New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 12 — Forward to the Rhine
Forward to the Rhine
By the end of August 1944 the Germans were in full retreat across France. The Battle of Normandy was won, Paris had been liberated, and the Allied armies, sweeping over the Seine on a wide front, pressed on towards the Belgian border in pursuit. Their advance was extremely rapid. Within a week it took them across the Somme and the Marne, through France and the Argonne, over the very battlefields where the tide of the First World War had ebbed and flowed for four long indecisive years. Montgomery's spearheads covered a distance of 200 miles in four days to reach Brussels on 3 September, and the next day they entered Antwerp, hustling the Germans out of the city before they could begin demolitions in the port. There was an equally forceful American advance on the right to Liege and Metz. Meanwhile, the Canadians enjoyed the sweet revenge of capturing Dieppe; then, moving north, they invested the Channel ports and cleared large sections of the ‘flying bomb coast’ towards the Scheldt estuary. In the south the Franco-American Army that had landed just east of Marseilles in mid-August moved rapidly up the Rhone Valley to link up with Patton's Third US Army. By the second week of September the Allied front stretched from Antwerp to the Swiss border.
With this setback, hopes of an early thrust into Germany faded. All along the line enemy resistance was now stiffening, while in the forward extremities of the Allied armies the life blood of supply ran perilously thin. Eisenhower therefore determined to open Antwerp. This involved the clearance of the Scheldt estuary, which task was undertaken by the British and Canadian armies. It proved more difficult than expected, and only after a whole series of complicated and often bloody combined operations, including the capture of Walcheren, was it finally completed early in November. Meanwhile, to the south the American armies were pressing forward to the German frontier through the Ardennes and the Vosges mountains. Here they came up against formidable natural barriers and the prepared defences of the Siegfried Line. Progress was slow and losses heavy. Only at Aachen, which fell towards the end of October, was there marked penetration of the main frontier defences, and even here resolute German counter–action prevented a clean breakthrough.
The timing and direction of the attack took the Allies by surprise and at first the enemy forces carried all before them. Dense fog which shrouded the whole area for several days covered their forward movement and enabled supplies and reinforcements to be brought up without discovery and attack from the air. However, contrary to Hitler's expectations, the American troops in the path of the advance soon recovered from their initial shock and fought back vigorously, in particular at the vital road junction of Bastogne, where the stout resistance of 101 Airborne Division provided the first setback to the German plan. The hinges of the salient also held firm, thus preventing the enemy from widening his base of opera- tions. By staunchly defending the northern flank, Montgomery was able to deflect the course of the enemy's advance to the south-west away from his immediate objective, the Meuse. Then, on 23 December the weather cleared. This was the beginning of the end page 343 since the Allied air forces now took to the air in strength and fell upon the German supply columns. Soon enemy formations found themselves short of fuel, ammunition, and reinforcements and faced by increasing resistance and determined counter-attack. By the beginning of January they were in full retreat from the salient after a maximum penetration of some 50 miles. However, the Germans fought bitter rearguard actions to cover their withdrawal, so that it was only after several weeks of hard battle that the Allies were able to restore the position. Thereupon operations aimed at clearing the area west of the Rhine were resumed after a delay of two months. In bitter weather and over snow–covered ground, troops had to fight their way through very difficult territory, but the supply situation was improving and during February there was steady progress on all sectors.
As the Allied armies pressed forward to the Rhine German resistance became noticeably weaker. Heavy losses in the Ardennes battle, the depletion of his strategic reserves and the growing dislocation in his rear as the result of the Allied bombing offensive, all tended to weaken the enemy's strength in the West. Nor could he expect any relief from other fronts, least of all from the East where the Russian armies were now rolling forward across Poland towards Germany. By the middle of March the British, American, and French armies had fought and won their last major battle to the west of the Rhine, and during the next fortnight they swept across this barrier to begin the final advance into the heart of Germany. The complete collapse of German resistance was now only a matter of weeks.
German air operations over the western front in this last autumn and winter of the war were relatively weak and ineffective. Only during the Ardennes battle did the Luftwaffe appear in strength to support its ground forces. Meanwhile the German squadrons were driven first from France and then from Belgium, and finally forced back in considerable disorder to airfields in western Germany, where lack of fuel and facilities added to their difficulties. Subsequent efforts to rebuild a close– support force for Rundstedt's armies were hindered by the continuing shortage of fuel and the urgent need to resist Allied heavy bomber raids. Indeed, in a desperate effort to combat the bombing, the main fighter force was held back in central Germany and built up strenuously to reach a strength of some 3000 aircraft by mid–November 1944. Towards the end of that month, however, Hitler ordered the transfer of a substantial part of this force to the Western Front to support his gamble in the Ardennes. In the face of strong counter- action by the Allied air forces, it achieved little; squadrons suffered crippling losses both in page 344 the air and on the ground and the plans so carefully prepared by Goering and fighter leader Peltz went badly awry. A surprise attack against Allied airfields which should have preceded the offensive did not take place until New Year's Day 1945. It proved a costly, if spectacular, enterprise and gave little help to the German armies for they were then already on the defensive.1 Under the strain of heavy losses and the growing fuel shortage the German air effort faded away during the later stages of the Ardennes battle. In mid–January considerable forces were transferred to the Russian front, and thereafter Luftwaffe operations in the west were limited to armed reconnaissance by jet aircraft and occasional harassing attacks which, although often irritating, amounted to a negligible effort.
In sharp contrast the Allied air forces gave close support in full measure throughout the campaign. Operating in formidable strength – the average force available was some 12,000 aircraft – they helped British and American troops to achieve their objectives with the minimum of delay and with fewer casualties than had previously seemed possible. The Second Tactical Air Force under Air Marshal Coningham, Bomber Command under Air Chief Marshal Harris, and Fighter Command under Air Marshal Hill were the principal British formations involved, and for the most part they were employed in co-operation with Montgomery's 21st Army Group. The United States had its 9th Air Force, which provided strong tactical formations for each of the American armies, while heavy bombers of General Doolittle's veteran 8th Air Force were also used in their close support. The general co-ordination of the air operations was in the hands of Air Chief Marshal Tedder at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) which was established at Versailles early in October 1944.2 Tedder's task was far from easy but he possessed unrivalled experience of close-support operations, and this, together with his deft handling of both men and situations, proved of inestimable value to the Allied cause.
