There was a gasp and then a momentary silence after the CO had spoken. We looked at each other in amazement, unable at first to digest what he had said. "There are over 1,000 aircraft bombing this target tonight." He went on quickly to give further details. "The moon is full we are attempting to saturate the defenses a very considerable number of intruder aircraft are operating against enemy fighters a large force will fire the target you are carrying heavy bombs blast the wreckage about strict discipline over the target to avoid collision."
I thought back suddenly to my first trip over the Ruhr two years ago 25 aircraft to fly over the area after bombing their objective in order to enforce the blackout .
Steve, my navigator, was calculating, his eyes alight with anticipation. "One thousand aircraft hundreds and hundreds of tons of bombs 6,000 men over a million gallons of petrol all droning round the sky over one little spot in Germany . "Oh, boy! Someone in the night shift is going to get a sore head tonight!"
On the tarmac before our takeoff we looked up into the gathering gloom overhead. From every quarter came the sinister rumble of heavily laden aircraft heading southeast. From the aerodrome next door we could hear the high-powered drone of machine after machine taking off. It was a good night clear and dark as yet. The moon would be up later. I collected my crew together and we drove out in the lorry to our aircraft an Avro Lancaster, very new and clean, with only a couple of raids to her credit. Tonight we should see sights in her such as no other bomber crews had ever seen before. The corporal came forward from the shadow of the wing and saluted.
"She's all ready, sir."
"Okay," I said. "Start her up."
From across the aerodrome came a crackle as one of the motors from another aircraft kicked into life. Then, one by one, we took off.
Twenty minutes later we were climbing over the Wash. The moon was coming up off the port wing tip very strong and fiery. A few wraiths of cloud drifted across its face; otherwise the starlit sky was as clear as sparkling crystal. A thousand feet away in the half light around us we could discern the lumbering shape of a Short Stirling. Ahead, and far below, was the curved outline of the Hook of Holland. The North Sea was smooth and black as ebony, except for the broad path of the moon's light. We flew on. Many miles ahead, spread thinly over the horizon, was a layer of smooth cloud. Somewhere beneath that lay Cologne. Already the guns were beginning to open up on our first aircraft. Stabbing flashes glared across the face of the cloud. Twinkling shell bursts spattered the sky. We watched intently as the four powerful motors drove us on across Holland.
Then we saw what we were waiting for. In a great gleaming path a stick of incendiaries burst. We were still a long way off, but their brilliance was reflected in the cloud thousands of feet above. Gradually the silver glow turned to red as buildings began to burn. Down went another stick, and another and then another. Within a few minutes the whole area of the city was smothered in rolling white-hot eruptions.
We came closer. About us the searchlights stabbed the sky, weaving and seeking out the aircraft around us. The propellers flashed silver the darkness. was torn by blazing lights on every side. A great dull red splash poured upwards from the center of the town. By now a tall column of smoke stood vertically up towards the stars. The River Rhine below reflected every detail of the grotesque nightmare.
We prepared to drop our bombs. Steve was down in the nose, directing me on to the target. I took a quick look ahead, and saw a heavy bomb burst, leaving a blood red dome of flying destruction above it. Then I settled down to follow Steve's instructions.
"Steady now, steady. Hold her steady, will you? Am I supposed to be a bomb-aimer or a trapeze artist?"
The guns to the north of the town got our range, and shrapnel crackled outside the cockpit.
"Steady left a bit steady " Steve's voice droned on, and then suddenly he said: "Bombs gone."
The nose lifted as the heavy load went off, and I stood the aircraft on her wing tips to watch where they fell. A huge area of flaming devastation passed below. Every quarter of the town was on fire and still, every few seconds, the merciless sticks of incendiaries were exploding all over the half-destroyed buildings. Suddenly, right beneath us came a slow swelling earthquake as our heavy bomb hit, and our bursting incendiaries lit up every detail on the ground. Roofs rose grotesquely, walls sagged outwards, whole buildings swelled to twice their size, and collapsed into a molten mass of blazing wreckage. Everything around us was obscured as we dived into the column of smoke. As we came out we saw three aircraft ahead, running straight and level and pouring in their bombs by the trainload. We turned for home. There was too much risk of collision to remain over the town.
I eased the nose downwards, and we dived towards the searchlights which were trying to hamper our aircraft coming in. The gunners, hunched in their turrets, squinted tensely down their sights; the moonlit earth came racing upwards. I held the nose down until we were just over the treetops, and then pointed for home. We were traveling fast. A searchlight switched on at pointblank range. The front guns rattled. A smell of cordite drifted back.
Another searchlight switched on, and another. I leaned forward and stared hard at the instrument panel. Red hot tracers poured up from the defense guns. The Lancaster lurched as shells exploded in the wing . I saw a searchlight go out in a puff of blue smoke another shell hit the tail the rear gunner was laughing. It was a hectic five minutes. Then we were through.
They had hit us, but not mortally. In return as a parting shot we had smashed up some of their searchlights. In this minor tussle the score was even.
Soon Holland lay below peaceful in the moonlight. We climbed up and carried on towards home with the red reflection on the whirling propellers to remind us of what 1,000 bombers had done to Cologne.
This article was originally published in the October, 1942, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 4, pp 40, 112.
The original article includes an aerial photo of central Cologne after the bombing raid.
Photo is not credited.