467 Postblog LXXIIIb: Wednesday 3 May, 1944

Squadron Leader Tom Bennett was a navigator in one of the 617 Squadron Mosquitos marking for the second wave of the attack on a Wehrmacht tank depot at Mailly-le-Camp in France. At the appointed time they had just begun their dive to the target, but aircraft of the first wave – which should by this stage have attacked and cleared the area – were still bombing:[1]

“…a stick of bombs exploded on the target. Gerry [Fawkes, Bennett’s pilot] wheeled out of the dive and climbed to regain the altitude we had lost and to reposition the plane for the dive. Further bombs fell while we were doing this. We commenced our second dive and yet again sticks of bombs fell. In 617 Squadron discipline was strict and we had grown accustomed to the rules. Timings were strictly observed. I took a very dim view of the lack of discipline that the main force was showing. I didn’t appreciate the chaotic conditions that were developing above us.

As we sought to re-position, Gerry buttoned the VHF, ‘PLEASE STOP BOMBING. We are trying to mark for the second wave.’

For the first and only time we heard another voice across the ether. ‘Well get a move on mate,’ came a calm but firm Australian voice, ‘it’s getting a bit hot up here.’”

For the nightfighters had also found the datum point and the bombers circling around it. Lancasters everywhere began to go down in flames. Flying Officer Bruce Buckham had to “take immediate diving action after bombing to avoid disintegrated parts of another aircraft falling on us.”[2] Denys Goodliffe, a 101 Squadron Flight Engineer, told Burkett & Gilbert[3] that aircraft were “being shot down at an alarming rate […] the light of the moon was enough for me to read their identification letters.” Goodliffe counted thirteen Lancasters shot down before his crew decided to turn away from the designated datum point and hold off away from the massacre. They were not the only ones to do so. Jack Spark, the 576 Squadron wireless operator, quoted his pilot: “To hell with this, it’s like moths caught in a candle.” They circled thirty miles away.[4]

Confusingly there are also reports of pilots at the datum point calling the Controller, which presumably would have been via R/T, perhaps out of range of the interferance. Pilot Officer Tom Davis of 467 Squadron said the “Controller had considerable trouble with captains calling him asking for permission to bomb, and offering helpful advice.” Davis was being polite. “Come on you markers, pull your bloody finger out!” is one such transmission, quoted in Laurie Woods’ book Flying into the Mouth of Hell.[5] The rest, Woods says, were too rude to be printed. But clearly the situation was becoming difficult:

Suddenly a voice obviously a pilot requested:

‘For Christ sake shut up and give my gunners a chance!’. The chatter still carried on when suddenly we heard an English voice:

‘For Christ sake! I’m on fire!’ answered immediately by an unmistakable Aussie voice, ‘If you’re going to die, then die like a man, quietly!’

The Deputy Controller eventually took over control of the attack at about 00.28 and the order for all 1 Group aircraft to attack was finally sent at 00.34, by which time all the Waddington aircraft had bombed and were on their way home.[6] And despite the chaos at the datum point, when crews did bomb they were extraordinarily effective. The Night Raid Report[7] says dispassionately that “the weight of the attack fell on the large and compact group of M.T. [Motorised Transport] and barracks buildings. None of the 47 M.T. buildings escaped damage and 34 were destroyed.” More directly, WJ Lawrence quotes the Commander of the 21st Panzer Division, the German unit based at Mailly-le-Camp at the time of the raid: [8]

In that part of the camp which was destroyed, the concentration of bombs was so great that not only did the splinter proof trenches receive direct hits, but even the bombs which missed choked them and caused the side to cave in…

A measure of the accuracy of the raid is established by the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book reporting that eleven out of eleven returning crews achieved aiming point photographs. “Great devastation revealed,” it goes on, “which must have killed some thousands of Germans trained on top pitch for the meeting of our invasion forces.”

