RAF gunner arrived back from daring bombing raid over Germany to watch Boat Race on Great Ouse

08:35 04 April 2014

Geoff Payne with the copy of ‘Memories of RAF Witchford’ by Barry and Sue Aldridge, which was presented to him by the Diamond44 Community Film Project.

Geoff Payne with the copy of ‘Memories of RAF Witchford’ by Barry and Sue Aldridge, which was presented to him by the Diamond44 Community Film Project.

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This weekend’s Cambridge versus Oxford University Boat Race will rekindle memories for many of the only time the race was staged away from the River Thames, on the Great Ouse at Queen Adelaide.

Geoff (bottom left) with his regular crew in 1944Geoff (bottom left) with his regular crew in 1944

Among the spectators that day, in 1944, was a young airman who had just landed at Witchford airfield from a deadly bombing raid over Germany.

Sgt Geoff Payne, a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber, now living in Cumbernauld just outside Glasgow, takes up the story of that day:

“At 21:45 hours on February 25, 1944, I was despatched on my very first bombing mission, as a fresh-faced, 19-year-old air gunner. The take-off and flight over the North Sea were smooth but then I heard the call “enemy coast ahead” and a quiet feeling of apprehension came over me, even the oxygen smelt different.

The sight Geoff would have seen on the riverside near The Maltings, as Cambridge row out to the start.The sight Geoff would have seen on the riverside near The Maltings, as Cambridge row out to the start.

“It was a very long, cold trip, deep into southern Germany to Augsberg, the action became frantic as 304 second-phase aircraft approached the aiming point. Our plane was being buffeted in the slipstream of those ahead and my legs began to shake in reaction to this frightening experience.

“Looking down on the target the fires were bubbling up, it seemed like a giant caldron. The attack, by a total of 595 allied aircraft, destroyed large parts of the city centre of Augsburg. The primary target was the MAN engineering works, the largest producer of German diesel engines at that time.”

Landing safely back at Witchford, an enamelled mug of rum awaited followed by the normal breakfast of eggs and bacon. Not being able to settle into a well-needed sleep, Geoff got up and strolled into Ely to clear his mind.

On arrival at the riverside, near The Maltings, he found the bank thronged with excited people watching the Oxford and Cambridge crews row past, on their way to the race start three miles downstream.

Geoff went on to complete a total of 30 bombing missions by the end of 1944.

10 years ago, Geoff returned to Ely to join in the Diamond Celebrations of the 1944 race. This time round he was treated to a VIP cruise to the finish line in a river boat complete with bar. He attended the post-race dinner with the veteran crews who raced in 2004, which was hosted by The Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire with guest speaker Tim Foster - Olympic gold medal winner in 2000.

The Diamond44 Community Film Project is currently producing a 50-minute documentary about Ely’s historic links with the University Boat Race to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the formation of Isle of Ely Rowing Club and the revival of amateur, community rowing on this stretch of the River Great Ouse.

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