Tuesday 8 April 1941

Operation to Belgium

Flt Lt A.D. Jackson (believed to be Ashley Duke Jackson, 33261) flies his first operation with the Special Duties Flight. Jackson was remembered by his fellow-pilots as either South African or Rhodesian. Before coming to 1419 Flight he had been instructing on Whitleys at No. 10 OTU. By the end of 1940 Sqn Ldr Knowles, then at the Air Ministry in charge of planning 419 Flight’s operations, had become something of a nuisance at Abingdon, repeatedly tapping 10 OTU’s instructor-pool for experienced aircrew: first it had been Sergeants Bernard and Davies, both W/T instructors, then F/O Jack Oettle. In December he’d asked Air Commodore Archie Boyle, the Air Ministry’s Director of Intelligence, to use his influence to procure Jackson for 419 Flight. Even with Boyle’s efforts Jackson’s transfer didn’t take place until March.

Jackson’s operational report is undated, but the logbook of Group Captain Ron Hockey, who flew as Jackson’s Second Pilot on this operation, identifies the date of the sortie, their first with the Flight. Jackson’s crew includes a Sergeant Besant as Observer. Sgt Besant does not appear in any later operational reports, so he appears to have been posted out. The Whitley is P5029, repaired after its mishap at Sumburgh in February.

They take off from Stradishall, then set course for the Belgian coast at 21.16, climbing to 5,000 feet for the crossing. With cloud at 3,000 ft, they are unable to see the English coast to see whether they are on track. The wireless operator obtains a back bearing (QDM) from a radio beacon at Stradishall, which verifies that they are. They make landfall in clear weather at Knokke, but as they lose height to 2,000 feet the Whitley is picked up by searchlights and attacked by coastal flak batteries north-east of Zeebrugge, though their firing is wide. Sgt Bramley, the rear gunner, succeeds in putting one of the searchlights out. Jackson flies inland to somewhere he records as ‘AILTROE’, arriving at 22.23. There they alter course for ‘WATTEN’, flying slowly at a height of 1,500 feet, and the despatcher is instructed to ‘commence operations’.

Their flight-path takes them across the Franco-Belgian border to ‘WATTEN’. They return on an reciprocal course, crossing the border at ‘WARHOUDT’. They continue on the same course, passing over Bruges. During the whole exercise they fly over several aerodromes, but encounter no searchlight or flak opposition until they leave the coast for the North Sea, when they are engaged by three searchlights.

This operation does not tie in with any known agent; indeed, may have been a leaflet-dropping exercise, to give a new crew valuable experience and to test whether they could do the job later with a real agent. Jackson’s report on this operation is difficult to analyze because many of the locations his report mentions are difficult to identify: while ‘Knock’ can be identified as Knokke with certainty, ‘Ailtroe’ might be Aalter. Or it may not. ‘Watten’ could be the village in France near St Omer, the later site of the V-2 launching base. ‘Warhoudt’ is untraceable, at least by the author.

Update March 2018 – Operation Columba

The purpose of this sortie has now become clear: it was not pamphlets that the crew dropped in a line across the Franco-Belgian border, but pigeons. This sortie was the first operation in a programme to drop small packages over Nazi-occupied Europe. Each package contained a homing-pigeon, food and water (for the pigeon), rice-paper, a pencil and a tiny green container for a written message. Anyone finding one of these might provide British Intelligence with useful information about the occupiers, but for anyone caught with one of these pigeons the result would have been a death-sentence. Many of these containers were handed over to the authorities, but several brave individuals wrote messages and released the pigeon to return to England. Of those pigeons dropped this night, two made it back to England.

From the COLUMBA file in the National Archive, the Belgian place-names, once elusive, become clear. The end-point of the Whitley’s dropping-run is indeed the French village of Watten; later in the war a vast blockhouse to house a V-2 launching complex will be built in the woods nearby. The first pigeon to returned is sent from the Belgian village of Herzeele. By drawing a line from Watten through Herzeele, the two towns of AALTER and WORMHOUT are on the track.


TNA AIR 20/8334, encl. 5A.
Pilot’s logbook, Grp Capt. R.C. Hockey

Gordon Corera, ‘Secret Pigeon Service’, pp. 24, 37-8.
TNA AIR 20/8457 (Operation COLUMBA)