467 Postblog LXIVb: Monday 24 April, 1944

The Munich raid of 24 April 1944 was an attack delivered almost entirely by No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. It used, for the first time, a variation of the low-level marking system which had been so successful over French railway targets.[1] The first wave of the bomber stream overflew the target without bombing to provide support to the flare force which dropped hooded white flares to illuminate the target area. The Main Force then continued on a short distance and orbited, clear of the defences, north-west of the target, awaiting the order to come in again to bomb.

Unsurprisingly the requirement to cross Munich twice was not a popular one. Befitting its status as the spiritual home of the Nazi Party and as a major city in Germany, Munich was well-defended. Searchlights were extremely active and any aircraft unfortunate enough to be caught in them would find itself the target of a barrage of accurate, intense heavy-calibre flak. At least three aircraft are known to have gone down to flak over the target, two of them seen by Pilot Officer Dave Gibbs, who himself was coned but managed to escape.[2] Pilot Officer Jack Freeman was also amongst those coned over the target. It was, he said, a “very grim affair.”[3]  Flight Lieutenant Walter Marshall’s aircraft, LL846, was hit by flak and his bomb aimer – Pilot Officer John Kennedy – received a wound under an arm. Kennedy pressed on regardless and not entirely rewardless however, doing his job and telling no-one about his injury until after the aircraft landed. He would later be awarded a DFC for his actions on this operation. [4]

“The idea of flying through the target area while waiting for order to bomb is in my opinion totally unnecessary, particularly so on a target such as Munich,” seethed Pilot Officer Bill Felstead later. “Suggest orbit away from a defended area,” said Pilot Officer Arthur Bowman.[5]

But it seemed to work. The four target-marking Mosquitos led by Wing Commander Cheshire “arrived punctually at the moment when the first flares were dropped.” Conditions were clear and visibility was almost perfect. Cheshire swooped in at around 700 feet and reportedly dropped the first flares while coned in searchlights and lit by the flares falling from the Lancasters above. Under fire he managed to identify the aiming point and dropped his red spot fire markers accurately. The remaining Mosquitos followed to back up the original markers and the first wave of the Main Force, still circling to the north-west, could now be called back in.

The markers were accurate (save for one which dropped wide after the marking aircraft had to take last-minute avoiding action to prevent a collision with another aircraft at the point of bombing, and another off to the west of the aiming point which was thought to have been a German decoy) and the bombers hit the target hard. The bombing was, particularly for early crews, highly accurate:

Best concentration of [incendiaries] I have ever seen – Pilot Officer Roland Cowan

Attack was the best that I have ever seen by far – absolutely perfect – Flight Lieutenant Fred Smith

Wizard prang. – Flight Lieutenant Freddy Merrill

The accuracy of the attack is illustrated by the fact that 463 Squadron recorded five aiming point bombing photographs on this raid. One of the successful pilots was Flying Officer Bill Purdy, his second consecutive aiming point from only his second trip overall:

Bill Purdy provided this copy of his aiming point photo from Munich
Bill Purdy provided this copy of his aiming point photo from Munich

The exact middle of the photo is where the bombs theoretically would land and this apparently was directly over Hitler’s favourite beer parlour. I received a message from Group saying that whilst war is a dirty and bloody business it was considered bad form to go around destroying the opposition’s pubs.[6]

The fires brightly illuminated the target – one crew said it looked like a photograph – and features like individual streets and even church spires stood out clearly.[7] Phil Smith could easily see the river as B for Baker left the target. A wireless failure meant that they could not receive the order to “bomb the red spot fires” which was broadcast around 01.44. Instead they stooged around and simply attacked when they saw other aircraft bombing.[8]

The bombing was undershooting and became a little scattered as the attack went on, but it did not matter. The ground defences appeared to be almost overwhelmed by the ferocity and force of the attack and were putting up a much reduced effort by the time the bombers left. Many smaller fires joined into large conflagrations and an hour after the attack, a large area of the centre of Munich was burning so strongly that the reconnaissance aircraft encountered trouble from smoke at 19,000 feet.[9]

Now began the long flight home. The glow from Munich could still be seen as far as the French border. Fifty miles north of the nominal return track, crews could see fires burning at what looked like Karlsruhe.

Few fighters were reported by crews returning from Munich, and it appears that the four different streams heading across Europe earlier in the evening – the Munich force, the Karlsruhe force, the OTU diversion and various groups headed to France – successfully thwarted attempts by the German fighter controllers to guess the target. The Night Raid Report suggests that for much of the night the Germans anticipated that Nuremberg or Frankfurt would be attacked. At least one aircraft did fall to a fighter over Munich, however, and others would be lost at Ulm and Strasbourg[10] in the first two hundred miles of the homeward journey. At least one crew was attacked by a fighter after stumbling off track over Paris. The rear turret was unserviceable and neither gunner saw the enemy aircraft but Dave Gibbs’ evasive action was successful in losing the fighter.[11]

Dawn was approaching as the stream crossed the French coast on the way home and it made many crews nervous. Strong headwinds slowed the return journey and sapped already stretched fuel supplies so numerous aircraft diverted to aerodromes in southern England. Two 467 Squadron aircraft were among those that diverted: R5868 (S for Sugar) with Pilot Officer Tony Tottenham and crew landed at Market Harborough, fifty miles short of Waddington, and DV372 (F for Fred) with Flight Lieutenant Jim Marshall and crew, landed at Ford, just after safely crossing the English coast at Selsey Bill.

The Munich operation of 24 April, 1944, at ten hours and five minutes, is the longest flight to appear in Jack Purcell’s logbook. It was so long that several wireless operators (among them Sergeant Macdonald on Flight Lieutenant Jack Colpus’ crew[12]) tuned their radios to the BBC news while airborne over England on the way home, and heard that Munich had been bombed last night and ‘x’ aircraft had failed to return. And they hadn’t even landed yet.

Original caption reads: "Lancaster JO-Q 'Queenie' (ME580/G) of 463 Sqn just about to touch down on 24 Apr '44 following an attack on Munich (Flying time 9 hrs 35 mins)." Courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre
Original caption reads: “Lancaster JO-Q ‘Queenie’ (ME580/G) of 463 Sqn just about to touch down on 24 Apr ’44 following an attack on Munich (Flying time 9 hrs 35 mins).”
Courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

The roundabout routing – while long – achieved its goal and casualties were much lower than usual. Nine bombers failed to return from Munich: four by flak, three by fighters and two to unknown causes. Sadly, one of the missing aircraft was a 463 Squadron machine. Pilot Officer Eric Page and crew disappeared in LL848. This was most probably the aircraft seen to fall to a fighter over Munich. They crashed near the village of Sulzemoos, sixteen miles north-west of Munich. There were no survivors.

A few days later Gilbert Pate sent one of his many letters home to his parents in Kogarah, in Sydney’s southern suburbs. He included the front page from Wednesday’s Daily Mail newspaper, which he had pinched from the RAF Waddington Sergeant’s Mess.

“RAIDS PRODUCING MASS CHAOS,” blares the headline. “RAF Out Again Last Night in Force.”

There was an incessant roar over the coast last night as our heavy bombers set out again for the Continent. Radio Luxemburg closed down just after 10.50pm because of “approaching Allied planes.”

…By night the battle is more severe. Munich and Karlsruhe, deep inside Germany, were still burning yesterday after Bomber Command’s great attack during Monday night.

Operating in very great strength the R.A.F. showered more than 500,000 incendiaries and a great weight of high explosive on these two manufacturing and transport centres.

…The Munich raid lasted from 1.35am to 2am. It was described by the Germans as the city’s ‘worst ever’.

‘We must not be broken by the terror; we must answer it with a soldier-like courage’, said a radio spokesman.

“Munich was my target,” Gilbert scribbled on the front page. “Ten hours is a lifetime in the air.”

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] Description of tactics for this raid taken from Nigth Raid Report No. 586 and Lawrence 1951, p.175-7

[2] Night Raid Report No. 586

[3] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 24APR44

[4] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 09MAY44.

[5] 463 and 467 Squadron Operational Record Books, 24APR44

[6] Purdy, Bill, pers. comm. to the author, 21DEC13

[7] Various reports in 463 and 467 Squadrons Operational Record Books, 24APR44

[8] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 24APR44

[9] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 24APR44

[10] Night Raid Report No. 586

[11] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 24APR44

[12] Colpus, Jack 2003, interview at Australians at War Film Archive

Thanks to Chris Foote for picking up an error in the original version of this post, where I used the wrong month – corrected in January 2023

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