New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 17 — Night Fighters, 1942
Night Fighters, 1942
WITH practically the whole of their bomber strength deployed on the Mediterranean and Russian fronts throughout 1942, the Germans were unable to launch either large or sustained night raids against the United Kingdom. However, during the early months they made skilful use of their small bomber force remaining in the West in minelaying and bombing attacks against shipping, with occasional raids on such ports as Hull and Portsmouth. By restricting their effort to such targets and by employing tactics of caution in approach and speedy withdrawal, the Germans not only conserved their slender force but also succeeded in inflicting considerable damage on coastal shipping, as well as tying up substantial British resources in minesweeping and in defensive air patrols.
The situation became more difficult for the Germans with the heavier and more concentrated attacks by Bomber Command in the spring of 1942, and they were forced to plan some stronger form of reprisal. In particular the RAF raids on Lubeck and Rostock, at the end of March and April respectively, brought a shrill outcry from the German propaganda ministry and a speech by Hitler in which he threatened to ‘rub out’ British cities one by one as a reprisal for each and every RAF attack. He spoke of taking Baedeker’s Guide and marking each British town off the guide book as it was destroyed. A series of German reprisal raids, thereafter known in Britain as the ‘Baedeker raids’, followed, the British cathedral cities of Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York being the principal targets. Like Lubeck and Rostock these were mediaeval towns very susceptible to fire; and they were weakly defended, having no balloon barrages and few anti-aircraft batteries. Con- sequently, in low-flying attacks, relatively small forces of German bombers were able to concentrate incendiary and high-explosive bombs. Fires spread rapidly through the narrow streets and highly combustible shopping centres, where considerable damage was done. But German air force losses were heavy, especially among the reserve training units from which instructional crews, who could ill be spared, had been thrown in. Very soon the attacks became less frequent, and within a month the series of Baedeker raids came to an end. Thereafter the only serious night raids were those against page 360 Birmingham at the end of July, apparently as a reprisal for Bomber Command’s successful attack on Hamburg on the night of the 26th. They brought further losses to the Germans and marked the final failure of their plans for reprisals. With the improving British defences and the weakness of their bomber force in the West, the Germans found it impracticable to launch further large-scale night attacks on inland targets, and for the remainder of 1942 they reverted to minelaying operations at night, with occasional bombing attacks on ports where interception was less likely.
To meet the German night attacks and to prepare for any intensification of the night bombing during 1942, Royal Air Force Fighter Command maintained some twenty-five squadrons specially trained in night fighting. These units were equipped with a variety of aircraft, including Beaufighters and Defiants fitted with special radar equipment, and Havocs and Bostons which carried the Turbinlite searchlight and flew in company with Hurricane fighters. By the middle of the year the twin-engined Beaufighter was predominant and the Defiant was being replaced by the faster and more versatile Mosquito for night fighting.
1 Wing Commander J. H. Player, DSO, DFC; born Auckland, 13 Jul 1914; joined RAF 1937; commanded No. 255 Sqdn, 1942; Personal Staff Officer, AC-in-C, AEAF, 1944–45; Staff duties, DG of P, Air Ministry, 1945; died of injuries received in flying accident, 8 Aug 1947.
Various methods of interception were employed in the night patrols during 1942, but the principal method was that in which aircraft fitted with the special AI (Air Interception) radar apparatus were directed towards enemy raiders by ground controllers, who obtained information of the enemy’s course and height by means of radar and the reports of the Observer Corps. However, even when ground control succeeded in guiding the night fighter towards an enemy machine, the final stage of interception was not easy. The indication which might appear on the aircraft’s radar screen needed to be correctly interpreted by the observer, and then the pilot had to carry out instructions as to course, height and speed with meticulous accuracy if he was to achieve a visual sighting.
The crews of the night fighter aircraft were thus highly skilled teams working together in co-operation with ground control, and they had to spend much time practising both by day and by night. Whereas the Spitfire pilot flying by day could always avoid flying in cloud because it involved instrument flying, the night fighter pilot had to fly on instruments often from the moment of take-off to the moment of landing. It was hard work demanding the utmost patience, since only occasionally during this period of limited enemy activity did the intermittent patrols bring sighting and attack. On the other hand there was always that eternal enemy, the weather. It killed quite a few—often through the unlucky roll of the dice— when they flew into high ground or lost their way in storm. As one squadron commander summed it up, ‘the night fighter’s job was to beat the weather and fly on instruments; they had to be good if they wanted to survive’.
