RAF BOMBING RAID ON NUREMBURG, MARCH 30th 1944
Article from the Daily Mail by Robert Hardman, March 29th2014
Sections in bold refer to the Halifax bomber which crashed at Ryhope on its return, killing the pilot Cyril Barton.
EVEN the old pros had never seen carnage like this. Whole squadrons were being decimated before their eyes. Some aircraft simply exploded in mid-air, each one a monstrous firework packed with three tons of bombs, 1,500 gallons of aviation fuel and seven brave men.
One dumbstruck gunner, surveying the German countryside from the tail end of a Lancaster that night in March 1944, would describe his comrades’ funeral pyres stretching 60 miles into the distance.
Pilots not only had to dodge anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and enemy night fighters equipped with a new and lethally effective secret weapon but also the parachutes of chums who managed to bale out. For those who made it down in one piece, there were fresh dangers. That same week, 50 captured Allied airmen were shot, on Hitler’s orders, for their part in the Great Escape.
There was astonishing heroism amid the horror. His controls shot to pieces, Tom Fogaty ordered his crew to grab parachutes and bale out. But the flight engineer’s backpack had become jammed out of reach. Fogaty handed him his own parachute and went down with the plane (miraculously, he survived).
Enemy fighters had strafed Cyril Barton’s Halifax bomber, destroying all his communications plus one of his engines while half his crew had baled out in the confusion. Yet the 22-year-old pilot officer refused to give up and pressed on to his target. Cyril would win the Victoria Cross for his valour that night. If only he had lived to pick it up.
Flight Sergeant Bob Gill was a ‘tail-end Charlie’, the rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber from 35 Squadron, a Pathfinder unit whose job was to lead the way. Now 90, and with the Distinguished Flying Medal to his name, the retired Surrey accountant sums it up succinctly: ‘It was just a disaster.’
He is not exaggerating. This was, in fact, the worst night in the entire history of the Royal Air Force. It remains etched in many minds to this day. As we approach tomorrow night’s 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Raid, we can expect to see many new wreaths and heartbreaking little messages laid before the magnificent new Bomber Command memorial at London’s Hyde Park Corner.
Cyril Barton’s family still cherish every memory of a ‘wonderful man’ revered by all his crew to their dying days.
‘Everyone adored him,’ his sisters tell me. ‘He had something special.’ They’ll be in Tyne & Wear on Monday to reopen a wing of the hospital where Cyril died from his injuries. It is still called the Barton Centre.
In North Yorkshire, Harold Panton and his family will gather tomorrow night in the disused control tower of RAF Skipton-on-Swale. At 21:49, they will hold a private service in memory of Chris Panton, Harold’s big brother and playmate on the family’s Lincolnshire farm. It was at this precise time that Chris’s Halifax took off from here for the last time, bound for Nuremberg. Sadly, neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Royal Air Force has seen fit to mark the anniversary in any way. But for families as far afield as North America and Australia, the events of March 30-31 are anything but ‘history’.
This was the night when more than 100 Allied bombers — all on the same mission — were lost. Come dawn, more than 700 men were missing, as many as 545 of them dead. More than 160 would end up as prisoners of war. In one night alone, the RAF had lost more men than in the entire Battle of Britain.
So what went wrong? And why is this bloody anniversary going unmarked?
It had already been a perilous few months for the bomber boys. Hundreds of aircraft and thousands of men had been lost during sustained attacks on Germany’s industrial heartlands.
For decades afterwards, historians and politicians would debate the rights and wrongs of dropping thousands of tons of high explosives on German cities night after night.
But, with the war in its fifth year and victory anything but certain, the Allies had yet to gain a foothold on the Continent. The boys of Bomber Command were still the only ones taking the war to the enemy. So their value to British morale was incalculable, quite apart from their crucial strategic importance.
Their commander-in-chief, Arthur Harris, was convinced that the only path to victory was to hammer Germany’s infrastructure, choke its supply lines and drain the will of its people. But it came at a tremendous cost. By the end of the war, 55,573 of the 125,000 men who had served under Harris were dead.
Yet, it was only two years ago that they were finally honoured with that stunning memorial in London (and the trustees are still desperately raising funds to meet the final bills).
No other arm of the Services had such a pitiful life expectancy. This was a world where a new crew, embarking on a tour of duty (30 operations over enemy territory), would have been safer pointing a gun at their heads and playing Russian roulette.
As Harris (later knighted but never given the peerage granted to the other wartime chiefs) would write afterwards: ‘In Bomber Command, we had to lay on at least one major battle every 24 hours. Navies fight two or three major battles per war. Armies maybe a dozen. We had to lay on, during my three and a half years, well over a thousand.’
Old soldiers and sailors will, of course, dispute his sums, but this was vintage Harris. And it helps explain why none of his senior staff queried his judgment on the morning of March 30, 1944, as he outlined his plans for the night ahead. He wanted a huge force — well over 700 bombers — to drop 2,600 tonnes of explosives on Nuremberg.
The historic city had plenty of major industrial targets, including tank and engine factories, but it was also of huge symbolic importance to the Nazis. Hitler had staged his rallies there and regarded it as the ‘most German’ of German cities. And it had not been touched for months.
That afternoon, as pilots and navigators gathered in their briefing rooms, there was some relief that they were spared yet another run through Europe’s deadliest air defences to Berlin. Everyone had lost friends in raids on the German capital in recent months.
