In the early part of the war both sides refrained from bombing land targets. For example in the Luftwaffe raid on the 16th October on the Firth of Forth the crews were under instructions not to bomb targets, such as ships in dock, that might result in civilian casualties. For the same reasons in the Battle of the Heligoland Bight the RAF were not permitted to bomb ships berthed in the German naval base. The distinction now seems rather odd, especially at a time when the Germans were bombing and machine gunning unarmed civilians on merchant vessels, including fishing boats and Light vessels. Furthermore Britain and France were at war simply because of the German attack on Poland, where it was well known that the bombing of civilians had been completely unrestrained.
Yet there was a reluctance to move to ‘all out war’. Hitler entertained the notion that it might be possible to come to terms with Britain until quite late in 1940, so the avoidance of civilian casualties might be a factor that would help a possible accommodation. And in Britain not everyone was as clear sighted or as determined as Winston Churchill in recognising that the war was a fight to the death with Nazism in the defence of civilization itself.
Later that day, March 19th, we discovered that we were going to take part in the first bombing raid against a German land target, namely the seaplane base at Hornum on the Friesian Islands. The change in bombing policy was a retaliation for the raid by the Luftwaffe on Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands on March 16th, during which a civilian was killed. The retaliatory raid was to be a “one off”; we would attack no further land targets until the Germans invaded Scandinavia and the Low Countries.
We were called to briefing early in the evening, during which we were given the gen on the impending raid. The force of 50 aircraft would be the greatest number of RAF bombers to concentrate on a single German target to date. The atmosphere during briefing was charged with anticipation and excitement at the prospect that we were going to drop bombs instead of those “bloody leaflets”.
The flight over the North Sea went smoothly, but the excitement mounted when ‘Nipper’ announced over the intercom that we would soon be near the island and the target. He went to the bomb-aiming position in the nose of the aircraft to prepare for the bomb-run from 4,000 feet. The adrenalin flow increased when he reported that he had identified the target and called “Bomb doors open!”
We started the bomb-run and the litany commenced: “Left, left, steady… right, steady” as we ran the gauntlet of the flak and searchlight defences. The Whitley lurched as the bombs dropped away. We were now receiving the attentions of the defences, but the skipper kept the aircraft straight and level to enable ‘Nipper’ to plot the bursts. Some of the flak got uncomfortably close to the tail and I was blinded by the searchlights, so I opened fire down the beams.
Larry Donnelly DFM in The Whitley Boys: 4 Group Bomber Operations 1939 to 1940
Short contemporary film of the Whitley bomber: