White Bombs

Horvath, Robert T.; Two Whitley Bombers, Airborne; Yorkshire Air Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/two-whitley-bombers-airborne-10423

Whitley B.Mk.V Unit: 77 Sqn, RAF Serial: KN-L (N1387)

During the early months of the war, the British Air Staff believed in and were determined to carry out strategic air warfare against the enemy. This concept, basically that proposed by the Italian General Douhet, was the conviction that such warfare, if properly conducted, would result inevitably in the enemy’s collapse. Specifically, it entailed bombardment from the air to degrade the enemy’s war-making capability: the destruction of his war factories and similar installations, perhaps his whole behind-the-lines economy. This had been the thinking of the Union General Sheridan in the American Civil War, when raiding columns were sent behind the Confederate lines to wreak havoc. Inevitably civilian lives were lost, but the same people thinking along these lines could and did reason that the workers who ran the factories and depots that supplied the fighting men were not only the real backbone of a war-making machine, but legitimate targets.

Since the Nazi No. 2 General Goering had been widely quoted as stating that guns were more important than butter, the Allied media soon followed the theme that as a result of such a dictum the German nation were suffering all kinds of shortages. And once the supposed British blockade was set up by the Royal Navy in September 1939 the propaganda and feature writers (including sundry experts) followed up with constant suggestions of a German collapse as a result. The facts were otherwise: Hitler was receiving pretty much all he needed from continental sources; only in a few areas was Germany still to some extent reliant on imports from overseas.

It is doubtful if the gentlemen in the Air Ministry believed the tales published; their whole raison d’etre was their desire and (they believed) ability to wage strategic air warfare. The problem in September 1939 lay in the Allied governments’ reluctance to upset the Führer by attacking Germany in any way. That the gloves were off at sea seemed to mean little, and even the RAF’s attempts to harm the German fleet at anchor were fruitless. The bomber, however, would win the war. The bomber barons were convinced of this, but wholly constrained by government edicts which prevented them from dropping bombs on Germany itself – which was why the German fleet was bombed in 1939, rather than the war installations on land. The government, however, seemed to have convinced itself of one fact, perhaps a victim of its own wishful thinking, which was that the German nation as a whole were much like the British: decent, hard-working folk who never wanted war thrust on them by the gangster leadership which had imposed itself on that nation. Appealing to the better side of the German people, a nation which had contributed so much to European culture in the past, seemed the proper thing to do in the circumstances; at least, Chamberlain and his advisers, no matter how disillusioned they were with Hitler, decided that at the very least the German people should be informed of the British attitude, of why the friendly chap with the umbrella who had become such a well-known figure to them had decided to declare war. Chamberlain had done this reluctantly, only after suffering the continued perfidy and aggression of Adolf Hitler, a man who could in no way be trusted to honour agreements made.

All this and more in the way of opinions from Britain would have to be made known to the German folk by way of RAF airmail – leaflets would be delivered, the only sure way to get the British message across, since the SS and Gestapo were constantly on watch for any who dared to listen in to Allied broadcasts. Accordingly, the peacetime-trained aircrew of RAF Bomber Command were bemused to see their bombers loaded up with bundles of leaflets, millions of them, measuring about eight by five inches and printed on cheap newsprint. The British airmen went to war over Hitler’s Reich, and, some would repeat constantly later, at least the resulting prolonged excursions did afford the crews much navigational experience.

The `white bomb’ campaign began on the very first night of the war, when the conflict was not yet twelve hours old. The aircrews were called out to fly further missions over six more nights – a solid week of `raiding’ the German people with British newsprint. `These preliminary operations were in the nature of an experiment,’ ran the Air Ministry account, `but by 16th September it was decided, in the light of experience gained, that they were a success and that the leaflet campaign should be carried on.’ And, after outlining in part the contents of such pamphlets and the great value in reconnaissance and experience gained, `they were carried out in all weathers; they lasted anything from six to twelve hours. As tests for navigation and endurance they had no equal.’

