Chapter 2: La Drôle de Guerre: Bomber Command
‘The war was only 24 hours old’, writes Flight Lieutenant K. C. Doran, ‘but already the bomb-load had been changed four times. Lunchtime on 4th September found us standing by at an hour’s readiness, the Blenheims bombed up with 500-pound S.A.P.’ [Semi Armour-Piercing].
Suddenly we got some more ‘gen’. Units of the German Fleet had been sighted, but the weather in the Heligoland Bight, it appeared, was bloody, and the only attack possible would be a low-level one.
We could not carry torpedoes, so off came the 500-pound S.A.P. and on went 500-pound G.P. [General Purpose] with 11 seconds delay fuse. At last everything was ready, and the final briefing had been given by the Station Commander, who finished up with these words to the rear gunners: ‘Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.’ Owing to the weather over the target, only ten aircraft from Wattisham were to take part, five from No. 110 Squadron and five from No. 107 Squadron. Each squadron was to proceed independently.1
Soon after crossing out over the North Sea we ran into the bad weather. The Met. forecast was only too accurate, a solid wall of cloud seemed to extend from sea-level to 17,000 feet. We obviously had to keep below it to stand any chance of finding our target. So we went down to sea-level and flew in and out of cloud between 50 and 100 feet. We turned on E.T.A. [Estimated Time of Arrival] by what should have been Heligoland and flew on towards Wilhelmshaven. Suddenly a couple of barges appeared out of the murk and vanished. At the same time we got our first sight of the German coast.
After a bit of feverish map-reading, we decided we were in the approach to the Schillig Roads. By an incredible combination of luck and judgement we were bang on our track.
Within a few minutes, cloud base lifted to 500 feet and we saw a large merchant ship; just beyond it was the Admiral Scheer.
No. 110 Squadron had planned to attack in two sections of three and two, hoping to get all the aircraft from each section attacking from different directions and over the target within the 11 seconds delay before the bombs exploded. Nos. 4 and 5 of the formation were therefore ordered to break away, and Nos. 1, 2 and 3 opened out to make their attack.
The Scheer was anchored in shallow water, near the bank and protected from the landward side by a ‘pin-cushion’ balloon barrage. So we decided to make our attack slightly across the fore and aft line of the ship, and make our getaway by a sharp turn to port to avoid the balloon barrage.
which was about 500 feet, and made our attack in a shallow dive. As we approached, we saw the matelots’ washing hanging out around the stern and the crew idly standing about on deck. It seemed as though we had caught them, literally, with their pants down.
However, when they realized that our intention was hostile they started running like mad, and as aircraft No. 1 came over at mast-head height and dropped its bombs bang amidships, their A.A. got into action, and this together with shore-based A.A. kept us pretty busy carrying out evasive measures. The bombs from the second aircraft undershot by about ten yards and exploded in shallow water directly under the ship. No. 3 found he could not get over within the 11 seconds and dropped his bombs on another target.
The leader of the second section, who attacked another target, did not return, and only one of the other five aircraft (from No. 106 Squadron), who attacked other units of the German Fleet, returned to base.
For leading this, the first Royal Air Force attack of the war, Doran was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The intention behind the attack, of course, was to bomb the German fleet in its North Sea bases at the very outset of hostilities, before the enemy’s defences grew too strong.
In accordance with this plan, a Blenheim aircraft of No. 139 Squadron had been standing by at Wyton since 1st September. Its function was to reconnoitre and photograph the German bases. From 2nd September a striking force was also waiting. Forty-eight minutes after war was declared on 3rd September the Blenheim, piloted by Flying Office A. McPherson and carrying a naval observer, had departed on its mission. The two men saw several enemy warships emerging into the Schillig Roads from Wilhelmshaven; but the aircraft was flying at 24,000 feet and the intense cold had frozen the wireless. Not until the Blenheim landed could the crew report their vital information. With afternoon already turned to evening the striking force had taken off, only to be baulked by thunderstorms and the oncoming darkness
Shortly after half-past eight the following morning McPherson, whose daring and persistence were also rewarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross, had again left Wyton. Thick low clouds forced him down almost to the surface, but he persisted with his task; and from 300 feet he and his observer saw and photographed warships in Brunsbüttel, Wilhelmshaven and the Schillig Roads. Once more there was an attempt to radio an advance report, and once more it failed—the message was received, but in corrupt form. Nothing could be done until the aircraft landed. Two hours of intense activity followed while the ground crews worked frantically to change the bombs of the striking force; then Doran and his companions took off for the attack. Of what occurred from this point Doran’s account gives an accurate description, which it is necessary to supplement only from German sources. From these we now know that the bombs that hit the von Scheer failed to explode—being fused for 11 second delay they probably bounced overboard from the armoured decks—and that one of the missing Blenheims crashed on the fo’c’sle of the Emden, killing and injuring many of the cruiser’s crew.
