“We were not aware at that time of the firestorm, but we did realise that the target was well and truly alight, for as we looked back even halfway across the North Sea we could se the smoke,” Chris Dickenson, Short Stirling flight engineer
Of the RAF’s trio of four-engined heavy bombers in World War 2, the mighty Short Stirling was the first to enter service in August 1940. A total of 2371 examples were eventually built and flown by the Royal Air Force (RAF) before the type was finally retired in July 1946. From its first raid in February 1941, the Stirling was at the forefront of the British night bombing offensive against Germany. At the peak of its operational career with Bomber Command in 1943, 12 squadrons were equipped with the RAF’s largest wartime bomber before unacceptably high losses forced its relegation to second-line duties.
On May 27, 1943, ‘Bomber’ Harris issued an order to all his heavy bomber groups in which plans were outlined for the destruction of Hamburg using all of the RAF’s available heavy bomber squadrons, which included the nine Stirling units in No 3 Group. A series of maximum effort raids were to be flown by night, augmented during daylight with attacks by heavy bombers of the USAAF’s Eighth Air Force.
Hamburg was well known to the RAF’s raid planners, having been attacked 98 times by Bomber Command since the beginning of the war. Its importance as a sea port and the second largest city in Germany, with a population of more than 1.5 million, meant that its complete destruction would have serious implications for the Third Reich’s industrial and civilian morale.
As explained by Jonathan Falconer in his book Short Stirling Units of World War 2, Hamburg was an important choice as a target for two tactical reasons. Firstly, although it was beyond Oboe range, the city’s location at mouth of the river Elbe meant it would show up clearly on H2S radar screens (although this was of little help to the Stirling crews as their aircraft were not so equipped). Secondly, the city was defended by 15 radar-equipped defence boxes and nightfighter stations in the Kammhuber Line (the Allied name given to the German hight air defence system established in July 1940 by Oberst Josef Kammhuber), which meant it was an ideal proving ground for the RAF’s top secret new radar jamming device, codenamed ‘Window’.
The first raid on the city came on the night of Jul. 24-25 when a force of 791 bombers – 354 Lancasters, 239 Halifaxes, 120 Stirlings and 68 Wellingtons – headed for Hamburg. Over the North Sea, bundles of ‘Window’ were shovelled down the flare chutes of each aircraft as it approached Hamburg, and as predicted the German early warning radar systems fell into disarray. The raid was over in an hour, with more than 2396 tons of bombs being dropped on the undefended city. Thanks to the ‘Window’ effect, only 12 bombers failed to return, including three Stirlings.
Essen was on the receiving end of Bomber Command’s squadrons on the night of Jul. 25-26 when 705 aircraft hit the city while the surprise effect of ‘Window’ was still fresh. Stirlings fared badly, with seven aircraft being amongst the 26 bombers that failed to return.
For the citizens of Hamburg, late July had been far hotter than expected and they found themselves sweltering in a freak heatwave. The weather on the 27th was far warmer than on previous days, and that night Harris ordered 727 bombers to attack the city using much the same tactics as had been employed on the 24th/25th. For operational reasons, the proportion of incendiary to high explosive carried by the Stirlings and Halifaxes was increased, a decision that wrought even further and unexpected destruction than before.
Flt Sgt ‘Speedy’ Williams No 75 (NZ) Sqn crew in Stirling EH936/W took 20 small bomb containers (SBCs) with them that night. Flight engineer Chris Dickenson recorded in his log book ‘smoke up to 16,000 ft’. The combination of the high temperature caused by the heatwave, low humidity and concentrated bombing caused a large number of fires to take hold, which soon joined together and sucked in all available oxygen with the force of a storm, with the resulting conflagration becoming known as a ‘firestorm’. Some 2300 tons of bombs caused it to rage out of control for several hours, and the conflagration only subsided when all combustible material had been burned to ashes. About 40,000 inhabitants died in the firestorm, and in the days that followed 1.2 million people fled the city.
Chris Dickenson remembered: “We were not aware at that time of the firestorm, but we did realise that the target was well and truly alight, for as we looked back even halfway across the North Sea we could se the smoke.”
At 17 aircraft, the losses were very light on the second raid, representing a 2.2 per cent casualty rate. Only one Stirling failed to return.
A third night attack on the still burning city was mounted on Jul. 29-30 by 777 aircraft, the very heavy bombing causing widespread fires to take hold, but mercifully for those who were left in Hamburg no firestorm developed. By now the city’s defences had recovered from their initial paralysis, with nightfighters and flak claiming 28 of the attacking force. For Bomber Command’s statisticians in the Operational Research Section, this was still an acceptable level of losses at 3.6 per cent of the force, of which four were Stirlings.
The fourth and final raid in this devastating series of attacks was launched on the night of Aug. 2-3 by 740 aircraft (329 Lancasters, 235 Halifaxes, 105 Stirlings, 66 Wellingtons and five Mosquitoes). Chris Dickenson recorded the 5.5-hour trip in his log book, “Target Hamburg – 16 cans incendiaries. Flew in electrical storm for two hours – 15000ft, lost 5000ft, bad icing – came out over Sylt. Poor concentration.”
When a large thunderstorm over Germany produced towering cloud formations that reached up to 20,000 ft, the raid soon turned into a disaster for the RAF. Many of the attacking force turned back early or, like the Stirlings, bombed alternative targets because of their inferior height performance. Of the 30 aircraft lost, some undoubtedly succumbed to dreadful weather conditions. Three Stirlings were among the missing.
More than 8600 tons of bombs had been dropped on Hamburg in the four raids. Together, they demonstrated the devastating effects of sustained area bombing and came close to causing panic among the Nazi hierarchy. Reich Armament Minister Albert Speer stated that the effects of these raids could only be compared to a major earthquake, and that further heavy attacks against six more German cities would have brought Germany to its knees. However, ‘Bomber’ Harris failed its seize this opportunity, loathe to risk his crews returning time and again to the same targets.