When an eccentric genius called Geoffrey Pyke proposed constructing unsinkable aircraft carriers or freighters from enormous icebergs, Churchill ordered him to proceed – no idea that could conceivably help the Allies to win the war was too outlandish for this Prime Minister. Pyke’s team of scientists invented a kind of super-ice, made by mixing in 4 per cent cotton wool or wood pulp to a slurry of freezing water, making an incredibly tough substance that melted very slowly which was called in Pyke’s honour ‘pykrete’.

Pykrete became an exhibit at the Quebec conference of August 1943 at which the Allied leadership discussed the plan for the final liberation of Europe, operation OVERLORD. Churchill had crossed the Atlantic on his way to the conference on one of the world’s largest liners, the Queen Mary, which weighed 86,000 tons; but Pyke was proposing something even bigger, a 600-metre long, self-refrigerating aircraft carrier made from Pykrete, to be called Habbakuk, which would weigh more than two million tons and could carry and launch 200 aeroplanes. You could use it to invade Japan! Pyke was already building a prototype on a lake in Ontario.

Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the head of Combined Operations, used showmanship to demonstrate the power of Pykrete to the Americans. Two cold blocks were produced, one of ice, one of Pykrete, and burly General ‘Hap’ Arnold of the US Army Air Corps was invited to demolish each with an axe. Arnold shattered the brittle ice with a mighty blow. Then it was the Pykrete’s turn: but the American general howled with pain as the axe-head jarred off the Pykrete, leaving the block intact. Mountbatten then drew a pistol and finished off the ice, but once again the Pykrete stood firm and a spent bullet ricocheted uselessly off it, narrowly missing a senior RAF officer. Churchill roared with laughter. The demonstration was a propaganda triumph, though in the event Pykrete was never used.

Churchill had come to Quebec to put on a brave show, and he was flanked by two fire-eating British warriors who he hoped would impress the Americans as much as the Pykrete had: the handsome and much-decorated air ace Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, famous for the ‘Dambusters’ raid, and Brigadier Orde Wingate, ferocious leader of Patriot guerrillas in Abyssinia and now of bearded Chindits in the Burmese jungle.

The main item on the agenda was the forthcoming attack on what the Germans called Festung Europa, Fortress Europe. Where was the best place to enter the Continent if you were setting off from the UK? There were several options, but the American and British team led by Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan, called Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander or COSSAC, charged with planning OVERLORD, had actually decided on Normandy. Yet Normandy’s fifty miles of beaches did not seem suitable for a massive invasion. The swirling currents and the daunting difference between low and high tides (up to 21 feet or 6.4 metres) made unloading heavy gear on sandy beaches implausible. Conventional wisdom said you required a proper deep-water harbour with wharves and cranes to disembark the 50-ton tanks, huge guns, and great pallets of stores necessary for an invasion. Hence the raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942 – a trial run at seizing a port.

But the bold and imaginative answer that so appealed to Churchill was huge floating harbours. He had been thinking about this idea since July 1917, when he imagined a way of seizing two Frisian islands from a moveable atoll of concrete. In May 1942, he had written a note to Mountbatten: ‘Piers for use on beaches. They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.’ On board the Queen Mary, on6 August 1943, there was a scientific demonstration in a bathroom by Professor J. D. Bernal, one of Mountbatten’s physicist boffins, who put a fleet of twenty paper boats at one end of a half-filled bath. At the other end, a naval lieutenant made waves with a loofah. The paper boats were swamped and sank. Then Bernal put more folded newspaper boats into the bath, but surrounded them with an inflated Mae West lifejacket. The lieutenant made vigorous waves, and this time the boats did not sink. ‘That, gentlemen,’ said Bernal, ‘is what would happen if we had an artificial harbour.’

A fortnight later, the Quebec Conference approved the concept of two artificial harbours – one British and one American, code-named ‘Mulberries’, and said they should be constructed and fully operational two weeks after D-Day. The Quebec Conference also approved the outline OVERLORD plan. The team were told to plan in more detail for an assault by three divisions and three airborne brigades. A section called Ops (B) was set up to prepare ‘an elaborate camouflage and deception scheme’, but there was only one officer working on it.

