17 April 1942
The entry into operational service of the RAF’s new four-engine heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster, had provided Bomber Command’s new Commander-in-Chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, the opportunity to take his bombing offensive deeper into the heart of Germany. Harris knew the potential of the Lancaster. Its first operational sorties had been carried out in early March 1942 and, within weeks, two squadrons, 44 Squadron based at Waddington and 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa, were conducting operations. Now Harris wanted to show the Germans that he could attack the Nazi war machine anywhere he liked and at any time, by day or by night.
Rumours of a special operation started spreading around the crew rooms at Waddington and Woodhall Spa. Both squadrons were now training regularly together, particularly at low level, and a special training flight was carried out on 14 April, with 44 Squadron led by a South African, 25-year-old Squadron Leader John Nettleton, still on his first operational tour, and 97 Squadron led by Squadron Leader John Sherwood, two years younger than Nettleton, but already a veteran, having been awarded the DFC and bar. The training flight took each squadron down to the south coast of England where the Lancasters joined up for a long transit north to carry out a simulated attack on Inverness before returning to their bases.
While the crews were of the opinion that one of the big German battleships was their most likely target, Harris had, instead, decided to go for a factory at Augsburg, a thousand miles away and deep into southern Germany. His choice of the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg Aktiengesellschaft factory was an interesting one as, until that point, it had not been considered one of Bomber Command’s primary targets. However, it was believed the factory was responsible for the production of half of the diesel engines required for Germany’s U-boats.
At 11.00 am on 17 April the crews of both squadrons were briefed on the target. The gasp of surprise in the audience at Woodhall Spa echoed that at Waddington as the crews now realized it was not to be one of the warships, and when the route was revealed on the big map on the wall, some even thought it was a joke. Who on earth would consider sending them a thousand miles deep into enemy territory in broad daylight to carry out an attack at low level?
As with the training flight just a few days before, the two squadrons were to be led by Nettleton and Sherwood. The plan was a particularly daring one. Six Lancasters from each squadron, flying in two sections of three, were to cross the English Channel from Selsey Bill and coast-in across northern France to the west of Le Havre. The two squadrons were to be just a couple of miles apart and the formations were then to transit south at low level before turning east and passing to the south of Paris. The Lancasters would then set a heading towards Munich, as if the city was the intended target, before finally turning north to Augsburg. The factory was relatively small and so the attack would require pinpoint accuracy from a height below 500 feet if success was to be achieved. It would also need to take place during the last minutes of daylight so that the bombers could return home under the cover of darkness.
Because of the amount of fuel needed to reach the target at low level, each Lancaster would carry just four 1,000lb general-purpose bombs fitted with a delayed fuse of eleven seconds to allow the aircraft to clear the target before the bomb detonated. If, for any reason, the crews could not attack the factory then Munich and Nürnberg were briefed as the alternate targets.
This was to be the first raid of its type and so a number of diversionary raids and fighter sorties over northern France were planned in an attempt to keep the Luftwaffe’s fighters away from the attacking force. The weather was forecast to be fine, with good visibility and little or no cloud, all the way to the target. The crews had less than four hours to prepare and to think about what lay ahead. They were used to flying over enemy-occupied territory, but never so deep into Germany, where the chances of surviving if shot down, and then escaping and evading back to England, were slim to say the least.
It was around 3.00 pm when the Lancasters got airborne and set off towards the south coast where the two squadrons were to join up. Flying with Nettleton in B-Baker were Pilot Officer Pat Dorehill as the second pilot, Pilot Officer Desmond Sands, the observer, and the wireless operator, Sergeant Charlie Churchill. Three gunners, Flight Sergeants Len Mutter and Frank Harrison, and Sergeant Buzz Huntly, made up the crew. Because he was the leader of the raid, Nettleton had an eighth crew member on board. Flight Lieutenant Charles McClure, the squadron’s bombing leader, was there to help read the maps and to aim the bombs during the final attack while Sands was to concentrate on the navigation.
The two other Lancasters in 44’s lead section were flown by Flying Officer Ginger Garwell and Sergeant Dusty Rhodes. Behind them, by about 400 yards, the second formation was led by Flight Lieutenant Nick Sandford, with the two other aircraft flown by Warrant Officers Bert Crum and Joe Beckett, both holders of the DFM and the best of friends.
