Tag Archives: Poland

Intelligence organisation of Poland’s government-in-exile

Thursday, 19 December 1940

The Air Ministry, London

The Flight Commander of No. 419 Flight is informed in London that the Flight will be asked to fly an operation on the following night, and is assured that the target is within the agreed operating radius of 750 miles.

Saturday, 15 February 1941

At 0853 S/Ldr Knowles tells Ops that at 0930 he is to take off for Linton-on-Ouse & will return immediately.

At 0920 Operation SAVANNA is cancelled for tonight. At 1440 Keast reports that 419 Flight is operating tonight. At 1820 sortie information is passed to 3 Group. (From this and similar entries on other nights it would appear that SAVANNA has priority over all other SD operations; only after SAVANNA’s cancellation are other operations given the go-ahead.)

Operation ADOLPHUS – Poland

This operation, planned for the previous December but postponed because the Flight’s aircraft had not been equipped with long-range tanks, is given the green light. The purpose of the operation is to drop three Polish agents and their equipment into the Cracow area of Poland. A suitably-prepared Whitley, Z6473, has arrived on the 10th. In addition to the Whitley’s normal complement of fuel tanks in the wings and behind the cockpit, it carries six removable 66-gallon (300 litre) petrol tanks in addition to the normal tanks. These tanks are installed in pairs: two in the bomb-bay, and two pairs in the forward section of the rear fuselage.

The agents have to contend with a novel method of exit, from the narrow crew-door in the rear of the fuselage. Like all other agents and paratroops, they have been trained at Ringway to drop through ‘the hole’, a 3.5-foot circular hatch cut in the fuselage floor where the Whitley’s ventral turret used to be. In the COLOSSUS raid only two tanks were carried in the rear fuselage, which had allowed the ventral hatch to be used. But four tanks (plus the two in the bomb-bay) are necessary for Keast to make it to Poland and back. The rear fuselage door has been adapted to open inwards, and the agents have to crouch in the doorway and be ‘assisted’ through the narrow aperture by a strategically-positioned Despatcher’s boot in each agent’s back. The agents have to open their parachutes manually to ensure that their exit doesn’t foul the tailplane. The agents have been mystified about this change to their procedure but, proud of their role as the vanguard of the Free Polish Army, they just get on with it.

F/Lt Keast takes off in Whitley Z6473 at 1837, soon after sunset (GMT+1). At 2130 S/Ldr Knowles briefs the Ops Office that it is to be brought back to Stradishall if the weather allows; he is to be woken when the aircraft is approaching the English coast; if it is diverted he wishes to know where. Stradishall Flight Control is informed and asked to ring the Officers’ Mess when the aircraft is known to be approaching the coast. This is an immensely important operation politically, and Knowles will want to debrief the pilot as soon as he lands.

Keast has to fly above 10,000 feet to maximise the Whitley’s range. In February the rear fuselage is very cold indeed. A Polish account claims that Keast turned the heating off to prevent the fuselage tanks from heating up. This must have been Keast’s joke: the Whitley’s heating system – such as it is – is focused on the main cockpit. Trunking runs through the fuselage to the rear turret, but in such conditions and at that height (still low for a bomber) it is largely ineffective. When used as a bomber — it wasn’t designed to be anything else — in flight, the rear fuselage of the Whitley is unoccupied except for dropping leaflets and flares, so there is no heating; the rear gunner is sealed in, with his own ineffective warm-air supply. Keast’s route takes them over Berlin, which the Whitley’s wireless operator, Sgt David Bernard, later remembers as lit up beneath them like a giant star.

Keast flies as far as he dare before dropping the three agents and their containers, but the Polish government later claims that Keast has dropped them short, in Germany. Up to a point this is true: the agents have been dropped over a region of Poland annexed by Nazi Germany after their invasion in 1939; now it is part of Germany itself (the Reichsgau Wartheland, to be exact) as distinct from the ‘General Government’. It is possible that Keast and his crew (and their masters in London) are unaware of these fine distinctions, which prove so important to the agents.

At 02.55 a message from 3 Group asks for the Control Officer to be informed as soon as the Whitley asks for a D/F bearing. At 03.16 Group asks if the Whitley has been fitted with IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). It hasn’t, so they have to wait until Sgt Bernard makes contact. At ten to six Stradishall receives a report that a Ju88 has landed at RAF Bassingbourne, 25 miles away, and the crew captured. Three minutes later Keast’s Whitley lands at Stradishall after 11 hours 16 minutes in the air.

The operation is a great morale-booster for the Poles in England, but unfortunately its success raises Polish expectations of the RAF’s capabilities. The Poles assume it can easily be repeated; in reality it is an exceptional feat in a slow aircraft that can only fly such operations in the winter when the nights are long enough for the aircraft to return to the North Sea before daylight.

