467 Postblog XLI: Saturday 18 March, 1944

Operations, once again, were on for tonight. It was a big effort from the two Waddington squadrons: between them they got no fewer than forty aircraft airborne. Every crew from 467 Squadron were on the battle order, twenty two in all.[1] “Considering our establishment is 16+4 aircraft,” boasted the Operational Record Book, “tonight is certainly a good one and should be nearly a record for a two-flight Squadron.” The crew of B for Baker were among them, although on this trip bomb aimer Jerry Parker was replaced by the Squadron’s Bombing Leader, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy. They joined a total of 846 aircraft and crews sent to attack the city of Frankfurt.

As usual, there would be other Bomber Command aircraft out tonight. Almost a hundred of them were sent to lay mines in the Heligoland area, a trip also intended to look to German fighter controllers like a bomber stream possibly headed towards Berlin. A small force of eleven Mosquitos was to make a diversionary raid on Kassel, more Mosquitos attacked enemy airfields in Holland, Belgium and France or flew Serrate patrols to keep the nightfighters occupied and other aircraft flew radio counter-measure sorties. Meanwhile nineteen Lancasters bombed an explosives factory at Bergerac, near Bordeaux in France, with “devastating effect.” In all, more than one thousand sorties were despatched on this night.[2]

The first aircraft departed Waddington for Frankfurt at 18.45. There was one early return, Pilot Officer Jack Freeman and crew of 463 Squadron, though the ORB does not record the reason. Theirs was one of a total of 59 aircraft to abort the flight tonight. For the rest of the force the rendezvous point where the bombers began to form up into a recognisable stream was over the Channel, a position about 25 miles off Ramsgate. The bombers crossed the enemy coast between Dunkirk and Ostend, heading towards the south east.[3] They encountered stiff resistance from flak ships and the coastal defences in this area and it was here that the first casualty of the night fell, shot down from the ground.[4] “Do not recommend routeing in as flak quite active over coastal area,” said Pilot Officer Harold Coulson at interrogation later. Flak would claim one more victim south of Bonn after the stream crossed into Germany.

All across France and Belgium the route appeared free of nightfighters. The simultaneous arrival of two apparent bomber streams, one approaching on a northerly route and the second further south, seems to have induced the German fighter controllers to split their forces. Half were drawn towards the north by the minelaying force. Near the Belgian border with Luxemburg the Main Force turned east north east, onto a leg of some 100 miles that was aimed to appear to be threatening cities like Kassel or Leipzig. It was near this turning point that the first few nightfighters began to catch up with the bomber stream, shooting down four heavies before the target was reached. Most of the defenders, however, had been sidetracked for too long and were too late to make any appreciable impact on the bombers.

The diversionary Mosquitos went on ahead, Windowing furiously, to drop target indicators and high explosive bombs on Kassel and simulate the opening of a major attack on that city. But south east of Cologne the bomber stream altered course to the east before making a sharp right turn over the city of Giessen. Frankfurt – the real target – now lay almost directly to the south, about thirty miles or less than ten minutes flying time away.

One crew had a hair-raising experience at this point in the flight. It was gradually dawning on Pilot Officer Graham Fryer of 463 Squadron, flying in LM438, that his aircraft was behaving “erratically” and the controls were becoming heavier. With about twenty miles to run to the target, and climbing towards their bombing height of about 20,000 feet, the Lancaster very suddenly fell out of the sky in a violent stall. They lost considerable height before Fryer managed to bring the aircraft back under control. Their air speed indicator had been unserviceable for the entire trip and the artificial horizon and rate of climb indicator had both been “sluggish” so it was later realised that the upset had probably been due to severe icing.[5] They bombed from 18,000 feet, a little lower than most, but would return safely to Waddington.

Having failed to fall for the diversion to Kassel, the second force of nightfighters found the bombers as they approached the target. Heavy contrails were streaming in the wake of many aircraft and these were combining with haze and high level cloud, which might have reduced the effectiveness of the fighters.[6] Nineteen crews reported combats over the target but only one bomber was definitely seen to fall to fighters there, though it is likely that one more was also shot down.

The crews found only a thin layer of cloud below their bombing height, but there was much haze and visibility was poor. Even so, the first Pathfinder markers went down reasonably accurately, a minute early at 21.54. The initial markers were promptly backed up and “at no time during the attack”, wrote the scientists in the Night Raid Report, “were the main force without markers to aim at.” The flak guns put up a loose barrage and a large number of searchlights were active, but the haze meant that they were not as effective as usual. Consequently, though four fell to the target guns, the bombers were more or less unimpeded. The stream was so concentrated that Flying Officer Victor Trimble of 463 Squadron, flying ED611, expressed concern that perhaps there were too many aircraft there. They had other bombers on all sides during their bombing run and so could not manoeuvre, thus missing a chance at getting an aiming point photograph.[7] More seriously, they would also not have been able to evade a fighter, or for that matter another bomber: at least two aircraft are known to have been lost in a collision over the target.

