Monthly Archives: July 1941

Friday, 4 July 1941

The July moon period opens with two operations, one to France, the other to Holland. The short nights, with only a few hours of proper darkness, have significantly reduced the range for clandestine operations.

Operation ARAMIS

Sgt Austin takes off at 23.30 DST, nearly two hours after sunset, so there must have been some delay. The nights are so short that every minute counts. The Whitley crosses the English coast at 00.06 over Southwold, and crosses the Dutch coast between the flak-fortified islands of Vlieland and Texel, probably at about 01.00. Accompanying Sgt Austin’s crew that night is F/Lt Boris Romanoff who has spent the previous year dropping trainee parachute troops at Ringway. He is along to learn how to fly the Whitley on operations, and to practise his navigation.

The moon sets at 02.13 DST: they have only a few minutes of moonlight to find the target before it sets. They didn’t find it, but searched in the darkness for an hour and a half. Above the Zuidlaardermeer, south-east of Groningen, the Whitley is caught in three searchlights, which are shot out on the pilot’s orders. The crew locates what they think is the target at 02.55, and drop the agent with his wireless set. They see his parachute open, but didn’t see him land.

Austin’s operational report indicates that the operation is successful, but Alblas has been dropped near Nieuweschans, extremely close to the German border. It’s fair to say that the navigator was lost, and it’s only good fortune that the agent hasn’t been dropped in Germany.

ARAMIS is Aart Hendrik Alblas. Previously a petty-officer with the Dutch merchant navy, Alblas has escaped to England in a motor boat in March. He has been recruited by the Dutch and British intelligence services and given wireless training, though the brief time between his recruitment and insertion indicates that he was already part-trained. In September 1941 he will be commissioned in the Dutch Naval Reserve.

As well as his intelligence work, Alblas appears to have played a valuable part in helping other organisations maintain contact with England. But by early 1942 his other contacts will be penetrated by the Abwehr’s ‘Englandspiel’ against SOE’s agents. In July 1942 he will be arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Oranjehotel. Refusing to collaborate, he will be deported to Mauthausen, where he will be executed on 6 September 1944.

Operation FITZROY (strictly, FITZROY B)

The code name FITZROY is usually associated with Claude Lamirault, the founder of the SIS-sponsored JADE-FITZROY network, formed primarily to gather intelligence on the German Navy based in the Atlantic ports. Lamirault, parachuted in January 1941, needs an agent to select and prepare Lysander landing-fields.

The agent this time is an artillery officer with the Free French, Lieutenant Roger Mitchell. The grandson of a Scottish immigrant to France whose family has retained English as a second language, Mitchell is entirely fluent in both languages, and can pass as a native of either country. According to Hugh Verity, Lt Mitchell has been loaned by de Gaulle to British Intelligence to assist the Polish intelligence networks operating from southern France. This comes later: his first role is to assist Lamirault.

One of Mitchell’s tasks is to arrange landing grounds for pick-up operations. As ‘2nd Lieutenant Fitzroy B’, he has recently been trained in landing-field selection and Lysander night-operations by F/Lt Nesbitt-Dufort, who on the 14th June writes a highly favourable report on his pupil.

The first attempt has been made by F/Lt Jackson on June 11th, in poor weather. Jackson has another go, taking S/Ldr Nesbitt-Dufort as navigator/map-reader. Ron Hockey is Jackson’s regular navigator; Nesbitt-Dufort is a specialist in low-level navigation, having been a fighter-pilot in the 1930s and an exponent of ‘Bradshawing’, the habit of following railway lines and navigating from station to station, reading the platform signs to find out where he was.

They take off at 10.30, arriving over Abingdon after forty minutes. Crossing the Channel at 4,000 feet and 135 mph ASI, they drop half their pigeons shortly after crossing the French coast. They fly on to the Loire, at 163 mph at 3,000 feet. Reading between the lines of Jackson’s report, they appear to follow the river Vienne, then the Creuse, upstream to Le Blanc. Jackson writes that they drop the agent clear of the woods and just north of the lake. The area around Le Blanc is peppered with small lakes so it is not possible to be precise about the landing spot.

On the return journey they drop nickels over Le Blanc, and the remaining pigeons before they cross the coast for home. According to Jackson they land at 6.01, but the Stradishall log records his Whitley ‘A’ landing at 05.00.

