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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“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.

 

 

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.

A New Kind of War I

By the time the War Cabinet assembled at 11 a.m. on 15 May, rumour was rife and a heady mix of anticipation and foreboding hung heavy in the air. At 7.30 that morning Prime Minister Churchill, disgruntled to be awoken at such an hour, had received a telephone call from a shocked and despondent Paul Reynaud, his French counterpart, who informed him that the Germans had smashed through French lines and were decimating the remaining French forces, leaving the road to Paris wide open. His conclusion was that the battle was over and the war was lost. Churchill begged to differ and sought to reassure his near hysterical ally, pointing out that the War Cabinet was to meet within a matter of hours and would act swiftly. There were no fewer than fifteen items on the wide-ranging agenda. Item two was air policy and to add their expertise to the discussion were the new Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair; Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall; Chief of Air Staff and his deputy Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse; and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding, Fighter Command. The item, which had largely been prompted by Reynaud’s grave warnings, was divided into two parts – firstly, whether Britain should send more fighters to France and secondly, whether Britain should launch attacks on military objectives in the Ruhr and elsewhere in Germany east of the Rhine.

Mindful of the perilous position in France and the manifest and direct consequences of their decision, the Cabinet declined to sanction the deployment of further fighters to the Continent. History rightly makes much of this momentous decision but tends to overlook the one that followed. The French government had set its face firmly against such a move, deterred by near certain retaliation by the Germans, but the motion drew a far warmer reception from the War Cabinet, now absolute in their determination to act in Britain’s interests. Sinclair opened the discussion by pointing to the wide range of military and industrial targets available and the significantly detrimental effect attacking them would have upon Germany’s war effort on land, sea and air. Newall spoke next, fully endorsing Sinclair’s views, as did Peirse, Dowding, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound and General Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The discussion then turned to those with political responsibilities and here too the unanimity was astonishing, especially given the tense and menacing conditions in which the discussion was taking place. Eden, Alexander, Atlee, Halifax and Duff-Cooper all concurred, each stating the positive benefits, military and political, at home and abroad, as they saw them; even Neville Chamberlain, the recently deposed Prime Minister, so long an advocate of less martial means, now advocated this overtly offensive course, considering that ‘this battle had reached so critical a stage that … it would therefore be wrong to stay our hands any longer from the proposed night bombing operations.’ The avalanche of support no doubt pleased the pugnacious Churchill, who added his thoughts thus, considering ‘that the proposed operations would cut Germany at its tap root’. He also hoped it would have an effect on the current land battle, bolster French morale, have a salutary effect on Italy (then lurking menacingly in the wings of the war) and believed that this was the psychological moment to strike at Germany proper and ‘convince the German people that we had both the will and the power to hit them hard.’ The proposal was carried unanimously and without further debate. Never one to procrastinate, Churchill suggested operations should begin that night. Thus began the longest and most intense single campaign of the war, the strategic air offensive against Germany, waged by Bomber Command. It would involve more than 125,000 highly trained air crew, with several times that number of specialists acting in support of them, the loss of more than 55,000 young men from Britain and the Empire, take up a large proportion of the nation’s industrial production and cost the economy millions of pounds. In return, it would devastate Germany from end to end, significantly hamper and constrain the development and growth of German war production, weaken the offensive spirit of the general population, cause the deaths of well over 500,000 Germans, compel the deployment of more than 1 million men and considerable military hardware and expertise to the defence of the Reich, pave the way for the invasion of Occupied Europe and take the war right to the heart of Germany, thereby increasingly sparing Britain the full horrors of war.

In the desperate days during the summer of 1940, with a powerful, ruthless and rampant enemy only a matter of miles away and the fate of the country and its Empire hanging in the balance, it also played a crucial and largely overlooked role in the defence of the United Kingdom in the Battle of Britain.

It had barely been twenty-five years since the first bomb dropped from a Zeppelin had landed on Norfolk on 15 January 1915, killing two civilians and wounding thirteen more. Britain’s island inviolability had been breached and, as the raids continued, it rapidly became clear that every citizen – young and old, male and female, rich and poor – was potentially in the front line. The profound implications of this development were immediately crystal clear. Writing in response to the first daylight attack made upon London by an aircraft on 28 November 1916, The Times’ leader writer noted, ‘If I were asked what event of the year had been of the most significance to the future of humanity, I should reply … the appearance of a single German aeroplane flying at high noon over London.’

