Tag Archives: Reimer

Flight Sergeant Alvin Wilbert Reimer, RCAF

Tuesday, 5 August 1941

Operation LUMOND

LUMOND is a mysterious operation. The pilot, F/O Ron Hockey, reported it as completed on the night of the 5-6th August, yet a week later it is included with another operation to be dropped nearly 80 miles to the east. The LUMOND sortie on the 5th can be linked chronologically to the SIS-run ALLIANCE organisation, yet a second LUMOND sortie of the 12-13th, not completed, is linked with an SOE operation, FABULOUS. Another failed attempt at LUMOND, in the middle of the mid-August dark period, is linked with another SOE operation, DOWNSTAIRS.

From Hockey’s report and his logbook, the LUMOND operation on the night of the 5th appears to have been pretty straightforward, and he covers it in three short paragraphs. Take-off from Newmarket (22.24); via Abingdon and Tangmere to the coast (23.42) and over the Channel to Cabourg (00.23). Hockey dropped COLUMBA pigeons en route between Cabourg and Saint Pierre (presumably Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives, more or less on course between Cabourg and Saumur). The aircraft reached the target at 01.27, and completed the operation by 01.31. Hockey’s logbook recorded that the target was near Saumur, just down the Loire from Tours. It took Hockey only 1 hour 4 minutes from the Normandy coast, so the target cannot have been further south. They dropped the agent from 300 feet, half the normal height, to minimise the parachute drifting off-target in the strong gusty wind. (A later SOE ‘F’ Section agent, Ben Cowburn, was accidentally dropped from 300 feet. His canopy had barely opened when he hit the ground, and he was fortunate to walk away.) On the return leg Hockey and his crew dropped more COLUMBA pigeons between Vassy and Balleroy. They crossed the coast at Pointe de la Percée to Tangmere and Abingdon, landing at Newmarket at 05.05.

Despite its routine execution, this operation may have been the first parachute drop to ALLIANCE, one of the largest and most effective intelligence circuits of the war. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the circuit’s leader and chronicler, dated the arrival of her first agent from London, the agent she called ‘Bla’, to 5 August. The agent’s real name was Bradley Davis: he was dropped with his own set and some spares. Each set had a three-letter code, such as OCK or KVL.

Keith Jeffrey, in his official history of MI6, assumed that the agent was parachuted near Pau in the foothills of the Pyrenees, some 270 miles to the south of Saumur. (Pau was where Marie-Madeleine Fourcade had set up her headquarters. But Fourcade’s ‘l’Arche de Noé’ says that the reception party returned less than 24 hours later with the agent. So the drop-site was not round the corner, and Saumur was at least possible. It seems strange for the RAF to have dropped an agent in the Nazi-occupied zone if he was destined for the Unoccupied Zone, for this would have required the reception party (which SIS insisted on) to run the additional risks of crossing the demarcation line, not once but twice, and carrying W/T sets. In early August the few hours of darkness dictated how far south a sortie could be flown and still enable the aircraft to reach friendly skies before daybreak. Still, targets in the non-occupied Zone such as Chateauroux (target area for two August attempts at a later LUMOND operation, not completed) or Périgueux, (target for the ALLIANCE-related FIREFLY operation in November) would have been preferable to crossing the border.

So was Hockey’s trip to Saumur the right one? Aside from the date, there are some illuminating omissions from the abridged English translation, perhaps because, at the time of publication,  Special Duties operations were still nominally secret. (The preface to the English version of ‘Noah’s Ark’ was provided by SIS’s Kenneth Cohen. Make of that what you will.) The original French text includes a paragraph:

Coustenoble, dans la joie d’avoir aperçu un Whitley — “à moins que ce ne soit un Stirling”, dit-il toujours précis — à cent cinquante mètres.

While 150 metres (an unreliable estimate by a layman at night) was rather more than 300 feet, it was still low. Soon after being brought to Pau, Davis suffered acute appendicitis and was taken to hospital at Marie-Madeleine’s insistence. Some of her lieutenants were in favour of letting him die and stuffing him in a hole in the garden, for they were already suspicious. To Marie-Madeleine the likely cause (also omitted from the translation) was obvious:

On diagnostiquait à première vue une crise d’appendicite, traumatisme, vraisemblement provoqué par le saut en parachute.
(A first diagnosis was acute appendicitis, probably caused by the parachute drop.)

SIS seems to have had some peculiar ideas as to the correct dress for an agent, for (according to Fourcade) Davis was dressed as for a farcical village wedding – ‘la noce à Bobosse’ – a jacket that was almost a morning coat, striped trousers, a spotted cravat, a stiff shirt and wing-collar, a pointed goatee beard, pince-nez glasses and, to crown it all, a bowler hat. When he had been brought to Pau, Marie Madeleine wondered what British Intelligence thought a typical Frenchman wore. Her companions fell about with laughter.