FLYING BOMB ON LAUNCHING
PLATFORM AND IN FLIGHT
Above: A Flying Bomb in position, on the bottom of the ramp, ready for launching: note how well concealed is the site among trees, the control building being hardly discernable. Right: A side view of the jet-propelled Flying Bomb over the sea. Below: A rear view of the Flying Bomb as seen from an intercepting fighter; this cine gun series shows the intermittent flame from the jet-propulsion unit and finally, cannon bursts exploding on the fuselage.
An airfield in Holland, with Spitfires in the snow
A Mitchell bomber of the Second Tactical Air Force during an attack on a railway bridge in Holland
The airborne landing near Arnhem on 17 September 1944
Destruction of the Dortmund-Ems Canal
Halifax attacking a synthetic oil plant in the Ruhr
A machine-tool shop wrecked in Dusseldorf
The heart of Berlin, May 1945
A strike against enemy shipping by Beaufighters of Coastal Command
Bomb damage in a U-boat pen at Brest
1 The attack was launched at dawn by some 750 fighter-bombers and fell mainly upon the congested British airfields in Belgium. It achieved almost complete surprise and in low-level machine–gun attacks 155 Allied aircraft were destroyed and a further 135 damaged. Anti-aircraft guns and Allied fighters already in the air or taking off in pursuit succeeded in destroying 193 German machines. The Germans could ill afford such losses whereas the Allies, although they received a rude shock, had adequate replacements available and their operations were not seriously affected. On the actual day of the attack 2nd TAF alone flew 1084 sorties.
2 A reorganisation of command, involving the absorption of Leigh-Mallory's AEAF headquarters, had brought army and air staffs together at Versailles. Leigh-Mallory was appointed to command the Allied Air Forces in SE Asia but, while flying to take up this post, his aircraft crashed in the mountains near Grenoble and all on board were killed.
Royal Air Force Bomber Command made over ninety attacks against targets on or near the battlefield during the advance from the Seine to the Rhine. First came the assault on the German strong- holds at Boulogne, Calais, Le Havre, and Brest. Within the space of a month some 25,000 tons of bombs fell on these targets and, in spite of Hitler's orders that these ports were to be ‘defended to the last man’, they fell with remarkable rapidity. At Boulogne a single raid by 762 aircraft led to the surrender of the town a few days later, together with eight thousand prisoners. Calais also fell quickly after a series of attacks in which 1637 aircraft dropped nearly eight thousand tons of bombs within five days. But the most spectacular victory of all was the reduction of Le Havre where there was a particularly strong garrison of picked troops. During the first week of September their defences were subjected to seven attacks; in a single daylight raid no fewer than 5000 tons of bombs were hurled into one small area. The town was captured on 12 September with relatively few British casualties and some 11,000 prisoners were taken. After Bomber Command's onslaught organised resistance had become impossible. The bitter defence of Brest continued until 19 September, when it finally surrendered to American troops after heavy attacks by both British and American bombers.
1 Leigh-Mallory was particularly critical of the large effort devoted to bombing the Channel ports during September 1944. In a subsequent report he declared, ‘I feel that in the broad view this bombing effort would have been more profitably directed against targets inside Germany, particularly as the disorganisation of the retreating army was most acute at this time. I should have been happier to see it used against focal points in the communication system behind the enemy frontier, in an effort to delay the movement of reinforcements with which the enemy succeeded, in mid-September, in stabilising a line along the Rhine and Moselle.’
Bomber Command now swung north to help open the approaches to Antwerp. The real key to Antwerp was Walcheren. This island fortress, about nine miles in length and about the same distance in breadth, had one weakness – it was almost entirely below sea level. Bomber Command was requested to breach the protecting sea wall to inundate the powerful inland batteries and thus open the way for amphibious assault across the Scheldt. Operations began in daylight on 3 October when eight waves of thirty Lancasters attacked Westkapelle, the most western promontory of the island. Here the sea wall was more than 200 feet thick at its base, tapering upwards to a thickness of 60 feet at the top, but a breach was quickly made and water poured through, swamping four batteries and threatening seven others as it spread over the island. A small force of Lancasters following up with 12,000-pound ‘Tallboy’ bombs was able to return without bombing and the operation earned Montgomery's praise as one of ‘truly magnificent accuracy.’ In subsequent attacks the British bombers cut the wall east and west of Flushing on the south side of the island and at Veere on the eastern side. By the end of October Bomber Command had flown a total of 3200 sorties and dropped over 10,000 tons of bombs on the sea walls, gun batteries, and enemy strongpoints. The batteries were difficult targets and the weather was frequently atrocious, but crews did their best and their attacks were certainly a great help to the land and sea forces in the final clearance of the Scheldt estuary.
During the autumn and winter months substantial support was given to the Allied armies fighting their way towards the Rhine. On 7 October seven hundred Lancasters and Halifaxes attacked the towns of Cleve and Emmerich, south-east of Nijmegen on the flank of the British Second Army. There was tremendous destruction at both targets. The same day Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron, using ‘Tallboys’, broke the Kembs Dam on the Upper Rhine, north of Basle; this attack was made at the request of the Americans, who feared the Germans would open the sluice gates to let loose a great flood of water when their troops attempted to cross the river. In mid-November Bomber Command gave further assistance to the United States First and Ninth Armies in their advance against German positions on the line of the River Roer. In preparation for the ground attack, 1130 British aircraft bombed the towns of Duren, Julich, and Heinsburg just behind the front in order to disrupt communications and destroy enemy troop concentrations, stores, and supply depots. All three towns were practically wiped out.
