The Battle of Berlin was the longest and most sustained bombing offensive against one target in the Second World War. Bomber Command Commander-in-Chief, Sir Arthur Harris, hoped to wreak Berlin from end to end and produce a state of devastation in which German surrender was inevitable. He dispatched nineteen major raids between August 1943 and March 1944—more than ten thousand aircraft sorties dropped over thirty thousand tons of bombs on Berlin. It was the RAF’s supreme effort to end the war by aerial bombing. But Berlin was not destroyed and the RAF lost more than six hundred aircraft and their crews. The controversy over whether the Battle of Berlin was a success or failure has continued ever since.
Martin Middlebrook brings to this subject considerable experience as a military historian. In preparing his material he collected documents from both sides (many of the German ones never before used); he has also interviewed and corresponded with over four hundred of the people involved in the battle and has made trips to Germany to interview the people of Berlin and Luftwaffe aircrews. He has achieved the difficult task of bringing together both sides of the Battle of Berlin—the bombing force and the people on the ground—to tell a coherent, single story.
“His straightforward narrative covers the 19 major raids, with a detailed description of three in particular, and includes recollections by British and German airmen as well as German civilians who weathered the storm.” —Publishers Weekly
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It was no secret. Everyone knew, even the Germans. British newspapers, encouraged by official briefings, had been proclaiming it for weeks: 'BERLIN NEXT'.
Looking back at the official documents of the period, however, the authority for a winter-long campaign by the R.A.F. against Berlin was a divided one. This period of the war was still being covered by the famous Casablanca Directive, produced after the conference of Allied leaders and staffs held at that place in January 1943. This referred to the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.
Berlin was specifically mentioned as a target suitable for attack by Bomber Command and the city was raided several times before the longer nights of spring called a halt for that winter. But the Casablanca Directive was updated on 3 June 1943 when, because of the serious threat now posed by a growing Luftwaffe fighter force to the prospects of the coming invasion of Europe, the American 8th Air Force and R.A.F. Bomber Command were urgently ordered to concentrate on targets associated with German aircraft and ball-bearing industries. Harris did not comply with this latest directive but continued with his area bombing offensive against large cities, taking advantage of some vague terminology in the latest directive and a very loose rein being held by his superiors, who were showing an ambivalent attitude to Bomber Command's operations all through this period.
Harris had the direct ear and the strong sympathy of Churchill, whom he often visited at Churchill's weekend home at Chequers, which was near Bomber Command Headquarters. Portal, although being a party to the joint Allied decisions and issuing the necessary directives, was still leaving Harris with the freedom to interpret the directives in the way Harris chose. This attitude caused much frustration to those staff officers at the Air Ministry whose duty it was to implement the joint Allied decisions. Sidney Bufton, at that time Air Commodore, Director of Bomber Operations, says, in a discussion on the Battle of Berlin period:
Portal showed extraordinary patience, hoping that Harris would conform. There was much correspondence over a long period. Harris replied with his tactical reasons why he could not conform with the directives, and all the time was doing his own thing. We suspected that we were being put off but we had nothing cast-iron and, as a background, Harris had this access to Chequers where he went at least once a week. In a way, it was subversive, going behind Portal's back, and in my opinion he was thoroughly disloyal to Portal in pursuing his own idea of how to win the war.
In fact, when the Battle of Berlin opened on 23 August 1943, Bufton and the views of the joint planners had no chance of gaining Harris's compliance. Churchill was behind it all. The Public Record Office has a file of correspondence between Churchill and the Air Ministry, urging attacks on Berlin, first in 1942 and early 1943 to help and impress the Russians, and more recently to follow up the Hamburg success as quickly as possible. (In April 1943, Churchill had pressed the quaint plan that 300 heavy bombers should drop entire bomb loads of 250-pound delayed-action bombs on the administrative section of Berlin. Portal tactfully replied that a Lancaster could only carry a 3,500-pound load if restricted to such bombs, half of its normal load.)
