These sorties are attempted on a night of appalling weather, disastrous for Bomber Command, in which a cold front contributes to the loss of 36 bombers. The forecast for the night must have been favourable, for seven aircraft from 138 Squadron are out that night, including a Lysander, and Bomber Command has ordered raids on a wide range of targets. But, as John Nesbitt-Dufort records in his book ‘Black Lysander’, a cold weather front of impassable ferocity moves south-eastwards across northern Europe. Returning bombers are faced with a strong, freezing head-wind on the return leg. Four 138 Squadron Whitleys do not complete their operations due to the weather, with one successful. One Whitley is lost, with all its crew. The Lysander has to make a forced-landing in France, its pilot going into hiding. From the timings recorded it appears that the bad weather does not make itself felt until around midnight, and Nesbitt-Dufort would certainly not have attempted his operation had he known what was to block his return. Weather forecasting was reliant on weather-ship observations out in the Atlantic, with almost no data available from Occupied Europe, and weather-modelling was primitive.
Operation LUCKYSHOT / WEASEL
The target in Belgium may be near Lac Gileppe, recorded on a December ’41 ATF in ink. This confirmed in a December-January ATF, which indicates the target to be Verviers, the nearest town. These show the operations are to drop one agent and four containers, but an ATF for 23 January shows two packages, six containers and six pigeons; no agent.
P/O Anderle takes off at 19.01. He crosses the French coast at 20.52, probably at Berck-sur-Mer or Le Crotoy, and sets course for St Quentin. He describes weather conditions as ‘bad’, and fails to find the target area. He sets course for the French coast, dropping leaflets over a ‘small town some two miles south of Amiens’. He sets course for Stradishall, and lands at 01.44.
Sgt Peterson flies a sortie delivering a pair of SIS operations to France. Unsurprisingly, the identity of both BRANDROLL and BALDRIC remains a mystery. The relevant ATF shows that the sortie was to northern France, and that the ‘cargo’ was to be one man and one ‘A’ type. (The ‘A’ type could be either a cargo parachute (the ‘A’ type had originally been designed as a cargo parachute), or an agent suspended beneath a cargo (usually a W/T set or a rucksack) above his head. In this case it is two agents, one an organiser using an ‘X’ type (the standard paratroop harness & canopy) and the other his W/T operator plus set.
The 138 Squadron ORB records that Sgt Peterson abandons the operation because the target area is unidentifiable, obliterated by snow. He returns to Stradishall and lands at 01.44.
Operations PERIWIG 1/MARMOSET; MANFRIDAY/INTERSECTION
Sgt Wilde is the skipper for this sortie. He takes off in Whitley Z9286 from Stradishall at 19.15. He crosses the French coast at 21.03 hrs, and pinpoints on Valenciennes. He flies a rather wavy course along the canal to Mons, and from there sets course for the target, some 6 km east of Mons. It appears that the reception committee is absent, and the three agents are dropped, to the crew’s satisfaction at least. Wilde then goes on to drop leaflets over Douai on the route out. Slight enemy opposition from the ground before they cross the French coast at 22.56. They land at base at 01.30.
However, according to MRD Foot, the agents are dropped not in Belgium but slightly over the French border, near Mauberge. Undaunted, MANFRIDAY and INTERSECTION cross into Belgium and hide up in Mons without incident. MANFRIDAY is Sgt Oscar Catherine, and his W/T-operator companion Gaston Aarens is code-named INTERSECTION. Aarens lasts almost to the end of March before being caught at his set; and talks. His W/T set is used by the Germans to inveigle other agents to be dropped in a small-scale version of ‘Der Englandspiel’; unsurprising, as Giskes’ responsibilities also run to Belgium. Catherine has a varied career for a year: he plans industrial sabotage and organises a resistance newspaper before his capture in January 1943, his face well-known to the Abwehr. Somehow he survives Dachau.
MARMOSET, 20-year-old Achille Hottia, is being sent out to assist Armand Campion, parachuted in August 1941. PERIWIG 1 is a W/T set for Campion. Hottia makes his own way over the border into Belgium. Coincidentally, on this same night Campion is captured at his set; fortunate for Hottia that his delivery by the RAF has been delayed. However, Campion immediately betrays everyone he has met since he parachuted. Once in Belgium Hottia learns of Campion’s arrest and makes himself scarce, attempting to return to the UK via France and Spain along an escape-line. He narrowly escapes an ambush on France, returns to Belgium and meets up to Octave Fabri, who had helped to train him in England. The two work together for a while before Hottia makes another attempt to get back to the UK. This time, in April 1943, he is captured. He is shot in September.
