New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 4 — Longer-range Attacks
Now it was late summer. Dusk came earlier to the airfields in eastern England and, with the longer hours of darkness, Royal Air Force bombers began to penetrate farther into enemy territory. The first of the more distant targets that were heavily attacked during the second half of 1943 was the city of Hamburg. ‘The total destruction of this city,’ declared the Commander-in-Chief in his operational order on the eve of the attack, ‘would achieve immeasurable results in reducing the industrial capacity of the enemy's war machine. But the battle of Hamburg cannot be won in a single night. It is estimated that at least 10,000 tons of bombs will have to be dropped to achieve the maximum effect. On the first raid a large number of incendiaries are to be carried in order to saturate the fire services ….’
Hamburg was the second largest city of Germany and the greatest port in continental Europe. Within its boundaries lay U-boat building yards, aircraft factories, and oil installations of the first importance, as well as many other major war industries. Before the war the town, whose main built-up area was on the north of the River Elbe, had a population of over one and a half million. This important centre of the German economy was one of the most heavily guarded areas in Germany outside the Ruhr and hundreds of guns and searchlights co-operated with squadrons of night fighters in its defence.
Hamburg had already been attacked by Bomber Command on various occasions earlier in the war with considerable loss and comparatively little effect, but the brief series of raids now directed against the city at the end of July 1943 was to provide a remarkable contrast. Within the space of just over one week, four night raids, each by more than seven hundred aircraft, were launched by Bomber Command, and over 8500 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped. Two daylight attacks by American bombers on the port area of Hamburg added a further 254 tons. There were also harassing attacks by small forces of Mosquito bombers in the intervals between the major raids so that the effect on the Germans was one of almost continuous assault. By the beginning of August Hamburg was without water, gas, and electricity supplies, large areas page 84 of the town lay in smoking ruins, and between 40,000 and 50,000 people had lost their lives. Economically the great city was for the time being knocked out, since the undamaged parts had to stop work on account of the destruction or lack of essential services.
The second RAF attack on the night of 27 July produced a unique and dreadful phenomenon in Hamburg. The bombing was well concentrated and its main weight fell upon the closely built-up area to the east of the Alster Lake. Within a short time this region was enveloped in a veritable sea of flames which were intensified by firestorms of almost hurricane strength. The overheated air stormed through the streets with immense force, taking along not only sparks but burning timber and roof beams, so spreading the fire farther and farther. According to a German observer, ‘it developed in a short time into a fire typhoon as such was never before witnessed, against which every human resistance was quite useless.’ Another report said that the firestorms were so violent and the suction so strong that trees were uprooted and the roofs of houses carried away. To judge from the many German descriptions of what happened it must have been almost as terrible as the bursting of the two atom bombs over the Japanese cities at the end of the war. Certainly these fire raids at the end of July 1943 were always referred to by the inhabitants of Hamburg as ‘The Catastrophe’.
On each of the big RAF raids the plan of attack was similar. Pathfinders led the way dropping route markers at a given point off the mouth of the Elbe. Since Hamburg was outside Oboe range, aircraft equipped with H2S marked the target and there was a large force of backers-up to maintain this marking throughout the raids. Among them were experts whose duty it was to re-centre the attack when necessary so as to avoid the usual creeping back of the bomb- ing. Except in the last raid, when the bombers met severe thunder- storms and most of the markers were hidden by clouds, these tactics proved highly successful.
But the outstanding feature of the Hamburg raids which contributed in large measure to the success achieved was the employment for the first time of a new method of countering the very efficient German defence organisation. During each raid British bombers dropped innumerable small strips of metallised paper which caused echoes similar to those produced by aircraft to appear on the enemy radar screens. The effect was remarkable. In the German ground-control stations instruments behaved as though the sky was filled with thousands of hostile aircraft and the controllers had to tell their night-fighter pilots they were unable to help them. Indeed, the whole system upon which the enemy relied for the control of his night fighters and the accuracy of his gunfire was thrown into hopeless confusion. Searchlights waved aimlessly in all directions, page 85 predicted gunfire gave way to a heavy barrage, and the German night fighters frequently seemed unaware of the presence of bombers in their vicinity. As a result the RAF casualties in the four attacks on Hamburg were relatively light, 87 bombers being lost from the 3095 sorties despatched.
The lack of direction from the ground and the consequent frustration of the efforts of the German night-fighter pilots may have accounted for a somewhat unusual incident which befell one of the Stirlings from No. 75 Squadron in the raid on 24 July. Just after bombs had been released the captain reported a night fighter approaching from ahead. A second or two later there was a terrific bump as the fighter collided with the starboard wing, tearing away several feet of the wing and damaging the aileron controls. But apparently the German machine got the worst of the collision for it was seen to turn over on its back and go down. The Stirling had meanwhile dropped on its starboard side and began to lose height, but with help from his bomb aimer the pilot managed to pull the aircraft level and then hold it on course throughout the long return flight.
The New Zealand Squadron took part in each of the four major attacks on Hamburg, despatching a total of seventy-nine sorties. This was in addition to the attacks on Essen and Remscheid during the last weeks of July which marked the final stage of the Ruhr battle. ‘It has been a terrific week for everybody – for ground crews as well as for the flying men,’ declared Wing Commander Wyatt. ‘The fitters, mechanics and the riggers have worked without stint to get the bombers ready for the next operation. As a result we have put up more aircraft in the last week than ever before.’
In the first three raids on Hamburg No. 75 Squadron was fortu- nate, all but one of the Stirlings returning safely. In the last attack, however, two of the seventeen bombers which took off failed to return. One was shot down over Germany and the other crashed into the North Sea. All the members of both crews were lost. The last raid was made in very bad weather. One New Zealander with a Lancaster squadron, whose motto appropriately enough was ‘Despite the Elements’, told how his bomber finally reached the vicinity of Hamburg after flying through cloud, rain and electrical storms. ‘The clouds were very dense and miles high and so thick that we had to come down very low before getting under them. A violent thunderstorm was raging and brilliant flashes of lightning lit up the ground. Suddenly we saw the twisting outline of the River Elbe and were then able to fix our position.’ Another crew reported that they flew over the target area six times before they could find a way through the cloud.page 86
Many of the New Zealanders who flew to Hamburg with RAF squadrons also had eventful flights. Pilot Officer Elder1 of No. 76 Squadron brought back a crippled Halifax with one member of his crew dead and two wounded after one of the raids. German fighters had attacked the Halifax shortly after the bomb load was released, killing the mid-upper gunner and putting the port engine out of action. Other members of the crew fought off the fighters while the bomb aimer took an axe and cut away burning pieces of the fuselage. On reaching the first lighted airfield in England after a difficult flight, Elder ordered the unwounded members of his crew to bale out because he feared a dangerous crash-landing. The navigator, bomb aimer, and wireless operator all left the aircraft and came down safely. After strapping the badly injured rear gunner in the rest position the engineer, who had himself been wounded in the legs, helped Elder to bring the bomber down on the grass outside the runway. The Halifax skidded along to the end of the airfield, jumped a ditch, went through a fence, and finished up by tearing the port engines out on some tree stumps before it finally came to rest.
