In the annals of popular history, the exploits of one Royal Air Force squadron stand head and shoulders above the others. The story of a squadron of bombers that flung itself against heavily defended targets at low level captivated audiences in a 1950s film. Braving intense cross-fire from light anti-aircraft guns, its crew members delivered their bouncing bomb using a rudimentary bombsight. Famed as ‘The Dambusters’, 617 Squadron has long enjoyed the admiration of the British public, and given the losses of the night of 16-17 May 1943, it is a reputation well deserved. But is it possible, nearly 80 years later, that equal acts of valour by another RAF squadron could have passed largely unnoticed?
The ‘Wooden Wonder’
Despite the undoubted success of the de Havilland Mosquito during the Second World War, initial interest in an aircraft made of alternative materials was limited. At a time when almost all combat aircraft had a metal structure, the de Havilland Aircraft Company’s proposals to build a lightweight fast bomber using laminated wood were met with polite disinterest by the Air Ministry. However, the company’s founder, the British aerospace engineer Geofrey de Havilland, found favour with Air Marshal Wilfred Freeman, the Air Council’s member for Research and Development (1936-1940), who saw the potential for the new aircraft. The promised performance of near 400mph was faster than any aircraft of its time, and the bomb load more than ample. The only drawback was seen to be the Mosquito’s lack of any defensive armament, and de Havilland continued to tangle with the Air Ministry for months on this issue before an order for production was received.
It was not until July 1942 that the first Mosquitos came into service, with 105 and 139 Squadrons beginning operations at RAF Horsham St Faith in Norfolk. The introduction into service of the aircraft – nicknamed the ‘Wooden Wonder’ or the ‘Mossie’ – coincided with the formation of the Pathfinders, a bomber group specially created to improve bombing accuracy by specialised target marking. By using coloured flares that burned on the ground once dropped, Pathfinders would mark out a target area that could be identified by the main bomber force arriving shortly afterwards. Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett – a rather controversial figure within the establishment, not least because he was an Australian, and at just 32, the youngest Air Vice-Marshal in the RAF’s history – was appointed to lead 8 Group Pathfinders. He was a plain-speaking and, at times, blunt and humourless leader, who nonetheless earned the deep respect of his men.
Bennett was one of the first senior officers to realise the potential of the Mosquito for Pathfinding work. He flew the Mosquito himself at night, and was delighted with its performance, having no doubts as to its potency. Setting the Mosquito at 30,000 feet, it outpaced the slower Lancaster and Halifax bombers to arrive, mark, and assess the targets before the main force. At this height and speed, it also evaded German night fighters and flak. Bennett also realised that sending small groups of Mosquitos on diversionary raids tied up German defences and multiplied their work.
During 1942 and into 1943, Bennett took aircraft direct from the factories as he grew his squadrons, splitting them to form new squadrons once he felt they were experienced enough. At the time, potential Mosquito crews had to have flown for at least 1,000 hours already before they were considered suitable to volunteer. These men had previously flown heavier bombers, and had a great deal of knowledge about the tremendous hazards of night operations against Nazi Germany. The Mosquito force therefore contained some of the most experienced crews of the Royal Air Force. On 24 November 1943, ‘C’ Flight of 139 Squadron was detached to RAF Oakington, near Cambridge, to form 627 Squadron. Under the watchful eye of Wing Commander Roy Elliot, 627 Squadron began to build its own character as part of Bennett’s night-marking force.
A good number of the new squadron’s members had previously been shot down over enemy territory, and some had escaped captivity through the resistance movements to return to Britain. ‘Benny’ Goodman and his navigator ‘Bill’ Hickox (real names Jack and John respectively) had both flown Wellington bombers on previous ‘tours’ – the name given to the completion of 30 operations. Goodman had flown against Hitler’s assembled invasion barges on his first tour of 1940, and had been based in Cairo for his second. Hickox had also served in North Africa and, having recently completed his 30 operations, expected to be posted elsewhere. However, it seemed he was needed for one last mission. Tasked to bomb a target on the Benghazi road on 27 June 1942, Hickox and his fellow crew members were surprised to see an aircraft approaching in the dark. German night fighters had not been active, and recognition flares were fired, but the Wellington was attacked – by a Junkers Ju 88, as it transpired. Hickox parachuted from the Wellington into the desert; after finding three other crew members in the complete blackness, the airmen proceeded to walk to where they believed the front line was. Hearing the ominous clanking of tanks, the bedraggled new arrivals lay low until daybreak, after which they were relieved to find a forward reconnaissance party of British infantry next to their truck drinking tea. Thankful for his rescue, Hickox was returned to Britain but was noticeably shaken by his experiences.
