Bomber Command – Origins and Doctrine

Only 15 Fairey Hendons were built, serving with 38 and 115 Squadrons between November 1936 and January 1939. Before the famous early wartime trio of medium and heavy bombers (classified as such by the standards of the time) were to appear – the Whitley, Wellington and Hampden – an assortment of monoplanes appeared, most of which were destined to enter limited production and service. If they served no better purpose, they certainly subsidized the growth and training of both the RAF and the aircraft industry. To these should be added the Fairey Hendon monoplane, whose origins lay in a 1927 Specification but which was eventually rewarded by a token consolation order in the mid-1930s.

During the Second World War Bomber Command flew around 390,000 sorties for the loss of 8,953 aircraft on operational missions; that number does not include another almost 1,400 that crashed in the UK whilst airborne on an operational mission. The cost in aircrew lives was over 47,000, to which must be added those killed in accidents or training – a further 8,000 plus; it is generally accepted that the total of lives lost is around 55,000. What did the six years of the bombing offensive achieve? Supporters and critics were active at the time and in the 60 years since the end of the war the argument has raged even more fiercely. As with all history the benefits of hindsight and access to previously classified documentary sources has to be balanced by the researcher’s removal in time and context from the period under study. To understand truly decisions, policies, actions and attitudes is all but impossible.

It seems appropriate to open this overview with a few words from the most famous of Bomber Command’s leaders, Sir Arthur Harris: ‘There are no words with which I can do justice to the aircrew under my command. There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period.’ These words from Bomber Command’s wartime leader, Air Marshal Arthur T. Harris are a fitting tribute to the sacrifice made by the Command in six years of war. Only one force on the Allied side was continuously involved with active operations against the German homeland – RAF Bomber Command. The day the war started a Blenheim of 139 Squadron flew a reconnaissance sortie to locate German shipping and for the next six years the Command took the war to the enemy, at first with limited effect but from 1942 with increasing resources and greater accuracy, and with an ever greater impact.

Strategic bombing theory was developed in the latter years of the First World War and was a combination of the German raids on England and the Allied, especially Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force, bombing campaign, although this was only just starting to get into its stride when the Armistice was signed in November 1918. Despite the fact that strategic bombing had not really been evaluated in the First World War it became a central tenet of air power theory in the post-war period. In part this was because it was the one independent decisive (potentially) role that the air forces could perform. For the RAF this was enshrined as the Trenchard Doctrine: ‘the nation that would stand being bombed longest would win in the end … to win it will be necessary to pursue a relentless offensive by bombing the enemy’s country, destroying his sources of supply of aircraft and engines, and breaking the morale of his people.’ This doctrine of a war winning bomber force remained the focus of doctrine with the major air forces throughout the 1920s. In May 1928 Trenchard, whose views still carried great weight, circulated a forceful memo to counter: ‘an unwillingness on the part of the other Services to accept the contention of the Air Staff that in future wars air attacks would most certainly be carried out against the vital centres of commerce and of the manufacture of munitions of war of every sort no matter where these centres were located.’ He stated that the RAF doctrine was to ‘break down the enemy means of resistance by attacks on objectives selected as most likely to achieve this end’ it being better to attack munitions at source (the factory) than on the battlefield – this would become a well-rehearsed argument by Bomber Command throughout the Second World War. It would, he believed, have greater effect for less effort, and would include dissuading workers from working in the factories. ‘The Hague Convention allows for military targets, including production centres. What is illegitimate, as being contrary to the dictates of humanity, is the indiscriminate bombing of a city for the sole purpose of terrorising the civilian population.’ Bomber Command would later take great care to stress the military significance of its city targets, whilst the German propaganda machine would refer to the Terrorflieger. The other Chiefs of Staff in their respective memos were not convinced, and also expressed concern over being bombed in return; it must be remembered that this was a period when the independence of the RAF, in part budget-driven, was under threat and the arguments, as such tri-Service ‘debates’ usually are, was writ large with vested interest.

The debates were largely hypothetical at the time as the RAF’s bomber strength in the early 1930s was pitiful with five night- and six day-bomber squadrons, all with slow biplanes with very limited bomb loads, hardly the material with which to deliver an aerial bombardment of any significance.

Although the stagnation of the 1920s, which in military terms had been a dismal decade for all of Britain’s armed forces, had started to change in the early 1930s both doctrine and equipment were outdated and with little immediate prospect of improvement. In terms of aircraft there was a glimmer of hope with the issue of Specification B.9/32 for a ‘twin-engined medium bomber of good performance and long range’, although the requirement for a 720 mile range and 1,000 lb bomb load was not particularly inspiring! Two of Bomber Command’s early stalwarts – the Wellington and the Hampden – were a result of this Specification. The following year saw Britain wake up to the realities of a changing Europe. A Foreign Office appraisal of 1933 stated that Germany ‘… controlled by a frenzied nationalism and resolved to assert her rights to full equality, will proceed to the building of formidable armaments on land and especially in the air.’ The Government suggested that the Services draw up expansion plans; the Defence Requirements Committee sat from November 1933 to February 1934 and in its report gave priority to the establishment by the RAF of a Home Defence force (including bombers) strong enough to counter any attack. Expansion Scheme A was announced in July 1934 to provide the basis for a deterrent force and a training establishment on which future expansion could be based; under this scheme the RAF would be ready for war in eight years (1942). The old One-Power standard, which had seen planning based on France as the ‘enemy’ had to shift to reflect the reality of the growth of German power and belligerence. It was all very well to talk of an offensive bomber force capable of attacking targets in the Ruhr and Rhineland districts of Germany, the two main industrial areas, but quite another to make it a reality (even on paper). The initial solution was one of numbers over capability; create the squadrons even though the equipment might not be right as better aircraft could follow in due course. This was a mixture of financial constraint and lack of suitable aircraft; the latter would continue to plague the Command into the middle years of the war. As an indication, it cost £245,000 to acquire twelve Hawker Hart light bombers and £83,000 to operate them; in comparison it cost £375,000 to acquire ten Vickers Virginia heavy bombers and £139,000 a year to operate them. The financial aspect became a secondary consideration with Expansion Scheme C (May 1935) stating that: ‘Financial considerations were to be secondary to the attainment of the earliest possible security.’ In July the Air Staff confirmed the strategic doctrine: ‘Provided a sufficient weight of air attack could be brought to bear on the Rhineland-Ruhr-Saar area, Germany’s armament industry would be paralysed, which would in turn preclude her from maintaining an army in the field.’

The bomber force was organised into regional commands, such as the Wessex Bombing Area, and all were part of the Home Defence organisation, fitting neatly with the bombing offensive being seen as ‘attack as the best means of defence.’

By the time that Bomber Command formed on 14 July 1936, Expansion Scheme F (dated February 1936) was on the table. This called for a bomber force of 68 squadrons, with 990 aircraft, and was scheduled for completion by March 1939. Like the previous Schemes, and those that followed over the next two years, it was overly optimistic. Paper squadrons don’t fight wars and when Expansion Scheme H called for 1,659 bombers in ninety squadrons it was obvious even to the optimists that it was unrealistic, even though it was not scheduled for completion until 1943. For the first Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Sir John Steel, aircraft were only one of the problems to be faced; of equal importance was personnel – aircrew and ground crew – as well as equipment, including bombs, and airfields. Lack of suitable weapons was to prove a major embarrassment to Bomber Command in the early part of the war and the problem could be traced back to a 1932 Air Staff decision that there would be no requirement for a bomb heavier than 500 lb and that the 250 lb bomb would be the standard weapon. The need for airfields further north to cater for Germany as the main target led to Expansion Period airfields from Norfolk to Yorkshire, with the latter county, along with Lincolnshire, becoming the heartland of Bomber Command. This expansion did not really start until 1935, with old First World War sites being looked at as part of a major search for airfield sites. The basic requirement was for a large patch of level ground for a grass airfield, the current bombers requiring little in the way of prepared surfaces, along with support facilities such as hangars, technical, administration and domestic buildings.

The impressive C-Type hangar became typical of bomber airfields of this period, although the exact facilities varied between locations. The provision of aircrew, and training in general is covered in a separate chapter. By the mid 1930s aircraft manufacturers who had been finding it hard to survive official disinterest in the 1920s were being called on to produce large numbers of new aircraft and it is remarkable that they were able to respond as well as they did. A great deal of criticism has been levelled by some commentators on the poor quality of equipment with which the RAF entered the war, an argument that could equally be aimed at the likes of tanks and other military equipment, but it takes time to design, develop and produce advanced items such as aircraft. It was only in 1935 that a medium/heavy bomber philosophy was adopted, based on the bomb lift of the proposed new types, and there was much debate on the subject at Air Staff and Government level. However, on the outbreak of war the Command was still substantially composed of light bombers and it would be 1943 before it lost the last of these. Indeed it was only in 1936 that two of the Command’s most advanced types – both light bombers, the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim, entered service. Perhaps the most significant decision was the issue of Specification B. 12/36 for a four-engined bomber of 250 mph cruise, 1,500 mile range and 4,000 lb bomb load. It was also to have the latest navigation equipment, plus power-operated gun turrets, including a four-gun rear turret. This was starting to sound like a real strategic bomber – but the war would be well underway before the products of this Specification were ready for service. In the meantime, the expansion plans had to go ahead with whatever was to hand. Continued examination of overall air doctrine and assessment of the enemy air strength and employment, including tactical and strategic air operations in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, led to a revision in the expansion plan. In October 1938, Expansion Plan M was approved, which envisaged a strength of eighty-two bomber squadrons (1,360 aircraft) by April 1941, and with renewed focus on defensive requirements by increasing the number of fighter squadrons. Meanwhile, doctrine was being turned into reality and the Joint Planning Committee (JPC), with its eyes firmly fixed on offensive bombing, envisaged a three-phase campaign:

Countering the all-out German air offensive by attacking Luftwaffe installations.

2. Countering the German land offensive by attacking ground forces.

3. A war-winning air offensive against German industry and transport.

The JPC also stated that: ‘the offensive employment of our own and Allied bombers is the only measure which could affect the issue during the first weeks of the war. The three classes of objective are:

1. Demoralise the German people, by methods similar to those we foresee the Germans themselves using against us, [so that] their Government might be forced to desist from this type of attack.

2. Discover and attack some target, the security of which was regarded by Germany as vital to her survival during the limited period within which she hoped to gain a decision over us, [so that] she would be forced to divert her air attacks to our own aerodromes and maintenance organisation.

3. Inflict direct casualties upon the German bombing aircraft, either in the air or on the ground, or upon their maintenance organisation; the intensity of German attacks would be directly and quickly affected.

The overall philosophy was translated into ‘Planning for a War with Germany’ and in late 1936 the Air Targets Intelligence sub-committee developed the Western Air (WA) plans and these became the focus for Bomber Command’s strategic planning. On 13 December 1937 the Command was instructed to commence detailed planning for WA1 (German Air Force), WA4 (German Army concentration areas and lines of communication) and WA5 (manufacturing centres), with planning to be complete by 1 April 1938. It was a massive task and was carried out with incomplete information on the targets and an over-optimistic appreciation of bombing capability. A Bomber Command appraisal of the list suggested that only the third was realistic as the others comprised targets of an inappropriate nature for offensive strategic bombers, a stance that would be taken by bomber leaders, especially Arthur Harris, at various times throughout the war.

The WA Plans underwent a number of modifications over the next few months but by mid 1938 had settled down as:

WA1        German Air Force organisation and associated industries.

WA2        Reconnaissance of Home Waters and East Atlantic, in co-operation with the Royal Navy.

WA3        Convoy protection in Home Waters and East Atlantic.

WA4        German Army concentration areas and lines of communication.

WA5        Manufacturing Resources; WA5(a) Ruhr, WA5(b) Inland waterways, Ruhr, Baltic, North Sea ports, WA5(c) Outside of Ruhr.

WA6        Stores, especially oil.

WA7        Counter-offensive in co-operation with Royal Navy in defence of sea-borne trade.

WA8        Night attacks.

WA9        Kiel Canal and associated waterways.

WA10      Shipping and facilities, especially the Baltic.

WA11      Forests and crops.

WA12      German fleet in harbour or at sea.

WA13      Administrative centres, especially Berlin.

An indication of the optimism of the bomber theorists was a suggestion that an offensive against the Ruhr, especially the coking plants and power stations, would, ‘Prevent Germany waging war on a large scale in less than three months.’ This outcome could be achieved with 3,000 sorties, at a cost of 176 bombers, by knocking out twenty-six coking plants and nineteen power stations. With hindsight of the first years of the war this level of optimism seems incredulous!

Whilst plans were being prepared, the Command was undergoing a major reorganisation as aircraft types and roles were concentrated into individual Groups and units moved to more appropriate airfields within the new structure. The progress made in the two years since the Command was formed was incredible and those who criticise Bomber Command’s performance in the first years of the war fail to recognise just how much had been achieved in such a short period. Despite the optimism expressed above, Ludlow-Hewitt (C-in-C since September 1937) clearly stated that his Command was: ‘Entirely unprepared for war, unable to operate except in fair weather and extremely vulnerable in the air and on the ground.’ These words proved to be far more prophetic. However, the military always has to play with the cards it has and Bomber Command was to enter the war with a far from ideal hand. The arrival of the Wellington, the first squadron equipping in late 1938, was one positive indication but by the outbreak of war there were only six operational squadrons with this type. It could have been worse; Bomber Command may have gone to war in September 1938 when the Munich Crisis took Europe to the brink of war. Most parties knew that the Allied ‘sell-out’ provided only a respite and that war with Germany was inevitable; for the RAF the extra year was crucial.

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Soviet Aircraft Shot Down by Stingers

Mujahedeen rebels aim US-made Stinger missiles near Gardez, Afghanistan.

Afghan guerrillas own a downed Soviet Mi-8B helicopter gunship, near the Salang Highway, a vital supply route north from Kabul to the Soviet border. Picture released on January 12, 1981.

There are many claims about the impact of the Stinger Missile given to the Mujahedin during the Soviet – Afghan War. Some of the lost aircraft were shot down by the Redeye missile. Redeye was an earlier IR missile.

AIRCRAFT SHOT DOWN

What is known is that during the war, the Soviets lost about 330 helicopters and around 120 jets during the entire war 1979 – 89.

Mil Mi-24’s SHOT DOWN

A total of 50 Hinds were lost during the entire war. While many were shot down, the type of missile used was not always known. The Stinger was delivered to the Mujahedin in September 1986. The first confirmed downing of a Mi-24 by a Stinger was done by engineer Ghaffar, of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. He brought down the first Hind gunship with a Stinger on September 25, 1986 near Jalalabad

Here are the losses of the Mi 24 during 1986–89.

1986

    25 September 1986 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    19 October 1986 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down.

    29 November 1986 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    29 November 1986 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

1987

    12 January 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    27 February 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    21 April 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    18 May 1987 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down.

    31 May 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    4 June 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    9 June 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    1 July 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    15 July 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    29 September 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    30 October 1987 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down.

1988

    16 February 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down

    26 February 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down

    29 February 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter shot down

    18 April 1988 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    20 April 1988 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    21 August 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter shot down

    27 August 1988 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    30 September 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down

1989

    2 February 1989 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

ANALYSIS

If they cannot recover wreckage they mark it as “destroyed by PZRK”, PZRK mean manpad SAM, which could be one of four – Soviet Strela, China NH5, Egypt Eye Sakr or American Stinger.

I propose 12 certain kills by Stingers and around ten more possible kills, so ~22 in total. Even if we assume all PZRK kill after 1986 made by Stinger it gives us 31 max.

What the above shows is that upon delivery of the Stinger Missile to the Mujahedin there was an increase in the number of Mi-24’s shot down. In the last four years of the war at least 25 of these gunships were brought down. As you can see this represents half of the total number of Mi-24’s brought down during the war and they were all shot down after the Stinger was delivered to the Mujahedin.

There were a total of 269 Soviet Aircraft losses after September 1986 when the Stinger Missile was first given to the Mujahedin. The Mujahedin gunners claim they were able to score these 269 kills out of 340 engagements, a roughly 70% hit rate while using the Stinger. If this report is accurate, then the Stinger was responsible for over half of the Soviet Aircraft losses during the entire war.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and after the war, many of the Stingers found their way to other countries. The US had attempted to buy back the Stingers but at least 600 remained unaccounted for.

References:

List of Soviet aircraft losses during the Soviet–Afghan War – Wikipedia

Mil Mi-24 (Hind) Armed Assault Gunship / Attack Helicopter – Soviet Union

FIM-92 Stinger – Wikipedia

‘A fighting war with the main enemy’: How the CIA helped land a mortal blow to the Soviets in Afghanistan 32 years ago

Afghanistan: Kabul Confirms New Effort To Buy Back U.S.-Built Stinger Missiles

Afghanistan

THE CHANNEL AIR WAR: SUMMER 1940 I

A German twin propelled Messerschmitt BF 110 bomber, nicknamed “Fliegender Haifisch” (Flying Shark), over the English Channel, in August of 1940.

After Dunkirk, the rhetoric of Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it seem as though the fighters of the Royal Air Force had snatched a victory out of the overall tide of defeat that had swept away the British Expeditionary Force. The reality was somewhat different; the losses sustained by RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe during the evacuation phase were about even, while the French campaign as a whole had cost Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s Command 453 Hurricanes and Spitfires.

While Fighter Command strove to make good its losses during June 1940, Bomber and Coastal Commands both stepped up their offensive operations against enemy targets. In Coastal Command’s case, this involved intensifying attacks on enemy shipping, with particular reference to convoys, off the Dutch coast; night attacks were also made by Lockheed Hudsons on Dutch oil targets and harbour installations. Bomber Command, while concentrating on attacking communications and oil targets in Germany, and on minelaying activities, also carried out limited attacks on coastal targets in the Channel area; on the night of 13/14 June, for example, Handley Page Hampdens bombed the docks at Boulogne and Dunkirk.

From 5 June, the Luftwaffe was also active, small numbers of bombers attacking ‘fringe’ targets on the east and south-east coasts of England. These attacks caused little significant damage; their main purpose was to provide the German bomber crews with operational and navigational experience. On both sides, great care was exercised in avoiding damage to civilian property and loss of life. As one Ju 88 pilot, Kapitän Hajo Herrmann, later recorded:

We were allocated important strategic and military targets off the east coast of England, the oil refineries at Thames Haven and the nitrogen works at Billingham [the latter in the north-east of England]. We dive-bombed them under a full moon, with strict instructions either to bring our bombs home or look for shipping targets if we were unable to identify our main target quite clearly. I always flew on ahead and gave the others clearance to attack only after I had recognised the target positively and had put down one or two benzol bombs.

Many coastal reconnaissance and minelaying operations were undertaken in the Channel area during this phase by Heinkel He 115 floatplanes.

On 30 June, the C-in-C of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, issued a general directive setting out the aims of the planned air assault on Britain. The Luftwaffe’s main target was to be the Royal Air Force, with particular emphasis on its fighter airfields and aircraft factories; as long as Fighter Command remained unbeaten, the Luftwaffe’s first priority must be to attack it by day and night at every opportunity, in the air and on the ground, until it was destroyed. Only then would the Luftwaffe be free to turn its attention to other targets, such as the Royal Navy’s dockyards and operational harbours, as a preliminary to invasion.

On 3 July the Luftwaffe carried out its first daylight attacks on the English coast. Among other targets, the forward airfield at Manston in Kent was attacked by a small force of Dornier Do 17s, which came in at low level and dropped anti-personnel bombs on the landing area. The only damage was to a lawnmower. On the following day the Germans began flying fighter sweeps over south-east England. Dowding and the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, refused to be drawn, and it was not until 7 July that there was serious skirmishes, the RAF losing six aircraft and the Luftwaffe five. Three of the aircraft were Spitfires of No. 65 Squadron from Hornchurch, bounced by Messerschmitt 109s.

On the morning of 10 July – the date generally accepted as marking the start of the Battle of Britain – a Dornier Do 17P reconnaissance aircraft of 2/Fernaufklärungsgruppe 11 sighted a large coastal convoy off the North Foreland, heading south-west for the Straits of Dover. Although escorted by Me 190s of I/JG 51, the Dornier was attacked and severely damaged by Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron from Manston, eventually crash-landing near Boulogne with the loss of three of its four crew. But the damage had been done, and the Germans were now fully alerted to the passage of the convoy, code-named Bread.

At about 1030, a Staffel of Me 109s appeared over the Channel, sweeping parallel to the Kentish coast. Nine Spitfires were scrambled from Biggin Hill to intercept them and, in a brief but inconclusive engagement, one Spitfire of No. 610 Squadron was hit in the port wing and had to make an emergency landing at Hawkinge.

The main action began after 1330, when the CH radar station at Dover detected a build-up of considerable size behind Cap Gris Nez and passed on the information to HQ No. 11 Group at Uxbridge. As the enemy force – consisting of 24 Dornier 17s of KG 2, closely escorted by 20 Me 110s of ZG 26 Horst Wessel, with a similar number of Me 109s of JG 51 flying top cover – was plotted leaving the enemy coast, five squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires were scrambled to intercept. In the battle that followed one Me 109 was shot down into the Thames Estuary and two more crash-landed in France after sustaining damage. The twin-engined Me 110 Zerstörer, which had performed well against inferior opposition over Poland and France, suffered heavily; ZG 26 lost three aircraft over Folkestone and two more were damaged by RAF fighters as they fled across the Channel. Of KG 2’s Dorniers, two were destroyed – one when a Hurricane of No. 111 Squadron collided with it – and three others were damaged.

The RAF’s only combat loss during the action was Hurricane P3671 of No. 111 Squadron, which had collided with the Dornier whilst under attack by a 109 of JG 51, losing a wing. The pilot, Flying Officer T.P.K. Higgs, baled out but was killed. Three other 111 Squadron Hurricanes were damaged, one by friendly fire; three Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron also received damage, and although some of the RAF fighters had to make crash-landings their pilots were unhurt and all the aircraft were repairable.

The determined RAF fighter attacks, together with some accurate anti-aircraft fire – especially at Dover, where the barrage was radar-directed – had made it impossible for the Dorniers to make a co-ordinated attack on the convoy, although they did succeed in sinking one small ship. Away to the west, however, the Luftwaffe enjoyed better fortune.

While the attack on the Bread convoy was still in progress, 63 Junkers Ju 88s of Luftflott 3 approached the Cornish coast from the west, confusing the radar controllers at Dry Tree, on Lizard Point. Splitting up, the enemy force attacked Falmouth and Swansea, its bombs falling on railways, ships at anchor and a munitions factory, causing 86 casualties. It was a grim foretaste of what the population of southern England would suffer in the weeks to come, and to make matters worse the raiders escaped unscathed. Because of the radar confusion, Spitfires of No. 92 Squadron were not scrambled from Pembrey in time to make an interception; in fact, the only RAF pilot to come near the Ju 88s was Wing Commander Ira (‘Taffy’) Jones, the World War I ace with 40 recorded victories. Taking-off from a training airfield in an unarmed Hawker Henley target tug, he chased a Ju 88 out to sea, firing Very flares at it and doubtless cursing his lack of guns and ammunition. Jones’ exploit reinforced the view of many Fighter Command pilots that the Henley – originally developed as a fast light bomber, but never used in that role – might have been used to good effect against enemy bombers if fitted with machine-guns. Capable of nearly 300mph (480kmh), it would at least have taken some of the strain from the hard-pressed Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons. About 200 were in service in 1940.

Thursday 11 July saw more fierce fighting over the Channel; when the day ended the Luftwaffe had lost 15 aircraft to the RAF’s six. It was on this day that the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber entered the battle, with aircraft of LG 1 and StG 2 attacking Portland. Two Stukas were shot down, and the inferiority of their escorting Me 110s was again demonstrated in dramatic fashion when four were shot down by RAF fighters, two off Portland and one off the Ney Breakwater. The fourth crash-landed at Grange Heath near Lulworth after being attacked by pilots of Nos. 238, 87 and 601 Squadrons, in that order. All the Me 110s belonged to 9/ZG 76.

Not all the successes of 11 July belonged to Fighter Command. Early in the morning, an Avro Anson of No. 217 Squadron, based at St Eval in Cornwall, was on patrol over the Channel when the Coastal Command crew sighted a Heinkel He 59 floatplane, the type used by the German air-sea rescue service. It was also found suspiciously close to British coastal convoys from time to time. This example, belonging to Seenotflugkommando 1 and bearing the civil registration D-ASOU, was damaged by the Anson and forced down into the Channel. Its four-man crew took to their dinghy and were later picked up drifting near the Channel Islands; the aircraft was retrieved by the Royal Navy and beached at Walmer Harbour, Kent.

Actions against south coast targets and Channel shipping also resulted in the loss of several Heinkel He 111s on 11 July. I/IKG 1 lost two aircraft and had a third damaged during night operations against coastal towns on 10/11 July, and in the early evening RAF fighters destroyed two Heinkels of KG 55 in an attack on Portsmouth, damaging a third so badly that it was a write-off. The Luftwaffe also lost two Dornier 17s and a Ju 88 during the day’s operations.

The Heinkels suffered even more heavily on 12 July, five being shot down and a sixth damaged beyond repair. All the Heinkels except one, which belonged to KG 26 and was shot down over Aberdeen, were engaged in attacks on convoys off Aldeburgh and Orfordness. Two Dornier 17s and a Ju 88 were also shot down. The fight, however, was not all one-sided; return fire from the bombers – especially the Do 17s – was very accurate, accounting for two Hurricanes destroyed and a number damaged.

Saturday 13 July, was hailed as a major success for the Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron from North Weald, which intercepted a force of Ju 87s and their fighter escort over Portland. The Hurricane pilots claimed the destruction of seven Stukas; in fact, all the enemy dive-bombers returned to base except two which made forced landings in France. One of the Me 110 escorts was shot down and three suffered heavy damage. Elsewhere, Hurricanes of No. 238 Squadron shot down a Dornier 17 reconnaissance aircraft off Chesil Beach, while Spitfires destroyed an Me 109 south of Dover. In the day’s action, No. 56 Squadron lost two Hurricanes and No. 238 Squadron one.

During this phase, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, anxious to preserve his fighter strength, committed the Hurricanes and Spitfires to convoy protection work in relatively small numbers; fighter cover was only increased when a convoy reached the perilous waters of the Dover Straits, although the forward coastal airfields of Fighter Command were reinforced on 19 July, when an improvement in the weather brought expectations of greater enemy activity. In fact, this day proved a black one for the Command, which lost ten fighters against four Luftwaffe aircraft shot down. Six of the RAF aircraft were the hapless Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 141 Squadron from West Mailing, which were bounced by the Me 109s of III/JG 51 off Dover and shot down in flames one after the other. Ten of the squadron’s pilots and air gunners were lost.

There were several major engagements over the Dover Straits during the last days of July, and the entry in the war diary of No. 32 Squadron, operating out of Biggin Hill, is fairly typical of an 11 Group unit during this period:

20 July 1940. Convoy escort, 10 miles east of Dover. At 17.58 hours with 610 Squadron, intercepted a raid on the convoy by about fifty Junkers Ju 87s and Messerschmitt 110s, escorted by Messerschmitt 109Es. Led by S/L Worrall the Squadron shot down six of the enemy (3 Me 110s, 2 Me 109s and one Ju 87) and damaged four others (all Me 109s). One Hurricane was lost but the pilot, F/Lt Bulmer, is reported to have baled out near North Foreland. Sgt Higgins was slightly wounded in the face by splinters from bullets striking his protecting armour.

Also typically, the claims in the above report are wildly exaggerated. In all probability, No. 32 Squadron scored no success that day. No Me 110s were lost on operations, and the five Me 109s confirmed as destroyed were attributed to other fighter squadrons. Nor did the Luftwaffe lose any Ju 87s, although four made forced landings in France with varying degrees of damage. In all, the Germans lost 14 aircraft on 20 July, the RAF nine fighters.

On 25 July the Luftwaffe adopted a change of tactics, sending out strong fighter sweeps to draw the RAF fighters into battle before launching its bomber attacks. As a consequence, 60 Ju 87 Stukas were able to bomb a convoy with impunity while the fighters of No. 11 Group were on the ground refuelling. Later in the day, the convoy was attacked by 30 Ju 88s, escorted by about 50 Me 109s. The attacks continued until 1830 hours; 15 of Dowding’s fighter squadrons were engaged in the course of the day, destroying 16 enemy aircraft for the loss of eight of their own, all Spitfires.

In four weeks of operations over the English Channel, the Luftwaffe had sunk 40,000 tons of British shipping, including three destroyers. Combat losses during the month’s air fighting were Luftwaffe 190, RAF Fighter Command 77, of which 46 were Hurricanes – the aircraft which had borne the brunt of the fighting, and would continue to do so. Fifty RAF fighter pilots were killed or missing, and with German preparations for the invasion of England clearly under way, the loss was serious. It was already apparent that such a continued rate of attrition would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to make good.

There followed a comparative lull lasting a week. Then, on 8 August, Hurricanes were at the forefront of a furious air battle that developed when large formations of Ju 87s, under strong fighter escort, attacked a 250-ship convoy code-named Peewit off the Isle of Wight. One of the Hurricane squadrons involved was No. 145 from Westhampnett, led by Squadron Leader J.R.A. Peel. The RAF pilots were about to engage a Stuka formation when they were themselves bounced by 109s and forced on the defensive. Two of the squadron’s Hurricanes, one of them Peel’s, were shot down; the CO was rescued from the sea off Boulogne. That day’s fighting cost the RAF 15 Hurricanes and Spitfires against 21 enemy aircraft destroyed; it was the biggest loss sustained by Fighter Command since the offensive began. The RAF’s losses for 8 August included a number of aircraft destroyed in air actions over Dover and the Thames Estuary, when six squadrons of Hurricanes and two of Spitfires intercepted two heavy raids carried out under strong fighter escort. Six Hurricanes were lost in these battles, the others claiming six enemy aircraft.

The Peewit convoy, meanwhile, had lost six ships, three sunk by S-boats before dawn and the others by air attack. Several more were damaged. It was the first convoy to attempt a passage through the Dover Straits in daylight since 25 July, in the day of furious action when S-Boats and bombers had sunk or badly damaged 11 out of 21 ships, mostly colliers. Peewit was unfortunate in that the enemy had been alerted to its presence by a newly-completed coastal radar station at Wissant (Ushant), one of several experimental stations that were being set up along the arc of coast from the Friesian Islands to the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was to be some time before the British became aware that radar – or radio locations, as it was still known – was no longer their sole monopoly.

Bad weather frustrated operations on 9 and 10 August, the latter originally scheduled as Adlertag– Eagle Day, the start of the German air offensive proper – but on the 11th four heavy air attacks were launched on Dover and Portland. The Dover raids were intercepted by the Hurricanes of Nos. 1, 17, 32, 56, 85 and 111 Squadrons, which claimed 11 enemy aircraft for the loss of nine of their own, and by the Spitfires of Nos. 64, 65 and 74 Squadrons, which claimed five for the loss of three. Five of the shot-down Hurricanes belonged to No. 111 Squadron, which could claim only one Messerschmitt 109 in return, and worse than the loss of the aircraft was the fact that four of the pilots were killed. The attack on Portland, carried out by Ju 88s with an escort of Me 110s, was broken up by 16 Hurricanes of Nos. 87, 213 and 218 Squadrons, together with ten Spitfires of Nos. 152 and 603; nine enemy aircraft were shot down for the loss of five RAF fighters. There were more skirmishes in the afternoon as the Germans attempted to bomb a convoy, and the day ended with 35 enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of 30 Hurricanes and Spitfires. Since the beginning of July the Luftwaffe had lost 274 aircraft, the RAF 124.

On 12 August, the Luftwaffe switched the weight of its attacks to the coastal radar stations and the forward airfields of Manston, Lympne and Hawkinge. That morning, 24 hours before the main offensive was due to begin, 21 Messerschmitt 109s and 110s took off from Calais-Marck airfield and set course out over the Channel. They belonged to Erprobungsgruppe 210; the only unit of its kind in the Luftwaffe, its aircraft had all been fitted with racks enabling them to carry 500- and 1,000lb (225 and 450kg) bombs. On the previous day the Gruppe had tried out the idea operationally for the first time when 24 Messerschmitts dive-bombed convoy Booty off the Harwich–Clacton coastline, setting two freighters on fire. The German aircraft had been intercepted by the Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron, but all had returned to base.

On the morning of 12 August, Erprobungsgruppe 210’s targets were the radar stations at Dover, Pevensey and Rye. At 1100 hours, Me 110s dropped eight 1,000lb (450kg) bombs on the Pevensey station, while the remainder of the Gruppe attacked the masts at Rye and Dover. Although the bombs caused some damage, all three stations were operational again within three hours.

It was a different story at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, where the radar station was attacked 30 minutes later by 15 Junkers 88s of KG 51 and KG 54. Their bombing was extremely accurate and the station was damaged beyond repair. To cover up the dangerous gap created by the loss of the Ventnor station, the British transmitted a false signal on the wrecked transmitter’s frequency; the German listening-posts on the other side of the Channel believed that Ventnor was still fully operational. In fact it was only after 11 days of non-stop work that another station was brought into action on the Isle of Wight.

While Ventnor was under attack, around 75 more Ju 88s dive-bombed Portsmouth harbour, Portland and industrial targets in Portsmouth and Southampton, including the Supermarine Spitfire production plant at Woolston. The Ju 88s made their attack through the balloon barrage and intense anti-aircraft fire put up by shore batteries and ships in the harbour. Their bombs caused substantial damage, especially in Portsmouth, and 100 or so casualties. But the attack cost the Luftwaffe dearly; ten Ju 88s failed to return, falling victim either to the anti-aircraft barrage, the Spitfires of No. 152 Squadron or the Hurricanes of No. 213. Five Me 110s and an Me 109, escorting the bombers, were also destroyed.

At noon, the CHL radar station at Foreness, untouched by the morning’s attacks, reported 50 plus hostiles off North Foreland. They were Junkers Ju 87s, and they were searching for two Channel convoys, Agent and Arena. The attack on the latter was successful, the escorting fighters keeping the Spitfires and Hurricanes at arm’s length, and several vessels were sunk or damaged, but the attack on Agent was beaten off, albeit at the cost of four Hurricanes destroyed. All the Ju 87s returned to base.

In parallel with these attacks, a force of Dornier 17s of KG 2 raided the airfield at Lympne with showers of 100lb (45kg) bombs, causing some damage to the hangars, tarmac and buildings. Then, at 1330 hours, it was once again the turn of Erprobungsgruppe 210; 20 Messerschmitts swept across the airfield at Manston and dropped their bombs just as a flight of Spitfires of No. 65 Squadron was preparing to take-off. The Spitfires got airborne amid the exploding bombs and climbed for altitude, but the raiders had gone. Manston was temporarily put out of action. Later that afternoon the German bombers struck at Hawkinge and again at Lympne; both airfields were heavily damaged, and all through the night personnel worked like slaves to repair the cratered runways.

By nightfall on 12 August the Luftwaffe had despatched 300 bombers, with as many escorting fighters, against British targets. The Germans had lost 27 aircraft, the RAF 20; and the main offensive had yet to develop.

THE CHANNEL AIR WAR: SUMMER 1940 II

A formation of low-flying German Heinkel He 111 bombers flies over the waves of the English Channel in 1940.

There was a significant development on 12 August and it had nothing to do with the air battle. Soon after the Luftwaffe completed its attack on the radar stations, heavy-calibre shells from a German long-range battery across the Channel exploded in Dover. It was the town’s first experience of such an attack, but it would not be the last.

During the night, the Luftwaffe carried out several harassing attacks on coastal targets, including the docks at Bristol. During this raid, a Heinkel He 111 of KG 27 crash-landed at Sturminster Marshall, near Wimborne, Dorset, after being abandoned by its crew, who were all taken prisoner. The Heinkel had been attacked by a Blenheim night-fighter equipped with highly secret, and still very experimental, AI radar.

At 0730 the next morning the Luftflotten stood ready to launch the first attacks of Adlertag, but at the last minute H-Hour was postponed because of bad weather. The Dornier 17s of KG 2, however, failed to receive the signal in time; they took off in fog and rain and set course for the English coast without fighter escort. The 55 Dorniers were tracked by radar and Air Vice-Marshal Park scrambled two squadrons of Hurricanes and a squadron of Spitfires, dividing them between the damaged airfields at Hawkinge and Manston and a convoy in the Thames Estuary. He also ordered most of a squadron of Hurricanes to patrol between Arundel and Petworth, leaving behind one section to cover their home base of Tangmere, near Chichester. Lastly, a squadron of Hurricanes orbiting over Canterbury could be called upon to support any of the other units engaging the enemy. Further west the Air Officer Commanding No. 10 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Quintin Brand, scrambled a squadron of Hurricanes to patrol the Dorset coast. Another squadron and a half of Hurricanes were held on immediate readiness at Exeter.

Flying in tight information, just under the cloud base, the Dorniers passed over Eastchurch airfield and unloaded their bombs on the runways, hangars and parked aircraft. At that moment the raiders were attacked by the Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron from Hornchurch, led by Squadron Leader A.G. Malan. One of the Dorniers was shot down and the remainder scattered, climbing towards the clouds. The battle was then joined by the Hurricanes of No. 151 Squadron, under Squadron Leader E.M. Donaldson, followed a few minutes later by the Hurricanes of No. 111 led by Squadron Leader J.M. Thompson, and a fierce air battle developed over the Thames Estuary. By the time the bombers reached the shelter of the clouds four more had been destroyed.

At 1130 hours, 23 Me 110s of Zerstörer-Lehrgeschwader 1 took off from their airfield near Caen with orders to patrol the English south coast near Portland. Although they were picked up by radar as they crossed the French coast near Cherbourg, and although their strength was correctly reported as ‘twenty plus bandits’, the radar could not tell what type of aircraft they were. Since Dowding had given orders that his Spitfires and Hurricanes were to avoid combat with enemy fighters if possible (a fact that had been known to the Germans since late July, thanks to Luftwaffe signals intelligence, which had intercepted transmissions between RAF Sector Controllers and patrolling fighters) the controllers of No. 11 Group would probably not have scrambled any fighter squadrons had they known the identity of the enemy aircraft. In the event three squadrons took off from Tangmere, Warmwell and Exeter to intercept the enemy, and in so doing fell into the very trap that Dowding had been trying to avoid. The Germans planned that when their bombers eventually arrived they would catch the Spitfires and Hurricanes on the ground as they refuelled and re-armed.

The Hurricanes engaged the Me 110s over the coast and the German fighters immediately adopted a defensive circle. Three Hurricanes were forced to break off the action with battle damage, but five Me 110s went down into the sea, and five more returned to France severely hit. The action once again highlighted the heavy, twin-engined Me 110’s vulnerability in combat with lighter, more manoeuvrable fighters, and to make matters worse ZLG l’s mission had failed. The unit had drawn three British fighter squadrons on to itself so that the bombers could slip through according to plan – but the bombers did not come for another three hours, by which time the RAF fighter squadrons were ready for them once more.

At 1500 hours, 52 Junkers 87s of StG 2 took off from their base at Flers to attack RAF airfields in the Portland area. They were escorted by the Me 109s of JG 27. However, southern England was hidden under a blanket of cloud, making a dive-bombing attack out of the question, and the Stukas circled over the coast in search of a target. Within minutes their fighter escort was being hotly engaged by a strong force of Hurricanes from Exeter and Middle Wallop, while 15 Spitfires of No. 609 Squadron attacked the bombers. Five of the Stukas were quickly shot down; the remainder jettisoned their bombs and fled for home.

The next wave of bombers, approaching the coast a few minutes later, ran into the hornets’ nest stirred up by StG 2. They were the Ju 88s of KG 54, and they used the cloud cover to good advantage. One formation dropped its bombs on Southampton harbour, while others dived on the airfield at Middle Wallop, one of Fighter Command’s vital sector stations. The bombs caused only light damage, but severe damage was inflicted by another Ju 88 formation at Andover, a few miles away. Three Ju 88s were shot down and 11 returned with battle damage, some making crash-landings.

Meanwhile, over Kent, No. 11 Group was having a hard time. General Bruno Loerzer’s II Fliegerkorps has sent in both its Stuka-Geschwader, as well as a third from VIII Fliegerkorps, preceded by the Me 109s of JG 26. The Messerschmitts were able to beat off a flight of Spitfires from Kenley, allowing the 86 Junkers 87s to proceed unmolested to their target, the airfield of Detling near Maidstone. Fifteen minutes later the airfield lay in ruins; the hangars were burning, the operations room was wrecked, the station commander was dead and 20 British aircraft were destroyed. It was a brilliant attack, and in terms of its execution was highly successful. But there were no RAF fighters at Detling; it was a Coastal Command station. Nevertheless, among the aircraft destroyed were eight Blenheims of No. 53 Squadron, recently deployed there to carry out attacks on the enemy-held Channel ports.

At the close of Adlertag the Luftwaffe had flown 485 sorties, mostly against RAF airfields; three had been badly damaged, but none was a fighter base. The cost to the Luftwaffe was 34 aircraft; the RAF lost 13 aircraft and seven pilots. On 14 August, operations against the British Isles were hampered by bad weather. Nevertheless, attacks by small numbers of aircraft on Manston, Dover, Middle Wallop and Sealand cost the Luftwaffe bombers and six fighters, while the RAF lost five Hurricanes and a Spitfire, together with three Blenheim fighters of No. 600 Squadron destroyed on the ground during an attack on Manston by Me 110s of Erpobungsgruppe 210.

At 1030 hours on 15 August patches of blue sky began to show through the grey overcast which had stretched from horizon to horizon since dawn, and by 1100 the clouds had broken up completely. A few minutes later, 40 Stukas of II Fliergerkorps, escorted by a similar number of Me 109s, crossed the French coast near Cap Blanc Bez. Their targets were the airfields of Lympne and Hawkinge. As they approached the English coast they were met by the Spitfires of No. 64 Squadron and the Hurricanes of No. 501, but these were held at bay by the 109s and the Stukas caused severe damage at Lympne, putting the airfield out of action for two days. The damage was less severe at Hawkinge, where one hangar was hit and a barrack block destroyed.

The battle now shifted to the north, where two Geschwader of Luftflotte 5, operating from bases in Norway and Denmark, attempted to attack airfields and industrial targets in the Tyne–Tees area and in Yorkshire. The raids were intercepted by seven RAF fighter squadrons, which destroyed eight Heinkel 111s, six Junkers 88s and eight escorting Me 110s for the loss of one Hurricane. In mid-afternoon the battle flared up again in the south, when a major raid was mounted by the Dornier 17s of KG 3 from St Trond and Antwerp-Deurne, in Belgium. Over the coast they made rendezvous with their fighter escort, the Me 109s of JG 51, 52 and 54. The German formation was detected by radar as it assembled over Belgium and northern France, and as it headed across the Channel 11 RAF fighter squadrons – about 130 Spitfires and Hurricanes – were scrambled. Such was the diversity of the incoming raid plots, however, that the fighters were shuttled to and fro by the sector controllers with no real co-ordination. For example, the Hurricanes of No. 17 Squadron were patrolling the Thames Estuary when they received an urgent recall to their base at Martlesham Heath, north of Harwich. While still a long distance away the pilots could see columns of smoke rising from Martlesham, and when they arrived overhead they found that the airfield had been badly hit. Unnoticed and without any opposition, Erprobungsgruppe 210’s 24 bomb-carrying Messerschmitts had slipped in at low level, bombed, and got clear before anyone had a chance to fire a shot. It was 36 hours before the field could be made serviceable once more. Meanwhile, the Dorniers of KG 3 had split into two waves, one heading for Eastchurch and the other for Rochester. At the latter target their bombs caused severe damage to the Short aircraft factory, setting back production of the Stirling bomber by several months.

So far, Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2 had been attacking across the Straits of Dover. Now it was the turn of Sperrle’s Luftflotte 3; 120 miles (190km) to the south-west, his units were forming up over their airfields. At 1645 the Junkers 88s of LG 1 began taking off from Orleans, followed 15 minutes later by the Ju 87s of StG 1 from Cherbourg. The bombers rendezvoused with the Me 109s of JG 26 and JG 53 and the Me 110s of ZG 2, and the whole armada of more than 200 aircraft set course for the English coast.

The Germans, however, had thrown away their tactical advantage. The time elapsing between the raids had enabled Park and Brand to take adequate counter-measures, and to meet the attackers they were able to put up 14 fighter squadrons – a total of 170 aircraft, the biggest number of fighters the RAF had so far committed to the battle at any one time.

The Spitfires and Hurricanes met the bombers over the coast and concentrated on the Ju 88s, destroying nine of them in a matter of minutes and breaking up the enemy formation. Of the 15 aircraft of II/LG 1, only three managed to break through to their target, the Fleet Air Arm base at Worthy Down, north-east of Southampton. The others jettisoned their bombs and turned for home, under continual attack. II/LG 1 lost two Ju 88s, and IV/LG 1 three aircraft out of seven. I/LG 1 was more fortunate. Its 12 Ju 88s had been the first to cross the coast, and had managed to achieve an element of surprise. They dived on Middle Wallop, just a fraction too late to catch two fighter squadrons on the ground. The last Spitfires of No. 609 Squadron were just taking off when the bombs exploded among the hangars. It was the third raid on Middle Wallop in three days. During the attack the German pilots had the impression that they were bombing Andover; apparently they still did not know that Middle Wallop was a much more important sector station.

The fact that the Ju 88s bore the brunt of the RAF fighter attacks probably saved the vulnerable Ju 87 Stukas from a severe mauling. Even so, six were shot down. But it was the Messerschmitt 110 that suffered the worst attrition of the day. While I and III/ZG 76 had been detached to escort the northern attacks, losing eight of their number, the Geschwader’s other units had been operating in support of the cross-Channel operations, during which they lost 12 aircraft. Together with the destruction of an aircraft of ZG 2 over the Channel, this brought Me 110 losses during the morning and afternoon to 21 aircraft, and the day was by no means over.

At 1830 hours, 15 Me 110s and eight Me 109s of Erprobungsgruppe 210 set out over the Channel, escorted by the Me 109s of JG 52. Their target was Kenley, south of London, but they made a navigational error and bombed Croydon by mistake, destroying 40 training aircraft, killing 68 people and injuring 192, mostly civilians. As they were carrying out their attack they were intercepted by the Hurricanes of Nos. 32 and 111 Squadrons and four Me 110s were quickly shot down. The remainder ran for the Channel, but near the coast they were attacked by the Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron and two more were destroyed, together with an Me 109.

As night fell on 15 August, both sides retired to lick their wounds and assess their losses and victories. The Luftwaffe had flown 1,270 fighter and 250 bomber sorties during the day, and the Germans had lost 71 aircraft, mostly bombers and Me 110s. The RAF’s loss was 31.

On 16 August the Luftwaffe returned in force and struck at Brize Norton, Manston, West Mailing, Tangmere, Gosport, Lee-on-Solent, Farnborough and Harwell. Forty-six training aircraft were destroyed at Brize Norton, and the radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight was bombed once more. In the afternoon the weather clamped down again, and although Luftflotte 2 sent out a force of bombers to attack the fighter airfields of Debden, Duxford, North Weald and Hornchurch the raiders were forced to turn back, unable to find their targets under a thick blanket of cloud. Despite the sporadic nature of the fighting, air combats during the day cost the Luftwaffe 44 aircraft and the RAF 22. It was on this day that Flight Lieutenant J.B. Nicholson of No. 249 Squadron, patrolling near Southampton in a Hurricane, was attacked by a Me 110. Cannon shells wounded Nicholson in the leg and eye and set his aircraft on fire, yet he remained in the blazing cockpit and managed to shoot down his attacker before baling out, severely burned. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only one to be won by RAF Fighter Command.

