GENERAL ARTICLES

BOMBS AWAY

"The boys who fly the bombers are all in favor of the big raids ... by her own admission Germany is being badly hurt"

D. K. FINDLAY March 1 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

BOMBS AWAY

"The boys who fly the bombers are all in favor of the big raids ... by her own admission Germany is being badly hurt"

D. K. FINDLAY March 1 1943

BOMBS AWAY

D. K. FINDLAY

"The boys who fly the bombers are all in favor of the big raids ... by her own admission Germany is being badly hurt"

THE TAKE-OFF is at eight o’clock.”

The soft green of the English countryside is fading into grey. The sky is clear except for a bright band of pink clouds in the west. The aircraft are marshalled, stretched in a long line on the perimeter, fueled and bombed and ready to go. The air crews were briefed three hours ago— they have just come over from the hangars in lorries, dressed in their flying clothes and now they are sitting on the edge of the track with the ground crews. The bulky clothes hide the badges of rank.

The lad stretched out on the ground with his hands clasped behind his head happens to be a commissioned officer, the one stuffing a thermos flask into his boot happens to be a pilot and a sergeant. To each other they are “air crew”—Jock and Don and Hap and Skipper. They are very young—about twenty-two would be their average age.

The Canadians are kidding their Jock gunners. The Canadians and the Scots get along very well — Jock’s imperturbability over the target always tickles the Canadians. The pilot of “S for Sugar” is getting some extra attention because it is his first operational flight over Germany. He knows all the answers and drawls them out but one hand is steadily plucking up the grass. A padre comes by, but not as padre. He is in battle dress and the boys borrow gum from him.

“There’s the green light, boys.”

Without any word of command they go aboard their aircraft, swinging their bulky figures up through the belly hatch with a practiced twist.

A truck shimmers by with a gay cargo of green and red lights which are used to mark the take-off runway. At the head of the flare path stands the Air Control Pilot who directs the take-off. At five minutes to eight the motors of the leading aircraft turn over, a minute later Number Two starts up and so along the line. The ground begins to tremble, the solid roar trips and grows as another motor fires. There is something beautiful and awe-inspiring here—the ranks of whirling propellers gleaming like shields, the black wings silhouetted against the dust cloud which rises behind them, turning from yellow to pink in the sunset.

At two minutes to eight, the first Halifax fourmotored bomber, with seven men and five tons of bombs, weighing thirty tons, with a wingspread of ninety-nine feet, trundles down the track and wheels precisely on to the flare path. The A.C. holds an Aldis lamp in his hand, he sights along the barrel and a beam of green light focuses on the waiting aircraft. The motors rev up with a roaring

and a billowing of dust, the Halifax hurtles down the field and, a mile away, hoists itself into the sky.

As each aircraft is airborne, another wheels on to the flare path. There is a yell from the radio truck. “Hold it! ‘B for Beer’didn’t get off.” A red beam anchors the line of aircraft. The pilot of “B for Beer” reports that he tore off a hatch cover in his run—“and there is no blooming use freezing to death.” The ground crew has a new cover in place almost as soon as the message is through and “B for Beer” comes trundling back along the perimeter looking incredibly large in the dusk—swings about and takes off.

Toughest in the Service

FROM the other side of the field come the Wimpies—the Wellingtons, the toughest bomber in the service. It was with us at the beginning of the war and the pilots who fly it say it will be in at the finish. Heavily gunned, manoeuvrable, with a five-man crew, it is the work horse of the air. Tonight they are getting plenty of respect for they are carrying 4,000-pound bombs—one of them is enough to blow the station to bits.

From the fields nearby, Lancasters and Stirlings are being launched. The sky is dotted with aircraft stooging about, gaining height, waiting for all the bombers to get off the ground. Tonight’s is a big raid and they want to strike together.

“Well, that’s the lot,” says the A.C.P. The field is empty and the sky is quiet. The knots of men and officers melt into the dusk. “L for London” still stands on the track. At the last moment she developed generator trouble which a sweating ground crew could not repair in time. The pilot is swearing with vexation and nervous let-down and when he comes into the mess later, everyone will say, “Tough luck, kid,” and will want to buy him a drink.

