Operation Biting

27 February 1942

BY THURSDAY, THE troops had all but given up hope. For three days, they lay on their beds in full battledress waiting for the order to climb aboard the twelve Whitley bombers lined up on the runway outside. But every afternoon, the staff officer arrived at the airfield to announce that the operation had been postponed and the air was filled with the sound of 120 men cursing and groaning as one. Three conditions had to be satisfied. They needed a full moon, or as good as full; they needed a rising tide and a calm sea for the landing craft so that the Navy could get them off the beach as quickly as possible once the task was completed; and they needed no more than a light wind so that they didn’t take casualties when they went in. But it was late February and the weather was playing havoc with the plans – and their nerves.

If the raid didn’t go ahead on Thursday, it would be back to the mud and monotony of Tilshead barracks for another month of training until the next full-moon period – and the men had had quite enough of Tilshead and quite enough of training. But on this occasion, there was a difference to the familiar routine. When the staff car swept past Thruxton’s guardroom and up to the wooden troop huts, it wasn’t the staff officer who stepped out of the back, but Major General ‘Boy’ Browning himself, Commander of 1st Airborne Division. The weather was clear. They were to take off that night, he told them.

Major John Frost, the commander of the raiding force, was as pleased as anyone to be seeing some action at last, and there was a bounce in his step as he made a final tour around the airfield huts to visit his men. He found them in high spirits. Some were busily fitting their parachutes and checking their weapons; others sat around, smoking and drinking mugs of tea and chatting excitedly. In one of the huts, the men were singing at the top of their voices.

After two months of exercises and rehearsals, it was now that Frost was able to reveal the object and destination of the mission. Until then, Operation BITING had been veiled in secrecy. Its details were known to the Prime Minister and his War Cabinet and a handful of scientists, but no one else. Not even the four other officers who were to take part in the raid. Now he could put them out of their mounting curiosity and finally tell them where they were going and why.

There was a beautiful, clear sky above them, strewn with stars, when the men of ‘C’ Company formed up and marched around the perimeter of the airfield. The piper played the regimental marches of Scotland as the twelve sticks of men filed out to the twelve Whitleys of No. 51 Squadron RAF. Frost was enjoying a last cigarette and a flask of tea fortified with rum when he was called to the telephone. It was Group Captain Sir Nigel Norman, the man who planned the air element of the operation. The French coast, the RAF man warned, had taken a dumping of snow and returning crews had reported that the anti-aircraft flak in the area around Le Havre was a little ‘lively’ that night.

Frost swore under his breath as he hurried out to his aircraft. It was too late to swap their khaki uniforms for the white smocks issued for winter warfare. As he prepared to climb aboard the twin-engined bomber, the familiar figure of Wing Commander Charles Pickard, the squadron leader on the night, approached him. Pickard, the hero of innumerable bombing raids and a name known throughout Britain’s households, made no effort to hide his unease about the raid as Frost passed him his flask of tea and rum. ‘I feel like a bloody murderer,’ he said. It was not an auspicious start to the first major operation carried out by British paratroopers.

No element of the British armed forces lost a greater percentage of its men during World War Two than Bomber Command and, at the start of the conflict, a good number of those losses could be attributed to Germany’s night-time detection system. The eminent scientist R. V. Jones, Britain’s first Scientific Intelligence Officer, who had been working on radar technology for many years, was convinced that Germany was using some form of night-time early warning radar system to alert them to the imminent approach of British bombers. Bomber Command’s losses had increased steadily throughout 1941 and the crews who survived the raids into the continent backed up Jones’s suspicions. Flying sorties every night the weather allowed, and losing men and aircraft at an alarming rate, Bomber Command was desperate for any help they could get from their shadowy colleagues in the top-secret Intelligence Section of Britain’s Air Ministry. No one was more eager to help them, or better qualified, than the brilliant physicist Reginald Victor Jones.

Images from the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) were the key to cracking Germany’s radar system. Stripped of their armament to reduce weight and increase speed, Supermarine Spitfires, fitted with cameras, were dispatched on lightning sorties over occupied Europe to spy on German developments and activities. Using the PRU images in conjunction with other intelligence sources, Jones soon discovered that high-frequency radio signals were being transmitted across Britain from a directional radar system somewhere across the Channel. It was known as ‘Freya’, but how it worked, Jones had very little idea. These were the very early days of radar and little was known about a system which would revolutionise war in the air and at sea by VE Day. In the autumn of 1941, an RAF photographic unit returned from a mission to Cap d’Antifer near Le Havre with a fresh batch of images, revealing a suspicious installation at a private property. Flight Lieutenant Tony Hill, one of the unit’s most skilled and daring pilots, went to investigate it more closely. He overflew the site in his Spitfire on 5 December and, within twenty-four hours, Jones was running over the images with his magnifying glass.

As always the pictures were brilliantly clear and precise and Jones’s eye was immediately drawn to a dish-like object, roughly ten feet in diameter, sitting in the front garden of an ostentatious villa on a 400-foot cliff above a beach near the village of Bruneval. Jones was convinced he had found the missing element he had been so desperately looking for. The vertically standing dish, shaped like a saucer, was known as a Würzburg and it worked in combination with Freya. Further RAF images soon revealed a whole chain of radar apparatus strung out along the shores of western Europe facing Britain. Before he and his fellow scientists could devise a way of confounding or even defeating the German early warning system, Jones needed to know how it worked. There was only one way to find out.

Knowing Churchill’s enthusiasm for any form of offensive action, Jones immediately suggested a raid to capture the Würzburg at Bruneval. His idea was sent up to Combined Operations Headquarters in Whitehall, where Lord Mountbatten and his staff were only too happy to lay on the suitable arrangements. Plans were immediately set in motion to mount the raid at the earliest possible opportunity. The 1st Airborne Division was the obvious choice to execute the raid. Unlike a large amphibious landing force, paratroopers could be inserted quickly and remain undetected in the crucial early stages, allowing them to capture and hold the objective while the engineers set about their work. The operation was given the go-ahead in early January and scheduled for mid-to late February.

The force handed the task was C Company of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, plus some sappers from the Royal Engineers and a handful of men from B Company to make up the numbers. When they arrived at the training base at Tilshead in Wiltshire at the end of January (‘a miserable sort of place with mud everywhere’, he noted), Frost still had no idea about the nature of the mission he had been assigned. He found it difficult to disguise his disappointment when he was informed by the liaison officer from divisional headquarters that he and his men had been chosen to carry out a parachuting demonstration for the benefit of the War Cabinet somewhere on the Dover coast or Isle of Wight. The liaison officer held out the prospect that C Company would almost certainly be chosen to carry out a raid in enemy territory at some time in the future, but that was little consolation. When the young officer began to tell Frost how he was to organise his men, Frost’s moustache began to twitch with barely disguised fury.

The following day, the liaison officer returned to Tilshead and, binding him to the strictest secrecy, he told Frost the truth. The demonstration was just a cover story, he explained. The raid was to take place within the month. ‘I had no further objection to raise,’ wrote Frost.

When training for the operation began, the men had only just completed their parachute jumping course and only a few of them had leapt from a moving aircraft more than five times. At this stage of the war, only a small handful of British service personnel had qualified to parachute. In the months to come, thousands of fully trained paratroopers would be available to jump from aircraft all over Europe, but the 1st Airborne had only just been founded and equipment, including aircraft, was extremely hard to come by. Such was the strain on resources in rebuilding the army after Dunkirk that the small, fledgling airborne force barely had a parachute between them or an aircraft to jump out of, let alone qualified instructors to show them how to do it. Major Frost recalled that when he joined the Paras, ‘a damaged parachute and jumping-helmet captured from the Germans were the only models available and for aircraft . . . four Whitley Mark IIs were seldom simultaneously serviceable.’ But once Mountbatten’s Combined Operations HQ and the War Cabinet became involved, every resource and item of equipment Frost needed to carry out the raid were made available to them.

The training, which took place mainly on Salisbury Plain, was intensive and exhausting. Neither time nor the weather was on their side. All the equipment they had been promised soon began to arrive by the crate-load at Tilshead, providing further evidence for the men that they were about to be sent on a major operation. The item of equipment arousing the greatest amount of interest was the recently invented Sten submachine gun, a fully automatic rifle/pistol hybrid that made their bolt-action Lee Enfield .303 rifles look distinctly old-fashioned.

In the second week of February, the raiding party took the train to the west coast of Scotland to carry out training exercises with the Navy. They were quartered near Inveraray, aboard the Prince Albert, the parent ship of their landing craft which, all going to plan, would provide their means of escape from France after the attack. The freezing cold waters of Loch Fyne might not have been the most popular of training areas for the men, but the exercises did at least focus the minds on the challenges they faced. Embarking 120 men, with equipment, casualties and prisoners, in the dark and under fire, was, they soon realised, by no means a straightforward procedure. ‘The possibility of being left stranded on the coast of France after we had done our job was unpleasant,’ Frost recalled. ‘And in the end we went on the raid without having had one really successful evacuation.’ The high point of the training in Scotland was a visit from Combined Ops chief Lord Mountbatten who, without giving away details of the raid, made a stirring address to all ranks, naval and military.

Back at Tilshead, they carried out a practice drop with the Whitley bombers detailed to take them in on the night. It was the first time that No. 51 Squadron had ever dropped parachute troops but, unlike every other element of the training, the exercise passed off successfully. The cold ground was rock solid and there were a few sprains and bruises, but no serious injuries.

The raiding party consisted of 120 all ranks, divided into three groups with the code names DrakeHardy, Jellicoe, Nelson and Rodney, who were each given separate tasks to carry out on the night. Major-General Browning chose the names as a salute to the Royal Navy, whose men and vessels would, if all went to plan, evacuate the raiders and their top-secret prize and return them safely to Portsmouth. BITING was to be a combined operation in the purest sense. The RAF was to deliver the Army to the target by air, the Army would execute their tasks on the ground, and the Navy would transport them from France by sea.

For security reasons, it was not possible for Jones or any other leading scientist in possession of highly confidential information to join the raiding force. Were they to fall into enemy hands, they would be subjected to the Gestapo’s most extreme forms of interrogation to extract their invaluable store of secrets. And yet, it was important that an engineer with more than basic knowledge of radio technology joined the sappers tasked with dismantling the Würzburg. Were they unable to remove the apparatus, the engineer would at least be able to photograph it and scrutinise its parts at the scene. Any information whatsoever was to be welcomed by Jones and his colleagues down at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Worth Matravers, near Swanage, on the Dorset coast.

A request for volunteers to take part in a ‘special mission’ was put out in the appropriate circles. One of the first to put his name forward was RAF Flight Sergeant Charles Cox, a former cinema projectionist who had never been in an aircraft, let alone jumped out of one. Nor had he ever been on a ship – and his wife had given birth just a few weeks earlier. It was only when he arrived at Adastral House on Kingsway, the London home of the Air Ministry, that Cox, an expert radio mechanic, was made to understand quite how ‘special’ the mission was going to be. Without revealing the precise objective of the mission, Cox was left in no doubt about the hazards involved – an impression reinforced when he was dispatched to Ringway, the parachute centre near Manchester, to learn how to jump. But Cox was not just bright and patriotic, he was brave too, and he took to the training with the same degree of commitment as the dedicated paratroopers.

All the key figures involved in the raid were men of the highest standing or greatest promise. Major Frost, who had been commissioned in the Cameronians, a Scottish infantry regiment, was a tough, resourceful leader, destined for fame in the grim battle at Arnhem. His men were mainly Commandos drawn from Scottish regiments. The Company Sergeant Major, Strachan, of the Black Watch, was almost a stereotype of his rank: a no-nonsense, highly efficient, experienced man, who had the huge respect of men and officers alike. If you wanted something done, you went to Strachan. During the training, a young German Jew, Peter Nagel, who had fled Germany before the war, was added to the party. He was to act as interpreter and his name was changed to Private Newman.

The air element was commanded by Pickard, whose fearless exploits had already earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross. Frost needed only a short meeting with the dashing, handsome airman and his men to know his troops were in good hands. ‘They belonged to a crack bomber squadron . . . We were left in no doubt as to their efficiency, and we felt that if anybody was going to put us down in the right place, they were the people to do it.’

The naval force assigned to take the raiders back to England was under the command of Commander F. N. Cook of the Royal Australian Navy. He was one of 400 (out of 1,250 men) who survived when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a torpedo from a German U-boat while at anchor in Scapa Flow. His force, escorted by two destroyers, consisted of half a dozen Motor Gun Boats, the same number of assault landing craft, and two support landing craft, manned by thirty-two officers and men of the Royal Fusiliers and the South Wales Borderers. They were to provide covering fire while the raiding party was embarked.

The last week of the training was spent rehearsing the evacuation in the landing craft, but there was little improvement on their poor performances in Scotland. Much of each day was spent in the back of troop trucks, slowly winding through Dorset lanes to get to the stretch of coast where the exercises took place. When they finally arrived, foul weather prevented them from taking to the water. It was highly frustrating and Frost, not a man to flap in a crisis, was starting to get worried. The last rehearsal ‘could not have been a more dismal failure’, he wrote. The equipment containers landed in the wrong place, the landing craft went to the wrong beach and the paratroopers ended up ten miles from the target site . . . in a minefield.

The raid was scheduled to take place forty-eight hours later, on the night of Sunday 23 February, but the Navy were insisting that a further rehearsal should be carried out. Fortunately, the weather that had been causing so many problems forced a postponement to the following night, and a final rehearsal was performed near Southampton. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great improvement on the shambles that had gone before.

By the eve of the raid, Frost’s men knew every last detail of the German position at and near to the villa. They knew every strongpoint, pillbox, light machine gun position, every roll of barbed wire; they knew the location and exact strength of the local billets and barracks and the weapons at their disposal. They even knew the names of some of the troops. For this remarkable intelligence, they had the French Resistance to thank, and three men in particular.

The man in overall command of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering was Gilbert Renault, known to the British Intelligence Services as ‘Colonel Rémy’, one of the most famous secret agents of the war. After a short stay in England following the collapse of France, Rémy returned to his homeland to recruit and train underground intelligence operatives. It was to one of his best men, Roger Dumont (codename ‘Pol’), that he entrusted the task of reconnoitring the Bruneval site. Assisted by Charles Chauvenau, aka ‘Charlemagne’, a garage mechanic from Le Havre, Pol quickly began gathering remarkably detailed information about the objective. By chatting to one of the guards near the villa, they made the crucial discovery that, in spite of the warning signs along the cliff, the beach below was not mined. The RAF’s photographic unit, meanwhile, continued to provide first-class images of the coast from which a very detailed model of the objective was constructed.

