Saturday, 15 February 1941

At 0853 S/Ldr Knowles tells Ops that at 0930 he is to take off for Linton-on-Ouse & will return immediately.

At 0920 Operation SAVANNA is cancelled for tonight. At 1440 Keast reports that 419 Flight is operating tonight. At 1820 sortie information is passed to 3 Group. (From this and similar entries on other nights it would appear that SAVANNA has priority over all other SD operations; only after SAVANNA’s cancellation are other operations given the go-ahead.)

Operation ADOLPHUS – Poland

This operation, planned for the previous December but postponed because the Flight’s aircraft had not been equipped with long-range tanks, is given the green light. The purpose of the operation is to drop three Polish agents and their equipment into the Cracow area of Poland. A suitably-prepared Whitley, Z6473, has arrived on the 10th. In addition to the Whitley’s normal complement of fuel tanks in the wings and behind the cockpit, it carries six removable 66-gallon (300 litre) petrol tanks in addition to the normal tanks. These tanks are installed in pairs: two in the bomb-bay, and two pairs in the forward section of the rear fuselage.

The agents have to contend with a novel method of exit, from the narrow crew-door in the rear of the fuselage. Like all other agents and paratroops, they have been trained at Ringway to drop through ‘the hole’, a 3.5-foot circular hatch cut in the fuselage floor where the Whitley’s ventral turret used to be. In the COLOSSUS raid only two tanks were carried in the rear fuselage, which had allowed the ventral hatch to be used. But four tanks (plus the two in the bomb-bay) are necessary for Keast to make it to Poland and back. The rear fuselage door has been adapted to open inwards, and the agents have to crouch in the doorway and be ‘assisted’ through the narrow aperture by a strategically-positioned Despatcher’s boot in each agent’s back. The agents have to open their parachutes manually to ensure that their exit doesn’t foul the tailplane. The agents have been mystified about this change to their procedure but, proud of their role as the vanguard of the Free Polish Army, they just get on with it.

F/Lt Keast takes off in Whitley Z6473 at 1837, soon after sunset (GMT+1). At 2130 S/Ldr Knowles briefs the Ops Office that it is to be brought back to Stradishall if the weather allows; he is to be woken when the aircraft is approaching the English coast; if it is diverted he wishes to know where. Stradishall Flight Control is informed and asked to ring the Officers’ Mess when the aircraft is known to be approaching the coast. This is an immensely important operation politically, and Knowles will want to debrief the pilot as soon as he lands.

Keast has to fly above 10,000 feet to maximise the Whitley’s range. In February the rear fuselage is very cold indeed. A Polish account claims that Keast turned the heating off to prevent the fuselage tanks from heating up. This must have been Keast’s joke: the Whitley’s heating system – such as it is – is focused on the main cockpit. Trunking runs through the fuselage to the rear turret, but in such conditions and at that height (still low for a bomber) it is largely ineffective. When used as a bomber — it wasn’t designed to be anything else — in flight, the rear fuselage of the Whitley is unoccupied except for dropping leaflets and flares, so there is no heating; the rear gunner is sealed in, with his own ineffective warm-air supply. Keast’s route takes them over Berlin, which the Whitley’s wireless operator, Sgt David Bernard, later remembers as lit up beneath them like a giant star.

Keast flies as far as he dare before dropping the three agents and their containers, but the Polish government later claims that Keast has dropped them short, in Germany. Up to a point this is true: the agents have been dropped over a region of Poland annexed by Nazi Germany after their invasion in 1939; now it is part of Germany itself (the Reichsgau Wartheland, to be exact) as distinct from the ‘General Government’. It is possible that Keast and his crew (and their masters in London) are unaware of these fine distinctions, which prove so important to the agents.

At 02.55 a message from 3 Group asks for the Control Officer to be informed as soon as the Whitley asks for a D/F bearing. At 03.16 Group asks if the Whitley has been fitted with IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). It hasn’t, so they have to wait until Sgt Bernard makes contact. At ten to six Stradishall receives a report that a Ju88 has landed at RAF Bassingbourne, 25 miles away, and the crew captured. Three minutes later Keast’s Whitley lands at Stradishall after 11 hours 16 minutes in the air.

The operation is a great morale-booster for the Poles in England, but unfortunately its success raises Polish expectations of the RAF’s capabilities. The Poles assume it can easily be repeated; in reality it is an exceptional feat in a slow aircraft that can only fly such operations in the winter when the nights are long enough for the aircraft to return to the North Sea before daylight.