New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 14 — Bomber Command and the Battle of Germany
Bomber Command and the Battle of Germany
During the spring and early summer of 1944, with the Allied bombers almost fully engaged in support of the Normandy campaign and in attacking V-weapon targets, Germany had enjoyed a respite from heavy air attack. This respite, as Harris and Spaatz feared, the Germans had used to repair and rebuild damaged factories and to reorganise and disperse their war production. In these months, despite a new big mobilisation for the Wehrmacht, their war economy continued to expand, the output of armaments of all kinds increased and, in July 1944, Germany reached its highest level of war production. But this was the turning point. That same month British and American bombers returned to the assault of the Reich – an assault which was to be developed on a massive and previously unheard of scale during the last autumn and winter of the war. Within the space of nine months well over half a million tons of bombs were hurled down upon German cities, industrial centres, oil plants, and communications in a terrific onslaught that was to defeat the most energetic attempts at repair, dispersal and reorganisation, and bring ruin to the enemy's war economy.
Royal Air Force Bomber Command returned to the Battle of Germany with a force of 1500 heavy bombers, two-thirds of them Lancasters and the rest Halifaxes. There was also a small force of some 200 Mosquito light bombers, some of which were employed as pathfinders, others on special missions to deceive and disrupt the enemy defences. Notable advances had now been made in tactics, in radio counter measures and in navigational aids, which enabled this British force to be employed with devastating effect. In the sphere of tactics the despatch on major raids of a Master Bomber, an experienced pilot who flew over the target and directed the bombing by radio-telephone, proved highly successful in achieving greater concentration. Radio counter measures now employed no fewer than ten squadrons whose aircraft, equipped with a wide variety of scientific devices, jammed enemy radio and radar transmissions and interfered with the equipment carried by the German night fighters. Existing navigational aids were steadily improved and refined and page 388 in October 1944 there came an interesting innovation in the form of a new radar aid, known as ‘GH’, which proved of immense value.1
Until September 1944 the German night-fighter force remained a formidable obstacle to successful night operations, but in that month the air defence of Germany began to crumble. Not only was the Luftwaffe becoming very short of fuel, but with the German Army driven out of France the enemy's early-warning system was lost; simultaneously RAF ground stations for navigational aids were moved to the Continent and the range of ‘Gee’, ‘Oboe’, and ‘GH’ greatly extended. Every advantage was then taken of the desperate position of the enemy defences and extremely complicated operations were planned which made it most difficult for the Germans to concentrate their night fighters over any given target or on the route of any particular bomber stream. The collapse of the German defence system also made it possible for Bomber Command to operate more frequently by day against targets in Germany. Operations became less dependent on the weather, and during the last winter of the war they were maintained on a scale which would have been impossible but a year earlier.
Of particular interest was the introduction at British airfields of the apparatus known as FIDO – the initials stood for ‘Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation’ – which was responsible for saving many valuable aircraft and lives. Petrol burners were installed at short intervals along a runway and around the perimeter of selected airfields, and when lit heated the air sufficiently to disperse the fog. After considerable experiment three main airfields which had served for some time as emergency landing grounds were so fitted; Carnaby, in Yorkshire, for the northern area; Manston, in Kent, for the southern region and for aircraft operating on the other side of the Channel; and Woodbridge, in Suffolk, for the benefit of the squadrons based in East Anglia. The lighted runway at each was some 3000 yards long and 250 yards wide and the latest navigational aids and systems of flying control were installed. By May 1945, 1200 aircraft had made landings at Woodbridge alone by the use of ‘Fido’.
1 This device exactly reversed the method of ‘Oboe’; whereas the ‘Oboe’ ground stations made the first transmissions and used the echoes to guide the aircraft, the first ‘GH’ transmissions were made by the aircraft itself. This had the great advantage that a far greater number of aircraft could use the device simultaneously. There was, of course, the disadvantage that the necessary calculations of position, which with ‘Oboe’ were made at the ground stations, had to be made in the aircraft; but against this a number of aircraft, bombing on their own fixes, tended to cancel out the cumulative errors which arose from a system used by only one machine at a time.
But as yet the onslaught had only begun. In October, Bomber Command intensified its attack, devoting a major part of its effort to the Ruhr. Here the great industrial centres of Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg, Dusseldorf, and Essen were subjected to repeated and massive attacks. Over 1000 Lancasters and Halifaxes were sent to Essen on the night of 23 October and 770 in the daylight raid which followed two days later. Dusseldorf was the target for a thousand-bomber raid in which 4500 tons of bombs fell on the city, while bomb-scarred Cologne, attacked three times in four days by large forces, received nearly 10,000 tons. The attacks on Duisburg during the day and night of 14 October were among the heaviest of the whole war in space and time. Within eighteen hours over 2000 aircraft dropped a total of 9299 tons of high explosive, which was more than the Luftwaffe had dropped on London during the whole year of the blitz. When Bochum received its second attack of the month from a force of over 700 bombers, the city soon became engulfed in a sea of flame and a few days later reconnaissance pilots found ‘large concentrations of craters intermingled with gutted buildings to form huge areas of complete devastation.’
Further blows of tremendous weight and great severity continued to fall on the Ruhr cities during November 1944. Duisburg, Essen, and Solingen – the Sheffield of Germany – were each heavily bombed twice more and there were further massive raids on Dortmund, Hagen, Neuss, Oberhausen, and Munster. Outside the Ruhr the northern ports, together with industrial cities in central and southern Germany, were also bombed, particularly heavy attacks falling on Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Brunswick, Karlsruhe, and Stuttgart.