When the Germans counter-attacked in the Ardennes RAF bombers operated intensively over and behind the battle area. On 26 December, at a critical point in the fighting, 300 Lancasters and Halifaxes bombed the important road centre of St. Vith, completely page 347 blocking it with rubble and seriously hindering enemy movement forward; a few days later an attack on German concentrations at Houffalize inflicted severe losses. Behind the front, rail targets at Bonn, Coblenz, Munchen-Gladbach, Rheydt, and Trier were all heavily bombed; in the last week of December British crews dropped nearly 13,000 tons of bombs on such objectives. After the war German Minister Speer declared: ‘Transport difficulties were decisive in causing the swift breakdown of the Ardennes offensive – the most advanced railheads of the Reichsbahn were withdrawn further and further back during the offensive owing to the continuous air attacks.’
In the subsequent fighting west of the Rhine, Bomber Command gave further demonstrations of its striking power in support of the armies. The heavy raids on Cleve, Goch, and Wesel were particularly effective in opening the way for assault by the British and Canadian armies; attacks on bridges, strongpoints, and key communication centres also helped to speed the advance.
No. 75 NZ Lancaster Squadron contributed its full share to Bomber Command's attacks in support of the ground forces. During operations against the Channel ports in September, crews operated on eight occasions. For the one major attack on Boulogne fourteen Lancasters were sent from Mepal; in three attacks on Calais there were fifty-three sorties, and against Le Havre ninety-nine sorties were flown on four missions within five days. These raids were completed without incident except for one machine which crashed on return after two of its engines had been knocked out by flak over Boulogne.
In October No. 75 flew five army support missions, four of them against targets at Walcheren Island. Twenty-one crews took part in the big raid which breached the sea wall at Westkapelle when, according to the squadron diary, ‘some crews had to make two or three attempts owing to low cloud,’ but ‘the bombing was good and some flooding was seen.’ The remainder of the squadron's effort was directed against gun batteries at Flushing and Westkapelle. On 16 November twenty-five New Zealand bombers took part in the bombing attacks which preceded the American offensive in the area of Heinsburg. The squadron record says: ‘All crews were successful in bombing the town which was identified visually. As aircraft left, the whole area was covered by a thick pall of smoke. Flak fairly intense but only two aircraft received minor damage.’
During the German offensive and Allied counter operations in the Ardennes, No. 75 Squadron bombed railway centres and marshalling yards serving enemy troops. Altogether 182 sorties were flown for the loss of two aircraft. On 21 December twenty page 348 Lancasters went to Trier; two days later a further twenty-one sorties were made against this target. In the last five days of 1944 New Zealand crews bombed railway facilities at Rheydt, Cologne, Coblenz, and Vohwinkel. During the evening of 1 January Vohwinkel was again attacked; raids on Neuss and Krefeld followed within the next ten days, and on the 13th the squadron was represented in the first of the two attacks which devastated the marshalling yards at Saarbrucken.
After the Ardennes campaign the main targets for the Lancasters were communications and oil centres in Germany, but in March they returned to the battle area to make a series of attacks on bridges and strongpoints near the proposed bridgehead across the Rhine. No. 75's contribution was substantial. For example, in Bomber Command's four attacks on Wesel, three of them by day, New Zealand crews flew a total of seventy-one sorties. All were completed without major incident.
Spectacular and extensive though they were, these operations over the battlefield by the heavy bombers were necessarily intermittent since their main task had long been to strike ahead of the armies into Germany itself. The main burden of day-to-day support was therefore borne by the Allied fighter and medium-bomber squadrons with their constant patrols against ground targets, protection of forward areas from enemy air attacks, fighter escort, and such routine but very necessary tasks as visual, photo and weather reconnaissance. It was in this role that the RAF's Second Tactical Air Force did magnificent work.
Second Tactical Air Force had four main sections: No. 83 Group, a force of fighters, fighter-bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft assigned to support Second British Army; No. 84 Group, a similar force which had the task of helping First Canadian Army; No. 85 Group, a base defence formation operating fighters and night fighters; and finally, the veteran RAF No. 2 Group, a day and night medium-bomber force which covered the whole of 21 Army Group's front.
As the campaign progressed tremendous efforts were demanded of the ground, engineering, and supply staffs in order to keep these forces operating as far forward as possible, thereby increasing their range and endurance over the front. The initial transfer of some eighty squadrons and their equipment to the Continent was in itself a major achievement. Later, with the need for forward deployment it became necessary to build airfields from virgin ground as well as to reconstruct and repair existing bases, yet during the winter months, when the difficulties of supply and maintenance were increased by page 349 heavy rains, frost, and snow, relatively few airfields were out of action, and supplies continued to come forward in quantity.
An outstanding feature of 2nd TAF organisation was the Mobile Wing in which every necessary detail of a static airfield was duplicated on wheels or under canvas. Briefing rooms, operations rooms, flying-control vans, signals offices, to say nothing of all kinds of heavy workshops, messes, and kitchens, could all take to the road at short notice. Even runways and roadways of steel-wire track could be rolled up in sections and stowed on lorries which rumbled forward in long convoys over the cobblestone roads of France and Belgium. Thus, like small villages, units could be clustered behind the armies at any given point, with their squadrons flying from captured airfields or landing strips formed by bulldozers.
Four New Zealand squadrons were to operate with Second Tactical Air Force during this period: No. 485 Spitfire Squadron and No. 486 Tempest Squadron in day-fighter patrols, No. 487 Mosquito Squadron in medium-bomber attacks, and No. 488 Mosquito Squadron in night patrols over enemy territory. In addition, New Zealanders were to fly with RAF formations, some of them as wing and squadron leaders, many more as pilots of Spitfire, Tempest, and Typhoon fighters or as captains, navigators, wireless operators, and gunners with Mitchell and Mosquito bombers.
Three New Zealanders had the distinction of commanding wings in 2nd TAF at this time. Group Captain Jameson was in charge of a mobile wing of Tempest fighters supporting the British Army, Group Captain Scott controlled a wing of rocket-firing Typhoons, or ‘Tiffies’ as they were known, working with the Canadian Army, and Group Captain Kippenberger, who had been with the RAF in France during 1940, returned to command a three-squadron wing of Boston and Mitchell medium bombers. It is also interesting to record that two New Zealanders, Wing Commanders Deere and Yule, were responsible for planning and controlling many of the operations by the fighter wings of Second Tactical Air Force. As operations officers at the Group Control centres of Nos. 83 and 84 Groups, they kept in touch with the army by means of field communications and teleprinters and liaison officers, so that requests for air support could be promptly and effectively met. At No. 2 Group HQ another experienced New Zealand pilot, Wing Commander Magill, continued to be responsible for planning and arranging medium-bomber operations.
