Archive for the 'Operations' Category

Tactics and the Transportation Plan

On 10 April 1944, 467 Squadron joined a force of 166 aircraft from 5 Group sent to attack the railway marshalling yards in Tours in central France. The Tours trip occupies an interesting period of the bomber offensive when ‘precision’ targets were being attacked more frequently than big cities, so, springboarding off my earlier Tours post, here is an examination of how tactics developed during this time.

Tours and four other marshalling yards attacked that night were included in what was known as the Transportation Plan, part of the preparations for the upcoming invasion of Europe which by this time was less than two months away. The Plan called for the “destruction of thirty-seven railway centres in France, Belgium and western Germany, and especially of the locomotive depots and repair and maintenance facilities in these places, in order to prevent the flow of reinforcements and supplies for the German army in the invasion area.”[1] A key aim was the avoidance wherever possible of French civilian casualties, so accuracy was a priority (indeed, Max Hastings recounts the internal battles between Harris and Churchill on one side and Eisenhower and Tedder on the other about the ability or otherwise of Bomber Command to be accurate enough for the task[2]). The first railway target – Trappes in France – was attacked by 267 Halifaxes and Mosquitos on 6 March 1944 and over the next three weeks, Bomber Command would visit Le Mans, Amiens (twice), Laon, Aulnoye and Courtrai. By 10 May, the Lille raid was by my count the 43rd operation in the series, to a total of 26 distinct railway targets.[3]

For the first month or so of the Transportation Plan, the bombers used Parramatta tactics, very much like those used on German cities, where bombs were aimed at ground markers dropped by Oboe-equipped Mosquitos. The Main Force would attack in one or two waves, usually with a ‘reserve’ period in which the marking would be kept up for any late-running bombers. Crucially, on French targets crews were told not to drop their bombs until the markers went down and if no markers were visible at all, they were to bring their bombs back (as occurred for the second wave on Laon on 23 March). This was clearly an attempt to ensure bombs only fell, wherever possible, on the actual target and not on civilian housing nearby.

Though these attacks were in the main reasonably successful, there were improvements that could be made. Oboe was normally a sufficiently accurate system for city-busting raids but it was fiddly to work with, occasionally failed and was sometimes not accurate enough for precision targets like marshalling yards. If the markers went wide, so did the bombs – a situation seen to varying degrees at Amiens on 15 March, Aulnoye on 25 March, Courtrai on 26 March and Lille on 9 April. In an apparent attempt to reduce French civilian losses (and to avoid wasted effort), on 10 April a Master Bomber was introduced to direct the second attack on Aulnoye. In this case the Mosquitos still dropped their markers by Oboe but instead of then heading for home they stuck around to direct the bombing by radio.

This was, of course, the same night as the Tours operation. Tactics on this raid were somewhat different from the pattern which had become the ‘norm’. Surprisingly, no Mosquitos were sent to Tours and Oboe was not used. The raid was a 5 Group only affair. Lancasters dropped white ‘hooded’ flares to illuminate the ground, and the Master Bomber himself – flying a Lancaster – marked the target visually, by their light. The Main Force attacked in two waves and whilst the first part was highly accurate, the second was hampered by the smoke and flames caused by the earlier raiders and there was subsequently a delay while the Master Bomber re-marked the target.

The Tours trip occurred during a period of clear weather and a three-quarter moon, which meant reasonably bright conditions for bombing and resulted in accurate marking. The vast majority of subsequent railway operations were conducted with another refinement in tactics, which would have helped when the general light levels were not so bright. The pattern was set on 18 April 1944 on a marshalling yard at Juvisy, near Paris.

Oboe Mosquitos would first drop their ground markers, followed immediately by illuminating flares by Lancasters in the Newhaven style. The Master Bomber would assess the fall of the target indicators by the light of the flares, determine the required correction or even drop his own markers and instruct the Main Force to attack accordingly. The results, when everything went to plan, were immediate and effective. Juvisy suffered “immense” damage. On the same night, Rouen got “exceptionally severe” effects from a “magnificent” concentration of bombing.

