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Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary


Campaign Diary
1941

 

January

The year started with a raid by 141 aircraft on the very first night of the month. Bremen, the main target for the night reports very accurate bombing, especially by the first waves of aircraft against the Focke Wulf aircraft factory in the south of the city. Smaller attacks are made against the city on the following two nights. In the following nights the bombers are used in piecemeal attacks on shipping in both German and Channel ports as well as Gardening. Indeed, the 8th/9th January saw the RAF bomb Wilhelmshaven where the battleship Tirpitz was berthed - the first of many attempts in the war to sink the vessel. On the following night, synthetic oil plants at Gelsenkirchen are raided by less than half of the 135 aircraft despatched. The 10th saw the first Circus operation. 6 Blenheims of No 114 Squadron, escorted by 72 fighters, bombed an ammunition depot south of Calais. Two more large-scale raids were made on Wilhelmshaven on the nights of 15th/16th and 16th/17th involving 96 and 81 aircraft respectively. The success of the first night is not repeated in the second mission.

February

Crews found that many targets were obscured by cloud and as a result, what little accuracy there was, suffered tremendously. Diary entries in records of German cities report little or no damage on nights when Bomber Command crews had supposedly visited. Given this situation, it is therefore hard to believe that the Command was told to concentrate its efforts on enemy oil production. A list of 17 targets was drawn up from which it was believed that the destruction of 9 would result in a reduction of 80% of Germany's ability to produce oil. Air Chief Marshal Pierse, the Command's AOCinC, decided that one large attack against an industrial city would be made with the oil attacks taking up the remaining operations. On 10th/11th February, 222 aircraft, the largest despatched to a single target, attacked Hannover. Four aircraft were lost. On the nights that followed, oil facilities were bombed by anything between 1 and 73 aircraft - all with little success. As an example, the night of the 14th/15th saw 44 Wellingtons despatched to Nordstern, near Gelsenkirchen but only 9 claimed to have hit the target. Interestingly, when No 57 Squadron returned to its base at Feltwell, a German aircraft is believed to have been amongst them! After landed, the aircraft quickly took-off again. The ill-fated Manchester was also used on operations for the first time this month. Six aircraft from No 207 Squadron took part in a raid on Brest. One Manchester crashed.

March

As is the norm in England during this time of the year, fog played havoc with Bomber Command's operations. Not by only by forcing the cancellation of trips, but also causing many crews to abandon their aircraft upon the return home. The night of 1st/2nd alone saw 14 aircraft lost in this manner. The month saw the operational debut of the Halifax when 6 aircraft from No 35 Squadron joined 8 Blenheims in a raid on Le Havre. Unfortunately, one of the Halifaxes was shot down by an RAF fighter during its return flight - only the pilot and one other man survived.

Barely a month after the oil plant directive, the Command was forced into another theatre of operations - the Atlantic War. Allied shipping losses had risen dramatically since the fall of France less than a year ago and the Air Ministry directed Bomber Command to attack U-boat production factories, docks (containing the virtually indestructible U-boat pens) and airfields when long-range German patrol aircraft operated from. The shipbuilding ports of Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen and Vegesack topped the target list along with U-boat engine factories in Mannheim and Augsburg and airfields in Norway and France. Brest would find itself in the firing line on many occasions when the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were berthed in the coming months.

It was also during this month that some very prophetic words about the Command's operations were written. Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman, in a directive dated 9th March, he said: "Priority of selection should be given to those [targets] in Germany which lie in congested areas where the greatest moral [sic] effect is likely to result." Despite the unfortunate miss-spelling, it was obvious what Freeman was suggesting, and this, ironically, was taken up by the then Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Harris who, when said of Mannheim and the recently added city of Stuttgart to the U-boat production targets said: "Both are suitable as area objectives and their attack should have high morale value." These two statements would greatly influence future Bomber Command thinking.

With it's new orders, Bomber Command attempted to disrupt the production of U-boats. Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin were attacked by a total of 257 aircraft during the night of 12th/13th March. Hamburg was again the target the following night when 51 people were killed, the highest number so far. Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Kiel and Lorient (in France) followed in quick succession with Manchesters, Halifaxes and Stirlings all making the debut over German skies in these operations. On the 29th, a daylight attack on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was ordered by 6 Blenheims; all turned back because of cloud cover. Three nights later, over 100 aircraft attempted to hit the vessels in Brest harbour - all failed. Blenheims had more success on the 31st against other warships in the Channel. The aircraft were also allowed to attack targets of opportunity on the coasts they were patrolling and several gun positions and troops on parade where attacked in Holland. The night of the 31st March/1st April saw the first use of 4,000lb high capacity bombs (known as 'blockbusters' or 'cookies' by crews) during a raid on Emden.

April

A succession raids against the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (or 'Salmon' and 'Gluckstein' as Bomber Command's crews had christened them) eventually forced the captain of the Gneisenau to order his vessel to be moored out in Brest harbour. The vessel was hit the next day by a torpedo dropped from a Beaufort of Coastal Command and the subsequent damage took six months to repair. The aircraft was shot down during the attack, but it's pilot, Flying Officer K Campbell, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. For two nights, Kiel was subjected to attacks by a total of 389 aircraft. The raids were deemed a success by the crews and were probably the most successful raids against a single target during the war to date. Along with Brest (10 raids), Kiel was the main objective of many operations (6 raids) with Bremen and Hamburg other main targets. The end of the month saw a new method of operation for 2 Group and its Blenheim with the Channel Stop. Aircraft, operating with fighter escort, attempted to stop any German vessels passing through the narrowest part of the Channel by day whilst fast patrol boats attempted the same by night. Operations against oil facilities did continue, but with poor results.


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