Raids - Maille Le Camp, 3-4 May 1944

Maille Le Camp is a commune in the Aube department in north-central France (80 miles east of Paris). In 1902 a large military camp was built in its territory, becoming a permenant camp for the French and then taken over by the German force during World War 2.

It was believed at the time to be holding up to 10,000 men from the German panzer units.

On 3–4 May 1944, during the German occupation of France, the town was subject to a heavy Allied bombing. During preparations for the Normandy invasion (Operation Overlord), 346 British Avro Lancasters and 16 de Havilland Mosquitoes (362 aircraft in total) of RAF Bomber Command attacked the German military camp situated near the village of Maille Le Camp. Although the target was accurately marked, communications difficulties led to a delay in the Main Force attack, during which Luftwaffe fighters intercepted the force.

Subsequently, 1,500 tons of bombs were dropped on the camp, causing considerable damage to the weapons and equipment held there and heavy casualties - 218 killed and 156 wounded mostly Panzer Division N.C.O.s and many barrack buildings, vehicles, ammunition and tanks were detroyed.

42 Lancasters (some 11.6% of the attacking force) were shot down and two were so badly damaged they were scrapped - accounting for 315 aircrew lost. No French civilians were killed in the bombing, although there were a small number of casualties when one of the Lancasters shot down crashed on a house.

460 Australian Lancaster squadron lost five (AR-J "Jig", AR-Z² "Zebra Two", AR-E "Easy", AR-R "Robert" and AR-G "George") of the seventeen Lancasters sent on this raid. A further Lancaster was lost from a special duties flight from Binbrook. These aircraft fell in and around Marcilly and Chapelle Vallon in the Aube Department, Châlons-en-Champagne, and Dommartin Lettrée and Marigny-le-Grand in the Marne Department.

Five Lancasters with 42 airmen from 460 Squadron died on this raid.

Vic Neal, Pilot & Bill Gourlay, Navigator account on the raid to Maille Le Camp

"The moon was right for a raid, by Nos. 1 & 5 Group led by Wing Commander Cheshire. He was flying a Mosquito, together with three other mosquito bombers, to mark the target. The raid was timed to start at midnight, to catch all the troops in camp.

Taking off at 2200, "K2" was in the first group of aircraft from Binbrook. Climbing to 2,000 feet, Vic Neal set course climbing on track to rendezvous over Reading. From Reading, the course was over Beachy Head, to Dieppe. Then we crossed the French coast at 12,000 feet with perfect flying conditions on a beautiful night, not too much moon, providing good visibility. From Dieppe, the flight plan was to descend at speed to arrive at the target at 5,000 feet. With a Lancaster descending at speed, some German fighters would not be very much faster.

We could see the German fighters were intercepting, as we passed Compiegne. The Germans were not having much success, as we didn't see any bombers being shot down. We did see three fighters go down, which was a welcome reversal of fortune for us. The red target markers had gone down on time but W/Cdr Cheshire, marking from 1,500 feet was not satisfied. He called in his deputy, Squadron Leader Dave Shannon, who dived his Mosquito to 400 feet and marked accurately".

Neal and Gourlay in the second wave carried on when they arrived at the orbiting point they were surprised to see other Lancasters still orbiting over the yellow marker, fifteen miles out from the target.

There was also some chatter going on from the crews, on the R/T when suddenly one spoke out:

"Come on you markers; pull your bloody finger out!" Soon there were several remarks too rude to be printed.

Then an English voice: "Cut your chatter and wait for the order to bomb!" With a lot of planes orbiting, the German fighters started picking off the bombers, and several were seen to blow up, or go down in flames".

Suddenly a voice obviously a pilot requested:

"For Christ sake shut up and give my gunner's a chance!" the chatter still carried on when suddenly we heard an English voice;

"For Christ sake! I'm on fire!" answered immediately by an unmistakable Aussie voice, "If you're going to die, then die like a man, quietly!"

"We were still waiting instructions to bomb, and some planes had flown out wider to get more room in orbiting, and several Lancasters had been shot down".

Some Lancasters in desperation turned toward the target, and Vic Neal steered "K2" to follow suit, far better to get rid of their bombs on the target, before they were shot down.

The control of the raid failed to operate to the original phan when the Marker Leader W/Cdr Cheshire, VC, ordered the main force to come in and bomb, however, the Main Force Controller, W/Cdr L C Deane, could not transmit the order due to his VHF radio being incorrectly tuned. The ack ack around the target was not too heavy as they bombed, from 5,000 feet. With a "Cookie" 5,000 feet was a bit close, they were more used to bombing from a higher altitude.

As our bombs dropped from the Lancaster it felt as though the plane was bouncing up a set of stairs. The blast from the bombs gave quite an exciting ride through the target and of course when the cookie dropped we bounced up a good 2/300 feet.

"Leaving the target did not get rid of the fighters, as we saw many more planes, shot down". A report later stated that the German fighter plane pilot named Dewes, had shot down five Lancasters in 40 minutes, taking his total to 45 bombers.

In 1944 the Germans shot down 3527 RAF bombers, killing almost 25,000 aircrew.

The German fighter pilots using "Jazz Music" also favoured attacking the bombers after they had dropped their bombs. With no bombs left to explode, they could attack much closer, without the fear of explosions also killing them.

"Flight Sergeant George Gritty, of 460 Squadron, was attacked by an FW190 who made no less than three passes, setting the Lancaster on fire.

In the bright moonlight three parachutes were seen to open. The FW190 cheekily flew just behind, and watched as the Lancaster exploded.

The master bomber's radio communication had failed, but there was no way these sorts of problems could be fixed in the air. By firing a Verey pistol with pre arranged colour, visual bombing could have been set in motion".

This account from Vic & Bill of "K2 Killer" raid on Mailley–Le–Camp sounded like they were shooting a line, but as we soon found out, the unexpected could always happen, and the best laid plans on any raid could always bring unexpected results.

To add insult to injury, because this area was only credited as one third of a raid, the crews in view of its severity and the losses, demanded a reassessment. This was a miserable deal on the part of the authorities.

How could one raid be counted as a third of a raid? Of course it was easy to see that although a tour was 30 raids, by counting a raid as a half or a third, it could extend the tour by several more raids. The lifespan of the crews was not even considered, on this raid alone 315 airmen were lost.