An example of successful co-operation occurred on the night of 8 March when Squadron Leader R. M. Trousdale, flying a Beaufighter from No. 409 Squadron, shot down a Heinkel bomber near Hull. This particular night enemy bombers were active off the east coast laying mines and making scattered bombing attacks, but Trousdale had been on patrol for nearly two hours before he was directed towards an enemy raider off the mouth of the Humber by his ground control station. Eventually his radar operator picked page 362 up the enemy machine and, guided by his directions, Trousdale soon saw the dark shape of a Heinkel below him. He opened fire and saw it burst into flames and go down to explode on the ground. A few weeks later Trousdale found and stalked a Dornier off the Lincolnshire coast and, catching up with the enemy bomber, was able to keep it in sight and with successive bursts set its engines on fire. The Dornier then crashed into the sea. Among the few other pilots to achieve such double success was Pilot Officer G. E. Jameson,1 who captained a Beaufighter of No. 125 Squadron. One night towards the end of July he was sent to intercept enemy bombers approaching the Midlands from the Irish Sea, and over Cardigan Bay a radar indication eventually led to the sighting of a Heinkel bomber. Return fire damaged the Beaufighter but, aided by the light of a full moon, Jameson kept his target in view. The enemy machine began spiral diving turns but Jameson hung on. ‘As I closed in to point blank range,’ he later reported, ‘I observed a large glow on the starboard engine. The enemy aircraft then went into a dive and continued to go down until it hit the sea.’ A few nights later Jameson shot down another Heinkel near Milford Haven. As the German bomber turned and twisted in an effort to escape, the two machines almost collided but Jameson pressed home his attack and set the Heinkel on fire.
While some squadrons had better luck than others, this year was for most pilots one of dull and unrewarding effort. The limited enemy activity meant they were compelled to spend many hours in practice flights with only occasional operational patrols, and even then there was seldom the satisfaction of sighting and attack. The interception of enemy raiders flying in low to lay mines and to attack ships along the coast was particularly difficult. Ground-controlled interception could not as yet be practised over all the sea approaches, while the contemporary airborne radar apparatus was largely inefficient at low levels where the tiny ‘blip’ which the enemy machine gave on the radar screen would be confused by ground and sea reflections. However, when the defenders were aided by the moon or the last of the daylight, they were often able to make successful interceptions over the sea. It was at dusk one winter’s evening towards the end of February that Defiants from Smith’s No. 151 Squadron succeeded in breaking up an attack on a convoy off the Norfolk coast.
Thick cloud covered the sky and in some places was so low that it reached down to the sea (says an official report of the action). Visibility was reduced to a minimum and the Defiants had to fly just above the water to keep the convoy in view. They did so for an hour with nothing but the slow rolling and pitching of the ships to break the monotony. Then suddenly a ship at one end of the convoy opened fire. Attracted by the bursts from the guns. Smith sighted two Dorniers flying just above the sea. He swung round and cut across in front of one, only avoiding collision by a sharp turn. His gunner opened fire as the machines passed one another and his second burst sent the Dornier crashing into the sea. Smith then turned to attack a second Dornier but as he did so a Junkers 88 came out of cloud on his tail not two hundred yards away. His gunner opened fire and saw bullets spattering the fuselage of the enemy machine as it swung away back into cloud cover. Meantime another of the Defiants had manoeuvred into position to attack the second Dornier. With both aircraft flying just above the sea, the Defiant gunner opened fire and saw strikes on the wings and engines of the enemy machine before it disappeared. A third Defiant pilot sighted two other Dorniers and chased each of them in turn back into cloud. A sixth machine could not be brought to battle, it merely appeared for a moment out of the clouds and when the German pilot saw a Defiant heading for him he went straight back into cover.
