Tag Archives: Tangmere

RAF Tangmere

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).

Thursday, 4 September 1941

Operation LEVEE/FACADE, aka ‘Night Embarkation’

This is the first Lysander pickup carried out by F/Lt John Nesbitt-Dufort; it is also the first pick-up operation for SOE. (The previous three operations have been for SIS.) Its narrative is one of the best-known of the hundreds of Lysander operations, first described publicly in Jerrard Tickell’s ‘Moon Squadron’, a carefully disguised ‘authorised-version’ of clandestine air operations published in the early 1950s. Nesbitt-Dufort wrote about it in his book, ‘Black Lysander’, and so did Hugh Verity in ‘We Landed by Moonlight’.

John Nesbitt-Dufort was posted to 1419 Flight in May 1941. Before flying any Lysander operations he was educated in the finer points of Lysander flying by the Commanding Officer of No. II(AC) Squadron, W/Cdr Andrew Geddes; he flew the short-range Lysander that was one of the pair first allotted to the Flight, R2626. It has never been used on operations, and is the squadron ‘hack’. During the spring and summer of 1941 F/Lt Dufort (as he was named in the operations reports) has also accompanied several Whitley sorties in order to familiarise himself with the most widely-used routes and pinpoints, meanwhile gaining experience of clandestine operations. Fighter-pilots are rarely renowned for their navigation skills, but from his inter-war experience in a Fighter squadron, of pinpointing exercises and  ‘Bradshawing’ – the fighter-pilot’s recourse to following railway-lines at low-level as a substitute for proper navigation, descending to read the station name-boards – Nesbitt-Dufort has become an expert in low-level map-reading. In 1419 Flight he is considered a valuable map-reader by the Whitley pilots. Now he has to do it on his own, at night. Before joining the Flight he had commanded No. 23 Squadron, equipped with Douglas Havocs as intruder night-fighters.

Tonight, Dufort is taking one agent out to central France, just over the demarcation line in the ZNO (the Non-Occupied Zone) and bringing another back. The returning agent is Jacques de Guelis, an SOE ‘F’ section staff officer who has been sent to reconnoitre for new circuits and to find people to run them. Born in Wales to French parents, he holds dual British-French nationality, having completed his French national service as a young man. SOE staff officers are normally barred from field activity as they know too much about other agents and the SOE organisation, but de Guelis has been given special dispensation to undertake this operation in France. He is to be picked up from a prearranged spot in the flat fields near the hamlet of La Champenoise, north-east of Châteauroux.

Replacing de Guelis in France is another ‘F’ section officer on a similar mission. Gerard (‘Gerry’) Morel. Morel’s health is too poor for him to parachute: captured in the 1940 campaign, he was repatriated to France after the armistice, eventually making his way to England. His parachute training at Ringway aggravated an old riding injury, inducing sciatica – so he is to be landed.

The operation

The information comes mainly from Nesbitt-Dufort’s post-operation report, and is probably more accurate than any of the post-war accounts. He takes off from Ford aerodrome at 20.52. He checks his radio-telephone (R/T) before shutting down — he will not use it again until he is clear of the enemy coast on the return leg — and sets a course of 152 degrees. At 21.35 he crosses the French coast at 9,000 feet in poor weather, his dead-reckoning position being about 6 miles east of Fécamp. He sets course for La Champénoise, at 170 degrees, and drops to 2,000 feet because the poor visibility means he did not see the Seine when he crossed it. At 22.55 he checks his course as he crosses the Loire, probably using Blois as a pinpoint check. At 23.15 he arrives at the field to find no lights visible. He circles for about ten minutes before he sees the Morse signal from another field. He lands, and the agents exchange places.

On his way to the agreed landing field, de Guelis has been stopped by a zealous gendarme, who checks de Guelis’s papers thoroughly. The agent is late reaching the rendezvous. As he approaches the area on his bicycle he can hear the Lysander overhead, searching for his torch signal. De Guelis dashes into a nearby field, flashes the recognition-letter and hurriedly lays out his torches. The field is smaller than the selected one at La Champenoise. (Because of de Guelis’s escapade with the gendarme I have been unable to identify exactly where the actual pick-up took place.) Nesbitt-Dufort lands without difficulty, but the Lysander needs a longer run for take-off.

Nesbitt-Dufort climbs away steeply on full boost from a very short take-off run. He narrowly misses some trees at the field’s edge, but runs into telephone wires, and possibly some HT cables; a length of telephone cable wraps itself around the propellor-shaft, fortunately without adverse effect.

At 23.30 Nesbitt-Dufort sets a course of 356 degrees for home, and climbs to 8,000 feet. After twenty minutes the intercom, R/T and his cockpit lights fail; the encounter with the cables has damaged the electrics, and the Lysander’s accumulators have run flat. The weather deteriorates, and ‘difficulty was experienced in map-reading by the light of the moon’ – something of an understatement. An hour later he sets course at 314 degrees. As his R/T has failed he cannot be given a homing bearing to Tangmere, but is arrival has been expected, and is announced by the Lysander’s IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) transmissions. Nesbitt-Dufort is guided by searchlights to Tangmere aerodrome, where he lands. Nesbitt-Dufort keeps a length of the cable as a souvenir.

