The Tragedy of Kristians and Harbour
Throughout the autumn and winter of 1939-40, the period of the phoney war proved to be very quiet for the Hampdens of 44 and 50 Sqns based at RAF Waddington.
The main task of the Hampdens of No 5 Group was to attack German shipping – particularly the capital ships of the Kriegsmarine, but as the War progressed the German Navy did not sail. The vast majority of aircrew casualties at this time were caused by aircraft accidents and an unfortunate incident when returning Hampdens were misidentified as Dornier 17s by inexperienced Spitfire crews and two 44 Sqn aircraft were shot down. This all changed on 9th April 1940, when the German Navy sailed en-masse for the invasion of Norway.
On 12th April 1940, Waddington’s Hampdens were tasked to find and attack the German Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Taking off at 0820 in the morning, Twelve Hampdens, seven from 44 Sqn and five from 50 Sqn, flew to the area in four vics of three – the standard attack formation during the early War years. However, unable to sight the German capital ships, the leader of the formation, Sqn Ldr JJ “Woggie” Watts of 44 Sqn, elected to fly on to attack the secondary target: German shipping in the Norwegian harbour of Kristiansand near Oslo where a German task force including an infantry regiment of the 214th Infantry Division had recently landed.
Arriving in the area just after noon, Watts spotted German shipping about 20 miles away and a quick sweep of the bay found two German heavy cruisers at anchor.
Watts immediately ordered the sections into line astern and the formation attacked at 9,000 feet, which was the optimum height for release of the bombs that they carried, but also giving the German flak gunners an easy target and their fire became more accurate as successive sections flew in to bomb. Adding to the confusion, Luftwaffe Bf-109 fighters of II/JG77 arrived on the scene just as the first section was completing their attack.
Spotting the threat, as soon as he had finished his attack, Sqn Ldr Watts descended to sea level and set course for home with his section. Plt Off Taylor in the second section was not so lucky. Hit by flak from the ships, his aircraft fell behind the others in his section and he was pounced upon by the fighters and crashed into the sea. The third section, led by Sqn Ldr Good of 50 Sqn, managed to bomb unscathed, but were soon attacked by fighters and the Hampden of Fg Off Robinson caught fire and fell blazing into the sea. Plt Off Bull’s Hampden was also damaged, but he managed to join up with his section leader, and they made their escape to open sea. Not one Hampden of the final section survived. Sgt Wild and Plt Off Thomas both went down into the sea: the aircraft of Canadian Fg Off Donaldson was able to reach land, his still burning Hampden crash landing onto a small Norwegian island, although his lower gunner was killed and his upper gunner/wireless operator badly burned.
Meanwhile, the seven surviving Hampdens set course for home, but when only 100 nm north east of Newcastle, Plt Off Bull’s badly damaged Hampden ran out of fuel which had leaked from the damaged tanks. Making a successful ditching, Bull and his crew were seen to evacuate their aircraft and climb aboard their survival dinghy – their position was radioed ahead so that they could be picked up. Another aircraft, flown by Plt Off Homer, had suffered engine damage and with his engines overheating and running short of fuel he managed to reach land and touched down safely at RAF Acklington. Of the twelve Hampdens that had set off from Waddington that morning, only five landed back at Waddington to the dismay of the Station – the War had arrived with a vengeance.
The trials of 50 Sqn did not end with the landing. Having reported the position of Plt Off Bull and his crew, the Sqn expected that they would be rescued – however, the rescue services claimed that the sea was too rough to send out small boats and the weather also prevented rescue by seaplane. The Navy also refused to go to the crew’s aid – stating that the position given was in a known minefield. As a result, Bull and his crew were not picked up and despite an air search by Waddington crews over the next few days (50 Sqn even using their Sqn hack – an old Avro Anson which they ran out of fuel and crash landed on return), Bull and his crew were not seen again. A furious Gp Capt Anderson, the Station Commander at Waddington, wrote a strongly worded letter of complaint to Bomber Command, and although search and rescue procedures were completely reviewed and improved as a result it was of no consolation to 50 Sqn who had unnecessarily lost four of their colleagues. The Sqn set about designing their own rescue equipment which could be dropped from a bomber to downed airmen, and this entered service later in the year. By this time, 50 Sqn had moved on to RAF Lindholme, and “Lindholme Gear” became adopted as standard search and rescue equipment for the RAF for many years.
After the attack, many tales of individual heroism came to light – in particular the gunners who fought off German fighters were recognised with Cpl Wallace and Cpl Caldicott both being awarded an immediate DFM. A further DFM was awarded to Sgt Clayton, a junior pilot flying as an observer, who moved his Vickers K gun and its ammunition from its forward mounting in the nose to a hatch behind the pilot’s seat which he then used to defend against the beam attacks – no mean feat in the confined space of a Hampden’s cockpit. Indeed, German records show that the Hampden’s gunners shot down four of the attacking fighters with a fifth being written off after making a forced landing due to damage.