New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 6 — Daylight Raids by the Light Bombers
Daylight Raids by the Light Bombers
Retrospect is now necessary to record the part played by the crews of the day bombers in the mounting offensive. Bitter experience in the early months of the war had shown the RAF that its heavy bombers were no match for the German fighters in daylight battle. But while the main strength of Bomber Command had thereupon been turned to night bombing, the daylight attack was not wholly abandoned. Blenheim bombers of No. 2 Group continued to operate by day and they played a prominent part in the air operations over France in May 1940; later, during the period of the invasion threat they attacked ships and harbour installations with good effect. Then as the danger of invasion receded the Blenheims had extended their attacks to include such objectives as airfields, factories, and power-stations in northern France, Belgium, and Holland as well as ports and shipping along the North Sea and Channel coasts. A modest campaign against targets on the fringe of enemy territory was thus gradually developed.
The actual damage that could be inflicted was inevitably light for only small forces were employed, and at this time the enemy still possessed an overwhelming air superiority. But the courage and daring displayed by the crews who in those early days flew low over enemy territory day after day in relatively slow and lightly armed aircraft are beyond all praise. There were hard battles with German fighters, stiff opposition from anti-aircraft batteries, and on several occasions the small formations of Blenheims were practically wiped out. Almost invariably they suffered heavy casualties. Yet a fine offensive spirit persisted and many gallant episodes are recorded which light up that dark and sombre period of the war. One outstanding example was the low-level attack on the docks at Bremen early in July 1941 when twelve Blenheims of No. 105 Squadron flew under high-tension cables and through a balloon barrage to reach their target. Two were shot down during the approach, two more just after bombing, and most of the others returned damaged, some festooned with telegraph wires.
On many raids the bombers were escorted by fighters, but their more distant targets still took them beyond the range of the contemporary fighters. When fifty-four Blenheims attacked power- page 138 stations near Cologne in August 1941 they had to fly the last 150 miles to their target without escort. Eleven of them were shot down. Many of the others were badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire and fighter attack and there were further casualties among their crews. Some observers doubted whether the results achieved justified such sacrifice of men and machines. However, the replacement of the Blenheims by faster and better-armed aircraft such as the Boston enabled the daylight attack to continue, although the bombers were now more frequently employed in the role of decoys to lure the enemy into battle with the strong fighter formations which accompanied them.
Bostons made their first attack early in March 1942 against the Matford works at Poissy, near Paris, and they played a prominent part in the air operations over Dieppe five months later. By that time Mosquito and Ventura day bombers had been added to the Bostons of No. 2 Bomber Group, and on 6 December 1942 nearly one hundred aircraft of these three types attacked the Phillips radio factory at Eindhoven in Holland, which was, perforce, working to German requirements. This raid, the largest and most spectacular thus far carried out by No. 2 Group, caused extensive damage to the Phillips works. Thirteen aircraft were lost. Such, briefly, was the way in which the daylight operations of No. 2 Bomber Group had developed during the early years of the war.
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By 1943 the re-equipment of its day-bomber squadrons with faster machines enabled the RAF to increase both the range and the weight of its daylight attacks. Mosquitos bombed targets as far afield as Norway and the Ruhr and even penetrated to Berlin, while the Bostons, Mitchells and Venturas, under strong fighter escort, ranged over northern France, Belgium, and Holland attacking airfields ports, factories and power-stations. These latter formation attacks upon short-range targets took place in considerable numbers during the early months and by the end of May eighty-four targets had been attacked.
New Zealand pilots, navigators, wireless operators and air gunners, some of whom had been with day bombers since the early days of the war, were among the crews of the RAF squadrons which flew these various missions. A notable contribution was made by No. 487 New Zealand Squadron which had been formed in August 1942 and equipped with Ventura bombers - American aircraft produced in California by the Vega Company which also built Flying Fortresses. No. 487 had flown its first operational mission in the following December, when it provided thirteen aircraft for page 139 the raid on the Phillips works at Eindhoven. The Venturas had played their part well and the squadron was unfortunate in losing three crews, among them its commanding officer, Wing Commander Seavill.1
At this time several New Zealand pilots, veterans of earlier campaigns, held senior posts in No. 2 Group, notable personalities being Group Captain Barnett,2 who continued in command of RAF Station, Swanton Morley, Group Captain R. L. Kippenberger in charge of the base at Feltwell, and Wing Commander Magill,3 who now led No. 180 Mitchell Squadron. Barnett had joined the Cambridge University Air Squadron in 1926 and obtained a permanent commission in the RAF two years later; he served with dis- tinctionin Iraq before the outbreak of war when he joined Bomber Command. Kippenberger had entered the RAF in 1930 and had been associated with bombers since the early days of his service. He was in France in 1940 and subsequently commanded a Welling-squadron and served on the operations staff of a bomber group. Magill had been with a fighter squadron in the Middle East before the war and served there throughout the early campaigns. Squadron Leader Reece,4 now station navigation officer at Foulsham, had won early distinction with a light bomber squadron.
New Zealand aircrew prominent in operations with RAF squadrons were Pilot Officers A. B. Smith,5 D. S. P. Smith6 and J. B. Wilson,7 who flew Bostons of No. 88 Squadron; Flying Officer Rutherford8 and Pilot Officer Willis,9 navigators with No. 226 Mitchell Squadron, and Flying Officer Hannah,10 who navigated a Ventura of No. 464 Australian Squadron.
1 Wing Commander F. C. Seavill; born Parnell, 17 Jun 1910; joined RAF 1930; Admin. Staff duties, HQ Flying Training Command, 1938–40; Air Staff duties, Canada, 1940–42; commanded No. 487 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942; killed on air operations, 6 Dec 1942.
2 Air Vice-Marshal D. H. F. Barnett, CBE, DFC; born Dunedin, 11 Feb 1906; Cambridge University Air Squadron, 1926–29; permanent commission RAF 1929; commanded No. 40 Sqdn, 1940; RAF Station, Swanton Morley, 1942–43; Air Staff Strategic Bombing duties, Bomber Command, 1944; SASO (Org.) Bomber Command, 1945; commanded Air HQ Mauripur, India, 1947; D of Ops, Air Ministry, 1949–52; Liaison Officer US HQ Japan, 1952–54.
Mosquito pilots who undertook particularly hazardous missions at this time were Flying Officers Polglase,1 O. W. Thompson2 and Weston,3 flying with No. 105 Squadron, and Pilot Officer McGeehan4 and Sergeant R. E. Leigh with No. 139 Squadron. Four of these men were soon to lose their lives. Some of their exploits will presently be related.
The New Zealand Ventura Squadron was now led by Wing Commander G. J. Grindell, who had done good work both in oper- ationsand as a flying instructor during the early years of the war. He soon proved a fine and efficient leader. His flight commanders were Squadron Leaders Trent5 and Wheeler.6 Trent had joined the RAF in the late thirties and was one of the first British airmen to go to France, where he flew Fairey Battles. In May 1940 he flew as captain of a Blenheim in bombing attacks against the advancing Germans, and before joining No. 487 Squadron he completed spells of duty as a flying instructor and with the operations staff of No. 2 Group.
