Firebash over the Reich

Mosquito, Philip E. West

The quaint English locomotive steamed through the enchanting Norfolk countryside, tugging its carriages behind it. In one of the first-class compartments, Winnie Winn DFC, 141 Squadron Commanding Officer, en route to his station at West Raynham, sat opposite a USAAF officer. They were alone in the compartment and were soon in animated conversation, the American exchanging pointers on the daylight air war, and Winn extolling the merits of night bombing. During the course of the conversation the American told Winn that the 8th Air Force intended to drop napalm gel (petrol thickened with a compound made from aluminium, naphthenic and palmitie acids – hence ‘napalm’ – to which white phosphorous was added for ignition) on enemy installations. Winn was excited at the prospect of using this lethal weapon on enemy airfields. Before the day was out, the dynamic RAF officer had obtained permission to use his squadron to drop the gel in Mosquito 100 gal (450 litre) drop tanks, providing he could obtain his own supplies.

Winn made a call to the 8th Air Force and 40 gal (180 litre) and 50 gal (225 litre) drums of napalm gel soon began arriving at West Raynham, courtesy of the Americans. At first armourers pumped it into drop tanks using hand pumps but then the Americans obliged with petrol-driven mechanical pumps and the operation became much easier. Armourer LAC Johnny Claxton, at that time one of the longest-serving members of 141 Squadron’s groundcrews, recalls that a 1 lb (450 gram) all-way phosphorous fuse was fitted in each tank to ignite the napalm gel on impact. The fuze was called all-way because no matter how the tank fell the fuze would ignite the contents.

In the afternoon of 6 April, 1945, Wing Commander Winn carried out the first of three trials of types of napalm gel when he flew low and parallel with the main No. 1 runway and dropped 100 gal (450 litre) drop tanks on the grass. These trials caused enormous interest and the station and aircrew crowded in the control tower while the groundcrews climbed on to the roofs of the hangars in order to get a better view of the explosions. It was decided that the crews who would drop napalm gel required no additional training because they had carried out enough low-level attacks with bombs or cannon over many months; no special tactics were to be employed. Enthusiasm and keenness to get on the night’s programme reached a fever pitch. When six aircraft were asked for, a dozen were offered – and accepted! Petrol and range was reduced so that each Mosquito could carry two 100 gal (450 litre) drop tanks but, even so, they would have to land at Juvincourt, Melsbroek or Mannheim. No one was unhappy about this arrangement as it offered the possibility of being stranded on the Continent for days!

Napalm gel came in three different consistencies – thick, medium and thin. Winnie Winn carried out two further trials over West Raynham’s grass expanses, on 12 and 13 April, in front of large audiences. As a result of the trials, it was discovered that the thick gel failed to ignite.

The following night, 14/15 April, eighteen Mosquito VIs and XXXs were dispatched from West Raynham. Twelve were from 141 Squadron and six from 239 Squadron, some of which were detailed to provide support for the 512 bombers attacking Potsdam just outside Berlin. This was the first time the Big City had been attacked by heavies since March 1944, although Mosquito bombers had continually attacked it. Seven Mosquitoes of 141 Squadron flew high-level Mk X AI patrols in support of the Potsdam raid but also covered the remaining five 141 Mosquitoes which would carry out the first napalm gel Firebash raid on night-fighter airfields at Neuruppin near Potsdam and Jüterborg near Berlin.

Winnie Winn and R. A. W. Scott in a Mk VI led the formation of five aircraft to Brussels/Melsbroek for refuelling before setting course for the Berlin area where they were to be supported by bomb- and incendiary-carrying Mosquitoes of 23 Squadron which also supplied the ‘Noload’ leader, the Master Bomber, for the Neuruppin raid. Master of Ceremonies, Squadron Leader H. V. Hopkins, provided ‘excellent support’ and Winn dropped his canisters from 800 ft (240 metres). He was followed by Flying Officers R. W. A. Marriott and N. Barber and W. P. Rimer and H. B. Farnfield. All six napalm bombs exploded near the hangars and engulfed the airfield in flame and smoke. A row of six buildings burned merrily and lit up the night sky as all three Mosquitoes, unburdened now, returned to strafe the airfield with cannon fire. Red tracer every fifth shell zeroed in on buildings and bowsers, one of which exploded in a huge flash of flame near a hangar. Rimer and Farnfield strafed the hapless base three times from 2,000 ft (610 metres) to 500 ft (150 metres) in all, helped in no small measure by TIs dropped just south-east of the airfield by the Master Bomber.

At Jüterbog Flight Lieutenant M. W. Huggins, the Master of Ceremonies, and Flying Officer C. G. Stow, in a 515 Squadron ‘Sollock’ aircraft (Master Bomber), was unable to help much and no TIs were seen to drop which scattered over about a 10 mile (16 km) area. Ron Brearley and John Sheldon and Flight Lieutenant E. B. Drew and Flying Officer A. H. Williams thundered low over the German countryside and had to toss their napalm bombs on the estimated position of the airfield. One of Brearley’s drop tanks hung up so he dropped the port tank containing 50 gal (225 litres) of napalm gel from 300 ft (90 metres) and headed west. (Returning with a napalm gel tank still attached was, as one could imagine, problematic. On a later Firebash operation one tank that would not release over the target fell off on the West Raynham runway on the aircraft’s return. These hang-ups occurred because of deposits of napalm on the release unit, and at the joint between the tank and the mainplanes.) Drew meanwhile, was forced to climb to 5,000 ft (1,500 metres) and position on Gee, following the failure of the TIs and flares, before he dropped down to 1,000 ft (300 metres) and roared over the base with the two 100 gal (450 litre) drop tanks ready to rain death and destruction. The two firebombs exploded among rows of buildings in the north-west corner of the airfield and were still burning thirteen minutes later as he twice strafed buildings amid light and inaccurate flak. All five fire-bomber Mosquitoes landed back at Melsbroek for refuelling before returning to West Raynham, no doubt highly delighted with their night’s work.

On 17 April Johnnie Bridekirk and Terry Glasheen, a universally popular Australian crew crashed when taking off from Brussels/Melsbroek airfield in the early hours of the morning. The Mosquito went up in flames, and those who saw the crash say that they never expected the crew to escape with their lives. However, Terry Glasheen put up a magnificent show by dragging his pilot clear of the flames, and there is no doubt that his level-headedness and courage prevented a terrible tragedy. Terry Glasheen was back on the squadron within a comparatively few days but Johnny Bridekirk suffered extensive burns and was condemned to many weary weeks in hospital.

The second Firebash raid by 141 Squadron was flown on 17/18 April. Bomber Command was also abroad at night, with attacks by 5 Group on railway yards at Cham, Germany. Five 141 Squadron Mosquitoes, each armed with 100 gal (450 litre) napalm gel drop tanks, and led by Wing Commander Winnie Winn, were to head for Schleissheim airfield just north of Munich, after a refuelling stop at St Dizier. However, after landing at St Dizier, Winn was delayed with refuelling problems when petrol had to be brought 60 miles (100 km) by road. He decided that by the time they got off and found the target they would be unable to see the markers, and opted for an attack on Munchen instead. However, a bad storm front scrubbed this option and he and Scott were forced to return to England.

The three remaining napalm-armed Mosquito crews battled through solid cloud and violent thunderstorms to Schleissheim but Rimer and Farnfield were forced to abort after losing Gee. After vainly trying to climb above the thick cloud, Squadron Leader Thatcher was also forced to abandon the mission. Another crew, Flying Officer J. C. Barton and Sergeant L. Berlin, fought their way through the storm front and hurled their napalm bombs among airfield buildings, then, obtaining permission from the 23 Squadron Master Bomber, strafed the airfield on a return low-level run. Roy Brearley and John Sheldon climbed to 10,000 ft (3,000 metres) to escape the worst of the weather, and diving down on pinpoints provided by ‘Noload’ they added fuel to the flames with their two napalm bombs. They fell among two hangars and exploded. They called up the Master Bomber before returning and strafing hangars, buildings and rolling stock, then exiting the area to allow 23 Squadron to add their bombs and incendiaries to the conflagration.

