Victor Comic and me (5)

On the front and back covers, Victor would always have the story of a brave man, or a number of brave men. I can well remember this edition of Victor, Number 25, arriving at our house. It tells the story of the courageous South African, John Nettleton VC, who led a brave daytime attack on the MAN Diesel works in Augsburg. Seven of the Lancasters were shot down, and at least 37 men were killed:

The drawings are seldom completely regular in Victor. The top of the next row is often visible in the frame above.

Here is the next frame, thumbs up, and everybody happy to set off on their desperate mission:

The bombers flew low and this is emphasised by the old cliché of horses being frightened. Sometimes, hats are blown off, but not today:

The agility of the fighters compared to the bombers is often emphasised by the different angles at which the two aircraft are flying. The sinister nature of the German fighter pilot is underlined by his lack of kindly eyes. Instead his evil eyes are masked by his goggles. Nobody in the RAF ever covers his eyes with his goggles:

In real life, operations like this one were always costly in lives. And a bomber pilot could take more than two years to train and it was an extremely expensive process. The story, though, makes the reader feel better by mentioning heavy German losses among the fighter pilots. That ignores, however, the fact that each bomber had seven men in it, and on average, when there was a terminal situation in a Lancaster, fewer than two of that seven would survive. And the fighter pilot, if he were shot down, would parachute down onto German soil. With luck, he could be back flying only three or four hours later:

This is the worst bit of a raid, flying straight and level just before the bombs were dropped:

This type of attack seldom had great effects and the effects it did have were seldom long lasting. The American bombing of the ball bearing works at Schweinfurt and of the oil wells at Ploesti in Rumania would fall into this category and people still argue about the Dambusters raid:

A thousand feet is not very high. And one or two of those Lancasters at the back seem to be morphing into B-24 Liberators:

It would have been one hell of a long way back, with, presumably, all of the German fighters knowing that the surviving Lancasters would be coming past any time soon:

And now came the question which is always asked around the time when the bombers are scheduled to arrive back at base. “How many are left?”

The British and the Americans always seemed to overestimate vastly the effect of their bombs on these specialised missions, especially early on in the conflict. Investigations after the war revealed that at Augsburg only 8 machine tools were destroyed out of 2,700. Of 558 cranes, just 5 were destroyed:

What cannot be denied is the bravery of every single crewman and the huge effect that this raid had on morale. Nettleton toured widely, addressing meetings both in Britain and in North America. Here is a news film of the time about the raid:

John Nettleton was killed on his way back from Turin after a bombing raid on July 13th 1943. Luftwaffe fighters were scrambled as the returning bombers passed over Brittany in the early hours of daylight. It is believed that an Fw190 shot his Lancaster down over the sea. Nettleton’s body has never been found. Much to my amazement, the Nettleton School in Braeside, Harare, in Zimbabwe, still exists. I need to be less cynical.

 

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24 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Personal

24 responses to “Victor Comic and me (5)

  1. Fiction verses Reality – which do you think is best remembered, John?

    • I think that years after the event, the better course is to portray the horror of war and the ultimate pointlessness of it. Nowadays, the Germans, Italians and Japanese are all our friends.
      At the same time we need to make sure that everybody is aware of the incredible bravery of the young men who were asked to do those things so many years ago and, despite the risks, did not hesitate to do them.

      • I knew you’d give me a great answer, John!!

      • Chris Waller

        My parents were in Derby during the war and experienced the full force of the Luftwaffe’s attempts to destroy Rolls-Royce’s factory on Sinfin Lane and the railway works among other targets They spoke very little of the war and when they did it was of the lighter moments, the camaraderie and the humorous interludes. It seemed that they had already edited their memories to create a more palatable account of events.

        REPLY: That may be the refuge that all traumatised human beings go to, unless events were so terrible that they could not get over them. My Grandad who fought in WW1 never talked about the things he must have seen in battle. Unless he was missing them deliberately, he shot and killed Germans but even those episodes were retold from a humorous point of view. My Dad was more traumatised by his war and I realise now that he saw some awful things and found them very difficult to live with. He was also fully aware that when he dropped those bombs, that children would probably be killed as well as German factory workers. I think nowadays that that may have been a motivating force in his decision to be a teacher, but was perhaps buried so deep in his psyche that he didn’t realise it.

  2. Jan

    I cannot imagine what the atmosphere was like in the briefing room when the crews heard the details of the suicide mission the Brass had planned for them.

    • To be honest I don’t think that there would have been too many negative reactions at that point in the war. Britain stood pretty much alone in Western Europe and people were happy to retaliate against the Germans more or less whatever the risks. It was a different kettle of fish however, in the winter of 1943-1944, when repeated raids on Berlin with enormous casualties affected morale very seriously. When the curtain was taken off the map at the briefing and the target was revealed yet again as the German capital, reactions then were often very negative because they all knew what was coming and what the risks were.

    • We have a little bit of insight for a similar scenario in the Pacific Theater when aircrews were sent to Rabaul on Nov. 2, 1943. From our post: “When members of the 3rd Bomb Group’s 13th Squadron attended the briefing for the mission, Richard Walker remembers it being a ‘very somber affair.’ Realizing the type of defenses that they would be facing, it ‘was pretty much a prediction that all of us would not be coming home.’ The crews sat ‘gray faced and quiet…'” After it was over, that day was remembered as Bloody Tuesday.

      • I get the impression that in Bomber Command they were all ready and willing to carry out dangerous missions but that they, quite naturally, were not in favour of going back time and time again to a target where they were apparently having little effect and yet losing lots of men.
        When the V-weapons site at Peenemunde was discovered though, the men were told that they needed to bomb the site thoroughly and to destroy it completely. If they had not done that when the photo reconnaissance came back, they were promised that they would be bombing it again on the second night, and then the third and the fourth, until it was totally destroyed.

  3. I like the concept of driving at zero feet, wouldn’t that mean driving down an autobahn?
    That is a magnificent explosion of the engine sheds.
    Seventy years on all of those bombing raids seem tragic and pointless.

    • It certainly is a wonderful explosion and one easy to reproduce in your rough book during a Physics lesson. Aircraft did fly extremely low. On that raid on the oil wells at Ploesti in Rumania, B-24 Liberators are reputed to have come back with stalks of wheat in the bomb bay doors. And if you know Sutton Bridge on the way to East Anglia, 617 Squadron are supposed to have had two Lancasters fly simultaneously underneath the power lines which cross the river to the north.
      Zero feet, presumably, meant flying as flat to the ground as possible, which probably would have meant hopping over the bridges on a modern motorway.
      “tragic and pointless” is more difficult to answer. At the time, the idea was to strike back at the Germans in a significant way and the only people capable of doing that was the RAF. They were keen and prepared to take all risks. The problem was that accurate bombing, no losses and a huge impact on the Germans was impossible to achieve. The best solution at the time was to bomb at night, not in the day, with huge numbers of aircraft and to carry out area bombing. That way you solved the accuracy problem, ultimately, by killing or dehousing the people who built the U-boats,

      • I used to live at Holbeach near Sutton Bridge. Hard to imagine flying that low!

        REPLY: There is a TV documentary about the last Dambuster, ‘Johnny’ Johnson where he tells the story of going underneath and looking down to see another Lancaster below him. They used to fly under the wires and over the road bridge. He said that the gap to fly through was about thirty feet if I remember correctly.

      • Chris Waller

        On a technical note, I seem to recall that the altimeter of aircraft do not work below 150 feet so I think that anything under 150 feet is called ‘zero feet’.

        REPLY: Thank you very much for that, Chris. I’ve been researching a young pilot who was seen to fly his aircraft straight into the sea, and that may go some way to explaining it.

  4. The accuracy of the early raids was certainly doubtful with few bombs hitting the target or even being close! These stories were great though, bringing home the bravery of the young men involved even if a little artistic license was employed in their production!

    • The accuracy of the RAF’s bombing was reported on in August 1941 in the Butt Report (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butt_Report). There was very little good news!
      I think these dramatic and exciting raids were good for keeping civilian morale high. Don’t forget, tens of thousands of civilians were being killed in the Blitz and they must have been gratified to see that their own air force was not just lying in bed, sleeping off the beer from the night before.
      “artistic license” is certainly the word for Victor, but no more than occurs in, say, a cinema film.
      And you are right, these stories did keep alive the bravery of the men and women involved in WW2. In spectacular fashion, admittedly, but perhaps that’s just a device to keep the young audience interested!

      • Thanks for the link John, it certainly wasn’t all good news but bombing their cities was good propaganda none the less. I think a little artistic license is permitted in this case, it certainly keeps the young engaged!

  5. A fascinating post! How long do you suppose it took for bombing accuracy to improve?

    • I think there was a great leap forward when they started to have bomber streams rather than individual aircraft flying separately to the target. Lots of bombers together would start visible fires and all the others would then add to the flames. This was improved enormously by having the élite “Pathfinder” squadron mark targets with coloured flares. You can read it on
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathfinder_(RAF)
      This article also lists the electronic aids that gradually came into use. These were, of course, a great help to navigation.
      It is difficult to ascribe an exact date to all this but most of the improvements to Bomber Command began with the arrival of Arthur Harris, who was obsessed with flattening German cities until Germany had to give up rather than fight on. That was a bit optimistic, but he had a damn good try!

  6. Jan

    In 1982 the RAF mounted its Black Buck raids against the Argentinian forces on the Falklands. It was a miracle of logistics and planning as neither the obsolescent Vulcan bomber or the Victor (a converted V-bomber) tankers had sufficient range for the operation without refuelling.

    But so far as bombing went most of the 1000lb “iron bombs” missed their targets and the handful that did hit caused minimal damage.

    But as with the Augsburg raid it was more about maintaining morale than military significance.

    • Absolutely. I agree with you that this was another example of the Augsburg raid, but without the casualties. I wonder if it was the first hostile act of the war? In that case, it certainly was of great symbolic importance.
      Years ago I read a book called “Vulcan 607” by Rowland White and he said that the bombs were dropped at 90% to the runway so that at least one would hit it. If you try and put them all down the tarmac, you risk missing completely.
      I thought it was a little strange perhaps but that’s what he said. This single bomb on target he wrote, was the only bomb ever dropped in anger by an Avro Vulcan in the entire history of the type.
      Get it for only a penny…

      • Jan

        Well it depends on your definition of “hostile act”. I was attending a student event in London the night the invasion was announced on TV.

        A bunch of us decided to pop round to the Argentine Embassy to see what was happening. There was a fair old crowd standing outside, with the Old Bill forming a protective cordon. It was all pretty good natured until someone in the crowd launched a Mk1 brick, with pinpoint accuracy, at one of the embassy windows. There was a cheer as the glass broke and booing when the police tried to arrest the marksman.

  7. Yes, brave young men. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Great post John talking about the differences of childhood entertainment that recollects history and the actually reality of the war. The coloured pages just look gorgeous too.

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