The closing days of August 1944 saw 2nd TAF squadrons operating intensively over and ahead of the British armies as they surged towards Belgium in pursuit of the enemy. The open rolling country page 350 through which the pursuit passed offered few places for concealment and was eminently suitable for low-flying attacks by fighters and fighter-bombers, so that, with pilots now highly experienced in such operations, action against the retreating enemy columns proved singularly successful. As the ground forces advanced squadrons made a series of leapfrog moves across northern France to the Dutch frontier; ground staffs and fuel were brought forward by air whenever possible, and on occasion aircraft of the Tactical Air Force were themselves used for transport.
By the second week of September Coningham had established his main headquarters at Amiens, No. 83 Group and its squadrons were in the Brussels area, and No. 84 Group was in the Pas de Calais with its units at Merville and Lille. Fighters and fighter-bombers of No. 83 Group now turned to cover the consolidation of Montgomery's forces in Belgium and Holland and to harass the enemy as he continued his withdrawal north of Antwerp and Ghent. The crossing places to the islands in the Scheldt estuary provided good targets, and effective attacks were also made on roads and railways along the left bank of the Maas and to the east of the Rhine. Units of 84 Group were simultaneously employed in helping the Canadians with their attacks on the Channel ports where, using both rocket and bomb, they did particularly good work in softening the enemy defences. Meanwhile, 85 Group's main headquarters and a fighter operations room had been set up at Ghent, whereupon the main tasks of its squadrons became the night defence of 21 Army Group area and intruder operations behind the enemy lines. The medium bombers of No. 2 Group, still operating from bases in England, took part in the assault on the Channel ports and the Scheldt crossings and continued to attack enemy rail and water transport over a wide area both by day and by night.
Montgomery's attempt to force a crossing of the Lower Rhine by capturing the bridges between Eindhoven and Arnhem began on Sunday, 17 September, and in support of this operation 2nd TAF and Fighter Command made a notable effort. Particularly effective were the cover, escort, anti-flak, and perimeter patrols flown for the airborne operations. On the first day not one British troop-carrying aircraft or glider bound for Arnhem was lost by enemy action and the casualties suffered by the Americans were almost entirely due to flak. The next day the aerial convoys which left England were much more vulnerable, for this second lift was made up almost entirely of tugs and gliders – slow, unwieldy combinations incapable of protecting themselves by violent evasive action. Nevertheless, their fighter screen was so vigilant and strong that of the 1200 gliders which took off from England only thirteen were shot down. Fighter-bombers also operated in direct support of the ground forces page 351 advancing to link up with the troops dropped from the air, while the mediums bombed the roads and railways along which the Germans would try to bring reinforcements. A notable example of the help afforded by fighter-bombers occurred the first afternoon when elements of Second British Army moving up towards Eindhoven called for assistance against counter-attacking German troops concealed in woods on both sides of the road. ‘Soon,’ says one observer, ‘a constant stream of Typhoons was skimming down almost to the tops of the trees to fire their rockets and machine-guns. Eight Typhoons from 83 Group arrived every five minutes and as each aircraft made several strikes, it appeared to the onlooker that the stream was continuous. After the first half hour a “cab-rank” of eight Typhoons was on call overhead all the time. As the tanks of the Irish Guards rolled forward up the road the Typhoon pilots were directed to their targets by radio from an armoured vehicle moving with the column. The white road standing out against the dark pines was easily identified and all the tanks carried orange markings which were plainly visible from the air. The Typhoons were so efficiently directed that they were able to strike at targets within two hundred yards of the tanks.’
During the week of bitter fighting which followed, the medium and fighter-bombers continued to strike at German positions in and around the town of Arnhem and at enemy troops moving towards it; fighters escorted the reinforcement and supply-carrying aircraft and maintained cover over the battle area. So effective were the cover patrols that, except for an occasional nuisance raid, all but the most forward ground forces remained free from interference by the German Air Force. Unfortunately, however, the weather succeeded where the Luftwaffe failed. Not only did it prevent the timely arrival of airborne reinforcements but it also hindered all-out attack from the air against German formations moving in on the flanks of the advance towards Arnhem, where British paratroops were under increasing pressure from all sides. The Germans managed to effect a surprisingly rapid concentration of forces to oppose Montgomery's advance and prevent a widening of the corridor sufficiently quickly to reinforce Arnhem. As a result it became impossible to hold the town, and during the night of 25 September the remnants of the gallant British 1st Airborne Division were withdrawn. Thus the Allies failed to secure the last bridge that would have put them across the Rhine, although after a stern struggle they managed to retain the other crossings. On 27 September British Spitfires completely frustrated a major effort by the Luftwaffe to destroy the bridges at Nijmegen; of the 256 aircraft sent by the Germans, forty-six were claimed destroyed.1page 352
During the autumn fighting in Holland and to the west of the Rhine, 2nd TAF continued to operate day and night in support of the British and Canadian armies. In the Scheldt estuary medium and fighter-bombers kept up a continual pounding of enemy positions and gave direct support in the various stages of the assault on the island of Walcheren. Montgomery records how in the final attack on Westkapelle fighter-bombers ‘pressed home a determined attack just as the assault troops were about to land and this had a profound effect on the operation at a time when the support craft were suffering heavy casualties.’ Second British Army fighting west of the Maas also received valuable assistance in overcoming stubborn enemy rearguard action and counter-attack; a large measure of success attended fighter-bomber attacks against gun emplacements, pillboxes, and other strongpoints in the enemy lines, while the strafing of wooded areas induced the enemy to abandon positions.
Equally effective was the vigorous offensive waged by both medium and fighter-bombers against troop concentrations, supply dumps, road and rail bridges, and transport centres behind the enemy lines. On 12 October, for example, Typhoons attacked the headquarters of General Student, commander of the redoubtable German First Parachute Army, situated north-east of Emmerlich, and claimed to have destroyed the centre of the building. Three days later five squadrons of fighter-bombers attacked the headquarters of the German Fifteenth Army at Dortrecht, scoring direct hits; some two hundred casualties were reported, including a field marshal and two generals.
The last months of 1944 brought particularly wet and stormy weather which waterlogged airfields and gave poor visibility in the air. Nevertheless, squadrons were quick to take advantage of any break or clearance of the skies and continue their attacks over and beyond the enemy lines. The frequent fighter-bomber operations compelled German road and rail transport to move mainly at night, which gave No. 2 Group's roving Mosquitos some excellent targets. One night early in November these aircraft operating over western Holland found forty-six trains which they bombed and machine- gunned. By this time all the German trains were strongly defended by anti-aircraft guns, and crews had to fly in to attack their objectives in the face of withering fire. Moreover, the rapid repairs made by the Germans required frequent visits to the same targets, but there is strong evidence that the continual damage to lines and bridges was now causing considerable embarrassment to the enemy transport system. Further raids also took place against German headquarters in towns and villages, the most notable of which was an attack by thirty-six Typhoons against the Gestapo headquarters in Amsterdam on 26 November. During this period Fighter Command page 353 Spitfires and Mustangs also operated frequently over Belgium and Holland against German airfields and transport targets.
Second Tactical Air Force made a notable contribution to the defeat of the German counter-attack in the Ardennes. During the first week, squadrons flew in particularly difficult weather to provide reconnaissance and to attack the enemy's forward units. Then, as the skies cleared, medium and fighter-bombers operated in strength against his supply columns and road and rail centres. In five days they flew nearly 6000 sorties against such targets. Operations on 29 December were particularly successful; in addition to vigorous action against the Luftwaffe, in which thirty-two enemy machines were claimed destroyed, squadrons attacked forty-seven trains and over two hundred vehicles. The ceaseless assault on supplies and communications was, in fact, largely responsible for the collapse of the enemy offensive.
As the broken German wave receded from the Ardennes, 2nd TAF continued to attack road and rail communications and to harass the retreating enemy columns. Then in the third week of January its squadrons turned to support Montgomery's armies in their drive to clear the area between the Rhine and the Meuse. The main features of this operation as far as the ground forces were concerned were the appalling weather in the early stages and the intense opposition of the enemy. In the central and southern sectors mud and slush were indescribable; heavily wooded areas were lacking in roads and tracks and the low-lying meadows were either flooded or saturated. ‘The advance,’ says Montgomery, ‘was mainly conducted in various types of amphibious vehicles.’ The aircrews for their part had to contend with poor visibility on many days as well as sodden airfields and makeshift equipment on the ground. Nevertheless, during February 2nd TAF flew a total of 18,520 sorties in close support of the ground fighting and against targets behind the enemy lines. On one clear day towards the end of the month, squadrons operating over a wide area reported attacks on 160 trains, 275 motor vehicles, 80 barges, and on 104 railway lines and bridges.
1 Principally the Messerschmitt 262 which had been operating on a small scale as a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft since September 1944.
Such were the operations in which New Zealand airmen played their part, both in the air and on the ground, with Second Tactical Air Force. The contribution was a notable one, and not its least interesting feature was the relatively large number of men who held senior posts.
Foremost among them was that lively personality, Air Marshal Coningham, who was in command of 2nd TAF itself. Coningham deserves to be remembered among the most successful air leaders of the Second World War. He had shown great skill in developing this highly efficient weapon for close collaboration with the ground forces and in its employment had displayed sound judgment and a fine offensive spirit; indeed, such was the confidence placed in his leadership that, in the Ardennes battle, American tactical squadrons had also been placed under his control, so that during this vital period he was virtually in control of all Allied close-support opera- tions.
The same flair for leadership was shown in the lower formations by such men as Jameson, Scott, and Crawford-Compton. By February 1945 Jameson's wing of Tempest fighters had, since D Day, claimed the destruction of more than 200 enemy aircraft, together with a formidable total of motor vehicles, tanks, railway engines, trucks, and barges. Scott's Typhoon wing also enjoyed great success in its operations, notably in support of the Canadian assault on the Channel ports and during the battles at Arnhem and in the Scheldt estuary. Crawford-Compton won further distinction flying as leader of a Spitfire wing which included two Free French squadrons; his third squadron – the famous No. 74 led by ‘Sailor’ Malan in the Battle of Britain – was commanded by Squadron Leader J. C. F. Hayter, who had led the unit in the Middle East before it returned to take part in the Normandy campaign.
Squadron Leaders E. T. Brough, J. R. Cullen, M. R. D. Hume, R. M. Mathieson, A. H. Smith, H. N. Sweetman, and K. F. Thiele also led fighter squadrons in 2nd TAF with notable success during this period, Sweetman and Thiele both enjoying the distinction of commanding the famous No. 3 Tempest Squadron.
Thiele had a remarkable career. After two very eventful bomber tours and a period with RAF Ferry Command, he had been transferred to fighters at his own request and by the end of the war had won the Distinguished Flying Cross three times; he had also been made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order. With No. 3 Squadron, his luck held until one day early in February 1945 when, while attacking a train near Dortmund, his Tempest was hit by flak, the engine failed, and fire broke out in the cockpit. Badly burnt about the face, eyes, and arms, Thiele baled out from about 2000 feet and landed near the battery which had shot him down. He was captured and roughly handled, but a month later he succeeded in making his way back to the Allied lines.
Many New Zealand fighter pilots achieved a fine record of service with RAF squadrons, notably Flight Lieutenant Mart,2 prominent with Tempests, Flight Lieutenant F. B. Lawless, who led rocket-firing Typhoons with great success during the Ardennes battle, and Flight Lieutenant L. G. Mason, who flew Spitfires in attacks on barges, trains, and motor vehicles.
Flight Lieutenant G. F. Reed did good work as captain of Mosquito night fighters; on successive nights in March he destroyed a Junkers 188 and a Heinkel 177. Flying Officer Wetere,3 on his second tour of operations, and Flying Officer Milich4 were Maori airmen to win distinction for their work with Typhoon squadrons; Milich lost his life during a low-level attack on an enemy headquarters in Holland.
1 Wing Commander E. D. Mackie, DSO, DFC and bar, DFC (US); born Waihi, 31 Oct 1917; joined RNZAF Jan 1941; commanded No. 92 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943–44; commanded No. 80 Sqdn and Wing Leader No. 122 Wing, 1945.
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The four New Zealand squadrons with Second Tactical Air Force each had a fine record of achievement. No. 485 Spitfire Squadron was the first to operate from the Continent. It crossed to France at the end of August 1944 and by the end of the following February had flown more than 1390 sorties from bases in France, Belgium, and Holland. Dive-bombing and strafing attacks in support of the Canadian Army absorbed much of this effort, but pilots also flew many armed reconnaissances over enemy territory and escorted Mitchell, Boston, Lancaster, and Halifax bombers. For most of this period No. 485 continued to enjoy almost incredibly good fortune in that, from 21 October 1943 until 6 January 1945, not a single casualty was incurred on operations. This was a record unique in 2nd TAF and all the more remarkable in view of the hazardous nature of the squadron's work and the success it achieved.
During the autumn of 1944 the New Zealand Spitfires flew from Merville airfield to assist Canadian operations against the Channel ports and in the Scheldt estuary. The first mission was flown on 13 September when No. 485 was one of three squadrons sent to attack strongly held positions three miles south of Boulogne. As the Spitfires left the area pilots saw enemy troops out in the open with their hands high above their heads. During the following weeks there were further spectacular attacks; direct hits were scored on a gun battery at Dunkirk, defensive positions at Boulogne were effectively strafed, and eleven direct hits scored on a gun battery south-west of Calais.
No. 485 Squadron took part in the reduction of Walcheren and the final clearance of the Scheldt estuary. Twenty-four sorties were flown to cover assault forces as they approached the island on 1 November, and in the following three days dive-bombing and strafing attacks were made against enemy positions stubbornly holding out. The squadron then returned to England for nearly three weeks for an air firing course, but before the end of the month was back in action. In December No. 485 played its part in the air operations which did so much to repulse the German thrust through the Ardennes. At first, like so many other squadrons, it was handicapped by persistent fog and the generally unfavourable weather; nevertheless, pilots flew sixteen missions in the first critical fortnight, mainly in support of Allied bombers. An interesting diversion from these operations occurred on 26 December when six sorties were flown to intercept midget submarines reported in the Scheldt estuary. One section of two aircraft flown by Flying Officer Kearins2 and Pilot Officer Collect3 attacked three of these vessels; two were claimed destroyed and a third escaped in a hurried dive.
On New Year's Day, when the Germans made their surprise attack on Allied airfields, No. 485 was among the squadrons unfortunate enough to be caught on the ground; had the airfield at Gilze Rijen not been icebound the Spitfires would have been airborne at the time of the raid. As it was pilots could only fire at the enemy machines with whatever weapons were available and soon a pillar of smoke and flame rose from their own aircraft burning on the ground. That day No. 485 lost thirteen of its Spitfires, but fortunately replacement aircraft were received in a matter of hours and full-scale operations resumed two days later.
During the early weeks of 1945, when the Allied armies were fighting their way forward to the Rhine, No. 485 was mainly employed in armed reconnaissance over forward areas. It was during one such mission on 6 January that the squadron's long spell of good fortune was broken. On patrol that afternoon Flight Lieutenant Stead took his section down to attack a train, and as the locomotive blew up his Spitfire and that of Pilot Officer Matthews1 were hit by flying debris; Stead was killed while attempting a crash-landing and Matthews fatally injured when he had to bale out at low level.
On 17 January twelve Spitfires made an outstanding attack against the main dyke on the shore of the River Meuse, scoring nine direct hits on the dyke and a direct hit on a nearby building. The following weeks saw further attacks on rail and road transport. During one of them five petrol lorries were blown up and five more vehicles destroyed or damaged; on another occasion twenty-three motor vehicles were shot up. By the time of the Rhine crossing the squadron scoreboard showed a formidable total of motor vehicles, petrol tankers, barges, and railway targets destroyed or damaged in addition to the enemy aircraft attacked both in the air and on the ground.
No. 486 New Zealand Tempest Squadron, following its successful patrols against the flying bomb, flew to the Continent towards the end of September 1944. There it joined Group Captain Jameson's famous No. 122 Wing, which now moved forward to Volkel airfield in Holland. When No. 486 Squadron arrived at Volkel it was allotted a site which, as the squadron diarist puts it, ‘consisted of the ruins of hangars and lot of mud.’ However, the site was soon cleared, the aircraft began operating, and from the debris of the blown-up enemy hangars there arose what came to be known as ‘Shanty Town’ – a most wonderful collection of odd buildings but all snugly built and equipped with bunks and stoves, the latter acquired in the usual way. While operating from Volkel the Tempests were often fired on in the circuit by German ground forces firmly entrenched in the nearby Reichwald forest. There were also intermittent attacks on the airfield by Me262 jet fighters carrying anti-personnel bombs, but the position was later reversed and pilots were able to destroy several Me262s.
Squadron Leader J. H. Iremonger continued in command until mid-December 1944, when he was relieved by Squadron Leader A. E. Umbers. Two months later Umbers was killed when his machine crashed in flames after being hit by a direct burst of flak in the Meppen area. Flight Lieutenant K. G. Taylor-Cannon, one of the flight commanders, was then promoted to lead the squadron. Flight Lieutenants W. L. Miller, Powell,1 J. H. Stafford, and S. S. Williams served the squadron well as flight commanders during this period.
The Battle of the Ardennes was a particularly successful period for No. 486 with thirteen enemy aircraft destroyed, two probably destroyed, and eight damaged within a month. It was while eight Tempests were over the Julich-Malmedy area on Christmas Day that the first Me262 jet aircraft definitely destroyed by the squadron was shared by Flying Officers Bremner2 and Stafford. Two days later, during an armed reconnaissance in the vicinity of Munster, a similar formation ‘bounced’ a mixed force of over forty Me109s and FW190s. A fierce dogfight ensued in which Flight Lieutenant Taylor-Cannon, Flying Officer K. A. Smith, and Flying Officer Short3 each destroyed a Focke-Wulf 190; Flight Lieutenant E. W. Tanner got an FW190 and probably destroyed an Me109. Flying Officer Hall4 damaged an Me109 and forced it to break off its attack on Stafford. Hall failed to return and was last seen in combat with another Messerschmitt.
When the Luftwaffe attacked Allied airfields on 1 January 1945, No. 486 Squadron was in the air with Jameson's wing at the time. Intercepting some of the raiders as they were making for their bases, the wing destroyed eight enemy machines, probably destroyed another, and damaged four. Of these the New Zealanders claimed four FW190s and one Me109 destroyed, one FW190 probably destroyed, and two Me109s damaged.
During the early months of 1945 the New Zealand Tempests, fitted with long-range drop tanks, ranged far ahead of the armies seeking opportunities to cut the enemy's supply lines. Such places as Rheine, Osnabruck, Munster, Minden, Bielefeld, Paderborn, and Hanover became well known to pilots, and on one occasion they even penetrated to within fifty miles of Berlin, attacking Hamm marshalling yards on the return flight. On several occasions engines were seen to blow up, and one day pilots had the satisfaction of seeing a whole ammunition train explode in a mass of smoke and flame. These missions, however, were not without their hazards. During one attack on a train near Arnhem Flying Officer Cammock's Tempest was hit by flak; almost at once it burst into flames and crashed into the guards-van to explode on impact. In other low-level attacks Tempests flown by Flying Officer Hart3 and Hooper were shot down by anti-aircraft fire; both pilots baled out and were captured but Hooper subsequently escaped and after a series of adventures reached the Allied lines.
No. 487 Mosquito Squadron won a high reputation for operational efficiency among RAF medium-bomber units and during the advance to the Rhine crews flew some 670 sorties, mainly against enemy movement by night. The squadron continued to operate from an airfield near Portsmouth until early in February 1945, then it moved to the Continent to be based at Rosieres en Santerre, about 25 miles east of Amiens.
Wing Commander Porteous,1 an experienced English pilot who had won distinction for his work in North Africa as a ‘tank buster’, took over command from Wing Commander I. S. Smith at the end of August and remained in charge until mid-December. He was then succeeded by Wing Commander R. W. Baker, who had earlier led the New Zealand Spitfire Squadron. Baker was lost over Germany towards the end of February, whereupon Squadron Leader Denton,2 one of the flight commanders, was promoted to lead the squadron. Other flight commanders during this period were Squadron Leader W. J. Runciman, a veteran bomber pilot, Squadron Leader Young,3 who at the outbreak of war was serving with a bomber squadron at Aden, Squadron Leader Medwin,4 who had flown on operations from Malta, and Squadron Leader Kemp,5 with two previous tours in the Middle East on Beaufighters. Among the pilots, Flight Lieutenant Thorpe,6 Flying Officer Gilbertson,7 and Warrant Officer Cullum8 achieved fine records with the squadron during these months.
News had been received in London that the Resistance Movement in Jutland was seriously threatened by the activities of the Gestapo and the destruction of enemy records housed in two college buildings of Aarhus University was essential if the movement was to continue its work. Twenty-five Mosquitos from No. 140 Wing, No. 2 Group, including nine from No. 487 Squadron, were selected for this difficult task, which involved a round trip of 1235 miles, more than half of it over the sea. Escorted by eight Mustangs of No. 12 Group, they set course for Denmark on the morning of 31 October. Squadron Leader Denton, Flight Lieutenants Thorpe, Kemp, and Anderson1 each piloted Mosquitos of the New Zealand squadron and Flying Officer Coe2 flew as navigator; Flight Lieutenant Henderson3 and Warrant Officer Hawke4 formed a crew with No. 464 Australian Squadron and Flight Sergeant Morrison5 navigated another aircraft from this unit. A two-hour flight across the North Sea brought the force to Aarhus shortly before noon, and as they swept in at tree-top height crews found the area covered by low cloud. Visibility was so poor that many lights were on in the town. The attack achieved complete surprise and it was some time before anti-aircraft guns in the harbour area burst into life. In eleven minutes the two buildings were destroyed, along with the Gestapo records. Nearby barracks were also hit and more than one hundred Germans were reported killed, among them the Gestapo chief of Jutland. This brilliant operation was completed for the loss of one Mosquito from No. 487 Squadron; damaged by bomb bursts, this aircraft force-landed in Sweden but the crew were later flown back to England. Several other aircraft were damaged by flak, and Denton went in so low that his machine hit one of the buildings and lost its tail wheel and the port half of the tail plane. Neverthe- less, he flew back and landed safely.
During the Battle of the Ardennes night patrols by the Mosquitos were extended to areas beyond the American front. Crews often had to fly in appalling weather but they made repeated attacks on rail and supply centres, including the key towns of St. Vith and Houffalize. On most occasions results could not be observed owing to low cloud. Early in January 1945 the squadron was grounded for a week by heavy snowfalls and poor visibility in its patrol area, but on the 12th fourteen Mosquitos got off to harass German troops during their retreat. Two nights later fifteen crews returned to the attack and reported fires and explosions after their bombing.
From mid-January No. 487 began to operate deeper into Germany and, although there was little improvement in the weather, the Mosquitos seized every opportunity during the following weeks to attack enemy movement and to provide support for the British and Canadian armies as they fought to clear their sectors of the Rhine- land. Among the towns bombed were Geldern and Kempen – railheads on the main lines through the Rhineland – and Rheinburg, later one of the starting points for the assault across the Rhine.
A week later No. 487 Squadron made what was as yet its deepest penetration into Germany when twelve Mosquitos bombed rail junctions, bridges, and trains and strafed factories and buildings east of Cologne, with the farthest point of the patrol at Magdeburg, 60 miles west of Berlin.
