On May 30, 1942, the 1,001st day of the war, 1,130 British-manned aircraft took part in the greatest aerial offensive in history to date. The target for that night was Cologne. 13,000 men, roughly divided between the ground and the air, were organised to the minute. Machines were tuned up, bombs were put in the racks and crews were briefed. While the bombers winged their way to the main objective, machines of the Army Cooperation Command were engaged in diversionary attacks on enemy aerodromes.
The raid was brilliantly described by a Flying Officer who was a bomb-aimer in a Lancaster. Puzzled by the unusual light over enemy territory, the navigator consulted his chart. The city, he thought, was much too far away to be seen. So great, however, were the fires caused by early arrivals over the target that it was actually Cologne. "The glare was still there like a huge cigarette-end in the German blackout. On and on the plane went until it 'flew into the smoke'. Down in my bomb-aimer's hatch I looked at the burning town below me. I let the bombs go. As we crossed the town there were burning blocks to the right of us, while to the left the the fires were immense. Buildings were skeletons in the midst of the fires; sometimes you could just see what appeared to be frame-works of white-hot joists. The blast of the bombs was hurling walls themselves across the flames."
At first the Germans strove to discount the size and effect of the raid. But the massiveness of the onslaught could not be hid. "Gone for ever is the Cologne that we knew," said the Koelnische Zeitung; and neutrals spoke of 20,000 killed and a vast army of refugees.