Article by James Holland. ‘RAF Special Operations’
This article first appeared in the the Journal Everyones’s War Volume 10
James Holland is the author of Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-1943 and Together We Stand North Africa 1942-1943: Turning the Tide in the West: Britain, America and the War in North Africa, May 1942-May 1943 and many other works
When eighteen year-old Sergeant Les Silver and the rest of his crew arrived at the quiet airfield of Tempsford, near Bedford, none of them had any idea they would be carrying out Special Duties operations. They had trained on four-engine Halifax bombers and assumed that once they’d finished their heavy bomber conversion course at Dishforth in Yorkshire, they would be going on bomber missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
The aircraft dotted around the airfield, however, should have given them a clue that Tempsford was no ordinary bomber station. As well as a few Halifaxes, there were also twin-engine Wellingtons, Hudsons and ageing Whitleys, and most telling of all, a number of Lysanders, high-winged and robust monoplanes, ideal for landing in a tight spot but hopeless for carrying bombs. Soon after their arrival, Les and his crew were told they would be joining 161 Squadron and began low-level flying training. ‘Normally bombers were operating at 18,000 to 25,000 feet,‘ says Les, ‘but we were flying at 1,000 to 1,200 feet, below radar levels.’1 This was no easy matter, especially at night, and required particular concentration on the part of the pilot and navigator.
Tom Smith was also with 161 Squadron, a Flight Engineer, and like Les, had arrived at Tempsford with no understanding of what lay in store for him and his crew, and was somewhat perplexed when they were cryptically warned they would not be needing an oxygen mask. Another Tempsford veteran, Rowland Peake, arrived at Tempsford in May 1944 along with twenty-seven other newly-trained aircrew, making up four more Halifax crews. Like Les and Tom, he had thought they would soon be taking part in bombing raids, so was surprised to discover they were now part of 138 Squadron and that like 161, they would be carrying out clandestine operations over Occupied Europe. In a lecture given by the CO, Rowland and the other new aircrew were given a brief introduction to the kind of work they would be doing. The task of the two Tempsford squadrons, they were told, was to carry out operations in support of SOE – Special Operations Executive – and would involve delivering arms, equipment and even agents. Secrecy, they were warned, was paramount. The procedure was straightforward: flying only during full-moon periods to aid navigation, they were to cross the Channel and over the enemy coast as low as possible. On reaching the target, 400 feet was considered the ideal height for dropping agents and goods. This was high enough for the parachute to open but ensured minimal time floating about in the air when they might be all-too easily spotted by the enemy. All agents were to be known as ‘Joes’, no matter whether they were male or female; the aircrew were never to know their real names. If, for any reason they needed to land anywhere back in the UK other than Tempsford and they had agents on board it was up to them to make absolutely sure that no-one questioned them, regardless of rank. ‘Dispatchers’ would help the agent or goods out of the aircraft – these would either be the Flight Engineer – like Les Silver – or the mid upper gunner. There were other precautions: the targets for the drops would only be known to the pilot and navigator, although the dispatcher would be told the number and sex of agents they would be taking and the contents of any containers.
Rowland Peake’s first mission was to drop containers on to a remote field in France. To begin with, he wasn’t happy with his navigation – he knew they were definitely off course, but couldn’t work out what was going wrong. Then, in the nick of time, he realised he’d failed to set the repeater compass with the amount of correction to allow for variation and deviation. Quickly rectifying this, he soon got them back on track; in the moonlight he was able to spot pale milky-blue landmarks as featured on his map, and sure enough, right over target they could see the faint glow of four lights – so dim they assumed they must be bicycle lamps – in the field below. Releasing their cargo through the bomb bay, they banked and set course for home.
Both Les Silver and Tom Smith had a fair degree of interaction with the ‘Joes’. ‘You used to flirt with the girls,’ recalls Les. ‘There was eye contact.’ Sitting in the main body of the Halifax, they would chat – although the noise and amount of clothing they wore ensured conversation was of a ‘basic’ nature.
