Continuing our series of blogs called ‘Behind the Episode’. Our resident aviation expert, Kirsty, will be looking further into the real history threaded throughout our audio drama, particularly the aircraft featured in each episode.
‘It was definitely a Heinkel. That girl said so.’ – Nancy in Episode Two ‘The Wooden O‘.
Even those with only a passing knowledge of the Second World War, will have heard something of the allied bombing campaign. They might be familiar with the Thousand Bomber raids, and the devastating attacks on cities like Dresden and Cologne and they will almost certainly of heard of the exploits of Guy Gibson and the legendary Dambusters who wrought havoc on the dams of the Ruhr Valley. Most will also be aware of the instruments used to reap this “Whirlwind”; aircraft like the Wellington, the Halifax and most famous of all, the Lancaster.
But what of the Luftwaffe? Whilst everyone knows about the Blitz and the havoc that was wrought on London from the autumn of 1940, many will be less familiar with the actual extent of the campaign or of the aircraft used to deliver this terror. Films like “The Battle of Britain” present the argument that Hitler switched his strike force from bombing the vulnerable RAF airfields, to attacks on London because he was incensed by an audacious RAF attack on the German capital. Whatever the reason, diverting his bombers to London was to prove costly, the Messerschmitt 109 fighters lacking the endurance to provide escort to the target, so leaving them easy prey to the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Leigh-Mallory’s “Big Wing”. The Luftwaffe would pay the ultimate price and the Battle of Britain would be lost. With his plans for an invasion now stalled until the following spring, Hitler sought to break English morale by bombing them into submission.
Far from being confined to London, the Blitz would extend nationwide with raids on, Southampton, Portsmouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Plymouth, Swansea, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and Belfast. North of the border, what would become known as the “Clydebank Blitz”, would see particularly devastating raids on the West Dunbartonshire town.
On the night of 13th March 1941, a force of 236 Heinkel He.111H and Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers took advantage of a full moon to rain down terror on the unsuspecting populace. The first sirens sounded shortly after 9 pm, but the townsfolk paid little heed suspecting it was another false alarm. It was then that the first Pathfinder wave led by the He.111H aircraft of 100 Kampfgruppe duly arrived unleashing incendiaries and high-explosive bombs. The intended targets were the Admiralty Oil Depot, the Royal Ordnance Factory, John Brown’s Shipyard, the Singer Complex, which had been pressed into service as a munition’s factory, and the surrounding railways and infrastructure.
The RAF had introduced a new defence plan called Operation Fighter Night which called for the Spitfires of 602 Squadron, operating from nearby Prestwick, to assemble at 20,000 feet so that they could pick off the bombers without getting entangled with anti-aircraft fire. The bombers, however, had other ideas and had decided to take their chances with the “ack-ack” and fly low-level. The RAF pilots were refused permission to descend by Fight Control and as a result the defence plan proved worthless, not a single bomber being downed.
At midnight a second wave of German bombers arrived from the direction of Loch Lomond by which time the town’s civil defences were struggling to cope. At 2am just as the anti-aircraft guns were running out of ammunition the final aircraft in the second wave headed for home. An hour later the third wave arrived, and the endless night of hell continued. It would be shortly before 6am that the last of the night’s attackers headed home and the all-clear could sound.
The following night a further 203 bombers returned to unleash further torment on an already shell-shocked population. The final all-clear sounded on the morning of Saturday 15th March at 6:25am. During the two nights over 1,000 bombs had rained down, whilst the Luftwaffe had escaped unscathed. As most of the housing was located adjacent to the targets it had borne the brunt of the damage and out of an estimated 12,000 houses only 8 remained undamaged. At least 1,200 people lost their lives in the raids and another 1,000 were seriously injured. Over 35,000 were left homeless and many were forced to evacuate the town. Many of these would never return and thus the character of this close community was forever changed.
Raids like this and indeed all such operations flown during the Blitz were achieved using a force of medium bombers, most typically the Heinkel He 111 or Junkers Ju88. The Heinkel He 111 could carry a bomb load of 4,400 lbs in the bomb-bay, a payload that could be increased to 7,900 lbs if the bombs were carried externally. This did, however, come with a significant reduction in performance. Compare this to the Avro Lancaster that was able to carry a bomb load of up to 18,000 lbs.
Germany had built its entire pre-war strategy on fighting a Blitzkrieg style campaign. As a result, despite repeated pleas from various experts, it had failed to develop a successful strategic bomber, instead concentrating on medium bombers and small dive bombers such as the Junkers Ju.87 Stuka. It was an error that was to cost the Reich dearly once it launched it’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. With Barbarossa underway, much of the Luftwaffe’s bomber strength was diverted to the Soviet campaign, thus allowing the United Kingdom some respite before the onset of the V-Bombs. During this period the RAF by night and the USAAF Eighth Air Force by day pursued a highly organised and coordinated bombing campaign that would eventually render Germany incapable of mounting offensive operations.
So, when Katherine Winters listened to the bombers flying overhead, she would have indeed heard the sound of Heinkel He.111 aircraft. Rather than being bound for Glasgow, however, their targets were more likely to have been in the Midlands, raids on Scotland generally originating from Northern Europe.