Sunday, March 30, 2014

RAF Bomber Command’s Flight into Hell

RAF Bomber Command Lancaster's over Nuremberg.

Blame the fog of war, command stupidity, bad timing, bad weather, vainglory, stubbornness, or just bad luck.  Every war seems to produce on a large or small scale shake-your-head disasters that seem, in retrospect, that they could, or should have been avoided.  Think the Charge of the Light Brigade, Custer at Little Bighorn, Gallipoli, or just about the whole damned Vietnam War. 
70 years ago, on March 30, 1944 795 Royal Air Force bombers flew into disaster.  95 planes would be lost, more than 11% of those engaged.  Many more would land damaged and riddled with fighter cannon fire and flack.  545 officers and men were killed, more than 150 captured, figures for the wounded unavailable, but high.  The Nuremberg Raid was Bomber command’s greatest loss of aircraft in a single operation and to make matters worse, the intended target suffered relatively light damage.
Other Allied air raids during the war would suffer even higher losses by percentage—the U.S, Army Air Force famous B-24 raid on the oil refineries around Ploiesti, Romania in 1943 resulted in the loss of 53 of a 174 planes.  But was able to substantially destroy or damage its targets.  It was also, by scale, a much smaller operation than the Nuremberg Raid.
Conversely, later in the war, the industrial might of the United States was able to station an air armada of thousands of heavy bombers in Britain.  Some days almost all of them were engaged in action and on more than one very bad day, losses exceeded those at Nuremberg, but because of the total number involved, the percentage loss was much smaller.
The Nuremberg Raid was a night raid.  The RAF and USAAF had very different bombing strategies that had caused friction in the Allied high command.  In the end, it was agreed to allow each to wage its own campaign.  The USAAF with its high flying, heavily armed B-17 and B-24, and their precision Norton bomb sights, elected to conduct a daylight campaign of precision strategic bombing targeting German industry and infrastructure as well military and naval targets.  In addition by 1944 the Americans had fast, long range fighters like the P-51 Mustang that could provide fighter cover deep into enemy territory.
The British with their lighter aircraft preferred night time saturation bombing.  They targeted cities and towns aiming to smother them with high explosives.  Certainly damage would be done to industry and infrastructure in the process, but it was essentially terror bombing aimed at the civilian population in order to “break the enemy’s will to fight.”  Part of it was to mock Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Göring’s boast that his flyers would prevent “a single bomb” from falling on German soil.  And part of it was outright revenge for the Blitz.  Night bombing also compensated for the fact that until bases could be secured in France, the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes did not have enough range to provide fighter cover.
By March of 1944 plenty of RAF bombs had fallen on German cities.  Cities like Manheim, Cologne, and above all the capital of Berlin had already been targeted leaving behind large swaths of smoking rubble and huge civilian casualties.
The next target was Nuremberg, a city of about 150,000.  Although it certainly had industrial targets, it was not an important German cog in the German war machine.  But, as the site of Hittler’s famous, highly choreographed pre-war rallies, it was considered the “spiritual heart of Nazism.”  It was to be the last of the big RAF raids on cities before Bomber command would turn its attention to support of the coming Normandy invasion.
The raid was carefully planned.  A route was mapped out that would have the formations cross the European coast over Belgium then wheel and make a direct dash for Nuremberg.  Some diversionary sorties would be flown in hopes of confusing German defenses, but far fewer than those employed in the earlier raids.  Also the relatively direct route to the target was a departure from the practice of making sever course corrections to confuse the enemy.  It was thought that this itself would be a surprise.
The day before the raid RAF meteorologists relying on reports from Mosquito weather planes flying over the continent concluded that there would be cloud cover over the Belgian coast to shield the formations from the bright half-moon and clear skies over the target which would make it easy for pathfinders to mark out the target with incendiaries.  These were ideal conditions.
