467 Postblog LXXVIII: Monday 8 May, 1944

Gilbert Pate, it seems, was missing home.

He had recently received a parcel from his family, and took the chance today to dash off to the post office and send a telegram thanking them for the goodies he found inside. His message would take five days to reach the family at Bowns Road, Kogarah, NSW. Gilbert also sent a package of newspapers (no doubt purloined from the Sergeants’ Mess at Waddington) to his wife, Grace, who lived in Belmore, less than five miles from Gilbert’s parents. “I have received papers mentioning all the raids that he had taken part in,” Grace would write to Phil Smith’s parents in July 1944.[1]

…if you would like to read them let me know and I will send them on as no doubt Philip was in them, but if you think they will upset you I won’t bother, as I know how I felt on reading such gruesome warfare and knowing my husband was in it…

Also writing letters was bomb aimer Jerry Parker. This, a letter to his wife Ethel, is the only surviving piece of his wartime correspondence and is written on light blue Air Force paper with the RAF Eagle on the letterhead. It’s worth quoting at length.

“Dear Kid,” it begins:

I hope that by now your curiosity about leave has been satisfied, as things stand at the moment, I should be home in just over 3 weeks, and then – bags of staying in bed till dinner time-of course, you could stay in with me if you wished.

Operations were on at Waddington tonight, but the crew of B for Baker had been given the night off:

Our crew is having a rest tonight. It’s going to be funny seeing the kites go off, because we’ve been on the last 8 during the so-called ‘moon period’ or just before then anyhow. One thing though, the Skipper has only one more trip to do in order to finish his 2nd tour of ‘ops’, but I don’t know yet whether he will carry on so that we could finish with him, we’ll have to wait and see.

Jerry signed off thinking of his five-year-old daughter Anne:

I’ve no more news pet, so please give my little chicken a big hug and kiss for me and lots and lots of love for you sweet’

from your ever loving


The targets for the squadrons tonight were an airfield and a seaplane base near Brest, in Brittany. While the crew of B for Baker had the night off, their aircraft did not. Flight Lieutenant Dan Conway headed one of seven 467 Squadron crews on ops tonight. As a relatively experienced pilot he had an extra role to play. This was the first time, according to W J Lawrence,[2] that a new marking method was to be used to try and avoid the common problem of accurate bombing knocking out the red spot fires marking the target at the early stages of an attack. This new technique involved dropping markers on a point some 400 yards upwind of the actual aiming point. Selected, experienced Main Force crews would calculate the wind in the target area and transmit the result to the master bomber, who would average them out and add to them a correction for the offset to create a so-called “false bombing wind”, to be transmitted to the rest of the force. Bomb aimers could then set their sights with the false wind and, theoretically at least, if they then aimed at the offset marker their bombs would fall onto the actual aiming point. Conway was a wind-finder for this raid and so was allocated B for Baker because it had a VHF radio fitted after Phil Smith’s controller cameo two nights ago.

The raid, by 58 Lancasters and six Mosquitos, had the desired effect. There were plenty of searchlights active over the target (Dan Conway was coned by about ten of them over the target and needed to dive away to 700 feet to evade the flak that came with it, and Pilot Officer Ed Dearnaley was coned on the bombing run and did not escape until after it had been completed[3]), light flak made life difficult and there was a short delay in getting the bombing wind to the crews, probably due to the new and somewhat unfamiliar tactics. It appears that some of the markers actually fell onto the hangars themselves and became obscured by smoke and fire so the new tactics were not entirely successful, but clear conditions allowed later crews to bomb the target visually anyway. So while the new tactics did not quite work as advertised the raid was effective and caused “severe damage” to the airfield, hangars and seaplane base.

The Brest operation was one of a number of similar operations throughout France and Belgium,[4] all aimed squarely at preparing for the upcoming invasion. 125 aircraft attacked railway installations at Haines St Pierre near Charleroi in Belgium, devastating “at least half” of the total area of the yards but suffering a relatively high nine losses. There is evidence that a single fighter pilot claimed at least four bombers out of this force. 32 Halifaxes and seven Mosquitos attacked a gun battery at Berneval, north-east of Dieppe. All aircraft returned safely but most of the bombing fell some 6-700 yards west of the actual gun battery and only limited damage was caused. 30 Lancasters and eight Mosquitos were detailed to attack another gun battery at Cap Gris Nez in the Pas de Calais. The Mosquitos were late and the main force bombed visually after identifying the prominent lighthouse nearby but though all aircraft came back safely “no damage was caused to vital elements.” 31 Halifaxes and another eight Mosquitos went to a gun battery at Morsalines on the Cherbourg Peninsula. This was more successful with concentrated bombing and hits and near misses were scored on three guns.

