Our experiences at low level tended to be limited. At Shandur, one low level cross country with an instructor pilot, and one with one's own crew in the second phase of operational training. On the Squadron, just one sortie, mostly over the sea, but terminating in a deck level beat up of the Tremiti Islands just off the Italian coast near Biferno, for some crews.
From the handling point of view, the Marauder was an adequate if not brilliant performer, and providing its limitations were known, and observed, then there were no problems. At high speed the aircraft was relatively slow to respond to elevator movement, causing it to "mush" along slightly, until they "bit into the airflow" and initiated the required climb. How this affected one's thinking, is perhaps best shown by the following story from Peter Kennedy.
The Speckled Bird let it be known that he was considering low-level operations, provided that RAF approval could be obtained. So a low level exercise was laid on, and we duly got ourselves into the air and turned southward just inland from the coast. After settling down at about 50' AGL, I began to really enjoy myself for about fifteen minutes or so. Then in the distance, I saw a small town with a church spire silhouetted against the sky. The town, the church and the spire, grew quickly larger, until at what I thought was the appropriate moment. I eased back the stick, to lift us safely over the now rapidly approaching obstacle. For what was probably no more than a split second, I felt no lift at all, and for another moment (a long moment) I thought that the tip of the spire had passed through the starboard prop disc as we roared over the town! My navigator sitting down in the nose, thought the same, and could not believe that we were still in one piece. Needless to say, with the adrenalin pumping hard, I eased the aircraft up a further 20-30 feet, until the breathing eased, and the heart settled to its normal be at. The low-level operations never materialised, and I wonder to this day, whether in fact this was all for the best?
My own experience during this period was different, inasmuch as it involved the Tremiti Islands "beat up" and no church spire! On this occasion, we took off with Hank Owens's crew for company. Hank took off ahead of us, and carried out his usual "beat up" of the Termoli fishing boats, before heading off on the exercise route. "We joined him a few minutes later as we caught him up, formatting on his starboard wing tip. For about an hour, we continued over the sea route, at about 50', occasionally edging down a little lower, until near the end of the exercise we saw the low outline of the Tremiti Islands ahead. Hank indicated to us that he was going to continue over the islands, and we edged closer as the shoreline "approached rapidly." Hank began to edge down still further, and we responded by edging down further still, and so it went on, first Hank and then ourselves, rock-strewn terrain.
As we swept in over the coastline, Hank began to edge down still further, and we responded by edging down further still, and so it went on, first Hank and then ourselves, until we were almost at 00, and looking up into the startled faces of peasants in the houses! Eventually Hank won the duel by dropping down below us and running his aircraft through a small indentation in the rock-strewn terrain. We could go no lower, being on the edge of the indentation, our prop wash already raising a dust cloud behind us. (January 31st, 1945) Archie Ross commented: "For me low level was a lot of fun in comparison to formation flying".
Having had considerable low level experience when with 14 Squadron, I really loved it. Operational height (on 14) when we flew close to the coast or into a harbour, had to be less than 30 feet, so anything on 39 was strictly for relaxation. During conversion at Shandur, on a low level exercise, Les Charteris, my tail gunner, called up on the intercom to say "Skipper, there's three trails in the sand behind us!" My reply was '"Well, probably two are from the props, and the third is from your backside trailing in the sand!" But, I did get up a few more feet!
The experiences were duplicated or paralleled by many of the crews, but in spite everything, it remained a subject of regret that we were never allowed a shot at low level operations.
And a comment from the Hurricane pilots of 6 Squadron (the Shitty Six)
"If you go in low level, go in hard and fast, and below 30' - any higher and you're a sitting duck for small arms fire."
Low Level Beat-Tips
Denis Bowyer remembers:
We sometimes shot up the camp on return from a raid... very frightening (or exhilarating, depending on one's point of view), with the earth rushing past and lots to distract one. My thought was usually whether the leader had given consideration to the low aircraft in the box -No's 4, 5, and 6? American P-38's andP-51's often flew low over us as we taxied back to dispersal, and sometimes over the domestic site. One incident, involved such a beat-up with guns blazing... it was only the spent cases that hit the camp, but it sure got the adrenalin going!
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