Britain At War

Front Line Sketches and London Letter
by Ralph Michaelis, RAF.

The best story I heard this month concerns the captain of a German mine layer who was pulled out of the North Sea, very wet and extremely angry, by one of the launches of our Sea-Air Rescue Service.

He was cursing the verflugte Aenglaender for a lot of incompetent swine; but it was not his rescuers to whom he referred. This time the Royal Navy were the villains of the piece.

Every night for months past this German skipper had steamed out of port and laid a field of mines somewhere in the North Sea; and every day following that exploit British minesweepers had gone out to the spot regularly and swept his mines up tidily. But one day the British did not go out sweeping for some reason or other. The German came out at his usual time, ran into one of his own mines, and blew himself up, victim of his German thoroughness.

From the abridged reports that have been cabled here from New York, I gather that there has been some severe criticism of the Flying Fortresses in the US. Perhaps it is just as well there are a safe 2,000-odd miles between the critics and the boys who fly the Fortresses. I who know those boys would not care to be responsible for the safety of one of those armchair critics if he were set down on one of their airfields over here.

Apparently these gentlemen want the Fortresses to stop day bombing and to switch over to night bombing. But Fortresses are neither equipped nor suitable for night bombing. The white glare of their exhaust-driven superchargers would be picked up by enemy fighters miles away. Nor are their crews trained for night bombing in European conditions.

Navigation in a blacked-out, radio-silent Europe is very different to what it is in the US, with lighted towns and light beacons at night, and radio beacons and the strongly marked geographical features of a great continent as guides by day.

When the air war started in 1939, only a few ex-airline pilots of the combatant nations had ever flown over Europe at night. The British got their training with very little opposition in the much derided leaflet raids. Flying on those comparatively undisturbed journeys, sometimes landing in France to refuel and returning the following night, their crews learned their way about western Germany by night.

When the Germans first started to raid Britain at night, they had so few trained night flying navigators that they used to fly in small formations with one navigator to each formation. Then they started to lay down radio beams in a foolproof way, so that all their air pilots had to do was to follow the beam, and bomb when the light showed on their instrument board.

The beam was not a success; and both Air Forces settled down to the hard straight road of teaching themselves ordinary, dependable navigation.

Those who would so lightly launch Fortresses into the pitch black silence of a European night — and, bring them back safely onto their own airfields with no more than the glowworm glimmer of an operational flare path would do well to consider the conditions under which they would have to work.

I have written on previous occasions about the splendid job that these Fortresses are doing and of the revolutionary lead that they are giving to future aircraft design. I told you then that they are not great load carriers, but that with their tremendous volume of long-range fire they can well take care of themselves. And above all, that they are the missing link between today's big bombers, and tomorrow's air battleships. I can see no reason for altering that opinion.

The only way to get the real "gen" (RAF slang for information) about operational aircraft is to go and ask the fellows who fly them operationally how they make out.

As one of the few who are privileged to do that in this country, I went down the other day on your behalf to visit a group of medium bombers.

They consist of American Mitchells, Bostons, Venturas, and British Mosquitos. The Mosquito, which is one of the fastest things that ever took the air, is the favorite; and after that come the American planes in the order in which I have mentioned them. The Mosquito, or DH-86, which is made by de Havilland, has the traditional DH tail which has been the trade mark of the Geoffrey de Havilland's designs for thirty years and more. It has also gone back to timber construction and although comparatively light, it is extremely solid, and stands up to flak fire as well as any metal construction.

The main work of these medium daylight bombers is confined to comparatively short hops of three and four hours in France and the Low Countries, though the Mosquitos, taking advantage of their tremendous speed, have also made surprise daylight trips to Berlin and Oslo. The Berlin raid sent Goering, the Luftwaffe's founder himself, bolting underground like a frightened rabbit, and delayed his famous speech for more than an hour and a half. The Oslo raid had the same effect on Quisling and his friends.

The biggest raid that the Venturas have made so far was that on the radio-valve works at Eindhoven in Holland. Carrying thousands of incendiaries, they flew in after the heavy bombers had dropped their high explosives. Flying at roof top height they found the place a shambles, and dropping their incendiaries into the ruins through gaping holes in the roofs, they soon had the whole place ablaze. Ventura crews told me that what impressed them most were the German anti-aircraft crews stationed on the roofs who continued firing at them with the buildings under their feet a mass of flames.

