Tag Archives: Farley

W/Cdr Walter (Wally) Farley

Monday, 20 April 1942

Operation WHISKEY

There is considerable mystery about this third attempt to complete Operation WHISKEY: the fate of Halifax V9976, its crew, and the two Soviet NKVD agents it was carrying. The Halifax crashed in the Tyrolean Alps, almost exactly 200 miles short of the target, after — according to German observer reports — making an off-course turn to the south, into the mountains. The Halifax should have had no difficulty crossing the mountains in this area; the highest mountain in the crash area is lower than 6,000 feet.

The sortie has long been the subject of a page on Steve Harris’s Tempsford website. An ATF for the operation (slated for between 28 February and 5 March 1942, made out well before the first attempt on 25 March) states that the drop will consist of two agents and one package. It is a Category ‘A’ operation, the highest priority. A statement elsewhere ensures that this operation is not to be combined with any other. The target is as before, ideally to a small area in the hilly, wooded farmland south-west of Vienna, but such is the pressure to get the agents inserted that anywhere in the Danube valley between Linz and Vienna will do. The agents are Peter Staritsky (alias Peter Schulenberg) and Sevolod Troussevitch (alias Johan Traum). These aliases are probably their cover names while in the UK.

A report in the SOE file for Operation WHISKEY says that the Halifax takes off at 2100 on the 20th. It assumes that the takeoff is from RAF Bourn, an airfield between Tempsford and Cambridge, a satellite for RAF Oakington, but that may be because the previous attempt had taken off from there. In early 1942 Tempsford’s main runway is about 1600 yards, too short for a fully-fuelled four-engined bomber aircraft. It is extended later. For a sortie flying east rather than south to France, Bourn makes more sense than flying south to start from Tangmere’s extra-long runways.

The crew is essentially the same Polish crew that attempted this operation on the 25 March, at the beginning of the previous moon-period. The pilot is Pilot Officer Zygmuntowicz, the Navigator (and skipper) F/Lt Voellnagel, with Sgt Wilmanksi as Wireless-operator and Sgt Wojoleskowski sitting in the front turret. For this trip, however, the rear gunner is P/O Pulton, 138 Squadron’s Gunnery Leader, and 138 Squadron’s Commanding Officer, W/Cdr Wally Farley, flies as 2nd Pilot instead of F/O Dobromirski. A Despatcher and (presumably) a Flight Engineer complete the crew: Sgt Madracki and F/Sgt Karbowski.

The Halifax does not return. On the afternoon of the 21st a German communiqué is issued, which states that:

A single British aircraft which undertook a harrassing flight last night into the Ruhr territory, was shot down in southern Germany.

Bernard O’Connor’s thorough book on the British ‘Pickaxe’ operations quotes the research by Dr Michael Heim. This implies that the Halifax was followed across Germany by conventional tracking; that is to say by echo-location, not radar. German radar resources were concentrated on the approaches to the Ruhr; in 1942 they did not extend to Bavaria. But the Tyrolean guide who found the crash-site was rewarded: if a night-fighter had shot the Halifax down, the pilot who did the deed would almost certainly have been singled out for recognition. If the Halifax was only tracked, not intercepted, then we must look to another cause for its loss. The crew’s course deviation to the south, well off a direct course to the target, may have been a precaution to hide among the lower mountains of the Austrian Tyrol, but this would make sense only if the visibility was perfect and in bright moonlight. Neither condition applied. The crew might have misjudged their own height or the height of the mountains, but this was a highly-experienced crew, well aware of the margins that a change of barometric pressure would make to the altimeter. That night the moon set at 00.45 (BDST and CET, Germany and the UK operating in the same time-zone, GMT+2). The best estimate for the crash is shortly after 01.08 CET, shortly after moon-set. The crash site is not far below the crest of one of the mountains above the village of Kreuth. The crew and two ‘civilians’, Franz Löschl and Lorenz Mraz, are recovered from the wreck, and are eventually buried in the Durnbach military cemetery.

