Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Low Level Game

David Eshel 

Fear is common to all in time of war. It is there all the time; before going into action it is a nagging feeling that follows you around everywhere you go, and most soldiers, regardless of their rank, have such feelings at one time or another. It is the conquest of that fear that is the real heroism. Once in action, you are too busy to worry about your feelings; you act instinctively as you are trained. When the shooting starts, adrenalin is released into your blood stream, filling you with energy. If you are a commander you are responsible for your men and this responsibility drives any personal feelings away. If you are an ordinary fighting man, the fellowship factor takes over, and this is the reason why so many fighting men sacrifice their own lives to rescue their comrades under fire. There is a difference between soldiers on the ground and in the air. Since man began to fly, the fear of death has haunted every airman.

  Fear is the inevitable companion of the flyer. It never leaves him, from mission briefing until his return to mother earth. But it is the conquest of that fear that sets the flying man apart from other mortals. Those on the ground are usually surrounded by others, normally with their commanders in Sight, or at least in the vicinity, for guidance. The action is prolonged - it can last for hours, days, or even weeks. The noise of battle, the suffocation, the dust and the constant fatigue dull the senses, so that fear is just one more reason for misery. Moreover, the long periods of monotonous training and the seemingly endless waiting about actually make soldiers long for combat so that they get it over with. The release of tension is like the uncoiling of a spring. In the air, though, men are on their own. They have no leader close by; once in action, it is every man for himself. Worse, the airman is thrown into battle abruptly; he leaves clean, orderly surroundings at his air base and, after a relatively short time, he suddenly faces death in a barrage of fire, often over a hostile locale with Inhabitants who would have no mercy if his plane was hit and he managed to eject. The terrors of a dogfight, where violent death lurks everywhere, or the slower agony of a bomber crew twisting and turning to escape attacking fight- as, are difficult for the layman to imagine. If he survives that particular mission, the airman goes home, only to face death once again the next day, or the day after that. 



The need for military aircraft to low fly started with the advent of military aviation, over 100 years ago.

During the First World War, military aircraft flew low level ground support and reconnaissance missions over the trenches. By the time of the Second World War, low level tactics had been further developed to include a strategic low level role for heavy bombers, and precision low level tactical bombing became necessary to reach vital pin- point targets inside occupied cities in Europe. RAF Blenheim and Mosquito aircrews flew some highly dramatic missions, their pilots becoming top specialists in the low level attack role, which remain famous to this day.

With the introduction of radar-guided surface-to-air missile and gun systems, low level tactics became vital to enable aircraft to fly below radar coverage to evade or delay engagement, whether for offensive action, or to transport troops and equipment both in fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.

For example, the Royal Air Force is permitted to fly its fast-jet aircraft down to a minimum of 250 feet minimum separation distance throughout the UK Low Flying System. Although their cruise speed is limited to 450 kts, higher speeds are possible for certain, short duration events such as target runs. To realistically train pilots for operations, fast-jets can fly down to a minimum of 100 feet minimum separation distance in the 3 Tactical Training Areas. Other air forces are also training their fighter pilots in special low flying tactics, depending on the available space. In some cases, where such areas are not permitted, pilots are sent to special training areas, for example in Canada, where ultra-low flying training schemes are conducted anually.

Low Level Combat Operations in the First World War

Ground attack is a close relative to tactical bombing. It is aimed at disrupting enemy forces at or near the front and during the course of the battle itself. While strategic and tactical bombing raids are planned and directed at specific targets, ground-attack is often carried out against targets of opportunity, as they appear on a changing battle-field. It is carried out by strafing and by dropping small munitions such as hand grenades. Ground attack is carried out from very low altitudes and is thus both extremely accurate and extremely hazardous.
During the Battle of Messines , in June of 1917 British pilots  were ordered to fly low over the German lines and strafe whatever targets presented themselves. This was in order to harass the troops and break their morale. It was further pursued and developed with Sopwith Camel fighters, armed with four 9kg (20 lb) bombs, which started  raiding enemy trenches. While quite effective, the loss rate among the attacking pilots became very high. The German infantry had learned how to fight back against low flying aircraft, and once air reinforcements arrived the loss rate of ground attack aircraft was as high as 30 percent of aircraft deployed. Entire squadrons were wiped out in less than a week.
At about the same time the Germans took delivery of the Halberstadt CL II. This was a two-seater tractor aircraft intended originally as an escort fighter for observer planes. Realizing the effectiveness of direct ground attacks, flights of Halberstadt CL IIs were reorganized into attack flights (Schlachtstaffeln). These planes were better equipped for ground-attack duties than the single-seater Allied fighters, which were particularly vulnerable to attack from above and behind, while the pilot was preoccupied with aiming and strafing. In the Halberstadt the observer provided both warning and some level of protection from such attacks, and could assist by dropping bombs or grenades.
 Perhaps the most dramatic use of ground-attack occurred in Palestine. By September of 1918 the British had complete control of the air, largely through the efforts of the First Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, flying the excellent two seat Bristol F2 Fighter. Following the success of the attack at Megiddo on the 19th of September, the Turkish divisions were forced to retreat through the narrow defile of Wadi Farra. On the 21st of September the Australians trapped them there, when they bombed the head and the tail of the endless Turkish column. Together with RAF SE5as and DH9s the Australians flying near ground level,  mercilessly bombed and strafed the terrified Turks. When the smoke had cleared it was seen that the organization of the enemy had melted away. When the  cavalry entered the silent valley the next day they could count ninety guns, fifty lorries, and nearly a thousand carts abandoned with all their belongings. The RAF lost four killed. The Turks lost a corps.

First Low-Level RAF Daylight Attack in WW2 Ended In Disaster

On 18 December 1939: with World War Two only three months old, 24 Vickers Wellington bombers took off from their respective bases and assembled over King's Lynn at about 0930. The leader, Wing Commander Richard Kellett - an already veteran Wimpy expert - climbed to 10,000 feet and set course for the Schilling Roads and Wilhelmshaven. This was the third operation of its kind, and the encouraging results of two earlier sorties had vindicated the claim that a tightly disciplined bomber formation could hold its own against fighter attacks in daylight. However, this time a rude awakening awaited the gallant British crews.
At 1350, a German "Freya" early warning station based on the island of Wangerooge, covering the approaches to the German coast, picked up the British bombers still 113 kilometers or 20 minutes' flying time from their target and alerted the Luftwaffe fighter operations room at Jever. Six Messerschmitt 109s from 10 JG 26, led by Leutnant Johannes Steinhoff, were rapidly scrambled. As the RAF flew steadily on in perfect pre-war trained diamond formation, the Germans pounced on them and soon scored their first two kills. Steinhoff and NCO Pilot Heilmayr, attacking with cannon fire on the beam from above, quickly succeeded in shooting down a Wellington apiece. But the slaughter had only started. As the Wellingtons, still in excellent formation, slowly turned over Wilhelmshaven towards the northwest, Steinhoff's Bf-109 formation was joined by twin-engined Me-110 from ZG 76 and more Bf-l09s from the Wangerooge-based II/JG26. In a running fight, another 10 Wellingtons - 50% of the attacking force - were shot down. This was the first radar interception of the war, and the last British daylight raid for several months. The RAF started converting to night operations, which became its main modus operandi, eventually smashing most of Germany's cities to smoldering rubble six years later.
The British planners, shocked from the unacceptable losses, started looking for new tactics, examining the German defensive measures. Finding out that enemy radar detection was still highly erratic at certain altitudes, flying low under the radar presented an extremely attractive gap for British pilots. In fact, low-level attacks remained safe tactics until the end of the war, and RAF pilots became the world's leading virtuosos in low flying operations, a tradition still maintained today.

By contrast to the Wellington debacle, No.2 Group RAF mounted an audacious daylight mission on 12 August 1941 which was described as a most audacious and dangerous low-level bombing raid. While 18 Blenheims made for the Quadrath 

generator station, 36 aircraft attacked the 600,000-kilowatt steam generator Fortuna station at Knapsack south of Cologne.  One of the surviving pilots told of his frightful experience:

"As our Blenheims scraped the wave-tops turning into the Scheldt Estuary - dashing over the sand dunes inland, hopping over trees and windmills, scattering grazing cattle - we crossed the German border and watched the tall chimneys of the power station growing suddenly out of the ground. Banking into a sharp turn, I watched  our leader, Wing Commander Nichol swooping over the high tension cables of the Brauweiler Grid system, with the Cologne Cathedral spires visible just over the horizon. As the rest of the aircraft followed through the smoke, jets of flak came at them from both sides of the target. We were flying so low, that some of the German gunners actually hit each other, while we managed to escape. But soon we were pounced on by a couple of Messerschmitt fighters, who had taken off in a hurry from a nearby airbase, still trying to gain attack altitude. By now having dropped my bombs on the target, I swung my aircraft, wobbling  between the Knapsack chimneys, just as the bombs exploded below. Down we went still further to evade the flak, which now became heavy. Trying to evade them we were actually flying below level of the trees, when suddenly met head-on by flashes of gunfire. We passed right over a German gun position at about ten feet, with my gunner firing, when we were hit, our gunner wounded. The enemy fire intensified and I felt it high time to get out, but then my observer shouted "fighter"! With no time to lose, I did a steep turn, hightailing it down into a sandstone quarry, which I noticed looming right before me. Down we went, I think we flew about thirty feet below ground in what seemed a crazy stunt, but we escaped the German pilot, who did not dare to follow us. As we came up again, he was gone and we, still scraping the ground sped for the coast and were lucky to reach our home base still intact, with our gunner alive and only minor damage to our aircraft."

Lancasters in Daylight at Ground Level to Occupied Europe

With the Knapsack/Quadrath mission, No.2 Group had achieved a remarkable capability of low-level operations resulting from a high grade of flying skill, operational discipline and excellent leadership. This, however, sharply contrasted with the rather unimpressive results achieved by the night operating groups. It was therefore remarkable that No.5 Group, flying heavy bombers, was chosen to plan one of the war's most audacious daylight operations - an attack on a crucial target deep inside Germany, involving a round trip of some 1,250 miles mostly over enemy territory, with its newly received Avro Lancaster four-engined bombers. No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron became the first Bomber Command squadron to convert completely to Lancasters, its first operational aircraft arriving at its station (RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire) on Christmas Eve 1941. Nevertheless, 44 Sqn's combat experience was in night operations, flying Handley Page Hamptons; mounting a successful daylight mission requiring high-precision, low-flight capability was an entirely different ballgame, requiring careful preparation and training. Commanding 44 Squadron at the time was Wing Commander Roderick Learoyd, V.C., who had gained this high distinction in a Hampden of 49 Squadron, busting the Dortmund-Ems Canal at low-level. A veteran bomber squadron commander with low-flight experience, Learoyd would have been the very man to train and lead such a complicated mission.

While 44 Squadron was familiarising itself with the new Lancasters, flying secondary missions against German shipping in Norway, No. 97 Squadron (based at Coningsby, Lincolnshire) also received its Lancasters. Here, the conversion was even simpler, as the squadron had been operating Avro Manchesters, the twin-engine (and rather unfortunate) predecessor of the Lane, for over a year. One of 5 Group's top squadrons, No. 97 included some of the best - though less well known - operational crews. One of them was Squadron Leader J.S. Sherwood, a fair-haired 22year-old, who had already gained the DFC - which, at this stage of the war, was still far from common for bomber pilots. However quite surprisingly chosen to lead this higly complex raid, was Squadron Leader John Nettleton of newly commanding 44 Squadron, who, although two years older than Sherwood, had far less operational experience. Moreover, unlike all the other pilots chosen to fly the mission - all highly experienced with three captains and several crew members already sporting coveted, DFM ribbons, quite rare at that time, Nettleton was still on his first operational tour. On the afternoon of 17 April 1941 one of the most daring daylight raids started to roll. The planned route was to cross the French coast at Dives -sur-Mer in Normandy and, circling the Seine River and the Vosges Mountains, reach the target over the northern tip of Lake Cnstance, flying all the way at near ground level to evade German radar. At 171455, Squadron Leader Sherwood advanced the four throttles of his heavyladen 30 ton Lancaster and released the brakes, rolled along the Coningsby runway and lifted into the air. Circlingabove he was joined by his five comrades forming up and set for the coast. Meanwhile at Waddington Squadron Leader Nettleton and his formation also took off. Crossing the Sussex coast at Selsey Bill at 250 feet altitude. Dropping to wavetop height over the English Channel, Nettleton's formation sudddenly shifted in northerly direction, which brought it over the French coast at Villers-sur Mer, a few kilometers east of the briefed crossing at Dives. It was to be a fateful change of plans for Nettleton's pilots. A few minutes later, still roaring at sea level, Sherwood's formation strictly to plan and crossed the coastline at the flat Dives estuary at zero feet.we shall now follow Nettleton's fate as his six Lancasters thundered over the French countryside at tree level. Let us hand over to young Pilot Officer Pat Dorehill, who as Nettleton's second pilot was standing in the astrofix dome having a grandstand view of what happened next:

"Tragedy struck us within seconds as we crossed the Luftwaffe airbase at Beaumont-le-Roger, which we were supposed to avoid at briefing. As we roared over its runways, I heard someone shouting"fighters" over the intercom. Warning the formation to close in, the captain ordered our gunners to keep a sharp luck out, but it was already too late- Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs were falling on us like vultures on their prey. Down we went even further, hugging a small wood, but the German fighter pilots were out for blood! Within moments, I watched in awe, as a Lancaster flying at the rear formation was hit by cannon shells. Flames lashed out and ignited the fuels tanks. At the same time another Focke-Wulf was bearing down on Warrant Officer Becket's plane, which crashed into a field, ploughing vicious furrow as it exploded. But Warrant Officer Crum was still flying his battered Lancaster. Seeming to glide, just above stalling speed, the burning 30 ton aircraft landed on its belly and, looking back, I saw some of the crew get out of the blazing wreck. But the horrow went on, as more fighters swooped in firing. Another Lanc flown by Flight Lieutenant Nick Sandford, one of our most skilled pilots, was chased by a Messerschmitt. Trying all the tricks in the book, Nick swerving and jawing, even flew his large aircraft under power cables, but it was to no avail, the fighter pilot was also a pro and followed him still firing, until the giant Lancaster cartwheeled and clipped the ground exploding in a ball of fire.. Within minutes we had lost half of our formation".

But Nettleton's ordeal was not over yet. The unfortunate leader was to lose two more until he returned to base safely, but having nevertheless doggedly continued to drop his bomb load on the MAN target as ordered. Only minutes behind, Squadron Leader Sherwood's formation began their approach run to the MAN factory, recognising it exactly as briefed by the canal forking off the Lech River. Light flak greeted them, the target fully alerted by Nettleton's attack. Sherwood, in the lead, was aiming for the centre of the diesel engine shop, with his wingmen in perfect formation at his sides, gunners firing for all they were worth. The bomb aimers released their bombload exactly on target, pilots slamming the bomb doors shut as soon as clear. Now Sherwood pushed his aircraft even lower, right down to street level, with Flying Officers Hallow and Rodley following close behind. Suddenly, as they reached the outskirts, Flying Officer Rodley noticed smoke emerging from Sherwood's Lancaster. Horrified, he watched the smoke thickening, turning quickly black as a fire started blazing near the cockpit. Still Sherwood kept going doggedly on, while the two wingmen stayed with him as he lost altitude. Sherwood's navigator could be seen standing next to his pilot in the roaring inferno which now engulfed the cockpit, with the 
top cockpit hatch burned away. Then the blazing Lancaster tore into the ground and exploded.

Flight Lieutenant Penman now took command and assembled the formation for its long homeward flight over the Ammersee. On the way home, Warrant Officer Mycock was lost, but the rest reached Conningsby safely. But of the twelve Lancasters who had lest England, only five returned.
Nettleton, the sole survivor of six 44 Sqn captains, was awarded the VC and relieved W /Cdr Learoyd in command of 44 Sqn, but was lost only three months later on a bombing raid to Turin. The gallant Sherwood survived by a miracle ; strapped into his seat, he was catapulted out of the cockpit on impact and spent the war as a POW. Surprisingly, most of the recognition went to -the few survivors of 44 Sqn, and. 97's part in the raid was always considered secondary. Indeed, Sherwood never received any distinction for his exemplary leadership, outstanding skill and personal courage, all of which were 
clearly demonstrated throughout all stages of the mission.


Seventy years to the day after the daring low level daylight bombing raid on the MAN diesel factory in Augsburg, Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire held a commemoration, with special guest for the evening being Patrick Dorehill, Squadron Leader John Nettleton’s second pilot on the raid.
While the actual results of the Augsburg raid were far from impressive, No. 5 Group nevertheless decided to mount another daylight raid. On 17th October 1942, the group undertook an even more audacious effort to hit the French Schneider Armament Arsenal at Le Creusot. Following a forming-up rendezvous over Upper Heyford, the force set out over Land's End, keeping well below 1,000 feet, while Coastal Command Whitleys flew anti-submarine sweeps to keep any German U-boats below the surface. The Lancasters lost height over the water, flying far out to the Bay of Biscay, at wave top, then turning south and east towards the coast of Brittany in as close a formation as they dared. Crossing the French coast some fifty miles south of St. Nazaire,the formation kept below 100.feet, going down right on the deck and roared into the Loire Valley for its 330-mile journey over some of France's most beautiful scenery. To a rear gunner, it was a memorable flight,with French villages, rivers, chateaux, and woods racing forward as the bombers swept over the country side at ground level. No German fighters attacked the bombers during this flight. The greatest danger was from birds; 4 aircraft were damaged and 2 men injured in bird strikes.

Low level daylight attack on the Philips plant

On 6th December 1942 the RAF mounted Operation "Oyster", a daylight low level bombing raid on the Philips electronic company in Eindhoven, Holland.
It was a special raid carried out by bomber squadrons in No. 2 Group.
Targets were the Philips radio and valve (electron tube) factories in the town of Eindhoven in occupied Holland. 93 aircraft took part in the raid;
47 (PV-1) Venturas Mk. Is of RAF No. 21, RAAF No. 464 and RNZAF No. 487 Squadrons, 36 (A-20) Boston IIIs of Nos. 88, 107, and 226 Squadrons,
10 Mosquito Mk. IVs of No.105 and No.139 Squadrons;
83 aircraft dropped bombs and one Mosquito was a photographic aircraft.
Eindhoven is beyond the range of fighter escort so the raid was flown at low level and in clear weather conditions.
Bombing had to be very accurate to only cause damage to factories in the complex as the Factories were in the middle of the town. But the bomber casualties were heavy:
9 Venturas 4 Bostons and 1 Mosquito were lost over the Netherlands or the sea.
A 15 percent loss rate for the whole force.
The Venturas with the poorest performance suffered 19 per cent casualties.
An RAF Lockheed  Ventura pilot who took part in the daring raid has this story to tell:
"Eventually we reached the English coast and crossed it at Southwold in Suffolk. Now over the water without any trees or buildings to hamper us we were right down on the water so as to prevent the German Radar from picking us up and making life difficult for us when we crossed into Holland.
Having been over the water for about 10 mins or so, I saw an aircraft of 464 Sqdn dive into the sea seemingly for no apparent reason. I had to remind myself not to do the same. The course that 464 was flying kept pushing our Sqdn slightly to starboard which meant that when we crossed the Dutch Coast it was over a bird sanctuary so that the noise caused the birds to take off and fly into the aircraft as they passed over. One of the birds hit our windscreen in front of the navigator’s position leaving a bloodstain where it had hit.
The navigator of the Ventura doubled up as the bomb aimer and therefore sat in front of an alleyway to enable him to move down into the bomb-aimer’s position although in this raid, because it was low level, myself as the pilot would release the bombs.
On both sides of the nose of the Ventura were 4 small windows, some of them by the alleyway, and a bird came in through one of them, up the alleyway and hit Ron Thompson in the unmentionables. It wasn't until he saw the feathers that he realised it wasn't his blood. Now we were over land which was quite flat and with ' flak ' towers about 30 ft high, we had to fly as low as possible so as to avoid being shot at. Not long after crossing the Dutch coast we were in the area of the ' dykes ' and of course there were roads on some of these. It came as a bit of a surprise to see a fellow on a bike some 10 ft or so higher than our A/c riding along one of them. He seemed oblivious to our a/c and this was reported by other crews.
Our prearranged track took us to a place called Turnhout where we made a port turn on to our course to Eindhoven which was about 12 miles away. I banked over to port and started to dive down on the Philips works in the centre of the town. The moment I turned to port I could see this factory standing out unmistakably, very prominently, right in the centre of Eindhoven. It wasn't long before we were being shot at by guns on the top of the Phillips factory. We all went down in this shallow dive, full throttle, and at the appropriate moment, dropped the bombs. As I went across the Philips works the whole factory seemed to erupt in a cloud of smoke and flashes. It looked as though the whole thing was completely eliminated.
Unfortunately the A/c in front of me was too close to the building when his bombs exploded so that they stuck to his plane and it went down in flames after he passed over the factory. Not wanting to suffer the same fate, as soon as I had released our bombs, I made the A/c climb rapidly and so we disappeared into the smoke and levelled out at about 600ft. I continued to fly at that height blind and on instruments until we were out of the smoke and then realised how vulnerable we were.
I pushed the nose of the A/c down quickly so as not to attract the anti - aircraft fire little realising the confusion this was causing to Bill Legge who was the air gunner in the downward rear facing gun position. These guns were fed by a switch back system from the bullet panniers positioned on both sides of the A/c. These switch backs didn't have a cover on them and the sudden descent of the A/c caused the bullets, which were linked together, to come out of the switch backs and wrap themselves around Bill's neck.

