467 Postblog LVI: Tuesday 11 April, 1944

The Gestapo Headquarters in Den Haag, the Netherlands, was a white five-storey building near the Peace Palace. A former art gallery, the building now housed the Dutch Central Population Registry, holding copies of all the legally-issued identity papers of Dutch civilians, which allowed papers falsified by the Resistance to be recognised. As such, the Dutch requested that the RAF smash the building from the air. On this fine April morning, in an operation described later as “probably the most brilliant feat of low-level precision bombing of the war,” six Mosquitos of 613 Squadron attacked and completely destroyed it. The leader of the highly successful raid, Wing Commander R.N. Bateson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order as a result, and later added to it the Dutch Flying Cross, presented by Prins Bernhard of the Netherlands.[1]

Meanwhile, an operation was laid on for the night for the two Australian squadrons at RAF Waddington. The target was Aachen, in particular its marshalling yards, and as the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book said, “this time it is a full trip.” While it is inside the seven degrees of latitude line which was used as the trigger point on French, Belgian or Dutch raids, Aachen is also – just – inside Germany. Consequently this operation would count for a full trip for the purposes of counting a tour of operations rather than the ‘third’ of a trip earned for the previous couple of raids that were on French targets. Fifteen 463 Squadron crews were briefed for this trip, which would see a total of 350 Lancasters and Mosquitos fly to Aachen. Eighteen were on the battle order from 467 Squadron but one crew missed out when their skipper – Pilot Officer John McManus – fell sick before take-off.[2]

An hour or so before departure, in fine conditions and with the beginnings of a sunset filling the sky, the crew truck deposited the airmen at their dispersals. As ground staff made last-minute adjustments and plugged in the trolley accumulators, the crews gathered around their aircraft, waiting for the time to climb aboard, fire up the Merlins and taxi out for take-off. It is this scene – showing B for Baker and her crew and based loosely on the conditions as they were for the Aachen raid – which was painted in 2010 by aviation artist Steve Leadenham:

lancaster_7-little1 copy

Also preparing for operational sorties on this night were the usual bunch of Mosquitos to carry out intruder operations, Serrate patrols and attacks on Hanover, Osnabrück and Duisburg. They would also hit airfields throughout France, Holland, Belgium and western Germany. Some training aircraft would scatter leaflets in France and 26 aircraft were to fly special Resistance support operations. Finally, a small force of Halifaxes and Stirlings were planned to drop mines off Brest and in the Kattegat.[3]

The first aircraft took off from Waddington at 20.15. There was one early return with Pilot Eric Scott’s aircraft (LL795 of 463 Squadron) suffering an engine failure approaching the Dutch coast. They jettisoned eight of their fourteen 1,000lb bombs and turned back, landing at Waddington at 23.14. This was one of eight aircraft to return early out of the 350 dispatched to Aachen.

The rest of the force converged on the rendezvous point, off the Dutch coast about 40 miles west of Rotterdam. They formed into a highly concentrated[4] stream that headed directly to Aachen. A few fighters were encountered patrolling the islands in the South Holland delta but they made no serious attacks and, except for one bomber which wandered south of track and fell to the guns of Antwerp, none were lost until the target was reached. Half the nightfighters had apparently been drawn north by the small force of bombers dropping mines in the Kattegat. Most of the remainder were sent to Bonn, some 35 miles beyond Aachen, trying to cover a possible deeper penetration by the bombers. Four Mosquitos, as part of the overall deception, also dropped spoof fighter flares at Almelo in the east of the Netherlands, some 115 miles north of Aachen, perhaps intending to make the Osnabrück or Hanover deceptions look more convincing to the defenders.

The biggest problem encountered by the bombers was that the forecast winds were significantly different to the actual winds encountered in flight. The result was that most of the bomber stream needed to lose significant time en route – Squadron Leader Phil Smith noting the figure of 14 minutes – meaning that almost all crews had to orbit, fly doglegs or otherwise waste time. Phil suggested the use of a ‘floating’ zero hour in future as a way to avoid this, an idea shared by Pilot Officer Anthony Tottenham, who put it rather more bluntly:

No future in continuous orbiting.

