Operation Gomorrah – German night-fighters are duped

An Me 110 'Nachtjagdflugzeugs ' nightfighter prepares for a sortie, 1943.

A Me 110 ‘Nachtjagdflugzeugs’ nightfighter prepares for a sortie, 1943.

A year earlier Churchill had called for the ruthless bombing of Germany. Now the RAF and the USAAF were beginning to deliver it in large measure. Bomber Command had been engaged in the Battle of the Ruhr since March 1943, in which the major German industrial cities were laid waste in a co-ordinated plan.

Now an even more devastating blow was planned for just one city. It was intended to demonstrate the awesome destructive power that the bomber forces were now capable of – and by doing so send a message to every German as to what they could expect if the war continued. Not only would RAF Bomber Command make several successive trips to Hamburg but the USAAF would be making daylight attacks, to maintain round the clock pressure on the defenders and rescue services.

The raid was considered so important that a new weapon was used operationally for the first time. ‘Window’ was very simple in concept – simply large bundles of tinned foil that were dropped by aircraft during the flight into the target. The effect of Window on the German radar was calculated to produce confusion. Luftwaffe night fighter pilot Wilhelm Johnen was one of those on the receiving end on 24th July:

The early warnings from the Freya apparatus on the Channel coast indicated a large-scale British raid. In the lane afternoon various flak units, night-fighter wing and civilian air-raid posts had been given orders to have their full complement at action stations.

What were the British up to? What city that night would be the victim of these well-prepared raids? Every ominous presentiment was to be fulfilled that night. In all ignorance, the night-fighter squadrons took of against the British bombers, whose leaders were reported over Northern Holland.

I was on ops and flew in the direction of Amsterdam. On board everything was in good order and the crew was in a cheerful mood. Radio operator Facius made a final cheek and reported that he was all set.

The ground stations kept calling the night fighters, giving them the positions of the bombers. That night, however, I felt that the reports were being given hastily and nervously. It was obvious no one knew exactly where the enemy was or what his objective would be.

An early recognition of the direction was essential so that the night fighters could be introduced as early as possible into the bomber stream. But the radio reports kept contradicting themselves. Now the enemy was over Amsterdam and then suddenly west of Brussels, and a moment later they were reported far out to sea in Map Square 25.

What was to be done? The uncertainty of the ground stations was communicated to the crews. Since this game of hide-and-seek went on for some time I thought: To hell with them all, and flew straight to Amsterdam. By the time I arrived over the capital the air position was still in a complete muddle. No one knew where the British were, but all the pilots were reporting pictures on their screens. I was no exception.

At 15,000 feet my sparker announced the first enemy machine in his Li. I was delighted. I swung round on to the bearing in the direction of the Ruhr, for in this way I was bound to approach the stream. Facius proceeded to report three or four pictures on his screens. I hoped that I should have enough ammunition to deal with them!

Then Facius suddenly shouted: ‘Tommy flying towards us at a great speed. Distance decreasing … 2,000 yards, 1,500 … 1,000 … 500 …’

I was speechless. Facius already had a new target. ‘Perhaps it was a German night fighter on a westerly course,’ I said to myself and made for the next bomber.

It was not long before Facius shouted again: ‘Bomber coming for us ata hell of a speed. 2,000… 1,000… 500… He’s gone.’

‘You’re crackers, Facius,’ I said jestingly.

But I soon lost my sense of humour for this crazy performance was repeated a score of times and nally I gave Facius such a rocket that he was deeply offended.

This tense atmosphere on board was suddenly interrupted by a ground station calling: ‘Hamburg, Hamburg. A thousand enemy bombers over Hamburg. Calling all night fighters, calling all night fighters. Full speed for Hamburg.’

I was speechless with rage. For half an hour I had been weaving about in a presumed bomber stream and the bombs were already falling on Germany’s great port. It was a long way to Hamburg.

See Wilhelm Johnen: Duel Under the Stars: German Night Fighter Pilot in the Second World War.

hamburg bombing

Annotated vertical aerial taken during the night raid on Hamburg of 24/25 July 1943. Sticks of incendiaries are burning in the Altona and Dock districts (top, ‘4’). A photoflash bomb at lower left has illuminated the camouflaged Binnen Alster (‘2′), and the Aussen Alster (‘1′) on which a flak position has been built (‘3′).

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