27/28 February 1942
Today the Parachute Regiment forms an elite and vital airborne element of the British Army. Trained to conduct a range of missions and ready to form the spearhead for rapid intervention, it is light by design as its operations are usually based on speed. The paras formed during the Second World War, and an early raid to capture an enemy radar site at night, and then dismantle it so that parts could be taken back to Britain for expert evaluation, sounds more like a tale of fiction rather than fact. But that was exactly the task that was given to paratroopers on the night of 27/28 February 1942, and the raid on Bruneval must surely be one of the most audacious of the war.
The development of radar was vital to both sides during the Second World War, and each wished to retain a technical edge over the other. This meant finding out what the other side was doing – and there was no better way for the British to know how German radar had evolved than to analyse its components.
The low-UHF band Würzburg radar was Germany’s primary ground-based gun-laying radar during the war, having entered service during 1940. Reconnaissance flights carried out by the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit during late 1941 had identified installations along the northern coastline of France but their purpose had initially remained unknown. Some were convinced that the installations coincided with increasing RAF Bomber Command losses and British intelligence had concluded that Germany had significantly developed its radar techniques. And so a request was made to the headquarters of Combined Operations for one of the installations to be raided, with a view to identifying and understanding the German technology and, better still, capturing equipment and returning it to Britain for further examination. This would enable the British to effectively neutralize the system through the development of suitable countermeasures.
One installation in particular was considered accessible and, therefore, suitable for a raid. It was at Bruneval, just over 10 miles to the north of Le Havre, with the radar installation being located on a clifftop to the north of the village. Extensive German defences along the coastline would make a commando raid from the sea difficult. Not only might it prove costly in terms of lives lost, but any advanced warning that a raid was in progress would allow the German garrison located at the installation to destroy any secret equipment rather than risk it being captured. It was, therefore, decided that an airborne raid would take place to seize the technical equipment intact, after which evacuation of the equipment would be carried out by sea.
At that time, airborne operations were still in their early days. The first carried out by the British, called Operation Colossus, had taken place in February 1941 with mixed results. It had been undertaken to test the concept of conducting an airborne assault and to assess the RAF’s ability to deliver such a force. The target chosen was an aqueduct near Calitri in southern Italy, which supplied water to several ports used by the Italian military, and its destruction would hamper Italian operations in North Africa and Albania. The raid was carried out by thirty-eight members of X Troop, part of a new unit called 11 Special Air Service Battalion, which had been formed from 2 Commando. Although the aqueduct had been damaged, the raiders were captured and the aqueduct soon repaired, and so enemy operations had not been hampered for long, if at all. Nonetheless, the concept had been tried and valuable lessons learned. The raid was considered successful enough to expand British airborne forces and so, in September 1941, the battalion became the 1st Parachute Battalion and was assigned to the 1st Parachute Brigade. A call for further volunteers led to the 2nd Battalion being formed, with the Parachute Brigade becoming part of the newly formed 1st Airborne Division.
The idea of an airborne assault against the Würzburg installation at Bruneval was first put to the headquarters of the 1st Airborne Division during the early days of 1942. Its commander, Major General Frederick Browning, was full of enthusiasm, as it offered a chance to boost the morale of his new organization and an opportunity to instantly make its name. At the time only the 1st Battalion was fully trained, but Browning wished to retain this intact for any larger-scale operation that might be required in the near future, and so he gave the task to C Company of the 2nd Battalion, a unit largely made up of men drawn from Scottish units.
The raid was given the codename Operation Biting. The plan, using an assault force of 120 paratroopers to capture and then hold the radar installation and its surrounds while vital parts of the radar were dismantled and evacuated back to England, was to be based on total surprise. Chosen to lead the raid was the commander of C Company, Major John Frost.
Bruneval would be the first major British airborne raid of the war and so training would require close co-ordination between airborne troops and aircrew. The RAF element of the task was given to the Whitleys of 51 Squadron under the command of Wing Commander Charles ‘Pick’ Pickard, a holder of the DSO and the DFC and already known to the British public, having starred in the 1941 wartime propaganda film Target for Tonight, in which he featured as a Wellington pilot of ‘F for Freddie’.