Thursday, 10 April 1941


The Pessac power station supplies electrical power to the Bordeaux area, which hosts a submarine base built for the Italian Navy known as ‘BETASOM’, from which its submarines will account for more than half a million tons of Allied shipping. Damaging the power station would cripple both base and local industry: the Bloch aircraft company and Ford France have factories in the area. Bomber Command has attacked Bordeaux several times in 1940 and 1941. The local airfield at Merignac, home to Condor long-range bombers that another menace to the Atlantic convoys, would also be disrupted.

Six Polish Army saboteurs are selected for the operation. Though they might seem an odd choice, a considerable portion of the Polish Army had escaped to France during the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939-40, and during the collapse General Sikorski had established his headquarters at Libourne, 25 km to the east. The presence of Poles in that part of France is therefore not uncommon, even after the armistice, and many soldiers who have escaped to England with Sikorski know their way around the area. Explosives expertise cannot be acquired quickly, and at the time the Free French Forces do not have such experts to hand.

The Whitley, T4165, is one of the pair from the Tragino Aqueduct raid, Operation COLOSSUS. These aircraft had been prepared in haste for COLOSSUS at Ringway, and on that raid there had been several container hang-ups over the target; one, crucially, had held many of the explosive charges. On this night, however, the problem isn’t a hang-up but a falling-off: en route to the target, shortly before midnight, an electrical fault releases one of the containers. Without the limpet-mines it carries there is no point in continuing with the operation, and Oettle returns to Tangmere.

By the time the Whitley arrives over Tangmere at about 03.30 much of its fuel has been used up. On take-off the heavy fuel load has masked the effect of the saboteurs’ weight on the Whitley’s centre-of-gravity (C-of-G). Now that most of the fuel had been used up, the C-of-G has moved dangerously aft.

As the Whitley approaches the runway Oettle is too high, too slow. Even if he elects to go around this is a dangerous procedure in a Whitley: the Merlin X engines are underpowered and cannot be wound up quickly. Also, in the final stages of a normal landing there is little elevator control, for the tailplane falls into the turbulent wash behind the wings. The Whitley stalls, and crashes heavily.

Of F/Lt Oettle’s crew, Sergeants Cowan (Observer) and Morris (Rear Gunner) are killed. Jack Oettle is seriously injured, as are P/O Wilson (2nd Pilot) and Sgt Briscoe (Wireless Operator). The agents escape serious injury: the rear fuselage is an inherently safer place to be than the cockpit area, but their escape may also be due to the cushioning effect of their swaddling parachute gear, the sorbo-rubber floor-mats, and stacks of bundled propaganda leaflets. Stradishall does not list P/O Molesworth among the injured; he is probably the Despatcher, back in the rear fuselage with the Poles. Although most despatchers are airmen volunteers from the ground trades, it is not uncommon for an officer from Ringway to perform this role.

Tangmere is a busy Fighter airfield, and there are many witnesses to the accident. The several personnel seen emerging from the rear fuselage are bound to arouse comment. One of the witnesses is Jimmy McCairns, a fighter pilot at Tangmere, later a noted Lysander pilot with 161 Squadron: the fiction put out is that the six agents are newspaper correspondents returning from covering a raid. Thin cover, given the eastern-European accents of the ‘newspapermen’, but it has to do.

Wednesday, 9 July 1941

Operation AUTOGYRO C

The next attempt was made by Austin and his crew in the July moon period, directly after two harrowing nights over Belgium, but this time they were blessed with good visibility, and both AUTOGYRO agents were seen to land successfully. Austin dropped pigeons over St Lô but ran into poor visibility after making landfall at Littlehampton. They landed back at Newmarket at 4.30.


MRD Foot later writes that Count Dzieřgowski, an agent for the Polish Intelligence service based in Unoccupied France, ‘had such bad luck getting away from England that he had put in twenty-eight hours’ flying over occupied territory before he managed to drop, blind in south-west France, on 2/3 September.’ Actually it was more than that, for I have tied another sortie, flown by W/Cdr Knowles to Limoges on 6 August, to ADJUDICATE. It would be nit-picking to point out that only a few of those hours were spent over Nazi-occupied France, but a recalculation of his 35 hours 37 minutes airborne was spread over five separate sorties, with almost two months between the first attempt and the one that will drop him.

Hockey takes along as his second pilot his Russian friend from 24 Squadron, F/Lt Boris Romanoff, who had spent the previous year on the staff of the Parachute Training Squadron at RAF Ringway. F/Lt John Nesbitt-Dufort flies as Navigator, gaining yet more operational experience as preparation for Lysander operations – as though the previous nights with Sgt Austin weren’t enough. There are two Despatchers on this trip: AC Walsh is probably under training ‘on the job’. (There is no formal aircrew trade for the role, which is usually carried out by ground-crew volunteers.)