Meanwhile, Mosquitoes of 85 Squadron patrolled Schleissheim and Firstenfeldbrück airfields. Wing Commander Davison, 85 Squadron Commanding Officer since Wing Commander K. ‘Gon’ Gonsalves had been posted in January, destroyed a Ju 88 in the Munich area using Perfectos. On the following night, 18/19 April 1945 seven 141 Squadron Mosquitoes each carrying two 100 gal (450 litre) drop tanks filled with napalm, eight from of 169 Squadron at Great Massingham, four Mosquito IVs of 23 Squadron and four of 515 Squadron from Little Snoring, and one 141 Squadron aircraft for high-level Mk X AI patrol over the target, flew to the forward base at Juvincourt in France for a Firebash raid on Munich/Neubiberg airfield. The eight Mosquitoes from 23 and 515 Squadrons and the eight from 169 Squadron were to drop flares and HE on Munich/Neubiberg with 141 adding to the destruction.

The raid was in full swing when 141 Squadron, led once more by Winn, arrived at Munich/Neubiberg with their napalm loads. Flight Lieutenant Drew and Pilot Officer A. H. Williams were ready to commence their low-level bomb run at 700 ft (210 metres) but had to wait twenty-five minutes before they could take their turn. To add insult to injury, one of their fire-bombs refused to release. Drew climbed to 7,000 ft (2,100 metres) and tried to shake it loose and finally got it safely away just north of Munich. On the instructions of ‘Noload Leader’, the master bomber, Warrant Officer Ronald G. Dawson and Flying Officer Charles P. D. Childs, an all New Zealand crew in Winball 7, went in for their fire-bombing run. The 24-year-old pilot and his 32-year-old navigator/radar operator had joined 141 Squadron on 22 January and this was their tenth operation. It was also the last. As they hurtled into the attack they heard in their headphones the Master Bomber’s warning of accurate light flak but pressed bravely on. Just as they reached their drop point Winball 7 was hit by flak. The New Zealanders’ Mosquito appeared to climb and some ten seconds later crashed in flames near an autobahn north-west of the airfield. One of the tanks seemed to ricochet into the air and fall back into the burning pyre. They were the last casualties on 141 Squadron in the war.

On 19/20 April, three squadrons of Mosquitoes flew a napalm raid against Flensburg airfield on the Danish border. Six Mosquito Mk VIs of 515 Squadron marked the target with green TIs and flares, and dropped incendiaries and 500 lb (227 kg) HE bombs. The Commanding Officer of 515 Squadron, Howard Kelsey, with Smithy Smith, was master bomber. Three Mosquito VIs of 169 Squadron took off from Great Massingham and flew to West Raynham to load up with napalm tanks for their first napalm attack. The same aircraft also carried two 500 lb (227 kg) bombs beneath their wings. No. 141 Squadron was unable to carry bombs on its Mk XXX Mosquitoes as well as napalm tanks because they did not have bomb racks or the release mechanisms fitted in the bomb bay behind the cannons. For the same reason, 169 Squadron were unable to use their Mk XIX Mosquitoes. The attack was very successful, with good work by the Master Bomber. Flensburg was plastered and strafed from end to end, and smoke and flame made observation of the final result difficult. Count Bernadotte, the head of the Swedish Red Cross was at this time using the airfield to fly back and forth between Sweden and Germany for secret negotiations with Heinrich Himmler, who hoped to extract a separate surrender. The count and his chauffeur narrowly escaped death during the attack.

