Friday, 26 November 2010

Under a bomber's moon - two airmen at war over Germany

During the Second World War the night sky over Europe was one of the most lethal places to wage war. By 1945 almost half of the airmen who flew with Bomber Command and a third of the Luftwaffe night fighter crew pitted against them had been killed. Many German cities became moonscapes of rubble, their inhabitants the first to experience the reality of ‘total war’ – itself a glimpse of the destructive potential of the nuclear age about to explode in the Far East.

Much of Europe and North Africa had fallen to Hitler’s armies by late 1941, but his Luftwaffe had met its match during the Battle of Britain in summer 1940, when it failed to gain mastery of the air so those armies could cross the Channel and occupy Britain’s island fortress. As the fortunes of war turned with agonising slowness in Britain’s favour from 1942 onwards, the only way it could strike back at the German enemy was to attack its cities by night. Not until 1944 were the British, American and Commonwealth troops ready to pit their armies against the mighty Wehrmacht on the European mainland. Until then, Bomber Command by night and the US air force by day maintained the ‘second front’ in the skies overhead, drawing some two million German personnel to defend the western approaches to the Third Reich and easing the pressure on the desperate Red Army in the east.

The deadliest element in this Luftwaffe aerial minefield of flak, searchlights and aircraft was the Nachtjagd, the night fighter force. They exacted a staggering toll in Bomber Command lives and aircraft as both sides struggled to overwhelm the other not just with weaponry, but also with the tools of electronic stealth and deception. Under a Bomber’s Moon is the story of a navigator-bomb aimer Colwyn Jones, who crossed the oceans from New Zealand to fight for the Empire, and a young German night fighter pilot, Otto Fries, sent up each night to hunt him. Their stories are told largely in their own words, through the beautifully written diary and letters of the New Zealander – a journalist before the war – and the former Luftwaffe pilot, who in his nineties reflects on this intense period of his youth – and on the scars it has left even to this day. 

web site of author Stephen Harris