Monthly Archives: April 1941

Thursday, 10 April 1941


The Pessac power station supplies electrical power to the Bordeaux area, which hosts a submarine base built for the Italian Navy known as ‘BETASOM’, from which its submarines will account for more than half a million tons of Allied shipping. Damaging the power station would cripple both base and local industry: the Bloch aircraft company and Ford France have factories in the area. Bomber Command has attacked Bordeaux several times in 1940 and 1941. The local airfield at Merignac, home to Condor long-range bombers that another menace to the Atlantic convoys, would also be disrupted.

Six Polish Army saboteurs are selected for the operation. Though they might seem an odd choice, a considerable portion of the Polish Army had escaped to France during the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939-40, and during the collapse General Sikorski had established his headquarters at Libourne, 25 km to the east. The presence of Poles in that part of France is therefore not uncommon, even after the armistice, and many soldiers who have escaped to England with Sikorski know their way around the area. Explosives expertise cannot be acquired quickly, and at the time the Free French Forces do not have such experts to hand.

The Whitley, T4165, is one of the pair from the Tragino Aqueduct raid, Operation COLOSSUS. These aircraft had been prepared in haste for COLOSSUS at Ringway, and on that raid there had been several container hang-ups over the target; one, crucially, had held many of the explosive charges. On this night, however, the problem isn’t a hang-up but a falling-off: en route to the target, shortly before midnight, an electrical fault releases one of the containers. Without the limpet-mines it carries there is no point in continuing with the operation, and Oettle returns to Tangmere.

By the time the Whitley arrives over Tangmere at about 03.30 much of its fuel has been used up. On take-off the heavy fuel load has masked the effect of the saboteurs’ weight on the Whitley’s centre-of-gravity (C-of-G). Now that most of the fuel had been used up, the C-of-G has moved dangerously aft.

As the Whitley approaches the runway Oettle is too high, too slow. Even if he elects to go around this is a dangerous procedure in a Whitley: the Merlin X engines are underpowered and cannot be wound up quickly. Also, in the final stages of a normal landing there is little elevator control, for the tailplane falls into the turbulent wash behind the wings. The Whitley stalls, and crashes heavily.

Of F/Lt Oettle’s crew, Sergeants Cowan (Observer) and Morris (Rear Gunner) are killed. Jack Oettle is seriously injured, as are P/O Wilson (2nd Pilot) and Sgt Briscoe (Wireless Operator). The agents escape serious injury: the rear fuselage is an inherently safer place to be than the cockpit area, but their escape may also be due to the cushioning effect of their swaddling parachute gear, the sorbo-rubber floor-mats, and stacks of bundled propaganda leaflets. Stradishall does not list P/O Molesworth among the injured; he is probably the Despatcher, back in the rear fuselage with the Poles. Although most despatchers are airmen volunteers from the ground trades, it is not uncommon for an officer from Ringway to perform this role.

Tangmere is a busy Fighter airfield, and there are many witnesses to the accident. The several personnel seen emerging from the rear fuselage are bound to arouse comment. One of the witnesses is Jimmy McCairns, a fighter pilot at Tangmere, later a noted Lysander pilot with 161 Squadron: the fiction put out is that the six agents are newspaper correspondents returning from covering a raid. Thin cover, given the eastern-European accents of the ‘newspapermen’, but it has to do.

Wednesday, 9 April 1941

RAF Stradishall

F/O Hockey takes up some agents over Stradishall for parachute practice; a French agent’s parachute doesn’t open and he is killed. On a bomber base people don’t voluntarily jump out of aeroplanes, and the attention this accident generates is unwelcome. There is likely to have been some difficulty over the very public death of the agent; he will have had a false identity, and an inquest, necessarily public by law, would jeopardise security.

Tuesday 8 April 1941

Operation to Belgium

Flt Lt A.D. Jackson (believed to be Ashley Duke Jackson, 33261) flies his first operation with the Special Duties Flight. Jackson was remembered by his fellow-pilots as either South African or Rhodesian. Before coming to 1419 Flight he had been instructing on Whitleys at No. 10 OTU. By the end of 1940 Sqn Ldr Knowles, then at the Air Ministry in charge of planning 419 Flight’s operations, had become something of a nuisance at Abingdon, repeatedly tapping 10 OTU’s instructor-pool for experienced aircrew: first it had been Sergeants Bernard and Davies, both W/T instructors, then F/O Jack Oettle. In December he’d asked Air Commodore Archie Boyle, the Air Ministry’s Director of Intelligence, to use his influence to procure Jackson for 419 Flight. Even with Boyle’s efforts Jackson’s transfer didn’t take place until March.

Jackson’s operational report is undated, but the logbook of Group Captain Ron Hockey, who flew as Jackson’s Second Pilot on this operation, identifies the date of the sortie, their first with the Flight. Jackson’s crew includes a Sergeant Besant as Observer. Sgt Besant does not appear in any later operational reports, so he appears to have been posted out. The Whitley is P5029, repaired after its mishap at Sumburgh in February.

They take off from Stradishall, then set course for the Belgian coast at 21.16, climbing to 5,000 feet for the crossing. With cloud at 3,000 ft, they are unable to see the English coast to see whether they are on track. The wireless operator obtains a back bearing (QDM) from a radio beacon at Stradishall, which verifies that they are. They make landfall in clear weather at Knokke, but as they lose height to 2,000 feet the Whitley is picked up by searchlights and attacked by coastal flak batteries north-east of Zeebrugge, though their firing is wide. Sgt Bramley, the rear gunner, succeeds in putting one of the searchlights out. Jackson flies inland to somewhere he records as ‘AILTROE’, arriving at 22.23. There they alter course for ‘WATTEN’, flying slowly at a height of 1,500 feet, and the despatcher is instructed to ‘commence operations’.

Their flight-path takes them across the Franco-Belgian border to ‘WATTEN’. They return on an reciprocal course, crossing the border at ‘WARHOUDT’. They continue on the same course, passing over Bruges. During the whole exercise they fly over several aerodromes, but encounter no searchlight or flak opposition until they leave the coast for the North Sea, when they are engaged by three searchlights.

This operation does not tie in with any known agent; indeed, may have been a leaflet-dropping exercise, to give a new crew valuable experience and to test whether they could do the job later with a real agent. Jackson’s report on this operation is difficult to analyze because many of the locations his report mentions are difficult to identify: while ‘Knock’ can be identified as Knokke with certainty, ‘Ailtroe’ might be Aalter. Or it may not. ‘Watten’ could be the village in France near St Omer, the later site of the V-2 launching base. ‘Warhoudt’ is untraceable, at least by the author.

Update March 2018 – Operation Columba

The purpose of this sortie has now become clear: it was not pamphlets that the crew dropped in a line across the Franco-Belgian border, but pigeons. This sortie was the first operation in a programme to drop small packages over Nazi-occupied Europe. Each package contained a homing-pigeon, food and water (for the pigeon), rice-paper, a pencil and a tiny green container for a written message. Anyone finding one of these might provide British Intelligence with useful information about the occupiers, but for anyone caught with one of these pigeons the result would have been a death-sentence. Many of these containers were handed over to the authorities, but several brave individuals wrote messages and released the pigeon to return to England. Of those pigeons dropped this night, two made it back to England.

From the COLUMBA file in the National Archive, the Belgian place-names, once elusive, become clear. The end-point of the Whitley’s dropping-run is indeed the French village of Watten; later in the war a vast blockhouse to house a V-2 launching complex will be built in the woods nearby. The first pigeon to returned is sent from the Belgian village of Herzeele. By drawing a line from Watten through Herzeele, the two towns of AALTER and WORMHOUT are on the track.


TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 5A.
Pilot’s logbook, Grp Capt. R.C. Hockey

Gordon Corera, ‘Secret Pigeon Service’, pp. 24, 37-8.
TNA AIR 20/8457 (Operation COLUMBA)

Tuesday, 1 April 1941

Air Intelligence Directorate, The Air Ministry

Flt Lt Walter Farley, DFC, is promoted Squadron Leader. His leg still in plaster, and obviously ‘grounded’, Farley has been posted to assist Group Captain John Bradbury DFC and Wing Cdr Easton in the small section of Air Intelligence involved in planning clandestine operations, replacing S/Ldr Knowles who has been posted to command 1419 Flight. This section, currently in A.I.4, will be re-designated as A.I.2(c).