The outcome of the Battle of Berlin I

Crew of “M for Mother”, a Lancaster bomber from 467 Squadron, preparing to take off on a raid over Berlin. UK0456

Part of a vertical photographic reconniassance aerial taken over Berlin, Germany after heavy night raids by Bomber Command aircraft on 23/24 August, 31 August/1 September and 3/4 September 1943. Heavy damage is evident in the Steglitz area, near the Friedenau railway station, where most properties have been gutted by fire.
C 3838
Part of
No. 542 Squadron RAF

The outcome of the Battle of Berlin would depend upon the answers to two questions: Would the Luftwaffe be able to recover from the setback to its long established defensive system caused by the introduction of Window, and would the Bomber Command Pathfinders be able to overcome the problems of blind marking over Berlin? In other words, it was the old formula of war: the balancing of the costs of a campaign against the success gained.

The night fighter, not the Flak battery, was the greatest cause of Bomber Command’s losses all through the middle years of the war. Window, introduced in late July 1943, rendered virtually useless the German box system of night fighting. The ground radars which directed a night fighter into proximity with a bomber passing through a box, and the radar set in the fighter required for the final interception, were both swamped by the mass of false returns from the fluttering clouds of Window. The only unaffected form of night fighting was the makeshift Wild Boar method recently introduced, in which single-engined fighters were sent into action over the target cities using the various types of illumination available there. The Wild Boar method was forced upon the whole night-fighter force until a technical response to Window was found. The fifty-eight bombers lost on the first raid of the Battle of Berlin were a testimony of the good effect with which the night fighters made use of Wild Boar and were able to deal such a heavy blow on Bomber Command only five weeks after Window was first used.

Thereafter, the effectiveness of Wild Boar gradually diminished, but this was more than compensated for by the introduction of the virtually Window-proof SN-2 radar which enabled the new Tame Boar method of fighting on the routes to be introduced at the turn of the year. The following list shows the loss rates of Bomber Command aircraft carrying out major raids against German targets during four different periods.

24 April to 25 July 1943, the last three months of mainly box night fighting – 4.9 per cent bomber casualties.

24 July to 16 August 1943, the introduction of Window and the initial period of German confusion – 29 per cent bomber casualties.

17 August to 31 December 1943, from the first widespread use of Wild Boar (on the Peenemünde raid) to the end of the year – 4.6 per cent bomber casualties.

1 January to 31 March 1944, the first three months of widespread Tame Boar use – 5.5 per cent bomber casualties.

These figures show how the use of Wild Boar as a standard method of night fighting brought back the losses inflicted on the bombers almost to the level experienced before Window, and how the Tame Boar method inflicted a greater casualty rate than before Window. There are still former German night-fighter men who say that the changes forced upon the Luftwaffe by the British introduction of Window produced in the long term greater benefit for the Germans than for the British, because the entire German night-fighter force could be effectively employed and not just the experienced crews who had claimed priority in the old box-system engagements.

In the Battle of Berlin, the Luftwaffe forced Harris to remove first his Stirlings from the front line and then the older types of Halifax. Even then, the new Halifaxes took a hiding every time they were committed to action, and Harris was forced to use them only intermittently. Then Harris was forced to break off operations to Northern Germany almost completely after the heavy loss of the Leipzig raid on the night of 19 February. Finally, with the Nuremberg raid at the end of March, the Luftwaffe showed that it had answered the question. It had recovered from Window. It could now defend any part of Germany.

What about that second question? How had the Pathfinders coped with the problems of the blind marking method used on all but one of the nineteen Berlin raids?

It had not worked. The confusion of woods, lakes and small towns outside Berlin after a long approach flight over inland Germany and then the great, sprawling mass of the city itself had defied the best efforts of the Pathfinders. The eighteen blind marking attempts can be analysed. There were two excellent results on the consecutive evenings of 22 and 23 November 1943, when all went well and the Main Force bombing wrought great destruction. There were two raids almost as good at the end of January 1944 – on the nights of the 28th and 30th – when the marking was sufficiently concentrated for serious damage to be caused. There were six other raids when the marking was at least confined to the limits of the city and most of the Main Force bombing hit Berlin, but no degree of concentration was possible. Finally, in eight of those eighteen raids, the marking was so scattered that many of the Main Force aircraft did not even hit Berlin. In at least three of those failed raids, strong winds and high cloud made the Pathfinders’ task almost impossible, but the remaining disappointments were due to the general inability to overcome the problems of blind marking.

