Tag Archives: Keast

Frank J.B. Keast

Monday, 17 February 1941

Stradishall – Namur

Shortly before 6 p.m. Keast tells Ops that he is planning to take off at 0030; this will only be confirmed after he receives the weather forecast at 10.30. At 2346 he confirms that the operation is ‘on’. He plans to take off at 0100, and estimates his return for 0500, though with a possible diversion to Tangmere.

Keast and his crew takes off in Whitley ‘A’ (T4264) at 0115. F/O McMurdie is the 2nd Pilot, but Keast does his own navigation. The wireless-operator and Rear Gunner are Sgt Dai Davies and David Bernard; Bernard has acquired an experimental parachute-harness from Henlow. Also aboard, flying as ‘Front Gunner’ is F/O Baker, a Lysander pilot on loan from No. II(AC) Squadron. As on his previous sorties, his job is to learn the routes and pinpoints, as he may have to fly this way on his own.

Shortly after they drop the agent, Gaston Poplimon, near Namur, their Whitley is hit by flak, losing at least one engine. Still at low level, Keast has no option but to belly-land in a field by the Namur-Louvain road, near the hamlet of Cognolée. The aircraft lands so close to the road that the wings are only yards from the line of trees by the road-edge. Though unhurt, they cannot escape as they are too close to the village and the road. They are taken to Namur for interrogation. The Germans think Sgt Bernard is the agent due to his unconventional parachute-harness; he is given dental work he doesn’t need. The Germans find documents in the Whitley that link the crew with the trip to Poland two nights before.

At 0445 Knowles is told that the runway had been bombed, and that the returning aircraft would be diverted to Mildenhall. An hour later he is told that there has been no news of S/Ldr Keast.

Saturday, 15 February 1941

At 0853 S/Ldr Knowles tells Ops that at 0930 he is to take off for Linton-on-Ouse & will return immediately.

At 0920 Operation SAVANNA is cancelled for tonight. At 1440 Keast reports that 419 Flight is operating tonight. At 1820 sortie information is passed to 3 Group. (From this and similar entries on other nights it would appear that SAVANNA has priority over all other SD operations; only after SAVANNA’s cancellation are other operations given the go-ahead.)

Operation ADOLPHUS – Poland

This operation, planned for the previous December but postponed because the Flight’s aircraft had not been equipped with long-range tanks, is given the green light. The purpose of the operation is to drop three Polish agents and their equipment into the Cracow area of Poland. A suitably-prepared Whitley, Z6473, has arrived on the 10th. In addition to the Whitley’s normal complement of fuel tanks in the wings and behind the cockpit, it carries six removable 66-gallon (300 litre) petrol tanks in addition to the normal tanks. These tanks are installed in pairs: two in the bomb-bay, and two pairs in the forward section of the rear fuselage.

The agents have to contend with a novel method of exit, from the narrow crew-door in the rear of the fuselage. Like all other agents and paratroops, they have been trained at Ringway to drop through ‘the hole’, a 3.5-foot circular hatch cut in the fuselage floor where the Whitley’s ventral turret used to be. In the COLOSSUS raid only two tanks were carried in the rear fuselage, which had allowed the ventral hatch to be used. But four tanks (plus the two in the bomb-bay) are necessary for Keast to make it to Poland and back. The rear fuselage door has been adapted to open inwards, and the agents have to crouch in the doorway and be ‘assisted’ through the narrow aperture by a strategically-positioned Despatcher’s boot in each agent’s back. The agents have to open their parachutes manually to ensure that their exit doesn’t foul the tailplane. The agents have been mystified about this change to their procedure but, proud of their role as the vanguard of the Free Polish Army, they just get on with it.

F/Lt Keast takes off in Whitley Z6473 at 1837, soon after sunset (GMT+1). At 2130 S/Ldr Knowles briefs the Ops Office that it is to be brought back to Stradishall if the weather allows; he is to be woken when the aircraft is approaching the English coast; if it is diverted he wishes to know where. Stradishall Flight Control is informed and asked to ring the Officers’ Mess when the aircraft is known to be approaching the coast. This is an immensely important operation politically, and Knowles will want to debrief the pilot as soon as he lands.

Keast has to fly above 10,000 feet to maximise the Whitley’s range. In February the rear fuselage is very cold indeed. A Polish account claims that Keast turned the heating off to prevent the fuselage tanks from heating up. This must have been Keast’s joke: the Whitley’s heating system – such as it is – is focused on the main cockpit. Trunking runs through the fuselage to the rear turret, but in such conditions and at that height (still low for a bomber) it is largely ineffective. When used as a bomber — it wasn’t designed to be anything else — in flight, the rear fuselage of the Whitley is unoccupied except for dropping leaflets and flares, so there is no heating; the rear gunner is sealed in, with his own ineffective warm-air supply. Keast’s route takes them over Berlin, which the Whitley’s wireless operator, Sgt David Bernard, later remembers as lit up beneath them like a giant star.

Keast flies as far as he dare before dropping the three agents and their containers, but the Polish government later claims that Keast has dropped them short, in Germany. Up to a point this is true: the agents have been dropped over a region of Poland annexed by Nazi Germany after their invasion in 1939; now it is part of Germany itself (the Reichsgau Wartheland, to be exact) as distinct from the ‘General Government’. It is possible that Keast and his crew (and their masters in London) are unaware of these fine distinctions, which prove so important to the agents.

At 02.55 a message from 3 Group asks for the Control Officer to be informed as soon as the Whitley asks for a D/F bearing. At 03.16 Group asks if the Whitley has been fitted with IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). It hasn’t, so they have to wait until Sgt Bernard makes contact. At ten to six Stradishall receives a report that a Ju88 has landed at RAF Bassingbourne, 25 miles away, and the crew captured. Three minutes later Keast’s Whitley lands at Stradishall after 11 hours 16 minutes in the air.

The operation is a great morale-booster for the Poles in England, but unfortunately its success raises Polish expectations of the RAF’s capabilities. The Poles assume it can easily be repeated; in reality it is an exceptional feat in a slow aircraft that can only fly such operations in the winter when the nights are long enough for the aircraft to return to the North Sea before daylight.

Friday, 14 February 1941


At 0250 Keast phones Stradishall to confirm that he has completed the operation. Sqn Ldr Knowles is to phone Tangmere if Keast is needed for operations tonight. At 0918 F/L Keast is phoned and asked to return to Stradishall. F/Lt Keast flies T4264 to Hendon, and from there to Stradishall.

RAF Sumburgh

At 0615 Stradishall receives a signal from Sumburgh that F/Lt Oettle’s operation to Norway has been completed.

Operation SAVANNA

At 0925 2 Group calls to ask whether Operation SAVANNA is on; S/Ldr Knowles tells the Earl of Bandon that the operation is ‘off’ for tonight.

Thursday, 13 February 1941

Stradishall – Dordogne

F/Lt Keast flies an operation to France. Keast writes a summary of operations since October, in which he records this trip’s target as a successful sortie to Fontainebleau, but as Philip Schneidau will not be dropped until March, this is erroneous.

The operation appears instead to be the drop of BCRA agent Maurice Duclos (‘Saint-Jacques’), with a wireless operator. The target is near the village of Saint-Cirq, 6 kilometres west of Bugue, in the Dordogne. Duclos’s wireless operator is John McLennan, the nom-de-guerre of John Mulleman. Duclos lands awkwardly, breaking his right leg, and he is arrested almost immediately by the French authorities.

Keast takes off in Whitley T4264 at about 1830, and lands at Tangmere at 0158, about 7.5 hours, Although his logbook records the flight duration as 5 hours 30 minutes, this is way too short for a trip to the Dordogne; the independent Stradishall times are about right.


Jack Oettle flies an 11-hour operation in Whitley P5029 to Norway, where he drops the SIS agent Sverre Midtskau*. (Mark Seaman confirms the agent and the date as 13-14 February.) He lands at Sumburgh in the Shetlands, but the Whitley sustains damage to the tail when landing. Oettle, his crew and aircraft are therefore stranded, and are unavailable for operations in the immediate future.


*Mark Seaman: ‘Special Duties operations in Norway’, article No. 18 in ‘Britain and Norway in the Second World War’, ed. Patrick Salmon (HMSO), p. 170.
Seaman’s principal sources are:

  1. TNA AIR 20/8224, and
  2. the Air Historical Branch summary ‘Special Duties Operations in Europe’, in TNA AIR 41/84

TNA AIR 14/2527 Stradishall Ops Officer’s log

Monday, 10 February 1941

Operation SAVANNA is cancelled at 1110, and at 1315 3 Group agrees to allow W/Cdr Mulholland to fly tonight with 419 Flight.

At 1315 F/Lt Keast warns the Ops Office that a Whitley is going up to drop containers in ten minutes.
Stradishall has asked Dishforth if P5029 can operate from there tomorrow (11th). Dishforth answers: OK for the 11th only.


According to the Ken Merrick’s record from the Stradishall Watch Office, Whitley T4264 takes off at 2105 and returns at 0156. There is no other record of this sortie, or of the target. The pilot is F/O Oettle.

Stradishall – Fontainebleau

F/Lt Keast, with W/Cdr Mulholland as Second Pilot, takes off in P5029 at 00.40 (i.e. in the early hours of the 11th) and his route is to Caen via Abingdon and Selsey Bill. The weather is clear, but as they approach the French coast at 10,000 ft they can see cloud forming ahead. From there they fly on ETA towards Chartres. Approaching the city they descend through cloud, which extends from 6,000 ft down to 2,000 ft, and they are engaged by light flak and picked up by searchlights while they try to confirm their position. They then set course for Fontainebleau; on the way they are picked up by another searchlight at Etampes. Visibility deteriorates over the forest surrounding Fontainebleau. The cloud comes right down to the ground in places, and map-reading is impossible. They search the area for about 30 minutes before abandoning the operation. They set course for Stradishall, landing at 0645.