New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 8 — Night Fighters
After the failure of their ‘blitz’ on British cities during the early months of 1941 the Germans had maintained only a small and intermittent offensive by night against the United Kingdom. The operations were devoted mainly to minelaying and reconnaissance and, apart from the short series of ‘Baedeker raids’ in the middle of 1942, only occasional attacks were made on inland targets by long-range bombers. They usually met with heavy losses. German crews complained that the British defences were becoming ‘increasingly dangerous’, yet little was done to improve the training, tactics, and equipment of units engaged against the United Kingdom.
At the beginning of 1943 Hitler, infuriated by Bomber Command's successful pathfinder raids, demanded heavier reprisals. But the German bomber force in the West was now only a shadow of its former self and, with the heavy demands of the Russian and Mediterranean fronts, there was little to spare for any effective reply to the massive attacks falling upon Germany. Yet Hitler was insistent that there should be reprisals and on his direct order a new Angriffsfuebrer England – England Attack Command – was formed in March 1943 under Oberst Peltz, a prominent bomber pilot who was generally regarded as a man of superior leadership and organising ability. He was later to command Fliegerkorps IX which had all jet fighters under its control.
A belated attempt was thus made to build up a force of fast night bombers, but German bomber production was such that it would be some months before new aircraft such as the Messerschmitt 410, the Junkers 188, and the Heinkel 177 were available in any quantity. In the meantime FW 190 day fighters were thrown into night operations to reinforce the Dornier 217s and the veteran Junkers 88s. At the same time in an effort to secure better results, Peltz introduced new tactics and radar devices and gave orders that crews were to be more carefully briefed.
These various improvements and improvisations did not provide anything like the scale of reprisal Hitler desired, nor did they prevent a higher proportion of losses than in earlier years. Worse still, the German bomber programme, which had envisaged the replacement of current twin-engined bombers by four-engined types, went badly awry. For example, the Heinkel 177, with its four engines page 211 and two airscrews, upon which Goering had placed high hopes, proved a costly failure. Planned to begin operations early in 1941, the He 177 did not appear over England until three years later. Time and again it had been grounded for persistent technical defects in both engines and airframe – the engines caught fire so often in the air that German crews nicknamed it the Luftwaffenfeurzeng, or ‘Air Force cigarette-lighter.’ The Junkers 288, which was to be similarly powered by two pairs of coupled engines, never even appeared. Meanwhile captured German crews showed a lack of confidence in their machines equalled only by their own lack of experience in operations.
The whole German bomber force, in fact, was now paying the penalty for Goering's facile optimism and failure to plan ahead during the early years of the war. German aeronautical research had been remarkably efficient, but lack of firm direction, contradictory orders, and frequent changes of policy had led to something like anarchy in bomber production.
On Hitler's insistence, the Luftwaffe attempted a last desperate throw against England early in 1944. This assault was only made possible by the withdrawal of units from Italy to supplement the meagre bomber force left in France. It proved a dismal failure and thereafter the German Air Force, never properly organised for strategic employment, finally became impotent over Britain.
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During 1943 the British night-fighter force, although not so large as in the previous year, proved more than equal to the demands made upon it. At the beginning of the year there were twenty-one squadrons, eight of them equipped with the versatile Mosquito and eleven with Beaufighters and two with Bostons, specially adapted for night intruder work.
The crews of these squadrons, many now well versed in the difficult art of night fighting, continued to use radar as their principal aid to night interception. Patrols were maintained whenever there was any likelihood of enemy activity and other crews were kept ready to take the air should a heavy attack appear imminent. On patrol the Beaufighters and Mosquitos usually flew above cloud over their sectors, keeping in close touch with ground control interception stations, where radar plots and reports from the Observer Corps gave the height and course of any hostile aircraft in the area. This information was then used to direct crews towards a target.
Patient experiment and the experience gained in operations since the system was introduced early in 1941 had brought many improve- page 212 ments in equipment and technique. Ground control stations were now more efficient and new types of airborne radar apparatus gave better all-round results. Nevertheless, successful interceptions could only be achieved by skilful teamwork on the part of the pilot and his navigator/radar operator, working in close co-operation with their ground controller.
The control station would first indicate over the radio telephone the direction of a suspected aircraft and then the radar operator – familiarly known as ‘the crystal-gazer’ – would switch on his set, a miniature of that on the ground. Soon he might pick up a ‘blip’ on his screen, which, according to the response of IFF apparatus (Identification, Friend or Foe), would be identified as coming from a friendly or hostile machine. If the response came from a ‘bandit’ the operator would give his pilot directions regarding course, height and speed, until a visual sighting was made.
An experienced crew fortunate enough to be directed towards a target by Ground Control could thus be expected to make contact and finally bring the enemy to combat. On the other hand, a crew new to night interception had little hope of success until they had become expert in the use of their apparatus and adept in the current tactics. Thorough training and constant practice were needed to keep abreast of the latest developments in the technique employed. The work was often monotonous, demanding the utmost patience, concentration and skill; all too frequently long patrols were flown under trying conditions, without even a sign of action. Moreover, with fast-moving targets, often flying at high level and adopting a variety of evasive tactics, crews had many disappointments by losing their quarry before they were in a position for attack. The high proportion of interceptions and combats reported was indeed a tribute to their tenacity and skill.
One night-fighter pilot gives this impression of his work:
When Jerry stays at home a patrol is a dull enough affair – especially when the night is cold and unfriendly, the horizon an indistinct smudge and the stars but fleeting blobs of light between clouds. You are hurtling with all lights out through a dark tunnel. You take comfort in the array of phosphorescent dials in the cockpit, in the steady pulsating of your motors and in, perhaps, a thought or two of a bright fire waiting for you when you get down, a cup of steaming cocoa and a cigarette – unless there is business about, and that is different.
There are nights though when every moment of the trip is a sheer joy, when there is magic in the air; nights clear and frosty when the stars are near and in clusters like primroses; blue-green summer nights with far-away pinpoints for stars; nights of the moon when the surface of the earth shows up in sharp relief, cold, stark, mysterious and still, and the sea has a sheen whose loveliness no brush can paint.
You could come across Huns, a dark shape darting across your bows, a suggestion of a swastika caught in the tail of a glance, a silhouette against page 213 stars, and you could hit them but often never know if the blow had been fatal. But to-night is full moon. We are going to fasten on till he falls out of the sky with both engines on fire.
The engines are already warming up. The slipstream nearly takes us off our feet as we scramble aboard. Willing hands are handing up gloves, scarf, maps; a mouth frames some last-minute message of good luck though no sound comes above the noise of the engines. A rapid check of instruments as the engines rev up with an almost unbearable roar. Chocks away, hatches closed and we are taxying round the perimeter track to the marshalling point. Now we are lined up with the runway. The lane of lights narrows in the distance, obeying the law of perspective like any art master's railway lines. The engines are cleared, the throttles pushed slowly open and we move forward, slowly at first, then, tail raised, faster and faster till the flare-path lights race past in a broken line. Flying speed attained, she lifts off the deck. We are free of the earth and climbing rapidly towards cloud faintly luminous in the moon. The airfield lights recede and we are shut off from the earth.
On patrol the minutes drag by slowly. The cloud is breaking in a strong wind and scurrying across the moon. We watch and listen.
Then suddenly orders come over the R/T: ‘Climb to operational height and steer due west.’ ‘Hostile aircraft approaching position D from south-east.’
A mixture of fear and elation and we increase speed and steer for inter- ception. Each second – miles and distance matter no longer – each second draws us nearer to the enemy. We make a quick speed calculation. How many seconds now and in what part of our sky will he appear? We strive to pierce the darkness, eyes straining, anticipation and exasperation struggling with one another. For a moment the moon gleams on some object entering the cloud half a mile to starboard and we realise we are on his track. We increase speed, skim under the cloud, estimating the position at which he is likely to emerge. Or is he an old hand, and will he, sensing our presence, dodge us by changing his direction in cloud? In a moment he is slap-bang in front of us, like a silver fish. A Dornier with his high wing and twin fins; no mistaking him. His tracer is passing above us like a trail of elongated sparks. The rear gunner has got us against a background of cloud. We do a quick check turn, dive a little and pull our nose up right under him and give him a long burst. He begins to do a steep climbing-turn prior to evasive dive. But we've got his starboard engine. A piece of cowling blows off, there is a long plume of grey-white smoke and then a tongue of flame, a further half-hearted stream of tracer, again gloriously above us, and now he is dropping like a plummet line. There is a deep red glow in the cloud below us and a spiral of smoke.
We pull out a thousand feet above a sea, placid in the evening. There is no sign of the Dornier.
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At the beginning of 1943 the outstanding personalities among the New Zealanders with the night-fighter force were Wing Commander R. F. Aitken, who commanded the forward base at Bradwell Bay – Aitken had been prominent in night operations from early in 1941 when he led No. 3 Squadron – Wing Commander J. S. McLean, who commanded RAF Station, Hunsdon, and Wing Commander I. S. Smith, who led No. 151 Mosquito Squadron. Squadron Leader page 214 Sutton,1 who in the previous year had been prominent on night intruder operations, was now a flight commander of No. 85 Squadron based at Hunsdon. Among the aircrew the main Dominion representation came from No. 488 Beaufighter Squadron.
Since its formation in June 1942 this New Zealand unit had been stationed on the west coast of Scotland, a locality seldom visited by German bombers – much to the disgust of the aircrews. But now came a period with greater opportunities for action and No. 488 was soon to establish a fine record of achievement, not only in defensive patrols over England but also in attacks on enemy trans- port, aircraft, and airfields on the Continent. Wing Commander Trousdale2 continued to lead the squadron during the early months of 1943. His flight commanders were Squadron Leader Rabone,3 who had also been with the squadron since its formation, and Squadron Leader Nesbitt-Dufort,4 an Englishman, who had recently succeeded Squadron Leader Gard'ner,5 now on the night operations staff of No. 13 Group which controlled the New Zealand squadron at this time.
