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The Top 5 Air Battles of World War II: The Berlin Raids (#5)

No. 5 of World War II's 5 Greatest Air Battles

Air Marshal Sir Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris believed that strategic bombing could win World War II for the Allies. In his mind, a sufficient force of heavy bombers could cause enough destruction to the enemy that there would be no need for a land invasion. The enemy would sue for peace. It happened that the British War Cabinet also knew that bombing, pending the cross-channel invasion, was the only way for Great Britain to strike back at Germany, so while Coastal Command and the army went begging for bombers, Harris got much of what he wanted.

Harris, conversely, was flush from his greatest triumph, the Hamburg raids in July 1943, which had seen the German defenders helpless in the face of new Allied technologies and tactics. More than 42,000 people were killed, 37,000 injured, 250,000 lost their homes, and 1 million fled the city.

In 1943, with a night bombing campaign in full swing and his forces growing, and with America now joining “round the clock” bombing, Harris believed the Allied bomber forces could level Berlin and bring Germany to its knees. “We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF come in with us. It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war,” Harris said.

Halifax Mk III

A Halifax B Mk. III, with its distinctive square tailfins and Bristol Hercules radial engines. The Halifax was the second major heavy bomber in the Berlin raids, and, with the Stirling, was gradually pulled from frontline operations. Royal Air Force photo

The Americans, however, still reeling from the Schweinfurt-Regensburg debacle, and without a long-range fighter escort force, were unprepared to participate, and in any case, had decided to concentrate on their mission of destroying the Luftwaffe in preparation for the Normandy invasion. Harris, conversely, was flush from his greatest triumph, the Hamburg raids in July 1943, which had seen the German defenders helpless in the face of new Allied technologies and tactics. More than 42,000 people were killed, 37,000 injured, 250,000 lost their homes, and 1 million fled the city.

The raw statistics do little justice to the horror. A combination of conditions created a tornadic firestorm; asphalt streets caught fire, people fleeing the flames were sucked from their feet and pulled back into the maelstrom. Others were boiled alive in the city’s canals or harbor burned to death as the oil and fuel leaked into the water by shattered vessels caught fire. Bomb shelters were found with all inside dead, without a mark on them, suffocated as the fires above them consumed all the oxygen in the air. Hamburg never really recovered from the campaign.

Lancaster SR-B drops window

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, NG128 ‘SR-B’, of No. 101 Squadron RAF drops bundles of “window” during a daylight raid on Duisburg Oct. 15, 1944. Some question whether the use of window by Bomber Command eventually worked to its detriment. IWM photo

Harris thought he could do the same to Berlin. Berlin had been bombed before, first by 81 Wellingtons, Whitleys, and Hampdens that managed to drop their bombs on Aug. 25, 1940. While the material effect was small, this attack, and a few others afterward, caused Hitler to order the Luftwaffe to concentrate on bombing British cities rather than continue the attacks on airfields and sector stations that had been on the verge of breaking the back of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Those first raids, small as they might have been, thus had an influence out of all proportion to their size and effectiveness.

Harris never had a sufficient force of bombers to wreak the damage necessary on the city nor to overwhelm the German defenses.

The twin-engine medium Whitleys, Wellingtons, and Hampdens were gone now, on second-line duties, retired, or destroyed, and while Berlin had been bombed before, it had never been attacked with Bomber Command at peak strength, with a majority of capable bombers on strength like the heavy Lancaster and Halifax as well as the superlative de Havilland Mosquito (operating in both night fighter and bomber variants), and employing new tactics and technologies.

The attacks naturally necessitated raids on other cities, or else the Germans could have concentrated their forces around Berlin, and much of Bomber Command’s night bombing war consisted of feints, decoy attacks, misdirection, and “spoofing.”

Halifax crew

A Halifax crew before takeoff. At bottom is the radio operator, above him the pilot, and behind the pilot to his right the flight engineer. Unlike American heavy bombers, the Lancaster and Halifax had only a single pilot, with a fold-down seat for the flight engineer to help the pilot on takeoff or in case of emergency. Australian War Memorial photo

When it came to Berlin, however, there were several problems with Harris’ confidence in his plan to repeat the successes of the campaign against Hamburg. The first was that Berlin was a sprawling, modern city and difficult to burn as, unlike Hamburg, the wide avenues made for efficient firebreaks. It presented a more difficult radar picture for the bombers’ H2S radar sets used to drop even on cloudy or moonless nights, as Berlin was not as easily recognizable due to terrain features such as a shoreline along a sea or major river. Beyond these issues, its sheer size also mitigated against its destruction.