A few other crews encountered difficulties over the target. While not many reported seeing any fighters, they were present and two Waddington aircraft were attacked. Flying Officer Arnold Easton, navigator in DV372, recorded in his logbook that his gunners fired at a fighter in the target area. Pilot Officer Noel McDonald in ED732 was attacked by a JU-88 but managed to dive and corkscrew away without a shot being fired. Flying Officer William Felstead was flying R5485, one of 467 Squadron’s ‘older’ Lancasters, on only his second trip as captain. All four engines overheated, necessitating use of a lower power setting which restricted the aircraft to 16,000ft until the bombs were dropped. They bombed from 15,000 and were among the last few aircraft to return to Waddington.[8]

The bombers hit the target hard. “PFF well concentrated,” said one 467 Squadron crew. “Good prang.”[9] At least two large explosions were reported by numerous crews during the attack. Bombing had strayed a little to the east of the centre of the city, but the docks received heavy damage and bombs had also fallen throughout the built-up area.[10] The last aircraft from Waddington to bomb was EE143 with Pilot Officer Ron Llewelyn at the controls. The aircraft (EE143, Phil Smith’s old one) would not fly faster than about 140mph indicated which made them late on target, bombing at the tail end of the attack at 22.19.

The bombers continued on their southerly track after bombing for another twenty or so miles, leaving the target with fires beginning to take hold. They were followed out by the nightfighters, which claimed three more victories over the first part of the homeward route. Two more bombers fell to flak near Darmstadt, just before the stream turned almost due west to point their noses towards home. Near the town of Morbach the bombers adjusted course slightly to the north west for the long journey to the coast.

At least seven crews complained bitterly that, once again, after leaving the target and for the rest of the way home some aircraft had jettisoned incendiaries that had hung up. “I wish blokes wouldn’t drop incs. all along track,” said Flight Sergeant Roland Cowan. Flying Officer Jim Marshall was more direct: “This lights up [the] track taken back by [the] Bomber Stream,” he said, “and causes much cursing.”[11]

Sadly, it probably caused more than cursing on this trip. It was on the long leg back to the coast that the first force of nightfighters – which had been kept to the north by the threat posed by the mining force earlier in the night – caught up with the stream. They are likely to have claimed two more bombers here. One more aircraft simply disappeared without trace.

The first aircraft arrived back at Waddington at 00.38. When Noel McDonald touched down in ED732 a little more than an hour later, one aircraft was still missing from the 463 Squadron dispersals. Pilot Officer James Gardner and crew, in EE191, were among the 22 aircraft which failed to return from Frankfurt, crashing just east of Frankfurt with the loss of all crew.[12] Their aircraft was on its 115th operation. The Night Raid Report also records that 34 bombers were damaged on the raid and two Lancasters got home but were wrecked in landing accidents. Two other aircraft collided in mid air but “luckily escaped without serious injury.”

For such a large target and force of bombers sent, this was a remarkably small loss rate. On the other side of the ledger, the bombers shot down three German nightfighters, and the Serrate Mosquitos accounted for three more near Frankfurt. No further Bomber Command losses – other than the 22 Main Force aircraft – were sustained during the night’s operations.

It had been one of the more successful operations of its type: while just 64 aircraft were definitively plotted as having bombed the target area, at least 180 and possibly as many as 626 were believed to have bombed within three miles of the aiming point. The exact damage caused to Frankfurt was unable to be determined because photographic reconnaissance was not available until after further attacks on the city by separate British and American forces, but all three raids together caused considerable damage, hitting industrial and transport facilities as well as commercial and residential premises throughout the city.

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] Details of force sent from Waddington in 463 and 467 Squadron ORBs, 18MAR44

[2] Details of tonight’s operations come mainly from Night Raid Report No. 556, supported by the RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, March 1944

[3] Route details recorded in Arnold Easton’s logbook and plotted on Google Earth

[4] Locations of casualties throughout this post from Night Raid Report No. 556

[5] Episode described in 463 Squadron ORB, 18MAR44

[6] Several crews reported contrails; among them Wing Commander Sam Balmer and Flight Lieutenant Jack Colpus, both in 467 Squadron ORB 18MAR44

[7] Reported in 463 Squadron ORB, 18MAR44

[8] 467 Squadron ORB, 18MAR44

[9] F/L W.D. Marshall, in the ORB 18MAR44

[10] Night Raid Report No. 556

[11] Both quotes from 467 Squadron ORB, 18MAR44

[12] Storr, Alan 2006

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