Operation Crossbow Part II

V-1 Rocket attacked by Spitfire F Mk XVI

Effect on France

The standard British narrative omits or minimizes the effect of this campaign on the environment and people who lived near the concrete launcher facilities. War is not merely a sport played on a designated field between military teams, but is a multidimensional tornado of violence that scars the land and people through which it passes. The skies of this small corner of Europe—three departments, the Nord, the Pas-de-Calais, and the Somme, together smaller in size than the state of New Jersey—were never empty of combat aircraft as the Allies searched for these vengeance weapons. As pointed out earlier, these aircraft were not extremely accurate. American and British air commanders, especially those in charge of the heavy bombers, seldom made claims about bombing precision. In almost every case, no matter how small the target, a minimum of a dozen B-17s or Lancasters, the general flight configuration of operations over Germany, executed the attack. Unlike during raids against the Ruhr or industrial complexes across the Rhine, few Luftwaffe fighters defended these sites. Flying high above the objective, in the same formations they used in the heart of Germany, crews dropped their munitions with the intent to pulverize the installation by the cumulative effect of the explosive tonnage. As the authors of WPD-1 anticipated, most bombs missed the target. Some got close and affected the facility’s supply routes, while others only tore up farmers’ fields and killed their livestock. Many others physically destroyed the farms and villages near the objective, killing or wounding those who lived there. Therefore, in evaluating Operation Crossbow’s effect on France, we can examine it from three different aspects: the intensity of the air attacks, the inaccuracy of the attacks on these targets, and the killing and wounding of those near the bombing attacks.

The intensity of the bombing effort against Noball targets is difficult to understand in the contemporary era of precision munitions. According to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, published soon after the war, this operation consumed 13.7 percent of all sorties, almost 37,000, launched by the Allied strategic air forces from August 1943 until August 1944. From December 1943 through June 11, 1944, more than 15.5 percent of all bombs dropped by heavy bombers were aimed at fixed sites in France. The tactical air forces conducted more than 4,000 reconnaissance sorties, 40 percent of the total between May 1943 to April 1945, to find the launchers and their supporting facilities. The northern French departments of Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and the Somme was one of the most heavily bombed parts of France if measured by individual missions. During the first three months of 1944, more than 50 percent of all bombs dropped in the country fell on these three small departments. The bombing’s scale is reflected in three ways: the number of attacks in the region, the number on a given target, and the intensity of a bombing mission. For example, in the space of just one month, February 1944, the towns of the Pas-de-Calais, an area smaller than the state of Delaware, absorbed 124 separate attacks, ranging in size from one or two aircraft to several dozen. Some areas, such as the installations at Siracourt and Éperlecques, were each hit several times. By spring, the weather had improved and the Allies had more aircraft available. On just one day, April 20, the region endured thirty-six separate attacks. The following month, during the week of May 7–13, this same small area absorbed more than seventy-one separate raids. The Allies increased the pace of these attacks as the June landings approached, and, shortly after that, the German air force began to launch flying bombs from the improvised sites toward London.

A second way to understand scale is to consider the number of missions flown against the individual sites. The large installations in the Pas-de-Calais absorbed an incredible number of bombs. The facility at Mimoyecques, what British investigators later discovered as the home of the Hochdrukpumpe (V-3), is typical of the offensive against the most prominent targets. Beginning with the first raid on November 5, 1943, the entire complex remained in a state of increasing pulverization. Determining the exact number of sorties that attacked this or any target is difficult. Records usually include reports of the intended target and what pilots thought they were attacking. Some hit the wrong objective without even knowing it. Other crews, especially those in the tactical air forces, hit targets of opportunity. Observers on the ground reported Allied air attacks on days not mentioned in the documents now stored in London or American archives. In the case of Mimoyecques, Allied bombers attacked seventeen times between November 1943 and July 6, 1944. Most missions ranged in size from 10 to 40 aircraft. Several raids were enormous in relationship to the targets, with more than 280 heavy bombers pulverizing the area on November 5, 1943, another 300 on March 19, and 350 on March 26. Two raids on July 6 essentially ended all work on the site. The morning strike of more than 85 Lancasters was with conventional munitions, mainly 500-pound bombs. An afternoon attack of the RAF’s crack 617 Squadron, equipped with 17 Lancaster bombers carrying 12,000-pound Tallboy bombs, finished the destruction of the facility.

