by Wing Commander F. Lord, DFC, and Flight Lieutenant P. Fox
We ask you to go back in time to Thursday March 30th 1944 and to imagine that you are all aircrew, sitting in a large Nissen hut on a wartime bomber station in Yorkshire. There would be about 180 of you sitting there, representing the crews; seven men to each of 25 aircraft, plus a few supernumeraries who will be flying with experienced crews to gain experience. The remaining aircraft of the squadron are either out on simulated bombing practice, cross-country navigational exercises, or undergoing overhauls. Their crews are not here.
Facing you is the Station Commander, the Officer i/c (in charge) Flying, Navigation Leader, Bombing Leader, Signals and Gunnery Leaders, the Intelligence Officer and the Meteorological Officer. Outside the closed doors and shuttered windows, armed RAF Police stand. You are isolated from the rest of the station for the time being, and the station itself is isolated from the outside world.
It may not generally be known that all aircrew in the Royal Air Force who served during World War II were volunteers, not conscripted men. South Africans are rightly proud of the fact that they were all volunteers. So were we.
After all these years, let us refresh our memories; and take a look at a typical heavy bomber aircrew and the mutually-dependent functions of the team.
Captain of the aircraft, whether Commissioned Officer or NCO and responsible for six lives other than his own. At the moment of danger, the pilot stood the least chance of survival as he had to remain at the controls until the crew had baled out.
Previously known as Air Observer, he was responsible for keeping the aircraft on course at all times, for reaching the target, avoiding enemy defences as well as finding the way home. Unable to relax at all throughout an operational trip: making complicated calculations and working complex equipment.
Sat alongside the pilot during take-off and landing to assist with throttles adjustment. During the bomb run, he instructed the pilot until all bombs or markers were released and the bombing photo was taken. He usually lay prone in the perspex nose, using complex bombsights. He pushed out ‘window’(1), manned the front gun turret, and generally assisted the navigator.
Monitored the instruments and gauges, and took astronomical star shots - weather permitting. In an emergency, his fuel calculations were absolutely vital. He was reserve bomb-aimer / front gunner and look-out.
Responsible for all messages between air and ground. Working in radio silence much of the time, he listened out for Group HQ broadcast winds, weather change or recall signals; he operated ‘fishpond’(2) was a reserve air gunner and assisted in paying-out ‘window’.
Mid-upper and rear, were isolated in their turrets throughout every trip. Kept on the lookout all the time and advised the pilot on evasive tactics. They always hoped they’d see the Luftwaffe night-fighter first, were good marksmen and expert at aircraft recognition.
Royal Air Force
102 ft wing span, 70 ft long
Four 1460 hp Rolls Royce Merlins or 1735 hp Bristol Hercules
Bomb load: 14 000 lbs
Armament: eight .303 Browning m/gs in three FN turrets
Speeds: 287 mph maximum, 216 mph cruising
Range: 1660 miles with maximum bomb load
104 ft wing span, 70 ft long
Four 1615 hp Bristol Hercules or 1280 hp Rolls Royce Merlins
Similar bomb load, armament and speeds to Lancaster
Range: 1080 miles with maximum bomb load
De Havilland Mosquito
54 ft wing span, 40 ft long
Two 1460 hp Rolls Royce Merlins
Armament; four 20 mm Oerlikon cannons
Speeds: 370 mph maximum, 255 mph cruising
Range: 1705 miles
(b) Bomber Pathfinder Force (PFF):
Bomb load: 4000 lbs
Range: 1620 miles with max. bomb load
Speeds: 380 mph maximum, 265 mph cruising
(c) Intruder fighter-bomber
Two 1635 hp Rolls Royce Merlins
Bomb load: 1000 lbs
Armament: four 20mm cannons and four .303 m/gs
Speeds: 378 mph maximum, 260 cruising
Range: 1705 miles
Messerschmidt Bf 110 G
53 ft wing span, 43 ft long
Two 1475 hp Daimler-Benz. Sophisticated radar mounted in front.
