Nuremberg Night 30/31 March 1944

This would normally have been the moon stand-down period for the Main Force, but a raid to the distant target of Nuremberg was planned on the basis of an early forecast that there would be protective high cloud on the outward route, when the moon would be up, but that the target area would be clear for ground-marked bombing. A Meteorological Flight Mosquito carried out a reconnaissance and reported that the protective cloud was unlikely to be present and that there could be cloud over the target, but the raid was not cancelled.

795 aircraft were dispatched – 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and 9 Mosquitoes. The German controller ignored all the diversions and assembled his fighters at 2 radio beacons which happened to be astride the route to Nuremberg. The first fighters appeared just before the bombers reached the Belgian border and a fierce battle in the moonlight lasted for the next hour. 82 bombers were lost on the outward route and near the target. The action was much reduced on the return flight, when most of the German fighters had to land, but 95 bombers were lost in all – 64 Lancasters and 31 Halifaxes, 11.9 percent of the force dispatched. It was the biggest Bomber Command loss of the war.

The bomber dived violently and turned to the north, but because of good visibility we were able to keep him in sight. I now attempted a second attack after he had settled on his course, but because the Lancaster was now very slow we always came out too far to the front. I tried the Schräge Musik again and after another burst the bomber fell in flames.

The words belong to Oberleutnant Helmut Schulte of II./NJG 5 as he describes the last moments of a Lancaster on the night of 30/31 March 1944. The target that night was the ancient city of Nuremberg, the shrine of Nazism, and flying a Bf 110G-4 fitted with Schräge Musik his success contributed to what turned out to be Bomber Command’s worst night of the war.

The choice of target, deep in the heart of Bavaria in southern Germany, was an interesting one, as it was not considered to be of industrial importance. There were, however, several small factories around the city and it was a central link in rail and water communications. But any route taken to Nuremberg meant passing close to known heavily defended areas. Furthermore, the moonlight meant that it should have been a period of stand-down for the Main Force but a favourable weather forecast, with protective cloud cover all the way to the target and clear conditions over Nuremberg, led to the decision being made to go ahead with this distant raid.

The Bomber Command pump was again full-on with the squadrons producing aircraft and crews in large numbers. It had been less than a week since the last raid against Berlin (which had involved 800 aircraft) and just four nights since Essen (over 700), but, even so, 795 aircraft were made available for the Nuremberg raid.

For the Beetham crew of 50 Squadron it was to be their twenty-first op. Their experience that night is best told through the words in Les Bartlett’s wartime diary:

Such a nice day today, little did we know what was in store for us. Briefing was getting later each day as the days grew longer, and today it was 5 pm, so we all had an afternoon nap. The target was Nuremberg. Where was that? ‘Oh, this should be a nice quiet stooge’, someone said, but that remained to be seen. At 10 pm we taxied out and were first airborne. Everything was quiet during the climb to 20,000 feet over the Channel. We crossed the enemy coast and it was eyes wide open. As we drew level with the south of the Ruhr Valley, things began to happen. Enemy night fighters were all around us and, in no time at all, combats were taking place and aircraft were going down in flames on both sides. So serious was the situation, that I remember looking at the poor blighters going down and thinking to myself that it must be our turn next, just a question of time. A Lancaster appeared on our port beam, converging, so we dropped 100 feet or so to let him cross. He was only about 200 yards or so on our starboard beam when a string of cannon shells hit him and down he went. We altered course for Nuremberg, and I looked down at the area over which we had just passed. It looked like a battlefield. There were kites burning on the deck all over the place – bombs going off where they had been jettisoned by bombers damaged in combat, and fires from their incendiaries across the whole area. Such a picture of aerial disaster I had never seen before and hope to never see again. On the way into the target, the winds became changeable and we almost ran into the defences of Schweinfurt but we altered course in time. The defences of Nuremberg were nothing to speak of, a modest amount of heavy flak which did not prevent us doing a normal approach, and we were able to get the target indicators dropped by the Pathfinders in our bombsight to score direct hits with our 4,000lb ‘Cookie’ and our 1,000lb bombs and incendiaries. We were able to get out of the target area, always a dodgy business, and set course for home. To reach the coast was a binding two-hour stooge. The varying winds were leading us a dance. We found ourselves approaching Calais instead of being 80 miles further south, so we had a slight detour to avoid their defences. Once near the enemy coast, it was nose down for home at 300 knots. Even then, we saw some poor blokes ‘buy it’ over the Channel. What a relief it was to be flying over Lincoln Cathedral once more. Back in debriefing, we heard the full story of the squadron’s effort. It was the worst night for the squadron.

