One of my favourite cities in Germany is Cologne. known for Eaux de Cologne and for its many landmarks like the Cathedral.
The Cologne of the 21st Century is a vibrant and multicultural metropolitan city only about 80 km away from Belgium and about 95 Km from the Netherlands.
This location and the fact that the Rhine flows through it add the industrial hinterland made it a prime target for the allies.
Cologne had been bombed throughout the war the first time on the 17th of May 1940. In total there had been 262 separate air raids. However one of the most devastating raids happened on the 30th of May 1942.
On the 30th of May 1942 , a thousand-plane raid on the German city of Cologne was launched by Great Britain. Almost 1,500 tons of bombs rain down in 90 minutes, delivering a devastating blow to the Germans’ medieval city as well as its morale.
Codenamed Operation Millennium, the massive raid was launched for two primary reasons:
- It was expected that the devastation from such raids might be enough to knock Germany out of the war or at least severely damage German morale.
- The raids were useful propaganda for the Allies and particularly for RAF Bomber Command head Sir Arthur Harris, 1st Baronet’s concept of a Strategic Bombing Offensive.
Bomber Command’s poor performance in bombing accuracy during 1941 had led to calls for the force to be split up and diverted to other urgent theatres i.e. Battle of the Atlantic. A headline-grabbing heavy raid on Germany was a way for Harris to demonstrate to the War Cabinet that given the investment in numbers and technology Bomber Command could make a vital contribution to victory.
At this stage of the war Bomber Command only had a regular front line strength of around 400 aircraft, and were in the process of transitioning from the twin engined medium bombers of the pre-war years to the newer more effective four-engined heavy bombers such as the Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster.
By using bombers and men from Operational Training Units (OTUs), 250 from RAF Coastal Command and from Flying Training Command, Harris could easily make up the 1,000 aircraft. However, just before the raid took place, the Royal Navy refused to allow the Coastal Command aircraft to take part in the raid.The Admiralty perceived the propaganda justifications too weak an argument against the real and pressing threat of the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. Harris scrambled around and, by crewing 49 more aircraft with pupil pilots and instructors, 1,047 bombers eventually took part in the raid, two and a half times more than any previous raid by the RAF.
In addition to the bombers attacking Cologne, 113 other aircraft on “Intruder” raids harassed German night-fighter airfields.
Cologne was not Harris’s first choice; he wanted to bomb Hamburg. Poor weather made Hamburg a poor choice; in addition, Harris was advised by Dr. Basil Dickins, a scientist who was section head of RAF’s Bomber Command’s Operations research, to choose Cologne, which was within GEE range.
This was the first time that the “bomber stream” tactic was used and most of the tactics used in this raid remained the basis for standard Bomber Command operations for the next two years and some elements remained in use until the end of the war. It was expected that such a large number of bombers flying in a bomber stream through the Kammhuber line would overwhelm the German night fighters’ control system, keeping the number of bombers shot down to an acceptable proportion. The recent introduction of GEE allowed the bombers to fly a given route at a given time and height. The British night bombing campaign had been in operation for some months, and a statistical estimate could be made of the number of bombers likely to be lost to enemy night fighters and flak, and how many would be lost through collisions. Minimising the former demanded a densely packed stream, as the controllers of a night fighter flying a defensive ‘box’ could only direct a maximum of six potential interceptions per hour, and the flak gunners could not concentrate on all the available targets at once. Earlier in the war four hours had been considered acceptable for a mission; for this raid all the bombers passed over Cologne and bombed in a window of 90 minutes, with the first having arrived at 00:47 of 31 May. It was anticipated that the concentration of bombing over such a short period would overwhelm the Cologne fire brigades and cause conflagrations similar to those inflicted on London by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz.
In the raid, 868 aircraft bombed the main target with 15 aircraft bombing other targets. The total tonnage of bombs dropped was 1,455 tons with two-thirds of that being incendiaries. Two and a half thousand separate fires were started with 1,700 classed by the German fire brigades as “large”. The action of fire fighters and the width of the streets stopped the fires combining into a firestorm, but nonetheless most of the damage was done by fire and not directly by the explosive blasts. 3,330 non-residential buildings were destroyed, 2,090 seriously damaged and 7,420 lightly damaged, making a total of 12,840 buildings of which 2,560 were industrial or commercial buildings. Among the buildings classed as totally destroyed were: 7 official administration buildings, 14 public buildings, 7 banks, 9 hospitals, 17 churches, 16 schools, 4 university buildings, 10 postal and railway buildings, 10 buildings of historic interest, 2 newspaper offices, 4 hotels, 2 cinemas and 6 department stores. The only military installation damaged was the flak barracks. The damage to civilian homes, most of them apartments in larger buildings, was considerable: 13,010 destroyed, 6,360 seriously damaged, 22,270 lightly damaged.Amazingly the Cathedral survived.
1,047 aircraft were dispatched, this number being made up as follows:
- 1 Group – 156 Wellingtons
- 3 Group – 134 Wellingtons, 88 Stirlings
- 4 Group – 131 Halifaxes, 9 Wellingtons, 7 Whitleys =
- 5 Group – 73 Lancasters, 46 Manchesters, 34 Hampdens =
- 91 (O. T. U.) Group – 236 Wellingtons, 21 Whitleys =
257 aircraft 92 (O. T. U.) Group – 63 Wellingtons, 45 Hampdens = 108 aircraft Flying Training Command – 4 Wellingtons
The number reported killed was between 469 and 486, of whom 411 were civilians and 58 combatants. 5,027 people were listed as injured and 45,132 as “bombed out”.It was estimated that from 135,000 to 150,000 of Cologne’s population of nearly 700,000 fled the city after the raid. The RAF lost 43 aircraft (German propaganda claimed 44) 3.9% of the 1,103 bombers sent on the raid. 22 aircraft were lost over or near Cologne, 16 shot down by flak, 4 by night fighters, 2 in a collision, and 2 Bristol Blenheim light bombers lost in attacks on night fighter airfields. A posthumous Victoria Cross was awarded to Flying Officer Leslie Thomas Manser who sacrificed himself so his crew could abandon the aircraft.
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