Sunday, 22 January 2017

Desert offensive, Libya 1940


Blenheim Mk Is in Iraq © IWM (CM 106)
War in North Africa was not a surprise and had been planned for since July 1937 with the Committee of Imperial defence reversing the Cabinet’s decision to exclude any government expenditure for defence against Italian aggression especially in North Africa where ports and the Suez Canal in need of protection and the Desert air-force was in need of modernisation. The Air Ministry further analysed the Italian threat in 1938 concluding that Italy would cross the border with a significant air-force and two motorised divisions. The Italian Airforce was appraised as already having 174 aircraft in Libya and be able to direct a total of 730 aircraft against the RAF within two months whereas the British could muster around 200 aircraft from across the Middle East with squadrons based in Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Aden with very little hope of significant reinforcements coming from Britain and arriving piecemeal.
   A joint planning committee was set up after General Wavell’s appointment as GOC-in-C of the Middle East in August 1939 with the newly created Air Officer commanding in Chief Longmore with the aim of working with the Egyptian Government and local commanders in the Middle East to coordinate against the Italian aggression.
   The main aim of the defence policy in the Air Ministry’s mind was to centralise their control of their forces but maintain a flexible approach but bringing in support from artillery and fighter forces but the Committee assigned the limited fighter forces to the Defence commander removing the flexible approach. The Air Council also believed that the key to victory was to destroy as many Italian Bombers before they reached their targets but the tactic that the Fortress Commander was likely to employ meant that the three fighter squadrons available would be scattered to the desired defence points and perform standing patrols. Not only did this blunt the offensive power of the fighters but would also mean they were unavailable for escort missions for the Blenheim squadrons based in Egypt who were ideally placed to carry out pre-emptive strikes on the Regia Aeronautica or their bases. Although fighter organisation was modified by the Air Ministry its primary role was for defence against the Italians with a secondary role for ground attack whist at the same time ongoing talks were attempting to expand the Bomber forces with two wings deployed to the Nile Delta and two squadrons for Army co-operation to be put at the disposal of Wavell in the Western Desert with communications passing from GOC HQ to the Squadrons rapidly with targets to be hit.
   The Director of operations at the Air Ministry was keen to affect a German style approach and strike the opposition as quickly as possible with potential targets being the Italian depots and supply system and the Italian Airforce on the ground well aware that there was no repair facility in Libya which could cope with major maintenance projects meaning even moderate damage to an aircraft would result in it being a write off or being shipped back to Italy. As the RAF carried out Douhet’s vision the Royal Navy and French could disrupt resupply across the Mediterranean cutting their supply line to Italian East Africa as well as Libya.
   The relatively small British force was assigned to carry out army cooperation, assault the supply
Regia Aeronautica SM 79 escorted by Fiats
 
system and Regia Aeronautica whilst providing support to the Royal Navy. A very ambitious target considering that by the 10 June 1940 AHQ in Egypt had five squadrons of Blenheim Mk Is and one squadron each of Bristol Bombay and Valentia transports that could be converted to carry a 2000 lb and 2200 lb bomb loads respectively on underwing racks. A reinforcement plan had been implemented which saw the obsolete aircraft in the theatre gradual replaced with the Blenheim with 211 Squadron being the first in April 1939, 45 squadron in June and 113 squadron by September as were 30 and 55 squadrons who were transferred from Iraq giving a total strength of 132 Blenheims and the possibility of another squadron to follow. There was also a plan for up to twelve heavy bomber squadrons to come from Britain with the Bombays and Valentias filling the gap until they arrived but it was a gap that widened as events overtook the theatre with the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens being held through 1940 for operations against the more pressing enemy, Germany.
   Another crisis facing the RAF in the Middle East was a distinct shortage of spare parts with Blenheim spares unable to support a war condition “for more than a short period” and the official history gave the example of only two spare petrol tanks being available to each squadron which would meant one of the most common areas to be hit would cause a large number of aircraft to be lost to attrition. Sir William Mitchell managed, with the approval of the committee of Imperial Defence, to “borrow” from British based squadrons to increase supply stocks across the summer of 1939 knowing that there would be no more than a trickle if war broke out on the continent. The arrival of the extra squadrons and their conversions to twin engine Blenhims had further put strain on the repair facility at Alexandria and steps were taken to free up space and to get tradesmen from Britain to alleviate the strain whilst the older, more obsolete aircraft were being packed away for dispatch to Afghanistan.
   A further facility was established at Abu Sueir to supply the operational squadrons with an aircraft storage section to provide spares, equipment and stores whilst a pilot training school was moved to the safety of Iraq. A motorised transport infrastructure was also increased as it was not adequate enough to get the supplies and squadrons to their forward bases. By December these facilities were far from perfect with them still geared to repairing single engine aircraft which would cause problems for the Blenheims who required engine replacement after 225 flying hours, the equivalent of two months of flying meaning that sixty engines would need replacing a month but the facilities could only cope with ten aircraft a month.
   Blenheim bombers were having a difficult time acclimatising to the sand with their intakes being close to the ground and very rapidly filling with sand which meant regular cleaning but there was a shortage of cleaning equipment as well as spare parts for the Lewis guns and the Blenheims Vickers K and 250 lb bombs with projections showing that after fourteen days of maximum effort the bomber force would be useless. Dust and sand would permeate into dials and interfered with the airscrews whilst the heat would make the cockpit’s Perspex crack or pop out of its fittings which put further strains on the maintenance crews, a strain not exerted by the older obsolete aircraft who had their own faults in the fact that once their spares ran out there would be no more. The sand thrown up by the aircraft taking off was so thick that pilots visibility would be next to nothing so the bombers would take off in a line abreast formation.
   The airfields available in September 1939 included five permanent stations in Egypt at Aboukir, Ismalia, Abu Sueir, Heliopolis and Helwas with further desert landing strips stretching to Mersa Matruh south of Luxor with some emergency landing grounds around the Suez Canal and Red sea. The desert landing grounds were very basic and in 1938 it was decided to build camp facilities and amass stocks of petrol and ammunition so that they could be used operationally at a moment’s notice with twelve of them operational by the outbreak of war however they varied in quality and surface including lose sand which was far from ideal. Facilities for the crews were also very basic including tented accommodation with prefabricated operations rooms and cook houses as well as Bessoneau hangers. However by the time war started some were still just patches of desert with the most basic of facilities with the deployment of the squadrons being so rushed that for the first raids armourers had trouble trying to find equipment and ammunition to get the bombers ready to take off. These emergency landing grounds were rendered unusable during the rainy seasons between November and April.  A further six airfields were immediately put into construction with their completion date due to be 1941. 

   The forces and organisation available were deemed adequate for the defence of Egypt from the Italians but should Germany become involved then the Desert Air Force would find themselves very stretched. It was also a concern to the Air ministry that the amassing of the force had been at the expense of the RAF’s bomber forces ear marked for war against Germany. If the RAF in the Middle East was to get reinforcements they had to look to factories in Egypt, India and South Africa especially as the theatre was still considered a backwater compared to France and Singapore as Germany and Japan were by far aggressively expansionistic than Italy.  


The Prime Minister in 1937 had expressed the view that Italy, although unlikely to be aggressive without assurances of German support, could no longer be regarded as a reliable friend. Limited expenditure to guard against a hostile Italy had therefore been authorised. From then onwards periodic reviews of our position in relation to Italy had been made.1 


   Italy was in a perfect position to cut the British supply lines across the Mediterranean with bombers operating across the Sicilian narrows and Libya as well as threaten the Red Sea and Suez Canal with air and naval forces in Italian East Africa. This would be their primary objective so that they could protect this colony. Any advance towards Alexandria from Tripoli would have to cross 1,100 miles of open desert which would be vulnerable to air attack however Italy had numerical superiority over Britain in the air and on the land. Italy’s air-force would need to be split between offensive duties and defensive actions to secure their maritime supply lines. The aircraft they had available according to the British European Appreciation 0n 1 April 1939 was 96 bombers, 81 Army co-operation and 90 fighters in Libya with the support of 444 bombers and a similar number of fighters based in Italy which could be available for transfer to the front to help cover the 250,000 troops.
The Italians had in reality carried out an exercise to test deployment of their bomber forces with amazing efficiency but leaving mostly light bombers behind. The main bomber in their arsenal was the Saviola Marchetti SM 79, a three-engine medium bomber nicknamed “Sparviero” (Sparrowhawk) which was also known as the Gobbo Maledetto – damned hunchback by its crews but it was considered to be “a fine and robust bomber that unfailingly operated in the most difficult conditions with great reliability.” The SM 79 had a top speed of 270 mph and a bomb load of 2645 lbs, heavier than a Blenheim. The SM 79 had a reputation from its brutally efficient operations in Spain which saw only four lost in combat through the war and killing 2800 civilians wounding a further 7000 in air raids however the lustre was waning as the world’s best bomber with the appearance of Germany’s modern Ju 88 and its reputation for invincibility being tarnished on 22 June when F/Lt Burgess shot down Tenente Solimene’s MM 22068 on a reconnaissance of Malta in a Gloucester Gladiator. A further
Gloucester Gladiators over Sollum © IWM (CM 354)
complication was that the SM 79 had no dust filters on their engines and this led to many not being serviceable. The levels of serviceability were compounded by severe shortages of spares and stocks leaving many easily repaired aircraft laying around useless on airfields. The British planners were concerned by the bomber force available to the Italians and their projections for an all out attack on Alexandria by forty eight SM 81 aircraft, each carrying 4000 lb bombloads could drop eighty-six tonnes of bombs in a day on the city and each carrying six gun emplacements making them difficult to shoot down by the RAFs Gladiators.  The Italian fighter force was made up of the robust CR 32 and CR 42 “Falco” biplanes which were on par with the Gladiator and were favoured by their pilots for their aeronautical agility. The Intelligence officers played down their capability in briefings claiming that their level of endurance was only some twenty five minutes and that the Blenheim could outpace them and belayed worry about damage by claiming that;
“If a stern attack developed the metal skin of the Blenheim will deflect the (50 calibre) shot” In September A/Sgt Blair found out the folly of this as the Blenheim he was in was attacked by an Italian fighter whose last 50 calibre bullet passed through the fuselage with a loud bang, through the pilot’s chair, through P/O Reynolds and out of the Perspex leaving Blair pulling the dead pilot off the control column and nursing the aircraft home.

   With Italy’s entry into the war the Mediterranean effectively closed to the British and Malta immediately came under siege. A few days later France’s surrender robbed Air Vice Marshal Longmore of 375 allied aircraft. However all was not bleak as the preparations for war had built up a ninety day surplus of fuel and explosives as well as a stockpile of spare aircraft but beyond that was a seventy day journey from Britain via Cape Town and the Red Sea through an ever growing gauntlet of U-Boats and light cruisers. Steps were taken to shorten this with an air bridge implemented by Group Captain Thorold in Takoradi with various stops along the 3697 mile journey to Abu Sueir but despite the length of the journey it only took six days! The first wave flew from Takoradi on 20 September. Although very useful it did put an awful strain on the incoming aircraft with a 10% wastage and already tired engines were thrust into the front line. Longmore would often complain to London of the shortages of aircraft much to Portal’s annoyance as his command suffered heavy losses but to make matters worse his protestations were supported by Wavell and Admiral Cunningham, both of whom were constantly making demands on Longmore’s command and found they were left wanting but it was something Churchill could not get to grips with and he readily criticised Longmore for holding a thousand pilots and aircraft as well as 16,000 personnel in the Middle East and suggesting he should return some to England to pass on their experiences to training units.
 
  As war became more and more likely Longmore believed that a Douet syle assault on Alexandria with SM 79s out pacing the Gladiators to devastating and so preparations were made whilst Air Commodore Collishaw believed that his group of three Blenheim squadrons should get in first. On the 10 June he ordered his squadrons to prepare for action and at nine minutes past midnight received the order from Longmore that his forces should:


Should carry out reconnaissance as arranged. Bombing formation as available should accompany reconnaissance in Northern area favourable targets observed especially concentrations of aircraft 2



   The Blenheims of 45 squadron took off at first light and made their approach towards El Adem air
80 Squadron's Blenheim Mk Is over the Iraqi desert © IWM (CM 109)
field by the safety of the sea. A signal from a 211 Squadron Blenheim reported the airfield was covered in parked aircraft with none of them dispersed. The force of eight Blenheims broke into sections and began their low level attacks dropping high explosives and incendiaries whilst excited gunners fired at anything that moved and at the flak batteries that began their belated accurate fire. The squadron began to gain height and reform off the coast near Torbruk when Sgt Bower’s Blenheim peeled away in flames and crashed into the sea. On the return flight F/O Finch had to make a force landing with a damaged engine and Sgt Thompson brought his damaged craft down at Sidi Barrain where it immediately burst into flames consuming the crew killing them all. A follow up raid by eighteen Blenheims of 55 and 113 squadron that afternoon suffered no losses and reported more heavy damage to the airfield and the aircraft still on the field and only the final raid’s B flight was chased by CR 32s who attacked from 12,000 feet diving down onto the Blenheims who were flying in a lose formation. Despite accurate fire they were easily outrun with the limited endurance possessed by the fighters showing through rather than the skill of the gunners. A/Sgt Ian Blair of 113 squadron had taken drums of a hundred rounds of ammunition rather than the usual sixty so that he would be able to fire longer and was found himself firing wildly at one aggressive CR 32 who pressed his attacks home.



This guy must have been twenty or thirty yards a CR 32 he was lethal from where he was. His deflection couldn’t have been very good but he was firing and I was going to have a blast at him but just as I was about to fire he broke off. 3


