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Of Sons and Skies


Read a Sample from Chapter 4

Of Sons And Skies

Flying through World War Two

by Robert Arley


OF SONS AND SKIES – sample from Chapter 4


A hole in the net?

We are regularly reminded that in September 1940 Hitler recognised opposing forces were too strong and numerous for an immediate invasion of England to be pursued: the Spitfires scared off the Nazis. But the broader picture is full of holes regarding the representation of the days and nights that followed, not least an absence of explanation of what the RAF was up to on the defensive front during the miserable months of the Blitz.    This had begun in September, but the bulk of the relentless night-bombing took place from October 1940 to May 1941. For dozens of successive nights the Luftwaffe sent squadrons of bombers to pummel London docks, factories and the city centre. Occasionally there would be raids on other ports, and sometimes even inland sorties. Each German aircraft did not carry much in the way of ordnance, but a lot of that explosive damaged somewhere or other.

   Much of the resulting destruction and death was censored at the time, so the Germans would not get a sense of their success rate. Suppression of the turmoil was also designed to limit dismay and fear amongst the domestic population. But the regularity and spread of the Luftwaffe’s disgorging of weaponry could not be ignored so newspapers and radio were permitted to report on a degree of the damage, whilst minimising numbers of fatalities as well as concealing the locations.

   Why was London on the receiving end of so much of the bombing? It was big and dense, with lots of docks and infra-structure, holding many government agencies. But most critically for the Germans, it was handy. They were working out of airfields away from home, generally near the French, Belgian and Dutch coasts. From these improvised facilities a few hundred aircraft would head off at dusk to try to drop some bombs on Britain.

   The capital was patently a convenient destination, easy to locate up the Thames estuary, but the goal was always an installation of military or political significance. What was the point of wasting a weapon on a house? You might kill a few family members, but that was not going to bring about victory - far better to damage structures relevant to the machinery of the state and its commissioning bodies or war service industries. Naturally, over time, a few of those explosives would land on or near significant public buildings: St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, each of these iconic structures suffered a degree of damage over the months ahead, but there was no concerted effort to destroy those institutions or their occupants.

   If the Luftwaffe had been determined to mutilate London, how come they never severed a bridge over the Thames? That would have been a big statement of intent and capacity - a shocking image of crippling impact on the capital’s normality. Did they try and fail? According to captured German airmen, and post-war interrogation, such structures were never on their target list. They were always attempting to hit something that had a direct bearing on Britain’s ability to continue to prosecute the war – docks, factories, barracks, headquarters, stores – but, of course, not always succeeding.  

   Nevertheless London’s nightly subjection to German aircraft disgorging ordnance was an unpleasant and costly trial. And a massive nuisance - for which the RAF had no immediate, viable answers. Yes, there were clusters of barrage balloons to discourage foreign flyers from coming in low, a few weak searchlight beams scanning the skies mingled with intermittent gun emplacements shelling in the general direction of the alien craft, but the Royal Air Force did not have the means to identify the flight paths of the incoming planes, in order to head towards them with their own armed craft and so start shooting at those bombers before they reached built-up areas in the dark.

   The Blitz is presented these days as a concerted attack on London, and to a lesser degree on other towns and cities. Look at the location of those other urban areas. Almost all were on the coast. i.e. easy to find from the sea. Clockwise, the targets lay in Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Liverpool, Manchester (in a bit from the Mersey estuary, up the ship canal), Belfast (on a bit from the Isle of Man), Glasgow, Edinburgh, Tyneside, Teesside, Hull.

   During November and December 1940 the Luftwaffe undertook 9,000 bombing sorties against the UK. The RAF managed to shoot down six of those flights. In January 1941 the Luftwaffe made 2,000 bombing attempts on Britain. Anti-aircraft gun crews reckoned they shot down a dozen foreign planes. The RAF claimed three. Next month the Luftwaffe, facing bad weather, conducted 1,600 UK sorties. The RAF claimed four German craft downed, while acknowledging four of their own were lost in those challenges.

