Flying Fortresses of the US Army Air Corps created another first class sensation this month. It is not news to you that a hundred of them shot down 48 German fighters and damaged a further 50 in a single short engagement.
The German fighters lying in wait, and seeing what they obviously believed to be the heaven sent opportunity of catching the bombers alone, dashed into the attack, and caught such a packet that it will take the Luftwaffe some time to recover.
A great deal has been written by air correspondents, striving to assign the credit for this amazing superiority to the extraordinary fire power of the .5-inch machine guns, as compared with the .303s carried by British planes, and there is no doubt that their range, which is something like 1,000 yards and therefore greater than the German cannon, and their greater penetrating power, had a great deal to do with the victory.
But that ignores, what to my mind, is the decisive factor; and that is, the marksmanship of the Fortress gunners. It is all very well to go out bristling with heavy long-ranged machine guns; but it requires a very high degree of marksmanship to hit 400-miles-an-hour fighters at extreme range. And remember the Fortress for all its 13 guns, has only two power-driven turrets. The rest of the guns are man-handled. That's shooting, that was!
Naturally, in an air combat of those dimensions with hundreds of aircraft swarming like bees in the sky, all the engagements did not take place at extreme range. One German fighter closed to within 15 yards of a Fortress before he was shot down. But there was a great deal of long-range shooting by the .5 machine guns.
The loss of nearly a hundred planes in a single combat would be serious at any time to any Air Force, but at the moment it is a particularly serious matter for the German Air Force, strung out as it is across three major battle fronts. For at the time of the engagement the Germans had only about 500 fighters in all on the Western Front. Of their total fighter strength of about 2,500 machines, they had some 900 in Russia, 300 based on Sicily for the Battle of Malta, and another 300 in North Africa. They are now withdrawing some of their fighters from Russia to reinforce their North African Front.
It would appear from these figures, coupled with the fact that the recent big daylight raids on the Creusot Works in France, on Genoa and Milan in Italy, and the big night raid on Kiel, that with comparatively little opposition, the Axis air defenses are being dangerously stretched.
But from what the RAF pilots operating over here tell me the Germans have brought their best fighter pilots to the Western Front.
A gunner on a Boston bomber told me that he had seen an FW-190 fighter dive on a Spitfire's tail. The Spitfire went into a climbing tum to evade him. The FW pulled out of his dive into a loop and half rolled off the top of the loop back onto the Spitfire's tail again. Obviously, these German fighter pilots on this Front, and particularly the Richthofen Squadron, have had some very special training in air combat. It looks as if they are going to need it.
One cannot appreciate the full extent of the dispersal of Germany's defensive forces without considering the new situation in the Bay of Biscay. It is from here during the last few months the Germans have been sending their submarine packs that hunt off the North American shores of the Atlantic and in the Caribbean. To counter this menace the Coastal Command started to send out Whitley, Wellington, and Hampden bombers, and Sunderland Flying Boats. The Germans replied with Ju-88s and Arado Ar-95 float planes, which are small, single-engined, heavily-armed seaplanes. And the RAF countered with what the pilots call a "police patrol" of Beaufighters.
Now the Beaufighter, though only a relatively small, twin-engined aircraft, weighing about ten tons and carrying a crew of only two, is one of the most heavily armed fighters in the world and with its four 20-millimeter cannon and six machine guns, packs a punch that is simply devastating. They have been employed for the last eighteen months or so as night fighters, and, sitting at the ground end of the radio telephone, I have often heard the pilot in the air report back to Control, "I've blown him to pieces. Now I'm flying through a shower of fragments. Oh damn, he's all over my wind screen, I can't see a thing."
Then I have seen him come in and land, taking the opportunity to refuel and rearm.
Well, that is the sort of fellow who is now providing "police protection" for Coastal Command bombers over the Bay of Biscay.
The other day a Whitley was "stooging around" over the Bay of Biscay looking for German submarines when three Arado float planes tried to interfere. Two of them dived on the Whitley, with their cannon spewing shells, while the third circled above in case they should be interfered with.
Almost as soon as his two colleagues had rammed their noses down into the dive, the lookout man yelled "Achtung" over his radio telephone, as two avenging Beaufighters swooped into the fight. One of the attacking Arados and the lookout man made tracks for the nearest cloud followed by one of the Beaufighters piloted by a Canadian, Sergeant Howard Vandewater of Ontario. He got in several bursts of cannon and machine gun fire at one of them before it gained the cover of the cloud.
The second Beaufighter, piloted by Flying Officer G H Carson, of Fort William, Ontario, made for the Arado which was still attacking the Whitley.
As soon as he opened fire, smoke came belching from the Arado's engine. The plane gave a violent shudder, and dropped seawards into thick clouds.
At the end of the fight, the Beaufighters were undamaged, and the Whitley only had a small hole in one of its wings.
But the Beaufighters' day's work was not yet ended.
On the way home Carson saw a Wellington in difficulties. He watched it make a forced landing on the sea, and flew around until he saw the crew get into their dinghy.
He sent a signal to his base, giving the dinghy's position, and circled until failing light hid it from sight.
Carson had just enough petrol left to make the English coast and land safely. A few hours later he learned that the Wellington crew had been picked up.
On another afternoon, one of the Whitleys that was receiving "police protection" in the Bay of Biscay hit out on it own account at a Ju-88 which went down out of control through the clouds.
Then the Beaufighters arrived on the scene and started to shoot up other Germans that were on the track of the Whitley.
One of the Beaufighters dived on a Ju-88 and went in firing his cannons to within fifty yards of the enemy. The German machine caught fire, and as it broke up a large piece of the Junkers came back and hit the Beaufighter between the starboard engine and the fuselage, making a large hole in the leading edge of the wing.
At the same time two more Beaufighters were chasing another Ju-88. After taking a couple of bursts from their guns, flames broke out from nose to tail of the Junkers, and one of the following Beaufighters had to swerve quickly to avoid colliding with it.
Burning furiously, the Junkers glided to within a few feet above the sea, when the second Beaufighter crashed in another burst which sent the starboard wing into the water. A few seconds later there was nothing left but a patch of burning oil.
Within the hour an Arado float plane arrived, doubtless looking for some lumbering old Whitley on which to try his guns.
Instead he got a Beaufighter on his tail.
The Beau gave him a couple of bursts, and the Arado exploded in a ball of flame.
Fire is the bugbear of the modern combat plane, for it carries so much inflammable stuff, gasoline, flares, incendiary bombs and high explosive.
If the single engine of a fighter goes on fire, the flames and smoke blow back, and drive the pilot from the cockpit. If one of the engines of a bomber catches fire it will probably burn part of the wing away in time unless the fire is checked. But there are degrees even in inflammability. An aircraft with half-empty gas tanks, for instance, is more likely to explode if it goes on fire than one with full tanks, on account of the amount of vapor knocking around. And German engines with their system of direct injection of the gasoline into the cylinders, and the mass of extra pipes and leads that this involves are more inflammable than orthodox engines fitted with carburetors.
This article was originally published in the January, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 1, pp 70, 80.