Czech Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher was a highly experienced pilot, and a successful intruder.
Hurricane MkIIC flown by Karel Kuttelwascher as part of No1 Sqn RAF.
The majority of the home-based Hurricane II squadrons took part in night intruder operations at one time or another during 1942, and some became specialists in the role. No. 1 Squadron, for example, which was based at RAF Tangmere, destroyed twenty-two enemy aircraft over occupied Europe between 1 April and 1 July that year before moving to Northumberland to convert to Typhoon fighter-bombers, and no fewer than fifteen of these victories were gained by one pilot, Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher. A highly competent and experienced pilot, Kuttelwascher – known by the simpler abbreviation of ‘Kut’ to his squadron colleagues – had flown with the Czech air force for four years before his country was overrun by the Germans, after which he had made his way to Britain via France. He scored his first three kills – all Messerschmitt 109s – while flying convoy protection and bomber escort missions over the Channel in the spring and early summer of 1941, but it was when No. 1 Squadron went over to night intruder operations in April 1942 that Kut really got into his stride. In April 1942 he destroyed three Junkers 88s, three Dornier 217s and a Heinkel 111, and on the night of 4/5 May he shot down three Heinkel 111s over St André. He destroyed a Dornier 217 off Dunkirk on 2/3 June, and on the following night he visited St André again to destroy a Heinkel 111 and a Dornier 217, as well as damaging another Dornier.
St André was once again the target on 21/22 June, when Kut shot down a Junkers 88 and damaged another. A Dornier 217 went down before his guns near Trevières on 29/29 June, and his last two victims, also Dornier 217s, were brought down near Dinard on the night of 1/2 July, when he also damaged a third Dornier. That brought Kut’s score to eighteen destroyed, with one probable (a Messerschmitt 109, his first combat in the RAF, on 2 February 1941) and five damaged. In addition, he may have claimed up to six victories while flying Morane 406 fighters in the Battle of France. After the war, he became a captain with British European Airways, flying Vikings and Elizabethans. He died of a heart attack on 17 August 1959, at the untimely age of 42.
No. 1 Squadron’s other leading scorer in the summer of 1942 was the squadron commander, Squadron Leader James MacLachlan, but with five enemy bombers destroyed and three damaged, he was a long way behind his Czech colleague. A remarkable character, ‘Mac’ had scored six victories in the Battle of Britain and two more over Malta, but had himself been shot down and badly wounded in February 1941, losing his left arm above the elbow. He took command of No. 1 Squadron in November 1941, having been fitted with an artificial arm in the meantime.
The year 1942 saw the debut of the night fighter that really tipped the scales: the de Havilland Mosquito. In October No. 25 Squadron became the north’s first Mosquito night fighter squadron, moving to Church Fenton and displacing No. 54 OTU, which went to Charterhall on the Scottish Borders. Later in the month No. 410 Squadron also re-equipped at Acklington. The advent of the Mosquito was timely, for KG 2’s fast Dornier 217s, which were capable of 300 mph (480 kph) at low altitude, were causing problems for the defences. And it was not only historic towns that were hit; Middlesbrough, for example, after a break of five months, was attacked four times between the middle of April and the end of July 1942. It is also worth recording that, outside the great conurbations of London and Merseyside, the hardest-hit city in Britain was Hull. By the war’s end, only 6,000 out of 93,000 buildings in Hull had escaped bomb damage, most of it incurred during three major attacks in March and May 1941. Because of its geographical location, Hull was an easy target. It was heavily attacked twice during Operation Steinbock, the so-called Little Blitz of January to May 1944, conducted by all available German bombers on the Western Front. During these two attacks, carried out by Junkers 88s, Dornier 217s and Heinkel 177s, 25 Squadron (Coltishall), 264 Squadron (Church Fenton) and 307 Polish Squadron (Drem) claimed eleven enemy aircraft between them. As a matter of note, the Little Blitz cost the Luftwaffe 329 aircraft, of which 129 were destroyed by Mosquitoes equipped with Mk VIII AI radar.
By the beginning of 1943 the RAF’s night fighter squadrons were turning increasingly from defence to offence, and it was the Mosquito that spearheaded the intruder offensive. The Mosquito’s long range and heavy armament of four 20 mm cannon made it highly suitable for the night-intruder role, as well as for local night air defence. The intruder Mosquitoes (and Beaufighters), although stripped of their AI for operations over enemy territory, were fitted with a device named Serrate which, developed by the Telecommunications Research Establishment as a result of information on enemy night-fighting radars brought back by special countermeasures aircraft, enabled the British fighters to home in to the enemy’s airborne radar transmissions. It had a range of about 50 miles (80 km), and was first used operationally in June 1943 by No. 141 Squadron, which scored twenty-three kills in three months with its help. No. 141 Squadron’s commander was Wing Commander J.R.D. ‘Bob’ Braham, whose combat report describes a night action off the Dutch island of Ameland on the night of 17/18 August 1943. Braham was flying a Beaufighter Mk VI, and his navigator was Flight Lieutenant H. Jacobs.
