When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 young RAF bomber pilots were enthusiastic and confident in their aircraft and equipment. The RAF believed that modern aircraft like the twin-engined Hampden, Wellington, Whitley and Blenheims with machine-gun turrets and flying in close formation to maximise defensive firepower against attacking fighter aircraft were unbeatable. The strategy was that these aircraft did not need fighter escort to reach and destroy targets but as the Luftwaffe would discover in the Battle of Britain (and much later the Americans from 1942 onward), this was all wishful thinking. The Handley Page Hampden and the Vickers Armstrong Wellington, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and Bristol Blenheim, all twin engined bombers, were the mainstay of Bomber Command early in the war.
Like many of its genre, the Wellington was weakly armed but quite often it was this bomber’s exploits, which featured in the headlines in the British press and sometimes in German papers as well. During the first month of the war the RAF mostly focused its bomber attacks against anti-shipping operations on the German Bight. Operations by 24 Wellingtons against elements of the German fleet at Heligoland on 3 September 1939 met with stiff opposition from fighters and flak. Although ‘Freya’ radar had warned the German gunners of the impending raid the thick cloud at their bombing altitude fortunately had hidden the Wellingtons from view. Four Messerschmitt Bf 109Ds of 1 Gruppe Zerstörergeschwader 26 at Jever led by Hauptmann Friedrich-Karl Dickore climbed and intercepted the bombers after they had bombed but their aim was spoiled by cloudy conditions. Even so, the two pairs of Bf 109Ds damaged two of the Wellingtons in the attack. One pair attacked from above and the other pair from below. Leutnant Günther Specht, who damaged one of the Wellingtons, was shot down by return fire. Specht ditched in the sea and he was later rescued. The German had been wounded in the face and later had to have his left eye removed. Luckily for the Wellington crews, the three remaining Bf 109Ds were low on fuel and they broke off the engagement, while sixteen Bf 109D/Es and eight of I./ZG26’s new Bf 110Cs arrived too late to intercept the bombers.
Continued bombing operations by the inexperienced Wellington crews were brave but foolhardy; especially when one considers that many of their battle-hardened opponents had honed their fighting skills in the Legion Kondor in Spain. On 14 December twelve Wellingtons on shipping searches were attacked Bf 109Es of II./JG77 that had taken off from Wangerooge together with four Bf 110s of 2/ZG26 at Jever and five Wellingtons were shot down. Air Vice-Marshal John Eustace Arthur ‘Jackie’ Baldwin, AOC 3 Group was compelled to compare it to the Charge of the Light Brigade. Worse was to follow. RAF bombers mounted a heavy attack against shipping off Wilhelmshaven on 18 December in what came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Heligoland Bight’. Twenty-four Wellingtons on 9 Squadron, 37 Squadron and 149 Squadron formed up over Norfolk heading for the island of Heligoland. Two aircraft aborted the operation due to mechanical defects, but the remaining 22 pursued the attack and as the Wellingtons approached the German coast near Cuxhaven, Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters of Jagdgeschwader 1, guided by radar plots of the incoming formation made by the experimental ‘Freya’ early warning radar installation at Wangerooge and directed by ground control, were waiting. The Wellingtons were easy pickings and the RAF crews were caught cold as the cunning German fighter pilots made beam attacks from above. Previously, attacks had been made from the rear but now the German pilots tore into the bombers safe in the knowledge that the ventral gun was powerless at this angle of attack. They knew too that the front and rear turrets could not traverse sufficiently to draw a bead on them. For almost half an hour 44 Luftwaffe fighters tore into the Wellingtons. In addition to the twelve Wellingtons lost and the two written off in crashes, three others were damaged in crash landings in England. Luftwaffe fighter claims for aircraft destroyed on the raid totalled 38, which later, were pared down to 26 or 27. Among these, Oberleutnant Johannes Steinhoff’s claim for two destroyed was reduced to one. Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck of 2./ZG76 who claimed two Wellingtons, force-landed his aircraft on Wangerooge after return fire from the bombers damaged his engines. Only two of I/ZG76’s sixteen claims were disallowed, one of which was Falck’s second. Falck’s wingman, Unteroffizier Fresia, was credited with two confirmed destroyed. Leutnant Uellenbeck limped back to Jever with no fewer than 33 bullet holes in his 110.
‘I was with the second formation on a course of 120 degrees, about fifty kilometres to the north of Ameland. Suddenly we came upon two Wellingtons flying 300 metres beneath us, on the opposite heading. I attacked the leader from the side and it caught fire. Then I opened fire on the second one, from the left and above. When he didn’t budge I moved into position 300 metres behind him and opened up with everything. The nose of the bomber fell and it dived towards the sea. It was at this time that I was hit by a bullet, between my neck and left shoulder; the round went clean through me and hit Unteroffizier Dombrowski the radio operator on his left wrist.’
Uellenbeck’s claims for two destroyed was upheld. Though RAF crews claimed twelve German single and twin-engined fighters, just three Bf 109 fighters were lost and a handful damaged or hit.
Wolfgang Falck, born on 19 August 1910 in Berlin, had begun his pilot training at the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule (German Air Transport School) at Schleissheim on 7 April 1931. The course he and 29 other trainees attended was called Kameradschaft 31 among whom were men like Hannes Trautloft and Günther Lützow. Falck graduated from the Deutsche Verkehrfliegerschule 19 February 1932. In February 1933 he attended the Infantry School at Dresden for officer training and made Leutnant in October 1934. In March 1935 Falck became an instructor at the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule at Schleissheim and in April 1936 he was promoted to Oberleutnant and transferred to JG132 ‘Richthofen’ at Jüterbog-Damm as Staffelkapitän of 5 Staffel. In July 1938 Falck was appointed Staffelkapitän of 8 Staffel of the new JG132 at Fürstenwalde. The new unit was later redesignated I./ZG76 and equipped with the Bf 110 Zerstörer fighter. Falck led 2./ZG76 during the Polish campaign from Ohlau in Silesia, gaining three victories over Polish Air Force aircraft. The unit was then relocated to Jever to protect the northern seaboard and the Kriegsmarine naval bases.
As well as Falck the ‘Battle of the Heligoland Bight’ also produced another pilot destined to find fame with the Nachtjagd, although success at night at first seemed to elude him. Leutnant Helmut ‘Bubi’ (‘Nipper’) Lent of 1./ZG76 in a lone Bf 110 Zerstörer was one of the pilots ordered to intercept and engage the attacking bomber force and he put in claims for three of the Wellingtons when he landed at Jever. Two of these, which were shot down at 1430 and 1445, were later confirmed. Both aircraft were on 37 Squadron and were captained by Flying Officer P. A. Wimberley and Australian Flying Officer Oliver John Trevor Lewis respectively and they crashed in the shallow sea off Borkum. Wimberley survived but his crew died. Lewis and his crew were killed also. It is likely that his third claim may have been Wellington IA N2396 LF-J on 37 Squadron, piloted by Sergeant H. Ruse, which he crash-landed on the sand dunes of Borkum with two men dead. Lent was refused the victory over Wimberley, as the Wellington was attacked by Lent after it had already been badly damaged and was about to crash. The Wellington was credited to Carl-August Schumacher. Lent later flew combat operations in Norway with 1./ZG76, where he scored seven victories and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class.
Blenheim light bombers fared no better than the Wellingtons on daylight shipping searches in the North Sea. In the first and only encounter between Blenheims and Bf 110s, on 10 January 1940 in mid-morning, nine Blenheims on 110 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Ken Doran DFC took off from Wattisham in Suffolk in three ‘vics’ for a North Sea shipping reconnaissance. At roughly the same time, Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck led four Bf 110s of 2./ZG76 from Jever airfield near Wilhelmshaven on a westerly course over the North Sea for a routine patrol. When flying 200 kilometres north of Terschelling Island, one of the German pilots spotted a handful of specks on the horizon and warned his leader on R/T. Swiftly, the sleek Zerstörers curved onto the course of the British intruders. Within seconds, Falck identified the dots as Bristol Blenheims and ordered his Flight to attack. At 1152 the fighters dropped onto the tails of the Blenheims, which at that time, having no under armament, were very vulnerable to attack from below so Doran led the formation of three vics of three aircraft down to sea level in plus 9 boost. It was to no avail – Schwarmführer Falck’s cannon shells struck home and Blenheim P4859 of 110 Squadron exploded on the surface of the sea. Twenty-six year old Sergeant John Henry Hanne, married, of Maida Vale, London, his 23-year old observer, Sergeant George Llewelyn Williams, of Ynsddu, Monmouthshire and nineteen-year old AC1 Edwin Vick, WOp/AG of Morecombe, Lancashire, were killed. Two other Blenheims on 110 Squadron were badly shot up during the 25 minute engagement. N6203 crashed on return at Manby in Lincolnshire and N6213 was written off at Wattisham. These were claimed destroyed by Leutnants Helmut Fahlbusch and Maximilian Graeff. After expending all their ammunition, the four German fighter pilots broke off the fight and jubilantly flew back to Jever, all with slight damage. Following this encounter Doran continued with the reconnaissance, which earned him a bar to his DFC.
During the period from 14 February to the end of March 1940 Blenheims of 2 Group completed another 250 North Sea shipping sweeps, which resulted in the loss of only four aircraft and their crews. They all fell victim to German fighters. One of these was N6211 on 110 Squadron, shot down by Hauptmann Falck of 2./ZG76 on 17 February north of the Dutch Frisian Islands. Sergeant Frederick John Raymond Bigg, the 27-year old pilot, Sergeant William Barnard Woods, the 21-year old observer and AC1 Jack Orchard the 20-year old WOp/AG were reported missing and are commemorated on the Memorial at Runnymede for those members of the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces who have no known grave. That same month Hauptmann Falck was appointed Gruppenkommandeur ZG1 at Düsseldorf. The Gruppe was relocated to the Baltic coast in April and on 9 April Falck led the unit during the invasion of Denmark. He recorded his seventh (and final) victory, shooting down a Danish Fokker C.V taking off from Værløse.
Serious losses finally convinced the Air Staff that a profound change of its daylight policy was necessary. Following heavy Wellington and Blenheim losses in daylight the elderly Whitley squadrons were immediately employed in night leaflet dropping operations and made no appearance in daylight at all. When RAF Bomber Command took the decision in May 1940 to start strategic bombing of Germany by night, there was little the Luftwaffe could do to counter these early raids. The subject of night fighting was raised at a conference of German service chiefs just before the war and according to Kommodore Josef Kammhuber who was present at the conference it was dismissed out of hand by Hermann Göring with the words, ‘Night fighting! It will never come to that!’
Up until May 1940 the night air defence of the Reich was almost entirely the province of the flak arm of the Luftwaffe. No specialised night fighting arm existed though one fighter Gruppe (IV./(N)JG2) was undertaking experimental ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ (illuminated night fighting) sorties with the aid of searchlights in northern Germany and in the Rhineland. IV./(N)JG2 flew the Bf 109D with the cockpit hood removed as a precaution against the pilots being blinded by the glare of the searchlights.
On the night of 25/26 April Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster of the 11th Staffel NJG2 shot down a Hampden on a mine-laying operation near Sylt, the first Bomber Command aircraft to be shot down by a fighter at night. The aircraft was L1319 on 49 Squadron. Pilot Officer Arthur Herbert Benson and crew were killed. Forster went on to claim two Fokker G.Is in Raum (‘Box’) ‘Rotterdam’ on 10 May and Hampden P4286 on 44 Squadron at Oosterhout on 14/15 May. Pilot Officer Leslie James Ashfield and his crew were killed. On 24 May Förster destroyed a Blenheim at Borkum. Förster also claimed Hampden I P1178 on 83 Squadron at Often near Aachen on 3/4 June. Flying Officer Francis John Haydon and crew were killed. On 9 July he destroyed a Whitley twenty kilometres north of Heligoland. Forster joined 2./JG27, scoring another six daylight victories. Hermann Förster was killed in action on 14 December 1941 flying with JG27 Afrika in North Africa. His last victory was on 10 December when he shot down a Boston III fifteen kilometres east of Bir Hacheim to take his final total to twelve Abschüsse.
On 22 June 1940 Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck, Kommandeur, I./ZG1 who had some experience with radar-directed night-fighting sorties in the Bf 110 flying from Aalborg in northern Denmark that April, was ordered to form the basis of a Nachtjagd, or night fighting arm, by establishing the first night fighter Gruppe, I./NJG1. While at Aalborg Falck had prepared a comprehensive tactical appraisal report on night interception. Thus after I./ZG1’s participation in the Battle of France General Albert Kesselring ordered Falck to take his unit to Düsseldorf and reform for the night fighter role. On 26 June Falck was appointed Kommodore of NJG1 and IV./(N)JG2 was incorporated into the first Nachtjagd Geschwader as III./NJG1. From Düsseldorf airfield Bf 110s and Do 17Zs of NJG1 undertook experimental night-fighting sorties in defence of the Ruhr with the aid of one flak searchlight regiment. In July the creation of a true night air defence for the Third Reich was dramatically accelerated when Göring ordered Josef Kammhuber to set up of a full-scale night fighting arm. Within three months, Kammhuber’s organisation was remodelled into Fliegerkorps XII and by the end of 1940 the infant Nachtjagd had matured into three searchlight battalions and five night fighter Gruppen. Major Falck received the Ritterkreuz in October 1940. He was to command NJG1 for three years and in partnership with General Josef Kammhuber develop a highly effective night fighter force.
