Britain At War
London Letter — No 11

by Ralph Michaelis

The big raids on Berlin have provided the most spectacular RAF operations from the general public's point of view this month, though not necessarily the most important strategically.

I believe I have mentioned in a previous letter that the dispatching of several hundred aircraft over Europe from a British base is equivalent to the moving of an Army division. Yet a casual observer would not notice any difference between the activity at a Bomber Command airfield before a Berlin raid, or before any other bombing operation. An expert might deduce from the bomb loads that were being hoisted into the bellies of the great air Leviathans what was afoot; but that is all. The quiet unhurried, almost casual precision with which everything moves apparently effortlessly into place before a big raid is a never ending source of wonder to me.

As I stood on an airfield the other night, watching the four-engined Stirlings leap off the end of their thousand-yard runway on the first lap of their 1,200 miles journey to Berlin and back, my mind went back to the scene on that same airfield two and a half years ago, when I had watched one of the very first raids leave for Berlin.

The aircraft in those days were lumbering old twin-engined Whitleys, averaging about 140 miles an hour on a long trip, with very little heating in the cabin, and none at all in the rear gun turret. There were no 8,000-lb or even 4,000-lb "cookies" as they call their big bombs, among those pioneers, one of whom deposited a certain bedroom utensil in the Wilhelmstrasse for additional good measure.

But otherwise the scene was much the same. In the "briefing room" the Station Commander announced, "your target for tonight is Berlin," and today as then the air crews drew unconcernedly at their pipes with an almost studied indifference as though to say, "Berlin, Cologne or Calais, it's all the same to us."

From that time onwards, the crews are nursed like boxers before going into the ring. A light meal is followed by a quiet rest on their beds. Later, the navigators make a last check over their course. They dress unhurriedly, collect sandwiches and vacuum flasks and maps, and are ushered quietly wise cracking into the trucks that drive them out to their waiting aircraft.

This lack of hurry is vital. The greatest care has to be taken not to work up the slightest perspiration before taking off, muffled as they are in heavy flying kit. For temperatures of 25 and 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit are commonly met at operational heights over Europe; and a man who has been sweating is going to be extremely uncomfortable if the sweat and his damp clothes freeze on him.

The scene on the tarmac, too, was much the same as it was in the pioneer days: the ground crews standing silently in the shadow of the hangars in the waning evening light to see their aircraft away on the great adventure for which they had so meticulously prepared them; the ships circling once overhead and winking their lights in farewell, the ground crews melting away with hardly a word to their blacked-out hangars and quarters, leaving the airfield deserted and strangely silent after the roaring racket of the previous half hour.

Back in the mess (officers' club) the reserve crews sip moodily at their drinks, before drifting off to bed until the station seems deserted. But down in the bellies of blacked-out buildings, radio operators — men and girls — are busy and vigilant, listening through the night for an SOS, moving heaven and earth to help the lame dogs home. Out over the target, the great bombers are tossing like corks as the "flak" bursts under and around them, yellow and red, and the "flaming onions" come sizzling upwards in burning strings, and the tracer flashes past in green, red, white, and yellow syncopated lines. Down below, the great city sprawls, silver etched in the light of their flares, while the "cookies" burst with great flashes like those from overhead tramway wires, and a red sea of flames billows from the burning buildings.

"Bombs gone," shouts the air bomber, and the pilot takes evasive action, wriggling his way out through the barrage of bursting shells, while another ship comes in to bomb.

Berlin is a long pull, and a nerve racking one, with searchlights and fighters lying in wait all along the route.

You would expect crews to come back dog tired and exhausted. Yet I have never seen them otherwise than full of pep at the end of a raid, as they pile out of their aircraft at "dispersal" into the waiting trucks, chaffing the girl drivers, and joking about incidents on the trip.

They get their tea, and often bring it into the interrogation room with them where they read over their log books and describe the raids to the intelligence officers. Then still in high spirits to breakfast, and then to bed.

On the first of these renewed Berlin raids, we seem to have taken the Berlin defenses by surprise, for we lost only a single plane. They were ready for us on the next one, and with the weather favoring the defense we lost twenty-two machines.

What is most significant about the German retaliatory raid on London, the first since May, 1941, is that they were able to muster relatively few aircraft for the night raid, of which fourteen were definitely shot down and only six reached the capital. Only sixty were used for the day raid, of which a section of fighter bombers reached the suburbs.

For a London raid from the German advanced air bases in France is hardly 100 miles in distance, the equivalent of a Lille raid such as the RAF and the US Army Air Forces are accustomed to undertake any afternoon of the week, with fighter escort.

It is no exaggeration to say that if Berlin were as close to RAF bases as London is to the Luftwaffe's, there would be little left of Berlin by now.

There cannot be a great deal of fighter activity at this time of the year in the grey rain-swept skies of western Europe; but what activity there was has been very lively.

