New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 9 — The Part of No. 75 Squadron
The Part of No. 75 Squadron
BY the beginning of October 1940 the New Zealand Bomber Squadron, under the leadership of Wing Commander Buckley, already had considerable operational experience behind it and was winning a place as one of the foremost units in No. 3 Bomber Group. In the next fifteen months the exploits of the air crews and the high standard of efficiency maintained by the ground staff were to enhance the reputation earned in the early months and establish a tradition of lasting value. During this period 145 New Zealand aircrew flew with the squadron, of whom 30 lost their lives. There was also a small band of New Zealanders among the ground staff, although the majority of those who serviced and maintained the Wellingtons were men from the British Isles. Representatives from Britain, Canada, and Australia were also among the aircrews. Their presence gave the unit an Empire character and led to better understanding and friendship between men from various parts of the world.
Royal Air Force Station, Feltwell, the base from which the squadron continued to operate, was situated in East Anglia—that flat part of England where wide fields roll gently towards horizons bounded by dark masses of elms, oaks and pines. This countryside is inhabited by a sturdy race of farmers sprung originally from the Danish marauders of the tenth century, and the New Zealanders, during their off-duty hours, soon found friends in farmhouses and in the homely villages where the beer was good and the hospitality warm and wholehearted. The airfield at Feltwell was a typical bomber base. Its buildings and surface were camouflaged to blend as far as possible with the shape and colour of the surrounding countryside. Roads, named after famous London streets, connected the various buildings, which were widely dispersed so as to provide a minimum target. The nerve centre was the operations block where crews were briefed and where the progress of each aircraft from Feltwell taking part in a raid was recorded from the moment it was detailed to the moment it touched down on return. But the main centres of New Zealand interest were the squadron offices and the crew room where the men gathered before setting off on a mission. In the crew room each man had his own locker, and down the centre ran a long table on which the navigators spread their maps page 184 while planning their route to the target. On the walls were scrawled the names of New Zealand men and New Zealand towns, and cartoons and sketches filled the spaces between official diagrams and notices.
Life on the station proceeded according to a set routine and a happy team spirit prevailed—on more than one occasion during the winter months everyone turned out to clear a path through deep snow so that the heavily laden bombers could take off more easily. In the squadron each crew had its own aircraft and ground crew, while the names and insignia painted on the machines created a certain individuality and good-natured rivalry. The day usually began with a night flying test and a good deal of speculation as to the target for that night. The Wellingtons were then refuelled and ‘bombed up’ in readiness for their flight. Final briefing came in the late afternoon and then, after a meal and a short rest, the crews prepared for the take-off. On return from their various missions crews were met by the squadron staff, and then, over a cup of hot rum and coffee, men compared notes and discussed their flight while waiting their turn to be interrogated. Ground crews were invariably pleased to see their own particular aircraft come in after a raid, to hear an account of the flight and check on any damage or faults that may have developed.
The Wellington bombers with which both squadrons were equipped carried a crew of six, captain, second pilot, navigator-bomb aimer, wireless operator, and front and rear gunners. Of geodetic construction and covered with fabric, the aircraft had a wing span of 82 feet, was 64 feet long, and when empty weighed just over seven tons.1 It was fitted with two Bristol Pegasus radial engines of 1000 horsepower each, and armed with two hydraulically driven 303 Browning guns mounted in both the nose and tail turrets and one 303 gun on each beam. The Wellington’s most economical cruising speed was about 165 m.p.h. at 10,000 feet. With a 1000-pound bomb load the range was 2500 miles, but with a full bomb load of 4500 pounds this was reduced to 1200 miles. The composition of the bomb load varied considerably and was dictated by the distance to be covered, the type of target, and the results it was intended to achieve. The bombs most often carried were 500 pound, 250 pound, and the 4-pound incendiary, the requisite weight normally being obtained by a combination of these bombs. On occasions, 1000-pound and 2000-pound bombs were also included in the load, and towards the end of 1941 No. 75 Squadron began dropping the new 4000-pound bomb on certain sorties.
