Embarrassed entrée - combat baptism of Bomber Command RAF

Autor: Miroslav Šnajdr 🕔︎︎ 👁︎ 24.623

3 minutes after midday on 3 September 1939, just one hour into the state of war between the UK and Germany, a Blenheim Mk.IV serial number N6215 of 139th Sq. took off from Wyton airfield. RAF. The machine, piloted by F/O AM McPherson, was given a truly historic role - to make the first RAF combat flight over enemy territory in the new war. According to the instructions, the crew was to conduct a reconnaissance of Wilhelmshaven and airfields in northwestern Germany.

A lone plane crossed the North Sea and penetrated above the anchorages of the German navy. Although the view was obstructed by a foggy haze, the observer from a height of 6,700 m took a sketch of the ship's layout. The crew believed they spotted three or four battleships, four or five cruisers and seven destroyers. The only obstacles to the successful completion of the flight were the atmospheric conditions. The camera mounted in the plane froze after 75 frames. Due to the low temperatures at high altitudes, the gunner's radio station also froze, so the crew could not directly report the situation in the port. The pilot landed his Blenheim safely on the runway at Wyton at 4.50 pm.

Bomber Command in September 1939


The RAF's offensive arm, Bomber Air Command, had 23 operational squadrons in September 1939. On average, there were 280 machines in combat condition. They were located at a total of 13 airfields, scattered in the east of the mother islands. The squadrons fell into a total of four operational groups, each of which used one type of twin-engine bomber (the other 11 squadrons serving in the four groups had non-operational status ).

Hampden Mk.I of serial number P1333 and code designation F-EA from condition 49. Sq. RAF

Well 2 ( Bomber ) Group RAF flew twin-engine Bristol Blenheim Mk.IV light bombers. A total of six operational squadrons were based at Norfolk airfields. The main strength of Bomber Command, however, lay in machines of heavier categories, called at that time heavy bombers ( in reality, they were medium bombers ). They were concentrated in the remaining three groups.

No. had the most combat-ready armament of them. 3 Group . Six of its front-line squadrons, based in the Cambridge and Huntingdon area, flew Vickers Wellington Mk.I and Mk.IA bombers. Well 4 ( Bomber ) Group was the only Bomber Command group of the time that specialized in night operations. The armament consisted of five operational squadrons of Armstrong Whitworth Whitley machines, mostly Mk.III and Mk.IV versions. The squadrons were based at airfields in Yorkshire. Well 5 Group had six squadrons of Handley Page Hampden Mk.I bombers. They were based at airfields in southern Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

In general, it can be said that Bomber Command had quality aircraft for that time: rather average performance, but reliable. However, the RAF machines lagged behind the Luftwaffe bombers, especially in the quality of internal equipment, radio stations, sights and the effectiveness of bomb armament. The standard of pilots ( who held the position of aircraft commander in the British sense ) and standards of aircraft ground care were good, but the quality of air navigation, gunnery and bombing lagging behind. In general, the less realistic training from the pre-war period, when flying was done almost exclusively in good weather and navigation and night flights were neglected, had a negative effect.

Light bomber Bristol Blenheim Mk.IV from the armament of 53. Sq. RAF


Bomber Command, since its creation in 1936, was created primarily as a tool for a strategic bombing campaign. There were several plans prepared for various scenarios for the initiation of war operations. In the case of immediate direct German action against Britain or France, for example, decisive daytime air raids against the industrial heart of the Reich - the Ruhr area - were assumed. However, the war had begun on September 1st with Hitler's attack on Poland, and for the time being it was taking place far to the east, far from the British Isles. That is why the principle of the so-called restricted bombing was adopted: the RAF will not carry out offensive operations that would endanger the lives of enemy civilians. This " consideration " ( somehow disregarding commitments to the Luftwaffe's indiscriminate raids on the crushed Polish ally ) was partly motivated by a common fear of retaliation by the more powerful Luftwaffe and partly by political calculations ( including an attempt to gain sympathy overseas, where US President FD Roosevelt called on the belligerents to abandon attacks on cities ).

The first target for Bomber Command RAF bombers was therefore to become ships of the German Navy, including units anchored in ports.

The Afternoon of September 3rd

Unfortunately, the results of McPherson's survey were available with a considerable delay, and the British could no longer use them in the planned afternoon raids, for which Blenheims, Hampdens and Wellingtons were ready at the airfields. On standby held by Blenheims of the 107th , 110th and 139th Sq. ( No. 2 Grp. ) therefore remained at their bases. Despite the deteriorating weather, a total of 27 Hampdens of the 49th , 83rd and 144th Sq. ( No. 5 Grp. ) and also nine Wellingtons of the 37th and 149th Sq. ( Well. 3 Grp). went into offensive action against the German ships.

