Victory in Europe (VE ) Day 2020 - 8th May

by Steve Larkins, OAM

As we mark the 75th Anniversary of one of the key defining points in modern history, and events rapidly extend beyond living memory, it is appropriate that we draw attention to the role played by Australia in events on the other side of the globe 75 and more years ago.

Context

Despite an understandable pre-occupation with the war against Japan when it threatened our own shores, Australia’s commitment to the war in Europe was unwavering and was sustained from beginning to end, in the air. 

When war broke out in Europe, British Commonwealth countries rallied to England's aid in the form of a remarkable  piece of strategic forethought and collaboration;  the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS).  It was established to provide aircrew for the RAF in its struggle against the Axis of Nazi Germany and later, Fascist Italy.  A training network soon spanned the globe.  In Australia’s case, airfields sprang up in country towns in every state, providing basic and intermediate training in single and multi engined aircraft.  They then progressed to more advanced training in Canada, Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) and the United Kingdom. Volunteers jostled for a place in the queue.

 

No. 30 Course at No. 1 Air Training School Victor Harbor SA September 1942, illustrates the toll taken among RAAF enlistees.  Those circled in red lost their lives serving in operational squadrons, those in blue in advanced training schools as trainees or staff and George Martin DANN in yellow lost his life in the Lille raid, the subject of this narrative

 Britain was left alone and isolated in 1940 following the Nazi occupation of Europe and the successful conduct of the Battle of Britain by RAF Fighter Command.  Her only strategic offensive capabiity was the RAF's Bomber Command, which took the War back to the Nazis.  The cost was enormous.  Over 125,000 men passed through its squadrons, of whom more than 55,000 lost their lives.  Australia’s commitment was proportional; about 10% of those totals, not taking account of the very significant loss of life in training accidents.   They like their Commonwealth comrades with whom they flew,  suffered the highest per capita loss rate of any Australian service cohort in the war.

This is the story of some of those men.

Background

By the Spring of 1944, the tide of war had turned in the Allies favour.  Everyone knew the invasion of Continental Europe was imminent.  The big question was when and where.

A key objective was the need to destroy and disrupt the Nazi supply chain that would feed men, equipment, ammunition and stores to the battlefront, the exact location of which was, of course, top secret at this point in time.  Bomber Command was committed to ‘The Transportation Plan’.  Prime targets were the rail system, junctions, marshalling yards and distribution centres in western Europe.

The Target

Lille is a large city in what is known as French Flanders, close to the Belgian border and the battlefields of the Great War.  It was and still is a major rail junction between Paris, to the south, Calais to the west and Brussels (Belgium) to the north. Its rail yards, located in the suburb of Fives,  became a key target in the run up to D Day in June 1944.   Precision was key - the risk of casualties among the French population was high if bombs went astray.

The approximate route of the two RAAF Squadrons to Lille on 10/11 May 1944 

On the night of 10/11 May 1944 a large fleet of bombers was despatched to bomb a series of rail yards in northern France,  at Lille, Lens (further south), Courtrai, Ghent (further north in Belgium) and Dieppe on the Atlantic coast. Over 500 aircraft were involved; the majority were the legendary Avro Lancaster heavy bombers and a smaller number of its near equivalent the Handley Page Halifax.  In addition, some fast and nimble twin-engined de Havilland Mosquitos were assigned in a Target marking role.

The Australians

No. 5 Group in Lincolnshire was tasked to attack the Fives rail yards in Lille.  It assigned a total of five of its 15 squadrons, all equipped with Lancasters, to the Lille raid.  In addition, nine Lancasters from No. 97 Squadron and  four Mosquitoes from No. 627 Squadron were to mark the target ahead of the main force. 

The Avro Lancaster heavy bomber - prodigious bomb load, relatively high speed, rugged and reliable, capable of getting home on two engines and popular with  ground and aircrew alike.

Two of the five 'main force' squadrons taking part were RAAF squadrons, formed under Article XV of the EATS Agreement.  Both 463 and 467 Squadrons RAAF shared the same base at RAF Waddington south of the city of Lincoln near the east coast of the United Kingdom.  They would contribute 14 and 17 Lancasters and crew respectively, of a total of 85 Lancasters carrying 595 men, taking part in the raid. 

Although nominally Australian squadrons with a majority of Australian aircrew, nearly every crew was multi-national, and Australians were serving in other RAF squadrons taking part in the raid.

The Enemy

They would be flying into a formidable air defence network extending from the Baltic Sea to the Franco-Spanish border.  Ground radar cued batteries of searchlights and anti aircraft artillery,  known universally as 'Flak', and vectored deadly radar equipped 'nachtjager' (night hunter) fighters, to intercept the big bombers.  Unknown to the Allies at this time, these aircraft were equipped with a deadly new innovation;  upward firing 20mm and 30mm cannon, nick-named 'schrage musik' (jazz music) by the Germans, enabling the night fighters to approach unseen, from below and in the Lancaster's blind spot, where they could not be engaged by the Lancaster's gunners.

The Raid

The routine preceding a raid was well established and by late afternoon on the 10th May, aircraft had been prepared, a brief 'air test' undertaken, the aircrew briefed on their 'Target for Tonight' and personal preparations carried out.  

No. 467 Squadron veteran Lancaster  'S for Sugar' survived 137 missions, attested by the markings under the cockpit, and the War. It is displayed at the RAF Museum Hendon.  Shown here bombing up with a load very similar to that carried on the Lille raid.  The large cylinder is a 4,000lb 'Cookie' blast bomb. There are 16 x 500lb bombs as well, making 12,000lbs or about 6 tons of bombs. AWM image

Twilight was extending as summer approached but darkness was closing in and by 22:00 when the big Lancasters lumbered, fully laden, into the air.  Now, these 'creatures of the night' were in their element.  So too were their hunters.

The run to the target was uneventful,  The target was marked as planned but things started going wrong as the first bombs fell at 23:30.  The target marking fires were obliterated despite having been deliberately offset.  The No. 97 Squadron 'Master Bomber' called a halt at 23:40 and directed that the target be remarked, mindful of the risk of civilian casualties below. Bombing recommenced at 23:54 but the defences had consolidated, and the bomber stream had become congested and confused by having to circle the target.  The dread of having to ‘go around’ was universal.

Pandemonium overtook them.  In the space of a bare 20 minutes, ten Lancasters were downed, five of them from the two RAAF squadrons, two from No. 463 and three from No. 467 Squadron.   Other crews reported seeing 'scarecrows', thought to be  anti-aircraft shells that burst to give the appearance of exploding aircraft.  It was only post-war that it was discovered there were no such shells;  they were seeing actual aircraft blowing up in mid air.  

At least two of the ten were shot down by night fighters east of Lille.  It is speculated that another two aircraft may have collided or been caught in the detonating bomb load of another because of the proximity of their wreckage.  Flack, collision or the possibility of aircraft being hit by bombs dropped by another are the most likely causes of losses over the target area.

It wasn’t over.  On the way home at 10,000 feet over the Belgian countryside was callsign JO-J from No. 463 Squadron.  When bomb aimer Bert Fraser RAF called the much anticipated 'Bombs gone, skipper', decorated veteran pilot Squadron Leader Merv Powell, DFC likely uttered a relieved "Let's get out of here" and cleared the target area to make the big turn for home. His crew comprised three other Australians, Bill Read (wireless operator) from Western Australia, and Air Gunners David Croston and Bob Croft from South Australia, along with their three RAF colleagues; all of them knew they weren't out of the woods yet.

Leutnant Hans Schmitz from NJG1 closes in under JO-J and rakes its underside with ‘Schrage Musik’ 20mm cannon fire causing the aircraft to explode and break up in mid-air.

At around 00:15 they were intercepted near Langemark just north of Ieper (Ypres) , by Leutnant Hans Schmitz flying a Messerchmitt Bf110 nachthjager fighter.  He approached undetected from below,  in the Lancaster's blind spot, unleashing a hail of 20mm fire from his schrage musik cannon array into the belly of the bigger aircraft.  The result was cataclysmic with the aircraft exploding and breaking up in mid-air.  Its wreckage and the bodies of the seven crew fell in a dis-used brick pit owned by the Dumoulin family.  There were no survivors.  Another RAF Lancaster suffered the same fate at the hands of another nachtjager a bare 8km away.

Aftermath

The raid itself was judged successful  based on subsequent photo reconnaissance, and the decision to remark the targets appeared to have been justified by improved accuracy and concentration.  Despite the care taken, there were still civilian casualties in and around the railway workshops and nearby workers residences.

 

The net result was that 12 Lancasters from the force of 85 were lost.  With them were lost 85 crew (one RAF aircraft was had a trainee 2nd pilot on board).   It was to be the worst night of the war for the two Waddington squadrons. Of 31 aircraft despatched between them, six failed to return, three from each.  A total of 42 men were missing representing a loss rate of 20%. The impact of the empty seats in the Mess at breakfast would have been devastating.  The base was said to have been in a state of shock.

This was compounded the next night by the loss of 467 Squadron's CO, decorated and revered Pacific veteran Group Captain John ‘Sam’ Balmer OBE, DFC and his crew, leading another Transportation Plan raid.

There was only one survivor from the six Australian aircraft. Squadron Leader Phil Smith, DFC, on the last mission of his second Tour, was flying B for Baker in No. 467 Squadron.  He was blown clear of his exploding aircraft, and managed to parachute to safety minus a flying boot.  He then spent four months evading the Germans  with the help of the French Resistance.  He had no clear knowledge of what caused B for Baker to explode as it was dropping its bombs.  It may have been hit by another, unseen aircraft, or its bomb load may have been detonated by flak.  It is less likely that it was shot down by a night fighter directly over the target because they were equally at risk to flak or falling bombs.

LT Hans Schmitz was to accumulate nine more 'kills', JO-J being his first.  He was himself killed in September 1944 when his night fighter collided with unseen power lines in bad weather

Four other Australians lost their lives in other RAF Lancasters on the Lille raid, making a total of 32 telegrams that would be on theirr way back to Australia advising their next of kin that their loved ones had gone missing presumed killed.  That number would be reduced by one when Phil Smith was liberated four months later. 

 

We are tracking images and the personal stories of these men; if you can help, Register and join over 20,000 people who have contributed material to the site.  Their personal Aircrew log books are the best single primary source documents relevant to their service.

In the bigger picture it was a microcosm of the Bomber Command story, but the losses this night were at an alarmingly unsustainable level for the two RAAF Squadrons.  

The truly amazing thing is that despite this, those left behind and those who followed them, maintained the effort.  They climbed into the darkened interiors of their aircraft to fly into the unknown where their chances of completing a Tour were less than even, time after time.  The did so until they completed their Tour, were lost on operations or became PoW, or were wounded or otherwise prevented from continuing, until Victory was finally achieved on 8 May 1945.  

Freedom does have a price and these young men paid it forward, on behalf of us all.

The Human Cost

FEng = Flight Engineer, BAim = Bomb Aimer, Nav = Navigator, WOp = Wireless Operator MUG = Mid Upper Gunner, RGNR = Rear Gunner  Upper case place names are the cemeteries in which their remains are interred. 

LL881 - 22/03/44 to 10/05/44, Callsign JO-E: 11 Missions.
The first on 22/23-Mar-1944 to Frankfurt. Lille  was this crew's 9th mission on 10/11-May-1944 

418915 FSGT John Henry BROWN RAAF WOP 31 HELLEMMES
427445 FSGT George Martin DANN RAAF RGNR 30 FOREST/MARQUE
430019 FSGT Colin Henry EASTGATE RAAF MUG 29 FOREST/MARQUE
410493 FLGOFF George Oswald JONES RAAF NAV 23 FOREST/MARQUE
10119 POFFR William John LEWIS RAAF FENG 32 FOREST/MARQUE
416443 WOFF Alan Richard MacKENZIE RAAF BAim 26 FOREST/MARQUE
420413 FLGOFF Dudley Francis WARD, DFC RAAF PILOT 24 FOREST/MARQUE

LL-882 - 463 Sqn. 24/03/44 to 10/05/44, Callsign JO-J 'The Langemark Lancaster' - see related story.
15 missions recorded in the Operational Record with the first in March 25/26 1944 to Aulnoye.
15th mission for this crew

407199 FLGOFF Robert Mc Kerlie CROFT RAAF MUG 27 WEVELGUM
407821 FLGOFF David Payne CROSTON RAAF RGNR 32 WEVELGUM
1443752 FSGT Bertram FRASER RAF BAim 22 WEVELGUM
134697 FLGOFR Ronald JACQUES RAF NAV ? WEVELGUM
1802369 SGT Harry Law MOLYNEUX RAF FENG 21 WEVELGUM
422817 SQNLDR Mervyn POWELL RAAF PILOT 29 WEVELGUM
406700 FLTLT William Neil READ RAAF WOP 22 WEVELGUM

HK535 - 463 Sqn. 
20/12/43 to 10/05/44, Callsign JO-N 11 Missions.
First mission to Frankfurt 20/21-Dec-1943. This was their 11th Mission

424519 FSGT Richard William ASH RAAF MUG 20 HELLEMMES
1609134 SGT Raymond Herbert BOULTON RAF FENG 19 HELLEMMES
422414 FSGT Ivan CHAPPLE RAAF NAV 24 HELLEMMES
423878 POFFR Walter Thomas PETERS RAAF BAim 24 HELLEMMES
1459044 SGT Leonard Edgard PRINGLE RAF WOP ? HELLEMMES
425226 FLTLT Eric Mc Laren SCOTT RAAF PILOT 22 FOREST/MARQUE
424888 WO William Allen SLADE RAF RGNR 23 MISSING

No. 467 Squadron RAAF

LM475 Callsign PO-B for 'Baker'. A very experienced crew. Lille was their 20th Mission. First mission Dec 1943 See blog link in Sidebar

1352851 SGT Eric Reginald HILL RAF MUG 22 LEZENNES
425413 FSGT Alistair Dale JOHNSTON RAAF WOP 24 LEZENNES
658844 FSGT Jeremiah PARKER RAF BAim 30 LEZENNES
423311 FSGT Gilbert Firth PATE RAAF RGNR 27 LEZENNES
412686 WOFF Royston William PURCELL RAAF NAV 22 LEZENNES
400495 SQNLDR Donald Phillip Smeed SMITH RAAF PILOT 27 EVADE the only survivor from 12 aircraft
1850279 SGT Kenneth Harold TABOR RAF FENG LEZENNES

LL788 Callsign PO-G
2221020 SGT Charles Arthur NASH RAF MUG 23 FOREST/MARQUE
424914 FSGT Herbert William Reid FERGUSON RAAF RGNR 28 HELLEMMES
417176 FSGT Brian Gordon GRASBY RAAF WOP 21 HELLEMMES
422506 FSGT William Stanley HANCOCK RAAF BAim 22 HELLEMMES
1431527 SGT Cyril DUTHOIT RAF FENG LEZENNES
420870 POFFR William Eldred FELSTEAD RAAF PILOT 22 LEZENNES
1580333 SGT John MELLOR RAF NAV 30 LEZENNES

EE143 Callsign PO-J 
427870 FSGT Bernard Francis CODY RAAF MUG 23 ANNAPPES
2220133 SGT George BENNETT RAF RGNR 27 HELLEMMES
419298 FLGOFF Harry Ronald CROUT RAAF BAim 29 HELLEMMES
414797 POFFR Douglas HISLOP RAAF PILOT 23 HELLEMMES
1891298 SGT Bertram Stephen LONGHURST RAF FENG 37 HELLEMMES
25243 FOFFR John Francis TUCKER RAAF WOP 25 HELLEMMES
424239 FSGT Kevin Campbell WAIGHT RAAF NAV 20 HELLEMMES

Four other Australians were lost in other aircraft on the raid;

414761 POFFR Hugh Donald CAMPBELL RAAF PILOT 23 9 Sqn LM528 WS-D HELLEMMES
423359 FLGOFF Albert Edward TYNE RAAF BAim 33 9 Sqn LM528 WS-D FOREST/MARQUE
425794 FSGT Walter James WHITE RAAF AG 23 9 Sqn LM520 WS-X FOREST/MARQUE

418599, FOFF Henry Thomas WARD RAAF MUGnr 23 97 Sqn RAF ND764.  Severely wounded by Flak over the Dutch coast on the return leg, he died before his aircraft landed.

LEST WE FORGET

HELP US TELL THEIR STORIES

This remains a work in progress

More comprehensive coverage of this raid and related events will shortly be published in a form yet to be finalised.  In the meantime I will keep adding detail as it comes to hand.

 

Steve Larkins May 2020

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Conrad Dumoulin, Belgium, who first told me about the 'Langemark Lancaster' to which his father was a witness, and his provision of information to support this article.

Thanks to Adam Purcell of Melbourne and his excellent blog www.somethingverybig.com and the story of 'B for Baker' of No. 467 Squadron.  This is a MUST READ

https://somethingverybig.com/ the story of B for Baker by Adam Purcell. 

http://ww2f.com/threads/lille-raid-10-11-may-1944.19853/

http://francecrashes39-45.net/lille_10_11_mai44.php

It Happened 75 Years ago – Conrad Dumoulin (2019)

http://www.anciens-aerodromes.com/

Olivier Mahieu 01/05/2009 LILLEMAI1944versionAE.doc 6

DVA WW2 Nominal Roll

AWM Roll of Honour