‘Maximum effort’ to ‘soften up’ the Rhine

Boston Mark III, AL775 ‘RH-D’, of No. 88 Squadron RAF based at Attlebridge, Norfolk, in flight.
Boston Mark III, AL775 ‘RH-D’, of No. 88 Squadron RAF based at Attlebridge, Norfolk, in flight.
North American B-25B Mitchell Mk I, FK161, the first Mitchell to be delivered to RAF Bomber Command, summer 1942.
North American B-25B Mitchell Mk I, FK161, the first Mitchell to be delivered to RAF Bomber Command, summer 1942.

With the Allies on the banks of the Rhine it was obvious to the Germans that they faced an amphibious assault and probably an airborne assault in the near future. They should have been in a strong position, having had a long time to prepare defences in depth. Yet their Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, had taken a heavy toll on their last remaining reserves.

Then the surprise survival of the bridge at Remagen had served to unbalance their forces. Hitler had been desperate to close down the bridgehead at Remagen and had drawn off reserves that could have been vital to the anticipated vulnerable areas elsewhere on the Rhine.

With near complete air superiority the Allied bombers were now pounding the German positions. The role of the medium bombers, a sometimes neglected aspect of the bomber war, was as vital as ever. Squadron Leader Malcohn Scott DFC, a Mitchell navigator in 180 Squadron later recalled:

For more than a week during March 1945 the Mitchells and Bostons of 2 Group had been pounding targets in the Rhineland in close support of the 21st Army Group fighting its way to the great river barrier. Some 22,000 British, Canadian and American casualties had been suffered in clearing the area between the Maas and the Rhine.

Xanten, one of 2 Group ’s earlier targets and more recently the recipient of a devastating night raid by Bomber Command, was now occupied by British and Canadian troops. The last strong bastion of the German troops on the west side had fallen and within a few days the rest of the territory was cleared and the Allied armies stood on the west bank looking at the remains of the Wesel bridge blown up by the retreating Germans.

For the six squadrons of 137 and 139 Wings in 2 Group the targets now shifted to the east side of the Rhine. At least two, occasionally three, raids were made each day on marshalling yards, communication centres and bridges, oil dumps, billeting areas and barracks, artillery emplacements and troop concentrations. Some penetrations were deeper to important rail centres but mostly attacks were concentrated in the Weser-Emmerich-Munster area where Plunder, the code name for the overall operation covering the Rhine crossing, was to take place.

Maximum effort had been ordered and quite often up to fifteen aircraft per squadron took part instead of the usual dozen aircraft in two boxes of six.

Montgomery’s preparations for the Rhine crossing were, as always, massive and painstaking: troops being ferried to the rear echelons to practise ‘boat drill’ and the handling of small craft up and down the muddy banks of the River Maas at night in preparation for the real thing.

There could be no misleading or attempted feints this time. Within a mile or two, the Germans could estimate where the Allied crossing would be made. As Kesselring wrote, ‘The enemy’s operations in a clearly limited area, bombing raids on headquarters and the smoke-screening and assembly of bridging materials, indicated their intention to attack between Emmerich and Dinslaken with the point of the main effort on either side of Rees.’ The only questions facing the enemy was when and how?

Always before, the Allies had launched a parachute and glider attack as a prelude to the full force of the main assault. Kesselring could but wait to see where the paras dropped, or so he thought. In the meantime, RAF medium bombers and Typhoons and the 9th AF Marauders and Thunderbolts carried on with their now familiar role of ‘softening up’ the area around the chosen points of the great river and the hinterland of the proposed bridgeheads on the east bank.

One important road and rail junction town and troop-billeting area was Bocholt, which became the object of almost daily attacks and quickly gained a reputation for providing a very warm reception. On 18 March it was bombed and again two days later. We all got back but with our aircraft and a few aircrew heavily peppered by shrapnel.

The next morning, 21 March, Bocholt was again listed as the target. On the bombing run No. 1 in the box was badly damaged and an air gunner’s leg was almost shot away but the pilot retained control and made an emergency landing at Eindhoven. No. 2 in the box received a direct hit as the bombs fell away and virtually disintegrated, taking down No. 3, an all-Australian crew, from which one parachute was seen to emerge. This belonged to an air gunner who although captured on landing was freed eight days later by advancing British troops. The pilot of No. 4 was severely injured, shrapnel smashing through his right thigh bone but he managed to retain consciousness long enough to get his aircraft back over friendly territory after bombing, before passing out. The mid-upper gunner then took over the controls and managed under the pilot’s guidance to crash land at the first airfield en route without further casualties.

The leading aircraft of the second box was seriously damaged by flak, wounding an air gunner but the pilot pressed on, bombed and led his formation back over the Rhine before breaking away to force land at Eindhoven. Bocholt deserved its thick red ring on the map as a place to be avoided if possible!

Of the twelve 180 Squadron Mitchells that had left Melsbroek earlier only seven returned to base, all with varying degrees of flak damage and some with wounded aboard.

This account appears in Martin Bowman(ed): The Reich Intruders: Dramatic RAF Medium Bomber Raids Over Europe in World War Two.

The 5.5-inch guns of 235 and 336 Medium Batteries, Royal Artillery, fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
The 5.5-inch guns of 235 and 336 Medium Batteries, Royal Artillery, fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
Royal Artillery 7.2-inch howitzers being brought up to fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
Royal Artillery 7.2-inch howitzers being brought up to fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.

Shot down – the fate of one mid upper gunner

A No 57 Squadron mid-upper gunner, Sergeant 'Dusty' Miller, 'scans the sky for enemy aircraft' from a Lancaster's Fraser Nash FN50 turret. This image was part of a sequence taken for an Air Ministry picture story entitled 'T for Tommy Makes a Sortie', which portrayed the events surrounding a single Lancaster bomber and its crew during a typical operation.
A No 57 Squadron mid-upper gunner, Sergeant ‘Dusty’ Miller, ‘scans the sky for enemy aircraft’ from a Lancaster’s Fraser Nash FN50 turret. This image was part of a sequence taken for an Air Ministry picture story entitled ‘T for Tommy Makes a Sortie’, which portrayed the events surrounding a single Lancaster bomber and its crew during a typical operation.
Vertical aerial photograph showing an Avro Lancaster over the target area during the daylight raid on Adolf Hitler's chalet complex and the SS guard barracks at Obersalzburg near Berchtesgaden, Germany, by 359 Avro Lancasters and 16 De Havilland Mosquitos of Nos. 1, 5 and 8 Groups. Clouds of smoke from exploding bombs obscure most of the target, but the roofs of the Platterhof Pension can be seen at lower right.
Vertical aerial photograph showing an Avro Lancaster over the target area during the daylight raid on Adolf Hitler’s chalet complex and the SS guard barracks at Obersalzburg near Berchtesgaden, Germany, by 359 Avro Lancasters and 16 De Havilland Mosquitos of Nos. 1, 5 and 8 Groups. Clouds of smoke from exploding bombs obscure most of the target, but the roofs of the Platterhof Pension can be seen at lower right.

On Friday 16th March 1945 RAF Bomber Command sent 277 Lancasters to bomb Nuremburg, the last major raid on the city. The Luftwaffe demonstrated that their night fighters were still a potent force, shooting down 24 Lancasters, after they found their way into the bomber stream as it approached the target.

For each of the seven men on those 24 aircraft there would be terrifying experiences that night, many ending in oblivion. For the all the families of those crews there would be a long period of uncertainty before they learned whether their ‘missing’ sons were dead or not. Even when a death was confirmed there was rarely very much information available on how a loved one met his end.