In the first two months of 1943 there were only two German night raids of note – one against London and the other over western districts – otherwise enemy activity was confined to minelaying and reconnaissance sorties. Yet despite wintry weather and the fact that, with only small enemy forces operating over a wide area, opportunities for interception were few, British night fighters achieved particularly good results, altogether nineteen German machines being claimed destroyed during this period.
1 Squadron Leader K. R. Sutton, DFC; born Wellington, 18 May 1919; joined RAF Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF Mar 1944; Intruder Controller, HQ Fighter Command, 1943; commanded RAF Station, Llanbedr, 1943–45.
2 Wing Commander R. M. Trousdale, DFC and bar; born Auckland, 23 Jan 1921; joined RAF Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF Jan 1945; commanded No. 488 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942–43; killed in aircraft accident, 16 Jun 1947.
Newton's patrol the same night was remarkable. After nine months' uneventful flying on night operations he was in combat four times within ten minutes and claimed two Dorniers destroyed, another damaged, and a fourth probably destroyed. Newton was airborne on an exercise with ground control when he was suddenly warned of enemy raiders in his vicinity. A few moments later he was directed towards a target travelling at high speed about two miles ahead of him. Newton, however, had the advantage of height so he dived and closed in. His radar operator obtained a contact and a few seconds later Newton saw a German bomber flying through the top of a thin cloud layer and ‘jinking’ from side to side. Two short bursts brought pieces of flaming material falling away from the enemy machine. Another burst and it went down with both engines belching smoke and flames. Newton was then immediately vectored towards his second target which proved to be two Dornier 217s. When sighted they were flying slightly ahead and just above the Beaufighter. After a short chase Newton scored hits on the engines and fuselage of one bomber. Then it disappeared so he went after the second. Several short bursts found their mark, the machine burst into flames and then dived straight into the sea, where Newton's radar operator could see it burning on the water.
Scarcely recovered from these encounters, Newton was directed towards another German raider a few thousand feet above him. Contact was gained after a stern chase. Then, climbing at full throttle, Newton sighted the Dornier and opened fire with a long burst from slightly below and astern. Cannon shells hit the port engine and fuselage and after further bursts the Dornier turned on its side and went down towards the sea. He did not see it hit the water, but another pilot confirmed its destruction. Although this was the first occasion Newton had been in combat as a night-fighter pilot, he had already seen action while flying with No. 101 Squadron on bombing missions during 1941. The following year while flying a Wellington bomber to the Middle East, Newton was forced down in Portugal, but after three weeks' internment he escaped and returned to England.page 216
In March the Germans diverted a greater part of their effort against Britain from minelaying to the bombing of land targets. With the increased opportunities for interception offered by this change of tactics and the advantages given by a new type of airborne radar, British night-fighter patrols were particularly successful. Twenty-six enemy machines were claimed destroyed or probably destroyed during the month.
In an attempt to reduce losses the Germans began fitting special radar sets in their bombers to indicate the approach of stalking fighters. At the same time they introduced faster night bombers which could possibly outpace the British night fighters. The Focke-Wulf 190, adapted as a fighter-bomber, made its first appearance on night operations over the United Kingdom during April, and the Messerschmitt 410, a fast fighter-bomber developed from the twin-engined Messerschmitt 110, followed in July. However, although the FW 190 was a fast and versatile machine, the Germans soon encountered difficulties in operating this single-seater day fighter over enemy territory by night. On 16 April, when it first operated, four out of the thirteen machines despatched became lost and landed or crash-landed in Kent.
The first victories by night fighters against the Focke-Wulf 190s came on 16 May, when four of these aircraft were destroyed by Mosquitos, while two Messerschmitt 410s were shot down by British pilots on the first night they were encountered in July. By that time new tactics were being used by the Germans. Their fighter-bombers climbed to 20,000 feet as they crossed the French coast; then to avoid loss through bad navigation they were guided to their target by radio telephone. Height was maintained until the bombs had been dropped; then they immediately dived for home and were directed by radio telephone to one of a number of airfields in northern France. Nevertheless, British pilots continued to make successful interceptions and, on the whole, the German fighter-bomber, carrying a small bomb load and forced to fly at greater height, proved singularly ineffective at night. Eventually most of them were withdrawn to meet the urgent needs of other fronts.
The Germans increased their effort against England for a short period in October 1943, when night raiders operated on twenty-one nights and flew a total of just over five hundred sorties. All the attacks were aimed at London, but after crossing the coast the enemy formations often became scattered and only a small number actually succeeded in dropping their bombs in the London area.
