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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 and