Western Corridor and Berlin Control Zone [BCZ] flights

De Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk T.10 WG486 of RAF Gatow Station Flight over the Brandenburg Gate in 1994. Of 1940s vintage, the venerable Chipmunk outlasted all the other aircraft types by successfully operating for forty years in the BCZ.

View from a BRIXMIS Chipmunk under fire from a Soviet soldier. Flying at low level over Soviet installations clearly carried a risk and on occasions aircraft returned with the odd extra hole. Fortunately no one was ever hurt in such incidents.

From the outset the Russians harassed flights in the Corridors, but this was inconsistent and not directed solely at ICFs. The level of harassment depended on the international political temperature at the time. In the late 1940s/early 1950s there was often harassment of flights and incidences of Russian fighters opening fire on Allied military and civilian aircraft using the Corridors. This was especially true in the lead-up to the Berlin Blockade and Airlift. The fighters sometimes flew very close to aircraft, causing crashes and fatalities, such as the BEA Viking and Yak-3 collision over Dallgow-Döberitz in April 1948.

There were certainly many near misses, but these were generally attributed to accidental miscalculation, or excessive zeal, rather than deliberately planned and officially sanctioned action, although the possibility that there was a mix of both cannot be totally discounted. There were also instances when Soviet fighters practised interception techniques on aircraft in the Corridors. In times of heightened international or local tension, there were likely to be more ‘interceptions’ and close fly-bys to demonstrate to the West the Corridors’ vulnerability. This was especially true in 1961 and 1962 when the second Berlin crisis approached its climax. Incidents that involved large numbers of MiG fighters operating within the Corridors and intercepting aircraft were discussed by the British Cabinet in February 1962. Overall, Corridor incidents may well have been under-reported to avoid drawing unwanted attention to reconnaissance flights.

In 1962 the US complained to the Soviets on a number of occasions about the interception of its Corridor flights, although few resulted in formal diplomatic protests. On 23 July, two MiGs closed to within a hundred feet of a Carol Ann CT-29 (49–1910) some 10 to 15 miles north of Tempelhof. Later on the same day, a US Overseas Airways DC-7 was shadowed for some seven to eight minutes about 70 to 80 miles west of Berlin in the Southern Corridor. The ‘interception’ took place at around 4,000ft and at one point a MiG was only 20yd from the DC-7 and flying ‘in a manner which endangered the DC-7’s safety’. The US protest added that this was the fourth serious incident in seven days.

Frank Doucette, flying aboard the Hot Pepper C-54, recounted that:

Flying in the South Corridor, we got caught with the camera door open, working. The MiG pilot looked and waved. We waved back and took his picture. When we got to Berlin we contacted ‘Homeplate’ and they said for us to go to Châteauroux Air Base, France. When we got there, we were directed into a large hangar with engines running. We shut down and there was sitting another C-54 with the same tail number. Imagine that!

The crew returned to Wiesbaden in the re-marked aircraft and for the next week continued to ‘trail their coat’ along the Corridors. ‘Captain Stan Sturgill, First-Lieutenant Ron Hummel and I flew the Corridors at maximum altitude and at its edge. We had parachutes, steel pots, and blood chits, but the Soviets didn’t take the bait as they could see the distinctive large belly radome was absent.’

One of the most serious harassment incidents was the interception of a Pembroke. On 17 January 1972 XL954 was intercepted by three MiG-17’s which thundered by in line astern. Rob Fallon, one of the navigators, described how their Pembroke, flying close to the edge of the Southern Corridor, suddenly started bouncing around:

Immediately the radio became very frantic and we went onto a discrete frequency. The pilot lowered the undercarriage and flaps and brought XL954 down close to its stall speed and moved us back onto the corridor centreline. Meanwhile we were bouncing around in the back, rewinding the film to re-expose it, expecting that we might have to force land. Our cover story suddenly looked very thin. I had been reading the Gulag Archipelago at the time and had visions that, even if very lucky, we might end up in Siberia for a very long time!

The MiG-17s couldn’t compete with such slow speed, so carried on circling in order to stay with us. Soon another aircraft, this time a MiG-21, came up. It flew on a reciprocal heading beneath us and close enough to see the pilot looking up and waving. We could easily see the missiles loaded under the wings; he was probably at around 2,000ft. Radar was talking to us continually and monitored its approach.

After the event the RAF received an apology for the incident from the Russians through the BASC. The excuse given was that a trainee radar operator monitoring the Corridors had mis-plotted an aircraft, showing it had an apparent ground speed of 600 knots. Checking the inbound flight plans to Berlin, the only thing around was a twin-engined RAF aircraft and he made the assumption that it was one of our new RAF Phantoms commencing an attack run on Berlin to start World War Three! They were told that we were not shot down, or forced to land, because the first CAP MiG to buzz us told his control that the aircraft was not a Phantom and perhaps they should check again.

One significant piece of intelligence came out of this incident. The intercepting pilots could be heard talking in Russian. This confirmed Soviet involvement in CAPs because until then the intelligence suggested that only East Germans operated the alert and CAP aircraft.

A number of possible reasons explain the near misses experienced by Allied reconnaissance aircraft in the Corridors, such as high cockpit workloads causing distraction, failing to understand ATC instructions, and some because individual pilots wanted to ‘show off’ or be ‘mischievous’. Despite the harassment, not a single Allied aircraft operating in the Corridors or BCZ on reconnaissance operations was brought down, although the Soviets had shown on many occasions that they were quite prepared to bring down overflights and peripheral missions and to harass civilian and military flights en route to Berlin. There are instances of Allied aircraft leaving the relative safety of the Corridors but these were rare and largely undocumented. When they happened noisy Soviet protests usually followed, but not always. On 6 May 1975 an RAF Pembroke strayed from the Centre Corridor, penetrating into GDR airspace by 3½ miles. It eventually regained the Corridor after flying some 15 miles further before flying on to RAF Wildenrath. The British BASC element reported: ‘no contact was possible on any frequency’ with the aircraft until after it re-entered the Corridor. The Soviet controller in the BASC was not told of the incursion and no protest was filed.

Official records cast no light on the reasons for this ‘diversion’ so any explanation is speculative. Deliberately leaving the Corridor, even just by a few miles, was very risky. Such action would have to be approved at a very high level and justified by an intelligence priority of the highest order. Close-in ‘looks’ happened very rarely. They were never ‘officially’ authorised and there would be no official instructions. At the crew brief it could be suggested that, if conditions allowed, they might fly to the very edge of the Corridor to photograph a target of great importance but the final decision rested with the crew. In the event of a Soviet protest, the crew might receive an ‘interview without coffee and biscuits from their CO’, which was then instantly forgotten. The simple explanation is that there was probably a navigational error and the pilot eased the aircraft back into the Corridor rather than make an abrupt turn, in the hope that no one would notice it.

However, in this instance, the following day another Pembroke, most likely a passenger aircraft flying from RAF Gütersloh to Gatow along the Centre Corridor, adjacent to where the previous day’s Pembroke had left the Corridor, was subjected to a frightening airmiss:

the twin jet came from the South [and] passed in front of Pembroke by approx. 50yd. Then made a left turn onto a Southerly heading and disappeared from the Pembroke pilot’s view.

Unable to identify it definitively, the pilot described it as a ‘twin jet, swept wing with red star on fuselage’.

No other details of this incident are available, but the airmiss could indicate that the previous day’s excursion had indeed been noticed by the Soviets and was a sign of their displeasure.

As serious as reconnaissance flights were, a number of incidents, with a humorous side, illustrate that the Soviets had a very clear picture of what the Allies were doing. Phil Chaney described that during his tour: ‘one week before Christmas at an airfield on the Centre Corridor trampled out in the thick snow, just in front of the tower, in English and in time for the routine Pembroke’s overflight was “Happy Christmas”.’

Others have recounted similar messages. Indeed, snow seems to have been a popular medium for Soviet communication with overflying aircraft. As well as simple greetings there were also forthright expressions of the desire that the recipients ‘go away’ – or words to that effect. Phil Chaney describes another contact with the Russians around 1980 during a darts match against members of the BASC in the Gatow Officers’ Mess. ‘While I was playing against the Russian Colonel, he turned to me and asked, very slowly, if I was visiting on “The Pembroke” – then winked!’

Major General Peter Williams, who did two tours with BRIXMIS, was convinced that even the East German population knew precisely what the Chipmunks did. He recalls:

On one occasion a forester stopped us on tour as we were trying to creep up on a Soviet radar deployment in a forest north of Potsdam and, taking no notice of our protestations of incomprehension, announced: ‘Sorry, but you’re too late! The Russians were here for four days with about a dozen trucks, but they went home to Schönwalde late this morning. But don’t worry, your little plane came over and buzzed them earlier!’

Similarly, on 26 March 1981 there was a BASC Senior Controllers meeting. At the time there were a number of ongoing disputes between the western allies and the Soviets over a number of issues. These included a very close ‘airmiss’ between a Soviet helicopter and a Panam airlines B-727, a bullet that had struck an RAF C-130 landing at RAF Gatow and the Soviets unhappy with the conduct of western light aircraft flights within the BCZ, but especially the British and their Chipmunk in parts of the zone. At the time the Soviet Chief Controller, Colonel Evstigneyev was seen as rather a testy and excitable man and during the meeting he protested a number of times about alleged low flying transgressions in the Karlshorst and Werneuchen airfield areas of the Chipmunk and said: ‘Earlier this week the British Chipmunk was near Karlshorst taking pictures. The pilot took some of me walking between buildings. May I have copies please.’ Roy Marsden has also asserted that the Soviets knew exactly what the RAF Chipmunks were up to. He has said that in meetings with Soviet SERB officers they ‘often made oblique references to those who participated, about the Chipmunk aircraft and where it had been seen over installations both inside and allegedly outside the BCZ’. He believes that the Soviets largely turned a blind eye to many of the West’s intelligence-gathering activities in and over Berlin and the GDR. He thinks many senior Soviet officers, up until the late 1970s, had served in the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) and did not want to repeat that experience. They perhaps thought the way to deter a Western pre-emptive attack was to let them see just how strong Warsaw Pact forces were and that this would dissuade ‘any reckless Western politicians’ from risking conflict for a ‘quick victory’.

Why not Stronger Countermeasures?

If well aware of Allied reconnaissance flights, why did the Soviet forces not undertake stronger countermeasures? There are a wide range of possible explanations for this.

Some British participants expressed the view that the lack of strong action against Western aircraft was a quid pro quo from the Soviets for the occasional wanderings of allegedly camera-equipped Aeroflot and Interflug flights that deviated from their assigned flight track to overfly military installations in Federal Germany. They would not respond to ATC instructions until they had returned to their assigned route. For example, on 29 October 1976, Aeroflot Flight SU297 from Moscow to Madrid, via Luxembourg, made a substantial deviation from its assigned track and flight level to overfly the USAF’s Bitburg Air Base. At the time the TAB-V aircraft shelters there were being modified to accept F-15 aircraft and it was strongly believed that SU297 had deliberately deviated to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the base.

