Having rebuilt its strength by February 1943, KG2 was back in the front line again and in addition to the build up of fresh crews it was also re-equipped with the latest Dornier Do217K- and M- sub-types. With reorganisation and re-equipment being prevalent in the second half of 1942, the RAF had not stood still either and thus the stage was set for another clash in the night sky around The Wash. By the end of that spring of 1943, though, KG2’s casualties began to mount once again, peaking in March with the loss of twenty-six crews.
In May of 1942, 25 Squadron relocated from Ballyhalbert to RAF Church Fenton and later that year began re-equipment with the Mosquito. The quantity of defensive night fighter units was decreasing by this time and from its base in Yorkshire, the squadron would be called upon to provide cover to a wide area, involving them in sorties as far south as The Wash and north Norfolk coast and well out into the North Sea. By the start of 1943 the Turbinlite Havocs of 532 Squadron (formerly 1453 Flight) and the other similarly equipped squadrons, were disbanded and their crews were dispersed among other night fighter and intruder units. For example, Fg Off Jack Cheney and his RO, Plt Off Mike Mycock, already mentioned earlier, were posted to 25 Squadron in January 1943.
151 Squadron, having finally seen its Defiants and Hurricanes replaced by the Mosquito NFII, had a fairly thin time during the summer of 1942. Many nights went by without a sniff of the Luftwaffe and when it did venture over it was often just an odd aircraft or two with no discernable purpose other than of a nuisance value.
From the beginning of 1942 cooperation between night fighters and searchlights was reorganised into a tactical ‘box’ system with boxes, forty-four miles wide by fourteen miles long, within which a night fighter circled a stationary vertical beam [the ‘beacon’] to maintain station. When an enemy aircraft entered the box, other searchlights converged to indicate the location of the raider as it approached the central ‘killer’ zone. Evidence of this box structure lying across the route to the Midlands can be gleaned from some 151 Squadron interceptions during that summer, each one occurring during the periods of no moon, when searchlights would be at their most effective.
On the night of August 11/12, for example, Plt Off E Rayner and Flt Sgt V Brown (RO) intercepted and damaged a Ju88 at 01.30 hours near Grantham while patrolling searchlight box 14 under Digby sector control. Rayner was probably deprived of a kill because his firing buttons had accidentally been wired in reverse and for his crucial first burst the machine guns fired when he thought he was firing the cannon. Just before 23.00 hours on September 8/9 two 151 Mosquitoes were sent off to patrol boxes 15 and 20 and showed just how effective the current tactics could be – AI Mk V not withstanding. Flt Lt Henry Bodien with Sgt George Brooker as RO, were first up:
… with orders to man S/L box 15 under Wittering sector control. After orbiting beacon they were given ‘smack’. This proved fruitless but as they returned to the orbit a contact at 15,000 feet altitude, maximum range was obtained, followed by a visual of exhausts at 650 yards range slightly above and to starboard, heading SE at about 230mph. Pilot was told to investigate with extreme caution as it was probably friendly but owing to the darkness of the night, definite identification was difficult. The aircraft was chased from NW Bedford to Clacton and down to 10,000 feet and it was just on midnight when searchlights illuminated both aircraft. From sixty yards range it became possible to identify it as a Do217 with black crosses and a number visible on the green camouflaged underside of wings. Bandit made a diving turn across the nose of Mosquito and received a burst of cannon fire outside its port engine. It then straightened up and a second burst from 150 yards astern hit port wing behind the engine. Visual was then lost through searchlight dazzle at 6,000 feet altitude and the AI became unserviceable as a result of vibration from the cannon fire. Landed back at Wittering at 00.57 and this Do217 is claimed as damaged.
There was a rather intriguing comment on Bodien’s combat report to the effect that his Mosquito was: “camouflaged in a special manner as devised by 151 Squadron”, but this was not explained further. The term ‘smack’ is the order for the fighter to leave the beacon and head in the direction given towards a possible target, usually indicated by searchlight activity.
Three minutes later Fg Off Alex McRitchie and Flt Sgt E James (RO) followed Bodien down Wittering’s runway to man S/L box 20 under Duxford sector control. This is their account of the sortie.