Certainly the tonnage of bombs unloaded on German towns by the RAF during the autumn of 1944 was much greater than it had been page 390 during any previous period of the war, yet the damage inflicted on the enemy's war industry did not rise proportionately. This was particularly true of the Ruhr and Rhineland where, in cities like Cologne and Essen, many of the heavy blast bombs did little more than convulse the rubble. ‘Effective additional damage,’ says Sir Arthur Harris, ‘could only be done to the already devastated cities of the Ruhr by the enormous expenditure of bombs, and as much as four to five thousand tons in a single attack and sometimes up to 10,000 tons in two attacks in close succession.’ Actually the Ruhr-Rhineland area was no longer the concentrated arsenal it had been in the first four years of the war. Many of the light industries – especially those making munitions, small arms, radio equipment, and all manner of accessories and components for tanks, aircraft, vehicles, and U-boats – had long since been dispersed in small towns or else had been removed to central or eastern Germany. Consequently the immediate output of munitions and weapons, other than tanks, was not directly affected to any considerable extent by Bomber Command's renewed onslaught. On the other hand, the heavy industries that the Germans had not been able to disperse or transplant suffered severely; in particular, the production of coal and steel which, until September, had been maintained at a level little below the peak of the previous year, now showed a sharp decline. During the last quarter of 1944 the Ruhr produced barely half the hard coal and crude steel that it had produced in the first quarter.
Even so, there seems little doubt that the most important result of Bomber Command's renewed onslaught on German cities during the autumn of 1944 was the incidental destruction of transport facilities. ‘Transport governs all,’ declared Speer, addressing German production leaders early in November. ‘The most urgent problem is the coal crisis which its disruption has already caused.’ What had happened was that although large quantities of coal were still being produced in the Ruhr it was proving impossible to distribute them. Already only some 10,000 wagon-loads a day were leaving the Ruhr as against the 20,000 being moved before the bombing began. Speer was deeply disturbed at this trend of events but hoped that the approaching winter weather would restrict the bombing, when it would be possible to restore the situation by a tremendous effort at repair and reconstruction. But all his plans and hopes were doomed to be frustrated. Not only did the attacks continue throughout the winter but, from November onward, Bomber Command began to concentrate more and more against railway centres and communications, with results even more marked than they had been during the autumn.page 391
Greater concentration of the Allied bombing effort against transport targets had long been urged by Air Marshal Tedder. In his opinion the one common factor in the whole German economy vital to both war industry and to the armies in the field was the German system of railways, roads, and canals. The heavy air attacks before D Day had paralysed the French and Belgium railways to an even greater degree than had been anticipated. A similar campaign against the German transport system, Tedder argued, would have the same devastating effect; it would not only produce economic chaos inside the Reich but would also substantially reduce military supplies to the western front. In spite of doubts on the part of the British Air Staff and Air Chief Marshal Harris's concern that heavier casualties would be incurred if he concentrated on one type of target, Tedder had eventually won support for his views. Early in November a new directive to the Allied bombing forces gave transport clear priority, with oil, for attack.
British crews bombed eleven communication centres in Germany during the closing weeks of 1944, among them the important railway junctions of Aschaffenburg, near Frankfurt, Soest and Saarbrucken. An outstandingly successful attack was made on the railway centre at Giessen on the night of 6 December. After two hundred Lancasters had been over in clear weather, craters studded the marshalling yards, engine sheds were wrecked, and other buildings destroyed; three weeks later the marshalling yards were still completely out of action. But by far the most important contribution made by Bomber Command to the transport offensive during this period was the series of attacks on the important Dortmund–Ems and Mittelland canals.
The Dortmund–Ems canal, as its name implies, not only linked the North Sea port of Emden with the Ruhr but also, through a junction with the Mittelland canal near Rheine, carried all the inland water-borne traffic between the Ruhr and central and eastern Germany. This traffic, which now amounted to some thirty million tons a year, consisted largely of coal and coke moving from the Ruhr and raw materials, such as iron ore, being carried to its furnaces and factories. There was one point where this canal was particularly vulnerable to air attack, namely in the neighbourhood of Ladbergen, where the canal was carried over the River Glane in an aqueduct. Well aware of the danger, the Germans had constructed a second branch also across the river on an aqueduct; thus, should the first be blocked, there would be an alternative channel. At the same time elaborate camouflaging of the course of the Glane was page 392 attempted and safety gates were built on both branches of the canal to prevent long stretches being drained by breaching the embankments.
Towards the end of September 1944, ninety-nine Lancasters attacked and hit both branches at points where they were above the level of the surrounding country. Water drained from both canals into the river below and, in spite of the safety gates, a stretch 18 miles long was left almost dry with more than a hundred barges stranded. The energy with which the Germans set about repairing the waterway gave eloquent testimony to its importance. Within a month these repairs had been completed. Thereupon, early in November, Bomber Command attacked again, this time with 176 aircraft. The western branch of the canal was breached in the same place as before, only this time the breach was wider, while in the eastern branch two lengths of embankment, together amounting to 1500 feet, were destroyed; two bombs also pierced the aqueduct at the point where it crossed the River Glane and left a hole going down to the riverbed some 70 by 230 feet in dimension. The water, carrying many barges with it, drained into the countryside. Once again the Germans set about repairs but this time they sealed off the eastern branch, evidently considering it was beyond hope. The reconstruction was completed by 21 November and on that day the canal was being filled with water. The same night 228 RAF bombers attacked again, scoring at least four direct hits on the aqueduct and breaching the embankment on both sides of the safety gates.
