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The Secret War of 578 Squadron

Colin Dudley
Colin Dudley DFC:  Navigator

As stated in the Memorial in Burn Methodist Chapel, "At the end of 1943, ...it was decided that No.4 Group should be expanded by the creation of a new squadron to be based at Burn." Later: "The Squadron became fully operational in January 1944 when it attacked Berlin," although the squadron was not up to full strength with Mark 3 Halifaxes until April...The Squadron was disbanded in March 1945.

There was one odd thing about 578 Squadron. Since mid-1943 other Halifax and Lancaster aircraft of Bomber Command were all equipped with H2S, the navigational aid that was able to see through cloud and in the dark to provide a picture of the ground below. On a Radar screen on the navigator's bench it showed the shape of towns and rivers and coast-lines as light areas on a dark background. Its transmitting and receiving apparatus was located in a large black bulge protruding from the underside of every aircraft. It made the attacks on cities such as Berlin very much more reliable and effective, but it was not accurate enough for attacks on small targets. (It was also very effectively homed onto by German night-fighters, much more so than anyone expected, or wanted to believe, and many crews were lost in consequence)

All navigators in 1943/4 were trained on H2S, but the Mark III Halifaxes of 578 Squadron were not equipped with H2S. There was no big black bulge under 578's Halifaxes, certainly not after April 1944 ( Artists please note!). Navigators on 578 relied entirely on the ‘Gee-Box’. Astro-navigation, so strongly promoted by High Command, and developed with the most ingenious equipment, proved totally useless, and wasted a great deal of navigators' time and skills. On the ground it provide a fix within one mile, but in a heavily laden aircraft four miles high it could seldom produce a triangle less than ten miles wide, quite useless for navigation that was aimed at being within one mile of track and less than one minute of time. It was withdrawn from use in the summer of 1944.

The Gee-Box was a radio receiver, never a transmitter that could be homed on to. It picked up radar signals being transmitted from several parts of Britain. These were displayed on a radar screen as blips on horizontal lines. The difference in arrival times from two transmitters was shown as the distance between their two blips, and by measuring this distance the position of the aircraft could be very accurately plotted on a set of curved lines on a special chart. On a lower line blips from a second transmitter produced a position on another set of curves and where those two curves crossed was your position. Another pulse from a third transmitter could produce a small triangle (allowing for a time and speed difference) for a very reliable fix.

In Britain one could determine one's position to within half a mile. The further one was from Britain the larger the triangles produced, but the main problem with Gee was that it could be jammed by the enemy, so that over most of Europe the blips on the screen would be overwhelmed by a multitude of blips known, for obvious reasons, as Grass. Nevertheless, with experience one could often pick out the genuine blips for quite a distance, and Gee was very useful and accurate over northern France and the North Sea. In fact we relied upon it very successfully to get to such targets as the U-Boat pens at Kiel, even when predicted winds were completely wrong.
So why were 578 aircraft equipped with nothing but the Gee Boxes for navigation? There is only one possible explanation.
By the end of 1943 planning for D-Day was in full flood. But there was one vital but very difficult matter that needed to be dealt with before any invasion could be even contemplated. France was equipped with a very extensive railway system which would enable German armies to travel across France to any town at great speed and in large numbers, with their tanks, heavy artillery, munitions and supplies of every kind. Our invading armies on the other hand would have only the roads and lanes to move along, often at walking speed. An invasion in such circumstances would have been impossible.

The problem therefore was to destroy the French railway system in northern France before D-Day, and the only way to do that was to destroy the many very extensive marshalling yards. But all of these were in or on the edge of French towns and cities. Simple bombing raids would kill many thousands of French civilians, a consequence that could not be remotely considered. Fighter planes on the other hand were simply not powerful enough to put these great marshalling yards out of action beyond repair.

The answer was to develop a small bomber force specially dedicated to carry out very accurate short raids in northern France with minimum civilian casualties. So 578 Squadron was formed in early 1944 especially for this vital task, being developed out of 51 Squadron. 576 Squadron at Elsham Wolds near Scunthorpe was another. There were undoubtedly several others. Crews would have been selected for accuracy and reliability and at 578 at Burn that was the responsibility of Wing Commander Wilkerson and his staff.

It was vital to the success of this campaign that the raids on the French railways should not be carried out too soon before the invasion. No time could be left available for repairs to be made before D-Day. April 1st seems to have been the starting date. Sadly, between January, when the Squadron became operational, and April when the French rail campaign began, crews were sent to targets like Berlin and Nuremberg with great loss, perhaps flying old Halifax IIs equipped with H2S. It would seem that Harris was still in charge of the whole of Bomber Command until April when Eisenhower, Montgomery and Tedder took control.

It would also have been extremely important for these special squadrons to appear to be normal squadrons engaged on the usual operations. It must also have been decided that 578 would be available for certain big bomber raids, especially those on small but important targets, such as the submarine construction yards at Kiel, the Opel factory at Russelheim and a synthetic oil plant at Gelsenkirchen.

Secrecy concerning the special purpose of the new Squadrons was of the highest importance. If the Germans were to learn of 578 Squadron's special function Burn would have become a target of major importance.. The airfield would have been destroyed and the essential tasks that 578 had been created to perform would never have taken place. Aircrews were certainly not informed of the Squadron's special mission, which would have been known only to the very top brass.
The list of operations from Burn makes all this clear: For example, Jim Allen's crew's first twenty-two of thirty-nine operations were as follows:

1944 May 1st: Malines railway yards. May 8: Berneville heavy guns (another small but important invasion target). 9th May: Morsalines, coastal gun batteries. 11th May: Trouville, marshalling yards. 22 May: Orleans railway yards. 24 May: Guns near Boulogne. 27 May: Bourge-Leopold , large German Camp. 31 May: Trappes railway yards. 11 June: Massy-Palaise, railway yards. 12 June: Amiens, railway yards. 14 June: Douai, railway yards. 17 June: St. Martin-L'Hortier, railway supply depot. 22 June: Siracourt, 23 June: Oisemont, 25 June Rosignol, 27 June: Marquis-Mimoyeques, 29 June: Wizernes: 30 June: Villers-Bocage, 1 July: Oisemont, 4 July: St. Martin-L'Hortier. 6th August: Hazebrouck marshalling yards. 11 August: Somain marshalling yards.

W/O C.W. Adams, D F M. in his very fine and important detailed account entitled 578 SQUADRON OPERATIONS 1944-45 includes reports received by High Command in Britain from the mayors of the towns in which the marshalling yards had just been attacked. At Acheres, for instance, April 30th 1944, the mayor reported that the bombing completely destroyed the railway yards and that there were no civilian victims.

After D-Day there were many other very small but vital targets to be dealt with, mainly VI Flying Bomb storage and launching sites, also airfields, German tank concentrations and army support, the latter requiring great accuracy and care.

One target, a huge Flying Bomb storage site, was of outstanding importance. According to Air Marshal Bennett, Commander of the Pathfinder Force, speaking on the video film The Wings of the Storm, 10,000 of these huge bombs were stored at a particular secret site in northern France ready to be launched at London in one week. 1,400 a day, 60 an hour every day and night for a whole week! According to Air Marshal Don Bennett, if that site and everything in it had not been destroyed by aircraft of Bomber Command "the war would have been lost!" That is something that needs thinking about. At least 100,000 Londoners, men women and children killed  A million injured nd homeless?
With the defeat of the Allies the Nazi Empire with all its horrors would have stretched from The Orknies to New Zealand, probably to last a thousand years. But it seems never to have been reported in print, although it would seem that Britain and the Allies were as close if not closer to defeat than at any time, including the Summer of 1940. Was 578 involved? There is little doubt in my mind that it was. On the 29 July we were involved in a raid on a target in the Foret de Nieppe. My pilot Jim Allen's record is as follows:

Fri 28 July: Target: Foretde Nieppe storage site. Bomb Load 18x5001b. Take-off 1630 hrs. A new bombing technique was tried as destruction of the target was regarded as essential.  As it was expected to be cloud-covered: 2 Mosquito a/c fitted with special equipment were to lead the bombers in, and when they bombed all other a/c were to release their bombs. In the event our bomb-aimer was able to identify the target and bombed visually.
199 aircraft - 159 Halifaxes, 20 Mosquitos, 20 Stirlings - of 3,4 and 8 Groups attacked two launching sites and made two further attacks on the Foret de Nieppe storage site."

Jim also points out that in 21 weeks 578 squadron lost 75% of its strength. At least 40 aircrew losses were caused by sabotage. Of that he and I are certain, and by whom. He had done his very best to get rid of our crew as well.

After the War had been won, someone very highly placed in the Air Ministry decided that 578 Squadron's motto should be ACCURACY, and its arms emblazoned with Robin Hood's double arrow. There had to be a very good reason why that was done.

For 578 Squadron's special tasks the H2S equipment was totally useless. Only the accurate and reliable Gee-Box would be required. It can truly be said that without Gee the war would have been lost. But can one find a Gee-Box or Gee charts in any museum? Can one in fact find any Navigators charts, logs or equipment in any museum? 10,000 navigators working non-stop on their calculations for up to eight or nine hours on up to forty sorties, and not one chart or log to be seen!! Not one Napier's Tables? Not one Dalton Computer. Not one pair of dividers, or parallel rulers. Why not? WHY NOT!! Let us not forget that it was the Navigator who told the Pilot where to go and when. The simplest error in his thousands of calculations could easily lead to the loss of his aircraft and all its crew. ( If anyone knows if such vitally historic and unique items can be seen anywhere, please let the rest of us know. The war could not have been won without them, and thousands of fine young men died with them in their hands).

In the recent video films on the preparations for D-Day, General Eisenhower is heard telling us that the attacks on the French railway system by Bomber Command, (which means 578 and the other specially created Squadrons) was magnificently successful. Without the achievement of  Tedder and Bennett's campaign, under the superb command and leadership of such men as Wing Commander Wilkerson, DSO.,DFC, Operation Overlord would have been impossible,  London would have been destroyed and Hitler's armies could never have been defeated. The whole British Empire would have become part of the empire of Nazism, and its Gestapo, its torture chambers, its liquidation camps and mass executions would have stretched from John o' Groats though India to Australia and New Zealand, to last, as Hitler envisaged, for a thousand years.

Everyone who served in any way on 578 and its associated Squadrons should know how much they, and especially all those many who did not return, achieved for Great Britain and the rest of the world in those few momentous months of their existence.

Source: Colin Dudley DFC  Navigator