Ju 88 C-4 R4+AA of the Stab/NJG 2, pilot Maj Karl Hulshoff 1941.
In mid-May 1940, in the wake of the German Blitzkrieg in France and the Low Countries, RAF Bomber Command began operations for the first time against oil and communications targets in Germany, having hitherto confined itself to fringe attacks directed mainly against naval facilities. Such raids, mounted in growing strength, were intolerable to the Nazi leadership and in particular to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe C-in-C, who had earlier boasted that if enemy bombs ever fell on the Reich territory people might call him Meier – a predominently Jewish name.
It is untrue that the Luftwaffe’s pre-war planners had given no thought to the night defence of Germany. Even before the war, a Messerschmitt 109 squadron at Greifswald was assigned to night-fighting practice with the aid of searchlights, and a specialist night fighter unit, 10/JG 26, also equipped with Bf 109s, was on the order of battle in September 1939, although it was very much experimental. The unsuitability of the Bf 109 for night-fighter operations quickly became apparent, and following the start of the RAF’s strategic offensive the first effective night-fighter units were formed, equipped in the main with Bf 110s. In addition to these, a specialist long-range night-fighter unit, I/NJG 2, was also established with three squadrons of Junkers Ju 88s and one of Dornier Do 17s. Tasked with long-range night-fighter operations, this was the Luftwaffe’s first night intruder Gruppe, and early in August 1940 it deployed forward to Gilze-Rijn in Holland, from where it began operations against the British Isles in September under the command of Hauptmann Karl-Heinrich Heyse.
The Gruppe’s operational area over Britain was divided into three sectors. Sector One covered an area bounded by the Thames estuary, northern London, the east Midlands and the Wash, taking in the whole of East Anglia; Sector Two ran inland from the Wash to Birmingham, then swung north to Sheffield and north-east to the Humber, covering Lincolnshire and south Yorkshire; while Sector Three ran from the Humber to Sheffield, Sheffield-Leeds, Leeds-Blackpool and finally from Blackpool to a point on the Northumbrian coast north of Newcastle upon Tyne. This was the only sector to extend as far as the west coast and was the largest in area – although by no means the most important, as the other two encompassed the two areas where Bomber Command had its densest concentration of airfields.
After some preliminary sorties over Lincolnshire in late August and September 1940, the intruders brought their war to the northernmost sector on 21 September, when Hauptmann Karl Hulshoff destroyed a Whitley of No. 58 Squadron, the aircraft crashing near Thornaby with the loss of all four crew. Three nights later, Feldwebel Hans Hahn shot down a 102 Squadron Whitley near Linton-on-Ouse. In the early hours of 28 September Lindholme was attacked by Leutnant Heinz Volker, who damaged a Hampden of No. 49 Squadron as it was landing and shot down a second just off the coast.
During this initial period of operations the intruders lost four aircraft, although only one is thought to have been destroyed by the air defences – in this instance by anti-aircraft fire. During October and November the sortie rate was low, but in December several sorties were flown against the Lincolnshire airfields, in the course of which a Dornier 17 was destroyed and another damaged by Hurricanes of No. 12 Group flying night patrols. During one of these sorties, the Gruppe commander, Major Karl-Heinrich Heyse, was shot down and killed by the Manby airfield defences.
Meanwhile, Fighter Command had been compelled to adopt what might best be described as desperate measures to counter the enemy night raiders, for the Luftwaffe’s main-force night offensive against Britain was now in full swing. Six squadrons of Bristol Blenheims, converted to carry airborne radar, did not provide a solution to the night defence problem; they were too slow, the equipment was very unreliable, and its operators lacked experience. A solution was on the horizon in the shape of the fast, heavily armed Bristol Beaufighter, which was just entering service; but this aircraft was beset by more than the usual crop of teething troubles. In November and December 1940, Beaufighters and radar-equipped Blenheims flew over 600 sorties, made seventy-one radar contacts, and succeeded in destroying only four enemy aircraft.
In September 1940, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the AOC-in-C Fighter Command, had been ordered by the Air Council to allocate three squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes to night defence, this decision having been taken following the creation of a high-level Night Air Defence Committee earlier in the month. Added to these were three squadrons of Boulton-Paul Defiants, aircraft which, armed solely with a four-gun power-operated turret, had suffered appalling losses in the day-fighter role during the Battle of Britain. During the closing weeks of 1940, these six squadrons of single-engined fighters flew 491 sorties on forty-six nights and destroyed eleven enemy bombers.
