Tag Archives: Junkers Ju88

Bomber Harris, not a happy man (5)

According to Roy Irons in his splendid book, “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command”, Arthur Harris hated the Short Stirling, but he reserved his finest vitriol for the Handley Page Halifax. Here’s a Mark I:

The Mark I had Merlins and a front turret but the Mark 2 had the Merlins and a different nose:

The Mark III has the familiar nose, but has a different tail and Bristol Hercules radial engines:

Harris was not alone though in his hostility towards the Halifax. It was well known fact that the Halifax could not lift its bombload up to 20,000 feet and that its range was too short to take any 0f the longer, more evasive routes as the Lancasters did. Per hundred tons of bombs dropped, the Lancaster lost only one third of the personnel who were killed in Halifaxes. Overall, three Halifaxes were lost to every two Lancasters and those two Lancasters dropped almost twice the weight of bombs dropped by the three Halifaxes.

Harris knew all of these basic facts about the Halifax but he also knew a great deal of other information which nobody else was given. Most of it came from the captured pilots of Junkers Ju88 nightfighters.  They reported that they “could normally approach our aircraft well within gun range and even up to fifty yards without apparently being seen at all”.

Here’s a Ju88 night fighter:

To prove the point, Harris borrowed a Bristol Beaufighter and its crew from 25 Squadron at RAF Wittering and had a Halifax bomber put to the test. The two crewmembers in the Beaufighter found that the Halifax bomber they were chasing had “inadequate exhaust dampers” which meant that the flames from the bomber’s engines were visible to the Beaufighter one and a half miles away. In contrast, the rear gunner of the Halifax could only see the Beaufighter if it was within 1100 yards, just over six tenths of a mile. And that was looking back in level flight. Harris found that the Halifax rear turret possessed “blindness in all directions, and especially downwards”. He stated that the turret was “80% angle iron and 20% scratched perspex”.

Only in 1944 did a turret which has the kind of visibility that is required become available. It was actually designed by Bomber Command themselves. This was the Rose turret, mentioned previously, which was designed, at the specific demands of Bomber Harris, by Air Vice Marshal Edward Rice.  Rice was one of the senior Bomber Command station commanders, and had travelled with Harris to visit Rose Brothers at the start of the project. He subsequently led No. 1 Group RAF. Here’s a Rose turret being fitted. Bigger, longer guns and no metal in the line of vision:

Harris called the Halifax “a deplorable aircraft” on more than one occasion. He thought that the aircraft and its dreadful Bristol Hercules engines were particularly well suited to each other and that these awful engines should be reserved exclusively for the Halifax, because “it’s useless anyway”. Harris despaired that:

“nothing whatever is being done to make this deplorable product worthy for war”.

Harris was no fool, though, and realised that:

“the two strongest motives of Englishmen in the aircraft industry are patriotic devotion and commercial gain. They will never think of new designs when more orders for the old ones are to be had. To obtain or maintain an order book, aircraft companies will promise anything”.

Occasionally, Harris put it more bluntly:

“Nothing will be done until Handley Page and his gang are kicked out, lock, stock and barrel.”

This could not be done though, and instead Handley Page continued to make Halifaxes and to sell them to the RAF, whose use of “this deplorable aircraft” was limited to attacking short range targets. The reason for this was that if the Halifax was abandoned, six months’ bomber production would have been lost, because all of the extra tools and facilities for producing Lancasters would have needed to be put into place.

Harris was convinced that the Bomber Command offensive was vital to winning the war. He had no patience whatsoever with any of the board members at either Handley Page or Shorts:

“Unless we can get the heavy bomber programme put right, we are sunk. We cannot do this by polite negotiation with these crooks and incompetents. In Russia it would long ago have been arranged with a gun, and to that extent, I am a fervid Communist.”

Just to make it 100% clear, the “crooks and incompetents” were Handley Page and his gang and Oswald Short and a good many others in his firm. And Harris wanted them all put against a wall and shot:

 

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Three war crimes, two Sunderlands and one Ashley Wilkes (3)

Last time I was explaining the connection between the Short Sunderland flying boat and “Das Fliegende Schtachelschwein” aka “The Flying Porcupine”.

This thorny porcine epithet comes from an aircraft which was based at Invergordon in north east Scotland in 1940. My story will be based primarily on the work of John Robertson in 2010. I had never heard any explanation of the nickname and it is a tale of heroism well worth telling and re-telling, believe me.

The particular Sunderland was N9046. It belonged to 204 Squadron and its squadron letters were KG-F. Here it is, although it seems to lack the KG-F:

The crew left their northern Scottish base on April 3rd 1940, tasked with carrying out a ten hours protection patrol, looking after a convoy bound for Norway. There was absolutely no sign of the enemy, until two Junkers Ju88s, probably from II./Kampfgeschwader 30, appeared at low altitude over the water, seemingly having arrived from a base in southern Norway, or perhaps in Denmark. Here is a nice Junkers Ju88 in full-ish colour:

And here’s the Airfix kit box:

Seeing the Sunderland, one of the two Ju 88s made a head on attack but the Sunderland’s front turret opened up and the two Junkers aircraft seemed to take flight into the leaden clouds. Here’s that front turret again, with its rather light .303 guns.:

Four more Junkers then attempted to attack the ships but they were driven off by the convoy’s various defences. Less than a quarter of an hour later, six Junker Ju88s came in, four of them almost certainly Ju88A-4s. Two of them came for the Sunderland which went right down to the water to make itself a more difficult target. That didn’t stop the Germans who both attacked fiercely, but the flying boat’s gunners drove them off and they eventually fled.

The situation had now become dramatic enough for it to form the basis of a modern computer game:

The other four Ju88s, having already released their bombs, then made a line astern attack on the Sunderland but the rear gunner, Corporal William Gray Lillie, with his slightly heavier 0.5 machine guns sent the first one spiralling in flames into the cold, cold waters of the North Sea. Ignore the trees. It’s actually seaweed:

Corporal Lillie blasted the second German in his port engine which was soon pothering black oily smoke and flames. The German pilot left for his land base in Norway, uncertain if he would reach it with only one engine performing properly. In actual fact, he was forced to crash land in the as yet unoccupied northern section of Norway where the crew were forced to set their aircraft on fire before being arrested and interned.

Rather imaginatively, the final two Ju88s then attempted to drop their bombs onto the Sunderland. They missed and finally cleared off home.

N9046 reached Scotland safely and had no problems until Wednesday,  December 11th 1940 when, riding at anchor in Sullom Voe in the Shetlands, it suddenly caught fire and was completely destroyed.

Here is brave Corporal Lillie:

Did he survive the war? Well, sadly, no. He was killed in combat on July 21st 1940, shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf109 of 8./JG77:

Corporal Lillie was the rear gunner in Sunderland N9028. They had been sent to Trondheim in Norway on a clandestine reconnaissance mission to check the submarine base and to see if the Gneisenau had left the port. Here it is:

Next time, I will show you how a suave English actor is connected to the Short Sunderland and, indeed, the Junkers Ju88.

 

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