There was little time for much training, as Biting had to be completed by the end of February, when the combination of the moon, a rising tide and the general weather conditions were likely to be suitable for the raid to take place. However, the training was as thorough as possible. It was mainly conducted from Tilshead in Wiltshire and involved much time on Salisbury Plain, including a parachute drop with 51 Squadron. The paras also spent time in Scotland, where they practised night embarkations on landing craft from the Combined Operations training base at Inverary in order to prepare the men for the evacuation by sea once the radar had been dismantled, when they would be using six landing craft from the landing ship HMS Prince Albert.
The naval part of the operation was to be led by an Australian, Commander Frederick Cook, and was dependent on suitable sea conditions on the night. Although the Prince Albert would be protected by a group of motor gunboats (MGBs), the lowering of landing craft in a high swell was never easy and finding a specific part of the French coastline at night in less than ideal conditions would be a challenge. Cook would transfer to one of the lead landing craft for the final run ashore, and also on board one of the craft would be Donald Priest, a scientist and radar engineer from the Telecommunications Research Establishment, who would only land if the entire area around the radar installation was considered totally secure. If so, Priest’s task would be to assist in the dismantling of the radar and to make a brief technical assessment of the equipment. If, however, there was any doubt about the security of the area then Priest was not to go ashore and under no account was he to fall into enemy hands; he would, therefore, have two soldiers to protect him. The evacuation plan was for the landing craft to beach two at a time to collect the paras and radar equipment. Although each landing craft was to be armed by a Bren light machine-gun team, another two support landing craft, carrying thirty-two men of 12 Commando, would provide additional firepower to cover the raiders as they withdrew from the beach. Once the paras had been evacuated they were to be transferred to the faster MGBs for the run back to the south coast of England while RAF fighters provided air cover over the Channel as first light broke.
As the men arrived back at Tilshead they were still unaware of what their actual target was to be. Given the time available, and the fact that this kind of operation was new, training had gone very well. Information about the radar site had been gathered from every source available, including observations from members of the French Resistance on the ground, which included valuable details about the German garrison at the site. Furthermore, a model of the installation and surrounding buildings had been built using the aerial reconnaissance photos taken by the RAF, which all helped provide the men with an understanding of the task they faced. The men were then given more information and carried out their final training along the Dorset coast, although they were still unaware of exactly where their target was to be.
The radar installation at Bruneval was located on a reasonably flat plateau and was essentially made up of two main areas: the radar station, contained in a building a hundred yards from the edge of the cliff and manned by signallers, and an enclosure of smaller buildings housing a garrison of enemy troops, believed to be about a hundred in strength, and another shift of signallers. The compound was surrounded by guard posts with an estimated thirty guards on shift at any one time. There was a further detachment of soldiers to the north with responsibility for manning coastal defences in the area. These included a strong defensive point near the intended evacuation beach, and pillboxes and other defensive positions along the top of the cliff, which included a number of machine-gun nests overlooking the beach. The only good news was that the pebble beach, some 300 yards long, was believed to be free of mines, with the only known hazard being barbed wire along its stretch. However, regular enemy patrols were known to be active and the mobile reserve, although garrisoned further inland, could be in the area within an hour.
Based on all the intelligence he had, Frost decided to divide his force into five teams, operating as three main groups each of forty men, and given the names Drake, Hardy, Jellicoe, Nelson and Rodney. Three groups – Drake, Hardy and Jellicoe – would capture the radar site and a nearby building housing the technicians and guards, while Nelson would secure the area of the evacuation beach and Rodney would provide protection for the three main assault groups by taking up a position between the radar installation and the direction of enemy approach.
Frost was to lead the twenty men of Hardy and capture the villa housing the radar operators while 22-year-old Lieutenant Peter Young would lead the ten men of Jellicoe to capture the radar. The other group, the ten men of Drake, would be led by Lieutenant Peter Naumoff. They were to deal with the other buildings at the farm at La Presbytère, where up to sixty enemy troops were believed to be housed, and to divert any enemy fire away from the other two assault groups.
After capturing the installation and the garrison, the task of photographing the radar set and then dismantling it would fall to Flight Sergeant Charles Cox, a radar technician from the RAF who had volunteered to take part in the raid. Cox would be attached to Hardy, but time would not be on his side and so it was crucial for him to remove specific parts that had been briefed to him prior to the raid. These parts would then be loaded onto a hand trolley and taken with the men down a gulley to the beach for evacuation.
While the three main assault groups had the challenge of capturing the radar installation and its surrounds, the task faced by the forty men of Nelson was also crucial. Half the men were to be led by the youngest officer taking part in the raid, Second Lieutenant Euan Charteris, the son of a brigadier and just 20 years old. His group was to secure the beach and take out the two enemy machine-gun posts known to be in the area. When it was time to evacuate the beach they would then signal the flotilla of landing craft to come ashore to pick them up. The rest of Nelson, led by 21-year-old Captain John Ross, the second-in-command of C Company, were to protect the beach by holding the road leading from Bruneval village. Ross’s group would then cover the evacuation and be the last to leave the beach. The forty men making up Rodney were to be led by Lieutenant John Timothy. His group would be last to drop, with the task of protecting the eastern flank, as this was the direction from which the main threat of reinforcements could be expected, particularly from La Presbytère.
As the training neared an end, the date of the raid was narrowed to a four-day period starting on 24 February. The day before, a final rehearsal took place but, despite all conditions seemingly favouring the raiders, it proved to be a drastic failure when the landing craft for evacuating the raiders became grounded several yards offshore.
The men were now fully aware of their mission and the target but their training never seemed to go exactly to plan. Then, with poor weather over the next few days, there were concerns that the raid might not take place at all. On two consecutive days the men had packed their equipment and prepared to move, only to be told the mission had been postponed. It was mentally draining as well as totally frustrating.
The three nights considered suitable for the raid came and went and it now looked like the opportunity had been missed. Then, on the morning of 27 February, the men woke to find a bright, clear sky. It was bitterly cold, but the wind had gone and visibility was good. Frost received word that headquarters had extended the period for the op to be carried out by twenty-four hours, and so the men were told to prepare once more. Then finally, soon after midday, Frost received the word that the mission was on. The weather conditions were going to be near perfect, with clear skies, a full moon and good visibility, but then came the news that Bruneval and its surrounding area were covered by snow.
The likelihood of snow had seemingly not really featured in the planning. None of the combat clothing or equipment was for winter warfare, but it was too late to do anything about that now. The naval evacuation force left southern England during the afternoon to take up its position about 15 miles off the coast, then it was the turn of the men of C Company to leave Tilshead for the short journey to the airfield at Thruxton.
Soon after 9.30 pm they boarded their aircraft to the sound of pipes, to stir the men and send them into battle. An hour later the twelve RAF Whitleys were airborne, each carrying ten men and equipment, and heading for the south coast of England, where they joined up before heading out across the Channel. On board the conditions were dark, cold and cramped. The men sat on the floor and huddled together along the sides of the fuselage, with sleeping bags and blankets to keep them warm.
Diversionary air raids had been planned for the night to keep the Luftwaffe and anti-aircraft flak batteries occupied and these were already in full operation. The Whitleys crossed the Channel at low altitude to avoid being detected by enemy radar. The clear visibility meant that navigation was not a problem and so the aircrew had little trouble locating the drop zones. Then, descending to below 500 feet, the Whitleys made their final run-in towards their drop zones.
On the ground there was little for the Germans at Bruneval to be concerned about. It had been a perfectly normal evening and although they were aware of RAF bombers approaching Le Havre, this was not unusual. The diversionary raids had done their job. The Germans suspected nothing.