   There were only a few inland locations for major Blitz endeavour: in particular, Coventry, Birmingham, and Sheffield. How did the Luftwaffe find those places at night? They had an electronic guidance system in operation, which projected beams from two different directions. Aircraft were equipped with signal readers, so they could follow the line of one beam and when the other beam crossed it, they were at the required address. Once British scientists registered the beams, work started on distorting the signals, and eventually they devised a means of skewing the invisible lattice. By May 1941 the boffins also came up with kit to enable British crew to identify enemy planes electronically and so head toward them in the hope of intercepting.

   What was anti-aircraft gunnery achieving? Not much. Statistically 6,000 shells needed to be fired to bring down one German aircraft. However, between June 1940 and March 1941, the Luftwaffe lost more than 2,000 aircraft on missions to Britain, mostly due to accidents during take-off, mid-flight mechanical problems or piloting errors.

   In total the Luftwaffe dropped around 45,000 tons of bombs on Britain, killing 41,000 people in the process. Proportionally, consider that in merely one month in 1943 Bomber Command would unload over Hamburg enough ordnance to kill a similar number of Germans.

   When the Battle of Britain is publicly commemorated, there is seldom any mention of what our boys were unable to do for the next seven months as the Blitz continued. It wasn’t really a hole in the net. There was no net.


Where are we?

A good navigator must be armed with good charts and a good compass: essential tools for successfully finding your way from A to B in the air. You know where you started from, what direction you are going in and how fast the plane is flying, so it’s just a matter of drawing a line on the chart that follows the route of your craft; then you can work out how far it will have travelled at any point in time. This is called Dead Reckoning (DR), which had worked well on ships for centuries; though down there you had the advantage of not travelling too swiftly, which gave you plenty of time to do your calculations. Up in a plane, you needed to work fast.

   But many of the shortcomings of DR applied whether on water or in the sky. Your pencil is never sharp enough. That line of lead across the sheet is representing a corridor perhaps several dozen metres wide. How accurate are your aircraft’s gauges? What about the wind? Is it blowing you to one side of your projected path? As an aircraft climbs, wind parameters can change - more complicated calculations. Just think how difficult things are going to become when you leave the UK and cross the North Sea hoping to arrive at some recognisable point on the Belgian, Dutch, French or German coast. And, of course, all of the above refers to efforts taking place in daylight. Imagine trying to do any of that in the dark.

   Crossing the sea, one way of sizing wind drift was to drop a series of flaming floats on to the waves, then get the rear gunner to evaluate how far off that line the plane was now flying. Once above enemy territory recognisable landmarks were vital. Big rivers flowing towards the sea are intermittently sandwiched with built-up areas that are well-known towns or cities, with a distinctive shape which the map-makers should have reproduced.

   A decent railway line can be a big help - assuming it’s on your chart. When it was clear that Hitler and co. were menacing the nations on their borders, it would surely have been judicious to get hold of at least one copy of every map ever published covering any part of Germany plus all other countries that a plane might be required to fly over. Unfortunately the British officials failed to acquire a comprehensive collection of maps from Europe prior to September 1939. Time and again, as the top brass contemplated options for flights and targets, the lack of appropriate tourist publications would bug them.

   In the early years of night bombing raids, by judicious use of the available geography field trip aids, navigators reckoned they had done well to get within 20 miles of their intended destinations. What chance of finding and destroying some specific factory along the Rhine? 



‘Before the war, public men of importance in Sheffield, on occasions such as dinners of the Aeronautical Inspection Department, had said openly that if one air raid could blot out certain streets in Sheffield, there would be no more steel supply for a year. Those speeches were reported in the Sheffield papers in the hopes that the Government might be induced to set up alternative steel-production plants elsewhere.’

So noted Charles Grey in his book, ‘Bomber’, published in 1941. What the authorities did see fit to do was supply Sheffield with balloons – of a barrage nature. These would be filled with lighter-than-air gas and attached to a very long steel cable, so the metal rope could be lifted by the balloon up into the sky and there act as a deterrent for enemy planes flying past that point. Or, better still, provide a hell of a shock should they impinge on a cable at night.