In December 1940 No. 4 Operational Training Unit – later renamed No. 54 OTU – was established at Church Fenton to train night fighter crews. It may be that Luftwaffe Intelligence got wind of the OTU’s activities, because on the night of 15 January 1941 the station was attacked by an intruding Junkers 88 of NJG 2, which badly damaged two Defiants and a Blenheim. Earlier in the month, another intruder had also attacked and badly damaged a No. 10 Squadron Whitley near Catterick. On the night of 10 February 1941 the intruders threw their weight against the Lincolnshire airfields of No. 5 Group, destroying seven aircraft returning from raids on Germany and Holland. Despite encounters with RAF night-fighters, all the intruders – nine aircraft – returned to base.
Delays in the production of AI Mk IV airborne radar meant that the planned target of five Beaufighter squadrons would not be reached before the spring of 1941, and in the meantime it was the Blenheims, Defiants and Hurricanes that continued to hold the line. In the north, one Defiant squadron, No. 141, was based at Ayr from the end of April 1941, and – with detachments at Acklington – found itself in the middle of the May Blitz on Clydeside and Tyneside, its crews claiming eight victories. Although still not radar-equipped, the Defiant was proving itself unexpectedly suited to the night-fighter role; experience had taught crews that if the pilot could manoeuvre his aircraft to a position beneath an enemy bomber, the gunner, elevating his guns at an angle, could usually inflict punishing damage on it. It was a technique developed further by the Luftwaffe’s night-fighter force later in the war, when aircraft fitted with upwards-firing guns inflicted severe losses on the RAF’s heavy bombers.
March 1941 was a significant month, for it saw the operational debut of ground controlled interception (GCI) stations such as that at Patrington, on the Humber estuary. This, together with the conversion of five of Fighter Command’s six Blenheim squadrons to Beaufighters, brought about a dramatic change in the Command’s fortunes just in time to counter the Luftwaffe’s Blitz on London, Merseyside, Tyneside, Clydeside and other targets. The Hurricane and Defiant squadrons allocated to night defence also added to this change as a result of their increased experience, and because they too derived assistance from GCI. Hitherto, sector controllers had been able to bring night-fighter crews to within about 5 miles (8 km) of a target, and since the range of AI Mk IV was only about 3 miles (5 km), it still needed a fair slice of luck to make a successful interception. The much more precise information provided by the GCI stations made the task far easier, and matters improved still further with the introduction of AI Mk VII, which had a 7 mile (11 km) range and a low-level capability. For the first time, the Mk VII, together with information passed on by the Chain Home Low radar stations – the low-level part of the general warning system – gave night fighter crews the ability to intercept low-flying minelayers and reconnaissance aircraft which had been operating off the British east coast almost with impunity.
The figures themselves speak for the general improvement in the overall air defence system by the summer of 1941. In February the enemy lost only four aircraft to fighters and eight to AA, but during March night fighters shot down twenty-two enemy bombers and the AA guns seventeen. In April the score rose to forty-eight for the fighters and thirty-nine for the guns, and in the first two weeks of May the loss rate assumed serious proportions, ninety-six bombers being shot down by fighters and thirty-two by AA guns. In addition, ten others were lost due to unknown causes.
Following a final spate of intense attacks on London, the Midlands and Merseyside, the Luftwaffe’s spring Blitz on Britain gradually petered out at the end of May 1941 as the Germans transferred the bulk of their bomber force to the east in readiness for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, or to the Balkans. Although bombing attacks continued on a sporadic basis during 1941, these tended to follow intruder-type tactics, only small numbers of aircraft being involved. As for the dedicated intruder squadrons, these continued to concentrate on the bomber bases of Lincolnshire and East Anglia in the spring of 1941, and forays into northern airspace were few. Nevertheless, they did occur, and on the night of 16/17 April a Ju 88 flown by Feldwebel Wilhelm Breetz, one of NJG 2’s most experienced pilots, fell victim to the Tyne AA defences. Another experienced intruder pilot, Leutnant Heinz Volker, had better luck in the early hours of 26 April, destroying a Blenheim and a Defiant at Church Fenton and damaging two more aircraft in a combined bombing and strafing attack. Volker also claimed two more aircraft destroyed that night in attacks on the Lincolnshire airfields.
Intruder attacks continued during June and were again directed against Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but on the night of the 13th the intruders suffered a severe setback when three Junkers 88s failed to return, all falling victim to the Beaufighters of No. 25 Squadron from Wittering. This was not, however, by any means the beginning of the end for the intruders; Beaufighters accounted for only three more before the middle of October, although others fell to AA fire and, in one case, to a Douglas Havoc night fighter of No. 85 Squadron. What did spell the end of intruder operations over England was a personal instruction from Adolf Hitler on 13 October 1941, ordering them to cease. The reason was purely one of propaganda. With the RAF’s night-bombing effort steadily increasing, Hitler wanted the German people to see the ‘terror bombers’ destroyed over the Reich territory; faraway victories over England did nothing to improve their morale. For General Kammhuber, commanding Germany’s night defences, it was a bitter blow; what was potentially his most potent weapon had been struck from his hand, and no argument would sway the Führer.
