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Avro Lancaster over Caen
A view of an Avro Lancaster taking part in the great aerial assault on Caen, launched when the army became bogged down.
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This year we are celebrating the 80th anniversary of the first flight of the Lancaster. Our virtual Lancaster Challenge event has seen more than 5,000 participants from around the world using the Challenge as motivation to keep moving during lockdown, to show support for the RAF Museum and to learn more about the Lancaster through our ‘Legacy of the Lancaster’ talk.
With less than a month to go until the Challenge closes on 17 May, the anniversary of the Lancaster’s famous Operation Chastise, better known as the Dambusters Raid, we are taking a look back at not one, not two, but three Lancaster 360 images we have shared over the last year.
Today we are taking you onboard the Avro Lancaster 1 on display in Hangar 5 at the RAF Museum London, with three 360 images for you to explore. Look around the cockpit, rear turret and Bomb Aimer positions.
The Avro Lancaster was arguably the most famous, and certainly the most successful heavy bomber operated by the RAF during the Second World War. It’s impressive performance and excellent flying characteristics soon established its superiority over its rivals. Lancaster’s not only made a major contribution to Bomber Command’s night offensive on Germany, it also assisted in turning the tide of the great land battles of 1944 during tactical daylight operations in the Caen region.
A Second World War mystery solved: 75 years later, a transatlantic team retraces two lost Canadians’ final days
In 1944, a Canadian pilot and his navigator were shot down in their Lancaster bomber over occupied France – but their bodies were never found. Where did they go, and why did they never make it home? It took their family, amateur historians and students on two continents to finally figure that out
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In Petitmont, France, a "remembrance table" honours Canadian pilot Harold Sherman (Al) Peabody and his navigator, James Harrington (Harry) Doe, whose plane was shot down in the area in 1944.
Anne Ackermann/PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNE ACKERMANN • GRAPHICS BY JOHN SOPINSKI
Madelaine Schultz remembers the terrifying explosions like they were yesterday. She was 22 years old and living in the village of Petitmont in northeastern France, not far from the German frontier. In the months after D-Day, British and American heavy bombers began flying over not in the dozens or hundreds, but in the thousands. By day, the lumbering four-engine aircraft were American B-17s by night, British Lancasters. They filled the skies and flattened German military sites and factories, sometimes entire cities.
The Germans retaliated with intense flak from anti-aircraft guns and attacks from deadly fighter planes. The Allied losses were horrendous: The Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, made up of aircrews from Britain, Canada and other Commonwealth countries, alone lost almost 55,600 men.
“We heard the aerial battles,” Ms. Schultz tells me from her hospital bed in the city of Lunéville, just west of Petitmont, where she was suffering from varicose veins in her legs. “I was just a girl. We were so scared.”
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Madelaine Schultz, now 97, remembers the night L7576 was shot down in 1944.
The night of July 28-29 was particularly frightening, she says. Records of the RAF mass raid on Stuttgart, involving almost 500 aircraft, show that 62 planes went down. One of them, a Lancaster with the registration number L7576, crashed nearby in the Vosges mountains, close to the village of Saint-Sauveur. Four of the seven crew members were Canadian, including the pilot, Harold Sherman (Al) Peabody, and his navigator, James Harrington (Harry) Doe.
The crash of the big, black bomber triggered a small but gripping mystery. Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were reported killed in the wreck. But their bodies were never found and their families weren’t convinced the results of the official postwar investigation were accurate – all the more so since various witnesses claimed that two airmen in Allied uniforms were seen alive shortly after the crash.
Did Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe really survive? If so, how, and what happened to them?
The mystery has long gripped the oldest residents of towns and villages near the crash site, and it spawned a remarkable exercise in investigative research that brought together students from Bishop’s University near Sherbrooke, Que. (Mr. Peabody’s alma mater) relatives of the missing airmen in Quebec, Ontario and California and enthusiastic amateur historians, who guided the Bishop’s students on their voyage of discovery.
Before filing their final, shocking report on L7576 last year, their work took them on a transatlantic adventure that saw them examine a plethora of speculative and sometimes contradictory accounts about the flyers’ fate, led them into dead ends and saw theories embraced and dashed as new evidence was found. Along the way, they encountered stories of horror that saddened them and still haunt those who lived through the air raids.
“The French locals were tickled that someone from the other side of the world cared what happened in Petitmont,” says Sean Summerfield, who led the Bishop’s research team. “For some of them, the memories of the crash are still fresh. When I told them what I was researching, some would hold me and start to cry.”
One of those locals was Ms. Schultz, now 97. She still goes quiet and tears up when she remembers that night. She considers all Allied bomber crews heroes and for decades tended the graves of three of L7576’s crewmen – one Canadian, two Britons – in the small, rarely visited Petitmont cemetery. But how to honour the fallen airmen whose bodies were never found – men such as Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe, who seemed to vanish into thin air? “Had they not come, we’d be German,” Ms. Schultz says. “They kicked out the German trash.”
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fighters from a base near
Stuttgart engages the bomber.
‘corkscrew’ manoeuvre to fend
fighters from a base near
Stuttgart engages the bomber.
‘corkscrew’ manoeuvre to fend
fighters from a base near
Pierre Vinot was one of the first local residents to reach the L7576 crash site. His story – and his grainy black-and-white photos – provided some of the first clues that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe did not die when the plane slammed into a forested hillside in the Vosges mountains.
Mr. Vinot is 92. He is a small, alert man with a mustache who hobbles around Saint-Sauveur, about three kilometres from the crash site, with a cane.
The son of a forestry warden, he was 17 in the summer of 1944 and remembers a policeman banging on the door early on the morning of July 29, a Saturday. Several locals had reported seeing an aircraft in flames streak across the night sky, and the policeman was raising a search-and-rescue party.
Young Pierre grabbed his primitive box camera, a French-made Gap, and they scrambled up the hill. When Pierre arrived, he saw that the bomber had been destroyed. “I saw two dead – they were all in one piece – and another one who was dismembered,” he says. “Dogs were eating this third man.” There was no sign of the other four crew members and the cockpit was empty.
Pierre saw four Germans going through the clothing of the three dead aviators, presumably looking for identification.
Later that day, French civilians used a horse-drawn carriage to take the dead airmen to the church in Petitmont, where they would be given a funeral. “When they saw the bodies, everyone was crying,” Mr. Vinot says.
Pierre Vinot, 92, took pictures of the crash site that would become vital clues in what happened to the Lancaster bomber's pilot and navigator.
The villagers also noted a crucial detail: L7576’s bombs had not exploded. That observation would later help cast doubt on the official report, delivered after the war, that said Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were probably blown to pieces in the crash. That report might have remained the final word on the tragedy, if not for two of Mr. Peabody’s relatives, Jon and Robert Peck, whose late mother was Mr. Peabody’s second cousin. Jon Peck, 58, runs a mining technology company in Montreal called Peck Tech Consulting. His brother Robert, 60, is a career diplomat who, most recently, was Canada’s ambassador to Greece. Together, the brothers Peck revived and financed an investigation into Mr. Peabody’s fate – the Peabody Project – which began in earnest in 2016.
The Pecks had always wondered what happened to the young pilot. Their cottage on Lake Memphrémagog, near Sherbrooke, Que., is next door to the old Peabody property. A yellowed Sherbrooke Record article from 1944 about Mr. Peabody’s disappearance is pinned to a wall in the Peck cottage. “Sherman was always a mystery to us,” Jon says. “Did he bail out of the plane and get lost forever, maybe suffering from amnesia? Did he get married to a French woman? If he was killed, where was his grave?”
Jon Peck's curiosity about his lost cousin led him and his brother to investigate.
In 2008, after learning from a Canadian military buff that L7576 had crashed near Petitmont, Jon and his wife went to eastern France and discovered the cemetery where three of the aircrew were buried under simple white headstones. They were Richard Proulx, the Canadian upper gunner, who was 21 when he died Percy Buckley, the British tail gunner, who was 18 and Arthur Payton, another Briton, who was the 30-year-old wireless operator.
That same year, Pierre Vinot’s son, Noël, sent Jon an intriguing reference from an out-of-print book called Viombois, written by a Vosges-area resistance fighter named René Ricatte. The reference said that on July 30, 1944 – the day after the Lancaster crash – one of Mr. Ricatte’s men heard about the downed plane. This man reported that “part of the crew parachuted out and two of the members, arrested by the Germans, were shot on the spot.” There were no details, no names, no sources. But the reference raised the possibility that the official reports were wrong, that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were not killed in the crash but were possibly executed the next day, in violation of the Geneva Convention. But it was only a theory.
In 2015, the Peck brothers decided to throw some resources into unravelling the Peabody mystery. They approached Bishop’s University and agreed to fund a program that would see a few undergrad students – Megan Whitworth, Spiro Trent and Mr. Summerfield, who was an infantryman in the Canadian army in Afghanistan in 2010 – search for evidence. “The least I could do was make him live beyond his 23 years,” Jon says. “All we had was a notice that he had died. I just wanted to close the loop and honour him in some way.”
At the same time, their research brought the two airmen back to life, uniting two families who had not known about one another. “This was an incredible pushing forward of the narrative,” says Rick Doe, 62, an American atmospheric scientist who lives in Los Gatos, Calif., and who is Mr. Doe’s nephew. “When you don’t have a grave, your mind goes all over the place.”
