New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 11 — Flying Bombs and Rockets
Flying Bombs and Rockets
With the eclipse of the Luftwaffe and the failure of the U-boats to upset Allied invasion plans, the Germans had set high hopes on what they called their new Vergeltungswaffen or reprisal weapons. As early as June 1943, Hitler had told his assembled military leaders that it was only necessary for Germany to hold out; a new and decisive attack was in preparation that would reduce London to rubble and force Britain to capitulate. One of the weapons he proposed to use was the flying bomb, or ‘V-1’, a small pilotless aircraft driven by a simple form of jet engine and carrying well over half a ton of explosive that detonated upon impact with terrific blast effect. Another was the V-2 rocket which, carrying approximately the same weight of explosive, could be shot high into the air to fall at supersonic speed and with great penetrative power.
Plans for the intensive development of these projectiles had been put forward during 1942, but Hitler had been sceptical of their value until, towards the end of that year, the first flying bomb was successfully launched from the experimental station at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast. Six months later, after further trials with both the V-1 and V-2, Hitler ordered production to be speeded up and a provisional date for opening the offensive was fixed at mid-December 1943. The construction of launching sites in France was begun in August by 40,000 conscript workers and it was expected to have ninety-six sites ready by the target date. But the Germans appear to have been unaware of the extent to which their intentions were known and they reckoned without the intervention of the Allied air forces.
By April 1943 British agents, with the help of the Polish under- ground, had learned enough to give a general warning that something unusual was afoot. The following month an RAF reconnaissance plane brought back photographs of Peenemunde which, skilfully interpreted, revealed that the Germans were experimenting with pilotless aircraft. Further evidence continued to reach London, and then early in November came the discovery of the launching sites in France. Some sceptics thought that the preparations were a gigantic hoax designed to draw Allied bombers away from their targets in Germany, but the counsel of those who took the menace page 319 seriously prevailed; in August a heavy RAF raid was made on Peenemunde, and early in December a prolonged bombing campaign was commenced against the launching sites in northern France. This onslaught from the air completely upset German plans. Development of the V-2 was delayed by some two months and almost all the V-1 launching areas were destroyed. The Germans then set about constructing new sites in the hope that they would still be able to launch simultaneous flying-bomb and rocket attacks before the Allies landed in Europe. But they were frustrated by the continuing air attack. When the invasion took place German preparations for using their V-weapons were still incomplete.
The long-delayed attack finally began on 13 June 1944, seven days after the Allied landings in Normandy. Shortly before dawn that day the first flying bomb left the steel rails of its launching ramp, hidden near a farmhouse in the Pas de Calais, to begin its noisy and fiery journey to England. Members of the Royal Observer Corps, noting the unusual sound of its flight and the glow at its rear, reported it crossing the Kent coast. A few minutes later it crashed and exploded at Swanscombe, a small town near Gravesend. Ten more bombs were launched during the next hour, but only four of them crossed the English coast and only one reached London, where it killed six people and demolished a railway bridge in the East End. The three bombs which fell outside London caused no casualties. Fire from German batteries on the French coast created a diversion but the Luftwaffe's efforts to add confusion to the initial attack failed miserably; only one Me410 was reported over London and it was shot down. Thereupon there was a lull of three days before the next flying bombs arrived.
The firing was renewed at midnight on 15 June, by which time the Germans had managed to complete preparations for a much heavier scale of attack. Within the next twenty-four hours they succeeded in launching over two hundred flying bombs, of which seventy-three fell in Greater London and about the same number in the surrounding countryside, some of them in places as far apart as Sussex and Suffolk. Now the assault began in earnest, and for the next eighty-two days there were but few brief intervals when the distinctive menacing buzz of the flying bomb was not heard over some part of south-east England. A peak was reached on 2 August when some 210 bombs crossed the coast, of which more than half found their mark in London. Even so, this was considerably fewer than the Germans had planned. Not only did their equipment prove unreliable, but launching operations were seriously embarrassed by page 321 Allied bombing of supply depots and communications as well as of the actual sites; moreover, much of the sting was soon taken out of the attack by the British fighter and gun defences. Towards the end of August the northward advance of the British and Canadian armies forced the enemy to abandon one launching site after another, and the last V-1 to be fired from northern France fell in Hertfordshire during the afternoon of 1 September. Four days later there was a despairing postscript when specially equipped Heinkel 111 bombers, whose airborne launchings had made a small contribution to the offensive since the early part of July, fired at least nine missiles before they evacuated their bases. Not one exploded in London.
