Archive for RAF

The Shell House Raid

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2012 by telescoper

An early morning walk around Copenhagen this morning reminded me of a longer visit I made here about 25 years ago, during which I rented a room in a  nice large apartment on Frederiksberg Allé, which is in a rather posh part of the city called Frederiskberg. The landlord, who also lived on the premises, was a Mr Vagn Jul Pedersen, a nice old man who had lived in that part of the city all his life. One evening we sat talking over a beer or two and he told me of a terrible thing that he had seen during the latter stages of the Second World War when he was a young man, and I thought some of you might be interested to learn about it.

In March 1945, the British decided to carry out a low-level bombing attack on a target in Copenhagen, which was under German occupation at the time. The mission was given the codename Operation Carthage and its primary objective was the Shellhus (“Shell House”) originally owned by the oil company, but commandeered by the Nazis for wartime use as the Gestapo headquarters. The request to bomb the Shellhus came from the Danish Resistance, despite the fact that it was known that the top floor of the building was being used to house Danish prisoners as a kind of human shield.

I have based the following on a post I found elsewhere on the net. You can also read the official RAF account here.

By the end of 1944 the Danish resistance movement in Copenhagen was in danger of being wiped out by the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo). Many of their leaders were arrested and a lot of material was filed in the Gestapo archives in the Shell house. Leading members of the resistance-movement requested an attack by air on the Shell House via the Special Operations Executive (SOE)  in London.

Eventually on 21 March 1945, 20 de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers  from 2nd TAF escorted by 28 Mustang Mk. III fighters from 11 Group took off from RAF Fersfield in Norfolk, England. 18 of the Mosquito bombers were F.B. Mk. VIs and 2 were Mosquito B. Mk. IVs from the Photo Production Unit (PRU).  The Mosquito force attacked in 3 waves: 1st wave with 7 Mosquitoes (one PRU); the 2nd wave with 6 Mosquitoes; and finally the 3rd wave with 7 Mosquitoes (one PRU). The primary objective for the Mustangs was to engage, distract, suppress and if possible destroy anti-aircraft “Flak” batteries concentrated in central Copenhagen.

The first wave approached their target from the South West but as they passed Enghave Station, which is near the famous Carlsberg brewery, Mosquito SZ 977, with Pilot W/Cdr. Peter A Kleboe and Navigator F/O K Hall, struck a 30 metre lamppost or pylon; the wingtip of the Mosquito then hit the roof of No 106  Sonder Boulevard. The two 500lb bombs carried by the aircraft ripped off and exploded, killing twelve civilians.  Flying at roof-top level over a densely populated area it was inevitable that there would be casualties if a plane crashed or were shot down, but the Fates that day were in an especially cruel mood and worse was to follow. The stricken Mosquito “T for Tommy” crashed seconds later in a garage near the Jeanne d`Arc French Catholic school on Frederiksbergs Allé. The front part with the cockpit with the two crew members landed on Dr. Priemesvej; they were badly burned and later died of their injuries. Pilot W/C Peter A. Kleboe and Navigator F/O Reginald J.W. Hall were laid to rest in Bispebjerg Cemetery on 28 March 1945.

The rest of the first wave found and bombed the Gestapo Headquarters successfully. In all six  bombs exploded in the Western wing and of the nine prisoners in this part of the building, six were killed instantly and another died when jumping from the 5th floor to the ground.

But the tragedy that had begun to unfold at Frederiksberg Allé was about to get even darker. The 2nd wave of Mosquitoes became confused by the smoke and flames from the crashed Mosquito and thought it must be  their target. Two of the Mosquitoes in the 2nd wave dropped their bombs on the French school and only one proceeded to bomb the Shell House.  The 3rd wave approached Copenhagen from the West, and again became confused. All but one of the Mosquitoes dropped their bombs by mistake on the French Jeanne d`Arc Catholic School killing 86 children and 16 adults out of 482 children and adults, while 67 children and 35 adults were wounded.

This is the site of the modern Shell House, the original being completely destroyed during Operation Carthage. It’s quite easy to find, on the North side of Kampmannsgade, just to the East of Sankt Jørgens Sø, between Nyropsgade and Vester Farimagsgade. It’s actually quite close to the splendid modern Tycho Brahe Planetarium.

Inside the doorway at the far right of this building as seen in the above view is the following inscription, giving the names of the Danish resistance members who died that day

You can see here below a map showing the location. Enghave Station is to the South-West, the natural direction from which the incoming planes would have come. The Mosquito “T for Tommy” must have veered North, i.e. to its left,  after its collision with the pylon in order to have crashed where it did.

Reading about this terrible episode, I was at first surprised that so many pilots misidentified the target, especially since the correct one is so close to Sankt Jørgens Sø, a prominent expanse of water that makes up one of a string of shallow lakes that extend along most of the Western side of Copenhagen’s city centre which one would have thought was easily identifiable by its absence at the French School; the pilots had been shown detailed models of the location before the raid.  But then I’m sitting at a desk with a map in front of me, not screaming along at 400mph, over rooftops bristling with anti-aircraft guns, into the teeth of withering Flak fire.

I walked the distance from the Jeanne D’arc School to the Shell House and I reckon it’s not much further than 1km, perhaps less as the Mosquito flies. That’s just seconds at the speed the planes would have been flying. That, together with the general confusion of smoke, gunfire and fear, could easily account for the navigational errors.

Owing to the presence of planes from the RAF photographic unit, there is remarkable film footage shot during the actual raid, some of which can be seen in the following film. It’s interesting how little Copenhagen’s skyline has changed; much of the city is immediately recognizable. There is also some very moving eye-witness testimony.

Even to a non-expert like me this was clearly an extremely dangerous mission. Mr Pedersen told me he saw Mosquitoes flying between the houses, along some of Copenhagen’s admittedly very wide roads, below the level of the rooftops; presumably the anti-aircraft guns were unable to aim downwards. A total of 4 Mosquitoes and 2 Mustangs were lost to flak with 9 crewmen KIA and 1 POW. Incidentally, one of the two Mustangs shot down that day crashed in Fælledparken, the park just behind the Niels Bohr Institute.

Mounted on the wall of the present Shell House is a bronze cast of a propeller from one of the downed Mosquitoes. A plaque is placed below the propeller with the names of the 9 crew members who were killed in the attack.

A total of 133 Danes died during and after the raid, including 86 children and 18 adults (including many nuns, and some bystanders who had tried to help) at the French School. At the Shell House, 8 Gestapo prisoners were killed and 18 managed to escape; 55 German soldiers and 47 Danish employees of the Gestapo died.  In those days they hadn’t invented bland phrases like “collateral damage” to disguise the real horror of war, and it wasn’t possible to use unmanned drones as deployed by the US in their covert “war on terror”. Although Operation Carthage did achieve its objective, the loss of innocent life was so appalling it remains difficult to see it as a success.

I remember very well the tears in Mr Pedersen’s eyes when he told me about what had happened at the French School that day; it was only later that he found out what the actual objective of the raid was. At the end he said “You are lucky that you will never have to witness anything like that.” That goes for all of us who have had the good fortune to live in a time of peace. But let’s not forget the other parts of space-time where things are/were very different.

The Day the War came to Tyneside

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2010 by telescoper

We’re now approaching the 70th anniversary of August 15th 1940, the day that most historians regard as the start of the Battle of Britain. There had been a great deal of aerial combat, especially over the English Channel, in the weeks following the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, but August 15th was the day when the German Luftwaffe initiated a series massive daytime raids aimed at knocking out Britain’s air defences. Over the following weeks they nearly succeeded. It was only an erroneous change of tactics by the Luftwaffe, away from targetting the airfields and towards the terror bombing of cities, that gave the Royal Air Force time to recover from the punishment it had been taking. Eventually, by late September 1940, the threat of invasion, which at one point appeared imminent, had finally subsided.

I’m sure there will be many commemorations of the Battle of Britain over the next week or so, in which tributes will be paid to the few of The Few that survive to this day and, of course, those that gave their lives in the momentous struggle which happened all those years ago. There will be much talk of famous places such as Kenley, Northolt and Biggin Hill,  key sector airfields for 11 Group, responsible for defending London and the South East, which were under massive attack on August 15th and over the following days and weeks.

But it wasn’t just the South-East that was attacked on August 15th 1940. An enormous incoming raid from the North of France was met by Spitfires and Hurricanes of 10 Group and a terrifying dogfight involving about 200 aircraft brewed up over Portland. Further North, 12 Group’s defences were probed by bombers flying from Denmark intent on destroying airfields in Yorkshire.

And then there was 13 Group, which was charged with the task of defending Scotland and the North-East of England. The map below (courtesy of the RAF website) shows the location of their principal airfields and radar installations in 1940. The Operations HQ for 13 Group, RAF Newcastle,  was in Kenton, not far from the location of what is now Newcastle Airport. In fact I cycled past the place countless times when I used to work at Cramlington without knowing what it was. Then it was opened to the public for a time and all the maps, charts and telephones were still there. I felt a distinct shudder when I saw it.

I’ve always been fascinated by history. I read a lot of books about it and in Britain you’re never very far from the site of some historical event, perhaps a castle or the site of a bloody battle. Whenever I travel I also try to visit places of historical interest. Reading is fine, but there’s no subsitute for being there and seeing it for yourself.

It’s quite a different matter when history comes after you rather than you going to find it. The idea that such a familiar place (to me) as Kenton could have been so central to the epic struggle that was the Battle of Britain brings it home that the things we take for granted haven’t always been so secure. When I was a kid growing up in Newcastle, Biggin Hill seemed to me as distant as Dunkirk or El Alamein, but the idea of German planes flying over such places as the Farne Islands and Tynemouth is something that still gives me the shivers. I’m sure the people of Iraq felt the same way about the American and British planes that bombed their country during the two Gulf Wars…

I’ve therefore decided to post the following short account of some of what happened on August 15th 1940 in my own neck of the woods, partly because of what I said in the previous paragraph and partly because the numerical facts are are pretty representative of the situation all around the country on that day seventy years ago. I got the details from a book called The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster, and you can find a more complete report here where there is a full account of every day’s action during the Battle of Britain.

For a start it appears that the Luftwaffe thought that most of Britain’s fighter defences were committed to the South. They were probably aware of the effectiveness of the long-range Radio Direction Finding (RDF, now known as radar) network known as Chain Home, but disregarded it because they thought there would not be many planes around to intercept them even if they were detected. The raid over Tyneside was despatched from Stavanger in Norway and flew in a roughly south-westerly direction across the North Sea.

At 12.08, RDF trackers began to plot the path of a formation of “twenty plus” incoming aircraft opposite the Firth of Forth at a range of over 90 miles. As the raid drew closer, the estimated number was revised up to thirty, in three sections, approaching from the North-East and heading SW towards Tynemouth.

The radar operators of 13 Group hadn’t had as much practice as their colleagues further south in 11 Group, which probably accounts for the difficulty they had in estimating the number of incoming planes. Nevertheless, with a full hour’s warning, the controller was able to put squadrons in excellent positions to attack, with 72 Squadron Spitfires in the path of the enemy off the Farne Islands and 605 Squadron over Tyneside. Nos 79 and 607 were also put up, but while the latter was in the path of the raid, No. 79 was initially too far north.

No. 72 Squadron from Acklington was the first to make contact, seaward of the Farne Islands. Closing rapidly with the incoming aircraft, it came as a distinct shock when the “thirty” materialised as sixty-five Heinkel 111s and thirty-four Messerschmidt-110s (or ME110s for short), i.e. almost a hundred aircraft. The RAF squadron facing them comprised a mere 11 Spitfires.

