New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 16 — The Last Phase
The Last Phase
By March 1945 the Allies were pressing in upon Germany from all sides and it was clear that the end was at hand. The slender possibility that the enemy's new air and naval weapons might delay the verdict had been destroyed by the Allied bombers. On the Oder and the Rhine the German armies had almost reached the point of exhaustion. They might live for a while on the remaining stocks of weapons, ammunition, and fuel but these would receive little replenishment from a war industry already constricted by creeping paralysis. The better part of Upper Silesia was in Russian hands. The Ruhr was practically in ruins. Its production of coal and steel was reduced to one-fifth of what it had been in the summer of 1944 and, owing to the dislocation of road and rail transport, a mere fraction of this meagre output could be moved to the hungry factories. Indeed, throughout Germany the manufacture of arms and munitions was now being maintained only by the assembly of components and the consumption of stocks. Yet in spite of this imminence of complete collapse and final ruin, Hitler refused to accede to the Allied demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ and, under his fanatical leadership, the Germans continued to fight on until their military organisation disappeared and their country was overrun.
The crossing of the Rhine by the British and American armies under Eisenhower was completed by the end of March, and within a fortnight, having encircled and captured the Ruhr, they were sweeping forward into the heart of Germany. At times forward elements were covering as much as a hundred miles in a single day. The advance of Montgomery's Second British Army was typical. Crossing the Wesei on 5 April, they reached Luneburg on the 18th and before the end of the month they had crossed the Elbe and were moving towards Lubeck on the Baltic coast. Meanwhile, an equally dramatic advance had been made by the Russian armies from the north, and by 25 April they had encircled Berlin. That same day units of the US First Army linked up with the van of the Russian forces at Torgau on the Elbe. On 30 April Hitler committed suicide in his underground shelter in Berlin. Admiral Doenitz assumed his leader's tattered mantle and within a week had accepted Allied page 429 demands for complete surrender. Hostilities finally ceased at midnight on 8 May 1945. Thus did the war in Europe reach its climax- a climax which was to prove more tragic for the German people than anything their famous Wagner had ever conceived.
During these last months Allied air supremacy was virtually complete. On 24 March, for example, when the British and American air squadrons flew over 10,000 sorties in support of the Rhine crossing, they sighted fewer than one hundred enemy machines in the air. The last great effort of the Luftwaffe had been made in support of the German counter-attack in the Ardennes; thereafter it offered no serious challenge. Although the Germans still possessed a large number of Focke-Wulf and Messerschmitt fighters, shortage of fuel and lack of trained pilots made it impossible for squadrons to take to the air in strength. The jet aircraft, which operated on low-grade fuel, might well have been a serious danger since the Allies had nothing to match their speed, but they never appeared in large numbers because of the bombing of their assembly factories and the airfields from which they operated.1
During March 1945 the remnants of the Luftwaffe in the West were driven back to airfields and improvised landing grounds in central Germany. There they stood in long lines, too cramped for adequate dispersal against attack from the air, and without petrol to fly them elsewhere. Reconnaissance aircraft discovered the crowded airfields and in the second week of April more than 2000 of these grounded machines were destroyed by Allied fighters and bombers. However, the disappearance and destruction of the Luftwaffe did not leave Allied fighters and bombers free to fly over Germany unopposed. During these months the enemy increased his anti-aircraft defences and concentrated them in the vital areas so that casualties from this source continued to be relatively heavy. It was, in fact, against a background of fading enemy activity in the air and sharp opposition from his flak batteries that the Allied air forces flew their final strategic and tactical missions over Western Europe.
1 These airfields were easily identifiable by reason of their exceptionally long runways.
The actual assault across the Rhine began on the evening of 23 March. An hour and a half before midnight some two hundred Lancasters bombed the town of Wesel which was Montgomery's first objective. After the attack British commandos, who had waited outside the town only 1500 yards from the aiming point, moved forward and overcame the enemy garrison at a cost of only thirty-six casualties. Montgomery signalled to Bomber Command:
The bombing of Wesel last night was a masterpiece and a decisive factor in making possible our entry into the town before midnight.
With the dawn, fighters and fighter-bombers of Second Tactical Air Force took to the air. The fighters patrolled over nearby enemy airfields as well as the actual area of the ground assault; they also protected the troop-carrying aircraft and gliders which arrived from England during the morning. Fighter and medium bombers gave close support to the advancing troops by attacking enemy positions and batteries; they bombed any movement seen in the battle area and, roving further afield, attacked traffic on the roads and railways leading to it. Altogether on this first day some 170 enemy trucks and motor vehicles, 39 railway engines, and more than 50 enemy aircraft were reported destroyed by the Tactical Air Force.
During the next few days reconnaissance patrols, fighter sweeps, and widespread bombing attacks on communications and defended localities continued on an intensive scale. The expansion of the bridgehead beyond the Rhine made rapid progress, and as the German forces in that area began to fall back a large number of targets became available for assault from the air. On the 26th convoys of motor transport were discovered seeking to escape from the neighbourhood of the battlefield, and against them fighter-bombers of 2nd TAF flew over 670 sorties and claimed the destruction of over 130 vehicles. Little was seen of the Luftwaffe but several fighters were shot down by German flak. Bomber Command also continued to assist the land battle by attacks on enemy communication centres. Six hundred and seven aircraft raided Hanover, Munster, and Osnabruck on 25 March and two days later 300 bombers dropped nearly 1000 tons on a big railway junction at Paderborn. Continually harassed from the air and with their supply page 432 lines wrecked, the Germans were forced back in disorder, and by the beginning of April the Ruhr had been encircled and the German Army in it trapped.
As Montgomery's armies raced on towards the Elbe, 2nd TAF continued to give them close support. Fighters and fighter-bombers swept ahead of the advancing columns to attack enemy movement. Their bombs and rockets were also employed with good effect against airfields and fortified villages. Simultaneously, the medium bombers were active both by day and by night harassing enemy communications and bombing towns and villages on the line of the advance where the presence of troops and transport was suspected.
Opposition by the Luftwaffe to these operations was negligible for constant patrols were now maintained over enemy air bases. On 20 April British fighter-pilots shot down eighteen Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs which they caught taking off from an airfield near Hagenau. Towards the end of the month when Montgomery's advanced guards crossed the Elbe, German fighters flying from airfields close at hand made a last despairing effort to harass the advance. The weather was atrocious, thick cloud often as low as 600 feet obscuring the battlefield, making the task of our fighter pilots far from easy. However, on 30 April, in a battle brisker than had been fought for many a long day, they claimed thirty-seven enemy machines destroyed.
By the beginning of May panic-stricken German leaders were trying to escape in ships from the Baltic ports of Lubeck and Kiel. Second TAF aircraft attacked the convoys with notable success; in one raid on 3 May, seventeen ships were reported sunk and over a hundred damaged.
Bomber Command supported the advance to the Elbe by a series of accurate attacks on enemy road and rail centres and pockets of resistance. For example, during the first week of April the city of Nordhausen in central Germany, which had been converted into something of a stronghold, received over 2000 tons of bombs in two successive daylight raids, while on the night of the 14th over 2800 tons went down on the marshalling yards and military barracks at Potsdam; similar attacks fell on the marshalling yards at Leipzig, Bayreuth, and Nuremberg. A few days later the island of Heligoland, whose heavy batteries dominated the sea approaches to Bremen and Hamburg, was attacked by 953 heavy bombers and almost obliterated. Then, towards the end of the month, Montgomery asked for Bomber Command support in his final assault on Bremen and 757 aircraft were despatched to bomb strongpoints, barracks, and camps; although low cloud prevented more than half this force page 433 from attacking, the effect was apparently sufficient as the city capitulated within a few days.
