Saturday, 1 February 1941

Stradishall – Ringway

F/Lt Keast flies with seven crew to Ringway in Whitley T4264. They stay for the next three days, almost certainly undergoing Ringway’s formal training course in dropping paratroops. This includes dropping a stick of several paratroops, a process unfamiliar to those used to dropping single agents. (In June, Sgt John Austin takes his crew on the Ringway pilots’ course, and records the flying syllabus in his logbook.)

Ringway is only just recovering from the daunting preparations for Operation Colossus, a planned attack on the Tragino viaduct in Apulia, south-east Italy. The purpose is to deny the arid province its supply of water, supplied by aqueduct from the mountains of the wetter west coast. The preparations have involved training the paratroops of ‘X’ Commando and eight selected bomber crews from Nos 51 and 78 Squadrons, and modifying their Whitley bombers for paratroop operations. Preparations have been intense, as the attack has to take place at the next full moon. The operation is to be mounted from Malta.

Operation Savanna

The reason for Keast and his crew to undertake this training becomes clear from a letter written the same day by Sir Charles Portal, The Chief of the Air Staff, to Sir Gladwyn Jebb, Hugh Dalton’s Assistant Under-Secretary. Portal’s subject is a plan to assassinate the aircrews of KG 100, the Luftwaffe’s forerunners to the RAF’s Pathfinders, as a means to stymie the Luftwaffe’s ability to devastate city targets through cloud by means of radio beams. In mid-November 1940 this unit marked the targets in Coventry; their accuracy ensured the city-centre’s destruction.

The plan is for a small team of agents to be dropped near the Luftwaffe base at Meucon, in southern Brittany. The pilots have been reported as using a bus to carry them to their billets in the nearby town of Vannes. The plan is to ambush the bus and kill the highly-skilled aircrew inside.

Though he must have sanctioned the raid, Air Marshal Portal is unhappy about the use of his aircraft and crews for an operation that does not comply with the rules of war:

I think that the dropping of men dressed in civilian clothes for the purpose of attempting to kill members of the opposing forces is not an operation with which the Royal Air Force should be associated. I think you will agree that there is a vast difference, in ethics, between the time-honoured operation of dropping of a spy from the air and this entirely new scheme for dropping what one can only call assassins.

In 1916 Portal had served with No. 60 Squadron, RFC. At that time the squadron was involved in some of the early agent-landing operations.

Portal also makes his opinions clear to Gubbins in a meeting at about the same time. Soldiers in uniform are allowed to kill enemy forces in uniform, but soldiers in civilian clothes are not. Gubbins points out that there is not room in the containers for uniforms to enable the agents to change into uniform, and in any case the agents (referred to as ‘operators’) might refuse to go on these terms. As the ‘assassins’ are on loan from De Gaulle, they know that their Free French uniforms will merely ensure their capture and execution. As Frenchmen in civilian clothes they might at least stand a chance of melting into the background.