A lucky bomber with a particularly unlucky name
In the early months of the RAF bomber offensive against Germany, the men of Bomber Command suffered heavy losses at the hands of Luftwaffe air and ground defences. Flying the Handley Page Halifax bomber, RAF No. 158 Squadron at Lissett airfield in East Yorkshire were not to escape these punishing losses and had seen a large number of crews fail to return from operations during 1943 and into 1944. Highlighting the terrible dangers the crews were facing, 158 Squadron had lost a succession of aircraft carrying the registration ‘F for Freddie’ over this period and it was beginning to affect morale of aircrew on the station. No fewer than seven aircraft carrying the letter ‘F’ had been lost during this period and some crews were becoming so superstitious that they simply refused to fly one of these F coded aircraft. As the latest ‘F for Freddie’ replacement aircraft arrived at Lissett (carrying serial number LV907), many of the crews stationed on the base were determined to avoid the aircraft like the plague.
Despite the sentiments surrounding Lissett based ‘F for Freddie’ Halifax aircraft, LV907 was to prove to be a much luckier aircraft right from its first bombing mission. On the night of 30th March 1944, LV907 was due to fly a mission against targets in the German city of Nuremberg with the rest of No.158 Squadron, but as yet, it did not have an assigned crew. Pilot Joe Hitchman was on a rest day, but this maximum effort had resulted in him being called in to take part in the raid – his usual aircraft ‘G for George’ would be flown by his Squadron Leader on that night, which left him flying the newly delivered LV907 ‘F for Freddie’, with something of a scratch crew – they would clearly be rather concerned at this unfortunate development.
As the crew of LV907 sped down the runway at RAF Lissett bound for Nuremberg, they would have been working almost by instinct, to ensure that everything on the aircraft was as it should be – if they had any time for reflection, they would surely have allowed themselves to be drawn to the terrible fate that had befallen the Squadrons previous ‘F’ marked aircraft. It was too late now, they were on their way to the target.
The Nuremberg raid of 30th/31st March 1944 proved to be particularly costly for Bomber Command. Despite a brilliant full moon, military planners had been assured of significant cloud cover over Europe by the met men, which would help to protect their bombers against potential Luftwaffe nightfighter attacks whilst over Europe – ordinarily, operations during a full moon would not be risked for this specific reason. Later reconnaissance information obtained by a meteorological flight Mosquito confirmed that the cloud cover over Germany was almost non-existent, but despite this critical piece of information, the raid was still authorised to take place. A force of 795 aircraft were sent to attack Nuremberg in bright moonlight, with very little cloud cover – as the formations crossed the coast of Belgium, the German nightfighters were waiting and conditions could not be better for them.
The raid was disastrous for Bomber Command. No fewer than 95 aircraft were lost, which represents an 11.9% loss rate and proved to be one of the highest Bomber Command attrition rates of the entire war. Tragically, when you consider that each of these aircraft had a crew of seven men, the magnitude of this terrible situation is difficult to comprehend – how on earth did the brave men of Bomber Command recover from something like this?
It was under these devastating circumstances that the so called unlucky LV907 ‘F for Freddie’ managed to bring its crew home from the carnage of the moonlit Nuremberg raid and from this date, started one of the most interesting bomber stories of the entire war. As pilot Joe Hitchman checked in for de-brief following his landing back at Lissett, he learned the terrible news that his usual aircraft ‘G for George’, which had been flown by his Squadron Leader, had failed to return from the raid.
A new crew for ‘F for Freddie’
As the latest 158 Squadron Halifax to arrive at RAF Lissett wearing the jinxed ‘F’ code, LV907 sat on the airfield awaiting allocation of a new crew. Understandably, many of the stations crews were extremely apprehensive at the possibility of flying this particular bomber, but it would have to be flown and someone was going to have to do it. The aircraft was given to the charge of Pilot Officer Cliff Smith and his crew and Smith knew exactly what he had to do. Being a no nonsense sort of chap, who did not really subscribe to superstitious thinking, he decided that he was going to take this jinx head on and break it once and for all. He had a new name painted on the port side of the bomber, specifically designed to take on the ‘F’ curse – he christened LV907 ‘Friday the 13th’. Not content with this, he also included artwork which depicted the Grim Reaper, in the form of a skull and crossbones, positioned under a scythe and also an upside down horseshoe. The final piece of artwork proved to be a step too far – he also included a painted ladder above the crew access hatch, meaning that the crew would have to symbolically walk under a ladder every time they got into the aircraft. This was just too much and base commanders ordered its removal.
The naming of Halifax LV907 ‘Friday the 13th’ proved to be an inspirational move and the aircraft went on to be one of the luckiest bombers of the entire war. For the remaining months of WWII, ‘Friday the 13th’ carried a succession of different crews on bombing missions over enemy occupied territory and despite the horrendous perils they faced on every sortie, the aircraft always brought them back home. Amazingly, this aircraft completed 128 missions during the last months of WWII, more than any other Halifax bomber throughout the Second World War.
Following the end of hostilities, the story of this famous bomber began to circulate amongst the British public and it became something of an aviation celebrity. Forming an imposing centrepiece for Victory celebrations, ‘Friday the 13th’ was put on display outside the bombed out Lewis’ department store in Oxford Street, London, where a grateful public could touch this famous bomber, which had helped to bring an end to the horrors of the Second World War. Unfortunately, not long after this short period in the limelight, the aircraft was taken back to Yorkshire and unceremoniously scrapped. Like so many RAF Halifax bombers before it, ‘Friday the 13th’ was taken to the Handley Page operated York Aircraft Repair Depot (YARD), where she was broken up for scrap – a sad end for this most famous bomber.