Battle of the Heligoland Bight (1939)

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Defence of the Reich
Part of the Western Front of World War II
Heligoland Bight.jpg
The Heligoland Bight
Date18 December 1939
Location
Result German victory [1] [2] [3]
Belligerents
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg  Nazi Germany
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Richard Kellett [4] Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Carl-August Schumacher
Units involved
No. 9 Squadron RAF
No. 37 Squadron RAF
No. 149 Squadron RAF
Stab./Jagdgeschwader 1
II./Jagdgeschwader 77
II./Trägergruppe 186
(N)./Jagdgeschwader 26
I./ Zerstörergeschwader 76
I./
Jagdgeschwader 26
Strength
22 Vickers Wellington bombers 44 fighter aircraft [5]
Casualties and losses
12 bombers destroyed
3 bombers damaged
57 killed [6]
2 Bf 109s destroyed [5]
2 Bf 109s severely damaged. [5]
1 Bf 109 non-combat [5]
1 Bf 109 lightly damaged [5]
2 Bf 110s severely damaged [5]
7 Bf 110s lightly damaged [5]
2 pilots killed [5]
2 pilots wounded [5]

The Battle of the Heligoland Bight [7] [8] was the first "named" air battle of the Second World War, which began the longest air campaign of the war, the Defence of the Reich. [9] On 3 September 1939, the United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany after the German invasion of Poland, which started the European War. The British did not assist Poland by land or sea but RAF Bomber Command flew several missions against German targets. A number of these air raids were directed at Kriegsmarine (German Navy) warships in German ports to prevent their use in the Battle of the Atlantic. With the front lines static between September 1939 and May 1940, a period known as the "Phoney War" set in, with little fighting on land or in the air.

Defence of the Reich Strategic defensive aerial campaign fought by the Luftwaffe over German-occupied Europe and Germany itself during World War II

The Defence of the Reich is the name given to the strategic defensive aerial campaign fought by the Luftwaffe over German-occupied Europe and Nazi Germany during World War II. Its aim was to prevent the destruction of German civilians, military and civil industries by the Western Allies. The day and night air battles over Germany during the war involved thousands of aircraft, units and aerial engagements to counter the Allied strategic bombing campaign. The campaign was one of the longest in the history of aerial warfare and with the Battle of the Atlantic and the Allied Blockade of Germany was the longest of the war. The Luftwaffe fighter force defended the airspace of German-occupied territory against attack, first by RAF Bomber Command and then against the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF).

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a sovereign country located off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea separates Great Britain and Ireland. The United Kingdom's 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi) were home to an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Contents

At sea, German U-boat (submarine) forces were taking a considerable toll on Allied shipping. The Air Ministry decided to launch an attack on German surface ships to prevent them supporting the U-boats in the North Atlantic. On 18 December 1939, a force of three RAF bomber squadrons was sent to engage German ships in the Heligoland Bight and sink or damage as many as possible. Originally 24 Vickers Wellingtons took off. Two turned back owing to engine trouble before reaching German airspace. The German reaction was slow. Eventually they scrambled fighter aircraft to intercept. Just over 120 aircraft, 80–100 German and 22 British, were involved but only 44 German fighters made contact with the British bombers. [5]

U-boat German submarine of the First or Second World War

U-boat is an anglicised version of the German word U-Boot[ˈuːboːt](listen), a shortening of Unterseeboot, literally "underseaboat". While the German term refers to any submarine, the English one refers specifically to military submarines operated by Germany, particularly in the First and Second World Wars. Although at times they were efficient fleet weapons against enemy naval warships, they were most effectively used in an economic warfare role and enforcing a naval blockade against enemy shipping. The primary targets of the U-boat campaigns in both wars were the merchant convoys bringing supplies from Canada and other parts of the British Empire, and from the United States to the United Kingdom and to the Soviet Union and the Allied territories in the Mediterranean. German submarines also destroyed Brazilian merchant ships during World War II, causing Brazil to declare war on both Germany and Italy on August 22 1942.

Submarine Watercraft capable of independent operation underwater

A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation underwater. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability. It is also sometimes used historically or colloquially to refer to remotely operated vehicles and robots, as well as medium-sized or smaller vessels, such as the midget submarine and the wet sub. Submarines are referred to as "boats" rather than "ships" irrespective of their size.

Air Ministry former department of the British Government

The Air Ministry was a department of the Government of the United Kingdom with the responsibility of managing the affairs of the Royal Air Force, that existed from 1918 to 1964. It was under the political authority of the Secretary of State for Air.