During this period of increased activity the British night fighters had to struggle against the effects of metallised strips dropped by the enemy in imitation of those which Bomber Command had introduced over Germany during the attacks against Hamburg some three months earlier. Yet despite the skilful use of these strips, the high speed of the Messerschmitt 410 flying at great heights, and the warning of the approach of British night fighters given by radar tail-warning sets with which all their long-range bombers were now equipped, the Germans lost twenty-eight aircraft in just over three weeks. The enemy effort was not sustained and fell away sharply in November and December.
But in these months preparations were being made for what it was hoped would be a more effective series of reprisal raids against Britain. The opening of these attacks, which were to be short and heavy and led by pathfinders on the RAF pattern, was delayed until larger forces could be assembled and finally did not begin until the end of January 1944.
* * * * *
Throughout this fourth year of war Fighter Command had not been content to remain wholly on the defensive at night. Indeed, offensive patrols over the Continent were flown by almost all the squadrons of the British night-fighter force during 1943, and their attacks on enemy airfields and communications proved an effective supplement to the daylight raids.
At the beginning of the year offensive activity at night was largely confined to the ‘Intruder’ operations over enemy air bases by two squadrons specially trained for such duties, but as the year progressed there was a steady increase in the night offensive, with sorties directed against both ground and air targets. Towards the end of January it was decided to add a flight of six aircraft to each of the Mosquito night-defence squadrons for use on ‘Ranger’ patrols page 218 against ground targets, particularly enemy transport. This expansion was not immediate owing to the current shortage of Mosquito air- craft, so until sufficient machines were available each night-fighter squadron was allowed to provide not more than three aircraft for ‘Ranger’ missions during each full-moon period. During April 289 sorties were made over enemy territory by night – double the total flown in any of the previous three months. In the second half of the year 2250 such patrols were flown.
The two ‘Intruder’ squadrons, No. 418 Canadian Squadron and No. 605 RAF Squadron – at this time equipped with Bostons – were both based on stations commanded by New Zealanders. The Canadians operated from Bradwell Bay where Wing Commander Aitken was in charge. Detachments from other night-fighter squadrons also flew from Bradwell Bay on offensive missions over the Continent during the moonlight periods. No. 605 Squadron was stationed at Ford, a satellite of Tangmere, which for the first four months of the year was commanded by Group Captain H. D. McGregor.
One of the flight commanders in No. 605 was Squadron Leader Mack1 and by August he had flown fifty-two operations over enemy territory. He had earlier completed a tour of duty with Bomber Command, flying in early raids on such targets as Hamburg, the Ruhr, and Stavanger in Norway. On his first operational sortie – a leaflet raid five days after war began – his aircraft was forced down in Belgium. The crew were interned, but Mack escaped and rejoined his unit three months later. During his tour on ‘Intruders’ he attacked three enemy aircraft over France, but as they were not seen to crash he only claimed them as damaged. On one occasion his aircraft struck what was though to be a balloon cable about 430 miles from base. Although four feet of the starboard wing, including most of the aileron, was torn off, he got his aircraft back to base. In October 1943 Mack was posted to Headquarters Fighter Command as an intruder controller. Flying Officer F. E. Hogg,2 who had flown as a navigator in the early intruder operations, also did good work with No. 605 Squadron; by mid-1944 he had completed eighty-eight missions.
One of the most interesting tasks undertaken by the British night fighters during 1943 was the protection from enemy night fighters of the stream of bombers flying into Germany. The patrols were flown by Mosquitos fitted with special equipment which enabled them to home to the transmissions sent out by German fighters, and the first squadron to be so equipped claimed to have destroyed sixteen enemy machines during the second half of the year. Free-lance patrols over German night-fighter bases were also employed with good effect.
Squadron Leader Brinsden1 was prominent on operations in support of the British bombers with No. 25 Mosquito Squadron. He had fought over France and in the Battle of Britain and was one of the original flight commanders in No. 485 New Zealand Spitfire Squadron. On the night of 17 August Brinsden was captain of one of the Mosquitos which flew in support of Bomber Command's attack on the German experimental station at Peene- munde. After patrolling in the vicinity of Sylt he decided to bomb the airfield there.
We determined to fly out to sea, at about 2000 feet, as though flying home, then descend gradually, still heading westwards until at sea level, about face and fly back to Sylt, hoping by these means to outwit the radar screen and carry out a surprise attack.
All went well. As we approached Sylt pinpointing was easy for the town was silhouetted against a clear sky and the full moon made the scene as light as day. Over the town then at roof height, a slight turn to port towards the aerodrome hangers [sic] shining in the moonlight at about half a mile away, range shortening, coming up to optimum – stand by – bombs gone. Now a vicious turn to starboard to pass between the hangers – and blindness. A searchlight shining right into the cockpit from the nearest hanger roof. No forward vision; no cockpit instruments; nothing to help us orientate ourselves, and too low to evade vigorously. Then tangerine tracer shells passing too close to be safe. Now something had to be done. Violent evasion – and at sea level – while still heading generally eastwards was the only course open. At last the searchlights were lost and the tracer stopped but before vision had fully returned a violent acceleration, a dreadful shuddering, broken air screws screaming. We had touched the water – and bounced.
