No. 138 Special Duties Squadron RAF: a few memories told by pilots and crews who flew Halifax Bombers supporting resistance movements in occupied Europe during WW2.

Halifax at RAF Tempford

No. 138 Special Duties Squadron supported SOE, MI6, MI9, the Free French and resistance movements throughout occupied Europe. Apart from dropping agents by parachute most of the weapons, sabotage stores and money to finance resistance arrived by parachute during moon periods and 138 Squadron was base at RAF Tempsford near Sandy Bedfordshire.

Flying Officer Reginald Lewis Halifax Observer/bomb-aimer

My trips from Tempsford involved going down to the south of France, a couple of trips to Norway and one in Germany itself. That one always surprises me, because we had an agent dressed up in a German uniform.

The squadron was operating as far as Poland and that was quite a long flight in wartime conditions, from the UK up to somewhere like Warsaw was something like fifteen hours. Apart from the danger of the flight itself it was almost at the complete endurance of a Halifax. They just couldn’t hold any more octane. And a couple of crews were lost, particularly over the Baltic, to night fighter attacks.

Squadron Leader Frank Griffiths Halifax Pilot

Polish crews joined us… and they were marvellously aggressive…   The British would come back the proper way as briefed, but you’d be very surprised to come back and find that the Poles were about an hour ahead of you, because they’d come back through the middle of Germany, and they never had a bullet left. Having got rid of the packages to be dropped or the men, they would go on a shoot-up in Germany. And, of course, in many places the aircraft got hit and then we had to repair them…. You couldn’t help but admire them… They were wonderful chaps. There was no turning back with the Poles.

Wing Commander Ken Batchelor Halifax Pilot

People were attacked, intercepted, here and there. I did a dog-leg to avoid the German airfield near Caen and of course flew right over the bloody airfield and we were at nought feet. It was very interesting over the housetops with tracer bullets horizontal over and under your wings.

Pilot Officer John Charrot Halifax observer/bomb aimer

In France they had these trains which were usually carrying troops… but you couldn’t tell that on the back they had a gun, a flak gun, and this night we didn’t pick it up and they started firing. But Terry, from the rear turret was so quick that he knocked it out before much damage had been done until we heard the dispatcher screaming over the intercom, ‘All the joe’s {agents} are hit and the aircraft is riddled with holes.’

 During the same interview Frank Griffiths who was the pilot added:

As a matter of fact, the expression he used was, ‘It looks like a butcher’s shop in the back.’ None of the RAF crew were hurt, fortunately, but we turned around and came back…. After we landed the petrol was still pouring out of the aircraft and the medical officer on the station sent the casualties off to hospital. Then a medical orderly who’d been told to clean up all the syringes and things we’d used in our first aid kit, found the ear of a man… and the ear was packed in ice, rushed down to the hospital and sewn on and it was quite ok, he got his ear back. I don’t know what his hearing was like, but it was quite a gory job.

Squadron Leader Frank Griffiths Halifax Pilot

I was to drop this load off just north of Annecy, about halfway between Annecy and the Swiss town of Geneva. Most of the equipment, military equipment, was for the Plateau des Gliéres, this very high plateau, which was an excellent place for the Maquis {French Resistance} to hide out… On the third trip one engine failed. At first it sounded like fuel starvation. I wasn’t over worried. Slapped it into coarse pitch, which means less drag, and the flight engineer started to try and sort things out… we seemed to be doing quite well on three {engines} and even climbed a bit. Then {we} turned around and came back…. There’s nothing worse than having a four-engined bomber that won’t climb in the bottom of an Alpine valley in the middle of the night, even if it is a full moon.

The next thing that happened was the other engine on that wing went. That’s no.2 engine… I sent the crew to crash stations and then we hit the first house. In fact, the last thing the dispatcher said to me over the intercom was, ‘All Ok, skipper. Crews to crash stations.’ That was actually the last spoken message. Before that, this chap McKenzie, the co-pilot, who’d merely come for the trip because he was so keen, had wrestled with the escape hatch over my head and got that off. Then the aircraft broke up and I got shot through this hatch and partly through the window screen with my seat attached and about a good hundredweight of thick steel armour plating behind.

I ended up in telephone wires between two poles. Meanwhile the aircraft had crashed, and the crew were killed, though I believe Maden, the dispatcher did get as far as the hospital in Annecy and then died. It’s hard for me to say exactly what went on. There was a tremendous fire…      

SOE Wireless Operators in France.

