When two RAF Mosquitos brought down three Luftwaffe Ju 88s

Toulouse, the evening of January 6, 1944 and Mosquito night fighters were on the prowl over occupied France. Gilles Collaveri details a night that brought an end to three Ju 88s

January 1944, the German army was firmly dug in all over the southwest of France. The Luftwaffe was still benefitting from a certain degree of supremacy in the sky and its young pilots performed night training flights with a feeling of relative security. The Junkers Ju 88s of the squadron Kampfgeschwader 76 were based in Toulouse and the inhabitants of this region were accustomed to aircraft flying by night with their navigation lights switched on.

Mosquito
Looking for trouble: Luftwaffe aircraft returning to base were fair game for RAF night fighters like the Mosquito, which would lurk around an airfield and strike as they came in to land
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De Havilland Aircraft Museum Mosquito
A Junkers Ju 88 typical of the type flown by Kampfgeschwader 76
AIRBUS CORPORATE HERITAGE VIA GILLES COLLAVERI

However, by the beginning of 1944, the Royal Air Force was increasingly targeting the airfields used by the Luftwaffe. British night fighter activity ramped up as the RAF set out to harass German aircraft returning from missions or performing training flights.

“Suddenly, Lawson opened fire and the German crew realised they were under attack”

De Havilland Aircraft Museum Mosquito
Mosquitos in flight: Night fighters tended to operate singularly or would set off in pairs and then separate so as not to get in each other’s way
A LAWSON VIA GILLES COLLAVERI

On the night of January 6/7, 1944, the RAF targeted the Luftwaffe squadrons operating near Toulouse. Two Mosquitos from 23 Squadron took off from Sardinia with the objective to destroy enemy aircraft in the area. Led by Wing Commander ‘Sticky’ Murphy, they flew to Toulouse. Murphy was among the first British pilots to have dropped secret agents in France with Lysanders and was awarded his nickname after becoming stuck in the mud one night in a French field.  

De Havilland Aircraft Museum Mosquito
RAF night fighters would often monitor the activity of German aircraft, taking off once they had turned for home and following them to their airfields, attacking when they were most vulnerable
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The second Mosquito was flown by Squadron Leader Alexander ‘Alastair’ Lawson, with Pilot Officer Gordon Robertson flying as his navigator. Lawson and Robertson were flying their usual Mosquito, bearing the serial number HJ788 and the squadron code YP-F. It was a bright, moonlit night, which at this stage was of benefit to the British crew as their Mosquito Mk VI was not equipped with radar, so any interceptions they hoped to make would have to be made visually.

The combat report filed by Lawson and British Intelligence Ultra messages have enabled us to work out the chain of events as they unfolded that night. (Note: although the German reports were coded with the famous Enigma machine, British Intelligence was able to translate the reports and such messages were stored in the so-called Ultra files – the Most/Ultra Secret intelligence files).

With landing gear and flaps lowered, Junkers 88 F1+DU was preparing to land. Unaware of any enemy aircraft operating in the vicinity, the Ju 88 was flying over the hilly terrain surrounding Toulouse and its pilot was most likely focused on his final approach to the runway. Suddenly, Lawson opened fire and the German crew realised they were under attack. They immediately alerted air traffic control of the situation, but Lawson made a second attack and this time managed to bring the Ju 88 down. It crashed into the hills of Vieille, Toulouse, killing the four crew members on board.

Mosquito
A night fighter variant of the Mosquito with its formidable nose armament visible
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Strike two

A second Junkers Ju 88 was also attacked by the Mosquitos. The German report revealed: “While night flight training on the Toulouse-Bordeaux-Cahors–Toulouse circuit, the aircraft was attacked by a night fighter (probably a Beaufighter) while it was about to land at Toulouse.

Thanks to a sharp turn, the pilot succeeded to get rid of the night fighter and after waiting a long while, was able to come back and land. Although heavy damage was inflicted on the fin and the tyres, the pilot could land but the aircraft could not taxi on the runway because of the damage to the tyres. The crew’s behaviour and the management of the landing had been perfect. A diversion to another airport was impossible because of the damage inflicted to the aircraft and because a general alert ‘Enemy Attack’ had been received concerning the South of France.”

A third Junkers Ju 88, coded F1+EV also ran into difficulty that night. However, it was brought down by its own side as the German searchlights blinded the pilot, who lost control of his aircraft, and it crashed near the village of Cugnaux.

The German report detailed what happened: “Several times, the Junkers 88 was fully illuminated by four searchlights, two on the front, which did not let him go, although many recognition light signals were emitted by the aircraft. The aircraft turned left, lost altitude, being continuously lit up by the searchlights. Before the orders were given to switch off the searchlights, the aircraft crashed in a sharp left turn, with the searchlights still on it, until 150 metres high, and although the recognition lights were switched on. The flak crew were questioned and they declared that the recognition signals were not seen, however, these signals were seen by Ofw Schoeler, Drews, Obltn Sauer, Knoedler and Hauptmann Beyer. The Estimated Arrival Time, the heading and the altitude of the Ju 88 were information known by the flak crew. When the accident occurred, there were no night fighters in the area. This crash has been clearly caused by the searchlights illuminating the aircraft too long and certainly blinding the pilot. The court martial of the Air Division N°2 has been informed and will be in contact with the corresponding court martial of the flak crew.” The aircraft came down near Francazal airport and the Mosquitos witnessed the crash, with Squadron Leader Alexander Lawson confirming in his logbook: “Enemy aircraft destroyed by its own flak.”

