Operations MAINMAST, ROBERT, and PERCH)
Though he will have been entirely unaware of its significance, Sergeant Jones is given one of the most far-reaching operations of the clandestine war: the insertion of General de Gaulle’s chosen emissary to the French Resistance, then still half-formed and largely ineffective, to mould and weld them into an effective force for the restitution of France and the recovery of its pride. Jean Moulin, a French Deputy tortured and sacked for his acts of defiance against the Nazi regime, has made his way to England in the autumn of 1941. He is now to be returned to France by air. The Despatcher’s identity is a clue to the operation’s importance, for he is the highly-experienced W/Cdr Jack Benham, who has left the staff of Ringway for 138 Squadron.
This operation has been postponed several times. Originally scheduled to be flown on Christmas night (25-26 December), unfavourable weather forecasts for that and the following four nights were succeeded by the aircraft (Whitley Z9125) becoming unserviceable for the 29th & 30th.
Sgt Jones takes off from Stradishall at 16.20 on the 1st January. The importance of this operation may have dictated a route that spends a minimum of time over Nazi-occupied France, for it is unusual: to RAF St Eval, where they refuel before apparently flying either across or round the western end of Brittany to cross the French coast from the Bay of Biscay. For much of this section they are plagued by thin stratus cloud which renders the sea and ground beneath indistinguishable. It is hard to make complete sense of Smith’s report, but he appears to have flown across the south-west corner of France, identifying Mt Canigou in the Pyrenees ahead, then flying east along the Mediterranean coast in order to establish pinpoint at the mouth of the Rhone. From there they map-read their way to the target.
Moulin would prefer to be dropped close to a house he owns on the north slopes of the Alpilles, an isolated ridge of limestone hills south of Avignon. According to Patrick Marnham, Moulin has asked to be dropped ‘on the north slopes of the Alpilles range of hills, near St. Andiol’, with two other agents, Raymond Fassin (PERCH) and Hervé Montjaret (W/Op), logically ROBERT.
According to Marnham, they jump from 1,500 feet into a strong wind. Moulin ends up in a bog called the Marais des Baux (now drained farmland) south of the Alpilles, about 2-3 km WSW from Mouriès. It is a 15 kilometre walk across the Alpilles: a few minutes by air, but several hours hard walking in mid-winter, the discomfort exacerbated by Moulin becoming soaked through from a combination of landing in soggy ground and the mistral turning into a hailstorm. Given how far they had come, and the relative inexperience of the crew, the sort of pinpoint navigation that the agents appear to have expected would only have been likely with a pilot who already knew the area intimately; no previous operations have been flown to this part of France. Given the navigation difficulties, the agents were fortunate to land within 50 miles of their target. The rear gunner sees four canopies open.
Sgt Jones heads the Whitley across France, passing Limoges on their route home. The cloud is 10/10ths and they fly at 2,000 feet. They must climb to cross the coast, but after that they get a radio fix for St Eval and drop from 6,000 feet to 1,500, landing at 08.55. They take off for Stradishall at 14.21, landing at 16.15.
TNA AIR 20/8334, Encl. 136A
www.petit-patrimoine.com (for location and photos of Moulin’s property)
ATF for Op. MAINMAST 25/12/41 – 7/1/42 (TNA File unknown), provided by courtesy of Pierre Tillet.
‘Resistance & Betrayal’, Patrick Marnham, p.144.