A more relevant letter is that of 19 August 1943, in which Churchill stated his satisfaction with the recent raids on Hamburg and the American raid on the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg and pressed for further attacks on Berlin. That same day, Portal passed on the request to the Vice Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Douglas Evill, and received the welcome news that Harris intended to go for Berlin 'as soon as the moon wanes', but with Harris warning that '40,000 tons of bombs' would be needed in 'a prolonged attack' on Berlin. This startling figure of bomb tonnage would represent between twenty and twenty-five raids using the full strength of Bomber Command, while Hamburg had required only just over 8,000 tons of bombs in four raids! On 21 August, Portal informed Churchill that the attacks on Berlin were about to commence, and the first raid took place three nights later. Harris often overstated his case but here he was making sure that his superiors knew exactly what his plans for the coming period were and what scale of attack he estimated would be needed to destroy the German capital.
It would be interesting to know what Portal thought about that '40,000 tons of bombs' figure. Everyone was hoping for a swift, Hamburg-style stroke on Berlin. Even Sidney Bufton, struggling to implement the joint, selective approach, says, 'Hamburg had come like a bolt from the blue. We didn't mind if Harris was able to mount a successful repetition on any industrial area, Berlin or anywhere else, as long as he intended to start towards the specific targets eventually.'
So the Battle of Berlin opened, with most of those responsible hoping for swift success, but with Harris prepared to devote the whole winter to the task if he was not pulled back from that task by his superiors. It was, in fact, an exhilarating time, a time of heady optimism. Much of the bombing war so far had consisted of long slogs, at best inconclusive in result, more often costly and disappointing. But, now, in the past months had come a rush of successes, with the Battle of the Ruhr, with news of the catastrophe at Hamburg just reaching England and, in the past week, the Americans, having carried out their first deep penetration raids of Germany when, on 17 August, following their directives faithfully, they had attacked the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg. The Americans had lost no fewer than 60 out of the 376 B-17s on the targets, particularly at Regensburg. That same night, the R.A.F. had risked 596 bombers in moonlight conditions in a daring raid on the German rocket research and manufacturing station at Peenemünde, setting back the rocket programme by several months at a cost of forty aircraft lost. Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe's Chief of Staff, had to report these assaults on key points in the German war industry to Hitler and Goering. Faced by the wrath of his two leaders over the Luftwaffe's failure to defend Germany, Jeschonnek shot himself. One cannot blame Churchill and the R.A.F. commanders for their optimism over the Berlin battle which was to open less than a week later.CHAPTER 2
R.A.F. Bomber Command had already experienced four years of war when it was committed to the assault on Berlin. Its front-line strength was higher than at any previous period, with more than 700 four-engined aircraft available. Its bomb-carrying capacity was powerfully effective, as witness the recent successes in the Ruhr and at Hamburg. Morale was high. The training and aircraft replacement programmes were producing a copious flow of reinforcements.
In August 1943, the command was made up of fifty-seven squadrons formed into six bomber groups. These were No. 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group, whose aircraft marked targets for a 'Main Force' consisting of Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 Groups. 6 Group was administered and mostly manned by the Royal Canadian Air Force, but every Bomber Command squadron contained a proportion of Empire men among its aircrews. The most efficient of the four-engined bombers was the Lancaster, but more than half of the heavy squadrons were equipped with Stirlings or Halifaxes, sound aircraft but with a poorer height performance, which led to heavier casualties, and carrying less bomb tonnage than the Lancasters. These deficiencies would lead to all of the Stirlings and to the existing models of Halifaxes being withdrawn from operations to Germany during the coming period, leaving the Lancaster squadrons to bear the brunt of the battle. 8 Group also had three squadrons of Mosquitoes, this fast twin-engined aircraft being used for various duties. Finally, Bomber Command still contained a few squadrons equipped with the twin-engined Wellington, the last survivor of the pre-war bombers, but these old faithfuls were being phased out of the front-line squadrons and none would take part in the Battle of Berlin.
