The Peenemünde Raid 17-18 August 1943

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Part One – Intelligence Failings

In May 1943 No 430 Squadron’s A-Flight received at their base at RAF Leuchars, an Air Tasking Order (ATO) to conduct photographic reconnaissance (PR) mission to a small fishing village and two islands on Baltic Sea. 430 Squadron’s A-Flight was a reconnaissance unit, which operated over Norway, Denmark and the Baltic. Leuchars is across the bay from St Andrews golf course on the east coast of Scotland in Fife. A-Flight was a detachment of the main 430 Squadron, which was based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire and the flight operated the PR version of the de Havilland Mosquito.

The ATO was very specific. The aircraft would have to fly several parallel tracks over the targets, as if inviting the attention of radar predicted flak. It was an anathema to the PR crews to make several runs over the same target, rather than dashing in, running the cameras and getting the hell out of it. Flight Lieutenant Gordon Hughes the detachment commander, flew down to RAF Benson to question the reason for these unusual orders. He was told in confidence that “there were almost incredible anxieties about the Peenemünde area.”

Five PR sorties were flown on 20th May, 12th, 21st, 23rd and 26th June. Although a Flak Ship was moored off the mouth of the River Peene, the Mosquitos were unmolested because unknown to them, the German anti-aircraft defences had specific orders not to open fire on Allied aircraft. The 12th June sortie flown by Flight Lieutenant R. A. Lenton MC and Sergeant R. S. Hanley, brought back a picture of  V2s lying horizontally on a test stands and these was later identified by Doctor R. V. Jones as missiles. Sadly, three of the four Mosquito crews would be killed within the next six months.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
PR Photograph of horizontal V2 Rockets at B and C

The Oslo Report

Shortly after the outbreak of war, the British naval attaché in the Norwegian received an anonymous letter, which offered to supply German weapon secrets at no cost. To signal their acceptance, the British were asked to make a small change to a BBC regular broadcast to Germany. The change was made and a package was dropped through the embassy letter box. It contained an array of technical data, including information on the German testing of long-range rockets at Peenemünde on the Baltic Coast. The area was easily identified on pre-war maps as it had been a Nazi Strength through Joy holiday camp.

The information contained in The Oslo Report, was so comprehensive, that British intelligence and scientists thought that it was a plant, a red herring to waste time and resources. The priceless and as it turned out, accurate information, languished in an archive for several years but the identity of the person or persons who had provided it was never discovered until after the war. No British intelligence agencies made any attempt to follow-up on the report and it was three years before it was revisited.

After gaining a doctorate of physics from Heidelberg University in 1922, Hans Ferdinand Mayer joined the firm Siemens AG in 1922 and became a researcher in the company’s communications research laboratory. Through this work he gained contacts throughout Europe and the USA and had a thorough knowledge of German electronic developments in the military sector. After Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Mayer decided to divulge to the British as much as he could about military secrets to defeat the Nazi regime. He arranged a business trip to Scandinavia in late October 1939. He arrived at his first scheduled stop, Oslo, Norway, on 30 October 1939 and checked into the Hotel Bristol.

The report that Mayer provided to the British contained highly detailed information of German development in the following fields: The JU88 multi-role aircraft programme, the Franken aircraft carrier, remote controlled gliders, autopilot technology, remote controlled projectiles, aircraft rangefinders, torpedoes and electronic fuses for bombs and shells. But crucially, information on the developing German rocketry programme. R. V. Jones admitted that many people argued that it must be a plant by the Germans, because no one man could possibly have known all of the developments that the report described. But as the War progressed and one development after another actually appeared, it was obvious that the report was largely correct.

The Danish Report

In December 1942 a Danish chemical engineer working in Berlin, overheard a conversation where a German professor from the German Technical High School told a German engineer, about a test firing of a rocket near Swinemunder. The professor boasted that the rocket had a range of 200 kilometres and could carry a five ton warhead. This information was duly reported to London via the Danish Resistance. Other reports named Peenemünde as a site for the test firing of rockets and had a new factory for the production of secret weapons. Even this new information failed to galvanise the intelligence services into action.

Events finally started to move when in late March 1943, two high-ranking German prisoners of war (POW), Generals von Thoma and Cruewall, were recorded at a holding camp on the outskirts of London, talking about the new German rocket weapons. By this time, the Germans had been allowed to test fire and develop the V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets, unmolested for well over three years.
But even now there were unnecessary delays. The initial reports were passed to both the Army and RAF and in a typical spasm of inter-service rivalry, neither could make up their mind whose responsibility this intelligence was. Were rockets aviation matters and therefore the province of the RAF, or were they ground to ground missiles and therefore the domain of the Army? The Army eventually decided to pass the information up the chain of command and Churchill finally received it twenty-three days after the conversation between the two German generals.

Once the matter was in the realm of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, things finally started to move. A single person from outside the intelligence communities would be appointed to oversee and coordinate all actions. The appointee was Duncan Sandys M.P. who was Churchill’s son-in-law and he took up the post on 15th April 1943. Sandys had commanded the Army’s experimental anti-aircraft rocket unit, until being severely injured in a car accident and invalided out of the Army. The appointment was not universally popular. Professor Lindermann (Lord Cherwell) dissented and R. V. Jones was unhappy that his department was not allowed to pursue the rocket investigation alone. It is sad to note that even when a clear and present danger to national security has been identified, inter-departmental and inter-Service rivalry continues. Besides, Jones’s Scientific Intelligence of the Military Intelligence, had earlier received information on German rocket development and had done nothing with it.

Sandys and his staff began to collate as much information as possible, hence the request for the PR missions over Peenemünde. More information also came from German POWs. A tank “expert” captured in the Middle-east provided over fifty pages of material and a German prisoner mentioned the construction of a long-range, liquid fuelled projectile. The Polish Resistance passed on details on the construction of a forced labour camp at Peenemünde, along with observations of test firings by Danish fishermen operating in the Baltic.

Duncan Sandys completed his investigation on 27th June 1943 and presented his findings to the War Cabinet two days later. He reported that he believed that at Peenemünde, the Germans had developed a rocket capable of firing a sizeable warhead 130 miles (the V2’s actual range was 200 miles) and that Peenemünde was the main production and test site of German rocket engineering. He stated that he believed that the information was no hoax.

Lord Cherwell who was at the meeting with R. V. Jones stated his opinion that the Germans were not technically capable of producing such a rocket and it was a cover for the production of an improved V1 flying bomb. When asked his opinion, Jones stated that he believed the threat to be real, but an imminent attack on Britain was highly unlikely. Faced with a two-to-one recommendation, the War Cabinet decided that Peenemünde should be attacked by the RAF as soon as possible. An attack in daylight by Mosquito bombers at low level was discounted because the aircraft loads were considered insufficient to totally destroy all of the facilities. It was decided that Peenemünde should receive the attention of upwards of 500 heavy bombers

A major problem was identified by the Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Portal. Because of the short summer nights, Peenemünde could not be attacked until August. Nobody seemed to consider that the Americans had around 300 B17s at operational readiness, but it would be a long haul in daylight and the fighter escort squadrons still had to come online. The B17 could carry little more than a Mosquito to that range anyway and as the target of the rockets would be the British civilian population, it was probably decided that this should be a British effort. The War Cabinet agreed the delay until August of 1943.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Test firing of a v2 at Peenemünde

Middlebrook, Martin (1982). The Peenemünde Raid: The Night of 17–18 August 1943, Pen and Sword Aviation. Frankland, Noble and Webster, Charles. The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939–1945, Volume II. R.V. Jones. Scientific Intelligence. J. Royal United Services Institution.

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