Chapter 8: The Pressure Grows
The bombardment of Germany by night was not our only means of increasing the pressure on the enemy. When the end of the winter policy of ‘conservation’ was announced in March 1942 our fighters and light bombers were once more unleashed in full force against objectives on the other side of the Channel. For the Air Staff still hoped to inflict heavy casualties on the German fighters; and the Russians, soon to suffer the shock of another German summer offensive, were certainly in dire need of any help that we could give.
From March to the end of June we waged this cross-Channel offensive with relentless vigour. By day our fighters and light bombers flew the combined sweeps known as ‘Circuses’, by night they ‘intruded’ against enemy airfields. Altogether during these four months some 22,000 fighter sorties, or an average of 180 a day, penetrated the German defences in France and Belgium. Over three hundred—three a day—did not return. In the same period the Bostons and Blenheims of No. 2 Group, without whose company our fighters were completely unable to sting the enemy into action, flew some 700 cross-Channel sorties by day for the loss of eleven aircraft. As against a total loss of 314 fighters and bombers, we thought we had destroyed at least 205 of the machines which came up to meet us; but in fact the Germans lost only 90. The balance of casualties thus swung in favour of the enemy even more markedly than in 1941, doubtless because he took care to deploy his latest and fastest fighters—the F.W.190s—on this front. Even so the offensive had the cardinal merits not only of keeping two of Germany’s best fighter Geschwader at full stretch but also of preserving for us in Western Europe all the moral and other advantages of the initiative.
One of the fighter sorties flown during this period—an individual mission aside from the main operations—has become almost legendary. We had discovered that a company of German troops paraded each day at noon down the Champs-Elysees. Someone at once conceived the idea of sending over one of our aircraft to brighten up this depressing ceremony. Only a fighter stood any
chance of getting there, shooting up the parade, and getting back again; among the fighters only the Beaufighters of Coastal Command had the necessary qualities of long range and no secret radar equipment; and among the Beaufighters of Coastal Command a volunteer crew was readily found in the persons of Flight Lieutenant A. K. Gatward and Sergeant G. Fern of No. 236 Squadron. When volunteering, these two men knew only that they were offering to fly ‘a hazardous and out of the ordinary single-aircraft mission’. Had they known the nature of the operation and the fact that the original plan of shooting up the parade had now been supplemented by the inspired notion of throwing out a tricolore as a parting gesture, their keenness to participate would, if possible, have been even greater than it was.
On 5th May Gatward and Fern learned the details of their mission. They were to carry out the attack only if good cloud-cover extended the whole way from the French coast to Paris. The two men at once began their preparations, making feint attacks each day on an old wreck in the Channel and poring for many hours over maps of Northern France and photographs of Paris. Very soon came the next step. ‘One day’, records Gatward, ‘we went down to the naval dockyard at Portsmouth and drew a very new and grand-looking Tricolour for which we signed several forms. Back at Thorney Island we cut the flag into two and got the parachute section to sew iron bars on to each. In the evenings when few people were around we made tests with the flags, throwing them as high up as the hangar roof to see how they would unfurl when dropped from the air. We soon discovered the best way to fold them. ...”
On 13th May the weather for the first time promised well. Half an hour before noon the Beaufighter took off. But it had no sooner crossed the French coast than the clouds cleared, and in obedience to their instructions the two men turned back. Two days later they tried again, with the same result. Twice more in the next fortnight they were again baulked; on each occasion the skies cleared when they were well over French territory. Gatward’s patience was by then exhausted. As he took the Beaufighter up for the fifth time, on 12th June, he was determined to get through at all costs. How he did so he has himself related:–
The forecast was for cloud but it had broken up when we got there [i.e. to the French coast]. This time we carried on. We flew close to the deck all the way, rarely more than a hundred feet up and often as low as thirty feet. We cruised in at about 220 m.p.h., hedge-hopping over trees and buildings and navigating with a map. Fern did a difficult job magnificently and guided me straight into Paris on course.
The parade was timed for midday. Just before noon we picked up the shape of the Eiffel Tower and at 1202 we were over the Champs-Elysées. I climbed up to 300 feet and banked for the attack. But there was no parade. The boulevards were almost deserted. Somehow the Germans had learned of our mission.
Filled with rage and frustration we dived on to the Champs-Elysees, roared along at below roof-top height and climbed over the Arc de Triomphe. As we flashed past the Arc, Sergeant Fern flung the flags out through the flare chute. They went out rather like harpoons and that was the last we saw of them. By now we were approaching the Place de la Concorde and the Gestapo headquarters in the Ministry of Marine building. This was my secondary target and as we passed I sprayed the place with cannon. We got a glimpse of terrified sentries running for their lives and then we were on our way home. We flew back to the coast as low as we had come but met no ack-ack or enemy fighters. We got away with the whole operation scot-free. The only incident was a minor collision with a big crow which crashed into our starboard radiator. Apart from that our only opposition came from swarms of small flies which, low flying, we had collected in a solid mass on our wind-shield. By the time we got back to Northolt it was getting quite difficult to see through them ...