Nesbitt-Dufort’s contemporary report, written on 7 September, is on file in the National Archive. It differs in several respects from his later account in ‘Black Lysander’, and from Tickell’s and Verity’s versions. None of the three would have had access to the report Nesbitt-Dufort had submitted in 1941, so could not have checked. A recent conversation with his son Richard has revealed the solo sortie on the night of 6 August. In ‘Black Lysander’ Nesbitt-Dufort dated LEVEE/FACADE to 6 August, taking off at 23:00, and his timings and route do not resemble the report he submitted in September 1941. For instance, there is no mention of an encounter with an enemy aircraft, but this may have been on another sortie.

Friday, 11 April 1941

CARTWRIGHT pick-up operation

This is the second Lysander pick-up operation. F/O Gordon Scotter, on loan from No II(AC) Squadron, is to extract SIS agent Michel Charles COULOMB, commissioned into the Intelligence Corps in October 1940 as Lt Michael James Cartwright. Coulomb has already completed at least one mission, inserted by sea in early August 1940 and recovered by the same means in October. He was parachuted on the night of 15th January, and is now being recovered.

Scotter takes off from Tangmere at 2300 hrs, and climbs steadily over the Channel until he crosses the French coast at Fécamp at about 13,500 feet; this is rather higher than the 7,000 ft necessary to avoid the light flak on the coast. He also flies an unusual course, taking him east of Le Havre. He sets course for Blois, where he changes course for Levroux. From Leveroux he sets course south-east for the target. There he sees Cartwright’s torch, and lands.

According to Hugh Verity, but not included in Scotter’s later report, the agent climbs up to the cockpit and tells Scotter to take off smartly, without the luxury of turning downwind before making a proper take-off run into wind. Two suitcases are thrown into the rear cockpit, and Scotter takes off using full boost, which is only to be used for an emergency take-off. Car headlights are seen approaching the field as they leave. Scotter has seen several enemy aircraft on the way out, and they see more on the return leg, but he is easily able to avoid them by diving away.

In June 1941 Scotter will be awarded the DFC for this operation.

On 28 May 1942, more than a year after the events he describes, F/Lt Gordon Scotter will submit an operations report. Scotter has since been posted to 161 Squadron, and it appears that he has been asked to write a report, though who asks him is not known. It is typed on the now-standard operations-report proforma for 161 Squadron, so W/Cdr Fielden, 161 Squadron’s Commanding Officer, may have asked him to record the details of his action as a guide for the squadron’s Lysander pilots. (S/Ldr Nesbitt-Dufort has been posted away after his involuntary holiday in France.) Scotter gives the position for the pick-up as about a mile WSW of the village of Brion, north of Châteauroux.

Sources

TNA: several versions of the Army List from late 1940
TNA AIR 20/8455 Pikot reports for 161 Operations (Lysander)
‘We landed by Moonlight’, by Hugh Verity, Ch. 3

Thursday, 10 October 1940

RAF Tangmere

Tonight the weather is better: fine and clear. Take-off is earlier, at 21.45 according to Farley, again flying as Second Pilot to F/O Oettle. The crew is probably the same as the night before. So is the Whitley.

This time there is no mist over the Fontainebleau forest. The target, the sand-quarry, is found easily and Philip Schneidau is dropped successfully, His ‘A’ type harness has a wicker-basket container, which sits between his head and the canopy. In the container is a rucksack with two pigeons inside, immobilised by socks placed over their bodies, their heads poking out from holes cut in the toes. The ‘A’ type harness is an adapted cargo parachute with 11-foot strops beneath to carry the agent. It cannot be steered by the parachutist, and Schneidau drifts towards the edge of the bowl and the dense surrounding forest.

He lands just inside the lip, and tumbles headlong in the steep sloping sand, but he is down. He hides his parachute harness, canopy and wicker basket in the scrubby forest surrounding the quarry. He dons the rucksack and walks across country towards his father-in-law’s house in Montigny, the last minutes of moonlight at his back guiding him.

The Whitley and its crew return to Tangmere, landing at 04.05.

constant

October 9, 1940

RAF Tangmere

With the new Moon period, a fresh attempt is made to parachute Philip Schneidau into the Bourron-Marlotte sand-quarry. Take-off is scheduled for 23.00.

The Flight is using its new Whitley, P5025, which has arrived on the 6th. The revised establishment for 419 Flight is for two Lysanders plus two in reserve, and one Whitley with another in reserve. (The Flight will actually have only three Lysanders, because the one lost on 17 August has not been officially declared lost; R2625 will remain on 138 Squadron’s books for several months until it is quietly dropped.) There is only one Whitley crew: P/O Jack Oettle, with F/Lt Farley as 2nd Pilot. Sergeants David Bernard and Dai Davies are almost certainly aboard as Wireless Operator and Rear Gunner, and the navigator will be identified by Hugh Verity only as ‘Jacky’ Martin. S/Ldr Ross Shore flies as a ‘passenger’, in his role as coach to Philip Schneidau.

They take off at 2300 hours, and land back at Tangmere seven hours later, foiled yet again by bad weather.