Wheeler had enlisted in Canada at the beginning of the war, and during 1941 flew with a Blenheim squadron in daylight attacks on shipping in the North Sea. Later he flew Bostons in many low-level bombing raids and was prominent in the air operations over Dieppe. Early in February 1944 he took command of No. 88 Squadron, only to lose his life a fortnight later during an attack on a flying-bomb launching site.
6 Wing Commander A. B. Wheeler, DFC; born Feilding, 11 Feb 1916; joined RCAF Oct 1940; commanded No. 88 Sqdn, 1944; killed on air operations, 15 Feb 1944.
Four days later six crews set off to bomb the marshalling yards at Bruges. They reached the target only to find it obscured by cloud and were compelled to return without bombing. Indeed, because of the bad weather prevalent at this time of year, crews frequently experienced such disappointments. In February they continually stood by for operations, but many sorties were cancelled at the last moment when low cloud was reported in the target area. The 13th February was typical. Crews were called on no fewer than five occasions during the day and it was not until the early evening that the mission was finally cancelled. They had a similar experience three days later when they stood by for almost nine hours. Actually only four missions were completed that month. They included attacks on the marshalling yards at Abbeville and Caen, an armed raider at Dunkirk and a dry dock at the same port. All crews returned safely and reported good attacks. During the raid on Abbeville enemy fighters attempted interceptions but were unable to penetrate the protective screen of Spitfires; the Venturas also escaped serious damage over Dunkirk, where opposition from flak was particularly violent.
There was a diversion from normal activities during the first fort- nightof March when No. 487 Squadron, along with other units of No. 2 Group, co-operated with the Army in large-scale manoeuvres in southern England. Mock bombing raids were launched against road and rail centres and towns, umpires deciding which aircraft had been ‘shot down’ by flak or fighters and what effect the ‘bomb- ing’ had had on the ‘enemy’. The squadron first took part in these exercises on the 4th and in nine days flew over 200 sorties. On some days crews flew three missions, and on returning from each flight the Venturas had to be filled up with oil and petrol and rebombed; they were grounded just long enough to allow the aircrews to snatch a hurried meal and to be briefed. At the end of this period of intense effort ground crews worked hard to get the machines ready for a resumption of operations. Indeed, throughout these early winter months of 1943 the ground crews worked with great enthusiasm.
Several missions were cancelled before the squadron eventually got away to attack an oil refinery at Maasluis on 22 March. Unfortunately, there was bad visibility over the target and, as a result of errors in bombing, there were heavy casualties among Dutch civilians. Six days later, however, No. 487 took part in the page 142 most successful attack made by No. 2 Group bombers during the month when, together with No. 464 Australian Squadron, they attacked shipping at Rotterdam. Six ships were reported damaged, direct hits being seen on three of them. The following day all three Ventura squadrons of the Group made two further attacks on the same target. Crews reported considerable destruction among port installations and further damage to shipping.
At the beginning of April the New Zealanders moved from Feltwell to Methwold, about three miles away. The new base was not so well appointed as the peacetime station at Feltwell and the buildings were widely dispersed. The offices, mostly a collection of wooden huts, were carefully concealed in a belt of trees near the airfield. The ground staff and non-commissioned aircrew lived about 400 yards from the communal site in Nissen huts among trees, while most of the officers lived in Feltwell Rectory some two miles away from camp, the remainder being billeted in Dyke House, some 300 yards from the mess. But the squadron diary records:
It did not take long for us to settle down and were soon agreed that it was not a bad place; after all we still visited Feltwell. Group Captain Kippenberger was still ‘King of the Castle’ and that meant quite a lot.
The move was completed by the evening of 3 April and in the early afternoon of the following day the squadron was able to send twelve Venturas to attack Caen aerodrome, and in the evening the same number of aircraft bombed the docks and shipping at Rotterdam. The raid on Caen was uneventful but over Rotterdam the bombers met heavy flak, and when the machines inadvertently flew over an enemy convoy they were given a hot reception. One aircraft with a Canadian crew failed to return and four others limped back, each with one engine out of action.
A memorable mission was flown on 3 May. That day there was a violent air battle over Holland as the Venturas, with an escort of fighters, attempted to break through to their target at Amsterdam. The raid was a costly failure but it provides a most gallant episode which deserves to be recorded in some detail.
The New Zealand bomber crews had assembled for briefing shortly after noon on a day of blue skies and warm sunshine - one of those late spring days when it was good to be alive in England - perfect flying weather and every prospect of a successful mission. As the briefing progressed the men heard that they were to take part in a series of attacks designed to help the Dutch Resistance Movement and encourage Dutch workers in strikes then being organised in defiance of the Germans. No. 487's role was to bomb the power-station at Amsterdam and, at the same time, to create a diversion for another raid by Bostons a few minutes later on the power-station at Ijmuiden. ‘Your target is well defended,’ crews were told, ‘But it is important that the attack be pressed home regardless of opposition.’
The Venturas, flying in two formations, were to be led by Squadron Leader Trent, who commanded the squadron's ‘B’ Flight with Flight Lieutenant Duffill,1 an English pilot, as his deputy. In conversation before take-off, Trent was heard to say that while he appreciated the risk involved he was determined to reach the target whatever happened.
After flying at sea level until near the Dutch coast the eleven Venturas, with their attendant fighters, began climbing to their bombing height. They had reached 12,000 feet and in a clear sky could see their target far ahead, when suddenly the entire force was set upon by four formations of Me109s and FW190s, totalling over seventy aircraft. It was an aerial ambush. The Focke-Wulfs dived on the escorting Spitfires before they could take up defensive positions and the Messerschmitts swooped upon the bombers. Trent immediately ordered his Venturas to close into one formation for added protection and to go ‘all out’ straight on towards their objective.
Confused and bitter fighting followed during which the escort of Spitfire Vs - outnumbered, at a disadvantage of height, and opposed by machines of superior performance - gradually became split up. Even though the fighters acting as close escort tried hard to maintain position, they were continually forced to turn aside to ward off attacks and soon completely lost sight of the bombers, which were then exposed to incessant assault. The Ventura flown by Duffill was one of the first to be hit. Cannon fire destroyed the hydraulic system, set both engines alight and wounded two members of his crew. Duffill was forced to turn away, but before he did so his gunner claimed a German fighter. Two other machines of his formation which followed him were headed off and destroyed but Duffill, although subjected to repeated attack until well out over the North Sea, managed to keep his machine airborne. Then, after his navigator had succeeded in releasing the bombs and with the fires dying away, he managed to reach base and land the crippled Ventura safely. It was the only one to return.
