New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 5 — Bombing and Reconnaissance, 1940
Bombing and Reconnaissance, 1940
DURING the first year of war the weakness of the British bomber force and the course of events in Europe combined to prevent the launching of any effective bombing offensive against Germany. At the outset moral scruples and fears of retaliation had led the British and French to declare restrictions on the bombing of other than ‘purely military objectives’, and so anxious were they not to undertake any action that might be interpreted as an attack on civilians, that attacks against targets in Germany were practically ruled out during the first seven months of the war. The German bombing of Rotterdam on 14 May 1940 was held to release the Allies from any obligation to restrict their targets, but the development of the land battles in Belgium and France demanded the employment of the bomber squadrons in close support of the ground forces; then, shortly afterwards, the invasion threat to the British Isles required their return to a defensive role. Nevertheless, as opportunity offered, attacks were made on targets in Germany and, following Italy’s entry into the war on 10 June, British bombers flew over the Alps to attack the industrial centres in the north of that country.
Among the crews of the aircraft which carried out these early missions were men from every part of the Commonwealth, although at this early stage the New Zealand representation, particularly among the pilots, was relatively high. By September 1940 a total of 220 airmen from the Dominion had served with Bomber Com- mand. Casualties were heavy and just over one quarter of this number had lost their lives, while others had been made prisoner of war. Throughout this first year two of the bomber groups were commanded by New Zealanders, Air Vice-Marshals MacLean and Coningham—both veterans of the First World War. MacLean was in charge of No. 2 Blenheim Group based in East Anglia, while Coningham commanded No. 4 Whitley Group in Yorkshire. This latter formation was, in fact, commanded by a New Zealander throughout the war, for when Coningham went to the Middle East in June 1941 he was succeeded by Air Vice-Marshal Carr. Three of the squadrons in Bomber Command were also led by New Zealanders during the first year, No. 9 Wellington Squadron by Wing page 104 Commander McKee, No. 77 Whitley Squadron by Wing Commander G. T. Jarman,1 and No. 75 Wellington Squadron by Wing Commander Buckley.
Some of the first bombing raids of May 1940 were directed against oil plants and marshalling yards in the Ruhr, which at that time was immediately behind the land battle. The rapidity of the German advance was not foreseen and it was hoped that the bombing might achieve two objects—some dislocation of enemy war industries and the disruption of supplies to the forces moving forward into Belgium and France. In the event it did neither. The early attacks by small forces of aircraft were mere pinpricks and did not seriously affect the German war machine or prevent supplies reaching the armies and air forces engaged on their rapid subjugation of Western Europe. This was no fault of the aircrews of Bomber Command who flew with great courage and determination in the face of all kinds of difficulties. Nor was the idea of attacking the enemy’s communications and oil supplies fundamentally unsound, as the events of later years were to demonstrate. But in 1940 a much heavier effort was needed even to delay the German advance, and neither Britain nor France had sufficient crews or aircraft to make that effort.
The first major bombing raid against Germany was launched on the night of 15 May 1940 when oil plants in the Ruhr were the main objectives for a force of 80 aircraft, which included six Wellingtons from No. 75 New Zealand Squadron. Further raids on oil installations and marshalling yards in the Ruhr were made during the following weeks, but they were intermittent owing to frequent calls for close support by the land forces fighting in Belgium and France. The diversity of operations undertaken during the Battle of France and some of the difficulties which the bomber crews encountered are illustrated by the following record of sorties made by one New Zealand bomber pilot during this critical period:
May 20 Bombing raid on Ribemont Bridge. Stick of bombs fell alongside bridge but actual damage unobserved. Slight anti-aircraft fire and considerable searchlight activity.
May 22 Attack on railway junction at Huson. Bombs fell near target. Approaches guarded by searchlights which made accurate bombing difficult.
May 24 Target was rail and road junction at Aulnoye. Haze prevented clear definition of target and searchlights again made accurate bombing difficult.
1 Air Commodore G. T. Jarman, DSO, DFC; RAF; born Ashburton, 20 Feb 1906; joined RAF 1930; permanent commission 1936; CGI, No. 2 FTS, 1939–40; commanded No. 77 Sqdn, 1940–41; No. 76 Sqdn, 1941; No. 19 OTU, 1941–43; RAF Station, Wigtown, 1943; DCAS, RNZAF, 1943–44; AOC No. 229 Group, ACSEA, 1945.
