RAF Air Raid on St Peter Port 17th January 1942

On 17th January 1942 three Bristol Beaufort Mk Is of No. 86 Squadron RAF, attacked shipping in St Peter Port, Guernsey. In the photograph above the aircraft are passing over St Julian’s Pier at its junction with White Rock Pier. Bombs can be seen falling from the aircraft in the left-hand corner, which was itself nearly hit by bombs dropped from the photographing aircraft (seen exploding at the bottom). Photograph is © IWM C 2249.

Having seen the photograph it intrigued me and I thought I would find out a bit more about the raid. I had read some mentions of it before but hadn’t really looked at it in more detail.

When it comes to air raids on the Island it is mostly the German raid immediately prior to the taking of the Islands that is written about. This is entirely understandable given the large loss of life during that German raid. A subject I will cover in another post.

Below is a Royal Navy map of the harbour to provide some context for those not familiar with it as well as a map showing the location of the Islands. On the map of the harbour the RAF aircraft approached at low level from the top right of the map.

Map of St Peter Port harbour as it was during the Second World War

The aircraft took off from RAF St Eval in Cornwall, top left of the above map, having only moved there seven days earlier. Other aircraft types did fly to the Channel Islands from St Eval during the course of the war. One of which was an Avro Anson of No. 217 Squadron which had been on a photographic mission ditched during a storm west of Guernsey on 16 October 1940. The crew of 4 came ashore in Guernsey and taken as POW’s.

These are two extracts from the 86 Squadron operations record which I tracked down in the National Archive. These give an account of the raid from an official point of view.

Extract of No. 86 Squadron Operations Record page 1

The above extract refers to “excellent photographs” of the raid being taken but despite searching all of my usual sources the one at the top of the page is the only one that I am able to trace taken by the RAF.

Extract of No. 86 Squadron Operations Record page 2

It isn’t really surprising that they received a lot of incoming fire given that the German fortifications around the harbour and out towards the south of the Island, which was their flight path away from the raid, were fairly formidable.

The gallery below this gives a flavour of what the likely armaments were but as the photographs aren’t dated not all may have been in place in 1942 it is likely that many were given the previous raids. Click on the gallery to see larger pictures of the images.

In his book “Guernsey under German rule” written immediately after the war Ralph Durand provides quite a bit of detail on the impact the raid had. He also notes that this was the first raid that the Germans had reported in the newspapers having ignored the previous twenty five raids of varying kinds in the preceding years. This was almost certainly because of the evidence that Islanders could see could not be denied.

The casualties inflicted by the raiders were, as nearly as could be ascertained, one Guernseyman, eight Germans and twenty Frenchmen killed by the bombing and some fifty Germans killed or wounded by machine-gun fire in Castle Cornet and Fort George. Among other results of the raid that both accounts minimise were three cranes wrecked, a steamer of 8,000 tons sunk at the Southern Railway’s berth on the jetty, a large munitions steamer holed in the bows, the back of a barge broken, and the sides of several other barges perforated with bomb splinters. 

The Germans always endeavoured to keep us in ignorance of any damage done to them by British planes, but they could not hide from us what had been done to these vessels for the broken-backed barge was towed into the inner harbour with her fore hold flooded, the steamer that still floated was brought to Albert Dock where any passer-by could see that the hole in her bows was at least eight feet in diameter, and as for the steamer that was sunk, because only her fore part was flooded, her stem rose with each tide and could be seen at high water high above the level of the jetty.  

Ralph Durand

Durand also noted that the almost identical stories in the two local papers, which were controlled by the Germans, led to another impact on Islanders views on those publications.

But it is quite inconceivable that two such journalists, after neglecting to record any of the previous raids that the RAF had made on the island, should, three days after it had happened, be inspired by this particular raid to write, spontaneously and independently, accounts of it in which the same bare facts were chosen for record, the same misstatement made, the same important details as to the damage done to the shipping ignored, the same sneer indulged in, and the same attack made on the veracity of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Such coincidences do not occur in real life. Anyone who read both accounts must have realised that they had the same source and that that source was the mind of the German Press officer. 

In causing them to be published the Press officer defeated his purpose. So far from sowing in our minds doubts as to the truth of the news given us by British broadcasts he confirmed what we already knew – that the anti-British propaganda published each day in our newspapers, though often amusing, was not to be credited as true. Incidentally he reminded us that among other cherished British institutions of which German rule had deprived us was the freedom of the Press. 

Ralph Durand

Another account by Ruth Ozanne provides her experience as she was close to the harbour at the time of the raid.

Extract from Life in Occupied Guernsey: The Diaries of Ruth Ozanne 1940-1945″ 

Despite the damage that RAF raids caused to civilian properties they were pleased to see the RAF in action. This is noted in an interview with a German NCO Erwin Grubba which is in the IWM archive and can be found here . He wasn’t here in 1942 having arrived in late 1943 but recalls that locals used to “smile and give the thumbs up” if RAF aircraft appeared over the Island. Even if they were bombing the Island.

The images below show some of the damage caused by the raid to one of the ships. Unfortunately one is mostly reliant on German sources for pictures as cameras were confiscated in 1942 and anyone retaining one and using it did so at great personal risk.

Picture courtesy of Deane Photographic Archives

Below is a photograph of three aircraft from No. 86 Squadron taken in the same month and may even have been on the way to the raid.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 7493) Three Bristol Beaufort Mark Is of No. 86 Squadron RAF Detachment based at St Eval, Cornwall, flying in formation over the sea.. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210129
More photographs of the raid from the aircraft.
The Sphere 24 January 1942

This was not the first or last air raid on the Islands and I will be featuring others in later posts.

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© Nick Le Huray