4 July 1941
By the end of June 1941 Hitler had turned on Russia and Bomber Command was increasingly taking the offensive into the heart of Germany. Until that point, Bomber Command’s major raids had been at night, but a number of smaller daylight raids had also been carried out across the Channel, against targets in northern France and the Low Countries. It was now that Winston Churchill decided he wanted to strike at the heart of the Reich by day, while many of Hitler’s forces were engaged in the east.
A number of targets were drawn up for the units of 2 Group Bomber Command, and the list included Germany’s second largest port of Bremen. This was to be Operation Wreckage and the precision raid would be carried out at very low level by two squadrons based in Norfolk: 105 Squadron at Swanton Morley and 107 Squadron at Great Massingham, a satellite airfield of West Raynham.
The squadrons were equipped with Blenheim IV light bombers. With a crew of three, the aircraft had a maximum speed of just over 250mph and carried 1,000lb of bombs internally (either 4 x 250lb or 2 x 500lb). Chosen to lead the raid was the commanding officer of 105 Squadron, Wing Commander Hughie Edwards. Edwards was an Australian and had only recently been given command of the squadron after the previous commanding officer had been killed. For the past few weeks the 105 crews had been carrying out low-level attacks against enemy shipping, during which Edwards had been awarded the DFC, while the crews of 107 Squadron had recently returned to East Anglia after two months with Coastal Command carrying out antisubmarine patrols and attacks on enemy shipping from their base in Scotland. Its squadron commander, Lawrence Petley, had, like Edwards, recently taken over command after the loss of the previous squadron commander.
The first two attempts to carry out Wreckage both ended in the mission having to be aborted en route to Bremen. First, on 28 June, when the raid was led by Petley; the decision to abort came under scrutiny and resulted in criticism. The Air Officer Commanding (AOC) 2 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Donald Stevenson, decided that Edwards should lead the next attempt and that 107 Squadron be replaced by 21 Squadron, based at Watton and led by Wing Commander Tim Partridge. The second attempt took place two days later, this time led by Edwards, but halfway to the target they ran into a thick blanket of fog. Not wishing to suffer the AOC’s displeasure for a second time, Edwards decided to press on towards the coast of Germany for another 100 miles in appalling visibility but it eventually proved impossible to carry on and so he reluctantly made the decision to return to base.
Operation Wreckage remained a high priority and so a third attempt was ordered on 2 July, but was twice postponed by 2 Group. Then, finally, on 4 July, the raid was ordered once more. This time, just like the first, the crews of 107 were to get another chance to take part in the raid with 105, and Edwards was again instructed to lead the raid.
The briefing took place the evening before. Bremen was vital to the German war effort and so there were numerous targets to choose from, including an oil refinery, aircraft factories and naval construction yards, all located in the built-up area of the port between the main railway station and the docks. Unsurprisingly, the port and surrounding area were heavily defended. An outer ring of at least twenty heavy 105mm gun batteries were backed up by an inner ring of twenty-plus 88mm batteries and numerous other anti-aircraft defences, including 37mm and 20mm gun emplacements situated around the port and town that had been mounted anywhere possible, including on large buildings overlooking the area. There were also several barrage balloons rising to a height of 500 feet and protecting the outer perimeter against air attacks. As a preventative measure, the Blenheims were fitted with cable cutters along the leading edge of the wing that were designed to cut through the steel cables connecting the balloons to the ground, although in reality these did not always work as well as had been hoped. With balloons and hundreds of guns protecting the area, Bremen was a fortress, and with the raid being carried out at very low level there would also be hazardous high-voltage pylons, large dockyard cranes and high buildings to encounter. No approach to any of the specified targets was considered safe or even less risky than any other line of attack.
The crews were disappointed to learn there would be no fighter escort, but their attack on Bremen would hopefully benefit from a diversionary raid by Blenheims of 226 Squadron from nearby Wattisham against a seaplane base on the East Frisian island of Norderney. There was also a raid planned by Bomber Command for that night, and while the Blenheim crews were being briefed, a mixed force of Hampdens and Wellingtons were carrying out a bombing raid on Bremen. Not only was it hoped that some of the anti-aircraft defences around the port would be destroyed, but that the defenders would be kept awake well into the night, and so either be sleeping or less alert when the Blenheims carried out their attack the following morning.
That night the Blenheim crews got whatever sleep they could before getting up early on the morning of 4 July for the raid; the crews of 105 had now got used to the routine. Then, once again, soon after 5.00 am, fifteen Blenheims got airborne. The nine aircraft of 105 Squadron orbited their home airfield at Swanton Morley to wait for the six Blenheims of 107 Squadron and then, having all joined up as planned, they set out across the North Sea.
Having tested their guns, one of 107’s aircraft encountered a problem and returned to base; two more soon followed for other reasons. Edwards was now left with twelve aircraft in his formation; the original nine from his own squadron and just three from 107. The formation continued in four vics of three; Edwards leading, with Sergeants Ron Scott to his left and Bill Jackson on his right. The weather was clear and not at all what the crews had hoped for. If the raid was to be successful then it very much depended on surprise and so it was important for the formation to reach Bremen without having been spotted; cloud would have provided some welcome cover when transiting over the sea.
Given the distance to the target and the limited range of the Blenheim when flying at low level, the route across the North Sea inevitably took them close to the line of Frisian Islands that run parallel to the northern coastline of Holland and Germany. Despite the crews flying as low as they dared, mostly below 50 feet, to avoid presenting a silhouette on the horizon for any lookouts on the islands, or for anyone on board enemy shipping in the area, the Blenheims were spotted at least three times. As they got closer to Bremen their target became increasingly more obvious and so they could expect a hostile reception.
The Blenheims eventually coasted in over northern Germany near Cuxhaven before they turned south for Bremen. The sight of some cloud raised hopes of much needed cover, but hope soon turned to disappointment as the cloud was too thin and too high to offer the raiders any protection. Visibility was excellent, which, again, was greeted with a mixed reaction amongst the crews. They could easily see their targets, but then the defending gunners would just as easily see them. There would be nowhere to hide.
The port of Bremen is spread across the banks of the River Weser and the city lies some 40 miles inland from the mouth of the river. It was around 8.00 am when the twelve aircraft approached their targets from the north. As they edged closer and closer to the ground they were greeted by the inevitable flak, which seemed to come from everywhere. Edwards even flew under pylons to avoid presenting the defenders with an easier target, but two of 107s Blenheims were shot down, including that of the squadron commander, Lawrence Petley, who was killed.
The ten surviving Blenheims ploughed on through a mesh of crossfire. The pilots had now spread out to provide as wide a frontage as possible. This would give the defending gunners more of a problem and give the Blenheim crews a better chance of success, but it was almost impossible for all ten aircraft to escape unscathed. Two of 105’s Blenheims soon fell to the flak. One was flown by 23-year-old Flying Officer Michael Lambert. As Lambert’s observer, Sergeant Reg Copeland, directed him ever closer to the target, and his wireless operator/air gunner, Sergeant Fred Charles, hit back with everything he had, the Blenheim pressed on despite having repeatedly been hit. However, Lambert could no longer maintain any control and the Blenheim veered one way and then the other before coming down in a street where it exploded, its bombs still on board; there were no survivors. The second Blenheim to fall was flown by 20-year-old Sergeant William MacKillop. The young pilot had pressed on heroically towards the target and even managed to release his bombs, albeit short of the dock area, but he could maintain control no longer. The Blenheim then plunged into a factory and blew up, killing the crew.
Only eight Blenheims now remained, including just one from 107 Squadron. They all pressed on, weaving their way through the flak as each second took them closer to their target. The barrage of anti-aircraft fire was relentless as those defending Bremen threw everything they could at the attackers. Each Blenheim was hit time and time again, but still they continued through the colourful array of tracer and flak.
Finally, their target was in sight. Edwards, with all three of his formation still intact, now delivered his attack under intense fire. His aircraft had repeatedly been hit and his wireless operator/air gunner, Sergeant Gerry Quinn, had been wounded in the leg, but, completely undaunted, Edwards released two of his bombs over one of the main railway lines, putting one of Bremen’s main lines of communication out of action, before he released his remaining bombs on a tunnel and then destroyed the overhead installations. He then attacked a train with his machine gun and pressed on to the suburban part of the town before circling above to maintain a watchful eye over the others as they made their attacks and to draw as much of the enemy fire as possible. Finally, having remained in the vicinity for nearly ten minutes, and having been hit several more times, Edwards turned for home.
Behind Edwards, his two wingmen, Ron Scott and Bill Jackson, had also pressed home their attacks. Scott hit a factory and storage depot as well as more railway lines while Jackson pressed on to the centre of the town, through a balloon barrage and in the face of extremely heavy fire from the ground. His aircraft suffered numerous hits while his wireless operator/air gunner, Sergeant Jim Purves, and his observer, Sergeant Bill Williams, were both wounded in the leg and foot. Having successfully bombed tramlines and buildings in the town, Jackson turned for home, his aircraft badly mauled.
While Edwards had been leading his formation into attack, the two other formation leaders, both down to just a pair, had led theirs. One of Edwards’s flight commanders, Squadron Leader Tony Scott, known amongst the squadron as simply ‘Scotty’, led Pilot Officer Ben Broadley against their target, a propeller foundry. The two Blenheims buffeted their way through the wall of flak and delivered their bombs on target before pulling hard starboard over the Weser to take up a heading for home. The other pair, that of Pilot Officer Jack Buckley and Sergeant Bruce, dropped their bombs on an aircraft factory and caused considerable damage to several new aircraft as well as damaging the main aircraft production hangar. The last surviving aircraft of 107 Squadron, flown by Sergeant Leven, successfully attacked a goods yard and released his bombs before turning for home.
It was a long transit back to Norfolk but one by one the surviving Blenheims returned to Swanton Morley. Bruce was the first to return, then it was the turn of Ron Scott to land, then his namesake Scotty, followed by Broadley, Buckley and then Jackson. It had been a particularly difficult transit back for Jackson and his crew. In spite of his injuries, Williams had successfully navigated the aircraft back home, ably assisted by Purves, who himself was seriously wounded and suffering from considerable loss of blood. The aircraft had suffered considerable damage during the attack and had lost its hydraulics, which prevented the undercarriage from being lowered. Nonetheless, Jackson managed a perfect wheels-up landing and he managed to bring the badly damaged Blenheim to rest right next to the ambulance and fire tender that were standing by. Jackson, Williams and Purves would all later receive the DFM for their part in the raid.
It was now 11.00 am and six aircraft had returned. Then, finally, an hour later, Hughie Edwards returned; his aircraft almost a write-off, visibly scarred and still trailing parts of telegraph cables. After three attempts, Wreckage had finally taken place. News soon spread and back at HQ 2 Group in Huntingdon its results were considered a success; in fact, losses were less than had been expected. Tributes to the bravery of the crews started pouring in. The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, wrote:
I have just read the first account of the Bremen raid today. Convey to the units concerned my warmest congratulations on a splendid operation. I am sure that all squadrons realise that besides encouraging the Russians, every daylight attack rubs into the Germans, the superiority of our units. You are doing great work.
The Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, was also keen to express his congratulations. His message to the squadrons was:
Your attack this morning has been a great contribution to the day offensive now being fought. It will remain an outstanding example of dash and initiative. I send you and your captains and crews my warmest congratulations and the admiration of the Command.
The AOC, Air Vice-Marshal Donald Stevenson, who had clearly been so disappointed with the fact that earlier attempts had to be aborted, wrote:
Please convey to the crews of 105, 107 and 226 Squadrons who took part in today’s daylight attack on Bremen and Norderney, my deep appreciation of the high courage and determination displayed by them. This low-flying raid, so gallantly carried out, deep into Germany without the support of fighters, will always rank high in the history of the Royal Air Force.
News had also spread to the British media and soon the public were made aware of the heroic raid. A number of individuals who had taken part received personal recognition. In Edwards’s crew there was a DFC for his observer, Pilot Officer Alistair Ramsay, and Gerry Quinn received a bar to his DFM. But the most notable award went to the gallant leader of the raid, Hughie Edwards, who was awarded the Victoria Cross; he was the first Australian airman of the war to receive the highest award for bravery. The announcement came in the London Gazette on 22 July, with the citation concluding:
Throughout the execution of this operation which he had planned personally with full knowledge of the risks entailed, Wing Commander Edwards displayed the highest possible standard of gallantry and determination.