Monthly Archives: October 1940

Wednesday, 9 October 1940

RAF Tangmere

With the new Moon period, a fresh attempt is made to parachute Philip Schneidau into the Bourron-Marlotte sand-quarry. Take-off is scheduled for 23.00.

The Flight is using its new Whitley, P5025, which has arrived on the 6th. The revised establishment for 419 Flight is for two Lysanders plus two in reserve, and one Whitley with another in reserve. (The Flight will actually have only three Lysanders, because the one lost on 17 August has not been officially declared lost; R2625 will remain on 138 Squadron’s books for several months until it is quietly dropped.) There is only one Whitley crew: P/O Jack Oettle, with F/Lt Farley as 2nd Pilot. Sergeants David Bernard and Dai Davies are almost certainly aboard as Wireless Operator and Rear Gunner, and the navigator will be identified by Hugh Verity only as ‘Jacky’ Martin. S/Ldr Ross Shore flies as a ‘passenger’, in his role as coach to Philip Schneidau.

They take off at 2300 hours, and land back at Tangmere seven hours later, foiled yet again by bad weather.

Thursday, 10 October 1940

RAF Tangmere

Tonight the weather is better: fine and clear. Take-off is earlier, at 21.45 according to Farley, again flying as Second Pilot to F/O Oettle. The crew is probably the same as the night before. So is the Whitley.

This time there is no mist over the Fontainebleau forest. The target, the sand-quarry, is found easily and Philip Schneidau is dropped successfully, His ‘A’ type harness has a wicker-basket container, which sits between his head and the canopy. In the container is a rucksack with two pigeons inside, immobilised by socks placed over their bodies, their heads poking out from holes cut in the toes. The ‘A’ type harness is an adapted cargo parachute with 11-foot strops beneath to carry the agent. It cannot be steered by the parachutist, and Schneidau drifts towards the edge of the bowl and the dense surrounding forest.

He lands just inside the lip, and tumbles headlong in the steep sloping sand, but he is down. He hides his parachute harness, canopy and wicker basket in the scrubby forest surrounding the quarry. He dons the rucksack and walks across country towards his father-in-law’s house in Montigny, the last minutes of moonlight at his back guiding him.

The Whitley and its crew return to Tangmere, landing at 04.05.

Friday, 11 October 1940

RAF Stradishall

Farley and Oettle return to RAF Abingdon in Whitley P5025. It may have required maintenance; North Weald is a Fighter station, without the facilities and technical staff to service a heavy bomber; Abingdon will perform the Flight’s Whitley maintenance for several months to come. At 17.20 Farley takes off in P5025 for Stapleford, North Weald’s satellite airfield. (Its runways are long enough provided the Whitley is empty.) He takes P/O Greenhill with him. Farley has other duties, for he hands the Whitley over to Greenhill and takes Lysander P9027, one of the Flight’s new long-range Lysanders, over to Rochford (Southend) for the evening.

Greenhill ferries Whitley P5025 over to Stradishall. (According to Ken Merrick, Greenhill is a Lysander pilot, and not cleared to fly the Whitley.) Sergeants Bernard and Davies are aboard; Bernard is to arrange the Flight’s Other Ranks accommodation; he travels in the rear turret. Davies in the wireless-operator’s position in the cockpit. As the Whitley approaches Stradishall to land, Bernard realises that they are coming in at too steep an angle, too high and too fast. The Whitley’s going to stall: Bernard knows a crash is inevitable, and braces himself by grasping the cross-beam that runs through the fuselage between the twin fins, just forward of the rear turret.

In the crash, Bernard sees the rear turret is torn away from its mounting ‘like a rotten apple’. Up in the front, Davies grasps for a pencil that has fallen on the cockpit floor. It saves his life, for in the impact the wireless-operator’s position is crushed by the impact; the W/T sets end up where he had been sitting. There is no fire: the Graviner system isolates the fuel and triggers the fire extinguishers, but the almost-new Whitley is a write-off. Sergeants Bernard and Davies are taken to sick bay, but they are both fit enough for operations the following night.

24 Squadron

F/Lt Keast is posted to 419 Flight. A pilot with a domestic airline before the war, he had flown several times to northern France during the Phoney War and during the German invasion. He appears to be the replacement for F/Lt O’Neill, who has been posted away within Fighter Command.

Saturday, 12 October 1940

RAF Stradishall

The operation mounted this night incorporates several ‘firsts’: the first Special Duties operation from Stradishall and the first under Bomber Command control; the first operation for O’Neill’s replacement F/Lt Frank Keast  who flies as Second Pilot to F/O Jack Oettle; and the first agents parachuted into Nazi-occupied Belgium. This is also the first insertion of a pair of agents as organiser and wireless-operator, which becomes a standard practice.

P5029 has arrived at Stradishall at 11.35 that morning, to replace the Flight’s newer Whitley destroyed by P/O Greenhill the previous day.  Oettle and Keast take off in P5029 at 22.23. Sgts Bernard and Davies are back on duty despite their crash the previous day. They land back at 0255. Keast’s logbook says the trip took 4 hours 40 minutes, which is close enough. (Frequently there are differences between take-off and landing times as recorded by the Watch Office and the Ops Officer. Logbook times tend to be longer than either, as pilots record flight from first taxi to engines off, which the Watch office doesn’t see.)

Constant Martiny and Armand Desnerck

The agents are dropped in the bois Saint-Jean, between the villages of La Roche and Houffalise, some way north of Bastogne. The agents are Constant Martiny and Armand Desnerk, his wireless-operator. Martiny is 52, and breaks his ankle on landing. (The Belgian historian Emmanuel Debruyne says that they didn’t receive any parachute training.) Martiny has been a clerk in the Ministry of Aviation. His contact in Belgium is Joseph Daumerie, a pilot from the Great War, and their circuit Daumerie-Martiny gains some 300 agents recruited locally. Martiny is captured on 13 May 1941, and is deported to Germany. Tried in Berlin, he is sentenced go death, and he is executed on 26 August 1942. There is a memorial near the Chateau de bois Saint-Jean, presumably near where he landed.

Saturday, 19 October 1940

RAF Stradishall

In the early afternoon of 19 October, F/Lt Farley flies Lysander P9027 to Tangmere, ready to fly to Montigny-sur-Loing that night to recover P/O Philip Schneidau from his mission. Stradishall also records that the Met officers are required to send the weather report (presumably for northern France) to Tangmere over the secure Ops line at 18.00; this is passed to F/Lt Farley via 3 Group and Bomber Command at 18.20.

RAF Tangmere

F/Lt Keast has also travelled to Tangmere. He has been posted from No. 24 Squadron on the 10th, after Schneidau has been parachuted in. From Keast’s airline experience he is understood to be a navigation expert. He advises Farley of the methods and routes he should follow. The weather forecast is dire, and the Lysander’s VHF set is not working. The Lysander is equipped the standard Mercury XVA engine: the pilot has the use of a VHF radio-telephone (R/T), but he is under orders to contact Tangmere only after he has left the French coast on the return journey. The aircraft is equipped with a long-range tank underneath the fuselage and a Heath-Robinson-style ladder on the port side, specified by Schneidau before he left. (Clambering up the side of a Lysander’s rear fuselage to gain the rear cockpit, trusting to small semi-circular footholds, is no picnic even in daylight; not a practicable proposition in the dark.) The operation is postponed until the following night, due to the poor forecast and the unserviceable radio set.