Wartime News

 

Vol 10. 1st Edition

 

February 2005

 

© Wartime News

Raid on Dresden

by the late Peter Twinn DFC - 149 Squadron - Avro Lancaster

As an Air Gunner, I began my second tour of operations with 149 Squadron in January 1944, having completed my first tour with IX and 514 Squadrons in June the previous year.

My skipper, Sqn Ldr Colin Payne DFC, rang me at 1653 Con Unit at Chedburgh where I was instructing and asked if I would go back with him again for a second tour.  I agreed.  When the crew met at Methwold we found that there were four of the original crew from our first tour.  As Colin was now a Squadron Leader Flight Commander, it meant that our period of ops was restricted - we were only allowed to fly one operation a week!  So it was that we were due to operate on 13 February 1945 - Dresden!

From our point of view, it was no different from any previous targets.  At the briefing, we were told that the Russian Leader had asked Churchill for the Command to bomb Dresden as it would assist his push to the west and so shorten the war.  Churchill agreed with Air Vice Marshal Harris for the raid to go ahead.

     The route was shown on the large wall map and instructions were given as to the direction we should approach the target, the height and the route back to base.  After briefing we got dressed in our flying kit and made our way in the coach which would drop us off at our Lancaster aircraft - ‘A’ for Apple.

Being rear gunner, I wore an inner suit over my battledress which was lined with electric wires to provide heating.  Over that, there was a cumbersome outer suit plus three pairs of heated gloves and a pair of heated slippers inside my flying boots.  On top of all this, I wore my parachute harness, helmet and goggles.  Wearing all this gear made it difficult to walk very far!

Having reached the aircraft, we hung around for a few minutes, then boarded and took up our positions.  I was at the rear end of the aircraft, facing the other way.  Having stowed my parachute pack, I climbed into the rear turret.  Only the pilot had a ‘seat type’ parachute, the rest of the crew had ‘chest type’ chutes.  This meant that you had to collect your chute pack from its stowage position near your station, then clip it onto your harness.  You then made your way to an exit and jumped out if necessary!  All very easy in theory but not so easy when your aircraft is in a dive or on fire.  To get my chute pack, I had to centre my turret, open the doors at the back, slide out, unhitch my chute pack, clip it on, then get to the rear door and jump out!  That, of course, provided that you were not injured beforehand.

    Having settled at our stations, the skipper started the engines, ran them up and when satisfied that all was in order, he taxied round the perimeter track, then when he was given the green light from flying control, he pushed the throttles forward and we thundered down the runway and became airborne.  The skipper asked the navigator for the course to steer and we then climbed to our designated height and cruising speed.  During the flight no one spoke except to give an order or answer a query from the skipper.

    As we approached the German coast, I was reminded to look out for night fighters.  The whole time I was flying, I had to rotate the turret left, then right, looking for them or other aircraft.  This procedure carried on hour after hour until back at base!

When we reached Dresden, we were lucky to find that they had very few searchlights and that the ack-ack guns were less in number than at many other targets.

    The Pathfinder aircraft were dropping coloured target indicators.  These comprised large flares on parachutes which were dropped to indicate the aiming point.  The bomb aimer then had to direct the skipper on the correct line to fly.  Having reached the aiming point, he dropped his bombs - but that was not the end.  He told the captain to continue flying straight and level for two minutes while the camera took a picture of where we had bombed.  This was the most nerve racking part of the journey because now we were more vulnerable to flak and night fighters.  Once completed, the captain turned away from the target in a steep dive and headed on a new course towards home.  The photos would eventually be scrutinised at base to see where we had actually bombed.  Meanwhile, shells from the ack-ack guns were bursting all around us, and normally German night fighters were  hunting for an easy target.  This was where we air gunners came into our own, constantly looking for fighters in our sights.  If one did appear below or at either side, I’d give the order to the skipper to ‘corkscrew’ port or starboard, depending on where the fighter was.  This meant that the skipper had to turn the aircraft in the direction ordered and dive at the same time.  After descending for about 300 ft, he would do a steep climbing turn on the opposite side.  This manoeuvre would continue until the rear gunner gave orders to fly straight and level.  We usually found that after the initial dive the fighter pushed off and found someone else who was asleep!  On this particular occasion we were not attacked by fighters and so turned on a new course for base.

