The Battle of Heligoland Bight (1939)


wellington and 109

Vickers Wellington and Messerschmidt 109

Battle of Heligoland Bight (18th Dec 1939)

Allied – 22 Vickers Wellington bombers

Axis – 44 Messerschmitt 109 and 110’s

Result – Axis victory


Allied – 12 bombers shot down, 3 damaged. 57 dead

Axis – 3 fighters shot down, 10 damaged. 2 dead, 2 wounded

German histories note this raid as the most significant air battle of the war, purely for the effect it had on the strategy of both sides.

By December 1939, the war had been in progress for 3 months and was well into the “phoney war” phase. Although the causus belli (stated reason) for the war was the German invasion of Poland; the French and British had assembled a powerful force, but had left it dug in along the German border, whilst the Germans and Russians crushed Poland unmolested. The raid occurred just 10 days after the battle of the River Plate and the scuttling of Graf Spee.

Bombing at the time was restrained by the need to avoid adverse publicity with neutrals, particularly the USA. Attacks on urban areas were to be avoided. This was respected in the western theatre by both sides at this time – but by nobody in the eastern theatre, where the city of Warszawa was heavily bombed and civilian columns on the roads attacked; up 7,000 Polish civilians were killed by bombing during the siege of the city.

The first British air raids on German territory started as soon as war was declared as did the first U-Boat attacks on British shipping. On 3rd Sep, just a few hours after war was declared, 18 Handley Page Hampdens and 9 Vickers Wellingtons took off from RAF Wyton to attack the battleship SMS Admiral Scheer, moored in the Jade Estuary near Willhelmshaven naval base. The target could not be found due to heavy cloud, and the force returned to base. About the same time as they were landing, submarine U30 spotted and torpedoed the Donaldson Atlantic passenger liner SS Athenia without warning, about 70 miles south of Rockall. The liner was 1 day out of Liverpool, en-route to Montreal and had 1,400 passengers on board; 98 passengers and 19 crew were killed. These were the first British, Canadian and American civilians killed in WW2.

The RAF tried again to attack the Admiral Scheer the following day, when 15 Bristol Blenheims returned and found the battleship. Germany had no integrated radar defence at this time and the Bombers found the ship before they were intercepted. Despite this only one bomb hit the ship, but it failed to explode; no significant damage was done. At the same time 9 Vickers Wellingtons attacked shipping in the Elbe Estuary, further along the coast, but again did no damage. 3 Wellingtons and 5 Blenheims were shot down, the first British military losses of WW2.

Sporadic air attacks on shipping in the North Sea continued until Dec when the RAF decided to mount its largest attack to date. The target was any German shipping in Heligoland Bight between Willhelmshaven and Cuxhaven. 22 twin engine  Wellingtons from RAF Milldenhall deployed, each with a crew of 5. The Wellington was adapted to the pre- radar era – it could attack land or sea targets fast and low and with great accuracy; the main danger was from anti-air craft guns, not enemy fighters.

But as a massed attack bomber, outnumbered 2-1 by high performance fighters vectored in by radar – it was hopeless. The flight flew east and was picked up by the newly installed Freya Radar station on Heligoland Island; The flight initially headed for Kiel, but veered south at the last moment and came in from the northeast. Consequently, radar had tracked them for a full hour before reaching the target. Air Defence Command in Hamburg put 100 fighters in the air, the first wave of 44 intercepting the bombers as they reached the target. Within a short time 12 Wellingtons had been shot down and the rest fled badly shot up. No ships were damaged.

For the RAF, an attrition rate of 50% was unsustainable; this added to the realisation that accurate bombing against a defended and radar-enabled target was difficult if not impossible with the technology they had, led them to abandon daylight bombing altogether. RAF bombing activity was light until the Axis offensive in the west in May 1940, when first tactical, then strategic bombing re-appeared, but with a radically different set of objectives to the first tentative attacks.  Britain (and the USA) both understood the notion of “strategic” bombing – attacks directed far behind the lines at economic and industrial targets as opposed to “tactical” bombing – attacks in support of army or navy operations. Add to this the British view that the morale of the enemy population was a legitimate strategic objective, particularly that of war workers and you arrive at the following –

A separate “air front” – a strategic campaign of psychological warfare (nuisance raids and leaflet drops) and night-time bombing of economic targets conducted by larger bombers, with bigger bomb loads in bigger numbers. Accuracy at night was impossible, only wide areas could be targeted. The intention was not to hit just factories, but worker housing, with the stated intent of destroying housing and killing the inhabitants to bring about a collapse in the productive capacity of the enemy society and economy and to force them to withdraw from the war.  This policy was not put into effect earnestly until after the Blitz, in which 30,000 British civilians had been killed in the space of about 9 months. It should also be noted that the tactic of using electronic vectoring at night and a much higher  proportion of incendiaries in the bomb load were both copied by the RAF from Luftwafe tactics during the Blitz.

The German’s saw bombing very differently. To them the primary role of the bomber was tactical – it was there to support the operations of the other two services. They could conceive of tactical objectives behind the lines – attacks on British ports and aerospace industries during the Blitz being two obvious examples. Where the Luftwafe attacked civilian areas in Britain specifically it was usually “Vergeltungswaffen” (revenge weapons) – either the Baedecker raids against historic town centres or the V-weapons program, ie retaliation for Allied attacks on German cities. It wasn’t that Hitler was opposed to killing civilians – it was just that he didn’t think bombing was the way to do it.

