467 Postblog LXXXb: Wednesday 10 May, 1944

On the night of 10 May, 1944, more than eighty heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command were attacking railway yards at Lille in France. A new offset target marking technique had failed to work as planned and instead of overshooting onto the aiming point the early bombing fell on top of the red spot fires and obscured or extinguished them. Shortly after 23:40 the Director of the main force, Wing Commander Anthony Heward of 50 Squadron, fired two red Verey cartridges in quick succession and called a halt to the raid to allow the target to be re-marked.

Aircraft that had not yet bombed now began to orbit to the south or east of the target. Heward himself orbited for some sixteen minutes.[1] With more than fifty aircraft milling around the target waiting for new markers to be dropped, things began to feel uncomfortably reminiscent of the disastrous Mailly-le-Camp raid of a week ago.

There is evidence for perhaps two collisions over the target. One 61 Squadron crew – that of Flight Lieutenant HH Farmiloe – reported visually identifying the railway yards in the “light of [an] explosion from [the] collision of two aircraft”.[2] And Pilot Officer RA Dear, also of 61 Squadron, hit another Lancaster that crossed his path from port to starboard, “shearing off about 2 ft of port rudder and holing port elevator.”[3] We do not know which aircraft it was that Dear hit. There are no further reports in the various Operational Record Books of surviving crews being involved in a collision, so it is quite likely that whoever it was failed to return to base – which, if added to the two presumed destroyed in the earlier collision seen by Farmiloe, gives us three potential victims of collisions on this night.

And worse was to come. Nightfighters found the bombers as they orbited and shot down at least four of them. Arnold Easton recorded in his logbook being chased by a twin-engined aircraft. Then another bomber went down in flames. “One chute seen to open”, Easton wrote. His aircraft, DV372 Old Fred, had orbited the target for 23 minutes, finally bombing at midnight.

A number of crews reported seeing so-called ‘scarecrows’ over the target:

Before bombing two dummy runs were made and on a second run two scarecrows burst above and a third scarecrow burst just below aircraft.

-Squadron Leader HR Foley, 9 Squadron

Given that post-war it was established that there were in fact no such things as ‘scarecrows’,[4] it is most likely that what Foley witnessed actually were the sudden ends of three aircraft and crews. His crew bombed at 23:54, one of the first to do so after the order to resume the attack had been broadcast and the ‘green-green’ Verey cartridges had been fired.

The second phase of the bombing, it seems, went appreciably better than the first. Much smoke was again generated and now and again the new markers were obscured by it but most crews thought there was little or no scatter in the bombing that followed. Some crews reported seeing fires but many others did not. Shortly before midnight there were several large explosions. But once again it appears that the bombing was concentrated around the spot fires themselves, against the intent of the offset marking technique. Some crews, like that of Pilot Officer E Berry of 50 Squadron, noted that the bombs were falling on the marker “instead of on overshoot”, and others saw bombs overshooting the markers by 100 yards as planned, but many more, on the face of the limited evidence from the operational record books, thought there was a good concentration of bombing around the spot fires. This suggests that the new technique was not quite working as planned and perhaps showed a lack of understanding among some of the crews.

There is no doubt however that the bombing was effective. The Night Raid Report described a “great concentration” on and around the railways and sidings, and a repair workshop and two locomotive sheds were destroyed. And of course, the cost to the attackers had also been high. As the bombers turned back to the west and then the north-west towards the coast, they were followed by nightfighters which claimed perhaps two more victims on the way home. Flak also destroyed a bomber near Ypres, and crossing the coast a 97 Squadron aircraft was hit by heavy flak. It severely damaged the mid-upper turret and the gunner who was in it at the time, Flying Officer Henry Ward, was badly injured. His crewmates removed Ward from his turret but sadly he died shortly afterwards.[5] The aircraft landed safely.

In all twelve aircraft failed to return from Lille.[6] Three squadrons lost two aircraft each. From 50 Squadron, LM429 was probably the aircraft that was claimed by flak near Ypres and NN694 crashed near the suburb of Forest-sur-Marque, a suburb some five miles east of the target. 9 Squadron lost LM520 which also crashed near Forest-sur-Marque and LM528, which came down near what used to be called Annappes, now part of the community of Villeneuve d’Ascq, some three miles to the east of the marshalling yards. 97 Squadron lost the raid’s Deputy Controller, Flight Lieutenant John Smith, when JB708 crashed just north of the Lille-Sud, or flugplatz Vendeville Luftwaffe airfield. The other aircraft to go down from this squadron was ND813 which crashed in Lezennes, another suburb of Lille a couple of miles to the south-east of the target.

For Waddington, however, it had been, in the words of Pilot Officer Arnold Easton, a “grim trip”.[7] The two Australian squadrons lost three aircraft each and it would remain their worst night of the war. From 463 Squadron, LL882, captained by Squadron Leader Merv Powell, crashed in a brick pit near Langemark in western Flanders, likely one of the two reported victims of nightfighters on the return leg. LL881, flown by Flying Officer Dud Ward, who had been told just yesterday that he had been awarded a DFC, crashed at Lezennes. HK535, flown by Flight Lieutenant Eric Scott, crashed at Annappes.

467 Squadron, meanwhile, lost LL788 with Flying Officer Bill Felstead and crew, who also crashed at Annappes. Pilot Officer Doug Hislop was flying EE143 – the aircraft that until very recently had not flown straight – when it crashed between Lezennes and neighbouring Ronchin. And the final Lancaster that failed to return from the Lille operation crashed in the north-eastern corner of Lezennes, near what is now a no-frills motel and petrol station.

It was B for Baker.

The last known fact is that at 23:45, around the time the bombing was stopped to allow the target to be re-marked, Dale Johnston was heard to send a signal on his T1154 wireless telegraphy transmitter.[8]

Sometime after that, just as Jerry Parker was at the point of pushing the switch that would send B for Baker’s bombs falling into the smoke below, something catastrophic happened.

Perhaps the aeroplane was hit by flak.

Perhaps a nightfighter attacked.

Perhaps they collided with another aeroplane.

We simply do not know. But whatever the proximate cause was, some time after 23:45, everything on B for Baker suddenly went very hot, and dry, and red.[9]

And then there was nothing.

 

This post – published at 21:57 on 10 May 2014, exactly 70 years since B for Baker took off from Waddington for the final time – is part of a series called 467 Postblog. 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] Wing Commander Heward in 50 Squadron Operational Record Book

[2] Flight Lieutenant HH Farmiloe, reporting in the 61 Squadron Operational Record Book

[3] Pilot Officer Dear in the 61 Squadron Operational Record Book

[4] Hastings, Max 1979, p.197

[5] Ward’s story is mentioned in the 97 Squadron Operational Record Book. He is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery.

[6] Locations of crashes sourced from Jozefiak, 1995 and Storr, 2006. This section also draws from Night Raid Report No. 602 and the various Operational Record Books.

[7] Easton, AR. Flying Log Book

[8] As recorded in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, this was one of two signals heard from B for Baker. The other had been sent at the beginning of the attack, at 23:30.

[9] Smith, Phil. Recollections of 1939-1945 War. p. 24

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