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.
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