Bombing raid on Berlin

‘Aircraft drawn from two R.A.F. squadrons made a special attack on an objective only four miles from the centre of Berlin early yesterday morning’.

– Daily Herald, Friday, August, 30, 1940 –

Photo: © IWM CH 10246.

As we have seen on previous posts, the first bombing on Berlin made by British aircraft on 25/26 August 1940 was an initial retaliation to German attacks over London. Apart from a great victory for morale it served to distress the Luftwaffe offensive against RAF Fighter Command in the summer of that year when the invasion threat was imminent. That first raid was not going to be something isolated, but the beginning of a strategic air campaign against the Third Reich’s capital.

On the night of August 28th, 1940, the Royal Air Force visited Berlin for the second time in four nights, with an estimated time of 7-8 hours to made the 1,200 miles trip to Berlin and back flying in total darkness. 

Churchill and the War Cabinet had directed Bomber Command’s Commander-in-Chief Air Marshal Portal to continue the strikes on the Nazi capital, and although this escaped from the actual bombing directive (to reduce the German invasion effort and hit industrial targets) it reached another aim: to have the greatest possible moral effect on both sides.[1] The previous night the Germans kept their bombing raids against west and the south-west of England, and Birmingham was hit by Luftwaffe bombs causing civilian deaths.[2]

First question to aboard was the exact number of bombers sent to bomb Berlin. In those early days when the raids were small and multiple targets were attacked on the same night, RAF statistics were not so detailed as in late war years, so we found that available sources gives us a variety of figures: Bomber Command’s operational reference book (Middlebrook, 1985)[3] listed just an overall figure of the night: “79 Blenheims, Hampdens, Wellingtons and Whitleys to 6 targets in Germany and to French airfields.” Most aviation historians and authors had taken this total number as reference and it is usually repeated when describing the August 28th raid, some others even not mentioned it.[4] Donnelly completes the chronicle with a more detailed breakdown of the night operations, but failed in describing the exact distribution of the assigned forces.[5]

Thanks to the primary sources, namely the Squadron’s ORBs, for the first time we can determine the exact number of bombers tasked with that night mission and their times over target: British records show that 47 aircraft were dispatched to the Third Reich’s heart as part of that 79-aircraft force. In all, 35 crews of those sent reached Berlin with more or less success.[6]

Bomber Command assigned this operation to two of its ‘heavy’ bomb groups. Primary target for the Wellington force (18 aircraft) from No 3 Group was the Klingenberg power station (coded B.57 by the Air Ministry) at Rummelsburg in the eastern part of the city. Tempelhof airport (coded as H324) was given as secondary target.[7]

[A view of the Großkraftwerk Klingenberg power station, which supplies at the time nearly half of the electricity used in Berlin.]

Photo: © Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (fm822929).

Group’s HQ transmitted Order Form B.253 which ordered the crews: “To cause maximum damage to targets given in para. ‘G’ and to create maximum disturbance over Germany during the hours of darkness.” “Maximum load of Bombs is to be carried in consideration of the meteorological conditions and distance”. Between 2 to 6 bundles of leaflets (coded ‘nickels’) should to be dropped also in populous area adjacent to the target.[8]

Photo: TNA AIR 27/894. 2. © Crown Copyright.

‘A seven-hour job’

At RAF Marham No 38 Squadron dispatched 9 Wellington bombers, departing the airstrip at intervals from 20.30 hours. Arriving at midnight to Berlin they encountered slight haze and clouds; attacking Tempelhof -their secondary target- and reported explosions on the eastern edge of the aerodrome, where large fires were seen already burning. Light flak was reported.[9] Its sister unit at the station, 115 Squadron, sent 9 Wellingtons too tasked with “attack on industrial targets” departing from 20.28 hrs. One of the bombers returned early to base but rest of the force claimed to have bombed both targets: “Fire were started, and explosions seen”. Crews reported heavy flak and searchlights. Last a/c landed at 05.52 back at Marham.[10]

RAF Sqn Leader Patrick Foss of No 115 Squadron recalls the non so successful raid: ‘When the Luftwaffe made their bombing attacks on London in July 1940 the Prime Minister ordered us to attack Berlin. This was the longest trip we had ever attempted in the Wellington, close to our maximum range with full tanks and minimum bomb load. We set off for Berlin with half a gale blowing from the west, low and middle cloud and murk on the ground. (…) We had failed to get any fixes on the rote and the weather was heavy cloud and total blackness. We glimpsed below us lakes and forest, but never a light or other indication of a city. There was nothing worth bombing and no time for a search. We turned for home and began to plug back against the gale. We landed at Marham with less than thirty minutes of fuel remaining after eight and a half hours in the air. Our other crews returned with similar stories. No one was sure he had hit Berlin. We hoped other stations had had more luck.’ [11]

[Close view of a Wellington bomber pilot on 115 Sqn photographed in his aircraft at a press event at RAF Marham air base after the second raid on Berlin, 30 August 1940.]

