New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 3 — Bomber Command and the Battle of the Ruhr
Bomber Command and the Battle of the Ruhr
At the beginning of 1943 the British bomber force was still the main offensive weapon in the hands of the Allies. Indeed, for some four years after the withdrawal of the British Army from Dunkirk, the bomber aircraft remained the only means of attacking Germany since the Mediterranean campaigns, although invaluable in bleeding Germany of some of her best manpower and material, were until the later stages essentially defensive. Throughout all those years, apart from the bomber offensive, British forces could do no more than nibble at the fringes of German-occupied territory.
The operations of Bomber Command, however, passed through many different phases before they became a potent factor in the achievement of victory. The earlier years were a long-drawn-out struggle to build up an effective force and to overcome the difficulties associated with night bombing. Frequently the offensive was checked by the diversion of the bomber force to defensive tasks and there was uncertainty both in policy and its application. Many were the authorities who found what they considered ‘essential’ jobs for the bombers to carry out. Experts in economic war thought out one class of industrial target after another, the destruction of which would, they argued, cripple the German war effort. The experts in maritime war called for attacks on the enemy ports, on ships in harbour, on U-boat bases and shipbuilding yards. The experts in land warfare called for attacks on tank factories, on fuel dumps, ordnance depots and so on; even the experts in air warfare had their own target systems as part of their campaign for air superiority. In fact, nearly everyone had vital jobs for the bomber force which, small as it was, could not do all the many things regarded as ‘essential’ but which were otherwise impossible.
Unfortunately the accuracy of the early bombing had been greatly overestimated. Economic intelligence had been seriously at fault, and the ability of the Germans to counter the bombing raids and to repair damage was not fully appreciated. And when the spectacular results which some had been led to expect failed to materialise there were doubts, criticisms, and even opposition in some quarters regarding the whole bombing campaign. The early enthusiasm faded and the bomber offensive became a hard-fought battle in which new and ever-changing tactics had to be hammered page 41 out by hard-won experience. Weather, phases of the moon, distance of targets, enemy fighter strength and tactics, defence organisation for guns, searchlights, radar and fighter control; ever-changing techniques of navigation, target marking and bombing — all these factors had played a part in the development of the campaign. The ‘thousand bomber’ raids of mid-1942 and the formation, in August of that year, of the special pathfinder force for target finding and marking were two outstanding achievements of the early period. Nevertheless, to develop the equipment and technique and to train the aircrews to attain a high degree of accuracy in the face of enemy opposition and under all weather conditions continued to be a long and difficult struggle fought at great cost, and it was not until the middle of 1943 that it became possible to deliver a heavy attack in Germany with real precision.
Like the blockade by the British Navy in the First World War and by the German U-boats in the early stages of the second, the effects of the bomber offensive were only gradual, slowly cumula- tive, and therefore difficult to discern. There were no spectacular advances over large tracts of enemy territory; no towns or fortresses were captured with large numbers of the enemy made prisoner. Only by degrees was the enemy's industrial capacity and his ability to make war undermined. Yet the damage inflicted by the bombing was not confined to that which could be seen and photographed. It was reflected with equal significance in the way the German Air Force was driven from the offensive to the defensive both in its operations and in new construction, and compelled to concentrate more and more of its resources on the protection of Germany against bombing attacks from the west to the benefit of the Allied forces engaged on other fronts.
A force of over 600,000 in 1943 and nearly one million in 1944 was maintained to man the anti-aircraft defences – not far short of the peak total strength of the RAF all over the world. Anti-aircraft guns took an ever-increasing part of Germany's total weapon pro- duction,1 while the German night-fighter force which had grown from virtually nothing to 150 in November 1940 and 250 by July 1942 now rose to 550 by July 1943, 800 by the spring of 1944, and 1250 by the end of 1944.
1 A United States post-war survey calculated that the strength of the artillery provided for the German Army might have been doubled if it had not been necessary to provide AA guns in quantity for the defence of the home front against air attack.
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Appalling casualties had been suffered in the land battles of the First World War. Of one single day's fighting on the Somme in July 1916 it is recorded that when ‘Night closed over the still-thundering battlefield …. nearly 60,000 British soldiers had fallen, killed or wounded, or were prisoners in the hands of the enemy.’ In the first five days of the Somme battle nearly 100,000 of our best troops were lost and ‘the ground conquered was … so limited both in width and depth as to exclude any strategic results.’1 It was partly to avoid the repetition of such loss and slaughter as took place at Passchendaele, Verdun, and the Somme that the Allied leaders meeting at Casablanca in January 1943 had decided to postpone an invasion of the Continent and to intensify the air offensive from the United Kingdom. The ultimate object of this aerial onslaught was stated as ‘the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the under- mining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.’ Europe was a fortress which must be subjected to vigorous bombardment before a final assault by the Allied armies could be practicable. To make that assault before the time was ripe would be suicidal for the Allied cause and of no assistance to Russia.
The bomber offensive planned at Casablanca was to be a joint Allied effort in which the operations of the RAF night bombers would be supplemented by American day bombers. But the American bomber force in Britain was still small and the combined offensive did not really begin until June 1943 when the American forces had been substantially augmented and detailed plans had matured. Meanwhile the operations of the American 8th Air Force continued to be essentially experimental, with its bombers gradually extending the scope of their effort to Germany, adjusting their tactics and techniques, and feeling out the quality of German opposition. There- fore, during the first half of 1943, the main effort against Germany was undertaken by Royal Air Force Bomber Command under Air Marshal Arthur Harris.
1 Churchill, The World Crisis, 1916–1918 (Thornton Butterworth), Part I, pp. 179–80.
The declarations of the combined Allied Chiefs of Staff at Casablanca regarding the bomber offensive from the United Kingdom were more a statement of policy than a specific directive, and even the subsequent orders to Air Marshal Harris were in the broadest terms. Bomber Command was to proceed with ‘the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system’, giving priority to certain aspects of it, such as U-boat and aircraft construction, transportation, oil production, and targets in the enemy war industry. This was interpreted by Harris as meaning the destruction of principal industrial centres in Germany, and since the Ruhr was by far the most important, he regarded it as a principal objective.
However, for tactical reasons, Harris was forced to conduct the offensive more in accord with the general aim than with any special type of target laid down. Among the factors which affected his choice of targets were the weather in different parts of enemy territory, the disposition of the enemy defences, the radio aids available and their limitations, together with intelligence gained of the effect of operations and the relative importance of various targets. Up to 1943 the choice of target on any particular night had been severely limited by the weather, but with improvement in pathfinder and bombing techniques following the introduction of new radar aids, the weather over the target area became less important. Operations could now be carried out on a greater number of nights and, since moonlight and clear skies were not so essential, it was possible page 45 to operate in conditions less favourable to the enemy night fighters. All the same the skill with which the enemy directed his defences and the steady increase in their strength meant that frequent changes of tactics and targets had to be made.
The planning of each bombing raid was a complex affair. Early in the day the Commander-in-Chief would meet his staff officers in the Operations Room of Bomber Command's headquarters on the outskirts of London. The weather forecasts for the Continent and also for bases in England would be considered along with intelligence reports before the night's target was finally chosen. Then the route for the bombers was decided upon, special attention being given to the time that the aircraft would spend over enemy territory, the avoidance of heavily defended areas, and methods of deceiving the German night-fighter force. The Commander-in-Chief finally fixed the aiming point, the size of the force to be despatched, and the bomb load to be carried. After discussion with the groups concerned an operation order was passed to them; then further instructions went to the stations where the detailed plans were worked out according to the pathfinder tactics that were to be used.
During the earlier years the results of bombing had been assessed from crew reports which in the enthusiasm of the moment had often proved inaccurate. By 1943, however, large numbers of night photographs were being taken showing the actual release of the bombs by each aircraft. From these photographs an assessment of the bomb concentration and of the area attacked could be made and immediate lessons drawn as to the advantages of different tactics. For example, it was soon found that aircraft reaching the target in the later stages of a raid tended to undershoot on the markers owing to the large area of fire usually visible by then. This was corrected either by varying the direction of approach of the later waves or by instructing the later marker aircraft to place their target indicators behind the aiming point. Daylight reconnaissance was usually made within a few days of a raid and the interpretation of the photographs taken gave a fair assessment of the damage done. It was then possible to judge whether further attacks on the same target were necessary. Yet owing to the extraordinary speed with which repairs were effected by the Germans, even this judgment was, as post-war investigation reveals, frequently too optimistic.