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Mr. Peck visits the graves of the RCAF crew in Petitmont with Alain Founé, an amateur historian who has helped the Peck brothers to find out more about what happened in 1944.
Doe, middle, and Peabody, right, sit alongside fellow Canadian soldier Ronald Louis (Lew) Fiddick, left, the bomb aimer on the ill-fated Lancaster flight.
There are only a few details known about the man who was piloting L7576 the night it crashed. They come from Summerfield’s research and family notes from Mr. Peabody’s first cousin, Robert Richardson, 66, a travel-guide author and publisher who lives in Victoria.
Mr. Peabody was born in 1920 in Cambridge, Mass. His father, Harold, worked for the Canada Life insurance company and the family moved to Montreal when he was only a few months old, then decamped again in 1926 to Sherbrooke. Young Sherman was handsome – his photos depict him as steely and confident, and he wore his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform well. Jon Peck imagines him as a ladies’ man.
He also loved sport. When he enrolled at Bishop’s in the science program in 1937, he was on the track, hockey and golf teams, and became the junior and senior golf champion. In 1941, he dropped out of school to join the war effort, enrolling in the Commonwealth flight-training program in Windsor Mills, Que.
Somewhat more is known about fellow aviator Harry Doe, thanks to a remarkable treasure given to his nephew Rick in 2005, when Rick’s father – Harry’s older brother – died. It was a shoebox that contained the deceased flyer’s diary, scrapbooks, original negatives from his camera, squadron photos, RCAF log books and, crucially, a few postwar letters from French villagers who said two men fitting the description of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were intercepted by the Germans.
“My father was reluctant to talk about the death of his brother,” Rick tells me by phone. “Then this shoebox emerged right after my father’s funeral. It had basically everything about my Uncle Harry’s life. That’s when I decided that, yeah, there’s a story here.”
Doe, pictured at home before going to fight overseas.
Harry Doe was born in Calgary in 1922, the son of a First World War pilot. He loved aircraft, built model planes and, after excelling as a boxer and football player in high school, enlisted in the RCAF at age 18. At a flight school in Edmonton, he learned navigation. He was shipped to England in 1943 six months before D-Day, he was posted to the Chipping-Warden RAF training unit in the East Midlands.
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Mr. Doe’s RAF diary, which opens in January, 1944, is an exercise in succinct, unadorned writing. Still, his jottings give a glimpse into a soldier’s life in wartime England, when the country was still being bombed by the Luftwaffe. What struck me in reading his one-line entries was the soldiers’ determined efforts to replicate a normal life – booze, girls, dancing, poker, golf, theatre, writing letters home – between training and bombing missions.
“Flew yesterday with a terrific hangover,” one entry reads. “Went to Savoy with Red Cross girls,” another says.
At Chipping-Warden, he would meet three men who later joined his Lancaster combat crew: Mr. Peabody, Mr. Buckley and Ronald Louis (Lew) Fiddick, the Canadian bomb aimer from Cedar, B.C. Mr. Doe describes Mr. Peabody as a “good type” in his diary. By February, 1944, Mr. Doe, Mr. Peabody and Mr. Fiddick – perhaps united by their Canadian nationality – were flying together and living in the same hut.
In June, 1944, they were posted to the RAF’s 622 Squadron, based in Mildenhall, just northeast of Cambridge, which operated the Lancasters. In June and July, they flew nine combat missions together. The last entry in Mr. Doe’s diary – Friday, July 28 – is written in red ink in someone else’s hand. It says, simply: “FAILED TO RETURN.”
Avro Lancaster Bomber Mark I
One of the most effective heavy bombers of
the Second World War, it could fly long-range
night missions, delivering its payload far from
bases in England. Designed by Roy Chadwick
and manufactured by Avro, it first flew on Jan.
9, 1941, and entered service in 1942. More
than 7,300 were built. One of the two remain-
ing airworthy planes is based at the Canadian
Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont.
Max. takeoff weight 68,000 kg
Four Rolls-Royce Merlin XX 12-cyl-
inder liquid-cooled engines, each
capable of up to 1,800 horsepower
Avro Lancaster Bomber Mark I
One of the most effective heavy bombers of the Second
World War, it could fly long-range night missions, deliv-
ering its payload far from bases in England. Designed
by Roy Chadwick and manufactured by Avro, it first flew
on Jan. 9, 1941, and entered service in 1942. More than
7,300 were built. One of the two remaining airworthy
planes is based at the Canadian Warplane Heritage
Max. takeoff weight 68,000 lb
Four Rolls-Royce Merlin XX 12-cylinder
liquid-cooled engines, each capable
with four in the rear turret
Avro Lancaster Bomber Mark I
One of the most effective heavy bombers of the Second World War, it could fly long-range
night missions, delivering its payload far from bases in England. Designed by Roy Chadwick
and manufactured by Avro, it first flew on Jan. 9, 1941, and entered service in 1942. More than
7,300 were built. One of the two remaining airworthy planes is based at the Canadian
Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont.
Avro Lancaster Bomber Mark I
One of the most effective heavy bombers of the Second World War, it could fly long-range night missions, deliv-
ering its payload far from bases in England. Designed by Roy Chadwick and manufactured by Avro, it first flew
on Jan. 9, 1941, and entered service in 1942. More than 7,300 were built. One of the two remaining airworthy
planes is based at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont.
Two Browning 7.62 mm machine guns
in front and mid-upper turrets with
Avro Lancaster Bomber Mark I
One of the most effective heavy bombers of the Second World
War, it could fly long-range night missions, delivering its pay-
load far from bases in England. Designed by Roy Chadwick and
manufactured by Avro, it first flew on Jan. 9, 1941, and entered
service in 1942. More than 7,300 were built. One of the two
remaining airworthy planes is based at the Canadian Warplane
Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont.
SOURCE: 'SWALLOWED INTO DUSK: MISSING AIRMEN DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR,' SEAN SUMMERFIELD GOOGLEMAPS QGIS AVRO LANCASTER OWNER'S WORKSHOP MANUAL CANADIAN WARPLANE HERITAGE MUSEUM
The final mission of L7576 began at 10 p.m. on July 28. The aircraft was a first-generation Lancaster, but seemed to have luck built into its old aluminum bones and V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. It had flown an epic 98 missions. Lancasters rarely lasted that long. Of the 7,377 built (430 of them in Canada), some 45 per cent were lost. Statistically, a Lancaster crewman had only a 30 per cent chance of completing a full tour of 30 sorties.
The Lancaster was carrying five 1,000-pound bonds and two 500-pound bombs. The group’s goal was to hit Stuttgart’s railway yards. The mission records say L7576 and the other bombers ran into trouble in eastern France, when the German night-fighters – usually radar-equipped Junkers 88s or Messerschmitt 110s – attacked.
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Mr. Summerfield was able to find the name of the German pilot who preyed on L7576. He was Walter Swoboda, who spotted the Lancaster as it flew over the northeast French region of Lorraine.
After the initial, unsuccessful attack, Mr. Peabody employed the “corkscrew” defensive maneuver, flipping the Lancaster on its side and diving about 150 metres before ascending again. Mr. Swoboda apparently anticipated the tactic and blasted the plane as it lost speed on its way back up. (It would be Mr. Swoboda’s only kill he did not survive the war.) The Lancaster was now out of control and descending toward the Vosges mountains. It was about 1:30 a.m. on July 29.
It is almost certain that the British tail gunner, Mr. Buckley, and the Canadian upper gunner, Mr. Proulx (who are both buried in Petitmont) were killed in Mr. Swoboda’s attack. Mr. Fiddick, the Canadian bomb aimer, and the British flight engineer, G.J. Wishart, bailed out. In a 1946 letter to Harold Peabody, the pilot’s father, a French civilian named Jean Michaut said he saw L7576 pass over his house in “a ball of fire,” followed by the reverberations from “an enormous explosion.”
As Pierre Vinot would recount to me, only three bodies were found at the wreckage site. Given the rugged terrain, it’s impossible to imagine that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe, if they did not bail out, could have survived the impact. The plane was utterly destroyed. Walking in the woods with a retired Parisian named Patrick Buffet, the owner of the house closest to the crash site, whose sawmill made the coffins for the three men found in the wreckage, we found only small scraps of the plane.
Top: Patrick Buffet, left, guides Jon Peck to the crash site. Bottom: Some debris from the plane.
Mr. Fiddick and Mr. Wishart survived the war. In a remarkable tale of survival and heroism, Mr. Fiddick evaded capture, made a rendezvous with French resistance fighters and participated in raids with British SAS commandos before being sent back to England in October, 1944. He died in 2016 at the age of 99 before the Peck brothers or Mr. Summerfield could see him. The crash information he gave to casualty investigators shortly after the war about the fates of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe was only partially helpful, Mr. Summerfield says. Mr. Fiddick reported that he didn’t know if they had bailed out, and also that they had bailed out and were captured – apparently contradictory statements.
Mr. Wishart was badly wounded, was found by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. But what happened to Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe?
