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
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
2. Countering the German land offensive by attacking ground
3. A war-winning air offensive against German industry and
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
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
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.
of Home Waters and East Atlantic, in co-operation with the Royal Navy.
protection in Home Waters and East Atlantic.
WA4 German Army
concentration areas and lines of communication.
Resources; WA5(a) Ruhr, WA5(b) Inland waterways, Ruhr, Baltic, North Sea ports,
WA5(c) Outside of Ruhr.
in co-operation with Royal Navy in defence of sea-borne trade.
WA9 Kiel Canal
and associated waterways.
WA10 Shipping and
facilities, especially the Baltic.
WA11 Forests and
WA12 German fleet
in harbour or at sea.
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.
Mujahedeen rebels aim US-made Stinger missiles near
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
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.
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.
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.
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
2 February 1989 –
An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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
‘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
‘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
Flight Lieutenant Marks stood up. ‘All correct sir!’
(Indicating that all his crew were present and ready to fly).
‘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!’
‘J-Johnny’, Flying Officer Harrison.’
‘I was on my feet. ‘All correct sir!’
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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,
‘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.’
‘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
‘No, that’s OK, thanks. Is that a chink of light through the
‘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
‘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
‘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.’
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘How are we for time, Max?’
‘Three and a half minutes to run.’
‘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.
‘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
‘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
‘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.
‘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
‘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.’
‘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
‘That’s right, Stan,’ joined in Curly.
‘Good, I’m glad to hear it. How long to our next
‘Not for quite a while yet, Stan. This is a long leg and
I’ll let you know in good time.’
‘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,
‘Yes. It’s on now, Stan.’
‘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
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
‘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’ 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
‘Yes, a good night’s sleep is what you need. Do you want
‘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
‘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.’
‘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).