Memory of Mailly-Le-Camp



Memory of Mailly-Le-Camp


Part of a memoir describing the operation to Mailly-le-Camp 3/4 May 1944.


Spatial Coverage



13 photocopied sheets


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[inserted] 1 [/inserted] I cannot recall the operation mounted by No's 1 and 5 Groups, Bomber Command, on the night of 3/4th May 1944, against the French target of Mailly-le-Camp without a feeling of tremendous sadness, even after the passage of [deleted] fifty-eight years [/deleted] [inserted] [deleted] some sixty two [/deleted] almost seven decades [/inserted]. That night I witnessed the early stages of a slaughter of aircraft which contemporary aircrew could NEVER have previously associated with a "French target" at that period of the war. That sadness is more than a little tinged with bitterness, but, nevertheless, there IS a thread of personal thankfulness running through the weave.

The four Mosquito marker crews of 617 Squadron were very surprised to be summoned to the Briefing Room at RAF Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire during the afternoon of the 3rd May 1944. Together with the remainder of the whole aircrew strength of the Squadron, they had been briefed for OPERATION TAXABLE (the "D-DAY SPOOF") and had come under the ban from operations until TAXABLE had been fulfilled. At the briefing, they discovered that a German Panzer Division was temporarily bivouaced [sic] in the French Tank Training Camp at Mailly-le-Camp, some 150 km ESE of Paris. This Division was apparently en route to position behind the "Atlantic Wall" and the Allied Command was anxious that this prime target be hit before it could move out again. 627 Squadron, the Mosquito squadron undertaking target-marking duties for 5 Group, had but recently assumed this role, on transfer from No 8 (P.F.F.) Group, and it was felt by Bomber Command Headquarters that this "one-off" target really needed the expertise that the 617 marker crews had regularly demonstrated in the finding of small
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[inserted] 2 [/inserted] targets, difficult to locate by purely radar aids.

Since the Lancaster element of 617 Squadron was not taking part in this operation, it was not considered necessary to give these marker crews the usual full "MAIN FORCE" briefing, but just the elements that applied to the actual target area...time of first flare-fall..timing of the first wave of aircraft (which was to be the 5 Group effort)..lull time for the marking of the area allocated to the second wave of aircraft (1 Group)...Wing Commander Cheshire to be "MARKER LEADER" ...indeed, I remember that the main emphasis for the Mossie crews was on security, so unusually disturbed was the Intelligence side with the prospect of four crews operating, each member of which knew that D-DAY could not be far away. In effect, the bottom line was "MARK YOUR TARGET AND THEN GET THE HELL BACK TO U.K.!!". Operational aircrew were exhorted to keep themselves up-to-date with all that was going on in relation to the Intelligence side of the war. Without exception, the Intelligence section of an operational RAF station was most comfortably furnished and staffed with very pleasant WAAF personnel. An intriguing amount of wide-ranging literature was always available and, at strategic times, a nice mug of tea! In a browse through some of the literature a week or so before the Mailly-le-Camp operation, I had come across an item which said that a German prisoner of war had stated that an operation order rested in the safes of all Luftwaffe day-fighter squadrons in France, code named "WILDE SAU" ...the order to be invoked when moonlight conditions were such that day fighters could readily be scrambled to operate in a "freelance" role during the passage of a bomber stream over France. However, not a vestige of this came into
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[inserted] 3 [/inserted] my mind during the preparation period.

Wg Cdr Cheshire and Sqn Ldr Dave Shannon were detailed as markers for the 5 Group wave and thus they took off some time before the Mosquitos of Flt Lt Terry Kearns and Flt Lt Gerry Fawke. I was Gerry Fawke's navigator and my log book shows that we were airborne from Woodhall Spa at 2230 hrs. The trip down England was uneventful ...the "GEE" radar aid working well and wind velocities soon well checked and logged...a lovely moonlight night with no sign of cloud at any altitude. We were at 6000 feet, a height reckoned to be reasonably safe from light "flak" and below the minimum height of the heavier stuff ...also it enabled one to work without the oxygen mask clamped across the face. We crossed the English coast on time at Beachy Head and sped towards the enemy coast, to cross just to the east of Dieppe.

