The RAF strikes the Opera

9 / 10 APRIL 1941

On that night, Wednesday, RAF Bomber Command launched an operation against ‘the Big City’. The mixed attacking force comprised 80 bombers - 36 Wellingtons, 24 Hampdens, 17 Whitleys and 3 of the new Short Stirling heavy bomber. This was the first raid on Berlin to feature the big four-engined british bomber.

Some sources indicates this attack was a British retaliation ordered by Churchill after the Nazis bombed and destroyed Belgrade the week before, the most devastating attack in the history of the Serbian capital. However, a British government declaration of 8 April (Boog H, Krebs G and Vogel D, 2006. p 367) had made it clear that the British were not conducting reprisal attacks and that German cities would continue to be attacked even if the Luftwaffe no longer bombed Britain. To accept the reprisal campaign would have deprived the British of the only way of hitting back Germany bombs.

Half of the bombing force reached the Nazi-capital and attacked under nearly full moon conditions before midnight. Bombing pattern was poor and flak was light. Incendiaries bombs fell on Unter den Linden and Mitte, and hit famous buildings like the State Opera (Staatsoper Berlin), Bebelplatz and the Humboldt-Universität and Staatsbibliothek. The Altes Palais’ roof, next to the Opera, was hit by 9 incendiary bombs too. 

The raid lasted fifteen minutes and five aircraft failed to return.

[Crowd of Berliners at Unter den Linden during the winter of 1940, this photograph was taken from the main entrance of the Opera House, months before British bombers raided the zone hitting the theatre. At center is clearly visible the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, with the
Staatsbibliothek building behind. Brandenburger Tor is barely visible in the background. The image seems to be taken during a parade or a celebration, due to the overwhelming mass of people in the streets and the absence of traffic. Notice the accumulated snow at left. Fear of air bombings is still far for Berliners…]

[Photo by Sobotta / Getty images.]

[Smoking columns of fire rising at Bismarckstraße during the early hours of the day after the bombing raid. The British attack hit the U-Bahn underground station next to the Staatsoper. Notice the blue U-Bahn sign post at left and a pair of trucks from the fire brigades of the Reichsluftschutzbund.]

[Photo by Sobotta / Getty images.].

Nazi-authorities summed up the damage in a official report shortly thereafter: 90 homes and 10 public buildings had been destroyed or severely damaged, as well as several factories railway facilities, two churches and a hospital and two barracks. 6 people died. RAF flyers were accused by Nazi-propaganda of attacking deliberately such cultural buildings of an European city.

[Fire-fighting after a bomb hit on the Opera den Linden.]

[Photo: Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo.]

[Severely damaged lobby in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden as seen on April 10th, 1941.]

[Photo: Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo (00322894).]

British losses included the only Short Stirling bomber that was able to reach the city, the other two aborted the mission. N6011MG-?’ of No 7 Squadron RAF was shot down by Oberfeldwebel Karl-Heinz Scherfling flying a Bf 110 night fighter of NJG1 at 23.35 hrs and crashed near Lingen, in Lower Saxony some 300 miles short of the target Berlin. This was the first Stirling lost to enemy action. 

There was only one survivor between Fl/Lt. Victor Fernley Baker Pike’s crew, Sgt Charles MacDonald (POW). The six crew members killed were initially buried at the Lingen New Cemetery and reburied after the war in the Reichswald War Cemetery in 1947.

[The image depicts one of the first Stirlings of No 7 Sqn taking off from RAF Oakington in 1941. Note large size RAF fin flash on tail. The raid was a total disaster for the squadron, with one returned early due to a propeller fault (N6009) an other (N6005) being damaged by a night fighter and bombed Emden, plus the one shot down by Scherfling.]

[Photo: © IWM (CH 3145)].

[Oberfeldwebel Karl-Heinz Scherfling, from Nachtjagdgeschwader 1, the German pilot who shot down the Stirling bomber that night. It was his second air victory of a total of 33 during the war. He would be shot down and killed in a Bf 110 G-4 by a British Mosquito night fighter on 20/21 July 1944.]


[Two views of the chopped fin of T2739, an 99 Sqn Wellington bomber that returned from Berlin in this state after a run in with a night fighter during this sortie. Her squadron mates, Wellingtons R3199 and R1440, were not so lucky, being shot down on that night by German defences.]  

[Photos: (A05891w)/Air Ministry Photo (CH2512).]

[Hauptmann Egon Agtha, from Sprengkommando im Luftgau III Berlin, posing for the camera with an unexploded British bomb at Emilienstraße/Ecke Beyrodtstraße in Marienfelde district the following day, April 10th. 20 people were evacuated.]

[Photo: LAB/Rudolf Steinhäuser, F Rep 290, Nr 195444.]

On the very next day after the RAF attack, British Empire newspapers reported the raid all around the world from London to Sydney, with great emphasis in the destruction of the Staatsoper at Unter den Linden. ”(…) Firemen reported that the State Opera House is a complete loss.” The raid lasted 15 minutes over the capital, and damage was less than severe but international press correspondents reported great destruction and large fires without regards that non military targets had been hit: “(…) High explosives and incendiaries were dropped on residential areas, and public buildings and two hospitals were hit”. This is highly remarkable, because until mid-1942 British War Cabinet didn’t shifted it’s policy to the moral bombing, but hit back hard to revenge London’s Blitz was a priority for British people in the Darkest Hour.

[On 12 April this report of the raid appeared in The Argus newspaper at Melbourne, Australia.]

[Photo: Aircrewremembered / Courtesy of Trove, National Library of Australia.].

[This original film-footage filmed on 10 April 1941 recorded the consequences of the previous night raid by British RAF bombers over Berlin Mitte. We can see the destroyed roof of the Haus der Schweiz at Friedrichstraße, and the Feuerwehr extinguishing the last fires from the enemy’s bombs at the Opernhaus as well as columns of smoke in adjacent streets.]

[Video credit: Worldfilmheritage.]

After the attack, an infuriated Hitler confronts Göring, chief of Luftwaffe, about lack of defenses against RAF bombing campaign, so in revenge for the destruction of the Staatsoper Göring ordered two huge raids against London to demonstrate the Führer his air force could indeed flatten the capital. On April 16th, 1940, the Luftwaffe attacked with 681 bombers (886 tonnes of bombs) with the west of London suffered the most in this bombing, Chelsea and West End, and even St. Paul’s cathedral was hit. This raid was so heavy that it became known to Londoners as The Wednesday’.

Three nights later the Germans back with 712 aircraft (1,026 tonnes), the largest raid of the 1941 Blitz campaign and nearly the end of this first phase. Some sources indicates total casualties are roughly 2,300 killed and 3,000 seriously wounded between the two attacks. London firefighters lost 13 men, the most so far during the war.

[Londoners walking single file across rubble with water pails after a German air raid. April 1941.]

[Photo: © IWM (HU 131452.)]



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