The standing patrols of Gloucester Gladiators reported a similar lack of Italian air activity along the border and not one bombing raid had been carried out. So where were they? The Italian High Command had indeed declared war on the Allies but had forgotten to inform their Imperial territories so aircraft were not dispersed, no raids were planned and no fighters on standby. A complication that arose over the coming months was concern about British fighter superiority as Longmore had made every opportunity to publicise the movements of his solitary Hurricane around his command making it look like several squadrons. Italian planners were hesitant to fling their bombers into action against superior forces which would leave them decimated.
   The first raid on Italian forces was hailed as a success by Collishaw and his men with many aircraft destroyed (actually eighteen) for the ttal loss of two aircraft and crews. The losses, although acceptable by Bomber Command standards in France they were concerning for Longmore who was well aware of the shortfalls of reinforcement and sent a message to Collishaw to be careful with his numbers.
   The following day the Blenheims were pressed into supporting a Naval sweep into the waters off Torbruk with twenty four Blenheims of 45, 113 and 211 squadrons were ordered to take off at dawn to target the port and airfields but low cloud meant six of 45 squadron returned to base whilst two of 211s bombers crashed on take-off and a third into a parked Bombay. The remaining six made it to the target but were intercepted by CR 32s who were easily outpaced with two of the Italians claimed by C flight. The only damage sustained came from the accurate Flak barrages thrown up by the ships in the harbour including the old First World War cruiser the San Giorgio with one of the bombers losing a propeller but managing to limp back to the British lines. The crews of 55 squadron were just as unlucky with Sgt Lulan, one of the observers, being struck by a propeller, a second Blenheim wouldn’t start whilst a third had to return due to mechanical issues. The remaining two powered on but found the target area swarming with some fifty fighters and decided that withdrawal was a better option. The only squadron to have any real luck was 113 squadron whose aircraft all got through. By the end of the day reconnaissance reported the San Giorgio was on fire and beached and a naval jetty was on fire.
   The 14 June was the Army’s turn to request assistance after a day’s rest. Fort Ridotta Capuzzo on the border was considered to be weakly held and of old Turkish brick construction so easily destructible. That morning eight of 211 squadron came in at low level dropping eleven second delayed fuses on the castle but the fuses were defective and exploded on contact showering the bombers with shrapnel. They turned for home leaving the fort still standing but damaged and an ammo dump on fire whilst that afternoon an army formation took the fort and 208 Italian prisoners. Elsewhere tow of 45 Squadron’s bombers hit Sidi Azoiz airfield and three Fort Maddalene leaving it damaged which was similarly captured by the army. A final aircraft was dispatched to bomb Giarabob and failed to return, its burnt out airframe was spotted near the target on a reconnaissance photograph near the target confirming its fate as the only confirmed loss of the day. In retaliation the Italians began bombing the British border positions.
   Torbruk offered up the most tempting target with tis naval oil reserves, army and air-force headquarters, ships of all manner in the harbour and an airfield with thirty-four aircraft operating from it. The heavy defence had precluded attack during the day but had been steadily assaulted by singular Bombays despite the first mission being scrubbed for fear of striking non-military targets. There were encouraging results with several small vessels being struck and a naval vessel sunk. Anti- aircraft fire was intensive and included “flaming onions” and searchlights which were not always effective but none of the raiders were lost. Combined raids were also carried out with eighteen Blenheims of 113 and 55 Squadron following up a successful night raid on the 15/16 June with a dawn strike but the fifteen that arrived were turned back by fighters having not done much damage. On other occasions a singular Blenheim of 113 squadron would act as a rudimentary pathfinder by bombing the port facilities at Torbruk and illuminating the target and anti-aircraft batteries for the Bombay as it approached with quite some success.
   Longmore had evaluated the Italians as being put on the defensive by Collishaw’s activities.”It obviously took the Italians by surprises and, in the case of the aerodromes, before they had effected adequate dispersal of aircraft and supplies”
   Despite this the Italians were stepping up to deal with the constant beestings and despite not attacking in the large knockout blow Douhet would have been proud of, their dawn and dusk raids on Sidi Baranni, Matruk and positions at Sollum with a dozen bombers caused problems for the RAF.
   The constant headache of reinforcement was also started to effect operations with Longmore conscious that every aircraft lost could not be readily replaced and his repeated requests for aid by fast destroyer were not being met with success. Portal simply had no spare aircraft to send and with France’s surrender and imminent German invasion looking likely his priorities were elsewhere. On top of this the Air staff gave a fresh estimation of Italian strength giving them four hundred bombers against Longmore’s two hundred across the theatre. Orders affectionately known as “Muzzling orders” were issued to Collishaw stating that “whilst fully appreciating the initiative and spirit shown by the squadrons operating under your command in the Western Desert, I must draw your attention to the urgent necessity of conserving resources”


 Longmore also took the precaution to remove 45 squadron from the desert and redeploy them in the Sudan. Air Commodore Drummond reported to Longmore that the time may come to face the Luftwaffe sooner than they had hoped.


It is clear that it would be a long while before we get any substantial wastage replacements for our forces which we shall ultimately need most desperately to ensure our holding of this country (Egypt). I therefore feel that we must consider very carefully every air operation we embark on. 4


   Operations were duly cut back to only those that provided the Army or Navy with a strategic advantage rather than short term tactical gain. Other raids were rewstricted to night operations or single aircraft. These cutbacks only emboldened the Italians who began bombing the RAFs airfields casing a retaliatory strike by four Blenheims on El Adem in conjunction with a singular on Torbruk and a withdrawal of forces from forward strips.
Arthur Longmore inspecting no.2 Armored Car Company © IWM (CM 150) 
   A sweeping assault in conjunction with the navy was planned for the 21 June with the Navy intent on shelling Badria which after original misgivings, it was agreed that the RAF should participate with 33 Squadron flying cover for the fleet as well as bombing Torbruk harbour and airfield to keep away the enemy whilst 55 Squadron had nine aircraft detailed to attack warships in the harbour. The mission was deemed so important that reserve aircraft were attached to the formation to replace any that suffered from mechanical failure. Blenheims of 55 squadron took off to attack the harbour and despite fighter interception which chased B flight away without dropping their bombs others attacked successfully leaving a large ship in the harbour on fire all for no lose but claiming two probable CR 42s who chased A flight and were kept at bay by concentrated fire. The attack by five aircraft of 211 squadron on the airfields at Torbruk and El Adem was also a success whilst the cruiser force of HMS Orion, HMS Neptune, HMAS Sydney and French battleship Lorraine all struck enemy positions and ammunition dumps encountering no problems.
   That very afternoon the GOC urgently requested attacks on a build-up of Italian forces at Bir El Gobi. A British advance managed to take Sidi Azeiz airfield following 113 squadron’s eleven strong attack and discovered dummy aircraft on the runways, a tactic claimed to be common place according to one POW throwing doubt on the RAFs claims in previous bombing missions. Another raid on 24 June on a force of 10,000 partially mobilised troops was carried out by eight of 55 squadron all reporting to drop bombs in the target area but failed to stop the formation advancing on the 29 June retaking Sidi Azeiz and Fort Capuzzo.
   Other operations were more successful including preparing to meet a rumoured Italian division at Solum and more single aircraft night raids including on the night of the 22/3 June when a lone Blenheim was guided into the target by the Italians who believed it was a friendly aircraft coming in to land and received a stick of bombs.
   The most successful attack was carried out on 27 June following information that the Italians were massing their aircraft at El Adem to El Gutti providing a temporary target. Twelve aircraft of 55 and 211 squadron attacked at dusk and caught around a hundred Italian aircraft on the runway and oil tanks in Torbruk four miles north west from the airfield. Despite heavy flak the Blenheims reported no fighters or serious damage. The follow up attack by 114 squadron at dawn the next morning did hit the airfield but encountered fighter opposition which engaged losing two of their number in the ensuing battle but claiming two of the British machines as well with a further one damaged. Another British aircraft was claimed to have been shot down over the sea with the San Giorgio beginning the barrage and joined by the airfield’s defensive guns. The wreckage that was recovered though was that of the SM 79 which was bringing Marshal Italo Balbo, Governor of Libya and military Commander in chief to the city with his remains recovered and buried on the 4 July. Further reports from POWs and reconnaissance showed that the airfield was soon abandoned and used as a transportation park.
   Although the number of sorties were scaled back at the end of June and into July the Blenheims were still called upon for further raids of strategic importance such as the rail head at Bir el Gobi on 4 July with intelligence estimating the Italians had gathered a significant level of supplies. Seven of 55 Squadron attacked but caused no significant damage to the gathered rolling stock. Between the 11-16 June Collishaw’s men had flown 106 sorties for the total loss of one Blenheim but between the 17 June and 5 July they had flown 100 sorties losing five but were starting to lose the initiative with the Regia Aeronatica becoming bolder with attacks on the Nile Delta and Desert outposts despite the Gladiator Squadrons claiming thirty four of their number in the same fortnight. On the night of 22 June Alexandria was attacked for the first time by bombers coming from the west in a clear light sky dropping bombs on the quayside and AME station. Longmore had to remain rigid though; Defensive operations but local offensive if opportune. 

