"Captured: One Junkers…"

by Sherman Altick

Why are the Nazis using fire-bombs? A German ship, grounded by Grumman fighters, gave Britain the answer.

It was almost twilight. Out of the fleecy, wintry clouds that floated lazily over the southern plains of England suddenly appeared a multi-motored bomber with two little fighters dogging its tail. It twisted to the right and to the left, in and out of the clouds, like a stag trying to shake a brace of hounds in the forest. But the fighters held on stubbornly.

Bluish streaks of fire told of the almost incessant hail of lead the fighters were pouring into the bomber, which lost altitude at every turn. There were intermittent blasts of fire from the gunner's pit near the tail of the bomber, but the fighters pressed closer. A third fighting plane raced forward to join the kill, but before it was within firing range the starboard engine of the roaring bomber began to cough and wheeze. Smoke, a thin trail at first and then a thick train, followed in the wake of the engine nacelle.

The bomber fluttered momentarily like a wounded bird. Despite the fast-approaching darkness, observers on the ground could not fail to recognize the silhouette of the bomber as a Junkers Ju-88. They could almost distinguish the black swastikas on the twin rudders. But the little fighters that had cornered the raider in the skies, and sent her crippled form earthward, were unfamiliar. Neither were they familiar with the roar of the power plants of these new sky battlers.

The planes looked a little like the Spitfires, but they were too blunt-nosed. The engines sounded a lot like Bristol radials, but there was a deep-throated, powerful sound that the Bristols do not have. Civilian observers — those little groups of British who constantly are on the alert for parachutists descending from enemy planes — argued about the fighters but none of them guessed that they were American-built Grumman pursuit planes from a nearby squadron and that the engines, whose drone was unfamiliar, were Wright Cyclones.

The German bomber came down crazily for several thousand feet, then leveled off for a forced landing on a farm near Salisbury Plain. The camouflaged fighters followed their quarry down to the treetops, then zoomed high in the sky and circled around to see what happened. The British pilots in the Grummans watched the Nazi bomber glide to a rough landing in a plowed field. And when it came to a stop near a farmer's home, they saw one member of the crew dash from the plane and attempt to set it afire as two other crew members lifted a wounded pilot from the cockpit.

They saw quick-moving figures race from the farmhouse to block sabotage of the plane and make prisoners of the entire crew. Satisfied, they flew back to their squadron, made safe landings on a dimly-lighted field and reported. But even before they had reached their base, which was only a few minutes flying distance at five miles a minute, the machinery of military intelligence already was under way and out of that forced landing of the Nazi bomber came the reason why the Germans drop tons of fire bombs, or incendiaries, on cities and towns before making any attempt to unleash their explosive missiles.

In gliding to a landing, the half-conscious pilot of the Nazi bombing plane could not have picked a more ideal spot. The farmhouse was the headquarters for that section of the civilian defense corps, trained for just such an emergency. Armed with rifles, they not only took every member of the crew prisoner, but they kept the bomber intact so it could be studied by experts.

The aviation experts who went over the plane with a fine-tooth comb found in it a 1940 bombsight, the latest creation of the Nazis. By studying this instrument they found its shortcomings and the reason for an avalanche of fire-bombs preceding any extensive bombardment with explosives after dark.

They discovered that the Nazis, while prepared for blitzes by day, were not prepared for efficient night bombardment. This latest bombsight in the downed Junkers was so constructed that it could not admit enough light for the bombardier to use without some help from artificial light of great intensity. To overcome this obstacle, deluges of fire bombs were dropped on cities and towns to provide the required illumination for sighting with any degree of accuracy for the dropping of high explosive missiles.

With a positive knowledge of this deficiency in the German bombsight, the British now have organized a competent force of civilians in all the large cities and towns to put out fire bombs as soon as they fall. With the fires extinguished, the accuracy of the Nazi bombers will be greatly reduced. The Germans know that hit-or-miss bombing is extravagant warfare even on an island as densely populated as England. Every large city is made up of approximately 80 per cent streets, alleys, lanes, parks and lakes, so the efficiency of hit-and-miss bombing at its best can be only 20 per cent.

The British had known for a long time that the Germans preferred day raids to night attacks, but heavy loss of bombing planes in aerial battles over the Isles forced the Nazis to undertake their raids under cover of darkness. The British thought that the fire bomb idea was devised for destructive purposes alone, having no idea that a deficiency in their bombsight was forcing the Nazis to take this action to provide enough illumination to see their objectives on the ground.

The British bombsights are so constructed that they admit enough light after dark for accurate dropping of demolition bombs without the aid of incendiary illumination. If an area is in total darkness magnesium flares, dropped by the planes, provide enough illumination for accurate bombardment. There are bombsights that admit enough light for effective bombing by moonlight.