The capture of the launching areas in the Pas de Calais did not, however, completely end the flying-bomb menace. During the next seven months the Germans succeeded in maintaining a small and intermittent scale of attack with missiles launched from aircraft over the North Sea and from ramps in Holland. It was not until the morning of 29 March 1945 that the last flying bomb to elude the British defences exploded at Datchworth, a small village in Kent, some 25 miles from the centre of London. By that time the Germans had launched over 8000 bombs against England, but of these barely half had crossed the English coast and only one quarter had reached Greater London. The British defences brought down no fewer than 3957, more than half the total number reported, 1878 being credited to anti-aircraft batteries, 1847 to fighter aircraft, and 232 to the balloon barrage.
The German development of their V-2 rocket had lagged behind that of the flying bomb, and before firing of this second reprisal weapon could be started the Allied armies had overrun the intended launching areas in France and Belgium. However, the enemy continued his preparations in Holland and it was from a site near the Hague that the first rocket was launched against England on the evening of 8 September 1944. It fell in Chiswick, a western suburb of London, where it killed three people and seriously injured another ten; almost simultaneously a second V-2 fell near Epping, fortunately without casualties. Missiles continued to arrive intermittently during the next ten days at the rate of rather more than two a day; then suddenly there came a lull of a week. Montgomery's armies had begun their thrust towards Arnhem, and with this threat of further Allied advance into Holland the German rocket batteries had been ordered eastward. However, with the repulse of the attack on Arnhem the batteries returned to the Hague area and renewed the assault which, with London as the main target, was to continue with only brief respites for the next six months.page 322
British counter measures, which included the bombing of suspected launching areas, communications, and supply depots, were developed to mitigate the intensity of the attack but they met with only partial success. In the first half of January 1945 an average of eight rockets a day fell on England and in mid-February it rose to ten. Fortunately, however, the accuracy of the V-2 was poor, less than half the 1300 rockets aimed at London finding their mark; some fell back near the firing point soon after they had been launched while others dropped short into the North Sea or came down in the countryside surrounding the capital. The weight of the attack on London was also reduced by the fact that from October 1944 the Germans fired many of their missiles against targets on the Continent, in particular against the supply port of Antwerp, where they caused considerable damage and heavy casualties. The Germans were finally compelled to abandon the attack with rockets towards the end of March 1945, by which time the Allied armies had crossed the Rhine and were advancing across Holland into Germany.
For the people of London, who had already withstood heavy air attack and for almost five years had accepted irksome restrictions and worked long hours with little respite, the nine months of the German V-weapon assault were a severe ordeal. Indeed, many found this attack by airborne robots quite uncanny and more difficult to bear than the orthodox bombing. The flying bombs in particular produced considerable nervous strain and for a time there was some absenteeism in industry and a fall in production. However, Londoners soon grew accustomed to seeing the ‘doodle-bugs’ or ‘buzz-bombs’, as they called them, over their city and many became adept at assessing the danger as a bomb approached; people would wait for the ominous cut of the engine or the dip of the nose which signalled the descent before diving for cover; if the bomb passed by, it was ignored. Only occasionally were they kept guessing by wayward missiles which made a sudden unexpected turn or else began a wide circle before making the plunge earthwards.
The rockets proved less terrifying than the flying bombs, probably because they approached unseen and unheard; there was no period of suspense since the first indication that a rocket had arrived was a loud explosion, closely followed by the rumble of its supersonic flight through the atmosphere. By that time people knew they were safe – at least until the next one. The scale of the V-2 attacks and the resulting casualties and damage were also not so heavy as with the flying bomb. Yet there were some tragic incidents reminiscent of the worst days of the early air raids. On 25 November 1944 a rocket fell on a crowded Woolworth store in Deptford and 160 people were killed and 108 seriously injured. At Smithfield Market, page 323 in the centre of London, 110 people lost their lives and 123 were severely hurt on 8 March 1945. Nineteen days later a tenement building at Stepney was hit and 131 men, women, and children were killed.
Altogether 8938 people lost their lives and a further 25,000 were seriously injured as a result of the German V-weapon attacks – the large majority of them Londoners. There was also widespread destruction of property – most of it in the capital – including over 200,000 houses destroyed or seriously damaged. Such loss and devastation was grievous indeed, yet it was only a fraction of what might have resulted had the Germans been left to perfect their weapons without interruption and had they not been prevented from using them earlier and on the scale originally planned.
When Hitler ordered the offensive to begin in mid-June, he had expected the effect to be dramatic. Indeed, both he and his military advisers thought that, in their anxiety to relieve London, the Allies might be tempted into precipitate action regarding the expected second landing in the Pas de Calais and that this would end in disaster. But German hopes were doomed to disappointment. The flying bombs did not induce a second landing. Nor did they have any noticeable effect on the progress of the campaign in Normandy. As early as 18 June the British Prime Minister assured General Eisenhower that there was to be no alteration in agreed strategy and that London would endure the assault. In his Crusade in Europe Eisenhower writes: ‘We in the field wanted to capture the areas from which these weapons were fired against southern England. However, it must be said to the credit of the British leaders that never once did one of them urge me to vary any detail of my planned operations merely for the purpose of eliminating this scourge.’
The advent of the German V-weapons did, however, have a disturbing effect on Allied air operations. With the invasion less than two weeks old, there was a considerable diversion of air power to counter the flying bomb. Many fighter squadrons, including most of the newest and fastest machines, had to be retained in England and employed on interception patrols, while both the British and American heavy bomber forces were used in an attempt to counter the threat at its source. Such measures absorbed a very large effort which might otherwise have been used for additional close support of the armies and the bombing of Germany. Yet, compared with the optimistic statements of the Germans and the vast resources poured into developing their V-weapons, this was a comparatively small return; according to Speer the whole productive effort and the huge quantities of fuel consumed during the ten months of the page 324 assault would have been better used in putting several thousand fighters into the air.
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The part played by the fighter pilots and bomber crews during the actual V-weapon attacks must now be told.
By May 1944 most of the original ‘ski’ sites had been destroyed and it seemed that the danger of any large-scale assault had been averted; moreover, demands for additional air power to prepare for the Normandy invasion were becoming more insistent as D Day approached. Although one of the new ‘modified’ launching sites had been identified as early as 27 April and over sixty reported by the beginning of June, in the preoccupation with Overlord the imminent threat represented by these structures was underestimated. Attacks on V-weapons targets came to a virtual standstill towards the end of May and for over a fortnight the Germans were able to continue their preparations almost unhindered by direct attack. However, the arrival of the first flying bombs in mid-June brought prompt counter-action. Both British and American heavy bombers were turned upon the new launching sites and supply depots, and elaborate defence arrangements involving both fighters and anti-aircraft guns were put into operation over southern England.
The main defence plan had been prepared at RAF Fighter Headquarters by Air Marshal Roderic Hill1 in collaboration with General Sir Frederick Pile of Anti-Aircraft Command; it provided for defence in depth with a front line of fighter aircraft patrolling the Channel and the South Coast, a second line of anti-aircraft guns sited on the North Downs, and a third line of balloons around London itself. At first eleven RAF squadrons flew ‘anti-diver’ patrols, Tempest, Spitfire, and Typhoon fighters operating by day and Mosquitos at night. But it soon became necessary to bring in reinforcements, including a wing of Mustang fighters from Second Tactical Air Force, and soon an average of fifteen day and nine night-fighter squadrons were engaged on interception patrols. A similar strengthening of the gun defences also took place and by the middle of August no fewer than 800 heavy and 1100 light guns of the Royal Artillery were in action, together with 700 rocket barrels and some 600 light guns manned by the RAF Regiment and the Royal Armoured Corps.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Roderic M. Hill, KCB, MC, AFC and bar, Legion of Merit (US), Order of White Lion (Czech), Order of Leopold with Palm and Croix de Guerre (Bel.); RAF (retd); born Hampstead, London, 1 Mar 1894; joined RFC 1916; permanent commission RAF 1919; DTD, Air Ministry and MAP, 1938–40; DG of R and D, MAP, 1940–41; Controller of Technical Services, British Air Commission, Washington, 1941–42; Commandant RAF Staff College, 1942–43; AOC No. 12 Fighter Group, 1943; AOC-in-C, ADGB, 1943–44; AOC-in-C Fighter Command, 1944–45; Air Member for Training, Air Ministry, 1945–46; Air Member Technical Services, 1947–48.
The fighter squadrons had a difficult task. Even though coastal radar stations were used to detect the approach of flying bombs, pilots on patrol over the Channel had only a few minutes in which to intercept a bomb before it crossed the coast. From there to the gun belt was only a matter of 30 miles, and although pilots were helped by controllers at radar stations and observer posts and by marker shells and signal rockets, they had barely five minutes' flying time from the coast in which to attack their fleeting targets. If in actual pursuit of a bomb, the fighters were allowed to fly on over the gun belt and the gunners had to withhold their fire; this gave pilots just another minute before coming up against the London balloon barrage. Swiftness in pursuit was therefore essential, and to give additional speed aircraft were stripped of armour and all possible external fittings while engines were modified to take special high-octane fuel and to accept a higher boost than usual; even the paint was removed and outer surfaces polished. These changes increased the speed of some single-engined fighters by as much as thirty miles an hour, yet the margin was still slight. Indeed, the speed of the flying bomb – some 350 miles an hour – was such that only the fastest fighters, the Tempests, Spitfire XIVs, and later the Mustang IIIs, could operate with consistent success.
There was considerable danger in attacking the V-1 even though it could not shoot back. Its explosion could be lethal in the air within 200 yards and in the early weeks several pilots were killed and aircraft badly damaged by bursting bombs. Diving on to the bomb to attain extra speed brought the danger of entering the lethal distance while shooting; turbulence of the hot gases from the jet engine also upset the aim of a fighter attacking from the rear. The best form of attack had to be discovered by trial and error and eventually most pilots found that, if possible, it was best to allow the bomb to overtake them and then fire deflection shots as it passed. Occasionally, unorthodox methods were used with success. Pilots would fly alongside a bomb and then tip it over with the wing of their machine – the wings did not actually touch since the air passing over the wing surface of the fighter was sufficient to unbalance the robot, which then overturned and went into a dive.
During the first month of the attack fighter aircraft operated with notable success, shooting down 924 bombs – almost three times as many as were destroyed by the anti-aircraft guns and balloons combined. Unfortunately, however, by mid-July the daily average of bombs reaching London was still almost forty a day. Moreover, competition and uncertainty of operational priority in dull weather had created friction between fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. Pilots blamed the gunners for firing on them and the gunners blamed the pilots for flying into their area. Some hard things were said by page 326 each about the other. Therefore, on 13 July, in the hope of achieving better results and closer co-ordination, Air Marshal Hill gave orders moving all guns to the coast and creating two distinct areas for fighters, one over the sea in front of the gun belt and the other inland behind it. This division of their patrol area made the task of the fighter squadrons more difficult but the new system quickly justified itself. During the second week after the redeployment a record number of bombs was destroyed and the following week the guns exceeded the fighter score for the first time. Moreover, gun batteries and airfields were now more or less in the same areas and, with personal contact between airmen and gunners, harmonious co-operation was soon restored. ‘The mists of suspicion whose gathering had troubled me so much were dispersed almost over- night,’ Hill writes. ‘Flying towards the South Coast I could see over Romney Marsh a wall of black smoke marking the position of the “Diver” barrage. From time to time a fresh salvo would be added to repair the slow erosion of the wind. On the far side of the barrage fighters were shooting down flying bombs into the Channel; on the nearer side more fighters waited on its fringe to pounce on the occasional bomb that got so far. The whole was as fine a spectacle of co-operation as any commander could wish to see.’
By mid-August the whole organisation was operating with a relentless efficiency which guaranteed the destruction of from one-half to three-quarters of all the bombs that approached Britain whatever the weather. By the end of the month only an occasional bomb was getting through, and in one period of twenty-four hours only four out of ninety-seven bombs reported by the defence actually reached London. Thus, early in September, when the capture of the launching areas ended the main attack, the British defences had attained a very large measure of ascendancy over this novel and ingenious weapon. Fighter pilots had now destroyed a total of 1771 bombs; the gunners, achieving notable success in the second phase, had raised their score to 1460, and the balloons had brought down 232.
1 No. 3 Tempest Squadron, which destroyed 258 flying bombs.
No. 486 Squadron was one of three squadrons forming No. 150 Wing, at this time the only formation in the RAF equipped with the new and fast Tempest fighter. With its formidable Napier sabre engine of twenty-four cylinders, the Hawker Tempest was not only the most modern fighter of the RAF but of all the Allied air forces. Sidney Camm, chief designer at Hawkers – he had designed the famous Hurricane before the war – had taken his latest creation, the Typhoon, which was an assault plane, massive, thick-winged, capable of carrying a good load, and after six months' work had transformed it into the Tempest. The fuselage was slightly longer, enabling it to carry extra petrol, and the undercarriage lengthened to allow the use of an enormous four-bladed propeller nearly twelve feet in diameter. To improve downward visibility the cockpit had been moved farther aft and reduced in size to the strict minimum until it was only a transparent plastic blister on a perfect streamlined fuselage. The tail fin had been enlarged to ensure perfect stability at very high speeds and flaps had been fitted along practically the whole of the trailing edge of the wings to give maximum safety in landing. Indeed, everything possible had been done to give the Tempest a high performance at medium and low altitudes. Special auxiliary tanks were designed to fit under the wings and quite extraordinary attention was paid to the riveting, the joints and the surface polish. The result was a superb combat machine.
The New Zealand Tempests began intensive flying on the morning of 16 June patrolling the Kent coast from their base at Newchurch, near Romney; this was a new landing ground with a steel mesh runway and the squadron lived under canvas. On patrol pilots quickly adapted themselves to their new and novel task. The first day two flying bombs were brought down, two days later the score had reached fifteen, and by the end of a fortnight the total destroyed was over ninety.
Throughout the long summer days of July and August patrols were constant, but chance and the weather played a part in the rate of scoring. On some days the squadron's score mounted rapidly, but on others it advanced but slowly in tantalising ones or twos or else showed no increase at all. On 4 July pilots achieved a record of thirteen flying bombs destroyed in just over twelve hours, but from the morning of the 9th to the afternoon of the 12th no fewer than 78 sorties were flown without result. Both the luck and skill of individual pilots also varied. Nevertheless, they continued to maintain close guard over their allotted area and were quick to seize every opportunity for interception. One pilot, airborne to test his machine, overheard a report that a bomb was approaching his airfield. He took up the chase and ‘had a crack at it.’ Somewhat to his surprise the bomb turned slowly over in flight and flew along upside down for some distance before diving sharply to explode in a field.
No. 486 Squadron's top-scoring pilots were Warrant Officer Eagleson,1 with twenty-one flying bombs destroyed, Flying Officer Cammock,2 with twenty and one shared, Flight Lieutenant McCaw,3 nineteen and one shared, and Flight Lieutenant Cullen,4 who brought down sixteen. These men displayed outstanding skill both as pilots and marksmen, sending many of their targets down into the sea before they reached the coast and others into the open countryside nearby.
McCaw was the first squadron pilot to destroy four bombs during a single patrol. This happened one evening early in July while he was flying one of the last sorties near Biggin Hill; when he landed it was almost midnight and the last of the summer twilight had faded from the sky. By the end of August Flight Lieutenant Cullen had flown more than 200 sorties with No. 486, including ninety-three patrols against flying bombs. He had opened his score during the evening of 18 June and a week later shot down two bombs in one patrol; early in July he made successful interceptions on three consecutive days.
Other pilots who had particular success were Flying Officer Danzey,1 who destroyed eleven V-1s, three of them at almost point-blank range, Flight Lieutenant Sweetman,2 whose ‘bag’ was ten and one shared, and Flying Officer Lawless,3 who destroyed ten during his sixty patrols. Flight Sergeant O'Connor's4 score was eight destroyed and one shared, while Flight Lieutenant Williams,5 Pilot Officer Stafford,6 Pilot Officer Smith,7 and Warrant Officers Hooper and Kalka8 were each credited with the destruction of eight. In addition, ten more New Zealanders who flew with No. 486 Squadron had individual scores of five or over.
Among New Zealand fighter pilots flying with RAF units the most successful was Flight Lieutenant A. E. Umbers who commanded a flight in No. 3 Tempest Squadron – the top-scoring unit in this campaign. Umbers quickly demonstrated his skill in intercepting and shooting down flying bombs. He achieved his first success on 16 June. Four days later he had raised his score to five and by the end of the main campaign he had at least seventeen confirmed successes to his credit. He flew his most successful patrol one morning early in August, destroying three and sharing in the destruction of another – the fourth would have been wholly his had not a Mustang pilot stolen in while he was firing and cheated him of his prey.
Two New Zealand pilots who had successful night patrols were Flight Lieutenant Walton1 and Flying Officer Worthington,2 both flying with No. 605 Mosquito Squadron from Manston airfield. By night the glare from the propulsion unit made the sighting of flying bombs relatively easy, but this advantage was somewhat discounted by the difficulty of assessing the range and bringing accurate fire to bear; moreover, to gain a margin of speed over their targets the Mosquitos had to attack in a dive. Nevertheless, on successive nights towards the end of June, Walton and his British navigator succeeded in destroying two flying bombs in a single patrol.
