New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 12 — Heavier Bombing Raids—Advent of No. 487 Squadron
Heavier Bombing Raids—Advent of
No. 487 Squadron
THE Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour which brought the United States into the war in December 1941 led to a profound change in the whole war situation. But while eventual victory now appeared more certain, the great resources in manpower and material possessed by Britain’s new ally were potential rather than actual and would, therefore, take time to organise effectively in action. Japan, on the other hand, was mobilised for war and within a few months most of the Far East passed under her control. The immediate effect of Japanese intervention was to increase the strain upon Britain’s military strength and, in particular, upon her still rather slender and widely stretched air power. Reinforcements were needed to defend India. At the same time events in the Mediterranean were making heavy demands so that, inevitably, the scale of air operations that could be undertaken from the United Kingdom during 1942 was adversely affected.
At the beginning of 1942 Bomber Command was further handicapped by a serious deficiency of trained crews and a shortage of suitable aircraft. Nor did this situation quickly improve. The anticipated increase in the Command’s numerical strength did not take place, and the number of sorties flown during 1942 rose only slightly above the total for the previous year. Allied plans for the bombing offensive against Germany in 1942 were, in fact, largely frustrated by the heavy demands upon British and American aircraft production to reinforce the Middle East and to defeat the renewed attacks of the German U-boats upon the vital sea communications between the American continent and Europe. However, while the numerical increase in the British bomber force was indeed small, its composition steadily improved as more squadrons were re-equipped with the new four-engined heavy bombers, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters, which replaced the Whitleys and Hampdens and later the Wellingtons. This development gave promise of a considerable increase in the weight of attack because of the heavier bomb loads carried by the new types, but, in the meantime, it involved a period of transition that lasted throughout the year; the scale of operations was thus inevitably affected as squadrons had to be taken out of the front line for re-equipment.
The process of ‘conversion’ to the heavier bombers was no simple matter. It was found that a thorough and complete course of training, often involving forty hours flying together as a crew, was absolutely indispensable for the efficient handling of these more complicated aircraft. At the same time the change to heavier machines brought problems of airfield construction at both the operational and the training units owing to the need for longer runways. By the end of the year, two-thirds of the front-line squadrons had been re-equipped with heavy bombers.
The advent of the Lancaster, which began operating in small numbers in March 1942, marked what might well be regarded as the beginning of a new era in Bomber Command. It soon proved greatly superior to all other types of night bomber and the advantages which it enjoyed enabled it to attack, with considerable success, distant and difficult targets which other machines could attempt only with serious risk, or even the certainty, of heavy casualties. Furthermore, it was easier to handle, there were fewer accidents, and through the following years the casualty rate of the Lancaster was to be consistently lower than with other types. Altogether it was to show a remarkable efficiency, both in performance and in its ability to carry heavier bomb loads. Eventually, in March 1945, the Lancaster was to carry the enormous 22,000-pound page 249 bomb—known as the ‘Grand Slam’—a weapon which no other contemporary aircraft could manage. But at the beginning of 1942 there were no Lancasters operating and no ten-ton bombs. In fact, the average number of heavy bombers available during January of that year was only 47, and the heaviest bomb thus far employed was the 4000-pounder and that only in small numbers.
New Zealand representation in Bomber Command increased considerably during 1942, when a total of 1200 men served among its various units. The majority were engaged on flying duties but there was also a substantial representation in the various ground duties, a particular increase being noticeable in the number engaged on maintenance work with squadrons. Casualties among flying personnel were to be severe—over one-third of the New Zealand airmen who flew with Bomber Command during 1942 lost their lives. The total aircrew losses by Bomber Command in that year were 9850 men killed, missing, or prisoners of war; by December relatively few of those who were flying at the beginning of the year survived. The increasing efficiency of the enemy’s defences was the chief reason for the heavy losses, although the weather, particularly during the winter months, continued to exact a steady toll in both men and machines. There were also serious losses in training flights.