Lord Rothermere, the influential newspaper magnate and Chairman of the Air Board, immediately led the strident calls for retaliation. By the end of the war in November 1918, some 1,414 British citizens had lost their lives and a further 3,416 had been seriously injured by aerial bombardment, but in reply more than 12,000 bombs, totalling 553 tons, had been dropped on German targets in 578 separate raids. Had the war lasted a day or two longer, the RAF’s new super-heavy bomber, the Handley Page V/1500, would have carted its half-ton load from its base in Nancy to Berlin.

The threat of attack from the air hung heavy over the heads of the British people in the 1920s and ’30s in the same manner as nuclear war would later in the century, and the question of air attack was one of the very few aspects of the Great War to be actively pursued by successive inter-war governments. As early as May 1924 an Air Raids Precautions Committee was set up under Sir John Anderson to consider ways to ameliorate the effects of bombing upon the civilian population. Evidence from the Air Staff painted an apocalyptic picture. Air raids on London would kill 1,700 and injure 3,300 in the first twenty-four hours, decreasing to 1,275 and 2,475 respectively the next day and then 880 and 1,650 for each twenty-four-hour period thereafter. Great thought was given to the means of preventing such an unprecedented slaughter but the problem was an intractable one. Aircraft development, particularly that of fighters, was stagnant as defence spending was slashed in the face of economic recession and widespread anti-war sentiment. Anti-aircraft protection was equally woefully inadequate, with a shortage of suitable weaponry and effective technology: an air exercise in 1926 revealed that, of the 2,935 shells expended, only two succeeded in hitting the target and that in broad daylight and clear conditions.

It is no wonder, then, that a sense of doom and gloom prevailed. Successive governments concluded that there was little that could be done to prevent such cataclysmic slaughter and devastation, which could continue for days on end. The public long remembered Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s chilling statement made in the House of Commons on 10 November 1932: ‘No power on Earth can protect the man in the street from being bombed. Whatever people might tell him, the bomber will always get through.’ The Air Raids Precaution Committee had already concluded that, even with mass evacuation and the best defensive measures available, ‘It may well be the nation whose people can endure aerial bombardment the longer, and with the greatest stoicism, will ultimately prove victorious.’ There seemed to be just two possibilities to prevent the ‘knock-out blow’ – disarmament and rearmament. When the lengthy disarmament talks held in Geneva, upon which so many hopes were riding, inevitably fell foul of national prejudices and vested interests and failed to produce a suitable formula for policing the skies, the viable options were down to one. The only protection against the bomber was the bomber. In essence, to have the capacity to bomb your enemy harder and more often than he could you, an early form of Mutually Assured Destruction. Thus, it came as no surprise when, as if acting on cue, the moment Chamberlain had finished his sombre and lugubrious declaration of war on the morning of 3 September 1939, the air raid warning sounded in London.

The appalling horrors of the trenches and the scale of the losses suffered had inflicted a deep and unhealed scar upon the British consciousness. Especially as the joy of victory faded, people from all walks of life vowed that the mass slaughter should never be allowed to happen again and new ideas that seemed to hold out the promise of making this heart-felt aspiration a reality were instantly attractive and appealing. One such idea was put forward by the newly formed Royal Air Force, with at least half an eye on justifying its continued existence as a separate entity – strategic bombardment from the air, effectively the removal of an opponent’s capacity and, indeed, will to wage war. In the light of the real moral and economic pressure to save lives and cut costs, the Strategic Air Offensive had much to recommend it and quickly became the cornerstone of RAF policy. By its threatened use or its thoughtful and skilful deployment, a comparatively small force could achieve disproportionally large goals and put an end to a war quickly and conclusively, without the need for a prolonged and bloody campaign on the ground. ‘It may,’ the Air Staff declared, ‘in itself be the instrument of victory or it may be the means by which victory can be won by other forces. It differs from all previous forms of armed attack in that it alone can be brought to bear immediately, directly and destructively, against the heartland of the enemy.’ Sir Hugh Trenchard, the highly influential Chief of Air Staff and ‘Father of the Royal Air Force’, was a forceful proponent of the approach and made a strong case for devastating attacks upon legitimate military and economic targets directly related to the war effort. There were, however, significant limits as to what he considered legitimate and these would have profound effects upon the deployment of the RAF in 1939–40. He wrote in May 1928:

What is illegitimate as being contrary to the dictates of humanity, is the indiscriminate bombing of a city for the sole purpose of terrorising the civilian population. It is an entirely different matter to terrorise munitions workers (men and women) into absenting themselves from work or stevedores to abandoning the loading of a ship with munitions through fear of air attack upon the factory or dockyard concerned. Moral effect is created by the bombing in such circumstances but it is the inevitable result of a lawful operation of war – the bombing of a military objective.

The thrust of his argument gained ground and became the widely accepted wisdom. By the time Bomber Command was finally formed as a separate entity in July 1936 as part of the rapid reorganisation and rearmament programme belatedly initiated in response to events unfolding in Germany, planning was under way for what became the Western Air Plans, a blueprint for the Strategic Air Offensive against Germany. The sixteen detailed plans strove to undermine Germany’s capacity to wage war by attacking targets critical to its offensive war effort, such as Luftwaffe bases and aircraft factories, naval bases and dockyards, industrial war material production sites – especially in the Ruhr – oil storage and refineries, rail, waterway and communications targets and administrative centres of government. Italy was to be subjected to similar attack if necessary and both countries were also to be deluged by a massive propaganda leaflet campaign, warning the population of the dire consequences of continued hostilities. Bomber Command, therefore, entered the war with clear aims and objectives – to protect Great Britain by destroying the enemy’s capacity to conduct a war effectively.

Having clear and effective planning is one thing, executing it is quite another. The parsimonious and languid approach of successive governments to military spending after the war had a significant deleterious effect upon the RAF and the years slipped by with precious little investment in new aircraft, equipment and training. Indeed, an RFC veteran returning to the colours in, say, 1934 would have needed nothing more than a light refresher course before becoming fully operational once more. At the end of that year, there was still not a single bomber in service that could from an airfield in Britain reach the nearest point in Germany, deliver more than a paltry 500lb bomb load and return. If an attempt had been made in daylight there was little chance of survival lumbering along at about 90mph in an unwieldy, lightly armed aircraft such as the Handley Page Heyford, fully in range of modern anti-aircraft guns and in the face of the Nazi regime’s rapidly improving fighter opposition. If the attempt had been made by night, the problems of navigation and target location in hostile skies almost precluded success and a safe return. The matter did not end there for a similar degree of stagnation and paralysis had inevitably affected most other aspects of the service. In terms of defensive armament, a key factor in a bomber’s ability to operate unescorted in a hostile environment, little had changed and the aircraft still relied on the Great War stalwart, the slow-firing light Lewis gun, mounted on metal rings in open turrets. The bombs too belonged to a bygone era, the standard 112lb and 250lb bombs had only limited destructive capability and then only when the crew had used basic navigation techniques, still largely based on visual sightings and map reading, to locate the target. Quite simply, as there had been little progress in the performance of the bombers themselves, there was little imperative to develop and enhance the skill set of the crews. Things were clearly not as they should have been.

The RAF expansion programme was belatedly put into place and accelerated in the mid-1930s to meet the increasingly obvious threat posed by the new National Socialist government in Germany, unencumbered by many of the niceties of democratic government and society and backed by almost unlimited financial resources. The Air Ministry put out new specifications for a medium bomber and Vickers-Armstrongs set out to meet it with the help of an innovative designer, Barnes Wallace. The resultant Wellington, which first flew from the firm’s airfield at Brooklands in Surrey on 15 June 1936, was a quantum leap forwards. Capable of 250mph, it had a service ceiling of about 20,000ft, four .303 machine guns mounted in pairs in power-operated turrets in the nose and tail (often two more manually operated guns in the beam position), a maximum load of 4,500lb and a range well in excess of 1,000 miles fully loaded. The Air Ministry immediately placed orders and the first operational Wellingtons were delivered to 99 Squadron at Mildenhall in October 1938. Handley Page also aimed to meet the original specification B9/32 and its chief designer Gustav Lachman came up with the Hampden. Major J.L.B.H. Cordes lifted the prototype off the runway at Radlett for the first time on 21 June 1936 and was immediately impressed by its manoeuvrability. So was the Air Ministry and orders were swiftly placed. A little faster than the Wellington, it had a similar ceiling and top speed and could take a 2,000lb load almost 1,900 miles, dropping to 1,200 miles with a 4,000lb bomb load. For defence, it packed just a single .303 Vickers K gas-operated machine gun in the nose, dorsal and ventral positions and one Browning .303 in the wing – hardly a serious deterrent to a hard-hitting Me 109 or Me 110. By a happy chance, it was also found that two 1,500lb parachute sea mines could be squeezed into its bomb bay, thereby creating a particular and highly successful niche for the bomber.

The third mainstay of Bomber Command’s force, and the only one designed ab initio to operate at night, was the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. Sleek, if not especially stylish, its modern lines were a mile away from its predecessors when it first flew on 17 March 1936. Put into service with 10 Squadron based at Dishforth in March 1937, it could lug a 4,000lb bomb load well over 1,500 miles at a theoretical cruising speed of 185mph, though most crews rarely saw those figures in practice. Armed with a revolutionary Nash and Thompson power-operated quadruple .303 machine gun in the rear turret, with further armament in the nose, the Whitley gave the Command its first real capability to launch an offensive against Germany. It and the other two were supported in their roles by two light bombers, the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim. By 1940 both aircraft were, and were known to be, little more than obsolescent death traps, making the selfless determination of the crews that flew them that summer – and beyond – all the more remarkable and poignant. Initially a private venture backed by Lord Rothermere, in April 1934 the Air Ministry was impressed by the Blenheim’s capabilities, especially its top speed of 280mph, then well over 100mph faster than any fighter in service. By the time the first aircraft reached 114 Squadron in March 1937, its advantage had been lost and even an upgraded Blenheim IV, which reached the front-line squadrons in January 1939, found itself outpaced and out-gunned by its opposition. The Fairey Battle fared even worse and its service history is one of bravery beyond reason. Designed to meet specification P.27/32 issued in August 1932 for a monoplane to carry 1,000lb of bombs over a range of 1,000 miles with a top speed of 200mph plus, its first flight was not until 10 March 1936, by which time it was already obsolescent, too slow, too lightly armoured and too lightly armed to survive in combat. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of war, there were more than 1,000 of these three-man light bombers in service and they formed the bulk of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF), sent to and ultimately fought almost to extinction over France.

A New Kind of War II

These then were the aircraft at the disposal of those in command of the Strategic Air Offensive, the means by which established thought believed the enemy’s heartland would be crushed, removing his capacity and will to wage war, thereby protecting those at home and bringing the war to a rapid end. Reality, however, lagged far behind, although the Air Ministry did have a new generation of heavy bombers – the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster – being developed as quickly as possible, aircraft far more capable and effective. The new generation of fighters could outstrip and run rings around the bombers, in daylight at least, throwing into doubt the maxim that the bomber would always get through. If and when it did, the crews were faced with the grave problem of locating and hitting a target, something taken for granted in the inter-war years, using means that differed little from those used when flight was in its infancy. Great strides forward had been taken in recent years but the Strategic Air Offensive was Bomber Command’s raison d’etre and that it was not better prepared for its long-awaited campaign reflects badly on all those at the top of government and the service.

