Dit artikel werd oorspronkelijk gepubliceerd in het blad "Spitfire", dat uitgegeven wordt door de Spitfire Society, volume 4, nummer 11, herfst 2003, blz. 10-12. Met toestemming van de auteur zijn hier kopieën van het oorspronkelijke artikel, inclusief foto's :
It was March 1945 and the 'hungerwinter' when food was scarce. Many Dutch people were dying of starvation in the cold. The young boy queuing for bread suddenly heard the sound of Merlins saw the glint of wings in the sky. 'I spotted our friends in the air - about six or seven Spits, first line abreast, tipping over one by one diving down. Suddenly one of them exploded in a fireball. In spite of my own misery I felt very rotten because the pilot could never have survived.'
The Spitfires were bombing V2 launching sites in a wooded area on the outskirts of Den Haag near where the boy lived. The massed trees gave good cover for the rockets which Germany had been developing since the mid-30s but it wasn't until after the Allies landed in Normandy that operational firings took place. The first V2 to hit Britain landed at Chiswick, a suburb of London on Friday 8 September 1944 and thereafter there was an onslaught. Combined with Germany's other 'revenge weapon' the V1 'doodlebug' which, ironically, had been thought to have been more or less defeated by that September Friday, the 'blitz' was back.
Being a ballistic missile, the technology of the day could do little to intercept the V2s once launched. They had to be destroyed before launching. The V2 was 46 feet high with a warhead of about a ton of amatol. Although there were some fixed launching sites, because of their vulnerability, firing was more normally from random sites using a small firing platform protected by heavy flak defences. The missile transporter (Meillerwagen) carried the V2 horizontally but at the chosen launch site, it was turned to the vertical for firing which could be completed within about an hour and a half of arrival. The missile convoy could be on its way within half an hour of the launch leaving only the blackened ground burnt by the V2's exhaust. It wasn't unusual for a V2 to explode immediately after firing but this didn't deter the Wehrmacht troops from using street corners in the Dutch suburbs on many occasions. The Dutch boy saw many launches. 'We would see the V2 slowly rising above the treetops accelerating?? Very often they fell back to earth killing many people and destroying many houses. Sometimes they were absolutely uncontrollable???'
After the arrival of the first V2 at Chiswick, Fighter Command with its AOC-in-C Air Marshal Roderic Hill was tasked with striking back. And the prime responsibility was given to 12 Group operating from the Norfolk airfields of Coltishall, Ludham, Matlaske and Swannington. With the nearness of Dutch civilians to the launching sites, dive bombing was the chosen method of attack. Dive bombing techniques were already developed for the V1 sites so attacks on the V2s started quickly using initially Spitfire IXs, then XVIs.
The Mark IX and XVI Spitfires were more or less the same except that the XVI had clipped wings giving it a clear visible difference and whilst the IX was powered by the Merlin 66, the XVI had the Packard 266. These American built engines gained a reputation for unreliabity in some quarters, but most pilots on the V2 sorties found them to be completely dependable and had no qualms about the long flights over the icy North Sea which they had to make daily to reach the Dutch targets. And engine fitters recall with pleasure the lavish tool kits supplied with each engine! The Spits packed a powerful punch too with two 20mm wing mounted cannon and two or four machine guns together with the capability of carrying up to 1,000 lbs of bombs on strongpoints on the wings and the centreline of the fuselage.
A typical day started with an early weather recce to the Dutch coast the results of which would influence the targets attacked and the bomb loads. Then a briefing, and shortly after, a Squadron take-off, forming up over Norfolk before turning east and flying across the sea to Holland. Near the target, the Spitfires moved to attack altitude and the unit commander would order an echelon formation as they made their final approach to the target. Depending on cloud cover, the attacks started at heights between 8,000 and 5,000 feet, but no lower than this because of defending flak. One method used was to fly in echelon until the target passed out of sight under the wing, then roll the Spitfire to reveal the target which was centred in the unlocked gyro gun sight, and trim the aeroplane into a 'hands-off' dive. Ideally the bombs were released at 3,000 feet - never below 2,000 - and the Spitfire pulled out of its dive to make a low level escape. An experienced pilot should have been able to place his bombs within about 30 yards of the target.
Pilots remember stomachs tightening at the top of the dive anticipating having to get through the flak. One recalled it as being 'quite pretty' with black puffs which exploded into bright red, but it was lethal. W/O Eric Mee recalled his first operation: 'I became aware of the little red balls of fire that were coming straight at me, slowly at first, then nipping past my cockpit at a fantastic pace. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 were pulling out of their dives and it was my turn to aim at the missiles in the wood and press the bomb release. I then pulled out at about 3,000 feet in a 5 or 6G pull out which produced a short black out. A good yell at this point with my feet up on the G pedals, the stick and rudder were pushed all around the cockpit to produce as erratic a course as possible, hoping to confuse the gunners.' Then reform and back to base.
Another pilot remembered one dive bombing training flight. He wound in 'nose-up' trim to get out of the dive sending the Spitfire arcing into a climb, making him black out. It was into the stratosphere before he came round. Sometimes the 'G' forces damaged the wings, particularly if the bombs 'hung up' and were still there during the pull-out.
There might very well be a further two or three similar operations to fly before evening came and 'DCO' could be logged. Then, time for a 'sortie' to a nearby Norfolk village pub for a couple of pints, or into Norwich.
Once captured airfields on the Continent (like Ursel, Helmond, Maldegem, Wevelgem) became available, the Squadrons recovered there after the first op of the day to be refuelled and rearmed and repeated this two or three times until they flew back to Norfolk for the night. Pilots had gruelling days which started and ended with the flight over the North Sea - in winter - and up to four operational sorties in between. A single Squadron might complete forty operational sorties in a day, and there was more than one squadron operating - often against the same target area so that the net effect for the V2 troops was a constant stream of Spitfires attacking them during the hours of daylight. Squadrons from 12 Group doing this included 124, 229 (which became 603 in January 1945), 451 (mainly carrying out attacks on railway targets in March 1945), 453 and 602. And in addition, Typhoons and Spitfires from Squadrons in the 2nd Tactical Air Force as well as medium bombers also attacked V2 sites, although it was 12 Group's specific job.
During March 1945, 602 Squadron completed 469 sorties; 603 Squadron 626 sorties dropping 1385 bombs.
With such frantic activity, the ground crews were under pressure too to complete turnrounds. Pilots were ordered to refrain from firing their guns unless absolutely necessary to avoid the need for re-arming and in fact, rarely met the Luftwaffe. One armourer was faced with a difficult situation when a Spitfire crashed on take-off on its belly. The pilot was unhurt, but the bombs were still on the wings and dug into the mud. He had to crawl under the Spitfire to get to the bombs to make them safe - an action he remembers to this day!! Another Spitfire did the same, but the bombs broke loose, bouncing over the airfield - fortunately without exploding.
As the Allied push into Germany by-passed Holland, the brave Dutch people had a final trial to endure when food ran short over the winter - known as the 'hungerwinter'. The constant sight of the Spitfires in the sky gave them encouragement with the knowledge that they were not forgotten and they appreciated the bravery of the pilots. On the occasions that Allied bombs went astray and killed Dutch folk, they endured it stoically, without rancour and there is still a bond between the Dutch and the British to this day. The 'hungerwinter' was partly relieved by Bomber Command's dropping of food to them - Operation Manna.
The mobility of the V2 launchers meant that often the bombs were aimed at areas from where the Germans tended to launch missiles rather than on to launchers themselves. There seem to have been occasions when the Dutch Resistance managed to get word through that a launch was about to take place and Spitfires were either scrambled, or re-directed if airborne already.
Other V2 targets attacked included railways, support sites, 'factories' making liquid oxygen fuel and the admin buildings for the V2 troops, and targets having nothing to do with V2s were also hit as opportunities arose - shipping strikes etc.
As to the effectiveness of the campaign which ended at the beginning of April 1945, it is difficult to draw results. Although pilots saw V2s being launched in front of them (one even took a shot at one) there were few, if any, occasions when launches were clearly prevented. However, during some periods of it, the numbers of V2s being launched decreased and it may very well have been because of the activities of the Spitfire dive-bombers. The efforts and courage of the pilots and ground crews did disrupt the launches and the glint of light reflecting off those elegant, elliptical wings gave the long-suffering Dutch civilians heart to get them through the final grim winter of the War. The days were long, hard and dangerous but history gives little credit to the airmen who fought this battle.
After the War, the young Dutch boy met one of the pilots of the Spitfires that used to fascinate him and they became firm friends; a friendship that has lasted for over fifty years and into the 21st century.
Finally, for the purist, a selection of the Spitfires used by the Squadrons to bomb the V2s:
Bill Simpson is a co-author of a history of 603 Squadron published by Grub Street in 2003. He would be interested to hear from any pilots or ground crew involved in the campaign against the V2s in 1944/45.