The Blenheims were not the only British bombers to be active that afternoon. While Doran was attacking near Wilhelmshaven, fourteen Wellingtons of Nos. 9 and 149 Squadrons were making their way towards Brunsbüttel. Here McPherson had reported two battleships. But bad weather and fierce anti-aircraft fire shielded the targets, and only one crew claimed a possible hit. Two of the Wellingtons which penetrated the harbour failed to return.
These operations of 4th September, which cost seven of the twenty-nine aircraft taking part, may be regarded as characteristic of our first attempts to damage the enemy from the air. The over-optimistic view of what might be achieved: the care taken to avoid harming the German civil population: the large proportion of aircraft failing to locate the objective: the ineffective bombs and inconsiderable results: the expectation that crews would be skilful enough to find and bomb in atrocious weather a precise and hotly defended target on the other side of the North Sea: and the unflinching courage with which the attacks were pressed home—all these were typical, not merely of September 1939, but of many months to come.
The Blenheims and Wellingtons which thus early carried the war into German waters were aircraft of Bomber Command, the largest command of the Royal Air Force. In attacking enemy warships on the scale of 4th September, the Command was clearly not striking the most dramatic blow of which it was capable at the outbreak of
war. It was, however, doing its best within the limits laid down by the War Cabinet; for Bomber Command, though big by existing Royal Air Force standards, was by no means big enough, and for some time to come its actions were to be carefully circumscribed.
Fifty-five squadrons strong in the last month of peace, Bomber Command slimmed down by the end of September to a front-line force of thirty-three squadrons, or 480 aircraft. The balance, except two squadrons, was ‘non-mobilizable’—reserved, that is to say to cover initial war wastage or the needs of operational training. Of the thirty-three effective squadrons on less than ten were now in France as the Advance Air Striking Force. These were armed with obsolescent Battle—a single-engined aircraft advanced in its day, but now slow, short-ranged, poorly defended and completely incapable of bombing Germany from England. Fortunately the twenty-three squadrons which remained in this country were all equipped with some better. Six of them, in No. 2 Group, based in East Anglia, had the twin-engined Blenheim IV, our fastest bomber, the virtues of which were qualified by short range and a small bomb load. The rest flew Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens, twin-engined aircraft slower than the Blenheim, but of considerably longer range and greater bomb-carrying capacity. The six squadrons of No. 3 Group, also in East Anglia, operated with the Wellington I and IA, whose six guns, mounted in three turrets, were reckoned to confer outstanding defensive power; the five squadrons on No. 4 Group, in Yorkshire, had the Whitley III or IV, with the longest endurance and slowest speed of the heavier bombers, and therefore restricted to bombing by night; and the remaining five squadrons, of No. 5 Group, in Lincolnshire, were equipped with Hampdens, slightly faster than the Wellingtons but with no turrets and fewer guns. These were the forces which the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir E. R. Ludlow-Hewitt, had at his disposal to implement our offensive air plans.
As against our thirty-three effective squadrons in Bomber Command and the Advanced Air Striking Force, the Germans could show a long-range offensive force some 1,500 machines strong. The French having no bombers worth mentioning, ‘all-out’ air action was obviously against our interests until a more satisfactory balance of forces could be achieved. With expediency reinforcing the dictates of humanitarianism, the Allies had therefore determined to avoid not merely unrestricted bombing but anything remotely resembling it. In the spirit of this fundamental decision the Cabinet, on 1st September, had approved the initial programme for the employment of our main striking force. If Germany began unrestricted air action,
Bomber Command would attack those objectives, such as oil plants, which were most vital to the enemy effort, even if civilians suffered in the process. But if Germany confined her air offensive to purely military targets, our bombers would attack the German fleet at Wilhelmshaven and at sea, and enlighten the German people by the delivery of leaflets.
The first days of war had now passed, and no German air action worth the name had taken place in the West. London’s sirens, it is true, had wailed their first lament a few minutes after the Prime Minister’s broadcast on 3rd September, but only because someone had been doubtful about the silhouette of a friendly civil aircraft. No hordes of Nazi bombers had blackened the British sky; no knock-out blow, or indeed any other kind of blow, had been attempted from the air, and the whole weight of the German air offensive had been hurled eastwards. The measures open to Bomber Command were accordingly those which could be carried out under the policy of conserving and expanding the bomber force until we were at liberty, in one of the favourite phrases then current in the Air Ministry, to ‘take the gloves off’. Since a raid on the enemy fleet at Wilhelmshaven had already been tried and found too costly, attention was now devoted to the remaining projects under the ‘conservation’ policy—the attack on warships at sea and the delivery of propaganda.
