Monthly Archives: August 1940

Monday, 26 August 1940

Date Operation Name Pilot Aircraft Agent Target Country Outcome
26/8/40 “Mr X” F/Lt E.B. Fielden Whitley III Lt Lodo van Hamel, Royal Dutch Navy Leiden Netherlands Completed

Aircrew Details

Pilot F/Lt E. B. Fielden
2nd Pilot Unknown, if any
Navigator F/Lt Marsh
Wireless Operator Sgt David Bernard
Rear Gunner Unknown, if any
Despatcher S/Ldr D. Ross Shore, AFC
Agent Lt. Lodo van Hamel

F/Lt E.B. Fielden made a second attempt to drop Lodo van Hamel on the night of the 26-27th. Louis Strange was not on this sortie, but he wrote that Fielden:

shut his engines right off at 8,000 feet about four miles out at sea, glided right on to the D.Z. near Leiden without touching his engines, dropped Mr X down wind landing him twenty yards from the mark, and was away round Leiden and on his way back before the searchlight opened up on him.

If this account sounds a little glib, it’s still likely to have been essentially true. In any case Strange’s account is the only one there is. Louis Strange was not above embellishing an account to improve the narrative. His own life had been full of adventures, his accounts scarcely credible. Historians have tended to seize upon such irregularities — often, as here, in the cause of others — to cast doubt on the whole. Some may have found it galling to learn of evidence that proved its essential truth. Even allowing for Strange to have improved upon the facts — his narrative of the first attempt allows a morning air raid on North Weald that actually did not turn up until mid-afternoon, by which time he, Fielden and their now-unarmed Whitley were safely back at Ringway — his basic narrative is borne out by official records.

F/O J.A. ‘Tony’ O’Neill accompanied Fielden to North Weald on the second attempt. The Ringway ORB records that he flew to North Weald with Fielden on the 26th, and back the next day. But there’s no entry in his logbook to indicate he flew on the operational sortie, though he had recorded the first attempt on the 23rd and a short test-flight on the 26th. Whoever flew as Fielden’s Second Pilot, if he took one, has not been recorded.

S/Ldr Donald Ross Shore definitely flew on both attempts. Whereas his logbook records both Fielden and Strange as pilots for the first attempt, Shore noted only Fielden as pilot for the night of the 26th. This backs up the evidence in F/Lt O’Neill’s logbook that he did not fly the operation itself; the reason is not recorded. S/Ldr Shore recorded F/Lt Marsh as Navigator on both attempts, but he did not note Sgt Bernard as the Wireless Operator. In 2004 I interviewed Wing Commander David Bernard at his home. His memories, unassisted by his logbook which would have been impounded after his capture in 1941, dovetail with Louis Strange’s account of the successful attempt.  At the time of my interview with David Bernard neither of us knew of the Ringway ORB record, or of Strange’s account. I later learned that Bernard had made a recording for the Imperial War Museum.

The date for van Hamel’s parachute drop has been generally assumed to have been the 28th, but the several items of evidence pointing to the night of the 26-27th is contemporary, and therefore most likely to be correct. I have no explanation for the discrepancy: I can only speculate that van Hamel may have lain low before getting in touch with his contacts, to ensure he hadn’t been followed after landing.


TNA AIR 20/2263: Operations Record Book, RAF Ringway.
RAF Museum, Hendon: Typescript for ‘More Recollections of an Airman’, Louis Strange’s unpublished second volume of memoirs.
Logbook: S/Ldr D. Ross Shore
Personal interviews: W/Cdr David Bernard, 2004.

Monday, 26 August, 1940

RAF Silloth

The RAF Court of Inquiry into the shooting down of Oettle’s Whitley issues its judgement. The Hurricane pilot who shot the Whitley down, Sergeant JCW Parrott, is held directly to blame ‘for shooting down Whitley aircraft N.1411 without orders to do so, and without  sufficient reason for assuming it was hostile.’ He is also held indirectly to blame for failing to obtain explicit orders on what action to take if the Whitley failed to identify itself, and for failing to read a related order in the Pilots’ Book.

