Tag Archives: Pickaxe

‘Pickaxe’ operation for SOE on behalf of Soviet NKVD

Wednesday, 8 April 1942

Operation WHISKEY

This is the second attempt to fly this NKVD operation. This time it is the Czech pilot P/O Anderle who attempts the trip in Halifax L9613. This is his first operation flying the four-engined Halifax. Time has run out for this operation to be completed before the ends of the moon period, and there will be no light for the first part of the trip. There is no moon until well into the early hours, but Anderle gets only as far as Mannheim, where he is unable to identify any point, essential for setting course futher east.

Anderle takes off at 20.25 from Tempsford. (The clocks have recently been set to Double Summer Time, so it’s 18.30 GMT.) Course is set for the target, but he encounters thick cloud and icing. He arrives north of Mannheim at 23.15 but cannot identify any feature to act as a pinpoint. Hardly surprising, as the moon won’t rise until 02.58 DST. South of Mannheim he decides to return. He flies over Paris, but realises he has done so only after recognising the castle of La Roche Guyon, on the Seine below Paris. He crosses the French coast at Ailly (just west of Dieppe) at 03.30, and encounters very poor weather over the Channel. He lands at Tangmere at 04.40.

Sources

138 Squadron ORB
US Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department

Saturday, 27 December 1941

Operation CHILBLAIN

This unusual sortie combines a pre-planned precision bombing-attack with parachuting an agent. At Stradishall there appears to be some disquiet over the role of 138 Squadron, when compared with the resident Wellington squadron which operates as part of the strategic bombing campaign. When the SD unit, as 419 Flight, had last been at Stradishall it attracted a little curiosity, but the presence of a squadron equipped with Whitley bombers that did nothing for two weeks in every month, and did no bombing operations during the other two, was going to cause resentment in the Wellington squadron. Wing Commander Wally Farley, 138 Squadron’s new C.O., is in favour of combining light bombing sorties with agent-dropping because they may serve to disguise the squadron’s purpose.

Sgt Jones has flown to Lakenheath to carry out this operation; Stradishall’s runways are fine for a Wellington, but they are too short for a fully-loaded Whitley. Sgt Jones takes off in Whitley Z9825 at 20.40 and heads east. At 21.12 he crosses the Norfolk coast at Happisburgh, flying at 2,000 feet in moderate visibility. About twenty minutes later course is set for the Danish coast; the delay may be due to the wireless-operator attempting to get some decent DF bearings and failing. At 00.06 they cross the Danish coast at 9,400 feet, unable to get a firm pinpoint. At 0037 they pass a pinpoint noted as ‘340 Kiel 30’. (Kiel is only slightly to starboard of a direct line between Happisburgh and the first target.) At 00.52 he alters course for the target and drops to 3,000 feet, then down to 2,000 feet below thin cloud as his navigator map-reads between the islands on the way to the target, the Vordingborg power station, Denmark.

Arriving at the power-station complex at 01.20 Jones attempts a bombing run into the wind at 1,000 feet. He doesn’t drop his bombs on the first run, but does on the second. He misses the target by 150 yards, but optimistically claims that concussion from the bombs, plus aimed fire from the rear gunner, will have damaged the transformers. Course is then set for the second pinpoint. This is recognised at 01.55, so it cannot have been far away, and the two agents (so far unidentified) and a separately-dropped package are dropped from 500 feet. Several canopies are seen, but then the despatcher reports that one of the static lines is missing.

On their return towards the east coast and a blanket of heavy ground fog, the wireless operator realises that he cannot identify any of the beacons because he has been given the wrong list. Smith summons assistance by invoking the emergency landing procedure known as ‘Darkie’: a flare path is lit at RAF oakington, near Cambridge. As if this isn’t enough of a trial, the Whitley starts to suffer from the problem of a too-far aft centre of gravity as the fuel-tanks become empty. As with John Austin at Gibraltar in November, Smith saves the aircraft from stalling by summoning the entire crew and cramming them into the forward part of the fuselage. Even with the combined strength of Smith and his 2nd pilot heaving the control column forward, they have difficulty in preventing the aircraft from stalling. They get down at Oakington with difficulty.