  One such attack saw Collishaw working closely with his naval colleagues and dispatched nine bombers with six Gladiator escorts to attack the Bomba seaplane base whose aircraft had been harassing the Royal Navy. In a swift low-level attack saw the fifteen seaplanes on the base and their slipways bombed whilst the fighters strafed the area and set fire to a massive fuel depot whose flames also demolished a tool shed and caused two of the Italian aircraft to explode with a further ten being confirmed destroyed. A further raid on Bomba was carried out on the 20/21 August to test the defences, look for torpedo netting and evidence of Submarine activity. On the 22 August following a night raid by a Bombay three Swordfish assigned to Collishaw attacked the two submarines and their tender in the gulf of Bomba sinking one submarine and the Monte Gargane. The Blenheims of 202 group were also called to provide an aerial umbrella for naval reinforcements entering the area on 31 August and to attack all of the airfields in Cyrenaica by small formations of two or three Blenheims which were then carried out again as the Mediterranean fleet swept back to Malta with a total of eighty nine sorties being flown and successfully keeping the Italian air-force away from the British ships.

  The first phase of war in the desert was very successful with the RAF opening the hostilities with amazing effect before attrition and numerical superiority started to take its toll and the ever cautious Longmore was forced to “muzzle” his men. However his prediction that strong moral over numerical strength shone through as the four Blenheim squadrons of 202 group shone through with excellent performances for comparatively small loss.
 

1.         War in the Middle East Vol I p.17
2.         War in the Middle East Vol I p. 31
3.         IWM sound archive cat no. 27804 Ian Blair
4.         War in the Middle East vol I p.37


 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Haddocks and the bombing of Northern Italy


   As German forces cut their swathe through northern France a large question mark began to hang over what Italy might do. Italy was neutral at the outset of the War but the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini held similar expansionist ambitions having taken Abyssinia and throughout the 1930s had been drifting into Germany's sphere. It was a consideration that the Allies had planned even before the German attack on the West with it being discussed in conference at Aden, Jerusalem and London. the French proposed a grand scheme that involved the RAF protecting Northern France and releasing the Armee de l'air to bases in the South and Tunisia which would cover Malta and attack Italian targets in Libya and Italy itself. Britain was lukewarm to the plan not wanting to commit the RAF to France on such a scale but promised to reassess should "the most need in war" require Tunisia to be reinforced. On the 3 May 1940 the Director of Plans laid out a strategy involving night attacks or with plenty of cloud cover if a day raid was attempted. Targets in Venice, Genoa, Milan and Turin were selected as the cities would be easily identifiable by the night crews and easier to find. The targets were mostly aviation industry factories such as Fiat in Turin, propeller, engine and frame work component factories around Genoa, Milanese airframe facilities and the main port at Venice which would hamper operations to shore up their positions in Albania. After these targets a list of secondary aeroplane factories was available as well as oil refineries and tank factories. Delayed action bombs were also to be used as the delayed explosions would cause a "powerful moral effect against the Italians, whose psychology was "ill-adapted to war."

   The first seeds of a forward British position in the South of France were laid out by the end of May with the aim of stationing four Wellington squadrons there. RAF strategists were keen to cut the range of their bombers and the range from the French frontier to Genoa, Turin and Milan is only around 150 miles which could equate to about an hour's flight rather than the ten or twelve the bombers based in England would face. Not everyone greeted it with enthusiasm with many in French circles fearing repercussions on French cities like Marseille for British actions. Barratt was also not enthused by the scheme as by 29 May his force had been practically wiped out and what was left was being stretched between defending a new line near Paris and trying to answer the desperate calls for support from the army. He wrote that;

   I recognise the value and possibilities of the plan, but am doubtful as to the weight of the attack that could be maintained against Italy on the slender administrative basis proposed, while I am certain that the introduction of a new force in France at this juncture must add materially to the risks of the present situation 1


Vickers Wellingtons would make up the Salon based Haddocks 
Wheels were in motion though and the Supreme war council agreed the plan on the 31 May and with the aim of attacking as soon as possible a further meeting of the French and British Air and Naval staffs was convened on the 3 June in Paris. Despite the previous discussions the French were now wavering towards a naval bombardment of Genoa and there was  concern that the simple fact of four squadrons of bombers at the end of a line of communication, a line which could be broken at any time by the Germans in the North leaving them stranded 600 miles from home were hardly going to shatter Italy alone despite the RAF Air staff' s optimistic view that an attack, however small and brief might cause "effects of outstanding importance.” Barratt was given only administrative control over the new force and responsibility for establishing their bases and logistics but not given operational responsibilities.

   Group Captain Field of 71 wing was placed in command of the newly dubbed "Haddock force" and he moved from Nantes, where he had been based following his units withdrawal on 17 May, to the French airfields of Salon and Le Vallon which sat 30 miles away from Marseille and about 250 miles from Turin. Field organised the incoming fuel and ammunition trains and a week later on the 10 June he reported all was ready. Barratt had even been able to donate some of the AASF'S Bofors guns and a battery of thirteen 3 inch guns which had been at Nantes and whose defences were due to be reinforced by more units from Britain though they had not arrived by the 10 June.

     There had of course been a chance of plan as the situation in Northern France deteriorated and the AASF and Air component withdrawing to Nantes, Rennes, and ... whilst the BEF were withdrawing from Dunkirk. The Air staff, presumably not wishing to risk personnel and invaluable aircraft had instead decided to a squadron down for two nights then replace it with another one with operations being escalated if the situation improved. There was also a shortage of fighter aircraft to act as an escort or for protection of the airfields as the three French squadrons who had been in the area on the 3 June were no longer there, three more could be sent if the British sent twenty squadrons to assist in the Northern sector - something Dowding was resisting as he felt that every available fighter would be needed for a German attack on Britain, and Barratt had none available from his command. It wouldn't mean much as RAF tacticians had appraised the weather over Italy as cloudy enough to provide cover for the day bombers and that in any event the Italian fighter force would not be adequate to intercept them.

   At 4:30 p.m. (Rome time) on the 10 June a declaration of war was handed to the French ambassador and to the British at 4:45 and Mussolini announced to a crowd from a balcony at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome that he had taken the country to war. The following day twelve Wellingtons were sent to Salon to refuel and arm for a night raid on Turin and would be reinforced by thirty six Whitleys who would fly to the Channel Islands to refuel before setting off. The Wellingtons duly arrived in Salon at 3:30 p.m. and the crews began to recover and rest after the seven hour flight and prepare for the evening's assault. Not more than thirty minutes later a staff officer for General Gama of the 11th French Bombardment group telephoned a message from the General to say the mission was not to be carried out. Field called his superiors for more information and was told that the operation was indeed on and the Whitleys were already on their way. Further French authorities contacted Field to tell him that the operation must be cancelled and even Barratt was contacted by General Vuillemin requesting it were stopped. Barratt telephoned the Air Ministry and was redirected to speak to Churchill who was at that time in France at Weygand's headquarters and was given the go ahead. When Barratt passed the message to Field he was told that the Deputé de la Marine and General in charge of the region telling him the French Government had forbidden any raid to launch from French soil. Barratt called Ismay and Churchill again and was told that the Whitleys could not be stopped and that the French Government had agreed to the strategy beforehand and now it was too late and at 10:15 p.m. Barratt relayed all of this to Field. The situation was not resolved by this though and for the next two hours the telephone in Field's office continued to ring with protestations from the French including the Naval authority in Toulon and even the Commanding officer of the 3rd Army, General Houdermon, telephoned personally three times but by twenty-seven minutes past midnight the first Wellington began to rumble along the runway but came to an abrupt stop as French military lorries spilled out of the darkness and dispersed to block the runways. The local air commander had been given orders to stop the raid at all costs. Field could do nothing but use force to deal with the invaders but decided with deteriorating weather and advanced hour that it was best to cancel the operation and let his superiors sort out a solution and his crews retired to bed.

Yorkshire based Whitleys flew through the Alps to the target area
   Meanwhile the Whitleys had reached the Alps and encountered major difficulties with the weather conditions. The bombers of 10, 51, 58, 77 and 102 Squadrons had left their bases in Norfolk in the early afternoon and arrived at Guernsey at 5:00 p.m. After three hours they took off for the Alps but severe icing conditions with many engines failing or extractor controls freezing up leaving the pilot unable to vary the pitch of the engines and gain altitude. There was also a chronic problem with fluid freezing up in the extractors piping and leak out of pin prick holes which veteran crews would refill the tubes with any fluid they had to hand which was normally coffee or urine. S/L Hanafin’s Whitley, having soldiered through the cold and cloud and dodged a barrage of from French flak, plunged headlong into a thunderstorm and was promptly struck by lightning which burnt the navigator, Sgt Green’s hand and causing Sgt Oldridge, who was leaning on his guns in the tail, to be blown into the fuselage and knocked unconscious. Hanafin also saw both engines stop and the aircraft begin to dive under the sheer weight of all of the ice on the airframe. At the last minute Hanafin managed to recover the craft and judging that he didn’t have enough fuel to cross the Alps was forced to retire with twenty three others for Guernsey.
   Those that were able to press on were struck by a combination of the beauty of the Alps below and above them as well as the relentless numbing cold for which there was little protection. The Whilety’s Oxygen system was also inadequate for long distance at high altitude which provided another source of discomfort combined with fatigue for the pilots and navigators who had been furiously concentrating since launching with only a few hours rest and they were only halfway.
   Once through the Alps they faced the new challenge of finding either the primary target of Turin or the clutch of secondary targets including Milan, Genoa, Savona or Maggiore. The target area at Turin was masked by thick cloud banks from 5-2000 feet despite the lack of a blackout. The Italian authorities had not expected any Allied bombing force attacking Italian soil and were caught out by the Whitley’s approach and quickly enforced a blackout in Turin but failed to do so in Genoa. Flak was “indiscriminate” but heavy without support from search lights.

   W/Cmdr Staton of 10 Squadron identified the target at Turin and spent sixty-five minutes over it marking it with flares to confirm his suspicions and to light it up for following bombers before commencing his attack at 1:30 a.m. with all of his bombs striking the southern end of the target building and starting green fires.

   Just ten minutes before F/Sgt Deacon of 51 Squadron attacked at 15,000 feet dripping his “2 500lb bombs and 5 250lb bombs… in one stick” causing explosions “right across the target.” He was followed at 1.44 a.m. by P/O Oettle who hit the north west of the works. F/L Budden spotted a “Self-Illuminated target, thought to be a blast furnace” and dropped a 500lb and three 250lb from 8000 feet before dropping the remainder on the Railway marshalling yards which is where Sgt Denny’s Whitley dropped all of its’ bombload. The only 58 Squadron Whitley to arrive flown by F/O McInnes claimed hitting the Aero engine shed, the railway tracks (“Causing green sparks”) and a building 300 yards away. Two Whitleys of 102 Squadron hit targets causing “Violent explosions” and fires.
   The remaining aircraft to make it as far as the target area dropped their bombs on Genoa where the city lights stayed on and like the raid over Turin put up persistent but accurate light flak which was unaided by search lights. Indeed Italy was ill prepared for an air offensive on its’ cities despite passing laws on preparation for aerial assault some
   In the coming weeks the French, who had been anxious not to provoke Italy into retaliatory strikes or an aggressive war on the ground found to their discomfort that the Italians were intent on crossing the border even if they were not aggressively bombing cities. Grudgingly they accepted Haddock force and no more attempts were made to stop them. On the 15 June, twelve more Wellingtons arrived at Salon and attacked Genoa's Piaggio and Ansaldo factories but their night navigation, which was hit and miss at the best of times, was interfered with by thunderstorms and only one claimed to have hit the target Ansaldo works whilst the rest brought their ordinance home.
   On the 16 June, the day the AASF's Fairey Battles were withdrawn from France and bad conditions kept the British based bombers on the ground, nine intrepid Haddock Wellingtons took to the sky to target Milan. Once over the border four made it through the pitch black and low cloud to hit targets in Milan including the Caproni factory and the Scato San Giovanni, one crew was certain that their bombs on the Caproni works but saw no results. In reality the explosions and fire reported did little damage and one person was killed. One of the other raiders bombed Genoa and the remainder found nothing at all and returned home to the news that Haddock was over and the whole force was to be evacuated and raids on Italy would be carried out exclusively by Britain based bombers.

   Haddock could be seen as a failure as it failed to cause any major damage or alter Italian public perception but the military situation in France dictated the amount of aircraft that could be deployed and even if they took off at all! Sadly the small number of aircraft operating in far from ideal conditions Field's command could not have done more.
   The operations of Haddock force were not the last to target Italy in 1940 with several long distance raids being carried out by Whitleys through the Alps in the Summer with it their bases in England being perversely closer to the industrial targets of northern Italy than if they were based at Malta. The journey was long and arduous with crews suffering even more from the cold and bad weather through the mountains than they had operating over Germany on Nickel missions and it was not uncommon for missions to Turin to be scrubbed at short notice due to the bad weather. It was not until late in 1940 that a squadron of Wellingtons operating from Malta, began to harass Italian ports around the Naples basin and occasionally fly further up to attack the northern industrial powerhouses but their attacks were no more than a nuisance and were soon kept in check by the combined aerial attack on the island and also by the arrival of German anti-aircraft batteries who made it harder for the RAF. A prolonged campaign against Italy would have to wait for better conditions and the availability of more aircraft.

1.         RAF official history France and the Low countries P. 410

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The death of the Advanced Air Striking Force


The 9 May 1940 started for Air Vice Marshal Barratt in a very inauspicious way at 2:15 a.m. with a call from London to warn him that Germany had issued an ultimatum to the Dutch, however there was no confirmation from the attaché in The Hague though it seemed like another “flap” like November and April. The squadrons were again brought to standby in readiness and although nothing came to pass that day they were held in a state of preparedness.
  
A formation of Fairey Battles
 Early the following morning the Luftwaffe made the first move with small groups of bombers attacking airfields at Bethenville, Mournelen, Berrey-Au-Bac and Reims-Champagne dropping high explosives and incendiaries but despite destroying hangers and tool sheds only three of the AASFs Battles were lost with a further two damaged. 142 Squadron received their visitors at 4:35 a.m. with six He 111 Bombers attacking between 600 and 1000 feet but causing minor shrapnel damage to one Battle and a clutch of German ordinance which failed to explode at all! They received another attack at 6:00 a.m. with incendiaries dropped causing no damage. In total forty-three French, ten Dutch and eight Belgian airfields were hit on the first day destroying 210 aircraft though the German crews claimed up to 829 aircraft destroyed on the ground. Had the Luftwaffe intelligence been sharper then the casualties in the North of France could have been a lot worse with only twenty one of ninety one airfields being attacked with half of them not holding first line squadrons and Luftflotte 3s crews failed to find any targets.