Similarly Peter Jefferies recalls the time that a Mi-26 Halo heavy-lift helicopter was en route to France for its first appearance at the Paris Airshow in 1981. It transited the Corridors, as it was entitled to do, exiting into West German airspace, then deviated from its approved flight plan to overfly the USAF bases at Bitburg and Hahn. During the deviation it failed to respond to any ATC transmissions. On arrival in Paris the rear clamshell doors opened to reveal a camera on an oblique mount in the rear fuselage.

The Risks of Deliberate Shoot Downs

To deliberately bring down a Corridor reconnaissance flight without prima facie evidence of its activity would have been a very high-risk strategy for the Soviets. It would certainly have resulted in an international incident and immediately increased local tension, with the possibility of Western retaliation.

Proving aerial espionage in international airways such as the Corridors would have needed the airframe and reconnaissance equipment to survive sufficiently intact to be put on public display, like Powers’ U-2. It would have been entirely unpredictable whether such a result could have been achieved from a forced landing, or shoot down. Even if the Soviets could publicly demonstrate ‘aerial espionage’, it would probably have bothered few politicians and diplomats on either side. Intelligence gathering was practised by both parties, so apart from some faux diplomatic indignation and posturing followed by tit-for-tat responses, inevitably temporarily damaging local relationships, it would have made little difference overall. The main outcome would have been a Soviet propaganda victory and there might have been a short-term suspension of reconnaissance flights, but they would have resumed after a decent interval. Western retaliation might have included harassing of Aeroflot and Interflug flights over West Germany or barring them from Western airports. The possibilities were endless but would have depended on Western political will. The only real value in shooting down an aircraft would have been to apply political and military pressure on the city and there were easier, and more predictable, ways to do that around Berlin.

Capturing a reconnaissance aircraft intact, with the crew alive and being able to put them on public display, would have been a very different matter. There were often attempts to lure aircraft out of the Corridors by ‘spoofing’ – giving false instructions or signals by Soviet and GDR forces. This came in many forms, such as suggesting that an aircraft was off-course and needed to correct its heading. If a genuine in-flight emergency was ever declared, a ‘helpful voice’ would come on to the frequency offering landing options at a Soviet or GDR airfield along the route. In 1981, Peter Jefferies was a passenger on a training flight which started to receive suspicious instructions that would have directed them into Werneuchen airfield. The day was ‘8/8ths blue and gin clear’ so it was a fruitless exercise by the Soviets, but nevertheless they tried.

Equipment Displays – Showing Us Too

Periodically the Soviets put on equipment displays to show senior officers their latest ‘kit’. They would show examples of each equipment item to be found in a formation, or present a themed display of equipment associated with a particular function, such as the Army-level air defence equipment display shown in image 66. These displays were often mounted under a Corridor and there was considerable speculation that besides their stated purpose they were also intended to be a ‘show and tell’ for the West’s benefit.

The foregoing is compelling enough evidence that the Soviets and East Germans were fully aware of the reconnaissance flights. What they may not have been aware of was the quantity and high quality of the photography produced and the intelligence extracted from it.

As well as putting equipment on display that would be very visible to reconnaissance flights, there is some evidence to the contrary, that the Soviets sometimes tried to conceal the presence of specific equipment items until they were ready to reveal them. In early 1977, the SA-8 Gecko SAM system was the ‘hot’ intelligence ‘flavour of the month’. Was it in East Germany or not? Peter Jefferies remembers being on a training flight in Pembroke XL953, which was not ‘in fit’ on 15 March 1977. The flight landed at RAF Gatow in the late morning and after lunch they took off to ‘do’ the BCZ. As the aircraft approached Dallgow-Döberitz, three SA-8 Gecko TELAR were seen moving at high speed across the former airfield towards the hangars. Was this just a normal return to barracks? Or had the garrison been warned of the ‘spyplane’ and was it quickly attempting to conceal the SA-8’s presence?

Why did the Soviets and East Germans not locate their forces in areas out of Corridor and BCZ camera range? Most GSFG and NVA forces were housed in former Reichswehr barracks that had been taken over at the end of the war, although the NVA possessed some new-build barracks. The cost of building all new facilities out of camera range would have been prohibitive. Locating forces out of camera range would also have created a huge gap in the centre of the GDR devoid of military forces, which would need to be repopulated with forces prior to any hostilities. Moving forces to fill such a gap would have been an important indicator in its own right that would have been hard to ignore. In any case constructing bases in almost any part of the GDR would still have left them vulnerable to some level of AMLM observation and aerial reconnaissance.

Allied Secrecy

If the Soviets knew so much, why were the Allies so secretive about their reconnaissance flights? A cursory glance suggests that much of the secrecy practised by Allied military and governmental bodies was directed at concealing this knowledge from elements of their own, and other, military services and governments, although proving this would be extremely difficult. Openness would certainly have confirmed for the Soviets what they had long suspected. Reconnaissance operations were restricted to the three Allies. The British, French and US products were only shared directly between them and not widely with other NATO Allies. The West German government was never formally informed about the British flights until after they ceased in 1990. The Germans would almost certainly have insisted on the USA and UK sharing their information and material with them in return for allowing the flights’ continuation. Given the extent of the FRG government’s penetration by hostile intelligence services, the Soviets would soon have become totally aware of the operations and probably their products. Keeping the flights’ existence from them, and other less secure NATO nations, was considered necessary to reduce the risk of the operation’s compromise.

The use of transport and training aircraft meant that the intelligence-gathering operations were not overtly flaunted in the Soviets’ face, especially as they were integrated into the normal supply and VIP flights to and from the city. The sensors carried were very discreetly mounted and the numerous tell-tale external blisters and aerials associated with dedicated reconnaissance aircraft disguised as far as possible. Whilst the real role was kept largely hidden from the casual observer and was not an open affront to Soviet sensitivities, there was no immediate need for any ‘face-saving’ retaliation. This was a repetition of the situation created by early overflights of the USSR. Aware of the realities, as long as Corridor and BCZ flights were not too obvious, or provocative, the Soviet government was not forced into a political position where it was forced to act against them.

Conclusions

Politicians generally appeared to have recognised the military need for overflights to acquire intelligence. British politicians, senior MoD and FO/FCO officials saw political benefits of co-operation with the USA. Sharing British-collected imagery was a way of maintaining good relations with the US intelligence community and contributing something tangible to the US–UK intelligence ‘special relationship’, which was inevitably dominated by the Americans. But British politicians and officials were considerably more nervous about Soviet awareness of the programmes than the French and Americans. The British wanted the Corridor flights kept on a short leash, with a high degree of political control and ‘low visibility’. Their US counterparts treated Berlin operations in a more relaxed manner, important, but essentially ‘routine’ in nature. Both countries quickly developed procedures to balance the potential gains against the political and military risks involved until operations ended in 1990. The combination of AMLM activities and overflights of the GDR resulted in considerable information sharing between the three Western Allies and provided their intelligence agencies with rich pickings over the duration of the Cold War.

Britain, France and the USA devoted significant resources to the collection and exploitation of airborne intelligence in the Corridors and BCZ and from peripheral flights. The operations grew in both extent and sophistication and were vital for several reasons. Until the mid-1960s they provided the only regular, relatively low-risk, surveillance of the most forward-based Soviet and East German forces. The priority was to try to gauge the level of direct threat to West Germany and Berlin, especially during the turbulent period of the second Berlin crisis between 1958 and 1962 and when The Wall was erected. Later, the priority changed to assembling more processed intelligence on the huge number of troops and their equipment stationed in the GDR and around Berlin that were widely observable from the Corridors and BCZ. This vast array of equipment was often the latest and best that the Soviet forces possessed. Corridor and BCZ flights produced a prodigious quantity of high-quality imagery and were in a strong position to record the evolution and development of Soviet and GDR force structures over the forty-five years of the Cold War.

The operations were conducted in great secrecy, despite the circumstantial and anecdotal information that the Soviets and East Germans were well aware of them. These flying activities went largely unhindered by Soviet and GDR forces. Indeed the Soviets became complicit in the whole process by being prepared to keep their knowledge of the Western flights largely to themselves. The Allies conducted the flights covertly, keeping them largely secret from their own armed forces, let alone the wider public. This allowed the Soviets to ‘turn a Nelsonian eye’ to them, largely impotent as they were to prevent them, without provoking a serious crisis with the West. Had the Soviets been determined to hide their activities and equipment from the West, they could have done so more effectively. By not constantly trying to hide all their operations and equipment, sometimes doing the complete opposite by putting them openly on display, the Soviets helped foster an element of stability, even at very tense times across a vulnerable divided city at the heart of the Cold War.

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LUFTWAFFE ONSLAUGHT ON MALTA I

Air Vice Marshal Maynard said at the beginning of February 1941: ‘They don’t like us.’ The Germans were certainly throwing as many aircraft as possible at the island in an attempt to subdue the defenders. Day and night there were large scale raids and attempts to lay mines in the waters around the Grand Harbour.

The first major air raid of the month was launched on 4 February. Upwards of 100 enemy aircraft struck against Hal Far, Luqa and Kalafrana. Whenever possible the Germans and the Italians were still dropping their parachute mines and although a system of mine watching and sweeping was brought in, many of the mines struck the sides of the dockyards, cratering and blasting the area. If anything, the air war above Malta was beginning to intensify.

On 8 February half a dozen Hurricanes were scrambled to intercept the night raiders. A Hurricane chanced on an HE111, flying at about 10,000 ft above Rabat. The German aircraft crashed into the sea. The following day Me109s of 7 Staffel (Jagdgeschwader 26) arrived in Sicily. Most of the pilots were very experienced, having fought in the battle of Britain in the previous year. The Luftwaffe was clearly attempting to achieve air superiority and this would only add pressure to the dwindling numbers of Hurricanes and their pilots.

Three days later the Me109s appeared in the skies over the island of Malta. At the same time Hurricanes belonging to B Flight No. 126 Squadron scrambled to intercept a trio of Ju88s, reported to be flying at 20,000 ft. As the Hurricanes climbed to intercept they were pounced on by the Me109s. Pilot Officer D J Thacker’s aircraft was badly hit and lost height. He managed to get over St Paul’s Bay at around 5,000 ft, when suddenly the Hurricane’s engine cut and he was forced to bale out. He was only in the water for around three quarters of an hour before HSL107 picked him up. Two other Hurricanes were also roughly dealt with by the Me109s. Flight Lieutenant Gerald Watson lost his life when his Hurricane flipped over as he hit the sea. His body was never found. Flight Lieutenant Bradbury was more fortunate: he managed to coax his badly shot-up Hurricane back to the airfield, where he managed to make a forced landing.

It was clear that the Hurricanes were no match for the Me109s. On 16 February the experience of an encounter between the Hurricane Mark Is and the Me109s was described in a combat report written by Flight Lieutenant MacLachlan:

While on patrol over Luqa at 20,000 ft, we were attacked from above and astern by six Me109s. As previously arranged the flight broke away to the right and formed a defensive circle. As I took my place in the circle I saw four more Me109s coming down out of the sun. Just as they came within range I turned back towards them and they all overshot me without firing. I looked very carefully but could see no more enemy aircraft above me, so I turned back to the tail of the nearest 109. I was turning well inside him and was just about to open fire when I was hit in the left arm by a cannon shell. My dashboard was completely smashed, so I baled out and landed safely by parachute.

MacLachlan lost his arm when it had to be amputated at Imtarfa Military Hospital. The loss of his arm did not prevent the Flight Lieutenant from getting back into a Hurricane. Soon after his recovery from the amputation a colleague took him up for a test flight: he managed to land the aircraft by himself. A few days later he flew a Hurricane and then asked whether he could rejoin the squadron. Ultimately he was returned to Britain, where he did indeed continue to fly with great success.

There were continual raids through the first and second week of February 1941 and 17 February saw the island being raided for the eleventh night in succession. The Germans had so far failed to prevent the British from continuing to use the harbour and the airfields were still operational.

The island suffered a succession of alerts on 25 February, during which two German bombers were shot down. In the afternoon Canadian Pilot Officer John Walsh was on patrol over the island. He was attacked whilst he was flying at around 27,000 ft, over St Paul’s Bay. He was forced to bale out, but managed to land a few hundred metres from a naval vessel. One of Walsh’s legs had been broken in four places and he also had a broken arm. It was likely that he had hit his own tail plane when he baled out. Unfortunately Walsh died of pneumonia.

On 26 February one of the biggest raids on the island so far was launched. Around thirty-eight Ju87s, twelve Ju88s, ten Dorniers and ten HE111s were escorted by up to thirty enemy fighters. They seemed to be making for Luqa as their primary target when they were spotted at around 13.00 hours. Anti-aircraft defences opened up on them and eight Hurricanes took off to intercept. However, the main force of bombers passing over the island at between 6,000 and 8,000ft covered Luqa airfield in bombs. Half a dozen Wellingtons were burned out and seven more were badly damaged. There was also damage to some Marylands that were parked on the airfield. The airfield itself was badly cratered, with severe damage to hangars and workshops and would be out of service for 48 hours. The anti-aircraft crews claimed five of the Ju87 dive bombers, with four probable and one damaged. The Hurricanes had two confirmed kills and eleven probable. However, the RAF losses for the day were five Hurricanes, and three pilots were lost.

This was not the end of the action for the day: two German airmen from a Ju87 were picked up by an Air Sea Rescue launch HSL107. The men had been hanging onto a lifebuoy. An Me109 also attacked a pair of fishing boats off Gozo. Later in the afternoon, a Red Cross seaplane was spotted, escorted by German aircraft, hunting downed crew members. The Germans attempted another major attack later, with dive bombers coming in, dodging the bursting shells of the anti-aircraft batteries.

With the losses on the ground and in the air, it was becoming clear that the Germans were slowly gaining air superiority. The larger formations appearing over the island showed that they were prepared to be bolder than the Italians had been in the past. Systematically they were attempting to neutralise Malta’s fighter defences and to cause long-term damage to the airfields. In the course of ten days in February, all the Royal Air Force’s flight leaders had been lost. Throughout the month of February there had been at least 109 air alerts, sixty-two of which had developed into raids. The Germans were being extremely selective, striking primarily at Hal Far, Luqa and the dockyards. Of the 376 tons of bombs dropped on the island, all but two tons had landed on these targets.

Malta’s shrinking air resources were a major problem and would become even more so as the German air offensive intensified. A signal from Malta at the beginning of March outlined the danger the island now faced:

Blitz raid of several formations totalling certainly no less than one hundred aircraft, of which sixty bombers attacked Hal Far. A few of these aircraft dropped bombs and machine gunned Kalafrana. Damage to Kalafrana was slight both to buildings and aircraft. One Sunderland unserviceable for few days. Damage Hal Far still being assessed. Preliminary report as follows: three Swordfish and one Gladiator burnt out. All other aircraft temporarily unserviceable. All barrack blocks unserviceable and one demolished. Water and power cut off. Hangars considerably damaged. Airfield temporarily unserviceable. Eleven fighters up. Enemy casualties by our fighters, two Ju88s, two Ju87s, one Do215, two Me109s, confirmed. One Ju88 and three Ju87s damaged. By AA one Me110 and eight other aircraft confirmed, also four damaged. There are probably others which did not reach their base but cannot be checked. One Hurricane and one pilot lost after first shooting down one Ju87 included above. For this blitz every serviceable Hurricane and every available pilot was put up and they achieved results against extremely heavy odds. The only answer to this kind of thing is obviously more fighters and these must somehow be provided if the air defence of Malta is to be maintained.

The signal almost certainly related to the massive raid that the Germans launched on 5 March, when upwards of sixty bombers, escorted by Me109s, dropped bombs across the island. At least two German aircraft, a Ju88 and a Ju87, were definitely shot down. Two days before Carmel Camilleri, a Maltese police constable, was awarded the George Medal for his actions that had taken place on 4 November 1940. The gallantry award read:

In the early morning of 4 November 1940, a Royal Air Force aircraft crashed on a house at Qormi, and the front portion of the machine fell into a 40 ft shaft at the bottom of a deep quarry beyond the house. Moans were heard coming from the shaft, from which flames were spouting, and an injured airman was observed supporting himself under the vertical edge of the shaft. A wire rope was lowered which the airman grasped, but after being drawn up a few feet he could not maintain his hold and fell back into the shaft. PC Camilleri, who had been one of the first on the scene, immediately volunteered to go down for him, in spite of the flames from the burning aircraft and in disregard of danger from the possible explosion of heavy calibre bombs, and was lowered into the shaft. The rope slipped and he fell to the bottom, fortunately without serious injury. A third rope was lowered to which PC Camilleri tied the injured airman who was then hauled up. The rope was again lowered for Camilleri, who was brought up with no injuries beyond slight burns.

On 6 March, whilst German bombers carried out a number of attacks, and enemy fighters struck flying boat bases, five Hurricanes, led by a pair of Wellingtons, arrived from Egypt as reinforcements for the island. The following day Sergeant Jessop was attacked by an Me109 on his first flight around the island. He was picked up by HSL107. Me109s also made strafing attacks at St Paul’s Bay, hitting a Sunderland flying boat. Sergeant Alan Jones, firing a Vickers machine gun, tried to beat the fighters off, but was shot and killed.

Me110s returned once again to shoot up St Paul’s Bay on 10 March. They hit the same Sunderland, this time setting it on fire. The crew could not get the blaze under control and the flying boat was towed into Mistra Bay, where it eventually sank. At night large numbers of German aircraft dropped bombs and at least one was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The Germans targeted Sliema on 11 March, killing a number of civilians and on 15 March German bombers hit the airfield once more. A mine exploded in the main harbour, killing three and wounding ten others. There were also bombing casualties in Gozo.

On 18 March half a dozen Hurricanes, led by a Wellington, arrived from Libya to replace casualties that had been inflicted on the fighter squadrons in the past few weeks. There was a brief lull in operations until 22 March, when ten Ju88s, escorted by a number of Me109s, raided the island in the afternoon. It was a particularly bad day for the RAF, as five Hurricanes were shot down, four of which hit the sea, all four pilots were drowned. There were further night attacks and reports at the same time suggested that up to twelve enemy aircraft had been claimed by anti-aircraft fire.

On 23 March a convoy reached Malta from Haifa, bringing supplies and reinforcements into the Grand Harbour. It proved to be a tempting target for the Luftwaffe. An air raid developed at 13.35, when thirty Ju87s, escorted by twenty Me109s, attacked the ships. Fourteen Hurricanes were sent up to intercept. They managed to shoot down nine dive bombers, anti-aircraft fire claimed another four. The cargo ships were the City of Lincoln, City of Manchester, Clan Ferguson and Perthshire. Three of them were slightly damaged in the air-raid attack, as were a cruiser and destroyer that were escorting them. The Germans tried again to sink some of the convoy ships in the Grand Harbour on Monday 24 March when there was an evening attack by Ju88s with accompanying Me109s.

On the night of 25 March a Sunderland flying boat left Cairo bound for Malta. Onboard was the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir John Dill, the Chief of Radar Development, Robert Watson Watt, Admiral Lyster of the Fleet Air Arm and two American senior servicemen. They were making the journey from Egypt via Malta and Gibraltar to England. One of the crew members recalled the flight:

We had taken off from the Nile at Cairo in late afternoon sunshine and as darkness closed in we received the first message from Air HQ Malta, which warned of bad weather conditions and advised caution on landing there. This was soon followed by a second message stating sea conditions as very bad, also ten-tenths cloud cover over the island. From a fuel situation we were passed the point of no return, so we could only go on; it was Malta or nowhere. AHQ Malta had decided to beam one searchlight vertically to assist our approach. Our navigator was on top form and after a flight of about 900 miles he was spot on, almost straight ahead a patch of illuminated cloud layer indicated the searchlight position. Our very experienced captain brought the aircraft down through the cloud cover and made a good approach run. The very bad conditions prevailing in Marsaxlokk Bay made it impossible to use the normal flare path of marker buoys, so two launches with searchlights were positioned to guide us in. Our landing lights revealed a frothing, heaving sea beneath, as we hurtled in through the darkness for the touch down. There was an almighty bounce, then a series of smaller ones and finally that sturdy hull settled down into the angry sea. After finding a buoy, mooring up and with engines shut down, hearing the howling wind and the crashing waves made us all realise what a terrific landing the pilot had pulled off. Then he later admitted to us that after the first bounce ‘it was in the lap of the Gods’. Our passengers seemed unperturbed and Sir Anthony made a little joke about the landing; they were then taken ashore by launch. Our captain and VIPs came back onboard the next evening and much activity ensued. Sir Anthony and his secretaries were drafting important letters and signals, which were then taken ashore for onward transmission.

Throughout March there had been 105 air-raid alerts and 402 bombs had been dropped on the island. The pressure was still intense and the German aircraft were as active as ever.

On 3 April an Italian SM79 bomber, escorted by a pair of CR42 fighters, attempted a machine gun attack on HSL107 on patrol near Linosa. The Italians later claimed that they had sunk the boat, but she was in fact undamaged. On the same day a flight of twelve Hurricanes was flown from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in Operation Winch. These were newer, Mark IIAs, which it was hoped would be more than a match for the Me109s. They were also piloted by men that had had experience during the battle of Britain. The aircraft were brought in led by Skuas in two flights of six each. The aircraft had been in Gibraltar on 1 April and one of the pilots later described his experiences between 1 and 3 April when they finally landed safely in Malta:

1st April. At Gibraltar. We left the Argus and went about the Ark after lunch. She is the most enormous ship and carries about 160 officers and 1,600 men. Also five squadrons of aircraft. We were supposed to sail at 17.00 hours, but it was postponed. We are not allowed to go ashore, so a party started in the ward room.

2nd April. At sea. Woke up to find everything vibrating like the devil, with the ship doing 24 knots. We have HMS Renown and Sheffield and five destroyers with us. Had a long talk from the Commander (Flying) with all the other pilots on deck procedure for flying off, and then we were shown our proposed course after we take off. In addition to the Skuas who are leading us, we are picking up a Sunderland flying boat after about 100 miles which will lead us the rest of the way. Had a run over my aircraft for R/T test and ran over engine. Everything Ok.

