Heavy RAF losses in attack on Wehrmacht barracks

A De Havilland Mosquito of No 487 Squadron, RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force), from RAF Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, photographed in February 1944 carrying a 500lb bomb beneath each wing. One of its most important roles in bomber command was to deliver onto a target the incendiary devices which by night provided the aiming point for the main force of heavy bombers.

A De Havilland Mosquito of No 487 Squadron, RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force), from RAF Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, photographed in February 1944 carrying a 500lb bomb beneath each wing. One of its most important roles in bomber command was to deliver onto a target the incendiary devices which by night provided the aiming point for the main force of heavy bombers.

Vertical photograph taken during the night attack on the German tank and lorry depot near Mailly-le-Camp, France, by 346 Avro Lancasters of Nos. 1 and 5 Groups. A Lancaster, silhouetted by the large explosion, clears the target area during the raid which, although successful in the destruction caused, was costly in terms of aircraft losses, 42 being shot down by Luftwaffe night fighters.

Vertical photograph taken during the night attack on the German tank and lorry depot near Mailly-le-Camp, France, by 346 Avro Lancasters of Nos. 1 and 5 Groups. A Lancaster, silhouetted by the large explosion, clears the target area during the raid which, although successful in the destruction caused, was costly in terms of aircraft losses, 42 being shot down by Luftwaffe night fighters.

On the night of the 3rd/4th May RAF Bomber Command attacked a Wehrmacht training centre close to the village of Mailly Le Camp, France, a large barrack complex originally built for the French army in 1902. It was a relatively small target and the intention was to obliterate it with high explosives. The initial marking by the 14 Pathfinder Mosquitos was accurate, a force led by Wing Commander Cheshire. The ‘Main Force Controller’ then attempted to call in the 346 Lancaster bombers to begin the attack. His radio transmissions were drowned out by an American forces broadcast of band music, somehow set on the same frequency.

There were significant delays before the Deputy ‘Main Force Controller’ took over and ordered the bombers in to attack. The delay was sufficient for the Luftwaffe night fighters to get on the scene. In total 42 Lancasters were shot down – 258 airmen were killed.

Over 1,500 tons of bombs hit the training camp with great accuracy, destroying over 150 barrack buildings and transport sheds together with over 100 vehicles, including many tanks. Many records state there were “no civilian fatalities” probably based upon a contemporary source. French sources now tell us there were over 100 French dead, including PoWs and forced labourers within the camp as well as people living nearby.

Ron Eeles, rear gunner on Lancaster ND647 (EA-N) of No 49 Squadron, based at RAF Fiskerton was on the raid:

As a crew we were apprehensive of the raid arrangements in view of the planned concentration of aircraft over the target in a short space of time, particularly as crews were given bombing heights with only 100ft variations in altitude which obviously increased the risk of collision.

Our individual bombing height was to be 7100ft and the target was to be marked by W/C Leonard Cheshire in a Mosquito aircraft. Our bomb load was high explosive bombs only.

A F/O Martin DFM (AG) was to accompany us. I understand his task was to observe anti aircraft activity. As for us I recall he was not attached to Squadron strength.

Our take off time was 21:57 with the usual “wave off” by Station personnel at the end of the runway. I had a sense at this time that something was different, as I did not have the usual exhilaration when taking off on full power. Due to this feeling of foreboding I thought I would not be coming back and that something was going to happen. What also struck me as strange was that when I entered the turret at dispersal for the first time ever the wireless operator closed the turret doors behind me as they were difficult to close oneself with full flying clothing due to the restricted space and I had thanked him……the last time I was ever to speak to any member of the crew.

The flight to the target area was uneventful. At the lower than usual operational height I found my electrically heated suit was unnecessary and I kept switching it on and off to maintain a reasonable temperature.
On arrival at Mailly we were directed to proceed to a point some fifteen miles away and there to orbit a yellow marker. After a few minutes we did not like this at all and the crew were worried as visibility was clear and good and we knew from experience the dangers of hanging around enemy territory any longer than absolutely necessary.

We were circling this flare for approximately half a hour and becoming increasingly worried as it appeared impossible to receive any radio instructions due to an American Forces Broadcasting Station blasting away. I remember only too well the tune, “Deep in the heart of Texas”, followed by hand clapping and noise like a party going on. Other garbled talk was in the background but drowned by the music.

Whilst this noise was taking place I was suddenly aware from my position that several Lancasters were going down in flames, about five aircraft and the fire in each was along the leading edge of the mainplane. I saw some of the planes impact on the ground with the usual dull red glow after the initial crash.