It was during this Channel crossing that I began to appreciate fully just how bright the moonlight was. The invisible enemy "jamming" of the Gee radar had begun to invade the main time base but at that stage, it could be "read through" without much difficulty. I found it was eminently possible to map-read accurately in the brightest moonlight I could ever recall, except perhaps when crossing the Alps en route for Italy, back in mid-October 1942. I used Gee very sparingly, mainly across areas devoid of the more definable pin-points.

One of the advantages of being in the second wave was that one could see the "party" starting well ahead and the final run-in could be made merely by steering visually towards the action. We arrived in the immediate area of the Camp and it appeared that the raid was progressing very favourably. We had picked up no messages on the VHF
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[inserted] 4 [/inserted] frequency, neither did we experience any invasion of the VHF channel by any outside brodcasting [sic] unit.

Gerry positioned the Mossie for the marking dive we would need to make and we watched as sticks of bombs hammered home around the well-placed markers. We could see that these had been laid very accurately. I kept Gerry informed as the minutes ticked away and at the beginning of the "lull time", our Mossie was perfectly poised for the marking dive. We had just about commenced the dive without actually being committed to it when a stick of bombs exploded across the target. Gerry wheeled out of the dive and climbed to regain the altitude lost and re-position for the dive. Further sticks of bombs fell during this period and yet again as we commenced the second attempt to mark. I was shocked and appalled at this! In the self-contained 617 Squadron operations to which we had grown accustomed, timings were STRICTLY adhered to, and I took a very shady view of the lack of discipline that the Main Force crews were showing, not appreciating the chaotic situation developing above us.

As we sought to re-position, Gerry "buttoned" the VHF. "PLEASE STOP BOMBING! We are trying to mark for the second wave!". For the first and only time, we heard another voice across the ether. "Well, get a move on, mate!" came a calm but firm Australian voice "Things are getting a bit hot up here!" ...and this was the first indication we had as a crew that perhaps things were not going quite as expected. However, no further fall of bombs interrupted the marking process and both Mossie crews managed to lay their markers very close to the new aiming point. We were to discover later that Terry Kearns and his navigator Home Barclay had also had the same

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[inserted] 5 [/inserted] disconcerting marking experience as we had endured. How ironic if a blast of "friendly" bombs (if there are such things!) had delivered us to German interrogation!

Satisfied that the marking duty had been performed accurately, we now readily obeyed the urgent order to "cut and run" and we set course on the return route. We had seen no aircraft shot down on the way in but scarcely had we embraced the first leg away from the target when the first ghastly sight of a heavy bomber exploding in flames on the ground struck our eyes, the obscene fireball illuminating momentarily the pall of oily smoke that was always a part of such macabre scenes. To our mounting horror and concern, this was not an isolated incident! Again and yet again the tragedy was repeated. I tried to persuade myself that it could be night-fighters being destroyed, but each funeral pyre was too large for that. When a fifth bomber cremated itself around us, Gerry said "Not a healthy area for a twin-engined aircraft, Ben! Let's find another way home!". I gave him a rough course for the nearest safe part of the coast and then buried myself in the niceties of "tidying up" this rough alteration to ensure that we crossed the French coast at a reasonably quiet spot. I could not exorcise from my mind the glimpse of hell we had had inflicted on us. My mind grappled with this unbelievable torment until, quite suddenly, I recalled the Intelligence item of the "WILDE SAU" operation order. Had this order been invoked? Certainly all the weather conditions were as required ... I pushed the matter to the back of my mind. There was an aircraft to get back to base and that was my primary and paramount duty at that moment! We landed at Woodhall Spa at 0230 hrs on 4th May 1944, still very
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[inserted] 6 [/inserted] silent and appalled at the carnage we had seen, all the more unbelievable for being associated with a FRENCH target. All four Mosquitos had landed safely, much to everyone's relief ...most of the aircrew staff had waited up, so concerned were they for our safe return. The news was flashed through to Headquarters, Bomber Command as soon as the fourth Mossie had landed!

It was in the debriefing room that we first heard talk of interference on the VHF channel and a developing communications difficulty ...of "Chesh's" despair trying to sort out the fraught situation that had developed and his unsuccessful attempts to abort the operation. The two earlier Mosquito crews had not seen the carnage the latter pair had observed. Dave Shannon's navigator, Len Sumpter, said that as soon as they were satisfied they had nothing more to contribute to the proceedings, they had hared for home. Pat Kelly, "Chesh's" navigator, said they had seen a couple of bombers shot down, but nothing like the scenes we had described. Pat was somewhat mollified by our eye-witness description of the effectiveness of the first wave bombing, but most concerned at the communications mayhem.

At our personal debriefing, I said to the Intelligence officer "I feel we have seen the activation of the German operation order "WILDE SAU"". He looked at me, absolutely perplexed. I said "Add it as a footnote, Arthur. I'm sure someone at Group or Command will fathom it!" ...but there was never any later reference to the observation.

Our worst fears were confirmed later that day ....42 Lancasters missing, 14 from the 5 Group first wave and 28 from the 1 Group second wave. My initial personal reaction was that 5 Group had stirred the hornets' nest and 1 Group had taken the stings. One
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[inserted] A [/inserted] Many years later, I was stirred into deeply researching this operation through reading a magazine article which, to me, did not truly reflect the situation, certainly not during the development of the actual operation. Also, Leonard Cheshire had returned from a visit to his "Homes" in Australia. During his stay, he had been challenged on three separate occasions by ex-Bomber Command aircrew who had laid the losses of Mailly-le-Camp firmly at his door! He had endeavoured to put the correct circumstances to his accusers but felt he had made little impression. He was most concerned that the whole truth should be put into the public domain.

I carried out a lot of personal research, both in the archives available at the Public Record Office, Kew, and also with the two surviving Mossie navigators, Pat Kelly having been killed on a later Dortmund-Ems Canal operation with 49 Squadron whilst filling the post of Station Navigation Officer at RAF East Kirkby. None of us were aware of any VHF interference by an outside broadcasting source. Leonard Cheshire made some reference to such interference but the post-operational report of the Controller, Wing Commander Deane, 83 Squadron, was quite adamant that this was present and had prevented him from instructing the first wave to commence bombing, once he was satisfied that the specific target area had been correctly marked. He had instructed his Wireless Operator to pass the "Commence Bombing" message through to the force on the allocated W/T frequency, but this too failed to get through. Investigation after the operation showed that the Master Bomber's W/T transmitter was at least 30 k/cs off tune, but whether this was a set fault or human error was not stated.

I did discover something that truly shocked me... a Yellow Target Indicator was
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[inserted] B [/inserted] dropped away from the target so that the bombers had a datum around which to orbit should there be any delay in the marking procedure. This propensity in the realms of Higher Authority to assume that Main Force squadron crews needed this sort of cosseting was a constant source of irritation to me. These crews had had EXACTLY the same training as all the so-called "specialist" crews and the navigators, in the main, could reasonably be expected to keep station in a waiting area without aids that were also visible to a very active enemy, especially when two well-known powerful night-fighter bases, Chalons-sur-Marne and St Dizier, were both within 45 kms of the target, with five other similar bases within comparatively short fighter flying time!

The two Pathfinder squadrons who had been returned to 5 Group in April 1944 were not at all enamoured that visual marking by Mosquitos might reduce them to "flare carrying" forces although this role carried a very great responsibility. When 617 Squadron were experimenting and perfecting this low-level marking technique in the winter of 1943-44, it was a duty that was laid upon some of the Squadron's most experienced crews, who accepted it willingly. Air Vice Marshal D.C.T. Bennett, the Air Officer Commanding No 8 Group (PFF) was violently opposed to this new concept of target marking and there can be no doubt that his views continued to influence many of the officers who had served under him in 8 Group [deleted] , [/deleted] after the return of 83 and 97 Squadrons to 5 Group. 627 Squadron had inevitably had some marking "hiccups" during their short run in the role but I always hold that Leonard Cheshire was at his shrewdest when he chose very experienced Lancaster aircrew to man the Mosquito Marker aircraft of 617 Squadron. These aircrew came to the role knowing from their own personal experience what confusion could ensue from "delayed marking" of a target and their
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[inserted] C [/inserted] whole emphasis was to ensure that targets were "prepared" on time. It was quite another matter if individual crews, dissatisfied with their initial bombing run, decided to abort and "go round again" ...the prime duty of the marker crews was to have the target readily available for a "straight through, no messing" initial run. Also, [deleted] Bomber Command [/deleted] [inserted] 5 Group [/inserted] crews were required to adjust their speed along the route to bring them to each turning-point at a specified time. The provision of an "orbitting [sic] datum" was a temptation for the less experienced crews to "press on regardless", arrive early in the target area and while away the surplus time orbitting [sic] the datum. It is to the great credit of the Deputy Leader of the first wave, Sqn Ldr Sparkes, 83 Squadron, that he perceived the danger accruing from the very visible Yellow datum marker and ordered it NOT to be renewed.

According to the post-operational report of Wg Cdr Deane, the Green Target Indicator dropped by the OBOE-controlled Mosquito was timed at 2359 hrs and fell about 800 mts north of the target centre. Wg Cdr Cheshire was the first Marker in, diving from 3000 feet to 1500 feet before releasing his red "spot fires" at 0001 hrs. These were judged to be slightly North-east of the aiming point, which was the south-east area of the Camp. Dave Shannon was apprised of this and he dived from 3000 to 400 feet to lay his red spots accurately on the aiming point at 0006 hours. Thus, the target WAS "prepared" on time. It was then, through the communication difficulties, that things began to go seriously awry. Post-operation reports of the returning crews indicate just how confused the situation became. 106 SQUADRON: "No W/T messages received before bombing. R/T messages were contradictory". 44 SQUADRON: "No instructions received on R/T or W/T. Aircraft bombed because they saw other aircraft bombing". 630 SQUADRON: "Marking precise and
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[inserted] D [/inserted] accurate. R/T bad". 49 SQUADRON, 9 SQUADRON, 50 SQUADRON and 207 SQUADRON all commended the accuracy of the red spot fires and Sqn Ldr Blore-Jones of 207 Squadron added this rider: "Yellow T.I. on datum. No orders from Controller. Complete chaos in target area. Controller inefficient and crew discipline bad". A further comment from 49 Squadron: "Congestion over target to a degree of suicide. 18 to 25 minutes wait for order to bomb". Sqn Ldr Sparkes' aircraft was shot down, but he parachuted safely, evaded capture and was sheltered by French families in the district until the American Army came through the area.

Thus the crews of 1 Group flew unwittingly into a maelstrom not of their own making, but which was to extract a high price for the failure of others.

It is not generally appreciated that Wg Cdr Deane (83 Sqdn) was Controller ONLY for the 5 Group element of the operation, i.e. the first wave. On 6th April 1944, a Special Duties Flight had been formed in 1 Group, under Sqn Ldr Breakspear, at RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire. 6 Lancaster aircraft were allocated to this new Flight and the aircrew, together with a ground-crew complement of 80 personnel, were drawn from the squadrons within 1 Group. This Flight undertook an intensive training programme, designed to allow 1 Group to operate independently at some future date. On the night of 24/25th April 1944, ten aircraft of No 101 Squadron were detailed to attack Munich in company with 239 Lancasters of 5 Group. The main purpose of this was to give these 1 Group crews some first-hand experience of the new marking technique being employed by 5 Group for the day when
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[inserted] E [/inserted] similar independent operations would be undertaken by 1 Group. All ten crews returned safely, and the pilots' reports on the technique and results were very favourable. The operation against Mailly-le-Camp was chosen for the operational debut of 1 Group's Special Duties Flight.

Blissfully unaware of the instinctive cancellation by the 5 Group Deputy Controller of the datum Yellow marker for 5 Group crews, the crews responsible for laying and renewing the datum point for the 1 Group crews kept it marked throughout the period of 1 Group's prime involvement.

Some of the 1 Group crews were given a special target within the north-west area of the Camp ...the tank park. The two 617 Mosquitos were to mark the MAIN area for the majority of the 1 Group crews, and aircraft of the 1 Group Special Duties Flight would INDEPENDENTLY mark the tank park. The post operational report in the 1 Group Operational Record Book for this operation makes interesting reading: "It would appear that the Master of Ceremonies was unable to determine the accuracy of the first markers (?R/T trouble). Delay of 10-12 minutes before Main Force ordered to bomb red spots. Orbitting and R/T interference caused confusion. Red spots confirmed by 1 Group aircraft to be well placed. Fires from first attack on south-east caused a huge pall of rising smoke. Confirmed south-east attack highly successful. Opposition from night-fighters on a large scale- numerous sightings and combats. SPECIAL AIMING POINT (Tank Park)..Green Target Indicator undershot by 1000 yards: next one 500 yards. Deputy Master of Ceremonies claimed a marker much nearer the aiming point. Crews ordered to switch to main area but some crews did not receive this message and continued to bomb the original target".
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[inserted] F [/inserted] The post-operational report of the 1 Group Master of Ceremonies, Sqn Ldr Breakspear, reads: "Markers and bombing slightly short but a fair number of bombs fell right across the target". One aircraft of the Special Duties Flight failed to return.

The reports from the other squadrons in the Group are more precise and expansive. 101 SQUADRON: "Red spots accurate. Station interference on W/T. On R/T other aircraft chatting..much back-chat". 12 SQUADRON: "Markers late. "American" broadcast on R/T. Marker Force continually harrassed [sic] by Master of Ceremonies with questions". 100 SQUADRON: "Red spots marking accurate" 103 SQUADRON: "Target marking good but crews kept orbitting for ten minutes. Nothing from Master of Ceremonies. Terrific amount of cross-talk on R/T." 626 SQUADRON: "R/T interruption. Too much chatter. R/T poor. Yellow "flares" for over half-an-hour. Open invitation to fighters. Congestion at 6000 feet. Climbed to 7000 for bombing. Master of Ceremonies poor. Enemy fighters orbitting". However, 576 SQUADRON reports gave something of a different picture: "Red spots scattered. Germans giving orders, cutting in on R/T. PFF 5-10 mins late. 2 combats. Many night-fighters". An additional 103 SQUADRON report is surprising, to say the least: "Me410 and rockets well in evidence".

There was an immediate post-operational tendency to lay the debacle on the "marking force" and in the continuous and constant re-telling of this tale, the blame, inevitably and unfairly, came to be laid at the door of the 617 Squadron Mosquito Marker Force. One can only hope this account and the true records on which it is based will nail that false impression once and for all.
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[inserted] G [/inserted] The Mailly-le-Camp raid achieved its aim to a large degree but the price paid was painfully high. In 5 Group, 50 Squadron lost four of the eleven aircraft despatched. 207 Squadron lost two from sixteen. The other ten missing aircraft were distributed among the remaining thirteen squadrons. In 1 Group, 460 Squadron lost five from sixteen: 101 lost four from nineteen: 103 lost four from fourteen: "Shiny Twelve" lost four from seventeen: 626 Squadron lost three from ten. The only squadron in 1 Group without an aircraft casualty was 100 Squadron which had put up eleven aircraft. All told, 316 aircrew went "missing" that night. 253 were killed, 24 were taken prisoner and 39 evaded capture with the help of the local French civilian population, a number of whom were executed or sent on forced labour in Germany when evaders were discovered by the Germans. Of the dead aircrew, 95 were officers and 218 N.C.Os. 46 were under the age of 21: a further 159 were between 21 and 25: 33 were between 26 and 30, with the remaining 15 over 30 years of age. Of the 32 aircrew missing from 101 Squadron at RAF Ludford Magna, only two survived as prisoners of war, the other thirty having been killed in action. "Shiny Twelve's" missing proved to be 21 dead, 2 prisoners of war and 6 evaders, all six from the crew of Fg Off G Maxwell. It adds to the sorrow of these heavy losses to realise that a proportion of the missing crews had survived the massacre of the March 31st operation against Nuremburg!

Such multiple losses always tore great and almost unbearable "holes" in a squadron's aircrew complement. The Messes of both Officers and N.C.O's were unusually silent and empty as survivors remembered their friends. Many of the WAAF who worked closely with aircrew showed their uncontainable grief openly. The tempo of the Station would only gradually be restored with the arrival of replacement aircrew from the Heavy Conversion Units, but the
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Tom Bennett, “Memory of Mailly-Le-Camp,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 14, 2024,

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