3rd April. The arrival. Was called at 04.00 and got out of bed with a real effort. Had breakfast about half an hour later. All the knives and forks were leaping about the table because we had increased speed to 28 knots. We eventually took off at about 06.20 and everything went according to plan. The only snag was that X made a bad take-off and punctured one of the auxiliary tanks and broke off his tail wheel. He was naturally scared stiff of using up all his remaining petrol and making a bad landing. However, all went well. He landed at the first airfield he saw, which was Takali, where we are now stationed. Most unfortunately Y crashed on landing. He came in too fast and had to swing to avoid something at the end of his run. The undercarriage collapsed. It is really sickening to have an aircraft, which is worth its weight in gold out here, broken through damned bad handling.

 

LUFTWAFFE ONSLAUGHT ON MALTA II

The island saw the return trip of Sir Anthony Eden and the other VIPs on 7 April. Instead of flying straight onto Gibraltar they had headed for Greece first then back to Malta before their onward flight to England via Gibraltar.

The new Hurricane arrivals had the chance to engage the Germans and Italians on 11 April when a dozen Macchi 200s, six CR42s and a number of Me109s covered a German reconnaissance mission over the island. Several Hurricanes were scrambled. A pair of them got on the tail of the Me110 reconnaissance aircraft and managed to shoot it down into the sea some 20 miles to the north of Gozo. Unfortunately both of the Hurricanes were then intercepted by Me109s and shot down. During the night Ju87s dropped bombs across the island, causing a number of civilian casualties.

It was Easter Sunday on 13 April 1941 and it marked Malta’s 500th air alert. There were four raids that day. Flight Officer Mason, of 261 Squadron and his wingman attacked four Me109s out of the sun. Mason managed to shoot one of the Me109s down, but in turn he was shot down by the remaining three. Mason was badly injured but he managed to coax his Hurricane down to sea level and prepared to ditch. He already had been hit in the wrist and palm, as well as his elbow and he had splinters in his left leg and his skull. When his Hurricane hit the water Mason was thrown forward and broke his nose on the windscreen. Mason was 4 miles out from the shore, so he began to swim until he was picked up by HSL107.

There were continuous raids from 14 to 22 April. The Italians tended to attack during the day, whilst the Germans concentrated on night attacks. On 22 April Ju88s and HE111s used flares to identify their targets and a number of bombs and mines were dropped, particularly around Valletta, causing substantial damage.

The following day Canadian pilot Henry Huger was shot down to the south-east of Hal Far by Me109s escorting a German reconnaissance aircraft. Huger managed to bale out and came down in the sea. Air Sea Rescue was ordered not to put to sea, as it was feared that the Germans would take advantage of the situation and shoot them up. It is believed that Huger drowned, as his body was never found.

On 27 April another twenty-three Hurricanes arrived via HMS Ark Royal. Originally they had planned to launch twenty-four in Operation Dunlop, but only twenty-three reached the island safely. The Hurricanes were led in, in three flights, by a Fulmar, with three Marylands and a Sunderland from Malta also assisting. Also on this day the remaining Wellington bombers operating from the island left Luqa airfield, bound for Egypt. They were to make room for the first half a dozen Blenheims from No. 21 Squadron of No. 2 Group, Bomber Command. The Blenheims were flown in from England via Gibraltar. The RAF believed that the Blenheims would give Malta a greater advantage, as the Wellingtons were only used at night. The Blenheims could now be used for coastal operations and anti-shipping attacks during the day.

The newly arrived Hurricanes were to give the half a dozen Ju88s a nasty surprise, when the German aircraft launched an evening raid on Valletta on 29 April. No less than seventeen Hurricanes were scrambled. One of them was shot down near Ghajntuffieha.

The Grand Harbour and Valletta suffered heavy raids the following day. The first wave of German aircraft that evening dropped mines and bombs. They were swiftly followed by a second wave of raiders. St John’s Co-Cathedral was heavily damaged, as was the museum. The Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed. The Exchange, two banks, St George’s Overseas League Club and numerous shops and other businesses were also heavily damaged and Kingsway main gate was blocked by rubble.

Throughout the month of April there had been ninety-one air raid alerts, of which fifty-eight had developed into proper raids and 651 tons of bombs had been dropped on the island. There had been a slight change in enemy tactics and night raids were becoming more commonplace. However time was running out for the Luftwaffe: after weeks of constant attack on Malta, the German squadrons would soon be transferred from Sicily to the Balkans. Here they would replace other squadrons that were moving east for Germany’s impending invasion of Russia.

Sergeant Ray Ottey was out on patrol on 2 May in his Hurricane. It is believed that he fell victim to oxygen starvation, passed out and then crashed into the sea: his body was not found. In Valletta on the same day service personnel undertook the hazardous task of trying to diffuse and remove unexploded bombs around the city. St Publius Church, the parish church of Floriana, was severely damaged on Sunday 4 May. The front door, all the windows and its organ were completely destroyed. The clock was stuck at twenty to ten, although bizarrely its bells continued chiming every quarter of an hour.

A major assault developed on 6 May. There were vicious dogfights over the island. Pilot officer Grey’s Hurricane was shot down and he was wounded in his thigh. A pair of Hurricanes that had scrambled to intercept a Ju88 on a reconnaissance patrol collided with one another. One of the pilots died, but the other, Sergeant Walker, managed to bale out. There were extensive raids on 7 May by Me109s and HE111s and it is believed that a Dornier was shot down over the island. German aircraft were attracted to the Grand Harbour on 9 May when Ju87s launched dive bombing attacks on the Amerika, Breconshire, Hoegh Hood, Settler, Svenor, Talabot and Thermopylae. Malta’s Hurricanes scattered the attacking force, pursuing them back towards their bases in Sicily and managing to shoot one down.

Bombs dropped in St Lucia Street and Kingsway in Valletta on 10 May and on the Sunday Me109s attacked Malta’s seaplane bases, setting one aircraft on fire. More raids followed on the Monday and on the Tuesday against both Valletta and on the British airfields. Six Hurricanes left Malta to reinforce the British air force in Egypt. The pilots themselves were to return to Malta on the night of 21 May, onboard a Sunderland, when they would then fly more Hurricanes to Alexandria.

Whilst Me109s fought Hurricanes over Malta on 13 May, killing Pilot Officer Peter Thompson, hundreds of miles away in England a pair of Spitfire VBs, named Malta and Ghawedx (another name for the island of Gozo) were subjected to their maiden flights. The population of Malta, despite having been under siege from the Italians and the Germans, had generously provided sufficient money to their own Spitfire Fund to allow the presentation of two new Spitfires. The two new aircraft were at first sent to 8 Maintenance Unit at Little Rissington, Gloucestershire, between 14 and 16 May. On 18 May they were sent to No. 74 (Trinidad) Squadron, based in Gravesend, Kent. Malta was first flown by the squadron at 11.45 on 23 May 1941. It was piloted by Sergeant Dykes for a short, five-minute test flight. Malta (W3210) went on its first convoy patrol on 7 June at 05.00. On a sweep over France two days later Pilot Officer W J Sandman claimed a probable Me109. Invariably Malta was flown either by Sandman or Pilot Officer Krol. Malta was to have a relatively short career, as on 27 June 1941 Sandman, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, was reported missing. He had taken off at 20.50 and was flying a fighter sweep over North Eastern France. He encountered enemy aircraft in the vicinity of Amiens and Abbeville. Malta was one of three Spitfires of 74 Squadron to be shot down. Sandman baled out and became a prisoner of war. Malta, just forty-five days old, was destroyed when it hit the ground.

The second aircraft, the Ghawdex, had its first recorded flight on 24 May at 12.00 hours. On 16 June it was on a Blenheim escort operation, piloted by Sandman when he claimed a probable Me109. The aircraft’s last flight with 74 Squadron was on 6 July. It was then transferred to 92 (East India) Squadron, operating out of Biggin Hill. The squadron moved to Gravesend and then to Digby in Lincolnshire. The squadron left for the Middle East in February 1942 and the Ghawdex (W3212) was transferred to 417 (City of Windsor) Squadron on 6 February. Although it was not involved in any offensive operations, it nearly came to grief when it was being flown from Digby to Colerne in Wiltshire. Sergeant Hazel reported a faulty fuel gauge and the aircraft ran out of fuel and he had to make a forced landing on Charmy Down, Somerset. Until February 1943 the aircraft remained in storage, until it was transferred for conversion to a Seafire 1B. Now as NX883 it entered service with 897 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm. The aircraft was also to fly with 748 Squadron in Cornwall, 761 Squadron in Somerset and 759 Squadron, also in Somerset. In the spring of 1945 it was transferred to the escort carrier, HMS Ravager. Its movements after that are unknown.

In a letter to The Maltese Times, dated 15 January 1941, it was clear that many Maltese had hoped to see the aircraft in action over the islands:

Some Maltese people are very anxious to know what has become of the money collected in Malta for the fighter planes, namely Malta and Ghawdex. They were supposed to arrive in Malta by the end of the year. Nothing has been heard about them lately. Will the government please note this serious matter that concerns every Maltese citizen.

Meanwhile, back in Valletta, the determination of the Maltese people to continue to live as normally as possible was amply illustrated by the fact that the Coliseum Theatre was ready to reopen and the Manoel Theatre was nearing completion of full repairs. Elsewhere, flower shops, cafes and other businesses reopened, albeit in improvised premises.

There were further civilian casualties on 15 May and on 20 May. On 20 May Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie was appointed Governor and Commander in Chief of the island. He had been fulfilling the role as Acting Governor since May 1940.

Malta received some cheer on 21 May when Operation Splice got underway. The two aircraft carriers, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Furious were due to launch forty-eight Hurricanes. In fact due to delays forty-one took off, accompanied by five Fulmars. One pilot did not make a satisfactory take-off and had to ditch into the sea and became a prisoner of war.

Both the Germans and the British, however, had their attention temporarily elsewhere. At the beginning of May the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, commanded by Captain Louis Mountbatten, on HMS Kelly, had been operating from Malta. They had lost HMS Jersey to a magnetic mine in the entrance of the Grand Harbour. The flotilla left on 21 May, bound for the Greek island of Crete.

Having overwhelmed mainland Greece, British Commonwealth and Greek troops had been forced to evacuate Crete. The Germans had taken the decision to launch an airborne and seaborne invasion of the island. Initially, the German parachute troops had been earmarked for an airborne invasion of Malta, but instead they had dropped on Crete from 20 May 1941. The German air force had complete air superiority over the island, something despite their boasts that they could not claim about Malta. Although the campaign to seize Crete was ultimately successful, the German paratroops suffered enormous casualties and the supporting air fleet lost considerable numbers during the operation. This was to be one of the last major German operations in the Mediterranean for some months, as the German invasion of Russia had been earmarked for 22 June 1941.

