Wilhelmshaven: The Curtain Riser
Copyright: Henry R. Black, 2001
This is a story of the first period of fifteen weeks in WW2. Now largely forgotten, it is how many young men sacrificed their lives in a series of operations against the German Navy near Wilhelmshaven and over the Heligoland Bight. They did not know then, how many other brave men would follow them.
In autumn 1937, it was estimated that war in Europe would break out within two years. Sir Edward Ludlow-Hewitt assumed command of Bomber Command in September 1937 with the objective of preparing his command for war. What he found was a bomber air force in excellent spirit but not accustomed to flying in bad weather to minimise risk to aircraft. This was not a satisfactory outlook for an organisation preparing for war. He formed the opinion at that time, ‘the RAF bombing force was practically useless’.
Ludlow-Hewitt had spent the whole of WW1 with the RFC and the RAF which succeeded it in 1918. He had earned the reputation of being a good pilot and had a clear idea of the high standards his command should attain. In common with all his contemporaries his experiences in WW1 dominated his thinking. In Bomber Harris’s opinion he was a ‘brilliant officer.’
His command at that time had on its strength a high proportion of its bombers being two seater Hawker Harts and Hinds single engine biplanes not dissimilar to those in service in 1918. More modern twin engine monoplane bombers were being produced but were delivered to his squadrons incomplete and often unreliable due to inadequate development. They therefore remained inactive on airfields awaiting completion. He singled out the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in particular, with its unreliable Armstrong Siddeley Tiger radial engines that averaged 40 hours flying time between overhauls.
To meet the threat of war, the RAF was being expanded on a scale which the British aircraft industry had problems in meeting. However within a short period of three years, all the aircraft within his Command were replaced by larger monoplanes, which had the ability to fly faster, higher and over greater distances.
The replacement of biplane aircraft highlighted the air crew problems that were to plague him up to and beyond the outbreak of war. The new bombers required a larger number of aircrew and the observers used in the old biplanes lacked the training necessary to operate in the new aircraft. It was the practice since the end of WW1 to recruit observers from the squadron ground trades such as fitters. They were given a short course in air gunnery, photography and bomb aiming before being allowed to take their place in the rear seat of the biplane. Their syllabus at that time had not been changed for ten years and was based on hand firing Lewis guns. After qualifying they were allowed to wear a small winged bullet on their tunic sleeve and were given a small amount of extra pay. The problem was that although Bomber Command were beginning to receive their modern aircraft in 1939 provided under the Expansion Scheme the recruitment of man power did not match the rate at which the new aircraft were arriving. The shortage was greatest in those trades from which the aircrew was selected. Ludlow-Hewitt wanted the system of recruiting observers from tradesmen within the squadron to be abandoned. The new aircraft required men of higher standard, with much improved training, specially recruited for the purpose from outside the service. The original system resulted in a double loss to Bomber Command when air gunner/tradesmen were involved in air accidents. In addition to the loss of their services as air gunners, a valuable tradesman necessary to maintain aircraft was lost to the squadron
It became obvious that the existing air gunners were quite unable to defend their new aircraft adequately. More training was required using a wider syllabus and receiving more air experience using their guns against towed drogues and simulated air attacks against fighter aircraft. At that time, a Central Gunnery School did not exist and it was October 1939 before it was set up.
Only pilots were established aircrew members and there were no permanent aircrew trades covering navigation air gunnery and radio operation. Navigation was to remain the function of second pilots until 1941 when Ludlow-Hewitt was no longer AOC of Bomber Command. Ludlow-Hewitt considered that henceforth they should be trained as a team and to be more versatile in being able to undertake other aircrew duties.
Ludlow-Hewitt was clear in his own mind as to how his problem should be solved. He wanted the scheme of accepting volunteers from ground based tradesmen to act as Air Gunners to be abandoned. New training schools should be established for the air gunners, radio operators and specialist navigators. The redundant air observers would be retrained as pilots, navigators and air gunners. After training they would be awarded permanent aircrew status with sergeant ranking, better pay and more prominent brevets to go with there now advanced status.
There were other problems such as the dire lack of a efficient bombsight and the poor performance of both flares and bombs. The general-purpose range of bombs caused problems to Bomber Command in the early years of WW2 because they had a having lower explosive content than those of the Germans and more importantly, a high percentage failed to explode.