   What do we know about these seemingly impressive temporary structures? The first ones were adaptations of the observation balloons that had been deployed above the trenches in the Great War. For the second war against Germany it was decided that dedicated teams of personnel should be ready to fill up, then winch up, balloons around the edge of London and other major cities. The precise quantity of hydrogen per balloon was critical; unless it was correct, the balloon might float tail up or down and so fail to resemble a static, bloated plane. The fiddly things were very vulnerable to bad weather. A storm over Bristol unleashed flashes of lightening amongst a bunch of balloons, setting them on fire, and causing the freed cables to whip to the ground.

   Teams of operatives were trained in balloon handling. Were the inflated suspensions effective? Certainly no pilot in his right mind would fly near those things. If you saw them ahead, you’d give them a wide berth. Go round them or above them. Yes, minor nuisance factor. However they did indicate that something lay beyond them that was probably worth bombing. In fact, they acted as a useful pointer as to where you could fruitfully drop a load of weaponry if you had any spare and weren’t sure what to do with it. Secret was to keep well above the balloons and try to release your load beyond the barrier.

   Of course, unlike anti-aircraft batteries, barrage balloons cannot distinguish between friend or foe: you hit the cable, you’re in trouble. Coventry’s barrage first made mincemeat of a RAF training flight. The plane clipped a cable and was seriously damaged. Some of the crew baled out but died in their fall. The pilot landed his craft on a cricket pitch where it caught fire before he could escape. A few months later, one afternoon a Hurricane hit another of the thick vertical wires, killing the pilot.

   There were three types of consequence if you flew into a suspended fence. A wing might be sliced off and the rest of your craft would abruptly drop, no time for parachutes. Or the aircraft could pivot on the cable, losing speed by perhaps 100 mph, which would destroy the plane’s trajectory, causing it to fall fast. 

   A third prospect was that the impact wrenched free a length of the cable from the winding truck and/or the balloon, so the plane now has an extra element to its weight, chronically unbalancing the thrust. On a few occasions aircraft later landed with lengths of barrage balloon cable still strung around a wing.

   Sheffield was a major location for armament production, not least the manufacture of components for RAF planes. The city was supplied with around 70 balloons, which could be raised to a maximum height of a mile. Sheffield experienced sixteen visits from Luftwaffe crews, the first a single craft on 18th August 1940 which dropped one canister of explosive.    The final fly-over came on 28th July 1942, but the intensive bombing took place over two nights in December 1940, and was preceded by German airmen shooting down a couple of balloons to clear a route for their colleagues. Most of the ordnance fell in the city centre. Some people consider this had always been the intention; others contend it was the consequence of beam bending by British boffins, or that German pathfinder pilots mistook tram lines for railway lines and so commenced their flare drops in the wrong place.

   The balloons may have done something to give the good folk of Sheffield a sense of safety in their beds at night, but the pre-Christmas bombardment was patently not inhibited by those slender stalks of steel in the sky. 300 German planes from occupied Belgian airfields crossed the North Sea and decanted explosives, killing nearly 700 people, and leaving thousands injured, with tens of thousands of properties damaged.  

   Pressure on air defence personnel soon forced the authorities to consider whether women could man balloon squads. Trials were undertaken in Sheffield in 1941 which concluded that female teams could do it all just fine, so the city became a centre for training women to join barrage units.  

   Elsewhere in England, someone thought it might be a good idea to fix a mechanism on aircraft wings that would cut through German balloon cables in the event an RAF pilot failed to spot and/or avoid one. A compact contraption was fixed to a number of bombers: a formidable wire cutter incorporated into the leading edge of the wing. The cable would hopefully catch in a slot where an explosive trigger could cut it with a bladed bolt so allowing the aircraft to pass on its way. It was an ambitious theory which seldom worked in practice. Hundreds of fiendish cable cutters were fitted to aircraft wings and one of the armament crews’ regular tasks was to check the state of each cutter and, if necessary, re-load the explosive bolt. The devices were awkward and unpredictable. Dozens of ground crew lost fingers or thumbs whilst trying to manipulate those vicious mechanisms into or out of primed position. Far too fiddly.