During 1942 New Zealanders also flew with the few squadrons whose aircraft crossed the Channel by night to harass airfields on the Continent. These intruder operations had been started during the period of heavy night raids after the Battle of Britain, when it was hoped to reduce the scale of the enemy attack by patrols over the bases from which his bombers operated. Although activity against the British Isles was on a much smaller scale during 1942, intruder page 364 patrols were flown whenever the German bombers operated in any strength. The Hurricanes, Bostons and Havocs, and later the Mosquitos, also operated against enemy airfields at which night flying training was in progress, and on occasion they attacked the bases from which the German night fighters took off to intercept British bombers flying into Germany. Carrying a few bombs as well as cannon and machine guns, and apprised by the British wireless interception service of airfields worth visiting, the intruder aircraft would endeavour to cause the maximum interference with enemy operations by attacking his machines as they were landing and taking off, and by bombing and machine-gunning airfield buildings and runways. Although the effort expended by Fighter Command on these missions during 1942 was relatively small, it proved a most profitable venture for, in addition to the enemy machines actually damaged or destroyed, there was a considerable moral effect. To be attacked at the end of a long and tiring flight just when about to land, or to see returning aircraft shot down over one’s own airfield, was regarded by British and German aircrew alike as a most unnerving experience. Evidence of the success of Fighter Command’s effort during this period was provided by the move of many of the German bases back out of range of the intruder aircraft, but with the advent of the long-range Mosquito in night operations this move was to avail the enemy little.
Some of the New Zealanders who took part in these operations during 1942 flew the long-range Hurricanes of No. 1 Squadron from Tangmere, in Sussex, and of No. 3 Squadron Detachment based at Manston, the large forward airfield on the coast of Kent. Others flew Havocs and Bostons with No. 23 Squadron from both these bases. During the second half of the year Wing Commander Aitken was a prominent personality in intruder work. After a period of organising duties at Headquarters Fighter Command, he was appointed to command the base at Bradwell Bay in Essex. Squadron Leader Sutton, after serving with No. 23 Squadron in the early months, was then made a flight commander in the newly formed No. 605 Squadron.
1 Group Captain D. J. Scott, DSO, OBE, DFC and bar, Croix de Guerre (Bel); Greymouth; born Ashburton, 11 Sep 1918; salesman; joined RNZAF Mar 1940; commanded No. 486 (NZ) Sqdn, 1943; Wing Leader, Tangmere, 1943–44; commanded RAF Station, Hawkinge, 1944; No. 123 Wing, 2nd TAF, 1944–45.
Scott had joined No. 3 Squadron early in 1941 and had transferred to night fighting towards the end of that year. In September 1942, after commanding the night fighter detachment at Manston, he was posted to the night operations staff at Fighter Command, by which time he had been credited with the destruction of seven enemy aircraft during intruder sorties. One night early in February he was sent to intercept minelaying aircraft returning to their base at Soesterberg, in Holland. He met thick ice-laden cloud as he flew across the Channel, and only after some difficulty was he able to check his position by a known enemy beacon near the coast before setting course for his target. As he flew in over the Dutch coast the sky cleared and searchlights attempted to pick out his machine, but they were no more successful in distracting him from his purpose than the dummy airfield near Gilze which was suddenly illuminated. As Scott approached his target, searchlights lit up some thin cloud below him and silhouetted an enemy machine heading in the same direction. He dived and opened fire. He saw his second burst strike the starboard engine and almost immediately afterwards the enemy plane caught fire and went down. On another patrol towards the end of May, thick haze over the Dutch coast again made navigation difficult but Scott located the enemy airfield which was his objective and circled it at a height of about 1000 feet. Soon he sighted a German aircraft just below him, with its navigation lights on and preparing to land. Manoeuvring his Hurricane into position slightly above and just behind his target, Scott gave it three short bursts. The enemy machine began to glow and then went straight on down to crash near the end of the flare path. From the tail lights it appeared to turn a complete somersault before catching fire. Scott’s further exploits included the shooting down of a Junkers 88 into the sea off the Dutch coast, a few miles north of the Hague, and the destruction of another bomber over the airfield at Eindhoven.
