467 Postblog LXIVa: Monday 24 April, 1944

Our latest big effort was on Munich so we put paid to Hitler’s beer cellars. – Dale Johnston in a latter to his father, 1 May 1944[1]

It was going to be a long night.

The fuel tanks on the bombers scattered at their dispersals around RAF Waddington had been filled ‘to the gunwales,’ a maximum figure of 2,154 gallons.[2] At nearby Skellingthorpe, the aircrew of 50 Squadron had the disquieting revelation at briefing that even with full tanks they might be cutting it fine to get back home:[3]

On arriving at the briefing room and being shown the map of England and Europe, we asked why the cotton track-marking thread finished in the middle of nowhere, or should I say, near the Ruhr Valley on the ‘wrong side’. We were then given to understand that if and when we arrived at that point there would be nowhere else to go except straight through, because by then fuel would be getting low…

At Waddington, the crews were making a similar discovery. Like their comrades at Skellingthorpe, they were off to Munich, deep in the south of Germany. But, in one of the more extravagant examples of route planning during the war, the bomber stream would fly south over France, cross into Italy almost to Milan before turning north over the Swiss Alps and setting course via parts of Austria for their target.  In a sign that this attack would be aimed directly at the city itself rather than its industries, bomb loads were almost entirely made up of incendiaries. Only two crews carried high-explosive bombs from Waddington. Squadron Leader Bill Brill captained one of them.

The other was Phil Smith’s crew. They took their normal aeroplane, LM475 B for Baker. Phil had a second dickie pilot along for the trip as well. Pilot Officer Tom Davis was on his third observation trip as a new captain, having in the past week flown with Bill Mackay to La Chapelle and Brunswick.[4]

The Munich raid would be carried out by a significant force of heavy bombers. In all 244 Lancasters and 16 Mosquitos were sent, mostly from No. 5 Group. But this would not be the biggest operation of the night. 637 aircraft were sent to Karlsruhe, just over the French border near Strasbourg. The raid would be spoilt by unexpected cloud over the target and strong winds which affected the accuracy of the Pathfinders. Various parts of the Main Force even got lost and bombed Mannheim (30 miles to the north) and a small number of other German cities instead.[5] Nineteen bombers failed to return. Elsewhere, a small number of Stirlings attacked a railway target at Chambly in France, Mosquitos bombed Dusseldorf and there was also the usual mining sorties (off French ports and the Frisians), Serrate and intruder patrols, leaflet drops and special operations. 165 OTU aircraft made a diversionary sweep over the North Sea, getting within 75 miles of the coast (two were lost). And finally, in direct support of the Munich operation, six 617 Squadron Lancasters dropped target indicators and flares only – no bombs – as a diversion on Milan.[6]

Take-off was from around 20.45 in the evening. With Double British Summer Time in force, sunset was not until around 11pm local time so for once, the ‘send-off party’ of WAAFs and ground staff who gathered at the end of the runway each time the Squadrons took off for an operation were clearly visible.[7]

Original caption reads: "The take-off for Munich on 24 April 1944. Sunset at Waddington as one of the heavily loaded Lancasters taxies round to the take-off point; waved on their way by the usual crowd of well-wishers." Courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre
Original caption reads: “The take-off for Munich on 24 April 1944. Sunset at Waddington as one of the heavily loaded Lancasters taxies round to the take-off point; waved on their way by the usual crowd of well-wishers.”
Courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

The bombers crossed the French coast near Cabourg and headed south. Near Orleans they turned more towards the south-east and aimed for a point which would see them skirting just south of the Swiss border.

Before they got there, though, Pilot Officer Col James of 463 Squadron encountered carburettor icing in all four engines north-west of Lyon. They were unable clear the fault and, struggling to maintain height and with the very high terrain of the Alps looming further down the route, it was pointless going on. With heavy hearts they turned for home, having already flown almost as far east, and a good deal further south, than they did when they went to Aachen almost two weeks ago.  They landed at Waddington having been airborne for a tick over six hours. The Aachen trip took them four and netted them a full operation onto their individual tallies – but frustratingly, this early return would get them nothing.[8]

Meanwhile, of course, the majority of the force flew on. Near Lake Annecy they turned east and were treated to spectacular views of the Alps to starboard and the spoof flares and target indicators going down on Milan to port. (To assist with the deception, the crews carrying out the Milan part of the operation were reportedly told to use their radios to issue instructions and talk on the VHF as if a major attack was commencing.[9]) Pathfinders dropped red route markers at turning points over the Alps and they “made a terrific sight cascading down the sides of snow covered mountains.”[10] 165 miles east of the Annecy turning point lay a further route marker to indicate the rendezvous point. To ensure saturation of the defences it was essential that the bomber stream remained compact when it arrived at the target. Crews were therefore ordered not to leave this point until a specified time.[11] At that time, the bombers turned north-east and flew almost directly towards Munich. They crossed Switzerland and Austria and then, fifty miles ahead, was the target.


Next: Over Munich, and the long flight home


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


[1] Quoted in a letter by Dale’s father Charles Johnston to Don Smith, Phil’s father, 16JUL44. Part of Mollie Smith’s collection.

[2] Both Phil Smith and Arnold Easton note this figure in their respective flying logbooks

[3] AUS414986 F/L Ernest ‘Bill’ Berry, a 50 Sqn pilot, quoted in Blundell, HM 1975, p.19

[4] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[5] Bomber Command Campaign Diary, April 1944

[6] Night Raid Report No. 586 and Bomber Command Campaign Diary, April 1944

[7] Berry, Bill, in Blundell, HM 1975, p.19

[8] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 24APR44

[9] Lawrence, WJ 1951 p.175

[10] Berry, Bill, in Blundell, HM 1975, p.20

[11] Lawrence 1951, p.175

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