On 17th August as the USAAF headed out for their daylight raid on Schweinfurt, the crews of RAF Bomber Command were being briefed for their raid that night. This time they would be flying in moonlight, which was usually avoided, and the Intelligence Officers stressed the importance of the target that required this.
Crews were told that they would be bombing a factory building new radar controlled night fighters at Peenemunde. It was obviously in their interests to destroy such a target. It had ben given such a priority that not only would they be bombing in moonlight but they would be doing so from half the usual height.
Amongst those leading this raid was Cliff Alabaster, who had survived being shot down by ‘friendly fire’ in 1941. He now a hugely experienced navigator and was, very unusually, captain of his Pathfinder aircraft.
In fact the true purpose of the raid was to destroy the V-2 rocket programme. The fact that British intelligence even knew of its existence had to remain secret. The bomber crews could not be put fully in the picture, crews that survived being shot down would inevitably be interrogated about their targets.
Arguably this was one of the most important bombing raids of the war. Had the RAF not possessed the capability for such mass destruction by this stage in the war, the V-2 rocket programme against Britain would have got underway long before the invasion of France.
A diversionary raid to Berlin by Mosquitoes was also despatched that night in an attempt to draw off the German night fighters. It was not wholly successful, as the relatively inexperienced Jack Currie, piloting a Lancaster, was to discover:
We got DV222 George Two off the ground at twenty-three minutes to ten and, washed in the unaccustomed moonlight, set course east. Tail winds brought us early to our check-point in the Baltic, and I throttled back to lose time as we came to Rugen Island, north-west of the target.
Peenemunde lay starkly lighted by the moon, marked by green TIs, while a master-bomber circled, marshalling the attack. At thirty-four minutes after midnight I set George Two’s nose at the target on a time and—distance run, and Larry dropped the bombs from 9000 feet; a 4000 pounder, six 1000 pounders, and two 500 pounders. A billowing smoke screen partially obscured the target, but did not deter his aim. We swung right on to 290° true, against a forty-knot headwind, and climbed hard.
We had reached 18,000 feet near Stralsund, when the first fighter appeared, and the longest ten minutes I had known began. The ‘boozer’ light, flashing on my panel, gave the first warning that we were being followed, and then Lanham picked him up from the rear turret. ‘Fighter, fighter. Stand by to cork-screw port.’ ‘Standing by.’ ‘Mid—upper from rear-gunner. He’s at seven o’clock low. There may be a pair. I’ll look after this one, you watch out for the other.’ ‘Okay, Charlie.‘ ‘Prepare to cork-screw port… cork-screw port… go.’ ‘Going port.’
I rolled George Two sharply left, and dropped the nose. I let her go through ten degrees before pulling to the right and up, levelled as she passed back through the homeward heading, dived through another ten degrees right, climbed her back to port through twenty degrees.
Charlie kept the patter going, giving me the fighter’s distance and position, then: ‘Foxed him, Jack. He’s holding off on the starboard quarter. Now he‘s going low astern. He‘s out of range. Stand by.’ George Protheroe, slowly rotating the mid-upper turret, pressed his microphone switch. ‘Another fighter, skipper, four o’clock high, six hundred yards. It’s an Me 2l0.’
Charlie broke in. ‘Watch him, George. Here comes number one. Cork-screw starboard… go.’ ‘Going starboard.’ Between us, the gunners and I evaded four attacks. There were eleven degrees of frost at our height, but, after throwing George Two about the sky for a few minutes, I was sweating like a horse, and my muscles were aching.
While one fighter attacked, the other held off, content to retain one gunner’s attention. They were never in Lanham’s field of fire, and the mid-upper guns stayed silent.
A feeling of despair began to crawl into my mind; inevitably I would become exhausted and the fighters’ shells would rip George Two to shreds. They could afford to take their time. Perhaps the sadistic bastards were just playing with us. I pressed my back against the armour-plate behind me, and wondered what protection it would give. Messerschmitt, I thought, get it over with.
Turning automatically into another cork-screw to the left, I looked over my shoulder, down the length of the port wing. There he was, less than a hundred yards away, and converging, trying to bring his guns to bear. I saw a helmeted head in the cockpit, and a surge of anger pushed my lethargy away.
I stared at the German pilot. You’re no good, I thought. You’re a damned poor shot and a bloody awful pilot. Why the hell doesn’t the mid-upper fire? I snapped the mike switch on. ‘For Christ’s sake, George, shoot that bastard down!’ At once, the guns chattered, and a stream of orange sparks curved slowly down and through the fighter’s nose. He rolled over on his back, and dived straight down, disappearing into a sheet of stratus thousands of feet below.
‘I think you got him. Where’s the other one?’ Lanham answered from the rear turret. ‘Falling back astern. He’s clearing off. Good shooting, George!’ I agreed. ‘Yes, well done, George! What kept you?’ ‘Sorry, skipper. I had my sights on him all the time. I think I just forgot to shoot.’
I sat relaxed and let the relief run over me. George Two sailed on securely in the cold and moonlit night. I thought about the little Welsh mid-upper gunner, barely eighteen years old, rigid in his turret through the combat, unable to press the triggers until he heard my angry shout.
The Peenemunde raid, on which nearly 600 bombers were deployed, and forty lost, including the ‘A’ Flight Commander from Wickenby, was perhaps the most important on which we were engaged. We later learned that it delayed the enemy’s V-bomb attacks on England by six crucial months.