The British bomber force, with a long-deferred expansion of strength at last becoming effective, was now better equipped for its avowed task of ‘beating the industrial life out of Germany’. During 1942 there had been no significant increase in the number of aircraft but a major part of the force had been re-equipped with heavy bombers. Moreover, subsequent expansion was such that, by the beginning of March 1943, the front-line force included 380 heavy page 46 and 160 medium bombers.1 Within another three months there was a force of nearly 800 aircraft, of which just over two-thirds were heavy four-engined bombers, Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings. Yet while this increase in numerical strength was impressive, the outstanding feature of the period was the substantial rise in bomb lift following the change from medium to heavy bombers, with the Lancasters, superior in both operational height and bomb capacity at long range, emerging as the mainstay of the force. The Lancaster was to prove a magnificent machine. It was subsequently employed in many different roles, in massive saturation raids, in precision attacks such as that which sank the Tirpitz, for low-level raids on German power supplies and the Moehne Dam; it supplied the underground armies of Europe, supported the Allied armies, and in the final stage fed starving Holland and carried home British prisoners of war. Pilots liked the Lancaster's manoeuvrability, the excellent all-round vision from its cockpit, its instant response to the controls, and the rugged construction which enabled it to absorb much punishment in combat and yet bring its crew home. Altogether it was to prove a worthy successor to the faithful Wellington which had been the mainstay of Bomber Command in the earlier years and which, in fact, was still employed on operations until October 1943.
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1 There was also the considerable force of light bombers in No. 2 Group but their operations were essentially different from those of the heavier bombers and are therefore discussed in a later chapter.
The New Zealand Stirling Squadron was to play a prominent part in the bomber offensive during 1943 and further increase the reputation it had gained in the earlier years. Flying under the apt motto, Ake Ake Kia Kaha – ‘For ever and ever be strong’ – No. 75 was now led by Wing Commander Lane,2 an Englishman with considerable experience in bombing operations. His flight commanders were Squadron Leader Allcock,3 a New Zealander who had joined the Royal Air Force before the outbreak of war and served in the Middle East before returning to win further distinction with a Stirling squadron, and Squadron Leader Fowler4 of Chellaston, Derbyshire, who had previously completed his first tour of operations with No. 75 Squadron. During 1943 just over 300 New Zealanders, aircrew and ground staff, served with the squadron, and while New Zealanders were predominant among the aircrew, the presence of men from Britain, Australia, and Canada preserved the Empire character of the unit which had been a pleasant feature of the earlier years.
There were good reasons for the feeling of strangeness which had been experienced. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any other operational squadron flew from an airfield less warlike than that now occupied by the New Zealand Squadron at the Rowley Mile on the famous racecourse at Newmarket. Some of the aircrew were billeted in a wing of the Jockey Club and their mess was a mile away in the grandstand of the racecourse where the ground staff were accommodated. The grandstand itself was, as a senior officer put it, ‘a rabbit warren of a building with three floors housing billets, dining rooms, kitchens, recreation rooms and workshops. All windows were blacked out and it was quite easy to lose oneself in the labyrinth of rooms, passages and stairs.’ The briefing room was at first in the saddle room, which still retained the large brackets on which saddles had been hung, while the operations room was located in the cream and gilt weighing-in room. When the briefing room was later moved to what had been a lavishly equipped cocktail bar, the serious business of briefing a bomber squadron for action provided a sharp reminder of the gulf which existed between the days of peace and war.
After a quiet beginning in January, when severe winter weather restricted activity, No. 75 Squadron was to operate intensively during the following months, and by the end of July a total of nearly seven hundred sorties had been despatched in eighty-seven raids, during which the Stirlings dropped 1285 tons of bombs and laid 604 mines. Unfortunately the unit again suffered heavy casualties, thirty-five aircraft being lost during these seven months.
When the squadron resumed full-scale operations in February, Nuremberg, Turin, and the Rhineland city of Cologne were among the targets attacked. But the main effort, in common with that of most other squadrons in Bomber Command, was concentrated on enemy U-boat bases in Occupied France and on construction facilities in German ports. By the end of the month aircrews had more confidence in their new aircraft, while the ground staff, in mastering the technical difficulties which had beset them with the introduction of the Stirling, succeeded in maintaining a high level of aircraft serviceability. The squadron was then ready to take a leading part in the offensive against German industry in the Ruhr and Rhineland which was to be the principal feature of Bomber Command's operations during the first half of 1943.
With RAF squadrons in Bomber Command, many New Zealanders were to win distinction during 1943 as captains of air- craft, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators and air gunners. page 49 Several men were outstanding, notably Squadron Leader Thiele,1 as flight commander and captain of a Lancaster in No. 467 Australian Squadron; Squadron Leader St. John2 in similar duties with No. 101 Lancaster Squadron, and Squadron Leader Silcock3 with No. 44 Rhodesian Squadron, also flying Lancasters. Special commendation for his part in difficult and hazardous missions of which little was heard at the time was won by Squadron Leader Boxer,4 who led a flight in No. 138 Halifax Squadron. His unit was one of several engaged in supplying the underground armies of Europe and dropping and picking up Allied agents, missions which often involved long flights over enemy territory. Boxer was later to command a squadron engaged in these ‘special duties’, as they had come to be known.
Other bomber captains who established a particularly fine record of achievement at this time were Squadron Leader Starky5 with No. 115 Lancaster Squadron and Squadron Leader B. G. Wallace6 with No. 214 Stirling Squadron; Flight Lieutenants D. C. MacKenzie7 and J. B. Smith8 and Pilot Officer C. M. Wallace9 were also prominent as captains with an Australian squadron and Squadron Leader D. W. S. Clark10 with a Canadian unit.
Navigators to achieve distinction during 1943 were Flying Officer Sheild1 with No. 149 Squadron and Flight Lieutenant Fowler2 with No. 90 Squadron, while among the New Zealand air gunners, Flight Sergeant de Joux,3 who was credited with the destruction of five night fighters, continued a most successful operational career with No. 102 Halifax Squadron. He was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal in November 1943. Pilot Officer Florence,4 who flew many sorties with No. 214 Lancaster Squadron, was among those who distinguished themselves as bomb aimers. Towards the middle of the year he joined No. 617 Squadron – ‘The Dam Busters’ – only to lose his life in a November attack against the Antheor Viaduct on the Riviera route into Italy. The Lancasters had flown on to land in North Africa and it was during the return flight that Florence's aircraft was lost.
Others who won commendation as captains of pathfinder aircraft were Flight Lieutenant Moore3 of No. 83 Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Petrie4 of No. 7 Squadron, and Flying Officer Matich5 of No. 35 Squadron. Moore survived many hazardous missions to complete a long period of operations with the Pathfinder Force; Petrie lost his life whilst leading an attack on Berlin in December; Matich was also shot down towards the end of the year but he escaped serious injury, evaded capture, and got back to England.
There was now a relatively large group of New Zealanders with No. 156 Lancaster Squadron, where Squadron Leader Mandeno,6 Flight Lieutenants Sullivan,7 Thomson8 and Wright9 were prominent as captains, Squadron Leader Hall10 and Flight Lieutenant Kelly11 as navigators, and Pilot Officer Crankshaw12 as air gunner. In No. 35 Squadron Flying Officers Jamieson13 and Robson,14 Warrant Officer Dowman,15 and Flight Sergeant Ridings16 won distinction as wireless operators and air gunners.
The pathfinder crews, it will be remembered, preceded the main force in order to mark the target by means of flares and ground markers. But their early operations had revealed an urgent need for devices that would enable them to find targets on moonless nights or in cloud and then mark them so unmistakably that a large main force could follow and deliver heavy and concentrated attacks. Before the end of the previous year ‘Gee’, of which so much had been expected, had been reduced to a valuable aid to navigation on which limitations of range could be imposed by enemy jamming, but trials with various other bombing aids had so progressed that they were now ready for use on operations. The first, known as ‘Oboe’, had already been tried out towards the end of December 1942 in an attack against the power-station at Lutterade. Then, on 16 January during a raid on Berlin, the long awaited TI ground markers were introduced, followed by a second new radar aid known as ‘H2S’2 on the night of 30 January when Hamburg was the target.
