Tuesday, 18 June, 2024
18December 1939

RAF suffers big losses in disastrous daylight raid over Germany

On this day, the RAF lost 15 out of 22 bomber aircraft sent over Germany in an aborted and disastrous bombing raid. The raid became known as the Battle of the Heligoland Bight.

RAF Bomber Command had decided to attack German surface ships anchored in Heligoland Bight, at the mouth of the Elbe River. By taking out the German surface ships, it was hoped u-boats in the Atlantic would have less support. The RAF decided a traditional daylight raid was best to ensure bombing precision. RAF Bomber Command also felt German fighter planes were no threat to tightly-packed formations of bombers.

The RAF sent a force of 24 Vickers Wellington medium bombers: nine Wellingtons from IX Squadron at Honington, six from 37 Squadron at Feltwell, and nine from 149 Squadron at Mildenhall. Two bombers were forced to turn back, leaving 22 bombers to fly onwards to the target without fighter support and no cloud cover.

Reaching the air above Wilhelmshaven Harbour, the bombers spotted German warships but were unable to attack them due to the RAF’s rules of engagement of avoiding civilians casualties. The bombers turned back for Britain.

On the flight home, the 22 RAF bombers were attacked by 44 Luftwaffe fighters – a mixture of Me Bf 110s and Bf 109s – and a fierce aerial battle ensued. 10 RAF bombers were shot down, two were forced to ditch in the water, and three crash-landed in East Anglia. A total of 15 bombers were lost out of 22 at the start. 56 RAF aircrew were killed, with five captured, one of whom died from his wounds.

The RAF decided that such losses were unacceptable, and switched to night bombing raids for most of the rest of the war. The Wellington bombers also received improved armour and armament, and self-sealing petrol tanks.

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