Target Berlin

Berlin. The Big City. ‘Big B.’ Whatever the Royal Air Force or American Air Force called it during the Second World War, it was an awe-inspiring target. In their minds the mere mention of Berlin conjured up a myriad of thoughts and fears. Some targets did that. Hamburg, the Ruhr Valley, Frankfurt, Hannover – Berlin …

For one thing, it was a long way away, deep inside Germany. So deep that to reach it and get back while it was still dark, attacks could only really be mounted during the winter when the nights were long. The RAF bombers knew from experience for they had been there before. It was the German capital, the very heart of the Nazi Germany they were fighting. As such it was well protected: flak, searchlights, and enemy night-fighters defended it tooth and nail. It was no ‘Milk Run’, no easy trip to add to one’s tour of operations. To have flown to Berlin, and more importantly, to have got back, meant something. Something to tell the folks at home, perhaps to feel good about, it looked impressive in the log book, nice to drop into the conversation with a girl friend. Once done, the tour could continue with other targets, perhaps no less dangerous, but certainly less heart-stopping when the curtain that covered the map of Germany in the briefing room was pulled aside.

Yet in the winter of 1943-44, RAF Bomber Command went to Berlin on no less than sixteen occasions. Between November 1943 and March 1944, the curtains were swept back to reveal the red ribbon reaching out from home base to Berlin sixteen times. Many bomber crews who were just starting, were mid-way, or even nearing the end of their tours had to add Berlin to their log books almost repeatedly. Many others did not. They did not get home. They ‘failed to return’, were ‘missing from air operations over Germany’ or just ‘missing’ – which could mean they were dead, prisoners of war and even wounded, or bobbing about in a rubber dinghy in the deadly cold North Sea awaiting rescue or chilling death.

There were other targets too, of course. It was not Berlin night after night, but it was on sixteen nights. This is the story of those nights when the heart stopped a beat – for it was: Target Berlin.

Berlin was a large target, 339 square miles. Including its suburbs it was 883 square miles. It was the seat of the German government as well as an important industrial city. In 1924, fifteen years before the war, it already had nearly 300,000 business concerns, employing over 700,000 people. Of these 60% were located in the six central districts of Berlin. Nine years later, with a population of 4,242,500, its built-up administration area covered 221,000 acres. Houses, factories and yards covered 43,600 acres, streets and railways another 25,000 acres, while open spaces, gardens, cemeteries and parks accounted for a further 10,500 acres.

It was a sprawling city with wide streets. A chain of lakes with the River Spree running through the city centre helped the flow of industrial output and brought raw materials to the factories, as Hitler’s new regime brought life and work to a Germany crushed by World War One. The largest lake was the Wannsee – a landmark for future air raiders – and this, with the others, was formed by the Havel River on the western outskirts. By the end of the 1930s Berlin had one of the finest subway systems in Europe, consisting of 92 stations and 46.6 miles of track.

Its industries were, in the main, textiles, iron and steelworks, rail cars, sewing machines, chemicals, china, breweries and machine works. After the war began, and Berlin went into top gear, its factories were producing one tenth of the Luftwaffe’s aero engines and precision instruments; one third of Germany’s electrical output, one quarter of the army’s tanks and one half of its field artillery. Berlin was a political target, but nevertheless, an important industrial one too.

Its importance was evident by 1938 when thoughts of a future war were in the air. Wing Commander R.V. Goddard at the Air Ministry, asked the Air Attaché at the British Embassy in Berlin, what the reaction might be of the German people to an air bombardment in the event of war. Unfortunately the answers were not very conclusive but this shows the mode of thinking at that time – that a future air bombardment might be an eventuality.

The two largest concerns were Siemens (they still make a very good radio) and the AEG Company, producing electric cables and submarine motors. Another concern, Lorenz, made vital wireless transmitter equipment, while Alkett was the largest single tank factory in Germany. There were famous aircraft factories too, BMW, Dornier, Heinkel and Focke Wulf. Rheinmetal Borsig produced guns, Argus made aero engines, Deutsche Solvay Werke its chemicals. Most of these were in the outer part of the city, outside the Ringbahn, along the water and railway routes.