The main question mark over Bomber Command's efficiency as it entered the Battle of Berlin was its technical ability to find the precise location of its targets in the more distant parts of Germany. In 1939 Bomber Command had been forced to fly by night because its aircraft could not defend themselves against the German day-fighter force. As the war progressed, the German night-fighter force's successes further obliged the bomber force to confine itself to the dark nights of non-moon periods. Bomber Command's perpetual problem was to find its targets in that darkness; it was this problem which had caused the attack on individual industrial premises and transportation targets to be abandoned at the end of 1941 and led to the later much criticized 'area bombing' offensive, when the general built-up areas of large cities became the target. It also led to the creation of the Pathfinder Force, which should really have been called the Target Finding Force.
A relentless search for new devices to beat the darkness had achieved some success. The most important of these were Oboe and H2S. Oboe was a superb device with which small numbers of aircraft could be guided accurately to a point over the target. Mosquitoes were used for this purpose; their greater ceiling enabled the curve-of-the-earth Oboe device to operate at greater ranges from the stations in England which emitted the signals. It was the Oboe-directed markers of 105 and 109 Squadrons which had brought success in the Battle of the Ruhr. The heavy Pathfinder squadrons had backed up the Mosquito marking, and the Ruhr cities had been set on fire one by one. Unfortunately, Oboe's maximum range ran out 250 miles short of Berlin.
The second device, H2S, had no range restrictions because it was a ground-echoing radar set carried in the aircraft itself. The limitation for H2S was the lack of definition over many types of terrain, but the responses from some ground features were helpful. Hamburg had an unfortunate position close to an easily definable coastline which allowed the Pathfinders to fix their positions accurately less than half an hour's flying time from the target, and it was also located on the broad River Elbe which showed up well on H2S. These factors had sealed Hamburg's fate in the recent series of raids. But the further inland the Pathfinders flew, the less advantage an H2S-plotted landfall at the coast became, as unpredictable winds and pitch darkness affected navigation. Built-up areas, forests and lakes gave some indications on the H2S screens, but only indistinctly. Most Pathfinder navigators could be relied upon to find the general area of a city the size of Berlin, but that city gave notoriously bad H2S reception because its sheer size filled an H2S screen. The Pathfinders had been provided with a so-called 'H2S map' of Berlin, but Air Commodore C. D. C. Boyce, Senior Air Staff Officer at 8 Group Headquarters, remembers this as 'soon being found to be of little use and discredited. I remember seeing Bennett screw a copy up and throw it into his wastepaper basket.'
There was, of course, a better way of marking targets than this 'blind marking' based solely on H2S indications. An attempt could be made to obtain a visual identification of the Aiming Point using masses of illuminating flares. This method – given the code-name Newhaven by the Pathfinders – sometimes worked well but it required clear visibility. The coming autumn and winter would have few nights with such conditions. Bomber Command had been much impressed by the recent success of H2S at Hamburg and had high hopes that the now fully H2S-equipped Pathfinder squadrons could achieve a similar success over Berlin. If all went well, the Pathfinder crews would arrive at Berlin on time, would reach the edge of the city at more or less the correct place and would then be able to find the precise Aiming Point and keep that position well covered with accurate marking. It had been decided that blind marking by H2S would be employed exclusively for the Battle of Berlin. If that method could be used successfully, the destruction of Berlin was almost guaranteed. The powerful Main Force, carrying more than 1,500 tons of bombs on each raid, half of them incendiaries, would then burn out section after section of Berlin. Nearly 5,000 R.A.F. aircrew would take part in each major raid, but their success would depend upon less than a hundred H2S set operators in the Pathfinder marker aircraft.
It would not be easy.