Operation BALACLAVA I / CANTICLE / DUNCAN
P/O W.R. Austin flies this sortie to Arlon, to deliver 6 containers to André Fonck (BALACLAVA), and to drop an agent Alphonse Delmeire (CANTICLE); Delmeire is to provide DUNCAN (F. Vergucht) with a W/T set dropped in an ‘A’ type cargo parachute.
The recently-commissioned P/O Austin takes off in Whitley Z9232 at 19.10. In a brief report in the ORB (there is no other): ‘Weather conditions not satisfactory, so operation abandoned.’ Leaflets are dropped over Lens — apparently on both the outward and return legs — and he lands back at Stradishall at 23.16.
The BALACLAVA drop is to Etalle, to the west of Arlon, and will eventually be dropped on 2 March, but as it is not combined with any other operation, Fonck is able to continue operating; at least until the ‘Gonio’ (French slang for the German wireless interception teams) surround his parents’ farm in May 1942.
But it is interesting to speculate on the situation had CANTICLE/DUNCAN been delivered on this night, for they are dropped on 1 March with Operation PERIWIG, which means a W/T set for Armand Campion. By this time Campion has been caught, squeezed and his set hijacked. The reception is organised by the Germans. Delmeire is dropped well off-target courtesy of poor navigation, so he evades capture, but as soon as he tries to contact Campion at a pre-arranged meeting, he is arrested and disappears for ever. The other set for DUNCAN does not lead the Germans to Vergucht, but without a W/T set he cannot operate; he makes his way to England, arriving by the end of 1943.
Operation BERYL 1
This sortie by Nesbitt-Dufort is well-documented, having been recounted in several books with varying degrees of accuracy. Dufort’s own post-war account in ‘Black Lysander’ doesn’t quite square with the report that he wrote shortly afterwards. This is not surprising: he is unlikely to have had access to the official report once he had submitted it.
Dufort is to deliver one agent (identity unknown) with a suitcase, and pick up two important Free French (BCRA) intelligence figures: Lt Roger Mitchell (BRICK) and Maurice Duclos (SAINT-JACQUES) for consultations in London.
All goes well for the outward journey and the landing: Nesbitt-Dufort takes off from Tangmere in T1508 at 19.15, and sets course for Trouville, just far enough west of the Seine estuary not to come under Le Havre’s fierce anti-aircraft defences, but at 9,000 feet he’s above all but the heaviest flak. He encounters a little icing, but nothing serious. He pinpoints on the Loire and map-reads to the target, Issoudun aerodrome, currently disused, where he lands. He disembarks his single passenger and the two others take his place.
He takes off and heads north, setting course for Fécamp, aiming to cross the English coast at Beachy Head. After about an hour in the air, he sees an angry wall of cloud ahead of him, barring the way home. The cloud extends from about 700 feet upwards, beyond 30,000 feet, well beyond the ceiling of a Lysander. First he flies west to see if he can find a gap, then east for double the time: no way through. He then tries to fly beneath the 10/10ths cloud, but is forced lower and lower until he is almost hedge-hopping. His windscreen and the leading-edges of his wings ice up; this low down it is suicidal. He turns south and exits the cloud. At this point he estimates that he is south of the Seine, level with Bernay, south-west of Rouen.
Now he attempts to climb as high as the Lysander will let him, bearing in mind that he has two passengers and their valuable suitcases of documents. He is reluctant to try this, not least because he is far from sure of his position. His intercom and R/T have packed up: not only can he not talk with his passengers, but he won’t be able to get a homing bearing from base once he is clear of the French coast. His position (and he may know something about it from Wally Farley, who recruited him to the job) is similar to that faced by Farley in October 1940; who was fortunate to end up in Scotland.
But Nesbitt-Dufort has no alternative if he is to get his passengers back to England. He climbs to 10,000 feet and enters the boiling mass of cloud. Almost immediately the Lysander is tossed about like an autumn leaf; the air-speed indicator ices up, the gyro-compass fails in the electrical storm and the aircraft ices up, almost stalling the engine. He loses height to seven thousand feet, then six, and only just retains control of the aircraft. Fortunately the magnetic compass still works well enough for him to coax the Lysander onto an approximately southerly course, and he emerges from the cloud at less than 1,000 feet.
He has been flying for nearly six hours, much of it at high engine-boost. He reckons he has about 50 gallons of petrol left. It is about 1 a.m. and they are not going to make it back. He makes the decision to fly south, past the demarcation line and back into Vichy France, into the countryside around Châteauroux. He crosses the Loire at Orleans, and crosses the demarcation line at Bourges, heading for Issoudun. He knows he cannot return to the same airfield, even if he can find it, so he decides to put down in a large field. Unfortunately the field is several smaller fields, with a raised road running between. The ground is frozen and the brakes have little effect; what may have been more relevant is his direction, The undercarriage meets the raised edge to the field and the Lysander capsizes on to its nose. From photos taken shortly after by a local photographer it appears that he has landed in a south-easterly direction, downwind, making his landing run much longer.
