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Moonlight Marauder: The Famous 'Night Reaper'

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2017-2021

“Some people embrace the night, because the rules of the day do not apply.”

— Bacardi Black rum slogan, 1991.

(Lead photo: Courtesy of digital aviation artist Anastasios Polychronis)

I originally wrote this article in January 2017, three months before a week-long visit to southern England, including a three-hour stop at RAF Tangmere airfield (now the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum), the Night Reaper’s home base near English Channel coastline. An earlier, shorter version of the article, entitled “Night Reaper,” first appeared in the September 2019 edition of Military History Matters (MHM) magazine (www.military-history.org), Britain’s premier, military-history magazine, with permission now granted for U.S. publication. Special thanks also to digital aviation artist Anastasios Polychronis in Germany for his amazing, computer-generated artwork above, entitled “Night Hawk,” and showing the Night Reaper’s aircraft. So, here’s the full story for the very first time in the United States:

The German Luftwaffe’s staggering losses of nearly 1,900 aircraft during the Battle of Britain transformed the air war. Most German planes had been shot down during daylight hours, so the Luftwaffe transitioned to night-bombing raids from October 1940 onward. The Royal Air Force’s (RAF) initial, night-fighter responses were unsuccessful. During the bombing of Coventry on November 14 to 15, 1940, for example, 165 RAF night sorties failed to stop any of the 437 German bombers. It became apparent that night-fighting tactics and equipment needed to evolve to counter the new threat.

At the heart of this effort were the venerable, Hawker Hurricane Mk. I and Mk. IIA fighters, responsible for 55 percent of recent, British, aerial kills. They had good visibility, roomy cockpits, easy handling, and were tough, stable gun platforms. But they were older designs, outclassed by the latest, faster, German Messerschmitt Bf 109E and F fighters. The Hurricane Mk. IIB was an interim improvement, upgraded with 12 Browning .303-caliber machine guns instead of the usual eight, although only because an experimental fitment with quad, 20mm Hispano Mk. II cannon had suffered from ammunition-feeding problems.

The Hurricane Mk. IIC became the most-numerous variant, introduced in June 1941, with the Hispano cannon armament now perfected and standardized. These bulky, powerful weapons further decreased overall performance, so Hurricanes were gradually being withdrawn from frontline, air-to-air fighter operations, and began assuming ground-attack duties. In particular, they were employed on low-level, “rhubarb” missions over northern France, conducting harassing, strafing runs against German railroad activity, aircraft on the ground, and troop convoys. Now capable of carrying a pair of 250-pound or 500-pound bombs, they became known as “Hurribombers.”

In addition, the Mk. IIC served as a night fighter, equipped with two 45-gallon, non-jettisonable, external tanks full of aviation fuel beneath the wings to effectively double its flying range and endurance to more than three hours. However, heavy guns, bulging fuel tanks, and matte-black paint schemes all added aerodynamic drag and further reduced airspeed, creating new challenges for Hurricane pilots.

FOREIGN PILOTS

Kut

Interwoven into this historical narrative is the fact that over 20 percent of all RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain were foreigners, including 88 Czechs, 112 Canadians, 127 New Zealanders, 145 Poles, and lesser numbers of Australian, American, Belgian, French, Irish, and South African volunteers. One very noteworthy pilot among them was Czechoslovakian Sergeant Karel (Charles) Miloslav “Kut” Kuttelwascher (a German surname, because both parents were Bavarian.) Just 24 years old, he was assigned to No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron (“First in All Things”) in October 1940, just in time to see active service in the closing stages of the Battle of Britain.

Kuttelwascher’s personal story exemplifies the turning point in RAF fighter tactics from almost purely defensive, to bold, aggressive, offensive sorties, taking the war directly to the German bomber command at their forward-operating bases across the English Channel. Kut had joined the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1935, and racked up well over 2,200 flying hours as an Avia B.534 biplane fighter pilot, before the Germans occupied his country and disbanded the armed forces.

Three months later, he escaped into Poland by hiding in a coal train, then made his way to France aboard a Swedish cargo ship, was drafted into the French Foreign Legion, learned the French language, and eventually joined the French Air Force in 1939. He flew and fought in the Battle of France the following year, piloting Morane-Saulnier M.S.406C.1 and Dewoitine D.520C.1 fighters. He scored two confirmed, air-to-air kills in 1940, against a Heinkel He 111 bomber and a Henschel Hs 126B-1 reconnaissance aircraft, plus one probable Bf 109Efighter destroyed, although no official, written records survived the war to document these incidents. When France fell to the Germans, Kut made his way to Algeria and then west, to Casablanca, Morocco, where he boarded a ship to Britain, and joined the RAF.

NIGHT FIGHTERS

Operating Hurricane Mk. IIAs and IIBs from RAF Northolt after the Battle of Britain, but during the Blitz, Kuttelwascher’s unit saw combat over northern France, where he downed three Bf 109E and F fighters in April, May, and June of 1941. He was then commissioned as an RAF pilot officer. In early 1942, he married his British wife, Ruby, and was promoted to flight lieutenant.

