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Old 12th March 2014, 00:17
Larry Hickey Larry Hickey is offline
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Larry Hickey
Conclusive analysis of the British a/c involved in the Battle of the Heligoland Bight: 18 December 1939


Recently on the Luftwaffe TOCH Forum there was an extensive discussion of the Battle of the Heligoland Bight involving 22 Wellingtons of Nos. 9, 37 and 149 Squadrons and several Luftwaffe fighter units. As a consequence of erroneous wartime German intelligence analysis and pilot reporting, the Luftwaffe narrative of the events hugely differs from what was reported on the British side. The experts on the subject for the "Eagles over Europe" project decided to definitively resolve the issue on the British side by a careful study of all relevant documents and evidence. That has been completed, and I herewith report our conclusions, largely based upon the research of Martin Gleeson and Peter Cornwell. Our eventual coverage of this very important and far-reaching air battle in the "Eagles Over Europe" volume on the Phoney War will lay out all of the evidence for this in great detail. I'm publishing this not because the information below is new, because it has been previously published by British Authors, but because of disputes based upon German reporting sources of the accuracy of the British reporting on the subject. Our investigation confirms what previous British authors have published, and confirms that German intelligence officers at the time badly misjudged what had happened that day.

Our report:

"Due to the wide disparity between information from British sources and those of the Germans as to the events that took place on 18 December 1939, it has been necessary to definitely establish the events that day from the British side, especially as to the size of the force involved and the outcome for these forces. I’m only going to indicate here the results from looking at the Operations Order for the mission, units and the composition of the forces involved, the outcome of the mission for these forces and the possibility that some previously suggested additional units were involved. We have researched every British record known to exist on this subject, and accounted for all forces involved that day down to the SN of each aircraft, and the names, ranks and fate of every British airman that participated. We discovered no units that had not been previously reported active that day over or near German territory. We’ve eliminated the uncertainty of the participation of 38 Squadron Wellingtons in the action that day, and confirmed exactly what happened to each and every aircraft and crew from the three British Squadrons whose aircraft were involved: Wellington bombers of 9, 37 and 149 SQs.

1) The 17 December British Operations order assigned only aircraft from the above three Squadrons to the Heligoland Bight mission.

2) Twenty-four Wellington were dispatched from airbases in Britain between 8:55 and 9:40 hours on 18 December from these three squadrons; two turned back before being engaged by German forces.

3) Twenty-two Wellington bombers reached German-controlled territory.

4) Ten Wellington bombers were attacked by German defenses, mainly intercepting Bf109 and Bf110 fighters, and fell into the sea, including in shallow coastal waters within German territory.

5) Two other badly damaged Wellington bombers ditched at sea before reaching Britain on the return flight from the target; the crew of one was rescued and the crew of the other was lost.

6) Of the remaining ten British Wellington bombers, all returned to British airbases. Many of these were damaged to some degree by German defenses but all were reported as “repairable.”

7) The assertion that other British bomber forces were involved in a second mission in the area of the Heligoland Bight on 18 December is false. Wellingtons from 38 SQ Wellingtons have been put forward by some researchers as possible candidates for such a force but that unit did not participate in a separate phase of the main attack. Three 38 SQ Wellingtons did fly a different mission in patrol sectors off the Dutch coast on 18 December but did not reach German territory or territorial waters and did not make contact with any German fighters. This mission was not ordered until the day of the HB operation and did not get airborne from Britain until 12:37 hours. All three planes returned without incident at about 15:30 hours. Reported results: “Little sea or air activity was seen.” These three aircraft did not make any contact with German aircraft. No other aircraft besides these three from 38 Squadron could potentially have been involved in the air operation over the Heligoland Bight that day.

8) Supporting the above information, no British airmen were captured nor bodies of deceased airmen washed ashore, except from the known aircraft indicated above. No British aircraft crashed on land, although at least one Wellington from the identified force ditched in shallow coastal water near an island off Borkum, and the aircraft either washed ashore or the wreckage was photographed on the beach at low tide, probably the latter. There may have been a second aircraft that likewise ditched near shore and could have been photographed at low tide, but I’ve not clearly established this yet. The five prisoners of war, of which one died the next day, all were members of the crews of the aircraft identified above.

9) Regardless of the various German pilot claims for aircraft shot down or damaged, these cannot have involved any British aircraft but the 22 Wellingtons described above, only twelve of which did not reach British air bases upon their return and could legitimately be claimed as shot down.

10) The obvious conclusion is that German intelligence officers, faced with having to explain the very large number of claims for damaged and destroyed Wellington bombers in the reports of their returning fighter pilots, interpreted the radar tracks and pilot claims in such a way that inadvertently doubled the number of British aircraft involved. They were convinced that their pilots had encountered a much larger force than was actually present. This resulted in the creation of the large, so-called ghost formation. Regardless of the relatively minor time discrepancies and the very large number of British aircraft reported as damaged or shot down, all German claims for damage or destruction to British aircraft during the Battle of the Heligoland Bight involved the same 22 aircraft stated above.

This is all too typical of thousands of other cases throughout the war, where intelligence officers, examining the claims of returning fighter pilots and air defenses, reached erroneous conclusions as to the number of enemy aircraft involved and the damages inflicted upon them. This is the same process that result in the Germans concluding that by 15 September 1940, RAF Fighter Command had been nearly destroyed and that only a few dozen Hurricanes and Spitfires remained to defend southern England from air attack."

Further discussion can occur on the Luftwaffe side as to how and why the huge number of claims and confirmations for lost or damaged Wellingtons, that far exceeded the total number of British bombers present, happened, but I wanted to settle the issue once and for all of what British aircraft were present over the Heligoland Bight that day. As far as I'm concerned that part of the discussion is settled.

Larry Hickey
Eagles Over Europe Project Coordinator
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