The Germans inflicted more damage on the RAF than the Luftwaffe received but its influence on both sides' strategy was profound. The battle forced the RAF to abandon daylight missions in favour of night bombing as casualties were too high. In the build-up to the war, the RAF had adopted the mantra that "the bomber will always get through" but in daylight the Heligoland battle had shown this was not the case and it forced a reappraisal of bombing operations. [10] The failure of the raid led the Luftwaffe to believe its base in Germany proper was invulnerable to enemy attack. This belief was reinforced with the success of the Wehrmacht , 1939–1941, which meant that opposing air forces were then too far away for effective bombing attacks on the German homeland.

The bomber will always get through

The bomber will always get through was a phrase used by Stanley Baldwin in 1932, in the speech "A Fear for the Future" to the British Parliament. He and others believed that, regardless of air defences, sufficient bomber aircraft would survive to destroy cities.

Wehrmacht unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945

The Wehrmacht was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe. The designation "Wehrmacht" replaced the previously used term Reichswehr, and was the manifestation of the Nazi regime's efforts to rearm Germany to a greater extent than the Treaty of Versailles permitted.

Neglecting their day fighter force had serious strategic consequences in later years. By the time the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL; Luftwaffe High Command) had begun organising an air defence to combat the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) strategic bombing campaign, they were already engaged in a war of attrition for which they were not prepared. This oversight was one of the contributing factors in the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Defence of the Reich campaign. The Battle of the Heligoland Bight was later described as "amongst the most important actions of the entire war". [9]

<i>Oberkommando der Luftwaffe</i> 1944-1945 command staff of the German Air Force

The Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL), translated as the High Command of the Air Force, was the high command of the Luftwaffe.

United States Army Air Forces aerial warfare branch of the United States army from 1941 to 1947

The United States Army Air Forces, informally known as the Air Force, was the aerial warfare service component of the United States Army during and immediately after World War II (1939/41–1945), successor to the previous United States Army Air Corps and the direct predecessor of the United States Air Force of today, one of the five uniformed military services. The AAF was a component of the United States Army, which on 2 March 1942 was divided functionally by executive order into three autonomous forces: the Army Ground Forces, the Services of Supply, and the Army Air Forces. Each of these forces had a commanding general who reported directly to the Army Chief of Staff.

Background

RAF strategy

Before the outbreak of war, RAF Bomber Command firmly believed that air power could win wars without the need for naval and land fighting. It was thought the bomber would always get through. [11] Tightly flown bomber formations with heavy defensive armament were thought capable of warding off enemy fighters even without fighter escort. The RAF lacked a four-engine bomber with adequate defensive protection which could carry heavy bomb loads to German targets. The only possible targets that were within range of British bombers were those that were within the industrial region of the Ruhr. [11]

RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAFs bomber forces from 1936 to 1968

RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF's bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. Along with the United States Army Air Forces, it played the central role in the strategic bombing of Germany in World War II. From 1942 onward, the British bombing campaign against Germany became less restrictive and increasingly targeted industrial sites and the civilian manpower base essential for German war production. In total 364,514 operational sorties were flown, 1,030,500 tons of bombs were dropped and 8,325 aircraft lost in action. Bomber Command crews also suffered a high casualty rate: 55,573 were killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew, a 44.4% death rate. A further 8,403 men were wounded in action, and 9,838 became prisoners of war.

Ruhr Place in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

The Ruhr, also referred to as Ruhr district, Ruhr region, Ruhr area or Ruhr valley, is a polycentric urban area in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. With a population density of 2,800/km2 and a population of over 5 million (2017), it is the largest urban area in Germany and the third-largest in the European Union. It consists of several large cities bordered by the rivers Ruhr to the south, Rhine to the west, and Lippe to the north. In the southwest it borders the Bergisches Land. It is considered part of the larger Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region of more than 10 million people, which is among the largest in Europe.

The Netherlands and Belgium wished to remain neutral and refused to allow the RAF to establish bases, to fly deeper into Germany. They also forbade overflying by British bombers to and from Germany. After the outbreak of war, the French refused to allow RAF bombers to bomb German cities from French airfields. The French felt secure behind the Maginot Line but their air force did not possess the modern bombers to attack the Luftwaffe. French fighter forces were not yet ready for an all out defensive campaign against the Germans either. A fear of retaliation was the main French reason. The only recourse was to fly missions directly from Britain and only ports or coastal cities in northern Germany were within easy reach. This state of affairs suited the British, in particular, the Admiralty. [11]

Netherlands Constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Europe

The Netherlands is a country located in Northwestern Europe with some overseas territories. In Europe, it consists of twelve provinces that border Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the northwest, with maritime borders in the North Sea with Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom. Together with three island territories in the Caribbean Sea—Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba—it forms a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The official language is Dutch, but a secondary official language in the province of Friesland is West Frisian.

