yorkshire, RAF West Kirkby in Cheshire, RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire, before retiring with the rank of Squadron Leader in 1964.
Following roles as a Civil Defence Officer and an airshow organiser, Jack took up a position at the Home Defence College in 1975 and moved to Easingwold, which is where I met him.
He retired in 1986, but as he had always felt that the aircrews of Bomber Command had never received the recognition they deserved, he began writing books, recording his and other crews’ experiences. In all, he authored seven tomes.
These brought him to the attention of the BBC, for whom he fronted several TV documentaries on the subject. He was also privileged to pilot the Lancaster for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
As you walk around various aviation museums or peruse YouTube, you’ll come across Jack’s writing, and his eloquent tones reverberating from video screens. His carefully crafted scripts delivering the vicarious experience of what it was like to fly for Bomber Command, and to live a World War Two airman’s life. It’s fascinating stuff.
When all is said and done, Sqn Ldr Jack Currie had an exemplary flying record and went on to do many amazing things in peacetime, excelling as a singer, cartoonist, writer, presenter and husband. But, looking back at a life well lived, perhaps his greatest achievement was the work he did to keep alive the memory of his fellow Bomber Command aircrew. Especially the 55,573 who didn’t make it home.
Grateful thanks to Kate Currie, Jack’s wife, for her warm hospitality, and assistance in creating this feature.