As far back as November 1943 the Americans had planned a massive new attack on the German aircraft industry by both the Eighth and Fifteenth air forces. The RAF agreed to join by launching area attacks on the cities in which the aircraft plants were located. The plan was expected to be costly and needed a week of clear weather over Germany, as well as reasonable weather over England and Italy. But the weather over Germany remained miserable for almost all of the first seven weeks of 1944. Until late February the Eighth was able to carry out just two visual missions over Germany, and one of these was partly abortive and the other a lucky accident. The Fifteenth Air Force was tied down, hitting nearby targets in support of the Anzio beachhead, which was in grave danger from a German counteroffensive.
The Eighth continued radar bombing. Some radar missions were effective; the IG Farben chemical plant at Ludwigshafen was damaged twice. And the fighter escort did better. In November and December, the P-51s and P-38s of the target-area escort had often been hard pressed to defend their charges and sometimes suffered lopsided losses themselves to the Germans. In early 1944 the bombers still suffered dreadfully sometimes, but even small forces of American fighters usually inflicted disproportionate losses on the attackers.
On January 11 conditions in Germany seemed promising for visual attack, and the Eighth put up 663 bombers. While the 1st Bombardment Division’s B-17s would bomb the Oschersleben Focke Wulf plant and a Junkers plant at Halberstadt, the other two divisions would hit aircraft components and assembly plants that were building the Me-110s around Brunswick. If weather hid the targets, Brunswick itself would be bombed. With long-range fighters still few, only the 1st Division would be escorted all the way to the target. The Germans were expected to concentrate against it. Its target was farthest in, and it might seem to be going to Berlin. The other divisions would have to fend for themselves as they neared Brunswick.
The meteorologists had been overoptimistic; as the bombers flew into central Germany the weather deteriorated. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions were recalled, but the 1st was so close to its target that it was allowed to proceed. The commander of the 3rd Division’s leading wing decided he too might as well go ahead, and he ignored the recall signal. Weather had interfered with the rendezvous of the escort (this was before the change in policy), and only one P-38 squadron and the 354th Fighter Group accompanied the 1st Division. The Germans reacted violently, and the biggest air battle since Schweinfurt resulted. The P-51s had rendezvoused late and were short of gas, and most left shortly after the bombers reached Oschersleben and Halberstadt. The Germans inflicted heavy losses on the bombers, although failing to disrupt a very accurate attack. In all, 60 bombers went down for 39 German fighters, even though the fighter-versus-fighter clashes were thoroughly in the Americans’ favor.
One of the Mustang pilots on this mission was Major James H. Howard. He was already an ace and a highly experienced fighter pilot, having shot down six Japanese aircraft while flying P-40s with the American Volunteer Group in Burma. Now, high over Germany, Howard found himself alone, the only Mustang accompanying a group of Fortresses which was about to be attacked by over thirty Messerschmitt 110s.
Howard went straight for the enemy fighters in a head-on attack, destroying one Bf 110 immediately. Disconcerted, the rest broke in all directions as the Mustang sped through them. The Germans formed up for a second attempt and once again Howard broke them up, sending another fighter down in flames. It was only the beginning. Three more times the enemy attacked, and three more times Howard fought them off single-handed. During the two final attacks, only one of the Mustang’s guns was working, but Howard managed to shoot down a third enemy fighter and damage at least three more. At last, probably short of fuel or ammunition, the Germans broke off the action and dived away.
For his exploit, Major Howard later received the Medal of Honor. He was the only British-based fighter pilot to win the highest US decoration for valor during the Second World War. He later increased his score to twelve. He remained in the USAF after the war, reaching the rank of Brigadier-General. He then became a successful businessman, eventually retiring to Florida.
The Oschersleben mission, with its heavy losses, was hardly an Allied success, but on top of the Battle of Bremen it should have warned the Nazis that they would be in big trouble when the escorts became more numerous, and that the writing was on the wall for the twin-engine fighters. If anything, they were even more vulnerable to single-engine fighters than the B-17s.
Then the weather closed in. For two weeks the Americans could not strike Germany at all; then they resumed radar bombing. When the weather proved worse than expected, an attempted visual mission to Brunswick on January 30 had to fall back on H2X. Two groups passing Hannover saw a hole in the clouds and sensibly seized a chance to bomb the rubber plant there. This and the Oschersleben mission were the only visual attacks on German targets between October 14, 1943, and February 20, 1944.
How often have those of us who operated over Europe during the war years seen an aircraft in distress, either coned by searchlights, mauled by fighters, or shot up by flak, wondered if the aircraft and its crew ever made it back home?
J. J. Lee, rear gunner, Lancaster PB797 VN-Z-‘Zebra’ on 50 Squadron. On 22 March 1945 227 Lancasters and eight Mosquitoes of 1 and 8 Groups raided Hildesheim railway yards. Some 263 acres – 70 per cent of the town – was destroyed and 1,645 people were killed. Four Lancasters were lost. Another 130 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 4 and 8 Groups bombed Dülmen in an area attack, which was without loss and 124 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 6 and 8 Groups bombed rail and canal targets at Dorsten, which also was the location of a Luftwaffe fuel dump, again without loss. One hundred Lancasters of 3 Group carried out a ‘G-H’ attack on Bocholt, probably with the intention of cutting communication. All returned safely. 138 Another 102 Lancasters of 5 Group in two forces attacked bridges at Bremen and Nienburg without loss. The bridge at Nienburg was destroyed though no results were observed at Bremen.
‘We were engaged on a daylight raid over Bremen on 22 March 1945. The aircraft was piloted by Pilot Officer Pat Reyre and crewed by Flight Sergeant Ken Shaw, navigator; Flying Officer Jack Andres RCAF, bomb aimer; Flight Sergeant Alan ‘Shorty’ Thorpe RAAF; Sergeant Gerry Jones, flight engineer; and Sergeant Alf Robinson, mid-upper-gunner. ‘Z-Zebra’ was at the rear end of the ‘gaggle’ formation and bombs had been released over the target. It was a perfect day for the operation; the sky was cloudless. Anti-aircraft fire can only be described as moderate and fighters were conspicuous in their absence. We were escorted by American air force ‘Mustangs’.
‘Like most crews ‘flak’ was not an undue hazard unless it got too close and it was only by a stroke of misfortune should an aircraft fall victim to the big guns. Having said that, as we left the immediate target area I saw bursts of flak creeping dangerously close to the Lancaster directly below and astern of me. ‘Poor Blighter’ I thought. No sooner had this thought passed through my mind when two almighty explosions shook our aircraft. A dark trail of smoke appeared from the starboard wing, at the same time the aircraft swung to starboard and began to descend rapidly. I watched as we descended and saw the gaggle drift further and further from our view.
‘Within seconds of our being hit those dreaded words came over the intercom; ‘Jump, Jump.’ I swung my turret to the beam, snatched the doors open and prepared to make a hasty exit. I can’t recall to this day why I hesitated but I replied to the skipper; ‘Did you say jump?’ Back came the reply; ‘No, hang on.’ In the course of further conversation it transpired that both starboard engines were damaged and the props feathered. Our descent continued and then, by some great fortune, one of the engines was restarted and our sided descent was corrected. It now became obvious that we had suffered serious damage. However, we were fortunate not to have any casualties. In a matter of minutes we were on our own at a height of about 5,000 feet on a perfectly clear day and a sitting duck for enemy fighters.
‘As I surveyed the sky for fighters my attention was drawn to what appeared to be long strips of brown paper drifting from the aircraft and spiralling earthwards. I was completely puzzled at the appearance of this phenomenon. I rotated the turret and peered into the fuselage where I saw the wireless operator ‘Shorty’ Thorpe and the mid-upper gunner Alf Robinson engaged in stripping lengths of ammunition from the ammunition tracks situated on the starboard side of the aircraft. Both tracks had been damaged by flak which rendered my two left hand guns U/S. On reflection this course of action would have virtually no effect on lessening our overall weight. However, it did seem a good idea at the time and was good for morale. By the time we had reached Holland some considerable height had been gained. Further assessment as to the amount of damage inflicted to the aircraft drifted over the intercom to the effect that the ‘George’ control system had been shot away, numerous fuel lines had been severed, our starboard aileron was useless and we had no brake pressure.
‘Our situation was bad, but not hopeless. However, it was decided to discharge a distress signal with a view to obtaining assistance from any of our fighter escort who may still be in the vicinity. I watched as the red flare ascended then fell gently away. It was within a matter of seconds after the flare had been discharged that three ‘Mustangs’ appeared on our port beam, two of the fighters peeled off whilst the third positioned himself some fifty yards to the port side of my turret. The pilot waved his hand as a gesture of encouragement and maintained his position. This ‘Mustang’ escorted us right across Holland and over the Dutch coast. The Frisian Islands came into view. Later as we flew over the islands our aircraft was once again subjected to heavy anti-aircraft fire. As the flak opened up the ‘Mustang’ pilot opened his throttle and headed out to sea. No further damage was sustained to ‘Z- Zebra’ and we made headway towards the English coast.
‘At the main briefing prior to our take off it had been stressed that Woodbridge, one of the two emergency runways catering for aircraft in distress, was out of use for reasons which I recall were never disclosed. Only Manston was available. It was due to the set of circumstances prevailing at that time that our pilot was forced to set course for Woodbridge. We still maintained height and the weather remained nigh perfect. At this stage an intercom discussion was held during the course of which our skipper gave us an ultimatum stating there was a fifty-fifty chance of putting our aircraft down in one piece. The two options open to us were either bale out or stay with our aircraft. The response was unanimous and an instant decision was made to stay together.
‘As Woodbridge came into view there were excited comments over the intercom. The emergency runway was lined virtually from end to end with ‘Halifax’ aircraft and various types of gliders. Here was the answer to the airfield being closed. Flying control was contacted and a request for landing made. Needless to say our request was refused and we were instructed to divert elsewhere. Owing to the state of our aircraft, plus the fact our fuel situation was becoming critical, this course of action had to be refuted. Despite an almost superhuman effort by our skipper the kite was becoming almost impossible to control and our crash landing procedure was put into operation.