Armament: two 30 mm and two 20 mm cannons in nose;
two 7.9 mm m/gs rear of cockpit;
some mounted two upward-firing 20 mm cannons
Speeds: 342 mph maximum, 250 mph cruising
Range: 1305 miles
Junkers 88 G1
66 ft wing span, 50 ft long
Two 1410 hp Junkers Jumo
Armament: three 20mm cannons and two 7.9 mm m/gs in nose;
one 13 mm m/g rear of cockpit;
some mounted two upward-firing 20 mm cannons
Speeds: 307 mph maximum, 263 mph cruising
Range: 1230 miles
Other night-fighters in Luftwaffe service included the Me 109 G and the FW 190.
‘Very shortly Bomber Command will be called upon to support the invasion of Europe and Sir Arthur Harris is anxious to strike at one last major target before this happens. It is a target he knows is very dear to Churchill’s heart.
‘All this morning there has been intense activity at High Wycombe, the Command’s underground headquarters and at midday the teleprinter there began clacking out messages.
‘The code name of the target, “Grayling,” was sent to all group commanders and in turn to stations and squadron commanders. Security was immediately put into force. All outgoing phone calls were blocked and those incoming were intercepted, cutting stations off from the outside world as preparations for the raid began.
‘The route and other details have been argued and settled. The aircraft outside and on other stations are being bombed-up, serviced and fuelled. And you are now about to learn where you are destined to go.’
Officer i/c Flying
‘The target tonight is Nuremberg on the river Pegnitz some 90 miles to the north of Munich. As a military target, Nuremberg is an important industrial city with a population of 350 000 (a little larger than Leeds) and a centre for general and electrical engineering. The famous M.A.N. works produce armaments of all kinds there and, since their large factory in Berlin was bombed, Siemens plant in Nuremberg has stepped up production of its electric motors, searchlights and firing devices for mines.
‘You’ve already disproved, on many occasions, Goering’s earlier boast that no bombs would ever fall on the Fatherland. Now you’ll have an opportunity to dissuade the Nazis from holding further mass rallies in the city most favoured for these.
‘Nuremberg deserves a maximum effort and that is what it will now get. Ten squadrons in No. 1 Group, eight squadrons from No. 3 Group, seven squadrons from No. 4, twelve from No. 5, nine from No. 6 and 12 squadrons from No. 8 Pathfinder Force Group will participate — altogether 820 Lancasters and Halifaxes will take part. In addition 15 Mosquitoes will adopt an intruder role to seek out night fighters and destroy them. So you’ll have plenty of company and it behoves every one to keep a good look-out at the turning points to avoid collisions.
‘H-hour is 0105 through to 0122 (17 minutes). After the PFF have marked the target, the main force will bomb from H-hour + 5 for the remaining 12 minutes.
‘Our time on target is set for H-hour + 9 between the band of 20 000 to 20 500 feet. Take-off time is 22.00 hrs. Good luck; have a good trip!’
‘Navigators have already been briefed and have prepared their charts and their captains’ maps.
‘To minimize enemy radar detection, the main force will maintain a height of no more than 2000 ft across country and the coast, with navigation lights on to the first turning point at 51° 50' North 2° 30' East. Please keep a very sharp lookout at this point, captains and gunners.
‘At this point you will start a steady climb, switching off all lights when the turn is completed on to your south-easterly course of 130°.
The Belgian Coast will be crossed at 8000 feet just to the east of Binges to the next turning point at 50° 30' North 4°36' East,just short of Charleroi; there you will alter course to port, gradually climb to your bombing height and reach your last turning point before the target, at Fulda 50° 32' North 10° 36' East, and then on to the target.
‘After leaving the target continue for a short distance to 49° North 11° 5' East; then to 48° 30' North 9° 20' East and on to 50° North 3° East to cross the French coast at 50° 40' North 2° East, at a height of 4000 feet.
‘Indicated air speeds will be 172 mph to the first turning point. Then climbing at 150 across the coast to the next turning point where airspeed will be increased to 162 mph and held to the target. If it is necessary to make a second run on the target, orbit left to avoid others in the main force coming up behind you.
‘On leaving the target, increase speed to 182 and hold this, gradually losing height to cross the coast at 4000 ft.
‘Corrected winds will be broadcast to the main force every half hour between 23.40 and 03.40.’