May 25 Raid on oil refinery, Mannheim. Target attacked from 9000 feet. Considerable cloud and generally poor visibility.
May 27 Attacked marshalling yard, Dortmund, from 10,000 feet. Bombs observed to fall near southern end of target. Intense searchlight activity.
June 1 Target was oil plant in Ruhr. Adverse weather made identification of target impossible. Forty minutes spent searching area without result. Bombs brought back to base.
June 3 Raid on oil plant at Homberg. Attack made from 10,000 feet. Anti-aircraft fire and intense searchlight activity.
June 5 Attack on tank and stores concentrations in Forest of Gobain. No target presenting itself, bombed alternative target in a marshalling yard at Rheydt.
June 8 Objective was enemy communications in vicinity of Libramont, France. Bombs dropped on roads where troop concentrations were expected. No results seen.
June 9 Raid on road and river crossings at Chateau Thierry. Bad weather, low cloud—bombs burst near the railway junction.
New Zealand airmen were among the crews of the force of Whitleys and Wellingtons detailed to make the first attack on Italy following the declaration of war by that country. Industries in Turin and Genoa were the targets for this raid, which was made on the night of 11 June. Unfortunately the attack proved abortive. The majority of the 36 Whitleys did not reach Italy because of heavy storms encountered over the Alps, while the twelve Welling- tons, six of which were from No. 75 Squadron, did not leave the ground at all. They had flown from England to an advanced base in the south of France early in the day, but so anxious were the French to avoid provoking the Italians to retaliation that they drove lorries and carts on to the airfield to prevent the Wellingtons from taking off. The aircraft then returned to England. After several days of recrimination, permission was finally given for the airfield at Salon to be used, but the capitulation of France prevented the development of heavy attacks on Italy for some considerable time. A few raids were attempted during the autumn by the Whitley squadrons from bases in England, but they were aimed at lowering morale rather than inflicting material damage. The distance and the formidable barrier of the Alps were almost insuperable obstacles at this stage of the war.
1 Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal, KG, GCB, OM, DSO and bar, MC, Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol), Order of St. Olav (Nor), Order of the White Lion (Czech), Distinguished Service Medal (US), Order of St George (Gr), Order of the Netherlands Lion (Hol), Order of the Crown with Palm and Croix de Guerre with Palm (Bel); England; born Hungerford, Berks, 21 May 1893; joined Royal Engineers, 1914; seconded RFC 1915 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; Air Council Member for Personnel, 1939–40; AOC-in-C, Bomber Command, 1940; CAS, RAF, 1940–45.
It had already been decided that the main effort should be directed against the German aircraft industry, oil producing plants and communications, but it was soon found that many of the targets were difficult to locate at night. As one New Zealand bomb-aimer wrote at this time: ‘It is very difficult to pick up targets except on clear moonlight nights, and we don’t get many of them. One night we ran into bad weather while looking for a place at Hamburg. We flew over cloud all the way there and shot far over our mark and out into the Baltic. Turning back we found ourselves over Kiel at about 2000 feet and they let off everything they had at us. We got away as quickly as possible but had to return without finding our target.’
On the other hand, daylight penetration to any depth had already proved too costly. In these circumstances, objectives on the fringe of enemy and occupied territory received most attention. The Blenheim light bombers were sent to attack aerodromes and ports in the Low Countries, targets which were also given to the Welling- tons, Whitleys, and Hampdens as secondary objectives to those in Germany. With the lack of facilities for navigation by night, many of the heavier bombers were also forced to bomb such targets. Altogether there was much dispersion of effort. Furthermore the forces sent to bomb the various targets were relatively small and their total bomb-load negligible, while the German repair organisation was exceedingly efficient. This was the period when the German town of Hamm was frequently mentioned in communiques, for it possessed one of the largest railway marshalling yards in page 107 Germany. Among the bomber crews it became know as the ‘Ham and Egg’ run, ‘egg’ being RAF slang for a bomb. But there were many marshalling yards in the Ruhr area and it is doubtful whether the attacks on Hamm in 1940 had any appreciable effect on the running of the German railways.
In these early raids enemy opposition was, on the whole, slight. Heavy anti-aircraft fire was not often encountered and as yet few German night fighters sought to intercept the bombers. However, there were other hazards. The bombers often flew through dense cloud in the bitter cold of the higher altitudes, over a totally blacked-out country, to be met here and there by searchlights groping through the darkness or by sudden barrages of flak. It was not easy to navigate accurately under such conditions. The bomber, affected by constantly changing winds, rarely flew in a straight line—almost always it moved through the air at an angle, like a boat crossing a swift-flowing river. This drift could only be measured in relation to objects on the ground, so that when the aircraft was forced to fly over heavy cloud for hundreds of miles the navigator could only obtain an approximate position by observation of the stars. The most difficult part of the flight often came at the end of some eight or nine hours’ flying, when crews were tired and sometimes half frozen. There was always the return passage across the North Sea where, if the aircraft was damaged, difficulties might develop and lead to a forced landing in the water. When the English coast was reached, too often it would be to find the countryside blanketed in low cloud, fog or mist. Many lives were lost through crews losing their way over hilly country; with his machine running short of fuel the pilot would reduce height in an effort to get some idea of his position, only to crash into high ground.
The New Zealand Squadron took a prominent part in this early offensive, regularly despatching aircraft from its base at Feltwell in Norfolk to bomb a wide variety of targets. While these included many of the type usual at this period, such as oil plants and com- munications, more unusual places visited by the squadron were the docks at Bremen, Emden and Wilhelmshaven, explosive factories at Cologne, and a forest south of Freiburg where it was suspected that the Germans had ammunition dumps. The squadron also took part in the first large-scale attack against Berlin on the night of 23 September 1940, when just over 100 aircraft were despatched to attack the German capital as a reprisal for the raids on London. No. 75 Squadron sent six Wellingtons, four of which reported finding this distant target—no mean feat at this period. Although greeted by considerable anti-aircraft fire, all four were able to drop their bombs within the target area and return safely. Outstanding incidents during these months were few compared with the number of raids made by the squadron. On one occasion a Wellington narrowly escaped disaster in a severe thunderstorm over Germany, while on another night a crew had a lucky escape after a crash landing on the east coast of England. The weather was bad and they had brought back their bombs, which exploded, completely destroying the aircraft, just after the crew had left it.
German bombers struck at the British Fleet in the Firth of Forth on 16 October 1939. This German photograph shows a direct hit on the cruiser Southampton (middle) and a near miss on the Edinburgh
A Whitley of Bomber Command takes off on a leaflet raid. Whitley aircraft were later used by Coastal Command in anti-submarine patrols
Ground crews coaxing the propeller of a Battle bomber on an airfield in France
The wreckage of a Dornier 17 bomber brought down in a French cornfield during the air battles of the record week of May 1940
Low-level attack by Battle bombers on a German convoy in France
Burning oil depots at Dunkirk
British troops on the beach at Dunkirk waiting to embark
The German leaders, June 1940. Hitler with Goering (left), Raeder, and Keitel (right) in the forest of Compiègne on the occasion of the signing of the terms of surrender by the French
A German photograph of a Heinkel III dropping its bombs during the Battle of Britain
His Majesty the King with Flight Lieutenant A. C. Deere, DSO, OBE, DFC and bar, DFC (US), Croix de Guerre
A Hudson of Coastal Command on a reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast
A Coastal Command Blenheim above an enemy tanker attacked in the North Sea
Part of the dock area at Dunkirk where the German invasion fleet was concentrated. Dock buildings round the upper of the two docks shown have been completely destroyed and unloading cranes smashed. Damaged barges can be seen near the entrance of the upper dock where a number of others have been sunk
A section of London east of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the raid of 29 December 1940
The German caption reads ‘Returning with over 700 hits from an operational flight. The fabric even stood up to a belly landing.’ The inset is described as ‘Heinkel III shooting down a Spitfire’
Aircraft at the edge of an airfield in Iceland protected from the high winds by mounds of earth and stones
Blenheims of Bomber Command attack shipping and the docks at Rotterdam on 16 July 1941
Attack on power stations at Cologne on 12 August 1941
1 Wing Commander F. J. Lucas, DFC and bar; Queenstown; born Dunedin, 18 Aug 1915; joined RAF 1936; transferred RNZAF Jul 1939; OC No. 1 (GR) Sqdn, 1942–43; served No. 487 Sqdn and HQ Transport Command, 1943–45.
