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Four hundred British bombers left this country in the late evening of November 7th, 1941, all bound for enemy territory

Four hundred British bombers left this country in the late evening of November 7th, 1941, all bound for enemy territory, None of the aircrew involved had any thought of the trip being a joyride; bombing never was. But few could have anticipated that this would be one night they would never forget, a night which, for some them was to mean agony of mind and spirit culminating in the stark realisation that they could not get their aircraft back.

In two years of war this was Bomber Command's greatest combined effort against Germany. But during the course of it, heavy bombers were to be thrown uncontrollably around the sky like leaves in the wind. The majority of the aircrew who got back were sick on the way. And,in the bleak light of the morning of November 8, the grim results of that night's "maximum effort" became known.

Thirty seven aircraft had failed to return. Although this was Bomber Command's heaviest loss to that date, it was only about two per cent greater than the average losses of the period. But what must have worried the planners at Bomber Command was the staring fact that most of these aircraft were not lost through enemy action. They had not been shot down by night-fighters, nor by flak. They had run out of petrol.

Over a pitch-black and cloud-covered Continent and over an icy. misty North Sea, some 25 bombers had glided silently in to crash. Others were practically within sight of the British airfields when their engines stopped and an immediate crash landing was the only chance left. And there were hundreds of telephone calls between airfields as other crews the lucky ones phoned up their bases to say they had just managed to scrape in at a Coastal airfield.

The public learned something of what had happened from the BBC news bulletin at nine o'clock the following evening. Reports are now available from our aircrews, read the announcer, Joseph Macleod, "on last night's freak weather which interfered with the biggest offensive our bombers have yet launched against Germany, It was not only phenomenal weather it was unexpected".

In one respect, however this report was not entirely accurate. The bad weather was not unexpected. The met officers had known what conditions were likely to be as early as the morning of the 7th. The full story of that November raid was never told. It lay forgotten in the archives of Bomber Command for 17 years. Only now can we reconstruct the events which led up to one of the RAF's worst nights of the war.

On the morning before the raid the various bomber group planners got together over the conference telephones to consider the forthcoming night's work . First they heard what the met officers had to say. The forecast was by no means optimistic. Clouds would be building up to 15,000 feet over Germany and icing conditions were prevalent. A strong wind would be helping the bombers towards their targets, hindering then on the way back.

It was not a good forecast, but it was typical of many nights during that appallingly bad winter of 1941/42. The risks in reaching Berlin, involving a round trip of some 1,200 miles for British bombers, were great at any time and many of our aircraft that night, with a full bomb-load, would have very little range to spare. Aircraft in general use at the time were the "old guard" of Bomber Command, Whitleys, Wellingtons and Hampdens. There was only a handful of the newer Halifaxes, Stirlings and Manchesters.

The planning conference that morning must have considered all this and particularly the fact that the limited range of the Whitley made Berlin a critical target in the best of weather. Even on good nights the bombers normally based in northern England often took off from southern airfields to save fuel. , The planners must also have discussed the probability that these aircraft would use up extra fuel by climbing to clear the forecasted cloud-tops. There was little chance of flying through the clouds because of the severe icing forecast.

Slessor said "No"

One who recaIls the events of this dramatic day is Marshal of the RAF Sir John Slessor, at that time an Air Vice Marshal and AOC of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. "I had been away visiting Bomber Command HQ. that afternoon," he says, and on returning to my headquarters was met by our senior meteorological officer, Mr. Mathews, who told me in no unmeasured terms that in his view we should be undertaking a quite unjustifiable risk in sending the Hampdens to Berlin in the icing conditions to be expected. I had the utmost faith in him, he knew the aircraft and the crews and what could be expected of them almost as well as I did and I had no hesitation in diverting my group from Berlin to a closer alternative target, and so informed Command."

It is, of course, the prerogative of a Group Commander to vary the target if he considers it essential. In this case, Slessor's bombers went, Cologne, Ostend, Boulogne, the Ruhr and Oslo.

But 169 aircraft from 1, 3 and 4 Groups did take off for Berlin . Another 55 went to Mannheim, another marginal target. Labouring under a maximum
load of bombs and fuel they took off from airfields all over Eastern England and climbed painfully up through the gloom. Many had been briefed to land at southern airfields as there was little chance of them getting back their own home bases.

