The Peenemünde Raid 17-18 August 1943

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Air Chief-Marshal Harris (seated) and his Senior Air Staff Officers

Part Two – Planning Operation Hydra

Air Chief Marshall Harris and his Senior Air Staff Officers (SASOs) had almost two months to plan the attack on Peenemünde. Normally Bomber Command worked out the details of the targeting, but in this instance the targets right down to individual buildings were given. All that needed to be decided were the routes and tactics as the targets and priorities were provided by the War Cabinet:

1. The destruction of the experimental establishment to impede research work and the development of rocket apparatus.
2. The two large factory buildings where the rockets were being constructed and assembled.
3. The living and sleeping quarters to kill as many scientists and research staff as possible.

The target maps that were issued to the bomb aimers showed that the army barracks and the foreign workers were within the priority three target area. To put it brutally, the aim was to end the ability of the Germans to produce rockets and to kill all of those involved in their construction and development. There was nothing that could be done regarding the location of the labour camp. The airfield and V1 facilities were outwith the targeting and their significance would only be known after the raid. Peenemünde was the only instance of Bomber Command’s main force being directed against a small, precision target and the bomber crews had received no specialist training. What is remarkable is that a weapon such as Bomber Command, regarded by many as a powerful but blunt object, was able to shift from area bombing of cities to such a small but vitally important target. This flexibility of air power was the harbinger of specialist targets, the bomber force would be called on to attack throughout 1944 and 1945.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Bombing map issued to the bomb aimers

On the 7th July 1943 Harris met with his Group Commanders to brief them and there were very few SASOs in attendance, none from the Groups. The nature of the target was kept under tight security at this stage as well as the imperative of attacking it. Normally bombing raids were planned in eighteen hours, while in this instance the Command had weeks. The coastal location of Peenemünde meant that if approached from the north, the bombers could avoid the heavily defended German cities and night fighter assembly areas. Additionally, the peninsular with the islands to the north and the River Peene would give good returns with recognisable features on the H2S bombing radars. But it would be a daunting task for the bomber crews to identify the three, small targets and for the Pathfinders to keep them marked with pyrotechnics. The target could be obscured with smoke and subsequent attacks to finish it off would result in high losses, so all the planning was to deliver a knock-out blow on the first attempt.

Number 5 Group based in Lincolnshire led the planning, because its crews had previous experience in attacking precision targets, such as the Ruhr dams, and had pioneering the “Master Bomber” function. The Master Bomber would be one of the most experienced crews, who would remain circling over the target, acting as a “Master of Ceremonies.” He would watched the raid unfold and redirect the crews’ aiming points if their bombing was going awry, or the Germans were using spoof marking flares. Also vital would be accurate time and distance bombing, identifying a point on the ground that was visible and in direct line to the target. As the aircraft crossed the first point, the run-in to the target would be timed by the navigator until the aircraft reached the second visible reference point. The bomb aimer would tell the pilot to make corrections to determine the accurate compass heading to steer for the third reference point. This was checked on the last reference point and the final run to the target known and timed. The technique required absolute cooperation between bomb aimer, navigator and pilot, the holy trinity of a bomber crew and no distractions from enemy flak and fighters. It also required excellent visibility.

Because of its perceived elite status, No 5 Group’s Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Cochrane wanted to bomb the target alone, using borrowed Pathfinder crews. Harris vetoed this idea because even using the exhausted and depleted 617 Squadron, the Group could only muster 160 Lancasters. There was a degree of rivalry between Cochrane and AVM Bennet of the Pathfinder Force and Harris wanted to avoid this becoming toxic. While he had vetoed the 5 Group only plan, Harris kept some of the ideas worked on by Cochrane’s staff in the Main Force attack.

Weather was always a problem with shifting winds and while cloud provided cover for the bomber crews, it could easily obscure the target, so the raid had to be mounted on a night with clear skies under a full moon. The Master Bomber was provided by Number 8 Pathfinder Group, Group Captain Searby, an ex-Halton apprentice who had started the war as a sergeant pilot and had flown fifty operations before joining the Pathfinders. He was regarded as “very experienced, very calm, sound and steady.”

