Episodes & Studies Volume 2
EARLY STRATEGIC BOMBING
EARLY STRATEGIC BOMBING
IMMEDIATELY THE GERMANS invaded France and the Low Countries the Air Staff was authorised to bomb military objectives in Germany west of the Rhine, but as it was still to Britain's advantage not to extend the bombing war, projected air assaults on the Ruhr were postponed. At first there was no evidence that the Germans were aiming at other than purely military objectives, but when on 14 May the bombing of Rotterdam made plain the enemy's disregard for civilians, Bomber Command was authorised to begin its programme for the strategic bombing of Germany. The most suitable targets were thought to be railway marshalling yards and oil plants. The bombing of oil plants could obviously not have had any immediate effect on the course of the land battle, but it could hardly have been foreseen that the battle would end as soon as it did. Nor was the difficulty of making an accurate attack on such a target fully realised.
The first bombs of the strategic bombing plan were dropped on the night of 15 May 1940. Ninety aircraft were detailed and though No. 75 (NZ) Squadron contributed only three, many other New Zealanders flew in Wellingtons, Whitleys, and Hampdens belonging to RAF squadrons. The objectives attacked were railway junctions, marshalling yards, and oil plants, including those at Duisburg and Dortmund.
From this night onwards RAF bombers not required either to give close support to the British and French armies or to attack the enemy's communications west of the Rhine, continued the strategic bombing of Germany. The enemy's complex railway system in the Ruhr was attacked night after night, as were oil plants in the Ruhr and as far afield as Hamburg, Hanover, and Mannheim.
On 10 June Italy declared war on Britain and France, and from this time Bomber Command made occasional deviations from the strategic bombing of Germany to attack industrial objectives in Italy. The first target was the Fiat works at Turin, but of 36 Whitley aircraft which took off from the Channel Islands on the night of 11 June to make the 1300-mile journey only eleven reached Italy; heavy storms were encountered over the Alps, icing conditions were severe, and many engines failed. According to the records available only one New Zealander, Pilot Officer P. G. Brodie,26 took part in this first war flight over Italian soil.
Twelve Wellingtons, six of them from No. 75 (NZ) Squadron, were to have accompanied the Whitleys to Italy, but as they were preparing to leave from a French aerodrome the local military authorities drove all kinds of country carts and lorries onto the airfield and prevented the aircraft taking-off. The French were apprehensive that an attack on Italy would only bring reprisals which the British would be unable to resist or prevent.
With the capitulation of France on 25 June 1940 strategic bombing became the chief means by which the offensive could be carried to the enemy. The targets chosen were aircraft depots, airframe factories, and aluminium factories, attacks on which it was hoped would reduce the strength of the German Air Force. The Command was also to continue with the bombing of oil and communications targets.
The immediate task was to take steps to reduce the scale of attack on England. Aircraft works and airfields were bombed and many attacks made on ports and shipping concentrations. On 22 July, however, it was decided that attacks on barges and shipping in canals and ports were only to be carried out if the craft appeared to be concentrated for invasion.page 28
In the weeks following the fall of France British bombers, usually numbering up to one hundred, would go out night after night to bomb targets in Germany. Their course would take them over separate areas far and wide, from Denmark to Southern France. Though it was hoped to cause damage to all objectives attacked—shipbuilding yards, naval establishments, oil plants, railways and canals, besides airframe and aluminium factories—it was also intended that the sirens should be kept wailing all over Germany during the hours of darkness. This was done by attacking several objectives in one night and by spreading the raids over several hours.
Most targets were bombed from several thousand feet, but some crews descended to a very low height to make sure of identifying and hitting their target. If there was dense cloud this could be extremely dangerous, especially in hilly or mountainous country; cloud can play strange tricks on the senses so that a pilot can imagine that the aircraft is being flown upside down or in any but the right position. If he succumbs to the temptation to disbelieve his instruments, he may easily lose control and crash in attempting to right his aircraft.