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This tonic for French morale, administered by a single aircraft, was at one extreme of our cross-Channel offensive. At the other extreme were the mass operations intended to lead to a clash with the German Air Force. The climax and culmination of these came with the great combined raid against Dieppe on 19th August, 1942.
The Dieppe landing was inspired by several motives, of which two stood foremost. First, in preparation for our return to the Continent—whenever that should be—we needed to try out a large-scale landing at a place where we could supply fighter cover. Secondly, by seizing if only for a few hours an important objective on enemy territory we should be reasonably certain of bringing to battle the whole forces of the Luftwaffe in Northern France and the Low Countries. If things went as we hoped, as many as 470 German aircraft—220 bombers and 250 fighters—might appear and dispute supremacy with us over the beach-head; and in that case Fighter Command could be relied upon to seize its opportunity. Control of the air operations was accordingly entrusted to Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory, of Fighter Command’s No. 11 Group, and a force of fifty-six fighter squadrons—Hurricanes, Spitfires and Typhoons—was placed at his disposal. Of other types of aircraft he was given only nine squadrons. The new Mustang tactical reconnaissance squadrons of Army Co-operation Command made up four of these. The other five were Blenheim and Boston squadrons of No. 2
Group with the role of smoke-laying and close support bombing.
The general story of the raid, with its desperately gallant fighting by the Canadians and Commandos, is now familiar. Despite the most heroic efforts our forces were unable to capture some of the commanding points, notably the eastern headland overlooking the harbour, while in the town itself the defences proved too strong for such tanks as we could land. In the matter of air support Leigh-Mallory’s squadrons did what was expected of them; but as they consisted of so many more fighters than bombers, they were naturally more successful in protecting the landings from the Luftwaffe than in destroying German strong-points on the ground.
Like the raiding forces, the squadrons began their task betimes. ‘Everyone was at work by 0300, wondering if this was the much talked-of second front’, recorded No. 66 Squadron at Tangmere; ‘as dawn breaks, the first aircraft—the Hurricanes—take off ...’. So it went on, hour after hour. The Mustangs, ranging far afield, kept watch against enemy reinforcements; the Bostons and Blenheims bombed gun-posts and laid smoke; the Hurricanes and Spitfires joined in against the batteries and shot up the defences in the town. Meanwhile, other Spitfires escorted American Fortresses, now beginning to operate from this country, in a raid which put the important fighter airfield of Abbeville-Drucat out of action for two vital hours. And all the time the battle against the German Air Force waxed more and more intense. Caught by surprise, the Luftwaffe could at first challenge us only with fighters; but these appeared in growing numbers—twenty-five, fifty, a hundred. Then, at 1000 hours, the enemy’s bombers came on the scene. Under strong escort they repeatedly strove to pierce the protective canopy of our fighters. As repeatedly they were driven off or made to aim their bombs awry. Not until the ships were back in harbour and the long August day had closed did their efforts cease.
The raiding forces may have taken a bloody nose, but the results of the air fighting were more to our satisfaction. At any rate there was no doubt that we had succeeded in our object of inducing a great battle. In this we had lost 106 aircraft; but our ‘conservative’ estimate of enemy losses was ninety-one aircraft destroyed, forty-four probably destroyed and 151 damaged, while a ‘reliable’ source on the Continent reported the number of German aircraft destroyed as no less than 170. Unfortunately, the enemy’s records now reveal that the Germans lost only forty-eight aircraft destroyed and twenty-four damaged. On the more general issues, it was realized at the time that the close support provided by Leigh-Mallory’s squadrons was not entirely effective, partly because the cannon of our
fighters made little impression on concrete, partly because the situation was at times so confused that the military commanders were unable to indicate the best targets for attack. On the other hand, the all-important task of protecting the raiding troops and the vessels off shore was performed with outstanding success. Our soldiers fought completely unmolested from the air. The Luftwaffe’s single success against our ships came from a chance hit by a jettisoned bomb.
At the price of over 4,000 casualties the Dieppe raid tested the German defences and brought on the air battle we so ardently desired. The defences proved too strong, the tally of aircraft losses ended two-to-one in favour of the enemy. That is not to say that the whole operation was unjustified. ‘Enterprises of great pith and moment’ like the invasion of Europe cannot be undertaken without a few realistic and even expensive rehearsals. Whatever Dieppe cost was more than repaid in the lessons it provided for later study. Its epilogue was to be read, not in the communiques of either side at the time, but in the successful landings in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy.
