The Luftwaffe’s ‘Black Thursday’

Seventy two Heinkel III bombers from Norway sought to attack RAF airfields at Usworth and Dishforth on the 15th August.

The 15th August saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Battle of Britain as the Luftwaffe launched a series of raids aimed mainly at RAF bases. This was intended as the knockout blow that had been envisaged on ‘Eagle Day’, although the results were not as anticipated. The resources of the RAF were far from being as depleted as the Luftwaffe intelligence suggested, and scored some notable successes, particularly when German bombers were unescorted by fighters.

For the first time attacks were made on the north of England from German bases in Norway. The long range meant that the Heinkel III bombers could not be escorted by Me 109s but were accompanied by the less capable Me110 fighter bombers, some without their rear gunners to help fuel consumption, some with long range fuel tanks. However German intelligence that the bulk of RAF fighter defences had been moved south was badly wrong. The large formation met a hostile reception when they approached the Scottish coast at midday and turned south to look for their airfield targets in the north of England.

Pilot Officer Robert Elliot was flying a Spitfire with 72 Squadron based at Acklington, Northumberland, they had the advantage of height when the raiders were spotted:

I do not think they saw us to begin with. When they did, the number of bombs jettisoned was fantastic. You could see them falling away from the aircraft and dropping into the sea, literally by the hundreds. The formation became a shambles.

The Messerschmitt Me 110 fighter bomber, which escorted the raid on the 15th August.

Flight Lieutenant Harry Welford was flying Hurricanes with 607 Squadron, based at Usworth, which joined the action slightly later:

On Thursday, 15th August, 1940, we were to have our first big encounter with the enemy, and one considered on a par with those attacks that 11 and 12 Groups were experiencing in the south. At 12.30 pm we were going off duty for 24 hours leave when the whole squadron was called to Readiness. We heard from the Operations Room that there was a big “flap” on, that is a warning of imminent enemy action up and down the NE coast.

We waited out at dispersal, then we were told to “Scramble” in Squadron formation – I was in a feverish state of excitement and quickly took off and climbed up to our operational height of 20,000 ready to patrol the coast. We kept receiving messages on the R/T of 40 or 50 plus “Bogeys” approaching Newcastle from the north. Although we patrolled for over half an hour we never saw a thing.

Just as I was expecting the order to “Pancake” I heard the senior Flight Commander shout “Tally Ho!”, and “Tally Ho!” it was! There on our port side at 9,000 ft must have been 120 bombers, all with the swastika and German crosses as large as life, having the gross impertinence to cruise down Northumberland and Durham’s NE coast. These were the people who were going to bomb Newcastle and Sunderland and our friends and relations who lived there.

I’d never seen anything like it. They were in two groups, one of about 70 and the other about 40, like two swarms of bees. There was no time to wait and we took up position and delivered a No 3 Attack in sections. As only three machines attacked a line of 20, I could not see how they could miss us. However, we executed our first attack and in spite of the fact that I thought I was being hit all over the place, it was their machines that started dropping out of the sky.

In my excitement during the next attack I only narrowly missed one of our own machines doing a “split arse” breakaway. There couldn’t have been more than two feet between us.

Eventually, spotting most of the enemy aircraft dropping down with only their undercarriages damaged, I chased a Heinkel and filled that poor devil with lead until first one. then the other engine stopped. I then had the sadistic satisfaction of seeing the aircraft crash into the sea. With the one I reckoned to have damaged in the first attack, they were my first bloods and I was elated, especially to later discover that the squadron had not suffered any losses.

Just one of the amazing stories recorded by Dilip Sarkar who has collected numerous accounts of the Battle of Britain, see Few of the Many: Memories of the 1939-45 Air War.

In total eight He III bombers and seven Me110s were shot down for no loss in this attack. There were no further attacks from the Luftwaffe’s Norwegian bases during this phase of the war.

The series of attacks in the rest of the country were less one sided – in total 75 aircraft enemy aircraft were shot down on the 15th August for the loss of 30 RAF planes, with 17 pilots killed.

