Air combat over the Channel at Dover

The Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber was vulnerable to attack and invariably had fighter protection, in this case the Me 109.

Following an ‘air battle’ RAF pilots completed a combat report describing in considerable detail their engagement with the enemy. The cumulative intelligence gained from such reports, about the relative performance of aircraft, tactics, weaponry etc, was immensely valuable. For the pilots these reports represented their claims to ‘kills’ so it was important that they presented as much information as possible that might corroborate or support their claim. It is therefore in the official records that we have some of the most vivid accounts of the air war that now began in earnest over Britain. Pilot Officer Jack Hamar was a Hurricane pilot with 151 Squadron who went to intercept Stuka bombers attacking a shipping convoy off Eastbourne, in the English channel:

At 1500 hours the Squadron was ordered off from Rochford to intercept E/As [Enemy Aircraft] south of Dover. At approximately 1520 hours, when the Squadron was almost over Dover, a bunch of Me 109s were sighted about 5,000 feet above our formation, in which I was flying Red Two.

As it looked as though the E/A were about to attack us, the leader ordered our defensive line astern tactics. As we turned sharply to port, two Me 109s were seen diving to attack the last aircraft in our formation. ‘Milna Leader’ attacked the leading Me 109 and I the second.

I turned inside the E/A, which had pulled up into a steep left hand climbing turn. I closed rapidly and opened fire at about 250 yards with a 45° deflection shot. The E/A seemed to falter and straightened out into a dive. I placed myself dead astern at about 50 yards.

I opened fire, closing to almost no distance. I saw a large explosion just in front of the pilot and a large amount of white smoke poured from the E/A, which by this time was climbing steeply.

I was then forced to break away quickly due to fire from the rear, lost sight of the E/A and therefore did not see it crash. This action was also witnessed by Flying Officer Forster.

TNA Air 50

The combat was witnessed by a BBC radio reporter, standing on the cliffs of Dover. Charles Gardner gave a live running commentary that was later to become famous:

The Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out at sea: there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive-bombers, Junkers 87s. There’s one going down on its target now – bomb! No! He missed the ships, it hasn’t hit a single ship – there are about 10 ships in the convoy but he hasn’t hit a single one and – There, you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now.

There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about 10 German machines dive-bombing the convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel. I can’t see anything! No! We thought he had got a German one at the top then, but now the British fighters are coming up. Here they come.

The Germans are coming in an absolutely steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now. I can hear machine-gun fire but I can’t see our Spitfires. They must be somewhere there.

Oh! Here’s one coming down. There’s one going down in flames. Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak – coming down completely out of control – a long streak of smoke – and now a man’s baled out by parachute. The pilot’s baled out by parachute. He’s a Junkers 87 and he’s going slap into the sea – and there he goes: SMASH! A terrific column of water and there was a Junkers 87. Only one man got out by parachute, so presumably there was only a crew of one in it.

Now then, oh, there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are the Germans. There was one definitely down in this battle and there’s a fight going on. There’s a fight going on and you can hear the little rattles of machine-gun bullets. Crump! That was a bomb, as you may imagine.

Here comes one Spitfire. There’s a little burst. There’s another bomb dropping. Yes, it has dropped. It has missed the convoy. You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all this. The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where bombs have burst, but as far as I can see there is not one single ship hit, and there is definitely one German machine down.

And I am looking across the sea now. I can see the little white dot of a parachute as the German pilot is floating down towards the spot where his machine crashed with such a big fountain of water two minutes ago.

In fact he was mistaken. The pilot shot down was British, although rescued from the sea Pilot Officer Michael Mudie died the next day in hospital. The original recording can be heard in the BBC Archives.

Opinion was divided over the nature of Gardner’s broadcast. There were letters to The Times complaining that mortal combat was being reduced to the terms of a sporting contest. However Mollie Panter-Downes reported in her weekly column for New Yorker magazine:

The majority of citizens, possibly less squeamish, sat by their radios, hanging onto their seats and cheering.

This perspective appears to have been very accurate, it is consistent with a ‘Listener Research Report‘ that was urgently conducted by the BBC, concerned about the controversy, after the broadcast.

46 Squadron successful in skies over Narvik

RAF Hawker Hurricane aircraft from 1940, as flown by No. 46 Squadron in Norway
Shellbursts and fire on the shores of Bjerkvik at the head of the Herjangs Fjord, opposite Narvik, which was shelled by the Royal Navy, 5 June 1940.
Shellbursts and fire on the shores of Bjerkvik at the head of the Herjangs Fjord, opposite Narvik, which was shelled by the Royal Navy, 5 June 1940.

In Norway operations continued around Narvik, which the Allies had finally occupied on 28th May 1940. In an attempt to address the German air superiority which had bedevilled the earlier Norwegian campaign (see 24th April) Hawker Hurricanes of No. 46 Squadron had flown off the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on the 27th May and were now operating from a temporary airfield. In the early hours of 7th June Squadron Leader K.B.B. ‘Bing’ Cross was preparing for an air patrol:

I was taxying [my] aircraft down to the end of the run way when I saw 4 He.III K.’s approaching the aerodrome from the N.E. I had not my straps done up or my helmet on, but as the He.’s were heading direct for the aerodrome, I pulled the emergency boost control and took off. As the enemy aircraft approached the aerodrome they appeared to see my aircraft and Red 2 and turned away to port onto a more southerly course. Red 2 joined me and we climbed up after the enemy. My speed was 240 mph and I was climbing slightly. I set the sight at 80ft. span and 250 yards range and opened fire at that distance from the dead astern position at the aircraft flying in the ‘box’, Red 2 attacking the extreme starboard machine.