Nevertheless, the men and women throughout the Command were absolutely committed to their task and set about it with a professional determination, fully aware of what was at stake. In a directive sent by Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Sholto Douglas, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, to Air Marshal Charles Portal, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) Bomber Command on 4 June, in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation, it was acknowledged that, ‘in present circumstances when the initiative rests with the enemy, our strategical policy is liable to be deflected by the turn of events from the course we should like it to follow’. It went on, ‘you should regard your primary aim as being to complete the offensive against German oil resources’, and, given the recent developments, ‘it is desirable as far as is consistent with your primary aim, to dislocate the German aircraft industry by attacks on such bomber and fighter assembly factories as may be within your range’. When conditions were inadequate to do this ‘you should continue as at present to bring about continuous interruption and dislocation of German war industry, particularly in those areas within range where the aircraft industry is concentrated, the Hamburg, Bremen, Ruhr and Frankfurt areas’, before a chilling reminder, ‘You should bear in mind throughout that the bomber force and particularly the medium bombers, may have to play a most important part in repelling an invasion of this country.’ The task was quite clear and prescriptive, and not in any way indiscriminate, and Portal was explicitly warned to have ‘due regard for avoiding as far as possible, undue risk to the lives of French, Dutch or Belgian civilians’, and even over German targets ‘in no circumstances should night bombing be allowed to degenerate into mere indiscriminate action, which is contrary to the policy of His Majesty’s Government.’ It was a heavy burden that had been placed on the Command and one that was to change emphasis repeatedly throughout the summer in the face of a fast-changing and increasingly menacing threat. On 13 July Portal was instructed that his ‘main offensive should be directed towards objectives the destruction of which will reduce the scale of the air attack upon this country.’ Portal tried to inject an air of realism, pointing out that many of these worthwhile targets were in either sparsely populated areas or isolated districts and that few could ‘be found with any certainty in moonlight by average crews. Expert crews may be expected to find the remainder on clear nights with a full moon and average crews will sometimes find them after a good deal of time has been spent in the searching’ and, as a result, ‘a very high percentage of the bombs which will inevitably miss the actual target will hit nothing else of importance and do no damage and the minimum amount of dislocation and disturbance will be caused by the operations as a whole.’ Portal, a highly intelligent and experienced airman, had come to a simple and profound conclusion pretty well from the outset; if the bombers, which were limited in both raw numbers and destructive capability, had serious difficulties in locating and destroying specific targets, then they might as well aim for valid targets in locations in which every bomb would count, whether on target or not, a blueprint for area bombing. Portal reminded his superiors that ‘we have the one directly offensive weapon in the whole of our armoury, the one means by which we can undermine the morale of a large part of the enemy people, shake their faith in the Nazi regime and at the same time and with the very same bombs, dislocate their heavy industry and a good part of their oil production.’ With the Luftwaffe stepping up its attacks in preparation for the expected invasion and Churchill at the same time demanding in a letter to Lord Beaverbrook, ‘an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland’, Portal’s views seemed to have captured the mood of the day: those in charge in the Air Ministry begged to differ, at least for the moment.

At least Germany was being bombed and, by all accounts from crews, reconnaissances, fledgling aerial photographic evidence and neutral observers and press reports, hit hard by the steadily, if slowly, increasing momentum of the attacks. These attacks took a new direction in late August when Portal and his staff took full advantage of Churchill’s bullish response to the first Luftwaffe bombs to fall on London proper to mount a series of attacks upon military and industrial targets in Berlin. By 3 September Churchill, in a paper to the War Cabinet to mark the first anniversary of the war, was describing the bombers as ‘the means of victory’ and concluded:

We must, therefore, develop the power to carry an ever increasing volume of explosives to Germany, so as to pulverise the entire industrial and scientific structure on which the war effort and economic life of the enemy depend … In no other way at present visible can we hope to overcome the immense military power of Germany … The Air Force and its action on the largest scale must therefore claim the first place over the navy or the army.

This long-term plan set in stone the military and economic direction of Britain’s war effort for several years to come and opened the way for the long-awaited attritional contest, pitting the fortitude and resolution of the British people against those of the German population. Hitler lost no time in making clear his response when he addressed a near hysterical mass rally in the Berlin Sportspalast. Skilfully employing his well-honed rabble-rousing techniques, he steadily built up to his familiar high-pitched yet controlled shriek, declaring:

When the British Air Force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of bombs, then in one night we will drop one hundred and fifty, two hundred and fifty, three hundred or four hundred thousand kilograms. When they declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raise their cities to the ground … The hour will come when one of us will break and it will not be National Socialist Germany!

Fighting for its very survival in the face of apparently insuperable odds and with a ruthless and hugely powerful enemy hammering on the door and poised to break in, Britain, in full cognisance of what it meant, had chosen to play the only card it had left: unrestricted air warfare.

On 9 September, just two days after the Luftwaffe’s first massed raid on London, Portal presented a paper to the Air Staff in which he listed the top twenty cities in Germany ripe for attack and urged that a force of 150 aircraft, a maximum effort at the time, should hammer each in turn to cause the greatest dislocation and destruction possible. The Air Staff, with more than half an eye on maintaining the Command’s crucial anti-invasion attacks, went no further than saying that attacks could be made, for example, upon Berlin ‘from time to time when favourable weather conditions permit’. Whether Portal knew it or not at the time is unclear, but he was soon to get the chance to put his ideas into practice for on 4 October he was promoted to the highest post in the RAF, Chief of Air Staff. His appointment was surely no coincidence and Churchill lost no time in blasting a series of broadsides in his direction urging higher bombing tonnages, concluding, ‘It is a scandal that so little use is made of the enormous mass of material provided. The discharge of bombs on Germany is pitifully small.’ Spurred on by this, Portal put the finishing touches to a new directive, which landed on the desk of the new supremo at Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, on 30 October. It confirmed that, ‘the enemy has, at least temporarily, abandoned his intention to invade this country’ and that, ‘the time seemed particularly opportune to make a definite attempt with our offensive to affect the morale of the German people when they can no longer expect an early victory and are faced with the approach of winter and the certainty of a long war.’ The change of direction was clearly spelled out: ‘Your first aim should be to continue your attacks on Berlin whenever conditions make it probable that the aircraft will get through,’ and that, ‘You will undertake similar attacks upon towns in central and western Germany,’ when such deep penetrations were not possible. The emphasis was to remain on oil, communications, war industries, power sources and transport but now, ‘where primary targets such as oil and aircraft objectives are suitably placed in the centre of towns or populated districts, they might also be selected’. In case there was any remaining doubt, the directive called for heavy attacks: ‘It is desired that regular concentrated attacks should be made on objectives in large towns and centres of industry, with the primary aim of causing very heavy material destruction which will demonstrate to the enemy the power and severity of air bombardment and the hardship and dislocation which will result from it.’ For the first time, an attack on morale was laid out as an objective as heavy attacks, ‘should be spread over the widest possible area so as to take advantage of the fear induced by concentrated attacks to impose ARP measures with the resulting interruption of work and rest and the dislocation of industry.’ It was a coherent, logical, practical and ultimately deliverable plan, a true Strategic Air Offensive, and its authors were well aware of what it entailed. There was little room for sentiment or compassion among the British people for an enemy still at the gates, especially one blasting cities the length and breadth of the country night after night. At the end of October 1940, as the Battle of Britain drew to a close but with the future still very much uncertain, it was clearer than ever that the bomber after all was the sole means of taking the war to the enemy, the very heart of the enemy, and by doing so it protected the men, women and children of Britain and offered them, and the wider world, a tiny speck of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.

The Messerschmitt Me 210

Without doubt, the worst twin-engined combat aircraft to emerge from Germany’s wartime industry was the Messerschmitt Me 210, which started life as a 1937 project for a multi-purpose aircraft to replace the Bf 110. Even at this early stage of its development, the latter aircraft, which had flown in 1936, was showing ominous signs that it would not reach its projected performance expectations and would probably not be wholly adequate for the long-range heavy fighter role for which it had been designed. A Reichsluftministerium (RLM) specification was issued to cover the new design and three companies – Ago, Arado and Messerschmitt – submitted proposals. However, the Ago design, the Ao 225, was technically too complex and the company was experiencing financial problems, which led to its early abandonment. The other two designs, the Arado Ar 240 and the Me 210, were approved while still on the drawing board. The Ar 240 first flew in May 1940; the first four prototypes were fighters, the next four reconnaissance aircraft, and the final one a night fighter. The initial production model, the Ar 240A-0, was a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, while the Ar 240B-0 was built in both fighter-bomber and reconnaissance versions. The Ar 240C was a projected multi-role model, while the Ar 240E and F were respectively bomber and fighter developments. During operational trials, Ar 240A-0s made reconnaissance sorties over England and Russia. However, the type suffered from continual handling problems, and after limited use in the reconnaissance role it disappeared from operational service, plans for large-scale production having been cancelled in 1942.

