On 17 April 1942, RAF Bomber Command mounted one of the most audacious missions of the Second World War. The target was the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Bavaria, which was responsible for the production of roughly half Germany’s output of U-boat engines. The Augsburg raid, apart from being one of the most daring and heroic ever undertaken by Bomber Command, was notable for two main things: it was the longest low-level penetration made during the war, and it was the first mission flown by the command’s new Lancaster bombers in the teeth of strong enemy opposition.
The prototype Avro Lancaster had been delivered to the RAF for operational trials with No. 44 Squadron at Waddington, near Lincoln, in September 1941. On 24 December it was followed by three production Lancaster Mk Is, and the nucleus of the RAF’s first Lancaster squadron was formed. In January 1942 the new bomber also began to replace the Avro Manchesters of No. 97 Squadron at Coningsby, another Lincolnshire airfield.
Four aircraft of No. 44 Squadron carried out the Lancaster’s first operation on 3 March 1942, laying mines in the German Bight, and the first night bombing mission was flown on 10 March when two aircraft of the same squadron took part in a raid on Essen. In all, fifty-nine squadrons of Bomber Command were destined to equip with the Lancaster before the end of the war, and this excellent aircraft was to become the sharp edge of the RAF’s sword in the air offensive against Germany. Developed from the twin-engined Manchester, whose Rolls-Royce Vulture engines were disastrously unreliable, the Lancaster was powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins, the splendid engines that also powered Fighter Command’s Spitfires and Hurricanes. It carried a crew of seven and had a defensive armament of ten 0.303-in Browning machine-guns. It had a top speed of 287 mph (460 kph) at 11,500 ft (3,500 metres) and could carry a normal bomb load of 14,000 lb (6.350 kg) – although later versions could lift the massive 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) ‘Grand Slam’ bomb, used to attack hardened targets in the last months of the war.
Because of the growing success of Hitler’s U-boats in the Atlantic, the MAN factories at Augsburg had long been high on the list of priority targets. The problem was that getting there and back involved a round trip of 1,250 miles (2,000 km) over enemy territory, and the factories covered a relatively small area. With the navigation and bombing aids available earlier, 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 the Lancaster came along, and the idea of a deep-penetration precision attack in daylight was resurrected. With its relatively high speed and strong defensive armament, it was possible that a force of Lancasters might get through to Augsburg if they went in at low level, underneath the German warning radar. Also, a Lancaster flying ‘on the deck’ could not be subjected to attacks from below, its vulnerable spot. A lot would depend, too, on the route to the target. RAF Intelligence had compiled a reasonably accurate picture of the disposition of German fighter units in western Europe, which early in 1942 were seriously overstretched. Half the total German fighter force was deployed in Russia and another quarter in the Balkans and North Africa; most of the remaining squadrons, apart from those earmarked for the defence of Germany itself, were stationed in the Pas de Calais area and Norway. The danger point was the coast of France; if the Lancasters could slip through a weak spot, perhaps in conjunction with a strong diversionary attack, then the biggest danger, in theory at least, would be behind them.
Although Bomber Command’s new chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, was generally opposed to small precision raids, being a strong advocate of large-scale ‘area’ attacks on enemy cities, the situation in the North Atlantic, with its awful daily toll of Allied shipping, compelled him to authorize the Augsburg plan. If it succeeded, it might reduce the number of operational U-boats for some time to come, and at the same time silence those in high places who were clamouring for RAF Bomber Command to divert more of its resources to hunting them.
The operation was to be carried out by six crews from No. 44 Squadron at Waddington and six from No. 97, now 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 minute.
For three days, starting on 14 April 1942, the two squadrons practised formation flying at low level, making 1,000 mile (1,600 km) flights around Britain and carrying out simulated attacks on targets in northern Scotland. It was exhausting work, hauling thirty tons of bomber around the sky at such an altitude and having to concentrate on not flying into a neighbouring aircraft as well as obstacles on the ground, but the crews were all very experienced, most of them going through their second tour of operations, and they achieved a high standard of accuracy in the short time available.
Speculation ran high about the nature of the target. To most of the 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 17 April, and saw the long red ribbon of their track stretching to Augsburg, a stunned silence descended on them. Almost automatically, they registered the details passed to them by the briefing officers. The six aircraft from each squadron were to fly in two sections of three, each section leaving the rendezvous point at a predetermined time. The interval between each section would be only a matter of seconds; visual contact had to be maintained so that the sections could lend support to one another in the event that they were attacked by enemy fighters.
From the departure point, Selsey Bill, the Lancasters were to cross the 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’ track would take them across enemy territory via Ludwigshafen, where they would cross the Rhine, to the northern tip of the Ammer See, a large lake some 20 miles (30 km) west of Munich and about the same distance south of Augsburg. By keeping to this route, it was hoped that the enemy would think that Munich was the target. Only when they reached the Ammer See would the bombers sweep sharply northwards for the final run to their true objective.
As they approached the target, the bombers were to spread out so that there was a 3 mile (5 km) gap between each section. Sections would bomb from low level in formation, each Lancaster dropping a salvo of four 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs. These would be fitted with eleven-second delayed-action fuzes, giving the bombers time to get clear but exploding well before the next section arrived over the target. Take-off was to be in mid-afternoon, which meant that the first Lancasters should reach the target at 20.15, just before dusk. They would therefore have the shelter of darkness by the time they reached the Channel coast danger-areas on the homeward flight. The fuel tanks of each aircraft would be filled to their maximum capacity of 2,154 gal (9,792 litres).
The Lancasters of No. 44 Squadron would form the first two sections. This unit was known as the ‘Rhodesia’ Squadron, with good reason: about a quarter of its personnel came from that country. There were also 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 25-year-old who had already shown himself to be a highly competent commander, rock-steady in an emergency. The war against the U-boat was of special interest to him, for after leaving school in Natal he had spent two years in the Merchant Navy and consequently had a fair idea of the agonies seamen went through when their ships were torpedoed. He came from a naval background, too: his grandfather had been an admiral in the Royal Navy. John Nettleton joined the Royal Air Force in 1938, and in April 1942 he was still completing his first operational tour. It was one of the penalties of being an above-average pilot: such men were often ‘creamed off’ to teach others.
Shortly after 15.00 on 7 April, the quiet Lincolnshire village of Waddington was shaken by the roar of twenty-four 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 (15 km) due east, the six bombers of No. 97 Squadron, led by Squadron leader J.S. Sherwood DFC, were also taking off from Woodhall Spa.
Each section left Selsey Bill right on schedule, the sea blurring under the Lancasters as they sped on. The bombers to left and right of Nettleton were piloted by Flying Officer John Garwell and Warrant Officer G.T. Rhodes; the Lancasters in the following section were flown by Flight Lieutenant N. Sandford, Warrant Officer H.V. Crum and Warrant Officer J.E. Beckett. The sky was brilliantly clear and the hot afternoon sun beat down through the perspex of cockpits and gun turrets. Before they reached the coast, most of the crews were flying in shirt sleeves.
As they raced over the French coast the pilots had to ease back their control columns to leapfrog the cliffs, so low were the bombers. They thundered inland across the picturesque landscape of Normandy, the broad loops of the River Seine glistening in the sunshine away to the left. The bombers would pass to the south of Paris and on to Sens, on the Yonne River, their first major checkpoint. Sens lay about 180 miles (290 km) from the Channel coast – about an hour’s flying time, at the ground speed the Lancasters were making. If they survived that first hour, if the diversionary raids had drawn off the German fighters, then they would have a good chance of reaching Augsburg.
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 shellbursts 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.
It was sheer bad luck that drew the German fighters to the Lancasters. The Messerschmitt Bf 109s of II/Jagdgeschwader 2 ‘Richthofen’ were returning to their base at Evreux after sweeping the area to the south of Paris in search of No. 2 Group’s diversionary bombers when they passed directly over the Lancasters’ track, actually passing between Nettleton’s and Sherwood’s formations, although at a much higher altitude. Even then, the bombers might have escaped detection had it not been for a solitary Messerschmitt 109, much lower than the rest, making an approach to land at Evreux with wheels and flaps down.
The German pilot spotted the Lancasters and immediately whipped up his flaps and landing gear, climbing hard and turning in behind Sandford’s section. He must have alerted the other fighters, because a few seconds later they came tumbling like an avalanche on the bombers.
The first 109 came streaking in, the pilot singling out Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster 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 thirty more Messerschmitts pounced on them, and a running fight developed. The Lancaster pilots held their course doggedly; at this height there was no room to take evasive action and they had to rely on the bombers’ combined firepower to keep the Germans at bay. 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 realized that its defensive armament consisted of 0.303 in machine-guns, however, they began to press home their attacks skilfully, coming in from the port quarter and opening fire with their cannon at about 700 yards (640 m). At 400 yards (366 m), the limit of the .303’s effective range, they broke away and climbed to repeat the process.
The Lancasters were raked time after time as they thundered on, their vibrating fuselages a nightmare of noise as cannon shells punched into them and the gunners returned the enemy fire, their pilots drenched with sweat as they dragged the bombers over telegraph wires, steeples and rooftops. In the villages below, people fled for cover as the battle swept over their heads and shells from their own fighters spattered the walls of houses.
