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An RAF raid which broke open the jail at Amiens

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Saturday, 1 March 2014

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This edited article about World War Two first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

Raid on Amiens jail,  picture, image, illustration

Group Captain Charles Pickard led the raid to free many imprisoned members of the Resistance, by Wilf Hardy

A blanket of snow covered northern France. Behind the grim walls of Amiens jail, 700 or so prisoners were trying unsuccessfully to keep themselves warm.

Many of the prisoners were under sentence of death, for they were men and women of the French Resistance, the secret civilian army which had refused to surrender to the Germans when they conquered and occupied France in 1940. Ever since then, their numbers had grown steadily and they had waged a deadly guerrilla war of ambush and sabotage against their conquerors. But, inevitably, many Resistance heroes and heroines had been caught, which was why the jail at Amiens was so full.

The Allied invasion to liberate France and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe was now only a few months away, for this bleak, snowy day was 18th February, 1944, but the chances of the prisoners’ survival seemed slim. Many of them had been tortured by the Gestapo, the hated German secret police, and some were due to die within 48 hours. Others were destined for the horrors of concentration camps and a later, even more terrible death in a gas chamber.

Yet on that dismal February morning an incredible piece of news was circulating through the jail – the Royal Air Force was going to make a low-level attack on the prison walls and blast a hole in them. Then, in the ensuing confusion, the prisoners could escape. Yet even if this rumour was true, could any planes get through a snowstorm which showed no sign of letting up? Surely it would be sheer suicide to attempt it?

Back in Britain the weather was also bad, so bad that there was talk of the raid being called off. Nineteen de Havilland Mosquitoes were standing by for the raid, which was to be led by one of the R.A.F.’s finest pilots, Group Captain Pickard, D.S.O. and two bars, D.F.C. Under him were six Mosquitoes from 21 Squadron, R.A.F., six from 487 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, and six from 464 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, also a photographic reconnaissance plane.

The Mosquito was one of the wonder planes of the Second World War. It had originally been designed as a light bomber, but had become famous as a first-rate fighter-bomber, a long-range fighter, a reconnaissance aircraft, and as a “Pathfinder,” flying daringly low to drop flares to guide oncoming heavy bombers.

It carried a bomb load of 4,000 lbs., and a crew of two, a pilot and a navigator / bomb-aimer. It had a top speed of around 400 mph and could outstrip most German planes, and it was built of wood, which not only made it easier to manufacture, but also saved valuable metal. Added to this, it was a beautiful plane and – more important – very successful indeed!

Pickard’s men knew their target well, for they had all studied it from a plaster of Paris model which showed what the jail would look like to them from four miles away and at a height of 1,500 feet. The 500 lb. delayed action bombs which they would be carrying had to be dropped from a very low altitude, so timing was absolutely vital. The jail walls were three feet thick and 20 feet high, and some of the bombs were destined for the barracks where the German guards lived.

As soon as the pilots heard that the raid might be called off, they protested. They knew the risks only too well, but also knew that hundreds of men and women were depending on them. Besides, they had complete faith in their aircraft.

Their protests succeeded and at 11 a.m. they took off from England, sweeping across the Channel in a snowstorm at sea-level. They were joined by an escort of fighters. With them, the first two waves of six planes each flew north of Amiens and then down the straight road from Albert to Amiens.

Seconds before mid-day they reached the jail. The German guards had just been changed and those who had come off duty were walking back to their barracks, trying to keep warm by stamping in the snow. Inside their cells, the prisoners waited tensely, scarcely daring to hope that anything could fly on such an appalling day.

Suddenly, three dark shapes flew over the jail and vanished. Moments later, there was a gigantic explosion, and a great chunk of the prison’s outer wall was ripped out. Three more planes appeared for a brief few seconds, then disappeared, and the hole was blasted even wider. Another bomb gutted the German barracks and the living quarters of the Gestapo.

Many of the doors of the cells had been loosened by the force of the explosions; others were forced by implements that the prisoners had hidden. Meanwhile, Pickard decided to call off the final wave of Mosquitoes as the first 12 planes had already done the job.

Down below chaos reigned. The surviving Germans had lost all control, as scores of prisoners swarmed through the breach in the wall in the all-pervading dust and smoke.

The raid had been more successful than anyone had dared hope, though, inevitably, not everything went according to plan. Some prisoners were killed when a bomb bounced over the wall and burst in a cell block, and some of the 258 prisoners who escaped were later recaptured.

It looked as if the R.A.F. was going to emerge unscathed from the raid, but in the final moments two Focke-Wulf fighters attacked Pickard’s Mosquito and shot it down near Amiens. His body, and the body of Flight Lieutenant Broadley, who had turned down a chance of promotion to continue serving with Pickard, were recovered by the Germans and buried the next day.

Yet the loss of Pickard and his navigator could not alter the fact that the near-impossible had been achieved, and that most of those who escaped were able to return to the fight and help prepare for a general uprising to coincide with the Allied landings on D-Day, June 6th, 1944.

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