But relief soon gave way to grave doubts. First, there was a disturbingly straight red line stretching right across the map. They were to take a direct route over Germany for 265 miles (common sense dictated a zigzag route to confuse the enemy but that would have required more fuel and, thus, fewer bombs). Second, the moon was almost full. If there was no cloud, they would be easy prey for the Luftwaffe’s night fighters there was little sign of cloud cover. ‘We were expecting the raid to be called off. But it wasn’t,’ Sir Michael Beetham tells me from his Norfolk home.
The future Chief of the Air Staff (he commanded the skies during the Falklands War) was a young Flight Lieutenant flying a Lancaster from 50 Squadron that evening. ‘The weather was better than expected,’ he sighs. ‘Deary me…..
Arthur Harris, however, was working on the basis that he had one last crack at hitting deep inside Germany before shorter nights reduced the nocturnal range of his bombers and before the impending invasion of Normandy forced him to turn his attention to France.
He had ordered four diversionary raids involving 162 bombers to fool the Germans into thinking that the target was Hamburg, perhaps, or Berlin once more.
But the main force was so large it emptied every British bomber base from Yorkshire to Cambridge. Once assembled, this airborne armada stretched almost 70 miles from end to end.
The Germans were not going to be fooled for long, especially if all this hardware was flying in a straight line; even more so if the sky turned out to be clear and full of RAF vapour trails. And it was.
As John Nichol explains in a pulsating new account of the raid, The Red Line, the massacre was soon under way. More than 200 night-fighters based around the Ruhr and the Rhine took to the skies. ‘We were ducks lined up at a fairground stall,’ says Jeff Gray DFM, as we stand next to the Bomber Command Memorial. On that night 70 years ago, he was a Flight Sergeant at the helm of a Lancaster from 61 Squadron.
Unbeknown to the RAF, many enemy fighters were equipped with new guns which pointed upwards. Instead of attacking in the conventional way from above, they would hide below and shoot up at the bomber’s exposed underbelly.
‘You could see up at night but it was very hard to see down,’ recalls Bob Gill. ‘It was just pot luck if you got through.’
One German ace, Martin Becker, notched up six ‘kills’ in half an hour. It was all the more shocking for the RAF crews because the weather offered such a good view of friends exploding far and wide.
Sir Michael Beetham’s wireless operator, Reg Payne, would later recall: ‘I saw the smoke and shower of flames as an aircraft died in front of my eyes. Seven people in it; gone in an instant.’
To add to the confusion, the wind was much stronger than expected, pushing the armada north of its red line and even closer to the dense German defences along the Ruhr. ‘I could see we were being blown off course and I told the navigator to compensate. That probably saved us,’ Sir Michael reflects.
Jeff Gray admits that he and his crew missed the target by miles. ‘When we got to what was supposed to be Nuremberg, we couldn’t see anything,’ recalls the 91-year-old retired BOAC pilot. ‘Then this searchlight opened up on us so I just said “right, bomb doors open” and we let him have the lot. That light soon went out.’
To cap it all, the damage to Nuremberg itself was slight — 256 buildings destroyed and 75 enemy dead (a fraction of the losses endured by the RAF). While 60 bombers were destroyed on the way out, another 35 were lost on the return. A further 11 aircraft would crash on British soil.
Cyril Barton, minus his radio, one engine and half his crew, had persisted in dropping his bombs. Now, he and his remaining men had to cross Germany, Belgium and the North Sea with only the stars to guide them.
Unable to make radio contact with anyone, they crossed the British coast only to endure the horror of being shot at by their own side. A trigger-happy antiaircraft battery mistook them for Germans. Cyril was forced to fly back out over the North Sea and find a fresh approach. Coming in again over the pit village of Ryhope near Sunderland, he finally ran out of fuel.
He did his best to steer the plane away from the pithead gear and the miners’ cottages as he hit the ground. His men survived but Cyril did not. ‘My parents never wanted him to fly but he was determined,’ recalls his sister, Joyce Voysey, 79, at home in New Maiden, Surrey. ‘My mother never really got over it.’
Joyce remembers a despatch rider at the door soon afterwards. ‘Dad opened this big brown envelope and said: “Cyril’s been awarded the Victoria Cross.” All Mum said was: “It won’t bring him back.” But she carried that letter with her until the day she died.’
On Monday, Joyce and her sister, Cynthia Maidment, will enjoy a warm welcome in Ryhope. The villagers still proudly embrace the boy from Surrey as one of their own on their war memorial.
Even by the standards of the day, there was shock at RAF bases up and down the land as the BBC’s Alvar Liddell declared: ‘Ninety-six of our aircraft failed to return…’ That did not include those, like Cyril, who went down at home.
‘We were aghast,’ says Bob Gill, who went on to complete 47 operations before being shot down and captured on number 48. Jeff Gray was expecting a roasting at base for missing his target. ‘Instead, they just seemed very pleased to see us no matter what we’d done,’ he says.
But there was little time to dwell on the death toll. ‘You had a job to do and you just got on with it,’ says Sir Michael Beetham.
The survivors hold no grudge. Ask these veterans and they just shrug and say: ‘It was war.’ It remains a salutary lesson for our blame-addicted culture.
But it is a pity the RAF is not commemorating this anniversary in any way. True, there were many other costly raids that winter. This, though, was the night which, more than any other, symbolises the gallantry of those young men, all volunteers, who climbed in to their flying coffins night after night — and then had to wait almost 70 years before being allowed to build (and pay for) their own memorial.
They still need our help.