   By 6:00 a.m. news of German soldiers crossing the borders and paratroopers landing from Ju 52s reached the RAF and the Battle squadrons were brought up from Standby to Alert No.2 and very quickly Alert No.3 but by 10:30 a.m. when Barratt took control of the situation at Chauny the Battles were still on the ground. The Blenheims of the Component and AASF were sent on reconnaissance flights and spotted smoke over the Ruhr which obstructed most of their field of vision but vehicle columns a mile long were sighted heading north west from Kaldenkirchen. Three reconnaissance sorties in the norther sector were lost including P/O Thomas’ Blenheim of 57 squadron which came down at Echtveld at 11:30 a.m. with the crew all killed. F/Lt Wyatt of the same squadron was also injured in the arm by enemy fire
      As the day unfolded and the news of a widespread German assault on the low countries was reported the AASF were called to attack targets ten times but it was not until midday that eight Battles of 142 squadron, who had been on standby for two and a half hours, took off to attack a German column on the Luxembourg to Dippoch road. The formation had six Hurricanes flying as top cover as the low flying Battles approached the target but the danger was not coming from Messerschmitts above them this time and as soon as the Battles were close enough the German Flak opened up filling the sky with shards of hot metal that eviscerated the lightly armoured Battles at point blank range. The two sections came in at 250 feet and dropped their four 250lb bombs, set with eleven second delayed fuses. Of the seven Battles who reached the target (P/O Chalmers had returned following a problem with his landing gear) three failed to return. Sgt Spears and his crew managed to escape the Germans following their crash landing at Colmey whereas F/O Roth and his gunner were not so lucky and were taken away to the rear of the German advance and P/O Laws’ Battle crashed killing his crew. Other aircraft were severely holed with crewmen like LAC Cave, who was hospitalised on the return to base. P/O Corbett received a DFC for bringing his Battle back with an injured ankle and his observer, Sgt Irvine, dead. Despite these loses the Squadron’s record of events records proudly; “No. 142 Squadron was the first Squadron in the AASF to carryout operations on enemy columns.”
   Barratt was to dispatch other squadrons throughout the day to harass the columns with 150 squadron taking off in two sections of two and one of three taking off between 2:45 and 3:57p.m. Like 142 squadron they had had five aircraft on standby since 5:30 a.m. which was increased to eight at 9:45 a.m. and didn’t receive their preliminary orders until 1:10 p.m. The first wave led by F/Lt Weeks bombed the column found between Neufchateau and Bertrix attracting a similar hail of fire but Weekes and Sgt Andrews’ two Battles returned with P/O Campbell-Irons disappearing. The second wave also were never seen again after their take off whereas the third wing led by F/O Blom whose aircraft had been hit over Differdange by Flak which ruptured a petrol tank filling the cockpit with petrol fumes which impaired the crew’s vision and caused “Intense discomfort.” They failed to find a target between Luxembourg and Echternach but managed to find one near Gevenmacher and attacked at 100 feet and strafed with forward and rear guns but Sgt White’s Battle disappeared not long after the attack. Blom would later receive the DFC for attacking the column with his damaged aircraft despite the four missing aircraft only F/Lt Parker was killed with five men taken prisoner and Sgt White’s crew making a delayed evasion arriving on the 13 May.
   The crews of 103 squadron suffered quite extensively with three of the four bombers shot-down
F/Lt E Parker's wrecked Battle under guard
with P/O Drabble, Sgt Smith and LAC Lamble were all killed as were Sgt Poole and LAC Hutchinson of Sgt Lowne’s crew whereas P/O Wells and his crew as well as Lowne were all captured.



   The 10 May’s sorties showed that not only were the mobile columns easy targets as Allied planners had hoped but also that the Fairey Battle and indeed low flying Blenheims from Bomber Command, were exceptionally vulnerable to concentrated Flak. It was not just mobile flak batteries firing at the RAF but even German infantry firing rifles and motorbike and sidecar riders firing their mounted MG 34s! The AASF report stated:
Even at this early stage of operations the difficulties of operating against fleeting targets became evident. The Columns against which raids had been dispatched proved to have dispersed or to have moved elsewhere by the time the raid reached the area of operations.

This was the same problem encountered by Bomber Command over Heligoland coupled with murderous anti-aircraft fire and the threat of aerial superiority from German fighters.
   A further raid was authorised in the early evening when it was hoped that the failing light would mean there was less chance of being caught by marauding Messerschmitts especially as there were no Hurricanes or French fighters available for escort duties. Two half sections totalling four aircraft from 12 Squadron took off between 4.50 and 5.05 p.m. Although they did not encounter the Luftwaffe they did encounter “heavy crossfire” which severed F/lt Hunts bomb control cable and he retired to Piennes whilst Sgt Young, P/o Hulse’s observer was wounded in the shoulder.
   Through the fire F/lt Simpson dropped his four bombs and pulled away but was quickly informed by his observer, Sgt Odell that petrol was streaming from the tanks and he soon noted that the engine was starting to stutter as they crossed the frontier. Knowing that they would not make it back to their base Simpson decided to put the Battle down in a field in a controlled crash at 6:15 p.m. Odell and LAC Thomlinson pulled themselves free of the now burning wreck only to realise that Simpson was still in the cockpit and hurried to save their pilot. Although Tomlinson received burns to his hands pulling a similarly burnt Simpson between the two of them they managed to get 150 yards away before the Battle blew up. For their bravery Tomlinson and Odell received the DFM and Simpson the DFC. The only other aircraft not to come back was P/O Matthews who was reported last seen landing in a field at 6:00 p.m. but the whole crew were captured.
   Other squadrons had also engaged during the day with 105 squadron losing P/O O’Brien’s Battle and 218 Squadron whose aircraft reaped a similar level of flak killing LAC Baguley in the turret of L5402. Battles from 226 squadron joined the evening raids on a convoy taking off from Reims at 5:00 p.m.. Sgt McLoughlin reported anti-aircraft batteries on the surrounding hills north and west of Luxembourg and machine guns firing yellow tracer from railway cuttings. Despite being unable to pinpoint the troop concentrations Mcloughlin dive bombed but was unable to report specific damage whilst AC Russel emptied half a pan of his Vickers ammunition into targets. Sgt Barron bombed a convoy of thirty to forty vehicles not far from a large wireless station leaving a crater in the road and a near miss some fifteen yards away. But Barron was struck y anti-aircraft fire with a German bullet passing straight through his left leg but still managed to get his craft and crew home reporting seeing F/O Kerridge’s Battle in flames south west of Luxembourg. Kerridge was killed and Corporal Dixon badly burnt as the aircraft crashed into the northern suburbs of Faubourg de Luxembourg. F/O Cameron suffered a similar fate with ground fire shooting him down leaving his crew to join Kerridge’s in a POW camp and him ding in Diekirch hospital as the surgeons operated to save his arm.
   Of thirty-two Battles to go into action on 10 May thirteen were lost and the majority of the aircraft that returned were holed and damaged. The following day saw the AASF faced similar action against German columns with French reconnaissance pinpointing one consisting of important German units on the road from Prum to Echternach on its way towards Luxembourg. Six Hurricanes were sent to cover the target area above Prum at 9:45 a.m. but they returned having seen no Battles over the target area.
   Two half sections had taken off from both 218 squadron and 88 Squadron but none made it through with all four of 218s Battles being shot down. F/O Crews was brought down by ground fire which killed his observer Sgt Jennings and left Crews and Sgt Evans POW joining F/O Hudson and his crew. P/O Murray was badly burnt but similarly captured with his gunner and his observer hospitalised by the Germans at Limberg having lost his little finger. Only P/O Ridder of 88 Squadron returned as the sole survivor albeit heavily damaged and reported that:
his leader force-landed near Bastogne, and that he lost the remaining two aircraft near St Vith from ground fire. He was himself unable to drop his bombs because his bomb gear had been damaged and he returned followed by an Me 109. Of the remaining four aircraft there was no news at all.
None of the other crews returned or had landed in Allied controlled territory with F/Lt Madge’s Battle crashing on the Bastogne to Neufchâteau road with Sgt Whittle killed. Of the missing Battles P/O Mungovan and Sgt Robson were captured but all of P/O Skidmore’s crew and AC1 Maltby were killed. The combination of accurate ground fire and Messerschmitt patrols was starting to prove a deadly combination
   The Blenheims of the Air Component were faring no batter in their reconnaissance duties with two
Bristol Blenheim Mk IVs
of the four sorties sent to the Albert Canal being lost with Sgt Voi lost at 3:30 a.m. and F/O Ballis failed to return from the 8:30 p.m. patrol. The other squadron to see action was 53 Squadron which returned three of four Blenheims with no footage due to low cloud but lost P/O Alistair Panton who was bounced by six Messerschmitts whose concentrated fire shattered the control panel and caused the starboard engine to explode in flames whilst Sgt Bence in the rear turret cried out that he was hit and Sgt Christie collapsed from a head wound over the navigators table. Having brought the burning Blenheim down into a meadow. Panton pulled Christie free of the burning wreck before returning to pull Bence free whilst ammunition and fuel exploded around them and the Luftwaffe fighters making strafing runs at them. Panton managed to load his crew into a commandeered car and dodge a German column and Stuka attack to get his crew into a Belgian hospital. Bence lost his left leg due to his injuries but Christie and Panton managed to escape back to British lines.
   The RAF headquarters made the decision made the decision at midday that no reconnaissance flights should be made in the Maastrict area as the Luftwaffe had gained superiority and it was too dangerous and by 1:45 p.m. the Germans had taken the Canal and occupied Tongres whilst the Belgians retired to the Gotte river and the Wehrmacht continued to grow in strength in the Belgian Ardennes and Maastricht.
   The Reconaisance information gained by the French and the Lysanders of the Air Component showed that the Belgian airforce had been decimated with thirty burnt out aircraft seen at Wunche and Tirlement airfield. Other reports had left the planners stumped as to where the German strike was going to come from with the continuing build-up of forces in the Belgian Ardennes and the powerful thrusts that had already taken Paliscul, Bouillon and Givonne with their apparent target being Sedan. The quandary came as to whether this was to draw off attention from the Low Countries or the main thrust that would bypass Maginot into the French Hinterland but the “unpleasantly strong” forces in Belgium left them unsure. Barratt signalled GQG that he was;

