Operation ‘Smoking Concert’
August 31st is the 61st birthday of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. She had been evacuated from Holland with her family in May 1940, even as German tanks were rolling through the neutral Low Countries. Now she is in exile in London with her country’s elected government. To demonstrate her support for the Dutch people in their privations she has commissioned a supply of cigarettes, filled with the aromatic tobacco from the Dutch East Indies, to be dropped over Holland on the night of her birthday.
On 10 August 1941, Group Captain Bradbury writes from the Air Ministry to W/Cdr Knowles, asking him to earmark three aircraft to drop large quantities of cigarettes over the Netherlands on the night of August 31st. Bradbury doesn’t say where the request has come from, but the operation has clearly been under planning for some time. The paper packaging for these loose-pack cigarettes has been specially designed: it carries patriotic emblems of the monarch and a free Holland. The double-V – for ‘Wilhelmina’ – beneath the Dutch royal crown has been printed on orange paper that is also covered with lines of small white ‘V’s (for victory). On each spine is printed: ‘ORANJE ZAL OVERWINNEN’ (Orange shall overcome.). On the reverse of each pack is a large white ‘V’, over printed with ‘Nederland zal herrijzen!’ (The Netherlands shall arise!).
For some reason 138 Squadron is able to provide only two serviceable Whitleys with their crews. At 0933 S/Ldr Stevens, of 3 Group, reports to the Stradishall Ops Room that: ‘3 Group Training Flight is loaning their aircraft “K” for a Nickel Raid tonight.’
One of the Whitley pilots is John Austin, who has returned from spending his leave at an OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit), and is now Pilot Officer Austin. This is his first sortie since receiving his commission; he will end the year as a Flight Lieutenant. The pilot of the other Whitley, according to Ken Merrick, is F/Lt Murphy. The pilot of the Training Flight’s Wellington is F/Lt McGillivray, a New Zealander. His second-pilot is Sqn/Ldr Charles Pickard, DSO, DFC. Pickard is being rested after his tour of operations with No. 9 Squadron, and is attached to 3 Group’s Training Flight.
At 2030 a/c ‘Z’ of 138 Squadron takes off from Newmarket, followed a minute later by ‘D’, and at 2055 McGillivray and Pickard in Wellington ‘K’. I have found an intriguing photograph in the Royal Air Force Museum catalogue that includes Pickard and McGillivray, together with S/Ldr M.T Stephens, 3 Group Gunnery Officer, and S/Ldr Alan Cousens, 3 Group Navigation Officer. The catalogue entry states: “Group photograph of late Sqn Ldr M.T. Stephens DFC and other scratch crew members beside Vickers Wellington “K”, circa 1941.” The group stands in front of the rear starboard fuselage of a Wellington, letter ‘K’. Behind them, near the Wellington’s rear door, lie several large cardboard boxes, some opened.
The Wellington was back in just over three hours, at 2356. Whitley ‘D’ landed five minutes later. Whitley ‘Z’ returned at 0208, after 5 hours 38 minutes in the air. This tallies with Austin’s logbook; his W/Op recorded the target as Leeuwarden. Though not that much further than the other two target areas quoted by Grp Capt. Bradbury – about 50 miles East of Utrecht and to the East of the Zuider Zee, – Austin is likely to have taken significant detours to avoid the worst of the flak-belt. Tonight the defences were bound to be alert and active: Stradishall’s resident bomber squadron had been scheduled to attack ‘Whitebait’ (Berlin), but during the day the target was changed to Cologne.
At 0230 F/O Hockey, probably Duty Officer for the night, signalled the Air Ministry: ‘Operation SMOKING CONCERT completed’.
Between August and October 1941 S/Ldrs Pickard, Stephens and Cousens, plus F/Sgts Broadley and Judson (Pickard’s Navigator and W/Op respectively from Nos 311 and 9 Squadrons) appear to have been based at 3 Grp HQ at Exning, less than two miles from RAF Newmarket Heath, as a rest from operations. On several occasions during this period all five are to be found in the crew lists of 138 Squadron operations, moonlighting both literally and metaphorically. Of the five, only Leo Judson survived the war: Stephens was to perish in the North Sea in January 1942 (information from an article in the December 2008 edition of ‘Nightjar’, the 214 Sqn Association newsletter); W/Cdr Cousens was to perish in April 1944 as a Master Bomber with No. 635 Squadron, PFF, during a raid on Laon, France; and Pickard and Broadley died in the Amiens prison raid in February 1944.