As the remaining Venturas flew on to the target they were picked off one by one until only five remained to begin the bombing run. These five machines, although hard pressed, maintained a steady course towards the power-station at Amsterdam. A fighter which flew across Trent's bows offered a perfect shot.‘Had always longed for just such a chance,’ Trent afterwards declared, ‘and down he went, for the Ventura's best armament was under the pilot's thumb. I hardly had to move the aircraft. Dutch observers saw him crash.’ But the German fighters were now queuing up above and taking it in turn to dive on the bombers and open fire at point-blank range. Then they would swoop underneath to climb again on the other page 145 side and await their turn for further attack. Bomber after bomber went down - two of them exploded in mid-air – and finally only Trent's machine was left to aim its bombs. They overshot but were sufficiently near the target to cause blast damage.
Now alone, Trent turned to run the gauntlet of the enemy defences back to the coast, but almost at once his machine was hit and went down. Trent and his navigator were thrown clear and survived to become prisoners of war, but the other two members of the crew were unable to escape before the Ventura crashed.
Trent has described those last few minutes in these words:
As we approached Amsterdam the anti-aircraft guns joined the fighters in a race to see who would get us first. I was surprised that the fighters continued their attacks and as the power-house came into sight my observer had to direct me. ‘Bombs Gone’ he called, and I looked up from the instruments to see that we were alone. At the same moment we were hit and I found that all controls had gone, but no fire and engines going perfectly. This continued for ten seconds or so, which seemed an age, and then suddenly the aircraft reared up, stalled upside down and went into a spin. Had ordered ‘Abandon aircraft’ before the zoom and now tried to get out from the roof hatch myself. However, the spin was so rapid that I was not getting anywhere until at about 7000 feet the machine suddenly broke up and I found myself outside. My navigator was also thrown out but unfortunately the others were trapped in a portion of the wreckage.
From the other nine bombers which had already been shot down there were relatively few survivors. Some men were killed at their posts during the air battle, others when their machines exploded in mid-air or crashed and blew up on the ground. A wounded air gunner was the only survivor from one crew. He owed his life to the action of his captain, Flying Officer McGowan,1 and Canadian navigator, Flying Officer Thornber.2 After he was wounded they dragged him from his damaged turret, put on his parachute, and pushed him out of the burning Ventura. A few moments later the bomber exploded, killing them both. The gunner, Flight Sergeant Urlich,3 gives this description of events from the time the French coast was crossed until his turret was put out of action:
The inter-comm. went dead, and we had a few peaceful moments till we were attacked from the front. I didn't see this one come in. He really smashed up the turret. I got nicked in the left side and one of the guns was hit by cannon shell and knocked out of its mounting.
The experiences of Flying Officer Foster1 and his crew, who flew one of the last five aircraft to reach the vicinity of Amsterdam, provide further illustration of the ordeal through which many men passed that day.
As he approached the city, Foster saw the two Venturas immediately in front of him explode and disintegrate in the air. A few moments later his own machine was hit. The bomb doors were blown off and the bombs fell away. Unable to complete his attack Foster decided to turn for base. He had just begun to swing round when a bursting anti-aircraft shell put one of the engines out of action. Fighters were now forming up to attack and, as the bomber went into a dive to evade them, events came quickly one upon another. Ammunition containers began to explode, the nose of the aircraft was blown away and the navigator badly injured. The rear gunner, Sergeant Warner,2 – although mortally wounded – struggled forward to report that his turret was out of action. He then dropped dead alongside the pilot's seat.
The Ventura was now diving straight towards a harbour. It was but a few feet above the water when Foster succeeded in straightening out, only to find himself flying between the ships of a German convoy. He got clear but found his machine most difficult to control and it took all his strength to keep airborne as he flew out over the Dutch coast. With petrol escaping from the tanks it now seemed only a matter of seconds before the end came so Foster ordered ‘ditching stations’. No sooner had he done so than the port engine failed and the Ventura went down on to the sea and sank almost immediately. Foster, his navigator, and wireless operator fought their way out of the submerged aircraft and managed to keep afloat until picked up by a German patrol boat some two hours later. One of the men has since told how:
New Zealanders who lost their lives in this raid on Amsterdam included four captains of aircraft, Flying Officers S. McGowan and S. B. Peryman, Pilot Officers Coutts1 and Baynton,2 Flight Sergeant Goodfellow,3 and Sergeant T. W. J. Warner, who flew as air gunners, and Sergeant C. R. Smith,4 wireless operator, were also killed in action. Two other New Zealanders, Pilot Officer Taylor,5 and Flight Sergeant Sharp,6 both of whom captained Venturas, were able to bale out safely and were taken prisoner. Flying Officer Penn,7 navigator, survived with his pilot, Flying Officer Foster.
At the time it was considered that the Ventura crews, under Trent's leadership, had shown great courage and determination in forcing on towards their target against the sternest opposition. But it was not until after the war, when the full story of the raid became known, that this impression received full confirmation. The award of the Victoria Cross was thereupon made to Squadron Leader Trent. His citation concludes with these words:
On this, his twenty-fourth sortie, Squadron Leader Trent showed outstanding leadership. Such was the trust placed in this gallant officer that the other pilots followed him unwaveringly. His cool, unflinching courage and devotion to duty in the face of over-whelming odds rank with the finest examples of these virtues.
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During the early months of 1943 the two Mosquito squadrons with No. 2 Group achieved notable success in their precision attacks on targets deeper in German or German-occupied territory. Many of their bombs fell on the enemy railway system, its workshops, engines and rolling stock; several spectacular raids were directed against certain small targets which were of special importance to the German war machine; there were ‘nuisance’ raids on Berlin and other cities which struck a shrewd blow at Nazi prestige.
The Mosquito, with its high speed and formidable bomb load, was an ideal aircraft for such missions. Everything about it spelt aggression, from its slim, dart-like fuselage to its enormous propellers and spinners. Although docile and easy to handle, many a German pilot found it both a tough and elusive adversary. Mosquitos, even when severely damaged, often reached their base safely and there were outstanding instances of young pilots, some on their first operation, returning home, as one of them put it, ‘in a large hole held together by pieces of aeroplane’ and then carrying out successful forced landings. Inevitably a few machines were lost, but considering the hazardous nature of their tasks, casualties were not heavy.
1 See also Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape (Faber and Faber). Fifty were recaptured and shot by the Gestapo. Among those shot were three New Zealanders–Fit Lt A. G. Christensen and Fg Off P. P. J. Pohe, both RNZAF, and Sqn Ldr J. E. A. Williams, RAF. Witnesses at the war crimes trials stated that 4200 prisoners had escaped in 1943, during which there had been five or six nation-wide searches, and that there had already been two or three similar searches in 1944 before this escape.
