Monday, September 12, 2005

The baby blitz


To most people, the ‘Blitz’ covers the series of large-scale night attacks on Britain’s cities, lasting from September 1940 to May 1941. However, in December 1943, the RAF received intelligence that the Luftwaffe’s bombers were gathering for a major new operation. Code-breakers at Bletchley Park had broken the top secret German Enigma cyphers and read signals addressed to bomber units in Italy ordering them to prepare to move airfields. Although the Luftwaffe signals gave no explicit mention of an impending attack on Great Britain, the evidence pointed in that direction. The depths of winter was no time for an air offensive against Russia and the bomber units were moving away from the Mediterranean area. That left the most likely course as a resumption of night attacks on Great Britain - and soon. The defenders were far better trained and equipped to deal with such an attack than they had been during the earlier Blitz. In January 1944, Fighter Command’s 10 and 11 Groups were responsible for the defence of southern England. They possessed seven squadrons of Mosquito night fighters with a total of 127 aircraft, 19 of which were elderly Mark II versions with early airborne interception radar. The remainder were Marks XII, XIII and XVII fitted with more effective centimetric wavelength AI radars. For the close-in defence of the Greater London area, there were numerous heavy anti-aircraft (AA) batteries equipped with 3.7ins and a few 5.25ins guns. Many batteries were equipped with the new gun-laying Mark III radar, which made them effective against unseen targets at night or in bad weather. The Luftwaffe designated the new series of attacks Operation ‘Steinbock’. For Steinbock, the Germans assembled 524 bombers, and the force included 46 examples of the new He 177 ‘Greif’ four-engined heavy bomber, raiding Britain for the first time.

Operation Steinbock On the afternoon of 21 January there was a flurry of activity at the Luftwaffe bases as ground crews fuelled, armed and carried out final checks on the bombers. Soon after dark, the raiding force of 227 bombers began taking off. As the bombers appeared on the British radar screens the size of the force appeared to increase rapidly. To confuse radar plotting, each bomber released bundles of ‘Dueppel’ radar-reflective metal foil (derived from the British ‘window’). The concentrations of Dueppel made it difficult for controllers at the older ground-controlled interception radars to direct night fighters. Over London, pathfinders of IGK 66 laid lines of white flares across the city to mark targets. The bombers of the main force aimed their weapons at these flares, then withdrew across Kent, Sussex and Essex in high-speed descents that reached speeds over 300 mph. On their return to base, those bombers that remained serviceable were quickly refuelled and rearmed. Others that had not taken part in the first attack joined the force and during the early morning darkness 220 aircraft took off to deliver a repeat assault on London. Considering the number of aircraft involved in the double attack, the capital sustained remarkably little damage. The civil defence organisation logged 245 incidents of bomb damage reported, but only 44 of those occurred in the London area. The rest were in Kent, Sussex and Essex. Luftwaffe records state that 25 of its aircraft fell to enemy action during the two attacks. Mosquito crews claimed 16 bombers destroyed or probably destroyed, which indicates that most or all of the remaining nine probably fell to anti-aircraft fire. A further 18 bombers fell to non-combat causes, due mainly to aircraft mishandling, navigation error or crashes at the dimly lit bases. After a week of poor weather, the Luftwaffe mounted its next raid on London on the night of 29/30 January. The force of 285 bombers attacked in a single wave, with greater success than on the previous raid. Together, the two January attacks on London caused the death of about 100 people, with double that number injured. Luftwaffe bombers raided London five times during the first two weeks in February, but caused little damage. Then, on the night of 18/19th, the force mounted the most damaging attack on the Capital since May 1941. By this time, the bomber crews had become familiar with their target and its defences, and about 200 aircraft put down about 140 tons of bombs in the London area. In March, there were four attacks on London, followed by unsuccessful raids on Hull and Bristol. Attacks continued throughout April and, at the close of May, small-scale attacks on Weymouth, Torquay and Falmouth, brought Steinbock to an end.

Aftermath The ‘Baby Blitz’ marked the final attempt by the Luftwaffe to mount large-scale attacks by manned bombers on targets in Great Britain. Considering the scale of effort involved, the campaign yielded poor results. Air raid casualties in Britain during the first five months of 1944 totalled 1,556 killed, with 2,916 seriously injured. During the five months of Operation Steinbock, the Luftwaffe lost about 330 bombers and crews. Thus, for every five people killed on the ground, the raiders lost one bomber and four trained crewmen killed or captured.


Post a Comment

<< Home