The newly appointed governor sent a situation report on Malta to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on 23 May:

The outstanding feature of the last month has been the frequent occurrences of night raids by about forty bombers dropping parachute flares and mines, as well as bombs. Damage both from mines and bombs has been widespread, but has been greatest in Valletta. St John’s Cathedral has been damaged and the Law Courts and Banks destroyed. A mine fell on the Civil Hospital and the hundred patients who had not already been removed were carried out in the night without one casualty. There has also been extensive damage to dwelling houses and shops. The main street and several others are blocked with great quantities of stone from destroyed buildings and it will take a long time to clear with our limited resources. The extensive damage to their principal city, which was founded immediately after the Great Siege of 1565 and has stood unchanged since the time of the Knights, has been a profound shock to Maltese sentiment and the damage of several large churches, including the Co-Cathedral of St John, has given deep offence. Added to that, but separate from it, is the material loss caused to a large number of individuals by the destruction of property and business which it has taken them many years to acquire. Nevertheless the reaction of the people is deserving of the highest praise. They have hardened in anger towards the enemy and are facing their own individual calamities with cheerfulness and fortitude. With the first light after the destruction of their homes and shops, they are busily engaged with hammers and boards, patching up damage where they can and rescuing their stock and possession from among the debris to make another start. As one of them recently said after the destruction of his home, ‘we will endure anything, except the rule of these barbarians and savages’. The homeless are received by others, especially among the poorer classes with the most remarkable hospitability and people in the undamaged areas have been living for nearly a year with comparative cheerfulness, in conditions of close overcrowding and consequent discomfort. The great majority are, I am sure, quite unshaken in their belief in final victory and the prime minister’s recent statement that ‘Malta, with Egypt and Gibraltar, will be defended with the full strength of the Empire’ meant very much to the people here.

In London, on 26 May, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd met with Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal (Chief of the Air Staff). Lloyd had just accepted the post of Air Officer Commanding Malta. Portal told Lloyd:

Your main task at Malta is to sink Axis shipping sailing from Europe to Africa. You will be on the island for six months as a minimum and nine months as a maximum, as by that time you will be worn out.

In a matter of days Lloyd would be onboard a flying boat heading for Malta. In his own memoirs he said:

The final course was then set for Malta, where we were fortunate to alight in Marsaxlokk Bay in one piece. The direction of alighting was towards the island and our pilot overshot three times and went round again, narrowly avoiding the high ground on each occasion. When we did alight the aircraft was swung so violently to miss a rock that all the passengers were thrown into a heap and battered in the process, all the crockery onboard was broken and a wing float torn off. Fortunately I was sitting next to the pilot and only bumped my nose. One hundred and forty five hours had elapsed between my conversation with Babington [Air Marshal Sir Philip] at the headquarters of Bomber Command.

This was to be a new and major departure for Malta in the Mediterranean air war. Henceforth the island would mount far more aggressive offensive actions against the Italians and Germans. By the end of May there had been seventy-five raids on the island. Only two days had been free of attacks and the Maltese people had had twenty-four nights of interrupted sleep. A total of 453 tons of bombs had been dropped on Malta, but British reconnaissance flights began to confirm that the Luftwaffe was leaving Sicily. The Germans had been partially successful: they had caused damage to the naval base and they had seriously damaged Malta’s ability to send up sufficient fighter cover. They had not, however, prevented the Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF Wellingtons from striking at targets of opportunity. For a short period of time Malta would now just face the attentions of the Italian air force.

 

“Fortress Calling!”

A dozen battered B-17s served as armed transports in the pacific, dropping supplies and strafing Japanese positions.

In 1943, when hundreds of B-17s routinely sortied over Europe, a B-17 mission in the southwest pacific theater never amounted to more than 30 flying fortresses.

Fifth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney argued for more B-17s following the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943, but military planners told him the Boeing bombers were going to Europe and he would be getting Consolidated B-24 Liberators to replace his aging Fortresses. So between May and October 1943, Kenney’s only B-17 bomb group, the 43rd, became a B-24 outfit. Some of its well-worn B-17s were sent home to serve as trainers and several became runabouts for generals, but 12 were selected for a special mission as armed transports.

Supplying coastwatchers and other Allied intelligence units operating deep in enemy territory was a vital but dangerous task, and potentially a deathtrap for the unarmed Douglas C-47 transports. The B-17s, capable of carrying a heavier load for a greater distance and armed with 10 or 11 machine guns, were a perfect fit.

In November 1943, six B-17Es and six B-17Fs- serial nos. 41-2408, 41-2432 The Last Straw, 41-2458 Yankee Diddler, 41-2657, 41-2662 Spawn of Hell, 41-2665 Lulu, 41-24353 Cap’n & The Kids, 41-24357 Blonde Bomber, 41-24358 Lulu Belle, 41-24381 Panama Hattie, 41-24420 Caroline and 41-24548-were thoroughly overhauled, modified and repainted by the 4th Air Depot Group at Townsville, Australia. “One of the first things they did was remove the ball turret because of the possibility of entanglement of the parachutes during a drop mission,” recalled Jack Hoover, a pilot in the 317th Troop Carrier Group. “All the other guns were left operational.

“The bomb bay was the more important part of the reconfiguration. The racks and shackles were removed. Bins were constructed on either side and a steel cable affixed to the area above the bins to attach the parachute static lines. The bottom of the bins were on hinges with electric switches for release, and the release switches were located right in front of the pilot.”

The 12 modified B-17s were assigned to the 54th Troop Carrier Wing, based at Port Moresby, New Guinea, with one airplane going to each of the four squadrons of the 317th and 375th Troop Carrier groups and two assigned to the 433rd Troop Carrier Group. The remaining two B-17Fs apparently served as a personal transports.

A lot of history lingered in those veteran bombers-41-2408 was the oldest B-17 in the Fifth Air Force and, with 41-2432, had flown into the maelstrom over Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Yankee Diddler was a survivor of the Java campaign, and Lulu had flown in the Battle of Midway. A couple of the B-17s retained their earlier nicknames, while others acquired new ones-Lulu became Pretty Baby, Blonde Bomber was soon The Super Chief, Caroline was “G. I.” Jr. and 41-24548 was dubbed Harry the Horse.

The first crews were composed of men from the 43rd Bomb Group who had come in as replacements or didn’t have enough points to go home with the rest of their crew, as well as men from the troop carrier squadrons. Extra gunners were borrowed from the bomb groups as needed.

Yankee Diddler joined the 39th Troop Carrier Squadron on November 27 and immediately went to work. Pilot Ted Bauries remembered, “We were feeding the coastwatchers up there around Rabaul by taking off in the dark in the morning, getting there at daylight and dropping food and so forth to them, then come back and fly C-47s. the rest of the time.” Jack Hoover added, “Sometimes we would free fall rations and other types of cargo. this was sort of iffy as we would drop the gear and fly as slow as possible, close to the ground.”

As early as August 1943, Allied leaders had decided to bypass the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul, on New Guinea’s New Britain island. The Allies still wanted a foothold on western New Britain in order to control the sea lanes between it and the New Guinea mainland, so amphibious landings were scheduled for Cape Gloucester on December 26, following a diversionary raid at Arawe, about 60 miles southeast, 11 days earlier.

The Arawe landing force encountered heavy opposition and requested complete resupply. Four tons of food, ammunition, raincoats and medical supplies were loaded into Captain Lee Bird’s Yankee Diddler, which was standing by at Dobodura, the Allies’ advanced base on the east coast of New Guinea. Yankee Diddler headed out across the Solomon Sea for New Britain, flying just 150 feet above the ocean.

“Our only worry was that our own boys might think us Japs and open up,” said navigator Lieutenant Seymour Schafer. But all they saw were friendly troops waving from a road running down the middle of their target, the Amalut coconut plantation. Yankee Diddler circled and completed the first drop, then circled again while crewmen reloaded the bins. Tail gunner Staff Sgt. Paul Blasewitz, a 43rd Group veteran who amused himself by singing tenor solos over the interphone, simply said, “The mission was a cinch.”

The “new” B-17s also came in handy for a broad range of special assignments. On February 21, 1944, The Super Chief dropped 50 bags of food on a dry creek bed near Open Bay on New Britain, then photographed a volcanic lake to assess the feasibility of landing a PBY Catalina on it to rescue downed Allied airmen. And 41-2408 made at least one unofficial beer run to Australia from New Guinea.

During the invasion of the Admiralty Islands, eight B-17 armed transports stood by at Finschhafen, about 300 miles away on the New Guinea mainland, in case they were needed. They would be.

The invasion began as a reconnaissance-in-force on February 29, when a little over 1,000 cavalrymen landed on Los Negros Island, about 200 yards from the Momote airstrip. The men seized the airstrip by 0950 hours, but when returning patrols warned of a large Japanese force nearby, the Americans abandoned the strip’s southern reaches in order to tighten their perimeter.

Yankee Diddler took off from Finschhafen soon after daybreak on March 1, and was over Los Negros at 0830 with a full load of mortar shells, small arms, ammunition and blood plasma. An onsite Army controller told the pilots, Captain Bird and Lieutenant Ted Bauries, to strafe the western side of the airfield to suppress Japanese snipers before dropping the supplies. They made four strafing runs at treetop level, expending 2,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition and completing three dropping passes.

Yankee Diddler was back over Momote by midafternoon with a load of barbed wire, hand grenades, anti-personnel mines and more ammunition. After three drop runs, the Army controller requested that they assist a destroyer that was shelling a village to the northwest, and they made three strafing passes there before heading home.

Over the course of the day, Harry the Horse, “G. I.” Jr. and the two B-17Es from the 375th Troop Carrier Group dropped a total of 12 tons of blood plasma, weapons, ammunition and barbed wire. Captains Paul Wentz and James Sweet in “G. I.” Jr. went to the aid of a group of barges that were under fire from Japanese positions west of the airstrip, silencing the enemy guns until the barges were safely ashore. The 433rd Troop Carrier Group’s Cap’n & The Kids and 41-2432 made three drops over the Americans, then three strafing passes over the Japanese lines.

The next morning Yankee Diddler was over the airstrip at 0830 with a load of supplies, and again received orders to strafe the enemy positions. The gunners expended another 2,000 rounds in three passes, setting gasoline drums afire and suppressing the snipers.

Cap’n & The Kids was back midmorning with a cargo of ammunition and a crew of 14, including five enlisted men from the 90th Bomb Group to man guns and assist with the drops. Pilot Flight Officer Ralph Deardorff was flying at 400 feet and in radio contact with a Navy destroyer directing air operations over Los Negros when he heard urgent calls over the intercom and a clatter of gunfire from the rear of the plane. He couldn’t see it, but a Ki-61 Tony was flying parallel with them, slightly higher and coming fast. Right waist gunner Staff Sgt. Paul Martin got off a few bursts, but then his gun jammed.

The Japanese fighter overtook the B-17, rolled in to make a firing pass and dived away. A second fighter attacked from two o’clock, passing under Cap’n & The Kids without inflicting any damage. Meanwhile, Deardorff raced for the destroyers and the umbrella of gunfire they could provide.

When another Tony attacked from about three o’clock high, radioman Staff Sgt. William Mathis and top turret gunner Private Brian Marcorelle both fired at it before it turned to begin another attack from nine o’clock. Left waist gunner Tech. Sgt. Alfred Crossen reported that as the Tony “headed back toward us. I put several bursts into him in the engine and right wing, and as he came on I put more bursts in him… [and] he suddenly turned right….[H]e was smoking as he turned.” The Japanese fighter broke away about 200 yards out, and tail gunner Staff Sgt. Walter Graves squeezed off a burst as it flashed past. Deardorff said the fighter “exploded when it hit the water and a large flame and high column of smoke shot into the air, a hundred feet or so.”

