Steinbock, Gisela and Buzz-bombs II

The Dornier Do 217 was one of the best “performers” of the German Luftwaffe that ended up fulfilling various roles from bomber to reconnaissance aircraft and heavy-night fighter. This twin-engine 4-man aircraft appeared in prototype form by 1938 and would see several variants exist before the end of the war. Design of the Do 217 followed along the same lines of earlier Dornier bomber designs. Exotically ugly and with a “brutal”look, it was a scaled up Dornier Do 215 and initially powered by the same engines. In the late 1942 two new variants entered service, the K and M models. These had a rounded and streamlined nose profile; the reduction in drag and the use of powerful engines (especially for the M version), enables the “217” to made some 50km/h faster than the earlier E model, with a bomb load of more than 4000kg. The Dornier 217 M, which first flew on July 16 of 1942, switch to more powerful in-lineV12 liquid cooled Daimler Benz DB603. This engine had better performance at high altitude than BMW 801. The Dornier 217, in majority K and M versions was present with KG2, KG40 and KG66. During Steinbock raids the “217” flown with a load of AB1000 and AB500 bombs container, charged with fire bomblets. The only capability in which the Do 217 was used up to the end of the war was as a night reconnaissance plane. In every way, the Do 217 was a success. It was fast, reliable and versatile. It wasn’t very easy to fly (it was heavy and dangerously fast in landing approach) but his high wing-load was an advantage in stability during bad weather bombing runs. The Do 217 was only built by the three Dornier plants: Dornier Werke Friedrichshafen (DWF): 316 aircraft, Dornier Werke München (DWM): 985 aircraft and Norddeutsche Dornier Werke (NDW): 602 aircraft.

That night, British night fighter defences shot down nine German aircraft, including the above Heinkel, and one other raider was brought down in Lincolnshire. This was Dornier Do217 M-1, U5+RL of I/KG2 shot down at Legbourne near Louth. The kill was achieved by Fg Off R L J Barbour in a Mosquito of 264 Squadron based at Church Fenton and controlled by Patrington GCI. It also proved to be a particularly memorable night for one 25 Squadron Mosquito crew, controlled by Happisburgh CHL and Neatishead GCI. Flt Lt Joe Singleton and his RO Fg Off Geoff Haslam shot down three Ju88s from KG30 during a devastating thirteen-minute period sixty miles out over the North Sea, NNE of Cromer on the Norfolk coast. The remaining four kills are believed to have been another Dornier Do217, two more Ju88s and a Ju188.

All in all it was a successful night for the defences since the Luftwaffe, with its diminishing numbers of bombers, could not sustain a loss rate of 7% like this for very long. To put this latter figure into some sort of context, RAF bomber loss rate, while averaging between 4% and 5% between January 1942 and August 1944, suffered peaks of 5.5% in June 1942, 6.3% in January 1944 and 6.5% in June 1944 before falling away to between 1% and 2% thereafter. Indeed the Steinbock raids petered out during May as the Luftwaffe cut its losses and saved its energy and resources for the expected invasion of France.

If the Luftwaffe’s bombers were being contained, the same could not be said about the Fernnachtjäger – the intruders. It is well known that the Luftwaffe night fighter force was playing havoc with RAF Bomber Command operations over continental Europe and its thoughts turned once more to that other of its effective but underplayed tactics – the intruder.

Airfields in eastern England were, once again, about to feel the effect of this dangerous foe and the Fenland region would be littered with the evidence of success, even though it would be shortlived. After a gap of two years, RAF losses to intruders over England began to mount again. Luftwaffe success increased from August 1943 when even the Mosquito was vulnerable to attack in its take-off and landing phases, as Fg Off W Foster of 410 Squadron was to find out in the early hours of September 1. Fg Off Foster and Plt Off J Grantham were scrambled from Coleby Grange at 03.07 hours and while taking off had the fright of their lives as streams of red and silver flashes took them by surprise. Just east of Navenby, at 400 feet with only 150mph on the clock and navigation lights lit, the Mosquito was suddenly enveloped by a long burst – they thought it must have been almost twenty seconds – of firing. Foster doused the navigation lights but at that speed could take no evasive action. Either the enemy aircraft overshot or ran out of ammunition but the Mosquito, hit in the wings, rear fuselage and tailplane and with a shell through the main fuel tank, managed to keep flying. The elevators were damaged so Foster climbed gently to 10,000 feet, tested controls and hydraulics and with great relief all round was able to land back at Coleby Grange without further mishap. Later the same month a 57 Squadron Lancaster was shot down near Spilsby and another from 101 Squadron near Wickenby.