For all his ludicrous get-up Bradley Davis would prove to be deadly. His pre-war association with Mosley’s Union of British Fascists had not been picked up by MI5’s rudimentary screening process; Davis had worked as a farm manager in France, and MI5’s parochial screening did not investigate beyond the English Channel. Davis betrayed ALLIANCE almost from the start. For more about ALLIANCE and Davis, look at Operation SHE a few nights later, and Operation FIREFLY on 6 November.

The problem with all of this is that on the 12th Sgt Reimer flew a sortie combining several operations. One of these was LUMOND, combined with SOE operations ADJUDICATE, FABULOUS, and CHICKEN. This LUMOND may have been more W/T sets for ALLIANCE using the same operation name. I could be completely wrong through relying on a coincidence of dates, but there is no other recorded air operation in August which remotely tallies with Fourcade’s date.

Tuesday, 12 August 1941

Operation PERIWIG/MILL

This second attempt to drop the MILL team is combined with PERIWIG. Why hasn’t this been done in the first place? The previous attempts to complete PERIWIG and MILL have been in two aircraft on the same night, though the targets are only 70 miles apart. Perhaps it is because SIS takes a dim view of sharing air resources with SOE. It has a valid point: SOE’s overt intentions of creating havoc through acts of sabotage and assassination render its agents more likely to get caught. Intelligence agents, often under deep cover, are vulnerable to accidental recognition.

But the 12th is the last opportunity to complete outstanding operations before the end of the moon period. Each service will have provided an accompanying/escorting officer, who will not have been unaware of the situation. Perhaps it is a case of Knowles stating in his characteristically blunt manner to both parties something to the effect of: “There’s one aeroplane for Belgium tonight; if your agent’s on board we’ll try and drop him, otherwise that’s your lot until the end of the month.” That night Ron Hockey is flying SHE to the Dordogne, and Sgt Reimer is taking four separate operations to central France, so even if there were a reserve Whitley there isn’t a reserve crew. (Though W/Cdr Knowles dates two reports to the 12th, he has flown them earlier; he just doesn’t provide the date they are flown.)

PERIWIG is dropped first, Austin pinpointing at Ath before dropping Campion near Silly. They then fly south to Trélon, identifiable by its large surrounding forest, just over the border in France. They pinpoint again at Chimay before dropping the two MILL agents about a mile south of Salles. This target is less than four miles from Momignies, the site of the Leenaerts operation almost exactly a year before. (Verhoeyen records that they were in fact dropped near Cerfontaine, about 11 miles to the north-east.) The rear Gunner sees the two parachutes open, and the canopies are seen on the ground as Austin flies another circuit of the area. It is a night of good weather, with good visibility. On the return leg they are coned by about 20 searchlights as they crossed the coast, probably at Nieuwport. (The typed report has been hole-punched through the name.)

The folly of combining operations is demonstrated by Campion’s capture. Campion proceeds to denounce almost everyone he knows. According to MRD Foot, ‘his brother, his sister-in-law, his nieces, the doctor who had set his ankle’ – he had, unseen by the departing Whitley’s crew, broken it severely on landing – ‘the mother superior of the convent [that had sheltered him], everyone he had met during his training and all the reception committee.’ Sgt Austin’s despatchers – there are two on this sortie, one under training – are most likely instructed to keep the SIS and SOE parties apart, both before embarkation and in the confined space of the Whitley’s rear fuselage. Whatever strategem is used, it appears to work: the MILL party escapes the attentions of the Gestapo, providing an almost constant stream of intelligence material back to London right up to the Liberation. According to Debruyne, MILL is particularly effective at railway-based intelligence, concentrating their efforts in the Hainaut area. Some 700 agents and helpers are involved.

Operation LUMOND, ADJUDICATE, FABULOUS, CHICKEN

This is the first sortie as aircraft captain for Sergeant Alvin Reimer, a Canadian pilot. His reports are concise, and give little away. This night is the last opportunity to complete outstanding operations before the end of the early August moon period, and Sgt Reimer’s record shows that he is the sort to press on and complete his task if it is feasible. The attempt to mount the operations on this sortie, all for SOE, is decided only at the last minute.