Bartlett and his crew had been lucky. It appears the weather forecast had been wrong and several wind-finding errors were made, causing the Main Force to become scattered. One-in-five bombers, it is reckoned, missed one of the turning points by at least 30 miles.

For the experienced crews who had spent the past few months clawing their way through varying densities of cloud to attack the major cities in Germany, including Berlin, the conditions just did not feel right. An attempt to deceive the German controllers of the intended target had failed; the lack of H2S transmissions coming from the Mosquitos carrying out spoof attacks against Cologne and Kassel making these attempts to deceive the defences easily recognized for what they were. And if this was not bad enough, a long straight leg of 270 miles to the target made the actual area of attack predictable.

Everything seemed to favour the defenders. Not only had the bombers become scattered over a wide area, the atmospheric conditions meant that condensation trails from their engines formed at a much lower height than normal. Also, there had been little or no cloud over much of Belgium and eastern France, and even where there was some cloud it was very thin and offered little or no protection. Over Holland and the Ruhr the sky was clear and the bright half-moon lit up the trails, making the bombers visible from many miles away.

The first night fighters appeared before many of the Main Force had even reached the Belgian border, enabling them to constantly harass the bombers for the next hour. Falling bombers merely presented a trail of fires as they crashed to earth. By the time the Main Force approached Nuremberg some eighty bombers had been shot down with dozens more having aborted their mission either because of damage sustained or for other technical reasons.

Helmut Schulte was one to get amongst the main bomber stream at 20,000 feet with ease. In Spick’s Luftwaffe Fighter Aces Schulte described what happened next:

I sighted a Lancaster and got underneath it and opened fire with my slanting weapon. Unfortunately it jammed, so that only a few shots put out of action the starboard inner motor. The bomber dived violently and turned to the north, but because of good visibility we were able to keep him in sight. I now attempted a second attack after he had settled on his course, but because the Lancaster was now very slow we always came out too far to the front. I tried the Schräge Musik again and after another burst the bomber fell in flames.

For the bomber crews that did make it to Nuremberg they arrived over the city to find it covered by thick cloud, which extended up to 15,000 feet. It was not at all what had been briefed. Having expected the target to be clear of cloud, the Pathfinders carried mostly ground markers, which, of course, could not be seen through the cloud. Most of the bombs fell in residential areas, with only slight damage caused to industry.

Because of the problems caused by the wind, more than a hundred bombers had become so straggled that it is likely they bombed Schweinfurt, to the north-west of Nuremberg, instead. This belief is backed up by some post-raid reports of crews that had passed to the west of Schweinfurt on their way home. Pilot Officer John Chatterton of 44 Squadron, an experienced skipper flying his twenty-third op that night, later recalled what his crew had seen after leaving Nuremberg for the long journey home:

… after several minutes they [his air gunners] called our attention to another target away over to our right which seemed to be cloud free and with a lot of action. Tongue in cheek I asked Jack [his navigator] if he was sure we had bombed Nuremberg and received the expected forceful reply, with added information that the burning town was probably Schweinfurt.

Helmut Schulte, meanwhile, claimed three more bombers before coming across another Lancaster to the south of Nuremberg. When the bomber went into an immediate corkscrew he knew he had been spotted. With his Schräge Musik jammed, Schulte had no choice but to opt for his forward-firing guns but on this occasion his attack did not bring any success as he later recalled:

As soon as I opened fire he dived away and my shells passed over him. I thought that this chap must have nerves of steel: he had watched me formate on him and then had dived just at the right time. He had been through as much as I had – we had both been to Nuremberg that night – so I decided that was enough.

