On 16 December 1944, German Panzers spearheaded a surprise attack in the Ardennes that smashed through thinly held Allied lines, catching the US and Allied commanders completely off-guard.
The Germans not only had the element of surprise but also the weather on their side. Pathfinder crews from 582 Squadron (Little Staughton) and 35 Squadron (Graveley) were briefed to attack the railway marshalling yards in the Gremberg district of Cologne – yards that were critical to the German supply route – only to have their attack postponed.
But on 23 December, at the third time of asking and despite atrocious weather in the UK, the decision was finally made to go.
Many of those taking part were experienced bomber boys. Arguably the most experienced of all was Squadron Leader Bob Palmer, DFC & Bar, a Mosquito pilot with 109 Squadron (also based at Little Staughton), who’d flown his first sortie way back in September 1940, and now had a staggering 109 operations under his belt. The attack on Cologne/Gremberg, which he was to lead, would be his 110th.
The attack was to involve only a small number of aircraft in three formations, each led by a Lancaster equipped with ‘Oboe’. Each formation was also accompanied by an Oboe Mosquito (from 109 and 105 Squadrons) to be held in reserve in case the equipment should fail in the lead aircraft. Oboe was prone to technical problems, hence the need for a reserve Mosquito.
Oboe enabled the bombers to attack enemy targets even when that target was completely obscured by cloud. In a ‘Heavy Oboe’ attack, the device was installed in a heavy bomber, and the equipment came with an additional ‘crew’: the regular Lancaster crew was supplemented by a specialist Oboe pilot and navigator who literally swapped seats with their hosts for the bombing run.
The principal drawback to Oboe was that it required the pilot to fly straight and level for 10 minutes in order to maintain the necessary signal for when to release the bombs, and on whose lead the rest of the formation would also attack in salvo. This made the aircraft very vulnerable to attack.
For the attack on Cologne/Gremberg, the Master Bomber Bob Palmer and his navigator Flight Lieutenant George Russell left behind their usual Mosquito to ride shotgun with the Lancaster crew of Flight Lieutenant Owen Milne of 582 Squadron.
The reserve Mosquito in the lead formation was flown by Flight Lieutenant Eric Carpenter.
STRAIGHT AND LEVEL
The first aircraft was away by 10.27 hrs and the last aircraft fifteen minutes later. As the aircraft climbed to their first rendezvous point, two aircraft from 35 Squadron collided with one another in the cloud, killing all onboard. It was an ominous sign. And it got worse. Rather than the thick cloud they had been promised over the target, the three formations arrived to find a brilliant clear blue sky.
There was confusion amongst the crews as to whether to break formation and bomb individually or carry on and bomb on their leader as they had been briefed.
Bob Palmer in the lead aircraft took over control of the aircraft for the Oboe run; his navigator George Russell listened to the Oboe signal for the release point.
Heavy, predicted flak began to pepper the sky. Not a single aircraft in the first formation escaped undamaged. And then a squadron of German fighters appeared on the scene, led by one of Germany’s greatest ‘Experten’, Anton Hackl.
RAF Mustangs from 19, 65 and 122 Squadrons fought hard to keep the bomber boys safe, but despite their best efforts, it was still a slaughter.
With his aircraft hit and on fire, Bob Palmer courageously, flew on, believing that if he broke formation, the whole attack would have to be abandoned. As the signal for release arrived, he dropped his bombs, and almost immediately the aircraft fell into a spin, out of control. Only one of the crew of seven, Flight Sergeant Russ Yeulett, survived.
Palmer later received the Victoria Cross for displaying ‘heroic endeavour beyond praise’. The Oboe reports studied after the attack showed that at the point Palmer was shot down, his aircraft was tracking with absolute accuracy towards the target. Such precision was rarely achieved on a practice run, let alone on an actual raid with the aircraft under constant attack.
Several other aircraft and aircrew were also shot down.
The reserve Oboe Mosquito, with Eric Carpenter at the controls, was lost.
Flight Lieutenant Walt Reif, an American whose father was born in Germany, desperately dodged and weaved but was mortally hit, only the two gunners – Bob Pearce and Jack Maclennan – making it out alive.
The Lancaster of Flight Lieutenant Reg Hockley DFM was also hit and the order given to bail out. The aircraft broke into pieces, trapping two of the crew in a portion of the fuselage that fell to earth with no possible hope of survival for those inside. And yet astonishingly they did.
Flight Lieutenant Peter Thomas withstood a series of fighter attacks, but, with his aircraft ablaze, was obliged to give the order to bail out. Four of his crew made it out and survived. Thomas stayed at the controls with one of the wounded gunners, Warrant Officer ‘Tex’ Campbell. Neither made it home.
The Lancaster of Australian Flying Officer Robert Terpening DFC was not only hit by flak, but also set upon by fighters. Spirited resistance from Terpening’s gunners gave him sufficient time to reach Allied lines and safety.
Others fought through and made it back to base, among them another future VC, the South African Captain Edwin Swales. He fought a running battle lasting 15 minutes but lived to tell the tale.
The raid succeeded in causing considerable damage to the marshalling yards but eight aircraft lost out of an attacking force of 30 was a terrible price to pay.
Adapted from his book: Heroic Endeavour. The Remarkable Story of One Pathfinder Force Attack, a Victoria Cross and 206 Brave Men