Berlin: The Sixteenth Raid by Bomber Command I

On the night of 21/22nd March 1944 came the final raid of the series, nearly five weeks after the fifteenth attack. Sir Arthur Harris sent the following message to he read out to the aircrews at their various briefing rooms:

Although successful blind bombing attacks on Berlin have destroyed large areas of it, there is still a substantial section of this vital city more or less intact. To write this off, it is of great importance that tonight’s attack should be closely concentrated on the aiming point. You must not think that the size of Berlin makes accurate bombing unimportant. There is no point in dropping bombs on the devastated areas in the west and south west. Weather over the target should be good. Go in and do the job.

Despite this build-up of morale, the operation was cancelled owing to the threat of cloud over the target, at target indicator level. On the 21st, an intelligence report on the damage to date to Berlin mentioned damage to the electrical precision instrument factories and other industrial centres of heavy electrical equipment, turbines, cables, transformers and high tension switch gear. The largest two were Siemens and AEG. The tank factory, Alkett, the largest single tank-building factory in Germany, was put out of action for several months.

More than any other large town, Berlin depended on gas for heating and lighting. One third of the total gas produced had been destroyed and production plant put out of action, by the destruction of mains and gas holders. The population were given one candle each by the government as an emergency measure! The loss of gas proved a serious handicap in restarting the industrial life of the city. This was also seriously retarded by the evacuation of labour into surrounding districts and the very heavy destruction of municipal transport which proved a great handicap in the daily movement of this large labour force.

The sixteenth raid was postponed to 24th March. It was to prove the last heavy bomber raid by the RAF in the war on Berlin. 811 aircraft set out while a diversionary raid by 147 aircraft from several Bomber OTUs, was carried out over France, 70 miles south of Le Havre. Twelve Mosquitos of 105 Squadron attacked the night fighter bases at Twente, St Trond and Venlo, and another seventeen Mossies went ahead and dropped Window over the Berlin area before the attack commenced.

The daily weather report and forecast was supplied to the Air Staff at 1.10 pm which showed that 6 Group bases would have good clearances through the cloud. Other Groups could expect stratus cloud cover to hold during take-offs. Visibility, they were told, would be about 2,000 yards but better in 6 Group’s area. The route to Berlin would have considerable cloud, tops probably below 8,000 feet. Denmark would probably be clear of low and medium cloud, and then there would be a chance of practically clear skies all the way to Berlin.

The weather actually encountered was generally good for take-off, with visibility at 2,000 to 4,000 yards but it was 10/10ths over Lincoln and East Anglia with a base of 3,500 feet, topping at between 4,000 and 4,500 feet. Over Berlin variable stratus cloud from 8 to 9/10ths with tops at 5,000 to 5,600 feet with moderate visibility. The winds at 20,000 feet were 100 mph but at times up to 105 mph – very much higher than had been forecast!

The planned method of attack was code-named ‘Newhaven’, with emergency sky marking. The aiming point chosen for the visual markers was at the eastern end of the Tiergarten. It was hoped to centre the raid on the eastern side of the city, which had received much lighter damage than the rest of the city in the previous attacks. Blind marker illuminators were to drop green TIs with white flares, if there was less than 7/10ths cloud. If more they were to release greens and red flares with yellow stars. If H2S failed to help, all the markers were to hold their TIs and flares and bomb with the supporters. Visual markers were to mark the exact aiming point with mixed salvos of reds and greens. Those blind backers-up detailed to attack before zero plus seven minutes, were to aim at the centre of all TIs, if a Newhaven was in progress, but if cloud prevented this they were to drop sky markers blindly. Late arrivals were to drop both reds and sky markers blindly. Visual backers-up were to aim reds at the centre of mixed salvos, or at the centre of all TIs with a two-second overshoot. Supprters were to bomb blindly. If possible, the Main Force crews were to aim at the centre of all mixed salvos in the early stages of the raid. The bombing was to be between 10.25 and 10.43 pm, in five waves, each of three minutes’ duration. The planned concentration was thus about 40 aircraft per minute.

