Hydra Part I

Peenemunde by Frank Wootton.
August 17th – 18th 1943 – German fighers and British bombers battle above the research station at Peenemunde to decide the fate of the Nazi V weapons.

Peenemünde Museum

Last night in clear moonlight our bombers undertook a massive raid on Peenemünde approximately sixty miles northwest of Stettin, the largest and most important air research and development institute in Germany. Our aircraft encountered a great many enemy night fighters, several of which we shot down. Mosquito bombers raided targets in Berlin.

RAF Headquarters announcement, 16 August 1943.

The Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde, HVP (Peenemünde Army Research Centre) was founded in 1937 as one of five military proving grounds under the German Army Weapons Office (Heeres Waffenamt). On 2 April 1936 the Reich Air Ministry paid 750,000 Reichsmarks to the town of Wolgast for the whole Northern peninsula of the Baltic island of Usedom. Wernher von Braun was the HVP technical director. The site had been suggested by his mother as ‘just the place for you and your friends’. One of his ‘friends’ – Dr Walter Thiel – the engineer heading the V-2 liquid oxygen propulsion department, was his deputy director. By the middle of 1938, the Army facility had been separated from the Luftwaffe facility and was nearly complete, with personnel moved from Kummersdorf.134 Several German guided missiles and rockets were developed by the HVP, including the V2 rocket (A4) and the Wasserfall (35 Peenemünde trial firings), Schmetterling, Rheintochter, Taifun and Enzian missiles. The HVP also performed preliminary design work on very-long-range missiles for use against the United States. That project was sometimes called the ‘V 3’. The Peenemünde establishment also developed other techniques, such as the first closed-circuit television system in the world, installed at Test Stand VII to track the launching rockets.135

In November 1938, Walther von Brauchitsch ordered construction of an A4 Production Plant at Peenemünde and, in January 1939, Walter Dornberger created a subsection of Wa Pruf 11 for planning the Peenemünde Production Plant project, headed by G. Schubert, a senior Army civil servant. By midsummer 1943 the first trial runs of the assembly-line in the Production Works at Werke Süd were made and after the end of July the enormous hangar Fertigungshalle 1 (F-1, Mass Production Plant No. 1) was just about to go into operation. However, in early 1943 two Polish slave janitors at the forced workers camp at Trassenheide more than a mile to the south of Peenemünde had provided maps, sketches and reports to Polish Home Army Intelligence and in June British intelligence had received two such reports which identified the ‘rocket assembly hall’, ‘experimental pit’ and ‘launching tower’. The Polish janitors were given advance warning of the attack, but the workers could not leave due to SS security and the facility had no air raid shelters for the prisoners.

Bomber crews were told that Peenemünde could alter the whole course of the war and had to be destroyed regardless of losses. Three aiming points, the HVP’s ‘Sleeping and Living Quarters’ (to specifically target scientists), the ‘Factory Workshops’ and finally the ‘Experimental Station’ had to be destroyed totally – if not that night, then the next night and the night after if necessary. ‘This’ recalled Warrant Officer Eddie Wheeler, a WOp/AG on 97 Squadron at Bourn, Cambridgeshire ‘did nothing to encourage us especially when we learnt that there would be no cloud and a full moon and the attack would be from as low as 12,000 feet or lower. These conditions would be ideal for the German night fighters so the RAF would adopt ‘spoof’ tactics by sending a small number of Mosquitoes to Berlin, giving the impression that that was the night’s target for the main force. Berlin was high on the RAF priority list and the Germans were very sensitive to attacks on their capital. It was hoped that their fighters would be concentrated nearer to Berlin and that by the time it was established that Peenemünde was to be the main target the first two waves of bombers would have completed their task and been on the way home. The third wave provided by 5 Group could, however, expect to have a hot time.

‘We took off at 2108 hours and climbed to 18,000 feet. Our primary target was the scientists’ quarters. The whole force would be directed by a Master Bomber, Group Captain John H. Searby on 83 Squadron at Wyton was selected for this task and he was to fly over the target for the whole attack giving a commentary and shifting the attack as was necessary. Forty minutes could elapse from first to last aircraft on target. Some aircraft were fitted with ‘Oboe’ ground controlled radar, other PFF aircraft with H2S but the conditions would allow for full visual attacks, providing smoke did not obscure the aiming points. From 08°E we started to throw out ‘Window’.