The first difficulties came soon. The weather had worsened in one slight respect there were some cloud tops which were higher than the solid top forecast.

The slender margin by which the bombers would reach Berlin was cut and the heavily loaded aircraft were faced with a problem. They could fly through the clouds and risk icing up, which with their heavy load might prove critical or they could fly round the cloud tops a up their precious fuel.

Pilot Officer Harry Drake, making his second operational trip as second pilot in a 10 Squadron Whitley, is one of many who carry vivid memories of that night. Drake, now an Air Correspondent London, recalls that on the outward trip they were able to get their Whitley about a 1,000 feet above the solid cloud
But stretching at least 4,000 feet higher were other cloud tops . "We knew icing to be heavy," Drake says and decided to go round the clouds. But we lost so much time and fuel in doing this that, by the time we had crossed into Denmark and the solid cloud had begun to break up, we knew that it would useless trying to reach Berlin as we hadn't enough fuel left. lnstead we searched along the north German coast and found Lubeck sufficiently clear for a visual bomb run and we bombed there."

What happened to Drake happened to many others, and aircraft which should have gone to Berlin diverted to Lubeck , Warnemunde, Rostock. Kiel, Schleswig, Sylt and other towns because they knew they would have insufficient fuel to reach the German capital.

Blind Approach.

But their difficulties were not over ."We were still worried about the development of upper cloud, " says Drake of the return journey." and of the difficulties of making a descent through cloud when we got back home. Conditions then were not what they are today and it would have been more than tricky making a straight down blind approach with hills round the airfield!

So we looked for a hole off the Danish Coast and luckily found one. We spiralled down through it and found the bottom of the cloud only 500 feel above the sea. We returned all the way at 200 300 feet. met frequent thunderstorms and grand displays of St.Elmo's fire. although we were in position to appreciate
it! Most of our crew were sick all the way back :'

But Drake and most of the others who had diverted from Berlin, had the fuel reserves left to make a British airfield. For those who struggled through to Berlin it was a different matter. In the first place, most of them flew straight through the cloud tops on the outward journey, they had to. otherwise they would not have had sufficient fuel left for the return journey. In the high cloud tops many iced up. Some got into difficulties and by the time they should have flown out of the cloud tops they were below the level of the solid cloud.

For those who reached Berlin another surprise was waiting. A clear area had been forecast for the target region, but Berlin was far from clear. Not that this had any bearing on the ability' of the aircraft to get back. Its main effect was to make bombing difficult. It was 'on the return journey that troubles began in earnest.

One of the men who got to Berlin and back was Sergeant D. K. Brearey who is now running his own business in Ipswich. Brearey made the trip in the rear-turret of a Whitley of 102 Squadron: He recalls that there was light flak over the target but no sign of enemy fighters. After a fairly successful bombing run Brearey's aircraft ran into bad weather. It was blown off course and lost its way and drifted over Hamburg where it was met by a lively flak barrage.

Near the Dutch coast." recalls Brearey, we ran into dense cu-nim cloud, iced up and both our engines cut out. My captain, Sergeant Tony Whickham,
took the Whitley down in a rapid glide from 12,000 to 2,000 feet . In the centre of the cloud the wireless operator got a shock from his set, great chunks of ice flew off the props and wings and hit the fuselage. My turret was completely frosted over and I could see nothing. It suddenly became very cold and very still."

Crashed on Landing.

The Whitley levelled off at 2,000 feet and Whickham managed to nurse the engines back into life. It was bad weather all the way back to base, but the Whitley made it safely. Others in the Squadron were, according to Brearey, so tired after the trip that they crashed on landing. One ploughed through a group of Nissen huts. "These casualties were in addition to those officially listed as missing," says Brearey.

From all over Bomber Command came stories of the hectic night of November 7th. Crew members were unable to touch metal parts without their gloves . A navigator who laid down his gloves for a few moments was unable to put them on again as they had become frozen solid . Sixty six degrees of frost was recorded inside cabins and icicles grew around chins like brittle white beards.

But the majority of aircraft managed to overcome these hazards in one way or another. They used their superchargers to climb quickly above the icing level, they spiralled down to sea-level or they tried to fly around the worst areas. And all these manoeuvres used up valuable petrol.