But around noon on the 30th new reports from the Mosquitos showed clouds forming over Nuremberg and clearing skies over Belgium.  Deputy Commander Sir Robert Saundby said after the war, “I can say that, in view of the meteorological report and other conditions, everyone, including myself, expected the C-in-C (Commander in Chief) to cancel the raid. We were most surprised when he did not. I thought perhaps there was some top-secret political reason for the raid, something too top-secret for even me to know.”
Air crews were never informed of the changed conditions into which they would fly.
At the appointed hour 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and 9 Mosquitos took off on the main mission.  Due to the usual mechanical problems and malfunctioning electronics several planes turned back.  About 750 made it to the Belgian coast.
Meanwhile forces of light Mosquitos and a flight of Halifaxes flew diversionary flights that included 49 Halifaxes mine-laying in the Heligoland area, 13 Mosquitos to attack night-fighter airfields, 34 Mosquitos on diversions to Aachen, Cologne and Kassel.
The German command was not fooled.  And when the bombers came over the coast not only were they silhouetted against the moonlight, their contrails were clearly visible.  German radio crackled.  Over 200 night-fighters were scrambled on their way to the Ida and Otto beacons which neatly straddled the raiders’ course.  The British were flying directly into a virtual ambush.
The night fighters were among Germany’s best, mostly Me-109s, Me-110s and JU-88s.  Many were armed with new twin 20 mm cannons mounted on either side of the nose at an upward angle and a slight spread. Known as   Schräge Musik (slanting music) these weapons allowed a new tactic.  Fighters attacked from below, never seen or detected by the bomber’s gun crews.  They flew within a few hundred feet and let loose fire that straddled the bomb-laden fuselage and tore into both wings with their heavy loads of fuel.
The first bombers fell shortly after clearing the coast to heavy flack.  That gave way soon enough to the swarms of night fighters tearing into the formations with deadly accuracy and effect.  At least two Luftwaffe pilot personally downed four planes each.  Another destroyed two bombers in less than two minutes.
The night fighters continued to bring down the lumbering bombers for the next 45 mile until they finally disappeared into the clouds that would also obscure the target.  Not only had the attacks somewhat broken the formations, an unexpected cross wind began to blow some off course.  Leading the way the versatile little Mosquitos were the Pathfinders charged with marking the bombing range.  Two got off course marking a mostly rural area near Lauf ten miles distant.  150 of the bombers followed them, dumping their bombs mostly uselessly in the fields, although three ball bearing plants—a high priority for American strategic bombers—were inadvertently his and sustained moderate damage, but not enough to put them out of commission.
Even those pathfinders that did find Nuremburg found that smoke from their incendiaries was blowing away from the city.  In additions some pilots mistook the burning wreckage of other bombers as signals.  As a result and under intense ground anti-aircraft fire, many of the bombs fell harmlessly away from city.
German records indicated that Nuremberg suffered “133 killed (75 in city itself), 412 injured; 198 homes destroyed, 3,804 damaged, 11,000 homeless. Fires started: 120 large, 485 medium / small. Industrial damage: railway lines cut, and major damage to three large factories; 96 industrial buildings destroyed or seriously damaged.”  This was hardly insignificant.  But had he raid proceeded as planned, the city would have been virtually leveled.
On the way back the planes continued to be hectored by fighters and targeted by flack.  But the formation was broken up and planes were widely scattered.  Only a handful more were shot down on the long three hour flight home, bucking a heavy headwind almost all of the way.  But several damaged planes crashed along the way.  11 made it all the way back to England only to crash either because of battle damage or because they had run out of fuel.
There was no way around it.  The raid was a disaster, more so because the heavy losses were experienced without the mission being anywhere near satisfactorily completed.
The question remains to this day, why was not the mission scrubbed after the revised weather forecasts came in?  How high above the Deputy Commander could the decision to go ahead have gone?  Bomber Command’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris?  Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur Tedder, Air Commander-in-Chief, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF)?  Or perhaps even to Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself?  After all in pre-mission briefings pilots were told that the Nuremberg raid was, “…a target he [Harris] knows is very dear to Churchill’s heart.”

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