While fighter pilots were thus achieving outstanding success in shooting down the V-1s in flight, bomber crews flew across the Channel to attack launching areas, storage depots, and targets connected with the manufacture of the German weapons. In the three months from mid-June 1944, RAF Bomber Command despatched some 16,660 sorties to drop 60,237 tons of bombs. Aircraft of US 8th Air Force added a further 16,400 tons in 6415 sorties. Medium and fighter-bombers of Second Tactical Air Force also joined in the assault whenever they could be spared from their main task of supporting the Allied armies on the Continent; they contributed another 1700 tons of bombs. Unfortunately, this massive air effort – Bomber Command's contribution alone equalled a complete month's bombing at the height of the bomber offensive – was not attended by the success which had marked the attacks earlier in the year. In particular, the bombing of launching sites, which absorbed most of the effort, seems to have had little effect on the German rate of firing their missiles. The new ‘modified’ sites, small and well hidden as they were, proved difficult targets; moreover, they were cheap and easy to build and the Germans had ample reserves, so that whenever the bombers succeeded in destroying one of them another sprang up in its place.
Crews flying these missions over France found that opposition both from fighters and anti-aircraft batteries was usually less severe than that experienced over targets in Germany. However, on 7 July when 228 Lancasters attacked St. Leu d'Esserent, German night fighters stationed in France were reinforced by others from the Low Countries and in bright moonlight they succeeded in shooting down thirty-one of the bombers – this was almost a quarter of Bomber Command's total losses in attacks on V-weapon targets during these months. Flight Lieutenant Milne1 and his crew of No. 50 Squadron had an eventful flight. They had just bombed when their Lancaster was set upon by a Messerschmitt night fighter. One shell burst in the starboard outer petrol tank and another went through the main spar; petrol caught fire and acted as a beacon to other night fighters. However, by fine airmanship Milne evaded three further attacks and got his bomber safely back to England. On another raid Pilot Officer King2 of No. 158 Squadron, although wounded, navigated his Halifax back to base after it had been holed in over 130 places. Only a few months earlier King and his bomb aimer had nicknamed their aircraft ‘Friday the 13th!’
Typical of this spirit in which the squadron faced enemy opposition was the action of bomb aimer Flying Officer Mayhill2 during the attack on the storage depot at Pont Remy. His Lancaster was hit as it neared the target and he was wounded in the face and eyes by perspex splinters. The electrical release system was out of action, blood was streaming down his face and he was in great pain, but he insisted on completing his duties and, working the bomb release by hand, made his attack.
Thirty-eight crews from No. 75 Squadron took part in the two August raids on Russelsheim, which contained the huge Opel motor works where flying bombs were being manufactured. Enemy fighters were active on both nights and three of the New Zealand Lancasters were among the thirty-five bombers which failed to return. These attacks were part of a series of Allied raids on the sources of flying-bomb production, and in addition to Bomber Command's attacks, aircraft of US 8th Air Force bombed the experimental establishment at Peenemunde and also raided the Volkswagenwerke at Fallersleben, the largest pressed-steel works in Germany.
Heavy bomber operations against V-weapon targets virtually ceased when the main flying-bomb attack came to an end early in September 1944. Many fighter squadrons were then also released from their defensive patrols over England. At the end of the month the Tempest Wing, which included No. 486 New Zealand Squadron, flew to the Continent to join Second Tactical Air Force, and thereafter the Tempests were mainly employed in close support of the ground forces and in attacks on enemy communications. Apart from occasional sorties by aircraft from 2nd TAF the reconnaissance and attack of V-weapon sites in Holland was now left to the fighter squadrons remaining in England.
From mid-September until the end of 1944 the flying bombs which reached England were all launched at night from converted Heinkel bombers over the North Sea. RAF Mosquitos flew interception patrols in all weathers and shot down sixteen of these carrier air- craft. Against the missiles themselves the British defences continued to achieve notable success. Of the 576 bombs that approached the coast between 16 September and 14 January 1945 – when this form of attack was finally abandoned by the Germans – 331 were destroyed by the gun batteries, night fighters destroyed another 71, and only 66 reached Greater London. But during the early morning of 24 December the Heinkels sprang a surprise when they launched their bombs off the east coast with Manchester as their target; although only one bomb fell in Manchester itself, six went down within ten miles of the city centre and eleven more within fifteen miles. The Germans had, in fact, succeeded in turning the northern flank of the defences but fortunately they were unable to develop this new line of attack. Three weeks later the airborne launchings ceased entirely.
In March 1945 the Germans made a final attempt to attack London with flying bombs of longer range – 220 miles instead of the original 150 – which they fired from ramps in Holland. The attempt was frustrated by the defences and by renewed attacks on the launching sites. Of more than 150 bombs fired by the Germans only thirteen reached the British capital. But it must be remembered this was not the only threat that London had to withstand during the last nine months of the war. Early in September 1944 the Germans had begun firing their second reprisal weapon, the V-2 rocket.
Preparation of counter measures against the V-2 had been hampered by lack of knowledge regarding its exact nature and performance. Early estimates of the size and destructive power of the missile varied enormously and it was not until July 1944, barely two months before the attack began, that definite information became available. This was partly because the Germans, perturbed by Bomber Command's raid on Peenemunde in August 1943, had moved most of the development work connected with the V-2 to a new station at Blizna, about 170 miles west of Warsaw. Seven months elapsed before this was discovered. However, thanks to the work of Polish agents, the interrogation of prisoners, the capture of documents and the examination and reconstruction of a rocket which fell in Sweden, fairly accurate details were available before the first rocket landed in England.
The work of the Polish agents was outstanding. Not only did they set up an organisation so that they could reach places where page 335 rockets fell before the German search parties, but they even planted men in Blizna itself. Their work was crowned by a remarkable exploit in which their leader was picked up in Poland by the RAF and brought to the United Kingdom by way of Italy, with all the documents and parts that he was able to carry. The captain of the Dakota aircraft which picked him up was Flight Lieutenant Culliford,1 a New Zealander flying with No. 267 Transport Squadron. His report of the mission tells how it nearly ended in disaster.
The airstrip in the Carpathian Mountains selected for the ‘pick- up’ was in German hands by day and was only taken over by the partisans at night. When Culliford landed, guided only by the light of their torches, they told him that some four hundred Luftwaffe personnel were encamped about a mile from the field and that a considerable force of German troops was also on the move in the vicinity. The Dakota was therefore unloaded and reloaded ‘with incredible rapidity’, and in less than five minutes was ready to take off. Culliford opened the throttles but the machine remained stationary – its brakes had jammed and the wheels had sunk into the soft ground. What followed is best described in Culliford's own words:
We cut the connections supplying hydraulic fluid to the brake drums but in spite of all boost used the machine refused to budge. I stopped the engines and reluctantly prepared to destroy the machine. But first, we managed to persuade the people on the ground to delay a little, and on investigation it was found that the wheels were deeper into the earth, although they showed no signs of having revolved. The second pilot managed to produce a spade and each wheel was dug out. The passengers were reloaded with their equipment, the engines started, and we tried again. The machine slewed slightly to starboard and stopped. We again stopped the engines, and once again prepared to demolish the machine – the wireless operator tore up all his documents and placed them in a position where they would burn with the aircraft; we unloaded our kit and passengers, and again looked at the undercarriage. The port wheel had turned a quarter of a revolution.
Knowing that the personnel and equipment were urgently needed else- where, we persuaded the people on the ground to dig for us for another thirty minutes. This time the machine came free, and we taxied rapidly in a brakeless circle, and finding that the people holding the torches for the flare path had all gone home, we came round again with the port landing light on and headed roughly N.W. towards a green light in the corner of the field. After swinging violently towards a stone wall, I closed my starboard throttle, came round in another circle, and set off again in a N.W. direction. This time we ploughed along over soft ground and waffled into the air at 65 m.p.h. just over the ditch at the far end of the field.
Since it was now late, after over an hour's delay on the ground, a course had to be set through an area known to be infested with night fighters, because it was necessary to be out of Yugoslavia before daylight. No opposition was however encountered. Brindisi was reached just as the sun was rising, and a successful up-wind landing, in spite of the lack of brakes, was made on a runway under construction.
As August 1944 drew to a close there came positive indications that rocket attacks on London were imminent and on 30 August RAF fighters began to fly armed reconnaissance sorties over Holland to locate and attack firing points. A week later, however, these patrols, together with other counter measures, were suddenly dis- continued. A wave of optimism had been raised by the rapid advance of the Allied armies towards Belgium and Holland and on 4 September the British Chiefs of Staff decided that, with the capture of the Pas de Calais, danger from the rocket had ended. This view was not shared by Air Marshal Hill at RAF Fighter Headquarters, whose Intelligence staff argued that attacks could still come from western Holland, which lay within 200 miles of London. Neverthe- less, on 7 September Mr Duncan Sandys of the War Cabinet announced that the Battle of London was over, except possibly for a ‘few last shots’. It was soon evident, however, that the battle was far from over. The following evening the first V-2 rocket fell in London and during the next six months over a thousand rockets and nearly five hundred flying bombs came down in England.
