1943 Operation Hydra
A bombing mission that helped delay Hitler's 'vengeance weapons' attacking the UK
The build up to the RAF Bomber Command raid on the German weapons development facility at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast provides an excellent example of the rewards and challenges of multi-source intelligence gathering and analysis.
Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, there were reports circulating about potentially devastating new secret weapons being developed by the Germans, but no real substantiating evidence. A document containing information, including technical details, on a number of German weapons programmes (with references to rockets and Peenemünde) was passed to the British Embassy in Oslo in November 1939. However, while much of the contents later proved correct, at the time it was greeted with widespread scepticism. Most readers felt it was too good to be true and part of a propaganda or deception exercise. Nevertheless, one key person was convinced of its worth - R.V. Jones, scientific adviser to the intelligence section of the Air Ministry and to MI6. His unique position gave him access to human, photographic and signals intelligence, and he was to play a major role in tracking down Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffe – the V1 and V2 ‘vengeance weapons’.
The RAF's Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) and the Photographic Interpreters (PIs) at RAF Medmenham, with whom Jones had worked in countering German radar technology, made a critical contribution to this effort. In May 1942 a PRU Spitfire had speculatively taken photographs of the airfield at Peenemünde while on a mission to the nearby port of Swinemunde. The challenge for the PIs, using their stereoscopic viewers to extract greater detail from the photographs, was identifying with any degree of certainty what might indicate work on new weapons. Although the photos clearly showed three unusual large circular embankments, they could not ascertain their purpose and more urgent priorities led to them being set aside.
Meanwhile, more reports on the development of heavy, long range rockets were coming in (and the first test launch of the V-2 took place in October 1942). These prompted further PRU flights over Peenemünde in early 1943, which revealed a significant increase in construction activity, though still the PIs could not determine its exact purpose. Fears grew of a potential surprise attack. In April 1943, the Chiefs of Staff informed Prime Minister Churchill about the German activity. They also proposed intensifying efforts to find hard evidence of the weapons existence, and a scientific analysis of their feasibility. A committee was established under Churchill’s son-in-law Duncan Sandys (Joint Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Supply) to coordinate this effort, codenamed BODYLINE. This development frustrated Jones, who felt his team was already doing this work and was best placed in terms of expertise.
By the end of May, Sandys felt confident to recommend an early attack on Peenemünde given its role in the development of one or all of ‘jet-propelled aircraft, rocket torpedoes and long-range rockets’. The evidence from MI6 sources and PI analysis of photos from PRU overflights continued to build, resulting in a major breakthrough in June. Construction workers from Luxembourg succeeded in smuggling out a report detailing the activities at Peenemünde and a rough sketch map of the facility. Jones’s close examination of PRU material, drawing on information in that and other reports, finally revealed the presence of objects identifiable as large rockets.
Sandys reported to Churchill’s War Cabinet Defence Committee (Operations) on 29 June that while there were inconsistencies in the intelligence reports, they had obtained ‘remarkable photos’ showing rockets and launchers. Not all were convinced. Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s Scientific Adviser, challenging some of technical evidence, continued to suggest that the rockets could be an elaborate German hoax, designed to divert the Allies from their strategic bombing campaign. However, Jones emphasised the strength of the evidence, and argued that in any case Peenemünde was clearly an important research station (also corroborated by ULTRA evidence). The meeting concluded that ‘the attack on the experimental station at Peenemünde should take the form of the heaviest possible night attack by Bomber Command on the first occasion when conditions were suitable’.
This was to be the night of 17/18 August. By then there were sufficient hours of darkness to cover the bombers’ flight, combined with an almost full moon to aid the precision bombing required on the relatively small target zones. These were the factory area, the research centre and the living quarters of the scientific and technical staff. To encourage accuracy, and limit the risk of downed airmen revealing the extent of the knowledge of the rocket programme, the crews were briefed that Peenemünde was developing a new radar system that would be a direct threat to Bomber Command’s aircraft. To further enhance the chances of success, new targeting tactics were also used, with a seasoned Master Bomber designated to coordinate the operation, correcting and adjusting targeting as the raid progressed.
On the evening of the 17 August, almost 600 Lancaster, Halifax and Stirling bombers took to the air. A further 8 Mosquitos, equipped with radar jamming chaff to confuse the Germans, launched a feint towards Berlin to draw attention from the true target. The bombers attacked in three waves. The first two were virtually unchallenged as a result of the feint, and the Luftwaffe’s deployment earlier that day against major USAAF raids on the Messerschmitt factory in Regensburg. Tragically a mistake in target marking meant that several hundred foreign labourers were killed when their accommodation blocks were hit, before corrections could be made. By the time the third wave went in, German night fighters had arrived in force. Most of the 41 aircraft losses were from that wave.
In its immediate aftermath the raid was considered a success, though later views were more nuanced. The factory area itself had escaped relatively unscathed. The residential and research areas were harder hit, and a significant number of scientists and engineers killed, though leading figures such as von Braun escaped. Post-war estimates suggest that the raid delayed German deployment of the V-2 by about two months, as it forced the relocation of development and production efforts to other sites, though other factors also had a role to play in its delayed deployment, including successful bombing raids on component manufacturers.
BODYLINE subsequently morphed into the much wider Operation CROSSBOW, as the PRU and Bomber Command embarked on a race to find and destroy the launch sites before the Germans could unleash these terrifying new weapons. By the time the first V-1 landed on London on 13 June 1944 the Allies had already established their foothold on continental Europe.