Posts Tagged 'Sable-sur-Sarthe'

“Sablé bombardé : un Australien raconte” – some French media coverage for somethingverybig.com

Early last month I had just published my 467 Postblog Part LXXVI which covered an attack on a munitions dump outside the French town of Sable-sur-Sarthe on 6 May seventy years ago. I was subsequently contacted over Twitter by a journalist from “Les Nouvelles de Sablé”, a weekly newspaper based the town. Lucile Ageron was her name, and she was wondering how someone all the way over here in Australia might be sufficiently interested in her little town to write about it.

Truth be told, I’d never heard of the place until I saw its name in Phil Smith’s logbook (it’s not even in Jack’s – he mistakenly entered the target in his own logbook as Louaille, a nearby town, and he got the date wrong too). But it was a highly siccessful raid and some rather spectacular film footage of the raid has survived.

Having read my posts, Lucile sent me a list of questions, I answered them, and now she’s written an article for her newspaper. Particularly with the anniversary of the D-Day landings coming up tomorrow, it’s great to get a bit of media coverage for my little website – and of course for getting the story of the seven airmen in the crew of B for Baker out there once more.

If you can read French (or even if you can’t), an online version of the article can be found here.

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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

Sources:

[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

Sources:

[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


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