On 20 July 1940, when a gallant attempt was made to damage the German battleship Tirpitz which was nearing completion at Wilhelmshaven, Pilot Officer Gould3 captained one of the six Hampdens detailed to bomb at low level. Only three of the aircraft found and attacked the battleship. Flying in almost at mast height, they met a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft fire and all three were shot down. Gould escaped serious injury and was captured. He afterwards told how:
The first hits we received came from destroyers anchored in the harbour when we were about half a mile from the shore. From then on the Hampden was hit continually all the way to the target—both engines, parts of the wings and fuselage were on fire before we passed over the first wharves. My navigator released our bombs as we approached the battleship. Flames lit up buildings and assisted me to clear masts and gantries. As soon as level ground appeared I pulled everything back to come down on what appeared to be a beach. It turned out to be mud flats exposed by the low tide. Our rear gunner was killed and the navigator thrown through the nose of the aircraft. We three survivors were challenged a few minutes later and captured.
An unusual experience befell Flight Lieutenant Barker1 of No. 83 Squadron, when he was returning from an attack on the Dortmund-Ems canal one night in August. Suddenly the port engine was hit and shortly afterwards, while the Hampden was flying over the Dutch coast, the damaged propeller fell off; the bomber fell some 2000 feet before Barker could regain control. Then, about ten miles from the English coast, the other engine began to falter, but by coaxing it along he was able to make a landing in the sea a few yards from the shore. The crew escaped without serious injury. Sometimes, however, the incidents which occurred in flight were of a less serious nature. On one occasion a New Zealand captain was flying his bomber back over the North Sea when there was a sudden and unexpected crash on the nose of the aircraft. His startled crew turned to see the face and head of their captain covered with blood. It streamed down the back of his helmet and he appeared to have been seriously wounded. But all that had happened was that a seagull had hit the front perspex and crashed through it into the pilot’s face, and he escaped with no more than a black eye. Many of the sorties by the bomber crews during this period were, in fact, uneventful, often because, as Air Vice-Marshal Coningham wrote at the time, ‘excellent and courageous work was so well done that incidents did not occur.’
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In northern waters reconnaissance patrols were flown along the Norwegian coast as far as Trondheim. It was in this port that the Scharnhorst was discovered towards the middle of June 1940. Bombing attacks failed to cause any damage to the battle-cruiser but forced her to put to sea. Here on 21 June she was attacked by Beauforts of Coastal Command with greater success, three direct hits being reported. The Scharnhorst then returned to Kiel. Flying Officer Trigance,1 who had been with No. 42 Squadron from the early days of the war, captained one of the nine Beauforts which made the attack. His first bomb was seen to strike a gun turret and send up a shower of debris. A second fell in the water close alongside the warship. The weather was clear when the Beauforts attacked and they were greeted by a heavy barrage. Enemy fighters also appeared and three of the British aircraft were shot down, but Trigance was among those who returned safely. However, this attack was only one of the results of the reconnaissance which continued throughout the summer and autumn over the North Sea and the coastal waters of Norway. Day by day reports were brought back—reports often gathered in the face of enemy fighters and anti-aircraft opposition and in spite of adverse flying conditions.
2 The attacks on merchant ships represented an interesting change of policy. Previously aircraft had been ordered to observe scrupulously the conditions of the Hague Convention, but in July 1940, as a reprisal for the enemy’s disregard of maritime law in his attacks on East Coast lightships and shipping, the War Cabinet had reluctantly authorised aircraft to attack at sight enemy merchant vessels in certain specified areas of the North Sea and the Norwegian coast. This marked the beginning of a long campaign against the enemy’s sea communications which was later waged along the whole coast of Europe and in the Mediterranean.
On reaching the entrance to the fiord we found the cloud down to the deck and could not get in, so climbed to 10,000 and went over the top. A mattress of cloud extended to the East but we flew on and after some twenty miles suddenly saw a little hole and water so I went down through it and we found ourselves in the fiord. We flew right up observing a 3000 ton ship just leaving a port on the way. The fiord got narrower and finally we reached the end near the Swedish border. I had to do a semi-stalled turn to get round under the cloud. On the way back the ship was in mid stream and we made a machine gun and bombing attack at mast height obtaining hits on the stern. We then proceeded down the fiord but soon found ourselves trapped with no hole to go back up through again. Fortunately the fiord at this spot was straight for a reasonable distance so I set my directional Gyro in a trial run, turned 180° and with full power climbed dead straight through 6000 feet of cloud earnestly hoping I would not drift into one side or the other as the mountains were 6000–7000 feet high and very close. Eventually we got clear and reached base without further incident.