Hay, who had begun night operations towards the end of 1941, was to be credited with the destruction of four enemy aircraft before losing his life in August 1942, when his Hurricane crashed into the Channel shortly after he had taken off on patrol. A sortie one night in May was particularly eventful. He took off from Manston shortly after midnight and flew across the Channel towards the Dutch coast, his objective being the large airfield at Schipol, near Amsterdam. Although there was considerable haze over the sea, Hay was able page 366 to fix his position by a German beacon on the island of Schouwen and then fly inland. As he approached his objective, the airfield lights came on and he was given a green flash on an Aldis lamp— the enemy had apparently mistaken his Hurricane for one of their own returning bombers. Shortly afterwards he sighted the lights of an enemy machine preparing to land but it was some way off, and before he could manoeuvre his Hurricane into position for an attack the German pilot had landed. A few moments later, while patrolling between the airfield and the coast, he saw the lights of another machine coming over the sea from the west. Hay attacked at point-blank range and the bomber rolled over and went down. Then, almost before he had recovered from this engagement, he sighted another aircraft approaching the coast. With the machine silhouetted against the sea, the New Zealander was able to identify it as a Heinkel bomber and a few well-aimed bursts sent it crashing into the water near the shore. On a patrol in the same area towards the end of June, Hay had the unusual experience of seeing a Junkers 88 at which he fired suddenly swerve and crash into another bomber flying near it. He afterwards reported:
There was a slight explosion and a shower of debris fell streaming to earth like a huge shower of incendiaries. The two enemy aircraft fell in pieces … and as I orbitted I could see a burning mass on the shore for five or ten minutes.
Gawith, whose brother, Squadron Leader A. A. Gawith, had been one of the pioneers of intruder operations, began flying with No. 3 Squadron towards the end of 1941. Before he was reported missing towards the end of July 1942, Flight Sergeant Gawith was credited with the destruction of at least two enemy machines. One of these he intercepted when on patrol over the airfield at Eindhoven early in June. Gawith sighted the enemy plane as it was approaching to land and, quickly turning in behind, he sent it down in flames to crash on the airfield below. A few weeks later, when on patrol over Soesterberg, he sighted a Heinkel bomber circling the airfield and flashing its indication lights. Gawith came into range as the Heinkel made its final turn in to land. After his attack the bomber flew on for a few moments and then dived down to explode on the ground. Just before dawn on this same patrol, Gawith attacked and damaged a Dornier in a running fight which carried him towards the Zuyder Zee. When the Dornier finally disappeared in the haze above the sea, one engine appeared to be on fire and the other was emitting a trail of smoke.
During the closing months of 1942 enemy activity against Britain by night showed a marked decline. The only serious raid of this period was against Canterbury on the last night of October, when page 367 an estimated total of 35 sorties was flown by two waves of enemy bombers, and of these four were destroyed by night fighters and three by anti-aircraft fire. This reduction in enemy activity meant that the British crews flying intruder missions over the bomber bases in Holland and northern France found darkened airfields and few targets. Their objectives were then extended to include the attack of ground and rail targets, and during the last two months pilots engaged on such roving patrols were able to report 50 attacks on trains.
Thus by night, as well as by day, there was a distinct change of emphasis in British fighter operations as they moved forward from the defence of the United Kingdom to carry the air war over enemy territory. For the Germans now found it impossible to renew the air attack against Britain on any appreciable scale either in daylight or at night. The expected victories on the Russian and Mediterranean fronts had failed to materialise, so that the air forces which the enemy had hoped to turn upon the British Isles were just not available. Instead the Luftwaffe was forced more and more on to the defensive in Western Europe as the need arose to protect the occupied territories and Germany itself against the steadily increasing Allied air attacks. During 1942 it had been necessary to double the night fighter defences in the West, and by the end of the year it was evident that a similar expansion of day fighter defences was also required.
Indeed, the closing months of 1942, which may well be regarded as the second major turning point in the war, found the German Air Force no longer the all-powerful weapon with which victory might be assured. In the West, where the air war had been continuous and the growth of Allied air power slow, if relentless, no outstanding clash of arms marked this change in enemy fortunes; but in Russia and the Middle East the battles at Stalingrad and El Alamein, fought after exhausting campaigns, had disastrous effects on the efficiency of the Luftwaffe. On 19 November 1942 the Russians launched their historic attack, cutting the communications of the German army besieging Stalingrad; ten weeks later, despite desperate German efforts at supply and relief, Field Marshal von Paulus with his remaining force of 46,000 men was compelled to surrender. The supply operations at Stalingrad involved some 850 German aircraft, and losses in the period of just over two months amounted to 285 machines, more than a third of the force employed. Many of these were bomber aircraft converted for supply dropping, a fact which led Goering to remark bitterly after the campaign: ‘There died the core of the German bomber fleet.’ In the Mediterranean theatre, where one quarter of the total page 368 German air strength was deployed, the opening of the Allied offensive in North Africa in October brought more battle losses and, as in Russia, further wastage through the disorganisation consequent on retreat, the inadequacy of repair facilities, and a shortage of fuel.
