Operations - 28/29th April 1943 - Mine laying off coast of Northern Europe.
Mine laying was one of the less well known tasks undertaken by Bomber Command during the Second World War but it proved to be highly effective and was not without dangers of is own. The mine laying campaign started in 1940 and continued right to the end of the war. In the late thirties the need to restrict enemy merchant shipping and warship movements around the coasts of Europe was envisaged and development work started on magnetic and acoustic mines. Many of these mineable waters were inaccessible or too exposed for the Royal Navy and therefore it was planned to lay these mines from aircraft. These operations were known as “Gardening” in Bomber Command.
The first British aerial mine laying operation was undertaken by Handley Page Hampdens from 5 Group which laid 14 mines off the Danish coast. In 1940 1,167 mines were dropped by aircraft which accounted for the sinking of 137 enemy vessels of various types and tonnage for the loss of 31 aircraft.
In 1941 airborne mine laying operations continued at about the same level but the emphasis shifted from North West European waters to the Biscay ports on the French coast. This was caused partly by the U boat threat from their bases in this region but primarily due to German capital ships which had sought refuge in Brest.
Bomber Command started to use its larger bombers on mine laying duties thus enabling heavy mine loads to be carried for longer distances. The Avro Lancaster and Short Stirling could carry up to 6 x 1,500lb mines and the Handley Page Halifax 4 similar weapons. The operations were at first carried out at low level and were by their nature clandestine affairs. However opposition was often fierce with the aircraft encountering extremely heavy flak from ship and shore batteries not to mention the ever present risk of night fighter attack. The mining of inland waterways like the Kiel Canal was regularly undertaken and these operations proved very costly.
On the night of the 27/28th April 1943 Bomber Command mounted its biggest mine laying offensive so far with 160 aircraft laying mines off the Biscay and Brittany ports and in the region of the Frisian Islands. This was followed on the night of the 28/29th April 1943 by another large mine laying effort this time by 207 aircraft. This time the mines were to be laid in the Baltic, off Heligoland and the Danish coast and in the River Elbe. A diversionary raid on Wilhelmshaven was carried out by 6 Mosquitos.
103 Sqn contributed 7 Lancasters to this operation each carrying 4 x 1,500lb. Their drop zones were to be in the Gulf of Danzig in the Baltic which was a training area for U Boat crews. This involved a long flight at low level and the weapons had to be dropped from 1,000ft.
Sgt A D Nicholson was the first to take off from Elsham Wolds at 2057 with the others following in the next 10 minutes. Sgt G D King and crew lost their port outer engine soon after take off and were forced to return to base. The Squadron records note that there was 10/10ths cloud in parts at about 8,000ft but below visibility was good and the landmarks on the timed run were easily seen.
Sgt S G Burton and crew from 103 Squadron arrived in the target area but spotted 2 other aircraft ahead and above. One was already turning to make its run towards the objective. Sgt Burton circled to await his turn. The first aircraft was immediately hit by light flak and blew up. The second aircraft started its run and was also hit by flak soon after releasing its load and crashed into the sea. Sgt Burton then started his run and was able to drop his mines from 1,000ft and then turn sharply to port and away from the flak. On the return journey they flew over the sea as far as Peenemunde and then over land past Rostock and Hamburg. The return flight was flown “right down on the deck” being careful to avoid the flak towers and power lines. Sgt Burton’s gunners fired at anything that looked threatening. As they approached the German coast the crew observed a heavily fortified German position with German troops rushing to their anti aircraft guns. The Lancaster’s gunners fired long bursts into the scrambling enemy as the bomber roared overhead and away across the North Sea. Sgt Burton and crew landed safely in England at 0630.
Sgt A D Nicholson and his crew failed to return from this operation. Their Lancaster crashed at Jordrup in Denmark and is believed to have been a night fighter victim. There were no survivors from this crew and all now rest at the Esbjerg ( Fourfelt ) cemetery.
All the remaining 103 Squadron aircraft returned safely. The operations that night had been very costly with 22 bombers lost but the number of mines laid was the highest in one night during the war.
Bomber Commands mine laying efforts continued throughout the rest of the war and in total 47,152 mines were laid at a cost of 467 aircraft. According to the post war official records air laid mines in the North Western European waters alone accounted for 152 German warships sunk and 340 damaged. These vessels ranged in size from 300 tons to the largest warships and included 16 U Boats. In addition over 300 merchant ships were sunk and a further 165 damaged. Large numbers of barges and small ships were also sunk in inland waterways effectively blocking traffic until removed.
Apart from the loss and damage to ships the minelaying offensive caused great disruption to German shipping movements, both naval and merchant. This little known aspect of the air war in Europe proved a major success and was a significant factor in the eventual victory.
Written by David Fell - Some of the information for this item came from Bomber Command War Diaries by Middlebrook, Bombs Gone by MacBean and Hogben and The Dancing Navigator by Jack Harding.