Stefano Pasini



Saturday, over Germany


The small group of Mosquitos left the Marham airfield at 0900 p.m.. It was a perfect night for flying, and their Commander, Captain Jack Sears , DFC, was relieved to see that the weather conditions were favourable, both in England and over their designed route.

He knew that the PFF Mosquitos had a very delicate task to accomplish. It was the most important part of the whole bombing mission, in a way : if he marked the target area well enough, the big bombers would have done a really good job of dropping their loads in a narrow area, with a minimum of dispersion and little losses. Scattering their markers across a wide area would mean an even greater dispersion of the ‘real’ bombs, so a lessening of the mission’s final efficacy, while marking the wrong area was even worse, because it would mean dropping hundreds of bombs in corn fields or deserted, useless villages. It would be an awful waste of time and energies. But he wasn’t particularly worried. It was a work he had done before, and always with good results.

Flying the Mosquito  was always a pleasure, for the experienced flyer. Once he had reached the planned cruising height of 8.000 feet, he relaxed and enjoyed that superb wooden bird. The cloche vibrated slightly in his gloved hand, and the muffled roar of the two powerful Rolls-Royce engines accompanied the fly in a musical way.

Sears had preferred the ‘voice’ of the two huge Rolls-Royce Merlin before they had fitted the elongated, quieter mufflers. On the other hand, he knew that the longer exhausts were for their own good, as they covered the red-hot exhaust manifolds, a tell-tale lighthouse for any German fighter cruising around. Of course, this wasn’t so important. Usually, they cruised at 10.000 feet, and German fighters simply couldn’t arrive at that altitude. This made the Mosquitoes nearly invulnerable, and Sears liked the idea.

Because of their special duty, the 105th Squadron Mosquitos didn’t carry bombs, only incendiary ‘markers’. Other Mosquitoes were flying towards Germany that night with a similar cargo, but theirs was the only group heading for the real target, while the other small echelons of 109th and 139th Squadrons, heading fast towards Bremen and Essen, only had to detour the attention of the Germans from the real target. Those groups, following accurately the indications of the ‘Oboe’ system, this time were just decoys: they flew their Mosquitoes in an arc over Northern Europe towards their targets, but their work would not be followed by the immense ‘stream’ of bombers. Despite the absence of Viermots in their trail, however, their work was extremely important, because it forced the Germans to deploy their already scarce night fighters over several targets, reducing the number of the planes getting in contact with the real ‘stream’ of bombers.

The navigator, sitting in the seat beside him, gave some brief, concise indications, and Sears adjusted their route towards Hamburg. He knew he had to target the most central zone of the large German city, just over the Reeperbahn. The Church of Saint Nicholas had been selected as an aiming point, a virtual target of course, giving the complete darkness of the large town during the night, a conventional aiming point for the navigator-bomber. The bombers had begun to take off before them, and, after having re-grouped in their ‘stream’ over the Channel, they were now following Sears’ same path to Hamburg, the city doomed by the ‘Gomorrah’ operation.

For a moment, he asked himself if it was right to bomb a city. People, not planes or tanks or armies… This one was to be a Gomorrah decided not by God, but by men. More precisely, by one man, Harris . Air-Marshal Arthur ‘Butcher’ Harris. They all called him with that nickname simply because they all knew of his cruelty. Sears had been told of Harris’ cold-blooded decision to kill as many German civilians as he could, and, personally, he didn’t like it all. There was a war, all right, but still he couldn’t get to terms with the idea to kill innocent children in their homes. Nazis had made it, but he didn’t like to play with their methods…. it was like getting a Nazi frame of mind, he thought. He liked to fight against other warplanes, and was skilled at that ; marking the areas where his fellows from the Bomber Command would throw phosphorus and other mass-killing weapons, on the other hand, made him uneasy.

What the hell, he shrugged, after all they have begun, first, with ‘The Blitz’ against London, and they’re massacring half of Europe anyway. They deserve it. But still couldn’t chase away the distressing idea of being about to burn alive women. And children.

Oboe’, his main navigational aid over Western Germany, didn’t arrive to cover the Hamburg area, but he had another device working for them, now, ‘HS2’. With either of those instruments his navigator, a skilled professional engineer, always lead him straight on their target without any problem.

Besides, the moonlight resplendent over some scattered clouds helped them to follow their route without fearing surprises, and the drone of the engines lulled them in a state of confidence. It wasn’t the first time he leaded a mission like that, so he was relaxed enough.

For this reason, probably, he didn’t look a round too much, nor did the other aviators of his small group check around them more than usual. The Germans were notoriously inept at chasing intruders at night, their clumsy scheme of interception being too easily pierced by English planes. And in the last few nights, their activities had shown sign of even lesser efficiency than before. His thoughts were shared by the five crews following his airplane in a long string. Usually, PFF missions used no more than three units, but this time Bennett had decided to assemble a larger force to avoid possible disasters.

The last of the six pathfinders never knew what hit him from above. His Mosquito , shattered by a thunderstorm of MG fire, burst in pieces and disappeared. It was so quick to go down that the fifth of the convoy took a few seconds to realise that something was going wrong, and that was enough, for the first couple of ‘tuned’ 190s rushing from behind, to aim at it and fire a full round of grenades through the right wing, snapping it open and exploding its engine and wing fuel tanks.

The other four Mosquitoes were aware of the assault now, even if they couldn’t imagine how some German night fighters had succeeded in climbing to that height and so quickly, and were therefore able to engage them, even if the surprise attack of the Germans made a couple of them loose their bearings for a few seconds, and they just floated in mid-air, suspended in sharp turns, before their wings could catch again that altitude’s thinned air to allow them a really sharp manoeuvre. The third Mosquito was caught and exploded by another Focke-Wulf, this one dropping directly from above. It had been a long trip upwards, to gain that altitude, but the pilot made good use of it.

In the chaos of the sudden battle, the radio being completely jammed by some German trick and no information about what was going on, Sears thought that there was only one thing to do. He knew the importance of his mission: it would have been foolish to turn and engage the enemies. The only important thing to do was to dive down and gain speed, even if at the price of an immediate loss in altitude, trying to escape those unexpected marauders and get to Hamburg anyway.

In a fraction of a second, he hunched slightly, put the palm of his gloved hand over the twin-lever throttle and pushed it fully forward. The Rolls-Royce engines answered readily, their muffled groan getting stronger while the Mosquito  accelerated forward; Sears gave slight downward pitch to dive towards the clouds to get some more speed quickly. He had to get to Hamburg anyway, and his wingman, good old James Roberts, followed him closely. Good chap! He always knew what he had to do, they were perfectly tuned.

The other surviving Mosquito tried his best to stop the Germans to follow the other PFFs. Roger Curtis, the pilot of ‘Red Three’, couldn’t do much harm to the German attackers with his unarmed bomber, but he was good pilot and exploited the qualities of his airplane. Being more manoeuvrable than any German fighter of similar speed, the Mosquito could hold its own anyway and hopefully distract their attention from Sears’ rapidly-escaping aircraft. Coming straight from the Beaufighters of Fighter Command, Curtis was skilled enough, and his daring manoeuvres allowed him to confuse enough the enemies , that, as suddenly as they had arrived, disappeared.

By now, ‘Red Three’ was alone, and couldn’t find the other predators lurking in the dark. He decided to try to catch Roberts and Sears, so he turned the wheel to Hamburg and pressed on the throttles. Flying faster, he hoped to catch his surviving comrades, but they were racing, too, and he could only trail them on the same route. Heavily jammed, the radio was of little or no use now.

The starboard engine began to falter, like it had been hit in some minor part. Curtis had no choice but reducing sharply the throttle to the crippled Merlin, until it packed up completely. The run to Hamburg was over, for Curtis.

