Augsburg, 17th April 1942
Augsburg, 17th April 1942
The Augsburg raid was led by John Nettleton on the 17th April 1942 the Lancaster crews at Waddington were called to the briefing room for an operational sortie. The target was the M.A.N diesel engine factory at Augsburg in southern Germany - some 1,000 miles across France and Germany, and in broad daylight!
Out on the airfield the ground crews were completing fuelling and arming eight Lancasters of 44 Squadron (one aircraft being simply a reserve standby machine); filling the petrol tanks to their maximum capacity of 2,154 gallons, and hoisting four 1,000lb GP high explosive bombs, fitted with 11-seconds delay detonators, into each aircraft bomb bay. Take-off for the raid was set for mid-afternoon.
At 3.12 pm John Nettleton lifted Lancaster R5508, B off the Waddington runway, followed by six other Lancasters from 44 Squadron. Once all were airborne and beginning to close up in tight formations, the last Lancaster to leave circled and returned to base, being simply a reserve machine to slot into any gap at the start of the sortie. The remaining six aircraft settled into two Vics of three as they drummed low across Lincolnshire heading southwards. In front Nettleton had Warrant Officer G. T. Rhodes in Lanc, L7536 H to his left, and Flying Officer J. Garwell DFC DFM in R5510, A to starboard. The second Vic close behind was led by Flight Lieutenant N. Sandford in R5506, P with Warrant Officer J. E. Beckett in L7565, V to port, and Warrant Officer H. V. Crum in L7548, T to starboard.
The six bombers were soon linked up with six more Lancasters from 97 Squadron, based at Woodhall Spa, and led in similar two-Vics formations by Squadron Leader J. S. Sherwood DFC in Lancaster L7573, OF-K.
The rendezvous came over Selsey Bill and all twelve dropped to a mere 50 feet as they thundered across the English Channel. Ahead of them a force of 30 Boston bombers and almost 800 fighters were variously busy bombing and strafing targets away from the bombers planned route, in the hope of drawing off any Luftwaffe fighters and thereby provide the Lancasters with a safe run across Europe. As the bombers hugged the waves towards the French coast line, Nettleton's front two sections began to draw ahead of Sherwood's formation, flying slightly north of the intended flight path. Sherwood made no attempt to catch up; the briefing had allowed for separate attacks if circumstances decreed such, and Sherwood was highly conscious of the need to preserve fuel on such an extended sortie. Still keeping as low as possible to keep under any radar defences, the twelve aircraft roared across the French coast and headed deep into Germany.
For much of the initial journey across enemy-occupied territory the bombers met no serious opposition from ground defences and none from the Luftwaffe, but as Nettleton's six aircraft - now well ahead of the 97 Squadron formation - skirted the boundary of Beaumont le Roger airfield they ran out of luck. As the bombers appeared a gaggle of Messerschmitt Bf 109's and Focke-Wulf Fw 190's of II Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 2 Richthoffen were in various stages of landing after an engagement in the Cherbourg area with some of the diversionary RAF raids. For a moment the Lancaster crews thought they hadn't been spotted, but then several German fighters were seen to snap up their undercarriages and turn quickly in their direction.
Unescorted, at tree-top height, and in broad daylight, the ensuing onslaught could have only one conclusion for the Lancasters. The rear Vic of Nettleton's formation was first to be attacked, and the first Lancaster to go was Beckett's; hit by a hail of cannon shells from Hauptmann Heine Greisert and diving into a clump of trees like a roaring furnace of flames. Next to go was Sandford who was attacked by Feldwebel Bosseckert and had all four engines set afire before exploding in a giant fireball. Then Crum was jumped by Unteroffizier Pohl in his Bf 109, Black 7 and had his port wing erupt in flames. Jettisoning his bomb load immediately Crum promptly put the crippled Lancaster down on the ground, as per the pre-agreed briefing instructions. Unbeknown to Crum his crash was recorded in the Jagdgeschwader's Game Book as its 1,000th claimed victory of the war.
The fighters now started attacks on Nettleton's front Vic of three Lancasters. By then they had been joined by Major Oesau, a 100-victory ace officially forbidden to fly more operations, but who had jumped into a fighter and taken off on first sight of the Lancasters, followed by his wing man Oberfeldwebel Edelmann. Oesau selected Rhodes for his victim and closed to within 10 metres firing all guns and cannon in a withering hail of fire. The Lancaster's port engines both erupted in flames, which spread instantly to the starboard motors. The bomber reared abruptly-as if in agony - stalled harshly, plunged straight down; passing between Nettleton and Garwell in a vertical dive and missing both by mere inches.
By now most of the fighters were forced to withdraw due to lack of fuel, and the two surviving Lancasters, though damaged, continued their journey. Finally reaching the objective both flew straight across the target factory in close formation, released their bombs, and began the run-out. At that moment Garwell's aircraft was hit badly by the alerted ground defences and, pluming smoke and flames, dropped towards the ground as Garwell put the Lancaster down quickly, finally slithering to a halt and saving the lives of all but three of his crew.
Nettleton, now alone, pulled away from the scene and set course for the return journey. By then the evening darkness was closing in, providing a form of protection for the lone bomber as it retraced its path across Germany and France. Behind him Sherwood's six Lancasters were now approaching the target, now well marked by smoke from the initial attack. Going in at rooftop level, virtually in line astern, the first Vic bombed, then dropped to street level to get under the flak curtain, and ran out. Sherwood's aircraft was hit and burst into flames; flew straight into the ground and exploded.
In the second trio, two Lancs were hit on the run-in and both burst into flames. Warrant Officer Mycock DFC in Lancaster, R5513, P despite his aircraft being a ball of fire - continued his bombing run but then exploded in the air. The other burning bomber, skippered by Flying Officer E. A. Deverill, completed its bombing run and pulled away, still trailing flames from one engine. The other four, after running the terrifying gauntlet of ground fire, bombed and turned for home, riddled with flak damage but safe. Later, Deverill's Lancaster, the fire extinguished but bearing a ten-foot gash along its fuselage flanks, formated with another 97 Squadron aircraft and came back to base. Of the 12 aircraft, which set out seven failed to return; of the 85 men, 49 were missing.
Nettleton eventually landed at Squire's Gate aerodrome, near Blackpool just before 1 AM, and telephoned Waddington to report on the mission and ask about the survivors. On 28 April the London Gazette announced the award of a Victoria Cross to John Nettleton, and a flock of DFCs, DFMs and a DSO to the other survivors of the raid.