The dreaded Gestapo rounded up many members of the French Resistance in northern France in late 1943, and consigned them to the Amiens Prison. Word made it out that the Germans planned to liquidate their captives, and that they would start off with a mass execution of over 100 Resistance and political prisoners on February 19th, 1944. A precision air raid to breach the prison’s walls and allow the inmates an opportunity for a mass jailbreak was requested, and the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force drew up plans for Operation Jericho.
To find the target was the easy part of the mission. The Amiens Prison was a conspicuous building with high walls, located in an open area adjacent to the long and straight Albert-Amiens road. The hard part, in the days before smart weapons, was how to carry out the mission without too much collateral damage. How to drop the bombs in order to blast the outer walls and kill many guards, yet not destroy the prison and kill too many of the very prisoners the operation was intended to help.
Operation Jericho’s planners accepted that some or many prisoners would die in the raid. However, it was reasoned that they were slated for execution anyhow, and the risk of death in a breakout attempt was better odds than the certainty of execution. So with that grim logic, both Allied authorities in London and the French Resistance signed off on the attack. Those responsible for the mission determined that the plane most suitable for such precision work was the de Havilland Mosquito.
The raid was pushed back repeatedly because of poor weather, until finally on February 18th, 1944, just one day before the scheduled mass executions, the decision was made that it had to be now or never. Despite heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up over the English Channel with Typhoon fighters that were to provide them a protective escort. The attackers flew low, and took a circuitous route until they reached the town of Albert to the northeast of Amiens. They then followed the long and straight Albert-Amiens road to approach the prison from that direction.
1. A Tactical Success, But a Controversial Mission
The plan was for the first Mosquitoes to bomb and breach the Amiens Prison’s outer walls. They would be followed by other Mosquitoes, which would bomb the guard barracks and cafeteria. The raid was timed for lunchtime, to catch as many German guards as possible as they sat down for their midday meal. The raiders arrived at noon, armed with 500-pound bombs with delayed fuses to allow the Mosquitoes to fly out of the blast zone before their munitions went off. They successfully breached the outer walls, then the guardhouse was struck and destroyed. Many guards were killed, along with collateral damage prisoners in the vicinity. Once prisoners were observed pouring out of the breached walls, the raiders departed and flew back home.
Operation Jericho was a tactical success, but the results were mixed. The bombing was pinpoint accurate by the standards of the day. The walls were successfully breached, which allowed the prisoners an opportunity for a jailbreak. At the cost of three Mosquitoes and two Typhoons, 50 Germans were killed. However, 107 of the 717 prisoners were also killed. 258 prisoners did manage to escape, but 182 were recaptured. Controversy erupted after the war when some in the Resistance denied that they had ever requested that the prison be bombed. Additionally, no evidence emerged that the Germans had planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading