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Operation Hydra (1943)

Operation Hydra
Part of Operation Crossbow

British plan for the Peenemünde raid
Date 17/18 August 1943
Location Peenemünde Research Center, Usedom
Result not effective[1] despite "severe damage done"[2]

RAF Bomber Command

(No. 5, 6, & 8 groups)
Commanders and leaders
Group Captain J. H. Searby (Master Bomber) Josef Kammhuber,
Hubert Weise[3]:93
Hydra: 324 Lancasters, 218 Halifaxes, 54 Stirlings[3]
~1,800 bomb tons, 85% HE.[4]
28 Mosquitos, 10 Beaufighters[3]:97
Hydra: 35 fighters including 2 Bf 109 and about 30 Focke-Wulf Fw 190
Casualties and losses
215 killed,[3]:233
Hydra: 23 Lancasters, 15 Halifaxes, 2 Stirlings[4]
4 Bf 110, 1 Do 217, 2 Fw 190, 1 Bf 109, 1 Ju 88,[3]
2 scientists & 732[5] (mostly Polish) civilians killed[4]
3 men and 1 convict labourer (by 1 bomb from Whitebait).[6]

Operation Hydra was a Royal Air Force attack on the Peenemünde Army Research Center on the night of 17/18 August 1943. It was the first time a master bomber was used for the main force. Group Captain John Searby, CO of 83 Squadron, commanded the operation. It began the Operation Crossbow strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany's V-weapon programme.[7] 215 British aircrew members and 40 bombers were lost, and hundreds of civilians were killed in a nearby concentration camp. The air raid killed two V-2 rocket scientists and delayed V-2 rocket test launches for seven weeks.

Target 3/Air/389, Attack order with highlighted targets


  • Background 1
  • Bomber Command Operation Order No. 176 2
  • Operation Whitebait and other raids of that night 3
  • Operation Hydra 4
    • First wave (sleeping and living quarters) 4.1
    • Second wave (factory workshops) 4.2
    • Third wave (experimental station) 4.3
  • Results 5
    • Fabricated damage 5.1
  • References and notes 6


British intelligence sources regarding the V-2 such as the Oslo report, RAF Medmenham photo-reconnaissance photographs, prisoner of war and Polish intelligence, culminated in a pivotal meeting on 29 June 1943 of the Cabinet's Defence Committee (Operations) in the Cabinet War Room.[6]:75,78 Duncan Sandys MP RA (Churchill's son-in-law), appointed to the investigation in April, opened with an address about the rocket and introduced the aerial photographic reconnaissance images of Peenemünde. Professor Frederick Lindemann followed and expressed weighty arguments regarding an ‘elaborate cover plan’ by the Germans and against the credibility of the reports and the existence of the suspected rocket. After Lindemann's counter-argument, Winston Churchill turned to Reginald Victor Jones[note 1] who commenced to discredit each of Lindemann's points.[6]:76 The committee recommended avoiding any further Peenemünde aerial reconnaissance flights, which might alert the Germans: "Peenemünde is … beyond the range of our radio navigation beams and … we must bomb by moonlight, although the German night fighters will be close at hand and it is too far to send our own. Nevertheless, we must attack it on the heaviest possible scale" (Churchill, June 29).[5] At 10 Downing St on 15 July, the Chiefs of Staff, Herbert Morrison, Lindemann, and Churchill examined the bombing plan, and the attack was ordered for the earliest opportunity presented by lunar and meteorological conditions.[6]:78,80

Bomber Command Operation Order No. 176

The nature of the raid was not revealed to the aircrews; in their briefing (Operation order No. 176) the target was referred to as developing radar that "promises to improve greatly the German night air defence organization" .[8] To scare aircrews into giving their all the first time around,[9] Order 176 emphasized the importance of the raid: "If the attack will be repeated the next night and on ensuing nights regardless, within practicable limits, of casualties."[8]

For precision, the crews would have to drop their bombs during a full moon from 8,000 ft (2,400 m) instead of the normal altitude of 19,000 ft (5,800 m). Additionally, Peenemünde was around 600 mi (1,000 km) from the most easterly British airbase, was spread over a wide area, and was protected by smoke screens. In addition to committing the whole of Bomber Command to the raid, the RAF also conducted practice raids on areas similar to Peenemünde; margins of error of up to 1,000 yd (910 m) were initially recorded — by the last this was down to 300 yd (270 m).[9] The primary objective was to kill as many personnel involved in the research and development of the V-weapons as possible by bombing the workers' quarters. The secondary objectives were to render the research facility useless and "destroy as much of the V-weapons, related work, and documentation as possible".[10]

The aircraft from 5 Group had practised a timed run method for bombing which they would use on this occasion. This involved them noting a distinctive point and then releasing at a set time - and therefore distance - from that point. The H2S radar in use was at its best when it picked up contrasting areas of ground and open water, so the shoreline was chosen.

Operation Whitebait and other raids of that night

To divert German night fighters from Operation Hydra, a group of Mosquitoes concurrently conducted the small Operation Whitebait air raid on Berlin.[5] By imitating the typical pathfinder marking of the target, it was expected that German nightfighter defences would initially be drawn to defence of the German capital. At 22:56[3] British Double Summer Time (scheduled for 23:00), the first Mosquito of Operation Whitebait was over Berlin.[3] Each Mosquito was to drop eight marker flares and a minimum bombload.

Additional Operation Hydra related activities included two long range intruder waves by 25, 141, 410, 418, and 605 squadrons, which attacked Luftwaffe airfields (Ardorf, Stade, Jagel, Westerland and Grove) and their fighters (at take-off and landing).

A concurrent mission used Handley Page Halifaxes to supply resistance groups in Denmark.[6]

Operation Hydra

Throughout the attack, the master bomber (Group Captain J. H. Searby, CO of No. 83 Squadron RAF) circled above and around the target to call in new pathfinder markers[5] and to direct crews as to which markers to target.

First wave (sleeping and living quarters)

V-2 scientists, and at 00:10 British time, the first red spot fire was started. At 00:11, 16 blind illuminator marker aircraft commenced marking runs with white parachute flares and long-burning red target indicators (TIs). However, patches of stratocumulus clouds caused uncertain visibility in the full moon, and the H2S radar had not discerned Rügen as planned, resulting in the red "datum lights" spot fires to be inaccurately placed on the northern tip of Peenemünde Hook instead of burning as planned for ten minutes on the northern edge of Rügen. The 2 mi (3.2 km) error later caused early yellow TIs to be misplaced at Camp Trassenheide. Fortunately, the master bomber noticed one subsequent yellow marker for the scientists' settlement "very well placed" and ordered more yellows as close as possible: four of six were accurate, as well as three backers-up green indicators. At 00:27, the first wave withdrew after facing light flak, including a few heavy flak pieces from a ship 1 mi (1.6 km) offshore and guns on the western side of the peninsula (but no fighters). One third of the 227 attacking aircraft were led astray by the false marking of Camp Trassenheide.[6]:105,106

Second wave (factory workshops)

The attack by No. 1 Group RAF began by using "aiming-point shifters" to mark the second aiming point via a bomb-sight offset back (northwest) along the bomb run from the first wave marking. However, the correct solitary marker used for the first wave bombing was ignored, and the master bomber noticed the overshoot and notified the remaining backers-up, as well as the bombing force of 113 Lancasters.

Third wave (experimental station)

Number 3 and 4 groups RAF targeted the development works, and at 00:48, a backer-up accurately placed a green flare load in the heart of the development works for the third wave by No. 5 Group and No. 6 Group, and a few bombloads caused serious laboratory and office damage. As during the Operation Bellicose raid, blind bombing after a timed run had been planned from Rügen in case of smoke concealing the green target indicator. However, the Lancasters and Halifaxes flew 20 or even 30 seconds past the timing point to the visible and inaccurate green markers from the six "shifters" and three backers-up, their bombs landing 2,000–3,000 yd (1,800–2,700 m) beyond the development works in the concentration camp. At 00:55, due to timing errors, 35 straggler aircraft were still waiting to bomb.[6]:110–112,115


The British Official History states that the attack "may well have caused a delay of two months", which is consistent with the German assessment by Joseph Goebbels of "six to eight weeks".[3]:222 Although the raid was "not effective",[1] Doctor Thiel and Chief Engineer Walther were buried [killed] in one of the [air-raid] trenches. People were still digging for them when I left" (Becker, the assembly workshop overseer, to Walter Dornberger).[11] Civilian casualties at Camp Trassenheide were killed by bombs as they climbed the fence to flee (the gate was too distant).[12] Although research and development continued almost immediately and test launches resumed on October 6, plans for some German V-2 facilities were changed after Operation Hydra, e.g., the nearly-operational prototype production plant for V-2s was moved to the Mittelwerk.

Bomber Command lost 6.7% of the Operation Hydra force, most of these during the final wave when German nightfighters arrived. After the Luftwaffe realised the Operation Whitebait deception, the counterattack on Operation Hydra included about 30 Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Wilde Sau (wild boar) night fighters which shot down 29 of the 40 bombers lost during Operation Hydra. The counterattack also included the first operational flights of Schräge Musik fighters:[4] two Bf 110s piloted by Leutnant Peter Erhardt, the Staffelkapitän, and Unteroffizier Walter Höker.[3] After the success of the Operation Whitebait deception, Luftwaffe chief of staff General Hans Jeschonnek shot and killed himself on 19 August.[13] Major General Dr Walter Dornberger (head of the Peenemünde group) stated in his 1952 book V-2 that the air raids missed damaging two vitally important installations, thus minimising delays to recommencing research and production; these were the wind tunnel and the structure housing the "measuring unit".

Fabricated damage

After Operation Hydra, Peenemünde fabricated signs of bomb damage by creating craters in the sand (particularly near the wind tunnel), blowing-up lightly damaged and minor buildings, and according to Peenemünde scientist Siegfried Winter, "We … climbed on to the roofs … and painted black and white lines to simulate charred beams." Operation Hydra also included the use of bombs with timers set for up to three days, so along with bombs that had not detonated (because of the sandy soil), explosions well after the attack were not uncommon and hampered German salvage efforts.[3]:198,199

References and notes

  1. ^ with the words, "Now Dr. Jones, may we hear the truth,"
  1. ^ a b D'Olier, Franklin; Alexander, Ball; Bowman, Galbraith; Likert, McNamee; Nitze, Russell; Searls, Wright (September 30, 1945). "The Secondary Campaigns". United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Overall Summary Report (European War). Retrieved 2008-09-22. 
  2. ^ Frankland, Noble and Webster, Charles. The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945, Volume II: Endeavour, Part 4. Her Majesty's Stationery Office. London 1961, p. 159.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Middlebrook, Martin (1982). The Peenemünde Raid: The Night of 17–18 August 1943. New York: Bobs-Merrill. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Peenemunde, 17th and 18th August 1943". RAF History - Bomber Command. Royal Air Force. Retrieved 2006-11-15. 
  5. ^ a b c d "The V2 rocket: A romance with the future". Science in war. The Science Museum. 2004. Retrieved 2008-09-22. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g  
  7. ^ Neufeld, Michael J. (1995). The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. New York: The Free Press. p. 198. 
  8. ^ a b Darlow, Steve (2008). Special Op: Bomber. David & Charles Ltd. p. 120.  
  9. ^ a b  
  10. ^ "Peenemunde - 1943". Weapons of Mass Destruction. Retrieved 2006-11-15. 
  11. ^  
  12. ^  
  13. ^  
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