On the night of the 27th February 1942 the Parachute Regiment earned their first Battle Honour with the Bruneval raid. A raiding party led by Major John Frost parachuted into the vicinity of the German radar station on the French coast, after a brief battle overcame the German guards, dismantled the secret radar apparatus and then successfully extricated themselves and returned to Britain by sea. They made it look easy.
Valuable information was obtained about the capabilities of German radar, enabling counter measures to be developed for Bomber Command aircraft.
The audacity of the raid was a great morale booster in Britain, as may be imagined from this subsequent Reuters report:
The commanding officer, Major J. D. Frost, told me that his men “did excellently”. He went on: “On the way across in the planes, you would never have thought it was an operational flight. It was more like a joy ride. Every machine, I think, had its own concert party. It was by no means so frightening as everybody had expected. You sat at the hole, looked down and saw a few tracer bullets go past below – and jumped.”
The Germans, while still holding the beach fort, called out in excellent English “The boats are here”, in the hope of misleading the paratroops into believing a Naval officer had shouted and getting them to chance a run for the beach under machine-gun fire.
Both Major Frost and Captain Ross had nothing but praise for the R.A.F. “They put us down ten yards from where we wanted to be”, said Ross, “and within two minutes of leaving the plane the troops were armed, organized and ready to fight”.
“The real hero”, said the Major, “was the officer commanding the section which was dropped away from the bulk of the troops”. Only 20, the youngest officer of the part, and therefore known as “Junior”, he had to find his way, frequently under fire, in an area quite unknown to him. When “Junior” took his first look around and failed to recognize any familiar landmark he knew he was lost.
“I don’t think there’s any feeling quite so unpleasant as suddenly finding yourself in enemy territory and not knowing where you are”, he said. “Then I saw another plane going along low down and I knew in which direction to go, and after a while I saw the lighthouse. Then everything was all right.”
“For the whole two hours or more of the operation there was never a moment when some firing was not going on. Yet nowhere did I see any sign of life in the houses. Two of my men went through a village, but there were no lights, no furtive peering by the edges of curtains.”
It was a former Fleet Street man, 22-year-old Lieutenant Peter Young, who was assigned the task of dealing with the radio-location post, and so complete was the surprise of the attack that he had almost reached his objective before encountering any opposition. The German sentry challenged the approaching troops twice and then fired. The paratroops, who had held their fire as long as possible, “rubbed hum out”, said Lieutenant Young. “After that we hunted them out of cellars, trenches and rooms with hand grenades, automatic weapons, revolvers and knives.”
“Most were killed, but some ran away, and one tried to hide over the edge of the cliff. Having got there, he wanted to surrender, and I looked over to see him with his hands up. At the time I thought I had seen nothing funnier than a German trying to scramble up the lip of a cliff with his hands up.”
The post being captured, it was the turn of the sappers. Their task was to destroy the apparatus; and destruction could scarcely have been more complete. To the sappers also fell the duty of searching the beach for mines and laying anti-tank mines.
One of the parachutists told me they got away just in time. “The Germans had an armoured division about 50 miles away, and as we left the beach I saw a column of headlights coming towards us, though still some distance off”, he said.
When the Verey signal flashed, the Naval craft came in “like a swarm”, took the men on board and were steaming back to England in a surprisingly short time.
Also see ParaData, which has a copy of Major Frost’s original briefing document for the raid.