467 Postblog LXXVIb: Saturday 6 May, 1944

Take-off for the Waddington crews detailed to attack Sable-sur-Sarthe in France was after midnight. They proceeded normally to the datum point, finding the green target indicators burning there as briefed. The target markers had been at work, dropping their spot fires and backing them up accurately in what appears to have been a timely fashion. There was no delay in Phil Smith passing on the order to bomb and the Main Force could come straight in. “It was a clear night,” Phil wrote later, “and everything went to plan.”[1]

Crews were initially told to aim 50 yards from a red spot fire but after about ten minutes the bombing had blown out or obscured the markers and Phil instructed the remaining crews to just bomb the concentration of fires. “Considered it would have been impracticable to re-mark”, Phil reported afterwards[2], perhaps keeping in mind the disastrous consequences of the delay at Mailly-le-Camp three nights ago.

Dropping bombs onto an ammunition dump is highly likely to produce some impressive detonations. And that is exactly what happened at Sable-sur-Sarthe. “Many explosions in target area, increasing in number and violence as attack progressed,” said Pilot Officer John McManus. “Red, green, blue, yellow flashes. Definitely the way these attacks should be be carried out.” It was, said Pilot Officer Tom Scholefield, “a perfect 4th of July exhibition below.”[3] The raid did not go absolutely perfectly of course – Scholefield also mentioned seeing a few bombs overshooting to the south-south-west, Flying Officer Bob Harris needed to ‘go round again’ after spotting another aircraft below on his first bombing run and Pilot Officer Sam Johns found his bomb bay doors wouldn’t open on the first attempt[4] – but overall the display was extremely satisfying. And after dropping his bombs Wing Commander Tait, with the photographers in tow, circled around the target at low level letting the cameras capture the sight in glorious black-and-white. This still from the resulting footage[5] was obtained by Phil’s uncle Jack Smeed, who was working at the time for a London film studio:

Attack on Sable-sur-Sarthe, 06MAY44

Attack on Sable-sur-Sarthe, 06MAY44

A number of crews reported being able to feel the explosions over the target at their bombing height and the footage, which is soundless but spectacular, shows clearly how bumpy flying conditions were. And the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book claims that it was taken after the biggest of the explosions had died down.

Explosions were still occurring as the bombers left the target for the almost uneventful trip home. Defences were almost ludicrously light with a few fighters seen but no attacks reported and only a few light guns at the target which, Pilot Officer Bill Felstead reckoned, were “immediately put out of action at [the] beginning of [the] attack.[6]” Flying Officer Bruce Buckham was coned by searchlights crossing the coast on the way back but the accompanying flak that they were expecting never came up.

The ammunition dump had been hit hard by a very accurate bombing raid: [7]

A concentration of damage occurred within the target area, while the surrounding country escaped almost unscathed.

And best of all, every aircraft returned safely from Sable-sur-Sarthe. Much of the circumstances of tonight’s operation were broadly similar to those three nights ago at Mailly-le-Camp – the bright, clear, moonlit night, the general tactics used and the damage caused to the target – but at Mailly of course the casualties were very much greater. So what was different?

While the weather and tactics were similar for both raids – moonlight, a datum point to hold the Main Force while the aiming point was marked, a Master Bomber to make the decisions and a Controller to pass orders to the Main Force – at Sable-sur-Sarthe the force used was very much smaller than at Mailly and the single aiming point avoided complicating the scheduled timeline of attack. This simplified things significantly and provided less opportunity for things to go wrong. Perhaps haunted by memories of the disaster of Mailly-le-Camp, crews after tonight’s operation were clearly happy that there was no delay over the datum point. “Effect on enthusiasm of crew, when one can go straight in and bomb, very noticeable,” thought Pilot Officer Arthur Bowman.[8] Tonight, once the target was marked, in a very accurate and timely manner, the Main Force was called in without needing to orbit over enemy territory. The single wave of attackers did not need to wait for a previous force to vacate the target, which is what compounded the delay originally caused by the faulty communications at Mailly.

Sable-sur-Sarthe showed that getting straight in and straight out minimised the chances of nightfighters getting stuck into the bombers. Mailly showed what could happen when crews were forced into extended orbiting over enemy territory. The next major raid undertaken over France by the crews of 463 and 467 Squadrons would prove, once again, how fatal delays could be.

 

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] Smith, Phil, Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.23

[2] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[3] McManus and Scholefield quoted in 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[4] All from 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[5] AWM: F02607, Ammunition dump at Sables-sur-Sarthe (Ops 153). Note the original caption on the footage mis-spells the name of the target with an extra ‘s’ in “Sables”

[6] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[7] Night Raid Report No. 598“

[8] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

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