Michael Goldstein was only five years old at the time. He would rely on the efforts of his uncle Ron to discover the fate of his father, Jacob ‘Jack’ Goldstein, who was a mid upper gunner on Lancaster RF154 (AS-B), nicknamed TARFU (‘Things Are Really ****** Up’):

They were due on the target, the central marshalling yards of Nuremberg, at 9.34pm. By 9.30pm, they were at 20,000 feet and on their approach to the target, which they could see in flames ahead of them. There had been some trouble with the rear guns en route, firing short bursts spontaneously, and again at this time.

There was some flak, and then fighter flares to both port and starboard. They were within seconds of releasing their bombs. And then it happened. My father was heard to shout “Corkscrew p…” — it was thought he was going to say “…port” but he didn’t get that far. By the time the rear gunner (Bob Green) yelled “Corkscrew Skipper for Christ’s sake!” it was too late.

There were shells ripping through the fuselage and starboard wing root which caught fire. The port wing was also on fire, and the bomb bay had also been hit, letting off the incendiaries and setting light to the aircraft floor. The extinguishers were emptied but to no avail. There was no option but to abandon the aircraft.

The bomb aimer (Chuck Goddard) got out first through the front escape hatch, then the flight engineer (Ted Hull). The navigator (Lefty Ethrington) first became stuck in that hatch by his parachute, but after a struggle managed to escape. In the rear turret, the guns had elevated and jammed the foot of the rear gunner (Bob Green); he manually cranked his turret round to ‘beam’, opened the turret doors, leaned out and pulled the ripcord; the opening parachute pulled him out, with his boots left behind.

The way out for the wireless operator (Alf White) was through the normal rear entrance towards the tail; as he made his way there, he passed my father still slung in his harness in the mid-upper gun turret, and slapped his legs in case he had not heard the pilot’s order to bale out.

Throughout this time the pilot (Bud Churchward) struggled to keep the ‘plane on an even keel. He saw the three get out through the front hatch, but would not be able to see the others exit via the rear. When he thought they were all gone, he gave a roll call to check, receiving a response only from the rear gunner (Bob Green). After Bob told him he was going, Bud asked if there was anyone still there. Not hearing any more, he assumed all had jumped. So he himself baled out.

It now seems fairly certain that my father did not bale out of the aircraft, and was likely already dead while still airborne. No-one heard him after his cry: “Corkscrew p…”, and no-one saw him leave; he was still in his harness when Alf White left. An Investigation Report, dated 6 December 1946, from the No 3 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit, British Armed Forces of Occupation, to the Air Ministry London, relating to Lancaster RF154 (my father’s aircraft on that fateful night) contains information about my father’s original burial (described below), and includes the following statement:

“…The other six crew members were taken prisoner, but the deceased [my father] had crashed with the burning aircraft…”

There is, however one anomaly. The aircraft was seriously on fire as it fell from the sky, as the six 1000lb incendiaries had been set off by the shells of the fighter which brought the aircraft down. The 4000lb bomb had not been released when the aircraft was hit, so would have been in the bomb bay when falling to the ground; if it was still in the aircraft when it crashed, which would have caused huge damage on impact. There are some suggestions (for example, from other crew on the raid that night) that the aircraft exploded before hitting the ground. Yet my father did not suffer major burning.

The exhumation report dated 24 June 1947, on my father’s reburial in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Durnbach, Bavaria, describes his clothing and equipment as: “Remains of RAF BD, Sgt’s chevrons, airman issue shirt, long woollen underwear, blue aircrew sweater, blue aircrew socks, airman issue braces. Issue flying boots, escape type. Remains of mae west, and electrically heated flying suit”. The fact that he was buried and re-buried in full flying gear is consistent with the body being very damaged.

German records show that at 9.31pm on 16 March 1995, a Lancaster bomber was shot down by Feldwebel (Sergeant) Schuster from Luftwaffe unit I./NJG5, north of Nuremberg. By all accounts, his aircraft was a Junkers JU88. The Lancaster crashed near Kammerstein, which is in the administrative region of Roth, Bavaria, south of Nuremberg.

As mentioned above, there is an Investigation Report to the Air Ministry dated 6 December 1946, the full text of which is:

“Herr Koelisch, Pfaffenhofen, near Roth was detailed on 17 March 1945 [the day after the night my father’s aircraft was shot down] by an officer from the Luftwaffe Station at Roth to proceed to the New Cemetery at Schwabach and bury seven English [sic] Flyers — the dead members of two crews who crashed near Schwabach in the evening of 16 March 1945. Six of these flyers were brought to the churchyard from a crash in the Penzendorfer Strasse, Schwabach, and Koellisch said that 3 were Canadian and 3 were English. (The aircraft was Lancaster I, PD275, and the seventh crew member, another Canadian, was captured by the Germans and became a Prisoner of War).

After their burial another English flyer was brought from a crash near Kammerstein. The other six crew members were taken prisoner, but the deceased [my father] had crashed with the burning aircraft. All the papers belonging to these Airmen had been taken by the Luftwaffe authorities in Roth. They were the only aircraft to crash in this area on 16 March 1945, therefore the airman taken from the crash at Kammerstein must be Sgt Goldstein. Sgt Goldstein was buried with the other six airmen in a communal grave in the New Cemetery at Schwabach”.

A ‘Graves Concentration Report Form’ completed 2 July 1948 identifies the six other airmen originally buried with my father in Schwabach — P/O Malyon, F/O Kerr and F/Lt Daymond from RCAF; and Sgt Hathaway, P/O Woffenden and Sht McNicol from RAFVR. My father was described as ‘Body 1’ of seven.

They were all reburied, in individual graves of course, on 18 June 1948 at the Commonwealth War Grave cemetery at Durnbach, near Bad Toltz in Bavaria. This is the most southerly of all the Commonwealth War Graves in Germany, and is about 30 miles south of Munich. My father’s grave identification is plot XI, row K, grave 22.

All six survivors of my father’s aircraft crew were captured by the German forces:

Alf White was captured immediately, as his parachute took him onto the lawn of Nuremberg Prison! Lefty Ethrington landed about 10 miles south-west of Nuremberg (his reckoning is likely to be reliable as he was the flight navigator); he was significantly burned, so by the next morning (Saturday 17 March 1945) he was badly in need of medical attention, so gave himself up to a small village near to Kammerstein. Ted Hull’s experience was also seriously burned about the face, and was captured early the next morning (Saturday 17 March 1945). All three (Alf, Lefty and Ted) were taken to Munich for interrogation and then to Nuremberg POW camp, as were Chuck and Bob.

Bud Churchward was not captured for several days, but ended up in a prison in Stuttgart before being marched east. He was liberated by the US Army and did not meet up with the rest of the surviving crew until his return to England.

But Ted Hull’s story of his capture is the most traumatic and relevant to this story. When he was captured on the morning after the crash, he was taken to a nearby camp where he was interrogated by two SS officers for about an hour. They accused him of being Jewish and coming from ‘a Jewish squadron’.

He was told: ‘Your mid-upper gunner is a Jew, and so are you”. Evidently, the German authorities had identified my father as Jewish from his name (he didn’t change his name when enlisting as some other Jewish men did) and also from his identity tags which gave the person’s religion. Ted was in a bad way, but was interrogated three times along the same lines.

He cannot recall how long he was in that camp, and was clearly in a state of shock as well as suffering from his untreated injuries. In his mind he thought he saw my father amongst a small group of men being taken by armed guards to some pits, which he took to be mass graves. For many years after his release, he still maintained that he had seen my father at the camp and was convinced that he had been shot there. But this is inconsistent with all the other information available. Ted described my father as being ‘very distinctive … and not easy to miss’. However, my father’s service record gives his height on enlistment as 5’ 2¼”, which would make it difficult to mark him out in a closely guarded group.

For the whole story see BBC People’s War – The night my father was killed in action

A large Nazi eagle and swastika towers above part of a damaged grandstand at the former Nazi Party rally site in Nuremburg.
A large Nazi eagle and swastika towers above part of a damaged grandstand at the former Nazi Party rally site in Nuremburg.
Nuremburg bomb damage
Nuremburg bomb damage

Maximum Effort: USAAF send a 1000 B-17s to Berlin

The route taken by the B-17 crews to Berlin on 3rd February, out across Europe, back over the North Sea.
The route taken by the B-17 crews to Berlin on 3rd February, out across Europe, back over the North Sea.

When the RAF had launched their 1000 Bomber Raids in 1942 they had been epic endeavours that made history. Now the USAAF 8th Air Force was able to mount a 1000 bomber raid in broad daylight with its force of B-17s alone – at the same time 434 B-24s hit the Rothensee oil plant at Magdeburg and targets in the vicinity. On the night of 2nd/3rd RAF Bomber Command had sent 1,252 bombers to hit Germany and on the night of the 3rd/4th over 510 bombers would return.

A large attack on a city centre was unusual for the 8th Airforce – but this raid was undertaken in the belief that the Sixth Panzer Army was being transported by rail across the city, heading for the Eastern front. It was argued that the attack was necessary to support the Red Army.

This was the Mission Report of just one of the Bombardment Squadrons taking part, the 614th, part of the 401 Bombardment Group:

This was an attack on “Big B”, a visual attack for a change. Strikes by the 500 lb G.Ps were seen on the marshalling yards and its surrounding area not previously damaged. The 614th flew the High Element of each Box. There were no fighters but the flak was moderate to intense. Five of the nine 614th aircraft received battle damage. Aircraft 44-6508, piloted by Lt. King, was hit by flak and headed towards the Russian lines – later to turn up out of the blue in mid-March with an interesting story to tell.

This was a 1,000 B-17 attack on the German capital with a 500 escort of fighters – the biggest single raid by the 8th A.F. on a single target, the 401st furnishing a 36 aircraft Group flying as the 94th “B” Group. Captain J.R. Locher was the Air Commander of the Group. The specific target was the Tempelhof marshalling yards and the weather over the target was clear although the preceeding eight Groups left the target area completely covered with smoke.

The Group used the RF-Grid with outlying checkpoints and the Lead and Low Squadrons results were excellent. The High Squadron a little short but they were still in the immediate area of the MPI. There was no escaping the flak over the German capital and the Group found the flak moderate to intense and accurate. Twenty-two of the Group’s aircraft sustained battle damage with one aircraft MIA and two crew members wounded. The escort fighters made sure that the Luftwaffe stayed away from the bombers, shooting down 21 of them in combats. The 614th loading list was as follows: 42-97602 Stauffer, 43-38646 Thompson, 44-6508 King (MIA), 42-97395 Babcock, 42-97478 White, 43-38458 Hartsock, 43-38677 Moran, 42-39012 Richardson.

Details of any bombing missions can be found by searching at 8th Air Force Historical Society.

The first bombs fall on Berlin on 3rd February.
The first bombs fall on Berlin on 3rd February.

Leonard Streitfeld was a bombardier with the 398th Bomb Group, he describes how his own plane approached the target area:

Our group was to be ninth over the target and, as we approached the “IP”, all we could see was smoke and flak over the target area. The smoke had completely covered the city and the sky was peppered with flak bursts that we were going to fly through. As the flak increased in intensity, we were hit in the Tokyo Tanks (Auxiliary tanks for long missions) on the right wing, then the vertical stabilizer, followed by holes in the right waist and in the floor of the nose of the plane where Coy and I were sitting. The flak was stopped by armor plating in the floor. We could hear the pinging sound as the flak hit the plane and it’s a sound that you can never forget for all those who experienced it.

The fact that there were so many bomb groups on this mission one group blended in with the other and there seemed to be a continuous stream of planes close enough that we could see them dropping their bombs.

Due to the strong headwinds that day the true air speed on the bomb run was only 90 MPH. We were sitting ducks. We saw a few planes in the distance get direct hits and go down. One of them exploded leaving a large cloud of black smoke in it’s place.

Whenever a plane was going down we started to count the chutes. It was hoped that everyone would escape but many times the plane would blow up by the time we counted to four or five. It wasn’t pleasant to watch but there was nothing we could do about it except be thankful that it wasn’t our plane that was shot down.

I used to wonder what would happen to me if we were shot down and they saw the “H” on my dog tags. The dog tags had to be worn by everyone and identified their name, rank, serial number and religion. (C meant Catholic, P meant Protestant and H meant Hebrew.) If anyone did not have their tags on and were shot down and captured, that could have been reason to be shot as a spy.

I couldn’t wait until the lead ship dropped its bombs and it seemed like forever before they were released. All of the planes followed suit and unloaded their deadly cargo. The bomb bay doors on every plane began to slowly close as we headed away from the dangerously saturated flak area. The flak eventually thinned out and we were soon in the clear. Although there were enemy fighters in the air, we did not encounter any.

The mission lasted nine hours and most of us would have been glad to go back if we could inflict as much damage again. We would do anything to help bring this war to an end sooner.

See Leonard Streitfeld: Hell from Heaven

Smoke starts to cover the target as more bombers arrive.
Smoke starts to cover the target as more bombers arrive.

Robert A Hand was a bombardier on his 35th and last mission:

“Well goddamn it, Robert,” I thought to myself, “This is what you yearned for so badly, isn’t it? Life in the Army Air Force with all its thrills . . . . dusting off the clouds in a great airplane . . . . . flying combat as a crew member of a “Big Ass Bird” . . . . getting your jollies as a Bombardier with your very own $10,000 Norden “Bomb-Aimer-And- Dropper” and sitting up front with the most exciting, panoramic view in the airplane.

And how about those endless hours strapped up in heavy flying gear, under a flak suit, Mae West life preserver and chute harness, pulling your breath through five yards of hose, wondering where the next wall of flak will appear. Or enduring the endless throb of engine sound . . . . not daring to give in to fatigue . . . . or even hunger . . . . or the anticipation and dread of injury at altitude, hours away from medical attention . . . . or bailing out into that fifty-below-zero gale outside.

Or the horror of watching a formation buddy in a nearby B-17, throw smoke, drop from the squadron and only being able to count six chutes before he disintegrates into a giant smear of debris. Or the hair-raising episodes of close-formation flying when you’re on the bomb run, seconds before release and you look directly up into another B- 17’s open and loaded bomb bay doors and you know he is about to drop his bombs too.

Or how about the nightmare turned real of holding an injured crew member’s head in your hands while he froths at the mouth, babbling incoherently and bleeding profusely from a head wound. Or listening to the heavy breathing on the intercom of a shaken comrade as he asks his God for mercy. Or visions of torture and starvation in an enemy prison camp . . . .

But then you gaze downward at the frozen trenches of Holland five miles below and you thank your lucky stars that you’re up here relatively comfortable in a quartermillion- dollar airplane with nine other guys protecting your back side and with any luck you’ll be back at the base in four or five hours for a shower, something decent to drink and eat and maybe a couple of letters from home.

And you realize that a simple twist of fate . . . . being born a second earlier or later . . . . or to different parents, another country or world . . . . and you might have wound up a footsoldier, lying half-frozen in a lousy foxhole, waiting for an enemy shell to put you out of your misery . . . . or worse. Is this the war to end all wars?

See 303rd Bombardment Group for more about their involvement in this raid.

A post raid reconnaissance picture of Berlin.
A post raid reconnaissance picture of Berlin.

Casualties were relatively light, ‘only’ 36 planes were shot down. The bomb load had contained a high proportion of explosives to incendiaries – even so fires burned and spread for four days. 2,894 people were killed on the ground but 20,000 were injured and an estimated 120,000 made homeless. Diarist Ursula von Kardorff wondered why people did not go mad:

3 February 1945

Today the city centre had its heaviest raid yet. I would not have believed it possible for them to be worse. Luckily I was in the deep shelter, but even there people began to panic. Women started to scream when the lights finally went out for good.

Why does nobody go crazy? Why does nobody go out in the street and shout, ‘I’ve had enough!’ Why is there not a revolution?

‘Stick it out!’ What a stupid motto. So we shall stick it out until we are all dead.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

Part of the post raid bombing analysis fro 3rd February 1945.
Part of the post raid bombing analysis from 3rd February 1945.

Operation Bodenplatte – disaster for the Luftwaffe

Some of the p-47 fighters that were destroyed on the ground at Metz airfield during Operation Bodenplatte.
Some of the p-47 fighters that were destroyed on the ground at Metz airfield during Operation Bodenplatte.

To support the German offensive through the Ardennes the Luftwaffe had planned a co-ordinated operation to try to neutralise the Allied fighter bombers. The heavily outnumbered Luftwaffe had made little impact on the battle so far. Rather than directly confronting the Allied fighters in the air, Operation Bodenplatte aimed to destroy as many Allied fighters on the ground as possible. News Year’s Day was the first day that the weather would be favourable from early morning. Luftwaffe pilot Willi Heilman of III Gruppe recalled the early morning excitement:

We were awoken at 3 o’clock in the morning and half an hour later all the pilots of JG 26 and III/JG54 were assembled in the mess room. Hptm. Worner came in with the ominous envelope already open in his hand. ‘To make it brief boys, we’re taking off with more than a thousand fighters at the crack of dawn to prang various airfields on the Dutch-Belgian border’

Then followed the details of the take-off, flying order, targets and return flights. Brussels was the target of III/JG 54. The whole mission was to be carried out at less than 600 feet until we reached the targets so that the enemy ground stations could not pick us up. To this end, radio silence was the order until we reached the target.

We were given a magnificent breakfast, cutlets, roast beef and a glass of wine. For sweets there were patries and several cups of fragrant coffee.

The last minutes before we were airborne seemed an eternity. Nervous fingers stubbed out half smoked cigarettes. In the scarlet glow the sun slowly appeared above the horizon to the east. It was 8.25am. And the armada took off …

This account, together with many more, appears in To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes 1944-1945

The moment a FW 190A is ripped apart under the guns of an Allied fighter - 1944-45.
The moment a FW 190A explodes under the guns of an Allied fighter – 1944-45.

Despite the careful planning Operation Bodenplatte did not achieve the level of surprise hoped for, only a minority of attacks were to hit undefended airfields. The Allied fighters were soon in the air and the large numbers of very inexperienced German pilots who had been pressed into service paid the price. To make matters worse the secrecy surrounding the operation meant that German anti-aircraft units had not been warned about it and more low flying planes fell to ‘friendly fire’.

The Luftwaffe lost 143 pilots killed and missing, while 70 were captured and 21 wounded – it was the worst single day’s losses for the Luftwaffe. These pilots were irreplaceable.

Although the Allies are estimated to have lost almost 300 aircraft destroyed and about 180 damaged on the ground, these were empty aircraft and such was the Allied supply situation most planes were replaced within a week.

Contemporary film of aerial combat and ground strafing by planes of the 8th Air Force during this period:

The Luftwaffe were now irreparably weakened as the Allied continued with not just the widespread fight bomber attacks, in support of the Army, but the heavy bombers’ assault on German cities. These continued at the same intensity that they had reached in 1944 – in the remaining months of the war 470,000 tons of bombs would fall on Germany, more than twice the tonnage that had fallen in the whole of 1943.

Amongst the targets for the RAF on 1st January 1945 was the familiar site of the Dortmund-Ems Canal, a key route in German industrial supply. In 1940 a raid on the canal had led to the first Victoria Cross for Bomber Command. Now another member of Bomber Command was similarly recognised:

Portrait of George Thompson, a wireless operator with No 9 Squadron, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on 1 January 1945 during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal near Ladbergen, Germany.
Portrait of George Thompson, a wireless operator with No 9 Squadron, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on 1 January 1945 during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal near Ladbergen, Germany.

1370700 Flight Sergeant George Thompson, R.A.F.V.R., 9 Squadron (Deceased) :-

This airman was the wireless operator in a Lancaster aircraft which attacked the Dortmund-Ems Canal in daylight on 1st January, 1945. The bombs had just been released when a heavy shell hit the aircraft in front of the mid-upper turret. Fire broke out and dense smoke filled the fuselage. The nose of the aircraft was then hit and an inrush of air, clearing the smoke, revealed a scene of utter devastation. Most of the perspex screen of the nose compartment had been shot away, gaping holes had been torn in the canopy above the pilot’s head, the inter-communication wiring was severed, and there was a large hole in the floor of the aircraft. Bedding and other equipment were badly damaged or alight; one engine was on fire.

Flight Sergeant Thompson saw that the gunner was unconscious in the blazing mid-upper turret. Without hesitation he went down the fuselage into the fire and the exploding ammunition. He pulled the gunner from his turret and, edging his way round the hole in the floor, carried him away from the flames. With his bare hands, he extinguished the gunner’s burning clothing. He himself sustained serious burns on his face, hands and legs.

Flight Sergeant Thompson then noticed that the rear gun turret was also on fire. Despite his own severe injuries he moved painfully to the rear of the fuselage where he found the rear gunner with his clothing alight, overcome by flames and fumes. A second time Flight Sergeant Thompson braved the flames. With great difficulty he extricated the helpless gunner and carried him clear. Again, he used his bare hands, already burnt, to beat out flames on a comrade’s clothing.

Flight Sergeant Thompson, by now almost exhausted, felt that his duty was not yet done. He must report the fate of the crew to the captain. He made the perilous journey back through the burning fuselage, clinging to the sides with his burnt hands to get across the hole in the floor. The flow of cold air caused him intense pain and frost-bite developed. So pitiful was his condition that his captain failed to recognise him. Still, his only concern was for the two gunners he had left in the rear of the aircraft. He was given such attention as was possible until a crash-landing was made some forty minutes later.

When the aircraft was hit, Flight Sergeant Thompson might have devoted his efforts to quelling the fire and so have contributed to his own safety. He preferred to go through the fire to succoor his comrades. He knew that he would then be in no position to hear or heed any order which might to given to abandon the aircraft. He hazarded his own life in order to save the lives of others. Young in years and experience, his actions were those of a veteran.

Three weeks later Flight Sergeant Thompson died of his injuries. One of the gunners unfortunately also died, but the other owes his life to the superb gallantry of Flight Sergeant Thompson, whose signal courage and self-sacrifice will ever be an inspiration to the Service.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.

Oslo tragedy as RAF Mosquitos attack Gestapo HQ

Mosquito bombers during the successful attack on the Gestapo HQ in Aarhus on 31st October.
Mosquito bombers during the successful attack on Gestapo HQ in Aarhus on 31st October.
The attack on the building occupied by the Gestapo at Aarhus University was an example of notably accurate bombing.
The attack on the building occupied by the Gestapo at Aarhus University, was an example of notably accurate bombing.

