Courtesy of Telegraph Newspapers – March 1994
Norman Jackson, who has died aged 74, was one of 10 Lancaster aircrew awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War and the first RAF flight engineer to be so honoured: he won his decoration for an exploit described in the citation as “almost incredible”.
By April 1944 Jackson had flown 30 missions and was a “tour expired” flight engineer with the rank of sergeant in 106 Squadron. Although not obliged to fly, he volunteered to accompany his crew, who still had operational sorties to complete.
On the night of April 26, shortly after receiving news of the birth of his youngest son, Jackson took off for a raid on Schweinfurt.
The Lancaster dropped its bombs over the target but was then lacerated by cannon-fire from a Focke-Wulf 190; a fire erupted on the upper surface of the starboard wing, adjacent to a fuel tank.
Jackson, despite being wounded by shell splinters in the right leg and shoulders, immediately tackled the potentially catastrophic blaze. Pushing a small fire-extinguisher inside his jacket, he clipped on his parachute pack and jettisoned the escape hatch above the pilot’s head. With the Lancaster still flying at 22,000ft and 200mph, he climbed on to the top of the fuselage and began to inch towards the blazing wing.
Almost immediately his parachute opened and the canopy and rigging spilled back into the cockpit. The pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as Jackson crawled aft. But he slipped and fell from the fuselage on to the starboard wing.
He held on by grasping an air intake on the leading edge. The extinguisher fell from his jacket and was lost; the flames burned Jackson severely. Then the Germans strafed the Lancaster once more. Jackson was hit, lost his grip and was sucked through the fire and off the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind him.
For a while Jackson hung in the slipstream; then his surviving comrades released the parachute and he fell towards earth, his canopy in flames. The remaining crew baled out; four landed safely, but the captain and rear gunner perished with the aircraft.
Jackson’s parachute canopy was two-thirds burned and he was fortunate to sustain only a broken leg on landing; but his right eye was closed through burns, and his hands were horribly burned and useless.
At daybreak he crawled towards a village on his knees and elbows. He knocked on the door of a cottage, whose occupant spat at him and shouted: “Churchill gangster!” The man was then pushed aside by his two beautiful daughters, who bathed Jackson’s wounds. “I was lying there like a lord,” recalled Jackson. “I began to think I was pretty lucky.”
After 10 months in hospital he was sent to a prison camp. He made two attempts to escape; the second time he succeeded in penetrating the German lines, and met the Americans near Munich.
The citation for his VC pointed out that, even had he been able to extinguish the fire, there was little prospect of his regaining the cockpit: he had undertaken an act of unquestionable heroism.
“It was my job as flight engineer to get the rest of the crew out of trouble,” recalled Jackson. “I was the most experienced member of the crew, and they all looked to me to do something.”
He was decorated by George VI at Buckingham Palace. Jackson’s mother was delighted: “The only other outstanding thing he ever did,” she told reporters, “was to ride in a procession through Twickenham on the smallest bicycle ever made.”
Norman Cyril Jackson was born in Ealing on April 8 1919. When a few weeks old he was adopted by a family named Gunter; the same family adopted another boy, Geoffrey Oliver Hartley, who was later awarded the George Cross while serving with the police in Malaya but was eventually killed by bandits.
Jackson qualified as a fitter and turner and on the outbreak of war was in a reserved occupation. None the less he volunteered for the RAF and enlisted as a Classified Fitter IIE (engines).
He was posted to No 95, a Sunderland Flying Boat Squadron at Freetown, Sierra Leone. This was a ground crew job, but Jackson applied to train as a flight engineer in bombers. “I don’t know why,” he recalled “because I wanted to live!”
In July 1943 he joined 106 Squadron, then at Syerston, as a sergeant. In November the squadron moved to Metheringham.
After the war Jackson worked as a travelling salesmen for Haig whisky. He overcame the handicap of permanently scarred hands, and with the help of a friend built a house for himself and his family – his own adoption made him a passionate family man.
He was periodically haunted by nightmares of his brush with death, and confessed to bouts of melancholy. But he reflected that he was more fortunate than many of his compatriots, who had either perished or had struggled to adjust to civilian life. He rarely spoke of his VC.
The war left him deeply religious: “Nobody prayed harder than I did before we took off and after we landed,” he recalled. “So did all the rest of them, though nobody mentioned it.”
Jackson was married and had six children.