Low Level Lancaster raid on Augsburg
17th April 1942: RAF demonstrate that precision bombing with heavy bombers is possible - but comes at a heavy price at low level in daylight
On 17th April 1942 Bomber Command carried out an audacious low level daylight raid deep into occupied Europe to attack the MAN diesel engine factory in Augsburg, southern Germany, producers of U-boat engines. It was an experimental raid, designed to utilise the range and bomb load of the Lancaster, only now just becoming operational. It was hoped that a daylight raid would enable accurate bombing, whilst low level flight would mean that they would be undetected by radar and hopefully achieve surprise.
Six Lancasters from No 44 Squadron and six from No 97 Squadron had practiced low level flight around Britain before the raid.
The plan almost worked. The Lancasters were able to fly under the radar but No. 44 Squadron's planes were on the outward flight when just spotted by German fighters returning to base after intercepting a diversionary RAF attack. Squadron Leader John Nettleton later recalled:
I saw two or three fighters about 1,000 feet above us. The next thing I knew, there were German fighters all round us. The first casualty I saw was Sergeant Rhodes' aircraft. Smoke poured from his cockpit and his port wing caught fire. He came straight for me out of control and I thought we were going to collide. We missed by a matter of feet and he crashed beneath me.39 Two others went down almost at once and I saw a fourth on fire. At the time I was too much occupied to feel very much. I remember a bullet chipped a piece of perspex, which hit my second pilot in the back of the neck. I could hear him say 'What the hell.' I laughed at that.
The fighters had enough fuel left to shoot down four of the Lancasters. A fifth was shot down over the target. Only Squadron Leader Nettleton's plane from No. 44 Squadron survived. He was to be awarded the Victoria Cross:
Acting Squadron Leader John Dering NETTLETON (41452), No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron.
Squadron Leader Nettleton was the leader of one of two formations of six Lancaster heavy bombers detailed to delivery a low-level attack in daylight on the diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Southern Germany on April 17th, 1942. The enterprise was daring, the target of high military importance. To reach it and get back, some 1,000 miles had to be flown over hostile territory.
Soon after crossing into enemy territory his formation was engaged by 25 to 30 fighters. A running fight ensued. His rear guns went out of action. One by one the aircraft of his formation were shot down until in the end only his own and one other remained. The fighters were shaken off but the target was still far distant. There was formidable resistance to be faced.
With great spirit and almost defenceless, he held his two remaining aircraft on their perilous course and after a long and arduous flight, mostly at only 50 feet above the ground, he brought them to Augsburg. Here anti-aircraft fire of great intensity and accuracy was encountered. The two aircraft came low over the roof tops. Though fired at from point blank range, they stayed the course to drop their bombs true on the target. The second aircraft, hit by flak, burst into flames and crash-landed. The leading aircraft, though riddled with holes, flew safely back to base, the only one of the six to return.
Squadron Leader Nettleton, who has successfully undertaken many other hazardous operations, displayed unflinching determination as well as leadership and valour of the highest order.
Following were the six planes of No 97 Squadron. Two of them were shot down over the target, including the lead plane.
Squadron leader Sherwood, who led No 97 Squadrons attack, was also recommended for the VC:
Squadron Leader Sherwood DFC led his squadron on the daylight attack on the important Diesel Engine Factory at Augsburg, Southern Germany. With great skill and ability Squadron Leader Sherwood led the formation at very low level across 900 miles of enemy occupied territory – eventually leading all his aircraft directly on to the target.
On the approach to the target itself, heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire was experience but, with extreme daring and cool-headedness, he pressed home the attack with his Section, scoring direct hits on the Factory with his bombs from a very low level.
While bombing the target his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft guns and caught fire. Squadron Leader Sherwood continued to lead his section away from the target with one wing well alight and until such time as the aircraft became uncontrollable.
By extreme devotion to duty, Squadron Leader Sherwood ensured the success of the operation with which he was charged, and continued his daring leadership to the end. His conspicuous bravery on this occasion crowned a long and distinguished career in the service of his country
This was 'Strongly recommended' by Air Marshall 'Bomber' Harris but was not endorsed by the Air Ministry who substituted 'To be recommended for DSO if later found to be alive'.
Seven out 12 planes had been shot down but the bombing had been accurate. The raid was a propaganda triumph and received widespread publicity in Britain. Churchill wrote to AOC, Bomber Command:
We must plainly regard the attack of the Lancasters on the U-boat engine factory at Augsburg as an outstanding achievement of the Royal Air Force. Undeterred by heavy losses at the outset, 44 and 97 Squadrons pierced and struck a vital point with deadly precision in broad daylight. Pray convey the thanks of His Majesty’s Government to the officers and men who accomplished this memorial feat of arms in which no life was lost in vain
Unfortunately not all the delayed action bombs exploded and the damage to the factory was not nearly as serious as first imagined - the building had been damaged but not the machine tools within.
This was an experiment that Bomber Command chose not to repeat.