Feature: From First to Last
The RAF’s 51 Squadron took the war to the heart of Hitler’s Germany, from the first day of World War Two’s bomber offensive to the last, as Andrew Thomas describes.
Number 51 Squadron first came into existence in 1916, protecting Britain from the menace of Germany’s deadly Zeppelin raids, its presence over home skies greatly reassuring the frightened population. The unit’s work was soon done, and after the Armistice it was stood down.
Less than two decades later, another world war loomed and 51 Squadron was reformed as part of the RAF’s expansion. The initial aircraft assigned was the Vickers Virginia, but in early 1938 it re-equipped with Armstrong Whitworth Whitley IIs as part of 4 Group, Bomber Command, the only dedicated British night attack group at that time. The unit trained in flying in the dark and was declared operational at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, in the spring of 1938. During the Munich Crisis in September of that year it went onto a war footing, thereafter working with renewed impetus. When war was declared on 3 September 1939, No 51 was ready and put onto standby for sorties to Germany. It did not have long to wait.
The unit, which by early September 1939 had a dozen Armstrong Whitworth Tiger-engined Whitley IIIs on strength, prepared three aircraft with 1,800lb of propaganda leaflets, ready for Operation Nickel. Despite the tactical-sounding name, these type of sorties were generally – and informally – known as ‘bumph raids’. At 8.30pm on the opening night of the war, K8938 ‘MH-A’ flown by Fg Off Milne’s crew was the first to take off on the initial ‘bumph’ raid that would occupy the Whitley squadrons throughout the so-called Phoney War.
The squadron headed for the northern German cities of Hamburg and Bremen. It was the first occasion that the RAF had penetrated into Hitler’s Third Reich in this new war and they encountered no significant enemy opposition, and all landed safely back at Leconfield, Yorkshire, (the unit’s dispersal base) at dawn on the 4th. Further sorties were flown the following night using Reims, east of Paris, as a forward base. Fg Off Harry Budden’s crew was accompanied by his spaniel puppy, Michael, who sat on the co-pilot’s lap throughout!
“Fg Off Harry Budden’s crew was accompanied by his spaniel puppy, Michael, who sat on the co-pilot’s lap throughout!”
Leaflet and reconnaissance operations continued and on 27 September, 51 Squadron positioned six aircraft at Reims once more. Three of them then entered German airspace with Fg Off Milne’s crew reconnoitring roads and railways in the Ruhr area, dropping to 1,000 feet over Dortmund, and along the Rhine – the first occasion that an aircraft had flown that low on a reconnaissance over Germany. Two of the Whitleys returned to Reims, while the third diverted to Le Bourget.
Although trained for night operations, the limited navigation aids combined with the onset of autumn weather meant that Nickel sorties were no sinecure. At the end of the month, on the night of the 27th, five of 51’s old Tiger-engined Whitleys flew another leaflet ‘raid’ against Stuttgart, Munich and Frankfurt, though the crews suffered dreadfully from the effects of the cold and severe icing. Flt Lt Wynton’s machine, with six inches of ice accreted on the wings, went into a steep dive but with an almost superhuman effort the co-pilot, Sgt Hyde, managed to coax K9008 ‘MH-J’ to a relatively soft landing in France.
Over Munich the crew of K8984 ‘MH-N’ discovered the ventral ‘dustbin’ turret remained stuck down and on the way home a cylinder head blew off starboard engine. In thickening snow clouds the port powerplant then also began to fail and with hills ahead, skipper Sgt Bowles ordered the crew to bale out. The Whitley glided to a fairly soft landing, after which a cut and dazed rear gunner, Sgt Griffin – whose intercom had failed and who therefore hadn’t received the ‘abandon ship’ message – searched the blazing wreckage looking for his comrades only to find it empty. He then limped to a nearby village and found them restoring their spirits in a local café!
“…a dazed rear gunner, Sgt Griffin… searched the blazing wreckage looking for his comrades only to find it empty. He then limped to a nearby village and found them restoring their spirits in a local café!”
The Offensive Begins
Soon afterwards 51 Squadron began re-equipping with more reliable Merlin-engined Whitley IVs and Vs. In addition to the bumph raids, ‘security patrols’ were also flown over Luftwaffe seaplanes based in the Frisian Islands, to counter the threat of the German aircraft carrying out minelaying operations. Occasionally bombs were dropped on the seaplanes’ suspected flare paths too.
Eventually, on the night of 19/20 March, Whitleys of 10, 51, 77 and 102 Squadrons were ordered to strike the seaplane base on the island of Hörnum – the first Bomber Command attack on a land target during World War Two, marking the start of the long bomber offensive. Sadly, Flt Lt John Baskerville and crew became the first of countless 51 Squadron crews lost when N1405 was shot down by flak off the island of Sylt.
Three weeks later the Germans invaded Norway and soon afterwards France and the Low Countries were attacked. From Dishforth, 51 Squadron’s Whitley Vs bombed bridges, canals and chokes points in attempts to hinder the advance. On 11 June the unit participated in the first raids on Italy. The crews refuelled in Jersey on the way out and then struck the Fiat works and marshalling yards in Turin, despite severe storms and icing over the Alps. Ten aircraft hit the target and two of 51’s crews dropped bombs on the alternative at Genoa.
The French surrendered on 25 June and left Hitler and his henchmen in control of mainland Europe and its coastline from Norway to the Spanish border. The Germans called it Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) and for most of the mid-war years the only means of challenging it was by the aircraft of Bomber Command. The night France fell, the port of Bremen was attacked along with industrial sites on the Ruhr in Essen, Düsseldorf and elsewhere. All targets that became depressingly familiar in the coming years.
It was striking Gelsenkirchen early on 20 July that the unit lost its first aircraft over ‘Fortress Europe’. In bright moonlight, a Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighter of 2/NJG 1 flown by Obtl Werner Streib caught Whitley V P5007 north of Münster and shot it down in flames with the loss of all but one of Flt Lt Stephen Curry’s crew.
Attacks on German industry continued through the momentous summer of 1940 and during August Milan and Turin in northern Italy were hit again, the range testing the endurance of the crews. On the 25th, No 51’s Whitleys also participated in the first raid on Berlin, again at maximum range. Flt Lt Willie Tait flew in both and received the DFC. During the Berlin sortie on 4/5 September, Fg Off Taylor’s crew ditched off the Frisian Islands and the survivors became PoWs. This was one of six 51 Squadron Whitleys tasked en route to drop ‘Razzle’ firebombs over German forests. However, with the invasion of England being threatened, barges in the Channel ports were a much higher priority target and so were the focal point for the unit’s attention.
On 14 September, No 51 joined with 10 and 78 Squadrons bombing Antwerp, damaging five steamers and port facilities, sinking a barge and hitting an ammunition train. The Ruhr, Berlin and other targets, including submarines based in Lorient, France, were also hit. But finding pinpoint targets presented many difficulties and most attacks were fairly ineffective. Thus on the night of 16 December, 51 Squadron Whitleys struck Mannheim in the RAF’s first ‘area bombing’ attack.
The Luftwaffe’s night defences were steadily improving and 1941 began badly for the squadron. It lost a crew following a sortie to Bremen on 5 January, and another aircraft crashed returning from the Ruhr five days later. Losses began to mount with four more coming to grief in crashes when returning from Bremen on 12 February.
The story continues in the November issue of Britain at War – in the UK shops now!