But the cost to the bombers was horrific. No fewer than 42 aircraft failed to return from Mailly-le-Camp, a casualty rate of well over 11%. At least 25 aircraft went down in combat with nightfighters, “rather more than half of these over the target” said the Night Raid Report, though a number also fell on the way home. Nine fell to flak. Eight more had unknown fates and two, not counted in the 42, got home but were so badly damaged by fighter attacks that they never flew again. 460 Squadron suffered most severely, losing five out of the 17 Lancasters it sent[9]. The two Waddington squadrons also lost one each. Flying Officer Graham Fryer was the pilot of LM458.[10] The aircraft was shot down in the target area and crashed at Poivres (Aube), just a few miles north-east of the Mailly-le-Camp township with the loss of all on board. Pilot Officer Col Dickson was flying JA901 – Jack Colpus’ old aircraft – and was shot down, probably by a fighter, on the homeward journey. Five of the crew were killed but there were two survivors, Flight Sergeants Stan Jolly (the bomb aimer) and Bob Hunter (the wireless operator), who both managed to evade capture, though Jolly reported not making contact with anyone else in the crew and it appears made his own way home. Hunter received extensive burns when he bailed out from around five or six thousand feet and was looked after by the Resistance until liberated by the Americans in late August 1944. [11]

JA901 - Naughty Nan - at Waddington in happier times. Photo from the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre
JA901 – Naughty Nan – at Waddington in happier times. Photo from the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

What went so badly wrong at Mailly-le-Camp? The proximate cause is quite clear: the failure of both the R/T and the W/T systems resulted in a delay over hostile territory. It was the delay itself which allowed the defending nightfighters to get into position, and the clear moonlit conditions which enabled them to make the most of the chance presented to them, which accounted for most of the casualties. The delay was a consequence of the high degree of accuracy required for pre-invasion raids on France, itself stemming from the desire to avoid French civilian casualties wherever possible (and of course in the interests of military efficiency the more accurate an attack the better). In the never-ending quest for greater accuracy came increasingly complicated tactics and plans. When everything worked as planned the results could be spectacular. But when one little thing failed at a critical moment, the plan could and frequently did fall apart and the target was missed or casualties were unacceptably high or both. At Mailly-le-Camp the original W/T failure was compounded by the unfortunate coincidence of the American broadcast on the R/T frequency and the inability, due to other operations taking place nearby on the night, to pre-arrange an alternative frequency to use if required.[12] “Lingering around a target for accurate visual marking,” wrote Max Hastings in 1979,[13] “could be fatal.”

Whatever the reason, it was becoming clear that, on nights like this when something went wrong casualties could very easily meet and even exceed those suffered on a German target. The defences could still extract a high price.

The policy of only awarding one-third of an operational trip for raids on French targets once again came under fire after this operation. “Consider one third of a trip most unjust,” thought Pilot Officer John McManus. “If this is still a third of a trip I’m verging on LMF,” said Pilot Officer ‘Blondie’ Coulson somewhat more forcefully. They didn’t know it yet, but the aircrews’ complaints were being heard at the highest levels within Bomber Command. But it would take one more disaster of an operation before anything changed.

Coming back from [Mailly-le-Camp], we didn’t need a navigator, because the fighters were all along the route out, and they were picking us off like anything. Not only our squadron, but all the others. There were forty four odd bombers shot down. You just had to follow the burning planes on the ground, to take you out over the coast, and back to England. That was a horrific show.

-Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron pilot[14]


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] Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.17

[2] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[3] Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.23

[4] Burkett & Gilbert p.59

[5] Woods, Laurie 2003, p.91. Based on reports from Woods’ friends Flying Officers Vic Neal and Bill Gourlay of 460 Squadron, who were on the Mailly raid

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

[7] No. 595

[8] Lawrence, WJ 1951, p.187

[9] RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary, May 1944

[10] The ORB gives this as LM458 but Storr shows LM439. Robertson shows LM458 lost on Mailly and LM439 as a 576 Sqn aircraft lost later in May 1944 so the ORB is most likely correct.

[11] Details on fates of both aircraft from Storr, 2006

[12] NAA: A11234, 34/AIR

[13] Hastings, Max 1979, p.341

[14] Sanders, Noel 2003. Australians at War Film Archive #0526

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