Britain At War

by Ralph Michaelis, RAF

People sometimes wonder how it is that on these tremendous night raids over Germany with several hundred planes unloading a couple of thousand tons of bombs in less than an hour over a single restricted area, that the bombers do not collide. They do occasionally, of course. Such mishaps, though rare, are inevitable.

In fact, a pilot told me frankly the other day after a raid on Cologne: "Our biggest trouble was to avoid a collision. I was far more anxious about that than about being caught by searchlights."

But the most curious accident over the target of which I have heard was the case of a thousand-pound bomb which passed clean through the fuselage of a four-engined Halifax without doing any damage other than the hole which it made. The Halifax just happened to get in the way when the bomb aimer in another aircraft above it "pressed the tit." The bomb did not, of course, explode but passed clean through the Halifax just behind the mid-upper turret. "It nearly parted my hair in the middle," said the gunner, who was unhurt except for a slight cut where he was thrown against his gun mountings by the concussion.

The star tum of that night was the Stirling which collided with a German fighter over Hamburg. "We had bombed the target and were dodging around to avoid the searchlights," the Canadian pilot told me, when I suddenly saw the wing and fuselage of a fighter loom up about 25 yards dead ahead of us. I had just time to warn the crew over the intercom. 'fighter ahead' when it hit our starboard wing with a bump. It tore away four feet of the starboard wing and about five feet of the starboard aileron, and damaged the aileron controls. The fighter turned over on its back and went straight down."

The Stirling dropped on its starboard side, and began to slide down like a drunken crab. The pilot wrestled with the controls but was unable to. pull the big ship up again until the bomb aimer, who had just come up from his position and was sitting beside the pilot, added his weight on the control column and between them they were able to drag the aircraft onto a level keel. They had a dreadful job flying the damaged Stirling 350-odd miles home. It required two of them to shift the control column, and any amount of manipulation before they could get the big aircraft flying level and on course. Then down would slip the starboard wing, and they would slip off course and sometimes out of control again.

The flight engineer helped by switching three of the engines over to the starboard tank, and so lightening the starboard side of the aircraft.

By the time they had struggled home to a safe landing the arms of the pilot and his bomb aimer were weary and aching with the strain.

You can imagine how tough these Stirlings must be to survive what must have been at least a 600-miles-an-hour collision with a fighter attacking head on at probably 400 miles an hour and the bomber approaching at 200 odd. Yet a bird flying into the orbit of a wooden propeller will shatter it to small pieces.

That Stirling crew were too busy fighting with the controls to do any sightseeing on that trip but others said that the scene over Hamburg was fantastic.

The light from the burning city lit up the whole sky for miles around. Even members of the crew working inside the aircraft, who normally see very little of what is happening, could not avoid noticing it.

One navigator working at his table mistook the glare for enemy searchlights. "I thought we were caught in a cone of them," he said. A yellow light lit the whole aircraft. I looked up and saw the light reflected on the wing. Then I left my position and looked down at the fire below. It was like a huge mushroom of flames."

Other crews raiding the Ruhr 200 miles away could see Hamburg burning.

The havoc caused by that raid must have been beyond imagination. The Germans dropped 400 tons of bombs during their heaviest raid on London, and that caused some considerable gaps. But the RAF dropped more than five times that weight on Hamburg in 50 minutes.

The heavy raid on Aachen was curious for the fact that the Germans relied almost entirely on night fighters for its defense. This was partly clue to the fact that the night was a particularly light one. In fact one pilot described it as "night masquerading as day." And, of course, Aachen, being situated on the German-Belgium frontier, is in a fighter district. One Stirling was attacked ten times by ten fighters operating either singly or in pairs.

It was a little after half-past two in the morning when the first fighter attacked. The rear gunner, the front gunner and the mid-upper gunner all opened fire, and the fighter dived away. Twenty minutes later a Focke-Wulf 190 came diving in head on with guns blazing. The Stirling's gunners replied. The fighter broke off and came in again. The gunners drove him off once more and he was not seen again, Twenty minutes later a Me-110 twin-engined fighter made two attacks, and met its doom on the second occasion almost by chance.

The rear gunner was wearing very thick gloves, and after he had opened fire his gloves got stuck in the triggers, with the result that he fired a longer burst than he had intended. But his ammunition was not wasted.

"The Me stalled suddenly," he said, "a red glow appeared in the middle of it, and then it dived straight down with black smoke pouring from it." A few minutes later he saw a red glow on the ground where the wreckage lay burning.