Take-off is slightly delayed, therefore, and the Whitley’s rear fuselage is full. There are four agents, four W/T sets, and a single despatcher. ADJUDICATE is scheduled first, to drop Count Dzieřgowski and a W/T set near Limoges. CHICKEN is the Belgian agent Octave Fabri, whose mission is to sabotage an aircraft-engine factory near Antwerp, but the cultural antipathies that still plague Belgium may have ruled out a more direct drop into the Ardennes. He is to be dropped about ten kilometres north of Châteauroux. Finally, FABULOUS and LUMOND are to be dropped about ten kilometres further north. FABULOUS was ‘one man with a large W/T set’ to be dropped for Henri Labit and a new circuit he was trying to set up after the failure of TORTURE. LUMOND was ‘one man with a W/T set, and one large W/T set as a separate package’, but no more is known about this SOE operation.

Reimer and his crew take off at 21.30 and fly via Tangmere to Caen, crossing the French coast at 23.24. They arrive over Limoges an hour and a half later, but low cloud prevents them finding the pinpoint for ADJUDICATE. They set course northwards and drop CHICKEN. Fabri makes his way to Belgium after making a series of beginners’ mistakes that no-one harmful picked up, and he survives the war after a catalogue of misfortunes which would have done away with a less lucky man.

The Whitley then carries on towards its next target, about 10 kilometres further north, arriving about ten minutes later, which indicates that Reimer has tried to give his rear team time to prepare. But Sgt Moy, although an experienced despatcher, has had to rearrange and prepare FABULOUS (a wireless-operator and set for Henri Labit) and LUMOND (a wireless operator and two sets) in a cramped fuselage still encumbered with Count Dzieřgowski and his W/T set. Over the FABULOUS/LUMOND target Reimer assumes that his despatcher was ready, and presses the green light, but the two agents and their three sets are still not ready. Reimer is forced to make a circuit of the target, and the crew lose sight of it in the cloud. After this one circuit Reimer is forced to abandon the drop in order to be clear of the French coast before daybreak.

We have this information about the drop because on 14 August SOE writes to the Air Ministry for an explanation. Three days later Group Captain Bradbury passes SOE’s note to W/Cdr Knowles at Newmarket, demanding: ‘Please render your report without delay and return the attachment.’ Knowles’s explanation is not on file, so we have only one side of the story.

Operation SHE

Two nights after Jackson’s attempt at SHE, F/O Hockey flew his first operation as skipper. Hockey now skippers the second attempt at SHE. This is the only operational sortie he flies with his great friend ‘Sticky’ Murphy as his Second Pilot.

They set off shortly after nine p.m. and follow much the same route as Jackson. They make landfall at Grandcamp, a little further west along the Normandy coast. They cross the Loire at Saumur, and reach Périgueux at 00.50. Low and medium cloud have given way to clear weather with a slight haze, and Hockey drops to about 1,500 feet. At 00.58 they identify the target, and 15 minutes later they have completed the operation.

Hockey and his crew make their way to the Atlantic coast, pinpointing at Bigenos in Archachon Bay. Despite the cloud cover over the Bay of Biscay two ships fire at them. They make landfall in West Cornwall, and pass over St Eval before heading for Abingdon and Newmarket. The weather is reportedly poor at Newmarket, and they are now so short of fuel that they land at Abingdon.

Operation SHE isn’t a female agent, or even an agent: it is a W/T set for the ALLIANCE intelligence circuit run by Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Each W/T set has a three-letter identifying code, such as KVL or OCK. In this case the set has the code ‘SHE’.

This ‘SHE’ set plays an ignominious role in the story of ALLIANCE, for instead of taking it to Brittany to operate with the local ALLIANCE cell, the traitorous agent Bradley Davis, nicknamed ‘Bla’, gives his escort the slip and takes it to the Abwehr in Paris. From there Davis and the Abwehr run a ‘funkspiel’ deception operation using SHE, purporting to pass vital military information about the Atlantic ports to London. Davis operates the set himself to prevent London from suspecting a strange Abwehr hand on the key.

‘Bla’ has been under a degree of suspicion almost from his arrival in France, but London backs him, citing the excellent information they have been receiving. Within ALLIANCE he is known to be a traitor after his network in Brittany is arrested. London confirms this because they have continued to receive information purporting to come from the blown network via SHE. Davis turns up in Marseilles, is trapped in a faked rendezvous, and is executed by the ALLIANCE team.

Saturday, 6 September 1941

Operation STUDENT

Jackson’s first attempt to fly this operation is foiled by a faulty compass. This is his first sortie since crashing on take-off in July. For some reason not mentioned in Jackson’s report, Whitley ‘A’ has not been swung to establish the compass deviation, and there is no deviation card aboard when they take off at 20.31. With good visibility they might have been able to continue on this short-range operation to northern France, but tonight it is poor, with cloud-base at 1,300 feet. They decide to return to Newmarket after only 36 minutes in the air, and they land 78 minutes later, at 22.25. Control briefly mistakes Jackson’s Whitley for a ‘hostile’ and the runways are darkened; once the confusion is cleared up Newmarket switches its lights back on for Jackson to land.