RAF Middle Wallop bombed

A hangar at RAF Middle Wallop following one of the German raids

On the 14th August 609 Squadron was the target of a “sneak attack”, where small groups of German bombers were sent to a variety of targets around the country. At Middle Wallop one Ju 88 did a lot of damage. One of the pilots who narrowly escaped the bombing was Eugene ‘Red’ Tobin, a United States citizen, one of the ten American volunteers who flew with the RAF in the Battle of Britain:

My head was spinning, it felt as though I had a permanent ringing in my ears, I felt the blast go over me as I lay there flattened on the ground. I got up and my instinct was to run towards the hangar. It was carnage, I saw one overalled person with his foot and half a leg blown off, another had a great red patch on his chest with a load of mess hanging from it, another was rolling in agony with one of his arms missing.

See The Few: The American Knights of the Air Who Risked Everything to Save Britain in the Summer of 1940.

Damage inside the hangar

609 Squadron were divided between Middle Wallop airfield in Hampshire and the uncompleted Warmwell airfield some 50 miles away in Dorset. Both were targets for the Luftwaffe in the their newly intensified action against RAF bases and aircraft factories.

More damage at Middle Wallop airfield

For more pictures of 609 Squadron see Warmwell.

The Luftwaffe launch ‘Adler Tag’ – Eagle Day

The crew of a Dornier 17 are briefed before a mission, Summer 1940

On 13th August 1940 The Luftwaffe launched ‘Adler Tag’ or Eagle Day the start of intended mass attacks which would knock out the RAF.

We had been briefed the day previous to Adler Tag that we would be going across the Channel in strong formations to attack England. At last, we would be concentrating in large bomber formations with a fighter escort. For so long, we had been flying our individual missions on simple operations like photographic reconnaissance or minelaying duties. Some, like us, had not even seen a British fighter or even fired a shot in anger and it hardly seemed as if a war was on at all. Now, our airfields had many bombers at the ready, many had been flown in from inland airfields, and I could see that now our great Luftwaffe would be at last attacking England.

Feldwebel Karl Hoffmann 1/KG30

The crew of a Ju 88 prepare for combat.
A Heinkel III takes off
A fleet of Dornier 17 bombers in flight

German newsreel footage of the bombing of England:

In fact, largely due to weather, the Luftwaffe attacks were launched without the close co-ordination of fighters and bombers that had been anticipated, and the resilience of the RAF was much greater than Luftwaffe intelligence suggested. Both sides claimed large numbers of planes shot down, only post war research has established that the true figures were 47 German losses against 13 British fighters shot down.

For much more on Eagle Day and the Battle of Britain see battleofbritain1940.net

RAF Bomber Squadron disaster over Denmark

The RAF Bristol Blenheim twin engined bomber

At 8.30am on the 13th August 1940 twelve Bristol Blenheim aircraft from No. 82 Squadron took off from Watton in Norfolk to make a daylight raid on Aaalborg airfield in Denmark. They had considerable experience of airfield attacks, including that on Amiens airfield on [permalink id=6974 text=’30th July 1940′]. There was no fighter escort and the target was at the limit of range. One aircraft turned back with technical problems.

Bombing attacks on German airfields were considered as important to the defence of Britain as the efforts of Fighter Command, there were 24 such raids during the course of this week alone.

It was believed that cloud cover would offer some protection to the Blenheim bombers mounting the raid. But the clouds had disappeared when the Danish coast was reached and German air defences were alerted. Wing Commander Lart decided to press on with the attack. When they reached the target all eleven aircraft making the attack were shot down, either by waiting Me 109 fighters or by Anti-Aircraft fire. Only 13 of the 33 crewmen taking part in the raid survived to become prisoners of war.

German military funeral for some of men lost from No.82 Squadron, held on 16th August.

Not surprisingly the outcome of the raid received minimal publicity in Britain. The wholesale disbandment of No.82 Squadron, which had suffered similar losses on the 17th June 1940, was considered but it was eventually reconstituted. For more details of the raid see airmen.dk. Numerous photographs of the crashed aircraft can be found at Airwar over Denmark

Condor aircraft join the Battle of the Atlantic

The Focke Wulf 200 became operational in August 1940 and immediately posed a new threat to shipping in the Atlantic.

The FW 200 Condor began patrols from Bordeaux-Merignac airfield in western France in August 1940. Flying in wide sweeps out over the Bay of Biscay and into the Atlantic west of Ireland it would continue round the north of Britain and land in Norway, a route that encompassed most of the possible convoy routes. It proved highly effective not only because of its bomb load, but also in its capacity as a reconnaissance aircraft capable of calling in U-Boat attacks.

