The Augsburg Raid

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The Augsberg Raid by Gordon Sage. The painting was commissioned by the Sergeants’ Mess at RAF Waddington (where it now hangs) for the 60th anniversary of the raid. The artist consulted with Bert Dowty on the details.

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The Augsburg raid of 1942 was one of the most daring and heroic missions ever undertaken by RAF Bomber Command.

8 Nettleton's Augsburg crew 1942

Nettleton’s crew after the raid on Augsburg.

On 17 April 1942 an audacious daylight bombing mission was flown by RAF Bomber Command against the MAN diesel engine factory at Augsburg, in Bavaria, which was responsible for the production of roughly half of Germany’s output of U‑boat engines. The raid was notable for two main reasons: it was the longest low‑level penetration ever made during World war II, and it was the first daylight mission flown by the Command’s new Lancasters in the teeth of strong enemy opposition.

Because of the havoc wrought by Hitler s U‑boats the MAN factories at Augsburg had long been high on the list of priority targets, but there was a problem. Getting there and back involved a round trip of 1,250 miles over enemy territory, and the MAN factories occupied a relatively small area. With the navigation and bombing aids then available, the chances of a night attack pinpointing and destroying such an objective were very remote, and a daylight precision attack, going on past experience, would be prohibitively costly.

Then, in early 1942 the Lancaster arrived. With its relatively high speed and strong defensive armament, it was possible that a force of Lancasters could reach Augsburg if they went in at low level, underneath the German early‑warning radar. Also, Lancasters flying ‘on the deck’ could not be subjected to attacks from below on their vulnerable underbellies. With the new aircraft, the idea of a deep‑penetration precision attack in daylight was resurrected.

The operation was to be carried out by six crews from No. 44 Squadron, based at Waddington and six from No. 97, stationed at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire ‑ the two most experienced Lancaster units. A seventh crew from each squadron would train with the others, to be held in reserve in case anything went wrong at the last moment.

Training for the mission began on 14 April 1942 and for three days the two squadrons practised formation flying at low level, making 1000‑mile flights around Britain and carrying out simulated attacks on targets in northern Scotland. Speculation ran high over the nature of the target. To most of the experienced crews, a low‑level mission signified an attack on enemy warships, a long, straight run into a nightmare of flak. When they eventually filed into their briefing rooms early on 17Apri1, and saw the long red ribbon marking their attack route on the map stretching to Augsburg, a stunned silence descended on them. Even an attack on a major battleship would have been preferable to this.

Flying south to their departure point on the coast, the Lancasters were to cross the English Channel at low level and make landfall at Dives‑sur‑Mer, on the French coast. Shortly before this, bombers of No 2 Group, covered by a massive fighter ‘umbrella’, were to make a series of diversionary attacks on Luftwaffe airfields in the Pas de Calais, Rouen, and Cherbourg areas. The Lancasters’ flight track would take them across enemy territory via Ludwigshafen, where they would cross the Rhine, to the northern tip of the Ammersee, a large lake to the west of Munich and about 20 miles south of Augsburg.

As they approached the target, the bombers were to spread out and create a three‑mile gap between each section Sections would then bomb from low level, in formation, each Lancaster dropping a salvo of four 10001b bombs The ordnance would befitted with 11‑second delayed‑action fuzes, which would give the bombers time to get clear, and would explode well before the next section arrived over the target. Take‑off was to be at 1500 hours. This meant that, if all went well, the first Lancasters would reach the target at 2015, just before dusk. They would thus have the shelter of darkness by the time they reached the danger areas along the Channel coast on the homeward flight.

The Lancasters of No. 44 Squadron were to form the two leading sections. This unit was known as the ‘Rhodesia’ Squadron, and with good reason‑about a quarter of its personnel came from that country. No 44 also contained a number of South Africans, and one of them was chosen to lead the mission. He was Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton, a tall, dark-haired 25‑year‑old, who had already shown himself to be a highly competent commander, rock‑steady in an emergency.

At three o’clock in the afternoon of 17 April, the quiet Lincolnshire village of Waddington was rudely shaken by the roar of 24 Rolls Royce Merlins as No. 44 Squadron’s six Lancasters took off and headed south for Selsey Bill, the promontory of land jutting out into the Channel between Portsmouth and Bognor Regis. Ten miles due east, at Woodhall Spa, the six bombers of No. 97 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader Sherwood, were also taking off.

Each section left Selsey Bill bang on schedule, the sea a blur below the Lancasters as they sped on. The bombers to left and right of Nettleton were piloted by Flying Officer John Garwell and Warrant Officer Rhodes; the Lancasters in the following section were flown by Flight Lieutenant Sandford, Warrant Officer Crum, and Warrant Officer Beckett. The sky was clear and the hot afternoon sun beat down through the Perspex of cockpits and gun turrets. Before they reached the French coast, most of the crews were flying in shirt sleeves.