There was a pleasing episode on 30 January 1943 when three Mosquitos of No. 105 Squadron timed their arrival over Berlin to coincide with the delivery of a speech by Goering to a typical Nazi rally at the Sportspalast. The speech was to be broadcast and the announcer had just begun his introductory remarks when he was interrupted by a dull explosion and a babble of excited voices. After some confusion came a statement that the Field Marshal's address would be delayed for a few minutes, but it was not until an hour afterwards that Goering finally began his speech. Later the same day when Propaganda Minister Goebbels was to speak, more Mosquitos, this time from No. 139 Squadron, dropped bombs on the German capital, but evidence from the radio indicated that Goebbels had gone to earth and was speaking from a less exposed position than the platform at the open-air rally.
The Mosquitos had made the long trip to Berlin in broad daylight, and although the second group met some opposition from fighters and anti-aircraft batteries, all but one returned safely. Flight Sergeant McGeehan, who flew an aircraft from No. 139 Squadron, gave this account of his flight:
Flight carried out at low level over North Sea to point north of Heligoland, then inland to Lubeck. Shortly afterwards a climb was started to 20,000 feet. Course was altered from Schwerm and Berlin appeared in brilliant sunshine at expected time of arrival, the cloud having broken abruptly. Bombs were dropped at 1600 hours and one burst was observed about half a mile to the south of the centre of the city. Heavy flak was encountered and evasive action taken. Two fighters were seen but these were evaded. The rest of the trip to the Dutch coast was done at low level. Flak was again encountered crossing the Frisians. Base was reached without further event.
In their low-level raids the Mosquitos now used two separate methods of attack – the really low-level and the shallow-dive – both of which were frequently employed in the same mission. In the really low-level approach, small formations flew straight towards their target just above the treetops and hurled their bombs down as they flew across it. Shallow-dive formations, on the other hand, would climb rapidly to about 2000 feet on reaching a predetermined landmark some ten to fifteen miles from their objective. Then over page 150 the target they peeled off and dived to release their bombs at about 1500 feet.
When these methods were combined both formations would be led by one leader whose navigator was entirely responsible for guiding the whole force to the objective - a difficult feat when flying low over enemy territory at very high speed. When the two sections parted company the low-level group would drop bombs fused for eleven seconds' delay. The operation was so planned that the shallow-dive aircraft began their dive as the last aircraft of the first formation got away and their bombs were fused to explode instantaneously. Accurate timing was thus of the utmost importance. If the interval between bombing was too great the second formation would meet a hail of fire from the enemy anti-aircraft batteries which would have been alerted by the low-level attack; on the other hand, if the formations bombed too close together the low-level aircraft would be enveloped by the bombs from the diving formations above them. However, in a well-executed raid the enemy gunners were confused by the two attacks and the risk to the Mosquitos was consequently reduced. On leaving the target both formations would spread out to prevent collisions and then swiftly make their way out across the coast and back to base.
Of several operations in which the low-level and shallow-dive techniques were used with outstanding success, the most notable was that carried out by ten Mosquitos from No. 139 Squadron on 3 March. Their target was the mine at Knaben, in a remote part of the Norwegian mountains, which produced molybdenum - a material vital to the enemy's production of special grades of steel. The leader's report of this mission is as follows:
The formation proceeded to Flamborough Head in good style and set course for the Norwegian Coast. We were ninety minutes over the sea at low level, during which time the 10/10 cloud gave way to a clear sky and brilliant sunshine. Track was maintained accurately by constant drift reading, and a landfall was made within a mile of the appointed place. Visibility was exceptional and the snow-capped mountains over which we had to climb presented a striking sight. Sirdale Lake, our next turning point, was reached without trouble, and the formation turned north, the Shallow Divers commencing their climb and the remaining four keeping as low as possible on the lake, and overtaking us. They were seen to pass underneath us just before reaching the tip of the lake and then to turn east, climbing steeply over the surrounding hills. We, in the Shallow Dive formation, then turned east on to the course. On approaching the target, we saw brown and white smoke rising, and our attack commenced immediately. After bombing, we did a sharp left-hand turn and saw the following aircraft's bombs bursting on the target and also other bombs on the gun position. Course was then set for the coast, where two F.W. 190s were seen in combat with a Mossie about 1500 yards to starboard. The chase was seen to carry on fifty miles out to sea, after which the 190s turned back and England was reached without any further incident.page 151
When reconnaissance photographs became available extensive damage could be seen, and it was subsequently learned that the crushing, grinding, and flotation plants had been put out of action. However, in view of the importance of the target, the Germans began repairs immediately and by June had succeeded in resuming production at about half the previous level.
Six days earlier ten Mosquitos from No. 105 Squadron and the same number from No. 139 Squadron had been very successful in an attack on the naval stores depot at Rennes. Five aircraft attacked from low level and a further eleven machines bombed in a shallow dive. Pilot Officer Weston found bombs bursting in the target area so did not attack but released his bombs on a double track railway about two miles east of Vire from only fifty feet. Three aircraft, two of which collided on the way to the target, were missing from this operation, but the depot was heavily hit, with seventeen sheds destroyed and nineteen damaged.
Another particularly successful March raid was that made against the Renault works at Arnage, Le Mans, when Flying Officers Polglase and Thompson and Pilot Officer Weston flew three of the six Mosquitos despatched by No. 105 Squadron to make the low-level attack. They were supported by eight machines from No. 139 Squadron, as the shallow-dive flight. The crews met intense flak over the target and No. 139 Squadron lost one Mosquito, while another was badly hit and crash-landed on return. All three New Zealand pilots returned safely and reported good attacks. Direct hits on the works caused severe damage to almost all the main buildings, but such was the accuracy of the bombing that only one house was hit outside the works area.
Similar results were obtained when Mosquitos penetrated deep into Germany to attack the engine sheds at Paderborn on 16 March. Again No. 105 Squadron supplied six Mosquitos for the low-level attack and No. 139 Squadron detailed ten aircraft for shallow-dive bombing. The leading navigator's report of this notable raid is as follows:
Paderborn is quite a few miles east of the Ruhr, and it looked an al armingly long way into Germany when we studied the route on the large-scale map in the briefing room. There were to be sixteen aircraft, which by our standards is a big formation. The target consisted of engine sheds, and they were to be attacked in two waves, first by six aircraft at low level, and then by ten from about thirteen hundred feet in a Shallow Dive. Apart from the bombing run, we were to fly at low level all the way. We, in our aircraft, were to lead the formation to a point about twenty-five miles short of the target, and then to climb to three thousand feet with nine others behind us, while the last six raced in ahead to bomb first from low level. The rest of us were to dive down to thirteen hundred feet before bombing. It was hoped that our bombs would begin falling just as the last of the low-level aircraft had got clear of the target. It would be too bad for him if we bombed a bit page 152 early. You can't see Mosquitos when you are directly above them; their camouflage is too good. So, good timing would be needed if we were going to make a concentrated attack, and yet give that last man a chance.
All went well till we were over the Zuyder Zee, when we were intercepted by a formation of low-flying ducks. They attacked strongly, but inflicted only one casualty. Their leader crashed through the perspex of one aircraft, and landed, a heap of blood and feathers, on the observer's stomach. Two others hit the starboard engine nacelle. It was very draughty in that aeroplane (and messy, too), so it turned back for home. The rest of us managed to take the effective evasive action. We are better at avoiding birds than we used to be.
