Friday, 5 August 2011

RAF Bomber Command (Norfolk) goes to War in 1939

Even before war broke out, RAF Bomber Command in Norfolk was preparing for conflict. On 26 August telegrams were sent to all personnel not on base ordering their immediate return. On the same day aircraft were dispersed around the airfield perimeters in case of sudden Luftwaffe attacks.

On 1 September War Plan 7b was issued to Bomber Command. This restricted bombers to attacking purely military targets when there was no risk whatever of causing civilian casualties. In practice this meant that only ships at sea or in naval docks could be attacked, all army and Luftwaffe bases being too close to civilian areas to be certain that only military personnel would be killed. Bomber crews were told that they could fly over Germany, but only for reconnaissance purposes or to drop leaflets.

The policy was not popular, but it was practical. As head of Bomber Command, Ludlow was worried that his aircraft were unable to operate deep into enemy territory with any degree of safety. And the French were terrified that any German civilian casualties would result in massive Luftwaffe raids on French cities – which would be much easier for the Germans to reach than British cities.

The first few days of war were quiet ones for Bomber Command in Norfolk. No.214 and No.101 Squadrons were stood down to Reserve status as soon as war was declared. Although other squadrons remained active, they took no part in the early attacks on German naval ships that occupied other units in both 2 Group and 3 Group. That changed dramatically on 3 December. A strong force of 24 Wellingtons drawn from Nos38, No.115 and No.149 Squadrons, the former two operating from Marham, took off on a seek and destroy mission across the coastal waters off Germany.

The Wellingtons flew in the pre-war approved tight formation at medium height. Off Heligoland Island the force sighted a pair of German cruisers and raced in to the attack. Most bombs missed their target and those that hit inflicted negligible damage. One wide miss hit Heligoland itself. Although the bomb fell harmlessly on to open fields, it caused a stir as it was the first bomb to explode on German soil in the war.

Meanwhile the formation of bombers was coming under attack from a swarm of Messerschmitt Bf109 and Me110 fighters. The Germans kept warily away from the British defensive machine guns, but a long range burst damaged the starboard wing and rudder of the No.38 Squadron Wellington flown by Sergeant O’Doire. The aircraft veered off course and left the protective formation of bombers. At once a 109 dived in for the kill. The German pilot approached from below and behind, holding his fire until he was just 40 yards from the Wellington. At the same moment that the German opened fire, Aircraftman John Copley in the rear turret of the Wellington let loose a burst of 20 rounds. The Messerschmitt was hit and climbed steeply, exposing its underbelly to the delighted Copley, who poured in a long burst of fire. The Messerschmitt stalled, turned on its back and dived into the sea.

Copley was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) for the action, but his success had the unfortunate effect of convincing several senior officers that modern bombers, protected by machine guns in powered turrets could fight off fighters. It would take some months, and the loss of many men, before minds were changed.

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