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Even before the Dieppe raid the conviction was growing that our fighters were not, after all, shooting down two of the enemy for every loss they themselves suffered. The events of 19th August did nothing to dispel this suspicion. And as we had now decided after much anxious probing of possibilities to undertake the invasion of French North Africa later in the year, the cross-Channel fighter offensive was duly relaxed. From the beginning of September to the end of December Fighter Command flew only 10,000 offensive sorties—less than half the number flown in the period from March to June. This brought the Command’s total of offensive sorties for the whole of 1942 up to some 43,000, in the course of which we had lost 915 aircraft. Even this great effort, however, was exceeded on other tasks. For during the year our home-based fighters also flew 73,000 sorties on purely defensive work such as the protection of our shores and shipping—a truly astonishing total to be imposed on us by the activity of no more than 500 German bombers, of whom a half at any one time were normally unserviceable.
This naturally gives rise to speculation whether some of our fighter effort might not have been more usefully applied in the Middle East. One point, however, is certain. If it was necessary to keep so many Hurricanes and Spitfires and Typhoons in Britain—and we must remember that the Russian front was far from stable,
that German bombers could be switched from East to West much more rapidly than our fighter squadrons could be recalled from overseas, and that we might still be faced with invasion—then there can be no doubt that it was good policy to keep them actively employed. For of all things, what the fighter pilot hated most was inaction. ‘Quiet to quick bosoms is a hell’, and the Air Ministry was wisely determined that from that particular hell our airmen should not suffer.
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The Fortresses which bombed Abbeville-Drucat during the Dieppe raid were the advance guard of the American Eighth Air Force. They had reached England under their own power the previous month; and to do so they had followed a trail already blazed along much of its length by British aircraft.
The first systematic flights across the North Atlantic had taken place nearly two years earlier. Lockheed Hudsons desperately needed by Coastal Command were at that time taking three months to reach England from California. They were also filling valuable shipping space. But experimental crossings of the North Atlantic by air had already been made in the summer of 1939, and this gave birth to the idea that the Hudsons might be delivered by direct flight. In July 1940 it was decided to make the attempt. On the suggestion of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Canadian Pacific Railway set up an Air Ferries Department, under Mr. Woods Humphrey, at Montreal; four distinguished pilots of the British Overseas Airways Corporation and one of the Royal Canadian Air Force were engaged to prepare the venture; and civilian crews were made up from American and Canadian pilots, amateur and professional, and from ground wireless operators willing to exercise their skill in the air. Four months of intense effort were crowned on 10th November, 1940. That evening the first seven Hudsons, led by Captain D. C. T. Bennett, of BOAC, took off from the snowbound airfield at Gander, Newfoundland. Ten and a half hours later and 2,100 miles farther east all seven put down safely in Northern Ireland. An aerial bridge across the Atlantic was no longer the distant dream of visionaries and cranks, but sober reality.
Within twenty-four hours of their arrival the seven crews were on their way back by ship. Despite very severe weather, three more delivery flights in formation were accomplished before the end of the year. After that it was decided to save time by flying the machines across one by one as they were ready. So began that steady trickle
of American warplanes—first Hudsons, then Catalinas, Fortresses and Liberators—which re-vitalized Coastal Command and exercised so profound an effect on the Battle of the Atlantic. To increase that trickle, to turn it into what it eventually became, a broad and steady flow, many things were done in the next few months. Gander airfield, already begun in 1937 thanks to the vision of the Air Ministry and the Newfoundland Government, was developed into a huge airport; on this side of the Atlantic a great reception terminal was built up at Prestwick, on the Ayrshire coast, where weather conditions are abnormally good for these uncertain isles; and return ferry-flights for the delivery crews were operated by BOAC. This last enterprise soon grew into a regular passenger and freight service. At the same time the use of Royal Air Force aircrew and ground staff enabled the work of delivery to be speeded up.
In April 1941 decisions were taken which soon remodelled the delivery organization. Up to this point the aircraft had been flown from California to the Canadian border by American civilians, hauled across, and then flown on to Scotland by the C.P.R. organization. Now the passage of the Lease-Lend Act prompted General Arnold to suggest that the machines should be flown all the way from the Pacific Coast to Montreal by pilots of the United States Army Air Force. The General’s idea was two-fold: to train his own crews in long-distance flights and at the same time to speed up deliveries by releasing the American civilian crews for service, if they wished, on the Transatlantic run. The proposal was eagerly accepted. One condition, however, was that the USAAF pilots should deliver the planes at Montreal to a Service and not a civilian authority. So it came about that the existing organization, which had recently come under tighter governmental control as ‘Atfero’, underwent a further change in July 1941 and became the Royal Air Force Ferry Command.
