New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 6 — Defeating the Night Raider
Defeating the Night Raider
IN the air assault on the British Isles during the second half of 1940, there were distinct changes in the form of attack as the Germans sought new expedients to replace each successive failure. The various phases did not, however, follow each other in any clear-cut sequence. They tended to overlap, each one merging into the next. The early operations had sought to engage the British fighter force in battle over the Channel and the south coast; next the struggle was continued over the southern counties with the Luftwaffe making a determined effort to destroy the defence organisation; then the attack moved nearer and over London until it became the main target. The failure of daylight attacks on the capital caused the Germans to resort to night bombing—an improvisation for which their air force was ill-prepared. Then, when London civilian morale did not collapse, the night raids turned upon the industrial centres and finally the ports, particularly those of the Mersey and the Clyde, the sole remaining Atlantic lifeline through which Britain now breathed. These various stages of the night assault—familiarly known in Britain as the ‘Blitz’—began early in September 1940 and continued through the winter to end abruptly in May 1941, when the Germans moved most of their bomber force to the East in preparation for the attack on Russia.
1 Radio beacons and directional beam systems had been devised by the Germans as aids to daylight bombing in cloudy weather. They now began to use them as a compensation for the lack of training in night navigation and bomb aiming that existed in their bomber force through the loss of so many experienced crews in the daylight battle. However, the very reliance of the German bomber crews upon these aids made them vulnerable to radio counter measures. During 1940 the Royal Air Force built up an extensive organisation which developed a most effective technique for interfering so subtly with the German beams that, for a time, the enemy aircrews were unaware that their own aids were leading them astray.
Nevertheless, judged by the standards of 1940, the scale of attack was at first both heavy and sustained. By the end of October London had been bombed on almost every night for eight weeks. One particularly heavy attack came with the full moon on the 15th of that month when nearly 500 German aircraft dropped 386 tons of high explosive and 70,000 incendiary bombs. In November, while London still remained a target, the raids became more wide- spread, and it was during this month that the centre of Coventry was shattered and the city of Birmingham attacked on three successive nights with much destruction and loss of life. Then as the main attack shifted to the ports, Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth and Southampton suffered heavily and later other cities, including Plymouth and Glasgow, passed through the fire. Meanwhile, in a sharp attack on the evening of 29 December 1940, much of the City area of London had been laid waste. The raid, in which many thousands of incendiary bombs were employed, came at the hour of low-water level in the Thames. Early in the attack water mains were broken by high-explosive bombs and many fires raged unabated. Eight Wren churches were destroyed or damaged. The Guildhall was ravaged by fire and blast and St. Paul’s Cathedral saved only by heroic exertions after it had been hit. The damage to railway stations and docks was also serious.
Altogether 41,480 British civilians, 19,750 of them Londoners, were killed in the air raids between September 1940 and May 1941. A further 48,470 were seriously injured, 25,500 in the capital. It is difficult to compare the ordeal of those who lived in the British cities during this period with that of the Germans in the later years of the war. In that phase the bombs were more powerful and the raids more intense. But long preparation and German thoroughness had enabled a complete system of bomb-proof shelters to be built, into which the population was forced to go by iron routine. When the Allies eventually entered Germany they found cities wrecked but strong buildings standing above ground, and spacious underground galleries and passages where the inhabitants slept night after night while their houses and property were being destroyed above. In London during the Blitz there were few basements or cellars which could withstand a direct hit. Even the underground railway page 127 stations, into which many crowded to stand or sleep on the stairs or platforms, were not immune. The mass of the population slept in their homes or in temporary shelters which they constructed them- selves, taking their chance with typical British stoicism.
