Tag Archives: Nesbitt-Dufort

John Nesbitt-Dufort

Tuesday, 9 September 1941

Operation ESMOND/COLUMBUS

Thomas Sneum (ESMOND) has already achieved a considerable feat just in escaping Denmark by air to England. He has, with his friend Kjeld Pedersen, flown a light aircraft over the North Sea to the East Coast of Britain. At first they were disbelieved by MI5, and both fugitives spent an uncomfortable period under interrogation until their story was verified. Sneum has brought items of inestimable value: photos and sketches of the German Freya radar arrays. Sneum’s film has been wrecked by a developer’s incompetence, but the value of his drawings is immediately recognised by Dr R.V. Jones. Sneum is prepared by SIS to return to Denmark as an agent. He is paired with a wireless-operator, Sigfred Christophersen (COLUMBUS).

This first attempt to drop them is made by F/O Ron Hockey, with S/Ldr John Nesbitt-Dufort as his Second Pilot, with S/Ldr Cousens from 3 Group’s Training Flight as Navigator. Such an experienced crew would have found the target, if any crew could. They take off in foggy conditions and fly over the North Sea either in heavy cloud or above it. Hockey reports later that they flew through three separate fronts on the way over. When they judge themselves near the Danish coast Hockey drops to about 1,300 feet but they are still flying in thick cloud. To go any lower, even over the flatlands of Jutland, is asking for trouble. They climb to 10,0000 feet through continuous cloud, and decide to abandon the operation; they return, landing at Leuchars, Fife, as all bases further south are fogbound. S/Ldr John Nesbitt-Dufort, again flying as 2nd Pilot, writes after the war about their return:

Newmarket and Stradishall were right out; in fact the whole of the south part of East Anglia was covered with fog and we were advised to try further north. Wearily we headed for Waddington where the weather was closing in rapidly and just beat us, then on to Driffield which had also closed when we got there. Eventually at 7 a.m. we got down at Leuchars in Scotland exactly nine hours after we had taken off from Newmarket.

‘Black Lysander’, p.102.

Sunday, 7 September 1941

Operation STUDENT

The sortie

Jackson and his crew set off at 1954, about half an hour earlier than the previous night and in a different aircraft (Whitley ‘D’ according to Stradishall Ops). They follow the Bomber Command ‘lane’ via Abingdon to avoid the London area, and cross the coast at Worthing on their way to northern France. Jackson is headed east-south-east, and crosses the French coast at the mouth of the River Authie, near Berck-sur-Mer. The crew can see Boulogne under attack from a bombing raid, and a little flak is squirted in their direction, though they are twenty miles further south.
They encounter a low layer of cloud at 22.28 and drop to 3,000 feet to get below it.
At about 22.50 they find the target on the first run, which they complete at about 500 feet. Based on time & flying-speed the target would appear to be somewhere south of Mons, for on the way back they drop pigeons over Valenciennes. Thirty minutes later they recross the French coast at Berck, from where they return to Newmarket via Shoreham and Abingdon.

The agent

Pierre Tillet has identified STUDENT as Sgt Carl Godenne, a wireless-operator sent to join the ‘CLARENCE’ intelligence organisation. According to Emmanuel Debruyne, Godenne addressed his reports to Major Page, who ran SIS’s Belgian section. Tillet claims the target to have been Valenciennes, but Jackson’s report indicates that he dropped the agent and the pigeons some ten minutes apart; at, say 120 mph the separation would be about 20 miles; possibly inside Belgium. Peter Verstraeten has confirmed the identification by definitely linking Carl Godenne with STUDENT and the ‘Clarence’ intelligence network, but is unable to provide a clear indication of the target location where he was dropped.

Operation GLASSHOUSE

P/O Austin and his crew have a go at dropping Cornelis Sporre (‘Cor’) and Albert Homburg (‘Ab’) five nights after their CO’s attempt. W/Cdr Jack Benham from Ringway is acting as the agents’ Conducting Officer. At about 1700 the two agents asked him whether the operation could be delayed so that they would arrive over the target after curfew time in Holland; a reasonable request which would lower their chance of being seen to land in this densely-populated country. Benham cannot contact W/Cdr Knowles until after they arrive at Newmarket; but Knowles refuses to allow take-off to be delayed.