Although success in the Admiralties was assured by the morning of March 4, the B-17 missions to drop supplies and strafe enemy positions continued for a couple of weeks. On March 14, Lieutenants James Bennett and Chester Brown in 41-2657 were fired on during a drop mission and collected a few holes in the right wing, but nobody was hurt. By then the missions had become milk runs. GOING THE DISTANCE “G. I.” Jr. flew its last mission with the 58th Troop Carrier Squadron in February 1945.

Four B-17s took part in an ex- tended mission on April 22 with the 317th Troop Carrier Group, which had been tasked with providing armed transports for special operations in support of the landings at Hollandia, 500 miles up the New Guinea coast. In May Cap’n & The Kids dropped 7,000 pairs of combat boots to infantrymen battling entrenched Japanese on the island of Biak, and when the 503rd Parachute Infantry jumped onto Noemfoor Island on July 3, three B-17s followed in single file close behind, dropping supplies and ammunition.

The armed transports had taken hits but suffered no losses in nearly six months of operations. That changed on May 4, when Harry the Horse was returning from a routine Hollandia mission. Running low on fuel, Lieutenant Robert Kennedy decided to make an emergency landing at the recently repaired Tadji fighter strip. As the wheels touched the runway, the right landing gear collapsed and the bomber swerved to the right, dragging the wing along the ground. Nobody was injured, but the B-17 was damaged beyond repair.

As the focus shifted toward the Philippines, the armed transports’ numbers thinned. On May 16, the 433rd Troop Carrier Group sent 41-2432 to Townsville Air Depot for repair and it never returned. The 317th shows no record of B-17s on strength after June 1944. The 375th’s 41-2662 was involved in a taxi accident in July and not returned to the group after repair. Cap’n & The Kids was transferred out of the 433rd on August 10, but its career was far from over. Renamed Miss Em’, it completed a further 160 flights as Eighth Army commander Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger’s personal transport. Squadron records indicate that both “G. I.” Jr. and 41-2657 flew through February 1945, then were transferred out the following month.

All but one of the surviving armed transports were ultimately condemned for salvage overseas. Only 41-2662 made it back to the United States, where it apparently gathered dust until it was ferried to the sprawling aircraft graveyard at Ontario, Calif., in May 1945.

For further reading:

Ken’s Men Against the Empire, by Lawrence J. Hickey

Claims to Fame: The B-17 Flying Fortress, by Steve Birdsall and Roger A. Freeman.

 

 

Raid on Bremen

Blenheim MkIV RAF 105Sqn GBD V6028 Port of Bremen raid July 1941.

4 July 1941

By the end of June 1941 Hitler had turned on Russia and Bomber Command was increasingly taking the offensive into the heart of Germany. Until that point, Bomber Command’s major raids had been at night, but a number of smaller daylight raids had also been carried out across the Channel, against targets in northern France and the Low Countries. It was now that Winston Churchill decided he wanted to strike at the heart of the Reich by day, while many of Hitler’s forces were engaged in the east.

A number of targets were drawn up for the units of 2 Group Bomber Command, and the list included Germany’s second largest port of Bremen. This was to be Operation Wreckage and the precision raid would be carried out at very low level by two squadrons based in Norfolk: 105 Squadron at Swanton Morley and 107 Squadron at Great Massingham, a satellite airfield of West Raynham.

The squadrons were equipped with Blenheim IV light bombers. With a crew of three, the aircraft had a maximum speed of just over 250mph and carried 1,000lb of bombs internally (either 4 x 250lb or 2 x 500lb). Chosen to lead the raid was the commanding officer of 105 Squadron, Wing Commander Hughie Edwards. Edwards was an Australian and had only recently been given command of the squadron after the previous commanding officer had been killed. For the past few weeks the 105 crews had been carrying out low-level attacks against enemy shipping, during which Edwards had been awarded the DFC, while the crews of 107 Squadron had recently returned to East Anglia after two months with Coastal Command carrying out antisubmarine patrols and attacks on enemy shipping from their base in Scotland. Its squadron commander, Lawrence Petley, had, like Edwards, recently taken over command after the loss of the previous squadron commander.

The first two attempts to carry out Wreckage both ended in the mission having to be aborted en route to Bremen. First, on 28 June, when the raid was led by Petley; the decision to abort came under scrutiny and resulted in criticism. The Air Officer Commanding (AOC) 2 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Donald Stevenson, decided that Edwards should lead the next attempt and that 107 Squadron be replaced by 21 Squadron, based at Watton and led by Wing Commander Tim Partridge. The second attempt took place two days later, this time led by Edwards, but halfway to the target they ran into a thick blanket of fog. Not wishing to suffer the AOC’s displeasure for a second time, Edwards decided to press on towards the coast of Germany for another 100 miles in appalling visibility but it eventually proved impossible to carry on and so he reluctantly made the decision to return to base.

Operation Wreckage remained a high priority and so a third attempt was ordered on 2 July, but was twice postponed by 2 Group. Then, finally, on 4 July, the raid was ordered once more. This time, just like the first, the crews of 107 were to get another chance to take part in the raid with 105, and Edwards was again instructed to lead the raid.

The briefing took place the evening before. Bremen was vital to the German war effort and so there were numerous targets to choose from, including an oil refinery, aircraft factories and naval construction yards, all located in the built-up area of the port between the main railway station and the docks. Unsurprisingly, the port and surrounding area were heavily defended. An outer ring of at least twenty heavy 105mm gun batteries were backed up by an inner ring of twenty-plus 88mm batteries and numerous other anti-aircraft defences, including 37mm and 20mm gun emplacements situated around the port and town that had been mounted anywhere possible, including on large buildings overlooking the area. There were also several barrage balloons rising to a height of 500 feet and protecting the outer perimeter against air attacks. As a preventative measure, the Blenheims were fitted with cable cutters along the leading edge of the wing that were designed to cut through the steel cables connecting the balloons to the ground, although in reality these did not always work as well as had been hoped. With balloons and hundreds of guns protecting the area, Bremen was a fortress, and with the raid being carried out at very low level there would also be hazardous high-voltage pylons, large dockyard cranes and high buildings to encounter. No approach to any of the specified targets was considered safe or even less risky than any other line of attack.

The crews were disappointed to learn there would be no fighter escort, but their attack on Bremen would hopefully benefit from a diversionary raid by Blenheims of 226 Squadron from nearby Wattisham against a seaplane base on the East Frisian island of Norderney. There was also a raid planned by Bomber Command for that night, and while the Blenheim crews were being briefed, a mixed force of Hampdens and Wellingtons were carrying out a bombing raid on Bremen. Not only was it hoped that some of the anti-aircraft defences around the port would be destroyed, but that the defenders would be kept awake well into the night, and so either be sleeping or less alert when the Blenheims carried out their attack the following morning.

That night the Blenheim crews got whatever sleep they could before getting up early on the morning of 4 July for the raid; the crews of 105 had now got used to the routine. Then, once again, soon after 5.00 am, fifteen Blenheims got airborne. The nine aircraft of 105 Squadron orbited their home airfield at Swanton Morley to wait for the six Blenheims of 107 Squadron and then, having all joined up as planned, they set out across the North Sea.

Having tested their guns, one of 107’s aircraft encountered a problem and returned to base; two more soon followed for other reasons. Edwards was now left with twelve aircraft in his formation; the original nine from his own squadron and just three from 107. The formation continued in four vics of three; Edwards leading, with Sergeants Ron Scott to his left and Bill Jackson on his right. The weather was clear and not at all what the crews had hoped for. If the raid was to be successful then it very much depended on surprise and so it was important for the formation to reach Bremen without having been spotted; cloud would have provided some welcome cover when transiting over the sea.

Given the distance to the target and the limited range of the Blenheim when flying at low level, the route across the North Sea inevitably took them close to the line of Frisian Islands that run parallel to the northern coastline of Holland and Germany. Despite the crews flying as low as they dared, mostly below 50 feet, to avoid presenting a silhouette on the horizon for any lookouts on the islands, or for anyone on board enemy shipping in the area, the Blenheims were spotted at least three times. As they got closer to Bremen their target became increasingly more obvious and so they could expect a hostile reception.

The Blenheims eventually coasted in over northern Germany near Cuxhaven before they turned south for Bremen. The sight of some cloud raised hopes of much needed cover, but hope soon turned to disappointment as the cloud was too thin and too high to offer the raiders any protection. Visibility was excellent, which, again, was greeted with a mixed reaction amongst the crews. They could easily see their targets, but then the defending gunners would just as easily see them. There would be nowhere to hide.

The port of Bremen is spread across the banks of the River Weser and the city lies some 40 miles inland from the mouth of the river. It was around 8.00 am when the twelve aircraft approached their targets from the north. As they edged closer and closer to the ground they were greeted by the inevitable flak, which seemed to come from everywhere. Edwards even flew under pylons to avoid presenting the defenders with an easier target, but two of 107s Blenheims were shot down, including that of the squadron commander, Lawrence Petley, who was killed.

The ten surviving Blenheims ploughed on through a mesh of crossfire. The pilots had now spread out to provide as wide a frontage as possible. This would give the defending gunners more of a problem and give the Blenheim crews a better chance of success, but it was almost impossible for all ten aircraft to escape unscathed. Two of 105’s Blenheims soon fell to the flak. One was flown by 23-year-old Flying Officer Michael Lambert. As Lambert’s observer, Sergeant Reg Copeland, directed him ever closer to the target, and his wireless operator/air gunner, Sergeant Fred Charles, hit back with everything he had, the Blenheim pressed on despite having repeatedly been hit. However, Lambert could no longer maintain any control and the Blenheim veered one way and then the other before coming down in a street where it exploded, its bombs still on board; there were no survivors. The second Blenheim to fall was flown by 20-year-old Sergeant William MacKillop. The young pilot had pressed on heroically towards the target and even managed to release his bombs, albeit short of the dock area, but he could maintain control no longer. The Blenheim then plunged into a factory and blew up, killing the crew.

Only eight Blenheims now remained, including just one from 107 Squadron. They all pressed on, weaving their way through the flak as each second took them closer to their target. The barrage of anti-aircraft fire was relentless as those defending Bremen threw everything they could at the attackers. Each Blenheim was hit time and time again, but still they continued through the colourful array of tracer and flak.

Finally, their target was in sight. Edwards, with all three of his formation still intact, now delivered his attack under intense fire. His aircraft had repeatedly been hit and his wireless operator/air gunner, Sergeant Gerry Quinn, had been wounded in the leg, but, completely undaunted, Edwards released two of his bombs over one of the main railway lines, putting one of Bremen’s main lines of communication out of action, before he released his remaining bombs on a tunnel and then destroyed the overhead installations. He then attacked a train with his machine gun and pressed on to the suburban part of the town before circling above to maintain a watchful eye over the others as they made their attacks and to draw as much of the enemy fire as possible. Finally, having remained in the vicinity for nearly ten minutes, and having been hit several more times, Edwards turned for home.

Behind Edwards, his two wingmen, Ron Scott and Bill Jackson, had also pressed home their attacks. Scott hit a factory and storage depot as well as more railway lines while Jackson pressed on to the centre of the town, through a balloon barrage and in the face of extremely heavy fire from the ground. His aircraft suffered numerous hits while his wireless operator/air gunner, Sergeant Jim Purves, and his observer, Sergeant Bill Williams, were both wounded in the leg and foot. Having successfully bombed tramlines and buildings in the town, Jackson turned for home, his aircraft badly mauled.

While Edwards had been leading his formation into attack, the two other formation leaders, both down to just a pair, had led theirs. One of Edwards’s flight commanders, Squadron Leader Tony Scott, known amongst the squadron as simply ‘Scotty’, led Pilot Officer Ben Broadley against their target, a propeller foundry. The two Blenheims buffeted their way through the wall of flak and delivered their bombs on target before pulling hard starboard over the Weser to take up a heading for home. The other pair, that of Pilot Officer Jack Buckley and Sergeant Bruce, dropped their bombs on an aircraft factory and caused considerable damage to several new aircraft as well as damaging the main aircraft production hangar. The last surviving aircraft of 107 Squadron, flown by Sergeant Leven, successfully attacked a goods yard and released his bombs before turning for home.

It was a long transit back to Norfolk but one by one the surviving Blenheims returned to Swanton Morley. Bruce was the first to return, then it was the turn of Ron Scott to land, then his namesake Scotty, followed by Broadley, Buckley and then Jackson. It had been a particularly difficult transit back for Jackson and his crew. In spite of his injuries, Williams had successfully navigated the aircraft back home, ably assisted by Purves, who himself was seriously wounded and suffering from considerable loss of blood. The aircraft had suffered considerable damage during the attack and had lost its hydraulics, which prevented the undercarriage from being lowered. Nonetheless, Jackson managed a perfect wheels-up landing and he managed to bring the badly damaged Blenheim to rest right next to the ambulance and fire tender that were standing by. Jackson, Williams and Purves would all later receive the DFM for their part in the raid.

It was now 11.00 am and six aircraft had returned. Then, finally, an hour later, Hughie Edwards returned; his aircraft almost a write-off, visibly scarred and still trailing parts of telegraph cables. After three attempts, Wreckage had finally taken place. News soon spread and back at HQ 2 Group in Huntingdon its results were considered a success; in fact, losses were less than had been expected. Tributes to the bravery of the crews started pouring in. The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, wrote:

I have just read the first account of the Bremen raid today. Convey to the units concerned my warmest congratulations on a splendid operation. I am sure that all squadrons realise that besides encouraging the Russians, every daylight attack rubs into the Germans, the superiority of our units. You are doing great work.

The Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, was also keen to express his congratulations. His message to the squadrons was:

Your attack this morning has been a great contribution to the day offensive now being fought. It will remain an outstanding example of dash and initiative. I send you and your captains and crews my warmest congratulations and the admiration of the Command.

The AOC, Air Vice-Marshal Donald Stevenson, who had clearly been so disappointed with the fact that earlier attempts had to be aborted, wrote:

Please convey to the crews of 105, 107 and 226 Squadrons who took part in today’s daylight attack on Bremen and Norderney, my deep appreciation of the high courage and determination displayed by them. This low-flying raid, so gallantly carried out, deep into Germany without the support of fighters, will always rank high in the history of the Royal Air Force.

News had also spread to the British media and soon the public were made aware of the heroic raid. A number of individuals who had taken part received personal recognition. In Edwards’s crew there was a DFC for his observer, Pilot Officer Alistair Ramsay, and Gerry Quinn received a bar to his DFM. But the most notable award went to the gallant leader of the raid, Hughie Edwards, who was awarded the Victoria Cross; he was the first Australian airman of the war to receive the highest award for bravery. The announcement came in the London Gazette on 22 July, with the citation concluding:

Throughout the execution of this operation which he had planned personally with full knowledge of the risks entailed, Wing Commander Edwards displayed the highest possible standard of gallantry and determination.

 

WWI FRENCH BOMBERS

Breguet-Michelin BrM4 biplane

Caudron C. 23 biplane

Farman F. 50 biplane

The idea of aerial bombardment had to await the development of the airship and the airplane before it could become reality-a reality that soon became a nightmare for many after the First World War broke out in August 1914.

From the very beginning of the war, aircraft were used to drop bombs or heavy steel darts on enemy forces. With the exceptions of Germany’s use of zeppelins to drop bombs on Belgium and Britain’s bombing of zeppelin sheds-the destruction of which were aided by the hydrogen within the ships-the results of bombing early in the war produced more of a nuisance than anything else because of the lack of effective bombs and the limited carrying capacity of most early aircraft. The war, however, soon proved the adage that necessity is the mother of invention, as all powers, with varying degrees of success, began developing a new class of aircraft-the bomber- whose sole or primary purpose was to drop bombs on enemy troops or strategic positions deep behind enemy lines. As a result, the nature of the battlefield changed, making it three-dimensional by adding the attack from above, and extending its depth. In addition, the bomber blurred the lines between combatants and noncombatants. Although attempts were made to develop bombsights, these were crude and largely ineffective, making strikes against an intended target more a matter of luck than anything else. These problems were compounded as bombers and zeppelins were forced to operate at night because of their vulnerability to fighters. To the extent that civilians became “fair game,” the bomber helped usher in the era of total war.

After investing heavily in aircraft prior to the outbreak of the war, the French possessed a number of reconnaissance aircraft that were adapted for light bombing roles after the outbreak of the war. Among these were a series of Voisin pusher biplanes-designated Type 1 to Type 6 as more powerful engines were added-that were available at the outbreak of the war and entered service in the first 2 years of the war. Approximately 1,400 of all six types were produced in France, whereas Italy produced approximately 120 and Russia produced approximately 400. Of the Voisin types, the most commonly used for bombing purposes were the Type 3 and the Type 5, both of which had a wingspan of 48 ft 4.75 in. and a length of 31 ft 3.25 in. The Type 3 was powered by a 120 hp Salmson Canton-Unné radial motor, which produced a maximum speed of 62 mph, a ceiling of 2,743 m (9,000 ft), and an endurance of approximately 4 hours. It was armed with a Hotchkiss gun and could carry a bomb load of 330 lbs. The Type 5 was powered by a 150 hp Salmson Canton-Unné radial engine, which produced a maximum speed of 68 mph, a ceiling of 3,500 m (11,483 ft), and an endurance of 3 hours 30 minutes. Like the Type 3, it was armed with a Hotchkiss gun and could carry a bomb load of 330 lbs. Other reconnaissance aircraft that provided light bombing duties included the Nieuport 14 biplane, the Farman M. F. 7 and M. F. 11 pusher biplanes, and the twin-engine Caudron G. IV biplane.

The first French aircraft to see service primarily as a bomber was the Breguet-Michelin BrM4 biplane. It was based upon a Breguet BU. 3 prototype that had been developed in early 1914 and had been selected for production by André and Edouard Michelet, who had offered to build and donate 100 bombers for the Aviation Militaire. The BrM4 had a wingspan of 61 ft 8 in., a length of 32 ft 6 in., and a loaded weight of 4,660 lbs. Fifty were powered by a 200 hp Salmson Canton-Unné radial motor, which provided a maximum speed of 77 mph, whereas the other fifty were powered by a 220 hp Renault 8Gd inline engine, which provided a maximum speed of 84 mph. Both had a service ceiling of approximately 3,870 m (12,697 ft) and were capable of carrying forty 16-lb bombs in underwing racks. The BrM4 was also protected with either a Hotchkiss gun or Lewis gun. It entered service in late 1915 and served into 1916 before being withdrawn from the front and used as a trainer. The French also developed a variant, designated as the BrM5, which came equipped with a .37 mm Hotchkiss cannon. It was produced in small numbers, with most being sold to the British for service with the RNAS.

After concentrating primarily on building reconnaissance and fighter aircraft during the first 2 years of the war, the French military finally conceded to parliamentary demands and began development of aircraft specifically designed for service as bombers. Among the first to emerge from this effort were the Voisin Type 8 and Type 10 pusher biplanes. Both had a wingspan of 61 ft 8 in. and a length of 36 ft 2 in., but the Type 8 had a loaded weight of 4,100 lbs, whereas the Type 10 had a loaded weight of 4,850 lbs. The difference in weight was a reflection of the differences in engine and resulting bomb load capacity. Entering service in November 1916, the Type 8 was powered by a 220 hp Peugeot 8Aa inline motor, which produced a maximum speed of 82 mph and service ceiling of 4,300 m (14,108 ft), provided an endurance of 4 hours, and carried a bomb load of approximately 400 lbs. Entering service in late 1917, the Type 10 was powered by a 280 hp Renault 12Fe inline engine, which produced a maximum speed of 84 mph and a service ceiling of 4,300 m (14,108 ft), provided an endurance of 5 hours, and carried a bomb load of 660 lbs. Most Type 8 and Type 10 bombers were protected with one or two Hotchkiss guns, but some were equipped with a .37 mm Hotchkiss cannon. Approximately 1,100 Type 8 bombers and 900 Type 10 bombers were produced during the war. Even though they carried relatively small bomb loads and had to be used at night, their numbers provided some success in carrying out tactical missions against German troop concentrations and strategic missions against German transportation systems.

Introduced in September 1917, the Breguet 14 biplane provided the French with their most successful daytime bomber of the war; a large number were also used for armed reconnaissance and a few were even used as air ambulance aircraft. Although some of the early Breguet 14s were fitted with a 220 hp Renault inline motor, most were powered by a 300 hp Renault inline engine, which produced a maximum speed of 121 mph and a service ceiling of 5,800 m (19,029 ft), provided an endurance of 2 hours 45 minutes, and carried a bomb load of up to 520 lbs. The Breguet 14 had a wingspan of 48 ft 9 in., a length of 29 ft 1.25 in., and a loaded weight of 3,891 lbs. It was protected by one fixed, forward-firing, synchronized Vickers gun and two ring-mounted Lewis guns. A few were also fitted with a downward-firing Lewis gun and used to provide close ground support. By war’s end more than 3,500 Breguet 14s had been produced. An additional 5,000 were produced after the war until 1927. It remained in French service until 1932, seeing action in many colonial campaigns in North Africa and the Middle East. Numerous countries also purchased Breguet 14s for their air services in the 1920s.

Despite the pressure from French politicians, the French aircraft industry was slow to provide anything comparable to the heavy bombers being developed by other powers. This was partly because the army was more interested in fighters and reconnaissance aircraft and saw bombers as providing more of a supporting role for the infantry than a strategic role. Nevertheless, by late 1918 the French were experimenting with two prototype heavy bombers, the Caudron C. 23 biplane and the Farman F. 50 biplane. Although the former could carry a bomb load of approximately 1,750 lbs compared with the latter’s bomb load of approximately 1,100 lbs, the F. 50 was selected for production because of its superior climbing ability. Powered by two 275 hp Lorraine 8Bd inline motors, the F. 50 produced a maximum speed of 93 mph and could climb to 2,000 m (6,562 ft) in just 12 minutes 30 seconds. It had a service ceiling of 4,750 m (15,584 ft) and an endurance of 4 hours. The F. 50 had a wingspan of 75 ft, a length of 39 ft 5 in., and a loaded weight of 6,834 lbs. F. 50s began to enter service in early August 1918. Despite problems with the Lorraine engine, the F. 50 provided useful service during the Allied counteroffensive by bombing train stations and ammunition depots in a series of nighttime raids in October 1918. Approximately 50 were built by war’s end. After the war a few were sold to foreign powers. Although it came too late to make much of a difference in the war, the F. 50 did serve as the basis for the Farman F. 60 Goliath biplane, which was the main French bomber in the early 1920s.

