Library Reference Number: 034
Baptism of Fire
Gilbert Gray is the author of 'Green Markers Ahead Skipper' - a book that is currently being reprinted. He has kindly given us three extracts from his book which are contained in Library Files 032, 033 and 034. Since the publication of my book 'Green Markers Ahead Skipper' in 1993, information which has since come to me from various contacts allows me to amplify certain of the events which I then recounted.
Having joined 106 Squadron, 5 Group, Bomber Command in late April 1944 my crew, 'skippered' by Peter Browne, became part of 54 Base which included the famous 617 (Dambuster) Squadron and Pathfinder Squadrons 83, 97 and 627 which operated Mosquitoes. The rest, of course, flew Lancasters. A month before D-day, we joined the battle on May 7/8, 1944 when we were listed to join eleven other 106 aircraft for our first operational sortie. This was the culmination of all our training This was why we had volunteered for aircrew service in the first place.. to have a crack at the Nazi menace!
Forty-four other Lancasters from 44, 49, 83 and 619 Squadrons were also involved. The target was a very large ammunition factory at Salbris, south of Orleans. For those crews who had taken part on the winter attacks on German targets such as Berlin this was welcomed as 'an easy target'. The briefing for the attack did not discourage this notion. What is more, the raid was to be carried out at an unusually low altitude - 5,000 feet!
For our crew, the operation was fairly uneventful. We followed the prescribed route. We reached the target area and at midnight dropped our five tons of bombs on the prescribed green markers and returned home safely. Yes, I had spotted the sparkle of firearms above us.....'Fighter! Fighter! Starboard bow up!' I warned the crew. We all scoured the dark void around us, our eyes long accustomed to the darkness. Yes, we saw an aircraft go down! However, ZN-A Able (JB663), under the guiding hand of our skipper and Ted Carmichael's accurate navigation we touched down at 3.45 am.........but not at Metheringham!!! We were mistakenly at Bardney, a few miles away! Such an error was almost excusable since there were so many airfields clustered in this area south-east of Lincoln that their 'circuits' virtually intersected.
Also, as we now know, we had been engaged in implementing a strategy of attack based on the technique developed by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire (later Lord Cheshire, OM, VC, DSO, DFC). Disappointed by the general inaccuracy of earlier Bomber Command attacks, he was determined that the marker flares dropped by Pathfinding aircraft would be as accurately placed as possible. To this end, his technique was to inspect the position of the flares from a very low altitude, often skimming the rooftops in a Lancaster, or Mosquito or a single seat Mustang fighter. This had been done on this occasion prior to our reaching the target. As ever, the detailed planning of the attack would have been carried out by the distinguished Air Commodore Cochrane, Air Officer Commanding, 5 Group, Bomber Command as, indeed, he had done for the famous raid by 617 Squadron on the Ruhr dams.
Arrival back in the briefing room at Metheringham revealed that of the twelve Lancasters that had set off for Salbris, four had failed to return. Apart from ourselves, the crews of the Squadron Commander, Wing Commander Piercy, Flight Lieutenant Houlden, Flight Sergeant Fox, Pilot Officer Sutherland, Warrant Officer Cunningham, DFC, Flying Officer Bellingham and Pilot Officer Brodie had got back safely. What had happened to those lost we were not to know until many years later... Flying Officer Penman, Pilot officer Bartlett, Pilot Officer Rose, Pilot Officer Penman who had on board Flying Officer Steylaerts: a Captain who was gaining experience of operational flying before taking his own crew on operations.
Before the end of June, Sutherland, Houlden, Fox, Brodie and Bellingham and their entire seven-man crews became further casualties and lie in cemeteries in France, Netherlands and Germany.
Detailed research into our attack on Salbris has been carried out and published by Alain Charpentier who lives in Vierzon, on the River Cher a few miles south of Salbris.. Alain's description of the raid is graphic and one cannot fail to be moved by the horror of the night - in the air and on the ground and by one's good luck in escaping the fate which befell seven crews ......forty-nine airmen.......twenty-nine from our own 106 Squadron.
The factory for making munitions had been established as far back as 1921 and by 1939 was enormous, built in four major sections, linked by a rail network, amid the woods and lakes of the Sologne region, 60 kilometres south of Orleans. After 1940, it was, of course, taken over by the Germans and furnished them with ammunition supplies. By May 1944, preparations were in progress for the invasion of Europe by the Allied forces - D-day was a month later. Everything that could be done to hinder the German defensive capability was being done and Bomber Command was well to the fore in destroying coastal defences, communication systems and supply systems - a role not often recognised. Sabotage units in occupied territory were also on the alert and, indeed, were very active. The local Resistance Group at Salbris, in fact, triggered the attack (code name Z343) with the words 'l'eau sale brille' ('the dirty water is sparkling')
Crews from several squadrons of 5 Group, Bomber Command were briefed to take part in this attack. 44 'Rhodesia' Squadron from Dunholme Lodge sent twelve Lancasters. 49 Squadron at Fiskerton sent twelve. We, 106 Squadron, also sent twelve. 619 Squadron provided thirteen, among whom was Wing Commander John Jeudwine who would be the Master Bomber controlling the attack. He had already performed a remarkable feat in the Far East in 1941 when, in order to save himself and eleven crew men from capture by the Japanese, he sailed in a stolen longboat some 1500 kilometres in 47 days to Australia. In addition, the seven Lancasters commanded by Squadron Leader Mitchell from 83 Pathfinder Squadron, based at Coningsby, would illuminate the target for the crews of the four Mosquitos of 627 Squadron from Woodhall Spa which would actually mark the target from very low altitude...... 200 feet, in fact, as navigator, Brian Harris, informed me fifty years later.
From our airfields south-east of Lincoln, our Lancasters set off between 9.30 and 10.30 into the night darkness. It was to be a 'low-level' attack -5000 feet compared with the usual 15,000+ feet - and we followed a course to Reading, crossing the south coast at Selsey Bill, entering France near Cabourg, thence south-eastwards towards Salbris. Near Chateaudun, a German fighter rose from its airfield, found the 106 Squadron Lancaster piloted by Cyril Bartlett, and raked it with cannon fire setting it on fire but, as the crew settled into their positions for a forced landing, the plane went out of control and crashed beside the village of Ouzouer-le-Doyen, killing all on board.
Within minutes, Squadron Leader Hunter of 44 Squadron was attacked and, blazing, fell into the hamlet of Herbilly, near Blois, its explosion atomising aircraft, crew and village. Somehow, Fred Cooper, the flight engineer was flung clear and was found wandering in the grounds of the nearby Chateau de Chantecaille and became a prisoner of war.
83 Squadron dropped their illuminating flares over the target, and 627 placed their markers with absolute precision on the roofs of the buildings enabling 44, 49 and 619 Squadrons to obliterate them. By this time, when 106 Squadron was due to attack its particular target - the shell house, a rather scattered group of buildings - enemy fighters were gathering and unfortunately three of its remaining eleven Lancasters were shot down within 10 kilometres of Salbris. Warren fell at Souesmes, as did Anderson of 49 Squadron who was on his first mission. Rose crashed at Ste Viatre where bomb-aimer John Smith survived and joined up with a unit of the French Resistance until being liberated when the American troops reached the area in September. Penman and crew, who had completed fifteen operations and carried with them Flying Officer Louis Steylaerts who was on his first operational trip, fell at Loreux. Fuller of 44 Squadron was shot down on his way home at Champigny-en-Beauce. Those of us who remained headed for home via Cherbourg, and Portland Bill, one Lancaster struggling with severed rudder cables, 24 holes in the fliselage and no intercom.
Behind us, we left almost complete devastation. Alain Charpentier tells us that two hundred and forty-three buildings were completely destroyed, some craters being 50 metres across. In Vierzon, 25 kilometres to the south, the detonations shook walls. Seven French people were killed by the Lancaster crash in the village of Herbilly and a canteen manager was killed the following day by exploding ammunition. The factory remained out of commission until 1953. He also tells us that Hauptman Hans-Karl Kamp of 11INJ64 was responsible for destroying three of the Lancasters that night.
Alain and his colleagues, in their document, has recorded graphic eye-witness accounts of the combats and crashes of the aircraft and traced the careers of the lads who were shot down. Fifty-one years later, in May 1995, he had traced many relatives of the airmen who died around midnight on May 7, 1944 and arranged for them a four-day pilgrimage to crash sites and burial places of their kinsfolk. An impressive exhibition was mounted and the various municipalities feted the visitors well. The following year, the villagers of Ouzouer-le-Doyen wished to honour the crew of Cyril Bartlett by erecting a memorial stone in their little churchyard. On that cold, wet day in May, a Mass was held in the little church, the crash site, still marked by a tablet in a field outside the tiny village, was visited and the ex-RAF guests, of whom I was privileged to be one, and relatives were honoured at a lavish banquet. It was in marked contrast to the welcome which awaited us exactly fifty one years earlier!
Many such ceremonies continue to be held in France, Belgium and the Netherlands in remembrance of the efforts of the young men of Bomber Command- most of them barely 20 years old - sent over enemy- held territory to attack and destroy the Nazi menace. The sound of the Merlin engines had brought a constant hope during the long period of enemy occupation.