Austin takes off at 20.15. On their way out over the North Sea, the crew spots a light on the water which proves, as they circle it, to be an aircraft’s dinghy. The wireless-operator signals an SOS giving the position (53° 04′ N; 1° 52’E); this is acknowledged by Hull M/F D/F (Medium Frequency Direction-Finding) Station. At 22.55, and having thus delayed their arrival at the target, Austin and his crew resume their course to Terschelling, then to Zwolle. In 1941 Zwolle is much closer to the coast of the Zuider Zee.

The weather is fine and clear past the Dutch coast. They find the target without difficulty (which the wireless-operator records in his logbook as Smilde, north-east of Zwolle) and drop the agents; presumably they have flown up the canal from Meppel. Two COLUMBA pigeons are returned from the Zwolle area on the 8th, arriving in the UK on the 10th and the 17th; sent from the UK loft to Newmarket on the 7th. While Austin doesn’t mention pigeons in his report, his is the only SD aircraft that fits the time-frame.

The rear gunner sees the parachute canopies opening, and the crew believe they have seen the agents on the ground before they return to base, landing at 01.45.

Several aircraft, including a Wellington ‘K’ from Stradishall, are despatched to the area of the North Sea, but no dinghy is found, despite the calm sea and good visibility. There are several convoys in the area, and it is assumed by the Stradishall log that whoever signalled has been picked up.

Operations FELIX and DASTARD

After F/Lt Murphy’s encounter with his ‘oleaginous bump’ the previous night, everything goes well on his second attempt. Murphy and his crew set off at 20.00, and cross the French coast at Cabourg at 21.45. They set course for Fontainebleau, which they reach an hour later. They picked up the nearby Seine and a pinpoint is easily found. This is most probably the Seine-Loing junction near Moret, less than five miles from the target. Murphy’s crew find the triangle of lights on the Plateau de Trembleaux, and drop the W/T set to the FELIX reception party at 22.53.

Murphy retraces his tracks to the Seine-Loing junction, then heads east up the Seine, following the straight road from Marolles, and drops Laverdet and Allainmat near Bazoches-Lès-Bray at 23.02. Murphy returns to the Seine-Loing river junction, pinpoints again over Fontainebleau, and sets course for the Normandy coast. Conditions are bright and clear in the moonlight. Some Special Duties crews are keen to carry the fight to the enemy once they have carried out their main tasks. Murphy is disappointed to find no targets for the Whitley’s machine-guns as they fly across the French countryside at 50 feet. Instead they drop pigeons over Caen before leaving the French coast. They land back at Newmarket at 2.25.

Operation FENGLER

This is an operation for SIS related to the Polish intelligence organisation ‘F2’ in Unoccupied France run by General Zarembski (TUDOR), but the agent has not been identified. His escorting officer is F/O Philip Schneidau, whose presence at Newmarket allows him also to supervise the loading of the W/T set for his family’s circuit FELIX, above. The target is near Carcassonne, as recorded in Ron Hockey’s logbook.

At this time of year Carcassonne is about as distant as a Whitley can operate and still reach the relatively safe skies of the Bay of Biscay before daybreak; by day the Bay is regularly patrolled by Luftwaffe seaplanes. Accordingly Hockey is airborne at 2000, and flies via Abingdon, Tangmere, Selsey Bill, and crosses the Normandy coastline at 21.53. They fly southwards via the Loire and Toulouse. South of the Loire they have to fly below 800 feet to stay underneath the cloud. At the target they drop the agent between 01.15 and 01.19.

After leaving the target area they head north-west for the Atlantic coast. They exit France just south of Lac Biscarosse, over the giant sand-dunes. (Hockey records the exit-point as nearby Arcachon.) Out over the Bay of Biscay they frequently encounter thick fog, and above them 10/10th cloud at 4,000 feet. They pass Ushant and make landfall over The Lizard, landing at St Eval at 06.37 (Strad Log), with visibility at 4,000 yards. The Stradishall Ops Officer’s log lists this as ‘Operation No. 7’, and notes that Hockey’s aircraft has landed back at Newmarket at 10.40.

S/Ldr Nesbitt-Dufort is flying as 2nd Pilot on this operation. Though he had been posted in as a Lysander pilot, he has more than sufficient hours on twin-engined aircraft flying 23 Squadron’s Blenheims and Havocs.

Thursday, 4 September 1941

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 operation

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.

Wednesday, 6 August 1941

Operation THEOREM/VALIANT

From the point of view of John Austin’s crew this was a smooth, uneventful and successful operation to drop a pair of agents. The journey out is via Dives-sur-Mer, Tours, Chateauroux and Montluçon. The agents are dropped at 01.54, three minutes after reaching the target, near the village of St. Désiré, north of Montluçon. Austin probably pinpointed on Montluçon before backtracking to the target. On the way back COLUMBA pigeons are dropped near Argentan, and Austin lands back at Newmarket at 05.55. One pigeon returns from Flers, a few miles west from Argentan, arriving in the UK on the 16th.

For one of the agents it is a different story: although Jacques de Vaillant Guelis (VALIANT) a senior ‘F’ Section officer, lands without difficulty and is recovered by Lysander on the night of 4 September (Operation ‘Night Embarkation’ as the pilot, S/Ldr John Nesbitt-Dufort, entitles his report), but Gilbert Turck (THEOREM) is knocked out in an awkward landing. He wakes to find himself in a Vichy police station in Montluçon. During the Phoney War he had been a liaison officer between the sabotage-oriented Section ‘D’ of SIS and the similarly-tasked 5ème Bureau; his old boss, now working for Vichy’s intelligence service, has him released. Turck regains contact with de Guelis, and starts his mission.

(Operation ADJUDICATE)

Knowles and his crew take off at 22.07, quite late for a sortie heading for the south of France at that time of year. The rear gunner is a Squadron Leader Stephens, a gunnery instructor from 3 Group’s HQ Flight.

They fly a near-regular route: Abingdon, Tangmere, near-Cabourg, then Tours to Limoges, which they reach at 1.34. They find the target without difficulty, but they are greeted by the signal code ‘MD’, meaning that to land the agent would be dangerous. They circle for about ten minutes, but no further signals are seen. Headlights are seen on the ground and the Whitley leaves the area. Knowles offers to drop the agent elsewhere in Unoccupied France, an offer declined.

They fly back via Tours, landing back at Newmarket at 05.52.

The reason the operation name and agent are in brackets is that the evidence to identify them is circumstantial. In his operations report Knowles incorrectly ascribes it to the FELIX network, which did not operate in that area of south-west France. (Three nights earlier Knowles and his crew had flown an attempt to drop a W/T set to FELIX near Fontainebleau, but had turned back early with engine-trouble.) Characteristically Knowles does not include the date of the sortie in his report, but the take-off and landing times match those recorded in the Stradishall log for an otherwise unascribed sortie by Whitley (letter ‘D’) on 6th August. The target description in Knowles’s report, and the fact that the cargo is an agent not a W/T set, points towards another attempt to insert Count Dzieřgowski into the Unoccupied Zone near Limoges.

Operational cross-country

This Lysander sortie appears in Nesbitt-Dufort’s logbook, with a take-off from Tangmere at 23:00 hrs, and landing 5 hours 40 minutes later.

For all his other operational sorties, Nesbitt-Dufort records them as either ‘Ops as ordered successful or ‘Ops as ordered unsuccessful, and notes the number of passengers. This one is recorded merely as ‘Ops as ordered’, and as a solo effort, with no passengers.

This looks like a similar operation to the one described by Hugh Verity as an ‘operational cross-country’, in which Verity, soon after he joined 161 Squadron, was ordered to fly to a point in France, note what he saw, and to fly back and report. In Verity’s case the target was a brightly-lit prison camp in the countryside south of Saumur. Such sorties provided a realistic test of the pilot’s solo navigational abilities without exposing a valuable agent to any risk. Nesbitt-Dufort has flown several Whitley operations, and has proved himself as a competent map-reader, but those sorties are rather different from flying alone to a pinpoint on the map, several hundred miles into Occupied France. Next time he will do it with an agent aboard.

Sources

THEOREM/VALIANT

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl.53A

(ADJUDICATE)

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl.49A

Op X-country

Logbook, John Nesbitt-Dufort.

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.