Nightfighting in World War Two
By Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

Part 1. The Night has Eyes

The elaborate theories of the air power advocates did not survive the first months of World War Two. Stanley Baldwin's claim that the bomber would always get through proved to be true enough, but nations proved surprisingly resilient to bombing and air campaigns became drawn-out slogs.

Strategic bombing became an exercise in managing attrition. If each raid sustained losses exceeding just 5 or 6 percent of strength, a bomber force would soon be whittled away beyond its ability to replace crews and aircraft.

The RAF learned this in the first months of war when unescorted daylight incursions towards Germany were savaged by fighters. The defensive fire from gun turrets proved to be no deterrent and Messerschmitts carved their way through formations of Wellington bombers. In the absence of long-ranged fighter escorts, the RAF chiefs changed strategy and began to bomb by night. The Luftwaffe, ground down by their daytime raids of the summer of 1940, had a similar epiphany and began to blitz Britain after sunset.

PHOTO: The Wellington was one of the mainstays of the RAF's early-war bombing effort. Lacking four engines it could be caught by Germany's slow early nightfighters (even those encumbered by drag-inducing radar aerials), and it had insufficient defensive firepower to survive during the day. In one daylight raid in December 1939, just 10 Wellingtons of 22 survived the onslaught of fighters.

Night was a shield against detection. An aircraft that was visible at five miles by day might only be detectable 2,000 feet away on a good night. In the polluted air over the Ruhr or London, visible distances were far less than that. In Britain, attempts were made to launch single-seat fighter patrols against the bombers, but in 1940 there was no radar coverage over land and ground observers had to fall back on listening for bomber engines. The tracking of raiders was so poor that a fighter pilot had to be lucky to spot a bomber. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. One veteran of these 'catseye' patrols I spoke to thought they were 'bloody stupid', mainly because of the danger. Lacking night navigation aids, and reliant on instrument flying, accidents with single-seat Spitfires and Hurricanes were common and probably more aircraft were lost to noncombat causes than enemies were shot down.

In Germany efforts were made to integrate fighters and searchlights in 'illuminated zones'--belts of searchlights some 22 km deep, away from the flak guns. Fighters would orbit a radio beacon or upward-pointing searchlight until they saw the searchlight belt 'cone' a target and light it up. Then they would dive from their standby position and shoot the bomber down. The first such illuminated zone, or helle Nachtjagdräume (abbreviated to Henaja) was established near Münster and the first kills using the system were achieved in July 1940.

ILLUSTRATION: Henaja in action. A nightfighter orbits a beacon behind the illuminated zone until sound locators and searchlights acquire a bomber. Then it peels off to fly to a point behind the bomber where it can shoot it down.

Henaja achieved some modest successes. However, once it became clear to the RAF pilots what this flak-free strip of light meant, they simply flew around it. However, Oberst Josef Kammhuber, the energetic commander of Germany's rapidly growing nightfighter organisation, soon had enough searchlights to establish a continuous zone of illumination from Jutland to Liege. The British dubbed this 'The Kammhuber Line'.

The Henaja system was far from perfect. Searchlights were reliant on sound detection and their crews would often become confused between the noise of the bomber and fighter engines. The need to reduce confusion meant that only one fighter could operate in any sector of the line at a time. However, the RAF obligingly trickled bombers through one at a time, with a space of a few minutes between each raider. And the British bombers' poor navigation meant they often spread themselves across the line, rather than concentrating at a single point.

PHOTO: Oberst (later General) Josef Kammhuber built the German night fighting organization from almost nothing and established nightfighting tactics that would continue though the war. However, he was fired in 1943 when his system was unable to cope with the RAF's concentrated attacks on Hamburg.

Henaja fighting's other weakness was a reliance on the fighter pilots' own initiative. Kammhuber knew that a more complete solution to the nightfighting problem would require the development of ground control to direct the fighter to the enemy bombers. He devoted his command's energies to the evolution of new techniques involving radar.

Next: Ground control to Major Tom.

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