Date: 21/22nd May 1944 (Sunday/Monday)
Unit: No. 625 Squadron
Type: Lancaster III
Base: RAF Kelstern
Pilot: 1st Lt. “Max” Eugene Dowden 0.886262 USAAF Age 28. Killed
Fl/Eng: P/O. “Frank” Harold Rowlands Moody 177085 RAFVR Age 19. Killed
Nav: F/O. “Dave” J. Weepers J/28845 RCAF. PoW No: 5075 Camp: Stalag Luft Barth Vogelsang
Air/Bmr: Sgt. “Brick” A.W. Brickenden R/160205 RCAF PoW No: 439 Camp: Stalag Luft Bankau
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. “Dick" E. Reeves 1317854 RAFVR PoW No: 406 Camp: Stalag Luft Bankau
Air/Gnr: Sgt. “Russ” Margerison 2204613 RAFVR Agr 20. PoW Stalag Luft Bankau
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. “Gib” K.J. McElroy R/169230 RCAF PoW No: 87 Camp: Stalag Luft Bankau
(note: for credits on text and photographs see further)
REASON FOR LOSS:
Night fighter attack. Theo Boiten confirmation: I agree that Obstlt. Günther Radusch (01:44 hrs) is the most likely claimant. The 21/22 May 1944 narrative plus claims listings will be published in the Nachtjagd Combat Archive series Vol 2 for 1944, I estimate in mid 2019.
The crew of LM513 was posted from No. 11 Base on the 11 March 1944. They had a rocky road through Operational Training Unit to operational status with 625 Squadron at Kelstern. The saga of this crew is well documented in the captivating book by Sgt. Russell Margerison, mid-upper gunner: 'Boys At War'.
Should the reader hold strong views against mass bombing of cities and therefore populations, I could but strongly sympathise and agree. But in the 1940’s we believed we were doing a good job in wreaking revenge on an enemy who had meted out the bombing on so many defended and undefended cities. So please forgive us - after all we were only boys, and please remember 55,573 of those Bomber Command boys died.
At Operational Training Unit Whitchurch, Russell crewed up with pilot, Fred Wade, navigator, Cyril Leverett, rear gunner, Gilbert McElroy, wireless operator, Richard Reeves and bomb aimer, Taffy. Temporarily the crew was brought up to full strength with the addition of flight engineer, Frank Moody, for posting to Heavy Conversion Unit Blyton.
The crew experienced its first setback on the evening of the 5th November, 1943. After a night cross-country training flight, Fred misjudged the flair, stalled from fifty feet onto the runway, bounced thrice driving the main wheels through the wings. Miraculously there were no injuries! Lancaster ED326 was a mangled wreck at the end of the runway. (After repairs ED326 was transferred to 12 Squadron and was lost without a trace, taking with her the crew of Sgt. Norbert Clement Keeffe and crew, on the 20/21st April 1943 raid on Stettin. (Further information here) After a series of check flights the crew was posted to start their tour of ops with 166 Squadron at Kirmington. However, it was not to be. Exactly one week after their encounter with ED326 they experienced an almost identical crash landing after a night familiarisation flight. This sealed the fate of another faithful Lanc and the future of Fred Wade as their Skipper.
Above: 'Original crew': Gib McElroy, Taff Hutchins, Max Dowden, Russ Margerison, Cyril Leverett, Dick Reeves and Frank Moody - Taken at RAF Lindholme 1943.
The crew, now whittled down to five, arrived at Heavy Conversion Unit Lindholme seeking a pilot and navigator. In short order they crossed paths with 1st Lt. Max Dowden USAAF, pilot, and Canadian Dave Weepers, navigator. It proved to be a perfect match, almost. At twenty-eight Max, a swashbuckling Yank, was considered an “old man”. His pre-war experience as a bush pilot would prove invaluable on many occasions. He would not disappoint as their Skipper. The crew parted ways with their bomb aimer, Taffy, after he prematurely jettisoned the escape hatch in reaction to an engine fire in their Halifax on a training flight. He was replaced by Canadian premed student, Arthur Brickenden. The crew, now complete, was a mixed bag and ready for their tour of ops - one American, three Canadians and three English lads.
It did not take long for 1st Lt. Dowden to instil the confidence and respect of his crew. On returning to Base after a night cross-country trip they encountered severe icing in cumulonimbus clouds and experienced a lightning strike. Max was able to pull their ice cubed Halifax out of a steep dive at 200 feet AGL. It did not take long before his perfect landings permitted the crew to land without assuming crash positions in the fuselage. Max had earned his stripes as their Skipper.
After this tortuous affair Max and his crew arrived at No. 625 Squadron RAF Kelstern on March 11, 1944 to begin their tour of ops. Following four fam flights and Max’s ‘second dickie’ trip to Stuttgart on March 15/16, 1944 with Fl/Lt. W.S. Middlemiss, it was their crew’s turn to appear on the Battle Order to attack Frankfurt on March 18, 1944 in W5009. Other than a near midair collision and a brief formation with a Ju 88 the trip was uneventful. They had a relatively quiet return op to Frankfurt on 22/23 March. However, their introduction to the Big City, Berlin, on 24/25 March was a different story with close encounters with a “scarecrow” shell and a 4000 lb. “cookie” dropped by a Lanc above. For 625 Squadron this Berlin raid was catastrophic with three of its Lancs and crews failing to return - ME684, ND641 (further information here) and ED317 (Further information here).
Shortly after, Max was challenged during a Louth pub crawl with a bet to defend his aviating prowess, by flying around the Kelstern water tower with one wing lower than the top of it - the tower’s elevation, 30 feet! Early the next morning, after lifting off with his crew on a “Y” practice flight, he performed a perfect steep turn around the tower fulfilling the obligations of the bet. There were many witnesses including the new Squadron Commander, D.D. Haig. On return he was severely reprimanded, collected his winnings and the adoration of his crew.
March 30, 1944 saw Max and his crew on the Battle Order in ED940: target Nuremberg. After a relatively quiet sortie to Essen this one would not disappoint. The pre-op briefing revealed two alarming details: the red course ribbon indicated a 350 mile long straight leg passing perilously close to night fighter beacons Ida and Otto and worst of all a met forecast for a bright moonlit night. Despite crew apprehension and Squadron Commander’s recommendations to change the route or cancel the raid, Air Commodore “Butch” Harris elected to press on regardless - perhaps one of the biggest errors during his tenure as Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command. The worst was yet to come.
For Max and his crew their fifth op to Nuremberg would prove to be most memorable and gel them as a combat team. During the outbound leg they found themselves bathed by a half moon and trailing telltale condensation trails! They felt naked! Just a half hour into the dreaded long leg night fighters infiltrated the bomber stream. Illuminated by fighter flares above and blazing crashes below, Russ described the experience akin to flying down an endless well-lit stretch of motorway. In short order the two gunners had witnessed the demise of fifteen bombers in the stream. Max’s prompt action to climb to shed their condensation trail was most likely lifesaving for them. After a terrifying two and a half hours they turned towards the target, cloaked in clouds! After releasing their bomb load on Wanganui flares they turned for home. After a rapid succession of three night fighter attacks, Max elected to take evasive corkscrew action for the next hour - quite likely another life saving decision. Nearing Dieppe their fuel reserve was dangerously low. Following a crew poll the decision was made to attempt to reach England. A crashed Lanc on the runway at Silverstone prevented them landing. Max’s cool American drawl was reassuring: “All tanks are now reading empty. Take up crash positions. I’m gonna take this baby in". Demonstrating unbelievable airmanship he pulled off a textbook forced landing - wheels down! The only damage was the port wing wrapped around a tree and a demolished pig pen. The crew was unscathed. In their minds Max had attained god status! (After removal and repairs ED940 was transferred to No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School. Radar Warfare Establishment, Central Signals Establishment. SOC 19.11-44.)