Belgium Federal constitutional monarchy in Western Europe

Belgium, officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a sovereign state in Western Europe. It is bordered by the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, Luxembourg to the southeast, France to the southwest, and the North Sea to the northwest. It covers an area of 30,688 km2 (11,849 sq mi) and has a population of more than 11.4 million. The capital and largest city is Brussels; other major cities are Antwerp, Ghent, Charleroi and Liège.

Maginot Line Line of fortifications along the French/German border

The Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, is a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles, and weapon installations built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by Germany and force them to move around the fortifications. Constructed on the French side of its borders with Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg, the line did not extend to the English Channel due to French strategy that envisioned a move into Belgium to counter a German assault.

The most immediate threat to the Allies during the Phoney War period was the U-boat. Some German submarines had been sent to sea before the British declaration of war. Once war was declared, the U-boats began operations against British ships that were bringing in supplies from North America and areas of the British Empire. German submarine U-47 sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in October 1939, with the loss of 786 crew. As a consequence the Admiralty pressed for the RAF to concentrate its efforts on RAF Coastal Command rather than a strategic bomber force. This was debated within the British establishment well into 1941. In keeping with a request from the United States of America to avoid the bombing of civilian targets, the British formulated the Western Air Plan 7B (WAP 7B), which planned for attacks on German warships. The Germans also complied with the American request, albeit only after 18 September 1939, when victory in Poland was assured. German ships were legitimate targets and, at sea or in port, were far enough away from civilian areas to avoid unnecessary casualties. The Plan revolved around their elimination to prevent their use as supplements to the U-boat fleet. [11] [12] [13]

3 September – 17 December

North Sea relief location map.jpg
Green thick lined square.svg
The location of the Heligoland Bight in a wider context

To fit in with this strategy, the initial plans of the RAF involved raids against German shipping on receipt of the results of aerial reconnaissance. This was attempted on 3 September, when a Bristol Blenheim (flown by Flying Officer Andrew McPherson of No. 139 Squadron RAF)—on a reconnaissance flight over the North Sea—spotted a large naval force in the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven. The radio failed and an attack could not be launched until McPherson returned to base, when 15 Handley Page Hampdens and nine Vickers Wellington bombers were sent against the German ships. The weather was poor and the bombers failed to find any targets. [14]

A similar attempt was made on 4 September, when McPherson again spotted warships off Brunsbüttel, Wilhelmshaven and in the Schillig Roads. The radio failed again and no attack could be launched until McPherson's return. A force of 10 Blenheims from No. 110 Squadron RAF and No. 107 Squadron RAF along with five more from 139 Squadron and eight Wellingtons of No. 149 Squadron RAF took off to locate the German warships Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Admiral Scheer, which some aircraft found. [15] No. 149 Squadron was not prepared for war. At least one of the crews—Flying Officer (F/O) Bill McRae—nearly took off without a bomb load; looking in, he noticed the bomb bay was empty. On the way to the target, Squadron Leader Paul Harris ordered his gunners to test their weapons. They all failed and he was heading into German territory defenceless. Not wanting to turn back on his first raid, he pressed ahead. [16]

The same targets were attacked by 9 Squadron later in the day, in and around Brunsbüttel. [17] Results were poor with five Blenheims and two Wellingtons lost and only minimal damage caused to the German warships. [18] [19] Admiral Scheer was hit by three bombs that failed to explode, while the light cruiser Emden—not one of the priority targets—was present and also damaged by a Blenheim that crashed into the forecastle of the ship. [20] The crash killed 11 sailors and injured 30. [21]

II./Jagdgeschwader 77 (II JG 77; II Wing, Fighter Group 77, Oberstleutnant Carl-August Schumacher) took off from Nordholz Airbase and intercepted 9 Squadron. Feldwebels Hans Troitzsch and Alfred Held each claimed a victory and Leutnant Metz another. [22] These aircraft from No. 9 Squadron were the first RAF aircraft to be shot down by enemy fighters during the war and Troitzsch was most likely to have been the first enemy pilot to shoot one down. Another four Blenheims of No. 107 Squadron were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. [17] The Germans believed their air defences had established an effective defence from Allied attack. Use of the early Freya radar had given the German fighters eight minutes warning of their approach. [23] [24]

The delay between spotting German warships and the arrival of the bombers was considered to be too great it was decided to carry out reconnaissance in force, with formations of bombers being sent out over the North Sea to find and attack German warships. Their orders forbade them from attacking ships in port, infringing neutral airspace or even attacking German warships escorting merchant ships. [25] A patrol on 29 September resulted in five Hampdens being shot down by Messerschmitt Bf 109s of II./JG 77 but an attack by 24 Wellingtons of 149, 38 and 115 squadrons on 3 December was more successful, claiming a German minesweeper sunk (confirmed by German archives), while defensive fire from the Wellington gunners repelled attacks by German fighters, shooting one down for no loss. [26] The German pilot shot down was future German ace Günther Specht. He was shot down by Corporal Copley of No. 38 Squadron RAF. [27] The German ships were the Brummer and the minesweeper M1407 both sunk by unexploded bombs passing through the ship. A German report stated the attack was cleverly executed from out of the sun and delivered to avoid the nearby civilian areas. [28]

