Nachtjagd I

Leopold Fellerer was born in Vienna, Austria on 7 June 1919. In November 1940 he was posted as a bomber pilot, before being assigned as Technical Officer to II./NJG1. He claimed his first victory on 11 February 1941, a Hampden on 49 Squadron north of Bergen-Alkmaar. He was transferred to 4./NJG1 in June. In October 1942 Fellerer was made Staffelkapitän of 3./NJG1 before being posted to NJG5 in December that year. Promoted to Hauptmann, he became Gruppenkommandeur of II./NJG5 in December 1943. During this period, Fellerer raised his score to 18 victories. In January 1944 he claimed a B-24 Liberator on 4 January and a B-17 Flying Fortress on 11 January. On the night of 20/21 January he claimed five RAF Viermots. He was then awarded the German Cross in Gold in February and after 34 victories was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 8 April. Fellerer then moved to command III./NJG6 in May. During August-October 1944 Fellerer and III./NJG6 also flew operations to counter supply operations from Italy to the Polish Home Army uprising in Warsaw. He claimed two Douglas DC-3s and two Liberators during this time, his final kill coming in October. In 450 sorties Leopold Fellerer claimed 41 aerial victories, 39 of them at night.

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Sir Richard Peirse committed a total of 222 aircraft to oil targets in Hannover on 10/11 February, which fell during the February new moon. The previous highest Bomber Command sortie rate was 135, to Gelsenkirchen in the January 1941 moon period. The bulk of the Hannover force was made up once again of Wellingtons, of which 112 took part. Sergeant pilot Bill Garrioch and his crew on 15 Squadron took off from RAF Wyton near Huntingdon in Wellington IC T2702 ‘H-Harry’ for their 16th operation of the war as he recalls:

‘The briefing officer announced the target, the route in and out and the bomb load – 4,000lb made up of seven 500lb bombs and the balance in incendiaries. The Met Office forecast clear skies, strong westerly winds, a full moon and very cold. The CO, Group Captain Forster said that this was to be the biggest show of the war to date, wished us all the usual good luck and told us to beware of moving stars (night fighters)! This great man, a First World War pilot, still wore a steel brace on his back caused by spinal injuries received in a crash. Even so, he flew with us occasionally. Take-off was timed for 1730 hours and the flight duration expected to be about seven hours. Then followed the usual pre-flight planning between pilot, navigator and crews. We then went to the mess for our tea of bacon and eggs, back to our quarters to change into warmer clothing and of course to empty our pockets. The ritual of this act always gave me a momentary feeling of apprehension until I put some small change back into my pocket in case we had to land away from base on return. The funny thing is I had only half a crown in small change, which I put into my pocket; that being the only article carried on my person.

‘We boarded the Bedford crew bus for the six-mile journey to Alconbury our satellite airfield. Generally during these bus journeys there was the usual chatter, pocket chess or cards but on this occasion everyone seemed quiet and preoccupied with their thoughts, so much so that our navigator Sergeant Bob Beioley remarked on it. Bob and Sergeant Glyndwr ‘Taffy’ Rearden, WOp/AG had completed twelve operations with me on Blenheims prior to converting to the ‘Wimpy’). Prior to air test in the morning Taffy expressed the wish to be front gunner that night as a change from being cooped up inside the cabin. I agreed, as WOp/AG Sergeant George Hedge RNZAF was also a fully qualified WOp/AG. Soon we arrived at our dispersal. I signed the Form 700 and as I climbed the ladder into the aircraft Chiefy Wright said to me, ‘If you break this one; don’t bring it back!’ (‘H-Harry’ was Flight Lieutenant Morris’s aircraft but my ‘D-Dog’ was being repaired after I had accidentally hit my wingtip on the control caravan during a previous take-off). I laughed and said that I would be a good boy and nurse his precious ‘Wimpy’. I glanced at my watch and at the other aircraft around the dispersal area.