However now that we were back to ground level, it wasn't long before we were being shot at once again from the flak towers, making us fly even closer to the ground. Not long after leaving the target I managed to make the A/c hit a tree. Fortunately we hit it head on and about one third of the way down. Had it been a wing that hit the tree I would not be alive today to tell this story. The impact was not such that it would cause us to crash but did enough damage to make life quite difficult for us to keep flying. It wasn't too long before I realised that the pitot head ( that that provides the force of air for the air speed indicator to work ) had been ripped off.
Part of the underside of the wing had been ripped away so that Ron was able to see the ground through the side of the A/c. Just before we were about to leave the Dutch Coast our starboard engine packed up. I could only conjecture that the collision had damaged the pipe line to the engine and I had no alternative but to feather the prop and fly on only one, again a practice I had carried out quite often. This was necessary so as to reduce 'drag' and stay airborne. As we left the target area, it was midday, a lovely sunny day, virtually no cloud, so I set off across the Dutch countryside at high speed hugging the flat ground ar nearky naught feet. I decided not to follow the given route out which was towards the coast of Holland and out into the North Sea. I decided that that’s where the fighters would be and therefore, I turned north, to the Zeider Zee. Pilot Officer J. E. O’Grady, who was on his first trip, latched on to me to see him home. He followed me all the way up the Zeider Zee and I knew we’d made it when we whizzed over the Causeway at about twenty feet. I turned to port to come out between Den Helder and Texel. This was a mistake on my part because the flak from Den Helder and from the southern tip of Texel were sufficiently close together that if you flew between the two you were within range of light flak. And so I had to cross a belt of light flak and weaving tracer as I went through between the two islands. We made it home at last, shaken but in one piece."

Mid-day flying  visit to occupied Paris at street level 12 June 1942

Paris had been under German occupation for nearly four years and the population suffered daily humiliations. The British Government wished to rais French moral by an act of support and the RAF was instructed to send an aircraft dropping a tricolor on the Monument of the French fallen soldiers, the Arc de Triomph. The operation was considered highly dangerous, as the aircraft would fly over Paris in full daylight exactly at noon, when the Wehrmacht was each day at mid-day parading proudly along the Champs Elysee. Flight Lieutenant Alfred Gatward and his Navigator Sergeant George Fern volunteered to fly the daring mission. Both had considerable experience flying at wave top level with Coastal Command against German shipping and for a low level mission over Paris no better crew could be found at the time. Moreover, as the Mosquito was not available for such missions, the Beaufighter seemed the right choice.
After several abortive attempts, due to averse weather conditions, Gatward and his navigator finally took off on 12 June, on a sortie that was to prove a historic flight. At 11.31 hours, they set course from Thomey Island for Paris, 165 miles away, flying at wave-top level over arough sea. There was continuous cloud at 2,000 feet above them, with a steady downpour of rain. Crossing the French coast a little east of Fecamp, Gatward brought his Beaufighter up to tree-top height and swung over his Mark II gunsight, locking it in front of him. Navigator Flight Sergeant Fern lifted his camera and stood in the navigator's cupola. They streaked over the French countryside, straight as a die for Paris. Their course took them over the eastern outskirts of Rouen. By
now, the cloud had cleared completely to yield brilliant sunshine. Even at thirty feet, Gatward could see the horizon ahead, fifteen miles away. It was an ideal day for photography as Fern clicked and wound his camera with steady precision. They passed slap over the Luftwaffe aerodrome at Rouen but were not challenged by the surprised gunners. Twice, Gatward lifted his Beaufighter to clear high-tension cables. There were horses in the fields, some rearing and galloping at the unaccustomed noise. The Beaufighter was a quiet aircraft, but the noise of piston engines can be heard from afar, the sound dying quickly as the aircraft whips past. Gatward looked at the oil temperature gauge of his starboard engine. It was far too high, justifying turning back, but he could not face cancelling the sortie at this late stage. Had he known, the trouble
was caused by a large and unlucky crow that had smashed into the oil radiator in his wing. Way ahead, something like a matchstick stood up above the horizon. 'Look at that, George', Gatward said. 'It-must be the Eiffel tower, and we're dead on track.' Nearly 1,000 feet high, thirty miles away, the Eiffel tower seemed to beckon to the two men in the Beaufighter. They flew straight towards it, screaming low over the suburbs of Paris. Amazed French people stared at this strange aircraft with the roundels on its wings and fuselage 'C'est La RAF' they seemed to shout.

At exactly 12.27 hours, Gatward recognized the Arc de Triomphe, a few seconds away. 'Are you ready with the first flag, George?' He called, 'Yes, but the slipstream is nearly breaking my arm!' replied the suffering navigator, who was hanging on to the end of the metal bar sticking through the flare chute. 'Now!' called Gatward. Fern thankfully released the tricolour. The French national flag fluttered and floated down, draping itself over the Arc. It was a small but heroic tribute from the Royal Air Force to the suffering French people sunk in the misery and humiliation of the Nazi occupation. Gatward now banked to port and headed down the broad avenue of the Champs Elysees, looking eagerly for the sight of those goosestepping German soldiers that were supposed to march their daily parade down the avenue, but there was no sign of them, the parade was apparently cancelled, as Gatward's Beaufighter alerted the German coastal watch.
The Beaufighter now flew below roof-top height, roaring down the avenue whilst the airmen looked intently ahead to pick out their secondary target, the building of the Ministere de la Marine, housing the German Naval Headquarters. Gatward spotted it within seconds and swept round to starboard, circling over the easily recognisable landmark of the Opera building before making a second run. He flew south over the Seine and headed north again. This time he had the tall building in his gunsight There were pedestrians in the Place de la Concorde. Some threw themselves flat on their faces, as the fighter screamed overhead at nought feet,  but others stood upright and waved joyously. It must have been a warm day in Paris, for many of the men were in shirtsleeves. There were several army vehicles in front of the building, but pedestrians were mixed with the German soldiers, so Gatward easing up the nose sightly  so that he was aiming at the second floor. At 500 yards, he pressed the cannon-firing button with his right thumb and sent his 20mm shells slamming into the building. Gatward pulled up, clearing the nearby rooftop and roared along the Champs Elysee, as a stream of tracer bullets followed, but did not hit the aircraft, which was now waving  over the Place Concorde and crossing the Seine river. Soon they were out of the city limits and still flying at ground level reached the Coast, landing safely at RAF Northolt near London. Next dawn, a shower of leaflets descended on Paris proclaiming the successful flight. Gatward was awarded the DFC, flew many more missions and survived the war, one of the few lucky fighter pilots reaching ripe old age.

The Famous Dam Buster Raid May 1943

As the result of the Eindhoven raid, Bomber Command's confidence in mounting large-scale daylight operations became considerably shaken, and these were rarely attempted again until the last year of the war. During the years of hiatus, a new technique to overcome the deficiencies of precision bombing was being developed, using modern systems and lectronic devices to guide bombers and identify targets. However, one memorable low-level raid was to shake the world and inflame the imagination a few months later - the dambusting operation led by the unforgettable W /Cdr Guy Gibson and his gallant colleagues.
This brilliant operation has probably become the most publicised combat mission in the war. Nevertheless, we feel that the low-level operational side should be included in this study, as it was one of the outstanding feats of flying skill implemented at night without modern navigational equipment.