The bombers were flying over wooded, hilly country near Breteuil when the flak hit them. Lines of tracer from concealed gun positions met the speeding Lancasters, and the ugly black stains of shell-bursts dotted the sky around them. Shrapnel ripped into two of the aircraft, but they held their course. The most serious damage was to Warrant Officer Beckett’s machine, which had its rear gun turret put out of action.

Then, near Evreux, the Lancaster formation was spotted by enemy fighters. A Messerschmitt Bf 109 came streaking in, singling out Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster (in 44’s second section) for his first firing pass. Bullets tore through the cockpit canopy, showering Crum and his navigator, Rhodesian Alan Dedman, with razor‑sharp slivers of Perspex. Dedman looked across at the pilot and saw blood streaming down his face, but when he went to help, Crum just grinned and waved him away. The Lancaster’s own guns hammered, there was a fleeting glimpse of the 109’s pale grey, oil‑streaked belly as it flashed overhead, and then it was gone.

The Lancasters closed up into even tighter formation as 30 more Messerschmitts pounced on them like sharks It was the first time that Luftwaffe fighters had encountered Lancasters, and to begin with the enemy pilots showed a certain amount of caution until they got the measure of the new bomber’s defences. As soon as they realised that its defensive armament consisted of. 303in machine gun:, however, they began to press home their attacks skillfully, coming m from the port quarter and opening fire with their cannon at about 700yds, At 400yds, the limit of the 303’s effective range, they broke away sharply and climbed to repeat the process.

Warrant Officer Beckett was the first to go. A great ball of orange flame ballooned from a wing of his aircraft as cannon shells hit a fuel tank. Seconds later the bomber was a mass of fire. Slowly, the nose went down Spewing burning fragments, the shattered Lancaster hit a clump of trees and disintegrated.

Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster, its wings and fuselage ripped and torn, came under attack by three enemy fighters Both the mid‑upper and rear gunners were wounded, and then the port wing fuel tank burst into flames The bomber wallowed on, almost out of control Crum, half‑blinded by the blood streaming from his face wounds, fought to hold the wings level and ordered Alan Dedman to jettison the bombs which had not yet been armed The 1000‑pounders dropped away, and a few moments later Crum managed to put the crippled aircraft down on her belly. The Lancaster tore across a wheat field and dewed to a stop on the far side. The crew, badly shaken and bruised but otherwise unhurt, broke all records in getting out of the wreck, convinced that it was going to explode in flames But the fire in the wing went out, so Crum used an axe from the bomber’s escape kit to make holes in the fuel tanks and threw a match into the resulting pool of petrol. Within a couple of minutes the aircraft was burning nicely, and there would only be a very charred carcass left for the Luftwaffe experts to examine.

Crum and his crew split up into pairs and set out on the long walk through Occupied France to Bordeaux, where they knew they could make contact with members of the French Resistance. All of them, however, were rounded up by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in POW camps.

With Beckett and Crum gone, only Flight Lieutenant Sandford was left of the three Lancasters m the second section. Sandford, a quiet lover of music who amused his colleagues because he always wore pajamas under his flying suit for luck, was one of the most popular officers on No 44 Squadron. Now his luck had run out, and he was fighting for his life. In a desperate bid to escape from a swarm of Messerschmitts, he eased his great bomber down underneath some high‑tension cables. But the Lancaster dug a wingtip into the ground, cart-wheeled and exploded, killing all on board.

The enemy fighters now latched onto Warrant Officer Rhodes, flying to the right and some distance behind John Nettleton. Soon, the Lancaster was streaming fire from all four engines. Rhodes must have opened his throttles wide in a last‑ditch attempt to draw clear, because his aircraft suddenly shot ahead of Nettleton’s. Then it went into a steep climb and seemed to hang on its churning propellers for a long moment before flicking sharply over and diving into the ground. There was no chance of survival for any of his crew.

There were now only two Lancasters remaining in the 44 Squadron formation‑those flown by Nettleton and his number two, John Garwell. Both aircraft were badly shot up and their fuel tanks were holed, but the self‑sealing `skins’ seemed to be preventing leakage on a serious scale. Nevertheless, the fighters were still coming at them like angry hornets, and the life expectancy of both crews was now measured in minutes.

Then, a miracle happened. Singly, or in pairs, the enemy fighters suddenly broke off their attacks and turned away. They were probably running out of fuel or ammunition, or both. Whatever the reason, their abrupt disappearance meant that Nettleton and Carwell were spared, at least for the time being. But they still tied more than 500 miles to go before they reached the target. Behind them, and a little way to the south, Squadron Leader Sherwood’s 97 Squadron formation had been luckier, they saw no German fighters, and flew on unmolested.