A considerable number of German troops were stationed in the area immediately around Bruneval, comfortably outnumbering Frost’s force. At the large, modern villa, guarding the Würzburg apparatus to the front, was a garrison of between 30 and 40 men. Most of these were thought to be from the signalling corps and a few of them were likely to be in the house when the paratroopers arrived. Many others would be operating or guarding the Würzburg dish or the Freya installation 750 yards to the north. The major threat was likely to come from the 100-strong garrison, stationed at Le Presbytère, a complex of farm buildings 200 yards to the north of the villa, set within a rectangle of woodland, housing coastal defence troops and off-duty signallers. There were also three or four dozen troops billeted in Bruneval village, less than half a mile from the beach along the main lane. These were believed to be the personnel who manned the defensive positions on the top of the cliffs and down at the beach. The operational orders, shown to Frost, refer to eleven light machine gun positions around the villa, cliff and beach, as well as a pillbox halfway up the steep slope leading from the shore to the villa. They also refer to enemy infantry reinforcements based six miles away, and a reconnaissance battalion fifteen miles away.

Diversion raids by Bomber Command started on the night of February 17/18. Flying to targets in the Paris area, the bombing force were ordered to cross the French coast at low level between Le Havre, ten miles to the south, and the Somme estuary, eighty miles to the north, in order to get the enemy in the Bruneval area accustomed to the approach of low-flying aircraft by night.

The plan was to split C Company into three groups and drop them in a ten-minute period between 0015 and 0025, roughly half a mile to the east of the villa. ‘Drake’, the first and largest section, led by Frost, was to be the first to jump. After forming up, they were to head towards the cliff and capture the Würzburg. Their primary task was to enable Flight Sergeant Cox and the sappers, under Captain Denis Vernon, to dismantle the radar dish. The aim was to bring back the entire apparatus, but what couldn’t be removed was to be photographed. There were fifty men in Drake, split into two groups. One under Lieutenant Peter Young, who had played a key role in Operation ARCHERY in Norway two months earlier, had orders to assault and hold the Würzburg while Cox went to work. The other, under Frost, was to clear out and secure the villa. Among the orders issued to Frost were the following instructions: ‘No prisoners will be taken other than officers and technical personnel . . . It is imperative that the scientist (Cox) should run no risk of capture.’

The second group (known as ‘Nelson’), under the command of Lieutenant Euen Charteris, was to capture the beach and hold it. The third (‘Rodney’), under Lieutenant Timothy, was to act as reserve and/or fight off German counterattacks at the radar position or the beach.

Every man of Frost’s party was to be in position by the time he blew his whistle to signal for the battle to begin. Speed and precise timing were to be essential. The raiders were not to remain on French soil for a minute longer than necessary. It would not be long before the enemy arrived at the scene in significant numbers, some armed with weapons considerably more powerful than Sten guns and Mills bombs. Good timing and a swift execution of the raid’s objectives were essential for the evacuation as well. The Navy, strict timekeepers, would be waiting off shore. Whether it was the right shore was another matter.

It was 2230 when the first of the twelve Whitleys roared down the runway at Thruxton and climbed into the clear night sky above Hampshire and banked southeastwards towards the Channel. Pickard was at the controls and, behind him, Frost sat uncomfortably on the ribbed aluminium floor of the draughty fuselage, squeezed in amongst his men. To keep out the intense cold, some sat with blankets over their legs, others climbed into sleeping bags.

The noise of the bombers’ huge engines and the heavy vibrations made talking impossible, but playing cards and singing helped break the tedium and distract minds from the challenges ahead. When the paratroopers had run through their favourite tunes, Flight Sergeant Cox added to the entertainment with a solo rendition of ‘The Rose of Tralee’. The men had drunk so many mugs of tea during the countdown to takeoff that, an hour into the flight, many of them, including Frost, were desperate to piss. Unfortunately, the lavatories had been removed from all the aircraft in order to free up space and they had to squirm where they sat.

The twelve bombers formed up over Selsey Bill, south of Chichester, and left England behind them. As they approached France, a diversion bombing raid was taking place at Le Havre a few miles to the south. Two bombers attacked an aerodrome and marshalling yard. The paratroopers, their faces blackened with tar, had been in the air for almost two hours when the hole cover in each Whitley was removed and a freezing blast of air surged through the fuselage. Below, the flat surface of the Channel glistened in the moonlight and, as the aircraft levelled out at about 550 feet, they could see the snow-draped coast of France. Moments later, the long beams of coastal searchlights began to scour the heavens and the AA gunners opened up. The shells burst around the slow-moving bombers, three of which were hit but suffered only minor damage. The pilots threw the lumbering bombers around the sky to dodge the stream of shells and tracer streaking towards them. Two aircraft, carrying Lt Charteris and half his men from the ‘Nelson’ group, were forced to take evasive action and veered away from the approach path they had plotted. All twelve aircraft headed a few miles inland before turning back towards the coast to drop their human cargo.

The cry of ‘Action stations!’ told the men that the time of reckoning had arrived. Pickard throttled back to fly as slowly as possible without stalling, but the Whitley was still travelling at just over 100 miles an hour. Frost, who was the first to jump, sat with his legs at the edge of the hole. The red warning light gave way to green. Frost took a deep breath and dropped out. He felt his legs pulled out horizontally by the slipstream and for a brief moment he was lying parallel with the ground. Dropping in sticks of ten, the other 120 men followed in rapid succession, with the aim of landing in as small an area as possible. A second or two after jumping, each paratrooper felt the jerk from the line pulling out the parachute from the bag on his back. Almost instantly, the plummeting fall towards earth was checked as the canopy of the parachute burst into its full twenty-eight-foot diameter above his head and he began to float towards the earth. It felt gentle, but they all knew from the shock of the landings in their practice jumps that they were falling much faster than they thought.

The landscape, illuminated by the bright moon, looked exactly as it had been represented by the model they had been shown. One by one, the 120 men hit the ground with a thud, rolled over and immediately cast off his parachute harness. Falling at speed, it is very difficult for a parachutist to calculate exactly when he is going to touch down, and the shock of a landing has been compared with that of jumping blindfold from a height of about six to eight feet. On this occasion the jolt was softened only a little by the carpet of snow that lay over the area.

The Commandos of No. 11 SAS Battalion, who were dropped in to blow up an Italian aqueduct in February 1941, can claim the honour of carrying out the first ever paratrooper operation by British forces. Technically, the Bruneval raid was the second, but it was a far bigger and infinitely more important and hazardous enterprise. It was also the first carried out by the 1st Airborne Division, the country’s first dedicated force of paratroopers, created on Churchill’s insistence. It was half an hour after midnight on 28 February 1942 when the boots of the first British paratroopers thumped onto Nazi-occupied French soil.

The 120 men of C Company, 2 Para had under an hour to prove their worth to Britain’s war effort. The best-case scenario envisaged by the Combined Operations planners was a successful removal of the radar dish, a light casualty toll, an orderly evacuation and safe passage back to the UK. The worst case? Slaughter on the beaches or capture and ‘interrogation’ by the Gestapo.

It was an unpromising start to the raid. The two aircraft that had diverted to avoid the flak barrage dropped their ‘sticks’ over two miles south of the intended dropping zone. As soon as he hit the ground, Lt Charteris realised that he and the twenty other men from the Nelson group had landed in the wrong place. They had been handed the crucial task of capturing the beach and holding it so that the landing craft could come ashore. Without Nelson, Lt Timothy’s reserve of thirty men was not strong enough to hold their other positions and simultaneously attack the German pillbox and all the machine-gun positions covering the beach.

Aware that catastrophe loomed without them, Charteris quickly assembled his men, and using the distant beacon of the lighthouse at Cap d’Antifer north of the villa to guide him, they set off in single file at a fast trot. Within minutes, they had stumbled into the enemy and the first bursts of a short but brutal firefight cut through the still night air.

The intended dropping zone was a large area of open ground 600 yards east of the villa to the north of the Bruneval ravine, through which the road trailed from the village to the embarkation beach. Several inches of snow lay on the ground and, under the bright moon, 100 British paratroopers were clearly visible as they quickly gathered up the nylon canopies. The only sounds were the rustle of parachutes and the humming engines of the bombers as they disappeared back across the Channel. The tension that every man must have been feeling at this moment was suspended by a brief, comic scene when several dozen of them, including Frost, unzipped their trousers and relieved themselves of several pints of processed tea. ‘It was not good drill,’ the Major conceded, ‘for now was the time when a stick of parachutists are most vulnerable and one’s first concern should be to make for the weapon containers.’

But there was no sign of the enemy and, within ten minutes, Frost’s group (‘Drake’) had located all the containers, gathered their weapons and equipment and formed up in the copse at the bottom of a shallow gorge, according to plan. On Frost’s signal, the fifty men began jogging the short distance back towards the coast in a silence broken only by the crunch of boots on snow.

The going was slightly harder as they came up the slope, especially for the radio engineer Cox, Lt Vernon and the rest of the sappers as they dragged their wheeled canvas trolleys and equipment for the Würzburg over the icy ground and through a maze of barbed wire. While the engineers laid up below a ridge waiting to be called forward, Lt Young and his men split off towards the Würzburg installation close to the cliff’s edge, while Frost and his men took up position around the house. Flanked by four men, Frost walked to the front door as calmly as a postman and blew on his whistle. Immediately, the sound of explosions, machine gunfire and shouting shattered the eerie calm. Bursting upstairs, Frost’s men silenced the only German inside the house, who had opened up on Young’s men from a first-floor window.

