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Bombing of the Sartrouville/Maisons-Laffitte railway bridge


Context

The railway linking Paris to Normandy was obviously of vital strategic importance for the German logistics in the perspective of the June 6, 1944 allied landing. This railway crosses the Seine on a bridge linking Sartrouville on the right side and Maisons-Laffitte on the left side. This bridge was a primary target in the bombing campaign preceding D-Day.

The bridge is located in the middle of an urban area and the underground was worried a bombing raid would mean heavy civilian casualties. According to Bernard Morinais (a local resistant who turned 20 on June 6, 1944), the underground contacted the allies in London and offered to destroy the bridge. The allies declined the offer, fearing that German retaliation on the civilian population would entail more civilian casualties than an allied led bombing.

A first bombing raid took place on Saturday May 27, 1944 around 1400. The bridge was missed. Several bombs fell on the city killing approximately 200 people. A second raid took place the next day, May 28, 1944 around 10.00 again missing the target. Seven more raids followed during the day. A total of 9 bombing raids took place over a 30 hour period, leaving the population in a state of shock. (Source: Bernard Morinais)

   
 Larger Map

The bridge was finally sufficiently damaged to disrupt railway traffic and the Germans started the repair work on Tuesday, May 30 1944 using Russian slave workers. The Germans also added more flak around the bridge. (Source: Bernard Morinais)

 

The June 24, 1944 bombing

Four weeks later the bridge was rebuilt and the underground informed London that a fully loaded train was scheduled to cross the bridge on June 24 at 1900 in order to test the repairs. The allies therefore decided to schedule the bombing at precisely 1900 hoping to destroy both the bridge and the train… (Source: Bernard Morinais) The mission was assigned to the 397th BG based in Rivenhall, England.

The evening before the bombing, co-pilot Ossian Seipel got the information he would take part in a bombing raid on Paris and he got the strange feeling he would not come back. So much so that he decided to burn his letters and give away some of his belongings. (Source: Seipel's Memoirs) Pilot Freal Knox later said to his son that he also had a bad feeling after being briefed about the mission. The reason being that this target had been previously bombed several times thus providing extensive “training” to the German flak. The June 24 raid would follow exactly the same approach and bomb run as the May 27 and May 28 attacks and the Germans would know exactly how to align their artillery. He also knew that German flak would have been reinforced since the previous raids.

On June 24, 1944 at 17.18, 39 B-26 bombers took off from Rivenhall, England. Thirty-six were loaded with two 2,000 pound bombs each. The 3 other B-26 were flying ahead and dropped bundles of aluminium foil meant to saturate the German radars. (Source: Richard Haymond)

Shortly before 19.00, three French patriots with shovels on their shoulders and wearing the uniforms of French railways quietly walked towards a flak unit located near the railway. They slaughtered the two Germans operation the flak with their shovels… (Source: Bernard Morinais)

The sky was cloudless and while approaching the target, the airmen could clearly see the little dark clouds of the flak. Aircraft 42-96127 received a direct hit and crashed immediately avenue de la Fontaine in Maisons-Laffitte killing all six men on board. These 6 men paid the high price for our freedom and should be remembered:

S/Sgt James M Crawford, S/N: 37506385
S/Sgt Scott E. Hoover, S/N: 33291544
2Lt Edward M Lindquist, S/N: O-746663
2Lt Samuel C Neill, S/N: O-687700
2Lt Olivier A. Price, S/N: O-816574
S/Sgt Harold G Vorhees, S/N: 13011177


The 35 remaining B-26 dropped their bombs from an altitude of 9,000 feet. A total of 70 bombs fell on and around the target over a very short period of time... The bridge was hit three times rendering train traffic impossible. However train traffic resumed the next day on Sunday 25. (Source: letter from the Mayor of Maisons Laffitte)

 

Two aircrafts crash in the Paris area

Two other B-26 Marauder were hit by flak during the bomb run: 42-96120 and 42-96121. They were both seen burning in the sky by locals in Aubergenville, 14 miles west of the target.

Aircraft S/N 42-96120 (named "Mama Liz") crashed in Goupillères near Flexanville. Pilot Moses J. Gatewood ordered his crew to bail out shortly before the crash. The five men jumped from an altitude of 3,000 feet. While in mid-air, co-pilot Richard Haymond noticed that the Germans were shooting at them. They were made prisoner shortly after touching ground: 1Lt Walter Delmont Blatchford (S/N: O-743752), 1Lt Richard Haymond (O-812258), S/Sgt Lee Hughes (36382232), William Thomas O’Brien (S/N: 6148980) and William James Snyder (S/N: 32384117)

Pilot Moses Gatewood exited the aircraft from the nose wheels door and landed in an apple orchard. He bailed out from a very low altitude. His descent was therefore very short and thank to the particular topography of the area, the Germans didn’t notice him. Helped by the underground, he managed to reach Spain and was back in London on August 17. His journey to the Spanish border is a rather incredible and fascinating story. Helped by an Alsatian patriot who had infiltrated the Gestapo, he drove several hundred kilometres under German escort and slept in German hotels. Full story available here.

Important note: This crew was usually flying the "Holy Moses". However on that particular day, they were flying another aircraft: the "Mama Liz".

