12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.
Destroying the Albert Canal bridges would be a major setback for the advancing German forces, but bridges are notoriously difficult targets. Only a direct hit is likely to cause any damage against even a small bridge, and the bridges over the Albert Canal were very solid structures. The Belgian Air Force tried to destroy them on 11 May with its sole bomber squadron, which was equipped with Fairey Battles. Interestingly, the Belgians were using them as two-seaters. The planes only carried 50-kg bombs, which were unlikely to inflict much damage on a bridge. Six of the nine Battles, along with two of the six escorting Gladiators, were shot down by flak and German fighters and the few bombs that landed anywhere near the bridges did little damage.
Attacking such small targets required precision, which meant either low-level or dive-bombing. The Albert Canal was not supposed to be the AASF’s zone of operations, but destroying the bridges seemed like a job for the Battles. By 12 May, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions were approaching Gembloux, some fifty miles to the west. The bridges were well in the German rear, close to German fighter airfields, and there had been plenty of time to organise strong anti-aircraft defences. The heavy losses that the French, Belgian, and British air forces had already suffered in the area underlined the strength of the German defences.
Nevertheless, it seemed worth the risk. Rarely are targets so far in the rear so crucial; there were no obvious alternative ways of getting supplies and reinforcements across the Albert Canal and temporary substitutes would not be easy to organise. However, for a reasonable chance of success, the attack required a reasonable number of bombers carrying bombs larger than the 250-lb weapons the Battle could manage. As it was, a single squadron of Battles was given the task and this would only be assigning three planes to each bridge.
The mission was judged so dangerous that volunteers were called for. All the pilots volunteered, so the crews due to fly the next mission took on the task. Two Blenheim squadrons were supposed to bomb nearby Maastricht at the same time to distract the defences. The official narrative talks of twelve Hurricane squadrons providing cover, but most of these were only operating in the general area—indeed, half of them were operating well to the northwest, with instructions to cover the Belgian forces retreating westwards towards Antwerp. Only No. 1 Squadron seems to have had the specific role of protecting the bombers, and it hoped to achieve this by flying ahead and clearing the area of enemy fighters.
Fg Off. Garland, Fg Off. McIntosh, and Sgt Marland had the metal Veldwezelt bridge as their target, while Fg Off. Thomas, Plt Off. Davy, and Fg Off. Brereton were to tackle the concrete Vroenhoven bridge. As they prepared to set off, Garland and Thomas were involved in a ‘heated discussion’15 about the best way of attacking the bridges. Garland was adamant that the low-level approach was best, while Thomas insisted dive-bombing was more likely to succeed. Brereton’s Battle had a technical fault, as did a second plane his crew tried, so just Thomas and Davy set off for the Vroenhoven bridge. They seemed to have benefitted from three Hurricanes that had attached themselves to the Battles in the run in, which helped beat off Bf 109s and gave the Battles a chance to begin their dive-bombing runs. The two planes dived from 6,000 feet and released their bombs at 2,000 feet. Both planes were hit by anti-aircraft fire and again, it was damage to the engine that proved to be decisive. Thomas crash-landed near the bridge, while Davy made it as far as friendly territory before his engine gave out. Their bombs appear to have landed close to the bridge, but did not inflict any serious damage.
Meanwhile Garland’s flight was heading towards the Veldwezelt bridge. McIntosh’s fuel tanks were ablaze before he could drop his bombs, but he did his best to send his bombs in the general direction of the bridge before crash-landing. McIntosh was pulled clear from the blazing wreckage by his crew and had to endure a lecture from his German captors on the futility of attacking a bridge after giving the defenders two days to prepare their defences. Garland and Marland were able to aim their bombs more accurately and caused some damage but both were hit, and all six crew-members died when the planes crashed within a few miles of the bridge. All of them were equally courageous, but fears of devaluing the Victoria Cross by distributing it too liberally meant only Garland and his navigator Sgt Gray were so honoured. There was no alternative posthumous award to give, so the bravery of LAC Reynolds, Sgt Marland, Sgt Footner and LAC Perrin went unrecognised. It was an operation that had all the heroic and hopeless qualities associated with The Charge of the Light Brigade. The known strength of the fighter and anti-aircraft defences made the Albert Canal operation a suicide mission, but so did the lack of adequate armour protection and self-sealing tanks.
The Albert Canal operation was always going to be a risky operation in which heavy losses were almost inevitable, but the losses against less well-defended targets were the real cause for concern. In the middle of a crucial battle, Air Marshal ‘Ugly’ Barratt, commander of the BAFF, and his staff found themselves desperately trying to work out a way to use his bombers without incurring unacceptably high losses. Barratt felt the bombers needed to operate from higher altitudes to avoid the worst of the anti-aircraft fire, but Air Vice-Marshal Playfair, commander of the AASF, believed that the maximum altitude from which they could expect to hit small targets would still be within the range of light flak.18 There were no easy solutions. Barratt and Playfair followed the various tactics adopted by the Battle squadrons on 12 May particularly closely in the hope that answers would emerge. For the first time, the Battles were targeting Guderian’s crucial drive on Sedan. All the missions were in the Bouillon area, where Guderian’s panzers were now just ten miles from Sedan and the main French defence line. The Semois flowing through the town was the last river barrier before the Meuse.
At dawn, a section of three Battles from No. 103 Squadron bombed a bridge over the Semois, it would seem from a very low level, and all returned safely. At around 1.00 p.m., three Battles from No. 103 squadron approached the same target at 4,000 feet. Almost inevitably, they ran into German fighters in the shape of twin-engined Bf 110s, but at least the Battles were now fitted with armour that offered some protection to fighter attack. There was no attempt to close formation and slug it out with the enemy; the Battles dived to ground level in an effort to shake off the Messerschmitts, which they succeeded in doing. They then bombed from just 20 feet what looked like a pontoon bridge under construction next to a blown bridge and made their escape.
At around 03.00 p.m., three Battles from No. 150 Squadron bombed columns between Neufchâteau and Bertrix ten miles east of Bouillon. One of the planes was hit, exploded and crashed in flames, but the remaining two attacked the columns from 100 feet and escaped. Two hours later, three Battles from No. 103 Squadron and another three from No. 218 Squadron set out to attack more targets in the Bouillon region. Those from No. 218 Squadron were flying at 1,000 feet in formation, while the three from No. 103 Squadron flew to the target individually, presumably at low level. The Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron were supposed to be in the area providing protection, but again, it was only very loose general cover. The bombers never saw the fighters, and the only claim made by the Hurricanes was for a Henschel Hs 126 observation plane.
Two of the three Battles from No. 218 Squadron were lost, at least one of them the victim of anti-aircraft fire. No. 103 Squadron’s individual low-level approach was no more successful, and they also lost two planes. Interestingly, by this time, No. 103 Squadron had decided it was pointless carrying a specialist navigator/bomb aimer for short-range, low-level daylight missions; they were not needed and it just put another life at risk unnecessarily. From now on, the squadron flew its Battles as two-seaters. It was a step that could have been adopted by all Battle squadrons long ago and would have enabled the bombers to carry more protection. The sole survivor from No. 103 Squadron had demonstrated another way of reducing losses. The plane, piloted by Plt Off. Cunningham, had not flown as far as Bouillon. Short of the target, he came across a column of German tanks and, in line with the original plans for using the Battles to block the leading German elements, bombed these. The column was taken by surprise and the Battle escaped. Admittedly, Bouillon was only a few miles further east, but attacking the first enemy forces encountered seemed far more useful and far less risky. There was perhaps a danger that pilots using their own initiative might hit friendly forces by mistake, but there were few Allied forces east of the Meuse, and the Battle crews seemed in little doubt that the columns firing at them were German.
The day’s operations provided no clear evidence that the low-level approach was more dangerous, although it was difficult to draw any conclusions from such a small number of sorties. The tragedy for the RAF was that its commanders were having to work out what might work in the middle of a crucial battle. So far, in sixty sorties, thirty Battles had been lost—Portal’s pre-offensive prediction was coming to pass with uncanny accuracy. In the evening, Newall ordered Barratt to cut back on operations in order to conserve the force for the crucial phase of the battle that must lie ahead. To the Allied commanders, that still seemed a few days away; German forces were beginning to reach the main French defensive position along the Meuse, but it would take time to bring up the artillery needed to cover a crossing. The failure to appreciate that air support could substitute for artillery was about to cost the Allies dear. On 13 May, German forces, covered by a fearsome aerial bombardment, began crossing the Meuse.
As dawn broke on the 13th, the AASF squadrons had no inkling that, just fifty miles from their airfields, a crisis was looming. Allied commanders believed the situation in the Netherlands was far more threatening; the French were in trouble in the south and the Dutch were asking for air support further north, on the central front. No. 76 Wing (Nos 12, 142 and 226 Squadrons) was ordered to send a flight of four Battles to bomb German forces advancing in the Wageningen area, some 250 miles from the Battle bases. Poor weather in the Netherlands spared the Battles from having to perform this mission but, later in the morning, seven Battles from No. 226 Squadron were dispatched to attack German columns moving south-westwards from Breda, some 200 miles from AASF airfields. It seemed strange to be sending Battles so far to attack targets that were easier to reach from No. 2 Group airfields in Britain. No enemy forces were spotted near Breda, but a factory was brought down to block the route. All the bombers returned. Ironically, just a few miles from the Battles’ home bases, there were countless targets to choose from, and all of them were far more important than any targets in the Netherlands.
As the day progressed, Playfair and Barratt slowly became more aware that a major crisis was brewing on the Meuse front. ‘[W]eaknesses in the French line between Sedan and Givet’ were enough for AASF HQ to begin discussing contingency plans for a possible withdrawal to safer airfields further south. Barratt and Playfair were not only becoming aware that the Allied line was in trouble, they also had an opportunity to do something about it. In the evening, a French reconnaissance plane had spotted Rommel’s first attempt to cross the Meuse at Dinant and, following instructions for passing on information about crucial targets of opportunity, the pilot headed for the base of No. 12 Squadron. It would have been an opportunity to provide real close support for the French forces struggling to contain Rommel’s advance. Authorisation was sought to attack the bridgehead but both Playfair and Barratt felt they had to conserve their Battles and so permission was denied. This was a missed opportunity. It would soon become clear that the decision to risk the Battles in the Netherlands but not along the Meuse was a serious misjudgement.
By late evening, Barratt was coming under intense pressure to use his bombers. General Billotte, the overall commander of Allied forces, explained how the air assault on Sedan had caused elements of the French Army to panic and flee. The German infantry had established bridgeheads on the west bank of the Meuse and pontoon bridges were under construction; once these were ready, the tanks would be able to cross. French reinforcements were moving into place but Billotte needed d’Astier and Barratt to buy as much time as possible. He wanted both commanders to throw everything they had against the German crossing points, starting that night if possible. This was a very different proposition to the attacks on the bridges over the Albert Canal on the 12th. These had taken place after the Germans had been given two days to set up their anti-aircraft defences, and the bridges had been very near German fighter airfields. Sedan was much closer to RAF bases and more distant from German airfields, and German forces were just beginning to cross the river, so had not yet had time to organise defences. The bridges were also just temporary pontoons under construction, far easier to destroy than permanent bridges.
Despite the plans Barratt was making for a possible evacuation, he still could not believe the situation had become so critical so quickly, and conservation remained uppermost in his mind. He would only promise a small raid at dawn the following day. Six Battles of No. 103 Squadron bombed pontoon bridges in the Sedan sector and all returned, although one wounded pilot was forced to crash-land. Encouraged by this relative success, another four Battles attacked the bridgehead at around 7.00 a.m., and all returned safely. It would seem at this point that the fighter and anti-aircraft defences were not as formidable as they would be a few hours later.
