Raid on Mailly-Le-Camp: 3-4 May 1944

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial, taken from 26,000 feet, showing severe damage to the tank and lorry depot at the German military base near Mailly-le-Camp, France, after the attack by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 3/4 May 19446

Mailly-Le-Camp is a commune in the Aube department in north-central France1 (156km east of Paris). In 1902, a large French Army camp was built there including barrack buildings, offices, workshops and a large armoured vehicle exercise area. During World War II, it was taken over by the Germans becoming the Wehrmacht Barracks3 and battle-tank depot. It was believed at the time to be holding up to 10,000 men from the German panzer units.

As Mailly-Le-Camp was in a strategic locality between the towns of Troyes and Chālons-sur-Marne it would be possible for the German tanks to be quickly mobilised in position to engage any allied invasion force. The Allied High Command decided by removing the threat of the tanks the invasion force would make an easier landing as part of the Normandy invasion (Operation Overlord).

On 3–4 May 1944, RAF Bomber Command No. 1 and 5 Groups mounted an attack on the barracks and depot. 346 British Avro Lancasters and 16 de Havilland Mosquitoes (362 aircraft in total) attacked the German military camp situated near the village of Mailly-Le-Camp2. Although the target was accurately marked by the Pathfinders (14 Mosquitos) lead by Wing Commander Cheshire, his radio signal was lost within an American forces broadcast of band music on the same frequency3.

This led to a delay in the Main Force attack, with several hundred fully-laden Lancasters orbiting a marker under a three-quarter moon in a cloudless sky4. This made it easy pickings for the Luftwaffe fighters in which they shot down 42 Lancasters (some 11.6% of the attacking force)2, killing 258 aircrew.

One thousand five hundred tons of bombs were dropped on the camp, causing considerable damage to the weapons and equipment held there including 114 barrack buildings, 47 transport sheds with 102 vehicles (including 37 tanks)6, ammunition and tanks destroyed. There were also heavy casualties2 of enemy forces - 218 killed and 156 wounded mostly Panzer Division NCOs. Over 100 French civilians were killed in the bombing, including PoWs and forced labourers within the camp as well as people living nearby.5 A shot down Lancaster crashing into a house also killed a small number.

460 Squadron (Australian Lancaster Squadron) lost five of the seventeen Lancasters sent on this raid accounting for 35 airmen lost in the following Lancasters:

  1. AR-J "Jig"
  2. AR-R "Robert"
  3. AR-Z² "Zebra Two"
  4. AR-E "Easy"
  5. AR-G "George"

The Oz at War website has a full listing of 460 Squadron casualties lost in the Mailly-Le-Camp raid (go to the page and search for Mailly).

A first-hand account of the Mailly-Le-Camp raid

The moon was right for a raid, led by Wing Commander Cheshire as Marker Leader. He was flying a Mosquito, together with three other mosquito bombers, to mark the target. The first wave of the raid was timed to start at midnight, to catch all the troops in camp.

Taking off at 22:00, "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 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 for both east and west barrack targets had gone down on time, but Wing Commander 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.

As part of the second wave, they arrived at the orbiting point and were surprised to see other Lancasters still orbiting over the yellow marker, fifteen miles out from the target.

Although Wing Commander Deane, the Main Force Controller, immediately started calling in the first wave of Lancasters to bomb, only a few aircraft responded. Unfortunately, the transmission on Deane’s VHF radio could not be heard because a much stronger American Forces broadcast was drowning Dean's broadcast. Deane tried an alternate method by Morse code through his wireless operator's set which proved useless as it was found to be incorrectly tuned.

Of those that responded, a few more followed. These crews were the lucky ones. Their bomb aimers were able to guide them over a well-marked and clearly visible east target and from the unusually low bombing height of 5,000ft, scoring direct hits. A majority of the first-wave bombers in No. 5 Group had not heard the orders to bomb and remained to circle above the ground markers. The 140 (No. 1 Group) Lancasters of the second-wave then arrived at the orbiting point and had to wait.

With all this activity the German fighters were very quickly on the scene. One Lancaster that was detailed to back up the yellow marker was chased round its figure of eight marking pattern by a JU 88, but managed to both keep the markers going and to shake off the German fighter. Others were not so lucky, and with a sickening explosion in the sky, the first Lancaster blew up.

Meanwhile, the Pathfinder crews reported seeing men running from the barrack blocks to zig-zag trenches nearby. They flew 'round dive-bombing the flak positions which were shooting 'hose-pipe' (light flak, just like getting sprayed by a hose pipe) tracers up at the Main Force.

Cheshire was becoming frustrated as the markers were being obscured by the first-wave bombing and he ordered the two remaining Mosquito marker aircraft to carry out marking. Both pilots courageously flew across the target while the Lancasters were continuing to bomb but their markers were soon lost to sight in the smoke and dust. One of the reserves Lancaster marker planes were called to place its markers on the Western edge of the fires with a slight undershoot. The markers went down in the required place, and Cheshire congratulated the crew on their placement.

There was some chatter going on from the crews on the R/T when suddenly an angry voice 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 from Squadron Leader Sparkes, the Deputy Controller: "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.

One tail gunner remembers, "We circled and circled for what seemed an eternity without receiving any instructions. During this time, German fighter attacks were more intense. There were tracers everywhere, and aircraft were going down in flames all around us, but still no order to bomb. One could sense the bombing force getting restless judging by the remarks being made, some extremely rude".

"Why can't we go in and bomb now?" Called a plaintive Indian voice.

"Dry your bloody tears" came the anonymous voice.

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 for 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.

Then came the order to bomb, "Bomb the red spot fires!".

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. The night fighters continued with their attacks over the target and also on the way home. Among the aircraft shot down was Squadron Leader Sparkes (Deputy Controller), who stayed over the target directing the attack. Sparkes, fortunately, evaded capture and soon returned to England.

A report later stated that the German fighter plane pilot named Martin Drewes, whose Messerschmitt was one of the few fitted with the upward firing Schrage Musik (Jazz Music) in the aft cockpit bulkhead.

Within minutes Drewes and his crew found themselves flying within sight of four more Lancasters, but it took Drewes 20 minutes to get into a firing position underneath what Handke described as the most peaceful one”. This “Kill” almost fell on top of the ME 110 and Drewes had to dive steeply to avoid his flaming victim.

He had shot down five Lancasters in 40 minutes, taking his total to 45 bombers. The "Jazz Music" enable the pilots to fly under Bombers and attack them with their canons tilted at 15 degrees. Also with the help of a reflector site, it allowed the fighter pilot to strike in almost complete safety from the blind spot underneath the bomber.

Drewes' radar operator describes their experience:

We saw the target burning and this allowed us to get into the bomber stream. I guided my pilot with the SN-2 (a radar eye), the weather was wonderful; almost full-moon. We sat under the Lancaster which was only at 2,400 metres height. We shot from underneath into the wing which burned at once. Almost immediately the bomber went down in flames. I had immediately found another target; it was flying away to the west at 2,000 metres - another Lancaster. We got 500 metres underneath and climbed to within 70 metres. We fired this time into the fuselage because now we could be sure there were no bombs there. There was a huge fire and it soon crashed.

We saw another Lancaster straight ahead but lower, and we were soon underneath. We climbed a little, then fired vertically with our Schrage Musik, it burned and soon went down. The next one was spotted by Petz (rear gunner) and once more we got into an attacking position. This time the Lancaster was climbing and we could not fire for some time until it sellted down at 3,000 metres. After a long burst of fire into the fuselage, the entire tail broke off and the remaineder burst into brigth flames and crashed.

A German report contained an interesting report of Sergeant Jack Worsfold rear gunner in 101 Squadron Lancaster who had miraculously escaped when his aircraft was hit over Mailly. The rear turret broke away and fell with Worsfold trapped inside, but its fall was broken by some electricity cables, and he was able to walk away dazed, but unhurt. The Germans thought Worsfold was an agent dropped at Mailly to report the raid. It was some time before they accepted him as an ordinary airman.

Fortunately, on the Mailly-Le-Camp raid, not many Luftwaffe fighters were equipped with "Jazz Music".

"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 Mailly–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 suprising 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 258 airmen were lost.

The Mailly-Le-Camp raid was later retrospectively instated (and the "third of an op" rule scrapped) as a full raid after the 10th of May when "No. 5 Group" "experienced a similar delay" when the "aiming-point had to be remarked" on an attack on a target in Lille.4


  1. Wikipedia, 2014. Mailly-Le-Camp. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 January 2014].
  2. RAF, 2014. History of the RAF at War - World War II - D-Day - D-Day Timeline - May overview. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 January 2014].
  3. WWII Today, 2014. 4 May 1944: Heavy RAF losses in attack on Wehrmacht barracks. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 December 2015].
  4. Jack Currie; 2004. Battle Under the Moon. 1st Edition. Crecy Publishing Ltd.
  5. Don Hiller, 2014. Mailly-le-camp Memorial Commemoration - French Casualties of the raid. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 December 2015].
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