Along with other units in Bomber Command, much of the work of the Wellington squadrons during 1940 had been largely of a defensive nature dictated by the pressure of events, but by October, as the threat of invasion began to fade, there came a turning over to the offensive. With the arrival of additional crews and aircraft and after the intensive training of past months, No. 75 Squadron was now well equipped for this role. Reinforcement had not only increased the fighting power but given added New Zealand character to the squadron, the number of men from the Dominion having almost doubled since July.
1 With bombs, fuel and oil, the all-up weight of the aircraft was increased to 30,000 Ib., or about 13 ½ tons.
The early part of October was notable for an unusual encounter which resulted in the destruction of a German night fighter. As the hunted, it was not unusual for the bombers to be subjected to surprise attacks, but on the night of the 10th, while returning from an attack on the oil plant at Gelsenkirchen, the Wellington captained by Pilot Officer McArthur1 assumed the role of hunter. Over Holland an enemy aircraft was sighted, caught in the beams of several searchlights. These were put out when signals were fired and a blue recognition light switched on. McArthur realised that, with this light to guide him, he was in an ideal position to deliver a surprise attack. Putting the Wellington into a steep dive he got within range; his front gunner fired four short bursts and the crew had the satisfaction of watching the German machine crash and begin to burn.
The weather was responsible for most of the misfortunes which befell No. 75 Squadron during October. On the night of the 16th, when nine aircraft flew to attack enemy battleships at Kiel, they met dense cloud on the return journey. The crew of one Wellington, after losing the trailing aerial on high-tension cables while attempting to break through the murk, found themselves among the close-hauled balloons and factory chimneys of Hull and then over some woods ‘whose topmost branches scraped horribly against the bottom of the fuselage.’ After two hours’ vain search for a clearance, and with petrol running low, the crew were forced to bale out after the bomber had climbed to a safe height. They escaped without serious injury. When the squadron next operated, on the night of 21 October, two aircraft crashed in fog after attacks directed against the Bismarck, then at Hamburg. One was burnt out but the occupants were not injured. The other lost its port airscrew on the way back and crashed while attempting a forced landing, with slight injuries to the crew. Berlin was the target on the night of the 23rd, when the Wellington captained by Pilot Officer Sanderson2 failed to return—the bomber was believed to have crashed into the sea, but an intensive air-sea rescue search proved fruitless.
The most important raids in which the New Zealand Squadron took part during November 1940 were against Munich, Hamburg, and Berlin. At Munich large fires were started in the marshalling yards and crews saw many explosions. For the attack on Hamburg, with oil installations and power and rail facilities as the targets, a force of 131 aircraft was despatched by Bomber Command. Five Wellingtons from the New Zealand Squadron bombed the marshalling yards and a sixth attacked the docks. November was also to bring a change in command, Wing Commander Buckley, who had led the squadron since its formation, handing over to Wing Commander Kay on the 25th of the month. Happily, Buckley was not to sever all connections with the squadron as a few months later he was placed in command of the base at Feltwell. Objectives for the Wellingtons during December included marshalling yards in Berlin, Charlottenberg and Hamm, the docks at Bremen, and targets in Mannheim and enemy-occupied territory. The squadron’s biggest effort was made on the 6th when 13 Wellingtons operated, the principal targets being aerodromes in enemy-occupied territory.