Finally the now usual nuisance raids were carried out by small forces of Mosquitos on Osnabruck and Oberhausen, aircraft laid mines off the Dutch and French coasts, scattered leaflets or carried out special operations and a small number of Mosquitos made intruder patrols over the Continent.

In all, 335 bombing sorties were made tonight to seven targets. Ten aircraft – all from the Haines St Pierre operation – failed to return.


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] Letter, Grace Pate to Edith Smith, 12JUL44. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[2] Lawrence, WJ 1951, p.183

[3] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[4] Details of these attacks all from Night Raid Report No. 600

467 Postblog LXXVII: Sunday 7 May, 1944

The bombers returned quite early this morning from the “Fourth of July” effort overnight on Sable-sur-Sarthe so a day of rest was declared and after breakfast they went to sleep. Only two non-operational flights were made all day, though the Operational Record Books do not contain any details of these.

Other units did go on operations tonight however. Mosquitos went to Châteudun and Leverkusen again and elsewherecarried out radio counter-measure sorties, intruder patrols and fighter sorties. Other aircraft laid mines off the Frisians and the Cironde estuary or completed special operations. Two Halifaxes engaged in the latter were lost.

The heavies were also in on the action. Numerous forces of up to 100 aircraft ranged over France, detailed to attack an airfield at Nantes (accurate bombing but one Lancaster lost), a coastal gun position at St Valery near Dieppe (no losses but the target was missed), an airfield and ammunition dump at Rennes (no losses but a village to the south of the target received most of the bombing), an ammunition dump at Salbris (heavy damage but seven bombers lost, mostly to fighters) and the airfield at Tours (one Lancaster and one Mosquito lost for heavy damage). This photo of the Tours operation – from one of three runs he made over the target before bombing – comes from ME739, a 630 Squadron machine piloted by Flying Officer Wade Rodgers:

Tours, 07MAY44. From the collection of Wade Rodgers, used courtesy Neale Wellman
Tours, 07MAY44. From the collection of Wade Rodgers, used courtesy Neale Wellman

Rodgers bombed considerably later than the rest of the force. As he wrote post-war:[1]

The last other aircraft to bomb had a photo showing three hangars standing side by side, but P.R.U. [Photographic Reconnaissance Unit] photos the next morning showed the hangars flattened and we got the credit.

The only Waddington aircraft to fly tonight went on the Tours trip. It was ED953, flown by Wing Commander Tait with two photographers, this time by the names of Pilot Officer Herbert and Warrant Officer McNaughton along again. But as a photographic expedition the sortie was “disappointing”. An electrical fault shortly after take-off caused the nose camera to fail and the results of the bombing, though accurate, were “not spectacular”. They landed at Waddington shortly after 05:30 on Monday morning.


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] Rodgers, Wade 1988, p.50

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


[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

467 Postblog LXXVIa: Saturday 6 May, 1944

After nearly two weeks the replacement arrived today for Wing Commander Arthur Doubleday, who had left Waddington on 22 April to take command at 61 Squadron. The new ‘B’ Flight Commander was another Australian, Squadron Leader Lloyd Deignan. With the exception of his flight engineer Deignan’s entire crew were second-tour men and thus the Squadron was “expecting a lot from them all.[1]

Preparations, meanwhile, were underway for operations tonight for the crews of 463 and 467 Squadrons. In all 64 Lancasters of the Main Force would be joined by four target-marking Mosquitos, all of 5 Group, to attack a munitions dump between the townships of Sable-sur-Sarthe and Louaille, in western France. The Master Bomber for this raid was Squadron Leader Harry Locke, a former 463 Squadron[2] man now of 97 Squadron and based at Coningsby, and the role of Deputy Controller was given to one of Waddington’s most experienced pilots: Squadron Leader Phil Smith.

At some stage over the last few weeks, a new radio had been installed in B for Baker.[3] It was a VHF set to be used to talk to the target-marking Mosquitos, which tonight would come from 627 Squadron, based at Woodhall Spa. To discuss tactics, Phil was ordered to go to Coningsby to “visit the target-marking people”:[4]

I duly went over there in our Oxford aircraft, a type I had not flown for more than a year. I received a cold reception there, which seemed surprising. Obviously our Group Captain had not prepared the ground for me and the Coningsby people were very security conscious. This incident did not harm the cooperation experienced during the raid.

