Berlin: The Sixteenth Raid by Bomber Command II

Weather and visibility at bases for returning bombers was good till around 4 am in the Yorkshire area, but in the Lincolnshire area it deteriorated after 2 am. Meanwhile, aircraft strung out over Germany were having increasing difficulties with the wind speeds.

Navigator Fred Hall of 76 Squadron soon became aware that the wind was increasing from 90 to 140 mph. His pilot, Ray Bolt, steered to port to avoid Rostock, which was throwing up a lot of flak. Fred also found a tail wind to the target and prepared two plots which allowed for the wind forecast and the wind he was meeting. They bombed the target and made it successfully back to England, landing at a base in the south rather than their own in Yorkshire.

One navigator of 57 Squadron, Flying Officer Mackinnon, had already completed a tour of ops but these had been daylight missions on Boston aircraft, and night navigation was very different. His H2S set was not working, but luckily it suddenly came on for a few minutes, allowing him to identify the north German coast. He was then able to plot a course around Rostock before they whistled down to the Big City at something over 300 mph, and, like many others, overshot the target. He was later told that the spread of the bomber stream at the coast was around 180 miles.

Pilot Officer Downes of 78 Squadron remembers nerves getting a little frayed as it was their seventh op that month. His mid-upper, Sergeant Joiner – an Australian – was stood down for this operation and was replaced by a Royal Artillery major, who had been trained as an air gunner; his main role was to assess the enemy’s flak defences. They arrived quite easily over Berlin a minute or two after the first flares went down. The target area was virtually clear – the time, 10.44 pm. It was the first time on their ops to Berlin that the extent of the searchlights could be appreciated. It was a dark night but at 20,000 feet the visibility was almost as good as daylight. The bomb aimer called, ‘Bombs Gone,’ but the flight engineer, Sergeant Jupp, checked through the inspection panel to the bomb bay and reported a 2,000 lb HE bomb had hung up. It was out of the question to go round again so they made for home with the bomb still aboard. Downes asked for a course to Magdeburg and gave instructions to release the bomb on H2S. The run-up to Magdeburg, which showed up clearly on the H2S screen, was without incident and Jupp released the bomb manually. They then altered course to regain track, when the flak opened up and began to creep nearer and nearer. The Artillery major wanted Downes to maintain as steady a course as he could to enable him to observe the shell fire, but Downes knew better. An isolated aircraft in range of radar predicted flak was no place to hang about so he took evasive action, but the flak still stayed too close for comfort. This continued for five to ten minutes, which at the time seemed like hours. Eventually they cleared the range of the guns and were hopefully back on track.

As they looked ahead they could seen an unexpected mass of searchlights and heavy flak explosions. They were heading directly for the middle of a massive defence area, which extended from Dortmund to the south of Cologne; they were 70 to 80 miles south of track! Downes thought the navigator, Sergeant Hendry, had made a mistake, but once again it was the wind blowing them off course. It seemed pointless now to try to regain the right course, so Downes decided to alter course to the south of Cologne, and then make a beeline for the nearest part of the coast. This seemed to work as they completed the run home successfully.

In the target area at 10.31, Lancaster ND648 ‘B’, flown by Squadron Leader Creswell of 35 Squadron, was about to turn away from his bomb run when the mid-upper – Sergeant Rhodes – saw a FW190 at 300 yards astern in a steep dive, and closing rapidly. He yelled for Creswell to corkscrew and as the Lancaster began to do so, the fighter opened fire. Red and green tracer lanced into the bomber, hitting the starboard tailplane. As the 190 broke away, both gunners opened fire and claimed hits on its underside before it appeared to roll over and dive.

The German fighter controllers could see from their radar screens that the bombers were being scattered over a wide area. They guided some fighters over the coast as the bombers began to come in and others sent after bombers in the Kiel area, north-east of Lübeck. Plots on the bombers were passed to the fighter pilots over the radio, reporting three main concentrations. One had approached the Danish coast, another converging from the North Sea, and later the largest one was to the west of Berlin. As Berlin as the target was confirmed, so too was the realisation that part of the bomber force was considerably off track to the south. NJG/I, II and III operated in the bomber stream along the whole route, while NJG/V and VI were finally ordered to the city at 10.16 pm. The RAF tried to jam over the whole VHF band and ABC was heard on 30 frequencies. It was then that the air battle began in earnest.

