The 75th anniversary of Britain’s first military offensive of World War II is 4 September 2014. I wonder how many Brits know about that raid?
Here’s a clue as to the targets: the RAF were not allowed to bomb any target on land. And here’s the aircraft that did it – Britain had more of these than any other type of aircraft when the war began:
The Spitfire roared past the Royal Standard at well over 300 mph, followed by the Blenheim, the speed of which was a revelation of what a modern bomber can do. We certainly have a bomber that can out-fly any fighter in service in the world today.
(From Flight Magazine, 1935)
The Daily Mail had noticed German technology was developing fast. The newspaper’s owner, Lord Rothermere, launched a Daily Mail challenge in the 1930s to British companies to compete to design the fastest aircraft – one that could either carry a few passengers or be fitted as a bomber. It was called the ‘Britain First’ campaign and resulted in the Bristol Aeroplane Company producing the Blenheim, the first of which was indeed named ‘Britain First’. It debuted at Filton airshow in 1935.
On 4 September 1939, five Blenheim crews from each of 107, 110 and 139 Squadrons sat in their flying gear as the message from King George VI was read.
The Royal Air Force has behind it a tradition no less inspiring than those of the older Services, and in the campaign which we have now been compelled to undertake you will have to assume responsibilities far greater than those which your service had to shoulder in the last war. I can assure all ranks of the air force of my supreme confidence in their skill and courage, and in their ability to meet whatever calls may be made upon them.
The haar hugging eastern England on the morning of September 4, 1939 prompted a change from the (already loaded) impact-fuse bombs to bombs with eleven-second delay fuses: the crews could fly below the mist and bomb more accurately, avoiding civilians casualties.
The Air Ministry’s very British rules of warfare through the early phase of the war dictated the target and nature of the attack. Foremost among the regulations was an order to avoid any possibility of civilian casualties: a bomber squadron’s targets could not be located on land or even adjacent to land. So wharfed warships were a no-no. In effect, only warships out at sea constituted a permissible target. In this regard, two warships anchored outside Wilhelmshaven naval base – the Admiral Scheer and the Emden – constituted the only reasonable targets within the range of the bombers of the time.
14 Wellington bombers were also sent, but it was the three-crew Blenheim bombers which took the brunt of it. The charge was led by Flying Officer Kenneth Doran:
This was it. From starboard astern, Tom swept towards the Admiral Scheer. Ahead to his left, Doran drove home from dead astern and peppered the decks with his wing-mounted Browning. Seamen – some initially obscured by washing hanging on a line – scattered to their stations.
Eleven seconds. Kenneth’s two bombs dropped onto the target, but they bounced off the rear deck. ‘Bollocks!’ Tom shouted to himself: that wasn’t pre-considered by the polished brass who conducted Briefing.
Tom opened his Browning machine gun. Before the ship’s stern slid beneath their wings, his navigator’s thumb twitched on the bomb release button. As the top of the Admiral Scheer’s tower mast came careering towards them, there was a thud and clunk. The aircraft leapt over the tower, free from burden and eager to climb. Explosions bellowed up, and tracer fire streaked ever closer to their wing tips. Tom’s heart thumped with terror. He jinked this way then that to shift his bumbling aircraft out of the firing line. He banked her hard to port and pulled the 9-boost for maximum thrust. ‘C’mon, girl!’
Then the gunfire became a step removed, now targeted at the Blenheim behind them. He glanced back through the Perspex off his left shoulder: ‘C’mon Muddy!’
Under a barrage of fireworks, Muddy Richards emerged safely from the smoke billowing up from the ship. Muddy had swooped in on the ship as the seconds ticked to expiration, but, fearing explosions under his belly, he had pulled out of his attacking run and lobbed his bombs short into the sea.
From 500 feet high, Tom looked across in horror at the Emden. ‘Shit!’ There was nothing to be done: the first dive-bombing Blenheim had caught flak and flamed steadily downwards. Flying Officer Emden had smacked his aircraft into the superstructure of the ship. Tom was still staring when moments later the second Blenheim, streaming black smoke, crashed into the sea. Six lives extinguished before his eyes.
He was buffeted out of his stupor by the first of a regular beat of explosions: the Admiral Scheer’s pom-pom guns fired dandelion bursts into the dusky sky above. The thunder of each shell quivered through the aircraft and crew.
The clouds closed, the air churned and the aircraft bumped, adding its own thoughtful bobbing to Tom’s weaving to out-smart the gun crews below.
( A Chance Kill by Paul Letters (released February 2015). F/O Doran led the attack, but the other names in this extract are fictional)
Initially, the German sailors seemed to have mistaken the incoming aircraft for the Luftwaffe. Flying Officer Doran later gave a (non-fiction!) interview that conveyed the Germans’ surprise:
“We could see a German warship taking on stores from two tenders [small ships] at her stern. We could even see some washing hanging on the line. Undaunted by the washing we proceeded to bomb the battleship. Flying at 100 feet above mast height all three aircraft in the flight converged on her. I flew straight ahead. The pilot of the second aircraft came across from one side, and the third crossed from the other side. When we flew on the top of the battleship we could see the crews running fast to their stations. We dropped our bombs. The second pilot, flying behind, saw two hit. We came round, and the ship’s pom-poms began to fire as we headed for home. My navigator saw shells bursting almost on the tail of the aircraft.”
In all, at least three bombs hit and bounced off the Admiral Scheer battleship, all having failed to detonate, probably because of the unusually low altitude of the attack. The Emden, a light cruiser, suffered a little damage: in what was an extraordinary namesake coincidence, the Blenheim which crashed into it was indeed piloted by Flying Officer Emden.
A German witness reported the fate of another:
The crew of one Blenheim attacked at such a low level that the blast of their own bomb on the warship destroyed the RAF aircraft.
(Bomber Command Museum of Canada)
In this case, the delay fuse gave little delay.
Overall, of the 15 Blenheims sent to the naval base, five returned home having failed to find it, whereas five more found it but “Failed To Return”: the element of surprise Doran had enjoyed was soon lost, and Wilhelmshaven’s flak batteries set to work. Two Wellingtons, with a crew of five in each, were also shot down. Overall, only one crewman was seen to bail out – perilously low.
A Blenheim wireless operator/air gunner later recalled:
There was tremendous excitement when “A” Flight (No. 110 Squadron) returned and consternation when the lone Blenheim of 107 landed. It occurred to us aircrew that if this was to be the pattern of future operations we were in for a very short career.
(Bomber Command Museum of Canada)
This was pre-radar, the era of dead reckoning, and navigational errors saw bombs dropped 110 miles away from the target, causing civilian casualties – in Denmark: that was not in the Daily Mail.
The Wilhelmshaven raid cost 24 lives on the British side. German warships were hit but not sunk. So Britain’s first offensive of World War Two was far from a great success, despite its propaganda value.
The public in Poland and the UK had wanted to see British forces act to cut short the German invasion of Poland. This raid did no such thing.
- Warner, Graham. The Bristol Blenheim: A Complete History [Hardcover]. Manchester: Crecy Publishing Ltd, 2002.