Photo: © IWM (HU 104670).

Meanwhile, No 5 Group force consisting of six squadrons of Hampden bombers was assigned Order Form B.204 “to destroy SIEMENS & HALSKE factory coded as G.161, on the northwestern part of the German capital. Alternative target was A389, installations part of Tempelhof airport.[12]

[A Hampden being bombed up in August 1940. The Berlin sorties exposed the Handley Page bomber at the very edge of their range, resulting in six losses due to fuel starvation during the first raid two nights before.]

Photo: © IWM (HU 104647).

At RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire, six Hampden bombers of No 44 Sqn bound for Berlin from 20.05 hrs. Five of them attacked the Siemens target with 500 and 250-lb bombs, dropping also incendiaries. Burst and fires were seen.[13] 50 Squadron, departing from the same station, sent 3 Hampdens to hit the German capital and bombed Siemens works too between 00.03 to 00.25 hrs dropping bombs in a gliding attack from medium height. Crews reported intense AA fire and ground defences with searchlights ineffective due to haze with one of them reporting to hit a large building, which burst into flames. A fourth aircraft took off late due to bombing-up arrangement trouble and returned to base early.[14]

At RAF Scampton No 49 Squadron put up four aircraft: they began taken off around 20.40 hrs with 10 minutes intervals. Only two of them identified the target due to haze and bombed Siemens with results unobserved and a third attacked claimed to Tempelhof instead.[15]. A few minutes later 6 bombers from 83 Squadron were dispatched to the ‘Big City’: two of them reached Berlin but just one bombed the target (“large fire started”) and the other attacked a vessel on a lake west of Berlin.[16]

No 61 Sqn provided 5 bombers, starting from 21.10 hrs from RAF Hermswell. Two of them claimed to have bombed primary target causing fires and a third one failed to find it due to darkness and bombed concentration of AA guns; the other two returned early after encountering troubles.[17] Parked next at Hermswell was 144 Squadron, whose contribution to the raid was a 5-bombers force taking off from 20.50 hrs; just 2 of them reached Berlin, released bombs at midnight from 10,000 ft reporting target hid by clouds.[18]

[A Handley Page Hampden bomber taxing prior taking off during 1940. ‘KM’ codes painted on the fuselage identifies her as a No 44 Sqn machine. 5 Group’ Hampdens flew 2,043 sorties during the war with 43 aircraft lost (2.1 percent).][19]

Photo by Paul Nash. TATE-images (TGA/7050PH/37/1).

[Three Hampdens Mk Is of No 44 Squadron in formation flight during a daylight sortie. Hampdens bound for Berlin loaded with four 500-lbs bombs and several canisters of incendiaries.]

Photo: © IWM CH 3482.

The British lost one bomber on this raid, a Hampden I on 83 Squadron (serial X2897, OL-?), the long distance to the Reich capital being the loss cause. This aircraft took off at 21.10 hours from Scampton with Siemens factory as target and on the return flight they ran out of fuel and ditched alongside a trawler near Skegness at 06.20 hrs.[20] They had been in the air for nearly nine hours. Another bomber (P4392, piloted by P/O Clayton) from the same unit had to force-landed on a beach on Norfolk coast with no injuries to crew at 07.50 hrs.[21]

[This is the crew of Hampden X2897 safely on board a trawler after ditching in the North Sea on return from bombing Berlin, the only loss in this raid. From left to right: Flying Officer Watson, Flying Officer Stannion, Flight Lieutenant Pitcairn-Hill DSO DFC (pilot) and Sergeant Byrne.]

Photo: Donnelly, L.(2004). The Other Few: The Contribution Made by Bomber and Coastal Aircrew to the Winning of the Battle of Britain.

The German report of this air attack claimed one of the attacking enemies as shot down by anti-aircraft artillery before it reached Berlin[22] but as previous raid no Flak unit or aircrew filled any claim to the OKL and there was no Nachtjadg reaction either.[23]

The Air Ministry told the raid to the British press the following day, attacking ‘from dusk until dawn’ and reporting some crews’ stories: ‘We bombed dead on midnight. When we arrived we found the target well on fire. We saw the blaze 25 minutes’ flying time away’said a young pilot officer raiding the power station meanwhile another pilot reported white-hot fire.[24]

At the same time, across the Channel, German bombers based in northern France built up at high altitude before heading in large formations to bomb Liverpool: in the first mass night bombing of the campaign the Luftwaffe targeted the city large docks but many bombs fell on the surrounding areas causing many civilian casualties. Some German bombs were dropped over 150 miles away from the intended target on that night.[25]

There was no immediate reaction by Hitler after this attack on Berlin, the OKL would keep the air campaign over Britain and the RAF, but a change was to coming on the following weeks without any doubt triggered by British raids.[26] This second raid had gone beyond being a retaliation and anticipated the inclusion of the bombing of the German capital by London and the War Cabinet as a war effort to defeat Hitler: “Berlin (…) would be regularly included in routine raids from now onwards”.[27]

But what happened in Berlin after the attack thousands of feet below the RAF crews and their bombing runs? In our next post we will describe the effects of the air raid and its consequences.