I fired a 4 second burst and there was a burst of black smoke and the undercarriage dropped. Heavy return fire was coming from all four rear upper gun positions and it appeared that the top gunners had twin guns. I had now closed to about 80 yards and broke away downwards to port. As I did so I noticed that my oil pressure had dropped to zero. I turned towards the aerodrome, gradually losing height and landed.

There were a total of twelve bullet holes in my aircraft; one in the screen, two in the oil tank, one in the petrol tank, one in the engine, two in the wing and five in the hood behind my head.

The He. III K. was dropping behind the formation as I landed, his undercarriage was down and smoke pouring from the starboard engine.

Squadron Leader Cross claimed a ‘probable’ for this action, see TNA Air 50/20. It now seems that he had a ‘confirmed’: details and photographs of the Heinkel III that crash landed in the early hours of 7th June 1940 are at the Norwegian aircraft wreck site ktsorens.thilde.org. 46 Squadron had 14 kills to their credit during the 10 days they were in Norway.

In London the decision had now been taken to evacuate Norway, even as the Allies were gaining the upper hand in the area around Narvik. All troops and aircraft were needed for the defence of Britain.

The Hurricane aircraft of No 46 Squadron had never been flown onto an aircraft carrier and did not have the arrester hooks that were considered necessary to land such a fast aircraft on a carrier (they had been loaded onto the carrier, not flown, for the trip out to Norway). Therefore the orders were for these aircraft to be destroyed before the Squadron’s personnel returned.

Squadron Leader Cross was having none of it. His entire Squadron volunteered to land their Hurricanes on HMS Glorious in order to get them away, in a manoeuvre that had never been attempted before with this aircraft. None of the pilots had any experience of carrier landings. Using sandbags in their tail planes to give them extra weight, landings were successfully achieved by the entire Squadron later on 7th June.

Smoke rises from burning port installations at Narvik after a bombardment by HMS CAIRO, 8 June 1940.
Smoke rises from burning port installations at Narvik after a bombardment by HMS CAIRO, 8 June 1940.

RAF outnumbered in last dogfight over Germany

Viewed from a wrecked German hangar, two Hawker Tempests of No. 3 Squadron RAF receive attention from ground crew in a dispersal at B80/Volkel, Holland.
Viewed from a wrecked German hangar, two Hawker Tempests of No. 3 Squadron RAF receive attention from ground crew in a dispersal at B80/Volkel, Holland.
Tempest Mark V, EJ743, on a test flight following completion at Langley, Buckinghamshire. This aircraft served with No. 3 Squadron RAF.
Tempest Mark V, EJ743, on a test flight following completion at Langley, Buckinghamshire. This aircraft served with No. 3 Squadron RAF.
The Dornier Do 18 flying boat.
The Dornier Do 18 flying boat.

While the Germans began to surrender in large numbers the overall situation remained very unclear. It was far from inevitable that there would be a complete surrender within days. For a long time there had been a suspicion that Hitler would make a last stand in a mountain redoubt. Even though he was now believed to be dead there was plenty of evidence that some fanatical units would continue to fight on.

In these circumstances there could be no slackening of pressure when identifiable threats emerged. French pilot Pierre Clostermann, who although only a Sous-Lieutenant in the French Air Force was now leading a Wing within RAF Fighter Command, commanding many officers who were technically senior in rank to him.

By the 3rd of May they thought they were on “the last lap” but it appeared that the Germans might be trying to hold out in an area from the Kiel Canal, in northern Germany up to Norway. Luftwaffe aircraft appeared to be massing to support a large convoy to Norway. Late in the evening he was ordered up to attack German transport planes on the ground. Maintenance problems meant he only had twenty-four planes instead of the normal complement of ninety-five:

In front of us, either on the ground or just taking off, were more than 100 enormous transport planes – theoretically my primary objective. In the air, about 100 enemy fighters. One group at 1,500 feet, another at 3,000, a third at 4,500 and two others on a level with us, i.e. at about 10,000 feet. Above us there were certainly one more, perhaps two. And I only had 24 Tempests!

My mind was quickly made up. Filmstar Yellow and Blue Sections would attack the fighters above us, and Pink, Black and White Sections, commanded by MacDonald, would engage the Focke-Wulfs below us.

In the meantime I would try to slip through with my Red Section and shoot-up the airfield. I passed this on over the radio and then, closely followed by the rest of my section, I released my auxiliary tanks and went into a vertical dive, passing like a thunderbolt at 600 m.p.h. through a formation of Focke-Wulfs which scattered about the sky like a flock of swallows.

I straightened out gradually, closing the throttle and following a trajectory designed to bring me over the airfield at ground level, from south-west to north-east. All hell was let loose as we arrived. I was doing more than 500 m.p.h. by the clock when I reached the edge of the field. I was 60 feet from the ground and I opened fire at once.

The mottled surface of the anchorage was covered with moored Dornier 24’s and 18’s. Three lines of white foam marked the wake of three planes which had just taken off. A row of Blohm und Voss’s in wheeled cradles was lined up on the launching ramps. I concentrated my fire on a Bv I38. The moorings of the cradle snapped and I passed over the enormous smoking mass as it tipped up on the slope, fell into the sea and began to sink.

The flak redoubled in fury. A flash on my right, and a disabled Tempest crashed into the sea in a shower of spray. Jesus! The boats anchored off shore were armed, and one of them, a large torpedo boat, was blazing away with all it had. I instinctively withdrew my head into my shoulders and, still flying very low, veered slightly to the left, so fast that I couldn’t fire at the Dorniers, then quickly swung to the right behind an enormous Ju 252 which had just taken off and was already getting alarmingly big in my gunsight. I fired one long continuous burst at him and broke away just before we collided. I turned round to see the Ju 252, with two engines ablaze and the tailplane sheared off by my shells, bounce on the sea and explode.

My speed had swept me far on — straight on to the torpedo boat which was spitting away with all her guns. I passed within ten yards of her narrow bows, just above the water and the thousand spouts raised by the flak. I caught a glimpse of white shapes rushing about on deck and of tongues of fire from her guns. The entire camouflaged superstructure seemed to be alive with them. Tracer shells ricocheted on the water and exploded all round over a radius of 500 yards. Some shrapnel mowed down a flock of seagulls which fell in the sea on all sides, panic-stricken and bleeding. Phew! Out of range at last!

I was sweating all over and my throat was so constricted that I couldn’t articulate one word over the radio. Without realizing it I had held my breath through the whole attack and my heart was thumping fit to burst. I regained height by a wide climbing turn to port. What was happening? The situation looked pretty grim. A terrific dog-fight was going on above the airfield. Three planes were coming down in flames – I was too far to see whether they were friend or foe. Another, pulverized, had left a trail of flaming fragments in the sky and a fifth was coming down in a spin, followed by a white trail of smoke. Yet others were burning on the ground.

The radio was transmitting an incomprehensible chaos of shouts, screams and curses, mingled with the vibrations of cannon firing. Near the torpedo boat, in the middle of a patch of foam, the remains of a plane were burning and heavy black smoke curled up from the sheet of burning petrol.

What had happened to the rest of my section? …

More men had been lost, he returned with just thirteen planes out of twenty-four. It had been his last battle.

See Pierre Clostermann: The Big Show

Sous-Officier Pierre Clostermann, when serving as a pilot a with No. 341 (Alsace) Squadron of the Free French Air Force.
Sous-Officier Pierre Clostermann, when serving as a pilot a with No. 341 (Alsace) Squadron of the Free French Air Force.

The RAF also made a fateful attack in the Baltic on this day, when rockets from Typhoons of 198 Squadron hit the SS Cap Ancona, causing “one of the biggest single-incident maritime losses of life in the Second World War.”

Captain Baldwin then ordered the other four planes from the 198th Squadron to follow him. They dove fast and low on the Cap Arcona. No smoke billowed from its large stacks, indicating it was still at anchor in the bay. The target was locked, and the Typhoons released their rockets on the defenseless liner. All of them found their mark, the first rockets striking the large gray liner directly between the first and second smokestacks atop the ship. The next barrage hit the third funnel and sports deck.

The story is told in ‘The Nazi Titanic’, which was one of my featured titles in 2016 and you can read the full excerpt here.

Meanwhile Montgomery received the first German delegation at his HQ but they did not have authority to surrender all the forces facing the British 21st Army Group, and he sent them back to Doenitz to reconsider.

Field Marshal Montgomery (second from the left) greets the German delegation (L to R – Admiral von Friedeburg, General Kinzel and Rear Admiral Wagner) on 3 May 1945 at Lüneburg Heath.
Field Marshal Montgomery (second from the left) greets the German delegation (L to R – Admiral von Friedeburg, General Kinzel and Rear Admiral Wagner) on 3 May 1945 at Lüneburg Heath.

At the same time the Canadians were trying to put emergency measures in place to assist the Dutch population, even though the 117,000 German forces they had cut off in the Netherlands had not yet surrendered.

 Boy outside blackmarket restaurant hoping for food handout. Kids often carried spoon 'just in case'.  Date: 1944-1945 Place: Amsterdam, Netherlands
The occupying Germans were still fighting, and the occupied Dutch were still suffering serious privation under them. The oppressors had flooded the farmlands of western Netherlands and blockaded food and supplies to civilians. The abject neglect of the Dutch by the occupying Germans caused the death of at least 18,000 civilians in the terrible famine known as the Hunger Winter. Boy outside blackmarket restaurant hoping for food handout. Kids often carried a spoon ‘just in case’.
Dutch civilians loading a Canadian-supplied truck with food,
Dutch civilians loading a Canadian-supplied truck with food, following agreement amongst Germans, Dutch and Allies about the distribution of food to the Dutch population. 
Date: 3 May 1945 Wageningen, Netherlands (vicinity)

263 Squadron land at Lake Lesjaskog

A pre war RAF Gloster Gladiator

The British land forces operating in central Norway were to bitterly complain that they rarely, if ever, saw their own aircraft. It was not for want of trying by the Fleet Air Arm. They were now operating aircraft from the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and Glorious. Because the air threat to the ships themselves they stayed 100-150 miles offshore, which in consequence stretched the operating capabilities of their aircraft. An account of the difficulties encountered by Midshipman ‘Doc’ Goble when he ran out of fuel when flying a Skua from the Ark Royal on the 24th April 1940 can be found on Dinger’s Aviation Pages.

RAF Bomber Command were making frequent sorties to [permalink id=4395 text=’bomb the German held airfields’]. An attempt was now made to base a RAF fighter squadron in Norway itself but they would have to operate from an improvised airfield in the snowbound centre of Norway to support the troops intended to attempt to take Trondheim. For this reason 263 Squadron, equipped with eighteen Gloster Gladiator aircraft, believed to be suitably robust to operate in these conditions, were embarked on HMS Glorious. Continue reading “263 Squadron land at Lake Lesjaskog”

German Me 262 jets ambush Allied bombers

The Me 262 first became operational in late 1944.
The Me 262 first became operational in late 1944.

