Operation Carthage

Affectionately nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder”, the de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito was one of the fastest operational aircraft in the world when it entered widespread service in Britain during the Second World War. Initially deployed as a high-speed, high-altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft, the Mosquito was later adapted for several different roles such as rapid night raids designed to elude German fighter planes. It was responsible for the success of tactical strikes such as the raid on Amiens Prison in early 1944 and other precision attacks against Gestapo or German intelligence and security forces.

In 1944, the Danish resistance movement appealed to Britain for help in destroying the Gestapo Headquarters in the centre of Copenhagen. The target was a large six-storey, U-shaped building known as the Shellhus (“Shell House”). It was believed that the entire Gestapo staff for the whole of Denmark was housed there. A significant number of important dossiers were filed in its archives.

The RAF deemed a raid on the building too risky and initially turned down the request, not least because it was known that many members of the resistance movement had been captured and were being used as a human shield in special cells on the top floor of the Shellhus. Despite the reservations of the RAF top brass, the raid was eventually authorised in early 1945. In February, the Gestapo managed to arrest 80 people involved in the resistance movement, and the situation became intolerable for the Danes. They sent a desperate telegram to London.

Just before 9 o’clock in the morning of March 21st, twenty Mosquitos of the No. 2 light bomber group, escorted by thirty Mustangs from the 11th fighter group took off from RAF Fersfield in Norfolk and reached Copenhagen after 11 o’clock. What followed was a calamitous descent into horror and tragedy.

Jeanne D'Arc School memorialTo avoid radar detection, the Mosquitoes flew in at rooftop level. One of the planes in the first wave struck a lamp post, damaging its wing, and crashed into a garage near the Institut Jeanne d’Arc, a Roman Catholic school, less than a mile from the target. The rest of the first wave successfully bombed the Gestapo Headquarters. Some of the planes in the second and third waves, confused by the smoke and flames from the crashed Mosquito, mistook the school for their target. They dropped their bombs on the school, killing 86 children and 18 adults and wounding a further 67 children and 35 adults. Many of the victims were nuns. Others were bystanders who had tried to help.

The Gestapo Headquarters had been destroyed and although eight prisoners had been killed, a total of eighteen managed to escape, prompting the British military and the Danish Resistance to hail the mission as an operational success.

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