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VALOUR AT THE THIRD ATTEMPT


Low-Level Bomber Command: 1941

Twice-aborted amid rancorous


recriminations, Operation Wreckage
was one of the most audacious
daylight bombing missions of the
Second World War and paved
the way to a bloody summer
of low-level raids 75 years
ago. Steve Snelling
charts the story of the
costly but heroic
attack on Bremen.

BELOW:
The Bremen
raid signalled
the start of
a bloody
summer of
daring daylight
attacks by
2 Groups
Blenheim
squadrons
which Churchill
compared to
the Charge
of the Light
Brigade.

HE FOG rose up like a


shroud to swallow the
formation of low-flying
bombers. But, in keeping with
their orders, the 15 Blenheim
bombers pressed on blindly above
an invisible North Sea.
Leading the way, Wing
Commander Hughie Edwards soon
lost sight of all but his nearest wing
men. And even those he could
barely see through the murk.
Then, after almost an hours flying
on instruments alone, the sky suddenly

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cleared to reveal the outline of the


German coast. Edwards searched in vain
for the rest of his attack force. But to his
astonishment all he could see were the
two aircraft that had stayed with him
the whole way from Swanton Morley.
It was a depressing moment.
Only a few hours earlier, he had
briefed his crews in characteristically
forthright fashion, impressing upon
them the importance of getting
through to the target.
The question now was whether to
press on regardless in what could only

alo

be a futile gesture or to abort in the hope


of trying again. Edwards put off the
decision as long as he dared. We circled
around for five minutes, he wrote, then,
because it was intended to be a raid
of at least full squadron strength, I sadly
decided to return to base.
For the second time in three days
the RAFs attempt to carry out a lowlevel strike against the German port of
Bremen had been thwarted by bad luck
and dodgy navigation.
It was the early morning of 30
June 1941 and a frustrated Edwards

T h ir d
lour Attempt
at the

headed back to face the music from


Air Officer Commanding 2 Group,
Air Vice-Marshal Donald Stevenson,
a man hardly noted for his forgiving
nature.

PRIMARY OBJECTIVE

Code-named Operation Wreckage,


the attack on Bremen represented
the first in a series of hazardous and
politically-motivated bombing raids
promised by Churchill in the wake
of Hitlers invasion of the Soviet
Union launched eight days earlier.

In a pledge of solidarity to his new


ally, the Prime Minister declared:
We shall bomb Germany by day as
well as by night in ever-increasing
measure, casting upon them, month
by month, a heavier discharge of
bombs.
It was a signal for an intensive and
costly daylight bombing campaign
waged by the Blenheim crews of
2 Group against some of the most
heavily defended targets in western
Europe - with Bremen first on the list
of targets.

Raiding the north German port was


a daunting prospect. It meant a near
1,000-mile round trip and involved
having to fly between the fortress of
Heligoland and a necklace of islands
bristling with fighter bases, radar
stations and anti-aircraft batteries.
Having negotiated these,
aircrews faced a 60-mile journey
over enemy territory culminating
in a bombing run through a ring
of heavy anti-aircraft guns and
light flak batteries and a veritable
forest of barrage balloons.

BACKGROUND:
Wing
Commander
Hughie Idwal
Edwards.

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VALOUR AT THE THIRD ATTEMPT


Low-Level Bomber Command: 1941

A TOUGH ONE

ABOVE:
Edwards
gained his
first gallantry
award during
hazardous
anti-shipping
operations
carried out by
the Blenheims
of 2 Group.
BELOW:
Aviation artist
Frank Woottons
evocative
painting
shows Hughie
Edwards
Bremen lead
aircraft, GB-D
6028, as part
of the appeal
to restore a
Blenheim Mark
IV to flying
condition in the
1980s.

Bremen marked the deepest


penetration of the Reich attempted by
the lightly armed bombers of 2 Group
and far and away their most challenging
operation of the war thus far.
Designed as a hit and run raid,
without the protection of fighters, the
objectives were two-fold: to strike a
sudden and unexpected blow against a
valuable military target and to trigger
a round-the-clock aerial offensive that
would divert much-needed resources
away from the Eastern Front.
Instructions issued on 27 June
emphasised the importance of

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hitting the enemy hard while he has


his hands full with the object of
causing him to divide his air forces.
To that end the 18 crews committed
to a roof-top attack in broad daylight
on one of Germanys key strategic
ports were left in no doubt about
their priorities.
Even without cloud cover, the
attack was not to be abandoned.
The orders stated: Bremen is the
primary objective, and must be
attacked and The attacking aircraft
are NOT to deviate from this
objective

