7. "TO DESTROY THE CITY OF COLOGNE ..."
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Characteristically, because he was never satisfied, Harris was already thinking in terms of striking a double blow while the force was assembled. The disruption to training and conversion, as well as to routine operations, would last about a week. If he sent the force out two nights running he would add only one day to the investment but probably double the dividend. The idea of a double blow, either against the same target or possibly a new one in the second instance, was therefore incorporated as part of the plan, the broad details of which were now firmly fixed in his mind. He had lobbied in the highest possible quarter and been assured of enthusiastic support. It was time to put the planning on an official level.
On Monday 18th May Harris drove to Whitehall and called on Portal, giving him brief details of the "workable plan" Portal had asked for, and mentioning the possibility, if the first raid was a success, of an immediate follow-up raid of similar strength. Two days later, on 20th May, he received the go-ahead from Portal:
19th May 1942 My dear Harris,
You spoke to me yesterday about the "Thousand" plan. I mentioned it to the Prime Minister who warmly approved and tells me this morning that after speaking to the First Sea Lord about it he does not think there will be any objection to the co-operation of Coastal Command unless they have special operations on hand, I therefore suggest that you should go ahead with your arrangements after discussing the matter with the other Commanders-in-Chief concerned, letting me know if there are any difficulties. Please let me know before the operation is actually staged so that I can tell the Prime Minister.
Time was short if the motley force was to be assembled for the next full moon period in one week's time, and on the same day, 20th May, Harris wrote a letter to Coastal, Fighter and Army Co-operation Commands, to the five operational bomber groups, and to the two bomber training groups, Nos. 91 and 92, laying out the details of the "Thousand Plan", as it was now known, and asking for the maximum possible contribution towards it. The letter was remarkable for its clear statement of intention—to annihilate one of Germany's main industrial centres by fire. There were no euphemisms about factories and specific military objectives. The city of Cologne was to be wiped out in one night.
With his letter Harris attached a note to each individual commander in which he mentioned special requirements. Under a full moon, conditions would be favourable for a high loss-rate from catseye fighters, and Harris wanted attacks by Fighter Command and the light bombers of No. 2 Group to harass selected night-fighter airfields, followed by fighter sweeps over the North Sea to cover the returning bombers. He was uncertain what Army Co-operation Command might be able to provide but hoped for a worthwhile contribution. In a personal message to Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert, C-in-C Coastal Command, he asked for a contribution of 250 aircraft. This was roughly the number that Bomber had lost to Coastal in the previous twelve months and it seemed no more than justice that they should be made available for this special occasion. Neverthless, both Harris and Saundby had been doubtful whether the Admiralty, who controlled Coastal Command operationally, would allow them to provide more than a token force, and they had welcomed the news in Portal's letter that the First Sea Lord could see no objection. The figure of 250, a quarter of the total force, was very much the largest contribution requested from outside Bomber Command, and until final details were confirmed there remained in Harris's mind the fear that it might not be forthcoming and that the Thousand Plan would fall far short of its aim.
Joubert's reply to Harris, sent by return of post, removed the last lingering doubts about the willingness and ability of Coastal Command to come in and swell the figures past the thousand mark:
21.5.42. Dear Bert,
1 can go your 250—your 2 Wellingtons and 2 Whitleys, the four torpedo Hampdens, 2 Beauforts,1 and an assortment of Hudsons and O.T.U. aircraft. If No. 58 (Squadron) has not got its ASV by then they can join the party. We will use our own East Coast aerodromes, and we would like to come in about the middle of the show. I propose to use anti-submarine bombs to get the maximum blast effect. Is this all right?
P. B. Joubert
Harris now had a rough count of the likely availability of medium and heavy bombers for the raid:
No. 1 (Bomber) Group 100
No. 3 (Bomber) Group 160
No. 4 (Bomber) Group 130
No. 5 (Bomber) Group 100
No. 91 (Bomber Training) Group 200
No. 92 (Bomber Training) Group 120
Army Co-operation Command Not known
Flying Training Command 21
Coastal Command 250
1 Joubert was referring in each case to squadrons of aircraft.
It was the enthusiastic response of Philip Joubert at Coastal Command which carried the total, on paper at least, past the thousand mark.
