467 Postblog XLVIb: Friday 24 March, 1944

Just after 10pm on the night of 24 March 1944, more than 800 bombers were bearing down on Berlin. The first Waddington aircraft bombed at 22.27 and the last at 23.01. But much stronger winds than realised were playing havoc on navigation and timing. The crew of Flight Sergeant Ed Dearnaley, for example, first sighted Pathfinder flares behind their aircraft. They overshot the target, turned around and lost so much time flying back into the headwind that they bombed at 22.57, the second last aircraft from Waddington to do so.

Despite flying doglegs to try and waste some time on the final leg to Berlin, the tailwind was too strong for Dan Conway’s crew and they also overshot the aiming point. So they turned back and went around again:

This was quite an experience. Here we were chugging along at something like 120kmh groundspeed, taking about 15 minutes. Meanwhile other aircraft were flashing past us at over 600kmh. There was no way of avoiding them, so we just held on and prayed.[1]

They ended up bombing on a reciprocal heading to the rest of the stream. “We would not have been too popular,” Conway later admitted.

As always, the Germans defended their capital city fiercely. The fighters were still active, making many interceptions and shooting down four aircraft over the target itself and at least two more just south-west of the city.[2] There were many searchlights in the area and the heavy flak guns put up a fearsome barrage, claiming seven more bombers. With thin cloud below the bombers and explosions from bursting cookies all around, it was a “most dramatic spectacle”.[3]

In the end, even the Pathfinders were not immune to the effects of the wind. While their initial markers appear to have fallen close to the aiming point, later in the attack the concentration drifted some miles to the south-south-west. The Night Raid Report places the blame for this drift squarely at the feet of the wind, though it notes that German decoy flares may also have contributed. Either way, like on many Berlin trips the raid became rather scattered, despite the Master Bomber’s reported encouragement (“Keep it up, good show!”[4]).

Squadron Leader Phil Smith and his crew bombed target indicators burning on the ground, visible through “thin filmy cloud.” Their bombing photo showed “fire and cloud.”[5] It probably looked something like this one, though this is from a different crew and was taken some eleven minutes later:

Berlin under attack. Photo from the Wade Rodgers Collection, courtesy Neale Wellman

Berlin under attack. Photo from the Wade Rodgers Collection, courtesy Neale Wellman

After bombing, the plan was to continue on past Berlin for some 40 miles before turning to the west near Luckenwalde, to avoid known areas of heavy defences. But the wind was still making navigation difficult and many crews wandered. As a result, the Night Raid Report records that aircraft were engaged by defences at places significantly off the planned track: Leipzig, Münster and Kassel without apparent casualty, and Magdeburg, where four victims fell to flak and two to nightfighters, Nordhausen  where one bomber was shot down by a nightfighter, and Osnabrück (six to flak and one to a nightfighter).

But it was the Ruhr area that aircrews feared the most, and though a dogleg to the north had been designed into the route to avoid it, disbelieving crews found themselves flying into what at the time was probably one of the most heavily defended areas from air attack on the planet. The experience of Warrant Officer Clayton Moore’s crew was probably not unique: [6]

 An unusual and most heated argument blew up between our Captain (Bill Siddle) and the Navigator (Dick Lodge) concerning our position. Siddle insisted that we were heading for the heart of the dreaded Ruhr and the Navigator insisted this was far from being the case: he was using the latest wind speed and direction radioed from Bomber Command, anyway, we were in the centre of the bomber stream – we couldn’t all be wrong and off course! […] Finally, the argument ended with the Navigator being invited up to the flight deck to ‘see this bloody lot ahead for yourself’. There followed a brief pause in the dialogue after which the Navigator was heard to remark, ‘You’re dead right Skipper, that is the Ruhr – let’s get to hell out of it…’

No fewer than seven bombers fell to the Ruhr flak guns. It was, said Flight Sergeant Roland Cowan afterwards, “no fun.”

The extent of the navigational chaos became clear when crews got pinpoints upon crossing the enemy coast on the way home. The crew of B for Baker came out 20 to 30 miles south of track, and they were not unusual. At least six other 463/467 Squadron crews reported the same thing. But all the Waddington aircraft returned safely, two diverting to nearby Metheringham.[7]

This was the sixteenth and last of the mass raids on Berlin (though the Light Night Striking Force – Bennett’s Mosquitos – would continue to harass the city until the end of the war). It was also by far the most expensive. In all, 72 bombers failed to return, almost nine percent of the force sent. This operation was a good example of how things could go wrong for Bomber Command, even with mechanisms in place to impart some flexibility in case things changed after the bombers had taken off. The ‘floating’ zero hour concept and the Broadcast Winds system were good in theory but as seen on this raid Bomber Command was by this time a very large and complex organisation and just one error could cascade throughout the entire raid. In this case that error would appear to have been misjudging the true strength of the wind which then led directly to navigational difficulties. In an effort to reduce losses, Bomber Command’s tactics at the time involved an organised ‘stream’ flying a carefully designed route that would avoid known areas of heavy defences wherever possible. Accurate navigation to remain in the (relative) safety of the stream and to stay clear of those ‘hot’ zones was therefore critical. Navigating to the required standard of accuracy was very difficult without an accurate wind value and as seen particularly in the Ruhr area on this trip, wandering off track could have disastrous consequences. When the error was made by a single navigator, just one aircraft blundered over a defended area and could have been shot down. But when it was in the ‘official’ broadcast winds it became a systemic error and affected the entire bomber stream, causing loss rates like those seen on this Berlin raid.

There were two other interesting incidents that also occurred on this night. One of the aircraft that failed to return from Berlin was DS664 of 115 Squadron. Somewhere near Schmallenberg (east of Kassel and, unsurprisingly, well south of the planned homeward track), it was shot down by a nightfighter. Four members of the crew died and two made successful parachute jumps, but the rear gunner’s ‘chute had been damaged during the attack. Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade jumped anyway, apparently preferring death by impact than by fire. Incredibly, his fall was apparently broken by a fir tree and he landed in a deep snow drift, surviving with only a few superficial cuts and bruises. He was captured by the Germans (who naturally were reportedly suspicious of his story) and remained a prisoner for the remainder of the war.

The other episode is perhaps one of the most famous stories of all that came out of the Second World War. At a camp known as Stalag Luft III, seventy six prisoners of war escaped through a tunnel dug out under the wire. The Great Escape, as the episode became known, would turn to tragedy. Seventy three of the escapees were recaptured and fifty were executed as a result. Just three of the men made ‘home runs’. Stalag Luft III was near the town of Sagan (now Zagan in Poland), about 100 miles south east of Berlin. It’s not inconceivable that while they were breaking out, the escapees could hear the bombs as the attack on the German capital progressed.

 

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] Conway 1995, p.130

[2] Night Raid Report No. 562

[3] Conway 1995, p.130

[4] Pilot Officer Dechastel of 463 Squadron in the ORB, 24MAR44

[5] 467 Squadron ORB and Smith, Phil, Flying Logbook, 24MAR44

[6] Quoted in Searby 1991, p.88. 

[7] Flying Officer Bill Felstead in DV372 and Anthony Tottenham in JA901

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