In February 1942 Arthur Harris was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command. His task was to expedite what was already the official strategy of the Air Ministry, that of dislocating the German transport system and destroying the morale of the civilian population, particularly in industrial areas. The Butt report (August 1941) found that only one in three attacking bombers at that stage of the war got within five miles of their target - this meant that targets would have to be large cities and industrial complexes rather than precise targets.

By 1942 new bombers were coming on-line, such as the Avro Lancaster.  New bombing tactics included the development of bomber stream and the concept of the 1,000-bomber raid. The introduction of the Gee system of navigation was a major breakthrough for Bomber Command. Whilst it did not produce any revolutionary improvements in target finding and bombing accuracy, it did provide more accurate navigation within its range.

The effectiveness of the German defences was increasing, and the bombers proved extremely vulnerable to both ground fire and attacking fighters. The 4.3 % loss rate from August to December 1943 was the highest in the bombing campaign so far, and would accelerate the formation of a special “target finding” or pathfinder force for the British bomber streams beginning in August 1942, designed to increase accuracy. The idea was that the pathfinder force would illuminate the target with flares, and drop incendiary bombs with coloured smoke which would burn on the ground, hopefully near the target.

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Karlsruhe, photographed by an aircraft of the 8th Air Force. 8th Air Force bombing mission target. © IWM FRE 11839
Karlsruhe, photographed by an aircraft of the 8th Air Force. 8th Air Force bombing mission target. © IWM FRE 11839

On 2 September 1942, the target for the night was Karlsruhe. The city was not at the top of the list of bombing targets, but the fact that it was a transport hub for rail and road and was an important Rhine port made it an attractive and acceptable target. That night 200 aircraft from various airfields took off between 22.00 and 23.00, a mixture of Halifaxes, Lancasters, Wellingtons and Stirlings. They were carrying high explosives and incendiaries. Some aircraft were carrying high capacity 4000-pound cookie bombs and several of the aircraft were also carrying ‘nickels’ or propaganda leaflets. Night fighters from Nachtjagd Groups 2, 3 and 4 were patrolling over the southern provinces of the Netherlands and Belgium, as the policy was for night fighters to find and destroy enemy bombers over the coast before they had chance to reach their targets. They were equipped with Lichtenstein radar detection.  

Walter Ehle, flying a Messerschmitt 110, described his attack on the Lancaster from 49 Squadron: “Towards 01.55 hours I was at 3,200 metres, I was vectored onto a very fast oncoming enemy aircraft. After some refinements by the ground station, my wireless operator guided me onto it to about 200 metres. I recognised it as a Lancaster. It was higher ahead and to port. I attacked from below and to starboard, at about 50 metres. The starboard motor caught fire immediately and went down burning with fierce defensive fire from the rear gunner. I observed the impact blaze which was located near the Chateau of Abee.” Ehle reported the time as 01.59.  Three of the crew were taken prisoner, and one successfully evaded capture, reaching Britain in 3 weeks.

At 01.47 Unteroffizier Heinz Oloff shot down a Wellington that had set out from Grimsby. All the crew were killed, ranging in age from 19 to 22 years old. At the exact same time, Oberleutnant Kurt Martinek shot down a Halifax south west of Namur, Belgium. Ten minutes later, he then shot down a Wellington x3711 in the sea 8 kilometres north of Dinant. Wing Commander Walsh had flown 29 sorties and therefore had one more to go. A little later during the journey to Karlsruhe a Stirling crashed at Gennes Ivergny. One crew member survived and became a prisoner of war.

The attack on the city of Karlsruhe commenced at 02.20. The pathfinders in one of their earliest missions were able to illuminate the target. The operations report from the crew of a bomber from 150 Squadron commented that “the pathfinders were reported to be dead on target.” A report from the 79th Engineer Battalion on the ground commented on the sky marking and smoke bombs: “that way the formation did not waste so much time finding the target and could hit faster and be more accurate”. The distinctive radial shape of the city centre helped identification, as well as the Muehlburg Gate. Reconnaissance photos showed much commercial and residential damage including to historical buildings, such as Markgraefliches Palace at the Friedrichsplatz, the Schloss and buildings at the Rhine port.

The only sounds the gunner would hear, aside from the constant deafening roar of the engines, would be the hiss of the oxygen and the occasional crackling, distorted voices of other crew members in his earphones

Sergeant Ferguson from 61 Squadron observed that “fires were seen burning half an hour after leaving the target.”  150 Squadron reported large fires and numerous explosions. Wallace McIntosh from Aberdeen, who survived 55 missions as a Lancaster rear gunner in Bomber Command's 207 Squadron during the war,  remembered:  “During an operation the only sounds the gunner would hear, aside from the constant deafening roar of the engines, would be the hiss of the oxygen and the occasional crackling, distorted voices of other crew members in his earphones. From take-off to landing, at all times the air gunner was constantly rotating the turret, scanning the surrounding blackness, quarter by quarter, for the grey shadow that could instantly become an attacking enemy night fighter.”

Two aircraft were shot down at a later time, on the way back to Britain. A Wellington from 12 Squadron was shot down by Oberleutnant Bruno Eikmeir at 05.00. The crew are buried at the French National Cemetery at Marrisel. A Wellington from 150 Squadron crashed in the sea off the French coast.

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Karlsruhe Main Cemetery, Memorial for German and Foreign Victims of Air-Raid Bombing in World War II by August Meyerhuber 1954
Karlsruhe Main Cemetery, Memorial for German and Foreign Victims of Air-Raid Bombing in World War II by August Meyerhuber 1954

Karlsruhe continued to be a target for British bombers, with 28 raids which killed 1,754 people.  On 27 September 1944, 226 Bombers dropped 200,000 incendiary bombs and hundreds of high explosive bombs, causing widespread damage especially to some historic sites such as the Schloss, the Orangery and the Stephanskirche. A very heavy raid occurred on 5 December 1944, destroying the Durlacher machine tool factory. In a later raid on 14 December 1944, large parts of the west city including the Muehlburg gate were destroyed in just 21 minutes.

In total, during the Second World War 364,514 operational sorties were flown by Bomber Command, 1,030,500 tons of bombs were dropped, and 8,325 aircraft lost in action. Bomber Command crews also suffered a high casualty rate: 55,573 were killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew, a 44.4% death rate. A further 8,403 men were wounded in action, and 9,838 became prisoners of war.

Approximately 410,000 German civilians were killed by Allied air raids during the Second World War. The rights and wrongs of the Bomber Command campaign have been and still are a cause of controversy, but although the Bomber Command veterans never received a campaign medal, their memory has been observed in the building of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park in London in June 2012.    

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The RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London. Image by Zeisterre, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London. Image by Zeisterre, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Read Katherine Quinlan-Flatter's accompanying blog post here.