The raids on Hamburg caused considerable alarm among the German war leaders. ‘We were of the opinion,’ said Herr Speer, Minister of Production, during his interrogation after the war, ‘that rapid repetition of this type of attack upon another six German towns would inevitably cripple the will to sustain armament manufacture and war production. I reported to the Fuehrer at the time that a continuation of these attacks might bring about a rapid end to the war.’ It was indeed a critical moment for Germany since it was clear that, for the time being at least, the Luftwaffe was unable either to prevent the raids or to launch heavy reprisals against Britain. Goebbels was ‘sunk in gloom’ and anxiously watching for signs of collapse on the home front which had been the undoing of Germany in 1918. However, the British raids were not repeated with the same weight and frequency, the crisis passed, and the German defence organisation was able to adapt itself to further air attacks as a result of the experience gained at Hamburg.
By the middle of 1943 Italy had become the focus of the Allied attack in the Mediterranean, and Bomber Command was directed to support the efforts being made to drive Hitler's wavering ally out of the war. Therefore, between the middle of July and the end of August there were frequent raids on the industrial cities of northern Italy. In July the nights were too short for the slower types of aircraft and even the Lancasters had to be routed home through the Bay of Biscay. Nevertheless, as early as the night of 12 July, 295 Lancasters delivered a successful attack against Turin.
There were also a number of raids by smaller forces of Lancasters against the transformer and switching stations upon which the electrified railways of Italy depended. After these attacks the Lancasters would often fly on to land in North Africa and then make another bombing raid during their return flight to the United Kingdom. On the night of 15 July when twenty-four Lancasters were despatched in four groups to attack such targets, Flight Lieutenant Stewart1 led the six aircraft from No. 61 Squadron whose objective was the grid and transformer station at Bologna. Stewart went in first and, after dropping sighter bombs, scored hits in a second low-level attack. His gunners then concentrated on the enemy flak posts while the remaining aircraft made their bombing runs. Stewart, who had been with his squadron since 1941 and was on his second tour of operations, was taken prisoner a few weeks later in the famous raid on the German experimental station at Peenemunde.
Within the space of ten days in mid-August 1380 sorties were flown by Bomber Command against Turin, Genoa and Milan. The great weight of bombs – some 2200 tons which included over five hundred two-ton ‘block-busters’ - fell on Milan in three raids within four nights. Four hundred and eighty Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Stirlings made the first attack; 134 Lancasters the second, and nearly 200 Lancasters were sent on the third raid. The long and difficult flight over the Alps was the chief hazard in these raids on Italy, but there were occasional encounters with enemy fighters usually during the flight across France. On their second flight to Milan, Flight Lieutenant Barley1 and his crew of No. 44 Rhodesian Squadron were attacked in the neighbourhood of Lake Bourget, to the east of Lyons. After a running fight lasting several minutes in which the Lancaster suffered considerable damage, Barley found one engine out of action and a second giving very little power. A strong north-west wind made him decide that the best chance of saving his aircraft and crew was to make for North Africa. By skilful flying he was able to maintain sufficient height to cross the Mediterranean and reach Blida airfield near Algiers.
The last stages in the bombing of Italy were very successful both in causing material damage and in finally destroying what little inclination remained in that country to continue the war. Italy surrendered unconditionally on 3 September 1943 but the German reaction was too quick for the Allies to take advantage of the surrender. German troops were rushed into the country and the Allies faced a long and bitter campaign.
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During the summer months of 1943, apart from several interesting but relatively small raids – notably against the Schneider Works at Le Creusot, the aircraft factory at Friedrichshafen, and the Peugeot Works at Montbelliard – the British bombers had concentrated upon the dislocation and destruction of industries in the Ruhr and Rhineland and in Hamburg. But with the approach of longer nights Bomber Command had begun to extend its efforts against the enemy's industrial system and at the same time make a contribution to the reduction of German air strength. In August Nuremberg, which contained ball-bearing plants, was twice attacked by heavy forces of over six hundred aircraft Leverkusen, which contained one of the vast I. G. Farben chemical and rubber plants, was also attacked. In addition, there were raids on Berlin and the Ruhr. September targets included Montlucon, the site of the French Dunlop works, and Hanover, whose principal importance to the aircraft industry lay in its production of aircraft tires. Kassel was attacked twice during October and there were heavy raids on Stuttgart, Leipzig and Hanover. In Stuttgart there was an important ball-bearing factory as well as numerous small plants manufacturing aircraft components, while Leipzig contained the big Erla group factories which made and assembled Messerschmitt fighters. In November Ludwigshaven and Leverkusen, both of which contained plants of the Farben combine, were attacked; Stuttgart was also raided again.
During the second half of 1943 seventeen attacks, six of them in July and five in October, were delivered by American bombers against specific targets in the German aircraft industry, the main weight of the assault falling upon fighter assembly plants. The centre of the German ball-bearing industry at Schweinfurt – high in the list of primary objectives for the Allied bombers – was also twice raided by the United States 8th Air Force. But in the second attack against this target on 14 October 1943 very heavy casualties were incurred – sixty of the 228 bombers being lost – and it became page 90 clear that daylight raids involving deep penetration would have to be adequately protected by fighter escort in order to retain the strength required for continuous operations.1 As such escort was not yet available the 8th Air Force made no more deep penetrations in clear weather into Germany for the rest of the year. For the time being the daylight assault on long-range targets was left to the 15th USAAF operating from Italy, with the 8th confining itself to the German ports and the Ruhr.
The attacks on Schweinfurt are of more than passing interest for they illustrate both the difficulties and the weakness of the Allied bombing offensive at this stage. The two American raids caused damage in critical departments of the industry, and the testimony of Speer and others acquainted with the situation leaves no doubt that the enemy took a grave view of the matter. In the autumn of 1943 the German ball-bearing industry was concentrated in a few places, all of them known to Allied intelligence, and the machinery was as yet largely unprotected. In the opinion of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, had these two 1943 attacks been followed up the German bearing situation might have become critical indeed. As it was, Bomber Command - owing to Harris's strong aversion to what he termed ‘panacea’ targets - did not take part in this first assault on the Schweinfurt plants at all and no further attempt was made to bomb them by either British or American aircraft for another four months. During that time the Germans were able to reorganise and disperse the industry so thoroughly that any further effort to destroy it was doomed to failure.
However, in spite of the inability to press on immediately with heavy daylight attack and some lack of co-ordination between British and American operations, the 1943 assault on the German aircraft industry had several important results. In particular, it delayed the planned programme for fighter production by approximately three months and the timing of this delay contributed to the victory in the critical air battles of the following winter. The Allied offensive also brought about a heavier wastage of German fighters in action, which led in turn to the adoption by the Germans of new programmes for greatly increased aircraft production, particularly of fighter types. And this growing emphasis by the enemy on fighters was perhaps the best indication of the progress of the battle for air supremacy in Europe.
1 ‘For the time being,’ declares the official American Air Historian, ‘the 8th Air Force was in no position to make further penetrations either to Schweinfurt or to any other objectives deep in German territory. The Schweinfurt mission, bad enough in itself, had climaxed a week of costly air battles. Within the space of six days the Eighth lost one hundred and forty-eight bombers and crews, mostly as a result of air action, in the course of four attempts to break through German fighter defenses unescorted.’ – The Army Air Force in World War II, Volume II, p. 705.
Of the night area attacks delivered by Bomber Command during the last months of 1943 those which fell on Leipzig, Kassel, and Hanover caused particularly widespread devastation. In the raid against Hanover on the night of 8 October, which followed two heavy raids in the previous eighteen days, the main weight of bombs fell on the central area round the main railway station and the industrial region of Linden to the south-west of the town centre. This attack was considered far more effective than all the previous attacks on Hanover. In the two October raids on Kassel, which had a substantial aircraft industry producing aero-engines and various components, as well as assembling aircraft, a large part of the built-up area was devastated. All three Henschel factories were damaged, the main factory suffering the most, the majority of its smaller buildings being destroyed and the larger workshops damaged. After the second raid against Leipzig early in December the damage covered a wide strip running right across the city from north to south and spreading from the centre into the most densely built-up districts on either side. Much of the area to the south-west of the main station, where lay the old town, was destroyed. Industrial damage was particularly severe in the south where buildings designed to house the Leipzig World Fair had been converted to the aircraft industry and were engaged on the repair of Junkers aero-engines and the assembly of fuselages.
New Zealanders flew with many of the RAF bomber squadrons in the raids on these longer-range targets as captains, navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers and gunners. Some men survived remarkable experiences. Squadron Leader J. B. Starky was captain of a Lancaster from No. 115 Squadron which took off for Mannheim one evening early in September. It was his forty-seventh trip. Six hours later, with the starboard elevator almost completely shot away, the navigator and wireless operator missing and two more of the crew wounded, the Lancaster force-landed at an airfield in England. Some twenty miles short of the target a night fighter had dived on the Lancaster in a head-on attack. The bomber was badly hit, the cockpit filled with smoke, and the machine went into a violent spiral. Unable to regain control Starky gave the order to abandon by parachute. But on hearing that his rear gunner was trapped in his turret he made a last desperate effort to regain control. Suddenly the stick became a little easier owing to the dinghy, which had become jammed in the tail unit, blowing free. Then as the Lancaster levelled out the German fighter attacked again. But the gunners held their fire until it came close and sent it down in flames. Starky then found that both his wireless operator and page 92 navigator had baled out, his engineer had been wounded in the shoulder, and his bomb aimer badly hit in the arm and head. An approximate course was set for England, and with his bomb aimer doing the navigation – the navigator's log had gone and he had no plan to work on – Starky brought the Lancaster back to the coast and across the North Sea.
Shot down over the German-Belgian border, Flight Sergeant Pond1 of No. 97 Squadron was back in England in just over a fort- night. Pond captained a Lancaster in the attack on Nuremberg towards the end of August. Just after leaving the target the bomber was attacked by a night fighter and badly damaged. Flying low near the Belgian frontier, Pond turned his machine into cloud to avoid another fighter and a few moments later the aircraft struck high ground, bounced off, and finally finished up in a cornfield, where it caught fire. The rear gunner had been killed in the fighter attack and the bomb aimer in the crash. The surviving members of the crew, believing themselves to be in Germany, split up at once. Actually they were in Belgium, as Pond found out the next after- noon. While hiding in a field a horse ran so near him that he had to stand up. A farmer approached and, recognising him as English, shook hands and warned him that there were Germans in the village and gave him directions. Pond was thus able to evade capture and he soon received help which enabled him, after an adventurous journey, to return to England sixteen days later.
Flight Sergeant B. Williams,1 who flew as air gunner with a Canadian squadron, was less fortunate. When his crippled Wellington bomber came down in the North Sea, he and his crew spent over eighty hours in their dinghy only to be picked up by the Germans. This was Williams's second crash within a few months. On this occasion the Wellington was returning from a raid on Hanover. Hits from anti-aircraft fire over the target had caused damage and loss of fuel, but the crew had decided to attempt the crossing of the North Sea and at least get as close as possible to England. But before they had got half-way across the sea the engines spluttered out and the pilot was compelled to ditch.
One further episode, typical of what happened all too often in Bomber Command, must be recorded. It concerns a gunner, Pilot Officer Moon1 of No. 156 Pathfinder Squadron who, after being wounded a second time, was the only member of his crew to survive the war. On the night of 20 December 1943 his Lancaster flew in the attack on Frankfurt and, after bombing the target and passing through its defences, was attacked by a German fighter. Through the commentary and directions given by Moon to his pilot this attack was successfully evaded. About twenty minutes later another fighter made a surprise attack. The bomber was badly hit, an engine set on fire and the mid-upper turret shattered. Moon was badly wounded; a bullet entered his back and passed out through his chest, paralysing his left arm and side. However, he remained at his post, trying as best he could with his right hand to make his guns fire. When the enemy fighter finally broke away, Moon tried to reach the rest position and only when unable to do so did he seek help. Twelve nights later when Moon lay in hospital all the other members of his crew were killed when their Lancaster was shot down on its way back from Berlin.
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In mid-August Wing Commander Max1 became the first New Zealander to command the squadron for over a year. Max had joined the Royal Air Force in August 1938 and at the outbreak of war was serving with No. 103 Bomber Squadron. He was among the small group of New Zealanders who flew with the Battle squadrons in France during 1940 and on one occasion was shot down near Amiens after bombing a concentration of German tanks. On return to the United Kingdom he continued to operate with his squadron and flew Wellingtons until early in 1941, when he was released to fly on the Atlantic Ferry. Before assuming command of No. 75 Squadron, Max did valuable work as an instructor at an operational training unit. Squadron Leaders F. A. Andrews, R. Broadbent, and J. Joll continued as flight commanders with this squadron during the second half of 1943.