We took off from Coltishall at 2200 hours on intruder patrol to Stade. We flew to a point north of Schiermonnikoog and then turned NE at 2254. We continued on course for about five minutes when we sighted one Me 110 flying east and jinking. We turned and followed him towards the coast, closing in on the aircraft until we were at 300 yards range, 20 degrees starboard astern and a little below. Fire was opened with a two-second burst from all guns and strikes were seen all over the enemy aircraft. Smoke came from the port engine and the Me 110 dived to port. We gave him another two-second burst from 250 yards and he caught fire and dived into the sea, burning on the water. Immediately afterwards we saw a second Me 110 (which had been chasing us) a little above and turning gently to starboard on an easterly course. We gave a one-second burst of cannon and machine gun at 50 yards in a gentle turn. The enemy aircraft appeared to blow up and we had to pull up and turn to port to avoid ramming it. At that point we saw one man bale out and his parachute open, and the enemy aircraft dived vertically into the sea in flames … we landed at Wittering at 0145.
Towards the end of 1944, Mosquitoes equipped with the latest AI radar were cleared to operate over enemy territory, and the old Serrate Mk I was replaced by a new version, the Mk IV. Some aircraft were also equipped with a new device known as Perfectos, which emitted a pulse that triggered the IFF (identification friend/foe) sets of German night fighters and enabled the Mosquitoes to home on to the answering signal. Nevertheless, No. 100 Group’s fighter force never really succeeded in getting to grips with the enemy night fighters. Quite apart from equipment problems, the Mosquito crews were faced with the formidable task of operating deep inside enemy territory as complete freelancers, with no help from other quarters. Furthermore, enemy fighters had to be intercepted before they entered the bomber stream, because once they were inside the stream it was extremely difficult to make radar contact with them owing to the profusion of other echoes. The tactics employed by the Mosquitoes usually began with a bombing and cannon attack on enemy night-fighter airfields a few minutes before the bomber stream entered the area of German GCI radar coverage. Other Mosquitoes would work on the flanks of the stream, about 40 miles (65 km) from it and at a higher altitude, in the hope of intercepting enemy fighters before they reached the bombers. As the bombers were on their way home from the target, more Mosquito fighter-bombers loitered in the vicinity of the German airfields, waiting to catch the night fighters as they came in to land.
One Mosquito night fighter/intruder team that enjoyed considerable success was Flight Lieutenant James Benson and Squadron Leader Lewis Brandon (navigator) of No. 157 Squadron. Together, they scored seven confirmed kills, with a number of claims for aircraft probably destroyed and damaged, and also destroyed six V-1 flying bombs in the summer of 1944. On the night of 11/12 September 1944, while flying bomber-support operations with No. 100 Group, they were flying over the island of Seeland, off the south-east coast of Denmark, when Brandon picked up a transmission from an enemy night fighter radar. A few moments later, he made contact with the suspect aircraft and steered Benson towards it.
In the clear moonlight, the enemy was identified as a Junkers 188; it was flying in broad circles, apparently orbiting a German radio beacon. Benson slid in astern of the 188 and fired a burst into it, seeing his 20 mm shells strike home on the night fighter’s starboard wing root. The 188 lost speed rapidly, its starboard engine catching fire, and Benson had to pull up sharply to avoid a collision. The 188 was last seen plunging earthwards, streaming flames. At that moment, Brandon picked up another contact. It was a second Ju 188, and it had probably been engaged in a night-fighting exercise with the first. Benson closed in rapidly and gave the Junkers a two-second burst; bright flames streamed back from the enemy’s ruptured fuel tanks and it dropped away towards the Danish coast, shedding great chunks of wreckage. The Mosquito sped through the cloud of smoke and debris that the Junkers left in its wake; when Benson and Brandon returned to base they found their aircraft smothered in oil and scarred by pieces of flying metal.
In 1943 – 4 the Luftwaffe once again mounted frequent intruder operations, using mainly Me 410 and Ju 188 aircraft. We can see a measure of what they might have achieved, had these aircraft been committed in greater numbers, in one attack on American air bases in East Norfolk on 2 April 1944, when intruders destroyed thirteen B-24 Liberators and, in the panic, two more were shot down by their own airfield defences.
On the night of 3 – 4 March 1945, at the eleventh hour, the Luftwaffe launched Operation Gisela, sending 140 intruders over England. They attacked fourteen bomber bases and destroyed nineteen bombers on airfields north and south of the Humber. A smaller follow-on raid was attempted on the next night, the two attacks costing the Luftwaffe around twenty aircraft. In the second raid, a Junkers Ju 88G-6 of 13/NJG 3 was shot down at 01.51 at Sutton-on-Derwent during an attack on Elvington. It was the last German aircraft to be brought down on British soil.