When I first read the numbers involved I could hardly believe them. Imagine being outnumbered almost ten to one, but knowing that you had no choice but to attack. Reading through the RAF daily reports makes it clear that these odds were by no means unusual. Time and time again during August 1940, a squadron or half a squadron would be scrambled to meet inbound formations of 100-plus aircraft. Although the RAF pilots were both brave and skillful, facing such an overwhelming weight of numbers against them it was inevitable that the attrition rate would be high. It was the steady loss of pilots, rather than planes shot down, that almost brought the RAF to its knees.

The only chance of an effective defence a small group of fighters could offer was to scatter the massed formation by attacking from the front, trying to disrupt them so much that they would not find their targets inland. That was the plan anyway; it didn’t always work. In the absence of a Squadron-Leader, 72 Squadron was led by Flight-Lieutenant Edward Graham, who, as it turned out that day, led one of the most spectacularly successful air combats of the War.

Thirty miles off the coast, the squadron sighted the enemy.  As the RDF stations had predicted, the Germans were flying in three formations – the bombers ahead and the fighters in two waves stepped up to the rear. Misled by the supplementary fuel tanks slung below their wings, which looked like bombs, Graham and his pilots took the closer wave for Junkers 88 bombers whereas they were in fact (twin-engined) ME110s of the fighter escort.

The incoming formation was so vast in comparison with Graham’s small force that he hesitated for a moment, uncertain at what point and from what direction to attack.  Apparently unable to bear the suspense, one of his pilots asked him whether he had seen the enemy aircraft. With a stutter which was habitual, but which deteriorated in times of stress, he replied

Of course I’ve seen the b-b-b-bastards, I’m trying to w-w-w-work out what to do.

The reply was to became famous throughout Fighter Command. I don’t blame him for stuttering. If it had been me I would have been filling my pants.

But he didn’t hesitate for long. The Spitfires had had plenty of time to gain height during their long flight from the coast, and were about three thousand feet above the enemy’s mean height.  Making the most of his advantage, he decided to lead the squadron in a deliberate frontal attack, diving out of the Sun to achieve maximum surprise. Each pilot was free to choose his own target.  Two-thirds attacked bombers or supposed bombers, the remaining third the second wave of fighters, correctly identified as ME110s.

The attack was startlingly effective and caused widespread panic among the German planes whose pilots had been told not to expect that much opposition.  Jettisoning their external tanks, some of the ME110s formed a defensive circle, while others dived almost to sea level and were last seen heading East.  The bombers, less an indeterminate number destroyed by Graham’s squadron, then split into two formations, each accompanied by some of the remaining fighters. One formation headed for Tyneside, apparently with the intention of bombing the sector station at Usworth; the rest turned South-East towards two aerodromes at Linton on Ouse and Dishforth which they had been ordered to attack. Some of them jettisoned their bombs and headed back to Norway, leaving several of their number in the sea.

The separate parts of the remaining formation finally reached the coast, one near Acklington and the other south of Sunderland. The first formation, engaged successively by the remaining (No. 79) squadron from Acklington, the triple-A batteries defending the Tyne area, and some Hurricanes of 605 Squadron which had come south from Scotland, dropped most of their bombs in the sea. The second, engaged by a squadron of Spitfires from Catterick, a Hurricane squadron from Usworth and the anti-aircraft artillery from the Tees batteries, dropped theirs almost as ineffectively near Sunderland and Seaham Harbour.

Overall, backed by the guns of the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division under Major-General R.B. Pargiter, 13 Group’s aircraft destroyed at least eight Heinkels and seven 110s without suffering a single casualty themselves, although several civilians were killed by bombs and there was considerable damage on the ground, including a few airfields. It is known that, in addition to the enemy losses reported during this period, many German aircraft struggled back to their bases with battle damage and some were written off after crash-landings.

This was one of the most successful actions fought during the entire Battle of Britain and its effect was that that 13 Group met no further daylight raids for the duration. However, it was just one episode in a struggle that became increasingly desperate as the summer of 1940 dragged on. As I said at the start, the defences of 11 Group came particularly close to breaking point, but eventually recovered and the expected invasion never materialised.

The rest, as they say, is history…