Often described as ‘the scourge of the Atlantic’, attributed to Churchill, in fact he said:

To the U-boat scourge was now added added air attack far out in the oceans by long range aircraft. Of these, the Focke Wulf 200, known as the Condor, was the most formidable.

The title now so widely used ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’ did not come into use until the 6th March 1941, when Churchill issued his Directive on giving the U-Boat menace high priority.

See Sir Winston Churchill: The Second World War

RAF bomber crew find welcome in gloomy France

Bofors gun crews practise firing at low-flying RAF Blenheim bombers, November 1939.
Bofors gun crews practise firing at low-flying RAF Blenheim bombers, November 1939.
Bristol Blenheim Mk IV L4842 being flown by test pilot Bill Pegg near Filton, 29 May 1939. The aircraft served with No. 53 Squadron and was shot down on 17 May 1940 over France.
Bristol Blenheim Mk IV L4842 being flown by test pilot Bill Pegg near Filton, 29 May 1939. The aircraft served with No. 53 Squadron and was shot down on 17 May 1940 over France.

By 11 June 1940 Alastair Panton, an RAF Blenheim bomber pilot with 53 Squadron had already been shot down three times since the German invasion of France. The majority of the BEF had by now been evacuated after their encirclement at Dunkirk. However the 51st Highland Division was still fighting alongside the French and many British support troops remained in France – and a new Expeditionary force would soon be landed further west with a view to establishing a new line of resistance – possibly establishing a joint Anglo-French redoubt in Brittany.

The remaining RAF Blenheim crews, their ranks now much reduced by casualties, were still engaged in the vital business of reconnaissance. They were now mainly flying dangerous, extremely low level sorties, to establish a picture of the rapidly changing battlefield. Panton and his observer Chancery were now due to the meet British Army intelligence officer Major Jameson. In the increasingly confused situation, with many roads impassable with refugees, they had arranged to meet him outside Chartres cathedral sometime that evening, whenever Jameson could find a route through:

The streets were filthy and crowded with refugees; the water and electricity supplies only worked spasmodically; there were queues at all the food shops of customers hoping they would open in spite of the late hour; but the saddest feature was the overall air of resignation. More than ever was I struck by the contrast with the cheerful, purposeful atmosphere at our little encampment in its corner of the airfield.

The pavements around the cathedral were crowded with refugees, as were the steps leadingup to the main entrance.The people, lying or sitting with their belongings, were eyeing us in our flying overalls and forage caps, if not in an openly hostile manner, certainly in a way which showed they were not prepared to help us.

It was only with difficulty that we found space on the steps to sit down and wait for Jameson. When an hour went by without him, we were both feeling ready for a drink. I had noticed a bistro opposite which, unusually, was open, but surprisingly did not seem to be busy.

We decided to investigate and immediately found out why it was not being patronised much. According to a notice pinned to the door, W. Grammond, the proprietor, was charging an entrance fee of 100 francs. We were not short of money as we had had little opportunity to spend any. Without hesitating, we opened the door, cash in hand, and went in to be met by a gigantic hairy man, whom we rightly presumed to be Monsieur Grammond, seated at a table.

We were very pleasantly surprised by our reception, because We had become used to being made to feel not wanted. He jumped to his feet waving aside our proffered francs, crying, ‘Vive l’Angleterre! Vive le Royale Air Force! Entrez! Entrez!’

The other customers smiled their welcome and moved to make seats empty for us. We were soon enjoying large strong cups of coffee and cognac, and delicious they Were. We sat very contentedly at our table from where We could watch the cathedral steps, sipping and listening to the conversation of Monsieur Grammond’s local, clearly tax-exempt, friends.

It was soon evident to us that, in the general opinion, it was only a matter of time before military resistance to the Germans ceased entirely in France,the possibility of holding out in a redoubt such as the Brittany peninsula being discounted.

The majority thought that their government would depart overseas as the Dutch, Belgians and Norwegians had done, and continue the fight from there. Some thought that ‘overseas’ would be in the considerable French colonies in North Africa; others opted for London.

There was a general bitterness about their politicians’ reliance on the Maginot Line, and about our military contribution being far too small.The latter, something which we had never considered, came as a shock to Chancery and me. I suppose we had been blinded by our own personal involvement, but we were made to realise how very few soldiers we had put into the field in comparison with them, the French.

