467 Postblog XXVI: Sunday 20 February, 1944

A “sticky” trip. Weather poor over base, bags of light over parts of the route and had microphone trouble. – Phil Smith’s logbook

In the very early hours of Sunday morning, thirty five Lancasters droned from Waddington eastwards across the North Sea, flying through light snow and low stratus cloud.[1] They were part of an overall force of 816 heavy bombers and seven Mosquitos en route to Leipzig.

The tactic, to keep the German fighter controllers guessing, was to approach the enemy coast at low level, climbing sharply just before the island of Texel.[2] But because of cloud conditions at the start of the outward route[3] and incorrect wind forecasts[4] many crews found themselves approaching the coast early. They needed to fly ‘doglegs’ to lose time, a dangerous practice in such crowded skies. At least one collision was seen and “it [was] wondered if the concentration [was] not becoming too heavy.”[5]

To further confuse the enemy fighter controllers, other aircraft were heading for a spoof attack on Berlin, a diversionary minelaying operation in Kiel Harbour and attacks on nightfighter airfields in Holland. While the Kiel operation attracted some of the fighters, the remainder were held in reserve probably as a result of the Mosquitos attacking the airfields – and so by what the Night Raid Report[6] called “unlucky chance” they were airborne and not very far away when the bomber stream crossed the coast. Consequently the bombers fought a running battle all the way to Leipzig and not less than twenty bombers were seen to be destroyed on the route out to the target.[7]

Many crews found themselves reaching turning points early, necessitating doglegs and orbits enroute (and even over the target) to try and lose time. This was a difficult trip for the navigators, and the Operational Record Books for both 463 Squadron and 467 Squadron are full of crews complaining about timing and flight planning for the raid:

Considerable inconvenience caused due to flight planning timing being too early. Numerous doglegs. – Flying Officer Dan Conway in LM450

Many aircraft seen doing doglegs up to Posn A, necessitating nav lights on. – Pilot Officer Milton Smith in LL788

Good trip spoilt by very bad timing over whole route, causing orbiting both en route and in target area. – Flying Officer Alan Finch in DV373

Bad trip. Timing all wrong. Had to orbit for 10 minutes to bomb in correct wave. – Flight Lieutenant Alex Vowels in HK356

Winds favourable but arrived 13 minutes too early. – Flight Lieutenant Ron Mortimer in LL740

Despite the best efforts of the navigators, many aircraft arrived over the target early and were forced to circle around the city until the first Pathfinder flares went down (themselves six minutes early, just before four o’clock in the morning), over solid cloud. The attack started in a fairly concentrated fashion but later on became scattered as subsequent marking accuracy reduced. When Phil Smith and crew arrived over the target area, it was quite a sight: there were “fighter flares of all types and TIs of all types spread over a large area” and a “red and white glow showed against [the] cloud.”[8] A heavy flak barrage was being fired at the bombers and though the searchlights themselves could not penetrate the cloud they illuminated its base to silhouette the bombers against it for the nightfighters, which claimed at least another three victims over the city.[9] There were several minutes during which no target indicator flares were burning (from 04.11 to 04.15). It was at the tail end of this period that Jerry Parker released the bombs from EE143.[10] Then they turned tail and dived out of the target area.

The return journey was just a little bit easier than the outbound one. Having initially been sent towards the diversionary mining force, the nightfighters had been in the air for a long time and were running short of fuel. Consequently they “pursued the bombers with less than their usual persistency,” and only four more bombers are known to have fallen victim to them on the way home.[11]

It had, however, been an expensive night. The nightfighters claimed at least 27 bombers and flak at least another twenty. The full toll was much higher. “When we heard 79 were missing we couldn’t believe it” wrote Flying Officer McDonald in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book.

LONDON, Sunday.- The R.A.F. lost 79 bombers last night in massive air strikes at central and western Germany, France and Holland. The loss is the heaviest the Allies have suffered in any single day or night operation in the war. – The Daily Telegraph, 21FEB44

Though crews began arriving back at Waddington safely from about 06.40 on Sunday morning, there was to be a little bit more excitement before the raid was over. Pilot Officer Noel McDonald encountered difficulties while landing, when his flaps would not go all the way down – until the airspeed bled right back in the flare to land, whereupon they extended suddenly. The nose came up, the aircraft ‘pancaked’ violently, a tyre burst and the undercarriage collapsed. This pulled the Lancaster sideways and the aircraft (LM448) finished up off the runway with damage to its port wing, both port propellers and both fins. Pilot Officer Freddy Merrill, of 463 Squadron, diverted to Leconfield and was the last of the Waddington aircraft to land, at 08.15, perhaps as a result of this crash. Though all crews walked away, when combined with the ground collision before take-off 467 Squadron had badly damaged three aircraft in accidents in a single night. The news was worse for 463 Squadron, however, with one of their aircraft – DV338 with Flying Officer Ernie Fayle and crew – failing to return. It disappeared without trace.[12]

Despite the early morning arrival home from Leipzig today, there was little rest for most of the Waddington crews, with both Squadrons sending aircraft and crews on an operation to Stuttgart. In all 30 aircraft were detailed, though one was not serviceable in time and there were two early returns, both due to engine failures. Phil Smith and his crew were not on the battle order for this trip.

Visibility was excellent over the target (with individual blocks of buildings visible) and the crews considered this “quite a good prang.”[13] Later reconnaissance revealed that the bombing was somewhat scattered, perhaps caused by heavy cloud over much of the target area (except for the clear patch that the 467 Squadron crews reported) but considerable damage was caused to factories and suburbs in Stuttgart. Bomber Command sent almost 600 aircraft on this raid for a relatively light loss of just nine bombers, but the trip was not entirely without its dramas. One 467 Squadron crew (that of Flight Sergeant Ed Dearnaley) had an oxygen failure and needed to evacuate their rear gunner from his turret. Noel McDonald (who, you will remember, had crashed on landing on return from Leipzig earlier that day!) was attacked twice by nightfighters but successfully evaded, with the mid-upper gunner opening fire on the attacking aircraft (though without noticeable result). And Pilot Officer Clive Quartermaine was also chased by a Messerschmitt but corkscrewed immediately and the fighter disappeared into the blackness. All returned safely to Waddington.

Elsewhere tonight, 156 aircraft from both training units and operational squadrons made ‘Bullseye’ flights across the North Sea in a “preliminary feint” which likely distracted the German fighter controllers and contributed to the lower than usual casualty rate for the main Stuttgart stream. Mosquitos raided Munich and attacked Dutch airfields, several Serrate patrols were flown and other aircraft dropped mines in French waters for the loss of one Wellington.

And in welcome news, Phil Smith’s navigator, Jack Purcell, received a promotion to Warrant Officer effective today.[14]

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:


[1] S/L Arthur Doubleday, quoted in Blundell 1975, p.19

[2] Ibid.

[3] Smith, Phil, reported in 467 Sqn ORB, 19FEB44

[4] Night Raid Report No. 531

[5] 467 Sqn ORB 20FEB44

[6] Night Raid Report No. 531

[7] Ibid.

[8] 467 Squadron ORB, 19FEB44

[9] Night Raid Report No. 531

[10] Ibid.; also 467 Squadron ORB 19FEB44

[11] Night Raid Report No. 531

[12] Storr, Alan 2006

[13]Most information for the Stuttgart raid comes from 467 Squadron ORB 21FEB44, with some details and other operations from Night Raid Report No. 532.

[14] Purcell, Royston William, Service Record

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