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 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.