‘Time to start up. Fuel on, first port and the starboard engines coughed, burst into life and warmed up at 1,000 rpm. Soon we ran each engine up to take-off rpm (2,650), tested the magnetos, oil pressure and temperature and cylinder head temperature and checked and set the gyro, cooling gills, flaps, etc. All the crew reported ready. The time was now 1725 hours. I gave the signal and with a final wave to our much-appreciated ground crew, we moved out towards our take-off position near the end of the runway. We were No.2 to go. At precisely 1730 hours No.1 started his take-off run and as he reached the end of the runway I lined up and got my green light from the caravan. Brakes off, I opened the throttle slowly to maximum power as we started rolling. As we gathered speed the noise was deafening and seemed to reach a crescendo that vibrated throughout the loaded aircraft. I kept the nose down until the last bit of the all-too-short runway loomed up, then, pulling up; she lifted clear, a light kiss on the concrete and off. Wheels up and nose kept down to increase flying speed. I throttled back to climbing rpm to reach operating height and the engine noise now changed to a welcome hum. All was well.

‘Bob gave me the course, which I confirmed from my kneepad. As the snow-covered countryside receded far below in the darkness, Sergeant Bill Jordan, the 2nd pilot who was on his second trip with me for familiarization, flew the aircraft and the gunners entered their turrets while I visited each member of the crew to ensure that all was in order. Soon we reached the coast at Orfordness and levelled off at 11,000 feet. The navigator and the wireless operator were at their stations and the lighting was very subdued, creating an eerie yet efficient atmosphere tinged with the smell of dope and fuel, amid the roar of the smooth-sounding Pegasus engines. When we were over the sea Taffy and Sergeant Jock Hall, rear gunner, a Scotsman with many trips in Coastal Command, test-fired their guns. From now on we were on the alert for night fighters. It was cold and clear. The patches of white cumulus would make us an easily identified target seen from above. I took over before we reached the Dutch coast, which we crossed at 1850 hours – another 213 miles and 65 minutes to the target. We had a very strong tail wind and ground speed was nearly 200 mph. Bob got a pinpoint. We were almost dead on track – a slight course alteration and all was well. We were lucky so far.

‘It was unbelievably quiet. We flew towards the target and still there was no flak. We were very much alert but it was the easiest run-in so far and the ground was easily identifiable. Only five minutes to the target. Then we saw it. Bob was a good navigator – we were almost spot on. On the eastern horizon the rising moon assisted target identification. With bomb doors opened and bombs fused Bob went down to the bombsights. He saw the target nestled in the crook of the ‘Y’-section of a big road junction. We had a following wind so I throttled back a little and kept the aircraft steady. Right a little … I did not see any activity at all, not even a little flak. The first Wimpy’s bombs burst. Then suddenly there was a series of flashes close to Gilmore’s aircraft. Bob called, ‘Left… left … left … a bit more … steady now … steady.’ Flak now curled lazily up towards us and then there was heavy ack-ack to our left. It was accurate for height but was not near us. Must be the other aircraft in trouble. Bob called ‘Bombs gone!’ and I immediately turned steeply to port. Jock in the rear turret watched our bombs burst. There were only six flashes. Where was the seventh? Gilmore’s aircraft started a fire and our incendiaries were well alight. Ack-Ack was almost non-existent with us but as we flew away we saw other aircraft getting a hot reception and the sky was full of flak. All this time the fires seemed to grow in intensity – Hannover was visible forty miles away. The moon was up and it was like daylight. We watched for enemy fighters but all was quiet and we could not even see other aircraft.

