Schräge Musik & The Wesseling Raid
21/22 June 1944

A new weapon for a new tactic – SCHRÄGE MUSIK

Bill Gunston in (Night Fighters - A Development and Combat History) writes: During 1943 the Germans introduced two types of decoy Target Indicators (TI) to divert bomber crews away from the real markers. A simple ground burning type was followed by a rocket launched version, fired to burst and cascade like the real TI.

In the autumn 1943, bomber crews began to report seeing a new type of Flak shell or device, supposedly simulating a fully laden bomber exploding - a huge flash, followed by flaming debris falling to earth, without any sign of combat. The RAF did nothing to discourage the story that the Germans fired such shells to demoralise their opponents (Scarecrews) - rather dodging the question 'why bother, when conventional shells were doing the real thing?'

In his account of the Munich raid 207 Squadron Wireless Operator Sgt Frank R Haslam, the editor's late father, mentioned a Scarecrow and his Flight Commander S/L Pattinson described some kind of rocket device in the 207 Squadron raid assessment on WESSELING.

Scarecrows became accepted in Bomber Command reports but post-war research has so far failed to find any evidence of the German use of such a device. More likely, it now seems, what crews were seeing was the effect of another German weapon [SCHRÄGE MUSIK] of which the RAF seemed to know little, although there were reports of Scarecrows being seen on raids in which no aircraft were lost. [Bomber Intelligence, WE Jones, p98]

Bill Gunston (ibid) says “Many are the stories of how this horribly effective armament came to be used. According to one account, it was an armourer, Paul Mahle, who, at the TARNEWITZ armament testing establishment, saw a Do. 217 with oblique fixed guns as a protection against fighter attack When Mahle was posted to II/NJG5 he mounted two MG FF cannon obliquely upwards, near the centre of gravity, in one of the gruppe's Bf110s. At first pilots laughed, but on August 17/18 1943 Gefreiter Holker of 5/NJG5 shot down two bombers in the Peenemunde raid.”

“Leutnant Erhardt of 6/NJG5 did even better by destroying four bombers within 30 minutes. In fact Mahle almost certainly saw an earlier SCHRÄGE MUSIK installation, forced through - rather against Kammhuber's judgement - by NJG experte Oberleutnant Schoenert, who had thus fitted MG17s of rifle calibre, in his Do.17Z-10 in 1941. Eventually Schoenert got proper gunnery trials at TARNEWITZ sanctioned. These were so convincing that Kammhuber gave authority for the conversion in December 1942 of three Do. 217J nightfighters, each with two oblique 20mm MG151 at 70° (i.e. 20° from the vertical).”

“The only real problem was fixing up the reflector sight above the pilot's windscreen, because the movement of the pilot's head caused parallax inaccuracies. Schoenert then fitted two oblique MG151 cannon to his own Bf110 and between August 1943 and the end of the year achieved 18 kills with it.”

“From then on there was no argument. Using SCHRÄGE MUSIK was universally agreed to be easier than the traditional stern chase. In the conventional attack the target was against the horizon, usually in the darkest part of the sky. One's own fighter was centred on the horizontal cone of the bomber's MONICA tail warning radar. Even if the bomber stayed straight and level and the crew were apparently asleep, it presented a difficult end-on target. Any relative motion required an aim-off deflection shot. Even if the MONICA was unserviceable, the rear gunner (and sometimes the mid-upper gunner) often caught sight of the much feared fighter as it closed for the kill, especially if moonlight or searchlight beams were reflected from the fighter's canopy.”

“To overcome some of the problems, many NJG pilots closed the range at a lower level, below the MONICA zone of coverage, until they could see the bomber above; then they pulled up into a climb with all front guns blazing. But this demanded fine judgement, gave only a second or two of firing time and almost immediately brought the fighter up behind the bomber's tail turret.”

“What a contrast with SCHRÄGE MUSIK! Again the technique was to approach deliberately at a lower level, but this time all the nightfighter pilot had to do was slow up a little, rise up below the bomber and hold formation. An NJG experte could follow his observer's directions, acquire the bomber visually, close and destroy it within 60 seconds.”

“The firing position, with the bomber 65° to 70° above the fighter, was an almost ideal one. The fighter could see the bomber clearly, as a darker silhouette either blotting out the stars or against paler sky or high cloud. It presented the biggest possible target and reflected any light from searchlights, ground fires or TIs.”

