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At 04.00 hours on 31st May, long before the last of the bombers had landed back at their bases, the first Mosquito ever to operate against Germany took off from Horsham St Faith in Norfolk on a bombing and photographic sortie against Cologne. The pilot dropped his bombs in the target area, but although it was daylight by then it was impossible to see the results owing to cloud and smoke. Numerous fires were burning in the centre of the city and in the adjoining industrial and residential areas on both sides of the Rhine, and a huge pall of smoke covered the city and rose to a height of 15,000 feet. Conditions for photographic reconnaissance were impossible.
Two men at least had no doubt by this time of the success of the raid. Both Harris and Saundby, still unable to sleep, had rung the operations room at High Wycombe a few minutes after 4 a.m. from their bedside telephones, quite independently of each other, to reassure themselves about the raid. Both asked the same question.
"What was the weather like over Cologne?"
The answer, that there had been a full moon and no cloud, was all that either man wanted. Both were confident now that the raid must have been a success.
A second Mosquito took off at 06.30 that morning, but it failed to return. Three more P.R.U. Mosquitos went to Cologne during the day, but not one was able to get pictures because of the smoke. "When at last that Sunday morning dawned," wrote a German eye-witness later, "a tremendous fire-cloud hung over the city. The sun was dimmed and all we could see of it was a purple disc behind the writhing smoke, a circle which at its edges broke up into the colours of the rainbow, then into deepest black. Suffering and death, fire and destruction raged in the streets in the ghostly twilight of a total eclipse. For many hours the glare of the flames was brighter than daylight."
A full evaluation of the raid would have to wait until the fire-cloud dispersed. Meanwhile, Bomber Command counted its losses. Of the total force of 1,046 bombers, forty-one were missing, of which three were known to have come down in the North Sea. (Another seven bombers had crashed in the U.K. with the loss of most or all the crew.) Of the eighty-eight aircraft of the intruder force, three were missing. So of a combined force of 1,134 aircraft, forty-four had failed to return. The percentage bomber loss was 3.9, which was slightly higher than the previous average for attacks on Cologne but lower than the previous average for attacks on similar targets in conditions of moonlight and no cloud. Taking into account the large number of O.T.U. and fresher crews employed it was clear that the concentration had greatly reduced casualties. Even more striking were the comparative figures for the three successive waves; the first wave suffered 4.8 per cent casualties, the second wave 4.1 and the third, the most concentrated, only 1.9. This very low figure also reflected the general superiority of the Lancaster and Halifax.
The estimated rate of one collision per hour over the target had proved exactly accurate: in just under two hours there had been two collisions. The third collision, over Cambridgeshire, was of a kind that was always a potential danger when low cloud covered the bases. There was only one report of an aircraft being hit by falling bombs—it was an O.T.U. Wellington—and although the tail gunner had been killed outright the damaged aircraft had got back safely. Dr Dickins and his research team had been right.
The other major prophetic advice given by the research scientists—to go to Cologne—was depressingly vindicated two nights later, and again before the end of June, in the thousand-bomber raids on Essen and Bremen, both of which were failures.
One surprising feature of the casualty figures, often remarked on before, was the lighter percentage of losses suffered by the O.T.U. groups as compared with the front-line squadrons. There is in fact a simple explanation of this. The O.T.U.s were not the only units that night to put up inexperienced crews. As has been noted earlier, in order to make use of all the available aircraft the squadrons were forced to employ crews who would not normally have been sent against a major German target without further training. An analysis of the casualty lists reveals again and again the tragic loss of some new crew on their first major operational flight.
Of the forty-one missing crews of the bomber force, twenty-four were from squadrons and seventeen from training units. Among the twenty-four squadron pilots as many as ten were on their first operation over Germany as first pilot and captain, accompanied by inexperienced crews. Two more were on their first trip as Manchester captains, another two had completed only three operations. Thus the bulk of the squadron losses were raw crews. Only ten could be described as fully fledged, and half of these had done less than ten trips.
Again, of three squadron pilots involved in fatal crashes on take-off or landing during the operation, all were on the first trip as first pilot and captain. There were no survivors from these three crews.