There was a prolonged cold spell in the United Kingdom from January to April 1941, the snowfall being exceptionally heavy and the weather unusually stormy. This considerably restricted bombing operations, particularly in January and February, when No. 75 Squadron was only able to operate on seven nights in each month, releasing 48 tons and 49 tons of bombs respectively. In March, however, it was possible to send out aircraft on eleven occasions and the bomb tonnage was raised to over 81 tons. In these months the weather also seriously interfered with flying training, but every opportunity was taken to give new crews additional practice before they went on operations. New pilots flew as second pilots with experienced crews; untried crews were usually sent to coastal targets in enemy-occupied territory before they were allowed to tackle the longer and more dangerous flights into Germany. The most prominent target in January was Wilhelms- haven, which was attacked on three nights by a total of 16 aircraft. Other targets this month were Bremen, Duisberg, Dusseldorf and Hanover in Germany, Turin in Italy, and the enemy-held ports of Brest and Flushing. Cologne, Gelsen- kirchen, Hanover and Wilhelmshaven were all subjected to single raids by squadron aircraft during February, along with dock areas in enemy-occupied territory, of which the most important were Boulogne and Brest, and oil storage tanks at Rotterdam. For March the principal target was Cologne, which was visited on three nights by a total of 24 aircraft. Berlin received two attacks and other objectives in Germany were Bremen, Hamburg and Kiel. Places occupied by the enemy came in for rather more attention than in the previous two months, the oil storage tanks at Rotterdam being bombed on two nights, while Boulogne, Brest, Calais, Dun- kirk, Lorient and Ostend were also attacked.
On operations during this period the most depressing factor crews had to face was the uncertainty about the conditions prevailing at base. The most difficult part of a flight frequently came at the end, when crews had been in the air for five or six hours and were tired and very cold. Over the North Sea crews often experienced treacherous weather, and if an aircraft had been damaged it was here that difficulties were most likely to develop, leading to a forced landing in the sea. When the aircraft reached England, page 189 too often it would be to find the countryside hidden under a blanket of fog. Typical determination in adverse weather was displayed by the crew of one of the Wellingtons sent to attack Hanover on the night of 26 January. When they took off visibility was down to 100 yards, cloud base was at 300 feet, and the aircraft had to climb through 6000 feet of ice-laden cloud. During the North Sea crossing the wireless set became useless but the captain, Flight Lieutenant Macfarlane,1 decided to continue with his mission. The target was reached on astro-navigation and bombed success- fully, although flak was so intense that the aircraft was thrown about in the air by the force of the bursts. On the return journey Macfarlane went down low so that his gunners could rake De Kooy airfield with machine-gun fire. He then flew his Wellington back to base without wireless aid and, in poor visibility, with cloud base of less then 500 feet, made a successful landing. The night of 11 January saw the squadron’s first attack against Italy when five Wellingtons, with crews specially selected for the task, set out to make the long and arduous flight to Turin. Three of the bombers, two flown by New Zealanders, Morton and Saxelby, and the third by an English captain, reached their objective and reported successful attacks in spite of cloud which ‘twice obscured the target area just as the bombs were due for release’. All three aircraft returned safely to base after a trip which had taken ten hours. On the same night five other aircraft from the squadron flew to Wilhelmshaven, where the Tirpitz had been the target for six aircraft three nights earlier. There was thick cloud over the German port and strong opposition from flak, but all the bombers made attacks.
The heaviest raid by Bomber Command at this time was against Hanover on the night of 10 February when eleven Wellingtons from No. 75 Squadron formed part of the attacking force of 220 bombers. On this occasion crews were assisted by clear weather and moonlight, which enabled them to identify their target and deliver a heavy attack. Enemy defences were active, there was much light and heavy flak, fighters were out in force and dummy fires were used in an attempt to confuse the bombers. The Wellington captained by Flight Lieutenant Morton was attacked three times by night fighters during its return flight. The crew escaped injury but their machine fared badly. Cannon shells burst inside the bomb bay and punctured all the hydraulic fuel-pipe lines with the result that the bomb doors fell open and the undercarriage hung down, reducing speed and causing the bomber to lose height whenever evasive action was taken. Fortunately the attacks were not pressed home, and Morton was able to reach a base in East Anglia and crash-land without injury to his crew. On the night of 12 March three New Zealand Wellingtons flew in the force of 72 bombers which attacked Berlin. A vivid impression of this early raid on the German capital has been left by Sergeant Reid,2 who flew as second pilot in the Wellington captained by Hewitt. Reid was to lose his life four months later in an attack on Essen.
The placid night was soothing as we crossed the coast and climbed slowly towards the full moon. The engines surged and fell in their usual tuneless rumbling song. Beside me the captain, intent on the green phosphorescent figures of his instrument panels, and behind the dark tunnel of the fuselage with faint lights showing at the navigation and wireless cubicles. The black motionless dots which suddenly appeared below were the ships of a convoy and our captain flashed the identification light. Soon we were weaving our way through the searchlight batteries on the Dutch coast. Quick reports came from our gunners as we crept on steadily eastwards deep into the heart of Germany. The hours went by slowly as hills and valleys, lakes, ridges and railways passed underneath—all clearly white in the moonlight. Another alteration of course and Berlin lay ahead. As we swung in over the suburbs searchlights poked up on our left. In front was the heart of the city traversed as yet by only a few searchlight beams. The navigator now lay sprawled with his target map ready to aim our bombs. Simultaneously with their release searchlights shot up unerringly and settled right upon us. Dirty grey balloons flashed past in the beams of light. Flak burst all around us and the hitherto cloudless sky was darkened with patchy smoke. We could smell the cordite. The bomber clawed upwards for a moment and then plunged down. A staggering side- slip, another stall turn and then the worst sensation of all as the engines completely cut out…. Then as suddenly as it had begun the flak ceased and we were plunging in comparative safety. A few seconds previously we were being passed across the city from cone to cone in an uplifting hail of shrapnel. We gulped coffee from the thermos flasks. Fragments of burning language from the relieved crew came over the intercom. Then silence as we began the long slog back. Our ears, blocked by the sudden changes of pressure, dulled the motors’ roar to a thick hum. More lights. Flak bursting well away from us. Dancing will-o’-the-wisps on the ground and then again the silver sea. Onward to the English coast, a beach and overlapping waves. Over the airfield we found our undercarriage had been smashed. Reassuring voices from the ground as we turned in to crash land…. the fences, buildings, and flares rush past, there are tearing, splintering noises, crunching skid and a smell of fresh furrowed earth ripped up in our path. Silence and then a voice from outside inviting us to come out and have a smoke….
On flights into distant parts of Germany there was not a very wide margin between fuel capacity and consumption, and if difficulties were encountered crews would find that they were short of petrol. There were many circumstances which could bring this about. Sometimes aircraft were blown off course by unexpectedly strong winds or they lost their way, adding many miles to the page 192 distance covered. A petrol tank might be punctured by fighter action or by flak, and damage to the engines often increased the rate of consumption. In their anxiety to deliver an accurate attack crews would sometimes stay too long in the target area. Any one or, as often happened, a combination of these circumstances could put the aircraft in danger and cause the bomber to go down into the sea or force a landing before base could be reached. Such an experience befell Macfarlane and his crew one night in January. During an attack on Wilhelmshaven he had made four runs over the target. Shrapnel damaged the Wellington’s tanks and the starboard engine, so that after a difficult return flight a forced landing had to be made in open country. Although it was a very dark night, this was accomplished with little damage to the aircraft and no injury to the crew.
On the night of 18 March when No. 75 Squadron attacked Kiel, the weather was very bad. One Wellington from the squadron, in which Sergeant Mee1 was second pilot, lost its way in thick cloud during the return journey, and finally the petrol supply was exhausted. The crew baled out, but the wireless operator was killed when his parachute failed to open. Five days later, when the squadron bombed Berlin, the Wellington captained by Flight Lieutenant Gill2 was forced down low when over the city and held by a concentration of searchlights. The bomber was continually hit by flak, and when Gill finally succeeded in getting clear it was to find that he was some considerable distance to the east of Berlin. The navigator had lost his bearing, and it was only the pilot’s fine airmanship which brought the aircraft back to base and narrowly avoided disaster as, on landing, the petrol tanks were found to be almost empty. March was an eventful month for Gill. On the night of the 12th his aircraft was attacked by a Junkers 88 during the outward journey to Berlin. His rear gunner opened fire at close range and the enemy fighter was seen to stall and dive towards the sea. In the engagement the Wellington was extensively damaged, the port petrol tank being holed and the elevator so shot away that the aircraft became hard to control, but the crew flew on and completed their mission. Before joining the New Zealand Bomber Squadron, Gill had flown Battle aircraft in France. By the end of July 1941 he was a veteran with 47 sorties to his credit.
