Britain at war

by Ralph Michaelis, RAF, Air News British Correspondent

Accurate night bombing through densest cloud onto an unseen target has been developed to a pitch never before attained; and has now been adopted by the USAAF operating by day over Germany.

In previous winters night bombing had been greatly handicapped by poor visibility over the targets, and Western European weather has always been unsuitable for the high altitude precision daylight bombing of the Fortresses. There are comparatively few days in any month of the year when targets can be seen from 25,000 feet. These difficulties have been swept aside by the new navigational and bombing aids.

The potentialities of the multi-gunned aircraft even against much faster and more maneuverable opponents has long been recognized. Twenty-five years ago the best two-seater was considered a match for any two of the best single-seaters. Early in World War II, the now obsolescent Sunderland flying boats gave very good accounts of themselves when attacked by much faster and more maneuverable enemy fighters. When the US Fortresses first appeared in their huge formations, they created havoc among enemy fighters, even beyond the range of their own fighter escorts, because of the range and weight of their combined fire power.

But when the surprise effect had worn off, and the enemy adopted new methods of fighter defense, the Fortresses found it necessary once more to fly fully escorted.

It has long been recognized that the prime business of heavy bombers is to carry out their bombing mission without stopping to intercept enemy fighters, except defensively, and to use evasive action in avoiding combat whenever possible. Despite this, RAF night bombers shot down more than 230 enemy fighters in 1943.

However a new school of offensive minded night bombers is now in action.

Typical of this school is the crew of a Halifax who shot down six enemy fighters, damaged six others during ten night bombing flights. Sergeant John Norris, 19-year-old rear gunner who destroyed three himself, helped the mid-upper gunner to finish off the other three, says that he prefers to take the offensive when there are fighters about, instead of waiting for them to attack. Norris has also five damaged enemy aircraft to his credit.

"It's a team of three — the Captain, mid-upper gunner and myself," explained Sgt Norris. "We work together, giving a running commentary to the Captain, who's a wizard at evasive action, then concentrating our fire against the fighter."

During a recent night attack on Hanover, this crew was attacked by five German fighters at once. Four Junkers and a Focke-Wulf 190 came in from both sides and the rear. They were driven off, four having been hit. One dived to earth with both engines on fire. In the course of the attack a cannon shell went clean through the rear turret, missing Norris's head by a fraction of an inch.

When the crew took part in an attack on Leipzig they were attacked repeatedly by a Junkers 88 which severely damaged their Halifax. But Norris kept it in his sights, fired until the fighter exploded in the air.

The Halifax's port engine was hit. The gas tank, bomb bays, and other parts of the aircraft were holed. With only three engines running, the aircraft lost 8,000 feet and then another Junkers attacked the crippled ship, coming in first from the rear, and then from the starboard.

The mid-upper gunner had only two guns working, the others having been put out of action, but he joined Norris in keeping the fighter under constant fire. The pilot now found that his ailerons and rudders were damaged, and he was unable to take evasive action. As the Junkers closed in the accurate fire from the two gunners proved too much. He suddenly dived to the ground and exploded.

The crippled bomber losing height fast crossed the enemy coast at only 3,000 feet. Everything loose was thrown overboard, including most of their remaining ammunition, the oxygen bottles, axes and other equipment; but the pilot drove her straight back to the home field.

The tactics of feinting an attack at one city to fox the defenses, divert the night fighters while the main force smashes home its attack on the real target are still being pursued successfully. Flying fast ahead of the main body of raiders, the screen of pathfinders drop colored parachute flares to mark out the target.

During a recent attack on Berlin the bombers were headed for the Upper Rhineland, a very sensitive sector on the western air front, did not turn north towards Berlin until they were deep into Germany. The bombers had dropped well over 1,000 tons of bombs on Berlin, before the night German fighter force, which had been diverted to the Rhineland, arrived over Berlin. By that time half the attacking force was well on its homeward journey without being intercepted.

An innovation has been added in the form of an additional screen of fast Mosquito bombers who dash in after the attack when the city is burning, harass the fire fighters by dropping more bombs. These tactics have been so successful that fires have often burned for almost a week, necessitating the dynamiting of streets and buildings to prevent the devastation from spreading.

What used to be known as the "Bombers' Moon" is now avoided. Today bombers prefer dark nights with plenty of cloud cover. The long winter nights have provided plenty of scope for moon dodging, which also keeps the Germans guessing from dusk until dawn.

Rocket guns, carried in German aircraft in preference to similar-caliber recoiling guns are being used with a range of several thousand yards both against night and day bombers. These guns far outrange the machine guns of the bombers, and although they have not so far accounted for a great deal of damage, their future development is undoubtedly a menace.

