After long months of waiting the R.A.F., on the invasion of the Low Countries by the Nazis, was called on to play its vitally important part. Here are a few of what the Air Ministry itself described as "stories of matchless courage" in the bombing of enemy armoured columns, troops and communications in Holland, Belgium and France.
Within half an hour of the appeal by the Belgian and the Dutch Governments for help, early on May 10, British aircraft were taking part in the defence of the Netherlands. Immediate aid was given by the bombing of Dutch aerodromes that the Nazis had captured on or near the coast. One of the Bomber Command 'planes, reconnoitring only 20 feet above the ground near Leiden, was attacked by a Ju 88, and put one of the enemy's two engines out of action; a second British bomber came on the scene and joined in, with the result that the Junkers was sent down in flames.
Later that day our bombers with their escort of Blenheim fighters destroyed nine German troop-carrying aircraft on the Dutch coast, eight miles N. of The Hague. First our bombers hit and set on fire two of the troop carriers on the beach; then the Blenheims formed line astern and dived from 5,000 feet, riddling the enemy machines with 18,000 rounds from their machine-guns. One Blenheim made a forced landing on the sand, and the rest did not leave until they had made sure the pilot and crew were uninjured.
Attacking the Rotterdam port at Waalhaven, in German hands, a strong force of British bombers began at 9 p.m. a series of raids that lasted nearly six hours. When in the early hours of May 11 the R.A.F. drew off, fires were raging on all parts of the aerodrome. Through the dense smoke that obscured the ruined hangars and bomb-pitted runways, no fewer than 20 four-engined aircraft could be seen ablaze.
Concurrently, other R.A.F. units harassed German columns and troop concentrations between the Rhine and the Meuse. On the night of the 10th strong enemy forces were seen advancing across the Rhine towards the Dutch frontier. Our aircraft bombed and hit the bridge over the Rhine at Wesel, and also attacked a troop column at the approaches. important railway and road junctions and bridges were bombed.
Immediately following the German invasion the Advanced Air Striking Force in France began to play its important part. I was the occasion which they had been patiently awaiting for months, and they took the fullest advantage of it.
During the morning a mechanized column was located south of Luxemburg by an R.A.F. section of low-dive bombers. Despite intense fire from pom-poms and machine-guns, the troop column was bombed by this and a second section. Two flights severely punished a German column of all arms which was about to cross the N.E. corner of the German-Luxemburg border. Later that day three of our Hurricanes encountered, near Vouzières, a formation of 30 Junkers bombers with escort of Messerschmitt 110 twin-engined cannon-gunned fighters. The three Hurricanes attacked, and for twenty minutes there was a hurly-burly "dogfight"; three Messerschmitts had been shot down when our gallant trio was joined by other aircraft of their squadron. Two more German fighters were sent crashing down, and then the entire German formation turned tail and fled.
Throughout the following day the task went on. The captain of one R.A.F. machine that took part in the bombing of roads behind the German line said:
"Our target was a cross-road that was being used by long columns of German reinforcements. ... Our actual target was covered by a sheet of broken cloud, but through the opening we could see a long line of transport on the move. We dropped our bombs, which burst right on the roads."
In spite of intense A.A. fire and fighter opposition the R.A.F. succeeded in destroying both the road bridges at Maastricht, thus disclosing the communications of enemy mechanized forces advancing in Belgium and Luxemburg (see photo in page 581).
An account by a formation leader of an expedition of this sort states that enemy A.A. fire began when the bombers were 20 miles from their target.
"That didn't worry us much", he continued, "but as we got nearer the target the Germans put up a terrific barrage of fire, the heaviest I have yet met. Black bursts of fire completely surrounded us. Below, the bridges could be seen standing out, quite clearly, in the sunlight, ... and we got in some pretty good shots."
The heaviest air attack made by the R.A.F. was carried out on Wednesday night (May 15-16) east of the Rhine. Purely military objectives were singled out. Many tons of bombs were dropped, road and rail communications being attacked at many points. The damage was extensive and covered a wide area. Long-range heavy bombers of the Whitley, Wellington and Hampden types took part. No opposition was offered by enemy fighters, but the ground defences were very active. Only one of our aircraft failed to return.
Simultaneously the night operation was carried out by our bombers to assist the infantry in countering an enemy attack near Turnhout and Dinant.
On the night of May 17 and 18 Royal Air Force bombers hit back at the enemy over a wide area in Germany and German-occupied territory in France. For five hours on Friday night, May 17-18, Whitley bombers in relays dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs on the oil depots at Bremen. After a direct hit on a large petrol reservoir flames shot up to a height of nearly 2,000 feet, and in the words of a sergeant pilot, "it so lit up the sky that even at 10,000 feet one could have read the smallest print". That same night Hampden aircraft bombed oil depots at Hamburg, and the flames could be seen far away at Cuxhaven, almost 60 miles distant. On Saturday night our bombers raided Hanover and destroyed oil tanks there. Further damage to the oil tanks at Bremen and Hamburg was done by Hudson aircraft.
As was to be expected at places of such extreme importance to the enemy, an active and vigilant defence was encountered by our men, who had to run the gauntlet of massed searchlight and balloon barrages, besides highly organized anti-aircraft artillery. Only military objectives were attacked by the R.A.F., and when these were unable to be located the bombers withdrew without dropping their missiles. Sometimes pilots on reaching the target found it obscured by the haze and smoke from a previous bombing; on other occasions the weather conditions prevented location.
The leader of the Hamburg raiders said of the barrage: "It seemed to be just one continual stream. ... We could see the barrage breaking all around us, but we managed to keep a straight course at the right moment and to drop our bombs with accuracy. When we arrived over our objectives we saw an enormous fire blazing. The flames were so brilliant that they lit up the sky and countryside for about 50 miles all round. When we left there were two more fires burning – right on the target."
Experiences varied, however, and another pilot got off more easily. "Most of the gunfire kept away from us", he said, "and so did the searchlights. I think the ground crews were too busy attending to other aircraft in our section to have any time for us. By the light of the moon we were able to get a clear view of our target. We did a run-up, took our time about it, dropped our bombs, and came home unmolested." When a Hampden bomber got over its objective, the pilot found it ablaze, so he flew around for some minutes "to be sure we had arrived at the right address". Then he aimed his bombs and watched small fires break out that finally coalesced into one huge conflagration.
The enemy's land armada advances under a protective cloud of 'planes. One column had a guard of 90 Dorniers and Junkers, which were themselves escorted by 21 Messerschmitts.
Eleven British Hurricanes went up to challenge this mighty aerial host. Eleven against 111 – one against ten.
With fire spitting from their eight guns apiece the Hurricanes darted into the fray. Only four of them returned, but they returned as victors. The enemy squadrons, considerably thinned, had turned tail and fled.
The German tank column was now bereft of its air bodyguard. French tanks and armoured cars thundered down, what time a squadron of British bombers attacked the head and tail of the enemy column. The mêlée was terrific. It ended in the total destruction of the German column. The deathless courage of that little band of Hurricane pilots had brought the victory to pass.
R.A.F. bombers tried eight times to destroy an important bridge. Still it survived. Pilots and crews of four bombers asked permission to "finish it off". Their C.O. said "Carry on". They went; none returned. But the bridge was wrecked.
[Air Ministry Communiqué and "News Chronicle".]
While the Whitleys and Hampdens were engaged at cutting off enemy fuel supplies at the source, Wellington and Whitley heavy bombers were attacking German aerodromes and road and rail bridges on the lines of communication in the occupied areas. Bridges over the Meuse at Namur were destroyed; south of the town heavy bombs were dropped on a bridge over the Sambre. Railways in the neighbourhood of Namur were put out of use, and bombs were dropped along the Beauraing-Givet road. On the same road an R.A.F. pilot observed a German mechanized column over ten miles long, which he bombed and, diving to 700 feet, raked with his machine-guns.
These operations were not carried out without enemy opposition. Fighters were met several times, but proved no deterrent to our pilots. Thus a Hampden pilot who encountered a Messerschmitt 110 below him manoeuvred to bring the enemy into point-blank range. A burst from the rear gun of the Hampden hit one of the Messerschmitt's engines and the enemy went out of sight amid a shower of sparks. All the British machines returned.
The entire battle zone was patrolled by our aircraft. For example, two Blenheims patrolling the Dutch coast encountered a formation of three Heinkel 111s and three Messerschmitt 110s. The Blenheims immediately attacked and shot down two of the Messerschmitts. Fighter patrols over France and Belgium scored remarkable successes on May 18. Thus, near Brussels, a patrol of five Hurricanes shot down at least three and probably six Heinkel 111s. Eleven Hurricanes engaged 17 Messerschmitt 110s and destroyed six and damaged three more.
In a broadcast to the Empire on May 22, Mr. Duff Cooper, Minister of Information, said: "When the history of this battle comes to be written in calmer days, it will perhaps be recorded that the men of the R.A.F., men from far and wide in the British Commonwealth, saved France and England and all that we hold precious from the disaster of defeat."