Britain at war

by Ralph Michaelis, RAF

A new development in the technique of the great night bomber raids was introduced this month by the appointment of a flying Master of Ceremonies who directs the formation to the target, and corrects their aim when necessary over the target. For some time the raiders have been led by Pathfinder aircraft, carrying expert and experienced navigators who shower down the flares to light the target and markers for the succeeding machines to aim on. And now there is a Master of Ceremonies, who has a deputy in case he should be knocked out, to shepherd the pathfinders, check up on their work, and control the whole operation over the target.

His voice was heard over the radio telephone over Berlin, Nuremberg, and Leverkusen, with such remarks as "Don't follow that last man, he was overshooting," and "The flares are OK; but the last man was a bit off center," and "The last one to go down was the most accurate."

Thus does he control the bombing, in much the same way as an artillery observation officer corrects the fire from his batteries.

Of course the enemy can hear him, too, which only adds to their feeling of impotence as the shattering bomb loads come screaming down, and the furnace of fires roars around them.

Over Berlin the weather was extremely clear, and the MC waxed quite lyrical at the result of the bombing. "Jolly good show, bang on!" he remarked.

Apart from this commentary, which the crews tell me sounds like a BBC broadcast, radio silence is kept as usual.

I was privileged to be present during the Nuremberg raid at a Lancaster station of the new Canadian Bomber Group, and to talk with the crews as they came into the "gen" room for their coffee (on RAF stations it is usually tea or cocoa) before dawn.

Many of the crews had done three big raids that week, Leverkusen on the Sunday, Berlin on the Monday, and Nuremberg on the Friday, all really long pulls of seven and eight hours duration; but they were bright and cheerful and full of pep, and shooting the usual understatements around that "nothing much happened," while the Intelligence Officers sweated for the best part of three hours, like attorneys for the defense, at dragging the story out of them. There is only one thing that these boys are scared of, and that is "shooting a line"; for the slightest suspicion of overstatement is immediately jumped on by their friends, who chaff them about it for days and weeks. The modesty of their claims is amazing.

An American pilot who was finishing his round of duty with the RCAF before transferring to the US Army Air Corps, shot the usual line that "nothing much" had happened; but when asked directly by the Interrogating Officer, he admitted that they had "seen" a German fighter (he would not admit that they had been attacked) and that his mid-upper gunner had had a shot at him. The fighter had been carrying a strong light in the beam of which he caught the Lancaster, and the mid-upper gunner, in spite of the glare from the fighter's light, which nearly blinded him, had had a shot at him. The light went out, the fighter disappeared, and a red glow appeared beneath the clouds into which he had dived. Was he claiming to have shot down the fighter? asked the Intelligence Officer. Oh no, he replied, and his crew agreed, they were not claiming him; because they were not sure they had shot him down.

The idea of the small searchlight carried by the German fighter — and a number of them were seen over Nuremberg — is to distract the attention of the bomber crew attacked and dazzle the gunners, while lighting up the aircraft so that another unlighted fighter or two fighters with whom the lighted one is working in conjunction can creep up in the dark and pick off the bomber.

Many of the German fighters over Nuremberg and during other raids were burning their navigation lights. The purpose of this maneuver, too, is to decoy away the attention of the bomber crew while an unlighted fighter creeps in to attack.

Over Nuremberg, as over Berlin, the flak was comparatively light, and the main defense was left to fighters. Previously the German flak had shot down a number of their own fighters, and they had become so careful that the fighters were repeatedly firing Very flares to warn their own anti-aircraft guns to lay off while they were attacking.

The defenses appear to have been taken by surprise at Nuremberg. Crews arriving early on said that there were few searchlights, and that those few were "all over the place." Later arrivals, however, reported that they had "never seen so many searchlights before." The rapidity with which they were picked up by the masses of searchlights as soon as one had spotted them led them to believe that the lights were in some way synchronized. They saw fighters circling these great cones of lights, waiting to pick off bombers as they became caught in the blinding glare.

Noticing that some of the pilots were exercising their legs from the knee downwards and wiggling their toes, I asked one if he was cold. He replied that his legs were merely stiff with "jinking" in and out of the flak on the way out to the target and back.

The RAF night bombers do not carry a second pilot (except on occasion for instruction) as the US day bombers do; and although they are able to plug in "George" (the automatic pilot) during a part of the journey, the aircraft has to be manhandled for "jinking" through flak, evading fighters, or running up to bomb, and the physical effort alone is very considerable on a long raid, to say nothing of the mental strain.

