Tuesday, 16 August 2011

1943 - new German nightfighters attack the RAF

By the summer of 1943, the nocturnal battles in the skies over Germany were changing rapidly as new equipment and new tactics came into operation.

For the men flying from Lincolnshire the conversion to Lancasters from two-engined bombers or from Stirlings was rapidly reaching completion. They were also acquiring important aids to navigation. The “Oboe” system enabled a navigator to plot his approximate position over western Germany. The much newer “H2S” radar was very different. It scanned the ground ahead of the bomber to produce a rough, but accurate image of hills, mountains, built up areas and stretches of water. Using Oboe to get into position for an attack, then H2S to zero in on a target, a Lancaster could drop its bombs with some degree of accuracy at night. At first only a few bombers could be supplied with both sets of equipment. They acted as “Pathfinders”, dropping coloured flares to mark the target for the main stream of bombers following behind.

The Germans, too, were improving their defences. The number and accuracy of anti-aircraft guns around important targets was increased dramatically. By 1943 the gunners were assisted by searchlight batteries that had short-range radar sets to show them where the bombers were in the sky. A master blue-coloured searchlight was aimed at the radar plot, allowing the other searchlights to weave around searching the correct area of sky to pick up a bomber.

But it was the nightfighters that were rapidly proving to be the most deadly of Germany’s defences. From 1940 through to the end of the war, Bomber Command estimated it lost about 1% of aircraft on a raid to flak. But nightfighters were very different. In 1940 there were very few German fighters in the skies at night. Those that did appear were simply day fighters patrolling the skies over potential targets in hope of spotting a bomber by moonlight. By the winter of 1941 the situation had changed as the Germans introduced new aircraft and tactics.

Leading the way in nightfighter design were Junkers with their Ju88C and Messerschmitt with their Bf110G. The designs of both aircraft were based on those of pre-war fighter-bombers that had proved less than successful in daylight aerial combat against the more nimble single-seat Spitfires and Hurricanes. Both aircraft had two engines and carried three crew members. They were large enough to hold airborne radar sets and the men to operate them, but agile enough to overtake bombers and attack them with deadly precision.

The Ju88C entered service in 1942 and some 3,200 were built over the next 18 months. The Bf110G began fighting a few months later but soon overtook the Junkers in terms of numbers with an impressive 1,580 entering service in 1943 alone. Both aircraft were fitted with twin 20mm cannon and two 7.9mm machine guns firing forward, while the Bf110G had  a pair of machine guns in the rear cockpit as well.


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