For Valour: Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton VC

Sir John Nettleton
In our fifth Victoria Cross blog, we tell the story of Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton’s daring but highly risky raid on M.A.N, a diesel-engine manufacturer.

Location: 17 April 1942, over France and Germany
Who: Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton (41452) VC,  Royal Air Force, 28 June 1917 – 13 July 1943

Joe Barton's Victoria Cross

In the Spring of 1942, German U-Boats [submarines] were winning the Battle of the Atlantic, sinking many merchant ships and risking breaking the life-line of war materials and food to the UK. To slow production, the Air Ministry decided to mount an attack on the M.A.N [Maschinenfabrik Augsburg Nurnberg A.G.] diesel-engine manufacturer in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany. Recognising the difficulties of hitting a specific target in night raids, this one was to be in daylight by newly-introduced Avro Lancaster aircraft. And they were briefed to hit not just the factory complex but one specific building in its centre. A daring but highly risky venture to fly to a target 500 miles from the French coast, a 5-hour round trip in the face of the Luftwaffe’s highly effective Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighters and German flak gunners [Flieger Abwehr Kanonen – Anti Aircraft Artillery]

Squadron Leader Nettleton had been appointed to No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, based at RAF Waddington: some 25% of the squadron was from South Africa and Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] (Nettleton himself had been born in South Africa). On the morning of 17 April 1942, Nettleton was allotted to a new Lancaster serial R 5508, coded KM-B. Six Lancasters from 44 Squadron at RAF Waddington plus a further six from 97 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa set off for Augsburg: Nettleton led the formation, himself taking off first at 1512 hrs.

The raid was a disaster. Of the 12 Lancasters which took part, only 5 returned (a loss rate of 58%). Of the 85 crew, 37 died, 12 became PoWs and just 36 returned home. Had U-Boat production been halted then, in the brutal statistics of war, these deaths would have been justified: but reality was different. Although the post-strike reconnaissance photos looked impressive, minimal damage was actually caused to the factory. Certainly the roofs were demolished but the crucial machine tools inside suffered little damage: of the 2,700 in the factory, just 8 were destroyed and 69 suffered some degree of damage. Seventeen 1,000 lb bombs landed within the factory complex, of which 7 (41%) failed to explode. Production continued, virtually unchecked, as M.A.N was able to call on satellite factories across Germany and France. U-Boat production – the objective of the raid – was not affected.

Image of aerial bomb damage

HQ Bomber Command War Diary No 5 held by RAF Museum.

The London Gazette Tuesday 28th April 1942:

“The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the under-mentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: — Acting Squadron Leader John Bering NETTLETON (41452), No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron. Squadron Leader Nettleton was the leader of one of two formations of six Lancaster heavy bombers detailed to deliver a low-level attack in daylight on the diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Southern Germany on April 17th, 1942. The enterprise was daring, the target of high military importance. To reach it and get back, some 1,000 miles had to be flown over hostile territory. Soon after crossing into enemy territory his formation was engaged by 25 to 30 fighters. A running fight ensued. His rear guns went out of action. One by one the aircraft of his formation were shot down until in the end only his own and one other remained. The fighters were shaken off but the target was still far distant. With great spirit and almost defenceless, he held his two remaining aircraft on their perilous course and after a long and arduous flight, mostly at only 50 feet above the ground, he brought them to Augsburg. Here anti-aircraft fire of great intensity and accuracy was encountered. The two aircraft came low over the roof tops. Though fired at from point blank range, they stayed the course to drop their bombs true on the target. The second aircraft, hit by flak, burst into flames and crash-landed. The leading aircraft, though riddled with holes, flew safely back to base, the only one of the six to return. Squadron Leader Nettleton, who has successfully undertaken many other hazardous operations, displayed unflinching determination as well as leadership and valour of the highest order.”

Squadron Leader John Seymour Sherwood DFC* of 97 Squadron, who led the second echelon of 6 Lancasters, was recommended for the Victoria Cross, endorsed by Air Marshal Harris as “Strongly recommended” but it was not granted; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. In all, other aircrew, pilots and others, received a total of 18 Distinguished Flying Crosses and Distinguished Flying Medals [Crosses were for officers, Medals for NCOs]. Plus a number of “Mentioned in Despatches”, all recorded in the London Gazette.

Nettleton piloting this aircraft during low-level daylight training just before raid

Nettleton piloting this aircraft during low-level daylight training just before raid.

On 12 July 1943, Wing Commander Nettleton was captain of Lancaster ED 331 ‘Z’ of 44 Squadron for a night raid on Turin. In the cold officialese of the time, his aircraft was recorded as “FTR” [failed to return], probably brought down by fighters or flak over the Bay of Biscay. His body was never recovered and he and his crew are remembered on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s RAF Memorial to the Missing at Runnymede.

Outside of Runnymede memorial Memorial at Runnymeade with Nettleton's name

The location of his Victoria Cross is not publicly recorded.


Citation: London Gazette 28 April 1942
Additional biographical details: For Valour: The Air VCs Chaz Bowyer, Grub Street Publishing.
The Augsburg Raid Jack Currie DFC Goodall Publications Ltd 1987 (meticulously researched: contains photos, maps and original briefing documents, highly recommended).
Additionally multiple internet sources exist.

S/L Nettleton: RAF Museum
Victoria Cross: RAF Museum
Memorial: The War Graves Photographic Project (
Lancaster: RAF Museum


About the Author

Norman Brice: Volunteer

Volunteer Norman Brice

It all started very many years ago when, lying in my pram, I was awoken by what I later knew as Spitfires on their finals to RAF Biggin Hill, just a handful of miles away. As a schoolboy I was captivated by the annual September Battle of Britain Days at Biggin Hill with a vast range of visiting aircraft, including all three V-Bombers in gleaming anti-flash white.

Fast forward very many years past retirement I joined the RAF Museum London as a volunteer as a Vulcan and Cold War tour guide.