It was during the period April to June 1944 that Me410s of V/KG2 and II/KG51 really made their presence felt. Forty RAF and USAAF aircraft were shot down, with April bringing the highest loss of twenty-nine Allied aircraft. Patrolling in the vicinity of airfields was always likely to be the most effective method but not all victims fell within airfield boundaries, as the following incidents will show.

Tasked to attack a range of French communications targets in the run up to D-Day, on the night of April 18/19, RAF Bomber Command sent 273 Lancasters, including twenty-six aircraft from 115 Squadron, to bomb railway marshalling yards at Rouen. None were lost over the target but Me410s cruising East Anglian skies lay in wait for the returning force.

Lancaster LL667, KO-R, was caught as twenty-year-old Plt Off John Birnie arrived in the vicinity of RAF Witchford. His aircraft was shot down at Coveney Fen north of Ely with the loss of all seven crew members. Shortly afterwards New Zealander Flt Lt Charlie Eddy MBE, circling the same area in LL867, A4-J, was shot down almost certainly by the same intruder. This Lancaster crashed north of Witchford, also with the loss of all seven airmen on board. Meanwhile, a little further west, having successfully attacked railway targets at Juvisy, Plt Off A E O’Beary and his Australian crew were heading home to RAF East Kirkby in Lancaster ND475. This 57 Squadron crew was shot down by an intruder two miles south-east of Whittlesey, killing all eight airmen on board.

It was not just the operational bombers that were caught either. On the night of the 14th a Stirling from 1654 CU was shot down during a practice sortie over the Bassingham bombing range west of Sleaford, while a pre-dawn local flying practice sortie on April 21/22 turned nasty for Plt Off James Banister, a pupil with 7 (P)AFU at RAF Peterborough. No doubt concentrating on his final approach to the airfield he was easy meat for an enemy fighter and his bullet-riddled Miles Master crashed into marshy ground just short of the airfield boundary. When removed to the nearby crematorium Banister himself was found to have sustained bullet wounds which were almost certainly fatal. Some thirty years later the remains of his aircraft were brought to the surface by an excavator working on a massive housing and industrial development project in the area, known as north Bretton, that was eventually to extend into the Westwood area, engulfing the whole of the former airfield. That same night, intruder activity by II/KG51 severely disrupted the American 2nd Air Division returning to its bases in Norfolk and Suffolk when at least fifteen bombers were brought down.

Intruders came back again on April 24/25 to harass RAF bombers returning from a raid on Karlsruhe. Making the long trek northwards from the English Channel to 76 Squadron’s base at Holme-on-Spalding-Moor in Yorkshire, Plt Off Douglas Dibbins and his comrades in Halifax LK789 were picked off over Welney Wash near Ely. Plt Off Dibbins failed in his attempt to crash-land the Halifax and only the rear gunner, Flt Sgt Anderson, escaped alive.

A seven-day snapshot of the ORB for RAF Ashbourne and Darley Moor in Derbyshire, paints a picture of a well-ordered atmosphere at 42 Operational Training Unit. Weather and daylight permitting, day flying training was usually carried out between 07.00 and anywhere up to 20.00, then night flying from dusk to dawn, on a regular basis. The unit was equipped with the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle twin-engine bomber. As might be expected at a training station, various inspections by Group staff are liberally sprinkled among the entries, for example: AVM Hollingsworth visited from 38 Group HQ for the purpose of interviewing officers desirous of permanent commissions. But the really big event, and the most detailed entry, came when an Air Ministry officer opened the brand new station cinema with the screening of the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

All-in-all this was pretty mundane stuff. But tucked away midst all this dull routine is an entry dated April 22, 1944.

