‘La France, on ne la voit pas, on la sent’
‘You can’t see France but you can feel it’
(words of a French pilot in the RAF on a night bombing mission over Normandy in June 1944)
Halifax bomber taking off from Elvington, 5th June 1944.
On the 5th of June 1944, the Allied Armies were ready to go into action and take part in a massive landing on the beaches of Normandy. So that this operation could be done in the best possible conditions, it was necessary to annihilate the German defences that were there.
During the night of June 5th to June 6th, 1944, Bomber Command’s effort was huge. 1,012 aircraft were used, with 946 taking care of the batteries which were located all along the concerned beaches.
These were Fontenay, Houlgate, La Pernelle, Longues-sur-Mer, Maisy, Merville-Franceville-Place, Mont-Fleury near Arromanches, Pointe du Hoc, Ouisterham and Saint-Martin-de-Vareville on which 5,000 tons of bombs were released.
No. 346 Squadron and No. 347 Squadron were the only French heavy bomber squadrons in the RAF during the Second World War. They were based at RAF Elvington, York, now site of the Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Air Forces Memorial, from June 1944 until October 1945.
No.346 ‘Guyenne’ Squadron was pronounced operational on 1 June 1944. One of its first mission was to attack the Maisy positions during the night of 5 June, prior to the D-Day invasion. This site is now better known as ‘Omaha Beach’.
THE BATTLE OF NORMANDY, PREPARING FOR D-DAY.
12 Halifaxes, loaded with bombs, took off from Elvington at one minute intervals in the fog and the drizzle. They joined their set trajectory to integrate the ‘Stream’, this mass of up to 1,000 aircraft in close formation where each plane must remain in its place and absolutely follow its target.
No. 346 squadrons aircrew were not informed of the plans for D-Day so could not grasp the importance of this raid until their return to Elvington and hearing the news about the landings. As they flew back to base and caught sight of the huge advancing armada of allied vessels approaching the Normandy coast, they were filled with hope once again that victory would prevail and Europe could be freed.
Captain Plagnard’s crew of the M for Mike on 5th June 1944
From left to right (back row): Sgt Iche, upper gunner; Sgt Allain, rear gunner; S/C Hiblot, engineer; Sgt. Hervelin, radio; (front row) S/Lt Noel, bomb aimer; Cpt Plagnard, navigator; Adj. Vantroyer, pilot.
In his book ‘Night Pilot’ Captain Jean Calmel wrote the following account of the Maisy attack:
“5th June, Elvington Air Base, York … That evening at Elvington base no one knew for certain of this operation – at least among the crews. Admittedly, at the general briefing the particular precautions which were taken for our flight over England rather surprised us. The intelligence officer had warned us that 50 square miles of the coast would be fringed with searchlights rising vertically half a mile apart. We were absolutely forbidden to enter this square.
As we learnt later, this was the zone from which aircraft and gliders carrying parachutists took off. Moreover, the target that night was a special one. We were given orders to bombard a heavy German battery installed at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula.
One hundred and fifty bombers were especially detailed for this raid. The disparity between the means and the apparent end were obvious.
Three minutes after I was airborne, I lost sight of the ground and its red lights, after seeing nothing but stars and clouds. I bombed at the hour prescribed, by the pink gleam of the markers which could be seen through a thin layer of stratus.
The battery was silenced.
We easily understood the next day when we learnt that this battery, silenced by our mass raid, had allowed the fleet to sail close in to the shore.’
Jean Calmel, D.F.C., Légion d’Honneur.
Museum Director Barbara George comments: “One may find it surprising that Bomber Command included the French squadrons on the missions roll to France, their own country. In fact, Bomber Command gave the French, unlike the others, the option not to bomb if they were certain that civilians could be hit during the bombing. This information was provided by French resistance networks. As the French aircrews were effectively bombing their own homeland, it can only be speculated the torment that they underwent on those first operations. Their desire to liberate France would have carried them and mercifully Guyenne Squadron escaped casualties on these first missions.”
As their operations increase, No.346 Squadron was joined by No.347 Squadron at Elvington on 12th June 1944.
No.347 ‘Tunisie’ Squadron, Elvington, 1944.
Until 20th July 1944, the targets were in France. Each time French crew were tormented to think that they were bombing their own country occupied by the Germans. As the bombing was independent, each crew had the responsibility for the few tons which it launched into space. The bomb-aimer was given orders that if he had the least doubt as to the whereabouts of the target he was not to release them. In this event he would have to jettison his bombs in the sea. These imperative regulations had been worked out by the British themselves and applied to all friendly territory occupied by the Germans. The Allied crew never disobeyed these regulations.
Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Air Forces Memorial, 5th June 2021.