Pilot orbited beacon at 12,000 feet. Given ‘smack’ and saw S/L beams fifteen miles away, which doused as Mosquito approached. Then proceeded in direction of more beams to the south and saw a flare dropped. Duxford control ordered pilot to return to beacon but he obtained permission to continue as he felt sure hostile aircraft were near. He was then warned of presence of a bogey. A blip was obtained at 10,000 feet altitude at maximum range. The blip spread and pilot assumed this indicated bombs dropping. Several other blips followed which came down to 650 yards range and spread as in the first case but contact was lost again. Bombs were seen exploding and RO was warned by control of possibilities of a contact. A few seconds later an AI blip was obtained at maximum range and a visual of exhausts was obtained when it was at 500 yards range. Mosquito was at 7,000 feet altitude with the E/A, confirmed through binoculars by the RO as a Dornier Do217, jinking violently at 200mph, 500 feet above and in front, heading north. Opened fire from astern at 300 yards with a four-second burst that hit the fuselage and a fire broke out. E/A began diving turns and fired back ineffectually but failed to avoid a three-second burst that set the port engine on fire. Another three-second burst from 300 yards hit the wings and the bomber dived into the ground, exploding in a vivid white flash.
The Dornier F8+AP from II/KG40 crashed at 23.35 hours at Rectory Farm, Orwell near Cambridge and its crew of Fw A Witting, Ofw F Heusser, Ogefr A Hoppe and Uffz A Eysoldt all died in the engagement. This was McRitchie’s last combat victory and promoted to Flt Lt, he was posted away on non-operational duties in April 1943. His name returned to prominence with a bang though in February 1944 when he took part in the Mosquito raid on Amiens prison, during which he was shot down and made POW.
In April 1943, 151 Squadron would leave Wittering for Colerne in the West Country from where it began intruder operations. From the beginning of that year, 151 Squadron’s preparations for its transition from a defensive to an offensive role became evident from the increase in cross-country training flights and regular classroom sessions on navigation for the observers (RO), who would themselves become part of the navigator fraternity with the option of wearing the N brevet.
Other subtle improvements were filtering through 151 Squadron in January 1943, such as one or two Mosquitoes having their four Browning machine guns removed to make way for a new mark of AI equipment in the nose that it was believed would give better results.
This is a reference to the Mk VII version of AI, which had a small, moving dish scanner, mounted behind the nose cone of the aircraft, instead of the external arrowhead, fixed dipole antennae associated with the Mk IV and Mk V. Maximum range was now about seven miles and this apparatus represented a considerable improvement over previous versions, including allowing radar-guided interceptions to be made at altitudes below about two thousand feet, something earlier AI sets could not cope with. Sqn Ldr Lewis Brandon explains:
The performance of AI Mk IV depended largely on the altitude at which the fighter flew. The range in feet was roughly equivalent to the altitude at which the aircraft was being flown. The return echo from the ground was of course much stronger than from an aircraft. The lower the fighter flew, the further down the azimuth and elevation display tubes the ground return came… so that eventually at about 1,000 feet [altitude] it would blot out any other echoes.
AI Mk VII worked on the same principle as the Mk IV but the main difference was a more powerful, beamed transmission, which gave a greater maximum range and to a large extent eliminated or reduced the ground returns, thus improving interception of low-flying enemy aircraft such as mine-layers. So far as the RO was concerned the Mk VII was also easier to operate, as there was only one display tube for him to look at.
There was also a version in between these two: the Mark V, which has been mentioned in several of the preceding incidents. It had the same external antenna system as the Mk IV but with a different display tube arrangement – including one mounted on the top of the instrument panel for the pilot to view. Some were of the opinion that it only served to ruin his night vision, even if he had time to use it! The Mk V seems to have become generally disliked but was factory-installed in the first batches of Mosquitoes to be issued to squadrons, so 151 Squadron was among the first to experience this version. Lewis Brandon was involved with the testing of AI Mk VII at RAF Ford and then went on to serve with 157 Squadron, the first unit to receive the Mosquito NFII, and his opinion of the interim Mk V was quite scathing.
Fighter Command perpetrated a blunder almost as bad as the Turbinlite fiasco. They decided to install in our beautiful Mossies a wretched new Mark V AI that had all the faults of the Mk IV plus many of its own. It was a retrograde step even when compared to the Mk IV but compared to the Mk VII it was like going back to a divining-rod. There were times when I thought that if I took a hazel twig, persuaded a dachshund to lift a leg against it and then took it into the Mossie with me, it would lead me to a German more readily than would AI Mk V.
