The Peenemünde Raid 17-18 August 1943

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Lancaster over the target

Part Four – Over the Target

The vanguard of the British bomber stream made its final turn over the headland of Arkona, on the island of Rügen. To the crews unused to flying at such a relatively low altitude in bright moonlight, many were struck by the beauty of the light on the water and the dappled haze high above of the strato-cumulous clouds. Bombers that had arrived early were circling to the north, waiting for the coloured marker flares to cascade down, designating their allotted targets.

Group Captain Searby, the Master Bomber arrived and made his first pass across the peninsula. The Germans had activated smoke pots to obscure the targets, but as yet the flak remained silent. The Pathfinder marker aircraft began to mark the designated targets with flares. There were three phases to the target marking, carried out my different marker techniques. Blind Marker Pathfinders marked their targets after establishing their positions with H2S radar. Visual Markers did not begin marking until their bomb aimers had acquired their targets visually. Both techniques used Red Spot Fires, a pyrotechnic flare that was operated barometrically at 3,000 feet and burned for ten minutes on the ground. The initial marking plane comprised of:

One.       Sixteen Blind Markers to release one Red Spot Fire on the north of Ruden island, seven miles out from the target to enable time and distance bombing. This point would be continuously re-marked during the raid.

Two.       Blind Markers fly on to drop three red target indicators and sixteen illuminating flares as near as possible to the first aiming point. The timing was from Zero minus four minutes to Zero. These radar marked red target indicators were to guide the Visual Markers in to acquire their targets. The flares were to aid visual identification of the targets.

Three.       Between Zero minus two and Zero plus two, the Visual Markers were to identify and mark the exact targets with four yellow target indicators to each aircraft. Then the Illuminators would release green target marking flares on the target indicators. The main force would bomb on the green flares. The Pathfinders flew at a higher altitude than the main force to enable their H2S radars to cover a larger area.

The first part of the target marking went badly wrong. The Pathfinders were assured that the small island of Ruden just north of Peenemünde would stand out well on their H2S radars, but it didn’t and the first of the Red Spot Fires were released on the northern coast of the Peenemünde peninsula. The Blind Markers flew on and dropped their Target Indicators two miles south of the intended aiming points and only one marked the correct aiming point of the housing estate.

Next came the six Visual Markers, three of which realised the errors of the Blind Markers and identified and marked the housing estate correctly, two aircraft from 83 Squadron and one from 7 Squadron. These Visual Markers effectively saved the night.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Pathfinder Marking of the Housing Estate as at 00:10

The Backer Up Pathfinder crews managed to realise the error of the southern markers and correctly dropped their green target marker flares on the correct location. The Master Bomber also realised the mistake and his running commentary ordered the Stirlings and Halifaxes of the first wave to bomb on the correctly marked target at 00:10. But due to the initial marking errors and given that it had taken several minutes to rectify the fault, a sizeable number of the first wave bombed on the wrong, southerly markers. By an appalling twist of fate, the erroneous target markers had fallen on Trassenheide labour camp that was full of foreign workers.

At 00:15 the other targets had been marked and the main force went in. Many had been orbiting, waiting for the target markers to go down, and were only too happy to get rid of their bomb loads and head for home. The phases of the attack were as follows:

Wave Timings Target Number of aircraft including Pathfinders
First 00:15 – 00:30 Housing estate 232
Second 00:31 – 00:42 Production works 131
Third 00:43 – 00:55 Experimental works 187

The crews were uneasy about attacking at medium altitude, because may had seen bombers forced down by fighters and picked off with light flak on previous raids. German light flak was notoriously effective. However, as one Stirling crew put it: It was nice to be bombing at the same height as the Lancs for a change. Despite so many aircraft funnelled into a small area over the target, there was only one mid-air collision between a Halifax and a Stirling. Both aircraft made it home.

It was also unusual to see the effects of bombing on the target. One flight engineer looking down out of a Lancaster cockpit’s side bubble, recalled seeing the sea pushed out by the explosive waves of the medium capacity blast bombs, the cookies. Aircraft were also buffeted by the blasts from below. What was noticeable about the first wave of attacks on Peenemünde was how ineffective the German flak was. The aircraft of the first wave largely dropped their bombs and headed for home, unmolested by flak and night fighters. Inevitably this would not be the case for the following aircraft.

Two bombers were caught by flak at the end of the second wave, the first a Halifax of 158 Squadron. The aircraft had just released its bombs when it was hit in the starboard inner engine, which caught fire. The pilot ordered the aircraft to be abandoned whilst he held the burning bomber straight and level so that the crew could bail out. Only the mid-upper gunner and the navigator survived. The pilot, Flight Sergeant Caldwell from New Zealand who had answered the call of his and our country was nineteen. The second bomber, a Halifax from 77 Squadron was hit on its bomb run. The aircraft’s bomb load exploded and no trace of either the aircraft or its crew was ever found.

All through the attack the Master Bomber circled above and continually radioed adjustments to the marking for the following waves. His voice was a reassuring presence as the aircraft flew into a thoroughly alerted and by now a comprehensively defended target area. But the accuracy of the bombing was decreasing, due to the smoke, the numbers of stray markers and other fires on the ground. The labour camp at Trassenheide was burning furiously and the fires continued to attract confused bombers for the duration of the raid. At least the notorious creep-back, when bomb aimers released the load prematurely to avoid flak, wasn’t happening on this raid. Probably because the crews knew that they would have to go out on a following night to finish the job. During the second wave attack, over 480 tons of high explosives and 40 tons of incendiaries had fallen on or around Peenemünde.

At 00:42 the third wave of aircraft and Pathfinders came in to attempt to destroy the most important target, the Experimental Works. These aircraft from 5 and 6 Groups carried the highest tonnage of bombs and it was an opportunity for the Crews of 5 Group to demonstrate the effectiveness of Time and Distance bombing. The Canadians from 6 Group were using the more conventional technique of bombing on markers. However, conditions for the third wave were far from ideal, with smoke and debris obscuring the target. By now some of the German fighter pilots had realised that the Berlin attack had been a spoof raid and headed north to where the marker flares could be seen going down. These German night fighters assembled to attack the bombers going in and coming out of the target area. The first night fighter attacks began to claim the third wave’s bombers

Records show that a significant number of the Canadian crews arrived too early and bombed anyway on the wrong markers and some were much higher at 15,000 feet than their allotted altitude. The Time and Distance bombing by 5 Group was also a compromise due to Harris’s instructions. The crews were ordered to follow the directions of the Master Bomber if it was believed the target indicators were inaccurate, and only release their bombs on Time and Distance in the worst case.

The 5 Group crews were the most diligent and only two aircraft bombed before their allotted time. Many crews made two and sometimes three attempts to bomb the correct target, which involved going around again to re-join the stream and all bombed from below 8,000 feet. They also diligently bombed the markers, despite their Time and Distance calculations being the most accurate. Even the Master Bomber had not at this point picked up on the fact the third wave Pathfinders’ target indicators were overshooting the target. The German flak ship had decided to make up for not being able to fire at the Mosquito PR missions, and opened up on the third wave with alacrity. The bombers were going down in flames and some pilots told their gunners to stop reporting friendly aircraft being hit and falling on fire.

Due to the numbers of fires, the smoke and the attention of the flak ship, Group Captain Searby was unable to maintain full control of the bombing during the latter stages of the raid. The smoke and dust was increasing and the Pathfinder marking becoming more scattered. Searby later admitted to becoming frustrated at the diminishing accuracy of the marking and bombing and he was running low on fuel. At 00:48 he made his seventh and final run over the target with the instructions: Watch your bombing, make a steady run and bomb the greens. On leaving the target area, Searby’s aircraft was attacked by a night fighter, but his diligent and by this time thoroughly triggered gunners drove it off. The Master Bomber and his crew returned safely to their base.

© Blown Periphery 2018

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