Try as he could, he was not able to persuade the Air Ministry to accept his ideas and there was intense controversy with many members of Air Staff and Air Ministry officials up to and beyond the outbreak of war before his ideas were accepted.
The result was that when war was declared, insufficient aircrew members had passed through the training schools to replace losses, and tradesmen volunteers were still in place in aircrews although since the beginning of 1939, they were classed as permanent members.
Many of the crewing problems derived from the Handley Page Hampden. Air Vice Marshal Arthur Harris who at that time was AOC 5 Group, was severely critical of the Hampden whose designers had in his opinion disregarded the specifications laid down by Air Staff. Once aircrew members were in place in their Hampden, they did not have ready access to other crew positions, which resulted in lack of flexibility in deciding which aircrew trade should be placed in the nose and bottom gun position. Later Harris declared that ‘their crews did their best with their aircraft. It was at least strong and reliable with a very good engine’.
Navigation was the responsibility of the second pilot and standards were generally low. In the last two years before war was declared 478 Bomber Crews had force landed on exercises having lost their way. It was April 1938, before a 10-week course in navigation was set up to improve the situation. The Wellington and Hampden were still classified as day bombers and little training was given in night operations. By 2 May 1939, it was recommended that the aircrew for a Wellington would thus comprise two pilots together with three airmen as WOP/AGs.
On the verge of war the number of operational squadrons available to Bomber Command was drastically reduced in order to release squadrons to become training units (OTU's.) This was to prepare for the rapid expansion of Bomber Command when the new larger four-engine bombers started to enter service with the RAF.
By the 31st August 1939, 10 Squadrons of Fairey Battles had been detached from Bomber Command to form the Advanced Air Striking Force (A.A.S.F.) in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) In addition, two squadrons of Blenheims were transferred to become the Air Component of the B.E.F. This left Bomber Command with a total force of 24 Squadrons consisting of 352 aircraft, This was inadequate to operate any prolonged major attacks on Germany. Bomber Command, now much reduced in size, was considered ready to undertake operations against the Germans.
The first 14 weeks of WW2 was for Bomber Command, a period of operational failures and for squadrons equipped with Blenheims and Hampdens a time when training would cost more aircraft and crews than did the operational flights.
These operations were often disasters, but the experience gained had long term effects on the development of Bomber Command. It became the cauldron in which the future of the command was shaped to become the decisive force that led to the defeat of Germany in 1945. It was a long and bitter road to victory, eventually costing the lives of 55,573 RAF and Dominion aircrew.
Bomber Command had been divided into four Groups and the strength of these groups was as follows;
No 2 Group, Bristol
No 3 Group, Vickers Armstrong Wellingtons, 5 Squadrons.
No 4 Group, Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys, 6 Squadrons.
No 5 Group, Handley Page Hampdens, 6 Squadrons.
The bulk of the Command was intended to operate as a day time bomber force, although 5 Group, consisting of Hampdens, received training to allow them to operate alternatively at night. 4 Group with its slow obsolete and ungainly Whitleys was the only group trained to operate as heavy bombers exclusively operating at night.
Whitleys were used, from the first day, to drop leaflets on mainland Germany; operations known as ‘Nickels’ in which they would gain valuable experience in navigating over darkened Germany. The policy was judged to be effective since losses on these operations were low in spite of bad weather conditions and the unreliable Tiger engines.
By the outbreak of war, Bomber Command were still inadequately trained and equipped to penetrate deeply into German territory by day or by night and they were incapable of executing the War Plans that the planners had been preparing for years. In 1938/9, a series of nineteen war plans was prepared in detail to cover the opening air battles. Taking into account Bomber Command’s now restricted resources, the list was drastically reduced to daytime operations against the German Northwest naval ports such as Wilhelmshaven and surrounding estuaries. Western Air Plan WA 7(b) was prepared to cover a series of attacks on warships at sea off Wilhelmshaven as the main naval base of the German Navy. The aim was to disperse to other ports the German fleet based on Wilhelmshaven. Following on from the experience of WW1 it was assumed that the principal objective of the German Navy was to attack ships bringing to Britain supplies of food and the essential war material required for Britain to prosecute the war against Germany. For these operations, the Whitley aircraft being slower were not regarded as suitable.
In preparing Plan WA 7(b), the planners accepted that Wilhelmshaven would be strongly defended by anti-aircraft batteries. It was thought that the element of surprise would allow the attack to be completed before the anti-aircraft guns could engage the bombers. Three squadrons of fighters were thought to be in an area which would comprise 27 single engine fighters and 9 twin engine fighters. It was not thought likely that all available fighters would be in a state of readiness. If the British attacks were concentrated in time there would not be sufficient time for the fighters to interfere. The planners considered no positive evidence existed at that time that German RDF (Radar) was available to the defences.
The attack would start as soon as possible after dawn and be carried out by all mobilizable Blenheims, Wellingtons, and Hampden squadrons. If ships were not located, then bombing shore targets would not be permitted, for fear that bombs would hit civilian targets. It would be permissible to attack at Wilhelmshaven the incomplete battleship later given the name ‘Graf Zeppelin, and also the power station and dock installations that were away from civilian areas. Ludlow-Hewitt aware of the low standard of navigation still existing in his squadrons, had misgivings about the planning and pointed out that navigation would have to be extremely precise. Maximum bomb loads varied from the 1,000 lb for the Blenheim to 4,500 lb for the Wellington. The Blenheim had a restricted range, and experience was to prove that it was ill equipped for reconnaissance photography.
With the declaration of war, President Roosevelt asked the combatants to agree that civilian targets including merchant vessels should be excluded from bombing attacks; to which the three principal nations concerned publicly agreed. This agreement was to affect the selection of targets for the RAF.
On 3rd September 1939 and within an hour of war being declared, a Blenheim flown by F/O McPherson of 139 Squadron took off for Wilhelmshaven and photographed many ships, north of the port. His radio messages were corrupted and therefore were not received. He had to return before 18 Hampdens and 9 Wellingtons could take off to search for shipping without success and fortunately without incurring losses.
On the following day 4th September, after another Blenheim reconnaissance by McPherson to the area 15 Blenheims and 14 Wellingtons 1s were sent to bomb German warships. Five of each of the aircraft failed to find their targets in conditions of low cloud. The remaining Blenheims carried out low flying attacks on a pocket battleship and on a cruiser. Five aircraft were lost, mainly by anti-aircraft gunfire. Three bombs hit the cruiser but failed to explode. Ludlow Hewitt’s report claimed that fighters were present but failed to attack. Wellington 1s attacked shipping off Brunsbüttel and either gunfire, or fighters shot down two aircraft. By accident, four bombs were dropped on the Danish town of Esbjerg.
These raids emphasised the weakness in defence of the Wellington 1s and the Vicker’s turrets were changed by the addition of power operated Frazer Nash gun turrets. These aircraft were then designated as Wellington 1A.
On the 14th December in the biggest action of the war so far, 23 Hampdens, 12 Wellingtons 1As, and 7 Whitleys undertook shipping searches in the Schillig Roads. The Wellingtons patrolled the area for 30 minutes, flying at low level and were engaged mainly by fighters.
The Air Ministry found it difficult to accept the shooting down of five of the Wellingtons by fighters and they blamed poor formation discipline. Ludlow-Hewitt praised the coolness of the bomber crews for remaining in the operational area for such a long period. In his report he said that he was surprised by the boldness and determined attacks that were made by the German fighters.
On the 17th December, orders were sent to 3 Group to destroy warships found in the Schillig Roads or lying off Wilhelmshaven on 18th December. The priority was to attack cruisers, submarines and destroyers in that order. If no ships were to be found in the Schillig Roads then they were to proceed to the Wilhelmshaven area. It was essential that the weather should be suitable for high level bombing to be undertaken at not less than 10,000 ft to avoid the worst effects of anti-aircraft gun fire. On reaching the target area the formations were to attack the target from different directions. The bombs carried should be 500 lb Semi Armour Piercing (S.A.P). The aircraft were to proceed in four formations of 6 aircraft, with the rendezvous point being Kings Lynn. 24 Wellington 1As were dispatched. However, before reaching the target area the aircraft flown by F/Lt Duguid leading No 2 section left the formation with engine trouble and F/Sgt Kelly sought permission to leave the formation leader to escort his leader home. Kelley missed the Aldis signal made by the formation leader, requesting him to continue in his formation.
The weather conditions up to a point 50 miles from the Norfolk coast were 10/10ths cloud at 1,000 ft. One hundred miles from the coast the sky became clear with a visibility of 25-35 miles. There was thus nowhere for the bombers to hide. The aircraft sighted Sylt and passed between Heligoland and the mainland. Twenty two of the aircraft reached the target area. No warships were found at Brunsbuttel, in the Schillig or Jade Roads .
The first fighter attack took place south of Heligoland and broke off approaching Bremerhaven when the first anti-aircraft gunfire attacks were made. Approaching the port, the bombers came under heavy anti-aircraft fire and soon the tight formation had been broken into small groups of aircraft which were then attacked by the fighters. As a result of the fighter attacks many aircraft were observed going down with petrol streaming from their damaged petrol tanks. The first Wellington N2962 to be shot down was from 149 Squadron and was that of F/O Spiers who was attacked by an Me 110 executing a beam attack. The aircraft dived vertically into the sea. A second bomber this time from 37, Squadron headed out to sea with its wing tanks burning furiously. S/L Guthrie in N2872 was shot down by fighters and was last seen crashing into the sea. Yet another broke up and plummeted towards the water. The aircraft of Sgt Brace was shot down by gunfire from enemy ships of the island of Wangerooge. The Wellingtons flew in line astern and closed formation when attacked. Germans attacked abeam and later reported that the Wellington under -turrets were not affective in defence. The rigid maintenance of their course by the formation was of great assistance to the attackers. However one section of Wellingtons were successful in surviving attack by weaving. Very heavy fighter attacks were continued after the formation left Wilhelmshaven and until the formation was 70-80 miles out to sea. The petrol tanks of the Wellington 1As had no protection, and were therefore very vulnerable to fighter aircraft.
The original orders were to execute a bombing attack but when warships were not located; the operation described in subsequent reports, became an armed reconnaissance. A total of ten Wellingtons were shot down in the area surrounding the target, while two crashed in the sea off the Norfolk coast. Two German fighters were destroyed in the action. From the twelve aircraft shot down four men were plucked from the sea off the Norfolk coast and four others became prisoners of war. The total death toll was 56 aircrew; a tremendous loss to the squadrons involved. A casualty rate of 50% was clearly unsustainable. Since the 3rd September, twenty eight aircraft had been lost in largely abortive attacks on the North West Coast of Germany. In the evening of that day, a cypher message from the Air Ministry was sent to Head Quarters of Bomber Command cancelling any further operations in force over the estuaries of the Heligoland Bight until the armouring or sealing of the petrol tanks has been completed.
Air Chief Marshal E. Ludlow-Hewitt in his report on the operation on 27th December stated there must have been a considerable reinforcement of the German fighter force; probably their best squadrons had been withdrawn from the Western Front. The fighter formations attacked the Wellingtons with great vigour. He had previously anticipated that casualties in the area would be light. The powerful resistance was probably due to adequate warning of the attack being received from the flak ships on the approaches to the target by the bombers. He criticised the pilots for not taking refuge in the clouds although on the day of the attack the weather was reported absolutely clear. The Germans, he reported, concentrated on the stragglers and he felt that the tight formation flying required was not achieved.
To be fair to his crews, he pointed out the lack of any form of armour on the port petrol tanks, which he felt must be urgently rectified by adding armour or fitting self sealing tanks. He completed his report by suggesting immediate development of heavy oil engines for future heavy bombers and welcomed the eventual entry into service of the high-speed bomber designed to make maximum use of evasive tactics. This was a clear reference to the new Mosquito high level bomber then in development.
We now know that the defences were warned in sufficient of time of the approach of the Wellingtons for the fighter aircraft to take off to intercept the raiders. How did it happen? Dr. R.V. Jones was a physicist who just before the outbreak of war in 1939 was attached to the intelligence services for the scientific interpretation of information received. One of his early functions was to establish whether Germany had evolved a radar system for the defence of Germany. There was at that time, a widely held belief in Britain, that through the efforts of Watson-Watt, we were the only nation who had developed R.D.F based defence systems. This was mistaken, as up to WW2, at least 5 other nations were working secretly on similar developments. One these was Germany, who were already well advanced in their research.
Watson Watt himself was eager to find out whether Germany had an active radar system and visited Germany on holiday to see if he could pick-up any indications but he was unsuccessful. He may have been searching for the tall masts that characterised the British radar was then installed on the East and South coasts of Britain. The Germans themselves were also curious and arranged for the Graf Zeppelin air ship containing specialists and their equipment to sail along the East Coast, looking for suitable signals. It, too, was unsuccessful because they were searching on the wrong wavelengths.
Germany, unknown to the British, had developed its own radar defence system with elements in position before the outbreak of war. Each approach to Wilhelmshaven since September 3rd had giver the German defences more opportunities to develop their interception techniques so that by December 1939 a controller was in place who could activate and direct fighters when an attack was detected. By then, eight radar stations had been established secretly on East and North Friesian Islands using an early version of the Freya; the first standard early warning radar.
Lieutenant Herman Diehl of the Experimental Air Signal Regiment had erected his station on the Island of Wangerooge in October 1939 and had begun experimental work. On December 18th, he had observed bombers at 114 km but because of previous false alarms this information was not taken seriously until the Wellington attacking force were also reported by a Naval radar on Heligoland, the fighters were then scrambled.
One of the pioneers of German radar was Dr Rudolf Kuhnhold who worked closely with GEMA, a German pioneer company in radar. He had designed a ‘search’ radar for use on ships which became the DeTe-I and was later known as the Seetakt; a successful radar set used on warships as a sea ‘search’ system. In April 1936, The German Navy decided to equip all cruisers and battleships with SEETAKT. Meanwhile a new version of this radar set, the DETELL was accepted by the German Navy as an air –warning radar for their shore based installations. The Luftwaffe eventually adopted this, as the FREYA, developed versions of which remained in service throughout the war. It was July 1940 before Bomber Command and the Air Ministry accepted that Germany had developed its own radar defence systems although Dr R.V. Jones had contrary indications.
For British Intelligence a breakthrough came in November 1939, when a mysterious package was inserted through the door of the home of the Naval Attaché in Oslo. It reported, for the first time, that German radar had detected the British bombers approaching Wilhelmshaven 110 km away in September 1939. The Air Ministry regarded this as an obvious attempt to mislead them and dismissed the report but Dr R.V. Jones was convinced of its authenticity and for the remainder of the war he checked events as they occurred against the contents of these two letters.
The abortive series of raids on Wilhelmshaven and Heligoland Bight prompted several important changes in the thinking of Bomber Command. The need for an improved bombsight was set in motion and the training of air gunners underwent radical change. A Central School of Air Gunnery was founded in October 1939 but it was early 1940 before Bomber Command received the first qualified gunners.
A new syllabus was now created based upon the use of mechanical gun turrets and the 0.303 Browning machine gun that was in principal use. Subjects such as deflection shooting also entered the syllabus and more time was devoted to air firing exercises.
The lack of self sealing petrol tanks in the RAF Wellingtons was a critical factor in their failure. The self-sealing consisted of a felt or sponge rubber covering over their petrol tanks which when pierced, allowed petrol to escape; swelling the lining which would then expand, covering the bullet hole. When a German bomber aircraft was shot down in The Firth of Forth on 16 October 1939, it was found to be fitted with self sealing fuel tanks.
The high loss rate during training by Blenheims and Hampdens led to improvements in reducing the losses in 1940. The ineffective radios used in all aircraft led to the development of new equipment. The use of Blenheims for reconnaissance photography proved to be costly in aircraft and crews and this encouraged the development by Wg Cdr Sidney Cotton of specialist photo reconnaissance units (PRU) using modified Spitfires.
In summing up, there is no indication to be found in the reports found in the archives that a possibility existed in the minds of the Air Staff and their senior commanders in Bomber Command that the Germans already had radar. This was surprising, since Fighter Command of the RAF in company with Watson-Watt had already set up the CH radar systems down the East and South Coast of Britain to detect incoming German bombers. The Battle of Britain was to prove its value. Why other people in Air Staff and Air Ministry did not appreciated the danger and forced a change in tactics remains a mystery. The sheer courage of aircrews in undertaking these operations is the one bright light shining through this tragedy.