Tag Archives: Handley Page Halifax

RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Three

I have now written two articles about RAF Elsham Wolds. I intend to carry on with this series of articles by firstly looking at the fate of just one single aircraft, an Avro Lancaster Mk III with the squadron letters “PM-I” and the serial number “JB745”. It took off from Elsham Wolds at precisely one minute past midnight on February 20th 1944. It was going to bomb Leipzig, which was a very, very long way involving an eight hour round trip, much of it over the Fatherland. Lancaster “JB745” was far from being a lone bomber, and the setting-up of this raid shows just what enormous levels of organisation and man power were involved in bombing a city more than 800 miles away:

A_Lancaster_Mk_III_of_N

A total of 823 aircraft set off, comprising 561 Avro Lancasters, 255 Handley Page Halifaxes and  seven De Havilland Mosquitoes.  A diversionary attack was arranged, with 45 Short Stirlings on a mine laying raid on Kiel with four Handley Page Halifaxes as Pathfinders marking their targets for them. This is a Halifax, with its square tailfins and wings and its radial engines:

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In addition to these aircraft, 15 Mosquitoes attacked Berlin, 16 Mosquitoes equipped with Oboe attacked German night fighter bases and 12 Mosquito patrols went out over Germany using Serrate to find and shoot down German night fighters. Three more Mosquitoes attacked Aachen as a diversion and three more Mosquitoes attacked flying bomb sites in France:

Mosquito_Fighter-bomber

This was a total effort of 921 aircraft over Germany. Every single one of these bombers needed a huge number of people to fill it with fuel, load the bombs, replenish the ammunition in the gun turrets. and so on. The fuel and bombs can certainly be seen in this picture. Even what appears to be the refreshment van can be seen at the top right:

_the_personnel_required_

The losses on this particular raid over Leipzig were the highest of the whole war so far, with 78 aircraft lost out of the total of 921, a completely unsustainable loss rate of 9.55 %.  The previous worst total had been the 58 aircraft destroyed while bombing Magdeburg on January 21st-22nd 1943.
Some 44 Avro Lancasters were lost along with 34 Handley Page Halifaxes. The main problems were that the Germans were not fooled by the mine laying raid on Kiel. Only a very few night fighters were sent out there, and those that had been were soon summoned back to attack the real bomber stream. The bombers had been detected by German radar, operating as part of the famous Kammhüber Line, as soon as they crossed the Dutch coast. Here is the Great Man, Nachtjagdgeneraal Josef Kammhüber:

Josef Kammhuber

The very capable operators in the Luftwaffe control rooms were extremely efficient, and quickly summoned large numbers of fighters to attack the bombers. In actual fact, the RAF bombers were under continuous attack every single second of the 1500 + miles of the round trip between the enemy coast and Leipzig.

In those days, meteorological forecasting was in its infancy, and unexpected high winds meant that many bombers arrived too early over Leipzig. They then had to wait for the exact targets to be marked by the Pathfinders. As they circled around waiting for the Pathfinders to arrive, around twenty of the bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. A further four aircraft were lost in collisions with other circling bombers. The city of Leipzig was wreathed in cloud and the Pathfinders were forced to drop their flares by parachute, the so-called Wanganui method. Given that some aircraft would have found the target using the Oboe radar device, then they were actually using “Musical Wanganui”.
That arrangement worked all right in the beginning but gradually bombs became increasingly widely spread across a huge area:

Attack_on_Hamburg

Few details of the results of the bombing are known, even today. There was no immediate reconnaissance, so very little was ever discovered about the effects of this particular raid. The Germans, of course, said nothing about their losses.
At some point in the operation, Lancaster “JB745” was shot down. Nobody knows if this was by a night fighter, or by anti-aircraft fire (“flak”), or whether it collided with another aircraft. Nobody survived and the crew members, fittingly perhaps, are all buried together in Hannover War Cemetery.
Sergeant William Leslie Bradley was the pilot. He was just 24 years of age and like so many others, had originally served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. From Selby in Yorkshire, his Service Number was 1129431 and he was the much loved son of Mr Wilson W. S. and Mrs Beatrice Bradley. William would never have the chance to lament the lack of shoppers in the modern Selby:

selby
The Flight Engineer was Sergeant Francis James Taylor, a youngster of only 21 years of age. He too had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was the much loved son of Mr Francis James Taylor and Mrs Cathrine (sic) Taylor, of Bolton, Lancashire. His Service Number was 2202861. He would never live to see the modern Bolton, Gateway to the North West:

Bolton modern

The navigator was a little older than that, at 24 years of age. He was Flight Sergeant Thomas Frederick  Johnston who, like many of his colleagues had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.  His Service Number was 1387379 and he was the much loved son of Thomas Frederick and Julia Johnston. They all lived in Coulsdon in Surrey, just to the south of London. Without the Leipzig raid, he would have been in his fifties when this photo of the High Street of his local town was taken:

Coulsdon_in_1983 in fifties

The bomb aimer was Flight Sergeant Jack Luck, who was just 22 years of age. He was a native of Newmarket, which is in Ontario in Canada. Young Jack was a member therefore, of the Royal Canadian Air Force:

220px-Join_the_Team_RCAF

Jack’s Service Number was R/105215 and he was the much loved son of Mr Harold John and Mrs Charlotte Luck. Here is the town hall in Newmarket:

NewmarketO town hall
The wireless operator was Sergeant Ernest Walter Hamilton. His flying had started in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and his Service Number was 1238004. Strangely the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website has no further details that I can find about Sergeant Hamilton.
The two gunners are both named. I suspect that Pilot Officer Arthur Stevens was the mid-upper turret gunner. He was by far the oldest of the crew at an almost ancient 37 years of age. His Service Number was 87717, a lowish number which probably shows more years in the RAF than the rest of the crew. Arthur was the son of Mr Herbert Frank and Mrs Ethel Mary Stevens. He had a wife, Celia Frances Stevens and the family all lived in Richmond in Surrey. Arthur at least though, would not be taking any more books out of the library, or watching any more humorous plays at the local theatre:

Richmond_Theatre_libraryzzzzzz

The young man named last in the crew list, and most probably therefore, the rear gunner, was Sergeant Frederick George Francis Osborne. Frederick was only 19 years old when he was killed. Like many of his fellow members of the crew, he had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. His Service Number was 1395421 and he was the much loved young son of Mr and Mrs Frederick Osborne, of Kendrick Mews, South Kensington, in the City of London:

_Kensington_mews

I tried to find out some background details about these seven young men who so willingly laid down their young lives to defeat the scourge of Hitler’s Germany. I would have to say that I was not particularly successful except for the following extract, which captures brilliantly well why so many people even nowadays, some seventy years later, still want to find out about the wartime heroes in their family.

I would not normally quote somebody else at length in an article, but I think you will see why I have done so when you read it. This is taken from a website entitled “The Wartime Memories Project – RAF Elsham Wold during the Second World War”. It contains a page about Elsham Wolds and another one about 103 Squadron. If you have any information to give Mr Osborne, you can do it via this link here. Anyway, here’s what he wrote:

“Freddie Osbourne was a member of Sergeant W.L.Bradley’s crew, Lancaster 111, JB745 PM-1,shot down en route to Leipzig. He was only 19, whereas his other gunner colleague was 37. Sadly, I have no photograph of him or his aircraft. As a young lad, I used to go out with his Father, Fred Osborne, helping him with his flower deliveries on a Saturday morning, but neither he, nor my Aunt Grace, would ever talk of him, and it has taken a lifetime to find details of him via a good friend with splendid connections, who handed me many details. It appears that both Aunt and Uncle were too grief stricken to ever mention their only child to anyone, even family. If anyone surviving 103 squadron could give me some idea what Freddie was like as a lad of 19 doing a man’s job, and what he was like at the tail end of a gun, and how many German planes did he shoot down? I would love to know, as I am immensely proud of him. If anybody knows of a picture of him, I will gladly pay for a copy and all expenses. He died on the 20th.February, 1944 and I consider it my duty to pay his grave a visit in Hanover, as a mark of respect to him and the other members of the crew.
Sadly, bad health has held me back for some time, but I will get there somehow. Thank you in anticipation.
Terence Osborne”

You may think that this was the worst thing to happen to one of 103 Squadron’s Lancasters during  the Leipzig raid, but you would be wrong. Sadly and tragically, very, very wrong.

One final word. All of the websites I have used can be reached through the links above. I could not have produced this article, however, without recourse to the superb books by W.R.Chorley. Their detail is almost unbelievable and I would urge anyone interested by the bomber war to think seriously of purchasing at least one of them. The books bring home just how many young men were killed in Bomber Command during the Second World War. When the first book in the series arrived at our home, my daughter thought it contained all the casualties for the whole war, but, alas, it was just 1944.

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Schweinfurt One: sixty B-17s downed, 559 airmen killed

I am sure that most people would understand the difference between “hot courage” and “cold courage”. During a robbery, the person who suddenly confronts the would-be robber and tries, as the English say, to “have a go” is showing hot courage. The same would be true of the person who tries to drag an unconscious victim out of a burning car crash. In the context of war, it may be the man who solves the sudden problem of an enemy tank by jumping onto the top of it and throwing a hand grenade in through the hatch.
All of these acts show great heroism, but as far as I am concerned, “cold courage” takes it all into a different dimension. “Cold courage” is the person who faces a painful terminal disease without losing his dignity. “Cold courage” is the person who sets off to walk along a highwire stretched hundreds of feet off the ground between two skyscrapers. “Cold courage” is the fireman who looks up at that staircase in the North or South Tower, and starts climbing, because he knows that it is his duty to try and save people, even if it may be at the expense of his own life. In the context of war, “cold courage” is the man who sits on his bunk for a whole afternoon, waiting for the chance to get into a bomber at nine o’clock and then fly off into the night skies over Germany, not only risking death, but knowing that, statistically, death is a very likely outcome. The only thing more difficult than doing this as far as I’m concerned, would be the chance to fly over Germany in broad daylight, when you have the opportunity to see exactly what is happening to everybody else, and may well happen to you.
Early on in the Second World War, the RAF tried to place their tiny bombs accurately on exclusively military targets during the hours of daylight when, theoretically, it should have been relatively easy to do so. The only problem was that the German fighters of the day were all easily capable of shooting down these poorly armed bombers without any real problems. Between May 10th-May 28th 1940, losses of the Bristol Blenheim bomber, for example, were almost unbelievable. (Search for “Known Individual Aircraft Records”)

bristol-blenheim-xxxxx

For that reason, the RAF soon turned to night bombing. Equally swiftly, they found that it was virtually impossible to hit relatively small military targets with any accuracy at night. They would be better employed in bombing the areas of the city around the enemy factories, in an effort to kill or injure the workers who worked there. This new tactic carried out the directive that had been agreed on at the Casablanca Conference.

“Your Primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

When the United States came into the war in Europe, effectively in 1942, their bombers were equipped with the famous Norden bombsight, which was supposedly capable of dropping a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet up. Putting their faith into the bombing accuracy achievable with their marvellous bombsight, the Eighth Air Force ignored British advice that, because of the very high standards of Luftwaffe fighter pilots, bombing at night was the only sustainable method of carrying on the struggle against the Germans. The Americans, therefore, persisted with their daylight raids.

B-17G%20Flying%20FortresszzzzzzzzAfter a few months of daylight bombing, much of it over France rather than the Reich itself, the idea was mooted that enormous and significant damage could be inflicted by bombing the German factories which produced ball-bearings, as they were vitally important to the entire German war machine. Virtually every single military vehicle and aircraft depended on them. The Mighty Eighth, therefore, exactly a year to the day after their first gentle raid, Mission 1 on August 17, 1942 against the Sotteville Marshalling Yard at Rouen in France, decided to attack these important factories . This would be Mission 84, scheduled for August 17, 1943, a complex two-pronged attack on the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft works at Regensburg. The raid would be the furthest penetration into German territory to date, some 800 miles from the coast. What happened is the most wonderful example of “cold courage” that anybody could wish to meet.
The greatest problem for the Eighth Air Force was that none of their own fighters, nor those of the RAF, had anywhere near the range required to escort the slow, heavily laden B-17s to their targets. The main defensive tactic, therefore, was to form up the Flying Fortress bombers into huge boxes, where, theoretically, every single aircraft could protect, and could be protected by, all the other aircraft.

1157x829xBoeing-B-17E-Flying-Fortresses-form-up-over-England-1942_jpg_pagespeed_ic_CkVpDznVhI

This procedure took a very long time to organise with hundreds of bombers to be fitted into the formation. And this was the first problem: all this activity was completely visible to the German radar. I can remember my own father telling me how he had watched these brave young men get ready to go into battle…

“ On a number of occasions, Fred had stood on a long forgotten airfield in East Anglia and watched the American Eighth Air Force prepare to depart on a daylight raid over Germany. Their B-17 Flying Fortresses would circle seemingly for hours over their bases, as they slowly and precisely formed up into their famous defensive boxes, intricate arrangements of, perhaps, up to a thousand heavily armed bombers whose almost countless machine guns, in theory, were capable of offering covering fire to all of their fellow aircraft. Once the B-17s were ready, it was as if somebody blew a bugle unheard far below on the ground and all the bombers would then suddenly set off to war, tracing their gleaming contrails across the blue sky, eastwards in the sunshine towards the Third Reich.”

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The Eighth Air Force raid caused a 34 per cent loss of production at Schweinfurt but this was soon made up for by surplus supplies of ball bearings from all over Germany. The industry’s infrastructure, while vulnerable to a sustained campaign, was not vulnerable to destruction by a single raid.
The Nazi Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer , later wrote that the Eighth Air Force’s major error was to attempt a second attack on Regensburg at the same time as the main attack on Schweinfurt, and not to continue with further raids on Schweinfurt after the first one.
Some of the B-17s were over Germany for a period in excess of two hours with no fighter protection whatsoever, and the Luftwaffe were quick to take advantage of the situation. Given the fact that they had picked them up on radar over East Anglia, the Germans were able to call up extra fighters from all of their bases, stretching from southern France to Norway in the north. Many fighters were able to expend their ammunition in massed attacks on the American bombers, land again for fresh supplies of fuel and weapons and then rejoin the battle.

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The German fighters were well aware of the B-17s’ inadequate forward armament and their vulnerability to head-on attack. Against the 0.50 calibre Browning machine guns of the Flying Fortresses, the German fighters were all equipped with cannon which fired explosive shells. In theory, just one hit could bring down a bomber. Much longer ranged than the machine guns, this enabled the Germans to fly well out of the range of the B-17s’ machine guns and fire off short bursts of cannon shells at intervals. Some fighters carried sophisticated rocket weapons, including mortars propelled by rockets, all of them capable of wiping out a B-17 in just one shot.

rocket tubes

Tales are also told of the Germans using either obsolete combat aircraft or training aircraft to fly high above the American formation and drop air-to-air bombs.
This account from  Archie J.Old Junior, a thirty seven year old Texan,  is quoted in “The Mighty Eighth” by Gerald Astor

“The fighters were all over us. They really got interested in me. German fighters came up from every point of the compass after our fighters turned around. (Just before the German frontier). And they were already throwing flak at us when we were five to ten minutes away from the target.” (Some thirty or forty miles)

In “Eighth Air Force”, Donald L.Miller describes pretty much the same situation, once the P-47s had been forced to turn back…

“…a hailstorm of fighter assaults that continued almost all the way to the target. (Beirne Lay, Jr) wrote, “I knew that I was going to die, and so were a lot of others.”

b17_direct%20hit

Overall, American casualties were way beyond the sustainable. For Bomber Command that most basic of figures had been set at 4%. On this raid 230 bombers had taken part, and sixty of these were destroyed. A tiny number finished up in Switzerland, and “thanks to the luck and the skill of the RAF Air-Sea rescue teams”, everybody who went into the icy waters of the North Sea (yes, even in August) was rescued. Five hundred and fifty two men were killed in the air, and seven poor souls made it back home, but, alas, were to succumb to their injuries. Twenty one men were badly wounded.
Beyond the sixty B-17s shot down, between 55-95 further aircraft were badly damaged. Of these, many were too severely damaged ever to be repaired.

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Of the fighter escort, two P-47s of the 56th Fighter Group were destroyed and so too were two Spitfires from the RAF. The fighters claimed more than 30 kills, but the gunners on the B-17s were very optimistic with their claim of 288 German fighters destroyed. After the war, Luftwaffe records showed just 27 aircraft had been lost.
The very biggest problem of daylight raids by the Eighth Air Force deep into enemy territory was the lack of adequate long-range fighter escort. Some of the Schweinfurt Flying Fortresses were over German-occupied territory for three hours and thirty minutes. Of this period of time, there was no fighter support whatsoever for two hours and ten minutes, which included all of the time spent over Germany itself.

By one of those extraordinary coincidences which are sometimes thrown up, the night of August 17th-18th 1943, saw the British RAF engaged in “Operation Hydra”, which turned out to be one of the more significant raids of the war. Using 324 Avro Lancasters, 218 Handley Page Halifaxes and 54 Short Stirlings, attacks were made on the V-Weapon rocket testing grounds at Peenemünde in the Baltic to the east of Denmark.

Clearly, rocket weapons of the calibre of the V-1 and the V-2 quite simply had to be destroyed, certainly with the Allies envisaging a landing on the coast of France within less than a year.

Indeed, the bomber crews were actually told at their briefings that unless they were successful that particular night, they would be going back to Peenemünde again on the 18th, the 19th, the 20th, and, indeed, they would keep returning until the target was completely destroyed. This certainly concentrated their minds enormously, and, with  operations directed for the first time by a “Master Bomber”, namely  Group Captain John Searby, the Commanding Officer of 83 Squadron, they achieved great success.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, himself said that the raid had cost the German efforts “six to eight weeks”, a figure agreed by the RAF who wrote in their official history that the attack “may well have caused a delay of two months.”

Although there were those who judged that the raid was “not effective”, an important figure, Chief Engineer Walther, was killed, but most significantly perhaps, so too was the hugely influential Doctor Walter Thiel who had provided the key ideas for the A4 rocket engine, later used to power the horrendous V-2 and indeed, in its developed form, NASA’s rockets into space.
The protection of the darkness was obvious in the casualty figures. Bomber Command lost 6.7% of their bombers and a total of 215 men were killed out of an approximate total of just over four thousand participants. Focke-Wulf Fw 190 night fighters claimed 29 of the 40 bombers shot down. Coincidentally again, the German night forces had employed for the first time ever, three twin engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with the deadly combination of radar and Schräge Musik upward firing cannons.

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To make their night fighters even more formidable, the Luftwaffe taught  all their crews exactly where a Lancaster’s most vulnerable spots were…the enormous fuel tanks.

schrage-004

In another blog post, I will look at what the Eighth Air Force did next after the Schweinfurt raid, and their continuing “cold courage”, as they regrouped their strength after what must surely be considered, despite the immense resolution and extraordinary bravery of the Americans, one of the great catastrophes of the Allied air war.

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