It’s cold up here

The higher you fly, the colder it gets. Everyone knew this, and so, before the war, planes stayed low. Why rise into that thin air when it made you so uncomfortable? But once you are trying to fly over foreign territory yet not be spotted by enemy planes, there is a lot to be said for travelling as far above the surface of the earth as possible.

   Each model of aircraft has a ceiling of performance – a height above which the machine will not stay stable because the air has become so thin. Patently the load aboard the plane affects the effective ceiling: the more you are carrying, the less high you can travel. The build-up of ice on mechanical surfaces will also affect performance and, unlike ships steaming beyond the Arctic circle, you can’t send someone outside to try to hack chunks off.

   Most of the aircraft available to the RAF in 1939 were not designed to keep the crew warm. Few had anything in the way of heating systems. But young men accepted that the conditions aboard a high flying craft would be chilly at times, and so dressed to keep the cold out. Of course there were limits to how many layers you could wear without turning into a giant useless ball of wool. You needed to function aboard the plane, move about when required, and handle instruments or machinery as necessary. You might wear several pairs of gloves, which you could remove if trying to manipulate a pesky item, such as a tiny switch or a big chart.

   Through the winter months, thermal underwear and additional layers on top counted for very little. Exposed skin became sore, then numb. Hands would be in agony. Frostbite started to set in. Fingers would stick to any metal surface they encountered. Your body and brain began to freeze up.

    When those back at base learnt of the failure of crews to operate effectively under such conditions, engineers explored ways of keeping the boys defrosted. Strange heated suits were supplied with electric filaments sewn through them connected to a cable leading to a socket. But anyone required to move through the fuselage had to unplug and thus discover just how debilitating the cold air would be. Structural modifications were made to feed heat off engines into the plane but for many bomber aircrew operating above 20,000 feet, work was extremely unpleasant.  

   If an aircraft was shot at, causing some part of the cockpit canopy to be broken away, pilots had to try to head home whilst exposed to the ambient temperature and could easily lose fingers to frostbite on the way. Their flying days would be over. Not impossible that some might perceive this as a bit of good fortune. 


Flaking hell

Firing shells up at intruding aircraft was essential. Sooner or later you might hit an enemy plane and do it serious damage. The smarter shells were designed to explode when they reached the same height as the craft: to violently propel a shower of sharp shards in all directions. These would make holes in the plane and possibly the systems and people inside.

   So anti-aircraft guns could – if utilised sufficiently well and in quantity – reduce the number of menacing enemy aircraft in your vicinity. Occasionally those crashing planes hit houses, shops, factories, schools, hospitals, but this was rationalised as a necessary repercussion of eliminating the aggressor.

   However, the odds of a shell, or series of shells, hitting or exploding near an enemy aircraft were extremely low, because the goal was very difficult to achieve. The plane is flying at 200 mph, perhaps 10,000 feet high. You can hear and hopefully see it coming. Your gun barrel needs to be aimed at some point in the sky where you anticipate that aircraft may reach in the next ten seconds. The direction and moment of fire are absolutely critical to give the shell half a chance of arriving in the required location. Most will miss, many by a mile.

   Flak was primarily a deterrent rather than a killer. Any sensible pilot would endeavour to keep his craft distant from such hazards. Clusters of AA tended to cause aircraft to veer away from that area; unless there was no alternative (e.g. orders) but to head through the menace. But the principle of batteries of anti-aircraft guns around important installations remained universal: it put pilots off.

   Gun emplacement teams were always eager to blast shells upward, with some sites always busier than others. You’d be warned that an enemy squadron was heading your way. Now you were the front line of defence: all that training and technique to be deployed in the hope you and your crew could down one of those approaching monsters.

   Chances of success were tiny, but the principle of loud, vigorous efforts alarmed the airmen and it lifted the spirits of those living nearby. People cowering in their shelters wanted to hear those batteries booming, and would complain if the guns became silent while there was still the sound of foreign planes above.

   Military commanders became concerned at the waste of ammunition, wear and tear on gun barrels, the menace of falling shells - exploded or otherwise - dropping on suburbia, but the demand for constant challenge to the infiltrating aircraft remained. Dozens of civilians were killed or seriously injured by shells crashing down, sometimes detonating.    

   In one month a quarter of a million shells were hurled up in the general direction of Luftwaffe planes around London. The British Anti-Aircraft Command accumulated a staff complement of 400,000; overall UK Civil Defence amounted to 700,000 full time personnel, aided by 1.5 million part-timers, all of which contributed towards another vital statistic: the average German bomber crew survived just 17 missions to Britain.


Overseas aid

Books and films often portray Britain as standing alone against the mighty German war machine across the greater part of the Second World War. In fact Britain was the heart of a huge global empire in the 1930s, benefiting from many assets around the world, not least human resources. From the commencement of the war, the armed services were able to call upon foreigners – commonwealth and dominion citizens - to come and help. Recruitment offices and advertising were quickly established within every overseas country that formed part of the British Empire. And from these outposts, the army and navy soon had fresh manpower to enrich their regiments and vessels.

   The RAF too could benefit from this massive source of able and eager people. Such volunteers needed to be especially smart to be considered for air training, but there was no shortage of suitable candidates. Many Australians, Canadians, Indians, South Africans and New Zealanders soon swelled the ranks of RAF Commands. They joined Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, Polish and American airmen who had chosen to throw in their lot with the Brits. A UK flying school in the spring embraced students from Portuguese East Africa, Argentina, China, Eire, Bermuda, Portugal and Rhodesia. The British were never alone in the air, and statistics compiled subsequent to the war demonstrated that some of those foreigners were the very best flyers for the RAF, though I have been told that occasionally poor comprehension of the English language resulted in mighty mistakes regarding how to handle certain aircraft or to reach the required destination of particular flights.

   For those mean-spirited citizens who feel that, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, Britain spends too much on overseas aid, please note that during the war many nations around the globe also provided generous and vital funds for RAF enhancement.  Amongst the nations rustling up money to pay for one or more fighter aircraft were the Indian Province of Punjab, the Persian Gulf, Nigeria, the Belgian Congo and Brazil. The RAF’s Natal Squadron was maintained entirely by donations from citizens of Natal in South Africa. People of the occupied Netherlands secretly funded the construction of more than forty Spitfires at around £5,000 a time. In all, 23,000 Spitfires were assembled between 1937 and 1946. Hundreds of the vital craft were paid for by foreigners.

Meanwhile the London Lord Mayor’s Air Raid Distress Fund benefited from overseas contributions, including that of five Armenian farmers in Berber whose £122 was dutifully forwarded from the National Bank of Egypt.

   To all our friends from overseas: a great big Thank You.


Round the bend

The evening of 10th May saw hundreds of German bombers approaching London. 300 miles north, a lone long-range Messerschmitt entered Scottish airspace from the North Sea. At the controls was Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, who aspired to initiate negotiations with the British that might terminate hostilities between the two nations. Rudolf had been planning his secret flight for months. He’d got fed up with the man with whom he had once shared a prison cell, wherein they had drafted some of the maniacal narrative that would be published as Mein Kampf.

   Hess had enthusiastically helped build the Nazi Party and had been rewarded with senior positions in the Third Reich government. Now he reckoned he could pull off a neat deal with the Brits to wind down the war in the west. It was just a matter of a commencing a quiet chat, pilot-to-pilot, with the Duke of Hamilton, a distinguished Scottish airman based at Dungavel House near Glasgow.

   Unable to spot the relevant premises, or somewhere flat to land, Rudolph decided the safest course of action was to parachute down. Meanwhile London was being pounded by German bombs in what would prove to be the most intensive night of aerial assault on the capital.

   Hess hurt his leg from the parachute jump. A farmer found the intruder, who pretended to be a civilian and requested to be taken to Dungavel for an important meeting. Instead the farmer called up the Home Guard who conveyed the prisoner to an army barracks in Glasgow.