By 19th September single aircraft of Bomber and Coastal Commands had carried out seven reconnaissances into the Heligoland Bight. Six of these had reported German warships at sea. But the vessels, which were exercising, were all too near their bases to warrant the despatch of a striking force; for even if a wireless report got through from our reconnaissance—a rare event than might be imagined—our bombers could not reach the spot under four hours, by which time the ships would be safely back in port. It was accordingly decided to resort to the reconnaissance in force, in which nine aircraft or more, carrying bombs, would sweep the Bight under orders to attack any warships or U-boats they might discover. The crews, however, were strictly enjoined not to seek out the German fleet in its bases: not to infringe Danish or Dutch territorial waters: and not to attack warships escorting merchant vessels if there was any danger of damaging the latter.
The first reconnaissance in force was flown uneventfully by Bomber Command on 26th September. Three days later the next operation met disaster. Eleven Hampdens found and attacked two destroyers near Heligoland, but lost five of their number to fighters from the North Frisian Islands. Thenceforward the reconnaissance in force was less popular, but twenty-four Bomber Command aircraft stood
by each day at the call of Coastal Command. Opportunities to strike, however, were severely limited by the weather, the lack of information, and the unenterprising nature of the German fleet movements. In October there were two attempts, both ineffective, to find units reported at sea, but in November all that occurred was a series of armed sweeps by half a dozen aircraft. These were sent off in the afternoon, after the chance of bringing the main striking force into action had virtually disappeared. Patrols of this kind served, if nothing else, to sustain the morale of impatient crews.
Offensive action of so limited a character, however well it conformed to our general strategy, was clearly doing little to help the conduct of the war at sea. So it was not surprising that the First Lord of the Admiralty, with his partiality for vigorous measures, should have shown signs of restiveness after an incident on 17th November. On that day an aircraft reconnoitring the Wilhelmshaven area reported back by wireless the position of several enemy warships, only for these to return to port without any attempt on our part to send off a striking force.
The reasons which decided the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Coastal Command, to take no action on the reconnaissance report were entirely adequate: the ships were heading back to the defended based of Wilhelmshaven, to which he was forbidden to despatch his force, and in any case the bombers could not have made contact before dusk. The implications of the matter were nevertheless debated at some length in the War Cabinet, and it was decided that the situation at sea, with the mounting success of the enemy’s mines and U-boats, warranted a more aggressive policy. The Air Ministry was accordingly authorized to carry out attacks on the German fleet of a nature ‘not likely to be result in losses to our own air forces disproportionate to those inflicted on the enemy’. This meant that, although the policy of generally conserving the bomber force was to be maintained, it was no longer to be interpreted as prohibiting attack on a target within the shelter of strong anti-aircraft defences. For the first time since the opening days of the war an operation could thus be launched, if the operation seemed propitious, against ships in the immediate vicinity of the German naval bases.
All was now in order for more vigorous action, or, in the words of the instruction to Bomber Command, ‘a major operation with the object of destroying an enemy battlecruiser or pocket battleship’. For this purpose the technique of the reconnaissance in force was to be employed; as soon as weather conditions permitted high-altitude attack, at least twenty-four aircraft were to seek out a major unit in the Wilhelmshaven or Heligoland area. As usual, the ‘greatest care’
was to be taken to avoid injuring the civil population. For this reason no bombs were to be aimed against warships in dock or berthed alongside the quays.
On 3rd December the weather at last promised well, and shortly before ten o’clock in the morning the inhabitants of Yarmouth observed with interest a formation of twenty-four Wellingtons heading out to sea. The aircraft, which came from Nos. 38, 115 and 147 Squadrons at Mildenhall and Marham, flew in a north-easterly direction; then, some 250 miles from our shores, they turned south-east and set course for Heligoland. Half an hour’s flying brought the leading aircraft within sight of the narrow roads between the islands, where two cruisers lay at their moorings. Fortunately for the health of the British airmen, if not for the accuracy of their bombing, they had been strictly enjoined to attack from a high level; and at 7,000 feet there was now 5/10ths cumulus. The waiting anti-aircraft gunners on Heligoland—radar had given them eight minutes warning of the impending attack—thus found their aim confused by large masses of cloud. Enemy fighters also appeared during the attack, but were no more effective; one of the few to close to lethal range was promptly shot down by Leading Aircraftman J. Copley, a rear gunner of No. 38 Squadron, who first learnt of a hostile presence when an armour-piercing bullet lodged in the quick-release box of his parachute harness. Under cover of cloud, and by judicious use of tail-guns and the retractable under-turrets known as ‘dust-bins’, the Wellingtons then made good their escape. The results of their exploit were one minesweeper sunk by a bomb which passed through the bottom of the vessel without exploding, and some accidental damage on land to an anti-aircraft gun and an ammunition store. Not a single German, service or civilian, was killed in the attack, which an enemy report describes as ‘cleverly delivered from the sun and executed with great certainty in avoiding the residential area of the island’.
While the operation of 3rd December achieved no great results, it was nevertheless encouraging in that our bombers had penetrated a vital and highly defended area by day, and had fought their way back without loss. This was attributed in part to the virtues of the Wellington, with its turrets and strong geodetic construction, in part to the protective merits of flying formation. High hopes were therefore entertained of success on the next attempt, which was to take place as soon as the weather permitted.
For some days conditions remained unsuitable for high-level attack. Then, late on 13th December, one of our submarines reported German warships in the middle of the North Sea, and a large force of Wellingtons and Hampdens was brought to ‘stand-by’. Despite bad
visibility and low cloud, the Hampdens took off at dawn the following day, but saw nothing. Some hours later, twelve Wellingtons of No. 99 Squadron penetrated the Schillig Roads on armed reconnaissance. There they sighted a number of the warships, only to find the cloud base at 800 feet, too law for attack with S.A.P. bombs. Under heavy fire from the warships and from nearby trawlers or ‘ flak-ships’, the Wellingtons maintained formation and shot it out with the fighters who soon came up to join battle; but five of the twelve failed to return, and another crashed when almost home, as against the enemy’s loss of one fighter. The immunity enjoyed on 3rd December had not been repeated.
From subsequent investigation of the losses on 14th December it appeared that none of the missing bombers had succumbed to fighters. It was therefore still possible to preserve the official belief in the defensive power of Wellingtons in formation. The contemporary tactical analysis of the operation began by expressing this in eloquent terms. ... ‘The maintenance of tight, unshaken formations in the face of the most powerful enemy action is the test of the bomber force fighting efficiency and morale. In our Service it is the equivalent of the old ‘Thin Red Line’ or the ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ of Cromwell’s Ironsides. ...’ Nevertheless, a somewhat different note was sounded in later paragraphs, which stressed the paramount importance of concealment, rather than self-defence. ‘It cannot be emphasized too strongly’, concluded the report, ‘that the success of the bombers in future must depend largely on their ability to fly with the utmost confidence for long periods in clouds.’
If 14th December had been disappointed, 18th December proved disastrous. ‘Met’ promised clear conditions over North Germany, and at 1000 hours twenty-four Wellingtons of Nos. 9, 37 and 149 Squadrons joined up over King’s Lynn for an armed reconnaissance of the Schillig Roads and Wilhelmshaven. Two aircraft soon returned to base; the remainder, flying in four formations, kept well north of the direct line of approach to avoid ‘flak-ships’, then turned south on a course which too them to the east of Heligoland. Barely had they passed the islands when the German fighters, already airborne as a result of radar warning and directed by R/T, pounced upon them. From this point until some eighty miles out to sea on the way home the Wellingtons suffered continuous fighter attack, interrupted only when the anti-aircraft guns of the naval bases came into play. Despite the fury of the opposition the Wellingtons covered the whole area; but though the crews saw many warships they made no attack. Every vessel was in dock or harbour, where the fall of bombs would endanger the lives of German civilians.
Once more the skill and determination of our airmen had left no mark on the German fleet; and this time the cost of failure was even higher than before. Having studied the operations of 3rd December and 14th December to good effect the Germans had ordered their fighters to attack, not from the stern, but on the beam from above. The result was that many of the Me.109s and 110s caught our bombers in an utterly defenceless position; for the front and rear turrets of the Wellington lacked the traverse to oppose attack from the side, while the ‘dust-bin’ could not fire above the level of the fuselage. So it came about that ten of our aircraft were last seen plunging into the sea or struggling in flame towards the Dutch coast, two more ‘ditched’ on the way home, and three of the ten which regained our shores were so badly damaged that they forced-landed away from base. The heaviest price was paid by No. 37 Squadron, which lost five of its six aircraft.
