Episodes & Studies Volume 2
ATTACKS ON THE GERMAN FLEET
ATTACKS ON THE GERMAN FLEET
THE FIRST OFFENSIVE RAID by the Royal Air Force was made on the afternoon of 4 September 1939. On that day men from the British Isles, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Eire were among the crews of 15 Blenheim and 14 Wellington aircraft which took off from bases in England to attack units of the German Fleet. The weather over the North Sea was very bad and ten of the pilots were unable to see any target through the low cloud and driving rain.
The two New Zealanders who were in action on this historic day each had an eventful flight. Squadron Leader L. S. Lamb1 was leader of a formation of Wellington bombers attacked by nine German fighters. Although two of the bombers were shot down before an escape could be made into cloud, Lamb's skilful leadership in the battle undoubtedly saved the lives of many in the formation.
The Wellington aircraft had been ordered to bomb two warships located at Brunsbuttel but only one aircraft found a target. The Blenheims, flown to the Schillig Roads, were more fortunate. The first formation found the German battleship Admiral Scheer and, bombing from masthead height, took the enemy completely by surprise. A second formation of five Blenheims attacking the Admiral Scheer fifteen minutes later found the crew of the battleship at action stations. The aircraft flew in almost at sea level, and as Sergeant M. H. S. Innes-Jones2 watched—he was navigator and bomb-aimer of the fourth aircraft preparing to attack—the three Blenheims in front of him were each shot down in succession. As his captain approached the battleship, the fifth Blenheim passed and was destroyed. The aircraft in which the New Zealander was flying was the only one to pass through the withering fire from the warship and return to England. Sergeant Innes-Jones was responsible for the successful navigation of the aircraft during the long flight back across the North Sea.
Squadron Leader Lamb and Sergeant Innes-Jones were two of some five hundred New Zealanders who were serving in the Royal Air Force on the outbreak of war. Most had made their own way to England—some as deck-hands, some as passengers—in the decade before the war and had been granted short-service commissions; others were trained and commissioned in New Zealand for service in the RAF, and a few had started their service careers as Aircraft Apprentices at the famous RAF Technical College at Halton, near London.
At the beginning of the Second World War British bombing policy was governed by the consideration that the less bombing there was the better. The Royal Air Force was not strong enough to provoke retaliation by the numerically superior Luftwaffe. The policy, therefore, was page 4 that only military objectives as then narrowly defined should be attacked, and the attack of 4 September 1939 was made in accordance with this direction.
At the beginning of the war much had still to be learned about the tactical use of a bomber force. It was later realised that bombing a warship from a low height could do little damage and was suicidal. It was soon apparent, also, that heavy casualties would be incurred if attacks were made in daylight on objectives strongly protected by shore-based fighters.
On 14 December 1939, for example, twelve Wellingtons were sent to search the Heligoland Bight for the German Fleet. The weather was extremely bad, with heavy rain and cloud to within a few hundred feet of the sea, but some warships were sighted. Then the fighters came. The rear flight, led by Flight Lieutenant E. J. Hetherington,3 bore the brunt of the initial attack. His aircraft was hit and several of the crew wounded, but Hetherington managed to return to base, only to crash as he attempted to land. He and two of the crew were killed.
The air battle lasted for nearly an hour, continuous attacks being made on the formation from all sides. In the leading aircraft, piloted by Squadron Leader A. McKee,4 the wireless operator, Corporal C. B. G. Knight,5 coolly carried on with his work in spite of such continuous distractions as enemy tracer passing his window. As chief wireless operator for the formation he was responsible for obtaining valuable bearings on German wireless stations for navigational purposes and for passing messages to base, including the sighting reports of the German warships encountered. In this action five Wellingtons were lost and one was severely damaged. A few days later, twelve out of twenty-four Wellingtons were shot down in a similar engagement.
Thereafter daylight attacks on warships in the German North Sea bases were discontinued. Aircraft of Bomber Command continued to search the North Sea for German warships, but the weather was generally so bad that to find, much less attack, such tiny and elusive targets became almost impossible.