There is considerable mystery about this third attempt to complete Operation WHISKEY: the fate of Halifax V9976, its crew, and the two Soviet NKVD agents it was carrying. The Halifax crashed in the Tyrolean Alps, almost exactly 200 miles short of the target, after — according to German observer reports — making an off-course turn to the south, into the mountains. The Halifax should have had no difficulty crossing the mountains in this area; the highest mountain in the crash area is lower than 6,000 feet.
The sortie has long been the subject of a page on Steve Harris’s Tempsford website. An ATF for the operation (slated for between 28 February and 5 March 1942, made out well before the first attempt on 25 March) states that the drop will consist of two agents and one package. It is a Category ‘A’ operation, the highest priority. A statement elsewhere ensures that this operation is not to be combined with any other. The target is as before, ideally to a small area in the hilly, wooded farmland south-west of Vienna, but such is the pressure to get the agents inserted that anywhere in the Danube valley between Linz and Vienna will do. The agents are Peter Staritsky (alias Peter Schulenberg) and Sevolod Troussevitch (alias Johan Traum). These aliases are probably their cover names while in the UK.
A report in the SOE file for Operation WHISKEY says that the Halifax takes off at 2100 on the 20th. It assumes that the takeoff is from RAF Bourn, an airfield between Tempsford and Cambridge, a satellite for RAF Oakington, but that may be because the previous attempt had taken off from there. In early 1942 Tempsford’s main runway is about 1600 yards, too short for a fully-fuelled four-engined bomber aircraft. It is extended later. For a sortie flying east rather than south to France, Bourn makes more sense than flying south to start from Tangmere’s extra-long runways.
The crew is essentially the same Polish crew that attempted this operation on the 25 March, at the beginning of the previous moon-period. The pilot is Pilot Officer Zygmuntowicz, the Navigator (and skipper) F/Lt Voellnagel, with Sgt Wilmanksi as Wireless-operator and Sgt Wojoleskowski sitting in the front turret. For this trip, however, the rear gunner is P/O Pulton, 138 Squadron’s Gunnery Leader, and 138 Squadron’s Commanding Officer, W/Cdr Wally Farley, flies as 2nd Pilot instead of F/O Dobromirski. A Despatcher and (presumably) a Flight Engineer complete the crew: Sgt Madracki and F/Sgt Karbowski.
The Halifax does not return. On the afternoon of the 21st a German communiqué is issued, which states that:
A single British aircraft which undertook a harrassing flight last night into the Ruhr territory, was shot down in southern Germany.
Bernard O’Connor’s thorough book on the British ‘Pickaxe’ operations quotes the research by Dr Michael Heim. This implies that the Halifax was followed across Germany by conventional tracking; that is to say by echo-location, not radar. German radar resources were concentrated on the approaches to the Ruhr; in 1942 they did not extend to Bavaria. But the Tyrolean guide who found the crash-site was rewarded: if a night-fighter had shot the Halifax down, the pilot who did the deed would almost certainly have been singled out for recognition. If the Halifax was only tracked, not intercepted, then we must look to another cause for its loss. The crew’s course deviation to the south, well off a direct course to the target, may have been a precaution to hide among the lower mountains of the Austrian Tyrol, but this would make sense only if the visibility was perfect and in bright moonlight. Neither condition applied. The crew might have misjudged their own height or the height of the mountains, but this was a highly-experienced crew, well aware of the margins that a change of barometric pressure would make to the altimeter. That night the moon set at 00.45 (BDST and CET, Germany and the UK operating in the same time-zone, GMT+2). The best estimate for the crash is shortly after 01.08 CET, shortly after moon-set. The crash site is not far below the crest of one of the mountains above the village of Kreuth. The crew and two ‘civilians’, Franz Löschl and Lorenz Mraz, are recovered from the wreck, and are eventually buried in the Durnbach military cemetery.
In the 1970s Ron Hockey, the Polish crew’s Flight Commander, wrote about this sortie in a letter to Hugh Verity. Hockey wrote that he was recalled from a 48-hours leave to fly the operation. When he arrived back at Tempsford he found that his CO, W/Cdr Farley, had believed Hockey wouldn’t make it back in time and had instead ordered one of the two Polish crews to carry it out:
“I pleaded with him, but this made him more obstinate and he said he would accompany the crew himself. As their flight commander the Polish crew came and asked me to keep the Wing Commander on the ground, as they did not want to take him, in fact they became quite emotional over this. I thought at the time this was purely due to the fact that Farley was not qualified on type, and had only flown as a passenger in daylight. I had another session with the CO but was unable to change his mind.”
The operation was mounted three nights before First Quarter, the nominal start to the next moon period. The only flying Hockey had done during April was a couple of air tests on 4th and 6th April, and a short flight to Hurn and back on the 7th. All were with a reduced crew in Hockey’s favourite Halifax, L9613. His last operational sortie had been to Czechoslovakia on 25 March, Operation BIVOUAC / ZINC.
Hockey and his crew may have been slated to fly this sortie at the start of the new moon-period. Ron Hockey was the squadron’s only RAF pilot with significant experience of flying operations to eastern Europe. But intense pressure from the USSR, via SOE and the Air Ministry, to carry out the operation appears to have persuaded Farley to make an attempt three nights early. There is even a postponement report for the 17th, six nights before the start of the moon period, a mere three nights after the New Moon. Bad weather was the recorded reason for cancellation that night, but the moon set before 10 p.m. and was only at 3% anyway: useless for operations.
Hockey was recalled from a 48-hour leave to fly the sortie on the 20th, but he arrived too late: Farley had to choose an alternative crew. The Polish crew which had made the previous attempt was ready to operate. Could one of their number have recognised a Russian accent during the earlier sortie? Forewarned, Polish Intelligence may have instructed their crews, through the Polish Inspectorate, to ensure that the Soviet agents did not reach their destination.
From the available evidence I consider Farley’s purpose in accompanying the Polish crew was to ensure that they carried out their duties by dropping the agents correctly. When the Polish crew pleaded with Hockey to persuade Farley against flying, it’s unlikely to have had anything to do with Farley’s lack of experience on the Halifax. Farley was known to be stubborn, and Hockey’s much greater operational experience may have been accentuated this tendency. Hockey, though a Flight Commander, was not privy to the background of these agents, and even if Farley knew their origins (which I doubt) he couldn’t have told Hockey. Hockey only learned about the agents being NKVD long after the war:
“I also discovered much later that the “passengers” were Russians, and this must have been known to the Polish crew through their ‘I’ Branch. That they were instructed internally within the Polish Air Force that their “passengers” should not arrive, cannot be discounted.”
Farley clearly had reservations over the Poles’ reliability, but he couldn’t tell Hockey why, and not because Hockey wold be loyal to his Polish crews. It is even possible that Farley substituted P/O Pulton for the Polish rear gunner in order to forestall any attempt to shoot the agents as they left the aircraft. With Farley aboard the Poles couldn’t prevent the agents’ despatch without making their own return impossible.
A German fighter may have resolved their dilemma, but I doubt it. Dr Heim’s research, quoted by Bernard O’Connor, indicates that the sound of the aircraft was followed from south of Strasbourg at 2 minutes to midnight (German time) at between 1,500 and 3,000 metres altitude, with visibility 10 kilometres. The aircraft’s course was plotted easterly from Ravensburg, and it was last heard at about 01.08 south-east of the Starnberg lake. In Dr Heim’s report there is no indication of any Luftwaffe interception. (I have today, 20 April 2017, learned, through online forum forum.12oclockhigh.net that no German night-fighter claim has been found for this Halifax.)
Was there some sort of confrontation in the Halifax cockpit? Without Farley aboard the Poles could have ensured the agents were dealt with, and the RAF would never have known. But with Farley aboard the Poles could not serve both the RAF and their own Inspectorate: they would have known, even before takeoff — hence their becoming ‘quite emotional’ — that they could not return if they succeeded in sabotaging the operation; nor could they return having failed.
138 Squadron ORB
TNA HS 4/342: SOE files, Operations WHISKEY, RUM
Imperial War Museum, Private papers of Group Captain R.C. Hockey, DSO, DFC
RAF Museum: Logbook, Group Captain Hockey (fiche)
Churchill and Stalin’s secret agents: Operation Pickaxe at RAF Tempsford, by Bernard O’Connor, p.80.
Steve Harris’s Tempsford website