467 Postblog XLIV: Wednesday 22 March, 1944

Four nights ago, forty Waddington aircraft took part in a highly successful attack on the German city of Frankfurt. On each of the three days immediately after that raid, the crews were briefed for more operations but each time the trips were scrubbed. They were briefed again on 22 March and – finally – this time they went. The target again was Frankfurt, and it was to be another big raid with more than 800 aircraft sent.

The night’s ‘offering’ from 463 and 467 Squadrons was 36 aircraft. Among those on the battle order was Phil Smith and his entire crew: Ken Tabor, Jack Purcell, Jerry Parker, Dale Johnston, Eric Hill and Gilbert Pate. They took Lancaster R5485 to see if they could work out why multiple crews had complained that it would not take a full bomb load to a Lancaster’s normal operating height. Also flying tonight, on their first trip, was Flying Officer Dudley Ward and crew. It’s likely that they had been listed to fly on the last few scrubbed operations, and one suspects that they felt trepidation but also a certain degree of relief that their tour was finally underway when they took off at 19.03 in LL881, nineteen minutes behind the first aircraft from Waddington.

One Lancaster returned early. Pilot Officer Bill Mackay and crew encountered significant mechanical trouble in DV240: their starboard inner engine failed at 14,000 feet on their initial climb to cruising height, and along with it went the electrics and intercom in the mid-upper turret, the main compass, the autopilot compressor and the bomb sight. They turned around immediately, jettisoned their bombs and the Operational Record Book shows they were back at Waddington before half past eight.

Other Bomber Command operations tonight involved Mosquitos attacking Dortmund, Oberhausen and airfields in the Low Countries, radio counter-measure sorties, leafleting and Serrate patrols. There was also a large mining effort in Kiel Harbour and the Fehmarn Channel (off Denmark) and diversion raids on Berlin and Hanover.[1]

These last few operations, in particular, were a critical part of the plan, designed to draw attention away from the Main Force attacking Frankfurt. The chosen route for the bomber stream was a novel one. From their bases in England, the bombers flew towards Denmark. Further to the north, and also heading towards Scandinavia, were the 146 Halifaxes and Stirlings of the mining force, on German radar looking for all the world like a significant attack bound for Berlin. But half way across the North Sea, the Main Force suddenly turned south east. Now they looked like they might have been making for Hanover, Brunswick or even via a southerly route to Berlin.

Ahead of the main bomber stream flew a number of Mosquitos. They dropped target indicators, Window and spoof fighter flares near Hanover, then went on and did the same near Berlin. Following Mosquitos then bombed the markers.

The result was confusion on the part of the German fighter controllers. The Bomber Command Night Raid Report describes the “complex movements” undertaken by the nightfighters as they attempted to intercept the bomber stream. Those that took off from airfields in Holland were first sent out over the North Sea following a radio beam to find the bombers before they crossed the coast. Some combats occurred in the Emden area and the first bomber was shot down near Leeuwarden. The fighters next caught up with the stream near Osnabrück, where they accounted for five more. But then, probably deceived by the diversion raid, the fighter controllers announced over the running commentary that Hanover was the main target for the night and many fighters headed that way.

But before they got to Hanover the bombers turned sharply to the south. Many fighters saw this and followed, claiming a further five bombers along the way, and it was here that Pilot Officer Len Ainsworth of 467 Squadron reported seeing “considerable” fighter activity. But it took a full 17 minutes after the first markers had gone down at the real target – Frankfurt – before the controllers directed their forces there. Meanwhile at least two bombers fell to flak near the point where the stream turned. Interestingly some crews reported seeing rockets fired from either the ground or the air in the same area, though it is not known whether these accounted for any bombers.[2]

Not far ahead now was Frankfurt. The weather was clear on the final run in to the target with a little low cloud thickening in patches. Heavy predicted flak was being fired, which later loosened into a moderate barrage called by the Night Raid Report “rather more accurate than on the previous visit.” Numerous fighters were seen and many crews reported that the searchlights were highly active but, as Pilot Officer Clive Quartermaine described them, “a little clueless.” Three bombers were shot down by fighters and four by the ground defences over the target.

Early target marking was bang on. The first six salvoes of Newhaven ground markers, all falling as scheduled before zero hour (which was 21.50), were within a mile of the aiming point and spread on each side of the river running through the centre of the city. Three minutes after zero hour there was already a significant concentration of incendiaries burning in the middle of the city.

Later in the attack the bombing became a little scattered with smaller concentrations developing up to five and a half miles north and west of the aiming point. But it didn’t matter. It had, said Flying Officer Jack Dechastel, “every indication of a concentrated attack.” Flying Officer Jim Marshall described how the “whole of centre of target area” was “well alight.” Phil Smith said it “should be [a] very successful prang if PFF were on target.”[3]

Bombing photo from 21.43. From the Wade Rodgers Collection, used courtesy Neale Wellman
Bombing photo from 21.43. From the Wade Rodgers Collection, used courtesy Neale Wellman

After bombing, the stream carried on beyond the aiming point for a short distance south. On this leg searchlights were quite active and many crews were coned but only one bomber is known to have fallen here. Once again, though, crews were jettisoning incendiaries that had hung up along the route, and it wasn’t making the crews feel especially happy. “Why couldn’t these have been jettisoned in the sea as they light our bombers up?” complained Pilot Officer John McManus, captain of S for Sugar (R5868).

Near Mannheim the stream turned west for a short time (one more bomber being shot down from the ground near Trier), then northwest towards the coast. Over the middle of Belgium the last few casualties were incurred: one aircraft to flak and five to fighters.

All Waddington aircraft returned safely, but not without a couple of scares. In an incident worryingly reminiscent of the loss of ED606 with Pilot Officer Graham and crew on board a week ago, while the two Squadrons were arriving back at Waddington an unknown Lancaster “crossed across [the] centre of [the] aerodrome”, and nearly took out another aircraft. It was well and truly “too close for safety”, and Pilot Officer Victor Baggott, who was flying the second aeroplane, called it the “stickiest” incident of the trip. And Pilot Officer James McManus didn’t notice it at the time but at some stage during the flight it’s likely the tailwheel on the venerable S-Sugar collected a piece of flak. They found out when the tyre collapsed on landing, though no great damage was done. “It is hoped”, remarked the Operational Record Book drily, “that the rear gunner wasn’t in his turret or he would have had a rough ride.”

In all, 33 aircraft failed to return from this raid, a tick over four percent of the force sent. The effect on Frankfurt, however, was severe. German records[4] said the damage was worse than the earlier raid on the city, and gas, water and electricity services were cut in half the city “for a long period.” Industrial areas to the west of the city suffered badly. This was the second of what turned out to be three major raids on the city inside a week: as well as the two Bomber Command night raids, 162 American B-17s which had been sent to attack Schweinfurt on 24 March could not reach their primary target and used Frankfurt as a secondary instead, causing more damage. The three raids destroyed 90,000 homes, killed 1,870 people and made 180,000 more homeless.[5]

Phil Smith and his crew completed a relatively uneventful trip. They discovered that the old Lancaster – R5485 – did make it all the way to its normal operating height (indeed, they bombed from 21,000 feet, well inside the range of bombing heights recorded in the Operational Record Books), but “only by running the engines at above the recommended maximum temperatures.”[6] Less experienced crews, perhaps, had not been prepared to run the engines over temperature and so could not use full power – which explained the aircraft’s reluctance to climb when fully laden. Armed with this information, the Squadron’s engineers decided it was a cooling problem and replaced all of the machine’s radiators. Following the work there were no further complaints about the aircraft, and the mystery had been solved.

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] Night Raid Report No. 560

[2] Flying Officers Graham Fryer and  Eric Scott were two crews who reported these – in 463 Squadron ORB, 22MAR44

[3] Quotes from both ORBs, 22MAR44

[4] Frankfurt city records, as quoted in the RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, March 1944

[5] Nordmeyer, Helmut 2006, p.3

[6] Smith, Phil (undated). Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.22