On Friday 5th December 1941, a lone Spitfire flown by Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Tony Hill thundered south-westerly down the French coast at 200 feet, underneath a solid overcast. The Spitfire was unarmed and carried extra fuel in an auxiliary tank behind the pilot. In the rear fuselage was an obliquely mounted F.24 camera. This photographic reconnaissance (PR) mission was the culmination of a number of operations instigated at the request Doctor R. V. Jones, who was then Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Intelligence Section of the Air Ministry. These low-level missions were known as “Dicing” Ops, as in Dicing with Death and the pilot kept craning his head around to make sure he wasn’t being tailed by the extremely aggressive “Abbeville Boys,” the German fighters from JG 26.
As well as the dangers of interception and flak, these missions presented their own unique problems. The PR pilots required exceptional navigation skills and had to be masters of dead reckoning. The only way to take successful pictures and survive was to take the enemy by surprise. If the mission was compromised, the pilot had no alternative but to abort, which meant the target site couldn’t be revisited for a number of days. The low-level, oblique missions also required split second timing. The target would disappear underneath the wing at the precise moment the photographs had to be taken. The extremely low-tech solution was to line up a small cross painted on the perspex canopy with a thin, black line on the aileron, then operate the camera. About ten minutes from the target, the pilot would activate the heater in the camera bay to ensure there was no condensation on the lens.
Flt Lt Hill skirted Fecamp at a respectable distance because it was a well-defended port with lively flak defences. He lined up the Spitfires nose with the point at Valleuse du Fourquet, made a few, slight corrections to avoid the turbulence spilling off the cliffs and spotted his target on a headland overlooking a small bay. The Spitfire swept past the lonely villa with its surrounding paths, to the left was the real object of the mission nestling in its concrete emplacement on the cliff edge and Hill pressed the camera tit on his control column. Although he had no way of knowing it just then, Flt Lt Hill had just taken one of the most significant photographic reconnaissance photographs of the Second World War. The pilot maintained course for a few more minutes, then turned north, heading back for the English coast. Within less than half an hour the Spitfire was landing at RAF Benson and the developed photographs were sent by motorcycle dispatch to Danesfield house at Medmenham, home of the RAF’s Central Interpretation Unit.
One of the tasks of R.V. Jones’s Science Intelligence directives was to conduct research into the capabilities and likely future development of the German radar programme. Jones had already been deeply involved in the so called “Battle of the Beams,” a project to jam or mislead the German Knickebein blind bombing beams. From transmitters in Kleve and Stollberg in Germany, beams were broadcast, the first of which the German pathfinder bombers flew down listening to the broadcast signal. When they heard the transmission from the second signal crossing the first they knew they were near the target and when the triple dot beep-beep-beep “steady on course” signal was the heard, the bombs were dropped. Despite incredulity from many in scientific circles, Jones theorised that the Germans were bombing on a beam system and a crashed German bomber was investigated by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, where they found the Lorenz blind landing system was overly sophisticated for a simple blind landing device. That it was an electronic bombing system was confirmed by recorded conversations of Luftwaffe prisoners in the enemy aircrew interrogation centres. The system was given the codename “Headache.” The countermeasure naturally codenamed “Aspirin,” was to set up broadcasting stations around the UK, transmitting on the 31.5 MHz wavelength, sending out the triple-dot “steady on course” signal. This meant the beams appeared to be “bent” away from the target, towards spoof instillations made of canvas and wood and generous amounts of pyrotechnics. Additionally, because the Germans navigated using the beams, crews became hopelessly lost and landed at isolated RAF aerodromes by accident. But nothing in warfare remains steady state for long.
The casualty rates of Bomber Command aircraft started to rise significantly in 1941 and it was believed that the Germans were using Radar defences not only as early warning, but to vector the night fighters onto their targets. In 1940 Colonel Josef Kammelhuber had instigated a defensive line of integrated search radar, tracking radar, night fighters and radar predicted flak batteries that stretched from Le Havre to Jutland. Each sector of the line was split into boxes and bombers heading for Germany would have to pass through the line. R.V. Jones had comprehensively tasked the RAF with photographing radar sites in Belgium and France. From these photographs and using electronic equipment on aircraft to plot signal frequencies, Jones’s team worked out that the Germans used a long range radar codenamed “Freya” to detect incoming aircraft. The large upright array that resembled a mattresses’ springs lacked the precision to accurately fix an aircraft’s precise track. He believed there was a secondary, shorter range tracking radar used in conjunction with Freya that Ultra intelligence intercepts referred to as Würzburg. Flt Lt Hill’s Dicing mission had confirmed the existence of a smaller, mobile radar array with a parabolic receiver.