Coningsby was the headquarters station of No. 54 Base, which also included Woodhall Spa and nearby Metheringham. It was a short flight, Phil’s logbook recording 30 minutes for the return trip.

The tactics to be discussed for the night’s operation were simple. A datum point about fifteen miles north-east of the target was to be marked with green target indicators. (Phil suggests that Oboe may have been used here but the Night Raid Report does not specifically mention it.) The four 627 Squadron Mosquitos would then mark the aiming point itself with red spot fires, and “the main force were to bomb as directed by the Master Bomber or his deputy”[5] – who was Phil Smith. H-Hour was set down for 02.45.

There were eleven crews on the 463 Squadron battle order tonight, accompanied by twelve from 467 Squadron. One of the latter was captained by Wing Commander ‘Willie’ Tait, the Base Operations Commander, who took ED953 with a standard crew plus two extras: Pilot Officer Morris and Flight Sergeant Kimberley, photographers from the RAF Film Unit. The aircraft had been specially fitted out with cameras to record what was evidently expected to be a spectacular raid.

As usual, of course, there were other raids taking place tonight as well. The Transportation Plan continued with more than 140 aircraft attacking railway yards in Mantes-Gassicourt, 30 miles west of Paris. While the Night Raid Report says it was an “accurate and damaging attack in moonlight” and that “damage and destruction were most severe in the stores depot, locomotive shed and repair shops” the Campaign Diary[6] shows that local records suggest some of the bombing fell outside the target, in the western part of the town and the nearby hamlet of Dennemont. There were only two active flak guns but fighters apparently caught up with the bombers on the way home and three heavies were lost.[7]

Elsewhere 52 Lancasters went to another munitions dump, this time near Aubigné in central-western France. This was a highly accurate attack resulting in “sheets of flame [coming] from the exploding ammunition, and dense smoke up to 5,000’.” The entire target, continues the Night Raid Report, was “almost completely destroyed” for the loss of just one aircraft which fell to a fighter on the way home.

(This loss was notable in that the second pilot of the 576 Squadron Lancaster was Air Commodore R Ivelaw-Chapman, who had recently taken command of No. 13 Base from Elsham Wolds. Previous to this job he had been a staff officer who knew details of the upcoming invasion, which now was exactly a month away. He survived being shot down and became a prisoner of war. There was consequently much anxiety in England that he might have been handed over to the Gestapo for questioning but it appears the Germans never realised his importance. Ivelaw-Chapman was apparently the highest-ranking officer lost on operations in a Lancaster. He survived the war.[8])

Other operations tonight included Mosquitos attacking Chateudun, Ludwigshafen and Leverkusen and various airfields in France, Holland and Belgium. There were also the usual minelaying, leaflet and special operations and fighter patrols. One Mosquito failed to return.[9]

Next post: The Waddington bombers take off for Sable-sur-Sarthe

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] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book 06MAY44

[2] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 06MAY44

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

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

[5] Night Raid Report No. 598

[6] Bomber Command Campaign Diary, May 1944

[7] Night Raid report No. 598

[8] Bomber Command Campaign Diary, May 1944, and Blundell, 1975 p.21

[9] Night Raid Report No. 598

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.

467 Postblog LXXIV: Thursday 4 May, 1944

A stand-down at Waddington today on a wet and windy day. “All aircrew went to ‘ground’ to-day,’ says the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book. 467 Squadron only made three flights all day for a total duration of eight hours in the air.

One of these flights, however, saw the return to his logbook of Phil Smith’s old friend, EE143, the aeroplane that would not fly straight. While the timeline in Phil’s post-war Recollections typescript is a little unclear and not entirely in agreement with his logbook, it’s most likely that this was the flight on which it was confirmed that the fault which had kept the aircraft off the operational battle orders for a month and a half had finally been rectified. The Lancaster had been back with Avro for a week or so, where it was discovered that while the airframe itself was straight, it was actually the blind flying instrument panel which was askew. Apparently the rubber shock absorbers on which it was mounted had perished on one side, and the panel was sitting, in Phil’s words, slightly “cock-eyed”:[1]

            Thus, the machine was, in fact, flying level when the instruments indicated that it was down on one side.

