Black night for Bomber Command

Avro Lancasters of No 57 Squadron, Royal Air Force, lined up in the dusk at Scampton, Lincolnshire, before an operation.

Avro Lancasters of No 57 Squadron, Royal Air Force, lined up in the dusk at Scampton, Lincolnshire, before an operation.

Woodbridge ELG

Woodbridge ELG (lower left) was specially built as the first of three Bomber Command emergency runways for damaged allied aircraft returning from operations over Europe. It was opened in No. 3 Group, Bomber Command, on 15 November 1943 and was administered as a satellite of RAF Bentwaters (upper right). Dispersal loops, onto which crashed bombers were taken and serviceable aircraft parked, adjoin the south side of the single large runway (3,000 yards long x 250 yards wide), the size of which should be compared with those of the airfield at Bentwaters.

On the night of the 16th/17th December Bomber Command went back to Berlin yet again. Most of the bombing hit housing and railways rather than industrial sites. Over 700 people were killed, although German records were no longer as accurate as they had been. As many as 279 of those killed were foreign workers, including over 70 when a train received a direct hit. By now around a quarter of housing in Berlin was uninhabitable. Damage to the railways was now starting to cause serious delays to munitions traffic for the Eastern front.

25 Lancasters were lost to fighters and anti aircraft fire over Germany. Worse was to come as the bombers returned to England in the early hours of the 17th to find that many of their airfields were fog bound. The situation became desperate at the planes began to run out of fuel.

Some crews abandoned their aircraft and baled out. More died when their planes crashed on landing. In total 29 planes were lost and 148 men killed. It was the worse single night for such ‘accidental’ losses. No 97 Squadron RAF was the worst hit. Three of their aircraft managed to find Gravely where FIDO – a system for burning off the fog and lighting the runway using large quantities of burning petrol, sprayed from pipes beside the runway – was in operation. For others time ran out too quickly:

16.12.43

21 aircraft detailed to attack Berlin. Good concentration of bombing in early stages falling off later. No results seen only reddish glow. 10/10ths cloud tops 3/5000′, vis good. Defences H/F moderate to 22,000′ and moderate L/F 14,000′ – S/Ls ineffective. Many fighter flares and scarecrow flares. F/L Pelletier in Lanc JA960 was attacked by an enemy fighter JU88 and claims it damaged.

One aircraft, F/L Brill and crew failed to return – no news heard since.

On returning to base aircraft encountered bad visibility over England and the Squadron had a disastrous night in aircraft losses and 28 aircrew being killed.

The following is a brief summary of the return. 8 aircraft landed safely at Bourn and 3 at Graveley. One aircraft landed at Wyton.

F/Sgt Coates after being hit by another aircraft’s incendiaries and having two engines put out of action on the same side by flak, put out a ditching signal when not far from the Danish coast. With great skill he flew the aircraft back on the two engines and landed safely without further damage at Downham Market.

Two crews, P/O Smith and F/O Mooney the captains, baled out safely over Ely and Wyton. All the crews were uninjured but one aircraft is missing and untraced.

S/L Mackenzie DFC crashed at Bourn on the edge of the airfield. Three were killed – S/L Mackenzie, F/O Colson, P/O Pratt, the remainder are either in hospital or sick quarters.

F/O Thackway and crew crashed near Bourn airfield, killing all except Sgt Mack who is in hospital and Sgt Laver who escaped uninjured.

S/L Deverill DFC DFM and crew crashed at Graveley, all being killed except for W/O Benbow who is in Ely hospital.

F/Sgt Scott and crew crashed at Graveley, all being killed.

P/O Kirkwood and crew crashed near Gransden, all being killed.

Total loss of aircraft – 8. Aircrew killed – 28, injured 7.

For more on the impact on 97 Squadron see FirebyNight.

FIDO (Fog Investigation Dispersal Operations).

FIDO (Fog Investigation Dispersal Operations) petrol burners are ignited on either side of the main runway at Graveley, Huntingdonshire, as an Avro Lancaster of No. 35 Squadron RAF takes off in deteriorating weather.

RAF personnel on a bomber station in Britain view a display of target photographs taken by their aircraft during the previous night's operation over Germany. The photographs taken from the various aircraft are displayed under the aircraft identification letter.

RAF personnel on a bomber station in Britain view a display of target photographs taken by their aircraft during the previous night’s operation over Germany. The photographs taken from the various aircraft are displayed under the aircraft identification letter.

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