Tag Archives: SOE Cz

SOE on behalf of Czech government-in-exile

Sunday, 28 December 1941

Operation ANTHROPOID was the successful SOE-sponsored Czech resistance operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. Though Heydrich was not in the second rank of the Nazi leadership dominated by Goering, Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler, he was definitely of the third rank. Respected and feared by those above him, Heydrich commissioned the methodical extermination that became the Holocaust. Operation ANTHROPOID is also notorious as the trigger for the Nazis’ revenge: the razing and erasure of the villages of Lidice and Lezacky, their populations liquidated or deported to concentration camps.

Operations ANTHROPOID, SILVER A, SILVER B

In September 1941 Konstantin von Neurath, Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, was replaced by Reinhard Heydrich as Acting Reichsprotector. In 1939 von Neurath had instituted a repressive regime in Czechoslovakia, but by 1941 Hitler regarded him as insufficiently zealous. Heydrich instantly brought a systematic programme of terror, with the wholesale arrest of political and resistance figures, with summary execution in many cases. Almost immediately the Czechoslovak government-in-exile commissioned SOE to mount a coup-de-main operation to assassinate Heydrich, the man they saw as the cause of their country’s misfortune. Cut off the new head, they believed, and the situation might improve. But they mistook von Neurath’s regime to be the pattern for Nazi rule, unaware that Heydrich was Nazism in unalloyed form.

The operation was initially planned for October 1941, an instant response to the terror. Two soldiers were selected from the Czech forces in exile, Karel Svoboda and Jozef Gabcik, but ANTHROPOID had to be postponed following Svoboda’s injury in training; it took several weeks to prepare his replacement, Jan Kubis, and to furnish him with appropriate documents.

The sortie

For the pilot and crew of Operation ANTHROPOID it is an unusual sortie. Operations to eastern Europe are still rare, even in the winter months. The Whitley’s range is constrained by its low cruising speed (and therefore by the hours of darkness over enemy territory), and by its small payload when flown with a full complement of additional fuel-tanks. It’s a moot point whether the RAF would have permitted the operation to go ahead in September or October 1941; in a Whitley it would almost certainly have been a one-way trip.

But now, thanks to General Sikorski’s relentless lobbying for a Polish Air Force Flight equipped with faster, long-range aircraft to make air contact with the Polish homeland at least feasible, 138 Squadron is receiving its first Halifaxes. One operation (RUCTION) has already been carried out with a Polish crew, with mixed results. F/Lt Ron Hockey has undergone Halifax conversion training with a new crew, the training provided at Linton by 35 Squadron, the first operational Halifax squadron for much of 1941. The Canadian pilot Dick Wilkin is Hockey’s 2nd Pilot. ANTHROPOID is to be the first non-Polish Halifax operation. It is to be combined with operations SILVER A (a three-man team) and SILVER B (two agents), both of which have been attempted before but failed.

Stradishall’s runways are too short for a fully-fuelled Halifax, so Hockey flies to Tangmere before taking off from its extra-long runway at about 22.00. The Halifax has a crew of eight (the Halifax’s normal bomber crew of seven, plus a Despatcher), seven agents for the three operations, plus Major Sustr of SOE’s Czech Section as Accompanying Officer: a total of sixteen souls, plus two containers for ANTHROPOID. Hockey’s take-off run is about 1,300-1,400 yards into a 15 mph head-wind. The meticulous Hockey records his take-off weight as 59,800 lbs. He and his crew cross the French coast near Le Crotoy, at the mouth of the Somme estuary. He then sets course for the German town of Darmstadt, possibly because the Rhine has a distinctive configuration south-west of the town.

But the weather is against them. Snowfalls have softened the recognisable features of the land beneath, and despite the good visibility the Rhine is not easily seen. Nevertheless Darmstadt is reached at 00.42 and course is set for the ANTHROPOID pinpoint. As they fly east at about 10,000 feet the snowfalls cover the landscape, making accurate navigation using ground features impossible: ‘the heavy snow . . . blotted out all roads, railways, rivers, and small towns’ — the major types of ground-feature useful to identify a pinpoint. It is bitterly cold at that height: oxygen has to be used to help keep the crew warm and alert. Twice they encounter enemy aircraft, which nevertheless leave them alone. Low cloud increases to 10/10ths, and they lose height gradually from their cruise height of about 10,000 ft. At 02.12 they see flak ahead, and identify its source as Pilsen. According to Freddie Clark, the target area is near Borek aerodrome, south-east of Pilsen and some 80 km south of Prague. (This I have yet to check against the SOE file, currently on loan to Paris.) Instead the agents are dropped blind near the village of Nehvizdhy, some 22 kilometres east of Prague. Hockey may even have flown over the capital, Prague, without realising it.

