Operations - Sedan area - 14th May 1940
On the 10th May 1940 the German Army had launched massive ground attacks againstThe Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France supported by the formidable power of the German Air Force with its extensive numerical superiority. By the evening of the 13th May the situation had become extremely grave as the Germans began to cross the River Meuse in considerable strength. This threatened the front and also the whole area around Reims where the R A F Advanced Air Striking Force was based. The RAF squadrons in France had already incurred very heavy losses in intensive operations during the first three days of the invasion.
Shortly before midnight on the 13th May the AASF was ordered by its commanding officer, Air Marshall Barratt, to prepare to attack three pontoon bridges in the Sedan sector and 2 in the Dinant area on the following day. Both attacks were given the highest priority. During the night information was received to the effect that the French had destroyed the bridges at Dinant and had attacked German road convoys and troop movements in the same area.
The AASF Squadrons were therefore instructed to concentrate on the pontoon bridges at Sedan from dawn on the 14th May. 103 Sqn were on stand by at 0330 and 8 Fairey Battles led by F/O Havers took off at 0505. A fighter escort by Hurricanes from 73 Sqn was provided. As they arrived in the target area they found there were four pontoon bridges over the River Meuse and 1 over the River Cheres, all within a radius of 6 miles from Sedan. The 8 Battles attacked and one bridge was seen to be hit. No fighter opposition was encountered but there was considerable light flak and small arms fire.
All 8 Battles returned although Sgt C D Parry was badly wounded by ground fire. He managed, with great difficulty, to fly back to the vicinity of the airfield at Betheniville and crash-landed. He was later awarded DFM but sadly died of his wounds in the UK.
4 Battles from 150 Sqn took off later that morning with fighter escort and made further attacks. Despite considerable opposition from light flak they managed to score several hits and escaped back to their airfield at Ecury. Shortly afterwards a single Bristol Blenheim from 114 Sqn carried out an armed reconnaissance in the area of Sedan-Givonne-Boullion to report on enemy troop movements. Large numbers of German troops and motor transport were noted in the area. A shallow dive bombing attack was made on a German column near Bosseval and the aircraft sustained some damage. The French Air Force launched three attacks with fighter escort in the area of Sedan later that morning and into the afternoon.
As the afternoon progressed the pressure was still on in the Sedan area and it became imperative that a major effort was required by the AASF to try and stem the German advance. Orders were given that every available bomber was to be made ready and a plan was devised with the French Air Force for concerted attacks to take place in the Sedan area throughout the rest of the day. The air battles of the previous four days had already taken a heavy toll and the ten bomber squadrons of the AASF had only 71 aircraft operational between them for the operations that afternoon.
19 Battles from 12 Sqn, 142 Sqn and 226 Sqn of 76 Wing were first into action in mid afternoon. 12 Sqn were tasked to bomb enemy columns on the road from Sedan to Givonne. These attacks were made in the face of fierce flak and fighter opposition and 4 of the 5 Battles were shot down. The fifth managed to limp back to base at Amifontaine.
The 8 Battles of 142 Sqn and 6 Battles of 226 Sqn were tasked to attack the bridges between Sedan and Mouzon. Again the opposition from flak and fighters was intense with the attacks pressed home through withering ground fire and walls of tracer. 142 Sqn lost 4 aircraft and 226 Sqn lost 3. Several hits were claimed on the bridges and at least 1 Bf 109 was claimed as shot down by a returning air gunner with several more claimed as damaged.
It was then the turn of 71 Wing. 15 Battles of 105 Sqn and 150 Sqn were tasked to attack bridges in the Sedan area and 8 Blenheims of 114 Sqn and 139 Sqn were to attack enemy troop columns. All 4 Battles of 150 Sqn were shot down and 6 out of 11 from 105 Sqn. The Blenheims of 114 Sqn and 139 Sqn observed large numbers of enemy troops and transport on the roads in the area and pressed home their attacks losing a total of five aircraft.
The position was clearly hopeless and the operations almost suicidal but the operations continued.
The next attack was flown by 75 Wing made up of 88 Sqn with 10 Battles, 103 Sqn with 8 Battles and 218 Sqn with 7 Battles. The targets were again to be the bridges and enemy columns in the Sedan area. 103 Sqn made dive bombing attacks on the bridges at low level and once more the defenders took their toll. 3 Battles were shot down. The aircraft of P/O V A Cunningham received a direct flak hit and exploded in mid air killing the pilot and his gunner.
