Monthly Archives: March 1941

Monday, 3 March 1941

Stradishall

S/Ldr Knowles advises that 419 Flight will be operating tonight, taking off at 1800 on a 10-hour sortie. From the duration this is most likely to be another attempt to deliver Operation BENJAMIN to Czechoslovakia.

At about 1600 Group is told that 419 Flight is operating tonight, taking off at 1900.

At 1725 the operation is cancelled.

At 1845 Knowles phones 2 Group that SAVANNA is ‘on’ for the 6th.

Thursday, 6 March 1941

RAF Middle Wallop, RAF Boscombe Down and RAF Stradishall

Group Captain John Bradbury, DFC, and S/Ldr Knowles visit RAF stations Middle Wallop, Boscombe Down & Stradishall to examine candidate aircraft for the role of agent dropping by parachute. The issue is one of finding possible alternatives to the Whitley. It equips a front-line bomber-group (No. 4 Group, in Yorkshire), and every Whitley diverted to SD work potentially reduced the available bomber-force, hence the pressure to find an alternative. Subsequent generations of aircrew have looked back at the Whitley as slow, draughty and cold, but it is a sturdy and stable aircraft, with a long range and a respectable bomb-load. Bradury and Knowles examine the Harrow, the Manchester, the Stirling and the Wellington.

The Harrow preceded the Whitley as a front-line bomber. If the Whitley is slow and draughty, the Harrow is worse. It was originally designed also to function as a transport, which the Whitley has never been. Bradbury reports that the Harrow is suitable only for short-range work: its radius of action with 6 parachutists is limited to about 400 miles. It has two turrets, each with only a single machine-gun, but agents can be dropped from the rear door after their modification to open inwards and backwards. (In 1940 Ringway had looked at alternatives for paratroop-dropping; it had not even bothered to consider the Harrow, not least because there were only six in the UK.) It has a major operational drawback in that it lacks self-sealing fuel tanks; these cannot be retro-fitted.

The Avro Manchester is a twin-engined bomber that entered service in mid-1940, but it has only recently completed its first raid. Its unreliable engines will eventually be replaced by four Merlins to become the Lancaster, but this is all in the future. The rear door cannot be used for agent-dropping as it is too close to the tailplane, but its ventral hatch could be enlarged. Its range (650 miles) is suitable, but it is too new to be considered for SD work.

The Stirling, first of the four-engined heavy bombers to enter service, and it has started its operational career only the previous month. For SD duties its rear fuselage door is as impractical as the Manchester’s; the ventral hatch is also too small but can be enlarged, but this is academic: like the Manchester it is presently unavailable for SD duties. The Stirling’s inability to fly operationally much higher than 15,000 feet, a major shortcoming for a bomber over Germany, has yet to become apparent. In 1944 the Stirling will replace the Halifax in the SD squadrons, where its long range, low-altitude manoeuvrability (at which it excels), cavernous interior fuselage space and a large ventral hatch make it highly effective in the SD role.

The Wellington is also a front-line bomber, but will become obsolescent in this role once the four-engined ‘heavies’ arrive in quantity. The mounting ring for the ventral turret in the Wellington is too small, only two feet wide. It is also too near the tail, where the fuselage is too narrow for a despatcher and agents; their position there would upset the Wellington’s centre of gravity. However, a pencilled note states that future Wellingtons could be modified, though it does not state how.

419 Flight to 1419 Flight

Their trip is summarised in a memo written the same day (AIR 2/5203) by G/C Bradbury. In it he still refers to 419 Flight. The next day the Flight is first recorded as No. 1419 Flight in the Stradishall Ops Officers’ log.

The re-numbering is due to the Canadian government’s insistence on the formation of Canadian (RCAF) squadrons within Bomber Command. The Air Ministry has decided to use squadron numbers from 400 upwards for these new squadrons, and so the SD Flight is prefixed with ‘1’ to avoid confusion with No. 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron, RCAF.

Wednesday, 12 March 1941

Czechoslovakia: Operation BENJAMIN

S/Ldr Knowles pilots Z6473 in an attempt to drop the Czech agent Otmar Riedl about 50 km east of Prague, near the town of Kolin.

Sparse details for the sortie flown by S/Ldr Knowles come from the logbook of Sgt (later F/Sgt) Fisher, a Wireless Operator who has just joined the Flight. Fisher flies on several of 1419 Flight’s early operations as a member of S/Ldr Knowles’s crew; when Ken Merrick was doing his research for ‘Flights of the Forgotten’ he did have sight of Fisher’s logbook, and it gave Knowles’s target for this sortie as Czechoslovakia.