Under the direction of Air Chief Marshal Bowhill this new Command continued to combine Service and civilian elements, in the air as well as on the ground. As the Canadian Government were already building a great new airfield at Dorval, ten miles outside Montreal, this became the Headquarters of the Command and the hub of its activity—the centre at which aircraft were received from the United States and prepared for the Atlantic crossing. At the same time the problem of the medium-range aircraft was faced. So that these, too, could fly the Atlantic—with a halt in Iceland—the Canadians now agreed to make a departure base in Labrador. There, 850 miles north of Gander, on a sandy plateau set above wild forests and swamps and near a bay with the ideally complementary name
of Goose, they built an airfield with incredible speed in the closing months of 1941. Its three 7,000 feet runways were soon capable of taking the heaviest aircraft.
With these important developments in the ground organization went a radical solution to the difficulty of obtaining delivery crews. It was proposed by Bowhill. Thousands of young men were being trained in Canada and the United States to fly for the Royal Air Force; when their training was done, why not entrust the best of them with the task of bringing over an aircraft? The idea was approved; a short course of special preparation was devised; and soon novices from the Flying Training Schools were making flights which three years earlier would have been deemed astonishing for veteran pilots. Moreover they were accomplished with an amazing degree of safety. On the average about one aircraft in a hundred was lost. Many pilots, of course, had terrifying moments, but fortunately the experience of one ‘regular’ who had three ‘S.O.S. incidents’ within two months—two crashes in desolate territory and the sudden and irrevocable descent of his flaps and undercarriage in mid-Atlantic—was by no means typical.
By mid-1942 a North Atlantic air route was thus a firmly established fact. And by that time the United States, having decided to build up a great combat Air Force, was anxious to get a large part of it into action in Europe. For the great invasion of the Continent, then projected for 1943, the Americans needed in Britain not only bombers but fighters. With their customary daring they decided to send them across by air. Gander-Prestwick direct would serve for the long range machines; Goose-Reykjavik-Prestwick for the medium range; but the fighters must have some staging post between Labrador and Iceland. The Americans carved what they wanted from the inhospitable soil of Greenland; and with this addition to the airfields already established by the British and Canadians, the bombers and pursuit planes of General Spaatz’s Eighth Air Force winged their way across the Atlantic. The first Flying Fortresses of this force touched down at Prestwick on 1st July, 1942. Six weeks later, on 17th August, the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command, with General Eaker, its Chief, among the crews, flew its inaugural mission against the marshalling yards outside Rouen.
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Two days before the Forts went into action over occupied Europe a new unit of great importance formed within Bomber Command. It was aptly named the Pathfinder Force. With equal appropriateness
its chief was Group Captain D. C. T. Bennett, who twenty-one months earlier as a civil pilot had led the first delivery flight across the Atlantic.
The Pathfinders came into being only after protracted disagreement between Air Marshal Harris and the Air Staff. That the main force would have to be led by specially selected crews was not at issue, for this was already our practice. But the Air Staff’s proposal to take these crews from their squadrons and concentrate them in a single corps d’elite seemed to Harris—and to his Group Commanders—destructive of squadron morale. Throughout the spring and summer of 1942 the Bomber Chief had accordingly fought the project with all his accustomed vigour; but his opposition, if spirited, soon developed into a rearguard action. For the Air Staff had one unanswerable argument. GEE, it had become clear, was not living up to the more extravagant claims of its champions; and if GEE was falling short of what was desired then the only hope was to pick out a number of the best crews and so organize them that they could not merely lead attacks but give systematic study to the development of pathfinding methods. The final decision came after an interview with the Chief of Air Staff. The Commander-in-Chief emerged having agreed to apply the Air Ministry’s scheme, if not to welcome it.
The Pathfinder Force worked no instant miracles. The original four squadrons—Nos. 7 (Stirlings), 35 (Halifaxes), 83 (Lancasters) and 156 (Wellingtons)—were chosen for their high level of skill, but they came to the task as complete units. The less efficient crews had accordingly to be weeded out. Two other handicaps also faced the new force. The only special equipment yet available was GEE; and this the enemy was just beginning to jam. So it was not surprising that the Pathfinders’ first operation, flown against Flensburg in bad weather on the night of 18th/19th August, 1942, went entirely astray.