We carried on very smoothly over the flat lands of Holland and North-West Germany. Occasionally we would lift a wing to avoid a church steeple. Visibility was just right – enough to map read by, and no more. Between Munster and Osnabruck the country became hilly, and the formation inevitably got more ragged. But everything was still very quiet.
We crossed a big autobahn and began to climb, while the last six Mosquitos stayed down. It's an uncomfortable feeling to be up at three thousand feet after a spell of low flying. You feel naked and motionless and a sitting target for the gunners. But it gets better when you dive on to the target, and the earth comes close again and you recapture the feeling of speed.
There was a lot of industrial haze drifting over from the Ruhr, and the target was difficult to see. Perhaps it was the haze that made the flak gunners so slow off the mark. They allowed half of us to bomb before they opened up. When they did open up, they were pretty good, and the boys at the back had a nasty few minutes. One machine was hit, and did not return, while another came back on one engine, and did very well to make a crash-landing at an aerodrome close to base. We, personally, were lucky, and were out of the target area in time. When we looked back the target was going up into the air, and above it the Mosquitos were bucking like broncos to avoid the streams of orange balls thrown up at them from all angles by the Bofors guns.
On the way home over Germany the mist got thicker and thicker, and we all felt safer and safer. We saw two Junkers 52's and wished we had some guns. Nothing else happened, and we sneaked quietly out over the Dutch island which we thought would give us the least trouble. I doubt if they could have seen us, anyway ….
McGeehan, who was seen to attack the target, failed to return from this raid. Two other New Zealanders lost their lives in low-level operations during the next few weeks. Flying Officer Polglase failed to return from the attack on the diesel-engine works at Hengelo early in April. His formation was intercepted by Focke-Wulf 190s just before reaching the target and he was last seen under attack by several enemy fighters. On 1 May Thompson's Mosquito crashed soon after taking off with five other aircraft of No. 105 Squadron to attack the Phillips valve works at Eindhoven.
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In June 1943 the first steps were taken to reorganise the RAF in preparation for the invasion of Europe. The Second Tactical Air page 153 Force was formed under Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory1 and the Boston, Mitchell, and Ventura squadrons of No. 2 Group left Bomber Command to join the new force. They were to operate under Fighter Command control until the formation of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force five months later. At the same time the Mosquito squadrons which had been so successful in low-level attacks were transferred to Bomber Command's pathfinder force, where they continued to operate with distinction. But No. 2 Group was not to be long without the versatile Mosquito as Ventura squadrons began conversion to these machines a month later.
Aircrews regarded these various changes with considerable satisfaction for they brought nearer the day when the bombers would be flying in close support of the Allied armies invading Europe. How- ever, that day was still some way off, and during the second half of 1943 the bombers of No. 2 Group continued to attack such targets as enemy airfields, ports, power-stations and marshalling yards within the range of the Spitfires which flew as their escort. There were also raids on airframe and aero-engine factories and repair depots in occupied territory.
No. 2 Group was now led by Air Vice-Marshal Basil Embry2 who had enjoyed a remarkable career in the Royal Air Force. Under his dynamic leadership a more offensive outlook now developed among the squadrons of No. 2 Group. Previously, medium-level bombers such as the Ventura had only flown when there was little or no cloud below their usual bombing height, with the result that there had often been long intervals between operations while awaiting such conditions. But now the bombers began to operate more frequently in larger formations and Embry took pains to impress upon crews that they flew over enemy territory for one purpose only – ‘to put a bomb on the target.’ An intensive period of night-flying training was also begun so that the Group's activities could be extended even though the majority of operations were still to be flown in daylight.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, KCB, DSO, Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol.), Order of Kutuzov (USSR), Legion of Merit (US); born Mobberley, Cheshire, 11 Jul 1892; joined Lancashire Fusiliers 1914; seconded RFC 1916 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC No. 12 Fighter Group, 1937–40; AOC No.11 Fighter Group, 1940–42; AOC-in-C Fighter Command, 1942–43; AC-in-C AEAF, 1943–44; missing 14 Nov 1944 and death presumed.
2 Air Marshal Sir Basil E. Embry, KCB, KBE, DSO and three bars, DFC, AFC, Order of Danneborg (Den.), Order of Orange Nassau (Hol.), Legion of Honour (Fr.); born Barnwood, Gloucestershire, 28 Feb 1902; joined RAF 1921; commanded No. 107 Sqdn, 1939–40; p.w. 27 May – 2 Aug 1940; commanded RAF Station, Southend, 1940; Wittering, 1940–41; SASO, AHQ Western Desert, 1941–42; commanded RAF Station, Wittering, 1942; SASO No. 10 Group, 1943; AOC No. 2 Group, 1943–45; Asst Chief of Air Staff (Training) 1945–49; AOC-in-C Fighter Command, 1949–53.
At this time some seventy New Zealanders were serving with the RAF Ventura, Boston, and Mitchell squadrons, of whom about forty were with No. 487 Squadron. Among senior officers, Group Captain Barnett, who had commanded RAF Station, Swanton Morley, for the past year, was now posted to Second Tactical Air Force in charge of administration plans, organisation and policy, where he remained until he joined the Air Staff at Bomber Command in May 1944. He was succeeded at Swanton Morley by Group Captain Kippenberger, who assumed command at the beginning of July. Wing Commander Magill continued in command of No. 180 Mitchell Squadron until the middle of September when he was posted to the operational staff at Embry's headquarters. Among the pilots to win distinction during the next months were Flying Officer Struthers1 of No. 180 Squadron and Pilot Officer Gibson,2 who led a section of No. 88 Boston Squadron. Squadron Leader R. A. Reece, now navigation officer with a Mitchell Wing, took part in many operations and was commended for his work in improving the standard of navigation and bomb aiming. Flying Officer Gabites3 flew as leading navigator with No. 464 Australian Squadron; Flying Officer Field4 undertook similar duties with No. 226 Mitchell Squadron. Flying Officer Forsyth,5 an air gunner who served with No. 180 Squadron and No. 98 Squadron, had flown consistently since the end of 1940 when he was one of the pioneers of night intruder operations over enemy airfields. Forsyth lost his life during an attack on a flying-bomb target early in May 1944. It was his ninety-seventh mission.
The squadron's first mission after leaving Bomber Command was flown on 12 June when twelve Venturas attacked Caen aerodrome. Flying Officer Brewer,4 who had earlier won commendation while flying with No. 107 Boston Squadron, failed to return. His aircraft was hit by flak, the port engine caught fire, and the Ventura was last seen going down in what appeared to be a controlled dive; but hopes that Brewer had managed to land safely were not fulfilled and both he and two other New Zealanders in his crew were killed. On the same raid another Ventura was badly shot up and landed at Tangmere with its navigator fatally wounded. Indeed, few aircraft returned unscathed and ground crews were kept busy during the next few days repairing the damage. No. 487's last sorties with Venturas were made on 24 June when twelve crews attacked the airfield at Mauperthuis, south-east of Paris. The formation was led by Park, and although there was broken cloud the aircraft made an excellent run and bombing was reported as good.
