Dortmund: heaviest tonnage of bombs yet dropped

Avro Lancaster B Mark III, ED724 'PM-M', of No. 103 Squadron RAF pauses on the flarepath at Elsham Wolds, Lincolnshire, before taking off for a raid on Duisburg, Germany, during the Battle of the Ruhr. Three searchlights (called 'Sandra' lights) form a cone to indicate the height of the cloud base for the departing aircraft.

Avro Lancaster B Mark III, ED724 ‘PM-M’, of No. 103 Squadron RAF pauses on the flarepath at Elsham Wolds, Lincolnshire, before taking off for a raid on Duisburg, Germany, during the Battle of the Ruhr. Three searchlights (called ‘Sandra’ lights) form a cone to indicate the height of the cloud base for the departing aircraft.

Short Stirling W7459 'O' of No. 1651 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) in flight, 1942.

Short Stirling W7459 ‘O’ of No. 1651 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) in flight, 1942.

In May 1942 Bomber Command had been able to scrape together 1000 aircraft from every corner of the service, including the Training squadrons, to mount a few high profile raids. In May 1943 it waited over a week to get as many of its main operational aircraft as serviceable as possible. A total of 826 were available on the 23rd May for a new target in the heart of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial centre. A much higher proportion of them were four engined heavy bombers – Lancasters, Halifaxs and Stirlings – so now the tonnage being dropped exceeded even the 1000 bomber raids.

Tactics were now maturing – the force was led by 13 Mosquito aircraft from the Pathfinder Force. They would find the centre of the city of Dortmund accurately, using the Oboe navigation system. Once they had marked the Aiming Point with coloured flares, it was over to the main force to do their work.

Tom Wingham was a bomb aimer in a Halifax bomber that night. By chance they found themselves at the head of the bomber stream:

As we neared our target the flak intensified, although there were at this point no searchlights. Quite often the Germans would delay the use of these until the target had been marked in case, one presumes, the searchlights would give them away.

Being in the forefront of the attack we kept on course to Dortmund, although we were only a couple of minutes from our ETA and no markers were yet visible. Suddenly a vivid splash of colour appeared ahead and below us, and relief set in that this was the primary Oboe marker and we would not have to go round again.

Now l took over and guided Dave through my bombsight. ‘Bomb doors open.’ ‘Bomb doors open,’ repeated Dave.

`Left _ _ . left. _ . steady _ _ _ steady_’ I pressed the tit, ‘Bombs gone!’

The aircraft jumped with the release of the two 1,000lb HEs. At the same time the
photoflash left its ’chute at the rear of the aircraft and we now flew straight and level while I counted the 10 seconds. We carried a mixed load of HE and incendiary bombs, which, unfortunately, had different terminal velocities.

This meant that the HE bombs had a better forward travel than the smaller incendiaries, which would fall almost vertically. We still, therefore, had six small bomb containers of 30lb incendiaries and seven SBCs of 4lb to be dropped; these would be released in sequence so that the hundreds of incendiaries would cover an area over 100 yards long. The idea was that the HE should open up the buildings, then the incendiaries would follow to set fire to the exposed rubble. ln order for this to happen there had to be a time lag between dropping the two types of bombs, hence the 10-second run.

The bomb release had also set up the camera ready to record our position at the time of the impact of the bombs. Providing we maintained our run, which went on for a little longer after the release of the incendiaries, the centre of the photograph would indicate the impact point of our bomb load.

It was not often that I had a virgin target to aim at with no other bombing except the Oboe marker, but of course this also meant that we were way out front, an ideal target for the gunners below and, moreover, making life easy for them with the prolonged straight and level photo run. We had been getting a bumpy ride as the flak intensified almost to the point of realisation of the old line shoot, ‘The flak was so heavy you could get out and walk on it.’

With the bomb doors closed we continued to cross the target going south and had just got our photo and were now free to jink about a bit to confuse the guns when there was an almighty bang. The aircraft almost shuddered to a stop and we seemed to be dropping out of the sky.

At 7,000 feet the miracle occurred, as gradually the engines began to splutter again and Dave began to stabilise the aircraft. With power to our elbow, as it were, we now had a chance against the enemy, weaving to get out of the searchlights and, above all, starting to climb to get some height again, having lost some 10,000 feet in our fall. As we were in the middle of the Ruhr we had no choice but to continue to fly westward through the best-defended area in Germany, but we eventually made our way out and had an uneventful trip back to base.

Arriving back at dispersal we now had the chance to examine the aircraft to see what had happened. We had apparently been hit by shrapnel from a rather near miss, as witnessed by some 20-plus holes in the aircraft, with one large piece slicing through the fire extinguisher buttons, setting them off in three engines, and thus giving them foam rather than fuel to digest. Not taking kindly to this, they had given up.

When, later that moming, I visited the Photographic Section it was with great satisfaction that I found my developed photo showing a very clear picture of Dortmund with the Aiming Point right bang in the centre.

This account appears in Martin Bowman: RAF Bomber Stories.

Silhouetted against the glare of incendiary fires, a Handley Page Halifax of No. 4 Group releases its bomb load through cloud during a successful night raid on Leipzig, Germany.

Silhouetted against the glare of incendiary fires, a Handley Page Halifax of No. 4 Group releases its bomb load through cloud during a successful night raid on Leipzig, Germany.

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