One night in April 1944 — A Tale of Courage and Fortitude: Sergeant (later WO) Norman Jackson VC

By Group Captain Jim Beldon

Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire; Norman Cyril Jackson, by London News Agency bromide press print, 13 November 1945. NPG x184310. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Jackson, a lifelong Londoner (born in Ealing 1919 and died in Hampton Hill 1994), completed his tour of 30 missions as a flight engineer with Bomber Command on 24 Apr 44, but, as he had flown one sortie with a different crew, he chose to fly once more so that he and his principal crew could finish their tour together. Jackson’s 31st mission was a raid on the German ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt on the night of 26/27 April. It was an especially well-defended target, as the USAAF’s 8th Air Force had found on its two 1943 daylight raids, in which it suffered losses of 26% and 21% in direct combat, with more bombers written off through battle damage. The RAF’s raid on the night of 26/27 Apr 44 must therefore have caused significant trepidation for the crews. Schweinfurt was, however, in effect a diversionary raid. Overall, Bomber Command dispatched 1,060 aircraft that night, the main target being Essen in the Ruhr Valley — Germany’s industrial heartland, and known as ‘Happy Valley’ to Bomber Command crews — and targets in France and Hamburg were also struck, with 30 aircraft lost overall — a rate of 2.8%.

As expected, the loss rate over Schweinfurt was proportionately much higher. Of the 215 Lancasters and 11 Mosquitos dispatched to the target, 21 Lancasters were lost, representing 9.3% of the force. The raid overall was a failure. The low-level marking provided for the first time by Mosquitos of No 627 Squadron was not accurate. Unexpectedly strong head winds delayed the Lancaster marker aircraft and the main force of bombers. German night fighters were carrying out fierce attacks throughout the period of the raid. The bombing was not accurate and much of it fell outside Schweinfurt.

And so to Jackson and his crew from RAF Metheringham-based 106 Squadron specifically. Having successfully bombed the target from 20,000 feet, Jackson’s Lancaster was attacked by a night fighter. The captain took evasive action at once, but the enemy secured many hits. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine.

Sergeant Jackson was thrown to the floor during the engagement. Wounds which he received from shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder were probably sustained at that time. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain’s permission to try to put out the flames.

Pushing a hand fire-extinguisher into the top of his life-saving jacket and clipping on his parachute pack, Sergeant Jackson jettisoned the escape hatch above the pilot’s head. He then started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage, his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit. Undeterred, Jackson continued. Fellow crew members gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. He gripped the air intake on the leading edge of the wing with one hand, and fought the fire with the other. The flames seared his hands, face and clothes. The fighter returned and hit the bomber with a burst of gunfire that sent two bullets into his legs. The burst also swept him off the wing. Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon the aircraft.

Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns, and his hands were useless. These injuries, together with the wounds received earlier, reduced him to a pitiable state. At daybreak, he crawled to the nearest village, where he was taken prisoner. He bore the intense pain and discomfort of the journey to Dulag Luft with magnificent fortitude.

Jackson’s attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an incredible feat. Had he succeeded in subduing the flames, there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his parachute and the risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum.

He spent 10 months recovering in hospital before being transferred to a Prisoner of War Camp. He made two escape attempts, the second of which was successful as he made contact with a unit of the US Third Army.

Jackson was presented with his VC at the same investiture as Gp Capt (later Lord) Cheshire received his. Cheshire insisted that, despite the difference in rank, they should approach the King together. Jackson later recalled that Cheshire said, ‘This chap stuck his neck out more than I did — he should get his VC first! Of course, the King had to keep to protocol, but I will never forget what Cheshire said.’