“We rushed to land flares in Dresden at 400 mph – in a wooden plane”
It was deep in the evening of February 13, 1945, when Ken Oatley and his pilot James “Jock” Walker rode through the clouds in their de Havilland Mosquito and screamed toward the city of Dresden. Their target was the oval outline of a stadium, onto which they were to dive and land flares to direct incoming Lancaster bombers. They unleashed their flares with the usual shout of “Tally Ho” over the radio. But as they raced low over the rooftops, Oatley, who was the two-seater plane’s navigator, looked up and suddenly saw the twin spiers of Dresden Cathedral and a medieval tower looming before them. He shouted, “Watch out! to its pilot over the roar of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, who hoisted the Mosquito between laps with seconds to spare.
As they gained altitude, they felt the Mosquito vibrate with shock waves from raining 4,000-pound impact bombs. The attack on Dresden – perhaps the most infamous episode of Nazi Germany’s Allied bombardment, which killed 25,000 civilians and leveled much of the city – had begun.
Sitting in his living room in Ipswich, the telegram from the Queen celebrating her 100th birthday (sent in March) over the fireplace, Oatley is candid in his assessment of what happened that night: “It was all part of the job . As he points out, he and his fellow Bomber Command veterans were simply following orders.
Oatley was one of the last surviving crews to attack Dresden that evening and is believed to be the very last of 627 Squadron, with whom he flew the super-fast Mosquitos. “It’s a great shame,” he said. “They left one by one and now I found myself on my own.”
Despite a balsa wood frame, which earned it its nickname “the wooden wonder”, the Mosquito was the pride of the RAF. Capable of reaching speeds approaching 400 mph and nimble enough to dive at targets while avoiding flak, Oatley describes “the Mossie” as the plane everyone wanted to fly. “They were the pinnacle of the field,” he says.
His stellar reputation was not lost on the enemy either. The Mosquito’s sheer agility meant it was used for everything from aerial reconnaissance to daring bombing raids. Indeed, following a Mosquito attack on Berlin’s main broadcasting station on January 30, 1943, which took Hermann Goering off the air, the Luftwaffe commander observed, “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with jealousy.