This unusual sortie combines a pre-planned precision bombing-attack with parachuting an agent. At Stradishall there appears to be some disquiet over the role of 138 Squadron, when compared with the resident Wellington squadron which operates as part of the strategic bombing campaign. When the SD unit, as 419 Flight, had last been at Stradishall it attracted a little curiosity, but the presence of a squadron equipped with Whitley bombers that did nothing for two weeks in every month, and did no bombing operations during the other two, was going to cause resentment in the Wellington squadron. Wing Commander Wally Farley, 138 Squadron’s new C.O., is in favour of combining light bombing sorties with agent-dropping because they may serve to disguise the squadron’s purpose.
Sgt Jones has flown to Lakenheath to carry out this operation; Stradishall’s runways are fine for a Wellington, but they are too short for a fully-loaded Whitley. Sgt Jones takes off in Whitley Z9825 at 20.40 and heads east. At 21.12 he crosses the Norfolk coast at Happisburgh, flying at 2,000 feet in moderate visibility. About twenty minutes later course is set for the Danish coast; the delay may be due to the wireless-operator attempting to get some decent DF bearings and failing. At 00.06 they cross the Danish coast at 9,400 feet, unable to get a firm pinpoint. At 0037 they pass a pinpoint noted as ‘340 Kiel 30’. (Kiel is only slightly to starboard of a direct line between Happisburgh and the first target.) At 00.52 he alters course for the target and drops to 3,000 feet, then down to 2,000 feet below thin cloud as his navigator map-reads between the islands on the way to the target, the Vordingborg power station, Denmark.
Arriving at the power-station complex at 01.20 Jones attempts a bombing run into the wind at 1,000 feet. He doesn’t drop his bombs on the first run, but does on the second. He misses the target by 150 yards, but optimistically claims that concussion from the bombs, plus aimed fire from the rear gunner, will have damaged the transformers. Course is then set for the second pinpoint. This is recognised at 01.55, so it cannot have been far away, and the two agents (so far unidentified) and a separately-dropped package are dropped from 500 feet. Several canopies are seen, but then the despatcher reports that one of the static lines is missing.
On their return towards the east coast and a blanket of heavy ground fog, the wireless operator realises that he cannot identify any of the beacons because he has been given the wrong list. Smith summons assistance by invoking the emergency landing procedure known as ‘Darkie’: a flare path is lit at RAF oakington, near Cambridge. As if this isn’t enough of a trial, the Whitley starts to suffer from the problem of a too-far aft centre of gravity as the fuel-tanks become empty. As with John Austin at Gibraltar in November, Smith saves the aircraft from stalling by summoning the entire crew and cramming them into the forward part of the fuselage. Even with the combined strength of Smith and his 2nd pilot heaving the control column forward, they have difficulty in preventing the aircraft from stalling. They get down at Oakington with difficulty.
Freddie Clark records that the agents Dr Carl Johan Bruhn and Morgens Hammer are dropped blind, plus a package. Unfortunately the static line left in the aircraft had been attached to Dr Bruhn’s parachute, and he perished.
Unknown operation, abandoned
W/Cdr Farley takes off in Whitley Z6728 at 20.10 with P/O Anderle and a part-Czech crew. Ten minutes later the Whitley displays the symptoms of a cascading electrical systems failure: first the Air Speed Indicator fails, then all the radio systems, then the TR9 R/T system. Without any means of gauging his airspeed – a Whitley is not an aircraft to try flying by the seat of one’s pants – the operation is no longer feasible. They will be lucky to make it down in one piece. Farley (or perhaps it is Anderle in the pilot’s seat) has no means of contacting the control tower to clear the runway. The containers are jettisoned over the airfield, which may serve to alert the control tower, but none of the crew bales out, nor do any of the ‘passengers’ ; even if the Whitley is high enough, as the intercom is not working it’s difficult to warn the crew. As the Whitley is brought in to land the starboard engine is firing on just one magneto; the port engine cuts out altogether. Then they are down, but perhaps not easily stopped: there is ‘nil brake pressure after landing’. The Whitley is blocking the main runway until it can be towed away.
The following day a short report is written by the Navigator, Pilot Officer Buckwell, but he gives no hint about the operation or the target. Whitley Z6728 will next be used for operations on 6 January.
Operation MUSJID, PICKAXE II
This is a controversial operation, and not just because the two PICKAXE agents belong to the NKVD, the Soviet intelligence agency. Considerable pressure at the diplomatic level is brought to ensure that this operation to succeed, and the circumstances of its tragic failure have remained something of a mystery. (PICKAXE I was the woman agent ‘Anna Frolova’, inserted into France by sea.)
As ever, the Stradishall log provides some of the context, and an account by a Major Milnes-Gaskell of SOE, quoted by Bernard O’Connor in his book about the PICKAXE operations, gives valuable detail about the sequence of events that night. Sgt Reimer is due to take off at 18.00, but his Whitley has instrument problems. These put back his take-off time to 20.00. He is further delayed by Farley’s Whitley blocking the main runway, forcing a change of runway for Reimer. Perhaps unfamiliar with the perimiter track to the new runway, he puts a main wheel off and has to be towed out by tractor. By the time he takes off for Belgium it is 21.50.
According to Milnes-Gaskell, the first target is for the cargo drop MUSJID, but by the time they get there, some four hours late, the reception committee has left. The PICKAXE target is near Lac Gileppe, the distinctively-shaped lake used as a pinpoint for SIS agents MARINE and ALBION the previous May. Tonight, snow showers and low cloud obscure the ground, which would already have been rendered indistinct by the lying snow.
The Whitley returns at about 04.00 and:
after a circuit of the aerodrome came in as if to land, but when about 50 feet off the ground the engines opened up and it appeared to be about to make another circuit when it spun into the ground and burst into flames. One of the Pickaxes was pinned underneath the wreckage and no doubt killed instantly, as also a number of the crew.
Stradishall’s fire tender becomes bogged down on the airfield, and another tender has to come from Newmarket; by which time it’s too late. Two of the crew are killed, including the despatcher, Sgt Pickering. The despatcher is responsible for the agents’ safety. If they can’t get out, neither will he. The wireless operator and the rear gunner are thrown clear. (One source says they bale out; if so, they would have been far too low for parachutes to have opened.) Reimer is severely injured.
Some have implied that the crash is due to a German night-fighter, but there is no evidence for this. There are no reports in the Stradishall log of any enemy aircraft in the vicinity. Milnes-Gaskell’s report is consistent with the hazards of approaching too high, too slow, in a fuel-light Whitley with passengers in the rear moving the centre of gravity aft: a classic stall of the C-of-G type that plagued Whitleys when returning from operations. There are four examples during this early period of this type of crash, and two known examples of ‘near misses’ when the pilot has crammed everyone forward to reduce the Whitley’s tail-heaviness.
The PICKAXE agents are NKVD agents Pavel Kouznetsov and Pavel Koubitsky. Koubitsky is killed in the crash. Kouznetsov is identified by MRD Foot when writing about his eventual insertion on 29 November 1942:
‘Sauternes’ fell into German hands in Holland in July 1943, and managed to commit suicide.
TNA AIR 20/8223 encl. 124A.
TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 127A
TNA AIR 14/2529
MUSJID, PICKAXE II
Clark, p. 32
O’Connor, Churchill and Stalin’s Secret Agents, p.55.