‘Your all-up weight tonight is just short of 65 000 lbs. Bomb load is just over 7000 lbs with 4 x 1000 lb HEs and 3000 lb of incendiaries. You have six tanks of petrol - altogether 2200 gallons - more than sufficient for the trip tonight.
‘Including this squadron’s contribution, altogether 3000 tons of bombs will fall on the target tonight. There are three main concentrations for your attack - here and here - (pointing on map) and depending on what cloud cover there may be, Pathfinder Force will employ either Wanganui sky flares if the target is completely obscured by cloud, parramata markers, dropped on H2S3, if there is broken cloud partially obscuring the target, or Newhaven ground markers dropped on visual identification, aided by H2S.
‘Night maps should be marked accordingly.
‘Initially red markers and incendiaries will be dropped, then green markers turning yellow; then these will be further fed by red markers, with target illuminators, from 01.09 to 01.22.
‘Met. (Meteorological Officer) will tell you that a fairly stiff crosswind can be expected on target, so bomb-aimers will need to be pretty snappy with their bombing. On the other hand, they must be careful to avoid the tendency to ‘creep-back’ with their bombs and miss the vital areas. Make a good job of it, chaps. We don’t want to go back again.
‘“Window:” one parcel a minute over the coast and up to the first turning point, over Charleroi in Belgium. At your next turning-point (Fulda) release “window” at the rate of two parcels a minute for 5 minutes and at the rate of one a minute at subsequent points after leaving the target, as specified.’
‘At the line LW, (pointed out on chart) warm air is overtaking the cold air forming a warm front which is moving northward over NE Yorkshire and SW Scotland. The line LC marks a cold front now over Ireland and approaching the western side of England. It may lead to cu-nim cloud (cumulo-nimbus), although we do not expect this to be continuous.
‘What is forecast is broken but fairly good cloud cover for you all the way to the target and back, with some low cloud and precipitation in coastal areas.
‘Winds over the Continent moderate 40/50 mph at 18 000 ft and generally blowing from SW or W. There may be some low cloud and poor visibility down to 2000 yds at base on return.
‘To sum up then: for the outward flight, broken cloud can be expected everywhere except Southern Germany where it is expected to be layered. Winds WSW 40/50, veering WNW 50/60 mph over target. Local industrial smog in Groups 4 and 6 areas, with valley fog towards dawn.’
‘The very direct nature of the route to the target tonight has been the subject of weighty discussion between Bomber Command and Group Commanders. In particular Air Vice-Marshal Bennett, head of 8 PFF Group strongly advocated a far more indirect approach. His views, however, were opposed by other Air Officers commanding, including the Hon. Ralph Cochrane, head of 5 Group. They supported the Commander-in-Chiefs plan on these grounds:- that the distance involved precludes wasting time and fuel on too many doglegs, that the present route suggests a number of perhaps more vulnerable targets to the German defences, thus persuading them to disperse and thin-out fighter concentrations, that the sheer simplicity of this route will surprise the Germans and keep them off-balance sufficiently long for you to complete the operation without too much trouble. I think you deserve this explanation and it may help to dispel any misgivings you have about the direct route as laid down.
‘As a further encouragement, I can tell you that just ahead of you when you cross the coast, Mosquitoes will open the night’s proceedings with low-level attacks on the known night-fighter fields in Holland at Leiuwarden, Twente, Deelen and Venlo in a bid to keep them on the ground until you’re well past.
‘At the same time off Texel and the Heligoland Bight, a force of 50 Halifaxes will start dropping mines as a diversionary move to keep German ground controllers confused.
‘Additional to this, and a while before the main force reaches the target, Mosquitoes will make a feint attack on Cologne between 23.55 and 7 minutes after midnight. A further force of twenty Mosquitoes will also drop fighter flares, markers and “window” on Kassel between 26 and 28 minutes after midnight in an attempt to “spoof’ the German controllers into believing the main attack is to be the Ruhr, and thus lead them to send the bulk of the fighters there.
‘So far as ground defences are concerned, we’ve tried to route you over the coast both going and coming back where flak and searchlights are believed to be thin and the use of “window” here will help to blur the picture from the ground.
‘Again, the route takes you across the southerly end of the heavy Ruhr defensive area. Obviously much depends on the accuracy of your course-keeping and your ability to maintain a well bunched-together pattern and no straying away from the main stream.