Suddenly, at a distance of nearly one mile, he saw three shadows being outlined for an instant against a moonlit cloud. His razor-sharp eyes caught the difference in dimension between two larger silhouettes and one smaller one: he understood it at once, but he couldn’t reach them, the radio was useless, he could only watch, horrified.

In his Focke-Wulf’s cockpit, major Herrmann was sweating profusely, despite the chilling cold. His risky bet had paid off more than handsomely: the long wait up, in the clouds, with their ‘tuned’ Focke-Wulfs has allowed them to shoot down at least three of those beastly Mosquitos, a very good beginning for the long night of air battle. Two of those animals had escaped their ambush and were still racing towards Hamburg, though, his problem being that they were clearly pushing their engines to the limit and his Focke-Wulf was now slowly losing ground against the faster De Havillands.

His ace was that they hadn’t noticed him… yet. Anytime, now, they could acknowledge his presence and escape again: he had to exploit his last chance, and there was only one way to go. Always keeping his throttle fully forward, and hoping that his Junkers Jumo engine would not explode too soon, he dove down slightly. He could transform those 200, 300 feet of altitude in speed, and thus he was able to shorten considerably the gap between his Focke-Wulf and the second Mosquito. The first one, the leader, would have been a better prey, but he could not reach him, so he contented himself in placing the Mosquito in his collimator and, when he was absolutely sure, fired with his cannons.

James Roberts  didn’t see the enemy plane: he was quite sure that they had definitely escaped the ambush. When they had been attacked, simply opening their throttles had gave them the possibility to run away from any intruder, the Mosquito was as fast as that. This time, they had an enemy almost as quick, and a superb pilot as well: Herrmann’s grenades tore open the port wing of Robert’s Mosquito, the fuel tanks ruptured and the airplane, in a fraction of a second, turned in a big ball of flame.

Sears saw the sky getting enlightened by the sudden explosion, and shivered, his face turning in an expression of anger. He could do nothing but to press on, clenching his teeth, running gallantly towards his target again. He wasn’t attacked again: the Focke-Wulfs had finally disappeared, leaving Sears alone, flying to Hamburg while the only other survivor of ‘105th’, ‘Red Three’, turned his back to the target and dove to the deck, trailing home with the starboard engine dead, its propeller feathered, looking at a very dangerous flight back. Sears had disappeared as well, diving under the clouds and getting near to Hamburg at last.




Saturday, High Market


The briefing had been short and clear: another huge mission that would take several hundreds of bombers from the small airfields of South-East England to Germany. Target: Hamburg.

Reid listened sombrely at their Commander’s words, without saying a word. He was shocked by the idea that his worst nightmare was becoming reality, and maintained his silence even when, afterwards, he stepped with his crew on the wagon that took all of them together to their Lancaster. His face was pale, tight, his men understood his mood and didn’t speak as well; they pretended to concentrate on the layers of clothing they had to put on, on the boxes containing emergency food and drink, on the final checks for the electrically-heated suits and gloves.

Big, black and undoubtedly purposeful, if not a thing of sheer beauty, their Lancaster ‘PO-T’ was standing in the dispersal area like it was just waiting them. It took some minutes to get there with the wagon that one ‘Erk’, as the aircrews called the non-commissioned ground crew members, drove slowly across the field, then they climbed one after another in the bomber through the narrow fuselage door. The crew member that had the shortest trip was the tail-gunner, nicknamed ‘Charly-the-Tail-Gunner’, but surely the short walk to his risky battle station didn’t make him any more envied.

The other men turned to their right after the door, crawled over the big wing spar that crossed the fuselage at half-length, a notorious point of discomfort for the Lancaster crews, and then they all placed themselves at their battle stations.

All the crew had noticed the change of expression of Reid when they had been confirmed that the target was Hamburg. Nobody dared to ask for an opinion: when the commander was in a bad mood, it was better to leave him alone. It was a bad sign, of course, as Reid wasn’t a man to be discouraged easily.

The many tasks they had to complete to prepare the airplane for the mission cleared their minds from any stray thought. They all had to work hard, now, and none more than the pilot itself, going through a thorough check of the controls and of the many toggles, switches and dials scattered on the huge black instrument panel in front of him. Meanwhile, the navigator, the ‘marconist’, the flight engineer and the gunners took care of the respective duties and equipment. Nothing had to go wrong; a failure of even the most secondary system could mean death, or, only slightly better, capture and imprisonment.

When Reid was satisfied of the general preparation of their Lancaster, he began the complex starting-up procedure. First he checked that the ground crew had plugged in the ground battery; the ground/flight switch was turned to ‘Ground’, the propeller controls pulled up, the cut-out switches to ‘Idle’, the throttles of the four big Merlins opened only half an inch. Supercharger was set at ‘M’, radiator override switches at ‘Automatic’, then Reid tested that the fuel pumps were correctly working. A jammed fuel pump would mean one engine failing during the take-off, a serious danger with a fully-laden aircraft.

As usual, the port inner engine was the first to be started. That was because it drove its own generator, giving to the circuit the power to start, one after the another, the starboard inner engine and then the two outer Rolls-Royces. When the four huge 12-cylinder powerhouses had started, Reid fiddled with the throttles to keep them at a steady 1.200 rpm speed, so to warm the four big Merlins evenly. It usually took three minutes, at this regime, to get the temperatures right.

After the ground battery had been unplugged, the radiator shutter switches were turned to ‘Open’, then ‘Automatic’, and the ground/flight switch changed to ‘Flight’, Reid taxied to the runway, where the Controller gave them the OK for take-off. The big black beast was stopped at the beginning of the runway; finally, Reid pulled the brakes and opened the throttles.

As many other pilots, Reid had always been annoyed by the known tendency of the Lancaster to sway to port under heavy acceleration, as a result of the gyroscopic effect of the four propellers. To fight this tendency, Reid always gave a little bit more throttle to the port engines. During the previous take-offs he had made several cautious experiments, and now he had settled for a quarter of an inch more throttle for both the inner and outer port engine.

The result was that, once he had released the brakes, ‘PO-T’ took off beautifully, straight and fast, for an magnificently straight take-off that was noticed by the ground crew and gave to the Lancaster crew a welcome confidence in their pilot. Bad mood or not, Reid remained undoubtedly one of the best pilots of the Squadron.

Once the Lancaster had left the ground, the undercarriage was retracted, then the flaps followed; the big four-engine monster began a slow climb towards its cruising altitude, fixed at 12.000 feet. It was a quite comfortable position, halfway between the lower and higher parts of their ‘stream’, the former being easily hit by the Flack, the latter by the ambushing night-fighters from the clouds above.

Only when they were over 8.000 feet, Reid began to relax a bit. It wasn’t easy: Hamburg was more than a nasty place to attack, it was for him, a sort of a curse. Since he had got the first hint of the possibility that they had to get over there again, he had been seriously worried. It was one hell of a target, and the bad memories of the previous raids on that city still haunted him.

His other main worry was that he was perfectly aware of his inability to conceal his apprehension, and that his crew had therefore understood his uneasiness perfectly. This was something even more annoying than being scared to death of that mission. Well, he thought, clenching silently his teeth, there’s no turning back, now. Let’s do it. I’ll sleep better, later. And gave a bit more throttle to all four engines, taking them all at 2.000 rpm.


The other crew members were thinking more or less the same. Though all of them had their fair share of hard work to do in the cramped interior of their Lancaster, they all had more than enough time to let their mind wander through the thousand fears of any soldier knowingly heading straight for the core of a fierce battle. Their enemies were undoubtedly waiting for them, on their route to Hamburg: they had been assured that the forecast was good, that the German defences had been tricked with a pretended raid over Essen, that Hamburg would have been lightly defended, that night. At the very least, they expected to meet only a limited number of German night-fighters.

