This book tells the story of a traumatic few weeks in the life of 82 Squadron RAF in 1940. On the 17th May 1940 – with the Battle of France raging – 12 Blenheim light bombers left Watton airfield in Norfolk on a daylight raid to attack a crossroads in France to hold up the German advance. Only one badly damaged aircraft returned. On the 26th July 1940, in the early days of the Battle of Britain, the reformed squadron sent 12 Blenheims on another daylight raid against the Luftwaffe airfield at Ålborg in occupied Denmark. One Blenheim turned back with technical problems; the rest were shot down.
- Gordon Thorburn
It is also a story of two very different command styles. During the Battle of France, 82 Squadron was commanded by Wing Commander Paddy Bandon. An Irish Earl, Bandon was a natural leader, much loved through the RAF for his irreverent attitude to formality. By the time of the second raid, the squadron was led by Wing commander Edward Lart. He had a cold hatred of the Germans, frequently continuing attacks when the cloud cover needed to shelter the aircraft from marauding Me 109’s had faded away. It was that ‘press on’ attitude that would lead to the disaster over Ålborg.
Finally, this book is a reminder of the frightening pace of technological change. In 1936 the Blenheim was the first all metal aircraft delivered to the RAF. Fast for its time, it could outrun most of the biplane fighters that equipped the bulk of the world’s air forces. Just four years later it was lethally vulnerable to Me 109’s in clear skies and to light flak at low level.
The book is in eight chapters. The first covers the history of 82 Squadron up to the outbreak of the Second World War. It also gives a brief history of the design and development of the Bristol Blenheim. The second chapter has a thumbnail sketch of 82 Squadron’s recently built airfield at Watton and their activities during the phony war. It also contains a brief biography of Paddy Bandon. The third chapter covers the squadron’s early actions in the Battle of France as they strove to stem the German advance by bombing bridges and crossroads.
The fourth chapter covers the disastrous raid on the crossroads at Gembloux. The French Army was in retreat and the intent was to block a choke point by destroying the buildings around it. Light flak accounted for several of the dozen Blenheims; Me 109’s for the rest. When the sole surviving aircraft landed back at Watton, heavily damaged and on one engine, it was met by Bandon. “Where’s everyone else, Morrison?” he plaintively asked the pilot.
The fifth chapter describes how Paddy Bandon persuaded the Air Ministry not to disband the squadron and how he rebuilt it through sheer force of personality. It briefly also covers what happened to the few survivors of the shot down aircraft. The bulk of the chapter goes on to cover 82 squadron’s operations immediately after it resumed operations.
The next chapter contains a biography of Edward Lart and the very different leadership style he brought to the squadron after he took it over. By this time daylight raids were only being ordered if there was sufficient cloud cover, with pilots being given discretion to turn back if the clouds thinned. Lart invariably pressed on even if the cloud cover vanished and for some weeks he led a charmed life.
The seventh chapter covers the raid on Ålborg. The Air Ministry ordered the raid to be carried out at all costs at 20,000 feet and without any cloud cover. The Blenheims were highly visible to German observers and too far above the ground to escape by low flying. Lart – leading from the front as ever – led the raid. Disaster was inevitable. With the exception of a single aircraft that turned back with technical problems, the rest were massacred.
The final chapter tells what happen to those survivors fortunate enough to escape from their doomed aircraft. Most ended up in prisoner of war camps for the duration. The book ends with an appendix giving the fates of each of the 24 Blenheims and their crews, while a postscript tells of what happened to a number of participants later in the war.
These two raids are often given a paragraph or two in general histories of Bomber Command, so this book fills in a gap in the literature. It is fairly well researched, but could do with an index. It will probably interest someone more concerned with the detail of Bomber Command’s operations than it will the casual reader.