Battle of Heligoland Bight, 18 December 1939

The battle of Heligoland Bight was a failed British bombing raid early in the Second World War that affected Bomber Command’s strategy for the rest of the war. When war broke it was confidently believed that the bomber would always get through. RAF Bomber Command was sure that its Wellington bombers, with six .303in machine guns in three turrets, would be virtually impervious to enemy fighter aircraft when flying in close formation. It was also believed that the high speeds of modern aircraft would make it impossible for fighter aircraft to attack bombers from the side with any degree of accuracy, and so the defences of the main British bombers of the period were concentrated to the front and rear of the aircraft. Early Wellington bombers had a retractable turret in the ventral position (underneath the aircraft) that could be lowered into place if needed.

In the first months of the war, Britain and France were determined to avoid civilian casualties. This effectively removed the possibility of launching bombing raids inside Germany, and restricted Bomber Command to attacks on German shipping at sea or close to harbours. Even attacks on ships inside harbours were considered too risky.

December 1939 saw three attacks on the important German naval base at Wilhelmshaven and the nearby anchorage in the Schillig Roads (The Heligoland bight is the area between the German coast and the then heavily fortified island of Heligoland in the north sea). On 3 December 24 Wellingtons sank one minelayer and shot down one German fighter for no lose. The next raid on 14 December, an attack on the cruisers Nurnberg and Leipzig resulted in the loss of six of the force of twelve Wellingtons, but half of those losses were to anti-aircraft fire. The belief in daylight bombing may have been shaken, but it was still intact.

The raid on 18 December would end that belief. 22 Wellingtons from Nos. 9, 37 and 149 Squadrons were sent to attack German ships believed to be outside harbour. They reached their target in safety, but found the German ships inside the harbour. Their orders did not allow them to attack ships in harbour, and so the Wellingtons turned for home.

This was when the German fighters struck. First Bf 109s, and then Bf 110s harried the Wellingtons back across the North Sea. The early Wellingtons turned out to be very vulnerable to fighter attack. They lacked self-sealing fuel tanks, so easily caught fire. The German pilots were indeed able to attack from the side, taking advantage of the Wellington’s unprotected flank. Attacks from above were most dangerous, but even the retractable turret did not offer much of a threat, and slowed the aircraft down by around 20 mph.

Ten Wellingtons were shot down, two more were forced to ditch before reaching Britain and three more were destroyed in crash landings. Only two German fighters were shot down. Fifteen bombers had been lost from a force of twenty two, and nothing achieved.

The battle of Heligoland Bight was probably the high point of the fighter career of the Messerschmitt Bf 110. This two engined heavy fighter was the pride of the Luftwaffe in 1939, and many elite pilots were moved from the single seat Bf 109 to these “destroyers” of the air. Bf 110 pilots claimed nine of the Wellingtons shot down on the day, confirming for many the superiority of the heavy fighter. That belief would continue through the easy victories in Denmark, Norway and France, but when it came up against the Spitfire over Dunkirk the truth was revealed – the Bf 110 was neither fast enough or manoeuvrable enough to tangle with the best single seat fighters.

The Wellington was quickly modified to correct its main flaws. Self-sealing fuel tanks were added, and the retractable ventral turret replaced by a gun on each side of the aircraft. The Wellington went on to be a reliable and durable aircraft. However it was also clear that unescorted bombers would suffer unacceptable losses during the day. As a direct result of the disaster of 18 December, Bomber Command abandoned day bombing, and resorted to night bombing only. As a result, bombing operations over Germany did not begin again until March 1940, when it became clear that the German invasion of the west was imminent. The disaster over Heligoland Bight on 18 December had permanently changed Bomber Command’s plans for fighting the war.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 June 2007), Battle of Heligoland Bight, 18 December 1939, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_heligoland_bight.html

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