Tag Archives: Coghlan

F/O John Coghlan, DFC

Saturday, 17 August 1940

Henri Leenaerts and F/O John Hunter Coghlan, DFC

17/8/40 F/O J.H. Coghlan, DFC Lysander R2625 Henri Leenaerts Momignies Belgium Aircraft disappeared after take-off from Manston.

This was the RAF’s first attempt to insert an agent from Britain by air into Nazi-occupied Europe.

56Sqn Officers cropped

At the beginning of August 1940 John Coghlan — seen here standing, fourth from the left, in September 1939 — was a Flight Commander with No. 56 Squadron, a Hurricane squadron based at RAF North Weald. Holding the Acting rank of Flight Lieutenant, Coghlan was officially an ‘ace’ with some six victories, and he had just been awarded the DFC. On 2 August he had flown his last patrol, operating from Rochford, and on the 7th he was posted to RAF Ringway. Over the next few days two Lysanders, R2625 and R2626, arrived at Ringway. R2625 had been converted for night flying, with the rear machine gun removed.

According to his logbook Coghlan was no Lysander expert; he had logged only a single half-hour as a Lysander pilot in March 1939. Now he had to learn to fly one operationally, at night, before the Full Moon.

Coghlan was to insert a 37-year-old Belgian, Henri Leenaerts, into Nazi-occupied Belgium. Before the war Leenaerts had been an insurance salesman and swimming instructor with a wife and three children. He had served with the Belgian Air Force in his youth. On May 15th Leenaerts had been recalled, but the German invasion was too swift. He somehow contrived to escape to England. A trained wireless operator, he was recruited by SIS. The Belgian government and the head of the Belgian secret service had not yet reached England, but Anatole Gobeaux had.  Gobeaux had served in the First World War espionage organisation ‘La Dame Blanche’. Anticipating a German invasion more accurately than his government, Gobeaux had spent much of the ‘Phoney War’ visiting past members of La Dame Blanche, recruiting from the willing. After the German invasion he had taken the names to London. Leenaerts was to take a wireless set to Momignies, a small town on the border with France. There he was to make contact with one of the names provided by Gobeaux, and instruct this contact in their wireless codes and procedures.

Momignies was a small town close to a railway that led to the Channel ports. It was therefore well-placed for the kind of train-watching espionage activities that had been the hallmark of La Dame Blanche’s success in the Great War. Political and religious divisions in Belgium made a landing on Belgian soil unwise, so Leenaerts was to be landed just over the border in France. The new wireless sets developed for SIS were just light enough for Leenaerts to lug one across fields and over the border into Momignies. Three nights later, on the 20-21st, Leenaerts was to return to the same field, where Coghlan was to return and pick him up. Together they would return to England.

It is possible that Coghlan and Leenaerts made an attempt on the night of 16 August, but there is no published evidence to back this up. They are known to have set off in the late afternoon of 17 August in Lysander P2625, and landed at Manston to refuel. (The standard Lysander carried only 95 gallons of fuel; Manston brought Momignies within range.) At Manston they were spotted by Eric Clayton, a 56 Squadron ground-crew fitter who had looked after Coghlan’s Hurricane at North Weald. Clayton was at Manston repairing one of 56 Squadron’s damaged aircraft, and in the early evening of 17 August he saw Coghlan and an anonymous civilian arrive in a Lysander. He later wrote about the encounter in his memoir, ‘What if the Heavens Fall?’

Nothing is certain after the pair’s take-off from Manston. More than a month later, on 23 September, Flying  Officer Coghlan’s body was found washed up on the beach at Wimereux, a few miles north of Boulogne. Coghlan is not mentioned in the Belgian papers that describe Leenaerts’s mission. In their post-war enquiries the Belgian authorities believed Leenaerts had been lost over the North Sea, but knew nothing of the RAF’s involvement.

Manston was a logical departure-point for Coghlan to fly an easterly route crossing the Belgian coast between Dunkirk and Nieuwport, then heading south. Although Coghlan’s body was found south-west of Calais, the Lysander probably came down in the North Sea somewhere north-west of Ostend, cause unknown. Coghlan may have been jumped by a patrol in the moonlight, but he is more likely to have run out of fuel on the return leg, with Leenaerts still aboard. Though the operation was within range, he may have spent valuable time and fuel searching for the target. The fuel margin was not generous, and Coghlan did not have the Lysander experience to wring maximum range or endurance from an aircraft which repaid close acquaintance. Coghlan’s body was found more than a month later, along a heavily-patrolled shoreline. Analysis of currents and tidal flows indicates that Coghlan’s corpse probably drifted back and forth through the Dover Straits on a month of tides before being flung ashore at Wimereux.

Henri Leenaerts had no known end; in his career as an agent, only an unfulfilled beginning. In 1946 he was posthumously recommended for the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm, and for elevation to Chevalier of the Order of Leopold, but it’s not clear whether these awards were ever made. Most of the graves in the Commonwealth section of Boulogne’s Eastern Cemetery are from 1914-18, but in a small section at the far end, dedicated to casualties from the later conflict, lies Flying Officer John Hunter Coghlan, DFC.


  • Aircraft record cards, RAF Museum, Hendon.
  • Logbook: F/O J.H. Coghlan, DFC (TNA AIR 4/17)
  • Operations Record Books, 1940: No. 56 (F) Squadron; RAF Station, North Weald;
    Central Landing Establishment, RAF Ringway.
  • ‘What if the Heavens Fall? Reminiscences of 56(F) Squadron in the Battle of
    Britain’, Eric Clayton, Wye College Press, 1995.
  • Clive Richards, at the time (2008) working for the MOD’s Air Historical Branch, made the connection between Leenaerts and Coghlan; contributors to the rafcommands.com forum pointed me towards Eric Clayton’s memoir, and helped me definitively to establish R2625 as the Lysander used.
  • ‘La guerre secrète des espions belges: 1940-1944’, by Emannuel Debruyne, p.23
  • CEGESOMA, Brussels: File OP 723, and William Ugeux archives, AA 884, No. 56.
  • Personal File, Henri Leenaerts, CEGESOMA SVG: d340578

Wednesday, 7 August 1940

56 Squadron, North Weald

Acting Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan is posted to what the 56 Squadron ORB records as the ‘Parachute Pr Unit, Ringway’. He relinquishes his acting rank, reverting to his substantive rank of Flying Officer.

Tuesday, 30 July 1940

RAF North Weald

F/Lt John Coghlan is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). The citation for his award reads:

This officer has been a flight commander in his squadron on most of the recent patrols and has led the squadron on some occasions. At all times he has shown the greatest initiative and courage and has personally destroyed at least six enemy aircraft.


The London Gazette, 30 July 1940: issue 34910, page 4674.

Saturday, 13 July 1940

56 Squadron, Dover Straits

At about 6.30 p.m. Flt Lt John Coghlan is flying as No.2 in Red Section, ‘B’ Flight. Near Calais they sight between nine and twelve Ju87 Stukas crossing the coast near Calais at about 7,000 feet. They are escorted by Me109s, though Coghlan believes they are Heinkel 113s. (Nazi propaganda has succeeded in persuading everyone, even ‘Jane’s’, that these fighters are in the front line. In truth they do not exist except as prototypes.)

The section forms into line astern and attacks the Ju87s, which drop their bombs into the sea and dive to sea-level, about three miles off Calais. Each pilot in Red Section picks a Stuka.  Coghlan and F/Lt Brooker, who is leading the section, open fire first, but all three Stukas continue diving, straight into the sea.

The Hurricanes now come under attack from the Me109s/He113s. Coghlan sees a Hurricane being attacked, and gives the Me109a long burst from about 1500 feet above it;  it turns and falls into the sea. As so often happens during the battle, one minute it is a general melée of swirling aircraft, the next the enemy has disappeared. Coghlan sees several large splashes in the sea but cannot identify the aircraft, but he does see Geoffrey Page shoot down one ‘He113’. Coghlan may have thought they were He113s was their paint scheme: black on top with white crosses, just as in a propaganda photo in ‘Jane’s’. While attacking one of the ‘He113s’, Coghlan notes three streams of tracer from each wing, assuming a similar layout to the Hurricane, but he doesn’t see any cannon-shot. (Nor would he have seen anything, even though Me109s had cannon. But cannons didn’t fire tracer, so it would have been invisible.)

Coghlan combat report, NA AIR 50/22

Wednesday, 10 July 1940

The Battle of Britain is deemed to have been started on July 10 with large-scale attacks on convoys in the English Channel. There had been smaller-scale convoy attacks before, but historians will later require the Battle of Britain to have a neat beginning and end.

English Channel, ten miles south of Lydd

At about 2.30 p.m., John Coghlan is in ‘A’ Flight — it’s not clear whether he is leading the Flight — when they encounter about 50 enemy aircraft above the Dover Straits, a mix of Do217s, He111s, Me109s and Me110s. Coghlan’s narrative is worth reading verbatim:

“I sighted a number of bombers, Do.215 and He 111’s and a fighter escort of Me 110 and 109’s. The bombers were attackin a convoy. Before attack commenced the Me 110’s formed a large circle at 10,000 feet and the me 109 formed a similar circle at 14,000 ft. I attacked one of the Me 110’s from 1000 ft above, but some Me 109’s came down, and after a short dog fight I eluded them. I then again attacked one of the Me 110’s which had by now broken up. I saw bullets burst on fuselage and wing between pilot and rear gunner and the port engine burst into flames, and the e/a broke away downwards and to the right. I was then attacked by a number of the Me 109’s and I became aware of their presence behind me by red cannon shots over my port wing. I pulled up and throttled back and they shot underneath me and I then dived down on two of them and got a good three second burst in on each, from 50 to 30 yards range. I saw my bullets, in each case, enter the fuselage in front of the pilot. I was then attacked head on by a Me 109. After this, all the Me 109’s had disappeared and I feel certain that the engines of the two Me 109’s attacked by me must have been severely damaged. I found that I could better out-manoeuvre the Me 109’s and 110’s with 5 to 10 degrees of flap lowered. The loss of speed to my Hurricane was not appreciable Engine revs were 28.00 on my rotol airscrew.”

TNA AIR 50 / 22
Coghlan claims one Me110 (confirmed) and two Me109s damaged.

No. 2 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), RAF Brize Norton

Sergeant John Austin takes up Airspeed Oxford No. 1932 for a 40-minute flight, with Sgt Blair as crew, for Exercise No. 10 – ‘Air to Air’. Later his logbook is marked, his training is complete, and he is signed out of No. 2 SFTS with an ‘Average’ Rating. (For readers used to present-day school assessment gradings, an RAF pilot’s rating of ‘Average’ was a solid pass. ‘Above the average’ was rare, and ‘Exceptional’ really was.)