Britain at War

by Ralph Michaelis, RAF

The mounting crescendo of air offensive has reached a pitch never before achieved in the history of air warfare, and is still rising.

The Air Forces of the United Nations are hammering the enemy ceaselessly day and night along the coastal strips of France, the Lowlands and Sicily, and against his war industry in Germany itself, where thousands of tons of bombs have been dropped.

This large scale air offensive is no haphazard series of bomb-slinging expeditions. Every operation, from the shooting up of a locomotive by a Spitfire to a mammoth raid on Berlin or the Ruhr, is part of the same strategic plan.

The RAF is "softening" up the Channel Coastal strip of France and the Lowlands from their home bases, and they are "softening" Sicily from their North African bases. Their main targets are airfields and communications in the shape of locomotives, railway marshaling yards, and power stations; while at the same time smashing thousands more tons of bombs home on German war industry.

German losses in locomotives, destroyed either by cannon fire or bombing in France, the Lowlands, and Germany have averaged about 150 locomotives a month since the beginning of the year.

Such a strategic plan is not new, of course, for it was practiced on a smaller scale, though very successfully, in World War I, and was resuscitated, but unsuccessfully, by the Germans in the Battle of Britain.

Since then the Luftwaffe does not appear to have had any long-term strategic plan at all.

The total number of enemy bombers which attacked Britain during March, for instance, was less than half the number sent out by the RAF in a single night against Germany. He lost thirty-three of the small force of night raiders that he did send over; but only one British plane was shot down over Britain during the whole of that period.

But if the Luftwaffe is becoming less offensive, as the effect of the heavy bombing on his aircraft production, and the big toll of his machines taken by the RAF in air combat begins to be felt, his anti-aircraft ground defenses are becoming ever stronger. He has increased the number of his searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, especially in the Ruhr, and improved his predictors, until his barrages appear at times to be almost solid with bursting shell fragments.

An observer who flew over the Ruhr recently told me that, from the distance, the barrage looked like an impenetrable curtain of fire,

"Our course took us straight through it," he said, "and we were in it for twenty-five minutes. Once inside we were bounced up and down like a rubber ball by the bursting shells, many of them so near that we could hear the crack of their explosions above the roar of our engines; and when you can hear them burst, they are a darn sight too near. Our aircraft was holed twenty-six times; but we came through and dropped our bombs. These aircraft are tough."

Yes, the aircraft are tough, and so are the crews.

Another friend of mine was flying in a four-engined Halifax which came into collision with another Halifax on a big raid, as they were changing course. The aircraft that hit them carried away one of their rudders and lost three feet off one of its own wing tips. Yet both machines survived the collision to fly safely home.

A navigator, recently home from North Africa, who was with us, told us that although the enemy had no such extensive highly defended areas in the Middle East as he has in Germany, he had some small objectives, such as Tobruk and Bengazi, into which he had packed as many guns and searchlights as he had on any spot of like size in Germany. But otherwise, he said, you could fly for miles without being fired at.

He said too that there were very few enemy night fighters about. His aircraft, a Wellington, saw one one night. It flew head on at them, and passed over the top of them within twenty yards. Neither saw the other until the last moment. Then both the Wimpy and the German fired. But their combined speed of more than 500 miles an hour made the deflected shot such an impossible one that they both missed.

He also told us that weather conditions are almost ideal for night bombing over the Mediterranean. There is no industrial haze, such as you meet in the Ruhr, and the nights, even the moonless ones, are so light that targets stand out almost as clearly as in daylight and a high degree of bombing accuracy is achieved.

During the advance across the Western Desert, his squadron flew on two long raids every night, returning from the first one only long enough to refuel, and bomb up again. The moment they landed from the first raid, the crew would jump out of their machines, help the ground crew to bomb up, jump back into their plane, and fly off again on the second raid, a feat of endurance that must be unprecedented in the history of war in the air.

Some of the recent heavy raids on German industry have been spectacular. As one air gunner exclaimed as he watched the fires in the burning city beneath him, "They're big enough to light your cigarettes."

The blast from a 2,000-pound bomb is so devastating that the aircraft dropping it cannot fly lower than 8,000 feet without danger of being blown to pieces by the explosion. The safety limit for 4,000-pounders is even higher. The pilot of a Halifax that bombed Nuremberg said that his aircraft "went up and down" with the explosions of his own bombs.

The pilot, as a rule, does not see much of the result of his handiwork, unless he is detailed to stay and observe the results, like the pilot whom I have just quoted. For the pilot is usually too busy dodging flak and searchlights to have any leisure to look around and admire the view.

This is the rear gunner's job. From his turret he has a good view all round and below; and he warns the pilot over the intercom as they go along. "Searchlights looking for us now, Skip," he says. "Flak coming up at us from the starboard. Flak bursting behind us." Or "Fighter on the port beam."

One of the most amazing of the thousands of flights made during the month on these huge bomber raids over Germany was that of the Australian crew of a Lancaster.

Just after the aircraft entered the Ruhr's searchlight belt, it was attacked by an enemy fighter.

"I imagine the pilot saw us silhouetted against the beams of the many searchlights," said the captain of the Lancaster. "He raked our port side, and the port inner engine caught fire. I feathered the airscrew and cut off the petrol to the engine, and the fire died out."
Well, throwing a heavy bomber about to evade a fast fighter, with a full bomb load in the racks, is quite a job of work; but the pilot dismissed that in a sentence.
"We lost height in evading the fighters," he said. "We decided to go in and bomb" (on three engines be it noted) "but when we checked up on the controls, we found that the hydraulic pipes had been severed and the bomb doors would not open.
"It was very galling, as we were within a few miles of the target, but there was nothing for it except to turn back.
"Running on three engines, and with the rudder controls shot away," he continued, having forgotten to mention a little detail like that before, "I had to be very careful when taking evasive action. We had to cross the flak and searchlight belt again, but luckily we cleared it without running into trouble.
"Over the sea we tried to get rid of the bomb load. The bomb aimer and the engineer used an axe to cut a hole in the bomb bay behind my seat and tried the same at the rear of the bay; but the bombs prevented the crew from getting at the hydraulic pipe, and the bomb doors remained jammed closed.
"The bomb aimer took one of the guns from the front turret, opened the inspection hatch in front of the bomb bay, and tried to force the doors open with the gun, but could not move them. Then we attempted to open the door with the emergency hand pump. There seemed to be no oil in the hydraulic system, however, and we tried pouring coffee from a vacuum flask into the pipes that feed the pump. That did not work either."

Meanwhile the pilot was having a difficult time keeping the Lancaster running on three engines; and the strain of holding the aircraft level was increased by the fact that the rudder controls had been shot away.

At last they arrived over their base, still carrying their bomb load. The captain gave the crew the choice of baling out if they wished to; but they decided to stick to him and the aircraft; and he went in to land.

He knew that the fighter's bullets might have hit the port landing wheel. They had; with the result that the tire collapsed as the thirty-ton bomber touched down. He made a safe landing, however, with all his bombs still on — and, by the way, another detail that he forgot to mention — one of those bombs was a four-thousand-pounder!

This article was originally published in the July, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 1, pp 26-27.
The original column includes 2 paintings: Whirlwinds bombing Abbeville, Lancasters bombing Essen.
Paintngs are unsigned. Credits to British Combine.