‘There was laughing and joking,’ he says, even if it was nervous laughter.2 Tom Smith certainly admired the courage of these people. His first two missions with 161 Squadron were over Norway, where the Allies were actively encouraging major armed resistance in the months following D-Day in France. His pilot and their Wireless Operator were both Norwegian, which would have given them a better chance of survival had they ended up getting stuck there. On one of these trips, Tom remembers dropping two ‘Joes’ over an area that appeared devoid of habitation. ‘There was no reception party as there normally was,’ he noted later, ‘and they simply jumped into a wilderness of snow…they were very brave people.’3 The casualty rate amongst agents was high. Many of the men and women they dropped would not be coming home. As the dispatcher, Tom Smith would help the agents into position over the trap-door, a circular hole cut out of the bottom of the fuselage. ‘The memory of what happened then on this part of the operation has never left,’ he recalls.
When the Green light for Go came on, one of us would tap the agent on the shoulder. Almost without exception the male agents would look beseechingly into the eyes of those around him as if to say goodbye to a sane world, and then jump out. The female agents would position themselves on the edge of the drop out door and go straight out. No eye contact, nothing. My heart and a prayer went out with each of them.4
By flying so low, it was hoped they would avoid both radar and interception by enemy aircraft, but this wasn’t always the case. Les Silver remembers being attacked by night fighters, although they always managed to get themselves out of trouble. We only had superficial damage,’ he says. Potentially far more dangerous was anti-aircraft fire – flak. On one of Rowland Peake’s first trips, they had dropped some ‘parcels’ along with another Halifax. On their return, they saw the other plane caught by a blue searchlight cone and then shortiy after it was hit, it caught fire and dived, exploding as it plummeted into the ground. Blue searchlights were controlled by radar – once caught in a ‘blue,’ ordinary – or ‘white’ – searchlights would then be directed towards the unfortunate aircraft, followed by a hail of flak. A few missions later, Rowland and his crew were caught by a ‘blue’ themselves. ‘The skipper stalled the engine,’ he recalled, ‘then put it in a screaming dive right at the searchlight. The Halifax didn’t like it a lot and nor did we,’ but as they roared over it, their rear-gunner fired a burst from his machine-guns and out went the light. ‘The ‘whites’ still searched for us but we were safe.’5
During the first years of the war clandestine warfare was still in its infancy. Even parachuting was still in its experimental stage. The Russians had been early proponents, but almost every area of Britain’ s armed forces had been woefully under-developed during the inter-war years, and parachuting was no exception. As late as Spring 1941, the head of de Gaulle’s Free French Secret Services was taken by the British to watch some parachuting exercises. On this occasion, only sandbags were being used, but over half the parachutes never opened and the sandbags thudded heavily to the ground. We looked at each other, rather pale,’ noted the Frenchman. ‘Still, after all some parachutes had managed to open; so we might be lucky.’6
Nor was the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, that eager to help, which was one of the reasons why the Special Duties Squadrons at Tempsford were never given any of his precious Lancasters, but rather, older bombers like the Halifax, Wellington and Whitley. Indeed, up until August 1941, the number of UK-based aircraft available for full-time work on clandestine operations was just five. This figure was still under 30 by the end of 1942.
138 Squadron was the first Special Duties squadron to be formed and was originally set up on Newmarket racecourse in August 1941; 161 Squadron followed six months later, although they only moved to the newly-built Tempsford in March 1942. This was a fairly basic air base – what another 161 Squadron pilot, Hugh Verity, called a ‘rush job quickly built’ – consisting of three hangars and a number of Nissen huts for the Officers’ Mess, station headquarters, and squadron offices.7 The barns of what used to be Gibraltar Farm, tucked away at one end of the air base, were used by the SOE for their stores and as an agent reception and pre-flight preparation centre. Fortunately for the officers (although not for NCO aircrew like Les Silver or Tom Smith) nearby Hazells Hall, the local manor house, served as comparatively luxurious sleeping quarters
The Special Duties Squadrons were also given a corner of the Battie of Britain fighter base of Tangmere, in Sussex, and occasionally 295 Squadron of Transport Command – based at Hurn in Bournemouth – was also brought in to help, particular as the number of drops needed to help the Maquis and other resistance groups escalated immediately before and after D-Day. Flight Lieutenant John ‘Casey’ Jones, for example, was a 295 Squadron pilot brought in to carry out a number of SOE operations in between his more usual glider-towing duties. Flying a twin-engine Whitworth Albemarle, his first drop was over France in April 1944. Once above the target, he soon got used to the dropping procedure. The reception party below would flash a pre-arranged Morse code letter, which was John’s signal. ‘Then once you’d seen that, the lights would appear,‘ he says, ‘a green, just like the traffic lights – green, amber and red – and you circled around, opened your bomb bays, got to green, flew down, dropped everything off and shot off. That was the briefing: never hang about.’8These larger aircraft were tasked purely with flying over a target, but a number of aircraft did actually land especially in order to pick up as well as deliver agents. Most famous of these was the Westland Lysander, or ‘Lizzie’ as it was known. Squadron Leader Hugh Verity had joined 161 Squadron in November 1942. He’d earlier served in a night fighter Beaufighter squadron, so knew something about night flying, and then at Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory in Stanmore. Sometimes when he’d been on duty late into the night, he’d noticed lonely plots of single aircraft doggedly crossing the Channel and then, a few hours later, coming back. Asking one of his colleagues about these lone aircraft, he’d been told about ‘Specials’ and the kind of cloak-and-dagger operations they were doing.
