This is a personal anecdote about a journey of discovery of some of my family history.
My maternal grandfather, Allan Fisher DFC (1921–2001), enlisted with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1940, trained as a bomber pilot and flew many operations over Europe during World War II.
During December 2018–January 2019, I visited England and Europe with my family. My Dad, Leigh Windsor, has done a lot of research into Allan’s history. Before we left, Dad encouraged us to visit the Royal Air Force museum at Hendon in London, UK. In a static display in the museum there is a Lancaster Bomber—R5868. My grandfather Allan Fisher had actually flown this very plane on one of his missions.
Seeing the plane: the RAF Museum in Hendon
We visited the museum in late December 2018 and saw the Lancaster bomber on display. Here are some photos of the plane, with my wife Bronwyn and me:
The museum staff were very helpful and showed us a book describing the history of the Lancaster. With their help, we were able to locate the precise mission on which my grandfather Allan had piloted the plane:
Some research: More details about the mission
The mission was on 10-11 November 1943, over Modane, in the French Alps near the border with Italy. The mission was to bomb rail marshalling yards on the French side of a key alpine rail tunnel, in order to disrupt supplies for the enemy war effort. My Father has marked up a map showing the location of Modane here:
In a presentation on Allan’s war service, my Dad writes about the mission:
It was a long trip—about 1200 miles—so it required excellent navigation. And as a result of this trip they were awarded the third of three “Aiming Point Certificates” they earned during the year… Usually on a bombing raid—after being a sitting duck flying straight and level for the run in—as soon as they’d released their bombload bomber pilots would start evasive manoeuvres to put off any night fighters or flak gun tracking systems. However some crews were selected to take photos of the effects of the bombing. Their aircraft were fitted with cameras and they had to fly straight and level until their bombload detonated and photos were obtained. This dramatically increased the risk of being shot out of the sky… But Bomber Command needed to evaluate the effectiveness of their tactics. So it was a necessary evil—for which successful crews were given a memento signed by the Air Officer Commanding 5 Group, Bomber Command—AVM Ralph Cochrane, an “Aiming Point Certificate”.Leigh Windsor, notes from presentation “An ANZAC and his Aeroplanes”, revised 20 Feb 2018.
My Dad hasn’t been able to track down the precise aiming point certificate that Allan and his crew received for this particular mission. However, he has found an image of the first aiming point certificate they received that year (for a raid on Cologne on 3/4 July 1943), along with a higher quality image of an aiming point certificate awarded to another crew for the mission over Modane:
In The Bomber Command War Diaries by Chris Everitt, the scale and success of the mission is described:
10/11 November 1943
313 Lancasters of 5 and 8 groups to attack the railway yards on the main line to Italy. The Pathfinder marking, in difficult conditions, was slightly beyond the target but 200 aircraft brought back photographs to show that their bombs fell within 1 mile of the target and the railway system was seriously damaged. No report is available from France.Chris Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book (Viking, 1985), 94
From the French side, a French railway preservation website notes that the mission was successful and resulted in the effective disabling of the railway installations. Sadly, it also resulted in the death of a rail employee (see more below). The website also mentions 4 other casualties, but no details are available. While any death in war is deplorable, it is worth noting that Allan’s accuracy as pilot on this mission, along with the accuracy of his navigator and the rest of his crew and those of the many other bombers in the mission, contributed to a result in which casualties where low while strategic goals were met in disrupting enemy aggression. This is in contrast to a previous bombing attempt by another set of crews over Modane two months earlier, in which there were 60 casualties and 100 houses were razed—but the railway installations had remained intact. So I feel proud of my grandfather for the way his part in this mission had contributed to limiting the damage that the war would otherwise have inflicted on this French community.
Seeing the site itself: Modane
And now, the story gets even more interesting for our family. Only a few days after we had seen the plane my grandfather had flown on this mission, we had the (unplanned) opportunity to see the actual site of the mission. On Christmas Day 2018, we were on a train between Paris and Rome. The trip through France had been very smooth, but just as we were about to go through the tunnel into Italy, an issue on the Italian side forced the train to stop for an hour’s delay. Where did it stop? At the railway station in Modane!
So for an hour, we were “stuck” at the very site of the mission my grandfather had flown in the very plane we had just seen in London. While we couldn’t leave the train station itself, we could see a damaged building from the station that may have been remains from the time of the bombing:
While I haven’t verified whether this very building is an actual part of the remains from the bombing, it seems quite possible. For comparison, here is the report of the deputy depot manager from the time, Léopold Celse (my translation—apologies if I’ve mistranslated any technical terms):
I report to you that during the night of November 10–11, 1943, the Modane railway station and annex were heavily bombed, around one in the morning, during an air raid. According to the initial information which was provided to me, only one employee from the annex, the electrician supervisor [conducteur électricien] Jean Gallet, born on 05/22/1902 was seriously injured when he was leaving the dormitory of the annex, where he had been sleeping, for a nearby shelter. After having been immediately transported to St Jean de Maurienne hospital, this employee received a blood transfusion, but despite the care given to him, he died today at 1:15pm.
The installations of the annex and the machines parked there suffered the following damage:
* Annex premises (dormitories, refectory, sinks etc.) destroyed and partly burnt down (80%)
* Shed wall on the Italian side, partly demolished, roof partly demolished (25%)
* Shattered: screened swing bridge
* House of the Master of Stock [le chef de Réserve] destroyed inside, roof blown up.
* Emergency car X 999.451, parked on the outside tracks destroyed.
* Loc 161 DE 5, parked on the outside tracks, very badly damaged, seems out of use for ½ locomotive
* 140F 12 machine, parked on the platform tracks, shelter partially removed, various serious damage
* Machine 4 AM 3, parked on the outside tracks
* Machine 4 AM 15, parked in the rotunda (under repair)
* Machine 4 AM 19, parked on the outside tracks
* Machine 4 AM 30, parked on the outside tracks (heating)
* Machine 4 B 74, parked in the (cold) shed
They all exhibit various levels of damage which could not be determined exactly. This is of course a very rough estimate, because during the bombardment many incendiary bombs were thrown from the planes and part of the annex was on fire when the electrician supervisor [conducteur électricien] Marius Rienbach, who replaced the Master of Stock [le chef de Réserve] while on standby, examined the premises to estimate the damage. I will inform you more fully as soon as more useful observations have been made. I would add that all that was necessary was done to ensure instructions were given for the provision of assistance to the family of the electrician supervisor Jean Gallet, who was married and had two children in his charge: a 4 year old daughter and a 2 year old son.From the website of l’Association pour la Préservation du Matériel Ferroviaire Savoyard, my translation with the assistance of Google Translate.
Serious and sobering. Yet I’m glad my grandfather, through his accuracy and skill, was able to play a small yet significant part in limiting the devastation of war.
More information on Allan Fisher’s life, including his war service, can be found in the book Faith Hope and Stubborn Pride: Searching for Heaven in Aotearoa and Australia by Allan’s son Jeremy Fisher (Sydney: Fat Frog, 2016).