My job was to keep my eyes open for enemy aircraft so I did not dwell for more than fleeting seconds on those shot down planes.

At this stage I did not see any night fighter activity nor anti aircraft fire but with regard to the latter we were still orbiting fifteen miles from Mailly.

At about 00:30hrs my pilot commenced his run in to the target and I could then see several planes burning on the ground. I do not remember hearing any instructions to the pilot from outside sources but obviously he would have obtained clearance to proceed with the bombing.

During the bombing run, with the bomb aimer directing the pilot, there was a sudden huge bang and a blinding pink/red flash along the port side of the aircraft, followed immediately by the pilot saying (not shouting), “Christ put on chutes chaps’. Within a second of this the plane was hit again by flak along the fuselage. There was a sizzling sound in the intercom system and then it went dead. The pink red glow on the port side persisted and I assumed we were on fire.

I was disconnecting my electric suit plug and leaving my flying helmet on the seat when I now come to a point that has always mystified me, and to this day I still think of it at times……..I had a vision of my Mother’s face outside of the turret and she was saying ‘Jump son, jump’, I was at this stage about to vacate the turret anyway. My experience of this vision may not be believed and that is why I have never recounted it to anyone before, but I can assure anyone it is perfectly true.

On leaving the turret and attaching my parachute I saw the mid-upper gunner (Sgt ‘Speedy’ Quick) already opening the door with an axe. As I reached him he jumped; I could see nothing in the fuselage as it was full of smoke and the plane seemed out of control. I rolled out the door in the recommended way although my legs brushed along the underside. Fortunately my flying boots stayed on.”

I have no recollection of pulling the parachute’s “D” ring although I had it in my grasp as I baled out. I have simply no idea when it was pulled.

Read Ron Eeles’ full account at 49 Squadron. Details of the raid courtesy of the main authority – Martin Middlebrook(ed): The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-45. The anniversary of the raid is commemorated every year by British Air Cadets visiting Mailly Le Camp.

Badly damaged Lancaster is brought back safely after attack on Mailly le Camp

Badly damaged Lancaster is brought back safely after attack on Mailly le Camp

A post raid reconnaissance  photograph of the German barracks at Mailly Le Camp.

A post raid reconnaissance photograph of the German barracks at Mailly Le Camp.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Swift May 6, 2016 at 12:46 pm

To David Waldron

Great to hear from you. Drop me an e-mail at Stephen@sswift.freeserve.co.uk it would be good to keep up the connection.

Stephen

David Pawson. March 23, 2016 at 11:26 am

When my mother died many years ago, I found a bundle of letters from my late Uncle Robert Haddock. “Uncle Bob” was a Pilot Officer- Navigator in a Lancaster of 625 Squadron based at Kelstern near Louth in Lincolnshire. His Lancaster was one of those that did not return. These letters state how when he finished his second tour and after the war, he would go into business with my father. What comes through is that all of the 258 aircrew were the fittest, most competitive and talented people that Great Britain could ill-afford to loose. What a sad waste!

David Waldron January 13, 2016 at 10:31 pm

To Stephen Swift,

It cannot be a coincidence that both our Fathers were on the same raid. In fact as you say your father was navigator; mine was mid upper and Mike Stedman was PO.

Please get in touch so that we can carry on where our parents left off.

Regards

David Waldron son of Doug

Marcel December 4, 2015 at 10:59 pm

Hi,
I wonder where I can get a copy of the aerial photo (last one). Can you tell me?

Thanks.

Marcel

Stephen Swift May 1, 2015 at 12:17 pm

This was my father’s 1st mission as a navigator on 576 sqn, 1 Group. They left the stream’s holding pattern to avoid the night fighters and then returned for the bomb run. His comment afterwards on what was at the time only 1/3 of an op was if this is what France is like what will the Ruhr be like? The op got retrospectively converted to a full op and the crew survived their 30 missions unscathed, spending a time with 1Group Special Duties Flight on Pathfinder training. Dad stayed on after the war and flew in Coastal Command Halifaxes until the late 40s. Many of the crew reunited in the late 70s and continued to meet until they all gradually passed away, dad being the last, cancer doing what the Luftwaffe couldn’t in 2006. His 1 regret from the time was that he didn’t qualify for the Aircrew Europe medal, not having sufficient missions by the cut-off date.

Editor May 11, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Many thanks, I have amended the post accordingly.

Don Hiller May 11, 2014 at 11:30 am

Your report on the casualties suffered by the French is as reported at the time, but research with French sources has shown that more than 100 were killed on the ground.
Details are shown on our website.

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