Wednesday, 16 April 1941

Operation BENJAMIN – Austrian Tyrol

After S/Ldr Knowles had made an abortive attempt in March to complete this operation, he had planned for it to be flown on 4 April. Nor is it flown by 1419 Flight on any other night. By now the nightly period of darkness has shrunk to about 8½ hours. Difficult in March, it is now impossible for a Whitley to be flown to Czechoslovakia and back without still being over Occupied Europe at daybreak.

According to Czech sources Otmar Riedl is parachuted on the 16-17 April 1941. But he is dropped nowhere near Czechoslovakia: instead Riedl is dropped 286 miles (460km) short of the target, near Landeck in the Austrian Tyrol.

From Stradishall there is nothing: no operational report, no entry in an aircrew log-book. Nor is there any related correspondence in Air Ministry or Bomber Command files. Nothing in the Stradishall Ops Officers’ log or the Watch Office log hints at any clandestine operation being flown that night, though normal bombing sorties by 214 Squadron were carried out. Riedl may have been flown there by another RAF unit, but no candidate unit has so far been identified. Surely no-one would have deliberately dropped Riedl over the Tyrol knowing the target was in Bohemia. Even the dimmest navigator could not have mistaken the Austrian Tyrol for one of the flatter parts of Bohemia. Nor is the Austrian Tyrol on any plausible route to the target.

It is possible that the pilot and crew may have been briefed with a deliberately incorrect target. By mid-March the Austrian Tyrol is about the furthest possible distance that would have allowed a Whitley or Hudson to return before daylight. One unit which had flown the earliest SD operations is the Parachute Training Squadron at Ringway. Stradishall records Knowles flying to Ringway and back on the 16th, but Ringway’s ORB has no record of an aircraft flying an operation on this night. Whoever carried it out, from whatever unit and from which airfield (for Riedl must have got there somehow), it is perhaps not surprising that no record exists. It strikes me as being an deliberate action to avoid an impossible situation: to deliver an agent to eastern Europe without making the sortie a one-way trip for the aircraft and crew involved. One possibility is that Knowles flew to Ringway, borrowed a crew sworn to secrecy, and flew the operation himself.

In ‘Gubbins and SOE’, Peter Wilkinson states that the agent ‘succeeded in reaching Prague and came on the air’. The facts are otherwise. Otmar Riedl is arrested shortly after landing in the snow, but he succeeds in hiding his equipment. He manages to convince the Austrian authorities that he has crossed the border to escape from the German invasion of Yugoslavia. Vouched-for by his pre-war employer in Yugoslavia, the Czech footwear company Bata, he serves a two-month sentence in Innsbruck for illegal border-crossing before returning to Czechoslovakia. He attempts to make contact with the Czech resistance, but is rebuffed. He works for Bata until 1945. On making contact with the Allies, he learns that he has been assumed to have died.