RAF Scampton Airfield, Lincolnshire, England June 20/21, 1943

On this date in 1943 a Royal Air Force bomber task force of Avro Lan­casters took off from Scampton and sev­eral other Lincoln­shire air­fields on a mis­sion to bomb a German radar-antenna fac­tory at Fried­richs­hafen on the northern shore of Lake Con­stance (German, Boden­see) in the extreme south of the coun­try. Earlier in the month RAF photo-recon­nais­sance planes had flown over the diri­gi­ble hanger and stor­age yard of the former Zep­pe­lin Works (German, Luft­schiff­bau Zep­pe­lin) at Fried­richs­hafen and photo­graphed an out­door stack of metal lattice­work called “ribbed bas­kets” in the report. Later anal­y­sis iden­ti­fied the metal lattice­work as com­po­nents of Tele­fun­ken’s 24 ft (7.3 m) Giant Wuerz­burg (Wuerz­burg Riese) fine-mesh para­bolic radar reflec­tors (radar antenna). (Tele­fun­ken was a major player in Germany’s radio and elec­tro­nics fields, both civil­ian and mili­tary.) RAF intel­li­gence recog­nized the metal lattice­work for what it was partly owing to Oper­a­tion Biting, a raid British com­man­dos had pulled off in February 1942 when they retrieved com­po­nents of a smaller oper­a­tional early-warning Wuerz­burg radar instal­la­tion near Brune­val in North­ern France. British Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Chur­chill took a strong inter­est in the recon photos and ordered Oper­a­tion Bel­li­cose into exis­tence for the pur­pose of destroying the ex-Zeppe­lin factory and storage yard.

Sixty long-range RAF Lancasters flying low on the moon­lit night of June 20/21, 1943, hit Fried­richs­hafen’s Wuerz­burg radar-antenna fac­tory mul­ti­ple times, setting off bright fires and explo­sions felt 10 miles away. Thir­teen minutes after arriving over Fried­richs­hafen the British war­riors turned south­east­ward, flying across Switzer­land, Austria, North­ern Italy, and the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea to land on the morning of June 21 at a U.S. air base in Algeria, North Africa to rearm and refuel. (The Brits’ flight plan fooled the Luft­waffe, which mar­shalled night fighters over Eastern France to catch the Lan­casters returning to England.) Fifty-two Lan­cas­ters that needed no repairs in North Africa retook to the sky to attack oil and arma­ments stores at the Ital­ian naval base of La Spezia on June 23 on the return leg to their home bases. Oper­a­tion Bel­li­cose thus became the first “shuttle bombing” raid of World War II as well as the first shuttle raid to suffer no air­craft losses to enemy fire.

Sir Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief RAF Bomber Com­mand, toasted Oper­a­tion Bel­li­cose as twice the hoped-for suc­cess he wanted. Besides damaging Fried­richs­hafen’s Wuerz­burg radar fac­tory, Harris’s heavy bombers un­knowingly destroyed the unsus­pected V‑2 bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­duc­tion line in Zep­pe­lin Works’ repur­posed hanger. Inside the dual-use facil­ity hun­dreds of slave laborers from Dachau and Mittel­bau-Dora con­cen­tra­tion camps had just begun building pro­pel­lant tanks and fuse­lage sec­tions to be assembled into Adolf Hitler’s future terror wea­pon. (The destruc­tion of Fried­richs­hafen’s nas­cent V‑2 line led to its relo­cating to under­ground facil­i­ties near Nord­hausen in Thueringen, Cen­tral Germany.) Thus Bel­li­cose acci­den­tally became the first Allied air strike against Nazi Germany’s V‑weapons program.

The Italian piece of Operation Bellicose was anti­cli­mac­tic. Only one large explo­sion, possi­bly from an oil stor­age tank, was heard. Flying home via France, the Lan­casters were not molested by German night fighters. Photo recon­nais­sance of Fried­richs­hafen revealed damage to the radar-antenna fac­tory was pro­bably severe. Like­wise, there was severe damage to two near­by fac­to­ries making tank engines and gear­boxes, but over­all damage and civil­ian casual­ties were deter­mined to have been light. Between April 1944 and Febru­ary 1945, how­ever, fac­tories making war-related maté­riel in Fried­richs­hafen were bombed to smith­er­eens. A par­tic­u­larly nasty night raid occurred on April 27/28, 1944, when an esti­mated 67 per­cent of the city’s built-up area was destroyed.

Oper­a­tion Bel­li­cose, June 20–24, 1943

Operation Bellicose: RAF Avro Lancasters, September 29, 1942Operation Bellicose: Giant Wuerzburg radar system

Left: Three RAF Avro Lancaster B.I Specials based at Wad­ding­ton, Lincoln­shire, fly above the clouds, Septem­ber 29, 1942. Intro­duced into Allied ser­vice in Febru­ary 1942, Lan­casters became the main heavy bomber used by the RAF as well as the most famous and suc­cess­ful of the war’s night bombers in con­trast to Amer­i­can heavy bombers that were used mostly in day­light raids over occu­pied Europe. Oper­a­tion Bel­li­cose (June 20–24, 1943) chiefly tar­geted Zep­pelin Works’ sus­pected Wuerz­burg radar pro­duc­tion at Fried­richs­hafen on Lake Con­stance in the very south of Germany. The impe­tus for the raid came in early June, when a photo inter­pre­ter at RAF’s Cen­tral Inter­pre­ta­tion Unit iden­ti­fied a stack of “ribbed baskets”—Wuerz­burg radar reflec­tors—at the Zep­pelin Works. Prime Minis­ter Chur­chill reviewed the photos on June 4, and No. 5 Group RAF received attack orders on June 16. The June 20, 1943, bombing affected the Zeppe­lin Works’ radar pro­duc­tion line and its V‑2 pro­duc­tion line, which had only pro­duced a few V‑2 pro­pel­lant tanks and fuselage sections by that date.

Right: This Wuerzburg-Riese (Giant Wuerzburg) is on dis­play at a Berlin mili­tary his­tory museum. The Wuerz­burg radar appara­tus, named for a city in Bava­ria, first became oper­a­tional in 1940. Wuerz­burgers were the chief ground-based tracking radars for the German Luft­waffe (air force) and Kriegs­marine (navy). They were pro­duced in various models of various sizes, some with collap­sible radar reflec­tors (anten­nae) small enough to be towed by a truck. Estimates are that 3,000 to 4,000 radar units were built by Tele­funken mainly in the Zep­pe­lin Works diri­gible hanger in Fried­richs­hafen, with the Riese (Giant) model num­bering up to 1,500. After repeated air strikes on Fried­richs­hafen, an impor­tant German indus­trial cen­ter famous for air­craft and tank engine manu­fac­turing, war­time pro­duc­tion of every sort shifted to near­by under­ground cham­bers dug by slave labor and where hun­dreds of slaves worked. About two-thirds of the city was destroyed over the course of the war. It was during the final months of the war that the Zeppelin Works effectively ceased to exist.

British Medium and Heavy Bombers Emphasis on Avro Lancaster (Skip first 30 seconds)