‘Against a strong head wind our ground speed was now only 85 knots; it was going to be a long haul home. Large white cumulus clouds were building up below. As we crossed the eastern coast of the Zuider Zee at Kempen, Jock suddenly called out, ‘Fighter below and behind!’ I put the engines to cruising revs and steep turned to starboard to face him. As I turned I saw a Me 110, which was turning to meet me. I turned violently to port to avoid him. Jock gave him a long burst but he still attacked, hitting the aircraft in the fuselage and port engine. I put the flaps down and soon the shooting stopped. He had overshot. I heard the cannon fire hit the aircraft somewhere behind me. Jock said that he had been hit. Could we get him out of the turret? The port engine was on fire. I turned off the fuel and full throttle. Bob called, ‘Are we on fire?’ Bob’s sudden announcement on the intercom must have paralyzed my senses if only for a fleeting instant because as I was looking through the cockpit window, superimposed in space, just outside the windscreen was a very clear picture of my grandfather and a great uncle looking directly at me. It was so clear that I even recognized my uncle’s old tweed jacket! Then it was gone and I was back to reality. It frightened me because these two much-loved relatives had been dead for about seven years. Much later George told me that cannon shells came through the fuselage and exploded in his radio equipment. How he and Bob were not hit I’ll never know. I was saved by the armour plate behind my head. At that moment I knew we had to survive and I seemed to find added strength and courage to risk anything that would bring us out of this alive. I looked back and the fuselage was full of smoke. I could not see anyone. Perhaps a flare was burning. Taffy moaned faintly saying, ‘Get me out’ and I saw the fighter turn to port over our port wingtip. Bill Jordan went forward to open the escape hatch and to get Taffy out of the turret. I told the crew to prepare to bail out and raised the flaps.

‘We were diving now. The fighter came in again and once more I put the flaps down and the aircraft yawed violently to port while I throttled back and side slipped to almost stalling speed. Cannon and machine-gun tracer went just over the top of us but miraculously we were not hit. This time, as the fighter went over the top of us I raised the flaps and control was easier. I think only the starboard flap worked. I told Taffy to shoot the fighter down, position 10 o’clock. He did not answer. Bill Jordan tried desperately to operate the turret door release and get him out. George Hedge was standing beside me ready to help when Bill opened the floor escape hatch. Bob and Jock were still back in the smoke-filled fuselage. Were they alive? I did not know. I decided that unless we bailed out or landed quickly we would all die. We were blazing very badly now. I signalled to George not to jump as I had not given the order and I dived for the ground in the hope that a crash landing might save some of us. The aircraft persisted in turning to port. We were diving very steeply and fast, over 300 knots. Through the cockpit window I saw the port engine and that the inner wing was now on fire. Off all fuel and full throttle starboard engine. The frozen expanse of the Zuider Zee was hurtling towards us. I tried to level off but the elevators were sluggish and we hit the ice slightly nose down and skidded for what seemed to be miles. Then, suddenly, she broke through the ice and the nose filled up with water and ice through the open escape hatch. Then the aircraft stopped. We must have crashed at about 2230.’

‘Taffy’ Rearden died trapped in his front turret, which sank beneath the ice. Jock Hall was badly injured with his foot almost severed and he had bullet holes in his burned clothing but surgery at the Queen Wilhelmina hospital in Amsterdam was successful and he survived. ‘H-Harry’ was one of four losses on the Hannover raid and was credited to Hauptmann Walter Ehle of Stab (staff flight) II/NJG1 from Middenmeer north of Schiphol for his fifth victory. Ehle poured 560 rounds of 7mm machine gun and 100 rounds of 20mm cannon into Wellington T2702, which crashed on the frozen Ijsselmeer about seventeen kilometres west of Kempen. Walter Ehle was born on 28 April 1913 at Windhoek in German West Africa (now Namibia). At the start of World War Two Ehle flew with 3./ZG1 and was credited with three daylight victories before the unit was re-designated 3./NJG1 and he became a night fighter. Ehle would become one of the longest serving Gruppenkommandeur in the Luftwaffe, leading II./NJG1 from October 1940 until his death in November 1943. His sixth night victory was a Bristol Blenheim shot down on 2 June 1942 and he had sixteen victories in total by the end of 1942.

