The Battle of the Heligoland Bight

RAF reconnaissance photo of Wilhelmshaven German Naval Base, 1939

A, existing harbour (entrance and lock-gates); B, capital ship; C, new mole; D, entrance to harbour will be cut through here; E, new locks under construction; F, north harbour; G, coffer dam; H, dredger sucking silt out of future channel and pumping it out in reclaimed area; I, pipe line; J, barracks; K, new dry dock under construction; L, causeway carrying light railways to service construction work; M, large area being reclaimed from the sea; N, barracks.

The largest air engagement of the war so far took place when 24 Wellington bombers were ordered to attack the Schillig Roads and Wilhelmshaven German Naval Base. Or rather to attack ships nearby, since they were ordered not to attack ships within the harbour in case they hit civilians. In fact there were no ships in the Schillig Roads but ‘one battleship, one pocket battleship, one cruiser and five destroyers [were sighted] in Wilhemshaven Harbour’: a target they were forced to refrain from bombing. By this time they were under sustained attack from Luftwaffe ME 110 and ME 109 fighters.

A furious battle ensued with the Wellingtons maintaining their formation as far a practicable – the tactic being that they could better defend themselves as a group. Both sides massively over-claimed. German pilots claimed 34 Wellingtons shot down whereas only 22 Wellingtons took part in the mission (two had turned back with engine trouble). Actual RAF losses were 10 shot down, 2 ditched on the return run and 3 crash landed at base. The British rear gunners claimed 12 German fighters as well as another dozen severely damaged. Actual German losses were three plus many more damaged. Only a few bombs were dropped on auxiliary ships.

The British learnt many lessons. Formation flying did not offer the mutual protection that had been assumed, and possibly even offered a more concentrated target to attacking fighters. A German post combat report concluded ” Their maintenance of formation and rigid adherence to course made them easy targets to find”. Nor was the speed of the Wellington sufficient for it to avoid attack from the beam, in fact they were very vulnerable to such attacks without side mounted gun turrets. And there was a vital need for self sealing petrol tanks to limit the damage that could be done once an aircraft had been hit. In fact the whole viability of daylight bombing was now to become the subject of debate within the RAF.

The accepted philosophy that ‘The bomber will always get through’ was now looking rather dubious. Such lessons did not emerge for some time, however. The real scale of the disparity in losses did not emerge till after the war. The Luftwaffe authorities only rejected seven of the 34 ‘kills’ claimed by their pilots. The British had to put out a propaganda story of a great air victory over German fighters, whereas within the RAF it was acknowledged as a disaster.

See Cajus Bekker: The Luftwaffe War Diaries: The German Air Force in World War II also available from amazon.com and amazon.ca.

First German air raid on UK

Aerial view of HMS Southampton being bombed near the Forth Bridge

Edward Thompson saw it all from the bridge:

On the 16th October 1939 I was a passenger on the Dundee section of an Edinburgh to Aberdeen train which had just entered the first arch at the Southern end of the Bridge. The next stop was to be Leuchars Junction. I was in the corridor with an older boy called Jack Thomas from Edinburgh. We were looking downstream to the right of the carriage and were trying to identify some of the fleet at anchor below the bridge.

Almost simultaneously there was a giant waterspout as high as the bridge alongside one of the capital ships and a barge tied up alongside; it seemed to fly up in the air! In later life I discovered it was HMS Southampton. There were two or three other explosions further off and one of the ships was actually struck; it was HMS Mohawk and casualties were sustained on board. The German bombers were in plain sight only a short distance away flying parallel to the bridge. Meanwile the train stopped briefly and as it did so the painters and riggers working scrambled from the scaffolding of the bridge and made for shelter.

