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From The Archives: The First Attack

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 during the first attack of 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).

The Attack

At 10.25 pm that night the first aircraft of the main bomber force crossed the English coast over Bridport, those behind coming in on a broad front between the Isle of Wight and Seaton, after which the majority flew up country between Taunton and Yeovil, and on towards Bath.

However, as they approached the target a small number strayed into the Bristol Gun Defended Area and mistakenly dropped their bombs on the south-east edge of the city killing 18 people and causing Bristol's anti-aircraft defences to put up the heaviest barrage for over a year.

In spite of this early setback, the bulk of the bombers did succeed in locating Bath, where at about 11.20 pm the raid commenced with parachute flares and incendiary bombs, followed shortly after by the high explosives. In the 50 minutes or so the raiders were over the city they carried out mainly low level attacks, together with some machine gunning of the streets in an attempt to deter the fire fighters.

With a bright moonlight sky over Bath all went well, and the new tactics were so successful that the majority of the aircraft returned safely. Only two Junkers 88's and a Dornier 17 being shot down by fighters, and two Dornier 217's crashing on return to France, probably after being damaged by the coastal anti-aircraft guns.

German Propaganda

To fully exploit the propaganda aspect, the Luftwaffe also sent war reporters out on operational missions, these men being given the special rank of Sonderführer. Those attached to IX Fliegerkorps belonged to Luftwaffe Kriegsberichter Kompanie 3 based at Malmaison, near Paris, one of whose number, a former newspaperman named Günther Hoenicke, flew on this first Bath raid. Although he had never taken part in a bombing mission over England before his pilot assured him that there was little cause for worry as their target lacked virtually all military importance and was therefore not defended. Suitably reassured, the young Kriegsberichter was soon busy writing his account which, under the dramatic headline "Bath - Fire of Annihilation", was soon being syndicated throughout Europe, and was even broadcast by German radio.

"Late in the evening of April 25th many German bombers took off and approached their target through banks of cloud. On the British coast the first searchlights flashed up. The Tommies don't yet know where the bombers are heading, they think they are well protected in Bath. We roar down from the sky, now the first flares from our leaders light up the land like day! Beneath, the River Avon winds through the country like a silver thread. Here below us is the great loop in the middle of which lies the town, and now too the first small incendiaries go down.

Suddenly, in front of us a great towering flame appears which dazzles us with its flaming red, even in the cockpit! A huge cloud bursts up from below, sinisterly illuminated by the greedy, self-devouring flames. A gas-holder has exploded in the gas works. In a second the fire spreads and casts a flaming light over the city. We go down still lower, and beneath us we see rows of burning houses. Smoke rises from them and thickens into a black cloud which lies over the town like a pall. We can recognise the streets as well, fire and destruction are raging in them!

Our commander calmly searches for a new target. We fly over it, 'bomb doors open, let go!' Heavy bombs fall, then waiting - a strained pause. Once again there is a flash below, and where all had been dark before there is suddenly light, an unpleasant light for the English: annihilation! The bombs have exploded and met their target, fresh formations are coming up behind, and new explosions continually occur. One wave after another visits this town with death and destruction, this night of terror will go down in Bath's history. The British Air Staff can judge for themselves regarding the German Air Force's striking power in the West."

British Countermeasures

The main defence against the Luftwaffe raiders was, of course, RAF Fighter Command and in the South and West they had based four squadrons of Beaufighters, 125 at Colerne, 307 at Exeter, 604 at Middle Wallop, near Andover, and 219 Squadron at Tangmere, near Chichester, all their aircraft being equipped with Airborne Interception Radar. Supplementing these were the "Cats Eye" Hurricanes of 87 Squadron at Charmy Down, 247 Squadron at Exeter, 245 Squadron at Middle Wallop and 1 Squadron at Tangmere, although these were not equipped with any special equipment to assist their pilots in locating the enemy at night. Also forming part of the defences were flights of Havocs and Bostons (very similar to the Havoc) based at Charmy Down, Middle Wallop and Tangmere, but although these were fitted with aerial searchlights known as "Turbinlights" which had been designed to work with the Hurricanes, the whole concept was a complete disaster and was never operationally successful.

That night, in spite of flying 51 Hurricane and 30 Beaufighter sorties Fighter Command encountered serious problems, particularly that of inter-sector communication, and although the Beaufighters, assisted by Ground Controlled Interception Radar, did succeed in destroying three enemy bombers, two of the fighters involved had only taken off to carry out technical checks, and were therefore not strictly speaking an actual part of the defences. It is also worth noting that the successful interceptions took place well away from the target area and at relatively high altitude, circumstances definitely favouring the Beaufighters.

