At the beginning of 1944 the Allied air forces were directing much of their effort to the reduction of the Luftwaffe, in preparation for the invasion of Europe. Intelligence estimates of the numbers of German fighter pilots shot down while attacking the bomber fleets proved to be too optimistic, but they were having a substantial impact.
Elsewhere other elements of the RAF were looking to make a contribution. Group Captain J.R.D. Braham, an experienced pilot, had recently been posted as a Staff Officer. Amongst his responsibilities were the night fighters. He thought they should also be involved in daylight attacks on German airfields in France. The demanding nature of low level navigation from high speed aircraft like the Mosquito would be excellent practice for night time navigation. He also thought they would have good prospects of surprising the enemy.
Braham set out to prove the value of his scheme by demonstrating what might be achieved himself. In the first week of March he gained approval for a solo daylight raid on France:
It was exhilarating to skim just above the fields and trees of the French countryside but we had to be alert all the time, not only for signs of enemy aircraft but also to ensure that we didn’t fly into a power line or a tree. This sort of flying soon had us both perspiring freely. Periodically we altered course twenty or thirty degrees one way or the other to confuse any alert German look-outs as to the direction of our flight.
Sticks was navigating confidently. Soon we were across the Seine west of Rouen, but except for an occasional French farmer or a German soldier, who probably thought we were a Luftwaffe aircraft out on a spree, we saw nothing. The steeples of Chartres cathedral appeared in the distance. We were on course. I banked the aircraft to the right, my starboard wing nearly scraping the ground as we gave the city a wide berth.
It was probably full of German soldiers and defended by flak batteries. On we sped over the Loire with its beautiful chateaux, near Orléans, but still we saw no sign of aircraft. I was beginning to feel disappointment creeping up inside me. I told Sticks my doubts. Where was the elusive Luftwaffe? We continued south for another fifty miles and seeing no aircraft around Bourges airfield set course for home via Chateaudun.
I was just making up my mind that the trip was again going to be a waste of time when Sticks called ‘What’s that?’ In the distance off my starboard wing I could see the runway of an airfield.
A blob hardly discernible as an aircraft was throwing up a trail of dust from its propellers as it took off. It was the dust that attracted Sticks’ attention. For a second or so we watched, holding the ‘Mossie’ down on the deck. Perhaps the Germans were alert to us after all and an enemy fighter was taking off to intercept.
I opened the throttle wide so that we could rapidly shelter in the cloud if our suspicions were correct, for our ‘Mossie’ would be no match for numbers of single-seat Me 109s or FW 190s. We could now see that the black blob was only one aircraft and a very large one at that.
With a hoot of triumph which nearly deafened Sticks, I pulled our ‘Mossie’ around in a steep turn and headed at full bore for Chateaudun. A mile or so from the perimeter of the airfield we flew low over German flak positions and saw with amazement that the shirt-sleeved enemy gunners were waving to us thinking we were one of their aircraft. To keep them happy we waved back! Surprise was complete after all.
Now we were closing rapidly on what we recognized as one of the large He 177s. He was circling the airfield at 1,000 feet. We stayed on the deck until the last minute. We were approaching head on and a little to one side. When about a half a mile away I pulled up in a gentle climbing turn so that the massive fuselage of the bomber was ahead of us. A beam shot.
At the last minute the enemy realized we were hostile and attempted to turn away, but it was too late. I tightened the turn a little to set the dot of my electric gunsight ahead of the bomber to allow for the correct deflection, and pressed the button. A stream of 20-mm and 303 bullets poured from the nose of the Mossie as I tightened the turn a little more to keep my sights on the now rapidly-closing target. I had started firing at about 400 yards and now at 100 yards with the He177 looking as big as a house, a stream of flame and smoke appeared below the nose of the aircraft.
It reared up like a wounded animal, then winged over on its back and dived vertically into the ground. The explosion when it hit was like an oil tank blowing up, a huge ball of red flame and clouds of thick oily smoke.
‘My God’, was all I could say. It happened so fast that none of the wretched crew had time to bale out. There was no time for pity. We now had our work cut out to get away. Back down to the deck we dived at 300 mph, streaking triumphantly for home. A few miles from Chateaudun as we skimmed over the fields we saw a young man and girl run out of a house and wave wildly to us. They had probably seen the fight and could certainly see the funeral pall of smoke, so our victory had gladdened the hearts of two people of subjugated France.
J.R.D. Braham was one of the top scoring night fighter pilots and became the most highly decorated RAF fighter pilot at the end of the war. See J.R.D. Braham: Scramble!: An Autobiography