Britain at War

by Ralph Michaelis, RAF

The blasting of the Nazi war industry and the disruption of their communications is reaching new heights of devastating destruction. The "softening" of Northwest Europe and the Northern Mediterranean for invasion proceeds apace, the tremendous weight of the night raids only matched by the greater precision of the much lighter daylight raids.

I went down to see some friends who were doing a day-bombing operation the other afternoon. They fly Venturas — Lockheed Lodestars to you, or Flying Pigs, on account of their fat bellies, to the RAF crews that operate with them.

These daylight operations, though they may only earn three or four lines in the official communique, are very interesting on account of the outlook which the crews have toward the whole "softening" process.

The Venturas were out to bomb the German aerodrome at Caen in Brittany, a short operation taking a couple of hours or so. But simultaneously, Fortresses of the US Army Air Forces were out over Kiel, and RAF Bostons were bombing a target in the Lowlands, while there were numerous fighter sweeps of Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Typhoons going on at the same time.

The medium bombers, Venturas and Bostons had considerable fighter escorts. The "heavies," the Fortresses, were flying beyond the range of single seater fighters.

But though they flew "unescorted," they did not fly "unsupported" by fighters. In fact, the whole of those three afternoon operations, and the various fighter sweeps were centered around the major operation being undertaken by the Fortresses.

The major aim of the fighter sweeps and even the bombing of the medium bombers was to divert the German fighters away from the Fortresses on the more important target.

The German fighter fleets are uncomfortably stretched in Northwestern Europe; and it is the aim of the RAF fighters to entice them into the air and wear them down still further. Frequently they refuse to get into the air to mix it with the fighters alone; but when the fighters are accompanied by bombers, they have to come up and make some sort of a show at intercepting them. And even when they are not destroyed in sensationally large numbers, the wear and tear on aircraft and pilots, who are known in these days to sometimes join combat three or four times a day, is enormous.

For you cannot fly fighter patrols with tired pilots without their crashing aircraft on landing and taking off.

On the particular afternoon when I visited the Ventura air field, several hundred fighters were providing diversion and escort. The Venturas had Squadrons of Spitfires flying alongside them to either flank, and to their rear, with more Spits providing "high cover" about them. (censored)

Though there are usually a number of fighter engagements during these daylight raids, it is exceptional for the escorted bombers to see anything of them. Usually the escorting fighters keep the enemy at such a distance from their charges, that there is nothing for the latter to see, and nothing for them to do, but get onto the target, drop their eggs, and make tracks for home.

Occasionally a few German fighters manage to slip through the fighter escorts and shoot up the bombers.

Two FW-190s did so on this occasion.

They dived right through the Ventura formation, shooting sundry pieces off a couple of kites as they went. But Lockheed builds tough airplanes, and the Venturas flew on without much inconvenience.

One of the Focke-Wulfs, possibly to show his contempt for the slow old Flying Pigs to whom he could give well over 100 miles an hour in a level race without extending himself unduly, dived under their formation, and pulled up almost vertically on his tail directly in front of it.

This was adding insult to injury.

The Flying Pigs were on their mettle. Everybody in the formation had a shot at the Focke-Wulf, and he went down streaming smoke like a discarded cigar end.

The staff work going on in the Operations Room was of particular interest to myself as an onlooker, as it gave me a comprehensive picture of the whole operation.

A pretty blonde Sergeant of the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) sat at the telephone switchboard with her log book in front of her in which she made a note of all that was going on. Apart from her, only the Group Captain (equivalent to a Colonel in rank) in command of the Station, the Senior Intelligence Officer, his assistant, and I were in the Operations Room.

The blonde did most of the talking, though it was all strictly operational, and my own verbatim record of those conversations may help you, too, to form a picture of the day's operation.

Here it is, with the exception of details which are secret. The blonde, by the way, is officially known as the Station Watch Keeper.

Telephone: "This is Headquarters. I want to speak to the Station Commander?

Station Watch Keeper, turning to the Group Captain: "Headquarters to speak to you, Sir."

Headquarters: "Can you have 12 aircraft available at 14 hours, target the aerodrome at Caen, bomb load (censored) fighter escort, (censored) Squadrons of Spitfires, rendezvous so-and-so at such-and-such a time? Diversionary sweeps by (censored) Squadrons of fighters. American Fortresses will be doing a simultaneous operation over Kiel."

Station Commander: "OK. Have you written that all down, Watch Keeper?"

SWK: "Yes, Sir."

Other officers now start running in and out of the Operations Room as if the place were on fire and the floor too hot to hold them, and the SIO (Senior Intelligence Officer) now monopolizes the SWK

SIO to SWK: "I want you to warn the Armament Officer and the Engineer Officer. The Group Captain wants to see the Wing Commanders, the Squadron Leaders, and the Flight Leaders. Now warn Flying Control, and the Medical Officer, telephone the Officers' Mess and the Sergeants' Mess, and warn them to have early lunches for the air crews. Phone the Catering Officer for their flying rations. Warn all crews for briefing at 1130 Hours."

The Station Watch Keeper has done most of these things, and the crews have been briefed, when Headquarters comes through again.

Headquarters: "I want to speak to the Station Commander. The Americans have altered their plans. I'll let you have the new arrangements as soon as I know them."

Then a real "flap" (or commotion) starts. Operations officers dash about in all directions. The blonde gets on the telephone and countermands the orders to everyone concerned, and the Operations Room gradually simmers down again.

Headquarters: "I want to speak to the Station Commander. The Americans will be 20 minutes later than previously arranged."

Another "flap" gets going, while the blonde warns everybody concerned once more.

Later the Flying Pigs canter up to the starting point and take off; and the Station Watch Keeper repeats the report of the look-out man on the watch tower upstairs: "Twelve aircraft airborne at 1420 hours," and enters the message in her book.

A couple of hours later, the waiting has got some of the officers on edge; but the Watch Keeper remains unruffled.

SIO: "Order tea and sandwiches for the crews, Watch Keeper. They should be back soon."

SWK: "Yes, sir."

About half an hour later the telephone rings.

SWK (repeating): "C for Charlie has crossed the coast, Sir."

Group-Captain: "Good."

SIO: "Good."

SWK: "P for Peter has crossed the coast, Sir."

GC: "Good."

And so on as they are reported in across the coast.

SIO: (suddenly): "My God, where's that tea? Have you ordered it?”

SWK: "Yes, Sir. I ordered it half an hour ago."

CIO: (looking out of window): "I can't see any signs of it. Telephone the Mess again, Watch Keeper."

SWK: "Yes, Sir."

SIO (to his assistant): "Run up to the Mess and see what's happened to the crews' teas. Here, take my car, but for God's sake get those teas.

The hum of returning aircraft is heard.

SWK (repeating from her telephone): "C for Charlie asking permission to land, Sir."

Group-Captain: "OK, he may land."

SWK: "C for Charlie you may land. C for Charlie you may land. Over to you. Over.”

SWK (repeating): "P for Peter asking permission to land, Sir.”

SIO: "All right, let him land."

The Assistant Intelligence officer rushes in. "Its all right, Sir, the tea's here.”

SIO (mopping his brow): "Thank God."

And when the flap has subsided, the crews have been interrogated, and have had their cups of tea, and gone off to their messes the SWK shuts up her book, powders her nose, pulls on her hat, and goes to her tea.

Later in the evening, over glasses of beer we examined the photos that had been taken at the time of the raid. Several bursts were seen on the runway of the airfield just in front of three Focke-Wulfs that were taking off. There were several bursts of splinter bombs at one dispersal point where two smashed aircraft were lying on their sides. Other dispersal points had been hit, though the damage, if any, was hidden by trees.

These light 40-lb splinter bombs are very effective against personnel and aircraft on the ground. Instead of digging deep holes in the ground like the heavier bombs do, they spread out laterally in small pieces in all directions.

I took a walk round the bomb dump while I was there. And in between the piles of big fat 500-pounders, small cylindrical incendiaries, and 40-lb anti-personnel bombs I was curious to see hearts transfixed with arrows carved out on the trees, with such inscriptions as "Jack loves Ethel," and "Don't forget me, Georgie." For the bomb dump had been set down in a former Lovers' Lane, where the young country folk from the neighboring village had done their courting.

Talking of inscriptions it is customary nowadays for crews to have some phony crest and motto painted on the noses of their aircraft. The crests vary from demons and dragons to mermaids and cabaret artists. The mottos are equally varied. One carried by the Canadian crew of a four-engined Halifax bomber, per flak ad nauseam is truly descriptive.

It is difficult for anyone who has not helped to set a city on fire from the air to imagine what the sight can be like. A navigator of one of these Canadian squadrons gave me the best brief description that I have heard lately.

"The flames were so bright over Dusseldorf that we could see clearly the streets in the built up area," he said. "We could just pick out a spot and lay our eggs as we pleased. We saw one huge explosion that looked like a fountain made of red flames. It may have been a gasoline blast."

And there was such a heavy pall of smoke rising right up to 20,000 feet that it dimmed the searchlights.

I asked one of the gunners if the flak had been heavy.

He said, "I didn't know whether the flak was heavy or not. It was the first time I'd seen any."

This article was originally published in the August, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 2, pp 18-19, 38.
The original column includes 8 photos: Typhoon, Spitfire, Havoc, Fw-190-A3, Hurricanes, B-17, Ventura, and the envelope (with censor stamp) the report was mailed in.
Photos credited to British Combine, British Information Service, USAAF, Lockheed, International.