The task of assembling the bombers, many of which, in the case of training aircraft of other Commands, had to be moved to advance bases on the east coast, was expected to take forty-eight hours. An operation order giving instructions for the move was issued by Bomber Command on 23rd May, and the move began two days later. Approximately 200 aircraft, from Flying Training, Army Co-operation and Coastal Commands and from the two Bomber Training Groups, were involved. The move was complicated by the necessity for radio silence: it was essential for security that the redistribution of aircraft to bases in eastern England should not be revealed to the enemy. At the same time plans were laid, as requested by Harris, for the systematic attack of enemy fighter airfields along the route and in the target area before and during the operation. Light bombers of 2 Group, Army Co-operation Command and Fighter Command were to provide this "intruder" force, and Fighter Command were to provide further cover by carrying out sweeps in force as far as possible out to sea from the English coast, while Ansons and Blenheims of a Bomber O.T.U. were to fly routine air/sea rescue patrols from daylight on. By these measures it was hoped to minimise the risk of interception for the bomber force and bring speedy aid to any returning bombers which came down in the sea.
The final operation order for the Thousand Plan was issued on 26th May. The raid was to take place on the night of 27th/ 28th May or any night thereafter up to the night of 31st May/ 1st June, when the moon would be on the wane. This gave a possible margin for unsuitable weather of five days. Harris hoped to have the operation behind him, and perhaps a follow-up raid as well, long before the five days was up.
Once again the operation order summed up the object of i the raid in an ambitious but simple phrase; this time of six words only: to destroy the city of Cologne.1 "The stage of the war has been reached," the order continued, "when the morale of the German people is likely to be seriously affected by an unprecedented blow of great magnitude in the West at a time when they are experiencing difficulties on the Russian front We are in a position to deliver this blow from the air. . . . "Apart from the effect on morale of such an attack, the unprecedented damage which will be caused is bound to have a considerable effect on the issue of the war.
1 As already explained, Hamburg was quoted as the "first choice" target in the actual order.
To produce the forces necessary, it is essential that every operationally serviceable aircraft is employed, not only from Bomber Command but also from Coastal, Army Co-operation and Flying Training Commands. O.T.U. groups will also take part with aircraft manned by their instructional staffs.
If every unit conscientiously plays its part in producing a maximum effort, it is estimated that a force of 1081 bombers can be employed in what will be the greatest air attack of all time."
The emphasis on the susceptibility of German morale to shock attack will be noted. Also it will be seen that the support of Coastal Command had enabled Harris to keep his pupil crews out of the operation.
The raid was to be led by the Gee-equipped Wellingtons and Sterlings of Nos. 1 and 3 Groups, who were allotted a time spaa of fifteen minutes to set the centre of the target alight. These were the pathfinders, though they were not yet styled as such, and they were to carry as high a proportion of incendiaries as possible. Their aiming-point was the Neumarkt, in the middle of the old town. They were to be followed in the next hour by the entire remaining force except the new four-engined bombers, the Lancasters and Halifaxes of Nos. 4 and 5 Groups. These were to bomb the target in the last fifteen minutes, the whole raid being completed in an hour and a half. The other two aiming-points were a mile north and a mile south of the Neumarkt, crews being routed to their respective aiming-points on parallel tracks. Zero hour was 00.55—five minutes to one—and all aircraft were to turn for home by 02.25 whether they had bombed or not. This was to ensure that concentration was maintained and that stray aircraft were not caught out in daylight en the return trip across Holland. The minimum bombing height was 8,000 feet, but exact heights were left to the discretion of group commanders. On leaving the target area, aircraft were to turn south-south-west for twenty miles and then return parallel to their outward track, increasing speed and losing height and coming down to 1,000 feet for the run home over the North Sea. Most of this was designed to reduce the collision risk.
In order to allow the maintenance and servicing crews a full forty-eight hours in which to concentrate on preparing aircraft for the raid, there were to be no bomber operations the previous night. From 26th May, station commanders were to inform their group headquarters by noon each day of the number of aircraft available for operations. Each group would then pass a consolidated figure to Command.