Three other bombers were lost on 10/11 February and included Hampden X3001 on 49 Squadron at Scampton, which was shot down by Austrian-born Leutnant Leopold ‘Poldi’ Fellerer of 5./NJG1 north of Bergen-Alkmaar for his victory. Pilot Officer J. H. Green and two of his crew were taken prisoner; one crew member being killed. Dornier Do 17Z and Ju 88C-2 Intruders of NJG2 claimed six aircraft over England: Oberleutnant Albert Schulz and Hauptmann Rudolf ‘Rolf’ Jung of 2./NJG2 claimed a 21 Squadron Blenheim and a Wellington near West Raynham in Norfolk respectively. The Blenheim, which Schulz shot down on its return to Watton, was the Oberleutnant’s third victory having shot down two Blenheims at Church Fenton airfield on 16 January. Pilot Officer Albert Chatteway and Pilot Officer George Eltham Sharvell were killed. Schulz was shot down and killed by B-17 return fire on 30 January 1944. (Feldwebel Heinz Krüger his bordfunker was killed and Unteroffizier Georg Frieben, bordshütze, bailed out safely). Wellington IC R1084 piloted by Sergeant Harold Humphrey Rogers, crash landed at Narborough without injury to the crew.18 Twenty-five year old Oberleutnant Paul Semrau of 3./NJG2 claimed two Blenheims near Feltwell for his first and second Night-Abschüsse. As a destroyer pilot, he had destroyed six aircraft on the ground). Oberleutnant Kurt Hermann and his bordfunker Unteroffizier Englebert Böttner of I./NJG2 claimed two Hampdens near Waddington for their 5th and 6th victories. Their first victim was AD719 on 49 Squadron piloted by Sergeant G. M. Bates who was returning to Scampton. A burst of fire set the aircraft on fire. Bates and one of his crew bailed out safely but the other two perished in the aircraft which crashed at Langworth, Lincolnshire. A few minutes later Herrmann attacked a 144 Squadron Hampden piloted by Sergeant William Alexander McVie who was flying with his navigation lights on. Herrmann’s fire hit the aircraft’s hydraulics, undercarriage and flaps. The lights went out and the Hampden dived away to land safely at Hemswell.

Another 144 Squadron Hampden flown by Sergeant E. Dainty orbited Hemswell but was refused permission to land because of the intruder activity and eventually, low on fuel, the crew abandoned the aircraft, which crashed at Snettisham, Norfolk. After attacking three airfields with incendiary bombs and chasing an unidentified aircraft without result, Hauptmann Rolf Jung, Staffelkapitän 2/NJG2 saw a Wellington with its navigation lights on. It was a 115 Squadron Wellington returning to Marham and flown by Sergeant Harold Humphrey Rogers. He had narrowly missed colliding with two other aircraft and was intent on avoiding a similar situation. Rogers had attacked Rotterdam as strong winds had prevented him reaching his target at Hannover. He had also machine-gunned two airfields in Holland on the return. Near a flashing landmark beacon at Swaffham, Rogers switched on the Wellington’s navigation lights. Almost immediately the port engine was hit and Sergeant Hill the rear gunner was wounded in his left arm. The aircraft began to lose height rapidly but Rogers was able to make a successful forced landing on a railway cutting at Narborough. The intruders of I./NJG2 claimed twelve bombers destroyed on intruding operations over England during February.

Despite these highly efficient intruder operations Hitler soon put a stop to ‘Fernnachtjagd’. He told Kammhuber: ‘If the long-range night-fighting really had results, the British would have copied it a long time ago, as they imitate anything good that I do.’ ‘And’ he added, ‘The German citizen, whose house has been destroyed by a British bomber, would prefer it if the British aircraft were shot down by a German night-fighter to crash next to his burning house.’ This decision allowed Bomber Command (and later the 8th Air Force) to build up and launch a crushing strategic bombing offensive against Germany virtually undisturbed over the British Isles and it undoubtedly was a decisive factor in the outcome of the war.