‘Night-fighters can as usual be expected, but with cloud-cover and the Mosquito attacks to keep them grounded, the danger from these, we believe, will be minimized. Keep a sharp lookout for them, however, and wireless operators, make sure your “fishpond” is working at all times’.
‘You have now been briefed on one of the thirty operational flights you will have to survive to complete your first heavy bomber tour. Some of you will be flying on ops for the very first time, others have only one trip to go; a few of you will be on your second tour of twenty trips. Several crews are due for a week’s leave as from tomorrow.
‘Following this main briefing, you’ll more than likely go to your messes for a meal, including bacon and egg: the traditional ‘fringe benefit” for aircrew on ops that night. Then you’ll stroll across to the crew rooms to put on your flying kit, gather up your ‘chute and bits and pieces, and climb aboard one of the crew buses for your particular flight at dispersal.
The captains will issue the flying rations / escape kits to their crews, run up the engines for a final check and sign the Forms 700. You’ll all have to wait around then for a Very light from the control tower, most of you inwardly hoping that it will be a red one indicating a last-minute cancellation!’
On this occasion, though, it was green at all stations, and the first Lancaster off rolled down the runway at Elsham Wolds near Hull precisely on 21.16. The raid was on!
This was the interrogation of returning aircrew by Squadron Intelligence Officers, who then had to write-up Forms 540, the Operations Record Books, and get these to Group HQ as quickly as possible for inclusion in a consolidated report to Bomber Command HQ. Casualties and general comments on the action had to be teleprinted or telephoned through, in time for C-in-C Harris’s ‘morning prayers’ at 09h00 the same morning.
The following is a selection of typical accounts taken down by the intelligence officers early on the morning of 31 March 1944:-
F/L Neville Sparks DFC, AFC, captain of a Pathfinder
Lancaster of 83 Squadron:
‘We were flying at 19 000 ft overtaking the main force 3000 to 4000 ft above. Contrary to the forecasts, there was no layer cloud in which they could hide from enemy fighters. They were clearly visible, glinting in the moon light.
‘It was on the long leg between Charleroi and Fulda when the slaughter began. We saw sparkles of cannon fire, some distant and some almost directly above us, followed by explosions, fires, plunging planes and a scattering of fires on the ground as far as the eye could see. My navigator, ‘Doc’ Watson, marked no less than 57 ticks in his log on the way to the target. Each tick was a four-engined bomber we’d seen shot down by German fighters. It looked like an ambush from where we were watching. It was the most terrible thing I have ever seen. The forecast was for the moon to be at about half its full strength; in fact it was about as bright as it could be. The night, too, was clear as a bell; no clouds, fantastic visibility. I’m pretty certain we brought back a good photo of the target. My bomb-aimer, ‘Strobe’ Foley, is wizard at operating the H2S set. I know he identified Nuremberg correctly.
‘On the way back, a powerful head-wind blew up, unpredicted at briefing, but, by getting down to 10 000 ft we got home before the CO. We flew straight across and saw nothing but a row of six flares several thousand feet above, which indicated that enemy fighters were still searching for the survivors from the main attacks.’
F/L D. F. Gillam of 100 Sqdn reported an unexpected hazard caused by freak weather: ‘We started leaving contrails at our allotted height of 19 000 ft. I decided to ‘misinterpret’ orders and get as much height as possible. We got up to about 22 000 ft which was as high as we could get fully loaded. From there I could see a mass of contrails below us; they looked like a formation of American daylight bombers.’
Sgt R. C. Corker, a flight engineer in a Halifax of 578 Sqdn described a fighter attack: ‘Without any warning at all, we were attacked from underneath; there was an enormous bang as a cannon shell exploded in the starboard-inner and four or five pieces caught me in the fleshy part of the bottom. The fighter shot across our nose and attacked another Halifax about 11 o’clock high from us. It blew up. He had made the two attacks in about 20 seconds.’
P/O O.V. Brooks of 15 Sqdn: ‘The target, if in fact it was the target, was not well marked at all. We bombed on a marker that appeared at our approx. ETA (estimated time of arrival), but we did not see much in the way of fires. It was clear from the way the bombs were falling all over the place that few people really knew where they were.’