No. 488 Mosquito Squadron was one of the most successful night-fighter units with Second Tactical Air Force. In the Battle of Normandy its crews had achieved the remarkable total of thirty-four enemy aircraft destroyed by night, and a further six were to be added to this score during the advance to the Rhine. The New Zealanders continued to operate from bases in southern England until mid-November when they were transferred to the Continent and based at Amiens-Glisy. This was an old French airfield which the Germans had greatly improved, but it had been so consistently bombed that it now consisted largely of filled-in craters and the once fine German hangars were completely demolished. Very little rain was sufficient to produce vast quantities of mud, while a spell of dry weather soon produced a fine, white dust easily disturbed by the slipstream of a taxiing aircraft. At first, accommodation was very limited and the squadron erected tents for dispersals and workshops until wooden huts were available. Wing Commander R. C. Haine continued in command until the end of November 1944 when he handed over to Wing Commander R. G. Watts, who was to lead the squadron for the rest of the war. Squadron Leaders F. W. Davison and J. R. Gard'ner did good work as flight commanders during this period.
For positive identification I closed in to below and astern with the target weaving gently. Then the enemy suddenly fired off a red flare which illuminated the black crosses so I dropped back to 150 yards astern and opened fire. After my second burst the port engine caught fire and the enemy aircraft spun down in flames exploding before it hit the ground near Maeseyck.
Was then instructed to climb to 7,000 feet and on doing so saw further flares. Permission was obtained to investigate but over target throttled back, turned, climbed and straightened out before I obtained a visual at 2,000 feet, which my navigator confirmed with his night glasses as another Junkers 88. At 300 yards this aircraft also dropped reddish flares and we plainly saw the black crosses and also the bomb racks. I closed in and gave two short bursts which started a fire in the fuselage. The enemy bomber then did a diving turn to starboard and when I was down to 1,000 feet he hit the ground and exploded.
Wing Commander Watts with Flying Officer I. C. Skudder patrolled the Nijmegen area this same night. Investigating what at first was thought to be an Allied aircraft, Skudder confirmed through his night glasses that it was a Junkers 188. The enemy machine peeled off to port, releasing a bunch of coloured flares in an attempt to deceive the Mosquito crew but Watts opened fire and, closing in, set the fuselage ablaze. As he broke away Watts was able to watch the Junkers spiral down and explode. Flight Lieutenants J. A. S. Hall and J. P. Cairns, the successful British team, added to their score by destroying a Messerschmitt 410 after a long chase which developed into a regular dogfight; eventually, however, the Messer- schmitt's starboard engine burst into flames and it exploded in mid-air. The fifth combat was reported by Flight Lieutenant R. G. Jeffs who, with Flying Officer A. N. Crookes, his British navigator, damaged a Junkers 88 near Malmedy, 20 miles south-east of Liege.
January 1945 was a most difficult month for No. 488 Squadron. Extremely bad weather, including several heavy falls of snow at base, reduced the time spent on operations to 175 hours - the lowest effort for more than a year. The first victory of the New Year was delayed until 21 February. On this day Stewart and Brumby shot down a Junkers 88 night fighter. At the time the first radar contact was obtained the Junkers was stalking the Mosquito under its own ground control. The roles were quickly reversed as Stewart turned towards the enemy and opened fire. Strikes on the fuselage and mainplane were followed by an explosion, and shortly afterwards the German bomber hit the ground in flames near Groenlo on the Dutch border, 20 miles north-east of Emmerich. Further successes were to follow in March as the Allied armies prepared to cross the Rhine.
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Throughout this period Fighter Command squadrons based in southern England, while devoting much of their effort to the campaign against German V-weapons, also played a part in continental operations. They escorted bombers to their targets and provided cover and protection to troop-carrying aircraft and gliders; many lives were also saved by the vigilance and devotion of the air-sea rescue squadrons.
1 Wing Commander C. F. Gray, DSO, DFC and two bars; RAF; born Christchurch, 9 Nov 1914; joined RAF Jan 1939; commanded Nos. 403, 616, 64, and 81 Sqdns, 1941–43; Wing Leader, Malta, Sicily, and Europe, 1943–45; commanded RAF Station, Skeabrae, 1945; Directorate of Air Foreign Liaison, 1947–49; British Joint Services Mission, Washington, 1949–52.
New Zealand airmen also continued to hold senior posts in the Fighter Command organisation, notably Group Captain Whitley,1 whose long operational experience both in Europe and the Middle East had led to command of the RAF Fighter Leaders' School. Wing Commanders R. F. Aitken, Gawith,2 Kain,3 C. E. Malfroy, and Mowat4 were in charge of fighter airfields and various operational staff posts were held by Wing Commanders R. W. Baker, J. S. McLean, and Rose.5
1 Group Captain E. W. Whitley, DSO, DFC; RAF; born Epsom, Auckland, 17 Aug 1908; joined RAF 1930; commanded No. 245 Sqdn, 1939–40; RAF Station, Haifa, 1941; No. 234 Wing, Middle East, 1942; Nos. 209 and 210 Groups, Middle East, 1943; Fighter Leaders' School, 1944; No. 58 OTU 1945; RAF Station, Church Fenton, 1945.
2 Wing Commander A. A. Gawith, DFC, Bronze Star Medal (US); born Masterton, 9 May 1916; joined RAF Jun 1938; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944; commanded No. 1451 Flight, 1941; Staff duties, No. 9 Fighter Group, 1942; Senior Liaison Officer, 9th Air Defence Command, USAAF, 1944; commanded RAF Station, Cleave, 1944–45.
3 Wing Commander D. Kain; born Wanganui, 16 Oct 1915; joined RAF 1935; transferred RNZAF Oct 1944; commanded No. 64 Sqdn, 1941; No. 229 Sqdn, Middle East and Malta, 1942, and No. 127 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943; RAF Station, Edcu, 1943–44; and RAF Station, Predannack, 1944–45.
4 Wing Commander N. J. Mowat, DSO; born Oamaru, 18 Sep 1914; joined RAF Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF Jan 1945; commanded No. 607 Sqdn, 1941–42; No. 166 Wing, India, 1942–43; held various appointments India and ACSEA, 1943–44; commanded RAF Station, Peterhead, 1944–45; killed in flying accident, 7 Nov 1946.