625 Squadron was fortunate to lose only one aircraft and crew on the Nuremberg raid, W5009.
Shortly after the Nuremberg debacle, in a pub debriefing on the realities of operational flying, a prophetic dialogue unfolded:
Max in a very serious tone, “If we get hit I’ll ride the baby down.”
“And me,” rejoined Frank.
Despite Russ’s protestation, his pilot and flight engineer refused to break their pact.
On the evening of April 18, 1944, returning from a raid on Rouen, Russ and his crew witnessed the demise of ME734 with P/O. J.P. Cosgrove and crew. They were on short final when they were bounced by a German intruder. This loss did not occur on the 20 April 1944 Cologne raid as noted in the text of Boys at War. Russ noted this was undoubtedly the most demoralising experience of their careers.
During April their targets included Cologne, Dusseldorf, Karlsruhe, Essen and Friedrichshafen.
The latter nine hour trip was memorable with the freezing of their microphones, mid-upper and rear turrets, the loss of three bombers to Swiss anti-aircraft fire and dealing on the return leg with a hung up 4,000 pounder rolling side to side in the bays! This must have been a most entertaining and educational “second dickie” op for Fl/Sgt S.T. Slape with Max and crew! At debriefing the pilot of another 625 crew recounted how he had executed a barrel-roll after a shell exploded under a wing. (Addendum 1- Avro Lancaster).
After five ops over just two weeks in May the crew realised that they were one of the few surviving. As Russ states it was now their turn to say goodbye.
On the evening of 21/22 May 1944 they were on the Battle Order detailed to attack Duisburg. Their nineteenth op started with two ominous signs. Just prior to takeoff Dave, the navigator, realised that he had forgotten his talisman officer’s cap that had accompanied him on all their previous trips. First in the queue Max could not abort for this oversight. During the takeoff roll a huge explosion ahead turned the dusk into momentary daylight. Airborne at 21:58 they flew over the mass of a burning aircraft - an Australian crew from Binbrook had not managed the takeoff and gone in with the bomb-load.
The outbound leg was complicated by a premature turn onto the bomb run, necessitating dropping their bombs in open country. The return flight deteriorated with an encounter with extremely heavy and accurate predicted flak. Once clear of this threat, at 23,000 feet and ten minutes from the coast at 01:38, in no uncertain fashion they “got the chop”. (Addendum 2- The Chop).
Russ describes the demise of LM513, their trusty steed for thirteen of their missions.
There was a sudden heavy rattle of cannon which I distinctly heard above the roar of the engines and vicious sparkling white tracer was whipping either side and through us, disappearing to the rear. The Lanc appeared to stop dead, as if to gasp for breath, then lurched on like a drunken man. Both port engines were ablaze and flames spewed back over the port tail-plane and fin. The firing lasted for no more than two seconds. It was more than enough. Down went the nose of the aircraft, the engines screaming in agony, and my head felt as if it was going to burst with the pressure.
“Pull the bugger out, pull the bugger out!” someone shouted, and in reply the aircraft slowly adopted an attitude at which it was possible to move.
“Feather port engines,” Max ordered, then immediately, “Abandon aircraft. Abandon aircraft.”
I sat unbelievingly, watching little curls of metal rolling off the huge oval tail fin revealing the framework underneath, shocked at the suddenness and speed at which events were moving.
Off came my gloves and I uncoupled my oxygen supply and electrically-heated suit, then vacated the turret in record time. The whole fuselage, from the armour-plated bulkhead door to the mid-upper turret, was an inferno. Flames licked at my parachute, which lay on the floor, for I had always had difficulty in putting it in its proper stow.
I grabbed it, grasped the material handles and with a sharp tug tried to engage the two metal brackets onto the hooks of my harness. I failed. Gib, wearing his chute, opened the back door, turned, gave me a thumbs up and disappeared from sight.
Smoke and the lack of oxygen were making breathing difficult as I tried once again to clip on the chute. I failed again, leaned against the fuselage side and said aloud, “Well, this is it.”
The heat was intense and I moved nearer the door. Ammunition was exploding. I was gaping at flames outside, which I could see through the holes made by the cannon shells. “What the hell am I doing?” screamed my fogged brain and in sheer desperation I banged on the chute. It stayed. I rushed to the door and something tore off part of my helmet which I was mistakenly still wearing. Owing to the slipstream, it was difficult to kneel on the step but as I poked out my head I was whipped away with a fierce icy cold wind, my arms clutching the parachute.
I wrote a few days later that the whole episode lasted two minutes.
It felt as if I was travelling a thousand miles an hour in a sitting position. When I pulled hard on the metal handle there was a flapping noise and I was brought to a dead stop in mid-air. By now the oxygen situation was playing tricks, for whilst I realised I was safely out, I was in fact going upwards instead of down.
Strangely this realisation did not concern me one iota.
What did concern me, however, was the noise of the fighter, coming closer and closer, and as his engine or engines became a deafening roar I tried to curl myself into a little ball. Thankfully the noise faded, but the night was so black I never saw him.
It was indeed a grim sight watching Y Yorker curl ever downwards, streaming flame as she went. I had seen many go down but this was different. This was our aircraft and some of my mates could well be inside it. The Lanc hit the ground to leave a circle of fire and I turned my head away.
“Please Lord,” I prayed, “let all my friends be safe - and please, somehow let my parents know that I am safe. Amen.”
Floating down after that was almost pleasant, but bitterly cold. Dampness encompassed me and it was like entering a warm pool of water as I passed through a layer of cloud. On looking down into the inky blackness and deciding there was a long way to go yet, I relaxed totally, but with a surprising bump I landed immediately, rolling on the ground. Twisting the release catch, then hitting it, caused my harness to fall off, and there I lay unhurt, in total darkness, with my knees in the air.
The only lesson we had ever received on parachute jumping was an instructor saying: “Don’t forget to land relaxed should you have to bale out.” By chance I had done just that.
I prayed again for my parents.
“What now Russ, what now?” I asked myself aloud.
After being shot down it took some time for LM513’s crew to assess their situation in Occupied Europe. Russ was reunited with Dick Reeves after three days on foot, compliments of the Belgian underground. They learned that their aircraft had crashed on the Belgian side of the Dutch-Belgian border near the village Meir. Dick recounted what had happened up front. Dave had already gone and Max and Frank were struggling with the control column. Brick was sitting on the edge of the escape hatch as if deciding whether or not to jump. Dick punched him on the back knocking him out of the aircraft. Dick followed but would never forget looking back up and seeing the faces of Max and Frank, lit by flames, which were licking their way around them. They were both staring straight ahead, their arms wrapped around the control column, pulling as hard as they could. Gib was first out before Russ. They were both incredulous as to how quickly it happened.
