153 Sqn. 4th Feb 1945 - Gardening
Inside A Rear Gun Turret.
These posts follow 153 Sqn operations from Jan '45 to the end of hostilities in real time.
Laying of mines in shipping channels, to hinder or deny the passage of enemy vessels, was first practised in the American War of Independence, but it was the Luftwaffe, which pioneered the technique of dropping mines by aircraft. This presented a serious threat, because it rendered impotent allied defences designed only to counter minelaying by surface or submarine means. Whilst the Navy grappled with the problem, the Air Ministry initiated plans to introduce similar tactics.
It was not long before Bomber Command commenced aerial mine-laying operations in enemy inshore shipping lanes. From the outset the whole operation carried the code-word 'Gardening' and each designated dropping area was given the name of a specific vegetable, tree or plant, thus introducing a system that once notified to squadrons, required little, if any, subsequent amendment, needing only the addition of timing and routing details to be passed to the squadron(s) detailed to mount the attack. It was also the practice of Bomber Command to rotate Gardening Ops around their squadrons - 153 Squadron was first given this task on 4th February 1945.
Anti-Shipping mine as used in Gardening Ops.
4th February - Heligoland Bight
Mines were being to be laid to the south-east of the island, covering the Elbe estuary and the Kaiser Wilhelm canal (aka the Kiel canal). On the run up to the drop zone, LM 752(P4-S) suffered a hang up and Ian McGregor asked his pilot, F/O Noel Crane, if they could go round again. Although this involved a complete circle of the island, off they went and made a satisfactory drop on the second attempt. They were obviously pinpointed and were duly attacked by a ME 410, which shot away their port tailplane and narrowly missed the rear gunner. With some difficulty, they made it back to base. Although the crew survived unscathed, LM 752(P4-S) was out of service for a month.
The squadron quickly found that certain aspects remained constant. Each Gardening operation required the squadron to provide five aircraft - never more, never less - each carrying six airborne magnetic/acoustic mines; each mine was ten feet in length with a diameter of 18 inches, and weighed around 1,500 lb. (including an explosive charge of 740 lb.). Take-off was usually around dusk and return journey times were about 6 to 6½ hours duration. To avoid detection by enemy radar, the outward route was Base, Scarborough and (staying below 1,000 feet) out over the North Sea. With the one exception of Heligoland Bight, on reaching longitude 58N off the southern tip of Norway (a leg of 384 miles that took a little over two hours flying time), aircraft then climbed toward a point in the Skagerrak, south of the Oslo Fjord and north of the tip of Denmark, before reaching which, they had levelled off at their pre-determined dropping height of 11,000 feet. Having verified their position they then set course for their designated area in the Kattegat or further into the Baltic Sea. From this point, real problems arose.
In the Kattegat there are very few deep-water channels suited to larger vessels, and these were well known to both contestants. Knowing just where the mines had to be dropped, enabled the Germans to vector their night-fighters to best effect. The islands of Laesó and Anholt housed air defence controllers and radar stations. Neutral Sweden, with no need to operate a black-out, lay to the east of the bomber's route; German fighters came up, hidden by the darkened background of occupied Denmark, to seek out the bombers which were silhouetted against the lights of Swedish towns. Clearly, the advantages lay with the defenders.
When turning south into the Kattegat, crews had to switch on H2S (the airborne radar which showed an image of the area being overflown) presenting them with excellent pictures of the coastlines of Denmark and Sweden, thus assisting them to fly an accurate track past Laesó and Anholt to the drop zone, and allowing navigators to verify the wind speed and direction. Unfortunately, the H2S emissions could be picked up by the night-fighters, who would 'home in' on the transmitting aircraft, whose only defence was to throw out 'Window' non-stop in the hope that it would confuse the attackers' homing devices.
To reach the actual dropping zone, it was frequently necessary first to accurately determine the aircraft's position from an established location, and then to fly directly to the release point, where the bomb doors were opened. Then followed what many crews have subsequently described as the longest minute of their lives- the release of bomb number one, followed by a succession of ten second intervals before dropping numbers two, three, four, five and six. All this at a constant speed, height and direction, thereby inviting attack from the lurking fighters. Mercifully there was no requirement to continue whilst the customary confirming aerial photograph of the target was taken - the evidence was recorded by photographing the H2S readings.
Unlike the saturation raids flown against German cities, where sheer weight of numbers provided a measure of protection, Gardening drops were conducted by individual attacks -albeit conforming to an overall design - so that crews felt themselves cruelly exposed to any enemy action. The German defences were often augmented by the addition of naval and other gunships, which, with ability to fire predicted flak at these individual targets, proved to be very accurate. Given their mobility they could be encountered almost anywhere along the bomber's route.
From the foregoing, it will be apparent that Gardening operations were not welcomed by aircrew, who stoically accepted that they were more hazardous than other operations. Many however dreaded the fact that flights were made almost entirely over water, and invariably in total darkness. Should the aircraft be shot down or seriously crippled, the chances of survival were so negligible as to be non-existent. To carry out a successful 'ditching' at night would require phenomenal luck for even the most highly-skilled pilot, and the prospect of a subsequent launching of the dinghy in total darkness into a hostile sea, heavily encumbered by full flying kit, did not bear thinking about. Over land, crews could take their chances with a parachute jump, over water, even if successful, this would result in certain death from exposure. As with sailors on Russian convoy duties, the survival time in northern waters during the winter months was unlikely to exceed two minutes.