Warning my navigator to prepare for a ditching I meanwhile scanned the cockpit. Rev. counter needles were against the stops but other instruments seemed normal. Would it fly us home? Too soon it became evident that it would not and pre-ditching action was taken.
Little could be done to manoeuvre the dinghy. The type we had was a beast of burden, not of navigation, and although we rigged our seat type dinghy sails and endeavoured to sail out of the bay and westward under a favourable off-shore breeze, dawn brought an inshore one and a change of tide, and back we went into the bay.
Finally at the mercy of another inshore breeze we were blown ashore at mid-day on the 18th into an encircling ring of troops, who were impatiently waiting our arrival, having watched us drifting up and down the bay for the last six hours!
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No. 488 New Zealand Squadron was now taking a prominent part in the night offensive. It had first seen action over north-west France earlier in the year while still based at Ayr in Scotland. While training and intermittent patrols over that area continued, detachments had begun to fly to airfields in the south during each moonlight period for ‘Ranger’ patrols over the Continent. Wing Commander Trousdale led the first detachment to Coltishall on 15 February. The other two aircraft were captained by Squadron Leader Rabone and Flying Officer Gunn,1 who made the first offensive sorties the next night. Rabone encountered bad weather and was forced to return after flying some ten miles into enemy-occupied territory, but Gunn was more fortunate and reported the squadron's first success in its new role – an engine and two barges seriously damaged near Nieuport. He was opposed by accurate flak and searchlights but had the satisfaction of seeing the barges on fire. The following night Trousdale, while flying over Belgium, located a train on which he scored cannon strikes; he also shot up two barges. On 19 February Gunn flew the last ‘Ranger’ patrol of the February moon period when he succeeded in shooting up two railway engines and two barges, without encountering any serious opposition. Trousdale was now posted to the staff of No. 13 Fighter Group and was succeeded by Wing Commander Nesbitt-Dufort, one of the flight commanders. His flight was taken over by Squadron Leader McIntyre,2 who fought in the Battle of Britain and had been one of the founder members of No. 485 Squadron.
Beaufighters from No. 488 Squadron flew regularly on such missions during the moon period, which lasted for approximately a week and came towards the middle of each month. Usually three crews would fly south, operate for several nights and then be relieved by another three crews for the remainder of the period, so that in this way most members of the squadron had an opportunity of taking part in offensive work as a relief from the monotony of training and the relatively uneventful defensive patrols. Their efforts met with encouraging success. By the end of June, when No. 488 Squadron began to re-equip with Mosquito night fighters, crews had destroyed or damaged forty locomotives during their sorties over enemy-occupied territory.
The most successful ‘train-busting’ team during this phase was Pilot Officer Reed1 and his English navigator, Flight Sergeant Bricker,2 who claimed no fewer than thirteen engines either destroyed or damaged – twice they attacked three engines during a single sortie. After one such mission Reed reported:
We crossed the French coast, north of Isigny and gave a long burst at a train three miles east of Caretan; the engine burst into flames which were visible for a couple of miles. Approaching Folligny on the return route a second train was attacked – it stopped and the engine emitted clouds of steam. On homeward course another train proceeding from Airel to Caretan was attacked with a long burst stopping the train. Clouds of steam came from the engine.
On 3 September the squadron began the long-awaited move south to Bradwell Bay in Essex to take part in the night defence of that area. A few days before leaving Scotland the New Zealanders took part in an unusual rescue mission when they searched for fishing smacks carrying refugees from Denmark that had been sighted in the North Sea. The vessels were found in very bad weather more than 200 miles east of the Scottish coast and were seen to be shipping heavy seas. But the Danes did not appear dismayed and stood on deck under their national flag, waving sheets to the circling aircraft. The vessels were escorted until the aircraft were forced to return to base because of petrol shortage and eventually the ships arrived safely in Scottish ports.
At Bradwell Bay the squadron settled down quickly and began the last stage of training crews to operational efficiency with their new machines. This was not easy for the Mark VIII radar set with which the Mosquitos were fitted was quite new to most of the navigators and, in addition, the squadron was receiving many new crews, the majority unfamiliar with Mosquitos. Much time had therefore to be spent in practice flying in between operational patrols. Meanwhile the ground crews were kept very busy making themselves familiar with the servicing routine of the new type of aircraft. Inspections took longer than when the unit was equipped with Beaufighters, and faults, which later became routine, at first took time to isolate.
During this transitional period the New Zealanders received much valuable help from members of No. 605 Intruder Squadron which now shared the same airfield, and a fine spirit of companionship was built up between the two squadrons. By a strange coincidence the original No. 605, like the original No. 488 Squadron, had been in the Far East. Previously its pilots had put up a high score while flying Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. In their ‘Intruder’ patrols they now ranged as far afield as the Baltic on special missions by day as well as by night.
