Winston Churchill had just sent out a secret memo to senior commanders putting the threat of invasion into perspective, but even those right at the top thought that a surprise attack might come any day now. It was becoming increasingly clear that the crucial issue was how Britain’s air defences stood up to the Luftwaffe.
General Sir Edmund Ironside, formerly Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was now Chief in Command Home Defence, responsible for preparing the response to any invasion. His diary shows that he believed that an attack could come at any time, but that intensive air attack was likely to come first:
It is curious how one goes to bed wondering whether there will be an attack early the next morning. As we have done all we can in the way of preparation, it doesn’t worry me much. I merely give thanks that we have another day of preparation and issue of defence material.
The attack upon us by air is intensifying. Chiefly against aerodromes, ports, shipping and aircraft factories. But so far the attack has been badly directed and not carried out in great strength.
The R.A.F. say that that is what happened before the German attack in France. Desultory bombing and then one morning a very heavy attack on everything. It may be coming again.
The seemingly desultory bombing may be a method of testing our defences. Certainly the Germans have never been up against such a good fighter defence, such A.A. fire, and such a warning system.
I am inclined to think that Germany will try to wear down our air defence before she tries any invasion. It seems the natural thing to do…
Britain and Italy were at war but so far there had been little fighting as they confronted each other over the Egyptian – Libyan border in North Africa. In the main hostilities were confined to sporadic bombing raids by both sides. These were of nuisance value – causing few casualties.
In this context the phrase ‘light casualties’ conceals a great deal, especially for those who happened to be among the casualties.
In the last week of June twenty year old Ray Ellis moved with his unit of gunners up to the front line outside Mersa Matruh. They first had to survive their first sandstorm – then came an even worse ordeal.
The following morning I was ordered to go as part of a fatigue party into Mersa Matruh to help with the unloading of stores. By this time the wind had eased somewhat and the worst of the storm was over, but it was still very hot and dusty as we made our way towards the cluster of buildings and I realised that Mersa Matruh was a very small town. The air raid damage was immediately apparent: shattered houses, splintered trees and huge blackened craters bore testimony to the fact that this place had been under heavy attack.
We parked by the side of the road and the officer in charge of the party went off in search of orders. I decided to have a closer look at the damage and so I dismounted and wandered off a little way down the street. I heard the noise of aircraft very high in the sky and I saw people running for cover and then suddenly there was a succession of tremendous explosions and it seemed as if the whole world had gone mad all around me.
The noise was ear-splitting, the ground shook and the air was filled with flame and smoke. There had been no warning at all, just a screaming, whistling sound and then this terrifying series of detonations. It was my first experience of any type of bombardment and I was totally unprepared and just stood transfixed as everything seemed to blow up all around me.
Then, just as suddenly, it was all over and the noise stopped, only to be replaced by a different kind of shriek; this time it was made by a human voice and a figure lurched into view from behind a building. It was a soldier and he was screaming. He had his hands pressed against his stomach and his entrails were spilling out between his fingers.
I watched, horrified, as he sank to his knees, his screams changing to a whine, and then he toppled over, kicking and gurgling in a pool of blood and slime. Within seconds I was on the ground beside him as a second stick of bombs came whistling down to explode nearby.
I had never been so frightened in my life as I lay there trembling and bewildered; it had all been so sudden and I couldn’t believe that it was all happening. When it was all over I climbed to my feet. The air was filled with dust and smoke, the soldier was lying in a grotesque heap and I could hear a lot of shouting.
My first impulse was to run away as far as possible from this awful place. In those few minutes the war had become a reality.
I was thankful to find that none of our party had been injured in the attack and we were able to continue with our duties. It was significant that we were no longer singing and our work was punctuated by repeated fearful glances into the cloudless blue sky.
I could not get the sight of the dying soldier out of my mind. Although I was to witness a great many horrifying scenes in the years that followed, that poor man has always remained in my memory.
There were still tens of thousands of British military personnel in France even as it became apparent that the new French leader was likely to seek an Armistice. Once again a rapidly organised evacuation was underway. The circumstances were not as desperate at at Dunkirk but they were still impeded by German bombers ranging far and wide.
The Cunard liner Lancastria had been pressed into service as a troop ship. She now took on board as many men as possible, far exceeding her peacetime capacity. Amongst them were over 800 RAF maintenance crew, packed into the lower hold, as well as thousands of soldiers from a variety of Army support units, and an unknown number of civilian refugees.
Unfortunately they had not long left the port of St Nazaire before the bombers found them.
