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.
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.)
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.
CEGESOMA, Leblicq PF