These new technical aids which began to reach Bomber Command at the beginning of 1943 were of even greater importance to the success of its operations than the increase in its size. The bomber force could now be concentrated both in time and space to produce the maximum effect with a minimum of loss, for it had long been known that the saturation of the German defences – night fighters, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights – was the secret of economy. Moreover, with this concentration, effective radio counter measures could be taken. Specially equipped aircraft and ground stations were now better able to jam the signals of enemy fighters and their control and thus screen the British bombers from identification for part of their flight towards Germany.
1 Air Vice-Marshal D. C. T. Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO, Order of Alexander Nevsky (USSR); born Toowoomba, Australia, 14 Sep 1910; served RAF 1931–35 and transferred RAAF 1935; a founder of the Atlantic Ferry, 1940–41; rejoined RAF Sep 1941; commanded No. 77 Sqdn, 1941; No. 10 Sqdn, 1942; AOC No. 8 Pathfinder Group, Bomber Command, 1943–45.
2 A code name apparently derived from ‘Home Sweet Home’, because it helped bombers to home on to their targets.
The chief disadvantage of Oboe was that each pair of ground stations could handle only one aircraft at a time, and then the aircraft had to fly on a steady course for a considerable distance as it approached the target. This made the machine extremely vulnerable. Further, the range of the system was limited by the height at which the aircraft could fly because, owing to the curvature of the earth, the transmissions from the ground stations followed a straight line and had therefore to be received at an ever greater height as the aircraft's distance from the station increased. The first difficulty was dealt with by gradually increasing the number of ground stations to control at least sufficient aircraft for marking a target, whilst the risks entailed by the necessary straight and level approach were reduced by using the fast and high-flying Mosquito aircraft.
Oboe had developed out of the methods used by the RAF to interfere with the beams used by the German bombers as navigational aids for the attacks on Britain during the second winter of the war. In the early stages of its development the device had been considered simply as an aid to blind bombing, and the fact that only a handful of aircraft could be guided by it in any one attack seemed a fatal objection. But by the end of 1942 Bomber Command was no longer thinking in terms of thousands of bombers, with each crew finding the target by themselves, but of a smaller force being directed to an area which had been marked by very few aircraft. Thus a navigational and bombing aid which could be used by no more than a single squadron seemed likely to change the whole course of the bomber offensive, which indeed it certainly did.
H2S, the second radar aid, was an entirely different device from Oboe in that it was quite independent of ground stations, the apparatus being carried wholly within the aircraft. It was, in fact, similar to the radar equipment already in use by Coastal Command for the detection of submarines and other vessels at sea. For some time it had been known that radar impulses transmitted from an aircraft gave back varying echoes from water, open country or built-up areas, and the picture given on the screen by these echoes was gradually improved until it was possible to identify coastlines, rivers, towns, and eventually even individual factories; thus targets and navigational pinpoints could be identified in total darkness or through cloud. Nor was this system limited by range. But on the other hand, its operation required far greater experience than did the Oboe and its effectiveness in Bomber Command was therefore not so immediate. Indeed, a considerable period was to elapse before the aircrew operators acquired the necessary experience and before the definition of the reflected picture was sufficiently improved for it to be both accurate and reliable.
H2S largely depended for its eventual success upon the magnetron valve, which was capable of producing far higher power than any other contemporary valve. It was one of the most brilliant inventions of British science and indispensable for many forms of airborne radar, since it enabled a powerful transmission to be made from a piece of equipment small enough to be easily carried in an aircraft. There was at first much alarm at the prospect of it getting into enemy hands for it was proving invaluable in the Battle of the Atlantic. Indeed, a serious controversy which extended to both sides of the Atlantic over the release of the equipment to Bomber Command was settled only by the British War Cabinet Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting under the Prime Minister towards the end of December 1942.
At first the supply of H2S sets was restricted and Bomber Command was unable to take advantage of the fact that this device could be used by an unlimited number of aircraft at the same time. It was not until September 1943 that all the heavy bombers of the Pathfinder Force were so equipped. In the meantime H2S, like Oboe, had to be employed as a pathfinder device and tactics based on its use by a small number of aircraft.
Oboe, on the other hand, proved its value immediately. During January, when only a few Mosquitos were equipped with the necessary apparatus, the period when marking could be maintained was limited. Therefore a series of small experimental raids was launched in which these Oboe-equipped aircraft marked the target for a following force of fifty to sixty heavy bombers. Essen was the principal objective of these raids. This large industrial city, home of the huge Krupps armament works and an important centre of the German mining industry, had been the most frequently bombed town in Germany up to this time. Yet because of the industrial haze and smoke which almost invariably covered the Ruhr area and made identification of landmarks extremely difficult, the attacks had caused little damage. This difficult target was therefore an ideal one on which to experiment with the Oboe bombing aid.
The eight small attacks which took place in January 1943 were remarkable for it was estimated that by the despatch of 418 sorties and the loss of only eighteen machines better results were achieved than in all the raids against Essen in the previous year. After the attack on the night of 9 January the photographs revealed that sixty per cent of the bombs had fallen within three miles of the centre of the city, a percentage that was three times greater than page 56 the best hitherto recorded. Attacks on Dusseldorf and Duisburg showed similar promise.
Among the New Zealanders to take part in the repeated attacks on Essen was Flight Sergeant Rowsell1 of No. 207 Squadron who distinguished himself during the first operation on the night of 3 January. The Lancaster in which Rowsell flew as wireless operator was intercepted by night fighters, and during their attacks he acted as fire controller from the astro-dome with good effect and the enemy aircraft broke off the attack. The rear gunner had been wounded and was trapped in his damaged turret but with the aid of an axe Rowsell managed to get him free. As the elevators had been damaged and the Lancaster was difficult to control through being excessively tail heavy, he then helped to rig up the spare trailing aerial on to the control column so that the bomb aimer could pull on the aerial and relieve the pilot of some of the strain. Rowsell then returned to his wireless set to obtain a diversion to an airfield where there was good visibility, and the bomber finally landed safely.
Unfortunately, it was not possible to follow up the success against Essen immediately with further attacks on the Ruhr as for the next two months the effort of Bomber Command was devoted mainly to the U-boat war with attacks on the submarine bases in the Biscay ports and construction facilities at Hamburg, Wilhelmshaven, and Bremen. The reasons for this diversion of effort and the results achieved have already been related in the previous chapter. How- ever, on several nights when weather did not favour the offensive against the U-boats, it was possible to deliver attacks on Cologne and Nuremberg. Cologne, scene of the first ‘thousand bomber’ raid and an important commercial and industrial centre in the Rhineland, was attacked on three occasions during February, altogether 831 sorties being despatched for the loss of twenty-four bombers.
But now that the Command's expansion was becoming a reality it was possible to raise a substantial force of Lancasters; therefore, on two consecutive nights in January, Berlin was attacked by forces of 201 and 187 Lancasters. Unfortunately haze and snow, which always made it more difficult to see the outlines of a built-up area, prevented the Pathfinders from identifying the aiming point, and although several important factories were hit the damage was scattered. On the first night the enemy's fighters made scarcely any interception, and though the flak was heavy and the force too small to saturate it, only one Lancaster was missing. The next night the weather and the light proved favourable to the enemy; night fighters operated in strength and twenty-two bombers were lost.
Flight Lieutenant Keith Thiele captained a Lancaster from No. 467 Australian Squadron on both these raids against Berlin. On the first night during the approach to the target his rear gunner lost consciousness through lack of oxygen. Thiele went on to attack whilst two of his crew endeavoured to assist the rear gunner out of his turret and render first aid. As soon as the bombs had been dropped, Thiele took the Lancaster down through the flak and searchlights in an attempt to save his gunner's life. This action did not succeed in reviving the gunner so Thiele carried him to the pilot's seat, no mean feat in a Lancaster in flight. Artificial respiration was then continuously applied during the return flight which Thiele maintained at low level. Unfortunately the crew's efforts were unsuccessful and the squadron diary records ‘an unfortunate loss to a very gallant crew after a very successful sortie.’
Among the aircraft which returned damaged that same night was a Lancaster of No. 101 Squadron captained by Sergeant Ralph.1 Over Berlin his bomber was hit by flak and the starboard petrol tanks holed but Ralph got clear and completed the long flight back, landing the damaged machine safely, despite very poor visibility. Ralph had already completed twenty sorties with his squadron. Early in the previous December when returning from an attack on Frankfurt, he had displayed outstanding skill and airmanship in landing his machine safely at base with both port engines failing.
Three further heavy raids on Berlin were made during March 1943 in an effort to follow up victories on the Russian front and, with the effort of the Lancasters supplemented by Stirlings and Halifaxes, a total of just over eight hundred sorties was despatched. In the second attack on 27 March one of the Stirlings from No. 15 Squadron carried a ‘National Savings’ bomb from London. The captain was Pilot Officer Renner,1 a twenty-six-year-old New Zealander who had been a farmer in Hawke's Bay before the war. His bomb aimer, wireless operator, and gunner were also New Zealanders, and a Canadian navigator and a flight engineer from London completed the crew.
‘I think this trip to Berlin, our twenty-second “op” on Stirlings, gave us most satisfaction,’ writes Renner. ‘A Wings for Victory week had been held in London's Trafalgar Square during which three large bombs had been plastered inches thick with Savings Stamps by the British public on the promise that they would be duly delivered with the bomb. At the end of the week two of the bombs were hurried to our Station and one found its way into our aircraft which we had named Te Kooti, after the famous Maori chief. Three times the raid was postponed. We became quite attached to our bomb and each day the bomb-aimer would go round to make sure it was still loaded on Te Kooti. The third night we were actually on the move when the red light shot up from the control tower and we rolled off the runway and back to dispersal unable to express our feelings of frustration. The next night, amid rain and sleet, we got off. Icy clouds kept us down to two thousand feet until we got over Denmark where we were able to sneak a little more height. Then over the Baltic the clouds broke up and we were able to reach Berlin at a reasonable height to deliver our bomb. The German defences, although formidable, did not seem so concentrated as those we knew so well in the Ruhr, but the searchlights made us feel awfully bare.’
Although casualties were light the missions to Italy were not without incident. After the raid on Milan in mid-February one Lancaster had just crossed the Alps on its return flight when an engine suddenly caught fire. The pilot, Flight Sergeant Whyte,1 put the bomber into a dive in an effort to extinguish the fire by the rush of air. Unfortunately, however, this proved unsuccessful and the flames began to envelop the wing; Whyte was just able to control the aircraft sufficiently for the crew to leave by parachute. He then followed them out and came down in hilly country to the west of Dijon. With the help of the French partisans Whyte was able to evade capture, and after many adventures finally made his way back to England, where he returned to operations and completed a second tour.
Early in March 1943 Bomber Command was able to turn its attention to the Ruhr and the next four months saw one of the most dramatic battles of the air war – a battle in which a veritable fortress was assaulted from the air in a series of short but intense actions of almost incredible ferocity.
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The introduction of Gee as a navigational aid early in 1942 had led to optimistic hopes of achieving a higher degree of accuracy in raids on the Ruhr, but these hopes had been disappointed for at that extreme range and in the face of strong defences its accuracy proved considerably less than expected and the bombing was still very scattered. But now, in March 1943, with Pathfinder Mosquitos equipped with the Oboe device to lead a stronger bomber force, there was better prospect of finding and accurately marking targets so that a large proportion of the bomb load would be concentrated near the aiming point.
This renewed Battle of the Ruhr, as it may well be termed, opened in the first week of March and continued until the end of July. During that period the towns heavily attacked included Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Mulheim and Ober- hausen; the great Rhineland centres of Cologne and Dusseldorf, which although not in the Ruhr were part of the same industrial complex; Krefeld, Munster, Remscheid and Wuppertal, not primarily concerned with heavy industry but important for the manufacture and transport of vital war materials. Altogether 15,504 sorties were flown in major raids against these towns and 42,348 tons of bombs were dropped for the loss of 718 aircraft.
The initial attacks on Essen were more or less typical of those which followed throughout the Ruhr and Rhineland. In the first raid on the night of 5 March a total of 442 bombers was despatched. In the main force there were 140 Lancasters, 89 Halifaxes, 52 Stirlings and 131 Wellingtons, while the Pathfinder marking force consisted of 22 heavy bombers and 8 Oboe-equipped Mosquitos on which, and on the equipment they carried, the success of the raid almost entirely depended.
The attack, by far the most important carried out by Bomber Command up to this time, followed a carefully prepared plan. After making a landfall at Egmond on the Dutch coast, the bombers flew directly to a point 15 miles north of Essen, which point Pathfinder heavies marked with yellow route markers on the ground as a guide to the main force. From there the crews began the run-up to the target which they were to reach at the rate of eleven a minute, the whole attack being planned to last thirty-eight minutes. Flying page 61 in ahead the Oboe Mosquitos dropped red target indicators on the aiming point before the bombing began and then at intervals during the attack. This renewal of the marking was limited by the fact that the Mosquitos could only be guided over the target at the rate of one every five minutes by the ground stations with which they were in communication. There were as yet only two pairs of ground stations in operation and, while they could guide twelve Mosquitos over the target in an hour, there was the risk that there would be intervals when no target indicators were burning on the ground. Therefore, the twenty-two heavy bombers of the Pathfinder Force acted as ‘backers-up’ throughout the attack, dropping a large number of green indicators aimed at the red ones which the Mosquitos had dropped. Thus the bomb aimers of the main force, if they could not see the more accurately placed red target indicators, could at least aim at the more plentiful green ones. In this way it was hoped that there would be a clearly distinguishable mark at which to aim at every moment during the attack.
In the event the marking was most accurately done by the Pathfinders and the bombing which followed was well concentrated. Soon innumerable fires sprang up around the markers until there was an almost solid ring of flame two miles in diameter. The municipal archives of Essen afterwards revealed that half of the bomb load had, in fact, fallen in the centre of the city, and such was the concentration of the bombing force that only fourteen aircraft were missing from this raid.
Five more attacks were launched against Essen in the next few months, and by the end of July both the huge Krupps works covering several hundred acres in the centre of the city and the town of Essen itself contained large areas of devastation. There was also serious damage to gas, water and electricity facilities.1 This had been brought about by 3260 sorties with the loss of 138 aircraft, as against 3720 sorties despatched during 1942 with the loss of 201 aircraft which did no significant damage to Krupps and little to the town of Essen. After the 1943 attacks, although repairs were pushed forward vigorously, some factories never resumed production. Among them was the largest single unit in the whole Krupps works, the huge Hindenburg Hall where locomotive construction ceased after the second attack in March and was never restarted in spite of the fact that this work then had equal priority with aircraft, tanks and submarines. Other major war requirements whose production was seriously reduced as a result of Bomber Command's attacks at this time included shells, fuses, guns and aero-engine parts.
But Essen was only one of many targets, and from the middle of March to the end of July the attack on the Ruhr was pressed with the greatest vigour, all the chief industrial areas being attacked in turn. Many of the raids were remarkably successful in causing widespread destruction but they did not always go according to plan. Although provision had been made for the unexpected arrival over the target of cloud thick enough to hide the ground markers, there were occasions when even the use of ‘skymarkers’ – a kind of firework which floated slowly down and made a point of aim above the clouds – was not enough to save an operation from failure. This was when the tops of the clouds were so high that the skymarkers fell into them and were quickly lost – as happened one night towards the end of May when there was cloud up to 20,000 feet over Dussel- dorf. Bomber Command was, in fact, not yet wholly independent of the weather.