Not yet able to decide which of the two following enemy threats is the main attack, general axis Maastricht – Gembloux with secondary thrusts on axis Bois-le-due – Tilbery or attack in the Ardennes in general direction Mézières with purpose turning the Maginot line.
   The decision was made for them by the Belgians who on the night of 11 May had sent an urgent
Crews boarding their Fairey Battle
request stressing the need to destroy two remaining bridges over the Albert Canal situated three miles to the south west of Maastricht. The Belgians had sent a team of engineers to destroy them but they had failed to do so because they had encountered stiff German opposition which led to the decapitation of the commanding officer by shell fire which also cut all means of telephone communication.
   The two bridge, one near Veldwezelt and the other near Vroenhoven on the M-Tongros line, were being fortified by German troops with flak emplacements and with all probability an umbrella of Messerschmitts. With such staggering odds an all-out attack by the whole AASF was ruled out and a smaller formation of volunteer crews was to be sent instead.
   When the assembled crews of 12 Squadron were asked for six volunteer crews they all volunteered and lots had to be drawn. Barratt did what he could to give these men a fighting chance and coordinated with Bomber Command to attack other crossings in the Maastricht area and German columns to draw off the Luftwaffe whilst also providing ten Hurricanes as escort.
   The Battles took off at 8:18 a.m. with three under F/O Garland heading for Veldwezelt and two under F/O Norman Thomas for Vroenhoven. The sixth aircraft flown by P/O Brereton suffered from a faulty wireless set so a second aircraft was quickly appropriated but that one had a mechanical fault with the hydraulic gear on the bomb rack failing. It was too late for them to get a third aircraft ready and with disappointment the crew returned to await the results of the raid unknowing that the faults had spared their lives that day.
   F/O Thomas and P/O Davey continued with their three Hurricane escort towards Vroenhoven but encountered a sweep of around thirty Messerschmitts when they were still twenty miles from the target. The Hurricanes, though outnumbered ten to one charged into the Germans and distracted them long enough for Thomas and Davy to make their attack runs on the bridge through a fierce barrage of anti-aircraft fire and small arms. The two Battles dived from six to two thousand feet and dropped a total of eight 250 lb bombs and striking the target. Sgt Mansell, Davey’s observer reported that “On looking down we saw that one bridge now matched the other” and the escorting Hurricanes saw bombs bursting on or near the target.
   The fire was too thick though and F/O Thomas’ Battle came down in flames and crash landed next to the target with the crew quickly captured. Davy was hit quite badly and he was also quickly attacked by a 109 which made two passes before diving away through a gap in the clouds trailing smoke following a blast from AC1 Patterson’s Vickers. Mansell contacted Davy down the intercom to tell him that the port fuel tank was leaking, trailing white smoke. Davy took the decision and try and bring L5241 back but not risk the lives of his crew and whilst over Maastricht he ordered Mansell and Patterson to bail out whilst he attempted to nurse the Battle home.


Fairey Battles attacking a German column (IWM C1737)
   Garland’s formation encountered the same level of flak but Garland did not hesitate and brought
his formation down on the bridge whilst German trucks snaked across it. One of Sgt Grey’s bombs send a column of water into the air showing a near miss but others struck home with one German truck bursting into flames whilst another struck the first span but Garland was seen to immediately burst into flames and crash. As the other two aircraft pulled out of their attack runs they were set upon by the Luftwaffe with one aircraft crashing into the river and the other into a field. P/O McIntosh, despite severe burns had dropped his bombs and managed to bring the burning wreck into a landing in a field within German territory. When his crew were interrogated the German officer was incredulous that the British had allowed them two days to fortify the bridge before attacking. Sgt Marland’s was last seen climbing out of control and claimed the lives of the whole crew.  Only Davy returned to base that day out of fifteen men who left that morning. Sgt Mansell returned having evaded German patrols but AC1 Patterson broke a bone in his foot on landing and was unable to escape the German held territory.

