London had been spared the attention of Luftwaffe bombers for some time. With the nights growing darker they had begun to make an infrequent re-appearance, at first regarded as something of a novelty by Londoners. The raids may have allowed the Nazis to claim that they were ‘hitting back’ – but they could not possibly match the scale of devastation that Bomber Command and the USAAF were regularly inflicting on Germany.
The RAF night fighter interception units were ordered to adopt new tactics to take on the intruders. Theirs was a constantly evolving game of ever improving aircraft performance and technological innovation. The ace night fighter John Cunningham and his regular Navigator, C.F. Rawnsley, were ready for the new challenge:
It was probably for some purely political reason – intended, perhaps, as a timely counter to the growing suspicion that London’s defences had more sound than fury – that the decision was made to operate a couple of night fighters over what was known as the Inner Artillery Zone. The guns were to limit their fire to a height of eighteen thousand feet, and the fighters were to patrol at twenty thousand feet or above. I felt that the idea was merely for propaganda purposes with the hope that there might be a spectacular battle with plenty of cannon fire overhead, possibly finishing up with an impressive flamer.
Having watched the London barrage from afar, I hoped that there would be no errors in the height at which they set their fuses ; and remembering our battle over Southampton over two years before, I viewed with mixed feelings the prospect of sending down a flamer into the centre of London.
[On 25th October 1943]
[W]e were scrambled rather too late, because we scarcely had time to reach the height at which we were supposed to operate before we were turned to the south to meet the first raider. I got a contact almost immediately, but it was well above us and we had to turn after it, still climbing as hard as we could. In doing that we inevitably lost range, and a few minutes later we found ourselves at the edge of the gun zone still in contact but some three miles behind.
And then the guns opened up and the fun started. I glanced outside to see what it looked like. The anti-aircraft display was fantastic as it tore the night apart just below the place where our target should have been. Our customer must have been equally impressed because I found when I turned back to the A.I. set that he was throwing himself about all over the place.
There followed a few moments of hectic manoeuvring, and it took all my breath and all John’s skill to keep up with it. Then the raider dropped his bomb, turned and dived for home, going like the wind.
We went down after him, our ears cracking, out across Kent. We were slowly closing the range, and we crossed the coast less than a mile behind our target. If the quivering airframe and the screaming engines of our aircraft held together, I thought, we had a good chance of getting him.
But we had dived in a very short time from the Arctic cold of twenty-five thousand feet, and the moisture from the warmer air below began to cake in solid ice on our windscreen. In a few moments it was opaque, and although by the time we had pulled out of our dive the range had closed to two thousand feet we could see nothing through that sheet of ice.
But the blip was still there, and from the way it was behaving the raider showed no signs of slowing up. We continued after it until we were thirty miles out across the Channel, with the windscreen still iced up and our target still just out of reach.
We had done our best, but that best was just not good enough, and reluctantly we turned back. When we landed we learnt that Rory and George had had no better luck.