The lessons of 18th December were sufficiently clear to be summed up in similar terms on both sides of the North Sea. The contemporary report by Jagdgeschwader I, the German fighter group involved, gave credit to our pilot for flying ‘rigidly to their course’ and to our gunners for their ‘excellent shooting ability’; but it also commented on the ease with which the Wellingtons were set ablaze, and on their lack of defence against the beam attack from above. The corresponding British analysis, by No. 3 Group, was no less explicit, ‘Many of our aircraft were observed during and after the combat to have petrol pouring out of their tanks’, wrote the Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal J. E. A. Baldwin, ‘... the vital necessity of fitting self-sealing tanks to all bombers cannot be overemphasized.’ And the report continued by acknowledging.’ And the report continued by acknowledging the helplessness of the individual Wellington against the new German tactics. ‘Wellingtons cannot defend themselves from a beam attack from above ... since it has never previously been thought that a beam attack would be developed, in view of modern speed and the consequent deflection-shooting involved.’
There was, however, one finding in No. 3 Group’s post-mortem with which the enemy disagreed. Most or our losses had occurred in the third and fourth formations, which had been set too hot a pace to maintain their correct positions and had loosened up still further under anti-aircraft fire. No. 3 Group accordingly drew the standard moral about the need to keep a tight formation. ‘A very close formation of six Wellingtons’, ran the British report, ‘will emerge from a long and heavy attack by enemy fighters with very few, if any, casualties to its own aircraft.’ J.G.1 viewed the matter differently. ‘The British seemed to regard a tightly closed formation as the best
method of defence, but the greater speed of the Me.109 and Me.110 enabled them to select their position of attack. Rigid retention of course and formation considerably facilitated the attack. ...’ A trifle over-elated by its estimate of thirty-six Wellingtons shot down—fourteen more than the entire force present—for the loss of four fighters, J.G.1 went on to conclude. ... ‘It was criminal folly on the part of the enemy to fly at 4,000 to 5,000 metres in a cloudless sky with perfect visibility. ... After such losses it is assumed that the enemy will not give the Geschwader any more opportunities of practice-shooting at Wellingtons.’
The British divergence from this conclusion was more prominent in the theory of the moment than in subsequent practice. From 18th December onwards we tacitly abandoned the belief that our Wellingtons and Hampdens could operate by day in the face of German fighter opposition. Detachments of the striking force continued to stand by for action against fleeting naval targets; bombers were still sent off on frequent sweeps over the North Sea; an ineffective attack attack was made, in atrocious weather, on German ships fast in the ice near Heligoland; the Blenheims, whose losses had been lower, went singly or in pairs to reconnoitre the naval bases; unsuccessful attempts were made to bomb the more outlying ‘ flak-ships’; but Wellingtons and Hampdens were no longer required were no longer required to approach the shores of Germany by day. At first this decision was linked with the supply of protective armoured and self-sealing petrol tanks; yet through the first days of spring saw most of our bombers equipped with a French self-sealing covering for their tanks, they witnessed no tight formations fighting their way through to Wilhelmshaven. Nor, when Hitler struck out against Norway in April, or against the Low Countries and France in May, was there any attempt to reverse the unspoken verdict. The Wellingtons and Hampdens were then flung unsparingly into the struggle; but, like the Whitleys, they operated by night, when there was little or no fighter opposition. Only the lighter bombers, the Battles and Blenheims assigned to tactical work with the armies, carried out their tasks by day.
The offensive (if such it may be called) against enemy warships during the longer months of inactivity on land was singularly unimpressive in its immediate results. In the course of 861 sorties Bomber Command dropped on 61 tons of bombs; and the material achievement—some slight damage to the Emden and the Scheer, the sinking of a U-boat and a minesweeper, and the destruction of ten fighters—was not worth the loss of forty-one bombers. But the lessons learned in the process—learned, that is to say, not in some disastrous major campaign, but in the course of a few minor operations—were of the
highest value to our cause. The improvement of operation technique; the fitting of self-sealing patrol tanks; the policy of using the ‘heavies’ of the time only by night—these were the real consequences of our failure. And, as lessons, they were learnt not only at little cost but in full time for the days of stress that were to come. Had thus not been so, had the Air Staff been less sensitive to the early promptings of experience, the bomber force might well have been exposed, in the catastrophic days of May 1940, to losses that would have blunted its power at the moment of our greatest need.
While the Blenheims, Wellingtons and Hampdens were discovering the difficulties of locating and attacking German warships, the Whitleys of No. 4 Group were engaged on Bomber Command’s second main task in the opening phase of the war—the ‘propaganda’ raids. These had begun on the first night of hostilities, when ten aircraft of Nos. 51 and 58 Squadrons dropped leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr. The message delivered on that occasion contained truths which the Germans were to recognize only when the Third Reich had gone down in utter ruin. The German people, the leaflet stated, had their minds imprisoned, so to speak, in a concentration camp: they had been led into an unnecessary war: they would be worn down by inexorably by the Allies: and they could have peace as soon as they established a peace-loving government. The Whitleys completed the job of distributing these elementary facts without interference by the enemy, but electric storms and severe icing provided sufficient hazards of their own, and one aircraft crashed in France. This was a fair sample of the operations to follow.
