Operation Gisela. Succesful German night fighter attack Woolfox Lodge – night of 3-4 March 1945

In early 1945 the Luffwaffe had lost air battle over German soil. However, the application of air power can result in local impacts. On the night of 3/4 March (the 2000th night of the war) approximately 200 Junkers JU88 night fighters were sent to follow the bombers back to England. This offensive action took the British defences by surprise and 20 bombers were shot down, including 5 training aircraft. The 5 training aircraft had been on a diversion flight consisiting of 95 aircraft on a ‘diversionary’ sweep. This was a mock raid designed to deceive the German air defences and increase the mission success of the main force attack. Wikepedia catalogues the British and German losses (see link in references).

Two of the losses were 1651 Operational Conversion Unit’s (OCU) Lancasters flying from RAF Woolfox Lodge. So whilst still in training to become operational crews, they were shot down by a JU88 nightfighter.

Of the 2 crews of 7 men, there was only one survivor only Sgt Thompson. Lancaster ND387 was shot down at 0115 and crashed at Stretton and Lancaster JB699 was shot down at 0135 and crashed near Cottesmore. It is clear that the RAF were not expecting the attack as RAF aircraft were flying with navigation lights on, until warnings were received over the radio. Also airfield lights were on and only doused when warning was received.

The conversion unit had 13 Lancasters on strength in March 1945 and to lose 2 crews within sight of the airfield must have been devastating to the unit. It is difficult to imagine the impact. The risk of being shot down on operations must have been known, but to see your fellow crews being shot down as they close the base circuit, must have been tough for those left behind.

In addition to the Woolfox casualties, 1654 OCU flying from RAF Wigsley, (Nottinghamshire) lost 2 Lancasters (losing 8 killed out of 14 crew) and 1664 OCU flying from RAF Dishforth (Yorkshire) lost 1 Lancaster and all 7 crew were killed.

This all happenend when perhaps the end of the war in Europe was in sight? The Allies had been on German soil since September 1944, the Battle of the Bulge was over, and the Allies were on the way to cross the Rhine. Germany surrendered on 7 May 1945.

The Woolfox casualties were buried at various cemeteries, 6 in Cambridge City Cemetery, others in Scotland and Bradford. It is not known where the 2 New Zealanders and the Australian from the crews are buried. The casualties are listed in Bomber Command Losses 1945 – see below and more detail is provided in Volume 8 – see lower down the page:

1651 OCU casualties night 3/4 Mar 45 (as recorded in Bomber Command Losses Volume 6 – 1945 – pages 212

That night the Bomber Command effort was split between 3 missions:

  • Kamen. 234 aircraft (201 Halifaxes, 21 Lancasters and 12 Mosquitos) to attack the synthetic oil refinery at Bergkamen. The target was destroyed and no aircraft were lost over Germany.
  • Dortmund-Ems canal. 212 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitos attacked the Ladbergen viaduct, whichwas breached in 2 places and put out of action. 7 Lancasters were lost.
  • Support and Minor Operations. 95 aircraft in a diversionary sweep. 64 Mosquitos to Berlin and 32 to Wurzberg. 61 radio counter measure sorties. 29 Mosquito patrols. 31 Lancasters minelaying in Kattegatand Oslo fjord. 17 aircraft on resistance support missions. The Mosquito patrols I assume were doing what the Germans were doing and looking for night fighters, it is unknown what sucess they had.
  • Summary – 785 sorties. 8 aircraft lost over Germany and the sea, 20 aircraft shot down by intruders over England, a total casualty rate of 3.6 percent. 15 Halifaxes and 12 Lancasters (crews of 7 = 189 crew airborne). Wikepedia entry also lists 3 USAAF Flying Fortresses and an RAF Hudson shot down or damaged?
  • The Luffwafe lost 25 night fighters and the following night (4/5 March) a smaller effort was launched, but it was ineffective.
RAF Woolfox Lodge
Entry in Bomber Command Losses – Heavy Conversion Units Volume 8