‘There was to be only one approach to the runway due to the fact alterations to course could not be achieved owing to the failure of our controls system. Wheels were down and the undercarriage locked. The approach was made and we touched down halfway along the runway. We had no flaps and brake pressure was nil, the result being that we careered along the runway at a fast rate of knots. The end of the runway was reached and we carried onto the overshoot area which was in a similar state to a newly ploughed field. The vibration was such that I thought we were going to break up. I had rotated the rear turret facing starboard and as we trundled on I had a shaky view of a football match which was in progress some several hundred yards away. As their attention was drawn to us, players and spectators alike stopped as though riveted to the ground and gazed in amazement as we roared past them. The aircraft finally came to rest with our undercarriage intact. I virtually fell out of my turret, whilst the rest of the crew with the exception of our skipper followed suit via the main door. On making my way to the front of the aircraft I saw our skipper still sitting in his cockpit, no doubt finding it difficult to believe we had made it down in one piece.
‘As we took account of the damage sustained we noticed that the bomb doors had crept open several inches. Closer inspection revealed one of our 1,000lb bombs nestled on the bomb bay doors. It became obvious we had a hang up which had not registered on our instruments and the bomb had broken loose during our bumpy entry onto the overshoot area. Had we known the bomb was still in the aircraft I doubt very much if we would have brought ‘Zebra’ home. Needless to say there was much twittering at the thought of what might have happened had it exploded.
‘Bladders were relieved and the crew then congregated awaiting transport to the flights and our de-briefing. Ken Shaw the navigator produced a fair sized piece of shrapnel. This had become lodged in his ‘Mae West’. He then went on to explain having felt a blow in the lower part of his ribs as though he had been kicked. It transpired the shrapnel had torn through his life jacket and struck the large ‘rat trap’ type of buckle of his battle dress jacket. The buckle had been bent almost double by the impact but had no doubt saved him from serious injury. The emergency vehicles were on the scene very promptly and we were transported to the flights for de-briefing whilst our navigator attended the sick bay where he was given a check up. It was only at the debriefing stage we were informed that Woodbridge was on standby for the forthcoming Rhine crossing operation. This explained the presence of the large numbers of aircraft stationed on the main runway. We were further informed that strict security was being imposed on the station and all personnel confined to base. It was also made clear no mail would be allowed to leave the base until the glider force had left for its destination. After a meal we were billeted and then we commenced to have a look around the base. There were literally thousands of aircrew and army personnel scattered around the station and we met many old friends with whom we had trained prior to our operational posting.
‘The giant armada finally left; a sight we shall never forget as the aircraft set off into an almost cloudless sky. The crew went into Ipswich to celebrate our survival and on our return to the base the following day arrangements were made for our return to our Squadron at Skellingthorpe. We had been absent for several days and some of the other crews thought we had been written off.
‘This brief account of the experience of a Lancaster crew carrying out its duties does not highlight any acts of heroism or brave deeds, but it does bring home the occupational hazards faced by all crews engaged on operations. It also emphasises the determination of a crew and the outstanding efforts of an exceptional pilot to survive and return with their aircraft to continue the struggle.
‘We returned to Woodbridge three days after the defeat of Germany and flew ‘Z-Zebra’ back to Skellingthorpe. She flew for two more years before joining hundreds of other redundant Lancasters in the scrap yard’.
The Kamikazes represented just one facet of the extreme Japanese measures originated to present a last-ditch defence against the American onslaught, under the overall title of Tokku (Special Attack) and the latter term is the one used by them. As in all things, the western usage of the term Kamikaze to apply generally to all such facets of self-sacrifice, has become the accepted norm. The Japanese term Shimpū (Divine Wind) so named after two opportune typhoons that legend had it had providentially arisen and destroyed two huge invasion fleets sent by Kublai Khan against Japan in 1274 and in 1281 applied to the air-to-sea arms of the Tokku. There have been many theories as to when exactly the idea of the suicide attack, as a given policy rather than as a personal decision, were adopted, and just as many speculations as to the originator. In my study on this subject I have tried to list the precedents down through the war. Before proceeding in detail with how the A6M came to be involved, it should also be firmly held in mind that the lone ‘suicidal’ attack was far from just a Japanese concept. All nations’ armed forces had embraced the ‘take one with you’ philosophy down the ages, from forlorn hopes such as King Leonidas and his Spartans who sacrificed themselves to hold the pass at Thermopylae against the Persian hordes of Xerxes in 480 BC, throughout succeeding centuries, and World War II was no exception. In the particular field of aerial warfare the examples of Major Katsushige Takada off Biak in May 1944 and Rear-Admiral Masabumi Arima’s sacrifice on 15 October of the same year had been preceded by many similar actions by all other air forces. Russian fighter pilots such as Lieutenant II Ivanov of 46 Fighter Regiment became ‘Heroes of the Soviet Union’ for ramming Luftwaffe bombers, and even women pilots got into the act when First-Lieutenant Yekaterina Zelenko rammed a Bf.109. Major Ernst-Siegfried Steen of the Luftwaffe crashed his Junkers Ju.87 dive-bomber into the Soviet heavy cruiser Kirov and was awarded a posthumous Knight’s Cross. The Americans were no exception to this list, with Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr, for example lauded coast-to-coast by the press back home for his heroism in diving his huge B-17 bomber into the battleship Haruna and sinking her off the Philippines on 10 December 1941– when in fact he did no such thing, only a light cruiser was present and she was not scratched, while Haruna herself was hundreds of miles away at the time. That same day Lieutenant Samuel H. Marret of 34 Pursuit Squadron was killed when his P-35 fighter was caught in the up-blast from a bomb hit on a Japanese transport ship and the two stories became intertwined. Neither man committed suicide of course but the American press, hungry for some grain of success, invented stories to say they had, and, in doing so, also treated them as heroes for so doing. At Midway Marine Captain Richard E. Fleming is credited with diving his Vought SB2U dive-bomber into another ‘battleship’ (actually his target was the heavy cruiser Mikuma) at Midway, but his citation clearly stated he scored a near miss and crashed into the sea, the press knew otherwise; but other American pilots most certainly did self-sacrifice in this way, and were rightly hailed as heroes. So self-immolation for the defence of one’s country was not an exclusive trait of the Japanese.
However, the Japanese most certainly embraced the concept (although not without considerable reservations on the part of many and outright rejection by many more) more than any other nation had done up to that point. The suggestion of deliberately crashing aircraft into enemy ships as a matter of policy had been raised at various times, by various people, only to meet rejection. The American landings at Leyte Gulf on 20 October, at the start of their campaign to re-conquer the Philippines, brought all such speculations to a high pitch.
When Vice-Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi, commanding 1 Kōkū-kantai, visited 201 Kōkütai at their Mabalacat base (Clark Field) that day events did not auger well. Bombarding battleships and cruisers lined the coast, tens of thousands of American troops were in transports just offshore protected by dozens of small escort carriers, while over the horizon the all-powerful US Task Forces with their massed aircraft prowled in overwhelming strength. What was left of the Japanese surface fleet was to be committed to an all-out assault to drive the enemy back, but to facilitate their task, those carriers just had to be eliminated. The Admiral had been charged by the High Command to do just that, destroy the American carriers, but, from previous experience and failures, he had come to the conclusion that there was only one way left to achieve his brief and save his nation. Originally when the question of suicide attacks had been raised, Ōnishi had been rigorously opposed it; he called it ‘heresy’.9 Now faced with the direness of the situation he had put all such scruples behind him. He postulated to assembled officers that Japan’s position was a desperate and extreme one. If the Philippines went then Japan would be cut off from the oil sources she had gone to war to obtain and then it was just a matter of time to total defeat. He put to them the option of loading their sleek little A6M fighter planes with 551lb (250kg) bombs and deliberately crash-diving (Tai-Atari – literally body-crash) them into the wooden flight-decks of the American carriers operating offshore. Such a revolutionary concept, deliberate suicide, would, one would have expected, have caused considerable pause, but it would appear that, after the briefest of consultations between Executive Officer Commander Asaichi Tamai and Lieutenant Masanobu Ibusuki, senior squadron leader (the Group commander, Captain Ei Yamamoto, was hospitalized after an accident at this time) they accepted the Admiral’s option without reserve. The generally accepted versions of events presented are that the pilots of 201 were immediately assembled and the news broken; volunteers were called for; every man raised his hand. Almost in a trice then the Kamikazes were born. Other accounts recall a considerable reluctance on the part of the chosen leader, Lieutenant Yukio Seki, but, upon reflection, he finally consented. Whatever the truth, and there must surely have been some pause, the ultimate outcome was the same and planning commenced. Four units were set up, named after elements in the poet Norinaga Motoori’s epic one-line homage to Japan – Shikishima-Tai (traditional name of the Japanese islands); Yamato-Tai (the original name of the Japanese nation), Asahi-Tai (the rising sun) and Yamazakura-Tai (the mountain cherry blossom).
Admiral Ugaki duly noted this revolutionary step in his diary entry for 21 October.
In view of the present situation, the 1 Kōkū-kantai is going to organize a Kamikaze Special Attack Corps with twenty-six carrier fighters of the 201st Kōkūtai, all of its present strength, of which thirteen were suicidal ones. They are divided into four units. They intend to destroy enemy carriers without fail – at least put them out of order for a while – before the thrust of the [our] surface force, when they come to the sea east of the Philippines.
He added in an emotional outburst of spiritual pride, ‘Oh, what a noble spirit this is! We are not afraid of a million enemies or a thousand carriers because our whole force shares the same spirit!’
The selection of the A6M as the first Kamikaze operator may appear a bizarre choice. The agile little fighter plane was renowned for her deftness and lightness and the options of various bomber types would seem more apt as pile-drivers to sink carriers. Ōnishi was certainly influenced by the fact that the group’s earlier experiments with the chōhi bakugeki method made them stand out in this regard. Considered practically suicidal anyway they were used to toting bombs around and making high-speed approaches. Instead of bouncing the bomb off the water into the side of the ships, they could adopt varying approaches, which included a low-level approach with a final climb and dive, according to the conditions and scale of defences. That the A6M had the necessary speed to penetrate US defences whereas the Philippine Sea battle had shown that the dive-bombers and attack planes stood very little chance of doing so, decided the choice. The same problem remained, the size of bomb that the suicider bakusō could carry into battle to be an effective carrier-killer. It still remained in essence a 551lb (250kg) weapon when at least 1,100lb (500kg) was required to smash up such large ships as fleet carriers and fulfil the basic premise of the Kamikaze, ‘one ship for one plane’. Of course all other types of aircraft were soon pressed into service, even floatplanes and flimsy wire-and-strut trainers, in fact anything that could be flown piloted by anyone capable of flying them; but it was the A6M that led the way, and indeed remained the mainstay of the earlier Kamikaze attacks.