In the 1970s Ron Hockey, the Polish crew’s Flight Commander, wrote about this sortie in a letter to Hugh Verity. Hockey wrote that he was recalled from a 48-hours leave to fly the operation. When he arrived back at Tempsford he found that his CO, W/Cdr Farley, had believed Hockey wouldn’t make it back in time and had instead ordered one of the two Polish crews to carry it out:
“I pleaded with him, but this made him more obstinate and he said he would accompany the crew himself. As their flight commander the Polish crew came and asked me to keep the Wing Commander on the ground, as they did not want to take him, in fact they became quite emotional over this. I thought at the time this was purely due to the fact that Farley was not qualified on type, and had only flown as a passenger in daylight. I had another session with the CO but was unable to change his mind.”

The operation was mounted three nights before First Quarter, the nominal start to the next moon period. The only flying Hockey had done during April was a couple of air tests on 4th and 6th April, and a short flight to Hurn and back on the 7th. All were with a reduced crew in Hockey’s favourite Halifax, L9613. His last operational sortie had been to Czechoslovakia on 25 March, Operation BIVOUAC / ZINC.

Hockey and his crew may have been slated to fly this sortie at the start of the new moon-period. Ron Hockey was the squadron’s only RAF pilot with significant experience of flying operations to eastern Europe. But intense pressure from the USSR, via SOE and the Air Ministry, to carry out the operation appears to have persuaded Farley to make an attempt three nights early. There is even a postponement report for the 17th, six nights before the start of the moon period, a mere three nights after the New Moon. Bad weather was the recorded reason for cancellation that night, but the moon set before 10 p.m. and was only at 3% anyway: useless for operations.

Hockey was recalled from a 48-hour leave to fly the sortie on the 20th, but he arrived too late: Farley had to choose an alternative crew. The Polish crew which had made the previous attempt was ready to operate. Could one of their number have recognised a Russian accent during the earlier sortie? Forewarned, Polish Intelligence may have instructed their crews, through the Polish Inspectorate, to ensure that the Soviet agents did not reach their destination.

From the available evidence I consider Farley’s purpose in accompanying the Polish crew was to ensure that they carried out their duties by dropping the agents correctly. When the Polish crew pleaded with Hockey to persuade Farley against flying, it’s unlikely to have had anything to do with Farley’s lack of experience on the Halifax. Farley was known to be stubborn, and Hockey’s much greater operational experience may have been accentuated this tendency. Hockey, though a Flight Commander, was not privy to the background of these agents, and even if Farley knew their origins (which I doubt) he couldn’t have told Hockey. Hockey only learned about the agents being NKVD long after the war:
“I also discovered much later that the “passengers” were Russians, and this must have been known to the Polish crew through their ‘I’ Branch. That they were instructed internally within the Polish Air Force that their “passengers” should not arrive, cannot be discounted.”

Farley clearly had reservations over the Poles’ reliability, but he couldn’t tell Hockey why, and not because Hockey wold be loyal to his Polish crews. It is even possible that Farley substituted P/O Pulton for the Polish rear gunner in order to forestall any attempt to shoot the agents as they left the aircraft. With Farley aboard the Poles couldn’t prevent the agents’ despatch without making their own return impossible.

A German fighter may have resolved their dilemma, but I doubt it. Dr Heim’s research, quoted by Bernard O’Connor, indicates that the sound of the aircraft was followed from south of Strasbourg at 2 minutes to midnight (German time) at between 1,500 and 3,000 metres altitude, with visibility 10 kilometres. The aircraft’s course was plotted easterly from Ravensburg, and it was last heard at about 01.08 south-east of the Starnberg lake. In Dr Heim’s report there is no indication of any Luftwaffe interception. (I have today, 20 April 2017, learned, through online forum forum.12oclockhigh.net that no German night-fighter claim has been found for this Halifax.)

