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The Reluctant Bomb Aimer

“I won’t go! I’m not going!” Bomber pilot Edmund Kluczny (nicknamed “Captain Cool” by his crew) was horrified when he heard his bomb aimer’s outburst. Tonight’s target would take them deep into Germany’s heavily-defended industrial area. The pilot needed his crew inside their Lancaster and ready for takeoff, but the bomb aimer was refusing to get on board. This was a problem that Captain Cool needed to solve, and fast.

Edmund Kluczny was a farm boy from northern Alberta who served as a bomber pilot with RAF 90 Squadron in World War Two. A few months before his death last year, I interviewed him about his thirty-five missions over enemy territory, and he gave me this story he had written himself. 

The oil painting above shows the bomb aimer’s position in the front turret of a Lancaster. It was painted by John Bryce and belongs to the Royal Air Force Museum. 

The photograph below is of Ed Kluczny in his flying gear. 


The Reluctant Bomb Aimer

By Ed Kluczny

“My bomb aimer Johnny was a big, good-looking kid from Winnipeg, a bit vain about the social standing that his “wings” brought him. But, as his skipper, I had already experienced John’s problem. In a serious situation, he was inclined to panic. As we left the briefing hut, he told me he wasn’t joining tonight’s operation. Then he charged down the path alone.

This would be our third mission and the first two had been anything but a “piece of cake.” The sheer terror of those first two trips was causing a reaction from Johnny that needed to be dealt with, if we were to do our jobs – or even hope to survive. I hoped he would think it over and come to his senses.

Later, at the mess, there was no sign of Johnny. Maybe he was in the wet canteen, looking for some liquid courage. No, that was out. The canteen wasn’t open at this time of day. He must have gone straight to our hut, maybe to take a nap.

From the mess it was a short walk through a wheat field to our hut. When I arrived, the hut was empty. I dug out the sweater I intended to wear from my kit bag, and sat down to transfer the briefing details to a chart, to orient myself on tonight’s route.

By this time the hut was filling up as the crew arrived. They were openly discussing the hazards of tonight’s operation. But where was Johnny?

I didn’t tell the rest of the crew about Johnny’s outburst, but it was no use trying to turn the discussion to anything else but tonight’s trip. We were all too “full of it.” Probably they noticed Johnny’s absence, but nobody was making a point of it.

Finally it was time for our shuttle out to the plane. Armourers were loading bombs into the Lancaster’s open bomb bays. Johnny’s job was to check the arming of the bombs after they were all loaded. We were not carrying the massive blockbuster tonight, but smaller bombs, backed up with incendiaries. (Here’s a bomber being loaded with rows of incendiaries on each side of the bomb bay, designed to start fires wherever they landed.)

The bomb aimer’s role was crucial. He was the one who aimed and pressed the button that released the bombs over the target. But where was he? 

As skipper, I was responsible for having the crew ready for tonight’s action and we couldn’t head out one man short. The rest of us completed our pre-flight checkups and the clock crept towards takeoff time. It was now too late to look for him, and anyway, where would I look? 

There were no phones out on the field. Information was distributed by the omnipresent Tannoy – the stationwide intercom – with loudspeakers scattered around the station. Finally I dashed for the nearest transmitter, trying to compose a message that would reach Johnny without alerting the authorities.

“Sergeant Johnny! Sergeant Johnny! Report at once to V for Victor. We have a problem and we need your solution NOW!” Only Johnny and the rest of the crew would understand my words.

Johnny heard the message, and it worked. 

It appealed to his better instincts – to his close relationship to the crew, and possibly even to his vanity. It sparked the realization that we depended on him and needed him. That he was a vital part of our crew, just as was every other member.

In a few minutes he came rushing up to our dispersal, still dragging on bits of his flying gear. One crisis overcome. But no time for recriminations. Straight to the pre-flight checks. I even ordered a few re-checks just to keep everyone busy and without giving them any opportunity to confront Johnny with his tardiness.

In a few minutes, we were taxiing out, up and away to Stuttgart. We had to keep a close watch for other aircraft of our own, and when we reached the coast of Europe, enemy fighters.

