War is "ON" - 3rd March

This was the 2000th night of the war.  An operation was also mounted against the oil refinery at Kamen involving 201 Halifaxes of 4 Group and 21 Lancasters and 12 Mosquitoes of 8 Group.  There were no losses over Germany, the oil refinery was substantially damaged and did not resume production before the end of the war.

212 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitoes of 5 Group attacked the aqueduct at Ladbergen.  Both operations were supported by aircraft of 100 Group involving Radio Counter Measures (jamming German transmissions and screening the approach of the bomber stream).  61 such patrols were undertaken along with 29 intruder Mosquito operations.

Waddington

The crew's first two sorties had been uneventful, both attacking the Dortmund-Ems canal, firstly at Mittelland then at Ladbergen.  No fighters or flak were seen, cloud obscured the target on both occasions and their bombs were brought back to base. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Station Commander of RAF Waddington, Group Captain David Bonham-Carter sometimes flew with new crews on their first op., apparently not always the reassuring experience that he meant it to be since he was "now out of condition (having previously been a very good test pilot), stone deaf but still flew, frightening the unfortunates who had to fly with him and horrifying the Control Tower WAAF operators, whom he completely ignored." (Wing Cmdr Rollo Kingsford-Smith RAAF).  

LM233 PO-M, the Lancaster in which they flew their first two operations.

Grp Cpt Bonham Carter leads the Duke of Gloucester on his visit to Waddington

Bonham-Carter was affectionately known as TR9 because of his prominent hearing aid (just visible in his right ear).  TR9 was actually an item of radio equipment used on the Lancaster.

Tom's diary entry for Monday says "Peace today.  D.I.s as usual.  Went to chapel hut but no mass on.  Spent the evening at the club."  This photograph, courtesy of Bryan Cook, was taken by Bryan's grandfather Brian Fallon, the mid-upper gunner of Don Huxtable's crew.  In the book called "Press on Regardless" that Bryan and his grandfather produced from the latter's post-war notes and his memory, he writes that the priest, Fr. Dullehan, who was a Liverpudlian Irishman had converted the back room of the Church hut into a recreation centre and club for use by all the boys and girls of the squadron irrespective of their denomination.  The room contained a great open fireplace where people toasted bread and scones, a piano around which many an old tune was sung to the accompaniment of the meteorologist officer (a grand Scot) and a table tennis set.  Usually about 20 would gather to say the Rosary and attend Benediction in church before making their way to the club or the Horse and Jockey."  

Saturday 3 March

Woke at 03.30 – not called.  Postponed until 14.00 – postponed again till 16.30.  Very cheesed.  Same target, same route – priority plus target.

Monday 26 February

Peace today.  D.I.’s as usual.  Went to chapel but no Mass on.  Spent the evening in the club.

Tuesday 27 February

Peace again today – expecting a call at 5am tomorrow – war on.  Went to station cinema.  Unable to sleep.

Wednesday 28 February

Only had 4 hrs sleep although in bed early.  Early morning briefing Dortmund Ems canal again – same route.  Scrubbed about 8am.  Stand down from 2pm.  War on. 

Thursday 1 March

War scrubbed – clay targets afternoon.  No talk of war yet.  Wrote some letters.

Friday 2 March

D.I.’s as usual.  War on – 2.30am.  Run up this afternoon.  Went to station cinema and had H. Communion at Padres house.  Flying in “L” Love tomorrow.

The "Met"

Meteorology was a developing science during the war years, there were daily flights over Europe by fast high flying aircraft such as Mosquitoes bringing back the most up to date information possible about weather conditions ready for the experts on the ground to translate into meaningful data.

Weather conditions, especially adverse weather conditions could significantly affect initially whether an operation was "on" or scrubbed, and then the success or otherwise of not only bombing accuracy but also the survival of the Lancasters and their crews.  Bright moonlit nights were initially thought to be favourable because it aided navigation; landmarks such as rivers and lakes, coastlines, dark patches of forest and so on were all the more discernible when the moon was full, but it also favoured the hunter; the glint of moonlight on the perspex of a gun turret or canopy could be a give away to a bomber's position.  A thin layer of cloud over the target area proved lethal too, light from burning fires and searchlights below made the cloud into a light blanket which Nachtjager named "the shroud" for the bomber stream could be clearly seen silhouetted against it.

The weather forecast for RAF Waddington was described as “fit”, and so it proved to be; it was a bright sunny day with a light west to west-north-westerly wind, as it had been for the previous two days, though there had been no operational flights during those days.  Sunset was at 17.46, three-quarters of an hour before the first Lancaster took off from Waddington.

This is the surface chart for 3 March 1945 at 0600 GMT.  This would probably be the chart on which Bomber Command based the forecast for the operation.  A 1200 GMT chart would have been used to amend the forecast as necessary.  (Route marked in red)

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The surface chart for the same day at 1800 GMT showing that for the route the pressure pattern did not change greatly during the day.

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The 700 millibar (10000 ft chart) for the day at 0600 GMT, above right.  (Route marked in red).  The charts show the following: Departure from Waddington: Wind W-WNW 2-5 knots, excellent visibility, no significant low cloud but patches of altocumulus above 10000 ft.

Waddington to mid-Channel: No significant cloud.  Excellent visibility.  5000 ft wind 350-010 15 knots.  Freezing level 2000 ft. Mid-Channel to target: Mostly variable 6/10 -  8/10 CUSC base 3000 ft tops 5000-6000 ft. Light icing in cloud tops.  Isolated wintry (sleet or soft hail) showers.  Mostly good visibility except in showers.  No significant cloud at 10000 ft, but isolated tops to 12000 ft near target.  Wind at 10000 ft 350-360 40-45 knots.  Return to base: Little change except for thickening ACAS above 8000 ft on northbound leg over England.  (With thanks to Fredric Haldemann for the charts and Brian Booth (ex-RAF Met.) for his interpretations.)

The forecast over the target was 5/10th or less cloud with cloud base at 8000 ft and tops at 12 – 14000 ft.  The actual weather was not so good, (some crews remarked on the “poor met.”)  7 - 9/10th strato-cumulus with tops at 5 – 6000 ft, the aqueduct itself being in 10/10th cloud with layers of thin stratus down to 3500 ft at the time of the attack.  There was a polar air mass over Spitzbergen which was moving south over the North Sea towards Germany.

The lead-up to the operation

Peter Barlow was a navigator with 463 Squadron.  A few years after the war ended, he wrote about some of his experiences and published a book for family and friends use only.  I was delighted when he also offered me a copy, albeit unbound but so valuable since he wrote in detail about this operation.  What follows is based on his account, however I have adapted it where necessary to portray what was probably taking place in another hut in 467 Squadron.  I am indebted to Peter for his generosity and for writing such an eloquent account.

2nd March

The second day of March but the cloak of winter still tenaciously enshrouds RAF Waddington, a morning as only England knows it with its clinging fog and an air of damp, dripping desolation which covers the airfield and its dull drearily camouflaged buildings.   Breakfast and the informal crew parade which followed it have been forgotten an hour ago as Harry Callaghan enters the Navigation Section where the squadron’s navigators congregate.  As a “sprog”, having been with the squadron for just less than a month,

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Harry still feels somewhat apprehensive in this company of experienced men.  Despite the semblance of relaxation, there is an air of restlessness amongst the gathered aircrew; some sit on chairs while others lounge on tables or lean against the comforting  warm of the radiators – a strange mixture of young men, Officers and NCOs, Australian and British, all different but all doing the same job in more or less the same way.  The air is thick with tobacco smoke, most conversation trivial and sometimes rather forced as everybody is waiting for the “gen” to come through, all trying to look and act unconcerned.

Ears prick up as someone who has just returned from the Meteorology Section reports hopefully it looks like a scrub is possible; bags of low cloud over the other side and a clamp is expected at Base about midnight.  But at this point a ‘phone rings cutting off the low murmur of speculation, everyone leans forward expectantly, listening intently.

“Nav. section here....Yes....Yes....No, I’m sorry, he’s up at the conference....Yes, I’ll do that...Cheerio.”

A sigh of anti-climax flows like a wave around the room.  It’s always the same, waiting and putting on the air of being unconcerned....and then when the jangling phone has become routine and ceases to excite any attention – it happens – war is on!

Pete Cahill, navigator in Bobby Eggins’ crew is at the ‘phone, his usually cheery face creased in concentration.  He and his crew had welcomed in the New Year with a daylight attack on a V1 site at Royan in France, but their Lancaster had collided in mid-air over Cognac with one from 189 squadron.  All of the Eggins’ crew baled out successfully and were soon back on ops., but six of the crew of the other Lancaster were killed.  Pete listens pokerfaced, mutters a few non-committal words and hangs up.  He turns round, leans back in his chair and grins broadly at the roomful of enquiring faces, relishing his control over this moment of palpable suspense, and then, very quietly:

“We’re working tonight!”

The constrained atmosphere breaks like a dam with everyone talking at once, voicing their opinions and feelings:

“It’s bound to be scrubbed with this weather forecast.”

“I’ve got a date with a real popsy in Lincoln tonight!”

“Let’s get on with it; I’m nearing the end of my tour!”

But soon the philosophical acceptance of their duties takes control.  And when all is quiet again the Navigation Leader, Flt. Lt. Larry Foley comes in through the door.  He looks older than his 22 years, but despite his youth he has no need of his Flight Lieutenant’s rank or position as Nav. Leader to impress his authority on his colleagues.   He was selected as Nav. Leader not only because of his outstanding navigation skills, but because he has the gift of being able to organise people and get things done while remaining relaxed and unruffled. He has brought the Battle Order with him which he promptly reads out, running through which of the squadron’s aircraft are on the night’s programme – first the aircraft letter followed by its name in the phonetic alphabet, then the pilot:

B - Baker, Evans

F - Fox, Boxsell

H - How, Emery

L - Love, Ward

M - Mike, Kynoch

N - Nab, Swain

P - Peter, Swift

T - Tare, Fass

U – Uncle, Holbrook

V – Victor, Eggins

W – William, Langlois

C – Charlie, Morris

G – George, Goodall

D - Dog, Conaghty

O - Oboe, Robinson

And so it is, for all those fifteen crews from 467, along with the same number from 463 who have a “seat” for the night’s “show”, words which reflect the need for aircrew to understate the danger which they are soon to face.  It isn’t that they mind going to war, it’s just that they all know each other well enough to be able to admit that they’d rather spend the evening in each other’s company in the Mess or catching up on much-needed sleep, perhaps downing a pint of warm watery beer  at the “Horse and Jockey” in the village or wooing the attractive girl at the dance at the Assembly Rooms in Lincoln, which they now can’t even cancel because the telephones in the Base would have been cut off as soon as the Battle Order came through.    

