Sunday 5 May 2013

Apres Moi Le Deluge: 617 Squadron, Cheshire, Tait and Fauquier

617 Squadron Badge (RAF)
This month marks the seventieth anniversary of Operation Chastise, more commonly known as the Dambusters raid. We covered this raid in the May 2012 edition of this blog, in which we looked at the story of Barnes Wallis, who invented the bouncing bombs used on the raid, at Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC who commanded 617 Squadron, the special squadron established for the raid. Having already covered this raid, perhaps now is a good time to commemorate the other wartime exploits of this elite squadron following on from the Dambusters raid.

617 Squadron was formed amid great secrecy on the orders of Sir Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, on 21st March 1943 for the express purpose of undertaking the raid on the Eder, Mohne and Sorpe Dams and therefore delivering the bouncing bombs, codenamed Upkeep that had been designed for that specific purpose. Although the squadron had originally only been formed to carry out this one mission, once the raid had been completed, it was decided to keep 617 in being as an elite unit to be used in carrying out precision attacks on specialised targets. 

Guy Gibson relinquished command of the squadron he had established in July 1943 and handed over to his successor, Wing Commander George Holden. After some well deserved leave, Gibson was sent on a lecture tour of the USA and Canada which lasted nearly five months. Gibson was eventually to return to operational flying in September 1944, only to be killed almost immediately whilst returning from a raid on Rheydt and Moenchengladbach on the 19th September. 

George Holden's tenure at 617 Squadron was to be tragically brief as he was shot down and killed on his fourth mission, which was an attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal in September 1943 and died along with four members of Gibson's original crew. A veteran of the Dams raid, Harold 'Mickey' Martin took command of the squadron on a temporary basis, before handing over to another legend of Bomber Command, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, the youngest person to hold this rank in the RAF. Cheshire had already completed three operational tours and was an inspirational figure to his crews. When appointed as commander of 76 Squadron, Cheshire had inherited a dispirited unit, beset by problems with the then new Halifax bombers which were suffering high losses due to their poor performance and inability to reach the same altitudes as the Avro Lancaster. Cheshire had immediately set about removing the nose and mid-upper turrets on his squadron's aircraft as well as other unnecessary weight and with this improved performance, the altitudes improved, the loss rates dramatically dropped and the morale amongst the squadron improved accordingly. He also made representations to Handley Page, the builder of the Halifax to make modifications to the tail of the bomber so as to improve the aircraft's stability. 

Gp Capt Leonard Cheshire (IWM)
Cheshire was also determined to improve the accuracy of 617's bombing and pioneered new methods of marking targets at very low levels, firstly using a Mosquito and latterly a single engined P51 Mustang fighter, the gift of the US Eighth Air Force, which Cheshire insisted on flying himself. Under Cheshire's command, 617 attacked the V-3 installations at Mimoyecques in the Pas de Calais area of France. The V-3 was the third of Hitler's vengeance weapons, a supergun designed to fire a 500lb shell into London every minute. Using the Barnes Wallis designed Tallboy bombs, 617's bombing was devastatingly accurate; the massive bombs penetrated the ground alongside the concrete protecting the site, effectively putting it out of commission for the duration of the war. The V-3 was never used against London. 617 Squadron continued to use the Tallboys with devastating effect and on 8th June 1944, attacked the Saumur railway tunnel, which was a supply line for the Germans to bring reinforcements to the Normandy front. Accurate marking by Cheshire ensured that the railway cutting and the tunnel roof were both breached, with the line remaining blocked until Allied forces took the area some weeks later. On 14th June, the Tallboys were once again deployed, this time to destroy E-Boat pens at Le Havre. The E-Boats posed a serious threat to the ships supplying the Normandy beachhead. Once again, accurate marking by Cheshire at low level and in broad daylight ensured that 617 found their target with several bombs, utterly destroying it.

At the end of his fourth tour of duty and after 102 missions, Cheshire was awarded the Victoria Cross, not for a specific act of bravery but rather for a sustained period of valour, repeatedly putting himself at risk marking targets in his Mosquito or Mustang often at low level and under intense anti aircraft fire. Following the award of his VC, Cheshire was relieved as commander of 617 Squadron by Willie Tait and for his 103rd and final mission, Cheshire acted as the official British observer of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki. After the war, Cheshire embarked on a remarkable change of career, eventually founding the  Cheshire Foundation Homes providing support for disabled people throughout the World.

Tirpitz capsized (Australian War Memorial)
Cheshire's successor at 617 Squadron was Group Captain James 'Willie' Tait, who took over in July 1944 and continued his predecessor's policy of precision attacks using low level marking. A succession of attacks on V-1 and V-2 sites followed, again using the Tallboy bombs and thus sparing London from at least some of these vengeance weapons. Tait, already highly decorated for his previous exploits with Bomber Command was awarded a bar to his DFC for pressing home a low level attack on the Kembs Dam in Southern Germany. On 15th September 1944, the squadron attacked the German battleship Tirpitz, which was anchored in Kaa Fjord in northern Norway. The squadron attacked from a base near Arkhangelsk in Russia and despite the Germans attempting to disguise the vessel using smoke flares, the squadron disabled the battleship so severely that the Kriegsmarine decided that it could not be made seaworthy again but decided to move the vessel to Tromso, where it's guns could be used in defence of an anticipated Allied invasion of Norway. The damage to the battleship was successfully kept secret by the Germans and so on 28th October a second raid was mounted by 617 Squadron, this time flying from Lossiemouth in Scotland. This raid was not a success due to low cloud obscuring the target but not to be deterred, the squadron returned on 12th November and this time three Tallboys struck and capsized the Tirpitz. Although a small number of her crew were rescued, between 950 and 1,200 were trapped inside the hull and perished.

By December 1944, Tait had completed 101 missions and was stood down from operational flying. He remained in the RAF post war, eventually retiring in 1964. His successor as commander of 617 Squadron was the Canadian, John Fauquier, under whose command the squadron continued to attack precision targets using the Tallboys and latterly the 22,000 lb Grand Slam bomb, another Barnes Wallis invention, which was used to attack and destroy the Bielefeld and Arnsberg Viaducts as well as other railway targets in northern Germany. Also attacked were the submarine shelters at Valentin in France and also in Hamburg, rendering them unusable. Their final target, on 19th April 1945 were the coastal gun batteries at Heligoland. By this time, the war in Europe was approaching it's end and no further worthwhile targets could be found for these massive bombs. After the war, Fauquier returned to his private business in Canada and passed away in 1981.

The years of peace saw 617 Squadron re-equipping with Avro Lincolns, then entering the jet age with the English Electric Canberra and forming part of the V-Bomber force with Avro Vulcans before most recently re-equipping with the Panavia Tornado and has seen action in both Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003.

Published Sources:

Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
Dambusters: A Landmark Oral History - Max Arthur, Virgin Books 2008
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword 2004


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