The first attack by No. 75 Squadron after the Battle of Hamburg came on the night of 10 August when eighteen aircraft bombed Nuremberg. The squadron's operation record book states that: ‘Large fires were seen glowing below the clouds and some heavy explosions occurred indicating that the attack was a success. Moderate anti-aircraft fire co-operating with searchlights was encountered but gave little trouble. Some enemy aircraft were seen but no combats took place. Weather at the target was poor with thick cloud which prevented identification of detail.’ One crew were fortunate to get back when their navigational aids failed during the return journey and they went off track and ran short of fuel. The crew prepared to abandon the aircraft but eventually reached Manston, where they landed after being airborne for over nine hours.
There was a second attack against Nuremberg on 27 August when eighteen Stirlings reported successful bombing; one aircraft captained by Flight Sergeant Higham2 failed to return. Meanwhile the squadron had contributed to the final stages of the offensive against Italy with two attacks on Turin in which twenty-nine sorties were flown without loss.
1 Wing Commander R. D. Max, DSO, DFC; born Brightwater, 23 Nov 1918; joined RAF Aug 1938; transferred RNZAF Dec 1943; served on Atlantic Ferry, 1941; Flying Instructor No. 11 OTU, 1941–42; Deputy Chief Instructor, 1943; commanded No. 75 (NZ) Sqdn, 1943–44; transferred RAF Mar 1947.
Two episodes connected with these missions across the Alps indicate the fine spirit which existed in No. 75 Squadron at this time. In the raid against Turin on 12 August, one Stirling was intercepted near Paris on its outward flight by a German fighter. One engine was hit and became useless, but the crew carried on to their target nearly 400 miles away, dropped their bombs and returned safely. After the second raid, four nights later, crews returned to find fog covering their base at Mepal and they were diverted to other airfields, so that they could not return to their home airfield until later the next morning. Consequently servicing, refuelling, and bombing-up were delayed, but through the enthusiastic and high-speed work of the ground crews the Stirlings were prepared for operations that same night against Peenemunde. And although the men did not know it at the time, this attack on Peenemunde was to prove one of the most important bombing missions of the year.
Peenemunde, on the shores of the Baltic, was the principal German experimental station engaged in the development of secret weapons such as the flying bomb and the rocket-bomb for a renewal of the attack on Britain. Bomber Command's raid on 17 August 1943 was launched to retard this development. In order to preserve secrecy and avoid needless alarm, crews were not told what was really going on at Peenemunde; instead they were briefed that the enemy was developing a new radar counter measure against night bombers. The operation was given the code name HYDRA, not altogether a happy thought, since this was the name of the fabled monster who grew new heads whenever one was cut off.
A force of 600 bombers took off for the attack in bright moon- light. Normally a force of this size would only have been sent against such a distant target on a dark or cloudy night, and the danger from night fighters, even after the disruption of the enemy's defence system by the dropping of metallised strips in the recent attacks on Hamburg, was considerable. Therefore, in an effort to deceive the Germans the whole force this night was routed as if Berlin were the target and a small diversionary force of Mosquitos did actually go on to Berlin. The attack was carefully planned and for the first time in a major raid on Germany a ‘master of ceremonies’, circling high above the target, assessed the accuracy of the placing of the target markers and then gave instructions to the whole force by radio telephone. His task was not easy for there were some clouds and a protective smoke screen which shrouded much of the target area. Nevertheless, the bombing appears to have been fairly well concentrated. At first the Germans were deceived by the feint attack towards Berlin but the ruse was detected before the raid on Peenemunde had finished. Night fighters were hastily despatched to intercept the bombers on their return flight to England page 97 and the last squadrons to attack suffered heavy casualties. Altogether forty aircraft failed to return. No. 75 Squadron was fortunate in that all the twelve Stirlings despatched returned safely. A few enemy aircraft were sighted but no combats took place. Crews reported that they could see the glow of fires over one hundred miles from the target on their return flight.
Bomber Command's attack on Peenemunde caused considerable destruction of both manufacturing buildings and living quarters, where casualties were heavy and included several important scientists and leading members of the staff of the experimental establishment. The actual delay caused to the opening of the German V-weapon offensive is uncertain but it is significant that after this attack by Bomber Command the German threats of retaliation against the United Kingdom by secret weapons became much less specific as regards dates.1
1 An entry in the Goebbels' diary dated 10 September 1943 states that the raids on Peenemunde and the Todt structures in the West threw preparations back by four to eight weeks. However, the United States Post-War Bombing Survey reports that the attack took place too late to interfere seriously with the development of the V-1 (flying bomb) but estimates that the V-2 (rocket) programme may have been delayed by some two months.
Altogether nineteen New Zealanders were among the crews of the seven Stirlings lost by No. 75 Squadron in these two August raids on Berlin. One of them, Sergeant Grant,1 who survived by a miracle when his Stirling was shot down, has given a vivid description of his experiences.
On reaching the target area we found plenty of enemy action. The whole sky was alive with searchlights and anti-aircraft fire and fighters. Cruising in on our bombing run at 15,000 feet, we had to pass through a heavy barrage of flak and a screen of night fighters. With the bomb doors open and on a straight and level course, we were slowed by a shell which hit the port inner engine and we made a sitting target for the fighters. Just as we were about to drop our bombs a Ju. 88 began to tail us and when the bombs had gone closed in with guns blazing. I returned the fire but was unable to give instructions for evasion as I was having trouble with the intercomm. Meanwhile the mid-upper gunner was firing at another enemy aircraft to starboard and managed to drive it off. But another attacked from the port beam and succeeded in putting his turret out of action. The Junkers at our rear scored many hits on the fin and tail plane and knocked out my two right-hand guns, wounding me in the right arm and shoulder, while my face was peppered with shrapnel. Before I could get my remaining guns to bear this fighter closed in on our slow moving aircraft for the kill. I again opened fire and the enemy machine belched forth a cloud of smoke and flame and disappeared. We were further attacked and one fighter came up from below and raked us with fire from stem to stern, completely crippling our aircraft and putting my turret out of action. I had again been wounded and was cut off from the rest of the crew. My intercomm was by this time completely useless but managed to repair it enough to hear what was going on. The crew thought I had been killed during the attacks but after I had signalled by flashing the lights the wireless operator freed me from my turret. We had been flying for about an hour when we ran short of fuel and were ordered to abandon aircraft. On taking my parachute out of its stowage found it had been shot to pieces so I was forced to watch the rest of the crew bale out and sat waiting for the crash which came on the top of some high hills. I managed to scramble out of the burning machine and crawled away and went to sleep, only to be awakened some six hours later by a German search party.
1 Warrant Officer J. S. Grant; born Balclutha, 7 Nov 1920; farmer; joined RNZAF Feb 1942; p.w. 31 Aug 1943.
Hanover, centre of the German aircraft industry, and the French town of Montlucon, where there was a large Dunlop factory, were among the many targets attacked by No. 75 Squadron during September. Of the attack on Montlucon on the night of the 15th, the squadron's operations book records that: ‘Sixteen aircraft dropped their bombs in the target area. This was a concentrated attack, large fires and heavy explosions being observed. Smoke from the fires was afterwards seen rising to a height of 12,000 feet. Inaccurate flak from a few guns was the only opposition and no enemy aircraft were encountered.’ There were two raids on Hanover, in the first of which, on 22 September, twenty New Zealand Stirlings took part, again without loss. But from the second attack five nights later two of the thirteen bombers despatched were missing. Bomber Command's losses in these two raids on Hanover were sixty-four aircraft from the 1389 sorties despatched.
Other September targets for the New Zealand Squadron were the important industrial town of Mannheim in southern Germany and the Modane railway centre on the Mont-Cenis route into Italy. It was during the raid on Mannheim on 5 September that Flight Sergeant Batger1 and his crew reported their second success against enemy night fighters within six nights. On this same raid the Stirling captained by Flight Sergeant Whitmore2 was twice attacked within a few minutes. After concerted fire from his gunners the first fighter was seen to turn over, catch fire, and spin down towards the ground. Attack by a second fighter followed almost immediately but further accurate fire from the gunners caused it to break away. Shortly afterwards the Stirling took over the role of hunter when a German fighter was seen firing on a Lancaster which was burning furiously. Unfortunately, although the enemy machine was driven off, the Stirling's intervention was too late to save the Lancaster, which was seen to break up in mid-air. Pilot Officer Wilkinson3 and his crew, who had twice been successful in combat during the previous month, failed to return from this raid on Mannheim.
When the squadron went to Mannheim again towards the end of the month three more aircraft were lost. Many fighters were up in defence of this important target, the crew of one Stirling reporting no fewer than three separate attacks during their sortie. In other encounters New Zealand aircraft claimed two enemy fighters and a further three as damaged.
Eighteen Stirlings from No. 75 Squadron bombed the marshalling yards at Modane on 16 September as part of the force of almost 350 aircraft. Crews reported that flak was largely ineffective although one aircraft which was hit had to bomb and complete its sortie on three engines. A Junkers 88 was claimed by the gunners of the Stirling captained by Pilot Officer G. K. Williams1 which was one of two squadron aircraft attacked by fighters on this night.
Both ground and air crews of No. 75 Squadron had worked hard during these months to achieve the maximum effort with their Stirling bombers. But the Stirling, never a really satisfactory machine, was now obsolescent and the men still servicing and flying them could not help but envy their more fortunate comrades in the Lancaster squadrons. Indeed, during the second half of 1943 the superiority of the Lancaster, with its greater bomb load, better performance and lower loss rate, had become even more apparent, and efforts were being made to hasten the re-equipment of as many squadrons as possible with Lancasters. Meanwhile, the rising loss rate among the Stirlings and Halifaxes brought a decision to restrict the operations of these aircraft to the less difficult targets.
Thus there came a change of emphasis in No. 75 Squadron's operations and during October, although attacks were made on targets connected with the German aircraft industry at Kassel, Frankfurt and Bremen, most of the effort was devoted to mine- laying. Mannheim, Leverkusen, and Berlin were the only targets in Germany during November. Then the Stirlings were finally restricted to minelaying and bombing attacks on the sites the Germans were building for launching their ‘secret weapons’ against the United Kingdom. In December and January No. 75 Squadron's effort was divided between these two tasks, with minelaying taking by far the larger proportion, while in February it took the squadron's entire commitment.
After the intense activity of the first three-quarters of 1943, in which the squadron had taken part in many of the most important bombing raids, the enforced restriction of operations against Germany was a keen disappointment for the aircrews. However, in March 1944 the squadron began converting to Lancasters and was ready in time to take a prominent part in preparatory operations for the invasion of the Continent.
No. 490 Squadron group at Jui, West Africa, in July 1943
A Halifax about to take off
Marshalling yards at Hamm
A Halifax landing after a long night raid
Wing Commander R. D. Max briefing crews of No. 75 Squadron for a night's operations. The map was painted out for security reasons
A Mitchell of the Second Tactical Air Force above a railway yard in Belgium, 1944
One of the first flying-bomb installations found by the Royal Air Force in Northern France. A reconnaissance photograph before the attack (above) and after the target had been bombed (below)
The Me. has taken off and is gaining height
First strikes from the Typhoon have hit the fuselage and port wing
Cannon strikes on the port wing near the port cannon magazine
The Me. dives, with its engine on fire and cannon magazine about to explode
The Me. rapidly loses height and speed
With its engine and port wing burning, the Me. dives in smoke before exploding
Lancasters of Bomber Command in daylight attack on German troops in Normandy
German army headquarters in Normandy attacked by fighter-bombers of the Second Tactical Air Force
Attack by Coastal Command Beaufighters on a German destroyer off Le Verdon in Normandy
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These various counter measures were very necessary, for the Germans had soon recovered from the shock produced by the dropping of metallised strips by British bombers and the sudden fall in the efficiency of their early-warning radar. Indeed, after the Battle of Hamburg the Germans had reacted with remarkable energy and promptness. A fighter defence system on altogether new lines had been quickly improvised in which greater use was made of the Observer Corps to plot the course of the British bombers. Until the bombers' target had been guessed, the fighters were kept circling round a number of beacons. Then, when the German defence organisation had made up its mind about the target, fighters were sent there to intercept the British aircraft or to follow and attack them during the return flight. Orders were broadcast along with a running commentary giving the height, direction, and whereabouts of the bomber stream and of the probable target for which it was making or the actual target it was attacking.
The German night-fighter pilots were now more dependent on visual interception, and to help them greater numbers of searchlights were deployed in target areas either to catch the bombers in their cones or to light up the cloud base so that the bombers could be seen from above, silhouetted against the clouds. Some of the enemy fighters were also detailed to drop large numbers of flares page 103 high over the targets or to lay these in lanes along the bombers' probable route as they approached or left their objective. In addition, a considerable number of single-engined fighters were thrown into the battle and used to intercept the bombers over the target.