The sortie was to attempt Brigadier Gubbins’s SOE Operation BENJAMIN. This had been ‘bumped’ (to use modern airline parlance) on February 17th in favour of an SIS operation to Belgium. BENJAMIN is important, though clearly not to SIS: a Czech soldier, Otmar Riedl, had been trained to provide a W/T link, independent from Frantisek Moravec’s Intelligence organisation, between the Czech government-in-exile in London and other Czech resistance groups. Riedl was to be dropped in the Kolin district of central Bohemia, near the village of Křečhoř. This is a crucial operation for Gubbins: he has to show that his fledgling organisation is a serious outfit.

Delayed by a technical fault, S/Ldr Knowles and his crew take off late, at 20.09. They turn back shortly after passing Frankfurt, having calculated that they cannot make it to the target and return to friendly skies before daybreak. Fisher’s logbook and the Ops Officers’ log agree that the trip lasted 6 hours 10 minutes, the Whitley returning at 02.18 on the 13th.

France: Operations FITZROY & FELIX

The sortie is flown by F/Lt Oettle. His Whitley leaves the English coast over Selsey Bill and reaches Chateauroux, via Tours, at 0145. Eugène Pérot, a wireless operator for Claude Lamirault, is dropped about 5 kilometres south-west of Chateauroux. To disguise the aircraft’s purpose the crew drops three packages of ‘Nickels’ (propaganda leaflets) over Chateauroux before heading north-east at about 0235 towards the Fontainebleau area.

Philip Schneidau is dropped at about 03.20 on to a large piece of open ground on the Plateau les Trembleaux, just to the north of Montigny-sur-Loing. The crew reports that he has made a successful landing, but a fresh breeze carries him over dense woods to the west of the clearing. He falls through the tree-tops and crashes into tree-trunks well above the ground, and becomes entangled. The wireless set is suspended in the branches above his head. It takes several hours to cut himself and the W/T set free. The parachute canopy is tangled high in the tree-tops, and he has to cut down this rather obvious advertisement before he can make his way off the plateau. He has been injured, first by the fall and then through his strenuous efforts to free himself and recover his equipment. He has fractured a tooth and damaged a leg from being bashed against tree-trunks during his landing.

F/Lt Oettle and his crew returned to Stradishall via Fécamp and Tangmere, landing at about 0550.

Thursday, 13 March, 1941

Unnamed Operation

F/Lt Jack Oettle flies a sortie in Whitley a/c ‘Z’, taking off from Stradishall at 18.54. He lands back at 02.15, and at 04.40 Oettle reports ‘1419 operations successful’. There is no other report of this sortie taking place.

In his memoirs as ‘Passy’, André Dewavrin records that on the night of 13-14 March ‘Le sergent aviateur Laroche, fut donc parachuté dans la nuit du 13 au 14 mars et rejoignit aussitôt Lucas.’  (‘Lucas’ was the Free French agent Pierre Fourcaud, who had returned to Vichy via Lisbon in mid-January.) Marie-Madeleine Fourcade writes in her book ‘L’Arche de Noë’ (‘Noah’s Ark’) that on 14 March she learned, through a phone call from Clermont-Ferrand, that her brother, Jacques Bridou, has been parachuted into France. Bridou has been dropped with Sgt Laroche from less than 100 metres (about 300 feet) above the ground. Their landing was bound to be hard, and Bridou has injured his foot. He has also become separated from Laroche.

The two agents would have been regarded as separate operations. In a letter brought by Fourcaud for Marie-Madeleine’s boss, Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, de Gaulle has typically made clear that ‘whoever is not with me, is against me’. The distinction is fine: Bridou is being delivered by SIS for SIS, Sgt Laroche by SIS for the Free French; hence Oettle’s use of the plural ‘operations’ in his report.

Sources

Stradishall Ops Officers’ log
‘L’Arche du Noë’, by Marie Madeleine Fourcade, p.57 (English translation ‘Noah’s Ark’, p.41)
‘Memoires’, by ‘Passy’ (André Dewavrin), p.165

Thursday, 13 March 1941

Stradishall – Operation BENJAMIN follow-up

Knowles knows that a Whitley cannot make it to Czechoslovakia and back during the hours of darkness by a normal route. He makes plans for the start of the next period. In order to stretch the ever-shortening hours of darkness by flying as far east as possible over the North Sea, his Whitley will need a fighter escort so that he can approach the north German coast (in the Heligoland Bight) shortly before nightfall. He requests from 3 Group:

Whitley operating on night of 4th/5th. Leave base 1845. Crosses at Aldeburgh 1915 hrs. Fighter escort of two or three (if possible) Beaufighters requested to accompany Whitley until dark en route over North Sea or over Zebrugge.

Sources

Stradishall Ops log