Hockey than sets course for the SILVER A and SILVER B target. From Hockey’s report it is clear that he is unaware of his location. As he is way off course, it follows that the second and third sets of drops will also be off-target. Moreover, in his report Hockey hints that his orders, at least regarding SILVER A & B, are to drop these teams regardless of whether he can find the precise target: ‘Both the two latter operations were completed under difficult conditions owing to their urgent nature and according to instructions received before take-off.’

Having completed all three operations, Hockey sets course for Darmstadt, but does not see it on the return leg. His account implies that they realise their true position only when fired on over Brussels. They fly over Lille, and cross the French coast near Fécamp at 07.20. As they cross the Channel the cockpit’s overhead hatch flies open, and Dick Wilkin has to hang on to it, probably until they land, to stop it coming adrift and fouling the tailplane controls; Hockey reduces speed to 140 mph. They cross the English coast near Selsey Bill at 08.07, and land back at Tangmere twelve minutes later.

This operation shows that the Special Duties crews, when faced with similar conditions to those faced by the main force bomber crews, fared little better. Their ability to find a pinpoint deep in enemy-occupied Europe depended on pinpoint-to-pinpoint navigation at relatively low level. At 10,000 feet the ground beneath, if it is visible at all, appears very different from the detailed view acvailable at 2,000-4,000 feet; under deep snow, even a city can be rendered almost invisible at that height in poor visibility. By the time Hockey reached Czechoslovakia there was heavy cloud; had he not encountered flak he and his crew might have had little idea of where they were.

Sources

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 128A
Clark, ‘Agents by Moonlight’, pp. 34-38
Logbook, G/Capt. R C Hockey.
‘Assassination; Operation ANTHROPOID, 1941-1942’, by Michal Burian and others, Prague (2002).

Friday, 3 October 1941

Operations LUCKYSHOT, HIRELING, RHOMBOID

Austin’s aircraft (Whitley T4166) is airborne at 18.25, and crosses the English coast at Dungeness at 20.17. Cloud over the Channel means they pass over the French coast without seeing it, and visibility gets worse as they approach Charleroi for the third attempt at LUCKYSHOT.

LUCKYSHOT

Austin flies to the pinpoint via Chimay (Austin and his crew have been there before), then to Namur, Liege and Verviers. Visibility, which has been down to 800 yards, has improved to about two miles, and at 23.23 they sight the LUCKYSHOT reception-committee clearly. (The wireless-operator’s logbook records Surister, about 4 miles south-east of Verviers, as the first target.) Within five minutes, after Austin has circled the triangle of lights several times, flashing his recognition lights, the five packages and one container are dropped.

The absence of an agent to be dropped may explain why there is no extant information about LUCKYSHOT, with no indication about the circuit, or the organisation to which it belonged. It would have been very close to the German border as it then existed under Nazi occupation, for Germany had annexed much of Belgium’s territory east of Verviers.

HIRELING, RHOMBOID

Austin and his crew then fly about 3 miles north-east to the Lac de Gileppe to get a secure pinpoint before heading towards the village of Verbermont (as Austin and his W/Op writes it; the actual name is Werbomont). The two agents are dropped approximately 2.5km east of the village. This appears to be wooded farmland in a landscape of low, rounded hills.

HIRELING is Jean Cassart, a captain in the Belgian army. His mission is ‘to secure communications with the Army in Belgium’; he is also given a wide-ranging sabotage brief, aimed at disrupting aircraft and military transport, and attacking civil infrastructure such as power-stations and transmission networks, steelworks and coke ovens, canal locks and barges, telephone networks, railway signal boxes,munition works and oil-tanks.

RHOMBOID is his wireless-operator, H.P. Verhaegen. Much younger than HIRELING, who is in his mid-thirties, Verhaegen is only about twenty. They hide in the woods until about 7 a.m., then bury their parachutes and the W/T set before finding their container, which has dropped nearby, before walking into Chevron, two miles to the east, and their pre-arranged rendezvous at the hotel ‘Hougardy’. Their subsequent adventures will be told at a later date.