No. 487's role was now to be changed to night intruding and during the remainder of July the squadron was occupied with intensive night-flying training and a move from Methwold to Sculthorpe, a satellite of RAF Station, West Raynham. The first Mosquitos began to arrive in August, when crews were gradually converted and the new aircraft modified for night flying. This work, together with the servicing of the remaining Venturas, kept the ground crew at full stretch. However, squadron spirit was high and, despite the increased pressure of work, cancelling of leave and a shortage of staff, all appear to have worked with commendable enthusiasm. The last Ventura left on 21 September and the squadron finally became a Mosquito unit. By the end of the month it was considered operational and the difficult transition period was over; night training still went on but, with the return to operations, aircrews and ground staff felt they were really in action again.
3 Flight Lieutenant G. A. Park; born Dunedin, 18 May 1922; clerk; joined RNZAF Apr 1941.
The next mission, six days later, when twelve New Zealand Mosquitos flew with twelve more from No. 464 Australian Squadron to bomb an aero-engine factory near Metz, was most disappointing. It involved a flight of almost 800 miles over a long and complicated route, rendered more difficult on this occasion by poor visibility.
The Australians took off first and the New Zealanders followed closely, each squadron flying in two formations of six aircraft. As the Mosquitos flew out over the North Sea they had to alter course to avoid a British convoy which appeared unexpectedly on their track, and then near the Dutch coast the two squadrons completely lost contact in thick sea mist. Shortly afterwards Wing Commander Wilson, who was leading the first six aircraft of No. 487 Squadron, became separated from his formation. The rest of his crews flew on towards their next turning point but found they were hopelessly lost and so turned back to base. Wilson got through to the target but, just after bombing, his Mosquito was hit by flak and the navigator fatally wounded, with the result that he had a difficult return flight and was forced to land at an advanced base in Kent. The second New Zealand formation fared even worse. Over Holland an explosion suddenly occurred beneath the leading aircraft. It climbed with both propellers stopped, levelled out for a few seconds, and then crashed in flames. Just south of Antwerp a second Mosquito was seen to circle with an engine out of action and then drop its bombs. They immediately exploded and blew the aircraft to pieces. It is surmised that both pilots confused the ‘Press to Speak’ radio-telephone button with the ‘bomb release’ button alongside it. In any event these misfortunes so disorganised the formation that the remaining aircraft returned to base individually.
1 Group Captain P. C. Pickard, DSO and two bars; DFC; Military Cross (Czech.); born Handsworth, Yorkshire, 16 May 1915; joined RAF 1937; commanded No. 51 Sqdn, 1941–42; RAF Stations, Lissett and Sculthorpe, 1943; killed on air operations, 18 Feb 1944
There were no further operations during October, but a series of flying accidents occurred on the 23rd when a Mosquito from each of the three squadrons based at Sculthorpe crashed on return from training flights. However, these mishaps served but to increase the confidence of the aircrews in the sturdiness of their wooden aircraft for, although the machines were seriously damaged, there were no outbreaks of fire, the cockpits remained intact and crews escaped injury.
Weather in November gave little opportunity for large-scale operations and activity was confined to several low-level attacks in the last week involving formations of four or two aircraft only. However, this month saw another important change in organisation. On 15 November the Allied Expeditionary Air Force was formed under the command of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory and the No. 2 Group squadrons incorporated in the new formation had to be made completely mobile so that they could fly to any airfield and be serviced by the resident ground crew. Therefore, with the exception of a few key personnel, No. 487 Squadron lost its entire ground staff. This change, although essential for the future activities of the squadron, was far from popular.
For No. 487 Squadron this second year of its career had proved a rather trying period. There had been the severe losses on the Amsterdam raid, the subsequent transfer to Second Tactical Air Force, many weeks of re-equipment, bringing with it the unpleasant necessity for posting the wireless operators and air gunners, and finally the loss of most of the ground staff. Operations with Mosquitos had been rather spasmodic and often handicapped by bad weather, while casualties, although not severe, had been frequent. Nevertheless, squadron morale remained remarkably high and the following months were to see a happier and more successful period of operations.
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During the closing months of 1943 New Zealanders with the Boston and Mitchell squadrons had continued to fly on ‘Circus’ and ‘Ramrod’ operations; Boston crews also took part in low-level attacks. Their targets included airframe factories, airfields, power- stations, railway marshalling yards, shipping and docks in northern France and Holland. On most missions the main opposition came from anti-aircraft batteries, German airmen seldom accepting the invitation to engage the strong British fighter force. Typically, one day in October ten New Zealand airmen flew with No. 226 Mitchell Squadron to bomb the Grand Quevilly power-station at Rouen. The bombers were escorted by about 120 Spitfires but in spite of this challenge the enemy made no attempt at interception. This was by no means an isolated example of growing Allied air superiority over northern France.
1 The Todt Organisation, formed before the war, had been responsible for building the famous autobahnen in Germany and also the Siegfried Line. It now controlled a huge labour force to meet the constructional requirements of the German armed forces. In France it was concerned with the building of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ defences and V-weapon sites.
Gibson, who flew in the leading formation, was just turning away from the target after dropping his bombs when his aircraft was hit. He was badly wounded in the face and his left collar-bone was fractured. The Boston went into a dive and Gibson gave his crew the order ‘Prepare to bale out’, but after the bomber had fallen some 4000 feet he managed to regain control. Gibson was suffering considerable pain from his wounds and soon became weak from loss of blood, but he was able to keep his machine airborne until the English coast was reached and then, although handicapped by his useless arm, he lowered the undercarriage and flaps and made a good landing.
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A new development in daylight bombing operations came towards the end of 1943, when the Boston, Mitchell, and Mosquito crews were called upon to join in attacks against the depots and sites in northern France from which the Germans were preparing to launch flying bombs and rockets against England. Leigh-Mallory's squadrons of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force had been given the task of disrupting the German preparations because at this time the Allied heavy bombers were almost fully committed to the assault on German industry.
German scientists and technicians had begun the development of flying bombs and rockets just before the war and an experimental station had been set up at Peenemunde, on the Baltic coast. At first progress was slow but in 1943, on Hitler's orders, work was considerably accelerated. Royal Air Force raids on Germany were then beginning to hurt and Hitler wanted reprisals, but the bomber arm of the Luftwaffe was weak and he felt that the pilotless weapons offered the best chance of hitting back. Indeed, many of the German leaders hoped that the new reprisal weapons, the Vergeltungswaffen, would turn the tide of war in their favour.
In Britain it was already realised that if the Germans were allowed to proceed with their preparations unmolested the assault by flying bombs and rockets – known as the V-1 and V-2 – could begin early in 1944. Counter measures therefore received high priority, but they were prepared in an atmosphere of secrecy which kept the mass of the British people in ignorance of the danger that was imminent.
The heavy raid by RAF Bomber Command on Peenemunde in August 1943 had upset the German timetable, but by December production of flying bombs and construction of the actual firing sites for these weapons had reached an advanced stage. Royal Air page 160 Force photographic reconnaissance had already revealed the presence of over sixty launching areas and, by the third week of January 1944, no fewer than ninety-seven such targets had been identified, mainly in the Pas-de-Calais area, where they were directed against London; buildings for the storage and assembly of the flying bombs were also discovered. Most of the launching areas were built in or on the edges of forests, but the newly constructed roads and railways which fed them defeated this initial attempt at concealment, although later the Germans became much more skilful at camouflaging their installations. However, from the outset they presented small targets since each site usually occupied an area of less than fifty yards square. The aircrews soon nicknamed them ‘ski-sites’ because when seen from the air they looked like a large ski lying on its side.
Aircraft of Leigh-Mallory's AEAF opened their attack on 5 December 1943 and during the next six months dropped over 31,000 tons of bombs with considerable effect. A large majority of the identified ‘ski-sites’ were destroyed and most of the others rendered at least temporarily unfit for use, so that the opening of the German assault was further delayed for several vital months. Neither bad weather nor strong defences gave the Germans much protection against the persistent Allied attack. Using the latest radar aids for navigation and bomb-aiming, British and American aircraft were able to strike at their extremely difficult targets with remarkable accuracy.
In the RAF attacks, which accounted for half the bomb tonnage dropped, it was found that the more strongly defended sites were best attacked by Mosquitos, which could sweep low across the target unmolested by the heavy guns which could not be set to open fire on them. Other sites which might be reached without flying over areas where anti-aircraft fire was concentrated were also attacked by the Mosquitos from low level. The Mitchells and Bostons were usually sent to targets where defences were considered moderate and bombing heights were varied according to whether heavy or light flak was expected. Much of the success of these missions depended on the selection of the most suitable bombing force and careful routing and timing of the bombers. Wing Commander Magill, now a member of the Operations Staff at No. 2 Group Headquarters, was the officer largely responsible for arranging these difficult operations.
New Zealand airmen took part in practically every mission flown by the Mitchells and Bostons during the last days of 1943 and the first months of the new year. Their squadrons continued to fly in formations of six aircraft, which bombed on a ‘follow the leader’ principle. This system had its merits for the most experienced navigators flew in the leading machines, but there were occasions page 161 when the leader failed to reach the target and the bombing went astray owing to lack of guidance. Crews found that the main opposition usually came from the ground defences, the enemy fighters being deterred from interfering by the strength of the Spitfire escort. There were exceptions however. On 21 January, when twelve Mitchells from No. 226 Squadron together with an equal number from No. 320 Dutch Squadron went to attack a flying-bomb site near Calais, they met enemy fighters in strength. Flight Sergeant Moon's1 aircraft was attacked by a Focke-Wulf 190 and hit in one of the engine nacelles and in both turrets. His wireless operator and air gunner were wounded, but Moon flew his damaged machine back to England to make a safe landing at an airfield in Kent. Eight New Zealanders flew with No. 226 Squadron this day, Flying Officer A. Willis being leading navigator in the second formation.
During the winter months crews flying missions against the flying-bomb sites had to contend with many difficulties. On some days the bombers were not always able to make rendezvous with their fighter escort, or else they flew across the Channel only to find the target area hidden by cloud. Early in February the flying-bomb site at Livossart in the Pas-de-Calais was visited on three successive days by Mitchells of Nos. 98 and 180 Squadrons, New Zealanders taking part in each operation. In the first two attacks navigators had difficulty in locating the site at all as cloud prevented them from finding pinpoints on which to check their course, while on the third occasion aircraft reached the target area only to find dense cloud which made bombing impossible
Crews from the New Zealand Mosquito Squadron completed many missions without notable incident, but early in January when fifteen aircraft flew to bomb a site in the Dieppe area they met sharp anti-aircraft fire. During the approach to the target the Mosquito flown by Pilot Officer Fowler2 was badly hit, the tail and hydraulic system damaged, and the bomb doors blown open. Fowler kept formation and completed his attack. On reaching base he was unable to lower the undercarriage but, after all efforts to unlock the wheels had failed, he made a successful belly landing. Later in the month Flying Officer Beazer3 had to fly back to Hunsdon on one engine after the other had been put out of action by flak. On another occasion Flying Officer Avery,4 who flew with the Australian Squadron, had a difficult flight after his Mosquito had been hit in the tail and the elevators badly damaged. He was forced to use the trimming tabs as the only means of fore-and-aft control. The Mosquito was too unstable for Avery to attempt a landing and he and his navigator baled out over the south coast, sustaining only minor injuries. Pilot Officer Barriball5 was not so fortunate. After attacking a flying-bomb site at Herboville he had reached the coast when his machine was caught by a burst of light flak. Barriball made a landing on the sea but his Mosquito was seen to break up immediately.
Several crews had narrow escapes during their low-level attacks. During one March raid Squadron Leader Kain6 swerved to avoid another Mosquito and hit the top of a tree. A second pilot flew into some telegraph wires, setting an engine on fire, but he was able to make a safe crash-landing on return. Warrant Officer Ward7 was flying over the site at Hambures when his machine was damaged by blast from exploding bombs and he just managed to get back to an airfield in Kent.
No. 487 Squadron now began the gradual change to its new role of night intruding, which had been the intention since its conversion to Mosquitos. Night training had been continued between operations during the winter and crews were well prepared for their new task. In February thirty-three night sorties were made by the New Zealand Mosquitos against airfields in France and Holland, but in March the main effort was again directed to the attack of flying-bomb sites by day.
During the following months much of the effort of the two Mosquito wings now with No. 2 Group continued to be directed against flying-bomb sites. Usually formations of from two or four aircraft flew with similar numbers from other squadrons of their wing, but on occasion the wings combined for heavier attacks. Bombing at speed from heights between 100 feet and 1000 feet, crews were seldom able to see the results of their attacks, but it is now considered that the Mosquito effort was the most economical of any employed against these targets, one site being sufficiently damaged to warrant suspension from attack for every sixty-two sorties flown.
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A notable and unusual mission, the attack on Amiens prison – in which No. 487 Squadron played a prominent part – must now be recorded.
During January 1944 information was received in London that well over one hundred loyal Frenchmen were in the jail at Amiens awaiting death for their efforts in the Allied cause; some had been condemned for assisting Allied airmen to escape after they had been brought down in France. The leaders of the French Resistance Movement asked if bombers could break down the prison walls – even at the risk of killing some of the patriots – as this offered their only reasonable prospect of escape. The RAF accepted this exacting task and Mosquitos from Embry's No. 2 Group were chosen as the aircraft most likely to achieve success. The choice proved well justified and, as a result of careful planning, accurate navigation and fine precision bombing, this mission to Amiens was to rank among the most memorable daylight raids of the war.
