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.
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.
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.
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.