Schulte’s performance that night was impressive but it was bettered by another Bf 110 pilot, Oberleutnant Martin Becker, the Staffelkapitän of 2./NJG 6, who claimed seven bombers during the raid. Six of his victims – three Lancasters and three Halifaxes – all came down over Wetzla and Fulda in central Germany in a matter of minutes while the seventh, another Halifax, was claimed over Luxembourg while Becker was returning to base. These latest successes took his score past twenty, thirteen of which had been claimed in just over a week, earning him the Knight’s Cross and command of the 4th Gruppe.

Not only was the Nuremberg raid a failure, it turned out to be the worst night for Bomber Command of the war. Ninety-five aircraft were lost, of which seventy-nine fell to the night fighters. These figures might have been even higher had some Bf 110s not have been sent too far to the north. A further ten more bombers were written off after crash-landing back at base and a further fifty-nine had sustained considerable damage.

Leaving aside those aircraft that had been damaged, the overall loss rate for the raid was in excess of 13 per cent, with a reported 535 lives lost and a further 180 wounded or taken as prisoners of war. The Halifax force had again suffered the heaviest losses. Including the five written-off back in England, thirty-six of the 214 aircraft taking part in the raid had been lost (16.8 per cent). 51 Squadron based at Snaith in Yorkshire had suffered particularly badly with six of its seventeen Halifaxes failing to return, with the loss of thirty-five lives.

One young Halifax pilot to be killed that night was 22-year-old Pilot Officer Cyril Barton of 578 Squadron based at Burn in North Yorkshire. Flying Halifax ‘LK-E Excalibur’, Nuremburg was his nineteenth op. For most of the transit to the target he had been fortunate to avoid any trouble but the first he and his crew became aware of immediate danger was when they spotted pale red parachute flares, dropped by Ju 88s to mark the position of the bomber stream.

The sky was clear and the crew watched in horror as night fighters suddenly appeared. One by one their colleagues were picked off. They knew it would soon be their turn but they were now on the final leg towards the target and there was to be no turning back. Suddenly, two night fighters appeared in front. They were seen attacking head-on just as cannon shells ripped through the Halifax, puncturing fuel tanks and knocking out the aircraft’s rear turret and all of its communications while setting the starboard inner engine on fire.

Barton threw the aircraft into a hard evasive manoeuvre just as a Ju 88 passed close by. Corkscrewing as hard as he dare, the Halifax went down. For a while it seemed the danger had passed but no sooner had Barton resumed his course towards Nuremberg than the Halifax was attacked once again. Shells raked the fuselage for a second time. Again, the Ju 88 broke away but it was soon back again, scoring more hits on the crippled bomber before eventually turning away.

Undaunted, Barton again resumed his course for Nuremberg. He was finally able to gather his thoughts and to assess the damage to his aircraft, only to find that three of his crew members had gone. Unable to communicate with their skipper, and with the bomber repeatedly under heavy attack while corkscrewing towards the ground, the navigator, bomb aimer and wireless operator had all abandoned the aircraft to become prisoners of war.

Left in a desperate situation, Barton decided what to do next. With a crippled bomber, one engine out, leaking fuel, his rear turret out of action, no communications or navigational assistance, and now with three of his crew missing, he would have been fully justified in aborting his mission. But he decided instead to press on to the target with just his two air gunners, Sergeants Freddie Brice and Harry Wood, and his flight engineer, Sergeant Maurice Trousdale, left on board.

The four airmen struggled on as best they could. By working together and using the stars to navigate, they eventually reached the target and completed their attack before finally turning for home. Remarkably, they managed to keep out of further trouble as Barton nursed the crippled Halifax back towards safety. It was an outstanding feat of airmanship for a pilot so young. But the crew were still not out of danger and although Barton was satisfied they had coasted-in somewhere over eastern England, they still had to find somewhere to land.

