Tag Archives: COLUMBA

Sunday, 3 August 1941

The August moon period starts with three operations. F/Lt Jackson is non-operational after his crash, but F/O Hockey now has his own crew and the Flight is still able to field three crews.

Operation PERIWIG

‘PERIWIG’ is Armand Campion, about 31 years old. In 1940 he served with the French Foreign Legion in the Norway campaign, where he earned the Croix de Guerre. He is a trained wireless operator, so does not need to be dropped with one.

Hockey and his crew, which includes the Flight’s Lysander pilot F/Lt Nesbitt-Dufort, sets off for Belgium via Aldeburgh and Nieuwport. Unsurprisingly they meet with severe searchlight and medium flak opposition. Once the coast is behind them they release their quota of pigeons for Operation COLUMBA and head for Ath, but above cloud. Eight pigeons, re-dispatched from Belgium, appear to have returned to the UK from this drop.

After reaching the dead-reckoning position for Ath they alter course for the target to the east, but continuous low cloud makes it impossible to see what’s beneath them. They abandon the operation, and leave Belgium about three miles east of Nieuwport. If they hope to avoid the searchlights and flak they fail, and are picked up by a blue master-searchlight; the other lights fasten on to Hockey’s Whitley. They are coned and the flak is fierce and close. They make it home unharmed, despite being fired on by shipping off Harwich as a final indignity. Nesbitt-Dufort writes a vivid account of this flight on pages 98-102 of ‘Black Lysander’, but he confuses some of the details of this operation with another sortie he will fly with Hockey on 9 September, to Denmark. But writing after the war Nesbitt-Dufort will not have the benefit of looking at the contemporary pilots’ reports, and has to rely on his logbook to jog his memory. Memories tend to be precise about what happened, but ‘when’ and ‘where’ are different matters entirely.

Operation MILL

‘MILL’ is Adrien Marquet and his wireless Operator René Clippe. (Clippe seems to have been codenamed MILLSTONE, according to Verhoeyen.) They are the vanguard of a Belgian Intelligence Service operation sponsored and facilitated by SIS. As with the failed Leenaerts operation of mid-August 1940, Marquet’s task is to make contact with Belgians recruited by the ‘La Dame Blanche’ veteran Anatole Gobeaux during the ‘Phoney War’ period, when Belgium remained stolidly neutral. The agents are to be dropped near Chimay.

The first attempt is thwarted by low continuous cloud over the target area. Sgt Austin flies to the the target area via Orfordness, and crosses the enemy coast at Veurnes, between Dunkirk and Nieuwport. A 25-minute square search of the target area does not reveal a gap in the low cloud cover, so they are forced to abandon and return to Newmarket.

P/O AGW Livingstone (W/Op) joins Sgt Austin’s crew for his first Special Duties sortie. He has already completed a bomber tour with 115 Squadron.

Operation FELIX

The first attempt to drop a replacement W/t set to the FELIX intelligence circuit had been made on 12 July by Sgt Austin. The target has been changed to the Plateau les Trembleaux, about three miles north of the earlier target, just north of Montigny-sur-Loing. This is the clearing where Philip Schneidau had been parachuted in March, though on that occasion he had been carried by the wind, missed the clearing, and landed half-way up a tree in the dense woods to the west.

The drop is scheduled for between 23.15 and 23.45 GMT on 3-4 August. The ground party, made up of Schneidau’s father-in-law Paul Schiffmacher and his Montigny neighbour Henri Glepin, is expected to lay out a triangle with two white torches and one green at the apex, pointing into wind. Morse ‘U’ was to be signalled by one of the white lights.

All the ground-party’s efforts are in vain. Knowles takes off at 22.18 (UK local Double Summer Time) and sets course for Abingdon. At 22.47 both exactors start to give trouble (which probably means that the airscrews cannot be put into coarse pitch after the initial climb), so Knowles abandons the operation; they wouldn’t have got far with the airscrews in fine pitch. They have difficulty finding Newmarket again, but pick up the Newmarket flare-path at 23.30 and land back at base at 23.48. It will be another month before the FELIX circuit receives its new set.

Saturday, 5 July 1941

The next three nights are a bit of a tangle, with a tragic accident at their centre. Disentangling which operation was flown on which night, and by whom, has been a challenge.

When 1419 Flight’s operations went according to plan there was little for the pilot to write about in his official report. He was left with recording the bald facts of take-off, the route out across the English Channel and the enemy coast, the pinpoint and the target, dropping the agents and cargo, and of the journey home. As there is no Operations Record Book, these reports are often the only record that the sortie took place at all. When events failed to go according to plan – when the crew was thwarted by low mist, cloud, or the absence of a reception committee, or made errors of navigation or decision-making – these events are more interesting, for they show the pilots’ and crews’ actions under stress, and the decisions they made. In the case of three consecutive sorties for the 5th, 6th and 7th of July nothing went quite according to the book, but the pilots’ reports give little away. It would be misleading to say that the events were hushed-up, for they took place in an environment where everything was hushed-up, but the pilots’ reports which formed the RAF’s official record of events omitted important information, the effect of which was to avoid any mention of operation MOONSHINE / OPINION in the RAF’s only extant official record. The pilots’ reports were compiled near the end of the moon period, normal practice within the Flight: Austin waited until the 12th July before writing his reports for the 6th and 7th, and Jackson wrote his account for the 5th July on the 14th. From several eyewitness accounts, correspondence with MRD Foot, and Belgian academic works I have been able to piece together a logically coherent scheme of events. But I am open to the suggestion that this might still not be the final version.

According to the pilots’ near-contemporary operations reports, F/Lt Jackson flew Operation MARBLES on the night of 5 July, without completing it. Sgt Austin flew an un-named operation the following night, the 6th, during which one of the agents in a two-man team died in a parachuting accident, thankfully rare. This agent is known to have been flown out over Belgium the previous night, unsuccessfully, so it was logical to deduce that these two agents were collectively known as Operation MARBLES, despite each agent having his own code-name (MOONSHINE and OPINION, MOONSHINE being killed and OPINION being dropped successfully). Operation MARBLES was flown again the following night (the 7th), by Sgt Austin, this time successfully.

However, the agent dropped by Operation MARBLES was a completely different agent, Paul Jacquemin. While we will probably never know for certain, I believe that the operation Jackson flew on the 5th was Operation MOONSHINE/OPINION, not MARBLES. (It’s possible that Jackson attempted both operations, but his report describes only one operation; it tallies with the first attempt at MOONSHINE/OPINION.) It is therefore more likely that the real MARBLES was dropped at the first attempt on the 6th.

Operation MOONSHINE/OPINION

The first attempt to carry out this operation is flown by F/Lt Jackson. Delayed by technical trouble with their original aircraft, they jump ship to T4166. Take-off is delayed by only half an hour, so T4166 must have been fuelled-up and almost ready to go; it may have been a normal precaution. T4166’s intercom is not working effectively: microphones are swapped over, and the wireless operator is still struggling to provide a functional intercom as they headed for Belgium. They overfly Aldeburgh at 3,000 feet, but climb to 5,000 ft to cross the Belgian coast between Ostend and Dunkirk at 00.41 hrs. Jackson’s report continues:

On crossing the enemy coast we were held by searchlights and shot at by A.A. fire. At 01.07 we altered course to 134 degrees magnetic for Dinant at a height of 6,500 feet and at 01.12 commenced dropping the pigeons. We passed over several aerodromes, some with the flare path alight. At 0040½ we passed over Charleroi and lost height to 3,000 feet.

With the intercom still faulty, the navigator can still pass written course instructions to the pilot immediately to his right, but instant communication between all parts of the aircraft is vital during the operation itself. All members of the crew search for pinpoints during the approach to the target, and in the target area the pilot depends on the second pilot and navigator to position the aircraft right over the dropping point; only the despatcher and rear-gunner can provide confirmation of the agents’ departure from the aircraft.

En route for Dinant, on the Meuse, they fly over Charleroi: like all industrial areas of the time this coal-mining centre produces dense industrial haze, which obscures the ground beneath and spreads up and along the river valleys. After Dinant it is clear that the navigator F/Lt Romanoff, is having trouble. Whatever their target, they become lost. They retrace their route to pick up the river Meuse and pinpoint at Givet. They then follow the river north to Namur where, at 2.40, Jackson decides to abandon the operation. Already delayed by the technical trouble, and again after becoming lost, they have run out of time. Hockey records the route in his logbook as Nieuport, Charleroi, Namur, St Hubert (the last about 12 miles south of the MOONSHINE/OPINION target).

Fifty minutes later they clear the Belgian coast, and land back at Newmarket at 04.34. Jackson writes in his report that it had been the navigator’s first experience, but in fact F/Lt Romanoff had been out over Holland the previous night with Sgt Austin, and they had become lost then, too.