It was between six and seven o'clock next morning that the extent of the night's losses became apparent. Most of the attacking aircraft were by this time nearing the North Sea. S.O.S's began to come into the bomber bases. "Running short of petrol. Ditching," was the gist of these messages as, one by one,
pilots realised that they would never have the fuel to get back to England. Understandably the most critically placed were the aircraft which got to Berlin. Twenty-one of them failed to return and there seems no doubt that most if not all of these were forced down through lack of 'fuel. The aircraft which were briefed for Mannheim were also badly affected and seven out of 55 did not get back.

Over a pitch-black and cloud-covered Continent and over an icy. misty North Sea,

One brilliant piece of airmanship and bravery was denied the full credit it deserved because the aircraft ran out of petrol. A Wellington which reached Berlin dropped its high explosive load successfully through a gap in the clouds but before the crew could release their incendiaries the gap closed. Knowing that they would flv over other worthwhile targets on the way back, they kept the incendiaries.

Unfortunately, as it happened. They were still well inside Germany when a lucky flak burst hit them and set the incendiaries alight. The bomb release gear was smashed and there was no getting rid of the burning load. Before long the Wellington was ablaze along the whole length of its bomb bay. The crews used fire extinguishers and coffee from flasks to try to put the fire out, but to no avail. The intercom had failed and the rear gunner was effectively cut off from the rest of the crew by the flames but the aircraft still flew. After a while the fire subsided but the incendiaries still burned in the bomb-bay. Realising that it must have been a great help to the A.A. gunners who continued to shoot, the pilot closed the bomb-doors to hide the tell-tale light.

Still with the fire in its belly, the Wellington crossed the coast and started out over the sea. It lost height steadily, but there seemed a hope that they would make home. But they ran out of petrol and were forced down in the sea . The six crew drifted for 57 hours in their dinghy before they were washed ashore on the Isle of Wight.

Evidence shows that the enemy opposition was light. Three aircraft were lost over Oslo, presumably in the heavy flak met there. But over Germany only three aircraft were seen falling in flames and one of these was thought to be a German. Of the aircraft which returned safely. only 13 were damaged by shells
a sure indication that flak was generally light. No night fighters were reported.

There was only one feasible explanation. Most of the aircraft which did not return had flown round the bad weather used up "their fuel before reaching home. The most serious losses were those sustained by the Whitleys of No 4 Group and the Wellingtons of Nos. 1 and 3 Groups. Ten out of 54 Whitlevs failed to return, and 19 out of 161 Wellingtons.

The six crew drifted for 57 hours in their dinghy before they were washed ashore on the Isle of Wight.

Ironically. however, the highest percentage loss of the night was suffered by the Hampdens of No. 5 Group which had been diverted from Berlin to Oslo and the Ruhr. Here the losses were five out of 19.

It was a particularly black night for the Whitley which, though still classed as a "heavy," did not have the same range as the other aircraft out that night. Indeed. the raid of November 7 proved to be practically her swan-song. Five months later she was at last retired from Bomber Command, though she was to continue in service long afterwards for Coastal, The Hampden followed her into retirement the following September. Alone amongst the old guard," the well-beloved "Wimpey" was destined to continue into battle for many long months to come. That this raid was unusually costly is not in doubt nor are the factors which contributed to the losses: the extraordinarily bad weather, the limited range of the aircraft then available; and our comparative inexperience at that time of mounting such large-scale bombing attacks, The losses were referred to by Winston Churchill as "most grievous" and in a note to the Secretary of State for the Chief of the Air Staff after the raid he said. .. There is no particular point at this time in bombing Berlin. There is no need to to fight the weather and the enemy at the same time."

Early in the following year Early the following year, " Gee" navigation. which necessitated targets at shorter range, came into operation, and the raid on November 7 8 was the last to be made on the German capital for over a year. When the attack was,remounted, the aircraft used were Stirlings. Halifaxes and the immortal Lancaster. Aircraft which could much better withstand both the weather and the enemy defences.

In the years to follow, the men who flew these famous aircraft won many laurels. But those others who bombed in the early years, and laid the foundations for mass onslaught on Germany. must not be forgotten. They flew and fought with the aircraft then available and were not deterred by the limitations of these aircraft in extreme conditions.

Never have they shown their fortitude in this respect more than on the night of November 7th and 8th. 1941. But on this occasion the odds against them were too great.

Geoffrey Norris - Flying review article November 1958