Was there some sort of confrontation in the Halifax cockpit? Without Farley aboard the Poles could have ensured the agents were dealt with, and the RAF would never have known. But with Farley aboard the Poles could not serve both the RAF and their own Inspectorate: they would have known, even before takeoff — hence their becoming ‘quite emotional’ — that they could not return if they succeeded in sabotaging the operation; nor could they return having failed.

Sources

138 Squadron ORB
TNA HS 4/342: SOE files, Operations WHISKEY, RUM
Imperial War Museum, Private papers of Group Captain R.C. Hockey, DSO, DFC
RAF Museum: Logbook, Group Captain Hockey (fiche)
Churchill and Stalin’s secret agents: Operation Pickaxe at RAF Tempsford, by Bernard O’Connor, p.80.
Steve Harris’s Tempsford website

Sunday, 1 March 1942

Operation CANTICLE/DUNCAN, MASTIFF/INCOMPARABLE, PERIWIG 1

Sergeant Wilde, a new aircraft captain with 138 Squadron, flies this short-range sortie to Belgium, although the destination is recorded as ‘France’ in the operations summary book. For some unknown reason Sgt Wilde files two separate operations reports which are entered on separate pages in the ORB; this confuses matters further.

Wilde takes off at 18.48. He crosses the French coast north of the river Somme, at about 8,000 feet, pinpoints on Douai at 2,000 feet and descends to 400 feet over the PERIWIG 1 target; in the ATF for PERIWIG 1 it is given as ‘Mons’. He circles the target area from 21.50 to 22.40 (which rather seems to be asking for trouble), but nothing is seen. His PERIWIG report states that he then returns to base, landing at 01.50.

In fact he does no such thing: he goes on to the second target. CANTICLE is originally supposed to have been dropped near Arlon with a W/T set for Joseph Vergucht (DUNCAN). Vergucht, a Belgian merchant navy officer who knows Morse, has been waiting for the means to contact England since autumn of the previous year, having arrived via Lisbon. MASTIFF and INCOMPARABLE are to be dropped to a reception organised by PERIWIG, but a long way south-east from the drop-site for PERIWIG 1.

MASTIFF and INCOMPARABLE are dropped near their target about a mile south of the village of Gondregnies. This is close to the village of Silly, where Armand Campion (PERIWIG) parachuted in August 1941. CANTICLE drops with them. One of the two pigeons he is carrying becomes detached, and travels back in the aircraft. CANTICLE is reported as needing a helping shove down the chute, which may contribute to the pigeon becoming detached.

The Whitley drops leaflets over Douai before returning to Stradishall, landing at 01.50.

Operation MOUSE, VERMILION

Farley takes off from Stradishall in Whitley K9287 at 18.32, and crosses the French coast near Caen, flying at 8,000 feet to be above the light & medium flak defences. He pinpoints on the Loire at about four miles east of Blois. By his own account he drops MOUSE about ten miles SSE from the planned dropping-point, somewhere close to the village of Meillant (Cher), but he gives no explanation as to why he drops the agent so far from the dropping-point. Farley returns to Tangmere rather than Stradishall, and lands at 03.27.

Given that Farley knew where he was, and was not pushed for time, it would seem to have been slapdash not to have drop the agent at the correct place, but it’s possible (though nowhere mentioned) that the agent may be concerned that if they fly north the pilot might drop him in the Occupied Zone; they are less than 30 kilometres west of the demarcation-line, a mere hiccup away in air navigation terms. MOUSE is therefore dropped a short way from the road between Vitray and Meaulne. He makes his way to Meillant the next day, getting a lift in a car to Saint-Amand-Montrond and walking the rest. The crow-flying distance is about 20 kilometres (13 miles), but the agent later says it is thirty; along the road it is 26km.

MOUSE is Edmond Courtin, in his early twenties, intelligent and keen. He may, at Douglas Dodds-Parker’s request (16/1/42), have been given training in laying out Lysander landing-fields during the interval between mid-January and this attempt. He is dropped with two W/T sets, one for himself to work for Jacques Detal (GYPSY), the other set for Detal’s wireless-operator Frederic Wampach (VERMILION) who, as we have seen, is a mental wreck; it’s not his set that has gone wrong. Courtin succeeds in contacting Wampach and passes him the second set.

Courtin’s debriefing report in February 1943 gives valuable information about life in the unoccupied zone. Châteauroux is not a healthy place for an agent to be: Germans ‘double’ with the French police, and two Alsatian policemen are most diligent. The police at Châteauroux check the hotel registers at 7 a.m., and they haul in and interrogate anyone who arouses their least suspicion. Courtin is caught two weeks into his mission through just such a check, red-handed with his wireless antenna laid out round his room. Detal and Wampach are arrested the next day. Detal and Courtin escape from Bergerac prison and Courtin makes it back to the UK in February 1943. Though slated for another mission in April 1943, Courtin’s prospective organiser chooses another wireless-operator.

161 Squadron: Operation BERYL 2, BERYL 3

The Anson that F/Lt Murphy flew to Tangmere on the 25th is now used for perhaps the type’s only operation over enemy-occupied territory. Ansons have been used during the Battle of Britain for anti-invasion patrols over the North Sea close to shore, but this is different.

S/Ldr Nesbitt-Dufort’s month-long absence-without-leave in France is about to come to an end. The agent he was to have brought out in January, Maurice Duclos, has been in charge of his hospitality, hidden by the Issoudun railway station-master and his family. The landing has been arranged by Lt Roger Mitchell, BCRA, who is also needed in London for debriefing. In addition, General Kleeburg of the Polish F2 organisation is to be evacuated. Hence the need for a larger aircraft than a Lysander. In any case, the other Lysander pilot is out on another trip this same night, landing not many miles away.

Murphy takes off from Tangmere in Anson R3316 at 21.00, passing over Cabourg an hour later. Murphy takes P/O Cossar as his wireless-operator/air-gunner. They have good visibility until about 40 miles north of Tours, when they encounter heavy rain, thick low cloud. They have difficulty pinpointing on the Loire, which indicates how poor the weather is. At 23.15 they set course for Châteauroux, which they find with difficulty at 23.55 before heading north-east towards Issoudun. (Châteauroux is much easier to find than Issoudun, being much larger, with a radial road-system.) From Issoudun they fly SSEast to a disused aerodrome where Mitchell, Duclos, Nesbitt-Dufort and General Kleeberg are waiting. (The airfield is now used by the Aero-club Issoudun-le-Fay.) The lights laid out by Roger Mitchell are picked up at 00.10. (There is a slight irony here; eight months before, Nesbitt-Dufort had trained Lt Mitchell in laying out Lysander landing-fields.

When Murphy tries to take off, the Anson becomes bogged down in the soft, now-soggy ground. (He does not mention this in his official report.) Nesbitt-Dufort encourages the other passengers to jump up and down in sympathy, to bounce the aircraft out of the soft ground, while Murphy applies full throttle. This rather unconventional approach works.
Nesbitt-Dufort, in his ‘Black Lysander’, writes another account of his month in France and of the air operation. Both he and his friend Sticky Murphy take a light-hearted view of their adventures, but Murphy’s new CO takes a dim view of their mutual levity in official correspondence. Nesbitt-Dufort, now in possession of too much knowledge about the people who looked after him in France, is posted to the Central Landing School at Ringway, where he flies tug and glider combinations, an experience which frightens him more than being on operations. He is then posted to Fighter Command HQ.

161 Squadron: Operation CREME

Flying Officer Guy Lockhart takes off from Tangmere at 20.25 in Lysander V9428. Lockhart has been a fighter pilot. Shot down over France while serving with No. 74 Squadron in July 1941, he evades and returns to the UK in October. Apparently posted to 138 Squadron soon after his return, no record of his serving there exists, though the first page of 161 Squadron’s ORB records that he has been posted from 138 Squadron; he becomes F/Lt Murphy’s other Lysander pilot.

