Operation - Peenemunde - 17/18th August 1943
As the war progressed it was becoming increasingly clear that the Germans were in the process of the development and manufacture of rockets which would be used to attack large cities and towns in the Britain. Intelligence reports and photographic reconnaissance indicated that the Germans were now well advanced in their programme and the site for the manufacture and testing of these new weapons was at Peenemunde on the German Baltic coast. These reports were viewed with the greatest concern by the War Cabinet and it was decided that an all out attack should be made on Peenemunde which would at least cause disruption and delay the introduction of these new weapons.
Bomber Command was instructed to mount a full scale raid on Peenemunde and this was to be given the highest priority. The objectives were the experimental establishment, the factory workshops and the living and sleeping quarters of the those who worked at the site in an attempt to kill or incapacitate as many of the scientific and technical personnel as possible.
For this full-scale long range precision raid the night selected was the 17/18th August 1943 which was during a period of the full moon. This was chosen to help the Pathfinders identify their targets but it also made the bombers more visible and vulnerable to fighter attack and losses were expected to be heavy. The attack was beyond the range of the Oboe transmitters in Britain but the target was on the coast and the coastline would show up well on the H2S radars in the Pathfinder aircraft. 3 separate targets were designated for this raid in line with the objectives set out above. A novel feature of the attack was the use for the first time in a major operation of a Master Bomber. The man chosen for the task was Group Captain J H Searby of 83 Squadron. It has his duty to orbit the target as the raid progressed directing the bombing by instructing the incoming aircraft where to aim their bombs as they approached the target. The Pathfinders employed a special technique with some crews designated as “Shifters” who attempted to move the marking from one target to another as the raid progressed. In addition crews from 5 Group, who bombed in the last wave, had practised time and distance bombing as an alternative for their part of the attack.
The Bomber Command operation was supported by long range intruder operations by Fighter Command and 28 Mosquitos and 10 Beaufighters were detailed for operations that night. Their objectives were to patrol German airfields and the routes likely to be taken by the German night fighters attacking enemy aircraft when they came into contact.
At the briefing before the attack all the crews involved were told in no uncertain terms of the importance of the operation. It was explained to them that if it was not successful they would have to return to Peenemunde until the job was done no matter what the cost. The exact nature of the target was not revealed to them in detail except to say that it was a top secret establishment specialising in radio location equipment.
The total force of bombers committed that night was 596. 103 Sq detailed 24 Lancasters and crews with their particular target being the factories and workshops. The 19 Lancasters were loaded with an all high explosive bomb load of either 10,000lb or 11,000lb. The remaining 5 carried a mixed load of high explosives and incendiaries. The first 103 Squadron Lancaster to take off from Elsham Wolds that night was that of S/L C S F Wood and crew at 2107.
The Lancaster of F/L J E R Rawstone and crew encountered difficulties soon after take off when their port outer engine failed. They persevered however but found they could not keep to the flight schedule. As an alternative target the crew bombed a German airfield at Sylt just after an aircraft had been seen to take off. They then returned to base.
The Pathfinders found the target without difficulty in the clear moonlit conditions. A successful Mosquito diversion to Berlin drew off the German night fighters for the first 2 of the 3 waves of the attack. Unfortunately the opening markers overshot the first aiming point and fell across a labour camp for forced workers but the marking was swiftly corrected by Master Bomber and Pathfinders and all 3 targets were successfully bombed. 560 bomber dropped 1,800 tons of bombs, 85% being high explosive. The bombing was carried out between 11,000ft and 7,000ft and the 103 Squadron records note that the target was partially obscured by a smoke screen. The record states that this was a good attack and excellent bombing photographs were obtained. It was noted that there was little flak but considerable fighter activity with numerous sightings in the Squadron’s phase of the operation. Only one returning aircraft from the Squadron was involved in a combat. This was the Lancaster of F/S J E Rule. His rear gunner, Sgt J J Sloan, observed a Bf 109 shooting down a bomber below and to the rear. The German fighter climbed and started to attack the 103 Squadron aircraft and Sgt Sloan was able to return fire. The fighter was seen to burst into flames and crash on the ground. Sgt Sloan was officially credited 1 fighter destroyed on return to base.
The Lancaster of Sgt P J O’Donnell and crew were shot down and crashed South East of Flensburg. Their Lancaster was caught in searchlights on the return flight and was seen to corkscrew frantically in an attempt to escape into the darkness. Sadly this was not to be and they were shot down by a night fighter flown by Oblt G Rath of NJG 3. The crew of the Lancaster were killed and now rest at the Kiel War Cemetery.
All other 103 Squadron aircraft returned to base with the Lancaster of W/O E J Presland and crew being first down at 0349.
In total Bomber Command lost 40 aircraft and crew that night - 23 Lancasters, 15 Halifaxes and 2 Stirlings. This was considered an acceptable price in view of the importance of the target and was considerably below the figures that had been anticipated. It is certain that if the brilliantly successful Mosquito diversion to Berlin had not drawn away the German night fighters for so long the losses would have been far higher. Most of the aircraft that were shot down were in the final wave when the German night fighters began to arrive in force. This night was the first time that the Germans had used Bf 110 night fighters equipped with 2 upward firing cannon. This system was known as Schrage Musik and was designed so that the night fighters could attack the bombers from underneath in their blind spot whilst the victim was more easily visible against the night sky. The 2 Schrage Musik fighters claimed 6 successes and this method of attack was used against the night bombers to great effect throughout the rest of the war.
The flak defences around the Peenemunde complex had made little impact being credited with only a handful of bombers shot down. This was probably because of the use of Window by the attacking bombers which jammed the German radars. The most successful defence of the site had been the smoke screen which had proved increasingly effective as the raid progressed.
The intruder operations mounted that night by Fighter Command had resulted in the destruction of at least 5 German night fighters for the loss of one Mosquito. This had also been a significant feature in this operation.
The Peenemunde site had been badly damaged with approximately 180 Germans killed in the bombing. Between 700 and 800 foreign forced labourers also died when the bombing had hit their camp in the early stages of the attack.
In the aftermath of the raid it was decided by the Germans that the most of the testing and all the research, development and manufacture of the V rockets be quickly dispersed to other areas of the Reich which were more secure. This course of action had been under consideration prior to the raid. The site at Peenemunde was only used for limited testing programmes from then onwards. It is estimated that the V2 programme was delayed at least 2 months which was a serious setback to the Germans. The attack also resulted in a significant decrease in the production of the rockets and the eventual scale of the V2 attacks on England was much reduced. For this reason alone it was probably one of the most important attacks undertaken by 103 Squadron and Bomber Command of the entire war. The raid had been brilliantly planned and had worked extremely well. It demonstrated to the Germans the aggressiveness and increasing skill and power of the RAF which would, in the remaining months of the war, cause them so much difficulty.
Item written by David Fell
Sources - Night and Day Ken Merrick, Bomber Command War Diaries Martin Middlebrook and 103 Squadron ORB.