After the attacks on Hamburg and Peenemunde RAF Bomber Command had good reason to feel that it was at last becoming truly effectively, not just damaging German industry but damaging German morale. There still remained a hope that bombing alone might win the war, that devastating raids might undermine the Nazi regime to such an extent that the German government would collapse. Maintaining that momentum meant taking the offensive to the heart of Germany, to Berlin.
The attack on Hamburg had resulted in relatively light casualties, as new RAF tactics confounded the night fighters. Already the Luftwaffe were adjusting to new circumstances. And Berlin was a tough target. It was a distant run over the German plains which helped the German defences guess where the attack was headed and prepare accordingly. Berlin itself was very well defended, bristling with searchlights and anti-aircraft guns. It already had a reputation amongst aircrews.
James Campbell describes the scene at Lissett where No.158 Squadron, flying Halifaxes, was based. The first briefing was just for the pilots, navigators and bomb aimers. He describes the scene in the afternoon of 23rd August 1943 when they learnt that the rumours were true:
Eye catching Air Ministry contents bills with bold headlines screaming, ’Have You Done This?’ ‘This is Important’. ‘Remember That?’ plastered the green painted walls of the main briefing room.
Aircrews sprawled over the rough wooden forms and leaned inertly across the ink-stained tables. Others, who could not find seats, lounged along the walls in attitudes of complete and utter boredom. Through the blue—white haze of tobacco smoke a hundred-and-sixty voices rose in a noisy babble. The older crews made pungent remarks, bitterly resenting that the early transport into town had been cancelled until the briefing was over.
A shuffling of massed feet, punctuated by a few wooden forms crashing to the floor, greeted the Wing Commander [C C ‘Jock‘ Calder] as he entered. He leapt lightly on the raised dais in front of the huge wall map constructed from sections of Mercator charts. He searched the rows of white faces in front of him, contemplating for a full half minute the assortment of brevets and uniforms. ‘Sit down, gentlemen! Smoke, if you wish,’ he said crisply.
The clamour of conversation had died down and the air-crews were seated quietly on the wooden forms in front of the plain tables. The Wing Commander toyed with a bright red pin. Attached to the pin was a long narrow red cord. He surveyed the room for a few moments … ‘Tonight — it’s Berlin again!’ He waited until the low murmur of whispered comments died.
He handed the red cord to the Squadron navigation officer and watched him plunge the pin into the black square that was Lissett. Deftly the navigation ofcer placed another pin in a minute triangle over a DR position in the North Sea. Swiftly, from there, he laid off the legs to the enemy coast, then across Germany to Berlin.
‘I don’t put a great deal on what they think about you at Group. If you have had higher losses than other squadrons, then you’re obviously not as efficient as they are … And if you go out thinking you won’t come back’ thundered the Wing Commander, ‘you give the Hun that psychological advantage which comes from your own inferiority.’ A cathedral silence stilled the room.
Someone at the back coughed. The sound reverberated sharply. ‘For the benefit of the new crews, I must remind you that you do not divulge the target or anything which may identify it — not even to the rest of your crew. They will know soon enough at the main brieng at 17.00 hours.’
When the wing commander completed his briefing of the pilots, the navigation officer took over. Then came the bombing officer. Slowly and clearly they gave their instructions, repeating some points, stressing others.
Two hours later, the main briefing hall was packed. This time the gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers were in the big room. The wing commander, a billiard cue in his right hand, traced on the map the course and heights they were to fly at, the estimated time of arrival at their turning points. He told them — and there was a sigh of relief at his words — that twenty minutes before they crossed the enemy coast 22 aircraft from the OTUs would make a dummy feint a hundred miles from their landfall.
The Bombing Leader said his piece, thankful he himself was not going out; he had an unpleasant memory of the last time he had gone to Berlin. He revealed that the Pathfinders would take as their aiming point the Unter—den—Linden.
They would mark it with red indicators. The backers-up would aim at the reds with green markers in as tight a circle as the Mark 14 bombsight would allow.
‘So your primary aiming points are the reds. If they are bombed out or otherwise obscured, bomb the greens.’
Finally, the wing commander stepped briskly forward. ‘That’s all then, except — Good Luck Gentlemen and Good Bombing.’
The full account by James Campbell appears in Bomber Command: Reflections of War: Battleground Berlin : Martin Bowman, volume 4 of Martin Bowman’s comprehensive account of Bomber Command .