Austin drops nickels over Verbermont/Werbomont and Namur. About an hour later, en route for the coast, they drop pigeons on their dead-reckoning position of 51deg 2’N, 3deg 10’E, near Lichtervelde. (Subsequent fixes lead Austin to believe they were dropped about 5-7 miles further west.) They are contacted by 3 Group and instructed to land at Tangmere: several bombers from 9 Sqn, 115 Sqn and 218 Sqn have been diverted to land at Newmarket. Austin’s Whitley crosses the English coast at South Foreland, and he follows the coastline to land at Tangmere at 01.50.

Operations SABOT, SPEED

W/Cdr Teddy Knowles flies what is to be his last operational sortie. He has exceeded his total number of hours allowed for operational flying, and his successor as CO of 138 Squadron has already been lined up: W/Cdr Wally Farley, whom Knowles had, in effect, replaced after Farley was shot down the previous November.

Knowles takes most of what had been his regular crew in 1419 Flight: F/Sgt Fisher as W/Op, F/Sgt Atkins to navigate (Knowles observes the niceties by giving Atkins his proper title of Observer), F/O Pulton as Rear Gunner, and F/Lt ‘Sticky’ Murphy as his 2nd Pilot. For good measure he takes along W/Cdr Sofiano from Air Intelligence at the Air Ministry.

They follow the regular route to Tours via Abingdon, Tangmere and Cabourg, but north of Caen: ‘we had the misfortune to witness a Hudson shot down in flames by “flak”-ships’.

They arrive at Tours under 10/10ths cloud at 21.21. They alter course for Chatillon, but over the target there are several bright lights; so, after telling the agents, Knowles drops them some ten miles further east, in an area free of lights.

They drop leaflets over Chateauroux and several other towns and villages on the return leg. They cross the coast at Cabourg at 23.15; while over the Channel they are, like Austin, told to land at Tangmere due to bad weather at base. They land at Tangmere four minutes after midnight.

The agents SABOT and his wireless-operator SPEED are Pierre Bourriez, a 35-year-old Captain, and Robert Deweer, a Lieutenant. Bourriez’s mission is to co-ordinate the activities if all Belgian intelligence and escape-line services in France. This centralising tendency is bound to create security concerns to SOE, which has learned to isolate and separate where practicable. Nevertheless, Bourriez sets up seven sous-réseaux, his own being DICK which receives many RAF drops. The escape lines run through Spain, following the route he had taken himself after the Belgian surrender. He is arrested in December 1942, but escapes the following March and makes it to the UK in early May 1943. Unusually, the wireless operator lasts longer than his organiser. The French police arrest him in December 1942, but he manages to escape in March 1943 and make it back to the UK in May.

Operation PERCENTAGE

Operation PERCENTAGE is the first clandestine air operation to Czechoslovakia since the mysterious non-insertion of Otmar Riedl (Operation BENJAMIN) in the spring. A wireless-operator is to be dropped, with a set, in order to re-establish communications with the Czech underground. Since Reinhard Heydrich’s appointment as Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia (the Nazi term for Czechoslovakia), repressive measures have resulted in the capture of most of the working sets and the interrogation of their operators. They have fallen silent; only one remains in action.

According to the operation’s Air Transport Form (ATF2)  the agent, František Pavelka, is to be dropped 100km ESE from Prague, 24 km south from Pardubice. (The form mis-states it as PAPDUBICE.) A reception-committee has apparently been arranged: it is to light a fire, with a red signal-light  to leeward and two white lights, one intermittent, to windward of the fire. There is no alternative target, and in the event the pilot cannot find the dropping-point he is to drop them, provided that they are inside the borders of pre-war Bohemia. The Czechs would prefer the crew to be from their own country, and the ATF asks whether the Czech crew with 138 Squadron is sufficiently trained. It isn’t: P/O Leo Anderle and his crew have just about completed their operational training on Whitleys at No. 10 OTU, Abingdon. (Anderle has just had a crash in a Whitley two days ago; nevertheless he will be posted in to 138 Sqn on the 9th.)

The operation has been postponed from the previous night, but no reason for the cancelled sortie is given. For tonight’s attempt P/O Hockey assembles a crew that is a mix of innocence and experience. The novice is his 2nd Pilot, Richard Wilkin, a Canadian new arrival to the squadron. The experience comes from 3 Group HQ: his navigator is S/Ldr Cousins, Group Navigation Leader, F/Sgt Judson as W/Op, and Sgt Hughes bring up the rear.

