A Bomber Command Navigator 80 Years On – Essen, 1st June 1942

Having safely returned from the first 1000 bomber raid on Cologne in the early hours of 31st May 1942, Alan was soon embarking on his 20th mission on 1st June 1942. Buoyed by the results of the Cologne operation, Bomber Command’s Chief, Arthur Harris, was keen to capitalise on this success by launching a similar attack as soon as possible. His original plan was to mount a further 1000 bomber raid on the night of 31st May against the docks and shipyard facilities in Hamburg, which would also help the ongoing battle in the Atlantic. It soon became apparent that another such raid so soon after the first would put too much strain on the air and ground crews, so the operation was cancelled that afternoon. The respite did not last long, however, as Harris ordered the second 1000 bomber mission for the 1st June; the target would be the city of Essen in the heart of the industrial Ruhr area, home to the giant Krupps steelworks, one of the largest enterprises in Europe.

Extract from Alan’s Logbook – Source: S. Green

Alan and his crew took off at midnight (see ORB below) in Stirling W7530, again under the command of S/Ldr Ashworth, who was one of 2 Flight Commanders for the 15 Stirlings despatched by 218 Squadron, which were joined by 18 Wellingtons from 115 Squadron, also based at Marham. These 33 aircraft formed part of an overall force of 956 bombers, all from Bomber Command, apart from 2 Flying Training Command Wellingtons. There were also several supporting “intruder operations” carried out by 48 Blenheims from No 2 Group and Army Cooperation Command and an additional 33 aircraft from Fighter Command.

On account of the persistent haze regularly encountered around Essen, 20 Gee equipped Wellingtons from No 3 Group led the raid from 0050 hours, identifying the target with flares. The second wave consisted of 125 “heavy” bombers laden with incendiary bombs, whose crews were also experienced in the use of the relatively new GEE navigational equipment deployed on previous operations. There then followed the remaining 811 aircraft of the main bomber force, a significant number of which were loaded with incendiaries.

According to the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (ORB):

all aircraft took off punctually without mishap (although) owing to engine trouble (Stirling N3753 HA-U, captained by 19-year-old Sgt McAuley) returned early to base. (Having originally elected to continue the mission, McAuley found the aircraft increasingly difficult to control, so he turned for home) bombs having been jettisoned.

Unfortunately, the aircraft hit some trees on its first approach, damaging its undercarriage and tail plane in the process. Despite this damage, McAuley successfully belly landed the Stirling next time around, with all the crew walking away uninjured, even though the aircraft was written off on only its second operational flight.

The fact that the “conditions over the target were 5/10ths to 10/10ths cloud”, made worse by the industrial haze over the city, meant that it was extremely difficult for the bombers to pick out the marker flares which, in some cases, had been dropped very inaccurately. As a result, the attack on Essen proved to be a failure compared to the Cologne operation, with the subsequent reconnaissance confirming that the city had suffered minimal damage. The inaccuracy of the bombing did, however, inflict significant damage on the surrounding areas, including Oberhausen, Mulheim and Duisburg.

The thick cloud over the city made target identification difficult with Sgt Boyd and his crew aboard Stirling N3720 reporting “all bombs dropped heading 120 degrees into built up area, believed to be Essen”. Although the “cloud too heavy for searchlights to function”, Sgt Medus in Stirling N6708 stated that “while over the target area an A/C was seen to be shot down”. Similarly, the crew of Stirling N6129, commanded by Sgt Yates, noted “a JU88 with white light in the nose, seen chasing a Wellington, against three searchlights about 12000ft”. While some aircraft reported “defences generally not heavy”, Sgt Falconer in Stirling N6089 acknowledged that “heavy accurate flak was experienced with searchlight concentration”. Interestingly, F/O Allen’s ORB report (N6077) stated “while over the Hague 0032 16000ft about 10 unidentified aircraft were seen with green lights in noses”.

Meanwhile, for Alan and his crew onboard Stirling W7530 the night became particularly eventful as they were preparing to land back at base at around 0300 hours. According to their subsequent ORB report, “0311, 1000ft. Over aerodrome Marham 2 SE/F (single engine fighters) appeared to fire a short burst from Port Side from 50 yards astern as our aircraft was preparing to land”, before “aircraft disappeared to port side and was finally lost to view”. Despite this potentially deadly encounter, W7530 eventually landed safely at 0430, as did all the other 218 Squadron aircraft despatched that night. Overall, 31 bombers were lost on the raid along with 3 Blenheims involved in intruder operations, representing a loss rate of around 3%, which was less than the 3.9% suffered on the Cologne mission, but within the 5% considered acceptable by Bomber Command. Harris remained convinced by the effectiveness of the “Thousand Plan”, so a third operation (Millennium Two) was planned for the next period of full moon in June. This took place on 25th June 1942, when 1006 bombers attacked Bremen, home of the Focke Wulf aircraft factory, in what proved to be last “Thousand” mission undertaken by Bomber Command until 1944.

All extracts from the 218 Squadron Operation Record Book (May 1942) – Source: National Archives


AIR 27/1350 218 Squadron, May 1942

Barker, Ralph, The Thousand Plan (London, Pan Books, 1967)

Chorley, William, RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War 1942 (Leicester, Midland Counties Publications, 1994)

Hope, Barry, ‘and in the morning’ Database

Longmate, Norman, The Bombers, The RAF Offensive Against Germany 1939-45 (London, Hutchison & Co, 1983)

Messenger, Charles, Cologne, The First 1000 Bomber Raid (Shepperton, Ian Allan Ltd. 1982)

Smith, Steve, From St Vith to Victory, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign Against Nazi Germany (Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2015)

Smith, Steve, Courage Was Not Enough, No. 218 (Bomber) Squadron, Weston-super-Mare’s Own 1936-42 (Merthr Tydfil, Mention the War Ltd., 2020)

Lecturer in Air Transport Management at Buckinghamshire New University, Module Leader in Aviation Sustainability Management. Experienced Airbus/Boeing Captain.

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