This is how the German painter-propagandist imagined the Blenheim attack on the anchored Kriegsmarine warship

According to Operational Orders B2, the bomber crews were to " inflict maximum damage on enemy surface ships located in Jade, on the approaches or directly in the harbours at Wilhelmshaven". The order emphasized the prohibition of such bombing that would endanger civilian settlements.

The raid ended in a debacle. Due to the delayed launches ( both nine-member Hampden formations did not get into the air until shortly after 18.00 ), the bombers arrived too late in the target area, and the crews could not find any ships due to cloud cover and gathering dusk. Returning at night was complicated by the fact that most bomber pilots had never flown in the dark before! The Wellingtons returned by 22.40 and the Hampdens even later; last landed 2 min. after midnight. The very fact that the crews managed the difficult return and there were no losses was a certain success.

Night from September 3 to 4

On the night of 3/4 September, 10 Whitleys of the 51st and 58th Sq. from Leconfield airfield to the first RAF night action over Germany. A total of 5.4 million leaflets were crammed into the bomb shelters and internal spaces ( a total of 13 tons of paper! ), which were about to be dropped on Hamburg, Bremen and nine other cities in the Ruhr. It was the first of a series of similar operations, codenamed Nickel ( nickeling or nickel plating ) and carried out during the following eight months of the " pretend war ". With some exaggeration, the effect of these activities was twofold: It provided the Germans with a decent supply of toilet paper and the crews of No. 4 Grp. again much-needed practice in night flying under realistic combat conditions. After the initial event, three machines remained missing. Fortunately, it soon became clear that their crews had gone astray and had landed in allied France due to lack of fuel. One of them, a Whitley Mk.III ( K8969, GE-C ), belonging to the 58th Sq. , was destroyed during the crash at Amiens. Pilot F/O JAG O'Neill failed to make an emergency landing at 5.45 am in a cabbage field at Dormans, on the east bank of the River Marne. The aircraft became Bomber Command RAF's first operational loss during World War II.

The morning of September 4

Due to technical difficulties and the inability to organize a raid on 3 September, F/O McPherson had to set out again on his risky reconnaissance mission the following morning. Took off at 8.35, again in the cockpit of a Blenheim Mk.IV ( N6215 ), to take pictures of the German ports of Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Kiel. The weather was really terrible this time. On the way to the German coast, the plane was lashed by torrents of rain, visibility was limited by cloud cover. Clouds covered the German coast as well. In order to identify targets in the ports of Brunsbüttel and Wilhelmshaven, the pilot had to take a risky descent to a low altitude. The pilots observed a large warship entering Wilhelmshaven harbour. The Blenheim whizzed by at a height of less than 80 m - and the Germans did not even have time to react with anti-aircraft fire. Two vessels were anchored in Brunsbüttel. Four destroyers were spotted by aviators sailing from their anchorage at the mouth of the Jade River. The gunner sent a report on the result of the observation by radio. Alas, in distant Britain the dispatches were intercepted in an unintelligible form, probably due to a malfunction of the transmitter.

Landing Whitley Mk.V from 102nd Sq. RAF

McPherson's crew returned to the airfield after a gruelling five-hour mission at 1:35 p.m. Her report made it possible to launch Bomber Command 's first truly sustained offensive action in World War II. The images were processed with a delay, so the crews sent to the raid in the meantime had to do without their help. Upon examination of the photographs, the British discovered that the vessel seen by the crew at the entrance to Wilhelmshaven, believed to be a battleship, was in fact a less valuable target – the light cruiser Leipzig.

The Afternoon of September 4th


A significant role during the afternoon raid was played by Blenheims Mk.IV of No. 2 Grp. The operation was planned since the night hours of September 3. 2 minutes before midnight orders arrived at Wattisham and Wyton airfields for the 107th, 110th and 139th Sq. prepared nine planes each for attacks on German vessels. The machines were supposed to be ready from 8.00. They started to take off after McPherson provided details of the deployment of the German ships following his successful reconnaissance operation.