Here then was the reason for the apparently incongruous fact that the squadrons had suffered heavier percentage losses than the training units. It was one of the most poignant and significant lessons of the operation, yet the human factor behind the figures was not apparently made available to the operational research scientists at High Wycombe—or not asked for—and the inference was therefore not drawn in their raid report, illustrating the dependence of such analysis on the quality of the information fed into it.
It is not suggested that commanders did not appreciate the much greater vulnerability of raw crews; they most certainly did. New pilots were normally required to do five trips over Germany as second pilot, followed by two or three mining sorties and one or two trips to targets in occupied Europe as first pilot before captaining an aircraft to a major target in Germany. This was regarded as about the best compromise in the circumstances—like a pilot's first solo flight, it was a plunge that sooner or later had to be taken. But deeper analysis of the figures for the Thousand Plan might have brought an order from Command for an even stricter qualifying programme, to the ultimate good of the bomber offensive.
The heavy losses of these raw crews would have been a particularly severe blow to Harris had he known of them. The responsibility was one he would have accepted personally: the whole tempo of the operational planning after the last-minute defection of Coastal Command had demanded the employment of every available crew. But despite these many human tragedies, and in a very real sense because of them—because of the determination to reach and pass the figure of a thousand even without outside help, and because of the enthusiasm and readiness for sacrifice of the rawest crews—the raid had demonstrated in a necessarily spectacular manner the possibility of delivering vast blows against Germany's industrial cities without incurring crippling losses. Other inferences awaited thorough photographic reconnaissance of the target area. It was a week before the dust had settled sufficiently for successful photography and interpretation, but long before then the impact made by the raid had become clear from other sources.
First, on 31st May, came a communique from the Fuehrer's headquarters that was remarkable for its subdued tone. "During last night," it read, "British bombers carried out a terror raid on the inner city of Cologne. Great damage was done as a result of explosions and fires, particularly in residential quarters, to several public buildings, among them three churches and two hospitals. In this attack, directed exclusively against the civil population, the British air force suffered severe losses. Night fighters and A.A. artillery shot down 36 of the attacking bombers. In addition, one bomber was shot down in the coastal area by naval artillery." In the circumstances it was a remarkably accurate communique, and the admission of "great damage" was unprecedented, as was the implied admission of the accuracy of our bombing in the phrase "the inner city of Cologne".
Another event without precedent was the tone of the newspaper Kölnische Zeitung when it resumed publication three days later. "Those who survived," it said, "were fully aware that they had bade farewell to their Cologne, because the damage is enormous and because the integral part of the character, and even the traditions, of the city is gone for ever."
German propaganda sources, however, after dwelling at length on the heavy R.A.F. losses and the great success of the German air defences, ridiculed the British claim that more than a thousand bombers had attacked the city, dismissing this figure as pure fantasy and putting the actual number at about seventy. (In fact it was not less than 910.) Later, after the raid had attracted world-wide publicity, some German reports admitted that several hundred aircraft had probably taken part but that only about seventy had reached the target area. "More than half the planes which attacked Cologne," said the German radio, "were shot down." The British had put out this imaginary figure in an attempt to explain their losses.
For world consumption, German commentators were at pains to claim that the "barbarous British terror raids" were a new departure in air warfare, which would be returned with interest, but that up to that point the German conduct of the war had been exemplary throughout. Earlier bombing—and atrocities—apart, the notion that the conduct of an aggressive war against neighbour states could be carried out in an exemplary fashion was an odd one.
The raid stung the Germans into several reprisal raids, including one on Canterbury on the following night, mostly as a sop to morale at home. Numerous reports said that the attack on Cologne was of no military consequence, and one report added cryptically that the force would have been "far better employed elsewhere". This was to be a recurrent German theme. For our part we were convinced from our own experience at the receiving end that bombing on a heavy enough scale must have military consequences in time. With the advantage of hindsight the arguments on how the bomber force might have been more profitably employed continue, but it is noteworthy that when the Germans turned from the attack on our airfields and radar stations in the Battle of Britain to attacks on ports and towns, which suited us well enough in that particular battle, we were careful not to hint that their planes might have been better employed elsewhere.