The dropping of leaflets from the air was not, of course ,a novelty. It had achieved notable results in 1918, when the niceties of Lord Northcliffe’s propaganda, arriving at the psychological moment of imminent defeat, had speeded the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian armies. Later, pamphlet-dropping had become a regular element in the Royal Air Force technique of dealing with recalcitrant tribes in the Middle East and along the North-West Frontier; for adequate warning always preceded, and often obviated, punitive action. What was good for recalcitrant tribes in these areas was also, it seemed, good for recalcitrant tribes nearer home, and when the September crisis of 1938 threw the shadows of war once more upon the European scene arrangements were promptly made for our aircraft to distribute leaflets over Germany. In the months that followed, a ministerial committee on the planning of propaganda was set up, and a scheme was developed for releasing small leaflet-carrying
balloons over the Franco-German frontier. Suitable balloons were quickly perfected at the Balloon Development Establishment, Cardington; operators were trained in the closing weeks of August 1939; and on 1st October ‘M’ Balloon Unit, established near Toul, sent off its first balloons into Germany.2
The main burden of the pamphlet work, however, rested on the Whitleys, joined after 8th September by a few Wellingtons. According to the met. forecast and the area of Germany to be covered, these aircraft operated either direct from home bases or else refuelled in France. But delivery had been in progress for only a week when the War Cabinet, sensitive to criticism, changed its mind and suspended operations. For it was everywhere remarked that while Poland bled and burned, we were bombarding the Germans with nothing more lethal than copies of Mr. Chamberlain’s latest broadcast.
In the official view there were, however, many advantages to be derived from leaflets themselves. Enforced evacuation, diversion of resources to air defence, dispersal of industry, interruption of night shifts, loss of production, decline of morale—all these, if the precedent of the enemy’s raids on England in 1917 meant anything, might come from our aircraft ranging the German skies by night. Later it became clear that such results could hardly be expected from bombers that never dropped bombs. But if the merits of the work from this aspect were at first overrated, at least the flights had an undoubted value from the intelligence and preparatory point of view; for the crews were under orders to observe the enemy territory beneath them, and to report on such interesting items as the effectiveness of the black-out, the whereabouts of dummy towns, the degree of activity at various airfields, the position and accuracy of searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, and the trend of movements by road, rail and water. The leaflet operations, in short, served the needs of reconnaissance and training as well as propaganda, and before the end of September the Cabinet withdrew its ban. But the dropping of leaflets, or ‘Nickels’—since even leaflet-dropping had its code name—was in the future to be less of a primary task, and more of an incidental to night reconnaissance; it was to be done no more than two or three times a week’ and it was to be referred to in public only as ‘special reconnaissance’.
With the resumption of operations on the night of 24/25th September 1939, the Whitleys carried their bundles further afield, and on 1st/2nd October three aircraft of No. 10 Squadron shed their load over Berlin. But a few of the aircraft, whose navigators were less skilled than others, had by now infringed the neutral air of Holland and Belgium and another temporary halt was soon called. When operations were once more permitted, the Ruhr was for some time verboten.
The Whitleys were not, as a rule, harassed by the guns or fighters of the enemy. The opposition they were liable to suffer from weather—a hazard trebly formidable in the absence of reliable cockpit heating, electrically heated clothing, and oxygen apparatus usable in all positions—may be seen from the operations of 27th October. At 1700 that even five Whitleys of No. 51 Squadron, which had been standing by for the past three days at Villeneuve awaiting suitable weather, were ordered to take off before dark. The task was to reconnoitre southern Germany, and to drop leaflets over some of the principal towns. It can only be concluded that those responsible for these orders were impatient of the delay which had already occurred, for the afternoon weather forecast included the promise of ‘rain, hail and sleet showers, risk of thunder: cloud to 7 to 9/10ths, low base 1,000 feet, but 500 feet in showers: freezing level 1,500 feet: heavy icing anticipated in showed clouds up to 12,000 feet’. Better conditions, however, were expected over base for the return; and with this consolation the crews took off as dusk fell. They had eaten nothing since midday, and had had no time, on the large and unfamiliar airfield, to pick up the usual sandwiches and hot drinks before departure.
The weather was soon too much for one crew, who turned back. The remaining four carried on, and it says everything for their endurance and skill that all dropped their leaflets over the prescribed areas. But what this cost in human endeavour and material loss may be seen from their reports. The ceiling of the Whitleys, even in the best of conditions, was only 17,000 feet—and over much of the route the snow clouds rose a thousand feet higher. Trouble began for the first aircraft near its objective, Stuttgart; for its was impossible to use oxygen during the unloading of the leaflets, and the two unloaders—the navigator and wireless-operator—became very sick. The real difficulties, however, occurred on the homeward journey. Inches of ice on the control surfaces, making handling desperately difficult: the air speed indicator frozen: the temperature at -38 degrees Centigrade: huge lumps of ice breaking from the airscrews and crashing with alarming thuds against the fuselage: the observer at the front covered with snow and ice, unable to see ahead,
and numbed to the bone, but repeatedly operating the turret to prevent its freezing; these were some of the features of the return. Yet despite them all the wireless-operator got his fixes, and after six hours’ blind flying the pilot put down safely at base.
Another of the Whitleys also regained Villeneuve. In this case the front gun and the trimming tabs froze on the outward journey, and the ‘dustbin’ jammed when it was lowered for the release of the leaflets. In the ensuing struggle with the reluctant turret the crew reached for their oxygen, to discover that only one of the bottles was charged—a legacy of the hasty departure. To drop the leaflets with the turret jammed it was necessary to transfer the bundles from one side of the aircraft to the other and then push them down the launching tube. This was eventually accomplished, but only with frequent rests and pauses. Meantime the front gunner lay slumped in a semi-frozen heap, while the second pilot and the navigator, seeking the relief of some other pain than the intense cold, butted their heads against the navigation table. Finally compelled by the lack of oxygen to descend into the thick of the cloud, the crew then ran into anti-aircraft fire. This was not the last of their troubles. During the return flight the captain suffered from sickness, the ice on surfaces became still thicker, the rear gun and the air speed indicator froze; but again the wireless-operator got his bearings from base and again the pilot brought the aircraft to a safe landing.
The third Whitley was not so fortunate. Apart from the extreme cold and the unserviceability of the vacuum pump of the port engine, the outward journey to Frankfurt was uneventful. The leaflets, too, were successfully released. After that the trouble began. First the mid-turret, lowered for the dropping of the leaflets, stuck fast in the down position. Eventually the combined strength of the crew got it up again, but the navigator fainted from the effort. Then, after five and a half hours’ flying, the exhausted captain handed over the controls to the second pilot and collapsed. When he recovered, flames were pouring from the starboard engine. This was at once switched off; but the second vacuum pump had now gone, the blind-flying panel was no longer functioning, and with six inches of ice on the wings the aircraft soon went into a steep dive. From this it was pulled out by a united effort on the part of both pilots. Then the captain gave the order to jump, only when he got no response from the front and rear gunners, knocked unconscious during the dive. By this time the Whitley was heading down at a shallow angle towards a forest. By desperate coaxing the second pilot held it up over the first belt of trees, brushing the topmost branches, then ‘pancaked’ in a clearing .The half-sunned crew crawled out as
quickly as they could, extinguished the fire in the starboard engine and sought help. The first call at a neighbouring farm was discouraging—an elderly Frenchwoman took one look at them ,slammed the door, and shot the bolts home. She made ample amends later in the light of fuller knowledge, but meanwhile the crew spent the night in their damaged aircraft, mounting guard in turn. The next morning they were still able to bring a sense of humour to their air when a local inhabitant asked at what hour they would be taking off.
Even greater hardships were experienced by the crew of the remaining Whitley, whose objective was Munich. Ice blanketed the windows and snow lay on the floor of the front gunner’s cockpit, but the men kept up their spirits on the outward journey by well-established methods: strains of ‘Roll out the Barrel’, ‘Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’ and ‘East of the Border’—a slight geographical adaptation for operations over the Franco-German frontier—echoed over the inter-com., and some of the more meritorious solo performances earned vigorous applause. But when the ‘Nickel’ dropping was done the ‘dust-bin’ remained frozen in the down position, and the effort to move it manually soon reduced the crew to complete exhaustion. Then the starboard engine gave trouble, and near the frontier a cylinder head blew off. As the Whitley lost height, it descended into thicker and thicker snow clouds, and the port engine began to fail. Finally, at 2,000 feet, and with hills ahead, the captain order the crew to abandon the aircraft. The front gunner jumped first. Fouling the inter-communication lead, he hung by the neck until pushed out by the navigator. Knocked out by the opening of his parachute, he eventually came to in a field, surrounded by a herd of cows. Next the navigator left; loosening his boots during the descent in the mistaken belief that he was over water, he sprained his ankle on landing. Then came the turn of the wireless-operator, who jumped with one hand on his rip-cord and the other clasping an oxygen bottle which had frozen to his fingers. Alighting gently in a field, he instantly discovered the exception to the rule about the female of the species, but a smart hundred yards in full flying kit beat the bull to the nearest hedge. Meanwhile, the captain, after trimming the aircraft to a slight descending angle, had baled out without difficulty. When all this was done the Whitley glided down, bumped heavily, and burst into flames; and from the rear turret stepped Sergeant A. Griffin, air-gunner. Blissfully ignorant of the parachute descents—his inter-communication point had failed at the last moment—he dashed to the front of the burning aircraft to save his comrades. The cockpit was empty. Dazed, cut, burned, and more than a trifle puzzled, the sergeant limped his way to the nearest
village, where the sight of familiar figures taking refreshment in a café rapidly restored his full powers of movement and expression.
