Within a minute of the war being declared on 3 September 1939, a Bristol Blenheim IV flown by Fg Off. MacPherson of 139 Squadron was ordered to commence operations. MacPherson was airborne within an hour, and headed for Wilhelmshaven to try and identify the Kriegsmarine’s vessels and airfields in North West Germany with the aid of Commander Thompson of the Royal Navy. The crew and aircraft had been on standby since news of the German advance into Poland had been received on 1 September.
After a flight of four hours, through freezing mists that saw the radio and camera to freeze up, MacPherson returned with seventy-five photographs taken from 22,000 feet. They had encountered no resistance and Thompson had identified several units of the German fleet in the Schillig roads beyond Wilhelmshaven harbour, including three capital ships, four cruisers, and seven destroyers. However, the radio transmission confirming the positions of the German fleet did not come through to the awaiting bomber wings in England. The first news of the sightings was delivered personally by MacPherson when his aircraft landed at 4.50 p.m. The photographs were hurriedly developed and passed to the awaiting bomber formations, consisting of eighteen Hampdens drawn from 49, 83, 44, and 50 Squadrons’ most experienced pilots, alongside nine Wellingtons from 149 and 37 Squadrons at 6.35 p.m. They had waited all day for the signal, but it was too late. As the aircraft got closer to their targets, they encountered not only rain and bad weather, but also the onset of night, which made navigation and observation difficult. The decision was made to turn back and the Wellingtons touched down at 10 p.m., followed by the Hampdens at midnight; the only enemy sighted was a Do 18 flying boat on a patrol.
It was an inauspicious start to the aerial war, but lessons were quickly learned and the following morning MacPherson took to the air at 8.35 a.m., with Thompson and Corporal Arrowsmith at the guns again. This time the weather was a lot worse, with low cloud and rain squalls that forced the intrepid Blenheim crew to fly at 250 feet below the cloud banks before reaching the target area. They were able to spot more of the Kriegsmarine’s surface units at sea, but were again unable to send a wireless transmission to whistle up the bomber formations and they had to await MacPherson’s return to base at 1.35 p.m.
The crews of KMS Admiral Scheer and SMS Emden were relaxed: after all, the war in Poland was a long way from here, and no one was expecting the RAF to attack in daylight under the massed guns of land- and ship-based flak batteries. Off duty crewmen were leaning on the railings while washing was hung from the stern in an almost peace-time idyll. Suddenly, though, the peace was shattered by the approach of three aircraft. Flak gunners were called to their stations, although the general belief was that the Luftwaffe were just flying too close again, despite the repeated commands not too—but it was quickly realised that these were not Heinkels.
Flt Lt Doran’s flight of five Blenheims from 110 Squadron, who had taken off at 3.45 p.m., had had a difficult flight through driving rain but, ‘through a combination of luck and judgement’, had arrived at the Jade Estuary as the cloud base lifted to 500 feet, and at once saw the Admiral Scheer. The first three formed a line ahead, while two more broke off into cloud. The plan was to attack from several directions at once to make it difficult for the German gunners, and so that each aircraft was able to drop their 500-lb general-purpose bombs and be clear within the eleven second window. Approaching in a shallow dive from 500 feet and aiming for the fore and aft lines of the ship, the first Blenheim screamed over the German warship at mast height as crewmen scattered, one bomb hitting the water and the other striking the deck. This was quickly followed by a stream of anti-aircraft fire. Within moments the second aircraft made its approach but undershot by several yards, with Doran reporting that the bombs appeared to explode underneath the vessel, while the third aircraft was forced to avoid the Scheer for fear of being caught in the other aircraft’s bomb blasts, and so attacked another vessel. The fourth, flown by Fg Off. Emden, was shot down by the German battleship’s gunners and it crashed into the sea by the island of Mellum.
Flt Lt Barton brought his formation of five Blenheims from 107 Squadron towards the light cruiser Emden, but immediately attracted the full attention of the alerted naval garrison. Barton’s Blenheim crashed under fire from the Hipper, killing Barton, Fg Off. Ross (an observer from 48 Squadron), and Corporal Ricketts. The rest of the squadron fared little better, despite attacking the light cruiser Emden with reckless bravery. One Blenheim was said to have been caught in an explosion from its own bombs; another, possibly flown by Fg Off. Herbert Lightoller (the son of RMS Titanic’s second officer, Charles Lightoller), was riddled with flak and struck the Emden’s deck. The resulting explosion killed nine German sailors and wounded twenty. FS Prince’s and Fg Off. Murphy’s two Blenheims also failed to return from the attack; only Plt Off. Stephens’ lone N. 6195 returned to base, having failed to make contact with the enemy and being unable to account for the rest of his squadron.