GCI radar was undergoing its own changes, too, with the rolling out of the permanent ‘Final AMES’ version to, among others, Langtoft and Neatishead. These installations became irreverently known to their staff as ‘Happidrome’, being named after the popular 1941 radio programme about an imaginary variety theatre where everything went wrong and nobody seemed to know what was going on. It was not long before those in the know about radar realised the similarities between the radio programme and the new Final GCI installations and thus the new brick and concrete operations buildings were dubbed accordingly. The development of the radar also allowed each GCI station to handle several interceptions simultaneously and four 151 Squadron Mosquitoes were sent off on the 23rd to test the system with Neatishead.
While it had become patently obvious, in view of the demise of the Turbinlite Havoc squadrons, that the Turbinlite concept was a dead duck, someone had conjured up the bright (!) idea of grafting a Turbinlite onto a Mosquito and wanted to try it out. 151 Squadron became involved with this venture when Flt Lt Henry Bodien and Fg Off Yeats flew down to Heston aerodrome on January 8 1943 to collect the prototype Turbinlite Mosquito W4087. That turned out to be a wasted journey because the aeroplane wasn’t even ready when they arrived. Next day Bodien and Fg Off Rayner went down again and this time Bodien was able to fly the Turbinlite back to Wittering. Rayner should have brought back their NFII but had to wait for it to be repaired after a Polish airman very prettily taxied a Tiger Moth into it.
Temporarily, Sqn Ldr Stewart, OC 532 (Turbinlite) Squadron – still clearing up at Hibaldstow – was sent down to Wittering where he and one of the remaining 532 Squadron ROs, Fg Off Andy Cunningham, were to put the Turbinlite Mosquito through its paces. This took them all of a day and then they were ferried back to Hibaldstow. The result of the test is unclear but W4087, which was officially on charge to 1422 Flight at Heston, was ordered to remain at Wittering. It does seem a terrible waste of the Mosquito’s true potential to encumber it with all that gear but as there were no more Mosquito conversions, fortunately a veil seems to have been drawn quickly over the experiment.
There was little enemy activity in the sector until in the clear moonlight of January 15/16 the Luftwaffe attacked Lincoln with about twelve bombers. Four Mosquitoes were launched from Wittering but the only confirmed kill fell to Canadian new boy, Sgt Earl ‘Tex’ Knight and his RO Sgt Bill Roberts, who were on their first operational sortie.
Airborne at 20.25, twenty minutes later they came under Patrington GCI controller Sqn Ldr Donaldson who put them onto a bandit coming in over the Lincolnshire coast at 10,000 feet. Roberts lost his first contact on the AI Mk V set but the controller helped him to pick out another one at maximum range, and he brought Knight into visual range of a Dornier Do217 at 1,000 yards. Closing to 150 yards Sgt Knight fired a two-second cannon burst into the port engine just as the Dornier dived hard down to 4,000 feet, jinking right and left and even making complete circles in the process. As machine-gun fire from the Dornier’s dorsal turret zipped over the Mosquito’s wing tip, Knight’s second burst hit the starboard engine and a third burst from a hundred yards range riddled the bomber’s fuselage. Shedding debris and with both engines on fire it dived into the ground, exploding near Boothby Graffoe, ten miles north of Sleaford. The Dornier Do217E was wk nr 4308, U5+KR of II/KG2 and its crew, Lt Wolff, Ogefr Krusewitz and Uffzs Knorr and Semlitschka, all died.
This was the last combat of any significance by 151 Squadron before it moved out of Wittering to Colerne in April 1943. In its place, 141 Squadron was due to move into Wittering with Beaufighters but, although it would be available for defensive night fighting if called upon, its role was principally that of offensive intruder and bomber support duties.
So, although fighters from other sectors could be involved from time to time, now the defensive night fighter force policing not only The Wash corridor but also the rest of the East Midlands was concentrated at RAF Coleby Grange, the grass airfield a few miles south of Lincoln. We have seen from Peter McMillan’s earlier combat the other Canadian night fighter unit, 409 Squadron under Wg Cdr Paul Davoud, had two spells at Coleby Grange, separated by 410 Squadron, with Mosquito NFIIs for its home defence work, between February and October 1943. It is also worth commenting that since night fighter cover was actually pretty thinly spread over this part of the country at this point in time, it was just as well that the Luftwaffe either did not seem to have worked that out or, more likely, was simply unable to exploit it.