In evaluating the raid the Nazi leaders were hampered at first by the complete severance of telephone and teleprinter lines and later by the difficulty of getting accurate and disinterested reports. A week after the raid Goering was still insisting that the number of bombers penetrating to Cologne was no more than seventy, of which the Luftwaffe had shot down forty-four. Goebbels dismissed this as absurd and preferred the evidence of the Gauleiter of Cologne, from which he judged that the destruction surpassed that of all earlier raids. On the whole though he was inclined to shrug off the raid as an isolated one. "I still cannot believe," he wrote,1 "that the English have the power to continue such bombing attacks. ... However it can't be overlooked that such night attacks can damage us considerably." Goebbels was himself a disciple of area bombing. "Once again I have been proved right in my view that there is no point in starting a bombing war with the English from the military standpoint: we can only hurt them by hitting their civil population and cultural centres." Conversely, he clearly believed that this was our best way of hurting them.
Goebbels promised speedy retaliation in kind, and he wrote at first of the reprisal attack on Canterbury as though it were equal in scale with Cologne. When he realised that there was no comparison he wrote that his "fingers itched*' with frustration. "It would be wonderful if we were able to get so far this summer in the East," he wrote, "that we could again concentrate our air power in the West."
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of all is that provided by an entry in Goebbel's diary six months later, by which time the lesson of Cologne had had time to sink in. The entry showed how Goebbel's public propaganda pronouncements on British bombing were the exact opposite of his private view. In our bombing offensive against German cities, he confided to his diary, we were striking at our enemy's weakest point.2
1 From an unpublished portion of Goebbels's diary (National Archives of the United States).
2 The Goebbels Diaries, 13th December 1942 (Hamish Hamilton).
At last the thoughts of the Nazi leaders had been turned inwards. Directly after the raid Goering announced that first-category SHD units—the professional units already organised by the Reich authorities for fire-fighting, decontamination, demolition and rescue work in the more important areas—had been placed within the uniformed police under the sphere of command of Himmler. This was the first of many measures involving the expansion and reorganisation of the German air defences and radical changes in plane production and overall strategy. These changes, while making Bomber Command's task progressively harder as the months went by, were ultimately to have serious military consequences for Germany. The war in the West took the first step towards a decisive phase with the raid on Cologne.
When at last photographic interpretation could give an accurate assessment of the results of the raid, the damage v revealed was on a far greater scale than anything yet seen in any German city. Not only were large areas of the city itself devastated, but industrial and residential properties in all the main suburban areas had been seriously damaged. It is not intended to dwell on the sufferings of the people of Cologne; no doubt another differently-angled book could be written around their human experience and individual courage. But the broad details must be given.
According to the report of the Police President in Cologne, the bombing was spread evenly over the entire city area and had no recognisable centre of impact. This is consistent with the plan for the attack, which was to spread outwards from the three main aiming-points. Nevertheless it was clear from photographs that the crescent of the old city, aiming-point for the incendiary force, suffered very severe damage indeed.
Biggest damage of all was to so-called "accommodation units," complete homes accommodating whole families in blocks of flats and in houses. More than 13,000 such homes were completely destroyed and a further 6,000 badly damaged, over 45,000 people being homeless. Fifteen hundred commercial and industrial undertakings had their premises completely destroyed and a further 630 were badly damaged. Thirty-six major factories were completely destroyed with 100 per cent loss of production, seventy were badly damaged with 50-80 per cent loss of production, and more than 220 others sustained medium or slight damage. Movements of trains from stations within the city area had to be suspended for several days, main water, electric power and gas supplies were cut off over large areas, many roads were impassable and tramcar traffic was entirely suspended for a week. Large detachments of the German Army had to be brought in to assist in clearing the rubble.
Of the numbers bombed out, two-thirds were able to lodge temporarily with relatives or friends and a third were left without accommodations. Thousands of refugees still clogged the rail centres a week later when R.A.F. prisoners were still passing through. For the Nazi authorities these refugees presented a serious problem of morale. The damage could not be hidden from the people of Cologne, but rumours of the disaster elsewhere in Germany had to be suppressed. All evacuees from Cologne were required to sign the following declaration:
"I am aware that one individual alone can form no comprehensive idea of the events in Cologne, One usually exaggerates one's own experiences, and the judgment of those who have been bombed is impaired,
"I am, therefore, aware that reports of individual suffering can only do harm, and I will keep silence. I know what the consequences of breaking this undertaking would be."
