Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Target Stavanger 11/4/1940

Stavanger being bombed on 17th April 1940
Unternehmen Weserübung - the German invasion of Norway and Denmark began on 9th April 1940 with German planners anxious to secure the Reich's northern flank and more importantly protect their supply of iron ore from Scandinavia.

Sources in the German foreign office were aware of the British attempt to send a force to secure the iron ore under the guise of supporting Finland in her war against Russia. There were also concerns that the British would mine Norwegian coastal waters forcing neutral and German shipping out into international waters where it could be intercepted by the Royal Navy. Worst still the British may just ignore the neutral waters as they had done with the Altmark incident in February.

Iron ore was crucial to the German war effort and with no chance of a pro-German government appearing in the near future the Wehrmacht was sent in with German envoys informing the Danish and Norwegian governments that the Germans were there to protect their neutrality from an Anglo-French invasion.

German troops aboard the Kriegsmarine's surface units pushed up the coast towards their various targets with the first arriving on the 9th April 1940. There were also attacks carried out by Fallscrimjäger (paratroops) on Norwegian airports including Stavanger-Sola on the far west coast of Norway.

The airfield had only been established in 1937 and defences were still under construction with only a scattering of light anti-aircraft guns, sixty soldiers and one bunker. The bomber wing on the airport consisted of obsolete aircraft which were evacuated as the Luftwaffe began its first attack with six BF 110 fighters. At around 09:00 the Fallscrimjäger jumped from their Ju 52s and within an hour the Germans had accepted the surrender of Lt Thor Tang, the garrison commander.

As soon as the airfield was taken German troops and equipment began landing with some 2-300 aircraft landing on the 9th alone. These newly landed troops quickly took the town of Stavenger and began organising the defences as well as continuing offencive operations.

In London the original force that had been earmarked for operations in Norway had to be hurriedly reassembled and dispatched. In the meanwhile RAF Bomber and coastal command weighed up their options. The only airport in range that the RAF could transfer their bombers too was Stavanger so with no where to land and no hope of getting Wellington's and Whitley's onto Aircraft carriers they decided to attack what they could. The only target within range of their heavy units was this same vital airport which they knew from reconnaissance pictures was being used as a main transport artery by the Germans.

 Vickers Wellington bombers.
115 squadron, on loan to Coastal command, was earmarked for the first bombing raid on an enemy mainland target. On the morning of the 11th April a Blenheim reconnaissance aircraft managed to get some clear shots of the airfield from 40 feet before heading straight back to Britain with its precious cargo. Back at Kinloss airfield the crews of six Wellington bombers gathered for their briefing whilst the ground crews searched for trolleys to carry the bombs from the magazine. This vital piece of equipment was still in transit to the airbase!

At the end of the briefing someone asked the briefing officer;

"You have told us how to evade one fighter, sir. What happens if we meet four?"

The response was optimistic;

"Most unlikely."

The Wellington crews had learnt during operations over Heligoland Bight that if they held formation the formidable rear turrets could scatter individual Luftwaffe fighters but against a numerical force of determined 109s or 110s they could become easy pickings. They were also assured that two Blenheim fighters of 254 squadron would be providing cover for them.

F/o Bain and Sgt Tubbs took off from Bircham Newton and proceeded to the rendezvous point and waited for the bombers but there was no sign of the Wimpys. Soon they received an order to "Hold position." There had been a delay with S/L Boulay's force not taking off until 18:00

Bain's response was "Message not understood."

After scouting the area the two Blenheims dropped down to 4000 feet and at 19:45 passed over the airfield at wingtip to wingtip emptying their magazines into the organised "bombers lined up in Germanic precision" in three lines. They circled around for a second pass catching many Germans who had come out to look at the wreckage presuming it was like the attack they had recieved earlier that day. Both fighters pulled to skip over a bluff before heading back to Britain.

The Germans stepped up security 9. Flakregiment 33 went on standby. The strafing run by the two Blenheims had caught them napping and the had only managed sporadic light machine gun fire any further strikes would have a tougher time of it.

At 21:00, half an hour after Bain and Tubbs had left, 115 squadron arrived and began to attack in two waves returning fire with their turrets as the Germans filled the air with shells. Boulay led his section across the aerodrome at 1000 feet dropping their 500 lb SAP bombs near hangers and the observers thought they saw petrol fires starting. P/o Barber led his section across at between 200 and 300 feet coming under heavy fire. F/Sgt Powell's bomber was struck several times and barely made it back to Kinloss whilst F/o Scott had his navigator Sgt Smith were wounded. Tragedy struck when P/o Barber's Wellington burst into flames and plowed into a school killing two civilians and the crew instantly.