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At first the few pilots who could be spared from the day battle to fly night patrols met with little success in their efforts to intercept the night bombers, and the defence was forced to rely on the anti-aircraft batteries and balloon barrages. These proved a useful deterrent against low-level attack and, as experience and equipment improved, the gunners took an increasing toll of the raiders. But in the air, although it had been foreseen that the Germans would probably turn to night bombing on an extensive scale if they found daylight attacks too expensive, Britain had been forced to concentrate on the production of equipment and aircraft capable of defeating the enemy by day. It was hoped that, with the aid of searchlights, the day fighters might also be effective at night. But this hope now largely proved vain, partly because the searchlights relied on sound locators which were unsuited to modern conditions and partly because cloud or moonlight often prevented pilots from seeing the searchlight beams. However, during 1940 a method of night interception which did not rely on searchlights was being developed, involving the installation in aircraft of a radar apparatus to locate and track the enemy machine. As this necessitated the use of a trained operator a multi-seater aircraft was needed, and the twin-engined Blenheim was chosen as the machine in which to install the radio-location instrument that came to be known as AI (Air Interception).
1 But it took months of training before the crews became efficient. To achieve this, pilots went up in pairs and flew hour after hour with two or three radar operators who took turns at the set, practising interceptions. This was complementary to operations for which crews had to stand by night after night at dispersal.
These problems were eventually solved by the provision of inland radar stations for the direct control of the specially equipped night fighters. The apparatus at these stations showed the position of all aircraft within its range on a fluorescent screen and made possible the tracking of both enemy bomber and RAF night fighter on the same equipment, the latter being distinguished by a distinctive ‘blip’ on the screen caused by a special instrument carried by all friendly aircraft and known as IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe).
But as these inland radar stations did not come into general use until March 1941, the night fighters operated under great difficulties throughout the winter months. Their crews flew long hours in all weathers attempting to perfect their technique, but neither effort nor ardour could overcome the weaknesses of early airborne equipment and of the apparatus used for ground control. From November 1940 to February 1941, although some 12,270 enemy sorties were flown over Britain, Fighter Command was able to claim only 13 enemy aircraft destroyed, almost all the interceptions being achieved by visual means and then only as a result of endless patience and perseverance.
During these months a group of thirty New Zealanders flew with the few Blenheim and Defiant squadrons that were the mainstay of the aerial night defence. Flying Officer Herrick, who had joined No. 25 Blenheim Squadron early in March 1940, was one of the pioneers of night fighting, and in September he had shot down three of the four night raiders claimed by Fighter Command during that month. Flight Lieutenant Trousdale and Flying Officer Rabone also won early distinction. Rabone first flew with a detachment of Hurricanes seconded to night defence, and on the night of 22 December 1940, when the Germans attacked Manchester page 129 and the Midlands in strength, he shot down a bomber which betrayed itself by the glare from its exhaust. Only three of some 300 raiders were claimed by the night patrols during this raid. On a subsequent patrol Rabone had a narrow escape when his engine failed while he was flying over London. He baled out and was fortunate to land in one of the parks—the climax to a year of adventure first with a Battle squadron in France and afterwards with a Hurricane squadron during the Battle of Britain. Trousdale, who had been with a Spitfire squadron during the Battle of Britain, now flew as flight commander with No. 255 Defiant Squadron, a unit which, by February 1941, included 15 New Zealanders among its complement of 36 aircrew. One night early that month Trousdale was on patrol in the Humber area, with Sergeant Chunn1 as his gunner, when an enemy aircraft, identified as a Heinkel 111, was sighted. As the Defiant closed the range Chunn opened fire, which was returned as the Heinkel dived away. Trousdale followed it down, his gunner meanwhile registering further hits until the enemy machine plunged into the sea. Two more bombers were claimed by New Zealand gunners during February. On the 4th a Dornier 215 was shot down in flames by Sergeant Jonas2 of No. 151 Squadron. A few nights later a Heinkel 111 was destroyed over the Humber by Sergeant Fitzsimmons3 of No. 255 Squadron.
Although the destruction of 22 night raiders was claimed by Fighter Command during March 1941, the aircrews continued to experience difficulties and disappointments. One pilot reported that he was robbed of a victim through being blinded by searchlights ‘just after engaging the enemy at close range and seeing a red flash in the aircraft’. On another occasion two New Zealand sergeants forming the crew of a Defiant narrowly escaped disaster among the Welsh mountains when pursuing a Heinkel that was indulging in violent evasive tactics and hotly returning their fire. Finally the German entered a heavy bank of cloud and the British aircraft pulled up just in time to clear the summit of a hill. Other crews had the exasperating experience of sighting an enemy bomber in the darkness and then losing it before they could press home an attack. Many were denied even the thrill of the chase. They went up night after night, the pilots leaning forward in their cockpits vainly trying to see, in the darkness or the half light of the moon, something of the enemy bombers towards which the radar operators were trying to direct them. There were still difficulties with both aircraft and equipment. The Germans bombed the airfields from which the night fighters were operating and occasion- ally, by way of variation, waited above the flare path to shoot them down as they came in to land. Night flying had other hazards— there were balloon barrages and anti-aircraft fire to be avoided. One New Zealand crew actually flew into a balloon cable in bad weather; the pilot was killed but his air gunner was lucky enough to escape by parachute.
However, by the middle of April 1941, the months spent in training and experiment, in testing new equipment and in solving the teething troubles of the Beaufighter, began to bear fruit. More pilots now reported interceptions in the course of their patrols and, although many encounters were inconclusive, there was a marked increase in the number of enemy machines destroyed. Eventually during the first ten nights of May 1941, which was a period of fine weather and good moonlight, Fighter Command was able to claim 90 German aircraft destroyed.
New Zealand airmen took a prominent part in the night fighting during this period both as pilots and as air gunners, and 16 of page 131 these claims resulted from combats in which they were involved. On the night of 3 May Sergeant Scott1 accounted for two raiders in the course of a single patrol; the first, a Junkers 88, he set on fire over Merseyside, and shortly afterwards he sent a Dornier down in North Wales. A few nights later Scott’s accurate shooting claimed another victim near Liverpool when ‘… after several long bursts the bomber caught fire and dived to explode on the ground.’ On patrol during this same raid, Flying Officer Verity sighted a Heinkel some distance below him in the light of the fires in the burning city. He dived at full throttle to engage the bomber and ‘after a short burst in the nose of the enemy machine there was a terrific flash which lit up the sky followed by an explosion that absolutely shook the Defiant.’ Sharp decision and quick action were often needed to convert a sighting into a successful interception. For example, on the night of 5 May while patrolling over Glasgow during a heavy attack on that city, Flight Lieutenant Wilson2 saw a Heinkel below him flying in the opposite direction. He made a steep turn but soon found he was overshooting his quarry so lowered his undercarriage to reduce speed and enable an attack to be made. Strikes were seen on the enemy machine which caught fire, part of its tail falling off as it went down.
In the early hours of 8 May, when German bombers operated over Britain in strength with Liverpool and Manchester as their main objectives, bright moonlight enabled the night fighters to make many interceptions during their patrols in the vicinity of these cities. Verity and Sergeant Taylor,3 flying Defiants of No. 96 Squadron, were in action within a few minutes of each other. The crew of the bomber attacked by Taylor baled out and the pilot was found some hours later hanging from the top of a tall tree in his parachute harness. Verity, after sending one Junkers down on fire, sighted another almost immediately afterwards.
1 The squadron record states that this achievement evoked ‘a deluge of congratulatory signals’ from Fighter Command, the Chief of the Air Staff and the Secretary of State for Air. The total claims by Fighter Command this night amounted to 15 enemy aircraft destroyed.
4 Wing Commander R. F. Aitken, OBE, AFC; born Outram, Otago, 15 Sep 1913; joined RAF 1937; a pioneer of air-sea rescue; commanded No. 3 Sqdn, 1941–42; Wing Commander, Night Operations, No. 11 Fighter Group, 1942; commanded RAF Station, Hawkinge, 1942; RAF Station, Bradwell Bay, 1942–43; No. 150 Airfield, Bradwell Bay, 1944–45.