Tenaciously the Germans began repairs yet again, and a month later photographic reconnaissance revealed that by feverish activity their engineers had accomplished the feat of reconstruction. Nine minutes only sufficed for 102 Lancasters to wreck the results of their labours. Attacking in daylight on 1 January 1945, the bombers almost obliterated their target and reconnaissance after the raid showed delayed-action bombs still bursting as water poured through a wide breach in the western wall to flood the surrounding country- side. The bombing of the Mittelland canal at Gravenhorst was equally effective. After the raid on 21 November 18 miles of this canal was drained and navigation stopped, photographs showing fifty-nine barges stranded over a distance of barely a mile. In the next attack on this target on 1 January, British crews put down a most accurate concentration of bombs and long stretches of the embankment were destroyed. Repairs were attempted but navigation beyond Gravenhorst was never again resumed.
As the movement of coal by rail was more and more restricted through air attack, its transport by canal had become decisive in the maintenance of industry in Germany. Yet, since the end of September 1944, there had been few days when the Germans were able to use page 393 these two important waterways; even though they made the utmost use of those few days by rushing closely packed convoys of barges through the danger points, throughout all these months there was an average loss to the central and eastern areas of Germany of some 40,000 tons of coal a day, or the equivalent of fifty train loads.
German cities and communication centres continued to receive heavy attacks throughout the winter months, but the outstanding feature of this period was Bomber Command's larger and highly successful part in the oil campaign. A brief retrospect is necessary to note the development of this campaign and the difficulties and controversies that accompanied it.
German oil production had long been regarded as an important objective, but until 1944 conditions for successful attack had been lacking. In the spring of that year, United States bombers operating from both the United Kingdom and Italy began an offensive against oil targets which, although limited in weight and extent, produced promising results. However, it was not until early June that high priority was ordered for the attack of the enemy's oil supplies. The general arrangement then was that RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force would attack synthetic oil plants in central and eastern Germany, together with crude oil plants around Hamburg, Bremen, and Hanover. At the same time the US 15th Air Force based in Italy was to bomb the refineries around Ploesti, Vienna, and Budapest, together with synthetic plants in Silesia and Poland. Royal Air Force 205 Group also operating from Italy was to continue its immensely effective work of mining the Danube so as to obstruct oil shipments to the Reich.
Bomber Command entered the oil campaign with an initial list of ten synthetic plants in the Ruhr. Here in the past few months the Americans had sustained fairly heavy casualties from flak, and the accuracy of their daylight attacks had been considerably reduced by the ever-present industrial haze; however, it was hoped that Bomber Command, with its new navigational aids, would be able to overcome this obstacle even though its attacks would be launched at night. The first RAF attack took place on the night of 12 June when some three hundred aircraft were sent to bomb the Nordstern plant at Gelsenkirchen, one of the largest in Germany. Bombing on markers dropped by Oboe-equipped pathfinders was very effective and photographic reconnaissance revealed widespread damage over the entire area of the plant. Most of the subsequent attacks were equally successful and by the end of September British crews had dropped 12,600 tons of bombs on all ten of their allotted targets. Meanwhile American bombers, in a series of spectacular daylight raids, had dropped more than 50,000 tons.page 394
The combined onslaught produced something like panic in Germany for it coincided with the loss of the Roumanian oilfields, which forced the Germans to rely more than ever on their own synthetic plants. At the end of August Speer told Hitler that the oil situation contained ‘all the portents of catastrophe’, adding that ‘the last air attacks have again hit the most important oil works heavily …. The three hydrogenation plants at Leuna, Brux and Politz, although only recently in commission again, have been brought to a complete standstill for some weeks ….’ In the second week of September, just when these plants were about to resume the refining of petrol, there were further heavy attacks and for nine days synthetic production ceased entirely. The month's output of aviation and motor spirit was only 57,400 tons, barely one-sixth of the amount consumed in August. Stocks of petrol which had stood at more than a million tons in April were now reduced to 327,000 – one month's supply at the rate of consumption prevailing before the air attacks began. For September the petrol allocation to the German forces had been cut by 50 per cent and in October there was a further reduction. Among other things, this had an immediate effect on the German Air Force. Not only were training schedules drastically reduced but actual operations were also restricted. Thus, in spite of the delivery of more than 3000 single-engined fighters in September (an all-time record for the Reich), the Luftwaffe was even less capable of defending the oil plants than it had been in the summer.
Unfortunately, however, the Allied air forces failed to follow up their initial success in the oil campaign. During October 1944, less than one-tenth of their total effort was directed against oil targets as compared with more than 25 per cent in both July and August. Bomber Command devoted only six per cent of its October sorties to oil. This reduction of effort allowed the Germans, by a series of brilliant expedients, to repair and rebuild their refineries sufficiently to produce 96,000 tons of petrol in November. This was only a third of the output for April and less than current consump- tion, but, by enforcing the most stringent economies, Hitler was able to postpone the day of reckoning into the New Year.
The slackening of the oil offensive was due to several reasons. Bad weather which came unexpectedly early gave the key refineries in eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia a degree of protection which the Luftwaffe could not provide. The summer raids on these plants had been made entirely by the Americans and, although they had caused great damage, this had seldom resulted in plants being put out of action for more than two or three weeks. The Americans had found that they needed to make repeated attacks if they were to keep the refineries idle, but the autumn weather made this increasingly difficult. Bomber Command, which could deliver much heavier page 395 and more concentrated blows, was therefore asked to help with these distant targets. But Air Marshal Harris was anything but enthusiastic about the proposal. From the outset he had been ‘altogether opposed’ to the oil campaign and still very much doubted its value. In his opinion oil was only another ‘panacea’ target and ‘the arguments of the economic experts had invariably proved fallacious.’ Harris was subsequently to admit that for once the experts had been right, but at the time he persisted in the belief that he could do most damage to the enemy by intensifying his area attacks on industrial cities.
