467 Postblog LXXXI: Thursday 11 May, 1944

Waddington awoke in shock. Last night, 31 Lancasters had taken off for a ‘milk run’ operation to Lille. This morning, though, there were six empty spaces at the dispersals – and 42 empty beds.

But war waits for no man. Ops were on again tonight. Preparations were put into place for 25 Lancasters to attack a military camp at Bourg Leopold in Belgium. They began taking off just before 22:00.[1] But incorrect forecast winds delayed the marking over the target and thick haze compounded the issue so, after about half the bombers had bombed the leader called the attack off and ordered remaining crews to take their bombs home.

The Bourg Leopold raid was the biggest of the night, with 190 Lancasters and three Mosquitos taking part. Elsewhere marshalling yards were attacked at Hasselt (north-eastern Belgium), Louvain (near Rennes) and Boulogne. Coastal batteries were hit at Trouville (south of Le Havre) and Colline Beaumont (near Le Touquet). “Only at Louvain was any widespread damage caused,” said the Night Raid report.[2]

There was some excitement on arrival at Waddington involving Flight Sergeant John Waugh and crew, flying DV277. One of those crews who had not bombed, they were crossing the enemy coast on the way home when they became involved in a combat with a “fighter and Lancaster.” Jettisoning the 4,000lb ‘cookie’ to reduce weight they successfully escaped but not without damage: when they were ordered to dump their remaining bombs in the sea, the bomb bay doors would not open. When it was also discovered that their undercarriage would not lock down and a crash landing with most of the bomb load still on board was now inevitable, the entire crew except for the pilot and flight engineer baled out a few miles south of Waddington. Then Waugh began his approach. Hearts were in mouths as he bounced high on his first attempt but the undercarriage held and Waugh heard the emergency air system activate, locking the wheels down. The second touchdown was much more controlled and all ended well. “The Officer i/c Night Flying,” notes the Operational Record Book dryly, “then had a cross-country trip in a car trying to locate the members who had baled out.”[3]

But in a cruel blow to 467 Squadron, a night after losing a Flight Commander (Phil Smith) and two other pilots and all of their crews, another bomber failed to return from operations. And amongst this crew were some extremely experienced and capable men. LL792 was being flown by Sam Balmer, the 467 Squadron Commanding Officer who was on his final trip with the Squadron before going to a new posting and who (though apparently he did not know it) had just been promoted to Wing Commander. Among his ‘scratch crew’ was navigator Flying Officer Peter Hammond, a second-tour man who had arrived at Waddington five days ago with the new ‘B’ Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Lloyd Deignan. And on the final trip of his first tour was Flight Lieutenant WR Norden-Hare, the Squadron’s Gunnery Leader. Along with four other RAF men, all were killed when the aircraft crashed near Antwerp after being attacked by a nightfighter on their bombing run.[4]

In happier news for 467 Squadron, though, it had been calculated that their venerable Lancaster R5868 S for Sugar achieved on the Bourg Leopold trip its 100th operational sortie. But not without a scare. Flown for the occasion by Pilot Officer Tom Scholefield, the crew were continuously attacked by a pair of Ju 88s for nearly ten minutes. But some good cooperation between the gunners and the wireless operator, who was directing them via the Monica early warning system, managed to drive off “9 or 10 determined and skilful attacks.”[5] They did not bomb – jettisoning their ‘cookie’ over the sea on the way home – and returned safely.

Flying Officer Scholefield (far left) with his crew after what was reputedly S-Sugar's 100th operation. From the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

Tom Scholefield (far left) with his crew after what was reputedly S-Sugar’s 100th operation. From the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

The next day photographers and press appeared “from everywhere”, according to the Operational Record Book. “I think the B.B.C. even asked the aircraft to say a few words.”

Meanwhile in and around Lille French civilians and the German occupiers were discovering the extent of the damage wrought by the previous night’s chaos. The railways were clearly out of commission for the time being. But the bombing had also spread east of the target and residential property was badly damaged in that area. More than one thousand houses were destroyed, many by fire, and about 150 French civilians were killed with some 57 injuries recorded.[6] Adding to the destruction was the wreckage of ten Lancasters which had crashed in and around the target area. And those ten Lancasters contained ten crews, a total of seventy men.

During the day on 11 May bodies of airmen were discovered in and around the target area. Some were found close to where their aircraft had crashed. At least one was stuck up a tree.[7] Late in the evening of 11 May the burials began. Around 9pm 22 bodies were brought to Forest-sur-Marque, near where at least three Lancasters are thought to have crashed. The burials were carried out under difficult conditions. The Germans ordered the townspeople to dig one long common grave and that the dead were to be buried “by 8am.”[8] The Germans supplied no crosses or coffins.

Burials would continue throughout the area over the next few days. But unknown to anyone else, one of the 70 men shot down near Lille was still alive. Phil Smith had passed the day hiding out in a wood in northern France, sleeping on and off and hearing no sound bar the occasional train passing some distance away.

In the dawn hours it was pretty cold and I missed the raincoat which I had worn on all recent operations – this one was to be pretty short and the weather was warming up.[9]

Sustenance came from some malted milk tablets and a small tube of condensed milk from his escape kit, but though there was a plastic pouch and some water sterilising tablets there was nothing to drink. “It was clear,” he wrote later, “that I would have to get help from French people by next dawn as I would need food and drink if I were to make any further progress.”

When it became dark, Phil began to walk again. Along the way he found an animal trough with which to fill his water pouch and, with the aid of the sterilising tablets he was able to get all the drink he needed.

Phil continued on towards the south-east and, he hoped, Switzerland.

 

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] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[2] Night Raid Report No. 603

[3] Waugh’s story related in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[4] Storr, 2006

[5] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[6] LeClercq, J 2002; citing several files from the Archives Départementales du Nord in Lille

[7] This was Sergeant Roland Becherel, the wireless operator in the Mason crew of 97 Squadron. Info from Joss le Clercq and NAA: A705, 166/33/163 encl. 56 and 57

[8] Ibid.

[9]This section relies heavily on Smith, Phil, Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.26

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