Tag Archives: Whitley

Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley

Sunday, 7 December 1941

Newmarket

Ron Hockey, plus 8 crew, flies a 10-hour consumption test in a new Halifax. The Stradishall ops log records that Hockey’s ‘NF-V’ (L9613) and another Halifax identified only as ‘W’, will fly to Lakenheath: “V will do the cross-country as advised. W will fly Base – Linton – Uphaven (sic) – Base for 10 hrs.”

At 15.46 ‘W’ is airborne from Newmarket, followed by ‘V’ at 15.52, but at 18.35 Newmarket advises Stradishall that they have still not taken off from Lakenheath.

L9613 ‘NF-V’ is reported as landing at 05.54 (8/12/41), followed by ‘W’ at 06.20.

Sources

TNA AIR 14/2529
Logbook, R.C. Hockey

Thursday, 6 November 1941

Operation OUTCLASS, FABULOUS II

This operation for the Gaullist French (RF) section of SOE, is flown by Sgt Wilbur Reimer, with P/O Smith, new to the squadron, as his 2nd Pilot. They take off at 18.20, cross the coast at Tangmere, and climb to 8,000 feet to avoid any low-level flak as they crossed the French coast. They then drop to 1,500 feet to map-read their way to the Loire, but run into low cloud as they approach Limoges. Flying above the cloud they set course for Toulouse by DR, and arrive there at 23.15. They find the reception committee almost immediately, for the operation is completed fifteen minutes later. The two containers are dropped by one of the cockpit crew from the bomb-aimer’s position, but the packages, heaved out one at a time through the ventral hatch after the agent, are unlikely to have made a tidy group.

Reimer and his crew retrace their route to Limoges and re-cross the French coast (presumably Normandy) at 02.40, flying on D/R, unable to map-read because of low cloud and ground-haze. Routing via Tangmere and Abingdon they land back at Newmarket at 05.05.

OUTCLASS is Marie Léon Yves Morandat, known as Yves Morandat. A pre-war trade-union official, Morandat is an emissary of de Gaulle. His task is to use his excellent union contacts to foster political resistance in south-west France. FABULOUS is actually FABULOUS II, a drop of two containers and six packages to Henri Labit’s nascent circuit based in Toulouse. The FABULOUS II drop is scattered. The RF Section history puts it thus: ‘they were dispersed over such a wide area that it was decided in future to limit the number of packages rather than endanger the security of agents and reception committeees who collected them.’

Labit himself will be returned to London by sea on the night of 6th January 1942, together with 6 other agents from various réseaux. They are taken off by MGB 314 from the Aber-Benoit estuary in Operation OVERCLOUD. Labit’s detailed debriefing leaves us with a clear picture of his activities since July 1941.

Operation FIREFLY

Murphy flies this operation to the Bergerac region of south-west France. He takes off at 18.31, and he follows the normal route to Tours via Abingdon, Tangmere and Cabourg, before heading further south to Limoges, which they reach at 23.15. From there they set course for Périgueux. Due to ground-haze which obscures the ground, especially close to rivers, they mistake the river l’Isle for the Dordogne, and they waste half an hour flying along the much smaller river before realising their mistake.

Murphy and his crew pick up the lights as 23.36, and two minutes later they have completed the drop. The target is listed as being ‘Bergerac’. The date points to a parachute drop to the SIS-organised ALLIANCE circuit: in ‘l’Arche de Nöe’, translated into English in 1973 as ‘Noah’s Ark’, the ALLIANCE leader Marie-Madeleine Fourcade recalls the second parachute drop to the circuit, dropped at the village of Saint-Capraise d’Eymet, about 15 km south of the town of Bergerac: two wireless operators, Julien Bondois and another destined for another circuit, six W/T sets (at least one damaged on landing), and a case with gleaming locks that looked as though it has just arrived from a West End store; it contains a considerable fortune to fund the circuit. Fourcade’s lieutenant Maurice Coustenoble (‘Tiger’ in the ALLIANCE menagerie) has been in charge of the reception.

Murphy immediately heads back for Cabourg, and crosses the English coast at Tangmere at 03.12, with touchdown at Newmarket at 04.21.