“A third Junkers Ju 88, registered F1+EV also ran into difficulty that night. However, it was brought down by its own side as the German searchlights blinded the pilot”

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Alexander Lawson, pictured during the war years. He would finish his RAF career credited with three kills
A LAWSON VIA GILLES COLLAVERI
Night Fighter pilot Alexander Lawson, pictured on the far right
Night fighter pilot Alexander Lawson, pictured on the far right
A LAWSON VIA GILLES COLLAVERI
Mosquito cartridge
Mosquito cartridge
A spent cartridge from the Mosquito of Sqn Ldr Lawson that brought the Ju 88 down that night
GILLES COLLAVERI

Both Mosquitos returned safely to their base and this successful raid was mentioned in a victorious RAF press release on February 12, which declared: “In addition to the train and transportation attacks, during the Intruder Missions on the airfields in the South of France, our Mosquitos attacked the enemy bombers while they were taking off or landing, and obliged them by their presence alone, to stay on the ground. In January, more than 2,000 intruder missions have been accomplished by our aircraft. It must be noted that on the night of 6/7 January, Mosquitos of Squadron 23 shot down three enemy aircraft over Toulouse, and they triggered the crash of another aircraft which was shot down by mistake by its own anti-aircraft guns.” (Note: the RAF overestimated the score that night by one aircraft.)

 

60 years later

Thanks to the archives and local testimonies, the places where these aerial engagements took place have now been located. The remains of the first Junkers were found and identified on the hills south of Toulouse. Parts of the aircraft recovered had markings in German, confirming they belonged to a Luftwaffe Ju 88. Some of the remains recovered include a plate showing how to open the door of the dinghy compartment, a plate that was installed on the rudder pedals and some parts of metal skin still showing camouflage paint – plus, a local resident even used a flap to construct a wood pile shelter.

De Havilland Aircraft Museum Mosquito
Various remains excavated from the crash sites of the three Junkers Ju 88s
GILLES COLLAVERI
De Havilland Aircraft Museum Mosquito
Her Majesty the Queen decorating Lawson during his days as an airline pilot
A LAWSON VIA GILLES COLLAVERI

A surprising discovery also came to light when a farmer who lived near the crash site revealed a cartridge he had kept for more than 70 years. The markings easily identified them as having been fired by Lawson’s Mosquito, which shot down the Ju 88.

The remains of the second Luftwaffe aircraft were found near the airport of Francazal. The deformation on the recovered oxygen pressure indicator confirmed the Ultra report that “the aircraft crashed while on a sharp left turn”.

However, one of the most remarkable discoveries came about after I met the pilot of the Mosquito, Alexander Lawson. After many phone calls and emails, I finally managed to get in touch with him. Sadly, only a few months after our meeting, he passed away, aged 94.

 

Unfriendly fire

In our interview, he talked about his time flying Intruder missions, first with 605 and then 23 Squadron. Remembering his earlier flights in the Douglas Boston, he said: “Our aircraft were initially intended for the French Armée de l’Air, so they had the power levers inverted. The Boston was faster than many German aircraft, so one trick when passing over one that had just switched on its navigation lights was to lower our landing gear to slow down and give us time to shoot at them.

“We would wait for the German aircraft to take off from France, then, when they were turning back, we knew they were returning to their base and took off to catch them by surprise shortly before landing. We adopted a friendly attitude, flying by them and switching on our navigation lights, when they were switching theirs on.”

Lawson was promoted to squadron leader towards the beginning of 1944 and flew many sorties over the Mediterranean frontline, Italy and France. By the end of the war, he had been credited with three confirmed ‘kills’.

After the armistice, Lawson was based in Germany and present during the Nuremberg trials. He revealed: “We used our Mosquitos every day to bring the tapes of the trial back to the BBC. I assisted several sessions of the trials and could see Goering. What an excitement when he committed suicide!”

With the end of hostilities, Lawson received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

He said: “They called me and said ‘You have been awarded the DFC’ so I went to the Ministry to collect it. There was a box full of them and I was told to ‘Just go, take one’. It was given to me with a note signed by the King.”

He continued flying, carrying newspapers from le Bourget airport in an Avro Anson, and also participated in the Berlin Airlift, flying DC-3 Dakotas before becoming a test pilot on BAC 1-11, and flying VC10s with British Caledonian.

Alexander Lawson passed away on January 15, 2015, but his heroism and stories live on.

Alexander Lawson
Alexander Lawson, pictured in London not long before his death in 2015 at the age of 94
GILLES COLLAVERI