A Mosquito and a Lancaster crew acted as master bombers with a call sign for the Mosquito of ‘ Pommy’ and ‘Red Skin’ for the Lancaster. The ordered route crossed the Danish coast just north of Sylt, proceeding direct to Wustrov on the Baltic Coast, then turning near Perenslau to approach the target from the north-east.

The diversionary raid over France did not appear to have any effect on the night fighter movement, and all German Gruppen were disposed to meet the main attack. The fighter plan apparently was to use aircraft from NJG/II and III for the route interceptions commencing at Sylt, with NJG/V for route interceptions between the Baltic Coast and Berlin; NJG/V and VI were to be in the target area and on the early part of the RAF’s route home. It is possible that NJG/I and IV were held in reserve for use against the returning stream at a later stage. This sort of plan would normally have resulted in heavy fighter opposition for the bombers.

The winds found en route were far stronger than those forecast and became as high as 120-130 mph. All aircraft were being blown south of track, particularly on the return route. As the winds were nearly double those expected (and many H2S aircraft operators thought their sets were unreliable) many bombers were blown way off course, while others overshot the target badly. Bombing was scattered but a considerable percentage of the bomber crews found Berlin and great credit was due to the many crews who made the best of a bad job. For example, one crew found themselves so blown off track as to be over Leipzig but returned to Berlin to bomb 45 minutes late! Because of the winds and crews over-shooting or arriving early, the bombing zero hour of 10.30 was brought forward to 10.25 pm. This change was only announced 23 minutes before the planned zero hour. In the opinion of some crews of 426 Squadron, it should have been ten minutes rather than five, which would have resulted in a better concentration of bombing. Radio commentaries by the master bombers helped to centre the raid by ‘pulling in’ many aircraft that would have otherwise overshot the target completely.

In the bomber stream all aircraft were to be spread evenly over a corridor of roughly 5,000 feet in depth while over enemy territory, and captains had to keep to this ordered corridor unless it impaired the success of their attack. Each group was given a varying height: 1 and 5 Groups, 20-24,000 feet; 3 and 6 Groups, 19-23,000 feet; and 4 Group, 19-24,000 feet. Despite the change in zero hour, 12% of the Main Force still managed to bomb before the briefed zero hour, 81% reported bombing within the planned period of twenty minutes, and 7% within 40 minutes (between 10 and 11 pm). The time between the first and last bombs was 62 minutes. The peak concentration was reached seven minutes after zero hour, when 38 aircraft were attacking each minute.

Numerous early arrivals were forced to orbit what they believed to be the target and had then to return to an area over which markers were seen to fall, while other crews reported overshooting the target completely and then turning back to it. Some 73% of the whole force bombed within the allotted period. Similarly, 80% of the aircraft carrying serviceable H2S bombed in the same period. Losses among the H2S aircraft were 9.4%.

Flight Lieutenant Alan Forsdike of 158 Squadron recalls the raid being basically a bad night for navigators. He flew as a spare navigator with Pilot Officer Lawrence, a Canadian pilot. Forsdike explained that good navigation depended on fixing the position of the aircraft at regular intervals, preferably every twenty minutes or so, plus calculation of the wind speed and direction, at the height flown. Once this was achieved the future movement of the aircraft could be predicted with some accuracy and confidence. The factors conspiring to defeat navigators on this night were, firstly, a strong north wind well in excess of that forecast, and a long sea crossing during which H2S equipment, even for those lucky enough to possess it, was of no help. Forsdike did not have H2S that night, as he was in an aircraft used by a relatively inexperienced crew. Seniority in a squadron tended not only to claim the best aircraft but also the H2S-equipped aircraft, provided, of course, the navigators had been trained in its use. He normally used an H2S when with his regular crew. All navigators carried forecast winds at heights up to 25,000 feet, however, on the long leg from the coast of Yorkshire to the East Coast of Denmark, a distance of 410 miles in a straight line, difficulties arose over fixing a position of the aircraft which seemed to escalate as the operation proceeded.

