Just before 0900 on the morning of the 30th March 1944, one of the most controversial military commanders of WW2 walked down the steps to his underground headquarters. The bunker was concealed in the beech woods on the crests of the Chiltern Hills, four mile north-west of High Wycombe and it was the headquarters of RAF Bomber Command. He was Air Chief Marshall, Arthur Travis Harris, Commander in Chief, RAF Bomber Command. He was known as “Bomber Harris” by the press and the civilian population, “Butch” by his contemporaries because of his bluff, forthright manner and “Butcher Harris” by many of his aircrews.
Harris was greeted by 20 of his Senior Air Staff Officers (SASOs) and the morning conference began. By the time it had finished some 40 minutes later, the target for that night had been decided. Bomber Command was to attack the city of Nuremberg with a maximum effort raid. The target was chosen against the background of the RAF’s Battle of Berlin, a campaign that had continued throughout the winter months of 1943/44. Harris’s plan had been bold, but ultimately unachievable.
“We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF come in with us. It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war”.
The USAAF didn’t come in with them, Berlin was severely damaged but not wrecked end to end and the cost was 500 aircraft and 2,690 aircrew killed. Despite the courage and determination of the Bomber Crews, the Germans had won the Battle of Berlin. This was effectively the last raid of the Berlin battles, before Bomber Command was directed to conduct interdiction raids on transport and defensive infrastructure, prior to the Normandy Invasion of June that year. Fundamental to the choice of that night’s target was the weather, always a major factor in the Strategic Bomber Offensive.
Key to bombing a target was suitable weather over the airfields during take-off and landing, good visibility over the target for marking and no heavy cloud on the route that could cause icing on the aircraft. Mr Spence the chief Met Officer forecasted a low pressure area over Norway, producing cumulus cloud that would spill into the North Sea. Additionally, a cold front extended from Ireland, across southern France and Germany before turning north to Russia. This front had 3 implications: Its leading, southern edge could contain low cloud which would obscure a target. The trailing northern edge contained high, layered cloud and there would be steady winds in the upper air running parallel to the front. That night there was a half moon. This meant any raid in northern Germany could be discounted because of the cloud cover. Ordinarily it was too late into the moon cycle for any operations, but the chance of high cloud behind the cold front would provide concealment for the bombers.
Now which target? Harris consulted a list of potential targets in southern Germany and decided on Nuremberg. It was a virtually untouched, industrial target in just the right place allowing for the weather conditions. Harris then outlined the tactical plan. The bombers would take-off late, follow the estimated layer of high cloud and have a swift, direct passage through southern Germany using the tail wind. Nuremberg would be bombed in the moonlight and by the time the bomber stream turned west for home, the moon would have set. Harris’s deputy expressed concern on such a long flight through Germany in moonlight and Mr Spence was worried about the reliance of the high cloud to protect the bombers, but the raid would go ahead. All raids were a gamble with the weather and the reaction of the German fighter controllers.
The telex machines chattered out the orders for the raid detailing the actual target or aiming point, method of target marking including flare colours. The orders detailed the numbers of aircraft each squadron would provide, the routes to and from the target and the fuel and bomb load. The usual code word for a raid on a German city would be “USUAL” denoting a 4000lb blast bomb known as a “Cookie” and the rest of the load made up of incendiary canisters. The Cookie would blow off the roofs and the windows of the buildings, the myriads of 4lb and 30lb incendiary bomblets would burn the hearts out of them. The shrewd ground crews who serviced the aircraft realised that with maximum fuel and minimum bombload, this was going to be a long-distance op.
The bomber stations closed the gates and from now on, everyone was confined to base. The crews poured into the Flight Commanders’ offices to see if they were on the battle order. As it was a Maximum Effort, most of them were. The pilots rounded up their crews and headed out to the dispersals to perform an air test. This was a short flight in the local area to test the aircraft systems and iron out any last minute problems. Flight engineers checked gauges and instruments, the navigator his navigation equipment, the air bomber (bomb aimer) his Mk IX bomb site. The gunners checked their turrets, but would not fire their guns until over the sea on the actual raid. The oxygen equipment would also be tested.
The radio operators checked their Wireless Transmitters T.1154 and sent out a test message in Morse code, usually “the quick brown fox,” or “best bent wire.” It seems painfully obvious today in the world of OPSEC, but these test transmissions were picked up by listening stations on the French and Netherlands coast. By counting the number of transmissions, the German Intelligence was able to estimate the number of aircraft likely to be involved. By mid-afternoon they knew that a large raid was due that night. Now they needed to know the target.
After the air tests and last minute problems had been reported to the engineering crew, the ground crews would ready the bombers. The armourers loaded the bombs from the trolleys into the vast bomb bays, belts of .303 ammunition into turrets and the fuel bowsers filled the aircrafts’ tanks with on average 2,000 gallons of high octane fuel. The bombs were armed on the ground because it was impossible to get into the bomb bay once the aircraft were in the air.
During the afternoon, the first briefings for pilots and navigators were held, usually in the station cinema. This revealed the target, aiming points and courses. Curtains would be opened revealing a huge map of Europe with a ribbon denoting the course and doglegs to the target. Known areas of flak and searchlights were marked. The briefing was held by the squadron and flight commanders, the intelligence and met officer. The navigators took copious notes concerning courses and wind speed. There was some concern among the more experienced airmen about the long leg of the route which passed between the heavy flak concentrations around the Ruhr and Frankfurt. The route also ran close to the night fighter beacons Otto and Ida. However, most of the assembled crews were relieved that the target wasn’t Berlin itself. They would be forced to re-evaluate this in a few hours’ time.
The rest of the crews joined up for the main briefings, overseen by the station commanders. Much was made by the Met Officers regarding the shielding high cloud, but again the more experienced crews were unhappy about such a long flight into Germany in the prevailing moonlight conditions. The briefings usually finished with a pep talk by the station commanders and then the airmen filed out for their pre-flight meals, usually referred to as “The Last Supper.” There then followed the agonising long wait. Some tried to read a book, some wrote letters to loved ones “Only to be posted if I fail to return” and some took themselves off to a quiet place to be sick.
It was dark by the time the aircrews assembled to collect their parachutes and flight rations of flasks of tea or coffee or Bovril, boiled sweets and chocolate, a rare luxury in wartime Britain. Some airmen would save the sweets and give them to crew members who had children and were in that time, naturally married and to someone of the female gender. They would wait for the transport lorries to take them out to the aircraft, scattered across the airfield in their dispersals. The mix-match of lorries were usually driven by young WAAF drivers, many of whom in later years still remembered the clumsy passes, the forced banter and the unique smell of stale flying clothes, oil, petrol and fear. The pilot would sign for the aircraft, the ground crew “Chiefey” formally releasing the complex flying bomb to young men, some still in their teens and many who couldn’t drive a car. The engines were run up to warm the oil and check pressure, then shut back down to await the flare and order to taxi out to the runway. This was the last opportunity for a piss and for many, it was the last fresh air they would ever smell.