Many men like Goodman and Hickox had been posted to training establishments after their bombing tours, and the opportunity to serve on the sleek and fast new Mosquitos came as a welcome move. Perhaps this is in itself an early characteristic of the ‘Mosquito men’, who chose, either out of a sense of duty or the desire to have a more exciting life, to put themselves in danger once more. The members of 627 Squadron were thrust into one of the most difficult periods for Bomber Command, as they were ordered into intensive attacks on Berlin through the winter of 1943-1944. The German capital was not the only heavily defended target, and 627 Squadron also flew against Kiel, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. In the role of Pathfinders, the Mosquitos carried four 500lb bombs and, on most raids, acted as ‘backers-up’, releasing their bombs on the coloured markers dropped by the Lancasters of 8 Group below them.
The loss rate in 627 Squadron was much lower than among the heavy bombers, and the esprit de corps ran high, with crews returning with stories of surviving heavy flak and fighters. On 2 December 1943, Flight Sergeant Leslie Simpson and Sergeant Peter Walker were hit by flak in Mosquito DZ479 over Magdeburg. Their right engine was impacted by a splinter of shell, and despite attempting to fly on with one engine, Simpson and Walker had to abandon their aircraft over France. Both men subsequently evaded capture and eventually returned to England – although it would be March 1944 before 627 Squadron learned of their escape.
Through that hard-fought winter, 627 Squadron lost only five Mosquitos, with enemy action accounting for three, and the others lost as a result of air accident or technical failure. On 8 January 1944, the squadron lost its Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Edward ‘Dinger’ Bell, and his navigator, Flying Officer John Battle, in Mosquito DK293. Hit by flak over Frankfurt, both men parachuted safely, but were taken as prisoners of war. ‘Benny’ Goodman later wrote of this time that, ‘It must not be assumed that Bomber Command crews sat around waiting to get the chop. Nothing could be further from the truth. When stood down, we contrived to have an uproarious time.’ However, the high spirits and confidence of the squadron members were about to be shaken. As in April 1944, they were ordered to transfer to 5 Group and posted to RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.
Unbeknown to 627 Squadron, a disagreement on strategy had taken place between Air Vice- Marshal Don Bennett of 8 Group and Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane of 5 Group. By the autumn of 1943, Cochrane’s prized 617 Squadron was in the doldrums, having lost most of the original Dambuster crews. Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire took the helm in October 1943, and became convinced that greater accuracy in bombing was possible by lower-level marking and bombing. Of primary concern was getting the new ‘Tallboy’ bombs correctly deployed. The invention of Barnes Wallis – earlier responsible for the famous ‘bouncing bombs’ used in the Dambusters raid – these gigantic aerial torpedoes needed to be placed no more than 15 yards from their target for maximum effectiveness. Cochrane and Cheshire were concerned that the coloured markers dropped by the Pathfinders at high altitude often skipped on impact, and could come to rest hundreds of yards away from the aiming point.
When Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett was approached on the subject, he was dismissive, saying that low-level marking would be too difficult and costly. The aircraft that was the obvious contender for the role, the Mosquito, would be lost quickly and for little gain, he argued. Bennett’s point of view was not without basis, because prior to commanding 8 Group, he had been shot down over Norway in a Handley Page Halifax bomber, while attempting to attack the German battleship Tirpitz at low level. Walking through mountain passes to Sweden, Bennett had escaped, but the experience had left a deep impression on him.