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About 300 metres south of the crash site, French civilians found several parachutes, Mr. Michaut said in his letter to Mr. Peabody’s father. They also found open tins of food, more evidence that some or all of the missing crewmen had survived. The fathers of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe clung to reports from local civilians that two airmen were picked up by the Germans. “Both men were overcome with grief and were adamant their sons could be still be found,” Mr. Summerfield says in his 70-page report.
The RAF’s Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES), set up in 1944 to trace the 42,000 airmen listed as missing, sent a two-man team to Petitmont in 1947 to research the crash of L7576. The investigation was rushed. The investigators could not verify Mr. Fiddick’s report that two airmen were seen walking along a road after the crash. They concluded that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe “either drifted over the then German border during their parachute descent and were apprehended there, or were still in the aircraft when it exploded and were blown to pieces.”
The parents’ hopes that their sons were still alive was all but dashed in 1951, when the elder Mr. Peabody received a letter from RCAF wing commander Wilfred Gunn with bad news. Cdr. Gunn, citing the MRES report and a separate Canadian war crimes team report, wrote that “it must be regretfully accepted and officially recorded that your son and Flying Officer Doe perished in the crash and do not have ‘known’ graves.”
During the war, Natzweiler-Struthof was the only Nazi concentration and extermination camp on French soil.
Today, Natzweiler-Struthof is a museum. The researchers' findings would eventually lead them here in the search for Peabody and Doe's final fate.
Sixty-five years after the letter landed, Mr. Summerfield and the Bishop’s University team started afresh. Their research would lead them to the Nazis’ infamous Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, the only concentration and extermination camp on French soil. It was located near the French border, about 50 kilometres south of Strasbourg.
The Bishop’s students determined that the MRES team, which had spent only one day on their probe, missed key witnesses, a few of whom had seen the parachutes not far from the crash site. And Mr. Fiddick’s report that he had heard that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were captured was entirely discounted.
Crucially, they unearthed a thorough report from the British army’s War Crime Investigations Team (WCIT), whose men interviewed former Allied prisoners, German prison guards and Nazi war criminals who had operated in the Vosges mountains. Their research, although only peripherally about the fates of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe, determined that three airmen were taken to Struthof, where they were executed after being placed in a nearby prisoner transit camp called Schirmeck-Vorbruck.
The identity of one of the three was known. He was Sergeant Fredrick Habgood, a British Lancaster crewman whose plane went down only minutes after Mr. Peabody’s and crashed not far away. A war crimes trial determined that Sgt. Habgood was taken to Struthof on July 31, 1944, where he was hanged and his body cremated. Circumstances – timing, geography and credible witness reports from camp prisoners and German officers and soldiers – strongly suggested the other two were Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe.
A guard at Schirmeck-Vorbruck told the WCIT investigators that he saw an airman resembling Mr. Peabody. The WCIT team interrogated Mr. Wishart, the British flight engineer who had bailed out of the Lancaster and was imprisoned by the Germans. Mr. Wishart asked his German interrogator about the rest of his crew. “They were all incinerated,” he was told, adding weight to the WCIT’s theory that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were executed along with Sgt. Habgood and burned in Struthof’s crematorium.
Mr. Summerfield found an unrelated deposition from the commander of the Schirmeck-Vorbruck transfer camp, who told a war crimes court that orders were given from above that captured airmen were to be killed, not treated as prisoners of war. The commander admitted sending three airmen to Struthof at the end of July and early August.
After examining all the evidence, especially the WCIT report and the criminal depositions from German camp commanders, Mr. Summerfield concluded that Mr. Peabody and Harry Mr. Doe were indeed taken to Struthof within a few days of the crash, and were killed and cremated. The brothers Peck have accepted this conclusion and consider the Peabody mystery essentially solved.
Jon Peck surveys the barracks at Natzweiler-Struthof, called 'the bunker,' where captives were tortured and killed.
The Airman Who Fell 18,000 Feet Without A Parachute & Lived
Aerial combat, like naval combat, has many risks attached to it, many of which arise from the fact that the human beings involved in such battles are far removed from their natural element: land.
Whether a few thousand miles out to sea, or a few thousand feet up in the air, when you’re fighting so far out of your natural element, you risk death not only from your enemy’s weaponry but also from the inherent danger of falling from the skies or into the unforgiving ocean.
While we have invented means to mitigate these dangers, such as lifeboats and parachutes, if these last resorts fail death is usually a certainty.
Indeed, plummeting to the earth without a parachute from 18,000 feet in the air is pretty much guaranteed to end only one way for the unfortunate person involved – but, as history has often taught us there are always exceptions to the rules, and one man who miraculously survived a parachute-less jump from his burning airplane was World War II RAF airman Nicholas Alkemade.
Nicholas Alkemade was born in 1922 in Norfolk, England, and was a gardener before signing up with the Royal Air Force when WWII broke out. He was trained as an air gunner, and after completing his training he served as a tail gunner with RAF 115 Squadron.
Crew members inspect the tail of a 115 Squadron Bomber.
Alkemade was part of a crew that flew an Avro Lancaster MK II bomber, which was capable of carrying the largest bombs used by the RAF during the Second World War. These bombers often flew night missions, and, as such, the bomber that Alkemade’s crew manned was christened Werewolf.
Alkemade flew fourteen successful missions with the crew of Werewolf, and on the night of 24 March 1944 they were part of a bombing raid targeting Berlin. They successfully delivered their payload, but on the return journey heavy winds took them off course. They ended up flying over the Ruhr region, which had a high concentration of anti-aircraft defenses.
Avro Lancaster B Mk II
Werewolf was attacked from below by a German night-fighter aircraft, and the resulting damage tore up Werewolf’s wing and fuselage, and set the plane on fire. It was obvious that Werewolf was beyond salvation, and the pilot ordered the crew to grab their parachutes in preparation for an emergency exit from the burning aircraft.
Alkemade, alone in his turret at the back of the plane, was already being scorched by the flames, with his rubber oxygen mask beginning to melt on his face, and his arms seared by the fire. Scrambling for his parachute in a panic, he was hit with a moment of pure dread when he finally located it – for his parachute, like everything else around him, was on fire.
Avro Lancaster B I PA474
Faced with a terrible choice – that of burning to death, or falling to his death, Alkemade chose the latter option. Better to suffer the brief terror of the fall and have a swift, merciful end than suffer through the torment of fire. He jumped from the burning plane without his parachute, and, falling at almost 120mph and looking up at the starry sky and the burning airplane from which he had just jumped, he lost consciousness.
Amazingly he woke up three hours later, lying in deep snow in a pine forest. It seemed that the flexible young pines had slowed his descent enough that the snow was able to cushion his fall. He had not broken any bones, but had managed to sprain his knee after his 18,000 foot fall from the sky. In addition, he had suffered burn wounds from the fire and had pieces of perspex from his flak-shattered screen embedded in his skin.
Lancaster pilot at the controls, left, flight engineer at right
While he had survived the fall, surviving the rest of the night was not a guarantee. His knee was in too much pain for him to walk, and the freezing cold was beginning to take its toll.
He began blowing his distress whistle, which eventually attracted the attention of some German civilians. He was taken to Meschede Hospital where his wounds were treated, and when he was well enough to talk, he was interrogated by the Gestapo.
He told them his story, but they refused to believe that he could have survived such a fall without a parachute. They insisted that he had buried his parachute somewhere and that he was a spy – but when they sent men to investigate the landing site, as well as the wreckage of Werewolf, they were amazed to find that the remains of Alkemade’s parachute were indeed still in the wreckage of the plane.
A model of one compound of the huge Stalag Luft III Photo by Wikigraphists CC BY SA 3.0
Alkemade then became something of a celebrity, and met a number of Luftwaffe officers who wanted to hear about his miraculous jump. However, this did not earn him any special treatment, and like any other captured Allied airman he was sent to the notorious prison camp Stalag Luft III.
Alkemade’s luck remained with him, though. When the camp’s 10,000 inmates were forced to trek hundreds of miles across northern Germany, through a blizzard, with temperatures dropping as low as -22 degrees C, he survived and was eventually liberated.
After the war Alkemade worked in the chemical industry in the UK, and lived to the age of 64. He passed away in June 1987.
The British Army’s Largest Tank Battle in 25 Stunning Images
Operation Goodwood in Normandy, France was a British offensive against the German forces at the end of July 1944. It is called by some historians as ‘the largest tank battle in British Army’s history.’ British forces deployed two infantry divisions and three armored divisions with 1,100 tanks.
The Germans engaged four infantry divisions, three armored divisions, and two heavy tank battalions with 377 tanks. The British forces wanted to take control of Caen in Northwestern France to break through the German lines and liberate the rest of the occupied country.
The British forces advanced seven miles to the eastern part of the city, but the Germans prevented a total breakthrough. The British had 3,474 casualties and lost 314 tanks. The Germans had an unknown number of casualties but over 2,500 German soldiers were captured, and they lost 75 to 100 tanks in the battle.