We were nonplussed by being asked if we thought our government would seek peace terms from Hitler when we were on our own. Our obvious astonishment at such an idea caused general laughter, but, when we were asked penetrating questions about how we thought we would beat the Germans, even if we succeeded in preventing them from over-running us, we found ourselves giving vague, broad—brush answers. In truth, we had no idea.

One of our new friends obviously thought things were becoming far too serious, because he started playing “J’attendrai” softly on his mouth-organ. Very soon, Monsieur Grammond went over to him and whispered something in his ear. He broke off his very popular sentimental lament, and started playing the tune of ‘Colonel Bogey’to loud laughter and applause.

Then, with Monsieur Grammond conducting his customers, they started roaring out a song in English with heavily French—accented words. I was hearing it for the first time, and afterwards I often thought of it as an anthem of the French resistance movement.

’Itler ’as only got one ball.
Goering ’as two but very small.
’Immler is somewhat similaire.
But poor old Goebbels ’as no balls at all!

It was a brief respite from the trials of war for Panton, further tragedy would strike his Squadron when many of his ground crew were lost on the Lancastria. Panton would be shot down for a fourth time, surviving as a POW, one of only three officers from the original twenty-two to survive the war. His memoir, published for the first time, posthumously, in 2014, contains an extraordinary series of stories as well as being a tribute to the men who did not survive. See Alastair Panton: Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer: An RAF Officer’s Memoir of the Battle of France 1940.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV in flight, banking steeply towards the camera aircraft, circa 1940.
Bristol Blenheim Mk IV in flight, banking steeply towards the camera aircraft, circa 1940.
A Cruiser Mk IV tank on the back of a Scammell tank transporter among a host of other military and civilian vehicles in Le Neubourg during the retreat of British forces, 9 (?) June 1940.
A Cruiser Mk IV tank on the back of a Scammell tank transporter among a host of other military and civilian vehicles in Le Neubourg during the retreat of British forces, 9 (?) June 1940.

Blenheim bomber shot down off Dunkirk

Blenheim bomber over the sea with burning oil tanker below, photographed May 1940

Pilot Officer G.W. Spiers was was the observer on a Blenheim from 254 Squadon, based at Detling in Kent at the end of May. They were sent to support the Dunkirk evacuation. Flying Officer J. W. Baird commanded Blenheim L9481. At 0755, towards the end of their three hour patrol, they were flying at 8,000 feet about two miles out to sea, off Dunkirk:

I was sitting in the seat on the right-hand side of the pilot. Looking out to my right I could see the sand beaches with numerous clusters of troops queueing to embark on small craft. As I looked up I saw recognisable ME 109 German aircraft diving in line astern towards our rear starboard quarter. I managed to count eleven 109s and as I looked downwards I saw our other Blenheim who had, been flying in line astern of us, pass beneath to starboard with both
engines on fire.

As soon as I had seen the enemy, I had yelled to Baird “fighters” and in the meantime he turned to port and headed for North Foreland giving the engines full power. We were slowly picking up speed in a shallow dive but a cold feeling in the small of my back, made me realise we were “sitting ducks” for fighters.

In temper and fear I shouted to Baird to manoeuvre the aircraft about, at the same time I made demonstrations by waving my hand in front of him. Whether or not he understood I never found out, as the cockpit suddenly filled with acrid smoke and flying fragments as the dashboard and instruments disintegrated in front of me, under a series of violent crashes and flashes. Suddenly it stopped. The smoke started to clear and I looked back through the armour plate to see what had happened to Roskrow the Gunner. The fuselage down to the turret was a mass of bullet holes which which were accentuated by the sun beams that shone through the smoke. All I could see of Roskrow was a bloody green flying suit slumped over the gun controls.

Turning to Baird I immediately realised he had been hit although he still held the controls. His head was slumped forward on his chest and blood ran down his right cheek from a wound in the temple that showed through the side of his helmet. Another wound in his neck had covered him with blood and it had gushed all over my left shoulder. He looked very peaceful with his eyes shut; I was sure he was dead. It was miraculous that I had survived that burst of gunfire into the cockpit. The two foot square Perspex panel had many holes in it. The bullets had passed me and gone into Baird and the cockpit panel.