In the case of the Wasserwerk at Siracourt, for example, 74 US B-24 Liberator bombers arrived overhead on January 31, 1944. Each bombardier aimed to place his payload on top of a building the size of a modern football field. As the Air Force knew, the probability of actually hitting the target was quite small. The 189 tons of ordnance had little effect on the construction, as most bombs fell in fields far from the actual target. The attack destroyed one building and damaged nine in the village. Bombs also hit two buildings in the local village of Croix-en-Ternois, where the workers who built the facility lived. This attack was the first of thirty-three, conducted by more than 1,200 bombers, which would take place over the next year. The Eighth Air Force struck six times in February, twice in March, four times in April, and six times in May. The Ninth Air Force attacked Siracourt on March 18 and April 22. These were, from the airmen’s perspective, relatively easy missions. During a May 21 mission, for example, each aircraft carried eight 1,000-pound bombs. The 99 B-17 bombers had P-47 Thunderbolt fighters as escorts all the way and encountered no enemy fighters or anti-aircraft artillery. Dropping their bombs at 21,000 feet at ground obscured by clouds, crews had no idea of what kind of damage their explosives caused. As one crewman remarked in his journal, “This raid was short and sweet. . . . Hope I have 27 more just like this one.” The Allies continued to attack this target, just in case, until the end of June.

Another good example is the Blockhaus at Watten in the Éperlecques forest. The Eighth Air Force sent more than 180 B-17 bombers to take out the site on August 27, 1943. The first aircraft hit as scheduled at 1845 hours. Allied planners, based on reports from the French Resistance, planned to arrive at 1830, when the work site was unoccupied because of a shift change, to avoid killing the workers. But because they were behind schedule, Todt’s contractors had kept the day shift on the job to catch up. The 374 2,000-pound bombs found the slave laborers at their stations. Hundreds died as American bombers continued to drop their cargo for almost an hour. When it was over, five bombs had hit the target, with the remainder landing in the forest and nearby farmland. Contrary to initial positive reports, the raid inflicted little actual damage, and the Germans continued the construction. Over the next year, British and American bombers would attack this massive structure at least twenty-four more times, and each time the workers repaired the damage and continued working.

The last attack in this series was an Operation Aphrodite mission on August 4. Aphrodite was an American attempt to use worn-out bombers, loaded with explosives and equipped with newly developed radio guidance systems, to destroy important targets. Essentially each bomber was an early version of a cruise missile. Unfortunately these bombers required live pilots to fly the aircraft from the airfield to a point over the English Channel. Then, the two-person crew was supposed to parachute out of the plane, while a crew in another flew the unmanned bomber by radio control. The goal was to crash the explosive-laden aircraft into the target. Unfortunately the technology was still in development, and these missions were almost always unsuccessful. Such was the case of these two old B-17s that never made it to the objective. The US Navy followed the Air Forces’ lead in these experiments, with as little success. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., brother of future president John F. Kennedy, died when the converted B-24 he was flying to the launch position exploded in mid-air.

The massive La Coupole near Wizernes is another example of a heavily bombed target. The Allies were late as the massive dome was already in place and and mostly invulnerable to attack by March 1943. The first strike, consisting of 34 B-24 bombers, hit on March 11. The 248 1,000-pound bombs did little but damage the local countryside. Nine more raids, comprising 348 heavy bombers and more than 2,000 large bombs, did little damage, and work continued inside, although affected slightly by the damage outside. Bomber Command began attacking La Coupole in June and July with raids of between 80 and 100 aircraft and dropping hundreds of tons of bombs, including several dozen Tallboy 12,000-pounders. The July 17 attack caused the dome to shift and block the entrances, but it did little to affect the site itself. Of course, the countryside was a bombed-out mess, and it was almost impossible for workers and material to get to the construction site. The Germans were long gone when Canadian and Polish troops arrived in the Saint-Omer region at the end of August.

A final way to consider the scale of this operation is the intensity of the attacks on individual sites by specific missions. In addition to the intense bombing of the large sites described above, the V-1 sites absorbed an incredible amount of ordnance. Typical was the installation near Wisques, west of Saint-Omer in the Pas-de-Calais. With fewer than three hundred people, it was a typical farm community. Its most prominent feature was a beautiful nineteenth-century Benedictine abbey on the western part of town on the edge of the local forest. Hidden in that forest was a standard “ski” launch site. Thirty-six A-20 Havoc light bombers arrived overhead on the evening of March 19, 1944, and for almost three hours these aircraft took turns dropping their payloads on the small patch of woods, obscured by fire from antiaircraft guns and smoke from the burning forest. When they had departed, they were not quite sure if they had damaged the target. The Eighth Air Force sent six B-17 heavy bombers on April 20, and the Ninth Air Force returned with B-26 medium bombers two days later on April 22. Twenty-one B-17 heavy bombers returned to attack the installation five days later, and thirty-three P-47 Thunderbolt fighters worked the woods over on June 2, the last recorded attack on the Wisques launcher. Cumulatively, it was a massive amount of combat power directed against a relatively small and insignificant target.

