Britain at war

by Ralph Michaelis, RAF

The intensity of the bomber attack on Germany continues to increase despite uncertain weather and the new defensive fighter tactics developed by the Germans.

There has been a big increase in the amount of flare dropping by German night fighters. Fighters flying above our formations over the target shower down flares which light up the bombers so that fighters can see to attack, meeting raiders before they reach the target. Flying alongside the bombers, these fighters lay an aerial flare path which guides flak batteries, searchlights, and other fighters.

Widely publicized at the height of the German "blitz" on London in 1940, the principle of lighting the sky for defensive purposes against night raiders is not a new one. The British authorities have not adopted it, however, and it is too early to predict how effective it will be in German hands.

That such defenses have limitations is already obvious. It requires, first of all, a considerable body of night fighters. And the whole lot may be foxed by diversionary sweeps, and go off on a false trail while leaving the real target undefended. This happened during a double raid on Hanover and Bremen, a very heavy force going to Hanover and a light one to Bremen. German fighters industriously laid flares over Bremen, failed to realize their error until Hanover was ablaze and the raid almost over.

Some of the bombers reached Hanover before zero hour and circled round until it was time for the bomb run. After giving all that warning to the defenses they expected a rough time. But it was evident that the Germans had concentrated their defenses on Bremen, leaving Hanover only lightly defended. Towards the end of the raid, the defenders, apparently called back from Bremen, went into action, and flares began to fall.

The rear gunner of a Lancaster which had bombed without interference from the defense, saw the first flare-dropping fighters as they turned away from the target for home. "They were two Fw-190s," he said, "flying some distance behind us, parallel to one another and five miles apart. They were laying a flare path right into the target."

After that the searchlights began to cooperate with the fighters. The cones swung round to form an illuminated lane into Hanover. More and more fighters began to reach the target area, and a pilot who arrived towards the end of the raid saw as many as six fighters while he was over the town. Many combats took place between the fighters and the bombers, and as the battle reached its climax the sky was filled with the jagged bursts of flak and red lines of tracer. Sometimes when a fighter succeeded, it would turn on a white navigation light, and circle over the spot, presumably to stake a claim to its victim. Sometimes it was a fighter that fell blazing through the sky; for the bombers gave a good account of themselves. At the height of the battle a Junkers 88 came up below a Halifax. The rear gunner depressed his guns, fired as the fighter came into his sights, and saw his bullets hit the Junkers' port engine. The engine caught fire and blew up. The gunner fired again at point blank range, and this time hit the starboard engine. The Junkers went down in a crazy lurching dive and exploded before it hit the ground.

One Halifax pilot said that he had flown 200 miles on the homeward journey before he lost sight of the fires of Hanover. The flare-laying fighters were encountered during a 1,500-tons raid on Kassel, when the city was set afire so that the smoke pall rose to 18,000 feet.

U-boats have also developed new defensive tactics in their war against the RAF. So many U-boat crews have been trapped like rats under water by the depth charges dropped on them by aircraft of Coastal Command that they now prefer to fight it out on the surface. In fact the Bay of Biscay is now so strongly patrolled by our aircraft that the U-boats hurry across it on the surface, where they can make better speed than down below, and trust to their guns when attacked. They are often escorted by numbers of Ju-88s.

Two Sunderlands recently had a finish fight with a German submarine which they found cruising on the Bay's surface without fighter escort, but with three German destroyers fifteen minutes away. The submarine opened fire with its superstructure guns, with little effect because the other Sunderland had moved in to divide the U-boat's fire. Gunners in both Sunderlands returned the fire, killing the men round the conning tower and the gun posts before the first run-in to drop depth charges.

The depth charges straddled the U-boat just aft of the conning tower and thirty of the crew poured out of the hatch and jumped overboard as a pair of dinghies were released. This seemed to indicate serious damage inside the hull. During the run-in, the other Sunderland supported the attack by gunfire, but the first depth charge splashes had scarcely subsided when the second plane made its attack while the lead Sunderland supported with gun fire. Barely thirty seconds elapsed between the two depth charge attacks, the second aircraft actually flying through the spray which still remained after subsidence of the first charges. Both planes circled the submarine for some time after this, firing at her all the time. Black or dark brown smoke was pouring from the stern before the Sunderlands headed home.

