The Winged Lion Soars Over Heligoland

The War Illustrated, Volume 1, No. 15, Page 469, December 18, 1939.

As if to show that the Nazi air raids on Scotland were but amateurish efforts, the R.A.F. delivered a full-scale attack on Heligoland, one of the most strongly fortified places to be found anywhere on the map. After dropping their bombs, every 'plane returned.

Nearly 300 miles from the English East Coast lies the little island of Heligoland. During most of the nineteenth century it belonged to England, but in 1890 it was ceded to Germany in return for concessions in East Africa, and by the time of the Great War it had been converted into a great outlying bastion of the Kaiser's realm. The treaty-makers at Versailles decreed its de-fortification, and for some years it became again what it had been before the Kaiser dreamed of world power – a mile-long rocky bank whose grassy slopes provided grazing ground for sheep and cows, and whose beaches were the summer playground of thousands of holiday-making Hamburgers. Came Hitler, who ordered the island's re-fortification – in secret at first, and later, when he felt sure of his position, openly. So today it is once again one of Germany's most strongly fortified areas defended with 16-inch and 11-inch guns, themselves protected by heavy anti-aircraft batteries. This was the place which was chosen by the R.A.F. for their raid of December 3 – the latest of their audacious assaults on the strongholds of the enemy.

A week before British machines had flown over and photographed the island, and to these pioneers must some of the credit for the success of the raid be attributed. Nor should we forget those who took part in the raid of September 29, from which some of our aircraft did not return.

It was in perfect weather that on that first Sunday morning in December the British 'planes roared up into the sky when the order for action was given. They were within sight of Heligoland about 11.45, and riding high in the blue, their crews gazed down on the island and its neighbour, Sandy Island, and the roadstead in between where lay two Nazi warships and several smaller craft, probably minelayers. From that immense height the ships and the islands themselves had the appearance of toys set out on a blue nursery carpet.

On receiving radio orders from the squadron leader, the bombers poised miles high over their objectives dipped sharply, then with engines screaming in a power dive, they went hurtling down. The "nursery carpet" became grim reality – an inferno of bomb concussions and anti-aircraft barrages.

Nazi Warships Under Fire

Arrived above their objectives, the pilots pulled their 'planes out of the plunge and started bombing systematically. The pilot of one machine reported that three of his bombs straddled a warship and he was quite sure that he had registered a hit. Another pilot dropped a bomb directly on a warship, and a third reported that one of his bombs fell so close to a ship that it must have caused considerable damage.

According to the German communiqué the British 'planes were able to drop only a few bombs owing to the heavy anti-aircraft fire, but in fact the anti-aircraft shells exploded high above the British 'planes when they began to dive, and by the time the Germans had shortened their range the bombers had climbed again above the exploding shells. In spite of the anti-aircraft fire Heligoland was circled twice, as on the first occasion clouds obscured the target.

One British 'plane which became temporarily isolated from the rest was attached by a Messerschmidt fighter – the only enemy 'plane encountered during the operation. But the British machine-gunner returned its fire to such good effect that the German fighter was sent down out of control with smoke and flames belching from its fuselage. The British gunner was hit by a bullet, but it struck the buckle of his parachute and he returned home uninjured. He kept the bullet as a memento of his escape.

After many hours in the air the bombers all returned safely to their base. There were no casualties to the personnel and only one 'plane was damaged, being hit in its tail by a shrapnel splinter from the barrage. As a result of this hit the pilot was fifteen minutes late on the return flight. It may be hoped that they kept his tea for him in the mess!