* * * * *
The Battle of the Ruhr was fought by Bomber Command with mounting casualties in the face of an opposition which grew steadily in strength and skill, for the arsenal of the Ruhr was exceptionally well defended by guns, searchlights, night fighters, observation and radar posts, and decoys of various kinds. By the summer of 1943 the area had well over one-third of the total anti-aircraft guns available in Germany. British crews called it ‘Happy Valley’ – a grim euphemism for a region which could become a better reproduction of Dante's Inferno than any of the other well-defended parts of Germany.
As the battle developed it became a colossal battering match between air and ground, with the ground defences trying to blast the invaders out of the sky and the bombers trying to smother the defence under the weight of their attack. As the first aircraft approached, hundreds of searchlights would come on at once and soon the whole sky would be filled with bursting shells, so that the bombers had to drive forward through a barrage of fire and steel. ‘The searchlights, in huge cones, made a wall of light through the Valley,’ declared one Lancaster captain after the second heavy raid against Essen. ‘Intense flak was being directed into the centre of each cone and one got the impression that the defences were being very intelligently directed. They were certainly ready for us and as we flew in I saw other bombers twisting and turning in the searchlight beams.’ Outside the circle of light night fighters waited to pounce upon crippled machines or the unwary crew. Many bombers returned with parts of their wings or fuselage torn to shreds, flying back, as a popular song of the period put it, ‘On a page 63 Wing and a Prayer’. Others were shot down over the target or, mortally damaged by flak and night-fighter attack, crashed on enemy territory; a few struggled gamely back over the enemy coast only to be forced down in the North Sea.
During the attack on Remscheid one Lancaster of No. 50 Squadron was just turning away after dropping its bombs when it was coned by searchlights. The pilot, Flight Sergeant Cole,1 succeeded in getting clear but a few minutes later the bomber was again caught in the blinding glare of the lights and then hit by flak. The rear gunner was killed. The Lancaster turned over on its back and petrol poured out of one of the tanks. Cole managed to regain control, but shortly afterwards an engine caught fire and became useless. The bomber then proved so unstable in flight that he ordered his crew to stand by to bale out while he struggled with the damaged controls. Eventually, by lashing back the rudder pedal with a leather strap and by careful piloting, Cole managed to keep his machine airborne and get back across the Channel to make a forced landing in England.
Typical of many other eventful flights was the experience of Squadron Leader Thiele and his crew in the attack on Duisburg early in May. When nearing the city their Lancaster was severely damaged by a shell bursting right underneath the fuselage. Thiele carried on to bomb his target, but during his final approach the aircraft was caught in a cone of searchlights. Shells began to burst all around but Thiele maintained his straight run. Then just as the bomb aimer let the bombs go the machine was again hit, one burst completely destroying the starboard outer engine. Almost immediately afterwards the starboard inner engine was hit and put out of action and the side of the aircraft ripped open along the pilot's and bomb aimer's compartments. Although dazed by a shell splinter which had struck him on the side of the head, Thiele managed to keep control and complete the long homeward flight. Unable to maintain height after crossing the British coast, he made a masterly crash-landing without injury to his crew. This was the second occasion on which Thiele had brought his aircraft back on two engines.
In the attack against Dortmund on 23 May more than two thousand tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped within an hour, and the effect of this terrific onslaught was to crush most of the life out of the defence. ‘Flak was fairly intense at the beginning of the raid,’ said the RAF bulletin issued the following day, ‘but as the attack developed the flak died down considerably, cones of searchlights split up and single lights appeared to be waving aimlessly about the sky.’ Nevertheless, thirty-eight of the eight hundred bombers despatched were lost. Clear weather in the target area had assisted co-operation between guns and searchlights in the early stages of the raid, and on the return flight from Germany intense fighter activity persisted well out over the North Sea.
Four nights later just over five hundred bombers swept in ten waves over Essen within the space of fifty minutes. Crews reported that the anti-aircraft fire was particularly violent and to reach the target they had to penetrate a thick curtain of searchlights and bursting shells; it was estimated that the intense flak was responsible for at least three-quarters of the 107 aircraft damaged on the raid. This was in addition to the twenty-two bombers which failed to return.
As the battle continued, British crews encountered stronger opposition from the ground defences while the onset of summer, with shorter and lighter nights, gave the German fighters better opportunities for interception. On 24 June, when the industrial centre of Elberfeld was the target for 630 bombers, scores of night fighters were in action and many bitter duels were fought. In addition, the British crews met a very heavy barrage and more searchlights than ever as they approached their objective. ‘Great belts of searchlights, twenty to thirty in each cone, tried to pick us up and intense anti-aircraft fire came up the beams,’ reported one Stirling captain. ‘The defences of Dusseldorf and Cologne appeared to be co-operating in a desperate attempt to beat off the raiders.’ Throughout the return flight the enemy defences were active, and altogether eighty-seven of the bombers came back damaged while a further thirty-three did not return at all.page 65
Night fighters were particularly active a few nights later when another heavy attack was launched against Cologne. There was much cloud over the Rhineland and the searchlights therefore were at a disadvantage, although the guns maintained a powerful barrage and heavy flak came up through the clouds. It was above the cloud bank that the most bitter fighting occurred. The Northern Lights lit up the sky and many of the bombers were silhouetted against the cloud surface below. For the German fighters the conditions were almost ideal and they attacked in strength. One pilot declared that he saw nine combats going on almost simultaneously. Twenty-five British bombers were lost in this raid and a subsequent analysis of crews' observations of aircraft shot down indicated that seventeen of these fell victim to German fighters.
Flight Lieutenant Mandeno and his crew of No. 156 Pathfinder Squadron were in action this night. Just after leaving Cologne their Lancaster was intercepted by a German night fighter and in a typical sudden attack the elevators and tail plane were damaged, one of the engines was hit and a petrol tank punctured. Rear guns were out of action but the fire of the mid-upper gunner and evasive turns by Mandeno were successful in shaking off the fighter. Only a few nights earlier Mandeno had displayed a similar skill when his bomber was attacked on the outward flight. He had then carried on to his target.
The Lancaster of No. 101 Squadron captained by Squadron Leader St. John narrowly escaped destruction towards the end of June. Caught in searchlights over Holland while on the outward flight to Mulheim, the bomber was first attacked by a Junkers 88 which inflicted extensive damage. Then, after diving to 3000 feet, it was again attacked, this time by a Dornier. The German got in a short burst but the Lancaster replied and scored hits. Meanwhile the Junkers which had followed the Lancaster down continued to fire and set the starboard outer engine alight. With his machine still losing height, St. John was forced to jettison his bomb load in order to make good his escape. He then set course for base with one rudder, both turrets unserviceable, and the fuselage and both petrol tanks badly holed. In addition, one of the elevators was partly shot away and the controls almost severed and jammed. This made it impossible to bring the control column further back than the central position. ‘Despite this situation,’ says an official report, ‘Squadron Leader St. John, with great skill and ability, brought his aircraft back and landed it safely.’ When the crew came to leave their machine they found a gaping hole where the door had been and most of the tail unit shot away.
There were many such incidents in which the enemy fighters were cheated of their prey. That same night, for example, Flight Lieu- page 66 tenant Wilkie1 and his crew of No. 15 Stirling Squadron succeeded in evading persistent attacks by a German night fighter and flew on to complete their mission. Only a few days previously when attacking Dusseldorf, they had seen the propeller of one engine shot away. When Pilot Officer Robinson,2 a captain with No. 158 Squadron, returned from the attack on Bochum he told how, whilst evading continuous attacks by two Messerschmitts, ‘one cannon shell had zipped down the fuselage between his legs, struck the air gunner a glancing blow on the head – literally parting his hair – and then passed out through the perspex nose.’
Inevitably some crews were less fortunate in their encounters with night fighters over Germany. Of those who survived when their machines were driven down, the experiences of Flight Sergeant McLeod3 are fairly typical. Early in May while flying out to bomb Dortmund, the Lancaster of which he was captain was attacked by a night fighter shortly after crossing the Dutch coast:
The aircraft's electrically operated equipment and inter-communication were completely put out of commission. The starboard motors both lost all power, the elevators would not respond and consequently the plane went into a dive. It was soon clear that the machine was out of control and being unable to jettison our bomb load did not help matters. At approximately 9000 feet, I roared to the bomb-aimer, who was sitting next to me in the second pilot's seat, to pass the word back to bale out. Unfortunately he had been wounded in the shoulder but managed to pass the message to the crew. Our load, which consisted of incendiaries and 1000 lb. bombs, had been straffed. This caused the cockpit to be filled with smoke which made the abandoning of the aircraft rather difficult. I was eventually assured that the rest of the crew had parachuted out and so, without hesitation, I made the plunge into the darkness. It was only a matter of seconds before I felt the sudden jar and the relief of knowing that the chute had opened – a moment of stress I certainly would not like to happen again in a lifetime.
During my descent I was unfortunate enough to get caught in a searchlight, an experience I should imagine similar to walking down the Strand in the nude. My first thoughts were of being put out of my misery by the night fighter, but luck was with me and the glare passed over. I landed in a Dutch canal and what with endeavouring to find my footing, parachute cords and equipment, I threshed the water for some time before I realised that it was just slightly over my shoulders. At last I waded out on to the bank but unfortunately I had lost my escape equipment in my efforts to reach dry land.
Fate was kinder to Flight Sergeant Hodge,1 who flew as wireless operator in a Stirling of No. 149 Squadron. He was the sole survivor when his machine burst into flames after an attack by night fighters during the outward flight to Cologne early in July. Hodge landed in a field near a small village in Holland. He was badly burned and had sprained his ankle. Hearing somebody coming towards him he attempted to run away, but was overtaken by a man who proved friendly and took care of him at his home. Thereafter he received further assistance which enabled him, after a series of adventures, to return to England three months later.
* * * * *
During the Ruhr battle heavy attacks were made against other German towns in order to keep enemy anti-aircraft and fighter defences dispersed. Had attacks been directed solely against the Ruhr the Germans would have been able to concentrate more of their defences in that area and the losses sustained by Bomber Command would have been proportionately heavier. Therefore, in addition to raids on Berlin and the German ports and U-boat bases, targets in southern Germany were attacked, among them the industrial centres of Frankfurt, Mannheim, Stuttgart and the cities of Munich and Nuremberg, both of which had strong political associations with the German Nazi Party. In addition, there were two major raids against the huge Skoda armament works at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia.
These attacks on more distant targets in southern Germany were led by Pathfinder aircraft using H2S but, because of limited experience with this device, the marking was less accurate and the attacks themselves less spectacular than those against the Ruhr, which was within Oboe range. Nevertheless, they caused considerable destruc- tion. At Nuremberg, for example, in the early March raid by three hundred aircraft, the main weight of the bombing fell upon the industrial districts to the south-west of the town. Serious damage was done to the large MAN factory which made diesel engines; in the Siemens electrical works two-thirds of one workshop, covering five acres, was destroyed and other buildings in the factory were gutted. At the railway workshops one large repair depot covering several acres was destroyed and another area of devastation was revealed in the neighbouring railway siding. In addition, a number of establishments manufacturing tools and engineering supplies were severely damaged, many of the buildings being completely burnt out. Fires were still smouldering when the town was photographed from the air two days after the raid.
Unfortunately, at both Nuremberg and Munich, there was also considerable damage to historic and cultural buildings from scattered bombing. This was regrettable not only for the intrinsic loss but also because it provided material for the German propagandists, whose cries had become much louder as the damage to their war industries increased. Yet both cities had been regarded as legitimate targets because of their important war industries. At Munich there were factories which constructed both submarine and aero engines, tanks, armoured cars, grenades and motor tires. The city was also an important communication centre. Whether these cities could have been left unmolested on account of their particular historic and art treasures is doubtful in view of the considered policy of the Allied leaders.
At the time, the Germans made the most of such damage and the casualties caused by the RAF and, in an effort to restrict the attacks, their propaganda machine was turned on at full blast. The Italian radio also joined in the chorus of misrepresentation and vilification and shrill voices were raised in protest at what were described as ‘terror raids’ having no object but the destruction of cities and the slaughter of women and children. All this was not without its effect in Britain, where it aroused considerable discussion regarding the ethics of bombing and some misgivings as to its use. But the responsible leaders remained firm in their conviction that, however much page 70 the sufferings of the civilian population were to be deplored, it was essential for Britain to use her air power – her only weapon capable of hitting Germany directly – to end the war as soon as possible.
And whatever may be thought in these later years, it is well to remember that the German conversion to humanitarian sentiment had come rather late. It should have taken place four years earlier before the bombing of Warsaw, before the massacre of 20,000 Dutch folk in defenceless Rotterdam or the wreaking of a cruel vengeance on Belgrade. It is also worth recalling that in those early days German propaganda films were wont to show rows of their great bombers being loaded up with bombs, then flying in the air in battle array and finally casting down showers of bombs upon towns and villages, choking them in smoke and flame. Glorying in devastating violence, the Germans had sought to impress upon the world that resistance to their will was impossible.
Among the men of Bomber Command many felt deeply on these matters, but they were realists. They knew that the conflict could not be waged without suffering and regarded the loss of life in German cities as a regrettable but inevitable consequence of aerial bombardment under prevailing conditions. Certainly they were far less bloodthirsty than some whose activities were far less intimately concerned with the tragic realities of modern war.
* * * * *
During the five months in which the Battle of the Ruhr was fought the New Zealand Squadron was represented in all the principal raids, with Essen, Duisburg, Dortmund, and Dusseldorf among the targets most frequently bombed. With a third flight of eight aircraft now operational, the squadron was also able to increase its contribution to the offensive. There was a change of command early in May when Wing Commander Lane was succeeded by Wing Commander Wyatt,1 an English pilot with long experience in bombing operations. After one early raid on Italy he had made a forced landing in Spain, evaded internment, and made his way back to England.
1 Group Captain M. Wyatt, DFC; born High Barnet, Hertfordshire, 24 Nov 1911; joined RAF 1936; commanded No. 75 (NZ) Sqdn, 1943; No. 514 Sqdn, 1944; Asst Director of Navigation (Met.) 1945 and 1946–47; Air Attache, Stockholm, 1948–50.
The Squadron was particularly unfortunate during attacks against Wuppertal at the end of May and on Mulheim in June when, on each occasion, four aircraft failed to return. Among the crews lost were twenty-eight New Zealanders including six captains, Flying Officer Vernazoni,2 Pilot Officer Bennett,3 Pilot Officer F. M. McKenzie,4 Flight Sergeants Burbidge,5 Carey6 and Thornley.7 Other crews had difficult return flights after encounters with enemy night fighters or when their machines had been damaged by flak.
Flight Sergeant Whitehead1 and his crew had a similar experience when they flew to Dortmund towards the end of May. They had just bombed the target when flak hit the port outer engine and set it alight. By the time Whitehead regained control the bomber had lost 5000 feet. The burning engine acted as a beacon for a cone of searchlights but fortunately the propeller flew off, the engine stopped, and the flames died away. Nevertheless, it was only after prolonged evasive action that Whitehead succeeded in getting clear of the searchlights and heavy anti-aircraft fire.
Pilot Officer H. C. Williams2 and his crew were in action with night fighters towards the end of July. Their Stirling, one of sixteen bombers sent by No. 75 Squadron to attack Essen that night, was suddenly set upon during the outward flight. However, by following the directions of his gunners, Williams was able to manoeuvre his machine into a favourable position. Then, after several accurate and prolonged bursts, there was a violent explosion in the German fighter and it was seen to fall away in flames. A few moments later a second fighter approached, but on meeting sustained fire from the Stirling's guns it turned away. Williams and his crew appear to have had more than their share of such experiences. During an earlier attack on Dortmund they had been simultaneously engaged by two Ju88s, but had evaded their attacks and claimed one as damaged.
No. 75 Squadron also took part in the series of attacks directed against cities in southern Germany in order to prevent the enemy adding to his defences in the Ruhr. The first two targets were Nuremberg, scene of many of Hitler's great party rallies, and Munich, headquarters of the Nazi movement and an important railway and armament centre. The seven crews who bombed Nuremberg saw large explosions and the glare of fires was still visible when they had covered more than one hundred miles of the homeward flight. During the flight back one Stirling was attacked by an enemy fighter over Saarbrucken. Cannon fire streamed into the cockpit and a shell exploded near the second pilot, Flying Officer Eddy,1 wounding him in the leg. Then followed seven minutes of violent evasive action before the enemy aircraft was finally shaken off. Another bomber captained by Sergeant Davey2 did not return.