This latter point was certainly true, but, unknown to both crews and Air Ministry, the bombers often wandered far from their intended targets. Blundering about over a blacked-out Reich might be an unfair comment on the efforts of these brave young airmen who often endured much for no result – bar the experience, of course. `Ice could be heard coming off the airscrews’; `It was like lightning flashing in daylight all around me’; `The natives appeared to be hostile’. These were some of the aircrew comments quoted by the Air Ministry. There were many more: about the freezing-up of gun turrets and men, whose bodies began to ice up inside inadequate flying clothing; of aircraft thrown about like toys in violent weather conditions. Indeed, it was the terrible weather the airmen were called upon to fly through, rather than any enemy counter-action, which made these prolonged flights such a problem. Undoubtedly, and inevitably, poor navigation through the most rudimentary aids and the weather resulted in large amounts of paper being scattered across many open acres of German countryside.

RAF Bomber lands in Germany

The crews flew right across Germany, over the Bavarian Alps, to `leaflet’ Vienna. Then, during the night of 15/16 March 1940 they went to Warsaw in Poland to deposit seven million leaflets. During the long return flight one Whitley bomber came down in France, reason unknown. What happened to another was rather along these lines, as the pilot, Acting F/Lt Tomlin, related on 17 March 1940:

We were flying at about 18,000ft above a cloud formation, and we judged by our wireless instruments and estimated time of arrival that we could not be very far from home. We were very short of petrol.

I saw a hole in the cloud and came down. There were rain clouds covering the hilltops. When I came down to 500ft an anti-aircraft battery fired a warning shell near us. I put on the navigation lights, gave a recognition signal and put down my wheels. There was no more firing.

We landed in a field which sloped up slightly at each end. We unloaded the guns, stopped the engines, and all got out to go and meet the little group of peasants who were running towards us. My companion said to one of the peasants, `C’est France, n’est-ce pas?’ The peasant shook his head uncomprehendingly. `Luxembourg, alors?’ the peasant pointed to another of the group and said, `Franzosisch [French].’ The officer approached the other peasant and asked again, `C’est France, n’est-ce pas?’ The peasant said in French, with a strong German accent, `No sir, this is Germany; the frontier is about twenty miles away,’ and he pointed west.

Like one man we turned and bolted for the machine. Other figures were hurrying towards us from the far end of the field. We started the engines in a flash, and without pausing to thank anybody we got going. The rear gunner reports that the people at the other end of the field opened fire on us as we were taking off.

We did not land again until we were quite sure we were in France. The first certain clue we had was an advertisement for a certain French aperitif. Even when we did land, four of us stayed in the machine with the engines running and the guns still loaded, while we called on our French-speaking expert to make certain. In all we were on German soil for fully fifteen minutes.

Acting F/Lt Tomlin was Mentioned in Despatches on 20th February 1940 and was awarded the DFC while carrying the same rank on 17th May 1940; the citation was joint one with a number of other members of Bomber Command. “These officers and NCO’s have made a large number of reconnaissance and bombing raids over enemy country and over enemy air and naval bases. One officer, compelled to land owing to shortage of petrol after a flight over Warsaw, found he was in Germany. Despite the smallness of the field and petrol shortage he managed to take off again and save both aircraft and crew. Another officer pressed home a low bombing attack on the German cruiser Admiral Soheer in Schillig Roads last Sepember. One of the NCO’s obtained a direct hit on a submarine in Heligoland Bight, Two others did valuable work in attacks on enemy submarines.” The reference to landing in Germany is to Tomlin. On 15/16th March 1940 Brian Tomlin was the pilot of Whitley N1387, on the return from Ops to Warsaw, Poland while flying in bad weather the crew believed they were over France and selected a large field where they made a good landing with the wheels down. The crew left the aircraft to find out where they were but soon realised they were in Germany and as German troops approached a quick take off was executed under rifle fire. They crossed the border and were able to find a French airfield and safety.

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