The development programme for the world’s first operational jet fighter had begun in 1939, although its development had been slowed because the Nazis believed they would have won the war long before it became available. The Me 262 first flew in 1942 but did not appear operationally until 1944. The Nazis pushed ahead with a mass production programme but by now they lacked the experienced pilots needed to fly them, and increasingly found themselves limited by fuel shortages.

Although the Me 262 was able to outrun any Allied fighter it did not make a dramatic breakthrough in the balance of airpower that Hitler had hoped. In many ways it was too fast to take on the Allied bombers, especially given the short time it had in the air, which meant it was limited in the number of attacks it could make in a sortie. The preferred tactic was to ambush the mass of bombers with rockets fired by simultaneously by a group of Me 262s, followed by individual attacks.

Luftwaffe pilot Hermann Buchner, already an Ace decorated withe the Knights Cross, describes an attack:

On 31 March there was something new for us — an early scramble. We were still at breakfast in the dining room and the weather was not very good with a cloud base 150-200 metres above the ground. We flew with seven 262s led by Oberleutnant Schall, one Schwarm and one Kette. Our mission was against US units in the Hannover region, with take off at 0900hrs. We climbed in tight formation into the clouds, heading westwards.

The clouds just weren’t coming to an end and Schall asked the ground station guiding us whether we should make ‘Luzi-Anton 5’. A brusque answer came back over the radio: ‘First of all make Pauke-Pauke“ At 7,500 metres above ground, we had just come out of the clouds when Schall got the order: ‘Assume course 180, Dicke Autos, course 180!’

At the same moment someone from our unit cried, ‘To the right of us, nothing but bombers, to the right of us!’ Schall, as well as the rest of us, saw the bombers, flying north in a fomiation that was new to us. They flew staggered, about 1,000 metres deep and 2,000 metres wide. They were not US bombers, however, but Tommys in night-flight formation, doing a daytime attack on Hamburg.

Schall ordered us to take up attack formation, already having long forgotten the order ‘assume 180’. We were lucky to reach the band without fighter protection and Schall, a fighter with real heart, was not going to pass up a chance like this. As we got closer we could clearly see what kind of bombers they were — RAF Lancasters — on their way to attack Hamburg, but still 50km away over the Luneberg Heath.

On our first attack seven Lancasters were shot down with the R4M rockets. Now the large unit dissolved somewhat and the Rotten flew a renewed attack on the bombers. I made a right turn and lined up for another attack, using the nose cannon.

The R4M Rocket was an unguided missile that was fired in salvos from about 600 metres. One hit hit was sufficient to bring down a bomber.
The R4M Rocket was an unguided missile that was fired in salvos from about 600 metres. One hit was sufficient to bring down a bomber.

My Lancaster lay directly in my sights and I only had to get a bit closer. I opened fire, the hits were good, but the pilot of the Lancaster must have been an old hand. He turned his Lancaster steeply over on its right wing, making a tight turn around the main axis. With my speed I was unable to follow this tight manoeuvre and was also unable to see if my shots had had any effect, or to see how he flew on.

I shot through the pile and had to think about returning home. The other pilots were also having the same problem. We had a shortage of fuel and had to get back to our own garden. At the same time, all called to the ground control ‘Autobahn’, for the course number for the direction back to our home airfield.

Only one of us could be handled by ‘Tornado’ ground control, but all of us wanted to be given a course. We were still all in the tangle of RAF bombers, but none of us had visual contact with each other. We all had to go back down through the cloud layer. I thought to myself, ‘Go back down alone!’

At 7,000 metres I dived into the cloud layer, laying on a course of 090, 700kmph and the engines running at 6,000rpm. Over the radio I could still hear my colleagues calling ‘Autobahn’ to ‘Tornado’ — they were all still in the air. My altimeter showed that I was quickly losing height, and at 1,000 metres it was already dark — I had to get out of the clouds soon. My altitude was diminishing, the gauge showing 500, 400, 300 metres — the ground must surely soon appear. Yes, there it was. Doing 700kmph I shot out of the clouds and found myself over fields and clumps of trees. Unfortunately I didn’t know quite where I was. On my left side I could make out the sea — was it the Baltic, or where was I?

Anyhow, I flew eastwards with a normal turbine rpm and at 800kmph. In the distance I could see the silhouette of a town. I quickly thought about it, then I was sure that the town had to be Lubeck. I had recently seen a film called Die Budenbrocks in which the silhouette of the town had been shown. Flying over the harbour, I came under fire from light flak, but I was too fast — they had no chance of hitting me.

Now I knew how I could get back. My other comrades were also on their journey back to Parchim, and now the traffic with ‘Tornado’ was quieter, so I could also call up and ask for instructions, giving him my location. I was the last 262 to call in after the mission at 7,000 metres. Now he had his flock together.

By the time I reached Ludwigslust I had already been given permission to land, as well as the comforting news that there were ‘no Indians on the airfield’. After 65 minutes flying I landed without difficulty in Parchim, the last of the seven.

My list of aircraft shot down was extended: one Lancaster confirmed and one definitely damaged. Altogether we had certainly shot down ten Lancasters and five others had been damaged.“ The seven 262s on the mission had landed without problems after 60-70 minutes flying time in bad weather conditions. The reported aerial victories were confirmed by Jagd Division, and the bombers had offloaded their cargoes over the heath, far from their target. Around sixty flying personnel were taken prisoner on the heath.

See Hermann Buchner: Stormbird: One of the Luftwaffe’s Highest Scoring Me 262 Aces

RAF records show that of the 469 aircraft involved in the attack on Hamburg, eight Lancasters and three Halifaxs were lost. The bombing raid was aimed at the Blohm and Voss U-Boat construction factories but cloud covered the target area and the bombing was scattered. For more details see the extended comment below, thanks to Pierre Lagacé.

Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwable, the world's first jet fighter. Messerschmitt Me 262 Werk-Nr. 111711, seen here post-war during a test flight in the USA. It was the first intact Me 262 to fall into Allied hands on March 31st 1945.(U.S. Air Force photo)
Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, the world’s first jet fighter. Messerschmitt Me 262 Werk-Nr. 111711, seen here post-war during a test flight in the USA. It was the first intact Me 262 to fall into Allied hands on March 31st 1945.(U.S. Air Force photo)

‘Ace in a Day’ as P-51 pilot downs five FW-190s

A 26 foot long 22,000-lb MC high explosive deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword 'Grand Slam') is manoeuvred onto a trolley by crane in the bomb dump at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, for an evening raid by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the railway bridge at Nienburg, Germany. 20 aircraft took part in the raid and the target was destroyed.
A 26 foot long 22,000-lb MC high explosive deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Grand Slam’) is manoeuvred onto a trolley by crane in the bomb dump at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, for an evening raid by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the railway bridge at Nienburg, Germany. 20 aircraft took part in the raid and the target was destroyed.

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.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, after the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts have collapsed as a result of the detonation of 22,000-lb 'Grand Slam' and 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs in the target area. Craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley. CL 2189 Part of AIR MINISTRY SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Creator No. 1 106 (PR) Group
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, after the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts have collapsed as a result of the detonation of 22,000-lb ‘Grand Slam’ and 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs in the target area. Craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.
Oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, following the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts collapsed after 22,000-lb 'Grand Slam' and 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs were dropped in the target area. Numerous craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.
Oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, following the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts collapsed after 22,000-lb ‘Grand Slam’ and 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs were dropped in the target area. Numerous craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.

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:

The Mission Report which included the 'Ace in a Day' record for Lt. McDaniel.
The Mission Report for the 325th Fighter Group which included the ‘Ace in a Day’ record for Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel.

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…

For more on the story see Ace 1945.

Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel is presented with an Ace by his commanding officer.
Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel is presented with an Ace by his commanding officer.

Mustang v Me 109 dogfight in the cloud over Germany

A USAAF publicity release of a formation of P-51 Mustangs over Germany.
A USAAF publicity release of a formation of P-51 Mustangs over Germany.

Another of Hitler’s wonder weapons, the Me 262 jet fighter, had failed to transform the air war over Germany. Not only were there not enough of them but loitering Allied fighters were having success picking them off as they either took off or landed. They were too fast to engage in a dogfight.

The remains of the Luftwaffe in the west, which had been decimated trying to support the Battle of the Bulge, was fighting a losing battle with its conventional aircraft. Too many of its experienced pilots had been lost. The young pilots now being thrown into the battle to defend had to contend with some talented opponents.

Robin Olds had been credited with eight kills while flying the P-38 Lightning out of England between May and September 1944. After converting to the P-51 Mustang he made a further six kills before returning to the U.S. for a two month break in November. Back in England, again with the 434th Fighter Squadron and its parent, the 479th Fighter Group, Olds resumed flying on 15th January. It did not take him long before he he was celebrating more victories.

February 9 turned into quite a fine day. First thing in the morning, I pinned on shiny new oak-leaf clusters and officially became a major. Better yet, we ran into a flock of Me-109s and enjoyed reasonable success.

By this period in the air war the group had settled into a daily routine of bomber escort. One squadron flew the close-escort effort as prescribed in the ops order, which meant staying close to the stream so the bomber crews knew someone cared about them. The bomber crews liked to see some friendly fighters around them. The second squadron flew area sweeps; their job was to rove within 15 or 20 miles of the bomber stream, hopefully putting themselves between the force and any attacking fighters.

The third squadron flew what we called “outlaw.” That was the preferred mission. Take off any time you wanted, and catch the Luftwaffe force either forming up for their attack or trying to return to their bases afterward. This took experience, planning, and a bit of luck for those of us pulling this duty.

On this particular day, the 434th pulled close-escort duty and I was leading the flight. We took off as scheduled with a minimum package of twelve Mustangs and ground our way along with the big boys toward Stuttgart at 27,000 feet. The weather wasn’t all that good. Broken clouds ranged in various decks right down to the ground, and off to the southeast a formidable front, like a gray wall, stretched away to the southwest.

I had just turned the 434th around the backside of our box of bombers and was heading parallel to their course on the right side of the stream, when I spotted a gaggle of shadowy contrails sneaking along the top of that cirrus bank and headed in the direction of our bombers. I was about to turn to intercept them when the 435th flight sailed past just to my right.

I wondered what in hell they were doing so close to the bombers. By all rights those enemy fighters (and that’s all they could have been) were their responsibility. I held my turn and watched the 435th go scurrying along out of sight. My God, a whole squadron, and it was obvious not one of them had spotted the enemy.

As soon as the 435th cleared, I dropped my externals, turned, and headed my bunch to intercept the rapidly closing bandits. Soon, the German leader saw us coming and, knowing the jig was up, broke off his attack. His formation turned into a gaggle of individual aircraft as we piled into them.

P-51K Mustang “Donna-Mite” of the 352nd Fighter Squadron assigned to Lt Leroy C Pletz coming in for a landing at RAF Raydon, Suffolk, England, UK, 1945
P-51K Mustang “Donna-Mite” of the 352nd Fighter Squadron assigned to Lt Leroy C Pletz coming in for a landing at RAF Raydon, Suffolk, England, UK, 1945

All this time my outfit had uttered not a single word. We prided ourselves on rfio discipline, and We fought that whole fight in silence. It was a weird one. We ended up with the battle swirling along and then into the huge squall line. It was like flying into the proverbial milk bottle.