During night flying exercise [on 22/23] Albemarle V1610 was shot down by enemy aircraft. Three members of crew were killed. A court of inquiry was held on April 27 attended by the two survivors of the incident, which happened over south Lincolnshire.

The fate of Albemarle V1610 was attributed to it being shot down by an enemy intruder aircraft at 04.00 hours on April 23 1944 with the loss of three of its five crew. This was the only aircraft based at RAF Ashbourne to be lost to enemy action in WW2 and the following is a summary of the events of that terrible night, recalled by one of the survivors, Sgt J Davis, and published in the book RAF Ashbourne.

The schedule for the night flying programme on April 22 was not a heavy one and flying did not actually begin until well after midnight. Albemarle V1610 was the second aircraft away at 02.30 hours. The outward leg of their journey began uneventfully enough and the crew settled down to carry out their individual duties. Sgt John Hutchinson, pilot, set a course that took it north to Yorkshire then south across Lincolnshire at an altitude of 2,500 feet. It was a routine low-level cross-country flight to allow the crew to become accustomed to low flying at night. Back in the navigator’s seat Sgt Kenneth Rusby was checking the aeroplane’s position and noted it was near one of the many bomber bases in Lincolnshire, which is believed to have been a reference to RAF Coningsby. Bomb aimer, Sgt Anthony Whittome, had his attention focused on the radar set while air gunner, Sgt Thorogood, sat in his turret scanning the night sky.

Around 04.00 Sgt Davis, the wireless operator, switched his set to ‘radio only’, thus isolating himself from the rest of the crew, as he knew it was about time for broadcast messages to be received in Morse code. Suddenly there was an almighty explosion in the port wing and the Albemarle rolled to starboard. Sgt Davis was thrown from his seat and sent sprawling to the floor. Recovering his senses, he regained his seat and plugged in his intercom cord to find out what had happened but by this time he could see the port wing was on fire. Then the pilot told them they had been hit and to abandon the aircraft.

Quickly removing his flying helmet, Davis clipped on his parachute and climbed up to the escape hatch just above his position. At first the hatch refused to budge and he struggled to free it with some degree of panic. Suddenly it came free, so he climbed out onto the starboard wing whereupon he was literally blown away and sent hurtling through the air, managing to pull the ripcord of his parachute at the same time. Descending in pitch darkness, without seeing another parachute, he landed in a ploughed field ‘somewhere in Lincolnshire’.

The Albemarle had crashed in Kirton Fen, an arable farming area between Boston and Coningsby. As he wrapped up the parachute his eyes became accustomed to the inky blackness and he discerned some shapes in the distance. Walking towards them, they turned out to be cottages so he knocked on the door of one of them. It took some time to reassure the occupants he was a British airman before they let him inside where he was told the village was nearby. Setting out to walk to it he met the local Home Guard patrol, which informed him there was another airman in the village pub. This turned out to be Sgt Thorogood. Both men were taken by ambulance to RAF Coningsby where arrangements were made with RAF Ashbourne to collect them in a Whitley aircraft. Later the airmen learned they were the only survivors. Being hit so suddenly and at such a low altitude would have given Sgt Hutchinson little time to do more than keep the rolling aircraft on an even keel long enough for the rest of his crew to try to bale out.

There is actually no conclusive evidence for a night fighter action in this case although it is a commonly held view that V1610 fell victim to an Me410 from KG51, a Luftwaffe intruder unit based at Évreux in France that had been plaguing this area for some time.

In the late 1980s a recovery dig at the crash site by the Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group brought to a conclusion many years of painstaking searching for this relatively unusual aircraft. Almost from the date of the group’s formation in the Boston area, members had been aware of rumours that an aircraft had crashed in Kirton Fen during the war. One local resident, the late Bernard Mastin, even described it as “an Albemarle from Derby” and quoted the name “Tom Whittome” as a member of its crew.