At 2110 on 16 May 1943, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, commanding the newly created 617 Squadron, ordered a red Very light shot out of his Lancaster, signalling S/Ldr Joseph McCarthy's five aircraft to start rolling. McCarthy, an American pilot serving with the RAF, was to lead five aircraft of the second attack wave over the longer northern route, north of Texel, Holland, joining the main route by turning south at the island of Vlieland in the Zuider See, to make for the Rhine near Kleve. Gibson himself took off from Scampton at 2139, leading the first wave over Southwold, where he dropped to less than fifty feet over the calm sea. The night was bright and he could clearly see F /Lt John Hopgood's Lancaster AJ-M (ED 925/G); in perfect formation on his left flew the Lancaster piloted by F /Lt Micky Martin, an Australian.
The dambuster formations crossed the Dutch coast at ground level in three different locations at 2300 hrs. But the German radars had located them some miles out to sea, and anti-aircraft positions were fully alerted. As the Lanes roared over the offshore flakships, they were able to evade the fire; however, the air defence centre at Gilze-Riien was in full operation, although unaware of the target the bombers were attempting to hit. But the low-flying bombers were already suffering. Over Texe1, Sgt. Pilot Byers, flying ED 934/G-W, was hit by a 105mm AA gun and crashed into the Waddensee; the bomb he carried exploded only four weeks later, terrorising the local population. Gibson's formation further south raced over the dikes north of Antwerp making for the Rhine, jumping over high-tension wires warned by the bomb aimers in their forward positions. Ducking into valleys and pulling over hills and woods, the black Lancasters roared over the silent countryside. Navigating by landmarks such as visible canals and road or rail junctions, the Lancaster formation reached the German border near Venlo, heading northeast for the IP south of Muenster, just beyond the Rhine. Near Marbeck, F /Lt Bill AstelI in ED 864/G raced into a 100,000 volt power line and exploded in a ball of flame. Earlier, F /Lt Barlow had been lost in similar circumstances, blinded by searchlights near Haldern. By now, Gibson's formation had passed into the Ruhr Valley, where the outer defences poured light flak into the weaving and jinking bombers, still in close formation. Passing over some trees, they came to a Luftwaffe airfield which had not been marked on RAF intelligence charts. Searchlights opened up on the leading vie, blinding the pilots. As they passed low over the runway, the three rear gunners opened before the bombers plunged into darkness behind a wood. The pilots were tiring fast, sweating with fear and fatigue, working the heavy controls constantly in the low-level race. Every bridge, hamlet and hill became a menace as it appeared and fell behind. Passing Dortmund and Hamm, a well-known night target to veteran bomber pilots, the formation reached the little town of Soest. Suddenly, as they came over a low, wood-covered hill, the crews saw the Mohne Lake, its dark water shimmering in the moonlight - and there, squat and sinister, the dam itself ooming like a battle ship at sea and showering flak from all its length against the onracing bombers in a co loured string of fireballs.

Circling the lake, picking up landmarks, Gibson organised the attack. Aiming at the dam and coming down to exactly 18 meters as briefed, the Lancaster raced like a bullet at the rapidly growing wall... Please watch video for the actual attack.

The Americans adopt the Low Level Attack Mode

The US Army Air Force operational concept in WW2 advocated high-level bombardment to knock out the German war machine. Accordingly following the arrival of the 8th Air Force B-17 bomber fleet ultra-high formation flying in the atmosphere, mutually-protected heavily armed "box" formations became common sight over occupied Europe. But results were rather dull and losses heavy, due to the lack of long-range fighter cover. The low level precision bombing raids performed by the RAF had impressed the American bomber commanders, but to carry out massive operations in daylight could not be accepted until faced by the need to carry out such a raid on Hitler's oil taproot at Ploesti, Romania, a raid which became not only famous, but one of the most daring and costly strategic bombing operations flown during the war.
The first American attack on Ploesti - a high-level mission - was launched on 11 June 1942 by a daredevil force led by Col. Harry A. Halverson. Briefed by RAF intelligence, the American pilots took off from RAF Fayid on the Suez Canal; after an uneventful 1,300-kilometer night flight, they hit the proper target, completely surprising the German defenders.
However, as only 13 B-24s actually attacked, the mission was quite ineffective. It became clear that only a low level attack could achieve acceptable results and that meant slipping en-masse under the German radar screen which protected their top strategic target-Romanian oil at Ploesti.
As the planning proceeded, it became clear that the only chance lay in a carefully designed low-level mission, flown by expertly trained crews under determined combat commanders. The first to carry out such a zero-altitude attack was Col. Jacob E. Smart, a crack bomber commander, who was given the responsibility of planning the mission.
Ploesti was a vast complex of oil refinery facilities located some 30 miles north of Bucharest, Romania. It supplied an estimated sixty percent of the refined oil necessary to keep the German war machine running. In the words of Winston Churchill, Ploesti was "the taproot of German might." It was a strategic target whose destruction allied planners hoped would deliver a severe blow to Germany's ability to carry on the war.

The code named  "Tidal Wave" blow was to be delivered by American B-24 bombers flying out of the Libyan Desert, across the Mediterranean Sea to the target and return - a two thousand mile journey that would push the abilities of both planes and crews to their limits. Crews were trained to fly in formation at altitudes of fifty feet or lower to avoid radar detection and impede enemy antiaircraft fire. Loaded with extra fuel tanks, 178 attack planes struggled aloft from their Libyan airstrips early Sunday morning August 1, 1943. They flew into a fiery hell that would be remembered as "Black Sunday." Trouble began almost immediately. Unbeknownst to the air crews, the Germans had broken their communication code and monitored their flight almost as soon as they took off. As they approached their target, the lead flight made a wrong turn up a mountain valley taking one of the following flights with it. Detected by German radar, the attacking Americans had lost the element of surprise.

 Captain Phillip Ardery, acting as co-pilot gave his account of the action he and his comrades were facing as they roared at ground level into the devastating defenses over the Ploesti oil:
"We were very close behind the second flight of three ships. As their bombs were dropping we were on our run in. There in the center of the target was the big boiler house, just as in the pictures we had seen. As the first ships approached the target we could see them flying through a mass of ground fire. It was mostly coming from ground-placed 20 mm. automatic weapons, and it was as thick as hail. The first ships dropped their bombs squarely on the boiler house and immediately a series of explosions took place. They weren't the explosions of thousand pound bombs, but of boilers blowing up and fires of split-open firebanks touching off the volatile gases of the cracking plant. Bits of the roof of the house blew up, lifting to a level above the height of the chimneys, and the flames leaped high after the debris. The second three ships went over coming in from the left, and dropped partly on the boiler house and partly on the cracking plant beyond. More explosions and higher flames. Already the fires were leaping higher than the level of our approach. We had gauged ourselves to clear the tallest chimney in the plant by a few feet. Now there was a mass of flame and black smoke reaching much higher, and there were intermittent explosions lighting up the black pall. Phifer, the bombardier, said over the interphone, 'Those damn bombs are going off. They ain't supposed to do that.'
'That ain't the bombs,' I answered, ..that's the gas they're cookin' with.'
We found ourselves at that moment running a gauntlet of tracers and cannon fire of all types that made me despair of ever covering those last few hundred yards to the point where we could let the bombs go. The antiaircraft defenses were literally throwing up a curtain of steel. From the target grew the column of flames, smoke, and explosions, and we were headed straight into it. Suddenly Sergeant WeIls, our small, childlike radio operator who was in the waist compartment for the moment with a camera, called out, 'Lieutenant Hughes's ship is leaking gas. He's been hit hard in his left wing fuel section.'

