Battle of the Power Stations I

487_squadron_rnzaf_ncos_raf_methold_early_1943

No. 487 Squadron NCOs at RAF Methwold early 1943.

ventura-bomber

Armourers load 250-lb GP bombs into a Lockheed Ventura Mark II of No. 464 Squadron RAAF at Methwold, Norfolk, using a bomb-trolley borrowed from No. 487 Squadron RNZAF.

dieppe-bombing

Vertical aerial photograph taken during a daylight raid on shipping in Dieppe, France, by 12 Lockheed Venturas of No. 487 Squadron RNZAF. One group of bombs is straddling the Quai du Hable and the entrance channel to the docks, while another group explodes on the cliff top above the Avant Port.

einven

Venturas of 487 (NZ) Squadron during the attack on the Phillips factory at Eindhoven, December 6th, 1942. A drawing by Maurice Conly.

No. 487 Squadron, RNZAF, formed part of No. 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command. It was formed at Feltwell, Norfolk, on 15 August 1942 as a light day bomber squadron, equipped 15 August 1942 as a light day bomber squadron, equipped with Lockheed Ventura II aircraft. A military development of the civilian Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, the Ventura was produced to meet a British requirement for an aircraft to replace the Bristol Blenheim in No. 2 Group and the Lockheed Hudson in RAF Coastal Command.

No. 487 had an interesting badge. It depicted a tekoteko, a grotesque Maori carved figure that usually adorned the apex of the gable above the entrance to the whare-whakairo, the meeting house of a Maori tribe. The tekoteko generally brandished a weapon as a challenge to all comers; in this case, the weapon was a bomb. The squadron’s motto, in the Maori language, was an appropriate one: Ki te mutunga – Through to the end.

The squadron began operations on 6 December 1942, when it contributed sixteen Venturas of the ninety-three aircraft of No. 2 Group – Douglas Bostons, Venturas and de Havilland Mosquitoes – despatched to attack the Philips radio and valve factory at Eindhoven, which was believed to produce about a third of Germany’s supply of radio components. The target consisted of two clusters of buildings covering an area of about 70 acres (28 ha), and it was particularly attractive because it was surrounded by open country, a fact that reduced the risk of inflicting civilian casualties on the Dutch down to an absolute minimum.

The attack was made at low level, with the aircraft flying in three waves; the first consisting of thirty-six Bostons, the second of ten Mosquitoes and the third of forty-seven Venturas. However, all did not go according to plan. The bombers were harried by enemy fighters long before they reached the target; the leading formation became dislocated and arrived late over the objective, becoming tangled up with the Mosquitoes in the second wave. Afterwards, instead of re-forming into one compact defensive formation, the bombers straggled back to base in small groups.

The Philips factory had been badly damaged, but the cost to the attacking force had been high. Nine Venturas, five Bostons and a Mosquito failed to return, and another thirty-seven Venturas, thirteen Bostons and three Mosquitoes were damaged. Enemy fighters had accounted for some of the missing aircraft, but the main body of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs had been drawn away from the area by a diversionary attack on Lille carried out by the USAAF. Many of the losses sustained by the Ventura formations, which had attacked at a considerably lower level than the others, had been caused by aircraft colliding with unseen obstacles in the smoke over the target, and some had been shot down by light flak. Of the damaged aircraft that returned to base, thirty-one had suffered bird strikes, a hazard that accompanied all low-level daylight operations. The result did not encourage future operations of this kind, and the unsuitablity of the Ventura as a day bomber was further underlined by the outcome of an operation on 3 May 1943.

During that month RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Army Air Force carried out a series of intensive attacks on power station in Holland, which were supplying energy to the German war effort. All these missions were flown in daylight and the cost in aircraft and crews was high. On 3 May eleven Venturas of No 487 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, led by Wing Commander Leonard Trent, took off from their base at Methwold in Norfolk to attack the main power station in Amsterdam. Apart from disrupting the power supply to German-controlled industries in the area, the raid was designed to encourage Dutch workers in their resistance to enemy pressure. The importance of bombing the target, which was heavily defended, was strongly impressed on the crews taking part in the operation, and before take-off Trent told his deputy that he intended to go in whatever happened.

Everything went well until the eleven Venturas and their fighter escort were over the Dutch coast, when one of the bombers was hit by flak and had to turn back. A minute later large numbers of enemy fighters appeared; these engaged the Spitfire escort, which soon lost touch with the Venturas. The latter closed up tightly for mutual protection and started their run towards the target, expecting to rendezvous with much more friendly fighters over Amsterdam, but the fighters had arrived in the target area much too soon and had been recalled.

Within moments the Venturas were being savagely attacked by twenty Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. One after the other, six of the bombers went down in flames in the space of four minutes. The remaining four, with Trent at their head, continued doggedly towards the target. The dwindling formation now ran into murderous anti-aircraft fire, which accouted for two more Venturas. Trent and the other surviving crew made accurate bombing runs, harassed all the time by enemy fighters that braved their own flak to press home their attacks. Trent got in a lucky burst with his nose gun at a Focke-Wulf 190, which flicked into a spin and crashed. A moment later the other Ventura received a direct hit and exploded. Trent turned away from the target area, but his aircraft too was hit and began to break up. Trent and his navigator were thrown clear and became prisoners of war; the other two crew members were killed. After the war, when the full story of the raid emerged, Trent was awarded the Victoria Cross.

One of the problems during this period was the relative ineffectiveness of the fighter escort. The RAF fighter squadrons responsible for escorting the bombers of No. 2 Group were equipped with the Spitfire Mk VB, which was outclassed by the Focke-Wulf 190. One of the fighter squadrons was No. 118, which was based at Coltishall, Norfolk, early in 1943. An extract from its war diary, dated 29 January 1943, is revealing.

In the afternoon the Squadron made rendezvous with No. 167 and twelve Venturas over Mundesley and flew at sea level to within a few miles of the Dutch coast, then climbed to 9,000 feet over Ijmuiden. As we crossed the coast four Fw 190s were seen breaking cloud below at 2,000 feet. Our allotted task was to give cover to the bombers which, instead of bombing immediately, went inland for ten minutes then turned round and bombed from east to west on an outward heading. Squadron Leader Wooton decided not to go down for the 190s until the bombers had carried out their task, or while they were still in danger of being attacked. While the bombers and escorts were making their incursion the 190s climbed up and were joined by others, but before they could attack the bombers they were engaged by 118 Squadron. In the resultant dog-fight, of which no-one seemed to have a very clear picture, Sgt Lack destroyed an Fw 190 which he followed down to sea level and set on fire; it was eventually seen to crash into the sea by Hallingworth.

Hallingworth was attacked and his aircraft hit, and he in turn claimed a 190 damaged. The CO, who engaged the leading Fw 190, also claimed one damaged, the enemy aircraft breaking away after being hit by cannon fire and going down followed by Sgt Buglass, who lost sight of it. Shepherd went to Hallingworth’s rescue when he was being attacked, and was himself fired at head-on by two Fw 190s. Flight Sergeant Cross is missing from this engagement; no-one saw what happened to him, but as he was flying number two to Shepherd it is believed that he must have been hit during the double attack on his section leader. The Squadron got split up during the engagement, seven aircraft coming back together and the other four in two pairs. No-one saw Cross crash. He was a very nice, quiet Canadian and will be very much missed …

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