The Whitleys initially paralleled the French coastline towards Le Havre and then turned towards Bruneval. It was now just after midnight and they were only minutes from the first drop. Their track took them about half a mile inland and they were now in their required order for the final run-in for the drop, with Pickard’s aircraft leading.
Inside Pickard’s aircraft was Charteris. He was the first to jump. Seconds later he was on the ground, but as he looked around and surveyed the scene, nothing was recognizable to him. Within minutes the other members of his group from the two lead aircraft, the men making up half of Nelson, were assembled with their equipment and ready to move, but there was no sign of Ross and the other half of the team. Unbeknown to Charteris at that time, Ross and his half of Nelson had been dropped in the correct place, but Charteris’s team had been dropped more than 2 miles short. The problem now was for him to decide in which direction they should go. Charteris had to take a chance and so he led his men off in a northerly direction, believing that to be correct. Ross, meanwhile, having waited a few minutes to see if Charteris and the men would turn up, had decided to move off regardless.
Frost and his main assault group arrived over their drop zone just five minutes after the lead element. The forty men of Drake, Hardy and Jellicoe then jumped and, five minutes later, the four aircraft carrying Timothy’s group, Rodney, arrived. They, too, then started to jump.
For Frost and the men of Drake, Hardy and Jellicoe the drop went as planned. They came down in the centre of their drop zone, and just twenty minutes later were in position and ready to commence their attack. For Timothy, however, the men of Rodney had initially become separated after a couple of wayward drops and one aircraft had to circle round for a second time. Nonetheless, Timothy had managed to get most of his men into position to provide protection for the main assault.
With his men ready, Frost gave a long, hard blast on his whistle as the order to open fire. Grenades and automatic fire rained down on the villa. The paras had taken the Germans completely by surprise, but what had come as a surprise to the raiders was that only one German had been encountered in the building; he stood no chance. Meanwhile, the assault on the radar by Young and the men of Jellicoe was fully underway. Frost and his men could hear the battle raging just a hundred yards or so away but it soon fell silent. A number of Germans lay dead and one radar technician was taken prisoner. Young’s group was still fully intact.
Everything had, so far, gone according to plan. Now it was Charlie Cox’s turn to do his bit. He had been in Frost’s group since leaving Tilshead but had to remain in the rear while the fighting had taken place. It was now time for him to set about his task. He quickly moved up to the radar and familiarized himself with the major components before dismantling what he could and placing the pieces of equipment on the trolleys ready for evacuation.
The German troops nearby were now fully alive to what was going on. The low-flying Whitleys, followed by the sound of explosions and gunfire, had initially caused confusion amongst the troops at La Presbytère as to what the target was likely to be. There was a much larger Freya radar installation nearby but they had now worked out that it was the Würzburg that was under attack. Having quickly made their way to the area, they could see the paras a few hundred yards away and were now in a position to counter-attack.
The rapid fire that suddenly came down on the paras from the area known as the Rectangle did not exactly come as a surprise. It had, indeed, been anticipated and planned for, but the speed at which the Germans had got to a strong position was a major concern. The incoming fire was fierce and accurate and the paras soon suffered their first casualty.
While Cox continued to dismantle the radar, Frost reacted by ordering Naumoff to take Drake to counter the threat coming from the Rectangle. The enemy troops were now getting stronger but the men of Drake continued to hold them at bay, each minute helping towards the mission’s success.
Frost was now aware that Nelson had become split during the drop and, as yet, had been unable to secure the evacuation route and the beach. He was having further difficulties with communicating with his groups because two radio operators were missing. They had been on board the aircraft that had been forced to go round again to make a second drop, but there was a further problem as some of the radio sets did not seem to work.