The mass use of the latest Spitfire Mark IX and the Hawker Typhoon, with its 2,400-hp Napier Sabre engine which can fly rings round anything at their respective operational heights has speeded up air combat to such an extent that the Battle of Britain is, by comparison, a slow motion film.

Five of the fourteen Germans definitely shot down over Britain during the daylight raid on London fell to the Typhoons. Flying Officer Baldwin and a companion flying Typhoons intercepted eight Me-109s on their way to London. Baldwin went after three that were flying apart from the main formation, and attacked immediately.

Getting on the tail of one Me he gave it such an intense burst of fire that one wing was shot clean away at the root, and it went down out of control in a dizzy spiral. He at once attacked a second Me which, on being fired at, blew up in the air. While Baldwin was thus occupied the third Me got onto his tail. "But," said Baldwin, with that superb confidence that comes to a pilot with an unquestionably supreme machine, "I reversed the position."

He attacked in a dive and saw his fire strike the Me, but could only claim him as damaged.

A Belgian pilot in the same squadron blew up a FW-190 near Dover at about the same time. The fifth of the Typhoon victories that day was scored by a Flight Lieutenant who shot a FW-190 into the sea off the southeast coast.

Of the ten German raiders shot down in the attempted night raid on London (only two or three planes penetrated the barrage) four fell to Wing Commander Wight-Boycott who was out hunting in a Beaufighter with his observer, F O E A Sanders. In fact these two comparatively old gentlemen — the Wing Cmdr is 34 and his observer 32 — had a real night out.

They made three patrols. On their first, between 18.40 and 20.40 hours (6:40 PM/8:40 PM to you) they destroyed a Dornier 217. They saw no enemy aircraft on their second sortie, and on their third flight, which began shortly before 4 AM they shot down two more Dornier 217s and a Ju-88.

"Our first Hun exploded somewhere in the middle of the fuselage when I began firing," said the Wing Commander. "It went down in a steep dive and we saw it blazing on the ground. Then the bombs exploded and bits of blazing plane went flying in all directions.
"We didn't meet a thing on our second patrol; but shortly after 4 AM we took off again and after about another half hour's flying we saw another Dornier 217 which was jinking violently (zig-zagging to put potential fighters off their aim).
"The pilot was evidently scared of night fighters. I got in a fairly long burst and he went down in flames. We could see him burning on the ground.
"By this time I was getting rather tired, and when we saw another Dornier 217. I managed to get in a long burst amidships. There was an explosion and the Hun went down. I then found that my tiredness was due to the fact that I had turned off my oxygen by mistake; and as soon as I switched it on again I felt fine.
"Our fourth Hun was a Ju-88 which caught fire in both engines. The fire spread along the wings and back along the fuselage and lit up the sky so clearly that we could see the black crosses on the aircraft. We watched four members of the crew bail out, one after another, and the aircraft went down, exploding with a brilliant flash.
"It was a grand night for our night fighting; for the moon and cloud made the conditions almost ideal."

But sometimes, especially at this time of the year over Britain, the conditions for night fighting are anything but ideal. Often there is a clear moonlit sky in which the raider ranging from afar can enjoy himself, with a ground mist through which he can look down perfectly clearly, but which is yet so thick close to the ground that the fighters cannot see to take off, or, if they were to take off would be unable to see to land.

I warned you in the first paragraph this month that the Berlin raids, though the most spectacular, were not necessarily the most important strategically.

For the most important operations by home bases aircraft, from the point of view of United Nations strategy continues to be the fight against the U-Boats. The RAF and the US Army Air Forces have been hitting them at their factories, at their ports and hideouts in the Baltic and the Bay of Biscay; and still there are estimated to be 500 of them at sea.

The difficulties of spotting the feather of a submarine's periscope in the limitless tumbling grey waters of the Atlantic are stupendous.

Sometimes a Coastal Command crew will go for months of monotonous patrols without seeing a thing through the cloud and rain-and-hail-swept Atlantic skies. And then everything happens at once.

Thus, when escorting a recent Atlantic convoy, two Liberators of Coastal Command assisted in breaking up and dispersing a U-Boat pack that was attacking an important convoy from the US to the UK.

In less than nine hours they sighted thirteen U-Boats, attacked two, and were credited with having sunk two. Several others were damaged, and the rest were forced to crash dive before they were able to launch their torpedoes.

It was during this action that the ace U-Boat hunter, Squadron-Leader Terence M Bulloch DSO, DFC, captaining one of the two Liberators, sighted eight U-Boats and attacked seven.

In his first attack, carried out in a hail storm against a submarine that was crash diving for its life, he split the vessel clean open.

A corvette of the naval escort which arrived on the scene soon afterwards signaled to Bulloch, "You certainly got him!" Then —"you killed him" — and later — "Dead bodies seen."