‘We began to lose height as we approached Rugen Island and saw many aircraft around us in the almost daylight conditions. Fortunately none were hostile so hopefully the Mosquitoes who had preceded us by one hour had lured the night fighters to the Berlin area. We sighted the target clearly at 11,700 feet. The enemy, in the hope of thwarting the attacking forces, had already started a smoke screen. Light flak started piping up from the target zone as we went in with our green TIs and 7,500lb bomb load. Peter reported direct hits on the living quarters and just then we suffered a direct hit from flak. Johnny shouted that we were going round in circles and could not fly straight and level. If the state of affairs could not be rectified we would have to consider bailing out – a prospect which did not appeal one bit. To jump with the possibility of either landing in the sea or amid a hail of bombs just wasn’t on. Bill beckoned me to follow him down the fuselage and with great trepidation I did so, regretting the fact that I was putting distance between me and my parachute. Bill indicated the trimming and aileron cables that had been severed by the impact. He busied himself with lengths of nylon cord and then Johnny said that he had recovered control of the aircraft. By now the target was a sea of flame and high explosions and we were intent on returning from whence we came with all speed.

‘The German defences were well alerted by now and fighters would be re-deployed from the Berlin area without delay. We felt sorry for the last wave of bombers entering the scene and who would have to take the full brunt of attacks in ideal night-flying conditions. Several aircraft were seen going down in flames. Seven hours after take-off we had the welcoming sight of Bourn and we hoped that the target had been well and truly plastered and that it would not be necessary to return again the next night, when the Luftwaffe would be ready and waiting to wreak their revenge.’

Pilot Officer John A. Martin DFC navigator on Pilot Officer ‘Mac’ McDonald’s Stirling crew on 218 Squadron at Chedburgh recalled:

‘During the attack we had a master bomber directing the dropping of the bombs. His call sign to us was ‘Raven’ and as soon as we were getting ready to do our run in to drop the bombs, he would call, ‘Raven aircraft, Raven aircraft, don’t drop the bombs, the TIs (target indicators) are falling into the sea.’ Because of this we had to go around and start our bomb run again. The next number of crews had had the TI problem rectified, by the time it came our turn the target indicators were again falling into the sea so we had to abort our bomb run and again go around to start our bomb run again. On our next approach I was in the astrodome looking out, when suddenly this fighter came up dead astern. I shouted ‘Rear gunner, fighter, dead astern.’ The rear gunner fired at the fighter and shot it down. I was still in the astrodome and saw the glow of engines coming towards us and shouted, ‘Rear gunner there is another one coming in.’ The rear gunner started shooting. We then heard, on the radio, ‘Saint, saint’. It was a Halifax that we were shooting at. We dived and got away from it. We dropped our bombs on target and returned back to base. We had a second pilot with us that night, Bunse was his name. I was sitting in the mess the next morning when Bunse came over to me and said: ‘Would you read that there, Paddy.’ The report was of a Halifax crew, being attacked from below and the flight engineer lost his foot in the incident. It seemed like the incident we had been involved in. That was an awful night, the night of that Peenemünde raid. Can you visualise 700 aircraft going round and round, aircraft here and aircraft there, TI going off in the middle of it. During the bomb runs there was radio silence, apart from the Master Bomber. The Master Bomber shouted over the radio, ‘Raven aircraft, Raven aircraft: don’t bomb now the TIs are falling into the sea.’ A wee voice from somewhere came up on the radio, ‘Raven, Raven, we’re Raven mad, would you drop those TIs.’ Target indicators were big flares which were dropped on the target and provided an easier located target, for the other aircraft on the raid, on which to aim their bombs. I can still see that fighter as if it was only yesterday, coming up and showing his belly to us, and air gunner McIlroy pumped his rounds into it and down he went. I can still see that fighter over Bremen with the bullets coming out of his main plane and I can still see Gamble throwing out the propaganda leaflets. He was quite a character.’