There were many layers of protection for the German cities when under attack from the R.A.F., from the German radio-listening service attempting to obtain early warning of a raid, right back to the German householder with his obligatory buckets of sand and water ready to fight any incendiary bomb coming through his roof. But it was the German armed defences which directly opposed the bombers, and, while the local Flak and searchlight defences of a city may have been the most vivid and obvious of these, it was the Luftwaffe night fighters hidden in the dark which were the most effective for most of the war. Approximately 70 per cent of all bomber casualties at this time were caused by the night fighters. There was never any chance that the fighters could turn back a bomber raid from its target, but, if sufficient bombers could be shot down, mounting losses could force the British commanders to break off a particular campaign prematurely. But the blow and counter-blow of war had just swung back in favour of the bombers. The introduction by the R.A.F. of the 'Window' device to jam German radars, just one month before the Battle of Berlin opened, had thrown the Luftwaffe night-fighter defence into disarray. So, just as the R.A.F. would have to solve the problems of target marking over Berlin, the Luftwaffe units were having to find a solution to the setback caused by Window. That autumn period of 1943 was one of great tactical upheaval in the night sky and a period of great interest for us many years later.
A brief résumé of the German night-fighter force may be useful. The basic unit was the Nachtjagdgeschwader (NJG), containing between thirty and fifty twin-engined aircraft and subdivided into three or four Gruppen, each of which usually had its own airfield. In August 1943, the existing Geschwader were the veteran NJG 1 based in Holland and Belgium, NJG 3 in north-west Germany and Denmark, NJG 4 in Belgium and northern France and the comparatively new NJG 5 around Berlin. Further Geschwader being established at this time were NJG 2, reforming in Holland after returning in a weakened state from the Mediterranean, and NJG 6, a new unit being built up in Southern Germany, though not yet fully operational. The main aircraft in use was the Messerschmitt 110, a converted day fighter, manoeuvrable in combat but of limited range and much slowed down by the various modifications for night work fitted to it. The heavier Junkers 88, a former bomber, was appearing in greater numbers; it had a better endurance and more stability for the rigours of night operations. The Dornier 217, a less suitable converted bomber, was being withdrawn at this time. The first purpose-built night fighter, the fast and effective Heinkel 219, had just been introduced, but the numbers available for operations were minute – two aircraft at the opening of the Battle of Berlin, only one more added in the next three months!
The main feature of night-fighter operations before the introduction of Window had been the sophisticated system of night-fighter 'boxes' (Raums to the Germans) which were located all along a coastal 'fighter belt' from Norway to France. The ground radars (Freya and Würzburg) of each box guided a single night fighter on to a single bomber. When the night fighter picked up the bomber on the fighter's own radar (the Lichtenstein), the night-fighter crew completed the contact and attacked the bomber. It was an effective system but only for the limited number of fighters operating in the boxes through which the bomber stream passed. The local nature of box night fighting must be stressed. NJG 1 in Holland could not intercept a raid on Hamburg or the North German ports unless bombers strayed into NJG 1's area by mistake; similarly, NJG 3 in the north could not help with the defence of the Ruhr. Individual Gruppen within their Geschwader area would be further confined, their crews rarely operating more than thirty miles away from their own airfield!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Berlin Raids"
Copyright © 2010 Martin Middlebrook.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
List of Photographs,
List of Maps and Diagrams,
1 'Berlin Next',
2 The Adversaries,
3 Berlin: the City Target,
4 The Battle Opens, 23 August 1943,
5 31 August to 3 September 1943,
6 A New Start,
7 Under the Bombs,
8 The New Year,
9 January – Pressing on,
10 February – Turning Away,
11 One More Try,
12 The Reckoning,
13 The Aftermath,
Appendix 1 R.A.F. Bomber Command Order of Battle and Operational Performances in the Battle of Berlin,
Appendix 2 Luftwaffe Night-Fighter Order of Battle in the Battle of Berlin,
Appendix 3 Bomber Command Statistics,
Appendix 4 156 Squadron Lancaster,