The Liberator continued its patrol, and three hours later Bulloch sighted two U-Boats 300 yards apart "going like mad," as he said, for the convoy. He dropped his last depth charges on it, and saw a tremendous spout of water thrown up where the submarine had been. The Liberator now went on without depth charges. The crew settled down to their routine jobs, and one of the gunners cooked them steaks and potatoes for lunch.

Bulloch had plugged in "George" (the automatic pilot) and was sitting with his plate of steak on his knees, when another U-Boat popped up. It may be difficult for you good people who can go out and buy yourselves a steak any time you like to realize the tragicomedy of the position. For their are no steaks in UK except for the crews of long distance Coastal Command patrols. And these patrols are consequently much sought after.

I have seen stories written by passing American correspondents of the wonderful breakfasts and dinners that they have eaten in London. Well, all I can say is that they much know their way about a good deal better than us British. Because if I had $500 in my pocket right now, I could not buy a steak in all England.

When that U-Boat popped up, Bullock's steak and potatoes went spinning off his knee as he grabbed the controls and sounded the alarm. There was a clatter of plates throughout the aircraft as other precious steaks went flying, and the crew jumped to their action stations.

Having no more depth charges, they dived on the submarine, and opened up on it with cannon and gun fire.

"We couldn't do anything else," said Bulloch. But the U-Boat didn't know that, and as soon as it saw us coming it got under quickly."

Their steaks were ruined; but the submarine was driven out of torpedo range of the convoy. Twenty minutes later another U-Boat popped up. Bulloch again dived and attacked with cannon, and the U-Boat dived away.

In another half an hour he sighted a sixth submarine; fifty minutes later a seventh, and twenty-five minutes afterwards an eighth.

All three were attacked by cannon fire, and crash dived.

"The last one was a perfect sitter," said Bulloch. "It was still on the surface as I went over, and if only, we had had some depth charges we could have blown it sky high."

The second Liberator which had been patrolling in the same area had sighted five U-Boats and attacked four of them. When darkness fell both aircraft returned to base after a seventeen-hour patrol.

The action of the two Liberators as the Officer Commanding in Chief, Coastal Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert signaled, undoubtedly saved the convoy from loss.

Unfortunately the party does not always turn out so happily.

Shipping losses from U-Boat attack continue to be serious; and there is a free-for-all argument going on in the newspapers and the clubs and the street cars as to how they can be countered.

The better one is informed on these subjects, the more one hesitates to plunge into arguments where angels and Air Marshals fear to tread.

But this much is clear, and may be said without telling the enemy anything that he does not already know. Neither the United States nor Great Britain have sufficient long distance aircraft devoted to antisubmarine work.

I have just described a seventeen-hour patrol; but that range is not really long enough for Atlantic convoy work; and in any case, Liberators are land based aircraft, which were never intended to operate thousands of miles over the sea.

The trusty old Catalina will sit up in the air for 24 hours and more at a time; but its range is limited by its slow speed.

The difficulty might be met by aircraft carriers accompanying the convoys, but, obviously we have not enough of these to be able to detach a sufficient number for convoy work.

What we require mainly therefore, are many more long-range aircraft specially built for antisubmarine work, with the best possible view forward, which is essential for submarine spotting. Aircraft built for other purpose can never be more than stop-gap substitutes.

Further there must be developments in the instruments used both by the navies and the air forces for submarine spotting.

But whatever the technical steps taken — and these are a matter of life and death to the United Nations — the necessity for a high degree of navigational skill remains.

Consider a daily problem at any Coastal Command station.

A convoy left a US Atlantic port two weeks ago, it should be approaching the Bay of Biscay now (radio messages may not be sent for fear of disclosing its whereabouts to the enemy) — now go out over the Bay and find the convoy. Visibility may be anything from twenty miles to fifty yards. Cloud may be right "down on the deck." Well, what are you waiting for? Go out and find that convoy, report its whereabouts to the navy, and at the end of your patrol, hand it over to your successor. It will take you several hours to get out there and several to get back; so your time available for the search is strictly limited — and of course the convoy may not turn up today. He may not turn up tomorrow or the day after. We don't know exactly what route he is following, in fact, and he may not turn up for another week. But go out and keep your eyes skinned for him, there's a good chap. And, by the way, you may get a sixty-mile-an-hour head wind on your way back to base; so watch your gasoline consumption, or you may run out of fuel and have to "ditch" your aircraft in the ocean, and swim for it.

Oh yes — and don't get shot down by enemy fighters, or fired on by the navy before you can identify yourself!

Well, there's just a minor daily problem of the anti-U-boat war. How would you like to have to solve it?

This article was originally published in the April, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 4, pp 28-31, 62.
The original article includes 4 paintings: Spitfire attacking Fw-190, Beaufighter attacking Nazi PzKw, trawler shelling U-boat, Hurricane attacking shipping in Dieppe harbor.
One painting signed David Evans; paintings credited to British Combine.