Hubert Cance Artworks

WWI GERMAN BOMBERS

Prior to the outbreak of the war, German zeppelins had captivated public attention and raised fears, fanned in part by the media, that these goliath airships would lay great cities to waste. Indeed, as indicated earlier, H. G. Wells had made the zeppelin the centerpiece of his 1908 book, The War in the Air. Although Germany possessed just nine airships when war broke out in August 1914, these were used in the opening stages of the German invasion through Belgium to drop bombs on Antwerp in an effort to force the Belgians to submit. Beginning in January 1915, the Germans launched their first attacks against Great Britain. The zeppelins used in these initial raids were carried out by the M-type, of which the naval zeppelin L-3 had been the first to enter service in May 1914. The airships in this class had a length of 518 ft 5 in., a diameter of 48 ft 8 in., and a gas volume of 793,518 cubic ft, which provided a lifting capacity of 20,282 lbs and a service ceiling of 2,800 m (9,186 ft). They were powered by three 200 hp Maybach CX inline motors, which produced a maximum speed of 53 mph and gave them a range of 683 miles.

During the course of the war, the Germans would introduce three series of larger zeppelins in an effort to increase their bomb-carrying capacity, their service ceiling, and their range. The first class of zeppelins introduced during the war was the P-type, the first of which entered service in May 1915 as the L-10. It had a length of 536 ft 5 in., a diameter of 61 ft 5 in., and a gas volume of 1,126,533 cubic ft, which provided a lifting capacity of 35,715 lbs and a service ceiling of 3,900 m (12,795 ft). The P-type was powered by four 210 hp Maybach CX inline engines, which produced a maximum speed of 59 mph and gave it a range of 1,336 miles. In May 1916, Germany introduced the R-type or “super zeppelin,” the first of which was designated the L-30. It had a length of 649 ft 7 in., a diameter of 78 ft 7 in., and a gas volume of 1,949,373 cubic ft, which provided a lifting capacity of 71,650 lbs and a service ceiling of 5,395 m (17,700 ft). The R-type was powered by six 240 hp Maybach HSLu inline motors, which produced a maximum speed of 64 mph and a range of 2,300 miles. In August 1917, the Zeppelin company introduced the last type to enter service during the war, the V-type, of which the L-59 is most famous for its November 1917 attempt to carry supplies from Bulgaria to Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces in German East Africa. It had a length of 743 ft, a diameter of 78 ft 7 in., and a gas volume of 2,419,057 cubic ft, which provided a lifting capacity of 114,860 lbs and a service ceiling of 8,200 m (26,902 ft). The V-type was powered by five 240 hp Maybach Mb IVa inline engines, which produced a maximum speed of 67 mph and a range of 4,970 miles.

More than two-thirds of the 140 airships used by Germany during the war were destroyed as the result of enemy fire or bombs, storms, or accidents, leading many historians to question whether the Germans had squandered precious resources that could have been poured into the development of bombers. It should be noted that, whereas the Germany Navy continued to invest heavily in zeppelins until the end of the war, the Germany Army began to turn toward bomber aircraft by 1915. These included a series of G-type light to medium bombers and the gigantic R-type (Risenflugzeug) heavy bombers.

In early 1915 Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft (A. E. G.) introduced the first of its series of G-types, the G. I twin-engine biplane. Production was limited because its two 100 hp Mercedes D. I inline motors proved to be underpowered. By the end of the year, A. E. G. had introduced the G. II (powered by two 150 hp Benz inline engines and capable of carrying up to 440 lbs of bombs) and the G. III (powered by two 220 hp Mercedes D. IV inline engines and capable of carrying up to 660 lbs of bombs). Neither was produced in significant numbers; however, in late 1916 A. E. G. introduced the G. IV, which resembled the earlier versions, but was larger, better powered, and produced in greater numbers. With a wingspan of 60 ft 4.5 in., a length of 31 ft 10 in., and a loaded weight of 7,986 lbs, the G. IV was a sturdy bomber, utilizing steel-tube framing with a plywood nose section and fabric covering elsewhere. It was powered by two 260 hp Mercedes D. IVa inline motors, which produced a maximum speed of 103 mph and a service ceiling of 4,500 m (14,764 ft), provided an endurance of 4 hours 30 minutes, and carried a bomb load of up to 880 lbs. It was protected by two ring-mounted Parabellum machine guns-one in the forward cockpit and one in the rear cockpit. Because of its rather limited bomb load, the G. IV was used primarily for tactical bombing in support of ground troops. The G. IV most likely comprised more than 75 percent of the 542 total G-types built by A. E. G. Unlike other G-types produced by other manufacturers, all the A. E. G. G-types utilized a tractor-engine configuration instead of a pusher configuration.

Another early bomber that would lead to more successful versions was the Friedrichshafen G. II biplane, which entered service in limited numbers in 1916. Powered by two 200 hp Benz Bz. IV inline motors, which were configured as pushers, the G. II could carry a 1,000 lb-bomb load. In early 1917 Freidrichshafen introduced the G. III, which along with the Gotha G. IV and G. V, would serve as the primary German bombers during the last 2 years of the war. The G. III had a wingspan of 77 ft 9.25 in., a length of 42 ft, and a loaded weight of 8,646 lbs. Its wings consisted of a center section that was built around steel-tube spars and detachable outer sections that were constructed from spruce spars and braced with cables and steel tubes. This enabled it to be shipped easily by rail and reassembled. Powered by two 260 hp Mercedes D. IV inline engines, which were configured as pushers, the G. III could reach a maximum speed of 87 mph, climb to a service ceiling of 4,500 m (14,764 ft), and had an endurance of up to 5 hours. Well defended with two or three Parabellum machine guns and capable of carrying a bomb load of up to 3,300 lbs, the Friedrichshafen G. III was widely used on the Western Front. A total of 338 G. III and G. IIIa types (the later had a biplane tail unit for added stability) were produced in addition to less than 50 of the earlier G. II versions.

By far the most famous German bombers of the war were the Gotha G. IV and G. V biplanes, which carried out highly successful raids on London in the summer of 1917. They were derived from the earlier Gotha G. II and G. III, which were designed by Hans Burkhard and introduced in 1916. The former proved to be underpowered with its twin 220 hp Benz inline motors, limiting production to just ten aircraft. The latter, however, were powered by two 260 hp Mercedes inline engines and could carry a bomb load of approximately 1,100 lbs. The G. III was also the first bomber that attempted to provide the tail gunner with the ability to fire downward as well as laterally and upward. Replaced on the Western Front fairly quickly by the much-improved G. IV, the G. III was transferred to the Balkans after Romania entered the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The G. IV was introduced in late 1916 and formed the nucleus of Heavy Bomber Squadron No. 3, which by war’s end was to drop more than 186,000 lbs of bombs on London in a series of raids that began with a daylight raid on 25 May 1917. With a wingspan of 77 ft 9.25 in., a length of 38 ft 11 in., and a loaded weight of 7,997 lbs, the G. IV was capable of carrying between 660 and 1,100 lbs of bombs, depending on the mission and the amount of fuel carried on board. In order to have maximum range for the attacks on London, for example, the G. IV carried just 660 lbs of bombs. One of the chief reasons for its success was that its twin 260 hp Mercedes D. IVa inline motors (configured in a pusher arrangement) enabled it to reach a maximum speed of 87 mph and to operate from a service ceiling of 6,500 m (21,325 ft)-a height that was beyond the capabilities of the home defense aircraft used by the British. As a result of the raids, the British were forced to divert top-of-the-line fighters to home defense, forcing the Gothas to switch to nighttime raids. The G. V was a heavier version that had a better center of gravity and featured an improved tail gunner firing arrangement. All versions of the Gothas had a three-man crew. Although precise production figures are not available, it is estimated that 230 G. IVs entered service in 1917. Total production probably exceeded 400, of which forty airframes produced by L. V. G. were supplied to Austria-Hungary and equipped by Oeffag with 230 hp Hiero inline engines.

At the same time that Germany began development of G-type bombers, a number of German manufactures-A. E. G., Deutsche Flugzeugwerke, Siemens-Schuckert-Werke, and Zeppelin Werke Staaken-attempted to develop huge R-type bombers. Although several difficulties had to be overcome to achieve a successful design, the most important were developing engines powerful enough to provide enough lift for takeoff and climbing, and an undercarriage system that could withstand the impact of landing such heavy aircraft. After the first prototypes appeared in late 1915, a process of trial and error eventually led to the production of R-types by Siemens-Schuckert and Zeppelin Staaken.

A total of seven production aircraft (the R. I through R. VII) were constructed by Siemens-Schuckert. All of them were powered by three engines that were housed within the front fuselage and used a chain and gear system to operate two tractor propellers that were installed on each side of the fuselage within the first bay opening between the upper and lower wings. The R. I had a wingspan of 91 ft 10 in., a length of 57 ft 5 in., and was powered by three 150 hp Benz Bz. III inline engines. The remaining Siemens-Schuckerts had wingspans in excess of 100 ft with the R. VII reaching 126 ft 1.5 in. Powered by three 260 hp Mercedes D. IVa inline motors, the R. VII was capable of a maximum speed of 81 mph, could climb to a service ceiling of 3,500 m (11,4843 ft), had an endurance of 7 hours, and could carry a bomb load of approximately 3,000 lbs. It was protected by up to three machine guns. Although the first three were used strictly for training, the last four saw service on the Russian Front in 1916 and 1917. Siemens-Schuckert was in the final stages of developing a massive R. VIII bomber that had a wingspan of 157 ft 6 in. and was to be powered by six 300 hp Mercedes inline engines, but the war ended before they were completed.

After achieving a successful flight with its R-prototype in April 1915, Zeppelin Staaken experimented with a variety of engines and configurations before finally beginning production of the R. VI, which entered service in June 1917. With a wingspan of 138 ft 5 in., a length of 72 ft 6.25 in., and a loaded weight of 26,066 lbs, the R. VI was the largest aircraft to see service in the war. Its undercarriage consisted of three chassis and a total of eighteen wheels. It was powered by either four 245 hp Maybach Mb. IV inline motors or four 260 hp Mercedes D. IVa inline motors, which were placed back to back in a tractor-pusher configuration. The R. VI had a maximum speed of 84 mph and a service ceiling of 4,320 m (14,173 ft). Its endurance varied from 7 to 10 hours depending upon the amount of fuel carried, which also resulted in a bomb load that varied from 1,650 to 4,400 lbs. It was also the first bomber to carry the huge 2,200-lb (1,000-kg) bomb, the largest used in the war. The R. VI was protected by four Parabellum machine guns. Noted for its rugged construction, which combined a wooden frame fuselage and steel-tube bracing and struts, the R. VI was used extensively on the Western Front and carried out numerous raids (some solo and others in conjunction with Gotha G. IV and G. V bombers) against Britain. In contrast to the Gothas, not a single R. VI was lost from enemy fire. A total of eighteen R. VI bombers were constructed. Of these, just one was built by Zeppelin Staaken; the other seventeen were licensed built by Albatros, Aviatik, and Schütte Lanz.