During 1942 several RAF bomber squadrons were also led by New Zealanders. Wing Commander Freeman continued to command the Wellington squadron which he had led with distinction during the previous year, while Wing Commander Dabinett,1 after a period as chief flying instructor at an operational training unit, was appointed to command a Wellington squadron. Wing Commanders Cook2 and Seavill were both to command squadrons during the second half of the year, Seavill taking charge of No. 487 New Zealand Squadron upon its formation in August 1942 as a light bomber unit. Others were also to serve as flight commanders in a number of Royal Air Force squadrons and as instructors in the operational training units of Bomber Command. In addition some men were employed for varying periods on technical, administrative and staff duties. Two New Zealand doctors with the RAF, Wing Commander G. B. MacGibbon and Squadron Leader J. H. P. Gauvain, both of whom had enlisted before the outbreak of war, served as senior medical officers in Bomber Command during 1942. As in the previous year, a considerable proportion of the New Zealand aircrew was concentrated in No. 3 Group, in which was No. 75 Squadron. Nevertheless, New Zealanders continued to be widely scattered among the units of the other bomber groups and thus took part in almost every operation undertaken by the command.
2 Wing Commander R. N. Cook; born Invercargill, 30 Jul 1912; joined RAF 1934; flying instructor, No. 15 OTU, 1939–41; commanded No. 156 Sqdn, 1942; deputy commander RAF Station, Hemswell, 1942–43, and RAF Station, Faldingworth, 1944; Air Staff, Operations, No. 33 Base, No. 3 Bomber Group, 1945.
In these daylight missions the Blenheim was gradually replaced by the faster Boston, a twin-engined light bomber built in the United States, and formations of from six to ten of these aircraft were usually employed, along with a strong escort of fighters. Although the scale of the bombing was not heavy, it proved sufficiently accurate to force the German fighters to attempt interceptions on many occasions; but escorting Spitfires were usually able to repel the attacks and relatively few Bostons were shot down. Yet the Bostons did not often return unscathed for many of their targets were strongly defended by anti-aircraft batteries. During one attack on the docks at Le Havre, the Boston captained by Flight Lieutenant Wheeler, which was leading a formation, was hit and one of the engines put out of action. Wheeler was just able to reach the English coast where, as the bomber was losing height rapidly, he was forced to crash-land. In another attack on Dunkirk, one of the bombers was hit as it approached the Belgian coast and the captain, Pilot Officer Brewer,1 wounded in the thigh. He carried on, bombed his target and then, despite severe pain and loss of blood, managed to regain formation and return to his airfield where, the brakes of the aircraft being useless, he ran it to a standstill through a dispersal area before collapsing at the controls. Apart from these bombing raids with fighter escort, the Bostons occasionally flew air-sea rescue missions. During the second half of the year they also made a number of unescorted sorties, diving out of cloud to attack coastal targets and returning to such cover for the homeward flight.
On 17 August 1942, during the commando raid on Dieppe, Bostons from No. 2 Group did valuable work in laying smoke screens to cover both the assault and withdrawal. Flying Officer Rutherford1 flew as navigator in the leading aircraft of the formation which made the first sortie of the day, upon the accuracy of which a great deal depended. It involved flying low over the enemy defences, and the Bostons had a hot reception. ‘Neverthe- less,’ declares an official report, ‘Rutherford navigated his captain to the target accurately and the bombs were dropped on the position within a few seconds of the time scheduled.’ On the same day another navigator, Pilot Officer Baxter,2 flew in the leading aircraft on two bombing sorties against enemy batteries—small targets difficult to locate in the smoke of the ground battle. Baxter had previously flown with distinction as leading navigator in many circus operations, and had already completed over sixty operational sorties.
In August 1942 No. 487 New Zealand Squadron was formed in No. 2 Group under Wing Commander Seavill. Equipped with Ventura light bombers, nicknamed ‘flying pigs’ because of their spacious body, the unit was first based at Feltwell, which, by a happy coincidence, was the station from where No. 75 Squadron had begun operations against Germany early in 1940. Feltwell was now commanded by Group Captain Kippenberger, whose cheerful personality and leadership were largely responsible for the fine spirit which existed there during this period when an Australian squadron was being formed alongside the New Zealand unit.
From the beginning No. 487 Squadron had a strong Empire representation for, in addition to the New Zealanders, there were men from the British Isles as well as several Canadians and Australians among the aircrew. Most of the ground and administrative staff were from the Royal Air Force but several New Zealanders were among those employed on maintenance duties during the early months. Others were to follow.
In the early weeks crews were formed and training commenced with aircraft borrowed from a neighbouring unit previously equipped with Ventura aircraft. Eventually, towards the end of September, the squadron began to receive its own machines and, with the arrival of more crews, the unit began to take shape. Training was intensified and within two months most crews were ready to undertake their first operational mission. This was a combined attack on the Philips radio and valve works at Eindhoven, in Holland, responsible for nearly one-third of Germany’s supply of radio components. No. 487 Squadron contributed 16 aircraft to the mixed forced of 90 fast light bombers—Bostons, Mosquitos and Venturas—which, after several days’ wait for reasonable weather, took off shortly before midday on 6 December on what was to prove the most outstanding operation by No. 2 Group for the whole year.
Visibility over the North Sea was bad, particularly in the heavy rain squalls, and at times cloud was down to 200 feet, but almost the whole force, flying in low over the Dutch fields and villages, succeeded in locating the objective. The attack lasted ten minutes. First the Bostons swung in, then the Mosquitos, followed closely by the Venturas carrying both incendiaries and delayed high-explosive bombs. The last crews reported many fires and billowing smoke in the target area, and subsequent reconnaissance confirmed that heavy damage had been inflicted on the factory. But both in the vicinity of Eindhoven and during the return flight, the bombers were harried by German fighters and many combats developed. There was also anti-aircraft fire along the route as well as in the target area. In all, 13 aircraft were lost, three from No. 487 Squadron, including the Ventura piloted by Wing Commander Seavill which went down in flames over an airfield in Holland. Many machines returned bearing scars of combat and several had wounded among their crews. There were also some narrow escapes. One New Zealand pilot saw the machine a few yards to his starboard blown to pieces. Another Ventura was hit by anti-aircraft fire which set off some Very cartridges, filling the machine with smoke before they were finally extinguished. A New Zealand flight sergeant had the nose of his aircraft damaged when it struck a tree while he was trying to get away at low level after bombing.page 255
Of the daylight raids attempted by the heavier bombers during 1942, the most spectacular was that made on 17 April by twelve Lancasters against the Diesel engine works at Augsburg, in Bavaria. This was one of the largest factories in Germany manufacturing power units for U-boats, but to reach it the Lancasters had to fly over 1000 miles across enemy territory. It was a daring enterprise against a target of high military importance. The first wave of six aircraft was attacked soon after crossing the French coast and four were shot down. The remaining two Lancasters flew on and reached Augsburg, where they met sharp anti-aircraft fire as they swept in over the house-tops. But they stayed the course and bombed the factory. Then, as the Lancasters turned away, one was hit. It burst into flames and crash-landed. The other, although riddled with holes, got clear and flew back to England, the only one of the six to return. Its pilot, Squadron Leader Nettleton,1 of Natal, who led the attack, was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross. The second wave of bombers was more fortunate and reached Augsburg without incident, but then three were shot down after bombing their target. Two New Zealanders were among the casualties in this raid. Sergeant Baxter,2 second pilot of one of the Lancasters shot down over France, was killed when the aircraft crashed. Warrant Officer Kirke3 was navigator in another Lancaster of the same formation which survived the fighter attacks only to be shot down after bombing the target. Kirke became a prisoner of war.
Night raids by the heavier bombers were, however, the main feature of the air offensive throughout 1942, and it was in such operations that the majority of the New Zealanders with Bomber Command were involved. In January and the early part of February, attacks on a somewhat reduced scale were directed mainly against Brest in an attempt to inflict further damage on the three German warships sheltering there. On 12 February the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen were sufficiently seaworthy to make a spectacular dash up Channel to the greater safety of German home ports.
The main role assigned to the bombers was to distract the attention of the ships’ gunners while the torpedo aircraft and surface ships were in action. To this end most of the bombs carried were of the type to inflict blast damage as, with the low cloud base, armour-piercing bombs would have had inadequate penetration. Even so, many of the aircraft which found the ships reported that each time they attempted to gain enough height for effective attack they found themselves in cloud and lost sight of their target. Others zigzagged over the presumed track of the ships and saw a target only for a few fleeting moments. There was thick anti-aircraft fire. One Hampden, piloted by Squadron Leader Constance,1 was hit whilst approaching the German fleet through the cloud and went into a dive. On breaking cloud, Constance just managed to regain control before his machine hit the sea. One of the German battle-cruisers was then sighted directly ahead and the Hampden immediately attacked, only to be again heavily hit during the bombing run. Another New Zealand pilot, Squadron Leader A. M. Paape, found himself over the ships at 800 feet. He flew on while his gunners opened fire, then he returned to the attack and bombed one of the vessels in the convoy. By the time he had escaped from the fire zone his machine had been hit several times; the bomb doors hung open, all turrets were out of action, petrol was leaking from one tank, and the hydraulics and trimming gear were useless. Although the weather provided an effective screen for the attacking bombers, 15 of the force of 240 aircraft despatched failed to return and a further 20 suffered damage from flak or in encounters with enemy fighters. In belated attacks the bomber crews did their best, under appalling conditions, in a role for which they were neither trained nor equipped. Meanwhile, gallant attacks by torpedo aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm and of Coastal Command had been unsuccessful and the German naval squadron escaped in the gathering darkness, although, before reaching port, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged through striking mines laid by aircraft of Bomber Command.
Gee was a radar device which, within its range, was expected to provide an accurate check of an aircraft’s position, irrespective of the prevailing visibility. The principle upon which it worked was relatively simple. A master station transmitted a pulse signal while simultaneously another signal was sent by a slave station. The apparatus in the aircraft was able to measure the time difference in the reception of these two signals and show the difference between the aircraft’s distance from the one station and its distance from the other. This enabled the navigator to place his aircraft somewhere on a line marked on a chart specially prepared for use with the apparatus. Another set of transmissions from the same master station and a second slave station placed the aircraft on a second line on his chart. The actual position of the aircraft was at the point of intersection of the two lines.
The chief disadvantage of Gee lay in its limited range, for accurate fixes could only be obtained within some 350 miles from the home stations. At the same time, more was expected of this very useful device than it could, in fact, achieve since it was anticipated that it would also be used for blind bombing, enabling bombs to be released accurately without sight of the target. In the event, the problem of locating the aiming point in bad conditions remained unsolved. However, until the Germans began effective jamming of the transmissions in August 1942, the new device did prove a most valuable aid to navigation. It enabled a larger number of aircraft to reach the vicinity of their target, making their bombing less scattered. Greater concentration of aircraft in time and space was now possible and this was to become an important counter-measure to the enemy defences. Gee also proved an invaluable aid during the homeward flight, since the accuracy of the fixes increased as page 258 the aircraft neared England. The risks that had hitherto faced tired crews were reduced and whereas, in previous years, it often happened that more aircraft and crews were lost by crashing in England on the return flight than over Germany, the number of such casualties became progressively less during 1942.
Coincident with the introduction of Gee, an important change was made in the composition of the bomber crew. This was the introduction of the air bomber to relieve the navigator of certain duties in the vicinity of the target. It was a change that was badly needed, for the navigator already had the arduous duty of getting the aircraft to within a few miles of the target. Then he had to begin the new and difficult task of trying to spot the aiming point, often before his eyes had time to become conditioned to the darkness. Accord- ingly, it became the bomb aimer’s role to specialise in the art of visual target location, leaving the navigator free to give his full attention to the Gee apparatus as the bomber approached its objective.
On the introduction of the bomb aimer, the position of second pilot was omitted from the crew since, with the expanding and changing force and the high standard required of pilots who were to handle the new heavy bombers, it was found impossible to give the two pilots an equal amount of training unless the whole crew went through almost double the amount of training flights. Instead, the air bomber was given a small amount of training so that he could, in an emergency, take over the controls. Another change made at this time was that only one man was subsequently trained as wireless operator and air gunner; a fifth member of the crew was trained as a fulltime gunner. With this greater degree of specialisation, the operational training units for new crews now developed a thorough course of five months’ training, involving some eighty hours’ flying, a high standard which was maintained until the end of the war in spite of periods of heavy casualties. During 1942 the work of these units was of particular importance for, in addition to the training of new crews, many medium bomber squadrons were being re-equipped with heavier bombers, which involved the retraining of all their aircrew. Most of the instruction was done by men from operational squadrons in what were euphemistically called ‘rest periods’ between their operational tours. It was difficult and exacting work and casualties were relatively high.
An outstanding leader, Air Marshal Harris, now appeared at Bomber Command. He became Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief in February 1942, and for the remainder of the war the planning of bombing operations was to be guided by his strong personality. Harris believed implicitly in the potentialities page 259 of the bomber as a decisive weapon and felt that by its use the casualties of the fighting forces on land could be reduced to a minimum and the slaughter of the First World War at Verdun, Passchendaele, and the Somme avoided. He worked tirelessly to secure the means to improve the efficiency of his command, and his tenure of office was to see the development of the Royal Air Force bombing offensive to the massive scale it reached in the last year of the war.