Phil took the aeroplane for a 55-minute air test which apparently confirmed that all was finally well. The aircraft went back onto the Squadron’s effective strength and would be on the battle order for the next ‘maximum effort’ trip.

The rest of 5 Group also had the day off, but other elements of Bomber Command were out tonight. 28 Mosquitos went to Ludwigshafen and four went to Leverkusen (though only two of these hit the correct target: one returned early and the other, it seems, attacked Cologne). 20 Halifaxes went to lay mines off the French ports. And a solitary 8 Group Mosquito completed a weather recce flight. All aircraft came home safely.[2]


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] Smith, Phil, date unknown. Phil’s Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.29

[2] Details of tonight’s operations from Night Raid Report No. 596

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

467 Postblog LXXIIIa: Wednesday 3 May, 1944

Sometime in March 1944, a Frenchman named Raymond Basset[1] used false documents supplied by British Intelligence to sneak into the German tank depot at Mailly-le-Camp, some 80 miles east of Paris, to undertake reconnaissance on the ground. A French Army facility dating back to the turn of the century, Mailly-le-Camp had been taken over by the Wehrmacht following the French surrender in 1940, and at the time of Bisset’s infiltration was hosting elements of the 21st Panzer division. After his mission Bisset drew, from memory, maps of the camp and these were eventually passed on to London along with details of what he had found there. His information was enough, imply Molly Burkett and Geoff Gilbert in their 2004 book Not Just Another Milk Run, for Mailly-le-Camp to be placed on the list of targets to be attacked by Bomber Command in the build-up to the invasion of the continent. One of the main tank training centres in use by the Wehrmacht in France, some 15-20,000 troops were believed to be stationed there.[2]

And so it came to pass, as it were, that on this fine morning on 3 May 1944, aircrews of Nos 1 and 5 Groups Bomber Command found themselves summoned to their briefing rooms. “I think we were all relieved when the covers were taken off the maps and we saw that our target was in France”, said Jack Spark, an appropriately-named wireless operator at Elsham Wolds.[3] “The target and route was explained to us at the briefing together with the details of the bomb load we were carrying and the weather conditions we could expect en route. We were told that it would be a piece of cake and we believed it.”

What would eventuate over France, however, was far from a ‘piece of cake’.

At Waddington, meanwhile, Flight Lieutenant Bill Hodge, the compiler of the 463 Squadron ORB, wrote that the airmen “went into the attack with zeal, knowing they were going to kill a few thousand German soldiers, with their Staff Officers, billeted at the Camp.” The squadron sent twelve crews on the operation, with their sister squadron, 467, contributing ten. Take-off was just before 10pm.[4]

Elsewhere, 84 Lancasters and eight Mosquitos were raiding a Luftwaffe airfield near Montdidier in northern France, fourteen Mosquitos attacked an ammunition dump at Châteaudun, south-west of Paris, and 27 Mosquitos hit Ludwigshafen, forty miles inside the German frontier. Subsidiary operations included minelaying off France and the Frisians, radio counter-measure sorties, Serrate and intruder patrols, special operations and leaflet drops.[5] But the night’s biggest raid by far was carried out by the 346 Lancasters and 16 Mosquitos that were sent to Mailly-le-Camp.

The bombers assembled at Reading and set course for occupied Europe via Beachy Head. Ominously, they were flying in bright moonlight. “I could map read accurately by its light,” said Squadron Leader Tom Bennett of 617 Squadron later.[6] “I could never recall doing such a thing before, except perhaps when I had crossed the Alps en route for Italy in mid October 1942.” The bombers flew on. Crossing the French coast at Dieppe, they flew south-east for almost 150 miles before turning south towards Mailly-le-Camp. About 85 miles from the target, passing Compiegne, the first nightfighters appeared. At this stage though, the momentum was with the attackers and three or four fighters were shot down without inflicting any losses on the bombers. This happy state of affairs did not last long.

At Mailly-le-Camp, two aiming points had been designated.The south-easternmost of the two was to be attacked by the first wave, made up of 5 Group aircraft (which included, of course, all of the 22 aircraft from Waddington). The second aiming point was to be attacked about ten minutes later by aircraft from 1 Group. Mosquitos equipped with OBOE were to open each wave of the attack, marking the aiming points with green target indicators, before red spot fires were dropped visually onto the aiming points themselves by the light of illuminating flares.[7] While the marking was underway, inbound bombers were to orbit a route marker dropped at Germinon, some fifteen miles north of the target. It was visible from a long distance away and as the marking at the target progressed, more and more Lancasters could be seen circling the datum point.