The aggregate was comfortably in excess of a thousand when the biggest single figure in the addition was suddenly erased. At the last moment the Admiralty had intervened. After considering the implications of the raid, they gave orders to Joubert that Coastal Command was not in any circumstances to take part in it. Joubert was obliged to withdraw his offer of 250 aircraft. This cut the Thousand Plan down to about 800.
The defection of Coastal Command reached Harris and Saundby first as a suspicion, then as a fact. Harris determined to fight it: he had received the assurance about the attitude of the First Sea Lord, he had Joubert's written promise and he hoped that Churchill would force the issue. But he saw, too, that time was against him. The operation was due to take place in twenty-four hours. If there was going to be a political wrangle, it would last a good deal longer than that. The Ad-miralty had timed their intervention to a nicety. Without abating his determination to fight them for the future, Harris saw that he must be prepared to do without them this time. Even if he could persuade Churchill to intervene, they would plead that it was too late now to move their squadrons in time for an operation in this full moon period.
Both Harris and Saundby had always felt nervous about the Coastal Command participation and had feared a let-down. It had been a mistake to rely on them. Harris would never have done so but for the fact that their contribution had seemed to offer the only means of producing the required number without calling on pupil crews. That he had always regarded as a last resort.
"Cut 'em right out," growled Harris to Saundby, when he learned the news. "Plan without 'em. I'm going to fight them, but either way they won't beat us. We'll get our thousand somehow from our own resources."
In retrospect one cannot see the Admiralty's action as altogether reprehensible. The implications of the raid were plain. If it failed—if losses were high, as to them seemed likely— Coastal Command would sacrifice aircraft and crews that it could ill afford to lose. If the raid was a success, Harris would have made his point, and it would be harder than ever to get what the Admiralty regarded as a proper allocation of long-range aircraft for maritime operations. Either way the Admiralty would be the losers. Why should they act as pall-bearer at their own funeral?
Saundby was left with the problem of bridging the gap. It looked an insuperable task, yet because of his earlier fears he was not unprepared for it. He believed that the instructions he had already given would produce a thousand bombers from within the Command if need be. Some of these aircraft might be manned by a further comb-out of the men on rest; scratch crews could be found from station, squadron and group staffs who would be only too eager to volunteer. But the bulk of the crew deficiency would have to be made up by using pupils.
The existing phrase in the operation order stated that O.T.U. groups would take part with aircraft manned by their instructional staffs. To this Saundby added the phrase—"though crews can be made up with personnel under training at the discretion of Air Officers Commanding". This, he felt, would ensure that inadequately trained men were not thrown into the battle.
In order to make good the inevitable losses on operations, every Bomber Command squadron had what was known as an immediate reserve of two aircraft. These two aircraft were in situ on the squadrons and were brought into use when needed to bring squadrons back to full strength. On a nod and a wink from Command, this immediate reserve could be drawn on in every one of a total of thirty-seven squadrons. That added seventy-four to the total and brought it nearer to 900.
Terms like immediate reserve, in Saundby's view, were one's servant, not one's master. So was the reinforcement pipeline— from the Air Transport Auxiliary, who delivered the planes, back to the depots and the factories. Whenever an aircraft was taken on to squadron strength from immediate reserve, a replacement was indented for. Saundby had already told the squadron commanders to indent for replacement of the two immediate reserve aircraft brought on to strength, even though none had been lost. Thus, by a little guile, the squadrons got their hands on all available aircraft in the replacement pipeline.
So to the increased hazard involved in the decision to employ pupil crews was added the risking of every reserve aircraft that the Command could lay its hands on. But even this added only another thirty or forty aircraft to the total, so the Thousand Plan was a thousand no longer. Only 940 aircraft were listed in the revised operation order of 26th May. Even this figure was an optimistic one. Several of the aircraft involved in the move to advance bases, their crews hampered by the need for wireless silence, had force-landed at remote airfields or, worse still, crashed. And of those which completed the move on schedule—by far the majority certainly—not all were in a fit state to operate at long distance over enemy territory. Inevitably the standards demanded for operational flying were different from those required for short- or medium-range flights in and around the United Kingdom.