No. 488's hard work of the past months was rewarded on 15 September when, after a fortnight of patrols with many unsuccessful chases, the first German aircraft were claimed destroyed by crews flying Mosquitos. Flight Lieutenant Gunn was on patrol off the south-east coast when enemy raiders appeared in the area and Gunn was given directions to intercept them. He made contact with an Heinkel 111 and the combat took place close to the airfield. Many members of the squadron saw a ‘great ball of fire in the sky, heard the explosion which followed and saw the aircraft plunge into the page 224 sea.’ There was jubilation in the squadron's dispersal area but this was soon replaced by gloom when there was no further news of Gunn. It was later ascertained that his aircraft had been shot down by the Heinkel while pressing home his final attack.
The loss of Gunn and his Scottish navigator, Flying Officer Affleck,1 a deservedly popular team, was quickly avenged. Flight Lieutenant Watts,2 on patrol off the south coast, was given a vector and after radar contact sighted a Dornier 217. Then followed a chase in which Watts closed to 500 feet before opening fire. He later reported:
…. I gave a three-second burst, which struck the enemy aircraft on the starboard engine and fuselage, causing debris to fly off. The engine caught fire, and he went down towards the sea.
The Dornier crashed about 30 miles south-east of Foreness and continued to burn for some minutes before disappearing beneath the water. For the rest of the month the New Zealanders continued to patrol their sector, aided by occasional ‘scrambles’ from the ground, but there were no further interceptions.
Early in October an all New Zealand crew, Pilot Officers Knox3 and Ryan,4 engaged a Dornier 217 near Canterbury after a long pursuit through thick mist. They made two attacks, and during the second Knox saw strikes on the Dornier's engine and fuselage before contact was lost in the mist. Three days later the squadron lost its most experienced pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ball,5 and his Scottish navigator, Flying Officer Kemp,6 when their Mosquito crashed near Bradwell Bay on return from a patrol. Ball had returned to begin a second tour of duty with No. 488 Squadron in July. He had earlier completed two tours of bomber operations, the second with No. 75 Squadron. Kemp also had much experience of bomber and night-fighter operations. This was not the only loss suffered by the squadron at this time; a few days later another crew were lost during a practice flight when their Mosquito dived into the River Blackwater.
Early in November No. 488 Squadron claimed its first Messerschmitt 410 destroyed. This success, which came only after a long and difficult chase, was scored by the squadron's leading ‘train busting’ team, Reed and Bricker. Reed's report is as follows:
I was scrambled for incoming raids and whilst at 25,000 feet was vectored on to a possible enemy aircraft at 17,000 feet, distance 6 miles. I put my nose down increasing speed to 320 m.p.h. and my navigator obtained a contact at 1¾ miles range, crossing port–starboard at 10,000 feet. I turned hard to starboard and although the contact was lost it was later regained. Closed to 4,000 feet, target well above. I had a vague visual and closed into 800 feet when target went into light cloud, exhausts being visible. As both aircraft came out of cloud I identified the enemy aircraft as a Me410. I opened fire with two second burst of cannon from 250 yards from slightly above and to starboard and the enemy's starboard engine caught fire but it then appeared to fly straight on with no evasive action or return fire. I gave a further three seconds burst from 250 yards, above and to starboard, and the enemy aircraft rolled over to port diving vertically. My navigator saw the port wing buckle under and the aircraft disintegrate in flames in cloud.
Another Me410 was shot down towards the end of the month by Flying Officer Hall. On patrol over south-east England he was vectored towards a target and, after a long pursuit, was able to overhaul the Messerschmitt. Opening fire with a short burst from a range of 600 feet, Hall saw strikes on the fuselage. A large yellow explosion followed and the enemy machine was last seen diving down into cloud. During the chase the two aircraft had flown across the south of England and out over the Channel almost to the French coast at Calais before Hall turned for home on orders from Ground Control. He did not see the Messerschmitt crash but it was later confirmed as destroyed.
Towards the end of the year Wing Commander Hamley was promoted Group Captain and placed in charge of an operational training unit. He was succeeded by Wing Commander Haine,3 of Gloucester, who had been flying on operations since the beginning of the war, had risen from sergeant pilot and won commendation during the Battle of Britain as a Blenheim day-fighter pilot. Early in May 1940 he was shot down over Holland just after the Germans had invaded that country. After eluding enemy paratroops and making an unsuccessful attempt to capture a Messerschmitt fighter in which he hoped to fly back across the Channel, he was taken aboard the destroyer bringing Queen Wilhelmina to England. Haine was not unknown to many members of the squadron as they had been trained at the unit where he had been in charge of flying training.
This was the beginning of a very successful period for No. 488 Squadron which coincided with a substantial increase in enemy activity over England.
* * * * *
As 1943 drew to a close the Germans prepared for further reprisal raids against Britain. With their morale at a low ebb – the fall of Sicily had been followed by the capitulation of Italy and in Russia German armies had just been flung back beyond Kiev – propaganda was urgently needed for the home front. Something had to be done. Perhaps the news that Britain was again under heavy attack would have a heartening effect.