The target was blanketed in broken cloud when the bombers arrived overhead, but it was only thin and would not cause any problems. There was some accurate predicted flak in the early stages of the attack but it soon died down into only a loose barrage, and only a single bomber was lost to the ground defences of Aachen. There were a small number of combats with fighters over the target but with no conclusive result for either side.[5]

Though the Night Raid Report says that the bombing was “well-timed”, there are a number of reports in the Operational Record Books which suggest that the Pathfinder Mosquitos that were supposed to precede the Main Force into the target area were in fact a couple of minutes late. Apparently some airmen got sick of waiting for them, perhaps frustrated by the need to orbit in the target area, because numerous crews reported seeing incendiaries dropping before the first target indicators went down, drawing complaints from other pilots. “Cannot something be done to stop this prevalent practice,” complained Flight Lieutenant Freddy Merrill. Whatever the case, once the markers did go down they were highly accurately placed and “could be plainly recognised”[6] through the thin cloud. The Main Force then proceeded to drop their bomb loads almost entirely unharassed by the defences. The bombing was so concentrated that crews reporting seeing sticks of bursting bombs straddling the target indicators, and some fires were beginning to get a hold in the city as the bombers left. “A wizard prang if PFF spot on”, thought Flight Lieutenant Walter Marshall. About the only trouble encountered was that four 467 Squadron aircraft had bombs hang up over the target, including B for Baker. The crew attempted to jettison the offending munition over the North Sea on the way home, but it was frozen in place and they had to land back at base with the bomb still hanging in its rack.

After bombing the force continued east over Aachen for another few miles before turning to the north and, eventually, back towards home. It was on the homeward journey that the nightfighters finally began to have a little success, claiming five bombers on this leg. The first was shot down near Roermond, then another fell south of Eindhoven, a third near the Luftwaffe nightfighter base at Gilze-Rijen, the next at Overflakke in the South Holland delta and a final victim over the North Sea. One crew reported seeing air-to-air rockets on the homeward journey but it is unknown if any bombers were shot down this way.[7] Some nightfighter intruders did follow the bombers back to their bases and several returning aircraft came under attack from them but it does not appear that any were shot down.

The first aircraft to land back at Waddington did so at 00.22. B for Baker was home thirteen minutes later after a little less than four and a half hours in the air. DV372 with Flight Lieutenant Jim Marshall at the controls landed at 01.05. Their radio was unserviceable on return so, unable to call the control tower, they needed to wait until everyone else was down before commencing their approach.[8] With their arrival, all 32 Waddington crews were safely back on the ground.

Nine aircraft failed to return from this operation. Seven had fallen to known causes but the losses of the remaining two remain a mystery. Seven aircraft returned damaged by flak, fighters or ‘friendly’ incendiaries. The effect of the bombing on Aachen was significant. The bombers left the city in flames that were visible from some distance away on the return flight, and the Night Raid Report records that the attack was “well centred on the station and marshalling yards” and the centre and south of the town was hit hard. It lists serious damage to the passenger train station, loco and goods sheds and the marshalling yards themselves. Even the bridge spanning the middle of the yards was hit by three bombs. Textile factories and residential property, particularly in the southern suburb of Burtschied, suffered “severely”.[9]

It was for the city of Aachen the worst raid of the war.

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] Bowman 2003, p.190

[2] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 11APR44

[3] Night Raid Report No. 577 and RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, April 1944

[4] As reported by Flying Officer Arnold Easton in his logbook, and by Pilot Officer Arthur Bowman in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 11APR44

[5] Weather and defence details from Night Raid Report No. 577

[6] Pilot Officer David Gibbs in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[7] Nightfighter kills from Night Raid Report No. 577, rockets reported by Pilot Officer Noel McDonald in the 467 Squadron ORB

[8] Easton, Arnold, flying log book, 11APR44

[9] Catalogue of damage from RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, April 1944

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