Operation Jericho was the name given to a raid by the RAF on Amiens Prison on February 18th 1944. Operation Jericho was sold to the public as an attempt to release French Resistance workers being held captive there. The operation was carried out by crews flying Mosquitoes from the RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force.
To an extent a degree of mystery surrounds Operation Jericho to this day as no one is quite sure who ordered the raid and why.
It is known that the Gestapo was holding a large number of Resistance men at Amiens Prison. It is thought that one of the reasons for the raid was that the planners for D-Day believed that these men were vital to the success of D-Day as they would be required to carry out acts of sabotage on transport and communication links to stop the Germans advancing towards Normandy with any speed. Therefore, they had to be released from prison to allow this to happen. There are those who do not support this as a reason for the raid as even with precision bombing, there would be Resistance casualties and no one could predict how many. There was also built into Operation Jericho a plan to simply bomb wholesale the prison if an initial attack did not breach the prison walls and this would have killed many more. So in this sense it would not appear as if the Resistance men’s release was the primary issue.
So why the attack on the prison?
Two Allied intelligence officers were captured in northern France and were also being held at Amiens Prison. No one knew what intelligence they had but there were fears that it was important and might be linked to information that the Germans could associate with an Allied landing. Some believe that the raid was to eliminate these two men and that any Resistance men who managed to escape as a result was a bonus.
The attack was planned for February 18th. The weather on the day was very poor and made flying very hazardous – especially low-level flying. The men who participated on the mission were required to fly at about 50 feet above sea level as the Mosquitoes crossed the English Channel. Group Captain Charles Pickard commanded the attack. He had found public fame in the World War Two propaganda film ‘Target for Tonight’. The overall commander of Operation Jericho was Air Vice-Marshal Basil Embrey who was forbidden to fly, as he was involved in the planning for D-Day.
Eighteen Mosquitoes took off from RAF Hunsdon in Hertfordshire. They were supported by Typhoons. They immediately hit very poor weather and four Mosquitoes lost contact with the other fourteen and had to turn back. The crews later stated that the weather they had to fly in was the worst they had ever experienced. One of the pilots on the raid was Maxwell Sparks of the RNZAF. He later stated that the weather was so bad that when the order to take-off came through “to fly in this stuff” he considered that it was “either some form of practice or some form of practical joke”.
One other Mosquito had to return to RAF Hunsdon because of engine problems. Therefore, Pickard had thirteen Mosquitoes to carry out the attack when the plan had been for a force of eighteen. Nine Mosquitoes were used in the attack while four were held in reserve. The crews themselves had been told that Operation Jericho was to free captured Resistance men and Pickard himself had called the raid “death or glory”.
The crews that crossed the French coast were helped in their navigation to Amiens as all they needed to do was find the main road into the city from the coast and it went in a straight line to Amiens. After crossing the coast, the Mosquitoes flew over Tocqueville, Bourdon, Doullens, Albert and then directly to Amiens following the very straight road built by the Romans.
Film of the actual attack exists as one of the Mosquitoes carried photoreconnaissance equipment aboard.
The first wave attacked the prison at 12.01 targeting the outer walls. They dropped 500 lbs fuse-delayed bombs. These breached the outer wall and offered prisoners a way out of the prison. A planned precision hit on a guardroom killed and wounded many of the German guards thus making escape far easier.
To disguise the target of their attack, two Mosquitoes peeled off from the rest and attacked Amiens railway station – a more probable target from a defender’s perspective. This seemed to work and it took German forces in the city two hours to organise themselves and head towards the prison as they expected further attacks on key points within the city – and the prison did not fit such a description from their point of view.
By the time German soldiers got to the prison some 258 prisoners had escaped, including 79 members of the Resistance. However, 155 of the escapees were recaptured. 102 prisoners were killed in the raid by the bombs.
Charles Pickard and his navigator, Fl Lt. Bill Broadley, were killed just as they started to make their return journey when two Focke Wolf 190 fighters based nearby attacked them. Reports claim that Pickard’s Mosquito had its tail shot off by the German fighters and having no control over his stricken aircraft, he crashed seven miles from Amiens. Maxwell Sparks said that the announcement of the death of Pickard and Broadley was a “terrific shock” not just to the 2nd Tactical Air Force but also to the RAF in general.
Why does the raid remain controversial?
The story put out at the time was that the raid was requested by the French Resistance to allow as many imprisoned Resistance fighters to escape as was possible as they faced execution. In December 1943, twelve members of the Resistance had been executed at Amiens but none were planned when the raid took place. It is now accepted that the Resistance did not, in fact, request the raid and according to a French historian, Jean-Pierre Ducellier, the official RAF version is “sheer lies”. So who did?
Another story put out at the time was that the men who were killed had stated before their deaths that they would prefer to die in a bombing raid rather than face a German firing squad. This, of course, would have put some gloss on the 102 deaths. In fact this information only came from one person, Dominique Penchard, and can’t be verified.
The keys to resolving why the prison was bombed may well have been the arrest by the Gestapo of the Vice-Prefecture of Abbeville, Raymond Vivant. Did he know anything about the plans for D-Day? Vivant may well have been privy to some aspects of ‘Operation Fortitude’ – the Allied plan to convince the German High Command that the Allied invasion would be in the Pays de Calais and not Normandy. It was known that the Gestapo used whatever they thought was needed to get information, including the torture of family members. A secret RAF document found after the war stated:
“Monsieur Vivant was a key member of the resistance in Abbeville and probably had in his possession important secrets of the resistance organisation.” The RAF also later stated, “the attack was generally applauded (in Amiens)” when it became known that Vivant had escaped.
But even this explanation, while seemingly credible on the surface, is disputed by Jean-Pierre Ducellier. Vivant was arrested on February 14th – but the raid had been ordered before his arrest. Ducellier, who has spent years studying the raid, simply does not believe that the British could have pre-guessed his arrest.
So did British Intelligence order the raid and if so why? British Intelligence was divided into two branches in World War Two. SOE was to “set Europe ablaze” as ordered by Churchill. Therefore SOE was active in being disruptive in occupied Europe – sabotaging rail lines and blowing up bridges for example. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) operated on a more discreet basis, collecting information quietly and covertly and not ‘informing’ the Germans that they were there via explosions and derailments, for example.
After World War Two, Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE French division, was asked if he had ordered the operation. Buckmaster was adamant that he had not and said that the raid was “ordered by I don’t know who”.
Did the SIS order the raid? A letter has been found signed by ‘C’ (head of MI6) that thanked the RAF for its part in the raid. Why would he do this if MI6 had had no involvement in the raid? Buckmaster also believed that ‘C’ had ordered the raid.
After Amiens was liberated, the RAF sent one of their officers to the city to find out why the raid was ordered. Squadron Leader Edwin Houghton found out nothing – not even a list of supposed executions that were meant to have been carried out by the Gestapo of men who were saved by the RAF.
What cannot be denied, however, were the flying skills of the men involved. Film shows the Mosquitoes flying at a very low altitude over the Channel to avoid German coastal radar – some crews flew as low as 30 feet above sea level at 350 mph. Radio silence was enforced. The attack on the prison required the crews to fly at 50 feet overland before climbing to 100 feet to drop their bombs – hence the delayed fuses, which also served to protect the incoming waves. Pickard himself had received only 10 hours training in low-level flying but circled at 500 feet to oversee the raid once he had dropped his bombs. After the raid, escorting Typhoon pilots, who flew higher than the Mosquitoes, said that they were overwhelmed by the flying skills of the Mosquito crews. Military historians view ‘Operation Jericho’ as the first ever precision bombing raid.
Charles Pickard died aged just 28. By the time of his death, Pickard had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and the Distinguished Service Order (with two Bars) for outstanding leadership and fighting qualities. He and Broadley are buried in a cemetery near the scene of the raid.