Operation Jericho

'Jericho' was a British bombing raid, undertaken at very low altitude, against the Amiens prison in German-occupied France with the object of blasting holes in the prison walls, killing German guards and using shock waves to spring open cell doors, thereby making it possible for French resistance prisoner to escape into the armed of other resistance forces waiting outside the walls to receive them (18 February 1944).

In this raid, which was otherwise known as 'Ramrod No. 564', de Havilland Mosquito twin-engined fighter-bombers breached the walls and prison buildings, and destroyed the guards' barracks. Of the 832 prisoners, 102 were killed by the bombing and another 74 wounded, but 258 managed to escape. The escapees included 79 resistance and political prisoners, of whom two-thirds were later recaptured.

During 1943 Allied and German interest in the Pas de Calais increased as the likelihood of an Allied invasion of northern France became clearer, The Allies wanted information about the Atlantic Wall defences against an invasion; to keep as much as possible of the German forces in France away from Normandy, where the 'Overlord' invasion was actually to be implemented in June 1944; and to undertake the 'Bodyline' and 'Crossbow' operations against V-weapon sites that were beginning to appear in the region in areas such as the English Channel coast, Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Abbeville, Beauvais, Lille, Arras, Cambrai, St Quentin, Soissons, Rheims, Somme, Ardennes and the Marne river region. The Germans wished to maintain a veil of secrecy as tight as possible over their preparations against the Allied invasion and for the V-1 'reprisal' offensive. Oberst Hermann Giskes, head of Abwehr (German military intelligence) in the Low Countries, Belgium and the northern part of France, and the controller of the Englandspiel counter-intelligence campaign of 1942/44. Lucien Pieri, an Amiens shopkeeper, had run a profitable sideline as a Gestapo informer since 1941 and by 1943 had a network of informers which penetrated many of the resistance networks in northern France. The Gestapo and Abwehr were thus able to expose many French, British and US espionage and sabotage networks in northern and north-west France.

Late in October 1943, the capture of Roland Farjon, a senior figure in the Organisation Civile et Militaire resistance, launched a period of mass arrests of personnel of the OCM, which claimed a membership of 100,000 men and women, including some 12,000 in A region (Amiens), Alliance, Sosies and other groups ready for the anticipated Allied invasion. Prisoners taken in the region of Amiens by the Gestapo’s winter 'offensive' of 1943/44 were imprisoned at the local jail where, in December 1943, 12 persons were shot. On 14 February 1944, Raymond Vivant, the sous-préfet of Abbeville and the last OCM leader to remain at liberty was arrested. Earlier in the war, Vivant had established an information-gathering system in which people gleaned information on the defences of the English Channel coast and passed it to village mayors, who delivered it to Vivant for onward transmission by radio to London. With the loss of so many resistance leaders, Vivant had come to know far too much about the invasion and how the resistance was expected to support it, which included a plan to reorganise the resistance and to expand it tenfold. The loss of Vivant brought the OCM and associated networks to the edge of collapse.

The news that Vivant had been captured was smuggled out of Amiens jail and transmitted to England, causing much alarm in the US Office of Strategic Services and the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI.6) that the Germans might uncover his identity and extract information: the resulting damage to Allied plans would have been enormous. News also arrived that two US and one British agent, two of them apparently recent arrivals in France, were being held in Amiens jail. A request for a rescue attempt was made by William J. Donovan, the head of the OSS, to Stewart Menzies, the head of MI.6, who passed it to the British War Cabinet. The Gaullist Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action in London was asked for all its information on Amiens jail, and the escape and evasion specialists of the British MI.9 and its MISX US equivalent, began collecting information for a break-out attempt. At all costs, London and Washington wanted Vivant freed or killed in the attempt.

In France, Maurice Holville obtained a permit to deliver parcels to the jail, and used the opportunity to draw sketches of the prison’s interior layout and to study the routines of the jailers and guards, which he combined with blueprints stolen from the town archives. Another member of the resistance studied the outer walls while apparently loitering nearby with his girlfriend, but the resistance failed to discover the true thickness of the outer wall or that its stone blocks were not mortared. The information thus revealed was recorded and the papers were cut in two: one of the halves was retained by a senior member of the Sosie group. and the other was given to 'Serge' for onward transmission. An armed raid was feasible, as had recently been attempted at St Quentin prison, although this had been bloodily repulsed and security increased in other prisons. 'Serge' was shot and arrested by the Milice Française Vichy French para-military police together with his half of the documents, and the Gestapo then reinforced the guards at Amiens j ail with 80 troops and established a permanently manned machine gun post in the courtyard: this made any ground assault effectively suicidal.]

