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From The Archives: Background To The Bath Blitz

A local historian, John Penny, researched the RAF records and the Luftwaffe records that survived the war, and prepared a very detailed analysis of exactly what happened leading up to the Bath Blitz. This is an extract of the paper he submitted to the Project.

(The links to technical details of the aircraft involved will all open in the second window).

Background Information

Despite the fact that since October 1939 German aircraft had been attacking shipping and carrying out aerial mine laying off the English east coast, Luftwaffe operations against mainland Britain only began in earnest in June 1940 when some 1300 medium bombers began moving on to newly captured airfields in France and the Low Countries. From then, until the opening of the Russian Front in June 1941, the raids on Britain's industrial and commercial centres continued with increasing ferocity, this twelve month period being known to German historians as "The Air Battle for England". Not surprisingly, after suffering a year of aerial bombardment the switching of the majority of the Luftwaffe's aircraft to the East came as a great relief to Britain's defenders, leaving the Germans with no more than 120 bombers and minelayers to enforce the blockade of the country by engaging in anti-shipping operations.

In spite of bombs falling in Bristol on about 70 occasions between June 19th 1940 and July 5th 1941, only once prior to the spring of 1942 did a German aircrew actually claim to have attacked nearby Bath, and then only as an alternative to their real objective in London. This incident, involving a Heinkel 111 operated by the first Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 27, took place on the night of September 16th 1940 when the crew, flying from Tours in France, claimed to have dropped 16 small high explosives on the city. The truth, however, was somewhat different as KG 27's bombs actually fell many miles away, exploding harmlessly in open country in the vicinity of Nailsea, Clevedon and Portishead: not a particularly good example of German night navigation.

This having been said, nine times during the "Air Battle for England" Bath's ARP Control recorded bombs falling within the city boundary, but all were in fact stray devices actually intended for targets elsewhere. Mercifully, casualties were comparatively light and the only deaths occurred in the spring of 1941, during the course of Bristol's last two heavy raids. The first incident took place on the night of March 16th, when as a result of the attackers encountering poor visibility over their intended target, the suburb of Twerton was bombed in error, with the tragic result that six people in that area lost their lives.

Less than a month later, early on the morning of April 12th, a German aircraft again strayed over Bath and the bombs that came down in the Dolemeads area of Widcombe killed a further 11 people, all innocent victims of the so called "Good Friday" raid which was intended to destroy harbour installations in and around Bristol.

In comparison with the vital ports and major production centres the threat to Bath was considered small, and as the country's resources were dangerously stretched for the first 2 years of war, no anti-aircraft guns, balloon barrage, or even a decoy site was provided to protect the city. What did exist in the area, such as the guns at Corston, searchlights on Lansdown and at Newton St.Loe, Claverton Down and Wellow, as well as the fighter airfield at Colerne and its satellite at Charmy Down, were sited for the greater good, and principally for the protection of Bristol, South Wales and the industrial Midlands.

Nevertheless, Bath was home to a number of undertakings important enough to be considered by the Ministry of Home Security as "Key Points". These included both Stothert & Pitt's Victoria and Newark works where gun mountings for tanks, human torpedoes, and minesweeping gear were manufactured, as well as the Newbridge and Albion plants of the Horstmann Gear Company which concentrated on the production of fire control instruments and torpedo parts. The British Overseas Airways Corporation, which for most of the war had their main base nearby at Whitchurch airport, occupied Bath Garages in James Street West, and Isaac Pitman's in the Lower Bristol Road, both of which were used for the overhaul of airscrews, while Bath Aircraft, also in the Lower Bristol Road, went on to make such things as wooden parts for assault gliders.

German Intelligence

The failure of the Germans to identify any of these sites pointed to a weakness on the part of 5 Abteilung, the Luftwaffe's Intelligence Section, rather then the pilots from the long-range reconnaissance units, who brought back a series of excellent photographs of the area, which soon disclosed the existence of a number of local military installations. During 1940 at least eleven reconnaissance aircraft flying from French airfields are known to have operated over Bath, and the Junkers 88 of Fern Aufklärungsgruppe 123 which overflew the area on August 30th was probably responsible for taking a photograph covering much of the borough which revealed the location of the military hutments at Fox Hill, soon after designated target GB 14 67. This sortie was followed up three days later when an aircraft from the same unit took another photograph, which for the first time enabled Luftwaffe intelligence officers to prepare target folders on the military hutments at Lansdown Camp, target GB 14 115, and Swainswick aerodrome target GB 10 371, an establishment known to the RAF as Charmy Down airfield, which at that time was still under construction.

