467 Postblog LXVIII: Friday 28 April, 1944

Operations again tonight, as 28 Waddington crews were detailed for a raid on a munitions factory at St Medard-en-Jalles, near Bordeaux in the south of France. This would be an all-5 Group affair with a total of 88 bombers and four Mosquitos sent to attack the third out of four French State explosives works.[1] One crew was cancelled before take-off (for reasons not explained in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book) but two others took second dickie pilots – Flight Sergeants Thomas Scholefield with Dan Conway and John Waugh with John McManus – and an unknown airman flew with Wing Commander Willie Tait as an extra “mid-under” gunner. For Scholefield in particular it was a quick introduction to squadron life, having arrived at Waddington on posting earlier the same day.

The crew of B for Baker all flew in their normal aircraft, LM475. Rear gunner Flight Sergeant Gilbert Pate scribbled a quick note to his mother while waiting for the crew truck to pick them up and take them to their dispersal, enclosing as he frequently did a newspaper clipping. This one covered the Schweinfurt raid of two days ago. That trip had been, he said, “a long stooge and one that I never felt happy on.”

Bombers began rolling down the runway around 22.30 in the evening. As well as the crew that was scrubbed before take-off, one aircraft returned early. Flight Sergeant Colin Dixon was setting course for the first leg, south-east towards Harwich, when the starboard inner engine on his Lancaster began overheating and caught fire. The flames died upon feathering the engine, but carrying on was not a safe option. They flew out half way over the North Sea to jettison their full load of bombs and returned to Waddington just after 01.30.[2]

The remainder of the force turned sharply south-west upon reaching the English coast and flew over the sea, overflying Brittany before they turned left and more or less followed the French coast southbound. Near the coast thirty miles west of Bordeaux itself was the datum point, which was marked by yellow flares. Aircraft began assembling there from about 02.30, circling round it to await the order to go in and bomb.

About twenty minutes ahead of the Main Force were the wind finders and target markers. They found no cloud over the target but the ground was shrouded in thick haze which made identification of the exact aiming point extremely difficult. Some of the illuminating flares reportedly set fire to nearby woods[3] and the resulting smoke only made matters worse. The Master Bomber, having dropped his red spot fire, called for more flares to assess its accuracy, but eventually decided that the haze was too thick to be able to guarantee the high degree of accuracy required for an attack on a French target and decided to abort the operation, ordering the crews home.

The problem now became one of communication. There was much back-chat from the pilots orbiting the datum point[4] and some signals were confused. Phil Smith himself heard a transmission saying “flares on red spot fires,” which he misinterpreted as an order to move in for the bombing run, but before they got there they heard another signal to stand by and orbited in the target area instead of at the datum point. The misinterpreted signal was probably the Master Bomber’s order to the flare force to illuminate the spot fire he had dropped.

Not many of the crew reports in the 463 and 467 Squadrons Operational Record Books include such detail, but of those that do the first order to cease bombing came around 02.50. Just after 3am the first crew reported receiving an order to return to base. It appears that many aircrew did not receive the first message and the orders were repeated regularly for the next half an hour or so, with most aircraft leaving the datum point having circled it for upwards of 45 minutes. Even then, one crew still reported bombing the target as late as 03.20. A green flash which was seen by Gilbert Pate from the rear turret of B for Baker was interpreted by Pilot Officer Tony Tottenham in R5868 (S for Sugar) as a verey cartridge, which he saw at 03.08 and understood as an order to bomb. Tottenham was one of 26 pilots in total who reported bombing the target but the remainder held off and went home, flying north over land.

The only other pilot from Waddington to definitely bomb was Flight Sergeant Sam Johns, who was attacked by a fighter on his bombing run and again on leaving the target. Apart from this one attack there was very little enemy activity enroute or at the target, with only desultory flak and very few searchlights encountered.

A basic aeronautical fact is that, all else being equal, the heavier an aeroplane is the more engine power is required to keep it airborne and therefore, the more fuel is required for a given flight. In planning the fuel loads for bombers engaged on an operation, of course, it would have been anticipated that each aircraft would lose some 12,500lb of weight when they dropped their bombs on the target, so less fuel would be required on the homeward journey. As they turned for home tonight however it now became clear on many aircraft that, having retained their bombs, the fuel remaining would be insufficient for the task given the unexpected extra weight still on board. Consequently out of the 26 Waddington aircraft that made it to the target, nine jettisoned some or in many cases all of their bombs on the way home. Flight Lieutenant Jim Marshall and Pilot Officers John McManus and Tom Davis made the decision early, flying just off the coast and jettisoning there, but others made it the length of France before becoming aware of their fuel situation and dropped their loads after crossing the coast again near Normandy. Pilot Officer Bill Felstead made it back to England but evidently discovered he had pushed it a little too far to make Waddington and instead decided to land at an OTU aerodrome at Wing, near Aylesbury, some 90 miles short.[5] There were no casualties from this operation.

There’s an interesting footnote to this raid hidden in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book. Pilot Officer Murray Pratten made it to the target, dropped his bombs and came back safely. Yet next to his name is recorded the words “sortie NOT completed,’ implying that he and his crew were not credited with a sortie towards their tours from this trip. His report gives a fairly detailed account of signals and the times that they were received and appears to justify his decision to attack – and certainly the other two Waddington crews that bombed were credited with completed sorties – so it’s curious that this crew was not. A possible explanation is that the justification given for going into bomb was hearing a message in the clear on the W/T at 03.09:

From No. 1 drop your load.

This same message was also reported by Wing Commander Kingsford-Smith, though he said it came “between 02.38 and 02.42hrs” and was “ignored.” Perhaps its being in plain text and not encrypted raised Kingsford-Smith’s suspicions that the message might not have originated from a legitimate source, and not crediting Pratten with a completed sortie was a punishment for being taken in by it. One suspects this would not have been a popular decision with either Pratten or his crew.

A number of other Bomber Command units were operating elsewhere on this night. 51 Lancasters and four Mosquitos bombed an aircraft factory in Oslo, an effective attack in clear weather. 26 Mosquitos made a harassing raid on Hamburg and 40 Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lysanders carried out Resistance support operations. A couple of Mosquito intruders and a weather recce aircraft were also flying over the Continent. There were no casualties.

Meanwhile, the explosives factory at St Medard-en-Jalles survived for tonight. Tomorrow, it would not be so lucky.

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] Lawrence 1951, p.188

[2] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 28APR44

[3] RAF Bomber Command Diary, April 1944 and Lawrence 1951, p.188

[4] Reported by Wing Commander Kingsford-Smith, 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[5] My copy of the Operational Record Book is unreadable at this point – thanks to Graham Wallace for picking up the error and decyphering it for me.

2 thoughts on “467 Postblog LXVIII: Friday 28 April, 1944

  1. ADAM, my copy of the ORB must be better than yours, P/O BILL FELSTEAD landed at RAF WING, nr AYLESBURY, BUCKS at 06.23hrs, WING was home to 26 OTU flying WELLINGTONS.
    I do enjoy your Blog and read every one.
    Regards GRAHAM.

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