On Sunday 18 August, following another spell of bad weather, the Germans launched a series of heavy attacks on the sector stations of Kenley and Biggin Hill. These attacks were carried out mainly by the Dornier 17s of KG 76, which, despite their fighter escort, suffered heavily, losing six aircraft with several more damaged. Two Ju 88s operating with KG 76 (the Geschwader was in the process of re-equipping with the new type) were also destroyed. The most fearful German loss of the day, however, was sustained by the Ju 87 Stukas of StG 77, which set out to attack the airfields at Ford, Gosport and Thorney Island, together with the radar site at Poley on the south coast. They were intercepted by the Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron and the Spitfires of No. 152, which destroyed no fewer than 18 of the dive-bombers and damaged five more. It was the last time that the Stuka appeared in British skies.

StG 77 was not the only Luftwaffe formation to suffer heavily that day: ZG 26, flying escort missions, lost 15 Me 110s to RAF fighters, while the single-engined fighter Geschwader lost 16 Me 109s between them. KG 53, attacking North Weald, lost four Heinkel 111s. The total Luftwaffe loss for 18 August was 66 aircraft; the RAF lost 35 fighters.

From 19 to 23 August inclusive, air action was confined to skirmishing as both sides rested and regrouped. During this period the Luftwaffe lost 27 aircraft, the RAF 11 fighters. 23 August saw the radar station at Ventnor back in operation again. The weather continued to improve steadily, and the Luftwaffe resumed its attacks on RAF ground installations. The next day, 24 August, North Weald was heavily bombed, together with Hornchurch, Manston and Portsmouth naval base. By noon Manston had ceased to function, although Hornchurch escaped with relatively light damage. The airfield attacks cost the Germans seven Ju 88s and four He 111s. In all, the Luftwaffe lost 30 aircraft during the day, and Fighter Command 20. Among the latter were four Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 264 Squadron, shot down during an engagement over the Channel. Three more Defiants were damaged.

That night, during attacks on targets in the London area, some bomber crews made a navigational error and dropped bombs on London itself – an act that was to have a far-reaching effect on the future conduct of the battle. On the night of 25/26 August, following a day that had seen heavy German raids on Portland, Weymouth, Warmwell and Dover, RAF Bomber Command attacked Berlin for the first time, aiming at industrial targets in the city by way of reprisal for the previous night’s raid on London. The attack was hampered by thick cloud. Of the 81 aircraft despatched (Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens of Nos. 3, 4 and 5 Groups) 29 claimed to have bombed Berlin. Six aircraft, all Hampdens, failed to return; three ditched in the sea and their crews were rescued.

From 1100 on 26 August, fighters of No. 11 Group fought a running battle between Canterbury and Maidstone with 50 bombers escorted by 80 fighters. In this action, No. 616 Squadron lost five out of 12 Spitfires, No. 264 Squadron lost three more Defiants, and No. 1 (Canadian) Squadron three Hurricanes, but an attempted raid on Biggin Hill was broken up. All available squadrons were committed to intercept a further attack by 40 Dornier 17s of KG 2 and KG 3 on Debden and Hornchurch airfields, escorted by 120 fighters; the latter were compelled to withdraw through lack of fuel and the bombers suffered heavily, 11 Dorniers being shot down. A third major attack, by 50 Heinkel 111s of KG 55 escorted by 107 fighters, was intercepted by three RAF squadrons and four bombers were destroyed. The Luftwaffe’s total losses on this day added up to 34 aircraft, and KG 3 had suffered so much attrition that it took no further part in the battle for three weeks.

But the RAF had also suffered heavily, losing 28 fighters and 16 pilots, RAF Fighter Command was now under immense strain, and it was a relief when the weather closed in again on 27 August, bringing a brief respite. There were scattered combats between Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe, but most were interceptions of reconnaissance aircraft. The Germans lost two Dornier 17s and a Heinkel 111 over the British Isles, the latter shot down by anti-aircraft during the night raid on Coventry. The RAF lost one Spitfire through enemy action.

Luftwaffe attacks resumed on 28 August, two heavily-escorted bomber formations crossing the Kent coast soon after 0900. Eastchurch airfield was badly damaged. During the morning’s action the luckless No. 264 Squadron lost three more Defiants, with another three damaged, which brought its losses in three operational sorties to 12 aircraft and 14 aircrew. After this, the Defiant was withdrawn from daylight operations. Later in the day, Rochford was damaged in an attack by 30 Dorniers. Fighter Command accounted for 26 enemy aircraft during the day for the loss of 15 of its fighters, one of which was shot down by friendly fire, and on the following day, when the Germans launched 700 fighter sorties over southern England in an attempt to draw Fighter Command into battle, the score was 12 German aircraft against nine British.

The refusal of Fighter Command to be drawn into action on 29 August encouraged the Germans in the belief that they were well on the way to achieving air supremacy, but although the fighter defences were seriously weakened, they were not worn down nor compelled to withdraw on any large scale from their forward airfields in southern England. The Luftwaffe was still a long way from attaining its primary objective, which was to put Fighter Command out of action in the potential invasion area. Meanwhile, Luftflotte 3 had switched to night bombing on the night of 28/29 August, launching 340 sorties against Merseyside and targets on the south coast. These attacks brought the total number of night sorties mounted against the British Isles so far to 600, during which the Luftwaffe had lost only seven aircraft. It seemed a far more attractive option than the costly daylight raids.

By day, the Germans continued to attack the RAF airfields lying in a defensive semi-circle before London: Kenley, Redhill, Biggin Hill, West Mailing, Detling, Manston and Gravesend to the south-east, and to the north-east Hornchurch, Rochford, Debden and North Weald. On 30 August Biggin Hill was completely wrecked, with 65 personnel killed and wounded, and on the following afternoon this target was hit again.

Despite the damage to the air defences, the oft-quoted thesis that the British fighter defences would have broken down if German air attacks on fighter installations had continued for 14 days longer than they actually did, exaggerates the effects of the German bombing attacks and disregards the overall potential available on either side. As a last resort, Fighter Command could have withdrawn its units from airfields in the southeastern coastal area to bases out of range of German single-engined fighters, or No. 11 Group’s fighters could have been reinforced by the fighters of the other three groups. In either case, the Germans would never have achieved numerical fighter superiority over the southern coastal area because of a simple arithmetical fact: fighter production in Britain was more than double that of Germany.

In fact, the crisis facing Fighter Command as September opened revolved around a shortage of aircrew, rather than a shortage of aircraft. The Command had lost about 300 pilots in the Battle of France, and was still short of 130 pilots at the beginning of August. During that month losses exceeded replacements, the deficit growing to 181. Had the battle not taken place over British soil, the situation might have become critical. From 19 August to 6 September Fighter Command suffered a total loss of 290 aircraft and 103 pilots, while the Luftwaffe, whose aircraft did not go down over friendly territory when hit, lost 375 aircraft and 678 aircrew.

THE CHANNEL AIR WAR: SUMMER 1940 III

There was no doubt that the strain, and the growing number of relatively inexperienced aircrew being committed to the battle – some with as little as 20 hours’ experience on Spitfires or Hurricanes – was beginning to tell on Fighter Command during the last days of August and into September, as the deficit between British and German losses narrowed. To make matters more difficult, the Germans were tightening up their fighter escort procedure. On 1 September, when the Heinkels of KG 1 attacked the docks at Tilbury, its 18 bombers were escorted by three Jagdgeschwader – roughly four fighters to every bomber. All the German aircraft returned to base, having been virtually unmolested by the RAF. The day’s operations cost the RAF 15 fighters, including four Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron, against the Luftwaffe’s nine. The losses contrasted sharply with those sustained during a series of savage air battles on 31 August, when the RAF lost 24 aircraft and the Luftwaffe 28.

The scores were again close on 2 September, when several airfields, including Biggin Hill, Lympne, Detling, Eastchurch (three times), Hornchurch (twice) and Gravesend were heavily attacked, together with the aircraft factory at Rochester and Brooklands aerodrome, adjacent to the vital Hawker and Vickers factories. Fighter Command maintained standing patrols over its sector airfields during the day and lost 23 aircraft against the Luftwaffe’s 26, seven of which were Messerschmitt 110s.

On 3 September the airfield attacks continued, North Weald being very severely damaged, and in the day’s fighting the RAF and Luftwaffe each lost 16 aircraft. Meanwhile, across the Channel, events were taking a new and dramatic turn.

That morning, Reichsmarschall Göring summoned his Luftflotten commanders, Kesselring and Sperrle, to a conference at The Hague. The main item on the agenda was the feasibility of a ‘reprisal’ attack on London; the Luftwaffe Operations Staff had ordered Luftflotten 2 and 3 to prepare such an attack on 31 August, even though there still existed ab order from Adolf Hitler forbidding bombing raids on the capital.

A lack of documentary evidence makes it hard to reconstruct the process leading to the decision to attack London. Hitler’s desire for reprisals following RAF attacks on Berlin, themselves a consequence of the erroneous raid on London in August, certainly played its part, but this is not the whole of the story. Bombing attacks on targets in the London area had been at the core of a plan originated by II Fliegerkorps before the start of the air offensive, the idea being to wear down the British fighters by bringing them to battle over the city, which was within the range of German single-engined fighters. That was one valid reason for attacking the city, although it hinged on another, far less valid one. This was the belief of Luftwaffe Intelligence that Fighter Command only had between 150 and 300 aircraft left early in September, so that the final blow could be delivered to it over London. The head of Luftwaffe Intelligence, Oberst Josef Schmidt, had arrived at this conclusion by simply deducting the wildly exaggerated figures of German combat claims from the originally assumed British fighter strength, at the same time underestimating British fighter production. It was one of the most incredible misconceptions of wartime German intelligence, and yet it was supported by both Göring and Kesselring. It was not supported by Feldmarschall Hugo Sperrle of Luftflotte 3, nor by Luftwaffe Signals Intelligence, which had compiled far more accurate figures for Fighter Command’s strength.

On 4 September, Hitler declared in public that he now wanted to ‘erase’ British cities, and on the following day he gave the order to attack London and other major cities by day and night. The assault on London was to begin in the afternoon of 7 September, and was to be directed mainly against the docks. The city was to be attacked by Luftflotte 2 by day and Luftflotte 3 by night. Simultaneous attacks were to be conducted against armament factories and port installations. Thirty aircraft and armament factories were selected, and attacks on these began on 4 September, in parallel with continuing raids on Fighter Command’s airfields. But from now on, London was the key target, and on that decision rested the outcome of the Battle of Britain.

While the young pilots of Dowding’s Fighter Command fought and died over the Channel and the harvest-fields of southern England, RAF Bomber Command had been waging its own war against the enemy in the Channel and North Sea areas. On 13 July 1940, Bomber Command switched a major part of its efforts to the German invasion preparations in the ports, anchorages and harbours stretching from Delfzijl in the north of Holland to Bordeaux in south-west France. These ports were to be attacked frequently during the four years that were to pass before the Allied invasion of Europe, but the most intensive phase of the air offensive against them – the ‘battle of the Barges’, directed against the armada of small craft assembled by the Germans for the thrust across the Channel – lasted until the end of October 1940.

Aircraft of every Bomber Command Group, as well as Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm, took part in this nightly offensive, the importance of which has to a great extent been eclipsed by the massive air battle that dragged its vapour trails over the skies of southern England during that long summer. But the Battle of Britain was, in the broad sense, a victory for the British bombers too; for although the Hurricanes and Spitfires of Fighter Command denied the Germans the air superiority necessary for a successful invasion, the attacks mounted on the invasion ports were so effective that, even if the Luftwaffe had succeeded in obtaining temporary mastery of the air over southern England, Hitler’s invasion fleet would have been in no position to sail on the planned date.

This was clearly substantiated by the Germans themselves on several occasions. On 12 September, for example, only three days before Operation Sealion was scheduled to take place, HQ Navy Group West sent the following signal to Berlin:

Interruptions caused by the enemy air forces, long-range artillery and light naval forces have, for the first time, assumed major significance. The harbours at Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne cannot be used as night anchorages for shipping because of the danger of English bombing and shelling. Units of the British fleet are now able to operate almost unmolested in the Channel. Owing to these difficulties further delays are expected in the assembly of the invasion fleet.

With the invasion thought to be imminent, Bomber Command launched a maximum effort offensive against the enemy-held ports. On the night of 13/14 September the bombers sank 80 barges in Ostend harbour, and the following night severe damage was inflicted on concentrations of enemy craft at Boulogne. This raid was carried out by the Fairey Battles of the newly-formed Nos. 301 and 305 (Polish) Squadrons, flying their first operational mission. The Battles of Nos. 12, 103, 142 and 150 Squadrons – at full strength again after the losses they had suffered in France – also carried out attacks on the enemy ports during this period. It was the Battle’s swan-song as a first-line aircraft; in October it was withdrawn from operations and replaced by Wellingtons and Blenheims.

On 14 September, Hitler issued a Supreme Command Directive postponing the launch of Operation Sealion until 17 September. On the morning of the 16th, however, the German Naval War Staff once again reported that the invasion ports had been subjected to heavy bombing:

In Antwerp considerable casualties have been inflicted on transports. Five transport steamers in the port have been heavily damaged; one barge has been sunk, two cranes destroyed, an ammunition train has blown up, and several sheds are burning.

There was worse to come. On the night of 16/17 September, only hours before the crucial German Supreme Command conference that was to decide whether or not the invasion would take place, a force of Blenheims and Battles surprised a strong concentration of enemy landing craft in the open sea off Boulogne. Several barges and two transports were sunk, with heavy loss of life. The vessels had been engaged in an invasion training exercise. German bodies, washed up on the English Channel coast later, gave rise to rumours that an invasion had actually been attempted.

On that same night the RAF also struck at the whole coastal area between Antwerp and Le Havre, and this prompted the German Naval Staff to report the following day that:

The RAF are still by no means defeated; on the contrary, they are showing increasing activity in their attacks on the Channel ports and in their mounting interference with the assembly movements.

This statement was underlined by Bomber Command on the night of 17/18 September when, in full moonlight conditions, every available aircraft pounded the Channel ports and caused the worst damage so far to the invasion fleet. Eighty-four barges were sunk or damaged at Dunkirk alone, while elsewhere a large ammunition dump was blown up, a supply depot burned out and several steamers and MTBs sunk. The next day, the Naval Staff report made gloomy reading:

The very severe bombing, together with bombardment by naval guns across the Channel, makes it necessary to disperse the naval and transport vessels already concentrated on the Channel and to stop further movement of shipping to the invasion ports. Otherwise, with energetic enemy action such casualties will occur in the course of time that the execution of the operation on the scale previously envisaged will in any case be problematic.

On 19 September, four days after the great air battle over London and southern England that would henceforth be marked as Battle of Britain Day, and which cost the Luftwaffe 56 aircraft, Hitler ordered the invasion fleet assembled in the Channel ports to be dispersed so that ‘the loss of shipping space caused by enemy air attacks may be reduced to a minimum.’ Operation Sealion had been postponed indefinitely, and Hitler’s preoccupation now was with the projected attack on the Soviet Union.

Between 15 July and 21 September, according to German naval sources, the British air offensive sank or damaged 21 transports and 214 barges in the Channel ports, about 12 per cent of the total invasion fleet. These figures should be treated with some reservation, as even at this stage of the war the Germans were in the habit of playing down their actual losses in confidential reports to the Supreme Command. The actual loss, in terms of both men and material, was probably higher, but even the figure of 12 per cent is sufficient testimony that the bombing effort during those crucial weeks was far from wasted.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the effort against the Channel ports was grossly under-estimated by the War Cabinet. Churchill in particular expressed disappointment at the results of the attacks, as revealed by air reconnaissance, in a minute to the Air Minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, on 23 September:

What struck me about these [reconnaissance] photographs was the apparent inability of the bombers to hit very large masses of barges. I should have thought that sticks of explosive bombs thrown along these oblongs would have wrought havoc, and it is very disappointing to see that they all remained intact and in order, with just a few apparently damaged at the entrance.

Churchill did not take into account the fact that many of the barges, although apparently intact, had been made unseaworthy by damage that the photographs did not show. The bomber crews who were over the ports night after night knew that they were sinking the barges faster than anyone had thought possible. The only question in their minds was whether they were sinking them fast enough to thwart the invasion if Fighter Command were annihilated.

The ports were easy to find, but they were not an easy target. Light flak was plentiful and losses were heavy. The anti-aircraft defences were particularly strong around Antwerp, and it was while attacking this target on the night of 15/16 September 1940, that Sergeant John Hannah, one of the crew of a Hampden of No. 83 Squadron, carried out an act of great courage that won him the Victoria Cross. The citation tells the story.

On the night of 15 September 1940, Sergeant Hannah was the wireless operator/air gunner in an aircraft engaged in a successful attack on an enemy barge concentration at Antwerp. It was then subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire and received a direct hit from a projectile of an explosive and incendiary nature, which apparently burst inside the bomb compartment. A fire started which quickly enveloped the wireless operator’s and rear gunner’s cockpits, and as both the port and starboard petrol tanks had been pierced there was a grave risk of fire spreading. Sergeant Hannah forced his way through to obtain two extinguishers and discovered that the rear gunner had had to leave the aircraft. He could have acted likewise, through the bottom escape hatch or forward through the navigator’s hatch, but remained and fought the fire for ten minutes with the extinguishers, beating the flames with his log book when these were empty.

During this time thousands of rounds of ammunition exploded in all directions and he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, but had the presence of mind to obtain relief by turning on his oxygen supply. Air admitted through the large holes caused by the projectile made the bomb compartment an inferno and all the aluminium sheet metal on the floor of this airman’s cockpit was melted away, leaving only the cross bearers. Working under these conditions, which caused burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah succeeded in extinguishing the fire. He then crawled forward, ascertained that the navigator had left the aircraft, and passed the latter’s log and maps to the pilot.

This airman displayed courage, coolness and devotion to duty of the highest order and by his action in remaining and successfully extinguishing the fire under conditions of the greatest danger and difficulty, enabled the pilot to bring the aircraft to its base.

The Royal Air Force was not alone in its campaign against the German invasion forces that were assembled mainly in the ports of Dunkirk, Ostend, Calais and Boulogne. Whenever possible, even though operating conditions in the Channel had become very difficult because of air attack, the Royal Navy took the opportunity to strike at shipping movements off the enemy coast. On 8 September 1940, for example, three motor torpedo boats, MTB 14, MTB 15 and MTB 17, set out from Dover to attack a German convoy of about 30 small vessels approaching Ostend. Two of the boats, MTBs 15 and 17, entered Ostend harbour under cover of darkness and an RAF air raid and launched their torpedoes, hitting two vessels. Exactly what they hit was never established, but it was the first successful MTB torpedo attack of the war.

On the night of 10/11 September, a striking force comprising the destroyers Malcolm, Veteran and Wild Swan set out to patrol the Channel off Ostend, which was again under air attack, when radar contact was made with an enemy convoy. Soon afterwards, the destroyers made visual contact with the enemy, aided by the light of flares dropped by the RAF, and opened fire, sinking an escort vessel, two trawlers that were towing barges, and a large barge.

Offensive sweeps of this kind were a regular feature during September 1940, when the threat of invasion was at its height, the naval forces usually operating from Harwich or Portsmouth; the Dover destroyer force had been dispersed, having suffered substantial damage through air attack. At the same time, aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, operating from bases in south-east England, joined the RAF in maintaining pressure on the enemy invasion ports.

The biggest guns the Navy could bring to bear on the enemy coast were mounted in two warships of World War I vintage, the battleship Revenge and the monitor Erebus. Both mounted 15-inch guns, the Erebus being fitted with a twin turret bearing her main armament and also with four twin 4 inch and two single 3 inch AA guns. She carried a crew of 300. On 20 September she set out from Sheerness to bombard the German gun battery at Cap Gris Nez, but the sortie had to be abandoned because of bad weather. On 30 September, however, she fired 17 rounds into a concentration of invasion craft in the Calais docks area, the fire being directed by a Fairey Swordfish spotter aircraft. On the following day, the German battery at Wissant fired precisely the same number of rounds at Dover by way of retaliation.

On 10 October it was the turn of HMS Revenge, the old battleship – armed with eight 15-inch guns – sailing from Plymouth with a screen of 5th Flotilla destroyers: Jackal, Kipling, Jupiter, Jaguar, Kashmir and Kelvin. The cruisers Newcastle and Emerald were also at sea, protecting the western flank, while a flotilla of six MTBs sailed from Portland to provide a screen against S-boats. Revenge’s target was Cherbourg, and for 18 minutes, beginning at 0333 on 11 October she laid a barrage of 120 15-inch shells across the crowded harbour, to which was added a total of 801 4.7 inch shells from the seven escorting destroyers. The resulting conflagration could be seen 40 miles (64km) out to sea. The British force reached Spithead at 0800 without damage, despite being shelled for the best part of 10 miles (16km) by a German heavy battery.

On 16 October HMS Erebus, escorted by the destroyers Garth and Walpole, again bombarded the French coast in the vicinity of Calais with the aid of spotter aircraft. Forty-five salvoes were fired, beginning at 0100, before the British force withdrew. Neither Erebus nor Revenge made any further sorties of this kind, even though the British heavy gun defences on the Channel coast in October were still pitifully weak. The pre-war heavy gun strength on the Straits of Dover, comprising two 9.2 inch and six 6 inch guns, had been reinforced during the summer by one 14 inch, two 6 inch and two 4 inch guns, all Naval weapons, together with a pair of 9.2 inch guns on railway mountings; and in October these were further reinforced by two 18.5 inch guns from the old depot ship Iron Duke, also on railway mountings, and a battery of four 5.5 inch guns from HMS Hood. Further heavy gun batteries, at Fan Bay, South Foreland and Wanstone, would not become operational until a much later date, by which time the invasion threat had passed.

While the British strove to disrupt enemy invasion plans, German destroyers were extremely active in the Channel area during September and October 1940, laying minefields to protect the flanks of their projected cross-Channel invasion routes and also making hit-and-run sorties against British shipping. One particularly successful sortie was undertaken on the night of 11/12 October by the German 5th Flotilla from Cherbourg, comprising the destroyers Greif, Kondor, Falke, Seeadler and Wolf. They sank the armed trawlers Listrac and Warwick Deeping with gunfire and torpedoes, and shortly afterwards destroyed the Free French submarine chasers CH6 and CH7, manned by mixed French and Polish crews. The German ships withdrew safely; although they were engaged by the British destroyers Jackal, Jaguar, Jupiter, Kelvin and Kipling, the latter achieved nothing more spectacular than several near misses. Another inconclusive action was fought between British destroyers of the 5th Flotilla, supported by the light cruisers Newcastle and Emerald, and enemy destroyers off Brest on 17 October, with no damage suffered by either side. The British warships came under air attack during the operation, the most serious threat coming from a flight of very determined RAF Blenheims whose crews had clearly not been trained in warship recognition!

November 1940 saw a resurgence of air attacks on British shipping by Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, which had been standing by at their airfields in the Pas de Calais to lend tactical support to Operation Sealion, now postponed. Their area of operations was the Thames estuary, where British convoys were assembling, and between 1 and 11 November they sank one merchant vessel and damaged six more. On 14 November they attacked targets in the Dover area, destroying a drifter and damaging three more vessels, but these missions marked the Stuka’s swansong over the British Isles.

There was a further destroyer action on 27/28 November 1940, when the British 5th Destroyer Flotilla intercepted an enemy flotilla from Brest. In the ensuing engagement the destroyer HMS Javelin was hit by two torpedoes, which blew off her bows and stern and detonated the ammunition in her magazine, destroying her superstructure as well as killing three officers and 43 ratings. Amazingly, she remained afloat and was towed into harbour, to spend 13 months in dock being virtually rebuilt. She eventually returned to operations and went on to survive the war.

