The last air deaths in World War II – Bombing the Eagle’s Nest

In this article, Mary Miles tells us the story of Berchtesgaden, the Allied attempt to bomb a site rumored to house Hitler towards the end of World War II. This was also the raid that had the last RAF Bomber Command losses in the war.

April 25, 1945 is a historic day in Royal Air Force (RAF) history. It marks the last big raid in Bomber Command’s Europe offensive. Around 355 bomber crews were sent to flatten a small area of Berchtesgaden. This was the area surrounding Hitler’s holiday home, the Eagles Nest at Obersalzberg. This last bomber raid of the European war was a joint operation with the US 8th Army Airforce who provided an 88-98 Mustang fighter escort. The four bomber crew who died on this operation were the last of the 55,573 losses of RAF Bomber Command. This article concentrates on just three of the 22 squadrons that took part in Operation Berchtesgaden.

Strike Hard, Strike Sure

Intelligence had been received that a light aircraft had taken off from Berlin. It was believed that this plane could have been carrying Hitler to his mountain retreat so he would be away from the rapidly advancing Soviet Army. Eisenhower evidently knew Hitler was still in Berlin but aircrews believed they had a chance of killing him due to what was told to them during the briefing. It is unknown who was aboard the aircraft that left Berlin that night, as Berchtesgaden was also the last major SS barracks still manned and the powers that be considered that a Nazi Partisan army could be set up there – although it was only a few fanatics who considered this last redoubt a real possibility. The final piece in the strategic thinking of this raid was that it would show the German High Command that until there was an unconditional surrender the RAF would continue business as usual.

Ziemi Mazowieckiej (Land of Masovia)

300 Polish squadron took part, with many of their aircrew seeing the raid as a last revenge on the Nazis. The Allied pact with Soviet Russia meant that for a lot of Poles the end of the war was not going to have a good outcome. This last raid was their chance to personally hit back at Hitler. The annexing of their country was the catalyst that had sent Europe into war. A large proportion of the Polish population had either been killed or sent into labor camps, while Warsaw was almost flattened by bombing and suffered a death toll of some 40,000. The stain of six Nazi death camps, including Treblinka and Auschwitz, in their country was one that nearly all Poles rightly found repugnant. So even if it was the slimmest of slim hopes, they took the idea that they could kill Hitler and ruin his personal retreat to heart, with a certain amount of understandable vengeance spurring them on. Fourteen Lancasters from this squadron took part in the operation and all returned.

Strike and Return

460 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) found they had 20 of their crews taking part in this raid on ANZAC day. The majority of the squadron waited for the return of their 20 Lancasters before holding their ANZAC day parade. These 20 aircraft had taken off at around 5AM and joined up with the other aircraft over 300 Lancasters and sixteen Mosquito pathfinders. Anti-aircraft fire managed to down planes out of this large formation, one of which was 460 squadron’s Lancaster NX585 AR-M. This was piloted by Flying Officer Henry “Lofty” Payne. His Navigator had a close call; he was called away from his seat and returned to find a gaping flak hole in it. If Sergeant Colin Fraser had not had moved he would have died. AR-M was heavily hit by flak; the bomb bay door and an engine were blown away.

After that flak hit, Payne at first believed it was possible to glide the plane to American lines just 40 miles north but with one engine gone and two on fire when the fourth engine blew he gave the order to bail out. As he kept control of the plane five of his six crew mates bailed out but he was shocked to see his rear gunner make his way to the cockpit. The spare parachute had not been packed and the gunner’s parachute was ruined. They then attempted a crash landing; fortunately this was successful, meaning that the crew of AR-M all survived.  News of the loss of Lancaster AR-M may have subdued any celebrations of this ANZAC day raid on a target strongly symbolic of Nazism though. But as news of the crew’s bravery and their survival was soon to reach 460’s base at Binbrook – happening as it did on the 30 year anniversary of the ANZAC Gallipoli landings of the First World War – it was symbolic to this brave Australian squadron who had flown over 6,000 sorties.

Ad Altiora (To Higher Things)

The six Lancasters from 619 Squadron, based at RAF Strubby, were tasked with running interference for the raid. This meant doing circuits of the target area to attract any flak. Although the flak was not extreme at this late stage of the war, this was still a dangerous task and Lancaster LM756 PG-F (for Freddy) was a casualty. Firstly the Navigator Norman Johnson, in a position that echoed his fellow navigator on AR-M, was killed. Then F for Freddy started to seriously lose altitude and it is likely it had engine fires. The Canadian pilot Wilf DeMarco of Timmins Bay, Ontario did an amazing job of managing to keep the heavy bomber steady so that three of the crew, Jack Speers (Wireless Operator), Freddy Cole (Flight Engineer), and Arthur Sharman (Bomb Aimer), were able to bail out and that the crash did not cause any civilian deaths. The crash site of F for Freddy is near Adnet in Austria. This group of hamlets is just a 25-minute drive from Berchtesgaden in a modern car. The locals scavenged the wreckage for scrap metal as the Nazi regime had left them with very little; because of this many pieces of F for Freddy have survived to this day. The four aircrew who died, Wilf DeMarco (Pilot), Norman Johnson (Navigator), Gordon Walker (Air Gunner), and Edward Norman (Air Gunner), were the last deaths suffered by RAF Bomber Command. The four crew mates are buried side by side in Klagenfurt War Cemetery, Austria.

On the 70th Anniversary of the raid, the people of Adnet, Austria are unveiling a memorial to the crew of PG-F for Freddy. This memorial will be erected due to the hard work of Bürgermeister Wolfgang Auer, Mayor of Adnet, Kevin Ruane MBE, and David Young. For more information please visit Charlie Angus, the Member of Parliament for Timmins Bay, has arranged for a Canadian commemoration the same day.

Per Ardva ad Astra (Through Adversity to the Stars)

After the war, governments from all sides shunned the Bomber Crews, but this last raid shows the courage these young men, whose average age was 21, had. Every man in Bomber Command was a volunteer; they were not conscripted. At one time during the war the average ‘life span’ for a crew was two weeks and for the rear gunners it was less. Between Dunkirk and D-day they were the Allies’ only conventional way of striking at Germany. So to Wilf DeMarco and his crew and the 55,569 other air crew that were lost over the course of the war, we owe a huge debt.