The need to concentrate on area targets was now recognised, and the first directive issued to the new Commander-in-Chief stated that ‘attacks were to be directed against the morale of the enemy civil population and, in particular, of the industrial workers’. The Ruhr area was to be given priority. Subsidiary tasks were to attack enemy ports and naval bases and certain specific targets in enemy-occupied territory, mainly factories producing war equipment for the Germans. This adoption of enemy civilian morale as a principal aim was a revolutionary step and one which called for a far greater force and concentration of effort than had hitherto been attempted, together with entirely new bombing tactics and technique. But it was not until the end of 1942, after a period of trial and error, of difficulties and disappointments, that these requirements looked like being fulfilled.1 Meanwhile, against a well organised police state such as Hitler’s Germany, with a docile population to whom obedience was part of their very nature, the ‘morale’ bombing of this year was to prove comparatively ineffective.
By the beginning of March 1942 sufficient aircraft had been fitted with the Gee apparatus for it to be employed in operations with reasonable chance of success. No. 75 New Zealand Squadron was among the first units whose aircraft were equipped with the device, another being the Wellington squadron led by Wing Commander Freeman, who had taken a leading part in the early trials of the new navigational aid, ‘the success of which,’ wrote the Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, ‘was largely due to his efforts.’ Both these units were to take a prominent part in the operations of the next few months.
1 The idea of attacking morale might be described as a counsel of despair based on the previous failure of night bombing,’ writes Sir Arthur Harris. ‘But it also implied an unbounded optimism, not, indeed, about the strategic effects of a bombing offensive, but about what could be achieved at this moment. Far more was expected of a very small force than was at all reasonable, even if the new Gee equipment should come up to the most optimistic forecasts.’
Between March and June 1942, the principal objectives for the heavier bombers were towns in the Ruhr and the adjacent Rhineland, with Essen, the great armament centre of Germany and the home of the famous Krupps works, the target for 15 major attacks. Outside the Ruhr, the cities of Cologne, Hamburg, Bremen, Kiel, and Emden, and the Baltic ports of Lubeck and Rostock were also subjected to heavy raids. In addition to these attacks on Germany, New Zealand airmen with the squadrons of Bomber Command also took part in a number of raids on targets in German-occupied territory. The first major attack of the year was, in fact, directed against such an objective—the Renault motor and armament plant at Billancourt, near Paris. On the night of 3 March, in clear weather and bright moonlight, a force of 220 aircraft attacked the factory, dropping 460 tons of bombs. As the target was almost undefended, the bombers were able to come down low to identify it and a concentrated attack resulted which caused heavy damage. Production was not restored until four months later. Similar targets subjected to heavy attacks were the large motor works at Poissy and Genne- villiers, both in France, and the huge Skoda armament plant at Pilsen, in Czechoslovakia. Apart from the actual damage inflicted, these raids served to hearten and encourage the various ‘resistance’ movements in Europe, at the same time discouraging those who worked in these factories from collaborating with the enemy.
1 No easy task as aircraft had to be assembled from bases all over eastern England to rendezvous over the target within the required time limit.
The results achieved in the bombing attacks on Germany during the spring of 1942 varied considerably. Although the new navigational aid proved invaluable in leading more aircraft towards their objective, the success or failure of any particular raid was still largely determined by the conditions crews experienced during their flight over enemy territory and, more especially, in the vicinity of the target. Heavy anti-aircraft fire and the glare of searchlights frequently rendered identification and marking of a target by the leading aircraft extremely difficult. Often the weather intervened to prevent concentration of attack. After one April raid on Hamburg few crews reported having seen the target at all, the majority being forced to drop their bombs blindly through dense cloud. An attack on Essen during the same month was frustrated by severe storms and icing encountered during the outward flight. Only 40 of the 157 bombers despatched got through to the target.
The launching of an attack on this massive scale—contemporary raids usually involved a force of between two and three hundred aircraft—was an experiment to see how far losses could be reduced and better results achieved by saturating the enemy defences both on the ground and in the air. At the same time the Commander-in- Chief hoped to demonstrate what could be done if Bomber Command were given a sufficiently large force equal to the task which confronted it. But getting a thousand serviceable aircraft was no easy matter. It could only just be done by drawing on the training units to the extent of nearly 400 machines and using the whole strength of the operational units, with every aircraft, including reserves, made available for the occasion and crews found for them. The squadrons, which had been slogging hard through the previous months and bearing heavy casualties, received news of the project with great enthusiasm. Work was hastened on all aircraft in the repair sections and scratch crews were raised on stations, using every trained man. Aircrew left sick quarters to fly on this raid and many of the ground staff volunteered to fill vacancies. At first Hamburg was to be the objective, but in the late afternoon of the day finally chosen for the attack,1 the weather over that city caused a change to Cologne where more favourable conditions were predicted.
New Zealand airmen were in many of the crews of the 1047 bombers which took off shortly after darkness fell. On the way across the North Sea they met thick cloud, but this began to break up across Holland and there were clear skies over Cologne, which was readily identified by the first arrivals. Those who followed were guided by large and growing fires, and the whole attack proved an outstanding success. Later reconnaissance revealed that over 600 acres, half of it in the centre of the city, were completely destroyed. This was almost equal to the total destruction so far caused by Bomber Command’s raids on Germany. That much damage was caused to industrial property is confirmed by German police records, which add that 468 people were killed, 5027 injured, and 140,000 had to be evacuated. Nine days after the attack, Cologne was still cut off from communication with the rest of Germany. But Bomber Command’s losses were not light. Alto- gether, 40 aircraft failed to return and a further 45 were seriously damaged, twelve of these being completely written off.
1 The initial date fixed for the operation was the night of 28 May but thundery conditions and heavy cloud over the Continent caused a postponement for two nights.
Two nights later many New Zealanders again flew with the bombers despatched against Essen, when advantage was taken of the large force assembled at bases in eastern England to launch another attack on a similar scale. But besides the usual industrial haze, crews found low cloud over the Ruhr, with the result that the bombing was spread over a wide area and the results of the attack much less spectacular.
The third of the thousand-bomber raids of 1942 took place on the night of 25 June against the German port of Bremen. This city, the second largest port in Germany, not only had large submarine building yards but was also an important link in the German transport system. It also housed, among other industrial concerns, the Focke-Wulf aircraft factory. Once again the bombers found the target area obscured by cloud and only a few crews were able to catch glimpses of the ground. The glow on the clouds from the fires started by the first arrivals, navigating with the aid of Gee, formed the chief means of identification for the main part of the force. Scattered bombing resulted in which, however, considerable damage was done, including the destruction of industrial buildings in the town and part of the Focke-Wulf factory.
More than two or three such blows were needed to produce the cumulative result that might have had decisive effects on German morale and war production. Yet these large-scale attacks had only been made possible by a supreme effort on the part of Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Training had been brought to a stand- still. The casualty rate, both in men and aircraft, was beyond what could be supported from contemporary resources.1 It was not until well into the following year that operations approaching this scale could be repeated on frequent occasions. Nevertheless, these heavy attacks, together with the more accurate raids made between March and June 1942, seriously disturbed the German High Command. Plans for a rapid increase in the strength of the night fighter force were now made and the Germans were stung into a series of reprisal raids against English towns. This was the period when the relatively undefended cathedral cities of Exeter, Bath, Canterbury, and Norwich suffered considerable damage.
1 In the three thousand-bomber attacks, 120 aircraft had been lost and a further 105 seriously damaged.
There were many grim episodes in which fires were fought and subdued by members of a crew while the pilot sought to evade the attacks of enemy fighters. In the early hours of 28 April a battered Wellington of No. 150 Squadron skidded in to make a belly landing at a base in Lincolnshire. The outward flight to Cologne had been comparatively uneventful, but while the Wellington was returning over the North Sea a German fighter made a surprise attack. Fire broke out amidships and spread rapidly, burning away the fuselage as it did so. Before the enemy machine broke away, both the main and tail planes of the Wellington had been damaged, numerous struts were shattered, and the undercarriage rendered useless. The fire was eventually extinguished, but by that time the machine was little more than a skeleton as most of the fabric from the astro-dome to the rear turret had been burnt away. It was only the fine airmanship of the pilot, Sergeant Law,2 that got the Wellington back across the sea to England.
During the raid against Essen on the night of 5 June, Pilot Officer Jones,1 a navigator, shared with his British crew an amazing series of incidents. Over Essen the Wellington was badly holed by flak and a fire started which was extinguished only with great difficulty. Soon afterwards there was a collision with another aircraft, followed almost immediately by a persistent fighter attack; together they caused such damage that the Wellington eventually had to land on the sea. All the crew survived their ordeal and were picked up by a surface vessel next day. A few weeks later Flight Sergeant Moore,2 as captain of a Wellington bomber, had a remarkable escape after taking part in a raid on Bremen. Shortly after crossing the Dutch coast on the return flight, his machine was hit by flak in an encounter with three German E-boats. One wing caught fire, and in spite of his efforts to subdue the flames by ‘side-slipping’, they spread rapidly, burning away a large portion of the fabric. Soon the Wellington began to lose height and had to be brought down on a rough sea. Immediately it struck the water one wing was torn off, the nose went down steeply, and within a few seconds the machine was below the surface. Moore managed to struggle free and follow his navigator out of the escape hatch to find that the rear gunner was the only other survivor. The three men then scrambled into a dinghy and, after spending 37 hours adrift in the North Sea off the Dutch coast, were picked up by British launches.
Of particular interest at this time was the contribution made by the freshmen crews from the training units, who set off over Germany in aircraft that were often well past their best to add to the weight of attack in the thousand-bomber raids. One young New Zealand pilot writes of his first flight to Bremen:
The old Wellingtons we were flying were ex squadron, and after being in service for some time at the O.T.U. with novices flogging them around on circuits and bumps, they were really worn out. Our particular plane seemed to be from the bottom of the barrel which was scraped for this raid. On the last two cross-country flights we had come back on one engine with the usual ceremony of fire engines and ambulances to greet our landing. But the ground staff worked hard and we left in high spirits. I remember the flak bursts at the coast and the circle we did to avoid them. But there was more to come for this green crew. Our navigator was warning us of the proximity of the target when everything seemed to happen at once. Searchlights flicked on us from every side and flak began to burst all around. We turned away and finally got clear then came in again for our bombing run. Once more we had the searchlights and flak till we felt like a naked fly in a web with a spider approaching from every corner. Finally our bombs were dropped and then the searchlights gradually clawed us down. until luckily we entered cloud and escaped. Apart from worry about our petrol consumption the return flight was without incident. Just when we were getting anxious as to our position, we heard a clear, steady voice giving directions to an aircraft which had been badly damaged. From this we were able to set course to our own base and land safely.
1 There had been a steady increase in the number of enemy decoy fire sites, and the Gee apparatus carried by the British bombers was not sufficiently accurate to indicate whether a fire observed in the vicinity of an objective was one started by the first arrivals near the aiming point, or in error at the wrong place, or an enemy decoy several miles away from the target. Only in clear weather or with the assistance of moonlight was there a reasonable chance of success.
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The New Zealand Bomber Squadron had flown intensively during these months, particularly from March to June when a total of 450 sorties was despatched on 51 raids, in which the Wellingtons dropped over 500 tons of bombs on Germany and German-occupied territory and laid 72 mines in enemy waters. Sixteen bombers were lost in these missions. The number of New Zealanders serving with the squadron increased rapidly, rising from 50 in January to over 100 in June, but the unit retained its Empire character and men from the British Isles, Australia, and Canada continued to fly in many of the crews.
The first major raid of the year in which No. 75 Squadron took part was against Essen on 8 March, when ten Wellingtons were despatched. Apart from the usual haze near the Ruhr, the weather was clear and crews reported many fires in the target area after the attack. Searchlights were active and there was considerable anti-aircraft fire, but all the bombers returned without major incident. Essen was the target on three further occasions during March, when 30 sorties were flown by the squadron. On each occasion the crews again found the area shrouded in smoke and industrial haze, which made accurate bombing difficult. Only one Wellington was lost in these raids on this well-defended target. This aircraft was hit and set on fire, but the crew managed to bale out before it crashed in flames. Unfortunately, the second pilot was killed when his parachute broke away but the others survived to become prisoners of war. The navigator fell through the skylight of a building in Duisberg and hung suspended inside until rescued by a German soldier with the aid of a ladder. During March the Wellingtons also flew in the raids on the Renault works at Paris and on targets at Dunkirk, Le Havre, and St. Nazaire.