Operation EMERALD

There’s no aircraft captain’s report for this operation. Three 138 Squadron Whitleys are out this night (Whitleys ‘F’, ‘A’, and ‘B’). Comparing the take-off and landing times with the Stradishall log, and the intervals between, ‘A’ is Sgt Reimer, and ‘B’ is F/Lt Murphy, so ‘F’ is F/O Hockey in Whitley Z6728. The list of operations accompanying the pilots’ reports misleadingly states the target location as ‘Verdun’, which leads one to believe it is in eastern France, but the dropping-point is Verdun-sur-Garonne, about 33 kilometres up-river (NNW) from Toulouse. Hockey writes up his route as ‘Tangmere, Cabourg, Tours, Toulouse, Base.’ An Air Transport Form for the 28th October is more precise about the target: ‘VERDUN GRENADE’. The correct target is near the small town of Verdun-sur-Garonne, about 11 km down-river from the equally small town of Grenade. The ATF also confirms that this is a ‘C’ operation, and that the agent is to be dropped with a W/T set under a large ‘A’ type parachute. (‘A’-type parachutes came in several sizes, the choice of which depended on the combined weight of the agent and the package above his head.)

The target for EMERALD is only about 23 miles north of Sgt Reimer’s target for SOE’s OUTCLASS/FABULOUS – see above. One aircraft could have carried out both operations, but whenever possible (and, officially, never) SOE and SIS agents are not carried in the same aircraft. There is even an instance where a pilot writes up two reports of the same sortie, one for SIS, the other for SOE. Hockey’s sortie takes him 10.5 hours. When he flew to the same area in the summer, Hockey had to leave France via the west coast and fly across the Bay of Biscay to St Eval; now, with November’s long nights, he can come straight home.

Operation SAGA, BRICK, FITZROY

This is Nesbitt-Dufort’s third Lysander operation. This time he is to bring Claude Lamirault (FITZROY) and Lt Roger Mitchell (BRICK) back to the UK for consultation. Dufort is also to land an agent for SIS’s Belgian section, code-named SAGA. Nothing more is known about SAGA. Agents are normally parachuted, so SAGA, like SOE’s Gerry Morel, may have an essential role but is not fit enough to be parachuted.

From a midday weather forecast Nesbitt-Dufort judges that the operation might be feasible, and asks for SAGA to be brought to Tangmere from London, and for FITZROY and BRICK to be warned by W/T signal. (It is too late to arrange for a coded BBC message.) By 5 p.m. the forecast weather doesn’t look so good, but as he has warned the agents in France that he is coming, and knows they’ll be waiting for him, he feels he ought to try.

Nesbitt-Dufort takes off at about 8.20 p.m. and aims for the French coast at Criel-sur-Mer, a town almost directly in line with his course for Compiègne, his reference pinpoint. In this he receives guidance via R/T from radar stations on the south coast code-named BEETLE and MUNGA. (The procedure is described by Hugh Verity: it allows Lysander pilots to be tracked almost to the French coast; the radar station gives coded instructional ‘nudges’ to the pilot. The pilot does not transmit; that might reveal his presence and position.) He plans then to head up the Aisne on a compass-bearing eastwards towards the target, a plateau of slightly higher ground between Pernant and Saconin-et-Breuil (recorded as SIS landing site No. 5). He follows a compass-course set at Compiègne, the last pinpoint, with the river Aisne an additional reference. As Verity will write two years later in his guide to Lysander operations:

But once in the air, don’t forget that map reading must never take precedence over the D.R. and that even when you decide to follow a definite feature you must check the course of this feature with your compass.

Unfortunately there is heavy cloud as Nesbitt-Dufort crosses the French coast. He enters the cloud-base at 1,500 feet and flies on instruments until five minutes before his ETA over Compiègne. He descends to emerge below the cloud base at 1,300 feet and finds himself sandwiched between two layers of continuous cloud. Though visibility is still good – it is only two nights after full moon – it is very dark and he can make out nothing on the ground. He sets course for Soissons, to the east, and flies along that course for five minutes during which he should see any signals. But he sees nothing. (The agents beneath hear the Lysander overhead, but see nothing.) Nesbitt-Dufort flies methodically over the target area for about an hour before he gives up and heads home.