Also on the night of 19/20 April Flight Lieutenant Howard DFC and Flying Officer Clay DFC of BSDU at Swanton Morley were on a patrol to southern Denmark and the Island of Fyn airfields in a Mosquito XXX and they returned triumphant as Howard recalled:

Aircraft BSDU/B was airborne Swanton Morley 2043 hours to carry out a low-level patrol of South Denmark and airfields on the Island of Fyn. The aircraft was equipped with Mk X AI, Serrate IVA and Wolf. Landfall was made at 2204 hours, height 15,000 ft [460 metres], from there, height was lost to Bogense where we arrived at 2216 hours, height 3,000 ft [900 metres]. A patrol of the Fyn Island was carried out for an hour, during which time only one airfield was observed at Boldringe. At 2305 hours an attack parallel to the runway was made on a dispersed barrack site with two bursts of two seconds each. Strikes were seen. The airfield was not lit and no flak was experienced. Many small convoys were seen on roads. At 2316 hours course was set from the island at 2,000 ft [610 metres]. At 2324 hours a Mk X contact crossing starboard to port, range 4 miles [6.5 km] and above, our height being 2,000 ft [610 metres]. We turned behind the contact at 5,000 ft [1,500 metres] range when a visual was obtained on an aircraft heading on a course of 175°. A Ju 88 was identified with the aid of glasses at 1,500 ft [460 metres] range, height 3,000 ft [900 metres], speed 240 IAS. A short burst from dead astern at 250 yd, which caused the outer half of the port wing to fall away. The E/A rolled on its back, hit the ground at 2328 hours, spread over a wide area and caused a large number of small fires. Course was set for base, crossing out at Farne at 2340 hours, and landed at base 0104 hours.

Howard fired 200 rounds (fifty each gun) of 20 mm on the sortie.

Further napalm gel attacks were carried out on 22/23 April. Jägel was attacked by Mosquito XXXs of 141 Squadron, three Mosquitoes of 169 Squadron and four Mosquitoes of 515 Squadron, led by Master Bomber Squadron Leader J. H. Penny and Flying Officer J. H. Whitfield, who dropped green TIs and incendiaries. Flak greeted them and a 141 Squadron Mosquito flown by Flight Lieutenant G. M. Barrowman and Warrant Officer H. S. Griffiths suffered severe damage in the starboard wing and inner fuel tank. They returned to England hugging the German and Dutch coasts, keeping the Friesians in sight to port, and landed safely at Woodbridge. Five Mosquitoes of 23 Squadron with napalm tanks, and five Mosquitoes of 23 Squadron with Squadron Leader H. V. Hopkins as Master Bomber, bombed Westerland airfield on Sylt. Hopkins, aware that his TIs would not be seen because of the thick cloud over the target, instructed the Deputy Master Bomber to drop incendiaries.

By 23 April the British Second Army had arrived opposite Hamburg and on the next day its advanced units were on the west bank of the Elbe ready for the last thrust to Lübeck and Kiel. On 23 April, as part of the support operation for the ground troops, five Mosquitoes of 23 Squadron flew to Melsbroek with six napalm Mosquitoes of 141 Squadron led by Wing Commander Winnie Winn, refuelled and crossed to Lübeck. That night they plastered the airfield with HE, incendiaries and firebombs under the direction of Master Bomber Squadron Leader D. I. Griffiths of 23 Squadron. The whole attack took just ten minutes; the airfield was left burning and devastated. All aircraft returned safely despite light, accurate flak put up by the defenders. That same night thirty Mosquitoes and seven Lancasters dropped leaflets over eight POW camps. The war was drawing to a close and the morale of the men behind the wire soared, while at home some worried that there would be no more opportunities to fly their Mosquitoes in anger.

On 24/25 April six Mosquitoes of 141 Squadron carried out a napalm attack on Munich/Neubiberg airfield again. The 515 Squadron Master Bomber, Squadron Leader J. H. Penny and Flying Officer J. H. Whitfield, again marked for them; other 515 Squadron aircraft flew support. During the patrol Flight Lieutenant J. Davis and Flying Officer B. R. Cronin claimed eight enemy aircraft damaged on the ground during their six strafing and bombing runs with two 500 lb (227 kg) and eighty 5 lb (2.3 kg) incendiaries over Kaufbeuren airfield. The aircraft were in the moon shadow of the hangar and positive identification was therefore impossible. A fire broke out in the hangar and could be seen through the open doors. Meanwhile, at Neubiberg, Squadron Leader Harry White DFC** and Flight Lieutenant Mike Allen DFC** also claimed the destruction of a single-engined enemy aircraft on the ground; it was also the last recorded victory for 141 Squadron in the war. White and Allen dropped their napalm bombs with the safety pins still in but they exploded on impact and caused ‘a good fire’. They landed at their forward base at Juvincourt, an area they had patrolled in Beaufighters from August 1943.

On 25 April special permission was granted for a single Halifax of 192 Squadron, with a full bomb load, to join 359 Lancasters on a raid on the SS barracks and Hitler’s bunker at the Eagle’s Nest. On 26 April the British Army took Bremen. On 25/26 April the Firebash Mosquitoes attacked Munich/Reim airfield while four Mosquitoes of 515 Squadron with Lieutenant W. Barton SAAF as Master Bomber, attacked Landsberg. Mosquitoes of 169 Squadron also took part in the raid on Landsberg. Flying Officer J. K. ‘Sport’ Rogers, navigator to Flight Lieutenant Phil Kelshall recalls:

For this operation we flew to RAF Oulton where our drop tanks were filled with napalm. We returned to Massingham where the aircraft, a Mosquito VI (224) was armed with two 500 lb [227 kg] bombs and cannons loaded with ammo. In the afternoon we flew to Juvincourt where we refuelled and waited for nightfall – the operation took place in moonlight, so navigation was easy. We flew at low level and made initial rendezvous with all the other aircraft at the north end of the Ammer Lake and checked in with Master Bomber.

At the agreed time made by the Master Bomber we made rendezvous over the airfield. We had all been assigned a call sign in numerical order. At the appropriate time, the Master Bomber called in the first aircraft to drop napalm tanks – calling ‘01 clear’ as it dropped its tanks – and then at ten second intervals the remainder of the aircraft followed to drop their napalm tanks. This routine was adopted to avoid collision over the target area, which in this raid were the hangars and adjacent aircraft parking areas, which had been previously illuminated with flares and target markers. Also in attendance were anti-flak aircraft to suppress the flak. Having dropped the napalm, we returned to orbit the airfield and when the last aircraft had completed its drop of napalm, the master bomber called for the 500 lb [227 kg] bombs to be dropped in the same sequence as before. Having completed the bomb-drop and again returned to orbit, the Master Bomber called for cannon fire, again in the same sequence – the target area was a mass of flame by this time and the cannons were used to spray the area in the pass over the target. This completed the operation and we returned to Juvincourt -elapsed time three hours forty minutes – where we stayed the night and returned to Massingham the next day.

On 26 April another consignment of 100 gal (450 litre) drop tanks arrived at West Raynham. Word spread quickly that a final Firebash fling was in the offing. On 2 May, the British Second Army having crossed the Elbe now moved on to Lübeck and units of the British 6th Airborne Division reached Wismar on the Baltic and made contact with the Russian army. The war was all over bar the shouting but Dutch Holland in 515 Squadron wrote: ‘May 2nd and still, as far as we were concerned, there was no let up in the determination to break the regime that had been our mortal enemy for so long. Crusaderish? It was a pretty general feeling among aircrews at that time now that the end was in sight. With only five days to go before VE Day 515 undertook just one more very hairy job.’

On 26 April another consignment of 100 gal (450 litre) drop tanks arrived at West Raynham. Word spread quickly that a final Firebash fling was in the offing. On 2 May, the British Second Army having crossed the Elbe now moved on to Lübeck and units of the British 6th Airborne Division reached Wismar on the Baltic and made contact with the Russian army. The war was all over bar the shouting but Dutch Holland in 515 Squadron wrote: ‘May 2nd and still, as far as we were concerned, there was no let up in the determination to break the regime that had been our mortal enemy for so long. Crusaderish? It was a pretty general feeling among aircrews at that time now that the end was in sight. With only five days to go before VE Day 515 undertook just one more very hairy job.’

Large convoys of ships were now assembling at Kiel on the Baltic, and it was feared that they were to transport German troops to Norway to continue the fight from there. It was decided therefore that Mosquitoes of Bomber Command should attack Kiel on 2/3 May and this would be the very last operation of the war for Bomber Command. Some 126 Mosquitoes from 8 Group would follow in the wake of sixteen Mosquitoes of 8 Group. Thirty-seven Mosquitoes of 23, 169, 141 and 515 Squadrons in 100 Group would make attacks on airfields at Flensburg, Hohn, Westerland/Sylt and Schleswig/Jägel. Hohn and Flensburg airfields would be bombed with napalm and incendiaries directed by a master bomber. Support for the night’s operations would be provided by twenty-one Mandrel/Window sorties by 199 Squadron Halifaxes while eleven Fortresses of 214 Squadron and nine B-l7s/B-24s of 223 Squadron would fly Window/jamming sorties over the Kiel area. At Foulsham ten Halifaxes of 462 Squadron would carry out a Spoof operation with Window and bombs against Flensburg while some of the nineteen Halifaxes of 192 Squadron carried out a radio search in the area. Others dropped Window and TIs, and some also carried eight 500 lb (227 kg) bombs. Five Mosquitoes of 192 Squadron were also engaged in radio frequency work.

At North Creake Air Vice Marshal Addy Addison was present during the take-off of thirty-eight aircraft of the southern Window force including eighteen Halifaxes from 171 Squadron and ten from 199 Squadron, also heading for Kiel on Mandrel/Window operations. He expressed his satisfaction at the size of the final effort. All told, a record 106 aircraft of 100 Group took part. Eight Mosquito XXXs of 239 Squadron took off from West Raynham for high-level and low-level raids on airfields in Denmark and Germany, while six Mosquitoes of 141 Squadron were to make napalm attacks on Flensburg airfield with fourteen napalm-armed Mosquitoes attacking Hohn airfield. Master of Ceremonies at Flensburg would be Flying Officer E. L. Heath of 23 Squadron while the Master Bomber at Hohn was Squadron Leader D. I. Griffiths. Four Mosquitoes of 23 Squadron would drop incendiaries on Flensburg and seven more from 23 Squadron would bomb Hohn with incendiaries before the arrival of 141 Squadron’s Mosquitoes. Meanwhile, 169 Squadron’s Mosquitoes, plus four from 515 Squadron with Flight Lieutenant McEwan as Master Bomber and Flying Officer Barnes would raid Jägel. Four other Mosquitoes of 515 Squadron, with Wing Commander Howard Kelsey as Master Bomber, would drop incendiaries on Westerland airfield on Sylt. Dutch Holland of 515 Squadron wrote:

Just what was brewing at the Westerland I have never been able to find out precisely. It couldn’t have been that it was a particularly active night-fighter base because I don’t remember any patrols being assigned there, but it was believed that suicide missions were being planned by the Luftwaffe, presumably against heads of state or centres of government. Whatever it was it must have been something out of the ordinary to make it necessary to try and burn up everything on it. At the briefing it was announced that a new type of bomb would be used, referred to as ‘thermite’. It was a 50 gal [225 litre] cylinder carried on the wing racks. A warning was given that it would ignite on contact and great care must be exercised not to cause premature ignition. In other words ‘For God’s sake don’t have a prang with these on board!’ Each aircraft was detailed to take up an assigned position round the island at a designated time; great emphasis on the time. At a given signal the attack would commence with a bomb run by the Commanding Officer, followed by the rest at very short intervals, criss-crossing the field from different directions at height intervals of 50 ft [15 metres]. Bob and I were to come in No.3 at 150 ft [45 metres].

It was still full daylight when we left Little Snoring in a loose gaggle, each making for his own pinpoint and ETA, and there was still enough light to make out the odd island as we approached Sylt. A marker was to be dropped on one of them to ensure complete synchronization at the target. All aircraft duly arrived at their stations and the minutes began to drag by. For some reason Kelsey wasn’t ready to open the attack and we were acutely aware that immediately the airfield became encircled by orbiting aircraft the Jerries must have been fully alerted and dashed out to man every gun on the place. The covers were off and there was one up the spout of every weapon they possessed when the cue to start was finally given. I don’t know what form the signal took, as I was too uptight to record an impression. The runs were to follow in very quick succession, a matter of seconds only, and after that each aircraft was to engage the defences.