The prison was built in the shape of a cross and surrounded by a wall twenty feet high and some three feet thick. Inside this wall the yard was fenced to segregate the prisoners while they were at page 165 exercise and they were guarded by German troops living in a special wing of the prison. To enable the prisoners to escape, both ends of the main building had to be blown open and the outer walls of the prison breached in two places. But the attack would have to be sufficiently discriminating to ensure that, while decisive force was used against these parts of the prison, casualties among the prisoners were kept to a minimum. The timing of the bombing was also important for the escaping men were to receive assistance from patriots outside who would be warned of the exact hour and minute of the attack.
Mosquitos from No. 140 Wing, which included No. 21 RAF, No. 464 Australian, and No. 487 New Zealand Squadrons, were selected to make the attack, with Typhoons from Fighter Command as escort. The New Zealanders were to lead the raid and breach the eastern and northern walls, while the Australians were given the tasks of opening out the ends of the main building and of destroying the German guards' quarters. Mosquitos from No. 21 Squadron were to act as reserve in case there should be any hitch in the plan when they would be called into action by Group Captain Pickard, who was in command of the whole force. Pickard, one of the most outstanding and experienced bomber pilots then with the RAF, was Station Commander at Hunsdon, the base from which the operation was to be launched. The date was provisionally fixed for 17 February, and the bombers were to arrive over the prison precisely at noon, but in the event of severe weather the raid was to be postponed for twenty-four hours. The French had been informed of this possibility and the organisation within the prison made their plans accordingly.
Thick cloud and snowstorms ruled out any attempt on the first day. The following morning the nineteen crews specially chosen for this mission were astir early to find the airfield still covered with snow and low cloud, but as predictions were more hopeful it was decided to proceed with the operation. Ground crews made a final check over the Mosquitos as the aircrews assembled for briefing. They found stringent security precautions in force and each man's name was checked as he entered the briefing room. The atmosphere of expectancy and curiosity was further increased by a large box on the front table covering a model of the target. ‘It's another of those “derring-do” shows,’ one navigator is said to have remarked drily.
Soon briefing began. First to speak was the force commander, Group Captain Pickard, who explained the purpose and unusual nature of the mission. The crews listened intently and with growing interest. ‘We heard the details of this mission with considerable emotion,’ writes Wing Commander Smith. ‘After four years of war just doing everything possible to destroy life, here we were going page 166 to use our skill to save it. It was a grand feeling and every pilot left the briefing room prepared to fly into the walls rather than fail to breach them. There was nothing particularly unusual in it as an operational sortie but because of this life-saving aspect it was to be one of the great moments in our lives.’ The briefing was lengthy for the crews had to make a careful study of their route and the model of the prison which had been constructed from photographs and other information obtained from France, but by mid-morning all preparations had been completed and the Mosquitos were lined up ready for take-off according to strict schedule.
It was still snowing and visibility was poor when the nineteen bombers set off, and watchers on the airfield caught only a fleeting glimpse of each machine before it disappeared into swirling mist and snowflakes. Smith led the way with the No. 487 formation, in which other New Zealand captains were Pilot Officers D. R. Fowler, Sparks1 and Darrall,2 who had Pilot Officer Stevenson3 as navigator. With No. 21 Squadron, Flying Officer Gabites flew as leading navigator, and one of the Australian Mosquitos was navigated by Flight Lieutenant Sampson.4 As the bombers and their escort of Typhoons flew low across the Channel towards the French coast the snow and mist began to give way to bright sunshine. The fields and villages of France were still covered in a blanket of snow, but the navigators made no mistake and the force swept round to the north of Amiens to approach the prison along the straight Amiens-Albert road. This dramatic moment in the raid is described by one New Zealand captain in these words:
I shall never forget that road – long and straight, and covered with snow. It was lined with tall poplars, and we were flying so low that I had to keep my aircraft tilted at an angle to avoid hitting the tops of the trees with my wing …. The poplars suddenly petered out, and there, a mile ahead, was the prison. It looked just like the model, and within a few seconds we were almost on top of it ….
German anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity had now opened fire and Focke-Wulf fighters had taken off from the airfield at Amiens only three miles away. The British force thus had to fight its way out through fairly stiff opposition. Almost at once the Australian Mosquito in which Sampson was navigator was shot down. A shell exploding beside the cockpit killed Sampson outright and his pilot, Squadron Leader McRitchie,1 of Melbourne, was temporarily blinded and his right arm paralysed. The Mosquito was doing 300 miles an hour at 50 feet but McRitchie managed a crash-landing on a snow-covered field.2 A few minutes later Group Captain Pickard, who had stayed behind to assess the results of the attack, was set upon by two Focke-Wulfs and shot down only a few miles from Amiens. Both he and his navigator were killed in the crash. Two Typhoons of the fighter escort also failed to return.
All seven New Zealand Mosquitos got back to England safely, but four of them were badly damaged, two so severely that they never flew again. Sparks and his crew had an eventful return flight. Shortly after leaving the target their machine was hit in one engine and Sparks had great difficulty in keeping it airborne. He managed to get back across the Channel and land at an advanced base, where one wheel collapsed as the machine touched down.
2 The Germans subsequently held McRitchie for 42 days in solitary confinement, threatening Gestapo treatment unless he revealed how the RAF and French underground had planned the raid. But they learnt nothing.
It was subsequently learnt that as a result of the Mosquito attack, of a total of over seven hundred prisoners of all classes held in the prison, 258 escaped, including over half the patriots who were awaiting execution. The most important prisoner to escape was Monsieur Vivant, Under-Prefect of Abbeville, who had been arrested by the Germans four days before the attack. He was a key member of the Resistance Movement in his district and was later to serve in General de Gaulle's Government.
It was inevitable that some prisoners should be killed during the raid, some by the bombs and others by German machine-gun fire while attempting to escape. There was also some damage to property outside the prison from bombs which bounced over the walls, but fortunately French civilians suffered few casualties. Five days after the raid the following message was received in London from the leader of the French Resistance:
I thank you in the name of my comrades for bombardment of the prison. The delay was too short and we were not able to save all but thanks to admirable precision of attack the first bombs blew in nearly all the doors and many prisoners escaped with the help of civilian population. Twelve of these prisoners were to have been shot the next day ….
So ended one of the many gallant episodes in which the RAF helped and encouraged patriot organisations on the Continent. It was indeed a worthy gesture, for the men and women who worked in those organisations – French, Dutch, Belgian, Polish, and Norwegian alike – displayed great courage. Many frequently risked their lives to help Allied airmen shot down over enemy territory, and those who were betrayed or captured suffered cruelly at the hands of the Gestapo. The whole of their work forms an epic story in itself. Much of it will never be told. But at least let their amazing courage and quiet heroism be remembered.