Sources

OUTCLASS, FABULOUS II

TNA HS 7/123 History of SOE RF (République Française) Section

FIREFLY

TNA AIR 20 / 8334, Encl. 105A.
l’Arche de Noé, by Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, p. 116; Noah’s Ark (translation), p.77.

EMERALD

Logbook, G/Capt R.C. Hockey
TNA AIR 20/8334, Summary list of operations for October/November moon period, 1941

SAGA, BRICK, FITZROY

TNA AIR 40/2579: Lysander Operations, 419 Flight & 138 Squadron.
‘Black Lysander’, John Nesbitt-Dufort, Whydown Press, p.111.
‘We Landed by Moonlight’ (WLBM), by Hugh Verity, pp.23-24.
‘Some RAF pick-ups for French Intelligence’ by Hugh Verity: article in ‘War, Resistance & Intelligence: Essays in Honour of M.R.D. Foot’, ed K.G. Robertson (1999, Leo Cooper), p. 172.

Thursday, 30 October 1941

Newmarket to Portreath

Jackson, in Whitley Z9158, takes off for Portreath at 10.30, but has to land at RAF Abingdon to change his Whitley’s W/T transmitter which has become unserviceable. Austin, in Z9159, flies to Portreath direct, taking off at 10.50 and landing at 13.05. Jackson arrives at 13.30. Both land on the cliff-top airfield in the teeth of a storm. The runways at Portreath are less than half a mile inland from the Atlantic cliffs; the gusts must have made the landings interesting.

Portreath is home to the recently-formed Overseas Air Dispatch Unit (OADU) which prepares crews and aircraft for the long delivery flights to the Middle East. The OADU informs them that heavy icing is forecast over France, and they will be re-routed via Gibraltar. It examines both aircraft and finds that both fall well short of being serviceable. On both aircraft the D/F (direction-finding) loops need swinging, and they are deficient in much of a normal Whitley’s equipment, such as IFF (Identification Friend or Foe); Z9159’s W/T transmitter, too, fails during the flight to Portreath.

It is interesting to note that neither aircraft is equipped with oxygen equipment — hardly surprising, since there is rarely any reason for SD aircraft to fly above 10,000 feet — nor are they fitted with airscrew de-icing.

Jackson’s intercom fails, and at the last moment Austin’s wireless operator discovers that there is no Syko machine (a fairly basic encoding/decoding device) aboard his aircraft; one is supplied by Portreath. OADU subsequently sends a scathing, detailed memo to 44 Group (and from thence to 3 Group) about the poor preparation of these aircraft. The Stradishall Signals Officer’s reply — Newmarket Heath comes under Stradishall for admin and control purposes — gives a good picture of the problems routinely faced by 138 Squadron, which has been warned of the operation only at lunchtime on the 29th.

Newmarket – Stradishall

F/Lt Jack Oettle has recently returned to Special Duties, having recovered from his injuries sustained in the Operation JOSEPHINE crash at Tangmere on 10 April. He takes off from Newmarket for Stradishall at about 1150 in Whitley Z9223, accompanied by another Whitley. He has two crew aboard, F/Sgt Rochford, DFM, RNZAF, and LAC Lee.

Approaching Stradishall to land shortly before midday, Oettle stalls the Whitley in a similar manner to his previous accident, and it crashes in flames. This time it is fatal; all three on board are killed. At 1630 Hockey reports that ‘dental records of the three are insufficient for identification purposes’. An NCO questioned is certain that only those three were aboard the aircraft. The other aircraft, pilot unrecorded, lands safely.

There has been some confusion over the date of this crash, possibly caused by an incautious date entry in the Stradishall log.

Sources

Newmarket – Portreath

TNA AIR14/2527
Source of 44 Group correspondence
Logbooks: P/Os JB Austin and AGW Livingstone

Newmarket – Stradishall

Flights of the Forgotten, p.36
Agents by Moonlight, pp.24 & 303. (Appendix of losses has correct date.)
TNA AIR14/2527

Tuesday, 28 October 1941

Newmarket: warning order for operations to the Middle East

F/Lt Jackson and P/O Austin are given orders to fly to Portreath. How much they are initially told one has no way of knowing, but they are to fly from Portreath to Malta across France, for operations into Yugoslavia. It is not clear why they are being routed to Portreath, as the distance to Malta is no shorter, and the Stradishall log shows that Wellingtons are regularly transported to the Middle East from Stradishall via Malta; also, the Whitleys carrying the paratroops for Operation COLOSSUS back in February had flown direct to Malta from Mildenhall.