The problem, however, was when things went wrong. At Tergnier, also on 18 April, the Oboe Mosquitos failed and the visual markers fell wide. So did the bombing. Communications between the Master Bomber and the Main Force were absolutely critical. It was an unwieldy system because if the Master Bomber was in a Mosquito he could not talk directly to the Main Force. The VHF radios in the Mosquitos were in relative short supply, so a ‘Controller,’ whose Lancaster had been fitted with one of the VHF radios, was required to relay instructions to the rest of the Main Force over standard radio and wireless telegraphy. When communications failed, so, on many occasions, did the bombing, such as what happened to the second wave at Villeneuve-St-George on 26 April and Malines on 1 May. But when everything worked it proved most effective in highlighting which target indicators the crews should aim at. On 6 May, for example, 143 aircraft attacked the marshalling yards at Mantes-Gassicourt. The first Oboe marking failed so the illuminating flares dropped first, followed by three loads of target indicators which were scattered wide of the aiming point. Crews were ordered to bomb in between all sets of markers, until a salvo of reds landed bang on the aiming point. The Master Bomber was able to adjust and instruct crews to aim at the new, accurate, markers, until more reds fell off the target. The resulting confusion was resolved when a set of white markers was dropped accurately, but by now smoke and fire obscured all the indicators, so the Master Bomber ordered crews to simply aim at the fires. Had the Master Bomber not been there, or had the radio been jammed or otherwise unavailable, the raid would certainly have been far more scattered than it was.

The other issue with direct marking of the aiming point happened when the bombing was, well, too good and the markers were obscured by smoke. This, of course, is what happened following the first wave of the attack on Tours, and it happened again at La Chappelle on 20 April. On this occasion the aiming point requiring remarking slightly away from the original target indicators.

Yet another development in target marking was devised to counter this. It was first deployed in an attack against an airfield at Lanveoc-Poulmic, near Brest, on 8 May.[4] Here the markers were deliberately dropped upwind of the actual aiming point. The Master Bomber would determine how far away and in what direction from the aiming point the markers had fallen and then calculate a ‘false bombing wind’ which could be fed into bombsights. The theory was that, if the sight was aimed at the marker, the adjusted wind setting would ensure that the bombs themselves landed on the real aiming point. It was a good theory and the resulting bombing was highly accurate. The only problem was that it took time for the markers to be dropped and assessed and for the false bombing wind to be calculated. The Main Force was timed to arrive having allowed sufficient time for the process to be completed but it needed good communications and good timing from all crews to be practical.

The next night the new system was used again. The date was 10 May 1944, and the target was Lille. Like the Tours trip, this used slightly different tactics to others in use at the time. While the three other railway raids carried out on the same night (to Courtrai, Ghent and Lens) all used Oboe Mosquitos, the target at Lille was marked visually under the light of illuminating flares – a classic Newhaven attack. Unfortunately what happened was exactly what offset marking was intended to avoid, when the first markers were extinguished by the early bombing, perhaps because crews were not yet used to the new tactics and simply forgot to apply the correction. After a short period the master bomber called a halt to proceedings so that new markers could be dropped, but it appears the resulting delay of some 20 minutes allowed the defences to get their act together, and they extracted a heavy price. Twelve out of 89 aircraft failed to return, among them B for Baker.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

[1] Lawrence 1951, No. 5 Bomber Group, R.A.F. 1939-1945, Faber and Faber Limited, 24 Russell Square, London W.C.1, p.164

[2] Hastings, Max 1979. Bomber Command. Michael Joseph Ltd London, p.327

[3] Stats extracted from Night Raid Reports Nos. 545-600. This tally does not include a raid to Aachen (11APR44) as this target was in Germany

[4] ‘Offset Marking’ and the Lanveoc-Poulmic raid are described in Lawrence 1951, p.183-5

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


[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

467 Postblog LXXXc: Wednesday 10 May, 1944

Phil Smith was falling.

He was still strapped into the pilot’s seat of B for Baker, having a moment ago been preparing for the jolt that usually accompanied the release of the bomb load from a Lancaster. But then something extraordinarily and suddenly violent had happened, and now he could feel no aeroplane around him.

He quickly came to the obvious conclusion:

I immediately released my seat belts and then my parachute. It seemed to open immediately.[1]

Looking up, he could see that one of the two risers from which he was hanging had been half cut through in the blast, so he hung on above the break with both hands until he landed on a large grassy field.

I seemed to be all in one piece but my flying helmet and one flying boot had gone. There was no indication that I had been seen.

His left wrist and hand were somewhat sore but otherwise he felt unharmed. Gathering up his parachute, he crept off in a direction away from some nearby houses in order to find somewhere to hide it.