The R.A.F.’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ had often been used for specialist missions requiring pin point accuracy. In 1942 a raid had been mounted to disrupt a Nazi rally in Oslo by bombing the Gestapo headquarters. There has been subsequent successful attacks on other Gestapo buildings, perhaps the best known is the attack on Amiens prison in February 1944, Operation Jericho.

On the 31st October 1944 there had been a very successful attack on the Gestapo HQ in Aarhus. On that occasion the low flying aircraft had put bombs right in the centre of the Aarhus University building used by the Nazis, killing an estimated 200 members of the Gestapo. Around 30 imprisoned Danish resistance fighters also died. The raid had been urgently arranged because resistance leader Pastor Sandbaek had been captured and was being tortured there – by good fortune he was one of the few who was dug out of the ruins alive.

The reasons for the return to Oslo on the 31st December 1944 were very probably similar, the silencing of imprisoned resistance members who might betray others under torture. The precise reason was not given to those participating in the raid. Canadian Bob Boyden was one of those flying with 627 Squadron who later remembered the raid:

Our first information about the trip to Oslo was that we were to fly to Peterhead in the northern part of Scotland which would be our advance base. Peterhead was an American base for B17s and would cut off at least two hours flight time and give us a good start. The trip would be a long one – four to four and a half hours – and that can be very tiring if weather conditions require continuous instrument flying or if there are a few unfriendly happenings along the way. Briefing told us that Oslo was the target – not target for tonight – as this would be a daylight raid, which we did not do very often. In fact, I believe I flew only three trips in daylight. It’s quite different as you feel like you stand out like a sore thumb.

At this time of our action against the enemy, we flew to our destination at 28,000 feet and around the target area we would descend to 3,000 feet to look over the area for a pre-determined aiming point. We would then dive to 1,000 or 500 foot levels. After we had done our marking, we would climb back to 28,000 feet and return to base. This time, the target had flak positions and the German Navy was in the Oslo Fjord. W/C Curry was our new squadron commander and would lead the group which was made up of two flights of six Mosquitoes each. F/L Mallender would lead the second wave.

The North Sea is a long trip and we had been told that the water was so cold, we’d last only two minutes. I don’t remember worrying too much about it – it was such a beautiful day. We realised and enjoyed the scene below us – snow covered mountains and bright sunshine. F/O Willis and I did not talk much, if at all. Each of us absorbed in his own thoughts, thinking of what could happen and Willis no doubt wondering what this bastard was going to do next. We cleared the Norwegian coast, with the Oslo Fjord to our right. The target was ahead of us but not in sight, lost in the haze. Suddenly bursts of flak came up, seemingly one for each aircraft and right on altitude. This was the first time that I had seen, heard and smelled it all at the same time as we flew through the cloud.

Mosquito on a test flight with De Havilland in September 1942. Mosquito B Mark IV Series 2, DK338, in flight after completion. DK338 served with No. 105 Squadron RAF as 'GB-O'.
Mosquito on a test flight with De Havilland in September 1942. Mosquito B Mark IV Series 2, DK338, in flight after completion. DK338 served with No. 105 Squadron RAF as ‘GB-O’.

W/C Curry called out to descend to target, probably with his usual “Tally-Ho”: he started the dive with us following his movement. No 2 disappeared from my view and left a gap between the leader and myself. He told No 2 to close in and after a couple of instructions like that I realised I was the one he called No 2. I had already pushed up my throttles at the start of the dive to close the gap. I broke radio silence to tell him I was No 3 and closing fast.

Everything happened so quickly. We had, of course, fooled the flak defences by our diving attack and at last – the target. Bomb doors open, wait for the right moment, push the button, hold 1,000 feet. I felt concussions that closely followed one another. There was no smoke, no dust. I then pushed lower over the city and I remember seeing an open-air skating rink with people skating around, unaware of the chaos and explosions behind them.

Suddenly, No 4 was descending down on top of us. Once again I had to break silence. A mountain loomed up right in front of us and as we changed our straight and level to a steep climb, flak came off the mountain, then we were up and over. Curry ordered us to break up, every man for himself.

I was doing a left-hand turn to head back when I saw a valley to our right. I slid down into the valley and kept at a low level. We passed over the coast and I began the climb back to our operational altitude of 28,000 feet. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and no enemy aircraft were in the vicinity. I didn’t know until years later that the second phase did not drop their bombs. All they saw was smoke and dust at the target site.

The trip back to Peterhead was uneventful. Those Mosquitoes were really smooth and reliable and much credit must go to the manufacturer and of course our aircraft mechanics who worked hard to keep them flying.

All aircraft returned to base and all had some flak marks. Mine also had a cracked landing light cover, which they said had been caused by the concussion. Only one crew member was injured by shrapnel.

Bob Boyden was awarded the DFC for his part in this raid. See 627 Squadron in Retirement for the full story from the RAF perspective

Only the first six of the twelve aircraft on the raid dropped their bombs, the smoke obscuring the target for the second wave [But see comments below]. The RAF at first believed the raid had been successful but it later transpired that the Victoria Terrasse building that housed the Gestapo was undamaged. Instead other civilian buildings had been hit and one bomb had bounced off the ground and hit a crowded tram, killing 44 civilians. In total 78 Norwegians were killed and 27 Germans. It was the worst single incident in Oslo during the war.

Damage in the centre of Oslo after the raid on 31 December 1944 in which 78  Norwegians died
Damage in the centre of Oslo after the raid on 31 December 1944 in which 78 Norwegians died
Tram 115 in Oslo after the New Years Eve raid, which took place at midday. 44 people were killed on the tram when a bombed bounced off the ground and hit it.
Tram 115 in Oslo after the New Years Eve raid, which took place at midday. 44 people were killed on the tram when a bombed bounced off the ground and hit it.

Nightmare in a Mosquito 30,000 feet above Aachen

De Havilland Mosquito PR Mk XVI of No. 544 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, December 1944.
De Havilland Mosquito PR Mk XVI of No. 544 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, December 1944.
A De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI of No. 140 Squadron RAF, warms up its engines in a dispersal at B58/Melsbroek, Belgium, before taking off on a night photographic-reconnaissance sortie.
A De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI of No. 140 Squadron RAF, warms up its engines in a dispersal at B58/Melsbroek, Belgium, before taking off on a night photographic-reconnaissance sortie.

Albert Smith was, after just two years, a veteran of 90 operations in RAF bombers. His role as navigator had been tested in Wellington bombers before he was selected for the elite Pathfinder Force which marked the targets for the main bomber force.

Here he flew in the Mosquito. The role was very far from being without risks, but with a very experienced pilot and a very fast aircraft, flying high, there was the reasonable expectation that they were better placed than the heavy bombers to get out of trouble.

The skies over Europe could be very crowded during bombing operations. Hundreds of aircraft were pushed through to the target as quickly as possible, all flying the same route. The aircraft were in close proximity at night. Radar was crude – and only in night fighters was it designed to identify nearby aircraft. Accidents could happen – and they might happen very quickly:

The 4th of December 1944 — 1900 hours — target: Karlsruhe. On the left, slightly higher than my head and facing forward, the pilot peers into the black night. I flick the switch on the nozzle of my oxygen mask, and he turns his head in my direction. A nasal, humid sound: “Alter course to one-six-four degrees. We’ll be over Aachen in two minutes.” The intercom crackles back: “OK.”

Suddenly there is a jolt, and I glance sharply to the left. Out of the window beyond Johnny’s head I see, for an instant, the grotesque black belly of an aircraft sliding by. Nothing happens for a moment, the drone persists — the course holds. Then with a sickening lurch, the plane cartwheels through the sky.

”Johnny!” I scream, as I am flung furiously against the instrument panel, then twisted through the air and thumped to the floor. But the floor itself is twisting. I grab the metal struts at the base of ]ohnny’s seat, pulling my face hard against them as my legs spiral above me. Urine flows uncontrollably, and my chest feels tight and painful.

Sliding my head round, I see Johnny wrestling with the joystick, but we are spinning viciously and out of control. He snatches his arm up and turns the handle of the escape hatch. It rips away, sucking the warm air of the cockpit with it. He reaches down to me, then starts pulling at the buckle of his seat harness.

He twists awkwardly out of his seat — his parachute on his back — and grabs at the joystick. Clutching it, he begins to rotate with the spin of the aircraft. Again he tries to reach down to help me. I stretch my hand up to his. But he seems to lift like a balloon, hover for a second, then shoots out of the black, gaping hole above him.

I pull my head further round, and see, in the dim light, my parachute strapped to the side of the aircraft. It is within reach, but if I let go of the struts then the violent spin of the aircraft will fling me out of the open canopy above. There is nothing I can do.

I pull my face hard against the struts. I tilt my head round a bit, so that the top of my head is facing towards the nose of the aircraft. I grip tighter, because I want to die wrapped in the warmth of the aircraft’s body. A dread of falling through space, formlessly, makes me shudder and I hug the struts closer.

I tilt my head so that it will hit the ground at the same instant as the aircraft, and I will feel nothing. I’m calm. I’m going to die. But I can’t do anything about it. It’ll be quick. And it won’t hurt. I feel so calm. There’s a yellow—red glow in the aircraft. The engines must be on fire! Please God I don’t feel the pain of burning before I die. I begin to hum — just a constant, quiet, surprising hum.

Then my legs slam to the floor, and the aircraft is no longer spinning — diving steeply but no longer spinning. I might live. My body quivers, and I feel the most intense fear.

I’m feeling unsteady, but I’m sitting. I claw at my parachute, still strapped to the side. Tearing off the straps, I fumble with it, and pull it and clip it onto my harness. Surely I’ll hit the ground at any minute, we’ve been falling for so long.

I pull myself towards the blackness but something jerks my head back. I pull again, and my neck is torn violently back. I tug my neck frantically, but still my head won’t move. The ground must be near now — I’m frantic with fear. I nearly made it, for God’s sake, I must make it.

My helmet! It’s still connected to the intercom cable. I wrench it off — my head feels light. I’m shaking as I scramble to the escape hatch. As I get close, a freezing wind stings my face. I feel like I am in water — nothing I push on stays firm. Push, for Christ’s sake, push. My legs are dangling inside the aircraft, my top half is out. I push one more time and thrust myself up, and I’m floating free.

Tumbling, tumbling — floating free. A smooth, unremarkable hissing sound fills me. I pull the rip-cord.

This is from the dramatic opening passage of Smith’s memoir, Albert Smith: Mosquito Pathfinder: Navigating 90 WWII Operations but the whole account of his service is equally well written.

Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') for loading into a De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV .
Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) for loading into a De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV (modified) of No. 692 Squadron RAF at Graveley, Huntingdonshire. No. 692 Squadron was part of the Light Night Striking Force of No. 8 (PFF) Group, which specialised in fast, high-flying night raids on Germany, particularly Berlin. The specially-modified Mosquitos were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’.
Part of a vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial taken over Wilhelmshaven, Germany,
Part of a vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial taken over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, showing the naval ammunition depot at Mariensel, after the night attack by RAF Bomber Command on 11/12 February 1943. This raid was the first on which Pathfinder aircraft used the H2S radar successfully to mark the target accurately. The resulting bombing by the Main Force was very effective, detonating an explosion in the depot which devastated an area of nearly 120 acres and caused widespread damage in the dockyards and town. Blast damage can be seen to have spread as far as the oil storage tanks on the south side of the Tirpitz Hafen (bottom right).

Disaster over Germany for the 392nd Bomb Group

Liberators from the 93rd Bomb Group other way to bomb Nazi installations on the 27th November.
Liberators from the 93rd Bomb Group other way to bomb Nazi installations on the 27th November.
A formation of the 392nd Bomb Group 'somewhere over Germany' on the 24th November.
A formation of the 392nd Bomb Group ‘somewhere over Germany’ on the 24th November.

The 392nd were now veterans of the bomber war over Europe having just completed over 200 Missions. The men were due to celebrate passing this milestone on the evening of the 2nd – and many were hoping that the Mission for the day might be ‘scrubbed’, as they fairly often were, due to bad weather. It was not be, they were briefed at 0515 and took off at 0930, on their way to bomb Bingen in Germany.

Their own fighter escorts were reported to be out in good strength, so the prospects for the mission were good. Yet the Luftwaffe were still capable of throwing out a few surprises. The formation was bounced by as many as 50 German FW190 fighters just after completing their bomb run and rallying for home at 1244. In a little over 10 minutes it was all over for six out of the nine aircraft in the 577th Squadron.

The attack was so intense that was difficult to work out what happened. There were only 19 survivors out of the 54 men in the planes that went down. For the families of those who were lost there would be little information about how they met their end. What information did emerge would be scanty, and a long time coming.

It was not until July 1, 1945, that S/Sgt Jasinski was able, after his release from POW camp, to write to the widow of crewmate T/Sgt Paul W. Haney:

I am Ray Jasinski, the waist gunner on the same crew as Paul. He may have mentioned my name in one of his long letters to you. I say long because he would start writing them in the morning just after breakfast and write at intervals all during the day and sometimes long into the night. We used to kid him about it!

I have been home for two weeks and would have written sooner but I’ve been hoping you would have by this time received some encouraging news from the War Department.

I would like to tell you about several things that happened before the mission, such as our (the crews’) preparations for the 200 mission party and how we all hoped for a stand down (that there would be no mission scheduled for the next day) but were very disappointed when awakened the next morning for the mission.

It seemed everything went wrong that day. Paul couldn’t get the radio to work right, which was very unusual. When he finally got the radio to work, the oxygen line sprang a leak. So we had to change to another ship in whose bomb bay doors I almost got caught when Joe Scalet was testing them.

We finally took off, caught up with our group, and headed for our target. It was a routine mission, target sighted, and bombs dropped, and three minutes later we were hit by fighters.

As you probably know, the two waist gunners and the tail gunner on a B-24 are pretty well isolated from the rest of the crew. The only contact we have with them is the interphone. We chatter over this interphone all the time calling out flak, fighters, etc. But from the time we sight the target until about 5 minutes after “bombs away,” no one is allowed to chatter over the interphone unless it’s an emergency.

Well! We were hit in two of the engines. I believe it must have been pretty serious because Lt. Comeau gave us the bail-out orders to all the crew. If there was any way possible of getting that ship back he would have, because he was tops.

The three of us (2 waists and tail) leave through the rear hatch near the tail in case of an emergency while the rest of the crew leave from the forward nosewheel hatch or the forward bomb bay doors. These exits, at that time, we in the waist could not see. So we did not know what was going on up forward. I jumped and that was the last I saw of anybody until I met Harold in a German interrogation center. I did not see or meet any other crew member since.

In this letter, Mrs. Haney, I wish I really could have written you some sort of comforting news, but I myself did not know of what happened to any of the other crew members until I arrived home and was told by my sister who has been writing you and the other next of kin of the crew.

If there are any questions you feel I could answer for you, please write and ask.