How did their designer feel about this apparent waste of his outstanding design concept, the A6M? Did he feel it was being thrown away in a totally unsuitable manner? Did he resent the misuse of his brainchild? At the time he contributed an article for the Asahi newspaper group’s publication Kamikaze Special Attack Forces, which he titled ‘Compliment to the Kamikaze Special Attack Forces’. Horikoshi was to write, ‘As I have witnessed the birth of the Zero, I know there is nothing to fear, since we have created an aircraft worthy of its task and the Kamikaze Special Attack Forces does the job that must be done.’ This seemed to be a very clear and unequivocal endorsement of the role to which his creation had been assigned. Later he recalled that he reflected that this was not really the case, asking himself, ‘Why were the Zeros used in such a way?’ He mused, ‘Of course, I could not say such things publicly at that time …’
However Hirikoshi thought about things there is no doubt that the A6M carried out the strange new role that was thrust upon it very well indeed. Indeed, initially, the whole Kamikaze concept took the Allies totally by surprise. Not only were they amazed at the alien mind-set that could conceive, and carry out continuously, such a sacrificial effort, but at its effectiveness. The debut was made during the closing stages of the Leyte Gulf battle, a sprawling encounter as labyrinthine and complex as all of the previous Japanese grand assaults from Midway onward, which saw the remnant of the still powerful surface fleet crushed and scattered to the four winds and yet another instance of a Japanese commander turning back with victory almost within his grasp. At Savo Island in 1942 with the Allied warships beaten and bewildered and with the American transport fleet at their mercy, the Japanese had turned back, a decision which led to the long-drawn out defeat in the Solomons. At Leyte Gulf, in the Shō-Gō Operation – with the whole American landing fleet within their grasp and the chance to justify the sacrifice of their whole fleet, command irresolution again took place at the critical moment and lost the Japanese their one last chance. But if the Americans had survived the massed salvoes of the Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, the arrival of the Kamikaze gave them much pause for thought.
There were initially several abortive missions, on 21 October the Shikishima-tai failed to find the enemy carriers, while the Yamato-tai (‘Spirit of Japan’) flew a sortie from Cebu, from which Lieutenant (j.g.) Kōfu Kunō vanished without a trace. However, the Australian heavy cruiser Australia was hit and badly damaged by a suicide aircraft, the first of many such crashes endured by this ship. Similar failures by the Shikishima-tai were recorded on each succeeding day up to the 24 October. It was not until 25 October that the Kamikazes made their mark when the Commander Yukio Seki’s group of five bakusō, including Ensigns Iwao Nakano and Nobuo Tani and Petty Officers 1st Class Hajime Nagamine and Shigeo Oguro, with a four A6M fighter escort, attacked the eighteen escort carriers of Task Group 77 under Rear-Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague off Samar where they had just narrowly escaped total destruction by Kurita’s premature withdrawal. The carrier St Lo was sunk, and the Kalin Bay, Kitkun Bay and White Plains were all damaged. These attacks were all observed and confirmed by Warrant Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa of the escort. That same day Lieutenant Hiroyoshi Nishizawa was refused permission to lead his own group and his aircraft was instead flown by Petty Officer 1st Class Tomisaku Kastsumata, who crashed the escort carrier Suwanee off Surigao. Others of his group hit and damaged her sister ships, the Sangamon and Santee, in the same mission.
After these initial victories the High Command in Tokyo enthusiastically embraced the Kamikaze concept and it rapidly became the most efficient method of anti-ship operation, although it never totally replaced conventional dive- and torpedo-bomber sorties entirely, and was itself supplemented by the Oka (‘Baka’) human-guided-bomb missions, Maru-dai, on which 252 Kōküati also flew as escorts, and other innovations. The missions themselves rapidly developed and Allied defensive methods, which included stronger fighter patrols, heavier radar-controlled gun barrages at longer ranges, picket-destroyers and proximity AA fuses, were countered by intelligent use of the land mass, mountains and cloud cover to shield approaches, the alternation and constant variation of altitudes and early morning and dusk attacks to take advantage of poor light, to keep up the pressure. Another tactic that confused the defending gunners was to make a determined run against a specific ship in the fleet and then, at the last moment, turn hard to port or starboard and crash an adjacent ship. Once the A6Ms were inside the warship formation at low level the gunners were restricted in their fire because the chances of hitting a friendly ship in the heat of the action were high. In public the Allies derided the Kamikaze as ‘wasteful’, in private the US Navy was seriously worried as warship losses sharply escalated.
The use of the suicide attacks rapidly gained favour and the Japanese Army Air Force was also a contributor, indeed, some sources say they originated it. From being a purely voluntary operation before long the commanding officers of entire units were ‘volunteering’ them for this mission. Love of one’s country, the need to protect one’s family, peer pressure, even mental blackmail, the motivation varied from individual to individual. There was not the blanket blind obedience that nowadays many Americans allege existed. Even among those that volunteered and died, rational doubts were uppermost in the final thoughts. One young pilot, Lieutenant-Commander Iwatani, wrote:
I cannot predict the outcome of the air battles, but you will be making a mistake if you should regard Special Attack operations as normal methods. The right way is to attack the enemy with skill and return to the base with good results. A plane should be utilized over and over again. That’s the way to fight a war. The current thinking is skewed. Otherwise, you cannot expect to improve air power. There will be no progress if flyers continue to die.
The A6M remained one of the principal aircraft utilized as Kamikaze during the Philippine campaign. The principal -tai (units) in which the A6M were involved either as suicider or as escort, were the Kamikaze Tokubetsu Kōgekitai Asahi-, Baika-, Byakko-, Chihaya-, Hazakura-, Jimmu-, Junchū-, Kasagi-, Kashima-, Kasuga-, Kazaki-, Kikusui-, Kongō-, Kōtoku-, Niitaka-, Ōka-, Reisen-, Sakon-, Sakurai-, Seikō-, Shikishima-, Shinpei-, Shisei-, Shōmu-, Taigi-, Tenpei-, Tokimune-, Tsukuba-, Ukon-, Wakazakura-, Yamato- and Yamazakura-tai. As far as can be ascertained approximately 230 A6Ms were despatched on suicide sorties from the Philippines, with a further eighty assigned as escorts.
The shock of being on the receiving end of one of the first A6M suicide attacks was recorded in the Action Report of the St Lo, all the more graphic because of its detachment.
At about 1051 AA fire was seen and heard forward and general quarters was sounded. Almost immediately thereafter, numerous planes, believed to include both friendly and enemy, were seen at 1000 – 3000 feet ahead and on the starboard bow. These planes moved aft to starboard and one of them when about abeam to starboard went into a right turn toward the St. Lo. The after starboard guns opened [fire] on him, but with no apparent effect. This plane, a Zeke 52, with a bomb under each wing, continued his right turn into the groove, and approached over the ramp [aft] very high speed.
After crossing the ramp at not over fifty feet, he appeared to push over sufficiently to hit the deck at about number 5 wire, 15 feet to the port side of the centre line. There was a tremendous crash and flash of an explosion as one or both bombs exploded. This plane continued up the deck leaving fragments strewn about and its remnants went over the bow. There is no certain evidence as to whether or not the bombs were released before the plane struck the deck.
The Captain’s impression was that no serious damage had been suffered. There was a hole in the flight deck with smouldering edges which sprang into flames. Hoses were immediately run out from both sides of the flight deck and water started on the fire. He then noticed that smoke was coming through the hole from below, and that smoke was appearing on both sides of the ship, evidently coming from the hangar. He tried to contact the hangar deck for a report, but was unable to do so. Within one to one and a half minutes an explosion occurred on the hangar deck, which puffed smoke and flame through the hole in the deck and, he believes, bulged the flight deck near and aft of the hole. This was followed in a matter of seconds by a much more violent explosion, which rolled back a part of the flight deck, bursting through aft of the original hole. The next heavy explosion tore out more of the flight deck and also below the forward elevator out of its shaft. At this time, which he estimated as still shortly before 1100, he decided that the ship could not be saved. With the smoke and flame, he was even uncertain as to whether the after part still was on the ship, though later he had glimpses of it. All communication was lost, except the sound-powered phones, which apparently were in for some time although no reports could be obtained from aft.The word was passed ‘stand by to abandon ship’ and the order given to stop all engines. The order to the engines appeared to get through, and the word to stand by to abandon ship reached all parts of the ship, partly by sound-powered phone and partly by word of mouth, and the personnel assembled largely on the flight deck forward, and on the forecastle. During this time, some personnel had been blown overboard, and some had been driven over by fire.
With the G variant, the aging airframe of the Ju 87 found new life as an anti-tank aircraft. This was the final operational version of the Stuka, and was deployed on the Eastern Front. The reverse in German military fortunes after 1943 and the appearance of huge numbers of well-armoured Soviet tanks caused Junkers to adapt the existing design to combat this new threat. The Hs 129B had proved a potent ground attack weapon, but its large fuel tanks made it vulnerable to enemy fire, prompting the RLM to say “that in the shortest possible time a replacement of the Hs 129 type must take place.” With Soviet tanks the priority targets, the development of a further variant as a successor to the Ju 87D began in November 1942. On 3 November, Erhard Milch raised the question of replacing the Ju 87, or redesigning it altogether. It was decided to keep the design as it was, but to upgrade the powerplant to a Jumo 211J, and add two 30 mm (1.18 in) cannon. The variant was also designed to carry a 1,000 kg (2,200 lb.) free-fall bomb load. Furthermore, the armoured protection of the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik was copied, to protect the crew from ground fire now that the Ju 87 would be required to conduct low level attacks.
Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a Stuka ace, had suggested using two 37 mm (1.46 in) Flak 18 guns, each one in a self-contained under-wing gun pod, as the Bordkanone BK 3.7, after achieving success against Soviet tanks with the 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon. These gun pods were fitted to a Ju 87 D-1, W. Nr 2552 as “Gustav the tank killer”. The first flight of the machine took place on 31 January 1943, piloted by Hauptmann Hans-Karl Stepp. The continuing problems with about two dozens of the Ju 88P-1, and slow development of the Hs 129 B-3, each of them equipped with a large BK 7.5 cm (2.95 in) cannon in a conformal gun pod beneath the fuselage, meant the Ju 87G was put into production. In April 1943, the first production Ju 87 G-1s were delivered to front line units. The two 37 mm (1.46 in) cannons were mounted in under-wing gun pods, each loaded with a six round magazine of armour-piercing tungsten carbide ammunition. With these weapons, the Kanonenvogel (“cannon-bird”), as it was nicknamed, proved spectacularly successful in the hands of Stuka aces such as Rudel. The G-1 was converted from older D-series airframes, retaining the smaller wing, but without the dive brakes. The G-2 was similar to the G-1 except for use of the extended wing of the D-5. 208 G-2s were built and at least a further 22 more were converted from D-3 airframes.