If we could see them from that distance, so could the Germans.

– Squadron Leader Tom Bennett, 617 Squadron marker crew[8]

The first target marker fell some 800 metres north of the aiming point[9] one minute before midnight. The second, dropped by Australian Dambuster pilot Flight Lieutenant Dave Shannon, was more accurate and the order to attack was sent to the main force by R/T.[10]

A short aside here to explain the method of controlling bomber raids. Under the 5 Group tactics in use at the time of the Mailly-le-Camp raid, the Master Bomber, who typically was also the leader of the attack flying in a Mosquito, kept in contact with the rest of the marking force via a VHF radio which transmitted his voice. But there were not enough VHF radio sets with which to equip the entire Main Force of bombers,[11] so an intermediary was required. This role was carried out by the man known as the Controller, flying a Lancaster which had a VHF radio specially fitted, who would relay instructions from the Master Bomber to the rest of the force by radio telephone (R/T, which transmitted the pilot’s voice via high-frequency or HF waves) and wireless telegraphy (W/T, sent in encrypted Morse code by the Controller’s wireless operator, also over HF). Both HF systems would be less than effective at Mailly-le-Camp.

The first few main force aircraft to bomb came away evidently quite impressed by the organisation, accuracy and effectiveness of the bombing raid. Squadron Leader Phil Smith in B for Baker thought his might have even been the first aircraft to attack, aiming at 00.06 at a “good concentration of spot fires in buildings themselves. Bombs fell across same buildings.” Half a minute later, Pilot Officer Bill Felstead saw “bombs […] bursting among buildings. A very good attack indeed.” But then the careful plan began to unravel.

Three Waddington aircraft bombed before 00.08 and at least one of those reported that the “order to attack [was] received clearly over W/T”.[12] But after that not one crew reported being able to receive anything on that system. It would later be discovered that the Controller’s W/T set was incorrectly tuned, so while the signals were being sent they were 30 kilocycles off the correct frequency and so were not being received.

Normally, the separate R/T system would cover a failure of the W/T. But at Mailly-le-Camp, R/T control failed as well. Out of the eleven 463 and 467 Squadron crews who commented about communications in their post-operational report, four never heard anything over the R/T, and three of those that did reported jamming or an American broadcast on the frequency. Yet at least one crew (that of Pilot Officer Ernie Mustard) called the R/T control “good”, and a signal sent from 5 Group Headquarters the day after the raid[13] suggested that “in spite of the jamming […] a proportion of the 1 Group and 5 Group force did, in fact, receive their instructions satisfactorily.” But many, it appears, did not.

The result of the confusion was that, after the first few crews had attacked, the raid stalled. Many crews remained circling at the datum point, though there is evidence that some more experienced crews who had not heard the order to bomb on either control channel saw the raid evidently well in progress and went in to bomb anyway.[14] And now the second wave – made up of 1 Group aircraft – was about to arrive.


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] Basset’s story is related in Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.7

[2] Lawrence 1951, p.187

[3] Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.58

[4] 463 and 467 Squadrons Operational Record Books, 03MAY44

[5] Other operations detailed in Bomber Command Campaign Diary, May 1944, and Night Raid Report No. 595

[6] Quoted in Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.16

[7] Plan of attack from Night Raid Report No. 595

[8] Bennett is quoted in Burkett & Gilbert 2004, p.16

[9] Burkett & Gilbert, p.11

[10] Reported by Pilot Officer Noel sanders in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[11] Lack of VHF sets implied in NAA: A11234, 34/AIR Enclosure 9A

[12] This was Pilot Officer Bill Felstead, in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

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

[14] At least three 463/467 Squadron crews reported in their respective Operational Record Books bombing despite not hearing an order to do so

467 Postblog LXXII: Tuesday 2 May, 1944

The bombers returned to Waddington from last night’s raid on Toulouse between 05:00 and 06:00 this morning. Consequently they were stood down for today, despite it being “another beautiful day.” [1]

Phil Smith didn’t get out of bed until 15.00. He decided to write a letter home.[2] “You will be interested to hear that I have almost finished here now,” he wrote. “Weather has been quite good and we have been pretty busy lately.” Pretty busy was right. In the last week Phil had flown on four operations, and Toulouse had been the nineteenth raid of his second tour and his 48th altogether. Again, he wrote about the Bordeaux incident when B for Baker had been buffeted by an explosion over the target, though in his usual way there are no specifics:

“Not long ago I saw some terrific explosions at night which will stick in my memory as long as this war does.”

