Monthly Archives: July 1941

Tuesday, 15 July 1941

RAF Newmarket

In the early afternoon F/Lt Jackson takes off in Whitley Z6727 with three French personnel aboard and an Air Ministry official. The Whitley’s starboard engine fails shortly after take off, and the Whitley crashes ‘near the junction of the London-Cambridge road’. The accident is recorded in the Stradishall log at 1535. In any aircraft, whether it’s a glider or a bomber, the minute or so directly after take-off is most hazardous if something crucial decides to malfunction; the aircraft has insufficient airspeed to do much else but land straight ahead on whatever happens to be below, in this case a telegraph post at the junction. The Whitley is underpowered to start with, and Jackson is unlikely to have had many options. The Stradishall logbook records that all eight crew have been taken to the White Lodge hospital.

F/Lt Jackson doesn’t fly another operational sortie until September. Merrick records that the crash severs telephone communications between London and the North of England. This apparently makes Jackson highly unpopular with the RAF hierarchy. Jackson is unlikely to have minded; anyone surviving an engine-failure shortly after take-off in a Whitley would consider himself fortunate to be alive. Freddie Clark thought it likely that this was an experimental flight with EUREKA/REBECCA. This follows a written request in May by Major Harold Perkins for the Flight to carry out some wireless experiments.

Saturday, 12 July 1941

Operation FELIX

This is the first trip for Sgt Austin’s crew after navigator David Halcro has received his commission with effect from 3 July, though Austin’s operations on the 6 and 7 July still list him as ‘Sgt Halcro’. Though the target is south-east of Paris they chose to enter France by the usual route over Cabourg/Dives-sur-Mer. It is a cloudy and thundery night, but the weather clears as they approach the target area.

The purpose of the operation is to drop a replacement for the W/T set that Philip Schneidau had been dropped with in March. This set was damaged in the landing, and has never functioned fully, despite attempts to repair it.

Austin has been given the wrong target location. During Austin’s 50-minute search for the target, red lights attached to the nearby wireless masts at Videlles were switched on whenever the Whitley flies close. These masts are close to Barbizon, on the west side of Fontainebleau Forest. Barbizon had been the original target for dropping Philip Schneidau in January, but by the time Schneidau dropped in March it had been switched back to Montigny.

Austin claims to have found the pinpoint after searching for 50 minutes. He circles for a further ten, but sees no lights that can be construed as the prearranged signal. Hardly surprising: the reception party has been waiting for the drop more than a dozen miles away at Point ‘B’, in open country 4 miles south-east of the Bourron sand-pit and 4 miles north-east of Nemours. A handwritten instruction gives the precise coordinates, but it may not have been communicated effectively to the Flight. Someone has cocked up, a sortie has been wasted and lives risked.

Two unidentified operations

F/O Hockey flies his first operation as skipper. The sortie is recorded in Ron Hockey’s logbook, and is mentioned in the Stradishall Ops Officers’s log, but if Hockey wrote an operations report it is not on file. There is no mention of the operation name.

Hockey takes off at 22.35 but an hour later reports engine trouble. The Whitley lands successfully back at Newmarket at 23.48; Hockey records spending 1 hr 25 mins airborne. This was the same Whitley ‘D’ that had caused Knowles’s early return on the 10th, but Knowles used the same aircraft the next night. This time it had been the port airscrew’s exactor which had failed. Perhaps Knowles had been fortunate in that UPROAR was taken ill while airborne, and the sortie had had to be abandoned.

F/Lt Jackson plans to take off at 23.30 on another operation, also unidentified, in Whitley ‘A’ according to the Stradishall log. It has already been delayed by 45 minutes, but at 23.08 the operation is cancelled by the Air Ministry.

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.

Operation ADJUDICATE

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.

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.

Aftermath

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.

Sources

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.
CEGESOMA, Leblicq PF

Sunday, 6 July 1941

Operation MOONSHINE/OPINION

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.