Photo by Paul Nash. TATE-images (TGA 7050PH/7).

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Notes and Citations:

[1] YOUNG, Neil. (1991). The Role of the Bomber Command in the Battle of Britain. Imperial War Museum Review No. 06.
[2] DONELLY, Larry. (2004). The Other Few: The Contribution Made by Bomber and Coastal Aircrew to the Winning of the Battle of Britain. Red Kite/Air Research. p 114.
[3] MIDDLEBROOK, Martin and EVERETT, Chris. (1985). The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book. Pen & Sword Aviation. 2014 Ed. p 78.
[4] NAPIER, Michael. (2020). Vickers Wellington Units of Bomber Command (Combat Aircraft Book 133). Osprey Publishing. p 32. In the latest book about the Wellington, the author omitted the Squadrons’ contribution on that night and referred just the next bombing on Berlin on August 30th.
[5] DONELLYop. cit. pp 116-117.
[6] The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Operations Record Books: AIR 27. © Crown Copyright.
[7] see TNA AIR 27/894. 2; p 123.
[8] ibid.
[9] see TNA AIR 27-397-20.
[10] see TNA AIR 27/887-20.
[11] Adapted from BOWMAN, Martin. (2016). Nachtjagd, Defenders of the Reich 1940-1943. Pen & Sword Aviation.
[12] see TNA AIR 27-453. 2; p 70.
[13] see TNA AIR 27-447-22.
[14] see TNA AIR 27-485-20.
[15] see TNA AIR 27-480-20.
[16] see TNA AIR 27-686-16. The Air Ministry communique stated that the vessel was hit on a canal near Rathenow, some 90 km west of Berlin; DONELLY: op. cit; p 117.
[17] see TNA AIR 27-576-18.
[18] see TNA AIR 27-980-18.
[19] https://lancaster-me699.co.uk/home-2/44-rhodesia-squadron
[20] CHORLEYWR. (2013). RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War. Volume 1 1939-40. Classic Publications. 2nd edition. p 194.
[21] see TNA AIR 27-686-16.
[22] see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 8 f.
[23] BOITEN, Theo. (2018). Nachtjagd Combat Archive. The early years Part 1. 1939-12 July 1941. Red Kite. p 24.
[24] Daily Mail, Friday, August 30, 1940. 
[25] Battle of Britain Historical Society. The Chronology: Page-30. Sunday August 25th - Thursday August 29th 1940. By contrast, Smith and Creek stated in their study about German bomber crews that “relatively few operations [against Britain] were flown between 27 and 29 August” and not mention this raid. SMITH, J Richard and CREEK, Eddie J. (2004) Kampfflieger Bombers of the Luftwaffe Volume Two: July 1940-December 1941. Classic Publications, p 109.
[26] DONELLY: op. cit. p 118; YOUNG: op. cit. (1991): “More raids in the same week and the general damage caused to German cities by the air offensive were contributory factors in the Luftwaffe’s change of air attack priority from Fighter Command’s airfields to London on 7 September, the turning point of the Battle of Britain.”
[27] MIDDLEBROOK, EVERETTop. cit. p 78. 

Bibliography:

  • Bowman, Martin. (2011). Bomber Command. Cover of Darkness 1939 - May 1942. Volume: 1. Pen & Sword Aviation.
  • Bowman, Martin. (2014). Voices in flight: The Wellington Bomber. Pen & Sword Aviation. 
  • Bowman, Martin. (2015). Voices in flight: The Heavy Bomber Offensive of WWII. Pen & Sword Aviation.
  • BRITISH BOMBING SURVEY UNIT (1998).The Strategic Air War Against Germany 1939 - 1945 - The Official Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit. Frank Cass.
  • Churchill, Winston. (1949). Their Finest Hour. Houghton Mifflin.
  • Delve, Ken. (1998). Vickers-Armstrongs Wellington. The Crowood Press.
  • Overy, Richard. (2013). The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. Allen Lane.
  • Tress HB. Churchill, the First Berlin Raids, and the Blitz: A New Interpretation. Militaergeschichtliche Zeitschrift, Volume 32, Issue 2, Pages 65–78. 1982. 
  • Tweddle, Paul. (2018). The Other Battle of Britain: 1940: Bomber Command’s Forgotten Summer. The History Press.
  • Ward, Chris. (2007). 5 Group Bomber Command: An Operational Record. Pen & Sword Books. 
  • Ward, Chris and Smith, Steve. (2009). 3 Group Bomber Command: An Operational Record. Pen & Sword Books.
  • Williston, Floyd. (1996).Through Footless Halls of Air: The Stories of a Few of the Many who Failed to Return. GSPH.

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