Great Britain Had a Thing for Drama During WW II

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The British air forces in World War II — the RAF (Royal Air Force) and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm — fought brilliantly and heroically on all fronts for the entire six-year duration (1939-45) of the war. Indeed, Britain’s very survival was a result of the RAF’s superhuman efforts during the five-month span from May-October 1940. The RAF fought off the German air force (the Luftwaffe) during the evacuation from Dunkirk, France following France’s collapse, allowing more than 330,000 allied soldiers to escape annihilation and live to fight another day. 

Immediately following that, the RAF again saved Britain’s fortunes by successfully resisting Germany’s attempt to win air supremacy over England as a prelude to invasion, a struggle that came to be known as The Battle of Britain. Although suffering a deadly toll in both men and aircraft, the RAF held the Luftwaffe to a bloody stalemate through weeks of non-stop aerial battles and by the end of the summer of 1940, Germany had abandoned its plans to invade Britain.

There were certainly some very high-profile British air actions in World War II, many of which have eclipsed mere “war history” status and become part of popular Western (at the very least, British) lore. Two that spring immediately to mind are the famous Dambusters mission in May 1943 (complete with the famous “bouncing bomb”)  and an attack by obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers.

The Dambusters mission destroyed two crucial dams/hydroelectric plants in Germany’s industrial Ruhr valley. The resulting floods caused massive casualties and greatly hindered German war production for months afterwards.

But perhaps the most famous and important of all British aerial missions in World War II was the Fairey Swordfish attack of the Naval Fleet Air Arm, flown from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal against the German battleship Bismarck. Having just escaped the two British battleships sent to intercept it (the Bismarck sank the HMS Hood and badly damaged the HMS Prince of Wales), the Bismarck was poised to break out unmolested into the North Atlantic, where it would be free to wreak total havoc with the life-sustaining merchant convoys coming from America to Britain’s aid. But a last-ditch effort by Swordfish pilots to find the Bismarck in open waters succeeded, and they managed to score a crippling hit that diminished the Bismarck’s speed, enabling other British battleships to catch and sink her the following day, thus eliminating a potentially lethal threat to Britain’s critical seaborne supplies.

Little-known stellar British engagements

However, the British air forces distinguished themselves throughout World War II with a series of notable missions, conspicuous for both their audacity and results. Less well-known in retrospect but no less remarkable were these engagements:

Very early in the European phase of World War II (April 1940, the war having begun in September 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland), Germany attacked Denmark in an effort to secure strategic ports and vital launch points for future actions. The Brits rushed to Denmark’s aid and engaged German air and naval forces in a series of furious battles. The German light cruiser Königsberg was damaged by Danish shore artillery in the opening stages of the invasion and it retreated to the harbor at Bergen for repairs.

British reconnaissance flights spotted the Königsberg along with another German cruiser, the Köln, at Bergen and Royal Air Force Bomber Command immediately launched attacks by Vickers Wellington and Handley Page Hampden bombers late on the afternoon of April 9, 1940. Despite dropping nearly three dozen 500-pound bombs, none of these aircraft scored even a single hit. As afternoon turned to darkness, the Köln escaped, but the damaged Königsberg remained behind.

Skua bombers finish the job

The following day, the British tried again, this time using Blackburn Skua single-engine dive-bombers instead of conventional twin-engine bombers flying at higher altitudes. Diving down at high speed from low altitude, unhindered by inexplicably absent German fighter plane opposition, the 16 Skua bombers scored at least three direct hits on the ship with their 500-lb bombs. The Königsberg caught fire and sank quickly. This was an incredibly significant occurrence in the history of air warfare, since it marked the very first time that an active warship was sunk by air attack. And the Brits were the ones who did it.

Then, a few years later on Jan. 30 1943, the British once again demonstrated their unique ability to conceive and carry out the most ambitious and daring missions. That date was the 10th anniversary of the Nazi party’s rise to power in Germany. The war had turned badly against Germany by that point, with both the eastern front in Russia and the North African campaign to the south turning into ruinous disasters with a frightening cost in both men and matériel. 

In an effort to raise public morale and rally support for Germany’s rapidly deteriorating tactical situation, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göering, head of the Luftwaffe and the number two official behind Hitler, had arranged to address a huge gathering in Berlin, the capitol of Germany. The address that would also be carried live on radio to the entire country. Years earlier, Göering had boasted that enemy bombers would never appear in the skies over Germany.

British bombers humiliate Göering

Unfortunately for Göering, the British missed that memo. Having gotten word of Göering’s speech, they arranged to have three fast De Havilland Mosquito bombers — so fast that no German fighter plane could reliably intercept them — fly to Germany and bomb Berlin at the exact moment that Göering was due to deliver his speech. Three bombers hardly comprised a meaningful force, but the Brits’ intent was to publicly interrupt and humiliate Göering, rather than cause significant bombing damage.

The Mosquitoes’ timing was perfect, particularly remarkable considering the over-1,200 mile round-trip distance involved. Göering’s speech was delayed by over an hour and local reports from the event indicate it was coldly received, with little enthusiasm and no applause. That mission marked the very first time that Allied bombers had successfully attacked Berlin.

All throughout World War II, the British air forces demonstrated an unerring knack for doing the right thing at the right time and consistently rising to the occasion. One is hard-pressed to think of a challenge they failed to meet. These are just two examples of many in a long and impressive history.

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