Maritime Help March – July 1941
By the beginning on 1941 the country was gripped with U-Boat fever, the German success in the North Atlantic had Britain and its Royal Navy almost beaten. The North Atlantic convoys had lost nearly 900 British and Allied vessels since the fall of France the previous summer. The Royal Navy was not in a position to oppose the treat as it was woefully under strength, Coastal Command was still flying obsolete aircraft and those that were not did not have the range to make any worthwhile contribution. To add the U-Boat menace the German Battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were on the prowl in the Atlantic causing mayhem, if this was enough the mighty Battleship Bismarck was being prepared and made ready to set sail. It was not just at sea the Germans appeared to have the upper hand, it was also in the air. The Luftwaffe had the long range Focke-Wulf Condor. With a range over nearly 2000 miles this formidable aircraft caused havoc to the convoys, armed with 2000lb of bombs the Condors repeatedly attacked and sank merchant vessels, more importantly they reported the positions of the convoys to the U-Boat packs. Winston Churchill called these four-engine giants “The scourge of the Atlantic “
By March 1941 Britain faced the alarming prospect of its vital ocean links to Canada and America being severed, the Germans were winning the war in the Atlantic.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill was forced into giving a simple instruction, Bomber Command will direct all its effort against the targets that housed or sourced the treat to British shipping. On March 9th 1941 Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman (Vice Chief of the Air Staff) informed Air Marshall Sir Richard Peirse of a new directive to dedicate his energies to defeating the “attempt of the enemy to strangle our food supplies and our connection with the United States”.
The directive gave a clear instruction “We must take the offensive against the U-Boat and the Focke-Wulf where ever and whenever we can “
A list of twelve targets were drawn up, each was divided into individual yards, plants, assembly buildings and factories. The targets chosen were:
Bordeaux – Merignac
The above targets would soon be modified as priorities and circumstances changed during the coming months. The C-in-C Bomber Command Air Marshall Sir Richard Peirse was not overly happy about the change in policy, Peirse felt that his command was on the verge of success with his attacks on Germany, especially the attacks on Germany’s oil targets. The Air Ministry perhaps believing the accuracy reports filtering in from HQ Bomber Command did allow Sir Richard Peirse to devote a proportion of his efforts to continue the attacks directed against oil targets. (What a contrast between Peirse and Harris, Peirse fully understood the importance of oil to the Germany economy from the very outset, sadly Harris would never fully accept the importance of oil) The Air Ministry and Bomber Command would soon come to realise that the crews were over estimating their bombing accuracy. Lord Cherwell commissioned a report led by David Bensusan-Butt a civil servant at the Air Ministry to analyze the effectiveness or otherwise of Bomber Command bombing accuracy. The findings which would be published in August would send shock waves throughout Bomber Command and the Air Ministry. However this was in the future.
At the beginning of the campaign No.3 Group was predominately equipped with the trusty Vickers Wellington, also available but in limited numbers was the mighty Short Stirling which was making an operational appearance. The group was the most potent and powerful group in Bomber Command at this time with 13 operational squadrons, plus 3 specialised squadrons. It was commanded by Air Vice J E Baldwin KBE, CB DSO who had commanded the group since August 28th 1939. Baldwin had in fact retired in August 1939 after a spell of commanding No.21 Group. The tragic death of the then No.3 Group commander Air Commodore Arthur Ashford Thomson MC & bar AFC forced “Jack” Baldwin’s return. Air Commodore Thomson was killed while inspecting a Vickers Wellington of No.115 Squadron on August 28th when he walked into the rotating propeller.
The squadron in March 1941 was commanded by 28-year-old Acting Wing Commander Geoffrey Noden Amison MiD. Geoffrey had joined the RAF in 1932 on a short service commission, he initially served with No.9 Squadron in 1933, there followed various posting throughout the thirties. A posting to the Middle East would result in the awarded of the MiD while serving with No.2 Armoured Car Company in Palestine. Back in the UK he was posted to No.38 Squadron in August 1939. This was followed by a spell with No.311 (Czech) Squadron in 1940 as “B” Flight commander and navigation instructor, he was then posted to No.214 Reserve Flight in November which in turn was followed by his first command on February 2nd 1941.