As well as the aerial photographs, the Luftwaffe's target folders also contained maps showing the location of the various objectives, and it is interesting that these consisted of suitably annotated and re-scaled pre-war British Ordnance Survey maps, complete sets of which had been purchased by the Germans shortly before the outbreak of hostilities! In spite of the fact that the hutments at Fox Hill and Lansdown had both been identified by the autumn of 1940, the Germans never actually established their real purpose, and although they were aware of a military presence in the city, to quote one of their own radio broadcasts, they thought it contained "High Staff Officers of the British Defensive forces who have set up their headquarters in the hotels and bungalows of Bath". This of course contained an element of truth, but it was in fact the Admiralty, various technical departments of which had been evacuated westwards at the outbreak of war, that had requisitioned more than 25 buildings in the city and been responsible for constructing the two camps.

The Germans limited information, coupled with a failure to identify the location of important industrial undertakings in Bath, therefore lead them to designate the city itself target GB 99 35, a "lesser town without specific aiming points".

Bombing Policy

Meanwhile, after a complete review of British offensive policy had been carried out, on February 14th 1942 the Air Ministry informed RAF Bomber Command that, "it has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular of the industrial workers". Although this was to prove to be a turning point in the air war against Germany, unknown to the British planners it also sealed the fate of Bath.

The instruction, which called for the direct targeting residential areas, was first put into practice during the Lübeck attack on the night of March 28th when some 30% of the town's built-up area was destroyed, along with a number of architectural gems. However, as the raid had left much of the harbour and industrial plants of the old Hanseatic city intact, it was seen by the Germans as a shift of the air war away from military objectives to attacks on the civil population and cultural monuments.

This particularly incensed Hitler and moved him to reciprocate by signing, on April 14th, order number 55672/42 which informed the Luftwaffe High Command that "when targets are being selected, preference is to be given to those where attacks are likely to have the greatest possible effect on civilian life. Besides raids on ports and industry, terror attacks of a retaliatory nature are to be carried out against towns other than London."

German Forces

Retaliation, however, was easier said than done as the German Air Force was made up of a number of individual Air Fleets, or Luftflotten, each in effect a mini-airforce assigned its own geographical area, and a number of these were seriously under strength. This certainly applied to Luftflotte 3, which had been solely responsible for operations against England since June 1941, a formation which also had the misfortune to be commanded by General-Feldmarschall Hugo Sperrle who, since his arrival in France, had become progressively addicted to laziness and luxurious living. Although back in the winter of 1940 Luftflotte 3 had some 44 bomber Gruppen at its disposal, by April 1942 this number had fallen to less than six, a force totally inadequate for the task ahead.

In spite of these problems, there were on Sperrle's staff a number of talented and efficient officers, and they made the best of a bad job by selecting as targets small poorly defended towns and cities, comparatively near to the coast and therefore easy for inexperienced crews to locate on moonlight nights. This they correctly believed would allow them to deploy the maximum number of aircraft with minimum losses, particularly important as the serviceability rate of Luftflotte 3's aircraft at that time was under 70%, which in practice meant that less than 80 would normally be available for operations on any one night.

The bomber units assigned to Luftflotte 3 were divided between its two subsidiary formations, IX Fliegerkorps then based mainly in Holland, and the much emasculated Flieger Führer Atlantik, an anti-shipping formation located in North-Western France. Of the aircraft available, about 55 were the Dutch based Dornier 217's of the second and third Gruppen of KG 2, together with KG 40's subordinated second Gruppe all of which, as part of IX Fliegerkorps, had recently been engaged in minelaying and attacking harbour installations along the English south and east coasts. Some 50 or so anti-shipping Junkers 88's were also available to Luftflotte 3, these belonging to both Küsten Flieger Gruppe 506, again located in Holland under the IX Fliegerkorps, and 106 operating from Dinard on the Brittany coast as part of Flieger Führer Atlantik. The final element of the attack force was made up of the eight Heinkel 111's of Erprobungs und Lehr Kommando 100, a test and experimental unit based at Chartres, south-west of Paris, which for nearly two months had been carrying out proving flights against England using advanced electronic bombing aids that required them to fly along narrow radio beams accurately laid over the intended target.

This formation was pressed into service as the pathfinders, their crews being employed to drop incendiary bombs at the beginning of each raid, with the aim of starting fires to guide the main bomber force to their objectives, while at the same time specially selected crews from KG 2 released parachute flares to illuminate the whole of the area to be attacked. Selecting 'soft' targets where anti-aircraft guns or barrage balloons were few, or non-existent, also allowed shallow dive-bombing to be carried out, and the Junkers 88 and Dornier 217 units were to be exclusively engaged in this activity. Consequently, their payloads contained mostly high explosives bombs, predominately of the 500 kilogramme variety, and relatively few incendiaries. Although during the "Air Battle for England" the weak state of the British defences had allowed the Germans to carry out raids which lasted as long as 12 hours, by this time it was considered prudent to undertake concentrated attacks of short duration, in order to make life as difficult as possible for the RAF's constantly improving night fighter force.

Leading Up To The Attack

While the Luftwaffe were completing their preparations, on the night of April 23rd RAF Bomber Command undertook the first of a series of four attacks on the Baltic port of Rostock, where once again serious damage was caused to historic buildings, provoking another angry German reaction. The following day, Baron Gustav von Stumm of the Foreign Office Press Department took it upon himself to announce that as a reprisal for the damage caused at Lübeck and Rostock, "we shall go all out to bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide". This pronouncement soon appeared newspapers around the world, which immediately began to describe the new attacks as the "Baedeker Blitz", a name by which it became universally known. It should, however, be pointed out that in his world famous travel books Karl Baedeker never actually marked ANY building with more than two stars! So it was that in the spring of 1942 such places as Exeter, Bath, York, Norwich and Canterbury all suddenly assumed the status of prime objectives for Luftflotte 3's bombers.

Exeter was the target for the first reprisal, carried out by 57 aircraft flying double sorties on the night of April 24th 1942, selected no doubt as the Dutch based Dorniers were still parked on French aerodromes, having attacked harbour installations around the city on the previous night. However, at the same time as the Luftwaffe were making for Exeter the RAF were once again en-route for Rostock with an attack force of 125 bombers.

The following night, April 25th, saw the British return to the Baltic town for the third time, just as the Germans were setting out on their second "Baedeker" attack on England, a raid which they justified in a subsequent radio broadcast, stating that, "the Luftwaffe's reply to the attacks on Lübeck and Rostock was a raid on the ancient British cathedral city of Exeter. As Britain apparently refuses to take this warning and has resumed her attacks on non-military objectives in Rostock, the Luftwaffe has dealt her an even heavier blow, and a reprisal attack has been launched by strong German bomber units against Bath, the famous British Spa, the meeting place of many of those who are responsible for the ruthless British air raids launched against the civil population of Germany".

Prior to undertaking operations against Bath, II and III/KG 2, together with II/KG 40, remained on their respective forward operating aerodromes at Evreux and Caen in Normandy, and Rennes in Brittany, while as both Kusten Flieger Gruppen had also been ordered to take part, during the morning of April 25th 506 surreptitiously flew down to Brittany, to occupy Lannion airfield on the far western flank. In addition, and somewhat unexpectedly called upon to assist, were a number of Reserve Training Units based in France and Belgium. These, the fourth Gruppen of Kampfgeschwader 2, 3, 4, 30, and 55, equipped with elderly Heinkel 111's and Junkers 88's, and even some obsolete Dornier 17's, were normally non-operational, made up as they were of crews of instructors, and trainees at the end of their courses. In the event, this was to prove an unwise move for of the 22 men subsequently lost by the Luftwaffe in their operations against Bath, 13 were from the RTU's.

Even with all possible sources having been tapped, little more than 80 bombers were available to Luftflotte 3, so in an attempt to make the best use of such limited resources it was decided that a two phase attack would be undertaken against Bath, with most aircraft flying to and from the target twice in the same night. Using this technique a total of 151 of the 163 sorties dispatched subsequently reported over the city, their crews claiming to have dropped 206 tonnes of high explosives and 3564 one kilogramme incendiaries on their objective. The plan of attack called for the leaders, Erporbungs und Lehr Kommando 100, to follow the Y-Verfahren radio beams which had been laid directly over the Fox Hill hutments, while the Junkers 88's of IV/KG 3 were to undertake a parallel operation against RAF fighter airfields in the West Country in an attempt to disrupt their activities.

 


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