Flak was a completely different danger, and, in Hamburg, it was famous for its ferocity. They all knew that the city was full to the brim with heavy cannons that could easily reach even the higher echelons of their ‘stream’. Their worst nightmare was a direct hit: it would nearly invariably mean the detonation of their bomb load, and the instant cancellation of them all from the sky, in a huge ball of flame and smoke. A near miss meant a longer agony, as the shrapnel could easily perforate the thin Dural skin of their aeroplane, wounding and killing the crew, often wrecking the commands and condemning them all to the long agony of a slow, unstoppable fall.

Nobody felt this kind of fear more than Gerry Parker, the tail gunner. His position was the more uncomfortable and downright dangerous of the whole crew; in the small Frazer-Nash tail turret he was exposed to a freezing cold for the whole flight, and to the worst enemy fire if they were attacked by a German night-fighter.

Parker knew that he was sitting in the worst place of the whole Lancaster, but he was also conscious of the fact that the survival of the whole crew could depend from his work, and this made him really proud. Fighting against the bitter cold, that at that altitude was biting even in July, Parker swayed his four .0303 guns up and down, and moved the turret around. It was his way to keep awake, and to generate some more heat while looking all around for hidden enemies.


Less than ten miles down South, one hundred and eleven twin-engine bombers, a mixed bag of Ju88, 188, Do217 and Heinkel He111 was flying over the Channel towards its planned target in England. The Commander of the KG, Major Friedrich Von Ruger , kept his eyes well open for enemies coming to them, but, until then, their approach had been absolutely ignored. His idea of following exactly the same route as the enemy bombers had proved successful; the RAF controllers might think that it could be a group of friendly bombers coming back because of a technical problem, nothing more. It was worth trying, anyhow, even if their best protection was the very low altitude at which they were flying, an altitude at whom the radars apparently couldn’t detect them.

Now that the Pathfinders had been assaulted by Herrmann and his boys over the Netherlands -he had heard the commotion of the radio- the RAF radars would be all pointed up there, and he hoped that, as a consequence, there was little chance that they would catch them. Anyway, they kept looking around with great care. They’d be probably identified as soon as they passed over the coast to the East of Dover, but any minute earned before being recognised was precious.

Von Ruger’s target was the MOUSE installation of the ‘Oboe’ control station in Walmer, Kent. He had clear maps of the site, and a good daytime navigation aid, but the idea of getting it in the dark of the night and flying at such a low level was crazy.

Their effort was being helped, quite usefully, by an apparently very efficient passive tracking device for radio emissions that they had been given by a half-nutty scientist working for the SS, who had developed it more or less secretly in one Siemens AG advanced laboratory. Heydrich  had immediately ordered to give the device to the Luftwaffe, and, after a short preliminary evaluation by the Technical Department of the RLM, it had proved very handy. Now that ‘Oboe’ was used to guide some airplanes over their targets, its emissions were at full peak, and the German funkers could use their small radio-tracking device to follow this signal and locate with absolute precision the site that they had to destroy. The radio emissions of ‘Oboe’ probably also helped to mask or cancel the German planes shadows on the English radar screens, he had been told.... or, at least, he hoped.

He was tense, anyway. It was a daring flight, and he didn’t think it was possible to get away from there unhurt. The stockily-built Captain pressed the throttle handle ahead a fraction of a millimetre again, rushing his big plane a little bit more. Time was precious, now.

At the moment they had carefully planned before the final briefing, the formation split. Von Ruger and other fourteen He111 turned slightly towards South, in the direction of the MOUSE station, while other fifteen, leaded by his Deputy Hans Schorpfer, turned a little bit more to the South again to go to the attack of the CAT station of Oboe, Trimingham. The third section, eighty-one bombers, continued on their route. They were pointing to the West again, to the enemy bomber airfields. But, for one of them, that wasn’t the final target.


The squadrons of Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings, having orderly grouped over the Channel, had formed a 200-miles long ‘stream’, and the first heavy bombers were beginning to enter the German territory. The incident involving the Pathfinders had not impressed too much the crews, much of whom were veterans of many missions over the Continent. They all knew that things can occasionally go wrong without really spoiling the mission.

The closely-grouped pack of the first Lancasters were flying over the Netherlands now. Paisley, the navigator of  ‘PO-T’, that was leading the second ‘stream’, pulled down his oxygen mask for a moment. They weren’t flying so high, now, so it wasn’t necessary to wear that itchy mask anytime. Besides, he was thirsty. He drank a full sip of water from his flask.

Yelling to overcome the rumbling noise of the four huge engines, he asked the pilot how it was going, and Commander Reid answered just holding a thumb up. No words, no comments; Paisley had rarely seen him getting so nervous and ill-tempered on a flight mission. Of course, the nervous tension was always quite hard to bear, for everyone: to fight it someone kept quiet, simply trying to concentrate on the mission, other guys, like the red-headed navigator, tried to speak to anyone for distraction. In that plane, unfortunately, nobody wanted to utter a word, now, and, moreover, the cold was unbearable. Sighing, Paisley fastened more accurately his flight jacket and took out his mandatory thermos of coffee. He unscrewed the cap carefully, and drank a full draught of warm, watery coffee, then put the mask on again.

There still were a few minutes left before he had to begin the aiming operations for the target, and he tried to relax a bit to improve his performance. When he was so tense, his aim was inaccurate. Nervousness somehow always made him drop the bomb load before the right moment, a bit too early, so those big disruptive bombs got in the outskirts of the target instead than right in the middle of it, where they did belong.

Fear was beginning to grip his stomach, as always. Why the hell did I ask to get here?, he asked himself for the thousandth time…. Before he was enlisted, he had decided to ask to join the Royal Air Force because he really liked airplanes; he hadn’t been accepted in the Fighter Command, but he had found a place on the ‘heavies’ of the Bomber Command, and he had been happy to accept.

At the beginning, the idea of flying by night had sounded quite exciting. He had read of the magic of the dark, star-studded sky, the aeroplane floating in the black sea of unending air, gently exploring the depth of the nocturnal atmosphere, the moon getting out to paint a luminescent glow to the vast canopy of puffy clouds…. Capital, he had thought at the time, let’s do it.

He couldn’t find nothing nearly as romantic there, now. Flying on a big bomber was, more than a dream, a nightmare, and nowhere more than on their ‘PO-T’. The Lancaster , though brand-new, was crude, cold and noisy. The interior space was dramatically cramped; its hardware and equipment was fully exposed, its metal edges always a danger while walking in the fuselage; when there was a real fight going on, and the airplane was shaken and pounded from all sides, those metal points and edges were always trying to hurt or wound the men on board.

The extreme unconfortableness of those big bombers was a pain in the ass for everyone flying on them; the fear for the approaching of the target, of its formidable Flak and the dreaded German Nachtjagd, did nothing to improve the situation. Sure, he thought, the Sunderland crews were bored as hell, but even thinking to the boredom of the submarine-hunting seaplane crews didn’t lessen his personal grief. Who did ever care about the ‘Kipper Fleet’? Though thinking at the sarcastic nickname slapped on the hapless Coastal Command crews made him smile, at last.

Fear made him try to look around again, but still there was nothing to see. For a change of perspective, he got at the rear end of the glass canopy and stood up, his head in the small bubble of the ‘Astrodome’, and looked around, turning his head and body for a complete 360° turn. Nothing: the sky was full of big black airplanes, but nothing seemed wrong. Probably, the decoys sent towards Essen had really worked, after all. He stepped out of the ‘Astrodome’, got back at his cramped desk behind and under the flight deck and checked the route again: it was fine. They were flying right over Hamburg. And this time, he wanted to put all of his bombs exactly where they had been told to, in the middle of the densely-populated town. Maximum damage, maximum success. A shorter war, maybe, he thought hopefully.