Three minutes later two twin-engined fighters appeared. One of them held off, flying alongside the bomber just out of range in order to distract its crew's attention while the second fighter attacked. The Stirling's gunners opened fire, and both the fighters made off.

Six minutes after that another fighter came up to the attack under the bomber's tail. The gunners opened up on him, and he too disappeared. There was a pause of twenty minutes before the next attack, when two more fighters dived at them from astern. The gunners opened fire and the fighters made off.

Six minutes later the Stirling was attacked by two more fighters which came in one after the other. These two were driven off by the fighters. The shooting of the Germans was not so good. The Stirling returned to base without a mark on it.

One of the Halifaxes on that same raid was not so fortunate. It was attacked by a night fighter just before going in to bomb. But it shook off the enemy and went in. Just as they had finished bombing they were hit by a shell. There was a tremendous explosion and the port inner engine. a Rolls-Royce Merlin blew up and disappeared. Then fire broke out in the aircraft.

They were carrying leaflets as well as bombs, and the fire spread to them and got under the floor boards. While the pilot struggled to keep the big plane level with one engine shot away, the crew fought the flames for half an hour using up all their extinguishers, and throwing overboard everything inflammable. Meanwhile the navigator sat calmly at his table working out the course.

By the time they had put the fire out, the pilot found that the hydraulics had been put out of action, the bomb doors would not close, and the air speed indicator would not work, an unpleasant state of affairs when your aircraft is wallowing about like an old tub in a rough sea and you are trying to hold her up on three engines and expecting she may stall without warning at any moment.

However, thanks to good flying and cool heads, they landed safely.

The war in the air in Western Europe has long ceased to be a defensive one. On that front we are tearing the Luftwaffe out of the air. The main difficulty, as I explained in my last month's letter, is to bring an unwilling foe to combat. I am not suggesting that the German pilots are inferior flyers, or that they individually avoid combat. That is not so. Their pilot material is still good and well trained. Their equipment is excellent but it is in short supply, owing to the effect of our bombing on aircraft production.

The Flight Surgeon's number one problem has Command, therefore is to avoid combat and its consequent losses unless an engagement is essential.

One of the difficulties of the aggressive policy of Fighter Command is, as it always has been, to break off the combat in the heat of battle, when one is far from home and near the end of one's fuel range.

In the old days all that a Squadron Leader or a Flight Commander could do was to fly in front of his more bloodthirsty pilots and waggle his wings violently as a warning that it was time to get home. In these days he can call them in by radio, and now a certain amount of that responsibility can, when necessary, be taken over by the Operations Officer maybe eighty or ninety miles away on the other side of the English Channel.

Listening in on a big "dog-fight" the other day, I was interested to witness a demonstration of this remote control of an air battle by an officer on the ground.

Snatches of orders and remarks of the pilots in the fight were coming through over the loud- speaker in the Operations room.

"Look out, Joe, there's a bandit on your tail."

"Hello, Green Section, there's two more coming down now behind you."

"Are you all right, Red 3?"

"Yes, still in one piece, thanks!"

"Here comes a bunch of them at nine o'clock."

As the engagement proceeded, the aircraftswomen round the table scribbled down every remark industriously in their shorthand note books. The Operations Officer watched the clock.

Miles away across the Channel British and German fighters were milling around trying to shoot the life out of one another. In the Ops Room there was no sound but the clicking of the counters, like big draftsmen, as they were shifted by WAAF girls on the big floor map to indicate the course of the battle, with the constant electric crackle and occasional shout from the loudspeakers.

The Ops Officer looked at the clock. They were nearing the end of their range. He had let them run as long as he dared. To leave them any longer would be to risk their "ditching," out of gas in the Channel.

He spoke into his microphone.

"Actor" (his code name) "calling Haddock" (the formation leader's code name) "get out of it now, get out."

Thus ended one more epic fight in which Fighter Command knocked down a dozen German fighters without loss to themselves. I wonder what Shakespeare would have made of that speech. It seemed so very prosaic after the speeches at the battle of Agincourt — according to the bard.

But there are no frills on the RAF.

"Get out of it!"

This column was originally published in the October, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 3, pp 30-31.
The original column includes 5 paintings: Whirlwinds attack shipping, Spitfires strafe barges, Stirling vs Me-109s, Lancaster over Wuppertal, Mustangs attack Heinkels.
Paintjngs are unsigned. Credits to British Combine, Curtiss-Wright, King Features.