Saturday, 15 March 1941

Operation SAVANNA

In the summer and autumn of 1940 the Luftwaffe started their attempts to use radio-direction technology to guide their bombers to targets in England. While coastal targets like London, Plymouth, Southampton and Belfast could be found on all but the darkest of nights, inland targets like Manchester and Birmingham were harder to find. By following a narrowly-directed radio-beam a specialist unit of the Luftwaffe, K.Gr.100, has been able to find these harder-to-find targets and set them alight them with incendiary bombs. The rank-and-file bomber squadrons have only to find these fires, visible from afar, and bomb them. Coventry in November 1940 was the first result.

British technology, the so-called ‘bending of the beams’ as described by Professor R. V. Jones, is one counter-strategy. Another approach is to eliminate the highly-trained crews of K.Gr.100. Their Heinkel bombers can be replaced; they can not.

Intelligence sources in Brittany have discovered that the crews travel by bus between Meucon airfield and their lodgings in Vannes, about five miles away. Operation SAVANNA is a plan to ambush this bus, a single recognisable target, between the base and the outskirts of Vannes, and kill the aircrews. SOE is not yet a going concern, and lacks trained personnel who can do the job and pass without notice in France. The British have been forced to approach de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, and a team of five has been recruited. No. 2 Group’s Blenheims are to attack Meucon airfield as a diversion for 419 Flight’s parachuting of the agents a few miles to the east.

The operation is carried out some three months after the attack had first been mooted. But in the meantime the Heinkel crews have settled in: they have acquired private cars cheaply from a population that can no longer use them. The assassination team disbands and the agents employ themselves in other intelligence and resistance activities before making their way back to the UK.

SAVANNA is an excellent example of an operation that could have worked had it been put into effect immediately. Whether it should have been attempted is a different matter: while this coup-de-main type of attack has become a standard component of insurgent warfare since 1945, its authorisation says a great deal about Britain’s desperate need to disable these pinpoint raids. The raid had been commissioned by the Air Ministry, but once the operation transmuted from planning-mode to execution, it was the RAF which prevaricated. The RAF had agreed to drop spies for SIS, and was reasonably comfortable with doing so — it could hardly refuse, given that it had done so in the previous war — but the RAF shared the other Services’ instinctive distaste for irregular forces. The RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, wanted the men to be dropped in uniform, so that the killing, though repugnant, would at least be legitimate according to the articles of war. On 1 February he wrote to Sir Gladwyn Jebb of SOE:

I think that the dropping of men dressed in civilian clothes for the purpose of attempting to kill members of the opposing forces is not an operation with which the Royal Air Force should be associated. I think you will agree that there is a vast difference, in ethics, between the time-honoured operation of the dropping of a spy from the air and this entirely new scheme for dropping what one can only call assassins.

Previous posts show that Operation SAVANNA has been repeatedly postponed or cancelled since early February, not for operational reasons such as poor weather (as claimed by M.R.D. Foot in 1966), but by the Air Ministry. 419 Flight has carried out other arduous operations during the same period while SAVANNAH has repeatedly been postponed. No. 2 Group’s Blenheims have been ready to go from February, and so have the Free French agents: Capt. Georges Bergé, Sgt J. Forman, Joël le Tac, Lt Petit-Laurent, & Cpl Renault.

Stradishall Operations Officers’ Log, February – March 1941

Date Time From Context Actions
7/2/41 1015 Spoke to Squadron Leader Knowles re 419 Flight and Blenheim operations tonight. Squadron Leader Knowles states Ops cancelled for tonight. Advised:- Station Commander and W/Cdr Ommancy
8/2/41 1200 S/L Knowles Inform W/C Cameron of 107 Squadron. Savannah for tonight cancelled. Blenheims not operating. 3 Group informed and asked to notify 2 Group. W/C Cameron informed.
10/2/41 1110 S/Ldr Knowles Savannah cancelled for today 3 Group informed.
11/2/41 1025 S/L Knowles 1025 S/L Knowles: W/C Earl of Bandon of 2 Group to be informed that Savannah is ‘off’ tonight. Group informed & are passing message to 2 Group.
13/2/41 1035 S/L Knowles Savannah cancelled. Advised 3 Group.
14/2/41 0925 S/L Knowles 2 Group rang & W/C Bandon informed personally that “Savannah is off for tonight.”
15/2/41 0920 S/L Knowles Savannah is cancelled for tonight. Informed 3 Group to inform 2 Group.
16/2/41 1420 S/L Knowles Savannah cancelled for tonight. 3 Group asked to inform 2 Group.
17/2/41 1135 S/L Knowles Let W/C Earl of Bandon know that Savannah is temporarily suspended. Earl of Bandon informed.
3/3/41 1845 S/Ldr Knowles Telephoned No. 2 Group that Savannah will be on for Thursday.
6/3/41 1300 2 Group Savannah cancelled for tonight. will be considered to-morrow. 419 Flight informed.
7/3/41 1000 Group Savannah cancelled tonight
8/3/41 0950 2 Group Inform S/L Knowles that there will be a Met. conference upon operation ‘Savannah’ at 1115 hrs & will let him know then. S/L Knowles informed.
9/3/41 0945 3 Group Savannah cancelled. Advised 1419 Flight.
10/3/41 0935 2 Group Savannah cancelled owing to weather. S/L Knowles Informed
11/3/41 0945 3 Group Savannah cancelled for to-night. S/L Knowles informed.
12/3/41 1100 2 Group Savannah cancelled. S/Ldr Knowles advised.
12/3/41 1505 1419 Flight Ref. ‘Savannah’ any information coming from 2 Group to be given to ? Appleyard (an army officer) who will be in the mess 13/3/41. Informed Capt. Appleyard.
15/3/41 1035 S/L Knowles Savannah is ‘on’. A/c T4166 Whitley F/Lt Oettle. T4166 ‘X’ IFF fitted.
15/3/41 1306 S/L McMichael For W/C Bandon. Further information on Operation Savannah after lunch.
15/3/41 1655 Group A general fog an be expected in East Anglia. St Eval & Boscombe should be alright. Group will let us know later whether St Eval can accommodate all a/c returning – if not the effort may be reduced.
15/3/41 1805 S/L Knowles 1419 Flight has arranged to divert to St Eval.
15/3/41 1855 No. 2 Group S.A.S.O. No. 2 Group phoned a message for S/L Knowles. All is fixed & no snags as regards weather. Everything is being carried out according to plan. S/L Knowles informed. S/L Knowles informed.
16/3/41 0340 3 Group Whitley operation completely successful. Landed at St Eval. S/L Knowles informed.
16/3/41 1215 S/Ldr Knowles Requested through Group permission to land at St Eval after tonight’s operation. Group asked. St Eval replied O.K.

Data extracted from the Stradishall Operations Officers’ Log Book, TNA AIR 14/2527.