Tag Archives: Murphy

Alan ‘Sticky’ Murphy

Wednesday, 7 May 1941


SIS agent Michel COULOMB (aka ‘Lieutenant Cartwright’) has been back in England for nearly four weeks. He is to be parachuted back into France near Limoges, some 80 miles further south from the Chateauroux area from where Gordon Scotter had picked him up in a Lysander.

S/Ldr Knowles, Murphy and their crew follow Bomber Command lanes, flying via Abingdon and Tangmere. The Whitley crosses the French coast near Dives-sur-Mer and heads south, crossing the Loire about ten miles east of Tours. He notes the aerodrome’s flashing beacon, a reliable aid to navigation for both sides. He flies on to Limoges, pinpointing at Le Blanc on the way.

At half past midnight they are over Limoges. In the Non-occupied Zone, Limoges is lit up as though it is peacetime; for the French south of the demarcation line it is, and will remain so for the next 18 months. Knowles and his crew spend ten minutes disposing of their ‘nickels’ over Limoges before heading east to the village of Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat.

The agents are to be dropped near a particular house with its lights on, but though the crew search the area for 35 minutes, they cannot identify it. Knowles’s report states that the agents are dropped together, each with a W/T set, in a group of three fields south east of Saint-Leonard.

The other agent is code-named HERRY, and nothing has been known about him until March 2019, when Pierre Tillet sent me a related file in the French archives. This included a reference to a Pierre Herricher (codenamed HERRY), a 22-year-old wireless operator (French: ‘officier radio’, so possibly commissioned) from Vitry-sur-Seine. He had been a member of the Free French forces, but on 23 December 1940 he was detached to become Coulomb’s wireless operator. According to the file entry, written mostly in English, he ‘never gave satisfaction, became separated from his above-named chiefs’ (i.e.Coulomb) ‘and finally fell into the hands of the French police, 9.12.1942.’ This implies that he was arrested in the ZNO (Zone Non-Occupée), recently invaded by the Germans.

HERRY is still nominally active in March 1942, though who he was active for – if anyone – is anyone’s guess: Coulomb and most of his circuit had been arrested 10 months earlier. On 26 March 1942 F/Lt Davies will drop a parcel to a HERRY reception a short distance west from this original May 1941 drop. (Davies is also dropping to the SOE ADJUDICATE organisation nearby.) The indications are that HERRY operated exclusively in unoccupied France. HERRY may have refused to move to the Occupied Zone – and who can blame him, especially after the arrests in July 1941? – but he would have been of little use to Coulomb’s Paris-based organisation.

RAF Aftermath

Cartwright appears to have been displeased that he hasn’t been dropped in quite the right place. Unable to see anything from inside the rear fuselage, and dependent solely on the Despatcher for information, he may have been unaware of the crew’s long search for the house. Once he’s landed all he knows is that he’s not quite where he’d expected to be, and tells London.

At the start of the next moon period, Air Intelligence write to S/Ldr Knowles, as the Flight’s Commanding Officer, about this operation and the failed MARINE/ALBION operation. Regarding the CARTWRIGHT operation he is on sure ground because he has flown the sortie. He points out that they couldn’t identify the house despite a long search. In the Occupied Zone a house with its lights on would have stood out in the surrounding darkness of a blacked-out countryside, but in the Unoccupied Zone a house with all its lights on is hardly unusual.

Knowles says he has dropped the agents about a mile west of the pinpoint. Unlike many SOE operations we have no access to any original operation or UK-held personnel documents, so it is impossible to verify the original pinpoint. Knowles also pointed out that their lengthy search for the target created an additional hazard:

All this took place at a height of about 1,000 feet, A Whitley makes a considerable noise when low down, and it is quite certain that while the search for the pin point was going on a considerable number of people must have been wakened up.

As to the agents’ “trying experiences” after landing, Knowles points out that he cannot be accountable for what happens to them on the ground afterwards:

I should like to point out that the responsibility of Captains ends when the passengers leave the aircraft. The dropping of these people must always be a chancy business and as it is necessary to carry out these operations from low level it is difficult to see how the element of risk in disturbing the neighbourhood can be avoided. These agents were dropped at the place marked on the attached map, namely about one mile south east of St. Leonard in three fields. It is impossible to give more details than this as this operation took place a month ago and I cannot remember any more about it.

Knowles ends by suggesting the use of powerful flashing lights from the ground in countries with no blackout regulations. This sortie shows that the Flight’s operations at this time are a learning process, by trial-and-error: no textbooks exist, and no-one has done such long-range insertions before. They have to make it up as they go along.


TNA AIR 20 / 8334, enclosures 18A, 19A, 20A

Saturday, 10 May 1941

Operations AUTOGYRO D/E and JOLLY

AUTOGYRO D and E are circuit organiser Pierre de Vomécourt (Lucas) and Louis Lefrou de la Colonge (Bernard), sent by ‘F’ Section; JOLLY is Pierre Julitte, a Gaullist agent sent by Dewavrin.