Operation Wreckage was scheduled


for 28 June under the direction of
Wing Commander Laurence Petley
of 107 Squadron. His attacking force
composed nine Blenheims from
his own squadron, based at Great
Massingham, and nine from Hughie
Edwards 105 Squadron, a few miles
away at Swanton Morley.
News of the target had come as a
shock even to crews well-versed in
near suicidal sorties against enemy
shipping and as live bait for fighter
sweeps across the Channel.
No attempt was made to disguise the
hazards of a mission that would test to
the limit the endurance of the aircraft
as well as the courage of the crews.
Having been briefed on the strikes
significance, the 105 crews were
addressed by Edwards.
Not much given to pulling his
punches, he bluntly told them it was
going to be a tough one and that they
would need a lot of luck if they were
all to get back in one piece.
Squadron Leader Anthony Scott
spent the night before the raid writing
a goodbye letter to his family and such
was the anxiety felt by some that the
unit adjutant, Flight Lieutenant George
Lovett-Campbell, felt moved to join
one of the crews as an unauthorised
passenger. Ill come with you,
he said and, in an attempt
to calm fears, added:
nothing will
happen to us.

ABOVE: Squadron Leader


Anthony Scott out-lived the
Bremen raid by just three days.
His Blenheim was shot down
during an attack on enemy
shipping off The Hague on July 7,
1941. There were no survivors.

suffered a badly injured right leg that


left him with a pronounced limp and
a battle for fitness that would delay his
entry into the war by 17 months.
Resuming flying duties only in
February 1941, he was promoted to
command 105 Squadron in May and
seemed determined to make up for lost
time. A succession of perilous low-level
shipping strikes was climaxed on 15
June by a daring attack on a 4,000-ton
coaster off The Hague.

As it was, the first attempt proved


a damp squib. Led part of the way
by Flying Officer Bill Edrich, the
Middlesex and England cricketer, the
formation headed across the North Sea
in near perfect conditions with almost
total cloud cover, a sea mist, some light
rain and the slightest of breezes.
Though three aircraft were forced
to abort with mechanical troubles,
the remainder emerged intact into a
clear sky near the German coast only
to come under fire from an enemy
convoy spread out beneath them.
No damage was done, but the
element of surprise had gone. Under
the impression that the attack was
supposed to take the enemy unawares,
Petley abandoned the mission.
The crews returned without loss,

ABOVE:
105 Squadron
with a hayrick
for a backdrop
at Swanton
Morley shortly
after Operation
Wreckage in July
1941.
BELOW:
Wing
Commander
Hughie Idwal
Edwards.

only for Petley to be sacked as raid


leader. With Edwards installed as his
replacement, the attack was hastily
re-scheduled for two days later,
with aircraft from Watton-based 21
Squadron taking the places of those
from 107 Squadron.

NO WAY - ITS MINE

Forceful by nature, and highly


combative, Hughie Edwards was the
archetypal press on leader. A 26-yearold Western Australian of Welsh stock,
he was a pre-war RAF recruit whose
combat experience had been limited by
a near-fatal crash.
Forced to bale-out from a crashing
aircraft, he was very nearly dragged to
his death when his parachute snagged
the planes radio mast. As it was, he
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VALOUR AT THE THIRD ATTEMPT


Low-Level Bomber Command: 1941

But neither Sinclairs exhortation nor


Edwards fighting spirit could counter
the forces of nature. The sea fog which
saw his formation scattered across the
North Sea left the Australian with little
option but to abort the mission for a
second time.
Unlike the first attempt, the raid was
not a complete failure. Emerging alone
from the mist over the East Frisian
Islands, Squadron Leader Scott attacked
Terschelling, bombing a radio station,
a harbour jetty and a merchant ship
which he claimed destroyed. Two
other 105 Blenheims found other
targets of opportunity and one 107
crew had trumped them all by making
a solo strike on Bremen.
Attacking from 50 feet in poor
visibility, Flight Lieutenant Howard
Waples bombed a factory building
and timber-yard before being chased

ABOVE:
Sergeant Ron
Scott, second
from the right,
with his crew
members Sgt
Stuart Bastin,
wireless
operator/ air
gunner, left,
and Sgt Walter
Healy, observer,
right, together
with another
105 Squadron
pilot Sgt Arthur
Piers. Scotts
crew were killed
during an antishipping strike
from Malta
on August 26,
1941.