Notwithstanding actions such as these, it was enemy mines that accounted for the highest proportion of British shipping losses in the closing months of 1940. Of the 42 Royal Navy vessels lost in the Channel area between 1 September 1940 and the end of the year, 28 were sunk by mines.

The threat of invasion had receded, and Hitler’s eyes, by the end of 1940, were turned towards the east. But the question must be asked whether Operation Sealion might have succeeded, had it gone ahead. All the accumulated evidence suggests that it would not. The matter is summed up admirably by the official Royal Navy historian:

We who lived through those anxious days may reasonably regret that the expedition never sailed for, had it done so, it is virtually certain that it would have resulted in a British victory comparable for its decisiveness to Barfleur or Quiberon Bay; and it can hardly be doubted that such a victory would have altered the entire course of the war. It is indeed plain today that, of all the factors which contributed to the failure of Hitler’s grandiose invasion plans, none was greater than the lack of adequate instruments of sea power and of a proper understanding of their use on the German side. Britain, on the other hand, not only possessed the necessary ships and craft, but they were manned by devoted crews who were imbued with a traditional and burning desire to come to grips with the enemy invasion fleet. Finally, we may remark how the events of the summer of 1940 emphasised once again what many other would-be conquerors of Britain had learnt in turn – namely, that an overseas expedition cannot be launched with any prospect of success without first defeating the other side’s maritime forces, and so gaining control of the waters across which the expedition has to pass.

In conflict with a centuries-old maritime power, there is little doubt that Hitler, had he launched his invasion, would have learnt too late the landsman’s lesson.

Mosquitoes Bite and Beaufighters Punch I

Almost a year would elapse before the Luftwaffe returned in strength for the next phase of their attacks on the Midlands, this time with Kampfgeschwader 2 (KG2) – the Holzhammer Gruppe – in the van. From April until September/October 1942, Dornier Do217s spearheaded the notorious Baedeker air raids against historical British towns and cities. Mounted in retaliation for the RAF’s escalating attacks on the great cities of Germany, these raids were stimulated in particular by those upon the Baltic ports of Lübeck and Rostock in March and April 1942. Dornier Do217s of KG2, together with other units, were heavily involved in the Luftwaffe plan but by the end of that summer would, once again, suffer heavy losses to the RAF’s night defences.

Almost coinciding with the beginning of the Baedeker phase, 151 Squadron – still based at Wittering – became only the second squadron to re-equip with the de Havilland Mosquito NF II and made its first Mosquito patrol on April 30. The last of 151’s pilots went solo on the Mossie on June 20 and that day its diarist recorded confidently that, “the whole squadron can now be left to its own devices”, and in common with other night fighter units, soon got to grips with the enemy once more.

Plt Off Wain in DD608 and Flt Lt Pennington in DD628 reported some AI contacts in their patrols on the night of May 28/29 but it was during enemy mining sorties to The Wash and anti-shipping raids in the Great Yarmouth area on May 29/30 that the squadron’s first real engagement occurred with the new fighter. First up from Wittering were Pilot Officer John Wain and Flt Sgt Thomas ‘Jock’ Grieve in DD608 who tackled a Dornier 217 but could only claim it as damaged. The same night the A Flight commander, Flt Lt Denis Pennington and his RO Flt Sgt David Donnett in DD628, intercepted and fired at what he thought was a Heinkel He111 out over the North Sea but spirited return fire made him break off with an inconclusive result for him, too.

With faster fighters and more effective radar cover, the profile of night air combat was changing distinctly, but because defending fighters were now intercepting more enemy raiders out over the sea, it would also become more difficult to verify some of the results of their combats and subsequent claims.

On Wittering’s patch it was the CO of 151 Squadron, New Zealander Wg Cdr Irving Smith, who led the way to success with the new Mosquito. Airborne at 22.45 hours in W4097 for the first patrol of the night of June 24/25, he and his RO Flt Lt Kerr-Sheppard were vectored by Neatishead GCI out to sea from The Wash towards an incoming raid. At 12,000 feet altitude, Kerr-Sheppard soon picked out a contact and guided the wing commander into visual contact at one hundred yards range. It was a Heinkel He111 and in his combat report, he said it looked to be carrying “two torpedoes under the wings.” The crew of the Heinkel spotted the incoming Mosquito for it suddenly dived vertically but not before Wg Cdr Smith put a burst of cannon fire into the port engine, which started to blaze and the starboard torpedo – if indeed that’s what it was – dropped away. Smith clung to the bomber, firing more short bursts at it from his machine guns as it first dived then pulled up into a stall turn, shedding pieces as the rounds hit home. Now the Heinkel dived again with the Mosquito still on its tail, this time firing another burst of cannon. Diving hard, the two aircraft were enveloped by cloud and although Kerr-Sheppard followed it on the AI set it gradually went out of range. Smith continued to follow the descending track of the Heinkel and at 7,000 feet altitude Kerr-Sheppard regained a contact off to port still losing altitude but again the target disappeared off the display. Wg Cdr Smith claimed a ‘probable’ for this one and climbed back up to look for more trade. Control put him onto the track of another bandit and at 7,000 feet altitude in bright moonlight he saw the aeroplane two miles distant, in fact just a few seconds before Kerr-Sheppard called out the AI contact. Smith opened up the throttles to close the range and then eased the Mosquito in to 300 yards behind and below another Heinkel He111, also carrying what he also described as “a torpedo under each wing.” He just managed to get in a one-second burst of cannon that brought hits on the underside of the wings and fuselage before the Heinkel dived vertically. This time, with its port wing on fire, the enemy bomber continued to dive until it struck the water, where it left a circle of burning wreckage. Claim one He111 destroyed.

The patrol was hotting up indeed and Wg Cdr Smith was directed towards a third bandit on which AI contact was made but then lost at extreme range. Circling at 7,000 feet, control put him onto a fourth bandit, which this time was held on AI right down to visual contact at 300 yards on a Dornier Do217. Smith fired all his remaining cannon ammunition in one long burst at this target, spraying it with hits until wings and fuselage were blazing and parts of the engine cowlings were seen to fall away. The Dornier crew put up a fight, though, and fired back at their tormentor from the dorsal guns but calmly closing the range to a hundred yards, Wg Cdr Smith silenced the return fire with several short bursts from his own machine guns. With the Mosquito windscreen covered in oil from the stricken bomber he was obliged to break off the attack, but by now the Dornier was flying very slowly and losing height rapidly. Wg Cdr Smith drew alongside the bomber and his last view of it was as it flew into cloud, burning fiercely and eerily illuminating the cloud from within. Out of ammunition he headed back to Wittering, landing at 00.52 hours to claim two E/A destroyed and one probable. On the question of the torpedoes under the wings, while it is true that the Heinkel He111 could carry such ordnance, it is possible that on this occasion – and in view of Plt Off Wain’s combat report below – Wg Cdr Smith mistook a pair of large calibre bombs loaded on the two bulbous hard points situated at the wing roots, for torpedoes. The He111 had to carry bombs larger than the SC500 externally and two SC1000 or alternatively, two parachute mines – the latter might bear some resemblance to torpedoes when seen in poor light – and these could be what Wg Cdr Smith saw. Furthermore, the squadron diarist didn’t do modern researchers any favours when he logged two sorties by Mosquito W4097 at the same time on the night of 23/24 – but flown by two different crews: Plt Off Fisher and Wg Cdr Smith. It seems clear, though, that Wg Cdr Smith’s sortie date was flown on that hectic night of 24/25.

Plt Off Wain and Flt Sgt Grieve left Wittering in DD616 shortly after the WingCo. They were handed over to Happisburgh CHL control where trade was still brisk and sent off towards an inbound bandit fifty miles out from The Wash. Wain’s combat report was equally brisk, stating:

A visual was obtained against Northern Light at one mile and identified at 600 yards as a Heinkel 111 with two bombs stowed externally. Fire was opened at 250 yards with cannon and machine gun. One long burst caused starboard wing to explode and one third of the wing came off. E/A went into vertical dive leaving a trail of smoke. Time 23.40 hours. An aircraft burning on the sea was seen by Wg Cdr Smith, who was in the vicinity. It is claimed as destroyed.

The night was still young and next off was Sqn Ldr Donald Darling with Plt Off Wright (RO) in DD629 at 00.25. At 01.15 Neatishead GCI put him onto the track of a raider heading south-east at 6,000 feet and shortly afterwards Wright got a blip below and to starboard. Darling got a visual at 700 yards range on a Dornier Do217 but while closing to 200 yards the Mossie was spotted and the bomber dived towards the clouds. Darling put in a short cannon burst as the Dornier entered the cloudbank and with Wright following it on AI he loosed off another burst as they emerged from the cloud. Return fire came from the dorsal turret but this stopped when more bursts of cannon fire from the Mosquito brought hits on the fuselage. Sqn Ldr Darling was unable to stay with the Dornier as it dived hard into the cloud once more so he abandoned the chase and climbed for more trade. After another unproductive chase Plt Off Wright held a new contact, which they turned into a sighting of a Ju88 but once again in the good light conditions the Mosquito was seen and this bomber, too, dived away to sea level where contact was lost. Claim one damaged. Flt Lt Moody flew the last, uneventful, patrol of the night.

Moody was on ops next night when the bright moonlight of June 26/27 brought bombers from Holland in over The Wash in an effort to creep up on Norwich from the least expected direction. A Do217E-4, wk nr 4266, of I/KG2, was lost when Flt Lt Moody and his RO Plt Off Marsh in Mosquito NFII, DD609, caught up with it over The Wash.

Neatishead put Moody on to what turned out to be a friendly then directed him towards a bandit dead ahead. As Marsh was trying to pick out a contact they got quite a fright when a stream of tracer fire zipped past them. Moody dived out of danger and started again. GCI gave him another target at 10,000 feet altitude and Marsh got an AI blip at maximum range. The Mosquito was easily able to overhaul the bandit and in less than a minute Moody had a Dornier 217 in his sight at 800 yards range. He closed in from down-moon and opened fire as the Dornier began a gentle turn to port. Hits on the fuselage were followed by a faint glow and suddenly the bomber blew up, falling into the sea where it exploded again. The aircraft was U5+ML flown by Fw Hans Schrödel, who died with his crew in this engagement.

With the arrival of the Mosquito NFII the science of night fighting had taken great strides since the days of the Blenheim just two years earlier.

During the process of re-equipment, B Flight of 151 Squadron soldiered on with Defiants well into that summer and the tenacity of those Defiant crews – working mainly with the ‘eyeball Mk 1’ – had fulfilled an important job in plugging gaps in the night defences.

Although by now usually relegated to pottering around on searchlight cooperation sorties, it is interesting to find a few Defiants – described by the squadron itself as “Old Faithfuls” – still around on 151 Squadron in June 1942 – for example AA425, AA436 and AA572 and on the 26th one of these, believed to be AA572, even managed to muscle in and take a slice of the Mossies’ action.

Flt Lt Colin Robertson with air gunner Flt Sgt Albert Beale left Wittering at 00.56 hours on the 26th for one of the regular searchlight cooperation sorties with sites around The Wash. They were old hands on the Defiant and when flashes from exploding bombs and fires over in the Norwich direction grabbed Robertson’s attention, with the turret fully armed, he could not resist the opportunity to go and investigate. Five miles west of Coltishall Flt Sgt Beale saw a Dornier Do217 coming up behind them at 2,000 feet altitude. Calling for “turn port!” he brought the turret round and opened fire at the bomber from just eighty yards range. Beale saw his fire hit the rear fuselage and this was answered by a stream of tracer from the Dornier’s guns as it went into a steep dive under the Defiant, where it was lost to sight.

Turning south-east Robertson saw another Dornier silhouetted against the moon, almost stern on but turning towards them. The Defiant was still only at 1,000 feet altitude when Beale asked for “starboard!” to close the range to 150 yards. Opening fire, he scored hits on the nose and fuselage and stopped return fire from the dorsal gun position. Then Beale’s guns chose this moment to jam and the bomber escaped. Landing back at Wittering at 03.14 hours they filed a claim for two Do217s damaged and the Squadron ORB noted: “As Defiants have not been used operationally for some time, this is likely to be the last combat in which this type will engage.” Or so they thought.

Always keen to keep his hand in with ‘his’ squadrons, Wittering station commander Gp Capt Basil Embry borrowed a 151 Mosquito for a dawn patrol to try his luck at catching the ‘regular’ German PRU Ju88. Much to his disgust he was unsuccessful and since the Luftwaffe looked like staying away for the rest of the month, when the weather clamped in, a squadron party was organised on the 30th to celebrate the month of June successes. But Jerry managed to spoil Robertson and Beale’s party by sending a single raider in the wee small hours of June 29/30.

Ground radar tracked an incoming raid across the southern Fens and Flt Lt Robertson with Flt Sgt Beale were scrambled from RAF Wittering. Lashed by rain and hail, their Defiant soon emerged from heavy cloud at 5,000 feet and after twenty minutes, at 03.21 hours, Robertson called “tallyho” on a Ju88. Closing on the Junkers, it was seen flitting in and out of the cloud tops until, when it emerged for a third time, Flt Sgt Beale let go a five-second deflection burst of 200 AP and 200 de Wilde incendiary rounds at the bomber from a range of one hundred down to fifty yards. Later he was of the opinion that the enemy aircraft flew right into his gunfire but it dipped into cloud again and did not re-emerge. The Defiant crew could only claim one Ju88 damaged and a radio fix put them in the vicinity of the town of March in Cambridgeshire.

While much has quite rightly been written about the air war from a pilot’s perspective, the achievement of Flt Sgt Albert Beale DFM, in being personally credited with three enemy aircraft destroyed and four damaged while flying in Defiants, is a fine example of the contribution made by air gunners to the night air defence campaign.

151 Squadron continued to make successful interceptions with its new Mosquitoes, even though Luftwaffe incursions were reducing in size and frequency again and thus there were fewer targets to find in the same volume of sky. Apart from the obvious factor of an individual crew’s skill in closing a kill, that the squadron could still shoot down the enemy is the most obvious demonstration of the complete effectiveness of the GCI/AI system – it didn’t matter how many of them came, radar would find them.

While seeking a target of opportunity along the north Norfolk coast on July 21/22, Ofw Heinrich Wolpers and his crew, including the staffelkapitän Hptmn Frank from I/KG2, ran into a 151 patrol just after midnight. Controlled by Flt Lt Ballantyne of Neatishead GCI, Plt Off G Fisher and Flt Sgt E Godfrey in Mosquito W4090 (AI Mk V) chased the Dornier in and out of cloud cover from The Wash to fifty miles off the Humber estuary, before finally despatching it into the sea. The fight was not all one-sided either. Fisher got in several bursts of cannon and machine-gun fire that eventually put both the ventral and dorsal gunners out of action, but not before their own fire had peppered the Mosquito under the fuselage and engine nacelles and damaged one of the cannon spent-round chutes. Both aircraft were twisting and turning; climbing and diving steeply from 9,000 down to 5,000 feet and back again and it was during one of these dives towards patchy cloud cover that Fisher fired a telling burst and the Dornier’s starboard engine caught fire. Going down in an ever steepening dive the flaming engine was suddenly swallowed up by the sea and Fisher who, in all the excitement had not registered his own rapid approach to that same patch of sea, heard Godfrey yelling at him to pull up. He pulled out of the dive at 200 feet – and went home. It had taken twenty-five minutes of hard manoeuvring; 197 rounds of 20mm cannon and 1239 rounds of .303 machine-gun ammunition to despatch Dornier Do217E-4, U5+IH, wk nr 4260.

One particular night in July 1942 can be seen as indicative both of the success of the defensive night fighting force guarding The Wash corridor, of the continuing wide-ranging radius of the sorties and of the recurring problem of confirming combat kills in darkness, often over water. Because of the intensity of air activity over the whole region on this night of July 23 1942, in contrast to the usual rigid censorship and no doubt to bolster civilian morale, the Lincolnshire Free Press newspaper was, on the occasion of the night’s outstanding events, allowed to print an unusual amount of detail.

For the RAF, while – loosely speaking – Beaufighters of 68 Squadron covered the Norfolk/Suffolk region from RAF Coltishall, 151, having recently completed its conversion from Hurricanes and Defiants to Mosquitoes at RAF Wittering, was assigned The Wash area while the Canadians of 409 Squadron at Coleby Grange (Lincoln), also equipped with Beaufighters, watched over the rest of Lincolnshire towards the Humber. These then were the primary night fighter units in the region in mid 1942. In addition, though, other squadrons added support, so that the umbrella over the approaches to the Midlands by night left few holes for the enemy to pass through unmolested. Not least of the other units were the radar-equipped flying searchlight Turbinlite Havocs of 1453 and 1459 Flights (later 532 and 538 Squadrons) that flew variously from Wittering and Hibaldstow. Until September 1942, when they were re-formed into integrated squadrons, comprising one flight of Havocs and another of Hurricanes, the Havoc flights drew their satellite fighters from Hurricane units with whom they shared a base. In the case of 1453 Flight at Wittering, when 151 re-equipped with Mosquitoes, it called upon the Hurricanes of 486 (NZ) Squadron to make up their Havoc/Hurricane teams. However, in addition to its Turbinlite commitment, 486 Squadron also mounted independent Fighter Night patrols of its own. Generally speaking, though, the twin-engine fighters patrolled about fifty miles out to sea and the singles inland from the coast but inevitably, once the action started, it will be seen there were no rigid areas and overlaps by all units occurred frequently.

Including the two being discussed in detail here, claims for a total of seven enemy aircraft destroyed over East Anglia were submitted for the night of July 23/24 1942. Five of these were made by Beaufighter crews of Wg Cdr Max Aitken’s 68 Squadron based at RAF Coltishall, their victims apparently falling either in the sea off the Norfolk coast or in Norfolk itself. Wg Cdr Aitken claimed two, Sgt Truscott one and two Czech crews one each. The other two claims were made by Flt Lt E L (Peter) McMillan of 409 Squadron and Flt Lt Harvey Sweetman of 486 Squadron. Examination of German records in recent years, however, indicates only three enemy aircraft were lost over England that night, while a fourth – almost certainly the result of McMillan’s second combat – crashed on landing back at its base. Such is the benefit of hindsight!

With the likelihood of some or all of these defending aircraft chasing around the night sky after declining numbers of enemy aircraft, inevitably duplicate claims were bound to happen. On this night, just such an event occurred.

Oblt Heinrich Wiess of II/KG40 was briefed to attack an aircraft factory in Bedford with four 500kg bombs. With his crew, Fw Karl Gramm, Fw Hermann Frischolz and Ofw Joseph Ulrich, he took off from Soesterberg in Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 4279, coded F8+CN, just as the moon was beginning to rise. His route from Soesterberg airfield in Holland took him across the North Sea, down the length of The Wash, making landfall over Boston at 10,000 feet before turning south towards the target. It was only five minutes after this point that the Dornier was caught in a searchlight beam and one of the crew saw a single-engine fighter below them about 1,000 yards away to starboard. Oblt Wiess took evasive action by diving the Dornier, first to starboard then curving to port to get back on course. The fighter seemed to have been shaken off but soon another single-engine fighter was spotted below, on the port side this time, flying on a roughly parallel course. After being interrogated later, the transcription of flight engineer Ofw Ulrich’s recollection of events went as follows.

He said he fired a few machine-gun rounds in its direction and the fighter turned in to attack the Dornier from below. The first burst from the fighter set the port wing on fire and the crew baled out. During his parachute descent he saw a twin-engine fighter fly past but he was positive that the aircraft at which he fired and which then shot them down was a single-engine.

Flt Lt Harvey Sweetman, a New Zealander from Auckland, commanded a flight of 486 (NZ) Squadron at RAF Wittering and was a founder member of the squadron in March 1942. The Hurricane IIbs of 486 were usually tied, at night, to the apron strings of the Turbinlite Havocs, but the results of this technique of night interception had been singularly unimpressive so far. On this night, however, it was Harvey’s turn to go off chasing the Hun on his own freelance patrol and from his combat report we can piece together his version of events.

Sweetman eased Z3029, SA-R, gently off Wittering runway at a quarter to midnight on July 23 1942. According to his recollections after this sortie, at first he headed north before turning on a reciprocal course that brought him to the vicinity of Spalding. There, outlined against a cloud layer below and to starboard of him, he spotted the menacing shape of a Dornier Do217, flying south. As he closed in, Sweetman’s Hurricane was spotted by the Dornier crew and its dorsal turret gunner let fly with a burst of machine-gun fire. The bright red and white tracer rounds were way off target though. Banking to starboard, Sweetman closed to seventy yards, loosing off a deflection burst at the nose of the Dornier from his eight machine guns, but without any visible effect. The Dornier dived rapidly in an effort to escape the line of fire but Sweetman hung on down to 5,000 feet altitude, firing two more bursts as he followed his prey. These seemed to produce an immediate result as “twin streams of thick smoky vapour flowed from the enemy aircraft.” Furthermore Sweetman reported that the Dornier “turned right over on its back and dived vertically down out of sight.” Although it was bright moonlight, there was some broken cloud around at 3,000 feet and as he orbited the spot, Sweetman saw “the flare of an explosion below”, which he took to signal the end of his victim. Calling up Wittering sector operations, his position was fixed to within six miles of the crash site and he set course for base, landing back at 01.00 in an elated mood.

It was established that an enemy aircraft had crashed in a field at Fleet Fen south of Holbeach and according to 58 Maintenance Unit (58 MU) inspectors, it was a Dornier Do217E that was entirely destroyed, with wreckage strewn over twenty acres. It was their task to salvage as much material as possible and gather intelligence about this latest model.

The German crew had baled out and landed in a string between Fleet Fen and Holbeach itself and the occupants on duty in an Observer Corps post just outside the town had quite a shock when a German airman walked in and gave himself up! He was left in the care of two slightly bewildered observers while a colleague, quickly picking up the only rifle in the hut, ran outside and rounded up another of the crew a short distance away. A third German was found hiding in a farmyard and the fourth was apprehended nonchalantly walking down the road in his stockinged feet, having lost his boots when he abandoned the aeroplane.

Flt Lt Sweetman duly submitted a claim for one Dornier 217 destroyed but that signalled the beginning of another battle, this time with one of his own side. When the 486 Squadron Intelligence Officer made enquiries to support Sweetman’s claim, the crash having been confirmed by a searchlight battery at Whaplode Drove, he was told that a 409 Squadron Beaufighter crew, Flt Lt E L (Peter) McMillan (pilot) and Sgt Shepherd, had submitted a claim for the same aircraft. It was also verified that there was only one enemy aircraft shot down in that district that night.

In an article written by Bill Norman and published in the December 2000 issue of FlyPast magazine former night fighter pilot Peter McMillan recalled his two particular air combats with the enemy in July 1942 and remembered how he had to share his success with another squadron. Flying 409 Squadron Beaufighter VI, X8153, it was the first of his claims that he believed was the Fleet Fen aircraft – the one he, too, claimed as destroyed. Peter claimed only a damaged for his second engagement. From the details contained in McMillan’s combat report – just as with Sweetman’s – it is impossible to reconstruct clearly his precise location at the time of the Fleet Fen combat. However, a D/F bearing put him in the vicinity of Holbeach, and having fired off 339 rounds of 20mm cannon ammunition, he most certainly had a go at something that night.