   Around London, Fighter Command sent up hundreds of planes to defend the capital. Anti-aircraft guns fired off nearly 5,000 shells, but the Luftwaffe only lost twelve aircraft that night, as they released 700 tons of high explosive and 80,000 incendiaries, which initiated more than 2,000 fires.

   RAF Wing Commander Hamilton reached Glasgow the next day, and Hess fessed as to his real identify. The would-be Nazi mediator spoke and understood English but he couldn’t decipher the Duke’s heavy Scottish accent, so he demanded an interpreter. A foreign affairs expert from London was send up to interview the curious captive. Rudolph claimed he could pull off a peace treaty that would allow the Brits to exit the war at this point, leaving Germany to expand eastward into Russia. The civil servant reported back but Ministers were distracted by the fact that 1,400 Londoners had just been killed, 1,800 seriously injured, and 150 unexploded bombs lay around the city, making many streets impassable.

   The lone infiltrator now complained about his medical treatment and accused his captors of trying to poison him, which did nothing to win him credibility. Hess was a hypochondriac – always anxious about what he ate. He had a soft spot for alternative medicine and carried homeopathic remedies on his journeys. Unfortunately he had left his current complement of concoctions aboard his plane.

   Back in Berlin, the absconder had left a letter for Adolf revealing that he aimed to organise a truce with the UK. Surprise, surprise, the Fuhrer was furious, and announced that Rudolph was round the bend. Hitler reckoned his old side-kick had lost his marbles due to dependency on dodgy quacks and cranky potions, so he ordered the rounding up and execution of lots of faith healers, back-street medicine men and fortune tellers (who, surely, should have seen this coming).

   Hess was moved to a secure location for further interrogation but failed to convince anyone that he had a viable role in achieving an acceptable peace in Europe. Was his mission given the green light by some part of the German High Command looking to get the Brits off their backs before Operation Barbarossa, or just a crazy endeavour by a mad Nazi? The prisoner kept complaining about various ailments and insisted he swap suppers with his guards to ensure he wasn’t poisoned. Physicians noted that he was now suffering from - or possibly faking - amnesia.  Five weeks after his ignominious landing on British soil, Rudolph tried to commit suicide by jumping off the balcony of a staircase, but all he did was break a leg. This got him moved to a guarded hospital in Wales where he spent the rest of the war in relative comfort.

   The costs of damage to London from the raid on the 10th May amounted to £20 million. It was a brutal, dramatic flourish from the Luftwaffe designed to distract attention from their sneaky shift to eastern Germany.


The wizard war

Winston Churchill’s fascinating ‘The Second World War’ history has a chapter entitled ‘The Wizard War’. To what was the great man referring? Secret apparatus invented by unconventional scientists that had the capacity to wrong-foot the enemy. The PM detected particular promise in the use of radio waves for aerial communication, but he acknowledged that the Germans were already well along that path before the war began:

‘With their logical minds and deliberate large-scale planning, the German High Air Command staked their fortunes in this sphere on a device which… they thought would do us in. Therefore they did not bother to train the ordinary bomber pilots… in the difficult art of navigation. A far simpler and surer method, lending itself to drill and large numbers, producing results wholesale by irresistible science, attracted alike their minds and their nature. The German pilots followed the beam as the German people followed the Fuhrer. They had nothing else to follow.’

   Churchill reckoned that deflecting or jamming beams caused around a fifth of German ordnance to fall in fields. Not a solution, but a degree of relief. Luftwaffe pilots who reported back that there might be something amiss with the systems were initially given short shrift, but eventually the Germans realised that some distortions had diminished effectiveness, and so a new wave of radio guidance was developed. Once British boffins unpicked the new German technique they could then forecast a future target several hours in advance, but, as Churchill noted:

‘Our night-fighters had, alas! at this date neither the numbers nor the equipment to make much use of the information.’