It was just before 6 a.m. and still dark but the Halifax was now desperately short of fuel. As Barton eased the bomber down he was all too aware that the remaining engines were about to give up. With his three crew colleagues braced behind the aircraft’s rear spar, he was all alone in the cockpit.Visibility was extremely poor and suddenly a row of terraced houses appeared in front. Yanking the control column back in a desperate attempt to hurdle the obstacles before him, a wing first clipped the chimneys before the Halifax came crashing down, demolishing everything in its way.

The Halifax had come down in the yard of Ryhope colliery in County Durham. One miner on his way to work, 58-year-old George Dodds, was killed in the wreckage. Remarkably, though, the three crew members braced in the rear of the fuselage had survived; all to later receive the DFM. Fortunately for them, the rear section of the aircraft had broken away on impact. The forward section, however, still with the gallant young pilot inside, was a wreck of twisted metal. Barton was pulled from the wreckage and rushed to hospital but he died from his injuries the following day.

It was an extraordinary act of courage and words are difficult to find. A few weeks later came the announcement of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Cyril Barton. The citation, which appeared in the Fifth Supplement to the London Gazette on Friday 23 June 1944, concludes:

In gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds, this officer displayed unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty.

Pilot Officer Barton’s Victoria Cross was the only one awarded during the Battle of Berlin, which had now officially ended.

The disastrous raid against Nuremberg was yet another costly reminder that large-scale raids deep into Nazi Germany were still extremely hazardous and often resulted in heavy losses. Unfortunately for all the bomber crews lost during the long and hard winter of 1943/44, they had come up against the Luftwaffe’s night fighter force at the peak of its effectiveness.

It was, for now, the last all-out offensive against the German homeland and brought to an end Bomber Command’s long-employed tactic of massed attacks against major targets. Not until the Allies enjoyed air superiority over north-west Europe would Bomber Command employ such tactics again. If it had not been apparent before then it was certainly apparent now – the war would not end until Germany had been defeated on the ground. However, everything Germany needed to maintain both military and civil defence – water, electricity, transport and emergency services – as well as the raw materials to keep the factories going, had drawn heavily on its resources throughout that hard winter. In truth, Germany was slowly grinding to a halt. The Nuremberg raid had also marked the Nachtjagd’s last great victory of the war.

Most of the returning crews reported that they had bombed Nuremberg but subsequent research showed that approximately 120 aircraft had bombed Schweinfurt, 50 miles north-west of Nuremberg. This mistake was a result of badly forecast winds causing navigational difficulties. 2 Pathfinder aircraft dropped markers at Schweinfurt. Much of the bombing in the Schweinfurt area fell outside the town and only 2 people were killed in that area.

The main raid at Nuremberg was a failure. The city was covered by thick cloud and a fierce cross-wind which developed on the final approach to the target caused many of the Pathfinder aircraft to mark too far to the east. A 10-mile-long creepback also developed into the countryside north of Nuremberg. Both Pathfinders and Main Force aircraft were under heavy fighter attack throughout the raid. Little damage was caused in Nuremberg; 69 people were killed in the city and the surrounding villages.

DIVERSION AND SUPPORT OPERATIONS

49 Halifaxes minelaying in the Heligoland area, 13 Mosquitoes to night-fighter airfields, 34 Mosquitoes on diversions to Aachen, Cologne and Kassel, 5 R.C.M. sorties, 19 Serrate patrols. No aircraft lost.

Minor Operations: 3 Oboe Mosquitoes to Oberhausen (where 23 Germans waiting to go into a public shelter were killed by a bomb) and 1 Mosquito to Dortmund, 6 Stirlings minelaying off Texel and Le Havre, 17 aircraft on Resistance operations, 8 O.T.U. sorties. 1 Halifax shot down dropping Resistance agents over Belgium.

Total effort for the night: 950 sorties, 96 aircraft (10.1 percent) lost.

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