The diversionary raids had succeeded in luring enemy fighters away from the Lancasters but, as they crossed the enemy coast at little more than 100 feet, the rear section was spotted by Messerschmitt Bf 109Fs returning to their home base. It was a stroke of bad luck for the Lancaster crews. Their route had been planned to avoid all the known enemy fighter airfields in the area, but they were marginally off track and were now simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ironically, the enemy fighters were only airborne at the time because of the RAF’s diversionary attacks.
Beckett was the first to spot the 109s to his left and well above. Mindful of the order given at the briefing to only break radio silence in an emergency, he rightly considered the threat from the 109s too high to ignore and so called it over the radio. As Nettleton acknowledged the call, the Lancasters closed up within their two formations as the pilots pushed the throttles fully forward and descended to treetop height. The camouflage of the bombers would hopefully enable them to slip through the area unseen from above, but unfortunately for the rear section of 44, one of the 109 pilots had spotted the Lancasters just as he was about to land.
Accelerating fast as the wheels came up, the 109 overshot the airfield before turning towards the bombers to make his attack. Picking on Crum’s aircraft first, the lone 109 attacked and, within seconds, more swooped down on their prey. Crum, concentrating on nothing other than following Sandford, while his gunners defended his plane with everything they had, did not see the demise of Joe Beckett’s aircraft as it fell astern the formation and plunged into a field. There were no survivors.
Crum was still fighting for survival as his port wing was hit. With his port engines on fire, and with his aircraft now trailing flames and smoke, he instructed the second pilot, Sergeant Alan Dedman, to safely jettison the bombs, before he carried out an almost textbook crash landing into a field. After detonating the secret equipment inside the aircraft, the crew set fire to the Lancaster and set off into the countryside, owing their lives to the immense skill of Crum.
Meanwhile, the lead aircraft of the rear section, flown by Sandford, had become the focus for the marauding fighters. Flying as low as he dared, even under power lines that stretched across the countryside, Sandford pressed on, but the Lancaster’s top speed was no match for the three 109s in pursuit. The stricken Lancaster, last seen with all four engines burning, ploughed into the ground, exploding on impact and killing all on board.
In the space of just a minute or so Nettleton had lost half of his force: all three Lancasters had come down within an area covering just a couple of miles. The 109s now turned on the lead section and the aircraft flown by Dusty Rhodes. With his Lancaster’s gun turrets soon jammed, it was impossible for the crew to fight back. The port engines were soon on fire, followed by the starboard, and the Lancaster was last seen to pitch up before plunging vertically into the ground.
Four of Nettleton’s formation were now gone, with three of the crews killed; there had been no chance at such low level for the twenty-one men. Now it was the turn of the two surviving Lancasters from 44, those of Nettleton and Garwell, to fight for their lives. The Lancasters were hit time and time again but, just as it looked as if they would follow a similar fate, the 109s hauled off, seemingly out of fuel.
Amazingly, the six Lancasters of 97 Squadron, no more than a couple of miles away, had slipped through unnoticed. Their transit from Woodhall Spa had passed without incident but, as they coasted in over northern France, Sherwood had spotted what he assumed to be the six aircraft of 44 Squadron further to the east. Satisfied that his own formation was on track, the fact that he could see the other Lancasters further to the east would account for the reason why the aircraft of 44 strayed too close to the enemy airfield.
The two surviving aircraft of 44 Squadron flew on eastwards, some distance ahead and to the north of the six Lancasters of 97 Squadron, and proceeded to Augsburg without further incident. It was nearly 8.00 pm by the time they approached the town from the south. Nettleton then eased the Lancaster up to get a clear view ahead. He could see that a canal ran north-westwards from the main river and up towards where the factory was located. As he turned towards the area where he knew the factory to be, it did not take him long to spot the chimney stacks ahead and now just a mile or so away.
As they ran towards their target, the two Lancasters were spotted and a wall of light flak and machine-gun fire was thrown into the air in an attempt to stop the attack. Workers at the factory could now hear the noise and looked to the east where they could see the Lancasters flying through the flak and heading straight towards them.