One reason for Harris's reluctance to attack the more remote oil plants was the fact that these lay beyond the range of the radar navigational aids which had enabled his bombers to strike so effectively at targets in the Ruhr. He argued, therefore, that refineries such as Leuna, Brux, and Politz could not be bombed accurately except in weather good enough for visual bombing, and such weather would favour the enemy defences. The Luftwaffe's night-fighter force was still formidable and Bomber Command would suffer heavy losses if he sent main forces deep into Germany to attack objectives so obvious and vital as the synthetic plants. Since the chances of success appeared to him to be small, he was not prepared to take the risk until he had compelled the Luftwaffe to dispose its night fighters in defence of many widely separated targets. He could compel such dispersion, he thought, only by resuming mass raids on major cities. So strongly did Harris hold these opinions that when pressed to intensify the attack on oil targets he offered to resign, and it was not until mid-December that he was finally prevailed upon to bomb the distant oil refineries at Leuna and Politz. In the event, only seven out of seven hundred aircraft were lost in the two attacks. Bomber Command's loss rate had, in fact, been steadily decreasing since the summer, and in September and October it was less than two per cent.
Meanwhile German hopes that the bad weather and fogs of winter would prevent a renewal of the offensive had not been realised. In November the total Allied effort against oil was nearly treble that for October. The United States Air Forces bombed plants and refineries over a wide area, dropping a total of 21,500 tons in persistent daylight attacks. Bomber Command, while still devoting more than half its effort to German cities, added a further 14,000 tons in operations against synthetic plants in its familiar battle- ground of the Ruhr. The heaviest RAF raids fell on the refinery at Homberg. This had already been badly damaged by Bomber Command in the summer and the additional damage now wrought caused the plant to be finally closed down. At Castrop-Rauxel the page 396 plant had not resumed full production after earlier damage when it was again attacked by 260 Lancasters on 21 November. Thereupon all attempts at further repair were abandoned. By the end of the month most of the synthetic oil plants in the Ruhr were no longer operating.
Two notable developments in December 1944 marked the opening of the final stage in the campaign against German oil supplies. Firstly, the US 15th Air Force carried out over a period of ten days what were, in many ways, the most remarkable series of sustained operations in the whole offensive. In particular, they achieved the immobilisation of the Silesian synthetic plants – clinched four weeks later by their capture by the Russian Army – and stopped production in the synthetic plant at Brux, which was working up to a substantial output after it had been heavily damaged early in the previous summer. Secondly, RAF Bomber Command with its successful attacks on the synthetic plants at Politz and Leuna now entered more fully into the oil campaign. In fact, the 47,000 tons dropped by British crews on oil targets during the first twelve weeks of 1945 was considerably more than the effort for the whole of the previous year. In January 1945 strong forces of Lancasters made further attacks on Leuna and Politz and also bombed the large oil plants at Brux, Wanne-Eickel, and Zeitz. In addition, the Benzol plants at Dortmund, Castrop-Rauxel, Fortsetzunge, and Langendreer were subjected to heavy raids. By the beginning of February the plant at Politz had been reduced to ‘a shambles of wrecked buildings, shattered tanks and buckled piping.’ It did not resume production again.
As the Allied attack continued the German repair organisation became increasingly powerless to deal with the heavy destruction, especially that dealt out by the large bombs of the Royal Air Force. Speer commented to Hitler upon the great effectiveness of these heavy bombs and spoke of their ‘extraordinary accuracy in attaining the target even though they were often dropped at night.’ In his opinion, Bomber Command's night attacks ‘caused considerably more damage than day raids’ and were often the decisive factor in putting out of action the largest and most important of the enemy's synthetic oil plants. ‘Repair measures,’ he adds, ‘were executed at most plants until the end of the war but towards the end the bombers succeeded in timing their attacks either shortly before or shortly after the resumption of production so that it was no longer possible to attain any output worthy of the name.’
Meanwhile Bomber Command had also continued to attack German industrial cities, communication centres, and rail marshalling yards. No fewer than 50,000 tons of bombs were carried to these page 397 targets in both day and night raids during the first eight weeks of 1945. The British bomber force was now at the height of its power and efficiency and, even though January and February brought particularly unfavourable weather, there was a higher average total of sorties for these months than in any previous winter of the war. With ground stations established on the edge of Germany and with the enemy air defence largely impotent, aircraft could now attack distant targets with a certainty of success, so the offensive was carried into industrial Saxony, where towns that had been previously untouched were largely destroyed. Dresden, for example, was devastated over a wide area on the night of 13 February by a force of just over 800 aircraft, while other important industrial centres such as Dessau and Chemnitz were successfully attacked for the first time. Smaller towns in the west which had previously been considered too small and too difficult as targets were also raided with marked effect. At the same time the further bombing of such cities as Cologne, Hanover, Kassel, Munich, and Nuremberg served to augment the attacks on specific rail and communication targets.
These attacks, particularly those directed against marshalling yards and bridges in the Ruhr, increased the confusion wrought throughout Germany by the earlier Allied raids on rail and water transport. In his interrogation after the war Speer declared: ‘From November onwards, with the sharp deterioration in the transport position, the coal situation became so catastrophic that it was impossible to avoid the most severe dislocations in the whole of the armaments industry.’ By March 1945 important power-stations, after struggling for months with inadequate supplies of coal, had begun to close down completely. Gasworks throughout Germany were in a similar plight, while metal-producing plants and munition factories no longer produced. The German railways were reduced to a few days' supply of coal; some divisions had even less, locomotives were standing idle, and coal in transit was being confiscated to keep military trains moving. Meanwhile, at the Ruhr collieries the coal was piling up in huge dumps; by the end of February, stocks there stood at well over 2,000,000 tons as against 415,000 tons six months earlier. Thus did the transport campaign reach its climax.
No less dramatic was the ultimate effect of the air campaign against the enemy's oil supplies. By March 1945 the German armies were desperately short of fuel, and the small reserves of aviation spirit that still remained would soon be exhausted. After the war both Speer and Jodl separately confirmed that lack of fuel was substantially responsible for the rapid collapse of the German forces on the eastern front. In the third week of January 1200 tanks had been massed at Baranova to stem the Russian drive into Upper Silesia. ‘When the Russian attack started,’ says Speer, ‘the tanks were page 398 practically unable to move.’ On the Western Front the position was no better. From January onwards the quantities of fuel available were reduced to insignificant proportions. ‘The main burden of the fighting,’ says the commander of the Fuehrer Escort Brigade, ‘was borne by the infantry because, in spite of concentration of fuel supplies, our tanks have only been mobile in special circumstances.’
RAF Bomber Command
Distribution of Effort by Bomb Tonnages, June 1944–April 1945
(Based on figures in Air Ministry monthly summary of operations.)
During this final battle of Germany, Bomber Command also attacked naval targets with marked success. At Dutch, Norwegian, and Baltic ports the bombers sank or damaged both warships and merchantmen, smashed U-boat and E-boat pens, and inflicted widespread destruction upon dock areas and shipyards. Minelaying was also sustained, and although the effort was on a somewhat smaller scale – as a result of the Allied advance many areas no longer needed attention – the mines laid from the air continued to take a heavy toll of enemy ships along those routes still open for them.page 399
A particularly outstanding achievement was the sinking of the Tirpitz. There had been several earlier attempts to sink this great 43,000-ton battleship, but in September 1944 it still remained afloat at Alten Fiord in the north of Norway, causing no little irritation and anxiety at the British Admiralty.1 Alten Fiord was out of range of Lancasters carrying a normal bomb load so two squadrons, Nos. 9 and 617, which had specialised in precision bombing, were sent to attack from a base in Russia; by approaching from the east there was also a better chance of achieving surprise and of aiming at least some bombs before the smoke screen set up for the protection of the battleship could provide effective cover. However when, on 14 September, the twenty-seven Lancasters reached the fiord, they found it filled with smoke and only one crew got a sight on the battleship, which was hit by a 12,000-pound bomb in the bows. The damage was not very clear in the reconnaissance photographs but captured German documents show that it was more severe than was thought at the time – in fact, the Tirpitz could not have been repaired before the end of the war. The battleship now moved slowly to Tromso, which was just within range of Lancasters based in Britain but so far north that there was little time left before the darkness of the Arctic winter descended to prevent daylight attack for several months. On 29 October a second attack by the same two squadrons was foiled at the last moment when low cloud drifted in from the sea and completely covered the target area. A fortnight later, how- ever, the Lancasters found Tromso clear of smoke and cloud and the first 12,000-pound bomb dropped hit the Tirpitz amidships, causing a jet of steam to burst from her riven deck and form a huge mushroom above her. Two more bombs also found their mark, and as the last aircraft turned away the great battleship heeled slowly over; when a Mosquito flew over two hours later only the bottom of her hull showed above the water.
1 In April 1942 Halifaxes had made two low-level attacks at night when the Tirpitz was anchored off Trondheim, but a smoke screen had provided an effective shield. Following an attack by a Russian submarine three months later, the Tirpitz was in dock for six months undergoing repairs. In the autumn of 1943 two midget submarines of the Royal Navy penetrated the anti-submarine defences at Kaa Fiord, off Alten Fiord, where the Tirpitz had been based for some time. Torpedo hits put her out of action for a further six months. Then, during the spring and summer of 1944, dive-bombers of the Fleet Air Arm operating from aircraft carriers succeeded in confining the battleship to Kaa Fiord.
Another amazing series of incidents befell Flying Officer Byers1 and his crew of No. 61 Squadron one night in December during the attack on Giessen. First came a sharp fighter attack; then, just as the bombs were released, a nearby burst of flak sent their Lancaster plunging almost out of control. A minute later incendiaries dropped from an aircraft above struck the fuselage, followed almost immediately by a burst of fire from a fighter which killed the mid-upper gunner and set his turret alight. The blaze soon gained a firm hold and a second fire developed in the port wing, sending long tongues of flame licking along the fuselage. Byers now ordered the crew to bale out but the wireless operator, busy over his set, did not hear the order. He remained in the aircraft and, as the Lancaster flew on, managed to subdue the fire in the mid-upper turret. Byers, who had stayed at the controls, thereupon decided to attempt a landing on the Continent. Eluding a trailing fighter, he flew towards Liege on fixes supplied by his companion. Eventually the Lancaster arrived over an airfield – it was unlighted and its short runway was normally only used for fighters, but Byers managed a safe landing with the aid of the aircraft's lights and Very cartridges.