I had managed to knock one Me-109 down quickly and went after another just as he entered the cloud. I concentrated on my adversary and hoped he was a good instrument pilot. Without a horizon, there was no up, no down, no left or right. There was also no “seat of the pants” to believe in. I closed on the 1O9, trying to get my gun sight on him, when everything went to hell at once.

I could feel my bird staggering and shuddering, but wanted to get off at least one burst before I lost everything. To my amazement, the 109 snapped, and then spun straight up! Hell no, that wasn’t up, it had to be down… and both of us must have been nearly inverted when we stalled.

To hell with the German, Robin! Get your head in the cockpit. Get those gyrating instruments sorted out, and recover from this spin. I knew I had plenty of altitude, so I didn’t rush things. Horror stories of pilots pulling the wings off in their haste to recover from similar situations flashed through my mind. I stayed cool as I sorted the situation, then recovered from the spin and pulled back to level flight.

So then why did I start shaking almost uncontrollably when I got the beast flying straight and level, headed more or less to the west? The whole incident had happened so quickly, was so intense and disorienting, that I’d had no time to be afraid. Adrenaline was pumping, and my reaction after the sudden return to the normalcy of the steady, soothing hum of the Mustang engine in the relative security of my snug cockpit made everything let go at once.

I remember being glad to be alone in my plane, without a witness to my aftershock.

See Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds

Robin Olds in WWII
Robin Olds in WWII

Ace Pilots has a good summary of Robin Old’s career.

B-17s of the 91st Bomb on their way to bomb Oberpfaffenhofen in March 1944.
B-17s of the 91st Bomb on their way to bomb Oberpfaffenhofen in March 1944.

Chuck Yeager downs five – becomes an “Ace in a Day”

Silhouettes of P-51s in flight over Europe.
Silhouettes of P-51s in flight over Europe.
Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 109 in flight 1943-4.
Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 109 in flight 1943-4.

Charles ‘Chuck” Yeager had already made a name for himself as a talented pilot. He had also had some remarkable adventures, surviving being shot down over France and escaping back to Britain via Spain. He had recently been promoted to Lieutenant with the 363d Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group, stationed at RAF Leiston (USAAF Station 373).

On the 12th October 1944 Yeager was leading the 363rd Squadron as part of the escort for a bombing raid on Bremen. Other Squadrons remained as close escorts with the bombers while the 363rd ranged 50-100 miles ahead looking for trouble.

First Lieutenant Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps, standing on the wing of his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13897, Glamorous Glenn II, at Air Station 373, 12 October 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
First Lieutenant Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps, standing on the wing of his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13897, Glamorous Glenn II, at Air Station 373, 12 October 1944. (U.S. Air Force)

This was how Yeager described the action in his official report:

I. I was leading the Group with Cement Squadron and was roving out to the right of the first box of bombers. I was over STEINHUDER LAKE when 22 Me. 109s crossed in front of my Squadron from 11:00 O’Clock to 1:00 O’Clock. I was coming out of the sun and they were about 1½ miles away at the same level of 25,000 feet.

I fell in behind the enemy formation and followed them for about 3 minutes, climbing to 30,000 feet. I still had my wing tanks and had close up to around 1,000 yards, coming within firing range and positioning the Squadron behind the entire enemy formation.

Two of the Me. 109s were dodging over to the right. One slowed up and before I could start firing, rolled over and bailed out. The other Me. 109, flying his wing, bailed out immediately after as I was ready to line him in my sights. I was the closest to the tail-end of the enemy formation and no one, but myself was in shooting range and no one was firing.

I dropped my tanks and then closed up to the last Jerry and opened fire from 600 yards, using the K-14 sight. I observed strikes all over the ship, particularly heavy in the cockpit. He skidded off to the left. I was closing up on another Me. 109 so I did not follow him down. Lt. STERN, flying in Blue Flight reports this E/A on fire as it passed him and went into a spin.

I closed up on the next Me. 109 to 100 yards, skidded to the right and took a deflection shot of about 10°. I gave about a 2 second burst and the whole fuselage split open and blew up after we passed.

Another Me. 109 to the right had cut his throttle and was trying to get behind. I broke to the right and quickly rolled to the left on his tail. He started pulling it in and I was pulling 6″G”. I got a lead from around 300 yards and gave him a short burst. There were hits on wings and tail section He snapped to the right 3 times and bailed out when he quit snapping at around 18,000 feet.

I did not blackout during this engagement due to the efficiency of the “G” suit. Even though I was skidding I hit the second Me. 109 by keeping the bead and range on the E/A. To my estimation the K-14 sight is the biggest improvement to combat equipment for Fighters up to this date. The me.

109s appeared to have a type of bubble canopy and had purple noses and were a mousey brown all over.

I claim Five me 109s destroyed.

J. Ammunition Expended: 587 rounds .50 cal MG.

Charles E. Yeager, 1st Lt, AC.

Contemporary USAAF briefing film on the P-51, with combat footage, describing the improved characteristics of the P-51 B:

Chuck Yeager’s Mustang, Glamorous Glen III: North American Aviation P-51D-15-NA, serial number 44-14888, identification markings B6*Y, at USAAF Station 373 (RAF Leiston), Winter 1945. (U.S. Air Force)
Chuck Yeager’s Mustang, Glamorous Glen III: North American Aviation P-51D-15-NA, serial number 44-14888, identification markings B6*Y, at USAAF Station 373 (RAF Leiston), Winter 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

Falaise – fighter bombers attack the German retreat

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing wrecked enemy vehicles left by the retreating German columns burning on a road in the Falaise area after coming under attack by aircraft of the 2nd Tactical Air Force.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing wrecked enemy vehicles left by the retreating German columns burning on a road in the Falaise area after coming under attack by aircraft of the 2nd Tactical Air Force.
Wing Commander J E 'Johnnie' Johnson, commanding No. 144 (Canadian) Wing, on the the wing of his Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX with his Labrador retriever Sally, at Bazenville, Normandy, 31 July 1944.
Wing Commander J E ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, commanding No. 144 (Canadian) Wing, on the the wing of his Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX with his Labrador retriever Sally, at Bazenville, Normandy, 31 July 1944.

