Under a Bomber's Moon: The true story of two airmen at war over Germany, page 1
Figure A: (J. Woodley)
Stephen Harris trained as a journalist, working as a reporter for the Auckland Star, the Dominion and the National Business Review, a presenter and editor for Radio Deutsche Welle in Germany, and later as the Political Correspondent for Radio New Zealand. In 2001 he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, recently completing a three-year assignment as Deputy Ambassador in Berlin. He and his family are now based in Wellington.
For my family
A project carried out while living and travelling in foreign countries is a great way to make friends, and assumes greater significance when one of those countries is a former bitter enemy of my own. Many people have contributed to this story, some featuring in its pages, others because they wanted it told, but still more purely out of generosity or extraordinary professionalism. There are too many to name, but some deserve special mention because their help sustained me along the journey and made a significant contribution to the finished product.
First, the ‘home team’. My parents, Ian and Jill, spent many hours critiquing and editing early drafts and helped me to keep to my path despite many tempting sidetracks. To them I owe my greatest debt. My children, Laura and Martin, cheered me on, even on ‘boring’ research trips by car. Jocelyn, my wife, made perceptive comments on the later drafts. Earlier, when I was struggling to point the project in the right direction, Lloyd Jones helped me to define the job ahead. Michael Gifkins, his agent, protested only a little at having a complete stranger thrust upon him by Lloyd, and gave me the benefit of his years of professional experience, always with great humour. Max Lambert, author of Night After Night, contributed his extensive knowledge of Bomber Command and, with a sub-editor’s sharp eye, weeded out several factual errors and inconsistencies. He regularly drew on the encyclopedic Errol Martyn, author of For Your Tomorrow, a book that honours the New Zealand losses of Bomber Command with a thoroughness I doubt will ever be surpassed. Ian Watt, my editor at Exisle, has applied a sure but delicate hand towards publication.
Judy Hill, Col’s niece, got the whole thing started by transcribing his diary in the mid-1990s, thus breathing life back into his story 50 years after his death. In Britain, Jan Burke and Gordon Galloway, whose fathers had been among Col’s crews, made available a wealth of material that lit up several of the episodes in this book. Fred Coney of the Mildenhall Register put me in touch with them and welcomed me to the 149 Squadron reunion in 2008, where Jim Coman DFC, a veteran former wireless operator with that squadron, provided many technical explanations from his experience on two tours.
Second, my thanks to those people whose professional help went well beyond what I could reasonably have hoped for. Frank Simpson, the Air and Naval Attaché at the British Embassy in Berlin, made possible my visits to Col’s former airbases in Britain, streamlining bureaucratic processes that I might otherwise still be grappling with. Once I was there, Jerry and Ruth Neild at Lakenheath and Rick Fryer at Mildenhall ensured the visits were both highly enjoyable and informative. I owe some of the most useful research gleanings to a curator at the RAF Museum, Hendon, Gordon Leith, who responded fully and promptly to every query. In Berlin, Holger Steinle of the German Technology Museum was equally supportive of my project, while Jan Heyen and Cornelia Loeser at the New Zealand Embassy helped to dislodge occasional obstacles. Wilhelm Goebel of the Gemeinschaft der Flieger Deutscher Streitkräfte (the Association of German Military Airmen) put me in touch with several of the former fighter pilots interviewed for this book.
Which brings me to my heartfelt thanks to the Germans who told me their stories. In Penzlin, Hartmuth Reincke and Kurt Köhn led me to the site of Col’s demise. Paul Zorner shed further light on that fatal night and many of his own experiences. Otto-Heinrich and Irmgard Fries not only told their stories of triumph and trauma, but did so with an openness and generosity that helped me to understand some of the qualities of resilience that enabled Germans to pick themselves up from defeat and build the country I know and admire.
Ack-ack – anti-aircraft fire.
Bordschütze – air gunner.
Bordfunker – Luftwaffe wireless and radar operator.
Corkscrew – a bomber’s evasive action, flying a twisting roller-coaster.
Dead reckoning – navigation by calculating position and course, factoring in wind strength, sometimes with references to visual landmarks, or ‘pinpoints’.
Düppel – see ‘Window’.
Endgültig Krähe – ‘final crow’, or operations scrubbed. Vorläufig Krähe meant remain on standby, in case the weather improved sufficiently to fly.
Fasanen – ‘pheasants’, meaning weather clear for operations.
ETA – estimated time of arrival.
Flak – acronym for Flieger Abwehr Kanone, or anti-aircraft cannon.
Freya – German radar installations with a range of about 120 kilometres.
Funkfeuer – radio beacon signals to help German pilots locate their airbase.
‘Gardening’ – air operations to lay mines at sea.
Gee – standard British navigational device from early 1942, for navigators to fix their bomber’s position by vectoring radio signals from three transmission stations in Britain.
Jägerkreis – social organisation for former German military airmen, similar to the Returned Services Association.
Lichtenstein Gerät – German on-board target finding radar, comprising three (later two) screens, which indicated the bomber’s distance ahead, its bearing and altitude in relation to the fighter.
