Tag Archives: SOE ‘F’

SOE ‘F’ Section

Friday, 9 May 1941

George Bégué’s first transmission

In a house on the rue des Pavillons, near the centre of the Roman town of Chateauroux, Georges Bégué makes his first Wireless transmission to London. (In 2016 there is a re-enactment of the event between the same house in Chateauroux and Whaddon Hall, where early SOE messages were received, and using the same type of equipment.) This is the first recorded wireless transmission from France by an SOE agent from the British ‘F’ Section.

However, it is far from the first transmission from France, Nazi-occupied or non-occupied: Gaullist and British intelligence agents had been transmitting for some time; in a corner of the Place Vendôme, at No. 8 between Dior and Mikimoto, a plaque records just such an earlier transmission, in April 1941, for the SAINT-JACQUES circuit run by Maurice Duclos, and Philip Schneidau made his first semi-successful attempt on 15 April, with a set that had been damaged when he landed in trees.

Saturday, 10 May 1941

Operations AUTOGYRO D/E and JOLLY

AUTOGYRO D and E are circuit organiser Pierre de Vomécourt (Lucas) and Louis Lefrou de la Colonge (Bernard), sent by ‘F’ Section; JOLLY is Pierre Julitte, a Gaullist agent sent by Dewavrin.

Sqn Ldr Knowles, with F/Lt Murphy as 2nd pilot and navigator, takes off from Stradishall at 21.24, and takes the standard route to the coast via Abingdon and Tangmere, which they circle an hour later. They climb to 10,000 feet and cross the French coast at Isigny at 23.10. Twenty minutes later the rear gunner, Sgt Burgin, reports an aircraft approaching from the stern. The Me110 opens fire, and Knowles put the Whitley into a weaving dive to 2,000 feet. On the way down Sgt Burgin continuously shoots at the Me110 until it explodes. They resume their course to Tours, which they pass shortly after midnight.

They then head south-east for Chatillon. About 11 km south of the town, and approximately 40 km from both Valençay and Chateauroux, the agents are dropped on the pinpoint, somewhere between the hamlets of Fromenteau and Villiers. Large areas of woodland nearby would have stood out as dark patches in the moonlight. Though Georges Bégué has been cited as being present to receive them, this may be due to a misreading of Bégué’s original report in his personal file (see below).

Knowles then heads for Châteauroux and Le Châtre, passing over Châteauroux at 00.42. They circle Le Châtre for about ten minutes before dropping Pierre Julitte with a wireless set at 01.06, about one mile south of the town. In his operation report, Knowles headlines JOLLY as JOOLLY, which he corrects in the text. This may have been a subconscious mis-typing: Knowles may have met Pierre Julitte as one of Dewavrin’s staff from his time at the Air Ministry. Knowles mentions nothing about reception lights; Julitte is dropped blind.

Knowles and crew retrace their route to Châteauroux, where they drop leaflets before setting a return course via Tours and Isigny. However, they cross the French coast north of Caen, some way east of track. They then head for Tangmere and Stradishall, where they land at 04.44.

London

The Luftwaffe takes full advantage of the nearly full moon to launch a devastating attack on the West End and many other parts of the capital. London burned. Many years ago I read Richard Collier’s 1959 account of this night: ‘The city that wouldn’t die’. If you can get hold of a copy, read it. This attack was the last, flailing, all-out blow of the Blitz that had started the previous September. Hitler’s attention was now firmly fixed upon the east, on the Soviet Union.

Sources

TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 11A
TNA HS9/115/2, Georges Bégué SOE personal file

Tuesday, 13 May 1941

Operation AUTOGYRO A

Roger Cottin was dropped three nights later by F/Lt Jackson and his crew. Cottin was dropped to set up his own organisation, but eventually became No. 2 to Pierre de Vomecourt. (One oddity: MRD Foot indicates that Cottin met Pierre de Vomecourt in Paris later, and only then was ‘swept up’ into AUTOGYRO; yet the operation name indicates that Cottin was dropped already linked to AUTOGYRO. Nevertheless, Begue did not mention this drop in his report; it was clearly ‘blind’.)

Jackson’s report gives no indication of the location of his target. He does say that a low, late-rising moon on the wane, partially obscured by thin cloud, made it difficult to identify a crucial turning point, then the target itself. Cottin was dropped, and they saw that his canopy was in a tree. They made another circuit, and believed he had made a safe landing. They later realised that Cottin had been dropped in a spot visually similar to the target, but about 6 – 8 miles distant.

Jackson’s report omits the presence aboard of a new 1419 Flight pilot, Sgt John Austin, for operational experience. He is already an experienced Whitey pilot, having already flown a bomber tour with No 51 Squadron.

Sources

TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 14A.
Logbook, S/Ldr J.B. Austin, DFC*

Wednesday, 11 June 1941

Operation OUTHAULLE

Almost as soon as W/Cdr Knowles’s Whitley leaves the English coast it runs into thick cloud. It is only a few nights after Full Moon, so it is possible to fly at 1,0000 feet under 10/10ths cloud and still see. Enough, it seems, to identify Tours, but as they fly south the weather deteriorates; they are now flying under two thick layers of cloud at 1,200 feet. In the gloom they cannot identify their next pinpoint, somewhere between Chateauroux and Montluçon, so Knowles abandons the operation.