References: Bomber Command Losses 1945 V6 by W R Chorley. Bomber Command Losses Heavy Conversion Units V8 by W R Chorley. Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt. Wings over Rutland by John Rennison. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Gisela

a brave and tragic story – pilot officers Matthews and Williams – 9/10 Jan 42

I find the story of what happened to a 61 Squadron Manchester which crashed on the night of the 9th and 10th of January 1942, to be particularly tragic, because of the impossible situation that the airmen found themselves in. The situation is still occurring today where equipment is rushed into service and the operators have to make do. It is perhaps something that will always happen, recent examples would be Tornado pilots in the Gulf conflict never having practised with a particular real munition, and the first time they use it is on an operation at 200 feet at night.

This story is about the Avro Manchester, the forerunner of the Lancaster, having engines that did not deliver the power, leading to consequences like this story. The story can only be seen as bravery against an impossible situation.

The story is reflected in the book by Robert Kirby called Avro Manchester, the legend behind the Lancaster. This book documents the history of the aircraft, the losses, units and individual stories of operations. 61 Squadron was based at North Luffenham, and operating from RAF Woolfox Lodge.

On the night of the 9th and 10th of January 1942, 61 Squadron launched 12 aircraft as part of an operation to attack Nazi ships in Brest and Cherbourg. One of those aircraft serial number R5789 captained by Pilot Officer DS Matthews got airborne into the pitch black night.

There were eight people on board, the two pilots: Pilot Officer DS Matthews (already had a distinguished flying medal) and pilot officer TIR Wilson. On board was a flying control officer, Flying Officer CA Giles who was along for the ride. It was his first operation. Sgt Lorimer Sgt Fryer, Pilot Officer SP Walsh (presmably the navigator), Sgt Brown and Pilot Officer Lancaster (another passenger) made up the rest of the crew.

R5789 had reached a few thousand feet over the Wiltshire Hampshire border when the starboard engine lost power and caught fire. The propeller was feathered and the fire extinguished, but their position was immediately desperate.

With a full bomb load and most of the fuel still remaining their height loss was rapid and irreversible. In the pitch darkness Matthews had no idea of their precise position and bravely elected not to jettison the bombs for fear of killing innocent civilians.

The captain first steadied the aircraft while six of the crew bailed out, having safely accomplished this, the two pilots maintained their discipline and attempted a blind forced landing. Regrettably on this cruel night fate was against them and as Matthew.s flared for landing the aircraft crashed at a shallow angle into a belt of trees at Tidworth near Wiltshire Cross at 06:20. Both pilots were killed and the aircraft burnt and later the bomb load exploded.

To their eternal credit, in forfeiting their own lives the two pilots saved six more in the crew and avoided any casualties on the ground. Crash investigators were later unable to pinpoint the specific cause of the engine failure and speculated that icing may have been a contributory factor. Flying Officer Lancaster and the remainder of the crew escaped with minor injuries.

Having spent quite a lot of time on Salisbury plain I can picture the rows of beech trees that make up long lines of massive hedges across what is mainly a barren plain.

Pilot Officer Matthews was recorded in the London Gazette 7 March 1941 as being awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM). I have yet to find the citation. Matthews also had an incident on the 15 January 1940 when he was the pilot of a Handley Page Hereford from 14 OTU at RAF Cottesmore. He took off on a bombing exercise and the aircraft had engine failure and force landed at 13:25 to the SW of Pickworth, 8 miles SSW of Sleaford Lincs. There were no injuries sustained. (source Bomber Command Losses Vol 7 – OTUs)

That is the story. I think they were unlucky to hit one of these big beech hedges. Ultimately it’s because the engines were not fit for purpose. This of course led later to Avro putting four Merlin engines on the Manchester fuselage with a redesigned wing, and the Lancaster was born.

How brave to try and land a fully loaded bomber at night, I find it tragic and this story always brings a lump to my throat.