Saturday, 5 July 1941

The next three nights are a bit of a tangle, with a tragic accident at their centre. Disentangling which operation was flown on which night, and by whom, has been a challenge.

When 1419 Flight’s operations went according to plan there was little for the pilot to write about in his official report. He was left with recording the bald facts of take-off, the route out across the English Channel and the enemy coast, the pinpoint and the target, dropping the agents and cargo, and of the journey home. As there is no Operations Record Book, these reports are often the only record that the sortie took place at all. When events failed to go according to plan – when the crew was thwarted by low mist, cloud, or the absence of a reception committee, or made errors of navigation or decision-making – these events are more interesting, for they show the pilots’ and crews’ actions under stress, and the decisions they made. In the case of three consecutive sorties for the 5th, 6th and 7th of July nothing went quite according to the book, but the pilots’ reports give little away. It would be misleading to say that the events were hushed-up, for they took place in an environment where everything was hushed-up, but the pilots’ reports which formed the RAF’s official record of events omitted important information, the effect of which was to avoid any mention of operation MOONSHINE / OPINION in the RAF’s only extant official record. The pilots’ reports were compiled near the end of the moon period, normal practice within the Flight: Austin waited until the 12th July before writing his reports for the 6th and 7th, and Jackson wrote his account for the 5th July on the 14th. From several eyewitness accounts, correspondence with MRD Foot, and Belgian academic works I have been able to piece together a logically coherent scheme of events. But I am open to the suggestion that this might still not be the final version.

According to the pilots’ near-contemporary operations reports, F/Lt Jackson flew Operation MARBLES on the night of 5 July, without completing it. Sgt Austin flew an un-named operation the following night, the 6th, during which one of the agents in a two-man team died in a parachuting accident, thankfully rare. This agent is known to have been flown out over Belgium the previous night, unsuccessfully, so it was logical to deduce that these two agents were collectively known as Operation MARBLES, despite each agent having his own code-name (MOONSHINE and OPINION, MOONSHINE being killed and OPINION being dropped successfully). Operation MARBLES was flown again the following night (the 7th), by Sgt Austin, this time successfully.

However, the agent dropped by Operation MARBLES was a completely different agent, Paul Jacquemin. While we will probably never know for certain, I believe that the operation Jackson flew on the 5th was Operation MOONSHINE/OPINION, not MARBLES. (It’s possible that Jackson attempted both operations, but his report describes only one operation; it tallies with the first attempt at MOONSHINE/OPINION.) It is therefore more likely that the real MARBLES was dropped at the first attempt on the 6th.


The first attempt to carry out this operation is flown by F/Lt Jackson. Delayed by technical trouble with their original aircraft, they jump ship to T4166. Take-off is delayed by only half an hour, so T4166 must have been fuelled-up and almost ready to go; it may have been a normal precaution. T4166’s intercom is not working effectively: microphones are swapped over, and the wireless operator is still struggling to provide a functional intercom as they headed for Belgium. They overfly Aldeburgh at 3,000 feet, but climb to 5,000 ft to cross the Belgian coast between Ostend and Dunkirk at 00.41 hrs. Jackson’s report continues:

On crossing the enemy coast we were held by searchlights and shot at by A.A. fire. At 01.07 we altered course to 134 degrees magnetic for Dinant at a height of 6,500 feet and at 01.12 commenced dropping the pigeons. We passed over several aerodromes, some with the flare path alight. At 0040½ we passed over Charleroi and lost height to 3,000 feet.

With the intercom still faulty, the navigator can still pass written course instructions to the pilot immediately to his right, but instant communication between all parts of the aircraft is vital during the operation itself. All members of the crew search for pinpoints during the approach to the target, and in the target area the pilot depends on the second pilot and navigator to position the aircraft right over the dropping point; only the despatcher and rear-gunner can provide confirmation of the agents’ departure from the aircraft.

En route for Dinant, on the Meuse, they fly over Charleroi: like all industrial areas of the time this coal-mining centre produces dense industrial haze, which obscures the ground beneath and spreads up and along the river valleys. After Dinant it is clear that the navigator F/Lt Romanoff, is having trouble. Whatever their target, they become lost. They retrace their route to pick up the river Meuse and pinpoint at Givet. They then follow the river north to Namur where, at 2.40, Jackson decides to abandon the operation. Already delayed by the technical trouble, and again after becoming lost, they have run out of time. Hockey records the route in his logbook as Nieuport, Charleroi, Namur, St Hubert (the last about 12 miles south of the MOONSHINE/OPINION target).

Fifty minutes later they clear the Belgian coast, and land back at Newmarket at 04.34. Jackson writes in his report that it had been the navigator’s first experience, but in fact F/Lt Romanoff had been out over Holland the previous night with Sgt Austin, and they had become lost then, too.

The accounts of the MOONSHINE / OPINION operation make clear that there was an attempt to drop this pair of agents over Belgium on the 5th, and Jackson’s report of their getting lost tallies with the known facts of MOONSHINE/OPINION. The Stradishall log confirms that there were only two 1419 Flight Whitleys out that night, and the other sortie is described below. It is possible that MARBLES was also aboard Jackson’s aircraft on this night, with no attempt made to drop him; but I doubt it. The MARBLES target was a long way west of the area covered; Jackson’s route only makes sense if they were trying to find the target for MOONSHINE and OPINION, in the hilly countryside south of Marche-en-Famenne.

Operation COLUMBA

My original post for this operation did not even mention that pigeons were dropped on both the outward and return legs of the sortie. I was too keen to keep the narrative focused on the agents; an error. Though the main purpose of the sortie was abortive, the pigeon-dropping part was effective, with at least ten pigeons returning to their UK roosts, possibly more. Jackson’s crew dropped pigeons on the outward journey after setting course for Dinant; later, at 03.20 they were returning under dead reckoning when they started to drop the remainder of the pigeons. They were interrupted seven minutes later when a searchlight homed on to them. Taking evasive action, they crossed the Belgian coast at 03.30, landing back at Newmarket just over an hour later.

Operation TORTURE

The target is only about twenty miles inland from the Normandy coast. Accompanying the crew was an RAF psychologist, F/Lt Roland Winfield, who later writes about the operation.

S/Ldr Knowles flies a normal route out via Abingdon and Tangmere, but the navigator must have underestimated the drift, for they make landfall only a mile west of Le Havre. Anywhere near the The port town is definitely unhealthy, and they are immediately attacked by the German ground-defences. Fortunately for Knowles and his crew, another aircraft had flown ‘slap over the middle of Le Havre’ as Knowles put it. It was higher, at about 10,000 feet, and drew the defences’ attention. Knowles discreetly headed south-west and crossed the coast at Merville.

The target was in the Forêt de Cinglais, a large wooded area about ten miles south of Caen, surrounded by arable land. It was easy to find, and the dropping operation took about four minutes.

After dropping the two agents ‘blind’, Knowles and his crew found ‘a German camouflaged tent encampment’ about 12 miles south of Caen, which would place it just south of the Forêt de Cinglais. Knowles’s crew shot it up from both turrets, and headed for the coast. There they found a German staff-car driving along a coast road with its headlights blazing. The rear gunner gave the car a four-second burst (a lot of rounds with four machine-guns) and the lights went out. They crossed the coast at Cabourg, and flew via Tangmere to Stradishall, landing at 03.33.

Sqn Ldr Winfield’s expertise was in the psychological stresses experienced by aircrew and paratroops. His postwar book gives a sympathetic, romantic portrait of W/Cdr Knowles, but his account of the operation itself provides real insight, bar a few errors of fact. His description of Knowles looking for trouble after completing the parachute operation rings true, as does his description of landing a Whitley ‘on’ instead of trying for a three-point landing. This was a solution to the problem of SD Whitleys stalling and crashing when their fuel was low and with undelivered agents still aboard. There would be several more instances of this particular type of accident.

Cartigny and Labit

On 29 April 1941 two twenty-year-olds, Denys Boudard and Jean Hébert, steal a Bucker Jungmeister biplane from a large fighter base at Carpiquet, just south-west of Caen, and fly it to England. SOE’s ‘F’ Section is taken with the airfield’s abysmal security, and despatches two agents, Henri Labit and Jean-Louis Cartigny, on a reconnaissance mission with a view to sabotage.

The French historian Philippe Bauduin appears to believe that they were dropped near the village of Rots, just to the west of Caen and about 12 miles from the Forêt de Cinglais, but this is unlikely: far too near the fighter base at Carpiquet for comfort, and very different country from the woodland where Knowles supposedly dropped them. (Baudin may have mistaken ‘Rots’ for Ryes; see below.) Labit wrote that they were dropped in a cornfield, where they left unmistakeable traces, and could not bury their parachutes in the hard dry earth. They carried the rest of their equipment to trees and covered it with leaves. Cartigny and Labit then separated, to meet up later. MRD Foot believed that Cartigny and Labit betrayed themselves by trying to catch a train the next day, a Sunday: passenger trains had ceased to run on Sundays some months before, but the agents had been poorly briefed. Not so: frustrated by the non-existent train service, Labit started walking the 35 kilometres to a farm near Ryes owned by a M. Frémont. (Labit’s accurate distance between the Forêt de Cinglais and Ryes confirms that the agents had been dropped at the correct spot.)

On the way Labit decides to call in at a ‘safe’ contact he had been given, a man called Dodin. Labit quickly realises Dodin was ‘un parfait crétin’, for he mistakes Labit for a Gestapo agent come to question him about the two French airmen, and greets him with a effusive praises for the Germans. After pondering whether he should laugh it off or box the man’s ears, Labit leaves him in order to make contact with M. Frémont as fast as possible, to warn Cartigny against approaching Dodin.

Labit has walked no more than a kilometre before he is stopped by a Gendarme on a bicycle who asks for his papers. Labit asks the policeman why he’s been stopped, and is told that M. Dodin has denounced him as suspicious.

Labit arrives at Ryes, where he has to make five enquiries before finding the Frémont farm, in a different commune. M. Frémont takes him in, subject to a confirmatory broadcast message from London, but three hours later Frémont’s son wakes the agent as the Germans were outside. Labit hides in a bush, then returns after they have left. Frémont tells him that the Germans have discovered the parachutes, knows about both him and Cartigny, and of his presence in the locality. Frémont proposes himself as an intermediary for Labit’s surrender, but the agent takes off. He finds a courageous peasant woman who hides him for a few days, then makes his way in a peasant’s disguise to Caen, then Paris, and from there to Toulouse. Once there, Labit is given a new mission, FABULOUS.

Cartigny is captured separately, is tortured and eventually executed by firing squad on 4 February 1942.

Sunday, 6 July 1941


Sgt Austin flies the next attempt to drop MOONSHINE and OPINION, taking off at 23.10. He takes F/Lt John Nesbitt-Dufort, the Lysander pilot commended by Jackson as a good map reader. Shortly before take-off Sgt Austin also invites the SOE accompanying officer, Captain Douglas Dodds-Parker, to come on the operation. Dodds-Parker, a Guards Officer and (it should go without saying) perfectly turned out, leaves his personal items – his cap, gloves, ID and stick – with his FANY driver and climbs aboard the Whitley.

Even among the variety of individuals who volunteer to become agents OPINION is unusual: he is a Jesuit priest, Father Jourdain. Eric Dadson, the head of the Belgian ‘T’ Section of SOE, has recently journeyed to the Roman Catholic seminary at Buxton, Derbyshire, to solicit Father Jourdain’s advice on garnering support from the Belgian church hierarchy, a substantial influence on the King, who has remained in Belgium. The 43-year-old Jourdain volunteers to go himself, is parachute-trained as an SOE agent – the combat and sabotage aspects are omitted – and he is paired with a wireless-operator, Armand Leblicq (MOONSHINE). Leblicq has, like Emile Fromme, been recruited from the ranks of the Chasseurs Ardennais.

On this his second journey to the airfield Leblicq becomes distressed. The previous night’s failed attempt has clearly unsettled him. In Dodds-Parker’s car, on the way from his safe house to Newmarket, he asks Dodds-Parker to find him a priest, to hear his confession and to absolve him of his sins before he jumps. The depths of rural East Anglia are not the easiest place to find a Catholic priest at short notice, even on a Sunday. Even if Dodds-Parker knows where to find one, involving a local padre would compromise security. It just cannot be done.

Leblicq is still oblivious to the real identity of his companion seated with him in the car. At Newmarket, Dodds-Parker explains his predicament to the Flight: F/Lt ‘Sticky’ Murphy offers to turn his collar round and hear the agent’s confession; as a Catholic he knows the form of words. But this proves unnecessary. Father Jourdain speaks briefly with Dodds-Parker, and agrees to drop his cover in order to absolve his wireless-operator. To reveal one’s real identity, even to a fellow-agent – especially to a fellow-agent, who might just turn traitor – is taking a terrible risk. In a corner of the hut used for briefing and final preparation, Jourdain hears his companion’s confession. They then board the Whitley.

All goes well at first. Austin and his augmented crew take off shortly after eleven, at last light. They fly much the same route as Jackson the previous night — Nieuwport, Charleroi and Dinant — but this time they find the target.

OPINION (Jourdain) jumps first, lands safely, and waits for Leblicq, who will be dropped with a small spade for burying the parachutes and harnesses. But Leblicq never appears. Jourdain makes do with a small pocket-knife, and walks towards Marche-en-Famenne.

What has become of Leblicq? He has been calm during the flight, and there seems to be nothing wrong. As a wireless-operator he would have been dropped using the ‘A’ type harness, which was basically a cargo parachute with a pair of 11-foot strops beneath which attach to the agent’s harness. When he drops, the package containing the wireless set, the shovel and any other kit) will follow him down the Whitley’s parachuting-hatch, followed by the parachute-bag containing the canopy. The parachute-bag is attached to the Whitley by a 16-foot cable, so that the canopy would be pulled from the bag last, with the agent and package already well clear behind the aircraft. The agent only has to thrust himself off the lip, make himself as straight and upright as possible, and fall through the hatch; everything else will follow.

And it did. Except that on this occasion a fold of the emerging parachute-canopy catches on the Whitley’s fixed tail-wheel. Normally there is a metal shroud fitted in front of the tail-wheel to prevent this, but it is a flimsy affair, likely to be dislodged by the Whitley taxying over the rough grassland at Newmarket. Leblicq is snagged like a fish on a line, gyrating wildly in the slipstream behind the Whitley. The rear-gunner, Pilot Officer Pulton, is abruptly and inescapably faced with the spectacle of a man being spun to screaming death a few feet away, impossible out of reach.

Austin feels the controls go spongey and erratic, as the partially-opened ‘chute now acts like a sea-anchor streamed behind the aircraft. The gyrating agent makes the Whitley difficult to control. Nesbitt-Dufort and Dodds-Parker clamber over the main spar in to the rear fuselage to see if they can help. Dodds Parker offers to be attached to a static-line and streamed out of the rear door, but the skipper forbids it: Leblicq’s body flailing around in the slipstream is already making the Whitley almost uncontrollable. The parachute-canopy and its ghastly burden might as well be on Mars for all they can do. Austin turns carefully for home, and the wireless operator signals for medical help; Pulton, distraught at seeing a man strangled mere feet in front of him, collapses and has to be hauled from his turret. At Newmarket John Austin lands the Whitley as gently as he can, but Leblicq is long dead. P/O Pulton will not fly again on ops until September.

Austin writes a brief record of the operation, which has survived. In it, all he writes of the tragedy is: ‘Pin point was located at 01.06 and one agent was dropped without a hitch. Rear Gunner saw parachute open but agent was not seen to land. The other agent was brought back to base – report 1419/s.701/P.1 d/d 7.7.41 refers.’

This report – 1419/S.701/P.1 d/d 7/7/41 – has not been found.

Monday, 7 July 1941

Operation TRIPOD

Knowles took off in Whitley ‘D’ from Newmarket at 22.26, and flew a normal route to France via Abingdon, Tangmere and Cabourg. Five minutes after crossing the French coast a Heinkel III passed overhead at right angles to their course. Front and rear gunners opened fire, but the Heinkel did not waver, and flew on. The Whitley carried on towards Limoges. They crossed the Loire ten miles west of Tours, and at this point the intercom decided to pack up. This left Knowles without a means of direct communication with the crew-member in the bomb-aimer’s position (whoever that was) responsible for dropping the containers.

The circumstances of this operation appear to fit the first drop of containers to an SOE circuit. In ‘Who Lived to See the Day’ (1961), Philippe de Vomécourt claimed that a container was dropped onto his estate at Bas Soleil, east of Limoges, on the night of 13th June 1941. In 1966 MRD Foot, taking de Vomécourt’s date as gospel, cited the Stradishall log in evidence that Sgt Austin had been the pilot. The problem with this was that Austin had been over Brittany that night, trying to parachute Norman Burley and Ernest Bernard near Mortaine. They were intended to become part of de Vomécourt’s AUTOGYRO circuit, and the operation name AUTOGYRO C may have persuaded Foot that it had been the container-drop. Nor were there any other sorties around that date which come close to matching purpose and place.

Knowles and his crew found the target easily. This container-dropping operation is described in detail: it was to a reception party which displayed a triangle of lights. The crew spent some 15 minutes over the target. With no direct communication possible between the the pilot and the ‘bomb-aimer’, it was impossible for Knowles to fly a course close enough to the lights. Eventually he used the bomb-jettison switch to make the drop. He wrote that the containers “should have landed within 200 yards of the circle of lights.”

It took them 42 minutes to reach Tours — about right for a 110-mile dash from Bas Soleil to reach the Normandy coast safely before daybreak — , and they reached Cabourg at 4.02, reaching Tangmere 40 minutes later, and Newmarket at 5.41.

A notable incident at Newmarket

An hour before Knowles landed, Newmarket witnessed the landing of a Wellington of No. 75 (NZ) Squadron. The Wellington had been attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf110 night fighter, which set its starboard wing on fire at the rear of the engine housing. Sgt Pilot James Ward climbed out onto the wing, kicking foot-holds in the geodesic wing-structure. He was secured – if that is quite the right word – to the aircraft by a rope taken from the Wellington’s dinghy, held by another crew-member. He beat out the flames with a canvas sheet. Newmarket, with its 3,000 yd landing-field, was one of Bomber Command’s emergency landing-fields. (Group informed Stradishall at 0400 that a ‘rocky’ 75 Sqn Wellington ‘R’ was going to land without flaps, so it needed the longest runway possible. Newmarket’s grass runway would also slow the Wellington down better than a concrete one. The flaps may not have been damaged, but the risk of a crash was much greater if only one side worked.)

Ward was awarded the VC for his gallant actions in saving the aircraft. He was killed the following September, taking part in a raid on Hamburg.

Operation SHE

The target for this operation is near Perigueux in the Dordogne; a long trip for the short nights of early summer. F/Lt Jackson and his crew are bedevilled with technical and other troubles on the way to the target area. First they run into a head-wind which reduces their ground-speed to 140 mph, which will delay their arrival at the target (though it will bring them back faster if it persists), but they also encounter trouble with the exactors, oil-filled hydraulics which control the pitch of the airscrews. Over France they find that petrol will not flow from the auxiliary tanks installed in the bomb-bay and fuselage, so after two more attempts to get the fuel flowing they turn back.

Twenty minutes later they managed to get the auxiliary tanks flowing, so they turned back for Perigueux. They then realise that they cannot reach the target area until 04.00. Crucially, they cannot reach their exit point on the Atlantic coast until 05.00, in daylight: a very unhealthy prospect with enemy fighters known to patrol the area. They sensibly decide it isn’t worth the risk, and return. They see an enemy aircraft spinning down in flames near Selsey Bill, and land back at Newmarket at 02.47.

Operation MOONSHINE – consequences

During the day, before flying the operation described above, Knowles, as the Flight’s Commanding Officer, has an immediate and pressing problem: he is now custodian of a corpse on English soil, the body of an agent whose existence, let alone his identity, can not be subjected to a coroner’s inquest. These, by law, have to be public. Knowles has already experienced similar circumstances: at Stradishall in April a French agent fell to his death when his parachute failed to open. After Austin landed Knowles is furious with him, and demands to know why he didn’t order the rear gunner to shoot the agent off; four machine-guns would have left nothing to bring back. (The episode is witnessed by the Orderly Room Chief Clerk, F/Sgt Stanley Matthews, related personally to the author in 2004, and subsequently confirmed by John Austin.)

Operation MARBLES

Austin, his crew (less Pulton) and Nesbitt-Dufort, fly over the North Sea, pausing briefly before proceeding to the Belgian coast and the Ardennes. Near Chimay they drop the 43-year-old Paul Jacquemin to join the ‘Clarence’ intelligence circuit. On his return Austin writes a sparse report on operation MARBLES, but omits to mention what Nesbitt-Dufort  writes in his post-war memoir: that on the outward journey the body of Armand Leblicq, wrapped in a weighted tarpaulin, is gently dropped with a silent prayer over the North Sea.


Dodds-Parker confesses the grisly truth to Paul-Henri Spaak, Foreign Minister of the Belgian government-in-exile, as soon as he returns to London.

After the war, Leblicq’s widow, Elizabeth Maréchal, contacts the Belgian authorities and demands to know what has become of her husband. She is told that he has died on special operations, and she is put in contact with the rump of SOE responsible for tying up its loose ends. SOE consults Harry Sporborg, Gubbins’s deputy. Sporborg pays a visit to the Registrar-General, and tells him of the circumstances. Sporborg emerges with a death-certificate for Armand Leblicq. It gives the date of his death as 7 July 1941, and the place as Great Bradley, the nearest village to 1419 Flight’s base at Newmarket Heath. The certificate enables Madame Leblicq to get a widow’s pension.


TNA AIR 20/8334, Encls. 30A, 32A, 41A
SOE War Diary, July 1941
Personal interviews: Sir Douglas Dodds-Parker, John Austin
Douglas Dodds-Parker, ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’, pp.93-5
John Nesbitt-Dufort, ‘Black Lysander’, p.102
MRD Foot, SOE in the Low Countries’, pp 247-8, and personal correspondence
Stradishall Ops Officers’ logbook, 5-7 July 1941.

Wednesday, 9 July 1941

Operation AUTOGYRO C

The next attempt was made by Austin and his crew in the July moon period, directly after two harrowing nights over Belgium, but this time they were blessed with good visibility, and both AUTOGYRO agents were seen to land successfully. Austin dropped pigeons over St Lô but ran into poor visibility after making landfall at Littlehampton. They landed back at Newmarket at 4.30.


MRD Foot later writes that Count Dzieřgowski, an agent for the Polish Intelligence service based in Unoccupied France, ‘had such bad luck getting away from England that he had put in twenty-eight hours’ flying over occupied territory before he managed to drop, blind in south-west France, on 2/3 September.’ Actually it was more than that, for I have tied another sortie, flown by W/Cdr Knowles to Limoges on 6 August, to ADJUDICATE. It would be nit-picking to point out that only a few of those hours were spent over Nazi-occupied France, but a recalculation of his 35 hours 37 minutes airborne was spread over five separate sorties, with almost two months between the first attempt and the one that will drop him.

Hockey takes along as his second pilot his Russian friend from 24 Squadron, F/Lt Boris Romanoff, who had spent the previous year on the staff of the Parachute Training Squadron at RAF Ringway. F/Lt John Nesbitt-Dufort flies as Navigator, gaining yet more operational experience as preparation for Lysander operations – as though the previous nights with Sgt Austin weren’t enough. There are two Despatchers on this trip: AC Walsh is probably under training ‘on the job’. (There is no formal aircrew trade for the role, which is usually carried out by ground-crew volunteers.)

Take off is at 22.20, and Hockey flies a more easterly route to the coast than normal, via Reading and Littlehampton; a bit close to the London defence rea which the normal Bomber Command route (via Abingdon and Beachy Head) avoids. They make landfall over Merville at 6,000 feet, and set course for Tours, dropping their pigeons en route in a fourteen-mile ‘stick’. They cross the Loire about 6 miles west of Tours, and carry on towards Limoges, which they reach at 01.45.

From Limoges they have to map-read to the target, which means flying at low level, perhaps 1,000 feet. The ground is obscured by a thick layer of cloud above them, which blocks out much of the moonlight. Their night vision is not aided by continual lightning flashes. But the main problem is the same one that Knowles has raised back in May: south of the demarcation line there is no blackout, and they cannot distinguish the reception lights from others shining from houses, car headlights, fires or flares, even by flying over them at 200 feet. Colonel Barrie, presumably Dzieřgowski’s SOE escorting officer, has advised them to abandon the operation in these circumstances; so they return, dropping more pigeons between Lisieux ands the coast. The weather closes in over the Channel, and they let themselves down to 1,500 feet by Abingdon. They land there at 05.20, Newmarket being fogbound.