Flight Lieutenant Blackham, as on previous occasions, was involved with a fighter. He was attacked over the target at 10.49 by a Ju88. Both of his gunners concentrated their fire on it as it fired at them. Strikes were seen on the 88 and it was claimed as damaged.

Pilot Officer Giddens in a Lancaster of 207 Squadron (DN521) was attacked by a FW190 over the target at 10.51. Standard corkscrew action was taken and the rear gunner, Sergeant Hall, fired. The mid-upper could just bring his guns to bear on the fighter, but the rear gunner kept up the return fire. As the attack continued, the mid-upper, Sergeant James, was found slumped in his turret. His oxygen supply had been shot away. Sergeant Walker, the WOP, managed to get him out and gave him the emergency oxygen supply, and plugged the gunner into the intercom. When Giddens later checked his crew over the radio, James replied, ‘I am searching.’ Giddens replied, ‘Your turret has gone U/S!’ However, James wasn’t delirious and said, ‘I am searching through a hole in the side.’

On reaching England, Giddens made an emergency landing at Shipdown, Norfolk, an American base. Owing to a burst tyre the aircraft slewed off the runway and finished up the opposite way round on another runway. By the time it stopped an ambulance and fire engine had drawn up by its side. An American shone a light into the rear turret and remarked, ‘Gee, Buddie, were you in there when that happened ?’

On examining the aircraft the following morning, the turret door showed several hits by cannon shells and the bulk-head door blown off. The rudder controls and trimmer tabs were also severely damaged and the aircraft had to be written off.

Flying Officer Greenburgh of 514 Squadron, in Lancaster LL727 ‘C2’, was attacked by a fighter south of Berlin. It was a Ju88 and the mid-upper saw it first, giving the order to corkscrew as he opened fire, followed by a burst from the rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Drake. The fighter opened fire almost at the same moment and then broke away. Two minutes later the rear gunner reported a Ju88 coming in at 400 yards. Sergeant Carey in the top turret and Drake opened up and strikes were seen on the 88. Eight minutes later the engineer reported an aircraft making an attack from starboard. It fired, putting a burst into the Lane’s starboard outer engine that knocked it out. This caused the aircraft to begin a series of vicious spirals which soon became uncontrollable. All the instruments were knocked out and the aircraft was rapidly losing height, all but completely out of control. Greenburgh had no choice but to give the order to abandon the aircraft.

The engineer and bomb aimer jumped immediately and Greenburgh was half out of his seat but then decided to have another attempt at regaining control. He was also told that the navigator’s parachute had been thrown out of the escape hatch during the spin. At about 7,000 feet he managed to get the aircraft on a more or less even keel. They returned to base at 9,000 feet and made a safe landing. The mid-upper and WOP had been literally standing by the hatch on the point of jumping when they realised the aircraft was under control and returned to their posts.

An aircraft of 83 Squadron, Lancaster ND529 ‘D’ flown by Flight Lieutenant Eeggins, was homeward bound from Berlin when attacked by a Me 109. The rear gunner opened fire and hits were observed on its fuselage and it broke off to be claimed as damaged. Immediately afterwards the mid-upper reported a FW190 approaching, and both gunners began firing as did the 190. Hits were seen on the 190’s wing and engine by the WOP and gunners. A few seconds later it came in again and the rear gunner continued to fire. This time the 190 broke away with smoke coming from its engine. It then burst into flames and was seen to hit the ground.

Soon after leaving Berlin, Flight Lieutenant Picton of 550 Squadron, in Lancaster ME581 ‘D’, was in combat with another 190 and both gunners, Sergeant Keen and Sergeant Porteous in the rear turret, received serious injuries from cannon fire. Sergeant Williams, the WOP, went into the astrodome, warning the pilot and giving him evasive instructions. With the attack apparently over, he then went back to the rear gunner whose oxygen tube had been severed, gave him his own oxygen mask and assisted him out of the turret. Williams later sent a radio message back to base, giving details of the casualties so that medical aid was waiting when the aircraft landed.

Pilot Officer Bowen-Bravery had his rear turret rendered U/S and bombed a flak emplacement on the west coast of Denmark. Soon afterwards he was attacked by a single-engined aircraft and the mid-upper gave it a short burst from very short range. A short while later a burning aircraft was seen going down by three of the crew and then burning on the ground.

Flight Lieutenant Everest, flying a Halifax (HX355 ‘D’) of 78 Squadron, was attacked by a fighter over Berlin but was able to hold a course till over Rockanje, south of the Hague. Pilot Officer Alan Sinden baled out and was helped by Dutch farmers. They tried to get him back to England but this was found to be impossible and he was moved from house to house until December when he was captured and sent to Stalag 1, where he met the rest of his crew.

The flak was far worse than the fighters on this night. It was estimated to have accounted for at least 45 of the RAF’s missing bombers. Because of the dispersion of the aircraft, many must have been without sufficient Window cover. This would have given ample scope to predicted flak on a night particularly suitable for co-operation with searchlights. Some aircraft reported being hit by flak at 22,000 feet and above. Another 30 aircraft were hit by flak between 16,000 and 22,000 feet. Altogether seventeen bombers were reported as being shot down on the outward route and 21 on the homeward. These were mostly in the area of Sylt, Flensburg, Kiel, Wilhelmshaven, Leipzig, Museburg, Magdeburg, Osnabrück, Mün-ster, Deusau, Aachen and the Ruhr.

Over Berlin the flak was reported as mainly in barrage form at 18,000 to 24,000 feet and there was intense searchlight activity. One pilot said, ‘It seemed as though no aircraft could possibly get through the thick forest of their beams but there proved to be many ways round them.’ Seven aircraft were reported to have been brought down over Berlin. Flight Lieutenant Clark of 625 Squadron was flying Lancaster ME684 ‘Z’ when he was hit by flak and came down over the German frontier on the outward journey. Three members of the crew managed to evade capture. Sergeant Donald Beckwith baled out and landed three miles east of Haaksbergen. He was found by a farmer and taken from house to house in Holland and France, the aim being to get him into Switzerland. During August he fought with the Maquis in France and at the beginning of September he contacted the American Army and was soon on his way home. Flight Lieutenant Peter Armytage, from Victoria, Australia, landed on the German side of the Dutch/German border and eventually got into Holland. He was, however, later picked up in Antwerp and sent to Stalag Luft III where he stayed until liberated in April 1945. Two other members of the crew successfully evaded, Sergeant Rimmington and Sergeant Munro, the rest were taken in captivity.

Flying Officer Hentsch, flying Lancaster ND650 ‘Y’, of 12 Squadron, was hit and shot down over Duisberg on the outward journey. Two men were taken into captivity, four died and the seventh, Sergeant Albert Keveren, baled out and swam across the river Maas. On the other side he was contacted by a Dutch boy who took him to the local organisation HQ where he remained for six weeks. He then crossed into Belgium and remained there for four weeks with nine other British and American airmen. They were given Belgium identity cards and remained in a farmhouse until mid-July when they walked to Eelen. From there they travelled to Seraing via Liège where they waited for advancing American soldiers.

Flight Sergeant Hall of 106 Squadron made two runs over Berlin despite his aircraft being damaged by flak, and brought his machine back on three engines. It was a wonderful effort considering it was his first operation.

Pilot Officer McIntosh of 432 Squadron in a Halifax (LW593 ‘O’) was shot down over the city and he and three of his crew taken prisoner; the other three died. Some time later McIntosh sent a message back to England: ‘Please forward two Caterpillar Badges, one for myself and one for Flying Officer Small.’ (These badges were given to all airmen whose lives had been saved by a parachute descent.)