I had noticed it just about that moment. I was tired of looking out the front at those German guns firing at us. I looked out to the right for a moment and saw a sheet of raw gasoline trailing Pete's left wing. He stuck right in formation with us. He must have known he was hard hit because the gas was coming out in such volume that it blinded the waist gunners in his ship from our view. Poor Petel Fine religious, conscientious boy with a young wife waiting for him back in Texas. He was holding his ship in formation to drop his bombs on the target, knowing if he didn't pull up he would have to fly through a solid room of fire with a tremendous stream of gasoline gushing from his ship. I flicked the switch intermittently to fire the remote-control, fixed fifty caliber machine guns specially installed for my use. I watched my tracers dig the ground. Poor Pete. How I wished he'd pull up a few hundred feet and drop from a higher altitude. As we were going into the furnace, I said a quick prayer. During those moments I didn't think that I could possibly come out alive, and I knew Pete couldn't. Bombs were away.

Everything was black for a few seconds. We must have cleared the chimneys by inches. We must have, for we kept flying - and as we passed over the boiler house another explosion kicked our tail high and our nose down. Fowble pulled back on the wheel and the Lib leveled out, almost clipping the tops off houses. We were through the impenetrable wall, but what of Pete? I looked out right. Still he was there in close formation, but he was on fire all around his left wing where it joined the fuselage. I could feel tears come into my eyes and my throat clog up. Then I saw Pete pull up and out of formation. His bombs were laid squarely on the target along with ours. With his mission accomplished, he was making a valiant attempt to kill his excess speed and set the ship down in a little river valley south of the town before the whole business blew up. He was going about 210 miles per hour and had to slow up to about 110 to get the ship down. He was gliding without power, as it seemed, slowing up and pulling off to the right in the direction of a moderately flat valley: Pete was fighting now to save himself and his men. He was too low for any of them to jump and there was not time for the airplane to climb to a sufficient altitude to permit a chute to open. The lives of the crew were in their pilot's hands, and he gave it everything he had.
Wells, in our waist gun compartment, was taking pictures of the gruesome spectacle. Slowly the ship on our right lost speed and began to settle in a glide that looked like it might come to a reasonably good crash-landing. But flames were spreading furiously all over the left side of the ship. I could see it plainly, as it was on my side. Now it would touch down-but just before it did, the left wing came off. The flames had been too much and had literally burnt the wing off. The heavy ship cartwheeled and a great shower of flame and smoke appeared just ahead of the point where last we had seen a bomber. Pete had given his life and the lives of his crew to carry out his assigned task. To the very end he gave the battle every ounce he had."
The highly dramatic mission had questionable results, Allied assessment of the attack estimated a loss of about 40% of the refining capacity at the Ploesti refineries. But the cost was heavy. Of the 178 bombers which took off from Lybia, 53 aircraft and 660 aircrewmen were lost. Only 88 B-24s returned to Libya, of which 55 had battle damage. It was the worst loss ever suffered by the USAAF on a single mission, and its date was later referred to as "Black Sunday". Given the large and unbalanced loss of aircraft and the limited damage to the targets, Operation "Tidal Wave" is considered a strategic failure in the major actions of WW2. Nevertheless it demostrated  untmost couurage by the young American aircrews who dared to attack Hitler's oil under the most dangerous conditions possible. No less than five Medals of Honor and more distinguished awards were given to many of the brave the flyers.

Operation "Jericho" A Death or Glory Mission

One of the most daring precision attacks was made by Embry's Mosquito squadrons on February 18, 1944, when a ultra-low level attack on the heavily guarded Amiens prison fortress, in which several high-ranking French resistance leaders were held and were to be executed by the Gestapo the next day. The aircraft took off in foul weather, the target area covered by thick snow made navigation difficult for low flying as landmarks were not visible. But the operation, called "Jericho" was urgent and the mission nevertheless took off as planned.

Fortunately the weather improved quite a bit as the formation headed for Dieppe-le-Treport on the French coastline; there were even a few moments of blinding sunshine. But this did not last and soon they were diving down to sea level, flying so low that the waves nearly touched their churning propellers. At 400 miles per hour, Flying Officer Sparks was trying to come out of his long dive seawards. The needles of his barometric altimeters, although totally unreliable, trembled around the hundred foot mark. He tried to ignore them, and scanned the wave tops, trying to fly level and avoid the propwash of the Mosquitoes in front of him. The fog lying close to the water made it difficult to see, and less than a dozen feet could make the difference between staying in the air - and a cold, watery death in the Channel. In front of him, somewhat to his left, he could see a Mosquito flying onward, leaving in its wake a spray of water from the sea-skimming propellers. He couldn't see the others, but he knew that they were flying in formation with him, all experts at that dangerous game.The formation neared the French coast, and Flight Lieutenant Alan Broadley's precise navigation paid off as they roared over the cliffs near Dieppe, hugging the contours behind as they flew into the Somme Valley and the flat, snow-covered plains of Picardy. Squadron Leader Collins' Typhoons covered the Mosquitoes from every possible angle, while their pilots scanned the sky for the Luftwaffe fighters which they knew could not be far away.

The airfields at St Orner and its neighbourhood housed some of the top German aces in JG 26 Schlageter, and their boss, Colonel Josef Priller, was already well known to the RAF fighter pilots who had fought it out with his pilots in many dogfights. Wing Commander Ian 'Black' Smith , leading his remaining aircraft, he sped towards Amiens at tree-top height. Flying Officer Sparks flew right along with his leader, keeping formation as best he could. They were nearing the target. Passing the little town of Albert, its buildings looking like black dots in the white snow, Smith immediately recognised the ruler-straight road, lined by tall poplar trees, which stood out clearly in the snow. At Amiens cathedral the clock showed 12 noon precisely.

A little group of Frenchmen were hiding in the bushes wairing for the RAF at appear on time. This was the last day before the execution and their hopes were fading. Then, suddenly, a faint engine noise was heard from the east, and soon some black dots appeared in the wintry sky, soon growing into the shape of aeroplanes, flying fast, almost at treetop level and coming straight at them! It was one minute past noon, and the chimes of the cathedral bell were just fading away when the aircraft roared in, dipping even lower. The hearts of the French resistance fighters beat with fierce joy and hope. Flying Officer Sparks was flying so low that his wings almost touched the poplars as he swished by. Rain was beating at the perspex windshield, almost blotting out the view ahead and Sparks and his navigator had to peer hard at the view in front to avoid flying into one of the trees.