An armed reconnaissance by twelve Wellingtons on 14 December resulted in five being lost as the formation, at very low level because of the low cloud base, was engaged by fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns. The RAF believed that none of the lost Wellingtons had been shot down by fighters and so maintained faith in their defensive capabilities when flown in tight formations. [29] This summation was odd considering that several of the surviving bombers had damage from small-arms fire. The Luftwaffe claimed five bombers for the loss of one fighter while none of the German FlaK units claimed a victory. [30]

German defences

The Luftwaffe's air defence organisation went through a number of changes in the first months of the war. The defence of the northern German ports and vital strategic targets was given to the local or nearest Luftverteidigungskommando (Air Defence Command). In this case the unit responsible for the protection of German warships of the Kriegsmarine was the Luftverteidigungskommando Hamburg (Air Defence Command Hamburg). [9]

The system was impractical; the Hamburg air defence district controlled air and ground defences but each was geographically in no position to help the other. There was no combined arms synthesis, meaning that the FlaK arm did not directly support the German defences thereby forming one mass defence. Instead, fighter units protecting the coast were held there, with KriegsmarineFlaK units, while the Hamburg air defence artillery was held too far inland. The Luftwaffe fighters and FlaK units were located too far apart to coordinate. [31]

Coordination was not helped by the poor relations between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine Commanders-in-Chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) Erich Raeder. The system required both services to work together but it produced co-operation difficulties. [31] A solution to the problem was twofold. Fighter units defending the North Sea coast were subordinated to Luftgaukommando XI (Air District Command 11) in Hanover. These fighter units would function as an autonomous fighter command or Jagdfliegerführer (Fighter Flyer Leaders). The command of Fighter Command unit was given to Oberstleutnant Carl-August Schumacher, a former commander of II./Jagdgeschwader 77. Schumacher had served in the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) during the First World War and as an officer cadet had seen combat at the Battle of Jutland. [31] It was hoped with his naval background and easy personality it would ease any difficulties with naval service cooperation. [31] Schumacher and his counterpart in the Navy were of the same rank, so each lacked authority over the other, an arrangement that stifled unity of command. [31]

Forces involved

Luftwaffe

The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was a formidable bomber destroyer. Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-382-0211-011, Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 110.jpg
The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was a formidable bomber destroyer.

Schumacher was given a new command, Stab./Jagdgeschwader 1 (Command./Fighter Group 1, or JG 1), sometimes referred to as JG Nord (Fighter Group North) or JG Schumacher. In addition to the Bf 109D and E variants, the force was also equipped with the Messerschmitt Bf 110. The lack of action during the Phoney War period meant that these aircraft, usually in demand by offensive air fleets ( Luftflotte ), were available for defensive roles. [31]

Stab./JG 1 controlled all the following Gruppen (groups; wings in RAF parlance) which had a combined strength of 80–100 aircraft:

RAF

Formation 1
Section 1: 1 Richard Kellett 2 Turner 3 Speirs
Section 2: 4 Kelly 5 Duguid 6 Riddlesworth
Formation 2
Section 1: 7 Harris 8 Briden 9 Bolloch
Section 2: 10 Ramshaw 11 Grant 12 Purdy
Formation 3
Section 1: 13 Guthrie 14 Petts 15 McRae
Section 2: 16 Challes 17 Allison 18 Lines
Formation 4
19 Hue-Williams 20 Lemon 21 Wimberley 22 Lewis 23 Thompson 24 Ruse HELIGOLAND BIGHT FORMATION.jpg
Formation 1
Section 1: 1 Richard Kellett 2 Turner 3 Speirs
Section 2: 4 Kelly 5 Duguid 6 Riddlesworth
Formation 2
Section 1: 7 Harris 8 Briden 9 Bolloch
Section 2: 10 Ramshaw 11 Grant 12 Purdy
Formation 3
Section 1: 13 Guthrie 14 Petts 15 McRae
Section 2: 16 Challes 17 Allison 18 Lines
Formation 4
19 Hue-Williams 20 Lemon 21 Wimberley 22 Lewis 23 Thompson 24 Ruse