Crews completed their missions under particularly bad conditions on two occasions at the beginning of April. On the night of the 1st, when the marshalling yards at Hanau, near Frankfurt, were the main objective, it was bitterly cold and many of the bombers became heavily coated with ice. A week later, on the first of two attacks against Hamburg, crews reported thick cloud near the target and thunderstorms over the North Sea. Essen was again a principal target for the Wellingtons during this month, attacks being made on four nights without loss. Dortmund and the Baltic port of Rostock, through which supplies were being sent to the Russian page 269 front, were attacked twice. The squadron also took part in the three raids made on Cologne during April, suffering further casualties on these missions. On 22 April the Wellington captained by Flight Sergeant Mahood1 failed to return, while the bombers flown by Pilot Officer Jarman,2 an Australian, and Flight Sergeant McLachlan3 both fared badly in engagements with enemy fighters. The attack on McLachlan’s aircraft was typical. On the return flight, the Wellington had reached a position about twenty-five miles from Givet when it was suddenly hit by a long burst from the guns of a night fighter. This initial attack almost succeeded in destroying the bomber. Pilot Officer Fountain,4 the second pilot, was killed instantly and the rear gunner, Sergeant Tutty,5 seriously wounded. The hydraulic system failed, the undercarriage and flaps dropped, and the trimming tabs would not operate. Both turrets were put out of action, while instruments, including Gee and other navigational aids, were also unserviceable. To make matters worse, the communication system between members of the crew was damaged. Only by exerting all his strength was McLachlan able to control the aircraft. Then, with assistance from the front gunner, he managed to reach base and make a crash landing. In the other aircraft the second pilot, Pilot Officer Nicol,6 was mortally wounded, the rear gunner, Sergeant Harris,7 killed, and the navigator and wireless operator both wounded.
3 Sergeant J. C. Wilmshurst; born Stratford, 4 Oct 1916; clerk; joined RNZAF Mar 1941; killed on air operations, 11 Jul 1942.
By the middle of June preparations were being made for the third thousand-bomber raid. Bremen was selected as the target and the attack was carried out as planned on the night of 25 June, but thin layer cloud, with only occasional breaks, covered the target and the attack was not as successful as had been hoped. Eight crews from the New Zealand Squadron were among those who reached and bombed the Bremen area. Their reports indicated that opposition from flak was stronger than in previous thousand-bomber raids. Bremen was again the target four nights later, when 16 Wellingtons were despatched. From this raid the bomber captained by Pilot Officer Monk6 failed to return, while another aircraft crashed shortly after take-off and the crew were killed, but these losses were partly avenged by Sergeant Philip7 who shot down a Junkers 88 which came in to attack his Wellington as it was approaching the target. The port engine of the enemy machine was set alight and the success was later confirmed by the crew of another aircraft. Other operations in June included sorties against the German naval and submarine base at St. Nazaire, in the Bay of Biscay, and two minelaying operations in the enemy shipping lanes off the Frisian Islands.
The squadron’s efforts during these months were the subject of favourable comment by the Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Baldwin, under whom the squadron had served since its formation. He wrote of ‘the very fine work which has been carried out, not only by the operational crews, but by the maintenance personnel. It is one of the most successful squadrons within a Group which prides itself on maintaining an operational record unsurpassed by any other Group in Bomber Command. During the last four months No. 75 Squadron has three times headed the monthly total of operational sorties within the Group—in other words, during these three months they sent out on raids more aircraft than any other squadron. In the fourth month they were second, their total of sorties being only two behind the top Squadron.’
The wreckage of a Wellington shot down near Bremen
Halifaxes in a daylight attack on German warships at Brest on 18 December 1941
The damaged Wellington showing (1) and (2) bullet holes, (3) shell splinter and bullet holes, (4) result of shell splinters
(1) self-sealing pipe burnt but internally no damage, (2) damaged spar where shell hit and splinters severed pipelines and controls
(B) Astro-hatch removed by Ward. (1), (2) and (3) footholds kicked in fuselage and centre section to enable Ward to reach fire
The Empire Air Training Scheme—New Zealanders in Canada
A German photograph taken over the south coast of England of a Hurricane breaking up in mid-air with the pilot parachuting
A Wellington, piloted by Sergeant K.O.Law, which returned to base safely though badly damaged by an Me 110 night fighter
The railway workshops before and after the ‘thousand-bomber’ raid of 30 May 1942 on Cologne
German officers examine the wreckage of an RAF Stirling shot down over Germany on 29 July 1942
U-boat under air attack by a Sunderland in the Bay of Biscay oni 5 June 1942
Recounting experiences on returning from a sweep over northern France
Boston crews being briefed before the Dieppe raid, August 1942
Bombs fall from a Boston in the early stages of the Dieppe raid. Far below British naval craft are laying as smoke screen