At the next Allied Conference, held in Teheran from 28 November to 1 December 1943, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill concerted their ‘plans for the destruction of the German forces’. The American and British Allies promised to leave the Balkans alone but agreed to help relieve the pressure on Russia by opening ‘the Second Front’ in May 1944, invading northern France in operation OVERLORD and southern France in operation anvil (which in the event got delayed). Stalin agreed to coordinate his big push on the Eastern Front with the Allied attack in the west, and all agreed on the need for a deception plan.

By now, the Wavell/Clarke thesis that major operations should have a cover plan, if practical and useful, was taken for granted. The Soviets believed in military deception, which they called maskirovna. An American deceiver later sent to Moscow to coordinate OVERLORD deception plans with the Russians was talking to a Russian deceiver when the subject of the media came up. When the American said that in a democracy you could not use the press to fool your own people, the Russian shrugged, ‘Oh well, we do it all the time.’ It was at Teheran that Churchill said to Stalin, ‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,’ and Stalin replied, ‘This is what we call military cunning.’

On 6 December John Bevan of LCS was brought in to work up the strategic deception plan for OVERLORD, and gave it a new name, BODYGUARD, in a nod to the Prime Minister’s observation. Strategically, it aimed to make the Germans dispose their forces in the wrong places – in the Balkans, in northern Italy, in Norway and Denmark, anywhere but northern France. Later, the operational challenge would be to deceive the Germans about exactly when, where and in what strength the invasion was coming. This part of the deception plan would evolve down an endless series of forking paths as executive control shifted.

Dwight Eisenhower was given command of OVERLORD (‘Over Lord and Under Ike’ was the joke) and he took up his responsibility in January 1944, when what had been COSSAC became SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Eisenhower brought his own chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, with him, so Frederick Morgan became his deputy. The Ops (B) or deception side of COSSAC expanded as bigger fish started to arrive at SHAEF. Dudley Clarke’s deputy in ‘A’ Force, Colonel Noel Wild, arrived from Tunis to take over, and also became the SHAEF member on the Double Cross Committee. Major Roger Hesketh of SHAEF intelligence worked closely with Tar Robertson and the other officers in MI5’s Section B1A which controlled the double agents. Hesketh and Wild were also in close touch with John Bevan and others at LCS. Deception was a small club in an old boys’ network; the official historian Michael Howard described them as ‘a handful of men who knew each other intimately and cut corners’.

The British made sure that they retained executive control over the crucial Channel-crossing and landing part of OVERLORD, the actual D-Day invasion, code-named NEPTUNE. Allied air forces and navies were both under British control. The temporary commander of all the Allied ground forces for NEPTUNE was Montgomery. He and his chief of staff Freddie de Guingand set up their own deception staff, called G (R), modelled on Clarke’s ‘A’ force which had helped Eighth Army so much in the desert. The man in charge of this was David Strangeways, the ‘A’ Force Tactical HQ commander who had led the successful surprise raid into Tunis to seize German intelligence materials, and who was probably Clarke’s best pupil for ingenuity and sharpness.

The first thing Monty did was tear up the NEPTUNE plan that COSSAC had prepared. He thought the Normandy front should be doubled to fifty miles, and preceded by an assault from the sky by three airborne divisions, not three brigades. In the first wave of sea landings, he wanted not three but five divisions on five separate beaches, supported by two more divisions behind. If he did not get this, he said they could find another commander. Eisenhower concurred, but getting what Monty wanted meant a massive increase in ships and equipment, including another thousand landing craft to add to the three thousand-odd already prepared for.

Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel, charged by Hitler with defending the coast of France at the end of 1943, knew that his best chance was to smash the Allied attacks on the beaches, and that the first day would be ‘the longest day’. From desert warfare experience, he was a great believer in anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines. As well as making a ‘Devil’s Garden’ of obstacles at different tidelines along the beaches, he wanted to mine, wire and fortify the entire coastal strip into a ‘zone of death’ five or six miles deep. To defend the Atlantic Wall, he dreamed of sowing 200 million landmines along the entire coast of France, although he never achieved it. ‘Up to the 20th May 1944,’ says the War Diary of German Army Group B, ‘4,193,167 mines were laid on the Channel coast, 2,672,000 of them on Rommel’s initiative, and most of them after the end of March.’ He also planned to fill all potential landing fields with patterns of ten-foot-high wooden stakes that would rip flimsy gliders apart. Many of the stakes were to be wired to artillery shells whose detonation would cause further carnage.