Interrogation of the captured crew elicited information confirming what aeronautical experts had found in the German bombsight, The Germans also readily admitted its shortcomings and explained why they carried large loads of incendiaries on every night flying mission. The questioning also disclosed how well the British system of bending radio beams had confused the German navigators once they were over the Isles in darkness.

“Were you headed for Bristol, Reading, Cardiff, or had you missed your objective of Southampton?" the British military intelligence officer asked the navigator-copilot of the Junkers bomber, a young blondish-type German who had lived for a number of years in the United States and spoke English without a trace of an accent.

"No, we were headed for London with a load of fire bombs and several 250-kg demolition bombs. We always carry fire bombs on night raids to light up our targets. We drop them first so we can sight accurately to drop the high explosives."

"Go ahead," the British officer interjected when the German paused.

"We came over the beam, and —"

“What beam?" the officer demanded before the flyer could finish the sentence.

"The radio beam we all fly. We pick it up as we approach the Channel and follow it until we come to the intersection of another beam that shoots almost directly northward from some place near Havre. The beam that we follow originates somewhere near Middleburg in the islands off the Netherlands coast. That's what I did today, but when we came to the intersection of the two beams the plane was over the place where we encountered your fighters.

"I can't understand it. I checked and re-checked. We were at the crossing of the two beams, but there was no London beneath us. Nothing but open country. I had the pilot circle while I tried to get my bearings and it was about that time that your fighters pounced upon us. The pilot, who was sitting beside me, was wounded in the first burst of fire. A few seconds later an explosive or incendiary bullet struck an oil supply line and smoking oil began pouring from the engine nacelle. With an engine gone, there was nothing to do but land."

The intelligence officer smiled to himself at the recitation. He knew only too well what had happened. This was not the first German bomber to get tangled up in the radio beams over Britain. It's a trick the British have been working ever since they discovered that the Nazis were plotting their course to London and other cities by radio beam. The Germans established the beams on the continent and projected them so they would intersect each other over their objective. All the flyers needed to do was to follow the westward beam above the clouds until they came to the northward beam and the city selected for bombardment was beneath them.

Reconnaissance planes tested the beams by day to make certain that they crossed according to plans of the Nazi radio engineers. After several British cities were struck by German bombs dropped from above the clouds, British military experts went into action to minimize this type of devastation. By day they left the beams alone, checking them constantly as the Germans moved the stations. But by night the British bent the beams to the north, south, east and west. They didn't really bend the beam. They set up a beam with the same frequency as the German's and had it intersect at a point midway between London and the Channel. It was like a spur leading from the main track, but it served the purpose.

The British even went so far as to set up Hollywood cities of cardboard, stacked with barrels and boxes of highly inflammable refuse, where the distorted beams crossed out in the country. At the first approach of an enemy bomber, they touched off the decoy city. Tons and tons of fire bombs and high explosives were dumped on the countryside by the unsuspecting Germans who had followed the British decoy beam to what appeared to be their objective. Huge holes were torn in pastures, sheds were wrecked, an occasional strawstack fired and there were numerous casualties among cattle, sheep and chickens.

The British worked this hoax on the Germans any number of times, moving the scene of operations from one farm area to another, and they still might be able to do it if the country people had not complained loudly against having the bombing directed at them. After wasting tons of bombs ineffectively, the Germans, too, became skeptical. Now they dump thousands of fire bombs to make doubly sure that they are over their target and will be able to see the buildings they want to bomb in their sights.

The bomber's navigator said that he had jettisoned his load of high explosives the moment the plane was attacked by the fighters.

"The captain and I were so confused we didn't know which way to turn when the guns of the fighting planes began pouring lead in our direction. I had plotted the course above the clouds, and the only thing I knew was that we were supposed to be over London. Even when we dropped through the clouds for a glimpse of the countryside, I could not get my immediate bearings. I saw a shore line but had no chance to figure out where we were because the fighters were making our place in the sky untenable.

"When the captain was wounded, he insisted on flying the plane and he still was at the controls when we bumped to a landing across that plowed field."

While the British still make trouble for the Germans by deflecting their navigation beams, they no longer have the success they had with them and the Hollywood blazing city stuff no longer is workable. Photographs, taken during raids on flaming cardboard towns, undoubtedly convinced the Germans they had been duped into wasting bombs on farmlands. An increasing number of fire bombs are being used by the Nazi flyers during recent raids.

Unable to confuse the German raiders any longer with distorted beams over a fake objective, the British have resorted to a new artifice which has caused utter confusion to a number of Nazi pilots trying to find their way homeward after completing a bombing mission.

Whether by means of radio beam or not, they now are doing something to impair the navigation of German pilots over the Isles. Recently a number of German planes have made forced landings in Britain because they could not find their way homeward. They few around in circles until their fuel gave out and they were forced to land.

This article was originally published in the June, 1941, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 28, no 6, pp 29-30, 92.
The original article included 2 photos: 1 photo (Ju-88) credited to Acme; the other is not credited.