   Although the losses were high the crossings had been destroyed which had been the main objective of the mission and the German advance slowed. Garland and Grey were both awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously whilst Davy was rested but on his return to duty he was far from enthusiastic about being back on Battles.
   Holding the Germans at the Albert Canal was to prove fruitless as Holland surrendered on the following day and reconnaissance flights, although hampered by low cloud, which caused four sorties to be aborted and enemy fire which damaged two with another failing to return, reported the Germans had crossed the Meuse. When reports of German soldiers on the left bank were reported the AASF requested permission to attack but it took the BAFF HQ three quarters of an hour later it was decided that no attack would be carried out on this occasion with the official history recording that;
 The reason for returning a negative was not recorded; probably the targets were considered unsuitable, or else action was left to the French who operated with a few bombers in this area before midnight.
   The Germans were throwing their weight against the Meuse at where their main Schwehrpunkt would be and Guderian’s combat engineers brought up the last of their bridging equipment whilst the Panzers of Army Group A began to access and the flak detachments under the command of Oberst von Hippel began to dig in around the area having been brought to the front with all due haste. The Luftwaffe were also operating over the bridgehead attacking French positions and providing an umbrella of fighter cover for the vulnerable German soldiers in rubber dinghies and combat engineers struggling to construct pontoon bridges. By the morning of 14 May the Germans had occupied a front from Vringne-sur-Meuze to Mouzon with a depth of ten miles to Vendressa-la Nelville. Despite the order the day before not to engage the AASF had been put on standby with operations planned for the morning with three half sections to attack pontoon bridges at Sedan and two half sections at the Dinant sector. The situation was fairly fluidic though and during the night French Bomber forces claimed the Dinant bridges destroyed and the AASF raid scrubbed. By first light six Battles from 113 squadron were detailed to attack four bridges over the Meuse and at Chiers and four from 150 squadron took off at 7:35 a.m. to attack pontoon bridges at the island north of Villers and between Romilly and Allincourt. Both raids reported intense anti-aircraft fire from German positions but no fighters. Both formations were given fighter escorts with Hurricanes escorting the former and the French the latter and despite one of 103s pilots being injured all of the crews returned and reported success except for the island bridge which could not be located and so instead the two Battles attacked German troops in the village of Moliry.
   The results of these early raids were encouraging especially considering the levels of loss experienced on the previous days. As the crews debriefed and supplied the Intelligence officers with fresh reports on the German disposition plans were being drawn up for attack on German columns near Breda. By 12:15 p.m. the French contacted Barratt and pleaded for all of the help he had available to stop the German advance. There was a major thrust developing in the Dinant sector but more importantly the Sedan bubble was expanding and in need of checking with the French position being attacked before they themselves could launch a counterattack. General Gamelin and General Georges requested as much help as could be mustered with Barratt contacting the Chief of the Air Staff and ordering every possible bomber to be ready from 2:05 p.m. at the shortest possible notice.
   A plan was devised in coordination with the French to see them alternate attacks with three hour intervals with the AASF up first as the French had launched an attack of forty bombers escorted by a similar number of fighters at 12:30 p.m.. Barratt’s plan was for a wide spread of five brides to be attacked by eleven Battles each attack lasting over forty-five minutes with twenty minutes between attacks. Columns were also to be attacked in the same raids from Bouillon through Givena to Sedan with all seventy seven aircraft in the air at the same time.
   As with all plans there were two minor hitches with the orders reaching 76 wing, who were due to lead the attack, not getting their orders until 3 p.m. and not getting airborne until 3:25 p.m. and, although of little impact, only seventy-one aircraft took off.
   The delay in orders meant the Battles did not arrive in order and it is difficult to say who arrived first but 12 squadron were part of the first wave sending five aircraft to attack columns and lost four including Acting F/o Clancy who was also the acting commander of B-flight who came down at Pourn-St Rémy where Clancy was taken prisoner and his crew buried. A-Flight’s Commander, F/O Vaughan faired little better despite dropping his bombs on the road between Sedan and Givonne he was brought down and killed along with his observer Sgt Shelton-Jones. Vaughn’s gunner, J. D. Wright along with Sgt Winkler’s crew were taken prisoner. The soul survivor, P/O McElligott returned to base at 4:24 p.m. having witnessed Vaughan’s attack and the German flak emplacements following his successful bombing run.
   The eight Battles of 142 squadron led by Squadron Leader Hobler were met by not only a hail of anti-aircraft fire but also standing patrols of Messerschmitts from Jg 26, Jg 27 and Jg 53 which proceeded to engage the helpless British aircraft quickly claiming F/Sgt Spears’ P2333 which came down at Choloy killing two of the crew but were repulsed by AC Greenall manning F/O Reed’s gun who claimed to have shot down one of the German fighters. Hobler also fell to the Bf 109s and was badly burnt but was assisted by his crew, Sgt Kitto and Cpl Barbrooke who helped him to evade capture. On his return the gallant Squadron leader was hospitalised and eventually evacuated. F/Lt Wight and P/O Chalmers attacked the bridges with success and returned to Berry-au-bac reporting that they had seen fresh bridge works being built on both sides of the river. They were eventually joined by Sgt Spears and P/O Oakley and his crew who had managed to escape from a forced landing at Eely leaving the only unaccounted for aircraft being F/Lt Rogers who was posted as missing but was in fact killed with his whole crew. With the high numbers of crews returning it could be argued that 147 squadrons losses were less severe than others as aircraft were easily replaced but with the pressure building on the AASF both were rapidly becoming short supply.
   The last wave from 76 wing was 226 squadron who were similarly mauled with all of the aircraft sustaining damage with Sgt Annau having to abandon his attack having had his bomb release gear shot away by flak along with his left aileron and tail plane! Squadron Leader Lockett was seen crashing in flames with only one parachute spotted and was swiftly followed by P/O Dawn and Sgt Moseley. Two Battles hit the target and returned having absorbed a lot of fire from ground forces and in the pilot’s opinion, possibly from the French!
The worst losses were felt by 105 squadron’s Battles who took off from Villeneuve-les-Vertas at 3:40 p.m. to attack three bridges over the Meuse and encountered intense flak with five Battles falling in ten minutes with four of the crews killed and fifth returning by car to the airfield later that day whilst P/O Murray’s forced landing in a heavily damaged bomber on the airfield but perhaps the luckiest escape was that of F/O Gibson who came down behind enemy lines and finding himself and his crew captured by the Germans. Seizing on an opportunity he slipped away from his guards and made it back to French lines where due to his injuries he was admitted to hospital which is where his luck ran out as he was still being treated when the Germans overtook him and he re-joined his men in captivity. The Battles of 150 Squadron who had had such relative success in the morning engaged again and dispatched four aircraft to attack the pontoon bridges but all were lost in quick succession After the first bloodless sorties carried out by the squadron the four afternoon sorties were wiped out with one survivor, LAC Summerson. The other eleven men were all killed and buried in Choloy, Douzy and Donchery cemeteries.
   The German fighter patrols were growing in number with fighters of JG 26 and 53 operating in
Hans-Carl Mayer as a Hauptman
large numbers escorting their own bombers, of which Stg 3 flew some 300 sorties a day at geschwader strength, and engaging the British as they approached piecemeal. The Blenheims of 114 and 139 squadron (flown by 114 crews) lost five of their eight strong formation with Oberleutnant Hans-Carl Mayer (1/Jg.53) claiming two of them on top of two Battles whilst his wingman Oberleutnant Ohly claimed two more Blenheims and a Battle. They approached a pair of Blenheims with Meyer taking the right-hand side one and Ohly the left and making their passes leaving one burning and then finding another pair and doing the same thing. This time Mayer pressed home his attack and claimed his fifth victory of the war. Feldwebel Stark also attacked one of the Blenheims but following a burst of fire the bomber seemed to stay airborne. Much to his wingman’s surprise Stark got closer to his victim as the Blenheim exploded engulfing the pursuing White 3 leaving no trace of either aeroplane or crews. Unteroffizier Heinrich Hönisch, Stark’s wingman also put in a claim for two Battles and a Hurricane that day.
   One of the Blenheim pilots, Sgt Marcus Potter, was attacked by four 109s with one attacking from in front and three from behind. The German fire forced Potter to jettison his anti-personnel bombs and despite attempting to strike the bridge at Sedan was forced to withdraw with severe damage to the aircraft panels, propeller, cockpit and control panel. Although during their briefing he’d been assured that there would be fighter cover over the target area he did not see a single British fighter while he overflew the target area. He was left with no illusion of the strength of the Luftwaffe over the river.
We expected them to be defending the crossing coming into France they had to come through Sedan. Obviously they were going to defend it.
   The other Battle squadrons suffered just as heavily with 218 squadron losing seven of ten aircraft with only the injured P/O Harris returning, 88 squadron lost only Sgt Ross’ Battle with all killed and L5233 was heavily damaged. The men of 103 squadron lost three of their eight attacking aircraft with P/O Cunningham receiving a direct hit from and anti-aircraft shell causing the Battle to explode mid-air killing all aboard whilst despite injury F/O Fitzgerald pressed home his attack before crashing due to damage. The injury did not slow him down as he and Cpl Madkins evaded back to Allied lines as did the other aircraft’s crew flown by Sgt Beardsley who had been pounced upon by a Bf 109.
   It was the hardest battle the AASF would ever fight and despite the heroism of the pilots flying into what they would call “Hell on the Meuse” they were slaughtered by the overwhelming German opposition. Guderian would later praise his gunners describing the battle in his memoirs:
   There was now a most violent air attack by the enemy. The extremely brave French and English pilots did not succeed in knocking out the bridges, despite the heavy casualties that they had suffered. Our anti-aircraft gunners probed themselves on this day, one and shot superbly. By evening they calculated that they had accounted for 150 enemy aircraft. The regimental commander, Oberst von Hippel later received the Knight’s Cross for this.
   Whilst crews were buried, marched to captivity or made desperate attempts to evade captivity including one wounded pilot swimming the Meuse, an observer and gunner evading sitting with their mortally wounded pilot until the he died the following day and then evading, Barratt took the news of forty aircraft lost of seventy-one and went into shock. It is reported that he went back to his office and hung a “Do not disturb sign” on the door and crying at his desk for the loss of his men.
   Within four days the AASF had been not only been blunted but decimated as a fighting force.