The Wellingtons of 9 Squadron took off at 4.05 p.m. to attack the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, who were at anchor in Brunsbüttel. They arrived at 6.35 p.m., with Sqn Ldr Lamb leading his section of three in a low-level attack, only to be greeted by a hail of flak from the warships and shore batteries, as well as nine Bf 109s from II./JG77. Lamb made the decision to jettison his bombs and pull up to the cover of the clouds, satisfied that he had avoided hitting any civilian targets.
But having pressed the bomb release I saw a merchant ship, approx. 7,000 tons, athwartships. I climbed rapidly, still being attacked by fighters and succeeded in reaching cloud cover. It was necessary for the safety of my crew that these bombs were jettisoned as they decreased load enabled the machine to successfully evade the attack.
Lamb set course for England, but soon realised that FS Turner and FS Borley were no longer with him. One of the aircraft was seen to burst into flames, having received heavy anti-aircraft fire, while the other was claimed by Feldwebel Alfred Held and was the first British bomber to be lost to the Luftwaffe. A second Blenheim was claimed by Feldwebel Hans Troitsch who attacked a formation of three and caught it before they could reach cloud cover and it is possible that Held and Troitsch accounted for both Turner and Borley. A third claim of a Blenheim by Leutnant Metz was discounted by the Luftwaffe’s intelligence officers, as there were no witnesses to his claim, which was the same for Fg Off. Leach, one of Lamb’s gunners who claimed to have shot down one of the pursuing fighters, but who, likewise, was unable to confirm it. The second wave under Flt Lt Grant were met by the murderous fire of flak from what he estimated was eight cruisers and a battleship who were very accurate, and at least two shore batteries that consisted of four guns each. Grant dropped his bombs but realised he was 500 yards short—however, he quickly pulled up into cloud, having been hit three times by flak.
The Wellingtons of 149 Squadron did not find the target area, having encountered bad weather and technical issues, and returned back to base, arriving from 6.34 p.m. onwards. FS Macrae and Sqn Ldr Harris’s two aircraft dropped their bombs without incident on Brunsbüttel and the River Eider above Tönning without incident, although bombs were reported to fall on the Danish town of Esbjerg—some 110 miles away from the target area.
Of the twenty-nine aircraft to take off, only nineteen took part in the raid and seven of them were lost. Only FS Prince’s crew survived their crash, and were taken prisoner. Sadly, Prince died in a German hospital from the wounds he had received, leaving Sgt Booth and AC2 Slattery as the first British airmen to be taken as prisoners of war. The rest of the crews lost on 4 September perished in their aircraft, with some being recovered by the Germans and buried with full honours, including AC1 Ted Pateman, who served as an air gunner on Murphy’s N. 6188 and had only turned nineteen the day before; he was buried with ten other RAF crew who died that day at Sage Cemetery. The results of the raid were fairly limited, with only minor damage to the Emden from the collision and no bomb damage to any other vessel. Indeed, a couple of the bombs did not explode while others were seen to bounce off the deck. The only other casualty was that of Leutnant Falke of 2./Zg 26, whose Bf 109D was shot down by the Scheer’s gunners.
The first proper air raid of the war yielded some important lessons for the planners, some of which were taken on board fairly quickly, and others that would not be, with tragic results later. The most obvious problem was the poor reliability of the Blenheim’s wireless set, but as it seemed, that the Kriegsmarine were regularly putting out to sea that a force of bombers carrying out reconnaissance in force would save time and make use of attacks of opportunity. It was also believed that to make an attack from stern to aft would give the bombers more chance of striking the target rather than a side attack as well as lessen the amount of defensive fire.
It was also realised that general-purpose bombs were of no use against the thick armour of warships, and that the semi-armour-piercing bombs originally fitted would have been better, but they required a height of 10,000 feet to build up momentum, a height that the low cloud on 4 September had prohibited. An attack at 10,000 feet would also mean that they could avoid the majority of the flak and make it more difficult for the enemy to hit the formation.
The presence of the Messerschmitts over Brunsbüttel, and the very real possibility that they accounted for two Wellingtons in quick succession, was quickly discarded, as Sqn Ldr Lamb did not see what happened to his two wingmen. Even if he had, it was believed that a rigid formation at height would be able to see off the fighters, and the larger the formation the more guns would be presented to the enemy.
For the Germans it was a scare; the RAF had attacked them where they had felt safe. Steps were taken, including instigating a strict no-fly zone over the German fleet with gunners ordered to shoot on sight, which resulted in the loss of the civil-registered Ju 52 D-AGZI early on the morning of 5 September while on route between Jever and Keil, killing all nine people aboard. The Luftwaffe also began reorganising its defences, which was a process that could not be completed until after the war in Poland, when other fighter units could be released back to home garrisons. In fact, one battery of anti-aircraft guns was released from Vienna where it was felt safe to the much more vulnerable Wilhelmshaven. The communications between the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine surface vessels, and the shore batteries were also organised, as they had previously all worked independently and at cross purposes, but were now coordinated. Through the autumn, Oberstleutnant Schumacher (the Geschwaderkommodore of JG1) was tasked with coordinating all fighter operations in the area.
The RAF bombers stepped back into the breach again on 26 September, when twelve Hampdens of 144 Squadron took off from Lincolnshire and made for Cromer Knoll before turning for Heligoland, each armed with four 500-lb general-purpose bombs. The weather over the Bight had patches of cumulus cloud and rain showers, but visibility was clear enough for the two formations of six to see numerous ships in the area. At 8.45 a.m., the flight’s area was expanded to within 12 miles of the German coast and, despite seeing several large merchant ships and two submarines whose nationality could not be confirmed, no attacks were made. The RAF ban on attacking submarines was not lifted until 28 September. No warships were sighted and, after an hour’s search, they turned for Cromer Knoll and landed at 12 p.m.
Three days later, Wing Commander Cunningham again led a flight of 144 Squadron’s Hampdens to the Bight, taking off at 6.50 a.m. He was never seen again. According to German sources, the Hampdens flew into a ‘hornet’s nest of fighters’. The Hampdens were intercepted between the Frisian Islands and Heligoland by Bf 109DS of Zg 26, who shot down Cunningham and his men, with Lieutenant Günther Specht of 3./Zg 26 claiming two, including twenty-four-year-old Fg Off. John Sadler near Wangerooge. The only survivor was observer Sgt Galloway, who became a POW. In all, sixteen airmen, including Cunningham, were killed that day, while four were pulled from the sea, including Galloway and Plt Off. Coste, who was shot down by Unteroffizier Werner Pollack and broke his right leg and gained severely cut knees.
Squadron Leader Lindley, who was leading the second flight of 144 Squadron, fared a lot better, sighting the destroyers KMS Paul Jacobi and KMS Bruno Heinemann steaming at 25 knots to their station following a refit in Wilhelmshaven. The Hampdens began their attack run, with Lindley bringing his section in at 300 feet in an astern formation; they dropped seven of their general-purpose bombs, but were unable to ascertain the results. As the First Destroyer Flotilla on the Jade River mobilised to assist their comrades, the second section broke off their attack, as the two destroyers had altered position and were head on, whipping up a storm of flak aided by shore batteries. Lindley’s bomber was struck and Plt Off. MacFarlane’s observer Sgt Baker wounded. The formation returned without further incident or loss.
The AOC of 5 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Harris, was unimpressed with the losses to his men and machines disagreed with Ludlow-Hewitt’s continued belief that even three aircraft could see off a fighter, arguing that the defensive capability of the Hampden was inferior in comparison with the offensive power of Messerschmitt fighters. Harris believed that the Hampdens were ‘cold meat’ for a determined fighter in daylight. As far as the RAF planners were concerned, only Cunningham’s formation had fallen foul of the fighters, and even then, they only had the German newsreels’ account of what happened, and no intelligence as to what actions Cunningham had taken or the number of enemies faced. It was considered that the Bf 109s had been responding to Lindley’s attack on the destroyers, and had fallen on Cunningham by ill luck. The main concern that the planners thought the crew had was the flak, with one airman commenting that ‘The German fleet was a very grand sight [but] when they shot at me it was like lightening flashing in day light all around me’.
Steps were instituted, and they mapped out a 125-mile patrol area that stretched from Borkum to Sylt: far enough away from the mainland to avoid flak and the Luftwaffe. As the weather turned foul, coupled with the German fleet not being at sea, instead preferring to sit under the guns of Wilhelmshaven, nothing was seen and the number of sorties fell from eighty-five in September to sixty-one across both October and November. These were mostly by Wellingtons, with nothing seen and no losses.
While the Hampdens were recovering, the Blenheims were being used for photo-reconnaissance work along the North German coastline during daylight hours, with the first sorties commencing on 20 September. The crews were tasked with watching the road and railway networks for signs of a German military build-up that would indicate an attack on France or the Low Countries. It was easier for 2 Group’s Blenheims to carry out this duty, as the units in France would have to fly around the neutral countries and spend longer over Germany attracting fighters. Other areas of interest included the Kriegsmarine’s dockyards and on one occasion two power stations in the Ruhr were also photographed, as the Air Ministry were considering targeting them.
Between 20 September and 25 November, Blenheims were able to fly thirty-seven sorties in the eleven days that the weather was clear enough, with six sorties being flown on 30 October.
