467 Postblog XXVIIIa: Thursday 24 February, 1944

Sat at his window in the Sergeant’s Mess at RAF Waddington, rear gunner Gilbert Pate was in a contemplative mood. The weather had improved from the snow and cold of the past few days, and the knowledge that this meant that operations would be scheduled for tonight made his thoughts turn to home. So as he sat he wrote a letter to his mother. “At present it is a lovely spring morning which makes everyone feel grand + miss home more than ever”, he wrote. “Hope everything at home is going along quite well… I can well imagine the pup is stretched out in the usual place by the back door.”[1]

It appears that Gilbert had some time to spare on this fine morning, for he also wrote to a distant cousin of his father’s. A digger from the First World War who had visited the Pates at home in Kogarah (Sydney) in 1934-5, Raymond Smith (no relation to Gilbert’s pilot) now lived in California. Gilbert had attempted to get in touch with Raymond while he passed through the US en route to England, but spent no appreciable time on the West Coast and so missed him. This letter[2] also shows signs of homesickness: “The sun is shining and it is like a lovely warm spring day in Sydney, just the kind of weather that makes Bondi Beach look an awfully long way off.” Gilbert then explained what he was doing in England:

 Our trips by night are right into the heart of Germany, as the coastal areas of occupied territory’s [sic] are done by the day bombers which as you know are mostly American forces. Between us we are hitting Jerry pretty hard and as you must have done in the last war, I am hoping that the end is just around the corner.

While Gilbert was busy writing his letters, the squadron’s groundstaff were already beginning to prepare the aircraft for the night’s operation. The target was Schweinfurt and was to be attacked by two distinct waves of bombers, two hours apart, a new tactic which Flying Officer McDonald, the compiler of the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, considered a “grand idea and no doubt the target will be well marked for the last wave.”[3]

Well over 200 American bombers had raided Schweinfurt during the day today – part of their ‘Big Week’ campaign – but this was to be the first time that Bomber Command sent its own crews there.[4] Sir Arthur Harris had been reluctant to divert his forces from the strategy of area bombing but in early 1944 he had been, Martin Middlebrook wrote, “formally instructed” by the Air Ministry to attack the city,[5] which was the home of most of Germany’s ball-bearing industry and thus a vital target. In all, he despatched 734 aircraft to the city: 554 Lancasters, 169 Halifaxes and 11 Mosquitos.

Other aircraft were sent on various feints and diversions to draw German defences away from the main force. Mosquitos carried out intruder Serrate patrols. Mines were laid in Kiel Harbour, the Kattegat and the Bay of Biscay. More Mosquitos carried out precision raids on Aachen and a diversionary attack on Kiel itself.[6] And in a further distraction, almost 180 training aircraft carried out a “Combined Command Bullseye exercise”[7] over the North Sea to a position about 160 miles north east of the Lincolnshire coast, in an attempt to look like a large force headed for Berlin. It was hoped that these diversionary operations, combined with the new tactic of splitting the Main Force into two separate waves to the same target, would deceive the German fighter controllers and so reduce losses on such a deep penetration into Germany.

Phil Smith took a ‘second dickie’ pilot on this trip, Flight Sergeant Roland Cowan, and there were also two members of the RAF Film Unit in ED953 with Flight Lieutenant Walter Marshall. “Last trip they did the shots were shown in all newsreels and most of the daily papers”, boasted Flying Officer McDonald in the ORB.[8]

There were at least nine[9] Waddington aircraft in the first wave, taking off from 18.30. There was one early return: the port inner engine on Flight Lieutenant Jack Colpus’ Lancaster (JA901) caught fire and he was forced to drop his bombs in the middle of the North Sea before returning home on three.[10]

JA901 'Naughty Nan' and her crew at Waddington during the winter of 1943-44
JA901 ‘Naughty Nan’ and her crew at Waddington during the winter of 1943-44. Photo from the Waddington Collection, RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

Meanwhile the rest of the force crossed the Channel, making landfall just north of Dieppe. The bombers headed east-south-east until a point thirty miles south-west of Stuttgart. On this leg, two aircraft fell to flak, one each at Metz and Saarbrucken. The bomber stream then turned towards the north, on a direct track for Schweinfurt.

It appears that the Bullseye and mining forces did distract the nightfighters away from the bomber stream, for a while, anyway. The controllers held many of their aircraft towards the north, perhaps anticipating another heavy attack on Berlin. The fighters were moved progressively further south as the list of possible targets narrowed, and they finally caught up with the bombers about eighty miles before they turned north towards Schweinfurt. In the words of Pilot Officer Clive Quartermaine, it was “very lively” from this point to the target, with “numerous combats” seen. Five bombers went down near Saarbrucken and three between Saarbrucken and the target and two others had fallen earlier in the flight while the stream was still over France.[11]

According to the scientists who wrote the Night Raid Report, the first Pathfinder flares went down over Schweinfurt seven minutes before zero hour. Four minutes later the first of the visual marking crews dropped their red target indicators (one falling within half a mile of the exact aiming point). By zero hour (23.05) the target was well marked. Conditions were clear, with snow visible on the ground. Many crews reported smoke and fires when they arrived over the target, and they left it in an even worse condition:[12]

When aircraft left target area, many incendiary fires burning and several good orange fires – glow could be seen 40 minutes after leaving target area. – Pilot Officer Freddy Merrill in DV274, bombed at 23.11.

On arrival there were some fires and a good deal of smoke, but whether these were from day attack is difficult to say. – P/O John Roberts, in DV374, bombed at 23.12.

Fires well concentrated in one compact area. Streets distinguished by lines of fires. – P/O John McManus in R5868 (the famous S for Sugar), bombed at 23.15.

Some crews had a tough time over the target. During the first phase of this attack, two aircraft were shot down by nightfighters and two more fell to flak over the target itself. Pilot Officer Alan Finch, in DV373, almost joined them, being ‘coned’ in an estimated 24 searchlights for three or four minutes. “Target more formidable than briefed”, he nonchalantly reported on arrival back at base.

Finch bombed at 23.15 hours, just three minutes after Dan Conway, who had an altogether different experience:

Believed A.P. [Aiming Point] over block of warehouses in factory. […]Target defences slight.

Conway managed to sneak through the target entirely unmolested, and considered therefore that opposition had been negligible. Finch got coned and instead considered the defences stronger than expected. Yet they had been in the same general area within three minutes of each other. This is a good example of how big a part luck played in survival on operations.

Conway also believed that he was bang on the target. It would appear, however, based on his time of bombing and assuming he dropped his cargo on the target indicators as briefed, he was most likely actually a good deal south west of the planned aiming point. Though the initial marking had been accurate, as the raid progressed the subsequent Pathfinder backers-up began to suffer from ‘creep-back’ and the bombing fell back along the line of approach. “The main force”, wrote the scientists, “followed the backward drift of the backers-up only too faithfully”. The result was an undershoot of almost six-miles by the time Conway bombed at 23.13. In the end, photographs plotted only seven aircraft as definitively in the target area (though at least 110 more bombed within three miles of the aiming-point).[13]

After flying through and attacking the target, the bombers turned back to the west, to a point between Bonn and Koblenz. From there, they flew over Belgium before crossing the enemy coast near Dieppe again. Many crews reported jettisoned incendiaries along the route, both on the way out and on the way home, a dangerous practice that could attract nightfighters to the bomber stream.

In Part B: The Second Wave

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


[1] Pate, Gilbert, Letter to mother, 24FEB44

[2] Pate, Gilbert, Letter to Raymond Smith, 24FEB44

[3] 463 and 467 Squadron ORBs, 24FEB44

[4] RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, February 1944

[5] Middlebrook (1973), p.79

[6] Night Raid Report No. 536

[7] Bullseye numbers from RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, February 1944; all other details from Night Raid Report No. 536

[8] Smith, Phil, Flying log book and 467 Squadron ORB, 24FEB44

[9] Perhaps there was a tenth; one record in the 463 Sqn ORB has been pencilled in, with a note “Bill Brooker’s log”. No times or any further details are given so it is unclear whether this aircraft was in the first or the second wave.

[10] 467 Squadron ORB, 24FEB44

[11] Night Raid Report No. 536

[12] All in 463 and 467 Squadron ORBs, 24FEB44

[13] Night Raid Report No. 536

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