Another important target was the communications and traffic. Berlin, like all great cities, imported food stuffs and raw materials and also exported valuable manufacturing goods. This amounted to an annual average of about 30 million tons, of which 80% was inward traffic (coal, lignite, manures and chemicals). Of this two-thirds went by rail, one-third by water on the inward journey, four-fifths rail, one-fifth water on the outward routes.

In addition to its industrial might, Berlin was the entire centre of administrative and economic life. The German Air Ministry, built in 1935-6, was bounded on the north by Leipzigerstrasse and on the east by Wilhelmstrasse and the south by Prinz-Albrecht Strasse. On the western side was the building of the former Prussian House of Representatives, but by 1943 this housed the Aero Club. The site of the ministry covered 400,000 square feet, 250,000 of which was the building itself. It had, 2,800 rooms and offices, 4,000 staff and had extensive bomb and gas proofing.

Four other important buildings were those of the German Foreign Office, the Ministry of Propaganda, The Reich Presidential Chancellery, and the Headquarters building of the Gestapo.

The city’s suburban area lay far outside Berlin, built up between 1923 and 1943, and was not unlike London’s suburbs. There were villas, single family houses either detached, semi-detached or in terraced rows. Like many large cities, blocks of flats were common, either two or three storied, and separated from each other by great areas of forests and lakes.

When war came in 1939, the British and the Germans were very careful not to bomb each other’s towns and cities, although the Germans had no such qualms about Warsaw and other Polish cities. Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, even boasted that no enemy aeroplanes would fly over Reich territory – an unfortunate prediction in the light of future history. The RAF were not only over Germany but over Berlin very early in the war. The first RAF squadron over the city was No 10 Squadron in September and October 1939, though they carried nothing more deadly than propaganda leaflets. Only three of the four that set off actually reached Berlin; the fourth dropped its load over Denmark and then failed to return to base.

Up to August 1940, Berliners suffered many air raid warnings but no bombs were ever dropped. At this time, the German defences were limited, but reserves were being drafted in, including 29 heavy, 14 medium and some light AA batteries, as well as four railway flak units, plus two night fighter staffels.

Finally, on 23/24th August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe bombs fell on London. After a day of fighting, Luftwaffe aircraft flew a night raid towards the oil storage tanks at Thameshaven – which they missed – but bombs fell in the East End of London. It was nothing of great import but the gauntlet had been thrown down and Churchill took up the challenge. A retaliatory raid was arranged for the night of 24/25th August, but because of cloud, to say nothing of Bomber Command’s lack of sophisticated navigational aids, of the 96 aircraft from 3, 4 and 5 Groups despatched, only 81 got off, and of these only 29 reached Berlin. Of the others, 21 turned back being unable to find Berlin, but eighteen of these bombed secondary targets. In all six aircraft failed to return, three ditched in the sea and two were damaged. The force was all made up of twin-engined aircraft (the later four-engined bombers were still in the design stages) such as Wellington, Whitley and Hampden bombers. It had been a 580 mile trip to Berlin, and in the 20 mph cross wind encountered, a bomber could be thrown off course by as much as 66 miles.

A total of 22 tons of bombs had been dropped, a number of bombs having delay time fuses, and a large part of the German business area and private houses was affected. On their return, the bomber crews reported heavy defences over Berlin, and a need to avoid flak and searchlights.

As the war escalated, further raids took place in September against both London and Berlin, which changed the whole course of the war. Hitler, angry at the bombing of Berlin, ordered a change of emphasis in the air war against England, ordering Göring to bomb London and not RAF Fighter Command’s airfields. In so doing he lost the Battle of Britain. On 7th September the Luftwaffe sent 272 bombers against London. On the 15th, now known as Battle of Britain Day, four RAF bombers, two each from 58 and 77 Squadrons, were over Berlin – but at night. As the Battle of Britain ended and the Blitz began, Londoners began to learn how to ‘take it’ and other cities further north and in the south and south-west were bombed, such as Portsmouth, Exeter and of course Coventry in November.

The RAF raided Berlin 30 times in 1940 but only seventeen raids were sent in 1941. One of the latter, in March, occurred when the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs was visiting Berlin. It was known that he had taken the growing might of the RAF with a grain of salt, so Bomber Command was happy to show him just how strong, hoping the raid would, for him, prove salutary. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, gave the instructions for the raid to be laid on during the Minister’s visit, which took place on the night of 23/24th March. Sixty-three bombers of 1, 3, and 4 Groups took part.

In October, the American Air Attaché in Berlin sent back reports of the raids on the German capital. Damage had so far been light, casualties amounted to about 1,200, but the bombing had not been indiscriminate. Boldness, courage and determination of the RAF crews had been praised by the population, and the crews were obviously continuing to look for their specific targets and were not letting flak deter them.

In 1942, Air Marshal A.T. Harris, took command of Bomber Command, a post he was to retain until the end of the war. In the autumn of that year, Harris was urged to attack Berlin in strength, but having only 70 to 80 of the relatively new four-engined Avro Lancasters in his command, the task was impossible.

On 17th August, Winston Churchill sent a letter to the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, stating that the Russian leader, Stalin, attached special importance to the bombing of Berlin. Stalin had said that they themselves were going to start bombing the city shortly – they had bombed it twice previously, on 7 th and 8th of August 1941, six weeks after the German invasion of Russia.

In reply to Churchill, the Secretary of State said:

… during the next moon period, attacks could be made but our maximum strength of aircraft [of all types – Author] was 250 and that we consider the minimum number to be 500, necessary to saturate the defences and give a chance of effective damage and an acceptable rate of casualties of about 50 with such a force. If we started a bombing campaign on Berlin with less than 500, and suffered an anticipated rate of casualties of 50, our bombing effort would be crippled for a month. We are of course keen to meet the wishes of the Soviet Government in this project, but unless reasons of major policy necessitate early attacks regardless of cost, we would propose to wait until a larger force can be used.

Churchill replied:

… 250 far exceeds weight and numbers of any previous attacks on Berlin. What date will 500 be possible? … I had always understood darkness was the limiting factor, not numbers. Certainly no attack should be made regardless of cost, but Harris mentioned an attack in the August moon period. Can you do it in September?

To this Portal, as CAS, replied on the 20th:

… number of aircraft and not hours of darkness is the limiting factor. In September we could have 300 aircraft, but neither Harris or myself is in favour of an attack in September.

On the 29th, Harris sent a letter to the CAS in which he said:

… I’m as keen as anybody to bomb Berlin, but I am certain when we do this, we must make a good job of it. The facts are as follows:

  • Numerous reports indicate that Berlin is well defended by flak and searchlights and there is also in existence a very elaborate system of decoys.
  • Berlin is a city of four million inhabitants, which is five times as big as Cologne, and 1,000 heavy bombers would not be too many (the number which in fact attacked Cologne in 1942) if we are to inflict serious and impressive damage on it.
  • The attack should be sustained. One isolated attack would do more harm than good and would, like Dieppe, play into the hands of enemy propaganda.

It was not, therefore, following this exchange, until 16th January 1943 that another attack was mounted on the Big City. It is of interest that this was the first time a war correspondent went on a bombing raid with the RAF. The correspondent was Richard Dimbleby, his pilot Wing Commander Guy Gibson DSO DFC, then CO of 106 Squadron. (Gibson was later to win the Victoria Cross leading 617 Squadron on their famous Dams Raid in May 1943.) Another future VC winner who flew on this Berlin raid was Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire DSO DFC, who had flown on six previous Berlin raids. On the 16th he found it easier, reporting:

… instead of the customary wall of anti-aircraft fire we saw only one small searchlight and flak was negligible. Identification was made difficult by cloud all the way across Germany, but clear patches over the city allowed the moon to combine with the flares in lighting up the place.

The attack lasted about an hour and 8,000 lb bombs were among the bombs dropped. Large fires were seen after the raid and only one aircraft was lost. The attack was resumed the following night, again with large bombs and good results were seen. However, losses were considerably more, 22 in all, but of course, this is the up and down nature of night bombing. It seemed that many more night fighters were to be seen and the flak was much heavier. Many guns seemed to have been rushed in following the previous night’s attack.

Berlin had woken up to the fact that they could be attacked and that the British had not given up. If you awaken a lion it may take a while for him fully to come to, but when he is, take warning – his attack can be formidable!

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