Believing he could be more use to the war effort by joining the Special Duties operations, Verity managed to get himself transferred, taking over as commander of ‘A’ Flight’s six Lysanders. Landing operations were considerably more dangerous than just flying over a target, largely because one could never be sure of the reception committee or exactly what the conditions were on the ground. The risk of being stuck in the country over which they were operating was ever-present to all Special Duties air crews, all of whom carried their own escape and evasion kit. These included a wad of French money, a map of France printed on silk, a compass, fishing hook and line and some concentrated food tablets, as well as photographs of themselves in civilian garb which could then be used for a forged identity card if required; Rowland Peake still has his. Hugh Verity tended to wear a mixture of civilian clothes and uniform when on operations; his battle blouse could easily be burned or hidden, leaving him with an ordinary shirt, trousers and pullover.
As a Lysander pilot, Verity was also his own navigator. Navigation, whether in a Lysander or a Halifax, needed to be of a very high standard. There were few navigation aids: Verity was merely given 1:250,000 military maps as well as French Michelin road maps, and aerial photographs to study beforehand. Reception committees were told to choose sites which could easily be seen from the air, but this was not always possible and pilots frequently had to circle repeatedly before they finally spotted the dim half-hidden lights below.
Hugh Verity made 29 successful pick-ups during his time with 161 Squadron. One of his most dangerous missions was in February 1943, when he was carrying just one passenger outbound – who, as he later discovered, was Jean Moulin, one of de Gaulle’s leading resistance co-ordinators, later infamously tortured and murdered at the hands of Klaus Barbie. They were heading for a field south of the Loire but on reaching the target area discovered it was thick with fog and Verity was left with no visual reference to the ground at all; there was nothing for it but to turn back home, in this case to Tangmere. Having evaded the searchlights of Cherbourg, he finally reached home only to find the station also covered in fog. Dropping height through this low cloud, Verity believed he was just above the runway and so cut his throttle; in fact, he was still thirty feet too high and he smashed into the ground. Miraculously, neither pilot nor passenger was injured. Verity apologised profusely in French, but Moulin ‘could not have been more charming and even went to the lengths of thanking me for a ‘very agreeable flight’.9
Later in the war, Verity supervised clandestine air operations in South East Asia; Special Duties squadrons operated in every theatre. In the Middle East, 624 Squadron bore the brunt of clandestine work, and later 334 Wing was established to help resistance work in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. But there were also different types of special operations carried out by the RAF, although many of these were in co-operation with other services. For example, the RAF worked with the embryonic SAS in North Africa, while on the Mediterranean island of Malta, a Special Duties Flight, made up of three twin-engine Wellington bombers specially adapted for night-time detection work, operated closely with the Royal Navy. The key piece of equipment was the new Air to Surface Vessel radar (ASV). With three large antennae – looking rather like television aerials – stuck along the fuselage and another two under each wing, these special Wellingtons looked like curious hybrids of their former selves, but on Malta they soon proved invaluable and during the last few months of 1941 worked particularly well in conjunction with the Navy’s Force K, a fast surface force that had been wreaking havoc on Axis shipping in the central Mediterranean. Intelligence of a convoy about to leave an Italian port would reach Malta and the Special Duties Flight Wellingtons would take off and with its ASV casting a wide net, would track the convoy’s movement. Force K would then set off, directed to their quarry by the Wellington. As the British ships approached, the Wellington would then drop a whole number of marker flares and, if necessary, a few bombs as well.
Peter Rothwell joined the Special Duties Flight on Malta in January 1942. His arrival coincided with the beginning of the heaviest enemy aerial blitz of the island that it was to suffer during its three-year siege. By this time, Malta – rained on by bombs and short of just about everything – was one of the worst postings in the world. The Special Duties Flight’s billets were a bomb-blasted shell of a building near the airfield of Luqa. ‘It was freezing,’ says Peter. ‘The boys were all drinking gin with hot water and eating tiny pickied onions to help them forget the cold.’10
Despite being thrown in at the deep end, however, Peter acquitted himself well. On only his second operational sortie, he helped lead the Fleet Air Arm squadrons on to an enemy convoy of one merchant ship and one tanker, both of which were sunk. Peter later commanded the flight, which continued to serve valiantly from the island even when almost all other offensive air operations had ceased. By the time he left in June 1942, he was severely undernourished and suffering from sandfly fever, yet despite the appalling conditions and the extreme danger of each of his missions, he had somehow kept going; indeed, during his last few weeks on the island, the Special Duties Flight had become the only unit on Malta still capable of offensive operations. On one occasion, they were tasked with attacking an Italian merchant vessel. Flying through intense flak, Peter and his crew bombed and sank the ship. A few days later they were sent to attack the Italian Fleet at Taranto and then on a further mission to illuminate the fleet as they came out of harbour. At the mercy of the fire-power of the entire Italian battle fleet and harbour defences, this was another extremely hazardous task.
Ted Manners found himself carrying out highly ‘hush-hush’ operations of a different kind. Anxious to get into the war, Ted had been completing his aircrew training when he spotted a notice asking for volunteers with a knowledge of German. Having studied the language for three years at school, he decided to sign up and having been accepted, was posted to Ludford Magna, in Lincolnshire, in November 1943. Rather like the new aircrew arriving at Tempsford, Ted had absolutely no idea what he was letting himself in for. On his first day there, he noticed many of the other crew had German-sounding names. They were even kept separate from the other men on the base. The very next day, the volunteers were taken by train to Kingsdown in Kent where they were finally told that they were to become ‘Special Duties Operators’ working on a system called ‘Airborne Cigar,’ otherwise known as ‘ABC’.
What was important, Ted discovered, was not speaking German but being able to distinguish it from Polish or Czech. His job was to fly on a bombing mission to wherever Bomber Command were attacking, then identify German night fighter frequencies and with ABC then send out jamming signals.
101 Squadron recorded one of the highest number of losses of any Bomber Command squadron and Ted’s job was certainly far more dangerous – statistically – than those carried out by the crews at Tempsford. On only his second trip with his new crew, they were attacked by a Focke Wulf 190 and although they managed to evade it, they were not so fortunate a few weeks later, when they were attacked no less than three separate times en route to the target. On their return, they discovered holes on both sides of the cockpit – the pilot had survived by a hair’s breadth. An even worse night mission took place at the end of March 1944, when they were sent on a massed raid to Nuremburg. Seven of 101 Squadron’s twenty-six Lancasters were shot down, including five with ABC equipment. It was the clear moon that caused such terrible losses; the night fighters could see their targets even without the aid of radar.
Miraculously, Ted and his crew survived a full tour of operations, always landing intact despite repeated attacks, flak damage and once, even a mid-air collision. They were the first and only crew in the squadron to finish an entire tour of operations during this period of the war. Seven of the eight-strong crew were alive into 2000.
There was never any specific ‘Special Operations’ Command within the RAF; rather, individual crew members, aircraft, flights and squadrons were adapted and trained as the need arose. 617 Squadron, for example, was formed early in 1943 specifically for the most famous RAF Special Operation of all time – the Dambusters’ Raid that took place on May 16-17, 1943. Yet with the exception of the Dambusters, these clandestine operations are little known today. However, there can be little doubt of the tenacious bravery of the men involved nor of the fact that their work had significance in the struggle for victory.
- Les Silver Second World War Experience Centre, 2001.956
- Tom Smith, Special Duties Squadron, Second World War Experience Centre, 2000.392
- Peake, W Rowland, ‘They Were All Called Joe‘, F!ypast, March 2002
- ‘Passy’ cited by MRD Foot in Resistance, p 120
- Verity, Hugh, We Landed By Moonlight; Secret RAF Landings in France 1940-44, Crecy Publishing Ltd 1998, p14
- John Jones, Second World War Experience Centre, 1999.0228
- Verity, p 65
- Interview with the author
Article by James Holland.
This article first appeared in the the Journal Everyones’s War Volume 10