Occasionally these grim experiences had their lighter side. When one New Zealand navigator, after baling out from his crippled Lancaster, crashed through the roof of a granary in a Dutch village, the people sleeping below mistook his arrival for that of a delayed-action bomb and hastily left the building, leaving him trapped until daybreak. The navigator, Flying Officer Pratt2 of No. 462 Squadron, tells his story thus:
We jumped at seventeen thousand feet. There was a terrific gale at that height and I thought I should never get down as I was being blown along almost horizontally. At long last I saw a dark mass below me. Then a church steeple flashed by and I went crash through a roof. I found myself swinging by my parachute harness in inky darkness and released myself. I think I was knocked out for half an hour. When I came to it was still dark and I felt all the way round the walls and gradually realised that there was no door. I could see a glimmer of light from the hole I had made in coming through the roof and managed to climb through it to the roof top. I shouted and shouted without result for a long time, but when light finally came there must have been half the village packed into the streets below. When the police finally rescued me I found I had crashed through the roof into a loft twenty feet high with only a trap door exit in the floor.
Air Vice-Marshal C. R. Carr, Air Commodore S. C. Elworthy, and Air Commodore A. McKee were outstanding personalities. Carr, in his fourth year as commander of No. 4 Bomber Group, continued to direct the operations of his Halifax squadrons with typical energy and skill; Elworthy, as Senior Air Staff Officer at No. 5 Group, was responsible for the planning and execution of many notable missions, including the series of attacks which resulted in the sinking of the Tirpitz; McKee continued in charge of the important bomber base at Mildenhall, where his handling of the operational squadrons and other units under his control won special commendation. Among squadron commanders, Wing Commander J. R. St. John's fine record of service – he completed three tours of operations – won him admission to the Distinguished Service Order. Other New Zealanders in charge of bomber squadrons during this period were Wing Commanders D. W. S. Clark and Shannon,1 who led Halifaxes in Carr's group, and Wing Commanders J. R. Maling, Scott,2 and Shorthouse,3 with Lancasters.
1 Group Captain U. Y. Shannon, DFC; RAF; born Wellington, 6 Dec 1905; joined RAF 1930; commanded No. 30 Sqdn, Iraq, Egypt, and Greece, 1938–41; RAF Station, Gordons Tree, Middle East, 1941; No. 10 Sqdn, 1944–45; RAF Station, Full Sutton, 1945.
Many New Zealanders who flew with pathfinder squadrons during this last year of war were on their second or third tours of operations. One pilot, Squadron Leader Ashworth,1 was to complete a total of 110 sorties which involved some five hundred hours on operations. Ashworth, who began his career with No. 75 Squadron early in 1941, had also flown many sorties in the Middle East before taking a prominent part in the formation of the PFF and the evolution of its tactics. Squadron Leader G. M. Allcock, who had flown transport aircraft in the Middle East and then served as a flight commander with the New Zealander bomber squadron, was to complete his second tour of bombing operations with No. 7 Squadron. With this same unit Squadron Leader Bray2 and Flight Lieutenant Muir,3 now on their second tours, were outstanding as captains of target-marking aircraft. Squadron Leader J. M. Smith, who had flown consistently since 1941, was equally successful with No. 97 Squadron.
Squadron Leaders T. W. Horton, G. L. Mandeno, and A. George1 were outstanding Mosquito captains. Horton, who early in the war had captained Blenheims, continued with No. 105 Squadron to become flight commander and deputy squadron commander. By April 1945 he had completed 111 missions, including eighty-four with the pathfinder force. Mandeno, a veteran pilot of Whitleys, commanded a flight of No. 139 Squadron during his third tour of operations. George, who had won distinction with Wellingtons during the early years, also flew with No. 139 Squadron.
Other prominent Mosquito pilots were Flight Lieutenant A. A. Dray, who had served with his No. 109 Squadron since the pioneer days of Oboe-marking during 1943, Flight Lieutenant Tudhope,2 on a second long period of duty with No. 139, and Flight Lieutenant Grey3 and Flying Officer J. F. Thomson, both with No. 627 Squadron.
Squadron Leaders Finlay4 and G. A. Patrick were two outstanding navigators. After a first tour of thirty-three sorties with Wellingtons, Finlay went on to complete a further 104 missions in Mosquitos. Awarded a bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross in October 1944, Finlay's exceptional service won him admission to the Distinguished Service Order. Patrick, another pioneer of Oboe-marking, now flew with No. 35 Lancaster Squadron. On one occasion in November 1944, he was a member of a crew detailed for marking duties over Dusseldorf. Shortly after take-off, the radar aids to navigation failed but ‘he directed his captain so accurately that the bomber reached the target on time and on the return journey crossed the English coast barely two miles off track.’ For this exceptional feat of navigation and his record of no fewer than 118 bomber sorties, Patrick was also made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order. Another navigator who achieved a fine record of service was Flying Officer L. B. Winsloe5 of No. 105 Mosquito Squadron; he had previously completed a tour of operations with heavy bombers.
