‘Orchestrated Hell’ – Murrow reports from over Berlin

Lancaster B Mark III, LM449 ‘PG-H’, of No. 619 Squadron RAF based at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, in flight.

Lancaster B Mark III, LM449 ‘PG-H’, of No. 619 Squadron RAF based at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, in flight.

The personnel required to keep one Avro Lancaster flying on operations,

The personnel required to keep one Avro Lancaster flying on operations, taken at Scampton, Lincolnshire. Front row (left to right); flying control officer, WAAF parachute packer, meteorological officer, seven aircrew (pilot and captain, navigator and observer, air bomber, flight engineer, wireless operator/air gunner and two air gunners): second row, twelve flight maintenance crew (left to right; n.c.o. fitter, flight maintenance mechanic, n.c.o. fitter, five flight maintenance mechanics, electrical mechanic, instrument repairer, and two radio mechanics): third row, bombing up team; WAAF tractor driver with a bomb train of 16 Small Bomb Containers (SBC), each loaded with 236 x 4-lb No. 15 incendiaries and, behind, three bombing-up crew: fourth row, seventeen ground servicing crew (left to right; corporal mechanic, four aircraft mechanics, engineer officer, fitter/armourer, three armourers, radio mechanic, two instrument repairers, three bomb handlers, machine gunbelt fitter): back row (left to right); AEC Matador petrol tender and two crew, Avro Lancaster B Mark I heavy bomber, mobile workshop and three crew.

RAF Bomber Command’s sustained attack on Berlin continued. However the fortunes between the two sides were changing. The early raids in December did not achieve the clear sky marking that had led to the devastating raids at the beginning of the Berlin attacks. The bombing was much more scattered and did not produce the level of destruction, or the firestorms, seen earlier.

The German night fighter organisation was also gaining experience and improving their effectiveness. They were getting better at locating the bomber stream and deducing its ultimate target. The result on the night of the 2nd/3rd December was total losses of 40 bombers out of 458 aircraft on the raid – an unsustainable 8.7%.

Remarkably given these statistics there were civilians newspaper reporters who were prepared to volunteer to go on these raids. Two reporters, Captain Grieg of the Daily Mail and Norman Stockton of the Sydney Sun, were lost when their 460 (Australian) Squadron Lancaster was shot down. There would seem to be even less call for an American journalist to be on an RAF operation, but the already renowned Ed Murrow, was also on this raid. He survived and produced a celebrated radio broadcast about the raid.

Edward R Murrow broadcasting for CBC during the war.

Edward R Murrow broadcasting for CBC during the war.

Edward R. Murrow broadcast an account of the raid on 3rd December 1943, heard by the CBS radio audience in the U.S:

Jock pointed out to me the dummy fires and flares to right and left, but we kept going in. Dead ahead there was a whole chain of red flares looking like stoplights. Another Lanc was coned on our starboard beam. The lights seemed to be supporting it. Again we could see those little bubbles of colored lead driving at it from two sides. The German fighters were at him. And then, with no warning at all, D-Dog was filled with an unhealthy white light.

I was standing just behind Jock and could see all the seams on the wings. His quiet Scots voice beat into my ears, “Steady lads, we’ve been coned.” His slender body lifted half out of the seat as he jammed the control column forward and to the left. We were going down. Jock was wearing woolen gloves with the fingers cut off. I could see his fingernails turn white as he gripped the wheel. And then I was on my knees, flat on the deck, for he had whipped the Dog back into a climbing turn. The knees should have been strong enough to support me, but they weren’t, and the stomach seemed in some danger of letting me down too. I picked myself up and looked out again. It seemed that one big searchlight, instead of being twenty thousand feet below, was mounted right on our wingtip. D-Dog was corkscrewing. As we rolled down on the other side, I began to see what was happening to Berlin.

The clouds were gone, and the sticks of incendiaries from the preceding waves made the place look like a badly laid-out city with the streetlights on. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. As Jock hauled the Dog up again, I was thrown to the other side of the cockpit. And there below were more incendiaries, glowing white and then turning red. The cookies, the four-thousand-pound high explosives, were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad. And then, as we started down again, still held in the lights, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly, and the lights still held us, and I was very frightened.

While Jock was flinging us about in the air, he suddenly flung over the intercom, “Two aircraft on the port beam.” I looked astern and saw Wally, the mid-upper, whip his turret around to port, and then looked up to see a single-engine fighter slide just above us. The other aircraft was one of ours. Finally, we were out of the cone, flying level. I looked down, and the white fires had turned red. They were beginning to merge and spread, just like butter does on a hot plate. Jock and Buzz, the bomb-aimer, began to discuss the target. The smoke was getting thick down below. Buzz said he liked the two green flares on the ground almost dead ahead. He began calling his directions. And just then a new bunch of big flares went down on the far side of the sea of flame and flare that seemed to be directly below us. He thought that would be a better aiming point. Jock agreed and we flew on.

The bomb doors were opened. Buzz called his directions: “Five left, five left.” And then, there was a gentle, confident upward thrust under my feet and Buzz said, “Cookie gone.” A few seconds later, the incendiaries went, and D-Dog seemed lighter and easier to handle. I thought I could make out the outline of streets below, but the bomb-aimer didn’t agree, and he ought to know. By this time, all those patches of white on black had turned yellow and started to flow together. Another searchlight caught us but didn’t hold us. Then, through the intercom came the word, “One can of incendiaries didn’t clear. We’re still carrying it.” And Jock replied, “Is it a big one or a little one?” The word came back: “Little one, I think, but I’m not sure. I’ll check.” More of those yellow flares came down and hung about us. I haven’t seen so much light since the war began.

Finally, the intercom announced that it was only a small container of incendiaries left, and Jock remarked, “Well, it’s hardly worth going back and doing another run up for that.” If there had been a good fat bundle left, he would have gone back through that stuff and done it all over again. I began to breathe, and to reflect again – that all men would be brave if only they could leave their stomachs at home – when there was a tremendous whoomph, an unintelligible shout from the tail gunner, and D-Dog shivered and lost altitude. I looked to the port side and there was a Lancaster that seemed close enough to touch. He had whipped straight under us – missed us by twenty-five, fifty feet, no one knew how much.

The navigator sang out the new course and we were heading for home. And Jock was doing what I had heard him tell his pilots to do so often — flying dead on course. He flew straight into a huge green searchlight, and as he rammed the throttles home remarked, “We’ll have a little trouble getting away from this one.” And again D-Dog dove, climbed, and twisted, and was finally free. We flew level then. I looked on the port beam at the target area. There was a red, sullen, obscene glare. The fires seemed to have found each other and we were heading home.

For a little while it was smooth sailing. We saw more battles. Then another plane in flames, but no one could tell whether it was ours or theirs. We were still near the target. Dave, the navigator said, “Hold her steady, skipper. I want to get an astral sight.” And Jock held her steady. And the flak began coming up at us. It seemed to be very close. It was winking off both wings, but the Dog was steady. Finally, Dave said, “Okay, skipper. Thank you very much.” And a great orange blob of flak smacked up straight in front of us, and Jock said “I think they’re shooting at us.” I’d thought so for some time. And he began to throw D for Dog up, around, and about again. When we were clear of the barrage, I asked him how close the bursts were and he said, “Not very close. When they’re really near, you can smell ‘em.” That proved nothing for I’d been holding my breath.

Jack sang out from the rear turret, said his oxygen was getting low — thought maybe the lead had frozen. Titch, the wireless operator, went scrambling back with a new mask and a bottle of oxygen. Dave, the navigator, said, “We’re crossing the coast.” My mind went back to the time I had crossed that coast in 1938, in a plane that had taken off from Prague. Just ahead of me sat two refugees from Vienna — an old man and his wife. The copilot came back and told them that we were outside German territory. The old man reached out and grasped his wife’s hand. The work that was done last night was a massive blow of retribution, for all those who have fled from the sound of shots and blows on a stricken continent.

The whole of Ed Murrow’s account of the raid can be read at American Rhetoric.

Vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial showing undamaged buildings of the Trade Exhibition Centre at Leipzig, Germany, prior to the raid by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 3/4 December 1943

Vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial showing undamaged buildings of the Trade Exhibition Centre at Leipzig, Germany, prior to the raid by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 3/4 December 1943

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing very severe damage to buildings of the Trade Exhibition Centre at Leipzig, Germany, following the raid by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 3/4 December 1943.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing very severe damage to buildings of the Trade Exhibition Centre at Leipzig, Germany, following the raid by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 3/4 December 1943.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mary-Ann Lucas April 4, 2014 at 4:40 am

Thank you for preserving this historical piece of journalism.

I was born on this day and grew up listening and later watching Mr. Morrow’s unique reporting/interviewing style on television.

Again, thank you.

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