Jones and his team already possessed the necessary equipment to jam the Freya arrays, but it was the shorter range tracking radar that was to cause concern. Jones needed to be able to examine a Würzburg set, or at least the essential components of the system. They would have to get their hands on one and the radar site on the cliffs near Bruneval seemed the most promising and accessible after scrutiny of the PR photographs. Jones approached the Director of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten requesting that the site at Bruneval be raided and as many of the radar’s essential components be returned to England. This request was agreed by the Chiefs of Staff Committee after a short debate and the planning passed to the Combined Operations planning team. By studying photographs the team soon concluded that the area of coast was too well defended for a commando assault from the sea. It was assessed that casualties would be too heavy and the raiding force would be unable to move up from the beach quickly enough, before the Germans destroyed or moved the equipment. It was decided that an airborne operation had the best chance of success and Mountbatten approached the 1st Airborne Division and No 38 Wing RAF. The two commanders, both air and ground believed that the raiding force and the aircrews could be trained to Operational Performance Standard by the end of February 1942, when conditions would be favourable to mount the Operation.
As with every operational plan, immediate problems became apparent. The RAF’s 38 Wing was still in the process of forming and the aircrews’ training was insufficient to locate such a precise target at night. Therefore, No 151 Squadron commanded by Wing Commander (Wg Cdr) Percy Charles Pickard was chosen to drop the paratroopers. Pickard was a “Star” in the RAF for two main reasons. He had appeared in a propaganda film produced in 1941 as the pilot of Wellington bomber “F for Freddie” in “Target for Tonight.” He was also a highly experienced and decorated pilot, well-versed on many different aircraft types. Group Captain Nigel Norman of 38 Wing was placed in overall command of the operation.
|Wg Cdr Pickard with the paratroopers of the raiding force|
The Airborne Divisional commander, Major-General Fredrick (Boy) Browning was very supportive of the raid and keen to demonstrate the capability of the airborne forces. However, at this time the Division consisted of two battalions and only the 1st Parachute Battalion was fully trained, and Browning wanted to keep this for a larger operation. C Company of the 2nd Battalion led by Major John Frost was chosen to mount the operation, although the Company personnel had not yet completed their parachute training. Frost was initially told that his Company was to mount a demonstration parachute drop for the War Cabinet and Alton Priors an area near Devizes was chosen because it represented the operational area. It had steep hills rising from a canal and Frost was told the actual drop would take place near Dover or on the Isle of White. He was unhappy that his plan for a normal three- platoon structure was overruled and he was told he would have to train on a four-platoon formation. Despite this, Frost threw himself and men into the training programme, which included night embarkation onto landing craft on Loch Fyne, which would later move down to Dorset.
Frost was eventually told that the demonstration to the War Cabinet was a cover story and that the actual operation was to be in France. The four-unit formation was to allow for the Royal Engineers (RE) who would dismantle the radar unit. During this period of aggressive training, Frost met Wg Cdr Pickard, Commander Cook of the Royal Australian Navy who would command the embarkation craft, the men of No 12 Commando who would cover the embarkation and withdrawal phase and Flight Sergeant Cox, an RAF radar technician who had volunteered to join C Company to identify the essential components to be dismantled on the radar set. Frost wanted Cox to have an RE uniform so he wouldn’t receive special attention if captured, but the War Office refused and Cox jumped in his blue serge battledress with a borrowed Denison smock.
During the training period, members of the French Resistance made covert observations of the Bruneval radar site, noting troop numbers, dispositions and routine. The site was manned by around 30 Luftwaffe personnel and up to 100 guards, located in various buildings around the site, in an area known as La Presbytere. There was an additional platoon based in Bruneval itself to man the beach and cliff defences and a larger reserve was based inland at an hour’s notice to move. Because of these latest intelligence reports, Frost decided to split the raiding force into five teams: Jellicoe, Nelson, Hardy, Rodney and Drake. “Nelson” was to clear and hold the defensive positions overlooking the embarkation beach. “Jellicoe,” “Hardy” and “Drake” were to attack the radar site and villa, while “Rodney” would block any attempt by the Germans to reinforce and counter-attack.
The raid had to be mounted in conditions of a full moon for navigation of both the aircraft and the landing craft. There had been problems training for the embarkation phase; landing craft became grounded or went to the wrong beach, the paratroopers got lost or blundered into mine fields, but Combined Operations are notoriously difficult to coordinate. Nevertheless, Frost and Pickard were satisfied with the training and the final green light for the raid was given by General Browning to Group Captain Norman.