Under Bennett’s dynamic direction the new force during the next four months grew steadily more proficient. By ceaseless experiment crews discovered the best methods of attack. Their task, they found, could best be accomplished in three stages—‘finding’, ‘illuminating’ and ‘marking’. First, ‘finder’ aircraft, using GEE if they could, and flying on parallel tracks each about two miles apart, dropped extended sticks of flares over the town to be attacked. Next, ‘illuminator’ aircraft, working in the light thus created, laid a close pattern of flares round the actual target area. Thirdly, ‘marker’ aircraft, concentrating on this inner ring, put down incendiaries as an aiming point for subsequent arrivals. If there was heavy cloud the target was ‘sky-marked’ with coloured flares instead of being
‘ground-marked’ with incendiaries. The Pathfinders having completed their work, the next wave of the attack—the fire-raisers—could then drop a full load of incendiaries. Finally the third wave—the main force—would pile down high explosive and more incendiaries on the fires raging beneath.
Though on the same general lines, all this was rudimentary compared with the refined procedure of 1944 and 1945. The equipment, too, still suffered from serious defects. When the enemy jammed GEE its range was reduced from 350 to only 200 miles, so that in bad weather the force was usually unable to locate the target. In addition the flares still dazzled the bomb aimers, or drifted away with the wind, or silhouetted the aircraft against the sky to the advantage of the defenders. Moreover the incendiary bombs used for ‘ground marking’ were soon lost to view among the fires—which might or might not be in the right place. If they were the decoys so frequently ignited by the enemy they were definitely in the wrong place. And even the new giant 4,000 lb. incendiaries, or ‘Pink Pansies’, quickly burnt out and left no distinctive trace.
All these formidable obstacles confronted the Pathfinder Force during the early months of its existence. Despite them all it showed steadily improving results. Between 19th August and 31st December, 1942, Bennett’s crews led twenty-six attacks on Germany. Whenever the weather was really bad—as it was on six occasions—they completely failed to find the target; but when the weather was good or even moderate they found and marked the objective three times out of every four. This was certainly a significant improvement on the navigational standards of 1940 and 1941. And though the losses of the main force sometimes amounted to as much as thirteen per cent, the losses of the Pathfinders, at less than three per cent over the whole four months, remained surprisingly and agreeably low.
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By the end of October 1942 the air assault on Germany, resumed with such intensity the previous March, was once more giving pride of place to other tasks. The Allied invasion of French North Africa was timed for early November, and Bomber Command was required to play an important if indirect part in the new venture.
The role of Harris’s force was fourfold. There was the minor duty of dropping leaflets over France to explain our motives in descending on French colonies. There was the arduous but not entirely satisfying
task of mining Genoa and Spezia to contain Italian warships. There was the more interesting business of bombing cross-Channel targets to occupy German fighters. And finally there was the pièce de resistance—the mass bombardment of Genoa, Milan and Turin. The object of this was to compel the Italians to hold back their fighters and anti-aircraft guns from Tunisia, and to strike a blow against the already wavering morale of the Italian people.
On the night of 22nd/23rd October, a few hours after the first TORCH convoy sailed for Gibraltar, a hundred Lancasters rained their bombs on Genoa. Apart from an ineffective raid in April this was our first attack on Italy from home bases for over a year. The moon was almost full, the skies were clear, and a new GEE chain in Southern England was operating for the occasion. The Pathfinders therefore found their objective without difficulty. When the last of the Lancasters turned for home many acres of the town lay devastated; the docks, the shipping and the Ansaldo fitting yards were all heavily damaged; and not a single bomber had fallen victim to the defences.
Five times more within the next three weeks was Genoa attacked in like manner. By that time the inhabitants, as Mussolini put it to Ciano, had ‘given proof of moral weakness’. Meanwhile on 24th October eighty-eight Lancasters had delivered a daring assault on Milan by daylight. They lost only three of their number in a raid which dotted the town with fires and reduced the railway system to chaos. An attempt to improve upon this damage during the ensuing night was only partially successful. From 18th/19th November the main weight of attack then fell on Turin. Seven raids before the end of the year, mostly by forces of some 200 aircraft, resulted in extensive damage to the arsenal, the railway workshops and the great motor plants of Fiat and Lancia, besides the destruction of many factories, public utilities, military buildings and private houses. Considerable as was the direct effect of all these attacks the indirect results were probably still greater. Intelligence reports spoke with unanimity of disorganization, panic and loss of production throughout the entire northern provinces. It was a far cry, indeed, from the days of 1941 when the Duce, to make his people realize they were at war, ordered the alarm to be sounded in Rome every time a raid threatened Naples.
It was during the third attack on Turin, on the night of 28th/29th November, 1942, that there occurred an incident outstanding even in the history of Bomber Command yet entirely typical of the spirit of our crews. On the voyage out, an Australian pilot of No. 149 Squadron, Flight Sergeant R. H. Middleton, had hard work to
coax his Stirling over the Alps. The ‘ceiling’ of this type of aircraft was too low, and in his attempts to gain height the pilot found his engines using too much fuel. Soon it became clear that there might not be enough for the journey home. Ignoring this danger, Middleton pressed on towards his target. He reached Turin, then came down low to identify his aiming point. The night was intensely dark, and he was on his third run across the town, at 2,000 feet, when his aircraft was hit by flak. The first shells tore several holes in the mainplanes; then one penetrated the fuselage and burst in the cockpit. The flying metal did its work. One splinter pierced the side of Middleton’s face, destroyed his right eye, and ripped the flesh from the bone above it. A second lodged home in his leg, a third in his chest. Other fragments hit the second pilot and the wireless operator, the former, Flight Sergeant L.A. Hyder, being severely wounded in the legs and head.
With Middleton unconscious the Stirling at once plunged down out of control, and only 800 feet separated it from disaster when the second pilot, despite his own injuries, managed to bring it back to an even keel. He then flew the aircraft up to 1,500 feet and dropped the bombs, though the Italian gunners continued to score hits. Then Middleton came round, and immediately insisted on taking over so that Hyder’s wounds could be attended to. Once at the controls again, he stayed there. A shattered eye, a wounded crew, a heavily damaged aircraft and a return journey over the Alps with no windscreen and barely enough fuel—none of these dismayed the Australian. He set course for base, determined that neither he nor his crew should fall into the hands of the enemy. He knew that he could scarcely hope to land the damaged aircraft, even if his petrol held out; but if he could struggle back to England his comrades at least might escape by parachute.
His spirit, and that of his crew, conquered. The Stirling staggered back over the Alps; held together across the breadth of France; survived yet further hits over the Channel coast; and at last reached the shores of England. Petrol for only five minutes’ flying then remained. The aircraft could not be landed; Middleton himself was too weak to jump. He flew the machine along the shore until five of his crew had safely baled out. The two others insisted on remaining behind to help him. What then happened can only be surmised. It is known that Middleton intended, if he could, to ditch off shore; but apparently the fuel ran out before he could do so. The next day the bodies of his two companions were recovered. He himself probably went down still at the controls.
Such extreme heroism could be recognized only by the supreme award. The citation with which it was accompanied made a large claim, but recorded the bare truth. ‘His devotion to duty in the face of every danger and difficulty is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force’.
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Genoa, Turin, El Alamein, Tunisia—from all sides staggering blows had buffeted the unfortunate Italians. Anxious to hasten the knock-out, the Air Staff now proposed that during December and January, when the weather was likely to be bad over Germany, the bomber force should continue to concentrate on Italy. The Prime Minister approved in characteristic terms—‘the heat should be turned on Italy, ... but Germany should not be entirely neglected’.
Various obstacles, notably the decision to obliterate the U-boat bases in Western France, prevented this plan being carried out in full. But the companion project, already begun earlier, of keeping the enemy fighters so occupied in North West Europe that they could not be sent to North Africa—or Russia—was actively pursued. No. 2 Group and Fighter Command continued to fly ‘Circuses’ over Northern France, with a growing attention to locomotives and rolling stock; and the Mosquitos of Nos. 105 and 139 Squadrons, operating in very small numbers, made daring attacks in daylight against objectives as far afield as the Gestapo Headquarters in Oslo (25th September, 1942), the Burmeister and Wain Diesel engine works at Copenhagen (27th January, 1943), and the main broadcasting station in Berlin (30th January, 1943). On this last occasion the attacks were timed to coincide with speeches by Göring and Göbbels, and kept the former off the air for more than an hour. In addition one or two major operations were also attempted by bombers in daylight with great success. The most notable of these were the dusk raid by ninety-four Lancasters against the Schneider works at Le Creusot (17th October, 1942) and the midday attack by seventy-eight Bostons, Venturas, and Mosquitos on the Philips radio and valve works at Eindhoven (6th December, 1942).
The decision to mount TORCH and the rapid advance into Tunisia which followed the initial landings virtually settled the pattern of the rest of the war. Among other things it ensured that the great combined Anglo-American bomber offensive against Germany, planned in 1941 and 1942, would in fact be carried out: for with so much of the Allied resources being devoted to North Africa a major invasion of the Continent in 1943 (the projected
Operation ROUND-UP) became only the remotest of possibilities. This was soon apparent to the British Chiefs of Staff. It was accepted more slowly by the British Prime Minister, who might be forgiven his reluctance to inform Stalin that the great venture was to recede yet further into the distance, and who at this stage was anxious to build up American ground forces (more than air forces) in England.
For in truth, although we had formally agreed in September 1942 to a general policy of using Bomber Command against Germany by night and the Eighth Air Force against Germany by day, it was still at that date doubtful whether the Americans could carry out their share of the bargain. Some quarters—outside the Air Staff—in fact spent much time and energy urging the Americans to abandon the doctrine of high-level precision bombing and to concentrate, like ourselves, on ‘area’ attacks by night. These critics pressed their opinion regardless of the fact that the American aircraft, with their small bomb-load and their unshielded exhaust-glare, were in every way unsuitable for night bombing. By November 1942, however, much of the croaking had died down. Though the American Fortresses and Liberators had penetrated no farther than Lille, and though they had flown under strong British fighter escort—which they could not then hope to enjoy over Germany—their performance had decisively impressed the Air Staff. With bigger numbers, greater familiarity with the European climate and a higher degree of training—for many of Eaker’s best crews had been sent to North Africa—the Americans, the Air Staff were now convinced, stood a good chance of succeeding in the experiment which (as Mr. Churchill put it) they so ‘ardently and obstinately’ wished to make.
It was not, in fact, until 27th January, 1943, when the Eighth Air Force attacked Wilhelmshaven, that the Americans struck their first blow against the German homeland. By that time Mr. Churchill had accepted the viewpoint of the Air Staff and the Chiefs of Staff; and a few days before, in the great Conference at Casablanca, the logical implications of TORCH had been formally recognized. The road ahead now became plain. The Anglo-American forces would exploit their success in the Mediterranean by occupying Sicily and increasing the pressure on Italy; and in Western Europe, while regarding the struggle against the U-boats as the first charge on their resources, they would direct a great combined bombing offensive towards ‘the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened’.
By February 1943, then, the broad strategic problem was resolved. The bombing of Germany would go on with mounting intensity, night and day, until enemy resistance was decisively weakened and the Allied military forces, gathering strength the while, could hurl themselves with confidence at ‘Fortress Europe’. By February 1943, too, Bomber Command was at last ready to carry out its share in the great task economically and effectively. The force had reached its immediate goal of fifty squadrons, of which thirty-five were ‘heavies’. The target-indicator bomb, with its unmistakeable clusters of red and green candles; the barometric fuse, which could be preset to detonate at a given height; the new Mark XIV bombsight, far more accurate than the old ‘Course Setting’ model; the great high-capacity blast bombs—all these were now at Harris’s service. And above all, to guide the Pathfinders, there was ‘OBOE’; and to guide Pathfinders and main force alike there was ‘H2S’.
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OBOE, an aid so accurate that it could be used for blind-bombing, was born in the mind of Mr. A.H. Reeves of the Telecommunications Research Establishment during 1941. In essence it was another scheme for guiding an aircraft from the ground—in this case from two stations. The first (the ‘mouse’) directed a radio pulse over the centre of the target. Along this the aircraft travelled, the pilot recognizing his course by a continuous note (of oboe-like quality) which sounded in his earphones. If he deviated to port or starboard he was advised by a system of dots and dashes. At the same time the pulse was radiated back by the set within the aircraft and picked up by the second ground station (the ‘cat’). By observing the time taken to receive back this pulse the ‘cat’ was able to make periodic calculations of the aircraft’s progress along the given track. When the aircraft approached the right point for bombing, the ‘cat’ transmitted the letters abed, then a series of dashes, then a series of dots. When the dots ceased the bomb-aimer pressed his button. As far as the aircrew were concerned, it was as simple as that.
Such a system, which could guarantee the fall of bombs within a few hundred yards of a selected pin-point even on the darkest night and through the thickest cloud, promised not only heavier damage to the German cities but fewer casualties to our own aircraft; for it would enable us to operate in just those conditions which hampered the enemy’s guns and night fighters. Like many good things, however, it had its weaknesses. As with GEE, it depended on ground stations, and so was limited in range to about 350 miles. It demanded,
too, that the aircraft should radiate signals and should fly straight and level for the last few minutes of its approach. This, of course, played into the hands of the defenders. Further, the system would not work over Germany if the aircraft was lower than 14,000 feet—a height often beyond the reach of the Stirlings. But all these disadvantages were small compared with another—that ‘cat’ and ‘mouse’ could between them handle, during the final ten minutes of the approach, only a single aircraft.
This last drawback at one time seemed to condemn the whole system. Then the answer dawned that OBOE should be used, not as a blind-bombing aid for the whole force, but as a target-finding-and-marking aid for the leading crews. An OBOE flight of Mosquitos was accordingly formed in No. 109 Squadron, and in due course became part of the Pathfinder force. Meantime ‘cat’ and ‘mouse’ stations were erected on the East Coast to cover the Ruhr, and on the night of 20th/21st December, 1942, six OBOE Mosquitos began their operational career by a calibration raid against a power station in Holland. Other experimental raids followed in January and February 1943; and by the opening of March the OBOE Pathfinders stood ready to lead a major attack.
By this time a further aid of almost equal importance had come into being. Like nearly all the other radio devices which helped to turn the course of the war, ‘H2S’ (‘Home Sweet Home’) was produced by the civilian scientists at the Telecommunications Research Establishment. Unlike GEE and ‘OBOE’ it was a radar apparatus completely self-contained within the aircraft. It could thus operate wherever the aircraft itself could fly. There were already airborne radar sets for detecting other aircraft (A.I.), and ships or submarines (ASV); the function of ‘H2S’ was to scan the territory over which it passed. Amounting in effect to a kind of rudimentary television transmitter and receiver, it emitted pulses which, when echoed back from the land or sea beneath, presented a rough picture on a cathode ray screen. In this picture land could be easily distinguished from water, built-up areas from open countryside. By giving the crews a clear indication of the shores, rivers, lakes and towns on their route, the device could thus enable them to navigate accurately to distant places, like Berlin, far beyond the reach of GEE and ‘OBOE’. We also believed the set to be so accurate that the crews could use it for ‘blind’ bombing—at least when they were attacking large urban areas. All these possibilities, however, depended on producing short—centimetric—waves of great power; and this introduced a difficulty. For though a set could be built using the simplest generator of centimetric waves—the klystron valve—it would be weak, intermittent
and unreliable in performance compared with a set which made use of the magnetron. And the magnetron was at that time—early 1942—our most precious secret in the whole realm of radio.
Up to this point the venture, initiated in late 1941, had gone almost without a hitch. But now an acute difference of opinion entered. The magnetron was to be used in the new ten centimetre ASV of our coastal aircraft; and the Admiralty naturally resented the prospect of its falling straight away into the hands of the enemy—as it would certainly do if it were installed in our bombers. So a battle royal developed between the advocates of the klystron and those of the magnetron. The former were led by Lord Cherwell, who was one of the driving forces behind the whole ‘H2S’ project, and had even suggested its name. The opposite camp included almost the entire staff of the Telecommunications Research Establishment, who contended that the Germans would take two years to bring the device into effective use from the moment it fell into their hands. This argument carried the day. It would, after all, be poor policy for an air force on the offensive, possessed of greater bombing strength than its opponent, to refrain from employing a weapon for fear of retaliation. In July 1942 the decision was accordingly taken to use the magnetron. Sets were then hurriedly ordered for the Pathfinders as a preliminary to equipping the whole bomber force. By the end of January 1943 the first ‘H2S’ aircraft were operating over Germany.
For Bomber Command, ‘OBOE’ and ‘H2S’ came as the climax to a year of immense progress. But all our newly found accuracy would be useless if our losses became too great. It was therefore well that Harris now had at his disposal a whole battery of weapons against the German radar system. There were jammers, there were radio beams laid across Germany with no other purpose than to distract the enemy from our GEE and ‘OBOE’ transmissions, there were means of making one aircraft appear as half-a-dozen. And above all, there was that master counter-measure, the innocent-looking little strips of tin foil known as WINDOW, which when dropped from the air could reduce a whole radar system to chaos. But this last the War Cabinet, fearing retaliation before we had devised an antidote, would not yet allow Harris to use.
By February 1943, then, the bomber force, after a somewhat painful adolescence, had come of age. Over the past year its capabilities had grown immeasurably. To what it had always had, highly competent commanders and devoted crews, were now added, thanks to British scientific genius, powerful aircraft, huge bombs and vastly more accurate methods of navigation. So, as winter turned
to spring, Harris prepared to strike once more, with all the strength he could muster, against the cities of Germany. The order of priority was unchanged. Objective number one was still the Ruhr. Within the Ruhr the main target was still Essen. Within Essen there was still Krupps, virtually intact after nearly three years of attack.
As related more fully later, the new Battle of the Ruhr opened on the night of 5th/6th March, 1943. The target was Essen. Some 450 aircraft operated in all, and the pathfinding force included eight ‘OBOE’ Mosquitos. More than 500 tons of high explosive and over 550 tons of incendiaries were dropped in an attack which was concentrated within thirty-eight minutes. When the dreadful crash of the bombs had ceased and the fires and the smoke and the dust had died down, the inhabitants of Essen could see what lay in store not only for them but for every other large town in Germany. A great part of their city was in ruins. Krupps, for so long almost untouched, was blasted from end to end.