Other contacts guided LARG to the general area of the crash site and metal detector searches confirmed the presence of metallic remains. Now came the most difficult part: to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Defence to excavate the site. In order to get permission it was necessary to provide the MOD with the identity of the aeroplane so that appropriate checks could be carried out, not least of which was to establish if the presence of human remains or ordnance was likely to be involved. The actual aircraft serial eluded the group for many a year until the local resident’s mention of a Derbyshire-based unit was linked with an incident recorded in the book Intruders Over Britain. In the latter, V1610 was said to have been shot down near Lowestoft, more than a hundred miles away. Although this subsequently proved to be incorrect, armed with both this valuable clue and the name of a possible crew member, the results of a search in RAF Ashbourne ORB and a recent book about the station’s wartime history by Malcolm Giddings, finally allowed LARG to submit a successful request for a licence.

Excavated in August 1988, the site proved in the final analysis not to be amongst LARG’s most rewarding of digs. Some of the propeller blades, one prop boss and several shattered engine cylinders and hydraulic components were the most substantial finds along with a tangle of pipes, cables, some metal skinning and a pile of generally unrecognisable wreckage. One of the most valuable lessons learned by LARG from this dig was that no matter how much research and paperwork is done, nothing can substitute for the vital item of local knowledge emerging at the right time.

There is, however, another school of thought that suggests the demise of the Albemarle may have been due to friendly fire. Bernard Mastin recounted tales circulating on the grapevine in those far off days of the aircraft being brought down, either as a result of a hit by an anti-aircraft shell fired from RAF Coningsby defences when the wrong colours of the day were fired, or by an RAF night fighter. A single explosion, such as described by the survivors, might lend weight to the AA shell theory, whereas gunfire from a night fighter might have had a more prolonged effect over a greater area of the aircraft structure and be recognisable as such by the crew. Even to this very day friendly fire incidents are emotive issues that officialdom tries to keep out of the limelight for as long as modern journalism allows.

The disruptive power of Luftwaffe intruders hit RAF and USAAF operational and training programmes alike, its psychological effect being of a much higher value to the Germans than the actual losses of aircraft – on either side – implies. Like the intruder campaign of 1940/41 though, just as its impact was really biting, the Luftwaffe was ordered to curtail II/KG51’s activity so that it could be flung against the Allied invasion forces. Nine more months would elapse before the next and final, concerted intruder effort over England and whatever the outcome, it would be too little, too late.

Before the Luftwaffe’s final fling in this region there was a period when it made an ingenious attempt to thwart defending night fighters and ground defences by air-launching Fieseler Fi 103 flying bombs, more commonly known as V-1 or doodlebug or even buzz-bomb, in the general direction of northern cities. The use of ground-launched V-1s began in July 1944 but it was not until later in the year that air-launched V-1s – perhaps the world’s first ‘stand-off’ bomb – ostensibly aimed at Manchester, began to fall in the counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire during this new mode of attack on England. Twenty-five landed in the aforesaid counties, while many others landed ineffectually along the route to the north, in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and even one reported in County Durham. A few others fell haphazardly in the east Midlands including one of the very first of the air-launched variety at Creaton, a village between Kettering and Rugby, on July 22.

Heinkel He111-Hs were modified with strengthening plates and a shackle at the wing root of the main spar and for operational launches, the V-1 was slung beneath the starboard wing, between the engine nacelle and the wing root, with stabilisers resting on the V-1 wings to stop it wobbling. Interrogation of crew members revealed that with the aeroplane lightened by, for example, removal of internal bomb stowage and the fuselage fuel tank, the carriage of a V-1 caused no stability problems and only reduced speeds by about 10mph. An electrical connecting lead ran from the fuselage, just above the wing root, to energise the pulse jet motor of the flying bomb.

Operational launch procedure was for the He111 to cross the North Sea in the general direction of the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts at wave-top height, to evade detection by radar. To reach a launch point, though, the Heinkel, climbing at about 110mph to 2,000 feet, was at its most vulnerable. Once launch altitude and bearing was reached a further shallow dive brought the Heinkel’s speed up to the 150mph needed for the V-1 to fly, the motor was ignited and when running, the V-1 was released, its carrier then turning and diving for a low-level run back to base.