Russ and Dick were hidden for five days by Marcel Vermeulin and his very attractive daughter, Emilie, of the White Brigade of the Belgian resistance - in Wit-Hofken, Brecht, Belgium. They were then moved by tram to 29 Boomgard Straat in Antwerp where they were safeguarded by Hermine Scheire for the next six weeks, celebrating the June 6 1944 Normandy invasion. They were assured that they would be flown home in a matter of days. On 5th July they were moved to 176 Avenue de Belgique in Antwerp under the care of a most efficient Paula Caveirne. On the 11 July 1944 Dick celebrated his twenty-first birthday. The next day during another transfer they were betrayed and unsuspectingly walked into a trap set by the German Military Intelligence. After seven weeks as evaders they had entered the uncertain world of Prisoners of War. Lacking uniforms and identity discs they were accused of being spies and threatened with death by firing squad the next morning. This did not transpire and after five days in Antwerp Prison they were moved by rail to Brussels, then into Germany to Stalag Luft VII at Bankau in Upper Silesia.
Here they caught up to Gib McElroy who updated them on the fates of their crew mates up front:
“Before we go into that Gib,” I interjected, “what’s happened to the rest of them? Do you know?”
He looked at me with strangely serious eyes. “Yes,” he answered after a long silence. “Dave and Brick are both in an officers’ camp not far from here, but Frank and Max are dead.”
“Oh no,” escaped from Dick’s lips.
“I knew it, I just knew it.” and I told them for the first time how we had a row in the pub at Mablethorpe when both of them had said they would ride it down should anything happen.
“I wonder if they could have got out,” Dick mused. “I really doubt it. They were both struggling with the control column. Frank might have, but not Max.”
“We’ll never know the answer to that one, but when they hit the ground Frank was still alive.” said Gib.
The news staggered us.
“How on earth do you know that Gib?” asked Dick.
“‘Cause I was captured early the following morning after we got the chop, but just before I fell into German hands a local told me that the one in a blue uniform was still alive when the Germans got to the aircraft but he was in such a hopeless condition they had to shoot him.”
“You’re sure they are both dead?” I asked, thinking Max might have made it for he always wore his light American Khaki.
“Positive Russ,” he continued. “The soldiers put me in a lorry and in the corner were the bodies of Max and Frank. One of Germans was showing off Max’s watch, another had Frank’s lighter. It was a hell of a journey because, besides Max and Frank, there were about eight sacks, soggy, with blood oozing out of them, and when I asked who they were I was told Americans.
“They asked me if I knew the two on the floor but I just waved my hand and spent the rest of the trip staring outside.”
Russ and his crew mates adjusted to the rigours of PoW life over the next five months. By January 1945 the end was in sight with the Allies advancing from the west and the Russians from the east. An urgent order by the German High Command directed a forced march to the west to avoid being over run by the Russians.
With the Russians In Germany, 1945. Rear: Lol, one of our fellow escapees shown first on the left, Dick Reeves, friend and fellow crew member third from the left. Front: First on the left Ray the American Ranger who was to prove such and assets, “Russ” Margerison second from left with Ernie Iveson, another of our group who escaped is fourth from left.
As a result Russ and Dick found themselves in a group of 1,565 prisoners with armed guards setting off at 05:30 hrs on 19 January 1945 - westbound towards an unknown destination. The route from Bankau to their ultimate destination, Luckenwalde prison camp, included the first 240 kilometre leg on foot! The conditions were horrendous as this was the beginning of chaos in Germany at wars end - heavy snow blizzards, boots frozen solid on feet, minimal nutrition and sleeping in barns and pig styes. The last leg by rail in roofed cattle-wagons consisted of three nights and two days without food or water and a dysentery outbreak. On arrival at Luckenwalde they had been reduced to 1,493 men in desperate need of nutrition and medical attention.
Dawn of April 21st revealed that their German guards had deserted their posts. By the next day they realised that they were now prisoners of the Russians but were given the option of joining the fight, wearing the uniform of the Russian Army! They deferred, citing the Geneva Convention. At this point Russ and Dick decided to escape and take their chances striking out cross country on foot. Russ always considered these few days to be the most dangerous he had ever known. He concluded that the aftermath of war was more difficult to cope with than war itself. In the course of their trek they came across a deserted aerodrome with dozens of Luftwaffe aircraft at their dispersal points. It was here that he first saw the deadly upward-firing cannon mounted in a Me 110 night fighter - “an alarming sight to all of us. If we had but known many lives could have been saved by having the bomb-aimer permanently looking underneath our Lancs.”(Addendum 3- Schräge Musik).
PoW's LuckenwaldeAfter a failed attempt to swim across the river Elbe, on Sunday May 20 1945 they succeeded by bridge in an American Dodge lorry. It was ironic that at this time Gib and ex-PoW Canadians were on the high seas homeward bound! After a short flight from Hildesheim to Brussels in a Dakota, Russ and Dick were treated to the final leg home in a Lanc, with Russ in the mid-upper turret grinning ear to ear at Dick in the astrodome.
At first light on May 23 1945 Russ arrived home at Blackburn, to a sign stretched between bedroom windows, “Welcome home Russell”, and tears in his father’s eyes. He was six months short of his twenty-first birthday.
In early July 2003, Russ and his wife, Bette, returned to Belgium at the request of researchers to retrace their path with the Belgian underground. In Hoogstraten they met Theresia Snoeys who had hidden David Weepers for several weeks. For her courage she had received a citation from the Canadian Government. Their next stop was at the crash site on the farm of Christ Vermeiren. Here they learned that a full wing had landed at the back of the house and a petrol tank from the plane has fallen nearby, exploding violently. The blast blew off the whole side of the roof and left the other side intact apart from a crack running down the side of the wall, still not repaired to that day. The fuselage came to rest at the end of the tract in a cornfield about one hundred yards from the farm. The bodies of Max Dowden and Frank Moody were thrown clear with Frank still alive - just. The Germans, having a garrison nearby, had soon arrived on the scene and refused the local priest permission to read the last rites over them. They shot Frank in a mercy killing, he being impossible to save. Christ confirmed these events as he was one of the children asleep in the house at the time of the crash. On visiting their graves they noticed that they were buried almost alongside each other. Tears fell not only from Russ but also Bette, for Frank Moody had been her wartime boyfriend.
For gallantry in the presence of the enemy:
0.886262 1st Lt. Max Eugene Dowden- Victoria Cross, KIA, Eye witness accounts.
For gallantry in the presence of the enemy:
177085 P/O Francis Harold Rowlands Moody- Victoria Cross, KIA, Eye witness accounts.
1st Lt. Max Eugene Dowden; Schoonselhof Cemetery, Grave IVa.E.27 (Sp. Mem.) Antwerp, Belgium. Headstone Inscription: “Believed to be Lieutenant M. E. Dowden, USAAF - 22nd May 1944 Age 28. Headstone Inscription: "He died as he served with the RCAF". Officially Missing in Action. Remains never recovered.
P/O. Francis Harold Rowlands Moody; Schoonselhof Cemetery, Grave IVa.E.10. Son of John Thomas Rowlands and Annie Moody of Newsome, Huddersfield, England. Headstone Inscription: “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he hath awakened from the dream of life. ’Tis death is dead, not he”
Russell Margerison died at home whilst being cared for by his sons, on 4th October 2014 (born 7 November 1924). His wife, Bette, was born on 29th September 1926 and died on 18th August 2009.
Boys at War: by Russell Margerison, Northway Publications. The Margerison family and Northway publications have given permission to quote from this source and reproduce the photographs for this submission to Aircrew Remembered. 625 Squadron ORBs. Commonwealth War Graves Commission. American Air Museum.