Also writing letters was Phil’s rear gunner, Gilbert Pate, this time to his wife, Grace.[3] “Last night we went to Toulouse and as we only landed at 7am”, he wrote (though B for Baker actually touched down at 05.13), “we have the day off. April was a very busy month for me and I managed 9 trips which is all that were on.”

This last statement is not entirely correct, as Gilbert was on leave at the beginning of the month and so missed the raids on Toulouse on the 5th and Tours on the 10th. His name only appears in the Operational Record Book against eight trips in April itself, but as this letter was written after last night’s Toulouse trip, which of course was actually in May, he may have inadvertently included it in his tally. However since his return from leave he had indeed gone on all of the available operations – three more than the rest of his crew did – and his personal score (not adjusted for the lower value of French targets) was now 23. “Expect to go on leave next month”, he finished, “and will take in London again.”

Bomber Command operations tonight followed the usual pattern used whenever the heavies were not out. 29 Mosquitos attacked Leverkusen, nine Stirlings laid mines off Holland and the Frisian Islands, two 192 Squadron aircraft flew special operations over the Continent and four Mosquitos made intruder patrols. And the marshalling yards at Acheres were attacked, by seven Mosquitos, for the fourth night in succession.[4]

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] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 02MAY44

[2] Smith, Phil, letter to Don Smith, 02MAY44. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[3] Transcribed in a letter Grace wrote to Phil Smith’s mother Edith, 12JUL44. From the collection of Mollie Smith.

[4] Night Raid Report No. 594

467 Postblog LXXI: Monday 1 May, 1944

Starting the month off with war.

-467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 1 May 1944

A return to the south of France this evening for the crews of 463 and 467 Squadrons, Bomber Command, RAF Waddington. The target was the aircraft assembly plant in Toulouse, last attacked almost a month ago on 5 April. Evidently sufficient repairs had been made to the factory in the meantime to enable production to resume, so another visit was in order.

Nine 467 Squadron crews were detailed for the Toulouse trip, along with eleven from 463 Squadron. The entire crew of B for Baker would fly in their usual aircraft, accompanied by a second dickie pilot named Flying Officer Robert Harris, whose crew had been posted to Waddington the previous day.[1]

In all 131 Lancasters and eight Mosquitos, all from 5 Group, were sent to Toulouse, but not all would attack the aircraft factory. A short distance away was the Poudrerie Nationale explosives works, which would be simultaneously hit by the rest of the bombers.[2] The Waddington crews were all detailed on the aircraft factory raid.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of expected fine weather conditions and a half-moon to aid bombing precision, five other targets would be hit tonight as well, spread all over Belgium and France. In Belgium, railway targets at Mechelen[3] and Saint Ghislain were each attacked by forces of more than 130 aircraft. While both attacks caused damage to their respective targets some bombs also fell onto surrounding residential areas. One Halifax was lost at Mechelen and two bombers failed to return from Saint Ghislain.

Near Paris, the large railway depot at Chambly was, by contrast, subjected to what the Night Raid Report called “one of the most concentrated ever” attacks delivered by Bomber Command. 120 aircraft put the depot out of service for ten days, though three Lancasters and two Stirlings were lost. Close by, the Acheres yards were harassed for the third night running but this time only by two Mosquitos. 75 Lancasters went to Lyon to attack a vehicle factory, which they badly damaged for no losses. Some bombs went wide however, damaging nearby railways and factories though it is unclear whether any civilian losses were suffered.