Just under an hour after takeoff Lockhart crosses the French coast at about 9,500 feet, slightly west of Cabourg, but soon loses height to stay under the thickening cloud. He has difficulty finding the landing site; having to stay low would have reduced his range of vision, but once he sees the lights he is down and away within two minutes, having taken aboard two Gaullist agents, Louis Andlauer and Stanislas Mangin. He flies back to the coast at low-ish level, the cloud base between 1,000′ and 3,000′ with patches even lower. He crosses the French coast east of Cherbourg at 1,500 feet and is homed back to Tangmere by R/T once he is over the Channel.

Louis Andlauer writes an account of this pick-up operation from his perspective. It is reproduced in full in Verity’s book. The location of the pick-up is in the small area north of Châteauroux used by SIS for many of its operations; these included its sorties, like this, for Dewavrin’s intelligence- gathering agents; SOE agents were picked up from elsewhere, and at this stage of the war, rarely.

Sources

CANTICLE/DUNCAN, MASTIFF/INCOMPARABLE, PERIWIG 1

138 Squadron ORB
CANTICLE file: TNA HS6/58
MASTIFF personal file: TNA HS9/351/1
INCOMPARABLE operations file: TNA HS6/113
MRD Foot, SOEILC, pp. 270-1, 274-5

MOUSE, VERMILION

138 Squadron ORB
TNA AIR 20/8334, Encl. 132A

161 Squadron: BERYL 2, BERYL 3

John Nesbitt-Dufort, ‘Black Lysander’, pp 133-4

161 Squadron: CREME

Verity, WLBM, pp. 47-48.
TNA AIR 20/84554 Lysander operations reports, 161 Squadron

Saturday, 10 January 1942

This moon-period has not only been started slightly early, it has been extended slightly to include this sortie slightly after the Last Quarter. The long night allows a relatively short-range sortie to the Le Mans area of northern France, in an attempt to complete several outstanding operations. The urgency may explain why an SIS operation (TENTERHOOK) is flown in the same Whitley as two SOE agents (HORNBEAM and DACE). TRIPOD II is a two-container drop.

Operation TENTERHOOK, HORNBEAM, TRIPOD 2, DACE

P/O Smith takes off in Whitley Z9287 (‘K’) at 01.05, in the early hours of 11 January. After overflying Tangmere at 02.14 Smith climbs to 9,000 ft over the Channel. Encountering thick 6-8/10ths cloud en route, he crosses the French coast at Pte de la Percée at 03.00. He reduces height to 2,000 ft., but there is mist up to about 3,000 ft, giving him horizontal visibility of about 800 yards. He reaches the area of the first target, about 40 km south of Le Mans, at about 03.40.

The first target is for SOE agent HORNBEAM. HORNBEAM was originally intended to go in in October-November, and with another agent, MULBERRY, but he is now to be dropped with Sergeant-chef Bourdat (DACE), the wireless-operator intended for Laverdet (DASTARD). There is also a two-container drop called TRIPOD II.

The target is not identified by the 2nd Pilot, who is map-reading. They fly south to the Loire, where they get a fix at 04.00 and map-read back to the target. Both the 2nd Pilot and HORNBEAM positively identify the target but the expected reception committee is not there.

The precise target for TENTERHOOK is described as being about 1.5 miles ((2.4km) south of Vaas, in the centre of a triangle formed by the larger towns of Le Lude, Château-du-Loir, and Château la Vallière. This operation is unusual in that we have precise instructions on the TENTERHOOK target, reception committee, and signals from the ground. More unusual is that these instructions come from A.I.1(c), so TENTERHOOK is an SIS agent. The ground signal is to be a triangle of red torches, with the Morse letter to be signalled from a lamp at the windward end. But P/O Smith says so little about the second target that it is not clear whether he even makes an attempt to find the second target. Some time after their return to Stradishall, three quarters of an hour after Ron Hockey reports it, a signal is sent to the Air Ministry that TENTERHOOK has been unsuccessful.

P/O Smith writes a report for Operation DACE separate from the others. It is not clear why; it would have been understandable for a separate report to be required for TENTERHOOK, but not DACE.

Sources

TENTERHOOK, HORNBEAM, TRIPOD 2, DACE

TNA AIR 20/8334, Encls. 133A (TENTERHOOK, HORNBEAM, TRIPOD 2) & 134A (DACE)

Monday, 5 January 1942

Three operations, possibly four, are planned for this night. All are to Norway, and the targets are distant enough to require the aircraft to set off from the UK’s far north. W/Cdr Farley, CO of 138 Squadron, flies one of the two Whitleys, and Sgt E.E. Jones the other. We have only Farley’s report on his attempt, plus data from Air Transport Forms (ATFs). Sgt Jones either does not write one or it has been lost. Other information comes from SOE and MI5 files and post-war history of the Norwegian resistance.

Operation ANVIL/LARK

According to an Air Transport Form (ATF) from December 1941, ANVIL consists of two agents. The target is given as Lillehammer, and the departure date is an optimistic 4 December. A later ATF, with a ‘delivery date’ of 23/12, identifies ANVIL’s target as ‘E.NE. Lillehammer’, deep in the hinterland of Norway’s southern bulge, near the Swedish border. LARK, on the other hand, is on the coast, south-west of Trondheim and some 180 miles west of ANVIL. They are both some 350 miles further north than CHEESE/FASTING of a few nights before.

The operation is to be flown by W/Cdr Walter Farley from RAF Wick, almost at the north-eastern tip of Scotland. Sgt E.E. Jones is to fly another operation (ANCHOR) to the same area of Norway as ANVIL, possibly to the same drop site, so it is baffling as to why they are not combined, especially as the targets for ANVIL and LARK are so far apart.

The two pilots and their crews attempt to fly to Wick in preparation for the attempt. At 11.12 W/Cdr Farley asks the Ops Room to signal Wick for permission to operate two Whitleys from there tonight. Twenty five minutes later Wick signals back that they can accommodate two Whitleys and their crews. Farley will fly NF-K (Z9158) and Sgt Jones will take NF-A (Z9125), both taking off at 13.30; they plan to reach Wick at 16.30, the route being Peterborough – York – Sterling (sic) – Westerdale – Wick.

They take off about an hour later than planned. Farley (who has swapped into Whitley NF-C) gets as far as Linton-on-Ouse, and plans to operate from there. He takes off at

It is hard to believe, given Britain’s capabilities at the start of 1942, but LARK was intended to prepare the ground for an invasion of Norway about half-way along the west coast, with the aim of bisecting the country and isolating German forces north of Trondheim.

Operation ANCHOR (probably also CROW)

There is no report by Sgt Jones on his operation, to which Farley refers only obliquely in his report. We can, however, trace Jones’s progress through the Stradishall ops log. At 08.35 Stradishall is told that Sgt Jones is to fly a cross-country to Middleton St George at 09.45, but this is cancelled ten minutes later. (This may have been for some technical modifications, postponed.)

Jones takes off three minutes after Farley and somehow gets through to Wick, though briefly he is mis-understood to have landed at Leuchars. He plans to operate from Wick: at 21.10 Wick’s Station-Commander asks Stradishall for clarification about his responsibility for Sgt Jones’s Whitley; F/Lt Hockey signals back that he has full discretion regarding the weather. The operation is cancelled.

At 15.17 the next day there is a favourable Met. forecast for that night (the 6th). Unfortunately, as Jones taxies out he damages a wing and has to abandon. On the 7th, at about midday, Jones is signalled to standby for operations that night and for the 8-9th, and therefore ordered to return to Stradishall at the first opportunity. (It would appear that ANCHOR has been cancelled.) At 15.36 a cypher signal arrives from Wick indicating that Sgt Jones was returning. Actually he takes off at 13.30. Wick later signals that Jones has been ordered to land at Thornaby, but an aircraft that does there, initially reported to be Jones’s, turns out to be a Hudson. By six p.m. there is no news of Jones, and the log shows that everyone fears the worst; at 18.55 the Air Ministry is informed that he is overdue. At 19.30 Group wants to know Jones’s call-sign. At 20.20 a signal comes in that Whitley ‘A’ has force-landed at Prestwick with all its instruments U/S (unserviceable). His passengers have been accommodated and they are all returning tomorrow.

ANCHOR is Torbjorn Gulbrandsen, and CROW is his wireless-operator, Ernst Kirkby Jacobsen. They are eventually inserted by sea on the 24th February 1942. In May 1942 ANCHOR is captured, and after interrogation by the Gestapo he escapes and makes a successful return to the UK. Later, CROW also manages to return to the UK, and it soon becomes clear that ANCHOR has been allowed to escape by the Germans.  The Gestapo gained ANCHOR’s co-operation, at considerable cost to the Norwegian resistance, after the Gestapo threatened Gulbrandsen with action against his family. He spends the rest of the war at STS26.

Sources

Pilots’ Ops reports: TNA AIR 20/8334, Encl. 129A (Another copy of the first page at Encl. 137A.)
Stradishall Log: TNA AIR 14/2529
TNA HS 2/159 & 160 Operation LARK
TNA HS 2/149 Operation ANCHOR
TNA HS 2/152 Operation CROW
TNA KV2/ 829 MI5 file on ANCHOR

Sunday, 28 December 1941

Operation ANTHROPOID was the successful SOE-sponsored Czech resistance operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. Though Heydrich was not in the second rank of the Nazi leadership dominated by Goering, Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler, he was definitely of the third rank. Respected and feared by those above him, Heydrich commissioned the methodical extermination that became the Holocaust. Operation ANTHROPOID is also notorious as the trigger for the Nazis’ revenge: the razing and erasure of the villages of Lidice and Lezacky, their populations liquidated or deported to concentration camps.

Operations ANTHROPOID, SILVER A, SILVER B

In September 1941 Konstantin von Neurath, Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, was replaced by Reinhard Heydrich as Acting Reichsprotector. In 1939 von Neurath had instituted a repressive regime in Czechoslovakia, but by 1941 Hitler regarded him as insufficiently zealous. Heydrich instantly brought a systematic programme of terror, with the wholesale arrest of political and resistance figures, with summary execution in many cases. Almost immediately the Czechoslovak government-in-exile commissioned SOE to mount a coup-de-main operation to assassinate Heydrich, the man they saw as the cause of their country’s misfortune. Cut off the new head, they believed, and the situation might improve. But they mistook von Neurath’s regime to be the pattern for Nazi rule, unaware that Heydrich was Nazism in unalloyed form.

The operation was initially planned for October 1941, an instant response to the terror. Two soldiers were selected from the Czech forces in exile, Karel Svoboda and Jozef Gabcik, but ANTHROPOID had to be postponed following Svoboda’s injury in training; it took several weeks to prepare his replacement, Jan Kubis, and to furnish him with appropriate documents.

The sortie

For the pilot and crew of Operation ANTHROPOID it is an unusual sortie. Operations to eastern Europe are still rare, even in the winter months. The Whitley’s range is constrained by its low cruising speed (and therefore by the hours of darkness over enemy territory), and by its small payload when flown with a full complement of additional fuel-tanks. It’s a moot point whether the RAF would have permitted the operation to go ahead in September or October 1941; in a Whitley it would almost certainly have been a one-way trip.

But now, thanks to General Sikorski’s relentless lobbying for a Polish Air Force Flight equipped with faster, long-range aircraft to make air contact with the Polish homeland at least feasible, 138 Squadron is receiving its first Halifaxes. One operation (RUCTION) has already been carried out with a Polish crew, with mixed results. F/Lt Ron Hockey has undergone Halifax conversion training with a new crew, the training provided at Linton by 35 Squadron, the first operational Halifax squadron for much of 1941. The Canadian pilot Dick Wilkin is Hockey’s 2nd Pilot. ANTHROPOID is to be the first non-Polish Halifax operation. It is to be combined with operations SILVER A (a three-man team) and SILVER B (two agents), both of which have been attempted before but failed.

Stradishall’s runways are too short for a fully-fuelled Halifax, so Hockey flies to Tangmere before taking off from its extra-long runway at about 22.00. The Halifax has a crew of eight (the Halifax’s normal bomber crew of seven, plus a Despatcher), seven agents for the three operations, plus Major Sustr of SOE’s Czech Section as Accompanying Officer: a total of sixteen souls, plus two containers for ANTHROPOID. Hockey’s take-off run is about 1,300-1,400 yards into a 15 mph head-wind. The meticulous Hockey records his take-off weight as 59,800 lbs. He and his crew cross the French coast near Le Crotoy, at the mouth of the Somme estuary. He then sets course for the German town of Darmstadt, possibly because the Rhine has a distinctive configuration south-west of the town.

But the weather is against them. Snowfalls have softened the recognisable features of the land beneath, and despite the good visibility the Rhine is not easily seen. Nevertheless Darmstadt is reached at 00.42 and course is set for the ANTHROPOID pinpoint. As they fly east at about 10,000 feet the snowfalls cover the landscape, making accurate navigation using ground features impossible: ‘the heavy snow . . . blotted out all roads, railways, rivers, and small towns’ — the major types of ground-feature useful to identify a pinpoint. It is bitterly cold at that height: oxygen has to be used to help keep the crew warm and alert. Twice they encounter enemy aircraft, which nevertheless leave them alone. Low cloud increases to 10/10ths, and they lose height gradually from their cruise height of about 10,000 ft. At 02.12 they see flak ahead, and identify its source as Pilsen. According to Freddie Clark, the target area is near Borek aerodrome, south-east of Pilsen and some 80 km south of Prague. (This I have yet to check against the SOE file, currently on loan to Paris.) Instead the agents are dropped blind near the village of Nehvizdhy, some 22 kilometres east of Prague. Hockey may even have flown over the capital, Prague, without realising it.

Hockey than sets course for the SILVER A and SILVER B target. From Hockey’s report it is clear that he is unaware of his location. As he is way off course, it follows that the second and third sets of drops will also be off-target. Moreover, in his report Hockey hints that his orders, at least regarding SILVER A & B, are to drop these teams regardless of whether he can find the precise target: ‘Both the two latter operations were completed under difficult conditions owing to their urgent nature and according to instructions received before take-off.’

Having completed all three operations, Hockey sets course for Darmstadt, but does not see it on the return leg. His account implies that they realise their true position only when fired on over Brussels. They fly over Lille, and cross the French coast near Fécamp at 07.20. As they cross the Channel the cockpit’s overhead hatch flies open, and Dick Wilkin has to hang on to it, probably until they land, to stop it coming adrift and fouling the tailplane controls; Hockey reduces speed to 140 mph. They cross the English coast near Selsey Bill at 08.07, and land back at Tangmere twelve minutes later.

This operation shows that the Special Duties crews, when faced with similar conditions to those faced by the main force bomber crews, fared little better. Their ability to find a pinpoint deep in enemy-occupied Europe depended on pinpoint-to-pinpoint navigation at relatively low level. At 10,000 feet the ground beneath, if it is visible at all, appears very different from the detailed view acvailable at 2,000-4,000 feet; under deep snow, even a city can be rendered almost invisible at that height in poor visibility. By the time Hockey reached Czechoslovakia there was heavy cloud; had he not encountered flak he and his crew might have had little idea of where they were.

Sources

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 128A
Clark, ‘Agents by Moonlight’, pp. 34-38
Logbook, G/Capt. R C Hockey.
‘Assassination; Operation ANTHROPOID, 1941-1942’, by Michal Burian and others, Prague (2002).