I will now close, praying and hoping that you, his wife, and the rest of us who are his friends, will hear encouraging news soon.

Ray

It was later confirmed that only Ray Jasinski and Harold Krause had survived to become POWs.

Earlier Ray Jasinski had given a more graphic account of what had happened:

While approaching the target, I was throwing out chaff; a few minutes later “bombs away” was given, and a few seconds later we entered a haze (clouds, etc.,). Approximately (2) minutes later, we came out of the haze and “enemy fighters’ was called out.

I then went to man my gun at which time we had the first enemy fighter attacks. On this attack Sgt. Kearns, the left waist gunner, was hit in the stomach by enemy 20mm (cannon) fire, tearing a hole in his stomach about the size of a man’s fist. All of the crew members wore flak suits but Sgt. Kearns did not button the bottom three (3) buttons of his flak apron. When he stood up to man his gun, the apron fell away as he was hit.

During this first attack, the only other person that I saw was the tail gunner, Sgt. Krause, who had his back to me but was manning his gun. At this time, fire broke out in both bomb bays and the command deck. The radio operator, Sgt. Haney, was talking over the interphone to the pilot and started to say “there is a fire” when he stopped. It is my belief he may have been hit by enemy fire.

About this time the enemy fighters were beginning a second run and the pilot gave the word out “this is it, fellows — bail out”. I waited until the tail gunner got back and held the escape hatch open, and I bailed out first. I did not see anyone else bail out after me and do not recall having seen any parachutes dropping while I was descending.

To the best of my knowledge, when I bailed out, the airplane seemed to be on fire from aft of the bomb bays to as far as I could see forward. I did not see our plane crash or explode in the air…

See B-24 Net for a detailed account of all the accumulated evidence of what happened to each of the six planes.

B-24 Liberators in formation 'somewhere over Europe' on the 24th November 1944.
B-24 Liberators in formation ‘somewhere over Europe’ on the 24th November 1944.
The end of a Mission as a B-24 Liberator is given the signal to turn off engines.
The end of a Mission as a B-24 Liberator is given the signal to turn off engines.

RAF Bomber Command’s last major raid on Bochum

Avro Lancaster B Mark II, LL725 'EQ-C', of No. 408 Squadron RCAF, on the ground at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. Armourers are backing a tractor and trolley loaded with a 4,000 lb HE bomb ('Cookie') and incendiaries under the open bomb-bay. LL725 was lost over Hamburg on 28/29 July 1944.
Avro Lancaster B Mark II, LL725 ‘EQ-C’, of No. 408 Squadron RCAF, on the ground at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. Armourers are backing a tractor and trolley loaded with a 4,000 lb HE bomb (‘Cookie’) and incendiaries under the open bomb-bay. LL725 was lost over Hamburg on 28/29 July 1944.
Handley Page Halifax B Mark V Series I (Specials) of No. 76 Squadron RAF lined up at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire.
Handley Page Halifax B Mark V Series I (Specials) of No. 76 Squadron RAF lined up at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire.
An image taken from one of the bombers over Bochum on the 4th-5th November 1944.
An image taken from one of the bombers over Bochum on the 4th-5th November 1944.

Once RAF Bomber Command had established itself with substantial numbers of aircraft it had turned its attention to the industrial heartland of Germany. The Battle of the Ruhr had begun in March 1943. From mid October 1944 both Bomber Command and the USAAF 8th Air Force were to revisit the Ruhr region as part of ‘Operation Hurricane’, intended to “demonstrate to the the enemy in Germany generally the overwhelming superiority of the Allied Air Forces in this theatre”. Both the RAF and the USAAF were now able to routinely mount raids of well over 1000 aircraft.

Towns and cities that had already been substantially damaged were now dealt even more devastating blows. Although much of the light industry had by now been dispersed it was impossible to move the heavy engineering and metal works, after the war Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer was to acknowledge that these raids had had a substantial impact on armament production.

435 aircraft had attacked Bochum on the 9th October in a raid that was not considered a success, destroying only 140 buildings because the bombing was very scattered in poor visibility. On 4th November 749 aircraft took part and the Pathfinders marked the centre of Bochum successfully – this time over 4,000 buildings were destroyed or badly damaged and nearly a 1000 people killed. It was the last major raid on the town during the war, in total it would be visited 150 times.

In a Halifax from No 408 RCAF Squadron was Bombardier Alan Stables, who wrote this account of the raid shortly afterwards:

Coming up to the Dutch coast we could see flashes of light flak and the beautiful trace it makes streaming upwards as if fired from a hose. It was dark now and every now and again we would see the loom of one of our own aircraft which was comforting because it meant we were part of the bomber stream

At this point we started climbing. We began to have difficulty at about ten thousand feet and by fourteen thousand feet Dick suspected that we had carburetor icing. We had gone on oxygen at twelve thousand feet and we had to climb to nineteen thousand which was our height to bomb. The aircraft at the head of the bomber stream were at the lowest level with those following stacked up increasing heights so as to lessen the danger of running into someone else’s bombs.

Sok came over the intercom ordering me to jettison some of the bombs as the aircraft just wouldn’t climb. I went back and jettisoned half the load but the best we could make was an extra 1000 feet. We were five thousand feet below everyone else, a very dangerous position to be in and we had at least another hour and a half to go to the target.

Scotty went back to shovel out the Window. Then he returned to his radio to receive the quarter-hourly broadcast from bomber command Then he backtuned his transmitter to German fighter vector-control frequency and broadcast static at full volume from a microphone next to our generator.

[Window was introduced in July 1943. It consisted of 9 inch strips of aluminum foil which showed up on the German radar screens rendering them virtually useless. The German response was to use various forms of illumination available at the target area to make the bombers visible to the night-fighters. Window was still useful in disguising the size of the incoming force and in blinding the radar controlled Flak guns.]

Ahead the searchlights, hundreds of them came to life, pointing accusing fingers against the black sky. I wondered how the hell we would get through them at this altitude without being “coned”, but I didn’t have much time to wonder as the rear gunner yelled “fighter port go”. Down we went to the left in a “corkscrew.” This was our evasive action, but very shortly the rear gunner called to resume course telling us that a Messerschmidt 210 had made a pass at us.

We were now starting into the outer defense of searchlights protecting the Ruhr industrial area. “Aircraft coned on our starboard beam up” I yelled I watched it for a few seconds struggling in the cone like a fly in a spider’s web, flak poured up at it and a Lancaster went down.

“Ready for run-up to the target” — “Christ” I yelled as a fighter came head on at us. The trace of his cannon seemed to be coming right at me . I closed my eyes and said a prayer. The engineer yelled “Port engine on fire Skip, let’s get the hell out.” The cannon shells of the fighter had hit our port inner engine and as I looked out I could see the flames licking back over the wing in which our gas tanks were stored. Sok’s voice came cool over the intercom “Feathering port inner, hit the graviner switches Dick, prepare to abandon aircraft, bomb doors open, drop your bombs bomb-aimer”

[The graviner switches controlled compressed incombustible carbon-dioxide which could be sprayed into the engines and hopefully serving as engine fire extinguishers.]

I looked out, my bombsight was on the target area now burning and smoking from the earlier bombs. The bomb doors were open and I pressed the release tit feeling the bump as the bombs left the aircraft. Then the searchlights coned us and flak started coming up.

What happened then was that as I was dropping the bombs the crew left their stations and went to the exits. Sok stayed at the controls but didn’t open his escape hatch but put the plane into a steep diveto put out the fire. I was in the nose trying to untangle my intercom cord from my parachute wondering if I would ever get them apart. I was about to give up when John signaled to me. He yelled into my ear, “Hang onto me and we’ll go together.” John knew as well as I did that this was crazy.

