Friday, 22 April 2016

The Battle of Heligoland Bight December 1939

The weather at Mildenhall on the 18th was slightly overcast with a visibility of only four miles when W/Cmdr
Wellington Bombers
Kellett took off at 9.27 a.m. leading the rest of 149 squadron up and awaited the rest of the bomber formation but the delayed 37 sqdn’s Wellingtons were forced to catch up with the others an hour later some 100 miles across the North sea by which time the cloud had cleared allowing visibility of up to fifty miles! It was weather that Oberstleutnant Schumacher, commander of JG. 1, was jubilant to see, it would give his fighters the edge over any British raid, a raid that his adjutant believed the British would be foolish to attempt. Despite the sunshine the crews were aware of the numbing cold and tail gunners registered that the turret’s movements were sluggish as hydraulic fluid started freezing in the tubes combined with drafts blasting through gaps and chilling the crews to the bone.

   Kellett led the formation around the Frisian islands to avoid German early warning messages or unnecessary flak damage. By midday F/lt Duguid was forced to peel off with engine issues with F/Sgt Kelly acting as escort arriving back at Mildenhall some ninety minutes later. By 12:30 p.m. Kellett’s formation sighted Sylt and the dustbin turrets were lowered, their guns tested, and made ready. As they reached 12 miles out from Sylt the Wellingtons wheeled to starboard and made for the coast of Schleswig-Holstein on a detour to come in behind the German defencive lines, hoping to only face the flak line once as they left the area.

    The Germans had already detected their approach with Leutnant Diehl’s Freya radar station at Wangerooge and the Naval Freya on Heligoland itself reporting the British formations. This early warning could have seen the sizable German fighter force take off and engage the British before they approach Wilhelmshaven but a problem arose. The Naval station’s report became lost in the communications network passing from between the two services and arrived twenty minutes later. Diehl’s report was dismissed by an officer at JG. 1’s base at Jever as merely seagulls or interference so instead tried II/ JG. 77’s airfield at Wangerooge only to be told that Major von Bülow was at Jever and no order to scramble could be given. It was not until Naval observers on the ground reported 44 British bombers incoming that action was taken with six of Johannes Steinhoff’s 10/JG 26 taking off but stayed mostly clear despite AFC Coalter claiming a 109 seen spiralling towards the sea billowing black smoke.

   As the Flak grew stronger Kellett ordered the formation to turn for Wilhelmshaven to search for targets with the aid of the Naval observer in his aircraft who had joined them as a resident expert on German battleships. It was in these manoeuvres that problems began to develop with the port side formation losing position and F/Sgt Petts had trouble keeping up with the turn and could not get his formation leader, 9 squadron’s CO Archie Guthrie, to acknowledge his calls all whilst the German land based and naval Flak began to churn up the sky but despite getting the height was trailing behind the formation at first but getting closer. Below them lay the harbour and Germany’s newest battle-cruiser’s KMS Scharnhorst and Gneiesnau were plain to see and orders were passed to open bomb bay doors and prepare for a dive attack by 1000 feet but Kellett called off the attack believing that at the angle of attack there was a severe chance of passing over the warships and hitting civilian targets. With no obvious warships out in the roads or sailing around the Jade estuary the decision was made to turn for home despite one aircraft from 149 sqdn bombing a small group of auxiliaries that were firing at them and 37 Squadron bombing attacking another in Schillig roads.

   The pass over Wilhelmshaven had left 37 and 9 sqdn in a certain amount of disarray whilst Kellett’s 149
Recon picture of Schillig roads and Wilhelmshaven
were still in tight formation. S/ldr Hue-Williams of 37 sqdn, who were flying in a step formation, had accelerated to catch up with Kellett with his formation strung out behind him trying to keep up with him and F/O Lemon’s Wellington even further behind having been involved in an embarrassing accident in which the second pilot’s parachute harness had got caught on the flap leaver and inadvertently deployed them in the down position. Lemon thought he’d been hit by flak and dived for sea level where they were hit by light flak which destroyed the aircraft’s aerials. The formation became easy prey for the Germans with Oberleutnant Gordon Gollob bringing his Bf 110 across the stern of Hue-Williams’ N2904 peppering him with cannon shells sending him spiralling down towards the sea, his starboard wing on fire. The fire on 37 squadron was relentless and F/O Lemon’s crew battled to try and keep the stream of Bf 109s away. Interestingly in his report the following day Lemon makes reference to being attacked by a He 111 bomber but that it was “very probably shot down by the rear gimmer” (Air 27/364). The low altitude of Lemon’s bomber did provide his crew with relief though as two Bf 109s of II/ JG 77 approached firing only for Leutnant Stiegler’s wingtips to graze the surface of the sea and send the hapless German cartwheeling across the water before settling and sinking. Lemon made a break for it at sea level and arrived back at Feltwell at 3:30pm. Lemon would report that:

 When I saw the mass formation heading North, it was intact. One or two of the rear flights , however were straggling behind and would have been an easy target for fighting aircraft.

  Oberstleutnant Schumacher personally shot down F/O Lewis whose N2889 ploughed into the mudflats off Spiekeroog leaving no survivors before moving in on F/O Wimberley and heavily damaging his aircraft too. Leutnant Lent then closed in on F/O Wimberley nd fired a coup d’grace into the stricken N2888 which came down onto the sea and promptly sank with only Wimberley himself being picked from the water. Lent also attacked F/Sgt Ruse missing in his first pass but doing serious injuries to the crew. LAC Jones in the rear turret found his guns frozen up by the cold and unable to return fire and wounded in the foot and back he managed to pull himself away where he was treated by the navigator Corporal Fred Taylor who was quickly killed as Lent fired another burst into the Wellington hitting him in the head and back. Sgt Holley in the “dust bin” was killed by a second burst leaving him slumped half out of the turret. Lent left Ruse’s stricken aircraft to pursue and take down F/O Thompson’s Wellington totally obliterating the tail and LAC Stock’s turret and N2935 crashed into the sea beyond Borkum leaving no survivors but with the Observer, Sgt Tilley’s body being recovered later. Ruse managed to bring his shattered aircraft down on Borkum where the aircraft soon burst into flames. Sgt May climbed out of the aircraft nursing his wounded buttock followed by Ruse carrying the wounded Jones over his shoulder where they were soon picked up by a German patrol. With that 37 Squadron had been left with only one surviving aircraft and of those shot down only four surviving crewmen.

   Kellett’s formation had finally cleared the flak barrage by 1:30 p.m. completely unscathed but as they
Bf 110 Zerstorers
passed from it the cloud of Messerschmitts which had formed up descended upon them. It was an impressive formation consisting of II/ JG 77 (Major von Bülow) and III/JG 77 (Hauptman Seliger), I/ ZG 76 the newly arrived Bf 110 formations under Hauptman Reinecke, Major Reichardt’s Jadgruppe 101 and 10/ JG 26 Oberleutnat Steinhoff’s night fighter force. The German crews were keen to get airborne with Leutnant Lent getting so impatient with ZG 76’s armourer that he opened up his twin throttles and began taxing up the field forcing the unfortunate Schwarzman to slide off the wing and roll away from the tail section to avoid injury. Aircraft from 2/ ZG 76 were out over the sea on a familiarisation flight due to their recent arrival.  
Staffelkapitän Wolfgang Falck was informed by radio and as soon as they saw the black bursts of smoke from the flak batteries led his formations in a charge towards the enemy. The Germans had learnt from their previous engagements and had studied the weak spots of the Wellington including the beam attack and to avoid stern attacks at all costs unless hitting them with cannon shells out of range of the British 303s and pressing attacks once the gunner was silenced. The biggest weakness was the wings which the attack on the 14th had revealed where the lack of self-sealing tanks and armour left the possibility of losing precious fuel or worse case exploding. Unteroffizier Heilmayr of II/JG 77 caught one of the British bombers and was swiftly followed by Steinhoff whilst Falck homed in on 9 Squadron’s formation who were flying at full throttle to catch up with Kellett. Falck and his wingman, Fresia, made short work of P/O Lines and F/o Challis’ aircraft one of which burst into flames and disintegrated in mid-air, before moving on to Guthrie’s bomber. As Falck riddled the hapless leader’s Wellington with his four machine guns and two cannon he received mortal return fire from LAC Josias Key in the rear turret. Key’s fire was accurate and caused Falck serious problems;
My Starboard engine jerked to a standstill. Petrol streamed out from the wing, and it was a miracle the plane didn’t catch fire. As it was, Sergeant Waltz and I were hard put to prevent our ammo going up. The whole cabin was full of smoke. (Luftwaffe diaries p.75)

