Kevin Patrick Muncer flew nocturnal bombing missions in Avro Lancasters until a Junkers Ju-88G made him a German prisoner.
Born in London and raised in Kent, Kevin Patrick Muncer was working as an analytical chemist when World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. On September 11, he joined the Royal Air Force and served as an engine fitter before he got to train as a pilot. After some time as a flight instructor, Flying Officer Muncer flew bombing missions in Avro Lancasters with No. 166 Squadron, in which he became the human equivalent of the proverbial cat with nine lives. In an interview with English writer John McAdams, he shared a story of survival tempered with resilience and compassion.
Military History: What was your first combat mission like?
Muncer: I suppose my very first operational flight was from RAF Breighton, Yorkshire, to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, as second pilot in a Handley Page Halifax. Although I had already converted to Lancasters, because they didn’t carry a second pilot, we had to gain our operational experience in Halifaxes.
MH: How did the Lancasters compare with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses that the U.S. Army Air Forces was operating at that time?
Muncer: When we met back at our base and the USAAF boys came to visit us, the first thing we did was to open our bomb bay to let them have a look inside. The Flying Fortress was designed in 1933, and its bomb bay was therefore comparatively small. The maximum size bomb it could carry was a 500- pounder, usually about six in total, but it was bristling with protective guns. The Lancaster on the other hand could carry a 4,000-pound “Cookie” plus many incendiaries. Basically the USAAF flew daylight missions, and the RAF flew night missions, but after D-Day our squadron started flying daylight missions, mainly in support of ground troops. We crossed over France into Germany at 20,000 feet and were therefore relatively safe from flak. Also the Luftwaffe fighters were nowhere to be seen. They were very short of petrol.
MH: Were you happy with your fighter cover?
Muncer: Yes, we had Supermarine Spitfires and North American P-51 Mustangs based in France, so we were very well protected. Those Mustangs of the USAAF could escort our bombers all the way to Berlin, but they only flew on daylight raids.
MH: Were you involved in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945?
Muncer: Yes. I was on the night raid, and I had to go around twice because the 4,000-pound bomb I was carrying got stuck in its rack. My flight engineer had to go down a little trap door into the bomb bay, and when my bomb aimer said, “Pull,” he pulled a small lever that physically released the bomb. My incendiaries had already gone, so when I got rid of the big one, we set course for home. I still remember seeing the streets all patterned and burning furiously. They said Dresden was a supply depot for the frontline troops and a communications center with German panzers coming back over the bridges. In fact bombing it was a request from the Russians—they told us German troops were retreating and assembling in Dresden. I must add that this saturation bombing policy was advocated by Sir Winston Churchill on the advice of his special scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann. In 1942 King George VI elevated Lindemann to the peerage, and he became Lord Cherwell. Although Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, our boss, openly agreed with this policy, he was merely following orders from above.
MH: There has been much criticism both during and after the war of Bomber Command and its “creep back” area bombing policy—sometimes as much as 10 miles short of the target. Would you like to comment on that?
Muncer: This possibly did happen during the early stages of the war, when aircraft had a very limited instrument panel and virtually no navigational aids. When I was operational in 1943- 44, we had all the latest navigational aids to assist us, like Gee, Oboe and H2S, which made our navigation and target identification much more accurate. We also had de Havilland Mosquito bombers piloted by experienced people such as Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, dropping their colored flares as target markers on the designated target. When I was bombing, we would be told by the pathfinder Mustangs or Mosquitoes, who were at a lower altitude and naturally slightly ahead, to bomb, say, five seconds after the particular colored marker flare. I flew lots of missions with Cheshire as a pathfinder. As a ruse, the Germans would light similar colored flares out in the countryside before the target to confuse us into releasing our bombload early and away from those strategic targets like munitions factories and marshalling yards. Also, I heard much later that Bomber Command was aware of this creep back problem and secretly asked the pathfinder pilots to overfly the target area and drop their marker flares on the far side of the target to compensate. At times it was all very confusing.
MH: Just how accurate were your navigational aids?