The Nav. Section begins to empty as lunchtime draws near; it pays to get into the Mess dining room with the “first wave” before the food is cold and all the seats occupied.  

Later, as the time for briefing looms, crews rouse themselves from the hurried rest in their billets.  There are all sorts of things to be done; some important, some just habit.  Starting to dress for flying – at this stage replacing the collar and tie with a roll-neck sweater or an open-neck shirt with the “lucky” scarf, religiously worn no matter how creased, faded or soiled.  Flasks need to be filled with whatever is in the urn in the Mess.  Rationing is of course in effect throughout the country so fresh milk is in short supply, with babies, expectant mothers and the chronically sick having priority, but aircrew are also among the favoured ones.  

Numerous other small jobs have to be seen to – emptying pockets of letters and other objects that might be of value to enemy interrogators, checking yet again that briefing times haven’t been changed, putting on flying boots and a final gaze around the billet which has become a home, a haven.

The afternoon air is cold and crisp, the bang of the door cutting off the peace and comfort of the Mess, but for how long.....a few hours....a whole night......or forever?  This is indeed  strange life, so unlike that of the soldier at the front who is constantly aware of the nearness of the enemy, who becomes hardened to the discomforts of his way of life and is not distracted by the thoughts of “peace” or “war” – for him war is a perpetual reality.  But aircrew in England have all the comforts and relaxations enjoyed by those so far removed from the battlefront, mixing with civilians going about the peaceful routines of their daily lives....and are then suddenly  thrust into battle before the barman has the chance to call “Time, drink up please!”  Such drastic differences in life caused difficulties for many – they found it impossible to feel settled in either a peacetime or wartime existence, but for all that, few would willingly volunteer to change places with “Tommy” up to his neck in the mud of a foreign field or jungle.  Many Australians are here because they heeded the advice of their fathers or uncles who had experienced the bitterness and traumas of trench warfare in the First World War.  “Don’t join the army,” they said, “airmen have warm meals, hot beds, less mud, no bayonets, airfields beyond the range of artillery, and – if they survived – a rank and a skill to take into civilian life.” 

The light of the late afternoon fades quickly into the encroaching chilly darkness.  The walk to the briefing room is never a cheerful one but the slushy remnants of the hard winter’s snow make the path slippery with mud, the stark silhouettes of the seemingly dead leafless trees and the ominous black shapes of the waiting bombers with their gaping bomb bays set in a rising sea of mist all conspire to give sense of utter gloom.  An eerie blood red light is intermittently cast over the scene from the flashing beacon on the top of the water tower.

In the locker-room there are more preparations to be made; parachutes and helmets to be collected and parceled inside the yellow “Mae Wests” ready to be carried out to the aircraft.  Maps and instruments are removed from the locker and taken into the starkly lit briefing room where there already exists an air of intense activity – each table occupied by a man half hidden behind a disordered mass of maps and paper, but concentrating as he gets on with his quietly ordered task of collecting, sorting and marking up maps, perhaps tidying up relics of the previous op. – crumbs or scraps of paper from the corners of the green satchels that have lain as they were thrown since last used, their owners tired and hungry and only too ready to forget them.

As Harry enters the room, his eyes automatically go straight to the blackboard where the route and tactics have already been written up, the name of the target or the “Lat and Long” from whose co-ordinates the target’s identity can soon be established.  Until this moment, the target has been a closely guarded secret – the unspoken hope is that it’s an “easy” one – perhaps just a short run over the channel, but cold fact rarely humours self-delusion and tonight is no exception – an old and feared “favourite” of 5 Group, the Dortmund –Ems canal aqueduct at Ladbergen in North-west Germany.  It’s the same target that has been laid on and scrubbed time and time again in the past few nights.  Everybody knows that sooner or later this op. will take place; and they know that the Germans know and that he will be waiting with all the strength he can muster on the first clear day or night.  

But, “the best laid plans of mice and men...” the Intelligence Officer walks in with a broad grin on his face to announce that the op. is scrubbed yet again!!  For a brief moment there is a silence which is just long enough for the fact to sink in, then everyone moves and begins talking at once, not attempting to disguise the feeling of elation and relief – of reprieve almost.  Maps are torn up and items re-stuffed into the green bags as bodies jostle to get out of the door ready to make the most of another night spared, sure in the knowledge that all the usual faces will be at breakfast tomorrow.

The walk back to the Mess contrasts with the same journey just a few minutes previously: the intricate lacework pattern of the trees is beautiful, the fine mist-bejewelled blades of grass take on a warm sheen as the sweeping rose-red beacon light passes overhead – what a glorious night it is!

So the op. may have been scrubbed but the target remained as a priority and still had to be hit hard and the canal put out of action, so the planners at HQ were still busy.  Notification to the squadrons of the next attempt was sent the following day in Form B:

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This is very detailed, right down to the calculated petrol load for each Lancaster of 1350 gallons, but the following specifies the important  target marking for the 212 Lancasters to bomb:

 

At H -12 Primary Blind Markers will drop Green TI on the target point.  The target will be illuminated by flares at H -9, 7 and 5.

As soon as possible after H -9, Mosquitoes will mark the target points with TI Red.  These will be assessed and if accurate backed up.

