The devastating bombing raids on Hamburg in July had unsettled many Germans, including some senior Nazis. There remained those in Britain who believed that more of the same would be sufficient to bomb Germany into submission. Foremost amongst these was Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, leading RAF Bomber Command. It was obvious that the target that would do most to further this aim was Berlin.
But Berlin was a difficult and distant target. Not only was it well defended but a large part of the route across Germany to hit it was also infested with anti aircraft guns. Berlin’s position made it relatively easy to guess that it was the target if the bombers were headed in that direction – and get the night fighters airborne in readiness. Although the longer nights helped protect the bombers, predominantly cloudy weather meant it was difficult to see the target.
Bomber Harris explains his thinking at this time:
By the middle of November a number of Pathfinder aircraft were equipped with H2S Mark III, and the Command had also got an instrument, the Ground Position Indicator, which made it possible to carry out accurate timed runs even in very heavily defended areas. This, then, was in my judgment the right moment to begin the really heavy attack on Berlin which was so long overdue.
It was, of course, most unfortunate that we had not been able to begin the Battle of Berlin as soon after the destruction of Hamburg as the nights were long enough. We should then have been able to strike just when everybody in Berlin, and for that matter in Germany, had been thrown into a state of panic by the news of what happened to Hamburg.
And we should also have been able to take advantage of the confusion into which the use of Window had thrown the defences; by November, the fighter defence had been reorganised and strongly reinforced, though even so it was not as effective as it had been just before the use of Window.
But the three attacks on Berlin which we had carried out in September had altogether failed to hit the centre of the city and until we got the new type of H2S I considered it better to attack other cities which we had a much greater chance of destroying, especially as any attack on Berlin, even after the first disorganisation of the enemy’s ground control system, was bound to be more costly than an attack on any other target within reasonable range.
Moreover there was this advantage in attacking Berlin during the winter months that at this time of year bombing efficiency was invariably reduced, but not proportionately so much in attacks on Berlin, because of the great size of the target, as on any other town.
The long flight to the ‘Big City’ was not popular with bomber crews who knew what to expect. Flight Engineer Brian Soper was on his first operational flight on 18th November:
For the first time I experienced the flak, the searchlights, the fires, the bombs bursting on the ground and the Lanc shaking when the flak was close. I saw the brilliant colours of the target markers on the ground and experienced the long, long wait over the target while the bomb-aimer identified the target and gave his instructions to the pilot.
I felt the great lift of the Lanc when the bombs were released and then the two minutes flying on straight and level for the camera to check where our bombs had gone. And finally to dive and turn away on a course for home. I had to wonder what this experienced crew thought of this new ‘sprog’ engineer on his first trip, the crew that I hadn’t even really met. It seemed like hours before we got away from the target.
From Martin Bowman’s comprehensive study Bomber Command: Reflections of War: Battleground Berlin (July 1943 – March 1944).