Hockey takes off in Whitley Z9158 shortly before 3 p.m. for Tangmere, where he lands an hour later to re-fuel to 1,100 gallons and to pick up agent Pavelka and his set. (Stradishall has already warned Tangmere to fuel the aircraft up with 350 gallons of 100-octane fuel. It also warns that the Whitley has not been fitted with IFF.) Hockey also takes on four 50lb bombs and 120 incendiaries; not enough to cause major damage, or to over-burden the aircraft, but just enough to provide an alibi for the operation. Ever-careful, Hockey records the all-up weight as 33,964lbs, with a centre-of-gravity position calculated as 92.7″ aft of (i.e. nearly 8 feet behind) the datum point. The fuel load shows that he is carrying 6 auxiliary tanks, two in the bomb-bay and four at the forward end of the rear fuselage. The load, 1,364lbs above the overload limit of 32,600lb, explains why Hockey is setting off from Tangmere: its extra-long runway might allow him to get the Whitley airborne; at least it’s a new aircraft. The agent will have to leave the aircraft by the rear door, followed by his W/T set in a separate package, for the ventral hatch is obscured by the fuel tanks.

The take off from Tangmere is delayed by 25 minutes owing to the late arrival of the agent and his luggage. Hockey finally takes off at 19.10. Major Sustr, head of the Czech Section D from which the agents are selected, is aboard to act as Despatcher and adviser. Hockey has flown to Tangmere without a despatcher, so Major Sustr’s addition to the crew is probably pre-planned. Hockey flies along the coast to Hastings before crossing the Channel to Le Crotoy: this is in order to avoid the prohibited area Dieppe-Newhaven1. Flying at 6,000 feet, course is set for the Rhine at Stockstadt, where the river has a unique meander, but the ground is obscured by two layers of cloud, one above, the other beneath. At 22.38 they alter course on ETA for the south of Prague. The cloud layer above prevented any astro-navigation, but they made ‘full use of DF loop-bearings’. This meant tuning into several known radio-stations on known wavelengths — if you have ever used medium-wave or long-wave radios you will know there’s a dead-spot when the aerial is in line with the direction of the broadcast — and plotting a course by repeated triangulations.

By these methods, and flying an accurate course, they reach the southern suburbs of Prague at 00.35. The low cloud has dispersed but has left a thick ground-haze. The flak is poor and inaccurate. Flying east, they found the Elbe and Kolin where the flak is more accurate. They reach Pardubice at 01.03, and set course south. At the target position they can identify nothing that resembles a lighting system, and under the guidance of Major Sustr (who is acting as Despatcher) the agent is dropped at a position estimated to be within 2 to 3 miles of the target. (In fact he lands near Chotusice, some 32 km WNW of the target.)

Hockey then sets course west for Stockstadt, looking for a suitable target for his bombs on the way. They are dropped near a railway line spotted through a gap in the clouds. Over his ETA position for the Rhine, course Is set for Le Crotoy, and on the following leg they are subjected to accurate flak.

Hockey lands at Tangmere, having had to fly his approach beneath the cloud at 200 feet, and is guided into Tangmere by a searchlight shining up into the clouds. The Whitley has been aloft for 11 hours 20 minutes; not quite the longest operational sortie, but one of them.

1The reason for the area prohibition is given in the Stradishall Ops Officers’ log: it is an agreed corridor to allow Red-Cross-sponsored repatriations to be carried out between 3 and 10 October; both Dieppe and Newhaven harbours are out-of-bounds and may be lit, and a 20-mile corridor across the Channel between the two is prohibited to all aircraft. However, negotiations between the British and German authorities and the Red Cross break down, and no exchanges take place.)

Sources

HIRELING, RHOMBOID

TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 80A
Logbooks, JB Austin and AGW Livingstone
TNA HS6/104 (HIRELING)
TNA HS6/187 (RHOMBOID)

SABOT, SPEED

TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 85A

PERCENTAGE

TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 139A
Pilot’s logbook, RC Hockey
TNA HS4/39 (ATF2 for operation)
Stradishall Ops log TNA AIR14/2527
Lifeline across the Sea, by David L. Williams, The History Press (2015)
AP 1522E Whitley Pilot’s Notes, section 18.
www.army.cz/images/id_7001_8000/7419/assassination-en.pdf

Wednesday, 16 April 1941

Operation BENJAMIN – Austrian Tyrol

After S/Ldr Knowles had made an abortive attempt in March to complete this operation, he had planned for it to be flown on 4 April. Nor is it flown by 1419 Flight on any other night. By now the nightly period of darkness has shrunk to about 8½ hours. Difficult in March, it is now impossible for a Whitley to be flown to Czechoslovakia and back without still being over Occupied Europe at daybreak.

