10 bombing raids that escaped history

A lot of explosive and incendiary devices have been dropped on a lot people’s heads. We climb through the limb-littered wreckage to bring you 10 bombing raids & mishaps you probably haven’t heard of.

Venice 1849

Austrian forces besieged the wettest city in the world in 1849 and tried to burn it down. They launched over 200 paper hot air balloons, each carrying a 26-pound bomb with a time-fuse. Most were launched from land, but some from the steamer ship SMS Volcano.. named for Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. In the first historical example of a Vulcan raid only hitting the target once, only one bomb got through. The rest turned back when the wind changed and some even landed back on the Volcano causing some fire damage.

Italy hits Britain

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Ask a typical British person about the aerial bombing of Britain in the early 1940s and they’ll tell it was carried out by the German air force. What they are unlikely to know is that the Italian air force also had a go. The Corpo Aereo Italiano (Italian Air Corps), or CAI, was an expeditionary force from the Italian Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force). Equipped with inferior aircraft to the RAF and Luftwaffe, it took part in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz during the final months of 1940.

On the last day of the Battle of Britain, 29 October 1940, fifteen BR.20s were sent to bomb England as revenge for British attacks on Northern Italy. The aircraft, painted in an inappropriately bright camouflage scheme for the South of England approached at low level in a very tight formation, escorted by CR.42s. The CR.42 Falco biplane fighter faced far faster and better-armed Hurricanes and Spitfires. On paper it looked totally outclassed but had two aces up its sleeve: the ability to soak up British .303 rounds and fly on, and arguably the smallest turning circle of any fighter of World War II. But generally it was hopeless against the more modern British machines, in fact so much so, that at least one pilot ‘mistakenly’ landed his FIAT in Suffolk rather than trust his life in the chubby machine against Fighter Command (and no one could truly blame him). In the October 29 raid five aircraft were damaged by British anti-aircraft guns. A Royal Marines depot in Deal, Kent, was hit with high explosive bombs six. The CAI was moderately successful but it was ultimately just a symbolic contribution to a failed campaign.

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Torrey Canyon

The greatest achievement of Britains’s Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm in the 1960s was failing to adequately dispose of a leaking oil tanker and the subsequent oil slick. The supertanker, Torrey Canyon, had run into trouble and was vomiting 30 million gallons of oil off the south west coast of England. Something needed to be done to stop the oil killing vast swathes of ocean life and poisoning the sea. The obvious solution was to ignite and burn the oil, and sink the ship. So, on 28 March 1967, the Britain’s Fleet Air Arm sent Buccaneer strike-bombers from RNAS Lossiemouth to drop forty-two 1,000-lb bombs in an attempt to destroy the ship. At least 25% of the bombs missed. Then, the Royal Air Force sent Hawker Hunter jets from RAF Chivenor to drop cans of aviation fuel to  set the oil ablaze. However, exceptionally high tides put the fires out. Further attacks were required. Sea Vixens from were dispatched from RNAS Yeovilton, along with Buccaneers from the Royal Navy Air Station Brawdy, and yet more RAF Hunters, this time armed with napalm* to ignite the oil. Bombing continued into the next day before Torrey Canyon finally sank. The result was an environmental catastrophe. Still, at least it made David Bellamy famous.

*As an aside, pilots Hush-Kit have spoken to say that napalm remained in the RAF inventory far longer than is publicly acknowledged. 

Chinese frozen river bombing

In 2014 the Yellow River froze in Inner Mongolia. The ice was blocking the flow of water and causing freakishly high water levels risking mass floods. Though bombing a river may sound like metaphor for a futile act, in this case it was an actual, and successful, solution. At least three Xian H-6 (a Chinese-built Tu-16) strategic bombers took part dropping 24 unguided bombs. They all hit the target and broke the ice. 

(Speaking of rivers and bombing, in World War II Britain did all it could to deprive Luftwaffe intruders of navigational references. In an experimental effort some rivers were covered in coal dust to minimise how much moonlight they reflected.)

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French bomb Berlin

The first Allied bombing of Berlin was utterly audacious. It involved a single airliner converted into a makeshift bomber manned by a former airline crew. The solitary French navy NC 223.4 (named ‘Jules Verne’) painted matt black and with only a light machine-gun for self defence took off in the afternoon of the 7 June 1940. Its perilous route took it across the North Sea, Denmark, the Baltic sea, and changed course at Stettin in Poland (note the similarities to the Soviet raid described below). It reached Berlin in the dark of night. In an attempt to disguise itself as a friendly aircraft it faked an approach path to Tempelhof airfield. It then launched its attack on its target: the Siemens factory in Berlin’s suburbs (a company with a distinctly shady wartime history). Approaching at rooftop level the sole intruder rained down high explosive and incendiary devices. It is said that when they ran out of bombs, the bombardier threw down his shoe. Dodging anti-aircraft fire, the Jules Verne fled the scene. It safely landed at Orly airfield, near Paris, on the morning of the 8 June morning, after a gruelling eleven hour and forty minutes of flight.

Soviets bomb Berlin

In July 1941 the Soviet Union was on its knees. The German bombing of Moscow was a painful humiliation to this already battered nation. They could not be shown to be impotent in the face of an assault on their own capital – the attack needed to be avenged. This was easier said than done. The air force had taken a pummelling during the German assault and was severely mauled. That month, German Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring told Hitler with some pride that the Soviet air force was no more. The situation was dreadful: the Wehrmacht dominated the Baltic region, half of Ukraine, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and was now approaching Moscow itself. A revenge attack would show the world the USSR could still bite back. It would be a much-needed shot in the arm for the beleaguered Soviet people. And they would need all the morale boosts they could in the face of history’s most formidable invaders. But there were no bomber air bases still in Soviet hands that were in range of Berlin. 

A plan was hatched of incredible audacity.  They would use rough and ready airstrips on the Moonsund archipelago, which was located in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. This was a bold move – German troops were very close to the main Baltic Sea base of Tallinn, and were approaching the Gulf of Finland. The area was also patrolled by Finnish fighter aircraft. The airfield had none of the infrastructure to support a bomber force, no arsenal of bombs or mass supply of aviation fuel. Even if, against all odds, the raids were mounted – it was still a 900-km round against an extremely heavily defended city.

First must come the base preparation, a daring feat in itself. Admiral Nikolay Gerasimovich Kuznetsov noted in his book “Under heavy protection, small barges loaded with gasoline and ammunition traversed the mined waters of the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, and then on to the island of Osel. Danger lay in wait for them at every turn. It should be noted that Tallinn was already being besieged by the enemy.” If the Luftwaffe spotted the activity the plan would be over. The aircraft, Ilyushin DB-3s, arrived and were quickly dispersed around the island next to homes and gardens – and hidden under artful camouflage netting. 

On August 6, five DB-3s aircraft took off to reconnoitre Berlin. They succeeded and returned to the island unharmed. A larger raid would be more conspicuous and more vulnerable. Whereas the state-of-the-art British Lancaster bomber weighed over 30 tons fully loaded, had four engines and eight or ten defensive machine-guns, the DB-3, a long-range bomber from 1935 weighed a mere ten tons fully loaded, had two engines and only three or four defensive guns. Even the incredibly tough Lancasters would suffer over Berlin – the Soviet bombers were far more fragile and the crews less experienced. Also, if the German defenders had observed the recce mission – which came from the North – they would prepare for other raids from this unlikely direction.

Two days later, 15 fully loaded DB-3 bombers departed in the middle of the night. They traversed the Baltic Sea before turning towards Berlin from Stettin over occupied Poland. The Berlin defenders were initially baffled by the unfamiliar two-engined aircraft approaching from the north. Thinking they must be friendly aircraft the German defences even radioed the Soviet raiders inviting them to land! Against all odds, the raid was a complete success for the Soviets. Berlin paid with the blood of civilians. A further nine raids were mounted. By the end of 1941, the Soviet air force and navy had dropped 36,000 kilograms of bombs on Berlin. They lost 17 aircraft and 70 crewmen were killed.

Ireland (1940-41)

Ireland was neutral in World War II, so it is surprising to learn that it was attacked eight times in 1940-41 by the German Luftwaffe. On the 26 August 1940 five bombs were dropped next to a creamery in County Wexford. Five bombs were dropped and three women were killed. According to an eye witness quoted in the Irish Times, “When we had the fire under control we called the roll, and found that everybody had been accounted for except three girls…One of these we found slumped over a table, with her head blown off, and another had apparently tried to get down some stairs. We were only able to identify them by their clothing.” The one bomb that failed to detonate had Luftwaffe markings. 

The worst attack came on 31 May 1941 when four German bombs fell on North Dublin in the North Strand area, killing at least 28 (some reports say 34) people.

But why? Opinions are divided. Some of the bombers may have had their navigation aids misguided by British countermeasures, some may just been lost but it is likely that at least some of the raids were intentional. It may have been that the Germany leadership was angry at the Republic for providing emergency support to civilians injured in North Irish locations close to the border. Reparations were paid to Ireland.

America nukes itself

Nothing makes more sense than nuclear weapons. Simply have some machines that can instantly kill cities, incinerate millions, irradiate the planet and cause problems that will last for hundreds of years – and nobody wants to fight you. Thanks to these miraculous devices there have been no wars since 1945. Obviously these doomsday bombs are treated with great reverence and no mistakes can happen. This is why the United States has never accidentally sent an atomic bombs crashing around in the wrong place..except they have, and not just once, but at least 32 times.

One of the worst was the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash, that occurred near Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress  disintegrated in mid-air, dropping its two 3–4-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs in the process. Five crewmen successfully escaped from the aircraft and landed safely. One ejected, but did not survive the landing. Two were killed in the crash. Information only declassified in 2013 showed that one of the bombs came very close to detonating.

Fortunately this kind of thing took place in some far off idiotic ‘Mad Men’ time and wouldn’t happen in our world, except it does: On 29 August 2007, six AGM-129 cruise missiles with W80-1 variable yield nuclear warheads, were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52H at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The nuclear warheads should have been removed from the missiles before they were taken from their storage bunker. The nuclear warheads were not reported missing, and remained AWOL for 36 hours. During this period, which could have gone very wrong indeed, the warheads were not protected by the security precautions necessary for nuclear weapons. It was also a reassuring lesson to ambitious terrorist that such weapons could go missing for almost two days without anyone noticing. 

On December 5, 1965, an A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft carrying a 1-megaton bomb rolled off the deck of its aircraft carrier 80 miles from Japan’s Ryuku island chain. The bomb, which was illegally in Japanese territory, has yet to be found. 

The Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons with the ultimate goal being their total elimination. It will enter into force on 22 January 2021. As of 25 October 2020, 84 states had signed the Treaty.

Switzerland

Switzerland was a neutral country during World War II, but it was in an Axis neighbourhood. Considered the vagaries of wartime navigation and the huge scale of the Allied bombing campaign it is perhaps unsurprising that the odd accidental bombing would happen. It is the scale of these tragic mistakes that might surprise: Switzerland was bombed over seventy times – and 84 people were killed. 

The Formiga Raid

The Formiga Raid On April 2, 1987, the Mayor of Formiga, Brazil, was contacted by telephone to receive the alarming message, “‘Hey, mayor. Run over to the park, the Government is attacking us with a plane.”. There had been public demonstrations against the high interest rates imposed by the President – was this a message from the Government? Two bombs were dropped on a residential area causing seven metre deep holes. The impact had been heard across the city. After dropping the bombs the aircraft turned back and circled the area they had struck. The residents of Formiga were terrified and look skyward expecting further attacks, panic spread. What had happened? Earlier, two Brazilian air force F-5s took off from the Santa Cruz Air Base, in Rio de Janeiro, for a routine training mission. The aircraft were supposed to fly to Formiga and make a simulated attack on a bridge. The aircraft carried inert concrete-filled 230-kg training bombs. The bombs were not to leave the aircraft, they were just there to give the pilots a realistic experience of flying a laden bomber. They were dropped by accident and the pilots had flown back to assess the situation. According to defence journalist Roberto Caiafa, quoted in Globo.com, “the pilot of the plane that lost the bombs received an alert on the control panel…He and the pilot of the other fighter went crazy. They went back and started flying over the city centre at low altitude, looking for the crash site.” A furious response from the traumatised people resulted in a government pay-out. This was used to create a pretty new park area in the shape of a target with one of the bombs mounted as a statue. Hopefully the target-shaped development will not attract further aerial attacks.

(Thanks to @Cardoso for flagging up the Formiga story)
Roy Grinnell’s dramatic painting of the first raid on Berlin by the ‘Jules Verne’ source: https://weaponsandwarfare.com/

3 comments

  1. Martin Sharp

    In 1954 during a CIA sponsored coup in Guatemala rebel bombers manned by American mercenaries dropped empty coke cola bottles on the capital as when dropped from that great height they sounded like small bombs exploding to lower the moral of the government soldiers.

    • Ivan

      That’s the one where the rebel C-47s were unsuccessfully chased by guatemalan Boeing Peashooters, which were apparently too slow to catch them.

  2. Pingback: 10 aircraft that stopped killing and started helping | Hush-Kit

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