However he claims it was useful for the assignment of Civil Defence personnel and fire-fighting teams. The memoirs explain that Britain’s limited endeavours at wavelength counter-measures in the early months of the Blitz were all that the nation had to deploy:

‘… when all other means of defence had either failed or were still in their childhood.’

   Winston’s love of laboratory alchemy encouraged the development of two defence systems that never made it into operational mode. The capacity to deliver sufficient deadly flak from Ack-Ack guns into the body of an overhead bomber was recognised as extremely poor. Would the mass launch of small armed rockets do the job better? Many months and man-hours were spent on perfecting rocket batteries that could pepper the sky with a mass of projectiles and so dramatically increase the likelihood of at least a few impacting on the body of an approaching plane.

   Even more ingenious was the notion of aerial mines suspended on wires from parachutes that could be decanted into the sky ahead of an enemy bomber formation. The approaching fleets would not be able to weave away from this cloud of ordnance and would therefore be obliterated en masse. Churchill placed great store on this wizard concept. Unfortunately it was hugely difficult to achieve in practice.

   What came to Britain’s rescue ultimately? Hitler withdrawing the bulk of the Luftwaffe from the French coast, so he could deploy his planes against Russia in the summer of 1941. 

   Churchill remained in awe of the potential of aerial mines and tells his readers he was mystified that the Germans did not develop such a defence weapon against RAF and American bombers later in the war. That would not have been wizard. 


Out of the blue

Through the spring of 1941 the Royal Air Force continued to do its best to provide evidence of worthwhile action, and hence positive headlines for the Daily Mirror:

8th April                       RAF RAID SOFIA

That was Bulgaria. Next, it’s Yugoslavia:

12th                             R.A.F. BATTER PANZERS

Less than a week later, a photograph of a dead man, face down alongside a damaged building:

18th                             DUTY DONE

He was a fireman who, in London’s greatest air raid yesterday morning, gave his life for his country. He saw his duty clearly and followed it unflinchingly to the end. For him the fire and the fury have passed. He is at peace and none will doubt that “the path to duty was the way to glory”.

   The action and destruction continued at home and abroad:

10th May                       400 PLANES DID THIS TO THE HUN

12th                              ABBEY, HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT WERE HIT

17th                              R.A.F. IN ACTION AGAINST NAZIS IN SYRIA

21st                              HUN GLIDERS LAND 1,500 MEN IN CRETE

22nd                             WAVES OF SKYMEN IN CRETE BLITZ

26th                              HUN FLEET HIT BY AIR

2nd June                       RAF GUARD 15,000 OUT OF CRETE

   On 11th June the Daily Mirror reported Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons in which he revealed that the total number of British war dead, excluding civilians, now amounted to 90,000, of whom all but 5,000 were “from the Mother Country”. Adding the domestic victims of Luftwaffe bombing raids on Britain would take that total to around 130,000. But was the speech designed to demonstrate that servicemen and their families had at this stage suffered far more than civilians? Might this have been a means of deflecting criticism of the Air Force’s recent efforts? What lay round the corner?

14th                              RAF TORPEDO BATTLESHIP ON RAID BID

Yes, the Air Force determination to fight back (this time, in Norway) provided a glimmer of hope. Next, Boulogne would receive a rough visit from the British flyers:

18th                             200 PLANES BLITZ NAZIS INVASION PORTS BY DAY

This news item also explained about the recent addition to RAF equipment that was starting to make their job fractionally easier: ‘radiolocation’. At long last the boys had a means of spotting the Luftwaffe in the sky at night. So were the bloody cross-channel skirmishes to remain the gruesome pattern for the foreseeable future?

   A few days later, a game changer: an extraordinary development in the affairs of the globe; a new dimension of earthquake proportions, with the potential to alter the war and peace landscape beyond recognition.

   In his book, ‘I flew for the Fuhrer’, Heinz Knoke documented the start of the momentous mission:

‘0430 hours: all crews report to the squadron operations room for briefing. The Commanding Officer reads out the special order of the day from the Fuhrer: Germany is to attack the Soviet Union.’