As he tilted his Mosquito at a sharp angle, one wing lower than the other, to avoid hitting the trees, suddenly a Typhoon passed right across his front. Sparks nearly jumped out of his seat at the scare, but recovered and managed to straighten out. In front of him he could see the leader, Wing Commander Smith, dropping to a mere three metres as they approached the unmistakable shape of the prison building which loomed grimly before them. Sparks just had time to note that it looked exactly like the model he had studied - and then they were on top of the outer walls. As briefed, the New Zealanders now split into two sections. Smith's Mosquito went in straight and he hurled his bombs into the prison walls which were rearing up at him. Sparks was flying right beside him and, as one, both pilots pulled sharply over the walls shot up and roared over the prison's rooftops. As they pulled away they saw that two pilots from the other section were going in for their bombing run to blow in the other side of the wall from the north.

Breaking sharply to the left, Sparks screamed over the city streets, passing at zero height over the Luftwaffe airfield at Glisy, from which light flak was coming up. On the airfield, there was chaos as the Mosquitoes roared over. Pilots rushed to their parked aircraft and gunners let fly with everything they had but, the Mosquitoes disappeared as soon as they had come, leaving in their wake the Typhoons which screamed over, strafing the airfield and preventing the German fighters from taking off.

Wing Commander Bob Iredale was back on track now, and lining up for his section's attack on the ison building. The debris thrown up by the first wave had scarcely settled when he dropped his own bombs. Down below, it was as if an earthquake had struck. Only moments before, the daily routine in progress; two men had started to ladle out the watery soup under the eyes of Oberfeldwebel Otto, the mean, elderly German guard, when suddenly the noise of powerful engines shattered the silence. The exploding bombs blew in the walls of the building, the upper floor collapsed and the whole building disinteqruted into a mass of bricks, concrete and beams. Men were flung into the air, some buried under the rubble where they choked from the dust.

Belatedly the air raidwarninq sounded in Amiens, mingling with the drone of the aeroplane engines. Now bombs were falling from the Australian planes attacking the German guard house, and dramatic events were taking place within the prison walls. As cell doors were blown open, some of the prisoners rushed out, choking and coughing from the dust which swirled about, trying frantically to reach the open air. Jean Beaurin and three men from the same cell were thrown on the floor by the blast, but soon recovered, kicked open the half-unhinged door and rushed out, breaking through the breached outer wall - right into the waiting arms of Dominique Ponchardier!

Others, however, were not so lucky. Dr. Antonin Mans, a public health officer and prominent member of the Underground, had been among those condemned to death. He was among the first to get clear after the attack and, recovering from his initial shock, he rushed out through debris strewn on the ground floor. Suddenly he heard faint voices calling for help. The medical man within him could not refuse the heart-rending cries of the wounded, and he remained behind to tend to the wounded, German and French alike, remaining at his post of mercy and refusing to escape to freedom. With him, assisting him in his task, was a French officer, Captain Andre Tempez, who was later to pay for his deed of compassion with his death in a concentration camp. While the drama unfolded below, Group Captain Pickard was circling in his Mosquito, searching the ground for escapers. He saw the clusters of dungareed prisoners emerging from the building, while Dominique Ponchardier waved at him in jubilation as he rushed his friends to safety. The German guards inside the rubble of the prison compound were still too shocked to respond, and all seemed well down there. But aloft, another drama was developing. Pickard had sent Iredale and Smith home, while he remained to see whether the attack had been completely successful. But Priller's Luftwaffe fighter pilots were already en route, racing for the scene. Pickard, now satisfied with the job, radioed the leader of 21 Squadron to go home and Squadron Leader Ian Dale drew a breath of relief - he was quite happy to have come all this way for nothing, as he had not been looking forward to his unattractive job.

At this point Squadron Leader Alan McRitchie, leader of the second Australian section, on his way to Albert, was hit by flak which killed his navigator outright. The pilot quickly lost height and one
engine was set aflame, but he managed to crash land near Albert, where he was taken prisoner. The Germans subsequently held McRitchie in solitary confinement for 40 days, threatening him with
Gestapo torture unless he revealed how the RAF and the French underground cooperated, but the Australian told them nothing. Pickard saw McRitchie's Mosquito going down and set off to investigate. By now all the other aircraft had gone. It was then that Feldwebel Wilhelm Mayer, from JG 26, appeared on the scene. Mayer was one of Priller's top aces, with 27 enemy aircraft on his scorecard. He turned right onto Pickard's trail, shot his tail end off, and the aircraft flipped over and crashed, catching fire as it came to a halt upturned on the snowy ground. Both Pickard and Broadley were killed instantly.

Embry's Mosquito Top Precision Experts Perform Street Level Operations

When Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry took command of the 2ns Tactical Group on 27 May 1943, it was high time to improve the RAF bombing performance and under his extraordinary leadership and personal courage some of the most daring low-level precision operations became famous. Embry introduced new measures under which even single buildings could be pin-pointed and attacked deep inside cities, with aircraft flying at street level.  Three such missions were flown against German Gestapo buildings in Denmark, in which Air Marshal Embry actually flew with his men, piloting a Mosquito himself. The first raid was directed against the Gestapo headquarters placed in a building in Aarhus University.

Embry described the hair raising exploits as his aircraft flew into the city at street level. "We used eighteen Mosquitos flying in three echelons of six aircraft, escorted by Mustangs. I flew with the first formation under ideal weather conditions, cloud base at twelve hundred feet with visibility over a mile. We flew all the way at about fifty feet. As we approached the city I noticed a German transport plane flying on a reciprocal course, the pilots seemed in shock! We neared our target below roof level and had to pull up to clear in order to drop our bombs on target. All aircraft bombed accurately and wrecked the building completely. As we turned back, going down to street level, I s aw one aircraft touching a building, which knocked off half its elevator and tail wheel but the pilot kept his nerve and flew on". The second raid in which Embry flew was against the Gestapo building in Copenhagen, which occupied the offices of the Shell Company. " We had a rough and boisterous flight across the North Sea and flying at fifty feet above the waves called for great concetration and physical endurance. Our windscreen was covered with an oily salt spray, obscuring the view. I opened a side window and managed to clear a small portion to get limited view ahead. As we streaked across the beautiful Danich countryside, we noriced many danes waving to us, some raising the natinal flag in salute. I took the Mosquito even lower now, increasing the speed to maximum power, flying just above the ground as we prepared our final run up to target. At times I had to pull up to avoid high tension cables and other obstructions, but our main hight was below tree top level which was quite exciting. My navigator was giving me running commentary, warning of obstructions, such as building chimneys.

Soon we reached the city limits and roared below street level towards our target. Suddenly a bridge appeared straight ahead , with some poles sticking up. I eased the aeroplane up and down again, by this time the target was dead ahead and our bomb doors open. Some German flak started bursting, but mostly above us. Suddenly I watched a Mosquito passing a few feet over me, below I saw people in the street throwing themselves flat. Bombs were now exploding behind us as we streaked along the street out of the city. But just then tragedy happened. The Mosquito flown by my friend, Wing Commander Kleboe hit one of the pilons on the bridge and crashed into a nearby convent school. Unfortunately some of the following pilots, watching the blaze mistook it for the target and bombed it killing innocent Danish children. It caused us great distress, but the brave Danes , after year of Nazi occupation, accepted the accident as a blow for freedom. In all we lost three Mosquitos, but by killing their captors, liberated all the Danish prisoners, saving them from certain death".

Embry's third and final attack on Gestapo targets in Denmark was on April 17, shortly before the end of the war, with another low level raid on a building inside the thickly populated city of Odense.