During their respective spells at Coleby Grange there was little trade and both 409 and 410 Squadrons lost more aircraft in accidents than they had combats with the enemy. For example Sqn Ldr Bruce Hanbury and two airmen died when Beaufighter II, T3142, crashed at Leverton (Lincs) on March 27 1942 while Hanbury was demonstrating its stalling characteristics to a new 409 pilot. On January 13 1944, in their second spell, Beaufighter VI, MM918, suffered instrument failure during a night standing patrol and spun in at Wisbech, with the loss of its navigator Fg Off Harry Kirton. Even without the presence of the Luftwaffe, night fighter crews practiced constantly to improve their skills. Trying hard to keep on the tail of a colleague during a cine-gun exercise cost 410 Squadron and Flt Sgt William Cheropita and his RO, WO Neil Dalton, their lives when Mosquito NFII, DZ305, crashed near Sutton Bridge on August 27 1943.
It was from Coleby Grange that the 410 Squadron crew of Fg Off D Williams and his RO, Plt Off P Dalton, took off late on March 18 1943 to patrol the south of the county.
At about the same time, in bright moonlight, twenty-four enemy bombers were crossing the Norfolk coast at various points between Great Yarmouth and The Wash. They were a mixed force of Dornier 217s and Junkers 88s from Fliegercorps IX, including aircraft from KG2 and KG6. Their main targets were Norwich, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and night fighters operating from RAF Coltishall would be in action against these, too. But one or more of their number may have been seeking to disturb the sleeping outpost of the Central Gunnery School at RAF Sutton Bridge, or possibly RAF Wittering itself.
Another favourite target in that area was the decoy Q-site at Terrington Marsh, which was very successful in protecting RAF Sutton Bridge from receiving too much attention from enemy air attacks. Much to the chagrin of the villagers of Terrington St Clements – perhaps not unreasonably given that it was only 300 yards from the outskirts – it attracted an estimated 142 HE, 750 incendiaries and one oil bomb during the course of the war.
At 23.00 that night the air was rent by the thunderous ‘crump’ of two aerial mines and a phosphor bomb exploding near Sutton Bridge. Flashes lit up the dark landscape and a ground crew airman from CGS, LAC Douglas Broome, returning to camp after a night out, recalled how these were visible from many miles away across the flat Fens. As Fg Off Williams eased Mosquito NFII, HJ936, off Coleby’s grassy acres, the Canadian had no inkling he would become involved in an unusual combat. Digby sector control instructed him to climb to 10,000 feet, steer south and then handed him over to Flt Lt Tuttle at Orby GCI. Almost immediately he was advised of a target at three miles range. The Mosquito easily had the acceleration to close in on the enemy and Dalton picked out a tell-tale blip on the AI Mk V set at two miles range. No sooner had he begun to give his pilot an interception course when another, closer, contact was discerned on the display.
This new target, at 1,000 yards range, slightly below and to port, was in a much better position for an attack. Williams nudged down the nose of HJ936 and the sinister shape of a Dornier Do217 floated into view, about 700 yards dead ahead.
The crew of the Dornier Do217, an E-4 wk nr 5523, U5+AH of I/KG2 – Uffzs Horst Toifel, Ludwig Petzold, Heinrich Peter and Ofw Georg Riedel, were clearly on the alert, for in the comparatively bright conditions they were quick to spot the danger stalking them. Before Williams could get close enough to put in a burst, the Dornier was thrown into a half-roll and tried to dive away from the Mosquito. Fg Off Williams slammed open the throttles and followed the Dornier down in its plummet towards the sanctuary of darkness 8,000 feet below where, no doubt, the pilot hoped the clutter from ground returns would hide the bomber from the Mosquito’s prying radar eye.
Fg Off Williams could not close on the fleeing Dornier and with speed building up and the controls becoming heavy, he hauled back on the stick, pulling it out of the dive at 1,800 feet. But the Dornier continued to dive and with the pilot Toifel probably unable to regain control of his machine, it plunged into the ground to be consumed with the crew in a huge ball of fire. Williams obtained a fix from Orby GCI that put him in the vicinity of King’s Lynn and was then recalled to base.
Fg Off Williams said in his combat report that at no time did he fire his guns and neither anti-aircraft fire nor searchlights were seen in the area of the engagement. The Observer Corps found wreckage and a parachute from a Do217 that had crashed near Ongar Hill, a few miles north of King’s Lynn at the time of Williams’ engagement. RAF intelligence officers found the main wreckage on sandbanks at the mouth of the Ouse river nearby. It would seem from the description of the combat that the enemy pilot lost control of the Dornier in a dive while trying to out-manoeuvre Williams’ Mosquito. In another somewhat harsh judgement his claim for one E/A destroyed was amended to a half Do217 destroyed, shared with AA.
This encounter marked the beginning of the end of the Luftwaffe’s offensive on the Midlands and East Anglia and there are, for example, no significant air attacks recorded against towns around The Wash during 1943. Furthermore apart from a few hit and run raids during 1944 that were mounted as part of the overall Operation Steinbock offensive, the Luftwaffe Kampfgruppen were a spent force over the region.
It has been seen that a significant role was played by GCI stations in bringing the night bomber menace under control and Orby GCI station near Skegness was typical of these installations. One night’s action during the Steinbock period will give an idea of how what should rightly be viewed as a ‘system’ functioned when things hotted up. It will also be noted that the night fighter squadrons operating from Coleby Grange had been reorganised yet again, and after the departure of 409 in February, the Polish 307 Squadron was now in residence, flying Mosquitoes with the very latest radar equipment.
Operation Steinbock, sometimes referred to in Britain as the ‘Baby Blitz’, was Hitler’s retaliation to heavy RAF raids on the German heartlands and was to be a concerted effort against London and other important British cities and ports. The raids, in which the Heinkel He177 aircraft – the Luftwaffe’s only viable heavy bomber – featured prominently, began on January 21 1944 and continued on and off until May of that year. The Luftwaffe took a leaf out of the RAF’s book and used pathfinder techniques and concealment behind anti-radar screens of air-dropped tin-foil strips – called ‘düppel’ by the Luftwaffe and ‘window’ by the RAF – during approaches to the British coast.
RAF Orby was now equipped with permanent AMES Mark VII GCI apparatus, with a rotating antenna producing a 360° representation on a cathode ray screen called a plan position indicator. Orby was one of the ‘Happidrome’ stations and could handle more than one interception simultaneously. Targets were usually picked up initially by coastal Chain Home or Chain Home Low radar stations and passed to filter rooms where a raid identity was allocated. If there was no IFF radio signal from the contact the target would be classified as hostile and passed to a GCI station into whose coverage the hostile was headed. The GCI station control staff would then direct one or more night fighters – most likely already on standing patrol and held ready, orbiting a beacon – to intercept it. Reinforcements could be called up as the tactical situation required.
After a series of eleven raids on London since the start of Steinbock, the Luftwaffe turned its attention to Hull. On the evening of March 19 1944 operations at Orby Happidrome began to heat up around 20.30 hours when enemy air activity seemed imminent. Controllers on duty that night were Fg Off Shimeld and Fg Off Board, working under the general control of Sqn Ldr Clark. Assistant controllers were Sgt Barratt and Cpl Tricker and the duty shift ran 17.30 on 19th to 08.30 on 20th. Weather conditions were good, with some cloud between 2,500 and 3,500 feet. The sun had set at 19.13 while the moon was in its last quarter and was due to rise at 04.23 next morning.
Shortly before 21.00 the Orby scanner picked up indications of a düppel screen being sown parallel to the coast about ninety miles east of Skegness and past experience had showed this was normally a prelude to a German air attack. Digby sector operations had already taken the decision to launch two Mosquito night fighters from the Polish 307 (Lwowski) Squadron at RAF Coleby Grange. Patiently orbiting beacon K at 15,000 feet altitude were ‘Duckpond 18’ a Mosquito XII, HK119, fitted with AI Mk VII, flown by Fg Off Jerzy Brochocki with Fg Off Henryk Ziolkowski as AI operator and ‘Duckpond 31’, a Mosquito XIII, HK522, flown by Fg Off Jerzy Pelka with Plt Off Gamsecki as AI operator. Once enemy activity was confirmed, Fg Off Dean at sector ops handed over control of both Mosquitoes to Orby GCI.