The Me 210V-1 prototype flew for the first time on 2 September 1939, powered by two 1100 hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A engines. This aircraft, and the two subsequent prototypes, were originally fitted with twin fins and rudders. However, early test flights revealed marked longitudinal instability and these features were replaced by a large single fin. The V2 and V3 prototypes also had a redesigned cockpit. They were fitted with mock-ups of the Rheinmetall-Borsig FDL 131 remotely controlled defensive gun barbettes on either side of the fuselage aft of the wing trailing edge, the cockpit canopy being bulged so that the gunner could see downwards and to the rear. It had a large bomb bay in the nose, which could accommodate up to 2200 lb of bombs or alternatively six 20 mm cannon. For the dive-bombing role, the aircraft was fitted with a Stuvi 5B bomb sight.

Although the single fin and rudder arrangement improved the Me 210’s flight characteristics somewhat, it still continued to display some seriously bad habits, including a tendency to stall at the slightest provocation. At high angles of attack, or in a turn, a stall would develop into a vicious spin.

One thousand examples of the Me 210 had been ordered straight off the drawing board. The wisdom of this decision was soon questioned. In the opinion of Messerschmitt test pilot Fritz Wendel, fresh from his unhappy experiences with the record-breaking Me 209, the Me 210:

… was nearly as bad as Heinkel’s He 177, surely the worst plane we produced in Germany throughout the war years. I was never happy about the Me 210. I have only been forced to bale out of an aircraft twice, and the first time was from this twin-engined fighter-bomber.

It was on 5 September 1940, that I took off from Augsburg-Haunstetten in the Me 210V-2. We had more than a suspicion that the tail assembly was weak, and that there was a strong possibility that it would part company with the rest of the airfame in a dive. I was flying solo, the mechanic who usually occupied the radio operator’s seat on test flights being left on the ground as this flight was likely to be more than usually dangerous.

During the climb I recall the thought flashing through my mind: ‘If something goes wrong, remember to avoid baling out over the forest.’ At 9000 feet I checked my instruments and started the planned series of dives, my unpleasant thoughts temporarily forgotten. Stick forward … down went the nose and the needle began to creep round the airspeed indicator. Stick back, and the nose lifted. Stick forward … back … forward, and so on. One more shallow dive and back to the airfield. A thousand feet showed on the altimeter and I began to level off. Then it happened, and right over that blasted Siebentischwald again! The plane shuddered, the tail fluttered, and bang, the starboard elevator broke off! Immediately the plane went into a half-loop downwards. Before I could gather my wits I was flying on my back in the direction from which I had just come. I knew exactly what would happen now, as I had seen the same thing happen to the first prototype some weeks before. The plane would fly inverted for several seconds and then dive straight into the ground.

Hanging on my seat straps, head downwards, I automatically grabbed the release pin, but I hadn’t jettisoned the canopy. In that split second I fumbled for the roof’s emergency release lever, pulled it, and the canopy flew off with a bang. I pulled the release pin … the chute opened with a glorious crack. I looked down, and there were those damned trees almost touching my feet. But I was in luck, for the wind blew me towards the only clearing that I could see, and I escaped with nothing worse than a sprained ankle. I had lost a prototype, but at least I had proved its unsatisfactory characteristics and had lived to tell the tale. But there are few things in the world harder than proving to an aircraft designer that his latest pet creation in simply not good enough.

Despite the dangerous shortcomings that became apparent during the testing of the Me 210 prototypes, the RLM ordered a batch of pre-production Me 210A-0 aircraft. They were intended for Erprobungsgruppe 210 (EGr 210), the special Luftwaffe unit that had been formed at Köln-Ostheim under the command of Hauptmann Walter Rubensdörffer on 7 July 1940 for the specific purpose of pioneering the Me 210’s entry into full operational service. One of the unit’s Staffeln, I/EGr 210, was equipped with the Messerschmitt Bf 110C, and was activated by simply renumbering I/Zerstörergeschwader 1 (I/ZG 1); similarly, III/Stukageschwader 77, which was armed with the Messerschmitt Bf 110D, became II/EGr 210. The group’s third Staffel, equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109Es, was previously IV/Trägergruppe 186, which had been designated as the fighter element of the air group intended for the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, on which work had been halted. EGr 210 had been operationally active during the Battle of Britain, carrying out precision attacks on targets such as radar stations and RAF airfields, and the losses sustained by its Bf 110 fighter-bombers had served to underline the fact that the type was outmoded.