Walter Hirst was a Sapper with the Royal Engineers:
On the 17th we boarded the Lancastria late in the afternoon. We immediately grabbed a couple of life jackets which I thought would make ideal pillows. We were ordered below and shortly after witnessed, through a porthole, the Oronsay being hit. Both myself and another Sapper decided then, that it would be healthier if we were topside and so decided to climb the stairs, against orders.
Soon after the Lancastria was hit. It was a massive explosion. There was total panic and chaos. Soldiers, including some from 663, positioned at either end of the ship began to open up with Bren guns at the circling enemy aircraft. I managed to get myself into a lifeboat but as it was being lowered the ropes on one end became jammed in the davit. A panicked sailor suddenly jumped up and started to hack away at the ropes with a knife. Myself and others yelled at him to stop, but immediately we were all thrown into the sea. Continue reading “The Lancastria bombed and sunk, thousands dead”
With the Germans in Paris it seemed apparent to most that France had been defeated. British proposals to create a redoubt in Brittany came to nothing – there were simply not enough troops to realistically hold of the German advance anywhere. Late on the 16th June Petain was appointed the new French leader and steps were taken to begin communicating with the Germans.
Donald Caskie had been the Minister at the Scottish Kirk in Paris. As the Germans entered Paris he joined the mass exodus of citizens who were fleeing into the French interior.
I had caught up with a straggling mass of people when German and Italian aircraft streaked down from the sky. Machine guns spat indiscriminate death. Bombs thudded and exploded all along the road. Men, women and children were blotted out of existence in a few moments. Some died by the roadside, some quietly, some sobbing, others shrieking. Far away I heard the rumbling of guns, and behind us smoke was rising from tiny villages.
The French Army had been defeated, and it seemed that Hitler and Mussolini had given orders to ‘mop up’ the French civilians.
Half conscious, but curiously alert to danger, I flung myself into ditches all through the day. It is impossible to judge the trajectory of machine-gun bullets striking from the air; sometimes when the aircraft seemed overhead they went wide, sometimes inexplicably close and once, I felt them thudding into the earth a few inches from my head.
The attacks ceased in the late afternoon and the sky was quiet again. I felt a wonderful sense of peace, I revelled in the freedom from the threat of instantaneous death. The road was under my feet and I drew deep breaths and enjoyed the air in my lungs. I was marching again.
On the 15th/16th June eight Wellingtons were despatched from aerodromes in Southern France to bomb Genoa. Heavy local thunderstorms were encountered and only one aircraft bombed the target; several hits were registered. On the following night six aircraft operated with greater success; fires were started at a factory near Milan, and the Ansaldo and Caproni works at Genoa were also hit. The aircraft and servicing units in Southern France have now returned to this country. Reports indicate that our attacks on Italy have been very successful and have created a deep impression.
Desperate efforts were now being made to establish a perimeter line around the British positions in northern France. The estimates from the Royal Navy suggested that 30,000 men, at best 50,000, might be evacuated out of over 250,000 men in the British Expeditionary Force.
Although most of Hitler’s Panzers were now stalled this did not mean that German forces were not pressing the British positions. The 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment found themselves facing west as they struggled to hold the La Bassee Canal against the Waffen SS 2nd Totenkopf Regiment. Private Ernie Farrow, a Pioneer with the HQ Company who was called in to fill a gap in the line, describes the situation on the 25th:
We had to go in between two different companies — just the Pioneers which was about twenty of us because we’d lost about eight men by this time. What they told us to do was to go up on to the top of this canal bank and make sure that every round that we fired got a German.
We were getting short of ammunition and we must try and make every round count. I was using my .303 rifle, occasionally we took turns in firing the Bren gun but there again we had to be very careful. We found that by using the rifles we could save quite a lot of ammunition. We could pick a German off with our rifle just as well as we could do with the Bren gun where you’d fire probably twenty rounds to hit the same German.
After we’d fired a certain amount of rounds, we’d got to scramble back down the bank of the canal, run along a bit, then go up top again – just to try and bluff the Germans that there was a great company of us there. We were being hard pressed, we were being machine gunned, mortared, shelled.
We were led to believe that the German tanks were made of cardboard and plywood but by God we knew the difference when they started firing at us — we got our heads down very, very quickly! The most terrible thing that I’ve ever experienced.
We were dug in our little fox holes and we’d keep our heads down but you couldn’t be there all the time — you had to get up to fire at the Germans on the other side because those Germans were trying to get across the canal to get at us! The more we were hiding up the less chance we had of stopping them. So we had to go out and fire at them.