Ross, with only half the men available to him, had split them into three small groups, with two of his sergeants leading a group each: one went to the beach and the other to attack an enemy position on the cliff. Ross, meanwhile, took his small group to clear a network of enemy defensive positions. At first everything had gone well, but one of the small groups had been spotted and a heavy firefight had soon broken out. The sound of heavy machine-gun and semi-automatic fire could be heard for miles around. The flashes of weapons firing around the cliffs and down towards the beach had lit up the darkness of the night sky. The Germans seemed to be firing down on one group of paras while another group had gained a height advantage further up the cliff and were now firing down on the German emplacement. The defenders were well dug-in but rather static in their positions, whereas the paras were able to move and fire from different directions; also, the German defenders simply had no idea of the strength they were up against.
It had now turned into a full-scale battle and Frost could clearly hear just how ferocious the fight had become, but with no radio contact with Nelson he was unable to determine who was where. With casualties likely to mount he ordered Young to take Jellicoe down to the beach and to provide Ross with whatever support he could. It would not be any easier for Young to determine who was where either and so the men of Jellicoe proceeded as quickly, but as cautiously as they could. Meanwhile, Frost had instructed Timothy to send some men of Rodney towards the beach to add weight to the assault on the German positions that were dug-in, while using the rest of his group to counter the enemy approaching from the direction of La Presbytère.
The paras had now been on enemy soil for an hour, but to the men trying to get away it was starting to feel as if it had been much longer. Cox was still working as best he could to dismantle the radar but it was clear he was not going to be allowed much more time to do so. The situation was starting to become desperate as the enemy were getting more of a foothold in the surrounding area. Finally, having secured as much equipment as they could, and still under heavy fire, the raiders were ordered by Frost to withdraw to the beach. He knew the escape route had still not been cleared but he felt that it would be better for the men to try and fight their way to the beach rather than to stay where they were. But pulling fully laden trolleys across the snow-covered rugged ground proved hard work. As the paras made their way to the beach, a burst of heavy machine-gun fire made it obvious the evacuation area had still not been cleared.
Meanwhile, having been dropped some way short of their intended drop zone, Charteris and the rest of Nelson had made their way quickly to the scene. Charteris’s initial heading from their drop point had been good and he had soon been able to establish where they were. There had been the odd skirmish on the way to the beach but nothing his men could not handle. It had taken them well over an hour to reach the scene and when he arrived the battle had reached something of a stalemate. Moving quickly across unfamiliar terrain at night, and carrying equipment, some of it quite heavy, had meant that his group had now split into smaller units. So, having reached the cliff overlooking the beach, Charteris gathered what men he could as he assessed the situation as well as possible given the dark and the confusion, before leading them quietly down the slope of the cliff towards a villa on the beach that was occupied by enemy troops.
Charteris could wait no longer and, with his small group of men, stormed into the fight. They announced their arrival by lobbing grenades at the villa while some kept up constant fire on German positions overlooking the beach. The paras were now at their most vulnerable as they charged down the road towards the villa. It was a moment of outstanding bravery and swung the momentum of the battle in favour of the paras. Charteris was the first to reach the villa, along with one of his sergeants, David Grieve. They stormed the building with grenades and Sten machine guns firing, only to find just one startled German soldier inside; the rest had escaped. With the villa captured, Ross appeared; his men having cleared out the last of the defenders as others had fled to safety. At last the beach was in British hands. It was nearly 2.30 am.
Back up on the cliffs the enemy had reoccupied the villa that had housed the radar operators and guards. Frost, fully aware of the threat now posed from the rear, decided this would have to be dealt with. He could not afford to have more enemy troops firing on them from so close behind as his men tried to make their way down the cliffs. Rounding up what men and equipment he could, he led his men back across the plateau towards the villa. As they got closer they charged the building with all guns blazing. The sight of paras charging back to the villa came as an unwelcome surprise to those inside. The villa had been reoccupied, but not in sufficient strength to prevent the paras from regaining the building. With the Germans retreating back to safety, Frost returned towards the clifftops and gave the order for his men to make their way down towards the beach.
