Part Five – The Air Battle and the Flight Home
There had been virtually no German night fighter activity over Peenemünde for the first thirty minutes of the raid. The first and second waves had been able to bomb unmolested, apart from receiving the attention of the steadily improving flak. There had however, been a number of air-to-air engagements caused by inexperienced and nervous Halifax gunners firing at each other’s aircraft.
There was a night fighter airfield Greifswald, eighteen miles from Peenemünde, but most if its aircraft were over Berlin. The other inexperienced crews were at 18,000 feet trying to find the bomber stream, which was at half that altitude. For thirty minutes after the last Mosquito had left, the night fighters circled over the city, waiting for the main force to arrive. There was reported chaos over the big city, with single engine fighters attacking their own twin-engine night fighters, mistaking the twin rudder empennage of the BF 110s for Halifaxes and Lancasters. At 00:10 in the excellent visibility, the German fighters saw target indicators cascading down many miles away to the north. They realised that they had been comprehensively duped by the Mosquito spoof raid.
Even after the target markers were seen over Peenemünde, the night fighter controllers still didn’t order the fighters north. This was due to the excessive secrecy surrounding the area and the obsession with defending Berlin. The decision to leave Berlin and head north was taken by individual, experienced or enterprising pilots, who knew straight away that they had been sold a pup. While the Tame Boar fighters still had the range, many of the single-engined Wild Boar fighters were out of fuel and were forced to land. The fighters heading north thought that the raid was on Stettin because they had never heard of Peenemünde either.
As soon as the night fighters arrived, the Lancasters started to fall on fire out of the sky. There were very few of the night fighters made it to Peenemünde after wasting time and fuel over Berlin, but in the bright moonlight, they could hardly miss the lumbering bombers. There was perhaps only around thirty to thirty-five, but it was enough. One night fighter pilot losing altitude to land, found himself in the bomber stream. He shot down four bombers in quick succession. The 5 Group Lancasters making their Time and Distance runs were very easy prey, as they were unable to take evasive action.
The conditions were ideal for the night fighters. The bombers were silhouetted against the fires on the ground and a thin screen of smoke at around 3,000 feet. The standard operating procedure was to climb out after releasing the bombs, but this made the aircraft slower and more vulnerable. The experienced bomber crews left the danger area going balls-out in a slight dive, climbing later over Denmark.
Oberleutnant Müller, a night fighter pilot whose Focke-Wulf 190 arrived at Peenemünde describes what it was like for the German crews:
I attacked at once. It was so easy. I could see fifty bombers. I was a bit nervous – I seemed to be alone. I chose a Lancaster. The tail gunner fired back, of course. His first hit was in the spinner in the middle of my propeller; then he knocked a piece out of my engine cowling. It was a quick combat. He didn’t take any evasive action. I tried to hit the tanks between the engines in the right wing and I think I must have hit both engines on that side because I saw the propellers wind milling and he kept swinging to the right. I thing he cut the power in the left engines but he couldn’t maintain altitude. I didn’t see any parachutes and I watched him make a forced landing among the breakers off the shore. There was a great cloud of spray.
I flew back to the target area and found another Lancaster, easily visible against the smoke. I attacked again but this tail gunner was not so well trained or he was very nervous. His first shots went past me on the left. He swung his turret and fired again, but I easily avoided his fire. The right wing caught fire and then about a minute later, the wing fell off and he spiralled down. I couldn’t see any parachutes again. It was very difficult to bail out of an aircraft when it was spinning. It fell into the sea.
But it wasn’t totally one-sided. Obergefreiter Hafner was the radar operator in Leutnant Musset’s BF 110 night fighter and this was their first mission. The pilot had decided to abandon the fruitless orbiting over Berlin and headed north to join battle. They had already made six successful attacks over Peenemünde (yes, they had shot down six British bombers) when their luck ran out as they attacked:
… a Lancaster, but we were in too much trouble to watch it. We had been hit by a burst of machine-gun fire which started a fire in our port engine. I had been hit in the shoulder by an incendiary bullet. We turned away from the bomber stream and tried to make Gustrow airfield. We were fired upon by our own light flak and hit by a few splinters and they stopped firing when we fired the colours of the day. But the fire spread, we lost control and had to bail out. I got out all right; I had no feeling in my injured shoulder and I just slid over the wing, but Leutnant Musset broke both legs when he hit the tailplane and made a very painful landing. We met in hospital at Gustrow.