"After my run-in," said the pilot of the second plane, "the U-boat seemed to come to a stop. She was slightly down by the stern, and smoke was gushing from the after part. Members of the crew scrambled out of the conning tower, some attempting to man the guns, others jumping overboard. Both aircraft kept up the gunfire, and by the time the pilot of the other Sunderland left the scene the deck was a shambles.

"It seemed impossible for the U-boat to survive two depth-charge attacks, but she did not appear to be mortally hurt. After shooting for about ten minutes, we circled to watch developments. Presently, there was an almighty explosion inside the sub from somewhere below the main gun platform. The plume of water shot up higher than the depth-charge explosions, and the middle seemed to be knocked out of the submarine. Immediately afterwards she sank vertically, by the stern. We were pretty pleased to see her go because we had been expecting the enemy destroyers. They were only fifteen or twenty minutes steaming distance away when the attack began and they could have made things difficult and might have salvaged the sub."

The toughness of modern operational aircraft is amazing.

The other day a pilot flew back to his British base from a train-busting expedition over France in a Mustang that looked as if it had been picked up on a salvage heap. He had been attacking two locomotives when a 20-mm shell struck the outer portion of the starboard wing, bursting inside and blowing the outer three feet of the wing to ribbons.

"Before I could regain control," said the pilot, "I did a steep spiral to the right and went head on into a large tree. I took the impact of my spinner which became flattened against the propeller. The blow bent the propeller but did not tear it off. The port side of the fuselage and the wing root was grazed. The wing buckled but did not tear off nor cause the aircraft to spin into the ground. And then, as if to finish the job properly, the tree hit the tailplane and cut it half away. At the same time one of the aileron hinges and one of the wings was fractured."

To the pilot's amazement the battered Mustang continued to fly. He regained control, and flew ninety miles back across the French coast and the English Channel to his home airfield, to further bend the propeller blades while making a perfect belly landing. Then his mechanics pulled large pieces of the French tree out of his wing and tail plane.

The night bombing of German towns has been intensified to an almost fantastic degree during the long spring nights. This month the technique of night bombing reached a stage of thoroughness never before achieved. One of its most remarkable features is that bad weather and ten-tenths cloud conditions over the target has served rather to increase the intensity of the onslaught, than to decrease it, as it would have done a year ago. The Battle of Germany today is hardly more like the Battle of Germany of former years, than the Battle of Bunker Hill was like the Battle of Stalingrad.

Berlin, Leipzig, and other cities have been bombed repeatedly through thick clouds that prevented the searchlights from picking up the bombers, made the work of the anti-aircraft gunners difficult, and interception of the fighters almost impossible; but did not protect the towns from the most devastating and accurate plastering. Ahead of their columns of four-engined night bombers fly the pathfinders, with specially trained and experienced navigators, marking the target with colored flares. The following bomb aimers need only bomb on the markers. It is not necessary for them to see the target.

The German technique of pattern bombing, their tactics of foxing the defense by feinting at London and switching to Coventry are now being copied, but much more intensively, with much greater bomb loads, and with much greater numbers of aircraft by the RAF. In four weeks, bombers dropped 13,000 tons of bombs on Germany and 1,500 tons on German-occupied territory while the Germans dropped only 120 tons of bombs on Britain. In four large scale operations the RAF dropped an average of well over 2,000 tons on each target. Bombing a city from above clouds at night is an uncanny business. One pilot, who had contributed his load to a 2,300 ton attack against Berlin told me, "There was just one break in the cloud bank. It took no more than a second to fly over it, but that was long enough to see the punishment Berlin was getting. We saw great fires dancing on the ground and then the cloud shut off the picture again. But we could still see how much was burning. The clouds hung in the sky like a glowing target."