In England, the bombed-out at least had the satisfaction of telling their story afterwards to those who would listen. Even this consolation was denied to the Germans. Perhaps the pledge of secrecy made the telling all the more piquant.
Past experience, good shelters and the energetic work of the civil defence forces combined to keep casualties down, but even so they were heavy, bigger than in any other raid on Germany up to that time. The total was just over 5,000, of whom 469 were killed. In 106 earlier attacks on Cologne, 139 people had been killed and 277 seriously injured. Most impressive were the material results of the raid as compared with the previous Cologne raids and those on German targets in general: the damage was vastly more than the aggregate of all previous air raid damage in Cologne, 600 acres—including about 300 acres in the centre of the city—being completely destroyed. This was not far short of the total estimated area of destruction to targets in Germany wrought by the entire bomber offensive up to that point.
When he learned of the success of the raid Churchill sent an immediate signal to Harris. "I congratulate you and the whole of Bomber Command," he said, "upon the remarkable feat of organisation which enabled you to despatch over a thousand bombers to the Cologne area in a single night and without confusion to concentrate their action over the target in so short a time as one hour and a half. This proof of the growing power of the British bomber force is also the herald of what Germany will receive, city by city, from now on." It was this last sentence, with its clear indication of the Government's intention to support a bomber offensive against Germany's principal cities, which for Harris justified the gamble of Cologne.
It remains to evaluate the raid more fully in terms of short-term and long-term failure and success. Harris's overt and declared object had been the destruction of the city of Cologne. Clearly this was not achieved, nor even approached. The city had been paralysed for a week, crippled for a fortnight, disrupted for a month, seriously inconvenienced for from three to six months. But by the end of 1942, information on the reconstruction of Cologne, based on the latest aerial photographs, led us to the conclusion that almost every damaged industrial plant that had been re-photographed was either reconstructed already or in the process of repair, and that very few, perhaps only two or three, had been left derelict. This after a raid that still, seven months later, was far outside the normal capacity of the Command.
The lesson of the raid was that the destruction of German industry, industrial life and industrial potential by bombing was not within our power, then or in the foreseeable future, and that to achieve conclusive results a massive expansion of the bomber force was necessary, together with improved aids to target-finding and bomb-aiming. With the weapons and means available, large industrial areas were virtually indestructible. Somehow life went on.
What of the effect on morale? It is apparent from the operation order that in May 1942 Harris shared the popular misconceptions on German morale and its susceptibility to shock attack; it is also apparent from his subsequent utterances that he revised his opinions radically some time after this raid and before the end of 1942. Later experience clearly demonstrated that four main factors stood between the bombing offensive and outright victory. First was the known inadequacy of effort; the Air Staff had always held that 4,000-6,000 bombers would be needed for the successful prosecution of a bomber offensive as a war-winner on its own, which was probably an accurate estimate, but it was a figure that was never approached, not even by the ultimate strength of the British and American bomber forces combined. Second was the enormous amount of slack available to be taken up in German industry; although the Germans had been ready for a short war, they had not mobilised their vast industrial resources for a long one. Third was the over-estimate of the powers of permanent destruction of the bomber. Fourth was the under-estimate of the resilience and powers of recovery of a totalitarian State, and especially of the German people.
But if it seemed that the raid had failed in some of its overt, immediate objects, on the whole it had been a success. Serious damage had been done in the short term to the industrial capacity of Germany's fourth largest city. The blow to morale had not been fatal, but it was the first of many scars that over a period would weaken the tissue. For the Allies themselves, still in desperate straits on all fronts, Cologne burned like a beacon of hope. The very fact that Britain alone was capable of despatching more than a thousand bombers in one night to a great German city had an incalculable impact, inspiring and uplifting for the Allied fighting man, alarming and depressing for the Germans and humiliating for their leaders. What the German soldier thought about it is revealed in many captured letters; he was stunned and apprehensive. What was it going to be like when the Americans joined in? The effect on his fighting heart is less easy to assess, but it may not be altogether without significance that Cologne preceded El Alamein and Stalingrad, places where despondent letters about the bombing of Germany were captured. For the fighting man on both sides, Cologne was a turning point of the war.
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