The first one in was greeted by a cone of tracer that looked like a tent of sparks flying upwards, meeting and then spreading like the poles of a teepee. Thinking to take advantage of their diverted attention I cut in at full belt to cross the airfield, heading for some large hangars clearly visible in the south-east side but by the time we were halfway, the whole shower swung in our direction. Things happened pretty fast from then on. I pressed the release when I judged the aim about right and almost immediately as we turned sharply away the whole hangar erupted in an enormous ball of fire out of the roof, doors and windows. I couldn’t help hoping even at that moment that there was nobody in it but all else was driven from our minds by a sharp BONK in the tail, at which the aircraft began to vibrate violently and the stick to try and shake itself out of my hand. (The cause of the vibration was that the starboard elevator had been shot through at the spar and the resulting overbalance was causing a flutter. It was gradually coming adrift and just lasted out the return to Snoring.)

Clearly this was no time to think about giving supporting fire, which turned out to be about as dangerous from risk of collision as from flak. So we excused ourselves and informed the assembled host that we had been hit and were pulling out. Still at about 100 ft [30 metres] we turned seawards and immediately found ourselves flying horizontally down the beams of a battery of searchlights. If they did shoot anything further in our direction we were heartily glad not to see any tracer, probably on account of the brightness of the lights. There was a bank of mist offshore a mile or two and the shadows of our aircraft in several discs of light were plain to see on its surface. Anything in the way of violent evasive action was out of the question and the minute it took to reach cover seemed like an hour. Losing all visual references on entering the mist then rendered us dependent on instruments which were all snaking about so much that only the artificial horizon could be seen at all clearly. However, taking stock and realizing that apart from whatever was causing the alarming vibration, all else seemed to be more or less in order, we found that by reducing speed down to about 150 mph [240 kph) it was possible to gain a little height and think about a course for home. Bob, I may say, appeared to remain unperturbed throughout apart from impolite observations about the parentage of some anti-aircraft personnel.

Warrant Officer Les Turner, who made the trip with his navigator and Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Wheldon, recalls:

By now I had enough of destruction and, while I could see the surrounding buildings, I decided to drop the napalm on the airfield. The war was obviously not going to last much longer. The opposition was quite intense and as I followed Flying Officer Keith Miller (later to become famous as an Australian Test cricketer) the light flak aimed at him was passing worryingly close to us. One of Keith’s drop-tanks hung up and slewed him to starboard. But for this he reckoned that he would have got caught in the flak. [Miller and Squadron Leader Wright both returned to Great Massingham with a tank hung up but landed safely. On 28 June Miller lost an engine near Bircham Newton. He extinguished the fire and put down at Great Massingham where he overshot and crashed. He and his navigator were unhurt. Immediately afterwards. Miller jumped into his car, and headed for London where he proceeded to score 56 not out at Lords!] As it was we regrettably lost one of our crews – such a waste so near the end.

During the napalm gel attack on Jägel, Flying Officer Robert Catterall DFC and Flight Sergeant Donald Joshua Beadle of 169 Squadron were killed when their Mosquito was shot down by flak. Flight Sergeant John Beeching, a pilot in the squadron, who was on leave at the time but learned the details later, wrote: ‘The commander of the German flak battery who shot the aircraft down later wrote to Catterall’s mother saying that had he known that the end of the war was only two days’ away he would not have opened fire, which is all right to say, but as our blokes were dropping Napalm I cannot imagine anyone standing by to watch that!

During a run on Westerland, a Mosquito of 515 Squadron flown by Flight Lieutanant Johnson and Flying Officer Thomason was hit but the pilot landed safely at Woodbridge on one engine. Two Halifaxes from 199 Squadron each with eight men on board and carrying four 500 lb (227 kg) bombs and large quantities of Window, probably collided while on their bomb runs, and they crashed at Meimersdorf, just south of Kiel. They were the last Bomber Command aircraft to be lost on operations in the war. Only Pilot Officer Les H. Currell, pilot of RG375/R who baled out with slight leg injuries, and his rear gunner Flight Sergeant R. ‘Jock’ Hunter, survived, while aboard RG373/T piloted by Flight Lieutenant William E. Brooks, only Pilot Officer K. N. Crane, the rear gunner, survived.

On the afternoon of 6 May Flight Sergeants Williams and Rhoden crashed on a crosscountry training flight at Devil’s Dyke (Spitalgate) near Brighton. Both men were killed. They were 169 Squadron’s final casualties of the war. With Hitler dead and the European war over, celebrations got into full swing before crews began training for the Japanese war, were demobbed or transferred to other duties in the service. Dutch Holland recalls:

There followed three weeks of flights to observe bomb damage in Germany and a few practice flights before 515 broke up and we took our aircraft up to Silloth and left them forlornly standing in a row. That flight doesn’t appear in my logbook. While the House of Commons was being told on the afternoon of the 7th that cessation of hostilities was imminent, they may have heard a Mossie go over at 500 ft [150 metres] and if they or the milkman whose horse gave him a bit of trouble at Sudbury Hill wondered who was the lunatic up there – well, now they know.

Geoff Liles, a Fortress pilot in 214 Squadron, says:

On VE-Day minus one, I approached Wing Commander Bowes for his permission to take my groundcrew on a round trip of ‘Happy Valley’ to show them the results of their labours in keeping the kites flying. This was approved and actually resulted in the two of us flying at low level and in very loose formation, crammed full with sightseers. It was something that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.

Les Turner adds.

On the day before VE Day we did a sightseeing tour covering Aachen, Cologne, Düsseldorf, the Möhne Dam, Dortmund and Duisburg. The destruction was appalling and a sense of the terrible waste hung over a number of us over the Victory celebration days. We repeated the trip a week later – it was for the benefit of groundcrews who had, of course, seen nothing of this. We did some desultory flying throughout June and I last flew a Mosquito on 17 July 1945. One of my duties on 169 Squadron was to collect, on his return from POW release, Pilot Officer (then Flying Officer) Miller, who had the successes in May 1944 and had subsequently been shot down. I flew the Oxford very carefully. The responsibility of getting him back safely seemed very great indeed. My total flying time on Mosquitoes was 350 hours, the majority at night.

Dutch Holland concludes:

May 9th dawned bright and clear with only one drawback: I was orderly officer and I was awakened by a sergeant of RAF Police standing beside my bed staring straight ahead through the peak of his cap announcing that it was believed that an officer from Little Snoring had made off with the Union Jack which had been flying at the King’s Lynn Steam Laundry and if it was returned, no more would be said. If the sergeant would give me a few minutes I would join him in the search for said item. He dutifully departed and as I was hoisting myself out of the pit, noticed that my bed had for a quilt a very large Union Jack. It was quite a night.

Squadron Leader John Crotch was specially chosen to fly Air Commodore Rory Chisholm on 21 May and Air Vice-Marshal Addison on 28 May, to Schleswig and return in Halifax IIIs. From 25 June to 7 July 1945 Exercise Post-Mortem was carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of RAF jamming and Spoof operations on the German earlywarning radar system. Simulated attacks were made by aircraft from four RAF groups including 100 Group, the early-warning radar being manned by American and British personnel on this occasion. Post-Mortem proved conclusively that the countermeasures had been a great success.

On 5 July John Crotch flew Brigadier General W. R. Peck, the commander of the US Second Air Division at Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk, to Denmark to inspect the underground fighter headquarters at Grove and see the tests at Schleswig, returning on 7 July. Meanwhile, on 25 June Tim Woodman flew to Germany and Denmark with Flight Lieutenants Neville and Bridges.

At Grove I was walking back across the airfield after inspecting some of their aircraft when I passed four Luftwaffe airwomen in white shirts and grey skirts. Typical Frauleins. They stood smartly to attention but looked pretty boot-faced at having lost the war. ‘OK sweethearts,’ I said. ‘Your time will come again.’ How right I was.

But what disasters they must have gone home to.

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