No sooner had Alan returned from his 18th mission at 0530 in the morning on 30th May 1942, he was contemplating his 19th sortie which was to take place later that very day and was destined to be one of the most significant Bomber Command operations in WW2. However, poor results from recent raids and embarrassment arising from the “Channel Dash” of 3 German capital ships had fuelled the debate about the effectiveness of the RAF’s bombing campaign, first highlighted in the Butt report in August 1941. This led to the introduction of a new directive from the Air Ministry, stating that “the primary objective of your operations should now be focussed on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers”.
This change of policy had also coincided with the arrival, in February 1942, of a new Commander-in -Chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris. Given the ongoing concern about bombing accuracy and the pressure from the Admiralty and War Office to deploy Bomber Command’s aircraft in other theatres of the war, Harris soon set about planning a major attack on Germany in order to make a significant statement, highlighting the destructive potential of large scale aerial bombing. Faced with such challenges, Harris needed the operation to be a success to guarantee the expansion of Bomber Command.
Although its front-line strength was only around 400 aircraft at the time, Harris envisaged despatching at least 1000 bombers with the support of other services, such as Coastal Command, to overwhelm the sophisticated radar based German air defence system (known as the Kammhuber Line) and inflict significant damage by concentrating the attack over a relatively short time period. Having convinced Prime Minister Churchill to support the idea at a meeting at Chequers on 17th May 1942, Harris issued the final operational order for the “Thousand Plan”, code named “Operation Millennium”, on 26th May 1942, advising that the mission would take place on any night from the 27th May to 1st June 1942, the next period of full moon. The primary target would be Hamburg with Cologne as the secondary city, both of which were easily identifiable by geographical features and within (Cologne) or just outside (Hamburg) the effective range of the GEE navigational system fitted to some of the bombers.
Apart from clear moonlight skies, the success of the operation also depended on favourable weather. While such conditions would clearly benefit both the attackers and defenders, it was hoped that the certain losses due to flak and fighters would be reduced due to the intensity and concentration of the huge bomber force, the like of which had never been seen before. Another concern for Harris was the obvious risk of collision, given the numbers of aircraft involved. Analysis by the Operational Research Section (ORS) at Bomber Command’s HQ in High Wycombe suggested that this could be greatly reduced by having 3 aiming points, served by 3 parallel approach routes. In terms of overall potential losses, the ORS estimated 5% or 50 aircraft could be lost, which was half what Churchill was prepared to accept when he endorsed the plan. The concentrated attack would be achieved by having the first GEE equipped aircraft over the target at the “zero hour” of 0055hrs with the last bombers turning for home at 0225, even if they had not dropped their bombs at that point.
After issuing this order, Bomber Command’s aspiration to launch 1000 bombers was dealt a significant blow with the sudden decision of Coastal Command to withdraw its 250 aircraft from the operation. To bridge the shortfall, Harris was forced to call upon all the reserve aircraft and to include crews under training from the Operational Training Units (OTU), which he had initially been reluctant to consider. As the days progressed, ground crews were working around the clock to make more aircraft available. Having finally exceeded the desired total of 1000, all that Bomber Command needed now was favourable weather, which eventually arrived on 30th May 1942. Although the forecast was promising, it suggested more suitable conditions were likely to occur over Cologne, rather than Hamburg, Harris’s preferred target. After some deliberation, Harris stated “Thousand Plan tonight- Target Cologne”. Later that day, the forecast improved, indicating the skies would be largely clear over the city and relatively benign for the route home. At the final briefing, it was confirmed that the GEE equipped aircraft of 1 and 3 Groups would be first to depart amongst a total bomber force of 1102 aircraft, together with a further 113 light bombers and fighters tasked with attacking German night fighter bases. Prior to departure, Harris issued the following message to the crews taking part in Operation Millennium: “you have an opportunity to strike a blow at the enemy which will resound not only throughout Germany but throughout the world”.
The operation commenced at 2219 with the departure of the light bombers (Blenheims, Bostons and Havocs) and long-range fighters (Hurricane IICs) of No 2 Group, No 11 Group and Army Cooperation Command, all of which were tasked with intruder and diversionary missions. Last minute withdrawals due to sickness and unserviceability reduced the main bomber force to 1047 aircraft, which started to depart from 55 airfields across the UK.
This vast aerial armada consisted of 602 Wellingtons, 131 Halifaxes, 88 Stirlings, 79 Hampdens, 73 Lancasters, 46 Manchesters and 28 Whitleys and also included 49 trainee crews accompanied by instructors. Amongst the first aircraft to get airborne were the 37 provided by Marham, which was an incredible effort, comprising 18 Wellingtons from 115 Squadron and a further 19 Stirlings from 218 Squadron, “the highest number ever from this squadron”, according to the Squadron Operations Book (ORB) below.
Meanwhile, Alan and his crew took off from Marham at 2330 aboard Stirling W7530 which, on this occasion, was under the command of Wing Commander Holder, the Squadron “Boss”, rather than S/Ldr Ashworth, their usual Captain.
The reason for the switch was that Group Captain McKee, the Marham Station Commander, had received a call earlier in the day from the AOC No 3 Group, Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Jack Baldwin, who wanted to fly on a 218 Squadron Stirling to witness the mission first hand. While a great honour for the Squadron, this no doubt meant extra pressure for the crew and aircraft concerned which turned out to be W7530, as noted in Alan’s logbook entry above. As a result, W/C Holder took on the responsibility of getting the AVM home in one piece, as recorded in the ORB: “So much importance was placed on this effort that Air Vice Marshall J.E.A. Baldwin C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., Air Officer Commanding Three Group, flew as a passenger in “Q” commanded by W/Cdr Holder D.F.C. so that he could personally see the results of the raid, the largest yet planned in aerial warfare”. The overall contribution of Marham, together with the involvement of AVM Baldwin, is indicated on the station’s operations board from 30th May 1942 shown above.
The Germans’ Freyas radar warning system soon picked up the bomber stream forming over the English coast and at 2353 Cologne’s defences were given warning of an impending attack, resulting in the first air raid sirens at 0017. The bombers started arriving over the moonlit city 21 minutes later at an average bombing altitude of 13700 feet and “excellent visibility enabled all crews to identify the target”, as noted in the ORB. While the flak was light initially, it grew in intensity as the raid progressed. The arrival of the 3rd wave, made up of the heavy bombers of Nos 4 and 5 Groups, saw a cessation of the flak, which was supposed to give the night fighters a chance to get airborne. However, a misunderstanding on the ground meant the specific aircraft defending Cologne failed to take off. As predicted by the ORS at High Wycombe, the defences became swamped by the immense bomber stream with the result that only 25 night fighters were able to attack the bombers approaching the target. The last RAF aircraft over Cologne was a 61 Squadron Lancaster at 0310 hours, some 45 minutes beyond the deadline. From 0300, the first bombers started to land back at their bases, and it was soon apparent to Harris, who had stayed up all night, that the raid had been a great success, as confirmed in the ORB: “the general impression was that the attack was very successful being highly concentrated, leaving the town a mass of flames and smoke, which could be seen from Antwerp”.
Extracts from the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book – Source: National Archives:
Despite being shadowed by a fighter at 16000ft over Cologne, W7530 and its VIP passenger landed safely back at Marham at 0335 with the crew reporting the “target identified by Cathedral and river silhouetted against fires”, while its “bombs were dropped just N of aiming point”. Baldwin, no doubt influenced by the crew’s euphoria and comradeship, joined them for the traditional aircrew breakfast of eggs and bacon. The crew of R9311 had a lucky escape thanks to the brilliant airmanship of its young commander, Sgt Sidney Falconer from South Shields, on only his second operation as Captain. Even though the “port wheel ripped off on take-off”, the brave men aboard the Stirling elected to carry on with the mission and “belly landed on return” at 0555 with everyone walking away unharmed! Sidney received an immediate Distinguished Flying Medal for his exploits, although he was later killed on 8th May 1944 on active service.
Sadly, in the case of W7502, under the command of Sgt Arthur Davis, “nothing was heard of this aircraft after take-off”. The Stirling was on its way home, when it was hit by flak near Aachen and ended up crashing close to Huppenbroich, instantly killing the 5 crew still on board, including its Captain. Somehow, 3 men had managed to bale out with 2 of them having to share one parachute. Having escaped from the plummeting aircraft, the force of the shared parachute opening made one of these 2 crewmembers lose his grip and fall to his death. The remaining 2 survived and spent the remainder of the war as POWs. Another Marham aircraft failed to return from this mission, a Wellington (Z1614 KO-R) from 115 Squadron under the command of Sgt Edwards, lost without trace with its entire 5-man crew. The raid also saw the subsequent issue of a Victoria Cross which was awarded posthumously to P/O L Manser, Captain of Avro Manchester L7301 of 106 Squadron, who sacrificed himself by remaining on board to keep his severely flak damaged aircraft airborne long enough for his 6 colleagues to bail out successfully, before it eventually crashed near to Genk in Belgium.
In the end, 41 aircraft failed to return from the mission, including 2 “intruder” Blenheims and 22 bombers lost over the city, 16 of which were shot down by flak, 4 by night fighters and 2 in a mid-air collision; a further 113 aircraft suffered damage to varying degrees, with 13 written off and 33 classed as seriously damaged. This represented a loss rate of 3.9% which was within the 5% considered acceptable by Bomber Command. 890 aircraft claimed to have attacked the target, dropping 540 tons of HE and 915 tons of incendiaries, which caused the devastation of over 600 acres of the city, destroying or severely damaging some 3000 homes and 250 factory buildings. Bearing in mind the destruction inflicted upon Cologne, the civilian casualties were relatively light with 469 killed and 5027 injured. No doubt Alan and his colleagues reflected on impact of their efforts, mindful that this was the first time they had been able to mount such a large scale attack on the enemy, since the Luftwaffe’s intense “Blitz” bombing campaign against the UK from September 1940 to May 1941, which killed more than 40000 people. Thankfully, Cologne’s magnificent Gothic cathedral survived, as shown in the photo above, unlike the equally impressive one in Alan’s home city of Coventry, which was destroyed during the Luftwaffe’s attack on 14th November 1940, the largest single raid on the UK in WW2. News of “Operation Millennium” quickly spread around the world and it was soon reported in many of the leading newspapers, although the Daily Mirror’s front page somewhat exaggerated the number of aircraft involved, while correctly referring to AVM Baldwin going on the mission! Buoyed by its undoubted success, Harris immediately gave the order for a further 1000 bomber raid to take place on 31st May, this time against Hamburg. However, unfavourable forecasts later that day led to this operation being cancelled at 1830 hours. The mission eventually took place on 1st June 1942 with Essen as the target, due to the ongoing poor weather over Hamburg.
AIR 27/1350 218 Squadron, May 1942
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