They were even driving their lorries into the canal and trying to drive their tanks across on these lorries. But the artillery managed to keep them at bay. I don’t think we saw an aircraft over our sector at the time.
It was a very frightening thing. It really showed you what war was like.
Although many in the British Expeditionary Force were to complain that they did not see the RAF, tremendous efforts were being made to hold up the German advance. Troops on the ground who were being bombed felt that the Germans were unopposed.
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Saturday May 25th
Arrived about 2 a.m. Estaires. Got billeted and to bed by 3 a.m. Slept till 9.
Great enemy air activity today. Had orders to move back to Festubert. Sent Cameron on billeting, then arrived self with 1 Pl. Got settled in and was going to look for Camerons in War Cemetery when we were called back to Estaires. Lot of enemy air bombing along roads. Then had orders to move back to Violaines. Later in afternoon Coy Comdrs went on to meet Queens Regt, who we were to relieve in L.B. and recce area there. The usual defences of a canal in a town. Mortar shelling.
Went back to Violaines and had a meal. Company arrived shortly afterwards. Carried out relief tonight, fairly quiet. Put 11 Pl in the houses on right where some French troops were and left 10 Pl out in houses near Coy H.Q. All had some sleep tonight.
[Entry No.16, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]
The Dutch garrison in Rotterdam had successfully halted the German advance on the city’s riverbank but now faced much stronger German forces, including the 9th Panzer Division and SS troops. The Dutch were in the process of negotiating with Germans when they were subjected to a massive air raid. The incident continues to attract controversy. The German commander had intended to make a combined assault supported by dive bombers to hit specific targets but Heinkel III general bombers were allotted to the raid, and the German land forces were unable to call them off whilst their negotiations continued. The area bombers eventually dropped around 100 tons on the medieval heart of Rotterdam’s commercial district. A square mile of the city was virtually flattened. Nearly a thousand people were killed, although war time estimates by the Allies put the figure at 25-30,000.
The incident led to the immediate surrender of Rotterdam and very shortly afterwards the Dutch government decided they could not risk other cities being bombed and sought an armistice. The British changed their bombing policy as a consequence, having previously avoided civilian industrial targets – on the 15th May they attacked the German industrial centre of the Ruhr for the first time. Continue reading “Rotterdam bombed, RAF suffer major losses”
The Red Army were now in the outskirts of Berlin and a battle on the streets was beginning. Stalin was urging his Generals relentlessly on and there would be no attempt to limit Soviet casualties during the final assault on the German capital.
Inside the ruined city there were apocalyptic scenes as the various different groups of German armed resistance, from SS and regular Wehrmacht troops to the hastily recruited Volkssturm and Hitler Youth groups, were being organised into increasingly desperate lines of defence.
Seventeen year old Helmut Altner had just been called up and had began his Wehrmacht training on the 30th March. After less than two weeks in the barracks they were on the front line, continuing their training as they faced the Red Army from trenches east of Berlin. They had been lucky to survive the first attacks on the 16th and had then retreated back.
On the 23rd they were sent out again to join defences in the west of Berlin:
We come to Spandau, passing through the town’s ruins, and drive across a bridge; and turn towards Spandau-West. We are both tired and shattered. We have left the trailer sides open, so that every time we go round a bend we sway to and fro, in danger of falling off. The tractor stops almost without our noticing it.
Everyone grabs his things and we are standing on the street again. The tractor drives off, the sound of its engine gradually fading in the distance until it vanishes completely. Peace reigns over the streets, only our footsteps raising a loud echo from the walls of the passing buildings.
We march along the streets half asleep. Then we stop at an air raid shelter and rest for a minute before going on again. The buildings are set farther back from the street now and gardens begin to appear.The second lieutenant says that we are approaching Hakenfelde.
Slit trenches have been dug into the verges and the foundations of an anti-tank barrier await completion. On our left the wood piles and sheds of a large sawmill are burning fiercely, throwing a bright light across the street.
Another aircraft clatters over and we throw ourselves down and wait for the howling of the bombs, which hit the burning sheds and scatter sparks, sending burning planks whirling into the air. And again one hears the tacking of the engine as the plane flies at its target, the whistling and the exploding bombs.
The street is lit up as light as day. We press ourselves tight against the wire mesh fence, as if it could give us cover, clutching at the earth with our fingers. Across the street the bombs continue to strike into the flames, whipping them up even higher. Our hearts beat wildly, praying for it all to end. Then it quietens down as the humming of the aircraft engine dwindles in the distance.
We brush the sand off our uniforms and march on. An apartment block looms out of the night on the left, and on the right a vast building with hundreds of windows reflects the flames. A long, high brick wall separates the Hakenfelde Aircraft Instrument Factory from the street. Suddenly the hum of aircraft engines returns and they are overhead again.
The roaring resumes and we throw ourselves down, pressing tight against the brick wall and wait, wait as we have already done so often. Then come the bangs and splintering as the bombs strike the stone colossus next to us. Splinters and masonry shower down around us, falling on our steel helmets and our bodies. The explosions in the street go on and on. The lights in the stairwell of the building across the street suddenly come on. We shout, and it goes dark again, except for the fires burning everywhere, lighting up the street.
At last it is quiet. We run across the street and dive into the building, then go down the steps into the cellar, where a burning candle spreads a little light. The second lieutenant is sitting in a corner asleep, having fled into the cellar as soon as the bombing started. I sit down in a corner and try to sleep. Outside the bombing has started again.
A bright light comes from the entrance to an air raid shelter and a man comes out. A radio is quietly playing marches. Suddenly a voice comes from the set: ‘The fighting for the capital has intensified. . . Kopenick railway station, which had been lost, has been retaken by counter-attack and an enemy attack on it driven back. A breach by Soviet troops on Prenzlauer Allee has been contained. The enemy is pressing through the northern suburbs of Berlin.’
Then come marches again and ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles!’ As Goebbels says: ‘The darkest hour comes before the dawn.’
The candle has gone out. The air raid shelter door is shut tight. Hearty snoring comes from a dark corner and someone is talking in his sleep. I curl up and try to sleep, but sleep will not come. My thoughts allow no rest, going on and on, swirling around. I look at the time. It is late. The old day has ended unnoticed and a new one has started while we have been lying here waiting. Why, I do not know.
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.
The 14th March saw the first operational use of the RAF’s latest weapon – the ‘Grand Slam’ deep penetration bomb. Another design by Barnes Wallis of ‘bouncing bomb’ fame, the bomb was designed to penetrate the ground before exploding with enough force to cause shock waves that would knock down nearby structures – targets that did not not necessarily have to be hit directly. The bomb produced a 70 foot deep 130 foot wide crater. It was also used against the thick concrete of the U-boat pens.
Elsewhere the near complete air superiority that was being achieved across Europe by the Allied air forces was dramatically demonstrated by the USAAF 325th Fighter Group based in Rimini, Italy. The Luftwaffe was now struggling not only with a lack of fuel but with a shortage of experienced pilots. Nevertheless the achievements of Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel, who became an “ace in a day” by downing five aircraft in one sortie, were exceptional:
A couple of days later Lt. McDaniel was interviewed by ABC News reporter Clete Roberts and gave this account:
There really wasn’t much to it. There we were cruising aloft at about 20,000 feet. We’d just begun to let down. I happened to look over the side and there … far below me … I spotted several planes. They were traveling west…
We were headed east. We were in an area where anything could happen. Over the radio … I told the rest of the men to hold their fire until we positively identified the planes below us. You see, I thought they might be Russian planes. I certainly didn’t want to get in a fight if they were.
So… we dropped in behind them. They never knew we were there. They were flying a pretty sloppy formation. Sort of strung out in a long uneven line. I closed up behind the last plane … about 150 feet from him. There was no doubt about it … they were Jerry planes.
The guy directly ahead of me had a big white “3” and a black cross on the side of his plane. Well that-was enough for me. Over the radio … I told the rest of the men to drop their gas tanks and get ready to hit ’em.
Then I opened fire on the Jerry nearest me. He just blew up …almost in my face. I ducked my head as parts of his plane scattered around my ship. He never knew what hit him.
The Jerries ahead still didn’t know we were there. I opened fire on the next one … one wing and part of his tail fell off and he spun out of sight.
Then the three remaining German planes started to dive toward the earth. I still don’t believe they knew we were in behind them.
I rode down on their tail … firing at the third German … his canopy popped off and I saw him jump … I don’t think he had a parachute.
I started firing at the fourth German … he blossomed with flame and started to smoke and burn. When he went into a spin … I concentrated on the fifth one.
I’m sure he knew I was after him. He dropped down to about 100 feet above the deck. He started to skid around a little … trying to evade me. But it was no use. I hit him … my wing man saw him spin in and burn.
It was then I discovered that there was only two of us against the five Germans. You see, two of my planes had to drop out of the fight because of trouble … That’s all there was to it…