There’s no longer any point in flying low, so they attempt to climb into clear air. Shortly before 03.00 they encounter heavy icing and the port engine cuts. With the other engine running roughly they descend to 4,000 feet, at which the port engine picks up and runs normally. They head back towards England, obtaining a QDM (homing bearing obtained by W/T) from Tangmere. From there they fly back to Newmarket, where they land at about 05.30.

Several sources attest to OUTHAULLE as the operation intended to deliver Pierre Vandermies to the Zéro intelligence group in Belgium, notably Emmanuel Debruyne. The peculiar spelling of the operation comes from Knowles’s report; Knowles is not of a nautical disposition.

Operation FITZROY

F/Lt Jackson and his crew take off at 22.34. (The Ops Officer’s log records 22.45, the difference probably due to Jackson taking his timings from engine-start.) On the first leg to Abingdon they find that the Met. winds are from the opposite direction to the forecast. They climb to 6,500 feet to cross the Channel above thick cloud, but cross the French coast above Le Havre, which has a heavy concentration of searchlights. Flying south, they find Tours at 01.19 but, after finding no improvement in the weather, and knowing a front was approaching, they abandon the operation. The experience of S/Ldr Knowles on OUTHAULLE points to the wisdom of Jackson’s decision.

On the return leg they drop pigeons and leaflets just east of Le Havre, but are held over Newmarket for 48 minutes; Stradishall’s 214 Sqn was operating that night, and several land out at Newmarket. The poor weather has affected bombing operations; the returning bombers take priority.

Operation AUTOGYRO C

The purpose of this operation is to drop two SOE ‘F’ Section agents near Mortaine, in Brittany, to work for the AUTOGYRO circuit. The two agents are Norman Burley and Ernest Bernard.

Sgt Austin and his crew cross the coast near Littlehampton, hoping to make landfall at Isigny. Cloud and rain builds up, so that by the time they are due to reach the French coast it is invisible. On ETA Isigny they change course southwards for Avranches, flying at 6,000 ft. On ETA Avranches they drop to 2,500 ft and set course eastwards for Mortaine. On ETA Mortaine, and still unable to see anything, they start a box search at 3,000 ft. They abandon the attempt and return, dropping pigeons between St Sever and Vire on the way. They land at Newmarket after passing Tangmere and Abingdon.

Sources

OUTHAULLE

TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 24A
Debruyne, LGSEB, p. 146

FITZROY

TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 22A

AUTOGYRO C

TNA AIR20/8334, Encl. 26A

Friday, 13 June 1941

Operation AUTOGYRO

Sgt Austin and his crew make the second attempt to drop SOE ‘F’ Section agents Norman Burley and Ernest Bernard near Mortaine, in Normandy.

This night is near the end of the moon period, with light only during the second part of the night. They took off later, at half past midnight, and two hours later pinpointed at Isigny. They dropped pigeons at St Lô en route for Avranches, and when they reached Avranches they flew west ot the coast to check their position. At this point they were flying at about 3,000 feet, with a layer of cloud beneath them at 1,000 ft. They then headed for the target, but ran into 9/10ths cloud. 6 miles before Mortaine they pinpointed St Osvin through a break in the clouds, and pinpointed again at 4 miles from Mortaine by flying around another cloud-gap. But over Mortaine there were no gaps, and as the top of the cloud layer was 500 feet, 100 ft lower than the safe parachuting height, they abandon the operation, and headed for home.

This night is cited by MRD Foot (in SOE in France, page 163) as the delivery, by Austin, of two parachuted containers to Pierre de Vomécourt’s chateau, ‘Bas Soleil’; as Foot put it, ‘the very first supply drop of warlike stores to be made to France’. His information came from the Stradishall Operations Record Book. At best an incomplete source, this was probably all that was made available to him in the early 1960s about air operations. Austin could not have been in two places at once, and his logbook is clear; his five hours in the air were insufficient for a sortie to Limoges.

Operation Outhaulle

Knowles flies his second attempt to drop Pierre Vandermies near Montluçon. This sortie shows how different the same operation could be when flown under the right weather conditions with good visibility.

Knowles, with Murphy as navigator, take off at 22.23. The route flown is via Abingdon and Tangmere. At 23.25, after an hour’s flying, they set off across the Channel, reaching Cabourg just after midnight and Tours 40 minutes later. They find Châteauroux and Montuçon without difficulty. Near the target area a car is seen on the main road, so Vandermies is dropped about three miles further on. The agent’s parachute is seen to open and he appears to have made a good landing, at 01.33. On the return journey they reach the French coast about three miles west of Cabourg, and cross the English coast at 04.00, landing at Newmarket at 05.13 (05.15 according to the Strad log). There is no mention of heights flown or other data.

It is possible that Knowles dropped the two containers to de Vomécourt, but he is specific about coming home immediately after dropping Vandermies. He mentions no additional task in his report. It would have added at least another 45 minutes to his sortie, assuming perfect navigation, and the time aloft (6hrs 45mins) fits a trip to Montluçon and back. In any case Knowles would not have wished to tarry, given the short nights of June.