Operations FELIX and DASTARD

The FELIX operation, last attempted on 3 August, is re-mounted. The original FELIX W/T set dropped with Philip Schneidau in March is now working well enough for a reception party to receive the set on the Plateau des Trembleaux, above Montigny-sur-Loing. This operation is to be carried out first.

DASTARD is Sergent-chef Raymond Laverdet, of the Gaullist BCRA. (Sergent-chef is approximately equivalent to Staff- or Colour-Sergeant in the British Army, nothing to do with catering.) He is accompanied by a wireless-operator, André Allainmat. They are to be dropped near Bray-sur-Seine, to the east of the Montigny drop and upstream of the easily identifiable river-junction between the Seine and the Loing.

Soon after takeoff F/Lt Murphy is faced with continuous cloud down to 1,000 feet, so he decides to climb above it. He breaks clear at 4,000 feet, but he has to climb to 7,000 feet to stay above the cloud while crossing the English Channel. Still unable to see anything, he changes course on ETA once he believed he had crossed the French coast, and descends through the cloud base. He emerges into clear air but heavy rain at an instrument-height of 1,000 feet, but he is only 300 feet above the ground.

Murphy laconically records: “I decided to climb again”. He sets course for the FELIX target area, where he descends on ETA but cannot identify a pinpoint. He perseveres, but during the search he experiences what he later describes as “an oleaginous bump”, and believes he has collided with another aircraft. The Whitley has hit something, or has been hit, but he can’t work out by what. Enough is enough, and they set course for Cabourg and Newmarket, where they land at 02.53. There they find that the Whitley’s rear wheel has been forced upwards into the fuselage.

Operations DRAFTSMAN, AUTOGYRO E, DOWNSTAIRS, VESTIGE/TROPICAL, UKELELE

The air operation

This operation is one of the notable air operations carried out by Sgt Reimer, RCAF; remarkable because of the number of agents carried in the single Whitley, and for the determination and accuracy with which Reimer and his crew carry it out. In particular it is a challenge for the two despatchers, Sgts Slatcher and Evans, who have an arganisational nightmare of organisation in the cramped, dark fuselage.

Reimer drops the six agents in two passes to avoid too wide a spread, though it necessitates an extra circuit of the landing-field.

The agents

Each code-name stands for an ‘F’ Section agent. They are all going to be dropped at the same target, from where most will go their separate ways. The target is a farm called Le Cerisier, just north of the village of Tendu, some 16 km south of Chateauroux. (Position 46°41’03″N, 1°34’27″E) It is owned by Auguste Chantraine, socialist ex-mayor of Tendu, who has been forced out of his post by the Vichy regime. He had already refused to join the Pétainist ‘Légion française des combattants’, which made him suspect in the eyes of the regime; in July 1941 he was forced to resign because of his hostility to Vichy’s programme of national renewal. He and his wife were recruited by Max Hymans and his friends; ‘Le Cerisier’ is his farm.

Some of the RAF operation codenames are the same as their SOE codenames (which differ from their aliases): DRAFTSMAN is André Bloch (from his SOE personal file), and AUTOGYRO is the Comte du Puy. The others’ codenames differ. In the early days, until late in 1941, the agent’s RAF codename was sometimes a word-association with one of his names; later, agents were given random code-names from a list of – for example – root-vegetables. So, Victor Gerson became VESTIGE, and Michael Trotobas became TROPICAL. A rather more tenuous link might be Georges Langelaan to UKELELE via George Formby, which would make Ben Cowburn DOWNSTAIRS

The reception party consisted of Georges Bégué, Max Hymans (Bégué’s contact in Valençay in May), and Auguste Chantraine. Chantraine continued his involvement with SOE-related activities until his luck ran out in December 1943. He was deported to Gusen concentration camp, where he died in March 1945.

Thursday, 11 September 1941

Operation ESMOND, COLUMBUS

The first attempt to drop Tommy Sneum (ESMOND) and Sigfred Christophersen (COLUMBUS) had failed due to atrocious weather. Just how much difference could be made by a piece of clear weather is seen from this sortie, flown by the comparatively inexperienced Sgt Reimer and his crew.

Taking off at 19.45, they get a ‘fix’ at Great Yarmouth and set course for Esjberg, the main port on Jutland’s west coast. They climb to 8,000 feet for the North Sea crossing, and descend on ETA to pinpoint at Esjberg, where they are greeted by searchlights and flak. They then fly on to the target near Brorfelde, where they drop Sneum and Christophersen shortly after 23.33. They land back at Newmarket just over three hours later.

Tommy Sneum told his story to Mark Ryan, and Ryan’s book ‘The Hornet’s Sting’ was published in 2008, the year after Sneum died.