He couldn’t bear that nervous tension for much more time. But, he thought, life could be worse: he could be the tail gunner of that big black bird they were taking to the Elbe. That was a real pain in the ass. ‘Charlie-the-Tail-Gunner’, has the bomber crews sympathetically nicknamed the man in that turret, was obviously in the unluckiest position of the whole plane. He was always the first to be hit, the more likely to die, trapped in the crashing inferno of his wrecked turret. And he was the most difficult to rescue, too, though he could easily bale out of his turret simply swinging it completely on either side. Thinking of it, even the idea of getting back at his bloody work as a shop clerk in Manchester was a treat, now.

Paisley crawled slowly along the fuselage, taking care not to smash his skull on any exposed part or on the many bomb switches fitted to the right of the cramped corridor, then folded on his hands and knees to get at his position in the nose of the big aeroplane. From there, he’d have to look through the round flat glass angled under the nose, until he found his target where he had to drop his bombs.

The horizon line was barely visible, over the ink-black, undistinguished mass of German soil they were flying over. There, Paisley  thought, must be Hamburg. But he couldn’t see anything. Where


A sharp yell filled his earphones.

Bandits coming! Bandits coming! I’ve seen one passing beside us, no more than 300 yards from here!” It was the nasal voice of the tail gunner, a Mancunian like Paisley , a short, pudgy fellow who feared nothing and nobody, but now sounded scared stiff in the phone. “And another! Another!” His voice was suddenly covered by the quick, thumping hits of the machine guns, who began to fire all together, at once.

Paisley  tried to catch a view of the enemy fighters that were evidently beginning to fly around them. In his prone position, he looked anxiously out of the cabin, but couldn’t see anything. Then, a fraction of a second after, a big orange ball exploded to their left, and the deflagration sent a hard shock wave trough their own plane. Jim Morrison’s ‘PO-W’, their nearest plane to the left, had gone, shot out of the sky, clearly by a German fighter.

Paisley  felt his throat closing in despair. He tried not to think to Morrison’s crew, all good chaps with his same service record. In that moment it was completely useless to get sentimental over the lost friends. They had a mission to accomplish, and if ‘Fritz’ was out in force, that night, well, to hell with him, too.

He was trying to adjust the aiming device when he realised that even from his vantage position, in the nose of their bomber, he couldn’t see the target. He couldn’t see any illuminated marker at all. There was no trace, at the horizon, over the black mass that had to be Hamburg, of the  flares that the Pathfinders usually threw to illuminate the areas designed for bombing. Hamburg was undoubtedly in front of them, but it was just and undistinguished, unilluminated mass looming between land and sea.

A sudden ripping sound froze his blood. Another yell, this one a howl of pain, meant that one of their own  men, a gunner perhaps, had been shot. The dark shadow of a twin-engine plane passed before the Lancaster . Paisley  caught a glimpse of a pale blue wing draped with the German Cross passing vertically a few dozen feet from their Lancaster, and the nose gunner tried to fire at him, but to no avail; the Me110 disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared.

“We’ve been hit, better to turn back home immediately.” The voice of the Commander was calm, and Paisley  envied his self-control. As it was answering, the bomber shuddered and seemed to slow down.

“Bombs off now!” Even if he hadn’t armed the bombs yet, Paisley  prepared the detonators in a second and unloaded. The Lancaster , at last free from the 8-ton cargo penalty, soared a few feet. The pilot used the weight advantage to turn swiftly the big plane over the mass formation of the bombers flying towards their target, and pointed its nose West.

Paisley , frozen at his aiming position, watched the situation around them. All of a sudden, it was like everything was exploding in the sky. The dark scenario of the night, where he could usually only barely make out a few dark shadows grouped around his own plane, flying all together in the darkness at a quiet, deadly pace towards their target, was becoming a fiery, confused mess instead. A real battle had suddenly begun, a flashy chaos pointed by the white-blue burst of shots of the machine-gun barrels, the orange balls of fire of a fuel tank being hit, the straight red-blue stripe trailing from the fatally shot engines.

It was a fascinating, horribly attractive sight, but the terror shaking him left little time for poetry. He turned back in the cabin, yelled at the Commander “I’ll take a look at the gunners”, got no reply from the pilot and crawled towards the back of the plane. He looked over his shoulder at the pilot, who was wrestling hard with the cloche and the pedals. A shiver of fear ran down her spine again: this frantic work meant they were in big trouble as well. But he kept his control and concentrated on the effort to get at his wounded pal at the rear end of the plane.

It took only a few seconds to see that there really was nothing he could do: the fuselage had been pierced by shells just beyond the bomb van, the top gunner was lying down on the floor covered in blood and motionless, his turret having been shattered by bullets to a torn-apart wreck. Beyond that point, it looked even worse. The bombs van had been shattered too, and gusts of gelid air rammed inside the fuselage. Now it was impossible to pass over there, in the whirlwind of the air rushing from the bomb bay.

He tried to yell at the motionless shadow of the gunner, but to no avail. Shocked, he turned and crawled again towards the front of the plane.


Saturday, South-East England


Sergeant Hans Bauer  was tense, probably even scared, even if he would never admit that. He kept a straight, unexpressive face to conceal to his crew the preoccupation of flying once again over enemy territory, by night and with maps that, the day before, they had jokingly compared to Baedeker’s worst. The navigator was doing a splendid job, and the fact that the route to Hamburg had turned to be a hellish nightmare for the British Lancasters had helped them, distracting the British controllers’ attention afar from them. That England was a flat country had also helped until then, but now, they needed real luck.

The inhabitants of the Southern Counties were used to the passage, during the night, of the heavy bombers of the RAF, and this helped the German airplanes in keeping a good cover until they arrived very near to the airfield’s  installations. Only when they were a few miles away, the controller decided to check those shadows on his radar screen, asking for identification. The Germans didn’t answer, and the controller suddenly understood that they had to be enemy intruders. The air-alarm sirens began to wail in the dark spring night; the Anti-Aircraft operators scrambled to their guns, while the small Mosquito  Group available for night emergencies in Biggin Hill was called to action.

It was too late. The first echelon of He111 was over the Boscombe Down airfield in two minutes, their Junkers Jumo engines howling at full throttle. The risk now was that the planes could disperse their bomb loads over an area too wide, while he wanted to keep it tight, all the bombs hopefully falling in a restricted area.

The He111 pilot continued to check obsessively for the target, as they had no illuminators nor other markers, and the airfield’s lights had been hurriedly turned off. It was, after all, a nearly-suicide mission. It was just a stroke of luck that his wingman could make out the main building and throw their bomb load there. It was a first targeting mark; after this first bomb, others were unloaded over the big brick building, destroying it completely together with all the radar electronic equipment inside.

Sgt Bauer  screamed his approval with a loud, brutish yell. The bombs were still falling on the control tower and on the concrete airfield. It was clear that Boscombe Down, that night, wasn’t going to be useable by the returning bombers. With a tight turn, he took his He111 slightly higher, to avoid risks of collisions in the mess of all the German planes unloading their bombs on the base and on the little adjacent airfield; he relaxed a bit, now that the really important part of the mission had been completed. Now they had to go back home.

Suddenly, this was the most important thing to do. He pushed the throttle forward again. Now, he had to escape the Mosquitoes.


Saturday, the Bomber Command, High Wycombe, 11.35 p.m.


The news that the main Pathfinders group, the one that had to mark the real target,  had been intercepted, and that at least three of the Mosquitoes had been surely shot down, with a fourth missing and the fifth crawling to England on only one engine, had reached the Bomber Command Headquarters immediately, but it took a few minutes before it was evaluated by the supreme commanders. It was confirmed that Sears had escaped somehow, and was trying to mark the Reeperbahn or the Church of Saint Nicholas anyway, but couldn’t find the other planes of his group, and his gallant effort was of little use. James Roberts , his brother was told by an embarrassed Colonel Newbury, was missing, but they weren’t sure he had been shot down. Maybe he had just baled out of his machine with his parachute.

Roberts, standing on attention as befitted a real soldier, listened sternly to the Colonel speaking to him, then, when he felt he couldn’t bear it anymore, he excused himself and walked out of the room. He had warned those idiots that the Germans were behaving weirdly, this time…. he had tried to have they think about preparing countermeasures…. His brother was dead now, and it was all Harris ’ guilt. God, what a mass of idiots. His rage was so furious that he couldn’t even speak, and that was probably a good piece of luck. If he had told Harris what he was thinking, he’d have been brought straight to the Court Martial. So he could not allow himself the luxury of having a rage attack towards Harris . It was better to leave now. His head stoned and confounded by the terrible emotion of the loss of his beloved brother, he rushed out, to sit down on the first bench out of the building, breathing deeply, trying to calm down a little.

Inside, Colonel Newbury had understood perfectly the rage and frustration of Roberts, and was protecting him the best he could. His duty would have been to recall at his place the young officer, but Newbury knew how painful it was to learn that a brother had just been shot down.

Smiling accomodantly, he declared to his secretary “Good chap, that Roberts, not a cringe at the news of his brother’s shooting… but he needs some rest, I gather, call somebody to cover his place now. Don’t want to call him back now, let him calm down and relax. That other guy Roberts, James, the pilot” he added, straightening up and looking towards the map, “that was a very, very smart chap. Who could have been so clever to hit our Pathfinders so hard?”

In the next room, Harris  was getting the news. Having read the paper that his adjutant had given him, he thundered “Revoking the mission? Recalling the bombers? No way!”

He looked angrily at the Colonel who had proposed to postpone the raid, as they were without markers by now and the German Nachtjagd was obviously vicious, that night. It was his pet, this Operation Gomorrah, he wouldn't let those coward desktop aviators spoil his work, his masterwork. He wanted some thousands of dead Germans, that night, and he’ll have them.

“No way, Colonel. Listen: those bloody guys may have got our boys in the Mosquitos, but theirs was just a stroke of luck. Nothing else. Our boys are quite safe up there, and I want them to press on, to go ahead. There is nothing that would make me change my mind. Tell them to press on, and look at the targets by themselves. Hell, where’s Bennett? Send Bennett to mark the targets!”


Sunday, over Hamburg, 00:30 am


Lancaster  ‘RZ-B’ carried, on the nose, the profile of a witch sitting on a bomb and looking, menacingly, at a slice of a moon. It was the only little extravagancy that James Mitchell  had allowed to his crew during their operative time. The twin yellow striped on the rudders of the huge bomber were mandatory, instead, this being the plane of the Commander.

Lt.Cdr. Mitchell was a straight, hard sort of guy. He came from Scotland, was proud of it, and had made little effort to rectify the hard pronounce of his Highlands ancestors. He could brawl hard enough, and that was of his best moments, yelling at the interphone to keep shooting at the fighters coming, now, almost from everywhere.

 Obviously, he was going through. He was going to succeed because of his bravery, strength, sheer courage. And because of the fear that he knew how to induce in his crew. They’d do anything short of killing themselves just to have him quiet, not yelling savagely like in those moments.

The navigator screamed back at Mitchell “Sir, we have no markers! And the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ has been shot down!” The brawny Scot, swerving the best he could to avoid a collision with a Stirling falling down the sky, one wing missing and trailing a few white ‘chutes, screamed back “What are you saying, you stupid son of a bitch? Have you lost your bearings now? I’ll kick your ass back to Edinburgh if you don’t find the target immediately, asshole!”

The navigator tried again, but it was useless.

“No markers, Sir. I’ll try my best to go ahead without it, but….”

“What did you say about the ‘Master of Ceremonies’?”

 “Lost, Sir, it’s been whacked down by some Nazi killer. It’s full of fighters, apparently, tonight…”

So much for the forecasts of a quiet, almost sleepy mission without Nachtjagd, Mitchell thought, cursing sharply and trying to steer clear of another ‘heavy’ that, one starboard engine in flames, was dangerously drifting towards them.

Hamburg was looming in front of them, 9.000 feet under the bulkhead of his Lancaster. The pilot continued to keep it as straight as possible, because, in a tightly packed ‘stream’, the probabilities of a collision were very high if someone didn’t really behave.

“Looks like they didn’t pay the Electric Company bill. They’ve shut down all the lights.” The humour of the Australian marconist was always mediocre, and even this time nobody laughed. Mitchell didn’t even look at him, his mind working furiously. Too many night-fighters around, tonight. The PFF Mosquitos have been shot down. No Flak until now. Huge losses, and no markers for the target. What the hell was going on, that night?


Sunday, over the Netherlands, 00:30 am


The pilot of the Ju88 C-1 ‘G9+UR’, cursing sharply in a Southern German dialect between his tightly-clenched teeth, pulled the cloche to his belly as fast as he could, then gave a hard push on the right pedal. The plane climbed immediately and turned on its side, narrowly missing a collision with the English bomber they had been trying to shoot down. As they passed over the doomed bomber, missing its rear end for no more than 25 yards, one of its wings burst in an orange explosion and folded, making the Halifax fall down helplessly. Another, kill, another Abschuss! The relief for being alive, and for the kill, was immediately replaced by blind rage towards the radar operator: Bulow insulted the hapless crewman, that hadn’t advised him of the close proximity to their victim.

He knew that his Funker stood little chance to get as accurate as he’d have desired. Like by the venomous metastasis of a malignant tumour, the German night-fighters had slowly, silently infiltrated the ‘stream’ of the British bombers at every level, everywhere, filling the little space usually left between the Viermots, and, when they had got the “Night Watch!” signal from Venlo, and they had attacked the bombers, the space left had been even less.

Moreover, they still weren’t fully used to their new Lichtenstein radar, the FuG212. Good as it was, it couldn’t cope with the mass of flying objects littering the sky from the Channel to Hamburg, that night. It was simply overcrowded: Bulow cursed the radar, now nearly useless and cumbersome, too. In that amassment of bombers, one could safely shoot anywhere and still get some result anyway, but the FuG’s antennas slowed his Ju88 and made it more cumbersome to handle.

It was a small consolation to know that, when the bomber would try to crawl back to their bases in Britain, their formations shattered by the battle, the FuG212 would become extremely useful. Now, it was just a rack of horns sprouting irritatingly out of the 88’s nose. In short, maybe it would reveal itself to be a decisive improvement later, but, until now, it had only worsened the situation… There was anyway very little he could do, at the present time. He dived down again, pushing the nose of the large, twin-engine interceptor towards the ground to gain speed and begin another ‘circle’.

This had been a very good idea. He didn’t know if it had been an idea of Kammhuber , Milch , Goering , Heydrich  or whoever, but it worked. If the English arranged their bombers in a ‘stream’, that flowed in a sort of virtual corridor towards the designed target, it was possible for the fighters to assault the single bombers making circles that were bordering, in one position, with the ‘stream’ itself.

It had been decided that, as a convention, the German fighters would turn so to attack the enemies face-on. This way any other German pilot circling in the area would know that this plane, flying against the stream, had to be a friendly plane. The shortcoming was that, this way, every fighter had just a few seconds to fire at the bombers, and the collision dangers were quite high. But this way it was possible to do a lot of contacts, and, if and when the Ju88s met a Lancaster , the German plane could engage it and the English bomber could be shot down quite easily. The very individualistic night-fighter crews had already adapted the scheme to their own ideas, and, before long, everyone was actually flying everywhere and firing cannons at every airplane that appeared to be black and reasonably big.

Bulow was quite satisfied; they had shot down in flames three bombers already, the fourth had come quite fortuitously few minutes before, and it all had just begun. It had been risky, of course, but rewarding. Having checked with his three crewmen that everything was right, he continued his spiral turn preparing for another attack. God, it’s working fine, after all, he thought.

Hamburg was still several miles away, and the Nachtjagers were ferociously biting at the ‘stream’ of English bombers. The chaos at the radio was music for the German fighters, as it confirmed that they were succeeding, that they were actually wrecking the huge ‘stream’ bombers. The darkness of the night was more and more often marked by short burst of flashes from a fighter and, immediately afterwards, by flames erupting from the innards of a fatally-wounded bomber. They couldn’t see if the English crew were always able to bale out of their flaming bombers, but Bulow, frankly, didn’t give a damn about this. They had come to bomb his city, and he just wanted to kill all of them, or at least as many as he could.

A particularly big orange ball of flames enlightened the sky not much more than one mile from them.

“One of our planes has crashed in a bomber”, the tail gunner of the Junkers muttered in the interphone. They all turned towards the flaming wreck slowly falling to the ground, too many wings sprouting from the mass of flames to be only one aircraft, its flames disappearing after a few seconds.

Their next approach to the stream was not as lucky as it had been before. Finding a bomber to attack took some seconds of painful search in the darkness, and when they finally met a big Viermot it was impossible to aim it correctly, as the Halifax front gunner began firing at the Ju88 with desperate accuracy. Cold-blooded bastard, Bulow muttered, angry, steering his plane clean of the tempest of bullets tracing the sky around their canopy. And his gunner signalled that they were nearly out of ammo, too.

Bulow forced himself to restrain from making another attack. Take it easy, man, he advised himself, and remembered Galland’s words: you have to come back, you and your airplane. We’ll need you again. Alright, General. Genau.

It was time for their scheduled landing anyway, for refuelling, reloading their guns. It was the turn of the Flak, now, to take care of the English bombers; Bulow and his colleagues would take care of them once again during their return trip. It will be a long, long night, Bulow grinned thinking of the haunted bombers…..


Sunday, Hamburg Heiligengeistfeld Flakturm, 00:35 am


The air-attack sirens had warned the Hamburg population of the possible air raid at 9.30 p.m. of Saturday, and, even if the ‘all clear’ had been unexplainably declared at 10 p.m., everyone had had plenty of time to find a suitable shelter before the alarm sounded again, Sunday, at 00:33 a.m.. Roads were dark and empty, only the soldiers attending the Flak cannons and some members of the local Police were out and waiting for the bombers.

Gefreiter Fritz Fuchs, assigned to the task of manning the 128 mm Anti-Aircraft gun  placed on the South-West corner of the roof of the Heiligengeistfeld “Flakturm”, just waited, stuffing cotton in his ear to deaden as much as possible the noise that, during an air raid, often became intolerable. He was very good at operating the control centre of his squad’s AA heavy cannon, one of the 156 really big guns amongst the hundreds that formed the mainstay of the Hamburg Flak defence. The fires, the explosions and the flashing streaks that had been dotting the skyline towards the West since half an hour were signalling the arrival of the ‘stream’ of enemy bombers. These streaks also said that the battle was furious, and that the Viermots were probably taking a nasty beating: an explosion could mean anything, but a falling streak usually meant an Abschuss, a bomber killed. Many were still coming, though. Fuchs shivered: the idea of being at the receiving end of the 1.000 pound bombs dropped by the Lancasters was not pleasant, not at all.


Like Fuchs, all the other soldiers stationed on the roof of the colossal AA tower were all looking towards the West, at the flashy steaks and explosion that were piercing the darkness of the sky, tangible signs of the violence of the battle being fought by the German fighters and the British bombers.

In less than half an hour, it would be their time to fight. The AA soldiers were all experiencing the special kind of fear of the ground-based defences waiting for death to arrive from above, but they were all determined to fight to their best. The air-raid alarms had been set off, the civilians were all locked in their shelters, now it was their turn to do their best.

The “Luftschutzdienst”, the office for the organisation of the air-defence system, had undoubtedly given them the means to fight. Their cannons could hit very hard their enemy; and nobody, on that massive tower, had any doubt about the solidity of the “Flakturm”, nor about the efficiency of the shields that protected them all from the shrapnel of a bomb that could explode nearby.

Flakturm in Hamburg

The ‘Flakturm’ itself, or ‘Turm’, as they sometimes shortened its name, was an impressive weapon. An enormous cube of reinforced concrete, with walls 70 metres long, 45 metres high and 2.5 metres thick, with foundations that spread much wider than the perimeter of the building. During an air raid, the “Flakturm” was a formidable battle station: its roof, 3,80 metres thick, was the common platform of the four 128 mm AA batteries, guided in their aiming by the radars of the smaller ‘Flakradarturm’ placed nearby. Hundreds of rounds for the heavy AA guns were continuously carried from the well-protected underground deposits to the roof with special lifts during the battle, and the ‘Turm’ had also an internal electrical generator, to avoid any problem associated with outside electrical supply. It was a self-contained machine of death, Hamburg had three of them and Fuchs was waiting on the roof the westernmost one.

The ‘Turm’ had not been built only for pure AA duty; it was also a formidable protection unit for the Hamburg citizens. Its basements could accept 2.000 civilians, with ample reserves of food and water for several days of siege. For the soldiers working there, even for the AA operators that were now staring at the star-studded sky, listening in silence to the droning noise of the oncoming ‘stream’ of enemy bombers, the protection allowed by that structure was very good: only a direct hit could kill them, and, in this case, it would undoubtedly be a very quick, almost painless death. The Flakturm was so solid that nothing, really nothing could damage it. On the other hand, they all knew also that a big bomb exploding nearby could easily wound them all the same with the sheer force of its shock wave, perhaps even kill them if the concussion hit their brain hard enough.

 Nobody, amongst the soldiers standing on that roof, suspected that they were taking part in a carefully-prepared ambush. All of them waited at their places knowing that it was their duty to defend Hamburg from the assault the best they could, always feeling, of course, awfully scared. The bombs dropped by the English Viermots were heavy, deadly affairs, and they all feared especially the incendiary, phosphor-based bombs. Those bombs could set everything in a special kind of fire that water couldn’t extinguish. The talk of the town was of people that, having set on fire by that liquid during one of these attacks, had thrown themselves in the Alter Amster to try to extinguish the flames, but to no avail. They had been seen wrapped by flames even under water, drowning while burning to death at the same time.

Anyway, Fuchs thought again, this time there was something strange going on. The ever-alert Flak Corporal had noticed that a suspiciously high number of SS officers and NCOs were waiting on the streets, on the doors of the hundreds of shelters provided all around Hamburg, some of them even over the Flakturm‘s flat roof. Many of them were in plain clothes and mixed with the population to get a direct idea of the results of the bombings on the civilians. Fuchs also knew that, during the last few days, the already formidable air-defence system of the Hanseatic Capital had been reinforced with the arrival of many more cannons, mainly 105 mm and 88 mm mobile guns, some of them on railway flat-beds. The guns had arrived by night, and the secrecy about this reinforcement had been complete.

His mate on the other side of the cannon was smoking a cheap cigarette, sighing. Fuchs always kept a wary eye on his obviously scared colleague. He really risked to die of a heartstroke at each raid.

“They’re coming, for sure” he bellowed at Fuchs from his seat.

“Yes, I see” Fuchs replied. “Is it only an impression, or what?…. It looks like we have got many more searchlights, tonight.”

“Yeah, maybe… But it also looks like they’ve sent many more airplanes, tonight,” the other replied nervously, staring at the sky pointed by endless explosions.

