REVIEW BY COLIN POMEROY
Despite the title of this book, there is little detail about the Mosquito’s development or performance within its pages. But that is the only disappointment, for Rowland White’s new history of the ‘wooden wonder’ is otherwise an excellent one. It tells the story of the aircraft’s leading role alongside the brave men and women of the Danish resistance movement and the British espionage services ahead of Operation Carthage, the bombing of the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, in March 1945.
The build-up to that ‘most extraordinary mission’ is an extensive one, however, with the author beginning his story in early 1943, at the time of the successful Mosquito attack on the Burmeister and Wain diesel-engine factory in Copenhagen. He also provides thrilling accounts of the strike on Schott optical works at Mainz, and Operation Jericho, the pinpoint bombing on Amiens Prison in early 1944.
The next raid occurred on 31 October that year, when 25 Mosquitos attacked Aarhus University, used by the Gestapo and SS as a headquarters. This raid had come at the urgent request of the Danish resistance, who were being tortured and murdered by their occupiers. The Gestapo and SS had become highly skilled at penetrating the organisation, and the attack on the university was primarily intended to destroy the Nazi records of resistance personnel. It was a success, and gave the resistance some much needed breathing space.
Attention soon turned to the Danish capital, and the Gestapo headquarters located in the Shellhus building in the centre of Copenhagen. Aware that a raid was likely, the Germans cruelly built an extra floor on the roof of the Shellhus in which resistance prisoners would form a human shield against aerial bombardment.
Despite the success at Aarhus and elsewhere in Denmark, Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry, commander of No 2 Group, Bomber Command, was reluctant to approve Operation Carthage, as it came to be known, fearing collateral damage, but pleas from the resistance to ‘help us irrespective of costs’ eventually led to action.
The book steps up a gear as preparations get under way, with vivid descriptions of the training of the attack squadrons, which consisted of 18 FB VI attack and two B IV photographic reconnaissance Mosquitos, with 30 RAF Mustang fighters as top cover.
Transit at a very low altitude across the North Sea to Jutland proved challenging, as did the strong winds that raised sea spray up to the level of the speeding Mosquitos, smearing their windscreens. Nevertheless, landfall was made, and the aircraft manoeuvred to commence their bombing runs. Embry, breaking all protocol, flew with the attackers, taking the nom de plume of Wing Commander Smith.
But disaster struck when one of the first wave hit a tall lamp mast and crashed a short distance from Shellhus, leading to tragedy, for this blazing wreckage lured some of the aircraft of the later waves into bombing this site, which was right next to the French-teaching Institut Jeanne d’Arc school.
The attack on the primary target was a complete success, but was tainted by the tragic loss of life at the school, where 86 children and 18 adults (many of them nuns) were killed. Some imprisoned resistance fighters managed to flee the burning Shellhus, although the tragic circumstances of the school are a shocking reminder of the cost of the mission that Embry himself had feared.
White concludes his narrative by looking at the activities of the Danish resistance after Carthage and the post-war lives of some of the resistance fighters. He writes throughout in a very emotive way, but particularly so at the end, with the story of the child survivors from the school who returned to the site in 2021. Despite the loss of their friends and teachers, they thought of the Mosquito crews as heroes.
Mosquito: the RAF’s legendary wooden wonder and its most extraordinary mission, Rowland White, Bantam Press, hbk (£20), ISBN 978-1787634534