Their biggest mistake however was to overestimate the effectiveness of their integrated defence and to inadequately fund not only fighter defence, but bomber development also. This was to have increasingly dire consequences from 1943 onwards as the Allies, by now re-inforced by the Americans could put 1,000 Lancasters and Wellingtons with electronically vectored Mosquitoes as pathfinders into a nightime raid and 1,000 Flying Fortress bombers plus 800 Mustangs and Thunderbolt fighters into a daytime raid.

The British and the American’s believed that strategic bombing could win a war – the Germans never did. As it turned out, the Allies were wrong. Despite repeated raids, the USAAF was never able to seriously dent, for instance, German aerospace industrial capacity. They simply dispersed most of it and moved the rest underground. German aircraft production actually rose and continued to do so until mid 1944 when the outer areas of the German empire were overrun and supply of raw materials dried up. The British (and later American) area bombing also failed to break the morale of the German population; although 350,000 of them had to die and 40% of urban Germany reduced to charred rubble to prove the point.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John


The First Air-Raid on Britain in WW2


HMS Southampton, Edinburgh and Mohawk by the Forth Bridge


Battle of the River Forth (16th Oct 1939)
Allied : 6 – 12 Supermarine Spitfires, 2 cruisers and 1 destroyer at anchor
Axis : 12 Junkers 88

Allied : Three ships damaged, 16 dead, 44 wounded
Axis : 2 Junkers shot down, 1 damaged. 8 dead, 4 POW
Result : Axis victory

British air attacks on German coastal targets began on the same day as war was declared, 3rd Sep 1939, and targeted military and merchant shipping in the North Sea and Heligoland Bight. Very little damage was done and no ships sunk for losses in bombers of over 30%; to be frank, the raids’ main value was as an unwitting live fire exercise for the Germans to tighten up their defences.

Hitler was at first reluctant to countenance heavy air attacks against Britain; in these early days of the war he still hoped that the British would come to their senses and reach an accommodation with him rather than risk another conflagration like 1914-18. Added to this both sides had an eye to neutral opinion elsewhere in the world, particularly the USA, and trod carefully in their selection of targets. Just as with the Baedecker raids and the V-weapons program later in the war, Germany launched this raid as a retaliation for the earlier British attacks. Even so, 6 weeks had elapsed before the first German attempt to attack the British coast with aircraft took place.

At 09.40 on the 16th, the radar station at Coldingham detected aircraft approaching the Forth Estuary in Scotland. Ground observation confirmed a Heinkel 111 at high altitude over Dunfermline heading towards Rosyth naval base, a major installation with many ships at anchor; protected by anti-aircraft batteries and a fighter squadron nearby at RAF Leuchers. Three spitfires led by FL George Pinkerton were scrambled to intercept and spotted the aircraft as it was turning away, having photographed the ships in the estuary. Pinkerton opened fire, but the Heinkel dove into a cloud bank and contact was lost – it returned safely to its base on the German island of Sylt, near the Danish border, at that time the closest Luftwafe base to Britain. Those were the first shots of the air war over Britain.

Heikel and JU88

Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111

The plane radioed that it had spotted several warships in the estuary including a battleship, which they thought was HMS Hood – actually it was the Repulse. About two hours later, 12 JU88’s, each carrying 2 500kg bombs, and led by Hauptmann Helmuth Poule took off from Sylt to attack the ships. The JU88 was designed as a multi role aircraft, used for reconnaissance, anti-submarine, bombing and as a night fighter. Its slow speed and lack of a tail gun however made it vulnerable to fighters – over 300 were shot down in the battle of Britain, more than any other aircraft.

As the Luftwafe formation approached the coast, it split up into 3 waves of 4 aircraft each, which separated and attacked the target from different direction. Radar picked them up at 14.00 and Spitfires were scrambled from Leuchars; the RAF managed to get 20+ machines into the air, but most were spread out across east-central Scotland trying to find the bombers and took no part in the battle. Consequently, the first wave was able to attack before being intercepted. Repulse was docked in Rosyth by now, as was aircraft carrier HMS Furious, but Poule’s orders forbade attacks near built up areas. Instead he attacked 2 light cruisers, HMS Southampton and Edinburgh anchored by the Forth Bridge and a destroyer HMS Mohawk, heading for the base. A civilian travelling on a train crossing the bridge witnessed the raid

“ …. there was a giant waterspout as high as the bridge alongside one of the capital ships and a barge tied up alongside; it seemed to fly up in the air! In later life I discovered it was HMS Southampton. There were two or three other explosions further off and one of the ships was actually struck.”

In fact, all three ships were hit; Mohawk took the most damage with 13 dead. Southampton also took a direct hit, but the bomb passed through the ship and out the other side, finally detonating when it hit the water. As the second wave arrived, the Spitfires intercepted them and a running air battle developed over the estuary and the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, with 2 Junkers shot down and 1 damaged; that aircraft made it back to Sylt, but crashed on landing killing all 4 of the crew.

The British press presented the incident as a victory, but in reality it was anything but that. The RAF squadrons contained a high proportion of auxiliaries, basically reservists only just called up; none had ever been in combat before. Also, the squadrons had only recently been upgraded to Spitfires; 6 months earlier they were still flying Gloucester Gladiator biplanes. The Luftwafe men however were all veterans of the Polish campaign; their superior tactics and skill in the attack were very apparent.

Despite powerful fighters and radar, raid had reached Rosyth naval base. HMS Repulse and Furious were recently docked and had their full complements on board – 2,000+ men and were sitting ducks. Where it not for Hitler’s early scruples about bombing built up areas in Britain, there might have been a mini Pearl Harbour that day. A year later, during the Blitz, 12 lumbering JU88s in daylight with no fighter cover would have been easy meat for the RAF – they would have got every one.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John