Sunday, 31 January 2016

Latécoère 298 torpedo bomber in the Battle for France

"..On 23 May 1940 some eighteen Latécoère 298s dive-bombed bridges and road junctions between Boulogne and the river Somme...".  (William Green in 'Warplanes of the Second World War' volume 6)

The best aircraft in the world in its class in 1939 according to Morareau and Ledet in their book " Le Latécoère 298 ". First flown in May 1936, at the outbreak of the war, Laté 298s were operated by no fewer than seven escadrilles de Torpillage in the Aéronavale. But the Latécoère 298 never launched a torpedo in anger, being largely deployed on missions for which it was hardly suited and for which its crews had not been trained - bombing and ground-strafing missions against German columns in northern France. The following account provides a rare glimpse (in English) of the reality of what happened to the Latécoère 298-equipped escadrilles (squadrons) of the French naval air arm in May 1940..

Having evacuated Boulogne on 21 May 1940 and come under fire from French anti-aircraft guns over Dieppe, the Latécoère 298s of escadrilles T2 and T3 had reached the relative safety of Cherbourg on the Cotentin Peninsula.

On the morning of 23 May, led by their CO, Lt de vaisseau Marraud, six Laté 298s of escadrille T3 were airborne at 05h00 from Cherbourg tasked with bombing any German armour encountered in the vicinity of Boulogne ; the secondary target was the rail bridge over the shipping canal near Noyelles-sur-Mer. Marraud's T3.1 was hit by anti-aircraft fire south of Boulogne, succeeded in getting as far as Outreau before being hit again and having to carry out an emergency ditching off the Cap d’Alprecht, south of Boulogne (off Le Portel). Marraud and his crew escaped unhurt. Second-maitre Etienne in T3.2 had escorted the CO out to sea and ensured that his crew were picked up by the French torpedo boat Mistral. Crossing back over the coast in search of targets Etienne strafed anti-aircraft positions on the Samer-Montreuil road. He jettisoned his bombs before returning to Cherbourg, his munitions exhausted. Near Le Touquet, two more sections (2x2 aircraft) were also met by anti-aircraft fire but there were no German columns on the road. The aircraft jettisoned their bombs on the Noyelles bridge over the Somme - without hitting it - and returned to Cherbourg at 09h25. Two other  Laté 298s were reportedly shot down by Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

At 10h09 on the morning of 23 May, four Latécoère 298 floatplanes from escadrille T2 were dispatched from Cherbourg  to find and bomb German armour reported between Samer and Boulogne. Lt de vaisseau Jacques Lamiot was one of the pilots who flew the mission and he later recalled;

"... We overflew the coast at Boulogne and followed the road in the direction of Abbeville. Keeping our eyes peeled we scoured the road and the surrounding areas but could spot no signs of life, neither friendly nor enemy, neither civil nor military. We headed back to Boulogne flying at 1,000 metres, a height that would enable us to thwart any diving attack and which allowed us to be able to see what might have been hiding under the tree cover. Suddenly we were caught in a hail of anti-aircraft fire. Initially we were unable to spot where it was coming from although my gunner finally indicated that he could see muzzle flashes some way behind us. With there being no sign of any armour the decision was made to attack this battery which was on a small hill. I gave the signal. But while we'd had our eyes fixed on the ground we had failed to take notice of a line of fighters some way off heading in our direction and which, based on the assurances that I had been given prior to departure, I had assumed were RAF aircraft defending the sector. Just as I was about to let down on a firing pass I found myself caught up in a burst of tracers; what I took for Hurricanes were in fact Messerschmitt Bf 109s and the lead aircraft just avoided colliding with me by a whisker..."   (Icare No 61)

The  Laté 298s of T2 paid a heavy price - Lv Lamiot carried out an emergency landing, engine ablaze, his gunner (Quartier-maître Paul) dead and his radio operator (Second-maître Thénaisie) badly injured. In the Laté flown by EV1 Huet, his gunner, SM Coucal was killed before the pilot ordered his radio operator to take to his chute; Huet put down at sea but the Me 109s strafed the aircraft injuring the pilot. T2-2 got back to Cherbourg QM Payol wounded while T2-4 was reported missing ; the crew (seconds-maitres Halgand and Le Pezron, both wounded and quartier-maître Tassel, who died of his injuries) were taken captive. At 12h15, four more Latés from Cherbourg attacked the Fort de la Crèche (a coastal battery outside Boulogne) : although the target was hit, information that the Fort had been occupied proved unfounded. There were no losses. Later that afternoon four Laté 298s of T2 carried out a strike on a rail bridge over the Abbeville canal at St Valéry sur Somme, which the Laté 298s of T3 had failed to hit that morning. The sortie was again a failure but all the aircraft returned.

(Below; Laté 298 downed on 23 May 1940)