F/L W. D. Marshall of 467 Sqdn: ‘We were late getting to the target and I don’t think we’ve got a good bombing photo because we were chased by a German fighter, and then a very twitchy Lancaster gunner tried hard to shoot us down.
P/O Cotter, flew a Halifax that night on his 30th op.; his navigator was only on his first or second trip: ‘With the heavy fighter attacks, the navigator could not have had a more unfortunate introduction, and eventually he was unsure of his position. Before we were due at Nuremberg, we saw Pathfinder markers going down just off our track. We had not been briefed on any diversionary target here, and I just thought we were lucky that we’d got to Nuremberg and so we bombed. Not one of us queried the target.’
Flight/Sgt Brian Soper, DFM, of 12 Sqdn: ‘The weather was clear and bright all the way, with just a faint haze of cloud over the target which was brightly lit when we made our bombing run. We have never seen so many exploding and burning aircraft or been close enough to see parachutes going down from crippled Lancs. I shall never forget the searchlight cones on the way back, and particularly a Mossie which was caught by the master searchlight and then coned, very near us. While those unlucky blokes were getting the attention we managed to clear the area, a searchlight just crossing us a few times, and with a constant barrage of flak.’ WO Jim McNab, RAAF, who was in a Lancaster of 467 Sqdn that reached Nuremberg that night: ‘I don’t think there was any question of a leakage of information. As far as we could make out, it was the bright moon which was the death-blow for our planes. It was so light that I could clearly read the squadron letters and identification numbers on a Lanc. flying next to us.
One of our chaps had said we were for it that night, and was he right! Nuremberg was the only place covered by cloud. I saw Lancasters being shot down by anti-aircraft guns as well as fighters.’
Another Australian from the same squadron: ‘The section of the route from Aachen to the target was reminiscent of a battlefield of burning aircraft.., very noticeable in the last half-dozen trips is the fact that so many aircraft were seen going down in flames from operational height I would suggest that the enemy is using a new type of ammunition.’
P/O J. D. Whiteman of 10 Sqdn told his Group Commander Air Vice-Marshal Cam: ‘I did not think we were going to reach the bloody target, let alone return to base.’
From even that small collection of aircrew comments at just a few of the de-briefing sessions, it will be clear that a major disaster for the RAF had occurred. In fact, the hours between midnight and 07.25 on the 31st March 1944 became known as Bomber Command’s ‘Black Friday.’
Our dead and wounded aircrew for the night’s operations totalled 745. The 545 dead included 150 Officers, 24 Warrant Officers and 371 NCOs. A further 159 aircrew were taken prisoner, some of them badly injured. Loss of aircraft amounted to 108: 94 were shot down by night fighters and flak over enemy territory.
Because the success of every Bomber Command raid depended on the weather over the routes and the targets, it is only reasonable that we should first look at the meteorological counterpoint that was being dished out at that time.
At 15.25 on the afternoon of the 30th, a weather Mosquito confirmed to Bomber Command that the outward flight in the moonlight had little chance of cloud cover, and if the cloud seen over Nuremberg persisted it would rob the Pathfinders of the ability to mark visually by moonlight. A further forecast was handed to the Deputy Commander Sir Robert Saundby at 16.40. It read: ‘Nuremberg: Large amount of strato-cumulus with tops to about 8000 ft and risk of some thin patchy cloud at about 15 to 16 000 ft.’
Many years after the war, Sir Robert recalled: ‘I can say that, in view of the met. report and other conditions, everyone, including myself, expected the C-in-C to cancel the raid. We were most surprised when he did not. I thought perhaps there was some top-secret political reason for the raid, something too top-secret for even me to know.
The conditions reported by the Mosquito were not passed down to the stations. Every effort was made to keep from crews the unpleasant fact that they were to fly a constant course through a well-defended part of Germany for 265 miles in bright moonlight with little chance of cloud cover.
At a dozen stations, met. officers forecast that there would be cloud cover at operational height. No one, not even the Pathfinder squadrons, was told of the ‘large amounts of strato-cumulus’ now forecast for Nuremberg.
From the original force of 782 heavy bombers that had taken off for Nuremberg, 725 crossed the Belgian coast. The others had aborted for various reasons: engine failure, oxygen supply problems, unserviceable radar sets and so on.
As the bombers flew due east from the Charleroi turning-point, they began to drift north of the correct track and to fall behind time. The wind had veered due west and had decreased, and the Windfinder system had already broken down. The leading Pathfinders were detailed to transmit the ‘found’ winds back to their Group HQ who would in turn broadcast these to all the bombers on the half-hour. That night, the few reports that did get through were so conflicting that it was impossible to send out common forecasts.
Just after midnight, the first bomber was shot down by flak over Liege; at the same time, over 200 night-fighters were on their way to the Ida and Otto beacons, straddling the course of the Long Leg. The diversionary feints had failed to fool the Luftwaffe generals.
The 45-mile section of the route between the German frontier and the Rhine cost the RAF ten Lancasters and two Halifaxes and two more bombers had been damaged.
The Germans circling at the Ida beacon were listening out to the running commentary from the Deelen underground ops room, and were justifiably amazed to be told that the main bomber-stream was heading straight for them in the clearest weather conditions possible, under a brilliant half-moon.
The bomber crews were deeply shocked to meet night-fighters in such strength so early in their flight, waiting dead on track in every semblance of an ambush laid with advance information. And as if this wasn’t enough, a completely unforeseeable weather phenomenon occurred at this point. Vapour or condensation trails, rarely found below 25 000 ft started to appear behind each bomber flying at 19 to 20 000 ft. The dead-straight streams of pure white cloud in the bright moonlight were welcomed enthusiastically by the waiting Germans.
Unbeknown to Bomber Command, many of the German night-fighters were equipped with a newly-developed and deadly form of armament the Luftwaffe had named schröage Musik; literally translated, it means ‘slanting music’, more colloquially, ‘jazz’. Two 20 mm cannons were mounted in the fuselage at an angle of 800, firing forwards and upwards. The pilot would approach the bomber from below, unseen by both gunners, and line up an aiming point on either side of an inner engine; both wings at this point carried the fuel tanks. Because they attacked from the very close range of 70 to 80 metres, it was considered too risky to aim at the unprotected belly of the bomber and possibly to detonate the bomb-load.
The crews of two Me 110 fighters that night each destroyed no less than four bombers in one flight. Oberleutnant Helmut Schulte landed and was amazed to find that his two schrCge Musik guns had used only 56 cannon shells; when Leutnant Wilhelm Seuss fired at his fourth Lancaster he hit the bomb bay in error and had to dive violently to escape the massive explosion as the bomber blew up. It is almost certain that at no time had any crew seen either Messerschmidt.
The biggest score of bombers destroyed during the night was achieved, however, by Oberleutnant Martin Becker using the conventional technique von unten hinten, from below and behind. In half-an-hour between the Rhine and the end of the Long Leg he found and destroyed three Lancasters and three Halifaxes. Only eight nights earlier, on a Frankfurt raid, he had shot down six of the 33 aircraft lost by Bomber Command.
At a quarter to one, the leading bombers reached the end of the Long Leg and started to turn south to Nuremberg. German fighters and unreported wind changes had caused further dispersal. The 220 miles from Liege to the turning-point was by now clearly marked by the blazing remains of 4l Lancasters and 18 Halifaxes. It is unlikely that a single hour, before or since, has seen a greater rate of aerial destruction.
The target was now 75 miles to the south; without the tail wind, this would be a 20-minute flight. The turning-point was a tricky one, above the forests of Thuringia with no recognizable feature or nearby town. Most of the aircraft turned well to the north of the right place and slightly short of it.
The Luftwaffe fighters kept attacking. The first half of that short leg to Nuremberg claimed ten more bombers; and as the leading Pathfmnders flew past the searchlights of Bamberg, only 30 miles from the target. they suffered yet another critical setback in the shape of a thick blanket of cloud, less than 2000 ft at base and extending up to 11 500 ft. Not only was Nuremberg covered by cloud but the winds from the west had suddenly increased in velocity and were blowing the big bombers sideways to the east. So, instead of flying over Erlangen and on to Nuremberg, some of the Pathfinders had crossed another small town, Forchheim, and then approached Lauf, much smaller than the real target but with similar characteristics on the H2S radar screens, being situated on a river and surrounded by woods.
Thirty-nine bombers were shot clown on the final approach and over the target area. The force had by now lost 79 aircraft, exceeding the Leipsig total of six weeks earlier. Of all the aircraft shot down on the outward flight, there was only one from which the entire crew survived; from one crew in every three there were no survivors at all.
Mosquitoes of 627 Sqdn opened the activities of the Primary Marking Force at two minutes to one, offloading 500-pounders and ‘window’ at the rate of four bundles a minute to disrupt the 100-odd radar-predicted flak guns known to be defending the city. Ten minutes later, 65 Pathfinders and Supporters had done their best, but the conditions were hopeless. Instead of a clear and vividly marked target for the Main Force bomb-aimers due to arrive at 01.10, there was one group of skymarkers over Nuremberg and another group ten miles to the north-east near Lauf, both being blown eastwards and falling towards the clouds.
It was Zero Hour by now and 559 Main Force bombers should have started to arrive. During the first five minutes only 33 aircraft bombed. The majority of the force had turned from the Long Leg well north of the right track and were, therefore, some minutes flying time further from the target than planned.
Seeing two groups of markers, the Main Force crews were understandably confused; so were the Backers-up among them whose duty it was to renew the skymarkers. They managed to re-mark the group over Lauf which now gave off the most light and attracted by far the greater number of bombs. Some of the later Pathfinders placed their markers accurately over Nuremberg but the damage had been done and soon there was a ragged line of skymarkers more than ten miles wide. The wrecks of nine aircraft shot down on their bombing runs formed a long straight line from Bamberg to Lauf. The creep-back started early and soon measured 15 miles.
Altogether, 512 aircraft bombed in the Nuremberg area; what had happened to the other 119 bombers that should have done so?
A chapter of accidents misled at least a hundred of them. Both radar sets in a Mosquito had failed and the dead-reckoning navigation had been adversely affected by the changing winds. Just before Zero Hour the crew found a well-defended industrial area they presumed was Nuremberg, especially as they had been briefed to expect clear weather there. The bombs and markers were accordingly released, amid within a few minutes the indicator flare had attracted seven Lancaster Supporters and their bomb loads. Another Lancaster in the area was shot down and the blazing wreckage was the final signal for many bomb-aimers to assume they’d arrived on target, and 48 crews took back clear bombing photographs - of Schweinfurt! Damage was done to all three of the ball-bearing plants.
Thirteen other bombers released their loads when they realized they were lost; these fell on unspecified targets, including Bamberg, 30 miles north of Nuremberg, and a small town 60 miles north.
When the bombers flew away from Nuremberg and Schweinfurt they were pursued for a short way by the German fighters and several more combats took place; it would be wrong at this stage to talk of a ‘stream’ for the bombers were spread over a huge frontage. The tail wind which had helped them along from the Belgian coast to the target in just over 100 minutes was now a heavy head wind, and the flight back would be for most a long, boring drag of three hours or more. The force lost three more aircraft before leaving Germany, all near Stuttgart.
Just over an hour after leaving Nuremberg, those aircraft that were following the planned route flew over the Rhine north of Strasbourg and on into France. A sense of anti-climax, boredom and increasing fatigue set in with most crews, but the bombers were still not out of danger. New combats occurred including Martin Becker’s seventh victory of the night - another Halifax. Night-fighters were responsible for the destruction of five or six bombers between the German border and the Channel coast. Two more were shot down by flak, and there was a tragic collision north of Metz. Both aircraft were at least 40 miles off course.
It was almost 06.00 before the last stragglers reached the coast and flew out over the English Channel. Ninety-four bombers and their crews were missing.
Fourteen more bombers crashed in England, among them the Halifax ‘Excalibur’ oF 578 Sqdn captained by PlO Cyril Barton who was later awarded a posthumous VC for ‘gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds’.
Ten LuftwaFfe night-fighters were shot down by RAF air gunners, Four Ju88s, three Me l09s, two F-W 190s and one Me 110; eleven crew members were killed.
