Monthly Archives: August 1940

Friday, 23 August 1940

RAF Heston

Sgt W. Morgan, a pilot of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) at RAF Heston flies an early morning Spitfire sortie over northern France. The sortie is later catalogued as H/120. His Spitfire is R6598.

The sortie takes in three areas: Sully-sur-Loire, up-river from Orléans; a run north-west across the forest of Fontainebleau, taking in the south-eastern edges, the racecourse and the palace; and finally a short run over the city of Rouen. These areas are not linked, but will have been scheduled to make most efficient use of the Spitfire sortie for different purposes. Sergeant Morgan is back at Heston in time for a late breakfast.

Tuesday, 20 August 1940

The end-result of S/Ldr Knowles’s 16 August suggestion to form a proper unit to carry out clandestine operations is an order issued on 20 August 1940:

No. 811/40.   Formation of No. 419 Flight.

No. 419 Flight will form at North Weald forthwith.
2. It will be administered by No. 11 Group in Fighter Command. It will be under the operational control of the Air Ministry (D. of Plans).
3. An establishment is being prepared and will be issued shortly.
4. The aircraft establishment is 2 plus 2 Lysanders.

Saturday, 17 August 1940

Rotterdam, Holland

Jan Willem van Driel, an 18-year-old Section D agent, is landed near Rozenburg by sea. His purpose is to make contact with the Dutch trade union organisation ‘Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen’ (NVV). However, although the NVV was a Socialist organisation of trade unions, it is taken over by the Nazis and transformed into a National Socialist union.

Van Driel has a file in the National Archives at Kew, but it remains closed. The source for the information comes from the list of Dutch agents compiled by Frans Kluiters

The only sea operation recorded by Brooks Richards as taking place close to this date was the re-embarkation (i.e. evacuation) of Hubert Moreau from Douarnenez, Brittany. Rather a long way from Holland.

Saturday, 17 August 1940

Henri Leenaerts and F/O John Hunter Coghlan, DFC

DATE OPERATION NAME PILOT AIRCRAFT AGENT TARGET COUNTRY OUTCOME
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 and 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, and 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.

Sources

  • 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 of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch made the connection between Leenaerts and Coghlan; contributors to the rafcommands.com forum pointed me towards Eric Clayton’s memoir, and helped me 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

Saturday, 17 August 1940

No. 22 Maintenance Unit, RAF Silloth

Hurricane No. R4118 is sent to No. 605 (County of Warwickshire) Squadron at RAF Drem, east of Edinburgh. It takes part in the Battle of Britain, and its pilots shoot down five more aircraft, German ones this time. After a long history its decayed remains are found in 1982, in Benares, India by Peter Vacher. Vacher brings it back to England, where it is completely restored. Today, hosted for its new owner James Brown by the Shuttleworth Collection, it flies as the only airworthy Hurricane that flew in the Battle of Britain.