Only a handful of production Gs were committed in the Battle of Kursk. On the opening day of the offensive, Hans-Ulrich Rudel flew the only “official” Ju 87 G, although a significant number of Ju 87D variants were fitted with the 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon, and operated as unofficial Ju 87 Gs before the battle. In June 1943, the RLM ordered 20 Ju 87Gs as production variants. The G-1 later influenced the design of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, with Hans Rudel’s book, Stuka Pilot being required reading for all members of the A-X project.
Hans-Ulrich Rudel in 1944.
Rudel on the Eastern Front
Rudel was determined to get into the action, and eventually a friend who commanded one of the wing’s squadrons relented, allowing him to fly as his wingman between his maintenance work on the flight line. He flew on the first day of the invasion of Russia and was in action on almost every day for the remainder of the war, except when he was in hospital or receiving medals from his Führer. The wing was in the thick of the action on the central sector of the Eastern Front, supporting panzer columns heading towards Smolensk and Moscow. Rudel became renowned for his determination to press home his dive-bombing runs, pulling up only at the very last minute to ensure his bombs landed on target
In August 1941, Rudel’s wing was transferred to the Leningrad Front where German troops were besieging the cradle of the Soviet revolution. With Germans on the outskirts of the city, several Soviet Navy ships trapped in the Gulf of Finland regularly turned their big guns on their enemies. The Immelmann wing was given the task of knocking out the warships. Its main target was the 26,416-tonne (26,000-ton) battleship Marat. The wing’s first attack on 21 September with 500kg (1100lb) bombs failed to penetrate the warship’s armour, in spite of Rudel putting a bomb square on target after flying through an anti-aircraft barrage thrown up by 1000 guns.
When 1000kg (2200lb) bombs arrived at the wing, Rudel led a new attack on the Marat. He pressed home the attack with his typical determination and only released his bomb 300m (980ft) above the target. Rudel’s bomb penetrated the warship’s magazine. As it exploded in a massive fireball, Rudel struggled to regain control of his aircraft after blacking out, and only managed to pull it up 4m (12ft) from the sea. If that was not enough of a problem, three Soviet fighters now jumped the Stukas. The attack won Rudel the Knight’s Cross.
The Soviet winter offensive of 1941–42 saw the Immelmann wing supporting hard-pressed German defences in central Russia. When a Soviet tank column broke through the front and threatened the wing’s airfield, Rudel led air strikes that drove them back. For three days, the Stukas kept the Soviets at bay until the Waffen-SS Das Reich Division arrived to relieve the situation. By now Rudel had notched up more than 500 missions and was posted home to train a new Stuka squadron. Not wanting to be out of the action, he soon managed to pull a few strings and got his squadron transferred to southern Russia, where the Germans were pushing south to seize Stalin’s Caucasus oil wells. In the middle of the battle for Stalingrad, Rudel was diagnosed with jaundice but after spending a few days in a field hospital, he absented himself, returned to the front and took command of a squadron of the Immelmann wing. These were desperate days for the Luftwaffe in southern Russia. As Soviet tanks moved to surround the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, units such as Rudel’s Stukas were needed to hold back the Red Army. The Soviet advance was rolling up one German airfield after another, making it more difficult for the short-range Stukas to help the trapped German soldiers.
Erich Rudel was now recalled to Germany to form the first experimental anti-tank Stuka unit equipped with the 37mm cannon-armed Ju 87s, dubbed “Cannon Birds’’ by their crews. Rudel took the unit to the Crimea to help counter a Soviet amphibious landing on the Kuban peninsula. The Cannon Birds proved to be an outstanding success against Soviet landing craft bringing troops and supplies ashore, with Rudel alone claiming 70 destroyed. Personally awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross by a grateful Führer for his work in the Kuban, Rudel was now posted back to the Immelmann wing in charge of its Ju 87 G-1 anti-tank squadron, in time to lead it during the July 1943 Kursk Offensive.
As expected, his squadron was in the thick of the action supporting II Waffen-SS Panzer Corps as it attacked on the southern axis of Operation Citadel. His Cannon Birds ranged ahead of the panzers, intercepting and destroying Soviet reserve tank columns moving to the front. Scores of tanks were claimed destroyed by Rudel and his wingmen, with the squadron commander alone claiming to have destroyed 12 T-34s on a single day. Experience taught the Stuka pilots to aim for vulnerable parts of the Soviet tanks, such as engine bays and turret roofs. The exhaust smoke of the Soviet tanks proved a useful aiming point for the Stuka gunners, and a hit against the engine often resulted in a catastrophic explosion. The Soviet practice of loading extra fuel drums on the rear of their tanks made them very vulnerable to Stuka cannon fire. To get a good shot at the T-34s, Rudel recommended dropping down to 15m (50ft) to give the Stuka pilot a good look at the target. Here the slow speed of the Stuka came into its own, because it gave the pilot plenty of time to lay his guns on target.
These attacks proved devastating to the morale of Soviet tank columns and the infantry who rode into the battle on the rear decks of the T-34s. To counter the Stuka threat the Soviets started to move anti-aircraft guns close to their tank columns. In turn, Rudel began to have a pair of bomb- and machine-gun-armed Stukas circling overhead as his Cannon Birds lined up for their attacks. The supporting Stukas would strafe and bomb Soviet anti-aircraft batteries that attempted to open fire. They also provided early warning of the appearance of Soviet fighters that were starting to challenge German air superiority on the Eastern Front. In spite of this covering fire, Rudel’s aircraft routinely returned to base full of bullet holes.
After Hitler’s Kursk Offensive stalled, the Soviets immediately opened a huge offensive against the northern wing of the German forces around Orel, opening a huge breach in the front. Rudel’s tank-killing Stukas were rushed northwards to help stabilize the situation and give ground reinforcements time to mobilize. In the midst of this chaos, Rudel’s aircraft was badly shot up, but he managed to make a forced landing behind German lines and return to the fray. Soviet offensives continued to require the close attention of the Immelmann wing, and Rudel was appointed to command its 3rd Group after his predecessor was killed in action. He had now flown some 1500 sorties and personally destroyed 60 Soviet tanks, earning him the Oak Leaves and Swords to his Knight’s Cross.
Time after time, his Stukas saved the day during the Soviet winter offensive in the Ukraine, culminating in a decisive intervention during the Battle of Kirovograd in November 1943, when Rudel and his pilots blunted an attack by hundreds of T-34s. By now Rudel and his Stuka pilots had been turned into national heroes, featuring almost daily in Nazi propaganda broadcasts announcing more tank kills, desperate situations saved and medals won. To the ordinary German soldiers, Rudel’s tank-killing Stukas were known as the “front fire brigade” because they were always called on to dampen down the most combustible sections of the front. While other Stuka units had switched to flying the two-engine Henschel Hs 129 armed with a 75mm cannon, or ground-attack versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Rudel stuck with his trusty Ju 87. Rudel’s squadron operated from rudimentary forward air strips, and his leadership was instrumental in keeping his ground crews working in freezing weather to put damaged aircraft back in the air time and time again, with minimal spares, tools and facilities. Once in the air, Rudel’s pilots followed him into attack after attack. He appeared fearless. Even when shot down over enemy territory, he somehow managed to escape and return to the cockpit of a Stuka. This incident followed a successful attack to destroy a bridge over the River Dnieper in March 1944. Twenty Soviet fighters swooped on his squadron, forcing one of Rudel’s pilots to land in territory held by the Red Army. Rudel landed to try to pick up his man, only to have his aircraft get stuck in mud. Russian soldiers captured Rudel and his two comrades. He swam a river and walked 50km (31 miles) in an escape bid. Two days later, he reached German lines and was soon back in the air.
Tank killing with the G-1 model Stuka became a Rudel speciality, and by August 1944 he claimed his 320th tank kill. The collapse of the German Army Group Centre in July 1944 brought the Immelmann wing northwards to the Courland peninsula, where it was thrown into one desperate battle after another. In October Rudel was promoted lieutenant-colonel and given command of his beloved Immelmann wing. There was little time to bask in the glory, and he had to lead his fliers to Hungary to help Waffen-SS panzer divisions blast a corridor through to 100,000 German troops besieged in Budapest. Soviet fighters were now swarming over the Eastern Front, making it highly dangerous for the lumbering Cannon Birds to go into action. In the space of a few days Rudel was shot down twice, but returned to the cockpit of a Stuka with his leg in a plaster cast. With more than 2400 missions in his log book and 463 tank kills claimed, Hitler made him the only recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds in January 1945. Hitler tried to ground Germany’s most highly decorated soldier, but Rudel insisted on returning to combat duty leading his wing.
Russian tanks were now advancing into Silesia, and Rudel’s wing was transferred to try to contain the situation. Flying from German soil, Rudel’s Stukas were able to rescue several German units cut off trying to retreat westwards to safety. When the Soviets pushed a bridgehead over the River Oder in February 1945, Rudel threw his Stukas into action. He alone destroyed four Soviet tanks, before having an aircraft shot out from under him. After struggling back to base, Rudel took off again to continue knocking out more than a dozen Josef Stalin tanks. In the midst of another attack run his aircraft was blown apart by Soviet flak. Rudel woke up in a field hospital to find out his left leg had been amputated. Despite being told his flying days were finished, Germany’s top Stuka pilot had other ideas. Only six weeks later he was back flying from bases in Czechoslovakia. When Germany surrendered in May, he led the remnants of his Immelmann wing on a last flight to American-controlled airfields in southern Germany.
Rudel was instrumental in developing the tactics of using cannon-armed aircraft in the anti-tank role. The exploits of his Stukas during the Battle of Kursk was the inspiration used by the United States Air Force in designing the A-10 Warthog tank-busting aircraft at the height of the Cold War, when there was a requirement to counter massed divisions of Soviet tanks in central Europe. This aircraft was built around a multi-barrelled cannon specifically to counter enemy tanks.