With little choice, 5 Group was left to conceive its own Pathfinding techniques for its squadrons. Cheshire and 617 Squadron stalwart ‘Mickey’ Martin began practising a technique whereby the target-marker would be dropped from a dive at low level. In practice, it was found that the marker was placed far more accurately, and this led to a raid on the Gnome & Rhône aircraft-engine factory at Limoges, in west-central France, on 7 February 1944. Cheshire brought his Avro Lancaster in over the factory on a number of low-level passes to warn the French workforce to leave. Shortly afterwards, he placed his Lancaster into a dive from 3,000 feet to 500 feet, and released his target-markers. The raid, with 5 Group’s bombers then attacking from less than 10,000 feet, was an outstanding success.
Cheshire realised that the Mosquito would be far more suitable for such operations in future, and managed to ‘borrow’ three for use alongside 617 Squadron. However, he realised that what he really needed was a squadron – ideally, one of experienced Pathfinders. The request led to a now-famed clash between leaders Bennett and Cochrane, which forced Air Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris to intervene. Bennett was informed he must relinquish 627 Squadron and two Lancaster Pathfinding squadrons, 97 and 83, to 5 Group.
When 627 Squadron was unexpectedly transferred to RAF Woodhall Spa as a result, it found it was sharing the airfield with the famous 617 Squadron. The news that the squadron was to undertake night diving attacks on targets at low level was not received well – indeed, it came as something of a shock to the crews. The technique would see Lancasters illuminate the target from above with white parachute flares, leaving the Mosquitos to identify the aiming point by eye. Approaching at 3,000 feet, they would enter a 30-degree dive, dropping their markers at 1,000 feet. The fact that German gunners would see the diving Mosquitos clearly in the false daylight of the flares was not lost on the crews of 627 Squadron.
Despite their misgivings, however, training began on the Wainfleet ranges off the Lincolnshire coast, and the crews achieved good results. Unusually, the navigator was not required to enter the Perspex nose to aim the markers. Instead of a bomb sight, a cross was drawn on the windscreen of the Mosquito with a chinagraph pencil, and the aeroplane was aimed at the target. 627 Squadron found crews could achieve even better results if they released their markers below the initial 1,000 feet specified. Later on, Mosquitos returned from operations with branches from trees and, on at least one occasion, bricks from a chimney embedded in their wingtips.
With preparations for D-Day well underway, 5 Group was tasked to attack a tank training ground at Mailly-le-Camp, east of Paris, on 3-4 May 1944. At midnight, Leonard Cheshire led the attack in a Mosquito on the wooden barrack blocks that housed a panzer division. The diving manoeuvre led to the target being clearly marked, and 627 Squadron attacked gun emplacements that were attempting to fire at the approaching bombers. The main bombing force destroyed much of the camp, but not without considerable loss due to a breakdown in radio communications that delayed their arrival. This had allowed German night fighters to pounce on the approaching Lancaster bombers. Despite the losses, the damage inflicted on the panzer division was remarkable and guaranteed the future of low-level marking.
Once fully trained, 627 Squadron crews began their unique diving attacks on numerous targets. On 28 May 1944, a few days prior to D-Day, 627 Mosquitos attacked gun emplacements at Saint-Martin-de-Varreville, on the Normandy coast, leading the German commander to report, ‘The position has been hit with uncanny accuracy by the enemy air force’. Just over a week later, American troops stormed ashore on the nearby Utah beach largely unopposed. Throughout June 1944, 627 Squadron marked targets at the Saumur railyards, road junctions at Argentan, and rail junctions at Étampes and Pontoubault – as well as a major action at Caen. The squadron was even successful over more heavily defended targets like the oil refinery at Gelsenkirchen in Germany. It was apparent that the defenders were caught by surprise by the sight of the diving aircraft, and commonly thought they were crashing.
The initial pessimism at 627 Squadron lifted – casualties were light, despite their extraordinary exposure to flak guns. Ken Oatley joined the squadron in July 1944, and served to the war’s end. At 100 years old, he is the last survivor of 627 Squadron and remembers flying 22 hazardous operations. The only damage that he and his pilot, ‘Jock’ Walker, suffered was a single bullet hole through their fuselage.