There were two main reasons why consistent blind marking was unattainable. First, the existing H2S sets with which most of the Pathfinder aircraft were equipped did not show enough definition of the ground for the average Pathfinder set operator to be sure of his exact position over Berlin. Too few of these sets were available and they were rushed into service too quickly; H2S Mark III had little effect upon the Battle of Berlin. A second factor is worthy of more discussion. There were a number of first-class radar set operators in the Pathfinders who could have made something useful even of the old sets and even over Berlin, but there were not enough such men. Their shortage was part of the greater problem of the low level of experience in Pathfinder crews through the Battle of Berlin. The reader will remember Air Vice-Marshal Bennett’s plea to Harris to secure all second-tour crews returning to operations in Bomber Command. At the time of that appeal, 25 September 1943, Bennett pointed out that the average Pathfinder captain had only twenty operational sorties to his credit, compared to a level of thirty-two sorties when a survey had been made seven months earlier. Harris had not felt able to accede to that request, and the normal method of Pathfinder recruitment had continued. Two-thirds of new crews came from Main Force squadrons, usually crews with about ten sorties to their credit, and one-third were ‘direct entry’ crews selected at training units, often without having any previous operational experience. In that same letter to Harris in September 1943, Bennett had complained that ‘the direct entry crews are a tremendous burden for training in squadrons and it is a very long period before any such crew is raised to “above average” standards for marking’.

Since that time, the Pathfinders had suffered severe operational losses. In the six monthly periods of the Battle of Berlin, 198 crews were lost on operations, at least fourteen more in crashes, accidents, injury to crew members and other forms of wastage, and perhaps another sixty or seventy crews completed their tours and were released from operations. There was a horrifying six-week period between 16 December 1943 and the end of January 1944 when eighty-seven Pathfinder crews became casualties in missing or crashed aircraft. It is significant that the two heaviest losing squadrons in Bomber Command in the Battle of Berlin – 7 and 156 Squadrons – were both from the Pathfinders. The Pathfinders thus had to recruit and retrain to marking standards nearly fifty new crews each month during the Battle of Berlin. There was never a shortage of crews; the numbers required for operations were always provided. But the average level of experience continued to fall.

The standard first tour of operations in the Pathfinders was forty-five operations, including any operations flown earlier in the Main Force. A crew could then be rested before being called for a second tour of twenty operations. But, if a first-tour crew so wished, they could carry on after forty-five operations as far as sixty, this counting as a double tour and relieving them of the obligation to return for a further tour. Such crews were the most effective in the Pathfinders, with a great amount of recent operational experience behind them; they were the very stuff of the good blind-marker crews required to tackle a target like Berlin. But, when casualties were heavy, very few crews volunteered to carry on in this way; a flight commander in one of the Pathfinder squadrons during the Battle of Berlin says, ‘I don’t remember any; everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the end of a standard tour and got away as quickly as possible.’

The results of all this were that the Pathfinders, on Bennett’s own admission, started the Battle of Berlin with a low level of crew experience, suffered heavy casualties throughout the battle and could never during that winter find enough crews sufficiently experienced and qualified to make those H2S sets work properly over Berlin. No criticism whatsoever is intended by these comments. The Pathfinder crews tried and tried again. Their early return rates were the lowest in Bomber Command; their casualties were among the highest.

There was another factor: the composition and performance of the Main Force. However well the Pathfinders marked the target, no raid was successful if a Main Force carrying enough bombs did not come in and bomb the markers accurately. Let us look at the bomb loads first. The weight of an attack was not measured in the number of aircraft dispatched but in the tonnage of bombs carried. The early raids of the Battle of Berlin did not carry large tonnages because of the proportion of Stirlings and Halifaxes in the Main Force. But an early peak of over 2,500 tons was achieved on the night of 22 November 1943, when the increased numbers of Lancasters together with the use of the shortest possible route enabled this tonnage to be carried. The bombing results on that night were the most successful in the Battle of Berlin. But bomber casualties forced the removal of the Stirlings and the older Halifaxes from the Main Force, and on other nights even the Halifax IIIs were left out of the battle. At the same time, the improving Luftwaffe tactics forced the use of longer and longer routes. The figure of 2,500 tons of bombs was not achieved again until mid-February; less than half that tonnage was dropped on some of the midwinter raids. But by February the battle was almost over; the Luftwaffe was forcing Bomber Command to abandon the task.

