Throughout the Second World War, the Resistance in occupied countries played an important role in keeping the Germans off balance and tying up forces vital to the war effort.
Nary had a day gone by without a bridge or a train being blown up somewhere in occupied Europe. To combat the problem, German forces carried out brutal reprisals often and without mercy.
As so often is the case, this method obtained questionable results in that most continued to be inspired and willing to fight, while a small number of them, along with some converts from an apathetic population, turned collaborator either from fear or a genuine belief in the Nazi cause.
In 1943, one of the locations where reprisal and collaboration was having enormous success was in and around the town of Amiens, France. The Resistance network in this region found itself being hunted to destruction, with rampant arrests occurring throughout the year and critical intelligence all but drying up.
Things came to a head when two Allied intelligence officers were captured and taken to the one place in the area where torture and execution was carried out in earnest, within a glum collection of gray buildings outside of town that served as Amiens’ prison.
Resistance members began relaying information to London about the murderous happenings inside the prison, in addition to its layout, guard strength, and anti-air/anti-ground defenses.
Amiens lay too far inland for a ground raid, and resistance forces in other areas simply lacked the necessary firepower to attempt a rescue. So a bold plan grew in the minds of British intelligence involving a scenario whereby the prisoners would not be rescued but broken out.
Not from within the walls, but from above.
An aerial commando raid involving a twin engine marvel made of wood…
Molded into an object of purpose with just a hint of elegance, the DeHavilland Mosquito looked sleek and fast just sitting on the ground. Running a hand down its slender fuselage one would be hard pressed to believe that balsa and birch wood formed her structure and skin.
A crew of two manned her and enabled the aircraft to perform a multitude of roles: reconnaissance, night fighter, maritime strike and most important, low level precision bombing…something no other Allied aircraft was capable of.
18 of these aircraft sat dispersed around RAF Hunsdon airfield comprising No.140 Wing, when they received word that they would fly another low level bombing mission meant not just to destroy, but save lives.
Ameins Prison complex consisted of a main multi-floor brick building shaped like a “T”. In this building the prisoners were housed, while at the end of each point of the T, smaller buildings made up the guard barracks.
In the plan, 18 Mosquitos in three groups of six were to swoop in at low altitude, each carrying four 500 pound bombs, and hit the prison guards’ mess hall at precisely 12:00 P.M. The reason for this was a specific time discovered when most of the guards would be in one place. Seconds later, those that remained alive in barracks would be hit, as well as the main walls surrounding the buildings along the north and eastern perimeter.
Seeing the gaping holes in the wall, it was expected the prisoners would pour out and escape into the countryside.
It received the name Operation Jericho.
Leading the mission was a man who had become a bit of a celebrity after he starred in the British propaganda film called “Target For Tonight.” Charismatic, tall and with blond hair and a pipe constantly drooping from a corner of his mouth, his name was Group Captain Charles Pickard, a former bomber pilot chosen at the last moment to replace an Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry whose request to lead the attack was rejected because he was helping plan for the invasion of France.
A man with an impressive flying resume including not just bombing missions but inserting secret agents into France in the dead of night, Pickard had little experience in low-level strikes, so he commenced training with what little time he had in order to become competent. The rest of the squadron trained as well, though they remained unaware of their objective until 2 hours prior to the mission.
Attack time was scheduled for February 10, 1944, but just before the mission day, bad weather consisting of heavy snowfall swept across much of Europe and only seemed to worsen with each passing hour. The 10th came and went, with the mission being postponed in succession afterwards, until they reached the 18th with grim news urging them into action.
100 resistance members in the prison were scheduled for execution on the 19th. Realizing, it was now or never, Pickard received the go-ahead, and at 8:00 A.M. on the 18th the pilots were briefed on their target.
Looking at the flight conditions, most pilots thought this was the worst weather they’d ever seen. “I thought it was some form of practical joke,” a pilot said upon hearing the order to head for the planes. And a few minutes later, the “Mossies” as their crews affectionately called them, roared to life along the flightline, and slowly rumbled into a parade to the takeoff point. There, pilots touched the brakes and waited for clearance as the navigators eyed the planned routes on their maps a final time.
