Dropping into occupied France by moonlight

The Halifax was used to drop parachutists on covert missions.  Low-level 'beat-up'. A Halifax II, JB911/KN-X of No 77 Squadron roars low over an audience of appreciative 'erks' during air tests at Elvington, Yorkshire, July 1943.

The Halifax was used to drop parachutists on covert missions.
Low-level ‘beat-up’. A Halifax II, JB911/KN-X of No 77 Squadron roars low over an audience of appreciative ‘erks’ during air tests at Elvington, Yorkshire, July 1943.

The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair (in civilian raincoat), accompanied by the Commanding Officer of No. 161 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, Wing Commander P C Pickard, talking to Flying Officers Broadley and Cocker in front of their Lockheed Hudson during his visit to Tempsford, Bedfordshire. A noted Westland Lysander pilot of the Squadron, Fg Off J A McCairns, is standing extreme left.

The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair (in civilian raincoat), accompanied by the Commanding Officer of No. 161 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, Wing Commander P C Pickard, talking to Flying Officers Broadley and Cocker in front of their Lockheed Hudson during his visit to Tempsford, Bedfordshire. A noted Westland Lysander pilot of the Squadron, Fg Off J A McCairns, is standing extreme left.

The dangerous business of dropping SOE agents into France continued, taking advantage of the periods of full moon to locate the remote airfields and drop zones. All too few of those who dropped or were landed lived long enough to tell their tale. Hugh Dormer was one of those who did.

Dormer was not going in to assist the French Resistance but to make a direct sabotage attack. He had already led one mission – from which he narrowly escaped and then left France by walking over the Pyrenees mountains. Despite feeling like a “hunted rat” whilst in Paris during that mission he had agreed to go out again shortly after to returning to Britain in June 1943.

When he left a remote airfield “somewhere in Britain” this time he knew what to expect:

August 16th

We left for the aerodrome in the stillness of a lovely summer’s evening, while the boys playing in the village street outside paused to stare curiously at the car as it passed.

Everything ended up in the usual mad last minute hurry and I remembered only the words of one of the Stonor martyrs: ‘If I have courage, it is because I have not the time to think whether I have courage or no.’.

Once again out to the roaring engines on the tarmac, the slipstream tearing one’s words away, the last handshake and the setting sun and the banging of the fuselage door behind. Who could have foretold that out of the six men who climbed up into the plane that night four were already marked for death and would never return?

Like Mahomet’s coffin we were now suspended for the next four hours between the two worlds. We stretched ourselves out in the dark interior of the bomber which every second flew deeper over enemy territory.

The door leading into the pilot’s cabin was open and through the windows of the cockpit the moon stared in, illuminating everything like daylight. Its round disc swung in the window with our changing course, like the night stars behind the masts of a ship at sea.

At intervals the pilot would climb and then dive down steeply with everything shuddering and vibrating so as to confuse the flak and radio-location posts beneath us. Speech was impossible in that noise. I was having a bad attack of earache again and even I found the whole journey much more unnerving than last time. Perhaps it was that now one knew the ordeal one was facing, and the price on one’s head, and had lost that courage which comes from ignorance.

I lay in the dark and thought of all those people sleeping in their beds back in England and how serenely oblivious they were of the dangers we were facing. So secret are these operations that only the handful of people back in the aerodrome knew anything at all of what was happening. Yet I did not grudge them the snugness of their sheets, but only promised that, if ever I returned to England by the grace of God and lay again in a warm bed on a cold night, I would remember those who would be up and working outside at that same hour in the full moon.

I thought of all those people whom I had ever befriended in my life and who I knew wished me well, and as always in danger and hardship their prayers were a great encouragement and support. And I thought too how strange it would be, if one could look into the future a few days, even a few hours ahead, and see what it held for each one of us, lying there in the darkness of the fuselage. And then again the spirit faltered and one wished to be returning home.

On the way we dropped some containers to a reception committee and it was an extraordinary experience to look down at the line of red lights and the figures running across the field, as the parachutes with their weapons and explosives went down in the moonlight into France against the time of her great uprising on that unbelievable day for which so many had been working and waiting those long years.

The hole was now uncovered and I gazed down at the fields and roads gliding beneath in the pale light of the moon with here and there the dark patches of the woods. The pilot was searching for his lights, then seeing them he banked steeply and turned for the run-in.

The light opposite me flashed to red and I swung my legs into the hole. In a few seconds I should have jumped again down into that prison of Europe and the Halifax would be turning home for England. One will never forget the tension of that moment as the parachutist listens to the slowing down of the engines to stalling speed and then the light flashes to green and one is through the hole and into the rush of the slipstream, then drifting high over the earth in the peace of the moonlight. All those weeks of apprehension and the nightmares which burden one’s sleeping dreams are over, and the work has begun.

See Hugh Dormer’s Diaries. See Air Force Magazine for much more on the ‘Moon Squadrons’.

 Lysander Mark IIIA (SD), V9673 'MA-J', of No.161 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF on the ground at Tempsford, Bedfordshire. This aircraft was flown by Squadron Leader Hugh Verity on twenty missions to occupied France in 1943 to drop and pick up SOE and Resistance personnel.

Lysander Mark IIIA (SD), V9673 ‘MA-J’, of No.161 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF on the ground at Tempsford, Bedfordshire. This aircraft was flown by Squadron Leader Hugh Verity on twenty missions to occupied France in 1943 to drop and pick up SOE and Resistance personnel.

The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair meets with pilots of 'C' (Polish) Flight, No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, formerly the 300 Polish Bomber Squadron, during his visit to Tempsford, Bedfordshire.

The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair meets with pilots of ‘C’ (Polish) Flight, No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, formerly the 300 Polish Bomber Squadron, during his visit to Tempsford, Bedfordshire.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hugh Davie August 18, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Of course it is on this day 16/17th August 1943 that Major Nicholas Bodington returned to Britain after flying to Occupied France to investigate the collapse of the PROSPER network in Northern France which resulted in the deaths of numerous British agents and dozens of French resistance workers. The network had been betrayed by the Air Liaison Officer on the ground in France Henri Dericourt (codename GILBERT) who was photographing all the documents carried back to England on the Lysanders and passing them directly to the Head of the SD in Paris. Bodingtons trip to Paris had been none too successful as he had narrowly avoided being captured by the SD while Jack Agazarian (his radio operator and main accuser of Dericourt) was captured.

While Dericourt was undoubtedly a conman and adventurer who betrayed his colleagues for money and intrigue, there is a question about Bodington, who recruited Dericourt, protected him during his service and finally spoke in his defence at his trial for treason by the French and his testimony was decisive in bringing about Dericourt’s acquittal. There are several theories about this, that Bodington was working for MI6 to destroy SOE in Northern France, that he was a German agent recruited while he was Reuters man in Paris before the war, that he was an adventurer like Dericourt (they had known each other before the war), that Dericourt was blackmailing him or that he was just plain incompetent and duped by Dericourt.

Given the German penetration of SOE, many of these flights to France we cleared through German airspace by Dericourt’s SD handlers who ordered the AA guns not to fire on them.

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: