Operation Bellicose

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Operation Bellicose
Part of Combined Bomber Offensive

Maison Blanche airfield, Algiers June 1943
Date June 20/21, 23/24 1943
Location Friedrichshafen, Germany
La Spezia, Italy
Result Zeppelin Works: some factories hit[1]
La Spezia naval base: damage
Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg RAF Bomber Command Regulation WW II Underwing Balkenkreuz.png Luftwaffe

Italy-Royal-Airforce.svg Italian
Regia Aeronautica

Commanders and leaders
Wing Commander Gomm (Master Bomber)
56 Avro Lancaster (No. 5 Group RAF)
4 Avro Lancaster Pathfinders (No. 8 Group RAF)

Operation Bellicose strategic bombing in World War II targeted the Nazi Germany Zeppelin Works in Friedrichshafen and the Italian naval base at La Spezia. It was the first shuttle bombing raid in World War II and the second use of a Master Bomber.[1] In early June 1943, a Central Interpretation Unit photo interpreter (Claude Wavell) identified a stack of ribbed baskets (Würzburg radar reflectors) at the Zeppelin Works. After Winston Churchill viewed the photos at RAF Medmenham on June 14, No. 5 Group RAF received the surprise orders on June 16 to attack Friedrichshafen during the next full moon.[2]

After take-off from Britain, Wing Commander Gomm (No. 467 Squadron RAAF) took over when the aircraft of Group Captain Slee developed trouble.[1] The Avro Lancasters bombed from 15,000 feet (4,600 m) rather than the planned 10,000 feet (3,000 m) due to heavy flak. First the Pathfinder Force (PFF) dropped offset markers at a distance from the target for the main bombing force to use unobscured by smoke. The second stage was to use 'time-and-distance bombing runs'[3] from a location on the Lake Constance shore along a measured distance to the target.[1]

The attack hit the V-2 rocket facility of the Zeppelin Works, which made Operation Bellicose the first mission that bombed a long-range weapon facility. From Friedrichshafen the planes refueled at Blida (en arabe البليدة El Bouleïda, Algeria in North Africa.[4] On June 23/24, eight of the original Operation Bellicose force of sixty Avro Lancasters remained in Algeria for repairs and the remaining 52 bombed the Italian naval base at La Spezia, Liguria, damaging an "oil depot" and an "armaments store" and continued to Britain without loss.[1]

Missing bombers (The shuttle raid)[edit]

Operation 26 deserves a special and more detailed account, as this was far from a routine raid. The story begins when Maurice found that his and three other crews from 97 Squadron were ordered to report to RAF Scampton for special duties on June 16th. The four crews were led by their skippers, Flt Lt.’s Doug Jones, Jimmy Munro, Rod Rodley and Johnny Sauvage, who after landing at Scampton soon met the man behind the task ahead, Group Captain L.C. Slee DSO. He explained that they had been detailed for a very important raid on the Old Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen near Lake Constance where Würzburg radar sets were being manufactured. Allied intelligence needed the raid to be carried out before the end of June, however this made a normal night operation even more dangerous for any attacking force. The long trip to the proposed target could not be made under the cover of the short summer nights, because the returning aircraft would be flying over occupied France at Dawn making easy pickings for the German fighters. The same reason plus heavy flak defenses in the target area ruled out the risk of a daylight raid. The answer lay in North Africa, Algeria to be exact, the airfields of which were now under the control of the USAAF. The plan was like all good plans a simple one, after carrying out the raid, instead of heading back to England and the waiting German fighters the force would head South to Maison Blanche and Blinda in Algiers thus leaving the Germans waiting for the “Missing Bombers”. Group Captain Slee had instructed the Skippers of the four 97 Squadron Pathfinders to work out their own tactics and loads for the raid. Their duties were to mark the target for the main force of 56 Lancaster’s from 5 Group. The giant airship sheds at Cardington served as a dummy target for the crews to practice on while a high level of security was imposed at Scampton.

All was ready by 20th June and in the early evening of that day the four pathfinders struggled into the air from R.A.F. Scampton requiring the entire available runway to do so. As they approached France the entire force dropped down as low as possible to fly under radar detection and avoid alerting enemy defenses to their approach. The bomb aimer aboard Maurice’s aircraft, Tommy Hodkinson strained his eyes from his position in the front of the darkened aircraft looking for his pinpoint on the Rhine. Once this had been reached, the force began a gradual climb to the instructed height of 5,000 feet. During the flight Group Captain Slee’s aircraft had developed engine trouble and he was forced to return home, handing over his duties as Master of Ceremonies to W/C G.L.Gomm. The main force of 56 aircraft continued to climb to a height of 10,000 feet to give cover to the four lonely Pathfinders below.