With this attack on London the intensive night raids on Britain, which had begun eight months earlier, virtually came to an end. Thereafter the scale of attack was much lighter. In fact, throughout the rest of the year the Germans devoted most of their attention to targets at sea or near the coast and to minelaying. The main reason for this change of tactics was the impending attack on Russia, for which most of the bombers in the West were withdrawn, leaving only a small force to aid the German Navy’s attempt to blockade the British Isles.
While the end of the continual night raids came as a great relief to the people of Britain, to the aircrews of the night fighter squadrons it was something of a disappointment. It seemed that an enemy, over whom they were slowly but surely gaining the mastery, had slipped from their grasp. Nevertheless, efforts to defeat the night bomber were continued in anticipation of a renewal of heavy attacks in the autumn. This indeed was the German intention, frustrated by their failure to bring about the early capitulation of Russia. One development was the formation of flights of Havoc aircraft carrying a searchlight in addition to the special radar apparatus for air interception. The Havoc, developed from the American Boston aircraft, carried a crew of two, a pilot and a navigator-radar operator. The searchlight was mounted in the glass nose of the machine and accumulators were carried in the bomb bay, but owing to the great weight of this equipment no armament could be carried, so this was provided by one or two Hurricanes which flew in close formation with the Havoc—a difficult and somewhat hazardous business at night. The team was first put in contact with a target by ground control and, when within radar range, the operator in the Havoc guided his pilot into a suitable attacking position. The searchlight was then switched on to illuminate the enemy bomber for attack by the accompanying fighter. This somewhat complicated procedure was an attempt to provide a means of attack on dark nights when the chances of visual sighting were negligible. Wing Commander A. E. Clouston pioneered the development of this new form of night defence and supervised the formation and training of units, testing each aircraft before it was delivered to the flights. He was subsequently commended for his ‘hard work and enthusiasm in getting this most promising form of night fighting on an operational footing.’ Other New Zealand airmen were among the crews who spent long hours patiently page 134 endeavouring to perfect this technique. After many trials the Havocs succeeded in illuminating and holding their targets while the attendant fighters intercepted them. Unfortunately, by the time the teams were ready for operations the enemy effort had dwindled to such small proportions that the scheme had no chance to prove its worth. Later when the opportunity came, the Havocs were too slow for the faster bombers which the Germans were then using.
Meanwhile, throughout the second half of 1941, the orthodox night fighter squadrons continued to fly patrols against the enemy’s sporadic raids. But the small and scattered attacks gave few chances to the defenders, while the minelaying aircraft which flew in low to avoid detection by the coastal radar stations were particularly hard to intercept. Yet on the occasions when the German machines did venture overland the night fighters achieved considerable success. In June, when the Medway towns were attacked, seven enemy aircraft were claimed out of fewer than a hundred operating; on two successive nights in July eleven out of 170 were claimed destroyed over Hull; and on the first night of November when some fifty aircraft attacked Merseyside, six were destroyed.
Many of these successes came as a result of the technical aids which had now been provided in larger measure. A typical example was the destruction of a Junkers 88—his fifth victim at least—by Flying Officer Herrick one dark night in July. Whilst on patrol in a Beaufighter of No. 25 Squadron he was directed towards a German bomber by ground control, and after his radar operator had picked up the enemy machine, a chase of several minutes followed before Herrick sighted a Heinkel slightly below and just ahead. A diving turn enabled him to make a stern attack, ‘using his guns in the manner of a hose pipe’. The enemy machine caught fire and dived to explode on the ground.
