Operation Millennium, Leonard Cheshire & My Grandfather

The following is an extract from “Gangi’s War”, my biography of my grandfather, Jim Marsden. In the first half of 1942, he was an RAF driver stationed at RAF Marston Moor between Leeds and York. In later life, he described that time as being under the command of Leonard Cheshire who was stationed there as an instructor teaching other pilots to fly Halifax bombers. On the night of 30/31 May 1942, Marston Moor’s Halifaxes took part in the first ever 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne, as part of Operation Millennium. The extract below picks up the story.

Jim referred to Leonard Cheshire in later life as his commanding officer and the two men met many years after the war at a function in Leeds. They reminisced about their service together and Cheshire graciously acknowledged the role Jim played in one particular operation, despite Jim’s protestations that he was merely an ‘erk’. This acknowledgement was characteristic of Cheshire’s leadership style; he understood the importance of the contributions made by every man and woman in the service and took the time to get to know everyone under his command. Many of those who served with him described his ability to make them feel like they were the most important person in the room when he was speaking to them. As a result, he inspired great loyalty and devotion and helped create, in his own words, “a fellowship which can never be destroyed”. We did not know, until now, which operation they were discussing.

Leonard Cheshire was born on 7 September 1917, son of a prominent barrister and academic. As a teenager in 1936, he spent some time in Germany where he witnessed first-hand Adolf Hitler addressing a Nazi rally. He caused some offence by refusing to join in the Nazi salute.

He learnt to fly as a student in the Oxford University Air Squadron and joined the RAF in October 1939, one month after the outbreak of war. He was soon flying sorties in Whitley bombers and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (“DSO”) in November 1940 for miraculously flying back to base from a bombing raid over Cologne in a ‘plane so badly damaged by enemy shells that there was a ten-foot long hole in the side of the fuselage.

Four months later (March 1941), Cheshire won the Distinguished Flying Cross and was promoted to flight lieutenant in April 1941. He was then transferred to RAF 35 Squadron where he began to fly the brand-new Halifax bomber.

His aerial prowess and growing reputation as an inspirational leader gained him a new role as an instructor with HCU 1652 and he was transferred to Marston Moor on 16 February 1942. Jim had been there for three months by that time.

The Halifax was notoriously difficult to fly and, despite improvements having been made to its design (suggested by Cheshire himself), numerous aircraft were lost because of ‘rudder stall’ leading to a loss of engine power. Cheshire was vociferous in his criticism of politicians and the Handley Page company (which designed and built the ‘planes) for rushing into it service before it was fully ready. One pilot remarked that it “seemed like a dangerous aircraft, even before the Germans got at it”. (In defence of the Halifax, however, it should be said that it went on to play a key role in the eventual defeat of Germany).

Minor prangs and the occasional more serious crash were an occupational hazard. One such accident resulted in the loss of one of Marston Moor’s own Halifaxes and all nine men on board during a training flight in April 1942. Whilst practising flying on two engines, it dropped a wing to try to compensate for rudder stall and went into a fatal spiral before crashing to the ground near Wetherby. This must have weighed heavily on Jim and the other men in camp.

Repeated training flights to and from Marston Moor led to such wear and tear on the runway that it was closed for maintenance for spell in April and May 1942. It seems likely that Jim would have been able to take advantage of some home leave (Marston Moor being only an hour or so away from Leeds).

Meanwhile, despite the brilliance and bravery of bomber pilots such as Cheshire and their crews, the RAF had made little headway in its bombing campaign of Germany. To date, its strategy had been to pinpoint specific military and/or infrastructure targets for precision bombing to limit civilian losses (the British view was that targeting civilians in air raids was a war crime) but it had enjoyed only limited success.

German air defences were so strong that the RAF dare not attempt daylight raids. This meant that bombing had to take place at night, often in poor weather, and, with only rudimentary sighting technology, it was very difficult to accurately strike the intended targets. The result was that losses of aircraft and men were disproportionate to the success of the bombing. By this time, the British has been bolstered by the entry into the war of the United States (following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941) but the US Air Force was similarly unable to fly daylight raids.

Furthermore, the German Luftwaffe was playing by different rules and had inflicted heavy, morale-sapping civilian casualties in air raids on numerous British towns and cities, particularly London, Coventry and Liverpool. Britain no longer felt so squeamish about targeting German civilians.

The Allied strategy changed following the appointment in February 1942 of a new Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. Harris favoured so-called area bombing: concentrated raids over a larger area designed to inflict maximum damage. His brief was “to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers”.

Harris vowed to mete out to the Germans the same punishment which they were inflicting on the British but with even greater ferocity. As he put it, “the Nazis have sown the wind, now they will reap the whirlwind.”

However, in order to make such a plan work, the RAF needed greater air power than it currently possessed in front line service. Harris lobbied the Government to step up aircraft production and called upon the HCUs to contribute its trainee crews and ‘planes to operational service. Project Millennium was born – its mission to fly one thousand bombers against a single target.

Following the downtime necessitated by the repairs to Marston Moor’s runway, Jim’s leave was cancelled until further notice as everyone worked round the clock to ready the base and its aircraft for their roles in Millennium. They did so in conditions of absolute secrecy; only the most senior officers knew specifically what was intended.

The proposed date for the first raid was 28 May 1942 (or the first suitable date thereafter). Some of Marston Moor’s clapped out Halifaxes were barely fit to leave the ground let alone conduct raids over heavily defended Germany. Jim and his fellow ground crew moved heaven and earth to patch them up. By 25 May, Marston had twelve airworthy bombers and thirteen novice Halifax crews, each of which would be captained by an instructor including Cheshire himself.

Each aircraft also had its own ground crew who were responsible for readying it for flight: carrying out repairs, refuelling, loading bombs etc. Jim would have spent much of this time driving around the base, ferrying men, fuel and weapons. Given his reference to Cheshire as his commanding officer, it seems reasonable to speculate that he was a member of Cheshire’s own ground crew.

Such was the heroic effort of all involved that Harris felt able to bring forward the start of the campaign by twenty-four hours but poor weather between 27 and 29 May meant that the operation was postponed until 30th.

The conditions in England on 30th were favourable but Germany was covered by a blanket of thunder clouds. Harris vacillated: on the one hand, he could not afford to keep such a large force idle for much longer and conditions at home were perfect for launching and receiving back such a large force; on the other hand, the weather over Germany could hardly have been worse.

Harris decided to go for it and issued the coded command “Trout” to Marston Moor and Bomber Command’s other airfields across Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia. The target was Cologne over which the cloud was expected to be at its thinnest. Harris wrote to each of his station commanders:

“At best the result may bring the war to a more or less abrupt conclusion owing to the enemy’s unwillingness to accept the worst that must befall him increasingly as our bomber force and that of the United States build up. At worst it must have the most dire moral and material effect on the enemy’s war effort as a whole and force him to withdraw vast forces from his exterior aggressions for his own protections.”

The bombing was scheduled to begin at 12.50am on 31 May. The more experienced crews of numbers 1 and 3 Groups would be in the vanguard flying aircraft equipped with the RAF’s very latest navigation aids. 4 Group would follow with its Whitleys in wave three with the Halifaxes bringing up the rear. Marston’s novice crews would take their place in that final wave, aiming for the northernmost quarter of Cologne.

In the hours immediately before launch, the tension on the base was palpable. Jim and his colleagues were all too aware of the risks which Marston Moor crews would undertake: the memory of April’s fatal crash was fresh in their minds and the problem with rudder stall was an ever-present hazard in training flights above the local countryside let alone over enemy territory in bad weather. None of the crews (except for their instructor-commanders) had flown Halifaxes into battle before. However, no matter how they may have felt inside, Bomber Command’s unwritten rule that no fuss should be made and no emotion shown was faithfully observed.

Even for a brave and battle-hardened pilot such as Cheshire this was an anxious time, as he had not flown a combat mission for nine months. He found himself a quiet place and mentally rehearsed the details of the forthcoming mission. He steeled his resolve by thinking of his brother, Christopher, also a bomber pilot who had been shot down and was being held captive in Nazi Germany.

At approximately 10pm, Marston’s bomber crews changed into their flying gear and approximately one hour later Cheshire and his men boarded trucks which ferried them across the base to their aircraft. Was Jim one of the drivers? Sadly, we’ll never know.

As they got off the trucks and made their way to their aircraft, no-one wished them good luck (it was not the ‘done thing’) but everyone knew they needed it: the chances of a member of Bomber Command aircrew successfully completing a tour of 30 missions were vanishingly small. By the end of the war, over 55,000 members of RAF Bomber Command had lost their lives (almost half of all those who had taken to the air).

Cheshire’s ‘plane (naturally) was the first to depart (at 11.44pm). Eleven others followed him from Marston Moor and they joined the rear-guard of a total force of 1,047 bombers that lifted off from Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia that night bound for Cologne. At the time, it was the largest air armada which had ever taken to the skies.

The last of Marston’s Halifaxes left the runway at 12.11am and soon the din of the engines subsided as they headed off towards Suffolk and out over the North Sea. Jim and the rest of the ground crew could only wait anxiously for their return.

Cheshire’s own account of the operation about which he and Jim would reminisce many years later (taken from his autobiographical ‘Bomber Pilot’) is reproduced below:

At ten-five the first Whitley passed over the aerodrome heading south-east, and at eleven-twenty the port outer of ‘E’ for Edward [the call-sign of Cheshire’s Halifax] roared into life. It had roared into life countless times during the last seven months, but tonight there was something different, something that spelt success and, for that matter, death, and so it was that the routine look of boredom was gone from the six faces inside ‘E’ for Edward. Gone was the sun, but the sky was still light enough to see the host of bombers floating irresistibly towards Cologne.

From the control tower someone flashed a green, and we fled down the flarepath to take our place in the queue: behind us, dimly, we saw ‘N’ for Nuts, and then the night closed down. The faces behind me were unfamiliar, but the spirit was the same as ever. I had wondered too if the sight of gunfire would frighten me, or if the absence of the old, trusted faces would take away the confidence I once had known. All this, and more, I had asked myself during the hours of preparation, and then, when the night closed in and the flarepath disappeared behind the port wing, I knew that the answer was No. I realised in that moment that the Air Force has achieved something greater than all its victories, that through the courage and wisdom of its leaders it has created among its ranks a fellowship which can never be destroyed; and I think I understood why it is that England can never be defeated.

As we flew on across England, in the sky and on the ground there were signs of inexhaustible activity: flarepaths, aeroplanes and lights pointing out the way. Aeroplanes over the sea, too, and ships patrolling in case of accidents. And then as we turned over the Dutch islands on to the last lap, the most monstrous sight in all the history of bombing. The sky, helped by the moon, was very light, so that the stars showed only dimly and infrequently. The ground too was light, but in a curious manner mauve, so that the contrast was very beautiful. Against this pale, duck-egg blue and the greyish-mauve were silhouetted a number of small black shapes: all of them bombers, and all of them moving the same way.

One hundred and thirty-four miles ahead, and directly in their path, stretched a crimson-red glow: Cologne was on fire. Already, only twenty-three minutes after the attack had started, Cologne was ablaze from end to end, and the main force of the attack was still to come. I looked at the other bombers and I looked at the row of selector switches in the bomb compartment, and I felt, perhaps, a slight chill in my heart. But the chill did not stay long: I saw other visions, visions of rape and murder and torture. And somewhere in the carpet of greyish-mauve was a tall, blue-eyed figure waiting behind barbed-wire walls waiting for someone to bring him home. No, the chill did not last long.

When Cologne came in view beneath the port wing there was a sudden silence in the aeroplane. If what we saw below was true, Cologne was destroyed. We looked hastily at the Rhine, but there was no mistake: what we saw below was true. Cologne was burning, it was burning as no city in the world can ever have burnt, and with it was burning the morale of the German citizen.”

Having crossed the North Sea and entered German airspace, the Millennium crews picked out the River Rhine (the cloud had helpfully dissipated) and followed it by moonlight as far as Cologne. Once there, they unleashed a massive bombardment: in 90 minutes of bombing, they destroyed 3,330 buildings and damaged nearly 10,000 others; 469 Germans were killed (most of them civilians), more than 5,000 others were injured and a total of 45,000 were made homeless.

By contrast, Allied losses were relatively low (41 of the 1,047 aircraft failed to return) and the mission was hailed as a success. Churchill would later send Harris a congratulatory note:

“This proof of the growing power of the British bomber force is also the herald of what Germany will receive, city by city, from now on.”

Meanwhile, back at Marston Moor, Jim and the rest of the ground crew waited to welcome back their colleagues. One by one, the ‘planes returned (including Cheshire’s) until 12 of the 13 were safely back. Sadly, that one missing aircraft never did return.

Piloted by Flight Lieutenant Wright, Halifax L9605 was shot down by renowned German fighter ace, Reinhold Knacke, at 2.04am at a height of 4,500 metres. Wright and all but one of the crew managed to bail out and were subsequently captured and held prisoner by the Germans. Sergeant Kenneth Manley (the rear gunner) went down with the ‘plane and was killed, still at his gun in the rear of the craft. He was just 23 years old.

You can buy a copy of ‘Gangi’s War’ in ePub here or paperback here. Royalties to RAF Benevolent Fund

Jim Marsden (1920-1994)

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