Attacks on French airfields are stepped up

A B-24 over Orly airfield on the 14th May

A B-24 over Orly airfield on the 14th May

Low-level oblique aerial photograph taken by one of two De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 21 Squadron RAF during a daylight attack on Gael airfield near St Malo, France, showing the second aircraft flying away with bomb doors still open as its 500-lb bombs explode on the hangars

Low-level oblique aerial photograph taken by one of two De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 21 Squadron RAF during a daylight attack on Gael airfield near St Malo, France, showing the second aircraft flying away with bomb doors still open as its 500-lb bombs explode on the hangars

As the invasion approached both the RAF and the USAAF stepped up their attacks on France. In addition to the Transportation Plan, which aimed to cut the rail links in northern France, there were a wide range of military targets. Considerable progress had been made in weakening the Luftwaffe and this was now re-enforced with a sustained programme of bombing airfields. The same airfields received repeat visits to ensure that damage could not be easily repaired.

A raid on France was typically shorter and less dangerous than the attacks on German targets. Yet no target over occupied Europe was without risk and the Germans were concentrating their anti aircraft guns along the coast.

Flight Sergeant Roland A. Hammersley was a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner on a No 57 Squadron Lancaster:

On 7/8 May operations were again shown as ‘on’ for the night, and were to provide my third visit to the airfield at Tours. We had real problems after a fairly uneventful flight out into France; when running up to the target at 8,000 feet we were ordered by the controller to orbit it as we had arrived a little before the TIs had been dropped. Next the controller said that the TIs were ‘bang on’, and we were given the order to bomb.

We went through the bombing run, and Ken at the bombsight called ‘Bombs away!’. Just before this Ken had warned of horizontal tracer on our starboard side, and Bill of a fighter attacking someone on the port quarter. While Bill kept an eye on this action from the rear turret, Tom was searching above and to the rear from his mid-upper turret.

Then things happened quickly. Tom called, ‘Fighter! Fighter! Corkscrew port! Go!’ Ron needed no second telling, and we went down to port in the first move of the corkscrew. The remaining bombs sprayed out from the bomb bay in all directions. I could hear Tom and Bill’s guns firing and the crash of cannon shells and bullets from the fighter hitting our aircraft. Pulling out of this initial dive, I heard Bill call, ‘Are you all right up front?’ Ron hastened to assure him.

In the meantime Tom had seen a fighter about 400 yards astern and just above us, identified as a Ju 88; he opened fire simultaneously with the Ju 88. Bill quickly joined in. We were doing some 250mph on the first dive, yet the Ju 88 passed us in a vertical dive — we hoped that his dive terminated on the ground and not before. Ron completed two cycles of the corkscrew, and although Ken yelled to keep weaving, Ron decided to turn on to a course 323 degrees true.

Already deep into France there was no desire to go any deeper. On turning on to our course and clearing the defences, Bill was heard to call, ‘Skipper, I’ve had it.’ I immediately left my wireless set and went back to the rear turret, letting Bill know that I was with him on arrival.

He was in a sad state, with his face, arms and legs simply streaming with blood. I helped him out of the turret, and with some difficulty managed to get him along the fuselage to the rest bed. Up front Ken had clipped on his parachute in case we had to abandon the aircraft. On hearing the news of Bill he came back to help me for a few minutes, then checked the rear turret, only to find it was too badly damaged to be used. We were without any defence for the rear end!

Mack told us that we were about 50 miles from the French coast. This also reminded us of the briefing before the operation when we were told of the heavy coastal defences, in particular the light anti-aircraft batteries. After injecting pain—killing drugs into Bill’s arms, I acted as another pair of eyes from the astrodome. By now Ron had decided to take the aircraft down as close to the ground as possible, and we literally hedge-hopped across France with the three engines giving us some l80mph. Ron’s skill as a pilot now came to the fore.

It was agreed that we should get up to l0,000 feet to cross the French coast so as to avoid the light flak guns. We were nearly too late — as we commenced the climb one battery opened fire at us. Ron immediately put the Lancaster into a dive straight at the guns. I watched in amazement from the astrodome as the coloured tracer fire came flashing by my head and to each side of the aircraft. Later I discovered that we had been hit along the length of the bomb bay doors in that incident.

We pulled up out of the dive and were away into the darkness as the gun-fire stopped. We crossed the coast at 10,000 feet as intended, avoiding the Channel Islands.

After clearing the Channel Islands, Tom said that there was another aircraft approaching, which he identified as a fighter. Ron was asked to turn a little to starboard and Tom opened fire with the four guns in his turret. It was a long burst. Ron then put the aircraft into a corkscrew. The night fighter appeared not to appreciate our gun-fire and dived away to port and was not seen again.

We passed over St Alban’s Head and sent out a Mayday distress call; Hurn answered faintly but did not light up. However, ahead there was another aerodrome, Tarrant Rushton, which did light up, so we went in there, other aircraft preparing to land being instructed to wait until we were down. Ron made a good landing on three engines and called for an ambulance, which pulled alongside us as we came to a stop near the control tower.

Ron Walker was recommended for an immediate award of the DFC following the events of the night of 7/8 May and the award was confirmed on 9 June. I had now completed 14 operations, had flown 14,795 miles in a flying time of 90 hours 30 minutes, and had carried a total of 161,948lb of bombs over Germany and Occupied Europe to their designated targets.

See Bowman (Ed.) RAF Bomber Stories: Dramatic First-hand Accounts of British and Commonwealth Airmen in World War 2 for the whole story

A USAAF A-20 Havoc over an unidentified airfield, 1944

A USAAF A-20 Havoc over an unidentified airfield, 1944

Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.

Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.

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