New Zealand airmen also played their part in the ‘radio counter- measures’ which did so much to ensure the success of the main bomber force by screening its movements and disrupting the enemy defences. From June 1944 to May 1945 a total of eighty-three men from the Dominion served with the squadrons of No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group. Their Halifax, Stirling, Mosquito, Liberator, and Fortress aircraft were fitted with a variety of ingenious devices with which they were able to jam the enemy's early-warning system, upset radio-telephone communications between his ground controllers and fighters, and interfere with the transmissions from airborne radar and interception apparatus. Flight Lieutenant Lye,1 a captain of No. 214 Squadron, flew many sorties to jam ground-to-air communications and Flight Lieutenant Sturrock,2 of No. 171 Squadron, often dropped ‘window’ to create diversions for the main force. With the Mosquito night-fighter squadrons' operations as ‘intruders’ against enemy fighters and their airfields or as escorts to the bombers, Flight Lieutenants Win,3 T. P. Ryan, Badley,4 and Flying Officer Cotter5 were prominent. Win as pilot and Ryan as navigator formed a successful crew with No. 85 Squadron and during their tour shot down a Junkers 88 and a Messerschmitt 110. The destruction of the Messerschmitt was a fine example of teamwork. The enemy used elaborate evasive tactics and resorted to low flying in a desperate effort to elude the Mosquito, but the New Zealanders maintained contact during a long chase and finally destroyed their target as it was about to land.
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Wing Commander R. J. A. Leslie continued in command until early December 1944, when he was succeeded by Wing Commander Newton,1 who had earlier won distinction as a flight commander with the squadron. Unfortunately Newton failed to return from a raid three weeks later. Wing Commander C. H. Baigent then took over and led the squadron for the remainder of the war; barely twenty-two years of age, Baigent began his third tour as the youngest squadron commander in Bomber Command.
The three flights of No. 75 Squadron were at first commanded by Squadron Leaders R. B. Berney, L. J. Drummond, and N. A. Williamson; subsequently Squadron Leaders J. M. Bailey, Earl,2 Gunn,3 McKenna,4 Parker,5 Rodgers,6 and J. L. Wright led flights for varying periods. All were experienced men who had gained distinction for their work in Bomber Command and they served the squadron well.
During the summer and autumn of 1944, crews attacked targets ranging from the northern ports of Bremen, Kiel, and Stettin to Stuttgart in the south, but the major effort was devoted to the Ruhr against such familiar targets as Essen, Duisburg, and Cologne. Oil plants were also bombed. These were still well defended by fighters and anti-aircraft batteries, and in one July attack on the refinery at Homberg seven of the twenty-six Lancasters despatched by the squadron were shot down. But such losses did not go entirely unavenged. On 25 July the destruction of a Focke-Wulf 190 was reported by Flight Sergeant Smith,8 and three nights later Squadron Leader Drummond and his crew, after a series of lively engage- ments, sent a German fighter down in flames and damaged a Junkers 88. Towards the end of August the destruction of another Junkers 88 was reported by Flying Officer Scott9 on return from Stettin.
In November a larger part of the squadron's effort was devoted to daylight attacks on oil targets; in four raids on the Meerbeck plant at Homberg crews flew seventy-five sorties; other objectives were the synthetic plants at Castrop-Rauxel, Dortmund, and Gelsenkirchen and the benzol plant at Osterfeld. In addition, the steel centre of Solingen was raided twice, together with the communication centres of Coblenz, Neuss, and Cologne.
9 Flying Officer J. H. Scott; born Merton, 26 Oct 1915; farmhand; joined RNZAF Jul 1942; killed on air operations, 4 Nov 1944.
Close support of the Allied forces in the Ardennes absorbed most of the squadron's effort during the last days of December and for the following three weeks. In spite of appalling weather which alternated between fog, snow, and rain, No. 75 helped to hasten the German retreat by attacking marshalling yards behind the enemy salient; there were also attacks on benzol plants at Dortmund, Langendreer, and Duisburg and on the synthetic oil plant at Wanne-Eickel.
Twenty New Zealand Lancasters took part in the attacks of 13 February which brought devastation to much of Dresden. ‘Some aircraft were able to bomb visually,’ says the squadron record. ‘Crews reported the whole town well alight and that they could see the glow of fires when 100 miles away on the return flight.’ The following night twenty-one aircraft flew in the first attack on Chemnitz, and during the next few weeks there were further raids on German industrial towns, among them the important aircraft manufacturing centre of Dessau. But in February and March oil was the squadron's main objective. There were thirteen attacks on Benzol plants and five on synthetic oil plants in which a total of 316 sorties was flown by New Zealand Lancasters.
In this final battle of Germany No. 75 Squadron lost thirty-two Lancasters with their crews which, be it remembered, meant the loss of more than two hundred highly trained and skilled men. Casualties were heaviest during the summer months of 1944 when the German fighters, with their early-warning system more or less intact, could still put up a strong resistance; but even during the autumn and winter when the fighters were frustrated by lack of warning and fuel shortage, the danger from flak remained and over some targets it even increased.
Some idea of the grim ordeal through which many men passed may be gained from the experiences of two crews lost over Germany one night towards the end of July 1944. The first crew were over France on their way to bomb Stuttgart when they were attacked by a night fighter. Cannon shells ripped through the length of the fuse- lage, the rear gunner was killed instantly, equipment was smashed and the intercom. put out of action. The bomber began to dive steeply and a fire started in the bomb bay, filling the fuselage with page 410 acrid fumes and smoke. The controls were so damaged that it was only by the combined strength of captain and second pilot, with their feet on the instrument panel, that the dive was arrested. But the fire spread rapidly and the crew's troubles were further increased by the attention of several searchlights and their attendant guns. As the Lancaster continued to lose height the captain, Flight Lieutenant Stokes,1 gave the order to abandon, while he himself remained at the controls to facilitate the exit of the crew. By so doing he forfeited his own chance of survival. The second pilot was the last out and his chute had barely opened when the bomber crashed and exploded immediately beneath him.