Although outside temperatures of 40 and 50 degrees below zero F are often met on these raids over Europe, Lancasters are fairly warm ships, and the pilot, navigator, bomb aimer and radio operator do not normally suffer from cold so long as the heating does not fail. The turrets are frightfully cold, but the gunners are equipped with electrically-heated clothing. All the same I have known a gunner whose turret has been holed by a shell to have his eyes frozen over solid.

The understatement of the crews who carry out the raids is in strong contrast to the exaggerated reports published by some of the newspapers.

On the day following the big Nuremberg raid, I noticed that at least two London papers claimed that Nuremberg had been "bombed flat." It may have been, but nobody could possibly have known at that time that the place had been "bombed flat," or indeed how much damage had been done down amid that welter of fire and smoke and cloud, and certainly nobody had made any such claim in my hearing. In fact, until the fires had subsided daylight photographs taken over the target, and intelligence reports were in, nobody could even make a reasonable estimate of the damage done.

The raid was a very heavy one, and doubtless great damage was done, but such premature reports, made on the morning following the raid, that the place was "bombed flat" can serve no useful purpose, as the reading public is bound to ask the next time that the city is visited why it was necessary to go back if the place had been "bombed flat" on the previous occasion.

The bombing offensive against Berlin and Nuremberg is like a left lead to the jaw and a right to the solar plexus of Germany's body politic, to use a boxing expression. For if Berlin is the capital city of Germany, Nuremberg is the Holy of Holies of the Nazi Party. It is at Nuremberg that the tremendous yearly rallies of the Party are held, to which, before the war, eminent men from the world over were convened to see the pretentious pageantry and hear the arrogant hot air of the Nazi sabre rattlers.

Supposing that Berlin is made too hot by the RAF to continue to hold the German Government, what place is a more likely alternative than Holy of Holies Nuremberg?

During World War I no place in Germany was more remote from the war than Bavaria, and no area was more full of fire-eating armchair heroes and Mastersingers of the Hymn of Hate. The Ruhr, the Rhineland, and the Baltic ports knew the visits of the RAF, Berlin was threatened by them, and East Prussia had experienced the Russian menace; but Bavaria remained immune from the ravages of war and arrogant. The results were seen in the years following the armistice, when Bavaria threw up Hitler and his Nazi spawn.

The raids on Bavaria, bringing home war's reality to its inhabitants, are puncturing the hot air containers of Nazidom.

The Germans have increased their night-fighter defense very considerably in recent weeks, as the result of presumably improved radio location devices, without which night fighting on any considerable scale is almost impossible, and more intensified night-fighter training is hopeless.

For night fighting is quite different from day fighting.

In day time fighters attacking a bomber come in either head on, or from the beam. At night they creep up underneath his tail, and frequently shoot him down without his ever having sighted them.

And while it is always a good show for a bomber to get the best of a fighter attack, seeing that the bomber has to give the fighter a handicap of at least 100 miles an hour in speed, it is even more meritorious when the bomber is outnumbered and no longer as young as she was.

A case occurred this month when an old Sunderland flying boat out on anti-submarine patrol over the Bay of Biscay was attacked by seven Ju-88s.

In the first attack a Ju, which came diving from the starboard bow in a head on attack, killed the nose turret gunner with a burst of cannon and machine gun fire. Then another Ju-88 came in from the starboard quarter and cut the nose and midships turret oil pipe line and the intercom leads. All seven enemy aircraft then followed up this advantage by attacking persistently.

With his intercommunication telephone shot away, the fire control officer in the astrodome immediately arranged to pass his signals down to the Captain by hand, while the gunners fired independently whenever an aircraft appeared in their sights. Hits were believed to have been scored on several of the enemy from the pilot's forward fixed guns and by the galley gunner who was later wounded in the leg; and one of the Jus was seen to hit the water.

Three more members of his crew were wounded before taking violent evasive action; the Captain of the Sunderland was able to reach the cover of some thin cloud. The fighters followed and went on attacking him through gaps in the cloud.

Finally he was able to set course for base unmolested. The Sunderland's hull and wings had been holed in numerous places, one of the crew had been killed and five others wounded; but the Captain brought the boat safely to a perfect landing at his base.

This article was originally published in the November, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 5, pp 24-25, 52.
The original article includes 5 photos plus an image of the envelope in which the report was sent, complete with censor stamp.
Photos credited to British Combine, European, Schostal Press.