From the greatest air battle of all time, the author has drawn the personal stories of two combatants, an RAF air gunner and a Luftwaffe night fighter pilot. This is a history that holds the readers attention like a novel. In this snapshot, the whole of the bombing campaign against Germany is laid out in graphic detail, very highly recommended.
NAME: The Night Hunter’s Prey, The Lives and Deaths of an RAF Gunner and a Luftwaffe Pilot
AUTHOR: Iain Gordon
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWII, World War Two, Second World War, bombing campaign, RAF, Luftwaffe, guns, night fighter, Wellington bomber, night bombing, strategic bombing, independent bombers
DESCRIPTION: From the greatest air battle of all time, the author has drawn the personal stories of two combatants, an RAF air gunner and a Luftwaffe night fighter pilot. This is a history that holds the readers attention like a novel. In this snapshot, the whole of the bombing campaign against Germany is laid out in graphic detail, very highly recommended.
Of the hundreds of books on the WWII strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany, this book stands out because it is a narrow prism that still provides a total picture. The two characters are followed as they move towards their fatal encounter in the night skies over Germany.
The RAF was created in 1918 primarily to provide a new form of strategic warfare, based on the pioneering work of the Royal Naval Air Service. The RAF proved curiously inept in building the resources to fulfil the mission and much of the between-wars period was spent in a bitter fight between the RAF and the RN for control over naval aviation. Money was short because the politicians were desperately trying to spend the ‘peace dividend’ as governments in democracies are prone to do. That still doesn’t explain the wasted decades as the RAF clung tenaciously to WWI aircraft technology and concentrated on bombing primitive tribal villages in the Middle East, often using aircraft that first served during WWI. The RN managed to win back most of the naval aviation assets in 1938 but the RAF still stubbornly clung to the Coastal Command land-based maritime patrol and attack aircraft and flyingboats. This was to result in hundreds of unnecessary deaths of sailors in the North Atlantic for no better reason than the RAF political ambitions and the need to concentrate funding on rebuilding the strategic bombing capability that had been so badly neglected after 1918.
In 1940, the RAF was firmly between a rock and a hard place. It desperately needed pilots and modern fighters to build a defensive shield against German strategic bombing of Great Britain. However, it also needed in equal desperation to rebuild the bomber force to take the war decisively to Germany. It was a great tribute to all the young men, from Great Britain, the Commonwealth, and those who had fled the German occupation of mainland Europe, who faced impossible odds and triumphed in the skies over Southern England. It was also a great tribute to the aircraft manufacturers and their work force that turned out Spitfires and Hurricanes in amazing numbers and produced huge quantities of spares to keep the squadrons flying. Then there were those who were the architects of a radar-based command and control system that directed the slender fighter resources most effectively at the incoming Germany bomber formations. The courage and endurance was to allow a new and effective Bomber Command to be created and able to send 1,000 bomber raids deep into Germany.
The new four engine heavy bombers were to prove the stars that deluged Germany with explosives in ever improving accuracy, but it took some time to overtake the earlier twin engine bombers that continued to provide much of the numbers. With the exception of the Wellington bomber, the twin engine machines, that soldiered on from 1939 to 1942, were at best obsolescent, if similar to the German machines. The difference was that the Germans had built their bombing capability on the assumption that the primary need was to provide flying artillery to support the panzers in a Lightning War. In that role, they were reasonably effective. They had a reduced need for defensive armament because they were expected to operate at low level in skies where the Luftwaffe had already achieved air superiority. The deficiencies began to emerge when they were applied to blitzing Great Britain in a terror bombing campaign, where the RAF Fighter Command had denied the Germans air superiority. The RAF was to learn a similar lesson over Germany, but the aircraft industry was already starting to produce four engine heavy bombers in large numbers that were suitable to a strategic campaign.
The Wellington twin sat somewhere between the obsolescent machines and the new heavies. It had an amazingly tough structure that would absorb terrific punishment, and it carried similar defensive armament to the new heavies. The nose turret was power operated with two rifle calibre machine guns. A mid-upper powered turret was similarly armed. The tail turret was a powerful four gun power operated turret and the Wellington was also equipped with a manually operated waist gun on each side. The only mystery is why no one thought of replacing the rifle calibre machine guns with 20mm cannon. Even late in the war, the Lancaster heavy was only just starting to see some machines equipped with a twin .50 calibre tail turret. This meant that German night fighters with 20 mm canon could open fire outside the range of the bombers’ guns and land a heavier weight of fire.
The situation had two consequences. The RAF was forced to fly at night and with each bomber being independent within a stream. That in turn had further consequences in that navigation at night was more difficult and bomb aiming accuracy left much to be desired, whilst independent operation meant that it was very rare for two or more RAF bombers to jointly fight a night fighter. Where the heavier American bomber guns and escort fighters made daylight raiding possible, and better bomb sights further improved accuracy, it was practical achieve better target destruction with fewer raids and close formation flying enabled gunners to support each other. Even so, the late stages saw the Americans facing rocket armed jet fighters that could fire from outside the range of their defensive armament and out-fly the escort fighters. Fortunately, the jet fighters were never produced in quantity, or focussed effectively on the USAAF bomber formations.
By the time the story of the air gunner and the night fighter pilot moved to the fatal encounter, it was 1942 and the Germans had built a very effective night fighter command system that saw single night fighters flying in relatively small boxes under radar-directed ground control. This gave the night fighter a significant advantage in placing it one-to-one with a bomber, free from collateral damage by anti-aircraft guns, and able to stalk the target and pick the blind spot under the bomber’s belly, firing upward pointing canon into the most vulnerable parts of the bomber.
The fascinating story reaches its climax in the skies above Hamburg In the following duel, only one will survive.