On crossing the North Sea his aircraft was drifting alarmingly to starboard of the required track, although corrections were made to port. The forecast winds of 45 mph at 15,000 feet, was later discovered to have increased to 92 mph at 21,000 feet. On approaching Denmark, Forsdike saw flak to port and guessed it was coming from the island of Sylt. He told the pilot to change course in that direction in order to regain track and the next concentration point, which was north of the island. The position of the aircraft was finally fixed by a pin-point at 9.39 pm over the island of Kegnaes on the east coast of Denmark. However, all this revealed was that their Halifax was still 35 miles south of track!

The problem was now resolved. It was clear that on the remaining legs of the route the ground speed of the aircraft would be high; in fact it reached 300 mph, so that they would arrived over Berlin ahead of the flight plan. Wireless messages from their Group controller in England were received at intervals giving increased wind velocity of 355% – to 90 mph. All the aircraft in the Main Force were required to keep their aircraft densely packed in an attempt to provide maximum cover from Würzburg (Radar) and night fighter attacks.

The revised forecast winds could not be transmitted from England until enough example winds found over the route had been relayed back to England by the WOPs. In certain aircraft with experienced crews, the navigators were known as wind finders. The wind samplings were then averaged out by the experts and a single velocity sent by wireless to the Main Force aircraft.

The time on target for wave number one was between 10.33 and 10.36, and their estimated time of arrival at Berlin, according to Flight Lieutenant Forsdike, was 10.34. On the final approach to the target nothing at all could be seen – it was completely dark and the crew began to doubt his navigations. However, at that very moment target markers fell immediately below. Being too early to bomb they went round again. Returning on the required bombing run, the bombs were released right on the markers. Turning from the target, the wind velocity was again calculated and was found to be 93 mph. This abnormally high wind, even at 21,000 feet, had not been encountered by him before or after this operation.

Flight Sergeant Les Bartlett of 50 Squadron, like the rest of Mike Beetham’s crew, had just returned from a nine days’ leave to find himself on the operation for that night. They took off at 7 pm and set course over the North Sea for a point off the German coast where they met their first spot of trouble. The winds were so variable that instead of passing the northern tip of Sylt they went bang over it and had to fly up the island’s west coast, then round the top.

Many aircraft were off course. In fact, in his words: ‘… all over the place and some got a good pasting over Flensburg.’ The next leg took them over Denmark, and down to the Baltic Coast. Many crews got into trouble with the defences of Kiel, Lübeck and Rostock, and Les Bartlett saw at least four aircraft go down in a very short space of time. They also had a scrape at Rostock when the wind blew them into the defences and they were coned by four searchlights, but after a few violent manouevres, Mike Beetham managed to shake them off before the flak got their range.

Once Rostock was behind them it was a straight run into Berlin. With a 100 mph tail wind they arrived in no time at all. Over Berlin they found a thin layer of stratus cloud which made it difficult for the searchlights to pick them up. They had no trouble on the bomb run but night fighters started to put down a ring of flares. They then saw a few fighters but their luck held and they were not attacked. On the return trip their work was cut out keeping away from the defences at Leipzig, Brunswick, Osnabrück and Hannover. Along this leg they cleared the Dutch coast, finding little cloud cover to help out, but before long it proved to be a nuisance. They received a message from their base at Skellingthorpe that they must divert to Docking in Norfolk. They found it and flew into the circuit with another aircraft from 50 Squadron but as they circled, a third aircraft in the landing order crashed on the flarepath which meant, as they were No 6 in line, that they were not able to land. They were given Coltishall as an alternative, and here they landed safely; then, however,they discovered how heavy the losses had been. 50 Squadron lost no aircraft at all, but it had been lucky. It was Beetham’s twentieth trip of his tour.

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