On February 12, 1942, now flying the cannon-armed, Hurricane Mk. IIC, Kuttelwascher took part in the fabled “Channel Dash” (Operation Fuller), a bold attack against the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, and three destroyers in the English Channel. Kut strafed one of the destroyers with his cannon blazing, and badly damaged it. His unit lost two fighters to enemy Bf 109s during this fierce operation.

Throughout most of the war, Kuttelwascher’s home base was RAF Tangmere, less than five miles from the Channel. Tangmere also served as the primary flight operations center for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), flying secret agents into France and other occupied countries in special, black, Westland Lysander Mk. IIIA aircraft in Occupied Europe. They used Tangmere Cottage, opposite the main entrance to the base, to plan their clandestine operations.

Meanwhile, RAF night-fighter operations continued to evolve, including the largely-unsuccessful, “Turbinlite” program, in which twin-engine, Douglas Havoc NF.IIs had powerful searchlights mounted in their noses to locate German bombers for accompanying, Hurricane night fighters. The addition of airborne-interception (AI) Mk. VIII radar in Bristol Beaufighters and DeHavilland Mosquito night fighters was a significant advance, but to prevent this new technology from falling into German hands in the event of an aircraft loss, such missions were largely restricted to Britain, the North Sea, and the English Channel.

NIGHT INTRUDERS

Then, in mid-December 1941, Flight Lieutenant Richard Stevens of No. 253 Squadron at RAF Manston, with 14 confirmed kills to his credit, pioneered a very risky, new concept. Flying a black-painted, Hurricane Mk. IIC night fighter, he mounted an offensive, “night-intruder” operation over Occupied Holland and Belgium, making his initial sortie over Gilze-Rijen Air Base (still an active, military air base today) in the Netherlands on the night of December 12th to 13th. Stevens sighted no enemy bombers on this occasion. Taking off three nights later on a second attempt, he never returned. His grave may now be located at Bergen op Zoom, 28 miles west of Gilze-Rijen.

The night-intruder concept was, however, deemed vitally important for taking the war directly back to the German bomber crews at their own bases. The new, night-intruder role was given to No. 1 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader James MacLachlan, and No. 43 Squadron, with both units flying the Hurricane Mk. IIC from RAF Tangmere. Without the benefit of aerial radar, however, these operations depended upon bright moonlight for identifying targets, and were therefore timed to coincide with full moons, from April 1st to July 2nd, 1942, although additional, night-intruder missions would continue until spring 1943.

It was a lonely, dangerous duty, requiring keen eyesight, superb night vision, nerves of steel, top-notch navigation skills, and the ability to engage aerial targets of opportunity in abrupt, momentary dogfights lasting only a few seconds each. The Hurricane was ideally suited for these sorties, because they depended upon concealment and firepower, not speed, and the quad, 20mm cannon, even with their limited ammunition supply of only 91 rounds per gun, were devastating against German bombers. The night-intruder models carried no identifying, underwing roundels, the side roundels were usually reduced in size from 35 inches to 18 inches, and their matte-black (Special Night RDM 2 color) paint made them hard to spot behind enemy lines.

These Hurricane Mk. IICnight fighters were initially painted overall matte-black, but on cloudy or moonlit nights, the solid-black coloration proved too conspicuous from some angles, so the upper wing surfaces, top and sides of the fuselage, and tail surfaces were camouflaged in RAF Dark Green and RAF Medium Sea Gray patterns by June 1942, while the undersurfaces remained totally black.

CANNON KILLS

The four impressive, Hispano cannon were originally aligned for converging fire at 650 yards, but this distance was later reduced to 400 yards, and then to 250 yards. The usual mode of attack for night intruders was to approach a German bomber from dead astern, in its blind spot, and from slightly above or preferably below, firing from as closely as 100 to 200 yards to assure a kill. Once No. 1 Squadron began its cross-Channel, night-intruder raids, Karel Kuttelwascher was immediately their star performer, shooting down one Ju-88A-4 bomber from a white-knuckle range of less than 100 yards, and damaging another one on the runway on the very first night, near Melun, France, 20 miles southeast of Paris.

In the course of the next three months, 19 different pilots from the squadron flew a total of 140 night-intruder sorties, accounting for 22 enemy bombers destroyed during this brief period, 15 of them by Kuttelwascher himself, plus five by Squadron Leader Mac Lachlan, and 13 more damaged, including five by the noted, Czech ace. Kut had previously earned the French Croix de Guerre (“War Cross”) with Palm and a Silver Star, but his night-intruder exploits resulted in his being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) twice within just 42 days, and the Czechoslovak War Cross five times, among numerous other decorations for his exceptional skill and bravery.

Wartime photos by the RAF clearly show that Kuttelwascher’s Hurricane Mk. IIC was initially matte-black overall, at least until sometime after his sixth confirmed, aerial victory (with one more probable kill, and two bombers damaged) on April 27, 1942, when it was reportedly repainted with green-and-gray camouflage on the upper surfaces, although some Czech sources indicate that his fighter was always matte-black.