50 aircraft from 5 Group attacked an aircraft repair workshop at Tours, completely destroying the main buildings for no loss. As this bombing photo, from 630 Squadron pilot Wade Rodgers, shows, the bombing was reasonably concentrated and many large craters were left:

Bombing photo from Tours. From the Wade Rodgers collection, courtesy Neale Wellman
Bombing photo from Tours. From the Wade Rodgers collection, courtesy Neale Wellman

To cap off a busy night for Bomber Command aircraft, 28 Mosquitos attacked Ludwigshafen in Germany while others flew radio counter-measure, Serrate or intruder sorties. 35 aircraft laid mines off the French coast and the Frisians and 40 aircraft flew special operations. One Serrate Mosquito failed to return. In all, just over 800 sorties were flown tonight.[4]

The Waddington aircraft got away shortly before 10pm. The flight to the target, it appears, was entirely uneventful. The plan, as was usual on targets of this nature, was to fly to a datum point some distance from the aiming point to wait for the markers to go down. The yellow target indicators marking the datum were not quite on the right spot[5] and it seems the first markers were dropped a little late (Flight Sergeant John Waugh said that there were “no flares over [the] target until 0117 1/2”), but at around[6] 01.22 the order was given by W/T to “attack Reds 11 o’clock 300 yards”.

Squadron Leader Phil Smith and the crew of B for Baker were among the first of the Waddington aircraft to bomb. There was, Phil wrote in his logbook later, “bags of light flak over the target – one burst near enough for us to hear it”, but otherwise defences were fairly weak in the target area. The attack, it seems, opened up in a slightly scattered fashion and very quickly smoke and dust kicked up by the explosions obscured the target. This had happened before – the 10 April 1944 raid on Tours is a case in point – and Bill Brill, for one, wasn’t happy. “Instantaneous fusing on H.E. [is] hopeless for precision targets”, he fumed in the Operational Record Book. “Dust and smoke obscure Target after first bomb is dropped.”

The Master Bomber evidently agreed. At 01:35 a signal went out by wireless telegraphy and by radio telephone to stop bombing to allow the target to be remarked. To reinforce the order two red Verey cartridges were fired.[7] Even after all of that, some crews were still seen dropping their bombs while the target was remarked.[8] These errrant crews may not have been entirely culpable. Phil Smith was one of two captains who reported bad interference or jamming of the raid controller’s early broadcasts, though he did say that it improved upon approaching the target and once in the actual target area it was very good. From the data available in the Operational Record Books no Waddington crews bombed during the lull.

In any case, the target was marked again and less than ten minutes after it had been stopped the bombing was ordered to recommence. This time the marking was spot on. “Red spot fires appeared to be on roof of main assembly shop”, said Pilot Officer Bill Felstead, who bombed on his third run over the target. The smoke continued to make life difficult, however, and numerous crews reported not being able to see the red spot fires at all.

The marking, while it was reasonably accurate, does not seem to have been particularly clear to see amongst the smoke and explosions of the aiming point. Adding to the confusion was the concurrent attack on the explosives works, just a few miles to the south east. “The other target being marked very much better than ours,” suggested Pilot Officer Noel Sanders, “[we were] apt to bomb the wrong one.” Pilot Officer Fred Cassell suggested a possible solution to the problem: “We think that it would be better when two targets are close to use distinctive marking. If it could be certain that both could be marked simultaneously with the same colour there would be no difficulty but there is uncertainty then at times the markers may have gone out or are not visible on one target but can be seen on the other one as was the case tonight.”

But in the end both attacks were successful. Numerous large explosions were reported towards the end of the raid (though as the distance from the target increased it would have become more difficult to discern from which of the two factories that were hit in Toulouse they came) and later reconnaissance found that severe damage was caused. The only opposition was the light flak which Phil Smith and crew, among others, encountered over the target and there were no casualties from either of the Toulouse raids. Pilot Officer John McManus reported that his aircraft was hit by flak in the fuselage under the mid-upper turret and Pilot Officer Ernie Mustard noted, not unreasonably, that “bombing within range of light flak is a detriment to accuracy.” Possibly also resulting from the flak damage, the starboard outer engine on McManus’ LL846 caught fire on the way home and needed to be feathered. They landed at Tangmere as a result. Everyone else, it seems, had an easy trip home.


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] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, 30APR44

[2] RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary May 1944, and Night Raid Report No. 593

[3] Mechelen is the Dutch/Flemish name of this city, referred to in the Night Raid Report by its French name of Malines

[4] Details of other operations from Bomber Command Campaign Diary, May 1944, and Night Raid Report No. 593

[5] As reported by Flight Lieutenant Dan Conway and Pilot Officer Ernie Mustard in the 467 and 463 Squadron Operational Record Books

[6] One pilot recorded in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book that the order to bomb was given at 01.22, but another said 01.25

[7] As reported by Pilot Officer Bryan Giddings in the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[8] Pilot Officer Tom Davis, 467 Squadron Operational Record Book