Finally we were down to four thousand feet and out of the searchlights. Sok called the gunners but got no reply. “Bomb-aimer please check the crew. Navigator give me a course.” The dive had put out the fire. I went back to the rear to see if Dave Hardy was hurt. I found the Baron by the rear escape hatch holding his head but not plugged in. “What the hell are you doing?” I yelled in his ear. “We’re OK, get back in the goddamn rear turret” “OK, Al, thanks” “What for you nut” I replied. Then I tried to get into the turret, but had to report to Sok that it was impossible.

The Baron wanted to talk but I was off to the rear turret which was jammed sideways and Dave Hardy was gone. This was serious because it meant that now we were defenseless against stern attacks.

Rear gunners baled out by rotating the turret and dropping out backwards. Unfortunately Dave Hardy had pulled out his intercom plug and hadn’t heard that we had got the fire out and when he baled out he jammed the rear gun turret sideways.

This account is just part of a longer piece by pilot David Sokoloff, written in 1996, describing the men who flew the Halifaxs of No. 408 RCAF ‘Goose’ Squadron, based at Linton-on-Ouse, England at the time.

The 70th anniversary of the raid will be commemorated in Bochum, the Bochum website has a sequence of before and after images of the town, which had cleared 2 million cubic metres of rubble by 1949.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of part of Bochum, Germany, prior to major attacks by aircraft of Bomber Command. The large factory at upper left is the Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG steelworks.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of part of Bochum, Germany, prior to major attacks by aircraft of Bomber Command. The large factory at upper left is the Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG steelworks.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of part of Bochum, Germany, following the last major raid on this target by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 4/5 November 1944. Nearly all the buildings in the vicinity of the Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG steelworks have been gutted by incendiary fires or destroyed by high-explosive bombs, while the plant itself (upper left) has been severely damaged.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of part of Bochum, Germany, following the last major raid on this target by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 4/5 November 1944. Nearly all the buildings in the vicinity of the Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG steelworks have been gutted by incendiary fires or destroyed by high-explosive bombs, while the plant itself (upper left) has been severely damaged.

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.

“Rescued by the Bravest People I’ve ever Known”

Large formation of Boeing B-17Fs of the 92nd Bomb Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Large formation of Boeing B-17Fs of the 92nd Bomb Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Synthetic oil plant at Zeitz, Germany, destroyed by Americans in aerial bombing operations during World War II. 1944.
Synthetic oil plant at Zeitz, Germany, destroyed by Americans in aerial bombing operations during World War II. 1944.

On the 5th September the USAAF mission target was the Opac Synthetic Oil plant at Ludwigshaven. It was part of the priority programme that was gradually starving all parts of the German armed forces of the fuel they need to sustain operations. Losses were now much reduced amongst the bomber crews, mainly thanks to the accompanying long range fighters but no mission was without risk. The figures showed that experienced counted and that new crews were more often casualties.

For pilot Bob Kelley this was his only his second mission, his first run had been as second pilot. For the remainder of his crew it was their first mission. They were the last B-17 to take off with the 322nd Squadron from Bassingbourn that day and despite being told that ‘My Baby’, a 58 mission veteran aircraft, was in ‘mint condition’ they suffered two engine failures and were unable to keep up with the rest of the group.

Then they got bounced by two Me 109s. With the rear turret gone and the aircraft on fire Kelley ordered his crew to bail out. He then spent an alarming few minutes trying to find a parachute, and then, when he was falling through thin air, trying to open it. After surviving an attempt by one of the Me 109s to shoot him in mid air…:

I entered a second set of clouds just as he passed back over and didn’t see anything else until I came out of the mist and rain about 300 feet off the ground. I could see a farmer with a horse pulling a farm machine in a field, a colliery to a mine to one side in a valley, and I noted that I was heading for the only woods around.

In fact, I was drifting quite swiftly in a wind right to the center of a four-square-block area of dense woods. I was also amazed to see that the B-17 had done a full 180-degree turn and was now coming towards me, but off half a mile or so and heading for a small town.

The woods were coming up fast so I closed my eyes and doubled up my legs and arms, which I’d read somewhere was S.O.P. The last thing I saw was the B-17 passing directly over a town (which I later learned was called Bazailies), missing the city hall and a church steeple by just a few feet, and hitting in a field just outside of town with a crash and a tower of flame.

I opened my eyes and found I was sitting unhurt in a hazelnut bush. My chute had hooked on a beech tree and swung me gently to the ground. I had no idea where I was. It could have been Belgium, Luxembourg, France or even (if we had drifted north) Germany. I took off running as I could hear voices and a dog barking. As it turned out, it wasn’t German soldiers with dogs as I had feared, but rather a farm dog barking at bombardier George Lancaster who was running with a limp due to a sprained ankle.

After running up a creek and sprinkling pepper on my trail, I realized I could run no longer. I decided to sneak up on the voices to see what language they were speaking. I finally got close enough to see an elderly man and woman. I heard him say, in French, “He has to be still in the woods as we found the parachute.” My mother was born in northern Italy but the family was French and my grandmother always spoke French when she talked to me, but in the confusion I accidentally answered in English. Then I ran to them and said, in French, “I’m the pilot.”

They quickly took me out of the woods to a meadow, across a footbridge into another woods, and up a path to where I was met by Jeanne Jacob, wife of the chief of the Underground. She stooped, crawled under a hazelnut bush, and opened up a trapdoor in the ground. She told me to descend, and that Anderson the co-pilot and Karoli the navigator were already underground.

The opening was about 2,5 feet by 2.5 feet square. It was made of logs with cleats for footholds and went down some 30 feet before opening into a room. There I found my two crewmen plus two Russian soldiers, Paul and Timothy, who had escaped a year ago from the mine at Bazailies where they had been forced to work….

The cave was lit by carbide miner lamps, the smell of which I hate to this day. I had bailed out at about 11:30 A.M. By the time I was safely ensconced in the cave, it was midafternoon and raining hard. Anderson the co-pilot told me he had come down in the meadow.

The chief of the Underground, Roland Jacob, and his wife Jeanne were eating their noontime meal when they saw him come down. They rushed out and took him to the underground hideout immediately. They heard the gunfire and the crash and realized that the Germans were out looking for the crew so they and others from the town of Baslieux bravely entered the woods in hope of finding them first.

The navigator came down in a wooded area. He was partially dazed from being dragged by the wind while in the chute, but he was unhurt.

After night fell, Roland Jacob came to tell me to come with him. The bombardier was several kilometers away, in the woods. He was on a stretcher because he was having trouble walking. He did not understand French, and was frightened. He was making so much noise that they were afraid the searching Germans would hear them.

I reluctantly left the safe dry hideout and went with Roland through the heavy rain and the dark to where four farmers had Lancaster on a blanket on two poles. I talked to him and explained the situation and the need for quiet. After a struggle, we got him to our underground home.

I’ve since met and talked to farmer Pierre Francois, who saw him enter the woods pursued by two German soldiers at a distance. Pierre met him as he exited on the other side of the woods, put him on his mowing machine, and drove him to a temporary hiding place until he could contact Roland Jacob and arrange to have him transported to a permanent hiding place.

See http://www.91stbombgroup.com/91st_tales/01_1944_rescuedbythebravest.pdf to read the whole dramatic story.

Boeing B-17G formation bomb drop. Closest aircraft from the 384th Bomb Group, 547th Bomb Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Boeing B-17G formation bomb drop. Closest aircraft from the 384th Bomb Group, 547th Bomb Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)