Freddie Clark records that the agents Dr Carl Johan Bruhn and Morgens Hammer are dropped blind, plus a package. Unfortunately the static line left in the aircraft had been attached to Dr Bruhn’s parachute, and he perished.

Unknown operation, abandoned

W/Cdr Farley takes off in Whitley Z6728 at 20.10 with P/O Anderle and a part-Czech crew. Ten minutes later the Whitley displays the symptoms of a cascading electrical systems failure: first the Air Speed Indicator fails, then all the radio systems, then the TR9 R/T system. Without any means of gauging his airspeed – a Whitley is not an aircraft to try flying by the seat of one’s pants – the operation is no longer feasible. They will be lucky to make it down in one piece. Farley (or perhaps it is Anderle in the pilot’s seat) has no means of contacting the control tower to clear the runway. The containers are jettisoned over the airfield, which may serve to alert the control tower, but none of the crew bales out, nor do any of the ‘passengers’ ; even if the Whitley is high enough, as the intercom is not working it’s difficult to warn the crew. As the Whitley is brought in to land the starboard engine is firing on just one magneto; the port engine cuts out altogether. Then they are down, but perhaps not easily stopped: there is ‘nil brake pressure after landing’. The Whitley is blocking the main runway until it can be towed away.

The following day a short report is written by the Navigator, Pilot Officer Buckwell, but he gives no hint about the operation or the target. Whitley Z6728 will next be used for operations on 6 January.

Operation MUSJID, PICKAXE II

This is a controversial operation, and not just because the two PICKAXE agents belong to the NKVD, the Soviet intelligence agency. Considerable pressure at the diplomatic level is brought to ensure that this operation to succeed, and the circumstances of its tragic failure have remained something of a mystery. (PICKAXE I was the woman agent ‘Anna Frolova’, inserted into France by sea.)

As ever, the Stradishall log provides some of the context, and an account by a Major Milnes-Gaskell of SOE, quoted by Bernard O’Connor in his book about the PICKAXE operations, gives valuable detail about the sequence of events that night. Sgt Reimer is due to take off at 18.00, but his Whitley has instrument problems. These put back his take-off time to 20.00. He is further delayed by Farley’s Whitley blocking the main runway, forcing a change of runway for Reimer. Perhaps unfamiliar with the perimiter track to the new runway, he puts a main wheel off and has to be towed out by tractor. By the time he takes off for Belgium it is 21.50.

According to Milnes-Gaskell, the first target is for the cargo drop MUSJID, but by the time they get there, some four hours late, the reception committee has left. The PICKAXE target is near Lac Gileppe, the distinctively-shaped lake used as a pinpoint for SIS agents MARINE and ALBION the previous May. Tonight, snow showers and low cloud obscure the ground, which would already have been rendered indistinct by the lying snow.

The Whitley returns at about 04.00 and:

after a circuit of the aerodrome came in as if to land, but when about 50 feet off the ground the engines opened up and it appeared to be about to make another circuit when it spun into the ground and burst into flames. One of the Pickaxes was pinned underneath the wreckage and no doubt killed instantly, as also a number of the crew.

Stradishall’s fire tender becomes bogged down on the airfield, and another tender has to come from Newmarket; by which time it’s too late. Two of the crew are killed, including the despatcher, Sgt Pickering. The despatcher is responsible for the agents’ safety. If they can’t get out, neither will he. The wireless operator and the rear gunner are thrown clear. (One source says they bale out; if so, they would have been far too low for parachutes to have opened.) Reimer is severely injured.

Some have implied that the crash is due to a German night-fighter, but there is no evidence for this. There are no reports in the Stradishall log of any enemy aircraft in the vicinity. Milnes-Gaskell’s report is consistent with the hazards of approaching too high, too slow, in a fuel-light Whitley with passengers in the rear moving the centre of gravity aft: a classic stall of the C-of-G type that plagued Whitleys when returning from operations. There are four examples during this early period of this type of crash, and two known examples of ‘near misses’ when the pilot has crammed everyone forward to reduce the Whitley’s tail-heaviness.