F/O T B Fitzgerald was wounded by flak but pressed home his attack. He crash landed returning to base but was able to return to the Squadron the following day with his gunner. F/O Fitzgerald was awarded the DFC for his actions on this day. Sgt G Beardsley was shot down by a Bf 109 and crash landed. With his Observer and Air Gunner walked 15 miles through the forward battle area and was picked up by the French. They returned to the Squadron on the 17th May. 88 Sqn fared comparatively well losing only one aircraft but 218 Sqn lost five aircraft.
In view of the appalling losses sustained during the afternoon further attacks by the AASF were cancelled and an attack by the French Air Force was postponed.
An attack by Blenheim squadrons of No 2 Group in the UK was, however, brought forward. 21 Sqn, 107 Sqn and 110 Sqn tasked 30 Blenheims to bomb targets at Sedan and were provided with a fighter escort by the RAF and French Air Force which helped considerably. The aircraft of 107 Sqn all bombed enemy columns despite being subjected to moderate flak which damaged five aircraft. All returned to base. 110 Sqn encountered Bf 109s and intense flak whilst making low level bombing attacks on enemy columns losing five of their number. 21 Sqn met similar opposition attacking pontoon bridges and troop columns. 2 Blenheims were lost to fighter attack and one was written off in a crash landing on return to base at Bodney. The returning air gunners claimed several Bf 109s shot down.
That night the French Air Force mounted a raid. 226 Sqn of the AASF made a token night attack with 2 Battles taking off at 2050. Both bombed troop movements in the area of Sedan. Sgt Hoyle was the last to return at 2335, his Battle damaged by flak and with leaking fuel tanks.
During the day the bombers of the AASF and No 2 Gp had detailed a total of 112 sorties. Of these 42 aircraft had been lost with several more crash landing on return and at least 15 others sustaining various degrees of significant damage.
Since the 10th May 50% of the AASF Battles had been lost and the 2 AASF Blenheim squadrons had almost been wiped out.
On the 14th May RAF fighter squadrons of the AASF and Air Component based inFrance had been stretched almost to breaking point. The Luftwaffe had been mounting raids of their own in considerable numbers. The fighters had been heavily engaged in intercepting these attacks and had not had sufficient numbers to provide effective escort to the RAF bombers as well. The RAF fighter squadrons lost 27 Hurricanes during the day. French fighter squadrons were similarly heavily committed during the same period.
Luftwaffe reports show a total of 38 of their aircraft destroyed and 8 damaged in combat with the RAF fighters on that day.
Subsequent reconnaissance showed that at least one pontoon bridge and one permanent bridge were destroyed and several more were damaged. As for the road targets some success was achieved but the German army was advancing in such force that these were not sufficient to cause them major problems.
During the day the French army had mounted a counter attack which had stabilised the situation for some hours but a much greater effort was going to be required in the days to come to check the German advance fully.
Air Marshall Barratt knew that his depleted bomber squadrons would be unable to repeat their efforts of that day and a few more days of these horrendous casualties would wipe them out all together. On the 15th May he ordered that the Battle squadrons were to fly operations only by night unless absolutely necessary.
Important lessons had been learned from the first four days of the Battle of France. It was clear that the Battles and Blenheims were unable to operate by daylight against targets heavily defended by fighters and flak without the protection of close supporting fighter escort in large numbers. Low level attacks in daylight had proved very costly bringing the aircraft into the range of the highly effective and well organised German light flak.
The Battles and Blenheims themselves lacked adequate performance and were too lightly armed so were unable to look after themselves. Both aircraft were lacking in armour and self sealing fuel tanks and were very vulnerable in combat.
The commitment and quality of the pilots and crews was, however, above any criticism and all had shown remarkable courage and skill in the face of the most difficult of situations.
The tactics regarding fighter escort were quickly reviewed and whenever possible future daylight operations were supported by close fighter escort from the RAF squadrons in France and/or fighter units based on the South coast of the England. The bomber force was used more sparingly and often by night and attacks were now usually made from higher altitude beyond the effective range of light flak and small arms fire.
These measures cut the losses amongst the bomber force significantly. The end of the Battle of France brought the end of the Fairey Battle as an operational bomber and it was soon phased out. The Bristol Blenheim soldiered on for a number of years and, in spite of its limitations, gave valuable service operating over Western Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Far East.
The events of the 14th May 1940 and the three previous days had been traumatic for the RAF and the experience had showed that many lessons that were learned the hard way in WW1 had already been forgotten. These lessons were, however, relearned and acted on during the coming years when the RAF fighters and bombers grew to become highly effective and played major roles in the final defeat of Hitler and the Third Reich.
Item written by David Fell.
Sources - Various - Principally By Night and Day Ken Merrick, Valiant Wings Norman Franks, Bomber Command Losses 1940 Bill Chorley,