Dates and Times

Operation Dates

The dating of night-time air operations is a particular problem for air historians, especially when it comes to consulting pilots’ and aircrews’ logbooks. An operation which took place on the night of 12-13 October, for example, was usually recorded against the 12th. The date for a night operation was normally allocated to the day that had just ended, even if take-off was not until the early hours of the following morning. If take-off was after midnight, or even if only most of the sortie was in the early morning, the sortie might be recorded against the next day, but there was no consistency between pilots, and members of the same crew might record the same sortie against different days. While this is not a problem for bombing operations, for Bomber Command’s other records can usually corroborate the date of a raid on a particular target, for Special Duties operations before 1942 there is rarely such easy corroboration. The Special Duties squadrons operated secretly, separate from Bomber Command’ mainstream, producing only as much documentary evidence of their activities as was strictly necessary. Before 1942 the pilot’s report, written up to two weeks after the event, is frequently the only extant evidence.

The RAF convention was to date sorties to the previous day, regardless of the sortie timings. This made sense for two reasons. First, the flying part of the operation was only the last part of a preparation process that had commenced the previous morning with the decision to mount the operation. Second, it prevented the possibility of confused records: say that P/O Prune takes off after midnight on the night of 3-4 April, and records it in his logbook as 4 April; if he then flies a sortie early the following night and also records it as 4 April, he would appear to have flown two sorties on the same night. Confusion would be more likely to occur towards the end of a Moon Period, when the Moon rose late and take off might not be until the early morning.

Oddly enough, whereas the Observer’s and Air Gunner’s Logbook (Air Ministry Form 1767) had a column for recording the take-off time, some editions of the Pilot’s Logbook (AM Form 414) did not: it asked only for the durations of several types of flying, e.g. single or multi-engined, day or night, on instruments. The most important aspect of a pilot’s logbook was the accumulation of flying hours as P1 or P2 (Captain or 2nd Pilot); the actual timings were comparatively unimportant. For non-pilots, early 1939-45 logbooks had been designed before the war, when many non-pilot aircrew were also ground-based tradesmen. Recording the actual times showed when they’d been on flying duties.

Timings: GMT or local

To complicate matters for historians trying to recreate a sequence of events, local time in countries under German occupation could be up to three hours ahead of GMT, and the UK had Single and Double Summer Time. In southern England on mid-summer’s day, sunset was after 10.15 p.m. Aircraft logs and operational reports were recorded in local time. Agents were briefed before takeoff to put their watches forward to the local time of their destination. This tends to produce other confusing anomalies.

The times recorded in logbooks and other records such as ORBs and official files — of take-off, time over target, and landing — have featured in several discussions on the ‘rafcommands.com’ forum. The Stradishall Operations Officer’s logbooks in the National Archive give a vivid picture of daily life at a bomber station. These logbooks show the time of each incident, and these appear to have been recorded in the local time, not GMT.

Aircraft captains’ reports show similar times. (The times usually differ by several minutes because the airfield recorded take-off and landing times; pilots’ timings were from engine-start to switch-off.) The use of base local time is sometimes confirmed by times of moonrise and moonset: in several cases, had the timings over the target had been GMT (two hours later during the summer months, one hour in the winter), the agent would have been dropped in the dawn light, and the Whitley would have been returning home over Occupied Europe in daylight. Agents’ reports gave times in the target’s local time: one of the duties of an agent’s Escorting Officer was to ensure his agent’s watch was set to the target’s local time.