Wartime issue 61 featured article - Berchtesgaden: the last raid
Lancasters of No. 460 Squadron RAAF took part in a daylight raid on Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat. By Lachlan Grant
Before No. 460 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), held their Anzac Day parade at the Binbrook RAF station in Lincolnshire on 25 April 1945, they first had to await the return of the squadron’s 20 Lancasters that had taken part in one of the final raids by Bomber Command on Hitler’s Reich. It was No. 460 Squadron’s final raid. The last Bomber Command raid took place on an oil refinery in Norway that evening. Up to that point, No. 460 Squadron had flown over 6,000 sorties. It had been involved in some of the largest raids on Berlin, Hamburg, and over the industrial Ruhr Valley. Losses for the squadron had been devastating: over 1,000 killed, around 200 taken prisoner, and approximately 180 aircraft lost on operations. The record of No. 460 Squadron has been well documented, and the squadron’s famous “G for George”, which survived 89 operations with the squadron, holds pride of place in the Australian War Memorial’s Anzac Hall. Not as well documented was the final raid carried out by the squadron, which is surprising, given the high profile and notoriety of the target and that it took place on Anzac Day. Coming as they did in the final days of the war in Europe, Bomber Command’s last raids are less well known.
The destination was Berchtesgaden, high in the Bavarian Alps in the far south of Germany near the Austrian border. The target was not the town itself, but the nearby mountain retreat of Obersalzberg. Here were chalets and mountain lodges belonging to the Nazi Party elite. These included Adolf Hitler’s alpine lodge, the Berghof (meaning “mountain inn” or “mountain farm”), where many wartime conferences had been held and Hitler had received many dignitaries. Nearby were dwellings belonging to Herman Göring, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer. Security was provided by a consignment of troops from the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler division which was housed in a barracks adjacent to the Berghof. Nestled higher up on the mountain peak was the famous Eagle’s Nest, a reception house built by the Nazi Party at a cost of 25 million Reichsmarks. At 9,300 feet above sea level, it had taken a workforce of 3,000 men two years to build. It was presented to Adolf Hitler as a gift for his 50th birthday in 1938, but he seldom went there. Here at Obersalzberg was filmed the colour footage of Hitler which is now a seemingly standard inclusion for any documentary on the Second World War.
The decision to launch the Berchtesgaden raid when the war in Europe was careening toward an inevitable end was not inspired by grand symbolic gestures. Put simply, it was not the aim of the Allies to destroy Hitler’s alpine lodge simply because they could. The mission was in fact driven by strategic concerns. It was feared by Supreme Allied Command that as the Western Allies and the Soviets closed in on the heartland of Hitler’s Reich, leading Nazis and fanatical SS units might assemble at Berchtesgaden for a final stand or even plan to carry on the war from mountain hideouts indefinitely.
General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in the West, knew at the time of the Berchtesgaden raid that Hitler had remained in Berlin; but the raid was undertaken to support American units from XV Corps who were advancing upon Munich (captured on 30 April) and would reach Berchtesgaden on 4 May. But it is unlikely that aircrews taking part in the raid were aware that the Führerwas not at home when they came knocking on 25 April. As it was, Göring was the only one in residence. Hitler and the rest of his entourage were cooped up in the Führerbunkerin Berlin.
The crews from No. 460 Squadron were briefed in the early hours of Anzac Day. At 5 am, 20 Lancasters from the squadron began readying for take-off. In the air they would join a force totalling more than 300 Lancasters and 16 Mosquitos of Bomber Command, as well as over 270 B-24 Liberator bombers from the US 8th Air Force, which targeted the railway infrastructure leading to Berchtesgaden. Escorting them were 88 P-51D Mustang fighters from the US 8th Army Air Force.
The bombers flew southwards over France and into Bavaria in clear blue skies, turning eastwards at Lake Constance toward their target. Peter Firkins, a rear gunner, later wrote that “no travel poster could ever depict the magnificence of the day, the Alps glistening in the sunlight, the green fields below, and, receding behind into the distance, the blue waters of Lake Constance.” The peaceful scenes did not last. The bombers arrived in two waves at 9 am and 10.30 am. As they approached the target area they found the mountain tops in cloud. The Eagle’s Nest itself remained shrouded throughout the raid. The Mosquito Pathfinders at the head of the bomber stream found it hard to visually identify targets because of mist and a layer of ground snow. In addition, the mountains interfered with their Oboe direction finding signals, even though they were flying at 39,000 feet (for a description of Oboe, see Wartime Issue 51). The bombers had to orbit around the target for a period, some coming under heavy flak as they found themselves as far away as Salzberg, before making their run. Once the target was found, over 1,400 tons of bombs were dropped, including four 12,000 pound Tallboy bombs. The heavy payload was designed to destroy bunker networks that were believed to exist below the Obersalzberg complex. The SS barracks – the key target – were severely damaged. Houses belonging to Göring (who survived the raid in his bomb shelter) and Bormann were destroyed. The RAF official historian, Hilary Saunders, boasted that a thousand-pounder had made the deep end of Göring’s swimming pool a little bit deeper. The Berghof itself also sustained heavy damage. Days later, American and French troops arrived on the scene to rummage through the ruins for souvenirs.
Anti-aircraft fire downed two bombers during the raid. One was a Lancaster belonging to No. 460 Squadron. One of the last over the target, it was flown by Flying Officer Henry “Lofty” Payne. Seconds after dropping its bombs, German flak guns hit Payne’s Lancaster nine times. Bomb doors were blown away, as was an engine. Two more engines were aflame. Flak also pierced the wings and fuselage, and damaged the cockpit and controls. Sergeant Colin Fraser, who had moved from his navigator’s chair to get a view of target, returned to his position to find a gaping hole where he had been sitting. His decision to go to peek at the target probably saved his life. At the controls, Payne hoped to glide the Lancaster to the American lines, only 40 miles to the north, but the fourth engine failed and fuel from burst lines began flooding the fuselage. Payne issued the order for his crew to bail out.
Having maintained control of the Lancaster as the crew one by one made their exit from the nose escape hatch, Payne then began to unbuckle himself from his seat. As he was readying for his own exit he was surprised when his rear gunner appeared with his parachute trailing behind. As the rear gunner made his way out of his position, his parachute had caught on a piece of torn metal and burst from his pack inside the aircraft. Payne ordered him to get the spare chute, supposed to be carried on all operations, but the rear gunner returned to report it could not be found. It had not been packed before take-off.
Facing each another in their predicament, Payne chose without hesitation to attempt a crash landing. As the Lancaster glided down from 15,000 feet through the mountainous alpine valley, Payne and the rear gunner watched nervously as the flames inched closer to the fuel tank. The alpine surroundings were not ideal for crash landing, but as they got lower, Payne picked out his spot in a field. The stricken bomber glided in and skidded to a halt, more or less intact – but not before a telegraph wire had sheared off the tops of the Lancaster’s tail fins as it came in. To their relief the fuel in the fuselage, now six inches deep, had not ignited. As they emerged from the wreckage they were arrested by a gang of Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) armed with machine-guns. The pair were soon relieved from the horrible possibility of being executed by trigger-happy juvenile delinquents when a group of older men, members of the Volkssturm (Home Guard), arrived on the scene to take them into custody. Their stay in the Reich as prisoners of war would only be a short one, as Payne and his crew were soon liberated by the advancing American forces at the Moosburg prisoner of war camp on 29 April. Payne’s Lancaster was the last of No. 460 Squadron, and the second last crew of all of Bomber Command, to be shot down on operations.
News of the loss of an RAAF Lancaster may have subdued any jubilation over the otherwise largely successful Anzac day raid on a target strongly symbolic of Nazism. But news of Payne’s bravery and the survival of his crew would soon reach Binbrook. For members of the No. 460 Squadron, Payne’s action – occurring as it did 30 years to the day after the original Anzac landed on Gallipoli – was seen to be symbolic of the spirit and reputation befitting the squadron’s record of service.
While the Anzac day raid on Berchtesgaden would be No. 460 Squadron’s last for the war, their service did not end there. Two more peaceful operations would follow: Operation Exodus, the evacuation of Allied prisoners of war from Germany, and Operation Manna, a food lift to the stricken and starving civilians of the Netherlands. Despite its high profile target, the Anzac Day raid on Berchtesgaden has largely remained a footnote in the history of No. 460 Squadron’s record of service in the air war over Europe.
Dr Lachlan Grant is a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial