467 Postblog La: Thursday 30 March, 1944

There was not a little surprise at Bomber Command’s airfields when it was announced this morning that the squadrons would be operating tonight. It was quite late in the moon period with a bright half-moon expected so the surprise turned to dismay when they found out that the planned trip would be a long one.

The forecast was for cloud over Germany[1] which was expected to provide the Main Force with cover from the moonlight. The plan was that once the moon set the return journey could be made in darkness. The forecast was subsequently altered following two weather reconnaissance flights which showed the expected cloud was not present, but the operation proceeded. The target, in the south of Germany, was Nuremberg, and 795 aircraft were sent.

162 aircraft would be involved in operations designed to support the Main Force tonight[2]. 49 Halifaxes, simulating a large force perhaps bound for Hamburg or Berlin, were to lay mines in the Heligoland area, approaching the enemy coast at the same time as the Main Force. 13 Mosquitos were to attack nightfighter airfields. Three spoof raids, also using Mosquitos, were planned to Aachen, Cologne and Kassel. Sundry operations included small forces of Mosquitos to Oberhausen and Dortmund, Stirlings laying mines off Texel and Le Havre, a number of ‘special’ sorties and some OTU ‘Bullseyes.’[3]

The Nuremberg briefing was routine except there was some talk among the crews that this was the first major attack for a long time to penetrate deeply into Germany so late in the moon period. – Flight Lieutenant Dan Conway, writing after the war[4]

It was a maximum effort at Waddington with 35 aircraft dispatched, the most out of any one station.[5] It could have been even more but one pilot (Pilot Officer Anthony Tottenham) was ill just before take-off so he and his crew missed out. LM475 B for Baker was the third Lancaster to depart Waddington, taking off at 21.42. The normal crew were on board with the exception of bomb aimer Jerry Parker, who had been replaced on this trip by the Squadron’s Bombing Leader, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy (we last saw McCarthy when he flew to Frankfurt with Phil Smith a week and a half ago). There were two early returns to Waddington: Flying Officer Bruce Buckham returned just after midnight after the rear turret failed on ME701 and an hour later Pilot Officer Noel McDonald came back in LL792 when the electrically heated suits of the bomb aimer and both gunners failed.

The bombers passed their last positive visual fix in England, a vertical searchlight set up at Southwold, and crossed the North Sea. They made their landfall near Brugge in Belgium. The bombers were in bright moonlight and, ominously, there was no cloud.

The first bomber fell to flak guns near Namur, just after the bombers turned east for what Middlebrook called the ‘Long Leg’. A second was shot down by flak near Aachen (where red Target Indicators were to be dropped for the spoof raid on that city), two more at Bonn and another near Koblenz. But tonight would belong to the nightfighters. The German controllers decided early that the Heligoland Halifaxes were indeed a diversion. To cover an attack anywhere in the southern half of Germany they had ordered their aircraft to take off and assemble at two radio beacons: one called ‘Ida’, south-east of Cologne, or, for the later-arriving aircraft, another called ‘Otto’, north of Frankfurt. Unfortunately for the bombers, these beacons sat virtually astride their planned route.

The first bomber to fall to a nightfighter was a 467 Squadron machine: LM376 with Flight Lieutenant Bruce Simpson at the controls. Middlebrook quotes Unteroffizier Erich Handke, the radio operator on the aircraft that shot him down[6] near the German frontier:

Weather was marvellous – clear sky, half-moon, little cloud and no mist – it was simply ideal, almost too bright. It was a Lancaster flying nicely on a steady course so that, when we were comfortably positioned underneath and from about fifty metres, Drewes [his pilot] opened fire with the upward firing cannon at one wing which immediately caught fire. We followed the Lancaster for five minutes until it crashed below with a tremendous explosion.

The Lancaster had fallen to scräge Musik, or ‘jazz music’, a relatively new German innovation. At the time of the Nuremberg raid this weapon was still unsuspected by the Allies.[7]

Happily, Simpson and his entire crew were able to bale out more or less unhurt. The same, however, could not be said for many other crews over the next hour or so. The spoof raid on Cologne, intended to draw fighters away to the north, failed when the German controllers recognised the Main Force heading almost straight for the fighters waiting at the Ida beacon.  Low cloud developed shortly after the bombers crossed the Rhine, silhouetting them “like flies on a table-cloth”.[8] And nature had one more trick up its sleeve:

Due to some unusual and unforeseeable quirk of the weather, vapour or condensation trails, not normally found below 25,000 feet, had started to appear behind each bomber. The dead-straight streams of pure white cloud could not have given away more clearly the path the bombers were taking[9].

Everything was now in favour of the defenders. As Handke suggested, weather conditions were perfect: bright moonlight, low cloud, an unrecognised weakening of the expected wind that scattered the stream to the north a little,[10] and now the contrails. Add to this the mass of fighters lying in wait just ahead at Ida, and the stage was set for carnage.

The combats began in earnest south of Aachen. Sergeant Ray Tanfield, Flight Engineer in LM450 (Dan Conway’s aircraft), counted seven bombers going down in flames at one point. with another eleven wrecks burning on the ground.[11] Conway’s navigator, Sergeant Joe Wesley, would normally record on his navigation log any reports of aircraft going down, but not on this night. Conway had told the crew to stop mentioning them:[12]

We could not afford to have the intercom overloaded with reports when at any second, one of them might call up to report a fighter. Self preservation overruled statistics and I did not propose to become one.

“Now I know how those poor bastards in the Light Brigade felt”, Conway thought to himself. Earlier they had seen a Lancaster drifting across their path only 200 feet above them. “We could have shot it down ourselves with no trouble,” Conway said. Middlebrook records an instance of exactly this happening somewhere on the Long Leg when a 101 Squadron Lancaster fell victim to the itchy trigger finger of an unknown Halifax gunner whose aircraft had drifted across the top of it. Five of the crew of the Lancaster were killed.[13]

Pilot Officer Fred Smith, in LL788, counted thirty aircraft shot down between Aachen and the target. Interestingly he reported noticing on the last half-dozen trips that many aeroplanes had been seen going down in flames from their operational height for no particular reason. “I would suggest that [the] enemy are using [a] new type of ammunition,” he speculated in the Operational Record Book. In fact this was likely one of the earliest reported sightings of scräge Musik.

Just after crossing the Rhine, twenty Mosquitos left the bomber stream and headed for Kassel, “dropping German-type fighter flares to draw the enemy fighters and also Windowing furiously in an attempt to make themselves look like a large force of heavy bombers.” It was a perfectly executed ‘side-step’ but, apart from plotting it in their operations rooms, the Germans “ignored it completely.” Another spoof had failed to distract the defenders.[14]

The battle raged on. A small number of German fighters were shot down by either Serrate Mosquitos or by bombers, but the scoreboard was otherwise woefully lopsided. By the end of the Long Leg, fifty nine bombers lay blazing on the ground along the route. All had been shot down in the hour after midnight. “It is unlikely that a single hour, before or since, has seen a greater rate of aerial destruction,” wrote Middlebrook.[15] Some pilots – among them Rollo Kingsford-Smith – recognised that with the contrails came great danger and willingly disobeyed orders by flying higher than briefed to get above the zone. “From there I could see a mass of contrails below us; they were like a formation of American day bombers,” said a 76 Squadron pilot who did the same thing.[16]

Many Waddington crews were attacked. One – DV240 under the command of Pilot Officer Roland Llewelyn – was shot down by a fighter quite close to the Ida beacon. The bomb aimer, wireless operator and mid-upper gunner bailed out and became prisoners of war, but the other four were killed.[17]

Other crews were luckier. Pilot Officer Dave Gibbs of 467 Squadron, flying DV277, was threatened by a Messerschmitt ME210 soon after passing Cologne. The fighter was driven off by the mid-upper gunner after the guns in the rear turret failed. Dan Conway’s aircraft was attacked twice by a Junkers JU88 on the final leg to the target. His gunners both fired at it and saw smoke coming from one of its engines so they claimed it as damaged. “Gunners did a good job, saw JU88 first both times,” he later reported.[18]   But Conway’s port outer engine was damaged in the attack so it needed to be shut down. The Lancaster carried on on three. This was one of five JU88s claimed damaged on this night, amongst a small number of other fighters.

B for Baker itself had a close call when a nightfighter shot down another Lancaster five hundred yards behind and to one side of them, the bomber exploding in the air. “That night I thought my time was up,” wrote wireless operator Dale Johnston to his brother later, “and how I thought of you…”[19]

A 578 Squadron Halifax pilot named Pilot Officer Cyril Barton was also attacked on the way to the target. His aircraft was badly damaged and three crew members, including the navigator, bailed out after a miscommunication. With one engine knocked out and the aircraft badly damaged, he pressed on, bombed the target and attempted to fly home despite the absent navigator. Pushed off track by the wind, he made landfall near Sunderland, ran out of fuel and crash landed. The three remaining crew members were only slightly injured but Barton died in the crash. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his heroism on this flight.[20]

The bombers turned south over a large forest called the Thuringer Wald, with no easily-recognisable features or towns nearby. Add to this the length of the leg they had just flown without a positive fix, the disruption to navigation from evasive action to escape fighters and the incorrect broadcast winds and it is clear how easy it was to miss the exact turning point. “The average bomber turned well to the north of the correct point and slightly short of it”, wrote Middlebrook.[21] This would prove critical in what was to come. The fighters, meanwhile, saw the turn and reported it to their control rooms – and now, for the first time, the nightfighters’ running commentary began mentioning Nuremberg. While fighter activity decreased slightly after the turn, they were still around in force and ten more bombers fell in the first half of this leg.[22]

With the target area looming ahead, Squadron Leader Bill Brill ran into the debris of an exploded Lancaster. Something hit his aircraft (ME614) and an engine stopped, but he flew on. Just after dropping his bombs a fighter attacked but he turned quickly and the fighter didn’t come back for a second go. A second engine failed and they were close to bailing out but when one of the engines came back to life he decided to fly home.[23]

Next: The bombers arrive at Nuremberg

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] Night Raid Report No. 567

[2] Middlebrook, Martin (1973). The Nuremberg Raid. The definitive history of the Nuremberg operation, I have drawn heavily from this book for this post. See https://somethingverybig.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/467-postblog-citations-for-all-sources-used/ for full citation.

[3] Night Raid Report No. 567

[4] Conway p.132

[5] Middlebrook p.98

[6] Ibid., p.134

[7] Ibid., p.70

[8] Ibid., p.160

[9] Ibid., p.140

[10] Night Raid Report No. 567

[11] Conway, p.132

[12] Ibid., p.132

[13] Middlebrook, p.135

[14] Ibid., p.166

[15] Ibid., p.170

[16] Ibid., p.140

[17] Storr, Alan 2006

[18]467 Squadron ORB, 30MAR44

[19] Johnston, Dale, letter to brother Ian 20APR44. Transcript in Mollie Smith’s collection

[20] Bomber Command Campaign Diary, March 1944

[21] Middlebrook, p.176

[22] Ibid., p.176

[23] Story from Blundell, p.18 and Nelson, p.184

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