Low level Lancaster raid on Augsberg

Lancaster B Mark I, of No.97 Squadron RAF, piloted by Squadron Leader J D Nettleton of No. 44 Squadron RAF, flying at low-level over the Lincolnshire countryside during a Squadron practice for the low-level attack on the M.A.N. diesel engineering works at Augsburg, which took place on 17 April 1942.

On 17th April 1942 Bomber Command carried out an audacious low level daylight raid deep into occupied Europe to attack the MAN diesel engine factory in Augsburg, southern Germany, producers of U-boat engines. It was an experimental raid, designed to utilise the range and bomb load of the Lancaster, only now just becoming operational. It was hoped that a daylight raid would enable accurate bombing, whilst low level flight would mean that they would be undetected by radar and hopefully achieve surprise. Six Lancasters from No 44 Squadron and six from No 76 Squadron would practice low level flight around Britain before the raid.

Lancasters from No.44 Squadron during practice flights.

The plan almost worked. The Lancasters were able to fly under the radar but No. 44 Squadron’s planes were on the outward flight when just spotted by German fighters returning to base after intercepting a diversionary RAF attack. The fighters had enough fuel left to shoot down four of the Lancasters. A fifth was shot down over the target. Only Squadron Leader Nettleton’s plane from No. 44 Squadron survived. He was to be awarded the Victoria Cross:

Acting Squadron Leader John Dering NETTLETON (41452), No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron.

Squadron Leader Nettleton was the leader of one of two formations of six Lancaster heavy bombers detailed to delivery a low-level attack in daylight on the diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Southern Germany on April 17th, 1942. The enterprise was daring, the target of high military importance. To reach it and get back, some 1,000 miles had to be flown over hostile territory.

Soon after crossing into enemy territory his formation was engaged by 25 to 30 fighters. A running fight ensued. His rear guns went out of action. One by one the aircraft of his formation were shot down until in the end only his own and one other remained. The fighters were shaken off but the target was still far distant. There was formidable resistance to be faced.

With great spirit and almost defenceless, he held his two remaining aircraft on their perilous course and after a long and arduous flight, mostly at only 50 feet above the ground, he brought them to Augsburg. Here anti-aircraft fire of great intensity and accuracy was encountered. The two aircraft came low over the roof tops. Though fired at from point blank range, they stayed the course to drop their bombs true on the target. The second aircraft, hit by flak, burst into flames and crash-landed. The leading aircraft, though riddled with holes, flew safely back to base, the only one of the six to return.

Squadron Leader Nettleton, who has successfully undertaken many other hazardous operations, displayed unflinching determination as well as leadership and valour of the highest order.

The Acting Commanding Officer of No. 44 Squadron RAF, Squadron Leader J D Nettleton (sitting, second from left) and his crew, photographed on their return to Waddington, Lincolnshire, after leading the low-level daylight attack on the M.A.N. diesel engineering works at Augsburg on 17 April 1942. For his courage and leadership during the raid Nettleton was gazetted for the award of the Victoria Cross on 28 April. He later commanded No. 44 Squadron, but was killed on 13 July 1943 while returning from a raid on Turin.

Following were the six planes of No 76 Squadron. Two of them were shot down over the target, including the lead plane.

Squadron leader Sherwood, who led No 76 Squadrons attack, was also recommended for the VC:

Squadron Leader Sherwood DFC led his squadron on the daylight attack on the important Diesel Engine Factory at Augsburg, Southern Germany. With great skill and ability Squadron Leader Sherwood led the formation at very low level across 900 miles of enemy occupied territory – eventually leading all his aircraft directly on to the target.

On the approach to the target itself, heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire was experience but, with extreme daring and cool-headedness, he pressed home the attack with his Section, scoring direct hits on the Factory with his bombs from a very low level.

While bombing the target his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft guns and caught fire. Squadron Leader Sherwood continued to lead his section away from the target with one wing well alight and until such time as the aircraft became uncontrollable.

By extreme devotion to duty, Squadron Leader Sherwood ensured the success of the operation with which he was charged, and continued his daring leadership to the end. His conspicuous bravery on this occasion crowned a long and distinguished career in the service of his country

This was ‘Strongly recommended’ by Air Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris but was not endorsed by the Air Ministry who substituted ‘To be recommended for DSO if later found to be alive’. See 97 Squadron Association.

A dramatic shot of 97 Squadron Lancasters practicing low level flight for the Augsburg raid. The long flights took them over the country and up the coast of Scotland.

Seven out 12 planes had been shot down but the bombing had been accurate. The raid was a propaganda triumph and received widespread publicity in Britain. Unfortunately not all the delayed action bombs exploded and the damage to the factory was not nearly as serious as first imagined.

This was an experiment that Bomber Command chose not to repeat over Germany.

The Augsberg Raid by Gordon Sage. The painting was commissioned by the Sergeants' Mess at RAF Waddington (where it now hangs) for the 60th anniversary of the raid and was done on consultation with Bert Dowty in particular. See comments if you are interested in acquiring a copy.

The Augsberg Raid by Gordon Sage. The painting was commissioned by the Sergeants’ Mess at RAF Waddington (where it now hangs) for the 60th anniversary of the raid. The artist consulted with Bert Dowty on the details. See comments if you are interested in acquiring a copy.

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