A History of 178 Squadron RAF.
The record of the heavy night bombing campaign by Bomber Command against Europe during World War 2 is well known. However less well celebrated is the fact that the RAF had a substantial night bomber force based in the Mediterranean whose campaign over Central and south-eastern Europe was as effective as the Bomber Command one and had considerable effect on the enemy.
In conjunction with USAAF day bombers, the RAF’s night bombers severely disrupted enemy rail and river communications and considerably reduced the output of the vital Romanian oilfields. Much of this work had a direct effect on the enemy’s ability to prosecute the war in Italy and the Balkans and greatly assisted the Russian advances through south and Europe. One of the RAF heavy bomber squadron which flew in this theatre was No 178 whose motto Emissaries of Wrath’ so fittingly described their role.
No 178 squadron was formed at Shandur on the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt on 15th January 1943 from the aircrew of No.160 Squadrons Middle East Detachment, some of the ground crews of the 159/160 Squadron (MEDet) and No.147 Squadron - the latter being a servicing echelon attached to 160. It was commanded by Wing Commander J.J McRay and was equipped with the Liberator II heavy bomber as part of No.205 Group, forming No.240 Wing with 462 Squadron. No 178 was immediately operational and flew its first mission on the night of 16/17th January when three Liberators attacked targets in Tripoli but one. AL6201S failed to return. The squadron then began operating regularly against targets in North Africa. Sicily, Italy and Crete. Heraklion on this island was bombed several times in February in the face of heavy flak and at the end of the month 178 received its first decoration when Sergeant Moses received a DFM.
With the enemy now trapped in Tunisia, the squadron began moving forward to Hosc Raui (also known as Chemines) near Benghazi and was established there by 4th March. That night No 178 mounted its first raid from the new base when six Liberators successfully bombed shipping in Naples harbour. Pilot Officer Champon’s crew in AL638/X failed to return. Shipping in Italian and Sicilian ports were the main targets during March and April in order to prevent re-supply or evacuation of the Axis forces trapped in North Africa. These attacks were usually by five or six aircraft. During one to Bari on Easter Monday 26th April. No 178 lost another crew when AL565/C flown by Flight Lieutenant McGill went missing.
Because of the shortage at Liberators, in May the squadron received some Halifax IIs to supplement them. Both types were then used in raids across the Mediterranean throughout the summer hitting targets in Sicily and southern Italy prior to the Allied invasions, On 4th September Halifax BB414 went down during an attack on Grottaglie though this was 178’s only loss of this type. Later in the month they were replaced by Liberator IIIs. On 1 October No 178 moved base to nearby Terria and later in the month the CO received a DSO and was relieved by Wing Commander D.C. Smythe GM.
Following the Allied landings in southern Italy the squadron hit at communications and logistics targets behind the lines. Shortly afterwards attacks on targets in Greece and Crete were resumed, In addition to night bombing, No 178 also flew mine laying missions off enemy held harbours, though Liberator III BZ891/K was lost whilst on one such operation off Crete on the night of 19/20 November. A couple of weeks later, on 6/7 December. No 178 flew its final Liberator II bombing Operation when AL552/D joined a raid against Greece. It then began conversion to the more capable Liberator B VI which was then flown alongside the B IIIs No 178 was the first squadron in the theatre to receive this Mark and conversion flying continued following a move to El Adem on 1 January 1944. Training then occupied the squadron for several weeks. However it soon returned to operations flying night bombing raids over Italy and the Balkans as part of the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force bombing campaign.
On 1 March the squadron moved to Italy being based a Celone near Foggia and From there soon began attacks deep into Italy and south-eastern Europe. Some of these raids were against heavily defended targets and sometimes losses were heavy with three of 178’s Liberators being lost during a raid on Plodiv on 19/20 March. Italian targets also featured, on 1 April for example the Macchi aircraft factory at Varese was attacked. However on the 8th three of its Liberators joined 19 Wellingtons to begin the mining of the River Danube - a vital waterway. No 178’s aircraft each laid four mines in the river east of Belgrade after which they strafed barges. Mining operations were no sinecure however as the mines had to be dropped from under 200 feet. Mining sorties were thus only flown in full moonlight and continued through April and May. Marshalling yards at Bucharest in Rumania were hit on the 16th but the main bombing target during April was the port of Genoa. During one raid on the night of the 28th FV962 flown by Flight Sergeant Steele was hit by flak and set on fire. The navigator and one of the gunners managed to extinguish the flames and the aircraft successfully returned to Celone. Flak and the unpredictable weather, rather than night fighters were the main dangers on these raids - BZ930/S being hit by flak whilst mining near Bucharest on 5 May. The tail was damaged and Pilot Officer Allingham the rear gunner killed, but nonetheless Flight Lieutenant Lewis managed to get the aircraft home. Others were not so lucky and 178 lost two aircraft against Bucharest and one against Budapest during May. During June the squadron concentrated on attacks against the Hungarian and Romanian rail networks in support of the Soviet offensive in Romania. Targets in Austria and southern Germany as well as the vital Romanian oilfields were struck in June and RAF attacks virtually made the Lwov - Cernauti railway almost untenable, thus forcing further traffic onto the Danube. Thus on I July the mining of the Danube recommenced when 16 Liberators and 53 Wellingtons of 205 Group dropped 192 mines in the biggest operation of the mining campaign: No 178 returned the following night too. The mining had severe effects on the enemy as several ships were sunk, blocking this vital waterway and by August the volume of material transported had been reduced by almost 70 per cent.
On 4 July the squadron moved to Amendola, another of the Foggia group of airfields, and from there on the night of the 7/8th raided rail targets at Feursbrunn in Austria: two aircraft. BZ930/S and EV822/V were lost.
Bombing and mining operations continued into the summer and by the end of July 178 was equipped solely with Liberator B VIs. In August as the Soviet Army approached Warsaw the underground Polish Home Army under General Bor-Komarowski rose against their Nazi oppressors. However the Soviet advance paused and therefore the only practical help available to the Poles were air supply drops by allied squadrons from Italy.
Initially the Special Duties units, No 148 Squadron and No 1586 (Polish) SD Flight began operations to Warsaw, but heavy losses soon required that they be reinforced. Thus on 13 August, 178 and 31 Squadron SAAF were tasked with dropping supplies to the beleaguered Home Army in Warsaw which involved a round trip of 1800 miles, most of it over heavily defended enemy territory. Drops had to be made in the very heart of the now burning city, with the Krasinski and Napoleon Squares being the main drop zones. So that night, 13/14th August No 178s Liberators left for Warsaw and most dropped their loads. Drops were from around 406 feet usually in the face of heavy fire, some of which appeared to come from the Soviets along the Vitsula River. Flying Officer McRae’s crew in EV961/C failed to return. The following night No 178 dispatched eight aircraft but conditions were increasingly bad and the dropping force suffered heavy losses No 178 lost three crews, those of Flight Lieutenant Thyer (RG873/Q). Lieutenant, Lawson (KG828/F) and Flight Sergeant Baxter (EW264/X), others were damaged. Thus depleted the next night 15/16th, No 178 could only send three aircraft. Pilot Officer Sanders in KG838 and Sergeant Wilson in KO933 delivered their Loads though the third aircraft returned early with engine failure. Other of the squadron's crews operated over Southern France in support of Operation 'Dragoon'. The squadron sent three more Liberators to Warsaw on the 16/17th with Flight Lieutenant Wright's crew in KG9331P being shot down with only one survivor, only Flight Lieutenant Raws crew successfully dropped.
In spite of unsurpassed gallantry by the aircrews in the face of heavy losses, very little of the material dropped was reaching the Poles and the missions were temporarily suspended. They were later re-instituted for a short time, and 178’s part in this tragic episode also continued for a short time, in spite of losing nine aircraft in less than two weeks. Four crews operated on 10/11 September but eventually the Polish rising was brutally crushed. The Warsaw operations had been a bloody and shattering experience for the squadron.
It took the squadron a little time to recover from its heavy losses over Poland but in September it flew further raids over Central Europe and the Balkans. At the end of the month No 205 Group Squadrons also began supply drops to partisan forces in Yugoslavia and northern Italy. Some of the drops were flown in daylight. No 178's 12 Liberators dropping 144 containers from low level on 30th September for example.
Mining missions to the Danube also continued with KG942 being lost on one sortie on 5 October one of three losses during the month. On the 20th four Liberators and 18 Wellingtons mined the Danube west of Budapest, north of Gyar and east of Eszcertgum in the last mission of this mining phase.
Partisan supply drops near Gornji grad occupied the squadron during early November though two of 178's aircraft were lost on 5/6th. Both Flying Officer Denovan s crew in KH100/V and Warrant Officer Stewarts in EW28O/T were thought to have been shot down and only two members of these crews survived. No 178 also continued bombing and flew British troops into Athens at the start of the ELAS rising when the communists tried to seize power.
1945 began in a similar vein though still with the occasional loss, usually due to weather for many drop zones were in mountainous terrain. Bombing operations continued, mainly concentrating on railway and communications targets in northern Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia. On 18th March for example No 178 bombed railway yards at Vicenza and the following night rail targets at Bruck in Austria were hit. During another raid against the rail junction at Pragersko on the 20th an ammunition train was hit and exploded causing considerable damage. On the 22nd 178’s target was the marshalling yard at Villach in Austria. a difficult target in a deep valley. One of 178’s Liberators, KH209 was struck from above by an incendiary bomb, caught fire and went down - the squadron’s final operational loss, and a particularly sad one.
Still part of No 240 Wing, during April 178 with other 205 Group Squadrons largely switched to tactical bombing ahead of the 8th Army advance. Sometimes the bombing was as little as 200 yards ahead of friendly troops and greatly assisted in the breakthrough on the Santerno River line; the Group later received the congratulations of the GOC 8th Army for this work. No 178’s final bombing mission was on the night of 25/26th April when 12 Liberators formed part of a 61 aircraft raid on the marshalling yards at Freilassing near Salzburg in the face of heavy flak around the target. Later that night another aircraft dropped leaflets over a number of towns on the Adriatic coast.
Enemy forces in Italy surrendered on 6 May so the bomber squadrons immediately switched to flying petrol and supplies into Rivolto to support the 8th Army advance into Austria. Eleven of 178’s Liberators flew supply sorties on the 7th for example and these continued for some time.
During almost two and a half years on operations No 178’s crews had earned it a high reputation and its members had been awarded at least four DSOs, 26 DFCs and two bars, and 13 DFMs.
After a time flying supplies north No 178 was switched to trooping flights under Operation Exodus’, taking tour expired troops home to the UK. For this the Liberators were fitted with rudimentary bench seating in the bomb bays allowing 27 passengers to be carried. It remained on these duties for several months and transport flying continued following a move to Em Shemer on 25 August. After a few months in Palestine No 178, no’. Commanded by Wing Commander T.M. Whidham. moved at the beginning of November to Fayid in the Canal Zone to form part of the RAF's Middle East bomber force. There it began to convert to Lancaster Ills and gradually the Liberators were ferried away, the last being delivered to Gianaclis in January 1946.
The squadron soon built up to full strength of Lancasters and trained to an operational state, though post-war demobilisation caused considerable problems. However, on 15th April 1946 post-war changes caught up with No 178 which was renumbered as No 70 Squadron following a short but very distinguished existence as part of the lesser known RAF bomber force which did such good work in Southern Europe.
During its brief service No 178 squadron’s aircraft wore no distinguishing unit codes or markings