Addendum 1- Avro Lancaster
Russ’s squadron mate need not have been in awe of the Lanc’s aerobatic prowess. He would have been reassured by the absolute confidence that Alex Henshaw had in this amazing aircraft. In his autobiography, 'SIGH FOR A MERLIN' -Testing the Spitfire, he dedicates a chapter, Rolling the Lanc, to it. He introduced the barrel-roll into his Lanc flight routine after performing his first one despite the surprised protestation of a visiting test pilot/passenger. The opportunity presented itself after the pull-up from a 360 IAS clean steady power dive into a stall turn in an almost vertical bank. He could not resist the temptation to complete the positively controlled manoeuvre. When questioned by his colleagues that this action might exceed the structural limits of the airframe, he noted that if the barrel-roll was performed in a cautious manner it exposed the aircraft to stresses similar to a steep turn. As Alex noted, in the adrenalin rush of combat, pilots taking evasive action would impose far greater loads than, no negative ‘G’ and no more than one ‘G’ positive of his precision manoeuvre. It is interesting to note that he carried out his test flights from the half runway for Lancasters at the Castle Bromwich airfield, which was shorter than the taxi path for Lancasters - testimony to his airmanship and the short field performance of the Lanc!
625 aircrew had the good fortune to serve their tour of ops in this legendary aircraft, in the Mark B.I and B.III variants. They referred to the Lanc as the Queen of the Skies and Bomber Harris as his Golden Sword.
It is quite remarkable that the design of the Lancaster existed at the height of the Battle of Britain, before its twin engined predecessor, the Manchester, had passed Service evaluation. Over the next four years 7,000 Lancs would fly an incredible 150,000 bombing sorties, each with a crew of seven, average age 22 years! - many never to return.
The Avro Lancaster, project Type 680, was the creation of aeronautical engineering genius, Roy Chadwick, and his design staff. The transformation from Manchester to Lanc included the expansion of the wingspan by twelve feet to accommodate four Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engines (5,120- 6,560 h.p. total) and enlarged tailplane and fins. The length increased by less than a foot! The resulting configuration with the characteristic nose, faired mid-upper turret and twin elliptical fins gave the Lanc a proud, pugnacious, aggressive air. The mid-wing configuration allowed for a capacious bomb bay with an unprecedented payload. This varied from the ‘USUAL’ area bombing load of 12,000 lb. up to the 22,000 lb. 'GRAND SLAM'. The latter required the deletion of the bomb doors and much equipment to remain within gross limit.
The Lanc had few shortcomings but one was a result of the mid-wing configuration - the dreaded main spar which resulted in many a barked shin and in emergency situations divided the crew into the five up front and two in the back. The Lanc was the cream of the crop and gave crews maximal chance of surviving their tour of ops. With time it became apparent that both the Lanc and Halifax had an achilles heel that would result in the loss of many crews to a weapon system that was deadly and capitalised on this vulnerability, the invisible and unsuspected attack from below - Schräge Musik.
By wars end the Lanc was the workhorse of Bomber Command and equipped no fewer than fifty-seven squadrons. The majority of raids were being carried out predominantly by Lanc squadrons. The lives of many aircrew were spared by the fact that they flew in a superior aircraft - less vulnerable to flak and dreaded Nachtjagd attacks.
625 Squadron, along with the other 13 squadrons in No.1 Group Bomber Command, operated both the Mk1 and Mk3 versions throughout it's existence.
Externally, to the untrained eye, there was really no visible difference, and to the crews flying in them, it did not matter which version they were in as far as operational ability was concerned. Nonetheless, Pilots and Flight Engineers would need to be aware of the version being operated at any one time, as power settings for bomb load weights at take off would have been different on both.
This was mainly because the Mk1 was fitted with either Rolls Royce Merlin XXs', 22s' or 24s', developing between 1280-1620hp and fuelled via SU carburettors.
The Mk3's in contrast were powered by American Packard built Merlin 28s', 38s' or 224s', developing between 1300-1640hp, and fitted with Bendix Stromberg pressure injected carburettors.
It was also found after testing at the Airplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, that the 'paddle blade' propellors fitted to the Mk3 gave an extra 8 mph in cruising speed, and increased the service ceiling by some 1500 feet, as opposed to the 'needle blade' props on the Mk1!
Whilst early Mk1s' were built with the pitot head (airspeed indicator) on the lower port side of the nose, just behind the bomb aimers blister, it was later moved to the side of the fuselage, just below the cockpit glazing, and continued into the Mk3.
The original shallow bomb aimers blister on the Mk1 was later changed to a larger deeper one, and again continued into the Mk3.
On both later Mk1s' and Mk3s', Rebecca Aerials (navigation aids) were also added on the production lines and placed just aft of the front turret.
625 Squadron would receive either Mk1s' or 3s' as replacement aircraft for losses at random, but these would be suitably modified as the war progressed.
There were however, always anomalies on all Squadrons.This was owing to the establishment by Avro of three repair facilities for crashed/damaged aircraft. These were located at Bracebridge Heath (Lincoln), Langar (Notts) and Tollerton (Notts). The two former were operated by Avro personnel and the latter by Field Aircraft Services. It was not uncommon when aircraft returned to service to find a Mk1 forward fuselage married to a Mk3 rear fuselage and vice/versa!
It was also possible to find 2 RR Merlin engines and 2 Packard engines on the same aircraft, such was the need for a quick turnaround and return to Squadrons! Squadron codes were also changed where required as the original aircraft did not always return to its' original Squadron.
Most of the Mk3 aircraft would also have been fitted with H2S at the two main assembly lines at Chadderton and Yeadon. Whilst this large blister under the rear fuselage housed the blind bombing aid and was a superb piece of equipment, crews were told to turn it off when not required as by 1944/1945, Luftwaffe JU 88 night fighters, fitted with Naxos Z radar equipment, were able to home in on its' transmissions from as far away as 30 miles!
Later Mk1s' could also be found with H2S, and a 'window' dispenser was added on the starboard side of the nose on both versions, for use by either the bomb aimer or flight engineer.
One other small difference, not readily obvious, was the deletion of the small oblong windows on the fuselage sides of the Mk1. These were not installed on the Mk3, and later Mk1s' had them deleted or painted over.
Production of both Mk1 and Mk3 versions continued throughout the war and even into 1946.
Lancaster in Action - Squadron/Signal Publications. Avro Lancaster The Definitive Record- Harry Holmes
Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris took on the responsibility of Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command on February 22 1942, a position he would hold until wars end. It did not take long for him to mould his Command into one of the most impressive offensive weapons of the war. However, there were lessons to be learned in the process. He was most disappointed when his ‘old lags’ did not receive their just recognition by Prime Minister Churchill in his VE-Day speech which credited all services with the notable exception of Bomber Command!
On April 14th 1942 twelve Lancs from Nos. 44 and 97 Squadrons were detailed in a daylight raid to attack the MAN diesel engine factory in Augsburg. The force led by Squadron Leader John Nettleton was decimated by German fighters with the loss of seven crews. Nettleton was awarded the VC for displaying unflinching determination as well as leadership and valour of the highest order. The message was obvious: daylight raids deep into enemy territory without fighter escort were prohibitive.
During the summer of 1942 Lanc crews were detailed to convoy patrols up to eleven hours in duration. C-in-C Harris did not accept that the confirmed sinking of two U-boats justified removing precious aircraft and crews from the Main Force.