Simultaneously with these army support operations the British bombers made their final attacks of the oil campaign. By the time the Allies crossed the Rhine the German oil industry was on the verge of collapse, so that Bomber Command's missions consisted mainly of policing attacks on plants already heavily bombed and raids against storage depots still in enemy hands. By 18 April all but six of the major oil plants had been captured and these six were still out of action. British bombers also made several heavy attacks on the north German ports during April and as a result four major warships were put out of action, several U-boats and a substantial tonnage of shipping were sunk, and widespread damage inflicted on docks and building yards. In one raid on Kiel the cruiser Emden and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper were so badly hit that they were subsequently written off while the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer was capsized.
Towards the end of April, with the Allied armies advancing deep into Germany, there were no targets left for the strategic air forces. Therefore, on their final missions over Europe, the bombers substituted food and medical supplies for bombs and these they dropped on the starving Dutch cities and villages; they also carried Belgian refugees back to their own country. Operation exodus- bringing back Allied prisoners of war – was Bomber Command's last major task, and during April and May 1945 no fewer than 75,000 men were safely flown to England.
The last phase of the war at sea saw notable activity by RAF Coastal Command. Along the Norwegian coast its Beaufighter and Mosquito crews continued to seek out and attack enemy ships – during April the Dallachy Wing in Scotland made seven successful strikes against targets hidden in the various fiords, often in the lee of steep cliffs. The Strike Wings also flew into the Kattegat by day to harass shipping in that area. Then, in the last week, as the remnants of the German forces fled from Norway and the north Danish ports in every kind of craft, Coastal Command joined in the final assault and inflicted severe damage on the crowded ships. In one attack on 3 May, against a concentration of ships in the Great Belt, Beaufighters sank two large vessels and damaged fifteen others, one of them being the 11,000-ton Der Deutsche. Operations against the German U-boats reached a similar climax. Patrols in British coastal waters brought better results and by April 1945 Liberators by night and rocket-firing Mosquitos and Beaufighters by day were carrying the war right into German home waters. On 9 April a Mosquito wing sank outright three U-boats which were found on the surface page 434 in the Skagerrak. On 4 May the Beaufighters went one better and sank four. The following day Liberators operating singly accounted for five more in the Kattegat area. By that time Coastal Command crews had destroyed no fewer than twenty-five U-boats in just over a month. ‘The crushing superiority,’ declared Admiral Doenitz in an Order of the Day issued simultaneously with his order to cease hostilities, ‘has compressed the U-boats into a very narrow area and continuation of the struggle is impossible from the bases that remain.’
For several weeks after the cease fire, aircraft of Coastal Command maintained patrols over the North Atlantic and the North Sea to locate surrendering U-boats – they had been ordered to surface and fly a black flag – and to make certain that none continued to operate against Allied shipping. The last patrol of the war was, appropriately enough, flown by a veteran Sunderland flying boat which landed at its base in Northern Ireland on 4 June 1945. Its crew, which included men from Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, was typical of many that had flown together on patrol during the long years of the Atlantic battle.
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Such were the final operations in which New Zealand airmen flew with their squadrons in Bomber, Fighter, and Coastal Commands and in the Second Tactical Air Force. Even in this short period their achievements were many. For example, one group of eight Mosquito bomber pilots each made fifteen trips to Berlin in less than a month- and Berlin, be it remembered, was still a formidable target. It was a New Zealand wing commander who led the RAF's first squadron of jet fighters on the Continent; another wing commander led some of the most successful of Coastal Command's final attacks on enemy shipping, while a New Zealand Liberator captain sank one of the last U-boats to be destroyed. Aircrew with Second Tactical Air Force achieved a fine record of enemy aircraft and vehicles destroyed. Typical spirit was displayed by a young night-fighter pilot during the crossing of the Rhine when, scrambled from a forward base in thick weather, he succeeded in intercepting and shooting down a Junkers 188 at only 500 feet. Then, with all bases closed down by fog, he flew across to land in England; the next day the weather was still too bad for him to return to the Continent, but that night he took off to patrol again over the Rhine bridgehead, where he shot down a Heinkel 177 bomber.