Flying almost wingtip to wingtip, Nettleton and Garwell swept on in their battle‑scarred aircraft. There was no further enemy opposition, and the two pilots were free to concentrate on handling their bombers. This task grew considerably more difficult when, two hours later, they penetrated the mountainous country of southern Germany and the Lancasters had to fly through turbulent air currents boding up from the slopes.

They finally reached the Ammersee and turned north, rising a few hundred feet to clear some hills and then dropping down again into the valley on the other side. And there, dead ahead of them under a thin veil of haze, was Augsburg.

As they reached the outskirts of the town, a curtain of flak burst across the sky in their path. Shrapnel pummelled their wings and fuselages but the pilots held them course, following the line of the river to find then target. The models, photographs and drawings they had studied at the briefing had been astonishingly accurate and they had no difficulty in locating their primary objective, a T‑shaped shed where the U‑boat engines were manufactured.

With bomb‑doors open, and light flak continually hitting the Lancasters, they thundered over the last few hundred yards. Then the bombers jumped as the eight 1,000lb bombs fell from their bellies. Nettleton and Garwell were already over the northern suburbs of Augsburg when the bombs exploded, and the gunners reported seeing fountains of smoke and debris bursting high into the evening sky above the target.

The Lancaster pilots had battled their way through against appalling odds and had successfully accomplished their mission, but the flak was still bursting around them and now John Garwell found himself in trouble. A flak shell turned the interior of the fuselage into a roaring inferno and Garwell realised that this, together with the severe damage the bomber had already sustained, might lead to her breaking up at any moment. There was no time to gain height so that the crew could bale out; he had to put her down as quickly as possible. Blinded by the smoke pouring into the cockpit, Garwell eased the Lancaster gently down towards what he hoped was open ground. All he could do was to try and hold the bomber steady as she sank.

A long, agonising minute later the Lancaster hit the ground, sending earth flying in all directions as she skidded across a field. She slid to a stop, and Garwell, with three other members of his crew, scrambled thankfully out of the raging heat and choking, fuel‑fed smoke into the fresh air. Two other crew members were trapped in the burning fuselage and a third, Flight Sergeant R. J. Flux, had been thrown out on impact. He had wrenched open the escape hatch just before the bomber touched down; his action had given the others a few extra seconds in which to get clear, but it had cost Flux his life.

As Nettleton turned for home, alone now, the leading section of No. 97 bore in across the hills towards Augsburg. All three Lancasters released their loads on the target and thundered on towards safety, their gunners spraying any anti‑aircraft position they could see. The bombers were flying so low that, on occasion, they dropped below the level of the roof tops, finding some shelter from the murderous flak.

They almost made it, all three of them. But then Sherwood’s aircraft, probably hit by a large‑calibre shell, began to stream white vapour from a fuel tank. A few moments later flames erupted from it and the bomber went down out of control, a mass of fire, to explode just outside the town. Sherwood alone was thrown clear and survived. The other two pilots of the section, Flying Officers Rodley and Hallows, returned safely to base.

The second section consisted of Flight Lieutenant Penman, Flying Officer Deverill and Warrant Officer Mycock. All three pilots saw Sherwood go down as they roared over Augsburg in the gathering dusk. The sky above the town was a mass of vivid light as the enemy gunners hurled every imaginable kind of flak shell into the Lancasters’ path. Mycock’s aircraft was hit and caught fire, but the pilot held doggedly to his course. By the time he reached his target the Lancaster was little more than a plunging sheet of flame, but Mycock held on long enough to release his bombs. Then the Lancaster exploded, its burning wreckage cascading into the streets below.

Deverill’s aircraft was also badly hit and its starboard inner engine set on fire, but the crew managed to extinguish it after bombing the target and flew back to base on three engines, accompanied by Penman’s Lancaster. Both crews expected to be attacked by night fighters on the home run, but the flight was completely uneventful. It was just as well, for every gun turret on both Lancasters was jammed.

For his part in leading the Augsburg raid, John Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was promoted to Wing Commander, and the following year he was flying his second tour of operations. But sadly, death and John Nettleton were destined to keep a long‑delayed rendezvous. On the night of 12/13 July 1943, he was shot down over the English Channel by a German nightfighter and killed while returning from a raid on Turin.

Tragically, the sacrifice of seven Lancasters and 49 young men on the Augsburg raid had been in vain. Many of the delayed‑action bombs failed to explode, and the effect on production at the MAN factory was negligible. Never again would the RAF send out its four-engined bombers on a daylight ‘extreme danger’ mission of this kind.

Fate sometimes plays strange tricks. Some 40 years later, a Vulcan jet bomber carried out the longest‑range bombing mission in the history of air warfare, against Stanley airfield in the Falklands. That Vulcan, and its crew, belonged to No. 44 Squadron.

THE AUTHOR Robert Jackson is a professional aviation historian and the author of over 50 books, including The Royal Air Force in Action.

 

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