A Triumph of Combined Operations
On 24 February 1942 Frost and his men finished packing the equipment containers for dispatch to RAF Thruxton in Hampshire, but the weather conditions were inappropriate to mount the raid. February 27th was considered to be the last possible day to mount the operation, but weather conditions were still not ideal. The naval force departed for France that afternoon and the paratroopers were ferried to Thruxton for the long, brooding wait until nightfall. Group Captain Norman had a last O-group with Frost and told him there was snow lying on the other side of the Channel. The Major was annoyed that this hadn’t been identified earlier so that they could have got their hands on white, camouflaged snowsuits. Frost made a last tour of his men and then with a piper blasting out their various regimental marches, the raiders marched to their aircraft.
The waiting aircrews dressed casually and warmly in their flying kit, watched this spectacle with amused interest. This was just another Op to them, same night, different bomb load. The paratroopers’ transport aircraft were Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers, a twin-engine aeroplane that had been obsolete before the outbreak of war. It could carry ten paratroopers plus their equipment, the troops sitting on floor cushions with their legs braced against the opposing fuselage. Exit was through a hole in the fuselage floor three feet wide, and inexperienced troops often clouted their heads and faces on the opening. This was known as “ringing the bell” and could lead to concussion, black eyes and broken noses.
The Whitley was totally unsuitable for parachute operations. It was slow, could only carry ten men and flew with an alarming nose-down attitude, but it was all that was available then. Frost’s men hung on anxiously as the aircraft taxied to the take off point, then braced against each other grimly as the aircraft accelerated down the runway. The bombers climbed slowly with their usual nose-down and wallowing gait and headed south. Some men huddled in sleeping bags, others blankets. They sang to keep up their spirits to the accompaniment of roaring engines. The aircraft were engaged by flak as they approached the French coast but there were no casualties. Tensions mounted as the covers were removed from the holes and the paratroopers could see the glistening Channel hundreds of feet below. It was even colder now as the slipstream howled down the bombers, fuselages.
“Action stations!” was yelled and away went the sleeping bags and blankets. Frost was first in the door of his aircraft, legs dangling in the freezing slipstream. On the command “Go!” he dropped into the void, was engulfed by the roar of the engines, the overwhelming stench of high-octane petrol, then clear of the Whitley heard and felt the crack of his parachute opening and swung above the landscape. He recognised landmarks from the training model except these were coated with snow. Most of the paras landed spot on the target, but a large contingent from the “Nelson” party had been dropped two miles south of the DZ. The troops regrouped and collected their kit, then headed off after about ten minutes.
The Battle of the Radar Site
The paras jogged towards their objectives that were visible to the northwest, dodging and clambering over wire fences and they heard stray bursts of machine gun fire in the distance. Frost’s men surrounded the villa and as soon as the Major blew his whistle, the night erupted with small arms fire and explosions from the vicinity of the radar site. Frost’s contingent stormed and cleared the villa, including two Germans on the top floor who were firing down on the raiders. Two prisoners were taken and interrogated by Newman, a German Jew who had like Flight Sergeant Cox, been attached to the force as an interpreter. The prisoners confirmed the intelligence reports had been correct although they were unable to give accurate details about reinforcements. Within a few minutes, the enemy opened fire on the villa from La Presbytere, a collection of occupied buildings to the north of the radar site.
The paras were in the main only lightly equipped with Sten guns, a new weapon issued to the raiding force and grenades. While the fire was initially inaccurate, Frost was concerned that the Germans would use mortars to harry the assault force. It would be worse for the men working on the radar array as they would be largely exposed. With a disconcerting inevitability for airborne operations, the wireless didn’t work, so Frost had no idea how the rest of the formations were getting on. When vehicles and lights were seen moving behind the woods, Frost decided it was time to get moving. The dismantled parts of the radar were loaded onto canvas trolleys and trundled towards the evacuation beach. On the path down to the beach a German machine gun in a pillbox opened fire on the paratroopers, severely wounding Sergeant-Major Strachan.
Major Frost was about to try and make contact with the “Rodney” and what there was of the “Nelson” contingents to put in an immediate attack on the pillbox. A runner informed him that the Germans had re-taken the villa and were heading towards them. Frost personally led the counter attack against the Germans, who were still unsure what they were up against and were wavering. There is a crucial moment in every firefight, when the outcome seems in doubt and there is a tendency for a force to vacillate. Frost’s intervention and leadership came at a crucial time when the success of the mission was in the balance. By the time his force was heading back to the beach, the pillbox had been silenced by the “Nelson” contingent. It was 0215 but there was still no sign of the naval force out at sea and there was no radio contact with this essential part of the operation.
Frost decided to use the emergency standby means of communication and fired red Very flares into the sky. There was still no acknowledgement or sign of the boats and in desperation, Frost planned his last stand in the village on the cliffs. There was a sudden cry of: “The boats are here,” and instead of the landing craft coming in in twos, all six hit the beach simultaneously. The priority was loading the radar components, but the loading of the raiders became confused and the evacuation became what is termed in military circles, a cake and arse party. Adding to the confusion, the Germans appeared on the cliffs and started lobbing grenades and mortars down onto the withdrawing force, until silenced by the commandos firing from the boats. It had not been possible in the confusion to count everybody onto the boats and sadly, two signallers were left behind.
Out at sea, the paratroopers were transferred onto motor gunboats that would tow back the landing craft and gratefully sipped warm drinks. It transpired that the Navy had been forced to lie low as a German destroyer and two E-boats had passed less than a mile away. As daylight broke, a squadron of Spitfires escorted the boats and landing craft back to Portsmouth, where they would meet Pickard and his pilots, staff officers reporters and photographers. As Frost noted: “All we really wanted was dry clothes, bed and oblivion; but before that there was some serious drinking to be done.”
The Bruneval raid was a great propaganda success for a country whose fortunes were at a low ebb. The British Empire had lost Singapore, two German battleships had sailed up the English Channel in broad daylight and there were setbacks in the North African deserts. The raid proved the success of the concept of airborne operations. A small raiding force could be inserted with accuracy, carry out a precision operation and be withdrawn successfully. The losses were amazingly light: two killed, six wounded and six missing.
Examination of the radar components accelerated Bomber Command’s use of “Window” (chaff) countermeasure to blind the Freya arrays, but the Würzburg proved difficult to jam with conventional means. This led to the formation of the bomber stream, so many aircraft packed together to overwhelm the tracking radar. These radar sites on the coast had their defences beefed up and it made them easier to spot and therefore destroy prior to D-day. Lieutenant-Colonel Frost and Group Captain Pickard would go on to meet their destiny in 1944. Frost on the wrong side of a bridge in Holland, Pickard over a snow covered Northern France.