F/O Oettle is held directly to blame for assuming that R4118 was the aircraft he’d seen earlier, and for not repeating the recognition signal. On September 13 the AOC 17 Group will further blame Oettle for assuming that the fighters had been making dummy attacks, a prohibited practice.  The Duty Officer and Station Commander are blamed for not issuing explicit orders, but 17 Group falls short of blaming itself for omitting a crucial portion of HQ Coastal Command’s original signal: “Air Ministry consider it preferable that an occasional British aircraft flown by the enemy should escape destruction rather than instructions should be given which might lead to the destruction of our own aircraft in error.”

Bomber Command takes a very different view. In October 1940 a staff officer, Schneider Trophy pilot Wing Commander John Boothman, AFC, will write: “. . . A coastal station away from the normal war zone was maintaining a private fighter force of aircraft filched from an M.U. and operating without any reasonable control or without any of the normal aids which are considered essential. This force must have been a menace to any law-abiding pilot for miles around. . . . A pilot giving instruction over the west coast in broad daylight with a correctly marked aeroplane is not expected to assume that every British aeroplane is going to attack him and, in consequence, fly along firing off the colours of the day.”


TNA AIR 14/390.

Saturday, 24 August 1940

RAF North Weald

F/Lt Fielden’s unarmed Whitley takes off from North Weald in the morning, well before a substantial German bombing attack at 3 p.m. This causes severe damage and kills several airmen.

F/Lt Walter Farley and Sgt David Bernard are posted to North Weald. Sgt Bernard’s posting order is to one of the resident Fighter squadrons, and it’s likely that Farley’s order is similar.

Sgt Bernard has been travelling from RAF Abingdon by rail, having been woken in the early hours, given a posting order and rail warrant at the guardroom. The train journey, interrupted by air raid alarms, takes all day. He arrives at North Weald in the evening, to find the base recovering after the German raid. Exhausted, he finds a vacant bed in the deserted Sergeants’ quarters. Only next morning does he discover why they were deserted: an unexploded bomb at the other end of the building.


Logbooks, L.A. Strange, W.R. Farley
Interview with W/Cdr David Bernard, 2004
Recorded interviews of David Bernard, IWM
ORB, Central Landing School, Ringway

Friday, 23 August 1940

Date Operation Name Pilot Aircraft Agent Target Country Outcome
23/8/40 “Mr X” F/Lt E.B. Fielden Whitley III “T”, K7218 Lt Lodo van Hamel, Royal Dutch Navy Leiden Netherlands Abandoned: searchlight site near target

Aircrew Details

Pilot F/Lt Earl B. Fielden
2nd Pilot S/Ldr Louis Strange, DSO, MC, DFC*
Navigator F/Lt Marsh
Wireless Operator None – no W/T
Rear Gunner None – no rear turret
Despatcher S/Ldr D. Ross Shore, AFC
Agent Lt. Lodo van Hamel

Lodo van Hamel

Van Hamel, a Lieutenant in the Royal Dutch Navy, has escaped to England after arranging for the evacuation of Princess Juliana to England by sea. He has also acted creditably in command of a Dutch Navy sloop during the Dunkirk evacuation, defiantly flying the Dutch ensign near the beaches. François van ‘t Sant, head of the Dutch government-in-exile’s intelligence service and a controversial Dutch courtier, asks for a volunteer to return to Holland and gather information about conditions in Holland under Nazi rule. Van ‘t Sant has had dealings with the Dutch section of SIS before the war, and he offers his government’s services. The Dutch Navy is asked to provide a volunteer. Kicking his heels in London, Van Hamel steps forward without hesitation.

Early attempts to land agents on the exposed beaches of Holland and Belgium have met with mixed success. By the end of July German control of the coast is tight. Van Hamel agrees to be dropped by parachute. He is given rudimentary parachute training at Ringway. The parachute school’s Commandant, S/Ldr Louis Strange, writes many years later: “We had given him a drop or two at Ringway and one at night, so off we went to North Weald to fill up and await final orders from the Air Ministry.”