An orderly calls us at two o’clock. We switch off the lights and draw the blackout curtains to look out. Good—the stars are shining and there is no ground mist. As we walk among the shapes of the station buildings, the world is quiet and black and smells of dew. We see no one about, but men are awake and moving. The maintenance crews work all night in the darkened hangars. Out on the edge of the field, in the September chill, ground crews wait at dispersal points for their aircraft.

Inside the brightly lit Watch Office, people wait, walk about restlessly. There are two girl operators with head-sets on. A blackboard tells us that two of our bombers turned back with engine trouble and landed some time ago. The Traffic Control Officer says for the twentieth time, “they should be coming now,” and someone puts his head through the blackout hangings in front and says he hears something. We go out on the deck to listen. There is a faint hum in the sky.

“One of ours,” says the Traffic Controller cheerfully. “Come right in, boys.”

Inside, the loudspeaker begins to blat. The homing aircraft' identifies itself and gives the station’s code name. “May I come in? May I come in? Over.”

The Traffic Controller nods at one of the girls and she says softly, clearly into her mike. “You may come in. Use Number Six runway.”

The Halifax comes in low, its lights on for identification, and is lost in the darkness of the field. Before it is off the runway, the sky is filling with engine throb and three more aircraft are calling down for permission to land. While Traffic Control is lining them up at different heights a fourth aircraft breaks in abruptly. “H for Harry,” is in trouble—one engine not working, controls shot up. Traffic Control orders the other aircraft to stand by. “Come in, ‘H for Harry.’ ”

From the deck we see the red and green wing lights of the damaged bomber sinking on to the field. He is down—then one light rises in a sudden arc and goes out and far away, and not very loud, there is the sound of a crash. The stillness is broken by the racket of the crash car dashing off into the darkness. A headlight goes on briefly and you see dark figures like racing shadows running on the field. Overhead more aircraft are arriving, none can be let down until the field is cleared. The

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Traffic Controller rushes from one mike to another, the girls repeat their messages in soft clear voices. Some aircraft are told to stooge about, others running short of gas or having engine trouble are diverted to neighboring fields . . .

We stand waiting outside the operating room in the iodoformsmelling hospital. The pilot of “H for Harry” has a gash in his forehead, he is trying to smoke a cigarette that comes to shreds in his shaking fingers. His front gunner leans against the wall, still dazed.

This is their story. They had come in over the target at 14,000 feet. The flak was very heavy, the aircraft was thrown about. Something exploded under the starboard wing, blowing off the outer propeller. The control column wobbled uselessly, the aircraft went into a dive. “I told the boys to bail out if we passed 10,000,” said the pilot. “She came out at 7,000. The tail gunner and the middle upper had gone—bailed out over the target—the navigator and the front gunner hadn’t been able to get out.” The navigator had set the homing course and gone back into the tail turret to take the ! gunner’s place. As the aircraft ¡ landed, the throttles “froze” and the pilot was unable to cut out the motors. “H for Harry” ran off the i runway and broke her back on an ! obstruction. The tail turret was torn off and thrown some distance.

“He didn’t have to stay in the turret,” the pilot kept saying, “he did it to help keep the tail down.”

The doctor came out of the operating room, glanced at the flight leader and shook his head.

The Tale Is Told

THE crews straggle back from their dispersed aircraft, get huge mugs of coffee and go to the “ops” room for interrogation. A W.A.A.F. collects the maps and code books. They sit in a group around a table and an Intelligence Officer collects their information. Some arrived over the target on schedule, spotted the dummy fires set by the enemy, found pathfinder flares, dropped their bombs and got away. Some had fought trouble from the take-off, got “coned” in searchlights and caught in flak. “Gee, they threw everything in Germany at us.” “The flak was like a wall, we couldn’t get through. I stooged round till they ‘coned up’ on other kites and we got through between them.” Some had been attacked by night fighters and had to take evasive action until the crew were air sick. Some had fought back—but it is a bomber’s business to bomb and not to mix it with fighters. Listening to them and watching, the main impression is of tired eyes and tousled hair and voices that stumble over words.

“On the whole, a good do. Bags of fires all over the place.” The target was Dusseldorf.