As soon as the rocket attacks began RAF fighters renewed their patrols over south-west Holland. Photographic aircraft were also despatched and machines from No. 100 Group, responsible for radio counter measures, were sent up to listen for and jam any radio signals which might be connected with the firing. At the same time radar stations between Dover and Lowestoft were increased from three to six, while sound-ranging and flash-spotting equipment were sent to the Continent in the hope of locating actual firing points. However, despite the use of every available device, exact location by purely technical means proved an insoluble problem; all that could be done was to indicate the general area. The Dutch Resistance Movement provided much valuable information which was supplemented by the reports of Allied airmen, but even when all available information was examined it still remained difficult to pinpoint firing positions. This is not surprising for all that the Germans needed to fire their rockets was a slab of concrete about twelve feet square and a small platform in which to fit the fins of the missile. The rockets were carried from factory to storage depot by rail and then to the firing point by road on trailers specially fitted so that the rocket could be raised to the vertical firing position. page 337 Barely two hours were needed to prepare for firing and it was only during this time that the sites were really vulnerable to discovery and attack from the air.
Thanks largely to the Dutch, it was soon established that the first rockets were being fired from the island of Walcheren and woods around the Hague. Reports were also received that storage depots had been set up at Wassenaar, near the Hague, on three estates named Terhorst, Raaphorst, and Eikenhorst. On 14 September thirty-seven aircraft of Bomber Command attacked Raaphorst with 192 tons of bombs; three days later thirty bombers dropped 172 tons of bombs at Eikenhorst. During the first ten days of the assault RAF fighter pilots flew nearly one thousand sorties against targets thought to be connected with the rocket. Tempests of No. 486 New Zealand Squadron took part in these operations until their transfer to the Continent at the end of September. They attacked suspected storage depots and firing points, camps and camouflaged buildings hidden in woods near the Hague; lorries and trains on the supply routes were other targets. On several occasions pilots saw the peculiar vapour trails left by the rockets as they rose into the stratosphere.
Fighter and fighter-bomber attacks continued throughout the winter, Spitfires of No. 12 Fighter Group which operated from bases in East Anglia bearing the brunt of the offensive. The Coltishall Wing led by Wing Commander Fitzgerald,1 a veteran New Zealand fighter pilot, did particularly good work. In the last six weeks of the year its pilots flew 470 sorties and dropped over 54 tons of bombs on rocket targets. Their Spitfire XVIs could carry two 250-pound bombs and extra fuel tankage to operate direct from England; by refuelling at advanced bases in Belgium, they could dispense with the extra tank and take twice the weight of bombs. Flight Lieutenant Oliver,2 flight commander with No. 602 Squadron, and Flight Lieutenant H. J. Burrett, who led a flight of No. 229 Squadron, were among the pilots who flew Spitfires of the Coltishall Wing.
1 Wing Commander T. B. Fitzgerald, DFC; born Timaru, 11 Jul 1919; joined RNZAF Jun 1937; transferred RAF Jun 1938; test pilot, Hawker Aircraft Ltd., 1942; test pilot, De Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd., 1943–44; Wing Leader, Coltishall, 1944; Admin. duties, HQ 2nd TAF, 1945; transferred RNZAF 1946.
Thus Hitler's V-weapon attack finally fizzled out. Thanks largely to the efforts of Allied airmen, a desperate attempt to snatch victory with novel and ingenious weapons had been met and defeated, albeit with heavy loss of life and much damage to property, but without any effective hindrance to British war-making capacity or to the operations on the Continent. Against the flying bombs the Allied air forces had achieved particular success both in defence and attack; effective counter measures to the rocket had proved more difficult to devise, but the RAF fighter offensive, limited though it was, had eventually succeeded in restricting the rate of firing while the campaign against enemy transport by Second Tactical Air Force also had its effect. Above all, there was the major achievement, in which the RAF had played the principal role, of delaying the initial attack by both flying bombs and rockets, a delay which robbed the whole German campaign of any marked military effect.