The IFF destruction charge has detonated when they crashed (probably by a Graviner inertia trigger). Nesbitt-Dufort tries to set the Lysander on fire by stabbing at the petrol tanks with a knife borrowed from Duclos, but the self-sealing fuel tanks hamper the process. Three times, with three flares he manages to get a small trickle of petrol ablaze, but eventually they have to give up and make tracks.
Duclos goes into Issoudun, makes contact with the station-master, and returns to the other two in a car. Dufort, Duclos and Mitchell are soon hidden by the station-master’s family, at great risk, concealed for much of the time in a cubby-hole beneath the railway platform.
Operation MOUSE / VERMILION / WHITSUN
At 19.00 P/O Smith takes off in Whitley Z9287, but less then two hours later, at 20.40, he abandons the sortie due to ‘icing and electrical disturbances’. He lands back at Stradishall at 23.16.
This is another attempt to drop Edmond Courtin (MOUSE), with one set for himself, another for the discouraged Frederic Wampach (VERMILION). A rather plaintive memo dated January 15th sums up the situation as it is known in London:
VERMILION’s W/T set has never functioned, though we heard him once very faintly on the 29th October 1941. We made arrangements to send over another radio operator, i.e. MOUSE, who was taking 2 W/T sets with him, one for himseLf and a new one for VERMILION.
MOUSE was scheduled to leave by the November moon, but owing to the RAF not playing, he has been hanging around here, and is still awaiting departure. We have been expecting him to go off at any time, and that is the reason why you have not been informed that VERMILION was definitely out of action. We hope that MOUSE will leave at the beginning of the moon period in about a week’s time.
WHITSUN appears to be Claude Lamirault with a new codename; this is another instance of an SIS operation being combined with an SOE one, albeit concerned with different countries.
Operation MUSJID / MANDAMUS / MAJORDOMO
At 19.34 Sgt E.E. Jones takes off from Stradishall in Whitley Z6728, ‘F’. His aircraft is lost on the return leg. Ken Merrick wrote of a report of engine trouble and a fading radar plot out to sea. Though several aircraft from No. 11 Group go out searching for it the next day, they find nothing. Freddie Clark wrote that the Whitley was ditched 20 miles off the coast; two bodies were apparently washed up in a dinghy in mid-February, though he gave no details about where this information came from. Wing Commander Jack Benham had acted as the Despatcher on this sortie and the Moulin one. One of the pioneers on the staff of the parachute school at Ringway, in the summer of 1941 Benham had been due for a posting to India to develop parachute training there but had been found medically unfit for an overseas posting, so came to Stradishall, though in what official capacity is not entirely clear. An obituary published by the Harrington Museum indicates that he was a Despatch Officer, but considering his expertise, his role may have been to oversee the training of the squadron’s despatchers, which had
no official RAF ‘trade’.
Sergeant Jones and several of his crew had delivered Jean Moulin to France in January. Their last sortie would not be in vain: far from it. They were to drop six containers to Guy Stinglhamber (MUSJID) who had been in Belgium since the previous September, and to insert two agents, André Wendelen (MANDAMUS) and his wireless operator, Jean Brion (MAJORDOMO). We have no way of knowing whether MUSJID received his containers, but we do know that the two agents were dropped successfully. Brion was active for nearly five months before being caught by the German direction-finders. Wendelen and Brion were to work in the Liège area on sabotage and propaganda, but the forty-year-old Wendelen met a like-minded but younger Jean Burgers and together they started a formidable sabotage organisation that came to be known as ‘Groupe G’. Wendelen was effective until the Liberation, operating under different identities until Belgium was overrun by Allied forces in 1944.
138 Squadron ORB
138 Squadron Operational Summary
MRD Foot, SOEILC, pp.271-4
MRD Foot, SOEILC, pp. 252-3, 265-7, 270
Didier Dubant: 50 Ans d’Aviation dans le Ciel de l’Indre, 1909-1959, Editions Sutton.
Personal on-site research
TNA HS6/184, Encl. 20B
Alya Aglan, Histoire du Réseau JADE-FITZROY (copy In British Library, cited by Pierre Tillon.
MRD Foot, SOEILC, pp. 259-62
Stradishall Ops log
MRD Foot, SOEILC, pp.277-9
Jack Benham obituary in the Harrington Museum magazine Dropzone, Vol. 10, Issue 1 (2012)