With Tame Boar, the night fighter would fly along with the bomber stream, with the potential of shooting down more bombers than in the old system, and the predominant German night fighters, based on the Ju 88 medium bomber and Bf 110 twin-engined fighter, had enough endurance to do so.

Harris never had a sufficient force of bombers to inflict the necessary damage on the city nor to overwhelm the German defenses. He might have approached the force necessary if the Americans had come in wholeheartedly, but they didn’t. Finally, the Germans had learned from Hamburg and made adjustments to their defenses, both tactically and technologically.

FuG 220 and FuG 202 Bf 110

FuG 220 SN-2 and FuG 202 B/C (center) “Lichtenstein” night fighter radar equipment on the nose of a Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4. The older B/C radar was retained for short-range acquisition of targets until the SN-2’s minimum range performance was improved. IWM photo

After the Hamburg debacle, when countermeasures such as “Window” (chaff) had blinded German Wurzburg ground control and airborne Lichtenstein B/C radar and left the Luftwaffe impotent, the Luftwaffe night fighter force, radar and flak troops had rebuilt and developed new equipment and tactics. Since Window had made the old German “Himmelbitt” (four-poster bed) system, in which ground radar stations guided individual night fighters to individual targets in individual “boxes” of airspace obsolete, a new system, “Zahme Sau” or Tame Boar, had been developed. Tame Boar inserted numbers of night fighters directly into the main bomber stream, where they would use their own air intercept radar, increasingly the advanced SN-2 Lichtensteins, to home in on individual bombers and shoot them down. In some ways, Tame Boar was superior to employing the old Himmelbitt system, where a single fighter working a single box was directed onto a single bomber. Once the interception was complete or failed, the process would start over, but a typical interception took 17 minutes, and in the meantime, other bombers were passing through the box unharmed.

With Tame Boar, the night fighter would fly along with the bomber stream, with the potential of shooting down more bombers than in the old system, and the predominant German night fighters, based on the Ju 88 medium bomber and Bf 110 twin-engined fighter, had enough endurance to do so. The dangers of collision and long range navigation at night and in bad weather were additional problems for the night fighters, but whatever the case, something had to be done to counter the RAF’s advantage.

Lancaster tail gunner clear-vision

A Lancaster tail gunner in his Frazer Nash turret with four .303 machine guns. He is behind a “clear vision canopy” which is semantics for having nothing between him and lurking night fighters but the below freezing blackness of the night sky. IWM photo

In addition to Tame Boar, former bomber pilot Maj. Hajo Herrmann had come up with his own, even simpler “Wilde Sau” or Wild Boar tactics, with single-engine day fighters intercepting the bomber stream over the target cities and striving to make visual attacks on the bombers silhouetted above the flak, the wandering beams of searchlights, and the pulsing glare of the target markers, exploding bombs and fires down below. The scheme to some seemed downright desperate, and attrition of Wild Boar pilots was high. Night flying and navigation were highly developed skills, single-engine day fighters lacked more than rudimentary blind flying instruments, and with the onset of winter weather losses became prohibitive. But the upshot was a more lethal atmosphere for Bomber Command’s Halifaxes, Lancasters, Mosquitoes, and Stirlings just when Harris thought he had overcome the German defenses.

Many bombers never knew they were being attacked until it was far too late. Sgt. Ralph Elliott was a rear gunner in a Short Stirling, as depicted in Martin Middlebrook’s The Berlin Raids:

We were still among the searchlights. I never saw the fighter, I think he was underneath us. It was a typical August night, dark down below, but lighter above. … The first thing I knew was the explosion of the cannon shells. The rear turret was hit underneath me.

There were flames, and the ammunition in the belts was going off between my legs. …My intercom had gone dead, so I was completely isolated way back there.

I went along to the mid-upper’s turret and felt for his legs, but he was not there. Everything was very dark at the back. The night fighter was still attacking and I think the main part of the plane was on fire. I had the impression I was the only one left so I went back to the hatch and jumped.

German ground stations had even learned to make educated guesses as to the bombers’ intended target based on monitoring the emissions from the bombers’ H2S bombing radars. Though this had become obvious to Bomber Command leadership, the alternative, of bombing “blind,” would reduce bombing accuracy to the point that raids on Berlin would be nearly useless.

