Operation Bellicose

This was the British first ‘shuttle bombing’ raid by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command (20/25 June 1943).

The outward leg of the operation on 20/21 June involved an attack by 60 Avro Lancaster aircraft (four ‘Pathfinder’ machines of Air Vice Marshal D. C. T. Bennett’s No. 8 Group and 56 heavy bombers of Air Vice Marshal the Hon. R. A. Cochrane’s No. 5 Group) against the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen, on the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance). This factory made ‘Würzburg’ radar equipment, which was a key element in the German night-fighter interception boxes through which Bomber Command’s aircraft had to fly every time they attacked targets in Germany.

This was a special raid with interesting and novel tactics. Like the recent ‘Dams Raid’ undertaken in ‘Chastise’, the attack was to be controlled by the pilot of one of the Lancaster bombers, a feature later be known as the ‘master bomber’ technique. The plan was formulated by No. 5 Group, which provided the master bomber (Group Captain L. C. Slee) and nearly all of the aircraft involved, although the Pathfinder Force despatched four Lancaster aircraft of No. 97 Squadron. After his aeroplane had developed engine trouble, Slee had to hand over to his deputy, Wing Commander G. L. Gomm of No. 467 Squadron.

Like that recently made against the Le Creusot works, the attack was intended to be carried out from 5,000 to 10,000 ft (1525 to 3050 m) in bright moonlight, but the Flak and searchlight defences were very active and Gomm ordered the bombing force to climb another 5,000 ft (1525 m). The wind at the new altitude was stronger than anticipated, and this caused difficulties. The bombing was undertaken in two parts. The first bombs were aimed at target indicators dropped by one of the Pathfinder aircraft. The second phase was a ‘time-and-distance’ bombing run from a point on the shores of the lake to the estimated position of the factory. This was a technique which No. 5 Group was developing.

Subsequent reconnaissance showed that nearly 10% of the bombs hit the small factory and that much damage was caused there, nearby factories were also hit, and 44 people are known to have been killed in Friedrichshafen.

The bomber force now confused the German night-fighters waiting for their return over France by flying on in the first shuttle raid to North Africa. No Lancaster bombers were lost.

On 24/25 June 52 of the Lancaster bombers of the force which had attacked Friedrichshafen three nights earlier returned from North Africa, the other eight remaining for repairs, bombed the Italian naval base at La Spezia, and then completed their flight to England without loss. Bomber Command claimed damage to an armaments store and an oil depot at La Spezia.