The intensity of these attacks was made worse by the bombers’ notorious inaccuracy. By early 1944, after years of practice, the Eighth Air Force had improved its bombing accuracy to the degree that 36 percent of its bombs fell within one thousand feet of an actual aiming point. Against targets in Germany, this was acceptable, but from the French perspective, most raids conducted by heavy bombers still resembled area attacks. Add considerations such as inclement weather, German ground and air defenses, and simple human error, it is not surprising that bomb runs were often wide of the intended target. Photographs of craters in target areas testify to the broad impact spread of a typical attack. Beyond the damage done to the weapons sites, these runs often hit nearby French villages and individual structures. In some cases, such as the bombing of rail yards, the damage was apparent to all. In most cases, however, the Noball offensive was characterized by the destruction of small farms and villages far from most observers. This “collateral damage,” to use a modern term, is seldom mentioned in reports or dispatches by attacking units. To those who owned these structures, their destruction was an emotional event. The fundamental community structure of the region, dating back to the premedieval era, was a small central cluster of farmhouses and barns with a forest nearby that provided a source of game and lumber. Most of the surrounding open area was devoted to growing grains and potatoes and raising cattle. The nature of these clusters was that if they were near a target, the odds were high that the carpet bombing would destroy them. Reports provided to the local prefect confirm the damage, as do photographs of the bombed areas taken by poststrike reconnaissance aircraft. Immediately after the war, French farmers and property owners filed reports with the local authorities documenting their losses and requesting assistance in rebuilding, reports that can be seen in departmental archives today.

Often the Allies attacked these small villages only once or twice. For example, the town of Blendecques, the location of a V-1 ski site, had about 3,500 inhabitants at the beginning of the war. The town was southeast of the highly militarized region of Saint-Omer, and it is hard to know how many of the original residents were still there. On April 22 the Ninth Air Force raided it for the first and apparently the only time. At around 1900 hours fifty B-26 bombers attacked the site. When the attackers were gone, at least fifty bombs had hit the town, killing five civilians and wounding another three badly. The attack destroyed eleven homes and damaged forty-three others. Month after month, correspondence from the local prefectures across the region identified the damage or destruction to individual homes and structures. While not as dramatic as the bombing of Caen or Rouen, this damage had a substantial effect on the local population, which had now lost their homes and source of livelihood.

Those villages in the shadow of the large sites provide more dramatic examples of the effects of Allied bombing. One good example is the small village of Helfaut, on the south side of the woods near the La Coupole at Wizernes. At the beginning of the war, it had fewer than fifty structures of all kinds: homes, barns, and small shops. One attack on March 19 destroyed ten of those and severely damaged twenty more. By the end of the war, the bombing attacks had mostly destroyed this town and driven its inhabitants away. Apparently aiming for La Coupole on June 20, an Eighth Air Force bombing mission could not find its target, and fifteen B-24 bombers dropped their bombs over the town of Guarbecque, sixteen miles to the southeast. The bombs hit the center perfectly. When the fires were out, the citizens discovered that the attack had damaged their church, destroyed the town hall, and burned more than ninety buildings to the ground. Two weeks after the Normandy landings, American aircraft had almost wiped this French village of slightly less than a thousand inhabitants off the map.

Most dramatic was the destruction that took place near the rail yards and transportation centers that supported the construction of installations and the supply of rockets for the firing batteries. These missions were not part of the Transportation Plan, discussed later, but an integral part of defeating the vengeance weapon threat. Béthune, located in the center of a triangle formed by the cities of Lille, Saint-Omer, and Arras, provides one example of the level of destruction wrought by these bombings. Located along the battle lines of the First World War, this was a rebuilt version of the ancient city. It was a relatively large town, with a densely populated city center of approximately 20,000 inhabitants. In addition to its rail yard, it was a center of regional mining, especially coal. Bombers struck the town and its suburbs on April 20, 21, 22, 23, and 27. In the wake of the bombing, hundreds of buildings were gone, including the rail yard and the housing for miners and railway workers. These are just several of the examples of communities in northwestern France damaged or destroyed as part of the Allied Noball operation.

Each of the material examples described above has a human cost. Each month the department’s préfet, the state’s representative, compiled a list describing the effects of the bombing. Organized by date and community, the report identifies every town bombed or machine-gunned. Most often, the numbers are not large, especially in comparison to the carnage on the eastern front. Six wounded and seven killed at Sallaumines outside of Lens on April 20, 1944. Another five wounded and three dead on May 6, and another seventeen killed and fifteen wounded on May 12, and so on, often with other notations such as that the bombs landed in the field. These casualties continued to accumulate well into July 1944, more than a month after the invasion at Normandy. Sometimes the numbers in the right column attract attention, such as the attack on April 27 that left forty-eight dead and thirty-six wounded at Béthune, or on June 20 at Guarbecque that left eighteen wounded and twenty civilians dead.