Kut’s greatest wartime accomplishment took place at 1:20 AM on May 5, 1942, just four nights after a glowing, full moon, when he swooped in behind six Heinkel He 111H bombers on final approach to land at Saint André de l’Eure airfield, 72 miles behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France. The Heinkels were returning from a devastating, nighttime, terror-bombing raid against the port city of Cowes, England, on the northern tip of the Isle of Wight. Attacking from below and behind the bombers, he destroyed three of them at very low altitude and point-blank range (less than 100 yards) in the space of only four minutes, a feat that remained unsurpassed during night-intruder operations, earning his first Distinguished Flying Cross.

At the time of this incident, Kuttelwascher already had 10 confirmed kills, two with the French Air Force, and the rest with the RAF. His Hurricane Mk. IIC fighter would have new nose art added within the next two weeks, bearing a yellow scythe and the grim nickname of “Night Reaper” on the starboard engine cowling.

AIR TACTICS

He later wrote that: “I must keep to the ground as much as possible to see the silhouettes of the returning (German) airplanes above me...Sometimes I get lucky and manage to join them as they were getting ready for the landing. I had to decide quickly. If somebody went in my way, I took him immediately...I had to have order in my work. Just no turmoil. It will start anyway when the first (German bomber) catches on fire...and explodes on the ground. The others then thought that this had been a crash, and I had more time to choose another one.”

In fact, most of Kuttelwascher’s aerial encounters occurred in groups of two or three, during or near a full moon. He shot down two bombers on the night of April 30th to May 1st, then scored his triple kills five nights later, and downed two bombers plus one damaged on June 3rd to 4th, and the same again on July 1st to 2nd, 1942. All told, he accrued 18 confirmed kills with the RAF, and was certainly their most-brilliant, night-intruder ace of the war, and the most-successful, Czech pilot in history.

Unlike the mere handful of higher-scoring, RAF night-fighter aces, Kut’s daring exploits all took place very much alone at ultra-low altitudes, often at 500 feet or less, at low airspeeds, over German-held territory, in a single-engine aircraft, over heavily-defended, enemy airports, and without the benefit of nose-mounted radar to locate his targets, making him truly exceptional in his field of expertise.

Kuttelwascher later flew an all-black, non-radar-equipped, Mosquito NF Mk. II (Special) night fighter, with red side codes “YP-U,” with No. 23 Squadron, but saw no German aircraft during his six nocturnal missions over France and the Netherlands with this unit. In October 1942, he was withdrawn from flying duties and assigned to staff positions until the end of the war, including traveling all over the United States and Canada for six months to explain his combat tactics and help recruit pilots for the war effort, while delivering motivational, radio broadcasts in three different countries. Back in England again, he assumed test-pilot duties at RAF St. Athan in Wales until the end of the war.

After the German surrender, Kut returned to his homeland to serve as a staff captain, equivalent to a major, in the Czechoslovak Air Force, where he was lauded as a national hero. But he flew back to England when the Communists seized power in Prague in 1946. He became an airline pilot for British European Airways, but died of a heart attack in 1959, while on vacation at Truro in Cornwall, near the far, southwestern tip of England, at the young age of 42. He was buried in Uxbridge, just west of London.

KUTTELWASCHER REMEMBERED

In early 2005, as a modern tribute to the famous, Czech ace, the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire repainted one of their only two airworthy Hurricanes in Kuttelwascher’s personal colors and markings. The exacting detail included his red, “JX-E” side codes, red nose spinner, the “Night Reaper” banner and scythe, the black replacement rudder, and his first 11 kill markings. This distinctive aircraft performed for several years at air shows and special events throughout the United Kingdom, until it was repainted again in 2010.

Kuttelwascher’s son-in-law and biographer, Roger Darlington, wrote in his 1985 book, Night Hawk, that: “Kut was essentially a complicated, modest man, with more than a trace of contradiction. He managed to combine cold blood in the air with a certain irritability on the ground...There was nothing chivalric about his behavior in the air...He had personally witnessed the violation of his homeland (and) was absolutely determined to shoot down as many Luftwaffe aircraft as possible.

“He was an uncompromising man, quite given to his job...an absolute professional, who took flying very seriously, and loved nothing more than being in the air...He was in no way a rebel, but he distinguished himself outside the group. He was a loner, rather than a leader, and this was an important, contributing factor to his success as a night-fighter pilot. More than 10 British and Czechoslovak decorations bear witness to his bravery. After all, his excellent actions speak for themselves.”

On May 8, 2000, the 55th anniversary of Victory on Europe (VE) Day, the current, Czech Air Force officially and posthumously promoted Karel Kuttelwascher from staff captain to brigadier general, in memory of his extraordinary, wartime accomplishments.

Kut was a cool, calculating, solitary predator in the night skies over France, literally turning the tables against the marauding, German bomber command and wreaking havoc upon them over their own forward-based airfields, in retaliation for their relentless Blitz against England. He was the right man, with the requisite skills and temperament, for a bold, new mission at a very critical moment in the history of aerial warfare, when the RAF finally went onto the offensive in 1942 to win air supremacy in the night skies.

The author at RAF Tangmere, the Night Reaper’s base, in April 2017

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe, with two American fighter squadrons in Germany, and has also traveled to England, France, and 26 more countries in the course of his military duties. He earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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