Braving a hail of defensive fire, he


swept over the ship at mast-height,
machine-gunning the decks before
releasing his bombs. The result was a
severely damaged coaster and a muchenhanced reputation, not to mention
a DFC gazetted on the day following
the second failed attempt to carry out
Operation Wreckage.
Hours earlier, the crews of 21
Squadron heard a pep talk by Group
Captain Laurence Sinclair GC DSO.
Gentlemen he began, tonight, and
at this very moment, we are bombing
Bremen. We want to prove to the
Germans we can bomb them 24 hours
a day, and you, gentlemen, will attack
in daylight soon after the heavies have
left. No excuse will be tolerated. You
must get to the target.

RIGHT:
The Bremen
raid featured
on the front
and back
cover of The
Victor comic
on August 4,
1962

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into cloud by a couple of Me109s.


Three more fighters shot pieces off his
Blenheim on the way back, but Waples
held on for a crash-landing at Marham.
Brave effort though it was, it could
not deflect the ire of 2 Groups
intemperate commander. While
accounts vary, it seems clear that
Edwards came within an ace of
suffering the same fate as Petley.
The plain-speaking Australian,
however, refused to go quietly. When
it was suggested he might stand down
for the third attempt in favour of the
commanding officer of 21 Squadron,
Edwards responded in what he called
typical Australian fashion with a firm:
No way - its mine!

EVERY MAN FOR


HIMSELF

Planning for the third attempt began


immediately. Originally scheduled for 2
July, the troubled Operation Wreckage
was twice postponed due to bad
weather, before being set for 4 July.
Once again, the composition of the
bomber force was changed. Of the 15
Blenheims slated for the mission, nine
were from Edwards 105 Squadron,
with six of the crews having taking
part in the previous two efforts. The
remaining six aircraft came from Wing
Commander Petleys 107 Squadron,
which had lost two aircraft flying a
diversionary op for the second attempt.
Following the past failures, and a
fraught few days spent waiting for
the green light, Edwards kept his
briefing short for what would be his
36th operational sortie. The only
instruction I gave were the tactics of
the route, and what we were to do at
Bremen he later recalled.
We would fly in fairly close
formation to the outskirts of Bremen,
then spread out in line-abreast with
adequate spacing in order not to
present a compact target for the flak
gunners, and to give Bremen as much
cover damage as possible. Thereafter,
it was to be every man for himself for
those fortunate enough to get away
from the target.
In line with the original orders,
the attack was to be concentrated in
time, with a maximum of 10 minutes
between the arrival of the first aircraft
over the target and the departure of
the last, and the aiming point being the
built up area between the main railway
station and the docks.
At 0521 on 4 July the waiting and the
talking ended at Swanton Morley as
nine Blenheims led by Edwards rushed

across the grass and roared skywards


at the start of their 2-hour flight to
Bremen, some 475 miles away.
By the standards of later raids,
their payloads were modest: each
aircraft carried just four 250lb
bombs and 25 incendiaries. The
damage inflicted would be more
psychological than physical.
Flying in three-aircraft vic formation
they joined up with Petleys six aircraft
just off Cromer before Edwards took
them down to 50 feet and headed east,
straight into the rising sun.
So far so good, but
it was not long before
the bad luck which had
dogged the operation
returned. One after
another, three of Petleys Blenheims
turned about and headed home: the
first due to unsynchronised guns, the
second because of pilot sickness and
the third due to mechanical troubles
which left it lagging behind.

ABOVE:
Hughie
Edwards,
second left, in
informal pose
with fellow
105 Squadron
officers at
Swanton
Morley in July
1941.

ABOVE: 107 Squadron at Great


Massingham in June 1941. Among those
featured are: Wing Commander Laurence
Petley, fourth from left seated, who led
the first attempt on Bremen, was sacked
as leader of the second and was killed
on the third attempt; Flight Lieutenant
F Wellburn, sole survivor of the crews
from the four aircraft lost on the mission,
seated far right, and Pilot Officer Bill
Edrich, the England cricketer, who took
part in the first aborted effort, far right
back row.
RIGHT: A remarkable shot of Hughie
Edwards Blenheim GB-D 6028 during
the third and final attempt to carry out
Operation Wreckage on July 4, 1941.

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VALOUR AT THE THIRD ATTEMPT


Low-Level Bomber Command: 1941
RIGHT:
War artist
Reginald Mounts
1943 version
of the low-level
Blenheim raid
on Bremen with
Hughie Edwards
leading the way.
BELOW:
A narrow escape!
Hughie Edwards'
Blenheim
displaying
some of the
flak damage
suffered during
the Bremen raid,
including the
shell strike that
wounded Gerry
Quinn in the
gun turret.

The 12 remaining aircraft pushed


on, but as they neared the German
coast they were spotted four times
in quick succession, the last by three
patrol ships some three miles north of
Wangerooge.
By then, there could be little doubt
as to their destination. However
this time there would be no turning
round. With all hope of surprise
gone, Edwards simply pressed on for
Bremen, just 60 miles away.
Dropping to around 30 feet, the
formation swept across a patchwork
of fields freckled with cattle. People
working in the fields stopped to wave
to us recalled Edwards. The alerted
defences, however, not likely to be so
easily fooled.
Near Heerstedt, the three
following Vics moved up
level with Edwards leading
three, Petleys depleted force
on the left and the 105
crews on the right, spread
across about 1 miles of
air space. A strangely silent
army camp flashed beneath
their wingtips as they
roared towards Bremen.
Passing above, below
and sometimes through a
cordon of telephone and
high-tension cables, they
were confronted by scores

RIGHT: A German officer poses


alongside the remains of a 105
Squadron Blenheim. It is almost
certainly the aircraft piloted by
Flying Officer Michael Lambert
(GB-M 7486) which was last seen
on fire and heading inland.

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of balloons, billowing 500 feet above


the city, and a veritable arsenal of antiaircraft weaponry. Now, as Edwards
had warned, it became a question of
every man for himself.

FLAK WAS TERRIFIC

As the Blenheims jinked between a


forest of lethal balloon cables, they
were met by a storm of fire from guns
sited around the railway station, in
factory yards, perched on rooftops and
in the dockyards.
The heaviest and most intense
barrage came from batteries of 105mm
and 88mm guns near Burger Park.

Within what seemed like seconds, the


12 aircraft became 10 as two of the
107 Squadron Blenheims, including
Petleys, were blasted out of the sky.
Next to go was a 105 Blenheim
piloted by 20-year-old Sergeant
William Mackillop. Set ablaze by a
direct hit in the fuel tank, Mackillop
held on long enough to drop two
bombs before ploughing into a factory.
By then, another 105 aircraft was
streaming flames. Flying Officer
Michael Lamberts Blenheim sheared
off and headed inland, but moments
later crashed into a street and exploded,
killing everyone on board.
In the space of a few devastating
minutes Edwards force had been
reduced by a third, but he was too busy
to notice. The flak was terrific and
frightening he wrote. It was bursting

all around me for 10 minutes at


around 50-100 feet.
Nearly all the remaining eight aircraft
were hit, most of them repeatedly.
Edwards aircraft was hit by a shell
that burst in the rear cockpit, seriously
wounding wireless operator/ air
gunner Sergeant Gerry Quinn in the
knee. There was a distinct smell of
cordite in the air wrote Edwards.
In return, the surviving
Blenheims unleashed their own
barrage as they raced low over the
target area, bombing and machinegunning whatever and whoever lay
in their path.
Among the recorded bomb strikes
were hits on a large factory, a timber
yard, the nearby railway yards and the
docks which Edwards left wreathed
in smoke.

Breaking away in all directions, two


of the aircraft disposed of their last
remaining bombs on railway facilities
and an airfield lined with Junkers 88s
three miles south of the city.
Edwards flew as low as possible over
the heart of Bremen before banking
left to circle the city, at which point he
spotted a stationary train with about
20-30 carriages loaded with logs and
brimming with guns which promptly
opened up on him.
He didnt hesitate. Roaring in to the
attack, he later remarked: I had great
pleasure in using up the ammunition
from my one front gun which silenced
the opposition.
Heading away towards Bremerhaven
and Wilhelmshaven, Edwards made for
the cover of some clouds, but finding
it too patchy to be of any assistance he
dived down to sea level and made his
way back to base, alone.

ABOVE:
The wreckage
of one of
the two 107
Squadron
aircraft lost on
the raid.
LEFT:
The Bremen
raid entry in
105 Squadrons
Operations
Record Book.
A note three
days earlier
mentions Wing
Commander
Edwards
award of the
DFC.

LEFT:
Air Marshal Sir
Richard Peirse:
AOC Bomber
Command
hailed the
Bremen raid as
an outstanding
example of
dash and
initiative.

