467 Postblog XLVIII: Sunday 26 March, 1944

The last couple of weeks of March 1944 were quite busy for the Waddington bomber crews. In the last ten days, they had flown four operations and had three scrubbed. Tonight they would be operating again, five of the crews involved being on their third consecutive raid in as many nights.[1]

The target was what the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book called “an old favourite:” Essen. It would be the first major attack on that “already half-devastated” city, home to a good portion of the German arms industry, in about eight months. The crew of B for Baker were on the Battle Order for this trip but for unknown reasons wireless operator Dale Johnston was not included. He was replaced by Pilot Officer Thomas Ronaldson, who appears to have been a ‘spare bod,’ completing operations with many different crews after his own pilot was posted tour-expired in December 1943. Curiously Phil Smith’s logbook does not mention Ronaldson by name, containing only ‘crew as above.’

Two aircraft were not ready in time for take-off and there was one early return but the groundcrews nevertheless managed to get a total of 31 aircraft away from the two Waddington squadrons. They were part of a total force of 705 Lancasters, Halifaxes and Mosquitos on their way to Essen. Other heavy bombers out tonight attacked railway facilities in Cortrai in Belgium and laid mines off the French Atlantic coast while Mosquitos flew Serrate patrols and attacked airfields in Belgium, Holland and Northern France.[2]

The Main Force flew east from their airfields heading towards Holland, passing close to the Dutch town of Julianadorp, which that night was subjected to a raid by three Mosquitos. The most recent few targets attacked by large forces of bombers had mostly been far inside Germany, and it’s likely that the German defenders were once again expecting a deep penetration. The Main Force flew a course that looked like it might have been headed for Hanover, and indeed a small force of Mosquitos made a harassing raid on that city, but just past the Ijsselmeer they suddenly turned south east and headed straight for the Ruhr. More Mosquitos raided Aachen but the bombers’ true target was now dead ahead.

Not that the crews could see it, looking at the ground. They had been flying over a solid layer of cloud since they had been half-way across the North Sea. This was not entirely unexpected but the forecast, reproduced in the Night Raid Report, had not been particularly confident and included the words “very uncertain conditions” for the north of the country:

Probably much strato-cumulus, but cloud may clear right away.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. The crews found that the cloud had not cleared at all. One pilot, albeit only on his second trip, was unnerved by the complete lack of anything to be seen: [3]

The navigator said to me, “Five minutes to the coast.” And then he said we were crossing the coast. And it was pitch black. There were no searchlights; there were no guns, nothing. And I thought, “Something queer here. I think we’re lost.” And on we went, and we were ten minutes from the target, and there was still nothing. Eventually, not long after that, I saw some flares go down ahead of me. So I realised then we weren’t lost.

Despite a small risk of some strato-cumulus cloud over the target itself, the met. boffins thought that at Essen it would “probably” be clear. On the strength of that, the attack was planned using ‘Musical Parramatta’ ground-marking tactics: Oboe-equipped Mosquitos would drop red Target Indicators that would be backed up visually with greens by Pathfinder crews following in Lancasters.

There was only one tiny flaw in the plan.

The forecast was entirely wrong.

The crews, trailing huge white contrails at high levels, arrived over the target to find it blanketed in 10/10ths thick cloud up to about 10000 feet. The Mosquitos dropped their target indicators but they quickly dropped out of sight in the murk. Consequently most crews could only bomb the estimated position of the target indicators via their glow coming through the clouds. At least two 463 Squadron crews saw no Pathfinder pyrotechnics at all and bombed on estimated time of arrival instead.

The cloud made it difficult to see any results of the raid while it was in progress, but there were signs that the bombing had been reasonably concentrated. The glow of fires was visible up to a hundred miles from the target and two distinct palls of thick black smoke were becoming evident as the crews left the target. Despite this, though, a number of crews were not certain if the raid had indeed been successful, and couldn’t understand why the Pathfinders had not carried skymarker flares to transition to an ‘Emergency Wanganui’ attack as soon as the solid cloud cover at the target was recognised. “An excellent Wanganui night”, lamented Wing Commander Arthur Doubleday. In fact the plan did include Wanganui flares, but they were dropped by Mosquitos as intended two miles east of the actual aiming point to distract the flak guns. In this they succeeded, with flak flashes seen nearby the falling parachute flares, and they also served to assist the Main Force in locating the general area of the target, but finding definite markers at which to aim the bombs proved more frustrating for the crews. “Wanganui backing up would have given [a] more definite aiming point than was possible with TI passing through cloud,” suggested Pilot Officer Laurence Hawes.

The cloud did, however, mean that searchlights were all but ineffective. While the heavy flak guns fired a loose barrage it was “not like old times.”[4] Some fighters had been led astray by the raid on Courtrai and the rest, probably distracted by the feint raid on Hanover, were held in reserve deeper in Germany in anticipation of an extended penetration by the bombers. There were reports of one or two combats on the way in to the target (there is some evidence that these were possibly attracted by the contrails[5]) but in general the fighters caught up with the stream late, claiming one bomber near Bonn just after leaving the target and four more on the way to Brussels. Flak got two bombers over the Ruhr and one when the stream turned for home near Charleroi. One more aircraft was seen to go down to unknown causes on the south-eastern run out of the target. These nine were the only aircraft that failed to return – a loss rate of just 1.2%. One returning bomber was damaged beyond repair by a fighter attack and two were written off in landing accidents.[6]

Every bombing photograph obtained by returning crews showed solid 10/10ths cloud, and the 463 Squadron diarist thought it was too early to assess results yet. As it turned out however, the Pathfinders, with the benefit of the highly accurate Oboe, dropped what the Night Raid Report called an “excellent concentration” of target indicators on the aiming point, and enough bombers aimed accurately at the correct glow to drop a “great weight” of bombs on the centre and south of the town. The Krupps munitions factories were seriously damaged.

 

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] The five crews were those of Pilot Officers Victor Baggott, Laurence Hawes and Tony Tottenham, and Flying Officers Bruce Buckham and Dudley Ward – 463/467 Squadron ORBs, 24-26MAR44

[2] Details of tonight’s operations in Night Raid Report No. 564

[3] Rackley, Lionel 2003

[4] 467 Squadron ORB, 27MAR44

[5] As reported by Pilot Officer Milton Smith in the 467 Squadron ORB, 26MAR44

[6] Casualty data from Night Raid Report No. 564

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