McMillan’s combat report outlines his version of events. He wrote: “Take-off from RAF Coleby Grange was at 23.05 on the 23rd and after a short while the Beaufighter was handed over to Orby radar station to begin a GCI exercise.” This was a quite normal procedure during a patrol so that the night fighter crews could get in as much practice in the air as possible, at the same time as being instantly available if ground control detected a potential target. On this occasion, very soon GCI reported trade and McMillan was vectored northwards. Anticipating imminent action, he told Sgt Shepherd to set the cannon armament to ‘fire’ which involved Shepherd leaving his seat to go forward to the central weapons bay, between himself and his pilot. While he was doing so his intercom failed owing to a broken headset lead. Fortunately McMillan could still hear Shepherd – vital for the interception – but Shepherd could not hear his pilot’s responses. There was a buzzer link between the cockpits, however, and they found by speedy improvisation of a simple code they were able to continue with the interception.

Orby GCI put them onto a vector of 100° and warned McMillan he would have to turn quickly onto the reciprocal of 280°. When the instruction to turn came he brought the Beaufighter hard round and there on Shepherd’s display tubes was the blip. But the target was jinking around and the contact was lost just as quickly. The Orby controller gave a quick course correction and Shepherd was back in business and this time he held on to it.

McMillan opened the throttles to 280mph at 9,000 feet altitude and began to close in on the target. At 650 yards range he obtained a visual to port and above and thought it to be a Dornier Do217 that was weaving and varying altitude. Calmly McMillan slid the Beaufighter over to bring his quarry slightly to starboard then closed to 250 yards range to make quite sure it was a hostile.

Confirmation was soon forthcoming because at this point the enemy opened fire, fortunately inaccurately. Slight back pressure on the yoke brought the gunsight on and McMillan let fly with three short bursts of cannon fire of two or three seconds each. After the third burst, a white glow appeared on the port engine and the target began to slow down. This caused the Beaufighter to overshoot its prey but as he passed below the Dornier McMillan saw the port engine was on fire. He hauled the Beaufighter round in a tight orbit and regained visual contact with the enemy aircraft silhouetted against the moon. He was in time to see two parachutes detach themselves from the aircraft just before it went straight down with the port engine blazing fiercely. He wrote: “My observer saw it explode on the ground and I claim this as destroyed.” This is a much more visually positive result than Sweetman was able to offer.

Now 486 Squadron would have nothing to do with this ‘sharing’ rubbish and the whole squadron closed ranks to validate Sweetman’s claim. Sweetman himself, accompanied by Sqn Ldr Clayton from Wittering operations and Plt Off Thomas (the squadron intelligence officer), visited the crash site the next morning where they consulted with Flt Lt Morrison of 58MU from Newark. The latter was responsible for examination and removal of the debris. 486 Squadron documents record that Flt Lt Morrison declared that, despite searching for evidence of cannon strikes, he could find none. It was known of course that Sweetman’s Hurricane was armed only with .303 machine guns. However, on this latter point, the recollections of two former 58MU recovery team NCOs, interviewed by Sid Finn for his book Lincolnshire Air War, provide a contrary view as they said they worked at the site for many days and found evidence of 20mm cannon strikes on the wreckage.

The New Zealanders did not let it rest there and proceeded to interview the police constable who had arrested the German crew. He stated that one member of the crew said they had been shot down by a Spitfire. This remark was taken to indicate that a single-engine, rather than a twin-engine, aircraft was seen which lent support to Sweetman’s claim, it being easy to confuse a Spitfire with a Hurricane in the turmoil of a night battle. In their opinion, a final corroboration of 486’s claim came when Captain G A Peacock, a Royal Artillery officer stationed at Wittering, made a formal written declaration, carefully witnessed by an army colleague and Plt Off Thomas. In his statement Capt Peacock wrote:

At about midnight I was walking in the garden of a house at Moulton Chapel, where I was staying on leave. My attention was attracted by the sound of machine-gun fire in the air. I saw two bursts of fire. . . after which an aeroplane caught fire and dived steeply. It passed across the very bright moon, making the perfect silhouette of a Dornier. The aircraft crashed, a mile from where I stood, in a tremendous explosion… looking up again I plainly saw a Hurricane circling and it was from this aircraft that the gunfire originated. No other aeroplane fired its guns in the vicinity at the time of this action.

The lengths to which 486 Squadron went to back up their claim graphically illustrates the high degree of morale and camaraderie existing in RAF night fighter units at this time. The outcome was that 486 Squadron believed Harvey Sweetman had proved his case conclusively, yet ironically his original combat report does not carry the usual HQ Fighter Command ‘claim approved or shared’ endorsement. Peter McMillan’s report on the other hand is endorsed ‘shared 1/2 with 486 Sqdn’.

What seems clear now is that there were several enemy aircraft and RAF fighters in close proximity that night for, in addition to the Fleet Fen Dornier, at least one more Dornier was lost from each of KG40 and KG2 at unknown locations. The “twin streams of vapour” reported by Flt Lt Sweetman do not necessarily mean the Dornier had been hit, since it was known that aviation fuel had a propensity to produce black exhaust smoke when engine throttles were suddenly rammed open. It might be felt significant that Flt Lt Sweetman also lost sight of his target – last seen in a radical manoeuvre quite in keeping with its design capabilities – at a critical moment, while Flt Lt McMillan recorded that his gunfire set one engine of his target on fire and Sgt Shepherd had it in view down to impact. On the other hand, when questioned by 486 Squadron, the MU officer – without, it has to be said, the benefit of a lengthy inspection – is reported as saying he “found no evidence of cannon strikes”, yet his recovery team senior NCO, who spent more than a week at the site, firmly expressed the opposite view. Even one of the German crew admitted seeing a twin-engine aeroplane fly past him as he fell from the bomber.

Well, in the historian’s ‘paper war’, evaluation and accreditation may seem important – and there are certainly puzzles enough in this incident! But in the ‘shooting war’, while there was clearly a healthy element of unit pride involved, the only important thing in the end is that someone actually shot down a raider when the enemy was at the gate.

This busy night was not yet over for Peter McMillan though, and once again with the advantage of hindsight, the outcome of his second combat was not quite as he thought.

As soon as he had reported the first kill to Orby he was passed to sector control for position fixing and then back to Orby GCI. More trade was reported to the east. McMillan was vectored onto 100° and advised of a target at four miles dead ahead at 8,000 feet altitude. McMillan increased speed to 280mph to close the gap and calmly asked Orby to bring him in on the port side as the moon was to starboard. A stern-chase followed and when he got within one and a half miles range of his quarry Orby GCI advised him they could not help him any more and told him to continue on 110°. After a while Sgt Shepherd picked out and held an AI contact although the target jinked around before settling on a course of 090°. McMillan’s vision was hampered by cloud now but Shepherd neatly brought him down to 1,500 yards range and there, off to port and slightly above, was the silhouette of an aircraft. Keeping it in sight he crossed over to approach with it slightly to starboard. With the lighter sky behind him and fearful of being spotted, McMillan swiftly closed to 500 yards, eased up behind it, identified it as a Dornier Do217 and let fly with his cannons, all in a series of smooth, decisive movements. He saw flashes of his fire hitting the enemy aircraft, which immediately did a quarter roll and dived away. McMillan endeavoured to follow but lost sight of the Dornier and it disappeared into the ground returns (electronic ‘noise’) on Sgt Shepherd’s screens. When they reached 4,000 feet with 320mph on the clock he pulled out and returned to base, claiming the Dornier as damaged.

Peter McMillan’s second adversary that night was Feldwebel Willi Schludecker, a highly experienced bomber pilot who flew a total of 120 ops, of which thirty-two were made against English targets. Survivor of nine crash-landings due to battle damage, Willi came closest to oblivion the night he ran into Peter McMillan. Willi Schludecker was briefed by KG2 to attack Bedford with a 2,000kg bomb load carried in Dornier Do217, U5+BL, wk nr 4252. Approaching The Wash, Fw Heinrich Buhl, the flight engineer and gunner, had trouble with one of his weapons and let off a burst of tracer into the night sky. Willi thought that may have attracted a night fighter because a little later the crew spotted an aircraft creeping up from astern. This is believed to be McMillan’s Beaufighter. Displaying a considerable degree of confidence, Willi decided to hold his course and allow it to come within his own gunners’ range. Both aircraft opened fire simultaneously with the greater muzzle flash of the Beaufighter cannons preventing McMillan from seeing return fire and the Dornier crew thinking their own fire had made the Beaufighter explode! When the Dornier made its violent escape manoeuvre – bear in mind it was an aeroplane designed and stressed for dive-bombing – they never saw each other again.

In fact Peter McMillan would have been justified in claiming two Dorniers as destroyed that night because Schludecker’s aircraft was so badly damaged in the encounter that he had to jettison the bomb load and head for home. It was with the greatest of difficulty that he made it back to Gilze-Rijen in Holland, where he crash-landed the Dornier at three times the normal landing speed after making three attempts to get the aircraft down. That was Willi’s ninth – and last – crash-landing because he spent the next six months in hospital as a result of his injuries and it put an end to his operational flying career.

On March 9 2000 Peter McMillan, Willi Schludecker and Heinrich Buhl came face-to-face for the first time when they met in Hove at a meeting arranged by Bill Norman. This time it was a friendly encounter between men who, in Heinrich Buhl’s words, “had been adversaries but never enemies” and who found they had much in common.

Mosquitoes Bite and Beaufighters Punch II

Neatishead GCI was involved with so many interceptions at this time, to the extent that occasionally, in its own words, it became “overcrowded”. Just such a situation occurred on July 27/28, a night of lively action when Wittering’s Mosquitoes claimed two more Do217s off the north Norfolk coast, part of a raid heading for Birmingham. Neatishead GCI took on 151’s Sqn Ldr Dennis Pennington and Flt Sgt David Donnett (RO), then handed them back to Coltishall sector control because of too many plots. Fortunately, while waiting for Coltishall to start the ball rolling Donnett picked out a contact for himself – freelancing, as it was called, which was something all night fighter crews trained to do for these circumstances. They tracked down a Dornier Do217 and although it was hit hard and seen going down, Pennington’s night vision was suddenly impaired when an instrument light shield fell off in his cockpit and he lost sight of the target. In action nearby was Mosquito DD629, flown by Plt Off Ernest Fielding and Flt Sgt James Paine (RO) who confirmed they saw an aircraft burning on the sea in Pennington’s vicinity. This is believed to be U5+FL from I/KG2 flown by Lt Hans-Joachim Möhring who, with his crew, was lost that night. About the same time, Fielding and Paine, patrolling the swept channel coastal convoy route under the control of Neatishead GCI’s Flt Lt Ballantyne, themselves exchanged fire with another Do217, claiming to have hit it hard. The bomber was last seen trailing sparks and flames that disappeared suddenly at sea level east of Cromer, prompting them to claim one Do217 destroyed. Fw Richard Stumpf and his crew from KG2 failed to return that night and it is possible that Fielding was the cause of his demise.

If there needed to be yet further evidence of the high state of morale among RAF night fighter crews at this time, it was emphatically demonstrated yet again on the night of July 30/31 1942, in a war-torn night sky over Peterborough. That night saw a heavy raid on this engineering and railway centre, from which the Luftwaffe did not emerge unscathed, two aircraft falling to the defences, one to AA and another to the RAF.

In the first incident a Junkers Ju88A-4, wk nr 2086, 1T+CR, of III/KG 26 is believed to have been hedge-hopping its way back to a base in Holland (although the unit was actually based at Rennes) when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Peterborough. It was seen heading north-east away from the city, at low level and on fire. So low was it that the Junkers collided with overhead electricity cables near the village of Thorney. It staggered and as the pilot fought to keep it airborne, it was hit repeatedly by fire from a .303 machine gun wielded by Sgt Fox, one of the crew of a nearby searchlight post. 1T+CR crashed in Green Drove, Thorney, killing all on board – Ofw V Bechthold, Fw L Drees, Ogfr K Heberling and Gefr H Bredemeier.

That same night a Mosquito crew of 151 Squadron had several lively encounters with enemy raiders, believed to be en route to attack Birmingham, despatching one Dornier Do217 into the cold waters of the North Sea, sixty miles off the north Norfolk coast and another, nearly as far inland, into the depths of the peaty Fenland soil.

It was 22.30 when Fg Off Alex McRitchie, an Australian pilot with 151 Squadron, lifted his Mosquito NFII, DD669, from the runway at RAF Wittering and set course for Cromer in company with his Nav/RO Flight Sergeant E S James. They were briefed to carry out a patrol some sixty miles off the north Norfolk coast. It will be remembered that Alex had cut his teeth flying Fighter Nights on Defiants with the squadron a year earlier and now he had a chance to add to the success that 151 Squadron was enjoying with its new Mosquitoes.

There was just time to get in one practice interception before Neatishead GCI passed McRitchie over to the Chain Home Low (CHL) station at Happisburgh on the north Norfolk coast, which had plotted an incoming raid. After being put onto a chase that turned out to be a false alarm, five bandits were detected heading towards the English coast. McRitchie was vectored onto a course for a stern-chase on one of these incoming aircraft. His target was quickly overhauled and identified as a Dornier Do217 that, after two brief but devastating bursts of cannon and machine-gun fire, caught fire and plunged into The Wash below. Alex McRitchie’s victim was Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 5469, U5+GV flown by Ofw Artur Hartwig of IV/KG2 who, along with his crew, died in the encounter.

At this point McRitchie’s radio was playing up and without guidance from ground control it seemed pointless to continue the patrol so he decided to return to Wittering. It seemed he was actually following the raiders since, as he approached the coast, his course was taking him towards some distant AA fire. Almost immediately Flt Sgt James, peering hopefully at his AI Mark V screens, picked out a target at extreme range but lost it equally quickly. Well satisfied with the night’s work Fg Off McRitchie turned again for home and was in the Wittering circuit when he noticed yet more AA fire and searchlights probing the sky to the south, over Peterborough. Keen to have another crack at Jerry, he climbed back up to 12,000 feet, and above the prescribed AA level and with the aid of searchlights, worked his way into the vicinity of the raid. This was, to say the least, somewhat hazardous since AA crews were inclined to bang away at anything and ask questions later.

Before long Flt Sgt James detected a target, again at maximum range, about three miles away.

This time they hung on to it.

McRitchie sighted his quarry in the flickering light half a mile away and slightly above him. Suddenly a searchlight lit up both the Mosquito and the enemy, moving alternately between them. The alert enemy crew spotted the Mosquito and their aircraft was thrown into a spinning dive down to 6,000 feet. Despite diving after it, with 400mph on the clock, McRitchie could not keep it in sight. Once again this tenacious Mosquito crew climbed back to 12,000 feet to have another try, AA gunners or no. Their persistence paid off, for it was quite a sustained raid on this engineering and rail centre and there was still some trade about.

One of the raiders was caught in a searchlight beam and McRitchie turned towards it. Flt Sgt James was no doubt by now sweating in his helmet and oxygen mask, with his face pressed against the radar display visor, trying to sort out from the clutter of signals anything that looked remotely like a target. Again he found one. It was head on this time and closing fast. McRitchie judged his moment, hauled the Mosquito round in a tight turn and James had it firmly on the tubes. The searchlights chose a good moment to light up the bomber and McRitchie went in for the kill.

Although closing very fast, the searchlights now worked against him, for his aeroplane was spotted again. This time the enemy, identified as a Dornier Do217, corkscrewed violently several times but the Australian clung to its every move. This particular Dornier had been caught before it could deposit its lethal cargo and now, faced with a tenacious adversary, that bomb load was jettisoned almost on top of the Mosquito. At the same time, one alert gunner among the crew drew first blood by directing a burst of machine-gun fire at the Mossie, peppering its starboard wing. McRitchie closed the throttles, dropped astern and let the Dornier feel the weight of his own armament in reply. Cannon strikes rippled along the enemy’s starboard wing. Still jinking like a cornered animal the Dornier posed a difficult full deflection target but McRitchie fired again and his cannon shells were taking more effect now, on both the wings and fuselage of the enemy aircraft.

By this time the dogfight had brought both aircraft down to 1,500 feet and McRitchie had great difficulty in keeping the Dornier in sight against the darkness of the ground. Having expended all his ammunition and being very low on fuel, he had no option but to break off and return to Wittering. He had been in the air for four hours; had flown hundreds of miles; fired all his ammunition and had engaged and beaten the enemy at least once. This most eventful patrol illustrates graphically the skill, aggressive spirit and teamwork that were the hallmark of the RAF night fighter crews.

And what of the second Dornier?

At 02.00 on July 31, Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 5470, U5+ET of III/KG2, with its unfortunate crew, Fws K Laub, K-A Gussefeld, H Werner and Uffz H Hammelmann plunged deep into the peaty fen soil near the village of Conington, five miles south of Peterborough. They now rest together in the tranquillity of the German war cemetery in Cannock Chase.

In 1978 members of the Derbyshire Historic Aviation Society excavated the scene of this ferocious battle. Despite the soft, peaty soil, the speed at which the Dornier impacted, and the subsequent explosion, shattered the aeroplane into many fragments, much of which seems to have been removed at the time. Of the parts recovered in 1978, most recognisable were propeller blades, a crew seat, the tail wheel and some cylinder barrels from a badly smashed engine. The whereabouts of even these few relics is, however, in doubt, as much of the DHAS collection was stolen some years ago.

Although McRitchie and James claimed only a damaged, it is almost certain this was ‘their’ Dornier, even though its downfall was subsequently credited to the anti-aircraft gun defences.

Shortly afterwards, Kampfgeschwader 2 took quite a mauling on anti-shipping operations during the Dieppe raid in August 1942, losing another quarter of its already depleted strength. This unit was now only capable of mounting sporadic attacks on Britain and a few aeroplanes were being sent out, in ones and twos, on nuisance raids.

Oberleutnant Graf (Count) Romedio Thun-Hohenstein was staffelkapitän of III/KG2 and it was up to him to try to raise the flagging spirits of his hard-pressed crews. With declining resources, no one was exempt from flying. On the evening of August 7 1942, therefore, Thun-Hohenstein assembled his crew, Fw H Kunze, Uffz H Arnscheid, Uffz P Bremer and took off in Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 5455, U5+DR, from their base in Holland. It would not be long before U5+DR and its crew joined the growing list of losses sustained by KG2.

At this time RAF Coltishall was home to Wg Cdr Max Aitken’s 68 Squadron Beaufighters and six of these were on patrol that night guarding the Norfolk coast, waiting for incoming raiders, some of whom were bound for Cambridge. Although 68 was from a neighbouring sector this combat is mentioned here as it was brought to a conclusion in the middle of Wittering sector.

Around midnight of August 7/8, patience was rewarded as several bandits were called. Among the six Beaufighters was X7553, a Mark I crewed by Plt Off Peter Cleaver and his Nav/RO Flt Sgt Bill Nairn. Originally, this crew was sent off on patrol between Coltishall and The Wash at 22.25 hours but it was recalled and sent out twice more before a raid threatened the sector. At 00.45 hours GCI advised Cleaver of a bandit and vectored him westwards towards it. Then, over The Wash, another better target was offered and Sgt Nairn picked this one up on his AI Mark IV set at 10,000 feet altitude. Plt Off Cleaver obtained visual contact and saw the target was…

jinking violently and it may have spotted our aircraft. We turned to port and closed to 200 yards at which range the bandit was identified as a Dornier. I opened fire and saw strikes on the E/A. It dived with flames coming from the port wing between the engine and fuselage and there was some slight return gunfire. I followed the E/A down through cloud and saw it dive into the ground with a large explosion.

They had caught up with Thun-Hohenstein not far from RAF Coningsby and the Dornier crashed in flames into the middle of Shire Wood, Revesby, in Lincolnshire, but all the crew managed to bale out, even though Arnscheid and Kunze were injured. A gamekeeper, assisted by stalwarts of the local Home Guard, quickly rounded up the Germans. All, that is, except one. He, his identity perhaps fortuitously unknown, reversed that unspoken rule among military captives by actually parachuting into the middle of Moorby prisoner of war camp, whereupon he was pounced on by camp guards, thus no doubt saving everyone a great deal of trouble!

In 1983 that same gamekeeper who, years before, had helped round up the Germans, retold this story to a member of the Lincolnshire Aviation Society. A visit to Shire Wood revealed little sign of the result of this skirmish, beyond some damage to mature trees at the edge of a slight water-filled depression. Closer inspection among the detritus, however, showed the ground to be fairly littered with small fragments of twisted alloy, proving that local reports of a violent explosion were correct.

Further careful searching of the surface produced one or two serial number plates and small identifiable components. Then came the first important find – a crumpled piece of alloy with the all-important aircraft type and wk nr stencilled on it, confirming it as a Dornier Do217E-4 wk nr 5455. Of even more interest was part of a radio tuning dial with not only the werke nummer stamped on it but also the date of manufacture: April 8 1942. Allowing for a short period of time to elapse before this Dornier reached KG2 from the factory, it seems to indicate that it was in Luftwaffe service for only about three months. The RAF was indeed exacting a heavy toll upon this unit.

25 Squadron had moved from Wittering to Ballyhalbert in Northern Ireland in January 1942, then back to England in May of the same year. Fg Off Joseph Singleton, in a Beaufighter IV, X7643 from 25, now based at Church Fenton, caught another of these bandits on the night of August 23/24, about ten miles east of Bourne in Lincolnshire. He and his RO, Plt Off Chris Bradshaw, operating under the control of Neatishead GCI, attacked a Dornier Do217 near the village of Cowbit, a few miles south of Spalding. They found 10/10ths cloud from 800 feet up to 3,000 feet, 5/10ths up to 10,000 feet, then it was clear above that.

The enemy bomber was flying in and out of broken cloud and difficult to track visually. While trying to get within range Fg Off Singleton’s fighter was spotted and he was fired upon from both the dorsal and the ventral guns of the bomber as it took violent evasive action. As it dived for thicker cloud cover at 3,000 feet Singleton stayed with the elusive target, firing short bursts at it and getting several back in reply. He lost it for half a minute then saw it well below him and dived into the attack again. The flash of cannon shell strikes could be seen hitting the port wing of the Dornier but the kill was frustrated when his ammunition ran out. The E/A disappeared into thick clouds at 3,000 feet so he had to settle for this one as damaged. It is interesting to note the way that interceptions were being set up now, with for example, this fighter from Yorkshire being guided by a GCI station in mid-Norfolk to a target flying over south Lincolnshire.

There was a cluster of searchlight posts in the vicinity of this combat and speaking in 1990, Joe Singleton recalled that, although they helped at first to indicate the direction of the enemy, they ended up blinding him and illuminating his own fighter. It was at that point, he thought, when Jerry spotted him and began to get nasty. This was his first night engagement and although on this occasion he fired off a lot of ammunition for little result, his future combat record shows he soon mastered his craft. Joe remained with 25 Squadron, subsequently being credited with the destruction of seven enemy aircraft at night and rising to command the squadron after the war, as a Wing Commander with the DSO, DFC and AFC.

Despite the poor weather over 12 Group that night of August 23/24 the Luftwaffe was still active, putting the Group’s night defences under some pressure. In an effort to cope with the situation, 96 (RAF Wrexham) and 256 (RAF Woodvale) Squadrons from 9 Group were ordered to mount patrols towards 12 Group’s area, as also was 255 Squadron, from RAF Honiley, in Warwickshire.

255 Squadron put up four aircraft, of which two patrolled locally and two other Beaufighter Mk VIs, X8266 and X7944, were handed over to the control of Digby sector. One of these, X7944 with AI Mk IV, flown by Fg Off Hugh Wyrill with Flt Sgt John Willins as RO, according to the 9 Group diary, “effected no less than six interceptions resulting in one enemy aircraft destroyed and one damaged.”