Correspondence in November from Portreath and Stradishall shows that the warning order is signalled to Newmarket at about midday on the 29th, but the Stradishall log (which is entirely contemporary) shows that its Ops office is informed by Newmarket at 19.15 on the 28th, so the warning order must have been received at Newmarket on the 28th.

Both aircraft have to be quickly equipped with a complete set of six auxiliary 66-gallon/300 litre fuel tanks, two in the bomb-bay, four in the rear fuselage. The aircraft are in the workshops for the conversion, which makes it impossible for the crew to do the necessary equipment checks on other equipment; this has consequences at Portreath. Initially operating on an ‘enhanced Flight’ basis, 138 Squadron is still well below nominal strength in all aspects, including engineering staff. Two ground staff are to accompany the expedition.

Thursday, 10 April 1941

Operation JOSEPHINE

The Pessac power station supplies electrical power to the Bordeaux area, which hosts a submarine base built for the Italian Navy known as ‘BETASOM’, from which its submarines will account for more than half a million tons of Allied shipping. Damaging the power station would cripple both base and local industry: the Bloch aircraft company and Ford France have factories in the area. Bomber Command has attacked Bordeaux several times in 1940 and 1941. The local airfield at Merignac, home to Condor long-range bombers that another menace to the Atlantic convoys, would also be disrupted.

Six Polish Army saboteurs are selected for the operation. Though they might seem an odd choice, a considerable portion of the Polish Army had escaped to France during the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939-40, and during the collapse General Sikorski had established his headquarters at Libourne, 25 km to the east. The presence of Poles in that part of France is therefore not uncommon, even after the armistice, and many soldiers who have escaped to England with Sikorski know their way around the area. Explosives expertise cannot be acquired quickly, and at the time the Free French Forces do not have such experts to hand.

The Whitley, T4165, is one of the pair from the Tragino Aqueduct raid, Operation COLOSSUS. These aircraft had been prepared in haste for COLOSSUS at Ringway, and on that raid there had been several container hang-ups over the target; one, crucially, had held many of the explosive charges. On this night, however, the problem isn’t a hang-up but a falling-off: en route to the target, shortly before midnight, an electrical fault releases one of the containers. Without the limpet-mines it carries there is no point in continuing with the operation, and Oettle returns to Tangmere.

By the time the Whitley arrives over Tangmere at about 03.30 much of its fuel has been used up. On take-off the heavy fuel load has masked the effect of the saboteurs’ weight on the Whitley’s centre-of-gravity (C-of-G). Now that most of the fuel had been used up, the C-of-G has moved dangerously aft.

As the Whitley approaches the runway Oettle is too high, too slow. Even if he elects to go around this is a dangerous procedure in a Whitley: the Merlin X engines are underpowered and cannot be wound up quickly. Also, in the final stages of a normal landing there is little elevator control, for the tailplane falls into the turbulent wash behind the wings. The Whitley stalls, and crashes heavily.

Of F/Lt Oettle’s crew, Sergeants Cowan (Observer) and Morris (Rear Gunner) are killed. Jack Oettle is seriously injured, as are P/O Wilson (2nd Pilot) and Sgt Briscoe (Wireless Operator). The agents escape serious injury: the rear fuselage is an inherently safer place to be than the cockpit area, but their escape may also be due to the cushioning effect of their swaddling parachute gear, the sorbo-rubber floor-mats, and stacks of bundled propaganda leaflets. Stradishall does not list P/O Molesworth among the injured; he is probably the Despatcher, back in the rear fuselage with the Poles. Although most despatchers are airmen volunteers from the ground trades, it is not uncommon for an officer from Ringway to perform this role.

Tangmere is a busy Fighter airfield, and there are many witnesses to the accident. The several personnel seen emerging from the rear fuselage are bound to arouse comment. One of the witnesses is Jimmy McCairns, a fighter pilot at Tangmere, later a noted Lysander pilot with 161 Squadron: the fiction put out is that the six agents are newspaper correspondents returning from covering a raid. Thin cover, given the eastern-European accents of the ‘newspapermen’, but it has to do.