Reports of other engagements, in several of which New Zealand pilots and air gunners were concerned, tell of the damaging or destruction of German bombers in similar circumstances and confirm that the aircraft fitted with radar were becoming increasingly successful in intercepting night raiders. But the opportunities for doing so grew steadily fewer and for most of the airmen flying with the night fighter squadrons the last months of 1941 were a period of utter monotony—of much time spent in flying training and practice, relieved only occasionally by sorties against brief enemy raids. It was only natural that such inactivity should prove irritating to the average fighter pilot. One of them expressed his feelings at this time in these words:
Flying is great fun if there is some point in it; if something is likely to happen. But each time I was on these night patrols I got more and more fed up and longed for the minute when my wheels would touch earth again. page 135 Once I did see a Heinkel going in the opposite direction just below me. I tried to turn but it was no use. It had disappeared. I flew on night after night never seeing any more.
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During the period of heavy night attacks on Britain, the Royal Air Force had not been content to remain wholly on the defensive. In addition to the bombing raids on Germany itself, action had been taken against the night bombers and the bases from which they operated. In October 1940, when it became evident that German bombing policy had been revised in favour of night attack, Blenheims of Bomber Command had begun flying patrols over enemy airfields in Northern France and the Low Countries. But with other targets demanding the attention of the small bomber force, such patrols could only be flown intermittently. In December, therefore, No. 23 Squadron of Fighter Command, already experienced in night operations over Britain throughout 1940, was selected to specialise in these missions, now know as ‘Intruder’ patrols. Its task was defined as ‘the attack of enemy bombers flying in the vicinity of their airfields and the attack of the bases themselves, particularly aircraft on the ground.’ The poorly armed and slow Blenheims with which the squadron was equipped were not the best aircraft for these duties, but the faster and better-equipped Beaufighter could not be released for the purpose, whilst other night fighters did not possess sufficient endurance. To prepare No. 23 Squadron for its new role, navigators were brought in, the Blenheims fitted with new engines and rear turrets added. The secret radar equipment was removed from the aircraft so that it would not fall into enemy hands. External bomb-racks were also fitted as the Blenheims were now to carry from eight to twelve 20-pound bombs for attacks on the enemy ground organisation. ‘All the aircrew,’ writes one New Zealand member of the squadron, ‘were delighted at the prospect of switching over to the offensive after long months of tedious and none too successful defensive patrols. Our only concern was whether our rather worn-out old Blenheims would stand up to the longer flight across to the Continent. But as things turned out they performed the task nobly and there were seldom reports of engine trouble.’
Operations commenced towards the end of December, targets being selected on the basis of information obtained from intercepted radio messages which betrayed the particular airfields the Germans were using and often the hour their bombers were expected to return. The timing of the intruder missions was important since, if the Blenheims arrived too early at an airfield waiting to receive returning bombers, their control would direct them to land elsewhere. A page 136 high standard of navigation was also demanded of the British crews, who had to beware of being deceived by dummy or decoy airfields.1 By the end of March 1941 No. 23 Squadron had flown 94 sorties over enemy territory, during which 13 German aircraft were attacked, two shot down, six probably destroyed and others damaged. Successful attacks had also been made on airfields in France. Five Blenheims were lost in these operations.
New Zealand airmen took a prominent part in these early missions, twelve of them flying with No. 23 Squadron as pilots, navigators and gunners. Flying Officer Gawith,2 who had joined the squadron early in 1939 to specialise in night fighting, captained one of the six Blenheims which flew the unit’s first intruder sorties on the night of 21 December 1940. Four enemy aircraft were sighted and three airfields attacked during the patrols, which were completed in bitterly cold weather. Soon Gawith was leading an all New Zealand crew, with Sergeant Hogg3 as navigator and Sergeant Forsyth4 as air gunner. This team later scored several successes but at first results came slowly. ‘Shooting down enemy aircraft in their landing circuit proved a formidable task,’ writes one of the pioneer captains. ‘Navigation was also a problem as we fighter pilots were rather rough and ready with this and soon had our navigators lost on some of the early sorties. They, poor souls, had come from Bomber Command where they were accustomed to pilots who flew straight and level on predetermined courses! However, gradually things got sorted out and we became experts at locating particular enemy bases and finding our way home after a Cook’s Tour of airfields in France.’
