With D-Day just months away, in mid-February of 1944 warring nations were busy making preparations for the imminent invasion of Europe.
Thought Nazi high-command wasn’t sure where the landings would take place, they were increasingly privy to supposedly top-secret Allied intelligence, and to hedge their bets they’d spent years transforming the continent into a fortress.
Built largely by slave labor, the Atlantic Wall consisted of approximately 3 million tons of steel and nearly 460 million cubic feet (1.7 million cubic yards) of concrete, and it stretched approximately 3,200 miles (1,990 km) along the coast between Scandinavia and southern Europe.
Studded with tank and landing craft obstacles, minefields, reinforced fortifications, bunkers, pillboxes and armored artillery positions, it presented a formidable, and in some cases virtually impenetrable bulwark that threatened to halt the invasion in its tracks.
Meanwhile in Nazi-occupied France, thousands of partisans, turncoats, double-agents and saboteurs worked clandestinely for their respective sides, making even the relatively sleepy town of Amiens a center of international intrigue.
Moonlighting as a covert Nazi intelligence agent, a French shopkeeper named Lucien Pieri pieced together a vast network of German sympathizers, many of whom infiltrated not only domestic resistence organizations, but a number of espionage rings set up by British and American intelligence services.
Now sensitive Allied invasion information was being delivered to the Germans at an alarming rate, and to make matters worse, Abwehr and Gestapo brass initiated an aggressive operation to round up foreign agents and local partisans.
For months, this far-reaching counterintelligence “house cleaning” initiative swept across France and the Low Countries, and as a result prisoners began arriving by the truckload at local jails like the one in Amiens.
Then in December, nearly a dozen of the new detainees – those deemed to be the most egregious offenders – were rounded up and executed.
On the cusp of the largest amphibious invasion in history, the situation was becoming increasingly bleak.
That said, a new low was reached the following February, when Raymond Vivant – the highest ranking resistance leader who hadn’t yet been captured – was taken into custody.
Vivant had previously established a vast network of pro-Allied informants who passed German intelligence on to Britain’s MI-6 and the American OSS.
As the personal clearinghouse through which nearly all information passed, Vivant was not only a godsend for the Nazis, but his capture threatened to stem the flow of vital intelligence when it was needed most.
If Nazi interrogators were able to “coerce” Vivant into revealing what he knew, the fallout could be immeasurable.
In addition, his apprehension served as a huge morale-crusher and brought the remaining French liberation networks to their knees.
Shortly after Vivant was captured, it was discovered that American spies and British agents who’d just entered France were being held at Amiens as well.
This seemed to indicate that either the Germans knew they were coming, or at the very least became aware of their identities and intentions shortly after their arrival.
Either way, the Brits and Yanks wanted Vivant freed before he spilled the beans.
Barring that, they wanted him dead, because as they say, dead men tell no tales.
Freeing prisoners deep inside enemy territory during global wars is a tricky business.
British planners knew that sending in small, well-trained special-ops teams with Sten guns blazing would be suicidal, and even if they did manage to get a few prisoners outside the walls, the chances of escaping would be nearly nil.
Hence, Operation Jericho – or Ramrod 564 – was devised.
The operation consisted of both ground and air operations, the former of which would involve covert local collaboration that would begin weeks before the actual attack.
The latter would be carried out by more than a dozen super-fast British Mosquito medium bombers, that if all went according to plan, would drop 500-pound (226 kg) bombs onto the prison walls allowing those trapped inside to escape through the wreckage.
The plan was brash, risky and unconventional, but it was so crazy and would be so unexpected, that if the stars aligned even briefly, it might just work.
If not, it’d be a costly and embarrassing debacle, and if dropped inaccurately, the bombs would likely kill the very prisoners they were meant to free.
And even if they hit their marks, other prisoners would almost certainly be executed in reprisal.
Nonetheless, Operation Jericho was going full-speed ahead, and the chips would just have to fall where they may.
In the days leading up to the raid, dozens of undercover local agents began taking up positions in streets and shops adjacent to the prison to acclimate the unwitting Germans to their presence.
In addition, lookouts were stationed nearby to report changes in prison routine, and a number of partisans who were fluent in German donned authentic SS uniforms and did their best to blend in with the day-to-day bustle around Amiens.
On mission day, their job would be to divert frantic soldiers and prison guards scrambling to capture escapees in the chaos.
Likewise, safe houses were set up, bicycles and weapons were stockpiled, and documents were forged that might allow prisoners to slip past hastily set up checkpoints in the early hours of the search.
It was rumored that even a few German prison guards were doing their bit for the operation, as was one incarcerated criminal who made a candle wax imprint of the prison’s master key and had it smuggled out.
The ground preparations were going well, but it was the air portion of the raid that would be the riskiest and most dramatic.
All told, more than two dozen Mosquitos and Typhoons flown by some of Britain’s best pilots would storm across the English Channel, bomb the unsuspecting prison and liberate the Allied assets inside, after which they’d fly back home and land with nary a scratch, just in time for afternoon tea.
To everyone’s consternation, the morning of February 18 was exceptionally cloudy, windy and snowy.
While the pilots slumbered, Mission Commander Captain Percy Pickard, Air Vice- Marshall Basil Embry and Navigation Officer Edward Sismore met to go over the details of Operation Jericho one last time.
Originally planned for February 10, the mission was supposed to be led by Embry, but since he was integral in the planning of the Normandy invasion the duty fell to Captain Pickard.
Though brave, experienced and keen to do his duty, Pickard had never attacked ground targets from low altitudes.
In addition, the less than optimal weather was foremost on everyone’s minds, but postponing the mission wasn’t an option.
When the aircrews were up, fed and caffeinated, they joined their superiors around a large table containing a scale model of Amiens prison and the surrounding ground.
Pointers in-hand, Pickard, Embry and Sismore reviewed vital information like where the pilots and crews would rendezvous with the escort fighters, the targets assigned to each aircraft, and the routes they’d take to get back home after they’d dropped their deadly payloads.
Outside in nearby hangars, ground crews were busy topping off the Mosquito’s fuel tanks and loading the internal bays with both high-explosive and deep penetration bombs.
By mid-morning both men and machines were ready, and at just before 1100 hours, with their Rolls-Royce Merlin engines humming away at maximum power, the pilots lined their birds up and thundered down the runway.
With gobs of horsepower and light wooden frames, the 18 de Havilland Mosquitos were fast and lethal, but the weather just wouldn’t cooperate.
After climbing through the mire and forming up, the pilots pushed their machines to nearly 300 mph (482 km/h) and headed east.
Amiens was less than 240 miles (385 km) away, but even fully loaded and fighting a strong headwind, it would take the Mosquitos just more than an hour to cross the English Channel and arrive over the prison.
As the last plane in the second wave, Pickard’s jobs included commanding the mission and assessing the damage caused by the first wave of aircraft, after which he’d call in more pinpoint strikes if necessary.
There was also a dedicated camera plane to record the event.
Though the intel was spotty, it was estimated that the Nazi prison camp may have held as many as 700 British and American agents, POWs and French partisans, and even more disturbingly, if the reports were true, as many as 100 of them were slated for execution the following day.
In short, Operation Jericho was their only hope for survival.
Flying together through increasingly darkening clouds and driving snow, visibility quickly went to zero, and staying in formation without colliding became almost impossible.
Shortly into the mission four Mosquitos drifted into the haze and lost radio contact with the others, and another’s engine caught fire forcing it to return to base.
Now with a rapidly dwindling force, the success of the mission is even less certain.
Somewhere nearby in the soupy mess, 16 Typhoon escort fighters from RAF Westhampnett droned through the fog toward the predetermined rendezvous point, but unable to find the bombers they had little choice but to continue on to the mainland and hope that they’d run into them somewhere west of Amiens.
Then, as if by divine intervention the sky cleared, and moments later the two formations merged over France.
Surprisingly still on schedule, it was just a tick past noon, and below the complacent Nazi prison guards were probably heading to lunch – perhaps their last.
Storming toward the imposing prison just a few hundred feet over treetops and church steeples, German troops immediately recognized the British planes and opened up with small arms and flak.
The Mosquitos were so low that the crews could see the muzzle flashes and hear the cracks, then circling into position the first wave split in two and headed toward the north and east walls respectively.
Fitted with delayed-action fuses, the 500-pounders were designed to burrow deep into the earth before exploding, and if the pilots’ aim was true, they’d reduce the masonry walls to rubble.
Noses slightly down, the bombs detached from the Mosquitoes with reassuring metallic clunks and plummeted downward.
Some missed the mark while others slammed into the walls and detonated with ear-shattering concussions, but when the smoke cleared and Pickard doubled back to take a closer look, he discovered that the eastern wall was still largely intact.
Then the second wave took its turn taking aim and dropping their ordinance onto the inner walls, cell blocks and guard’s quarters, and in the maelstrom soldiers, guards and inmates were killed indiscriminately.
Sensing their chance in the chaos, wary prisoners made their way through the smoke and clamour to the razed walls, but many were gunned down before gaining their freedom.
Two Mosquitos that had been circling overhead were ordered to peel off and bomb the nearby railway station, which if destroyed would hinder German reinforcements from arriving, thereby giving the escapees more of a fighting chance to get away.
Making another pass, Pickard swooped down once again to get an even better view of what was going on below.
Some of the prisoners had clearly made it out, but it was impossible to tell how many, and with the Nazi jailers so close at their heels he couldn’t risk strafing, so he reluctantly ordered the Mosquitos to head for home.
Pickard made a sweeping turn to follow them, but 8 miles (13 km) north of Amiens he was set upon by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 piloted by German ace Wilhelm Mayer.
Hammering the throttles, Pickard hoped his plane’s horsepower advantage would be enough to outpace the German fighter, but 20 mm cannon rounds from the 190 sheared off the Mosquitos wooden tail.
Pickard lost control instantly, the plane snapped into an inverted roll, and moments later slammed into the ground instantly killing both the pilot and navigator-bombardier J A Broadley.
Meanwhile on the outskirts of town, another Mosquito was leading a small formation against a Flak position that had just opened up on the main group.
Cannons blazing, they released their bombs and permanently silenced the gun, but as they accelerated away the lead plane took multiple rounds of unknown origin through the cockpit.
Flight Lieutenant R W Sampson was killed, but wounded pilot A I McRitchie managed to make a fast belly landing in a snowy field nearby where he was promptly taken prisoner.
The rest of the Mosquitos and Typhoons made it home safely.
All told more than 100 prisoners died during Operation Jericho, some from bombs, and others who were shot while attempting to escape.
The bombing of the railway station helped, but hastily organized German search parties were able to recapture more than 170 of the 250 escapees within 48 hours.
Others made it to friendly countries or were rescued, while a few were never seen again.
Though successful in some respects, Operation Jericho has always been plagued by controversy and misinformation.
Mission details remained classified long after the war ended, but the following nagging questions always remained –
Who ordered the mission?
Were there really hundreds of ultra high-level operatives imprisoned in Amiens?
Was the risk worth the reward?
And perhaps most importantly, whatever happened to Raymond Vivant?
Even now it’s often alleged that though the RAF ordered the mission officially, MI6 was really calling the shots.
For their part, the RAF claimed that French resistance had requested the raid.
Decades after the fact, it was discovered that no mass executions were planned, and that the most sensitive prisoners for whose benefit the mission was supposedly carried out, may not have even been imprisoned in Amiens when initial planning commenced.
Whatever the case, some military historians believe that the prisoners and airmen who perished may have been little more than unwitting pawns in a much larger, murkier and more clandestine gambit, the details of which may never come to light.
In the end we’ll probably never know, but Operation Jericho clearly gave the resistance a much-needed shot in the arm, and it also increased English morale in the face of the Nazi juggernaut.