Avro Lancaster B Mark IIs of No. 514 Squadron RAF taxi onto the main runway at Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, for a daylight attack on fortified villages east of Caen, in support of the Second Army’s armoured offensive in the Normandy battle area (Operation GOODWOOD). Vertical aerial photograph showing Handley Page Halifax B Mark III, LW127 ‘HL-F’, of No. 429 Squadron RCAF, in flight over Mondeville, France, after losing its entire starboard tailplane to bombs dropped by another Halifax above it. LW127 was one of 942 aircraft of Bomber Command dispatched to bomb German-held positions, in support of the Second Army attack in the Normandy battle area (Operation GOODWOOD), on the morning of July 18th, 1944. The crew managed to abandon the aircraft before it crashed in the target area. Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial photograph of the steelworks at Colombelles, east of Caen, France following a daylight attack on fortified German positions by aircraft of Bomber Command on the morning of July 18th, 1944, in support of Operation GOODWOOD. The whole target area is studded with a dense concentration of craters and almost every building in the steelworks has been destroyed.
Soldiers of 1st Welsh Guards in action near Cagny during Operation Goodwood Sherman tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, 27th Armoured Brigade, carrying infantry from 3rd Division, move up at the start of Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18 July 1944. Cromwell tanks moving across ‘York’ bridge, a Bailey bridge over the Caen canal and the Orne River, during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. A Sherman Firefly crosses ‘Euston Bridge’ over the Orne as it moves up to the start line for Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. Infantry and tanks wait to advance at the start of Operation ‘Goodwood’. A King Tiger of the 503rd heavy tank battalion, after it has been rammed by a British Sherman commanded by Lieutenant John Gorman of the 2nd Armoured Irish Guards, Guards Armoured Division during Operation Goodwood. Gorman and his crew then captured most of the Tiger’s crew. The event took place on 18th July 1944 to the west of Cagny, Normandy, France. Loyd carriers and 6-pounder anti-tank guns of 3rd Irish Guards advance during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. Sherman Crab flail tanks advance south of Escoville during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. German PzKpfw VI Tiger tank overturned during the heavy Allied bombing at the beginning of Operation ‘Goodwood’, July 1944. Cromwell tanks assembled for Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. Sherman tanks and Crab flail tanks advance with infantry south of Escoville during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. Cromwell tanks of 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry advance near Escoville during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. Sherman tanks of 23rd Hussars, 11th Armoured Division, make their way across open ground in front of the factory chimneys at Colombelles steelworks during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. Sherman tanks and a Sherman Firefly move through Escoville during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944.
Sherman flail tank moves up to cross the Orne river during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. Smiling German Prisoner of War during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944. A tank commander talks to infantry on his Sherman Crab flail tank at the start of Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18th July 1944.
Avro Lancaster over Caen - History
Brief History of No. 300 (Polish) Bomber Squadron.
Written by Wilhelm Ratuszynski.
The personnel of the 300 Squadron consisted of Polish airmen who arrived in England from France in early 1940. It’s training commenced in groups: pilots at Redhill (some 40 miles S of London), while navigators and gunners, first at Eastchurch, then at Hucknall near Nottingham. And that’s where the history of the first Polish squadron on British soil starts.
The order (WAR/B.C.127) dated 14th March 1940 had just been issued at RAF Hucknall, which confirmed the establishment of a Polish training unit as part of No. 18 Operational Training Unit at Bramcote, in No. 6 Bomber Group. Its task was to give conversion training to crews for the Polish bomber squadrons that were being formed.
The first to be formed was No. 300 ("Masovian") Bomber Squadron on 1st July 1940. It was on that date that the Polish Air Force flag was first hoisted in Great Britain. The Squadron had 10 flying crews with 180 maintenance and other personnel. It was equipped with Faiery "Battle" light bombers of the crew of three. The code letters BH were designated to the unit. Its first commander, advised by W/Cdr K. P. Lewis, RAF, was W/Cdr W. Makowski, C.O. of the Polish Training Centre at Hucknall. F/Lt S. Cwynar commanded Flight "A" and F/Lt M. Pronaszko Flight "B". The squadron’s technical officer was F/Lt S. Budzinski. English technical and advisory staff were temporarily attached to the squadron until the Poles became fully conversant with RAF systems and procedures.
On the evening preceding the night of 14th/15th August, an urgent order was issued cancelling all leave passes. All personnel dug trenches and created machine-gun posts with weapons dismantled from aircraft. Everybody expected imminent German invasion. A tragicomical situation happened when Poles entered a local armoury, and found only clubs and some sort of spears. Airmen felt defenceless, especially since there was no manual on how to use those weapons. The alert was called off at 03.30 hrs and a two-hour state of readiness was proclaimed. The next day, training flights again, but some of them at a height of 20,000 feet - with oxygen respirators!
On 20th August, just as General Sikorski had conferred a Polish decoration on G/Capt A. P. Davidson, H.M. the King unexpectedly visited the squadrons. The Poles had never seen him before, so there was not only much satisfaction but also great interest. Some demonstration flights were made and the squadrons flew past His Majesty in review order. He chatted with crews, asking them about the Polish campaign and their experiences in France. The King signed the squadron’s logbook and wished everybody well. The general opinion among Poles was that soon they would find themselves in front line service. See pictures .
A few days later "Masovian" – together with its sister squadron No. 301 – was transferred to RAF Swinderby near Lincoln as part of No. 1 Bomber Group, where its pilots landed their aircraft on the evening of August 22nd. They quickly called their 301 colleagues still in Bramcote.
"We’re already at Swinderby, at the new aerodrome. You’ve no idea! What haven’t we got here!"
"Well, what?" inquires the Bramcote end of the wire hopefully.
"Well, there’s no water there’s no officers’ mess no beds and no chairs in the rooms. We haven’t got - in short - anything."
"Good God!" 301 exclaims horror-struck. "There must be something there. We’re coming there next week."
"Well, there’s an airfield and nothing else."
After several days of hard work, the place has begun to look like a bomber squadron base. There was a frenzy of activity on the airfield’s ground and in the air. Well-known became a W/Cdr Rudkowski’s joke that: "even the seagulls had to go about on foot to avoid colliding with one another in the air."
On 12th September the squadron was ordered to designate three crew for a mission to bomb barge concentrations in German-occupied French ports. The sortie was cancelled just before take-off. Two days later, however, orders for an attack on Boulogne were received. Three crews from No. 300 Squadron ( a/c: L5317, L5427, L5353 ) and three from No. 301 took off at dusk. It was the first Polish bomber raid from Britain. Airmen who took part in this mission were: F/O Sulinski, F/O Bujajski and Sgt Biezunski F/O Antonowicz, P/O Dej and Sgt A. Kowalski P/O Jasinski, F/Sgt Sobieszczuk, and Sgt Lopot. Since then, weather permitting, the squadron flew missions over the continent every other night. Each time, the targets were German barge concentrations at Boulogne, Dunkirk, Ostend, and Calais.
On the night of l3th - l4th October, the squadron suffered its first loss when the airfield was subjected to attacks by German bombers. German plane cruised near an airfield and kept it blacked-out so that the homing bombers had to wait in the air until their petrol was nearly all gone. They finally had to make forced landings in darkness and mist. The squadron’s bomber crashed during landing, burst into flames and the whole crew perished.
In late October 1940, the unit began to rearm itself with a new type of aircraft: Wellington Mk I. Flying personnel almost doubled, to 144 airmen (24 full crews), while the squadron’s total was nearly 400. After two months of intensive training, the squadron resumed its mission over occupied Europe. After the successful attack on Mannheim, the Polish bomber squadrons were finally detailed off for operational service. The crews were delighted. They had all read of that first large-scale concentrated bombing and naturally wanted to see for themselves. Their first target was, however, the complex of fuel tanks and the petroleum refinery at Antwerp, which they attacked on 22nd December 1940. The take-off was rather tricky but went off well. All the aircraft returned safely and then, for several days, the crews were busy acknowledging congratulations, reading Press reports about themselves, and so on. It seemed as if all was for the best in the best of worlds. A few days later, the next three "Masovian" aircraft bombed the same target. While returning from one of those missions, one "BH" Wellington crashed burying its crew.
In 1940, the squadron flew 55 missions to bomb targets in France and Belgium for a total of 212 hours, and suffered the loss of eight airmen.
In the beginning of 1941, the airfield at Swinderby, which did not have concrete runways, was practically out of use due to heavy rainfalls and thaw. Very few sorties were made. The unit had to move to Winthorpe and other nearby bases in order to maintain flying duties. Targets included Bremen, Hamburg, and Brest where German battleships holed up. Also, marshalling yards at Mannheim, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt were bombed.
On 23 March, a good stir was given to the unit when it was announced that the Poles were to bomb Berlin. All were very eager to fly that mission, although very few realized how difficult, distant, and well-defended target it was. The time had come to repay for the merciless bombing of Warsaw and London. Two Wellingtons, T2719 and R1273, swung on takeoff in strong crosswinds and hit the boundary fence fortunately without injury to the crews. Four crews of the 300 Squadron got to drop bombs over Berlin. See picture . All returned safely at dawn, and photographs showed that their bombing was accurate. The next time Polish bombers visited Berlin was a night of 17th/18th April. The following several weeks was uneventful.
The beginning of June was marked with the squadron’s increased activity. Operational sorties led Polish bombers to Lorient, Osnabrück, Bielefeld, Nuremberg, and many other targets. Proportionally to the number of them grew also list casualties.