F/Lt Earl Bateman Fielden, known as ‘Batty’, is chosen to fly the operation. He is already experienced at dropping parachutists: he has flown with Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus during the 1930s, when a key part of its act involved the dropping of dare-devil parachutists such as Harry Ward. During the ‘Phoney War’ both Fielden and Strange served in No.24 Squadron, ferrying senior officers and politicians between Hendon and the BEF in France. One of S/Ldr Strange’s early acts as commandant of the Parachute Training School was to request F/Lt Fielden’s posting to Ringway. Fielden is now Strange’s Chief Flying Instructor.

Louis Strange, not one to pass up an opportunity for action, flies as Fielden’s Second Pilot. His logbook records F/Lt Marsh as the navigator. S/Ldr Donald Ross Shore, now recovered from his parachuting injury, flies in the rear fuselage as van Hamel’s despatcher.

The aircraft is one of Ringway’s own Whitley IIIs. Identified by the letter “T” in Strange’s logbook, a Ringway photo from 1941 shows that ‘T’ was K7218. The photo also shows that this particular Whitley’s rear turret has been removed and replaced by an experimental parachuting platform. This explains Strange’s later comment that the Whitley was defenceless. At North Weald, Strange scrounges a machine-gun for the front turret before they set off for Holland. There is no W/T operator, and probably no W/T set. As they approach the Dutch coast they encounter strengthening winds and cloud. They cross the Dutch coast near Bergen, quite a way north of the target. The forecast winds have been inaccurate in both strength and direction. Eventually they find the dropping-point near Sessenheim, about five kilometres north-east of Leiden. It is raining and gusty. Strange and Fielden have just decided that the wind is too strong for the man they call ‘Mr X’ to be parachuted when the Whitley is illuminated by ‘a powerful searchlight’ shining from near the spot where they have been about to drop the agent. They climb away to safety and return to North Weald, reaching it at about 7 a.m.


TNA AIR 29/520: ORB, Central Landing School, Ringway.
Typescript for ‘More Recollections of an Airman’, Louis Strange, RAF Museum.
Logbooks: Louis Strange, Donald Ross Shore.

Saturday, 17 August 1940

Henri Leenaerts and F/O John Hunter Coghlan, DFC

17/8/40 F/O J.H. Coghlan, DFC Lysander R2625 Henri Leenaerts Momignies Belgium Aircraft disappeared after take-off from Manston.

This was the RAF’s first attempt to insert an agent from Britain by air into Nazi-occupied Europe.

56Sqn Officers cropped

At the beginning of August 1940 John Coghlan — seen here standing, fourth from the left, in September 1939 — was a Flight Commander with No. 56 Squadron, a Hurricane squadron based at RAF North Weald. Holding the Acting rank of Flight Lieutenant, Coghlan was officially an ‘ace’ with some six victories, and he had just been awarded the DFC. On 2 August he had flown his last patrol, operating from Rochford, and on the 7th he was posted to RAF Ringway. Over the next few days two Lysanders, R2625 and R2626, arrived at Ringway. R2625 had been converted for night flying, with the rear machine gun removed.

According to his logbook Coghlan was no Lysander expert; he had logged only a single half-hour as a Lysander pilot in March 1939. Now he had to learn to fly one operationally, at night, before the Full Moon.

Coghlan was to insert a 37-year-old Belgian, Henri Leenaerts, into Nazi-occupied Belgium. Before the war Leenaerts had been an insurance salesman and swimming instructor with a wife and three children. He had served with the Belgian Air Force in his youth. On May 15th Leenaerts had been recalled, but the German invasion was too swift. He somehow contrived to escape to England. A trained wireless operator, he was recruited by SIS. The Belgian government and the head of the Belgian secret service had not yet reached England, but Anatole Gobeaux had.  Gobeaux had served in the First World War espionage organisation ‘La Dame Blanche’. Anticipating a German invasion more accurately than his government, Gobeaux had spent much of the ‘Phoney War’ visiting past members of La Dame Blanche, recruiting from the willing. After the German invasion he had taken the names to London. Leenaerts was to take a wireless set to Momignies, a small town on the border with France. There he was to make contact with one of the names provided by Gobeaux, and instruct this contact in their wireless codes and procedures.