Until the end of 1942 the Germans had managed to sustain the air war on three fronts by frequent transfer of units from one theatre of operations to another, and from one section to another of the same front. But after these reverses and in the face of the simultaneous pressure in Russia, the Middle East and from bases in Britain, the German Air Force could no longer meet its opponents one by one, and, by denuding quiet areas, concentrate forces to achieve local air superiority. But the German military leaders were slow to realise that they had lost the strategic initiative; still less were they inclined to accept the advice of their Air Staff, which included capable personalities such as Field Marshal Milch, that the Luftwaffe was insufficient in both numbers and quality for the new phase of operations which faced it in 1943. None the less, even with the deftest exploitation of the advantages inherent in operating on internal lines of communication and defending a perimeter, German air superiority was no longer assured.
This change in the balance of air strength was noted by the British Prime Minister when, in a review of the whole war situation towards the end of 1942, he declared:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Henceforth Hitler’s Nazis will meet equally well armed, and perhaps better armed troops. Henceforth they will have to face in many theatres of war that superiority in the air which they have so often used without mercy against others, of which they boasted all around the world, and which they intended to use as an instrument for convincing all other peoples that resistance to them was hopeless.
Already the growing ascendancy of Allied air power was being demonstrated with marked effect in the advance from El Alamein, where the coastal road, crammed with fleeing German vehicles, came under the blasting attacks of the Royal Air Force while British convoys advanced nose to tail almost unmolested by the Luftwaffe— in vivid contrast to the early summer months of 1940, when German machines had swept over the roads of France and Flanders spreading death and destruction among the hordes of helpless refugees. And if the air operations from the United Kingdom were less spec- tacular, their consequences were to be no less enduring. Led by their pathfinders, the bomber squadrons now penetrated to the industrial heart of Germany and reached over the Alps to attack her wavering ally. British fighters, no longer required to protect the fortress island against invasion, swept forward to attack the German Air Force over occupied territory, while Coastal Command, page 369 re-equipping and assured of its ability to kill, took up the challenge of the U-boats in the Atlantic.
This growing strength of the Royal Air Force derived from many sources. On the technical side much had been achieved by British science, industry, and productive skill. New machines and weapons of greater power and range had been produced and a vast array of scientific aids and devices invented and developed. The provision of a great army of well-trained aircrew had required intensive effort, in which the energetic development of the Empire Air Training Plan was of particular significance. Three years had now gone by since this scheme was born, and thousands of young men from every part, answering the call of the air, had passed through the training schools and reached the operational squadrons in the various theatres. A very great effort had been needed to develop the original plan and maintain this unending flow. On the broad plains of Canada, in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the airfields and large training establishments had been spread out, while the factories of Britain and the United States had provided a vast mass of training aircraft and equipment. Throughout these great movements of men and material, the instructors and ground crews, far removed from the excitement of battle, had faithfully performed arduous and monotonous duties. Upon them rested the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that the standard of flying training was maintained at a high and uniform level. By the end of 1942, when 69,000 aircrew had been trained in the Dominions, the scope of the original plan had been several times enlarged so that this great joint effort had already more than fulfilled the high hopes at its inception.
Now, as this flow of trained aircrew from the Commonwealth increased, men of the United States Air Force were also arriving in the United Kingdom to swell the tide of Allied air power rising against Germany. Some were already in action flying from British bases on daylight bombing raids against occupied territory—attacks which were presently to extend to Germany itself. And so, after a year of struggle and toil in which the enemy’s power seemed to have reached its peak, the Allied air forces, in great and gallant company, moved forward into 1943, and a long step onward to victory.