Sunday, 6 July 1941


Sgt Austin flies the next attempt to drop MOONSHINE and OPINION, taking off at 23.10. He takes F/Lt John Nesbitt-Dufort, the Lysander pilot commended by Jackson as a good map reader. Shortly before take-off Sgt Austin also invites the SOE accompanying officer, Captain Douglas Dodds-Parker, to come on the operation. Dodds-Parker, a Guards Officer and (it should go without saying) perfectly turned out, leaves his personal items – his cap, gloves, ID and stick – with his FANY driver and climbs aboard the Whitley.

Even among the variety of individuals who volunteer to become agents OPINION is unusual: he is a Jesuit priest, Father Jourdain. Eric Dadson, the head of the Belgian ‘T’ Section of SOE, has recently journeyed to the Roman Catholic seminary at Buxton, Derbyshire, to solicit Father Jourdain’s advice on garnering support from the Belgian church hierarchy, a substantial influence on the King, who has remained in Belgium. The 43-year-old Jourdain volunteers to go himself, is parachute-trained as an SOE agent – the combat and sabotage aspects are omitted – and he is paired with a wireless-operator, Armand Leblicq (MOONSHINE). Leblicq has, like Emile Fromme, been recruited from the ranks of the Chasseurs Ardennais.

On this his second journey to the airfield Leblicq becomes distressed. The previous night’s failed attempt has clearly unsettled him. In Dodds-Parker’s car, on the way from his safe house to Newmarket, he asks Dodds-Parker to find him a priest, to hear his confession and to absolve him of his sins before he jumps. The depths of rural East Anglia are not the easiest place to find a Catholic priest at short notice, even on a Sunday. Even if Dodds-Parker knows where to find one, involving a local padre would compromise security. It just cannot be done.

Leblicq is still oblivious to the real identity of his companion seated with him in the car. At Newmarket, Dodds-Parker explains his predicament to the Flight: F/Lt ‘Sticky’ Murphy offers to turn his collar round and hear the agent’s confession; as a Catholic he knows the form of words. But this proves unnecessary. Father Jourdain speaks briefly with Dodds-Parker, and agrees to drop his cover in order to absolve his wireless-operator. To reveal one’s real identity, even to a fellow-agent – especially to a fellow-agent, who might just turn traitor – is taking a terrible risk. In a corner of the hut used for briefing and final preparation, Jourdain hears his companion’s confession. They then board the Whitley.

All goes well at first. Austin and his augmented crew take off shortly after eleven, at last light. They fly much the same route as Jackson the previous night — Nieuwport, Charleroi and Dinant — but this time they find the target.

OPINION (Jourdain) jumps first, lands safely, and waits for Leblicq, who will be dropped with a small spade for burying the parachutes and harnesses. But Leblicq never appears. Jourdain makes do with a small pocket-knife, and walks towards Marche-en-Famenne.

What has become of Leblicq? He has been calm during the flight, and there seems to be nothing wrong. As a wireless-operator he would have been dropped using the ‘A’ type harness, which was basically a cargo parachute with a pair of 11-foot strops beneath which attach to the agent’s harness. When he drops, the package containing the wireless set, the shovel and any other kit) will follow him down the Whitley’s parachuting-hatch, followed by the parachute-bag containing the canopy. The parachute-bag is attached to the Whitley by a 16-foot cable, so that the canopy would be pulled from the bag last, with the agent and package already well clear behind the aircraft. The agent only has to thrust himself off the lip, make himself as straight and upright as possible, and fall through the hatch; everything else will follow.

And it did. Except that on this occasion a fold of the emerging parachute-canopy catches on the Whitley’s fixed tail-wheel. Normally there is a metal shroud fitted in front of the tail-wheel to prevent this, but it is a flimsy affair, likely to be dislodged by the Whitley taxying over the rough grassland at Newmarket. Leblicq is snagged like a fish on a line, gyrating wildly in the slipstream behind the Whitley. The rear-gunner, Pilot Officer Pulton, is abruptly and inescapably faced with the spectacle of a man being spun to screaming death a few feet away, impossible out of reach.

Austin feels the controls go spongey and erratic, as the partially-opened ‘chute now acts like a sea-anchor streamed behind the aircraft. The gyrating agent makes the Whitley difficult to control. Nesbitt-Dufort and Dodds-Parker clamber over the main spar in to the rear fuselage to see if they can help. Dodds Parker offers to be attached to a static-line and streamed out of the rear door, but the skipper forbids it: Leblicq’s body flailing around in the slipstream is already making the Whitley almost uncontrollable. The parachute-canopy and its ghastly burden might as well be on Mars for all they can do. Austin turns carefully for home, and the wireless operator signals for medical help; Pulton, distraught at seeing a man strangled mere feet in front of him, collapses and has to be hauled from his turret. At Newmarket John Austin lands the Whitley as gently as he can, but Leblicq is long dead. P/O Pulton will not fly again on ops until September.

Austin writes a brief record of the operation, which has survived. In it, all he writes of the tragedy is: ‘Pin point was located at 01.06 and one agent was dropped without a hitch. Rear Gunner saw parachute open but agent was not seen to land. The other agent was brought back to base – report 1419/s.701/P.1 d/d 7.7.41 refers.’

This report – 1419/S.701/P.1 d/d 7/7/41 – has not been found.