Britain at war

by Ralph Michaelis

Bombing raids on Germany have reached a tremendous state of intensity — but so has the defense. Such loads of high explosive as are being showered nightly onto German industry, and such resulting devastation, have never been known in the history of war — and neither has such anti-aircraft fire, and such concentration of night fighters.

The aim of what is known as the "saturation" raid, in which several hundred bombers take part carrying a couple of thousand tons or so of bombs, is not only to shatter the target to atoms, but to overwhelm every sort of opposition — searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, night fighters and detectors.

The German type of detector becomes defeated, so to speak, when faced with the job of picking up the engine pulsations of several thousand engines flying overhead in a huge, roaring procession, with the consequence that not only guns, but the fighters, too, are obliged to work "blind."

And although there is safety in numbers for the British raiders, there is also increased danger for the unfortunate lone bomber separated by engine trouble, a chance shell splinter, or bad navigation, from his fellows. For the lone raider is just what the detectors, the searchlights, the flak batteries, and the night fighters are looking for; they will pick him off if they can.

And the German night fighters are getting very wily.

Formerly they worked independently; but of late they have taken to working in pairs. Their usual method is to wait around for a lone bomber — they seldom attack an aircraft flying in formation on account of the danger from the concentrated fire of several machines.

Having stalked their prey, one of the fighters will creep up underneath the tail of the bomber and pump cannon shells into it, while the second fighter lurks hidden in the dark part of the sky below the horizon, or in some convenient cloud nearby. If the bomber captain simply takes evasive action, ramming the nose of his machine down in a diving turn, and fighting back, on the assumption that there is only one fighter, the other one closes in from the opposite beam and attacks.

But bomber captains are getting wise to these tactics, and crews keep their eyes skinned for the confederate when attacked by a single night fighter.

Another new trick is for the searchlights to work with one of these pairs of night fighters. Two searchlights will bracket a bomber in a V, and will try to follow its course with one arm of the V in front of the bomber and the other arm behind it. This restricts the search for the fighters. At other times the searchlight beams will be thrown straight along the ground in the direction in which the bomber is traveling, and if the bomber changes direction to avoid them, the lights will follow him round onto the new course so that the fighters can keep track of him.

The prowling night fighter always has the advantage over the lone bomber, for the element of surprise is his for the using. He can attack or not, according to choice, or he can break off an engagement whenever he likes. The bomber, on the other hand, has a job to do. He must get to the target, lay his eggs, and get right home again. He has no time, even if he has the inclination, to dally with night fighters by the way.

But in spite of these disadvantages, he does not by any means always get the worst of an engagement. One night recently, the rear gunner of a four-engined Lancaster bomber spotted an Me-109 coming out of wispy cloud about 400 yards away.

The German was on the starboard quarter and flying slightly above the Lancaster. The gunner advised the Captain to turn to starboard (in order to increase the deflection for the Me's guns, and make his sighting more difficult) and when the fighter had closed to about 300 yards he fired.

His bullets hit the underside of the German's port wing. He could see some of them ricocheting off and sparks flying off one of its engines. Finding things too hot in that quarter, the fighter passed round to the Lancaster's port beam. This time the mid-upper gunner fired at it, and when it swung round to the port bow, the front gunner crashed in a burst with his guns. "After that," said the crew in their combat report, "it disappeared."

But the German night fighters refused to leave that single Lancaster alone. Half an hour later the rear gunner spotted another Me-109 about 500 yards astern. He told the pilot to take evasive action. The fighter closed to about 400 yards and fired two or three bursts but they all went wide, the bullets passing underneath the Lancaster. The rear gunner held his fire until the fighter had closed to 300 yards. Then he let him have it. The fighter burst into flames, dived about 2,000 feet in a flaming mass, and then exploded in mid-air.

Other Lancasters in the vicinity confirmed having seen this happen and the victory was accordingly duly credited to the rear gunner.

His name is Sergeant Oliver and he comes from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. In civil life he is an antique dealer. Now he collects Messerschmitts.

