Chapter 9: From Brussels to the Rhine
In the advance through France, Belgium, and Holland, the Allied Armies had left behind them various centres of resistance with which, in the surge and roar of the pursuit, they had not had time to deal. They were situated in various Atlantic, Channel, or North Sea ports running from St. Nazaire in the south, to Dunkirk and the approaches of Antwerp in the north, and they contained more than 140,000 German troops, shut up in what their High Command magniloquently described as ‘Fortresses’. In these, by order of the Führer, the garrisons were to resist to the last, and so deny the Allies the use of the valuable harbours for as long as possible. To mask them by troops largely composed of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure and to attack them from the air was an obvious course. It was followed, and the most important were chosen for the special attention of Bomber Command. Among them was the port of Le Havre, of which the garrison was under the command of Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth, in private life a bank director. 11,300 men with rations for more than ninety days and 115 guns of all calibres, with ample ammunition, held what seemed to all appearances to be the proverbial hard nut. Bomber Command cracked it in seven daylight raids, the first on the 5th and the last on 11th September. 1,863 aircraft, for the most part Lancasters and Halifaxes, carried out these attacks, and dropped more than 9,500 tons of bombs. Twenty-four hours after the last of them had burst, Colonel Wildermuth surrendered to the troops of the Canadian First Army. The German commander maintained that the absence of anti-tank guns had made it impossible for him to hold out. This was only in part true. More than one of the officers and men who surrendered with him testified that nothing, even in Russia, had been so unnerving as the bombing of their positions.
The next ‘Fortress’ to receive similar treatment was Boulogne upon which aircraft of Bomber Command in one raid, on 17th September, dropped 3,391 tons of bombs. The target was also subject to considerable attention from the medium and fighter-bombers of the Second Tactical Air Force in attacks beginning on 8th September
and continuing intermittently until the 23rd. Three days later the German commander, Lieutenant General Ferdinand Heim, surrendered with more than 9,500 men. The diary of one of his officers shows why. ‘Can anyone he wrote,’ survive after a carpet of bombs has fallen? Sometimes one could despair of everything if one is at the mercy of the RAF without any protection. It seems as if all fighting is useless and all sacrifices are vain.’
Calais, next on the list, was subjected to three heavy raids on the 20th, 25th and 27th September. Its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig Schroeder, waited only five days before following the example of his colleagues at Le Havre and Boulogne and surrendered with upwards of 9,000 men. On the 26th and 28th September, the batteries of 21 and 38 cm. heavy naval guns at Cape Gris Nez hard-by, which had shelled Dover and Folkestone for so long, were also heavily bombed. In these raids, the aircraft of Bomber Command made some 6,000 sorties and lost but fourteen of their number.
Thus, before the month of September was out, the Royal Air Force had played a prominent part in the extensive mopping up operations carried on along the French Coast. Throughout this period from June 6th onwards night fighter cover was provided by No. 85 Group of the Second Tactical Air Force. Operating until towards the end of August from England, and thereafter from bases on the Continent, the fighters of this Group accounted for more than 200 of the Luftwaffe.
It fell to the aircraft of Transport Command to render a determined but, as fate would have it, a far from fruitful service to the troops in the field. On 17th September Nos. 38 and 46 Groups towed the main glider-borne element of the British 1st Airborne Division to the town of Arnhem. The former, commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Hollinghurst, was composed of two squadrons of Albemarles, six of Stirlings and two squadrons of Halifaxes; No. 46, under Air Commodore L. Darvall, supplied six squadrons of Dakotas. In addition, the 1st Parachute Brigade was carried in Dakotas of the United States IX Troop Carrier Command. To mount airborne operations was a complicated business which needed time for planning. Postponements for one reason or another were frequent and all this time the aircraft and crews were inevitably kept idle, to the openly expressed dismay of those who urged the alternative. In their view the right course was to use all available transport aircraft to maintain supplies to Patton’s army, which was the furthest forward, so that he could continue his offensive. It was impossible to do both once the Supreme Commander ruled in favour
of airborne operations. Montgomery had decided on a bold stroke. He would outflank the defences of the SIEGFRIED Line and, leaping over the three natural water barriers, the Maas at Grave, the Waal at Nijmegen and the Neder Rijn at Arnhem, secure positions from which to make a major advance eastwards.’ The essential feature of the plan’, he notes ‘was the laying of a carpet of airborne troops across these waterways. ... The airborne carpet and the bridgehead force were to be provided by the Allied Airborne Corps consisting of two American and one British Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade’.1 The crossings of the Maas and the Waal were to be secured by two American parachute divisions, the 101st and the 82nd, that at Arnhem by the British 1st Airborne Division. The operation, known as MARKET, was complicated by the fact that Transport Command could not take the whole division to its destination in one lift, and it was unable to do so for the simple but compelling reason that it did not have enough aircraft. Whether or not there were sufficient transport aircraft, of which the bulk were manufactured in the United States of America, to meet the needs of air transport all over the world is a question which cannot be answered here. All that can be said is that their allocation was made by the Combined Chiefs of Staff whose duty it was to survey the war in every theatre, and who did not place at Leigh-Mallory’s disposal enough squadrons to take all three airborne divisions to their objectives in one lift. Those who had furthest to go, the British 1st Airborne, and who were to drop on the third defensive river line were allocated fewer than were given to the other two divisions. This was unavoidable in the circumstances, for the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen had to be first captured if that at Arnhem was to be of value to the prospective invaders of Germany.
The first lift to Arnhem which carried part of the Air Landing Brigade was composed of 320 tug-glider combinations. It was preceded by a Pathfinder Force of twelve Stirlings, and from these, elements of the 21st Independent Parachute Company were dropped to mark the landing zones. This they did successfully, and the lift arrived, losing en route, mostly through bad weather in England, twenty-three gliders, of which the loads of twenty-one were recovered and sent on with the second lift, and a further twelve between the shores of England and the woods of Arnhem. In addition, thirty-eight gliders were despatched by No. 38 Group to Nijmegen with the headquarters of the 1st Airborne Corps on board. Altogether, that fine September morning, 3,887 aircraft, British and American, and some
500 gliders, became airborne. Of this total, 1,240 fighters and 1,113 bombers supported and protected the landing. It was an imposing armada alike on paper and in the air; but it was not enough.
On 18th September, the second lift, delayed five hours by bad weather, did not arrive until between 1500 and 1600 hours. By then the situation in Arnhem had deteriorated beyond repair. On this occasion 296 tugs and gliders took off, 200 landed in one zone and 69 in the other. One tug aircraft was lost and another, belonging to No. 575 Squadron, was brought back to England by Warrant Officer A. E. Smith, the second navigator—the pilot being killed and the first navigator wounded—and successfully landed, though he had never flown an aircraft before. On this day the first supply mission was also flown by 33 Stirlings of No. 38 Group. They were able to drop about 85 per cent. of their cargo on the chosen zone.
By the beginning of the third day, the 19th, the situation was serious in the air and very serious on the ground. During its course, thirty-five gliders, carrying elements of the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade Group, arrived in bad weather and, owing to an error in timing, with no escort. During the afternoon 163 aircraft from Nos. 38 and 46 Groups carried out the first supply mission on a large scale. 145 dropped their loads on the chosen spot, but 13 aircraft were lost and 97 damaged by flak. Here the final misfortune, to use no stronger word, occurred. The zone, which had been chosen when the operation was planned, was still in the hands of the Germans. Messages reporting this and suggesting a new zone had been sent out by the Division, but never received. The radio frequency used clashed with that of a powerful British station—there seems to have been a blunder in the planning—and as early as the middle of the first day heavy interference, amounting to jamming, had been noticed. The lines of a private telephone belonging to a Dutch company, with offices in Arnhem and Nijmegen, were untouched and might have been used. Indeed they were in constant use by the Dutch underground forces, who tried vainly to persuade the British invading forces to take advantage of them. As, however, they ran for the most part under ground occupied by the enemy the Intelligence branches decided that to speak over them was too risky.
On this day Flight Lieutenant D. S. A. Lord, captain of a Dakota of No. 271 Squadron, was one of those detailed to drop supplies. When near Arnhem, flying at 1,500 feet, the starboard wing of his aircraft was hit twice and the engine it held set on fire. His crew, however, were uninjured and the dropping zone but three minutes flight away. With the engine burning fiercely he came down to 900 feet and was at once the target for the concentrated fire of
many guns. Undeterred, he dropped all but two of his containers and then, determined to deliver these, joined the stream of aircraft approaching the zone and so remained another eight minutes under continuous and heavy fire. Finally he ordered his crew to jump, but himself made no effort to do so. The aircraft crashed in flames and there was but one survivor. Flight Lieutenant Lord was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Lord was not the only one to lose his life and his aircraft that day. ‘The approach to the dropping area’ says Squadron Leader R. W. Lovegrove, flying in the aircraft piloted by Wing Commander Peter Davis, in command of the operation, ‘was rather a disconcerting spectacle. Flak was simply being pumped up; heavy flak, light flak, machine-gun fire and rifle fire’. Having watched a Stirling go down in flames, they reached the dropping zone where they were at once hit in the bomb-bay by a shell. ‘As we were carrying petrol, the aircraft was immediately aflame. Glancing down from the co-pilot’s seat I saw my navigation table on fire and I remember with a curious detachment noticing that the Verey cartridges were giving a firework display of their own.’ The flames were roaring up through the aperture through which the rear gunner had to jump. Lovegrove baled out successfully, but the Wing Commander was killed. At long last, late in the afternoon of 19th September, the whereabouts of a new supply dropping point was signalled. Unfortunately, however, by the time containers were dropped upon it by thirty-three Stirlings of No. 38 Group, it had been taken by the enemy.
Despite mounting casualties, and an almost impossible task, the supply aircraft continued their gallant if fruitless efforts. Altogether eight supply lifts were flown in circumstances which became worse and worse. ‘On D Plus 6 we guessed that things were desperate’, reports the rear gunner of a Stirling, ‘for we had been given a new dropping zone very much smaller in size and ringed by the enemy. All was plain sailing until we reached the Neder Rijn where we encountered very heavy fire. The Stirling bounced about all over the place. ... We decided we should drop immediately, then turn to port and go down low. This we did, descending to 300 feet, and I could see everything very clearly. There were men shooting at us with rifles and light machine-guns and Bofors on lorries. I fired one long burst into a lorry in which I could see German soldiers, their heads tilted back looking at us. At that moment my turret jammed and... I got a bullet through the shoulder’. The Stirling was riddled but could still fly and it landed safely at Harwell, two of its engines seizing as it touched down.
Such were some of the hazards encountered by the air force in its endeavours to aid the men on the ground. Yet, despite all this courage and resolution, only 7.4 per cent. of the total number of tons dropped was collected by the beleaguered division. It was at Arnhem that Flight Lieutenant Turner, the captain of a Stirling, won a Military Cross. He was shot down near Nijmegen and presently found himself in the village of Veghel in command of a mixed force of some thirty British infantry and a number of his own crew. For ten hours they fought a brisk battle with the Germans before the arrival of the leading elements of a British armoured division rescued them.
This most gallant but unsuccessful operation, which cost Nos. 38 and 46 Groups 55 aircraft lost with a further 320 damaged by flak and 7 by fighters, had been planned mainly by the First Allied Airborne Army in England. The Second Tactical Air Force, though fully conversant with the situation in Holland, was unaware of the immediate changes of plan necessitated by the exigencies of the situation. It could not, and did not therefore, provide the full air cover of which it was capable.
Between the action fought at Arnhem and the next main move of the Army, Coningham’s Second Tactical Air Force continued to bear hard upon an enemy fully aware of the threat caused by the Allied troops left in the Nijmegen bridgehead. Desperate attempts were made by the Luftwaffe to destroy the vital bridge. In these, use was made of ‘pick-a-back’ aircraft.2 The heaviest blow was struck on the night of 26th September and during the following day. The attacks were, however, completely frustrated by Spitfires of No. 83 Group who claimed to have destroyed 46 enemy machines. The Germans then resorted to ‘frogmen’ using demolition charges and these succeeded in temporarily putting the bridges out of action.
After their defence of the Nijmegen bridgehead No. 83 Group fulfilled a comprehensive programme of railway interdiction—the cutting of tracks, the destruction of rolling stock and marshalling yards, and the general harrying of all movement on railways. No. 2 Group, aided by the United States Ninth Air Force, was specially concerned with the main bridges across the Ijssel at Zutphen, Deventer and Zwolle, and also with the flying bomb and rocket sites in Western Holland. No. 85 Group, comprising the night fighter squadrons, established itself at a new base at Antwerp and then handed over to the Americans the responsibility of protecting their own area at night.
The next major help given by the Royal Air Force to the armies on the ground was on the island of Walcheren. Of all the ‘Fortresses’ on the seaboard of Europe, which Hitler had hoped would be held to the death by fanatical garrisons, by far the most important was that of Antwerp, thirty miles from the mouth of the Scheldt. On 4th September, the city and port had fallen virtually intact into the hands of XXX Corps, for the Belgian underground resistance movement, and the speed of the Allied advance, had prevented any demolitions. The port itself was the finest in Europe, and to open it, so that Twenty-First Army Group might be supplied by sea at close range, was of the first importance. Until, however, the Scheldt estuary had been cleared of mines, and South Beveland, the south bank of the Scheldt and the island of Walcheren cleared of the enemy, the port remained perforce closed. By the end of October, the whole of South Beveland had been captured by the Canadians and the British 52nd Division. Beyond, joined to it by a causeway, lay Walcheren, in shape like a saucer of which the rim is composed of high sand dunes and the interior of flat land lying below sea level. It was still in the hands of the enemy, from whom it was decided to wrest it by an amphibious assault.
It was soon seen that the first step must be to breach the dyke near Westkapelle, the effect of which would be to let in the waters of the North Sea and thus make it difficult for the Germans to move their reserves about the island. Field batteries would be flooded, and the amphibious vehicles in which many of the assaulting troops would travel would be able to move about freely, and take in the rear any positions in which the Germans might still offer resistance.
In the early afternoon of 3rd October, 247 Lancasters and Mosquitos of Bomber Command attacked from 6,000 feet, dropping their bombs at places where the dyke was thickest and where, therefore, if a breach could be made, the sea would burst in in the greatest volume and with the greatest energy. The operation was singularly successful and is a good example of what can be accomplished by bombing in daylight and without heavy opposition. One hundred and twenty yards of the dyke was breached and the sea rushed in to flood the land, the waters continuing to rise for forty-eight hours. During the raid Wing Commander J. B. Tait arrived over the target at the head of No. 617 Squadron carrying 12,000 lb. ‘Tallboy’ bombs. When he saw the damage inflicted by his immediate predecessors, which was so great that the sea had already reached the streets of Westkapelle, he decided that to drop these heavy bombs, of which only a few had been manufactured, would be unnecessary waste. He accordingly brought them back.
Bomber Command had no losses that day or on 7th October, when the dykes of East and West Flushing were less successfully attacked by 122 bombers, in difficult weather, from a height of between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. Two further assaults on the 11th, against gun positions at Flushing and the Veere sea wall, caused more inundations which had the effect of splitting the island into four. On the next day Bomber Command transferred its attentions to Breskens, on the south side of the Scheldt, and followed up this assault with a final bombing, of which the object was to widen the original gap at Westkapelle so as to enable assault craft to pass through it.
All this time, be it remembered, the Canadian Army was joined in fierce and aqueous fray in and about the town of Breskens, its stout-hearted infantry being sometimes up to their waists in water. Despite weather classified by the meteorological experts as indifferent or bad, they were afforded the fullest possible air support, and with its aid, gradually drove the enemy from the comparatively large Breskens ‘pocket’, first into the Cadzand and then into the very small Knocke ‘pocket’—a vital position if he was to continue to hinder the opening of the Scheldt. The flooded and waterlogged nature of the ground made attacks by any arm other than infantry, supported by the air force, out of the question. Here a new technique, which gave excellent results, was tried for the first time. A smoke screen was laid by the guns, immediately in front of the assaulting troops. As soon as it was formed, aircraft of the Second Tactical Air Force began to operate on the enemy’s side of the screen, bombing gun-pits and diving on slit trenches until the very last moment when, through the murk and smoke, loomed purposeful figures with fixed, determined bayonets. The effect of these attacks from the air was to prevent the German gunners from opening fire, for they feared that, if they did so, they would give away their positions to the swift-darting Spitfires, Tempests and Typhoons, which in one day flew more than 600 sorties in direct action against these targets on the ground.
Then Bomber Command came on the scene once more with heavy attacks on 21st and 23rd October on batteries near Flushing, and on the 28th on the large 250 mm. guns on the north of Walcheren island. Altogether between the 3rd and 30th October it made ten major assaults and dropped between 8,000 and 9,000 tons of bombs. By the end of the month all was over; the Knocke pocket had been eliminated and South Beveland was in our hands.
Meanwhile the fighter-bombers of the Second Tactical Air Force had taken a hand, some 650 sorties being flown in the last three days of the month against targets in the unhappy island of Walcheren.
Particular attention was paid to heavy guns in the north and northwest with an all-round arc of fire. At night, Mosquitos moving through the autumn darkness interfered with the traffic of barges and ferries between Breskens and Flushing.
The assault on Walcheren took place in shockingly bad weather at first light on 1st November. That conditions would be bad had been accurately forecast; but so important was the reduction of the island that the ground forces—they were Royal Marine Commandos of the first order—were called upon to attack, even though air support might not be forthcoming. In the event it was, and rocket-firing Typhoons were airborne and close to the island asking for orders from the headquarters ship ten minutes before ‘H Hour’, though visibility at their bases was not more than 1,000 yards and the cloud base was 500 feet. The tank landing craft, with Royal Marine Commandos on board, were nearing the shore when the Typhoons were called upon to take action. Just as the landing craft entered the gap blown for them by Bomber Command, twelve Typhoons of No. 183 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader R. W. Mulliner, went into the assault. It was well timed and had the effect of quietening the German fire at the most critical moment of all, the touch-down of the assault craft. Throughout that day and on every day until 8th November, when the last embers of German resistance on the island were quenched, the Second Tactical Air Force was over the battlefield. When all was over, its fighters, fighter-bombers and medium bombers had flown more than 10,000 sorties, fired 11,637 rockets, often from as close as 600 feet, and dropped 1,558 tons of bombs. Its losses were fifty aircraft and thirty-one pilots. The final word may be left with Air Vice-Marshal Groom, the Senior Air Staff Officer to Coningham. ‘It was only’, he wrote, ‘because the level of the land was either at or below sea level that it was possible to operate aircraft under the weather conditions existing at the time.’ At last the Scheldt was clear. On 4th November the first minesweepers reached Antwerp, and on the 28th the first convoy. Apart from the ‘V’ weapons the only threat to shipping using the port was now the enemy bases at Nijmegen and in small harbours near the Hook of Holland, which gave shelter to, among other exotic craft, explosive motor boats and midget submarines. To assist in detecting their activities and those of E-boats, No. 85 Group set up a coast-watching radar station in a disused lighthouse on the north coast of Walcheren, and this proved of considerable service to the Royal Navy and to the squadrons of Coastal Command.
While these battles were being fought and won, Leigh-Mallory was appointed to the Far East—where, under Mountbatten, he was
to take command of the Allied Air Forces. At the same time the Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, having fulfilled its purpose, was disbanded. Leigh-Mallory never reached his new Command. His aircraft, a York, with himself, his wife, and his personal staff officer took off on 14th November from Northolt and, a few hours later, crashed in bad weather in the mountains south of Grenoble. All on board were killed. So perished one of the most experienced officers of the Royal Air Force. In the First World War he had commanded No. 8 Squadron, in the Second, No. 12 Group and then No. 11 Group, of Fighter Command, Fighter Command itself, and finally the Allied Expeditionary Air Force. In all these posts his ability had been conspicuous. Not brooking opposition easily, he had persevered with that tenacity which had earned him a high reputation over the battlefield of France in 1916, 1917, and 1918, and his loss was one which the Royal Air Force could ill afford.
By now, Eisenhower had decided that, as Supreme Commander, he would control all the forces in Europe and hand over to his Deputy, Tedder, the direct responsibility for co-ordinating air operations. The executive responsibility for the Strategic Air Forces was vested jointly in the Chief of the Air Staff and in the Commanding General of the United States Army Air Forces, and it was left to the commanders of the Tactical Air Forces to decide, on receiving requests from the Army for air support, whether this should be given by the bomber squadrons at their disposal, or whether to recommend the targets for the attention of the strategic bombers.
The main headquarters of British Twenty-First Army Group and those of the Second Tactical Air Force were as close together as possible, and by 14th September had been established in a large building in Brussels. Montgomery, however, as Commander of the land forces, preferred to live permanently at his own tactical headquarters in the field, so as to keep in the closest touch with his troops, be hard of access to visitors, and have time to think and to plan. Coningham, on the other hand, felt it his duty to remain at the centre of the complicated network of communications which linked him and his staff with the groups and squadrons of the Second Tactical Air Force. He therefore stayed in Brussels, and maintained contact with Montgomery through the Chief of Staff, Major General de Guingand.
Meanwhile, the Second Tactical Air Force was going from strength to strength. The work of interdiction promised very well, despite the unfavourable flying weather, and, though the enemy still fought hard, he could not prevent the liberation of south-west Holland up to the line of the Maas, while his troops in the west of
that country were virtually without supplies from Germany and were forced to live on their own resources. Particularly successful were the efforts made to bring trains to a standstill. In one night Mitchells and Mosquitos of No. 2 Group were able to attack no less than forty-six, rendered immobile by the attentions paid to them the day before by rocket-firing Typhoons and Tempests. The enemy was forced to make increasing use of barges travelling through the canals of Holland, a slow and laborious method of moving supplies. Altogether during the autumn more than fifteen-hundred attacks of squadron strength or larger were made by Spitfires, Typhoons and Tempests on railways, bridges, viaducts, locomotives and rolling stock, roads and road transport. The claims made by the pilots were large, eighty locomotives for example, were said to have been destroyed and 234 damaged, and the figures for road transport were 1,009 and 1,303 respectively. It has proved impossible to check their accuracy, but the broad general fact that the enemy was finding it every day more and more difficult to move about behind his lines, that travellers, for example, were taking as long as four days to travel by rail from Darmstadt to Utrecht, a distance of not more than 300 miles, shows that they were little, if at all, exaggerated.
Concerning another form of attack, the evidence is complete and conclusive. Since the beginning of July, fighters and fighter-bombers of the Second Tactical Air Force had made about one hundred assaults on buildings and groups of houses known or said to contain the headquarters of enemy units. Some of these have already been described. From the beginning of September they multiplied, and during that and the next two months, about seventy headquarters received the attention of rocket-firing and bomb-carrying Typhoons and Spitfires. The smallest number of aircraft attacking was five, the largest forty-eight. Among these assaults, those on targets in Dordrecht and Aarhus were perhaps the most notable.
On 24th October, 1944, No. 146 Wing, made up of Nos. 193, 197, 257, 263 and 266 Squadrons of No. 84 Group, were led by Group Captain D. E. Gillam against a building situated in the pleasant park called Merwestein, in the midst of the old Dutch city of Dordrecht. Inside the building, a conference of high ranking German officers was taking place. The Dutch Resistance Forces in the neighbourhood had hastened to send news of it, and an immediate assault was ordered. Its phases were most meticulously planned. Three tactical formations were to approach the target in line abreast and arrive at 1300 hours exactly, when it was hoped that the German generals would be at luncheon with their staffs. The centre section of five Typhoons was to deliver the first and largest bombs—four of
1,000 lb. and two of 500. The two outer sections were to draw slightly ahead at the last moment and turn outwards, with the object of making feint attacks, one on the left against two bridges, the other on the right against a dockyard, both heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns. The attention of the gunners would thus be fully engaged. As the feint attacks were made, and not a moment before, the centre section would fly straight at the headquarters, as low as possible, and release their bombs, aiming at a marker bomb which would be dropped beforehand, by Gillam himself, upon the building.
The bombing was carried out with great accuracy and in strict accordance with the plan. Flying 500 yards ahead of the centre formation, Gillam dived on the target from 6,000 feet, his guns blazing, dropped the marker bomb and then two 500-pounders. He then called up the centre section and a moment later heard the welcome words, ‘Roger, we see the target’. Two seconds later, four 1,000-lb. bombs, released from a height of between fifteen and twenty feet, struck the walls of the building, which dissolved in dust and smoke. Turning from their feint attacks, which had drawn heavy fire, the other sections completed its destruction by dropping their bombs. One of these overshot and struck a school for tuberculous children, causing a number of casualties. Otherwise success was complete. Two German generals, seventeen high officers of the General Staff and fifty-five of lower rank, all belonging to the headquarters of the German Fifteenth Army, were killed, together with twenty other ranks. A few days later the Dutch Resistance Movement reported that a most impressive funeral was about to take place. Gillam and his pilots decided to be present, in a lethal capacity. Rain and low cloud, however, prevented their attendance. An indirect but not an unimportant result of this assault was that the German General Officer Commanding in Walcheren was unable to obtain information or orders, and was therefore completely out of touch with the general situation.
The attack on the headquarters at Dordrecht has been told in some detail, for it is an excellent example of this special type of assault. Another equally successful attack was made a week later by twenty-five aircraft belonging to Nos. 21, 464, and 487 Squadrons of No. 2 Group, escorted by eight Mustangs of No. 12 Group, on Aarhus. It was led by Wing Commander R. W. Reynolds, and destroyed the Gestapo headquarters in the town, wiping out their records and thus the written evidence of acts of resistance and sabotage committed by many Danish citizens. The attack was carried out at so low an altitude that one aircraft hit the roof of the building, losing its tail wheel and the port half of the tail plane. It nevertheless landed safely.
The attack by the same three squadrons on a similar headquarters at Copenhagen must here be mentioned, though it did not take place until the following March. It was led by Wing Commander P. A. Kleboe, whose aircraft, after hitting a pole, crashed and burst into flames. These were bombed by an aircraft of the second wave in mistake for the target, which had already been destroyed by the first. The result was a tragedy, a school being hit and heavy casualties caused to the children inside it. Shell House, in which the Gestapo were housed, was set on fire and demolished, twenty-six German officials being killed. Another was dazed and when in that condition deprived of his keys by a Dane, who used them to set free a number of political prisoners.
November was a very bad month, the weather making all flying impossible for days on end. Operations were much reduced, but the bombing attacks, particularly of No. 2 Group, were still continued. On 19th November, in an assault on the bridge at Venlo in Holland, a Mitchell bomber was hit by flak and the tailplane and turret cut off. Inside it the rear gunner, Warrant Officer Cote, a French Canadian, ‘fluttered down to earth like a leaf’, and suffered no worse than a broken leg. He was made prisoner of war.
During this month rain was beginning to fall and soon many airfields were put out of action by mud and flooding. The responsibility for their repair and maintenance and the construction of new airfields, lay with the Chief Engineer, Major General Inglis, of Twenty-First Army Group, and his representative, Brigadier Panet, who lived permanently at the headquarters of the Second Tactical Air Force. The building of the airfields was in the hands of Construction Wings of the Royal Engineers, and of the Airfield Construction Wings of the Royal Air Force. Altogether, from the capture of Brussels to the end of the war these hard-working units built seventeen new airfields and reconstructed thirty-seven.
The airfields were defended by squadrons of the Royal Air Force Regiment. These manned light anti-aircraft guns and there were also rifle and armoured squadrons. During the clearing of South Beveland and Walcheren the 3-inch mortars of No. 2816 Squadron fought side by side with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. On 7th October, No. 1313 Wing headquarters and Nos. 2757 and 2816 Squadrons were in action on the Leopold Canal and remained in the line for fifteen days until relieved by Nos. 2777 and 2717 Squadrons. Another Rifle Squadron, No. 2726, fought for a time under the command of the 2nd Armoured Battalion, Irish Guards. By the end of 1944, the component of the Regiment serving with the Second Tactical Air Force on the Continent consisted of nineteen anti-aircraft, twenty-one rifle and six armoured squadrons.
While weather holds up the fighters and fighter-bombers, the administration of the Second Tactical Air Force may be examined. It was in the hands of Air Vice-Marshal T. W. Elmhirst, who in the First World War had been a pilot of airships. A former sailor and a man of great administrative ability, he had worked side by side with Coningham from the North African campaigns. Long before the cobbled streets and shining roofs of Brussels were reached, the machine he created was working with well-oiled precision. Here is his own description of an average morning’s work. The period is after the crossing of the Rhine.
08.15 hours. Arrive at the office and look through signals that have come in overnight and prepare notes of information I want to give C.-in-C. and Air Staff and of decisions I want from C.-in-C. and Air Staff at morning meeting.
08.30 hours. Morning Conference with C.-in-C. and Heads of Air Staff. Listen to reports of Army, Navy and Air Force operations of the preceding day and C.-in-C.’s future intentions. Inform meeting of any points I want them to know relative to supply position in aircraft and pilots, bombs and petrol, etc. Get from C.-in-C. future intentions of moves and locations and rates of operational effort likely.
09.30 hours. Return to office and despatch necessary immediate signals as a result of morning conference.
09.45 hours. Morning Conference with 21 Army Group Staff. Listen in to Army intentions and get their likely future moves, etc. Talk to M.G.A. on any point that jointly touches Army/Air administration.
10.30 hours. Return to my office and hold my morning meeting with my Heads of Departments. My Deputy, Senior Personnel Officer, Senior Equipment Officer, Senior Movements Officer, Chief Engineering Officer, Group Captain Organisation, Command Accountant, Chief Welfare Officer, Education Officer, Principal Medical Officer, Establishments Officer, Provost Marshal, Senior Chaplain, etc. Deliver to the assembled staff a short survey of the previous day’s operations and then go into conference with them on points of general administrative importance to the whole staff such as:—The direction of the next forward move of airfields and the planning of supplies and movement; Air Transport requirements; Engine failures and their remedies; Shortage of or surplus of pilots and aircraft; Discipline and Dress; Leave; New Units to be formed, or a unit to be disbanded or to have its establishment altered; Units to be called over from United Kingdom, etc., etc.
11.30 hours. Begin normal office work.
AOC 83 Group rings up and says he doesn’t like ‘cut’ of a new Staff Officer just come to him, will I get him shifted?
AOC 84 Group rings up to say that he is moving a Wing to ‘X’ where there are still remnants of other units, can I get them out quick?
AOC 85 Group rings up and wants a large increase in staff, will I help to get the establishment through?
AOC 2 Group wants to know if I can get him a Mosquito for his private use and mentions that he has just been on a daylight Gestapo Headquarters raid and that ‘the flight was worth a guinea a minute’.
AOA 83 Group rings up to say that he thinks he is running short of a certain type of bomb. I find from my Staff that there are heaps and let him know where he can find them.
The Head O.D. Staff Chaplain comes in to discuss Moral Leadership Courses.
13.15 hours. Interval for lunch where C.-in-C, SASO and AOA discuss over lunch any general points of the morning’s work.
In December the weather continued poor. Twenty-First Army Group were busy with plans for attacking the enemy between the Rhine and the Meuse. Air support for these moves, which were to be carried out by the First Canadian Army, was to be provided by No. 84 Group and some squadrons of No. 83 Group, and the orders for the operation were issued on 16th December, together with an appreciation of the general situation which was very wide of the mark. The enemy was unable, it was claimed, to stage a major offensive operation... he had not transport or petrol.
On that day, von Rundstedt launched the last and fiercest attack made by the Germans since the Allies had landed. It was delivered through the Ardennes by the 5th Panzer and the 6th S.S. Panzer armies, and the attacking troops comprised fourteen infantry and ten Panzer and Panzer grenadier Divisions. The German Commander-in-Chief had chosen his moment well, for the weather had been so bad that reconnaissance by air over the wooded country of the Ardennes had been extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the American Twelfth Army had had certain indications of German intentions, and these would have been even clearer if it had been able, to quote Coningham’s report, ‘to recognise the import of certain air reports which had been available for some weeks’.
The enemy’s plan was on the same lines as that which he had adopted with such success against the French more than four years
before in the summer of 1940. There were, however, important differences. He had completely failed to concentrate what remained of the German Air Force in the battle area, and this failure was due in large measure to the tactics of the Allied Tactical Air Forces, which had for long been seeking to neutralize as many as possible of the enemy’s air bases. Moreover, both the Second Tactical Air Force and the American Ninth Air Force, each with the same basic organization, procedure and tactics, were able to take instant action, as soon as the weather permitted, with immediate and decisive results. Between the 16th and 23rd December low cloud and rain severely restricted flying, and during this period the average speed of von Rundstedt’s advance was some twenty kilometres a day. On Christmas Eve, however, the weather lifted somewhat and it was possible for the tactical air forces to fly nearly 600 sorties. The main target was enemy vehicles, wherever found, and they were most numerous in the salient west of Prum. The speed of the enemy’s progress at once fell away and before Christmas Day was over, he had stopped dead.
Though the whole of the Luftwaffe did not appear in the theatre of the new battle, they were more in evidence than they had been for some weeks, and many of them provided the fighters of No. 83 Group with much sought-after combat. Nine German aircraft were destroyed on Christmas Eve, and in that day’s fighting, which included many attacks on transport, No. 83 Group lost thirteen aircraft and nine pilots. Among the nine German aircraft shot down was a Messerschmitt 262, the new jet fighter, the first specimen of which had been destroyed on 5th October by Spitfires of No. 401 Squadron, RCAF The pilots had had good fortune, for the Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 262 was much faster even than the Royal Air Force Tempest. It was a monoplane, powered by two Junto units, mounted four 30 mm. cannon and could also carry one 500 and two 250 kilogramme bombs. Its speed at full throttle in still air was 830 kilometres, or about 500 miles, an hour.
Both Bomber Command and the American heavy bombers were called in to help check von Rundstedt’s thrust. The most successful attack by the former appears to have been made against troop concentrations at St. Vith in daylight on Boxing Day, by which time the enemy’s offensive had been brought under control. By 16th January, exactly a month from the opening move, the adventure was over. Von Rundstedt had done no more than postpone the inevitable and had delayed Eisenhower’s offensive by six weeks. He had also secured a temporary respite for German oil plants and aircraft factories.
That was the sum of his success, even though on 1st January he staged a dramatic, and indeed spectacular, attempt to destroy the Second Tactical Air Force on the ground. The weather and difficulties of transport had forced Coningham to concentrate his Command on a comparatively small number of airfields in Holland and Belgium. This policy, inevitable though it was if the Tactical Air Force was to operate on as large a scale as possible, had led to much congestion, as many as six squadrons being concentrated on one field. The risk, he felt, was not great, for an aircraft of the Luftwaffe by day on the Allied side of the line was as rare as snow in summer, and by night they were by no means conspicuous. Indeed, before September was out, Coningham had sent back to the base depots all the camouflage netting his Command had once found so useful, and the heavy antiaircraft defences of the airfields had been withdrawn. That our airfields were over-stocked with aircraft was known to the enemy or suspected by him, and he realized, too, that what small chance his counter-offensive had of success would depend on the extent to which he could cripple the Tactical Air Forces. By a careful husbanding of his fighters he was able to put between 790 and 870 aircraft into the air for this operation. They came from all units, including even a training unit, JG.104,3 and the motley armada was composed of every type of aircraft save the heavy bomber and the light communications Storch. Instructors and experienced pilots had been drawn from bases as far away as Vienna and Prague. By the middle of December the plans were complete and all that was lacking was suitable weather in which to put them into execution. It occurred on New Year’s Day, 1945.
After briefing, which took place on the afternoon of the last day of 1944, or in the early hours of 1945, the pilots were confined to their airfields and especially warned to take no part in the New Year parties. All save the most experienced received maps with their courses and the various guiding marks already printed on them. Each one carried a card with the following instructions
At start point switch on radio. Switch on weapons. Switch on ‘station keeping’ lights.
Maintain discipline when attacking.
Pay particular attention to damaged and burning aircraft. Count them in your score.
Do not forget before every run up, to test your weapons.
Keep a sharp look out for airfields during your approach and return flights and make a note of their location.
From the elementary nature of most of these injunctions it will be observed that the standard of training which had been reached by many, indeed most, of those taking part was not noticeably high. At various turning points on the outward course navigational aids were used. The first was a pyrotechnic known as ‘Golden Rain’, fired from anti-aircraft guns; the second a combination of coloured smoke; and the third a series of searchlight markers pointing in the direction of airfields where emergency landings might be made. Junkers 88’s, flown by experienced pilots, were used to navigate the motley host, and to lead it to a point close to the bomb-line from which each pilot was to find his own way to the target by means of the special map supplied to him. The security arrangements covering the planning of the raid were excellent and no inkling of what was to take place reached our ears. The strictest radio telephone discipline was ordered and maintained, not one message being picked up by our monitoring services during the onset of the attack, and only very fragmentary observations on the return journey. The attackers flew as low as possible to avoid appearing on our radar screens, and in the mountainous district of the Eifel, leading to the American sector, they followed the valleys. The attacks were all made at treetop level.
Had the execution of this operation, to which the Germans gave the code-name HERMANN, been equal to its conception, very severe damage, which might even have resulted in the grounding of the Second Tactical Air Force for some considerable time, could have been achieved. In the event, there were too few good leaders and too many young pilots who lacked not bravery but experience. Several instances of head-on collisions, erratic flying, poor shooting and bad evasive action were noted. Even so the damage caused was heavy, though one prospective target was missed altogether and another navigational error put most of the aircraft assigned to the attack on Volkel on the wrong side of the field. Altogether 144 aircraft, of which 120 were operational, were destroyed in the British area and 84 damaged, together with a considerable number of vehicles, petrol dumps and other stores. Forty officers and men of various ranks were killed and 145 injured. In addition six pilots were shot down. Against this, in the British area alone 137 German aircraft were claimed as shot down, of which the carcases of 96 were found, and in the American area the number accounted for was 115. Many crashed beyond our lines, in the Scheldt, or in woods and swamps. Sixty pilots were taken prisoner. Of the German aircraft destroyed, forty-five were shot down by pilots of the Second Tactical Air Force—who, in addition, destroyed twelve over enemy territory—forty-three
were claimed by the Royal Air Force Regiment, forty-seven by the Army, and the ships of the Navy in the Scheldt claimed two.
The attacks were all of the same pattern and were delivered, as has been said, at very low level. They began at 0925 hours. The greatest damage to British aircraft was at Eindhoven where two waves of mixed Focke-Wulf 190’s and Messerschmitt 109’s came in at very low level, one from out of the sun, the other directly down the runway. They were followed by other waves each of twelve aircraft who ‘attacked the field in a well-organized manner, being persistent and well-led’. Nos. 438 and 439 Squadrons, both of the Royal Canadian Air Force, were taxying to take off for an operation. Some of the pilots sought to take the air and were killed; others fired their guns and then jumped for ditches or any other form of cover. The central mess was destroyed, the dispersal hut and Adjutant’s office of No. 440 Squadron wrecked, and every window in the airfield shattered. Elsewhere the Germans were not so fortunate or so skilful. This determined attempt to strike a crippling blow at the tactical air forces of the Allies had no appreciable effect except possibly on the enemy, who lost a large number of his most experienced fighter pilots with all the consequences that that implied. After the war was over, General Galland, a competent German authority, truthfully, if somewhat dramatically, described the day’s work as ‘the final dagger thrust into the back of the Luftwaffe’.