Town placed in firing line during the last days of war
13:00 21 February 2014
Seventy years ago, the German Luftwaffe embarked upon a final series of air attacks against Great Britain – and Lowestoft was once again in the firing line. Local historian BOB COLLIS takes up the story.
The Luftwaffe’s code-name for the ill-starred offensive was Steinbock – the German word for Ibex. The British press, however, with an eye for morale and keen to play down the fact that London was again under attack despite Allied successes elsewhere, referred to the raids “The baby Blitz”.
The capital was, indeed, the enemy target, but some of the raiders crossed East Anglia in an attempt to circumnavigate the defences on the south coast, and thus Lowestoft again ended up in the firing line.
The British defences facing the new offensive had changed out of all recognition from the days of the great blitzes in 1940-41, when raiders could flaunt themselves with impunity in the night skies over their targets.
Just how deadly the radar-directed guns could be against small-scale raids was demonstrated on the night of January 13, 1944, when a lone Messerschmitt Me 410 was brought down in flames over the Suffolk coast from an altitude of 23,000ft for an expenditure of just 26 rounds of anti-aircraft fire.
Suffolk police were monitoring the morale of the civilian population and on January 25 reported: “No raids have taken place recently but it has been noticed that, after a lull in air attacks, the public do not take shelter so quickly on hearing an alert.” In the early hours of February 4, another two-phase attack against London resulted in seven raiders crossing the Lowestoft area. It was a night of spectacular success for the RAF. One Mosquito night-fighter crew reported seeing two German aircraft falling in flames into the sea before destroying a Dornier Do 217 which exploded and went down. Two other night-fighters returned to base damaged by debris from their disintegrating victims.
The Germans claimed 240 sorties had been flown during the night’s activity, but British radar plots indicated only 95 hostile aircraft had crossed the coast and, of these, just 17 had actually reached the London area.
The visible destruction of their comrades over the North Sea might have shaken the morale of some German crews and prevented them from pressing on. At 4.40am, two of the huge AB 1000-2 incendiary bomb containers – each of them holding more than 600 1-kilo fire bombs – fell astride Gunton St Peter’s Avenue, which was then an unadopted road straddled by allotment gardens. Neither of the containers opened in the air to disgorge their deadly contents but both slammed into the ground making craters 14ft wide and 5ft deep.
Inevitably, some of the incendiaries ignited on impact, but the only “damage” caused was to slightly inconvenience some allotment owners. Forty minutes later, another raider released its load over Corton, and this time the containers functioned properly, showering more than 1,100 incendiaries over an area between Colman Road and The Street. The vicarage and one other house suffered extensive fire damage but nobody was hurt.
The containers were later found on Corton beach. The same aircraft also dropped six 50kg phosphorous bombs in fields near Stirrups Lane.
The use of phosphorous incendiary bombs was not new. The RAF had been using them over Germany for many months and the Luftwaffe had been using them over Britain since 1942. This, however, was believed to have been the first occasion they had fallen in the Lowestoft area.
But with 11 bombers missing, it had been a costly night for the enemy.
On the infamous night of April 21, 1941, during a raid that saw Pakefield church destroyed by a fire caused by incendiary bombs falling in the thatch, a batch of the fire-bombs landed on buildings near Walmer Road. Several buildings containing ship’s fishing gear stored there for the duration of the war, were destroyed.
By a strange quirk of fate, the only bombs to cause any damage in the 1944 raids landed in the same area. At 12.25am on February 23, with 150 bombers again heading for London and some crossing Suffolk en route, another pair of AB 1000-2 containers and a clutch of 50kg phosphorous bombs fell in Pakefield. Only two of the phosphorous bombs exploded. One penetrated the roof of 46, Acton Road and the front rooms were largely burnt out.
The police later estimated that some 1,188 incendiary bombs, mostly of the normal 1kg type but some with steel noses, rained down over an area 300 yards by 150 yards, in and around Walmer Road. A sports pavilion and a small wooden store containing furniture and ship’s fishing equipment were completely burnt out. Two houses were badly damaged and about 35 others suffered superficial damage – mostly caused by incendiary bombs which bounced off roofs. Several Nissen huts occupied by a heavy anti-aircraft battery were also damaged.
By the time the “all clear” sounded at 1.12am, the empty containers had both been located, one in a back garden in Walmer Road, the other near Blackheath Road. With typical German thoroughness, the Luftwaffe armourers had stencilled the types of bombs carried on the casing. Although it was not realised at the time, this was the penultimate air raid on Lowestoft by German aircraft in the Second World War. In the months that followed, the Steinbock attacks were expanded to include Hull, Plymouth and Bristol, but by May they had petered out into a series of small-scale operations by Me 410 intruder aircraft, seeking returning RAF bombers and their airfields.
It was during one such raid, in the early hours of April 21, that a stick of seven 50kg bombs fell between Chestnut Avenue, Oulton Broad, and the edge of Lake Lothing. A house in Normanston Drive was partly demolished in what was to prove the 105th and final attack on our war-weary town.
Only after the war, when captured German loss records were examined, did the folly of the 1944 air offensive become clear.
For every five civilians killed on the ground in Britain, it cost the Luftwaffe one bomber and four crewmen. Some learned historians have even suggested that the only thing Steinbock accomplished was to further deplete an already-dwindling German bomber force which could have been better utilised over the invasion beaches at Normandy in the month ahead.
On July 1, an explosion out to sea at Kessingland marked the arrival of a new aerial menace. Vergeltungswaffe Eins (Revenge weapon No.1) as the Germans called it, but better known as the V-1 flying bomb, or Doodlebug, had arrived. The final round was about to begin.
Bob Collis is the co-author, with Simon Baker, of The Air War Over Lowestoft 1939-1945, published by Lowestoft Heritage Workshop Centre in aid of the Lowestoft War Memorial Museum.