The Master Bomber will instruct Main Force crews to bomb the Red TI direct and crews are to aim the first bomb of the stick at the Red TI.

Should the smoke screen preclude visual marking fo the target point, 54 Base will mark an alternative target point H0480 V0340 on illus (6(B) 19/3.  This target will be illuminated and marked with Red TI as discribed (sic) above.  This target is approx 21/2 miles south of the primary target and is only to be marked if it is impossible to mark the primary target.

How this was executed can be seen in the ORBs on this page.

3rd March

“Come on, wake up!  Wakey, wakey!  It’s three o’clock.  Breakfast in thirty minutes and Nav. Briefing in an hour.”

The unwelcome harsh voice splits the darkness and Harry’s blessed state of unconsciousness.

Slowly dawning realisation invades his drowsy mind - the possibility of war is here again!  After the relief and celebrations of the previous night when the prospect of a day of normal life beckoned enticingly, the imminence of going to war so quickly is just about the most awful proposition possible.  Sitting in the Mess with the day’s papers, the leisurely cigarette after the morning’s breakfast, writing letters to your family – all such little things are now just wishful thinking.   

From now until God knows when there will be nothing but working, waiting and worrying.  Peace has been broken and with a sense of resignation and reluctance beds are emptied, faces are briefly splashed with water, but not shaven, and slouching yawning bodies stumble grudgingly to breakfast.  Afterwards, the walk to the briefing room, oblivious to the surroundings, to begin again the same procedures so readily abandoned last night.  

It’s the same target - but this time there’s a difference – this will be a daylight which, at this stage of the war is a more pleasing proposition because, despite the heavy AA defences ringing the target often referred to as a cubic mile of flak, there will be the protective presence of supporting fighters as well as the comforting ability of being able to see other Lancasters, overcoming the usual notion of being utterly alone.   At night a crew is absolutely alone and each man in the crew can depend on nobody else but himself to fulfil his designated role.  Flying in a loose gaggle on a daylight op.  means less exacting work for the navigators, a fact for which Harry is very grateful.  

Work continues for a couple of hours while Harry, helped by Ronnie Smith the bomb-aimer, prepares flight plans.  It’s a painstaking job – sticking charts together, plotting turning points, ruling in the tracks and measuring them before entering the data in the Log form and entering the heavily defended areas along the way which they hoped to avoid.  Topographical maps and radar charts, all having to be similarly drawn up and arranged whilst from all quarters oddments of vital information are being announced for inclusion in the planning, everything having to be noted in the appropriate place.  With this level of concentration, the room is fairly quiet until the time comes for Main Briefing.

At which point the door is torn open and all semblance of quietness disappears – like a bursting dam the mob of crews swells into the room – shouting, smoking, jostling and laughing, each crew gravitating towards its own table where they immediately lean over and scan their navigator’s work to find out the worst whilst the navigator defends his maps from grubby fingers lest they smudge a section of the route.

While the navigators and bomb-aimers have been working in the briefing room, the other crew members have been attending their own specialist briefings in their section offices and now each pilot begins briefing his crew by passing on such information as he has been given which is relevant to the others.  Then each member amplifies the part of the general information that concerns him.  Before long the crew has a pretty good idea of the plan of attack and what to expect en route, and is ready to hear the resume about to be presented by the squadron commander and his colleagues.  But just as he is about to speak, the C.O. is called to the telephone and returns looking rather annoyed.

“Sorry chaps, it’s postponed for a while.  You can go back to the Mess now but be back here by 10.15.  O.K.?”

This time there is neither relief nor elation.  Everyone, used as they are to such inconveniences, accepts the fact silently and philosophically and returns to the Mess for a second breakfast.  Time passes slowly in the two waiting hours but finally the appointed time arrives and the journey to the briefing room is made yet again.  Work resumes as before – changes are made involving alterations of route, times and tactics.....and then – another postponement!  This one was expected but is no less annoying for all of that.  So it will be lunch and then briefing at 1.00pm but right now it’s too late to sleep, too early to eat – everybody is too restless to read or do anything constructive so time is spent in aimless chatter, smoking, lounging across armchairs or pacing up and down like expectant fathers.

At one o’clock, having returned to the Briefing Room, there’s yet another inevitable postponement.  Tempers are becoming frayed from the lack of sleep and the build up of tension.  Returning to the Mess yet again with its jumble of scattered newspapers and stale smoke-filled atmosphere isn’t an enticing prospect so groups fragment, many preferring to go to their ‘trade’ sections where they can air their grievances about the war, the Top Brass, the planners and everybody else remotely associated with this frustrating cock-up.

At 3 o’clock, the next appointed hour for briefing, there is an air of optimism that the operation will be finally scrubbed, though if it does take place it will now be a night-time with take-off scheduled for twilight.  However, plans are being made for the evening’s entertainment with the Horse and Jockey in Waddington village as the “alternative target”.  

Again the familiar routine: more charts and flight plans, more work and preparations and finally the hush which precedes Main Briefing.

Wing Commander Eric Langlois, recently appointed Squadron Commander gives more information about the attack including bombing heights before adding a few suggestions and general remarks about the operation.   He is a good looking Australian from Queensland with a determined set to his jaw; he’s on his second tour of operations - his first being with 150 Squadron in North Africa flying Wellingtons against targets in Italy.  He and his crew will be on this op. flying W – William, PB806.  

