Bomber Command had come a long way since the desperate days of 1940 when they were flying twin engined bombers and sustaining terrible losses. The strategic decision to concentrate a substantial proportion of Allied resources on the bombing of Germany had been made long before. There were few other options available, hitting back at Germany meant bombing Germany. It was just a year since the Lancasters had first become operational, now they formed the backbone of the bomber fleet.
Getting troops on the ground in occupied Europe for a true ‘Second Front’ required an enormous logistical build up that was going to take time, and the Battle of the Atlantic needed to be won first. Bombing was the best that could be offered to Soviet Russia, which naturally wanted a ‘Second Front’ opened up as soon as possible.
So, while the policy subtly shifted away from ‘dehousing’ German workers in order to undermine their morale, to destroying German industry to undermine the Nazi war effort, the actual targets remained the same. The heavy bomber fleets which had been building up since early 1942 were now ready for deployment in strength, and the techniques for accurate bombing, including Oboe, were now very much more refined:
At long last we were ready and equipped. Bomber Command’s main offensive began at a precise moment, the moment of the first major attack on an objective in Germany by means of Oboe.
This was on the night of March 5-6th, 1943, when I was at last able to undertake with real hope of success the task which had been given to me when I first took over the Command a little more than a year before, the task of destroying the main cities of the Ruhr.
In the interval, however, the scope of my instructions had been enlarged, as a result of the Casablanca Conference, when it was decided to proceed with a joint Anglo-American bomber offensive against German war industry.
The subject of morale had been dropped, and I was now required to proceed with the general “ disorganisation” of German industry, giving priority to certain aspects of it such as U-boat building, aircraft production, oil production, transportation and so forth, which gave me a very wide range of choice and allowed me to attack pretty well any German industrial city of 100,000 inhabitants and above.
But the Ruhr remained a principal objective because it was the most important industrial area in the whole of Germany, which was why it had been originally chosen for morale-breaking attacks; the new instructions therefore made no difference.
Essen had been named as the first town for destruction a year before, as it was the largest and most important manufacturing centre in the Ruhr, and Essen was the target on the night of March 5-6th.
5/6 March 1943
Essen was the target for 442 aircraft – 157 Lancasters, 131 Wellingtons, 94 Halifaxes, 52 Stirlings, 8 Mosquitos – in the first raid of the ‘Battle of the Ruhr’. It was on this night that Bomber Command’s 100,000th sortie of the war was flown. 14 aircraft – 4 Lancasters, 4 Wellingtons, 3 Halifaxes, 3 Stirlings – lost, 3.2 per cent of the force.
The only tactical setback to this raid was that 56 aircraft turned back early because of technical defects and other causes. 3 of the ‘early returns’ were from the 8 Oboe Mosquito marker aircraft upon which the success of the raid depended but the 5 Mosquitos which did reach the target area opened the attack on time and marked the centre of Essen perfectly. The Pathfinder backers-up also arrived in good time and carried out their part of the plan.
The whole of the marking was ‘blind’, so that the ground haze which normally concealed Essen did not affect the outcome of the raid. The Main Force bombed in 3 waves – Halifaxes in the first wave, Wellingtons and Stirlings in the second, Lancasters in the third. Two thirds of the bomb tonnage was incendiary; one third of the high-explosive bombs were fused for long delay.
The attack lasted for 40 minutes and 362 aircraft claimed to have bombed the main target. These tactics would be typical of many other raids on the Ruhr area in the next 4 months. Reconnaissance photographs showed 160 acres of destruction with 53 separate buildings within the Krupps works hit by bombs. Small numbers of bombs fell in 6 other Ruhr cities.
From the RAF Bomber Command history. Lancaster Bombers, featuring No.49 Squadron, has a copy of the original Night Raid report. Bomber History remembers the crews from No. 49 Squadron that were lost that night.