The RAF committed No. 3 Group RAF to the attack. Usually the group consisted of 9 Squadron, 37 Squadron, 38 Squadron, 99 Squadron, 115 Squadron, 149 Squadron together with 214 Squadron and 21 Squadron in reserve. The Group was hastily set up for daylight missions, having been intended for night bombing. The quality of the training was dubious and many of the crews had not been given proper tuition in formation flying. Only 9 and 214 squadrons were able to fly in perfect formations. [34] To improve formation flying and give crews experience of combat conditions, 37 Squadron practised mock combats with RAF Fighter Command Supermarine Spitfires from RAF Tangmere. Warnings were given by the Spitfire pilots that they could have decimated the squadron within ten minutes because of their poor formation flying and lack of fighter escort but were ignored. [35]

Squadron Leader Harris of 149 Squadron and Wing Commander Kellett were the only experienced combat leaders but Kellett had not flown with 9 or 37 Squadrons as a group and had never had a chance to practice formation flying or bombing with them. He had not been given the time or opportunity to discuss or formulate a plan for bombing naval targets, whether as a group, squadron or even as flights. Nor had he even been able to discuss or pass on any tactical advice about what the formation should do in the event of fighter attack. He was given command of an incoherent group of squadrons which were highly inexperienced. [36] For the 18 December mission, 24 Wellington Bombers from 9, 37 and 149 Squadrons were given to Kellet. [31] The British bombers flew in a diamond shape formation. [37]

Battle

Target

On the morning of 18 December 1939, The Times of London published the story of the Battle of the River Plate and the demise of Admiral Graf Spee and a few hours later RAF Bomber Command attempted to sink another major warship. In accordance with Operational Order B. 60 of 17 December, the targets were German warships either in port or at sea. The RAF bombers were ordered to overfly the Heligoland Bight and the port of Wilhelmshaven, attacking ships but avoiding civilian living quarters, merchant shipping or land itself. [38]

Bombers en route

A Wellington Mk I of No. 149 Squadron as flown on this raid, seen in 1940 Vickers Wellington 1 ExCC.jpg
A Wellington Mk I of No. 149 Squadron as flown on this raid, seen in 1940

The first Wellington, N2960, took off from RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk at 09:27 with Wing Commander Richard Kellett at the controls; 9 Squadron took off from the nearby RAF Honington, formed up over King's Lynn and started out over the North Sea. No. 37 Squadron took off but missed the rendezvous and caught up with the main formation an hour later over the North Sea. Once over the Wash they set a course of 040° true, as far as latitude 55° north. The plan was to avoid heavy anti-aircraft artillery concentrations on the Frisian Islands. As they left England the cloud broke and they found themselves without cover in a bright crystal clear sky. N2984 and N2894, piloted by Duguid and Kelly, turned back; the first due to engine trouble, the other escorting the troubled bomber back to base. The remaining bombers flew north past the Frisian Islands then turned due south, continuing their mission in perfect visibility which made it easy to be spotted by German aircraft. [39]

Reaching the German–Danish border at 55°N 05°E, they turned south. The formation headed towards Schleswig-Holstein and then planned to turn due west to Wilhelmshaven. The move was designed to initiate the attack from the east, through the "back door". The plan worked, as the bombers arrived without being intercepted but the southward journey had given the Germans a one-hour warning, as the Freya radar had picked up the bombers 30 mi (48 km) off the coast. As the bombers passed down the coast, anti-aircraft artillery fire from ships and harbour defences was noted. Once in the target area they also came under heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire from Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven. Ships near Schillig Roads also opened fire. The bombers replied with their machine guns to throw the gunners off. [40] German fire was at the correct height but exploded behind the bombers. Soon after, the formation was over Wilhelmshaven harbour, with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst at anchor beneath them. The ships were too close to shore and Kellett chose not to risk dropping bombs to avoid civilian casualties. [41] Kellett—commanding the formation—had been ordered to attack at minimum altitude (about 10,000 ft (3,000 m)). The belief that the greatest danger would come from anti-aircraft fire, not German fighters, had by then become part of RAF operational doctrine. [40]

Poor Luftwaffe administration meant the German defence took time to get the information from their radar sites. Major Harry von Bülow-Bothkamp—commanding II./JG 77—stated that it was the naval Freya, rather than Luftwaffe early warning sites that gave the alert. Owing to this, the RAF made landfall without interception. The first air engagement occurred an hour after the Luftwaffe Freya made the initial report. [40]

As Kellett was taking off, Schumacher was dismissing any idea that the British would attempt a bombing raid in clear weather. On the island of Wangerooge, Leutnant Hermann Diehl of Regiment 3, battery LN-Vers was demonstrating the Freya set to a visiting naval officer. Diehl was using Falck's 2./ZG 76 to test the set. After some demonstration, he swung the set north, pointing to the Heligoland Bight. As soon as he did so he picked up an echo. He telephoned Schumacher's Geschwader at Jever. They were told that the naval radar reported nothing and that it was ridiculous to think the British would attack in such clear skies. Diehl spoke to von Bülow-Bothkamp. No one wanted to know; about 20 minutes later, naval Freyas also picked up the formation but still no fighters were scrambled. German radar was just as efficient as its British counterpart, the problem lay in communication. [6] [42] The British married their radar to an efficient fighter control system but the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine had poor communication and their areas of responsibility overlapped, creating confusion over who was responsible. Added to this was the German disbelief that RAF Bomber Command would expose itself on a day when conditions favoured the fighter. Only when observers on the ground confirmed that the formation existed were fighters scrambled. The observers described a formation of 44 British aircraft, twice its actual strength. [43]

Aerial engagement

The target area. Kellet's force approached from the east over the Jade Estuary and towards Wilhelmshaven. Jade-weser-muendung map de.png
The target area. Kellet's force approached from the east over the Jade Estuary and towards Wilhelmshaven.

At 13:10, the RAF formation flew over the mud flats to the west of Cuxhaven and Wesermünde and came under fire from flak positions 214, 244 and 264. As Kellett turned west towards the Jade Estuary and over Wilhelmshaven anti-aircraft units 212, 222, 252, 262 and 272 opened fire. Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and all the other naval ships in the dock opened fire in support. In the distance, at Schillig Point, the bombers could see German fighters taking off from a camouflaged airstrip. In a quick briefing, the JG 1 commander had told his pilots to make a beam attack as it was a blind spot for the Wellington. A stern attack was dangerous, as the gunners could then target an attacking fighter with a coordinated and concentrated cone of fire. One weakness also noted was that early types of Wellingtons lacked self-sealing fuel tanks. This meant if the German fighters hit the wings, the bomber was liable to burn. [44]

Unworried by the Luftwaffe, 149 Squadron was the only section to drop bombs on the ships in Wilhelmshaven harbour. Six 500 lb (230 kg) bombs fell and the results were unknown. It was all the RAF had to show for its first major raid on a German target. As the bombers emerged from the anti-aircraft barrage, the RAF formation was disorganised. Kellett's and Harris's formations were intact, but Squadron Leader Guthrie was ahead of his No. 9 Squadron and No. 37 Squadron at the rear was straggling. Its commander, Squadron Leader Hue-Williams, was struggling to catch up with the main formation and was forging ahead of his formation without keeping it together. Other members of Hue-Williams's squadron increased their speed to keep up with their leader. [45]

Oberleutnant Johannes Steinhoff flying with Bf 109Ds of 10.(Nacht)./JG 26 took off escorted by a Rotte (pair) from II./JG 77. At 13:30, they attacked one group after the anti-aircraft fire lifted. The Bf 109s claimed seven bombers, with Steinhoff claiming two. [40] The first kill was credited to Unteroffizier Heolmayr. [46] At 13:40, a Rotte of Bf 110s from ZG 26, led by Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck, claimed four bombers. [40] Falck's aircraft was severely damaged, forcing him to disengage but he managed to glide back to base and make a "dead-stick" landing without power. Unteroffizier Fresia also made two claims. Fresia's second victim was Flying Officer Allison. [47] Harris came under attack from a Bf 109 piloted by Oberleutnant Johann Fuhrmann, who failed to hit the bomber in beam attacks. He then tried a stern attack, against earlier advice, only to get shot down. Fuhrmann managed to land in the sea a few hundred yards from the island of Spiekeroog. Witnesses on the beach saw him attempt to swim to shore only for Fuhrmann to drown. [48] It is likely he was shot down by Aircraftman Second Class Gouldson from Riddlesworth's Wellington. [49] During the battle a Bf 110 piloted by Oberleutnant Gordon Gollob shot down and killed Guthrie of 9 Squadron. Hue-Williams (37 Squadron) was also shot down, possibly by Hauptmann Reinecke. Soon afterwards, the Germans suffered a casualty when Leutnant Roman Stiegler crashed into the sea in pursuit of Flying Officer Lemon and was killed. [50] At the same time, Jagdgruppe 101 claimed two more bombers. Bf 110s from ZG 76 had also attacked the bombers claiming five more. [40]

Among the German claimants was Helmut Lent who was credited with two victories. [51] After landing at Jever from a patrol, Lent took off to intercept. He engaged Herbie Ruse's Wellington, killing most of the crew. The Wellington was pouring black smoke and Lent broke off believing it about to crash. Lent then pursued Thompson's Wellington, which crashed just off the coast of Borkum. Lent's third claim was not granted: he attacked and shot down Wimberley's aircraft but because the aircraft was already badly damaged and judged to be about to crash, Lent was refused the victory and Stab./JG 1's Geschwaderkommodore Schumacher was given the credit. Schumacher also shot down Pilot Officer Lewis's aircraft, close to Borkum. At 13:45, the German fighters—at the limit of their endurance—returned to base. [52] [53] By 14:05, the other bomber formation was beyond interception range and the last shots were fired. [40]

Aftermath

Overclaiming by both sides

The German fighter crews claimed 38 bombers shot down, against actual RAF losses of 12 aircraft. The gunners in the British bombers claimed twelve German fighters and twelve severely damaged. [54] [55] German casualties amounted to three Bf 109s destroyed, two severely damaged and two Bf 110s severely damaged, a case of overclaiming by both sides. Seven Bf 110s and one Bf 109 suffered light damage. Johann Fuhrmann and Roman Stiegler were the only pilots to die in this action; Dietrich Robitzsch from Jagdgruppe 101, wrote-off a Bf 109 but was uninjured; Feldwebel Hans Troitzsch (Bf 109) and Leutnant Gustav Uellenbeck (Bf 110) were wounded. [5] British aircrews also claimed between sixty and eighty fighters engaging in combat over the Heligoland Bight. [5]

To back up their claims, the Luftwaffe insisted that 44 bombers were in the air, which was later increased by OKL to 52. Some hours later these claims were reduced to 34 but months later the reports were analysed and reduced to 27 "confirmed" victories. This was still over twice the number that was shot down and five more than the size of the formation. German historians have claimed that official British figures were tampered with to hide losses but careful examination of the records reveals no deception. Obituaries from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record the identity of all service personnel who died during the war and have no known grave; as would be the case for airmen lost at sea. No airmen were reported missing that day from squadrons other than 9, 37 and 149. [56]

British assessment

The tactical assessment of both sides was radically different. Bomber Command believed the attack was a failure as a result of poor formation flying and leadership. It was also maintained that better beam defensive armament and self-sealing fuel tanks were needed. These tactical considerations might, they believed, still salvage the day-bomber concept. On 22 December, an unsigned 3 Group report stated:

There is every reason to believe that a very close formation of six Wellington aircraft will emerge from a long and heavy attack by enemy fighters with very few if any casualties to its own aircraft. A loose formation is however liable to suffer very heavy casualties under the same conditions. [57]

On 19 December 1939, Air Vice-Marshal Jackie Baldwin reported that Guthrie and Hue-Williams were to blame for racing ahead of their formations and breaking up the defensive formation. Baldwin sent his report to the Bomber Command Commander-in-Chief, Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, who replied on 23 December and joined Baldwin in condemning the leaders of 9 and 37 Squadrons for abandoning their flight. Hewitt called this action an "unforgivable crime", although Harris later stated that this was unfair, as Guthrie and Hue-Williams were untrained and had never faced the enemy before. Harris also blamed 3 Group Headquarters, stating that there had been no planning or liaison between the squadrons. Harris also noted the Group Operations Staff had not provided any formation lessons. [58]

In the Operations notes, Formation Flying, orders specifically stated that the formation was not to stay together; each six aircraft section was to be a self-contained defensive unit, flying at different heights, because more than twelve aircraft per formation made it unwieldy and unmanageable by one leader. Even so, the notes also pointed to the importance of holding a formation within the section. If a section leader endeavoured to follow the formation leader (Wing Commander Kellet) to the detriment of their section, the formation would break apart. Bomber formations were built on the idea of mutual protection; if the formation came apart, each bomber would have to fend for itself, which would enable an enemy to pick off the bombers one by one. Guthrie and Hue-Williams did not heed this advice; Kellett had followed the notes and he lost only one aircraft. Harris had also kept his formation together and lost no Wellingtons. [59] Within a few weeks, a debate began on shifting air attacks to the cover of darkness, with Hewitt favouring this alternative. [57]

German assessment

Tactically, the Germans noted lessons and weaknesses they were already aware of, particularly the nose and tail turrets of the Wellington bombers not capable of giving adequate cover against beam attacks; the bombers' rigid formation flying had favoured the fighters, allowing them to choose the position and angle of attack. The German report also regarded the attempt by the RAF to attack in clear conditions and perfect visibility at altitudes of 10,000–16,000 ft (3,000–4,900 m) as "criminal folly". [57] Schumacher stated that anti-aircraft fire proved effective at breaking up formations and damaging bombers which provided better opportunities for the fighter pilots. [57]

After the recent Polish Campaign, the German Army staff analysis had been rigorous in its analysis of that battle. The Army General Staff had assessed the problems of leadership, tactics, command and control to improve effectiveness. It appears that Schumacher's fighter units did not do the same and were too busy congratulating themselves on their success. There is little evidence that the Luftwaffe took anything like the Army's approach in Poland, following their own victory at Heligoland Bight. The historian for the Luftwaffe General Staff noted it was only exploited for propaganda, despite the operational problems and warnings the battle had flagged for attacker and defender. [1]