The mid-upper gunner struck his head on the tail while baling out, lost consciousness until very near the ground and, although he pulled the ripcord in time for his parachute to take the weight, he landed heavily. Two hours later, dazed and badly shaken, he found himself crawling along a road. Fortunately he was first seen by patriots who sheltered him until the district was captured by the Americans. The rest of the crew landed safely and, with help from members of the French Resistance, they, too, evaded capture.
The second crew had bombed and were flying back across France when an enemy fighter attacked. Its first bursts put all four engines out of action; then it raked the fuselage with bullets, killing both wireless operator and mid-upper gunner and wounding the navigator. Closing in for a second attack, the fighter met determined fire from the Lancaster's rear guns and down it went. But this was too late to save the bomber. Blazing furiously it also began to go down out of control. By a supreme effort the pilot, Flying Officer Blance,2 succeeded in arresting the downward plunge just long enough for three of his crew to bale out safely but he and his bomb aimer were unable to leave. Bomber and fighter eventually crashed within half a mile of each other. Of the survivors only the rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Kirk,3 managed to evade capture. Most of the time Kirk was in France he spent at a camp of the Resistance Movement and on one occasion he took part in ambushing some German tanks.
1 Flight Lieutenant N. A. D. Stokes; born Christchurch, 31 Dec 1918; clerk; joined RNZAF Feb 1942; killed on air operations, 29 Jul 1944. Stokes and his air gunner, Sergeant N. V. Wilding, from Monmouthshire, were buried by the French at Yevres, near Chartres. Each year a commemorative service is held during Battle of Britain week in the village church.
The final concentration of effort against German communications and oil supplies was undoubtedly the most important factor in bringing about this situation. But there had also been a remarkable increase in the actual weight of attack – no less than 75 per cent of the bombs which fell on Germany during the whole of the war were dropped after 1 July 1944. Moreover, as the scale of the bombing mounted the ability of the Luftwaffe to defend German industry had steadily declined, enabling the Allied bombers to launch frequent and accurate attacks which defeated the most energetic attempts at repair; prior to 1944 the German economy had been able to absorb the shock of strategic bombardment but thereafter its effect was rapidly cumulative.
Had there been firmer direction and closer co-ordination of the tremendous air power available during the last year of the war, the economic collapse of Germany might well have occurred earlier. Throughout the summer and well into the autumn of 1944 there had been continual debate and discussion regarding policy and objectives, with the many interested parties pressing the claims of various target systems. Matters were not helped when, in September of that year, control of the heavy bombers was handed back from the Supreme Commander in Europe to the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Their subsequent vague directives and the conflicting views expressed by an elaborate system of committees and advisory bodies only served to complicate rather than clarify bombing policy. Not for nothing did Air Marshal Harris complain that ‘too many cooks were stirring the broth’, and Sir Arthur Tedder declare that ‘the bombing offensive was taking the form not of a comprehensive pattern but what could only be described as a patchwork quilt.’ It was, in fact, not until the end of 1944 that a large measure of co-ordination was achieved in the Allied bombing campaign against Germany.
Nevertheless, in spite of these shortcomings the campaign had become increasingly effective, and of its ultimate success there can be little doubt. At the time no one was in a better position to judge matters than Albert Speer, German Minister for War Production, who had made the most determined and remarkable efforts to avoid catastrophe on the industrial home front. Yet on 15 March 1945 he was forced to tell Hitler: ‘The final collapse of the German economy page 412 can be counted on with certainty within four to eight weeks …. After this collapse even military continuation of the war will become impossible.’
This was the goal towards which the Allied strategic air forces had long striven. For RAF Bomber Command its attainment marked the end of more than five and a half years of effort, an effort which, from small beginnings, had been sustained through all manner of difficulties and disappointments. The casualties had been grievous. Of the 125,000 members of aircrew who entered Bomber Command units during the war, 56,000 lost their lives (47,300 of them on operations), about a third of that number were injured, and a further 12,000 held prisoner by the enemy. In addition, some 2000 men and women were killed or wounded while engaged in various ground duties, either from enemy action, from accidents such as occurred in the handling of vast quantities of bombs, or from the effects of exposure whilst working all hours of the day or night in the bitter cold of six war winters. High praise, indeed, is due to the members of Bomber Command's ground staff whose faithful service on the operational airfields and with training and supply units contributed much to the success of the offensive. Most of their duties were exceedingly dull and they had none of the thrills of action. There was, for example, precious little excitement to be derived from working in the open, in rain, wind or snow, in daylight and through darkness, twenty feet up in the air on the aircraft engines and air- frames, at all the many and intricate tasks that had to be undertaken to keep the bombers serviceable.
To the aircrew who flew and fought with Bomber Command, no more sincere tribute can be paid than that of their famous commander, Sir Arthur Harris, who writes:
There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period, of danger which at times was so great that scarcely one man in three could expect to survive his tour of thirty operations; …. Of those who survived their first tour of operations, between six and seven thousand undertook a second, and many a third tour. It was, moreover, a clear and highly conscious courage, by which the risk was taken with calm forethought, for their air-crew were all highly skilled men, much above the average in education, who had to understand every aspect and detail of their task. It was, furthermore, the courage of the small hours, of men virtually alone, for at his battle station the airman is virtually alone. It was the courage of men with long-drawn apprehensions of daily ‘going over the top.’ They were without exception volunteers, for no man was trained for air-crew with the R.A.F. who did not volunteer for this. Such devotion must never be forgotten. It is unforgettable by anyone whose contacts gave them knowledge and understanding of what these young men experienced and faced.1
1 Bomber Offensive, p. 267.