Monthly Archives: May 1941

Sunday, 11 May 1941


The first attempt at Operation JOSEPHINE had ended badly for the Whitley’s crew, with two fatalities and three seriously wounded, including the pilot, F/Lt Jack Oettle. The Polish agents had not been seriously harmed, but the delay had allowed time for three Frenchmen from Brigadier Gubbins’s newly-established RF Section of SOE to be prepared for the operation. Sgt J. Forman (who had made it back remarkably quickly from Operation SAVANNA), Sous-Lt Raymond Varnier, and Sous-Lt Raymond Cabard were the agents. The scale of the operation was half that of the earlier attempt, but the intended outcome wasn’t impeded.

Jackson and his crew took off from Stradishall half an hour before midnight, but had to circle Abingdon while the wireless-operator checked out a fault with his set. On such a long-range flight the W/T equipment was essential for navigation, it being used to take bearings from home-based radio beacons and, once over France, from foreign radio stations. These were fed to the Navigator. A strong German Forces’ transmitter at Rennes, in Brittany, was especially useful.

Once over Tangmere, course was set for ‘Ile Deke’ (Jackson’s version of the Île d’Aix, between the Île d’Oléron and the mainland). They flew at 8,000 feet above 10/10th cloud until they passed 48°30’N (roughly level with Avranches), the cloud cleared, replaced by low mist and haze.

They eventually spotted La Rochelle to port, and changed course for the target area. Once over the Bordeaux area the crew was expecting some kind of diversionary raid (such as 2 Group had laid on for SAVANNA) to cover their parachuting activity, but there was none. The three agents were dropped at about 01.30, and were seen to have dropped safely with their container near a wood.

After dropping the agents the Whitley headed west, away from trouble into the Bay of Biscay, then north to Ushant, and so to St. Eval, which they spotted by searchlights playing on the underside of the cloud-base. It’s not clear whether St Eval was guiding them in; it was quite common practice for searchlights to shepherd an errant bomber to its base in this manner.

A final comment in the report: “the W/T installation was unreliable for HF/DF assistance” indicates that their only navigation aid beside the aircraft compass was little use. All things considered, the crew did well to find their target, and almost as well to find their way back. It took only a small error, or series of small errors, for an aircraft without W/T aids to miss the south-west peninsula and end up in the Irish Sea. Hence the searchlights over St Eval.

To find out how the operation went after the agents’ landing, I suggest you look at the Wikipedia page on Operation JOSEPHINE.

Saturday, 10 May 1941

Operations AUTOGYRO D/E and JOLLY

AUTOGYRO D and E are circuit organiser Pierre de Vomécourt (Lucas) and Louis Lefrou de la Colonge (Bernard), sent by ‘F’ Section; JOLLY is Pierre Julitte, a Gaullist agent sent by Dewavrin.

Sqn Ldr Knowles, with F/Lt Murphy as 2nd pilot and navigator, takes off from Stradishall at 21.24, and takes the standard route to the coast via Abingdon and Tangmere, which they circle an hour later. They climb to 10,000 feet and cross the French coast at Isigny at 23.10. Twenty minutes later the rear gunner, Sgt Burgin, reports an aircraft approaching from the stern. The Me110 opens fire, and Knowles put the Whitley into a weaving dive to 2,000 feet. On the way down Sgt Burgin continuously shoots at the Me110 until it explodes. They resume their course to Tours, which they pass shortly after midnight.

They then head south-east for Chatillon. About 11 km south of the town, and approximately 40 km from both Valençay and Chateauroux, the agents are dropped on the pinpoint, somewhere between the hamlets of Fromenteau and Villiers. Large areas of woodland nearby would have stood out as dark patches in the moonlight. Though Georges Bégué has been cited as being present to receive them, this may be due to a misreading of Bégué’s original report in his personal file (see below).

Knowles then heads for Châteauroux and Le Châtre, passing over Châteauroux at 00.42. They circle Le Châtre for about ten minutes before dropping Pierre Julitte with a wireless set at 01.06, about one mile south of the town. In his operation report, Knowles headlines JOLLY as JOOLLY, which he corrects in the text. This may have been a subconscious mis-typing: Knowles may have met Pierre Julitte as one of Dewavrin’s staff from his time at the Air Ministry. Knowles mentions nothing about reception lights; Julitte is dropped blind.

Knowles and crew retrace their route to Châteauroux, where they drop leaflets before setting a return course via Tours and Isigny. However, they cross the French coast north of Caen, some way east of track. They then head for Tangmere and Stradishall, where they land at 04.44.


The Luftwaffe takes full advantage of the nearly full moon to launch a devastating attack on the West End and many other parts of the capital. London burned. Many years ago I read Richard Collier’s 1959 account of this night: ‘The city that wouldn’t die’. If you can get hold of a copy, read it. This attack was the last, flailing, all-out blow of the Blitz that had started the previous September. Hitler’s attention was now firmly fixed upon the east, on the Soviet Union.


TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 11A
TNA HS9/115/2, Georges Bégué SOE personal file

Friday, 9 May 1941


Richard van de Walle and Albert Thiou are successfully parachuted into the Eupen district of north-eastern Belgium on the third attempt.

This time the weather is better. Jackson and his crew also take along a passenger: S/Ldr Jack Benham of the parachute training staff at Ringway. A week later Benham will take command of the Parachute Training Squadron at Ringway. As Ringway is responsible for agents’ parachute training, he is getting first-hand experience of the operational side.

Soon after the Whitley crosses the coast at Knokke it is bracketed by accurate and simultaneous searchlights and flak, but remains undamaged. Ground haze makes visibility difficult as they fly south, then east, but eventually they pick up a pinpoint, do their timed run and drop the two agents. They return to the coast via Poperinghe, where they drop their quota of pigeons. They return to Stradishall at just after 4 a.m.


On 5th June, Gp/Capt. John Bradley, DFC, S/Ldr Knowles’s boss at the Air Ministry (for the Flight receives its operational orders direct from Air Intelligence), writes asking for clarification about two operations. One of these is MARINE/ALBION. It has been reported back to SIS that the aircraft had flown over the pre-selected spot, was seen by people waiting for them on the ground, but the agents were dropped elsewhere. Neither agent has made contact. Worse, the two agents are reported to have been dropped over Germany.

Knowles assures Bradley that the crew has made every effort to drop the agents at the correct place. F/Lt Jackson writes a second report detailing his actions precisely: they had positively identified the Gileppe reservoir before flying for two minutes on a bearing of about 326 degrees true, (the ‘about’ because the observer was guiding the pilot from the bomb-aimer’s position, using a large-scale map). This is somewhat undermined by Knowles’s covering note, which asserts that they steered due north from the reservoir.

The map that accompanies Jackson’s memo (of which only a file copy exists) has not survived, at least publicly. The dropping-point appears to have been the high ground to the north or north-east of Limbourg, the exact position being dependent on the Whitley’s speed of between 80 and 100 knots, and its position over the lake, which is over a mile long.

If they were dropped in the right place, on target, they may still have landed in Germany. On 29 July 1940 the districts of Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith had been annexed to Germany. Even a western-most placement of the target would still have been in Germany. It is entirely possible that neither the agents nor their handlers in the UK were aware of the boundary changes. There’s certainly no indication in the correspondence.

It may be significant that the crew had not reported any lights from a ground-party; according to the Air Ministry correspondence there were people on the ground waiting for the agents. But these were very early days, and almost all drops were done ‘blind’; a ground-party with torches for guidance and signalling would have been exceptional.

There is another possibility, but an unlikely one. What they took for Lac de Gileppe might just have been Lake Eupen, a smaller but similar lake about 8 km (5 miles) further east. It. too, has a dam at the western end, but the lake is smaller, its shape and orientation is very different, and there is no marshland on the south shore. Built in 1938, the reservoir was not inaugurated until 1950 by Prince Charles of Belgium. It may not have been filled in May 1941.

In a biography of Leopold III, mention is made of two agents dropped in May 1941, Richard Van de Walle, with Albert Thiou as his W/T operator. De Walle’s mission was to enter the service of an un-named Belgian aristocrat who would act as an intermediary with the King, to allow the King to have a link with his government-in-exile. Debruyne says that Van de Walle was arrested within hours of his landing in Belgium.

Operation FELIX (pick-up)

Philip Schneidau is picked up by Lysander from south of Montigny by Gordon Scotter. This third Lysander pick-up operation is also Philip Schneidau’s second. Parachuted in on the night of 12-13 March for a two-week mission, the main purpose of which has been to provide his FELIX circuit with a W/T set, and for him to train up Felix Jond, an ex-army wireless operator who is now a commercial traveller in children’s clothing, in protocols and coding.

When Schneidau made his perilous parachute-landing in March, his transmitter/receiver had been damaged. The set was left with Felix Jond, who found Marcel Cornelis, an assistant at a wireless repair shop in Paris, prepared to mend it. Despite Marcel’s efforts the set was still not working properly, and communication with England has been difficult. Philip had brought a pair of pigeons, as on his first mission, for just this eventuality. In early April he had released them bpth, each carrying a message asking to be picked up. On the nights of the 9th and 10th April he waited in the fields south of Montigny, but no Lysander came; the pigeons hadn’t made it home. Eventually Schneidau has got through on the repaired wireless, and arrangements have been made for 9 May. Philip had been adamant that his wife and young son should be evacuated, too, and the RAF had agreed, eventually. Scotter has lined the rear canopy with blackout curtains in case the boy became frightened during the trip; which must have confused Michel COULOMB, for they had been in place for the earlier pick-up.

A plateau south of Montigny, between La Genevraye and Moncourt-Fromonville, is an almost ideal location for a landing site. Not far from a road, a landed aircraft would have been invisible behind the rise. It had been the site originally planned for the previous October’s pick-up, but in England they had not anticipated that Schneidau would have had to walk through the centre of Montigny after curfew, negotiating two waterway bridges, probably guarded, before he could reach the site. (There really is no other way across without getting wet; I’ve reconnoitred the area thoroughly.)

In October Philip changed the landing site to one south of Bourron-Marlotte. But it was far from ideal, with small fields. This time he does not get off the train from Paris until Nemours, where he eats a decent meal in a local restaurant, before making his way after curfew over the fields to the landing site.

Scotter arrives from Tangmere and starts searching an area slightly to the north. Philip’s torches lead him to the right place, and Scotter lands after exchanging signals. After his earlier episode with Coulomb/Cartwright, Scotter is understandably nervous. When a single figure he does not recognise hoists himself level with the cockpit Scotter draws his service revolver and waves it at the intruder. He has perhaps been expecting someone resembling the dapper RAF officer he’d met two months before, with a wife and child ready to board. But Schneidau may have re-adopted the bearded disguise he’d had on his first mission, and he’s alone. Simone, his wife, has refused to be evacuated: her place as a Frenchwoman is with her parents, organising and running the intelligence circuit they had built up since the previous October. Their son Peter also remains in Paris.

Schneidau tells Scotter to “put that bloody thing away”, gathers up his torches into a rucksack, and climbs aboard. They take off and the return journey is uneventful. They have a night fighter escort for the final stage of the journey, which Schneidau misinterprets as enemy fighters which they ‘dodged’.

Friday, 9 May 1941

George Bégué’s first transmission

In a house on the rue des Pavillons, near the centre of the Roman town of Chateauroux, Georges Bégué makes his first Wireless transmission to London. (In 2016 there is a re-enactment of the event between the same house in Chateauroux and Whaddon Hall, where early SOE messages were received, and using the same type of equipment.) This is the first recorded wireless transmission from France by an SOE agent from the British ‘F’ Section.

However, it is far from the first transmission from France, Nazi-occupied or non-occupied: Gaullist and British intelligence agents had been transmitting for some time; in a corner of the Place Vendôme, at No. 8 between Dior and Mikimoto, a plaque records just such an earlier transmission, in April 1941, for the SAINT-JACQUES circuit run by Maurice Duclos, and Philip Schneidau made his first semi-successful attempt on 15 April, with a set that had been damaged when he landed in trees.

Wednesday, 7 May 1941


SIS agent Michel COULOMB (aka ‘Lieutenant Cartwright’) has been back in England for nearly four weeks. He is to be parachuted back into France near Limoges, some 80 miles further south from the Chateauroux area from where Gordon Scotter had picked him up in a Lysander.

S/Ldr Knowles, Murphy and their crew follow Bomber Command lanes, flying via Abingdon and Tangmere. The Whitley crosses the French coast near Dives-sur-Mer and heads south, crossing the Loire about ten miles east of Tours. He notes the aerodrome’s flashing beacon, a reliable aid to navigation for both sides. He flies on to Limoges, pinpointing at Le Blanc on the way.

At half past midnight they are over Limoges. In the Non-occupied Zone, Limoges is lit up as though it is peacetime; for the French south of the demarcation line it is, and will remain so for the next 18 months. Knowles and his crew spend ten minutes disposing of their ‘nickels’ over Limoges before heading east to the village of Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat.

The agents are to be dropped near a particular house with its lights on, but though the crew search the area for 35 minutes, they cannot identify it. Knowles’s report states that the agents are dropped together, each with a W/T set, in a group of three fields south east of Saint-Leonard.

The other agent is code-named HERRY, and little is known about him. The rest of the CARTWRIGHT réseau (other than COULOMB himself) is domestic, none dropped from England by parachute. It was insecure to drop agents from separate réseaux together, but security at this time was lax. Unlike Coulomb, who operates mainly from Paris, HERRY operates in south-west France; in December 1941 he will be dropped even further south.


Cartwright appears to have been displeased that he hasn’t been dropped in quite the right place. Unable to see anything from inside the rear fuselage, and dependent solely on the Despatcher for information, he may have been unaware of the crew’s long search for the house. Once he’s landed all he knows is that he’s not quite where he’d expected to be, and tells London.

At the start of the next moon period, Air Intelligence write to S/Ldr Knowles, as the Flight’s Commanding Officer, about this operation and the failed MARINE/ALBION operation. Regarding the CARTWRIGHT operation he is on sure ground because he has flown the sortie. He points out that they couldn’t identify the house despite a long search. In the Occupied Zone a house with its lights on would have stood out in the surrounding darkness of a blacked-out countryside, but in the Unoccupied Zone a house with all its lights on is hardly unusual.

Knowles says he has dropped the agents about a mile west of the pinpoint. Unlike many SOE operations we have no access to any original operation or UK-held personnel documents, so it is impossible to verify the original pinpoint. Knowles also pointed out that their lengthy search for the target created an additional hazard:

All this took place at a height of about 1,000 feet, A Whitley makes a considerable noise when low down, and it is quite certain that while the search for the pin point was going on a considerable number of people must have been wakened up.

As to the agents’ “trying experiences” after landing, Knowles points out that he cannot be accountable for what happens to them on the ground afterwards:

I should like to point out that the responsibility of Captains ends when the passengers leave the aircraft. The dropping of these people must always be a chancy business and as it is necessary to carry out these operations from low level it is difficult to see how the element of risk in disturbing the neighbourhood can be avoided. These agents were dropped at the place marked on the attached map, namely about one mile south east of St. Leonard in three fields. It is impossible to give more details than this as this operation took place a month ago and I cannot remember any more about it.

Knowles ends by suggesting the use of powerful flashing lights from the ground in countries with no blackout regulations. This sortie shows that the Flight’s operations at this time are a learning process, by trial-and-error: no textbooks exist, and no-one has done such long-range insertions before. They have to make it up as they go along.


TNA AIR 20 / 8334, enclosures 18A, 19A, 20A