EGr 210 received its first Me 210A-0s at the end of 1940, but although the unit was still based in the English Channel area, the new aircraft were not used operationally against the British Isles. In April 1941 the unit was redesignated Schnellkampfgeschwader 210 (SKG 210), and a month later it moved to Poland under Major Walter Storp for the start of the campaign in Russia. In April 1942 it was absorbed into Zerstörergeschwader 1, disbanding in July 1944.

The first unit to use the Me 210 operationally, in fact, was Zerstörergeschwader 1, whose II Gruppe equipped with the type late in 1941 and served on the Eastern Front. The Me 210 was also operated by 10/ZG 26 in Tunisia and III/ZG 1 on the Italian front. There were two major production sub-types, the Me 210A-1 heavily armed ‘destroyer’ and the Me 210A-2 fighter-bomber; four examples of a photo-reconnaissance variant, the Me 210B-1, were also built, and these served with 2(F)/122. The Me 210 was also built under licence in Hungary, and was used by the 102nd Fast Attack Bomber group of the Royal Hungarian Air Force. Most of the Me 210s built in Hungary were the Me 210C variant, which was basically an A or B model with 1475 hp DB 605B engines. About two-thirds of the Hungarian production went to the Luftwaffe.

In April 1942, production of the Me 210 in Germany was halted after only ninety aircraft had been delivered to operational units, a decision dictated by the aircraft’s phenomenal accident rate. Production was resumed in July, after the aircraft had been fitted with leading-edge slots, a modification that substantially improved its flight characteristics.

In the summer of 1942 an experimental unit designated Versuchstaffel (Trials Squadron) 210 formed at Soesterberg, Holland, for operations against the British Isles. This unit became operational as 16 Staffel/KG 6 in August. On 13 August 1942, the first Me 210 to be shot down over England was destroyed by Flight Lieutenant A.C. Johnston, flying a Hawker Typhoon of No. 266 Squadron; the combat took place east of Cromer. Two more Me 210s were shot down by Typhoons of the same squadron on 6 September, off the Yorkshire coastal resorts of Robin Hood’s Bay and Redcar. It was the end of the Me 210’s brief and unspectacular combat career against Britain.

Late in 1942, after 352 examples had been built, production of the Me 210 switched to an improved version, the Me 410 Hornisse (Hornet). This aircraft was essentially an Me 210 incorporating all the latter’s hard-earned modifications and equipped with two Daimler-Benz DB 603A engines. As well as being used in the fast bomber role, the Me 410 was used as a night fighter and a bomber destroyer, being armed with a 50 mm cannon in the latter case. We can see a measure of what they might have achieved, had these aircraft been committed in greater numbers, in one attack on American air bases in East Anglia on 2 April 1944. Me 410s destroyed thirteen B-24 Liberators and, in the panic, two more were shot down by their own airfield defences. The Germans lost a single Me 410.

By the beginning of 1944, however, further improvements in the British air defences had made it hard for the Luftwaffe to penetrate UK air space at medium and low level. Increased numbers of antiaircraft guns of all calibres, rocket batteries capable of firing salvoes of 128 missiles, and radar-directed searchlights able to illuminate targets up to 35,000 feet all contributed to frustrating the attackers. The fast enemy bombers now began to penetrate at altitudes up to 30,000 feet before diving on their objectives and making a high-speed exit. These new tactics caused problems for the British night fighters, since following an enemy aircraft in a dive meant that radar contact was often lost because of ground returns. The answer was to extend the night-fighter patrol lines well out to sea; many intruders were trapped and destroyed in this way. Between 13 July 1943 and 5 June 1944, forty-three Me 410s were shot down by Mosquito night fighters during night operations against England; many more were to be destroyed during subsequent operations over the Continent.