Just before the start of this campaign the squadron lost one of its most experienced and respected flight commanders, Squadron Leader Kenneth Ault on completion of his operation tour. “A” Flights Kenneth Ault was an immensely popular officer who led by example, always first to volunteer for the more hazardous operations he was the corner stone of the squadron. He was replaced by Squadron Leader William Beaman, who over the next few months made a name for himself as a courageous and highly capable officer. “B” Flight was commanded by New Zealander Squadron Leader Ian Richmond, Richmond had been with the squadron since 1938 and had flown operationally throughout. He had operated during the blood bath of France and the daylight Blenheim trips the previous summer, he was with Ault the back bone of the squadron. On March 3rd 1941 the squadron had on strength 17 Vickers Wellington Mk.Ic, this was a vast improvement over the older Mk.Ia, numerous changes had been made including a more powerful hydraulic system, a 24V system in place of the old 12V system and importantly a DR compass was installed.
Opening Rounds March 1941
The squadrons first raid of March was against the Hipper class cruisers located in the dry dock at Brest on March 3rd. Eight crews were dispatched meeting intense flak and searchlights, weather over the target was marginal and made visual observations almost impossible, crews bombed on DR runs or on the flashes on the flak guns below, it was not auspicious start. It would be March 12th before the squadron operated again, three crews attacked Berlin while six crews attacked the Focke-Wulf plant at Bremen. Defences over the target were reported as moderate, two big fires were started while night fighter activity over the target was also encountered. The squadron lost one crew, Flying Officer Crosses who fell victim to a German night fighter. Nine crews attacked the Blohm & Voss U-Boat Yards in Hamburg on the 13th. Crews were enthusiastic about the raid reporting several fires in the dock area. Once again the severity of the defences was noted, Flight Lieutenant Shaw was coned by 40 search lights while Flying Officer Agar, Pilot Officer Mansfield and Sergeant McNeil all experienced night fighter encounters. Sergeant McNeil crash landed Wellington R1328 HA-V on his return to Marham such was the damaged inflicted by a Me.110. On the 15th three crews attacked Lorient while six crews attacked Kiel led by Squadron Leader Beaman. Damage on this raid was the heaviest so far reported, particular damaged was caused to the Deutsche Werke U-Boat Yard. The last operation of the month was directed at the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest Harbour. Ten crews were dispatched attacking between 6,500ft to 9,500ft in unfavourable weather. Sergeant Adams and crew spent 30 minutes over the target area in an attempt to pin point the docks while Pilot Officer Patterson and crew made five runs over the target area before he dropped his 7 x 500lb SAP bombs. Operations and bombing accuracy for the opening month had been severely hindered by the weather, heavy rain and mist in and around the East Anglian bases had caused problems for the squadrons taking off and landing. Even when the weather allowed take off conditions were not much better over the targets. No.3 Group had flown 276 sorties against nine targets as per the directive. With the weather slowly improving hopes were high as were the stakes that attacks could intensify and accuracy improve. The squadron had dispatched a total of forty-two sorties, losing 1 crew in the process.
April started off with yet another bash at Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest Harbour on the 3rd, ten crews found the docks covered in ground haze making accurate bombing almost impossible. Three crews attempted to bomb a 10/10th cloud covered Calais Docks on the 6th. The following night ten crews attacked Kiel in excellent visibility. This was the largest Bomber Command raid on one specific target so far in the war, 229 aircraft were dispatched of which 115 were provided by No.3 Group. Crews for the first time in weeks reported a good concentration of fires in the target area, flak was reported as heavy while searchlights were numerous however this did not seem to deter the crews who seemed to relish the opportunity to carry out some accurate and concentrated bombing. Night fighters were evident three crews had inconclusive fighter encounters. Such was the visibility that Flight Lieutenant Shaw report fires visible 70 miles on his return. Damage in Kiel was widespread, the Kiel Electrical supply failed and numerous fires started. Damage was inflicted to the dock area including the Deutsche Werke and Germania Werft both of which made U-Boats, a fire in a nearby naval yard burnt for 48 hours. One returning pilot remarked upon his return “ The only way to put the fires out was to push the whole place into the sea” Nine crews attacked Brest Docks on the 10th, resulting in the loss of Sergeant Brown and crew who were last heard of on the W/T asking for help. There was no survivors from Wellington R1442 HA-D. Sergeant John Brown has arrived on the squadron via No.15 O.T.U early February he had completed six operations as 2nd pilot and two as captain before his death. Bad weather over Brest the following night resulted in a number of squadron crews bombing the secondary target Lorient which was for once relatively free from cloud. Squadron Leader Richmond attacked the docks and returned with two excellent photographs showing his all SAP load exploding in the yards, Pilot Officer Lymberry was hit by flak over the target and returned to Marham with his port engine cowling shot away, all eight crew returned safely. A follow up raid on Brest on the 14th was thwarted by cloud although crews did managed to get a brief glimpse of the docks.
It was back to northern Germany on the 16th nine crews lead by Squadron Leader Raymond reported an accurate attack on Bremen however the weather was once again in the Germans favour over the target area and bombing although reported accurate was far from it. The squadron had to wait five days before it was once again tasked with attacking Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest Harbour, from the very start the weather both over the bases and the target were unfavourable. Flak was describe as intense and working in conjunction with numerous search lights. Sergeant Adams and crew in an attempt to hit the docks dived from 16000ft to 9000ft being pursued all the way down by both light and heavy flak before the crew dropped their all SAP bomb load in the target area. The raid from a squadron perspective was a costly failure, the crew of New Zealander Sergeant W Swain crashed at Milizac 6 miles NW of the docks, there was one survivor from the crew of L7798 HA-S. Twenty-three-year-old William Swain arrived on the squadron via No.11 O.T.U on April 2nd, it was the crew’s fourth operation. Sergeant Adams who had courageously dive-bombed the target ran out of fuel on return, forcing him and his crew to take to their parachutes. The Wellington R1368 HA-F crashed near Clenchwarton Station. Sergeant Graham crash landed at St Minvin short of fuel, the crew were all uninjured, Pilot Officer Mansfield, Pilot Officer Lambert and Sergeant Madgewick all forced landed at Abington short of fuel, Mansfield with flak damaged. Pilot Officer Agar landed at Exeter short of fuel.
To add to the general gloom the squadron had a change of command on April 22nd, with the announcement of the departure of Wing Commander Geoffrey Noden Amison. His replacement was Wing Commander Herbert James Kirkpatrick who was posted from No.9 Squadron, based at RAF Honington where he had served as a flight commander. The loss of Wing Commander Amison was unexpected having only been in his post as squadron commander for 2 months, it was a major blow to the squadron. Geoffrey Noden Amison was posted to No.12 Operational Training Unit Benson as Chief flying instructor. In 1942 he was posted to HQ No.6 Group, he finished the war was as an S.A.S.O with No.205 Group in the Mediterranean. Twenty nine years old Kirkpatrick was a former Oxford University Air Squadron member, he had joined the RAF in February 1932 and served with various squadrons including a stint at HQ Fighter Command in 1939. The recently promoted Kirkpatrick’s arrival on the squadron brought an experienced operational leader who was fully aware of the dangers and difficulties of current operations.
Kiel was attacked on the 25th by nine crews lead by Wing Commander Kirkpatrick on his first operation since assuming command. A good concentration of fires were reported by the crews which were visible from over forty miles away. Flak was reported as heavy and caused damage to 3 squadron Wellingtons. Sadly the squadron lost another crew, Flying Officer Agar was last heard on the w/t at 23:56hrs asking for assistance, they never returned. It is presumed Wellington R1507 HA-V crashed into the sea, this was F/O George Agar’s 23rd operation on since his arrival in the summer of 1940. Occupying the rear turret was Pilot Officer Charles Blair, this was his first operation. The last operation of the month was again aimed at Kiel, frustratingly thick cloud over the target intervened making any chance of accurate bombing impossible. Squadron Leader Beaman spent 50 minutes over the target area in the hope that a break in the cloud might develop, he would be disappointed. Not one of the nine crews dispatched visually identified the target. Thus ended yet frustrating month, the squadron had flown 73 sorties losing two crews in the process and a third Wellington which was totally destroyed on return. No.3 Group had flown over 760 sorties on 21 raids during the month. The hoped for improvement in the weather did not materialise and had thwarted the majority of the raids, however there was one plus, the raid against Kiel on April 7th had caused widespread damage. Bomber Command knew if they could see the target they could hit it and hit it hard.