What, then, had the intruder force – which never numbered more than twenty or thirty serviceable aircraft – achieved in just over a year of operations? It had certainly destroyed over fifty aircraft over England, together with an estimated thirty more over the North Sea. About forty others sustained damage as a consequence of intruder attacks. The cost to the Germans was twenty-seven aircraft, plus seven more destroyed in accidents. After many pitfalls, as we have seen, the RAF’s night fighter defences were at last becoming organized. Thanks to improved GCI techniques and better radar, the night defences enjoyed increasing success. During the so-called Baedecker raids of 1942, when the Luftwaffe attacked targets of historic or cultural importance, night fighters accounted for most of the sixty-seven enemy bombers destroyed, mostly Dornier 217s of KG 2, between April and July.
Meanwhile, the RAF was stepping up its intruder missions over occupied Europe, using a mixture of Hawker Hurricanes, Boulton Paul Defiants, Bristol Blenheims and Douglas Havocs. One particularly successful Hurricane intruder pilot was Flight Lieutenant Richard Stevens, who began his combat career with No. 151 Squadron at RAF Manston. A former civil pilot who had flown the cross-Channel mail route at night and in all weathers, Stevens was thirty years old and a very experienced man by the time he joined No. 151 Squadron at the tail-end of the Battle of Britain, in October 1940. At this time the Germans had switched most of their effort to night attacks, and night after night Stevens watched in frustration as the German bombers droned overhead towards the red glare of burning London. He constantly sought permission to try his hand at intercepting the raiders, and at last, one night in December, it was granted.
His early night patrols were disappointing. For several nights running, although the Manston controller assured him that the sky was stiff with enemy bombers, Stevens saw nothing. Then, on the night of 15 January 1941, the shellbursts of the London AA defences led him to a Dornier 17 of 4/KG3, which he chased up to 30,000 ft (9,000 metres) and then almost down to ground level as the German pilot tried to shake him off. But Stevens hung on, and after two or three short bursts the bomber went down and exploded on the ground. It was No. 151 Squadron’s first night victory, and there were more to come. On a second patrol that night, Stevens caught a Heinkel 111 of 2/KG 53 at 17,000 ft (5,000 metres), heading for London, and shot it down into the Thames estuary. Three of the four crew members baled out and were captured. The night’s work earned Stevens a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Shortly after the award of his DFC, he developed ear trouble and was grounded for a while, but he celebrated his return to action on 8 April 1941 by shooting down two Heinkel 111s in one night. Two nights later he got another Heinkel and a Junkers 88, and a few days later he received a Bar to his DFC. He destroyed yet another Heinkel on the 19th, and on 7 May he accounted for two more. Three nights after that, his claim was one Heinkel destroyed and one probably destroyed. He shot down a further Heinkel on 13 June, damaged one on the 22nd, and on 3 July sent a Junkers 88 down in flames. There seemed to be no end to his success; at this time he was the RAF’s top-scoring night fighter pilot, enjoying a considerable lead over men who flew the radar-equipped Beaufighters.
Stevens experienced a lot of frustration during the summer months of 1941. In June the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and by the end of July they had withdrawn many of their bomber units from the Western Front. Raids at night over Britain became fewer, and although Stevens continued to fly his lone patrols, for weeks he never saw an enemy bomber. Then, one evening in October, he spotted a Junkers 88 slipping inland over the coast of East Anglia and attacked it. The Junkers jettisoned its bombs and turned away, diving low over the water, but Stevens caught it with a burst of fire and sent it into the sea. It was his fourteenth victory. Soon afterwards, he was posted to another Hurricane unit, No. 253 Squadron, as a flight commander, and he immediately set about devising a plan to take the war to the enemy by flying night-intruder operations over the German airfields in Holland and Belgium. He flew his first on the night of 12/13 December, the day when it was announced that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He loitered in the vicinity of the bomber airfield at Gilze-Rijn, in Holland, but saw no aircraft and returned home in disappointment. Three nights later he took off again, heading for the same destination, and never returned. The signal that his squadron commander sent to Group HQ was simple and concise. ‘One Hurricane IIC (long range), 253 Squadron, took off Manston 19.40 hours, 15.12.41, to go to Gilze. It has failed to return and is beyond maximum endurance.’ Somewhere out there over darkened Europe, or more probably over the waters of the Channel, Richard Stevens, who had fought a lonely, single-handed battle in the night sky for over a year, had met an equally lonely fate.