Muncer: Gee was the first of the radio/navigational aids we used, and the receiver recorded the different frequencies from three transmitters about 100 miles apart, all based in England. The beams had a range of about 400 miles and made it possible for us to fix our location to within five miles, but this was easily jammed by the Germans. I remember in August 1942 about 150 heavy bombers raided Osnabrück, and all their 150 Gees were rendered useless. The Germans had rescued a Gee set from a crashed British bomber, and their boffins had worked out a simple countermeasure. They called it “Heinrich,” and they set up a large arc of jamming stations across occupied Europe—one was positioned on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Our boffins had to counter that with our own development, which they called Oboe—observer bombing over enemy—using two transmitters, one at Dover transmitting Morse code dots, which we called Cat, and the other at Cromer in Norfolk, transmitting dashes, which we called Mouse. Where they intersected was our target, and this enabled us to drop our bombs blind. If I stayed on course, I received a continuous tone, but if I deviated off course toward Cat, I received dots, or toward Mouse I received dashes. I could then fly back to my mean course. When I got close to our target, Mouse would give me a definite warning signal. The downside was that because the signal was on the ground wave, the curvature of the earth restricted the range of operation. Oboe was really a further development of the German Knickebein system, which they used to bomb our radar and fighter stations during the Battle of Britain.
MH: Did RAF Bomber Command develop any further navigational aids?
Muncer: Yes, H2S was the first airborne radar where a navigator could see an image of the ground below. H2S was an abbreviation of its British code name “Home Sweet Home.” Even though we were flying above or through 8/8 cloud, it meant we could still accurately bomb the target blind from 20,000 feet. H2S was initially issued to pathfinder crews in January 1943 and had lots of teething problems, but gradually our boffins sorted them out, and they came into our bombers in mid-1944. My navigator, Flying Officer Gerry Gerrard, could see all the German cities displayed on his H2S cathode ray tube as bright silhouettes, and water such as lakes and rivers as much darker patches.
MH: What problems did the German defenses create?
Muncer: The Germans had their own radar stations, which they positioned in a great arc across occupied Europe that they called the Kammhuber Line. They first developed their Himmelbett radar ground stations and progressed to their Würzburg system with a maximum range of 50 miles, and then to their famous Freya system with a range of 80 miles. They also developed radar-controlled searchlight batteries and large arcs of flak batteries. Their signals intelligence units could detect when our wireless operators switched on their 1155/56 radio sets for testing. They then knew that a raid was imminent and from which bomber group, the types of bombers being deployed and their maximum range. They could then deduce possible targets and of course our routes.
MH: What did you use against that?
Muncer: Our boffins developed Window, a load of tinfoil strips that we dropped at specific intervals. This would reflect spurious electromagnetic impulses onto the German radar screens. Window was a great advance in radar countermeasures, which, oddly enough, the Germans also developed simultaneously— they called their system Düppel, or radar chaff.
MH: When did you join your Lancaster unit?
Muncer: I joined No. 166 Squadron in 1944. The squadron’s motto was “Tenacity.”
MH: Did you have a regular crew?
Muncer: My crew was of mixed rank, and we were very closeknit—rank didn’t enter into that equation. We had a crew of seven; I was the pilot, my navigator was Gerry Gerrard and the bomb aimer was Flight Sgt. James Patterson, a personal friend. Flying Officer Ronald George Buckland was my wireless operator, Sergeant Vic Jones my flight engineer, Flying Officer John Vincent Gardner was the rear gunner and Flight Sgt. William Cyril Reynolds, Royal Canadian Air Force, was my mid-upper turret gunner.
MH: Did you consider your defenses adequate?
Muncer: The Lancaster had three machine gun turrets, all of which sported .303-caliber machine guns. Vince Gardner, my rear gunner, had a pair of the heavier .50-caliber Brownings.
MH: What was the average age of your crew?
Muncer: The average age must have been early 20s. I was 23 years old at the time of my 23rd mission.
MH: When did you fly your last sortie?
Muncer: It was Friday, March 16, 1945— Saint Patrick’s Day. I took off at 1715 hours from RAF Kirminton, Lincolnshire, which today is Humberside Airport, flying my own Lancaster, M-Mike [Squadron Code AS-M]. Our target was Nürnberg, and we were not at all happy because it was heavily defended with ack-ack and surrounded by at least three known night fighter airfields—one to the north and another two between Nürnberg and Munich. Our mission was to bomb the railway junction. The Americans were trying to cross the Rhine River, the British Second Army was advancing toward Hamburg, and we were supporting all the invading ground forces. The Lancaster gained height very slowly with our big bombload and fuel tanks brim full. To arrive at 20,000 feet over the Ruhr I had to reach at least 10,000 feet before I crossed the Channel, which is why collisions occurred over assembly points around the Norfolk and Suffolk coastal towns, especially in heavy cloud.
MH: How many “heavies” took part in that mission?
Muncer: On that night raid 350 took off, and 36 didn’t come back. We flew southeast across Lincolnshire and Essex, crossing the Channel at Dover, where I positioned my Lancaster near the head of the main stream. It was a brilliant moonlit night, and as I crossed the Franco-German frontier I had that uncomfortable feeling that there were German night fighters around. It was a sort of sixth sense that aircrews acquire with experience. Their fighters had obviously infiltrated our bomber stream, because I saw three bombers in front of me shot out of the sky, burning fiercely as they fell to earth. I still remember following those three Lancasters in our bomber stream and looking at their four brightly burning exhausts and thinking: “God, does my Lancaster, M-Mike, look like that from behind? If so, then I’m a sitting duck!” We were all very experienced, but I still gave my crew a strict and timely reminder to keep even greater vigilance. The Luftwaffe night fighters were twin-engine Junkers Ju-88Gs with a ceiling of 32,500 feet and a maximum speed of 310 mph. They would enter our bomber stream from behind and below, trying to hide in our blind spot. They had three forward and upward-firing 20mm cannons and three 7.9mm machine guns in the nose, and they would position themselves so they could fire at the underside wing area between the two port or two starboard engines, where the fuel tanks were positioned. It was 2115 on a clear, cloudless night when we reached the target area, and I could clearly see the pathfinder flares, all different colors that we had to recognize, burning brightly. The flak was heavy—an almost impenetrable wall of bursting anti-aircraft shells that I had to fly through with my bomb doors open. Flying such a straight and level course gave searchlights and therefore ack-ack plenty of time to lock onto a bomber and set their fuzes for our correct altitude. I still had my incendiaries and my 4,000-pound Cookie, fuzed and primed in the bomb-bay rack just waiting for the word. James Patterson was lining me up on the target, giving me the “Left, left…steady, steady…right, right.” The bomb aimer always repeated his direction request because of the noise and confusion over the target area. Just then a Ju-88 came in from below and on the port side, raking us with 20mm tracers that I remember coming up at me from the floor. I felt a thud as cannon shells severed my left arm and blew the cockpit roof canopy into a thousand pieces. I instinctively rammed the control column forward and kicked the rudder bar, putting M-Mike into a screaming corkscrew dive to escape the Ju-88. The wind was cold and fierce, but I still noted that both starboard engines were shot to pieces and on fire. From a distance I heard Gardner, my rear gunner, calling out, “We’re on fire back here,” and those were the last words I ever heard him speak. I know it was dark with bad visibility, but I can’t understand how John failed to spot that Ju-88—that Luftwaffe pilot must have been a very experienced night fighter to get within range unobserved. I heaved back on the control column to recover from that dive and heard a loud crack as all the control wires severed, relieving me of all control. Losing blood from my arm, I was drifting in and out of consciousness, but I still remember that our Lancaster, with its starboard inner engine dead and starboard outer still turning, suddenly flicked over on its back. I was catapulted out of the hole where the canopy had been. I instinctively fumbled with my good right hand to pull the ripcord on my release straps, but I didn’t realize that my right thumb was broken. Eventually I got my fingers through the D-ring, pulled and mercifully my parachute opened with a loud crack as my left flying boot fell off. I floated down to earth, losing consciousness.
MH: What do you remember next?
Muncer: I regained consciousness just as I crashed through tree branches and hit the ground with a loud thump. As pleased as I was to be alive on mother earth, I realized that I was not at all in good shape. Sitting at the base of a tree, I eventually found my whistle still attached to my battle dress blouse and blew it as loud as I could. My whistle was an RAF issue Thunderer and contributed to saving my life, as no doubt it did for many other aircrews in similar situations. My whistle for help was answered by a local German farmer and a French soldier POW requisitioned to help on a farm. They could see immediately I was in serious trouble and gently carried me inside their farmhouse. The farmer’s wife removed my bloodied battledress and examined the remains of my left arm. She immediately got some farmer’s bailing twine and wrapped it around my stump like a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood. That dear German lady whom we had just been bombing truly saved my life. I vaguely heard the farmer telephoning someone.
MH: Who responded to that call?
Muncer: After the air raid was over and the all-clear sounded, I heard a car pull up outside, and a Luftwaffe officer with a medical orderly entered the farmhouse. The medic examined the stump of my left arm while the officer asked me some questions. I was so groggy that my answers must have been incomprehensible. Like all downed aircrew men, I only told him my number, rank and name, which was all we were required to say under the terms of the Geneva Convention. They then took me to their hospital in nearby Brückburg.
MH: Was this a civilian or military hospital?
Muncer: I believe it was a civilian hospital commandeered by the German military, with around 600 beds, mostly orthopedic cases. I suppose I was really lucky coming down so close to a specialist hospital. Most of the patients were German soldiers, injured on the Russian Front. I was really well looked after by the surgical team. As soon as I arrived, they took me to the operating theater, stripped me down, dressed me in a hospital gown and gave me a general anesthetic. The surgeon then set about cleaning up what remained of my left arm, which again really saved my life, because there was a great danger of gangrene setting in. They also put on a splint and bandaged my broken right thumb. I awoke around midday, and a doctor came, addressed me by my rank and name and started asking me questions about my squadron, aircraft type and details of my mission. He said, “You were bombing Nürnberg, weren’t you?” and I replied, “If you know that, why are you asking me that question?” With that he turned on his heel and left me alone—that was the only interrogation I was subjected to.
MH: So the Germans looked after you in a very humane way?
Muncer: Inside the hospital, yes. One of the nursing nuns told me that the following day members of the local Volkssturm, armed with axes and hammers, turned up at the hospital gates saying: “We understand you have an English ‘terror flier’ inside. We want him.” The chief surgeon told them politely that they weren’t going to get any one of his patients and to go away. That was another lucky escape. A senior surgeon told me they had found the bodies of RAF aircrew men in the area where I was found, and I was convinced I was the only survivor of M-Mike.
MH: Did you get to meet any of your fellow patients?
Muncer: It’s very strange, really. For the first three weeks I had my own room, but when I could move around they transferred me to a general ward. I’d been in that ward for only a few days when the nursing nuns took me down the corridor to meet another flier. He turned out to be the Ju-88 pilot who had shot me down. Apparently he was spotted by one of our escorting Mosquitoes. He was all burned down one side. I really felt sorry for him—and I’d lost my left arm. But we were both alive, which is a sort of blessing. I used to go down to the ward to see him, and we used to chat away—and when I was eventually liberated I gave him packs of American cigarettes as a farewell gift.
MH: How did the other patients feel about having the enemy in their midst?
Muncer: I remember one incident. I was walking in the hospital grounds when a squadron of B-17s flew overhead at 20,000 feet, heading for Nürnberg. Visibility was so good I could see the sticks begin to fall. The nursing nuns fell on their knees and began to pray, and many of the German military patients began to shout at me, as though it was my fault. The senior German doctor advised me to make myself scarce, which I did. The incident was never mentioned again.
MH: How much longer did you stay in that hospital?
Muncer: After another couple of weeks, liberation arrived in the shape of a German-speaking American doctor with a load of wounded German soldiers. This American caused quite a stir because he wore a cowboy gun belt with a Colt .45, low slung in a holster, just like General George Patton. German medical personnel never carried arms. He was very surprised to see me in my cleaned and pressed RAF uniform as he checked the stump of my left arm. He explained he was really pushed for time, but gave me some cigarettes and promised he would report my presence. True to his word, two American officers turned up the following day in an armed jeep and took me off to Ansbach. I was then transferred to a U.S. Army ambulance with wounded American personnel and driven to Würzburg, which had an airfield of sorts. Würzburg was like a ghost town—not a civilian in sight. All the buildings were reduced to rubble, and the Americans had bulldozed the only road through. The other memory I have is of the advancing U.S. Army—not one soldier was on foot. They had all commandeered some form of wheeled transport—abandoned German military vehicles, Mercedes Benz saloon cars, and we even passed a funeral hearse crammed full of live GIs.
MH: What happened at Würzburg airfield?
Muncer: The first thing I remember was having a shower and change of underwear—the first in many, many weeks. This was followed by the kind of wartime meal that only the Americans could provide. I was allowed to relax for a couple of days and debriefed by American intelligence officers, then I was piled into a Douglas Dakota Mark III and flown back to “Blighty.” As soon as I landed at RAF Lynham in Wiltshire, I was taken to the American hospital down the road at Wroughton, just outside Swindon.