On the return of 115 a summons was dispatched for Bain and Tubbs to report to Kinloss immediately where 115's Commander W/c Mills saw them personally. The loss of Barber and his crew was attributed to fighter interception as well as ground fire. Mills was going to reprimand them for leaving his men alone but was overruled by a senior officer as it was felt the fighter pilots had shown initiative and in a time when heroic actions were needed the two men were celebrated even giving a report on BBC radio.

P/o Barker, P/o Rankin, LAC Westcott, Sgt Pearce, P/o Bull and Sgt Geoffrey Juby are buried in Stavenger cemetery.

F/Sgt Powell was awarded thee DFM for nursing his damaged bomber home whilst wounded.

The following morning at 03:57 a Blenheim flew a reconnaissance mission over Stavanger and bore witness to the damage caused by the wreckage of P9284 to the town and school. The aerodrome itself was barely damaged though the raiders were credited with the destruction of a Do. 17 P of 1 (f)/320.

The attack was considered a success and one to be celebrated  with valuable lessons to be learnt. Over the coming weeks Stavanger was to be attacked several times by Wellingtons and shot up by Blenheims but never put out of action.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

First victory - Fairey Battles over Aachen

Fairey Battles in formation

The War started rather ingloriously for the Fairey Battles of the AASF as they settled in to their new aerodromes and began reconnaissance and training exercises. The RAF had formed two aerial forces to go to France with the offensive wing, the AASF (Advance Air Striking Force), comprising of the ten Fairey Battle and two Blenheim squadrons with support from two Hurricane fighter squadrons.

RAF bombing policy was tied down by the French who restricted raids on German industry and cities because they did not want to provoke a response from the Luftwaffe which they feared would decimate their infrastructure. RAF planners were keen to strike the Ruhr and cripple German industry but again the French felt that Allied bombers should support the army and make an immediate dent in any military advance. In the strategic impasse the squadrons of the AASF made themselves available to support the BEF and whatever the Army required of them which meant plenty of reconnaissance flights.

On the 20 September three Battles of 88 squadron's B Flight took off at 10:00 from their advance field of Mourmelon-le-Grand for a reconnaissance flight over Aachen. F/O Baker led his formation towards the border encountering only light anti-aircraft fire from a French emplacement as they passed South East of Bitche but this was the least of their worries as at 11:47 they approached the target only to be intercepted by three 109s in a tight vic formation.

Jagdgruppe 152 was an embryo formation of what would become Zerstörergeschwader 52. Due to a lack of Bf 110 fighters being available to arm the formation they had been given surplus Bf 109 D's which were slowly being phased out in favour of the Emil by the Jagdgeschwadern during the assault on Poland. The Stab formation of Jagdgruppe 152 was patrolling the Franco-German border led by Hauptmann Lessmann who had claimed a French Potez 63 the day before. Seeing their foe and supposedly presuming they were Hurricane fighters Lessmann gave theorder for the Messerschmitts to dive on their foes.

In one pass the Messerschmitts sent F/Sgt Douglas Page's craft spiralling towards the ground leaving no survivors. F/O Baker decreased height to avoid the diving German's fire whilst his observer Sgt Fredrick Letcher fired back shooting down one of the attackers. In the dive Baker had lost sight of F/O Graveley but decided to head for home before the Germans came back arriving at 13:10.

Flying officer Graveley
Reginald Graveley had managed to crash land his shattered craft and despite severe burns dragged his wounded observer Sgt Everett to a safe distance from the burning wreck. He returned for AC1 David John but found him dead at his gun with a bullet through the head and Graveley was unable to retrieve his body. Graveley and Everett were rescued but despite having his leg amputated the Sergeant died of his wounds that day. Graveley was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal in December by the King who was touring France. This award was later converted to the George Cross on its inception with the following description in the London Gazette.

This officer displayed great gallantry and a total disregard of his own safety when the aircraft of which he was the pilot was shot down by an enemy fighter in September 1939, and crashed in flames. Though badly burned, he pulled his wounded air observer from the wreckage to a place of safety and then returned to rescue the gunner. He found the airman dead however, and was unable to lift him from the cockpit.

Although the French authorities confirmed the wreckage of a German fighter the Luftwaffe Quartermaster shows no losses on that day. Nevertheless the Letcher's claim is considered to be the first German aircraft shot down by an Anglo/French aircraft. Letcher stayed with 88 squadron and was later killed in action when the Blenheim bomber he was acting as Observer in was shot down over Holland on 28th August 1941.

88 Squadron's losses on the 20th September 1939 were:
Battle K 9242:  Observer Sgt William Stanley Everett (26) and Gunner AC1 David Joshua John (22)
Battle K 9245   Flight Sergeant Douglas Aubrey Page (27), Observer Sgt Alfred William Eggington (25) and Gunner AC1 Edward Arthur William Radford (24).
All of the dead are buried at Choloy War cemetery.

Reginald Graveley’s medals are held at the Royal Airforce Museum at Hendon.