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VALOUR AT THE THIRD ATTEMPT


Low-Level Bomber Command: 1941
BELOW: In a
continuation
of the daylight
offensive
ushered in by
the Bremen raid,
54 Blenheims
from 2 Group
raided the
power station
at Knapsack
near Cologne
and a nearby
generating plant
on August 12,
1941. These
dramatic pictures
show the assault
on Knapsack.
The Cologne
operation was
the biggest
daylight bombing
attack of the
war so far and
resulted in
the loss of 12
aircraft.
RIGHT: Hughie
Edwards leaving
Buckingham
Palace after his
VC investiture
with his wife Pat
and his mother
in law.

THEM OR US

All eight bombers made it safely home,


the sole-surviving Blenheim of the
107 triumverate touching down at
Great Massingham at 1015, followed
16 minutes later by the first of the 105
contingent at Swanton Morley.
Most, bearing evidence of the fierce
opposition, were peppered with flak
holes: one being forced to land without
brakes and another, its hydraulics
shot up and two wounded on board,
ploughing along the grass on her belly.
Edwards was the last home at 1112,
trailing a length of telegraph wire. As
ground crew moved in to hoist the
injured Quinn out of his turret an
inspection of the aircraft revealed how
close to disaster they had come. As well
as a smashed radio rack, a large chunk
of the port wing had been
shot away and an aileron badly
damaged. Edwards estimated
they had sustained 10-20 direct
hits, most of them on the lower
side of the fuselage between the
wing and the tail-plane. In his

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logbook, he scribbled: Low level attack


BREMEN. Formation 12 a/c leader.
Intense barrage.
At the third time of asking, Operation
Wreckage had been accomplished, but
at a heavy cost. A third of the attacking
force had been shot down and of the
four crews lost, only one man, 107
pilot Flight Lieutenant F Wellburn,
survived as POW.
Among the 12 dead was Irish-born
Warrant Office Sam Magee, 107
Squadrons armaments officer. He had
persuaded his commanding officer to
let him fly with Wellburn as a spare
machine-gunner armed with a Vickers
gas-operated gun which he planned
to fire through the wireless operators
escape hatch before dropping a handheld 40lb anti-

personnel bomb over the target.


Despite the losses, the raid was hailed
a resounding success, as evidenced in
the announcement just 18 days later
of the award of the Victoria Cross to
Hughie Idwal Edwards for the highest
possible standard of gallantry and
determination.
There were also awards of a DFC
and a Bar to the DFM for Edwards
navigator Pilot Officer Ramsay and
wounded wireless operator/ gunner
Gerry Quinn and DFMs for another
105 crew: Sergeants Bill Jackson,
James Purves and William Williams.
Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, AOC
Bomber Command, described the raid
as an outstanding example of dash and
initiative and the man who

BELOW: The Rotterdam harbour


raid carried out by 35 Blenheims
in two waves on July 16, 1941 was
a follow-up to the Bremen raid. A
total of 22 ships, as well as port
installations, were damaged in the
attack at a cost of four aircraft.

came close to removing Edwards from


leadership of the operation went even
further. Air Vice Marshal Stevenson
insisted that the raid, so gallantly
carried out, deep into Germany,
without the support of fighters, will
always rank high in the history of the
Royal Air Force.
What Peirse regarded as a great
contribution to the day offensive
paved the way to further high-profile
and hazardous low-level raids against
Rotterdam harbour (16 July), Colognes
Knapsack power station (12 August)
and the submarine pens at Heligoland
(26 August).
Bremen signalled the start of a bloody
summer for 2 Groups Blenheim crews.
To Winston Churchill their courage
and sacrifice were beyond all praise.
He declared: The charge of the Light
Brigade at Balaclava is eclipsed in

brightness by these almost daily deeds


of fame.
Edwards, who would shortly become
the first airman in the Second World
War to complete the full set of
gallantry awards with a DSO to add to
the VC and DFC earned in the space of
19 days, saw it all rather differently.
Recalling the risks faced and the losses
suffered over Bremen, he insisted it
was simply a case of having to plough
on and hope for the best. He added: I
always tried to be philosophical about
the danger. I knew it was there - it was
them or us - and I was determined to
do my damnedest to see it would not
be us.

MIDDLE LEFT:
Air Chief Marshal
Sir Charles
Portals support
for Edwards VC
recommendation.
ABOVE: Bombs
rain down on the
Knapsack power
station.
LEFT: after a spell
as an instructor,
Hughie Edwards,
left, returned
to operations
in 1942, flying
Mosquitos.

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