Momignies was a small town close to a railway that led to the Channel ports. It was therefore well-placed for the kind of train-watching espionage activities that had been the hallmark of La Dame Blanche’s success in the Great War. Political and religious divisions in Belgium made a landing on Belgian soil unwise, so Leenaerts was to be landed just over the border in France. The new wireless sets developed for SIS were just light enough for Leenaerts to lug one across fields and over the border into Momignies. Three nights later, on the 20-21st, Leenaerts was to return to the same field, where Coghlan was to return and pick him up. Together they would return to England.

It is possible that Coghlan and Leenaerts made an attempt on the night of 16 August, but there is no published evidence to back this up. They are known to have set off in the late afternoon of 17 August in Lysander P2625, and landed at Manston to refuel. (The standard Lysander carried only 95 gallons of fuel; Manston brought Momignies within range.) At Manston they were spotted by Eric Clayton, a 56 Squadron ground-crew fitter who had looked after Coghlan’s Hurricane at North Weald. Clayton was at Manston repairing one of 56 Squadron’s damaged aircraft, and in the early evening of 17 August he saw Coghlan and an anonymous civilian arrive in a Lysander. He later wrote about the encounter in his memoir, ‘What if the Heavens Fall?’

Nothing is certain after the pair’s take-off from Manston. More than a month later, on 23 September, Flying  Officer Coghlan’s body was found washed up on the beach at Wimereux, a few miles north of Boulogne. Coghlan is not mentioned in the Belgian papers that describe Leenaerts’s mission. In their post-war enquiries the Belgian authorities believed Leenaerts had been lost over the North Sea, but knew nothing of the RAF’s involvement.

Manston was a logical departure-point for Coghlan to fly an easterly route crossing the Belgian coast between Dunkirk and Nieuwport, then heading south. Although Coghlan’s body was found south-west of Calais, the Lysander probably came down in the North Sea somewhere north-west of Ostend, cause unknown. Coghlan may have been jumped by a patrol in the moonlight, but he is more likely to have run out of fuel on the return leg, with Leenaerts still aboard. Though the operation was within range, he may have spent valuable time and fuel searching for the target. The fuel margin was not generous, and Coghlan did not have the Lysander experience to wring maximum range or endurance from an aircraft which repaid close acquaintance. Coghlan’s body was found more than a month later, along a heavily-patrolled shoreline. Analysis of currents and tidal flows indicates that Coghlan’s corpse probably drifted back and forth through the Dover Straits on a month of tides before being flung ashore at Wimereux.

Henri Leenaerts had no known end; in his career as an agent, only an unfulfilled beginning. In 1946 he was posthumously recommended for the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm, and for elevation to Chevalier of the Order of Leopold, but it’s not clear whether these awards were ever made. Most of the graves in the Commonwealth section of Boulogne’s Eastern Cemetery are from 1914-18, but in a small section at the far end, dedicated to casualties from the later conflict, lies Flying Officer John Hunter Coghlan, DFC.


  • Aircraft record cards, RAF Museum, Hendon.
  • Logbook: F/O J.H. Coghlan, DFC (TNA AIR 4/17)
  • Operations Record Books, 1940: No. 56 (F) Squadron; RAF Station, North Weald;
    Central Landing Establishment, RAF Ringway.
  • ‘What if the Heavens Fall? Reminiscences of 56(F) Squadron in the Battle of
    Britain’, Eric Clayton, Wye College Press, 1995.
  • Clive Richards, at the time (2008) working for the MOD’s Air Historical Branch, made the connection between Leenaerts and Coghlan; contributors to the forum pointed me towards Eric Clayton’s memoir, and helped me definitively to establish R2625 as the Lysander used.
  • ‘La guerre secrète des espions belges: 1940-1944’, by Emannuel Debruyne, p.23
  • CEGESOMA, Brussels: File OP 723, and William Ugeux archives, AA 884, No. 56.
  • Personal File, Henri Leenaerts, CEGESOMA SVG: d340578