Kammhuber organized the night fighting units into a chain known to the British as the ‘Kammhuber Line’, in which a series of radar stations with overlapping coverage were layered three deep from Denmark to the middle of France, each covering a zone about 32 kilometres long (north-south) and twenty kilometres wide (east-west). Each control centre or zone was known as a ‘Himmelbett’ (literally translated, ‘bed of heavenly bliss’ or ‘four-poster bed’ because of the four night-fighter control zones), consisting of a ‘Freya’ radar with a range of about 100 kilometres, a number of searchlights spread through the cell and one primary and one backup night fighter assigned to the cell. RAF bombers flying into Germany or France would have to cross the line at some point and the radar would direct a searchlight to illuminate the aircraft. Once this had happened other manually controlled searchlights would also pick up the aircraft and the night fighter would be directed to intercept the now-illuminated bomber. However, demands by Bürgermeisters in Germany led to the recall of the searchlights to the major cities. Later versions of the ‘Himmelbett’ added two Würzburg radars, with a range of about thirty kilometres. Unlike the early-warning ‘Freya’ radar, Würzburgs were accurate (and complex) tracking radars. One would be locked onto the night fighter as soon as it entered the cell. After the Freya picked up a target the second Würzburg would lock onto it, thereby allowing controllers in the ‘Himmelbett’ centre to obtain continual readings on the positions of both aircraft, controlling them to a visual interception. To aid in this, a number of the night fighters were fitted with a short-range infrared searchlight mounted in the nose of the aircraft to illuminate the target and a receiver to pick up the reflected energy known as ‘Spanner’ or ‘Spanneranlage’ (‘Spanner’ installation) literally translated, a ‘peeping Tom’. ‘Spanner I’ and ‘Spanner II’, a passive device that in theory used the heat from engine exhausts to detect its target, were not very successful.
Nachtjagd’s first official victory over the Reich was credited to Oberfeldwebel Paul Förster of 8./NJG1 when off Heligoland at 0250 hours on 9 July he destroyed Whitley V N1496 on 10 Squadron at Dishforth. Flight Lieutenant D. A. Ffrench-Mullen and his four crew who were on a bombing operation to Kiel, survived and were taken prisoner. Förster was a former soldier who trained as a pilot in 1936 and as a Zerstörer pilot he scored three day victories in 1940. After he was shot down and wounded he was assigned to the role of flying instructor and later served as a staff officer. In 1943 he retrained as a night fighter pilot and on 1 June 1943 he joined 1./NJG1 where Förster achieved four more night victories.
Often called ‘Father of the Nachtjagd’ Werner Streib, born on 13 June 1911 in Pforzheim, helped develop the operational tactics used by the Nachtjagd during the early and with the likes of Wolfgang Falck made the Luftwaffe’s night-fighter arm an effective fighting force against the RAF bombing offensive. After a spell in banking and finance, Streib had joined the Wehrmacht as an infantryman. A transfer to the Luftwaffe, as an observer in a reconnaissance unit followed and later he trained as a fighter pilot. In 1937 he was assigned to Jagdgeschwader 2 ‘Richthofen’ at Jüterbog-Damm. He then became a Bf 110 Zerstörer pilot in Wolfgang Falck’s ZG1 as the war began. The first of Streib’s 66 Abschüsse and the only one in daylight was a Bristol Blenheim on 10 May 1940. By the end of July I./NJG1 operating from Gütersloh airfield near Münster had a fortunate spell of operations, destroying six bombers in the ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ system. Streib, now Staffelkapitän, 2./NJG1, shot down Whitley V P5007 on 51 Squadron in the early hours on 20 July 25 kilometres northwest of Kiel. Flight Lieutenant Stephen Edward Frederick Curry and three others on his crew were killed and one was taken prisoner. This was followed on 21/22 July by Whitley V N1487 on 78 Squadron flown by Sergeant Victor Clarence Monkhouse ten kilometres north of Münster. All the crew were killed. Streib soon added to his score, claiming two Wellingtons on 30/31 August and three bombers on 30 September/1 October. Kammhuber realised that ‘Helle Nachtjagd’, entirely dependent as it was on weather conditions and radar-guided searchlights was only a short-term solution; it simply could not penetrate thick layers of cloud or industrial haze over the Ruhr and other industrial centres in the Reich. He soon concentrated all his energies in developing an efficient radar-controlled air defence system.