After about 100 miles from the target, I could still see the red glow in the sky, but it was no different from any other occasion.  After eight and a half hours flying, we eventually reached base safely and were interrogated by the Intelligence Officer about our mission.

    So ended another ordinary flight to the Reich.  As I have said before, “one town on fire was the same as any other town on fire”.

Dresden had been proposed by the Russians as a suitable target to help their advance from the east.  It was also a munitions town, making torpedoes, wooden tail assemblies for the V1 flying bombs, machine guns, searchlights and aircraft parts.  It was also designated as a military strongpoint as part of their defence along the River Elbe at which the Soviet advance could be held.  This request had been sought by the Air Ministry with Churchill’s encouragement to conduct heavy raids on towns such as Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig.  The Americans were also asked to support it.  This proposal was called ‘Thunderclap’ involving the Allied Strategic Bomber force - US Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command.

At the Yalta conference on 4 February 1945, the Russians requested attacks like this to take place.  Eventually the Combined Chiefs of Staff considered the Soviet request.  Air Chief Marshal Bottomley went ahead and gave his orders to Harris, saying that Bomber Command was to bomb Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz and any other cities where a severe blitz would cause confusion in the face of the Russian advance.

Bomber Command had doubts about Dresden, including Harris.  Dresden was particularly a long way to go, winter weather could make the operation hazardous, so little was known about the defences - so much could go wrong.

Harris and General Spaatz, USAAF, were ordered to attack at the first opportunity.  It was not until 13 February, when the right weather forecast arrived, did Harris seek formal agreement to go ahead.  Thus the raid on Dresden took place on 13-14 February and the controversy has continued ever since, mainly directed at RAF Bomber Command and Air Chief Marshal Harris and his aircrews.

    Some of the Group Commanders gained the impression that Harris was dissatisfied with the whole affair.  As the orders came through SHAEF he had to go ahead, but he always realised that the real decision was the result of a lot of discussion at the highest levels with Churchill as the major voice.  Harris said “the attack on Dresden was at the time considered as a military necessity by more important people than myself”.

Following the raid, Goebbels took the opportunity to add a ‘0’ to the number of casualties, inflating the figure out of all proportion.  They also stated that Dresden was a peaceful town and only manufactured talcum powder and toothpaste, and was a city of culture.

    Bomber Command was not mentioned in Churchill’s speech after the war.  The only service to be ignored which embittered Harris even more.  The final nail in the coffin of Bomber Command was Churchill’s refusal to award a campaign medal to his men specifically for their exploits, both on the ground and in the air, at home and abroad.  His plea on their behalf was ignored.  He stated  “… he too would have the Defence Medal and no other!  Nothing else whatever, neither decoration, award, rank preferment or appointment, if any such is contemplated or intended, I will be proud indeed to wear the Defence Medal and that alone - as bitter as the rest of my personnel.  I will not stand by and see my people let down in so grossly unjust manner without resorting to every necessary and justifiable protest which is open to me … I therefore ask to be saved the embarrassment that will certainly ensue if I am to be the recipient of honours while my people - who have given such long devoted service - are denied any recognition beyond the gesture so far made”.

    He told Lord Trenchard, “I started this war as an Air Vice Marshal.  That is my substantive rank now.  With that and the Defence Medal I shall now leave the Service as soon as I can return to my country - South Africa - I’m off!!

In postscript, it must be said that at this time there had been an increase in the unease by some of the vocal minority - a Bishop and several Government members urging that the bombing should stop.

Thus Bomber Command became the ‘Black Sheep’ of the Service and it is only now that a revision is being made.  So perhaps we, of Bomber Command, can hold up our heads again and be proud of what we did to save our country from defeat, and to honour the thousands of our comrades who perished unsung.                                            Material Copyright © Wartime News.