After dropping his bombs Sergeant John Anthony Logan ‘Jack’ Currie, the 21-year old pilot of Lancaster ‘George 2’ on 12 Squadron at Wickenby climbed away smoothly and headed to the west. ‘We had no way of knowing that the Nachtjagd controllers, aware now that the Berlin raid was no more than a feint, had redirected all their available Messerschmitts and Junkers to our homeward route.

‘The Lancaster’s electronics included a receiver that picked up transmissions from the Lichtenstein radar sets in the German fighters. The radar device was code-named Boozer, perhaps because the red lamp it lighted on the panel was reminiscent of a heavy drinker’s nose. At 18,000 feet over Stralsund, thirty miles west of Peenemünde, the roving eye picked the glow up straight away.

‘Rear gunner from pilot, I have a Boozer warning.’

‘Rear gunner watching out astern.’

‘Boozer also read transmissions from the ground-based Würzburg radars, which could be quite a nuisance when you were flying in the stream; at all times, however, you had to heed the signal. It was as well we did: seconds later, Lanham spoke again. ‘Fighter at seven o’clock low. Stand by to corkscrew.’

‘Standing by.’

‘Mid-upper from rear gunner. There could be a pair. I’ll take care of this one, you watch out.’

‘I didn’t like the sound of that remark. I would be difficult enough to evade one fighter in the moonlight, let alone two. I sat up straight and gently shook the wheel. Don’t get excited, George 2, but you might be doing some aerobatics any minute now.

‘Prepare to corkscrew port, Jack… corkscrew port… go!’

‘Going port.’

‘I used heavy left aileron and rudder, elevators down, held the diving turn through fifteen degrees, I pulled out sharply and turned hard to starboard halfway through climb. George 2 responded like a PT-17 – a PT-17 weighing twenty-five tons.

‘Foxed him, Jack. He’s holding off, level on the starboard quarter.’

‘Protheroe then came through. ‘Another bandit, skipper, four o’clock high, six hundred yards. It’s an Me 210…’

‘Lanham broke in. ‘Watch him, George here comes number one again. Corkscrew starboard … go!’

‘According to the navigator’s log, the combat continued for another eight minutes: to me it seemed longer. After each frustrated pass, the attacker held off, content to occupy the attention of one gunner, while his partner came on in. I longed to have the heat turned down – the sweat was running down my face – but I dared not interrupt the gunners’ running commentary. The sound of heavy breathing was sufficiently distracting and I knew that it was mine.

‘My wrists and forearms were reasonably strong, but I was no Charles Atlas and ‘George 2’ wasn’t feeling like a Stearman anymore. It occurred to me that these two fighter pilots were just playing games with us, biding their time until I was exhausted. Then they would rip the Lancaster to shreds. The sheet of armour plate behind me seemed pitifully small and there was a lot of me it failed to shield. If only our Brownings had a greater range; if only I could find a layer of cloud to hide in; if only the moonlight wasn’t quite so bright…

‘Corkscrew port… go!’

‘Throwing George 2 into another diving turn, I looked back through the window. There was the Messerschmitt again, turning steeply with me as the pilot tried to bring his guns to bear. I could see his helmet and his goggles, looking straight at me. Staring back at him I felt a sudden surge of anger and a change of mood. You’re not good enough, Jerry, I thought, to win this little fight. You’re a bloody awful pilot and a damn poor shot. ‘Well, for Christ’s sake, George,’ I squawked into the microphone, ‘shoot that bastard down.’

‘Instantly the Lancaster vibrated. At first the flashed dazzled me, but when Protheroe fired a second burst I saw the streams of tracer make a sun-bright parabola between George 2 and the fighter’s nose. The Messerschmitt rolled over and went down. The last I saw of that bloody awful pilot was a long trail of smoke, ending in the stratus far below.

‘I think you got him,’ I said. ‘Where’s the other one?’

‘Falling back astern,’ said Lanham.

‘He’s clearing off. Probably out of ammo or fuel.’

‘Good shooting, George. What kept you?’

‘Sorry, skipper. I had my sights on him all the time. I guess I just forgot to pull the trigger.’

‘Pilot from nav; let me know when you’re back on course.’

‘Roger.’

‘Bomb-aimer, skip. I was ready for the buggers, but they never came in bloody range of the front bloody guns …’

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