As Rommel had predicted Allied air power had made the movement of German troops extremely difficult in France, ever since D-Day. As the Germans now found themselves in a concentrated mass, desperately trying to break out from encirclement, they now came under even more intense bombardment from the air.

Amongst those joining the attack was fighter ‘Ace’ Wing Commander J.E. ‘Johnie’ Johnson, who commanded No 144 (later 127) Wing RCAF, the first to be stationed in France. He had scored more victories whilst patrolling over France and was only days away from shooting down two more Fw 190s, bringing his score to 32, equalling the British record – held until then by ‘Sailor’ Malan. However the focus for the next couple of days was ground attacks rather than enemy aircraft:

A gleam of reflected sunshire on metal here, a swirl or eddy of dust there, or fresh tracks leading across the fields were sufficient evidence to bring down the fighter-bombers with their assorted armoury of weapons. When darkness fell and brought some relief to the battered Germans there was time to take stock of the situation and to add up the score.

My own pilots had amassed a total of slightly more than 200 destroyed or damaged vehicles, plus a few tanks attacked with doubtful results. For once the weather was in our favour, and the forecast for the morrow was fine and sunny. The pilots turned in immediately after dinner, for they would require all their energy for the new day. As they settled down to sleep, they heard the continuous drone of our light bombers making their flight across the beach-head to harry the enemy columns throughout the short night.

The Canadians were up well before the dawn, and the first pair of Spitfires retracted their wheels as the first hint of a lighter sky flushed the eastern horizon. The Germans were making strenuous efforts to salvage what equipment they could from the débacle and get it across the Seine. Such enemy action had been anticipated: some of the Typhoon effort was diverted to attacking barges and small craft as they ferried to and fro across the river.

Once more the Spitfire pilots turned their attention to the killing-ground and attacked all manner of enemy transports wherever they were to be found. They were located on the highways and lanes, in the woods and copses, in small villages and hamlets, beneath the long shadows of tall hedges, in farmyards and even camouflaged with newly mown grass to resemble haystacks.

During the previous night many of the enemy had decided to abandon a great proportion of their transports: they could be seen continuing the retreat on foot and in hastily commandeered farm-carts. Sometimes the despairing enemy waved white sheets at the Spitfires as they hurtled down to attack; but these signs were ignored; our own ground troops were still some distance away and there was no organisation available to round up large numbers of prisoners.

On this day, 19th August, my Canadians claimed a total of almost 500 enemy transports destroyed or damaged, of which many were left burning. Even so, this score was not outstanding since Dal Russel’s wing easily outstripped us with a score of more than 700. Afterwards our efforts in the Falaise gap gradually petered out, for the transports and personnel of the German Seventh Army had either been eliminated or had withdrawn across the Seine.

The Falaise gap ranks as one of the greatest killing-grounds of the war, and is a classic example of the devastating effects of tactical air power when applied in concentrated form against targets of this nature. During these few days, pilots of the Second Tactical Air Force flew more than 12,000 missions and practically wiped out no less than eight infantry divisions and two armoured Panzer divisions. The Second Tactical Air Force had in fact turned an enemy retreat into a complete rout.

After the fighting had ebbed away from Falaise, we decided to drive there and see the results of our attacks at first hand. We thought that we were prepared for the dreadful scenes, which Eisenhower later said could only be described by Dante.

On the last flights the stench from the decaying bodies below had even penetrated through the cockpit canopies of the Spitfires. Another, and perhaps the most important, object of our visit was to bring back a suitable German staff car, since it was obvious that we should soon be on the move across France, and a comfortable Mercedes would provide a welcome change from our hard-riding jeeps.

After we left Falaise behind, all the roads were so choked with burnt-out German equipment that it was quite impossible to continue the journey. The bloated corpses of unfortunate domestic animals also lay in our path, so we took to the fields and tried to make some progress across country. Each spinny and copse contained its dreadful quota of dead Germans lying beside their wrecked vehicles, and once we came across the body of what had been a beautiful woman lying sprawled across the back seat of a staff car.

We found our limousines, which consisted of Renaults, Citroéns, Mercedes and strangely enough a smooth Chevrolet. We had brought ropes, jacks and a few jerrycans of petrol, but it was impossible to extricate any of the cars. Soon we abandoned our search and left the fields and lanes, heavy with their rotting burden in the warm sunshine.

See J. E. Johnson: Wing Leader: Top-scoring Allied Fighter Pilot of World War Two

Contemporary footage of the battle from a British public information film:

A knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank with the burnt bodies of two of its crew in the Falaise Pocket, 24 August 1944.
Wrecked German transport and knocked out tanks on a road in the Falaise-Argentan area, 21 August 1944.
Wrecked German transport and knocked out tanks on a road in the Falaise-Argentan area, 21 August 1944.

Two bogeys at dawn as Robin Olds opens score

A formation of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters in their 'D-Day stripes'. One of hundreds of images in the iPad app 'Overlord'.
A formation of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters in their ‘D-Day stripes’.
One of hundreds of images in the iPad app ‘Overlord’.