The train carried on without futher incident, only by this time the RAF fighters had become involved and drove the raiders out to sea bringing down (I believe) three Heinkel bombers in the Forth estuary”

Read his full story at BBC People’s War

HMS Mohawk was the third ship attacked while escorting a convoy further down the Forth. The following report was made by Lieutenant Hall-Wright on the 17th October:

3. At 1455, a twin engined monoplane was sighted bearing Green 170°, angle of site 40°, distance 6000 yards. It circled to Green 90° before commencing the attack. The A. A. Director was immediately put on the target, but before there was time to open fire the aircraft commenced a dive bombing attack. The starboard 0.5 machine-gun opened fire at 1200 yards and continued firing throughout the attack. The Pom-pom failed to fire as it appears no orders to do so were passed.

4. Two bombs were released apparently together, while aircraft was still diving, from an approximate height of 600 feet. The dive was continued for some 2 or 3 seconds while the bridge and superstructure were machine gunned. He then pulled out of the dive and climbed rapidly into the clouds.

5. Both bombs fell some 15 yards short of the ship’s starboard side, one in line with the break of the forecastle and one abreast the torpedo tubes. Blast was upwards and damage was very minor below the upper deck. Above it, it was considerable . … Casualties were severe and included the Captain (wounded), 1st Lieutenant (killed). …

6. In view of the severe casualties, the VALOROUS, who was in the vicinity, was asked to take charge of the convoy and the ship proceeded to Rosyth and secured in Y berth at 1640. The behaviour of the whole ship’s company in the face of adversity was magnificent, and I can but mention that my Captain, Commander R. F. Jolly, Royal Navy, in spite of a severe stomach wound, insisted on bringing the ship into the harbour, and only collapsed as he ordered the main engines to be rung off.”

See TNA: ADM 40/298.

Commander R. F. Jolly subsequently died of his wounds. Consideration was given to awarding him the V.C. but he was eventually awarded the Empire Gallantry medal.

HMS Mohawk has a full history of all of the Royal Navy ships of that name.

Warsaw suffers constant bombing and shelling

Heinkel III bomber over Warsaw

Simha Roten was a schoolboy in Warsaw. Although he was Jewish his family ran a hardware store in the Czerniakow suburb of Warsaw, serving mainly Polish customers.

Three half-ton bombs (as I was later told) damaged the house and one made a direct hit, killing and wounding many residents, including Grandfather and Grandmother (my mother’s parents), my aunt Hannah (my mother’s sister), my aunt Zissl’s husband, one cousin, and my brother Israel, aged fourteen.

I was seriously wounded. When I came to, I found myself trapped in the rubble: my neck was caught in a tangle of lines, apparently electrical cords. I started considering how to get out, but I acted cautiously for fear of electrocuting myself; I moved the lines with leather gloves I happened to have with me. A stick torn off one of the beams by a blast was stuck in my neck, a “thorn” in my neck, piercing my windpipe. It was hard to breathe; I felt I was choking. Nevertheless, I managed to pull the stick out without losing too much blood.

I lay among the ruins, trapped to the waist. With great effort I managed to get my legs out of the debris. The German positions were about five hundred meters away, and when I got out, I saw that our house had been completely destroyed; there were no signs of life. I reached the shelter in the house next door, where I found my parents and my two sisters. Obviously, the other members of the family had all been killed.

My uncle Moyshe Krengel, who lived in our house, had been away during the bombing. When he came home, he pointed to me and said, “Who’s that?” His question made me realize that I was unrecognizable, since my face was scratched and covered with a layer of clotted blood.”

See Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter: The Past within Me

The final assault on Warsaw

Wladyslaw Szpilman was amongst hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the final onslaught on the Polish capital:

The dreadful days of 25 and 26 September came. The noise of explosions merged with the constant thunder of guns, penetrated by the boom of nose-diving aircraft like electric drills boring holes in iron. The air was heavy with smoke and the dust of crumbling bricks and plaster. It got everywhere, stifling people who had shut themselves up in cellars or their flats, keeping as far as possible from the street.

How I survived those two days I do not know. A splinter of shrapnel killed someone sitting next to me in our friends’ bedroom. I spent two nights and a day with ten people standing in a tiny lavatory. A few weeks later, when we wondered how it had been possible, and tried to squeeze ourselves in there again, we found that only eight people could possibly fit in unless they were in terror for their lives.”

Wladyslaw Szpilman: The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45