As a leader of warriors, Rudel was unsurpassed. He led from the front and set a pace that few could equal. In the course of 2530 missions, Rudel personally destroyed 517 Soviet tanks – the equivalent of five Soviet tank brigades. This was on top of a battleship, cruiser, 70 landing craft, 800 trucks, 150 artillery pieces, as well as numerous bunkers, bridges and supply dumps. He also managed to achieve nine confirmed air-to-air kills. Perhaps more striking was the fact that Rudel was shot down 30 times by ground fire, and wounded five times. On top of this, he successfully rescued six of his pilots who had been shot down behind enemy lines. This was the mark of the man, who ranked leading his men into battle as the highest duty of any soldier.
Twenty-seven hundred miles west of Wake, pilots of Japan’s 11th Imperial Air Fleet based at Tainan Air Base, Formosa, passed the hours before dawn on December 8, 1941, dozing beside their aircraft. While they caught moments of fitful sleep, 4,200 miles away across the date line, both Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor and, across from it, the airstrip and hangars at Hickam Field were still engulfed in fire and explosions.
At Tainan near the southern tip of Formosa, dense fog covered the airdrome, so the planned strike could not launch until weather improved. The mission: to destroy the Allied airfields 500 statute miles away in the Philippines. Theirs was a critical segment in Japan’s plan of coordinated attacks stretching across the western span of the Pacific.
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One hundred miles east of Davao on Mindanao Island in the Philippines, the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryujo steamed in calm waters. As dawn broke to the east, the crews of nine A5M Claude fighters and thirteen D3A Val dive bombers prepared for a deck launch.
At Davao Harbor, the U.S. destroyer-seaplane tender William B. Preston had picked up the following radio message shortly after 3:00 a.m.: “Japan started hostilities. Govern yourselves accordingly.” The order came from Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander in Chief Asiatic Fleet, headquartered in the Marsman Building on the Manila waterfront. All but two of the PBY Catalina amphibious planes tended by the Preston were fueled and launched on their first war patrol over the Celebes Sea.
The Preston shifted anchorage away from the two remaining Catalinas to lessen the chance of one bomb damaging both ship and planes.6 Gunners aboard the ship belted ammunition for the ship’s four .50-caliber Browning machine guns and took down the awnings which otherwise shielded the crew from the tropical sun.
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Among the fighter and bomber crews anxiously awaiting the order to launch from Tainan was Petty Officer Saburo Sakai, a fighter pilot who had distinguished himself in China where he had claimed four aerial victories. At age 16, Sakai had dropped out of school, then enlisted in the Navy in 1933. Basic training was brutal. Petty officers in charge beat recruits for minor infractions. Weak recruits were weeded out quickly. Sakai struggled through basic, then took the entrance exam for flight training, but failed and was assigned to the battleship Kirishima. He retook the flight exam, failed again, made another stab at it and finally passed. He and his fellow trainees continued to endure the rigorous regimen required of all candidate pilots.
Officers treated enlisted pilots with outright discrimination. This included differences in food, the availability of alcohol and cigarettes, and even the comforts in the briefing rooms where they waited before flights. Slight of build, Sakai had been toughened by the Navy training program where losers in one-on-one jousts busted out of the program and where beatings of enlisted personnel by petty officers were common.
In flight training, extensive aerial acrobatics improved strength, balance and reaction time. Exceptional vision was mandatory. The students competed to locate stars in daylight and practiced snapping their heads in other directions, then back to reacquire the star. These skills, Sakai would later cite, were the reason he rarely found himself surprised in the air and never found himself outflown. Indeed, Sakai graduated first in his class at Tsuchiura and was presented a silver watch by the Emperor himself.
To make his aircraft perform better, Sakai took things into his own hands. “The radio was useless,” he claimed. “We knew a week before the opening of the war that it was useless. It just made bunch of noise. The worst piece of equipment in the Japanese Navy was the radio for the fighter planes. You couldn’t hear anything at all.” The Japanese had not been able to isolate the heavy static in radio receivers caused by ignition of engine spark plugs.
A few days before the opening of the war, Sakai removed the radio from his plane and cut off the antenna pole to save weight. His commander, a strict disciplinarian, saw what Sakai had done and bellowed, “What did you do to this airplane?” Sakai replied, “I need to make my airplane lighter to fly to Manila.” The commander looked at the modification and barked, “Take mine out too!” As dawn approached, tension among the Japanese pilots and ground crew thickened right along with the fog. At 6:00 a.m., a loudspeaker crackled, “Attention!” What followed was the news of the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, which sent the pilots into a frenzy of celebration.
The banter was short lived, though, as one by one the pilots realized that the element of surprise would now be lost, not to mention that the Americans might be on their way to Formosa to avenge the attack on their Hawaiian fleet. Those fears were well grounded. Eighty-one P-40E Warhawks had been shipped to the Philippines in recent months bringing the total P-40 force to 107, along with elements of the 19th Bombardment Group totaling 35 B-17 Flying Fortresses.
The commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Douglas MacArthur, considered the Philippines a prime target in the event of war with Japan, and so had placed all units on alert on November 15, over three weeks earlier. But, stopping a Japanese invasion would depend primarily on two flag officers under his command. Army Air Force planes were under Major General Lewis H. Brereton, the U.S. Army’s Far East Air Force commander with headquarters at Nielson Field, Luzon. Admiral Thomas C. Hart would command the ships and submarines of the Navy.
The nearest threat was from Japanese aircraft stationed on Formosa, but no effort was made to properly reconnoiter the island to determine where the Japanese main air assets were located. As a result, no advance planning was done to target the air bases for bombing attacks.
On Luzon, the 3rd Pursuit Squadron at Iba and the 17th at Nichols each had 18 P-40Es; the 20th at Clark was equipped with the same number of obsolescent P-40Bs. The 21st and 34th squadrons, respectively based at Nichols and Del Carmen fields, had arrived in the Philippines in late November but did not receive their planes until December 7, when the former was assigned approximately 18 hastily assembled P-40Es and the latter took up duties with antiquated P-35As.
Hart’s Asiatic Fleet had already begun withdrawing south on November 20, with his three cruisers and 13 destroyers already redeployed. Only his submarine force of 29 boats remained, six of them of post–World War I vintage, along with Seaplane Wing 10 and her PBY Catalina flying boats. With them were two submarine tenders, a supply ship, and several auxiliaries. The subs were armed with the Mark XIV steam torpedo, a trouble-prone weapon hurried into production by the Navy without adequate testing.
The Japanese code had not yet been fully broken, but alarming signal traffic prompted additional warning from U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, to the Philippines on November 27, 1941: “Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense. Report measures taken. Should hostilities occur, you will carry out the tasks assigned in Rainbow Five the operational plan for the defense of the Philippines so far as they pertain to Japan.” This message, sent to all commands, is one of the bits of convincing evidence that President Roosevelt and his staff in Washington were well aware of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor, yet chose to allow the surprise attack in order to get the country into World War II.
There is also evidence to support the theory that President Roosevelt had for some time looked at the Philippines as bait to get America into the war as opposed to using Pearl Harbor in that role. State Department Travel Advisories had been in place since October of 1940 for Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Indochina, yet no advisory was ever promulgated for the Philippines. Though all military dependents had been withdrawn from the Philippines (and also from Guam, Midway, and Wake) in the spring of 1941, American civilians residing in the Philippines were specifically encouraged to remain in place.16 Some 10,000 expatriates resided in and around Manila and at facilities employing U.S. military personnel. Their presence offered two potential outcomes. A Japanese invasion of the Philippines would likely lead to the deaths of many Americans since they would be obliged to defend against the Japanese attack. Japan was well aware of this fact, but if the Japanese attacked anyway, it would be a cause célèbre. Roosevelt would have his pretext to declare war.
In any event, both the State Department and General MacArthur, through statements and actions, seemed focused on maintaining the belief that Japan would not open hostilities by attacking American interests in the Philippines. Regardless, the warning to the Philippines was not taken lightly.
Pursuit aircraft at Iba Field were fueled and armed, and pilots were available on 30 minutes’ notice 24 hours a day. Reconnaissance patrols were increased. All leaves were canceled. At Clark, readiness status was maintained daily. At night, eight P-40B pilots slept next to their aircraft, ready for takeoff on short notice. At Nichols Field, flying training was suspended and pilots were on one hour alert.
Major General Brereton had earlier warned his headquarters in Manila that the B-17 bombers at Clark Field were within range of Japanese bombers on Formosa. Brereton had proposed that the heavy bombers be moved to Del Monte Airbase on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. MacArthur had agreed, but 19 of the total force of 35 were still sitting on the tarmac at Clark Field on December 8.
At 3:00 a.m. Admiral Hart had received the radio message from Admiral Kimmel in Honolulu about the raid on Pearl Harbor. Hart notified his remaining Asiatic Fleet, but he neglected to insure MacArthur had already received the same warning. Not until more than a half hour later did MacArthur get word. An enlisted signalman, who overheard the news on a California radio station to which he was tuned, passed the word to the command post duty officer. MacArthur rose from bed after a call came from Brigadier General Richard Sutherland, his chief of staff. MacArthur asked his wife Jean to bring him his bible, which he then read for a while. Then looking gray, ill, and haggard, he began to gather his staff together.
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With the sun fully above the horizon, 22 aircraft comprised of Japanese A-5M Claude fighters and D3A Val dive bombers roared off the deck of the Ryujo. The formation took up a heading for Davao.
An hour later, the Preston’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Etheridge Grant, went forward to check progress on preparations to slip the anchor chain should it become necessary. Suddenly a lookout yelled, “Aircraft!” Grant sprinted to the bridge while Japanese planes swept around the narrow neck of land shielding Malalag Bay from the broad Gulf of Davao. The Claudes made short work of the PBYs, tied at their mooring buoys like sitting ducks. Aflame and riddled with bullet holes, the two patrol planes slipped beneath the waters of the bay as the survivors swam for shore, towing with them one dead and one wounded sailor.
During the attack, the Preston got underway and zigzagged across the bay as Japanese Vals pounced. The fleeing tender managed to evade the bombs while bringing down one of the dive bombers. The ship emerged from the attack unscathed and returned to the bay to pick up the survivors from the two lost planes.
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Fog was not a problem at Imperial Japanese Army fields at Heito and Kato, so at dawn, 14 G4M3 Betty bombers from Heito took off along with 18 light bombers from Kato. To the men who flew the Betty bombers, the airplane was unofficially called the Hamaki, Japanese for cigar, given the airplane’s rotund, cigar-shaped fuselage.
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A little before 4:00 a.m., a call from MacArthur’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Richard Sutherland, relayed word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to Brereton at Nielson Field. Brereton sought permission to launch an immediate air strike against the Japanese air bases on Formosa, though no aerial photos of the airfields existed, and the available maps were outdated. Sutherland took the call and told Brereton to go ahead with preparations but to wait for approval from MacArthur, who was in conference. While Brereton waited for MacArthur’s response, one B-17 from Clark Field was ordered to conduct a reconnaissance flight over Formosa. The plane’s bombs had to be downloaded before cameras could be installed in the bomb bay. P-40 fighters from Clark and the nearby Iba Air Base on the West Coast were sent aloft at about 8:00 a.m. when the radar station at Eba picked up inbound targets coming from Formosa. A half hour later, 15 bomb-laden B-17s at Clark lumbered into the air and began orbiting over Luzon.
At around 8:30 a.m. the first Japanese attacks on Luzon occurred at Baguio, where the bombers from Heito struck military barracks, and at Tuguegarao Airfield in north-central Luzon, where the Kato force struck.
As the fog thinned at Tainan Air Base, Japanese crews were sent to their planes. By 9:30 a.m., the last of 108 Navy Bettys lifted off. Escorting the bombers were 84 A6M Zeros. Among the pilots flying was Petty Officer Saburo Sakai, leading a three-ship “V” formation that included wingmen Petty Officer Second Class Kazuo Yokokawa and Petty Officer Third Class Toshiaki Honda.
After leveling off at 22,000 feet, the crews settled in for the long flight south toward the American airbases on Luzon in the Philippines. The Zero, light in weight and with no defensive armor, cruised using a measly 18 gallons of fuel per hour. The Japanese fighters would provide cover for the bombers all the way in and out, but fierce resistance was expected, and whether the fighters could fully protect the bombers was not assured.
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Word of the attacks at Davao and Baguio/Tuguegarao reached Brereton at 9:47 a.m. and 9:58 a.m. respectively. Shortly after 10:00 a.m. a call from General Sutherland to Brereton approved the offensive action he had earlier asked permission to begin. Brereton’s staff had already begun preparations to launch an attack against the harbor at Takao near the southern end of Formosa rather than the airfields. A significant naval installation existed there, but the harbor assets posed no immediate threat to the Philippines. Though he now had approval in hand, Brereton decided to wait for reports from the reconnaissance plane before committing his bombers. In the event no report was received, Brereton planned to attack the Japanese by late afternoon.
The P-40 patrols from Clark returned at about 10:45 a.m. and were joined before noon by 14 of the orbiting B-17s that had taken off several hours before. Rather than stagger the turnarounds, the American planes were all on the ground except for two P-40s patrolling northeast of Clark, one bomber circling north of Luzon, and the B-17 reconnaissance plane that had launched earlier for Formosa. Although the squadrons had reacted to the news from Pearl Harbor promptly, the local command failed to anticipate how vulnerable the force would become if nearly all the aircraft tried to recover and refuel at the same time.
Seven radar sets had reached the Philippines by the first week in December, but only two—one outside Manila and an SCR-270B at Iba—were in operation. Added to that shortcoming was the fact that at Eba the aircraft had to park in a line alongside the landing strip. Native landowners adjacent to the field had refused to allow the use of their land for dispersal.
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High above Luzon, the Japanese aircrews were certain the Americans would greet them with guns blazing. The attack force split, one group lining up on Iba Airfield, the other headed for Clark Field.
Sakai and his squadron mates continued escorting the bombers headed toward Clark Field. Crews scanned the sky for the sign of any activity, but the only fighter patrol in the air failed to appear. Minutes later, Sakai glanced down as the big air base came into view. “The sight that met us was unbelievable,” recalled Sakai. “Instead of encountering a swarm of American fighters diving at us in attack, we looked down and saw some sixty enemy bombers and fighters neatly parked along the airfield runways. They squatted there like sitting ducks.”
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Gathered in the operations tent at Clark Field at 12:45 p.m. were about 40 pilots and navigators waiting to be briefed on the plan to strike Formosa. Lieutenant Frank Kurtz had his portable radio with him, and the men listened as newscaster Don Bell broadcast from the top of one of Manila’s tallest buildings. Bell reported in an excited voice that big plumes of smoke were rising from Clark Field. The crewmen smiled among themselves, since the only smoke they saw was drifting skyward from the mess hall kitchen. What they did not know was Bell was correct about smoke billowing from an American installation; he was only mistaken in that the smoke was from burning aircraft and facilities being struck at nearby Iba.
A private, standing just outside the operations tent, looked up. In an awestruck voice he commented, “Look at the pretty Navy formation!”
The sound of approaching planes had everyone on the ground craning their heads skyward. “Navy, hell!,” someone yelled, “Here they come!” The men tumbled out of the tent and ran for cover toward a nearby drainage ditch.
High above the field, the Japanese bombers drifted into view, the drone of their engines rising, the formation spread in three perfectly formed “V”s.
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Sakai watched from behind the bombers as anti-aircraft fire erupted beneath the formation, exploding well below their altitude. He also noted a few planes taking off from the runway, but it was too late.
The Betty bombers began opening their bomb bays. “The attack was perfect,” Sakai recalled. “Long strings of bombs tumbled from the bays and dropped toward the targets…. The entire base seemed to be rising in the air with the explosions. Pieces of airplanes, hangars, and the other ground installations scattered wildly. Great fires erupted and smoke boiled upward.”
Then a second wave of Bettys released their loads, and with no opposition threatening the bombers’ safe return to Formosa, the escort fighters peeled off to attack targets of opportunity.
Sakai spotted two B-17s, yet undamaged, on the single runway that was now pocked with bomb craters. With his left hand he flipped the lever on his throttle to arm the two 20 mm cannons mounted in the wings of the Zero. Seconds later, the first bomber filled his gunsight. Sakai squeezed the trigger and cannon rounds tore through the target, then continued toward the second Flying Fortress. Both planes erupted in flames.
As he pulled away, several P-40 fighters picked their way past holes in the runway and one by one clawed their way into the air. Sakai switched to his two 7.7 mm machine guns mounted on the fuselage. He pulled around in a sweeping turn, then rolled out and accelerated toward one of the P-40s. As the plane grew in size under the gunsight, Sakai unleashed a hail of gunfire. Bullets smashed into the P-40’s canopy, which shattered, pieces of it hurling backward in the slipstream.
“The fighter seemed to stagger,” Sakai related, “then fell off and dived into the ground. Sakai pulled away, caustic fumes of cordite from his guns filling his lungs. His fuel and ammunition nearly expended, Sakai took up a heading for Formosa, while the second wave of the strike force approached Clark.
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Just south of Clark at Del Carmen, pilots in the 34th Pursuit Squadron had landed their well-worn P-35As after their morning patrol. As the planes were being refueled, pilots and ground crew saw smoke billowing up over Clark. The men ran to their planes, cranked engines, and soon 16 P-35As lumbered down the dirt strip, stirring up clouds of dust as they staggered into the air.
No sooner had they retracted their landing gear than Japanese fighters pounced on them. Dogfights broke out above Del Carmen and all the way to Clark as the American planes tried to disrupt the Japanese bombing attack. Although the P-35As scored some hits, the planes were no match for the Zero, which could out-climb and out-turn its adversary, while its 20 mm cannons were superior to the two .50 cal and two .30 cal machine guns on the American planes.
No P-35As were shot down in this initial encounter, but no Japanese bombers were lost to the P-35As either. One P-35, flown by Lieutenant Stewart Robb, returned with his engine shot up, canopy shattered, and bullet holes every 18 inches along the fuselage from prop hub to rudder. Two 20 mm cannon rounds had punched gaping holes in the wings, and the right tire was blown out. Several other planes landed, damaged beyond repair.
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The second Japanese attacking force took up a heading for home, the airmen astounded at the ease with which they had accomplished their mission. They lost seven planes. Behind them the Americans’ airfields lay in ruins. Twelve of the B-17s at Clark had been destroyed, five others heavily damaged, along with 30 P-40s destroyed and 30 other aircraft in various states of destruction. The radar at Iba was knocked out along with most of the aircraft on the ground. Eighty servicemen were dead and 150 wounded. Inside 30 minutes, during what would later be called “Little Pearl Harbor,” MacArthur lost half his air force.
Should MacArthur have been held responsible for a decision by his flying commanders at Clark Airfield to land and refuel most of their aircraft at one time? Should General Brereton? The warnings had gone out to the flying units. The planes that had been on alert were ordered aloft along with the bombers. Was it up to the local leadership to use good judgment in how to employ and protect their assets? But regardless of where the blame lay, the deed was done, and MacArthur would have to deal with a new reality.
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Far to the north, the Japanese people went wild with joy over the news about Nagumo’s success at Pearl Harbor and similar words coming in from Taiwan regarding the Philippines. The radio played The Battleship March over and over. Every newspaper heralded the victories. The total material cost to the Japanese in the Philippine operation was seven A6M Zeros downed, plus one G4M Betty that crash-landed upon return to Formosa.
But aboard the Nagato, Yamamoto did not share the enthusiasm. He stayed in his cabin and wrote letters. “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy,’ it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the smitten.” In another letter he decried “the mindless rejoicing at home…. It makes me fear that the first blow on Tokyo will make them wilt on the spot.”
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Attacks from Formosa continued on a daily basis, and on 12 of December, Saburo Sakai found himself over Iba Airfield. Flak filled the air as he rolled in for a strafing run on parked P-40 aircraft. Low-angle strafe is a hazardous undertaking once the element of surprise is lost, and lost it was. Sakai ignored the peril and pressed the attack, raking two planes with gunfire from his machine guns. As he pulled off, something struck his aircraft, penetrated the cockpit and wounded him in the right leg. He made it safely back to his airfield, but there would be no more flying for the time being. It was the second time he had been wounded in action, the first having occurred during a bombing raid over his airbase at Hankow in China. He was proving himself a capable pilot, having claimed seven aircraft shot down and four more destroyed on the ground, but in some ways he was exhibiting bits of reckless behavior. Another misstep and the outcome might not be so fortunate.
The RAF, outnumbered four to one, proved itself plane for plane and man for man better than the Luftwaffe. The British, not the Germans, came out master of the skies above Britain. It was the skill and heroism of the RAF pilots-pilots recruited not only from Britain itself but from Canada, Ireland, and the United States-that won the Battle for Britain and thereby, perhaps, the war itself. No tribute was ever more deserved than that which Churchill paid to these intrepid men: “Never before in human history was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Accounts of individual feats of heroism by RAF pilots are numberless. Here is the story of twenty-one-year-old Pilot Officer John Maurice Bentley Beard, D. F. M., as he himself told it:
I was supposed to be away on a day’s leave but dropped back to the airdrome to see if there was a letter from my wife. When I found out that all the squadrons had gone off into action, I decided to stand by, because obviously something big was happening. While I was climbing into my flying kit, our Hurricanes came slipping back out of the sky to refuel, reload ammunition, and take off again. The returning pilots were full of talk about flocks of enemy bombers and fighters which were trying to break through along the Thames Estuary. You couldn’t miss hitting them, they said. Off to the east I could hear the steady roll of anti-aircraft fire. It was a brilliant afternoon with a flawless blue sky. I was crazy to be off.
An instant later an aircraftsman rushed up with orders for me to make up a flight with some of the machines then reloading. My own Hurricane was a nice old kite, though it had a habit of flying left wing low at the slightest provocation. But since it had already accounted for fourteen German aircraft before I inherited it, I thought it had some luck, and I was glad when I squeezed myself into the same old seat again and grabbed the “stick.”
We took off in two flights (six fighters), and as we started to gain height over the station we were told over the R. T. (radiotelephone) to keep circling for a while until we were made up to a stronger force. That didn’t take long, and soon there was a complete squadron including a couple of Spitfires which had wandered in from somewhere.
Then came the big thrilling moment: action orders. Distantly I heard the hum of the generator in my R. T. earphones and then the voice of the ground controller crackling through with the call signs. Then the order: “Fifty plus bombers, one hundred plus fighters over Canterbury at 15,000 heading northeast. Your vector (steering course to intercept) nine zero degrees. Over!”
We were flying in four V formations of three. I was flying No. 3 in Red flight, which was the squadron leader’s and thus the leading flight. On we went, wing tips to left and right slowly rising and falling, the roar of our twelve Merlins drowning all other sound. We crossed over London, which, at 20,000 feet, seemed just a haze of smoke from its countless chimneys, with nothing visible except the faint glint of the barrage balloons and the wriggly silver line of the Thames.
I had too much to do watching the instruments and keeping formation to do much thinking. But once I caught a reflected glimpse of myself in the windscreen-a goggled, bloated, fat thing with the tube of my oxygen supply protruding gruesomely sideways from the mask which hid my mouth. Suddenly I was back at school again, on a hot afternoon when the Headmaster was taking the Sixth and droning on and on about the later Roman Emperors. The boy on my right was showing me surreptitiously some illustrations which he had pinched out of his father’s medical books during the last holidays. I looked like one of those pictures.
It was an amazingly vivid memory, as if school was only yesterday. And half my mind was thinking what wouldn’t I then have given to be sitting in a Hurricane belting along at 350 miles an hour and out for a kill. Me defending London! I grinned at my old self at the thought.
Minutes went by. Green fields and roads were now beneath us. I scanned the sky and the horizon for the first glimpse of the Germans. A new vector came through on the R. T. And we swung round with the sun behind us. Swift on the heels of this I heard Yellow flight leader call through the earphones. I looked quickly toward Yellow’s position, and there they were!
It was really a terrific sight and quite beautiful. First they seemed just a cloud of light as the sun caught the many glistening chromium parts of their engines, their windshields, and the spin of their airscrew discs. Then, as our squadron hurtled nearer, the details stood out. I could see the bright-yellow noses of Messerschmitt fighters sandwiching the bombers, and could even pick out some of the types. The sky seemed full of them, packed in layers thousands of feet deep. They came on steadily, wavering up and down along the horizon. “Oh, golly,” I thought, “golly, golly …”
And then any tension I had felt on the way suddenly left me. I was elated but very calm. I leaned over and switched on my reflector sight, flicked the catch on the gun button from “Safe” to “Fire,” and lowered my seat till the circle and dot on the reflector sight shone darkly red in front of my eyes.
The squadron leader’s voice came through the earphones, giving tactical orders. We swung round in a great circle to attack on their beam – into the thick of them. Then, on the order, down we went. I took my hand from the throttle lever so as to get both hands on the stick, and my thumb played neatly across the gun button. You have to steady a fighter just as you have to steady a rifle before you fire it.
My Merlin screamed as I went down in a steeply banked dive on to the tail of a forward line of Heinkels. I knew the air was full of aircraft flinging themselves about in all directions, but, hunched and snuggled down behind my sight, I was conscious only of the Heinkel I had picked out. As the angle of my dive increased, the enemy machine loomed larger in the sight field, heaved toward the red dot, and then he was there!
I had an instant’s flash of amazement at the Heinkel proceedingly so regularly on its way with a fighter on its tail. “Why doesn’t the fool move}” I thought, and actually caught myself flexing my muscles into the action / would have taken had I been he.
When he was square across the sight I pressed the button. There was a smooth trembling of my Hurricane as the eight-gun squirt shot out. I gave him a two-second burst and then another. Cordite fumes blew back into the cockpit, making an acrid mixture with the smell of hot oil and the air-compressors.
I saw my first burst go in and, just as I was on top of him and turning away, I noticed a red glow inside the bomber. I turned tightly into position again and now saw several short tongues of flame lick out along the fuselage. Then he went down in a spin, blanketed with smoke and with pieces flying off.
I left him plummeting down and, horsing back on my stick, climbed up again for more. The sky was clearing, but ahead toward London I saw a small, tight formation of bombers completely encircled by a ring of Messerschmitts. They were still heading north. As I raced forward, three flights of Spitfires came zooming up from beneath them in a sort of Princeof-Wales’s-feathers maneuver. They burst through upward and outward, their guns going all the time. They must have each got one, for an instant later I saw the most extraordinary sight of eight German bombers and fighters diving earthward together in flames.
I turned away again and streaked after some distant specks ahead. Diving down, I noticed that the running progress of the battle had brought me over London again. I could see the network of streets with the green space of Kensington Gardens, and I had an instant’s glimpse of the Round Pond, where I sailed boats when I was a child. In that moment, and as I was rapidly overhauling the Germans ahead, a Dornier 17 sped right across my line of flight, closely pursued by a Hurricane. And behind the Hurricane came two Messerschmitts. He was too intent to have seen them and they had not seen me! They were coming slightly toward me. It was perfect. A kick at the rudder and I swung in toward them, thumbed the gun button, and let them have it. The first burst was placed just the right distance ahead of the leading Messerschmitt. He ran slap into it and he simply came to pieces in the air. His companion, with one of the speediest and most brilliant “getouts” I have ever seen, went right away in a half Immelmann turn. I missed him completely. He must almost have been hit by the pieces of the leader but he got away. I hand it to him.
At that moment some instinct made me glance up at my rear-view mirror and spot two Messerschmitts closing in on my tail. Instantly I hauled back on the stick and streaked upward. And just in time. For as I flicked into the climb, I saw the tracer streaks pass beneath me. As I turned I had a quick look round the “office” (cockpit). My fuel reserve was running out and I had only about a second’s supply of ammunition left. I was certainly in no condition to take on two Messerschmitts. But they seemed no more eager than I was. Perhaps they were in the same position, for they turned away for home. I put my nose down and did likewise.
Only on the way back did I realize how hot I was. I had forgotten to adjust the ventilator apparatus in all the stress of the fighting, and hadn’t noticed the thermometer. With the sun on the windows all the time, the inside of the “office” was like an oven. Inside my flying suit I was in a bath of perspiration, and sweat was cascading down my face. I was dead tired and my neck ached from constantly turning my head on the lookout when going in and out of dog-fights. Over east the sky was flecked with A. A. Puffs, but I did not bother to investigate. Down I went, home.
At the station there was only time for a few minutes’ stretch, a hurried report to the Intelligence Officer, and a brief comparing of notes with the other pilots. So far my squadron seemed to be intact, in spite of a terrific two hours in which we had accounted for at least thirty enemy aircraft.
But there was more to come. It was now about 4 p. m., and I gulped down some tea while the ground crews checked my Hurricane. Then, with about three flights collected, we took off again. We seemed to be rather longer this time circling and gaining height above the station before the orders came through on the R. T. It was to patrol an area along the Thames Estuary at 20,000 feet. But we never got there.
We had no sooner got above the docks than we ran into the first lot of enemy bombers. They were coming up in line about 5,000 feet below us. The line stretched on and on across the horizon. Above, on our level, were assorted groups of enemy fighters. Some were already in action, with our fellows spinning and twirling among them. Again I got that tightening feeling at the throat, for it really was a sight to make you gasp.
But we all knew what to do. We went for the bombers. Kicking her over, I went down after the first of them, a Heinkel 111. He turned away as I approached, chiefly because some of our fellows had already broken into the line and had scattered it. Before I got up he had been joined by two more. They were forming a V and heading south across the river.
I went after them. Closing in on the tail of the left one, I ran into a stream of cross fire from all three. How it missed me I don’t know. For a second the whole air in front was thick with tracer trails. It seemed to be coming straight at me, only to curl away by the windows and go lazily past. I felt one slight bank, however, and glancing quickly, saw a small hole at the end of my starboard wing. Then, as the Heinkel drifted across my sights, I pressed the button-once-twice . . . Nothing happened.
I panicked for a moment till I looked down and saw that I had forgotten to turn the safety-catch knob to the “Fire” position. I flicked it over at once and in that instant saw that three bombers, to hasten their getaway, had jettisoned all their bombs. They seemed to peel off in a steady stream. We were over the southern outskirts of London now and I remember hoping that most of them would miss the little houses and plunge into fields.
But dropping the bombs did not help my Heinkel. I let him have a long burst at close range, which got him right in the “office.” I saw him turn slowly over and go down, and followed to give him another squirt. Just then there was a terrific crash in front of me. Something flew past my window, and the whole aircraft shook as the engine raced itself to pieces. I had been hit by A. A. fire aimed at the bombers, my airscrew had been blown off, and I was going down in a spin. The next few seconds were a bit wild and confused. I remember switching off and flinging back the sliding roof almost in one gesture. Then I tried to vault out through the roof. But I had forgotten to release my safety belt. As I fumbled at the pin the falling aircraft gave a twist which shot me through the open cover. Before I was free, the air stream hit me like a solid blow and knocked me sideways. I felt my arm hit something, and then I was falling over and over with fields and streets and sky gyrating madly past my eyes.
I grabbed at the rip cord on my chute. Missed it. Grabbed again. Missed it. That was no fun. Then I remember saying to myself, “This won’t do. Take it easy, take it slowly.” I tried again and found the rip cord grip and pulled. There was a terrific wrench at my thighs and then I was floating still and peacefully with my “brolly” canopy billowing above my head. The rest was lovely. I sat at my ease just floating gradually down, breathing deep, and looking around. I was drifting across London again at about 2,000 feet.
August saw large scale attacks on the ports-Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Dover-and on the southern airdromes, including Croydon. In the two great attacks of August 16 and 18 the Luftwaffe lost some 250 planes; in the fist ten days after they had launched their blitz they lost 697 planes to RAF losses of 153. Nor were the gains anywhere commensurate with these intolerable losses.
What did the enemy succeed in accomplishing in just under a month of heavy fighting during which he flung in squadron after squadron of the Luftwaffe without regard to the cost? His object, be it remembered, was to “ground” the fighters of the Royal Air Force and to destroy so large a number of pilots and aircraft as to put it, temporarily at least, out of action. . . . The Germans, after their opening heavy attacks on convoys and on Portsmouth and Portland, concentrated on fighter aerodromes, first on, or near the coast, and then on those farther inland. Though they had done damage to aerodromes both near the coast and inland and thus put the fighting efficiency of the Fighter Squadrons to considerable strain, they failed entirely to put them out of action. The staff and ground services worked day and night and the operations of our Fighting Squadrons were not in fact interrupted. By the 6th of September the Germans either believed that they had achieved success and that it only remained for them to bomb a defenceless London until it surrendered, or, following their prearranged plan, they automatically switched their attack against the capital because the moment had come to do so.
The first great blow came on September 7, when 375 bombers-a small number by 1945 standards but stupendous for that day-unloaded their bombs on the capital in full daylight. “This is the historic hour,” said Goering, “when our air force for the first time delivered its stroke right into the enemy’s heart.” Next day they were over London again, and the next, and the next, day after day, trying to knock out the world’s greatest city, break British morale, and bring Britain to her knees.
At first London was stunned-stunned but defiant. With astonishing rapidity and efficiency, the whole complex organization of anti-aircraft warfare and fire-fighting was brought into play. The RAF rose to challenge the invaders, and on one memorable day, September 15, shot down 185 Nazi aircraft. Fire-fighters worked day and night to cope with the flames which raged through the capital. Intrepid ambulance drivers – many of them mere girls-rescued the trapped and the wounded; wardens and other relief workers provided temporary food and shelter. And the anti-aircraft gunners threw a “roof over the city, forcing the enemy higher and higher into the skies.
By the end of October the Nazis were forced, by mounting losses, to give up daylight bombing and shift to night attacks-less accurate but no less murderous. An American newspaperman in London described the effect of one such night attack:
It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire. They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.
Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.
Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.
You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires-scores of them, perhaps hundreds.
There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.
The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen’s valor, only to break out again later.
About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.
The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent-sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.
Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work-another building was on fire.
The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape-so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly-the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions-growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.
The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light-antiaircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.
Up there, too, the barrage balloons were standing out as clearly as if it were daytime, but now they were pink instead of silver. And now and then through a hole in that pink shroud there twinkled incongruously a permanent, genuine star-the old-fashioned kind that has always been there.
Below us the Thames grew lighter, and all around below were the shadows-the dark shadows of buildings and bridges that formed the base of this dreadful masterpiece.
Later on I borrowed a tin hat and went out among the fires. That was exciting too; but the thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night-London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.
These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.
Winston Churchill said:
These cruel, wanton, indiscriminate bombings of London are, of course, part of Hitler’s invasion plans. He hopes, by killing large numbers of civilians, and women and children, that he will terrorize and cow the people of this mighty imperial city, and make them a burden and an anxiety to the Government and thus distract our attention unduly from the ferocious onslaught he is preparing. Little does he know the spirit of the British nation, or the tough fiber of the Londoners, whose forebears played a leading part in the establishment of Parliamentary institutions and who have been bred to value freedom far above their lives. This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatred, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame, has now resolved to try to break our famous Island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. What he has done is to kindle a fire in British hearts, here and all over the world, which will glow long after all traces of the conflagration he has caused in London have been removed. He has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe, and until the Old World-and the New-can join hands to rebuild the temples of man’s freedom and man’s honor, upon foundations which will not soon or easily be overthrown.
An Englishwoman, Mollie Panter-Downes, describes how it was for the people 0V1 whom the rain of fire and destruction fell.
For Londoners, there are no longer such things as good nights; there are only bad nights, worse nights, and better nights. Hardly anyone has slept at all in the past week. The sirens go off at approximately the same time every evening, and in the poorer districts, the queues of people carrying blankets, thermos flasks, and babies begin to form quite early outside the air-raid shelters. The air Blitzkrieg continues to be directed against such military objectives as the tired shop-girl, the red-eyed clerk, and the thousands of dazed and weary families patiently trundling their few belongings in perambulators away from the wreckage of their homes. After a few of these nights, sleep of a kind comes from complete exhaustion. The amazing part of it is the cheerfulness and fortitude with which ordinary individuals are doing theirjob under nerve-racking conditions. Girls who have taken twice the usual time to get to work look worn when they arrive, but their faces are nicely made up and they bring you a cup of tea or sell you a hat as chirpily as ever. Little shopkeepers whose windows have been blown out paste up “Business as usual” stickers and exchange cracks with their customers.
On all sides, one hears the grim phrase: “We shall get used to it.” Everyone takes it for granted that the program of wanton destruction, far from letting up, will be intensified when bad weather sets in and makes anything like accuracy in bombing impossible. Although people imagined early in the war that vicious bombardments would be followed by the panic-stricken departure of everybody who could leave the city, outwardgoing traffic on one of the major roads from London was only normal on the day after the worst of the raids so far. The government, however, has announced new details concerning the evacuation of children who were not sent away under former schemes of removing them to the country or whose mothers last week had the unhappy inspiration to bring them back to town for a holiday at home.
The East End suffered most in the night raids this week. Social workers who may have piously wished that slum areas could be razed to the ground had their wish horribly fulfilled when rows of mean dwellings were turned into shambles overnight. The Nazi attack bore down heaviest on badly nourished, poorly clothed people-the worst equipped of any to stand the appalling physical strain, if it were not for the stoutness of their cockney hearts. Relief workers sorted them out in schools and other centres to be fed, rested, and provided with billets. Subsequent raids killed many of the homeless as they waited.
The bombers, however, made no discrimination between the lowest and the highest homes in the city. The Queen was photographed against much the same sort of tangle of splintered wreckage that faced hundreds of humbler, anonymous housewives in this week’s bitter dawns. The crowd that gathered outside Buckingham Palace the morning after the picture was published had come, it appeared on closer inspection, less to gape at boarded windows than to listen to the cheering notes of the band, which tootled away imperturbably at the cherished ceremony of the Changing of the Guard. This was before the deliberate second try for the Palace, which has made people furious, but has also cheered them with the idea that the King and Queen are facing risks that are now common to all.
Broken windows are no longer a novelty in the West End, though the damage there so far has been slight. In getting about, one first learns that a bomb has fallen near at hand by coming upon barriers across roads and encountering policemen who point to yellow tin signs which read simply “Diversion,” as though the blockage had been caused by workmen peacefully taking up drains ahead. The “diversion” in Regent Street, where a bomb fell just outside the Cafe Royal and remained for hours before exploding, cut off the surrounding streets and made the neighborhood as quiet as a hamlet. Crowds collected behind the ropes to gaze respectfully at the experts, who stood looking down into the crater and chatting as nonchalantly as plumbers discussing the best way of stopping a leaking tap. Police went around getting occupants out of the buildings in the vicinity and warning them to leave their windows open, but even with this precaution, when the bomb finally went off that evening there were not many panes of glass left.
The scene next morning was quite extraordinarily eerie. The great sweep of Regent Street, deserted by everyone except police and salvage workers, stared gauntly like a thoroughfare in a dead city. It would have been no surprise to see grass growing up out of the pavements, which were covered instead with a fine, frosty glitter of powdered glass. The noise of glass being hammered out of upper windows, swept into piles at street corners, and shovelled into municipal dust vans made a curious grinding tinkle which went on most of the day. The happiest people there were two little boys who had discovered a sweet shop where most of the window display had been blown into the gutter, and who were doing a fine looting job among the debris. Around the corner, the florid facade of Burlington Arcade had been hit at one end, and an anxiousjeweller was helping in the work of salvaging his precious stock from the heap of junk that a short while before had been a double row of luxury shops. Scenes like these are new enough to seem both shocking and unreal; to come across a wrecked filling station with a couple of riddled cars standing dejectedly by its smashed pumps makes one feel that one must have strayed on to a Hollywood set, and it’s good to get back to normality among the still snug houses in the next street.
Wednesday night’s terrific, new-style anti-aircraft barrage reassured people, after scaring them badly. A. R. P. Workers, who have been heroic all the week, were told to warn as many as possible that something special and noisy was going to be tried out that evening, but all over town persons who hadn’t been tipped off thought that the really terrifying din was a particularly fierce bombardment. Houses shuddered unceasingly until the all-clear sounded in the dawn, when everyone felt better because, although Londoners had had a bad night, the raiders must have had a worse one. The behavior of all classes is so magnificent that no observer here on the spot could ever imagine these people following the French into captivity. From the point of view of breaking civilian morale, the high explosives that rained death and destruction on the capital this week were futile.
London proved that she could take it. Frustrated, the Luftwaffe turned to the industrial midlands and the North, and November and December witnessed the “ordeal of the provinces.” Not the largest, but perhaps the most murderous of all the attacks on industrial centers was the great nightlong bombing of Coventry on November 14.
Other midland cities suffered just as cruelly-and rose just as heroically to the challenge. Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, one after another were subjected to devastating raids. The toll of civilian dead mounted to over 40,000; hundreds of thousands of houses were wrecked or damaged; essential services-gas and electricity and water and transport-were paralyzed; factories were laid in ruins. But somehow Britain survived-survived and grew miraculously stronger with each week.