The accounts of the MOONSHINE / OPINION operation make clear that there was an attempt to drop this pair of agents over Belgium on the 5th, and Jackson’s report of their getting lost tallies with the known facts of MOONSHINE/OPINION. The Stradishall log confirms that there were only two 1419 Flight Whitleys out that night, and the other sortie is described below. It is possible that MARBLES was also aboard Jackson’s aircraft on this night, with no attempt made to drop him; but I doubt it. The MARBLES target was a long way west of the area covered; Jackson’s route only makes sense if they were trying to find the target for MOONSHINE and OPINION, in the hilly countryside south of Marche-en-Famenne.

Operation COLUMBA

My original post for this operation did not even mention that pigeons were dropped on both the outward and return legs of the sortie. I was too keen to keep the narrative focused on the agents; an error. Though the main purpose of the sortie was abortive, the pigeon-dropping part was effective, with at least ten pigeons returning to their UK roosts, possibly more. Jackson’s crew dropped pigeons on the outward journey after setting course for Dinant; later, at 03.20 they were returning under dead reckoning when they started to drop the remainder of the pigeons. They were interrupted seven minutes later when a searchlight homed on to them. Taking evasive action, they crossed the Belgian coast at 03.30, landing back at Newmarket just over an hour later.

Operation TORTURE

The target is only about twenty miles inland from the Normandy coast. Accompanying the crew was an RAF psychologist, F/Lt Roland Winfield, who later writes about the operation.

S/Ldr Knowles flies a normal route out via Abingdon and Tangmere, but the navigator must have underestimated the drift, for they make landfall only a mile west of Le Havre. Anywhere near the The port town is definitely unhealthy, and they are immediately attacked by the German ground-defences. Fortunately for Knowles and his crew, another aircraft had flown ‘slap over the middle of Le Havre’ as Knowles put it. It was higher, at about 10,000 feet, and drew the defences’ attention. Knowles discreetly headed south-west and crossed the coast at Merville.

The target was in the Forêt de Cinglins, a large wooded area about ten miles south of Caen, surrounded by arable land. It was easy to find, and the dropping operation took about four minutes.

After dropping the two agents ‘blind’, Knowles and his crew found ‘a German camouflaged tent encampment’ about 12 miles south of Caen, which would place it just south of the Forêt de Cinglins. Knowles’s crew shot it up from both turrets, and headed for the coast. There they found a German staff-car driving along a coast road with its headlights blazing. The rear gunner gave the car a four-second burst (a lot of rounds with four machine-guns) and the lights went out. They crossed the coast at Cabourg, and flew via Tangmere to Stradishall, landing at 03.33.

Sqn Ldr Winfield’s expertise was in the psychological stresses experienced by aircrew and paratroops. His postwar book gives a sympathetic, romantic portrait of W/Cdr Knowles, but his account of the operation itself provides real insight, bar a few errors of fact. His description of Knowles looking for trouble after completing the parachute operation rings true, as does his description of landing a Whitley ‘on’ instead of trying for a three-point landing. This was a solution to the problem of SD Whitleys stalling and crashing when their fuel was low and with undelivered agents still aboard. There would be several more instances of this particular type of accident.

Cartigny and Labit

On 29 April 1941 two twenty-year-olds, Denys Boudard and Jean Hébert, steal a Bucker Jungmeister biplane from a large fighter base at Carpiquet, just south-west of Caen, and fly it to England. SOE’s ‘F’ Section is taken with the airfield’s abysmal security, and despatches two agents, Henri Labit and Jean-Louis Cartigny, on a reconnaissance mission with a view to sabotage.

The French historian Philippe Bauduin appears to believe that they were dropped near the village of Rots, just to the west of Caen and about 12 miles from the Forêt de Cinglins, but this is unlikely: far too near the fighter base at Carpiquet for comfort, and very different country from the woodland where Knowles supposedly dropped them. (Baudin may have mistaken ‘Rots’ for Ryes; see below.) Labit wrote that they were dropped in a cornfield, where they left unmistakeable traces, and could not bury their parachutes in the hard dry earth. They carried the rest of their equipment to trees and covered it with leaves. Cartigny and Labit then separated, to meet up later. MRD Foot believed that Cartigny and Labit betrayed themselves by trying to catch a train the next day, a Sunday: passenger trains had ceased to run on Sundays some months before, but the agents had been poorly briefed. Not so: frustrated by the non-existent train service, Labit started walking the 35 kilometres to a farm near Ryes owned by a M. Frémont. (Labit’s accurate distance between the Forêt de Cinglins and Ryes confirms that the agents had been dropped at the correct spot.)

On the way Labit decides to call in at a ‘safe’ contact he had been given, a man called Dodin. Labit quickly realises Dodin was ‘un parfait crétin’, for he mis-takes Labit for a Gestapo agent come to question him about the two French airmen, and greets him with a effusive praises for the Germans. After pondering whether he should laugh it off or box the man’s ears, Labit leaves him in order to make contact with M. Frémont as fast as possible, to warn Cartigny against approaching Dodin.

Labit has walked no more than a kilometre before he is stopped by a Gendarme on a bicycle who asks for his papers. Labit asks the policeman why he’s been stopped, and is told that M. Dodin has denounced him as suspicious.

Labit arrives at Ryes, where he has to make five enquiries before finding the Frémont farm, in a different commune. M. Frémont takes him in, subject to a confirmatory broadcast message from London, but three hours later Frémont’s son wakes the agent as the Germans were outside. Labit hides in a bush, then returns after they have left. Frémont tells him that the Germans have discovered the parachutes, knows about both him and Cartigny, and of his presence in the locality. Frémont proposes himself as an intermediary for Labit’s surrender, but the agent takes off. He finds a courageous peasant woman who hides him for a few days, then makes his way in a peasant’s disguise to Caen, then Paris, and from there to Toulouse. Once there, Labit is given a new mission, FABULOUS.

Cartigny is captured separately, is tortured and eventually executed by firing squad on 4 February 1942.

Friday, 9 May 1941

Operation MARINE/ALBION

Richard van de Walle and Albert Thiou are successfully parachuted into the Eupen district of north-eastern Belgium on the third attempt.

This time the weather is better. Jackson and his crew also take along a passenger: S/Ldr Jack Benham of the parachute training staff at Ringway. A week later Benham will take command of the Parachute Training Squadron at Ringway. As Ringway is responsible for agents’ parachute training, he is getting first-hand experience of the operational side.

Soon after the Whitley crosses the coast at Knokke it is bracketed by accurate and simultaneous searchlights and flak, but remains undamaged. Ground haze makes visibility difficult as they fly south, then east, but eventually they pick up a pinpoint, do their timed run and drop the two agents. They return to the coast via Poperinghe, where they drop their quota of COLUMBA pigeons; six return to the UK. They return to Stradishall at just after 4 a.m.

Aftermath

On 5th June, Gp/Capt. John Bradley, DFC, S/Ldr Knowles’s boss at the Air Ministry (for the Flight receives its operational orders direct from Air Intelligence), writes asking for clarification about two operations. One of these is MARINE/ALBION. It has been reported back to SIS that the aircraft had flown over the pre-selected spot, was seen by people waiting for them on the ground, but the agents were dropped elsewhere. Neither agent has made contact. Worse, the two agents are reported to have been dropped over Germany.

Knowles assures Bradley that the crew has made every effort to drop the agents at the correct place. F/Lt Jackson writes a second report detailing his actions precisely: they had positively identified the Gileppe reservoir before flying for two minutes on a bearing of about 326 degrees true, (the ‘about’ because the observer was guiding the pilot from the bomb-aimer’s position, using a large-scale map). This is somewhat undermined by Knowles’s covering note, which asserts that they steered due north from the reservoir.

The map that accompanies Jackson’s memo (of which only a file copy exists) has not survived, at least publicly. The dropping-point appears to have been the high ground to the north or north-east of Limbourg, the exact position being dependent on the Whitley’s speed of between 80 and 100 knots, and its position over the lake, which is over a mile long.

If they were dropped in the right place, on target, they may still have landed in Germany. On 29 July 1940 the districts of Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith had been annexed to Germany. Even a western-most placement of the target would still have been in Germany. It is entirely possible that neither the agents nor their handlers in the UK were aware of the boundary changes. There’s certainly no indication in the correspondence.

It may be significant that the crew had not reported any lights from a ground-party; according to the Air Ministry correspondence there were people on the ground waiting for the agents. But these were very early days, and almost all drops were done ‘blind’; a ground-party with torches for guidance and signalling would have been exceptional.

There is another possibility, but an unlikely one. What they took for Lac de Gileppe might just have been Lake Eupen, a smaller but similar lake about 8 km (5 miles) further east. It. too, has a dam at the western end, but the lake is smaller, its shape and orientation is very different, and there is no marshland on the south shore. Built in 1938, the reservoir was not inaugurated until 1950 by Prince Charles of Belgium. It may not have been filled in May 1941.

In a biography of Leopold III, mention is made of two agents dropped in May 1941, Richard Van de Walle, with Albert Thiou as his W/T operator. De Walle’s mission was to enter the service of an un-named Belgian aristocrat who would act as an intermediary with the King, to allow the King to have a link with his government-in-exile. Debruyne says that Van de Walle was arrested within hours of his landing in Belgium.

Operation FELIX (pick-up)

Philip Schneidau is picked up by Lysander from south of Montigny by Gordon Scotter. This third Lysander pick-up operation is also Philip Schneidau’s second. Parachuted in on the night of 12-13 March for a two-week mission, the main purpose of which has been to provide his FELIX circuit with a W/T set, and for him to train up Felix Jond, an ex-army wireless operator who is now a commercial traveller in children’s clothing, in protocols and coding.

When Schneidau made his perilous parachute-landing in March, his transmitter/receiver had been damaged. The set was left with Felix Jond, who found Marcel Cornelis, an assistant at a wireless repair shop in Paris, prepared to mend it. Despite Marcel’s efforts the set was still not working properly, and communication with England has been difficult. Philip had brought a pair of pigeons, as on his first mission, for just this eventuality. In early April he had released them bpth, each carrying a message asking to be picked up. On the nights of the 9th and 10th April he waited in the fields south of Montigny, but no Lysander came; the pigeons hadn’t made it home. Eventually Schneidau has got through on the repaired wireless, and arrangements have been made for 9 May. Philip had been adamant that his wife and young son should be evacuated, too, and the RAF had agreed, eventually. Scotter has lined the rear canopy with blackout curtains in case the boy became frightened during the trip; which must have confused Michel COULOMB, for they had been in place for the earlier pick-up.

A plateau south of Montigny, between La Genevraye and Moncourt-Fromonville, is an almost ideal location for a landing site. Not far from a road, a landed aircraft would have been invisible behind the rise. It had been the site originally planned for the previous October’s pick-up, but in England they had not anticipated that Schneidau would have had to walk through the centre of Montigny after curfew, negotiating two waterway bridges, probably guarded, before he could reach the site. (There really is no other way across without getting wet; I’ve reconnoitred the area thoroughly.)

In October Philip changed the landing site to one south of Bourron-Marlotte. But it was far from ideal, with small fields. This time he does not get off the train from Paris until Nemours, where he eats a decent meal in a local restaurant, before making his way after curfew over the fields to the landing site.

Scotter arrives from Tangmere and starts searching an area slightly to the north. Philip’s torches lead him to the right place, and Scotter lands after exchanging signals. After his earlier episode with Coulomb/Cartwright, Scotter is understandably nervous. When a single figure he does not recognise hoists himself level with the cockpit Scotter draws his service revolver and waves it at the intruder. He has perhaps been expecting someone resembling the dapper RAF officer he’d met two months before, with a wife and child ready to board. But Schneidau may have re-adopted the bearded disguise he’d had on his first mission, and he’s alone. Simone, his wife, has refused to be evacuated: her place as a Frenchwoman is with her parents, organising and running the intelligence circuit they had built up since the previous October. Their son Peter also remains in Paris.

Schneidau tells Scotter to “put that bloody thing away”, gathers up his torches into a rucksack, and climbs aboard. They take off and the return journey is uneventful. They have a night fighter escort for the final stage of the journey, which Schneidau misinterprets as enemy fighters which they ‘dodged’.

Tuesday, 6 May 1941

Operation MARINE/ALBION

This is the second attempt, flown by the same crew. This time they are carrying two packets of ‘nickels’, which implies neither pigeons nor bombs. The weather is considerably worse: after take-off they flew under 10/10th cloud to the Belgian coast, which they see through a break in the continuous layer beneath them. Flying above continuous cloud at 6,500 feet to the target area, they try to descend, but icing forces them to climb again. They achieve this ‘with difficulty’, and the operation is abandoned. On the return journey they see the mining town of Charleroi through a cloud-gap, and drop their leaflets before heading for the coast and home.

Bombs are not carried again on Special Duties operations for more than a year, and then the circumstances are quite different. It may have been decided that dropping bombs would put the valuable passengers at increased risk: a ‘Joe’ primed for dropping is the result of several months’ training; in some cases they were irreplaceable. The possible benefit to the war from a few bombs is negligible.

Operation COLUMBA

A pigeon arrives back in the UK on 7th May from West Flanders. This could have been one of those dropped by Jackson on 8 April, but a month would have been a very long time to keep a pigeon, unless it had been injured in dropping.

Tuesday 8 April 1941

Operation to Belgium

Flt Lt A.D. Jackson (believed to be Ashley Duke Jackson, 33261) flies his first operation with the Special Duties Flight. Jackson was remembered by his fellow-pilots as either South African or Rhodesian. Before coming to 1419 Flight he had been instructing on Whitleys at No. 10 OTU. By the end of 1940 Sqn Ldr Knowles, then at the Air Ministry in charge of planning 419 Flight’s operations, had become something of a nuisance at Abingdon, repeatedly tapping 10 OTU’s instructor-pool for experienced aircrew: first it had been Sergeants Bernard and Davies, both W/T instructors, then F/O Jack Oettle. In December he’d asked Air Commodore Archie Boyle, the Air Ministry’s Director of Intelligence, to use his influence to procure Jackson for 419 Flight. Even with Boyle’s efforts Jackson’s transfer didn’t take place until March.

Jackson’s operational report is undated, but the logbook of Group Captain Ron Hockey, who flew as Jackson’s Second Pilot on this operation, identifies the date of the sortie, their first with the Flight. Jackson’s crew includes a Sergeant Besant as Observer. Sgt Besant does not appear in any later operational reports, so he appears to have been posted out. The Whitley is P5029, repaired after its mishap at Sumburgh in February.

They take off from Stradishall, then set course for the Belgian coast at 21.16, climbing to 5,000 feet for the crossing. With cloud at 3,000 ft, they are unable to see the English coast to see whether they are on track. The wireless operator obtains a back bearing (QDM) from a radio beacon at Stradishall, which verifies that they are. They make landfall in clear weather at Knokke, but as they lose height to 2,000 feet the Whitley is picked up by searchlights and attacked by coastal flak batteries north-east of Zeebrugge, though their firing is wide. Sgt Bramley, the rear gunner, succeeds in putting one of the searchlights out. Jackson flies inland to somewhere he records as ‘AILTROE’, arriving at 22.23. There they alter course for ‘WATTEN’, flying slowly at a height of 1,500 feet, and the despatcher is instructed to ‘commence operations’.

Their flight-path takes them across the Franco-Belgian border to ‘WATTEN’. They return on an reciprocal course, crossing the border at ‘WARHOUDT’. They continue on the same course, passing over Bruges. During the whole exercise they fly over several aerodromes, but encounter no searchlight or flak opposition until they leave the coast for the North Sea, when they are engaged by three searchlights.

This operation does not tie in with any known agent; indeed, may have been a leaflet-dropping exercise, to give a new crew valuable experience and to test whether they could do the job later with a real agent. Jackson’s report on this operation is difficult to analyze because many of the locations his report mentions are difficult to identify: while ‘Knock’ can be identified as Knokke with certainty, ‘Ailtroe’ might be Aalter. Or it may not. ‘Watten’ could be the village in France near St Omer, the later site of the V-2 launching base. ‘Warhoudt’ is untraceable, at least by the author.

Update March 2018 – Operation Columba

The purpose of this sortie has now become clear: it was not pamphlets that the crew dropped in a line across the Franco-Belgian border, but pigeons. This sortie was the first operation in a programme to drop small packages over Nazi-occupied Europe. Each package contained a homing-pigeon, food and water (for the pigeon), rice-paper, a pencil and a tiny green container for a written message. Anyone finding one of these might provide British Intelligence with useful information about the occupiers, but for anyone caught with one of these pigeons the result would have been a death-sentence. Many of these containers were handed over to the authorities, but several brave individuals wrote messages and released the pigeon to return to England. Of those pigeons dropped this night, two made it back to England.

From the COLUMBA file in the National Archive, the Belgian place-names, once elusive, become clear. The end-point of the Whitley’s dropping-run is indeed the French village of Watten; later in the war a vast blockhouse to house a V-2 launching complex will be built in the woods nearby. The first pigeon to returned is sent from the Belgian village of Herzeele. By drawing a line from Watten through Herzeele, the two towns of AALTER and WORMHOUT are on the track.

Sources

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 5A.
Pilot’s logbook, Grp Capt. R.C. Hockey

Gordon Corera, ‘Secret Pigeon Service’, pp. 24, 37-8.
TNA AIR 20/8457 (Operation COLUMBA)