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Old 05-03-2010, 04:50 PM
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From: Johnny Johnson, "Wing Leader", 1956

"We had been in Normandy well over three weeks, but the German bastion at Caen still held firm and prevented our ground forces from breaking out into the open country south of the city. Our fighter-bombers and light bombers of the Second Tactical Air Force had attacked enemy strongpoints on the outskirts of Caen many times, but the well-disciplined, tough German troops continued to put up a most stubborn and effective resistance. Early in July it was decided, despite some stern opposition in high quarters, to reduce enemy ground opposition by saturating them with a heavy attack by Lancasters of Bomber Command. Would the fiasco of Cassino in Italy, when the bombing attacks had created impassable obstacles to our own advance, be repeated at Caen? Was not the condemnation to death of many innocent French civilians unnecessary and a basic contradiction of the very principles we fought for? Would not the heavy bombers be more suitably employed in their strategic role of reducing the industrial might of Germany? Despite the various military and moral considerations, and the conflict of opinion amongst our most experienced air commanders, the decision was made to attack Caen.

Late one fine July evening, as the sun dropped to the western horizon, the attack began. Although Spitfires provided a target-cover force for the hundreds of Lancasters and Halifaxes, our presence was un necessary, for the Luftwaffe did not react to the attack. As the bombers made their run-in from the sea, I positioned my Spitfire to the west of the town so that I could watch the progress of the attack from a down-sun position. Our own ground troops had been withdrawn to a line some distance from the target area so that they would be in little danger of bombs which fell short of the targets. We had been told that all the targets were contained in an area approximately two miles in length and just short of a mile in depth. But well before the smoke and debris from the first bombs which hung over Caen in the calm evening sky had obstructed the scene from our view, it was quite apparent that a number of bombs had fallen well outside the target area. As I watched the terrible destruction wrought on this French city I could not help but wonder whether we were using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We were all aware of the military necessity to break the enemy at Caen so that our ground troops could eventually deploy into open country. But we were not so sure that this object could only be achieved by the wholesale destruction of Caen and the death of a great number of its inhabitants. Some of the bombs were fused to explode up to six hours after the attack, so that there would not be too large a time-lag before the ground forces went in early the next morning. Flying low on the fringe of the attack, I distinctly saw a German tank thrown into the air, like a child's toy, and turning over and over before it fell to the ground.

Instead of turning to the north to set course for England after dropping its load, one of the Lancasters came down in a fairly steep dive towards the strongly defended enemy-held territory south of the city. I watched this manoeuvre in some amazement as the Lancaster would soon find itself a solitary target for the German flak. Perhaps the aircraft had had its controls shot away or damaged and could only fly in this fashion. But wait, the bomber has now levelled out and is still flying due south only a few feet above the main Caen-Falaise road. Amazed, I watch its antics. What the Hell is the pilot up to? I soon discover the object of the low-level flight. This road, which is one of the enemy's main supply routes, is packed here and there with stationary tanks, armoured cars and vehicles. As it sweeps down the road, both front and rear turrets of the bomber are in action and the gunners are firing long bursts into the enemy vehicles. There is a considerable amount of light flak, but the pilot obviously scorns this small stuff, since he is accustomed to a nightly barrage of heavy flak over the industrial cities of Germany. For him this affair is a bit of a lark, and like a schoolboy away from the vigilance of his prefect he is making the most of his freedom. Now the Lancaster carries out a slow wide turn to re-trace its flight northwards to Caen. Majestically, it ploughs along over the straight road with rear and front guns blazing away. Enemy drivers and crews abandon their vehicles as the Lancaster pounds along and dive for the shelter of the hedgerows. But what is this? Another Lancaster has appeared on the scene and is carrying out similar tactics. The first Lancaster is flying north. The second is steaming south. Both are over the centre of the highway and both avoid each other with a careful little swerve. Speechless, I watch the role of fighter-bomber being carried out, and most effectively, by the four-engined heavies. But now it is all over. The original glamour boy has climbed away to the north for his homeward journey and the second is pulling up from his strafing run. I fly alongside the Lancaster as it settles down for the flight back to Lincolnshire and wave to the gay adventurers inside. We have seen two bomber missions this evening which will never be recorded in any official log! Long after the war I discovered that the pilot of the first bomber was an ex-bricklayer from Scotland called 'Jock' Shaw. At the time of my story he was the proud captain of his own Lancaster, and was to win the D.F.C. and bar. Later he served as my adjutant.

Two days after the bomber attack, Caen was in British hands. We decided to drive there and see the results of the bombardment at close quarters. The streets were still choked with rubble and we had the greatest difficulty in manoeuvring the versatile jeep past blocks of stone and gaping craters. We had been told that the original plan to send an armoured column through Caen on the morning following the attack had to be abandoned. We could fully understand the-reason. Bulldozers struggled to clear the blocked roads, and we had to stop the jeep and continue our journey on foot. Here and there fires still raged: pathetic groups of silent French folk struggled with the debris in a forlorn attempt to find the bodies of some of their friends and relatives. A sickening stench of death pervaded, and the people to whom we spoke said that few Germans were killed as there were no enemy positions in the bombed area. We had seen the destruction wrought by the Luftwaffe on London, Sheffield, Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester; but those scenes paled when compared to the magnitude of this disaster. We thought that the French had been made to suffer without sufficient justification. We cut short our visit, made our way back to the nearby beach, where we lay in the sunshine and swam in the stained waters in an endeavour to forget the broken bodies, the shattered homes and the brooding despair which lay heavily on Caen."


"Breakthrough! Finally the beachhead burst at its seams, and the Americans broke through to the west, followed later by the British and Polish forces who were up against the main German armoured divisions at Caen.

What are one's remembered impressions of this history-making breakout? Hundreds of burning vehicles that we had strafed and set on fire in the famous Falaise gap? Red Crosses tied across lifeless German tanks? The group of arrogant German soldiers sitting outside on the farmhouse steps, playing cards as their trucks burnt? I stopped their game with a few hundred rounds of bullets, and their arrogance disappeared rapidly. Wildly waving peasant children welcoming the conquerors little knowing what it was all about?

Probably as pilots we saw more than most but what we did see wasn't very attractive. Then I met the man who will haunt me until my dying day.

Including ground-strafing, dive bombing and air-to-air fights, I had probably by now killed several hundred people, but from the air it was completely impersonal and made no mental impact. This man was different.

I was out on another "cannon test" which was the usual thinly veiled excuse to look for trouble. None of the aircraft in the air had the slightest smell of the Luftwaffe, so I confined my searchings to objects on the ground many miles behind the enemy front. Suddenly I saw him!

His motorbike had caused a small cloud of dust to arise, giving away his position. Like a kestrel hawk pouncing, I wheeled my Spitfire and streaked towards the ground.

By now my man had stopped on the corner of a hairpin bend, and as the range closed rapidly, I guessed he was studying a map. His military camouflaged bike and his grey-green uniform spelt him out as a despatch rider, and therefore a legitimate military target. As I placed the orange reflected dot of my gunsight on the centre of his body, he looked up straight at me, and knew the moment of truth had arrived.

As I stabbed the gun button he threw up his left arm as if to shield his face from the impact. I cursed him with all my soul for making such a pathetic human gesture, and loathed myself as I saw man and bike disappear in a torrent of bullets.

I returned straight to base and found it difficult to talk to anyone for several days.

I can still see his face and the raised arm."

Wing Commander Geoffrey Page, DSO, OBE, DFC and Bar, "Shot Down in Flames", Grub Street reprint 1999, pp.149-150.
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