The flights were long and tedious, with each aircraft flying along the same navigational track in opposite directions, before trying to keep the aircraft straight and level while photographs were taken, and then flying back home. Although it was a simple task, it was exceptionally hazardous: despite the majority of the Jagdwaffe being in Poland, there were still units defending the Heligoland Bight region and over the Ruhr. Interception was common; out of a total of seven aircraft between 20 September and 25 November, five of them were shot down by the enemy, including Wg Cdr Cameron of 110 Squadron on 28 September. To make matters worse, the results from the photographs were rarely very clear, with cloud cover getting in the way. After a brief lull, the Blenheims returned at the end of December and into January, but were hampered by severe weather, seeing only fifteen sorties and losing one aircraft.
The biggest incident for the bombers based in England occurred on 8 October, when twelve Wellingtons responded to a report of German surface units operating off the South West of Norway. They encountered cloud varying between four and eight tenths, which only allowed them a glimpse of small ships that could not be determined to be German warships, and the search was finally called off as night approached. A similar problem hit the force of eighteen Wellingtons who flew in cooperation with the 7th Destroyer Flotilla in a sweep of Terschilling and Dogger Banks, with the bombers returning empty handed.
The RAF’s big chance came on 23 November, when the pocket battleship KMS Deutschland was sighted 60 miles off Iceland heading back to Germany, having been recalled from her North Atlantic raiding by the German admiralty. Coastal Command allocated twenty-four Whitleys and a further twenty-four Hampdens on 24 November, operating from RAF Kinloss and Wick respectively. They were intent on sinking the Deutschland, should the opportunity present itself. In concert with this move, a squadron of Whitleys swept Heligoland, Wilhelmshaven, Brunsbüttel, and the Jade Estuary for signs of the Kriegsmarine preparing to sally out to escort the Deutschland home. Only one warship was sighted though— unknown to the British, this was because the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau were already out of port, and had sunk the Rawalpindi south-west of Iceland the day before, an act for which the Deutschland was blamed. Bad weather hampered the search for the German warships over the next few days. The fog and rough sea not only hindered the naval and Bomber Command aircraft, but the weather was so inclement that the Coastal Command crews could not board their Sunderlands. The Deutschland was able to slip through the fog unmolested and arrived safely back in German waters.
Further direction was given to crews following a meeting on policy at Bomber Command on 19 November on how to improve results and attack the warships near their bases. Firstly, it was reiterated that no attacks could take place where civilians could be hurt, they should therefore attack them at sea and in roads. It was accepted that merchant vessels often sheltered there and may get hit, but as long as the crews took ‘…extreme care…. Not to hit them it was deemed acceptable’. The preferred aircraft was the Wellington, as it could deliver 500-lb semi-armour-piercing bombs from high altitude in formations of six. The AOC of 3 Group had permission to proceed as and when the weather was favourable. Pressure from the War Cabinet to be more active meant that this became a major operation on 22 November, with a recommendation that twenty-four aircraft should take part and be a reconnaissance force. To give the force a real element of surprise, the area was not to be scouted first, and, if possible, a night attack would follow up the day mission and strike the target again. Orders were issued and the squadrons waited for the weather to clear.
On 12 December, the Whitleys of 4 Group were assigned to an aggressive reconnaissance of the German’s seaplane airbases around Sylt, Norderney, and Borkum, with orders to attack if flare-paths on the water or aircraft activity were spotted. This was an attempt to quell enemy mining operations of Britain’s estuaries and coastal sea lanes. The pilots were ordered not to drop any bombs on the land buildings, as this may cause civilian death or violate the agreement made with President Roosevelt. In the month of operations (12 December to 14–15 January), they flew seventy-one sorties, with bombs only being dropped on three occasions. One of these occasions was 10 January, when bombs fell upon the Danish island of Rømø due to a slight navigational error that saw the Whitley just off Sylt, and two days later bombs fell on the town of Westerland on Sylt, but caused no deaths. Claims were made of possible destruction of a U-boat and a flak ship by these night raiders, but none were confirmed. These sorties provided the Whitley crews with an opportunity to drop something other than leaflets for no operational losses, despite once being intercepted by Spitfires.
The opening phases of the bomber war in 1939 were a mixture of hostile operations directed at the only viable military target. The Blenheims and Wellingtons suffered heavy casualties but drew lessons from the experiences in how to attack heavily defended areas and the usage of armed reconnaissance, as well as coordinating attacks with other services even if they did not achieve any serious results compared to their losses. December 1939 would go on to show that bravery and equipment would be no match for well-disciplined fighter formations, as the weather improved and the Wellington squadrons received the order confirmation for reconnaissance in force over the Bight.