Leaving two of his men to secure the villa, Frost and the others raced the 200 yards over the frozen lawn to assist Young, only to discover that the Germans manning the Würzburg had been quickly overwhelmed. Those that hadn’t been killed were taken prisoner. Seized by terror when the assault began, one of them had fled and leapt over the 400-ft-high cliff. It was his good fortune that he landed on a ridge about ten feet below. After he was dragged back up, Private Newman set about interrogating him, but like the others he questioned, the man was virtually dumb with shock.

Sergeant Cox and the sappers arrived on the scene at the same time and immediately pulled their tools from the trolleys and set about dismantling the dish. The apparatus, they soon discovered, had been installed very securely, and the engineers were having difficulty in taking it apart. When they began to come under heavy fire, Cox admitted, ‘We proceeded to rip the rest of the stuff out by sheer force.’

The fire was emanating from the direction of Le Presbytère farm in the woods to the north where the main German garrison was stationed. It was only a matter of time before they were roused into action, but Frost’s men, in position and waiting for the counterattack, brought heavy fire to bear on the position. Two rounds rang on the metal dish a few inches from Cox’s hands, but the RAF Sergeant was uncowed and continued with his work.

Slowly the fire from Le Presbytère intensified and enemy vehicles were observed manoeuvring through the trees. Whether they were reinforcements or resident troops looking to move into a flanking position, Frost could not tell. Worried about the threat from mortar units, which would have caused carnage among his men, he snapped at the engineers to hurry up. Vernon and Cox had managed to remove the entire structure from its base as well as most of its component parts and they quickly loaded the final items into the trolleys. They had dismantled the entire structure in under twenty minutes. Leaving half his men behind to cover the withdrawal, the engineers and the rest headed towards the beach. They had just begun to descend the steep slope when they came under raking fire from the pillbox that Charteris’s group had been assigned to capture. A number of men went down in the hail of machine-gun fire, including Company Sergeant Major Strachan, who took three bullets to the stomach. Bleeding profusely, he was dragged to cover and administered morphine.

Frost was confused. The beach was meant to have been secured and all German defences neutralised. With his signallers unable to operate the faulty wireless sets, he was unable to contact Charteris, Timothy’s reserve group or his second-in-command, Captain John Ross. He couldn’t send out a runner because every time they moved, the gunners in the pillbox opened up on them.

They had been lying up for about ten minutes when a voice further down the slope shouted: ‘Come on down! Everything is all right, the boats are here.’ In all likelihood, this was a German trying to lure them into the open because almost immediately Captain Ross, who was close to the beach, yelled at them to stay where they were. Frost was not a man to panic, even in the direst emergency, but he was becoming concerned. ‘Obviously something was seriously wrong,’ he recalled. His anxiety increased when one of his men appeared at his shoulder to inform him that the Germans had retaken the villa, regrouped and were preparing to advance. Frost immediately took a group of men back up the slope and sent the Germans running for cover.

When he returned, he was surprised to discover that the pillbox had been silenced and the sappers were on the move again. They had been sliding so much in the icy conditions that they decided to abandon the trolleys and carry the bulky radar equipment down to the beach instead. Sergeant Major Strachan, barely conscious now, was being helped down with the rest of the party, barking incoherent orders at his men.

The three groups of the assault party, Drake, Nelson and Rodney, converged on the beach almost simultaneously, and Charteris was able to explain to Frost why the beach had not been secured. The young Lieutenant, as it turned out, had done well to lead his men back to the area in such good time. After a running battle with an enemy patrol near Bruneval village, he had followed the sound of the guns and arrived on the scene at the critical moment. Frost’s men and the sappers were pinned down and the beach was still in enemy hands. (In the darkness of the woods and the confusion of the running fight, a German soldier had attached himself to Charteris’s men in the mistaken belief they were his comrades. On being discovered in their midst, he was promptly dispatched.)

The two sections of Charteris’s four that had been dropped in the right place and arrived at the original assembly point as intended had waited for over an hour for the rest to arrive. Fearing the worst, Sergeant Sharp, the senior NCO, had decided to launch an attack. Under the original plan, Sharp’s men were to have provided the covering fire while Charteris attacked, and he realised the seriousness of the situation if the beach was not taken. The two sections had just begun moving out to their designated objectives when, to their relief, they heard an ear-splitting yell of ‘Cabar Feedh!’, the war-cry of the Seaforth Highlanders. That could mean only one thing: Charteris and the other half of the group had arrived and gone straight in on the attack. Supported by Timothy and the reserve group, Charteris and his men stormed the beach, quickly clearing out the guardroom and silencing the strongpoint. The offending pillbox on the cliff was put out of action and, in a matter of minutes, the enemy’s dogged resistance was overcome and the beach and cliff area were soon securely under British control – but it had come at a cost. Two men were killed and six lay wounded, half of them seriously.

It was past two o’clock in the morning when the assault party began to assemble on the small beach at the mouth of the Bruneval ravine. The raid might not have gone completely to plan, but the paratroopers had achieved what they had intended: to reach the objective, subdue the enemy and remove the radar equipment. The apparatus now lay in the sand alongside the six wounded, all of whom had now been treated with morphine. The white chalk cliffs towered above them, almost luminous in the bright moonlight. The odd crackle of gunfire broke the stillness as the covering troops took up defensive positions to hold the area for the evacuation. There was one problem: there was no sign of the Navy.