Apart from the two Lancasters which came down in Flanders on the way home, there is little surviving evidence to show exactly which fate befell the remaining ten aircraft that failed to return from Lille that night. Richard Jozefiak shows that all ten crashed within about five miles of the target. Out of these, the night raid report suggests that four had been seen to go down in combat with fighters and two had collided. There was perhaps one more victim of a collision (the aircraft which hit Pilot Officer Dear in ND896), which leaves three lost to entirely unknown causes. It appears unlikely, however, that sufficient evidence has or will ever come to light to be able to make a determination, with any degree of confidence, of what happened to these aircraft, and by extension, of what exactly caused the crash of B for Baker. Even Phil Smith himself never knew for certain. “All I can say about the accident is that I was extremely lucky to get away with it,” he wrote to his parents shortly following his liberation a few months later.[2] Theories abounded. “He must have had a miraculous escape,” wrote his aunt Cis to her brother, Phil’s father Don Smith.[3] “He didn’t know if another plane hit them or if their own bombs exploded, as directly their own bombs were released he remembers a terrific flash of light – but felt absolutely nothing.” In November 1944 the Air Force sent an extract from Phil’s official evasion report to the family of his rear gunner, Gilbert Pate:[4]

…while bombs were falling from the aircraft it was hit either by flak or by enemy aircraft and exploded in mid air

Later still, Phil wrote a letter which he sent to the Air Force for onwards transmission to the family of his wireless operator, Dale Johnston:[5]

We had a straightforward trip up to the time when the bombs were falling away from the aircraft when something hit us and the aero-plane exploded. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the crew or the remains of the aircraft – after seeing flame in front of my eyes I did not see or feel anything solid until my parachute opened.

And three years after the Lille raid, Phil’s father told him of a letter received from Fannie Johnston. She had been to France, it seems, and spoke to a local who suggested the aircraft had been involved in a collision. “I suppose they found the remains of two aircraft together”, Phil guessed[6]. “A collision is as likely as any other cause…”

Collision? Own bombs? Flak? Nightfighter? Even when my own family spoke with Phil a few years before he died, he was still unclear on exactly what caused the loss of his aeroplane.

All that was some time off, though. Right now he had far more pressing matters to deal with. Squadron Leader Phil Smith was on the ground, alone, in enemy-occupied territory. He did not know it yet, but out of the 84 aircrew on board the twelve Lancasters which had failed to return from Lille, he was the only man still alive. After gathering up his parachute, Phil began heading roughly south-east, navigating roughly by the North Star.[7] His vague plan was to walk to Switzerland, which he considered a better prospect than trying to escape via Spain. He hid his parachute and mae-west lifevest in a pile of roadbuilding stones and carried on, soon coming to a big barbed wire fence. This, he supposed, was probably the Luftwaffe airfield which he knew was south-east of the target. He decided that walking across the airfield would be easier than going around it and looked for a gap in the wire. But then he heard gun shots.

I had not been challenged but felt sure that they were meant for me. I changed my mind and immediately crept off as quietly as possible in a North-Easterly direction.

Planning to avoid contact with any people and to get as far from the crash site as he could on the first night, Phil walked on. Having lost one fur-lined flying boot in the explosion, he now found his remaining boot soaking up dew from the ground. It became too heavy and he was forced to abandon it.

I was then committed to walking cross-country in my socks.

After wading across a narrow canal of some sort (”an unpleasant process”, he wrote in his usual understated way), he found himself walking up steadily rising, wooded ground.

By this time I was tiring, there were signs of dawn and the cover seemed quite good for lying up during daylight.

Phil picked a likely-looking spot, hid himself as best he could, and fell into a fitful sleep.


This post – published at 23:45 on 10 May 2014, exactly 70 years since the last known message was sent from B for Baker – 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


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

[2] Smith, Phil, letter to parents, 09SEP44

[3] Smith, Cis, letter to Don Smith, 13SEP44. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[4] Air Force to Kathleen Pate, letter, 12NOV44. From the collection of Gil and Peggy Thew

[5] Smith, Phil, letter to Fannie Johnston, 13APR45. Transcript from NAA: A705, 166/20/131

[6] Smith, Phil, letter to father, 16MAY48. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[7] The description of Phil’s attempt to walk across France, and quotes in this section, are from his Recollections typescript

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


[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

467 Postblog LXXXa: Wednesday 10 May, 1944

Bomber Command sent more than six hundred sorties on operations across much of north-west Europe tonight. Mosquitos attacked Châteaudun, Ludwigshafen and enemy airfields. More carried out radio counter-measure or intruder patrols. 26 Whitleys and Wellingtons scattered leaflets over enemy territory. 26 Lancasters, Stirlings and Halifaxes laid mines at ten locations off the French coast and in the Heligoland Bight. But by far the largest proportion of the aircraft flying operationally on this night were detailed to attack four marshalling yards and one coastal gun battery, all in Belgium or northern France.[1] Bomber Command, on 10 May 1944, was firmly engaged in invasion preparation.

