Monthly Archives: February 1941

Monday, 17 February 1941

Stradishall

Knowles’s trip to Sumburgh is cancelled just after 9 a.m., and at 1135 Knowles asks Ops to let the Earl of Bandon know that SAVANNA is ‘temporarily suspended’, replaced by a 9.5-hour operation by 419 Flight, taking off at between 8 and 9 p.m. This is Operation BENJAMIN, an SOE-sponsored operation to insert a Czech intelligence agent into Bohemia. Though an intelligence operation, it is aimed at inserting a secure wireless link independent from Czech Intelligence chief Moravec’s own organisation. It has been backed by Brigadier Gubbins, SOE’s Operations Director.

At 1350 Ops is told of an alternative operation, taking off at about midnight and lasting 5 hours – ‘Brussels way’. SIS has pulled rank: it insists that 419 Flight fly the SIS operation to insert a Belgian agent, Gaston Poplimon. With only one aircraft available, SIS insists on its operation taking priority. BENJAMIN is cancelled.

Gubbins is furious. This operation has been several months in the planning. Moreover the nights are getting shorter; soon it will not be possible to fly an agent to Eastern Europe and return to the safety of the North Sea before daybreak. It has the effect of crystallising SOE’s resentment at being considered by SIS as a poor relation, rather than the ‘fourth arm’ that Hugh Dalton believed it should be.

Sunday, 16 February 1941

Stradishall

At 1047 S/Ldr Knowles advises the Ops Room that 419 Flight will not operate tonight. At 1220 S/Ldr Knowles says that 419 Flight may operate tonight, but not before midnight, a short trip of approximately five hours. (Bear in mind that the only 419 Flight crew available has just returned from an 11-hour operation.) An hour later 3 Group cancels all operations for tonight, and at 1400 this is reinforced by a request to inform S/Ldr Knowles that all Groups in Bomber Command are standing down tonight. This appears to be due to a forecast of extreme weather.

At 1420 Operation SAVANNA is cancelled. At 1650 3 Group enquires if 419 Flight are operating & in what direction; they point out that the wind-strength will be dangerous for baling out if that should be necessary, a coded hint about parachute operations. (Baling out in emergency is not a problem; the landing is.) At 1820 S/Ldr Knowles provides sortie info for 419 Flight subject to a decision at 1900. At 1948 the trip is cancelled.

S/Ldr Knowles states his intention to fly to Sumburgh in T4264 the following morning, leaving Stradishall at 1000 on the 17th & staying the night at Sumburgh, doubtless to assess the situation with Oettle and his damaged Whitley.

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.

Friday, 14 February 1941

Tangmere

At 0250 Keast phones Stradishall to confirm that he has completed the operation. Sqn Ldr Knowles is to phone Tangmere if Keast is needed for operations tonight. At 0918 F/L Keast is phoned and asked to return to Stradishall. F/Lt Keast flies T4264 to Hendon, and from there to Stradishall.

RAF Sumburgh

At 0615 Stradishall receives a signal from Sumburgh that F/Lt Oettle’s operation to Norway has been completed.

Operation SAVANNA

At 0925 2 Group calls to ask whether Operation SAVANNA is on; S/Ldr Knowles tells the Earl of Bandon that the operation is ‘off’ for tonight.

Thursday, 13 February 1941

Stradishall – Dordogne

F/Lt Keast flies an operation to France. Keast writes a summary of operations since October, in which he records this trip’s target as a successful sortie to Fontainebleau, but as Philip Schneidau will not be dropped until March, this is erroneous.

The operation appears instead to be the drop of BCRA agent Maurice Duclos (‘Saint-Jacques’), with a wireless operator. The target is near the village of Saint-Cirq, 6 kilometres west of Bugue, in the Dordogne. Duclos’s wireless operator is John McLennan, the nom-de-guerre of John Mulleman. Duclos lands awkwardly, breaking his right leg, and he is arrested almost immediately by the French authorities.

Keast takes off in Whitley T4264 at about 1830, and lands at Tangmere at 0158, about 7.5 hours, Although his logbook records the flight duration as 5 hours 30 minutes, this is way too short for a trip to the Dordogne; the independent Stradishall times are about right.

Norway

Jack Oettle flies an 11-hour operation in Whitley P5029 to Norway, where he drops the SIS agent Sverre Midtskau*. (Mark Seaman confirms the agent and the date as 13-14 February.) He lands at Sumburgh in the Shetlands, but the Whitley sustains damage to the tail when landing. Oettle, his crew and aircraft are therefore stranded, and are unavailable for operations in the immediate future.

Sources

*Mark Seaman: ‘Special Duties operations in Norway’, article No. 18 in ‘Britain and Norway in the Second World War’, ed. Patrick Salmon (HMSO), p. 170.
Seaman’s principal sources are:

  1. TNA AIR 20/8224, and
  2. the Air Historical Branch summary ‘Special Duties Operations in Europe’, in TNA AIR 41/84

TNA AIR 14/2527 Stradishall Ops Officer’s log