Falck popped the canopy to clear the dense smoke and turned for Jever on the one engine until that too lost power. Trying to avoid an explosion the remaining fuel was jettisoned and all of his ammunition shot away before turning to Wangerooge where he made a forced landing.

   Guthrie fared a lot worse as his Wellington was seen to crash some 20 miles from the Schillig roads but the surviving aircraft from his formation were certain he had destroyed the attacking Bf 110. F/O Allison who had led the second section of 9 Sqdn fell to Fresia before he too peeled away. In only a few moments the two Zerstörers had accounted for four of the six aircraft in Guthrie’s formation with no survivors but it wasn’t over yet for Macrae and Petts as the rest of 2/ ZG 76 began firing. Macrae’s wing fabric was shredded whilst his rear gunner struggled against the cold that had crippled his fingers and bullet wounds. The Starboard wing tank had been pierced as had rudder control and the roller bracket completely shot away leaving rudder control partially jammed. Pett’s fared little better from the attack and his “dustbin” gunner had to be pulled free and propped onto the rest bunk and then the forward gunner had to be pulled free having been wounded in the foot whilst the pilot attempted a manoeuvre that had been practised in drills with fighter command and closed his throttles down so that the approaching Messerschmitts would overshoot their target however it did give the 110’s tail gunners an opportunity to shoot at him. The worse news came when Sgt Robertson in the tail turret reported he was out of ammunition but thankfully there were no more Messerschmitts around them so Petts immediately turned for England at low altitude giving up hope of catching up with Guthrie and completely unable to defend himself.

   The starboard formation led by S/ldr Harris and formed of 149 and 9 squadron bombers held their formation tightly but unfortunately this made them easy targets for the Germans who sat out of range and poured fire into the formation. F/lt Grant would later remark “There was absolutely nothing we could do except sit there being picked off one by one.” (battle of Heligoland p.74) Both his and Sgt Ramshaw’s bombers had their fuel tanks holed and the latter’s turrets had jammed up. With his tail gunner, 21 year old LAC Walter Lilly mortally wounded Ramshaw turned N2983 for home but would never make it. With the fuel tanks leaking and severely damaged the 18 year old forward gunner, AC1 Charles “Ronnie” Driver manned the fuel pump despite burns to his hands gained when his position’s flooring was shot away and from his successful attempts to put out the flames with his bare hands. N2983 soon ran out of fuel and Ramshaw was forced to put the wounded bird down on the sea where Driver managed to free the bomber’s dingy and help the wounded crew into it except for his friend Walter who had died alone in the rear turret. Ramshaw and LAC Connolly were bruised and shocked whilst Sgt Bob Hewitt, the second pilot, had a bullet in his right arm and they were soon picked up by the trawler Erillas. Both Ramshaw and Driver would receive the DFM.

     Back in the formation S/Ldr Harris was watching his aircraft fall apart before his eyes with fabric being ripped apart and geodetic structuring breaking apart under the constant barrage and probably shared the same helplessness expressed by Grant. He also watched Oberleutnant Fuhrmann’s 109 make continued beam attacks on Kellett’s four bombers only to abandon them and go for a straight line attack. Kellett’s bombers ripped the 109 apart and sent Fuhrmann seaward belching smoke but at the last moment he managed to nurse his fighter into a sea landing and managed to pull himself free into the sea and began swimming the 200 yards towards Spiekeroog but succumbed to either wounds, cold, the weight of his water filled flying uniform or a combination of all of them after making it half way. Another German fighter lanced past Harris to attack Kellett’s formation and despite Harris’ forward gunner giving him a burst the Bf 110’s fire tore into F/O Spier’s Wellington burst into flames as one of the pressurised oxygen tanks exploded and plunged into the sea only to have F/O Riddlesworth take his position on Kellett’s wing and the survivors of these two formations forced their way through the cloud of Germans and out into the North Sea.

   It was a battle that had cost the RAF ten Wellingtons out of a force of twenty-two with the majority of their
Wolfgang Falck as a Major later in the war
crews killed and four captured and a further two ditching in the sea including F/O Briden’s N2961 which landed on the sea and the crew were seen to be in a dingy and despite S/Ldr Harris flypast and DF fix the search and rescue could find no one. The Germans claimed a total of 38 shot down from a force of 44 but eventually settled for 27 confirmed kills. It seriously rocked the RAF’s confidence in their doctrine despite claims that the Wellingtons had taken down twelve fighters, six of which were Bf 110s, of the forty-four German fighters that engaged them. Other than Fuhrmann and Stiegler’s Bf 109s there were five more which were written off on their return including Feldwebel Hans Troitsch’s which crash landed.

   Kellett later reported that “The enemy pressed home their attacks in a splendid manner.”  But it could have been a lot worse. Had the Freya reports been taken seriously and the Germans engaged the formation sooner and had III/ JG 77 been notified of the raid and been airborne then the toll could have been much worse. Captain Reinecke wrote in his report that;
The Me 110 is easily capable of catching and overtaking this English type even with the latter at full boost. This provides cope for a multiple attacks from any quarter, including frontal beam. This attack, can be very effective if the enemy aircraft is allowed to fly into the cone of fire. The Wellington is very inflammable and burns readily. (Luftwaffe diaries p.77)
Whereas Schumacher opined that the Wellington’s tight formation flying and tail defences had caused much damage to his force and been a good defencive tool however that the close proximity had made them easier targets to hit!

   Air Vice Marshal Baldwin, AOC of 3 Group wrote that “Many of our aircraft were observed during and after the combat to have petrol pouring out of their tanks… The vital necessity of fitting self-sealing tanks to all bombers cannot be over emphasised.” (Luftwaffe diaries p.77) something that Bomber Command agreed with and Wellingtons were immediately forbidden from operations over Heligoland until such time as they were fitted and armour plating on all of their fuel tanks. There was also a belated realisation that a beam gun may be required as well as Kellett reporting that the spare ammunition container was not fit for purpose and that the rear facing guns needed fresh clips in their positions.

   Guthrie and Hue-Williams came under criticism for not holding up formation, as Kellett did, which opened up the rest of their formations to attack and Ludlow-Hewitt believed still firmly that “the great and unforgivable crime is for the leader of the formation to fly away from his followers” (Battle of Heligoland p. 97) The warning signs had been there though as 37 Squadron had flown mock battles in November with fighters from Tangmere and the warning had been clear that had the fighters had ammunition they would have decimated the Wellingtons. Neither leader had experience of this sort of raid and the very reason for being over the Bight was to get it. There was also criticism for Kellett for flying to quickly and leaving the other two formations trying to catch up but this was disputed by S/ldr Harris who pointed out that 149 Squadron had kept up.

   The British inexperience was countered by the Germans who had experience of combat flying, engaging Wellingtons and had a well organised defence system in place. Ludlow-Hewiit opined that:

      Up to 14 December our experience was that morale and determination of the fighters in the north – west of Germany was appreciably inferior to that of their fighter units on the Western front. Consequently the vigour and determination of the fighter attacks, particularly on the 18th certainly came as a surprise to us, and there is no doubt in my mind that it was due to strong reinforcements by crack squadrons from elsewhere. Previous to the 14th I had hoped that attacks on German warships would provide us with an easy and inexpensive means of getting war experience for our heavy bombers.

   The report from JG 1 summarise the while event:

   The British seemed to regard a tightly closed formation as the best method of defence, but the greater speed of the Me 109 and Me 110 enabled them to select their position of attack. Rigid retention of course and formation considerably facilitated the attack… It was criminal folly on the part of the enemy to fly at 4000 to 5000 metres in a cloudless sky with perfect visibility as after such losses it is assumed that the enemy will not give the geschwader any more opportunities of practice shooting at Wellingtons.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.