Their turn was coming. Fuchs fastidiously checked another time the settings of the cannon: he had the uncanny ability to keep an extraordinary coolness in his duty while being scared to the deep of his heart by the bombers he could hear now approaching, their regular droning noise becoming stronger every minute.

His eyes followed the searchlights popping up in the Western part of the city, their immensely strong beams dancing in the dark like white fingers prodding at the mass of approaching black cruciform dots. His stomach contracted in fear. Fighting back the idea to be hit by one of those dreaded bombs, he began to work slowly, accurately on the data sent them by the men plotting the Viermots progression on their maps, inside the ‘Flakradarturm’.  Fuchs could barely make out, in the darkness, the huge antennas of the ‘Wurzburg’ set used for the task.

One of Fuchs’ worst fears was to hit a friendly airplane: even after having been specifically forbidden to enter the city’s airspace during a raid, some of those battle-crazed Luftwaffe hunters still did it to get one more kill. Spotting the friendly night-fighter between the hundreds of enemy Viermots wasn’t easy, even if the recent idea of painting the underside of one wing of all the German night-fighters in black, the other in pale blue, was a fair help. But tonight he had been informed that all the night fighters would remain absolutely out of Hamburg’s city limits, so he could simply point and shoot at everything flying over there. A simplification borne out of the need to improve speed and accuracy of the Flak cannons.

Fuchs, still staring at the flashes that dotted the sky, savoured a somewhat new sensation. There was something that looked good, that night. For the first time since months, the humble Gefreiter thought that there was a real hope of stinging those RAF bastards for good, that night. Very nice, he thought.


Sunday, Deelen-Arnhem control room, 00:30


The man in the grey SS-Obergruppenfuhrer uniform was waiting in the Control Room, surrounded by the disciplined ballet of his aides and of the Luftwaffe liaison officers. His SS bodyguards looked impassively at the frantic activity of the Luftwaffe Signals men and women. The lights on the wall had finally taken their definitive direction. The attack on Essen had finished, just a few Blenheims and  Wellingtons, nothing worthy of anything more than a good Flak reaction. They hadn’t been fooled by the decoy: all the night fighters, now, where between the Channel and Hamburg.

Heydrich knew he couldn’t hope of getting an exhaustive report, not even a first, approximate one, about the results of the Hamburg attack until the bombers were turning their back to the city. Still, he was hanging in Deelen-Arnhem, nervously haranguing his adjutants, keeping a regular radio contact with his ‘eyes’ at the other station.

His man there, Straub , was harmless-looking enough to get easy access to most of the data Heydrich  needed. Not without a sort of surprised pride, the SS-Obergruppenfuhrer had altogether been told that when his smile and kindness wasn’t enough, Doktor Straub  was more than ready to pull his rank ruthlessly on every unfortunate petty subordinate unwilling to cooperate. Then, he usually got everything he needed: everything that was useful to his Master, Heydrich  himself.

In the same airbase, there was also the General of the Nachtjagd, Kammhuber . Nervousness was nearly overcoming him, and he was trying to beat it walking nervously around the enormous table of the main Control Room at the same Headquarters, with decidedly mixed feelings.

He had to be angry, terribly angry: the idea that Heydrich , that wily SS General and mass murderer, had so easily robbed him of the total control of the night fighters was appalling. All his work, his years of steady work building a good night fighters force, now looked like it had been nothing compared with Heydrich’s work. It was frustrating, to say the least, and the idea to have been the first to understand that Heydrich was to be the winner didn’t lessen his grief. Even if he had been on his side, and had had his advantages from that.

On the other hand, deep inside, he was also a pragmatist. He knew that he would never had hoped to get the right degree of attention from Hitler , and not even from Goering . Heydrich  got all he asked for instead: his power, Kammhuber  had been used to see, was enormous, out of proportion with the military skills of a former naval officer thrown out of the German Navy years before for some indeterminate sexual incidents. Thinking to the complex of the situation, he had to be happy to be still there.

And the ambush they’d prepared for that night (that HE, Heydrich  had prepared, Kammhuber  thought) was working just fine. The English Bomber Command had sent one thousand bombers for a raid that was intended to set Hamburg in fire, but until now the only effect of the raid had been to leave a flaming trail of Lancaster  and Wellington wrecks along their path. Of some Mosquitos as well, he thought with the first hint of a real feeling of satisfaction.

Now that the big mass of bombers was getting nearer Hamburg, Kammhuber  knew that they were facing the real moment of truth. Until then, his boys on their ugly Me Bf110s and on the big Ju88s had done their work very well: they were taking their turns in landing by now, taking a full load of fuel and ordnance to get immediately back in the sky, waiting the English bombers on the return trip. It was, Kammhuber thought with some oblique pride, a very successful readaptation of his original scheme, that he had tried to apply in 1940 and 1941. The political power of Heydrich  had allowed this scheme to resurrect, correcting its original shortcomings, and putting behind it the structures to make it work.

It worked. What had really surprised him was that, with an unusual show of modesty, Heydrich had even given the due credits, in public, to Kammhuber ’s ideas.


Sunday, over Hamburg, 01:00 am


Donald ‘Don’ Baker  cursed and corrected slightly, with the cloche, the flight trajectory of his Lancaster . That night, everything was going awfully wrong. They had never met so many German night fighters at once, and he knew that many of his mates had been shot down already. How on earth had they manage to assemble all that? They had been told that the German night fighter Nachtjagdgeschwader were wrecked, that they were out of planes, ammo and pilots, and now the sky was full of twin-engine, swastika-emblazoned killers roaming all around them, ploughing big holes in their planes with machine guns, exploding them with cannons.

He continued to look at the black sky in front of his canopy with helpless rage. They had been lucky until now, but he knew that luck was scarce in that kind of situation. The gunners had already told him that they had spent most of their ammo during the German attacks, now they had few shells left. And they still had to drop their load!

The temptation to drop all the bombs there, now, and steer the big bomber back to its calm airfield in Sussex was very strong, but Baker was a soldier. A real, tough English soldier, and he was proud of it. To say he didn’t care of the danger would have been a lie: he was scared of death as everyone, but he did press on anyway. His country had given him a task to accomplish, and he would go to the end of it, no discussion about it.

The first searchlights began to pop up just before Hamburg, revealing roughly the contours of the English bombers’ target. Baker thought bitterly that the searchlights were now making the work that would had been the Pathfinders’. They obviously hadn’t arrived there, as there wasn’t a single ‘marker’ visible. As he knew some of those guys quite well, he knew that the only reason for the lack of markers was that they must have been shot down, all of them, and he felt sorry for the chaps.

And those searchlights? They had been told by the Generals at the Bomber Command Headquarters that the ‘Searchlights Raids’ had been hugely successful, and that they didn’t have to fear those massive reflectors. Now Baker could see dozens of searchlights popping on almost everywhere in Hamburg. Stupid sons of bitches, he thought bitterly of the Headquarters guys….

This confirmed his idea: it was a trap. And they were flying right in the middle of it. Did the Bomber Command at least get an idea of the mess?


Sunday, High Wycombe, 01:00 am


They were getting an idea, yes. The loss of the Pathfinders had given the first alarm, and the following messages from the attacked bombers had given everybody at the Headquarters an idea of what was happening.

Not that they were caring much about it. Harris  had flatly refused to believe that the losses piling up until then could be a hint to an even worse evolution. Then a group of German bombers had unexpectedly arrived from the East and had destroyed both CAT and MOUSE, letting them, at least momentarily, without a fundamental part of the Oboe system. This didn’t have any direct effect on the Hamburg mission, but was a significant worsening of the situation.

