Solo to Berlin.

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Solo to Berlin.

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 09 jan 2009, 20:05


The first Allied nation to strike at Germany's capital in World War II was not Britain but France. Chronologies of the war carry the cryptic entry 'French bomb Berlin' for 7 June 1940 and fail to mention that only one aircraft was involved. This solitary bomber not only hit a military target but also flew a round trip of over 2,000 miles entirely unscathed. And the Berlin flight was just one of a dozen long-range missions flown during the fall of France.

In October 1939 several French naval officers were summoned urgently to Paris to be briefed for a 'special mission'. The officers had only been in uniform for a few weeks, having been called up with France's reservists on the outbreak of war. All had one thing in common; in peace-time, they had formed the crews of the giant four-engined Farman and Latócoere transport aircraft which plied the intercontinental air routes between France and her colonies. In Paris the officers learned that the French Admiralty had requisitioned a pair of Farman 222/3 transports belonging to Air France, and that they were to fly these machines on long-range maritime patrols over the South Atlantic. Their primary mission was to locate and track the German pocket battleships Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer, which were threatening the Allied trade routes.

The two machines took off from Bordeaux on 8 October 1939 and headed south, Bordeaux being the only airfield with a long enough strip — 1,200 metres (1,312 yards) — to allow them to get airborne with a full load of fuel. After a non-stop flight of over 16 hours they reached Dakar in West Africa, where they refueled in readiness for the 144-hour trans-Atlantic crossing. Arriving in Brazil late on the 11th they started their operational task almost at once, ranging out over the ocean in search of the elusive warships. Since Brazil was neutral the aircraft, still in Air France livery, made their reconnaissance flights under the guise of weather research. But they drew a complete blank, and they were recalled to France in November. One of them, the 'Laurent-Guerrero', skidded off the runway on take-off at Dakar and was completely wrecked, although the crew escaped unhurt.

Meanwhile, the French Admiralty, had requisitioned three more Air France transports; new Farman 223/4s, all factory fresh and all named after famous nineteenth century scientists: 'Jules Verne', 'Camille Flammarion' and "Lever­rier'. They were militarized by the addition of 7-5mm MGs and could in theory carry 3 tons of bombs over 3,100 miles. They were placed under the command of Capitaine de Corvette Dailhere, an experienced long-range pilot who had led the trans-Atlantic detachment, and various schemes were proposed for their use during the winter of 1939-40. One such was to use them to lay magnetic mines in the Gulf of Bothnia, between Finland and Sweden, through which a good deal of Germany's vital iron ore traffic passed. In the event this scheme came to nothing, although 'Jules Verne' was modified to carry bombs or mines on external racks, the interior of the fuselage being almost entirely taken up by auxiliary fuel tanks, with only a narrow catwalk from nose to tail. Neither of the other two machines was modified in this way, and work only began on them after the German invasion of France in May 1940. It was never completed, and 'Jules Verne' consequently became the only Farman 223 to see action.

Early in 1940, during the period of the Phoney War, Daillière had strongly advocated using 'Jules Verne' to bomb targets in Germany, especially Berlin. The French Admiralty refused to agree to such a plan, not only because the bombing of enemy territory was not yet Allied policy, but also because Daillière was too valuable a person to risk on a mission of this kind. Nevertheless, Daillière and his crew carried out many practice bombing missions in the spring of 1940. On 11 May, the day after the start of the German offensive in the West, they were briefed to carry out their first combat sortie. 'Jules Verne' took off at dusk from its base at Lanveoc-Poulmic, south of Brest, and flew to Aachen, dropping a few bombs near the railway station. On the way home it bombed the bridges at Maastricht, over which the German armored columns were pouring into the Low Countries. The damage caused in both attacks was negligible. The next mission, on the night of 13-14 May, was against road targets on the island of Walcheren where units of the French Seventh Army, having advanced deep into Holland, had been cut off and isolated.

The third and fourth missions, on 16 and 20 May, were again flown against rail targets in Aachen. The latter mission was particularly exacting, for the night was brilliant­ly clear and the German defenses were fully on the alert. 'Jules Verne' was flying at 1,300ft, following the main railway line that led towards Aachen station, when sudden­ly the aircraft was caught in a web of a dozen searchlights. The big machine was still uncamouflaged, silver paintwork glittered in the intense light, making her a sitting target.

Although Dailliere was aircraft captain, 'Jules Verne' was flown on this occasion by Master Pilot Queugnet, who now took her down to rooftop level in a series of violent evasive maneuvers. Dailliere, half-blinded by the searchlights, ordered the pilot to make two runs over the station before releasing his bombs. Although the flak was intense, the big aircraft miraculously collected only two holes before making its escape with the only battle damage of its operational career. There was one human casualty; Master Pilot Queugnet had become so physically exhausted by the strain of throwing the huge machine about at low level that he had to be replaced by Master Pilot Yonnet, who piloted 'Jules Verne' on all subsequent missions.

