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
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
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, instead.to 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.
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
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
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,"
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.
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
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
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
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
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