The massive, unrelenting attacks of the unprecedented horde of German night fighters to the stream of British aeroplanes was taking a heavy toll on the RAF bomber formations. It proved also that what was happening wasn’t just an occasional series of strokes of bad luck. It was, it had to be a carefully prepared ambush. The deeper the bombers penetrated the German defences, the harder they were getting hit. Although at that time it was clearly impossible to calculate the losses, it was anyway quite evident to all the Bomber Command operators that the Hamburg raid was quickly turning in a deadly disaster.

Harris  flatly refused to think of calling the bombers back anyway. “They’re already over Hamburg, for God’s sake!” he yelled, furious, to his Deputy, Purdey, who was suggesting that a partial retreat would save a lot of lives and of precious aeroplanes. “Let them bomb the bloody city, then they’ll be back as well as if they turn their back over here now!”


Sunday, over Hamburg, 01:30 am


The first Flak shells began to explode around the Lancasters as soon as they arrived over the outskirts of the city. It was a huge barrage, mostly of 88 mm fragmentation shells, and it was hard to bear for the shaken, and often already wounded, RAF crews. The 128 mm grenades added heavier damages to the already shattered airframes of the British ‘heavies’.

At least, the murderous night fighters had disappeared. The Flak was something they were all used to; the carnage of this first part of the flight was over, now there was the real work to do, the dropping of the bombs on the target.

But the crews found little relief in the sudden disappearing of the enemy fighters. The Flak was more efficient than ever, that night, over Hamburg. Hundreds of heavy AA cannons were following the bombers thanks to an unprecedented number of searchlights, dozens of them scattered all around the city. Explosions deafened the crews, the shrapnel pierced the fuselages; though direct hits were rare, the airmen getting seriously or fatally hit by the shrapnel of the 88 mm shells were many.

Moreover, the bombers had to fly level along the last part of the aiming, to allow some degree of precision to the assault, and this made all of them preys to the German gunners, that had, for the first time since weeks, an unlimited supply of ammo and searchlights everywhere to help them in locate the bombers. The Lancaster and Halifax crews, faithful to their orders but deeply scared, plunged straight in the appalling barrage of heavy artillery prepared for them by a man wearing the sinister uniform of an SS General.


Sunday, Hamburg Heiligengeistfeld Flakturm, 02.00 a.m.


They were dead in the middle of the bombing, now, and Fuchs hadn’t the time to look around him anymore. Now all he could do was to work: check the data of the cannon, look up at the airplane-filled sky, control that the ammo got properly loaded in the gun.

The noise was unbearable. The slow droning of the Viermots, on his ‘Turm’, was drowned by the explosions of the bombs falling on the city and by the continuous din of the Flak cannons pumping one heavy shell after another at the dark shadows, once they were caught by the searchlights and illuminated. It was also terribly hot, over there; the fires generated by the bombs dropped by the RAF Viermots, added to the heat generated by the red-hot barrels of the constantly firing cannons, made Fuchs sweat profusely.

Inside, it had to be even worse, he said to himself, thinking that the apertures in the concrete bunker were minimal and, during the air raids, were sealed by steel curtains; there was also the continuous racket of the mechanical lifts for the ammunition to the roof platforms to bear. It was a hellish place to be, and still was probably the safer place in Hamburg, those nights.

 Wincing, he looked at the fires blazing from the incandescent muzzles of the guns of the roof of the ‘Turm’. The air was full of the acrid smell of cordite, and the spent shells, ejected from the cannon’s chambers, bounced on the concrete: they had to kick the heavy brass canisters away, to keep the floor clear.

Even the smaller guns were shooting continuously, but not in vain. Fuchs’ battery had already hit at least one Viermot, exploding it with a single, lucky shot. The enormous orange ball that had suddenly taken the place of the airplane had been extremely rewarding, for the hard-working ‘Luftschutzdienst’ crew. The bombers were really many, that night: they just kept on coming, a never-ending stream. But they were being hit, hard. Fuchs didn’t smile, he couldn’t allow himself this luxury in the middle of the battle, not while his eyes were half-closed by the pungent smoke of the guns and the horizons began to be dotted by the fires of the city hit by the British bombs. But he felt, deep in his heart, that this was becoming a night to remember.


Sunday, over Hamburg, 01.00-05.00 a.m.


Over Hamburg, when the bombers arrived on the last few miles to the aiming point, the crews understood that the Germans had lured them in an ambush. ‘Gomorrah’ was a gigantic, horrible trap. The big four-engine bombers continued to penetrate the air space over Hamburg only to be massacred by the heavy Flak, falling down the sky one after another; losses being incredibly high, less than a half of the projected bomb load fell over the city, and most of it out of the appointed targets.

In the appalling chaos of that night, the bombers that had dropped their loads turned immediately their back to the city, trying to get back to England as soon as possible. Most of their bombs had been scattered harmlessly around the perimeter of Hamburg, a part of it had fallen in the sea or in the deep waters of the harbour, only a comparatively small percentage having found a decent target.

But the return trip to England was still long, very long. It was like all the German night fighters had been unleashed on their back, and the British, New Zealanders, Canadian aviators hung for sheer life in the middle of the most viciously murderous attack they had ever endured.

The chaos was appalling even from the German part, of course, but, this time, the Luftwaffe aviators enjoyed a good advantage, being on their own country: if they had to bale out, they would find a quick rescue. The others had been unofficially informed that they stood a fair chance of being shot as ‘assassins’, so they all were doing their best to open a way back to England through the deadly wall of bullets and grenades of the predating Junkers and Messerschmitts. There were also other, quite different beasts cruising around, though no British airman had the chance to recognise the new, formidable but still very rare Heinkel ‘219’. With his still ‘Versuchs’ 219, Major Hans Zetschke shot down six Viermots, that night. Each ‘Abschuss’ being sarcastically dedicated by the gallant Major to FDM Milch, that had said that the ‘219’ was a useless machine.

The lethal carrousel went on for the whole night, the twin-engine Zerstorers chasing their enemies until they were nearly over England. They had all strict orders to turn back before getting over the British land. It was clear that the aeroplanes would be sorely needed for the following night, and it was useless to chase the bombers there.

Some of the Lancasters and Halifaxes met other problems when they finally reached their own airfields, bombed with a fairly good result by the Germans. Nothing really impossible to repair, but a severe annoyance all the same. Some bombers were lost because they ran out of fuel; several crashed on a wrecked landing strip when trying to land. Many others were pierced by so many holes that they were simply not airworthy anymore, and a good number needed serious repairs.

When the morning dawned, and even the last flying Lancaster  had landed, everyone knew that the losses had been horribly high. Of the 1.023 bombers sent over the Hanseatic capital, 161 had been shot down, and at least 120 more were damaged to the point that they were not repairable in a reasonable time.

It was the most serious catastrophe in the RAF’s recent history. It was a horrible, unexpected mess. The loss of six precious Pathfinder Mosquitoes and of all the ‘Masters of Ceremonies’ had been the first hint of the disaster, but, at the BC, there still was someone who couldn’t accept it.


Sunday, Hamburg Heiligengeistfeld Flakturm, 05.00 a.m.


Fuchs finally dropped his gloves and goggles, weary but satisfied. Their battle was ended, for the night; the guns shut up, only a persistent burning smell still hanging in the air, a powerful reminder of the battle that had just ended, of those furious four hours of fighting. They looked each other in the eyes, finally, and, after a round of fresh water, they lit up their cigarettes and counted their results. Three bombers shot down for sure! An exceptional result, the best they had had in the last six months! Excellent. The other batteries had shot down two or three airplanes as well, so the Flak had really done its duty, that night.

Slumped on his metal seat, Fuchs inspired from his cigarette and looked up, at the sky that, now, was once again clear, empty, beautifully deprived of any flying object. He let go a large circular puff of smoke, relaxing. It had been a really great night. If only a similar result could be repeated each night….



 (an extract from 'The Night Watch',  ed. Compositori, Bologna, 1998)


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