Some would later suggest that the Luftwaffe’s responses to RAF moves actually caused more RAF losses in the long run, and it is a reasonable argument to make. Luftwaffe ace Paul Zorner tells of his own success in Robin Nielland’s The Bomber War. From July 1942 to July 1943, he had flown Dornier 217 and Ju 88 night fighters, but had only shot down two bombers under the Himmelbitt system when things changed.

In August 1943 the English started to use Dupple (Window), aluminium strips by which the radar was made ineffective, and in September I was posted to III/NJG 3 at Luneburg, near Hamburg, where we re-equipped with the new Me 110, with the new radio navigation apparatus SN2 (Lichtenstein). With this a promising free night-fighter operation, independent from guidance, was possible. In the next four months I shot down 29 British bombers.


Operation Gomorrah Lancaster

A Lancaster silhouetted against the target markers, searchlights, and fires on the ground in Hamburg. The Luftwaffe’s Wilde Sau tactics depended on being able to find the bombers under just such conditions in order to shoot them down. IWM photo

In any case, on Aug. 23, 1943, supremely confident in his theory that the bomber could win the war, Harris dispatched the first of his raids to “The Big City,” with some 725 bombers taking part. The losses were the worst Bomber Command had yet suffered in a single raid, with 56 bombers lost for a 7.9 percent loss rate. Undaunted, Harris sent another 622 aircraft to Berlin on Aug. 31, with 47 shot down, a 7.6 percent loss rate. Regular, sustained loss rates of 4-5 percent were considered unsustainable, yet after a short break Bomber Command raids on Berlin began in earnest once again in November. The first of these took off on the night of Nov. 18, 1943, with 444 bombers sent out and only nine lost.

Ju88 night fighter

American personnel examine a Ju 88G-6 fitted with SN-2 “antlers” captured at Wunstorf airfield near Hanover in April 1945. The medium bomber actually adapted quite well to the night fighter role. Bundesarchive photo

Encouraged, Harris dispatched a second raid of 764 aircraft on Nov. 22, with only 26 aircraft lost. Bombers returned to Berlin several more times in November and December 1943, but then losses began to rise alarmingly in the new year. On Jan. 28, 1944, 43 bombers of 683 attacking Berlin failed to return, or 6.4 percent of the force. On Feb. 15, 42 of 891 dispatched to the city were lost. Seventy-two bombers of the 811 sent against Berlin on March 24 also failed to return, or 8.9 percent. And this did not include losses in numerous raids against other cities during the campaign. The final straw was the Nuremberg raid on March 30, 1944. A series of errors, bad breaks and miscalculations had stretched out the bomber stream, and atmospheric conditions meant each plane left a long contrail in the strong, high-altitude winds. More than 20 German night-fighter squadrons attacked the bomber stream over 250 miles, and 95 bombers of a force of 781 failed to return, finishing Harris’ dream of winning the war by bombing.

W4964 Luck of a Lancaster

Flying Officer A. E. Manning and his crew gather by their aircraft, Avro Lancaster B Mark I, W4964 ‘WS-J’, of No. 9 Squadron RAF, shortly after their return to Bardney, Lincolnshire, in the early hours of Jan. 6, 1944, after raiding Stettin, Germany. Of every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded, 8 became Prisoners of War, and only 41 escaped unhurt. Imperial War Museum photo

Between August 1943 and March 1944, 19 major attacks had failed to destroy Berlin or bring Germany to its knees. While more than 10,000 had died, and a third of the city’s housing had been destroyed, German morale had not broken nor had vital war production been heavily curtailed. In the first three months of 1944, according to E.R. Hooton’s Eagle in Flames, 15 percent of the German night fighter force had been lost, along with 256 fighters destroyed during the battle alone, but the RAF had suffered worse.

Bomber Command lost 625 bombers raiding Berlin at night, 499 of them lost during the main battle between November and March, an average loss rate between 5.5 and 5.8 percent, according to Martin Middlebrook’s The Berlin Raids. In those bombers were 2,690 young men who would never return, and 987 would spend the rest of the war in prison camps. The Germans had won air superiority in the night sky, and Bomber Command was increasingly given over to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for missions supporting the coming invasion of France, Operation Overlord. After its crippling losses, Bomber Command needed the rest.

This story was originally published on Jun 16, 2016