Such tactics brought increasing success to the Germans and, in spite of jamming and interference with the instructions broadcast to their fighters and although routes were worked out to cause maximum deception, British losses began to rise sharply towards the end of 1943. By that time fighter opposition was no longer being met only over the target and during the return flight but also on the outward journey. For the enemy had now given up directing his fighters to any particular area. Instead they were sent directly from the beacons they were circling into the bomber stream as it flew across Germany or even when it was still on its way across the North Sea. These tactics were not always successful, but when the German fighters did get into the bomber stream and the weather was reasonably favourable for interception heavy losses were suffered by Bomber Command. On 19 February 1944, for example, of the 820 bombers despatched to attack Leipzig, no fewer than 78 failed to return.
Continued changes and a wide variety of tactics were therefore necessary for Bomber Command to restrict its casualties. Early in the New Year it was discovered that the route markers dropped by the Pathfinders as landmarks and turning points were being used by the Germans as a guide to the movements and whereabouts of the bomber stream. To counter this Mosquitos were despatched to drop misleading markers and fighter flares similar to those used by the enemy. But before long it was found necessary to abandon the use of route markers. Fortunately these were no longer indispensable for by this time the main force was largely equipped with H2S and the general standard of navigation much improved. In February 1944, when the diversionary attacks by Mosquitos were having little effect in deceiving the enemy, it was decided to divide the striking force into two parts and either send the two forces to different targets or to the same target by different routes. The two shorter bomber streams were more difficult to plot and also split and confused the enemy's defence. Again, two separate attacks were sometimes made on the same target on the same night, with long enough intervals in between to ensure that the fighter force which had gone up to intercept the first raid would have landed and dispersed when the second bomber force arrived. Minelaying aircraft were frequently despatched in considerable numbers by routes which would suggest to the enemy that they were coming to attack a city. Forces of several hundred aircraft from the operational training and conversion units were also sent across the North Sea page 104 until they would be plotted by the enemy radar. Then they turned back home. A southern route across France into Germany was often used as the enemy's defences were less efficiently organised there than in the north and west. Altogether, the essence of Bomber Command's tactics was variety and as many different methods of confusing the enemy as possible were employed, no one method being used too frequently or for too long a time. Even so, it was a hard struggle to keep down the losses.
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Throughout the winter months there was no relaxation of the effort by RAF Bomber Command, and the massive night raids continued in their familiar routine. Night after night, after darkness fell over the airfields in eastern England, the bombers would taxi out one after another, like long strings of ducks, to line up on the runway. Soon the air resounded with the roar of engines as heavily laden aircraft lumbered down the mile-long flare path and took off into the darkness. In many a neighbouring town, village and hamlet, folk paused to watch and listen as, with navigation lights on at their various heights, the bombers flew towards the rendezvous point. Then, with the assembly complete, the lights went out simultaneously and the whole vast armada, like a huge swarm of angry wasps, set course over the North Sea. The gunners cocked their guns, the bomb aimers fused the bombs and they were on their way, a concentrated mass of machines, stretching upwards for several thousand feet and filling the sky in a broad stream for twenty miles along. Soon the Dutch coast loomed up ahead - incredibly soon it seemed.
Until this moment all was quiet at the German searchlight and flak batteries. Yet the flak gunners were ready and the searchlight crews prepared by the movement of a switch to send powerful beams up into the night sky to greet the raiders. And now as they crossed the Dutch coast the warning went out to the German defence posts all over the Continent. Night-fighter units in Holland had already taken off to intercept the incoming bombers and soon the first engagements of the great night battle would be taking place. Simultaneously the crews of other fighter squadrons in the region of central Germany were standing by ready to take off as the enemy control plotted the course of the bomber stream and endeavoured to guess its objective. Sirens sounded in German towns, the bright lights in the railway marshalling yards were switched off and the countryside sank into darkness. Night-fighter units which had assembled in certain areas were now guided closer to the British bomber stream.page 105
Meanwhile the Lancasters droned on deeper into Germany. A hail of shells from heavy flak batteries rushed up to meet them as they passed over the more heavily defended areas. In the brilliant beams of the searchlights some aircraft were clearly visible and night fighters closed in to shoot up as many as possible. Ahead lay the target, still and silent as yet. Then suddenly it would be galvanised into life; searchlights lit up the sky and hundreds of flashes came up from the guns on the city's roofs, in its parks and railway sidings. A few seconds later the leading Pathfinder aircraft dropped the first target marker. It burst and cascaded to the ground - a mass of green balls shining brightly - an unmistakable spot of light. More markers and flares followed, then the main force of bombers sailed in. Above, hundreds of fighter flares lit up the long stream of aircraft all too clearly. It seemed lighter than day, and searchlights usually so bright themselves could hardly pierce the glow of the flares above. Then tracers came up in all colours as combats took place over the target. Here and there bombers blew up as they received direct hits - great slow flashes in the sky leaving a long trail of black smoke as they disintegrated earthwards. There would be flak bursts all around as the leading wave of bombers held their course. The short time they held that course seemed like a lifetime. Then, relieved of their burden, the Lancasters leapt forward, diving, weaving and slithering, but they kept straight on over the burning city with throttles slammed wide open and engines in fine pitch. Down below, a volcano appeared to be raging as more sticks of incendiaries fell across the point where the target markers had first gone down. ‘Cookies’ - huge high-explosive bombs - exploded one after another with their slow red glow. Photo-flashes burst at all heights as each bomber took its photographs. It was a galaxy of light and a living nightmare.
As the last wave of bombers roared over, the fires started by the first arrivals began to take hold. Against their vivid light the last squadrons were outlined flying steadily on over the battered city. The flak died down and the searchlights waved aimlessly. Soon the area was a mass of flames and billowing smoke and the last aircraft had dropped its bombs; the rendezvous was reached and the surviving bombers turned for home.
Berlin was the principal target for the Lancasters of Bomber Command during the winter months and many New Zealanders flew with RAF squadrons in the massive attacks that were launched against the German capital. In addition to its importance as a political target Berlin contained many large plants and factories engaged on war production. The aircraft industry was represented by factories of the BMW, Dornier, Heinkel and Focke-Wulf page 106 companies, and there were important electrical and engineering firms such as Siemens, Reinmetal Borsig and Daimler Benz.
