Luftwaffe night fighter scores four RAF Lancasters

Lancaster I R5729/KM-A of No 44 Squadron at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out for Berlin on 2 January 1944.

Lancaster I R5729/KM-A of No 44 Squadron at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out for Berlin on 2 January 1944.

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, R5729 'KM-A', of No 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force runs up its engines in a dispersal at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out on a night raid to Berlin. This veteran aircraft had taken part in more than 70 operations with the Squadron since joining it in 1942. It was finally shot down with the loss of its entire crew during a raid on Brunswick on the night of 14-15 January 1944.

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, R5729 ‘KM-A’, of No 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force runs up its engines in a dispersal at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out on a night raid to Berlin. This veteran aircraft had taken part in more than 70 operations with the Squadron since joining it in 1942. It was finally shot down with the loss of its entire crew during a raid on Brunswick on the night of 14-15 January 1944.

On the night of 27th January RAF Bomber Command were headed in strength for Berlin again, with 515 Lancaster bombers. So many factors decided how many of them would get through to bomb and back home safely. Much depended on the weather and the visibility, whether various feints, radar jamming and diversionary raids would fool the Germans.

If enough night fighters found them, the bomber fleet was very vulnerable. An experienced night fighter pilot had little difficulty picking off targets once he found the main bomber stream.

Flying conditions were appalling in northern Germany on the 27th January. Thick freezing fog made any attempt at take off completely reckless. This did not stop Wilhelm Johnen and his comrades in their Me 110s. At the point off take off he saw a friend crash in flames alongside him. Then his own aircraft began to ice up rapidly. Did he press on or attempt the equally dangerous business of landing:

The engines were running at full throttle. Thick ice splinters broke off with loud reports and thumped against the nose.

Mahle reported: “Herr Oberleutnant – it’s pointless. The tail unit’s beginning to ice up. The temperature outside is now 4° below.”

I noticed that my joy-stick was no longer answering. Fortunately the trimming wheel was still working. I set the machine at tail-heavy, and pushed the throttle home to its utmost limit. The engines could rev like this for five minutes at the utmost. But why should I spare the engines when it was a question of the crew’s life.

I remembered the English bomber formation which, in the winter of 1943, iced up over the North Sea and, as a last resort, jettisoned bombs, equipment and petrol in the sea to lighten the machines. And yet they could not reach the safety height, and more than forty four-engined bombers crashed like gigantic lumps of ice into the icy waters. No rescue was possible. Would the same thing happen to me?

Our last chance was to bale out. But it was not very pleasant in this sort of weather to jump into the unknown. So I must go on climbing, climbing, climbing. All eyes were riveted on the wings. The machine was almost on stalling point but at last we were out of danger. The layer of ice gradually broke off. My good old Me. 110 was now climbing faster and the temperature outside sank to 15° below. The danger of icing was past.

But there still remained the darkness and the impenetrable cloud bank around us. The altimeter showed 6,000 feet, but not until 12,000 did we catch a glimpse of the stars. God be praised – we had won through. Now, above us, was a cloudless sky with bright stars such as one only sees on clear winter nights. I skimmed the clouds, heading for the Baltic coast and waited for further orders. I almost felt like patting my Me. 110 as though she had been a human being.

I wondered what could have happened to Hauptmann Bar and his crew. How could he have crashed? I thought of Kamprath and his family. They could not have got away with it for they could not have been at more than 200 feet. This was far too low to bale out.

My thoughts were interrupted by an order from the ground station: “White Argus from Meteor-Achtung, Achtung! Strong bomber formation at 15,000 feet over the Baltic flying on a south-westerly course.”

Above Wismar my radio operator caught the first enemy machine in his SN 2. The magic began.

At 20.36 the first enemy bomber was brought down and spun through the clouds after my first burst. Twenty minutes later, a second crashed just outside the capital. The British drew a square above the clouds with their parachute flares. We could see nothing of the city below. Thousands of flak bursts confirmed our arrival over the target. Wave after wave of bombers flew across the square of light and dropped their loads within this area, through the cloud on to the city.

I approached this square on a southerly course and spotted a couple of four-engined Lancasters directly above the target. After a short attack the first bomber exploded and fell in burning debris through the clouds.

The second banked steeply to starboard, trying to escape. The Tommies fired at me with all their guns framing my aircraft with gleaming tracers. I pressed home the attack; the tail unit grew ever larger in my sights. Now was the time to shoot. The fire power of my guns was terric. My armour-piercing shells riddled the well-protected wing tanks and the pilot’s armoured cockpit; the tracers set fire to the petrol and the shells tore great holes in the wings. It was no wonder that my fourth bomber that night crashed in flames.

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

Wilhelm Johnen was officially credited with three victories for this night, on the way to his total of thirty four for the war. He was one of the most successful Luftwaffe night fighter pilots and one of the most highly decorated to survive the war.

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

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

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