The coastal battery was at Dieppe, hit by concentrated bombing from 60 Lancasters and eight Mosquitos around “well-laid” markers. Transportation Plan targets included marshalling yards at Lens, Ghent, and Courtrai, all attacked by forces of between 90 and 130 bombers. Ghent was bombed accurately and the raids on Lens and Courtrai were concentrated but centred somewhat outside the target areas. But for this story we have a special interest in the final marshalling yard on tonight’s target list: Lille.

It was to be a short flight and I thought it would be simple but I could not have been more wrong.

-Wing Commander Rollo Kingsford-Smith, 463 Squadron[2]

There would be 85 heavy bombers, all of 5 Group, making the hop across the Channel to Lille. They were supported by four Mosquitos of 627 Squadron, 5 Group’s own target-marking unit. Tactics were broadly similar to those used elsewhere on Transportation Plan raids: by the light of flares dropped by Lancasters from 97 Squadron, the target would be marked with red spot fires by the Mosquitos.[3] Lawrence[4] writes that this would be the second time that the newly-developed ‘offset marking’ technique would be used. The spot fires were intended to be deliberately dropped a short distance away from the aiming point and a ‘false bombing wind’ calculated and transmitted to the main force to use when aiming their bombs so that they dropped onto the actual aiming point and clear of the markers themselves. As for the Sable-sur-Sarthe raid of four nights ago, the role of Controller[5] for this raid was taken by Squadron Leader Harry Locke, a former 467 Squadron Flight Commander, who was now with 97 Squadron. His Deputy Controller was a New Zealander from the same squadron, Flight Lieutenant John Smith. There is evidence[6] that suggests that Squadron Leader Phil Smith also had a Deputy Controller role to play in this raid. Meanwhile the man in charge of the target-marking Mosquitos of 627 Squadron, was Squadron Leader Norman MacKenzie.

LM475 B for Baker was one of seventeen aircraft from 467 Squadron and fourteen from 463 Squadron to depart Waddington for this operation. The first bomber to take off, B for Baker left the runway at 21:57. EE143 was one of the following aircraft, departing eleven minutes later. Evidently cleared of its inability to fly straight, it was being flown by Pilot Officer Doug Hislop.

There were two early returns. A 9 Squadron Lancaster suffered an engine failure and turned around not long after taking off from Bardney,[7] and a 50 Squadron aircraft jettisoned its bombs off the Norfolk coast before returning to Skellingthorpe after the rear turret failed.[8] But the rest of the force carried on, crossing the Channel from Clacton in Essex to a point between Dunkirk and Ostende. From there they turned south-east to the Belgian border near Courtrai. Then, in clear air but with some haze visible lower down, they headed south-west towards the target.

The illuminating flares were dropped on time over Lille by Lancasters of 97 Squadron, most of which had identified the target by H2S. Harry Locke thought the initial flares were somewhat scattered, but Mosquito DZ468 dropped a red spot fire about 150 yards south of the marking point four minutes before H-Hour.[9] The bombing wind was calculated and broadcast to the Main Force “in good time”[10] and the first recorded aircraft to drop bombs was DZ418, a Mosquito, at 23:34. Over the next eleven minutes some 28 aircraft would drop their loads of high explosives. While some crews thought the bombing was not as concentrated as usual, many others considered the attack highly successful, with bombs exploding in close proximity to the marker. But they were too close:

As bombs were about to be released the red spot fire was hit by another bomb and practically extinguished.

-Pilot Officer H Forrest, 9 Squadron

This, of course, was precisely what offset marking was supposed to counter. The smoke was rising almost to the height from which the bombers were attacking and it was being blown by the wind back along their bombing runs. This was enough for Wing Commander Anthony Heward, the man in charge of the Main Force, to fire two red Verey cartridges at about 23:40 and call a halt to the bombing via W/T.[11]

Next post: The target is re-marked and the bombing begins again


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] Sortie statistics and targets from Night Raid Report No. 602

[2] Kingsford-Smith, Rollo 1999

[3] Night Raid Report No. 602

[4] Lawrence, WJ 1951, p.184

[5] Bending, K, 2005. p.121

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

[7] 9 Squadron Operational Record Book

[8] 50 Squadron Operational Record Book

[9] Night Raid Report No. 602

[10] Pilot Officer Ed Dearnaley in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[11] Harry Locke in 97 Squadron Operational Record Book

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 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 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