Clearly from these accounts, the RAF aircrew were meeting swift, terrifying and violent deaths, many never comprehending just what had hit them. Nearly all of the victims of the air battle were the bomber crews and aircraft that comprised the third wave, the attack on the Experimental works. These were the Lancasters of 5 Group and the Canadian Halifaxes of 6 Group, but with them were two Stirlings from the first wave that should have been well on their way home. These two aircraft had been delayed and fell to the marauding German night fighters.
Sergeant Scandrett was the rear gunner of a Sterling that had been hopelessly south of track and was attacking Peenemünde from the wrong direction. Scandrett had been ordered to take the place of a gunner who was facing a court martial and the layout of the turret’s communication equipment was unfamiliar compared to his own aircraft. The intercom wasn’t working and he couldn’t find the buttons that activated the warning lights in the cockpit.
I spotted the Focke-Wulf 190… I tried to raise the others on the intercom but it was still dead. I groped for the warning lights, but the button wasn’t there… He closed to 300 yards and I fired first but my burst went high because these guns were zeroed for 400 yards, where mine were set for 200 yards…
I think his first burst went too low but he certainly got us with his second or third… I thought I hit him because my tracers appeared to be hitting his engine and as he passed under us, diving under our starboard side, I thought I hit him in the body. But he was moving very fast and he was a dead shot and I couldn’t stop him hitting us. He got us in the starboard wing between the engines and the fuel tank caught fire.
I heard the pilot say he was going to dive and he put the nose straight down and came down at least 3,000 feet, but it had no affect whatever on the fire. He told us he would try to gain a little height and that we were to bail out. His was the only voice I heard. I carried out the normal procedure. The flames from the burning tanks were streaming within inches of my hatch. I had to dive through those flames and knew it was all or nothing and I had to do it. It was over twelve months later that I remember leaving the aircraft and to this day, I never ever remember pulling the rip-cord.
Three men including the pilot died in Scandrett’s Stirling that night.
The air battle was being fought over alternating areas of land and sea and at many of the men who bailed out were drowned. Several of the bombers that were attacked were hit from below by cannon bursts that had no tracer. The first inkling the crews had that they were being attacked, was when the explosive cannon shells came up through the decks, wings and bomb bays. Sergeant Garnett was the rear gunner of a 467 Squadron Lancaster, who with the mid-upper gunner had beaten of a conventional attack by a JU 88 night fighter. He recalls a second attack, which destroyed their Lancaster:
We settled down again, climbing steadily. Then we were hit, just a very gentle judder, but the speed of the aircraft was affected. The sensation was as though the aircraft had been hit by a big cloud of cotton wool. We saw no tracer. That was a complete mystery to we gunners; we couldn’t see how an aircraft could be hit with invisible fire like that.
Then immediately, a real stream of fire and sparks came past my turret from the port wing. It was just like a real gunpowder plot night, just like a bonfire being lit. The pilot told us to get out at once. I heard him asking for someone to pass him his parachute.
The 5th Staffel of NJG 5 based at Parchim airfield, had fitted two of its Messerschmitt BF 110s with twin cannons adjusted to fire vertically through the cockpit roof. This Schräge Musik installation made its debut on the night of the Peenemunde raid, the upward firing cannons had been fitted to the aircraft of the Staffel’s two most experienced pilots. Unteroffizier Holker describes a violent encounter with a Lancaster during a Schräge Musik attack. He had already shot down a Halifax and then:
We climbed up again and found another one immediately – a Lancaster this time. I think this one had seen us because he started his weaving, evasive manoeuvre. It was difficult to get underneath this bomber when he was flying this way, so I maintained a steady course and waited for him to cross over the top of me. I fired when he did so but my first shots went behind him. I corrected by dropping my nose a little and the next burst started hitting him in the left wing. But he responded by putting his nose up and his tail gunner opened fire on me. He was a really good shot. One of his first bullets hit an oxygen bottle that our third man – the lookout – needed. The bottle exploded. I don’t know much what happened then (sic). I wasn’t able to think very clearly. I found out later that I had three bits of metal in the back of my head and about forty in the rest of my body.
We were in a dive and fell about 3,000 down to 1,500 metres; only then was I able to pull out of the dive. The cockpit roof had all gone in the explosion. I couldn’t speak to the others because the intercom had gone and I couldn’t see them because of the radar set between me and them.