The emphasis in the latter part of 1944 changed to attacks on V1 weapons sites. Seeking and marking these facilities, which were often concealed in woods, tunnels, and bunkers, became an important role for 627 Squadron. Night after night, the Mosquitos made diving attacks, each time competing with one another to get their marker closest to the aiming point. On at least one occasion, marker flares crashed through skylights of a factory, lighting the whole building.
Perhaps the most famous incident involving 627 Squadron came on 19 September 1944, with the loss of Guy Gibson, the distinguished bomber pilot, who, as the first commanding officer of 617 Squadron, had earlier led the Dambusters raid. At the time, Gibson was not flying in an operational role, but he persuaded senior commanders to allow him to fly one further mission. Borrowing an aircraft from 627 Squadron, Gibson flew against the German city of Mönchengladbach, west of the Rhine, as a controller to supervise the raid. He failed to return, crashing in mysterious circumstances near Steenbergen in Holland – an event that has led to much speculation and suggestions of a conspiracy to hide the circumstances of his loss. Ken Oatley flew on this raid and remembers Gibson’s last radio message before his disappearance. He does not remember Gibson as the popular leader portrayed by Richard Todd in the 1955 film The Dam Busters. Instead, it seems he was disliked within 627 Squadron: ‘He was a man who knew better than everybody else and wouldn’t be told,’ Oatley recalls.
On 31 December 1944, 627 Squadron aircraft attacked the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo in two waves. In an audacious attack, they streaked across the rooftops of the Norwegian capital in daylight, dropping their bombs at very low level on the Victoria Terrasse, where the Germans were based. Despite hitting the building, the raid was not altogether successful, with Norwegian civilian casualties high. Forty-four passengers died on a nearby tram, and the raid, hindered by rising dust from the first bombs to strike, was not as accurate as hoped. Nevertheless, the attack forced the Gestapo to move from its city-centre location and disrupted its work.
Perhaps the most contentious raid of the Second World War, that on Dresden on 13 February 1945, was also led in no small part by 627 Squadron. Arriving over the city, the Mosquitos saw the brilliant illuminating flares drop above them, causing each building to be picked out in the piercing light. Ken Oatley remembers being in the second aircraft to drop markers. As they dived, they could clearly make out the sports field of the Ostragehege Stadium, where they deposited their glowing red target indicator. Pulling up, they narrowly missed the cathedral spire, before circling the city. Unlike on other German raids, no guns fired on them, and the Mosquito crews had some minutes to wait before they saw the first bombs dropping. By this point in the war, such raids had become commonplace, and the crews of 627 Squadron had little reason to expect the controversy that would subsequently rage over the targeting of Dresden. Much of the furore was over a falsified casualty figure of 200,000, a speculation that was accepted for many years until deeper analysis in 2010 produced a more definitive total of 22,770-25,000. Nevertheless, with the raid’s close proximity to the end of the war, Dresden will remain a much-debated topic in regard to the morality of Allied operations.
At war’s end, 627 Squadron was quietly disbanded. Apart from those who served, many forgot about the death-defying low-level dives onto heavily defended enemy targets. It seems that this most daring of enterprises, involving incredible skill and bravery, has been overlooked. Had it been that popular author Paul Brickhill (whose 1951 non-fiction book The Dam Busters did much to publicise the exploits of 617 Squadron) had written about them in the 1950s, the squadron may well have become household names. It is hoped that my new book, Mosquito Men, will go some way towards redressing the balance, and will present 627 Squadron’s fascinating story to new generations of readers.
David Price’s early interest in aviation was inspired by days exploring deserted RAF airfields in his native Cumbria. He has written for many newspapers and magazines on military aviation and is the author of A Bomber Crew Mystery: the forgotten heroes of 388th Bombardment Group and The Crew, the story of an Avro Lancaster crew during the Second World War. His latest book is Mosquito Men: the elite Pathfinders of 627 Squadron (Head of Zeus, £25 hardback).