THE CARPETBAGGER PROJECT I

The major USAAF effort to supply the Resistance movements and secret armies in Europe began in the summer of 1943 under the codename ‘Carpetbagger’, which someone had lifted from the annals of the American Civil War. At first the Americans had been as unprepared for Resistance support as the British had been in 1940. OSS was introduced to supplement SOE operations and by 1942 was functioning very effectively under the dynamic leadership of Colonel (later General) William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. In September 1942 the joint Anglo-American SOE-SO was formed and the Americans began participating in the planning of operations in many northwest European countries.

Eventually, OSS consisted of five major categories: Secret Intelligence (SI), responsible for intelligence gathering; Secret Operations (SO), the parachuting of agents into occupied countries; Morale Operations (MO), which involved propaganda broadcasts to the enemy to undermine his morale; and ‘X–2’, the counter-intelligence service. A Research and Analysis (R and A) Branch provided analysis of bomb damage and its repercussions on the German economy.

Unlike SOE, which came under the aegis of the British Government, authority for the Carpetbagger Project came from the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was they who directed that OSS would be the US Agency charged with sabotage and with the ‘Organization and Conduct of Guerilla Warfare’. In a cable dated 26 August 1943, from the Commanding General ETOUSA (European Theater of Operations USA), to the War Department, these directives were approved and three days later in a letter to Donovan the OSS was directed to work out with G–2 and G–3, ETOUSA, ‘the composition of Staffs for Army and Army group HO and to proceed with the organization and training of Jedburgh teams for the purpose of coordinating activities behind the enemy lines.’

Hundreds of Jedburgh teams were to be dropped into France just prior to and after the Allied invasion of Normandy. These teams consisted of three members, usually English, French and American. Most Jedburgh teams were dropped into areas well in advance of the allied invasion forces in order to provide a general staff for the local Resistance wherever they landed. They also organized sabotage and the disruption of enemy supplies and harried the retreat of enemy troops. Jedburgh teams usually remained in the field until overrun by the advancing Allied forces.

At first, Carpetbagger operations would be mounted from the English Midlands. Later in the war, missions were extended to include Scandinavia when a team headed by Bernt Balchen, the famous arctic explorer, mounted operations from Leuchars in Scotland. First, the ‘Sonnie’ project, as it was called, was so successful that ultimately, 3,016 passengers were evacuated, including 965 American internees. In July 1944 Carpetbagger crews were involved in the ‘Ball Project’ (so named because of the removal of the ball turret from the B–24), and carried out supply drops to the Norwegian underground.

Initially, personnel for the Carpetbagger unit were drawn from the 4th and 22nd Squadrons of the 479th Anti-Submarine Group, which had been disbanded in August 1943. They were selected because of their experience in long navigational patrols at night. For almost three months, operating from an aerodrome at Dunkeswell, Devon, these two squadrons, flying Consolidated B–24D Liberator aircraft, had carried out anti-submarine sweeps over the Bay of Biscay, flying lone patrols of between ten and twelve hours’ duration, looking for German U-boats. Their record was a good one. On one occasion they had taken on formations of twelve Ju–88s and had won through. They had even been fired upon by anti-aircraft batteries along the Spanish coast.

In October 1943 Anti-Submarine Command was disbanded and the task of keeping the Atlantic sealanes free of U-boats passed exclusively to the US Navy and RAF Coastal Command. On 26 October the ground section of the 22nd Anti-Submarine Squadron left Dunkeswell by motor convoy for Alconbury. They overnighted at Yettingdon and arrived at Station 102 the next morning. Meanwhile, the air echelon had flown north from Devon but bad weather prevented them from landing at the Huntingdonshire base. They were forced to land at other airfields over a wide area and many were fogged in for a week. Ground crews in the 4th Anti-Submarine Squadron had better luck, leaving Dunkeswell on 1 November by train and road. At Alconbury the 4th and 22nd joined the men and machines of the 482nd (Pathfinder) Group.

At first the ex-anti-submarine group crews did not know what their new role would be, although the later change in squadron designation from ‘anti-submarine’ to ‘bombardment’ made them draw the wrong conclusions. Existing squadrons in the 482nd were carrying out pathfinder missions but the two new squadrons took on a curious demeanour when their B–24D Liberators were painted black. It was an appropriate choice of colour because the new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifford J. Heflin, was still in the dark.

