Part Three – The Outward Leg and Over Berlin
The first aircraft to take off was a Short Stirling from West Wickham airfield, to lead the attack with the largely Canadian Halifax crews from 4 Group based in the Vale of York. Their Group’s first assembly point was the town of Cromer on the north Norfolk coast. The Stirling had a slow rate of climb and poor ceiling, due to its having been lumbered with far too small a wingspan. The Stirling’s complex and giraffe-like undercarriage, was necessary to give the stubby wings the correct angle of attack and lift, in order for the heavily laden bombers to get off the ground.
From airfields in Yorkshire, North Lincolnshire, the Lincolnshire Wolds, the sandy fields of Norfolk and the Fens of Cambridgeshire, the bombers began their staggered take-offs. The Mosquito intruders would be last off because of their speed, tucking in with the bomber stream to hunt the German night fighters. Other intruders such as the Beaufighters would form a screen ahead of the bombers. The Mosquito fighter-bombers would lurk around the German airfields, to catch the German fighters taking off or landing.
Twenty aircraft were forced to return, ‘boomerangs,’ due to technical problems such as engine problems or in three cases, sick crew members. The last two bombers to take off were both Lancasters from 460 Squadron and 12 Squadron at 22:04 and 22:07 respectively. They too had been delayed with technical problems, but the crews elected to fly the mission and try and catch up. A total of 596 four-engine bombers were on route to Peenemünde.
The aircraft from the various Groups would coalesce into the bomber stream at a point annotated as Position A on the navigator’s charts, sixty miles west of the Danish coast. The bombers had been climbing slowly across the North Sea and with a light tail wind, it took around ninety minutes to reach an altitude of 18,000 feet, the Halifaxs and Stirlings operating at a slightly lower altitude. The first turn would bring the stream on an easterly direction across Denmark, but the winds had veered slightly to the north, pushing the bombers with inexperienced navigators off track. By the time they reached Position A, night had fallen.
The bright moonlight was a cause of concern for the more experienced crews. It was deceptively peaceful, flying in the moonlight and the ability to spot other bombers in the stream was a novelty. The Pathé News reporters and civilians would have called it a ‘bombers moon.’ The bomber crews called it a ‘night fighters’ moon.’
The German Defences
By mid-1943 the tactics of the Luftwaffe’s night fighter arm were evolving. The situation had been forced on them by improved RAF tactics and the introduction of electronic countermeasures such as Window, metallized strips of paper, dumped out into the bombers’ slipstreams to form a cloud to blind the ground and airborne tracking radars. Night fighters had been allocated overlapping boxes with radar control to track and attack the bombers if they entered the allocated box, however this system was too unwieldy and easily overwhelmed by a concentrated bomber stream.
The Germans now had two new tactics. The first, Wild Boar used single engine, day fighters in the air above the city being attacked. These fighters had no airborne interception radar and relied of flares dropped by friendly aircraft, the fires from the ground and searchlights to illuminate the bombers. As they were operating over the target, the Wild Boar pilots took the same risk with the flak as the bomber crews. Additionally because of their limited range, the target had to be identified early in the raid and Bomber Command planners would send in dummy attacks to target mark one city, while the main force would dogleg to attack another.
The second tactic was known as Tame Boar and utilised longer range, twin engine night fighters with their own airborne interception radar. The German ground controllers would use a ‘running commentary’ to assemble the Tame Boar fighters at a beacon and vector them onto the bomber stream. Adjustments could be made, tracking course changes and once in the stream, the night fighters would use their own radar to track and attack individual bombers. Where possible, the German ‘running commentary’ was conducted by women fighter controllers. This was to prevent the Lancasters of 101 Squadron, who carried an eighth, German speaking crew member and a powerful radio transmitter, from sending false reports to confuse the night fighters.
At this stage of the air war, there was no single unified command or running commentary. That would come towards the end of 1943, but on the night of the Peenemünde raid, each night fighter group was responsible for vectoring its own fighters into the bomber stream.
Only inexperienced or very confident night fighter pilots attacked the bombers from directly astern. Even the four relatively puny .303” machine guns in a bomber’s rear turret could be disconcerting, fired in the darkness and destroy a pilot’s night vision. Once having visually identified the bomber, the night fighter would stalk it from below, out of sight of the gunners and pull up the fighter’s nose to open fire, aiming for the bomber’s wings and fuel tanks. Unlike the bombers, German night fighters were armed with 20mm and 35mm cannons, whose shells exploded on contact with aircraft and crew. Evan a short burst could blow off a bomber’s wing or kill or incapacitate all the crew in the cockpit.
Some night fighters were fitted with vertically firing cannons, mounted in the fighters’ fuselage. This installation was called Schräge Musik and was aimed by a gunsight mounted on the cockpit roof, which cut the pilot’s headroom. Nevertheless it was horrendously effective and most bomber crews never knew what had hit them. Some gunners had reported seeing friendly aircraft attacked from below, but their reports were discounted. However, some Canadian and Australian crews fitted two ventral machine guns, but this wasn’t possible for bombers fitted with the H2S radar.
The cause of losses… killed novice and expert crews impartially. This result contradicted the official dogma… I blame the ORS and I blame myself in particular, for not taking this result seriously enough… If we had taken the evidence more seriously, we might have discovered Schräge Musik in time to respond with effective countermeasures.
— Freeman Dyson analyst for Operations research of RAF Bomber Command in World War II
The German long-range Freya coastal radars were not affected by the Window jamming and the Freya instillation on the Dutch island of Texel was the first to send its report. The radar’s first contact was the eight Mosquitos setting out on their diversionary raid to Berlin. Knowing that bombers were incoming was very different to knowing where they were headed. The ground based fighter controllers could only go on the tracks of the bombers, which were likely to change several times. Intuition also played a part and some of the controllers were very good at it. They had had a lot of practice.
There was a breakdown of communication at the Deelen night fighter sector control and some theories have suggested that the Dutch Underground was responsible for an act of sabotage. No official documents exist, which is unsurprising, but at a crucial stage of the air battle, primary II/communications were lost between Deelen and the southern airfields in Belgium and France. But in truth, even if Deelen’s primary communications were affected, there was plenty of redundancy in the system to relay communications through other sectors.
While the bombers were still 100 miles from the Dutch coast, II/NJG1 based at St Trond got thirteen Messerschmitt BF 110 off the ground between 22:38 and 22:48, with fighters from Holland following soon after and then those based in North West Germany and Denmark. There was a host of potential targets such as Berlin, Hamburg, or Lübeck and being rather fixated on defending the capital, the Germans predicted that the target was Berlin. Very few of the night fighter crews or controllers had heard of Peenemünde either. The Germans would put 213 fighters in the air that night, 158 twin-engine and fifty-five single-seat fighters.
Determined not to allow the Germans to deploy their night fighters unimpeded, the Intruders from No 100 (Bomber Support) Group went into action. Beaufighters from 141 Squadron avoided the airfields and operated a screen in front of the bombers heading across the North Sea. They were equipped with the Serrate radar that could detect emissions from the German airborne radar sets although their Beaufighters were rather tired and due to be replaced with the Mosquito.
Wing Commander Braham managed to attract two BF 110s over the sea and shot one down in flames. The second tried to close on the Beaufighter from behind and after a piece of good old-fashioned dogfighting in the moonlight, it joined the first at the bottom of the North Sea. Wing Commander Braham’s two kills brought him up to seventeen night victories, one more than the more famous Wing Commander John Cunningham.
Ten Mosquitos of the first wave made a sweep of the fighter airfields in Denmark and Germany, but unfortunately the night fighters had already taken off. As everything, timing was often a matter of sheer luck. Additionally a Mosquito was shot down by the ferocious flak attempting to bomb the airfield at Westerland, Sylt. The aircraft crash landed in the sea and the aircrew took to their dingy. They came ashore at Sylt the following morning, where the Germans were waiting for them.
A second Mosquito of 605 Squadron was attacked by a BF 109 over Jagel airfield. The German fighter made several passes at the British fighter, but made the mistake of overshooting its target. Flight Lieutenant Blomeley opened fire with the Mosquito’s four 20mm cannons and its gun camera recorded the BF 109 crashing in a lake. However, the shooting down of three enemy fighters in the first wave would have no significant effect on the German’s night fighter capability that night.
By the time they reached Position A, sixty miles from the Danish coast, the bombers were at their operating altitude, which was twice that they would bomb Peenemünde at. The bombers began to release bundles of Window and the rate of two per minute. This was usually the job of the bomb aimer who had a small chute the bundles could be dumped out of. Once they hit the aircraft’s slipstream the bundles would form a dense, slowly falling cloud, screening the following aircraft.
The first bombers that were lost were due to navigational errors. Some aircraft were too far south of the track and the flak at the town of Flensburg opened fire on these strays. U-boats were built in Flensburg, so the town was particularly well defended. Because of the moonlight, the main force could see the searchlights coning bombers and the flak opening up on them. Two Halifaxes with Canadian crews were shot down.
The bomber crews were generally surprised at the lack of night fighter activity over Denmark. It was usually vigorously defended by NJG 3 but it was thought that the majority of the experienced Tame Boar crews had set off to defend Berlin, leaving the more inexperienced crews whose radar operators couldn’t differentiate the radar returns of the bombers through the Window jamming screens.
The bombers turned onto an east-south-easterly course over Denmark and slowly began to lose height. Over Denmark propaganda leaflets were dropped to the Danes as the main force crossed the islands that comprised Denmark. Eight Halifaxes of No 138 Special Duties Squadron took the advantage of the main force distraction, to drop arms and supplies to the Danish Resistance. The stream was within sixty miles of neutral Sweden and could see the bright lights of Malmo. Some of the crews may have looked wistfully at the neutral country, but unlike numerous American crews that landed on Swedish soil, none sought sanctuary and the chance of surviving the war. One Halifax over the Baltic developed engine trouble and headed back to Yorkshire.
The eight Mosquitos of 139 Squadron, led by Group Captain L. C. Slee were poking a hornets’ nest over the German capital. Their flight over the North Sea, Denmark and the Baltic had been uneventful with no serviceability issues. The small raiding force crossed the German coast near Rostock and arrived over Berlin at 23:00. Each aircraft carried three 500lb bombs and a target marker and they were to fly over the city at different altitudes and different headings, to cause as much disruption as they could.
The German opened up with everything the strongly defended city had, with solid flak up to 18,000 feet and a total of 150 night fighters circled above this altitude and waited for the bombers. Six of the eight Mosquitos carried out their tasks without too much drama, but Flight Lieutenant Cramton’s lost an engine to flak and flew home on one engine. The Mosquito of Flying Officer Cooke and Sergeant Dixon was shot down by a single engine night fighter and crashed near Nauen, west of Berlin. Cooke was an American from Texas flying with the RAF and Dixon was from Glasgow. Both were killed. Because he had shot down a Mosquito, Feldwebel Hackenjos was accredited with a double kill. He was killed in action on 17th March 1944.
The German night fighters continued to circle above Berlin as they waited for the main force of bombers to arrive. The North German night fighter controllers ordered units to the Berlin area, long after the remaining Mosquitos began the long flog home. The main force of heavy bombers was making its final turn towards Peenemünde.
© Blown Periphery 2018