In the day battles of the summer of 1940, German bombers often returned safely with up to 200 hits from rifle-calibre machine guns. This was made possible by a combination of armour protection and self-sealing fuel tanks. The main armament of the latest RAF night fighter, the Beaufighter, consisted of four 20mm Hispano cannon, just a few hits from which could tear a bomber apart.
The object of the exercise was, from the German point of view, to spot the night fighter first, but this was far from easy. Bombers took to flying just above, or just below, the cloud base, to take refuge if they were intercepted. Speed was important, to reduce the time that the bomber was at risk over the British Isles, but in one recorded instance a Heinkel was intercepted flying barely above the stall. The Beaufighter pilot throttled right back but was unable to stay behind it. This of course could only work on a very dark night, with minimal visual distance; on a clear night, the bomber would have been a turkey. As the fighter pilot commented, ‘He made our task almost impossible.’
In the hands of an experienced pilot, agility played its part. Despite being a bomber, the Ju 88 could perform an upward roll with ease if unladen. Even with a bomb load on board, it could take extreme evasive action. On 13 March 1941 Peter Stahl was heading for Hull with a pair of mines. It was a bright moonlit night. When one of his crew reported a night fighter astern, he reacted instantly:
Without further ado I pull Cäsar [his Ju 88] into a steep half-roll to port and let it fall upside down into the night. Surely, nobody could follow that! I have just levelled off when Hein comes over the intercom again, repeating his warning. The devil! Once more we shoot like a stone into the pitch blackness below. And then a third time!
On the third occasion, by now down to 800m, he managed to shake off his pursuer. With two tonnes of mines aboard, it was a remarkable achievement.
On the following night he revealed another trick. On the return leg he deliberately chose to make a long detour, simply to keep the moon at an angle to one side. The direct route would have placed the moon almost directly ahead, to a stalking night fighter’s advantage.
Not all were so lucky, nor so experienced and cunning. Bomber losses to night fighters in January 1941 were a mere 0.02 per cent, with three bombers shot down. By May of that year this had increased to 3.93 per cent, with losses of 96. While this was not yet unsustainable, it was a indicator for the future.
Casualties for KGr 100 from January 1941 to 27 July, when the unit was deployed to the Eastern Front, are fairly typical. In this period, eighteen aircraft were lost-more than 50 per cent of establishment. Of these, ten are known to have fallen to night fighters, a further seven to unknown causes and one to an operational accident. Eleven were damaged in the same period, four by night fighters, two by anti-aircraft fire, three in operational accidents and two to unrecorded causes.
Most of the destruction took place in the final three months. Horst Goetz is recorded as saying to new crews joining the Gruppe, no doubt with tongue firmly in cheek: ‘Do not tell us your names. In two weeks you will be dead, and we shall have remembered your names for nothing!’
One memorable event. Hans-Georg Batcher had joined 1/KGr 100 on 1 July, having earlier been shot down over France and taken prisoner. On the night of 9/10 July his Heinkel was attacked by a night fighter over the Midlands and badly shot up. Having jettisoned his bombs, he sought refuge in the clouds far below. His flight mechanic was dead, his radio operator badly wounded. His port motor had stopped, his autopilot, compass and trimming were all out of action and his tail was badly damaged. Unable to maintain a straight course, he held his crippled Heinkel in a gentle turn to starboard as long as possible, then reefed it round to resume a new heading to port of where he actually wanted to go. After describing a series of ellipses, he finally coaxed his aircraft to Cherbourg, where he belly-landed on the runway. It was an incredible piece of flying.
Batcher, who was awarded the Ritterkreuz in 1942 and the Eichenlaub in 1944, was an outstanding bomber pilot. On 15 July 1941 he was appointed Staffelkapitän 1/KGr 100, replacing Hermann Schmidt, another future Ritterkreuz recipient.