May started with yet another bash at the cruisers in Brest Harbour, nine crews lead again by Wing Commander Kirkpatrick found the dock and harbour complex for once free of cloud. All the crews reported accurate bombing. The whole dock area was lit up by numerous explosions and incendiaries. Squadron Leader Richmond and crew brought back four excellent photographs showing the Scharnhorst and oil storage tanks. All crews returned safely back to Marham. The run of good weather continued on the 7th when ten crews once again set out for Brest. Conditions were once again ideal and crews reported accurate bombing, Flying Officer Stokes and crew reported “ Bombs seen to explode on target, a likely direct hit ” while Pilot Officer Pape stated “ three bursts observed on jetty, and on stern of ship” Squadron Leader Richmond was more confident in his report, “SAP direct hit on ship observed by crew “ Fighters for the first time were active, Pilot Officer Pape and Sergeant Fraser both had inconclusive encounters over the target area, once again all the crews returned safely.
The following night the squadron switched to northern Germany, Hamburg’s Blohm & Voss works was the intended target. It was on this night the squadron dropped its first 4000lb blast bomb. Squadron Leader Richmond in Wellington Mk.Ic W5445 HA:Z and Flying Officer Smith in Wellington Mk.Ic W5447 HA:C had the honour, both were enthusiastic about the bomb, “Wizard Bomb “ report Smith while Richmond reported “a terrific explosion”, all the crews agreed it had been an accurate raid. For once the crews were right, Hamburg reported 83 fires which 38 were classed as large. The Deautschen Brunswig oil depot was badly hit, 79 people were killed when a 4000lb blast bomb exploded in the Barmbek district destroying 10 apartment buildings. A further 185 people were killed with 518 injured and 1,966 burnt out. It was Germany’s highest casualty figure so far in the war. Of the 188 aircraft dispatch 108 were drawn from No.3 Group. Capitalising on the good weather the squadron dispatched twelve crews on the 10th, the target was once again the Blohm & Voss works at Hamburg. Visibility over the target was perfect giving the crews once again an opportunity to inflict serious damage to the docks. Flak was plentiful as were the searchlights however this did not stop some concentrated and accurate bombing. Numerous fires were reported in the target area and one crew reported everything within a half mile radius on the works was burning, while another reported their aircraft was rocked and shaken by two massive explosions while on their bomb run. Once again the raid had inflicted serious damage to Hamburg, 128 fires were reported of which 47 were classed as large. Worst hit was the city centre which was home for the majority of the cities banking community, all the squadron crews returned to Marham. Another maximum effort directed at the Blohm & Voss works was planned for the 14th however this was cancelled at 17.30hrs due to unsuitable weather conditions. A front of unfavourable weather settled over the East Anglian bases for the rest of the month restricting operations to a few Freshman trips. Attacks planned on Kiel for the 19th and 22nd and Hamburg on the 25th were scrubbed as was an attack on the ship yards at Wilhelmshaven on the 28th and Kiel on the 31st It was a frustrating end to a month that had started so well. The squadron had flown 38 sorties without loss against the selected targets, No.3 Group flew over 446 sorties.
June started where May left off with the region blanketed in thick cloud, the only operation flown was a Freshman trip flown on June 1st to Dusseldorf by Squadron Leader Price. It would not be until June 10th that the weather had sufficiently improved to allow the squadron to operate. Twelve crews were detailed to bomb Brest Harbour and the Battle Cruiser Prinze Eugen which had recently returned from the North Atlantic. The squadron crews reported the docks covered in a smoke screen which made visually identification of the target next to impossible, bombs were dropped in the general area of the docks with a few flashes observed, all the crews returned safely to base. Three nights later four crews lead by Squadron Leader Clyde-Smith had another bash at Brest, once again an excellent smoke screen and haze thwarted the crews, 48 x 500lb SAP were dropped by the squadron for no observed results. A series of excellent raids on Cologne and Dusseldorf were undertaken by the squadron before it was back to Kiel and a maximum effort on the 20th. The weather once again played a hand in the raid, low cloud and haze over the target caused a number of crews to make a timed run on the target while others bombed on flashes below the cloud, in frustration a number of crews bombed searchlights and flak positions. The raid would claim two squadron crews, Sergeant Gordon Jillet RNZAF was last heard at 03:35hrs calling for help 60 miles off the enemy coast, it is presumed Wellington R1339 HA-J crashed into the sea taking with it the crew, Gordon Jillet was on his 19th operation. Also lost was fellow Kiwi Sergeant Mason Fraser RNZAF and crew aloft in Wellington R1713 HA-V. A SOS message was received reporting engine trouble on the route home. A position was fixed by wireless and two crews were dispatched to the last position. On arrival the following morning the crews found an empty dinghy and a large patch of oil. None of the crew survived, it was Sergeant Fraser’s 22nd operation. The loss of two seasoned NCO crews was a bitter blow to the squadron. The remaining thirteen crews, plus one Freshman crew who attacked Boulogne returned safely.
The last operation of the month was directed against the marshalling yards at Bremen. Twelve crews encountered fierce opposition as they desperately tried to locate the target below the clouds. Those that did fleetingly observe the yards had to take violent evasive action from the intense barrage of light, medium and heavy flak that was the worst the crews had encountered. Crews who had circled the target in the hope of seeing some ground detail started running short of fuel dropped their bomb loads on the glow of fires and flashes below the clouds.
Squadron Leader Clyde Smith reported that “A large red fire started which was still burning when aircraft was 70 miles from the target” It was the only positive note on an otherwise frustrating night. Night fighters were active on the return route, Pilot Officer Maxwell and crew were attacked by a JU88 off the English coast but steady accurate fire from the rear gunner drove the fighter off, Sergeant Jolly and crew were also attacked by a JU88 without casualties or injury. Sadly the raid would result in the loss of Pilot Officer Francis Bryant and crew. The circumstances surrounding the loss of Wellington T2806 HA-T is unknown. The six man crew are buried in the Becklingen War Cemetery, twenty-two year old Francis Bryant was on his 19th operation. June had been a frustrating month from an operational point of view, there was the occasional concentrated attack but these were few and far between, sadly the month witnessed the loss of three experienced NCO crews. The squadron had flown forty three sorties against the maritime targets while No.3 Groups total was over 509 on 11 raids.
July, started with a disappointing effort against Bremen on the 2nd, ten crews were dispatched with little hope of hitting the docks due to thick cloud. Most crews bombed the searchlights in the hope of at least inflicting some damaged. The battleships at Brest were the target on the 4th, twelve crews departed Marham lead by both flight commanders. Ten of the crews carried 2000lb S.A.P + 3 x 500lb S.A.P, while one crew carried a 4000lb blast bomb, the remaining crew carried a mixed HE & S.A.P load. Initially visibility over the target area was good making identification fairly easy, early crews managed to bomb with come accuracy however later crews were hampered by an effective smoke screen and haze. Squadron Leader Price identified a battle cruiser in the smoke screen and dropped his S.A.P load in one stick, explosions were seen close to the dock, while Sergeant Banks watched his 2000lb S.A.P explode at the North end of the dry dock. All the crews returned safely from this raid. Little did they realise that this was the last operation flown under the March 9th directive.