Towards the middle of June a further change in bombing policy was introduced. Targets, some already well known to crews of No. 75 Squadron, were now selected principally for their close association with the German transportation system. One of the first attacks was against Hamm, the most important and largest railway centre in Germany. Its marshalling yards, which had been a frequent target in 1940, were attacked on 12 June by a force of 82 bombers, including eleven from the squadron. One New Zealand Wellington, flown by an English captain, Pilot Officer Curry,2 was attacked by three fighters, one of which was claimed as destroyed. The same night Pilot Officer Hobbs3 also reported an engagement in which the enemy aircraft was damaged.
2 Wing Commander G. W. Curry, DSO and bar, DFC and bar; born Newcastle-on-Tyne, 5 Apr 1920; joined RAF Sep 1939; commanded No. 627 Sqdn, 1944–45 and No. 96 Sqdn, 1945; killed in flying accident, 18 Sep 1948.
Suddenly I found myself half out of the aircraft. I had slipped through the mid under-hatch, for the cover had been blown out by blast. I hadn’t got on my parachute, and for a few moments, which seemed like years, I clung on, half in and half out the aircraft, which was in a screaming dive to escape from the fighter. Frankly, I don’t remember how I got back. I just clawed at everything and finally got inside again.
June the 24th was an eventful day in the squadron’s history. His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent—he was killed 14 months later flying to Iceland—visited the station and during the evening met a number of New Zealand crews, afterwards watching them take off on the night’s operations. Thirty-two bombers from Feltwell were despatched to attack Kiel and Dusseldorf. The New Zealand Squadron sent 18 aircraft, ten of which were ordered to bomb Kiel and the other eight Dusseldorf. This was a record number of sorties for No. 75 Squadron at this time and all but two crews reported bombs dropped on their objectives.
The squadron’s achievements in June brought congratulations from Air Vice-Marshal Baldwin,1 Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group:
Will you please congratulate the C.O. and maintenance personnel of No. 75 (N.Z.) Squadron on their exceptional record of serviceability and operational effort during this month.
The following days must be a record for the unit:—on 18th June, 16 aircraft out of a strength of 16; 21st June, 17 aircraft out of a strength of 17; 24th June, 18 aircraft out of a strength of 18.
As is only to be expected, I note No. 75 (N.Z.) Squadron tops the serviceability list of the squadrons in the Group. Such an exceptional standard-can only be achieved by the competence and enthusiastic effort of the ground staff ably backed by good engine manipulation by pilots and captains, and also in no small degree to the operational skill of the crews who have carried out their missions without sustaining any major damage to their aircraft.
With the launching of the German attack on Russia, the newly begun offensive on transportation and morale assumed additional importance for it was considered that the concentration of air attack on communication centres would prove of direct assistance to the Russians. From the beginning of July until the end of the year, No. 75 Squadron was to take a full share in this important task and win further distinction, although in contrast to the good fortune enjoyed in previous months, there were to be heavier losses. Altogether 14 Wellingtons were lost during the period, including one which crashed into the sea off Corton Beach, another near Coltishall, a third which crash-landed in Brandon Woods, and two others whose crews were forced to bale out after arriving back over the United Kingdom.
Certainly it was a period of intensive effort. In the three months from July to September 1941, 312 sorties were despatched in attacks which included such distant targets as Berlin, Genoa, and Stettin.