And now came the final frustration—the weather. On the morning of 27th May, with approximately 900 aircraft and crews standing by at the ready, Harris went down to the underground operations room at High Wycombe soon after nine o'clock for his daily planning conference. Waiting for him were Saundby and his air staff officers, together with a short, gnome-like figure who, rather like the witches in Macbeth, was for the next few minutes to be promoted in importance as soothsayer and counsellor above all Harris's high-ranking operations staff, whose pronouncements would be listened to in awed silence and acted on without question by Harris himself. He was the
Command Meteorological Officer, and his name was Magnus T. Spence.
In the campaigns of Bomber Command, meteorology was a much abused service which nevertheless did invaluable work. Described at the time as an inexact science, it was in those days less a science than an art. One of the supreme artists was undoubtedly Magnus T. Spence. A dour Scot, born in the Orkneys, Spence was a man of great precision of language, a man who thought carefully before speaking but who was never evasive or pedantic. At first it had seemed to Saundby that Spence had no sense of humour, and he waited a year before he saw him smile. The occasion was when Saundby asked him the origin of his Christian name. Spence gave his characteristic pause, and then came the smile. "At the time when I came to be christened," he said, his accent clipping the words like shears, "my father was suffering from a severe attack of Norse mythology." Saundby had penetrated the apparently frosty exterior and found a warm person underneath.
The difficulties of confirming the actual weather over an enemy country at a given time need no elaboration. They were nothing compared with the problems of accurate forecasting of the conditions over a particular enemy target fifteen hours ahead. This, daily, at Harris's morning conference, was what Spence was asked to do. The temptation was to use these difficulties as a shield, to explain that one had nothing to go on but an air reconnaissance several hours old and a few Resistance reports from Occupied Europe: definite pronouncements on such scanty information were impossible and it wasn't fair to expect them. But Spence never gave the slightest hint of this sort of attitude. The odds against his being right might be long, but he was always ready to face up to them, to give a firm opinion based on the best information available, without hedging himself round with escape clauses like a tipster. This was what Harris wanted. There was no question of his ever blaming his forecaster when things went wrong—as they sometimes did. Sudden and unpredictable weather changes over the target or at the bases were a continual source of disappointment and loss. But Harris knew he had been given the best available advice. The responsibility for the decision to despatch the force rested with him.
On the morning of 27th May, Spence's expression seemed even frostier than usual. Thundery conditions and heavy cloud existed over most of Germany, and Harris was forced to postpone the operation for twenty-four hours. The same thing hap-pened on Thursday the 28th, and again on Friday the 29th. Harris's hopes of using the force twice in the full moon period began to evaporate. If this weather continued, the force wouldn't get off the ground at all.
The weather minima for the Thousand Plan were much sterner than for a normal operation. Harris could not send up a thousand aircraft to fly through thick cloud. The collision risk, which worried him enough already, would multiply tenfold. In addition to the need for bright moonlight, there had to be good weather over the target for the pupil crews to find it, and the weather had to be clear over the bases for the return.
The responsibility for holding the force in such prolonged inactivity bore heavily on Harris. He dare not disrupt the whole operational and training programme for more than another day or so. The security risk, too, mounted daily. In spite of the precautions taken to let only a handful of people into the secret, thousands of civilians near the bases must know that something unusual was on, quite apart from the countless ground crews and clerical staff together with about 6,000 aircrew. And even without some sort of security leak, the enemy must soon get suspicious of the long lull in bomber activity. To relieve the second danger, Harris decided on the morning of 29th May, after postponing the operation for the third time, to mount a raid that night on targets in France. He chose the Gnome and Rhone works at Gennevilliers, near Paris, and coastal targets at Cherbourg and Dieppe. Minelaying was resumed the same night. A total of 150 aircraft took part in these raids.
As far as numbers were concerned, Harris felt he could now afford the losses that inevitably resulted from these raids. The delay had enabled the ground crews, working eighteen hours a day, to bring many unserviceable and under-equipped aircraft up to operational pitch. Day by day in that last week in May, as station by station sent up its tale of men—and aircraft—the total rose to 950, to 980, then to a thousand, and finally well beyond. At last the Thousand Plan was a reality. But two more things were still needed—an improvement in the weather, and the courage of the commander to give the executive order.
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