The toughness of the Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Stirlings which carry out these raids is amazing, but the toughness of their crews is stupendous. One Lancaster which had been twice shot up near the Dutch coast, went on to bomb Dusseldorf, and returned home with the pilot unconscious, the navigator dead, and two others wounded out of a crew of seven. The control panel was smashed, so that none of the instruments would register, the hydraulic system was out of order, one rear gun could only be operated manually, the intercom was not working, and the oxygen supply failed. The pilot was hit when the aircraft was first damaged by machine gun fire from an Me-110, ten minutes after he had crossed the Dutch coast. He said nothing however and flew on to Dusseldorf. No one in the crew knew that he had been wounded until he collapsed after bombing the target. He was unconscious most of the way home, but recovered sufficiently to land his aircraft.

In spite of the fact that one of the elevators had been shot away, thus making the aircraft almost uncontrollable, it was flown back by the bomb aimer and the flight engineer, neither of them trained pilots. The flight engineer was already wounded in the shoulder and the arm, but did not disclose the fact to his companions until they had landed. It was a very cold night, and when the rear gunner sighted the Messerschmitt coming in astern at 250 yards range his fingers were frozen. "I could just move my hands to bring the sights onto him, but I couldn't pull the trigger," he said afterwards. "He gave a burst, and at 150 yards I found the energy to pull the trigger, and I am pretty certain that I hit him." A few minutes later an Fw-190 appeared on the port beam at 200 yards, and raked the whole of the fuselage with two bursts of cannon shell. The rear turret had been shot out of order after the first attack and the gunner was able to fire only one gun manually. Meanwhile the mid-upper gunner had given the Jerry a long burst and hit its fuselage, but a burst from the Focke-Wulf put his turret out of action and cut off the oxygen supply. All the wounded pilot said to his crew after the fighters had turned away was — "Everybody OK?" On receiving the answer, he said, "resuming course." The mid-upper gunner climbed out of his turret and found the navigator lying dead full length on the floor with the radio operator sprawled wounded and unconscious across his body. The gunner helped him to his seat and put an oxygen tube in his mouth. The bomb aimer, forward in his bomb bay, knew nothing of all this.

"The pilot gave me a good bombing run over the center of the target and the bombs fell in the right place. Directly afterwards, the Lancaster went into a dive, and I saw the engineer pull the pilot off the stick onto which he fell as he fainted, then level the aircraft. That was the first I knew of anyone being wounded. When I found that the navigator was dead, I went to his table; but all that was left of his instruments was one pencil and a chart.

"The pilot's panel had been sprayed by machine gun bullets and the instruments smashed, so I went back to help the engineer control the aircraft. As one of the elevators had been shot away, the aircraft continually went into a dive, and both of us had to hold the stick. We lost nearly 6,000 feet in height. On the way home over Holland, light ack-ack guns gave us hell, but nothing hit us. Then the aircraft went round three times in a flat spin, and the engineer and I both had to push with our knees to control the stick. When we had straightened out, an engine cut, showing us that we were short of fuel. We found an airfield, and it was then that the pilot recovered and did everything necessary for a perfect landing. As our flaps were out of order, we had to use the emergency equipment; but when the undercarriage wheels touched the ground they collapsed, and we made a belly landing. The pilot then fainted again." The radio operator died in hospital the next morning. There is an epic of fighting men's endurance and devotion to duty that should live for all time. But there are so many of them!

Less than two weeks previously a pilot had brought his Lancaster home from Kassel with three out of his crew of seven unconscious, and with his compass, aerials, hydraulic system, intercom, and oxygen supply out of order, after a battle with three German night fighters, one of which they shot down.

"We had just dropped our bombs," said the captain, "when the rear gunner reported enemy aircraft attacking from astern. A split second later a burst of cannon shell ripped through the fuselage. It shattered the instrument panel and wind screen in front of me. I took evasive action and then I saw the fighter blow up and fall to pieces in the air. Almost at the same moment the mid-upper-gunner said 'I'm hit, skipper', and then, almost in the same breath, 'enemy aircraft attacking from starboard beam'. Bullets were coming through the floor, apparently from a third aircraft firing at us from underneath. The rear gunner reported a fire midships. Those were the last words I heard on the intercom. It was silent for the rest of the flight. "We were not attacked again, but I was in a steep diving turn without compasses, air speed indicator, or engine gauges. I managed to get the Lancaster level and on course again. Steering by the stars, we reached England. Visibility was bad and I landed at the first airfield I saw with just enough petrol left to fill a cigarette lighter."

