Commemorative stone placed at the main gate to the RAF Predannack airfield in Cornwall.
[Dave Taskis, through Wikimedia Commons]
Spitfire Dive Bombers
At Predannack, geographically located on the Lizard peninsula, pilots could expect mainly defensive patrols and shipping reconnaissance sorties. As the Allies moved south-east through Normandy, driving out the Germans, the pilots might well have been wondering if another move would be forthcoming. However one new role they were asked to undertake was that of dive-bombing.
F/Lt Ray Stebbings recalled that the usual procedure for bombing ground targets was to half-circle the objective at 6-8000 ft. before commencing an attacking dive at around forty five degrees, into the wind. The target was viewed through the reflector gunsight until, at a height of 3000 ft., the nose of the Spitfire was gradually pulled up and the bomb released on the count of eight. Despite the rudimentary nature of this technique, results were generally good, and No. 234 Squadron carried out practice bombing raids on a regular basis, often using as convenient targets large patches of seaweed that were to be found along long stretches of the Cornish coast. Ray Stebbings also recalled that take-off could be a nail-biting experience with a 500lb bomb suspended between the Spitfire’s narrow track undercarriage. Ground clearance was reduced appreciably, and with all-up weight increased to 7,150lb, take-off performance could sometimes cause concern, especially on those aircraft which had seen better days.
F/Lt Johnnie Johnston, who was with 234 squadron has also been very critical of Spitfires being used for dive-bombing as it was possible to overstress the airframe. This was particularly true of the Mk. Vb, as its wings were not stressed for carrying bombs nor high g-forces experienced during the recovery from a bombing dive.
When used to seal up the ends of railway tunnels other problems associated with the setting of delayed action fuses arose.
234 Squadron’s first dive bombing attack was carried out on 8th July during an afternoon raid on a radar station near Ushant, and the next day a similar attack was made on the radar station at Point du Raz. On 22nd July four aircraft carried out a patrol near Lorient during which three locomotives were attacked and damaged at Hennepoint. One aircraft was lost.
On the same day eight aircraft took off to escort three Mosquitoes of No. 151 Squadron making an attack on a chateau near Lorient which was being used as accommodation for German naval personnel. After the Mosquito attack the Spitfires followed in behind to strafe the building with cannon and machine guns. Light flak was experienced.
On 24th July half of the squadron took off to attack a petrol dump target near Landivisiau with 500lb bombs. A railway viaduct was attacked by a second bombing attack later the same day, with eight aircraft taking part.
Then came the fatal day of July 27th, 1944.
The Spitfire Mk. Vb was considerably less suited for dive-bombing mission that its more modern contemporaries equipped with C-type wing and had to be handled with care by the pilot during dive-bombing missions. It could only carry one bomb under the fuselage and its wings were not sufficiently stressed for high-g loads.
July 27th, 1944 – Missing in Action
On that day the squadron flew Rhubarb 323, leaving Predannack at 19.00 hrs. and which involved a sweep along the south west coastline of the Brest peninsula.
In the afternoon and early evening there were offensive patrols carried out by 51 Spitfires in total in the region of the Brest Penisula and the Laval area. Nine Messerchmitts Bf 109 were encountered north-east of Nantes and, as a result of ensuing dogfights, one was probably destroyed.
No. 234 in the strength of eight Spitfires crossed the coast of France at Plouescat at an altitude of 6000ft under clouds. They set direction for the attack on the installations of the Luftwaffe airbase of Kerlin Bastard. The mission was carried out by these pilots:
|Flight Lieutenant W.C.Walton, Mission Leader||BM200|
|Flight Sergeant P.J.Mall||not indentified|
|Flying Officer (Lieutenant) E.R.Lyon||AR343|
|Flight Sergeant L.M.Stockwall||BL646|
|Flight Lieutenant F.E.Dymond||BL810|
|Flight Sergeant A. Morgan||AR364|
|Flying Officer G.F.Sparrow||BM238|
|Flight Sergeant A.C.Buttler||W3320|
Russell Lyon dressed in American Shearling Winter Flying Suit, B3 Jacket and A3 Trousers, with Boeing Stearman trainer biplane in the background. Photographed during his pilot training in the US, 1941-1942.
[the Lyon Family]
The Spitfires descended to carry out a strafing attack on the airfield at Kerlin-Bastard. According to the squadron’s ORB the watch tower, barracks and hangers were successfully attacked. The formation then proceeded along the coast towards Lorient. It was here that they were bracketed by highly accurate flak.
The Lorient area was known for its formidable AA defences. Nearby was the large and heavily defended Keroman U-Boat base. The flak battery which hit AR 343 was located at Quatre-Chemins, which is at a crossroads between Larmor Plage and Ploemeur, just to the south of Kercaves.
The squadron records show that Flying Officer E.R. Lyon’s Spitfire (Red 3) was hit at 6000ft and was seen to dive away out of control and crash in flames near Ploemeur south-south-east of the Kerlin-Bastard Air Base. Flight Lieutenant W.C.Walton DFC was hit in BM 200 (Red 1), but he was able to retain control long enough to gain height and bale out successfully. near Quimperle, some 20 miles north of Ploemeur.
And so two fighters did not return to the Predannack base at 8.50pm.
F/O E.R. Lyon was posted as Missing in Action and then later presumed dead. Notices appeared in The Scotsman on 25th November 1944 (missing in action) and 30th June 1945 (presumed killed).
The mission from which Russell failed to return was one of many flown after D-Day into this area of north west France, to harass the enemy forces and destroy identified targets. The posting of No. 234 Squadron to RAF Predannack on the Lizard Peninsula had given the ability and range for the Squadron Spitfires to access enemy targets in the areas of western and southern Brittany.
Only a few days after the shooting down of 27th July the area around Lorient became known as the Poche de Lorient. Advancing Allied forces, comprising the 4th Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army, had failed in early August 1944 to take Lorient and the surrounding area. For some 8 months the Allied Forces were therefore unable to access, nor did they decide to carry out any further large scale attack on this area. For the remaining months of the war some 25,000 Germans were then contained in the Lorient pocket, surrendering only on 10 May 1945.
Russell Lyon had no known grave and his name is included amongst 20,400 other RAF Personnel on the Runnymede Memorial.
(Translated from German original)
d) Jabo attack against air base Lorient by 6 Spitfires. Casualties none. 1 shot down near La Roche Bernard, 1 Shot down near Larmor-Plage
28th July 1944 19.10hrs.
On 27.7.44 about 19.54 hrs destroyed one(?) Spitfire near Ploemeur (Lorient). Both(?) destroyed by flak. Particulars and fate of the crew is not yet known. This will be reported later.
To be continued…