Pilot Officer J. F. Swift27 made a successful attack on the railway marshalling yard at Osnabruck during July 1940, from a height of only 700 feet. A few nights later he was detailed to attack an airfield at Rotenburg; after waiting for 45 minutes over the target, he attacked from a similar height and scored several hits with his bombs on a hangar. He then machine-gunned the airfield and two nearby trains from 300 feet.
A particularly hazardous low-level raid at this time was that made on the Tirpitz, then berthed at Wilhelmshaven. A terrific barrage of anti-aircraft fire was encountered, and, although four aircraft attacked, only one escaped destruction—it was unable to get near the target and dropped its bombs on a convoy of ships nearby. Pilot Officer A. H. Gould,28 who captained one of the aircraft shot down, was taken prisoner.
The damage caused by the bombing of German industry and communications at this time was not very serious. On occasions, when conditions were favourable, severe damage was done, but it is now known that many of the bombs dropped were miles off their targets.
This lack of accuracy was caused by the difficulty of navigating an aircraft several hundred miles over a totally blacked-out country, of finding the target upon arrival in the area, and of hitting that target whilst trying to evade innumerable bursts of anti-aircraft fire and the probing fingers of searchlights. An aircraft rarely flies in a straight line but, affected by continually changing winds, almost always moves crabwise in much the same manner as a boat crossing a swift stream. It was, of course, extremely difficult for the meteorologist to predict accurately the speed and direction of the wind for several hours ahead, and it was necessary for the navigator to check continually any change in the wind by measuring with a special instrument the drift of the aircraft relative to objects on the ground. When the aircraft flew over heavy cloud for hundreds of miles the navigator could only work out, with the aid of his sextant, an approximate position (usually to within five or ten miles) by observation of the stars.
With every change in direction, speed, and height of the aircraft—and sudden bursts of ‘flak’ made them frequent—the navigator had to make new calculations. It is obvious that the task of guiding an aircraft flying at a speed of nearly three miles a minute to within even a few miles of the target was not easy. Upon arrival at the estimated position of their objective the bomber crews would have to search systematically for the target, often for as long as an hour, a task which was made more difficult by the dummy cities which the Germans were beginning to build. Very often page 29 the bombers arrived to find the area covered in cloud, and the pilots could only return to base with their bomb-loads, with the faint hope that on the way back some suitable last-resort target might be seen through a gap in the cloud.
Though the German defences were to become much stronger, they were by no means negligible during the summer of 1940. Anti-aircraft fire was concentrated and accurate over some targets; the number of guns defending the more important German towns was steadily increasing. At first, enemy night fighters were rarely seen but towards the end of July they became more numerous.
One of the first aircraft from No. 75 (NZ) Squadron to be engaged by enemy night fighters was captained by Flying Officer N. Williams.29 The attack was made by three He113s over Wesel; one fighter (and possibly a second) was shot down by the gunners in the Wellington and the third was driven off. The Wellington, though riddled with bullets, was then flown back to its base.
Perhaps the crew of another aircraft from No. 75 Squadron also met German night fighters on this night, for they did not return. Two of the crew, Flight Sergeant R. A. J. Anderson,30 the wireless operator, and Sergeant J. L. Owen,31 a gunner, were New Zealanders.
It might justifiably be asked what was the point in our aircrews risking their lives at all in 1940 since it must have been evident, even then, that such little accurate bombing as was possible could hardly have any real effect on Germany's war economy. Would it not have been preferable for Bomber Command to have conserved its strength for use in a possible invasion of England and for offensive action in the future?
The answer is that after the Battle of France strategic bombing at once became the central point in Allied strategy. Germany's defences were tested and probed as they grew and methods were gradually evolved of identifying a target even from the great heights at which it became necessary to fly. Had the bomber force been conserved until it could be used really effectively it would not have been able to keep ahead of the enemy's counter-measures.