Monthly Archives: September 1941

Tuesday, 2 September 1941

Operations had been scheduled for Monday 1 September, but these had been cancelled at 1430 hours. There is no explanation in the Stradishall log, but from the foul weather experienced the following night, that is a likely explanation. No Stradishall-based bombers are out either.

At 1115 on the 2nd, W/Cdr Knowles informs the Ops room that 138 Squadron will be operating four aircraft tonight. At 1130 W/Cdr Knowles is to be reminded that he has not informed the Station Commander of 138 Squadron’s upcoming operations. This is a requirement stretching back to October 1940.

Operation PORTER

Little is known about this operation to Belgium, except that two agents were dropped near Virton, after Austin had pinpointed on Bruges. My father’s logbook and Austin’s shows that take-off in Whitley Z7628 was at 20:40, and they returned 6 hours 10 minutes later. Five of these hours were spent in cloud, so weather is likely to have been a factor in the previous night’s cancellations. I have been unable to find any reference to the operation-name, so presume it was for SIS. The agents’ parachutes were seen to open, but they weren’t seen on the ground once they had landed.

On the return leg Austin takes pity on their pigeons, and they are not dropped into the filthy weather to walk home. (Austin called it ‘unfavourable’.)

Operation ADJUDICATE

This is Count Dzieřgowski’s lucky night, for he ends on the ground, in France. The Whitley takes off at 2000, course is set for Abingdon and Tangmere, but at 21.07 the coast is crossed near Selsey Bill in poor visibility at about 3,000 ft.

They cross the French coast at Grandcamp, after climbing to about 5,000 feet to avoid any light flak that might get a lucky hit through the 10/10th cloud beneath the Whitley. By the time they reach the Loire the cloud has thinned, and they follow the river downstream to Saumur. (This is a more logical course of action than flying upstream hoping to find Tours.) They then set course for Limoges. They could have followed the Vienne river all the way there, but it’s more likely they rely on accurate straight-line navigation and course-flying; Limoges is large enough and well-lit to be seen from some distance. They reach there just after midnight.

Jackson’s report indicates that they have flown a direct course from Limoges to the target. This doesn’t work, for although they see several flashing lights – a regular bugbear for crews trying to find reception-parties in the Unoccupied Zone – but none are for them. Jackson retraces his course to Limoges, and this time he flies up the Vienne, first north-east, then south-east after the river forks at Saint-Priest-Taurion. The target is close to the village of Saint Léonard-de-Noblat, close to where the SIS agent ‘Lt Cartwright’ (Michel Coulomb) had been dropped on 7 May. The de Vomécourt estate of Bassoleil is only four kilometres away, but this is a Polish Intelligence operation, and most unlikely to have involved the de Vomécourts.

This time the crew sees the triangle of lights and the prearranged flashed signal-letter ‘D’, which disproves Professor Foot assertion that Dzieřgowski was dropped ‘blind’. He is dropped at 01.37 from 800 feet.

They return to Limoges to get a firm ‘fix’ before setting course for the coast. On the return leg visibility is poor, and when they reach the French coast at 02.27 on ETA it is invisible beneath them. They return via Tangmere and Abingdon, and touch down at Newmarket at 04.13.

Operation GLASSHOUSE

Albert Homburg, and Cornelius Sporre his wireless operator, are being sent to Holland by R.V. Laming, head of ‘N’ Section, SOE. Several attempts have been made during the summer to land agents on the Dutch and Frisian islands by small boat, but they have all failed. This pair are the first Dutch section SOE agents to be inserted by parachute. M.R.D. Foot says they were dropped near Utrecht, but the pilots’ reports for both attempts make it clear that the target was east of the Ijsselmeer. (Squadron reports still referred to the Ijsselmeer as the Zuider Zee.)

W/Cdr Knowles and his crew take off at 20.15. Their course is via Cromer and the island of Terschelling, then over the Zuider Zee. (Knowles reports that they pinpointed over the Zuider Zee, which is somewhat imprecise.) The eastern side is covered by 10/10ths fog, which makes it impossible to find the target, so they abandon the attempt. The Whitley is illuminated by searchlights and fired on as they pass over Den Helder; they then set course for Cromer. Twenty miles out from Cromer, as the Whitley overflies a British coastal convoy the Royal Navy upholds its tradition of firing at anything within range: in his report Knowles drily notes that ‘it was observed that we were by no means welcome’, thus putting the passive tense approved by the Air Ministry for official reports to effective use.

W/Cdr Knowles’s previous boss from his days at the Air Ministry, Group Captain Bradbury, DFC, is along on this sortie for the experience. In one way this is sound practice, to ensure that staff officers understood the nature of the tasks they were commissioning, but allowing Bradbury over enemy territory is highly risky for SIS and SOE security: had Bradbury been captured and his role discovered, his knowledge of SIS and SOE activities would have compromised much of Britain’s clandestine activity.

Wednesday, 3 September 1941

Operation CONJUGAL

P/O Austin is out again the next night, again in Z7628. After the customary brief air test in the afternoon, they take off at 20:15. Their target is near Spontin, in Belgium. The sortie lasts 4 hours 10 minutes, and the Stradishall log records the return of NF-Z to Newmarket at 00:21.

‘Conjugal’ is Jean Scohier, aged 20, and he drops with a wireless operator called Lheureux on a mission to make contact with the Abbé Jourdain, whose wireless operator, Armand Leblicq, was lost when they parachuted in July.

Tasked to operate from Liège, Scohier prefers the company of his family and girlfriend in Brussels, but still manages to make contact with Jourdain, and act as an intermediary between Lheureux.

Scohier will be arrested in February 1942 – his security is poor – but he survives the war after interrogation and despatch to Germany, seriously ill with tuberculosis in a German hospital.

Lheureux also transmits for SIS agent Eric Tromme (CEZAREWICH) until Tromme’s arrest in October. After Scohier’s arrest Lheureux continues to work with two Brussels-based contacts provided by Jourdain, one of whom, Hoffman, mends Lheureux’s W/T set. In mid-March Lheureux shoots his way out of trouble when he arrives at Hoffman’s house to find the Gestapo there, but a month later he is arrested in Liège after the Germans surround his lodgings and shoot him on the roof. He resists the offer to ‘play back’ his set for the Germans, is deported to Germany and forced labour, usually a death sentence. In the last days of the war he escapes from a forced march, and survives.

Thursday, 4 September 1941

Operation LEVEE/FACADE, aka ‘Night Embarkation’

This is the first Lysander pickup carried out by F/Lt John Nesbitt-Dufort; it is also the first pick-up operation for SOE. (The previous three operations have been for SIS.) Its narrative is one of the best-known of the hundreds of Lysander operations, first described publicly in Jerrard Tickell’s ‘Moon Squadron’, a carefully disguised ‘authorised-version’ of clandestine air operations published in the early 1950s. Nesbitt-Dufort wrote about it in his book, ‘Black Lysander’, and so did Hugh Verity in ‘We Landed by Moonlight’.

John Nesbitt-Dufort was posted to 1419 Flight in May 1941. Before flying any Lysander operations he was educated in the finer points of Lysander flying by the Commanding Officer of No. II(AC) Squadron, W/Cdr Andrew Geddes; he flew the short-range Lysander that was one of the pair first allotted to the Flight, R2626. It has never been used on operations, and is the squadron ‘hack’. During the spring and summer of 1941 F/Lt Dufort (as he was named in the operations reports) has also accompanied several Whitley sorties in order to familiarise himself with the most widely-used routes and pinpoints, meanwhile gaining experience of clandestine operations. Fighter-pilots are rarely renowned for their navigation skills, but from his inter-war experience in a Fighter squadron, of pinpointing exercises and  ‘Bradshawing’ – the fighter-pilot’s recourse to following railway-lines at low-level as a substitute for proper navigation, descending to read the station name-boards – Nesbitt-Dufort has become an expert in low-level map-reading. In 1419 Flight he is considered a valuable map-reader by the Whitley pilots. Now he has to do it on his own, at night. Before joining the Flight he had commanded No. 23 Squadron, equipped with Douglas Havocs as intruder night-fighters.

Tonight, Dufort is taking one agent out to central France, just over the demarcation line in the ZNO (the Non-Occupied Zone) and bringing another back. The returning agent is Jacques de Guelis, an SOE ‘F’ section staff officer who has been sent to reconnoitre for new circuits and to find people to run them. Born in Wales to French parents, he holds dual British-French nationality, having completed his French national service as a young man. SOE staff officers are normally barred from field activity as they know too much about other agents and the SOE organisation, but de Guelis has been given special dispensation to undertake this operation in France. He is to be picked up from a prearranged spot in the flat fields near the hamlet of La Champenoise, north-east of Châteauroux.

Replacing de Guelis in France is another ‘F’ section officer on a similar mission. Gerard (‘Gerry’) Morel. Morel’s health is too poor for him to parachute: captured in the 1940 campaign, he was repatriated to France after the armistice, eventually making his way to England. His parachute training at Ringway aggravated an old riding injury, inducing sciatica – so he is to be landed.

The operation

The information comes mainly from Nesbitt-Dufort’s post-operation report, and is probably more accurate than any of the post-war accounts. He takes off from Ford aerodrome at 20.52. He checks his radio-telephone (R/T) before shutting down — he will not use it again until he is clear of the enemy coast on the return leg — and sets a course of 152 degrees. At 21.35 he crosses the French coast at 9,000 feet in poor weather, his dead-reckoning position being about 6 miles east of Fécamp. He sets course for La Champénoise, at 170 degrees, and drops to 2,000 feet because the poor visibility means he did not see the Seine when he crossed it. At 22.55 he checks his course as he crosses the Loire, probably using Blois as a pinpoint check. At 23.15 he arrives at the field to find no lights visible. He circles for about ten minutes before he sees the Morse signal from another field. He lands, and the agents exchange places.

On his way to the agreed landing field, de Guelis has been stopped by a zealous gendarme, who checks de Guelis’s papers thoroughly. The agent is late reaching the rendezvous. As he approaches the area on his bicycle he can hear the Lysander overhead, searching for his torch signal. De Guelis dashes into a nearby field, flashes the recognition-letter and hurriedly lays out his torches. The field is smaller than the selected one at La Champenoise. (Because of de Guelis’s escapade with the gendarme I have been unable to identify exactly where the actual pick-up took place.) Nesbitt-Dufort lands without difficulty, but the Lysander needs a longer run for take-off.

Nesbitt-Dufort climbs away steeply on full boost from a very short take-off run. He narrowly misses some trees at the field’s edge, but runs into telephone wires, and possibly some HT cables; a length of telephone cable wraps itself around the propellor-shaft, fortunately without adverse effect.

At 23.30 Nesbitt-Dufort sets a course of 356 degrees for home, and climbs to 8,000 feet. After twenty minutes the intercom, R/T and his cockpit lights fail; the encounter with the cables has damaged the electrics, and the Lysander’s accumulators have run flat. The weather deteriorates, and ‘difficulty was experienced in map-reading by the light of the moon’ – something of an understatement. An hour later he sets course at 314 degrees. As his R/T has failed he cannot be given a homing bearing to Tangmere, but is arrival has been expected, and is announced by the Lysander’s IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) transmissions. Nesbitt-Dufort is guided by searchlights to Tangmere aerodrome, where he lands. Nesbitt-Dufort keeps a length of the cable as a souvenir.

Nesbitt-Dufort’s contemporary report, written on 7 September, is on file in the National Archive. It differs in several respects from his later account in ‘Black Lysander’, and from Tickell’s and Verity’s versions. None of the three would have had access to the report Nesbitt-Dufort had submitted in 1941, so could not have checked. A recent conversation with his son Richard has revealed the solo sortie on the night of 6 August. In ‘Black Lysander’ Nesbitt-Dufort dated LEVEE/FACADE to 6 August, taking off at 23:00, and his timings and route do not resemble the report he submitted in September 1941. For instance, there is no mention of an encounter with an enemy aircraft, but this may have been on another sortie.

Saturday, 6 September 1941

Operation STUDENT

Jackson’s first attempt to fly this operation is foiled by a faulty compass. This is his first sortie since crashing on take-off in July. For some reason not mentioned in Jackson’s report, Whitley ‘A’ has not been swung to establish the compass deviation, and there is no deviation card aboard when they take off at 20.31. With good visibility they might have been able to continue on this short-range operation to northern France, but tonight it is poor, with cloud-base at 1,300 feet. They decide to return to Newmarket after only 36 minutes in the air, and they land 78 minutes later, at 22.25. Control briefly mistakes Jackson’s Whitley for a ‘hostile’ and the runways are darkened; once the confusion is cleared up Newmarket switches its lights back on for Jackson to land.

Operations FELIX and DASTARD

The FELIX operation, last attempted on 3 August, is re-mounted. The original FELIX W/T set dropped with Philip Schneidau in March is now working well enough for a reception party to receive the set on the Plateau des Trembleaux, above Montigny-sur-Loing. This operation is to be carried out first.

DASTARD is Sergent-chef Raymond Laverdet, of the Gaullist BCRA. (Sergent-chef is approximately equivalent to Staff- or Colour-Sergeant in the British Army, nothing to do with catering.) He is accompanied by a wireless-operator, André Allainmat. They are to be dropped near Bray-sur-Seine, to the east of the Montigny drop and upstream of the easily identifiable river-junction between the Seine and the Loing.

Soon after takeoff F/Lt Murphy is faced with continuous cloud down to 1,000 feet, so he decides to climb above it. He breaks clear at 4,000 feet, but he has to climb to 7,000 feet to stay above the cloud while crossing the English Channel. Still unable to see anything, he changes course on ETA once he believed he had crossed the French coast, and descends through the cloud base. He emerges into clear air but heavy rain at an instrument-height of 1,000 feet, but he is only 300 feet above the ground.

Murphy laconically records: “I decided to climb again”. He sets course for the FELIX target area, where he descends on ETA but cannot identify a pinpoint. He perseveres, but during the search he experiences what he later describes as “an oleaginous bump”, and believes he has collided with another aircraft. The Whitley has hit something, or has been hit, but he can’t work out by what. Enough is enough, and they set course for Cabourg and Newmarket, where they land at 02.53. There they find that the Whitley’s rear wheel has been forced upwards into the fuselage.

Operations DRAFTSMAN, AUTOGYRO E, DOWNSTAIRS, VESTIGE/TROPICAL, UKELELE

The air operation

This operation is one of the notable air operations carried out by Sgt Reimer, RCAF; remarkable because of the number of agents carried in the single Whitley, and for the determination and accuracy with which Reimer and his crew carry it out. In particular it is a challenge for the two despatchers, Sgts Slatcher and Evans, who have an arganisational nightmare of organisation in the cramped, dark fuselage.

Reimer drops the six agents in two passes to avoid too wide a spread, though it necessitates an extra circuit of the landing-field.

The agents

Each code-name stands for an ‘F’ Section agent. They are all going to be dropped at the same target, from where most will go their separate ways. The target is a farm called Le Cerisier, just north of the village of Tendu, some 16 km south of Chateauroux. (Position 46°41’03″N, 1°34’27″E) It is owned by Auguste Chantraine, socialist ex-mayor of Tendu, who has been forced out of his post by the Vichy regime. He had already refused to join the Pétainist ‘Légion française des combattants’, which made him suspect in the eyes of the regime; in July 1941 he was forced to resign because of his hostility to Vichy’s programme of national renewal. He and his wife were recruited by Max Hymans and his friends; ‘Le Cerisier’ is his farm.

Some of the RAF operation codenames are the same as their SOE codenames (which differ from their aliases): DRAFTSMAN is André Bloch (from his SOE personal file), and AUTOGYRO is the Comte du Puy. The others’ codenames differ. In the early days, until late in 1941, the agent’s RAF codename was sometimes a word-association with one of his names; later, agents were given random code-names from a list of – for example – root-vegetables. So, Victor Gerson became VESTIGE, and Michael Trotobas became TROPICAL. A rather more tenuous link might be Georges Langelaan to UKELELE via George Formby, which would make Ben Cowburn DOWNSTAIRS

The reception party consisted of Georges Bégué, Max Hymans (Bégué’s contact in Valençay in May), and Auguste Chantraine. Chantraine continued his involvement with SOE-related activities until his luck ran out in December 1943. He was deported to Gusen concentration camp, where he died in March 1945.

Sunday, 7 September 1941

Operation STUDENT

The sortie

Jackson and his crew set off at 1954, about half an hour earlier than the previous night and in a different aircraft (Whitley ‘D’ according to Stradishall Ops). They follow the Bomber Command ‘lane’ via Abingdon to avoid the London area, and cross the coast at Worthing on their way to northern France. Jackson is headed east-south-east, and crosses the French coast at the mouth of the River Authie, near Berck-sur-Mer. The crew can see Boulogne under attack from a bombing raid, and a little flak is squirted in their direction, though they are twenty miles further south.
They encounter a low layer of cloud at 22.28 and drop to 3,000 feet to get below it.
At about 22.50 they find the target on the first run, which they complete at about 500 feet. Based on time & flying-speed the target would appear to be somewhere south of Mons, for on the way back they drop pigeons over Valenciennes. Thirty minutes later they recross the French coast at Berck, from where they return to Newmarket via Shoreham and Abingdon.

The agent

Pierre Tillet has identified STUDENT as Sgt Carl Godenne, a wireless-operator sent to join the ‘CLARENCE’ intelligence organisation. According to Emmanuel Debruyne, Godenne addressed his reports to Major Page, who ran SIS’s Belgian section. Tillet claims the target to have been Valenciennes, but Jackson’s report indicates that he dropped the agent and the pigeons some ten minutes apart; at, say 120 mph the separation would be about 20 miles; possibly inside Belgium. Peter Verstraeten has confirmed the identification by definitely linking Carl Godenne with STUDENT and the ‘Clarence’ intelligence network, but is unable to provide a clear indication of the target location where he was dropped.

Operation GLASSHOUSE

P/O Austin and his crew have a go at dropping Cornelis Sporre (‘Cor’) and Albert Homburg (‘Ab’) five nights after their CO’s attempt. W/Cdr Jack Benham from Ringway is acting as the agents’ Conducting Officer. At about 1700 the two agents asked him whether the operation could be delayed so that they would arrive over the target after curfew time in Holland; a reasonable request which would lower their chance of being seen to land in this densely-populated country. Benham cannot contact W/Cdr Knowles until after they arrive at Newmarket; but Knowles refuses to allow take-off to be delayed.

Austin takes off at 20.15. On their way out over the North Sea, the crew spots a light on the water which proves, as they circle it, to be an aircraft’s dinghy. The wireless-operator signals an SOS giving the position (53° 04′ N; 1° 52’E); this is acknowledged by Hull M/F D/F (Medium Frequency Direction-Finding) Station. At 22.55, and having thus delayed their arrival at the target, Austin and his crew resume their course to Terschelling, then to Zwolle. In 1941 Zwolle is much closer to the coast of the Zuider Zee.

The weather is fine and clear past the Dutch coast. They find the target without difficulty (which the wireless-operator records in his logbook as Smilde, north-east of Zwolle) and drop the agents; presumably they have flown up the canal from Meppel. Two COLUMBA pigeons are returned from the Zwolle area on the 8th, arriving in the UK on the 10th and the 17th; sent from the UK loft to Newmarket on the 7th. While Austin doesn’t mention pigeons in his report, his is the only SD aircraft that fits the time-frame.

The rear gunner sees the parachute canopies opening, and the crew believe they have seen the agents on the ground before they return to base, landing at 01.45.

Several aircraft, including a Wellington ‘K’ from Stradishall, are despatched to the area of the North Sea, but no dinghy is found, despite the calm sea and good visibility. There are several convoys in the area, and it is assumed by the Stradishall log that whoever signalled has been picked up.

Operations FELIX and DASTARD

After F/Lt Murphy’s encounter with his ‘oleaginous bump’ the previous night, everything goes well on his second attempt. Murphy and his crew set off at 20.00, and cross the French coast at Cabourg at 21.45. They set course for Fontainebleau, which they reach an hour later. They picked up the nearby Seine and a pinpoint is easily found. This is most probably the Seine-Loing junction near Moret, less than five miles from the target. Murphy’s crew find the triangle of lights on the Plateau de Trembleaux, and drop the W/T set to the FELIX reception party at 22.53.

Murphy retraces his tracks to the Seine-Loing junction, then heads east up the Seine, following the straight road from Marolles, and drops Laverdet and Allainmat near Bazoches-Lès-Bray at 23.02. Murphy returns to the Seine-Loing river junction, pinpoints again over Fontainebleau, and sets course for the Normandy coast. Conditions are bright and clear in the moonlight. Some Special Duties crews are keen to carry the fight to the enemy once they have carried out their main tasks. Murphy is disappointed to find no targets for the Whitley’s machine-guns as they fly across the French countryside at 50 feet. Instead they drop pigeons over Caen before leaving the French coast. They land back at Newmarket at 2.25.

Operation FENGLER

This is an operation for SIS related to the Polish intelligence organisation ‘F2’ in Unoccupied France run by General Zarembski (TUDOR), but the agent has not been identified. His escorting officer is F/O Philip Schneidau, whose presence at Newmarket allows him also to supervise the loading of the W/T set for his family’s circuit FELIX, above. The target is near Carcassonne, as recorded in Ron Hockey’s logbook.

At this time of year Carcassonne is about as distant as a Whitley can operate and still reach the relatively safe skies of the Bay of Biscay before daybreak; by day the Bay is regularly patrolled by Luftwaffe seaplanes. Accordingly Hockey is airborne at 2000, and flies via Abingdon, Tangmere, Selsey Bill, and crosses the Normandy coastline at 21.53. They fly southwards via the Loire and Toulouse. South of the Loire they have to fly below 800 feet to stay underneath the cloud. At the target they drop the agent between 01.15 and 01.19.

After leaving the target area they head north-west for the Atlantic coast. They exit France just south of Lac Biscarosse, over the giant sand-dunes. (Hockey records the exit-point as nearby Arcachon.) Out over the Bay of Biscay they frequently encounter thick fog, and above them 10/10th cloud at 4,000 feet. They pass Ushant and make landfall over The Lizard, landing at St Eval at 06.37 (Strad Log), with visibility at 4,000 yards. The Stradishall Ops Officer’s log lists this as ‘Operation No. 7’, and notes that Hockey’s aircraft has landed back at Newmarket at 10.40.

S/Ldr Nesbitt-Dufort is flying as 2nd Pilot on this operation. Though he had been posted in as a Lysander pilot, he has more than sufficient hours on twin-engined aircraft flying 23 Squadron’s Blenheims and Havocs.