On 11 th June squadron was visited by AOC-in-C Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Richard E. C. Peirse, and by H.R.H. the Duke of Kent the day after. But the greatest day for the unit came on the16th of July 1941. The occasion was especially dear to Polish hearts. No. 300 Squadron as the senior Polish air Formation was entrusted with the Polish Air Force standard. It was an inspirational event with service celebrated by Mgr. Gawlina, Military Bishop for the Polish Forces, and with the participation of the President, the Commander-in-Chief, and many other distinguished British and Polish visitors. It remained with No. 300 Squadron three months, after which it was kept in rotation for a like period by each of the Polish bomber and fighter squadrons. See pictures .
Sgt Nowakowski's crew just beofre mission. RAF Swinderby 1941.
Two days later squadron moved to RAF Hemswell, without interrupting operational flying on 17th July took part in an attack on Cologne and on the 21st against Frankfurt-on-Main. The number of raids mounted by the 300th continued to rise, and in July 1941 the unit carried out 13 attacks comprising 60 sorties.
It was then that there were several changes among squadrons C.O.s. The C.O. of No. 300 Squadron, W/Cdr Makowski, was promoted to Polish Station Commander at Lindholme W/Cdr S. Cwynar now commanded the squadron. At that time, after logging 25 missions, airmen were rested. See the squadron's Battle Order in December 1941. Most of them returned for a second and even third tours. In July, the squadron totalled operational 60 sorties: on Essen, Frankfurt-on-Main, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Le Havre, Boulogne, Mannheim, and two each on Bremen, Bielefeld, and Cologne.
Toward November, the unit received Wellington Mk. IV bombers with more powerful, air-cooled American Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines.
The year 1941, the squadron closed with the totalled of 441 operational sorties (2484 hours), and suffered the loss of fifty airmen casualties were much heavier in the second half of the year.
On January 27th, 1942, W/Cdr Sulinski became the squadron’s new CO. With the better weather of the spring the number of sorties by the Polish squadrons significantly increased: from 177 and 197 sorties in February and March to 352 sorties in April. The most often visited targets were: Manheim, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Aachen, Hamburg, and Essen. Poles dropped their bombs also at Milan, Turin, Stuttgart, and Cologne. Allies bomber offensive was still in its infancy, many effective methods were yet to be invented, and casualties correspondingly increased. The 300 Squadron had three crews missing in April: on 12th, 17th, and 27th.
In May, the unit began a new type of operations: mine lying. The area of these operations stretched from Brest to the Island of Helgoland. On May 22nd, Poles moved to Ingham in Lincolnshire.
On May 30 th , the squadron took part in RAF’s 1,000 aircraft raid on Cologne, and on June 26th in the similar mission over to Bremen. By the end of June No. 300 had spent a great deal of operational time laying mines off the Friesian Islands carrying out 94 such sorties in that month.
Command of No. 300 Bomber Squadron was taken over by W/Cdr Dukszto on 9th July, when the former CO, W/Cdr Sulinski, was posted to the 138 Special Duties Squadron. July and August were busy months for Polish bombers. Flying personnel and aircraft wore down.
In early September, the squadron had 20 full crews and 9 serviceable Wellington. During the night of 4th September, the crew of pilot F/O Machej returned from Bremen with aircraft, which lost 3/4 of the fuselage cover. Its return produced widespread astonishment. See picture . The press showed a picture of the aircraft and even noted it saying that it belonged to No. 300 Polish squadron, while for obvious reasons, mentioning of any units’ details was rather strictly avoided.
Toward the end of the year, some missions the 300 Squadron flew led to: Düsseldorf on September 10 (one crew lost) on October 12 to mine Kalunborg’s port entry (one aircraft written off, no casualties) Cologne on October 15 (one crew lost) on November 3 to mine Brest’s coastal area (one crew lost) on November 8 to mine Danish coast (two crew lost) Manheim on December 6 (one crew lost). Meantime, on November 1st, S/Ldr Kropinski took over the command.
In 1942, the unit totalled 872 operational sorties, in 4692 hours, loosing 88 airmen killed, 11 missing, and 30 POWs.
The beginning of 1943 was marked by the squadron’s relocation to Hemswell (January 5th). The unit was seriously undermanned, and only in April the situation improved with the coming of replacement crews from reformed 301 Squadron. The number of sorties flown by the 300 Squadron reflected this intake of ex-301 crews into the squadron: 23 in January, 43 in February, 35 in March, 77 in April, and 104 in May.
In April also, new, better aircraft – Wellington Mk X – were received. The operational duties remained the same: attacks on ports and industrial centers and mine lying. The following abridged extract from No. 300 Squadron’s logbook for 1943 shows how life fared in those times: April 2, the raid on St. Nazaire and L’Orient April 4, Kiel (rear-gunner dueled with a Messerschmitt 110, which he finally shot down) April 8, one aircraft failed to return from Duisburg April 16, the raid on Mannheim (aircraft ‘C, attacked three times by a Me-110, fights back but is damaged, crew of a/c ‘E’ machine-gun a train in Germany) April 22, one aircraft failed to return from mining operations off L’Orient.
On May 4th, S/Ldr Kucharski became a new CO.
During the so-called Battle of Ruhr, 300 made a great effort, often sending out more aircraft than it was supposed to do. Read more . The ground personnel worked round the clock. Some of the targets during that stretch were: Duisburg on May 12, Dortmund on May 23, Düsseldorf on May 25, Essen on 27th, and Wuppertal on 29th. On June 21st two aircraft failed to return from Krefeld 15 aircraft engaged. Bombing raids on Ruhr were intermittent with the mining mission of Europe’s coasts. On June 22, the squadron moved back to Ingham, without interrupting its operational flying. The move was not popular among the crews mostly because of Ingham's bumpy runways and widely dispersed accommodation.
The RAF’s Bomber Command finished its offensive over German highly industrialized area in July 1943, and it is commonly agreed that losses were minimized by successful use of "window" - aluminum foils strips dropped from bombers to snag German radars.
On July 24, the 300 took part in 700 bombers raid over Hamburg ("window" used for the first time), and suffer no loss. The unit continued its service (excerpts):
- July 25, Essen (one crew lost)
- August 2, Hamburg (one crew lost)
- August 15 Frisian Islands (mining one aircraft shot down, two airmen rescued from the sea)
- August 23, Berlin
- August 30, Munich
- October 7, St. Nazaire (one crew lost)
- November 11, Lorient (mining mission, one crew lost)
- November 18, Frisian Islands (mining 16 aircraft, no losses)
"The Squadron returned to the mining of the entrances of French ports and coastwise shipping routes used by the enemy. ‘Browned-off’ as the crews were by these arduous and thankless operations, they never lost hope of doing something really ‘useful’. On one occasion they received a highly gratifying commendation. The following signal from H.Q. Bomber Command supplies it:
‘On the night of 24 th /25th October a number of crews returning from operations sighted several ships of various categories and gave accurate reports on return which were of considerable value to C.-in-C. Nore. As a direct consequence, H.M. ships intercepted an attack by a force of 25 E-boats on an east coast convoy, sinking four, damaging seven and taking 19 prisoners. The accuracy of the report and speed of transmission to the C.-in-C. Nore has been commended. The information which led to the successful naval engagement was secured from reports provided by the captains and crews of No. 300 Squadron.’" (Destiny Can Wait. PAF.)
W/Cdr Kuzian assumed command of No. 300 Squadron on 19th November. Before long, it was discovered in armoury, that soon no. 2000 mine would be laid. New CO announced that the lucky crew (Wellington R for Robert) would enjoy an extra 48-hours pass and the bottle of liquor. On November 30th, "Masovian" squadron put 2000th mine in enemy’s waters (BH-R), and was congratulated by Bomber Command C-in-C, Air Marshall Harris:
"Heartiest congratulations to the whole personnel of Squadron 300 on the occasion of laying last night, in good and painstaking fashion, their two-thousandth mine. It is a most valuable contribution toward winning the war with Germany and affords further proof of the splendid spirit of co-operation animating both our Air Forces. I am proud to be in command of you. HARRIS."
Soon after, a decision was made to convert the squadron to Avro Lancaster, four-engine heavy bomber. Crews were detailed off to the 1662 Heavy Conversion Unit to familiarize themselves with the new aircraft.
In 1943, the 300 Squadron made 942 operational sorties for a total of 4672 hours. It lost 62 airmen KIA and 10 POW.
The new year of 1944 began with damp and dreary weather setting in. Life was confined to quarters and briefing rooms. One flight, on Wellingtons, took part in mine laying operation near Brest (January 14), directed against U-boats. Soon after, very popular among crews S/Ldr Kuzian (DFC) left for a new post. W/Cdr Kowalczyk took over on 18th January.
The Flight "A" under new CO continued to fly operationally on Wellington, while 17 crews (mostly fresh from OUT) under S/Ldr Pozyczka trained on Lancasters. The latter faced many obstacles in their course: severe lack of trained ground personnel and tradesmen, not enough of aircraft, no runways, and short airstrip. The situation was serious, and the whole course was transferred to RAF Hemswell, where some Polish units were already training. The first few crews to graduate however were sent to strength the 138 Special Duties Squadron (301) in Italy. The operational losses continued, and on February 21, one crew failed to return from mine lying near Brest. Unfortunately, this loss was the last RAF's Wellington lost from front line duties. JA117(BH-F) was delivered straight from the assembly at Squires Gate and had completed 245.25 flying hours before being lost.
Most welcomed was H.Q. Bomber Command decision to move squadron to Faldingworth. This station had Nissen huts and lacked even minor luxuries, but had long, concrete runways and flat, unobscured approaches. The transfer took place on 1st March 1944. The new Lancasters started to be ferried in (16th on April 15), as the last sortie on Wellingtons was made on March 4th/5th to mined waters outside L’Orient.
W/Cdr Pozyczka, D.F.C., became the squadron’s new CO on 2nd April. He was a very experienced bomber pilot and he soon brought his unit to the highest operational standard.
On April 18, the first Polish Lancasters bombed Cologne and Rouen railway junction. On the 22nd, seven crew attacked Düsseldorf and Karlsruhe. First Polish Lancasters were lost on April 24 over Karlsruhe German night fighters shot down two aircraft – 14 airmen were killed.
In May, Bommber Command directed its attention to the enemy’s communications as a part of its pre-invasion offensive. Some of the 300’s targets were: Dieppe on May 10 (6 crew), Hasselt on the 12th (8), Orleans on the 19th (6), Duisburg on the 21st (8), Dortmund on the 22nd (7 2 lost), Amiens on the 27th (6, 1 lost).
On D-Day, the force of 1,119 bombers was ready to bomb the way for the Allies through the Atlantic Wall – the 300 Polish Squadron aircraft among them. Drips of white paint could be traced in many parts of the base, as white stripes were painted on aircraft. Now the Poles were to pay back for what Luftwaffe did to polish troops in September 1939. Operations were flown daily.
On June 12, the squadron suffered a heavy blow. Three of its aircraft failed to return from an attack on Gelsenkirchen – 21 airmen killed.
"On 13th June it made the first daylight attack - on the enemy’s fleet of light naval ships in Le Havre harbour.
‘They (the German craft) were attacked just before sunset, when we could be certain that the vessels would be out of their concrete shelters and collected together in the harbours, getting ready to operate during the night. These attacks were rightly considered of extreme importance by SHAEF the enemy had already shown us how dangerous these light vessels armed with torpedoes could be against shipping in the Channel and, if they had been able to operate successfully at this time, the result would have been very serious for the invasion.’
The attack was a complete success. The O.C. No. 300 Squadron received this signal from H.Q. Bomber Command: "The A.O.C.-in-C. wishes the following to be passed to all concerned: ‘The attacks on Le Havre were magnificent. You have virtually destroyed the entire German naval force there. This was the most important naval force opposing our invasion and comprised some 60 vessels.’" Destiny Can Wait. PAF.
Around that time the squadron roster was very short, and several British crew were assigned to the Flight "B". S/Ldr Misselbroock led them. Mission were flown to:
- Les Mayens on June 24 (one crew lost)
- Vierzon on July 1 (one crew lost)
- Caen on July 7 (1500 Allies bombers)
- Essen on July 18 (12 a/c, one lost)
- Cologne on July 23 (one crew lost)
- Stuttgart on July 25 (12 a/c, one lost)
In one of the issues of The London Chronicle, a relation about the 300 Squadron was published:
"One of the Squadron’s Lancasters, one of more than a thousand aircraft, was industriously bombing a target at Emieville near Caen on 18th July, when flak badly damaged it. The rear gunner was moving his turret round, searching for fighters at the time. The blast swung the turret beyond its usual position, ripped open the door at the gunner’s back and sucked him out of his seat. He fell out but his left foot jammed in the doorway and there he hung head downwards. The mid-upper gunner and the flight engineer went to his aid but could not pull him in. His foot began to slip out of the shoe, so one of them grabbed his trousers, which, however, began to tear. The flight engineer now did a risky piece of work he clambered out (the aircraft was now over the sea) precariously held in place - and looped a length of rope round the rear gunner, which he then made fast to the seat. He then returned to his task of nursing the damaged Lancaster back to its base.
The Lancaster limped home with the rear gunner hanging head down from the tail and those watching on the airfield saw him swing his head to one side to avoid hitting the ground as the bomber touched down. He was bleeding from the ears and mouth but was not badly hurt. He still brags of being the only man to have flown upside down from Caen to Great Britain. Sgt. J. Pialucha, the flight engineer, was given the immediate award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his outstanding courage and initiative."
On 1st August the Warsaw Uprising broke out. Poles became tense, as very few moments of their free time they spent by the radio, listening to the news. They were moved and inspired by the events in Poland, but frustrated at the same time. They had modern, very potent weapons and yet, they could do nothing to help martyr Warsaw. Many of the 300 personnel still had families in Warsaw: wives, children, and parents. Thus, August proved to be a very busy month. Six of the most experienced crews were transferred to Italy as replacements for the Polish Special Duties Squadron. To their deep contentment, they got to take part in supply missions for the fighting Warsaw. The steady flow of people through the unit continued. In the span of five days, the 300 lost six crews, four of them British.
One of these PA163 (BH-M) was shot down near Alestrup. On impact the pilot, F/Lt Wasik was thrown from the cockpit and survived. He evaded capture and arrived back at Leuchars after less than a month. This achievement was not new to him as he had evaded capture and returned to England in 1942 after being shot down over the Ardennes in Wellington Z1276 (BH-W) on 27/28 April. Polish 18 OTU graduates replaced them, and the squadron became entirely Polish again.
On September 25th the Bomber Command was no longer under the direction of the Supreme Allied Commander, and once again the HQ of the Chief of Air Staff selected targets. The Polish 300 th flew missions to bomb Bonn, Essen, Ulm, Gelsenkirchen, Karlsruhe, Stetin, and many others. Among them: flying-bomb launching-sites and other targets connected with V-weapons. On 3rd October the squadron bombed enemy shore batteries on Walcheren. Its primary task remained the strategic destruction of the industrial Reich.
In mid-December, for four days, Poles fully participated in operations against Rundstedt’s counter-offensive, every day sending out a full complement of 12 a/c.
In 1944, airmen of the 300 Squadron flew 961 operational sorties for a total of 4536 hours. It dropped 4,181 tons of bombs and laid 145 tons of mines. It was a year of the biggest losses: 110 KIA, 3 MIA, and 10 POW.
The beginning of a new year brought many political moves on a world scene, implications of which made the squadron efforts even more strenuous. Poles had to face a brutal reality: Poland was a sacrifice to the Soviets in exchange for their supreme effort on the Eastern Front. The morale among the crews was rather low, but they carried out their duty in an honest way.
At RAF Faldingworth, a significant change took place on January 29th. It was taken over by G/Capt Beill thus, the station became fully Polish: from CO down to the lowliest aircraftman. Two days later S/Ldr Jarkowski became the squadron's new CO. W/Cdr Pozyczka was posted to other duties. He was awarded DSO and DFC with bar, becoming one of the most distinguished Polish pilots.
The details of the Yalta Agreement were broadcasted just as the 300 airmen were preparing for a mission to Dresden. They took off in a poignant mood. The typical state of mind of the Polish airmen at that time describes theletter of P/O Magierowski. On February 13 he wrote to his friend: “This night we are to attack Dresden, as support for the Red Army. There would be nothing extraordinary in this were it not that we are to carry out such a task just at the moment when our hearts are bleeding after another partition of Poland effected at Yalta.
“It’s just as well that Bogdan is dead - he couldn’t have survived it: Lwów, which was never a Russian city, by an arbitrary decision, is handed over to Russia! Just think, I and so many others knocked about the world fleeing like criminals, starving, hiding in forests - all only in order to fight for . . . what? For this, that we shall not be able to return to our native town, because it has simply ceased to be.
“What more can you want? The Ribbentrop-Molotov line has been called the Curzon line, and the world is well content. Half of Poland had been handed over as a gift. The other half has been condemned to compulsory incorporation within the ‘eastern sphere of influence’ just as if it were some desert island in the Arctic, or a piece of the Sahara. I was once in the Soviet Union and it’s quite enough for the rest of my life.
“The sorties have been ordered, so we’re going to fly—it’s the proper thing to do, they say—although anger and despair are in our hearts. It’s a funny feeling, but sometimes I wonder if all this has any sense. If the Germans get me now, I won’t even know what I’m dying for. For Poland, for Britain, or for Russia?"
The 300 Squadron detailed off twelve aircraft for that mission. Due to a mid-air collision, one crew failed to return. Ironically, the next day and without proper rest, Poles flew to attack Chemnitz, in an effort to help the advancing Russian Army. Like many others before him, also P/O Magierowski did not make it. He was killed in action on February 24 during the mission to Pforzheim. That night, two 300 aircraft were lost to German night fighters, who rose up in one of the last convulsions of the dying Luftwaffe. A few days before, F/Lt Reinke dueled with a German night fighter which he shot down. He was awarded a DFC, but two more Polish crews perished.
Germany was fighting to the bitter end, and Poles continued to attack its cities: Cologne, Duisburg, Dortmund, Essen, Hamburg, Kiel, Plauen, Potsdam, and others.
The squadron was revitalized when an order arrived to bomb Berchtesgaden - Hitler's favourite retreat. The attack took place on 25th April 1945. Among nearly 400 bombers were fourteen 300's Lancasters with enthusiastic crews. To their disappointment, Hitler was not there and that sortie proved to be the last combat mission flown by the squadron. Many airmen he took part in that flight, remember it very well since it was the first and the last time as they were escorted by the Polish fighters. The present were no. 303, 306, 309, 315 and 316 Polish squadrons. Read more
In May several relief missions were flown to flooded Dutch coastal areas, and this is probably the last noticeable event in the 300 Polish Squadron's history of service. In 1945, the unit totalled 620 operational sorties for 3648 hours. During four months, 59 airmen were killed in action and 18 were taken prisoner. Eleven Lancasters were written off.
The squadron's numbers for the whole period of the war are 3891 operational sorties for 20,244 hours over 12,000 tons of bombs dropped nearly 1500 tons of mines laid 133 targets attacked 371 KIA 19 MIA 68 POW. Even 80 aircraft were lost.
On the V-Day, the squadron took a day off to celebrate the end of the war. It was not a very happy moment, and as matter of fact, a rather grim one. G/Capt Beill spoke to gathered personnel:
“The British people are to-day celebrating the day of victory. Nearly six years of bloodshed, struggle and effort have been crowned by the unconditional surrender of Germany. This war was begun in defence of Poland’s independence and, summing up our contribution, we can state with pride that it was great, out of all proportion to our means. We gave more to bring about this victory than these means allowed and hence our hearts are heavy that this day is not the day of victory for the cause of Poland." Before being disbanded the 300 flew in peace-time operations:
-"Manna" - food-supply droppings for Holland (152 tons)
-"Exodus" - repatriation of British prisoners-of-war to Great Britain (975 liberated POWs)
-"Dodge" - the transport of British troops from Italy to Great Britain, and the carrying of Red Cross supplies for liberated
Poles in German concentration camps and.
-carrying bombs from the dumps and disposing of them into the sea.
The Avro Lancaster
On 7 May 2021 I was watching the first episode of the 30th series of the BBC series Top Gear. The main feature was the three presenters discussing and driving their ‘dad’s cars’ – not the actual cars themselves, but the type of car that their dad drove when the presenters were kids. It was an enjoyable, but emotional journey watching it. It was emotional also for me as my dad was in hospital at the time. Later that day he passed away.
Even as I watched the Top Gear episode, I wondered whether I would feel the same sorts of connections and emotions that the presenters discussed if I ever drove a metallic light blue Citroen CX. Perhaps. But for me, my ‘dad car’ is not a car at all. It’s a plane. The Avro Lancaster or ‘Lanc’.
I will do another post about my dad in due course, this one is more about the plane and why it is special.
While my dad was born in 1922 and still a teenager when hostilities broke out, I was born in 1971 and so when I learnt about my dad having been involved in WWII, the war itself seemed like ancient history. But I listened with fascination as my dad recounted a variety of stories and, at some point, showed me his log book – which came out again in the early 80s when he took up flying again after retirement.
The cover of my dad’s flying log book
Although my dad had a variety of stories to tell and flew a range of aircraft, it was clearly the Lancaster that made the greatest impression and it was pictures of Lancasters that we had around the house – which were added to over the years – with also the addition of models, one of which I tried to make as you can see in the following picture.
Another picture summarizes some of the key information about the Lancaster – but you can also find more information on Wikipedia.
At one level my dad’s love of the Lancaster was surprising given that it was connected to what must have been one of the most traumatic experiences of his life and its consequences. On 30 March 1944, my dad was piloting a Lancaster on a raid on Nürnberg (Nuremburg). This was one of the worst nights in the history of the RAF with 96 planes lost and a further 10 damaged beyond repair (more information can be found on Wikipedia – but there is also a book, which I discuss below). My dad’s plane was one of those shot down, with him having to parachute out and then see the plane that had shot his plane circling around, not knowing whether it would shoot him as well or not. It didn’t, but after landing, dad became a POW and remained in a camp until May 1945 and was freed by the Russians.
The final entry for 1944 for the raid to Nürnberg with the haunting note, in someone else’s hand, of ‘Missing’
The German pilot who shot my dad’s plane down made contact in the early 1980s and even provided a painting he had done of what dad’s plane looked like after it had been shot and was on fire and what looks like to be a photograph of the event too.
As noted in one of the pictures above, the Lancaster is known to a whole generation of people thanks to its involvement in the ‘Dam buster’ raids, with the bouncing bombs, of ‘Operation Chastise‘. At some point I would have seen the movie, The Dam Busters (dir. Michael Anderson, 1955), and this further cemented the iconic image of the Lancaster in my mind.
Over the years I saw some Lancasters at museums with my dad. But the most magical experience of all came in 2000 when we were visiting my great aunt who lived near the end of the runway of RAF Coltishall. We had no idea that that same day there was an air display going on at the airfield. And even after some jets had gone by – their roaring engines making us jump as they went by only a few hundred feet above us and causing massive down-draughts to hit the tree by my great aunt’s house – there was nothing to prepare us for what we were about to see.
But, before we saw it, we heard it. The distinctive roar of the Merlin engines. The the iconic beauty of the Lancaster came into view. It seems odd at one level, as I have discussed in a post about the HMS Hood, to be speaking of beauty in relation to a war machine – but there is a beauty, albeit perhaps shaped by the stories and memories associated with them, with such machines.
In the end I think we saw about three fly-pasts by the Lanc – sometimes with its accompanying Hurricane and Spitfire – before an apparent minor engine fire forced it to land. I was glad that I had my camera with me that day – but it’s a shame it wasn’t one that could capture the high quality shots that modern digital cameras can manage. But still the photos help to convey the what the Lancaster was, and help me to remember an emotional few minutes and also my dad.
Returning to the ‘Dam Busters’ and WWII, as with Zulu (another film my dad introduced me to), I think there are times when it acceptable to make judgements about a movie and divorce it from historical accuracy. This is something that I have discussed elsewhere in my research – and there are others who have discussed it in relation to the movie The Dam Busters itself. However, while there are elements of The Dam Busters I enjoy, the movie is not without its issues. First, much of the war was not as exciting as movies make out – there was a lot of hanging around and boredom (and many were also not fighting for the great cause). In that respect the movie Lancaster Skies does a good job – but it falls down in many other areas (particularly when it comes to how close they had the planes flying at night). Despite all the stories my dad told me, he never let me get caught up in the glorification of WWII and particularly the UK’s role in it, which has, based on my experiences at school, led to an overly simplistic version of history being taught that not only glorifies Britain’s role in the war but particularly Churchill. My second issue with The Dam Busters, which ties into the previous point, is that the movie does nothing to point out the huge impact it had on the civilian population and that, as a consequence, the bombing of dams is now against the Geneva Convention.
One day I may try to put together a collection of some of my dad’s flying stories and experiences – but I will never be able to do it full justice. I asked him many times to write them down and pass them to me to edit as a book, but, again, he said that most of it would have been boring and not exciting stories. That is why I wanted such a book to be done – to counter-balance the typical narratives that do exist about that period. The centre piece of any collection of such stories should be those about the Lanc – though in reality, although it was his favourite plane to fly, he had less stories to tell about his time in that plane.
I know that my dad contributed to the book The Nuremberg Raid by Martin Middlebrook about the raid in which my dad’s plane was shot down.
I remember, as a child, seeing my dad’s name printed in the Acknowledgements (circled in the photo below) and feeling a sense of pride of seeing his name in print. Going through my dad’s things and old correspondence now, I can see that my dad exchanged a few letters with the author – who asked a series of questions and provided a questionnaire. I wonder if my dad’s answers still exist anywhere – because I would love to see them if they do.
Returning to how I began this post, although I will never be able to fly a plane myself, rather than driving a Citroen CX, I think if I wanted to have the Top Gear ‘dad car’ experience, then one day I would have to try to get a flight on one of the remaining Lancs before they become grounded forever.
I recently came across the documentary Night Bombers. It uses actual colour footage following a crew preparing and taking part in a raid on Berlin. Highly recommended viewing.
The Lancaster was a special plane and my father, one of its many pilots and crew, a special man.
Fact File : Ruhr Air Offensive
Theatre: Western Europe
Location: The Ruhr valley, Western Germany.
Players: Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris's RAF Bomber Command.
Outcome: Extensive damage to the industrial centres of the Ruhr.
Avro Lancaster I Bomber in Flight©
As well as Pathfinder tactics, the 1943 raids on the Ruhr used three navigational aids: GEE, a radar-based guidance system with a range of 720km (450 miles) from Britain, introduced early in 1942 and first jammed by the Germans a year later Oboe, a more precise radio-based system with a range of 400km (250 miles), introduced in December 1942 and jammed ten months later and H2S, an air to surface radar system.
The Ruhr campaign began with a raid on Essen on 5 March 1943. After Pathfinder craft guided by Oboe had dropped flares on the Krupps armaments factory, three waves of bombers passed over in 38 minutes, aiming their bombs at the flares.
While only 40 per cent of the force got within three miles of the target, the Krupps works and a large part of Essen were destroyed. This was followed by another 21 raids following the same pattern, targeting industrial centres throughout the Ruhr.
Area bombing of city centres was achieving far more visible results than bombing of industrial targets. The synthetic oil refinery at Gelsenkirchen was bombed twice, but was back in production within weeks by contrast, a single raid on Düsseldorf left 140,000 people homeless.