The PICKAXE agents are NKVD agents Pavel Kouznetsov and Pavel Koubitsky. Koubitsky is killed in the crash. Kouznetsov is identified by MRD Foot when writing about his eventual insertion on 29 November 1942:

‘Sauternes’ fell into German hands in Holland in July 1943, and managed to commit suicide.

Sources

CHILBLAIN

TNA AIR 20/8223 encl. 124A.

Unidentified operation

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 127A
TNA AIR 14/2529

MUSJID, PICKAXE II

Clark, p. 32
O’Connor, Churchill and Stalin’s Secret Agents, p.55.

Wednesday, 24 December 1941

The start of the December-January moon period has been brought forward slightly. Winter weather puts a premium on those nights that are suitable for conducting operations. Flyable
conditions on a fourteen-hour night (of which slightly more than the first six hours will be moonlit) will trump a less-than-brilliant moon.

Operations MUSJID, PERIWIG

The Air Transport Form for this operation says the target for both operations is near Dinant, Belgium, the load six containers + six pigeons. It is therefore not an agent-dropping exercise. The narrative below makes clear that there are two separate operations.

Sgt Reimer, this time with an all-NCO crew, is airborne at 20.00. Course is set for Tangmere, the Whitley crossing the coast at 21.07 and reaching Le Crotoy at 21.44. After crossing the French coast, Reimer drops to 1500 feet but once inland he is confronted by 10/10ths cloud with its base at 1800′.
He heads for the target: on ETA he is over the target area, and circles, but no reception signals are seen. They set course for the second pinpoint in the hope that the weather will clear enough to see the lights of a reception party, but the cloud is still at 10/10ths. He’s probably running out of moonlight, too. Reimer abandons, and course is set for base.

Two packs of leaflets are dropped on the way home, one packet over Beaumont, the other over Cambrai. At 01.05 Reimer’s Whitley arrives over Tangmere, and he lands at Stradishall at 02.36.

Operation PERIWIG, probably PICKAXE II

Sgt Jones takes off in Whitley ‘F’ at 20.33 for Abingdon and Tangmere, flying at 2,000 feet in moderate visibility. At 21.24 (which seems rather a long time later) Jones sees Abingdon beacon and alters course for Tangmere. Twenty five minutes later he pinpoints on Southampton water and at 21.57 a recall signal is received on a 3 Group frequency. (At Stradishall S/Ldr Nesbitt-Dufort records the recall sent at 21.26, and recorded the signal’s acknowledgement.) Sgt Jones returns to Stradishall via Abingdon: he lands at 23.45, just in time for Christmas.

I suspect that Sgt Jones has been delayed for some reason, and takes off rather later than planned. The moon is due to set just after midnight (UK time is GMT+1). Someone at Stradishall may have realised that the moon will set before Jones’s aircraft can reach the target area; hence the recall signal.

At 03.33 the Stradishall log records that 138 Squadron has sent a signal to the Air Ministry:
– Periwig unsuccessful
– Musjid          ”
– Pickaxe         ”

The mention of PICKAXE implies that Sgt Jones has mis-titled his report, and Sgt Reimer’s sortie is correctly titled MUSJID / PERIWIG. (With very few exceptions, pilots and crew have no knowledge of the agents or their missions, and make a deliberate point of not knowing, either.) PERIWIG and MUSJID are Belgian SOE operations; PICKAXE is a highly-secret programme of operations to drop Soviet NKVD agents. It may be a first attempt at the operation flown by Sgt Reimer on the 28th.

Sources

United States Naval Observatory, Astronomical Applications Department, Data Services.

MUSJID, PERIWIG

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 125A
Stradishall Ops Officers’ log.

PERIWIG

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 117A, duplicate at 123A
Stradishall Ops Officers’ log.