How many of the bombs loaded reached Berlin and were properly aimed at the markers? Surviving bomber crew members will confirm that the worst part of any flight was the bomb run. The temptation for a bomb aimer to release his bombs just a second or two early, to get rid of that lethal weight and allow his pilot to dive, increase speed and get out of the target area was almost irresistible. The same urge was present among the Pathfinders. The tendency for both marking and bombing to creep back was present on every raid but it was even more likely to be present when defences were fierce. The Bomber Command staff knew all this, and bombing tactics were planned accordingly. The Aiming Point for the Pathfinders was always placed beyond the centre of the area intended for destruction. A tail wind was used in planning the route through the target if possible. Pathfinder Backers-Up were ordered to overshoot existing markers by two or three seconds. Above all, at every Main Force squadron briefing, the crews were urged to press right on up to the centre of the markers before releasing their bombs, not to bomb the first markers they saw.

Some of the raids on Berlin were successful because these rules were observed. But there were too many other nights when they were not. An interesting correspondence took place in November 1944 between Air Vice-Marshal Bennett, commander of the Pathfinders, and Bomber Command Headquarters over what had gone wrong in the Battle of Berlin. The British Official History quotes Bennett’s views:

‘There can be no doubt’, he said, ‘that a very large number of crews failed to carry out their attacks during the Battle of Berlin in their customary determined manner.’ He referred to ‘enormous numbers’ of reports each night about bombs being jettisoned in the North Sea or over Denmark and he said that the reports of Pathfinder crews ‘consistently showed that the amount of bombing on the markers which they dropped was negligible. I feel quite sure in my own mind’, Bennett concluded, ‘that many bombs were wasted en route in an effort to increase aircraft performance and that, unfortunately, the Command suffered from many “fringe merchants”.’

Undoubtedly Bennett was trying to deflect criticism of the Pathfinder performance over Berlin, but there is some truth in what he wrote. Morale among aircrews held up remarkably well during that winter, but there was a gradual loss of heart and determination as the winter drew on. The rate of early returns, always a measure of morale, increased, even the Lancasters being affected when the other aircraft types were not flying in the lower height bands to absorb the first attentions of the night fighters. Other aircraft jettisoned part of their bomb load in the North Sea. Then, at the target, there were what Bennett called the ‘fringe merchants’. The presence of cloud and the scattering of Skymarkers by the wind on so many of the Berlin raids gave crews the opportunity to avoid the centre of the target and bomb on the edge of it, bringing back a ‘cloud photograph’ which did not reveal where they had bombed, or a photograph showing just a single Skymarker. On those nights when the Pathfinders were able to produce concentrated and accurate marking, the Main Force responded well, and Berlin suffered accordingly. It was no one’s fault; the task of destroying Berlin was beyond Bomber Command’s capabilities at that time.

What is amazing is the fortitude of the bomber crews in sticking to such a fearful task as well as they did. I asked more than three hundred ex-Battle of Berlin men about the state of morale on their squadrons. The Pathfinders, feeling themselves a selected élite, held well. The small number of Australian squadrons – three out of the four were flying Lancasters – were also steady. The Canadians of 6 Group had been expanded too rapidly, sometimes suffered from poor leadership and were mostly flying the Halifax, which nearly always suffered heavier casualties than the Lancaster when committed to action. Their morale and that of most of 4 Group, which was completely Halifax-equipped, was not so high, although it varied from squadron to squadron. The picture in the Main Force Lancaster squadrons which bore the brunt of the Battle of Berlin was more one of enormous strain, mostly faced and endured, morale being much sustained by the crews’ faith in the aircraft they flew.

These are a selection of individual views. Pilot Officer Joe Sheriff was a Canadian wireless operator on 57 Squadron at East Kirkby.

The Battle of Berlin did cause morale to sag. Crews were weary and angry, strained and more fearful of their next trip than usual, cursing ‘Butch’ Harris for his unrelenting demands and his apparently uncaring attitude towards his own men. The results didn’t appear to come anywhere near justifying the losses and the hardship.

I knew three crews during the Battle of Berlin who obviously were in bad shape because of fatigue and should have been rested. Two didn’t survive. One of the crews had several close calls and the pilot was a nervous wreck. On one trip they were hit by Flak and the navigator and wireless operator were injured. On another trip they were sprayed by shells from a night fighter. One shell came through the windshield right in front of the pilot – the shoulder of his jacket was sliced through. He was not injured but his journey home was a nightmare because of the blast of air through the hole in the windscreen and manhandling a Lancaster which had some of its controls damaged. It was obvious that this crew had had its nine lives and was so shattered by fatigue and tension that there was little chance of them surviving if they continued to operate. They were not rested and they perished.

In attacking Berlin, we paid dearly for a morsel.

Flight Sergeant Dennis Cooper was a wireless operator on 630 Squadron, which also flew Lancasters from East Kirkby.

‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ was a label which frightened everyone because, if you stopped flying, you were stripped of rank and posted out as an A.C.2 to some other station. There was a case of a gunner who twice damaged his turret so that the aircraft had to turn back; no aircraft could continue unless fully serviceable. Station Medical Officers had instructions to keep aircrew off the sick list. I broke out in boils under the crotch and on the buttocks after Berlin on the 15 February raid and the S.M.O. still passed me fit for flying. As a result, on my next op, I sat on the metal of my parachute harness and crushed the boils. With the pain and the cold, I was very uncomfortable until landing. After debriefing, I went to Sick Quarters where a very hard medical officer told me to drop my trousers and, using a scalpel, cut them. In spite of the fact that I fainted, I was on ops the next night. Bomber Command was terrified of too many people going sick and reducing the available force and that other crews might catch the ‘don’t want to fly’ bug.

Crews were beginning to look untidy in dress and manner, and even the ground sergeants, who had previously thought nothing of us because we got our stripes too quickly, began to have pity on us as they could see what we were going through. Many of us could see no hope of completing a tour the way losses were showing. We drank and smoked too much when we were not flying and things were generally depressed.

Flying Officer Eric Tansley was a Halifax bomb aimer on 158 Squadron at Lissett.

We joined our squadron at a time when morale was extremely low. Losses had been heavy and it seemed to us that there were very few experienced crews left; certainly none were completing tours. Our flight engineer was evidently shattered by the mortality rate at the squadron because, almost overnight, he departed from our ranks, branded L.M.F.

I was assigned a room which I shared with another young officer; he seemed a very pleasant person. Less than a week later, I was in charge of a funeral party for the funeral of the pleasant young man and his crew. They had crashed and blown up returning from a raid.

We lived under great strain. I remember one occupation was looking for signs of ‘twitch’ in other aircrew and hoping all the time that oneself was still sane.

Sergeant Ken Scott was a twenty-year-old navigator on 101 Squadron at Ludford Magna who flew to Berlin fourteen times.

A strange symptom developed which I have not mentioned to anyone until now. At night, after getting to sleep, I would suddenly feel awakened by a buzzing sensation in my mouth. My face would then distort with the feeling that the flesh was being drawn back; I would then feel myself half-rising from the bed, with all the muscles and sinews of my torso and arms straining and stretching to breaking point. This sensation would reach a climax and then I felt myself falling back on the bed, exhausted. I would then awake to the reality that I hadn’t moved at all in bed and it had been some kind of dream. This was all very exhausting and it happened perhaps two or three times a week. In time, I learnt not to resist, sort of lay back and let it all happen; this way, although it always ran the gamut, I felt less drained. After I finished my tour, I was never troubled with it again. I put it down, rightly or wrongly, as a symptom of stress.

Flying Officer Bob Lloyd was a Canadian pilot, flying Lancaster IIs of 408 Squadron from Linton-on-Ouse.

My navigator lost his mind during our 26 November trip to Berlin. My mid-upper gunner got hit in the ankle with a 20-mm shell on the same trip; he never flew again. My bomb aimer went absolutely wild over the target area on a later raid, to such a degree that we couldn’t let him wear an intercom; the navigator had to drop the bombs. Then I finally got hurt, smashing my left femur, and the bomb aimer had to fly out the rest of his tour with another crew; he ‘bought it’ the first night out. They were as frightened as hell, but their morale was good. They flew until they couldn’t fly any more. They could have begged off L.M.F. had they wanted to.

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