I soon had Johnny down into his position in the nose of the aircraft, manning the forward guns. I kept calling on him to help our navigation by reading the map. 

(This photo shows that the bomb aimer must indeed have felt vulnerable, lying in his transparent “blister” in the very nose of the aircraft).

Once again, the flak proved to be vicious and obscene, but thankfully the enemy fighters were busy with other targets. We managed to dodge both the flak and the searchlights. I kept us busy so that the wrenching, numbing fear welling up from our guts only got high enough to make our hearts pound, but didn’t make it as far as our brains.

After an eternity of this, the navigator announced we were minutes from our assigned target. His words were confirmed by the buffeting we were feeling from the flak bursts, but at least we had made it this far with four mighty Merlin engines still performing their power symphony. 

(This photo shows the difficulty of striking the target at night, especially when the aircraft is surrounded by bursting flak and tracers from the anti-aircraft guns).

Then both Johnny and the mid-upper gunner spotted our target, which was marked with Pathfinder flares. At this point, Johnny took over the “navigation.” 

Hunched over his bomb-sight, he guided our approach with directions: “Port . . . port . . . straighten out . . . a touch to starboard . . . now, straight and level!”

The endless few seconds from “Straight and level” to “Bombs away!” were always a nightmare for me, because there was nothing I could do to avoid danger without jeopardizing the success of our operation. 

Finally, it came: “Bombs Away! Let’s get the hell out of here!”

And we did! Fortunately we made it back to base safely.

That trip was the last one in which I had to deal with panic in the crew. The next morning, Johnny was up early and down to the intelligence section, where he had made the acquaintance of a couple of girls who worked there, assessing the aerial photographs. Girls, I hasten to add, who were often higher-ranking officers than the men.

(Here is a photo of a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer examining the photos for bomb damage. To read more about my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View, featuring a female aerial photo interpreter, click here: Bird’s Eye View. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.)

They showed him the “blow-up” target photo from last night. It was the third in a string of five photos taken on every bombing run, triggered by the bomb release. If the bomb sight and the plane were accurately aimed, the photos showed where the bombs landed.

The girls arranged the photographs in something called a “photo ladder.” The photos showing bombs landing farthest away from the target were on the bottom, and the closer you got, the higher up the ladder your photos were placed. 

Lo and behold, our enlarged print was a BULLSEYE!

It was the best bomb placement of any aircraft in the squadron, placed on top of the display for all to see and admire!

All the credit went to Johnny. He never demonstrated any panic again.

* * * * *

Edmund was born in Empress, Alberta to a homesteading family. After graduating from high school in 1938, he began cooking at a forestry camp at Buck Lake before becoming a World War Two pilot. Before leaving for overseas, at the tender age of twenty years, he married his sweetheart Maxine.

He successfully flew thirty-five missions and earned the nickname “Captain Cool” among his crew for keeping a level head in the most dangerous situations. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. Here he is, standing in the centre of his crew, the one with the moustache. You can easily see the “bomb aimer’s blister” on the nose of the aircraft.

After the war, Edmund ran the Buck Lake general store before studying at the University of Alberta to become a teacher. He taught school in the Edmonton area until he moved to the Columbia Valley in the late 1970s. Edmund competed in speed walking and won numerous medals with the Seniors Games from 1989 until 2012.

In 1997, Ed travelled to Walsall, England in 1997 and located one surviving member of his crew, wireless operator Tony Anson. The two enjoyed an emotional reunion.

A few years ago, Ed visited the Lancaster bomber at the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta, where he sat in the cockpit one last time. Here he is behind the cockpit in wartime, and in Nanton fifty-three years later.

Edmund competed in speed walking and won numerous medals with the Seniors Games from 1989 until 2012. He led an active life right up until 2013, when he died peacefully at the age of 91 years. Rest in Peace, Ed Kluczny.

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Ed Kluczny’s wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in printed book form. To read more about the book, click My Favourite Veterans: True Stories of World War Two’s Hometown Heroes, or visit the book cover image at the bottom of this page.

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The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a beautiful colour illustration appeared on the cover each week with a wartime theme. I love this one from January 24, 1942 showing kids pelting a snowman that looks like Hitler! To see my complete collection of covers, click: Star Weekly at War.

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