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The Bombardments of Bordeaux

by Cristiano D'Adamo

The city of Bordeaux was first bombed by the Germans the night of June 19th when a formation of 12 Heinkel 111, avoiding the local air defenses, reached the heart of the city. Despite the intervention of the French Air Force's Bloch 152s, the Luftwaffe was able to easily penetrate the new French capital causing 65 casualties and 160 wounded. The mission was intended as a stimulus for the French government to quickly finalize armistice negotiations. Within a few days, on June 30th, the French government would do precisely so.

Following the fall of France, and with the beginning of the Battle of England, the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) was not particularly interested in the Aquitaine capital and the city experienced a few months of tranquility. With the reopening of fluvial navigation along the Gironde, and the arrival of the first Italian submarines, the situation gradually changed; the British began paying attention. At this point in time, the R.A.F. offensive forces (bombardment groups) consisted of Wellington I/IA, Whitley III/V and Hampden aircraft organized into three bombardment groups, the 3rd, 4th and 5th. These groups were based in East Anglia, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. None of these aircraft was fast, armed and maneuverable enough to avoid the German fighters, especially the newer Me 109. Also, these airplanes suffered from the absence of modern navigational systems and crews had to rely on sextants and astrocompasses.

The first British bombardment of Bordeaux area was aimed at the refineries and oil storage facilities in Bec d'Ambès and Pauillac and it was quite successful; well over 70,000 tons of oil products were destroyed. A second bombardment followed the night of October 16th, when 12 Hampdens belonging to the 44th (Rhodesia), and 49th Squadrons (5th Group) took off from Waddington and Scampton. Two airplanes aborted the mission due to foul weather and returned to base, while the remaining aircraft continued on with their cargo of 900 Kg marine mines (Deodar). Of the remaining planes, four delivered their cargo while the other six experienced various breakdowns, with one airplane simply disappearing. The mission was a partial failure.

The night of November 2nd a larger number of Hampdens, along with some Blenheims, returned to the city: in total 32 airplanes. The primary target was the airport of Merignac where 4 hangars and 6 airplanes were destroyed. Amongst the airplanes destroyed were two large four-engine German Kondor K 200s, the so-called scourge of the Atlantic. The night of December 8th witnessed a real show of force: 44 R.A.F. aircraft were sent to Bordeaux. The formation included 29 Wellingtons of the 49th (5th Group), 149th and 115th Squadrons (3rd Group), and 15 Whitleys of the 4th group. This time the target was the city itself and more specifically the Italian submarine base at Bacalan. The bombardment lasted over 5 hours and was facilitated by excellent weather conditions.

In the luminescent night, the "Bassin a Flot" (tidal basin) was perfectly visible and the Wellingtons dropped their bombs from altitudes ranging from 1500 to 3600 feet. Each airplane was loaded with 8 to 13 112 Kg bombs, while the Witleys were instead loaded with 225 and 122 Kg ones. During the bombardment, the German mixed ship (cargo and passengers) Usaramo was hit and it settled on the muddy bottom of the Garonne. Also lost was the tanker Cap Hadid, which caught fire, while the large French passenger ship De Grass was only marginally damaged. This ship had been previously damaged during a German bombardment, but once again it survived. The Italian base, and especially the submarines, had received minimal damage.

The civilian population instead suffered the brunt of the punch; 16 casualties and 67 wounded. Most of the bombs fell at about 2500 to 3000 meters from the base toward the center of the city (Bacalan is to the north). British losses were minimal, only aircraft T2520, a Wellington of the 115th Squadron, was lost near Cardiff along with its 5 crewmembers.

The year 1940 closed with two more bombardments, one on the 26th and another one the following night on the 27th of December. These two attacks focused principally on the airport of Merignac, west of the city. The second was quite substantial; well over 70 aircraft participated, but there was no report of any Focke-Wulf 200 "Kondor" being destroyed.

In March 1941, the Air Ministry decided that the airport at Merignac would be a much more important target than the naval base in Bacalan and so future attacks would primarily focus on the airport. After a long pause, British bombers reappeared the night of April 10th. Once again, the target was Merignac where 11 Wellington cause much damage: two hangars demolished, two FW 200 destroyed, two Heinkell II also destroyed along with a Dornier 215. The R.A.F. lost one bomber. Meantime, aerial reports from British fliers informed the High Command that the number of submarine in port was substantially increasing. A report dated June 22nd, 1941 cited 22 vessels. Fortunately for the Italians, the R.A.F. did not take action.

The following year, 1942, witness very little activity. The night of July 14 and August 5th, Halifaxes from the 83rd Squadron dropped mines along the Gironde. Reports about these attacks can be found in the local newspaper "La Petite Gironde". The newspaper was quite vehement in denouncing these bombings, which inevitably caused great harm to the civilian population. Removing mines would require some time, but the navigable channel within the Gironde was relatively small, thus allowing for quick de-mining.

The year 1943 opened with a new raid the night of January 26th. Nine British Halifaxes belonging to the 6th Group targeted the submarine base at Bacalan. French sources report civilian casualties in the area or rue Achard. With the arrival of the US 8th Air Force the situation changed. The much more sophisticated American bombers made their debut on May 17th, at 12:38 PM in full daylight. Thirty-nine B-24s belonging to the 44th and 93rd bombing group left Davidstow Moor in Cornwall four hours earlier and flaying at an altitude of 2500 feet reached Bordeaux where they dropped 342 250-kg bombs. The damage was substantial: a bomb hit the German submarine bunker causing minor damage (still visible today) while the tidal basin was heavily damaged. One of the two turning bridge spanning the entrance channels was demolished, and so was one of the two sets of locks. The left side of the tidal basin was completely demolished for a length of over 400 meters. Water rushed out of the basin leaving a few submarines grounded into thick mud, but causing minimal damage to the vessels.

Bombs had fallen almost perfectly perpendicularly to the dock causing most of it to sink into the water. The antiaircraft battery 9/22 was hit causing total devastation. Typical of WW II bombing, collateral damage was staggering: cours Saint-Louis and cours Balguerie-Stuttenberg were devastated. The French population has to endure 200 casualties and 300 wounded. The damage to the Axis forces was minimal, the Heer (army) claims 4 dead and 3 wounded, the Luftwaffe 1 dead and 9 wounded, the Kriegsmarine 10 dead and 23 wounded, the Regia Marina 4 dead and 3 wounded, the Todt Organization (in charge of military constructions) 3 dead and 1 wounded. Only one American airplane was lost.

August 24th, 58 B-17 targeted Merignac (Bombing Groups 94, 95, 96, 100, 385, 388, 390). All aircraft returned to their North African bases. Hereafter, American missions become more and more frequent involving more B-17s, P-38s and finally P-51 Mustangs. Raids would become more and more massive, like the one of March 27, which included over 700 B-17 and B-24. During this mission alone, the airport of Merignac was targeted by over 540 tons of bombs. By then, the Italian base had ceased to exist and all submarine operations were under German control.

For the record, the RAF return to the Aquitane skies in late April with Lancasters and Mosquitos. They would come back the 4th of August alternating bombing missions with the Americans. At the end, Allied missions found very little opposition; most of the German 88 mm anti-aircraft batteries had been quickly redeployed to Normandy to halt the Allied invasion. Bordeaux has suffered 545 houses destroyed and 341 damaged. The port was completely unserviceable, gas and electricity severed. It would take months to reopen fluvial navigation and years for the city to recover. Meantime, memories of the Italian submarine base quickly vanished.

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