“Pussy” Foster and the Allied Bombing Raid on Venice.

Robert “Pussy” Foster

Following the popularity of my post on Lord Alfred Douglas, here is a tribute to another, rather different, Wykehamist (the name given to alumni of my old school, Winchester College). Anyone who has enjoyed a holiday in Venice owes much to the foresight of Air Marshal Robert ‘Pussy’ Foster. There is a strong case for saying that if it hadn’t been for Pussy, there wouldn’t be a Venice at all – at least not in the form we know it. Following the allied airstrike on Venice in 1945, which left the city itself completely unscathed, he may justly be remembered as the John Ruskin of surgical bombing.

Pussy Foster masterminded Operation Bowler, the allied bombardment of the German naval base in Venice led in the air by Wing Commander George Westlake of the RAF. Foster christened the raid Operation Bowler, telling Westlake and the others that if Venice’s buildings sustained the slightest damage in the raid, the culprit would be ‘bowler-hatted’, i.e. relieved of active duty and returned to desk duties at the War Office in London. Bowler was the first perfect example of what we now know as a “surgical strike”, an attack designed to damage only a legitimate military target with minimal collateral damage to surrounding buildings and innocent civilians.

Pussy was a veteran airman who had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the first world war. He had been a brilliant scholar at Winchester, where his contemporaries remembered him as a cheerful boy with ruddy cheeks and a mop of blond hair. He wore a permanent and agreeable smile, somewhat like that of the Cheshire Cat, and it earned him the nickname ‘Pussy’ among his brother officers in the RFC. The moniker stuck, as enduring as the smile. His good nature and erudition were balanced by steel and dash. An acknowledged air ace, he was credited with nine kills in the first war, only two of them shared. An accomplished linguist, he had studied Arabic for a while at the School of Oriental Studies. This stood him in good stead when he was shot down in the Arabian peninsula and his plane immediately surrounded by hostile Bedouin tribesmen. Foster stepped coolly out of the wreckage, beaming good-naturedly. ‘Shabash!” he said, roughly translatable as ‘jolly good show!’ This endeared him to his captors who took him back to their camp for a round of feasting and celebration.

In the second world war, Foster was appointed Air Officer Commanding the Desert Air Force during the Italian Campaign. He faced an increasingly urgent challenge as the campaign progressed and the allies fought their way up through Italy, edging closer to Venice and Trieste. Despite the undoubted miseries of Nazi occupation, Venice had enjoyed a charmed war in comparison to many other regions of Italy. The damage sustained by cities, towns and villages as the allies fought their way north through Italy was horrific. The ancient city of Messina had been reduced to rubble. Entire districts of Rome and outlying Lazio were bombed out of recognition. Communities were obliterated or displaced. Buildings and works of art were completely destroyed. One of the worst instances was the battle of Monte Cassino when the centuries-old Benedictine monastery, thought to be a key German stronghold, was blown up by the allies. Little if any territorial advantage had been gained by its annihilation. Allied high command was anxious to avoid further unnecessary destruction. This was laudable in theory, but difficult to stick to in practice.

In the final stages of the campaign the allies and the Italian partisans had inflicted irreversible damage on Italy’s road and railway networks, paralysing the German supply lines. In order to maintain its forces in northern Italy, the Germans were forced to rely on the extensive network of canals and waterways that filtered inland from the port of Venice through the Veneto and beyond. Unable to rely on road or rail, Germany shipped arms and supplies into Venice and then inland via the Brenta Canal and its tributaries. It became clear that Venice, with its conveniently placed port, was every bit as strategically important as Trieste. Trieste might well have been the bridgehead to central Europe but, for the occupying Germans, Venice remained the gateway to the Italian peninsula, the beginning of the supply line. The allies needed to attack in short order and attempt to cut off the supply line once and for all, simultaneously avoiding an ignomininous repeat performance of Monte Cassino.

Rising to the challenge, Pussy initiated the raid on March 21, 1945. He began by ordering George Westlake to strafe the German anti-aircraft emplacements on the Lido and Sant’Erasmo. When these had been knocked out, Westlake led 237 Wing, composed of British, American, Australian and New Zealand airmen, in towards Venice. The Kitty Hawks and Mustangs flew in at 10,000 feet in tight formation, west over the Lido, crossing the Giudecca.  Another 10,000 feet above them, a cluster of Spitfires, relegated to an observational role, prepared to make a photographic record of the raid. As the squadron approached the Grand Canal, Westlake coolly gave the expected order: “wing over – and dive…”. The ’planes, Westlake’s in the lead, pulled into a near-vertical dive, heading straight for the German naval installation in the harbour. There was a terrific and hellish howling of engines as they sped down towards the target. Below, on the quay, scores of terrified German personnel scattered for cover. Perilously nearby, but determined to enjoy the ‘spettacolo’, Italian families gathered on the rooftops to cheer on the Desert Air Force. They were not disappointed. At 300 feet, when Westlake gave the critical command, ‘bombs away!’ and the squadron released its 250-ton payload, the result was spectacular.

Bullseye! Westlake’s payload hits the spot.

The Grafin von Westfale, a German battleship, took a direct hit on her starboard bows. A 100-foot wide hole was blown in the dockside munitions warehouse, sending the German stockpile sky high. A top secret German underwater training school for U-boat personnel was completely destroyed. This was an added bonus, since allied intelligence had not been aware of the installation prior to the raid. There were few allied casualties. Flight Lieutenant Greenside of the New Zealand Air Force ‘hit the drink’ near Sant’Erasmo after his glycol ‘went off the clock’. It is safe to assume that back at the DAF HQ at Cesena, ‘Pussy’ Foster’s habitual smile broadened still further. The German naval installation in Venice had taken a conclusive pounding from which it would never recover. The city of Venice itself had suffered nothing more than a couple of cracked window panes on the Grand Canal as a result of the raid. As the diarist of 237 Wing modestly put it, “Without wishing to shoot a line, this was a good job of work.”

A good job of work! George Westlake, with a well-earned barrel of wine.

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