Released, the boys go over to the mess for a late supper. The big room is dimly lighted, the W.A.A.F. waitresses who have been on duty

all day, are still on duty and are as tired as the air crews. This is an informal meal. The lads wander out to the kitchens and help themselves to beer and milk. They can have bacon and eggs if they want it. Fed and warm again, with another “op” safely behind, they will talk now. This is the time to hear stories.

Every time the door opens, the boys look up. One of the flight leaders, a popular veteran of twentyfour, has not returned.Hehad finished his tour of duty but he had asked for one last trip. Against the Wingco’s wishes he had filled-in tonight for a sick pilot. His aircraft is overdue now, it is getting near the time when “missing” must be written on the Watch Office blackboard. Through the kitchen door, with his arms full of food and bottles, comes the missing flight leader. He had come down at a neighboring field and been sent home by car. For him, tonight will be a mixture of elation and regret—elation that he had come through his “ops” unhurt; regret thatthenervouselectric time before take-off, the “wumpff” of flak and the fires in the darkness are over for him.

This scene, with variations, takes place night after night all over England.

Every morning Group Headquarters receives from its stations reports of the number of aircraft and air crew ready for operations. These reports are amended from time to time as air tests bring more aircraft to readiness or wash them out. On the basis of this information Bomber Command selects the target and the number of aircraft to be used. Then the plan is articulated—groups notified, time for take-off and time over target determined, the kind of bombs to be carried and the proportion of incendiaries to high explosive decided upon. “Briefing” of the air crews takes place on the stations, generally in the late afternoon. In the meantime bombing-up has been going forward. The trailers trundle out their loads, the bomb bay doors drop down and the armorers climb in. The bombs are raised into position by hand winches and it is a laborious, sweaty business. Some of the bombs weigh 8,000 pounds.

1,000 Bomber Raids

ON MAY 6, 1942, Air Marshal A. T. Harris, A.O.C., Bomber Command, said: “If I could send

20,000 bombers to Germany tonight Germany would not be in the war tomorrow. If I could send 1,000 bombers to Germany every night it would end the war by autumn.”

On the night of May 30 he sent 1,043 aircraft to Cologne.

The Cologne raid, the first of the

1,000 plane raids, opened a new chapter in aerial warfare. It is worth a moment’s review. Cologne was Germany’s third largest city. It was strongly defended by 500 antiaircraft guns, 120 searchlights and squadrons of night fighters. The night fighters were dealt with by our intruder squadrons who attacked them over their own fields. Bombers came in at the rate of one every six seconds and dropped 3,000 tons of explosives. The enemy predictor

system was upset by the number of the attackers and the ground defenses were overwhelmed. Photographs showed 5,000 acres of destruction, including 250 factories. The city was without water, gas or light; railway traffic was suspended for five days ; a month later streets were still choked with debris.

No one knows the number of casualties. The official German figures are 411 dead and 560 seriously injured. The experience of London goes to show that the number of dead is less than would be expected from the damage. The German dead was probably not fewer than 6,000. The roads leading from the city were choked with refugees. Altogether about 240,000 people (about a third of the city) had to be evacuated. There were no homes for them to live in. Each adult had to sign a document—“I am aware that one individual alone can form no comprehensive idea of the events in Cologne. One usually exaggerates one’s own experience and the judgment of those who have been bombed is impaired. I am therefore aware that reports of individual suffering can only do harm and I will keep silence. I know what the consequence of breaking this undertaking will be.”

A second thousand-plane raid took place forty-eight hours later on the first of June when Essen and the Ruhr were attacked. The third went to Bremen on thenightof June 25-26. There was one outstanding difference between the three raids—visibility. The cities of the Ruhr will always be difficult targets because they are hidden in industrial haze, the smoke of their own chimneys, to which the defenders add more smoke. Essen and Bremen were hidden by haze and low cloud but the night of their raid on Cologne happened to be exceptionally clear with a full moon. The results were correspondingly devastating.

