APOD Battle of the Ruhr: In the Ruins of Hamburg
15 July 1945
Vice-Admiral Wilfred Tomkinson had stopped the tour in the heart of… what was it, really? Whatever it was it was not a city. Perhaps, what exists where a city was when you take the things that make it a city away.
What do you call such a place? It was a waste, full of dusty, shabby men and women, many in feldgrau, and all busily loading carts and wheelbarrows with charred rubble. He saw one skinny woman – perhaps 25, throw a charred leg into her wheelbarrow. She did not even break stride.
Tomkinson was there to look at prizes, see what was useful, and to set up the Dover Command sub-HQ for the Baltic. The Elbe II bunker had been destroyed by Bomber Command but not Finke II, and now it was a Dover Command base, just like Nordsee II on Heligoland, now returned to British possession, along with its inhabitants. How thankful they had been when told that they had been mined in and never once bombed as a decision had been taken in 1943 to return them to British possession as they had been from 1807 to 1890!
Tomkinson shook his head. His mind was trying to reject this horror. He turned to Air Chief Marshall Portal (retired), the soon-to-be Civil Governor of British Germany.
“This is my first exposure to what was done by Bomber Command during the Ruhr Campaign, Charles. This is almost beyond belief. How was it done?”
“Ah, that will take some explaining. We shall repair to the field mess for lunch, and brandy.”
The trip back took an hour, with only the local guide speaking to explain various local sights. Most were bombed flat.
Lunch was the usual rations, but the brandy was superb.
“Were did this come from, Charles?”
“Ah, this mansion was the private property of senior Nazi, a rather bad chap. Confiscated property of course, from some poor damned Jewish merchant. Our nasty Hun we have already hanged, and all ex-Jewish property is being seized by the Crown without compensation to the Huns who claim ownership. If none of the family have survived ownership will be transferred to Jerusalem. There’s a terrific debate in the Dominion about what to do with properties like this. Probably they will sell things which have no remaining family claimants and use the money for the resettlement program. Resettling God alone knows how many European Jews there is going to be costly. They are already building a new city just east of Jaffa. Tel Aviv, it is called. Meanwhile we will maintain it properly so it does not lose value. Anyway our hanged Nazi had a cellar full of looted booze, high quality stuff and we cannot trace ownership. So we gave it to the Officer’s Mess for diplomatic and VIP work.”
“Now about the bombing…”
“Ah yes,” said Portal, “forgive me if I lecture.”
He composed his thoughts.
“As you know. RAF Bomber Command had moved from daylight raids, which in ’39 resulted in heavy losses, to night time bombing. Bombing accuracy suffered due to the problems of navigation and identifying targets. We studied effectiveness in ’41 and it was appalling. To reduce this problem, Pathfinder squadrons were created.” He paused for a moment.
“The creation of the Pathfinder force was a source of a most bitter argument. It was the brainchild of Group Captain Bufton, a staff officer for whom Freeman’s chief of staff Arthur Harris had some contempt. That was one reason his career never really progressed, the other was the Revolt of the Tonnage Whores, as you know. Harris was against the idea of a formation of elite but the idea found favour in the Air Ministry and with Freeman. As it was experimental, Freeman decided that every Group would have its own pathfinders, but eventually a separate group was formed: 8 Group, commanded by an Australian officer, Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett. However, Bennett was not the first choice, that was the first choice of the Air Ministry, Basil Embry, the dashing young leader of 2 Group. However, Imperial politics do play a role, and Bennett – a very fine officer who is now heading up the Pathfinder operations in the Far East, got the job.”
“Harris, backed by the majority of the Group commanders was against the idea. His view was that elite would breed rivalry and jealousy, and have an adverse effect on morale. His personal preference was for competition within groups to deliver improved bombing. Freeman thought about this – Harris for all his faults was a very good chief of staff – and discussed the matter with Sir Henry Tizard. Sir Henry noted that, ‘I do not think the formation of a first XV at rugby union makes little boys play any less enthusiastically.’ And that was that.”
“The Force was initially formed in August 1942 by transferring existing Squadrons from the Bomber Command Home groups to make up the "Path Finder Force" (PFF). The Force initially comprised five squadrons - one from each of the operational Bomber Command Groups: No. 1 Group contributed No. 156 Squadron RAF equipped with the Vickers Wellington, No. 2 Group No. 109 Squadron RAF - then "special duties" on Wellingtons and Mosquitoes, No. 3 Group No. 7 Squadron RAF Halifax heavy bombers, No. 4 Group No. 35 Squadron RAF also on Halifax and No. 5 Group No. 83 Squadron RAF on Lancasters. The Wellingtons had been used for the development of the Oboe radio navigation and bombing aid and 156 had done a lot of that work.” He paused to sip his brandy.
“The squadrons were located on adjacent airfields within No. 3 Group which was responsible for the Force administratively though it was under the direct command of Freeman. Picked crews from the bomber groups were allowed to transfer and the PFF soon expanded into a completely new Group - No. 8 (PFF) in January 1943. As the de Havilland Mosquito became available, the PFF got the first ones, and then equipped them with ever more sophisticated electronic equipment, such as Oboe, the radio navigation and bombing aid. They also got a few Victorias and generally operated a mix of Mosquito and Lancaster. In April 1943 the group's strength was increased by one squadron, with No. 405 (RCAF) Squadron, flying Halifaxes. In June the Pathfinders gained two more squadrons - Nos. 105 and 139 Squadrons, both of which were flying Mosquitos from RAF Marham. Later in the month Pathfinder HQ moved from RAF Wyton to Castle Hill House in Huntingdon. The United States Army Air Forces operated a similar force within the Eighth Air Force for "blind-bombing" through overcast on daylight missions using H2X radar-equipped bombers, for which it also used the terms "Pathfinder" and "PFF" as well as "master bomber".
