467 Postblog XXXVI: Thursday 9 March, 1944

It was on.

Eleven crews from each Waddington squadron discovered at briefing that tonight they would use the special tactics that they had been learning over the last few days. The target was an aircraft factory at Marignane, near Marseilles – a long stooge south into France. Half of the 44 aircraft detailed for this raid came from Waddington. 9 Squadron at Bardney and 50 Squadron at Skellingthorpe made up the rest.[1]

For Phil Smith and his crew, this would be their first operational flight in B for Baker. Squadron Leader Bill Brill, flying LL790, led the two squadrons away at 20.19 hours. The bombers flew across France at fairly low level (10,000 feet), in good visibility and bright moonlight. They even went far enough to see the Swiss Alps from the air. “It has always been my ambition to see Switzerland though I should like to get a closer look”, Phil commented wryly when describing the incident in a letter written to his sister a few days later.[2]

It was a thoroughly uneventful trip. “It turned out a bore”, wrote Dan Conway.[3] “Everything was quiet, which possibly stretched our nerves more than usual.” The operation did not entirely go to plan however. A Gee coding failure made the use of that navigation aid difficult, and a number of pilots (including Phil Smith) later complained[4] that the incendiaries marking the rendezvous point – from which the timed bombing runs were planned to begin – were badly placed, leading to a delay in locating the target (one crew, who arrived at the rendezvous point with everyone else, would fail to find the target at all and ended up bringing their bombs home[5]).

But in the end it didn’t matter much. There was a little flak around but not much. Revelling in the complete lack of nightfighters, the bombers circled around the target area while waiting for the red spot fire target marker to be dropped.

And then they blew the factory out of existence. Most aircraft bombed between 8,000 and 10,000 feet, though Wing Commander Arthur Doubleday and Squadron Leader Bill Brill were right down at 6,000 feet when they dropped their cargo. While some incendiaries appeared a little scattered, many crews reported seeing their high explosives bursting on the target buildings and one (Flight Sergeant Eric Page in HK595) even claimed to have felt the blast of his own bombs. A large explosion, “orange-red in colour and lasting 2-3 secs”[6] was seen at 01.30, in the middle of the attack, followed by a thick pall of smoke reaching up to six or seven thousand feet. “Should be a complete wipe-out,” reported a very satisfied Pilot Officer Clive Quartermaine later.

There was a little excitement over the target for the crew of B for Baker. On the run-up to the target, Phil Smith heard an urgent call from Eric Hill in the mid-upper turret:

Weave, Skipper, weave – there’s a bloke right above us with his bomb doors open and I can see the eggs hanging there!

With all the aircraft milling around in the target area, however, evasive action was impossible. The crew nervously watched and waited, but eventually the other aircraft drifted off to one side and they carried on to drop their bombs “none the worse, apart from being frightened.”[7]

The bombers left the target well pranged with a mass of fires burning, and much smoke and dust rising. The Night Raid Report[8] lists a catalogue of damage:

All the buildings of the factory had been damaged, especially the assembly shops, the heat treatment shops, M/T. park, stores, and flight and repair hangars. The adjacent airfield also suffered heavily, many hangars and administration buildings being affected by fire and blast. Hits were scored on roads bounding the site and on the internal network of roads

It had been an extraordinarily accurate raid, with eight out of ten successful 467 Squadron crews scoring aiming point photographs. The only two to miss out were the leaders, Balmer and Doubleday, who both suffered photographic failure.[9] Despite circling the target for over half an hour, out of the total force of 44 Lancasters just three received minor flak damage and nightfighters were entirely absent.

Marignane, well and truly under attack. Photo: The Waddington Collection, RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

Marignane, well and truly under attack. Photo: The Waddington Collection, RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

Flight Lieutenant Dan Conway’s crew encountered a little trouble on the homeward leg when their port outer engine apparently overheated and needed to be feathered.[10] As forecast, fog formed at Waddington overnight rendering the airfield unusable so the entire force was diverted to Cornwall. 463 Squadron were sent to Predannack, a nightfighter base in the south, where Wing Commander Rollo Kingsford-Smith complained they landed “in poor visibility without any flying control assistance of any kind.”[11] 467 Squadron went to St Eval, a Coastal Command base on the western coast. With the sudden influx of crews accommodation was at a premium. After nine hours and fifty minutes in the air Phil Smith in B for Baker was the last to land (at 06.30), so they would have had to make do with whatever they could scrounge.

Elsewhere, eight Mosquitos bombed Dusseldorf and two made Serrate patrols over the Continent. No aircraft were lost from the night’s operations.[12]

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:


[1] This was a 53 Base only operation, notes the ORB. The other two stations under 53 Base, apart from Waddington, were Bardney and Skellingthorpe, each hosting one squadron (9 and 50).

[2] Smith, Phil, Letter to sister Wenda, 11MAR44

[3] Conway, Dan (1995), The Trenches in the Sky, p.128

[4] Reports are in both the 463 and 467 Squadrons ORBs, 09MAR44

[5] This was P/O H.W. Coulson in DV240 and the 467 Squadron ORB records that, despite almost getting there, he and his crew would not be awarded credit for this operation.

[6] F/O M.F. Smith in LL788, in 467 Squadron ORB, 09MAR44

[7] Smith, Phil, Phil’s Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.21

[8] No. 547

[9] 467 Squadron ORB, 10MAR44

[10] Conway, 1995 p.128

[11] 463 Squadron ORB, 09MAR44

[12] Night Raid Report No. 547

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