A Mosquito bellowed louder as its pilot pushed the throttles to maximum, the twin engines in perfect synchronization as the speeding plane’s tail wheel rose, then the rest of the aircraft angled upward towards an overcast leaden sky before banking left to begin the formation circuit around the base, to be joined each time by another plane. In minutes, the 18 were aloft and sorted themselves out in six plane groups divided into three plane V formations.
Pickard’s machine stayed with the second formation in order to observe the first groups strike. If things went awry with all bombs dropped and no prisoners seen escaping, he had authority to call in a reserve of Mosquitos to demolish the prisoners’ barracks.
Now, with formations dipping their stubby noses down and toward the English Channel, he hoped such a task would be unnecessary.
A short while later, choppy white crests of the Atlantic churned just 30 feet beneath them as the Mosquitos raced below radar level toward the coast of Franc, with Amiens laying less than an hour away.
Trouble happened. Four planes suddenly lost contact and vectored back to base, and one more left due to engine malfunction just before the pilots crossed the coast of France, leaving nine to carry out the attack and four in reserve.
Snowy terrain unfolded before them and the cloud layer seemed to get lower and lower as they banked left several times to confuse the enemy of their destination. A right bank and minutes later they latched onto the main road from Albert toward Amiens.
The minutes ticked down to a handful where the crews realized a visual on the target was any moment, and the groups veered off into their attack routes, with 2 planes heading to the town itself for a diversion attack on the rail station.
Quick in the distance, the smudgy outline of Amiens prison began growing.
It was 12:00 P.M.
Three minutes later, three Mosquitos swept in at 50 feet towards the eastern wall. “It’s the lowest I’ve ever flown,” pilot Maxwell Sparks said, “I wouldn’t want to fly any lower.”
The bomb bays discharged their deadly cargo.
There was no explosion, no impact, as the planes thundered over the walls and disappeared. 11 seconds ticked by before clouds of white and brown earth spewed skyward, the delayed fuses detonating on time.
“There’s an old saying with Mossies, you get in quick, you get out quick,” Maxwell added.
2 more planes came in, circled round because of the detonations, and then dove again, hitting some barracks and the mess hall, obliterating the occupants in a hail of fire and brick.
At 12:06, Pickard and three more in two ship formations dove and walked bombs against the wall and prison, adding fire to the pillar of black smoke sweeping sideways over the facility.
A Mosquito circled above, snapping photographs of breaches in the wall and small groups of people running through them into adjacent fields.
Seeing the prisoners in increasing number make their way through the gaping holes, Pickard prepared to order the squadron home. Just then, a German fighter bore in and chased him away from the prison, guns blazing. The Mosquito shuddered under several hits and the tail blew off, sending the plane careening into some woods, a trail of oily flames writing Pickard’s epitaph.
Back at the prison, more resistance members found freedom as they emerged from the smoldering breaches into the snowy landscape, soot-blackened faces and singed clothing unable to restrain the absolute joy they felt as they ran like hell in all directions.
In all, some 717 prisoners were once held at Amiens. 102 were killed and 74 wounded in the strike. But 258 got away. 79 of them were resistance members and political dissidents. As they made their way to different destinations, none knew that 2/3rds of them were to be recaptured, or that a controversy would start to boil about their escape and continue simmering to this day.
It began not long after the last Mosquitos engine fell silent. An inquiry was made as to who authorized the strike. No trace of documents linked the Royal Air Force and furthermore, nothing was found about a resistance request for the mission.
British intelligence perhaps? After the war, more questions were raised to its members, only to receive emphatic denials.
Even now, evidence proving the pending execution of Resistance members remains elusive, as no documents, German or French, have ever been located indicating such a scheduled action.
For those courageous pilots undergoing debriefing back at Hunsdon on that frosty day in 1944, however, questions about who ordered the raid were furthest from their mind. Emotions ran mixed from satisfaction of their hits, to sadness because two Mosquitos, including their leader, were missing. Also, they learned three single-engine Typhoon fighter bombers which flew in support of the squadron, were absent as well.
They later learned the raid ended up being a mixed success. Some resistance made it to their units and continued the fight. Whether it was worth the cost is for time to decide. But one thing remains clear. On an abysmal winter day in 1944, a group of daring young men achieved something never attempted or even contemplated before in the annals of history…
An aerial jailbreak.
(Featured Image: Histomil.com)