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In June 1942 no less than 62 RAF bombers (including twelve Halifaxes) were claimed shot down by II./NJG2, the top-scoring night fighters based at Leeuwarden. On 31 June Hitler decreed that all searchlight regiments except one (which was kept in action in the Venlo area for experimental purposes against the possible resumption of the searchlight techniques at some later date) should be given up to the flak for the protection of special industrial and urban targets, which eliminated any further use of the ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ technique. Kammhuber, who strongly contested the decision (though he later decided that the step proved beneficial to the development of the ‘Himmelbett’ system) compensated by further extending the existing radar positions. This had the double aim of leaving no gap through which attacking aircraft might penetrate and to put fighters into a position to attack bombers continuously along the penetration and return flights. By early 1942 ‘Himmelbett’ was so advanced that all that was necessary to make good the loss of searchlights was the further extension of the existing radar positions. To achieve greatest density of interception, Kammhuber retained these positions intact, though for more coverage he might have spread them more widely apart. Further positions were equipped, first covering the entire foresector up to the coast and then gradually taking in the main target areas in the rear. The old Grossraum was combined with new positions to form the new Nachtjagdgrossraum under the command of a Nachtjagdführer. Night fighter divisions eventually consisted of four to six of these night fighting areas. The Bomber Command tactics of staggered approach, involving a period of long duration (between one and one and a half hours) over a target were ideal for the successful operation of the ‘Himmelbett’ system. From June 1942 until the British introduction of ‘Window’ in July 1943 German night fighters inflicted heavy losses on the bomber forces. Leutnant ‘Dieter’ Schmidt of III./NJG1 comments:

‘The British began now not only using heavier machines, they also changed their tactics by no longer approaching loosely on a broad front but, in order to overwhelm the defences, coming tightly packed in what became known as a ‘bomber stream’. The first of these attacks was the famous 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne in the night of 30/31 May 1942. We responded with a defence network of night-fighting areas, the ‘Dunkle Nachtjagd’, which was independent of searchlights, reaching from the coast far back into the hinterland. The growing intensity of the air war but especially the difficulty of air operations at night resulted in the first and for us young ones hard to bear losses of experienced crews: after 23 victories Oberleutnant Woltersdorf, Kommandeur of the 7th Staffel was killed in a belly landing on 2 June. On 30 June Oberleutnant Werner Rowlin lost his life while bailing out and Feldwebel Richard Philipp of the 9th Staffel, who landed his aircraft on 9 June in spite of being shot through the lung, was out of action for a long time.

‘In mid-1942 our Gruppe not only got a new commander in Hauptmann Thimmig, our equipment was also significantly improved by aircraft fitted with radar, the Lichtenstein BC, which had been developed since August 1941 by IV./NJG1. Until now, the success of the ‘Dunkle Nachtjagd’ had been entirely dependent on the skill of the ground controller to direct the fighter accurately, especially during the final phase of the approach to the enemy aircraft. Now it would suffice to guide the crew close enough to be able to pick up the target with their on-board radar. Also, the aircraft were no longer painted black but in a light colour and by the end of the year our Bf 110Fs with their unreliable engines were replaced by the G4 night fighter version, which was to serve us well until the end of the war.’

On the night of 29/30 June Bomber Command dispatched 253 aircraft to Bremen. Eleven aircraft failed to return. Nine were shot down by night-fighters including six by II./NJG2. Three of these were Halifax IIs on 405 ‘Vancouver’ Squadron RCAF. W1113 LQ-G piloted by Pilot Officer Henry Adolphus Echin RAAF (who served as Chinn) was shot down at 0148 hours by Oberleutnant Rudolf Sigmund of II./NJG2 and crashed between Wolvega and Noordwolde. There were no survivors. W7714 flown by Warrant Officer Lawrence Sidney RCAF was shot down at 0214 hours by Oberstleutnant Alfred Helm of Stab IV/NJG1 and crashed at Sybrandaburen with the loss of all the crew. W7715 LQ-H flown by Flight Lieutenant Harold Liversidge was claimed by two pilots within one minute of each other: Leutnant Rolf Rüssmann of III./NJG3 into the Borger swamps south of Papenburg at 0145 hours and Unteroffizier Alfred Brackmann of 2./NJG3 at Bimolton, seven kilometres NNW of Nordhorn at 0146 hours. Only the rear gunner survived. Wellington III X3539 on 75 Squadron RNZAF was shot down at 0308 hours by Oberleutnant Egmont Prinz zur Lippe Weissenfeld of II./NJG2 and crashed in Waddenzee south of Ameland. Pilot Officer Walter Jack Monk RNZAF and crew were killed. A Wellington III on 57 Squadron, which returned to Methwold, carried the dead body of Pilot Officer Buston the rear gunner who was killed in a night fighter attack. Stirling I N3076 MG-S on 7 Squadron was probably shot down at 0233 hours by Leutnant Günther Löwa and Feldwebel Möller of 5./NJG2 in Bf 110F-4 R4+JN. The bomber crashed in the North Sea 35 kilometres northwest of Vlieland. Flight Sergeant M. G. Bailey RCAF and his two gunners were taken prisoner. The five others were killed. Löwa probably collided with the bomber and crashed in the sea near his final victim and he and Möller were killed. Stirling I BF310 OJ-H on 149 Squadron was shot down at 0302 hours by Oberleutnant Leopold ‘Poldi’ Fellerer of 5./NJG2. It also crashed in the Ijsselmeer off Schellingwoude. Pilot Officer Cecil William Simmons RCAF, an American from Winston-Salem, North Carolina and his crew were killed and are buried at Amsterdam.

Warrant Officer Len Collins RAAF a Stirling gunner on 149 Squadron at Lakenheath who had completed his tour and was awaiting a posting to an EFTS to train as a pilot volunteered for an extra op. He stood in for the mid-upper-gunner, who was ill, on the crew of Squadron Leader George William Alexander, who would be flying N6082. It would be Collins’ 33rd trip. He recalls:

‘Other than the second pilot, Flying Officer William George Barnes, on his first trip to gain experience, the remainder of the crew were on their thirtieth. All were RAF. I was the only Aussie. The trip to Bremen was uneventful. Conversing with the squadron leader I found that he was most interested with the pyrotechnic display from the flak and the colours of the searchlights as we crossed the enemy coast. I predicted we were in for trouble when a blue one slid off our wing tip. However, either our doctored IFF did not work or the Germans were given a tip-off. Over Bremen we received a direct hit from flak on our inner starboard engine, killing Alexander and Pilot Officer Cyril William Dellow, observer and injuring the wireless operator, Philip Frank Hickley. The bombs were dropped live, a photo taken and we headed for home on three engines. Over the Zuider Zee a night fighter [a Bf 110 of 6./NJG2 flown by Leutnant Hans-Georg Bötel] appeared. I can still recall the flash of his windscreen in the darkness as he opened fire. As I was speaking to the rear gunner, Sergeant [Richard Thomas Patrick] Gallagher he was blown out of his turret. I was ringed with cannon shells and injured in the leg by shrapnel. Owing to the electrical cut out which protected the tail of the aircraft from the mid-upper guns, I was unable to fire on the fighter attacking us. Fortunately, the turret became jammed in the rear position, allowing me to vacate it. Forward, the aircraft was burning like a torch. I could not contact any crewmember. The position was hopeless. I felt I had no option but to leave the aircraft. My parachute was not in its storage holder. I found it under the legs of the mid-upper turret with a cannon shell burn in it. I removed the rear escape hatch, clipped on the parachute and sat on the edge of the hatch. I pulled the ripcord and tumbled out. The parachute, having several holes from the shell burn, ‘candlesticked’ (twirled) as I descended and I landed in a canal. I was apprehended the following day and was taken to Leeuwarden airfield for interrogation. Here I met the pilot of the Messerschmitt 110 who claimed to have shot us down. I abused him in good Australian. He understood, having spent three years at Oxford University.’

N6082 was shot down at 0204 hours and crashed in the Ijsselmeer near Wons south of Harlingen. Collins was the only survivor. The others who were killed were Flight Sergeant Leslie Wiltshire and Sergeant Leslie Shearer. Bötel was killed on 3 July 1942 when his 110 crashed at Britswerd Holland, north of Sneek on his final approach to Leeuwarden airfield. He had three victories.

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