Posts Tagged 'Lille'

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

Sources:

[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

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467 Postblog LXXXb: Wednesday 10 May, 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Squadron Leader HR Foley, 9 Squadron

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was B for Baker.

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

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

Perhaps the aeroplane was hit by flak.

Perhaps a nightfighter attacked.

Perhaps they collided with another aeroplane.

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

And then there was nothing.

 

This post – published at 21:57 on 10 May 2014, exactly 70 years since B for Baker took off from Waddington for the final time – is part of a series called 467 Postblog. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Wing Commander Heward in 50 Squadron Operational Record Book

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

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

[4] Hastings, Max 1979, p.197

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

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

[7] Easton, AR. Flying Log Book

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

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

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

Sources:

[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

Forage Cap

Gil Thew recently sent me this fantastic photograph of his uncle Gilbert Pate:

 a05-212-001 copy

Gilbert is in uniform, wearing a peaked forage cap parked at a jaunty angle upon his head. Tucked into the fold at the front of the cap is a white ‘flash’ of fabric. This flash was the mark of an airman under training. Gilbert’s serious expression and immaculate uniform coupled with the trainee flash suggests this might be a copy of his enlistment identity photograph. The photo was therefore most likely taken in late June 1942, when Gilbert would have been 26 years old. He barely looks out of his teens.

While not unique to Bomber Command itself, photographs of airmen from Commonwealth air forces in WWII will frequently show them wearing caps just like this one. The forage cap had been part of the uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force since the First World War. It was designed to look reasonably respectable even after being folded up and jammed into a corner in the cramped cockpit of an aeroplane. A battered cap was a sign that its owner was no sprog.

In May 2009 I visited Lezennes on the anniversary of the Lille operation to see the graves of my great uncle and his crew. I wasn’t prepared for the reception I was given by the locals. There was a small but moving ceremony at the cemetery, presided over by the Mayor with perhaps 20 people attending. After the cemetery we walked into the town to the local library, where a display had been set up telling the story of the crew. There was a television camera crew to document the occasion. I even met a man who had been 10 at the time of the Lille raid, and who remembered standing next to the graves the day after the funerals, singing ‘God Save the King’.

But most amazing of all was the man on the left of this photo:

img_3783 copy

His name is Laurent Messiaen. He is presenting me with a pristine original RAAF forage cap. The exact origins of the cap are unknown. I was told it had been with a local family since the war. Apparently Laurent read about my impending visit in the local newspaper and came along specifically to give it to me.

There is no doubt that it is RAAF. Stamped inside, it says “MADE IN AUSTRALIA 1943”. A direct link with the Lille operation cannot be ruled out.

The cap now sits on my shelf. It’s become one of my most treasured possessions.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

67 years

img_3850 copy

We will remember them.

Into the Silence

“Every day I wonder + cogitate about what really happened to the Lancaster on May 10/11. It’s such a peculiar happening – into the silence” (A01-113-001)

Writing to Don Smith in August 1944, Sydney Pate put into words what so many at the time and since have wondered. Just what was it that caused the loss of Lancaster LM475 over Lille?

When Phil Smith returned to England from occupied Europe a month or so after those words were written, Mr Pate could be forgiven for expecting that the only survivor of the crew might be able to shed some light on what really happened that May evening. But it was not to be. Phil’s first letter to his parents, written just five days after returning to England, reveals very little of the mystery (A01-033-002):

“All I can say about the accident is that I was extremely lucky to get away with it”

If anything, this brief account only served to further muddy the waters for Sydney Pate. He wrote to Don Smith in October 1944 (A01-094-001):

“I am struck by [Philip’s] use of the word ‘accident’, its precise application is still not clear to me… was it from enemy attack? Was it from internal misadventure? Was it from its own bomb load?”

Mr Pate put into words what is still puzzling, even today. When we first met Phil Smith in 1996 we asked him what he remembered. His answer?

Very little. Everything, he said, went hot, dry and red – and suddenly there was no aeroplane around him anymore. So he pulled his ripcord and parachuted to the ground.

Even the only man who survived the destruction of LM475 never knew for sure what caused his aircraft to crash. So what hope have we, 65 years later, of finding a definitive answer?

I’ll happily concede that, without wreckage to examine and without any known eyewitnesses, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that I will ever be able to nail down a probable cause with any degree of certainty. But there is some written evidence that I can use to look at a number of theories. At this stage in my research I have not actually studied these closely. I am simply putting the theories out there so I can start thinking about them in more detail in the future.

The most obvious possible causes concern enemy action:

  • Shot down by flak
  • Attacked by a nightfighter

Other causes might be seen by today’s air crash investigators as ‘accidents’:

  • Collision with another aircraft
  • System failure eg engines
  • Structural failure through manufacturing or maintenance defect
  • Airframe icing in poor weather
  • Pilot or other crew error
  • Overstressing of airframe, causing structural failure
  • Controlled flight into terrain
  • Running out of fuel causing a crash

There could also be some other, more ‘out there’ scenarios:

  •             Hit by a bomb dropped from above
  •             Own bombs collided with each other after leaving aircraft and exploded

This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of all possible causes for the loss of LM475. I may even edit this post to add more if I think of any plausible ideas in the near future. Though there remains no physical evidence in existence – only a single propeller blade is left of the wreck of the actual aircraft – there is written evidence that lends support to some of these theories. I don’t think that enough evidence exists to be definitive, but I think it would be an interesting exercise to at least try and produce a plausible, probable cause.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell


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