Not until 24 October 1943 did Heflin learn what the new duties of his former 22nd Anti-submarine Squadron and of the 4th would be. On this date Heflin, his deputy, Major Robert W. Fish and Lieutenants Robert D. Sullivan and Akers, were summoned to attend a meeting at Bovingdon. They were met by Colonel Williamson, A–3 of VIII Bomber Command, Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) E.H. ‘Mouse’ Fielden from RAF Tempsford, Colonel Oliver of 8th Air Force and Colonel Joseph F. Haskell and Major Brooks of OSS, London. While the Americans were new to the sabotage game, Fielden and the RAF Special Duty squadrons in complete contrast, were old hands. Fielden was a former Captain of the King’s Flight and had taken command of No. 138 Squadron in August 1941. RAF clandestine air operations on behalf of SOE had begun in August 1940 and by mid-1941 was operating with a handful of Lysander single-engined army co-operation aircraft and Whitley bombers. The Lysanders and later Hudsons, were used in the dangerous task of flying out SOE agents who had finished their spell of duty in France, or who were on the run from the Gestapo. Escaping RAF airmen were also plucked to safety on occasions. Altogether, the Lysanders delivered 304 agents to France and exfiltrated 410 to Britain for the loss of thirteen aircraft and six pilots.

War-weary Whitley and Wellington bombers and later Halifax, Stirling and Hudson aircraft, were used for long-range parachute operations. By February 1942 138 Squadron had been joined in special duty operations by No. 161 Squadron and both squadrons began operations from Tempsford in the spring of 1942. Their hard-won experience and techniques were made available to the USAAF.

Williamson explained that the former anti-submarine squadrons had been assigned duties as ‘Sabotage’ squadrons. Amazed at this development, Heflin and his junior officers listened attentively as they were briefed in turn by the OSS officers and the British Group Captain about their involvement in a new operation with the cover name ‘Carpetbagger Project’. For the most part, Heflin’s squadrons would come under Special Operations. OSS would direct operations and arrange details of reception grounds (working in close co-operation with SOE who would specify the contents of the containers and packages to be delivered).

SO-SOE anticipated that the strength of Resistance groups on D–Day would be about 160,000. The continual problem that this posed to the Allied high command was their leadership, communications and supplies. The Resistance forces had to be organized into well-disciplined units, controlled by an effective system of communications and be capable of carrying out military operations such as attacks on enemy installations, disruption of enemy road and rail systems and hindering the deployment of enemy troop and tank movements.

In France this aim was a commander’s nightmare. The Free French operated under a command network of no fewer than a dozen délégués militaires régionaux (DMRs) who were able to request arms drops, via radio contact with SOE, from the Allied air forces. The Resistance movements were also divided between the Front National and the Communist-directed Franc-tireurs et Partisans (FTP).

The situation was made even more intriguing by political infighting between the Allies. In London General Charles de Gaulle claimed to represent France and therefore argued that all operations in his country should come under his direction. Initially, the British and American governments opposed this on political grounds. They also mistrusted the apparent lack of security, justifiably on occasions, at Free French Headquarters. All this led SOE to establish an ‘independent French’ (or ‘F’) section headed by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (which by June 1944 was operating 50 réseaux in France). Understandably, de Gaulle was unhappy about this arrangement, which persisted until 1944 when in preparation for D-Day, he formed the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur).

It was proposed that the SO (Special Operations) Branch of the OSS undertake the delivery of supplies to Resistance groups in a plan coordinated with the SOE. Heflin’s crews would air drop the Jedburgh teams, supplies and small arms, light automatic weapons, munitions, explosives, demolition and incendiary equipment. Generally speaking, pinpoints suitable for dropping a certain number of containers or packages would be proposed by SO. It was envisaged that no more than three squadrons of aircraft would be needed to supply the Resistance groups in occupied Europe.

At first approval was given only for supplying Resistance groups on a limited scale, for previous British experience had shown that considerable time would be needed to train crews for this type of operation. Lieutenant Wilmer L. Stapel, pilot of one of the original twelve B–24Ds commanded by Colonel Heflin that arrived at Dunkeswell in early August 1943, recalls:

After numerous briefings and stern warnings about ever discussing our clandestine operation, with a constant threat of court martial, if we ever disclosed anything at any time, one more prerequisite remained to be done before our crews would be turned loose over the continent of Europe. Each pilot, navigator and bombardier had to fly two combat missions each, with a combat ready crew. Since the USAAF had none, we were sent to the RAF squadrons at Tempsford to fly with their crews.

As has already been mentioned, both Nos. 138 and 161 Squadrons were stationed at the airfield, located just to the north of Sandy in Bedfordshire. To maintain security, Tempsford was known simply as ‘Gibraltar Farm’ to civilians and servicemen alike. Seemingly, its only link with civilization was with the main London to Edinburgh railway which runs parallel to the base and which is bounded on the west side by the Great North Road. The Special Duty squadrons at Tempsford had amassed a wealth of experience on varied cloak-and-dagger missions to the Low Countries and France and as far afield as Austria, Norway, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The assassination of SS–Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, was carried out on 27 May 1942 by Czech agents who had taken off from Tempsford. Heydrich was mortally wounded and died on 4 June 1942.

MI6 and SOE agents departing from and arriving at Tempsford were held at staging areas at Tempsford and Hasells Halls, and at Farm Hall, an unimposing mansion on West Street in Godmanchester. In 1942-3 Farm Hall (Special Training School No. 61) was used by six members of the Gunnerside team, whose mission was to destroy the German heavy water plant at Vermork in Norway, near the region of Telemark close to the electricity-generating area and nitrate plant at Rjukan. It was known that German scientists were working towards developing an atomic bomb and it was crucial therefore towards developing an atomic bomb and it was crucial therefore to deprive them of heavy water, which was needed to slow down the process of atomic fission. Thirty-four commandos of the First Airborne Division had taken off from Scotland on 19 November 1942 in two gliders to sabotage the plant but the attempt had ended in disaster when one of the towing aircraft crashed into a mountainside in Norway and both gliders crashed. All the surviving commandos were captured and shot.

For three months the Gunnerside team trained at Farm Hall, practising the demolition of simulated heavy water concentration cells. One member of the team, Knut Haukelid, described the Hall thus:

It was a station for people who were going to Europe on secret errands and who had to wait for planes. The place was very closely guarded. A number of servicewomen kept the house in order, cooked the meals and gave the boys some social life … But if we asked the FANYs [First Air Nursing Yeomanry] about our comrades who had gone out before us, they became dumb and knew nothing.

According to Arnold Kramish in his book The Griffin:

Farm Hall was not just a staging area for agents going out; it was an interrogation centre for agents and their captives coming in. Every room in the house, and some of the garden trees, was wired with microphones and there was a listening post in an isolated room.

In the early 1990s, floorboards were removed and revealed underfloor bugging devices in ‘finely crafted containers, like pencil boxes, with wires in them … Loyalties were automatically questioned, and the wiring gave information sometimes not elicited through interrogation’. Kramish states that the bugging devices had been put there on the orders of Lieutenant Commander Eric Welsh, a Royal Navy intelligence officer in SOE. Professor R.V. Jones, in his book Most Secret War, says that he asked for microphones to be placed there in 1945 before the arrival of ten German nuclear physicists.

On 16 February 1943 the Gunner side team, led by Lieutenant Joachim Rönneberg, took off from Tempsford and parachuted into Norway where they rendezvoused with four men of the Rype (Grouse) advance scouting party which had been dropped on 18 October 1942 to reconnoitre the area. The sabotage team made its way to Rjukan and during the night of 27/28 February blew up the heavy water concentration cells without any casualties. In the event, the Germans were able to repair the damage and make the plant operational again but production of heavy water was denied them for a critical few months and a stock of about 350 kilograms of heavy water was lost.

Tempsford, therefore, provided an ideal training school for the eager young American aircrews. The Special Duty Squadrons’ ability to exfiltrate secret agents and escaping aircrews from Occupied Europe did not go unnoticed either. During 1943 no fewer than 157 pick-up operations,† of which 111 were successful, were attempted by Lysander pilots of 161 Squadron. During operations from Tempsford and the forward base at Tangmere 138 Squadron made over 2,500 sorties and dropped almost 1,000 agents in occupied Europe for the loss of seventy aircraft.

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