Experienced crews reported the attack on Munich as one of the most successful they had seen. Describing a terrific explosion in the target area Squadron Leader Allcock said: ‘Suddenly there was a terrific pillar of flame in front of me. Then we flew through a smoke ring about a mile and a half in diameter caused by the explosion.’ Another captain, Pilot Officer D. L. Thompson,3 said the explosion lit up the whole of the inside of his Stirling and that ‘the entire town below us was floodlit by fire.’
The April raids on Frankfurt and Stuttgart were particularly eventful for No. 75 Squadron. In the first attack against Frankfurt twelve Stirlings were despatched. All reached their objective, but one was hit by flak when over the target and then pursued by night fighters. A message sent to base brought Spitfires out to escort the ‘lame duck’ from the French coast, but it finally came down in the Channel three miles from the English coast and the crew transferred to their dinghy. A Walrus flying boat which had been standing by to pick the men up collided with their dinghy and threw them into the sea, but they were eventually able to clamber aboard little the worse for their experience.
In a second attack against Stuttgart towards the middle of the month Pilot Officer McCaskill1 and his crew were lost, and two nights later the aircraft captained by Pilot Officer Groves2 and Pilot Officer Debenham3 failed to return from Mannheim. From these three crews only one man survived – Debenham's flight engineer. The rest were all killed when their machines crashed in enemy territory. Another crew got back from Mannheim after their bomber had been badly shot up by flak, but when about to land the English pilot, Flight Lieutenant Lowe,4 found the throttle controls had jammed. On crash-landing the aircraft hit a hangar and caught fire but the crew were able to hack their way out of the wreckage. During the homeward flight particular fortitude had been displayed by the navigator, Pilot Officer Carswell,5 who was badly wounded in the leg. Although weak from loss of blood and in considerable pain, he had remained at his post and guided the aircraft back to base.
One of Bomber Command's most successful raids of this period, apart from those against the Ruhr, was that on the Schneider armament works at Le Creusot, now of greater importance to the Germans following the damage to Krupps at Essen and the Skoda plant at Pilsen. Halifaxes and Stirlings made up the bulk of the force of 290 bombers which made the attack in mid-June – a full moon period when operations against more distant and strongly defended targets would have meant prohibitive loss. As it was, only two machines were lost in this raid and, into the bargain, a Messerschmitt was shot down over the Channel by a Halifax on the outward flight. Although the Schneider plant at Le Creusot was a relatively small target, it was severely damaged and ceased production for a considerable period.
Another of No. 75 Squadron's targets at this time was the Rhineland town of Aachen. Aachen was on the fringe of the Ruhr and could be reached without deep penetration of the enemy defences; nevertheless, the city itself was well defended by anti-aircraft batteries and night fighters. Several crews reported encounters with night fighters, one of which was probably destroyed. The gunners saw their target emit a flash, spin round and go down through the clouds, after which there was an explosion on the ground. On the other hand, two Stirlings were badly damaged by flak over Aachen. One made an emergency landing and the crew escaped injury but the other crew were not so fortunate. When they crash-landed at Oakington, the undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft turned over and caught fire. The mid-upper gunner was mortally wounded and four other members of the crew badly hurt, including the captain, Flying Officer Eddy. He remained in the aircraft to assist his bomb aimer from the overturned second pilot's seat. Then, finding that the dying mid-upper gunner was trapped in his turret, he went back into the burning aircraft to try to free him. Unfortunately the heat, fumes, and smoke finally drove him back to the ground, where he collapsed as a result of his exertions and injuries.
Meanwhile No. 75 Squadron had continued to play its part in the Battle of the Ruhr. The Stirlings flew in the massive raid against Dortmund on 23 May when over 830 bombers had caused widespread destruction. ‘No district and few industries escaped unscathed,’ says a contemporary report. ‘Two-thirds of the great Hoesch steel plant were damaged and one area of devastation in the centre of the city covered 115 acres.’ Two nights later New Zealand Stirlings were among the 610 bombers which attacked Wuppertal where, following the best concentration of marking yet achieved by the Pathfinders, immense damage was caused.
* * * * *
The climax of the Ruhr battle came on 25 July 1943 when seven hundred Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings, and Wellingtons made their last attack of the year against Essen. For the loss of twenty-three machines, it was estimated that more damage was inflicted in this raid than in all previous attacks against Essen put together. Photographic reconnaissance revealed that the bombing was concentrated within a relatively narrow strip about one and a half miles wide, stretching back from the aiming point in the centre of the town and including the whole of Krupps Works. Havoc, wrought by fire, was great and some buildings were still burning two days later. A few nights later the industrial centre of Remscheid which specialised in machine tools was raided by 270 bombers, and reconnaissance the next day showed uncontrolled fires sweeping the town, the whole centre of which appeared gutted. A contemporary German report shows that over one hundred industrial concerns, including two steel mills, were affected.
Altogether, the Battle of the Ruhr had given an impressive demonstration of the growing power for destruction of Bomber Command. Not only had a hitherto invulnerable area been severely damaged for the first time but there seemed no reason why this success should not be repeated indefinitely on targets within Oboe range. This had never been the case before. Every previous success had been dependent on a caprice of the weather and had only been won by seizing some opportunity which might never recur. Never- theless, Air Marshal Harris himself regarded his victory in the Ruhr as only the beginning of a serious bomber offensive; not before a very much larger number of cities elsewhere in Germany had been reduced to the same condition and not before the wrecked cities of the Ruhr and elsewhere had been attacked once and even twice again to prevent recovery could there be any decisive effect.1
A spectacular incident in the Battle of the Ruhr must now be noted. This was the attack on the night of 16 May 1943 against the dams in the Ruhr and Weser valleys, which supplied water and hydro-electric power for many cities and industries in these regions.page 77
Of some twelve dams the Moehne was the chief. Built to control the River Ruhr, it was 105 feet high, 2100 feet long, increasing in thickness from 25 feet at the top to 112 feet at the base, and its capacity was just over 130 million tons of water. Second in importance was the Eder Dam which protected and fed the large manufacturing centre of Kassel and neighbouring industrial areas. Other large dams were the Sorpe – unusual on account of its earthern construction round a concrete core – the Lister, and the Schwelme.
To attack such formidable targets successfully was an extremely difficult and hazardous task involving months of careful planning, preparation, and training. A special unit, No. 617 Lancaster Squadron, had therefore been formed under Wing Commander Guy Gibson1 and the crews carefully chosen. Gibson himself had already completed three tours of operations, and after pressing strongly to be allowed to remain on operations he had, on account of his outstanding character and achievements, been selected to command No. 617 Squadron. This unit, first under Gibson and later under Wing Commander Cheshire2 – both men won the Victoria Cross – was to establish a splendid record during the second half of the war in carrying out various special missions, of which this successful attack on the Ruhr dams was but the first.
The raid on the dams was made by nineteen Lancasters using specially designed weapons that were detonated by hydrostatic fuses at a chosen depth. Two New Zealanders were among the bomber crews: Flight Lieutenant Munro,3 who was later to become deputy leader of the squadron, captained one Lancaster, and Flying Officer Chambers,4 who had been with No. 75 Squadron the previous year, flew as wireless operator in another. Both men were among the eleven crews which survived their mission. The whole gallant action is vividly portrayed in the last chapters of Enemy Coast Ahead, written by Wing Commander Gibson shortly before he was killed in action.
1 Wing Commander G. P. Gibson, VC, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, Legion of Merit (US); born Talland, Simla, 12 Aug 1918; joined RAF 1937; commanded No. 106 Sqdn, 1942–43; No. 617 Sqdn, 1943; Deputy Director Personnel (A) 1944; killed on air operations 19 Sep 1944.
2 Group Captain G. L. Cheshire, VC, DSO and two bars, DFC; RAF (retd); born Chester, 7 Sep 1917; permanent commission RAF Oct 1939; commanded No. 76 Sqdn, 1942–43; No. 617 Sqdn, 1943–44; served with RAF Delegation, USA, 1944–45.
