It was a controversial raid with mixed results, but the concept of precision attack was ahead of its time.
On February 18th 1944, the Royal Air Force sent nine de Havilland Mosquitos and a dozen escorting Hawker Typhoons to attack Amiens Prison in German-occupied northern France. Dubbed Operation Jericho, the attack was carried out with uncommon daring and rare precision. The objective of the raid was to free French Resistance and political prisoners being held in the prison.
The Mosquito bombers succeeded in breaching the walls and buildings of the prison, as well as destroying a barracks housing guards. Out of the prisoners held in the prison, 102 were killed, 74 wounded and 258 escaped. The escapees included 79 free French Resistance and political prisoners. Eventually roughly two thirds of the escapees were recaptured.
By mid-In 1943, many members of the French resistance movement in the Amiens area had been caught by the Germans and imprisoned in Amiens Prison. Some had been betrayed by collaborators and the entire movement in the area was at risk. By December 1943, 12 members of the resistance had been executed at the prison and intelligence determined that more than 100 other prisoners were to be shot on 19 February 1944. French resistance fighter Dominique Penchard began sending information about the prison to London, including details of the layout, defenses, and guard duty rosters.
When two Allied intelligence officers were captured and sent to Amiens prison, a precision air attack on the prison was requested and the mission was allocated to the 2nd Tactical Air Force. The prison was located adjacent to a long straight road and surrounded by high walls. The guards ate in a building next to but distinctly separate from the main prison building. It was determined that the most effective time to attack would be lunchtime in order to eliminate as many of the guards as possible.
The rest of the ordnance to be dropped had to be allocated so that when hitting the main prison walls, they were breached and the cell doors sprung open without the building being destroyed. It would not be enough to simply destroy the guards’ mess hall. The outer walls would have to be breached in order to allow any of the prisoners to escape. With approximately 700 inmates in the prison, loss of life would be inevitable. However it was thought that many of the prisoners had already been condemned to death and the raid would provide at least some chance for escape.
140 Wing of the Royal Air Force’s Second Tactical Air Force was selected to carry out the raid using Mosquito Fighter Bomber Mk VIs. The Wing was based RAF Station Hunsdon in Hertfordshire and consisted of 18 Mosquitos from No. 464 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, No. 487 Squadron Royal New Zealand Air Force, and No. 21 Squadron Royal Air Force. The Wing Leader was Group Captain Percy Charles Pickard (winner of the Distinguished Service Order with two bars and the Distinguished Flying Cross). Though Pickard was an experienced pilot and leader, he was inexperienced in low level attacks and had only 10 hours-worth of specialized low-level conversion training at Hatfield.
The Mosquitos of 487 Squadron were to target the prison guards’ mess hall and to breach the prison’s outer wall in two places. 464 Squadron was to breach the main walls if no prisoners were seen escaping. As requested by those prisoners already aware of the proposed mission, 21 Squadron was assigned to bomb the prison and all in it. Prepared and ready to execute Operation Jericho beginning on February 10th, the raid was to be led by Air Vice-Marshal Basil Embry. Escort for the Mosquitos was to be provided by 14 Hawker Typhoons from 198 Squadron and 174 Squadron Royal Air Force.
Because Air Vice-Marshal Embry was involved in the planning for the upcoming invasion at Normandy he could not be risked during the attack. Group Captain Pickard took his place. The mission was delayed by very poor weather, which worsened after February 10th with low scud clouds and snow across northern France. But by February 18th it was not possible to wait any longer and the 18 Mosquito fighter bombers, along with a single PR (photo-reconnaissance) Mosquito were prepared for the mission.
The crews were briefed at 0800 local time under high security. This was the first time any of them had been made aware of the target. Pickard was to bring up the rear of the second wave of aircraft, to assess the damage and to call in 21 Squadron if necessary. In the event of anything happening to Pickard’s aircraft, the crew of the PR Mosquito would broadcast the signal instead.
The final decision to carry out the attack was made two hours before the deadline for striking the target and the Mosquitos took off from RAF Hunsdon, into weather worse than many of the crews had previously experienced. Four of the Mosquitos lost contact with the remainder of the formation and were forced to return to base. When one Mosquito turned back toward RAF Hunsdon with engine trouble, only nine Mosquitos were left to carry out the main attack.
The attacking RAF aircraft reached the target at one minute past noon. Three of the 487 Squadron attackers aimed their delayed action-fused bombs for the eastern and northern walls of the prison. Two more 487 Squadron Mosquitos made a diversionary attack on the local railway station. The outer walls of the prison were breached but timing necessitated 464 Squadron Mosquitos to circle until the bombs detonated.
Two bombers from 464 Squadron attacked it from extremely low altitude but observers did not see any new damage to the prison after their bombs detonated. Two 464 Squadron Mosquitos bombed the main building as planned, damaging it sufficiently to allow prisoners to exit the building. 487 Squadron bombers scored a direct hit on the guardhouse, which killed or disabled the occupants, and a number of prisoners were killed or wounded, but many of them were able to escape. Pickard observed prisoners escaping and signaled the 21 Squadron Mosquitos to return to RAF Hunsdon. As Pickard started back toward home he and his navigator, Flight Lieutenant John Alan Broadley, were shot down and killed by a Luftwaffe Fw 190.
A total of 255 prisoners escaped, though 182 were recaptured. The diversionary attack on the railway station delayed the arrival reinforcing German troops at the prison by a little more than two hours. RAF losses amounted to three Mosquito bombers and two Typhoon fighters shot down.
Some controversy has persisted over the years about the raid and the necessity for it. In fact, the British have never been able to adequately explain exactly who ordered Operation Jericho. Many of the prisoners who did escape were recaptured and about 100 prisoners were executed by the Germans as “reprisals” for the raid.
Operation Jericho was portrayed in two movies during the 1960s. In the first, 633 Squadron (1964), a resistance leader is captured and imprisoned. The movie Mosquitos raid the prison to silence him, rather than have their important operational plans revealed- presumably by aggressive interrogation by the Germans. The mission in the movie is loosely based on the Amiens Prison raid.
In the second movie, Mosquito Squadron (1969), the Amiens Prison raid is the main story dramatically depicted in the film.