During the Battle of Britain in the Summer of 1940, Germany bombed British Royal Air Force (RAF) bases and their personnel in order to annihilate Britain’s air defences. Suddenly, on the night of August 24th, some Luftwaffe bombers drop, probably by mistake, some bombs over the City of London. This was probably not intentional, as it was in defiance of Hitler’s strict instructions that central London should not be attacked.
[A view of Rotterdam from the White House at the Beurs train station after being devastated by the Luftwaffe May 14, 1940.].
The prelude: London
Next day, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an action to revenge the honor of the British citizens, who in case of a German raid on London, have warned the RAF to had the capability to reply immediately against Berlin.
He wrote: (..) “The War Cabinet was much in the mood to hit back, to raise the stakes, and to defy the enemy. I was sure they were right, and believed that nothing impressed or disturbed Hitler so much as his realization of British wrath and will-power. In his heart he was one of our admirers.” [Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 1949.]
[A view of London with St Paul’s Cathedral engulfed in flames in the aftermath of a Luftwaffe raid, December 1940.]
On the very next night, 25/26 August 1940, Bomber Command (the bombing arm of the RAF) sent 86 medium bombers, a raid force comprising Wellingtons (Nos 99, 149 Squadrons), Hampdens (Nos 44, 49, 50, 61 and 144 Sqn) and Whitleys (Nos 51, 78 Sqn) -other sources says about 95, an unusually large figure for this stage of the war, the Command’s records on this night are not clear on the numbers dispatched- from its squadrons to attack Berlin as a retaliation. Main targets were Tempelhof Airport (coded as H324) near the centre of the capital and Siemensstadt (a huge factory complex) in the northwest part of the city. The raiders were greeted by searchlights and intense Flak anti-aircraft fire, some 57 managed to reach the Greater Berlin area and just 37 reported to have drop their bombs on the capital or its outskirts because of thick cloud, and while the damage was slight, the psychological effect on Hitler and the Berliners was greater.
Ten Hampdens managed to bomb the Klingenberg power station (B57). One crew bombed the Henschel airframe factory claiming direct hits. Flt Sgt Clayton of No 44 Sqn failed to locate his target due to haze and clouds, but released his load of four 500-lb bombs on a large building at Johannistal (sic), with devastating effect.
To reach Berlin, British aircraft had five times as far to travel as German aircraft had to bomb London, in a round trip of eight hours and 1,200 miles, close to the maximum range of the Wellington and Hampden bombers with full tanks and minimal bomb load. Bomber Command had switched to night bombing from late 1939 due to heavy losses (particularly on 18 December when 12 of 22 Wellingtons sent were shot down by German fighters), but this made early bombing operations mostly very ineffective.
[One of the Hampden medium bombers lost on the night of 25/26 August 1940 during the first bombing of Berlin by British RAF aircraft was P2070 ‘VN-X’ from No 50 Squadron, seen here after crashing. They took off from RAF Lindholme at 21.58 hrs and after bombing Berlin it is believed that had to force landing due to fuel out near Lautersheim, Germany.]
This first air alarm had an official German reaction surprisingly muted, the event warranted only six lines in the newspapers the next morning. There were no casualties reported -just 11 people resulted injured- and it was asserted that no bombs had been dropped on the city itself and the report concluded that the raid was “extremely small”. Actually most of the damage reported came from splinter shells by anti-aircraft fire in response of the raid. Damage of this attack was estimated at a mere 3,000 Reichmarks, but to Berlin morale was a terrible blow. Many bombs landed, due to thick cloud, on several farms owed by the city in the western outskirts and country areas and quickly the famous Berlin sense of humor came to the rescue: ‘Now they are trying to starve us out’, but the actual situation was the alarm and anxiety for Berliners, after they had lived the destruction of aerial bombing.
[Frontpage of the The New York Times newspaper the following morning. The British were very optimistic about the bombing: Berlin suffered minor damage actually, but was a warning of what will comes].
[Monday August 26th, 1940, Daily Mirror frontpage after the British raided Berlin the night before. Also covers the Luftwaffe bombings on London the South East, the first air bombings on both cities. “While Hitler’s bombers were making another raid on the London area early today, R.A.F. bombs shook Berlin.”. Poor bombing accuracy was admitted even by British press: “Listeners in the centre of the city estimated that the bombs were falling about twenty miles away.” ]
The RAF lost 6 airplanes on this operation, but no Flak or Luftwaffe unit made claims on that night. Bad weather, high winds and the long distance was the main cause of those losses, and three of the bombers ditched in the North Sea due to fuel starvation.
During this early phase and the autumn period, Berlin would be regularly included in routine raids ordered by the War Cabinet, the number of aircraft sent by London was usually small and normal targets for this period of the war -power stations, factory complex and marshalling yards- were chosen for attack, but poor navigation (mostly by reckoning) and bad bombing pattern and thick cloud made bombers to drop bombs on some residential areas.
Two days later, the RAF once again appeared over the capital. The German indiscriminate bombings had turned back against Berlin. The air raids prompted Hitler to order the shift of the Luftwaffe target from British airfields and air defences to British cities, at a time during the Battle of Britain when the British were critically close to collapse. It has been argued that this action may actually have saved Britain from defeat.
It would be the first of many to Berliners and RAF crews.
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