H2S – revolutionary on-board navigational and target finding device enabling a bomber and its user to track the terrain below, independent of radio position-fixing signals from Britain.
Loops – radio position signals, using the ‘loop’ aerial just rear of the cockpit canopy. ‘Ropey loops’ were readings 180 degrees to the signal source, i.e. in the opposite direction.
Nachtjäger – literally ‘night hunter’ of the German night fighter force.
Nachtjagdgeschwadergruppe – Night Fighter Group.
Oboe – British navigational and target finding device that improved precision by guiding bombers to target along an arc ‘scribed’ by tone signals that varied in relation to the target location.
Pauke, Pauke! – meaning ‘drumbeat’: Luftwaffe fighter pilot’s report to ground control that he was commencing an attack. Similar to ‘tally-ho’ used by RAF pilots.
Pinpoint – a visible landmark to plot position.
Plattenbau – tenement blocks, mainly in the former East Germany, constructed from prefabricated concrete slabs.
Radar – Radio Detection and Ranging, first developed in Britain in 1935.
Raumjagd – Luftwaffe practice of guiding individual fighters, assigned to a particular defensive zone, onto individual bombers detected by radar. This guided hunting was also referred to as zahme Sau, or ‘tame boar’.
Schräge Musik – upward-firing cannon on German night fighters, mounted rear of the cockpit and angled forward at 70 degrees. This enabled the attacker to approach a bomber undetected and to open fire from beneath its undefended belly.
SN2 – updated German on-board radar, which used a longer-wave radio frequency that helped to overcome the distorting signals of ‘window’. The forward-mounted antennae necessary for SN2 were larger and thus caused more wind-drag, impeding performance.
Staffel – Luftwaffe squadron.
Stellplatz – parking position for Luftw
Viktor – German ground control acknowledgement over radio, similar to ‘Roger’ in English.
Vorläufig Krähe – ‘provisional crow’, meaning German night fighter crew should remain on standby, in case the weather improved sufficiently to fly. Endgültig Krähe – ‘final crow’, or operations scrubbed.
Weidmannsheil! – Luftwaffe salutation meaning happy hunting!
Wilde Sau – literally ‘wild sow’, but usually referred to as ‘wild boar’, and meaning the free-range hunting by night fighters without guidance from ground radar. By contrast, zahme Sau fighters were guided into close contact with bombers by ground control.
Wehrmacht – German army.
‘Window’ – metallised strips strewn from bombers to distort German tracking and on-board radar with decoy showers. The German name for ‘window’ was Düppel.
Würzburg – German localised radar, with a range of about 40 kilometres.
Zahme Sau – see Raumjagd.
JOURNEY AMONG GHOSTS
Berlin is full of Ghosts. Occasionally they leave a sign to show the past is very much still with us. In December 2005 – a year after my job brought me to Berlin – a works crew digging up part of the city’s imperial grand boulevard, Unter den Linden, unearthed a British 1000-pound (450-kilogram) bomb that had failed to explode during one of the big wartime raids on the German capital. The bomb, embedded vertically 4 metres under the present-day road’s surface, forced its closure for four hours.
Ten years earlier, while working as a journalist for Radio Deutsche Welle, I made a programme about a team of a dozen munitions experts who, 50 years after the Second World War, worked full time locating and defusing leftover ordnance in and around Cologne. Aerial photos of most German cities taken by the United States air force in 1945 reveal the extent to which the Allies took the war to the homes and factories of the Third Reich. Little wonder the physical remnants, too, of this trauma are still working their way to the surface.
Though I did not know it when I worked in Cologne, my time getting to know this city founded by the Romans was the first small step in a quest. While I was there, my mother sent me a copy of the diary written by her uncle, Frank Colwyn (Col) Jones, while he was flying operations over Germany. He died raiding Berlin in 1944. I could not then – and still cannot – reconcile the evil that Nazi Germany unleashed across Europe with the decency and moral seriousness of my many German acquaintances. Nor could I place the answering destruction the Allies rained down from the air within the fundamental reasonableness of the Commonwealth nations. My great-uncle’s story, mostly in his own words from his diary and extensive letters home, forms the starting point and the core of this book, and of my own quest. It tells of adventure, terror, tragedy, devotion to duty, deep camaraderie and humour. His part in this story is of a journey across great distances from his home in Auckland, New Zealand, via Canada to Europe, which he crisscrossed over two years with deadly intent. But it is also a journey of discovery – of England, a country and people he regarded as his own – and of his realisation that his young, new world had grown apart from Britain in more than just distance. He never made it home.
My journey traces his, but from a very different beginning and from a distance of more than 60 years. My travels have taken me to all the cities he bombed and many more. Along the way I have had many conversations with people who remember those times as intensely as if they happened yesterday. A neighbour – a teenager in Berlin at the time it fell to the Russians in May 1945 – warned me the time was ‘not ripe’ to write about such a subject: Germany needed still longer to come to terms with its past, he said. He was in the minority. Contrary to Basil Fawlty’s warning, many Germans do like to talk about the war in an informed way. It destroyed their country, along with others, and shaped both their lives and the map of the Europe they live in today.
Many exhaustive analyses tell of the destruction wrought by the bombing of Germany, complete with an endless statistical rendering of the houses and factories levelled, people killed and aircraft brought down on both sides. I could not do a more thorough job and I have no intention of trying. Instead I have, in my journey, tried to understand the human impact on both sides. Our family lost an esteemed and accomplished member with a bright future. He was among millions who died fighting a just cause, 55,500 of them while serving with Bomber Command.
But what of those who ‘started it’? The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote: ‘If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.’ It was impossible for me to live so many years in the modern Germany and not be driven to find out what it was like for this country, having ‘sown the wind’, to ‘reap the whirlwind’, as the Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, described it.
As I so often found when making radio documentaries about Germany in the mid-1990s, I did not have to step far off my path to meet people who had experienced extraordinary episodes in their country’s history, and were happy to tell me their stories. Given the subject of my inquiries, my name even turned out to be an icebreaker, as ‘Bomber’ Harris is second only to Churchill as the British name that Germans most associate with the war. ‘No, we’re not related,’ was often my answer to their first question. Some of those I talked with remember the events of the 1940s with crystal clarity, because they spent several formative years of their youth never knowing whether each night would be their last. I have focused my discussions with these witnesses to history on two of the German airmen sent up to destroy the bombers before they could pulverise and burn their cities. Their experiences were typical of those related by others with whom I have talked.
One of them in particular, Otto-Heinrich Fries, recorded his experiences some years later. He never published them, but with a humbling generosity made them and his photographs available to me, with the tacit expectation that I would try to capture what it was really like to fight and lose a war and much more besides. Leutnant Fries and Flight Lieutenant Col Jones were sometimes pitted against each other in the night sky above German targets. Though they never clashed directly, as far as I could determine, they shared the experience of destroying the enemy and of being shot down by him. Both were decorated for their skill, tenacity and bravery, and both were completely devoted to their tasks. Both paid a high price for this dedication. Some two dozen interviews with Professor Dr Otto-Heinrich Fries and his wife, Irmgard, during 2007 and 2008, plus discussions with several other former night fighters, helped me to understand this personal cost.
Where did my journey start? My great-uncle Col’s account of his part in the first thousand-bomber raid on Cologne, in May 1942, burned in my mind while I worked there in the mid-1990s. The magnificent cathedral on the Rhine stood out from the rubble in 1945, even though it had been struck by a dozen bombs during successive raids. When I arrived in Berlin in 2004 I knew Col had died bombing the city and lay buried there, just two bus-stops from my home. From my home office window I could see the Teufelsberg, Devil’s Hill, one of the few areas of high ground in this flat city, but one created entirely from the rubble of 400,000 Berlin homes flattened by Allied bombers and Russian artillery. Beyond a natural curiosity about my great-uncle’s experiences, however, and what he might have contributed to Berlin’s suffering and Germany’s defeat, I saw no prospect in a busy working schedule of starting to piece the two broken remnants of these stories together.
That changed after I visited the town north of Berlin where Col’s bomber was destroyed in February 1944. When I went there in early October 2006 with my two children, I left a greeting and a request for information in the visitors’ book of Penzlin’s Lutheran church, which was grandly garlanded from the previous weekend’s Harvest Sunday. The brick interior diffracted the warmth of the autumn afternoon sunlight and seemed to breathe more spirit into the harvest offeri
During the war some 2000 top engineers worked in secret at Rechlin-Lärz to develop Nazi Germany’s airborne weapons – not just aircraft, but also the initial experimental rockets that became the infamous V1 ‘doodle-bug’ flying bombs. They fired the prototypes into nearby woodland; today the area is a popular recreational nature reserve. I contacted the museum and made an appointment to visit, driving there on a gloomy November day with my parents, who were visiting from New Zealand. We hoped it might throw some light on the region’s role in defending Germany against the wartime bombing onslaught – possibly even what happened to Col’s aircraft – but we found little at the museum to encourage us. We left our car on a parking area of broken asphalt demarcated only by a low chain linked to posts sunk into concrete-filled car tyres and picked our way across a neglected expanse of boggy grass. We had become lost en route, were ‘blitzed’ by two speed cameras lurking in dead villages with no other evident source of revenue and finally found the airfield on a road that led to a crane-nesting area. Despite the fact we were running so late and had had to phone ahead and apologise, our host greeted us with affable familiarity – a trait I have routinely found more often in eastern than western Germany, where it sometimes seems punctuality is revered above hospitality.
Bernd Neumann cocked a snook at history when, soon after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, he went against the tide of thousands fleeing to the west and instead headed east. In his early twenties at the time, he opted to join his sweetheart in the nearby town of Müritz. And here they still were, Frau Neumann greeting us briefly and leading their little dog out through the clutter of engine parts to the front of the building, where part of a vivisected Soviet-era MiG jet fuselage gaped on the broken tarmac, alongside various other rusting carcasses. Bernd Neumann sat us down at a table in what served as his office, crammed with a desultory array of aviation paraphernalia, including a mannequin fully kitted out as a wartime German paratrooper – the scourge of the Anzacs at Crete – and still menacing, with its Schmeisser machine gun trained on our coffee mugs.