Taking off from Honiley at 22.10 hours, Fg Off Wyrill was ordered to reinforce Digby sector and then passed along the control system to Wittering sector. At 22.45 Langtoft GCI senior controller, Sqn Ldr Grace, instructed him to patrol at 12,000 feet on a north/south line near Wittering. A transcript of his combat report is contained in an intelligence form dated 24/8/42 submitted to HQ Fighter Command. The date of the interception is shown clearly as ‘23/24/8/42’ and Wyrill wrote:

I was given several vectors towards a bandit, finally turning onto 120º at which point Flt Sgt Willins picked up a contact well to starboard at maximum range of 4,000 yards. He held the contact as the bandit did hard turns to port and starboard. At 240mph I closed in and obtained a visual at 1,000 yards range on an aircraft flying at 11,500 feet altitude – slightly above and to starboard of me. I closed to 300 yards to identify but the bandit opened fire, made a vertical bank to port and dived away. It presented a good silhouette against the bright moonlit sky and I identified it as a Dornier Do217. I was south of Peterborough and opened fire with all guns

[four 20mm cannon and six .303 machine guns]

at 200 yards range and I continued firing as the E/A took extremely violent evasive action, consisting of stall turns and half rolls. At one time I was firing almost vertically downwards. Return fire ceased after my second burst and the Beaufighter sustained no damage. Cannon strikes were seen on the E/A and several good bursts were fired while it was held in sight. After the third burst Flt Sgt Willins saw a large piece of the E/A break away. Visual and AI contact on the bandit were finally lost in haze at 3,000 feet altitude.

This frantic exchange had taken just four short minutes.

Hugh Wyrill’s night was far from over, as no sooner had he disengaged from the Peterborough combat than he was directed east to chase the last vestiges of the attacking Luftwaffe force from the mainland. He had another inconclusive encounter with a retreating Dornier Do217 near Ipswich but, like Joe Singleton earlier, exhausted his ammunition – in all 700 x 20mm shells and 2700 x .303 machine-gun rounds – before he could complete a second kill.

Meanwhile, the sequel to this busy night was played out back near The Wash. Mortally wounded, Wyrill’s first Dornier staggered towards the coast. No one will know the actual effect of the devastating firepower of the Beaufighter upon the aircraft or its crew, although return fire ceased early in the conflict. Shortly before midnight an explosion lit the sky around East Walton wood, six miles east of King’s Lynn. Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 4267, U5+CK of I/KG2 was totally destroyed and its passing is marked now only by scarred trees and lumps of molten alloy in the soil. The unfortunate crew, all of whom perished, were Ofw R Bodenhagen, Hptmn R Hellmann, (staffelkapitän), Ofw G Ruckstruh and Ofw T Romelt.

In some accounts ‘Wyrill’s Dornier’ is credited to the 25 Squadron Beaufighter team of Sqn Ldr William Alington and Fg Off D Keith but this is believed to be inaccurate since the date of their combat is one day earlier. Furthermore, the Langtoft GCI controller who tracked this interception is quoted thus: “Sqn Ldr Brace [sic] considers this Dornier was the one attacked by Fg Off Wyrill, as it was finally lost by them flying in the direction of King’s Lynn at 1,000 feet.”

It is perfectly reasonable that Sqn Ldr Alington submitted a claim for the previous night’s work but at best he could only claim a damaged – and from the following description it appears he and Keith were lucky to be alive to do even that!

Airborne from Church Fenton on August 22/23 in V8329, Alington and Keith came under Easington CHL control who sent them towards a bandit near The Wash. Initially the controller’s instructions made them overshoot without Keith picking up an AI contact. More directions put Alington’s Beaufighter on a course to cut across the bandit’s track and this time Keith found a blip off to starboard. A tight S-turn brought the AI blip to 1,200 yards in front of the Beaufighter and as Alington closed the range he got a visual of the target 1,000 yards dead ahead and slightly below. Fg Off Keith watched what happened on his Mark IV AI set and described the rest of the interception:

At this point the chase was greatly complicated and nearly terminated by the appearance of another Beaufighter that approached from the left and turned in behind. The blip of this aircraft, which showed IFF, then completely obscured that of the E/A. Pilot got in a one-second burst on the E/A and saw strikes on fuselage and wings, E/A turned very steeply to port and dived straight into cloud. Immediately the third aircraft opened fire on us from point blank range behind but his shooting fortunately was of the same standard as his recognition [!] When the blips separated, instructions were given to us at first to chase the wrong one, by which time E/A was behind, on left and below and too far round to pick up again satisfactorily.

CO of 25 Squadron, Wg Cdr Harold Pleasance, with Flt Lt Dennis Britain (RO), was also airborne on the night of 23/24 and he, too, submitted a claim – dated one day later than that of Sqn Ldr Alington – for a Dornier Do217 destroyed twenty miles east of Mablethorpe. He saw one of the Dornier’s crew exit the blazing aircraft and a parachute open, then the bomber exploded and dived into the sea.

Some of the most significant factors to emerge from the events of both these nights are the quantity of night fighter squadrons at Fighter Command’s disposal to cope with Luftwaffe incursions at this stage of the war, and the scale and flexibility of organisational control. This latter was clearly able to move aircraft around the country, like chessmen to relieve pressure, reminiscent of the Battle of Britain days. Concentrating so many night fighters into the blackness of a relatively small aerial arena, each picking up and losing both radar and visual contacts, inevitably led to multiple claims – even to accusations of ‘poaching’ or attack from one’s own side. In view of the relatively small numbers of enemy aircraft involved at this stage of the war, this scenario does not of course compare with the scale of the Luftwaffe’s own night defence of the Reich later on, but it is a far cry from the lone Blenheims and Fighter Night aircraft stumbling about the sky in 1940 and a portent of what destruction could be wrought on a bomber force by organised defenders with the right equipment.

Towns around The Wash, however, had still remained subject to sporadic air attacks since the middle of 1942, with Stamford being hit on June 13, Skegness (six killed) and Boston in the daylight of July 27. Spalding was relaxing on August 2, the Bank Holiday Sunday, when around tea-time a lone bomber – a Dornier 217 according to reliable eye-witnesses – popped out of low cloud and laid a stick of HEs along the High Street, Church Street and into Ayscoughfee Hall public gardens, causing considerable property damage but fortunately few casualties – except in the case of the public gardens, where a bomb annihilated the entire population of the bird-house! Those same eyewitnesses cheered out loud when the sound of gunfire was heard and the unmistakable shape of a Beaufighter could be seen dipping in and out of the cloud in hot pursuit of the enemy bomber. The accuracy of this tale was confirmed years later by reference to the 68 Squadron ORB. Examination of the records of all twin-engine fighter units in or near the region showed 68 Squadron as the only unit in eastern England to have scrambled an aircraft that day. It was quite usual to have radar-equipped night fighters on standby during daytime bad-weather conditions as, naturally, their interceptions were unaffected by thick cloud. The incident is described thus:

2 August 1942. 68 Sqn, Coltishall. Beaufighter R2248.

Pilot: Plt Off D P Paton. Nav/RO: Plt Off G E Bennett.

Airborne 15.05. Landed 17.50.

Scrambled, very cloudy. After lunch an E/A approached off sector in 10/10 cloud conditions. P/O Paton had four visuals during a chase of over 300 miles in and out of the cloud but the enemy bomber managed to escape.

Eleven HE bombs caused four deaths in yet another raid on Boston during the night of August 22/23, but these raids finally petered out in the Fenland region after brave little Skegness was hit yet again on the nights of September 15/16 and October 24/25. Three people were killed in the first of these attacks and fourteen in the second.

With little enemy air activity over the UK during the previous ten days, night fighter Mosquito NFIIs of 151 Squadron, Wittering, at last found some trade during the late evening of September 17, in what appears to have been a final fling by the Luftwaffe – at least for a while. KG2, for example, had taken quite a beating during the past six months and needed time to draw breath and rebuild. On some occasions the teamwork of RAF night fighters and GCI stations could be almost clinical in its effectiveness as a killing machine and is well illustrated by an incident on this date.

With just scattered light clouds, a half-moon promised good visibility as Flt Lt Henry Bodien and Sgt George Brooker (RO) eased off Wittering’s runway at 21.43 hours. Flt Lt Bodien’s name will be remembered from 151’s early Defiant days. He had come a long way since then, rising through the ranks and earning an enviable reputation on the way and certainly with a more potent weapon in his hands now.

Flying Mosquito NFII, DD610, they were taken over by Sqn Ldr Grace, CO and senior controller at the nearby Langtoft GCI station, who guided them to the vicinity of nine raiders coming in over The Wash, heading for King’s Lynn. Brooker, head down under the visor of the latest AI Mk V set, got a momentary contact to port then lost it, but despite there being a lot of interference on the set, picked out another target slightly to starboard. It was 1,000 yards ahead, level with them at 7,000 feet altitude and going in the same direction. In a classic interception, Henry Bodien obtained a visual when the enemy’s outline took shape as it turned to port in front of him. It was a Dornier Do217, one of the enemy aircraft attacking King’s Lynn and it had just released part of its bomb load. Bodien eased closer from astern and slightly below. From the way the Dornier began to make diving turns to right and left, losing height to 4,000 feet, the German crew may have spotted the Mosquito but there was no defensive fire during the engagement. Bodien came in from slightly below and let fly with several short bursts of cannon from 200 to 300 yards range as the target jinked in and out of his gunsight, first hitting the port wing then the engine, which caught fire. His cannon fire now raked the Dornier’s fuselage as it darted from side to side trying to escape the hail of shells that sprayed into the starboard engine. The port engine blew up and now going down with both motors on fire, pilot Fw Franz Elias jettisoned the remaining bombs and ordered his crew, Gefrs G Buchner and W Berg and Uffz F Leibrecht, to bale out. The stricken bomber, U5+UR, wk nr 4265 of III/KG2, plunged to earth between the villages of Fring and Shernborne about ten miles east of King’s Lynn and the crew were all taken prisoner. Local inhabitants’ memory of this incident has faded now and few realise why the final resting place of this Dornier was known locally as ‘the aeroplane field’.

By September 1942 KG2 had lost so many crews that it was reduced to twenty-three out of its original complement of ninety and the remainder of the year was spent in mounting occasional nuisance raids. Once again RAF night fighters had given the Luftwaffe enough of a bloody nose to make it necessary for it to withdraw and regroup its resources. But it was not through yet.

‘Aircraft of Bomber Command last night raided Dresden’

I participated in the Dresden affair, which was a terrible thing. The fire raid. I understand there were about 135,000 or so people killed in that raid. We were told that the Russians were advancing and the Germans were falling back into these cities and when the Russian armour went by, the Germans would fan out and cut their supply lines up and for these reasons, certain cities had to be obliterated. This is what they told us. And then it started to filter through later that this wasn’t a tactical thing. What I think really happened was that the Russians were moving very, very rapidly and the Allies decided they would show the Russians that even though we had a tremendous army, we also had a tremendous air force, so don’t get too cocky, you guys, or we’ll show you what we could do to Russian cities. This was Churchill and the rest. This was a calculated atrocity, no question in my mind.

We weren’t in the first phase, we were in the second. Even then, the city was burning. We could see the great flare in the sky for a long way out and we knew that was Dresden burning. Burning cities is a technique, you know. You didn’t need any atomic bombs; you could create what is called a fire storm. You had incendiaries and then heavy bombs and this would create an artificial wind roaring up the streets and it sucked the oxygen out and people didn’t die, or die all that much, of fire; they died because the life was literally sucked right out of them.

We went there at night and the Americans went there the next day and they had the long-range fighters protecting them and strangely, the Germans had fighter protection for the area, but the order was never given and so their fighters sat on the fields. The American fighters went down and strafed the poor bastards in the streets who were picking up the corpses and this German who told me this after the war, was very bitter about that. This strafing in the streets, by the Americans. That was a beastly thing, wasn’t it? Our guys didn’t do that, did they? Only the beastly Huns did that, didn’t they?

We carried incendiaries over Dresden and the Pathfinders were leading us into places where major fires hadn’t started yet. I mean, there would be a patch over here, say some residential area and the Pathfinder pilots would scoot over there and drop their markers. It was wholesale destruction of a city, using the latest in city-burning techniques. It was indescribable! When we saw the photos two days later, it was dreadful. Dreadful. It was then that I felt we’d all been had. I thought it was a pretty…Dresden was an unarmed city. Maybe a couple of battalions of home guards or Boy Scouts or something and there was no military justification for that. As far as I’ve ever been able to find out later, I was right. A straight political destruction of the city. No tactical advantage. The straight politics of destruction.

A Canadian airman of RAF Bomber Command.

Stanley Harrison RAAF pedalled on his bicycle up to 460 Squadron RAAF ‘B’ Flight office at the front of one of the large hangars at Binbrook. It was the morning of 13 February 1945. The Australian pilot was unaware that it was the 13th of the month and would not worry about it. In any case he was not superstitious, at least about the date. He could not know that he would be part of the BBC news in the early hours of the following day. But as he rode up from the officers’ mess he realised that the weather was fine and that meant that they would be operating over Germany that night. Having checked that all the crew members were fit for flying at 0915 he reported this to his ‘B’ Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Bob Henderson DFC. All the aircraft captains, or ‘skippers’, were sitting round in the Flight Office talking shop or any interesting happenings, personal or otherwise, in which Bob Henderson joined every now and then when something concerning the Flight, operations, the performance or operation of the aircraft was being discussed. At 10 o’clock Henderson went to the daily conference in the Squadron Commander’s office. The three flight commanders and the navigation, bombing, wireless and gunnery leaders were all present and while they reported their state of readiness, details of the ‘Operations for Tonight’ came through from Bomber Command via Group and base headquarters. Harrison continues.

‘At lunch in the mess Bob Henderson told me that we were flying that night in ‘J-Johnny’ instead of our usual kite ‘T-Tommy’ and that, as briefing was not until later in the afternoon, we would have time to run-up the engines and check the aircraft. I contacted the crew in the sergeants’ mess and told them to be at the locker room at 2pm to take our gear out to the aircraft, to run it up and check it over. There we collected our Mae Wests. Jack Peacock, the wireless operator, took the kit bag of our leather flying helmets, Peter Squires, the flight engineer, took his bag of tools and on the way out to the aircraft we collected the eight .303 Browning machine-guns for the turrets.

‘After the crew bus had taken us to our aircraft dispersal area on the perimeter of the airfield, Peter and I gave it a thorough check over externally and internally, including starting up the four engines with a complete test in all phases of operation for each. When the starboard outer engine was run up, ‘Curly’, officially Flight Sergeant Tony Walker, tested his mid-upper gun turret for smooth, efficient rotation, elevation and depression of the guns. He counted into his intercom microphone as he did so, to test that the intercom was OK in all positions of the turret. Maurice Bellis, the bomb-aimer, tested the H2S radar transmitter, as Max Spence our navigator was still at Navigation Section waiting for any ‘gen’ that may have come through concerning times for navigators’ briefing, etc. When the port outer engine was being run up, Jock Gilhooly, the rear gunner, tested his turret in the same way as the mid-upper, while Jack tested the ‘Gee’ radar receiver.

‘After a thorough check of the cockpit controls and instruments, compasses, transmitters and intercom at all points, we left the bomb doors open ready for loading from the bomb trolleys and switched off the motors. Leaving our gear in the aircraft we returned to the Flight Office to learn that briefing was at 1800 with a meal at 1700 but the navigators’ briefing was at 1645. This was unusual as the navigators were normally briefed after the meal, before the main briefing, so I thought that maybe it was a very long trip, or a very involved route. The fuel load was 2,154 gallons – maximum load.

‘While sitting in the anteroom of the mess after our meal, a few whispers were going around about our target for tonight. The Russians were pushing westwards in the southern sector of the Eastern Front, so we looked at the map in the newspapers and my tip was Dresden. I mentioned this to one of the navigators and he blurted out, ‘Who told you?’ The cat was out of the bag now but naturally I kept it quiet, sitting there thinking of the route we might fly and the heavily defended areas along the way.

‘At about 0540 I went over to the briefing room and drew the Aids Boxes, for use if we were shot down and our flying rations. There was the usual moan when we had ‘Empire’ chocolate, as it was the worst grade of chocolate available but it was remarkable how good it would taste after we left the target and settled down to the long tiring trip back. Then we would be trying to stay alert, when a natural winding down from the tension of the bombing run and general fatigue set in. We each received two small three-penny bars of chocolate, half a box of barley sugar sweets, or about six sweets each and two packets of chewing gum. Our Aids Boxes contained concentrated foods, a compass, rubber water bottle, some water purifying tablets and some Benzedrine tablets, which bucked you up if you needed a little extra to make a break for it, etc.

‘We emptied our pockets and then put back only handkerchiefs, about £1 in money, an identity card and an Aids Box. The rest of the contents of our pockets – keys, letters, bus tickets and anything else – were placed in the bag that had contained our Aids Boxes with a label for each crewmember. Then all individual bags went into the big crew bag and the intelligence clerks locked this in a safe. This ensured that if we were shot down, there was nothing to tell the Germans where we came from, so they would be unable to identify our squadron and its location. At least this was the theory. But some of our Squadron who were shot down and interrogated and later escaped back to England, said that the first thing the German interrogator said to them, after hearing that the crashed aircraft had our Squadron letters ‘AK’ on it was, ‘How is your commanding officer, Hewgie Edwards VC?’ (The Germans never could get their tongues around ‘Hughie’!)

‘Maurie had his target map and we looked at the route on the big map at the front of the Briefing Room and the photos of the target area, its defences and known searchlight areas, as well as the heavily defended areas on or near our route. Times for sunrise, moonrise and moonset, as well as the phases of the moon, were all on the board. So were ‘phase of attack’ times, ‘H’ hour (the actual time of the start of the attack when the first phase commenced dropping their bombs), take-off time, total distance, bomb loads and ETA back at base. On another board was all the signals gen: the Master Bomber’s call sign, together with those of the Deputy Master Bomber, radio link and the VHF radio channel on which to receive them. Shortly before briefing was due to start, Max came in with his navigator’s bag crammed full with maps, charts and instruments. In reply to my query of, ‘What do you think of it Max?’ he made the dry wisecrack, ‘I wish Joe Stalin would get an air force of his own or come and fight on the Western Front if he wants our help like this!’

‘The corniest crack of all was overheard from behind. ‘I guess there won’t be many Jerries left in Dresden after tonight!’ Similar wisecracks were being passed and general back-chat was being indulged in around the room while the crews all waited. Max told me that we were in the second phase ‘H+2’ to H+4’ and that we were on the lowest bombing height again! (There were four bombing heights, each 500 feet above the next, starting from our height and going up.) Then everyone was on their feet as the Squadron Commanding Officer entered, followed by the station CO and the base commander. We waited until they were all seated then we all sat down again but there was no talking now and the room was suddenly quiet as the Squadron CO, Squadron Leader ‘Mick’ Cowan, walked to the front and started the briefing proper.

‘Your target tonight is Dresden. The attack is divided into three phases. Here are your aircraft letters, phase times and bombing heights. First phase on target from ‘H’ to ‘H+2 minutes’. ‘B-Beer’, Flight Lieutenant Marks.’

Flight Lieutenant Marks stood up. ‘All correct sir!’ (Indicating that all his crew were present and ready to fly).

‘18,000 feet.’

‘This checking of the crews and allocation of the heights was repeated until all the aircraft in the first phase had been detailed.

‘Second Phase on target from ‘H+2’ to ‘H+4’.

‘O-Oboe’, Flying Officer Whitmarsh.’

‘All correct sir!’

‘19,000 feet.’

‘J-Johnny’, Flying Officer Harrison.’

‘I was on my feet. ‘All correct sir!’

‘18,000 feet.’

‘As I sat down there was a whispered comment from my friend Doug Creeper, who was sitting behind me.

‘Can’t that kite of yours get any higher than that, Stan?’

‘I did not bother to reply. Our aircraft, ‘J-Johnny’, was certainly not new, had completed more than 30 raids on Germany and was not the fastest in the Squadron but as I had pointed out to my crew, ‘Johnny’ had developed a very good habit of coming back at the end of each trip.

After all the crews had been allocated their bombing heights, the CO called for the various specialist leaders to give their briefing.

‘The Flying Control Officer produced his blackboard. ‘The runway for takeoff is ‘22’ (i.e. the compass bearing was 220 degrees). ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flight aircraft will taxi round the perimeter track behind the control tower to this side of the runway, whilst ‘C’ Flight aircraft will turn left from their dispersal areas and taxi to the other side of the runway. On a ‘green’, taxi on to the runway and take off on the second ‘green’. Watch the comer of the runway. It’s soft on the grass there, so taxi slowly and keep on the asphalt!’

‘We had heard most of this at every briefing since we joined the Squadron but there were some new crews and repetition did no harm considering the speed at which some clots taxied. A fully loaded Lanc had a maximum overall take-off weight of 84,000 lb, so it took some distance to stop. This could lead to trouble when 23 aircraft had to taxi to the end of the runway and even with ‘C’ Flight coming round from the other side, there would still be 15 of us following one another along that side.

‘Foggo’, as the Control Officer was affectionately known then had his little joke. ‘The runway for return will be the long one (2,000 yards) but I cannot tell you at this stage from which end we will be landing you!’ This raised a small laugh and we were thankful that the forecast was not for strong winds.

‘The beacon will be flashing the usual ‘BK’. Join the circuit at 2,000 feet and do not call up (for permission to land) until you are over the airfield! All three emergency airfields are fully serviceable.’

‘This was a very comforting thought in case we lost engines; brakes or the undercarriage would not lock down.

‘When coming back over the East Coast, you must be at 6,000 feet, as the Dover belt of ack-ack guns are still in operation to guard against flying bombs. Do not exceed 250 mph.’ (This caused general laughter as the Lanc cruised at 180mph.)

‘Burn only your navigation lights and not your downward recognition light! Any questions?’

‘As there were none, the CO called the ‘Met bloke’ who had charts drawn showing where the weather fronts were located and another giving cloud amounts, heights of bases and tops for the whole of the route to the target and home again. He gave us the gen on the weather to be expected during the whole flight. Cloud was expected from the French coast in to the target, hopefully with some breaks near the target, to give a clear view on the bombing run.

‘Weather here ‘mainly clearing’, with no cloud over England on return.’ (I hoped he was right this time, for we did not want another cloud base of 150 feet after a long trip like this one, with everyone tired and 23 aircraft having to find their way down through it to our airfield. One of these recently was enough for a very long time to come!)

‘Icing level 3,000 feet, with Icing Index ‘Moderate’ to ‘High’ in cloud. Any questions?’

‘How about contrails?’

‘Only above 20,000 feet, so they won’t worry you! Anything else?’

‘The CO called on the Bombing Leader. ‘All aircraft are carrying the same load, one 2,000lb and eleven containers of incendiaries.’

‘Bomb-aimers select and fuse bombs when the bomb line is crossed. After bombing check immediately that all bombs have gone and if unable to get rid of any hang-ups there, do not jettison them on the track out of the target but keep them until you cross the jettison area in The Wash on your return.’ (Not long back some clot jettisoned a canister of incendiaries in the first leg of the route out of the target and gave every night fighter within 50 miles a clear signal of the route being flown from the target.)

‘Set target pressure (estimated atmospheric pressure) as you enter the aircraft and I use the Broadcast Bombing Wind, multiplied by 1.1.’

‘The Signals Officer will give the time of this broadcast. All aircraft are carrying flashes. Captains, keep your aircraft straight and level while the red light is on and let us have some really good photos tonight.’

‘That sounded easy in the Briefing Room but with other aircraft, slipstream turbulence, not to mention searchlights and ack-ack, it was not quite as simple as that over the target and our camera had fogged up with condensation on our last three trips.

‘Bomb-aimers obtain your pro-formas and bomb-stations for your aircraft from the Bombing Section after the briefing. Any questions?’

‘The CO then called the Gunnery Leader. ‘Just a word to all gunners! Enemy night fighters are particularly active in this area, so keep an even sharper watch in your search pattern than usual.’ (Comforting news, I don’t think but then he was not likely to tell them that there were no fighters about and that they could go to sleep was he?)

‘You all know your search plans. Cover all the sky, all the time. Load your guns while you are still in your dispersal area and do not unload or leave your turret until you are back in your dispersal area. Jerry may try an intruder raid with night fighters again and it could be tonight, so stay alert even when approaching base.’