The flight engineer was standing beside the pilot over Kassel. "Suddenly my oxygen mask and earphones were shot away from my face," he said, "something hit me on the side of the head. I felt a bit screwy, but I sucked at my oxygen tube all the way home, happy to be alive."

"The shells from the first fighter went through my turret and into the fuselage but didn't hit me," said the rear-gunner. "I fired at both the other fighters as they passed. An incendiary shell hit us and I saw flames behind me. I couldn't leave my turret at that moment but later we ran into cloud and I thought it safe to climb out and help put out the fire.

"I was in the astrodome," said the wireless operator, "when I saw the first fighter, an Fw-190, on the starboard beam. Shells came flying up the fuselage from the stern. They hit the mid-upper turret, the astrodome, and the cockpit, When the fire was reported, I got down from the astrodome and fetched an extinguisher. The ammunition for the rear turret was exploding round my head. I managed to put out the flames by beating at them with my gloves and stamping on them. We found out afterwards that five hundred bullets had exploded."

The navigator lost consciousness when the oxygen supply was damaged by the enemy's fire. When he arrived back he was found to be suffering from frost bite and shock. The bomb-aimer took over the navigation of the aircraft until he too lost consciousness from lack of oxygen. The mid-upper gunner was wounded in the hand by a cannon shell, and he also fainted from lack of oxygen.

Less than a week later another Lancaster pilot brought his badly damaged aircraft home with four of his crew injured. They were on their way to Berlin when they were intercepted over Belgium. Both starboard propellers were holed, and the rear turret damaged. The rear gunner, was badly wounded in the groin, and the mid-upper gunner wounded above the eye but they both stuck to their guns. A compass and other navigational instruments were rendered useless.

The pilot decided to drop his bombs on a nearby German airfield and return home. Just as the bombs were going down an Fw-190 attacked from dead astern. The rear gunner let fly at it in spite of his wounds, and so did the mid-upper gunner, and it broke up within fifty yards of the Lancaster. But a cannon shell had exploded inside the cabin, and the Lancaster went into an uncontrollable dive. As the situation appeared hopeless, the pilot gave his crew the order to bail out. But by a superhuman effort he regained control and canceled the order. The radio operator and the navigator had been wounded. Parts of the intercom had been severed isolating the flight engineer. Two other fighters then attacked from the clouds. Both wounded gunners fired back and the fighters disappeared.

There followed an hour's battle during which ten more attacks were made on the Lancaster defended only by the two wounded gunners, but the pilot flew them back to a safe landing in England.

Four-engined bombers were not designed to perform aerobatics, but recently this unusual feat took place during a heavy saturation raid on Berlin. Several hundred four-engined heavies were roaring across the Channel to attack their objective, while ahead an unusual concentration of AA batteries and Jerry fighters prepared to welcome the British bombers. Several aircraft started their bombing run upon their particular target, already well lit up by pathfinders and the preceding raiders. Ahead a solid wall of flak lanced across the path of the Lancasters, promising poor hopes for a steady bombing run. One particular ship was already well upon its run with bomb bays just opening, when a tremendous burst of AA shells detonated directly beneath the aircraft. At this moment, the pilot was just leveling off for a straight run across the target, and with the controls in a climbing position, the ship was thrown dangerously out of control. But despite this and the terrific upward thrust of the flak, the Lancaster swung into a large soaring inside loop, with a full bay of bombs! Fortunately, the destructive load was fitted securely in the belly of the ship, and none of the bombs were jarred loose from their racks. Unfastened equipment scattered throughout the ship as the giant aircraft completed its unusual maneuver.

After checking with the crew, and learning that no serious damage had been sustained — the pilot continued his run successfully, with all bombs released on the target.

This column was originally published in the May, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 4, pp 42-43.
The original column includes 2 photos: Ju-88, Sunderland.
Photos credited to Air News, British Combine.