The “Met man” follows with his interpretation of the latest weather data gathered by Mosquitoes ranging over Northern Europe just a few hours earlier.

“There should be no problems this evening at take-off time.  There will be a West to West North Westerly wind of between 2 and 5 knots, visibility should be excellent with no significant low cloud but there may be patches of altocumulus above 10000 feet. These conditions should continue as you go south, with the freezing level expected to be around 2000 feet.  At 5000 feet wind speeds will be 15 knots.

Cloud will increase as you approach the continent; it will be mostly variable, six to eight tenths cumulus or stratocumulus, the base being 3000 feet with tops at 5000 to 6000 feet.  There will be light icing in the cloud tops and isolated wintry showers of sleet or soft hail.  Visibility will remain good except in the showers.  The wind direction at 10000 feet will be 350 to 360 with a speed of approximately 40 to 45 knots.  There will be no significant cloud at this altitude though there may be isolated tops to 120000 near the target area.

 Expect little change as you return to Base except for thickening altocumulus or altostratus above 8000 feet on the northbound leg over England.”

This confident and decisively delivered, though rather pessimistic report is greeted by smug grins from many in the audience because they know the op. will be scrubbed again!

The Intelligence Officer is next; he describes the target – the narrow aqueduct which carries the Dortmund-Ems canal over the River Glane which, when breached will empty the canal as its waters cascade down the canal’s embankments to inundate the surrounding farmland.  The defences, he reminds them all, comprise several heavy 88mm flak batteries but perhaps more significantly for this lower level operation, the feared, rapid-firing and accurate 20mm Vierling guns which send out streams of “flaming onions” at a frightening rate.  He hardly needs to state that the enemy are only too aware that the approach of the bomber stream towards the target most likely to lead to a successful outcome can only be made from one direction and that the positioning of the flak batteries reflects this.  And of course, within very close proximity are the Nachtjagd airfields of Gutersloh to the east and Dortmund to the south.  The former is the base of Geschwader Kommander Major Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer who, at 23 years old, is the highest scoring nightfighter ace with 116 victories to his credit and who, only three weeks previously, shot down ten Lancasters in a 24 hour period, including one from 463 squadron.  

But despite all of this, the I.O. stresses the importance of the job just as he has done for this and other targets for months and months.  He reminds everyone of the need for a precision job; a target which must be hit at all costs in order to dislocate the chains of barges whose coal-cargo feeds the eternally voracious steel-producing furnaces of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland and the source of so much of its weapons and munitions.  But of course none of this is news to most of the crews, they know all about this target and its dangers.  During the past month the two squadrons at Waddington have lost between them three Wing Commanders and a Squadron Leader attacking the Dortmund-Ems canal at Ladbergen.  Was it also coincidence that one of the the first Bomber Command V.Cs. of the war was won five years earlier trying to do the very thing that was being attempted tonight?

The old hands, the “gen crews” know how similar all of this is to last week, last month, last year – reflecting rather cynically about how you can get used to the extraordinary if you keep doing it long enough, so that even this “coaching” for war and its implicit delivery of death and destruction can become normal.

But to Rolly, Max, Harry, Ronnie, Colin, Tom and Bill, along with “Bug” Emery’s crew also fairly recently arrived from No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School at Syerston and also having only a few ops. under their belt, this was far from normal.  They all know that there is so much to do in so little time and, with the noisy hubbub in the Briefing Room, how difficult it is proving to be to devise their own way of efficiently absorbing all the gen. They know that they should be walking out of there feeling confident and as certain as they can be that all the angles have been covered, but they really feel a mixture of being bemused, frightened, excited and perhaps even curious, aware that they have probably overlooked some detail in the briefing but hoping fervently that it wouldn’t matter. The feeling of nervousness in the pit of their stomachs cannot be denied; neither can the nagging statistic that more crews are lost in the first five ops. than at any other time during the standard tour of 30 ops.....and this is their third, and more significantly their first night operation.

The Section Leaders for each “trade” made their contributions of technical points to bear in mind, following by a summing up by the C.O. with

“Any questions?  Right! – Good luck then chaps.  Let's make it a good prang!”

The moon was a waning gibbous, 83% of the disc was illuminated, with moonrise being at 22.37.  This would be after bombs had been dropped and the Lancasters were on their way back to base.

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The problem from the bomber crews' viewpoint was that the German defences were always very well prepared.  The German Wurzburg radars plotted the bombers' direction of attack, and, from previous experience, a wall of flak was placed in the Lancasters’ path: there was no flying around it, the crews had to fly into it on the given heading.  F/O Jim Morris had attacked this target before, though only at night.  On 1st January he was part of a daylight operation bombing the canal.  This is what he wrote: 

"There was hardly a cloud in the sky as we passed over the picture postcard landscape.  Then I saw ahead what we had been through during night operations.  I had heard of a cubic mile of "flak" but had never seen it.  Could we fly through this and return?  The first wave were entering the fringe, there was no turning back.  I had never bombed from this height before - all, except the Urft dam - had been night ops from lower heights.  How would we fare - fighters were few - flak was so heavy - I was still not 100%. (Jim had been grounded because of a heavy head cold but was suddenly declared "fully fit flying duties" for this maximum effort New Year present)  All we could do was hold position starboard of leader and hope.  Everything was so clear cut as we moved into the box of flak - the "gaggle" maintained its position and Bob (bomb aimer) was beginning his ritual."  Extract from "They flew from Waddington" by H M Blundell.  Jim Morris added that one of the reasons that he remembers this op. was because he didn't realise what defences there were at the canal.  He went on to say that even when he went again at night it had lost its visual impact.  Jim was flying NG485 on 3 March when ME453 was lost.

Over 200 aircraft had to bomb a narrow target in 15 to 20 minutes.  This picture shows the River Glane, or Mulhenbruch, flowing underneath the canal. A breach of the canal at this point would send water flowing down onto the lower level, thereby draining the canal.  Attempts were made with netting to disguise the course of the Glane.

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The anxious moments of waiting are over, time to get on-board and get on with the job.

The first aircraft, NG401 (JO-G) piloted by Gus Belford of 463 squadron, took off at 18.31. ME453 (PO-L) was the 28th of the 30 aircraft from Waddington to take off at 18.53.  Fifteen Lancasters came from each squadron, they joined a force of 182 other Lancasters and 10 Mosquitoes.  A simultaneous attack was to take place on the synthetic oil plant at Kamen: H hour was 22.00 for both targets.  “Newhaven” controlled direct bombing would be used at Ladbergen and the approach would be heavily “windowed” to confuse German radar, with an airborne radar-jamming “Mandrel” screen employed to try to counter the German Freya early warning system.  A diversionary sweep was carried out over the North Sea and feint attacks were made over Meppen and Emden. 

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The Route

Doug Wheeler's map for the night is shown below: from Waddington the bomber stream flew due south towards Reading before turning south-east out over the Channel into France,  then striking up through Belgium into Germany.  The return leg was almost directly east, leaving the Continent via the Netherlands, across Norfolk and back to Base.  More detail is shown on the "leg" maps below.

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Below is the outward route plotted using GoogleEarth and Doug's navigation log:

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Also using Doug's log:  from Base to Turning Point A (Reading), the rectified air speed was 180kts, the height 5000', the outside temperature  was -6C and the course 192 True.

They crossed the Channel from Beachy Head to Le Touquet Turning Point B).  The RAS was 170kts, temperature -9C and the course 112 True.

From Turning Point B to C, north east of Cambrai, the RAS was 175kts, height 9000', temperature -10, course 95 True.

The next leg was across Belgium, Turning Point D being at Eindhoven.  The RAS remained at 175kts and the height 9000'.  Air temperature was -10C and course 032 True.

Turning Point E was north of Duisburg (the nerve centre of the Nachtjagd fighter control system) and skirting the Ruhr, around Bocholt.   RAS remained at 175kts, height 9000' and temperature at -10C.  The course was 085 True.

The final leg from Bocholt towards the target saw the RAS stay at 175kts, the height at 9000' and temperature at -10, the course being 051 True.  A detail from Doug's map below shows the approach to the target (denoted by a triangle) and "H-hour", the start of bombing at 22.00 hours.

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100 Group Bomber Support Operations

Aircraft from 100 Group had a very busy evening ahead of them.  A Mandrel screen, attempting to hide the bombers' presence and route from the German intelligence group based in their bunkers near Duisburg was provided by seven Halifaxes and four Stirlings of 199 Squadron, accompanied by seven further Halifaxes from 171 Squadron.  This screen which stretched roughly from Antwerp across Belgium to Liege, began operating at 20.45 hrs and lasted for a further 45 minutes.

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Window, to confuse the German radar, was laid by three Halifaxes of 171 Squadron, 3 Liberators of 223 Squadron and seven Fortresses of 214 Squadron.  The 100 Group Navigation Officer had highlighted the need for navigators to maintain an accurate track and to keep their aircraft strictly to the timings laid down for the turning points.  He went on to state:

"The key to a successful Window patrol that fooled the Germans was the achievement of a regular formation of aircraft Windowing steadily.  In these circumstances the enemy will react to a simulated force of 200 or more.  If the Windowers are scattered they will appear to the Hun as feint."

Different sections of 100 Group had other duties to perform.  This is the Captain's map from Liberator TS530 "Gremlin Heaven" flown by Flt Lt Tony Morris and crew, he was supporting the bombers on the operation that night to Kamen:

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"Gremlin Heaven", Liberator "G" was assigned to Jostle and Piperack duties over Kamen, starting at 21.24hrs and lasting till 23.00hrs.    Jostle was designed to jam the enemy wavelengths of fighter control and Piperack was designed to counteract  the airborne interception radar (SN2) mounted on the nose of the night fighters.  Such an operation directly over the target area was extremely hazardous.

So jamming had started at least half an hour before "H" hour, giving the bombers the maximum protection possible in the target area from night fighters.  Liberators and Fortresses from 223 and 214 Squadrons were performing the same type of operations over Ladbergen.

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Meanwhile, six Mosquitoes each from Nos. 157, 85, 239, 169 and 141 Squadrons were airborne  on High Level Intruder sorties, trying to catch the German night fighters before they could inflict damage on the approaching bombers.

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462 Squadron RAAF, part of 100 Group flying Halifax IIIs also mounted a "spoof" raid at Emden whilst also Windowing en route along with Fortresses of 214 Squadron.

The Nachtjagd response once the target was identified was immediate.  At about 21.00hrs five He219s of I./NJG1 were scrambled  from the airfield at Munster Handorf, whilst six Bf110s of II./NJG1 became airborne from Dusseldorf.    Night fighters began taking off from Dortmund at around 21.23hrs  and ten Bf109s from Bonn-Hangelar took off at 21.24hrs.  Major Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer joined the fray from Gutersloh at 21.30hrs.  An unknown number of other fighters from III./NJG1 and II./NJG4 were also present.

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This schematic shows the positions of the German airfields, Nachtjagd take-off time and proximity both to the target area and the approaching bomber stream.  The time given for the stream is based on F/O Wheeler's navigation log and chart.

The Attack

The Master Bomber, whose task it was to direct the attack, ordering the bombs to be placed in specific areas, was Wing Commander Stubbs.  Master Bombers usually flew below the main force, gaining as clear a view as possible of the target, noting the accuracy of the attack and redirecting the aiming points as necessary via their VHF radios.  

This is the conversation that took place between the Master Bomber and his marker aircraft 10 minutes before "H-hour":

 

"Breeze Three to Breeze Leader; I have a breeze for you."

 

"Breeze Three; Pass your Breeze."

 

"One three zero, twenty five - two fife - out."

 

Marker Leader to Deputy One: How's that Green old boy?"

 

"Bang o! Bang on!  About one hundred yards North."

 

"Controller to Marker Force: Back up Easterly Green, I say again, the Easterly Green T.I."

 

"Tally Ho."

 

"Controller to Deputy One: Is that OK?"

 

"Deputy One to Controller: OK now, OK.  I've just been down to look, and it's OK - just slightly to the North."

 

"Good show!  I'll call them in."

 

"Controller to Flare Force: Go home now!  Go home!  Thanks fellows!"

 

"Controller to all Bluenose Aircraft:  Come in and bomb.  Come in and bomb.  Bomb as planned.  Aim at the Southerly tip of the Green T.I.s.  Wind one-three-fife - twenty one - two one - knots.  Come in and bomb.  Come on in!"

Over the canal there was low cloud, a smoke screen, moderate heavy flak from the 88mm guns, some predicted flak at 14000 feet and intense light flak from 15 to 20 Vierling flak guns.  F/O Townley of 463 squadron noted in his report that “it appeared the flak defences were waiting for us this time, a little more intense than usual.”  

Cy March (back row, first left), an ex-miner from Durham was the rear gunner with Nev "Bug" Emery's crew which arrived on the squadron a few days after the Ward crew in early February.  Cy's Lancaster, ME487 PO-H took off at 18.41, 12 minutes ahead of Ward's.  This was the Emery crew's fourth operation, they had already visited the infamous canals twice before on 20th and 24th February.  

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F/O "Blue" Hudson flying in SW268 (JO-R) of 463 squadron, noted "Flak little more intense than last time.  If T.I.s were accurate the attack should have been successful.  A/c was seen twelve minutes before "H" hour flying with his downward recognition lights on."  The downward recognition lights were under the rear section of the fuselage, just forward of the tailwheel.  The switches for these lights are just to the left of the throttle pedestal and below the blind flying panel. The downward ID lights could quite easily be left on because as far as I'm aware, there was no indicator showing they were on, and the switches were behind the control column, so they could be hidden.  (With thanks to Eddie Walters for details of the lights and switches)

Could this aircraft have been the inexperienced, apprehensive and probably excited crew of ME453 just before their destruction at 21.55?  The Luftwaffe experten in the skies that night hardly needed that kind of encouragement to latch onto their targets.

Crowded skies

This schematic attempts to show how crowded the skies were above the target in the few minutes after H-hour, ie bomb-release times.  The aircraft represented are only those from 463 and 467 squadron that actually bombed the target, with information taken from the ORBs.  

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Add to this picture the Lancasters of 9, 49, 50, 189, 207 and 227 Squadron's to gain some idea of just how crowded the skies were.  9 Squadron's Lancasters were carrying single Tallboy bombs weighing 12000lbs, fitted with half-hour fuses.  Their ORBs show that they bombed within the same height range as the rest of the Main Force but approached the target from different directions, most within the range of 036° to 060° True, though two bombed at around 340° True.  The Lancasters' speeds are recorded as 190kts RAS.  The risk of collision or of being hit by bombs from aircraft above can be very readily appreciated.

Flight Sergeant Peter Barlow was the navigator of ME427 of 463 squadron.  He wrote of this operation:

 

"Onward over Germany now.  Still working, watching and waiting.  The pilot flying and searching, the gunners rotating their turrets, looking for trouble, the bomb aimer watching below, the flight engineer checking his engines and instruments but watching and searching too.  Only the navigator and wireless op. hidden behind curtains are working without watching - but their ears are strained to catch the second-hand reports from the rest of the crew.

 

   There's a Lanc going down.  See! On the port bow.  Yes, watch out fellows!  Better log it navigator.

Ten minutes to the target.  The radio receiver switched on, and comes over the intercom, mingling with crackles and whistles with the voices of our own crew, as we strain to hear the Master Bomber talking to his 'markers'.

And now, with the coloured flares on the ground still in the distance, our aircraft seems to hover, taking ages to creep nearer to the target, droning on and on with no perceptible forward movement.

And now we look ahead!  The flares are not alone now.  A network of tracer shells is criss-crossing the sky ahead of us and the sky is starred with the pinprick flashes  of shell bursts.  White streaks - red and green hosepipes of coloured lights, drifting upwards, apparently lazily - slowly - like the "cats eyes" on the highway, streaming in the headlights towards the eyes of a tired driver.  The streams and tracers seem to fill the sky.  Nobody can ever get through it!  Oh that horrible feeling now that the target is disappearing beneath the nose of the aircraft!  That feeling that something is going to come up through the floorboards and hit you in the balls........so I take my parachute out of the rack and put it on my bench seat, gripping it between my knees as I stand looking out of the windows.  And my knees are trembling shamefully and won't stop.  Tension everywhere!  Voices are staccato - intent....

Why can't he drop the load so that we can get away from here?  It's not healthy.  I'm frightened and it seems very warm now in the cockpit.  It's hot and I'm sweating!  I am frightened!  Why shouldn't I be?  But I've got work to do now, quickly!  It seems such an effort to duck beneath the curtains to make that final check on the course out from the target.  I can't concentrate.  My work seems desperately slow because my mind is on the activity out there, wondering what's happening.

 

Out from under the curtains now.  Another Lancaster goes down in flames  over the starboard wingtip.  The dark silhouette of another passes slowly, and very close just above us, from port to starboard.  A burning object, probably somebody's engine on fire - slides across the sky behind us.  Still the streams of coloured fire are drifting up through the sky on all sides of us.  Bursts of shells above us - and the dark puffs of spent shells pass almost scraping the cockpit roof. 

And there is silence!  All the noises - gunfire, bombing and the engines of a hundred aircraft are drowned by the background roar of our own engines - which our ears tune down to the zero point of silence!

Flashes ahead and below us light up the scattered clouds.  Violent shining flares appear in the sky, lasting for a few seconds and imprinting the momentary picture on our eyes.  Aircraft everywhere, in all attitudes.  Some banking crazily, probably evading fighters - others diving.  So we aren't alone after all!"

A  photo taken of the target markers through the haze from  463 Squadron Lancaster  ME327 JO-X as their bombs were dropped.  The information at the lower edge shows the bomb load of 14 x 1000lb LD (long delay) bombs dropped at an altitude of 8750 feet at 22.02 hours, at the Dortmund-Ems canal at Ladbergen, the pilot being F/Lt Martin (Peter Barlow's pilot)  With thanks to Sal Martin for the photo

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The Fate of ME453?

It will never be possible to positively determine who or what was responsible for the destruction of Lancaster ME453 and the subsequent death of her crew.  The evidence is considerable though circumstantial, however these are my conclusions based on the observations of those who were there, both Allied and Axis airmen, of trying to reconcile time and place and of contemporary documents.

The image below shows an extract of the navigator's log from 463 squadron Lancaster NG401 JO-G, the navigator being Australian Doug Wheeler, for the Dortmund-Ems operation on the 3rd March.  They have just dropped their bombs and turned onto the homeward leg:

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Read the extract above in conjunction with the map below, Doug's  map which has been overlaid onto a GoogleEarth map showing the crash sites of the four Lancasters shot down as they approached the target:

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Approximate position of NG401

Note that the log above refers at 22.05 to "A/C DOWN ON PT BEAM", NG401's position as they start their home leg at "F" as shown above.  There is a very strong likelihood that due to the timing and position observed that the aircraft going down was ME453, its crash site shown by the yellow pin.

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The image to the left and enlarged section below are extracts from the 189 squadron ORB which make reference to a Lancaster being hit very near to the target.  Only two Lancasters were lost in the target area, ME453 (PO-L) and PB806 (PO-W), the latter flown by W/Cdr Langlois the squadron CO. 

The reference to the enemy fighter suggests it shot down the Lancaster.

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Schnaufer's log book shows two "Abschusse", aerial victories, for 3 March,  both in Planquadrate HQ:

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Confirmed by his Bordfunker (radio operator)  Fritz Rumpelhardt

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The map below shows the route of the Bomber Stream and critically  the position of Planquadrate HQ and its proximity to the target.  Also of importance is the fact that Hermann Greiner, flying from Dortmund airfield didn't make any claims in the HQ Planquadrate.  Schnaufer, based at Gutersloh was much nearer the target area.

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Nachtjagd claims for the night:

Major Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer Stab NJG4: Lancaster south west of Osnabruck at an altitude of 2500m at                                                                                        21.55 hours in Pl.HQ

                                                                           : Lancaster north east of Munster at an altitude of 2300m at 22.04                                                                                    hours  in Pl.HQ

Hptm Hermann Greiner Stab IV./NJG1:  Lancaster near Dortmund (sic, actually near Ladbergen) 21.57 hours

                                                                    Lancaster near Dortmund (sic actually near Ladbergen)  22.08 hours

                                                                    Lancaster near Dortmund (sic actually near Ladbergen) 22.12 hours

Hptm Josef Kraft 12./NJG1:  Lancaster west of Munster 21.59 hours

                                                 Lancaster west of Munster 22.07 hours

Major Martin Drewse Stab III./NJG1:  Lancaster west of Munster at 22.13 hours

I am indebted to Rod Mackenzie, co-author of the Nachtjagd War Diaries for this detailed information.

As can be seen, there are eight claims for seven losses, illustrating the often confused picture that arose in these closing stages of the war with night fighter claims.

This schematic shows the known crash sites of the four Lancasters which were destroyed before bombing as they approached the target and their distances from the target.    As the items below show, we can discount NG170 of 227 Squadron from a fighter attack claim since it appears to have been hit by flak.

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The sad end of a Lancaster.

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