467 Postblog LXXIIIa: Wednesday 3 May, 1944

Sometime in March 1944, a Frenchman named Raymond Basset[1] used false documents supplied by British Intelligence to sneak into the German tank depot at Mailly-le-Camp, some 80 miles east of Paris, to undertake reconnaissance on the ground. A French Army facility dating back to the turn of the century, Mailly-le-Camp had been taken over by the Wehrmacht following the French surrender in 1940, and at the time of Bisset’s infiltration was hosting elements of the 21st Panzer division. After his mission Bisset drew, from memory, maps of the camp and these were eventually passed on to London along with details of what he had found there. His information was enough, imply Molly Burkett and Geoff Gilbert in their 2004 book Not Just Another Milk Run, for Mailly-le-Camp to be placed on the list of targets to be attacked by Bomber Command in the build-up to the invasion of the continent. One of the main tank training centres in use by the Wehrmacht in France, some 15-20,000 troops were believed to be stationed there.[2]

And so it came to pass, as it were, that on this fine morning on 3 May 1944, aircrews of Nos 1 and 5 Groups Bomber Command found themselves summoned to their briefing rooms. “I think we were all relieved when the covers were taken off the maps and we saw that our target was in France”, said Jack Spark, an appropriately-named wireless operator at Elsham Wolds.[3] “The target and route was explained to us at the briefing together with the details of the bomb load we were carrying and the weather conditions we could expect en route. We were told that it would be a piece of cake and we believed it.”

What would eventuate over France, however, was far from a ‘piece of cake’.

At Waddington, meanwhile, Flight Lieutenant Bill Hodge, the compiler of the 463 Squadron ORB, wrote that the airmen “went into the attack with zeal, knowing they were going to kill a few thousand German soldiers, with their Staff Officers, billeted at the Camp.” The squadron sent twelve crews on the operation, with their sister squadron, 467, contributing ten. Take-off was just before 10pm.[4]

Elsewhere, 84 Lancasters and eight Mosquitos were raiding a Luftwaffe airfield near Montdidier in northern France, fourteen Mosquitos attacked an ammunition dump at Châteaudun, south-west of Paris, and 27 Mosquitos hit Ludwigshafen, forty miles inside the German frontier. Subsidiary operations included minelaying off France and the Frisians, radio counter-measure sorties, Serrate and intruder patrols, special operations and leaflet drops.[5] But the night’s biggest raid by far was carried out by the 346 Lancasters and 16 Mosquitos that were sent to Mailly-le-Camp.

The bombers assembled at Reading and set course for occupied Europe via Beachy Head. Ominously, they were flying in bright moonlight. “I could map read accurately by its light,” said Squadron Leader Tom Bennett of 617 Squadron later.[6] “I could never recall doing such a thing before, except perhaps when I had crossed the Alps en route for Italy in mid October 1942.” The bombers flew on. Crossing the French coast at Dieppe, they flew south-east for almost 150 miles before turning south towards Mailly-le-Camp. About 85 miles from the target, passing Compiegne, the first nightfighters appeared. At this stage though, the momentum was with the attackers and three or four fighters were shot down without inflicting any losses on the bombers. This happy state of affairs did not last long.

At Mailly-le-Camp, two aiming points had been designated.The south-easternmost of the two was to be attacked by the first wave, made up of 5 Group aircraft (which included, of course, all of the 22 aircraft from Waddington). The second aiming point was to be attacked about ten minutes later by aircraft from 1 Group. Mosquitos equipped with OBOE were to open each wave of the attack, marking the aiming points with green target indicators, before red spot fires were dropped visually onto the aiming points themselves by the light of illuminating flares.[7] While the marking was underway, inbound bombers were to orbit a route marker dropped at Germinon, some fifteen miles north of the target. It was visible from a long distance away and as the marking at the target progressed, more and more Lancasters could be seen circling the datum point.

If we could see them from that distance, so could the Germans.

– Squadron Leader Tom Bennett, 617 Squadron marker crew[8]

The first target marker fell some 800 metres north of the aiming point[9] one minute before midnight. The second, dropped by Australian Dambuster pilot Flight Lieutenant Dave Shannon, was more accurate and the order to attack was sent to the main force by R/T.[10]

A short aside here to explain the method of controlling bomber raids. Under the 5 Group tactics in use at the time of the Mailly-le-Camp raid, the Master Bomber, who typically was also the leader of the attack flying in a Mosquito, kept in contact with the rest of the marking force via a VHF radio which transmitted his voice. But there were not enough VHF radio sets with which to equip the entire Main Force of bombers,[11] so an intermediary was required. This role was carried out by the man known as the Controller, flying a Lancaster which had a VHF radio specially fitted, who would relay instructions from the Master Bomber to the rest of the force by radio telephone (R/T, which transmitted the pilot’s voice via high-frequency or HF waves) and wireless telegraphy (W/T, sent in encrypted Morse code by the Controller’s wireless operator, also over HF). Both HF systems would be less than effective at Mailly-le-Camp.

The first few main force aircraft to bomb came away evidently quite impressed by the organisation, accuracy and effectiveness of the bombing raid. Squadron Leader Phil Smith in B for Baker thought his might have even been the first aircraft to attack, aiming at 00.06 at a “good concentration of spot fires in buildings themselves. Bombs fell across same buildings.” Half a minute later, Pilot Officer Bill Felstead saw “bombs […] bursting among buildings. A very good attack indeed.” But then the careful plan began to unravel.

Three Waddington aircraft bombed before 00.08 and at least one of those reported that the “order to attack [was] received clearly over W/T”.[12] But after that not one crew reported being able to receive anything on that system. It would later be discovered that the Controller’s W/T set was incorrectly tuned, so while the signals were being sent they were 30 kilocycles off the correct frequency and so were not being received.

Normally, the separate R/T system would cover a failure of the W/T. But at Mailly-le-Camp, R/T control failed as well. Out of the eleven 463 and 467 Squadron crews who commented about communications in their post-operational report, four never heard anything over the R/T, and three of those that did reported jamming or an American broadcast on the frequency. Yet at least one crew (that of Pilot Officer Ernie Mustard) called the R/T control “good”, and a signal sent from 5 Group Headquarters the day after the raid[13] suggested that “in spite of the jamming […] a proportion of the 1 Group and 5 Group force did, in fact, receive their instructions satisfactorily.” But many, it appears, did not.

The result of the confusion was that, after the first few crews had attacked, the raid stalled. Many crews remained circling at the datum point, though there is evidence that some more experienced crews who had not heard the order to bomb on either control channel saw the raid evidently well in progress and went in to bomb anyway.[14] And now the second wave – made up of 1 Group aircraft – was about to arrive.

 

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] Basset’s story is related in Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.7

[2] Lawrence 1951, p.187

[3] Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.58

[4] 463 and 467 Squadrons Operational Record Books, 03MAY44

[5] Other operations detailed in Bomber Command Campaign Diary, May 1944, and Night Raid Report No. 595

[6] Quoted in Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.16

[7] Plan of attack from Night Raid Report No. 595

[8] Bennett is quoted in Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.16

[9] Burkett & Gilbert, p.11

[10] Reported by Pilot Officer Noel sanders in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[11] Lack of VHF sets implied in NAA: A11234, 34/AIR Enclosure 9A

[12] This was Pilot Officer Bill Felstead, in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[13] NAA: A11234, 34/AIR Enclosure 9A

[14] At least three 463/467 Squadron crews reported in their respective Operational Record Books bombing despite not hearing an order to do so

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