The last Lanc daylight raid before D-Day preparation was carried out on October 17 1943 on the Schneider factory at Le Creusot and the transformer and switching station at Montchanin - dubbed Operation Robinson Creusot. Ninety-four aircraft participated, one failed to return most likely a victim of its own bomb blast.
On the evening of May 16/17 1943 Bomber Command carried out a specialised raid on the dams of the Ruhr valley. This endeavour exemplified that under wartime conditions the impossible could be achieved in record time. From Command endorsement to raid completion the time frame was an incredible eleven weeks! This included the development and production of the 9,000 lb. counter-rotating percussion bomb (Upkeep), the brainchild of Dr. Barnes Wallis; the modification of Lanc variant “Type 464 Provisioning Lancaster” to carry this weapon and most critically, aircrew training of newly formed No. 617 Squadron to deliver the bomb to the centre face of each dam at low altitude, at night—an impossible task! This involved collaboration and cooperation between Wallis, Chadwick, Harris and Churchill. Nineteen Lancs participated in symbolic Operation Chastise, with three waves led by W/C Guy Gibson DSO, DFC.
The Möhne and Eder dams were breached and the Sorpe and most likely Bever dams were attacked but remained intact. Eight crews failed to return, fifty-six men Missing in Action with only three surviving. The impact of this operation on the German war machine was immediate and persisted until the Normandy invasion. The morale boost to the aircrew of Bomber Command and British citizenry was immeasurable. Deservedly W/C Gibson was awarded the VC for his part in the Dams raid. With this in mind the Squadron motto came as no surprise: After me, the flood.
Between July 24/25 and August 2/3 1943 Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force targeted Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah. This included four night raids by Bomber Command and two token day raids by the USAAF. The first three night raids were more than enough with the development of a massive fire-storm during the July 27/28 raid. The results were catastrophic with 40,000 deaths and two thirds of the population fleeing the city. The fourth night raid of August 2/3rd was a fiasco due to severe thunderstorms with turbulence and icing. A Lanc from No.12 Squadron was hurled inverted and entered a spin. The flight engineer was knocked unconscious and an aileron torn off. The pilot was able to regain control and return safely! The Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes aborted or bombed alternative targets. It is noteworthy that Lancs made up 46 percent of the July 24/25 raid yet delivered 71percent of the bomb tonnage. Also during this series of night attacks, Window was first introduced to jam German ground and airborne interception radar. It was estimated that this resulted in 100-130 Bomber Command aircraft being saved during the Battle of Hamburg. For the German High Command this would mark the commencement of Harris fulfilling his prophecy: “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”. Hosea, viii. 7.
The Battle of Berlin was Arthur Harris’s gambit to bomb the Nazi war machine into surrender. Between November 18/19 1943 and March 31 1944, Bomber Command would target the Big City for sixteen major raids. At the onset of the Battle, No. 625 Squadron had been operational for a month before its aircrew were thrust into the fray.They would pay dearly for the privilege. The Squadron lost twelve aircraft when Berlin was detailed as the target - ten failed to return and two crashed on English soil. Fifty-seven aircrew were killed in action, ten prisoners of war, five evaders and six injured. The Battle of Berlin did not result in capitulation but had a major impact on German personnel and resources shifted to defend their capital.
The Lancs of Bomber Command played a vital role in the lead up to Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion. Raids targeted the Wehrmacht depot at Mailly-le-Camp, gun emplacements and railway marshalling yards. On the eve of the invasion No. 617 Squadron carried out Operation Taxable: the precision formation discharge of Window to mimic an invasion fleet landing at Pas de Calais - the ultimate deception!
No. 617 Squadron aircraft, armed with 12,000 lb. Tallboys or 22,000 lb. Grand Slams, were responsible for the sinking of the Tirpitz, destroying the Nienburg bridge, Bremen and River Weser railway bridges, Bielefeld and Arnsberg viaducts and collapsing the Saumur railway tunnel - epitomising precision bombing!
After D-Day Lancs were detailed to attack specific targets in support of the advancing Allied armies, as well as V-weapon launching sites. During the last six months of the war targets were selected to bring the synthetic oil industry to a standstill and exsanguinate the German war machine.
Symbolically the final major raid of the war was carried out by Lancs bombing Hitler’s residential retreat at The Berghof and S.S. barracks at Berchtesgaden.
At wars end Lancs were equipped to carry food panniers for low level, low speed drops to starving Dutch citizens. Nos. 115, 186 and 576 Squadrons participated in these mercy ops, codenamed Operation Manna. In addition Lanc crews were called on to return ex-POWs to England. As Operation Exodus 74,000 were repatriated in twenty-four days. Tragically on May 9th 1945, RF230 of No. 514 Squadron ran into difficulty shortly after takeoff from Juvincourt, stalled and dove into the ground - there were no survivors from the complement of thirty crew and PoWs. So close yet so far. (Further information here). Operation Dodge was launched to return the soldiers of the British Army in Italy and Central Mediterranean theatre over a four month period. This was a most fitting fashion to complete its incredible end for this battle weary warrior to end its incredible contribution to ending this war. The Avro Lancaster has left a mark in aviation history that will never be erased.
Roy Chadwick was appointed Commander of the British Empire in 1943 for his role in the Lancaster design and mods for Operation Chastise. Sadly he died on August 23 1947 during the takeoff crash of the prototype Avro Tudor 2 - due to inadvertently crossed aileron cables! Unfortunately neither W/Cdr. Guy Gibson nor any of his crew survived the war. After hostilities ended two Dam Buster vets, Joe McCarthy and Ken Brown, flew Lancs out of RCAF Base Comox, British Columbia as members of 407 Maritime Squadron.
It is difficult to accept that today only two of these 7,000 majestic aircraft are still airworthy - one in England and one in Canada. The Canadian survivor is finished in the livery of KB726, VR-A in memory of P/O. Andrew Mynarski VC (Further information here).
Co-authors: Reg Price No. 625 Squadron Vet, Battle of Berlin survivor (Further information here). John Naylor - Mk1 and Mk3 versions.
Sigh for a Merlin- Testing the Spitfire, Alex Henshaw. The Avro Lancaster- Francis K. Mason. The Bomber Command War Diaries- Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everett. Royal Air Force Bombers of World War Two: Volume One- Phillip J.R. Moyes.
Lanc and Halifax “Offices”- Reg Price Collection. Lanc “VRA”,low flypast - David and Christobel Mattingley, Photographer unknown at this time.
Audio: A Tribute to Bomber Command - Track 10 Lancaster Montage (Maximum Effort/JEA) By Joe Williams and Nic Lewis.
Addendum 2- The Chop
This informal British colloquialism has a dual meaning - the action of killing someone or the fact of being killed: seven men we all knew had got the chop. It is interesting that the example given was the standard Lanc crew, suggesting that the origin of this term had aircrew roots.
In using it aircrew assumed that their squadron mates that failed to return from an op had been killed in action. This was not always the case. Martin Middlebrook in The Nuremberg Raid presents the statistics for the fates of any one hundred airmen joining a heavy-bomber crew through an Operational Training Unit and serving a full cycle of service: Killed on operations - 51, Killed in crashes in England - 9, Seriously injured in crashes - 3, Prisoners-of-war - 12, Evaders - 1, Survived unharmed - 24 - Sobering numbers. One can only wonder how a young man would volunteer for aircrew knowing these outcomes. Unfortunately after attestation they had no control over their fate. They were trained and posted to the Command that had the highest need for replacement crews ie. those with the highest losses. Once on an operational bomber base it would not take long for them to be confronted with the grim reality of their chances of surviving a tour.
During the course of a year and a half of ops, No. 625 Squadron lost seventy-two of its aircraft: 382 airmen got the chop/killed in action. In that time one Squadron Lanc with a crew of seven was lost without a trace on a training flight over the Irish Sea (Further information here).
The most common cause for a loss was a night fighter attack. Theo Boiten estimates that over half of the Squadron’s losses were due to Nachtjagd combats. Flak was a close second. Often it was unclear which was responsible when the loss was described as: unknown, exploded in mid-air or crashed in the target area. It is anticipated that Theo’s expanded Nachtjagd Combat Archives will bring closure to approximately thirty of the Squadron’s losses. Mid-air collisions accounted for three - Sq/Ldr. C.W.C. Hamilton being the sole survivor (AR link pending). One loss was due to an engine fire on take off (Further information here) and one due to severe airframe icing or spatial disorientation. Three aircraft and crews were lost without a trace. One failed to return as a result of friendly fire - struck by incendiaries from above (AR link pending). Three individual crew members were killed in action. Fl/Sgt. Frank Adams died from injuries when his rear turret separated on landing (Further information here). F/O. D.N.A. Cooper was killed instantly when hit by an incendiary bullet or flak (Further information here). Tragically W/O. F.T. Page survived a bale out, fourteen months as a PoW, only to succumb to wounds sustained when a Typhoon strafed their train on the final leg of the infamous 1945 forced march.
After a raid it took some time to ensure that an aircraft that had failed to return to Base was actually missing. This included a communication search of alternate/emergency airfields and a time frame, that took into account fuel load and projected flight duration, had lapsed. On rare occasions crews were saved by Air-Sea Rescue launches and returned to Base several days later (Further information here). Once a loss was confirmed relatives were notified by telegram, usually within days, that their loved one was missing after air operations. This was followed by a personal letter from the squadron leader confirming the content of the telegram. This correspondence usually included the possibilities of the airman being a prisoner of war or evader. The Red Cross Society was usually able to confirm those killed in action or taken as prisoners of war within five weeks of the operation. After all avenues had been exhausted and a prescribed time frame the airman was presumed dead for official purposes and relatives notified. Unfortunately on occasion administrative errors were made. One Canadian family was initially notified that their son was a POW, only to be informed several months later that this was in error and in fact he had been killed in action, providing the location of his grave in Europe. One can only imagine the heartache and devastation this caused the family.
Forty of the Squadron’s losses resulted in the loss of life of the entire crew, usually seven airmen, but one of eight. From eye witness accounts and Missing Research and Enquiry Unit investigations (including exhumations) it was apparent that the majority of these brave young men had violent, traumatic deaths. This is reflected in the number of crews that share collective or joint graves. Positive identification often depended on isolated identity discs, shoulder flashes or officer uniform braid. On one occasion a personal letter was recovered by the French resistance in the pocket of a charred battle dress fragment - strictly against regulations. Their exposure to pain and suffering was brief and in some cases nonexistent. However for many the period of intense mental anguish before the end can only be imagined. It is difficult to contemplate one’s situation, blown out of an aircraft at 20,000 feet without a parachute, freezing cold and totally alert - with 115 seconds to live! The fortunate ones were unconscious or lifeless. Occasionally a lucky individual would be wearing a parachute and regain consciousness in time to deploy it or have a first memory of floating earthward as the explosive force had opened the chute. Aircrew pinned by centrifugal force in a doomed Lanc would face similar horrors, with a little more time to ponder their fate. Descriptive terms such as carbonised, charred and blown to smithereens were all to common in MREU reports. On many occasions the citizens of Occupied European countries were witness to the demise of these brave young airmen and often participated in recovery of remains for burial. They were aware of the price of peace. It explains why to date they still commemorate their sacrifice on November 11th, maintain immaculate headstones and place floral bouquets. Not to forget that these citizens would risk their lives to shelter and protect evaders.
In order to survive life threatening emergencies aircrew were equipped with several critical articles: parachute, Mae West and dinghies. The proviso with a parachute was that it had to be clipped to the airman’s harness before baling out. There are two documented rare exceptions. One occurred on March 24/25 1944, the same date that 625 Squadron lost three crews on the last Berlin raid and The Great Escape took place. Sgt. Nicholas Stephen Alkemade was the rear gunner in No. 115 Lancaster II, DS664, A4-K, piloted by Fl/Sgt. Jack Newman. On the return leg from Berlin they were attacked by a Ju 88. Cannon shells shattered his turret driving perspex into his right leg. He returned fire as a blast of flames scorched his hands and melted his oxygen mask to his face. The Skipper gave the order to bale out. Momentarily opening his turret doors, the heat was intense and he glimpsed his burning parachute. Confronted with two options, jump or be roasted alive, he turned his turret on the beam and rolled out backwards. Three hours later he regained consciousness after surviving a free fall of some three and a half miles! His impact had been cushioned by fir branches and a deep snow drift. Initially the Germans did not believe his account. His injuries included a twisted right knee, splinters in his thigh, a badly bruised back, a deep head wound and first degree burns of face and hands. After interrogation by Luftwaffe officers a search party located his charred parachute on the fuselage floor of their crashed Lanc. Further searching located the snow drift with a four foot depression. The Camp Commandant presented Sgt. Alkemade with a statement that he had truly survived a 19,000 foot fall without a parachute and without injury. Unfortunately Fl/Sgt. Newman and three of his crew did not survive.
The second incident recounted by Kevin Wilson in Journey’s End is just as incredible. Fl/Lt. Joe Herman, an Australian Halifax pilot, was on his thirty-third op. Just after bomb release they had direct flak hits in the rear fuselage and both wing tanks. Within seconds the wings were engulfed in flames. Fl/Lt. Herman gave the order abandon aircraft. He had previously reminded his crew to clip on their parachutes but neglected to do so himself. Suddenly he found himself with his mid-upper gunner, Fl/Sgt. John Vivash and flight engineer, Sgt. Harry Knott in an uncontrollable aircraft. In a last ditch effort to conjure his stored chute he observed the starboard wing fold up as the Hally rolled onto its back - and exploded at 17,500 feet! Ejected into freezing air and the roaring mayhem of his disintegrating bomber, he soon gave up the fruitless search for his elusive parachute. Cartwheeling, he accelerated out of the debris field to be mesmerised by the three quarter moon and stars above and the River Ruhr and multi-coloured target glow in the distance. As he plummeted earthward he contemplated the hundreds of helpless bomber boys that had preceded him, resigned to his fate. On impact he instinctively thrust out his arms and found himself clinging to a pair of legs. After a brief introductory conversation and upward glance he was stunned to discover that the legs belonged to Fl/Sgt.Vivash - attached to his deployed chute! Shortly they landed in a pine wood clearing. The only injury he sustained was two fractured ribs when Fl/Sgt. Vivash landed on his chest. In time they were able to reconstruct the sequence of events: Fl/Sgt. Vivash was rendered unconscious by the explosion and was free-falling in close proximity to Fl/Lt. Herman. He recovered consciousness and pulled his ripcord. As his chute caught air he swung forward, legs horizontal. At this precise moment Fl/Lt. Herman arrived on the scene face down and struck Fl/Sgt. Vivash’s body, reflexly clamping onto his extended legs.Aircrew whose lives were saved by parachute automatically became members of the Caterpillar Club and were awarded a silver or gold caterpillar pin by the parachute company that manufactured their chute. In this case one parachute yields two caterpillars!
