The Hampden Patrol
Based on extracts from his book, The Luftwaffe over Brum – Birmingham’s Blitz from a Military Perspective, Steve Richards recounts one desperate measure introduced to combat the German night raiders of late 1940.
The Hampden Patrol
By mid-December 1940, night bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe on towns and cities in the United Kingdom had been underway for four months. The Blitz of 1940 is readily associated with London. However, England’s second city, Birmingham, was effectively hit on numerous occasions prior to the Germans turning their attention to London on 7th September. During that month, Birmingham experienced only small-scale raids, but this was just a respite as the German bombers returned time and again during October, November and December. Some of these attacks on Birmingham were major, especially those which followed in the wake of the infamous Coventry raid on the night of 14/15th November.
Birmingham’s longest raid of the War
The night of 11/12th December would witness Birmingham’s longest raid of the war, lasting 13 hours and was carried out in two distinct phases. On that particular Wednesday evening the air raid red alert sounded at 18:20 and bombing commenced ten minutes later.
Bombs on the City Centre
The first bombs fell on the areas of Stechford, Witton, the city centre, Knowle and Solihull. The people who were huddled in their shelters, or on fire-watching duties, fighting fires, digging people out of rubble or tending to casualties in first-aid stations, must have been mystified (assuming that they had time to notice) by the absence of anti-aircraft gunfire and searchlight activity.
In fact both guns and searchlights in the Birmingham area had been ordered not to take any action before midnight. Why was this? The Hampden Patrol was in operation…
Sholto Douglas initiates the “Hampden Patrol”
When W. Sholto Douglas became AOC-in-C of Fighter Command on 25th November 1940, his priority was to frustrate the German night raiders which were flying with impunity as they carried out their attacks. Within 24 hours he had initiated what was code-named the ‘Hampden Patrol’. This Mission would make available standard bomber aircraft to act as improvised night fighters, so revealing a degree of desperation on the part of the Air Ministry. These aircraft were to criss-cross the targeted area, in the hope of catching the German aircraft illuminated by the moonlight or silhouetted against the fires on the ground. Nominated cities and towns for this close protection were: Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Wolverhampton.
The aircraft chosen for this mission were Handley Page Hampdens of Bomber Command. It was presumably hoped that, as these aircraft would not be carrying their normal bomb load, their performance would be adequate for the task. Such aircraft had the advantage that they could remain in the air for many hours (designed as they were for longer-distance flights) and that their crews were used to flying at night.
5 Group Bomber Command
The Hampdens were to be provided by No. 5 Group Bomber Command, with the burden falling upon five Lincolnshire squadrons: 44 based at Waddington, 49 at Scampton, 61 at Hemswell, 83 at Scampton and 144 at Hemswell. Each squadron would provide elements to make up the Patrol while still continuing with its normal bombing and mine-laying operations.
Extra ammunition issued
For its newly improvised role it was necessary to equip each Hampden with an additional machine gun (this being mounted in the beam position) and another air-gunner to operate it. Extra ammunition was carried in lieu of bombs. The Patrol would consist of 20 aircraft and was to remain over the target area for four hours, operating inside a radius of 10 miles. The 20 aircraft were to be vertically spaced at 500 feet intervals starting at 12,000 feet. Orders were issued so that the Hampden’s were given a clear field, with no anti-aircraft artillery or searchlight activity within the patrol area. It was reckoned that the Patrol could be established over the target area within 90 minutes of 5 Group being told the most likely target. Predicting the target was a matter for Air Intelligence which relied heavily on the Germans setting their radio beams during the afternoon preceding a large night penetration.
Operational instructions received
The Operational Instruction as received by the squadrons themselves is typified by that which is recorded in the 49 Sqn operations record book (ORB) which is as follows:
‘No 49 Squadron to provide four aircraft to take part in an experiment to be carried out as to the possibility of intercepting and destroying enemy bomber aircraft over their target, by concentrating twenty Hampden aircraft in a stepped-up patrol over the area being attacked. The patrol would operate if large-scale enemy formations attacked either Coventry, Birmingham, Derby, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Liverpool or Wolverhampton.
The initial time at which aircraft are to be in the patrol area will be known as ‘zero hour’, and will be signalled in the executive “GO” and patrol area will be given at the same time, one and a half hours before zero hour. Period of patrol is to be four hours. It is essential that aircraft do not arrive in the patrol area before zero hour or remain there after zero hour + four hours, since guns and searchlights will be operating in the area outside the period zero to zero + four hours. Each aircraft is to be allotted a sky layer of 500 feet. Layers allotted to Scampton, 16,000’ – 20,000’ [this includes 83 Sqn].
‘Aircraft to carry maximum ammunition supplies, and an additional air-gunner to man the midships guns.’
The Hampden Patrol on stand-by
On 28th November, the Hampden patrol was put on stand-by but cancelled at 18:00 hours. A second attempt on the 3rd December to activate the Patrol was also cancelled due to poor weather. Nonetheless, a solitary Hampden (X3025) from 44 Sqn and piloted by F/Lt Ogilvie, took off at 23:55. About 30 minutes later, a one hour patrol was commenced over Birmingham at 12,000 feet. The crew reported seeing large fires through the cloud but no enemy machines. They landed back at Waddington at 02:05.
Three nights later, the Patrol took up its post over Bristol, but was unable to interfere with the Luftwaffe’s attack. Numbers of aircraft from participating squadrons were: six Hampdens from 44 Sqn one of which had to return before reaching the target area due to instrumentation problems, five aircraft from 49 Sqn, three aircraft from 61 Sqn and four aircraft from 83 Sqn. Only a few of the Hampdens managed to stay over Bristol for a duration approaching the planned four hours. A number of aircraft experienced technical issues and had to divert to other airfields instead of landing at their home base. Crews complained of inadequate heating in the aircraft and one of 61 Sqn’s Hampdens recorded a temperature of -33°C. As a result, a number of crew members suffered frostbite. Severe icing on the external surfaces of the machines caused problems. A sighting, of what was probably an enemy aircraft, was claimed by one Hampden pilot from 83 Sqn as he approached Bristol. He was able to maintain visual contact for a period of four minutes, but could not close to make an interception. Another pilot this time from 61 Sqn, momentarily sighted a further aircraft but did not have a chance to identify it.
Hampden Patrol over Abingdon
On 8th December most aircraft of the Patrol got airborne shortly before 19:00 and proceeded to Abingdon in Oxfordshire, where they circled for two hours while awaiting directions to the target city. When directions were received it was a frustrating recall to base. Again 44 Sqn’s contingent was six aircraft, 49 Sqn eight, with 61 and 144 Sqns each providing three, making the full complement of 20 Hampdens. In fact, 18 aircraft made the patrol, as one each of 61 and 144 Sqns’ machines had to abort the mission.
Birmingham under attack
On the evening of the 11th, Birmingham was subjected to a major attack. For the second (and as things turned out the last) time, the Hampdens established the Patrol over one of the nominated cities. From 19:15 until 23:15, the Hampdens were in position over Birmingham, using 20 aircraft. Squadron contributions were: six aircraft from 44 Sqn, three aircraft from 61 Sqn, eight aircraft from 83 Sqn and three aircraft from 144 Sqn. Several Hampden pilots saw enemy bombers, though none was able to make an interception.
44 Squadron give chase
Sgt Hazelden, one of the 44 Sqn pilots, in Hampden X2918, reported that his crew saw no less than six German machines. One of these was as close as 50 yards. He turned to give chase, but could not catch it.
Pilot Officer (Plt Off) Skinner, also of 44 Sqn, flying Hampden X3026, saw five of the enemy, while patrolling at 18,000 feet. In an effort to bring guns to bear on one of these sightings, he dived his Hampden down to 14,000 feet, only to lose visual contact.
61 Squadron hear the Luftwaffe
A number of aircrew from 61 Sqn reported hearing over the radio their opposite numbers in the German aircraft. This would have been galling as they witnessed the incendiaries and high explosive bombs igniting on the city below. The RAF crews were suffering badly from the low temperatures and they probably wondered whether Luftwaffe flying suits were any warmer.
A young wireless operator, W E Clayfield, in one of the Hampdens of 44 Sqn, subsequently told of his bird’s-eye view of Birmingham’s ordeal, ‘Later, through cloud gaps, we saw the city ablaze. It was a dreadful sight. Every now and then we could see fires starting up, then bigger and darker flashes followed by great spirals of smoke.’
A crew from 144 Sqn, in Hampden X3130, saw tracer fire coming in their direction from the starboard beam, emanating from a distance of about 300 yards, but could not identify its source. The same crew reported that towards the end of the patrol, cloud started to move in across the city, causing them to drift out of the area.
That aircraft’s pilot, Plt Off Haig, made the following observations:
‘Beacons would be a great help in maintaining position. Controls of the W/T receiver froze and were very stiff. Temperature was -27°C.’
‘The range of vision of the beam gunner is so small, coupled with the fact that the gun may have to be changed from one side to the other on very short notice, that it is doubtful whether the beam gunner will have any chance of an effective shot. His position is uncomfortable and there is no heating provided for him.’
On 14th December, the experiment of using Hampdens as improvised night fighters was abandoned in favour of putting more single-engine fighters into the night skies over the designated target areas. On occasion these might include aircraft from day fighter squadrons, flown by hand-picked pilots. As with the Hampden Patrol, multiple fighters would fly at staggered heights and these defensive flights were known as ‘Layer’ operations. This term was soon changed to ‘Fighter Nights’.
A Brief Summary of the Handley Page Hampden
The Handley Page Hampden was concieved in the interwar period as a medium bomber, powered by two 1,000 hp Pegasus 9-cylinder engines. Known as the Flying Suitcase due to its unusual design of a deep cockpit area housing four crew and the very narrow rear fuselage supporting a twin-boom tail. The Hampden could carry a maximum of 4,000 lbs and was armed with a .303 Browning machine gun fixed to fire forwards and three free-firing Vickers K .303 machine guns; one facing forward and two to the rear.
At the start of the Second World War Hampdens were assigned to 5 Group Bomber Command, equipping seven squadrons. They were found to be under-powered and their armament was inadequate for daylight operations and they suffered accordingly.
Re-assigned to the night bombing role they fared much better and along with the Whitleys and Wellingtons of Bomber Command took the war to the German cities in 1940 and 1941, the Hampden being responsible for the bombing of Berlin on 25th March 1940 which led to Hitler ordering that the Luftwaffe turn its attention from bombing Fighter Command airfields to British towns on 7th September and the start of The Blitz.
Withdrawn from Bomber Command
By 1942 the Hampden was finally deemed to be inadequate for the bombing role and was withdrawn from service with Bomber Command, with some aircraft being transferred to Coastal Command to operate as long-range torpedo bombers.
Through 1940 and 1941 the Hampden was used by Training Command operating mainly with 14 and 16 Operational Training Units.
The Hampden was also used by the RCAF, RAAF and RNZAF, along with some being sent to Russia.
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