I was now in the unenviable position of any member of aircrew who is not a Pilot as I was flying on my own and it was now up to me to save myself. My immediate reaction was to bale out, so I went forward into the navigation compartment and attempted to lift the Navigator’s seat which was on top of the bale-out hatch. The seat would not fold back and was locked solid in the down position, and after struggling to raise it, for what seemed minutes, I realised the aircraft was beginning to roll to port. I then clambered back to the Pilot’s cabin and viciously hit Baird’s arms off the controls.

Leaning over I pulled back the throttles as the engines were still at full power and were vibrating excessively. Yellow flames from the port engine were beating against the front and side windows and standing at the side of Baird I was about to level the aircraft to prevent the vicious sideslip, that was causing the flames to play on the cockpit, when suddenly the windscreen shattered. I felt a hot searing wind on my face, I felt my cheeks, nose, throat and mouth shrivelling under the heat but have no recollection of any pain. As soon as the aircraft righted, the cockpit cleared of fire and smoke and a noticeable peace descended as the cut back engines purred and the wind gently whined through the shattered glass.

Read the whole account at BBC People’s War

Eisenhower refuses to allow any more German delays

Australian, British and New Zealand former POWs waiting to board No 463 Squadron Lancasters at Juvincourt near Rheims, as part of the massive operation to fly POWs home, 6 May 1945.
Australian, British and New Zealand former POWs waiting to board No 463 Squadron Lancasters at Juvincourt near Rheims, as part of the massive operation to fly POWs home, 6 May 1945.

The war was not yet over even if a series of armistices had been arranged between the Allied forces in the west and their German counterparts. The overall surrender of Germany still awaited the outcome of negotiations at Eisenhower’s HQ at Rheims in France.

There were millions of displaced persons across Europe and their needs could not wait. A first priority for both the US 8th Air Force and RAF Bomber Command was the repatriation of Prisoners of War back to reception centres in England. The heavy bombers now flew out to Germany one more time.

Ron Smith was a veteran of 65 bombing operations as a rear gunner in a Lancaster, the majority of them with the Pathfinders, who were always first over the target. Now he flew out on a very different operation:

That sinister feeling as we crossed the Dutch coast was revived even though the war was over. ‘Hope all the Jerries know about the bloody armistice,’ a voice remarked, as we skimmed the roof-tops of a large town, where the population were waving excitedly.

Across Germany, we stared aghast at the total destruction in town and city alike. In most cases it was difficult to find a building in any way complete, just skeletons in fields of rubble.

Low-level view of the centre of Magdeburg from over the River Elbe, showing the severe bomb damage to buildings and warehouses in the vicinity of the wharves.
Low-level view of the centre of Magdeburg from over the River Elbe, showing the severe bomb damage to buildings and warehouses in the vicinity of the wharves.
A large devastated industrial plant on the north east outskirts of Hanover.
A large devastated industrial plant on the north east outskirts of Hanover.

So this was what the thousands of tons of bombs had done, all those awful nights, when I had watched the terrible upheavals below. To see it all in broad daylight from only a few feet above, as the macabre scene unfolded behind me, was like viewing the end of the world.

As we circled the airfield at Lubeck, I could see scores of aircraft parked row upon row below, including a number of American Flying Fortress bombers. We came in for a perfect landing, and the Wing Commander laughingly remarked: ‘Must put on a good show with an audience like this.’ After taxying to our position, we were instructed to stay with our aircraft, and on no account to leave the airfield. The ex- prisoners of war were on their way by convoy.

The thumbs-up signal again, and I locked myself in as, at last, we turned for take-off. This our skipper accomplished with practised ease, flying at low level across the German countryside, which looked not unlike our own. It was all over for the people down there, too. I mused upon their feelings as they saw the fleet of aircraft, which they must have heard so often high in the darkened heavens, now speeding low over their homes.

Over the sea, sparkling in the early evening sun, the skipper gave me the clearance to leave the turret and, after checking to ensure the lock was engaged, I eased along backwards until I could join our passengers. I sympathised with those who had been air-sick, and handed out more paper bags.

One or two of the more adventurous were persuaded to climb into the mid-upper turret, and it was with some difficulty that each in turn was induced to come down and give his friends the opportunity to enjoy the novelty. Our pilot even allowed visits up front, and I had a busy time conducting our now eager passengers back and forth past the cramped positions of the wireless operator and the navigator.