According to Czech sources Otmar Riedl is parachuted on the 16-17 April 1941. But he is dropped nowhere near Czechoslovakia: instead Riedl is dropped 286 miles (460km) short of the target, near Landeck in the Austrian Tyrol.

From Stradishall there is nothing: no operational report, no entry in an aircrew log-book. Nor is there any related correspondence in Air Ministry or Bomber Command files. Nothing in the Stradishall Ops Officers’ log or the Watch Office log hints at any clandestine operation being flown that night, though normal bombing sorties by 214 Squadron were carried out. Riedl may have been flown there by another RAF unit, but no candidate unit has so far been identified. Surely no-one would have deliberately dropped Riedl over the Tyrol knowing the target was in Bohemia. Even the dimmest navigator could not have mistaken the Austrian Tyrol for one of the flatter parts of Bohemia. Nor is the Austrian Tyrol on any plausible route to the target.

It is possible that the pilot and crew may have been briefed with a deliberately incorrect target. By mid-March the Austrian Tyrol is about the furthest possible distance that would have allowed a Whitley or Hudson to return before daylight. One unit which had flown the earliest SD operations is the Parachute Training Squadron at Ringway. Stradishall records Knowles flying to Ringway and back on the 16th, but Ringway’s ORB has no record of an aircraft flying an operation on this night. Whoever carried it out, from whatever unit and from which airfield (for Riedl must have got there somehow), it is perhaps not surprising that no record exists. It strikes me as being an deliberate action to avoid an impossible situation: to deliver an agent to eastern Europe without making the sortie a one-way trip for the aircraft and crew involved. One possibility is that Knowles flew to Ringway, borrowed a crew sworn to secrecy, and flew the operation himself.

In ‘Gubbins and SOE’, Peter Wilkinson states that the agent ‘succeeded in reaching Prague and came on the air’. The facts are otherwise. Otmar Riedl is arrested shortly after landing in the snow, but he succeeds in hiding his equipment. He manages to convince the Austrian authorities that he has crossed the border to escape from the German invasion of Yugoslavia. Vouched-for by his pre-war employer in Yugoslavia, the Czech footwear company Bata, he serves a two-month sentence in Innsbruck for illegal border-crossing before returning to Czechoslovakia. He attempts to make contact with the Czech resistance, but is rebuffed. He works for Bata until 1945. On making contact with the Allies, he learns that he has been assumed to have died.

Friday, 14 March 1941

Stradishall – Operation BENJAMIN

The Duty Officer reports back with an answer to Knowles’s request:

Spoke to Group re Fighter escort for Whitley. They consider there is sufficient hours of daylight i.e. 11 hours between out & return journey east of 3°E for Whitley to take off & pass that point 40 minutes after sunset & still return before sunrise. Doubtful too if escort will be provided for just one a/c. There is an escort patrol by 11 Group to 20 miles off coast in any case. Group are not doing anything further in the matter.

Eleven hours of daylight? Between sunset and sunrise, almost, but not between twilight and first light. (Group’s idea of darkness, at 40 minutes after sunset and before sunrise, was still light enough for a patrol to spot a lone Whitley.) At best the pilot would have about nine hours of darkness in which to fly more than 1100 miles, drop the agent somewhere near the target, and return to less hostile skies.

Stradishall – Tangmere

F/Lt Gordon Scotter and F/O Ron Hockey fly to Tangmere in Lysander T1508.

Thursday, 13 March 1941

Stradishall – Operation BENJAMIN follow-up

Knowles knows that a Whitley cannot make it to Czechoslovakia and back during the hours of darkness by a normal route. He makes plans for the start of the next period. In order to stretch the ever-shortening hours of darkness by flying as far east as possible over the North Sea, his Whitley will need a fighter escort so that he can approach the north German coast (in the Heligoland Bight) shortly before nightfall. He requests from 3 Group:

Whitley operating on night of 4th/5th. Leave base 1845. Crosses at Aldeburgh 1915 hrs. Fighter escort of two or three (if possible) Beaufighters requested to accompany Whitley until dark en route over North Sea or over Zebrugge.

Sources

Stradishall Ops log