In the event, Bomber Command was never again able to repeat the awesome destruction visited on Hamburg by the great Thousand Bomber Raid of July 1943. The circumstances that gave rise to the firestorm were unique to Hamburg that week, and German defences were soon improved markedly. In particular the Luftwaffe introduced what they called ‘wild sow’ nightfighters. These highly trained fighters followed the main bomber stream to its target, then used the light of exploding bombs and fires on the ground to locate and attack bombers. Operating independently of ground-based radar, the wild sows were immune to window. Bomber Command losses began to rise again.
One bomber to survive not just one, but two wild sow attacks was a Lancaster of 115 Squadron attacking Mulheim as part of a stream of bombers. It was Sergeant Mason, the rear gunner, who saw the Messerschmitt 110 first, alerting the pilot, Flying Officer Andrews, to the danger. The bomber was approaching the target and was silhouetted against the distant glow of searchlights and fires. The Messerschmitt shadowed the bomber for a few seconds, then dived to attack. Mason opened fire, causing the German to veer off after firing only a short, ineffective burst.
Seconds after the bombs were dropped, the upper gunner spotted a second wild sow, this time a Junkers Ju88 high overhead. Again, the bomber was silhouetted against the glow of the target while the attacker was in the relative safety of darkness. The Junkers came down to the attack, pouring accurate fire at the bomber. Mason and the upper gunner returned fire and had the satisfaction of seeing one of the German’s engines burst into flames that grew to engulf the entire wing.
The Lancaster was itself badly hit. The port inner engine was on fire, and flames spread rapidly to the fuselage. Mason abandoned his turret to help put out the fire in the fuselage, while Andrews put the Lancaster into a steep dive. The wind caused by the high speed dive put out the engine fire, though the engine was now useless. Limping along on three engines at low level the bomber got back to base long after the others from the squadron.
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