As the English coast appeared below, a corporal, whom I had just positioned up forward, leaned over eagerly, his face aglow with excitement. It was all too much: at the sight of his beloved homeland tears ran down his cheeks. I put my arm around his shoulders as he sobbed.

After we had landed, at an airfield where the hangars had been converted into a reception area, I opened the door and lowered the ladder into place. A large crowd of cheering WAAFs and nurses were waiting. I gave a mock bow, perfectly well aware who they were anxious to greet. The soldiers climbed down, bewildered, to be ushered across the tarmac with an attentive female on each arm.

See Ron Smith: Rear Gunner Pathfinders

Also flying into Rheims that day was General Jodl, sent by Doenitz to attempt one more delay before they signed the formal surrender terms. Eisenhower was not persuaded to start negotiating any more than he had been the day before :

Jodl arrived in Rheims on 6 May. In his cold, impersonal manner he repeated the arguments von Friedeburg had offered. General Eisenhower’s terms, he pointed out, provided explicitly that all troops were to remain in the positions they occupied at the moment of surrender. But the German High Command simply could not guarantee that the German forces facing Soviet troops would abide by this condition.

This fact created a dilemma in which the German Government had in the end no choice but to abandon the thought of surrender, and to let things drift as they would – and that meant chaos. He, Jodl, had come to Rheims mainly to state this dilemma and to ask the Americans for their help in solving it.

‘You have played for very high stakes,’ Smith said when Jodl had finished. ‘When we crossed the Rhine you had lost the war. Yet you continued to hope for discord among the Allies. That discord has not come. I am in no position to help you out of the difficulties that have grown of this policy of yours. I have to maintain the existing agreements among the Allies. As a soldier I am bound by orders.’ He looked at Jodl and concluded, ‘I do not understand why you do not want to surrender to our Russian allies. It would be the best thing to do for all concerned.’

‘I shall send a radio message to Marshal Keitel,’ he said in a strained voice. ‘It is to read: “We sign, or general chaos.”’

The reply arrived at half-past one o’clock in the morning of 7 May: ‘Admiral Doenitz authorizes signature of surrender under conditions stated.— Keitel.’

At Rheims on 7 May 1945, General Bedell Smith for General Eisenhower, General Souzloparov and General Jodl signed the document which ended Germany’s second attempt to dominate the world.

The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 3 a.m., local time, 7 May 1945. Eisenhower.

Telegram to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, 7 May

The final signing did not take place until the early hours of the morning of the 7th.
Time Magazine has an original picture story of the signature ceremony at Rheims.

Contemporary newsreel:

The Displaced Persons camp
The Displaced Persons camp within the grounds of Hamburg Zoo was build by the Blohm & Voss company during WWII to house the forced labourers that worked in their factory. The camp was taken over by the British on 5 May 1945 and quickly given over as an arrivals centre for displaced persons. On arrival displaced persons were organised into groups of 50 for processing through the reception centre. They were dusted with anti-louse powder and given a registration card (D.P.3) bearing such details as their name, nationality and place of residence. All were then allotted a bed in one of the accommodation huts. In times of overflow a large former air raid shelter was used as overspill night accommodation. After a few days at the camp and when transport was available displaced persons were sent to the appropriate ‘National Camp’ ready for repatriation to their country of origin. On 4 May 1945, the German authorities estimated there were 45,000 displaced persons in Hamburg. This figure was later increased to 120,000 by 521 Detachment, Military Government, the British formation responsible for all displaced persons in the city.
Polish nationals waiting for the arrival of army lorries to take them from No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre in Hamburg Zoological Gardens to a Polish national camp for repatriation.
Two Polish children, Leon and Janina Waszczuk, are given soup soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre located in Hamburg Zoological Gardens. Their mother Władysława is behind them.
Two Polish children, Leon and Janina Waszczuk, are given soup soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre located in Hamburg Zoological Gardens. Their mother Władysława is behind them.
German workers assist with the movement of typhus cases from Sandbostel Concentration Camp to 10 Casualty Clearing Station, which is located close to the camp.
German workers assist with the movement of typhus cases from Sandbostel Concentration Camp to 10 Casualty Clearing Station, which is located close to the camp.

‘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