MH: What did you do with your newfound freedom?
Muncer: The first thing on my mind was to contact my wife. The problem was that I was confined to the hospital and denied access to any means of outside communication until I had been debriefed. What made matters worse was that my mother-in-law lived in Swindon, just down the road—so close yet so far! Luckily for me, one of the nurses lived in Swindon, and she promised to drop her a note. Gwen’s mother was so overcome with the good news that she couldn’t remember Gwen’s telephone number. She went straight down to the local police station and explained the situation, and they took matters in hand—contacted the RAF, gave them Gwen’s present posting and got the message through.
MH: Was that the end of your adventures?
Muncer: No, not at all. Sometime later I received a letter, and it said quite simply, “Navigator to Pilot—see you at 166 squadron reunion dinner RAF Kirmington, Saturday.” It was from Gerry Gerrard. He told me at the dinner that when the first cannon shells hit our Lancaster, he clipped on his parachute. His navigator’s table was just behind my pilot’s seat, and when M-Mike flipped over onto its back, he fell out after me. He landed in woodland and spent the rest of the night wandering around in a daze. In the morning he was confronted by two German pensioners wielding shotguns as he sat on a fallen tree trunk in his underpants, quietly repairing a tear in his trousers. As they walked back toward the police station, they passed the body of Vic Reynolds, who was completely unmarked.
MH: Did you learn of anything further?
Muncer: In October 1945, I received a letter from the International Red Cross in Geneva, in which they said that they had been contacted by a Monsieur Léon Planade. Léon had been a French POW working on a farm and had helped the German farmer, Hermann Wimmer, to carry me into his farmhouse at Winsor, where I had been shot down. Leon went on to explain that he had found a left arm close by with a wristwatch strapped around the wrist, and he wished to return the watch to me. He assured me that he gave my arm a good, reverent, Christian burial. There was no doubt that the watch was mine, because it was a “Services” watch given to me by my sister Doreen for Christmas in 1940. She had it engraved with my then rank and name.
MH: On October 1, 1945, you were also gazetted for the Distinguished Flying Cross. What did you do after the war?
Muncer: I was recruited into the RAF for hostilities only and returned to civilian life with the Prudential Insurance Co., where I worked for a further 35 years. But in early 1947, I received a letter in German (with translation into English) from Herr Wimmer via the International Red Cross. He explained that he was suffering from severe arthritis and could no longer work the farm alone. His eldest son was killed on the Russian Front; his second son, Hans was still a POW in Scotland and badly needed on the farm. I immediately wrote to the War Office, sending a copy of his letter and explaining the full details and how Hermann Wimmer and his wife had saved my life. On June 20, 1947, I received the following letter from the International Red Cross in Oxford: “I have today heard from the War Office that, thanks to you, Hans Wimmer will be returning to his home in Bavaria this July. I can imagine the joy of reunion in that family. Heaven bless you. For some obscure reason it will please me to associate you and your future with something of the sublimity of the Wingless Victory. You with your lost arm but…not moaning….Forgive this intrusion, but my work brings me in contact with so many broken and often embittered lives, that the joys and evidence of appreciated services become heightened a thousand-fold and to give expression to such, is just a little indulgence further. Yours sincerely, Dorothy F. Fray.”
MH: That is a wonderful ending to a remarkable story.
Muncer: Yes, I suppose it is really—but that’s not the end. In 1982—nearly 40 years later—Gwen and I had a holiday in Germany, and decided to visit Winsor. We went to the local post office to make enquiries, and we found that the Wimmer family still worked the farm. Neither Gwen nor I spoke German, and the old man couldn’t speak English, but I got a pencil and paper out of the car and drew a picture of a man hanging on a parachute out of a tree. The old man’s eyes lit up in recognition. He introduced us to his family, including his son, and took Gwen and me outside to show me the tree I had come down in, only 20 yards from the farmhouse.
John McAdams is a former Royal Air Force signals officer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. For further reading, try: Battle Over the Reich, by Alfred Price; Bomber Command 1939- 1945, by Ian Carter; and Footprints on the Sand: RAF Bomber Command Prisoners-of-War in Germany, 1939-1945, by Oliver Clutton-Brock.
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.