During the closing days of May 'Jules Verne' undertook several tactical operations, notably against German ar­mored concentrations in the Clair Marais Forest and an important railway junction near Saint Omer. Dailliere had been continuing to seek approval for a raid on Berlin, but at the end of May, even with the French armies collapsing on all sides, the government was still reluctant to approve such a step for fear of reprisals. It was only on 4 June, following a large-scale Luftwaffe attack on targets in the Paris area, that the French authorities relented and Dailliere was ordered to put his plans into action.

The French Admiralty already possessed a considerable dossier of target photographs and maps of the Berlin area, which Dailliere and his crew knew off by heart. On 16 May 'Jules Verne' and her two sister Farmans had been formed into an official French Navy unit, Escadrille 85, at Orly near Paris. The Aeronavale squadron was now based at Bordeaux-Merignac, on the coast, and to achieve maximum surprise Dailliere decided to route the flight to Berlin over water for as long as possible. The aircraft was to fly over the Channel and the North Sea before turning eastwards across the 'neck' of Denmark, north of Kiel, and approaching Berlin from the north. The attack was to be made from a height of not less than 5,000ft because of the danger from barrage balloons, and under no circumstances were bombs to be dropped on densely populated areas. The whole mission, in fact, was to be of little more than psychological value.

'Jules Verne' took off from Mérignac on the long outward journey at 1500 on 7 June, so as to arrive over Denmark as darkness was falling. Lieutenant Paul Comet, Dailliére's navigator, described the trip: 'On several occa­sions over the Channel we were used for target practice by French and British warships, who ignored our recognition signals. Fortunately, the shooting was poor. I had no difficulty in navigating visually; the weather was absolutely clear. I picked out the island of Sylt from a considerable distance, which enabled us to avoid its heavy AA defenses. I had a very precise wind, allowing me to work out an exact ground speed, and we made landfall on the Baltic coast north of Berlin right on our ETA. It was only now that I experienced some difficulty, due to 6/10 cloud cover at about 2,000ft over Northern Germany; this prevented me from picking up my planned landmarks, and I saw only a few lakes which were almost impossible to identify accura­tely through the gaps in the cloud. Fortunately, an intense concentration of searchlights up ahead showed me exactly where the capital was.

Arriving over Berlin, 'Jules Verne' flew a series of planned courses above the city, designed to make the Germans think that more than one aircraft was involved. Then Dailliere released the Farman's 2-ton bomb load over Berlin's western suburbs before ordering Master Pilot Yonnet to set course for home. After the war, the French went to considerable pains to find out if the bombs hit anything worthwhile. Apart from some vague mention that one of them had damaged a factory, German sources indicated that most of the load had fallen in open country. The enemy flak had not opened up until the bombs went down, and 'Jules Verne' was not hit. The flight home was direct, cutting across Germany and the Rhine. The aircraft landed at Orly as dawn was breaking, its fuel almost exhausted after 131 hours in the air.

The lone bomber's route to Berlin had taken it over Rostock, home of the Heinkel aircraft factories, and the crew reported that these had been brilliantly lit. The result was that, on the night of 10-11 June, the Farman set out for Germany once more, with Rostock as the target. It was reached without incident, the mouth of the River Warnow compensating for a blackout on this occasion. The crew spent several uncomfortable minutes flying round in heavy flak before Dailliere made a satisfactory bombing run. Several fires were reported in the factory area, but once again there was no record of any damage in German files.

Shortly afterwards, 'Jules Verne' was sent to Istres NW of Marseilles to take part in operations against the Italians, who had declared war on 10 June. The first mission, carried out on 14 June, was against oil storage tanks at Porto Marghera, the port of Venice; eight bombs were dropped and at least one tank was definitely set on fire. A second mission, against Livorno (Leghorn) two nights later, was less successful. The Farman's last sortie was flown on 18 June, when Dailliere and his crew paid a visit to Rome — to drop not bombs but leaflets. Four days later the armistice was signed and France lay defeated.

Sadly, 'Jules Verne' met an inglorious end. Trapped at Marignane (near Marseilles) through lack of fuel, it was burned to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Capitaine Dailliere, who became a member of the Vichy French forces, was eventually posted to command the naval air units at Dakar in West Africa. One day in 1942, the aircraft he was flying strayed into British territory at Freetown, Sierra Leone, and was shot down by RAF fighters. Dailliere was killed instantly by a bullet through the head. Today, few people recall the name of the man who planned and executed the first-ever bombing raid on Berlin; a raid that was a tiny pinprick in comparison with the later, mighty effort of the Allied bomber forces.
NEC JACTANTIA NEC METU ("zonder woorden, zonder vrees")

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