As with all countries under German occupation, in France the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) and the Gestapo employed huge resources to track down wireless operators. Apart from resistance movements being unable to function without arms, explosives and other support which could only be obtained through wireless links to London, Hugo Bleicher who was a senior non-commissioned officer with the Abwehr and responsible for crushing resistance in France, said they regarded wireless operators as a rich source of intelligence because they had knowledge of every message and orders received from London.

Hugo Bleicher

The headquarters of the French Section in London were aware of the dangers facing their agents and those volunteering for wireless training were told their chances of survival, with a bit of luck, was six-weeks and if captured they would very likely be tortured by the Gestapo for their personal codes which could be used by a German operator to ‘play-back’ their wireless to London. Only later did the section become aware ‘play-back’ had been used by the Germans with great success in the Netherlands and many agents along with members of the resistance had been killed or transported to concentration camps where they were later executed. (information about the Dutch section will found at the link provided)

Jacqueline Nearne, former courier with SOE French seen in the public information film ‘School for Danger: Now the truth can be told’ which was produced after the war.

Agents volunteering for wireless duties were sent on a technically challenging course at the Wireless and Security School and the two main establishments were located at Fawley Court in Henley-on-Thames and Thames House in Oxfordshire.  Apart from learning to send and receive Morse Code at a sufficient speed they needed to understand radio wave propagation, the use of cyphers and learn how to repair their wireless in the field. They also needed to prove their competence in the use of various security measures intended to make it difficult for German direction finders pin-pointing the safe houses they were using whilst in contact with London.

A recent photograph of Fawley Court

When wireless trained agents arrived in France their first task was to find several suitable locations from which to use their transmitter to pass messages to London as quickly as possible whilst ensuring they never stayed on the air for over twenty-minutes, but for a variety of reasons some operators broke the twenty-minute rule and did not survive the war.

It was not long before the Germans introduced radio jammers which apart from making it difficult to send and receive messages was also intended to force operators to remain longer on the air to pass messages.

Information about the Wireless War against SOE D Section (Dutch)

SOE Memorial in Valençay, France.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) Memorial in Valençay, France in the department of Indre was erected close to the area where the first SOE agent, George Bégue (aka George Noble) infiltrated France by parachute and made the first radio transmission to London and arranged the first weapons to be dropped by parachute to members of the French Resistance.

The role of honour lists the names of the 91 men and 13 women members of SOE who did not return from France and the monument symbolises the clandestine nature of SOE.

Dark columns evoke the clandestine side of night flights during moon periods when agents were sent to France, weapons and sabotage stores arrived by parachute to members of the resistance.

It’s clear column evokes the courage and the final victory of resistance.

Between the columns, a disk evokes the accomplice moon for the favourable full moon periods for clandestine air operations (parachute, landing and pickups

Three bright blocks evoke the markup L prepared on the ground by those receiving the agents to assist guiding the planes

The memorial was dedicated by the Minister of Veterans Affairs for France and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother on 6 May1991 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of F Section’s first agent to arrive in France. The monument is called the ‘Spirt of Partnership’.

Robert Benoist, SOE (Special Operations Executive)

 

Robert Benoist was a French Grand Prix racing driver who escaped to England when France was occupied in 1940. Whilst in England he successfully passed selection and training for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and returned to France to establish clandestine networks. He was also responsible for the reception of arms and explosives dropped by parachute and setup arms dumps in the Rambouillet Forest. Sometime in June 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and whilst being driven to Gestapo Headquarters he threw himself from the moving vehicle and escaped and was eventually extracted and returned to England. Several months later he returned to France to continue his resistance work and was later recalled to England for a briefing and additional training. In February 1944 he undertook his third mission to France and arrived with orders to prepare clandestine circuits in the Nantes region and ensure they were ready to support the Allies during D-Day by attacking prearranged targets to slowdown the German advance to Normandy.   

On 18 June 1944 Robert Benoist was again captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald Concentration camp where, along with fifteen other SOE prisoners was executed by slow strangulation after being hung with piano wire from hooks on the wall in the crematorium. Captain Robert Benoist is recorded on the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey and also on the SOE memorial in Valençay.   

Execution hooks on the wall of the crematorium at Buchenwald

Nancy Wake – Special Operations Executive (in this documentary Nancy Wake lives up to her reputation of being straight talking!)

Film documentary telling the story of the Australian who, after engineering the escape of hundreds of allied servicemen from occupied France during the Second World War – and following her own escape and subsequent training as an S.O.E. agent returned to France by parachute to support the resistance.  (Six-part documentary)