RAF Special Operations

History: Key Aspects
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The Halifax aircraft shot down
            in Denmark Decmber 11th 1943. All the crew and the agent got out
            of the aircraft without injury!             [B H Atkins]
The Halifax aircraft shot down in Denmark Decmber 11th 1943. All the crew and the agent got out of the aircraft without injury!
[B H Atkins]

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 Whitley 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.'8

These 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 are alive even today.

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.

Endnotes

  1. John Jones, Second World War Experience Centre, 1999.228
  2. Verity, p 65
  3. Interview with the author

Article by James Holland.
This article first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2004 issue of the Journal
James Holland's Second World War Forum includes interviews with veterans.
To find out more about the Dambusters go to The Dams Raid May 1943