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Group Captain J H Searby, (on the left) and Air Vice-Marsal D C T Bennett, Air Officer Commanding No. 8 (PFF) Group, leave the Headquarters of Air Defence of Great Britain, Bentley Priory, Middlesex, after a conference

Harris and the planning staff in Bomber Command Headquarters at High Wycombe anxiously watched the weather. Three essential conditions were required: As near as a full moon as possible, clear weather with no cloud over the target and clear weather at the airfields for take-off and landing the bombers. And the landing aspect was of secondary importance, as returning aircraft could divert to other airfields. A low pressure weather area with clouds had affected the Baltic area during the beginning of August’s full moon period. Then on the 17th August the weather changed with high strato-cumulous cloud forecast for north Germany and the Baltic coast. Harris had already decided that the attack would take place at medium altitude, so the high altitude clouds wouldn’t be a factor over the target. Harris ordered a Mosquito weather flight to the Baltic that day, with the main attack going in that night. One of the reasons for launching the raid on the 17th was that it was a Tuesday/Wednesday night and as one of the priorities was to kill as many of the scientists as possible, most would be on the base.

An other major air operation planned on the 17th August was an American 8th Air Force daylight raid to the Messerschmitt works at Regensburg and the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. The aircraft attacking Schweinfurt would return to Britain while the Regensburg force would fly on to North Africa. Such a deep penetration into southern Germany would involve every B17 based in Britain and the 376 bombers would not have a fighter escort. Ever the pragmatist, Harris reasoned that such a large, daylight raid would tie up most of the German fighter defences and he hoped a significant number of the night fighter force as well. His crews needed all the advantages they could get.

The Schweinfurt and Regensburg raids need their own piece to do them justice, but the failure of the US raid had an important effect on US air doctrine in the longer term and the Peenemünde raid in the shorter term. After being postponed several times by unfavourable weather, the operation, known within the Eighth Air Force as “Mission No. 84”, was flown on the anniversary of the first daylight raid by the Eighth Air Force.

Mission No. 84 was a strike by 376 bombers of sixteen bomb groups against German heavy industry well beyond the range of escorting fighters. The mission inflicted heavy damage on the Regensburg target, but at catastrophic loss to the force, with 60 bombers lost and many more damaged beyond economical repair. As a result, the Eighth Air Force was unable to follow up immediately with a second attack that might have seriously crippled German industry. Even this assessment is somewhat optimistic, given the German capacity to repair vital strategic industrial assets.

However, crucially for the RAF crews who would take off that evening, the German fighter defences coped easily with the two US strike groups, due to their scattered timing and the later take-off times of the Regensburg group. The German fighters were able to attack the Schweinfurt group, land, refuel, re-arm and be in the air to intercept the Regensburg group. Crucially, none of the twin-engine night fighter groups were drawn south from their bases in Northern Germany and Denmark.

Harris ended his 09:00 hour conference and the orders for Operation Hydra went out to the Group Headquarters. The initial signals only detailed bomb loads and fuel, not the actual target itself. The bombers would be routed across Denmark before turning south to Peenemünde; the return flight would also be across Denmark. The crews preferred flying across the sea and other countries rather than Germany and the close proximity to neutral Sweden was a small comfort. There would be a diversionary raid by Mosquitos to Berlin (codenamed Whitebait) to hopefully confuse the German defences that the target for the main force was the Big City.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Route to Peenemünde and the Mosquito diversion to Berlin

The actual targets, the attacking Groups and the order of bombing was as follows:

Aiming Point Target Bombers:

Aiming Point Targets Bombers
1st  Housing Estate Nos 3 and 4 Groups
2nd Production Works No 1 Group
3rd Experimental Works Nos 5 and 6 Groups

Unusually for them, the Short Stirlings from No 3 Group with their lower ceiling and lighter bomb loads would be in the vanguard of the attack. On typical raids, they would be wallowing on slowly behind the Lancasters and Halifaxes, at a lower altitude and over a thoroughly alerted target. Little wonder that losses among Stirling crews were proportionally so high.

The differing nature of the targets would require different bomb loads. For the housing Estates the load was:

Bomber Command Executive Codeword: “COOKIE/PLUMDUFF”
Target Type: Heavily Industrialised Cities
1 x 4,000 lb Amatol, Minol or Tritonal filled, impact-fused High Capacity (HC) bomb. 3 x 1,000 lb short-finned, short-delay, tail-armed HE bombs, and up to 6 SBC’s with 4 lb or 30 lb incendiary bombs.

