RAF Squadron Leader Peter Hill briefs bomber crews from Number 51 Squadron before the planned mission against Nuremberg, Germany on the evening on 30/31 March 1944. Hill was among more than 700 crew members lost on the raid, the bloodiest night in Bomber Command history (Imperial War Museum Collection)
Seventy-one years ago tonight, hundreds of RAF bombers thundered aloft from bases across Great Britain. Their target was Nuremberg, an industrial city in Bavaria that Hitler once described as “the most important in Germany.” Nuremberg had been the site of huge Nazi Party rallies during the late 1930s, so Bomber Command saw an opportunity to strike both a psychological and economic blow against the Third Reich.
The raid also represented something of a turning point in the RAF’s long bombing campaign against Germany. While the crews that gathered for the mission briefing that night didn’t know it, the raid against Nuremberg would be the last salvo in the so-called Battle of Berlin, a series of 16 raids against the German capital and other key targets that began in November 1943. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command’s determined Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, viewed the campaign as an opportunity to break German resistance, once-and-for-all. “It will cost us between 400-500 bombers,” he observed. “It will cost Germany the war.”
But Harris’s calculus proved flawed. While Bomber Command crews inflicted heavy damage on a number of enemy targets, they did not crush German morale and losses were much higher than expected. A total of 952 RAF bombers had been lost on earlier raids in the Battle of Berlin (along with more than 7000 aircrew).
If Harris and his planners viewed Nuremberg as a chance to strike deep inside the Reich, crews were more concerned about survival. Overall, loss rates during the campaign were above the five percent considered “sustainable” and some units suffered high casualty rates. Number 460 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force was essentially “wiped out” during Berlin raids in December 1943 and January 1944, losing a total of 25 aircraft and crews.
Despite this high cost, Bomber Command remained a potent force, capable of generating 800-plane raids against German targets on a near-nightly basis. And with improved navigational aids like Gee and H2S, accuracy had greatly improved over the early days of the war, when most bombers dropped their bombs miles away from the intended target. Two of the earlier raids in the campaign (22/23 November and 17 December) were among the most effective of the war, so Harris had reason to believe the Nuremberg mission could be successful as well. He also realized that Bomber Command’s operational focus would shift to France in the months ahead, as preparations for the Normandy invasion shifted into high gear. Harris clearly wanted the Berlin campaign to end on a high note, and Nuremberg would provide that opportunity.
Unfortunately, Harris and his staff failed to account for several key factors, and hundreds of aircrew would pay with their lives. First, RAF commanders and intelligence officers had discounted the employment of upward-firing cannons and machine guns on German night fighters. These devices, nicknamed Schrage Musik (or “crooked music”), allowed them to attack British bombers from below.
Luftwaffe squadrons began deploying Schrage Musik-equipped aircraft about the time of the RAF raid on the Peenemunde missile complex in mid-1943; as the Berlin campaign reached its zenith, almost one-third of Germany’s night fighters had been outfitted with up-ward firing cannons. Bomber losses began to climb; five weeks before the Nuremberg operation, the RAF lost 78 of 823 aircraft dispatched against Leipzig.
A Schrage Musik attack was pure terror; in most cases, crews had no advance warning, just a sudden burst of cannon fire and their bomber exploded, or if they were lucky, it began to fall apart, giving some crew members a chance to bail out. Freeman Dyson, the eminent British physicist who worked as an operations analyst for Bomber Command, described the failure to recognize the Schrage Musik threat as one of the greatest intelligence debacles of the war. Making matters worse, Harris had little confidence in his analytical team and never seriously considered tactics and modifications that might have reduced loss rates, such as mixing more Mosquito night fighters into the bomber stream, or removing gun turrets that increased drag, but did little to improve a bomber’s defensive capabilities.
Nuremberg’s second major failure was in the operational plan. As crews settled in for their briefing, they were stunned to see a “straight-in” flight route to the target. After reaching a turn point over the continent, the bomber stream would fly 265 miles on a direct heading to Nuremberg. No zig-zagging, and the diversionary forces were small. The Germans quickly surmised the main effort would be directed at Nuremberg and marshaled their defenses accordingly.
And the Luftwaffe had another ally on that fateful night: the weather. There was a full moon above Germany that evening, and no cloud cover on that long navigation leg to the target. Contrails from the 70-mile long bomber stream stretched across the sky, making it even easier for enemy fighters to locate their prey.
It was, in the words of a surviving Lancaster tail gunner, “a disaster.” More than 200 German night fighters mauled the formation; dozens of heavy bombers began falling from the skies along the route to Nuremberg, their end marked by a massive explosion, or a fiery plunge to the earth below. At least 60 RAF bombers were lost during the ingress to their target; another 35 were downed on the way home, and 11 more crashed on British soil. In one single, bloody mission, the RAF lost more crew members than during the entire Battle of Britain.
And for that heavy price, Bomber Command inflicted little in the way of damage or German casualties. When the formation arrived over Nuremberg, they found the target obscured by clouds, and many of the surviving bombers dropped miles from their intended target. More than 100 bombers hit Schweinfurt by mistake (more than 60 miles away). No significant military targets were hit and total German casualties–military and civilian–were a fraction of the RAF losses.
In hindsight, the lessons seem clear enough. By the end of March 1944, it was apparent that the Battle of Berlin had not achieved desired results. Harris should have hedged his bets and cancelled the Nuremberg raid, particularly when weather conditions began to tilt in favor of the defenders. It is equally obvious that RAF intelligence officers, operations analysts and commanders should have paid more attention to reports of night fighters attacking from below, with upward firing guns.
A better assessment of that threat might have resulted in better counter-measures, saving the lives of thousands of aircrew members. Freeman Dyson believes that removing ineffective gun turrets might have added another 50 knots of airspeed to a Lancaster or Halifax, meaning that bomber crews would spend less time over enemy territory, and night fighter crews would find it more difficult to intercept a faster foe.
Unfortunately, the history of warfare is littered with examples of faulty (or disregarded) intelligence information, blended together with a poor operational plan, under less-than-ideal environmental conditions. All of those elements came together in the skies over Germany, on a moon-lit March night eight decades ago, and hundreds of brave men paid the ultimate price.
ADDENDUM: The Nuremberg Raid has inspired at least two excellent books, including a very detailed account by noted military historian Martin Middlebrook that was published in 1986 and a newer narrative by John Nichol that appeared two years ago. Mr. Nichol is a former RAF navigator who was captured by Iraq when his Tornado fighter-bomber was shot down during the first Gulf War.
A more controversial reference is Brian McKenna’s 1991 documentary that bears the same title as this post. The film looks at the thousands of Canadian crew members who served in Bomber Command during World War II and bore the same sacrifices. However, a number of Canadian veterans (and their families) have excoriated McKenna’s film, claiming it depicts bomber command crews as robots who mindlessly carried out orders to exterminate civilians. The ombudsman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which originally aired the film, later determined that the film had serious problems with accuracy, but historians who re-examined military records claimed McKenna’s documentary is accurate.
Various accounts of the Nuremberg raid have touched on a conspiratorial element–a belief that the heavy losses stemmed from an intelligence set-up. Put another way: some believe that the Germans knew that Nuremberg would be targeted in advance, allowing them to decimate the bomber stream. According to this theory–which has never been completely substantiated–the location of the main RAF target on 30/31 March was fed to the Germans through a double agent, who was later used to transmit false information about the Normandy invasion. To establish his credibility, the Allied high command decided to give him accurate information about the Nuremberg raid, a decision that (if it actually occurred) signed the death warrant for scores of aircrew members.
On the other hand, there is compelling evidence that valuable intelligence information–much of it derived from ULTRA intercepts–was withheld from Bomber Command during World War II. Former RAF Wing Commander John Stubbington’s book Kept in the Dark (2010) presents a convincing case that Harris and his staff were denied the best intelligence because of in-fighting within various intelligence organizations and political battles at the highest levels of the Allied high command.