Although by intercepting radio messages the British Y-service was often able to provide the RAF with advance warning of V-1 carrier operations, since the launch sequence itself took only ten minutes or so to complete, there was very little time to effect a night fighter interception. As a result, the carrier unit, III/KG3 (re-designated I/KG53 at the end of October 1944), is reported to have lost only sixteen aircraft to night fighters between September 1944 when the main air-launch phase began, and its close in January 1945. Another account suggests that, during the same period, KG53 lost twenty-nine more aeroplanes to other causes, including some that failed to separate from their charges at the crucial moment and others that probably flew into the sea during the wave-hugging phase.

Flying from RAF Church Fenton, 25 Squadron, at first with the Mosquito Mk XVII then the Mk XXX, provides an example of the success rate against this new night menace. This squadron claimed twenty-four flying bombs between July and November 1944 and seven launch aircraft, most of the interceptions taking place well out into the North Sea off the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts.

The east Midlands area, however, did not entirely escape the attentions of this noisy raider. The actual number of V-1s flying over is unknown but seven are recorded as falling in the region itself, although from their tracks it is difficult to be sure of their intended targets.

First of these was seen to cross the coast at Skegness at 04.15 on September 19 1944. Observers plotted its fiery progress until it exploded in a potato field at Tanvats, Metheringham Fen. Breaking a few farmhouse windows, it blew a crater twenty-five feet in diameter and six feet deep and the target of ‘strategic importance’ destroyed amounted to one acre of potatoes! From Observer Corps times of sightings and impact, the speed of this V-1 was calculated as 260mph. A few days later, on the night of September 23/24 minor damage was caused when a flying bomb exploded at Floods Ferry near March. Eric Cox was a schoolboy back in those days but sixty years on, he recalled:

I heard this one fly over Wisbech when I was inside the Empire cinema. The pulsating sound of its engine was loud and unmistakable and I hoped it would just keep going! It did, thank goodness. Next day my pal Tom Mills told me he was just coming out of the Hippodrome cinema when the air raid siren sounded and he actually saw the exhaust flame go over the town, heading south-west. The flying bomb crashed south-west of March, in the area known as Botany Bay, between Bordinghouse and Bradley Farms.

On the night of October 13 1944 the engine of another V-1 cut out to the west of Spalding but beyond rattling windows in the surrounding area, it exploded harmlessly in Mathy Wood between Bourne and Thurlby. From the position of eye-witnesses (including this writer’s father) the progress of this V-1 could be charted by watching its fiery tail. It came in along the east side of The Wash then inland, passing over Moulton village, across Spalding at about 500 feet, on towards the village of West Pinchbeck then out over the featureless fens to the west, before making its final plunge to earth on rising ground west of Bourne. There is some evidence that a second V-1, the only one to have come down in Rutland, followed a similar track and exploded near Stocken Hall. Christmas Eve saw the unexpected arrival of an air-launched V-1 at Woodford, near Kettering, fortunately without causing casualties. One flying bomb carved out a crater adjacent to Castor and Ailsworth railway station (demolished in the late 1950s), on the Nene Valley line to the west of Peterborough, on January 3 1945 but caused little damage and no casualties, while the final buzz-bomb incident in the region is believed to have occurred at Irthlingborough, also near Kettering, on January 13, 1945. If anything, these latter incidents suggest the intended target might have been Birmingham rather than the north of England.

Due to the presence of radar-assisted night fighter patrols and the inherent practical difficulties of the air-launch technique, for both the Midland region and the potential targets up north, the air-launched doodlebug menace was thankfully ineffectual and short-lived. It was over by the second week of January 1945, by which time about 1,200 V-1s had been air launched at England but with only about half that number being recorded as crossing the coast between the Thames and Bridlington, Yorkshire. Over the whole air-launch campaign the Luftwaffe is said to have lost, to all causes, a total of seventy-seven carriers out of an operational establishment of 101 aeroplanes. This is an extremely high rate of attrition but it should be weighed against the massive diversion of air and ground resources and vast amount of work it took to reorganise the AA gun defences along the east coast.

Now the stage was set for the final act of the night air war.