The effects of the breaching of the two dams are described in contemporary German reports. A gap ‘76 metres wide and 21 to 23 metres deep’ was torn in the Moehne Dam, the main power-station below it was destroyed, and all road and rail bridges in the Moehne Valley were swept away. There was further widespread damage to power-stations, waterworks, industries and railways in the Ruhr Valley and ‘the effects of the attack were felt far into the Dusseldorf district.’ Similar destruction and dislocation were reported by the Germans as a result of the breaching of the Eder Dam, below which the whole valley was flooded for 16 miles, including parts of the town of Kassel.
The bombs used in the attack on the Ruhr Dams had been specially designed by B. N. Wallis of Vickers Armstrong, and after the war the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors gave him £10,000. He put it into a fund to educate children of men who died in the RAF, quoting David in Samuel II, Chapter 23: ‘Is not this the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives?’ It was a worthy gesture. The finest bombs ever invented would have been useless without young men of sufficient courage to fight through bitter opposition to drop them and sufficient skill to put them in the page 79 right place. The aircrews of Bomber Command were young enough and courageous enough, and this raid on the Ruhr dams was but one of many episodes in which their almost incredible bravery was fully demonstrated.
* * * * *
By the middle of 1943, with Bomber Command sending large forces deeper into Germany and the United States 8th Air Force making an impressive display of its newly acquired strength in daylight attacks, the Allied air offensive was steadily gaining momentum. The advent of the American bomber forces over Germany was to prove a major turning point in the strategic air attack on the enemy war machine. However, as yet, coincidence of effort and objectives was rather fortuitous and for some time the two Allied bomber forces continued to operate along lines not nearly so parallel as had been assumed.
The British and American forces were, in fact, engaged in bombing the enemy in accordance with widely divergent theories. Whereas the RAF still hoped to bring about the general disorganisation of the German economy by area attacks on cities, the Americans preferred precise attacks on selected industries. Moreover, the Americans considered that the key to a successful bombing offensive was air superiority, which meant the destruction of the Luftwaffe, while in the RAF policy of night bombing the tactics demanded were the evasion rather than the defeat of the German fighter force.
This fundamental difference of opinion as to the best method of conducting the strategic bombing offensive had been recognised at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, but it had not been bridged in the subsequent statement of policy issued after that meeting. The commanders of the two Allied bomber forces, Air Marshal Harris and Lieutenant-General Eaker, had been left to interpret an extremely wide directive in their own different ways. As a result subsequent efforts to achieve a common strategy and tactics were to meet with little success until well into 1944.
On the tactical side there was much discussion of the relative merits of day and night bombing. At first the RAF tended to be rather sceptical and the Americans boldly optimistic regarding the efficacy of daylight attacks, but soon both sides had cause to modify their views. It was realised that complementary attacks by day and night had certain advantages as both sides could draw to the full on their previous training and experience, while the enemy fighter force would be kept at full stretch and Germany subjected to a more continuous assault.
The Americans, however, had to pass through a hard school in developing their daylight attacks. Like Bomber Command, they page 80 found that penetration over Germany by day without fighter cover was prohibitive in cost; they also discovered that on many days the weather over Northern Europe produced conditions similar to those prevailing at night and thereby rendered precision attacks very difficult.1 But eventually the Americans triumphed over the obstacles to effective daylight attacks, and by mid-1944 tightly packed formations of Fortress bombers under strong escort by long-range fighters were bombing Berlin at high noon.
American ideas on air strategy exerted a strong influence in the discussions that took place during 1943 in an attempt to develop a combined plan for the bombing of Germany. In May of that year General Eaker, in command of the United States 8th Air Force, produced a plan based on the proposition that ‘it was better to cause a high degree of destruction in a few really essential industries than to cause a small degree of destruction in many industries.’ American intelligence experts working in close co-operation with the British suggested six target systems whose destruction it was believed would ‘fatally weaken the enemy's capacity for armed resistance.’ These systems were the submarine construction yards and bases, the aircraft industry, the ball-bearing industry, oil, synthetic rubber pro- duction, and the production of military and transport vehicles. Since the destruction of these targets could only be achieved by a force of considerable size, the RAF could co-operate in the plan by attacking cities by night which were related to the target systems being bombed by the 8th Air Force. However, Eaker pointed out that before his plan could be put into effect it was essential to reduce the growing strength of the German fighter force. This, in fact, was the most important feature of the plan.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff who, acting under the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, were the supreme military authority, accepted this point and signified their approval of the general plan. The defeat of the German Air Force now became mandatory and the achievement of air superiority was accepted as the indispensable prelude to successful strategic bombing operations. A revision, or rather an interpretation, of the Casablanca directive was now called for.
1 An American air historian records that ‘On the 11th June 1943 … after being frustrated during ten days of bad weather over European targets the 8th Air Force despatched 252 heavy bombers to attack Bremen and Wilhelmshaven. Finding Bremen obscured by clouds 168 of the bombers attacked Wilhelmshaven and 30 bombed Cuxhaven, a target of opportunity …. Things went very much as expected which is not to say that they went well. As on previous AAF missions to those parts, the German fighters appeared in force but reserved their attacks until the bombing formations were committed to the bombing run …. Bombing accuracy at Wilhelmshaven was consequently poor, few bombs of the 417 tons dropped did serious damage and none hit the target (the U-boat building yards). – A. B. Ferguson in The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume II, p. 669.
The result was that the so-called ‘combined bomber offensive’ continued more or less along its already divergent lines. While the 8th Air Force went ahead with daylight attacks upon the more precise sources of German air strength, Bomber Command continued to concentrate mainly on area attacks against German cities.
Air Marshal Harris was, in fact, determined to carry on the attack against German cities and as far as possible to avoid all diversionary activities. He remained convinced that the enemy's capitulation could best be brought about by the destruction of most of his principal towns. As Bomber Command became better equipped for concentrated attack, the British Air Staff argued the merits of attacks on key industries in Germany, but Harris persisted in his view – not without strong political support. As late as 7 December 1943, in a review of the RAF bomber offensive, he declared: ‘it is not possible to dogmatize on the degree of destruction necessary to cause the enemy to capitulate but there can be little doubt that the necessary conditions will be brought about by the destruction of between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the principal German towns.’
By the end of 1943, however, the British Air Staff, already inclined to the American view, was finally convinced that the area bombing offensive was not the best way to win the war. But it was not until February 1944 that, by insisting on an attack against the controversial target of Schweinfurt, they made this clear to Sir Arthur Harris. The official British policy, if not the practice, of area bombing was then discarded. The impending invasion of the Continent for which air superiority was regarded as vital had provided the final and decisive argument in favour of the American policy of attacking the German fighter force and the aircraft industry upon which it depended.
The combined bombing effort did not, however, achieve close integration until late in the campaign when the greater accuracy of the British bombing and the heavier weight of the American attack page 82 made the distinction between pinpoint and area bombing a shadowy one, and when the importance of enemy oil and transport had become so apparent as to leave little doubt regarding the primary objectives. Nevertheless, the early stages of the Allied air offensive were not negligible in terms of strategic effects. In particular, they reduced the cushion of potential productive capacity in Germany which had at first absorbed the shock of strategic bombardment. But until 1944 German industry was not fully mobilised. Many industries had surplus space, machine tools, and stocks of raw materials. Some plants had yet to be converted to full war production, while the capabilities of the occupied territories were not fully developed. Moreover, owing to the fact that the Allied attacks were not fully co-ordinated or repeated quickly enough, the enormous recuperative power of German industry had not yet been taxed to the full. In this connection it is well to emphasise that the air offensive did not achieve major power and significance until the spring of 1944. Indeed, of the total tonnage of bombs dropped in the European War by the RAF and the USAAF, no less than 83 per cent was dropped subsequent to 1 January 1944. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that, of all the tonnage dropped on Germany itself, 72 per cent was after 1 July 1944. If the bombing of Germany had relatively little effect on production prior to that time, it is not only because she had idle resources upon which to draw but also because the major weight of the air offensive had not yet been brought to bear.