For the production and experimental works the bombload was:
Bomber Command Executive Codeword: “ABNORMAL”
Target Type: Factories, Rail yards, Dockyards
14 x 1,000 lb Medium Case (MC), General Purpose (GP) RDX or US short-finned High Explosive (HE) bombs. With mix of instantaneous (nose-armed) and long-delay (up to 144 hours, tail-armed) fusing.

The Pathfinders would be carrying their normal load of marker flares and pyrotechnics and two standby Master Bombers were selected should Group, Group Captain Searby’s aircraft be lost en-route to the target. The bombers would fly a mean total of 1,250 miles, depending of where the home airfields were located. The Pathfinders from No 8 Group and the Stirlings of No 3 Group operating from Norfolk and Cambridgeshire had the longest flights, the Stirlings setting off up to an hour before the main force, because of their slower speeds.

The night before the Peenemünde raid, 154 aircraft from the main force had raided Turin, a long haul and on their return, fog had shrouded the East Anglian airfields. Many aircraft, particularly the Stirling force had to divert to other airfields and remained fogged in, unable to return to their home bases. At least sixty Stirling bombers were removed from the battle order. Additionally so were five Wellington squadrons, flown mainly by Polish crews. There were two reasons for this: the twin-engine aircraft were often mistaken for German night fighters and fired at by the bomber gunners and Mosquito night fighters. But primarily, it was known that the labour camp at Peenemünde consisted of Polish workers and it was deemed unacceptable for Polish aircrew to be asked to murder their own countrymen. The final order of battle for the Peenemünde raid was as follows:

Target Lancaster Halifax Stirling Mosquito Beaufighter Total
Peenemünde 324 218 54 596
Berlin Diversion 8 8
Intruders 28 10 38
Resistance Drop 8 8
Total 324 226 54 36 10 650

The rest of the day the Flight and Squadron commanders posted the battle orders, and decided which crews to rest. This was made difficult because of the diverted aircraft and those stood down, so there was significant number of inexperienced crews on the battle order and for some it was their first operation. Then the aircrews would conduct an air test, so that last-minute problems on the aircraft could be rectified.

In the late afternoon of 17th August 1943, the crews began to assemble in the briefing rooms on thirty-eight airfields. The crews were still unaware of the target, but many, friendly with the ground crews who knew the bomb and petrol loads, realised that the target was some distance away. They also noticed that security at the briefing rooms was much tighter and there was a large number of very senior officers present.

When the curtains were removed from the map, the crews saw the ribbons across Denmark and the Baltic, they thought, Oh Christ, it’s Berlin. But when they were told the target was Peenemünde, none of them had ever heard of it. None of them were told the true nature of their targets, the cover story being that it was a plant producing the latest anti-bomber radar for night fighters. They were told that if they were unsuccessful that night, they would be going back the following night and the nights after that and in daylight if necessary, until the target was destroyed. All of the crews realised that they were doing something of vital importance.

None of the men of Bomber Command were ever so naïve as to think that dropping tons of medium capacity blast bombs and incendiaries on German cities, would not result in casualties to the civilian population. The targets were usually indicated as marshalling yards, factories and plants within the city, but the Peenemünde briefing specifically indicated that one of the targets was a housing estate for the scientists. The crews were left in no doubt, their job was to kill German scientists and by virtue of their location, in all likelihood their families as well.

From the briefing, the various disciplines went to sub-briefings, navigators for the routes, turning points and time and distance markings, bomb aimers for the type of markers, radio operators for call signs and windage reports, gunners, the types of aircraft on the raid and what not to shoot at. Then it was off to the various messes for a final meal, invariably known as the last supper, and then kill time and get kitted up. Lorries mainly driven by WAAFs would take the aircrew out to their widely dispersed aircraft. Many of these women would recall those moments until they died many years later. Impossibly young, schoolboy faces that would never come back. The clumsy passes. The smell of oil, petrol and damp kapok. And the smell of fear. Many would wait in the cold by the side of the runway to wave them off and many would wait for a lover who might never return. It would be a very long night.

© Blown Periphery 2018

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