This having been said, to begin with things went well for the fighter defences as just before 10.30 pm that night a Junkers 88 from Küsten Flieger Gruppe 506 was shot down into the sea some 15 south of Beer Head, in Devon, by Beaufighter T3358 flown by Flight Lieutenant Neyder and Sergeant Wozney from the Polish manned 307 Squadron. Although the four German crewmen were seen to parachute from S4+MH as it dived in flames towards the sea, no trace of them was ever found and today Unteroffizier Michael Bartl, the pilot, Leutnant Joachim Ritzmann, the observer and commander of the aircraft, Unteroffizier Fritz Schmidt, the wireless operator, and Feldwebel Max Burdenski, the gunner, are still officially listed as missing.

Five minutes later another Junkers 88, 5K+DW from IV/KG 3 which appeared to have become lost, was engaged by the 4.5 inch heavy anti-aircraft guns at site J16B on Flat Holm Island, off the Glamorgan coast, then being manned by 351 Battery, 112th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment. In an attempt to escape from the Severn area defences the bomber ran for cover up the Wye Valley, but as it flew out northwards it was intercepted by Beaufighter X7933 from 255 Squadron based at High Ercall, in Shropshire, which although only up on a test flight was successfully vectored onto the Junkers, enabling Flying Officer Wyrill and Sergeant Willins to attack it and send it crashing down on to Gwaunceste Hill, near Builth Wells, in rural Breckonshire. Surprisingly, Oberfeldwebel Walter Kreinenbrock, the observer, and Gerfeiter Paul Kochon, the wireless operator, were both able to bale out of the stricken aircraft, and subsequently spent the rest of the war in captivity. However, their two comrades Oberleutnant Günther Brixius, the pilot, and Feldwebel Adolf Leidig, the flight engineer, were not so fortunate and after initial interment in nearby Glascwm churchyard their bodies were moved to the Deutsche Soldatenfriedhof at Cannock Chase.

The third successful interception took place just before midnight, when a Dornier 17 of IV/KG 2 which had already sent out an SOS message was caught about 40 miles south of Worthing by Beaufighter X7690 from 219 Squadron, flown by Squadron Leader J.G.Topham DFC and Sergeant Strange, another aircraft which had only been vectored onto a raider after taking off for an air test. The combat, however, was initially inconclusive, but a little over an hour later U5+GW signalled "Landing - Pancake Landing" before plunging into the sea off the French coast taking with it Unteroffizier Siegfried Kukla, the pilot, Gefreiter Karl Küsters, the observer, Unteroffizier Karl Graf, the wireless operator, and Unteroffizier Hans Jansen, the flight engineer, the latter two being the only ones whose bodies were ever recovered.

Notwithstanding these initial successes, in the vicinity of Bath it was a very different story and 125 Squadron, a unit which had just converted from Defiants and had only been operating the Beaufighter for four days, encountered particular difficulties over the city. Here the German bombers adopted new tactics jinking, violently diving, orbiting and flying low in the bright moonlight over the small unprotected target, making it impossible for the Beaufighter's radar to hold them for any length of time. In addition, during the night the GCI stations had to cope with considerable interference from certain of the fighter's electronic systems, while technical problems prevented two other aircraft from even entering the battle.

The Hurricanes had an even worse time of it, and in fact were totally impotent. Initially ordered to patrol within grids formed by vertical searchlight beams only one pilot even saw an enemy bomber, but this was of little consequence as at the time Pilot Officer McNair of 87 Squadron was about to parachute from BE566 after running out of fuel over Somerset, the abandoned aircraft finally crashing to earth on high ground between Somerton and Pitney. Likewise, "Dawn Patrols", aimed at catching stragglers from the attack force, had an equal lack of success and only resulted in serious damage being caused to BE580 of 247 Squadron, Pilot Officer Thompson being caught by a strong gust of wind as he attempted an emergency landing on the rudimentary aerodrome at Bolt Head.

Although all had not gone well for the defenders, around midnight the RAF's 'Y' Service, which was responsible for intercepting the Lufwaffe's radio transmissions, had identified two other Bath raiders in trouble, and the first of these was a Dornier 217 of III/KG 2, which carried the Werke number 1165. Just after 11.30 pm this aircraft signalled "Engine Damaged", before limping back to the French coast and crash landing on Caen-Carpiquet airfield where it sustained 50% damage, almost serious enough to have the bomber written-off completely. The other, identified in German records as Wnr.5090 from II/KG 40, was probably that claimed destroyed at 11.38 pm by the men of 418 Battery, 140th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment operating the Portland 4 gun site at Southwell. About 40 minutes later the aircraft was called by its control, but they received no reply as by that time the crew had successfully reached occupied France and taken to their parachutes, the abandoned bomber finally coming to earth at Courseulles-sur-Mer, near Caen.


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