Having completed 2 air tests on 19th and 23rd April 1942 in Stirling Q9313, Alan embarked on his 12th mission in the same aircraft on 25th April 1942. Under the command of S/Ldr Ashworth, Q9313 took off from Marham at 2126 along with 5 other 218 Squadron Stirlings for what was Alan’s longest operational flight in WW2 (8 hours, 34 minutes). The target was the giant Skoda Works in Plzen, Czechoslovakia, one of largest conglomerates in Europe in the early 20th century, which had been established by the Czech engineer, Emil Skoda, in 1859 and quickly gained a reputation as a leading heavy armaments producer.
Following the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Skoda’s arms production was soon being used to support the Nazi regime with the LT35 tank (Panzer 35 in German designation) deployed in the Polish and French campaigns, as well as Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of Russia in 1941). The fact that most of these weapons were being used on the Eastern Front was a source of great embarrassment for the Czech Government (which was in exile in the UK), particularly regarding its relationship with the Russian High Command.
As a result, the Czech President, Eduard Benes, put pressure on the British Air Ministry to launch an attack on the Skoda Works in the first 6 months of 1942. He believed the destruction of the factory would not only please the Russians, but also boost the morale of Czech people under German occupation. Benes asserted that the best chance of success would be for the raid to be carried out in conjunction with Czech resistance fighters (code name Out Distance) on the ground, who had been trained in the UK (HQ in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire) and then parachuted back into Czechoslovakia in December 1941. Given the unusual circumstances, the operation was deemed to be “top secret” and given the code name “Canonbury”.
The plan required the bombers to fly in at 2000 feet, guided onto the target by a signal from a radio transmitter, known as Eureka, operated by the ground forces, which the Stirling crews could pick up with their onboard receivers, called Rebecca. Unfortunately, the occupying Nazi forces managed to get their hands on the Eureka device, which had been hidden by the Resistance. Despite this major setback, Benes was keen for the raid to go ahead as planned, with the ground forces lighting fires to act as target markers for the bombers. It can be seen from the extract from the Operations Record Book (ORB) below that “10/10 cloud at 2000ft above ground level made pinpointing difficult and only one aircraft identified the target and he believed he bombed north of the target”.
While 5 of the Stirlings made it back to Marham, W7506, under the command of P/O Harrold Millichamp (Royal Canadian Air Force), “failed to return to base, and is classed as missing”, as also reported in the ORB extract. According to the 218 Squadron historian, the Stirling was attacked by a German night fighter and crashed at 0006 hrs in Hugelsheim, 10km NW of Baden-Baden with the loss of all 8 crew, who are buried in Rheinburg War Cemetery. This was Harrold’s 17th mission and W7506 was first 218 Squadron Stirling to be lost on operations. “Canonbury” is also believed to be the only Bomber Command main force operation to have been carried out with the support of local resistance on the ground.
Meanwhile, the commanders of 2 of the other Stirlings were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in recognition of their leadership and bravery. S/Ldr Oldroyd received his award for “displaying skill and courage of a high standard” for returning N3722 to base, even though the aircraft had been damaged by flak and a German night fighter on the trip home. While the citation below from the London Gazette (12th May 1942) describes the outstanding airmanship of P/O Phil Lamason, a Kiwi, who earned his DFC in command of N3721.
Pilot Officer Philip John. LAMASON, (N.Z. 403460), Royal New Zealand Air Force, No. 218 Squadron. One night in April 1942, this officer was the captain of an aircraft which attacked Pilsen. During the return flight his aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter and sustained damage; the hydraulics were shot away and the turret rendered unserviceable, while a fire broke out in the middle of the fuselage. Displaying great presence of mind, Pilot Officer Lamason coolly directed his crew in the emergency and, while 2 of them dealt with the fire, he skilfully outmanoeuvred his attacker and finally shook him off. By his fine airmanship and great devotion to duty, Pilot Officer Lamason was undoubtedly responsible for the safe return of the aircraft and its crew. This officer has completed 21 sorties and he has at all times displayed courage and ability.
After a stint as an instructor on heavy bombers, P/O Lamason went on to complete 44 missions over enemy territory, achieving the rank of S/Ldr, before being shot down on 8th June 1944 near Paris by a German night fighter. Having survived the crash, he evaded capture for several weeks with the help of the French Resistance. A subsequent betrayal resulted in S/Ldr Lamason falling into the hands of the Gestapo, who then transported him to the notorious Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany. As the Senior Officer, he soon became responsible for the 168 allied airmen being held prisoner there. Despite facing the threat of execution by the authorities, S/Ldr Lamason’s selfless and courageous leadership eventually brought about the transfer of these prisoners to a legitimate Prisoner of War camp where they all survived the war.
It should also be noted that Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, 2 of the Czech resistance fighters involved in the Skoda operation, went on to assassinate Rheinhard Heydrich, a very senior figure in the Nazi regime and Reich Protector of occupied Czechoslovakia, also known as the “Butcher of Prague”. Although the attack, codenamed Anthropoid, took place in Prague on 27th May 1942, Heydrich finally died from his injuries on 4th June 1942.
While the attackers fled the scene, subsequently taking refuge in an Orthodox Church in Prague, they were betrayed by one of their colleagues, who revealed their location to the authorities. This resulted in the Church being surrounded by 800 or so members of the SS and Gestapo.
A fierce firefight ensued, killing several of the Czech resistance fighters inside. Faced with the flooding of the crypt by the Germans, the surviving resistance men ended up taking their own lives to avoid being captured. Given the significance of Heydrich, who was considered the architect of the “Final Solution”, the German reprisals for his death were brutal, particularly the destruction of 2 Czech towns, Lidice and Lezaky, where all the adult males were executed beforehand. The story of Anthropoid was recently told in a film of the same name which was released in 2016 and there is a memorial to the Czech Resistance fighters in Leamington Spa which was their UK HQ in WW2.
RAF Bomber Command Losses – 1942: W R Chorley
The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich: C Macdonald
From St Vith to Victory – 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign against Nazi Germany: S Smith
7 Replies to “A Bomber Command Navigator 80 Years On – A Secret Mission to Attack the Skoda Factory in Czechoslovakia: 25/26th April 1942”
More excellent history, and detailed. I never knew about the link between air and ground forces on this op. Looking forward to your next upload.
Very poignant Stuart, the link to the ground forces involvement is very interesting and adds another dimension to the Anthropoid story that I didn’t know.
Unthinkable, undertaking an eight hour + mission, you must be very proud of your father.
Thanks Chris – I never realised my dad had a link to the memorial in Leamington Spa.
Great history I love it cannot get enough,
Thanks Paul – more to come as I have only covered 12 of my dad’s 22 missions so far
Fascinating Stuart, and exceptionally well put together.
I look forward to reading the others.