The German bomber force in the West was therefore reinforced from Italy and by the end of December it totalled some 550 bombers – a somewhat assorted collection made up mainly of Junkers 88s, Junkers 188s and Dornier 217s, thirty of the new Heinkel 177s, at last available for long-range bombing operations against the British Isles, twenty Messerschmitt 410s and twenty-five Focke-Wulf 190s. This force, however, was not as formidable as it seemed. There had already been a marked deterioration in the efficiency and striking power of the enemy bomber force in the Mediterranean and the general standard of training throughout the German bomber squadrons was not high enough to allow an effective and concentrated attack on vital British targets. Recognition of this deep-rooted weakness in his force led the German commander, Oberst Peltz, to imitate the RAF pattern of pathfinding and to form units manned by crews specially trained in navigation who would be assisted by radar and radio ground control. By these means he hoped to overcome the low standard of operational efficiency so evident among the squadrons available.
The new offensive was timed to begin over the Christmas period, but was delayed until the New Year by bad weather. On 20 January 1944 Peltz delivered a speech to German bomber crews specially paraded at Chateaudun for the purpose. The Herrenvolk, he said, had hitherto had to endure the destruction of their home towns by British bombs without being able to retaliate. The position had now changed. The time for retribution had arrived and large-scale attacks on England would now commence. As a further boost to morale page 228 Peltz inaugurated new target areas in London, each of which bore the name of a German city that had been devastated by RAF Bomber Command. The curtain went up the following night with an attack on ‘Munchen’ – London's West End – against which 270 sorties were flown.
It fell far below expectations. The pathfinder technique proved too elaborate for inexperienced crews and few aircraft succeeded in reaching Greater London. Not more than thirty tons of bombs fell on the capital, while nearly 300 tons were scattered around the countryside at large. There was then an interval of eight days before the next major attack, but it achieved no greater success, while two further raids in the first half of February were dismal failures; on both occasions only a very small proportion of the total bomb load fell on the target. It was not until 18 February that the Germans, using a simpler pathfinder technique, succeeded in dropping a worth- while quantity of bombs – about 175 tons – in the London area. Nevertheless, during March and until the last attack on 18 April only about half of the total number of aircraft operating on any one night were able to reach the target area. Moreover, the German effort fell off consistently. After the opening attack not more than 100 to 140 bombers operated on any one night. In between the raids on London, Hull was the target for two attacks and a third was directed against Bristol. But the increased distances to these cities brought serious errors in navigation and German crews were often unable to identify their targets; in the attack on Bristol, for example, the bombing concentration fell near Weston-super-Mare, about 20 miles away.
Altogether the Germans failed to obtain any noteworthy success during this offensive. Their bombers suffered heavy losses, about 135 aircraft being destroyed by night fighters and anti-aircraft guns – approximately 6 per cent of the sorties flown – while further losses were incurred through the inexperience of the crews and from successful Allied low-level attacks on German bomber bases on the Continent.
The British night defence, of which Fighter Command's thirteen Mosquito and three Beaufighter squadrons were the spearhead, proved equal to the test. At first, there was alarm when the enemy raiders began dropping metallised strips on a large scale in an attempt to swamp the British radar with spurious echoes. As yet there was no effective counter and it was fortunate that the existing radar system was not so seriously affected as had been feared. Nevertheless, there were occasions when it was virtually blinded over wide areas. Then the ground control stations were unable to track enemy aircraft and assist the patrolling night fighters; searchlights and anti-aircraft guns had to revert to sound location. On the page 229 other hand, British radar counter measures were so successful in disrupting German navigational aids that the enemy crews, unable to find their targets, were often unaware they were being led astray by their own radar devices.
Civilian casualties from air raids in Britain during the first four months of 1944 amounted to 1497 persons killed and 2841 seriously injured – nearly all of them Londoners – but, grievous though this was, it scarcely compared with the 41,480 people killed and 48,470 seriously injured during the ‘blitz’ of 1940. The British people, particularly the Londoners who, after the spate of German propa- ganda, had prepared for a renewal of air raids on a similar scale to that which they had endured in the early days of the war, were surprised at the weakness of the enemy attack. They dubbed it the ‘Baby Blitz’, and it is under this name that the brief assault of early 1944 which signalled the final collapse of the German bomber force has passed into history.
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The renewal of the German attack had brought increased activity for the British night fighters in both defensive patrols over England and intruder operations over enemy bomber bases on the Continent. New Zealanders were early in action. In the opening raid Warrant Officer Kemp shot down the first Heinkel 177 destroyed over England. Flying a Mosquito of No. 151 Squadron, Kemp had been airborne for about half an hour when ground control warned him that enemy aircraft were in the area and he was given several vectors. After flying for some time without making contact, Kemp saw a searchlight cone appear, and as he dived towards it his British radar operator, Flight Sergeant Maidment,1 obtained a head-on contact at two miles range. A few moments later Kemp sighted the enemy bomber and began to close in. But the enemy machine, apparently aware of the Mosquito's approach, suddenly peeled off and dived away taking violent evasive action. Contact was lost but quickly regained when the German bomber began to fly straight and level, heading for the North Sea. Kemp again closed in and opened fire. There was a violent explosion and a shower of sparks appeared on the port wing. In the light of the explosion Kemp saw a white swastika on the tail of the bomber as it skidded to one side. It then went down in a steep dive and was subsequently found crashed near Haslemere, in Surrey.