The operational order again predicted attacks on civilian targets. He stated that " greatest care must be taken not to injure civilians ." The intention is to destroy the German fleet. There is no alternative destination ". If the German ships were not found, the crews were to throw bombs into the sea. A total of 41 bombers took off. 15 Blenheims of the three above squadrons No. 2 Grp . and 12 Hampdens 49th and 83rd Sq. ( No. 5 Grp. ) aimed at ships on the approaches to Wilhelmshaven. At the same time, 14 Wellingtons of the 9th and 149th Sq were dispatched. ( No. 3 Grp. ) against German vessels anchored at Brunsbüttel, some 75 km northeast of Wilhelmshaven.

Due to low cloud cover, limiting the height of the flight during the bombing, the gunners placed two 227 kg bombs in the bomb bays of the Blenheims, equipped with untested 11s delays. They were supposed to ensure that the plane would be far enough away from the impact of the bomb during the explosion.

Hampden Mk.I from 106. Sq. RAF

Five Blenheims 139. Sq. took off from Wyton at 15.32; unfortunately, the operation did not go well for the unit. On the way over the North Sea and over the German coast, the crews faced adverse weather. The bombers circled along the enemy coast for some time without spotting any target. It seems that the navigators when searching for German ships mistook the mouth of the Emze for the bay of Wilhelmshaven. In the end, the crews of the 139th Sq. drop the bombs into the sea and return to base.

If 139. Sq. failed, the crews of the two remaining Blenheim Mk.IV squadrons fared considerably better. Machines 110. Sq. took off at 15.56 and the planes of the 107th Sq. in 4 min. later. Five Blenheims 110. Sq. , led by F/L Ken Doran, attacked first. The crews spotted the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, anchored offshore and protected by tethered balloons. The destroyer Diether von Roeder was moored 1.5 km further northwest, and there were other smaller vessels nearby. The enemy's first attacking swarm was surprised, and two of his three Blenheims penetrated the heavy cruiser without encountering anti-aircraft fire. Only belatedly did the Germans begin an intense anti-aircraft fire, both directly from ships and from ground positions.

F/L KC Doran and his No. 2, P/O GO Lings, attacked Admiral Scheer almost simultaneously. In a gentle descending flight, they descended from a height of 90 m above the ship. They threw the Cougars at just 10m with considerable accuracy and claimed at least two direct hits. According to one source, Doran's bombs landed about 10 m in front of the ship and only one of them exploded. P/O Lings placed one of his bombs directly on the stern of the cruiser. Unfortunately, it did not explode, so it remained only with the destruction of the directly hit Arado Ar 196 aircraft. The second bomb ended up in the water near the ship and failed again. The Pumas, equipped with 11s retarders, were a shameful disappointment. Sgt. JH Hanne, flying as No. 3 in the first swarm, dropped bombs on a nearby support ship but missed.

Second Swarm 110. Sq. , consisting of only a pair of Blenheims, was already attacking under intense anti-aircraft fire. F/O HL Emden ( N6199 ) attacked the destroyer Diether von Roeder. The bombs missed the target, but the anti-aircraft fire sat and the Blenheim was shot down. The crew of four fell. The pilot of the last bomber, Sgt. R. Abbott, failed; due to intense anti-aircraft fire, he evaded the target and returned without engaging any of the German ships.

The crews of five Blenheims of the 107th Sq. during the flight to the target, they struggled with bad weather and penetrated over the target only after their colleagues from the 110th Sq. The German anti-aircraft defenses were already fully on their feet and explosions of anti-aircraft shells filled the air. The Blenheims flew in a southerly direction over the Jade River, then over Entrance No. 3 to Wilhelmshaven. They flew over the light cruisers Nürnberg and Leipzig and the destroyer Paul Jacobi . Then they returned in a northerly direction and attacked Admiral Scheer.

The target of the Blenheims during a raid on 4 September 1939, the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer

The attack ended for the 107th Sq. a real disaster. Anti-aircraft fire ( perhaps with the help of one Bf 109 E pilot ) sent four bombers to hell. The first to attack was F/L WF Barton. He gripped the control stick of a Blenheim Mk.IV ( N6184 ). The attack machine was ignited while flying over Admiral Scheer, dropped the bombs into the sea about 30 m from her hull, and then exploded in mid-air. Two men fell, the observer escaped and was captured.

Also not returned were Blenheims N6188 P/O WJ Murphy and N6189 F/O HB Lightoller. It was one of these machines that crashed into the light cruiser Emden, anchored in Hipper-Hafen. More likely it was F/O Lightoller's machine.

