467 Postblog LXXV: Friday 5 May, 1944

Navigating a wartime bomber was hard work. Every ten minutes during an operation the navigator would be getting a fix, checking his track made good, calculating the wind and working out an ETA for the next ten-minute interval. “Working like stink” was how it was described by Flying Officer HB Mackinnon of 57 Squadron.[1] The navigator’s log would be scrutinised on return to base, so it was imperative that he worked fastidiously and had good attention to detail.

Jack Purcell, therefore, was a slightly surprising choice as a navigator. None of his navlogs have survived the seven decades since he was filling them out so we can’t check how good he was at his job while in the air (save the obvious fact that he managed to get his aircraft back to base on more than twenty occasions), but we do know that when not actually flying he was not exactly the most diligent of record keepers.

How do we know this?

On Friday, 5 May 1944, an operation appears in Jack’s logbook. Apparently he flew in B for Baker to a place named Louaille. 50 Lancasters were ‘on’ with four supporting Mosquitos, and there were no losses. The 900 miles were flown in five hours and five minutes.

The problem?

Bomber Command records reveal that the Main Force did not fly on this night. Neither do the 463 or 467 Squadron Operational Record Books show any operations. And Phil Smith’s logbook certainly has no flights on this day, despite Jack claiming that S/L Smith was his pilot on this occasion.

So why does Jack have a phantom operation in his logbook? Tomorrow we will see that the crew of B for Baker took part in a raid on a place called Sable-sur-Sarthe in France. The town called Louaille is in fact about five miles to the south-east. Jack, however, did not record any flying on May 6. It seems he simply got the date wrong.

Bomber Command operations that did occur tonight involved 28 Stirlings and Halifaxes going on a minelaying trip to various French ports, six Wellingtons scattering leaflets over France and 30 aircraft flying special operations.[2]

In any case, it was a windy though dry day at Waddington and, as we have seen, no operations were flown. Gilbert Pate pinched another newspaper from the Sergeants’ Mess to send home. This time it was the Sheffield Telegraph [3] and it included a vivid description of the Mailly-le-Camp raid:

 Lancasters and Halifaxes smashed at the very life-blood of Von Rundstedt’s fighting units – his tanks, guns, ammunition, and all the multifarious equipment vital to a highly mechanised army about to be engulfed in the grimmest battle of all time.

Bombing in the midst of one of their greatest night battles over occupied territory, the heavy bombers “blasted to smithereens” a great concentration of German tanks and lorries assembled at the military depot at Mailly, south-east of Rheims.

As bombers and fighters fought across the sky, about 1,500 tons of high explosives and incendiaries turned the depot – it stood high on the list of priority targets – into an inferno.

The Germans reacted violently to the attack and threw in great numbers of night fighters which were aided by bright moonlight and a sky lit with fighter flares and target indicators during their pitched battle with the bombers.

But all the time the attack went on with unfaltering precision. The marking was deliberate and exact. A pall of smoke crept over the whole area of the depot and violent explosions were seen through the smoke, with huge flames bursting up.

“This was tough,” was Gilbert’s handwritten comment at the top of the page.


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] Middlebrook, Martin 1973, p.121

[2] Night Raid Report No. 597

[3] Article entitled Bombers Switch for 1,500-Ton Raid On Anti-Invasion Army: HARRIS SENDS HEAVIES TO HIT PANZERS from the front page of The Sheffield Telegraph, 05MAY44. Part of the collection of Gil and Peggy Thew.

4 thoughts on “467 Postblog LXXV: Friday 5 May, 1944

  1. Jacky Purcell was my grandfathers (William Findlay) uncle. William was only a few years younger than jacky and looked up to him. William enlisted in the RAAF, but only served in Australia and discharged after the war. Thank you so much for sharing this information. Kind regards.

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