Sqn Ldr Knowles, with F/Lt Murphy as 2nd pilot and navigator, takes off from Stradishall at 21.24, and takes the standard route to the coast via Abingdon and Tangmere, which they circle an hour later. They climb to 10,000 feet and cross the French coast at Isigny at 23.10. Twenty minutes later the rear gunner, Sgt Burgin, reports an aircraft approaching from the stern. The Me110 opens fire, and Knowles put the Whitley into a weaving dive to 2,000 feet. On the way down Sgt Burgin continuously shoots at the Me110 until it explodes. They resume their course to Tours, which they pass shortly after midnight.

They then head south-east for Chatillon. About 11 km south of the town, and approximately 40 km from both Valençay and Chateauroux, the agents are dropped on the pinpoint, somewhere between the hamlets of Fromenteau and Villiers. Large areas of woodland nearby would have stood out as dark patches in the moonlight. Though Georges Bégué has been cited as being present to receive them, this may be due to a misreading of Bégué’s original report in his personal file (see below).

Knowles then heads for Châteauroux and Le Châtre, passing over Châteauroux at 00.42. They circle Le Châtre for about ten minutes before dropping Pierre Julitte with a wireless set at 01.06, about one mile south of the town. In his operation report, Knowles headlines JOLLY as JOOLLY, which he corrects in the text. This may have been a subconscious mis-typing: Knowles may have met Pierre Julitte as one of Dewavrin’s staff from his time at the Air Ministry. Knowles mentions nothing about reception lights; Julitte is dropped blind.

Knowles and crew retrace their route to Châteauroux, where they drop leaflets before setting a return course via Tours and Isigny. However, they cross the French coast north of Caen, some way east of track. They then head for Tangmere and Stradishall, where they land at 04.44.


The Luftwaffe takes full advantage of the nearly full moon to launch a devastating attack on the West End and many other parts of the capital. London burned. Many years ago I read Richard Collier’s 1959 account of this night: ‘The city that wouldn’t die’. If you can get hold of a copy, read it. This attack was the last, flailing, all-out blow of the Blitz that had started the previous September. Hitler’s attention was now firmly fixed upon the east, on the Soviet Union.


TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 11A
TNA HS9/115/2, Georges Bégué SOE personal file

Monday, 12 May 1941


Despite the mis-spelling, this may be one of the few military operations named after a horse race. The Cesarewitch is a race run at Newmarket as part of the October festival, finishing at the Rowley Mile grandstands. During the next ‘dark’ period 1419 Flight is to be moved to RAF Newmarket Heath, taking over the Rowley Mile Grandstand area and the gallops on its north side, though the race course was left relatively undisturbed. The grass ‘runway’ formed from the northern gallops is over 3,000 yards long, making it useful as an emergency landing ground for damaged bombers.

The operation is to parachute Emile Tromme, an agent recruited from the Belgian Army regiment the ‘Chasseurs Ardennais’. Vielsalm appears to be the intended target for dropping CEZAREWITCH, but the operations goes almost entirely awry. The night is clear, but mist and industrial haze – a significant problem over northern Europe before post-war smoke-control measures – makes it impossible for S/Ldr Knowles to be certain of the target.

After a half-hour search, Knowles returns to the Meuse to try and pick up a pinpoint, but haze and searchlights make this impossible. The crew thinks they are near Namur. They have another go at finding Vielsalm, spending 45 minutes in the search.

Eventually Tromme is asked if he wants to return to England or be dropped in a field. He chooses to be dropped. Knowles estimates that, based on his course after dropping the agent, Tromme appears to have been parachuted about 30 km north of the target, about 7 km south-east of Verviers, into some woodland. Both the target, and the place where he appears to have been dropped, are within the borders of an expanded Germany after its annexation of part of Belgium. As with MARINE/ALBION, it’s a moot point as to whether Tromme’s masters in London are aware of the annexation.

According to Tromme, he is dropped thirty miles to the north-east, near the German town of Düren. He claims to have landed inside a prison-camp from which he appears to find it remarkably easy to escape. It is probably fortunate that finger-trouble on the part of F/Lt Murphy (2nd Pilot acting as ‘container-aimer’) prevents the container from dropping; he had forgotten to switch the bomb-release circuit from ‘Safe’, and by the time he realises his mistake they are long past the spot where they have dropped Tromme.


TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 12A

Wednesday, 11 June 1941


Almost as soon as W/Cdr Knowles’s Whitley leaves the English coast it runs into thick cloud. It is only a few nights after Full Moon, so it is possible to fly at 1,0000 feet under 10/10ths cloud and still see. Enough, it seems, to identify Tours, but as they fly south the weather deteriorates; they are now flying under two thick layers of cloud at 1,200 feet. In the gloom they cannot identify their next pinpoint, somewhere between Chateauroux and Montluçon, so Knowles abandons the operation.

There’s no longer any point in flying low, so they attempt to climb into clear air. Shortly before 03.00 they encounter heavy icing and the port engine cuts. With the other engine running roughly they descend to 4,000 feet, at which the port engine picks up and runs normally. They head back towards England, obtaining a QDM (homing bearing obtained by W/T) from Tangmere. From there they fly back to Newmarket, where they land at about 05.30.

Several sources attest to OUTHAULLE as the operation intended to deliver Pierre Vandermies to the Zéro intelligence group in Belgium, notably Emmanuel Debruyne. The peculiar spelling of the operation comes from Knowles’s report; Knowles is not of a nautical disposition.

Operation FITZROY

F/Lt Jackson and his crew take off at 22.34. (The Ops Officer’s log records 22.45, the difference probably due to Jackson taking his timings from engine-start.) On the first leg to Abingdon they find that the Met. winds are from the opposite direction to the forecast. They climb to 6,500 feet to cross the Channel above thick cloud, but cross the French coast above Le Havre, which has a heavy concentration of searchlights. Flying south, they find Tours at 01.19 but, after finding no improvement in the weather, and knowing a front was approaching, they abandon the operation. The experience of S/Ldr Knowles on OUTHAULLE points to the wisdom of Jackson’s decision.

On the return leg they drop pigeons and leaflets just east of Le Havre, but are held over Newmarket for 48 minutes; Stradishall’s 214 Sqn was operating that night, and several land out at Newmarket. The poor weather has affected bombing operations; the returning bombers take priority.

Operation AUTOGYRO C

The purpose of this operation is to drop two SOE ‘F’ Section agents near Mortaine, in Brittany, to work for the AUTOGYRO circuit. The two agents are Norman Burley and Ernest Bernard.

Sgt Austin and his crew cross the coast near Littlehampton, hoping to make landfall at Isigny. Cloud and rain builds up, so that by the time they are due to reach the French coast it is invisible. On ETA Isigny they change course southwards for Avranches, flying at 6,000 ft. On ETA Avranches they drop to 2,500 ft and set course eastwards for Mortaine. On ETA Mortaine, and still unable to see anything, they start a box search at 3,000 ft. They abandon the attempt and return, dropping pigeons between St Sever and Vire on the way. They land at Newmarket after passing Tangmere and Abingdon.



TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 24A
Debruyne, LGSEB, p. 146


TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 22A


TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 26A

Friday, 13 June 1941

Operation AUTOGYRO

Sgt Austin and his crew make the second attempt to drop SOE ‘F’ Section agents Norman Burley and Ernest Bernard near Mortaine, in Normandy.

This night is near the end of the moon period, with light only during the second part of the night. They took off later, at half past midnight, and two hours later pinpointed at Isigny. They dropped pigeons at St Lô en route for Avranches, and when they reached Avranches they flew west ot the coast to check their position. At this point they were flying at about 3,000 feet, with a layer of cloud beneath them at 1,000 ft. They then headed for the target, but ran into 9/10ths cloud. 6 miles before Mortaine they pinpointed St Osvin through a break in the clouds, and pinpointed again at 4 miles from Mortaine by flying around another cloud-gap. But over Mortaine there were no gaps, and as the top of the cloud layer was 500 feet, 100 ft lower than the safe parachuting height, they abandon the operation, and headed for home.

This night is cited by MRD Foot (in SOE in France, page 163) as the delivery, by Austin, of two parachuted containers to Pierre de Vomécourt’s chateau, ‘Bas Soleil’; as Foot put it, ‘the very first supply drop of warlike stores to be made to France’. His information came from the Stradishall Operations Record Book. At best an incomplete source, this was probably all that was made available to him in the early 1960s about air operations. Austin could not have been in two places at once, and his logbook is clear; his five hours in the air were insufficient for a sortie to Limoges.

Operation Outhaulle

Knowles flies his second attempt to drop Pierre Vandermies near Montluçon. This sortie shows how different the same operation could be when flown under the right weather conditions with good visibility.

Knowles, with Murphy as navigator, take off at 22.23. The route flown is via Abingdon and Tangmere. At 23.25, after an hour’s flying, they set off across the Channel, reaching Cabourg just after midnight and Tours 40 minutes later. They find Châteauroux and Montuçon without difficulty. Near the target area a car is seen on the main road, so Vandermies is dropped about three miles further on. The agent’s parachute is seen to open and he appears to have made a good landing, at 01.33. On the return journey they reach the French coast about three miles west of Cabourg, and cross the English coast at 04.00, landing at Newmarket at 05.13 (05.15 according to the Strad log). There is no mention of heights flown or other data.

It is possible that Knowles dropped the two containers to de Vomécourt, but he is specific about coming home immediately after dropping Vandermies. He mentions no additional task in his report. It would have added at least another 45 minutes to his sortie, assuming perfect navigation, and the time aloft (6hrs 45mins) fits a trip to Montluçon and back. In any case Knowles would not have wished to tarry, given the short nights of June.