The signallers attempted to contact the ships but without success. They flashed signals from a lamp but still the sea offered nothing but darkness and silence, save for the gentle lapping of the waves on the beach. A thin mist sat over the water and it was impossible to see more than a few hundred yards. As a last resort, it had been agreed that Frost would fire red flares from a Very gun, one to the north and one to the south of the beach. He did this several times, but still nothing. Following the repeated disasters in training, Frost had always feared that the evacuation would be the most challenging element of the operation. ‘With a sinking heart,’ Frost noted, ‘I moved off the beach with my officers to rearrange our defences.’

The men had just taken up their positions and were braced for the countermeasures of the German reinforcements when one of the men shouted to him: ‘Sir, the boats are here! God bless the ruddy Navy, sir!’ Indeed they were. As if to make up for their late arrival, the support landing craft, carrying the Royal Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, emerged from the mist firing every gun in their possession at the cliffs. This had been their order, but with many of Frost’s men now back up above the beach, their heavy fire was no longer welcome. The entire raiding party yelled at the top of their voices for them to stop, and the guns quickly fell silent. Mercifully, no one was wounded.

The plan had envisaged six landing craft arriving in pairs, but reality had rudely punctured any hopes of an orderly evacuation. They were well behind the strict timings laid out in the schedule, the sea was running high and German reinforcements were certain to be pouring into the area. All six of the landing craft arrived at once. The six wounded men and the Würzburg equipment were the priority and, once they were safely loaded into the first landing craft, the rest of the troops waded out up to their chests to scramble aboard the other five. As they did so, the Germans appeared at the top of the cliff and started throwing grenades and firing mortar bombs onto the beach. It was a noisy and confused scene and there was no time to count heads. Frost watched the disorderly scramble with dismay, but there was no alternative now. The landing craft chugged out to the waiting Motor Gun Boats at a stately twelve knots, their maximum speed. Once the troops had climbed aboard the larger, faster vessels, the landing craft were hooked to the stern to be towed back to England.

The bodies of the two men killed in the raid had been left behind deliberately, but shortly after boarding Frost learned that six men, who had become lost, had arrived at the beach a minute after the last landing craft had pulled away. Frost hid his distress but knew there was nothing they could do for them now. There could be no turning back. He could only hope that the men would be treated well by their captors.

While the crews of the gun boats handed out blankets and generous tots of rum to the sodden paratroopers, they explained why their arrival had been delayed so long. The force had been lying offshore, as planned, waiting to launch the landing craft, when a German destroyer and two torpedo boats passed within a mile of them and the wireless operators had been unable to respond to the signallers’ promptings. It was most probably the light mist that saved them from being detected, but it had been a close shave. Had the German ships passed any closer or spotted Frost’s Very flares, the evacuation force would have been attacked and the paratroopers would have been stranded ashore.

Fifteen miles out from the French coast, a squadron of Spitfires arrived to escort them back home. German divebombers had been expected to stalk the flotilla from daybreak, but no attack materialised. Destroyers came out to join the escort and it was the afternoon by the time they steamed past the Isle of Wight and into Portsmouth. Once in the harbour, the destroyers saluted the raiding force, ‘Rule Britannia’ rang out from Tannoy speakers and the Spitfires swept down low in tribute before disappearing back to their bases.

In the early evening, the raiders boarded the troopship Prince Albert to be welcomed by Wing Commander Pickard and his crews. A throng of photographers and reporters were there in numbers to report on the success of the highly daring raid, the first significant operation by a new breed of soldier. ‘The limelight was strange after weeks of secrecy and stealth,’ said Frost. ‘All we really wanted was dry clothes, bed and oblivion; but before that there was some serious drinking to be done.’

The following day a Hurricane was sent over the Channel on a reconnaissance flight to Bruneval. A group of German officers was standing round the foundations where the Würzburg had been operating twelve hours earlier. The sight was too tempting for the pilot and, turning back, he swooped on the gathering and opened fire with his four wing-mounted cannons. Before climbing out of the dive, he had the pleasure of watching the grey-coated Germans diving into the shallow hole.

That night C Company returned to Tilshead and Frost was climbing into a hot bath, looking forward to a quiet evening and a good night’s sleep, when he was called to the telephone and instructed that he was to be in London for a meeting at nine o’clock. A staff car, he was told, was on its way to pick him up. Driving through the blacked-out streets of London, he was taken to a building on Birdcage Walk, between Buckingham Palace and Westminster, and led below to an underground bunker. Dressed in his Cameronians uniform, he was met by Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee; the replica of Bruneval stood on a table in the centre of the room.

Soon the room began to fill up with the most important figures in the British administration of the day: Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Secretary of State For War Sir James Grigg, First Lord of the Admiralty ‘AV’ Alexander, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound, Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir Alan Brooke and Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal. Frost felt increasingly anxious about the prospect of addressing the War Cabinet about details of the raid and he was relieved to see the more familiar face of Commodore Lord Mountbatten, the Combined Operations chief.

‘Suddenly the Prime Minister was there, siren-suited and with outsize cigar,’ recalled Frost. And Churchill approached him, saying: ‘Bravo, Frost, bravo, and now we must hear all about it.’ To the young Major’s relief, Mountbatten as Chief of Combined Operations laid out the details of the raid.

The six wounded men all made full recoveries, although the life of Company Sergeant Major Strachan hung in the balance for several days. Within a few months he was back in uniform and promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major. The six men left behind became prisoners of war. French Resistance chief Colonel Rémy survived the war but ‘Pol’(Roger Dumont) was exposed by the signal sent from England congratulating him for his work on Bruneval. He was shot by a German firing squad. Many of the paratroopers who took part in Bruneval were killed in subsequent operations.

Four weeks after Bruneval, Private Newman, the German-Jewish interpreter, was captured during the Combined Operations assault on the dockyard at St Nazaire, in what has since been dubbed the ‘greatest raid’. Fortunately his true identity was never revealed and after the war he settled in England for good. Pickard was not so lucky. Three times he was admitted to the Distinguished Service Order before meeting his death two years after Bruneval when he led the low-level Mosquito bombing raid on a prison at Amiens to free the hundreds of French Resistance men held there.

Major Frost and Lt Charteris were awarded the Military Cross, and Flight Sergeant Cox and two sergeants received the Military Medal for their roles in Bruneval. Company Sergeant Major Strachan was later awarded the Croix de Guerre, Lt Young was Mentioned in Dispatches and the scientist R. V. Jones was given a CBE. For Frost, Bruneval turned out to be little more than a light diversion and skirmish compared to the actions and operations in which he subsequently became involved. He saw heavy fighting in the bloody campaigns in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy, but it was for his leadership and gallantry at Arnhem, immortalised in the film A Bridge Too Far, that he was to be best remembered. Badly injured and captured at Arnhem, he saw out the war in a POW camp. He retired from the army as a Major General in 1968 and became a farmer in West Sussex.

‘So what did we get out of all this?’ This was the question that Churchill barked across the table at his Cabinet Ministers and Chiefs of Staff when Frost had joined them in their bunker. Radio technology is a complex subject and this is the wrong place to explain its finer details, but in brief, the capture of the Würzburg was a significant breakthrough for the British. As a result, Britain was able to improve its own radar network, and, in the words of R. V. Jones, the man leading the scientific fight against the Nazis, the Würzburg provided, ‘A first-hand knowledge of the state of German radar technology, in the form in which it was almost certainly being applied in our principal objective, the German nightfighter control system . . . it had provided us with the equivalent of a navigational “fix” in confirming the “dead reckoning” in our intelligence voyage into the German defences.’

But these were not the only happy consequences of the Bruneval venture. Soon after the raid, the German authorities issued orders that all radar installations were to be protected by barbed wire – to the delight of the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. The smallest details in an image were often the key to revealing the true nature of an object or location being photographed. Barbed wire was too thin to be detected from the air, but its presence was revealed by the grass which grew longer and darker underneath it as well as from the debris that became caught in it. Subsequently, Jones and his colleagues were able to identify several more sites of interest to them.

The British scientists and military planners were not the only ones to appreciate the quality of the Bruneval raid. The official German report recorded that ‘the British displayed exemplary discipline when under fire. Although attacked by German soldiers they concentrated entirely on their primary task.’

The success of the raid boosted the status of Combined Operations and secured the future of British airborne troops. Bruneval is the first battle honour awarded to what today is known as the Parachute Regiment or, more often, ‘the Paras’. The War Office immediately expanded the fledgling force and, by the war’s end, thousands of paratroopers had served with great distinction and courage in all major theatres of the war. More often than not, they were the first troops in.

In the wider scheme of the war, Bruneval was a very minor affair. The name was spoken over breakfast tables and in pubs around Britain in the days following the raid, but it was soon overtaken by events elsewhere and forgotten. One place where it hasn’t been forgotten – outside of the Parachute Regiment – is Bruneval itself. If you drive around the little village today you will pass along the Avenue du Colonel Rémy, Rue Lord Louis Mountbatten, Rue Roger Dumont and Rue Major Frost, but you won’t find the villa where Frost blew his whistle to launch the assault. The Germans knocked it down soon after the raid in the mistaken belief its presence had given away the Würzburg. The Rue Major Frost will lead you to the tree-lined rectangle of Le Presbytère farm and continues up to the site of the villa. The foundations of the building are still clearly visible and if you walk out towards the cliff you will come to a scruffy dirt circle. It was there that Flight Sergeant Cox and the sappers wrenched the Würzburg from its base while under heavy fire. And it was there, it can be said, that the glorious tradition of the Paras was born.

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