“The tactics took some time to develop of course. PFF crews found themselves given ever increasingly sophisticated and complex jobs and tasks that were constantly modified and developed tactically during the bombing campaign from 1943 until the end of the war. Some of the more usual tasks were as "Finders"; these were 8 Group aircraft tasked with dropping sticks of illuminating flares, firstly at critical points along the bombing route to aid navigation and keep the bomber stream compact, and then across the approximate target area. If conditions were cloudy then these were dropped "blind" using H2S navigational radar.”
There were also "Illuminators" which were PFF aircraft flying in front of the main force who would drop markers or target indicators, called TIs onto the designated 'aiming point' already illuminated by the "Finders". Again, if conditions were cloudy H2S navigational radar was used. These TIs were designed to burn with various and varying colours to prevent the German defences lighting decoy fires. Various TI's were dubbed "Pink Pansies", "Red Spots", and "Smoke Puffs". "Illuminators" could include Mosquitoes equipped with "Oboe" if the target was within the range of this bombing aid.
"Markers"; would then drop incendiaries onto the TIs just prior to the Main Force arrival. Further "Markers" called "Backers-Up" or "Supporters" would be distributed at points within the main bomber stream to remark or reinforce the original TIs as required.
As the war wore on, the role of "Master Bomber" was introduced. This was an idea that had been used by Guy Gibson in the Dam Busters raids. Bennett wanted to lead raids but was denied operational flying as Freeman was not prepared to risk losing him. The appointed Pathfinder, usually an experienced senior officer, circled the target, broadcasting radio instructions to both Pathfinders and Main Force aircraft, correcting aiming points and generally co-ordinating the attack. The proportion of Pathfinder aircraft to Main Force bombers could vary according to the difficulty and location of the assigned target; 1 to 15 was common, though it could be as low as 1 to 3. By the start of 1944, the bulk of Bomber Command Home was bombing within 3 miles of the PFF indicators; an appreciable improvement in accuracy since 1942. The success or failure of a raid now largely depended on the Pathfinder's marker placement and how successfully further marking was corrected.”
Portal leaned forward. “This was all being learned very fast. There was no precedent. Three types of target marking were developed by the Pathfinders. These were known by the codenames Parramatta, Wanganui and Newhaven - the names coming from locations in Australia, New Zealand and the UK which had links with Pathfinder staff. If the Oboe system was used to determine the release point then the word "Musical" was used as a prefix. Parramatta used navigation aids such as H2S radar or Oboe radio signals to drop the markers. Newhaven used illumination flares to light up the area sufficiently for a visual marking by the Pathfinder aircraft, and Wanganui was used when the target was obscured by cloud, industrial haze, or a smoke screen. Oboe or H2S was used to release the markers over the unseen target. The target indicators used were on parachutes to give a aiming point that could be seen by the main force. In all cases, further Target Indicators would be dropped in the course of the raid to reinforce the marking and to compensate for earlier TIs either burning out or being extinguished by the bombing. The aircraft carrying out this task were "backers-up". For marking the Pathfinders used a number of special TI markers and bombs. These ejected coloured flares or illuminated the target.”
“Again, this was all rather complex and we used more pyrotechnics than the rest of the services put together. Let me see… Candles. Candle Aircraft, TI, Bomb, Type H.
The candle was the basic indicator. About 2 feet long by about 2 inches in diameter, it ejected flare pellets (that burned for 15 seconds) sequentially. The type H was filled with alternately coloured pellets (red/yellow or red/green or yellow/green) and illuminated for about 5 1/2 minutes in total Candles and other pyrotechnics were used as the fillings for the various Target Indicator bombs. From memory, there we No. 1 Mk 1 TI Bomb, No. 7 Mk 1 Multi-flash Bomb, No. 8 Mk 1 Spotfire Bomb. So the PFF was able to accurately and efficiently mark targets like Hamburg from the Battle of the Ruhr and we got better from there. We got to the point where a 450 bomber raid – half Mosquitoes – prefaced by a 50-plane VHA raid and followed by a final end-stream of Wellingtons could come close to making a city of a quarter of a million uninhabitable. At that point, we actually had to ease off. We could and did do too much damage, giving ourselves problems postwar. Bombing them back into the stone age might be a ringing thing to say in war, but by the time you can actually do that you know you are going to win. So the balance becomes to do enough damage to win with minimum loss to ones own side while leaving enough intact that you are not crippled by the expense after they surrender.”
“Hence Heligoland,” stated Tomkinson.
“Precisely. We could and did consider levelling the place, that would have been simple. But by 1944 we were asking what postwar intent was, and if we should destroy a target. Heligoland was like many other targets, we decided that there was a cheaper way of neutralising it bearing in mind what we wanted of it postwar.”
Tomkinson thought for a moment. “So that explains the letter I received in January 1944. It asked if Dover Command had a post-war role for Heligoland. When I said yes, it was a fine coastal forces base and would be useful for supporting power projection into the Baltic approaches…”
“That’s why we mined it shut and did not flatten it. It’s also why the Government decided to abrogate the Zanzibar Accord and re-annex it. Only cost a small number of Wellingtons too, to mine it closed. We would have lost more men had we bombed it. That’s why certain airbases were only ever hit with daisy-cutters, or isolated by cutting road and rail access. Lord, had we just decided to flatten everything, it would have cost more than twice what we spent!”
Portal paused again for an appreciative sip of brandy.