“With the two aircraft in close formation, there was an ideal no-deflection shot. And the fighter was perfectly safe, because it was well below the MONICA beam and could not be seen by any member of the bomber's crew. The only snag was that the Luftwaffe's guns were so effective that the night fighter usually had to get out of the way very fast. It was rather like 1916, except that a Lancaster with one wing blown off tumbled downwards and backwards faster than an ignited airship.”

According to Middlebrook [The Nuremburg Raid, p70] “the new German weapon - SCHRÄGE MUSIK - literally slanting or jazz music - originated in the accidental shooting down of some of their own aircraft, resulting in orders that they had to fly directly underneath their quarry and obtain a positive identification before dropping back into a firing position.”

“The standard nightfighter attack was the stern chase using radar, with the aim of getting a visual sighting, followed by an attack from behind and below, avoiding fire from the bomber's rear turret - 'von unten hinten'.”

“The Germans mounted two MG151 cannons to fire almost vertically upward and slightly forwards through the cockpit of an Me 110 or Ju88 twin engined nightfighter . The drill was for the German pilot to fly underneath his target, confirm his identification and then aim through a sight in the roof of his cockpit. The result was 'almost 100% booty'.”

“Much to their surprise, the Germans found that they could safely fly directly underneath Lancasters and Halifaxes, as no bomber crew member could see them. Ventral turrets, which were originally fitted for daytime operations, had been removed from Lancasters as it was argued that they were not useful at night.”

“Firing into the belly of a fully laden bomber from close range was quickly found to be unhealthy. The accuracy of the new weapon allowed aiming at specific vulnerable points - such as the Port outer engine of a Lancaster, which powered the rear turret (which if hit would leave the bomber virtually defenceless from a 'von unten hinten' attack) and the fuel tanks in both wings. Wings of course presented a much bigger, more flammable and safer target than the fuselage and there were always the bomber's engine exhaust flames to guide the fighter at such close range. A short burst was usually enough to cause sufficient damage or fire, to cripple the bomber or even make it crash, whilst the fighter usually had time to move to safety. The bomber crew was usually unaware of the direction of the attack as the upward firing guns used only very faint or no tracer.”

The Bomber Command War Diaries note on the Peenemunde Raid, 17/18 .August 1943 (p424) comments on the first use of this new weapon: -

“Most of the casualties were suffered by the aircraft of the last wave when the German night fighters arrived in force. The Groups involved in this raid were 5 Group, which lost 17 of its 109 aircraft (14.5%) and the Canadian 6 Group, which lost 12 out of 57 aircraft (19.7%). This was the first night on which the Germans used their new SCHRÄGE MUSIK weapons. Two of these aircraft found the bomber stream flying home from the target and are believed to have shot down six of the bombers lost on the raid."

Middlebrook comments that it became not uncommon for SCHRÄGE MUSIK pilots to claim several four engined bombers per sortie. However, such were the ways of the Luftwaffe, it was not installed in newly built aircraft for several months. Front line units made their own modifications, the best crews of course claiming the limited number of new weapons for themselves and thereby widening the gap between their scores and those of the less proficient.

Gunston (ibid) says “all the NJG experten were using SCHRÄGE MUSIK as their primary armament by December 1943, though invariably the slanting guns were an extra and the forward firing armament was retained and loaded read for immediate use. The big twins frequently patrolled for six hours and with a skilled crew might make several interceptions.”

“The usual SCHRÄGE MUSIK installation in the Bf110G-4 family comprised two 20mm MG 151 or MG FF cannon, the former with 200 rounds each and the latter with manually changed 60 round drums, arranged at 70°, 72° or 78°.”

“The Ju 88C-6c had two MG151 each with 200 rounds; so did most Ju 88G series, though a few had two 30mm MK 108 installations, each fed by a large 180-round tank, the usual angle being 65° or 72°.”

“An incidental advantage of SCHRÄGE MUSIK was that it did not blind the pilot (and the observer could keep his eyes shut), whereas some of the forward firing installations did. Though this deadly armament was used by the Luftwaffe nightfighters from August 1943, non-tracer ammunition was used exclusively and in most interceptions the bomber crew never knew what had hit them.

The experten, says Gunston, “could reckon to destroy a Lancaster or Halifax with an economical two-second burst. Aiming was so straightforward that it was possible to choose the right place to hit, the main wing spars between the engines being a favoured spot. The bomb bay was carefully avoided!”

“The result was that RAF heavies began to blow up, catch fire or break into pieces for no obvious reason. Many of the early such incidents, often witnessed by a score or more of the other aircraft in the stream, were put down to flak; but it often happened when flak was light or non-existent.”