The crew, which eventually ended its flight by crashing into Emden, attacked from the machines of the 107th Sq. as fourth in order. According to the Germans, the second attacking Blenheim was hit about 4,000 m from Admiral Scheer and went down off Mellum; a third plane, already hit, surfaced and strafed a submarine chaser, injuring three sailors, before also being shot down. The pilots of the fourth Blenheim most likely saw the demise of the previous machines attacking Admiral Scheer and preferred to try to attack one of the other ships. German reports state that during the approach to Wilhelmshaven this bomber flew over the dock containing the unfinished battleship Tirpitz. He circled and continued to seek a target while the intense fire was directed at him from land and ships. When he finally tried to attack the light cruiser Emden, he was mortally wounded. The Blenheim disintegrated in midair. The right engine broke off and fell onto the Wiesbaden-Brücke bridge. His bombs hit the water close ( about 12 m ) to the right side of the cruiser and exploded. The remainder of the machine rammed directly into the ship: killing 11 sailors and injuring 30 other crew members of the Emden. In the end, it was not the dropped bombs that caused the biggest losses to the Kriegsmarine during the entire raid, but the impact of the wreckage of the downed plane.

After the event at the 107th Sq. also missing Blenheim N6240 Canadian Sgt. AS Prince. It was damaged by anti-aircraft fire during the attack on Admiral Scheer and then crashed into the water. It is in his case that it is sometimes assumed that after being damaged by flak still north of Bremerhaven, he became a target for Messerschmitt Bf 109 E Lt. Metz from II./ JG 77. After hitting the surface of the water, all three men were able to leave the sinking wreck and squeeze into a lifeboat. Pilot Sgt. A.S. Prince however sustained a serious injury, to which he soon succumbed in a German hospital. The two remaining airmen, observer Sgt. Booth and gunner AC1 Slattery were captured.

To the base from the planes of the 107th Sq. returned only Blenheim N6195. The crew testified that they became separated from the squadron formation north of Borkum due to bad weather. Singlehandedly reaching the German coast, she flew over the approaches to Jade, but finding no suitable target, returned to Sutton Bridge with bombs.

The other participants in the raid did not fare too well either: Five of the 14 Wellingtons of the 9th and 149th Sq. returned prematurely. Three of the bombers of the 9th Sq. at 18.05 they unsuccessfully attacked the battleship Gneisenau and one crew claimed a merchant ship hit. Near Brunsbüttel, German pilots from 6./JG 77, Fw. Alfred Held and Fw. Hans Troitzsch, shot down one Wellington Mk.I each from the 9th Sq. RAF ( L4268 F/S IEM Borley and L4275 WS-H F/S AJ Turner ). Both crews of five lost their lives.

149. Sq. she did not find the target. Most bombers dropped their bombs into the sea. One bomber emptied the contents of a bomb bay at Cuxhaven. However, one crew did so over the town of Esbjerg in neutral Denmark! Pumas killed one woman here, who became the first civilian victim of aerial warfare in Western Europe ( the death of two Danes is sometimes reported ).

Hampden crews of the 49th and 83rd Sq. did not find the target and increased the number of aircraft that returned from the action without seeing the enemy to a total of 21.


All in all, the Air Bomber Command's raid on the afternoon of September 4 ended in failure. He indicated the trends that followed Bomber Command in the initial phase of the offensive against Germany: difficulties with navigation and finding targets, problems with inefficient bomb armament, the technical deficiencies of the aircraft and with the strength of the German defense. He also showed the flaws in the combat training of the British crews - for example, the Hampden pilots never took off with machines fully loaded with bomb loads until the events of September 3rd and 4th!

At the same time, however, the raid brought a number of firsts, thanks to which it entered the history of World War II. These include the first British bombs dropped on German targets, the first RAF Bomber Command prisoners in German hands, the first British airmen killed in direct combat with the enemy, as well as the first German soldiers killed during the RAF attack in the new war. And also the first civilian killed by British bombs, who also lost his life in neutral Denmark.

The RAF paid the price for this first offensive action of the new war with the loss of a total of five Blenheims, two Wellingtons and mainly 26 airmen, of which a full 24 were killed. F/L Doran of the 110th Sq. received a DFC for the action, while F/O McPherson of the 139th Sq. the same distinction was awarded for his daring exploratory actions.

Sources (selection):
Bowyer, Ch.: 2 Group RAF;
Colvin, T.: Wilhelmshaven. After Battle 148; Ehrengardt, Ch. J., Shores, Ch., Weisse, H., Foreman, J.: Les Aiglons;
Chorley, WR: RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Vol. 1

Posted by the kind permission of the author.
It was published in the magazine Military revue 10/2010 by the publishing house Naše Vojsko .

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