“Both the Allies and Axis would conduct a number of unusual bombing runs during the course of the Second World War.”
IT HAD ONLY been 132 days since the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor when the United States brought the war to Emperor Hirohito’s doorstep.
On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers took off from the carrier USS Hornet as the vessel and a small escort fleet, codenamed Task Force 16, secretly steamed to within 650 miles of the Japanese home islands. The bombers, each stripped down of all excess weight so they could launch from the carrier’s 467-foot deck, managed to get aloft and reach enemy airspace where they struck an assortment of industrial and military targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and Nagoya.
To be sure, the damage the raiders inflicted on Japan was negligible, but in terms of morale, the operation was invaluable. The mission showed the American public that the enemy was indeed vulnerable. What’s more, the unexpected appearance of U.S. bombers over Japanese airspace was an embarrassment for the leadership in Tokyo.
With their mission completed, the twin-engine bombers flew on to China. Fifteen of the planes crash landed on the mainland; one put down on Soviet soil where it and its crew were detained for a year. Of the 80 fliers who took part in the strike, all but 11 eventually made it home.
The mastermind and commander of the mission, a 45-year-old Army Air Corps lieutenant-colonel named Jimmy Doolittle, was among the survivors. Hailed as a national hero, the Alameda, California native was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to brigadier general. The Doolittle Raid, as it would become known, was among the most daring bomber missions of the Second World War — and there would be others. In fact, both the Allies and Axis would conduct a number of unusual strikes during the course of the conflict. Here are some of them.
Whole shelves of books have been written about the exploits of the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron. Perhaps its most famous mission was Operation Chastise. The raid, which was flown on the night of May 16 -17, 1943, saw 19 specially fitted Avro Lancasters release top-secret water-skimming Vickers Type 464 Upkeep bombs onto the Möhne and Edersee hydroelectric dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. The 9,250-lb. cylindrical weapons blew enormous holes in the massive structures knocking out power to much of the region, temporarily halting manufacturing and flooding a number of villages. Sadly, the torrent of water unleashed drowned 600 German civilians and as many as 1,000 forced labourers from Eastern Europe.
Casualties for the Allies were high also – eight of the 19 four-engine bombers were downed in the attack with the loss of 53 crew. The mission earned 617 Squadron the nickname “the Dam Busters.” The following year, planes from the same outfit, along with bombers from 9 Squadron, all of which were armed with 12,000-lb. Tallboy bombs, surprised the German battleship Tirpitz while she was sheltering in a narrow Norwegian fjord. The warship suffered minor damage in the Sept. 15 strike and was sent to Tromsø for repairs. On Nov. 12, the Allied planes returned to finish the job. A direct hit caused the Tirptiz’s magazine to explode, engulfing the ship. The vessel capsized killing 1,000 German sailors.
The Walls of Jericho
When the Allied high command needed to save the lives of 100 condemned French Resistance fighters rotting in a Gestapo prison in Amiens, they gave the job to the De Havilland DH.98 Mosquitos of the RAF’s 140 Wing. Eighteen of the nimble, twin-engine fighter-bombers were ordered to mount a low-level daylight precision strike on the facility walls in February 1944. The mission, codenamed Operation Jericho after the biblical walled city, called for the British, Australian and New Zealand “Mossies” to strike the watchtowers, guard barracks and the prison walls, creating enough confusion inside to allow the inmates to escape. A dozen Hawker Typhoons accompanied the formation to provide fighter escort. Shortly after flying out over the English Channel, four of the Mosquitoes were separated from the group and were forced to return to base; a fifth developed engine troubles. The remaining aircraft reached their target at exactly noon. Within five minutes, the planes had destroyed a guardhouse and loosed eight bombs that breeched the main cell block. Another eight tore open the walls surrounding the prison. A simultaneous attack at a nearby railroad station delayed German reinforcements from reaching the area to lock down the prison. The Mosquitoes were forced to break off the strike as German fighters appeared in the skies overhead. While the raid killed 37 prisoners along with 50 enemy guards, more than 250 inmates managed to escape in the confusion. Unfortunately, 180 of them would be recaptured. Worse, the Nazis killed more than 260 civilians in reprisals. The Allies lost one bomber to enemy fire – two escorts also went missing and were presumed destroyed. Incidentally, a highly fictionalized account of the raid was featured in the 1969 film Mosquito Squadron.
50 Feet Off the Deck
Low-level flying was also the order of the day for Operation Margin, a 1942 RAF precision attack on a U-boat engine factory in the southern German city of Augsburg. A dozen Lancaster bombers from 44 and 97 Squadrons made the 500-mile trip at treetop level in broad daylight. The mission, which involved two formations of six bombers, was planned to coincide with a series of diversionary strikes across France. Once over the objective, the Lancasters would each drop a 1,000-pound bomb onto the factory. Things began to go wrong with the mission when the planes from 44 Squadron passed near a Luftwaffe airbase just as a squadron of enemy fighters was returning from a patrol. Four of the six Allied aircraft were shot down within minutes of the chance encounter. The two surviving bombers made it to their objective and struck the target, although one was brought down by flak. The second group of Lancasters fared better – only two were destroyed. In all, seven of 12 of the attacking planes returned to their base, but a total of 37 fliers were killed and 12 captured in the operation. The raids were a propaganda bonanza for Bomber Command, although damage done to enemy production was minimal.
When it came to long-range strikes, few could match the USAAF’s 380th Bombardment Group’s mission against Japanese oil refineries at Balikpapan on Borneo – facilities which supplied the Imperial war machine with 60 percent of its aviation fuel. Eleven of the unit’s four-engine Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers stationed in Darwin, Australia would mount the the Aug. 13, 1943 raid. All told, the operation would cover a distance of 2,400 miles, much of it through heavily patrolled enemy airspace, making it one of the longest range bomber mission ever undertaken by American aircraft up to that point. Unfortunately for the Allies, intense tropical storms scattered the planes on the outward leg of the 16-hour mission – all but two reached the objective and one-by-one released their bombs. The last plane to arrive at Balikpapan was the B-24 named Shady Lady. In addition to delivering its bombs onto the target, the plane was also ordered to return with photographs of the damage inflicted by the rest of the flight. After accomplishing its objectives, the bomber turned for home – that’s when things began to go awry. Another storm blew the plane far off course, taking it dangerously close to an enemy airbase on Timor.
After being raked by Japanese fighters, the Shady Lady struggled to reach Australia before running out of fuel. Flying on fumes, the plane’s pilot finally spotted land and made a forced landing on a coastal salt flat. Stranded in the scorching hot sun with a broken plane, the crew managed to make radio contact with Allied forces who dispatched a repair crew to their location. With the help of local Aboriginals, the crew and air corps personnel managed to get the bomber air worthy again. The story of the plane, her crew, the mission and the rescue were the subject of the 2012 documentary Shady Lady.
Japan too undertook a record-breaking raid during the Second World War. On March 4, 1942, just three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, two Kawanishi H8K flying boats mounted a follow-up attack on the U.S. naval base on Honolulu. The mission was dubbed Operation K. The mammoth four-engine bombers were armed with four 550-lb. bombs each. After taking off from the Marshall Islands, the amphibious aircraft were to fly unescorted 1,900 miles to an isolated atoll about 500 miles west of Hawaii known as French Frigate Shoal. There they would land on the water and rendezvous with a submarine for refueling. With their tanks topped up, the planes would make for Pearl Harbor to asses the progress of repairs following the Dec. 7 attack and if possible destroy a vital U.S. Navy dry dock there. Local defences went on high alert as the H8Ks approached and fighters were scrambled to intercept them. Thick cloud cover prevented the interceptors from getting a fix on the invaders; it also kept the Japanese planes from locating Pearl Harbor. The pilots were miles away from their objectives when they released their payloads. Bombs hit the grounds of a local high school and the slope of a nearby mountain. Others likely fell into the ocean. With their bomb bays empty, the two attackers sped for home having completed what up until that point was the longest bombing mission in history.
The RAF’s No. 18 Squadron carried out one of the war’s strangest missions. On Aug. 19, 1941, six Bristol Blenheim bombers from the outfit, along with fighter escort swooped in low over a Luftwaffe base at St. Omer, France near Calais, France. No interceptors were sent up to drive off the planes and flak batteries on the ground held their fire. That’s because the Allied planes were there by permission of none other than Hermann Göring himself. In fact, the German Reichsmarschall had invited the enemy planes into Nazi airspace to deliver a package to the captured British ace Douglas Bader. The one-legged Allied flier had recently been shot down over occupied France and captured. While bailing out of his stricken plane, Bader’s prosthetic limb became jammed in his cockpit. He was forced to jump without it. Once in enemy hands, the 31-year-old flier asked his captors’ permission for a replacement limb to be dropped to him by a British plane. Amazingly, the Luftwaffe agreed. Berlin would later cry foul when it was discovered that after delivering the special package to St. Omer, the bombers diverted to an enemy controlled power plant and carried out a strike.