When one thinks about how battleships were sunk during World War II, tremendous endeavors and heroic feats come to mind: the maximum ef-fort put forth by the British in tracking and destroying the Bismarck, the audacious attack by the Japanese Row at Pearl Harbor, the death of Yamato under merciless aerial attack by US Navy aircraft off Okinawa in April 1945.
Yet, virtually unnoticed in history, equal skill, valor, and daring of a B-25 bomber group resulted in the loss to the Axis of a battleship, a cruiser, and submarine in Toulon harbor in the south of France on August 18, 1944.
I was assigned to the 321st Bom-bardment Group, 57th Bombardment Wing, Twelfth Air Force, stationed at Solenzara, Corsica, at the time, and took part in the raid.
It was no accident that the 321st was called on to perform that mission. The group had the best record for bombing accuracy in the Mediterranean theater, placing more than ninety per-cent of all the bombs it dropped within the designated target area. Bombing precision in those days was computed on the basis of an imaginary circle that covered an area 600 feet in radius from the center of the objective.
The group had had flown more than 500 missions and was also highly regarded for its excellent formation fly-ing. The 321st was frequently chosen to demonstrate these skills for visiting dignitaries. But it was the accuracy of our pinpoint bombing—the bridge-busting, the command-post hits, the runways cratered, the railroad yards leveled, and the close support of ground troops in Italy—that won the praise of those who inspected the aerial photos of our raids.
Preparations for the invasion of Southern France were well under way following the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. There was one unknown, however. In the harbor of Toulon, protected by eighty-two heavy anti-aircraft guns, were remnants of the French Navy that constituted a considerable threat to the Allied fleet and in-vasion forces. French seamanship was well regarded by Allied naval com-manders. During the invasion of North Africa, the French battleship jean Bart, with just one of her turrets operational, still sought to challenge the Allied land-ing forces. She fought with great gal-lantry against overwhelming odds.
On August 17, the third day of the invasion of Southern France, aerial re-connaissance revealed that the French battleship Strasbourg, the cruiser La Gallisoniere, a Le Hardi-class de-stroyer, and a submarined had been respositioned within Toulon harbor. Their firepower constituted a threat to Allied forces operating nearby.
In the evenings, we often gathered along a road leading from the bomb depot to see what type of bombs were being dollied to the airfield. This gave us a good idea as to the mission we would be flying the next day.
On the evening of August 17, 1944, we saw 1,000-pound armor-piercing and 1,000-pound general-purpose bombs being trundled to the airfield. We knew that the next day’s mission would be an interesting one.
The following morning, we were briefed on Mission No. 498, code-named DRYBEEF. The order was to “neutralize the firepower of the heavy naval units at Toulon at all costs.” We were briefed on the threat posed by the naval units; about the antiaircraft defenses; and informed that the weather over the target would be CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited), but that there was bad weather gath-ering all around Corsica.
We took off at 1053 hours, assem-bled at 1126, and began our flight to the target at 13,000 feet. At that alti-tude, the force of thirty-six B-25s was extremely vulnerable to the heavy AAA guns defending the harbor. Although “window” was used on the bomb run to mislead defensive radar, the flak was extremely intense—both barrage and tracking on the bomb run and on the breakaway. By the time we had cleared the target, eleven men had been wounded and twenty-seven of the B-25s had some damage.
Bombs away came at 1246 hours, and the pattern was an excellent one. There were eight direct hits on the deck of the Strasbourg, igniting three fires on its deck. A near miss opened a large hole below the waterline, causing the battleship to list to starboard and settle in. the cruiser was also hit and listed to starboard with its deck awash, later keeling over on its side. The submarine was sank; the destroyer had departed prior to the arrival of the B-25s.
On our return from the target, we were required to pass over the Allied invasion fleet. Heavy squalls forced us to descent below 1,000 feet, with the risk of being fired on by mistake, so we fired our Very flare guns and used emergency radio channels to inform the fleet of our predicament.
Because of the wounded airmen, aircraft damage, and weather prob-lems, the group dispersed to land at three separate airfields.
The mission was later rated as one of the most destructive ever carried out by a group of medium bombers. The 321st Group was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for what was de-scribed as the “extraordinary heroism and proficiency that was demonstrated throughout the attack.”
The next day, we were back out bridge-busting for the Seventh Army moving inland from the beaches and up the Rhone Valley.
Until his recent retirement, Dino A. Brugioni wqas a senior official and a reconnaissance and photo-interpretation expert for the Central Intelligence Agency. During World War II, he flew sixty-six bombing and a number of reconnaissance missions over North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, and Yugoslavia and was awarded the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters, and a Presidential Unit Citation. After the war, he pursued studies at George Washington University, receiving a B.A. and an M.A. in foreign affairs. He joined the CIA in 1948 and has written extensively on the application of aerial photography to intelligence and other fields. He is an outspoken advocate of the use of aerial photography as a historical source.