The boys who fly the bombers are all in favor of the big raids. They regard them as safer because the ground defenses are “saturated” i.e., the enemy predictors upset and the anti-aircraft fire dispersed. They argue like this: you can only get so many operational hours out of crews and aircraft, therefore it would be better for everyone to sit on the ground until the weather is just right, then let everybody go out together and. just naturally obliterate the target for the night

Keep Huge Nazi Force Engaged

SINCE Bremen the R.A.F. has not used 1,000 bombers in one raid; it uses a smaller number of fourengined bombers, as it did in the mass raids on Berlin early this year. Yet there is no comparison between the blitz suffered by England in 1941 and what the R.A.F. is doing to the Reich now. Germany is being badly hurt. By her own admission she has not sufficient aircraft to retaliate in kind but she has enormously increased her defenses. Her best fighter aircraft are stationed in the west. It is calculated that not less than a million and a half men are engaged with the night fighters, the anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and fire-fighting organizations. This is a

substantial army to be pinned down to defensive duties alone.

As part of her defense, Germany has developed a remarkable system of decoy tactics. Their technique is characteristically thorough and ruthless. Near the city they wish to protect they find a town or village which has the same landmarks, such as a railway junction, a canal or river. They blast that town to ruins, erect dummy factories and chimneys, and at night they set out fires in it. They have even sent up their own aircraft to drop flares on it to attract our raiders to the site.

Diversionary tactics sometimes develop a reverse twist. German bombers screaming for Liverpool one night dropped incendiaries on a hill in North Wales and set the heather aflame. Next night other raiders spotted the fires and blasted the empty hillside with high explosive.

Decoy tactics have led to an improvement in our attack—the use of pathfinders. The pathfinder aircraft, equipped with the most precise instruments and manned by experienced crews, proceed to the target area and light it by flares. The navigators of the following bombers are thus made sure of the target area and are able to seek out special features in it which need a little blasting. We are so accustomed to the exploits of the Bomber Command that we forget the difficulty and strain of navigating 400 to 600 miles to find a dark spot in the darkness. The wonder is that they make such few mistakes. As the bombs go a flare explodes and a picture is taken. The pictures are plotted on target maps and Intelligence knows where the bomb has fallen. One squadron tells a story about one of their pilots who was ticked off for getting lost and bombing off the target. He protested that it wasn’t he who was lost, it was the others. When his pictures were developed, there, square in his sights, was a Diesel engine plant for which the R.A.F. had been searching.

What Is Air Power?

THE idea of air power needs clarification. Air power does not mean, as the admirals and generals would have us think sometimes, aircraft to sink ships of war or to protect them, or aircraft to be used in conjunction with the Army. Air power means a force of aircraft designed to destroy the enemy’s manufactories, power plants and transport—and the houses of his workmen and their sleep and morale. It means aircraft to protect those bombers and to destroy the bombers of the enemy.

The Cologne raid proved Air Marshal Harris’ point. It is probable that the results of the raid were more thoroughly studied by the German High Command than by ours—and they must have been filled with dismay. Here was the proof of the power of a new weapon which they themselves had used but on a scale which they had not envisaged. They saw the whole economy of Germany with her long vital transport lines ; spread out before an attack which could only be palliated and never

evaded. The Cologne raid showed that 3,000 tons of bombs could demoralize a city.

At that time we used 1,000 aircraft to carry 3,000 tons of bombs. Now the same weight can be carried by 400 Lancasters or Stirlings. A thousand Lancasters could wreck any city in the world. The R.A.F. made ghost towns of Genoa and Turin in a few light raids. For the first time in history we are seeing a consolidation of air power. The RA.F. has the greatest weight-carrying aircraft used by any belligerent—the Lancaster and the Stirling which carry eight tons and the Halifax which carries five and a half tons. Another bomber, the York, is in production but its capacity is not disclosed. The United States Army Air Corps is pouring Fortresses and Liberators into bases in England and Africa. These are excellent, well - protected aircraft which the Americans use effectively in high altitude daylight bombing.

Round-the-clock bombing is a défi| nite probability, high altitude bombing by daylight and another force | attacking at night by the light of the fires.

It is said that German morale will ; not crack under the strain of air j raids. Perhaps it won’t but her transport may. That is why the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the I Fighter Command shoot up every locomotive they find. The day Germany’s transport cannot be maintained, that day she is defeated.

Air power is our only hope for a short war. The danger is that the Allied leaders confused by traditional thinking may be reluctant to rely on it. They may choose to wait, to build up larger armies to an inevitable mass slaughter and the exhausted decision of a long war.

It should be repeated. Air Power is the only weapon which can defeat Germany even within the ring of its armies.