These Venturas are, of course, an attempt at adapting the Lockheed Lodestar airliner to operational work, and they have both the advantages and the drawbacks of their civilian ancestry.

Their twin Pratt & Whitney 2,000-hp engines make them extremely reliable from a flying point of view. They get home without difficulty with one engine shot out of action, and can even gain height on one engine, but they are slower than any of our other day bombers. Their design forbids their carrying a bomb load that would really justify an engine power of 4,000 hp.

On the day that I visited them, they carried out a small bombing operation; and I could but admire the timetable accuracy with which it was carried out.

In the control tower from which I watched the takeoff was the usual blackboard with the names of the Captains and their aircraft chalked up on it, and with the time of the takeoff and the estimated time of their return noted.

The estimated time of return that afternoon was 16 hours (4 PM). At a few minutes before four the Control Officer climbed onto the roof, scanning the horizon with his binoculars, while down below on the tarmac the ground crews were jumping about like cats on hot bricks, telling one another "any minute now; any minute now."

At a minute before four o'clock the control officer spotted a black speck on the horizon. At exactly four o'clock the first Ventura landed. Within a minute and a half the whole squadron was on the ground, and the Group Captain was questioning the first arrivals.

The trip had not been very eventful from their point of view. They had flown over in low cloud, and "pranged" a German airfield without meeting much opposition. Some of them had seen an aircraft falling in flames, in the distance, but they were too far off to identify it. It afterwards proved to be an FW-190 shot down by the Spitfire escort.

It was just one of those small routine afternoon shows that, added up by the hundred, combine to make a considerable slice of the air war. Goering's Luftwaffe, which three years ago considered itself invincible, has at last admitted that it has something to learn from the RAF. You doubtless remember the controversy in recent months when critics all over the country were screaming for the RAF to be equipped with dive bombers, in spite of the fact that the German Ju-88 Stukas (Editor's Note: Any dive bomber is a Stuka) had been consistently shot out of the sky both in the Battle of Britain and in the Western Desert. Following my usual practice of consulting only the fellows who fly the aircraft operationally, I went down to see the Hurribomber pilots who were the only ones in England who had done any dive bombing; and you may remember how I reported to you in my October letter that they told me that the Stukas were not in the same street with their Hurribombers.

Now comes information from North Africa that the Germans are using Messerschmitts 109E, F, and G, and Focke-Wulfs 190 as "ground attack units" or fighter bombers, and have reduced their fleets of Stukas drastically, scrapping whole squadrons of them.

And whereas formerly the German air force had well over 500 Stukas, they now have only some 300 in all.

An analysis of their operations shows that during the first day of their recent offensive in southern Tunisia they made some sixty dive bomber sorties and the same number of fighter bomber sorties. On the second and subsequent days they made no dive bomber attacks, but a great number of fighter bomber attacks. There are about fifty Stukas in Tunisia today, some of which were present in the recent battle in the south.

Laying mines from the air in enemy waters is one of the most important routine duties in the RAF. It is usually considered to be dull, uneventful work, by the crews that carry it out. But this was not the opinion of a New Zealand Sergeant Pilot of a Stirling who wrote at the end of his report, on returning from a recent night mine laying operation — "This is considered a shade steep for a first trip as Captain."

He had encounters with three enemy fighters — one Me-110 and two Ju-88s — and had twice passed through a concentration of heavy and light flak.

He was approaching the area off the Continental coast where he was going to lay his mines, when he saw red streaks of light coming up from the port beam. This was caused by red tracer ammunition being fired from an Me-110. His rear gunner instructed him to turn in toward the attacking fighter, and as the Me crossed the Stirling, the bomber's mid-upper gunner and rear gunners both got in bursts. The fighter reeled over onto its back and was lost to sight. The Stirling then went on and dropped its mines.

The crew next found themselves over a number of German flak ships which proceeded to pump up shells at them. The pilot warned his crew to hang on, and took the sort of violent evasive action that would cause most airline passengers to bring up their dinners with a rush. Shells were bursting all round them, and the rear gunner said that at one time he could actually smell the flak.