Actions at Sea LevelThe Swordfish Torpedo bi-planes

Men of the Fleet Air Arm who flew the sturdy  and robust bi-planes throughout the war performed some of the most daring attacks on German and Japanese fleet during WW2, and should perhaps receive special attention in low level operations. It was the Fairy Swordfish torperdo bomber. In many ways the Stringbag as it was also called was an obsolescent aircraft. It was very slow and poorly armed; equipped only with World War I era forward firing Vickers gun and a rear cockpit mounted Lewis gun fired by the air gunner or the observer. It had an open cockpit, brutal when operating for instance in the rough North Sea weather. with no radar, for most lacking a sensitive reliable altimeter a crucial system of equipment to fire  the rather temperamental torpedoes it needed both superb airmanship and utmost courage to operate under most difficult conditions- fighting at low level, attacking heavily armed enemy vessels straight on. Despites its technical shortcomings the Swordfish played an impressive role in World War II. Its probably most famous weapon was its torpedo, which weighed 1,610 pounds and was capable of sinking a 10,000 ton ship in minutes. To deliver this weapon - often against intense fire and in daylight though nighttime raids were more common - the pilot was taught to attack from a steep dive, at a speed of 180 knots or more and then straightenout and fly at a mere 90 knots dropped from a height of 60 feet, no more and no less! The torpedo then travelled 200 yd forward from release to water impact, and required another 300 yd to stabilize at preset depth and arm itself. Ideal release distance was 1,000 yd  from target provided the Swordfish survived so long on that distance.
Royal Navy Swordfish pilots  made a very significant strike on 11 November 1940 against the Italian navy during the Battle of Taranto, the great naval posrt at the southern tip of the Italian mainland. Despite the shallow depth of the water in the harbor, the aerial topedos of the Swordfish wrought havoc among the Italian warships. The devastation wrought by the British carrier-launched aircraft on the large Italian warships was the beginning of the rise of the power of naval aviation over the big guns of battleships. In May 1941, a Swordfish strike from HMS Ark Royal  was vital in damaging the German battleship Bismarck, preventing it from escaping to France. The low speed of the attacking aircraft may have acted in their favor, as the planes were too slow for the fire control predictors of the German gunners, whose shells exploded so far in front of the aircraft that the threat of shrapnel damage was greatly diminished. At least some of the Swordfish flew so low at sea level that most of the Bismarck's flak weapons were unable to depress low enough to hit them. The Swordfish aircraft scored two hits; one did little damage, but the other jammed Bismarck's rudders with 15° port helm on, making the warship a "dead duck"; in fact it sank after intense Royal Navy shelling within 13 hours. Tragedy struck the Swordfish almost a year later during the so-called "Channel Dash" operation, In February 1942, 34-year-old Lieutenant Commander Esmonde led a detachment of six Fairey Swordfish in an attack on the two German battlecruisers Scharnhorst  and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which had all managed to leave Brest without hindrance. These ships, along with a strong escort of smaller craft, were entering the Straights of Dover when Esmonde received his orders. He waited as long as he felt he could for confirmation of his RAF Spitfire  fighter escort, but eventually took off without it. One of the fighter squadrons did rendezvous with Esmonde's squadron later, but were immediately engulfed in an attack by two Luftwaffe fighter squadrons in a dogfoght over the Channel. The subsequent fighting left all of the planes in Esmonde's squadron damaged, and caused their fighter escort to become separated from the bombers.
The torpedo bombers continued their attack, in spite of their damaged aircraft and lack of fighter protection. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire from the German ships, and Esmonde's plane possibly sustained a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire that destroyed most of one of the port wings of his Swordfish biplane. Esmonde led his flight through a screen of the enemy destroyers and other small vessels protecting the battleships. He was still some 2,700 metres from his target when he was hit by a Focke- Wulf, resulting in his aircraft bursting into flames and crashing into the sea. The remaining aircraft continued the attack, but all were shot down by enemy fighters; only five of the 18 crew survived the action. The courage of the gallant Swordfish crews was particularly noted by friend and foe alike, Commander Esmonde was awarded a Victoria Cross posthumously.

The Torpedo Strike Wings

The first successful torpedo attacks by Beaufighters of the Coastal Command Strike Wing, came in April 1943, sinking several German merchant ships off the Norwegian coast. The Strike Wing developed tactics which combined large formations of Beaufighters using cannon and rockets to suppress flak while the Torbeaus ( Beaufighter Mk XIC) would make precision attacks on shipping at wave-top height with torpedoes. Carrying the centimetric AI Mark VIII radar enabling all-weather and night attacks.

There were twenty-six Beaufighters on the strike mission, their engines combining in a steady roar as the pilots taxied round the perimeter track to the end of the single concrete runway at RAF North Coates. Flight Lieutenant Mark Bateman was leading the anti-flak section, comprising fourteen aircraft  led by Wing. The remainder of the Beaufighters included ten Torbeaus armed with Mark XV torpedoes. The Beaufighter had a tendency to swing to starboard on takeoff. Bateman aligned his aircraft on the runway and opened up the throttles against the brakes, throttling back within a few seconds. He then released the brakes and opened up again slowly, the starboard throttle slightly in advance of the port. The heavy aircraft rolled forward and gathered speed, nearly ten tons of warplane with its load of two men, four cannon, seven machine guns, ammunition, and two 250 lb general-purpose bombs. Bateman raised the tail as quickly as possible and pushed both throttles through the 'rated gate' position, at 6 lb boost and 2,900 rpm.He had taken off for his thirty-second operational flight, an attack on a German convoy. Steering towards their designated target, the pilots kept down low , barely thirty feet above the the white flecks in the grey sea, keeping well below the German coastal radar screen, ever vigilant and alert. Soon the enemy came in sight in the lifting fog and the wing started to climb, leading the anti-flak section to 2000 feet. Below the Torbeau leader, which had remained at wave top, brought his Torbeaus to their dropping height of 175 feet.

"Target in sight"! the action was about to begin, when Luftwaffe fighters swooped down going straight for the Torbeaus, which were about to start their attack. Flying above the anti-flak section dived through the exploding barrage and swept towards the flak ships cannons blazing. Menwhile, their pilots trying to ignore the enemy barrage raging above, the Torbeaus squatted right down on the water line and raced, with full throttle towards the German ships. An E-boat traced a curving wake right under the belly of the leading aircraft, blazing away with every gun on board. One of the aircraft receiving the full force of the German defense, cartwheeled into the sea killing the crew. Now the German fighters dived into the frey, guns blazing and two more Beaus were hit, one of them trying to land in the water. Meanwhile the Torbeau leader leading his team kept straight toward the largest target ship and with throttle in fine pitch fully engaged pressed the torpedo release, just as his aircraft became riddled with a hail of splinters. Keeping his nerve, the pilot pulled into a steep, climbing turn. Through the corner of his eye, he saw one of his pilots drop his torpedo, just as he was hit at the same instant and crashed into the sea. From the 26 aircraft that had left North Coates, nearly half were lost or damaged, it was a costly attack, but the Wing learned the hard way. In ten months operations North Coates Strike Wing operated as the largest anti-shipping force of the Second World War, and accounted for over 150,000 tons of shipping and 117 vessels for a loss of 120 Beaufighters and 241 aircrew killed or missing.