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Battles are won through the ability of men to express concrete ideas in clear and unmistakable language.
-- Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall
Seven weeks after the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the British and Canadian divisions of the Second Army had secured the ancient but totally devastated city of Caen. Their further progress was now being held up by fanatical resistance from Germany's crack Fifth Panzer Army, holding favourable ground to the south and south-east of the city. The time had arrived for Operation Goodwood.
At 5.30am on 18 July 1944 the obliteration of the German defences began with a concentrated air assault by nine hundred and twenty-seven aircraft of RAF Bomber Command, followed by five hundred and seventy American bombers. The breakout was underway.
Included in the RAF's contribution was the usual percentage of Lancaster bombers from No 5 group, based at various airfields in Lincolnshire. On returning to their bases later that morning the crews could have been excused for thinking they had finished for the day, but some of them from each squadron were in for a surprise, Revigny had not yet been put out of action.
Revigny-Sur-Ornain, is a small French provincial town some 240km due east of Paris, with a population, during the war, of about 2,500. It had no industry to speak of, except for a nut and bolt factory and maintenance sheds. It was, however a very important railway junction marshalling yards, with two main lines feeding in from Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley and also from the cities towns of southern Germany. Along these tracks flowed the vital war supplies and reinforcements for the German armies starting the retreat from the Normandy battlefronts.
The Allied Air Forces' attack on the lines of communication throughout France and the Low Countries had commenced in earnest in March, when the bomber force had been switched from German industrial targets mainly in the North of France. Naturally the German Luftwaffe redeployed their fighters and night-fighters to the same area and RAF losses continued to mount. Twenty-seven lost in March, sixty-six in April, one hundred and eight in May and one hundred and seventy-three in June. However the percentage loss for Bomber Command remained at a very acceptable 2.5%.
This then was the situation over France on 8 July 1944 when the decision was handed down from Allied Air Chiefs HQ to attack Revigny.
The task of taking out this target fell to No 1 Group and, after three cancellations though bad weather; the raid was finally made on the night of 12-13 July.
A total force of 109 aircraft from seven squadrons were airborne from 2100 hours plus and were routed around the Channel Islands, across France (south of Paris), then north-east to the target. The railway junction and yards were not visible because of unexpected light cloud and haze in the Revigny area and only a few aircraft dropped their bombs before the force were ordered back to base. (It was then policy not to jettison bombs, which could result in casualties to the French population). Night-fighters and flak had been active and ten Lancasters were lost. The railway junction and yards remained operational.
The second attempt was made on the night of 14-15 July, with all aircraft again being supplied by No. 1 group. Bad weather once more caused the cancellation of this raid after only a few planes were able to bomb and the target, once again, escaped any substantial damage. An almost identical route had been flown that night (1550 track miles) and planes were in the air for over nine and a half hours. Seven Lancasters were shot down.
And so, on the morning of 18 July, the No.5 Group Lancasters were returning to their Lincolnshire bases from the successful Normandy operation, confident of being stood down for at least 24 hours (into Lincoln for a few beers in the White Hart). But no such luck for a number of these crews: they were "on again for tonight" - Revigny again.
The lead-in procedures, briefings etc. took up all the afternoon hours, and in spite of their all-consuming tiredness they took off from 23:36 hrs for northeastern France. This time the forces consisted of 106 aircraft and the route showed a crossing of the French coast at Le Treport (near Dieppe), then a straight run for one hundred and seventy miles to the twist-ing River Aube, then a turn NE to Revigny. This direct route took the bomber stream over many of the night-fighter bases, some renowned flak areas and searchlights across the whole track.
That afternoon the BBC had broadcast a message directed to the citizens of Revigny to the effect that they should stay away from the railway that night, the RAF was coming again. (This was a condition given to the French by the War Cabinet to warn the population of railway towns of any impending raid). However, the Germans also worked it out and were ready for the fray.
From the time the first Lancaster crossed the coast at 04:00 hours, engagements with the Luftwaffe commenced. An aircraft from No.49 Squadron escaped from an attack by a JU 88 and six minutes later was in action again, against another JUS8; later, over the target, they were attacked by an FW190. Flares were being dropped all along the track and the route ahead was lit up like day. Still over an hour's flying time to reach Revigny.
By the time the force reached the target no fewer than seventeen Lancasters had been shot from the sky. Of the one hundred and ninety-nine crewmen, one hundred and five were dead, all in forty-five minutes.
At the target the pathfinders were experiencing difficulty in marking the aiming point and the main force was ordered into orbit for up to fifteen minutes. Confusion seemed to be mounting and during this period a further four planes went down.
In due course the target was successfully bombed. Twenty-one bombers were now lost, with one hundred and twenty-one men dead. On the way out three more fell to fighters and flak.
The success for the night-fighters has been put down to the skill of their experienced pilots and the credit they gave to the recently developed "upward firing" cannon known as "Schrage Musik' - it created havoc.
The dreadful toll for this one raid finally stood at twenty-four Lancasters destroyed, a loss of 22.6%. Of the one hundred and sixty-nine airmen who did not return that night; one hundred and twenty-nine were dead, eleven became PoW's and twenty-nine successfully evaded capture, heroically assisted by the French Underground. Of the one hundred and forty killed or captured, twenty-seven were Australians.
The target was at last out of action through and traffic stopped.
It certainly had been "a long hard day at the office", but did the results eventually achieved that night justify the death of one hundred and twenty-nine fine young men?
After 57 years to ponder this question -I don't think so.
Note: by John Clulow
This Day in History
Confederate General Joseph Johnston officially surrenders his army to General William T. Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina.
John Wilkes Booth is killed when Union soldiers track him down to a Virginia farm 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Joseph E. Johnston surrenders the Army of Tennessee to Sherman.
The ancient Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain is bombed by German planes.
Armistice negotiations are resumed.
The U.S. command in Saigon announces that the U.S. force level in Vietnam is 281,400 men, the lowest since July 1966.
President Nixon, despite the ongoing communist offensive, announces that another 20,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Vietnam in May and June, reducing authorized troop strength to 49,000.