Air reconnaissance photographs of the jail showed that Building A, the main prison building, was cruciform and 426.5 ft (130 m) long along the north side, 393.67 ft (120 m) on the south side, parallel to the main road, 324.75 ft (99 m) on the east side and 315 ft (96 m) long on the west side. The building was 49.25 ft (15 m) high at the eaves and the ridge of the roof reached a height of 63.33 ft (19 m). No machine gun posts could be seen near the prison. The jail’s grounds were enclosed by a wall 11.15 ft (3.4 m) high and included fenced courtyards to segregate prisoners while exercising. Intelligence reports put the German guards quarters on the short sides of the cruciform, drawn in a sketch received from the resistance. The guards' mess was in the quarters at one end and the guard room in the other. The guards had lunch at 12.00 and many of the prisoners had their mid-day meal at the same time in the central hall of the prison. Beyond the grounds and 245 ft (75 m) to the north was a trench near a road junction. Building B on the photographs appeared to be a small estate of semi-detached two-storey houses with gabled roofs, thought to be private dwellings, and building C was marked as the Hospice St Victor. Any attackers would have to breach the jail’s walls and hit each end of the main building to blow open the gable ends. The shock of the explosions should spring open cell doors without destroying the building and massacring the prisoners.

Some type of rescue attempt was seen as essential in order to reassure the resistance prisoners that they had not been abandoned, to reinforce the survivors of the recent round-ups with escapees, and to recruit ordinary criminal prisoners. The mother of two resistance prisoners got herself arrested and was able to pass on instructions for prisoners to lie down if aircraft appeared overhead and be ready for a break-out attempt. The resistance estimated that the jail held some 700 inmates, but got wrong the number of 'politicals': such prisoners were usually accommodated in the jail’s German section, where about 100 men and women were being held. Normal prisoners were held in the criminal sections, in such overcrowded conditions that in some cells eight prisoners at a time lay down to sleep and the rest stood until it was their turn. The Germans placed some of the 'politicals' in with the normal criminals for lack of room and some criminals were really 'politicals' arrested for criminal offences but had remained incognito. The Gestapo and the Milice Française habitually detained people in the jail for weeks before informing the Vichy French judicial authorities, which also created misleading statistics. The actual prisoner count on 18 February was 832 including 180 held in the German section. Three British, one US and one Belgian agent were held in solitary confinement, together with three Americans captured in civilian clothes and had claimed to be shot-down aircrew: these had been imprisoned as suspected agents rather than prisoners of war. On 19 February, 26 men and three women imprisoned with the criminals and several inmates from the German section were due to be shot by firing squad

At 12.00 each day in the week before the 'Jericho' raid, the resistance had about 100 people outside the prison and about 16 prisoners 'in the know' and therefore ready for an escape attempt; 12 look-outs were placed in houses near the prison and several fluent German speakers were dressed in SS uniforms with markings recognisable to resistance members. Leading up to the 12.00 deadline, 10 gazogene (wood gas) trucks and several cars 'happened' to be in the area, some parked and others passing through; and bicycles and velocycles were located in houses and shops. The resistance had several teams hidden nearby armed with Sten sub-machine guns, pistols and hand grenades, ready to rush through the prison walls as inmates ran out.

Weapons and ammunition had been parachuted to the resistance to arm escapers. Male and female clothing was collected and an interpreter purloined blank identity cards, passes and official stamps. The resistance fabricated false identities for escapers, and safe houses had been readied in Amiens and far beyond in towns like Arras and Abbeville. A French prison warder sympathetic to the resistance agreed to sound out other warders, and a criminal prisoner had drawn a picture of a master key, made a copy and arranged with a guard to try it out, covered in candle black, for minor adjustments, then made duplicated. As a precaution, the prisoner was also asked to break into the administration offices before escaping to destroy the prisoners' records.

The implementation of 'Jericho' was entrusted to No. 140 Wing of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force. Eighteen Mosquito FB.Mk VI fighter-bombers (six of Wing Commander Irving Smith’s No. 487 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, six of Wing Commander Bob Iredale’s No. 464 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force RAAF, and six of Wing Commander Danny Dale’s No 21 Squadron of the RAF). The two Antipodean squadrons were the primary attack force, while the single British squadron was to follow in case the raid failed and had therefore to bomb the jail, killing the prisoners. A photo-reconnaissance Mosquito was provided by the RAF’s Film Production Unit to record the raid.

The raid was provisionally set for 17 February, on which date the first-wave Mosquito fighter-bombers were to arrive over the jail at precisely 12.00 in order to catch the guards at lunch for the second-wave aircraft to bomb them. The resistance was informed of the plan so that it could tip off it people in the jail and to arrange for supporters to be waiting outside the jail.

Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry, the officer commanding No. 2 Group, intended to lead the raid but was overruled and forced to stand down because he was involved in the planning of 'Overlord', whereupon Group Captain Percy Pickard, commander of the RAF Base at Hunsdon, assumed command despite his limited experience of low-level attack. Each Mosquito squadron was to have an escort of one Hawker Typhoon squadron, No. 174 Squadron and No. 245 Squadron from RAF Westhampnett and No. 198 Squadron of the Air Defence of Great Britain (the part of Fighter Command which had not been transferred to the 2nd Tactical Air Force) from RAF Manston.

A plaster of Paris model of the jail was built, based on photographs and other details sent from France. The model showed the prison as it would look from a distance of 4 miles (6.4 km) at a height of 1,500 ft (455 m). An attack at so low an altitude required more than normally careful planning to avoid collisions. The bomb load for each Mosquito was two 500-lb (227-kg) semi-armour piercing bombs for the outer walls and two 500-lb (2227-kg) medium-capacity bombs for the inner walls, all fused for an 11-second delay. The first section of three aircraft of No. 487 Squadron was to attack the eastern wall at 12.00 at low altitude, using the main road as a guide onto the target, the second three to make a north/south attack on the northern wall once the first bombs had exploded. The first section of No. 464 Squadron was to attack the south-eastern end of main building three minutes later and the second section was to attack the north-western end.

The two sections of No. 21 Squadron, the reserve, were ordered to attack the prison 10 minutes later, one from the east and one from the north, if the attack had failed and to bomb the jail with the object of killing the occupants: if this was not required, Pickard was to transmit -Red, Daddy, Red, Daddy' for No. 21 Squadron’s aircraft not to attack but instead to bring home their bombs.

The weather worsened after 10 February, with low cloud and snow across Europe, and Hunsdon was covered by deep snow, under thick cloud and blizzards. On 16 February stringent security precautions were imposed and the camp sealed. Security operatives were based in the camp and others mingled with the public in pubs and cafés, eavesdropped on telephone calls and censored the post. A navigator, somewhat unwisely, called his girlfriend and mentioned 'special circumstances', which led to all the aircrew being berated by Pickard for complacency. Continued thick cloud and blizzards on 17 February forced a postponement. Updated weather forecasts usually arrived in the afternoon and, with the exception of a risk of icing, suggested a weather improvement over France might by the following day.

On 18 February, the 19 crews were woken to find Hunsdon still covered with snow, under low cloud and blizzards but it was impossible to wait any longer. A more favourable weather forecast led to a decision to risk the operation and the 18 Mosquito fighter-bombers and the photo-reconnaissance aeroplane were readied. The aircrews were woken at 06.00, the briefing was at 08.00: each man was identity checked as he entered the briefing room, where a large box on a table contained a model of the target. Pickard, Embry and the wing navigation officer, Edward Sismore, entered the room and Pickard spoke first, explaining the unusual nature of 'Ramrod No. 564'.

The crews were given time to study the route and the model of the prison, and by the middle of the morning the preparations were complete and the Mosquito fighter-bombers were aligned in take-off order. Few of the crews had previous experience of such weather. Pickard was to bring up the rear of the second wave to assess the damage and to call in No. 21 Squadron if need be. If Pickard was unable to send the 'Red, Daddy, Red, Daddy' signal, the crew of the FPU Mosquito would broadcast it instead.

The rendezvous with the Typhoon escort was at Littlehampton. The two Typhoon squadrons at RAF Westhampnett were briefed in a rush at 10.55 and began to take-off 15 minutes later without long-range tanks. At RAF Manston, the weather was so bad that the Air Defence of Great Britain station commander refused to allow take-offs. Several Typhoon fighters of No. 198 Squadron were sent instead, but these did not reach Amiens until all but the FPU Mosquito had left for home.

The Mosquito fighter-bombers took-off and disappeared into mist and driving snow, Smith leading the way with the six 487 Squadron aircraft. The weather over RAF Westhampnett was slightly better than that over RAF Manston, and eight Typhoon fighters of No. 174 Squadron took-off, followed by eight more from No. 245 Squadron. The rendezvous at Littlehampton failed in the severe weather, but over the English Channel No. 174 Squadron met four Mosquito aircraft of the second wave, which were joined by another four half way across the Channel. The fighters of No. 245 Squadron found another three Mosquito fighter-bombers, the last of the third wave, two Mosquito fighter-bombers each of Nos 464 and 21 Squadrons having flown into snow clouds and returned to base.]

The Mosquito flown by Flight Lieutenant Hanafin suffered an engine fire on the way to the target and feathered the propeller, which extinguished the fire. Hanafin managed to keep up with the formation for some time but eventually dropped back, so he restarted the faulty engine in an effort to catch up, but the engine caught fire once more and Hanafin had to jettison his bombs and turn back about 12 miles (19 km) short of the jail. The aeroplane was hit twice by Flak fire, wounding Hanafin in the neck, paralysing him down his right-hand side ands heaving him in so much pain that his navigator gave him a morphine injection. Hanafin flew back through the snowstorm and managed to land his aeroplane on airfield in Sussex. The remaining Mosquito fighter-bombers continued on their course and saw Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters taxiing at Glisy airfield, not far from Amiens.

The Typhoons which found Mosquito fighter-bombers to escort continued to the target and flew in a defensive circle beneath the clouds at about 1,000 ft (305 m). Fw 190 fighters hid in the cloud, dived on the attackers and then zoom-climbed back into the cloud.

It was at 12.01 that the Mosquito attack force reached the target, three of No. 487 Squadron’s aircraft aiming at the eastern and northern walls of the prison; the other two the local railway station to create a diversion, before returning to the jail. No. 464 Squadron’s attackers were too close behind and had to circle while the first bombs detonated on the outer walls. The eastern wall appeared unbreached at 12.06, when two of No. 464 Squadron’s aircraft attacked it from an altitude of 50 ft (15 m) with eight 500-lb (237-kg) bombs but observers did not see any damage to the prison. Simultaneously, two of Nos 464 Squadron’s attackers bombed the main building from 100 feet (30 m), also with eight 500-lb (227-kg) bombs. A hit on the guardhouse killed or disabled the occupants. A number of the prisoners were also killed or wounded, but many were able to escape. Circling at 500 ft (150 m), Pickard saw prisoners escape and signalled No. 21 Squadron’s aircraft not to attack but instead to return to base. As the Mosquito aircraft turned for home, Fw 190 of the 7th Staffel of Oberst Josef Priller’s Jagdgeschwader 26 attacked them and were engaged by the Typhoon escorts.

When about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north of Amiens, Flying Officer J. E. Renaud, at low altitude in his No. 174 Squadron Typhoon heard a loud bang: the engine stopped and he crash-landed at Poulainville to be taken prisoner. Renaud thought that his aeroplane had been hit by German Flak fire, but Leutnant Waldemar Radener in an Fw 190 had managed to get behind Renaud and shoot him down. Squadron Leader A. I. McRitchie, a pilot of No. 464 Squadron, had his Mosquito hit by Flak near Albert and crash-landed. McRitchie was injured in the crash and found that his navigator, Flight Lieutenant R. W. Sampson, was dead. Close to Amiens, a Mosquito of No. 487 Squadron was hit by Flak, the pilot, Flying Officer M. N. Sparks being wounded and the port engine being damaged: Sparks feathered the propeller and managed to reach England, landing on one engine at RAF Ford. Pickard lingered too long over the target and, as he turned for home, his Mosquito was attacked by the Fw 190 of Feldwebel Wilhelm Mayer, who shot the tail off the Mosquito. Pickard and his navigator, Flight Lieutenant John Broadley were killed in the crash at St Gratien, 8 miles (13 km) to the north of Amiens.

About 10 minutes later, Mayer damaged a Mosquito of No. 487 Squadron, claiming a probable. As the FPU Mosquito made three photographic runs over the jail before turning for England, the two Typhoon fighters of No. 174 Squadron kept watch.

On 21 February, four Typhoon fighters of No. 247 Squadron covered two photo-reconnaissance Mosquito aircraft despatched to photograph the jail. The aircraft were met by intense Flak fire as they crossed the coast. The aeroplane of Flight Lieutenant C. E. Brayshaw was hit and turned back with a damaged engine but parts of the empennage detached and the Typhoon dived from 700 ft (210 m) into the sea off Cabourg, killing Brayshaw. Two Typhoon fighters were damaged and one pilot wounded.

Of the 832 prisoners in the jail, 255 escaped, including half of those due to be shot. Many other escapees were shot by guards as they ran from the jail, and 182 were recaptured soon afterwards. Resistance prisoners who made good their escapes were later able to expose more than 60 Gestapo agents and informers, severely affecting the German counter-intelligence effort. Ordinary prisoners, not recaptured or giving themselves up, were informally given amnesty by the French police and left alone. Pickard and Broadley were reported missing and all at RAF Hunsdon was told to keep quiet in case they had survived. It was not until September 1944 that it was announced formally that Pickard and Broadley had been killed in action.

The circumstances involving the request and the true purpose of the mission are still classified. While it has been suggested that the request came from the French resistance, some of whose members were in the jail and scheduled for execution, a post-war RAF investigation revealed that resistance leaders were not aware of the raid until the RAF requested a description of the prison. The bombing enabled 258 prisoners to escape. Several German guards were killed along with 102 prisoners, and many escapees were later recaptured.