(They do say that when you can smell it, it is much too near.)

When the flak stopped, the pilot, his mission accomplished, set course for home. But as soon as he had done so the bomb aimer, who was sitting in the second pilot's seat next to the Captain, saw a Ju-88 flying only a hundred yards away to starboard.

The Captain at once turned in towards the fighter, which took evasive action, consisting mainly of hiding behind the Stirling's port wing. One of the arts of fighter work at close quarters is to get into position within your enemy's blind spot from which he cannot see you or fire at you.

On this occasion the German fighter succeeded in this maneuver; but did not open fire.

The Stirling crew wondered what he was doing — and they soon found out, when another Ju came in after them from the rear.

Naturally the rear gunner of the Stirling instructed the Captain to turn away from this new attack. But the Captain thought quickly, and realized in a flash that each of the German fighters was acting as a decoy for the other and that if he were to adopt his rear gunner's instructions, he would be exposed to the fire of the fighter on the port wing.

Accordingly he moved in such a way that his rear and mid-upper gunners were able to get in bursts at the enemy on their tail. The Captain next saw pencils of light from the enemy's tracer coming from both sides of the Stirling's stern and converging ahead of them. The gunners said that the fighter was so close that they could hear the popping of the German cannon.

"At this stage," said the Captain, "we were down almost to the level of the sea and must have been silhouetted against the reflection of the moon, a sitting bird for the enemy. But luck was on our side and a thin blanket of layer cloud suddenly appeared and gave us cover. We shook off the fighters.
"For the fourth time we set course for home, and once more we found ourselves over the German flak ships. We had been turning so much during the course of the action that we kept seeing the same wretched piece of coast again and again."

Once more he took evasive action from the multi-colored flak. Once more he escaped it, and set course for home.

The pilot had been throwing the aircraft about so wildly that as the crew flew home they found everything that had not been tied down strewn over the floor of the Stirling. The navigator, who had been seated behind the pilot, retrieved his maps from well forward over the bomb sight, down in the nose of the aircraft.

The flight engineer had the characteristic phlegm of his kind.

"While we were fighting for our lives, flying the aircraft in all directions," said the pilot, "the flight engineer kept asking me on the intercom what revolutions we were doing, and what boost I was using. He said he wanted to keep his log up to date."

The engagement with the fighters lasted for thirty-three minutes. Enemy night fighters are becoming very wily in their attacks on our multi-gun bombers.

One of them which attacked a Lancaster near Duisberg recently, camouflaged himself by remaining in the dark part of the sky well below the skyline.

Nobody in the Lancaster knew he was there until tracers streamed into the bomber and raked it from nose to tail with cannon and machine gun fire. Flares and a photo flash exploded amidships and set the mid-upper turret alight. The gunner climbed out at once; but his "Mae West" and parachute harness were on fire and he was burnt about the face.

The radio operator helped him to smother the fire in his clothes; but by that time there was a big blaze amidships. The rear gunner left his turret to help quell the flames. The flight engineer also came along, and the four men threw out the burning flares and extinguished the flames.

This took them five minutes, and all the time they were at work the enemy fighter repeatedly attacked the defenseless Lancaster, while the pilot, alone on the job, took violent evasive action.

When the flames were under control the rear gunner at once went back to his turret. He found that there was a leak in the turret's hydraulic system, but that it was still working. The enemy was then attacking from astern. The rear gunner fired back and was fairly sure that he scored hits with two bursts. The enemy then broke away.

Ten minutes later what appeared to be the same fighter attacked again from astern and below. The rear gunner took him on again and was certain that he hit the enemy aircraft which broke away. A few minutes later some of the crew saw an aircraft burst into flames and crash on the ground. The interval, however, was just too long for them to be absolutely certain that it was their fighter which had crashed. The Lancaster was badly damaged, and with three of the crew unable to take oxygen, the pilot had to fly all the way back at a low altitude, but he brought his aircraft safely home.

This article was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 5, pp 23-26.
The original column includes 4 paintings: Stirling ditching at sea, Mosquitos striking Berlin, Bostons over Dunkirk, Mosquitos in action over Malta.
1 Painting by F R Turner (Illustrated London News), 1 painting signed by Jobson; 2 paintings unsigned. Credits to International News Photos, British Combine.