RAF Bomber Command revisits Cologne – again

Official British war art imagining a bombing raid on Cologne. The city's cathedral is clearly visible. It survived the war, despite being hit dozens of times by Allied bombs.  W. Krogman.

Official British war art imagining a bombing raid on Cologne. The city’s cathedral is clearly visible. It survived the war, despite being hit dozens of times by Allied bombs. W. Krogman.

A photograph of an H2S radar display taken during an attack on Cologne from an aircraft flying at 19,000 ft on the night of the 30/31 October 1944 and annotated for post-attack analysis. The aircraft was flying from RAF Warboys and the pilot was a Pilot Officer Bartleman.

A photograph of an H2S radar display taken during an attack on Cologne from an aircraft flying at 19,000 ft on the night of the 30/31 October 1944 and annotated for post-attack analysis. The aircraft was flying from RAF Warboys and the pilot was a Pilot Officer Bartleman.

Cologne was a familiar target to many in the RAF. Famously it had been the first target in the 1000 bomber raids of 1942. Since then it had received dozens of nuisance raids and diversions by small numbers of aircraft. These were designed to keep the defences, and the population, constantly on the alert, as well as keeping the main German air defences guessing about where the night’s main attack would hit.

Alongside these were less frequent more substantial raids, including a recent visit from the USAAF during daylight. As a major transportation hub in the west of Germany, Cologne was now higher up the target list as the Allies entered Germany.

Now that France had been liberated the route to Cologne meant an even shorter period over enemy territory. 905 aircraft had attacked the city on 30th October when substantial damage was done to the suburbs and the University district – over 500 people were killed but only two aircraft were lost. Frank Aspden of 218 Squadron was in one of the 493 aircraft that made a second attack on the 31st, when no aircraft were lost:

Cologne was a target that will always be well remembered by our crew — we went there four times and on two occasions we had a very shaky experience, to put it mildly, yet the other two were quite easy.

This first trip to Cologne was our fifth op and the first after six days leave, which had put us rather out of touch with things.

It was amazing really what changes could occur in the air war, as seen through our eyes, in six days. Sometimes there would be a couple of crews missing, a tour raised or lowered, or a certain target would be hotter or easier than it was before, or the fighters, day or night, would be up in strength, or have disappeared. That was the trouble at that time — you could never be certain of the defences at any given place, except, say, places such as Hamburg, which could always cook up a hot reception.

Anyway, the boys were always ready to give the gen on the past six days as soon as the leave crew returned and if after hearing all the stories you decided things were better, you could think the first target was going to be easy and so on. When we returned from leave things were much the same, so we thought Cologne would be a normal target, where flak would be heavy, if the skies were clear and moderate to slight depending on the amount of cloud over the target.

No one seemed particularly worried by the target at the briefing, in fact the shortness of the trip tended to make me at any rate, in a happy frame of mind. We took off and set course as usual via Reading, across the Channel and way across France — always the dreariest part of the trip I thought.

It seems a morbid thought maybe, but if I had a few moments to spare I used to look at my watch then at H-hour and think, ‘Mm, 50 minutes to go; I wonder if I shall still be sat here in an hour’s time; if so, that’ll be one more done!’

Then ’5° east. “Carpet” on Reg, 6° east. Time to Window, Dick — 0610E.’ Across the lines, ‘watch out now gunners’ — and then that last leg into the target.

On this trip we were on time and were soon running up on the Target Indicators. Below us the searchlights were trying to get us through the broken cloud whilst the brilliant full moon illuminated the aircraft around us quite clearly. Odd bursts of flak came up, but soon the bombs were gone and we turned out of the target area, nose down, revs up, 240 on the clock and homeward bound again. What a feeling of achievement, of relief.

I always felt as if I’d sneaked, into someone’s garden, pinched some of his choice fruit and was climbing the fence out again when the owner discovered the theft. Could I escape before he saw me? Well, he didn’t on this occasion, not on any other for that matter.

Yes, it was a nice trip home that night under the full moon and in a couple of hours or so we were back at base and by twelve we were cycling back to bed in our billet amongst the lovely trees at Methwold.

I remember standing outside the hut and admiring the beauty of the night, the silver moon, the millions of stars and the tree silhouetted against the night sky; then a Mosquito roared overhead and I thought again of Cologne and the hell that I had helped rain down on them only three hours before. It didn’t seem possible.

This account appears in Martin Bowman: Bomber Command: Armageddon (27 September 1944 – May 1945) v. 5: Reflections of War .

The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) stands seemingly undamaged (although having been directly hit several times and damaged severely) while entire area surrounding it is completely devastated. The Hauptbahnhof (Köln Central Station) and Hohenzollern Bridge lie damaged to the north and east of the cathedral. Germany, 24 April 1945.

The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) stands seemingly undamaged (although having been directly hit several times and damaged severely) while entire area surrounding it is completely devastated. The Hauptbahnhof (Köln Central Station) and Hohenzollern Bridge lie damaged to the north and east of the cathedral. Germany, 24 April 1945.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben Flanders von Elgk December 8, 2014 at 9:27 pm

My grandmother at that time had had already been bombed out 2x and evacuated to Schloss Drachenburg (Koenigswinter) with her 5 children (her husband had died from tuberculosis in 1938). However, on that day she’d gone into town to visit her sister and got caught up in a raid and subsequent firestorm. The house they were in collapsed and buried the entrance; they escaped through the cellars three houses further down, which was undamaged. They were running toward the Rhine and the Dom as it was less dangerous there being hit from falling debris or collapsing buildings. If you look at image above at the second bridge is a harbour building called “Siebengebirge” (Rheinauhafen) today rebuilt and following the Rhine to the the next bridge you see a church steeple which is Sankt Maria Lyskirchen in front of which stood our already bombed and burned out house.

She and her sister survived with singed clothes and hair. She often told me about that day when they saw burning bodies hanging out windows or jumping from balconies. A real inferno which no film can ever bring you close to. My father (now 86) and all his siblings were marked for life with the terrible experiences they had to endure not just by bombings but also by being caught in a system where you were put in jail 3 days for bringing a sicknote to school from a Jewish doctor, as happened to my aunt.

My great-aunt was carted off to a concentration camp for being kind to French and Belgian PoWs with cigarettes and food. But one GGCousin had the good luck that her future husband fell (literally) through her roof into her bedroom when he parachuted down… they married and still live in Kent…

Editor November 11, 2014 at 11:28 pm

I believe it is correct to say that at periods during the war when losses were running high, “statistically” it was not possible to survive the 30 operations ( 20 is incorrect) that air crew were expected to complete on a tour. Obviously every time they went up there was “some chance of survival” – and a small number of men did beat the odds. Within the overall average risk of loss, the inexperienced crews had a higher chance of being shot down, thus “statistically” helping to improve the chances for the more experienced crews.

Whichever way you look at it, they were all incredibly brave and deserve to be remembered for that. This is a quite separate consideration from any arguments about the “effectiveness” of the bombing campaign, which is an even more complex issue.

John Gallup November 11, 2014 at 10:29 pm

No argument about the bravery of air crews, but in regards to the loss rate, 4-5% losses over 20 missions does not mean “certain loss”. A 5% loss means 95% survival per mission. When this is compounded over 20 missions, that is .95^20 or 36% probability of surviving the whole tour, still terrifying odds. Due to replacement of crews that died, the total losses over the 20 missions are 100% of the initial number of airmen, but many of those who die during this period are replacements of the original crews. Another way of seeing the odds for an individual is that unless the losses are 100% on any mission, an individual has some chance of survival. If the person was sufficiently lucky, they could survive an indefinite number of missions if they happen to be among the living each time.

sglover November 2, 2014 at 10:51 pm

To anyone who’s even a little aware of what Germans did **every day** to Poles and Russians and Jews and Roma, Cologne and Hamburg and Dresden fall more in the category of “just desserts” than “atrocity”. It’s next to impossible to believe that the good burghers of those cities didn’t know exactly what their armies were doing to the conquered populations.

Rob Evans November 2, 2014 at 2:56 am

As Carol has conveniently failed to point out, Coventry was FIREBOMBED by the Luftwaffe in a direct attack on its civilian population.
The Nazis targeted civilians as a matter of strategy starting in Guernica, subsequently working their way through Rotterdam, Coventry, Plymouth, East London…. Not forgetting the MILLIONS of innocents slaughtered in the name of their hideous ideology.
They sowed the wind, they reaped the whirlwind.

John Shaw November 2, 2014 at 2:15 am

I resent the implication in using “BRAVE”. They were truly brave in every sense of the word. The casualty rate for commonwealth aircrew was very high. Crews going on missions knew this and still went. The loss rate was between 4 and 5 percent per mission. With a tour of 20 missions the crews statistically faced certain loss, but still went. That is bravery.

CAROL HINRICHSEN October 31, 2014 at 11:01 am

In the raid, 868 aircraft bombed the main target with 15 aircraft bombing other targets. The total tonnage of bombs dropped was 1,455 tons with two-thirds of that being incendiaries. Two and a half thousand separate fires were started with 1,700 classed by the German fire brigades as “large”. The action of fire fighters and the width of the streets stopped the fires combining into a firestorm, but nonetheless most of the damage was done by fire and not directly by the explosive blasts. 3,330 non-residential buildings were destroyed, 2,090 seriously damaged and 7,420 lightly damaged, making a total of 12,840 buildings of which 2,560 were industrial or commercial buildings. Among the buildings classed as totally destroyed were: 7 official administration buildings, 14 public buildings, 7 banks, 9 hospitals, 17 churches, 16 schools, 4 university buildings, 10 postal and railway buildings, 10 buildings of historic interest, 2 newspaper offices, 4 hotels, 2 cinemas and 6 department stores. The only military installation damaged was the flak barracks. The damage to civilian homes, most of them apartments in larger buildings, was considerable: 13,010 destroyed, 6,360 seriously damaged, 22,270 lightly damaged.
THE 150,000 WHO “FLED” COLOGNE WERE ACTUALLY CIVILIANS INCINERATED BY THE “BRAVE” BOMBER COMMAND WHO DROPPED 2/3 OF THEIR LOAD AS INCENDIARIES.
WHEREAS IN COVENTRY, THE WORST HIT ENGLISH TOWN IN THE BLITZKRIEG, 568 DIED.
TO CLAIM THAT SO FEW DIED IN COLOGNE (AS WIKIPEDIA DOES) IS AS RIDICULOUS AS THE CLAIM THAT SO FEW CIVILIANS AND REFUGEES DIED IN DRESDEN.

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