Tag Archives: Keast

Frank J.B. Keast

Monday, 10 February 1941

Stradishall

At 1110 Keast informs the Ops Office that Operation SAVANNA is cancelled for today.

At 1315 3 Group agrees that Wing Commander Mulholland should go tonight with 419 Flight. The Flight Commander is to go over to 3 Group at Exning (just outside Newmarket) to explain why he is unable to make up his crews.

The Flight is always operating on a shoestring, with barely two crews for two aircraft. One of the pilots on the Flight’s strength, F/O Ron Hockey, is recovering from ‘exhaustion’ and is still non-operational. Jack Oettle is with the other Whitley and its crew at Dishforth, waiting to operate. Keast has to scrounge a Second Pilot in order to carry out an operation tonight.

Wing Commander Mulholland, DFC, has recently completed a tour with 115 Squadron at Marham, another 3 Group Wellington squadron. A 32-year-old Australian who flew with Imperial Airways before the war, Mulholland was recently awarded the DFC for a raid in January, in which he made repeated runs over the Kiel Canal in the face of heavy flak before dropping his bombs. He has been given command of 3 Group’s Training Flight.

At 1357 F/Lt Keast informs the Ops Office that a Whitley is going up to drop containers in 10 mins time.

At 1510 Dishforth calls to ask if a/c can operate tomorrow. Presumably this means Jack Oettle. Dishforth is given the OK for the 11th only: Keast is informed.

Saturday, 1 February 1941

Stradishall – Ringway

F/Lt Keast flies with seven crew to Ringway in Whitley T4264. They stay for the next three days, almost certainly undergoing Ringway’s formal training course in dropping paratroops. This includes dropping a stick of several paratroops, a process unfamiliar to those used to dropping single agents. (In June, Sgt John Austin takes his crew on the Ringway pilots’ course, and records the flying syllabus in his logbook.)

Ringway is only just recovering from the daunting preparations for Operation Colossus, a planned attack on the Tragino viaduct in Apulia, south-east Italy. The purpose is to deny the arid province its supply of water, supplied by aqueduct from the mountains of the wetter west coast. The preparations have involved training the paratroops of ‘X’ Commando and eight selected bomber crews from Nos 51 and 78 Squadrons, and modifying their Whitley bombers for paratroop operations. Preparations have been intense, as the attack has to take place at the next full moon. The operation is to be mounted from Malta.

Operation Savanna

The reason for Keast and his crew to undertake this training becomes clear from a letter written the same day by Sir Charles Portal, The Chief of the Air Staff, to Sir Gladwyn Jebb, Hugh Dalton’s Assistant Under-Secretary. Portal’s subject is a plan to assassinate the aircrews of KG 100, the Luftwaffe’s forerunners to the RAF’s Pathfinders, as a means to stymie the Luftwaffe’s ability to devastate city targets through cloud by means of radio beams. In mid-November 1940 this unit marked the targets in Coventry; their accuracy ensured the city-centre’s destruction.

The plan is for a small team of agents to be dropped near the Luftwaffe base at Meucon, in southern Brittany. The pilots have been reported as using a bus to carry them to their billets in the nearby town of Vannes. The plan is to ambush the bus and kill the highly-skilled aircrew inside.

Though he must have sanctioned the raid, Air Marshal Portal is unhappy about the use of his aircraft and crews for an operation that does not comply with the rules of war:

I think that the dropping of men dressed in civilian clothes for the purpose of attempting to kill members of the opposing forces is not an operation with which the Royal Air Force should be associated. I think you will agree that there is a vast difference, in ethics, between the time-honoured operation of dropping of a spy from the air and this entirely new scheme for dropping what one can only call assassins.

In 1916 Portal had served with No. 60 Squadron, RFC. At that time the squadron was involved in some of the early agent-landing operations.

Portal also makes his opinions clear to Gubbins in a meeting at about the same time. Soldiers in uniform are allowed to kill enemy forces in uniform, but soldiers in civilian clothes are not. Gubbins points out that there is not room in the containers for uniforms to enable the agents to change into uniform, and in any case the agents (referred to as ‘operators’) might refuse to go on these terms. As the ‘assassins’ are on loan from De Gaulle, they know that their Free French uniforms will merely ensure their capture and execution. As Frenchmen in civilian clothes they might at least stand a chance of melting into the background.

Tuesday, 28 January 1941

Royal visit to RAF Stradishall

The King and Queen visit RAF Stradishall. Part of the visit’s purpose is to award decorations. One of the recipients of a DFC is to be Sqn Ldr Douglas Bader, who has already earned a DSO for his leadership during the Battle of Britain. A principal organiser of the visit is the King’s pilot and equerry, Wing Commander E.H. Fielden, MVO: in two years’ time ‘Mouse’ Fielden will start to play his leading part in clandestine operations, initially as No. 161 Squadron’s first Commanding Officer, and later as Tempsford’s Station Commander.

The Royal party is scheduled to arrive at midday. The Royal Party is first scheduled to visit Station HQ and the Ops Room. There the King will meet, among others, F/Lt Keast as OC 419 Flight. The King is to be told about the Flight’s activities, and Keast is also instructed to ‘describe Farley’s show’; presumably his unplanned trip to Oban. F/O Jack Oettle is to be awarded the DFC for his earlier bombing operations with No. 51 Squadron.

After an informal lunch there is a parade at 1400 in 419 Flight’s hangar, but with representative personnel from all units based at Stradishall. At 1445 the Royal party is to leave the Station:

‘Road and gateway to be lined with those available, including Army. Spontaneous cheers.’