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.

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