It was not long before 488 Squadron was again in the news. On the night of 4 February Flight Sergeant Vlotman,4 a Dutch night-fighter pilot flying with the New Zealanders, destroyed a Dornier 217, which fell into the sea 40 miles east of Foreness. Vlotman was interviewed by Dutch journalists and an article on his exploits appeared in the underground newspapers in Holland. He also broadcast to Holland over the BBC, but his identity was not disclosed for fear of reprisals against members of his family still in Holland.
3 This episode received considerable publicity at the time and photographs of the pilot and navigator appeared in the London Sunday newspapers over the caption ‘The Flying Tigers’. The following morning raw meat was placed in front of the two airmen when they appeared for breakfast.
On the 24th there was considerable enemy activity over south-eastern England but outside the New Zealanders' normal patrol area. However, two hours before midnight. Flight Lieutenant P. F. L. Hall was ordered to scramble and to fly into the patrol area of a neighbouring squadron and there to ‘free-lance’ with the aid of searchlights. Hall chased several searchlight intersections before he identified a Dornier 217, caught in the beams as it dived towards the coast. He opened fire and saw strikes followed by smoke, but the enemy aircraft then eluded him. Continuing his patrol Hall saw a searchlight intersection slightly below him and on investigation saw a German bomber approaching from directly ahead, the black crosses on the wings plainly visible in the glare of the searchlight beams. He fired several sharp bursts which set the bomber's port engine on fire. Then it went into a steep dive, with burning pieces falling away, and finally hit the ground and exploded. Subsequent inspection of the wreckage showed the destroyed aircraft to be a Heinkel 177.
Further successes were scored by No. 488 Squadron during March when the Germans made further attacks on London. On the night of the 14th Squadron Leader Bunting shot down a Junkers 188 after searchlights had betrayed its position. The engagement was brief as, after the first burst of cannon fire, the bomber dived vertically to the ground where it exploded in a mass of smoke and flame. Then a week later, on 21 March, the squadron created a record by destroying no fewer than five German raiders.
For the remainder of the month the New Zealanders alternated practice flights in co-operation with Bomber Command aircraft with further interception patrols, but there was only one night when there was any activity in their area. On that occasion Flying Officer C. M. Wilson1 and his navigator Flying Officer A. W. Wilson,2 were lost in action whilst patrolling off North Foreland.
It was to be almost a month before the squadron was again successfully engaged with the enemy. This was on the night of 18 April when the Germans made their final attack of the ‘Baby Blitz’ on London. Two enemy aircraft were destroyed that night, one by Flight Lieutenant J. A. S. Hall and his navigator, Flying Officer Cairns, the other by Warrant Officer Bourke3 and Flying Officer Skudder.4 Hall's target was a Junkers 88. After a prolonged chase it was finally overtaken near the Belgian coast and shot down into the sea, its destruction being witnessed by a pilot from a Canadian night-fighter squadron. While this crew were being con- gratulated, Bourke and Skudder landed to report the destruction of another Junkers 88. Bourke's combat report reads:
Contact was obtained at 6,000 feet range, about 500 feet above. I closed in at 200 m.p.h. on the enemy aircraft which was doing approximately 170 m.p.h. A visual was obtained at 800 feet and the enemy aircraft was seen to be taking gentle evasive action and was dropping ‘Window’. Target was at first believed to be a Junkers 188 but when I opened fire at 250 yards dead astern and slightly below, I recognised the aircraft as an 88. My first burst of 1 ½ seconds hit the port engine and the port wing. The engine burst into flames and the enemy aircraft dived straight down into the sea on fire. There was no return fire ….
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At the beginning of April 1944 the actual strength of the German bomber units in the West had fallen below 200 aircraft, with many units holding less than half their establishment. And now, on top of the losses sustained in the reprisal raids against London during the previous months, came the German decision to concentrate all possible resources on fighter production. Moreover, such aircraft of suitable bomber type, like the Junkers 88, as continued to be built were needed largely for the maintenance and still further expansion of the night defences of the Reich. Consequently, with no stock of reserve aircraft, bomber losses could not be replaced, and it was a sadly depleted force that remained in France to resist the Allied invasion. In Britain confidence in the ability of the air defences to inflict further losses led to the conviction that German bombers could do little to interfere with the growing concentrations of shipping, material and troops. This was to be fully justified by subsequent events. Such was the decline of the Luftwaffe's striking power that the Allied preparations for invasion now moved rapidly towards their climax almost unmolested from air attack. Things had certainly changed since the summer of 1940.