A gunner of a caliber recoiling guns are being used with a range of several thousand yards both against night and day bombers. Lancaster recently attacked enroute to Berlin by a German aircraft with a rocket gun has described the action. "I saw the rockets following us to the rear," he said. "They were shooting towards us horizontally from several thousand yards away. It was just like flak, except that it was parallel with our own course. We dived, and saw nothing more."

People have been asking lately both here and in the United States, whether shuttle bombing to and from Russia is contemplated as a regular enterprise. Besides the fact that there has been little advantage up to now in flying over a second German defended area to land in Russia, when it is just as near to return to England from Berlin, there are other considerations.

First, the great bomber bases in England with their many satellite airfields and emergency landing grounds every few miles, have taken since 1939 to develop. The heavy two-thousand-yard runways necessary for takeoff of fully-loaded bombers take considerable time to build, and are not to be found in front-line Russian combat areas. Composition of gasoline varies with different aircraft engines, and where the English bomber stations are equipped with the necessary gas dumps for Rolls Royce, Bristol Hercules, and Pratt and Whitney engines, it would be necessary to synchronize the British based squadrons with Russian based squadrons using the same octane, if that were even possible. In addition, British and Russian bombs, bomb racks, and ammunition would have to be standardized to make the shuttle a practical proposition. And huge new dumps of spare parts and maintenance units would have to be established in Russia.

The shuttle service can and does sometimes operate from England to the Mediterranean theatre when the target is conveniently situated, and where English-based bombers can land at airfields in the Mediterranean area having similar equipment to their parent stations at home, returning home via German, or Italian, or French targets. But that is a different problem from landing in Russia, where both language and equipment would complicate the situation.

At the same time it would not be impossible and might eventually become desirable to establish such bases if the Russian drive in Europe is so great that saving distance is worth while. At present the additional shipping required for transport of the required equipment would not be justified.

Distance is not as vital a factor in winter night bombing as it is in summer, when the short hours of darkness reduce the night to three or four hours. Berlin, Frankfurt, and Stettin, for instance, each more than a 1,000-mile round trip from England are at present essentially winter targets for heavy night bombers. Leipzig, too, is a long pull for winter nights with a full load of gas and "cookies."

On the way to Frankfurt during a recent attack on that city, a Halifax was badly shot up and set on fire. The port elevator was shattered by enemy cannon fire, was reduced to a broken framework, and the Halifax was filled with flames and smoke.

The captain found that he could still control the aircraft. As he was only 20 miles away from the target he decided to go on and bomb. When flying into the target area, the Halifax was again attacked by an enemy night fighter. The bomb aimer was wounded and the aircraft set on fire again. Then the rear gunner called his Captain, and said, "You'd better get rid of the bombs. There are flames and sparks, and I think there's a fire aboard somewhere." They found that the enemy shell had set fire to three incendiaries which were blazing only a few feet from a 2,000-lb "cookie."

The navigator first clipped a parachute onto the wounded bomb aimer in case they should have to bale out. Then he and the others tried to release the bombs. But the bomb doors would not open fully.

The radio operator went to the help of the bomb aimer and found that he had flung off his helmet and was without oxygen. He put his own oxygen tube into the wounded man's mouth. Then the radio operator, engineer and mid-upper gunner took the tube in turns to share their oxygen with him. They were so short of oxygen themselves that it took 20 minutes to get him back from bomber's nose to the rest position.

"Cold air was rushing in through holes in our damaged aircraft, and the navigator was almost frozen, but he stuck to his job. When the rear gunner spoke to me over the intercom, his voice was always perfectly calm, though flames and sparks were blowing past him. He was the only one of us who could even see the fire — which somehow went out by itself."

Over the sea they tried again to release the bombs, but failed. The captain knew that it would be dangerous to land the aircraft in its damaged state and with the bombs still on. When they had crossed the English coast, he told his crew, that anybody who choose could bail out.

"They said some uncomplimentary things to me for suggesting it," the captain said. "The navigator answered that he was frozen as it was, and didn't intend to get colder by jumping out."

Over their own base, the crew went to crash positions. In spite of all the damage to the aircraft, the pilot, with the help of the engineer, the navigator, and the mid-upper gunner, made a safe landing, though a tire had been hit by a cannon shell and had burst.

"No captain could have had a finer set of men," said the pilot proudly.

This column was originally published in the June, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 5, pp 8, 10, 70.
The original column includes 5 photos: 2 Mosquito, 2 Halifax, Lancaster battle damage.
Photos credited to Air News, Temple Press, British Combine.