Another Lancaster, flying back from a heavy raid on Duisburg, was not so lucky. A night fighter crept up from below on the starboard quarter, and fired a burst that killed the rear gunner, set fire to his turret as well as to the port inner engine.

The Captain rammed down the nose of the great machine and dived away with flames gushing from the front and rear of the aircraft, so that it made an excellent target for the fighter who swooped in to attack again. And this time he wounded the mid-upper gunner in both legs. A shell burst just behind the Captain's head, the splinters cutting away both sleeves of his flying jacket without hurting him.

The Captain threw the flaming ship about like a great torch and managed to shake off the fighter, while the flight engineer, going coolly about his work, feathered the airscrew of the burning port inner engine, cut off its petrol, so that the flames died down.

Meanwhile the radio operator was tackling the fire in the rear turret. When it was discovered that the radio set was badly damaged, he went forwards to repair it and the Flight Engineer took over the fire fighting in the rear turret. He collected all the hand extinguishers, shoved their nozzles through a hole in the turret, and poured them onto the fire until it was put out.

Once they had the fires under control, the crew found that the elevator trims had been shot away, there was a large hole in one of the gasoline tanks, from which the fuel was pouring, the hydraulic system was damaged, and the bomb doors were hanging down open.

This last mishap, combined with the lack of the elevator trims, rendered steering extremely difficult.

The Captain guessed that with the hydraulics damaged, his undercarriage might collapse on landing. It did, but no further damage resulted.

Yet in spite of the big increase in German night fighter activity, most of the hundreds of bomber crews plying to and from Germany have never met one. I was talking to Wing Commander Gibson, VC, DSO, DFC, the other day, the man who led the big Dam raid in May, and the most decorated officer in the RAF. He told me that in all his 74 raids, he has never seen a German night fighter.

But, as I have indicated, in these days it is usually the aircraft that gets separated from its companions, either through misfortune or lack of skill, that gets caught by enemy fighters.

The intensity of the present raids on Germany defies imagination. Even those who experienced the biggest raids on London can have little idea of the hell that is let loose when twice the weight of bombs dropped on London in any whole week is dropped on a German town in a single night.

Describing a recent attack on Stuttgart, the captain of a Halifax told me that it was "just like an inferno." The captain of a Lancaster said "the steel girders of the blazing factories stood out against the flames so that it appeared as though we were looking through the bars into a burning prison."

The whole raid was over in less than three-quarters of an hour and the smoke rose to 8,000 feet.

The Germans are up to all sorts of tricks to lead our bombers to drop their loads in places where it won't hurt. They light decoy fires on deserted heaths in the neighborhood of the real target, but these are fairly obvious to experienced crews, for no decoy fire can reproduce the holocaust of burning factories.

They are also making extensive use of camouflage. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs are the easiest landmarks to pick up by night or by day, and knowing this, the Germans often cover over a stretch of water for miles, sometimes painting ploughed fields and woods onto the camouflaged material. These, too, are fairly obvious to the experts who interpret the photographs which are constantly being taken over Germany. In fact they have become so accustomed to watching every modification of the German landscape, that if a farmer in the Rhine valley, for instance, removes so much as a hen house, it is known in England within 24 hours.

Little is heard outside of the Service of the work of these photographic machines which are constantly working over enemy territory. It is carried out in high-flying fighters, stripped of their guns and of every possible ounce of superfluous equipment, so as to afford them the speed necessary to outstrip enemy fighters. You may well imagine the cold-blooded sort of courage that is required of the pilots who fly alone and unarmed over Germany by day, on this essential photographic work, There is nothing spectacular or thrilling about it, no prospect of public recognition, and it requires sheer "guts" of a very specialized type.

This article was originally published in the September, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 3, pp 22-23, 39.
The original article includes 8 photos: Mosquito, Beaufighter, loading bombs, Wellington, P-38s, Lancaster, Halifax, and the envelope (with censor stamp) the report was mailed in.
Photos credited to National Film Board, Lockheed, British Information Service, British Combine.