June 12, 1944 was a fairly bright and sunny day over our part of western Europe. D-Day took place just six days ago. Allied forces were locked in a titanic battle to secure a firm foothold in Normandy. The plan was to capture Caen on Day One if at all possible. Caen was considered to be the Gateway to Paris. There is lots of open country between Caen and Paris -- good tank country. The German Seventh Army, commanded by General Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, was well aware of this situation. Out of a total of ten Panzer divisions in all of Normandy, seven were located in the Caen area, along with several German infantry divisions. The British and Canadians were having a very tough time trying to capture this primary objective.
On June 12th, the British Air Ministry received an urgent message from the French Underground. It said that a division of German tanks was being off-loaded at the Bretigney Marshalling Yard on the southwest edge of Paris. Speed was essential. A field order was sent out to the 386th Bomb Group. In a short time we had 36 B-26s on the way, each carrying eight 500 lb. bombs. I was the Lead Bombardier for the second box of 18 planes. The flight over the Channel was uneventful. Our pilot, Lt. Col. Tad Hankey (Group Operations Officer) kept our box of 18 planes in close and a little below the lead formation. As we flew deeper into France we passed over what we assumed was a German Panzer division not shown on our intelligence map. As usual, I was looking down at the ground below just in case of enemy anti-aircraft fire. I saw what I was looking for -- flashes from several guns firing all at once. On interphone I said just two words, "Turn left"! I should have said, "Flak Coming Up -- Turn Left!" Instead of turning my pilot and close friend, Tad Hankey came back with the question, "Why"? Before I could answer a B-26 just ahead of us exploded from a direct hit that broke the plane into two pieces. I wasn't surprised but I was shocked by this sudden disaster right in front of my face. I don't think any of the crew members ever had a chance to use their parachute. For the first time in my military career I called a superior officer an unprintable name as I said, "That's why, you so and so"! Later I regretted my ill-tempered remark for an incident that was partly my fault. If my regular pilot, Major David Dewhurst, had been at the controls he would have known the reason I just said, "Turn Left"! From the flash of the guns to the explosion of the 88mm shells at our level takes only about seven seconds. This doesn't leave much time for discussion. Our box suffered considerable damage but, thankfully, nothing serious. A few minutes later we saw our target, Bretigney. We spread the formation into six flights of six planes each, except for the plane that was shot down. Bretigney was full of freight cars.
A large new storage area that had been built just west of the yard did not show up on our target photograph. Five of the six Bombardiers hit the target just about as briefed. We never knew how many German tanks we destroyed but we had solid evidence that the yard was jammed with freight cars loaded with fuel and ammunition. As we turned to the left to head for home our cameras recorded huge explosions and smoke, some black and some white, towering almost up to our height of 11,000 ft.-- before we completed our turn. (see Bretigney strike photos # VIII) I was saddened by the loss of our plane and crew. At the same time I was pleased to know for sure that lots of much-needed war materiel would never reach the German Army in Normandy. In all my previous 65 combat missions against all kinds of targets I had never witnessed such destruction. The 386th Bomb Group received a Commendation from the British Air Ministry which stated that reconnaissance photos taken after the attack showed that we had destroyed everything we went after-- and more! Someone in the French Underground could be very proud of their work on this occasion. I hope that person was a beautiful British agent, code named "Madeleine"! Born of Indian and American parents, Madeleine sent countless messages to London using her portable wireless equipment which she carried in a common suitcase. Unfortunately, she was captured by the German Gestapo along about this time. She was tortured for several months but told her captors nothing. She was executed by a German firing squad. A two page story of Madeleine is included in this diary. Some day I may forget my own name but I don't expect ever to forget what happened to me and my group on June 12, 1944.
Albert E. Hill