The progress of the war from September 1939 to the summer of 1941, with a few exceptions, seemed to validate the Luftwaffe's pre-war focus on the offensive use of its fighter arm. The success of the Luftwaffe in the Norwegian Campaign and the battles of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece had vindicated this method. The Luftwaffe had defended German airspace by driving away enemy air power from Germany's borders and defeating their enemies in their own skies. The occupation of its opponent's territory denied Germany's enemies the bases to attack German targets by air. German daylight defences were rarely tested during this time. [1] This run of events and the knowledge that the RAF was only capable of short penetrations over France in daylight, led the Luftwaffe to believe Germany was invulnerable to attack. To maintain the offensive on the front line, bomber production dominated the air industry while the production of fighters was given less priority. [60]

By the time Germany declared war on the United States, on 11 December 1941, the failure of Operation Barbarossa meant the Luftwaffe's method of concentrating all its resources on the front line was failing. The RAF began its campaign of night bombing in early 1940 and by mid-August 1942, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) entered the air war in force. [61] Even so, the OKL continued to resist sending its forces to defend Germany and weakening the front lines. It was only in May 1942—when the Luftwaffe faced the USAAF for the first time in daylight engagements and the commencement of USAAF 8th Air Force bombing raids on occupied Europe, that the danger of Allied strategic bombing by day gave the OKL cause for concern. [62] Even by the end of 1942, the measures taken to strengthen daylight anti-aircraft defences remained piecemeal and counter productive. Hans Jeschonnek summed up the attitude of the OKL when he stated that the Luftwaffe could deal with the Western Allies' daylight raids with "one" fighter wing. [63] The events of 1943–1944 would prove this assumption wrong. Adolf Galland General der Jagdflieger (General of the Fighter Force), 1941–1945—gave lack of organisation and of planning for air defence as one of the greatest mistakes made by the Luftwaffe during the war. [64]

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References

Citations

  1. 1 2 3 Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 42.
  2. Holmes 2010, p. 6.
  3. Weal 1999, p. 8.
  4. "R Kellett_P". Rafweb.org. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Holmes 2010, p. 86.
  6. 1 2 Holmes 2010, p. 69.
  7. Holmes 2010, p. 3.
  8. Hooton 1994, p. 190.
  9. 1 2 3 Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 37.
  10. Chorley 2007, p. 17.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Holmes 2010, pp. 9–18.
  12. Richards 1995, p. 13.
  13. Caldwell and Muller 2007, pp. 34–35.
  14. Richards 1995, pp. 1–2.
  15. Holmes 2010, p. 20.
  16. Holmes 2010, p. 21.
  17. 1 2 Holmes 2010, p. 25.
  18. Richards 1953, pp. 38–40.
  19. Richards 1995, pp. 26–28.
  20. Richards 1995, p.28.
  21. Holmes 2010, p. 26.
  22. Holmes 2010, p. 23.
  23. Homles 2010, pp. 27–38.
  24. Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 31.
  25. Richards 1953, p. 42.
  26. Richards 1995, pp. 35–36.
  27. Holmes 2010, p. 32.
  28. Holmes 2010, pp. 35–36.
  29. Richards 1953, pp. 44–45.
  30. Holmes 2010, p. 43.
  31. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 38.
  32. Breffort and Jouineau 2009, p. 48.
  33. Holmes 2010, p. 60.
  34. Holmes 2010, p. 48.
  35. Holmes 2010, p. 78.
  36. Holmes 2010, p. 54.
  37. Holmes 2010, p. 61.
  38. Holmes 2010, pp. 56–57.
  39. Holmes 2010, pp. 56–59.
  40. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 39.
  41. Holmes 2010, pp. 62–64.
  42. Hooton 2007, p. 79.
  43. Holmes 2010, pp. 67–70.
  44. Holmes 2010, pp. 70–71.
  45. Holmes 2010, p. 65.
  46. Holmes 2010, p. 71.
  47. Holmes 2010, p. 72.
  48. Holmes 2010, p. 75.
  49. Holmes 2010, p. 163.
  50. Holmes 2010, pp. 76–77.
  51. Held and Nauroth 1982, p. 15.
  52. Holmes 2010, pp. 78–81.
  53. Weal 1999, pp. 21–22.
  54. Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 40.
  55. Treadwell 2003, pp. 29–31.
  56. Holmes 2010, p. 83.
  57. 1 2 3 4 Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 41.
  58. Holmes 2010, pp. 98–99.
  59. Holmes 2010, p. 100.
  60. Caldwell and Muller 2007, pp. 45–46.
  61. Caldwell and Muller 2007, pp. 46–47.
  62. Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 49.
  63. Caldwell and Muller 2007, p. 67.
  64. Caldwell and Muller 2007, pp. 286–287.

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