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Whitley V, Serial Z9428 of No. 138 Squadron, 1942. (Photo from TNA AIR27/1068)

Whitley V, Serial Z9428 of No. 138 Squadron, 1942. (Photo from TNA AIR27/1068)

‘Before Tempsford’ is an attempt to create an online history of the Royal Air Force’s early operations to insert clandestine agents into Nazi-occupied Europe between August 1940 and March 1942. Each event was first published exactly 75 years after it took place.

Why ‘Before Tempsford’?

In March 1942 the RAF ‘Special Duties’ squadrons moved to a base dedicated to clandestine operations, RAF Tempsford. There they remained until 1945, parachuting agents and equipment by air to Nazi-occupied Europe. Tempsford has since become synonymous with clandestine operations, but the RAF’s agent-dropping operations had started in August 1940. This history covers the events of the period between May 1940, when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, and March 1942:

  • the invasion of Belgium, Holland and France: the sudden, unforeseen collapse of France, and the British evacuation from mainland Europe
  • Churchill’s demands for offensive action, leading to the formation of Combined Operations and the parachute training school at Ringway
  • the need to send agents into Europe to gather information about Germany’s invasion preparations
  • the formation of No. 419 Flight at North Weald, at the height of the Battle of Britain, and the earliest air operations
  • the Flight’s transfer to Bomber Command and Stradishall, and the early operations for SOE
  • the Flight’s move to Newmarket racecourse, and its expansion into No. 138 Squadron
  • the influx of Polish and Czech crews in time for long-range winter operations
  • further expansion to meet demand, and the creation of 138 Squadron’s own offshoot, No. 161 Squadron
  • the establishment of RAF Tempsford as a permanent base for the RAF’s clandestine operations.

Many of the early agents were supplied from the Free French Intelligence service (BCRA) or the intelligence services of the European governments-in-exile based in London: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Poland. Their training and insertion was facilitated by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which also sent in its own agents. The Royal Navy landed many agents along the Channel coast and in Brittany, especially Brittany but inserting agents by air solved many of the problems associated with landing on a hostile coast many miles from an agent’s final destination. Parachute training was provided by the Central Landing Establishment at RAF Ringway. No. 419 Flight carried agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) from November 1940, but the first successful operation for SOE was not until March 1941.

How does this website work?

The story was originally revealed day by day on the 75th anniversary of each event. Over the following two years you could have experienced, in a 75-year parallel, the events as they happened. For example, on the night of 17-18 August 1940 the RAF made the first attempt to insert an agent into Nazi-occupied Europe by air. The post that tells their story was originally published on the evening of 17 August 2015; in the months before this post you could have followed the pilot, John Coghlan, and the agent he was carrying to Belgium, Henri Leenaerts, on their separate paths that led to a common fate in the North Sea.

Most posts were written in the present tense to give a sense of immediacy. Eighty years ago these events were not history, but now: today might bring a promotion; tonight might bring a crash, a posting, injury, perhaps death. To everyone in this story the future, now settled history, was unknowable. Before December 1941 defeat was not just a possibility, it was likely. The first definite sign for Britain that the war might be won, El Alamein, came more than six months after this story ends. By showing these events as they happened in real time I hope to convey something of this to you, the present-day reader.

Information useful to an understanding of these operations will be placed in background sections. A Technical section will explain (for instance) the ‘moon periods’ which restricted operations to about 15 nights a month, and the navigation and flying methods that enabled aircrews to find a specific field after flying hundreds of miles across a darkened Europe. Pages in this section will be published as and when they become relevant to the narrative.

The purpose of this website is to provide a skeleton of events for a book on the early work of the Special Duties units. The full details of each operation at this fine level of detail would impede the narrative; it would also require ungovernably large appendices and lots of paper. With many dedicated historians and researchers into clandestine operations, we learn a little more as we go.

Nicolas Livingstone