Once again, the trolleys laden with pieces of radar equipment were dragged down the gulley. With them was the German radar technician who had been taken prisoner. Down on the beach the scene was one of devastation. A handful of German prisoners stood under guard, their hands held high, but there was no sign of the evacuation flotilla of landing craft. Unbeknown to Frost, the flotilla had received no signals from the raiding party and had spent much of the time avoiding an enemy patrolling vessel that had nearly discovered them.
With Nelson left to protect the beach from any counter-attack from inland, flares were fired as a last desperate attempt to signal the flotilla. It was just what Cook and his men on board the landing craft had been waiting for. Finding a small beach at night along an extensive coastline, with all beaches and cliffs looking much the same, was never going to be easy, but Cook had managed to position the flotilla perfectly. They had been little more than a mile offshore and had witnessed the assault and the raging battle that followed, but Cook could not risk sending the landing craft ashore until the beach was secure.
Now it was time to begin the evacuation. The landing craft moved in quickly. The sight of the cavalry, in the form of landing craft, approaching the beach was a most welcome sight for the raiders, but suddenly machine-gun fire rattled down from the cliffs above. The landing craft had been spotted. With German troops firing on the paras from the cliffs above, and with the landing craft also coming under enemy fire, there was no time to land two by two and so, as the commandos on board returned fire on the German positions on top of the cliffs, all six craft came ashore at the same time.
For several minutes there was confusion and chaos on the beach. There was a further problem when a number of German troops came out of hiding in the cliffs and started to open fire on the landing craft below. The paras piled on board any landing craft they could find but the evacuation was now taking place later than planned, which meant the tide had changed and was now on its way out. Some landing craft got stuck on the pebbles and some left the beach completely overcrowded, while others left only partially loaded. Fortunately, though, the radar equipment was quickly evacuated, as were the German prisoners. Somehow, the raiding force was evacuated off the beach with Frost being the last to leave.
Having reached the safety of mid-Channel the paras were transferred to the faster MGBs to complete their transit back home. The journey back across the Channel passed uneventfully as the MGBs were escorted by four naval destroyers while air cover was provided by RAF Spitfires.
The raid on Bruneval was undoubtedly a success. It had cost the lives of just two men: 28-year-old Private Hugh McIntyre, who had been killed at the radar installation during the German counter-attack, and 24-year-old Private Alan Scott, who was killed on the cliffs during the evacuation. Eight others had been wounded and half a dozen had been left behind and were subsequently taken as prisoners of war; one had been wounded and five never made it to the landing craft during the rush and chaos of the evacuation.
The raid was made public when it was given great coverage by the media. It had come at a time when hitting back at the enemy was essential and was seen as a great morale boost, not only for the men of Combined Operations, but also for the British public at large. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had taken great interest in the raid; after all, it was exactly what units such as the paras and commandos had been formed to do.
Ten gallantry awards followed the success of the operation and were announced in the London Gazette on 15 May. For leading the raid John Frost was awarded the Military Cross, as was Euan Charteris, and there was a Distinguished Service Cross, one of three awarded for the raid, for Frederick Cook, while two other members of the evacuation party received the Distinguished Service Medal. There was also a Military Medal for Charlie Cox, the RAF radio technician who had volunteered to take part in the raid. His was one of three MMs awarded for the raid; the others were to Sergeant David Grieve, who had stormed the villa on the beach with Charteris, and Sergeant Gregor McKenzie, known as ‘Mac the Knife’, who had fought in the same decisive action. Nine others were awarded a Mention in Despatches. There was also subsequent recognition of Pick Pickard’s leadership of the Whitleys that had dropped the paras at Bruneval; Pickard received a bar to his DSO.
The success of the raid also ensured the expansion of British airborne forces and resulted in more airborne battalions later in the year. But it was the technical knowledge gained by British scientists that was the most important aspect of the raid. Examination of the Würzburg equipment showed the radar was vulnerable to new jamming techniques being considered at the time and this led to the development of Window, which were aluminium strips dropped in bundles as an effective countermeasure against German radars. It was a development that would save countless lives throughout the rest of the war.