During the morning of 14 May, French pleas became more frantic. The French Air Force was planning to throw obsolete Amiot 143 bombers against the bridges, a plane that was broadly equivalent to the Fairey Hendon, so desperate was the situation. At around midday, the French persuaded Barratt to join these attacks with every bomber he had. It was the AASF’s first all-out effort. The plan was for the French to attack first; the AASF would then follow. Both forces would then return to base, rearm and attack again. Blenheims from No. 2 Group would then round off the assault.
Hurricane squadrons operating further north would fly south to reinforce the AASF and the French fighter force. However, while French fighters would fly with their bombers, RAF fighters would still only be providing general support in the area. Once again, the Hurricanes would be operating out of sight of the Battles. They did useful work shooting down several Henschel Hs 126 observation planes and Ju 87 dive-bombers, but this was little consolation to the Battle crews. Some of the Battle formations were assured they would have French fighter escorts, but in reality, these were just fighters which happened to be in the general area on other missions. By the afternoon, German fighters were operating in strength and anti-aircraft guns had been extracted from the columns making their way into Sedan. The scene was set for the worst day in the RAF’s history. It was a day that would seal the reputation of the Fairey Battle.
The French attacked first. Eight modern LeO 451s and thirteen ancient Amiot 143s, with a powerful escort, attacked the bridges soon after midday, losing three of the lumbering Amiot 143s and one LeO 451 in the process. Between 03.00 p.m. and 03.45 p.m. forty-five Battles attacked bridges and another eighteen, along with eight AASF Blenheims, bombed enemy columns. It seems that some of the Battles were now flying at higher altitudes, which reduced their vulnerability to ground fire, but also increased the chances of meeting German fighters.
Five Battles from No. 12 Squadron dive-bombed the crossroads at Givonne, between Sedan and Bouillon, where they ran into low-calibre but intense flak. At least two bombed the target, but only one made it back to base. Eight Battles from No. 142 Squadron set off in pairs to bomb the pontoon bridges, carrying eleven-second-delay fused bombs in a clear intention to attack from low-level. Nevertheless, they were unable to avoid German fighters, and at least two of the four lost were shot down by Messerschmitts. No. 226 Squadron sent six Battles to dive-bomb the bridges at Douzy and Mouzon, just south of Sedan, and here ground fire seemed to be the main problem. Of these six, one was forced to return with heavy damage before it even reached the target, and three others failed to return. Only four out of eleven No.105 Squadron Battles made it back—one very badly damaged machine landed at another airfield, while another made it to friendly territory before crash-landing. The four Battles of No. 150 Squadron ran into Bf 109s and all were lost. Eight Battles from No. 103 Squadron, still the only squadron flying with a two-man crew, attacked the crossing points, some at very low-level, others in dive-bombing attacks. Three failed to return, although all three crash-landed in friendly territory. One of the pilots subsequently died of his wounds, but the other crews safely made it back to their squadrons. Of eleven No. 218 Squadron Battles, only one returned. No. 88 Squadron dispatched ten Battles, four to attack bridges and six to bomb enemy columns between Bouillon and Givonne; all attacked successfully and only one plane was lost.
It was the highest loss rate suffered by the RAF in any major operation in its history. Of the sixty-three Battles taking part, thirty-five were lost. Five out of eight Blenheims also failed to return. Those that made it back were so badly damaged that there was no question of carrying out the second round of raids.28 With more planes attacking from higher altitudes, there were fewer losses to ground fire but German fighters had made sure no advantage was gained. It had all been very different earlier in the day when neither the flak nor the fighter defences had been so strong: if the bombers had struck sooner, the outcome might have been very different. A prompt response could have helped to reduce the risks. This was another lesson learned the hard way.