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Throwback Thursday: Bomber raids prove ineffective, says Arthur Donahue
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Throwback Thursday: Bomber raids prove ineffective, says Arthur Donahue

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This story originally appeared on November 16, 1940, in the Winona Republican-Herald, a predecessor of the Winona Daily News.

ST. CHARLES, Minn. — Trains and buses run on schedule, people seldom run for shelter when the air raid warnings sound, Nazi bombers are ineffective against London defenses and a big German raid makes a good show but causes comparatively little damage.

Reassuring his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Donahue of St. Charles, Royal Air Force Pilot Arthur Donahue belittled, in his last letter home, the “all-out” effort of Hitler’s air force to destroy the seat of the British empire.

The St. Charles flier wrote that of course there was some destruction and some loss of life in the raids, “but nothing compared with the horrors in Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France,” where air defense amounted to practically nothing.

He was the first American pilot to meet the German invaders in the air battles over the Straits of Dover as the Nazi aerial invasion started and was wounded in one of those early fights.

“If it (the bombing) were really having much effect at all, the continued bombing would have rendered London helpless. For it has been nearly two months since they started bombing it. The buses and taxis and subways are all running almost the same as usual.

“Some streets are closed off temporarily and many buildings are damaged or destroyed, although only a tiny fraction of the total. Trains are usually on schedule. Whenever an air raid siren blows, a voice announces over amplifiers in the railway station that people who wish to take cover may do so, but the trains will keep on running.”

Donahue, who recently recovered from injuries suffered In a battle of the war, wrote early in October dealing further with conditions in London. He informed his family that:

People Unworried“I would say that about 80 percent of all business establishments are carrying on as usual. The people are happy and apparently unworried. They’ve learned that the danger is slight and it’s a big relief for them after what they had expected. They bemoan their loss of sleep a great deal. But taken in the light of promised total destruction of the city, the fact that their worst hardship is loss of sleep is a proof of how comparatively little the havoc has been.”

He points out that actual loss of life has been scant when compared to London’s population and calls London firemen heroes.

At the time he wrote, Donahue apparently was looking for action, disclosing that “we’re still all getting fat up here with nothing, much to do.” He describes the pursuit of a German bomber following his return from a leave, adding that it disappeared in clouds and apparently returned home without dropping bombs.

The St. Charles flier referred to the previously announced formation of an American squadron for air duty as part of the Royal Air force. He disclosed that he actually was a member of the squadron but remained with his old squadron because he had become attached strongly to its leader and other members. He was permitted to remain with it after first having been transferred to the new squadron.

“The tone of your letters,” he writes, “reminds me so much of how terrible the air raids must sound to you, that I’m going to try to describe what I’ve seen of them.”

Raids DescribedHe disclosed that when he was in the hospital and convalescent station, the Germans sometimes appeared several times a day. “We usually,” he continued, “heard the air raid sirens first, although sometimes we heard the planes first. If it was a large formation, which was usually the case, it first sounded like the sullen roar of a thunderstorm approaching. Then as they drew closer, every now and then a higher-pitched whine would be audible above the rest. This was usually one of the protecting fighting planes in a dive for some reason. When they were overhead we could see the — tiny white crosses in the sky. Above them even tinier crosses milled about. These were the fighter planes.

“Local anti-aircraft guns would begin barking and little white or black puffs would appear about the bombers. Sometimes, the succession of smoke puffs simply followed them right across the sky, before we could see the planes and afterward as well. Also quite often we could see trails of what looked like White smoke appearing very high up. These were made unintentionally by high-flying fighters when passing through the very moist air.

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Crosses in Air“Sometimes the formations would be intercepted by our fighters right overhead. Then the little white crosses milled about more than ever, went in circles, chased each other. At the high altitudes, you couldn’t tell which were our fighters and which were the enemy. Bursts of machine-gun lire would be audible. Perhaps we would hear ail ever-growing whine and see a fighter coming straight down in a dive, shot out of control, or perhaps spinning. Several Messerschmitts came down that way, landing within three or four miles of where I was.

“Sometimes one would come down just gliding, its engine disabled. Sometimes we’d see a parachute coming down. If the formation was intercepted overhead we usually saw the bombers get separated, and most of them would turn for home.

“Apparently the raids are made up for the most part with pilots who are unable to carry out their missions by themselves. They simply follow one leader and if they get separated from him they turn back. No doubt, a few of them got to London, which was the usual objective, but as a rule most of them didn’t. If they weren’t intercepted in view of us, they usually were intercepted shortly after they passed over, for we could see scattered sections of formations and individual machines as well coming back and racing for home long before the time it would have taken them to get to London and back.