In Normandy the German counter offensive at Mortain had failed and Field Marshal von Kluge, the Supreme Field Commander West, was struggling to convince Hitler that it was time to order a general retreat to escape an encirclement that appeared to be developing near Falaise.

Now, more than ever, the Allied fighters and fighter bombers dominance over the battlefield was to play a critical role. They ranged far and wide over northern France attacking targets, mainly bridges, that would block the German retreat and then turning their attention to targets of opportunity, mainly strafing targets on the ground.

One P-38 Lightning pilot was looking for more than just ground targets. Twenty-two year old Robin Olds had not yet scored after arriving in England in May 1944 with the 479th Fighter Group. He describes in graphic detail how he decided to break away from his colleagues on 14th August 1944 because he disagreed with their navigation:

Bison Lead decided they would turn south to find the target. South? That seemed dead wrong. I had just corrected to the northeast a little to be on course.

If Bison was north of the rendezvous point, he would be at or near the target. If he didn’t see the target he had to be south of it. That assumed he and his people were reasonably close to course as they came in. The screwups just seemed to keep piling up.

Rechecking my armament switches, I pushed up full power and headed for Chalon-sur-Saone all by myself. Sure enough, there was the ribbon of the Saone River catching the first glow of dawn. It had to be the Saone. And there was the gray darkness of the town with the bridge clearly visible against the river’s silver sheen. I lined up so I’d cross the target at about a 45—degree angle and came out of the west.

My pass was shallow, more like a skip—bomb pass than a dive-bomb attack. The sight picture was good. Speed just right. There was time to remind myself: Don’t hit long, Robin, don’t hit the town. I wanted to hit the center span of the bridge, so when the gun sight pipper came up to the release point, I pressed the pickle button under my right thumb. There was a thump as the pair of 1,000-pound bombs left the pylons.

I broke hard left and stayed down low to make myself as difficult a target as possible. An orange flash in my canopy’s rearview mirror told me the bombs had detonated. No flak. Must have caught the gunners sleeping late this morning. Once I was clear of the target there was time to burn, and apparently I had the whole of this part of France to myself.

Truthfully, finding the rest of the group didn’t enter my mind. I stayed right down on the deck, as low as I dared, heading northwest. I throttled back, then tweaked the mixture and prop into auto-lean to save a bit of fuel. When the sun peeked over the horizon, I was paralleling a paved country road bordered by poplar trees and farmhouses set back behind hedges and stone walls. A ridge loomed ahead, running almost due north—south.

The valley from my position, and all the way up the ridge, was totally covered with vineyards. Years later I would recognize it for what it was, the Beaune region: good Burgundy country. But not now. I was looking for something to shoot at, anything military: a convoy, a train, troops, anything.

After several minutes of this, two dark shapes suddenly flew across the road left to right about a mile ahead of me. They were just a little higher than I was. I turned right to cut them off, got right down on the grass, pushed the mixtures into auto-rich, rammed the props to high, and shoved the throttles I) the wall.

My P-38 leaped ahead as though kicked by a mule. The cutoff angle was good and I could see I would be coming in behind the bogeys in short order. I still didn’t have a positive ID, but every instinct told me they had to be German. Instinct is no good when you’re coming up behind a target with a 20mm and four .50 caliber guns armed and ready to shoot.

It is particularly no good when your adrenaline is pumping. Patience, patience. I wanted those shadowy shapes to be Focke-Wulf 190s! My instincts told me they were Jerries, not a couple of Jugs out of 9th Air Force. Please, bogeys, please turn just a little. Give me an aspect where I can get a positive ID on you.

I’m closing fast. There isn’t much time left. I pressed rudder and slid the pipper onto the trailing aircraft’s left wing. Another second and suddenly I could see the Iron Cross on the side of the lead plane’s fuselage. No time left now. I squeezed the trigger. The wingman’s bird lit up with strikes, spewed heavy smoke, rolled inverted, and hit the ground with a huge explosion.

I had to get the other 190 before he gained an advantage on me. He made a violent left break the moment his wingman was hit. I followed, staying inside his turn, knowing my left wingtip was no more than 20 feet off the ground. The g-forces came on hard but I was scarcely aware of them. I flew the pipper slowly through his fuselage, pulling ahead, trying to get about a 100-mil lead.

I pressed the trigger in a short burst and watched as strikes moved down his fuselage. Perfect! Another burst, more strikes, and he suddenly pulled straight up. The canopy separated and the pilot came out as though he had a spring in his seat. His chute opened immediately and he swung under it. I had pulled up with him and rolled inverted in time to see his aircraft hit in the middle of a farmer’s field. I rolled into a hard left bank and watched through the top of my canopy as the Jerry landed close to his burning aircraft.

He started running as I came around my circle to point my nose at him. I dove at him and he flopped onto his belly. He thought I was going to strafe him. No such thing! I buzzed him there in the mud and pulled up to do two victory rolls. I hoped he saw them. Then I felt like an ass doing such a silly, damned-fool, kid thing like that. Obviously I’d read too much of Hogan’s C-8 and His Battle Aces and watched too much of Wings and The Dawn Patrol.

The flight home was uneventful, except for a mixed feeling of elation, disbelief, and nagging worry. I hoped my camera had worked. Confirmation couldn’t stand on my word alone. That was a grim thought.

See Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds

Olds would soon convert to the P-51 Mustang and ended WWII with a score of 12 enemy planes. His combat days were far from over – he shot down four MiG-21s while flying a F-4C Phantom II over Vietnam in 1967.

Robin Olds in WWII
Robin Olds in WWII

Ace Pilots has a good summary of Robin Old’s career.