No 77 Squadron were the first residents at the newly developed RAF Elvington. This period of operations was intensive and resulted in a very high rate of losses.
Below are accounts of the period of operations when the Squadron operated from the base here at Elvington.
The Squadron first moved to Elvington airfield, just outside York, and commenced intensive training on Halifax II aircraft in October 1942 but was not declared operational until the end of January 1943. Unlike most of its previous bases, which were pre-war regular RAF stations, this was a recently constructed temporary camp with wooden buildings and Nissen hut accommodation. All with a wartime ambience and atmosphere, which was far from the luxury and comfort previously experienced.
February and March 1943
The squadron’s first raid using the Halifax was against Lorient, France, on the 4th February 1943, this was followed by several raids mainly on similar targets. During February and March 1943 the squadron flew 152 sorties on 22 raids, with the loss of only 3 aircraft, a loss rate of 2%. The first losses did not occur until the 10th March 1943 when two aircraft were lost on a raid on Munich, and another on 29th March 1943 on Berlin.
However, now the Battle of the Ruhr commenced and although this was before a directive had been issued this was later looked upon as de facto marking the start of Operation Pointblank for the RAF. So started 77 Squadron’s worst, yet undoubtedly greatest year.
April, May and June 1943
During the three months April, May and June 1943 the squadron carried out 356 sorties on 29 raids, 19 aircraft went missing on operations and 2 were lost in take-off accidents, aircrew casualties amounted to 122 killed or missing believed dead and 22 taken prisoners of war. The average loss rate was 5.8 % which meant that only about 1 crew in six could be expected to complete a tour of 30 operations.
At the time of the Bomber Command Order of Battle on 4th March 1943 the Squadron had 18 Halifax Mk2 aircraft on unit charge, and around 150 to 200 aircrew. So that during this battle, over a period of three months, the Squadron lost as many aircraft and crews as its established strength. Of course as crews were lost they were progressively replaced with new ones from the heavy conversion training units (HCU).
July, August and September 1943
During July 1943 the squadron carried out 141 sorties on 8 raids with the loss of only 3 aircraft, a loss rate of only 2 %. At the end of July the Battle of Hamburg began. However during the battle attacks also maintained against various other cities including Berlin and Nuremberg.
During the two months, August and September 1943 the Squadron carried out 284 sorties on 18 raids losing 21 aircraft, the average loss rate had again increased, now to 7.5%. Casualties amounted to 119 killed or missing believed dead and 32 taken prisoners of war, three aircrew evaded capture and returned to the UK. The estimated probability of completing a tour of operations had declined to 1 crew in 10. Again within two months the Squadron had lost on operations almost the equivalent of its establishment in aircraft and aircrew. Nevertheless about this time the squadron began progressively expanding into three flights, each of about 10 aircraft, with a total of 200-250 aircrew.
October and November 1943
On the 12th October 1943 Wing Commander John A Roncoroni took over as the Squadron commander at a period when the Command had begun to experience some of its most severe losses during the war. Aircrew were scarcely able to even get to know each other’s names, never mind make friends. During October and November the squadron carried out 157 sorties on 11 raids losing 7 aircraft on operations and one was involved in a collision with another aircraft on return from operations, an average loss rate of 5.5%. Casualties amounted to 45 killed or missing believed dead and 10 taken prisoner of war. Two aircrew members evaded capture. The odds on completing a tour had improved to 1 crew in 6.
Battle of Berlin. November 1943 to March 1944
On the 3rd November 1943 Air Marshal Arthur Harris wrote to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, saying that
“We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the U.S.A.A.F. will come in on it. It will cost between 400-500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.” [quoted in the official history v.ii, page 190].
On the 18th of November 1943 the Battle of Berlin commenced, although for tactical reasons many other targets were included, the period is usually referred to by this name.
During the battle 16 major main force raids were mounted against Berlin and 16 against other targets, in addition numerous small diversionary raids were also carried out. 77 Squadron participated in five of the main force raids against Berlin.
During the “battle” Halifax II and V aircraft, with which the Squadron was equipped, suffered a greater loss rate than any other aircraft type. According to data in the official history, “The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945 “, in December 1943, January 1944 and February 1944 within the whole command 149 aircraft of these types were lost on 1526 sorties, an overall loss rate of 9.8%. Had aircrews continued operating Halifaxes at this loss rate it is estimated that only one aircrew in 22 would have completed a tour of 30 operations.
During the three months December 1943, January and February 1944 the squadron carried out 14 raids involving 143 sorties but lost 19 aircraft on operations and 1 in an accident, giving the terrible overall loss rate of of 13.3%. Casualties amounted to 103 aircrew killed or missing believed dead and 35 taken prisoners of war, one evaded capture, and 7 were killed in an accident. The Squadron strength dropped to almost half its establishment and replacements were not coming in fast enough from the Heavy Conversion Units to rebuild it to strength.
Whilst during January and February 1944 the squadron only took part in five raids on German targets the losses incurred were particularly severe.
With a total of 16 aircraft missing on these five consecutive raids the average loss rate for the squadron was 20.7%. The estimated probability of a crew participating in all five raids and surviving them was only 31%, that is about 1 in 3. In these five raids the squadron’s casualties were 87 aircrew killed and 26 taken POW, a total of 113.
Following the raid on Leipzig ACM Sir Arthur Harris withdrew Halifax II and V aircraft from operations against German targets, and 77 squadron was no longer participating in the Battle of Berlin.
The effects of bombing, on both German war production and civilian morale, was slow but cumulative. However the results were rarely measurable by intelligence with confidence and aircrew had to frequently return to targets which in the first instance had seemed demolished or at least devastated. Generally aircrew looked towards completing their tour of 30 operations rather than the imminent surrender of Germany. The pre-war Douhet concept of mass bombing leading to devastation, followed by unconditional surrender, never materialised either after the Battle of Britain, or later in Operation Pointblank.
During Operation Pointblank an increase in strength and improvement in technology in the Luftwaffe fighter arm occurred in spite of attacks on the German aviation industry, this led to higher allied losses than originally expected. However overall this advantage had only been achieved by Germany considerably reducing its production of bomber aircraft, and its ability to retaliate by bombing targets in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless although Operation Pointblank did not achieve the unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allies, which was predicted by Air Marshal Harris, it unquestionably substantially weakened Germany and was considered by many, including Field Marshal Kesselring, to be the main factor which contributed to victory by the Allies by May 1945.
After being taken off German targets on the 24th and 25th of February the squadron carried out 21 mining sorties in the Kattegat without any loss.
March and April 1944
The attack against the transportation infrastructure of north-east France.
The Squadron now commenced a period during which raids were mainly against marshalling yards, railway installations and other targets in Northern France, the raids were aimed at destroying the transportation infrastructure prior to the invasion of Europe. It was considered that as these targets were not generally well protected by fighters and flak that the Halifax loss rate would be less.
On the other hand because the allies wished to avoid causing death and injury to French civilians living nearby, precision bombing was required, and area bombing, as carried out on German cities, was unacceptable. Consequently many raids were carried out at a much lower height with the result that aircraft became more susceptible to damage from light flak. In addition the Luftwaffe began to move some of its fighter force to the defence of French targets and overall losses soon began to increase, although not severely.
However the Battle of Berlin was practically over and within a month the Air Ministry changed its priorities in respect of the deployment of the whole bomber force prior to Overlord, the invasion of Europe, and from March onwards most Bomber Command squadrons were operating on pre-invasion targets in France.
During the two months March and April the squadron carried out 290 sorties on 27 raids. 6 aircraft were lost giving a loss rate of 2.1%. At this level the estimated probability of completing a tour had improved to 53%, or roughly 1 crew in 2.
In March 1944 the squadron was told that Elvington was to be handed over to two French Squadrons, №346 (Guyenne) and №347 (Tunisie). Following the arrival of French personnel aircrew were introduced to Tannoy announcements in French and free wine in the messes. A French station commander was appointed and all British ground staff were progressively replaced by French personnel.