The more detailed reports, written by the local officials, are often quite gripping. The bombing on May 12 of the village of Saint-Venant, on the road between Hazebrouck and Béthune, is one such example. The attack killed only one victim, forty-eight-year-old André Pierru, who was working in the field. He was a veteran of the Great War and the 1940 Campaign and a knight of the Legion of Honor. He left behind a wife and a fifteen-year-old son. Reading the report it is evident that to the local police official, Monsieur Pierru was not a simple number, but a friend. Another perspective is the one presented by police officials in the larger town and cities. Here we find reports that describe the nature of the attack and list the dead by name, often including the deceased’s address. For example, the police commissioner of Arras reported by name those killed and wounded during the bombing of April 30. The raid wounded twenty-three citizens and six “sujets russes.” Then he continues with a list of the eight dead:

  • Vasseur, Yvette
  • Greuin, Gaston
  • Fleurquin, Oscar (48 years old)
  • Seneca, Miss
  • Lefebvre, Marcel (15 months old)
  • Rifflart, Kléber
  • Haudiquet, Lucien
  • Van Rokeghem, François (61 years old)

As the weeks went by, officials refined these reports and passed the new information to the national government. Often they reported the subsequent deaths of the wounded in the hospitals and more detailed information as to the scale of the damage to the community. From the countryside, these documents are brief, often only a simple letter. Reports from the larger cities, such as Lille, Calais, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer, provide a similar but longer list of casualties. In the end, it is hard to assess the actual human cost of Noball attacks in isolation from the other operations going on. A local historian, Hugues Chevalier, believes that approximately 5,000 civilians perished in just the Pas-de-Calais under Allied bombs from 1943 to 1945. Of the approximately 60,000 to 70,000 civilians killed in France by aerial bombing, perhaps 10 percent died as a result of the Allied search for German vengeance weapons. Probably two or three times that number were wounded. For many reasons, we will probably never have an accurate accounting of the human toll in this region.

Absent from both the Allied and French narratives of the Noball operation is any commentary on the forced laborers who constructed these sites for Organisation Todt. As Jim Aulich, one of the few scholars to address this aspect of the war, notes, these camps are at the “margins of memory.” Aulich’s father was a forced laborer and helped construct the Blockhaus near Éperlecques, and he passed on some of the details from this camp, of which there were many along the French coast. Officially named Organisation Todt Watten Zwangsarbeiter 62 (Forced Labor Camp 62), it had more than 35,000 workers living there at some point in 1943 and 1944. During peak construction, between 3,000 and 4,000 slaves worked on each twelve-hour shift, seven days a week, with few breaks. The German masters, and perhaps their French contractors, worked most of these unfortunates to death. At Wizernes, 1,300 workmen labored on the site day and night. Badly nourished and abused, they were forced to continue working, even under air attack, until the Germans abandoned the site in July 1944. The last 500 Soviet workers working in the Coupole were sent by train to Germany and “never seen again.” As the bombers approached, German guards ran for cover, often leaving the workers to their own devices. Many, such as Aulich’s father, escaped. The raids were costly nevertheless. As one Dutch prisoner of war, Luc Vandevelde, working at the camp near Watten, noted, after three attacks carried out by more than 320 bombers in 1943, they had more than 1,500 dead. Without question, the nature of this forced labor, and the fate of those workers caught under Allied bombs, is still one of the least discussed and explained aspects of the Second World War in the west.

In the end, the Noball operation was relatively successful. Because of the bombing, neither the Heer nor the Luftwaffe was able to launch a single rocket from the large facilities or ski sites from Normandy or the Cotentin Peninsula toward the overcrowded ports of Plymouth, Bristol, Portsmouth, or Southampton. The three-month delay in V-1 flying bomb launches and as much as a six-month delay in deploying the V-2 rocket were crucial to the ultimate Allied success. But anyone interested in the Second World War in Europe, or those fascinated with the technical aspects of the conflict’s weapons, knows most of this story. The British experience with these attacks, because they were so concentrated in London and southeastern England, is also amply documented and reported in histories of the conflict.

The continental perspective is less well known, even among the French who, as we shall see, are more prone to remember the effects of raids on the larger ports and rail yards. The rural population near each site was small, and the civilian casualty rates relatively insignificant. Even the French who lived near these war ruins understood these were legitimate targets and were taking a risk by remaining. Fortunately, local French historians are doing a marvelous job of researching and explaining the nature, scope, and effects of the attacks on these sites in the three northern departments. Their efforts illuminate the scope and details of a portion of the air war Spaatz and Harris considered a significant diversion from their larger goal of taking the fight to the Germans. Churchill, however, after hearing the British people’s complaints, had a pressing political need to defeat the V-weapon menace, and it was one of his highest priorities, as reflected by Eisenhower’s memorandum to Tedder on June 18. The bombing of these installations in France was thus an important aspect of the Allied air war against France.