The formation of German Junkers Ju 88 bombers sped low above the murky waters of the North Sea, each aircraft carrying two large torpedoes slung beneath its fuselage.
It was the evening of April 21 1945, a gloomy and rain-swept night, and though the Second World War had but days left to run, and most of Nazi Germany was by now overrun by Allied forces, Hitler’s once all-conquering air force, the Luftwaffe, was determined to mount one final defiant strike against Britain.
Scraping together most of its few remaining operational aircraft based in occupied Norway, that night they launched 18 torpedo-bombers to attack shipping along Scotland’s east coast.
But the desperate final mission would go horribly wrong for the Germans.
As they made their way towards Scotland, through the night gloom emerged a terrifying sight for the German pilots – a force of 42 RAF Mosquitoes.
The twin-engine fighter-bombers were heading back to their home base at Banff in Aberdeenshire, after a long and ultimately unsuccessful anti-shipping sortie of their own, targeting enemy vessels along the Scandinavian coast, when they happened upon the German raiders.
Immediately descending on the German torpedo-bombers, the Mosquitoes had a field day, their aircraft’s heavy cannon and machine gun armament ripping apart the slower, less manoeuvrable Ju 88s.
After just five minutes of intense aerial combat, half the German raiding force had been destroyed, while the survivors – many badly damaged – jettisoned their torpedoes and hurriedly turned back for Norway.
No Mosquitoes had been lost or seriously damaged in the brief, brutal encounter.
It would be the last time UK-based RAF fighter aircraft duelled with the Luftwaffe before the end of the war, just over two weeks later, and marked perhaps the crowning achievement of the famed Banff Strike Wing.
Established on September 1 1944, the Banff Strike Wing of RAF Coastal Command eventually comprised four squadrons of Mosquitoes, operated by multi-national crews hailing from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Norway, as well as from across the UK.
Commanding the unit was Group Captain Max Aitken, son of the newspaper baron and Churchill’s former Minister for Aircraft Production Lord Beaverbrook.
The main purpose of the Wing was to hunt down and destroy enemy vessels transporting iron ore – vital for the production of Nazi war armaments – from neutral Sweden, travelling around the coastline of occupied Norway to Germany.
And in the de Havilland Mosquito, the Banff Strike Wing had a truly formidable weapon.
Dubbed the “Wooden Wonder”, on account of the fact that it was largely constructed from plywood, the Mosquito was one of the fastest warplanes of the Second World War, as well as being one of the most heavily armed. Banff’s Mosquitoes bristled with machine guns, 20mm cannons and eight armour-piercing rockets. A few even carried a monster 57mm anti-tank gun, a single shell from which could rip a ship or surfaced U-boat apart.
The Mosquito was also extremely versatile, serving as a bomber, night-fighter and reconnaissance aircraft. In the hands of the pilots of the Banff Strike Wing, it proved especially successful in the anti-shipping role.
Soon, the crews were wreaking havoc amongst German coastal traffic in the North Sea, sinking almost 25,000 tons of shipping in the Wing’s first three months of operations.
A typical mission was that of September 14 1944, when Mosquitoes from the Wing’s 248 Squadron came across a small convoy of ships while patrolling off Norway.
The Squadron’s Operations Record Book stated: “Just south of Kristiansand the formation sighted and attacked a northbound convoy of four MVs (Merchant Vessels).
“Strikes were claimed on all vessels attacked which were seen smoking. Heavy and Light Flak was experienced from ships. Heavy Flak was also experienced from shore batteries.”
But the Allied crews didn’t have it all their own way. Even as the war situation deteriorated rapidly for the Germans in early 1945, the Luftwaffe continued to maintain a powerful fighter force in Norway, and on January 15 1945 they demonstrated that they still had the capability to hit back hard.
While attacking merchant shipping at Leirvik harbour in southern Norway, a force of Mosquitoes was set upon by German Focke-Wulf 190 and Messerschmitt 109 fighters. In the short, sharp engagement that ensued, the fast, nimble German fighters managed to shoot down five of the British raiders.
Despite the setback, the Banff Strike Wing was not deterred and continued hitting the Germans hard. In April they enjoyed a run of successes against Nazi U-boats, sinking the U-843 with rockets in the Kattegat on the evening of April 8 and, a day later, sinking U-804 and U-1065 shortly after they left their base in Kiel, northern Germany, as the Squadron record book explained: “One U-boat blew up with a terrific flash and mushroom of smoke, throwing debris into the air which damaged 4 a/c (aircraft).”
Perhaps the unit’s greatest triumph, however, occurred with that final air battle on April 21 1945. The Mosquitoes, led by Wing Commander Christopher Foxley-Norris, had set off late that afternoon on a routine mission to attack merchant vessels off the Danish coast. But finding little worth expending their rockets on, the “Mossies” flew on to the Norwegian coast, seeking out any targets of opportunity in that area.
After again finding nothing much of interest, they set course back for Scotland. But when around 180 miles off the Scottish coast, the Allied pilots were both surprised and excited to see 18 Luftwaffe torpedo-bombers appear through the darkening sky, heading in the same direction.
The Mosquito pilots immediately gave chase and, as soon as they came within firing range, opened up with their machine-guns and cannons. Later described by one of the Banff Strike Wing pilots as “a one-sided attack”, the battle was short and very sharp – nine Ju 88s being shot down into the North Sea.
What was left of the shattered enemy raiding force fled back to their home base at Stavanger, where several more shot-up torpedo-bombers made crash-landings.
In all, 28 German crewmen were killed in the clash.
Triumphant, the Mosquitoes landed back at Banff around 10pm, and that night the crews threw a wild party at their base to celebrate their greatest success against the Luftwaffe in Norway.
With the war in Europe fast drawing to a close, the operations of the Banff Strike Wing were then steadily wound down, with the Wing’s final anti-shipping sortie taking place on May 4 1945.
Four days later, Victory in Europe was declared.
Over the course of the next few months, the squadrons of the Banff Strike Wing were either disbanded or moved south, and in 1946, RAF Banff was closed down.
While its existence was relatively brief, during its nine months of active operations the Mosquitoes of the Banff Strike Wing enjoyed enormous success against enemy transport vessels, U-boats and aircraft of the Luftwaffe.
“Their success in the closing months of World War II was important in the defeat of Germany and Strike Wing aircraft operating from the airfield inflicted heavy damage on enemy shipping and supply routes,” explained a spokesman for the RAF Banff Trust, whose members are dedicated to preserving the history of the air station and the squadrons which served there.
“Many thousands of tons of vital iron ore and other supplies were lost to the German forces as a result of rocket and cannon attacks carried out by the gallant Strike Wing.”
But success did not come without cost, as the spokesman pointed out: “Losses amongst RAF, Commonwealth and Norwegian squadrons were high. More than 80 aircrew gave their lives flying with the RAF Banff Strike Wing.”
Though they never received the acclaim of the RAF’s Spitfires of Fighter Command, or the heavy-hitting Lancasters of Bomber Command, through their efforts to interdict the supply of a vital raw material to Nazi Germany, Banff’s “Wooden Wonders” made a hugely significant contribution to bringing Hitler’s war machine to its knees.