467 Postblog XLVIa: Friday 24 March, 1944

Since 18 November 1943, Bomber Command had made no less than fifteen major attacks, each of 380 aircraft or more, on Berlin. The last time the Main Force visited the German capital had been in mid February, more than a month ago, and there were some who believed that “we might well have finished with Berlin.”[1] But they were wrong.

It was a dull and hazy Friday morning at Waddington on 24 March and the two Australian Squadrons received word that an operation to the Big City was to be laid on for that evening. Some Pathfinder squadrons, looking at the prevailing poor visibility and chance of further fog in the evening, were expecting a cancellation about lunchtime. Indeed, John Searby writes that a planned American day raid to Berlin had been cancelled on the strength of a weather recce flight which found solid strato-cumulus from the German coast all the way to Nordhausen.[2]  But a mid-morning flight discovered that, as forecast, the cloud had begun to break up along the route for that night’s planned raid, so it was decided to go ahead. Also on the forecast was a strong north-westerly wind of up to 60 miles an hour. “For the assembled crews in the many briefing rooms throughout the Bomber Groups it was very much the mixture as before”, wrote Searby. “The navigators shrugged their shoulders – a strong headwind pulled back the groundspeed on the way home but it was nothing new.”[3]

As well as more than 800 aircraft in the Main Force, various other diversionary operations were planned for the evening. Eleven Mosquitos were to fly ahead of the Main Force across Denmark dropping Window as they went, then turn south and bomb Kiel. Nineteen more Mosquitos, led by two Pathfinders equipped with H2S, were to bomb Berlin ten minutes before the Main Force arrived, dropping Window and spoof fighter flares. 150 aircraft from Operational Training Units would make a sweep west of Paris, without dropping any bombs, as a distraction while the Main Force was on its way to Berlin. Meanwhile other Mosquitos were to attack Münster and Duisburg and airfields in Holland and Belgium, and carry out Serrate patrols.[4]

467 Squadron put nineteen crews on the battle order for tonight, and 463 mustered up fourteen. There appears to have been a delay taking off from Waddington, perhaps caused by a wait for bombs to be loaded. Many crews reported needing to try and make time up enroute and indeed one crew, ten minutes behind the last bombers in the stream at the first turning point on the route (near Hull), decided that was too much and, after jettisoning their bomb load half way over the North Sea, returned to base.[5] This was one of four crews to return early to Waddington.

The bomber stream headed north east over the North Sea towards Denmark. They were well out to sea when the first signs of trouble began to appear. Flight Lieutenant Dan Conway was the pilot of a wind-finder crew from 467 Squadron. While still in Gee range, his navigator Sergeant Joe Wesley calculated a wind from the north that was considerably stronger than that forecast. “He expressed his surprise to me”, wrote Conway after the war,[6] “and I told him that if that was his considered finding to report it back [to base].”

Wesley’s wind report was one of many received by the various squadrons and passed on to Command Headquarters. It would appear that the commanders decided that the wind could not possibly be as strong as the reports they were receiving, so the ‘Broadcast Winds’ were reduced to what they considered a more appropriate level.[7]

Calculating their courses using a broadcast wind value that was some twenty to thirty miles an hour less than reality meant that most crews in the Main Force were now being pushed south much faster than they expected. The result was that the stream began to scatter as aircraft wandered over the heavily defended areas that the route had been carefully designed to avoid. The Germans drew first blood at Sylt (twenty miles south of the nominal track) where six bombers fell to heavy flak. Four more were shot down at Flensburg[8] and some crews were crossing as far south as Kiel.[9] Up to seven more aircraft are believed to have been destroyed by flak on the outward journey at locations that are not recorded in the Night Raid Report.

It was also as the crews crossed the Danish coast (or German, depending on how far south they had drifted) that the enemy nightfighters arrived. Having quickly recognised the Paris sweep as the distraction it was, the fighter controllers sent their aircraft to the Hamburg-Heligoland area. The fighters got stuck into the bomber stream early, destroying two each at Sylt and Flensburg and one each at Rostock and Prenzlau. Searby quotes a Flight Lieutenant Moore of 83 Squadron: [10]

German night fighter activity was the fiercest I had ever known it to be and so many aircraft were being shot down in our vicinity that we stopped recording them and detailed all available crew members to maintain a sharp look-out.

Somewhere enroute, the half-hourly Group broadcast also included a change to the planned zero hour, bringing it forward by five minutes. This was a result of the stronger than forecast winds aloft and in recognition that the southerly run in to the target would be completed with a significant tailwind. The alteration, however, caused much confusion. The 463 and 467 Squadron Operational Record Books are full of comments like these:

We heard T.O.T. alteration but as we were late it made us even later. (Flight Lieutenant Jack Colpus)

Earlier T.O.T. unexpected and impossible to make up time already wasted. (Pilot Officer Leo Ainsworth)

Briefed for fixed T.O.T. and arranged timing for same but received W/T message z-5. No chance at all to catch up on this timing. (Flight Sergeant Roland Cowan)

Received zero hour correction, it made no difference to us as we were already late due to delay before take off. (Squadron Leader Phil Smith)

Perhaps these crews had not yet grasped the true wind situation. Other comments in the ORBs were much more positive, and Dan Conway even called the correction “very helpful as we were already running early.”

Next post: The bombers arrive over Berlin.

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] Searby, John 1991, p.90

[2] Ibid., p.127

[3] Ibid., p. 124

[4] Night Raid Report No. 562

[5] Flight Lieutenant Walter Marshall and crew in ED953 – 467 Squadron ORB, 24MAR44

[6] Conway, Dan 1995, p.130

[7] Searby, 1991, p.141

[8] Night Raid Report No. 562

[9] Pilot Officer Milton Smith of 467 Squadron reported this in the ORB, 24MAR44

[10] Searby 1991, p.88

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