It was later confirmed by ground observers that the Lancaster that Holker attacked subsequently crashed and there were no survivors.
The Flight Home
The bombers were pressing on north-westwards across Denmark to the North Sea. The fires of Peenemünde were still visible some 220 miles behind them. Most of the bomber stream had made their briefing altitude of around 15,000 feet, but some preferred to transit Denmark at low level, no doubt having been witness to the furious air battle that had hammered the third wave. The German night fighters were dropping away, short now of both fuel and ammunition and their crews were exhausted. There was still the danger of losing track and blundering into the flak of the well-defended Kiel and Flensburg. At least one bomber was shot down over Flensburg by flak. It was seen coned in searchlights, taking violet evasive action, before exploding spectacularly with burning fragments cascading down.
The majority of the German fighters were landing across northern Germany, although some bombers, way off track were still being shot down over the North Sea. The pilots who had remained over Berlin were furious when they heard of the easy pickings that were to be had over Peenemünde. It was an absolute mystery to them as to why the RAF had decided to bomb a small fishing village on the Baltic coast. But there were still other aircraft lurking in the area, diligently carrying out their lonely and often thankless tasks.
The second wave of the RAF intruders were trying to catch the German night fighters as they came in to land. Ten Mosquitos were patrolling around the airfields, but only one made contact. Flying Officer Woods of 605 Squadron was flying near Parchim airfield. He had seen two night fighters land but had not been in position to engage them. He saw a third fighter come in to land and gave it a good long burst. Although hits were seen on the enemy aircraft, it did not burst into flames, which was needed to confirm a kill.
Flying Officer White was in a Beaufighter when his Serrate radar operator Flying Officer Allen made a second Serrate radar contact, having lost the first. (The Serrate radar detected emissions from German night fighters. The aircraft would then need to manoeuvre behind the enemy fighter to attack it). The Beaufighter came in from behind a BF 110 and opened fire. The 110 dived away, although hits were clearly seen, White claimed a damaged enemy aircraft. Half an hour later, Allen reported a third Serrate contact:
Having made a mess of the first contact and having failed to catch the second, we were determined to get this one properly and make no mistake. We went in as close as possible. I kept my eyes on my two radar displays – even when Harry opened fire – so that if the German moved away and Harry lost him, being blinded by our own gun flashes, I could regain contact. This wasn’t necessary and the German blew up on our second burst.
Our immediate feeling was one of sheer elation and then the feeling of wanting to go home and tell the others about it.
The enemy aircraft, claimed as a Junkers 88, was destroyed. It was in fact a Dornier 217. It was subsequently discovered that Flying Officers White and Allen had destroyed two aircraft that night. The BF 110 they attacked earlier crashed and both crewmen were killed.
The crew of a Stirling reported a liaison with a Mosquito over the North Sea, probably one of the intruders. Flying Officer Ingram 90 Squadron:
When about half way across the North Sea, our rear gunner reported a Mosquito approaching. It formatted on our starboard wing for a few minutes – about twenty to thirty feet away. We exchanged signs – polite ones – and he got into top gear and walked away from us. He had probably breakfasted and was in bed by the time we got home.
The first aircraft to return was a Lancaster Mk II (radial engines), which landed at Little Snoring. Flight Lieutenant Eggleston of 115 Squadron had the newest and fastest aircraft on the squadron and plenty of fuel, so he opened up the boost on the way home, landing at 03:25. He was mildly reprimanded by his squadron commander for using so much fuel, before the crew went on their end of tour leave.
The last aircraft to land at 05:53 was a Halifax from 419 Squadron, which diverted to Bassingbourn airfield, home of a USAAF B17 unit. The aircraft and its crew had been in the air for eight hours and forty minutes.
Aircraft Losses 17 – 18th August 1943
23 Lancasters, 16 Halifaxes, 2 Stirlings, 3 Mosquitos, Total 44.
8 BF 110s, 1 DO 217, 2 Focke-Wulf 190s, 1 BF 109, Total 12
Included in the figures are several aircraft on both sides that were written-off due to landing accidents.
At 10:00 on the morning of 18th August, a single Mosquito piloted by Flight Lieutenant GE Hughes, flew across Peenemünde and returned safely with the vitally important battle damage photographs.
© Blown Periphery 2018