Trigance had a narrow escape the same month while making a reconnaissance of Aspo Fiord. He had just sighted and bombed a ship in the fiord when three fighters dived upon his machine. By skilful manoeuvring he evaded their first attack, and his rear gunner reported hits on one of them before the Beaufort reached cloud cover. Other crews were less fortunate, and frequently single aircraft engaged on these reconnaissance patrols disappeared without their fate being known.
As the year drew to a close the aircrews flying these missions over northern waters had to face the onset of winter as well as the menace of enemy fighters. One Hudson pilot writes:
Our patrols usually began before dawn which meant that crews were roused in the early hours to face a bleak aerodrome in pitch darkness. There was always a bitter wind blowing and perhaps ice on the ground. After briefing, pilots, navigators, gunners and wireless operators would stagger and slither to the aircraft each laden like Father Christmas with their bulky bags, parachutes, flying kit, packets of sandwiches, thermos flasks, pigeon baskets and so on. Flying towards the rising sun it might be that the navigator had just enough light to see the white caps on the grey sea as he lay full length in the nose of the aircraft calculating wind, drift, speed and position. The engines would drone on for a couple of hours before the coast of Norway came into view, although more often than not it would be hidden in cloud or mist. If possible, we flew into the fiords to take photographs, spot shipping and note activity at enemy held aerodromes, but as such objectives were often barely within range of our base, the time spent in the target area was very limited. A further source of frustration was that clear skies with conditions of perfect visibility alternated rapidly with very bad weather.
But these patrols and the bombing attacks were only part of the work of Coastal Command at this time. Other squadrons with which New Zealand airmen were flying continued the vital task of escorting convoys carrying food and supplies to Britain. In the Western Approaches, where the depredations of the German submarines were now becoming serious, the Royal Navy found these air escorts of great assistance, limited though they were in range and number; indeed U-boats seldom ventured to approach ships while an aircraft was patrolling in the vicinity. The Hudsons and Sunderlands were also able to locate small boatloads of survivors from torpedoed vessels and guide warships or merchantmen to the scene to pick them up. In addition to this escort and rescue work, page 116 anti-submarine patrols were flown to cover the movements of naval forces in home waters. Occasionally a damaged warship was helped as when the destroyer Kelly, badly mauled in the Battle of Narvik, was found limping back across the North Sea by a Sunderland of No. 210 Squadron and escorted to a Scottish port. The flying boat was captained by Flight Lieutenant Frame,1 who had joined this unit three months before the outbreak of war. Also prominent during this period as captains of Sunderlands were Flight Lieutenant Stead, who flew with No. 204 Squadron from the Shetlands and later from Iceland, Flying Officer Rea,2 who had joined No. 201 Squadron in October 1939, and Flying Officers Baggott,3 Evison4 and Gibson,5 who were with No. 210 Squadron at Oban. Altogether just over 100 New Zealand airmen flew with Coastal Command as pilots, navigators, wireless operators, and gunners during the first year of war. Thirty lost their lives. For the most part their duties had been unspectacular, involving long hours of flying over the sea, seldom relieved by any incident; yet they demanded qualities of quiet courage and endurance which deserve recognition along with the exploits of those who flew on more eventful operations.
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2 Flight Lieutenant W. S. Rea, DFC; born Paengaroa, 7 Oct 1915; joined RAF Mar 1939; killed in flying accident, 5 Dec 1941.
We were at Heston, the English base—six pilots, an Australian, a Canadian, two Englishmen and two New Zealanders—typical of many R.A.F. outfits. Early in January Clark, two other pilots and myself went to France to work over Germany while the others remained behind to cover the German ports. They had a Hudson at Heston and used it over Kiel until it was shot down in error by our own fighters over England. In France with our solitary Spitfire we covered a fair area of the German defences in the West, flying at altitudes of 30–35,000 feet in very low temperatures. At first we operated off snow at an airfield south of Lille. Enemy fighters gave us no trouble during the first month but our own anti-aircraft fire and French based Hurricanes caused us a few shocks. With long range tanks in the Spitfire giving up to 4 ½ hours’ endurance and operating at high altitudes we were set some problems in D.R. navigation, in conserving fuel supplies and in keeping warm. Flying for photography in sloppy air was also difficult but the worst enemy was our condensation trails.