1 Air Marshal Sir John E. A. Baldwin, KBE, CB, DSO, Order of the Crown and Croix de Guerre (Bel), Order of the White Lion (Czech), Air Medal (US); RAF (retd); born Halifax, Yorkshire, 13 Apr 1892; joined 8th Hussars 1911; seconded RFC 1915 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC No. 3 Bomber Group, 1939–42; AOC-in-C, India, 1942–43; AOC 3rd TAF, 1943–44.
There was now little danger of the fire spreading further and it finally burnt itself out. Just before the Wellington reached base, some petrol which had collected in the wing flared up but only for a few moments. Widdowson, who had flown the aircraft with exceptional skill and made a safe landing, adds in this report, ‘Lawton also did a very fine job in navigating us back to base solely by astro-navigation as the radio was destroyed during the attack. In fact the aircraft was so badly damaged that it never flew again.’ Box, in addition to destroying the enemy aircraft, had remained at his post although, with the intercommunication system shot away, he was isolated from the rest of the crew.
Three other communication centres were attacked in July. They were Bremen, Cologne and Mannheim, of which the first and last were also Battle of the Atlantic targets. The squadron’s last operation of this month was also against a Battle of the Atlantic target—the Deutche-Werke submarine and shipbuilding yards at Kiel which were attacked on the night of the 24th.
Of the 13 raids in which the New Zealand Squadron took part during August, eight were directed against targets in Germany, with Hanover as the main objective. In three visits to this city 28 aircraft claimed successful sorties. Mannheim was bombed early in the month and again towards the end, while other targets for the Wellingtons included Cologne, Duisberg and Hamburg, all of which were closely linked with the German transport system. In enemy-occupied territory, Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, Le Havre, and Ostend were also attacked.
Without warning I saw a stream of tracer going past the fuselage between the starboard motor and the cockpit. The whole plane seemed to shudder under the impact of the striking bullets and cannon shells. Tried to turn sharply to port, but found that I could get no response from aileron control, so immediately dived. However the gunner was able to get a good burst into our attacker, and as we dived, the Me. went overhead and was last seen diving steeply away to starboard. I pulled out of the dive at about 10,000 feet, and with the strong odour of petrol in my nostrils, tried to collect my scattered wits. The first thing I noticed was that the airspeed indicator was not registering, and the second pilot who was standing in the astro-dome, reported that petrol was leaking from one of the pipes inside the kite. The wireless operator said that several bullets had entered his cabin, and made our wireless receiver unserviceable; the rear gunner also reported petrol flying past his turret in the slipstream from the starboard motor. Then looking out of the side windows I could see that the undercarriage was hanging down and the bomb doors were opened. A bullet had pierced the main hydraulic pipe, and so I knew that if we did reach England we would have to crash-land without flaps.
Everything was strangely quiet after the boys had gone, and I muttered a quiet prayer for something soft to land the kite on. All I could do at the moment was to keep the plane going down in something like a glide, but without an air-speed indicator I could not tell how sharply I was approaching the ground. At 500 feet I switched on the landing light, and below me I saw what I took to be a roadway, which seemed to me to be running more or less in the same direction as I was landing. I kept along the track, and in less time than it takes to tell I felt the starboard wing brushing over the tops of the wood which flanked each side of the roadway. In the next instant the plane swung sharply to the right and with a rather drawn-out crash, it came to a stop.
September was to bring a change in command of the squadron when Wing Commander Sawrey-Cookson,1 an Englishman with a distinguished career in the RAF, relieved Wing Commander Kay at the beginning of the month. Under its new leader, No. 75 Squadron operated on twelve nights in September, the objectives being widely distributed, from Hamburg in the north to Stettin in the east and Genoa in Italy. Three visits were made to Frankfurt, two to Hamburg, and single raids were flown against Berlin, Emden, Huls, Karlsruhe, Kassel, Kiel, Stettin, Boulogne, Brest, Ostend and Genoa.
One of the night bombing successes of the autumn of 1941 was the raid against Kassel on 8 September, when the Henschel railway locomotive works and the Mittelfield rail junction were the main targets. The attack was made in moonlight and there was little cloud or haze. Kassel was not heavily defended by flak and German night fighters had a profitless night, the bombers returning without loss. Of the 95 bombers which took off from England, 74 claimed they had attacked. The contribution of the New Zealand Squadron was ten aircraft, of which nine bombed Kassel and the other an alternative target. When daylight photographs were obtained a few days later it was seen that the main railway station had been hit and other railway buildings damaged, with further destruction to the east of the station.
The weather was so bad on the night of 21 September that a general recall signal was sent out, but this was not received by some crews and squadron aircraft bombed several targets, including their primary objectives in Berlin, Frankfurt and Ostend. A few nights later, five aircraft from the New Zealand Squadron were among the 34 Wellingtons which set out for Genoa, but the bombers had again to be recalled owing to deterioration in the weather at their bases. On the 28th, when six crews took part in another attempt to reach the same target, they encountered much cloud along their route and over the city. Nevertheless five attacks were reported after a flight of almost ten hours involving a double crossing of the Alps. One captain afterwards reported:
Going out it was moonlight and we saw the coast, but as we neared the Alps the clouds began to build up and we had to skirt a heavy electrical storm. There were two layers of cloud over Genoa itself and we had great difficulty in finding the docks as there was also considerable ground haze. We saw nothing of the Alps on the return journey. In fact, until we got back, we only had one brief glimpse of the ground.
On the last night of the month, when six New Zealand Wellingtons were sent to Stettin as part of a force of 40 bombers, there was clear weather and a half moon. The Wellingtons dropped their bombs and completed the long flight without incident.
During the last three months of 1941, the onset of the northern winter had a marked effect on the scale of the Royal Air Force bombing offensive. In October operations were possible on only 17 nights, No. 75 Squadron sending a total of 81 aircraft on ten of these occasions, when the emphasis was again on transportation targets at Cologne, Bremen, Nuremberg, Dusseldorf, Emden and Hamburg. Indifferent weather in November reduced the number of nights on which operations were practicable, but the squadron provided a total of 88 sorties on nine nights. Emden was attacked three times, Essen and Ostend twice, while single raids were mounted against Berlin, Hamburg, Kiel, Brest, Dunkirk and Le Havre. On 21 nights during December operations were either not contemplated or had to be cancelled. No. 75 Squadron despatched aircraft on six nights, when the enemy battleships at Brest were the principal objective, with a few sorties against Le Havre. The only raid on a German target was against Dusseldorf.
The outstanding feature of these months was the heavier casualties which the squadron experienced. During October six aircraft were lost over Germany and three others crash-landed on return. Two more Wellingtons were lost in the raid on Berlin on 7 November, and the following night three squadron aircraft were among those which failed to return from the attack on Essen. A further loss was sustained on the last night of the month when one Wellington failed to return from the attack on Hamburg.
On the night of 22 October crews flew through several violent electrical storms to deliver their attack on Mannheim. Four nights later, when the squadron went to Emden, many bombers had difficulty regaining their bases, a sudden change in the wind blowing them off course. On the ill-fated trip to Berlin on 7 November, the weather was very bad on both the outward and homeward flights. The city was hidden below a layer of thick cloud and only a comparatively small proportion of the force succeeded in dropping their bombs. But conditions were more favourable on the last night of November, when the squadron sent ten Wellingtons to Hamburg as part of a force of 181 bombers. Clear skies and good visibility enabled crews to identify the railway yards which were the main target.
In addition to these raids on Germany and Italy, the squadron made a substantial contribution to the repeated attacks that were made at this time on French ports, in particular those directed against Brest. The German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had reached this port in March 1941 and were joined by the Prinz Eugen at the beginning of June. Against these vessels Bomber Command had despatched intermittent raids during the year, and aircraft from No. 75 Squadron flew on one daylight and 13 night attacks.