Now Orby controllers directed the fighters east towards the jamming screen while two more Mosquitoes (‘Luncheons 42 and 48’) were scrambled in support. Fg Off Shimeld took control of Duckpond 31 while Fg Off Board, operating from a separate interception room, controlled Duckpond 18. Interception tracking began at 21.10 at the forward edge of the düppel screen when it was about sixty miles off Skegness. Because of the problems posed by the düppel, all the interceptions were made head-on, i.e. from the west with the targets coming from the east, so as to keep the first two Mosquitoes to the west, and clear of the jamming screen.
The control situation was made more difficult because, in addition to the spurious düppel echoes and hostile aircraft, a variety of friendlies were also approaching the coast. Earlier this night, Mosquitoes had been sent to bomb Berlin, Düsseldorf and Aachen, while Stirlings had sown mines off the Dutch coast. Furthermore three ‘Serrate’ Mosquitoes were in action and four RCM and six OCU sorties had been flown or were in progress. It was going to be a busy night.
As the düppel screen moved nearer the English coast, Luncheons 42 and 48, themselves supported by another fighter, Luncheon 55, were brought back inland to orbit beacons in anticipation of the penetration by hostile aircraft. Duckpond 31 was now vectored towards a number of potential targets by GCI, six of which were acquired successfully by the Mosquito’s radar operator. But there was no joy as one turned out to be friendly and the remainder were found to be düppel echoes. Simultaneously, Fg Off Board was attempting to guide Duckpond 18 to a series of interceptions. Henryk Ziolkowski actually picked out eight separate radar contacts over an area between the coast and sixty miles out. He homed in on three of these one after the other but he, too, was frustrated when Fg Off Brochocki visually identified each of them as friendlies. It is to be wondered what the crews of these RAF targets would have thought if they had known just how close they had come to the business end of a deadly night fighter.
Fg Off Brochocki’s luck changed with the next contact. His radar operator picked up a solid return, at four miles range, from an aircraft inbound at 16,000 feet altitude about fifteen miles east of Skegness. Ziolkowski made a perfect approach to visual range and this target was unmistakeably a Heinkel He177 on a course of 290°. Brochocki wasted not a second more and opened fire, shells from his four 20mm cannon (no machine guns on this model) scoring hits on the underside of the fuselage. His second burst set the port engine on fire and the Heinkel was last seen diving vertically before the Poles lost sight of it. There was no time to waste in searching further as Board gave them yet more vectors – unfortunately all of which turned out to be either spurious or friendly contacts. All was not lost, though, because the Mosquito’s gunfire had in fact been very effective. GCI logged the interception of the Heinkel at 21.46, in grid square G3887. Observer Corps post ‘How 1’ at Skegness recorded an aircraft crashing into the sea at 21.48 in a position estimated as grid square G38 and this sighting was taken as confirmation of the destruction of the Heinkel He177. Brochocki used 240 rounds of 20mm ammunition to despatch this big bomber.
Although the düppel screen, measuring some seventy miles long and fifty miles wide, eventually penetrated ten to twelve miles inland, there were no further interceptions coordinated by Orby GCI that night. By 22.50 hours all enemy activity in the area had ceased and the two active Mosquitoes were handed back to sector control. The Luftwaffe flew 131 sorties that night, of which about fifty are believed to have crossed the coasts of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Most of the bombs intended for Hull seemed to fall in rural areas due, it is thought, to incorrect estimation of the wind strength, causing pathfinder flares to fall well to the south of the intended target. During the period covering the interceptions mentioned above, for example, over one hundred HE and an estimated 40,000 incendiary bombs were dropped in the Louth and Spilsby rural districts in Lincolnshire, causing little damage in the process.
Once again post-war research enables Brochocki and Ziolkowski’s Heinkel to be identified as He177A-3, 6N+OK, of I/KG100, which failed to return having set out as part of the raid on Hull on March 19/20 1944. Its crew was Hptmn Muller, Ogefr Kuchler, Uffzs Gundner, Hockauff and Rodenstein and Ofw Utikal, all of whom were reported as missing in action.