It was, in fact, the white trail left by his Spitfire which led to Milne being shot down towards the end of April 1940. By that time the Germans were maintaining high-altitude patrols in order to intercept the photographic aircraft.
Six Messerschmitts approached under my ‘con-trail’ but I did not see them as I was busy photographing. The leader put a cannon shell into my engine which rapidly failed. While it lasted I tried to get back to France, suffering further attack on the way. Fifty miles from the frontier at a few thousand feet the engine gave out so I baled out between attacks after putting the Spitfire into a dive to destroy its equipment. Landed in a village and was immediately arrested.
Meanwhile the unit in France had been reinforced with a second Spitfire, and the two aircraft operated from different bases. Clark opened the second base at Nancy early in March 1940, and flew many sorties from there during the following months before the final evacuation from France. He was then given command of the flight inaugurated at St. Eval, in Cornwall, to cover Brest and the French ports; later in the year he returned to Heston to cover objectives in Germany.
Millen and Parker joined the flight at Heston in July 1940, and during the following months both men flew Spitfires on many sorties over enemy territory and the Channel ports, photographing the German preparations for the invasion of Britain. It was during a routine flight from Cap Gris Nez to the Scheldt early in September that Parker discovered one of the first concentrations of boats and barges in which the Germans intended to transport their invading forces across the Channel. The following month, when a new type of long-range Spitfire was introduced, Millen made the first operational flight in which the new aircraft was used and brought back an excellent collection of photographs. Details of his flight are thus recorded:
On the 29th October 1940, Flying Officer Millen left Heston in a new type long-range Spitfire, to carry out a high altitude photographic reconnaissance of Berlin. He found it covered with cloud so decided therefore to look for other targets. He succeeded in photographing Stettin, Swine- munde, Rostock and Warnemunde, and returned to Heston after a flight of five hours fifty-five minutes at 27,000 feet. This is the first operation on which this type of aircraft has been used, and Flying Officer Millen deserves great credit for his initiative in carrying on further into enemy territory, photographing what he knew were important targets, when he found Berlin covered with cloud. He has completed over thirty photographic operations in this Unit, all over enemy territory, in unarmed single-seater aircraft at high altitudes.
Unfortunately, two months later Millen failed to return from a low-level reconnaissance of the French ports.
Parker had an amazing escape after an encounter with German page 119 fighters early in October. While climbing over Kent, preparatory to setting off on a photographic mission, he was suddenly attacked by two Messerschmitts. They came down out of the sun; his Spitfire went up in flames and he had to jump. The parachute opened normally but Parker lost consciousness owing to lack of oxygen at that height. When he came round a bit lower down he found that his clothing was smouldering in several places. He had been sprayed with petrol from the tanks of his Spitfire during the attack and this had ignited before he jumped. Despite frantic efforts to put out the fire, it became worse as it was fanned by the descent and soon the airman was a flaming torch. The pain became so intense that Parker decided to release his parachute and put an end to his agony. But the quick release failed to operate and only the shoulder straps came away. Parker pitched forward and hung head downwards, gripped only by the straps around his thighs which now slipped down and held him by the ankles. The flames then travelled upwards to his leather flying boots and died away, but not before one strap had broken, leaving him hanging by one leg. Holes burnt in the parachute caused him to land heavily and break an arm. Fortunately his descent, marked by a trail of smoke, had been witnessed by a nearby army unit whose medical orderlies were quickly on the scene to rush the injured airman to hospital. Parker made a good recovery and eventually, at his own request, was posted back for flying duties with a photographic reconnaissance squadron with which he completed a further tour of operations.
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In November 1940, although the immediate threat of invasion had been lifted from the British Isles, the prospects for British arms were bleak in the extreme. The Army, after the loss of its equipment at Dunkirk, was still suffering from a serious lack of weapons, and a long period of replacement, expansion, and training was necessary before it could undertake operations against the enemy in Europe. In the air Britain’s strength had been weakened by six months of intensive operations and Fighter Command, in particular, was exhausted as a result of its efforts over England during the summer. ‘The situation was extremely critical,’ writes Air Chief Marshal Dowding in his despatch on the Battle of Britain. ‘The majority of the fighter squadrons had been reduced to the status of training units.’ The bomber force was still too weak, with both weapons and techniques insufficiently developed, for it to strike effectively at the enemy, while Coastal Command for the same reasons was not yet able to give very substantial aid in the war at sea, where the resources of the Royal Navy were now strained to the limit in endeavouring to meet its world-wide commitments.page 120
Defeated in their plans to reduce Britain by invasion, the Germans had now commenced an assault by sea and air upon her supply routes so that, in addition to heavy raids by night on her cities and ports, Britain now faced a blockade more serious than she had endured in the First World War. U-boats were being built at a rate far exceeding their losses, units of the Luftwaffe were organised to co-operate with them, and powerful new warships such as the Bismarck were approaching completion and would soon be available to reinforce the onslaught on British merchant shipping. Greater facilities for conducting the blockade were now open to the Germans through their possession of ports and air bases in both France and Norway.