1 Dummy airfields were an arrangement of lights or other means to attract intruders while decoys were real airfields not being used for operations but solely for deception.
2 Wing Commander A. A. Gawith, DFC, Bronze Star Medal (US); Masterton; born Masterton, 9 May 1916; joined RAF Jun 1938; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944; commanded No. 1451 Flight, 1941; Staff duties, No. 9 Fighter Group, 1942; Senior Liaison Officer, 9th Air Defence Command, USAAF, 1944; commanded RAF Station, Cleave, 1944–45.
We found the whole area brilliantly lit up with flare path, leading lights and taking off lights stretching over approximately five miles from north to south. Saw navigation lights of aircraft gliding in to land at about 100 feet but decided I couldn’t reach it so gave chase to another enemy. This aircraft was circuiting the aerodrome and although I gave chase at full boost was unable to catch it until we had completed four or five circuits and enemy aircraft began to lower his undercarriage. I then opened fire and held it to point. blank range. We narrowly averted a collision and passed just above the enemy aircraft. Ammunition was seen to enter fuselage and starboard engine which emitted a sizeable explosion. I broke away and turned sharply but members of the crew had lost sight of enemy aircraft which must have doused its navigation lights. We think enemy aircraft attempted to land and ran into a light A.A. Barrage which went up around the aerodrome. Within 30 seconds of attacking the Heinkel 111, I saw another enemy aircraft with navigation lights in front of me and closed to fire on what turned out to be a Dornier 215 or 17. Ammunition seen to enter fuselage. Ceased fire at about 15 yards as I went through slipstream. Passed enemy aircraft again about 20 feet above but then lost sight of it. By this time all lights on the ground were doused so we flew off about 10 miles north, climbed to 6000 feet and returned to aerodrome which we could see in moonlight. As we passed over on a dummy run, aerodrome lights came on so I turned and flying from south to north laid a stick of bombs which were seen to explode parallel to flare path and about 100 yards to the east of it. We saw the navigation lights of another aircraft gliding in to land just as our bombs were bursting. Did not see what happened to this enemy machine, but all aerodrome lights were immediately doused. As we could not see any more navigation lights about we set course for base and landed at 2248 hours.
During April No. 23 Squadron began re-equipping with Havocs which, possessing greater endurance than the Blenheim, could make attacks farther afield, including in its range airfields in Holland and near Paris. This was an advantage as recent moves of the Luftwaffe had left unoccupied some of the airfields most frequently visited in the previous months. There was now also an increase in activity by Hurricanes and Defiants of other squadrons, although, of eleven aircraft claimed as destroyed during the month, six were credited to No. 23 Squadron, together with four probably destroyed and three damaged. In addition there were a number of successful attacks on enemy airfields: in one bombing attack early in May Gawith, with his New Zealand crew, destroyed the entire telephonic communication system of the German bomber group at Deurne, near Eindhoven. On the night of 3 May Sergeant Fletcher flew in a Havoc which went to the Lille area and damaged a Junkers 88 and a Heinkel 111. Two nights later McDermott shared in the destruction of a Heinkel 111 encountered in the same area. Fletcher took part in another engagement on the 11th when, over the Caen area, an enemy aircraft was damaged.
Although, throughout 1941, the intruder missions had been on a modest scale, they were important in that they laid the foundation for a type of operation that was to be developed with great success in the later years. Nor had they been unproductive. Nearly 300 attacks on German airfields are recorded and there is evidence that substantial disturbance was caused to the operations of the German air forces in the West. German records reveal that the loss of as many as 19 bombers can be attributed to the activities of the intruder aircraft during 1941. In comparison with what was achieved by other fighter operations during that year, and considering the small force engaged, this was in itself a creditable achievement.