The first attack in which the squadron was engaged after the arrival of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau took place on the night of 3 April, when eight out of the nine aircraft despatched made attacks. The Wellington captained by Flying Officer Prichard had bombed and was on the way back to base, when his rear gunner, Flying Officer W. D. Brown, saw that the bomber was being shadowed by a Messerschmitt 110. When first sighted the enemy fighter was flying about 300 feet astern and below the Wellington, but it quickly climbed to attack. Skilful manoeuvring by Prichard enabled Brown to fire three short bursts. Tracer was seen entering the fuselage of the fighter and it went into a loop before going down to hit the sea in a dull red glow. This success was confirmed by the crew of another bomber flying nearby. Unfortunately, with the English coast only a short distance away, the Wellington collided with a Blenheim, which crashed and was totally destroyed. The Wellington page 204 remained airborne but also fared badly. ‘The port wing was buckled and the leading edge smashed in to a depth of about two feet. Half the port elevator was ripped away, the remaining portion being torn out of its bearings but still attached to the control rod. The underneath portion of the rear turret also suffered damage.’ Prichard nevertheless managed to retain control and make a safe landing.
On the night of 18 June, when 14 crews from No. 75 Squadron attacked the Scharnhorst, they were hampered by haze, patches of cloud, and by the smoke screen which was used by the enemy to cover the port. Intent on pressing home his attack, Pilot Officer Ashworth1 showed great determination and resourcefulness in spending over an hour in the target area during which time he made eight surveying runs, some at very low level. Eventually, in the face of intense opposition from flak, Ashworth succeeded in dropping flares immediately north and south of the target, which enabled him to make a final run exactly over the warship.
For Bomber Command’s heavy daylight raid against Brest on 24 July, the contingent from Feltwell consisted of twelve aircraft, Nos. 57 and 75 Squadrons each sending six Wellingtons. New Zealand captains were Squadron Leaders Freeman and Lucas, Pilot Officer Ashworth, and Sergeants Breckon, Stanford and Streeter.2 Their target was the Gneisenau and the crews were briefed by Freeman, who led the formation. The bombers took off shortly before midday and flew westwards over Devon and Cornwall until just beyond the Scilly Isles, where they turned south towards Brest.
‘At first all went smoothly and we approached the French coast in a clear sky,’ writes one of the senior captains from the New Zealand Squadron. ‘On we went in a very tight formation, now in vics of three in line astern. Ahead of us we could see small groups of bombers beginning their runs over the target. Then suddenly it seemed as if all hell was let loose, with the crack of exploding shells and the sky filled with ominous black puffs. We aimed our bombs together with the rest of the Wellingtons before turning away still in formation.’
At night the warships at Brest were a difficult target, and although the bomber crews did their best, circumstances combined to prevent them from inflicting decisive damage. On most nights it was necessary to use reconnaissance flares which were not altogether satisfactory. The bomber had first to fly across the port and drop a flare to illuminate the dock area for identification and bomb aiming. Then, when the pilot succeeded in locating his target, he had to get his machine round again for a bombing run while the flare was still alight. Balloons, searchlights, smoke and anti-aircraft fire did not make this any easier. Another adverse factor was that the 500-pound bombs usually employed in these attacks had to be dropped from a height of about 8000 feet to attain sufficient velocity to pierce the thick deck armour of the German ships. This meant that, having been fortunate enough to locate his target at a lower altitude, the pilot then had to climb his machine to that height before bombing.
No. 75 Squadron’s main night effort was made towards the close of the year when there were signs that the ships were preparing to break out of port. Thirty-three sorties were detailed to attack during December and 4000-pound bombs were dropped on four of the five raids. When returning on the night of 23 December, one aircraft crashed near Berners Heath and the captain, Flight Sergeant Bentley,2 was killed. Four nights later the members of a crew which baled out near Buckfastleigh were fortunate to escape without injury. Although the raids in which the New Zealand Squadron operated did not inflict decisive damage on the enemy ships, their confinement to port during the year was a major contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic.