This was the RAF’s first attempt to insert an agent from Britain by air into Nazi-occupied Europe.
At the beginning of August 1940 John Coghlan — seen here standing, fourth from the left, in September 1939 — was a Flight Commander with No. 56 Squadron, a Hurricane squadron based at RAF North Weald. Holding the Acting rank of Flight Lieutenant, Coghlan was officially an ‘ace’ with some six victories, and he had just been awarded the DFC. On 2 August he had flown his last patrol, operating from Rochford, and on the 7th he was posted to RAF Ringway. Over the next few days two Lysanders, R2625 and R2626, arrived at Ringway. R2625 had been converted for night flying, with the rear machine gun removed.
According to his logbook Coghlan was no Lysander expert; he had logged only a single half-hour as a Lysander pilot in March 1939. Now he had to learn to fly one operationally, at night, before the Full Moon.
Coghlan was to insert a 37-year-old Belgian, Henri Leenaerts, into Nazi-occupied Belgium. Before the war Leenaerts had been an insurance salesman and swimming instructor with a wife and three children. He had served with the Belgian Air Force in his youth. On May 15th Leenaerts had been recalled, but the German invasion was too swift. He somehow contrived to escape to England. A trained wireless operator, he was recruited by SIS. The Belgian government and the head of the Belgian secret service had not yet reached England, but Anatole Gobeaux had. Gobeaux had served in the First World War espionage organisation ‘La Dame Blanche’. Anticipating a German invasion more accurately than his government, Gobeaux had spent much of the ‘Phoney War’ visiting past members of La Dame Blanche, recruiting from the willing. After the German invasion he had taken the names to London. Leenaerts was to take a wireless set to Momignies, a small town on the border with France. There he was to make contact with one of the names provided by Gobeaux, and instruct this contact in their wireless codes and procedures.
Momignies was a small town close to a railway that led to the Channel ports. It was therefore well-placed for the kind of train-watching espionage activities that had been the hallmark of La Dame Blanche’s success in the Great War. Political and religious divisions in Belgium made a landing on Belgian soil unwise, so Leenaerts was to be landed just over the border in France. The new wireless sets developed for SIS were just light enough for Leenaerts to lug one across fields and over the border into Momignies. Three nights later, on the 20-21st, Leenaerts was to return to the same field, where Coghlan was to return and pick him up. Together they would return to England.
It is possible that Coghlan and Leenaerts made an attempt on the night of 16 August, but there is no published evidence to back this up. They are known to have set off in the late afternoon of 17 August in Lysander P2625, and landed at Manston to refuel. (The standard Lysander carried only 95 gallons of fuel; Manston brought Momignies within range.) At Manston they were spotted by Eric Clayton, a 56 Squadron ground-crew fitter who had looked after Coghlan’s Hurricane at North Weald. Clayton was at Manston repairing one of 56 Squadron’s damaged aircraft, and in the early evening of 17 August he saw Coghlan and an anonymous civilian arrive in a Lysander. He later wrote about the encounter in his memoir, ‘What if the Heavens Fall?’
Nothing is certain after the pair’s take-off from Manston. More than a month later, on 23 September, Flying Officer Coghlan’s body was found washed up on the beach at Wimereux, a few miles north of Boulogne. Coghlan is not mentioned in the Belgian papers that describe Leenaerts’s mission. In their post-war enquiries the Belgian authorities believed Leenaerts had been lost over the North Sea, but knew nothing of the RAF’s involvement.
Manston was a logical departure-point for Coghlan to fly an easterly route crossing the Belgian coast between Dunkirk and Nieuwport, then heading south. Although Coghlan’s body was found south-west of Calais, the Lysander probably came down in the North Sea somewhere north-west of Ostend, cause unknown. Coghlan may have been jumped by a patrol in the moonlight, but he is more likely to have run out of fuel on the return leg, with Leenaerts still aboard. Though the operation was within range, he may have spent valuable time and fuel searching for the target. The fuel margin was not generous, and Coghlan did not have the Lysander experience to wring maximum range or endurance from an aircraft which repaid close acquaintance. Coghlan’s body was found more than a month later, along a heavily-patrolled shoreline. Analysis of currents and tidal flows indicates that Coghlan’s corpse probably drifted back and forth through the Dover Straits on a month of tides before being flung ashore at Wimereux.
Henri Leenaerts had no known end; in his career as an agent, only an unfulfilled beginning. In 1946 he was posthumously recommended for the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm, and for elevation to Chevalier of the Order of Leopold, but it’s not clear whether these awards were ever made. Most of the graves in the Commonwealth section of Boulogne’s Eastern Cemetery are from 1914-18, but in a small section at the far end, dedicated to casualties from the later conflict, lies Flying Officer John Hunter Coghlan, DFC.