Operation Gisela was to be a concerted mission over England by some 140 intruders drawn from NJGs 2, 3, 4 and 5. Planned at length but mounted at short notice, Gisela was launched on the night of March 3/4 1945. As Geoffrey Jones put it:

On this date was the final fling of the Nachtjagd. As allied bombers withdrew after attacking Kamen and Ladbergen… more than one hundred German night fighters took to the air in pursuit. Two waves of Ju88s and He219s headed for targets in Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, with a full moon to help them.

Due to its location amid this aerial battlefield, Fenland night skies would resound once more to the noise of gunfire and the anguish of screaming, crashing aircraft. Even towns and villages came in for attention from the raiders; houses in Spalding and Holbeach (Lincs), being strafed by Ju88s that evening.

Among the luckier ones were two Halifaxes of 158 Squadron returning to RAF Lissett from Kamen. Both were attacked by enemy intruders over The Wash and although damaged they managed to evade their attackers and make it back to base. Meanwhile, a 214 Squadron electronic countermeasures (ECM) B-17 Fortress III, HB802, also survived an attack near Peterborough whereupon receiving radio orders not to land back at its base at RAF Oulton, the pilot followed pre-determined instructions for just such a situation and beat a hasty retreat to safer climes – way out west at RAF Brawdy.

Also returning from the Kamen raid Halifax NR229 of 466 Squadron (RAF Elvington) was mortally hit near Lincoln. Plt Off A E Schrank and his crew of six baled out over RAF Waddington while NR229 sailed majestically on to crash at Friskney Church End near Skegness but with unhappy consequences, as the local newspaper described.

Tragedy came to the village of Friskney in the early hours of Sunday, when an aeroplane crashed on a cottage and reduced it to rubble. The roof was carried several yards away. The cottage was occupied at the time by George Severs aged seventy-two, his wife Mehetabel Severs aged fifty and their daughter Ruth aged fifteen. They were asleep at the time of the crash and both mother and daughter lost their lives. The husband, however, although injured was found alive and taken to hospital.

The other Free French bomber unit based at Elvington was 347 Squadron, which also lost a Halifax to the intruders that night when NA680 was set on fire over Sleaford and crashed at Anwick Grange. Five French airmen managed to bale out successfully: 2/Lt Giroud (bomb aimer), Aspirant L Viel (navigator), Sgt C Pochont (WOp), Sgt P Charrière (MUG) and Sgt Hemery (RG), but the pilot Capitaine Laucou and his flight engineer, Sgt LeMasson, went down with the aeroplane.

Accounts vary as to how many enemy aircraft were committed to Gisela – estimates ranging from 100 to 200 – and what were the material losses on that eventful night. Between midnight and 04.00 on the 4th it is believed that as many as forty-eight bombers may have been attacked by enemy intruders, with at least twenty RAF aeroplanes being destroyed – eight of these in Lincolnshire – and fourteen damaged. The Luftwaffe is known to have lost three aircraft over England but records indicate a further nineteen were missing or destroyed and twelve damaged while returning to bases on the continent.

In the region covered by this story it was the Luftwaffe that drew final blood in the battle. On the night of March 20/21 1945, Halifax ‘U-Uncle’ from 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Tilstock, was shot down between Wittering and Peterborough by an intruder while the pilot, Fg Off Peter Nettlefield, was on a cross-country training flight. Nettlefield, his flight engineer and an air gunner died, but six other airmen on board escaped unhurt.

With the cessation of hostilities just a couple of months later, the night sky around The Wash became eerily quiet. No more distant thunder of bombers setting out or returning. No more staccato bursts of gunfire flashing in a moonlit sky. No more fiery trails across the night sky. The bombers and night fighters were silent.

It would be difficult – if not pointless – to attempt to quantify the night-time conflict described in this story in terms of numbers in order to determine, in some simplistic way, who appeared to win or lose. What emerges beyond any doubt is the vital role of teamwork among the aircrews themselves – pilots, air gunners and AI operators – and as time progressed, controllers manning the radar stations on the ground. This is not to forget, of course, the role played by searchlights, AA and the Observer Corps. However, when night combat is brought into cold focus it comes down to a ‘one against one’ duel and we have seen how that produced a winner and a loser – usually. But what has also been shown of course is that such an outcome applied equally to the RAF and the Luftwaffe – because in a wartime night sky there was no place for chivalry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.