Operation MILLENNIUM and how Hamburg was spared at the cost of Cologne

BY RICHARD MADDOX

THE NIGHT OF THE 30-31 May 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the first RAF 1,000 bomber raid against targets in Germany.

In order to meet the number of aircraft to be sent, planes were begged from as many units as possible – including operational training units – with just 678 aircraft being front line bombers of all different shapes, sizes and capacities.

Eventually 1,047 aircraft would take off on the raid – more than 2.5 times the number of the previous biggest raid.

Of the aircraft that took off 868 claimed to have bombed the target releasing 1,455 tons of bombs (60% incendiary bombs). As was the norm at this period of the war only around two-thirds of the bombs landed in the city.

Image: A vertical air to ground photograph taken during Operation MILLENNIUM, the ‘Thousand-bomber’ raid on Cologne, Germany 30/31 May 1942. Because of the fact that the aircraft, the searchlights on the ground and the tracer shells from anti-aircraft fire are all moving, most of the picture is covered in light trails. Smoke from exploding bombs can be seen in lower left corner of the image. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205023104

But this, the first use of the bomber stream tactic with all aircraft passing over the target in just 90 minutes, still accounted for the loss of 5.2% of Cologne’s buildings, 486 people killed, 5,000 injured and almost 60,000 made homeless.

The poem below by George Crocker, a former air gunner who served with of No. 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron, RAF paints an evocative picture of the crews setting out on the night of 30 May 1942.

It (and the poem’s explanatory notes ) were published in ‘The Aussie Mossie’ magazine in December 2007.

Cologne, 1942

The briefing room was crowded
With twenty crews, or more
We saw the target map and route
And guessed what was in store

The air is thick with rumour
“It’s a Happy Valley (1) treat”
The CO (2) enters quickly
We clatter to our feet

“A message from the C-in-C (3)
We raise a muted groan
“A thousand aircraft on tonight –
Your target is Cologne”

“A thousand aircraft” echoes round
A mocking cheer is raised
“Four hundred Tiger Moths (4)” one quips
Yet still we are amazed

“Your job tonight – to start the fires
First there will find it tough
Make it easy for the heavies (5)
To drop their back-room stuff (6)

“A thousand aircraft on Cologne
God help the bods below
With a full moon and a clear sky
God help the sods that go”

The banter crackles back and forth
Weak jokes that mask strong fears
For some, this night will end with death
With horror, grief and tears

And so we saunter to the flights
Each with his thoughts alone
Warsaw, Rotterdam, London burned
For them – tonight… Cologne.

  • Happy Valley:
    RAF nickname for the Ruhr valley, a heavily industrialised and well-protected area of Germany, targeted by the RAF.
  • CO:
    Commanding Officer – usually the man in charge of the RAF station where the bomber squadrons were based.
  • C-in-C:
    Commander in Chief.
    At this time Command in Chief Bomber Command was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris GCB, OBE, AFC
  • Tiger Moths:
    The De Havilland Tiger Moth was an unarmed biplane used for training RAF pilots.
  • Back-room stuff:
    refers to new types of bomb and or target markers etc.
  • Heavies:
    RAF bomber aircraft were categorised by the load they could carry – light, medium or heavy. In May 1943 the RAF ‘heavies’ were the Short Stirling and Avro Manchester (both types being phased out), the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster – more capable aircraft re-equipping Bomber Command.

Image: Members of No. 106 Squadron RAF, including their Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson (standing middle, front row), celebrate their return to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire after the raid on Cologne, Germany on 30/31 May 1942. The Squadron’s Avro Manchesters, in the course of being replaced by Avro Lancasters are in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208127

Although Cologne was the target bombed on Operation MILLENIUM it was not the first choice of Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris (‘Bomber’ Harris) head of Bomber Command.

That was to be Hamburg, a large port city on the coast and relatively easy to find using the navigation aids of the time – especially Gee that was coming into operation use. Harris’ declared aim (cited in ‘The Bombing War’ by Richard Overy) was the to wipe out the city in one night – two at the most – by carrying every single incendiary bomb possible to create an ‘unextinguishable conflagration’ in the ‘suitably combustible’ part-medieval city.

But weather concerns spared Hamburg that night – but for just over 12 months.

On the night of 23 July 1943 the RAF launched ‘Operation GOMORRAH’ against Hamburg. Reports state that around 43,000 people died in the resulting firestorm, almost half of the capacity of the modern Wembley Stadium, the home of English national football.

George Crocker’s RAF story with other examples of his wartime poetry can be found at

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/82/a8927382.shtml (accessed 19 May 2017).

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