The pamphlets which our crews were delivering at such hazards were not, of course, compiled by the Air Ministry. But the Royal Air Force, though its role in connection with the leaflets was purely that of carrier, had in fact a very real interest in their contents. The reputation and morale of the Service would certainly suffer if our aircraft distributed unworthy or ineffective material; while a pamphlet which offended against international law might stimulate the Germans into reprisals against the crews who delivered it, should they be unfortunate enough to fall into enemy hands. By the end of October the interest of the Royal Air Force in the contents of the pamphlets was fully conceded, at any rate from the negative point of view, and all stocks of leaflets of which the Air Ministry disapproved were reduced to pulp. After this the standard of material was higher. Interesting innovations soon occurred, and on 25th November our aircraft dropped the first issue of a miniature two-page newspaper. Out of compliment to the notorious Völkischer Beobachter (‘People’s Observer’) this was known as the Wolkiger Beobachter (‘Cloud Observer’).
Early in 1940 Bomber Command began to carry pamphlets still farther afield, and releases were made over Prague and Vienna. By then the Hampdens of No. 5 Group were also bearing a share in the work. But they had hardly begun when operations again came to a standstill. The halt, which lasted from 20th January to 17th February, was not on this occasion due to any change of policy. It arose from weather which for weeks on end locked Europe in a grip of snow and ice.
When operations were again resumed, the Advanced Air Striking Force and the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force were brought into the scheme. But leaflet delivery in itself was no longer the main consideration. The primary task as now for each Bomber Group to reconnoitre a different area of German in preparation for a large-scale mining campaign against the enemy’s estuaries and inland waterways. Leaflets would be dropped during the reconnaissance, partly for the sake of the propaganda, but still more to avoid arousing the suspicious of the enemy.
The new plan was introduced in March 1940, a month which also saw the first damaging encounter with a German night fighter. Another landmark of the month was the delivery of leaflets to Poland. During the second operation to this new territory, on the night of 15/16th March, one of our crews performed a feat which probably remained without parallel for the rest of the war. Having sent their
cargo drifting towards the undimmed lights of Warsaw they returned safely across Germany, only to run short of petrol They accordingly put down as soon as possible after crossing—as they thought—the Franco-German frontier. Half a dozen words with the local peasantry rapidly disillusioned them, but by that time German troops were approaching on cycles. The quick-witted crew promptly dashed back into the aircraft, took off under rifle-fire, and landed safely over the border with a few gallons to spare.
After 6th April leaflet operations were suspended, except by the Advanced Air Striking Air Force, for the minelaying was now imminent. But the enemy, too, had plans, and far more drastic ones; and on 9th April the invasion of Norway confronted the Royal Air Force with a sterner task than delivering propaganda. It was not until Norway was overrun and France, too, lay beneath the Nazi jackboot that pamphlet-dropping was revived. The basis, however, was then very different. From that time onwards the leaflets carried information and hope to the forces of resistance across the Channel; while across the North Sea they made a useful little addition to the bomb-load.
The first phase of the ‘Nickel’ operations was thus at an end. On the whole, Berlin had not taken our efforts lightly. No less than twenty-five accounts of the excellence of the Me.109, for instance, appeared in one week’s German radio programmes after our pamphlets had referred to that originally somewhat unstable aircraft as a ‘Flutterschmitt’. Mere words, however, could not compete with the brute fact of German victory; and our aircraft losses over the whole period from 3rd September 1939 to 6th April 1940—six per cent of sorties engaged primarily on pamphlet-dropping—were certainly far too expensive for any immediate effect achieved on the enemy. But beyond this, and far more important, the leaflet operations had built up a fund of information about the enemy, and had subjected our own aircraft and operational technique to the sharp proof of experience. From this experience emerged improvements of the highest value. New devices for ensuring the well-being of aircrews at high altitudes: better arrangements for landing and ditching in emergency, and for escaping from the aircraft: the development of navigational aids; these were but part of the legacy from the pioneers who bombed Germany with paper.