467 Postblog LXIX: Saturday 29 April, 1944

The last of 27 aircraft returned to Waddington from last night’s abortive raid on the explosives works at St-Medard-en-Jalles at 07.18 this morning.[1] But when the crews awoke from their post-operation slumber they found that ops had been laid on again for tonight, and they were going back to the same target in the south of France. Seventeen out of the nineteen crews sent were on the battle order for the second night in succession. The total offering from Waddington would have been 21, except that it was belatedly discovered that Flight Sergeant Tom Scholefield – who was Dan Conway’s second dickey last night – had not completed any training cross countries or practice flights with his crew since they arrived at the squadron yesterday. They were sent on a Bullseye instead. The 467 Squadron Operational Record Book also notes that one other captain – Pilot Officer Tony Tottenham – did not go either, though no details are recorded about why.

In any case a total of 68 Lancasters and five Mosquitos, again all from 5 Group, were detailed for the new attack on St Medard-en-Jalles. Elsewhere, 59 aircraft, also from 5 Group, bombed a Michelin tyre factory at Clermont Ferrand (about 180 miles east of Bordeaux) and small groups of Mosquitos attacked Oberhausen and the marshalling yards at Acheres (near Paris). Mines were laid in the Frisians and off French ports by 38 Stirlings and Halifaxes, nine Wellingtons from Operational Training Units dropped leaflets over Northern France, 25 aircraft carried out sorties in support of Resistance operations and six Mosquitos went on Serrate patrols. A final Mosquito made a weather recce flight.[2]

The Waddington aircraft began taking off for St-Medard-en-Jalles from 22:30. All nineteen were away by 22:55, but there was one early return when Flight Sergeant Sam Johns had the starboard outer engine fail on LM338 exactly an hour after he took off. He left the stream, jettisoned his full load of bombs over the sea and flew home, landing at 02:04.[3]

The rest of the bombers, though, enjoyed an entirely uneventful trip to the target with minimal opposition. This time the leading aircraft found that, while there was still some slight haze present, in the main the weather conditions were ideal for bombing with no cloud in the area. Almost 200 miles to the east, crews could see a large column of flame marking the attack which was by that stage underway on the Michelin works at Clermont-Ferrand.

Back at St-Medard-en-Jalles, the heavies circled for only a short time the yellow flare that marked the datum point before receiving, at around 02:15, the order to go in and bomb. “From then on”, recorded Pilot Officer Ernie Mustard, “there was one explosion after another.”

It was, said the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, “a very spectacular scene”. Three red spot fires marked the target. A green target indicator was dropped shortly after 02:27, and then the crews were ordered to attack between one red spot fire and the green TI.

Just after this message was sent Pilot Officer John McManus was flying LL789 on its bombing run. His wireless operator passed him the message at a critical time and upset the run so, in the interests of bombing accuracy, McManus turned away and came around again. By this stage the attack was well underway with explosion after explosion lighting up the area, lighting fires and creating huge plumes of smoke. The confusion was enough to spoil McManus’ second bombing run as the spot fires were “unrecogniseable”, so he decided to take his bombs home. The bombing, meanwhile, had blown out the spot fires that had been dropped by the target markers[4] so that by 02:36 the raid Controller was telling crews to aim at the centre of a large fire in the target area[5], but by this time McManus was already on his way back. (Despite not attacking the target, McManus and crew would still be credited with a completed sortie for this trip).

In amongst the bombers, of course, was LM475, B for Baker, and her crew. Squadron Leader Phil Smith reported that there were so many rapid-fire explosions during their run-up to bomb that he couldn’t count them. They dropped their bombs and were waiting for the camera to turn over when, at 02:29, the world seemed to blow up:

“…some other Lanc put his 12,000lbs of goods down right on some big Ammo factory – Boy I thought our time was up.”

– Flight Sergeant Dale Johnston, wireless operator, in a letter to his father, 01MAY44[6]

“…our machine was almost blown out of the sky. Flames must have been almost 500ft high.”

-Flight Sergeant Gilbert Pate, rear gunner, in a letter to his sister Joyce, 01MAY44[7]

“We thought we had bee [sic] hit […] Heard the ‘crumph’ above the noise of the engines. The light of the explosion lit up the country for miles around.”

-Squadron Leader Phil Smith, logbook entry, 29APR44

The fact that we have accounts or descriptions of this incident from three different members of the crew of B for Baker suggests that it was one of the more memorable occurrences of their tour. Being a French target accuracy was the key, and to facilitate this the bombers went in at quite low level – most between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. In Phil Smith’s opinion, the explosion they encountered at 5,000 feet was so great that aircraft one thousand feet lower would probably have been destroyed by it. “A safety height of well over 4,000 feet should have been fixed for the raid”, he reported later. In fact, the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book says that “it became necessary to order the force to raise its bombing height,” though this does not appear to be reflected in a comparison of the actual recorded bombing heights and times in the 463 and 467 Squadron Operational Record Books.

About the only thing not present over the target was much sign of enemy resistance. Their close escape after the previous night’s raid was aborted had evidently not encouraged the Germans to improve defences deployed around the factory and virtually nothing, save some “very fierce”[8] light flak south of the aiming point, was encountered. Only one aircraft on the entire raid was attacked by a fighter.[9]

All aircraft returned safely from tonight’s operations. The target was, according to the Night Raid Report, heavily damaged, “especially around the boiler house and the group of buildings, half of which were damaged and m[any] destroyed.”

On the front page of The Sheffield Telegraph, 1 May 1944 edition, was a short article headlined “30-Minute-Long Explosions”.

Crews saw smoke rise to 5,000 feet in a series of colossal explosions which were still going on half an hour after the bombs went down during Saturday night’s attack by R.A.F. Lancasters on the French Poudrerie Nationale explosives works at St-Medard-en-Jalles, nine miles from Bordeaux.

 

A copy of this article is highlighted with pen, presumably by Flight Sergeant Gilbert Pate, who had pilfered it from the Mess and sent it to his family. With them it remains, clearly stamped “R.A.F. SGTS’ MESS WADDINGTON.”[10]

 

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] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 28APR44

[2] Other ops detailed in Night Raid Report No. 591 and RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, April 1944

[3] Details from 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 29APR44

[4] As reported by Flight Lieutenant Eric Smith in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[5] Reported in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book by Squadron leader Merv Powell

[6] Dale’s father Charles transcribed parts of this letter and sent a copy to Don Smith in a letter on 16 July 1944. From the collection of Mollie Smith.

[7] From the collection of Gil and Peggy Thew

[8] Reported in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book by Flying Officer Dudley Ward

[9] Night Raid Report No. 591

[10] From the collection of Gil and Peggy Thew

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