The main Battle of Berlin, as it came to be called, began in earnest in mid-November 1943 and continued until the middle of the following March. During that time sixteen major attacks involving 9130 sorties were launched, and in between these big raids Bomber Command Mosquitos kept up harassing attacks - a type of operation they had been carrying out for some time against long-distance targets with notable success. At first the Germans were surprised by the weight and persistence of the RAF attack. Fire-engines had to be requisitioned from cities as far away as Hamburg. On 23 November, the third major raid within the space of five nights, German Minister Ley declared: ‘Hell itself seems to have broken loose over us. Mines and explosive bombs keep hurtling down upon the government quarter. One after another of the most important buildings began to burn.’ And after the big raid three nights later Goebbels wrote in his diary: ‘This is a heavy blow. The Fuehrer too is very much depressed …. the situation has become alarming since one industrial plant after another has been set on fire.’ However, by a rapid concentration of guns, searchlights, and night fighters and by reinforcement of its air-raid defence organisation, the German capital managed to survive the worst of the onslaught and to inflict heavier casualties upon the raiders. In the final attack on 24 March 1944, out of the 810 aircraft sent to bomb Berlin 72 were shot down.
Altogether during the battle Bomber Command lost five hundred aircraft and their crews - some 3000 men - but such losses were not unexpected in view of the distance of the target and its importance to the Germans. Berlin was the city above all which they were bound to defend vigorously, even at the risk of leaving other places un- protected. Apart from the powerful defences the long flights during a severe northern winter were a grim test of physical endurance for the British bomber crews. Moreover, on almost every raid the German capital was covered by thick cloud which necessitated ‘sky- marking’ by the Pathfinders to guide the bombing. Describing the difficulties experienced by his crews Air Marshal Harris writes:
The whole battle was fought in appalling weather and in conditions resembling those of no other campaign … Scarcely a single crew caught a glimpse of the objective they were attacking and for long periods we were wholly ignorant, except from such admissions as the enemy made from time to time, of how the battle was going. Thousands of tons of bombs were aimed at the Pathfinders' pyrotechnic sky-markers and fell through unbroken cloud which concealed everything below it except the confused glare of fires. Scarcely any photographs taken during the bombing showed anything except clouds and day after day reconnaissance aircraft flew over the capital to return with no information. We knew, of course, from what the Germans said that we were hitting Berlin but we had little idea of which attacks had page 107 been successful and which had gone astray. Then after six attacks reconnaissance aircraft did bring back some not very clear photographs which showed that we had at last succeeded in hitting the enemy's capital hard; there were many hundreds of acres of devastation, particularly in the western half of the city and round the Tiergarten. Then the clouds closed again over Berlin and the Command made eight more attacks without any means of discovering whether all or any of them had been as successful as the first six raids. It was not until March was far advanced and the nights too short for any but Mosquito attacks on Berlin that an aircraft brought back more photographs and it was possible to assess the results of the Battle of Berlin as a whole.1
Although nothing like such an overwhelming success as the attacks on Hamburg at the end of the previous July, compared with the results of all the earlier attacks on Berlin these raids were a severe blow. There was widespread dislocation of essential services and interruption of supplies. Industrial damage was heavy. Contemporary German reports indicate that in the first six raids alone 295 factories were hit and 46 completely destroyed. Nevertheless, it is also clear that under emergency measures production recovered remarkably quickly in the German capital and it was not finally crippled until the assault was renewed later in the year.
Many of the bomber crews who took part in the Battle of Berlin reported eventful sorties. Typical was the experience of Squadron Leader Baigent2 and his crew of No. 115 Squadron one night towards the end of January 1944. Baigent, now on his second tour of opera- tions, was later to command the New Zealand Bomber Squadron at the age of twenty-two. Of his seventh trip to Berlin since the opening of the battle, he writes:
The same night, Pilot Officer Leech1 and his crew of No. 158 Halifax Squadron had an unenviable experience. About 150 miles on the homeward flight from Berlin, the starboard inner engine, which had been hit by flak, caught fire. Soon it became red hot and then the propeller flew off, crashing through the fuselage and tearing along the side from the pilot's to the navigator's compartment. Although it missed both men the propeller severed instrument controls and extinguished all lighting inside the aircraft. Aids to navigation were destroyed and Leech had to navigate his aircraft back to England, working by torchlight in intense cold from the icy blast which whistled through the gaping fuselage.
Among New Zealand airmen shot down over Berlin was Flight Lieutenant Kingsbury,2 who captained a Lancaster of No. 7 Pathfinder Squadron. Kingsbury had been with Bomber Command from the outbreak of the war and had survived many hazardous missions, but on New Year's night 1944 his luck failed him. With one engine out of action and the port main plane damaged by flak during the outward flight, he had pressed on through ice-laden clouds to drop his bombs, but over Berlin the Lancaster, unable to maintain sufficient height, was hit again. It began to go down, completely out of control. Kingsbury was the last to leave the crippled machine and his parachute had barely opened before he hit the ground. On regaining consciousness some hours later he found himself lying in slushy snow in a clearing in a lonely wood. His left leg was broken but he managed to crawl to the edge of the wood and find two forked branches to use as crutches. Finally he hobbled to a roadside where, after being ignored by several passers-by, he was finally found by a German policeman.
For men shot down near Berlin there was little chance of evading capture even if they were uninjured. However, many valiant attempts were made. For example, one New Zealand bomb aimer, Flight Sergeant Hunt,3 of No. 166 Lancaster Squadron, after baling out from his burning aircraft near Berlin, walked for six days and nights before being captured. He had struggled on almost continuously to keep from freezing, only snatching a little sleep when exhausted, and had covered some 90 miles before he walked into the arms of a railway patrol.
One further episode from the Battle of Berlin must be recorded. It concerns a young navigator, Flight Sergeant Lindsay,1 who flew with No. 83 Lancaster Squadron. When his bomber crashed and caught fire on landing one wintry December night, Lindsay was thrown fifty feet in front of the aircraft. He was badly burnt about the face and sustained a broken arm and a broken ankle. Yet despite these injuries he dragged himself back to the wreckage, where he braved both the intense heat and blazing petrol in order to help extricate his bomb aimer and his flight engineer who were trapped and seriously injured. He then helped move them to safety. Such was the standard of courage and comradeship among the bomber crews.
* * * * *
By the beginning of 1944 the combined Allied air attack on Germany had reached formidable proportions, and to meet the mounting scale of the assault radical changes in both the character and disposition of his air force had been pressed upon the enemy. Single and twin-engined fighters were transferred from Russia to Germany at the very moment when the growing superiority of the Soviet Air Force required a strengthening of German fighter oppo- sition. In the Mediterranean there was a reduction of German air strength to a point at which its influence over the course of operations became negligible. In January 1944 some 1650 fighter aircraft, representing no less than 68 per cent of Germany's total fighter strength, were concentrated in Western Europe, most of them inside Germany itself. The enemy was, in fact, being forced to defend his home front at the cost of serious military reverses elsewhere.
Faced with this growing concentration of strength over Germany the Allies decided upon a more vigorous attack against the source of German air power, and on 17 February 1944 directives were sent to the commanders of the British and American bomber forces in England ordering first priority to be given to the attacking of the German aircraft industry.
Stuttgart, where there were important aero-engine and component factories, was the target for 600 RAF bombers on the night of 20 February. Then came heavy attacks on Schweinfurt, the main centre of the German ball-bearing industry, and Augsburg where there was a large Messerschmitt assembly plant. Both raids followed American daylight attacks a few hours earlier. Bomber Command's attack on Schweinfurt was scattered, but the Augsburg raid by 594 bombers, which attacked in two waves at an interval of two and a half hours, was highly successful even though the target area was covered in snow. Mosquitos which flew over an hour afterwards reported a solid mass of fires, and photographic reconnaissance confirmed that the industrial area had suffered severely, many of the principal factories being heavily damaged.
The effect of this combined and concentrated assault on the sources of German air power, coming on top of the 1943 attacks, was dramatic. German production plans were set back by some months and the German Air Force denied some thousands of aircraft when it needed them most. Nevertheless, prompt action was taken by the enemy to meet the deficiency. Aircraft production which had previously been under the German Air Ministry was now transferred to the organisation controlled by Speer, the energetic Minister of Armament Production. Special flying squads were formed to supervise clearance and repair of damaged plants. A thorough policy of dispersal of the aircraft industry was put into effect and the number of aircraft types in production drastically reduced.
These measures were to prove remarkably effective, and the German aircraft industry was able to continue producing the numbers on the ground. But machines alone were not enough. The loss of experienced pilots and the lack of a thorough system of training were now beginning to have a serious effect on the efficiency of the German fighter force. The Luftwaffe was steadily losing the battle in the air, and Speer's efforts at production, admirable though they were, could not save the situation.
It is also worth noting that, while the dispersal of aircraft production to factories underground or hidden in woods was initially successful in that the Allies were faced with a multiplicity of targets, it was only achieved at great economic expense and eventually the dilution of expert supervision made itself felt. In the end the dispersal increased the load on the German transport system, and when the Allied attack was subsequently concentrated on transport the final assembly plants lacked the necessary compo- nents. ‘It may well be,’ declares the American Post-War Bombing page 111 Survey, ‘that more aircraft were lost out of production because of dispersal than because of direct bombing.’
The attack on German cities and factories associated with aircraft production was continued during March 1944 when aircraft of RAF Bomber Command attacked Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Stutt- gart, as well as Berlin and Essen. The two raids on Frankfurt, each by forces of over 800 aircraft, caused widespread destruction throughout the city. In the second attack on the night of 22 March, German night fighters were particularly active and there were many incidents. For Flight Sergeant Windsor1 of No. 514 Squadron, who was on his fourth sortie as captain, it proved a particularly hazardous mission. While preparing to make its bombing run his Lancaster was attacked by a night fighter and both the rear and mid-upper gunners were killed. Windsor put his machine into a dive in an effort to escape, but a second burst from the fighter ignited incendiary bombs and set the aircraft on fire. The elevators were damaged and it took the combined efforts of pilot and flight engineer to pull the machine out of its dive. The bomb load was then jettisoned and the fire subdued, but the Lancaster remained extremely difficult to control so orders were given for the crew to bale out. However, after the navigator and bomb aimer had left, the loss of weight in the nose made it seem possible that the machine might be kept airborne. Windsor therefore cancelled the order to the rest of his crew and, helped by his flight engineer, managed to regain some kind of control. It was then discovered that the aircraft was in a balloon barrage but Windsor was able to gain sufficient height to get clear. In the meantime his wireless operator had repaired his damaged transmitter and obtained direction over enemy territory and the coast. This enabled Windsor to establish his approximate position and eventually bring the Lancaster and its three surviving crew members back to their base.
Even so Goering insisted that his fighters should not challenge the American escort but concentrate on their bomber formations. Galland protested in vain against such purely defensive tactics. The result was that the Mustangs and Thunderbolt pilots were soon operating with a marked sense of superiority. German difficulties were further increased when long-range fighter formations began to attack airfields and depots deep inside Germany, thus adding to the destruction caused by Allied bombers in the aircraft factories and assembly plants.
By April 1944 the ability of the Luftwaffe to defend Germany against the mounting scale of the Allied attack had passed its marginal point and was steadily deteriorating whereas the capabilities of the Allies were improving. This trend is revealed in German records of aircraft losses in combat in the West European theatre. From 307 machines in January 1944, losses jumped in February to 456, of which 65 were night fighters of the type directed chiefly against the missions of RAF Bomber Command. The total for the month of March rises to 567, of which 94 were night fighters. The German Air Force was, in fact, being swamped by a force superior both in numbers and in quality. If it was not yet beaten – for it continued to be capable of occasional bursts of extreme energy – it nevertheless suffered a severe defeat in the early months of 1944. That defeat was brought about by attrition of the German fighter forces in the air and on the ground, by the consequent deterioration in quality of the German fighter pilots, and by the attacks on German aircraft production which caused delay in the expansion of the fighter force. A considerable part of the credit must be given to the American long-range fighter escort, but by itself the fighter force could not have carried the battle to the enemy. It was in a desperate and all-out effort to defend the industries of the Reich from both the day and night heavy bomber that the Luftwaffe had been given high, if belated, priority in production and reorganised into an almost exclusively defensive force.
Towards the end of 1943 there had been grave doubts concerning the ability of the Allied air forces to beat down the growing strength of the Luftwaffe sufficiently to make an invasion of Europe possible. But now as the final preparations for the landings in Normandy began it was clear that the Allied air forces were well page 113 on the way to achieving the air superiority that would ensure freedom of movement to the Allied armies and navies while denying it to the enemy. Germany had now been thrown almost completely on the defensive in the air. She had heavily reduced her bomber production in order that maximum resources could be devoted to fighters and defensive equipment. Her fighters and flak were deployed not on the critical battlefronts or to oppose a possible landing, but were spread throughout Germany in a desperate attempt to defend vital targets at home. Nearly a million men were tied down to these defences and many more were engaged on repair work in the German industrial centres, many of which had been seriously disorganised. The air war was not yet won but its outcome was no longer in doubt.
On 14 April 1944 the British and American bomber forces were placed under the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, and for the next five months were to be mainly engaged on operations preparing the way for and in support of the Allied armies. This brought some interruption of the strategic bombing of Germany, but during the last months of 1944 the Allied bombers were to return in full strength for the final and overwhelming assault on the sources of German industrial and military power.