Not all aircrew killed in action experienced sudden or traumatic ends. Ditching or parachuting into a body of water were always a possible outcomes for bomber crews facing transit of the unforgiving North Sea, English Channel or Bay of Biscay, twice on each op. During training aircrew were advised as part of their bale out protocol to inflate their Mae West during descent in the event of a water landing, especially at night. If ignored the element of surprise and panic in an attempt to inflate a Mae West underwater would almost guarantee death by drowning. Aircrew surviving a ditching or parachuting into water likewise became members of the Goldfish Club and were awarded an embroidered badge of a white-winged goldfish. It quite likely that the mystery of the three Squadron aircraft lost without a trace will remain unsolved. Deduction suggests they are resting in the North Sea or other body of water due to battle damage or ditching as a result of fuel starvation.
Death by hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) was not a painful way to die but just as tragic. Disruption of the oxygen supply at altitude could occur for many reasons: forgotten plug ins, accidental or battle damage disconnection. On a rare occasion a tail gunner was found dead in his turret on landing back at Base after an op. It was discovered that frozen vomitus had obstructed his oxygen supply. Unfortunately the remainder of the crew did not clue in to his intercom silence.
It did not happen often but a constant fear of bomber aircrew was being forced to bale out over the target they had just bombed and of being captured and murdered by irate citizens. On many occasions compassionate Luftwaffe personal came to their rescue and ensured their safety and security as PoWs.
The loss of aircraft and crews after a raid was demoralising for surviving Squadron mates, ground crew and devastating for next-of-kin. Empty mess seats and Nissan hut beds were grim reminders of the tasks at hand and what the future might hold. On six occasions three 625 Squadron crews were missing after a raid. However No.101 Squadron holds the unenviable record of losing seven of twenty-six Lancs detailed on the disastrous Nuremberg raid - a prohibitive 27% loss rate! Ironically one of the seven was shot down by a Halifax!
Squadron Operational Record Books indicated a loss with this entry: TARGET. FAILED TO RETURN - nothing heard after takeoff. The last month of a crewman’s log book entries were completed by administrative staff with ops in red ink. The final entry in red ink was: MISSING - NOTHING HEARD. Personal effects were secured and returned to families. On many occasions an inscription was composed by the family for the deceased airman’s headstone in England or Europe, but only if a final resting place was known. One of the Squadron’s most poignant was that for rear gunner, Sgt. Peter Banks, age 20, killed in action during the December 15 1944 raid on Ludwigshafen. There were no survivors when NG294, CF-H, piloted by P/O J. Fletcher was brought down for unknown reasons.
“I Was Not There To See You Die, To Lift Your Hand, To Say Good-Bye, My Son Peter”
Aircrew with no known grave are commemorated with a panel on the Runnymede Memorial (Air Forces Memorial) located in Surrey England. Limited space did not allow inscriptions.
Co-author: Reg Price, No. 625 Squadron vet, Battle of Berlin survivor.
Boys at War- Russell Margerison, p. 43, Northway Publications. Journey’s End- Kevin Wilson, pp. 74-77. Photos: Nil.
Addendum 3- Schräge Musik (Slanting Music)
It is not surprising that as an air gunner Russ was quick to comprehend the deadly potential of this weapon system and the obvious vulnerability of the Lanc and Halifax. However, he was mistaken in his remedy of the bomb aimer maintaining a downward scan. The attacking aircraft would still have been screened from view.
Above: Me110 nightfighter / Schräge Musik ( Bombers over Berlin, Alan W. Cooper)
This innovative concept of delivering an aerial attack from below with vertically mounted weapons was not new. In 1917 Gerhard Fieseler mounted two light machine guns to his Albatros D.V, pointed forward and upwards. This installation was adopted by Leutnant Thiede, CO of Jasta 38. He found that this arrangement permitted attack from below without being blinded by searchlights. The RLM (State Air Ministry) did not show interest in 1938 when he reminded them of his experiences. Oberleutnant Schoenert received identical treatment in 1941 when he suggested equipping a Do 17 with a vertically-firing machine gun. In his opinion the average pilot could shoot more effectively flying horizontally beneath a bomber. In the summer of 1942 the night fighting advisor to the Technical Office, Oberstleutnant von Lossberg assessed a Do 217J with vertical armament. He discovered that for an attack to be successful the night fighter and target aircraft had to be on exactly the same course. In addition he found that the ideal installation angle was between 65 and 70 degrees which also allowed for sight tracking of a target turning up to 8 degrees/sec. At this time Oberfeldwebel Mahle of II/NJG 5 built two surplus MG FF cannons into the rear cabin of a Bf 110. In May 1943 Oblt Schoenert scored the first kill over Berlin with this ‘do-it-yourself’ installation - further victories mounted exponentially. By June 1943 an official oblique-weapon Standard Equipment set, R22, was produced for Do 217 and Ju 88-Cs and Mahle’s ad hoc variation became standard for the Bf 110. Major Rudolf Schoenert survived the war with sixty-seven confirmed night victories.
Operation Gomorrah, that resulted in the destruction of Hamburg with a series of combined night and day bombing raids between July 24 and August 3 1943, was a wakeup call for the German High Command - a real emergency existed that called for extraordinary measures to protect the Fatherland. This resulted in the development of the free night fighting concept, involving Wilde Sau (Wild Boar) and Zahme Sau (Tame Boar) tactics. Wild Boar incorporated single engine night fighters vectored to visually intercept the bomber stream over the target. Tame Boar described the strategy of vectoring twin engined night fighters into the bomber stream. Once contact was established with the stream crews would depend on their SN-2 Airborne Interception radar to ‘swim’ in the stream making repeated attacks. The latter method had been proposed by Oberst von Lossberg to Milch and Göring in early 1943 with the added concept of crews established in the stream constantly transmitting direction-finding signals to attract other night fighters. Göring implored: ‘Well Lossberg, get going then!’
The 17/18 August 1943 raid on the V rocket development centre at Peenemünde marked the introduction of the diversionary raid by Bomber Command and the Tame Boar method of attack with Schräge Musik by Nachtjagd crews. They accounted for at least 33 of the bomber losses. One young crew dispatched three returning Lancs and a Halifax with their oblique weapons in just fourteen minutes - their first victories in air combat!
It did not take long for Nachtjagd crews to develop a patented attack: Vectors to establish SN-2 contact, approach low from behind to minimise detection, climb into attack position below the port or starboard wing below the engines and petrol tanks in the arc of invisibility between the bomb aimer’s and rear gunner’s line of sight, attack with Schräge Musik, break away with a lateral diving turn to avoid explosions and falling debris from their victim and maintain position to observe the results of their attack to ensure that a second attack was not required - it seldom was! Experienced pilots would often combine the attack and break into one coordinated manoeuvre, aiming at the trailing edge of the wing they would press the gun button on the control column as they pushed forward to start the dive away to escape. The fewer cannons shells expended the better. During the Nuremberg raid Oberleutnant Helmet Schulte dispatched four heavies with just fifty-six cannon shells. On one occasion a bomber was destroyed with two cannon rounds! Surviving bomber crewmen were in awe of an attack utilizing this devastating weapon, almost always without warning and seldom more than several seconds in duration. There were two reasons for aiming at the wings rather than the fuselage: It gave the bomber crew a chance to bail out and avoided the fighter firing into the bomb load with catastrophic results. However there were no guarantees. Theo Boiten recounts a close call by Hauptmann Martin Drewes on the evening of July 20/21 1944. Despite a warning from his crew that he was too close Drewes initiated his attack. Simultaneously the Lanc banked and his cannon shells entered the bomb bay with explosive results. Drewes found himself blind, with a useless left arm and unresponsive controls. He managed to bail out and survived a low level chute deployment.
