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.
The main images is amongst hundreds of contemporary pictures in the iPad app ‘Overlord’ – from the Apple iOS iPad app store. Produced by World War II Today, ‘Overlord’ tells the complete story of the Normandy campaign.