The tactics that the Pathfinder captains had devised involved Doug Jones and Jimmy Munro dropping a line of flares from the town to the Zeppelin works. Rod Rodley and Johnny Sauvage would then use the flares to guide them to the sheds where they would then drop their red and green target markers upon which the main force would deliver their bombs.

Once near the target the bombing run began, as soon as the flares started to fall from Doug and Jimmy’s aircraft the sky was alight with searchlights and flak making it an anxious time for all aboard. W/C Gomm instructed the aircraft to climb to 10,000 feet but the Pathfinders knew this would make accurate marking difficult to achieve and all four remained at 5,000 feet. The plan worked well, as soon as the target indicators had illuminated the target, bombs started falling from the 5 Group aircraft above. During the raid Doug made 5 successful runs over the target to drop his load keeping the momentum up and giving the main force the best possible chance of pressing home the attack. On one of these runs while flying straight and level the aircraft was caught by searchlights and flak started exploding all around them rattling against the airframe. A steep dive lost the searchlights but made for a very uncomfortable ride for the crew but luckily no major damage was done.

The final part of the raid was for the main force to make a timed run from a point near Lake Constance, which had been illuminated by flares from the Pathfinders. As a result of the accurate bombing the factory was hit, severe damage was caused to the buildings and therefore production of the radar sets was disrupted. When the bombs had been dropped the aircraft turned to the south instead of the northwest as would have been expected. A pleasant climb over the Alps and a safe arrival at Maison Blanche or Blinda airfields as dawn broke. All of the aircraft made it to the safety of the Algerian airfields although Rod Rodley nearly came to grief when unknown to the crew a marker had failed to release over the target area. When they had descended over the Mediterranean to 2,000 feet the barometric fuse operated, igniting the T.I. and suddenly the bomb bay was a mass of flames, quickly Rod operated the bomb jettison level and the flaming mass fell away into the sea below.

Apart from this small mishap, the plan had worked like clockwork: a successful raid had been completed, no crews lost to enemy action and in occupied Europe, a frustrated German night fighter force wondering why the bombers had not returned. After a couple of days rest the crews prepared to make their way back to the U.K. but not before they had attacked Spezia (Italy) en route home. Due to damage sustained to Rod Rodley and Johnny Savage’s Lancaster’s the returning force only had Doug Jones plus Jimmy Munro acting as pathfinder’s. However this did not hinder a good raid on the target with the force causing damage to armaments stores and an oil depot.

All aircraft returned safely to the U.K. with Maurice’s logbook recording that they returned to Scampton just after 4am on June 24th, operations 26 and 27 completed.

The only loss suffered on the two shuttle raids was Johnny Sauvage’s Lancaster that was to badly damage by flak to repair. He and his crew returned to England via Gibraltar on board Rod Rodley’s repaired machine a few days after the rest of the force. At the end of this intense period, Maurice, Doug and the rest enjoyed a few days away from duties before they were detailed to be part of the force sent to attack Cologne on July 8th. However, for some reason, probably a fault with their aircraft the trip was aborted and it was July 12th before operation 28 would be completed with a trip to Turin. As part of a force of 295 Lancasters, Maurice again was safely brought home, but 13 other aircraft failed to make it back. The most notable of which was that of W/C J.D. Nettleton V.C. Commander of 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron. He was shot down over the channel by German fighters. He and all of his crew are now remembered on the Runneymede Memorial.

Operation Bellicose map


  1. ^ a b c d e "Campaign Diary". Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary. UK Crown. Retrieved 2008-04-30. 
  2. ^ Irving, David (1964). The Mare's Nest. London: William Kimber and Co. pp. 65,81. 
  3. ^ Middlebrook, Martin (1982). The Peenemünde Raid: The Night of 17–18 August 1943. New York: Bobs-Merrill. p. 50. 
  4. ^ Etherington, Andrew. "June 24th, 1943". The Second World War - A Day by Day Account. Retrieved 2008-03-04. 

Maurice Hemmings Memoir by Andrew Hodges http://www.50-61squadron.net/mullins.html