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The assault by men of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day is very well documented. The site today is one of the most visited in Normandy.
A tale of tremendous courage, tenacity, mixed fortune and ultimate success, it is one of the most enthralling episodes of the many that make up the story of D-Day, 6th June 1944.
Less often discussed is the involvement of British forces. On 6th June itself, elements of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the Army all played a role in assisting the Rangers in their ultimately succesful assault.
The catalyst for this particular research, apart from the broader interest, was a conversation a couple of years ago with my friend Nigel about some graves in the Commonwealth cemetery in Bayeux. There are two Australian airmen laying side by side, both killed on 6th June and next to them is the grave of Stoker 1st Class Donald J. Harris, one of the crew from LCA 914.
The Australians, Pilot Officer Roland Gilbert Ward and Flight Sergeant Malcolm Robert Burgess both served in 50 Squadron and were on board Lancaster III ND874, code VN-R, when it was shot down. Not far from their graves is that of another of the crew, Flight Sergeant Richard Haine. Although involved in completely different elements of the assault, it seems appropriate that the sailor and the three airmen are buried in proximity to one another.
Of course, the normal crew for a Lancaster was seven men, so what of the other four? Well three of them, Sergeant Dennis Patrick Mangan, Sergeant Kenneth Oliver Smith and Flight Sergeant George Frederick Livingstone are all officially missing and are thus commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. The only survivor of the crew was the mid-upper gunner, his position near the door in the side of the fuselage probably facilitating his swift exit and thereby saving his life. This was Sergeant S K Reading. Sgt. Reading was captured, taken to Balleroy and then Caumont l'Eventé, where he and other prisoners persuaded their guards to leave them behind as the Allied forces approached the town.
The circumstances regarding the loss of this aircraft, the deaths of six of the crew as well as the loss of two other Lancasters and a further fifteen men were as follows.
On the morning of 6th June, a large force of 114 Lancasters was scheduled to bomb the position at Pointe du Hoc at around 05h00. Each aircraft was to carry eleven 1000lb and four 500lb bombs. Before the Rangers' force arrived, which was supposed to be at 06h30, this heavy raid would be followed by another with medium bombers and also naval bombardment.
Anti aircraft defence of the site was primarily in the form of two 3.7cm Flak37 guns, each installed in it's own bunker. It was not these guns, however, which shot down Ward's aircraft, nor the other two Lancasters lost in the same raid.
In the spring of 1944, the Germans occupying France saw an increase in activity from the Allies, particularly in the form of ever more frequent air-raids. Not just Normandy but the whole of western and northern France was targeted. The Germans however also launched their own raids against England. Operation Steinbock had begun in January but the Luftwaffe also launched small scale intruder raids against the London and the south, often using Focke-Wulf 190s , adapted slightly by removing the guns from the nose and with a bomb rack beneath the fuselage and drop tanks beneath each wing.
3./Schnellkampfgeschwader 10 was operating in this role from Tours. The unit was also used in a variety of other roles, such as reconnaisance and general "fighter" duties. On the morning of D-Day, as reports of airborne landings started to filter through the German communication system, a handful of aircraft were scrambled to investigate, as much as counter, what turned out to be the invasion.
Hauptmann Helmut Eberspächer was one of these pilots who in the darkness made their way north towards the Normandy coast.
Flying over the invasion armada must have been both incredible and daunting. Eberspächer passed low over a battleship, surprised that the ships anti-aircraft defences didn't open up on him. With fuel beginning to run out, Eberspächer turned back towards the south for the flight home.
As he did so, he noticed the silhouette of a Lancaster above him. Being in a "favourable position", he attacked this, and two other 'planes, shooting down all three in three minutes, before reverting back to his southerly course towards the Loire valley.
In addition to ND874, the other two Lancasters lost, both from 97 Sqn, were ND739 and ND815. Of these, the former was carrying an eight man crew, S/L M Bryan-Smith joining as Gunnery Leader.
One of Eberspächer's colleagues, Feldwebel Kurt Eisele also claimed one bomber shot down. Pointe du Hoc wasn't the only target that night, naturally, and the battery at Longues sur Mer was also hit by Lancasters, one of which, that of Squadron Leader Arthuer William Raybould, was lost. The circumstances of this particular aircraft's demise are still unknown as yet, as conflicting information exists.
It is, in humble opinion, probable that Eberspächer was responsible for the Pointe du Hoc Lancasters and Eisele for the Longues sur Mer 'plane, although it is certainly feasible for this to be incorrect.
Attempting to plot the order in which the 'planes were shot down is somewhat dependant on several factors (Eberspächer's direction, the flight path of the bombing force after the raid, and taking into account any evasive action performed by the pilots and the path of the out-of-control aircraft as they descended). The crash sites run roughly east-west, with the easterly most being Formigny (ND874), then Osmanville (ND815) and finally Brucheville (ND739) and it is likely this is the order in which they were shot down.