Seven New Zealand squadrons continued to operate with the RAF to the end. No. 75 Lancaster Squadron, which had now been in action for over five years, made a substantial contribution to Bomber Command's final raids with a total of 527 sorties during page 435 March and April 1945. Cologne, Dortmund, Essen, Munster, and Wesel were among the targets bombed before the Allied armies crossed the Rhine and encircled the Ruhr. Crews met considerable opposition from flak during these raids but only two aircraft were lost – both of them whilst attacking the railway viaduct at Munster. In April the New Zealanders took part in Bomber Command's heavy raids on Bremen and Heligoland. Wing Commander C. H. Baigent, who led twenty-one Lancasters to Bremen, tells how:
For weeks past the Squadron had been practising formation flying and the boys could hold a really tight formation – for Lancasters! On the run in, we received more than our share of uncomfortably accurate predicted flak. There were bags of ‘Whoomps’, ‘Whoomps’, followed by ‘Cracks’ as pieces of shell hit the aircraft. The boys did a marvellous job of work and rather than break formation they closed in tighter still. They had been briefed to bomb on the leader and as our bomb doors opened all the other aircraft followed suit, and then they all waited for our 12,000 Ib. bomb to drop from the bomb bay, which was the signal for all bombs to be dropped. One of the pilots at the rear of the Squadron said it was an unforgettable sight. Twenty-one Lancasters in tight formation, all with bomb doors open, cruising steadily up to Bremen, flak puffs all round, bombs poised, waiting for the leading aircraft to give the bombing signal. As our 12,000 pound ‘Cookie’ fell away a further twenty bomb loads of about 11,000 pounds each started their journey to the Bremen docks. The noise when the whole load landed must have been terrific. We got back to base without much further trouble to find that every aircraft had been hit at least once by flak fragments and that five machines were badly damaged.
The New Zealand Lancasters also took part in the two successful raids on Kiel. Of the attack on the night of 9 April which disposed of the Admiral Scheer, the Emden, and Admiral Hipper, the squadron diary records: ‘Nineteen aircraft were detailed to attack Kiel. Except for slight ground haze, visibility was excellent. A good concentration of bombs was achieved and crews had a good “prang”. Many fires and explosions were seen. Flak was moderate. There was no fighter opposition. A further six aircraft went to Kiel this night and laid mines.’ In the second attack, four nights later, twenty Lancasters dropped bombs and leaflets and five laid mines in what was to prove the squadron's final minelaying operation of the war. Flying Officer Baynes1 and his crew fought the squadron's last combat on the night of 14 April when they were attacked by two Ju88s. The German machines were eventually shaken off, but not before the Lancaster had been damaged and the flight engineer killed.
No. 75 Squadron flew its last bombing raid of the war on 24 April when nineteen aircraft attacked the marshalling yards at Bad Olde- sloe. The operation was completed without incident, and crews reported accurate bombing and no opposition from the enemy. When the first ‘Manna’ operation was flown five days later to drop food to the starving people of Holland, nine squadron crews were among the force of over 250 aircraft which dropped 500 tons of supplies at Rotterdam, the Hague, and Leyden. The crews reported seeing enormous crowds along the route and in the dropping area, cheering and waving to the aircraft. By the time Germany capitulated the squadron had flown 126 sorties on ‘Manna’ operations. This was not the end of flights to the Continent for No. 75 now took its part in the task of bringing back Allied prisoners of war. Within eighteen days 2339 men were flown to England and 132 repatriates carried home to Belgium.
It was unfortunate that No. 485 should be out of the front line for part of these last months. However, in its four years of operations the squadron had achieved an excellent record which included the destruction, in combat against the Luftwaffe, of no fewer than 63 aircraft with an additional 25 probably destroyed and 32 damaged.
For No. 486 Squadron, which continued to fly with a Tempest wing of Second Tactical Air Force, this last phase of the war was a particularly active and successful period. In ten weeks pilots flew 1029 sorties, during which they claimed no fewer than thirty-seven enemy aircraft destroyed, together with a formidable total of enemy transport. These results were not, however, achieved without cost. Six pilots were lost, including the commanding officer, Squadron Leader K. G. Taylor-Cannon, whose Tempest sustained a direct hit by flak during a low-level attack in mid-April. He succeeded in baling out, but two panels of his parachute were badly burnt and he was fired at from the ground as he made his descent. His body was never found. Flight Lieutenant Schrader,1 one of the flight com- manders, then took charge, but early in May he left to lead No. 616 Meteor Squadron – the first jet fighters with 2nd TAF – and was succeeded by Flight Lieutenant C. J. Sheddan, who continued in command until the squadron was disbanded.
During the crossing of the Rhine No. 486 Squadron maintained ‘standing patrols’ over the Wesel area and in two days pilots flew a total of seventy-two sorties; no enemy fighters were encountered. On being relieved from this duty the Tempests made successful strafing attacks on aircraft on the ground, armoured fighting vehicles, motor transport, and other similar targets. An unfortunate episode occurred on the afternoon of 25 March while the squadron was attacking enemy communications aircraft concealed in a wood near the front line. Flying Officer W. A. Kalka's Tempest was hit by flak and as he neared base his ailerons jammed, forcing him to bale out north of the airfield. He came down in the River Maas and was drowned, despite the courage of a Dutch girl who dived into the river in an attempt to save him.
An interesting support operation was carried out by the New Zealanders in the first week of April. Seven Tempests on an early morning patrol over the Dummer Lake area were contacted by an RAF liaison officer attached to the army, who requested immediate help against strong enemy resistance in the vicinity of Leese – in particular against German troops on one side of a railway embankment who were about to counter-attack the British on the other side. The margin was small but, says an eye-witness, ‘the Tempests formed up into line astern and one by one effectively strafed the enemy while the Tommies lay only a few yards from the line of fire of their cannon shells.’ The pilots then went on to strafe the village and there was a huge explosion when a lucky hit on a corner building blew up a petrol store. Another notable episode occurred on 15 April. That morning nine Tempests were on reconnaissance to the south-east of Ulzen when Schrader, who was leading, sighted nine Focke-Wulf 190s. In the dogfight which followed all but one of the enemy machines were shot down, and that one just managed to get away after it had been badly damaged. Only one Tempest was lost; the pilot, Flying Officer Evans,1 baled out six miles behind the enemy lines and, surviving shots fired at him by German soldiers as he floated down, took cover and later made contact with a British patrol.
A fortnight later No. 486 pilots shot down ten enemy machines during patrols to protect the bridgehead across the Elbe. The first patrol of eight aircraft led by Schrader accounted for three FW 190s and three Me109s; the second, led by Sheddan, destroyed three FW190s; and the third, again with Schrader as leader, reported the destruction of yet another Focke-Wulf 190. The squadron's run of success continued into May and in the first four days a further six enemy aircraft were shot down. In this last phase Squadron Leader Schrader, with a ‘bag’ of nine aircraft destroyed and one shared, Squadron Leader Sheddan, with three and two shared, and Flying Officer Evans, who destroyed three and probably destroyed a fourth, had been outstanding.
No. 486 Squadron's record shows that, during its three years of operations, pilots destroyed 81 enemy aircraft in combat and damaged a further 27. They also shot down 223 flying bombs and in ground attacks destroyed 323 enemy motor vehicles of various kinds and 14 railway engines.page 439
No. 487 Squadron, flying Mosquito bombers and led by Wing Commander F. H. Denton, continued to operate mainly at night against enemy road and rail centres and troop concentrations near the front line. A notable exception must, however, be recorded. This was the daylight precision attack on the German Gestapo headquarters for Denmark which was situated in the Shellhaus building at Copenhagen. The raid, which took place on 21 March 1945, was launched in response to a desperate signal from the Danish Resistance:
Military leaders arrested and plans in German hands. Situation never before so desperate. We are regrouping but need help. Bombing of the Shellhaus will give us breathing space.
Eighteen Mosquitos of No. 140 Wing, six each from No. 21 RAF, No. 464 Australian, and No. 487 New Zealand Squadrons, were detailed for the task and they took off from an advanced base in Norfolk. Denton, with Flying Officer A. J. Coe as his navigator, led the New Zealand formation; a second crew was formed by Flying Officers Peet1 and Graham,2 while two other aircraft were captained by Squadron Leader W. P. Kemp and Flight Lieutenant R. J. Dempsey. Flight Lieutenant N. J. Ingram was navigator to the commanding officer of No. 21 Squadron and acted as deputy navigation leader of the force.
The Mosquitos, with their escort of Mustang fighters, reached Copenhagen shortly before noon, and immediately swept in to the attack. Direct hits were scored on the Shellhaus, and several bombs were actually seen to bounce in through the windows on the ground floor. Unfortunately one of the leading aircraft struck a large pole and crashed in flames a mile from the target, where it attracted the bombs from several of the following machines. Nevertheless, the whole building was soon ablaze and in the confusion some thirty Danish patriots escaped from their prison cells in the upper floors- the Germans had placed them there as a deterrent to bombing after the raids on other Gestapo headquarters in Europe. Later it was learnt that about sixty Germans and Danish Nazis had been killed and all their records destroyed.
Sincere admiration your wholehearted co-operation Shellhaus bombing. … Main building totally destroyed …. Regrettable accident wholely understood by everyone here …. Congratulations and thanks to R.A.F.
On the night of the Rhine crossing ten Mosquitos from No. 487 Squadron were among the ninety-six medium bombers which supported the ground forces by attacking enemy transport and assembly areas opposite the British and American fronts. In the following three weeks the squadron was busy bombing enemy columns as they retreated eastwards from the Rhine towards Bremen and Hamburg, but by the middle of April the Mosquitos were almost out of range of the front line so the squadron moved by air to Melsbroek airfield, near Brussels. A week later aircraft from No. 487 were among the force of RAF Mosquitos detailed to attack strong points in Bremen under mobile radar control posts before the ground assault began. Six crews bombed in this manner and caused a number of fires; the same night another six crews bombed and strafed villages and marshalling yards and other railway targets; one pilot who attacked a goods train saw ‘three or four trucks in the centre of the train hurled off the line and then a pall of smoke which rose to 600 feet.’
Bad weather now intervened, and No. 487 flew only three further missions before the cease fire brought to an end what had been an almost continuous effort against enemy communications and troops since the squadron joined Second Tactical Air Force in July 1943. Attacking at night, crews had rarely been able to observe definite results and no accurate record of their achievements could be compiled. It is certain, however, that in their attacks behind the enemy front they played a significant part in the destruction of vehicles, railway targets, and troops and thus seriously interfered with the enemy's efforts to reinforce and supply his front line.
No. 488 Mosquito Squadron under Wing Commander R. G. Watts continued as one of the leading night-fighter units with Second Tactical Air Force. During March and April 1945, its crews flew 265 sorties and claimed seven enemy aircraft destroyed and one probable, which brought the final figures on the squadron scoreboard to sixty-seven destroyed, four probably destroyed, and ten damaged – a fine record in night fighting, especially since the first ‘kill’ was not registered until November 1943. During the last months of the war the squadron's most successful crew was Flight Lieutenant K. W. Stewart and Flying Officer H. E. Brumby who page 441 destroyed five enemy machines. One night towards the end of March they shot down a Messerschmitt 110 and a Heinkel 111 bomber in a single patrol over the Ruhr; a week later they sent another bomber down in flames after stalking it through the darkness for nearly half an hour. No. 488 Squadron flew its final war patrols on 25 April 1945 when the last aircraft to land reported the destruction of a Focke-Wulf 189 – a fitting end to the squadron's highly successful career.
No. 489 Beaufighter Squadron led by Wing Commander D. H. Hammond and No. 490 Sunderland Squadron under Wing Commander T. F. Gill played their part in the closing stages of the war at sea. The New Zealand Beaufighters, flying with an RAF wing, continued to be prominent in patrol and attack over the Norwegian coast, while the Sunderlands flew their last patrols in defence of shipping off the coast of West Africa. No. 489's record of ships sunk and damaged has already been given. No. 490 Squadron's main achievement, like that of so many Coastal Command squadrons, can best be measured in terms of Allied ships saved from U-boat attack and the safe arrival of troops and supplies at their various destinations.