Official summary of the Raid: ‘In their Wurzberg sets, the Germans detected intense air activity as far away as the Norfolk area before Bomber Command crossed the English coast and began to put the nightfighters in a state of readiness. German ground controllers, under General Schmidt, were not fooled by the British diversionary attacks, and by the time that Bomber Command’s main force crossed the coast they had their nightfighters circling their beacons and ready for interception.
•Contrary to met. expectations, there was no cloud cover at all so that, in bright moonlight, Bomber Command flew into an ambush as soon as the 725 Lancasters and Halifaxes crossed the enemy coast and were involved in a running Fight over the next 750 miles with a force of 246 nightfighter aircraft.
‘Higher velocity than Forecast winds (80 to 90 mph) also upset navigation, and heavy cloud disturbed the accuracy of the bombers that managed to reach the target. Loss of life and aircraft were heavy.’
German assessment of damage at Nuremberg: ‘133 killed (75 in city itself), 412 injured; 198 homes destroyed, 3804 damaged, 11 000 homeless. Fires started: 120 large, 485 medium / small. Industrial damage: railway lines cut, and major damage to three large factories; 96 industrial buildings destroyed or seriously damaged. Bombs dropped (target area). 30 ‘mines’, 145 HE (11 duds), 60 000 incendiaries. Bombs dropped (decoy sites): 6 ‘mines’, 110 HE and numerous incendiaries.’
Although this provided confirmation of the determination of many crews to press home the attack, Nuremberg citizens had good reason to be grateful to their nightfighters whose activities spared them the full Force of a saturation attack such as those suffered by Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Essen and several other centres pounded to rubble by area bombing.
In the summer of 1971 in interviews with Alastair Revie, author of the book ‘The Lost Command’, ‘Bomber’ Harris(4) said: ‘Churchill spoke to me with pride and admiration of the thousand battles of Bomber Command. But he knew, as I did, that when you’re fighting 1000 offensive battles in the course of the longest continuous battle of the war,it is difficult to find changes of tactics evey time that will fox the enemy; and one of the changes you have to include occasionally is to do what the enemy thinks you would not dare to do: avoid extensive diversionary operations for once and take a fairly direct route to the target, as with Nuremberg.
‘I do not make excuses . .. there is no need. To guess wrong a few times out of a thousand, as at Nuremberg, is deeply regrettable, especially in view of the slaughter that could be involved on such occasions in the terrible circumstances of air warfare.
‘The scale of losses at Nuremberg was due to the weather, as well as to the main trouble we were suffering from at that time; the fact that .303 machine guns in a night bomber are not much use against cannon-firing night fighters.
‘I am asked if there was a security leak on that occasion. I just do not know even at this distance in time, but it may be that a security leak coincided with a straight-forward mission and was helped by the wrong bombing weather. As it happened, not for the first time, conditions in the night sky on 30th March 1944 turned out to be much more in favour of German fighters than of British bombers.
‘There are those who say we should have known that the moon would be bright, that the clouds would vanish, or that a wind would blow up later.
‘I say we are not gods to know such things to perfection. But I also have to say that I am full of admiration for our “met.” people. Meteorology is more of an art than a science even today, even with the benefits of computers and other technological aids. In the war, we knew nothing of jet streams, and there was all too little information available about fronts building up in the Atlantic and that sort of thing.
‘Also, my met. officers in the Groups would give an opinion, as at Nuremberg, if the prospects were reasonable. At the morning conference, the weather conditions were rated either “possible” or “impossible”, and nobody was obliged to stick his neck out. Where doubts arose, all the Group met. officers had to do was to assure me that they considered prospects unfavourable, and that was that.
‘Do you honestly think that I would have risked aircrew unnecessarily when I valued them as much as I did?
‘My feelings towards the boys who flew in Bomber Command are beyond expression. They knew the odds were constantly against them to the point that they were playing never-ending games of Russian roulette. I do not know why or how they went on as they did. I am lost in admiration for them’.
Disregarding for a moment the damage caused by Bomber Command’s raids, it should be noted that by the end of 1943 the Germans had no less than 950 000 manned anti-aircraft guns in Germany, Holland and Denmark; most of their aircraft production had switched to fighters and there were approximately two million Germans engaged in defending their homeland from bomber attacks, thus diverting this manpower and production from employment elsewhere. This was no small achievement in itself for Bomber Command.
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