It is interesting that some old and experienced Nachtjäger were prejudiced against Schräge Musik maintaining that it was ‘unsportsmanlike’. Hauptmann Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein refused to use this weapon system. One expert confessed that it was too much ‘like shooting geese’ when he returned to base with fuel and ammunition to fight on.
Bomber Command intelligence and technical branches must have had many clues that Nachtjagd crews had a weapon incorporating vertical firing cannons. The forensic evidence of damage inflicted on those fortunate enough to escape was indisputable. However catastrophic the March 30/31 Nuremberg raid, it did provide eyewitness accounts of the deadly sequence of a Schräge Musik attack. Martin Middlebrook in The Nuremberg Raid provides numerous crew debriefings that leave no doubt of its existence. One will suffice:
Flight Lieutenant D.F. Gillam of No. 100 Squadron. This experienced crew observed that they were leaving contrails at 19,000 feet and decided to climb to their service ceiling of 20,000 feet. They watched a Lanc 2,000 feet below, two miles to starboard trailing a dirty great contrail. Fascinated but helpless to intervene they observed a twin-engined German aircraft overtake, approaching just under Lanc’s contrail. THE GERMAN GOT UNDERNEATH THE LANCASTER AND FIRED STRAIGHT INTO HIS BELLY WITH AN UPWARD-FIRING GUN. The bomber took no evasive action at all. There was an explosion and it blew clean in half. There were no parachutes. ‘My stomach turned over and we tried to get even higher. By then, I was feeling very cheesed off with the powers that be for sending us out on a night like that’.
This graphic, accurate debriefing provides solid testimony to the existence of the deadly efficient Schräge Music. It is fascinating and depressing to assess Bomber Command’s reaction and countermeasures to negate this threat. The obvious and simplest would have been to brief and forewarn aircrews of this threat from below, recommending increased vigilance of lookout scans below and behind as well as intermittent banks to bring the mid-upper gunner into the lateral below wing scan. More costly would have been to add a ventral weapon or observation post to be manned by the bomb aimer when he was not required for bombing or navigation duties. One remedy put to the test by No. 405 Squadron was to add a ventral viewing hole to Lancs that had their dorsal turrets removed. The mid-upper gunner would man this position fitted with safety straps, oxygen connections and heated flying suit. The gunner’s role was to provide timely corkscrew instructions to the Skipper. At least they stood a fighting chance. It is impossible to predict how many lives would have been spared over the last twenty months of the war if any of these measures were introduced.
We will never know.
However this is not how Bomber Command addressed this threat. Instead the device created to pacify aircrew, in reality did not exist - Scarecrow shells of flares. The brilliant, often multicoloured, flashes reported by returning crews were attributed to specially designed shells packed with explosives to mimic a bombers last moments after a direct flak hit or devastating night fighter attack. Such devices were never produced by the Germans. The grim truth was that the violent explosions were just what was feared - terminal events of another bomber and its crew! It is amazing that some Bomber Command vets went to their graves believing that Scarecrow shells actually existed—the proverbial ostrich head in the sand syndrome!
Up until wars end Schräge Musik remained a threat despite petrol and aircrew shortages. The defence of the Reich was delegated to experienced Nachtjagd crews and they could still deliver a sting. During the evening of March 14/15 1945, Hauptmann Martin ‘Tino’ Becker and his bordfunker, Leutnant Karl-Ludwig Johanssen, claimed a total of nine bombers - six fell to Schräge Musik and three to Johanssen’s rearward-facing twin MG131 machine guns, a Nachtjagd record for number of victories from a single sortie. Their victims most likely included No. 49 Squadron Lanc RF153 (Further information here) skippered by Fl/Lt. Noel McPhee of Courtenay, British Columbia. There were no survivors from his crew - less than two months before wars end!
During the course of the war, Bomber Command was delivered two and possibly a third golden egg by the fickle finger of fate. On May 9 1943 a Nachtjagd crew deserted to the British. Their aircraft, a Ju 88R-1 of 10./NJG 3 (coded D5 + EV), was equipped with FuG 212 revealing that flak control and airborne interception radars worked on the same frequency. This information was used to develop Window to jam and paralyse the Luftwaffe air reporting and interception capabilities. Window was first used as a jamming device during the Hamburg raids. The impact on Nachtjagd operations was instant and dramatic. In the chaos and confusion of the first raid, Bomber Command losses plummeted to 1.5%! The Germans would adjust but the use of Window would continue to wars end.
On July 13 1944 the crew of a brand new Ju 88 G-1 (4R + UR) became disoriented over the North Sea and inadvertently landed at RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk. Fortuitously this aircraft was equipped with SN-2 AI radar, Naxos and Flensburg tracking devices. Within ten days British scientists had improvised counter measures that further compromised the Nachtjagd’s ability to hunt and destroy British bombers. This was a decisive blow from which the German night fighter arm would never recover.
During the 27/28 April 1944 Friedrichshafen raid a situation developed that resulted in panic in the German High Command and a near international crises. Oberleutnant Wilhelm Johnen, Staffelkapitän of 5./NJG 5, in the heat of combat was forced to shut down the port engine of his Bf 110G-4 (coded C9 + EN). Coned by searchlights he fired distress flares and was directed towards a lit-up airfield. After landing he soon discovered that the airfield was at Dübendorf, near Zürich in neutral Switzerland! The cause for panic was that Oblt Johnen’s aircraft was equipped with Schräge Musik and SN-2 radar. In addition the radio operator, Leutnant Kamprath, the Signals Officer, had against regulations carried on operations the latest radio codes. Coincidentally the rear gunner was Ofw Mahle who had developed Schräge Musik for series production. This international standoff was resolved with the blowing-up of C9 + EN and the Swiss receiving 12 Bf 109G-6 fighters with licence-manufacturing rights for a price of 500,000 gold Swiss francs each. The Swiss soon discovered that all the engines were almost complete write-offs. Six years after wars end, Diamler- Benz and Messerschmitt were forced to pay compensation. Before the Swiss had destroyed Johnen’s aircraft, they had examined, photographed, drawn and prepared detailed reports on everything. One can only speculate the impact if this information was shared with the Allies. Theo Boiten is quite certain that there was no leak of these critical military secrets.
It is interesting to note how Bomber Command High Command reacted to the discovery of German electronic counter measures with effective remedies such as Window and minimising H2S use. It is puzzling that their best response to a weapon system as deadly as Schräge Musik was denial with the deceitful concept of Scarecrow shells - leading lambs to the slaughter. What were they thinking?
Co-author: Reg Price, No. 625 Squadron veteran.
History of the German Night Fighter Force- 1917-1945, Gerhard Aders. The Nuremberg Raid, The worst night of the war March 30-31, 1944, Martin Middlebrook. Nachtjagd War Diaries- Volumes One and Two, Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Roderick J.Mckenzie. Great Aircraft of WWII Handbook, Dr. Alfred Price and Mike Spick. Photo/Diagram: Me 110 Nightfighter, p. 46, courtesy of Allan W. Cooper, Bombers Over Berlin.
Submission by Jack Albrecht and Nic Lewis.