 

Captain Gatewood and his crew
Standing, left to right: Pilot - Moses J. Gatewood, Radio/Gunner - William T. O'Brien, Bombardier/Navigator - Walter D. Blatchford, Co-Pilot - Richard Haymond, Engineer/Gunner - William J. Snyder, Armourer/Gunner - Eldon Lee Hughes. Kneeling, Left to Right: Crew Chief - John Kilmen, Assistant Crew Chief -Virgle C. Gilbertson - Photo from William T. O'Brien collection via Sally Root/Brian Gibbons
 

 

Aircraft S/N 42-96121 crashed in Arnouville-les-Mantes. James Weldon Mellody was the first to bail out. He landed in a tree near Elisabethville-Aubergenville railway station. The tree was immediately surrounded by 6 German Wehrmacht soldiers and a swarm of supportive French civilians who had come to greet him. The French even offered him a glass of wine and walked along with him as he was taken by the Nazis to the Standortkommandantur. Details here.

Ossian Arthur Seipel was the next to bail out and he landed in a field at the intersection of highway N13 and the railway going towards Versailles. He was immediately arrested by the SS and taken to the German garrison in the castle of Elisabethville for interrogation. While on his way to the German garrison, a French civilian made a V sign to him. The SS stopped their trucks and arrested him. It is suspected the man could be Edouard Jumantier who died in deportation in March 1945.

  Sgt James Mellody shortly after being arrested by the Germans
Sgt James Mellody saluted by Robert Mourand shortly after being arrested by the Wehrmacht. See details about this amazing photo

William E. Giffhorn bailed out nearly at the same time as Seipel. However, he opened his chute earlier and the wind pushed him towards a wooded area while he was watching Seipel landing a field. He was helped by a French couple (Lucienne Laprêté and Nestor Lambin) who hid him for the night in their pig pen. When the Germans later came to search the place, Lucienne told them she had seen an airman landing further down the road. Deterred by the smell of the pigs, the Germans didn't want to investigate any further and proceeded in the direction she had indicated (Source: Marianne Heloin Vanura). Giffhorn was then hidden in Arnouville by underground chief Paufique till the liberation of the region by American troops. (Source: William Giffhorn's escape report)

Jerome Ornstein (spelled Orenstein on some documents) bailed out a few seconds after William Giffhorn and Odette remembers seeing him landing in her garden in Epône. The Germans rushed through her house to access her backyard and Jerome Ornstein was immediately arrested. He was then taken to the German garrison in Elisabethville.

It’s unclear where exactly Norman Charles Edwards landed but he probably touched ground somewhere between Epône and Goussonville. William F. Koenig landed in a field between Goussonville and Boinville-en-Mantois. He spent two days and two nights hiding in the woods and was then hidden by the Betton family till the liberation. (Source: William F. Koenig's escape report).

Pilot Freal Knox later told his son that after everybody had bailed out, he turned the ailerons to cause the aircraft to nose over and deliberately crash head on into a field. This served two purposes: 1) Reduce the risk of civilian casualties by making sure the aircraft wouldn’t randomly crash in an urban area. 2) Destroy an aiming instrument called “Norden bombsight” that was located in the plexglas nose of the aircraft. The “Norden bombsight” was an American innovation far more advanced than its German equivalent and the allies wanted to make sure the Germans wouldn't get their hands on it.

  Odette, the woman who saw Jerome Ornstein land in her garden - Odette describing the descent of Jerome Ornstein towards her backyard - © armées.com
Odette describing the descent of Jerome Ornstein towards her backyard on the evening of June 24, 1944
© armées.com

Freal Knox bailed out while the B-26 was diving towards the ground and he landed after a short descent a few hundred yards from where the plane crashed. He was immediately arrested and taken to the German garrison of Elisabethville for interrogation. The next day, the Germans took him by truck to the crash site and questioned him about the B-26. He "played dumb," denying any connection to the aircraft. He was then later taken by train to Germany and was detained in Stalag Luft III.

 

Another B-26 crashed in Glanville, Normandy

Aircraft S/N 42-96177 crashed in Glanville, Normandy in German controlled territory within a few miles from the allied lines. The six airmen bailed out. Although the Germans were shooting at them during their descent, none got killed. Pilot Kenneth H. Powers, Willis H Hudson and Leo R Orifici managed to escape. They were hidden by the underground till they were overrun by advancing allied troops.

The other airmen were arrested by the Germans and spent the balance of the war in German stalags:

1Lt Merril R Gassert (S/N: O-744013)
S/Sgt James Harvey Heywood (S/N: 19099422)
2Lt Paul Warren Mikesell (S/N: O-812290)

 

Two B-26 down in allied controlled territory?

Some sources state that aircrafts 42-96133 and 42-96161 were lost in allied controlled territory. However the reality might not be so grim. According to Brian Gibbons (397th BG historian), 42-96133 crashed landed at home base in Rivenhall and was later salvaged. 42-96161 made a forced landing in England with one engine shot out and was then successfully repaired.

  B-26B-55-MA, Serial # 42-96133, coded 9F*X also known as “Hit ‘N’ Duck”
B-26B-55-MA, Serial # 42-96133, coded 9F*X also known as “Hit ‘N’ Duck” -  Photo from Tim Coleman collection, of Arthur Coyne, (KIA on the 23rd December 1944), via Mr Brian Gibbons, 397th historian.
  B-26B-55-MA, Serial # 42-96161, coded U2*M named “Patty Kay”
B-26B-55-MA, Serial # 42-96161, coded U2*M named “Patty Kay” - Photo from Tim Coleman collection, of Arthur Coyne, (KIA on the 23rd December 1944), via Mr Brian Gibbons, 397th historian.

 

 

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