Outside Europe there was little in the strategic situation to relieve the gloom. In the Middle East the collapse of France and the entry of Italy into the war at the side of Germany had thrown the British on to the defensive. Malta was besieged and an unequal battle was being sustained in the air above the island. Egypt was isolated and invaded by large Italian forces under Marshal Graziani, before which General Wavell1 had retreated half-way to Alexandria. A further threat to Egypt lay in the considerable Italian force in East Africa which had already overrun British Somaliland. In addition, the vital Mediterranean sea route was doubly threatened. Gibraltar was now open to German attack through Spain, and plans for this operation were actually being prepared in Berlin. At the same time, hostile aircraft dominated the narrow channel between Sicily and Africa, while there also existed a powerful and, in most respects, modern Italian fleet provided with good bases. The Admiralty had declared themselves unable to pass even military convoys through the Mediterranean because of these dangers, and reinforcements for Egypt had to proceed by way of the Cape. Against the enemy’s superior strength and strategic advantages in the Mediter- ranean, the British could muster, apart from the small garrison at Gibraltar, only the few divisions of Middle East Command, a handful of air squadrons flying obsolete machines, and the two small fleets based at its eastern and western extremities.
1 Field Marshal Earl Wavell, PC, GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC, Legion of Honour (Fr), Legion of Merit (US); born 5 May 1883; GOC-in-C Middle East, 1939–41; C-in-C, India 1941–43; Supreme Commander, SW Pacific, 1942; Viceroy and Governor-General of India, 1943–47; died 24 May 1950.
Some relief from this precarious strategic situation was, however, soon to come to the British people. Early in December 1940 the Germans, after failing to secure the co-operation of Spain, abandoned their plans for the attack on Gibraltar. About the same time Wavell’s forces in the Middle East began a series of brilliant offensives by land, sea and air which broke the Italian threat to Egypt, although owing to speedy German intervention in the Mediterranean and the demands on British forces to aid Greece, this success was to prove only temporary. More permanent relief to British arms and to the British Isles in particular was to come from Hitler’s decision, on 18 December 1940, to prepare for an attack on Russia ‘even before the end of the war against England.’ Although at the same time Hitler ordered that invasion preparations against England were to be maintained and efforts made ‘to concentrate on every means of waging war by sea and air on Britain’s supplies from overseas’, the Germans found that they were unable to maintain a heavy scale of air attack against Britain. Indeed, the Luftwaffe soon became so heavily involved in Russia and in the Mediterrancan that the night raids against Britain ceased almost entirely for long periods; the air attacks on shipping in the Western Approaches also dwindled as the resources of the Luftwaffe were drawn eastwards. Not until the advent of the V-weapons in 1944 did Britain have to face aerial attack of the same intensity as she endured during the winter of 1940.
With the failure of the bombing raids to break Britain’s resistance, the denial of food and supplies seemed the only solution open to the Germans by which they could hope to force her surrender. But the opportunity was not exploited to the full while Britain was still weak. Before the end of 1941 most of the long-range Condor aircraft had been withdrawn from their Atlantic patrols and sent to the Mediterranean or to the Russian front for use as transports. The German Navy, as Admiral Raeder complained bitterly, was thus deprived of air co-operation such as was given to the Royal Navy in growing strength by the British Coastal Command.
