Operation Biting, Part One

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
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.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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.

© Blown Periphery