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 .