Such developments reflected divided views in the German High Command on the place of air power in the conduct of the war. The Luftwaffe, in an independent role, had already proved unequal to the task of eliminating Britain’s air force, and this failure vindicated the German army leaders in their belief that the role of air power was essentially one of tactical support for the ground forces. It is not surprising, therefore, that early in 1941 the German page 122 Air Force was compelled to turn from the strategic attack on Britain to giving aid to the army in the Mediterranean and, later, in Russia. Moreover, as these campaigns were started in the confident expectation that they would be of short duration, little effort was made to strengthen the Luftwaffe. No insistent demand was made for new and improved types of aircraft, nor was there any immediate programme for increased production or aircrew training. The Germans also made little attempt to build up equivalents to the British Bomber and Coastal Commands with their scientific and technical experts making a careful study of the special problems of strategic bombing and the war at sea. But the Germans were not planning a long war. Hitler’s strategy still contemplated a series of separate thrusts and quick victories over enemies that were less prepared than Germany. The failure to renew the Battle of Britain and then the underestimation of Russia’s strength were the major miscalculations in this strategy.
The change in the direction of German operations in Europe during 1941 was to have important effects on the air operations of both sides. The redeployment of the Luftwaffe to face eastwards was commenced at the beginning of the year with the transfer of units to the Mediterranean. By the end of January over 300 aircraft had been moved to Italy and Sicily to begin the reduction of Malta. Soon afterwards, with the failure of the Italian Air Force, the Luftwaffe was called upon to take an active part in Western Desert campaigns. Then in April it began extensive operations in support of the ground forces against Yugoslavia and Greece, while the capture of Crete a month later was carried out almost entirely as a Luftwaffe operation. In June came the attack on Russia, for which the German Army was supported by no fewer than 2800 aircraft out of the total Luftwaffe first-line strength of 4300 machines. The subsequent drive towards Moscow, together with air operations in the Mediterranean, demanded the use of such a large proportion of the remaining German air strength that little was available for attacks against the British Isles and British shipping.
Thus Britain was able to recuperate, to increase war production without interruption, to devote more of her resources to the vital struggle against the U-boats and, finally, to begin an aerial offensive that was to carry the war to the heart of Germany. The Royal Air Force had seen in the German effort over Britain during 1940 the power of the air weapon, even if badly used, and felt that a strong offensive against vital objectives in Germany might have decisive results. In any case, it was evident that for some years to come the air was the only means by which Britain would be able to page 123 strike directly at Germany, a view forcefully expressed by the British Prime Minister towards the end of 1940:
The Navy can lose us the war, but only the Air Force can win it. Therefore our supreme effort must be to gain overwhelming mastery in the air. The Fighters are our salvation, but the Bombers alone provide the means of victory. 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 depends.
But for some time after the Battle of Britain the Royal Air Force was forced to devote a considerable proportion of its limited resources to defensive operations against the threat of the night raider and the air and sea attacks on shipping. In addition, there were heavy responsibilities in the Mediterranean and the defensive needs of the Far East. There was also another reason why the Royal Air Force could not immediately begin a heavy air offensive. Britain had entered the war incompletely prepared and in a position of dangerous weakness relative to Germany, and the various plans adopted for the expansion of the air arm were still in the early stages of execution. Indeed, many of the large factories and plants laid down at or shortly before the outbreak of war were only now beginning to come into production. Unlike her enemies, Britain had planned for a long war, and it would not be until the third year that she would possess a really powerful striking force. In the meantime a high proportion of Bomber Command’s resources in personnel and aircraft had necessarily to be devoted to training, inevitably at the expense of waging offensive operations on an intensive scale.
Thus, as far as the Royal Air Force was concerned, the year which followed the Battle of Britain was to be one of building up its strength and, simultaneously, a period of experiment in various forms of offensive air warfare. But it was not to be without its achievements. By the end of 1941 British air power had been largely responsible for driving the U-boats from the immediate vicinity of the British coasts and confining the principal surface raiders to port. Considerable progress had been made towards defeating the menace of the night raider. A more realistic outlook on the bomber force had been born as it became clear that the bomber crews faced insuperable difficulties as well as dangers, and that much that policy sought to achieve was beyond their powers. More help from the scientist was forthcoming, while the operational commands and the aircraft industry brought new types of aircraft, including the first heavy bombers, laboriously through their teething page 124 troubles. And, at the same time, while the busy factories of both the United States and Britain continued to feed this growing air power, the vast schemes for aircrew training in the Dominions gave promise of making the British Air Force superior in numbers, as it had already proved itself in quality, to that of Germany.
But these things only came about gradually, and the more favourable turn of events which brought powerful allies to the side of the British people could not be foreseen at the end of 1940. Uppermost in the minds of those who directed Britain’s war effort in those grim and dark days were the threat of the U-boat blockade and the menace of the night bomber.