Take off is at 22.20, and Hockey flies a more easterly route to the coast than normal, via Reading and Littlehampton; a bit close to the London defence rea which the normal Bomber Command route (via Abingdon and Beachy Head) avoids. They make landfall over Merville at 6,000 feet, and set course for Tours, dropping their pigeons en route in a fourteen-mile ‘stick’. They cross the Loire about 6 miles west of Tours, and carry on towards Limoges, which they reach at 01.45.

From Limoges they have to map-read to the target, which means flying at low level, perhaps 1,000 feet. The ground is obscured by a thick layer of cloud above them, which blocks out much of the moonlight. Their night vision is not aided by continual lightning flashes. But the main problem is the same one that Knowles has raised back in May: south of the demarcation line there is no blackout, and they cannot distinguish the reception lights from others shining from houses, car headlights, fires or flares, even by flying over them at 200 feet. Colonel Barrie, presumably Dzieřgowski’s SOE escorting officer, has advised them to abandon the operation in these circumstances; so they return, dropping more pigeons between Lisieux ands the coast. The weather closes in over the Channel, and they let themselves down to 1,500 feet by Abingdon. They land there at 05.20, Newmarket being fogbound.

Wednesday, 6 August 1941


From the point of view of John Austin’s crew this was a smooth, uneventful and successful operation to drop a pair of agents. The journey out is via Dives-sur-Mer, Tours, Chateauroux and Montluçon. The agents are dropped at 01.54, three minutes after reaching the target, near the village of St. Désiré, north of Montluçon. Austin probably pinpointed on Montluçon before backtracking to the target. On the way back COLUMBA pigeons are dropped near Argentan, and Austin lands back at Newmarket at 05.55. One pigeon returns from Flers, a few miles west from Argentan, arriving in the UK on the 16th.

For one of the agents it is a different story: although Jacques de Vaillant Guelis (VALIANT) a senior ‘F’ Section officer, lands without difficulty and is recovered by Lysander on the night of 4 September (Operation ‘Night Embarkation’ as the pilot, S/Ldr John Nesbitt-Dufort, entitles his report), but Gilbert Turck (THEOREM) is knocked out in an awkward landing. He wakes to find himself in a Vichy police station in Montluçon. During the Phoney War he had been a liaison officer between the sabotage-oriented Section ‘D’ of SIS and the similarly-tasked 5ème Bureau; his old boss, now working for Vichy’s intelligence service, has him released. Turck regains contact with de Guelis, and starts his mission.

(Operation ADJUDICATE)

Knowles and his crew take off at 22.07, quite late for a sortie heading for the south of France at that time of year. The rear gunner is a Squadron Leader Stephens, a gunnery instructor from 3 Group’s HQ Flight.

They fly a near-regular route: Abingdon, Tangmere, near-Cabourg, then Tours to Limoges, which they reach at 1.34. They find the target without difficulty, but they are greeted by the signal code ‘MD’, meaning that to land the agent would be dangerous. They circle for about ten minutes, but no further signals are seen. Headlights are seen on the ground and the Whitley leaves the area. Knowles offers to drop the agent elsewhere in Unoccupied France, an offer declined.

They fly back via Tours, landing back at Newmarket at 05.52.

The reason the operation name and agent are in brackets is that the evidence to identify them is circumstantial. In his operations report Knowles incorrectly ascribes it to the FELIX network, which did not operate in that area of south-west France. (Three nights earlier Knowles and his crew had flown an attempt to drop a W/T set to FELIX near Fontainebleau, but had turned back early with engine-trouble.) Characteristically Knowles does not include the date of the sortie in his report, but the take-off and landing times match those recorded in the Stradishall log for an otherwise unascribed sortie by Whitley (letter ‘D’) on 6th August. The target description in Knowles’s report, and the fact that the cargo is an agent not a W/T set, points towards another attempt to insert Count Dzieřgowski into the Unoccupied Zone near Limoges.

Operational cross-country

This Lysander sortie appears in Nesbitt-Dufort’s logbook, with a take-off from Tangmere at 23:00 hrs, and landing 5 hours 40 minutes later.

For all his other operational sorties, Nesbitt-Dufort records them as either ‘Ops as ordered successful or ‘Ops as ordered unsuccessful, and notes the number of passengers. This one is recorded merely as ‘Ops as ordered’, and as a solo effort, with no passengers.

This looks like a similar operation to the one described by Hugh Verity as an ‘operational cross-country’, in which Verity, soon after he joined 161 Squadron, was ordered to fly to a point in France, note what he saw, and to fly back and report. In Verity’s case the target was a brightly-lit prison camp in the countryside south of Saumur. Such sorties provided a realistic test of the pilot’s solo navigational abilities without exposing a valuable agent to any risk. Nesbitt-Dufort has flown several Whitley operations, and has proved himself as a competent map-reader, but those sorties are rather different from flying alone to a pinpoint on the map, several hundred miles into Occupied France. Next time he will do it with an agent aboard.



TNA AIR 20/8334, encl.53A


TNA AIR 20/8334, encl.49A

Op X-country

Logbook, John Nesbitt-Dufort.