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80th Anniversary of St Leu d’Esserent Raid. Remembering Trevor Hordley.

Remembering today RAF pilot Trevor Hordley and all those who lost their lives with Bomber Command countering the German V-weapons.

Overnight, 80 years ago, Bomber Command’s attack on the underground caves at St Leu d’Esserent proved to be one of the war’s most significant counter measures against the V1 flying bombs. The damage to the caves, in which the V1s were being stored, was extensive and there was a dramatic decline in flying bomb launch rates following the raid.

But it came at a cost, with an intense air battle developing over northern France between the RAF bombers and the German night fighters. Russell Gradwell, a pilot with 9 Squadron, shared his experience of the raid with me when I was writing ‘Sledgehammers for Tintacks’.

‘… the nightfighters were queuing up waiting for us when we crossed the French coast. Fights broke out all around us and we were lucky nobody bothered us until we got about half way towards the target. Then a nightfighter closed in on us. I was lucky I had a rear gunner who was a game keeper in civvie street and his night vision was exceptional . . . he spotted the nightfighter and we fought with it. I think that one of the gunners luckily got a hit on the fighter and knocked the pilot out, because I was corkscrewing and the gunner suddenly screamed to me ‘level out’, which I did and the nightfighter passed just underneath us. Obviously they had knocked the pilot out and he had flopped at the controls with his aircraft returning to flying straight and level. We then carried on to the target but upon reaching it I noticed that we had a wing on fire. We bombed anyway but as soon as we had bombed, I didn’t bother about the camera, I just turned away and we decided to put the fire out. We couldn’t do it. We tried everything. We switched all the fuel off on the port side (where the fire was) and shut both engines down. I was lucky that I had a flight engineer who had been an apprentice at AVRO’s building Lancasters, and he looked for a few minutes and said, ‘I think we’ve had it because the fire is going back, and when it burns the spar the wing will go, and when the wing goes, we go. So I think we had better go while the going is good.’ I agreed with him and we baled out.’

Of the 208 Lancaster and 13 Mosquitos taking part in the raid, 31 aircraft were lost – 142 men were killed, 30 became prisoners and 47 evaded capture. One of those lost was 207 Squadron pilot Trevor Hordley, whose story I wrote up for the book V-Weapons Bomber Command Failed to Return.

Forty years after the fateful night, on 8 July 1995, the flight engineer on Trevor’s crew George Baker accompanied Air Vice Marshal David Dick, President of the No. 207 Squadron RAF Association, to lay wreaths at the dedication of a stone memorial commemorating the crew of Lancaster ND567 – the bomber having crashed in the woods to the rear of the memorial. Then, in June 2013, brother and sister Peter Hordley and Pauline Cole, Trevor’s niece and nephew, visited the memorial, accepting the presentation of a piece of the Lancaster wreckage and laying wreaths at the foot of the commemorative stone etched with the words ‘Morts pour la Liberte souvenez vous’.

Don’t forget the bomber boys.

Published inBomber CommandGeneral