However, German air defences were increasing in efficiency Bomber Command lost 1,000 aircraft during the campaign. Harris was forced to switch targets and send out diversionary raids, limiting the devastation caused by each raid.
The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.
Sergeant JOHN CHARLES CUNNINGHAM was 1 of 7 crew onboard Avro Lancaster Mk I, ED498, EM-O, with 207 Squadron, Royal Air Force taking off at 21.32 hrs 2 from RAF Langar, Nottinghamshire, England, United Kingdom. 3
Their mission was a bombing raid on Milan, Italy on the night of 15th/16th August 1943. On their return journey their Lancaster was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed at Beuzeval, Calvados, Normandy, France. Just over 0.5 miles (1 kilometre) East of Houlgate some 15.5 miles (25 Kilometres) North-East of Caen.
Only 1 man survived the crash, Flying Officer George Blakeman. 4
This aircraft was 1 of 199 Lancaster Bombers that were on a mission to bomb war production factories in Milan, Italy. 7 were lost, most to German night fighter aircraft which were waiting for the bombers' return over France. 5
The 6 men, of the 7 man crew, of Lancaster Mk I, ED498, EM-O, who were killed, were:
Sergeant JOHN CHARLES CUNNINGHAM 121245
The 1 crewman who survived was the Navigator Flying officer George Blakeman. After recovering from his wounds, he was taken prisoner and became Prisoner of War No. 2257, in Stalag Luft III.
Flying Officer George Blakeman went on to become Wing Commander George Blakeman, Order of the British Empire (OBE).
The following is an account of what happened, onboard Lancaster Mk1, ED498, EM-D, taken from a conversation with George Blakeman:
'On their way they passed directly over Cabourg on the Normandy coast north of Caen. After 15 minutes on track for their next turning point - the southern tip of Lac Annecy - they were hit by a nightfighter which inexplicably did not continue its attack. Nevertheless the port inner engine overheated and had to be shut down. They decided it would be safer to continue to Milan than to return on their own to Langar. On their homeward journey, over Cabourg again and almost over the Channel, Flying Officer George Blakeman saw a bright flash down in the bay. The next he knew the aircraft was on fire and in a vertical dive.
With just one buckle of his parachute connected, like the rest of the crew he was pinned by gravity, unable to move. Through a window he watched as the rivets in the wing root changed colour as they melted. He regained consciousness two days later, tended in a French farmhouse, guarded by German soldiers. The other six members of his crew lie together in a cemetery in HOULGATE (BEUZEVAL) COMMUNAL CEMETERY, Calvados, France.
Today there is a Memorial at Langar Airfield commemorating 207 Squadron, Royal Air Foce, that was stationed there during the Second World War. There is also a website memorial page for Langar Airfield 207 Squadron RAF Memorial. 10
This week our match is 73 years out of date. The early postcards reveal a world now lost. They are matched with photos taken in the summer of 1944, in WW2. The wartime quality of the photography is not sharp, but the story is clear.
The battle for Caen lasted just under two months and was so vicious 73% of the city was destroyed and it is estimated 3000 local people children, women and French civilians, died.
Here we remember those terrible days through the voices of local people.
Vue generale, Caen
The bombardment begins
On 6 June American bombers, aiming to knock out bridges on river Orne, missed their targets and destroyed sections of an unsuspecting city. Over 300 people died. This was just the beginning.
Cécile Leclerc, then a 17 year old student nurse recalled the bombardment after D-Day:
“I was a nurse with my sister Therese in a dispensary near the Rue des Carmes, transformed into a clinic, which was totally destroyed during the bombing. Outside, we heard the noise of the planes and the explosions of the bombs. Caen was on fire. On the 7 of June, about seven o’clock in the morning, it was terrible. The noise of the bombs, the fire, everything cracked … I managed to free myself from the rubble but I never saw my sister Therese again.
Rue Saint Jean, Caen
Just nine miles south of the D-Day beaches, the Allies expected to liberate Caen quickly. The city was vital for transport through the region and if left in German hands would give German reinforcements good access to the coast.
But they had underestimated resistance by German Panzer divisions who held the Allies away from Caen for some weeks. Eventually a major assault was planned on the city for 8 July. Bombers would prepare the way. They started in earnest on 7 July.
Rue et Eglise Sainte Pierre
7 July 1944
Survivors always said 7 July was the worst day for Caen. On that day records show Lancaster and Halifax bombers dropped 2500 tons of bombs on the city.
André Heintz, a 24-year old resistance fighter was in Caen when the bombs dropped.
“I was haunted by what I saw, it was terrible to see so many wounded. It was difficult to bear.”
Rue de Falaise
A bloody cross and a new legend
André had to resort to dipping sheets in blood to create a red cross he laid across the roof of their makeshift hospital, in the hope this would keep the bombers away.
Somehow the Abbey survived and the hospital, thanks to that huge red cross. Both buildings were still hit by nearly 200 shells, but around them city was hit with 600,000 shells in the weeks after D-Day.
Many people took refuge in the Abbey because it was a very strong building but also because a legend never heard before that they clung to William the Conqueror was buried there and they believed the Allies wouldn’t dare bomb the grave of an English king. The rumour was that if William’s grave was ever destroyed, it would be the end of the English crown. This ‘legend’ may have given them confidence at the time but is not known in England. Rather than disappearing after the war this new legend is still repeated by some guides at the abbey.
Monument aux Morts et Hotel Malherbe
Annihilation of almost all of Caen
Living just a few miles from the city Marie Louise Osmond recorded the bombardment in her diary
July 9 “The offensive lasted 36 hours (we were stupefied by the noise)…
July 11 “I learn for certain of the annihilation of almost all of Caen, of the death of so many people”.
After news reaches Marie Louise of friends dead or lost in the chaos, she resolves to visit Caen. The journey of just a few miles is traumatic:
July 12 “On the sides of the road the traces of the battle, broke rifles, abandoned equipment, German and English mess tins lying together, punctured by bullets..”
“Graves on the edge of the road (one so shallow the boots and shoes stick out) a little cross hastily made, a helmet…A German corpse lies in its green tunic, the red ribbon of Russia gleaming, surrounded by flies.”
In the city she finds heaps of rubble in the place of roads and churches, it is a wasteland.
Liberation, at a price
Although parts of Caen were liberated on 9 July, still the enemy resist and the Allies could not get across the Orne river that bisects the city. A further 7,000 tons of bombs and 250,000 shells were aimed at Caen. Finally the enemy are completely pushed back on 21 July.
The city has been reduced to rubble, impassable by Allied troops.
After living though the bombardment, Marie-Louise Osmont earned the right to ask “but at what a price!”
La rue Sainte Jean
The most beautiful day
But there was also the euphoria of liberation. André Heintz says
“I went to the northern part of the city, to the area that is now part of the university campus. The whole area looked like I imagined the moon to be, because the many bombs that had been dropped had brought lots of white stone to the surface.”
“When I saw the first Allied soldier I put my hands up, because I had no way of identifying myself. I was taken to the Intelligence Officer, who was very pleased to see me because I could pinpoint our location on a map. The soldiers gave me sugar, chocolate, jam and Spam. I took them to meet the Deputy Mayor at the Abbey, and remained their interpreter for the next five months.”
“That day was the most beautiful of my entire life. I could hardly believe that I survived the German occupation and the battle, and I rushed to church as soon as I could to thank God for the privilege of being alive and being free again.”
La rue d’Auge
The horror lingers
But the damage Caen suffered was a shock to many people across the world, a shock that has lingered.
Following the capture of Caen, British war correspondents for the Daily Mail reported on 28 July
“One must drive through Caen every time one goes to or from the Orne front and it’s still a horrible and rather shaming thing. The people of Caen will never quite understand why we had to do anything so awful to them. Still, day by day, the bodies of their fellow-citizens are being dug out of the ruins.”
Eglise Sainte Jean
‘I am ashamed’
When asked about the controversy surrounding the terrible bombing of Caen, André Heintz said:
“Obviously it was a crime to cause such destruction and kill so many people, but probably it was the only thing to stop the Germans long enough from rushing towards the sea…”
He recalled an emotional meeting with a British student in Edinburgh, where he taught French after the war.
“The student didn’t dare look at me. I was fed up after a while and asked him why. He said: ‘I’m ashamed. It was my fault if Caen was destroyed. I was the one who studied the aerial photographs throughout the battle and we had to find the places where the Germans opened new roads and destroy them”.
“But the Allies were bringing us freedom. They could not be blamed for being wrong. It was war there were no limits.”
The French call Caen ‘a city martyred for peace’.
Pathe newsreel from 1944 showing the final bombardment of Caen from the British side, including their advance inside the destroyed town.
Caen avant et apres la bataille 1944 postcard book back cover
Cécile Leclerc talks about being in Caen during the bombardment (fr, images text and film)
André Heintz talks about the Resistance and the battle for Caen, in the BBC People’s War pages
Further info – account of the battle by a British soldier, BBC pages
Read the full Battle for Caen history on ThoughtCo
After the war the Sainte Jean church was restored. Having lost all of it’s glass, Danièle Perré was commissioned to create new windows and they are extraordinary. Have a look here.
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