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Episodes & Studies Volume 2



THE POLICY WHEREBY BOMBER COMMAND was not permitted to drop bombs on other than military objectives—and even these targets could not be attacked if there was risk of injury to civilians—led the aircrews to agree with the American press in speaking of the ‘Phony War’. Bomber Command was mainly engaged during this period in training and in making reconnaissance flights by night deep into the heart of Germany, and in dropping pamphlets as far afield as Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Poland.

Although the pamphlet raids were probably of little value as propaganda, the aircrews so engaged became familiar with the whereabouts of roads, railways, power stations, factories, and airfields in conditions similar to those which would prevail when they were allowed to bomb. The real value of these raids, however, lay in the training they gave.

In peace the aircrews had not had the same opportunity to make long flights by night, certainly not over a totally blacked-out country. Now it was often necessary to change course when attacked by enemy fighters or to avoid sudden bursts of anti-aircraft fire. Each change of direction might be affected by a wind very different from that forecast, for in wartime there was not the same information available about possible changes in the weather. Instead of an expected head wind, there page 5 might be a strong wind from an entirely different quarter which would blow the aircraft a hundred miles off course.

At first the Germans offered little opposition to flights over their territory; possibly they preferred not to betray gun and searchlight positions, or perhaps they felt that leaflets could not do any harm. Sometimes the anti-aircraft fire was heavy and an occasional night fighter was seen. But the Germans were working continuously to improve their defences and these became far more formidable as the months passed.

The worst enemy of the aircrews was the weather. One of the greatest dangers was from the formation of ice on the plane surfaces which could, by altering the shape of the wing, reduce the ‘lift’ of the aircraft. Ice might also jam the ailerons, elevators, or rudders and cause the pilot temporarily to lose control. In addition, fine powdered snow might seep into the cockpit and gun turrets, freezing on clothes and equipment. All too often the heating system inside the aircraft would fail and crews would have to work in temperatures 20 and 30 degrees below zero. The intense cold was such that on occasions men would beat their heads against the bulkheads—any pain rather than that from the cold. Frostbite was common.

An electric storm was a frightening experience and dangerous because of its effect on the compass and other vital instruments. The whole aircraft might be outlined in violet light, sparks might fly from one point to another, and every movement of the crew crackled in the electric air. As the leaflets dropped through the chutes they crackled and gave off sparks; even the knives with which the bundles were cut discharged sparks.

Such were some of the conditions that the aircrews had to face night after night. Perhaps the one causing most anxiety was the uncertainty about the weather in England. The most difficult part of the whole flight often came at the end of several hours in the air when crews were almost exhausted, their mental faculties slowed by the cold and strain of the flight. While over Germany they had in mind always the prospect of the long return passage across the North Sea, and, if the aircraft was badly damaged, it was during this crossing that difficulties might develop which would lead to a forced landing in the sea. When the English coast was reached, too often the countryside was blanketed in fog.

Another task which British bombers were called on to carry out during the early part of the war was to patrol the islands of Sylt, Borkum, and Norderney on the north-west coast of Germany. The enemy had begun, in October 1939, to use a new weapon against Allied shipping—the magnetic mine—and Bomber Command was ordered to counter this move by patrolling the bases from which many of the minelaying aircraft operated. Aircrews were permitted only to bomb lights placed on the sea to assist seaplanes landing or taking off, but the patrols did achieve a measure of success and the amount of minelaying was reduced.

The ban on the bombing of military objectives on land was temporarily lifted on the night of 19 March 1940 when, as a reprisal for a German attack on Scapa Flow, 30 Whitleys and 20 Hampdens attacked the seaplane base on the island of Sylt. Several hits were reported in the vicinity of the hangars and oil storage tanks but no important damage was done. To those who took part in the attack, Flight Lieutenants W. M. Nixon6 and P. W. West7 and Flying Officers K. N. Gray8 and F. H. Long,9 and to the public, the raid was a welcome break in the apparent stalemate.