Lancaster W5008, borrowed from 57 Squadron, photographed at Blida in Algeria in July 1943 on 617 Squadron’s first operation after the Dams Raid. It was piloted by Plt Off Geoff Rice. [Pic: Lancaster Archive]
A bit like 617 Squadron in the summer of 1943, this blog seems to have gone into a fallow period. However, operations are about to resume and we hope to resume regular posting from next week. This will include completing the Dambuster of the Day series.
It was actually 70 years ago this week that a 617 Squadron detachment returned to Scampton following the first two operations since the Dams Raid two months previously. Guy Gibson was technically still in command of the squadron, but Sqn Ldr George Holden, who had previously commanded 102 Squadron in 4 Group, had been posted in and would shortly take charge. As he had previously ﬂown Halifaxes, Holden had to become familiarised with ﬂying Lancasters, but by Thursday 15 July he was ready to lead one team of ﬁve aircraft to Italy; David Maltby would lead the other. Gibson saw them off, watching from the marshalling point with Harry Humphries. For many of the crews who ﬂew that day, it would be the last time they saw him.
The mission was to bomb two electricity transformer and switching stations, at Aquata Scrivia and San Polo d’Enza. Because these were beyond the ‘out and back’ ﬂying range of the Lancaster it would be necessary to ﬂy on to another airﬁeld to refuel and reload. Blida, some 30 miles from Algiers, now in Allied hands after the victories in North Africa and used as a launch pad for operations in the Mediterranean, was the obvious choice.
Everyone was delighted with the chance of getting their knees brown, so they packed sunglasses and tropical kit and stowed their service issue suitcases and kitbags in the body of their aircraft. It was a long ﬂight but largely without incident, and with very little opposition en route or over the target. David Maltby reported that he had bombed on target at San Polo d’Enza and seen blue ﬂashes. One bomb and some incendiaries had ‘hung up’ but they had later successfully dropped these on the Genoa–Spezia railway line at Sestri Levante. He landed at 0745, having taken off from Scampton at 2215. Les Munro’s aircraft was damaged by shrapnel from his own bomb casing – damaging the bomb aimer’s panel and bursting his starboard tyre. This meant that his landing at Blida was dodgy, but he brought it down successfully.
Blida was fun at first. For many of the British aircrew, this was the ﬁrst time they had set foot outside the country. There was wine to drink, exotic fruit and food to enjoy, sunshine to bask in. Lots of photographs were taken. But then the weather closed in, which meant the contingent had to stay for a total of nine days.
Eventually the crews got away and were instructed to bomb the docks at Leghorn (Livorno) on the way back to England. Again, it was a long ﬂight, taking off from Blida at about 2100 on Saturday 24 July, bombing soon after midnight and landing in England after five o’clock in the morning. Again, the bombing was uneventful, done on a time-and-distance run from Corsica, and everyone got home safely.
Great excitement greeted their arrival as the crews had loaded up the aircraft with souvenirs, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables and bottles of Benedictine and wine. Mick Martin was wearing a red fez when Harry Humphries met him at the dispersal point.
Gibson was now on the point of departure. He had been to lunch with Winston Churchill at Chequers on the Saturday, where he was told that he would shortly be going to America under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. He finally left on Tuesday 3 August, after fitting in a trip to see a local nurse, with whom he had been involved while his wife was in London.
Round about the same time that the Blida contingent landed at Scampton another 779 RAF bombers were also touching down at other bases all over England, following a massive attack on Hamburg. This was the ﬁrst of four devastating attacks in the next ten days on the North German city. For the ﬁrst time, the crews dropped ‘Window’ as they ﬂew over enemy territory, strips of tinfoil designed to confuse the German radar, and it worked well. So well indeed, that on the night of the second attack on 27–28 July, a ﬁrestorm was created in the densely built up residential district of Hammerbrook when all the ﬁres joined together and started sucking the oxygen out of the surrounding air. The ﬁrestorm lasted three hours and only subsided when all the burnable material in the area was consumed. It is estimated that 40,000 people died.
The name given by Bomber Command to the series of raids – Operation Gomorrah – with its connotation of a city being destroyed by the wrath of God was aptly chosen. Here was Arthur Harris’s ‘area bombing’ strategy being used to its full potential.
Doubtless there was discussion in the Scampton messes between the 57 Squadron contingent, who participated in the Hamburg raids, and the 617 Squadron aircrew, who did not. There was certainly resentment that 617 Squadron was not being sent out on operations, a feeling that must have been intensfied when on 29 July nine aircraft were dispatched on a really soft trip. They went on a ‘nickel run’, dropping leaﬂets on cities in Northern Italy, and going on to Blida again. Seven of the nine flew back two days later, while Les Munro and Joe McCarthy had to hang about waiting for essential repairs.
Discussion in the mess was academic since by early August, it had been decided that 617 Squadron was not going to be used for run of the mill bombing operations, even on mass raids which needed hundreds of planes. They were to use Upkeep in further trials, and they were earmarked to try out the new ‘thin cased’ 12,000 lb High Capacity bomb which was nearly ready. Their next mission, which would be to bomb the Dortmund Ems canal was already being planned.
Welcome back – was beginning to think that you had gone for good. I was smuggled out of Algeria via El Blida airfield by the French Air Force (yes they have one) in 1985…but that’s another story
All the best
Great to see you back, Charles!