Warrant Officer Beckett was the first to go. A great ball of orange flame ballooned from his Lancaster as cannon shells found a fuel tank. Seconds later, the bomber was a mass of fire. Slowly, the nose went down. Spewing burning fragments, the shattered bomber 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 now 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 1,000- pounders dropped away, and a few moments later Crum managed to put the crippled aircraft down on her belly. The Lancaster tore across a wheatfield and slewed 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 about 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 fiercely; there would only be a very charred carcase left for the Luftwaffe experts to examine.
Afterwards, Crum and his crew split up into pairs and set out to walk through occupied France to Bordeaux, where they knew they could make contact with members of the French Resistance. All of them, however, were subsequently rounded up by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as prisoners.
Now only Flight Lieutenant Sandford was left out of the three Lancasters of the second section. A quiet music-lover who amused his colleagues because he always wore pyjamas under his flying suit for luck, he was one of the most popular officers on No. 44 Squadron. Now his luck had run out, and he was fighting desperately for his life. In a bid to escape from a swarm of Messerschmitts, he eased his great bomber down underneath some high-tensions cables. The Lancaster dug a wingtip into the ground, cartwheeled and exploded, killing all the crew.
The enemy fighters now latched on to Warrant Officer Rhodes, flying to the right of 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 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 the crew.
The Lancaster was shot down by another warrant officer, a man named Pohl. Poor Rhodes was the thousandth victim to be claimed since September 1939 by the pilots of JG 2, and a party was held in Pohl’s honour at Evreux that night.
There were only two Lancasters left out of the 44 Squadron formation now: 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 large 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 the miracle happened. Suddenly, singly or in pairs, the fighters broke off their attacks and turned away, probably running out of fuel or ammunition, or both. Whatever the reason, their abrupt withdrawal meant that Nettleton and Garwell were spared, if only for the time being. They still had more than 500 miles (800 km) 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 never saw the 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 – a task that grew more difficult when, two hours later, they penetrated the mountainous country of southern Germany and had to fly through turbulent air currents that boiled up from the slopes. They reached the Ammer See and turned north, rising a few hundred feet to clear some hills and then dropping down once more into the valley on the other side. And there, dead ahead 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 their course, following the line of the river to find their 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 hitting the Lancasters all the time, they thundered over the last few hundred yards. Then the bombers jumped as the 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of bombs fell from their bellies. The Lancasters 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.
Nettleton and Garwell had battled their way through appalling odds and 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 knew 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 that was now pouring into the cockpit, Garwell eased the Lancaster gently down towards what he hoped was open ground. He was completely unable to see anything; all he could do was try to hold the bomber steady as she sank.
A long, agonizing minute later the Lancaster hit the ground, sending earth flying in all directions as she skidded across a field. Then 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, Sergeant R.J. Flux, had been thrown out on impact. He had wrenched open the ecape hatch just before the bomber touched down; his action had given the others a few precious extra seconds in which to get clear, but it had cost Flux his life.
Completely alone now, John Nettleton set course northwestwards for home, chasing the afterglow of the setting sun. As he did so, the leading section of No. 97 Squadron descended on Augsburg. They had to fly through a flak barrage even more intense than the storm that had greeted Nettleton and Garwell; as well as four-barrelled 20 mm Flakvierling cannon, the Germans were using 88 mm guns, their barrels depressed to the minimum and their shells doing far more damage to the buildings of Augsburg than to the racing bombers. All three Lancasters released their loads on the target and thundered on towards safety, their gunners spraying any AA position they could see. The bombers were so low that on occasions they dropped below the level of the rooftops, finding some shelter from the murderous flak.
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 it 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, Flying Officers Rodley and Hallows, returned safely with their crews.
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 quickly hit and set on fire but the pilot held doggedly to his course. By the time he reached the target his 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.
Deverill’s Lancaster was also badly hit and its starboard inner engine set on fire, but the crew managed to extinguish the blaze 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 the rank of wing commander, and the following year saw him flying his second tour of operations. He was killed on the night of 12/13 July 1943, his bomber falling in flames from the night sky over Turin, Italy.
Altough reconnaissance later showed that the MAN assembly shop had been damaged, the full results of the raid were not known until after the war. It appeared that five of the delayed-action bombs which the Lancaster crews had braved such dangers to place on the factory had failed to explode. The others caused severe damage to two buildings, one a forging shop and the other a machine-tool store, but the machine-tools themselves suffered only light damage. The total effect on production was negligible, especially as the MAN had five other factories building U-boat engines at the time.
The loss of seven Lancasters and forty-nine young men was too high a price to pay. Not until the closing months of 1944 would the RAF’s four-engined heavy bombers again venture over Germany in daylight, and by then the Allied fighters ruled the enemy sky.