‘The CO now called the Signals Leader ‘R/T call signs of the Master Bomber, Deputy Master Bomber and R/T link are ‘Snodgrass 1, 2 and 3’. The Main Force bomber stream is ‘Press On’. Channel ‘C’ on VHF and ‘1196’. Wireless operators listen out on your Marconi set on the wavelength shown on your ‘flimsies’, which are available at the back of the briefing room. Remember, skippers, if you cannot get the Master Bomber on VHF, tell your WOP to select ‘1196’ and press button ‘C’. Broadcast wind velocities will be broadcast at 0015, 15 minutes before ‘H’ hour and will be the usual five-figure group preceded by ‘X’. Aircraft on ‘Darkie’ watch on the return trip will be ‘G-George’, Flying Officer Dowling; ‘J-Johnny’, Flying Officer Harrison; and ‘K2’, Flying Officer Creeper. Do these captains know what you have to do?’

‘Yes sir,’ we replied.

‘On the return journey listen out on Channel D for any aircraft in trouble or lost.

‘Very well, that’s all. Any questions?’

‘Now it was the turn of the Intelligence Officer, Squadron Leader Leatherdale and a First World War pilot, who was always worth hearing. ‘Your target tonight is the Old World city of Dresden. The attack is divided into two parts. 5 Group are opening the attack at 2230, two hours before your ‘H’ hour, with a slightly different aiming point. You should see their fires still burning when you get there. Jerry is shifting all his government offices with staffs and records for the Eastern Front to Leipzig – raided by 4 Group last night -Dresden and Chemnitz. These three cities are roughly in a triangle. Dresden has not been attacked before as there were no targets there but now, with the ‘Big City’ being evacuated partly to Dresden and with large concentrations of troops and equipment passing through to the Russian Front, the city is crammed full and needs disorganising. As you can see from the target map, the city is fairly easy to identify and, on your bombing run from approximately north to south, you have several good pin-points to help you check your run.

‘Now for the route. Base to Reading, to Beachy Head, to the Rhine, keeping clear of Mainz to starboard and then on until you pass just slightly starboard of Frankfurt. Frankfurt has a large searchlight area and some ack-ack guns, so keep clear and stay on track. Turn slightly north and then run up as though heading for Leipzig, or when you pass to port of that, as though the ‘Big City’ is your target. Just north of Leipzig, you head east and across through this searchlight belt and you may have quite a few lights put up there but there should be little or no flak. North of Dresden you have a turn of nearly 90 degrees, so watch out for other aircraft and so avoid collisions. You have a reasonably long run-up and, after bombing, you hold the same course until you have completed this short leg, then turn southwest towards Stuttgart and Nuremberg. Keep on track and pass south of these two places or you may have trouble. Then you head west, cross the Rhine on the southeast corner of France and keep clear of this area, where they are still active and getting too many of our aircraft. Cross the coast at Orfordness at 6,000 feet at least and then lose height across The Wash to base.

‘The defences of Dresden are not considerable but they may have brought back mobile flak guns from the Eastern Front, so the flak may be moderate but I doubt if you will find it heavy. ‘Oboe’ Mosquitoes are marking the target at ‘H-2’ with a single red TI. Then the flares will go down and Pathfinders will drop their TIs. Red and green TIs cascading together will be used only if they can positively identify the Aiming Point. If there is cloud over the target, ‘blind-marker’ crews will use sky-markers, which will be green flares dripping red stars. Your order of preference for bombing will be: 1. Master Bomber’s instructions. 2. Red and green TIs. 3. Sky-markers on the exact heading of 175 degrees True at 165mph indicated airspeed. 4. H2S run. Any questions?’

‘The CO now walked out to the map, summarised the briefing and told us the heights at which to fly on each leg of the route.

‘Phase times for return: First Phase, 10 minutes before ETA. Second Phase, on ETA. Third Phase, 10 minutes after ETA. Use Aldis lamps for taxiing out and taxi slowly, even on return, when you will have some daylight! Position yourselves on the circuit on your return and we will get you down much more quickly. Any questions? Have you anything to say sir? (This was addressed to the Station CO.)

‘Yes. I just want to impress on you chaps the necessity to be very careful to keep a very keen look-out at all turning points and so avoid any risk of collisions!’ (Didn’t he think we knew that? About 200 aircraft all heading for the same point within 6 minutes at the most, with no lights on, was enough to make anyone ‘keep a very keen lookout’! We could not guess that within two weeks he would be the one who would have a mid-air collision over France when the ‘Met blokes’ ‘boobed’ and we would have to climb through 15,000 feet of cloud. After the other aircraft crossed on top of him, wiping out all four of his propellers and his canopy, he dropped back down into the cloud and was the only survivor, losing the crew he had ‘borrowed’ for the trip!)

‘All right chaps, that is all. Have a good trip and hit it really hard.’

‘We all filed out to the locker room to change into our flying clothes. Jack and Maurie collected their pro formas and flimsies on the way. Jock and Curly started their long job of getting dressed in electrically heated flying suits, socks and gloves, while Peter and I changed too. Max had gone back to the Navigation Section. It was a cold night on the ground and the ‘Met bloke’ said that the temperature at 20,000 feet would be -25 degrees, which would not be as bad as the -45 degrees we had had once or twice. But it would still be quite cool so I put on my long wool and rayon underpants and long-sleeved singlet. As ‘J-Johnny’ was not a cold kite, I did not put on my big hip-length socks but put on my usual pair of woollen socks and a pair of woollen ‘knee-warmers’ before getting back into my trousers, then my flying boots. My shirt collar was left undone and tie loosened but left on, in ease of diversion to another airfield on return. It would be awkward to go around without a collar and tie. I left the front collar stud in place, as there was a small compass built into the back of it, for use if I had to try to get back from Germany on the ground. I put on my ‘once white’ silk scarf to keep the wool of the roll-neck pullover away from my neck, as it got very irritating after a few hours rubbing on the stubble of whiskers. Then a sleeveless pullover and the big rolled-neck one that came down over my hips, eliminating any draught between trouser top and battledress when seated. Then, with my torch and small-scale map with the whole route on it stuck into the top of my right boot and my flying rations down the left one, I was ready. I put ‘George’, my fur dog mascot, into my battle-jacket, then went to see how the rest of the crew were getting on. I carried my three pairs of gloves (silk, chamois leather and outer leather-zippered gauntlets) and found Peter ready and waiting for me, similarly attired, except for all the gloves. John needed practically nothing extra, as he sat on top of the heater unit. Maurie had a few extras similar to Peter and also a big scarf, as it got draughty with his head down in the open-ended perspex ‘bubble’ while he was keeping a look-out for night fighters homing on to us from below.

‘Curly and Jock were in their electrically heated suits and socks and now Curly pulled on the waterproof outer flying suit I had loaned him, as his issue buoyancy suit was too bulky to let him and it into his turret together. (No doubt it was Curly who was too bulky but this arrangement ‘suited’ him very well.) Jock put on his big rollneck sweater, a sheepskin vest (by courtesy of the Australian Comforts Fund through the hands of his skipper in the cause of another warm and happy gunner). Then his battledress jacket. Long knee-hip socks and heated flying boots completed their outfits, with their heated gloves. ‘Max had not come in yet but would follow later so we went to get the crew bus out to the aircraft in the dispersal area. Many crews had the same idea and after finding the right bus in the darkness and telling the WAAF driver our aircraft letter, we piled into the back and waited until the thing was full to overflowing with other crews. We visited several other ‘B’ Flight dispersals and wished the other skippers well.

‘Have a good trip. Doug!’

‘Same to you, Stan. I bet I beat you home tonight!’

‘So you ought to. You have a start on me. I’m in the second phase!’

‘We arrived at our dispersal and again Peter and I went right around the aircraft, thoroughly checking for leaks, looking at the tyres for pressure and seeing that the aileron and rudder chocks had been removed. After checking inside again, we were ready to run-up and when everything was in order we switched off and climbed out for a final smoke, spit, swear, yarn and a ‘leak’ before take-off. We had about half an hour to go and the boys on the ground crew took the wheel chocks away, as I would not be running up again, while I went over to the ground crew hut to sign the aircraft maintenance Form 700. I just took a quick look to see that it had been signed up by the various maintenance types, then signed it as taking the aircraft in satisfactory condition. The main thing was that the Flight Sergeant in charge of the aircraft said it was OK. If he said it was OK, then you could bet your boots or your life that it was!

‘Max arrived, got in and sorted all his gear out, with his charts, etc, in their right places. The ‘Doc’ came round with his ‘wakey-wakey’ tablets and Peter took charge of them, except for two each for Jock and Curly. We very rarely used them but it was handy to have them in ease anyone felt really tired! They had an effect for about 4 hours and I wanted to know who took them and how often. Everyone now had their Mae Wests on and the rest of the crew had on their parachute harnesses, as their parachutes were stored separately near where they were stationed, while I sat on mine and strapped the harness on when I got into my seat at the controls. It was about ten minutes before we were due to take off so we all climbed aboard, with a final ‘See you in the morning about 6 o’clock’ to the ground crew and their reply, ‘Right – have a good trip, Skip!’

‘We sorted ourselves out in our various positions and started up the engines. We confirmed with Max that the Distant Reading compass was correct. Then we tested and left the oxygen turned on. With a ‘thumbs up’ to the ground staff by torchlight, we were signalled out on to the perimeter track, having the radio on in ease of a change of runway, etc. Maurie shone his Aldis signalling lamp on the edge of the asphalt about 50 yards ahead. With engines just idling we taxied slowly along. Peter kept a lookout on his side (starboard) and called the distance between the starboard wheel and the edge of the track and kept an eye on the brake pressure gauge. Jock kept the lookout behind to ensure that no one taxied into us from the rear. The Lanc was heavy to taxi with a full load but answered to the brakes and motors, although you could feel the weight on the corners. At the controls you felt that the air was its natural element and it ‘suffered’ this crawling along the ground, only because it was necessary so that it could become airborne again.

‘This taxiing took so long that we seemed to be taking an age to get to the take-off point but then everything took so long on these operations. We were about three-quarters of the way to the start of the runway and about half-way down a slight slope beside the bomb dump when I noticed a truck coming round on the track from the airfield controller’s caravan and its lights suddenly disappeared behind something in front of us. I had Maurie shine his lamp directly ahead and there seemed to be a dark shape out there, probably an aircraft but no lights were visible. Then suddenly torches and lights shone from everywhere out in front, with frantic signals for me to stop. As if I needed to be signalled to stop! I had a fully loaded aircraft; some unidentified obstacle was blocking the perimeter track in front. There was grass, probably soft, to port and a drop down to the entry to the bomb dump to starboard – where did they think I was counting on going?

‘I turned on the landing light (which we never used for taxiing in ease it got into the eyes of a pilot taking off and we did not use it for landing either) and it revealed two aircraft ahead in an unfriendly embrace! Just what we did not want at this stage, a taxiing accident! Peter was already worrying me about the engines overheating, as we had been taxiing downwind most of the time since leaving the dispersal. I warned the crew that there had been a taxiing accident and we might be late taking off. Max was not amused as he would have to watch all his timing calculations very carefully now to see that we set course on time or, at the worst, try to make time on the way, which was not easy with a fully loaded aircraft. Jock was now shining his torch out the back to warn any aircraft behind us not to taxi into us – I knew that there were three following us.

‘After a few minutes, which seemed a very long time, we were signalled to turn off the perimeter track on to the grass in order to pass the obstruction. How I would have liked to break radio silence to warn the others of the obstruction and to get confirmation that the grass was firm enough to take our weight without getting us bogged. But we really had no alternative. I could not go forward, I could not turn to starboard and the track behind was blocked by other aircraft waiting for me to show them that it was safe to turn to port, then swing wide to starboard round the trouble ahead.

‘I became reconciled to having to risk getting bogged and I was convinced that the airfield control types out there signalling to me to move did not really know if I would get bogged or not but they also had no alternative to offer. Peter reminded me again that the motors were getting ‘bloody hot, Skip!’ I ‘bit his head off’ by telling him didn’t I already know that and what did he want me to do about it? I couldn’t turn into wind here and we had other problems at the moment!

‘Tell me when the gauges get well into the ‘red’ just before they blow off!’

‘They are into the ‘red’, Skip and I thought you should know that we haven’t got very long before we have real trouble with them!

‘I realised that I was getting ‘edgy’ and as I started to turn off the track I said, ‘Sorry, Pete but I don’t like this going on to the grass caper after old Foggo’s warning about the soft grass up at the corner of the runway.

‘I don’t like it either,’ he replied, ‘but it seems all right so far, Stan.’

‘We made our way slowly around the two aircraft to a clear section of perimeter track. I got an enthusiastic ‘thumbs up’ signal in the light of a torch from a very relieved airfield control chap, who had solved one of his problems and, in a few minutes, would have only the taxiing accident to sort out. We had a clear run to the ACP’s caravan and now the pre-take-off drill was done, with each item repeated aloud, so that Peter could check them all. Maurice came up out of his position in the nose for the take-off and sat beside Max. I flicked my lights to the ACP to indicate that I was ready and immediately he gave me the ‘green’ from his signalling lamp, as all the aircraft from the other side of the perimeter track had taken off while we were sorting out our problem.

‘We taxied out slowly, keeping as near to the end of the runway as possible in order to use every yard of it that we could for take-off. We rolled forward a short distance to straighten the tail wheel, then stopped again. The friction nut on the throttles was tightened firmly so that they would not work shut if my hands came off them for any reason. Gyro was set on ‘zero’ and ‘unengaged’, i.e. it was free to spin and to indicate any change in direction in the darkness up beyond the end of the two rows of runway lights.

‘I opened the throttles to the gate’ (normal maximum power position) for the two inboard engines as Peter reported, ‘Fuel pumps on. All set for take-off!’ ‘The motors were not the only thing revved up, as the adrenaline was flowing and I always got a feeling of ‘goose pimples’ with the sound of the Merlins at full throttle. The ACP flashed another ‘green’ indicating that the runway was clear. I told the crew, ‘Righto, here we go!’

‘With the throttles for the outboard engines neatly half opened and Peter holding the inboard throttles open, I released the brakes and pushed the control column as far forward as I could to get the tail up as quickly as possible. The aircraft had been vibrating with all this power on and the wheels locked with the brakes. Now it surged forward in spite of the full load. I corrected any tendency of the aircraft to swing with the thrust of the engines by using the starboard throttles. When we had the tail up and were heading straight along the runway, I took the outboard throttles to the ‘gate’ also and called to Peter, ‘Full power through the gate!’ He pushed all four throttles past the gate to the ‘Emergency’ position and locked the friction as tight as he could get it so that the throttles could not creep back when he took his hands off them.

‘Full power locked on!’ he reported.

‘I felt the extra power as a thrust in my back. A quick glance at the gauges for revs and boost confirmed that all the engines were OK and, with both hands now on the control column, I concentrated on those two rows of lights between which we now raced. I held the aircraft down so that we were not bumped prematurely into the air as we went over a slight rise about three-quarters of the way down the runway. This would have us in the air in a poor flying attitude and one in which it took longer to build up speed. As we came to the end of the runway I eased back on the control column and we climbed away.

‘Undercart up!’

‘Peter repeated the order and selected ‘Up’. The red warning lights came on, then went out as the undercarriage became fully retracted. We had reached 135mph, which was the minimum flying speed at which you could stay in the air with three engines and a full load. I always relaxed a little and breathed more easily once we had 135 on the clock. (Fourteen trips later I was very busy for a while at this stage, as I had to shut down the port outer engine due to a coolant leak at a height of 400 feet!) Now I asked Peter for 2,850 revs and +9 boost which brought the throttles back to the normal ‘full power’ position, at a height of 400 feet.

‘Flaps up in easy stages.’

‘Peter repeated and complied, raising them five degrees at a time, while I re-trimmed the aircraft to accommodate these changes. A mistake made with this operation, with the flaps raised too quickly, would cause the aircraft to lose lift, then a stall and a crash could occur! With training and growing confidence between the two of us, I did not hesitate to call on Peter to operate the flaps on both take-off and landing. Although he had had no training as a pilot, he now had a good understanding of changes in conditions, which required slightly different operation of the flaps. A crew that understood what each had to do and co-operated so that it was done most efficiently was on its way to being a good crew and good crews had the best chance of surviving!

‘With the flaps up and a climbing speed of 145-150 mph, I asked for ‘2,650 rpm and +7 boost’. Peter repeated the details and brought the throttles back to our ‘climbing power’ setting. We climbed on a heading of 270 degrees and shortly Max told me to turn back to base, then, when back over base, we set course on our first leg to Reading and we were on our way at last! Large bombing raids certainly took a long time to get under way and were not a case of ‘sit in the dispersal hut and scramble when the siren sounded’ as in the Battle of Britain days for fighter boys. ‘Otto’ and ‘Kari’, our two legendary German night fighter boys, who patrolled the northern and southern sectors of Germany, were probably sitting around waiting to hear where we were heading tonight!

‘At 10,000 feet we lowered the engine revs to save both fuel and the engines and completed a check of the oxygen flowing to all of the crew, also checking the emergency intercom. On this run to Reading we kept a very sharp lookout for other aircraft as they climbed from the various airfields to join the main bomber stream, all heading for this first turning point. I tested the autopilot and after an initial ‘kick-up’ ‘George’ engaged, which I anticipated, settled down and functioned quite well. I then disengaged it and we continued our climb. At Reading we had the benefit of all the other aircraft still having their navigation lights on but I still had to dive a little to avoid one clot who turned without checking that we were there!

‘We set course for Beachy Head and that bacon and eggs for tea seemed well down now and I nibbled some chocolate, interrupting Peter’s log keeping to give him some. He answered with a ‘thumbs up’ ‘thank you’ before going back to his log and ‘gallons per hour used’, etc. I called to each of the crew in turn to ask how things were in each position and to see if the gunners’ heated gear was working OK. All replied ‘OK, no problems’ and Maurie merely rolled over and went back to snoozing. His time for hi looking for fighters and later guiding us to the target had not yet arrived.

‘After altering course slightly at Beachy Head we were out over the Channel. Here I got to thinking that the tension, although under control, was too high. I thought of offering a prayer for a safe return and wondered whether or not I might be a good I leader and set an example to my crew. I was having trouble maintaining our required rate of climb, so I asked Peter for a slight increase of 50 rpm, which meant that he had to re-synchronise the four engines. If this was not done correctly, the sound of the engines developed a ‘beat’, which seemed to go right through your head after a few minutes and the best way of doing this was to look along the line of the two propellers on each side. The ‘shadows’ of the props appeared to move when they were out of sync’ and remained practically still when the engines were synchronised to the same rpm. A small thing really and I suppose I should not have let it get to me but in my book it was just ‘tidy’ flying and one less thing to get on the nerves of skipper and crew.

‘I switched off the external lighting master switch and the boys checked that the lights were all out. (Some chaps went over Germany with their lights on and a few of them even returned!) We were climbing again and Jock now had on his ‘village inn’, the automatic gun-laying turret. After he had adjusted the settings it worked well, giving warning ‘beeps’ on the intercom when another aircraft came within range of its radar scanning beam. The ‘beeps’ got louder and more frequent as the other aircraft came closer, building up the tension until Jock identified it through the small infra-red telescope mounted near his gunsight. All our aircraft were fitted with two infra-red flashing lights in the nose and these were visible in the rear gunner’s telescope. The rate of exchange in the frequency of the ‘beeps’ is what I listened for and when there was little or no change it usually meant that another Lanc had drifted across our track and Jock would come through with ‘It’s OK, Skip, it’s one of ours’.

‘Maurie was now lying on his stomach with his head down in the perspex bubble, keeping a look-out down below. Max gave me an ETA for the next turning point and then muttered some suitable comments about the Germans and the radar jamming in particular, as his ‘Gee’ set had just become unusable because of the jamming signals obscuring everything else on the screen.

‘I asked him about the H2S airborne radar ‘How is your ‘Y-set’?’

‘OK so far,’ he replied and on we flew.

‘Five minutes later Max was back on the intercom and very annoyed! The ‘Y-set’ had packed up now and this was serious. We were over cloud, unable to see anything on the ground and had no means of establishing our exact position, with a long way to go to the target and back again, as well as keeping clear of those heavily defended areas mentioned at briefing.

‘Jack had just received the first Broadcast Wind which he gave to Max, who commented, ‘I hope they’re accurate tonight because we haven’t got anything else.’

‘He was not the only one who had that hope. I quietly thought to myself what a big place Germany was to be flying over with no navigational gear, except a compass, a watch and a Broadcast Wind! It would be bad enough after the target, as I always said that we could get home by flying ‘west with a bit of north in it’. But the route going in was going to be tricky, if those Broadcast Winds were not accurate or if we missed them when they were broadcast.

‘Jack,’ I said, ‘you will be careful not to miss those Broadcast Winds won’t you?’

‘That’s for sure, Skip, you can count on it!’

‘I quietly thought to myself, ‘Yes, I knew I could’ and it was that feeling of complete confidence in each other, which had grown up through our training together that was so important now. As I thought about it I realised that I had the same confidence in the other crews in the Squadron and in the other squadrons, who would be sending back their calculated details of the wind, as we had done on other trips. So of course the Broadcast Winds would be accurate! That is what made Bomber Command the force that it was!

‘How’s the heat tonight, Stan?’ Jack was doing his usual thorough check of all his responsibilities, as well as making sure of receiving the Broadcast Winds and, I suspected at the time, was just making sure the Skipper was not brooding on the loss of the ‘Y-set’.

‘OK, thanks, Jack!’

‘All right with you, Max?’ he asked but Max was not really paying attention to the heating or anything else, except his navigational problems after the failure of his equipment.

‘It’s fine but if you have any spare heat you could try to unfreeze that scanner,’ he replied.

‘No hope of that, I’m afraid,’ said Jack.

‘Aye, what about the poor bloody frozen gunners?’ Jock had joined in the talk. ‘It’s all right for you lot with all your mod cons. Curly and I have got minus 23 degrees back here!’

‘Isn’t your electrical heating working, Jock?’

‘Aye, it is. Skipper but it’s still bloody cold!’

‘Don’t let your turret freeze up will you?’ (I realised that it was quite a while since I had felt the slight swing of the nose of the aircraft caused by the rear turret being turned from one side to the other and then back again to check free movement.) Curly joined in. ‘No chance of that, Stan!’

‘Good, Curly,’ I replied, smiling to myself at the immediate ‘banding together’ of the two gunners against any implied criticism. A minute or two later I felt the nose swing slightly one way then the other as Jock checked his turret and I had another quiet smile to myself.

‘We were lucky as we approached ETA Frankfurt as there was a break in the cloud ahead to port and we could see the searchlights. Max was pleased, as so this put us bang on track, so we turned on ETA alongside Frankfurt. So far, good and all was well!

‘Maurie said, ‘I think we’re going into those lights!’

‘They always looked closer than they really were, particularly from his position out front. I did not know if he thought that I would fly straight into a group of searchlights, which were not defending our target, or if he was just getting a little ‘on edge’. We were right on track with not too much further to go and this was the turning-point that I was worried about when we lost the ‘Y-set’, as being only slightly off course would have put us right over the defences of Frankfurt.

‘Nice work, Max! We hit that turning point right on the nose!’ it ‘Good, Stan. Those winds must be spot on, thank heavens!’

‘Blast the idiot!’ Some clot had jettisoned his load of incendiaries. They were strung out, burning on the ground, marking our new course for every night fighter this side of Stuttgart to see! Thank heavens the clouds were moving across again so that they were being screened. Occasionally, another aircraft was seen near us and identified as friendly, either visually or by Jock through his infra-red telescope.

‘Max now wanted a slight increase in our speed to make our next turning point on time, so Peter had to re-synchronise the engines, while still keeping a lookout on the starboard side. Occasionally we ‘hit’ the slipstream of another aircraft and this threw us around but it was a good sign as it meant that someone else was flying our course and we hoped that his navigation equipment was functioning correctly so he was right on track. It also meant that we were not the only aircraft on this area for the German radar-predicted flak guns to concentrate on, if there was a unit near here.

‘Even when experienced many times, the effect of ‘hitting’ the slipstream of a four-engined aircraft still caused the old heart to thump a bit. It was as though some giant hand had taken hold of the aircraft and twisted it one way and up or down at the same time! There was nothing you could do about it, except to push the control column forward and apply full opposite ‘bank’ to avoid a possible stall and to level the wings. After a matter of a few seconds that felt like hours, the aircraft would dive through the area of affected air and return to normal ‘feel’ and control again.

‘As we sat there flying steadily on towards the target, I did not realize that the tension was gradually mounting until something very simple annoyed me, then I had a quiet talk to myself. ‘Relax, you silly goat. Things are under control!’ The clip for the oxygen tube to my face mask had slipped off the strap of my parachute harness, so that the whole length of the tube was dangling from the face mask and was dragging it whenever I turned my head, which was nearly constantly at this stage of the trip. I had got annoyed at the fool of a way of securing it, as it would not stay in place but at the next try it remained fixed and all thoughts of animosity towards it and its inventor died without trace.

‘I checked through the crew again with some casual remark to each of them and judged by their replies whether their oxygen supply was OK and for any signs that they were tensing up.

‘Any icicles out the back, Jock?’

‘No, not yet, Stan but it’s none too warm, ye know!’

‘He was all right and wide awake. ‘How are things on top Curly? Can you see anything?’

‘No. Everything is quiet up here, Stan. Where are we now?’ (Evidently my turn for a test!)

‘Just running north of Leipzig, Curl.’

‘Leipzig. OK.’

‘Anything down there Maurie?’

‘Yes. A heck of a lot of cloud but nothing else!’

‘What petrol are we using at this rate, Peter?’

‘About 185 per hour, Stan. I’ll check on my tables if you like.’

‘No, that’s OK, thanks. Is that a chink of light through the curtain there?’

‘Whereabouts, Stan?’

‘Instantly, Peter was searching the blackout curtain between us and the navigator’s area for any sign of light. ‘It’s all right, Pete, it’s only a reflection from the perspex in your bubble.’ (This ‘bubble’ in the side window on the starboard side allowed Peter to look down and it had caught some stray light from outside and reflected it into our area.)

‘What is our ETA at this last turning-point, Max?’

‘After a while Max replied, ‘Well, it’s hard to say as I’m only running on DR (Dead Reckoning) based on Broadcast Winds. I hope they’re somewhere near accurate!’

‘How do you think they are?’

‘Not too bad so far, I think, Stan. Our ETA is 2357.’

‘How does that make us for time?’

‘About a minute late, so step it up a little, if you can.

‘OK, Max, I’ll try 170 but this kite is getting old now.’

‘Righto, Stan but we need a bit more speed.’

‘2,350 revs, thanks, Peter.

‘2,350. Right, Stan.’

‘The revs were increased and I kept checking the airspeed to see if I could coax that extra 5 mph. In a newer aircraft I would have just put the nose down for 200 to 300 feet, then level out when we had 170 and slowly pick up the height again. ‘J-Johnny’ was reluctant to go much over 17,000 feet and it would be a hard job to pick up the height that we had lost. After a while, with no increase in speed visible, I asked Peter for 2,400 revs and eased the nose forward slightly to gain that extra speed. As the speed increased I carefully kept it and coaxed ‘Johnny’ back up again to approximately 17,500 feet. (The Lanc was very hard to accelerate by use of engines alone. Anything up to 300 revs increase had to be used to get the extra speed. But then only 50 revs over the original were needed to hold it, so the easiest way to increase revs by the amount necessary to the hold speed and actually gain that speed was by losing height gently followed by slowly regaining the lost altitude.) ‘You can put the bomb sight on now, Maurie!’

‘OK, Stan. Is ‘George’ right out?’

‘Yes and has been for over an hour!’ (Bombsight gyros needed time to settle and it was best to give them about half an hour.) Up ahead we could now see the bright patch on the clouds caused by a searchlight belt and we were thankful that the cloud was there shielding us. There was nothing to do but search the sky for fighters and fly on and continue to search.

‘What’s that over there on the port bow?’

‘Yes, there was something black there!’

‘I searched for it by looking slightly away from where I thought it was and then I saw that it was another aircraft, which looked like a Lanc. ‘Curly, can you see that aircraft on the port bow, slightly up?’

‘After a short wait: ‘Yes, it’s another Lanc I think, Stan.’

‘The aircraft did not close in or move away and gradually I could make out the twin fins and rudders and the four Merlins. He was close enough but he was above us and headed our way! On we flew and I started to look for the time to turn at the last turning point before the target.

‘There are some fighters about, Stan, I think,’ said Jock. ‘I’ve just seen two of their flares out here behind us (small flares were used by the night fighters to indicate our route). Try looking right back past the port rudder fin. I can just see the two tiny orbs of red light dropping slowly.’

‘Yes, you’re right, Jock. Keep your eyes open for them now, the pair of you.

‘Aye, I will! Jock replied in his broad Scots accent.

‘Yes, right,’ said Curly and our nervous system got another notch tighter.

‘How’s our ETA, Max?’

‘Two minutes to run but we’re still a bit late, so we have to turn early and ‘cut the corner’, OK?’

‘Yes, OK, Max. What is the next course?’

‘179, Stan – I’ll tell you when to turn.’

‘179! Right, Max.’ I resumed searching from side to side and back again and repeated this again and again and again, as there were likely to be other aircraft making good this turning-point after some slight variation from their proper track. Others might be going to ‘cut the corner’ earlier than we were and could be coming across us.

‘All right, start turning now, Stan.’

‘Turning on to 179! Thanks!’ Making sure it was clear; we came round to 179.

‘Steering 179 now, Max.’

‘OK, Stan. I think we should just about be right on time at this speed! Twenty-one minutes to run to the target.’

‘Twenty-one! OK:’

‘As I looked ahead I saw a glow in the distance and realised that it was the glow of the fires started by the earlier attack by 5 Group! After all this flying we were at last getting near the target!132 OK Max, I can see it ahead and there is a break in the clouds so should get a good run.

‘Rather agitated, Max asked, ‘How far is it ahead?’

‘Oh, quite some distance yet – about 15-20 minutes I would guess.’

‘Oh, righto. I thought you meant we were nearly there and that I had boobed and got us here too early!’

‘Not likely with you worrying over our times all the way, Max!’

‘This course will put us bang on target too! Turn on the VHF will you, Jack?’

‘She’s on, Skipper.’

‘OK, thanks.’ I selected channel C and after a few seconds the background noise told us that the set had warmed up and I left it turned on waiting for the Master Bomber to start broadcasting. A few more fighter flares were seen, so they knew where we were and everyone was now very wide awake and searching the sky intently. Jack received the Bombing Wind and, after Max converted it, passed it to Maurie.

‘3-1-5, 25. Right, thanks, Max.’

‘Maurie set it into his bombsight. We were tracking nicely towards the target and suddenly a voice came on the headphones. ‘Snodgrass I to Snodgrass 2. Here is a time check. In twenty seconds it will be 0015. 10… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Now! Over’

‘Snodgrass 2 to Snodgrass 1. Loud and clear. Out!’

‘It was all so very British! Here we were running into the target in the heart of Germany after 4½ hours flying with no ‘navigational aids and wondering how we were going to make it. Now, when we were at last in sight of the target, we were being greeted by a couple of typically English chaps with very English call signs, quietly checking that they had got the time right, down to the last second! Our reception was all right, so we did not have to worry about the other sets. The illuminating flares were going down now and they hung in the sky in rows like gigantic yellow lanterns. More and more of them dropped and the whole sky in that area was lit up.

‘Just hold it steady about there Skip and we should be right on it.’

‘OK, Maurie!’

‘Curly and Jack keep that search going. They’re dropping more fighter flares. Are you in the astrodome Jack?’

‘In the astrodome, Skipper!’

‘Aye, I’ve got my eyes wide open, Skip’.

‘She’s right, mate,’ replied Curly.

‘The TIs were being dropped now and Maurie was satisfied with our track towards the target. ‘Yes, there go the TIs, Skipper. We’re right on track!’

‘How are we for time, Max?’

‘Three and a half minutes to run.’

‘Fair enough!’

‘The target was now obscured from my view, as it had passed under the line of the nose of the aircraft. Peter was busy pushing ‘Window’ down the ‘chute to confuse the German radar operators.

‘Again a voice came loudly out of nowhere. ‘Snodgrass 1 to Press On. Bomb on the red and green TIs. Bomb on the red and green TIs. Out.’ This was repeated by the R/T link.

‘The red and greens. OK, Skip,’ said Maurie. ‘Left! Left! Steady!’ he chanted and I repeated and executed these instructions as he alone now guided the aircraft to the bomb release point.

‘Steady!’

‘I replied ‘Steady’ as I tried to keep the aircraft straight and level while still watching out for other aircraft near us on our level, directly above and slightly ahead. The greatest danger over the target was not from searchlights, flak or fighters (who usually stayed clear of the area immediately over the target to give the flak gunners an ‘open go’) but collisions or being bombed by an aircraft above us. I was watching another Lanc on my side that was slowly crossing our course slightly above us, when Peter pointed out one on his side also. I watched these two as we continued our run-in.

‘Left! Left! Steady!’ These were repeated and executed and Maurie’s chant became, ‘Steady! Steady! Steady!’ The aircraft on the starboard side had crossed OK and was now just clear of us but the one on the port side was going to be a nuisance! There were not many searchlights and little flak, thank goodness! A very bright searchlight came very close but at the last moment before catching us it swung away. There was no more noise than usual while the sounds of bombs exploding, as heard in Hollywood movies, proved that the producer had never been here! Exploding flak was usually seen but was only heard when it was very close and if you could smell the cordite as well it was time for a ‘damage report’!

‘Steady! Steady! Left! Left! Steady!’ chanted Maurie and I complied. ‘That aircraft is getting closer!’

‘We might just make it, as the release point must be close.’

‘Steady! Bomb bay doors open!’ I repeated and executed.

‘Snodgrass 1 to Press On! Bomb the centre of the red and green TIs. Bomb the centre of the red and green TIs. Out.’

‘Did you get that, Maurie?’ I switched off the VHF to cut out the R/T link’s voice, which might have interfered with Maurie’s instructions.

‘Yes. Centre of red and greens,’ Maurie replied quickly.

‘Steady! Steady! Steady!’

‘I felt a slight bump, like someone kicking the wooden seat of a chair you are sitting in.

‘Cookie gone! Incendiaries going,’ reported Maurie.

‘The red camera light started to blink in front of me but I was more concerned with the aircraft that was coming from the port side and was now nearly above us. As his bomb bay doors were open, I turned away to starboard.

‘Sorry Maurie!’ I said. ‘Another photo gone west but he nearly bombed us!’

‘OK, Skip, take it away.’

‘We had bombed at 18,000 feet, having lost our extra 500 feet running in from the last turning point. As we straightened up again I brought the rev levers up until we had 2,500 and with nose down we headed out of the target with 220 on the clock.

‘179 is the course, Skip’, Max came through, as though we were just leaving a practice bombing range.

‘OK, Max. Are things quiet up there with you, Curly?’

‘Yes, OK, Skip but I think there are fighters about as there’s a Lanc in these searchlights.’

‘OK. Keep that search going well.’

‘Corkscrew port, go!’

‘I heard the turret machine-guns open up as Jock’s call came through. With a warning of ‘Down port!’ I threw everything into the corner, full port bank, full port rudder and control column forward. We heeled over and dived to port and as the speed built up we came out of it as I dragged back on the control column, calling to the gunners ‘Changing – up port!’ With the buildup in speed we went up like a lift. Before we lost all this speed I called ‘Changing – up starboard!’ Then, as we lost speed, ‘Changing – down starboard!’ As we started to dive again, Jock called, ‘Resume course, go! It’s OK, Skip, he passed us by but he’s disappeared up in the starboard beam so keep your eyes open for him, Curly.’

‘Starboard beam up. OK, Jock.’

‘We settled down again on our course, with everyone alert and searching intently.

‘Next course is 2-1-5, Stan.’

‘OK, turning on to 2-1-5.’

‘All clear starboard, Stan,’ reported Peter. Aircraft that were visible in the glare over the target could not be seen now but we did see one or two that turned close to us. We settled on to the new course and, after a few minutes, I looked back to starboard and saw Dresden burning. While I watched, I saw a fire start in the air and there, against the target, appeared the perfect miniature outline of a Lanc. The port wing burned furiously and, after flying level for a few seconds, the aircraft heeled over and dived down as the wing fell off. We were too far away to see if any ‘chutes came out. ‘One of our aircraft is missing.’ Max logged the time, height and position.

‘Are you busy Max?’

‘No, not for the moment.’

‘Well, you wanted to see a target.’

‘Righto, Stan.’

‘Max came out from behind his curtain and asked, ‘Where?’

‘I pointed to the rear over my left shoulder where the yellow of the flares, the white of the incendiaries burning on the ground, the searchlights and the pin-point of light in the sky (from the flak at the stragglers from ‘last phase’) could clearly be seen. Clouds of smoke rose thousands of feet into the air. With the last of the red and green TIs, it completed a Technicolor nightmare of Hell.

‘Aagh! I never want to see that again,’ said Max. ‘I’ll go back to my charts. You can keep that.’

‘But he stayed a bit longer to look hard at the scene, before disappearing back behind his curtain. I suppose it was an awful shock to suddenly be confronted with such a sight. I realised that the rest of us had become used to this type of scene, while Max had spent his time on each trip at his charts without knowing what was actually happening outside the aircraft and what it looked like. I never did find out what his thoughts about it really were but I suspected that he actually was a very sensitive type, who disliked being suddenly confronted with such a scene of destruction. I never knew anyone who really liked the job but I suppose there were some who did.

‘It looks like we’ve done our job,’ remarked Peter.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I don’t think we’ll have to come back again…All right, now, let’s see that none of those fighters jump us on the way home. Are you going down in your bubble, Maurie?’

‘Yes Stan. I’ll give you a call when I want a rest from flying upside down.’ (When he did I rolled the aircraft over until Curly could see down under us and called, ‘All clear, starboard’, then I rolled it over on to the other wingtip and waited for his call, ‘All clear, port’.)

‘We’re on the job too, Stan, you can count on it,’ said Jock.

‘That’s right, Stan,’ joined in Curly.

‘Good, I’m glad to hear it. How long to our next turning-point, Max?’

‘Not for quite a while yet, Stan. This is a long leg and I’ll let you know in good time.’

‘Right, Max.’

‘I noted that, as usually happened, the crew tended to be informal in speaking to me, except during take-off and landing and when we were near the target area, when it became ‘skipper’ or ‘Skip’. I assumed this was unconscious recognition of their reliance on me but that reliance was really each other, so perhaps it was only a matter of naturally looking for a leader i times of stress and danger.

‘Can I have the ‘1196’ in for our ‘Darkie’ watch please, Jack.’

‘Yes. It’s on now, Stan.’

‘Thanks.’

‘I thought back on the attack and the roles of the various participants. From the Master Bomber who often marked the Aiming Point from only 3,000 feet, to the marker crews from the Pathfinder Force, to the Flare Force aircraft and to the Main Force; a very complex machine of destruction. The Marker crews and Flare Force aircraft dropped their TIs and flares over the target, then turned away, flying around and rejoining the stream of Main Force aircraft coming into the target, then dropping their bombs on their second run through the target. Once through the target was enough for me but before not too many more trips we were selected as a Flare Force crew, finally joining the Pathfinders for the rest of the war.

‘We flew on and on, making the next turning point and turning more westerly, now that we were past Nuremberg. Presently I saw a patch of light in the sky to port and wondered what searchlights they were, until it dawned on me that they were the lights on the shores of Lake Constance, Switzerland! I wondered what they thought of the war, apart from the money they were making. Being neutral certainly paid off, when you could be the world’s clearing house! I told Max and he was quite satisfied. We were slightly off track to the south but we were clear of Stuttgart so we waited until we were very close to the light before altering course to nearly due west, along the Swiss border towards France.

‘I was tired and hungry, which was no wonder as we had now been in the air over nine hours. My last piece of chocolate tasted very good, poor quality or not and a cup of sergeants’ mess tea from Peter’s thermos tasted wonderful and helped get the eyes open again. I had ‘George’ doing the work now but had my hand on the lever to disengage the autopilot the moment anything happened, so there was only a partial relaxation. Across the Rhine now, we altered course for England, losing height as we went so that our airspeed built up to 200 on the clock. If the Jerry fighters wanted us they would have to find us and catch us. My thoughts wandered. Dresden had certainly copped it but hang this supporting ‘Joe Stalin’ and his boys – it was just too damn far. Helping Monty and his merry men was much more ‘the shot’ that appealed now.

Peter broke into my wandering thoughts to ask if I had changed the supercharger control down to ‘medium’ as we had descended into that range. He was happy to know that I had and it was good to know that he was still right on the job, although like all of us he was now very tired.

‘Halfway across France Max told me that his ‘Gee’ set was working again. ‘We are only fifteen miles off track, Stan but you had better alter 30 degrees to starboard to avoid that possible trouble spot they mentioned at briefing.’

‘Righto, Max. Altering 30 degrees to port. Now.’ (Trouble spot? Briefing? That all seemed days ago. I seemed to have been sitting in this seat for a week.) Only fifteen miles off after more than 4 hours’ navigating back from the target by dead reckoning and the Broadcast Winds, was a terrific effort and I congratulated Max, who merely uttered that ‘George’, our dog mascot, must have really been looking after us.

‘The French coast was crossed, then the Channel, through the fence of lights at Orfordness, navigation lights ‘on’ and nose down for base. As we approached I listened out and heard the various boys calling up as they reached home and I checked out who had arrived back safely. Our beacon flashing ‘BK’ was a very welcome sight. There was no ‘story book’ or ‘Yankee film’ welcome, just ‘Johnny’, 1,500 feet’ from the control tower. I knew that my call for permission to land had been heard in the debriefing room, where we would be posted up on the ‘Returned’ board.

‘It all happened very quickly now and after more than 9½ hours in the air I shook myself wide awake to make sure that nothing could go wrong in the last few minutes. We had permission to join the circuit. Maurie was out of the nose. I called ‘Downwind’ and immediately Doug called me, ‘Keep in close, Stan, I’m right behind you.’

‘Right, Doug,’ I replied in strictly non-RAF R/T procedure.

‘I flew a tight circuit on the ring of lights surrounding the circuit area, cut in close at the ‘funnel’ leading to the start of the runway and wasted no time. Doug Creeper would have swung a little wider and turned into the funnel a little later than usual to give me time to get clear of the landing area so that he would not have to go around again. After nearly 10 hours in the air, having to waste time by flying round the circuit again was something no one wanted, particularly when we landed 23 aircraft in less than 33 minutes.

‘Johnny’. Funnels!’

‘Johnny’. Pancake!’

‘Johnny’. Pancaking. Out. Full flaps. 2,850 revs.

‘Peter complied. I managed to grease it on and Jock gave his greatest praise – complete silence! As soon as I touched down, Control called, ‘Keep rolling,‘

‘Johnny’.’

‘Johnny’ rolling,’ I replied, with a quiet smile to myself. I was not likely to stop in front of my mate and have him land on me, when we had just worked things so that we could both get down quickly. I suppose our talking between ourselves was not heard officially but they ‘officially’ warned the aircraft that had just landed that another was landing immediately behind. At that time of the morning it was all a bit much for me.

‘We arrived back at our dispersal and were greeted by the ground crew who were pleased to hear that we had no trouble with the aircraft and that there was no damage to it that we knew of. In the crew bus going back to the crew room we greeted other crews, talking tiredly about the trip and any trouble they may have had. Jack dumped his gear quickly and hurried to the debriefing room to put our name on the board and so reserve our place in the queue of crews waiting to be debriefed. The rest of us arrived shortly afterwards. By way of an informal report, the Squadron Commander asked me, ‘How was it, Stan? Much flak, any damage, good run to the target?’

‘A pretty quiet trip, thanks, sir,’ I replied. ‘Only light flak and a few fighters about but I don’t think we have any damage.’

‘Good – it was a long one and you will be looking for bed. Tell your crew to turn in straight away too.

‘Right. Thanks, sir, I will.’

‘As I turned away I thought that there was something odd about that last remark but then one of the other skippers spoke to me and the thought went out of my head. As I headed for a cup of tea, the Doc was there quietly running his eye over each of us without any fuss.

‘How was it?’ he asked.

‘Not bad, Doc but it was a long one. Nine hours 45 in the alit’

‘Yes, a good night’s sleep is what you need. Do you want anything?’

‘No thanks, Doc. I have no trouble. I’m off to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I just have to stay awake while ‘Bags of Flak’ rambles on over there’. I indicated a table at which one of the crews was being interrogated by the WAAF Intelligence Officer, known to all as ‘Bags of Flak’ due to her habit during the interview with returning crews of asking, ‘How was the target area? Bags of flak?’

‘The Doc smiled, as he was in on all the jokes and sayings round the Squadron and knew what ops were like, having closed the rear door of the Flight Commander’s aircraft five times, from the inside. ‘That’s good. If there is anything when you wake up, just drop over and see me.

‘The tea and biscuits tasted wonderful and Jock and Curly were arguing as usual over whose turn it was to have the tot of rum that I didn’t drink, as well as the tot each had already had. Jock knew very well that it was Curly’s turn but this was a harmless way to ‘unwind’ a bit after the trip and the rest of us joined in with suitable comments, while silently cursing ‘Bags of Flak’ for taking so long with each crew. At last it was our turn.

‘What time did you bomb? What did you have in your bombsight?’ she asked. (I would never forget her look of dismay and then disbelief when later, after a daylight raid on Cologne, with an Aiming Point near the cathedral, Maurie, who was bored stiff with this same question time after time, decided to liven things up by replying ‘Two nuns and a priest!’)

‘Was there much flak?’ (Someone must have told of her of her nickname’)

‘What did you think of the raid?’

‘We had a quiet trip,’ I replied. ‘A very concentrated attack. One aircraft seen shot down shortly after we left the target.’

‘Anything else?’

‘No, I think that’s the lot, thanks.’ I signed the report and at last was on my way to breakfast. While eating my bacon and eggs I vaguely heard the CO say that he thought we might be on again that night but I was too tired to care or connect. I was only interested in a good long sleep. I said ‘Cheerio, see you later’ to the others in the mess. No one was missing from the trip so we were all happy. I fell into bed at 07.45 but little did I know that I would be woken at 1245 to be told that we were on the Battle Order for that night! After a late lunch, the whole routine, just complete, would be repeated. After another trip, of 9 hours 20 minutes in the air to Chemnitz, I would fall into bed tomorrow morning, exhausted and with only one assurance that there was some limit to how often we were expected to be able to continue these operations. The Doc would tell me to get ‘a good, long sleep’. When I replied, ‘Just like yesterday Doc?’ he would quietly say, ‘No – if they try to put any of you who have flown these last two trips on a Battle Order for tonight, I will declare you ‘medically unfit’.’

‘Thank God for the Doc!

In all, during the two RAF raids 1,478 tons of HE and 1,182 tons of incendiaries were dropped. In the third attack 316 of the 450 B-17s of the 8th Air Force dispatched attacked Dresden shortly after 12 noon on 14 February, dropping 771 tons of bombs. (The Americans bombed Dresden again on 15 February and on 2 March). RAF Bomber Command casualties were six Lancasters lost with two more crashed in France and one in England. An 8000C firestorm tore through the heart of the Saxon capital, burning thousands of Dresdeners alive. In a firestorm similar to that created in Hamburg on 27/28 July 1943, an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 Germans died in Dresden. (At Böhlen the weather was bad and the bombing scattered).