“In theory (of course) these attacks should have been spotted on the FISHPOND display. This used a second cathode ray tube to show bearing and range of any echoes from the H2S emissions at intermediate heights below the aircraft and gradually replaced MONICA. For some months, the Germans were able to use SCHRÄGE MUSIK without Bomber Command apparently being aware of it. This rather surprised the Germans who expected that the civilians working on their airfields in occupied countries would sooner or later get details to the Resistance and hence to England.”

For example, here is the account of the Belgian Marie Eugenie Jadoul (code name MINOUCHAT), in Network Zero, an intelligence and escaping organization linked with MI6: -

“My codename was MINOUCHAT, and Rene Ponty was MATOUCHAT. We had a simple system of writing which meant it was safe or unsafe to meet. We would leave these for each other, in telephone boxes, in cafes, on the ground. The tail up [of the cat in a sketch] meant it was safe.”

“I had a small house in the village of GOTTECHAIN, from which I went to work as an agricultural worker on the airfield of BEUVECHAIN. Of course at the same time I was noting what was going on, passing the information each week how many aeroplanes etc. This was microphotographed and sent to England. One day I noted that they had put dummy wooden aeroplanes on the runways. Five days later, the RAF let them know they knew their game, by dropping wooden bombs!” [FWH: this echoes similar stories back to WWI: Unsung Heroines - The women who won the War; Vera Lynne/Cross/de Gex, p125]

On the MAILLY raid, in which the editor's father took part, Middlebrook noted “The delays at Mailly (in getting the Main Force to bomb, because of communications problems) had given the Germans ample opportunity to direct their nightfighters onto the bomber force. When the Lancasters turned for home, bright moonlight and the 'running commentary' put out by the German controllers enabled the German nightfighters to follow.”

“One of these fighters was a twin engined Me110G-4/Ul of NJG4, piloted by Hauptmann Martin Drewes, whose airfield at LAON was only 65 miles from MAILLY. Drewes' aircraft was one of the few fitted with the upward firing SCHRÄGE MUSIK twin 30mm MK108 cannon installation in the aft cockpit bulkhead. Such aircraft could abandon the traditional von unten hinten method of attack and make their attack with cannon tilted at 15 degrees to the vertical, fired by the pilot with the help of a Revi C/12D reflector sight in almost complete safety from the blind spot underneath the bomber. Bomber Command had little knowledge of this weapon and crews had not been warned of it.” [Mailly-le-Camp; Martin Middlebrook, War Monthly]

Mason (ibid) notes: “In two raids at the beginning of January 1944, losses had increased sharply and it was clear that the German nightfighters were taking a much more prominent role. Losses in these raids were primarily among the higher altitude aircraft, suggesting that flak was being limited to the lower levels so as to give the fighters free rein higher up.”

“A study of crew reports began to show that attacks were coming from directly below, though it was not clear exactly how this was being done. Some squadrons equipped with Lancaster IIs, armed with ventral guns, had begun to remove these as being superfluous weight - but this was stopped until the nature of the new German tactics could be assessed.”

Yet even after a detailed analysis of the Nuremburg raid (in which the new weapon is now considered to have accounted for many of the heavy losses) there was a continued failure to recognise the significance and implication of German tactics. The temporary restrictions on the removal of ventral guns were lifted! [The Avro Lancaster, Francis K Mason, p157]

Even in the last year of the war, eighteen months after the Peenemunde Raid, SCHRÄGE MUSIK nightfighters were taking a fearful toll - for example on the Mitteland-Ems Canal Raid, 21st February 1945:

“On this particular night the nightfighters were to score heavily. The ground radar stations responsible for initial guidance to the vicinity of the bombers did their job well, as did the airborne radar operators to whom fell the task of final location of individual targets. The path of the returning bomber stream was clearly marked by the pyres of numerous downed victims. NJG-4 was operating from Gutersloh (later an RAF base) and in the space of twenty minutes, between 20.43 and 21.03, Schnaufer and his crew, using their upward firing cannons, shot down seven Lancasters. As it was, on that black night, four night fighter crews accounted for 28 of the 62 bombers lost out of the 800 despatched.”

“A SCHRÄGE MUSIK attack started in the same way as a conventional attack, with a radar approach from the rear. When the bomber was sighted, usually without the bomber's rear gunner noticing - because of the larger bulk of the bomber and the problem of exhausts glowing to the rear - the fighter lost height, edged forward and then upwards to be about 100ft below the bomber.” [Lancaster at War 3; Garbett & Goulding, p88 ‘There's no accounting for fate', by Stan Bridgeman & Frank Bone, 463 Squadron RAAF, Waddington]

On the subject of 'Scarecrows'; the editor's father's Flight Commander Squadron Leader Pattinson had this to say [conversation with FWH 14.6.91]:

“Scarecrows? Yes I'm sure they were actually aircraft going down. The German nightfighter pilots were a bit like ours in the sense that there was a certain number of them who were the real kingpins - the others were sort of hit and miss types. Now, if you happened to get some unfortunate occasion when there was a real kingpin ... and if you just went ploughing along on a steady course without doing anything, and one of these things got underneath you, you were asking for trouble.”

“I kept on banking slightly, either side of course, so the top gunner as well as your rear gunner had an opportunity to see below. The German who was coming up sees all this manoeuvering and goes off and collects old so-and-so who isn't, just flying sedately along. We were never informed about these upward firing guns, we just assumed that the bloke was pulling up underneath. The main thing was to AVOID - they couldn't go charging all over the sky after you. We had a marvellous corkscrew system which was first class.”

Middlebrook makes a good argument that in many cases what crews were seeing was the final outcome of a SCHRÄGE MUSIK attack. Yet there must have been some suspicions, as the Canadians in 6 Group began fitting ventral turrets. In 4 Group, however, there were apparently complaints up to May 1944 about Gunners keeping a poor look-out and being surprised by 'unseen fire'.

As mentioned earlier, the bomber's FISHPOND radar display should have shown the SCHRÄGE MUSIK fighter manouevering into position - so there should have been a steady flow of messages getting back through the POW intelligence channels, building up a picture of something unusual happening. There were also the reports from crews which survived such attacks and the forensic evidence of the physical damage to their aircraft.

To quote Bruce Barrymore Halpenny in the introduction to his book To Shatter the Sky -
“It is strange that Bomber Command did not know of the SCHRÄGE MUSIK method used by the German night fighters and just proves (he says) how bad their intelligence was. SCHRÄGE MUSIK was first used in force on the Nuremberg Raid of March 30/31 1944 .... One or two Canadian COs, one being Wing Commander Pattinson of 429 'Bison' Squadron, knew there was something but it was all presumption, not fact. They took out the Mid Upper turret and the displaced gunner lay on a mattress on the floor and looked through a perspex blister for night fighters coming up from below.'

Gunston (ibid) notes that “not until well into 1944 did the RAF at last tumble to what was happening and then only by a lot of hard thinking after studying the very few bombers that had, by great good fortune, managed to break out of the rain of shells and bring back to Britain evidence of air to air strikes all at the same near vertical angle.”

He says “I happened to be at Manston in early 1944 and woke to find a damaged Lancaster outside. One prop was feathered and there were marks of several 20mm strikes, at least one of which had gone clean through the rear fuselage. It had blown a great hole in the top and made a mess of the four ammunition belts for the rear turret, but what shocked the crew was the angle. They were Australians and seemed to think that this was renewed evidence of a Luftwaffe secret weapon; tales of strange upward firing nightfighters had begun to get about.”

“This strangeness was itself very strange because oblique upward firing guns had been common in WWI (see below about Captain Albert Ball), tested in several RAF aircraft between the wars and experimented with at great length with RAF nightfighters - mainly Havocs - as recently as 1941. I believe that none of the upward firing Havocs carried cannon, a typical armament being six oblique Browning .303s.”

“At the conclusion of apparently successful trials, a full report was written and handed to Fighter Command AOC in C. Almost the next day, he, Dowding, was replaced by Douglas. Thus nothing was done. So runs a much quoted report, but Dowding was sacked in 1940 and I am certain that the Havoc trials were not completed until much later. In any case there is still no explanation of why this promising armament should have been subsequently ignored, nor of why the adoption of the same technique by the Luftwaffe should have caused such amazement.”

Clearly, Solly's Sinners in EM-M of 207 Squadron had their suspicions about a threat from below, as they were banking from side to side - unfortunately, the dead H2S set left them fatally blind that night up to the point when the gunners reported their visual sighting of something under them.

As an historical footnote, the BBC tv series Reaching for the Skies (in the programme The Aeroplane Goes To War) describes how Captain Albert Ball VC, who scored 47 victories, developed the knack in his SE5 of getting under and just behind his adversary, and with his upper-wing mounted machine gun pulled down on its ratchet tracks, at an angle of 45 degrees ......