After a couple of large raids in January Bomber Command had made a point of visiting Berlin on the 10th anniversary of the Nazi party. That had just been a minor diversion with Mosquitoes. Now in the largest raid they had yet made on Berlin the heavy bomber fleet made the long trip in a dramatic demonstration of what the RAF was capable of achieving. In the belief that German morale was already under strain, raids on the capital were regarded as an essential part of the war effort, undermining all the Nazi claims that they could protect the Reich.
There were 302 aircraft on this raid, including 86 Halifaxes. Squadron Leader Alan Frank was leading No. 51 Squadron in this aircraft:
Crossing Denmark we pass into the Baltic and swing towards Berlin. Now we are in the thick of the fighter defences and bursts of horizontal tracer show that the Luftwaffe is active. Over to port an aircraft bursts into flames and descends seemingly amazingly slowly to earth. It is impossible to see the aircraft type nor whether any parachutes have emerged.
Suddenly straight ahead the darkness is transformed. A single searchlight sweeps the sky, then another, then in virtually no time hundreds – the flak follows and the sky ahead is a continuous mass of flashes from bursting shells. Intelligence told us of 400 heavy AA guns in the city’s defences, but that looks like an underestimate!
Then the flare droppers get to work and perhaps a hundred parachute flares hang in the night sky. The target markers will be dropped by radar but the master bomber will try to assess their accuracy visually. The target markers resemble clusters of brilliantly coloured chandeliers bursting a couple of thousand feet up and continuing to burn on the ground.
The first markers down are red. The master bomber now picks the most accurate and directs the back-up marker force to aim green markers at it, and that is our target. Finally comes the main force – some 200 aircraft each carrying many tons of high explosives and sticks of incendiaries and the scene below passes belief.
Continuous flashes mark the burst of high explosive and sticks of incendiaries draw incandescent streaks across the city where fires quickly appear to complete a picture which Dante could hardly have visualised.
By this time we are entering the Berlin defensive ring – about 80 miles across. So long as we are only subject to barrage fire, the best bet is to grit one’s teeth and fly straight to get through as quickly as possible, but this time we are unlucky. A searchlight picks us out and almost at once we are at the dazzling centre of a cone with predicted flak coming up at us.
Dropping 2,000 feet to keep clear ofthe incoming bomber stream, I turn through 180 degrees and fly north out of range of the defences. Then I swing south again to join the tail end of the attack and try again. This time we are luckier. No searchlight picks us up and we have only the barrage and the ever present danger of night fighters to cope with. Fragments of bursting shell rattle against the fuselage and in the general tension I suddenly realise that my mouth is quite dry, but it is now as safe to go forward as back.
As the inferno that is Berlin disappears under the nose, I tell Minch, lying on his stomach in the nose studying the scene below, to takeover. With a voice of absolute calm I hear, “About two minutes to run, Skipper, left, left, steady, steady – bomb doors open please – all bombs gone. Camera has operated – close bomb doors.”
Now F for Freddy, less half her fuel load and five tons of bombs, feels positively skittish! “Course for home please, Toddy,” and we swing westward. Ahead is the frontal cloud which caused us worries on the way out. Now it offers protection from the ever present fighter threat and I fly towards it.
Once into cloud we can all relax except Toddy. From him I get the usual steady grumble about the unreliability of forecast winds, the lack of pin-points and the uselessness of the radio bearings but it does not stop me from opening the thermos and enjoying some indifferent coffee.
However we are not home yet. Over the Zyder Zee we run out of cloud and this is a notorious area for night fighters. Everybody wakes up to peer into the darkness.
Nothing is seen but suddenly Monica starts to emit a stream of excited squeaks (Monica is a device which warns us that we are being tracked by a night fighter radar). Reaction must be quick and I go into a corkscrew – a violent diving turn which spills the coffee and throws loose objects round the flight deck. An equally violent climbing turn to starboard presses us all into our seats. Thankfully Monica has relapsed into silence. We have shaken the fighter off.
Air Vice Marshal Alan Frank’s account of this early Berlin raid appears in War’s Long Shadow.
Although there were 5.6 % losses on this raid and much of the bombing was dispersed over an area of nearly 100 square miles, it was regarded as a success. A significant proportion of the bombs fell in concentration on the south west of Berlin, destroying large areas on factories and workshops.
The weight of bombs was now so large that even a raid where only a proportion of them hit the target was regarded as a success. For analysis of every World War II bombing raid by the RAF see the Bomber Command War Diaries.