Four months to the very day Bomber Command was released from its primary directive, the threat at sea had been for the time being at least checked. The campaign on the surface appeared to have inflicted serious damage to the German ports where the U-Boats were constructed and to the industrial plants which manufactured components that maintained, built and serviced the German Kriegsmarine. Much damaged was also inflicted on the French ports especially Brest which housed the German battle cruisers. By some miracle the cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were relatively unscathed and received only superficially damage during the whole campaign. There were some notable success but details emanating from Germany were sketchy and most information came via neutral sources. From a Bomber Command perspective it had carried out the directive to the full with every means at its disposal and had achieved some spectacular results especially against Hamburg. However the Navy Chiefs were somewhat vocal in their disappointed that the Battle Cruisers Prinze Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had not been destroyed while in dock, after all they were “sitting targets” . During this four month campaign Bomber Command under the guidance of Air Marshall Sir Richard Peirce had found itself struggling with not only the weather but hindered by the multitude of operational aircraft and their various performances. The Hampden and Whitley’s were struggling on and suffering increasing losses in the process, the trusty and reliable Wellington was the back bone of Bomber Command and bore the brunt of the attacks and would for a further year. The new “heavies” the Avro Manchester, Short Stirling and Handley Page Halifax’s were making their operational debut but in such small numbers that they would not make any worthwhile contribution to the campaign. The “heavies” especially the Stirling and Halifax’s were used in daylight and suffering accordingly. Lastly and most importantly Air Marshall Sir Richard Peirce found his crews were hindered and frustrated by the lack of any accurate navigational aids, most crews still navigated by DR and found it almost impossible to locate a town let alone a factory if no ground detail could be seen. The few successes during this period was the result of the courage and tenacity of the crews many of which were pre-war trained. It was not uncommon for a crew to orbit a target for up to 80 minutes in the hope of visually identifying the target, all the time at the mercy of flak and fighters. It is difficult to estimate the impact these raids had on German production and its operational efficiency at sea, what it did do was force the Germans into a massive building programme along the Atlantic coast to house it U-Boat fleets, the U-Boat Pens would within a few short years be the subject of another campaign.
There were however some positives, the raids were good for morale. The British public had become disconcerted at the reports in the daily papers and from the Sea Lords about the ever increasing losses at sea. These raids some of which the press called spetacualour would it was believed bring this dead-lock to a conclusion, little did the general public realise just how perilous the situation actually was in the Atlantic. On July 9th a new directive arrived at HQ Bomber Command, a directive that would have far reaching consciences not only for Bomber Command but the people of Germany. The report from Air Vice Marshall N H Bottomley (Deputy Chief of the Air Staff) to Air Marshall Sir Richard Peirse ;
I am directed to inform you that a comprehensive review of the enemy’s present political, economic and military situation disclosed that the weakest points in his armour lie in the morale of the civilian population and the inland transportation system. The wide extension of his military activities is placing an ever increasing strain on the German transportation system, and there are many signs that our recent attacks on his industrial towns are having a great effect on moral of the industrial workers.
Subject therefore to para 7 I am to request that you will direct your main effort of the bomber force, until further instruction towards the dislocating of the German transportation system and to destroy the moral of the civil population as a whole and the industrial workers in particular.
If the reports from the crews were anything to go on, the raids were accurate and inflicting serious damage, this belief in the crews reports would be shattered in a matter of weeks on the release of the Butt Report.
The report was initiated by Lord Cherwell, a friend of Churchill and chief scientific advisor to the Cabinet. David Bensusan-Butt, a civil servant in the War Cabinet Secretariat and an assistant of Cherwell, was given the task of assessing 633 target photos and comparing them with crews’ claims.
The results, first circulated on 18 August 1941, were a shock to many, though not necessarily to those within the RAF who were already largely aware of the failure of crews to navigate to, identify, and bomb the targets.
Any examination of night photographs taken during night bombing in June and July points to the following conclusions:
1. Of those aircraft recorded as attacking their target, only one in three got within 5 miles
2. Over the French ports, the proportion was two in three; over Germany as a whole, the proportion was one in four; over the Ruhr it was only one in ten.
3. In the full moon, the proportion was two in five; in the new moon it was only one in fifteen. …
4. All these figures relate only to aircraft recorded as attacking the target; the proportion of the total sorties which reached within 5 miles is less than one-third. …
The conclusion seems to follow that only about one-third of aircraft claiming to reach their target actually reached it.
Postwar studies confirmed Butt’s assessment showing that forty-nine percent of RAF Bomber Command’s bombs dropped between May 1940 and May 1941 fell in open country. As Butt did not include those aircraft that did not bomb because of equipment failure, enemy action, weather or failed to find the target area only about five per cent of bombers setting out bombed within five miles of their target.
For the squadron it had been a testing time. The initially attacks on the French targets were considered a rather soft target in comparison to the Ruhr and Berlin. However the defences soon were strengthened and continually added to making Brest one of the most heavily defended targets in Europe. The crews also had to endure the flight over the sea, this and the defences really did instil a certain amount of fear. The squadron flew over 207 sorties losing six crews in the process with a further Wellington written off and two damaged.
It was not the end of the attacks on the primary target list, these would still be visited over the coming weeks and months but Bomber Commands priority had now changed.