‘0500 hours: the squadron takes off and goes into action. I have done considerable bombing practice in recent weeks. It will be a pleasure for me to drop them on Ivan’s dirty feet. We are to carry out a low level attack on one of the Russian headquarters. Everything appears to be asleep. We fly low over the wooden buildings, but there is not a Russian soldier in sight. Swooping at one of the huts, I press the bomb release button on the control stick. I distinctly feel the aircraft lift as it gets rid of the load.’

‘The scene below is like an over-turned ant-heap, as they scurry about in confusion. Stepsons of Stalin in their underwear flee for cover in the woods.’

Knoke circled several times and machine-gunned any Russians trying to fire back. His squadron returned to their base for re-fuelling and re-arming at 0556 hours, and took off again at 0630 for a second assault on this camp. The pilot recalled the rationale and his instincts:

‘We have just fore-stalled the Russian time-table for an all-out attack against Germany for the mastery of Europe.’

‘We have dreamed of doing something like this to the Bolshevists. Our feeling is not exactly one of hatred, so much as utter contempt. It is a genuine satisfaction for us to be able to trample them in the mud where they belong.’

   The attack by the Germans against the Russians at dawn on 22nd June 1941 was in contravention of a pact between the mighty neighbours. That day would prove to be the most destructive for aircraft losses in history.


   By the time Adolf was ready to mount his surprise attack, Joe had deployed 7,000 aircraft along his western border. At the end of the first day of Operation Barbarossa, Russia had lost 1,800 of their machines (most of which had not taken off), whilst the Luftwaffe was short of just 35 planes. By the end of the first week of the invasion, Russia was down to 3,000 planes, whereas the Germans had lost only 150.

   Stalin growled that this humiliating devastation was the result of poor command, and so he sacked and had executed a further cross-section of Soviet commanders. Naturally the massive Russian losses meant that even less experienced crew were quickly required for front line duties. Their likelihood of succeeding against the highly prepared and practiced (over Britain) Luftwaffe was even lower than their predecessors.

   The desperation of Russian squadrons faced with the ferocious advance and audacity of the Luftwaffe reduced them to try ramming enemy bombers. The Soviet fighter pilot would point his plane at an approaching German craft and aim for impact. This was not a precursor to the later Japanese kamikaze one-way missions. The principle of the Russian endeavours was that the pilot jumped out just before his semi-obsolete plane crashed into the opposing machine. That way the airman might descend gently to Russian soil and so be ready to go up again soon. The tactic was respected and encouraged, and some Russians repeated this scary stunt a dozen times, though it did nothing to swing the battle in the Soviets’ favour. 

   Perhaps Hitler’s boasts of defeating the communists within months was not mere fancy? It wasn’t long before the Luftwaffe was menacing Leningrad and approaching Moscow. However the Russians had had plenty of time to study how the British and the RAF had defended themselves against the Germans, and Stalin had no intention of allowing the Luftwaffe to pepper his capital the way Churchill had witnessed London being bombarded through that previous winter. Moscow was well prepared, and the calibre of anti-aircraft defence and fighter squadrons charged with protecting the Kremlin came as a considerable surprise to the Germans.

   Meanwhile Stalin had initiated the mass re-location of munitions production to sites further east. He was tooling up for a long game, and learning fast from his mistakes. Once the Russians established fresh factories far away from possible enemy assault, they would build 36,000 formidable Yak fighters. They had already destroyed 30% of German air power within the first month of the invasion.

   Back in Britain, the Daily Mirror was swift to challenge any breath of complacency:

23th June                     RED BOMBERS HIT BACK AT HUN INVASION

‘We begin with a warning – Hitler’s attack upon Russia must not for a day, for an hour, for a moment be used as an excuse for weakening air attack upon Hitler. On the contrary, this latest and largest of Nazi war is a signal to us, a call, an incentive to renewed and intensified effort. Through the R.A.F. and with every other means in our power we must continue to smash at Germany in the west.’

And so it was to be.

Of Sons and Skies by Robert Arley

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Of Sons And Skies

by Robert Arley


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