“I saw perhaps 15 planes come down during those raids, all but two or three were German. I also saw at least as many more Nazi planes heading for home losing altitude with white smoke trailing behind them — this white smoke was their radiator liquid coming out. All their engines are liquid-cooled. And that’s about all I can tell you of mass bombing raids. No dive-bombing. Believe It or not, I never heard a bomb fall. during daytime except in the distance. Of course, the places they were attacking had it worse than that, but nothing compared with the horrors in Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France. In those countries, there was such poor defense that the bombers practically did what they pleased. The big terror of the German bombing raids was the divebombing, and that is almost completely ruled out here in England. The dive bombers come straight down at their targets and release their bombs at about 1,000 feet. But every city in England is now protected against that by a balloon barrage reaching up to about 5.000 feet. There has been no dive-bombing on London at all. Not only that but the anti-aircraft defenses make it impossible for the bombers to come lower than 10,000 feet with any great hope of getting away. And from above 10,000 feet the German bombing is completely inaccurate. Those two things, the balloon barrages and the anti-aircraft defenses, have cut down the effectiveness of the German bombers to a fraction of what it was in other countries which Germany attacked, where there were little or no such defenses. Of course, their bombing is effective against civilians, so that’s why they concentrated on London. They didn’t have to bomb accurately in order to hit civilians in London, but London was completely prepared with good air raid shelters so that casualties were relatively low. And the R.A.F. was inflicting terrific casualties on the Huns every time they came over so they seem to be letting up even on these attacks.

“I spent five days of my leave in London, although I was only there three nights. I never saw a Hun during the daytime, although there were frequent air raid warnings, and according to the papers, heavy formations came over a couple times while I was there. These heavy formations never got over central London while I was there. Most of the warnings were for small formations or single reconnaissance planes that approached.

“Three-fourths of the people didn’t take cover when the warnings sounded during daytime. The average Londoner treats the warning as an ‘alert’ signal and goes on as usual, but keeps a weather eye on the sky with the intention of taking cover if any bombing commences. At night the situation is a little worse. The first night I spent there, the warning sirens blew just after dark. I could hear the drone of an enemy motor or two practically all the time. There was scattered, cracking and booming of anti-aircraft, guns here and there about the city. In the sky, the shells burst with bright flashes. The London anti-aircraft seldom use searchlights.

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“Sometimes you wouldn’t hear any noise. Then them would be the distant drone of engines, and far away the dull booming of distant anti-aircraft guns then little flashes high up and echoing ‘crrump! crrump!’ from the shells exploding up there. Then guns would bark nearby and crashes of shells exploding high among the stars nearly overhead. Then guns very close would bark, sometimes Just occasionally, sometimes with fierce rapidity. Some of these were very heavy and shook the ground. The fireworks displays overhead were wonderful, as shells burst here and there. Finally, I got sleepy In spite of the wonders of the show and went to bed. I was outside watching it, with an eye on a nearby shelter entrance. People walked about the streets quite calmly. The people in the rooming house where I stayed did not go to ajr raid shelters at night, preferring to risk the small danger in return for comfortable beds. I went to sleep still hearing the sporadic barking and booming of guns, the ‘crrump’ of shells exploding in the sky, and the distant drone of enemy airplanes.

A little after 12 a hissing like steam escaping woke me. It grew and grew in intensity till it was like the rushing of a high-speed train. I realized I was hearing a bomb come down for the first time, and it seemed right overhead. The rushing stayed at its loudest note for perhaps a couple of seconds and ended abruptly. Just when I was sure I’d be blown to bits, in a dull ‘boom!’ at least a couple of miles away.

“In a still night, the sound of bombs dropping carries a long ways. During the next hour, a number of them were dropped. Everyone sounded as if it was coming right on top of us, while it was dropping, but none landed anywhere near. We roomers all arose and retired to the basement until it ended. The noises varied a great deal, Sometimes there were four or five in a row. After the bombing subsided we went back to bed. and only one or two more dropped during the rest of the night. The other two nights I spent in London were much the same.”

Lt. Arthur Donahue, St. Charles Flier, Presumed Dead

Winona Republican-Herald, Aug. 26, 1943

Notice that Flight Lieutenant Arthur G. Donahue, Royal Air Force flying ace, is officially presumed to be dead by the British government has been received by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Donahue, former residents of St. Charles now living in Minneapolis.

He was reported missing in action off the Belgian coast during a dawn patrol on September 1942. At that time, it was reported, other airmen saw his plane drop into the sea. Since then, no word has been heard of the flier. According to British military procedure, sufficient time has elapsed so that for legal reasons he is officially presumed to be dead.

One of the earliest American fliers to enter the war, Lieutenant Donahue took part in the early air battles of the conflict. He was awarded the ‘Distinguished Flying Cross, wrote a best-selling book and was in his 26th month of almost continuous combat service when he was reported missing. He served in several combat areas and was one of the last men evacuated from Singapore. A second book written before his death is now ready for publication.

He received his early flying training at the Conrad airport at Winona and was widely known locally.

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