The Allied intelligence reconnaissance for the D-Day landings was high, wide and deep. Thousands of mapping photos were taken from different angles in the air. Low-level missions along the beaches to photograph the arrays of obstacles the Germans were building were known as ‘dicing’ missions, as in ‘dicing with death’. They were taken so close that you can see individual engineers running for cover, and count their footsteps in the sand. Things seen from the air were sometimes investigated by divers from the sea, and commando raids brought back prisoners and samples of barbed wire and metal defences. Geologists and oceanographers were consulted and recruited. Following an appeal on the BBC wireless in 1942, the great British public had sent in over ten million of their pre-war French beach ‘holiday snaps’. These Brownie Box-photos and picture post-cards were sorted, graded, assembled and scrutinised for tiny details of Normandy.

Through General de Gaulle’s Free French Intelligence service, le Deuxième Bureau, run by ‘Colonel Passy’ or André Dewavrin, the French resistance was mobilised to report on every detail of the German construction of their defences. The Centurie network, radiating out of Caen, eventually had 1,500 agents noting every gun emplacement and mine field, every concrete caisson and fifteen-foot-deep anti-tank trench. One house painter in the resistance managed to purloin a blueprint of the defences from the office of the Organisation Todt that were building them.

The Allies agreed to cross the Channel as two armies, one British, one American, fighting side by side, but not mixed together. The British (including the Canadians) would go in on the left, to SWORD, JUNO, and GOLD beaches, preceded by the paratroopers of the 6th British Airborne Division. The US First Army would go in on the right, to OMAHA and UTAH beaches, preceded by the paratroopers of the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions.

‘Mulberry’ floating harbours

Co-ordinating the effort required awesome organisation and logistics. The Allies had to marshal and maintain over 2 million men, 11,000 aircraft, and 7,000 ships in England. The prodigious industrial output to meet their requirements had to be matched by efficient distribution. The engineering work behind the landings was staggering, and thousands of construction workers were recruited to work night and day. The Petroleum Warfare Department pioneered PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean), ready to pump millions of gallons of petrol across to the invaders. To get the astonishing volume of men, equipment and supplies ashore in north-western France, Churchill’s pet project, the technologically ingenious ‘Mulberry’ floating harbours, were essential. Two were to be constructed off Normandy. Over a hundred enormous 6,000-ton reinforced concrete caissons called ‘Phoenixes’ (each 60 feet high, 60 feet wide and 200 feet long) would be towed across the Channel from Selsey Bill and Dungeness by some of the fleet of 132 tugs and then filled with sand from ‘Leviathans’ so they sank to form a breakwater in the Bay of the Seine. Outside this artificial reef was a floating line of ‘Bombardons’ towed from Poole and Southampton to calm the waves, and inside, in shallower water, a line of ‘Gooseberries’, formed from two dozen redundant merchant navy vessels, Liberty ships and one old dreadnought that were scuttled and sunk where needed. In the calmer waters within the two-square-mile Mulberry harbour, strong Lobnitz or ‘Spud’ pier heads were sunk deep into the sand which allowed long bridges or floating roadways to the shore, known as ‘Whales’, to float up and down with the tides. The menagerie of code-names was augmented by power-driven pontoons called ‘Rhinos’ and amphibious vehicles known as ‘Ducks’.

Further amazing engines onshore also sprang from Churchill’s ‘inflammable fancy’: armoured tank bulldozers and ploughs, special fat-cannoned Churchill tanks for blasting blockhouses, other ‘Crocodile’ Churchill tanks that could squirt petrol and latex flames over a hundred yards, great machines for laying fascines across mud or barbed wire, or for thrashing their way with flailing chains clear through exploding mine fields. These devices came from Churchill’s direct encouragement and protection of a brilliant maverick, Major General Sir Percy Hobart of 79th Armoured Brigade, and were collectively known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.

The deception plan for NEPTUNE, the cross-Channel attack, was called Plan FORTITUDE, and its object was ‘to induce the enemy to make faulty dispositions in North-West Europe’. FORTITUDE NORTH aimed to keep Hitler worrying about Scandinavia, and the danger to Germany posed by an Allied attack on Norway and Denmark. Dummy wireless traffic and bogus information from double agents indicated that the (notional) British Fourth Army in Scotland, supported by American Rangers from Iceland, was going to attack Stavanger and Narvik and advance on Oslo. British deceivers also worked hard on the neutral Swedes. The commander-in-chief of the Swedish Air Force was asked for ‘humanitarian’ assistance in the event of an Allied invasion of Norway. As his office was being bugged by the pro-Nazi chief of Swedish police, this information went straight to Berlin. When Hitler read the transcript he ordered two more divisions to reinforce the ten already in Norway. Thus 30,000 more soldiers were diverted away from France.


Dummy landing craft

Fortitude North and South constituted the main portion of the overall Bodyguard deception.

Operation FORTITUDE SOUTH, developed by David Strangeways, aimed in the first instance to convince the Germans that there was another mighty force in Britain, as well as Montgomery’s (real) 21st Army Group: this was the First United States Army Group, or FUSAG, stationed in the south-east of England, opposite the Pas de Calais, the quick route to Germany via Antwerp and Brussels. FUSAG was, of course, notional, a ghost army created and sustained by the deception plan QUICKSILVER. It had its own insignia, a black Roman numeral I on a blue background inside a red and white pentagon, and it was supposed to comprise the Canadian First and the US Third Armies. Most importantly for the story, it was apparently commanded by the profanely theatrical, ivory-handled-pistol-packing US General George S. Patton Jr, ‘Old Blood-and-Guts’ himself, from a headquarters at Wentworth, near Ascot. (‘One must be an actor,’ Patton once wrote about overcoming ever-present fear.) Hitler thought that Patton – who had got into trouble for slapping a shell-shocked soldier in Sicily – was easily the Americans’ best man, because he was ruthless. Of course he would be leading the Allied fightback.

From 24 April 1944 onwards, the eleven divisions of FUSAG were brought to life by dummy radio traffic to hoodwink the German ‘Y’ or wireless-eavesdropping service. The radio deceivers went on genuine army exercises where they recorded all the radio voice traffic, learned accurate technical terms and questioned people about their activities before writing their own scripts, which they got Allied servicemen in Kent to read out. They tried not to make it sound too polished, because in real life people often did not hear and asked for repeats. For Morse work they got American radio operators of 3103 Signals Service Battalion who had been in Sicily and North Africa, and whose ‘fist’ or way of signalling the German listeners might recognise. There was also physical camouflage work, particularly the planting of scores of dummy landing craft – known as ‘big bobs’ – at Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, and on the East Anglian rivers Deben and Orwell, for German aerial reconnaissance planes to spot. The dummy landing craft weighed about six tons, were built out of scaffolding pipes and canvas and floated on 55-gallon oil-drums welded together. They were painted and stained to look old, and were ‘serviced’ by crews who hung out washing, flew ensigns, sent up smoke signals and moved around in small boats. The idea was to keep the Germans looking eastwards; the Pas de Calais had to remain the invasion site uppermost in their minds, with the Fifteenth Army there ready to repel an invasion, and Seventh Army in Normandy less on its guard.

Great activity, using lighting at night, was simulated at Dover and Folkestone, where the 2nd Canadian Corps and the US VIII Corps were notionally based. The architect Basil Spence oversaw the building of a fake oil terminal with pipelines, storage tanks and jetties. It was solemnly inspected by King George VI and General Montgomery among other notables, and duly reported in the press – because since early March 1944, Royal visits had been coordinated with the deception planners.

It all worked: a German Oberkommando der Wehrmacht intelligence map, captured later in Italy, of what they believed to be the British Order of Battle on 15 May 1944, reflected their belief that most Allied forces were stationed in the east of the UK. The (mostly imaginary) units the map showed had been carefully built up over the last fifteen months through a mass of detail sent to the Abwehr by their trusted spies in England, who of course were actually MI5-controlled double agents. The three most important were a Pole, Roman Garby-Czerniawski, code-named BRUTUS, reporting to Paris, a German, Wulf Dietrich Schmidt, code-named tate, reporting to Hamburg, and our Spanish spy, Juan Pujol García, code-named GARBO, now sending his reports directly by coded wireless message to the Abwehr Kriegsorganisation in Madrid.

With everything to play for, the battle for morale became all-important. Sefton Delmer’s ‘black’ radio station, Soldatensender Calais, now broadcast loud and clear, and by early 1944 PWE ‘black’ and BBC ‘white’ broadcasting were working well together in their different spheres, the distortions of ‘black’ weaving a smoke of lies around the ‘white’ buttresses of truth. Delmer was working closely with PWE, the BBC, Naval Intelligence and LCS, and had an office in Bush House. Here men and women from the European resistance, Polish, Danish, Norwegian, French and Dutch, came to see him, and he helped them with forged notices, posters, proclamations and identity papers. Soldatensender Calais played its part in operation OVERLORD, helping to soften up the morale of German troops defending the Atlantic Wall, encouraging slacking by saying, ‘Units which show themselves smart and efficient are drafted to the Eastern Front. Promotion in France is a sure way to death in Russia.’ Delmer’s cheery-toned but deeply depressing black radio broadcasts abraded German soldiers’ confidence by saying that Russian successes were due to their being supplied with (imaginary) American ‘miracle weapons’ like the new ‘phosphorus shells’, which could destroy reinforced concrete and pierce any armour.

In May 1944, the month before D-Day, Delmer launched a daily newspaper for the German troops named Nachrichten für die Truppen or ‘News for the Troops’. It was a joint British–American venture. SHAEF gave him a team of editors and news writers to command, and the paper ran for 345 editions, using rewritten radio material. Two million copies a day were dropped by American bombers across France, Belgium and Germany, with pieces about German difficulties fighting an air war without fuel, or detailing ‘impossible’ political interference with the army leaders’ decisions. Delmer, the lifelong newspaperman, later said that this was the wartime enterprise of which he was proudest.

Meanwhile, Juan Pujol’s role as ARABEL, the Abwehr agent, was also moving steadily towards its climax. He was by now the chief spy in an extensive (and entirely fictional) network code-named ALARIC. He had not only invented, for his Abwehr spymasters, four supposedly important contacts providing him with information, he had also recruited seven equally imaginary sub-agents who in turn got military information from some fifteen notional sources. So Agent THREE in Glasgow, the Venezuelan student called Carlos (‘recruited’ or invented while Pujol was still in Lisbon), supposedly knew a drunken NCO in the RAF, a British infantry officer and a Communist Greek seaman who had deserted but who wanted to help the Russians open the Second Front. Agent FOUR, a Gibraltarian NAAFI waiter based in Kent, got much information about the arms depot and underground railway in the imaginary ‘Chislehurst caves’ from a guard stationed there, and many details about FUSAG (including gossip about quarrels between US & UK Commanders) from an American NCO based in London. Agent SEVEN, an ex-seaman in Swansea, was particularly active, with sub-agents in Exeter and Harwich, and also apparently knew a Wren in Ceylon, a soldier in the 9th Armoured Division, an Indian fanatic, and the leader and ‘brothers’ of the Aryan World Order Movement, a group of extreme Welsh Nationalists.

These colourful imaginary agents and sub-agents were spread across the country, and Pujol sent their ‘information’ on by radio. From 1 January to 6 June 1944, he sent 500 wireless messages from London to Madrid, putting over the deceptions that SHAEF wanted. From Madrid, ARABEL’S reports went to Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and to Fremde Heeres West, the German Intelligence department dealing with the Allied armies in the west. The false information made them calculate the number of divisions in the UK as seventy-seven, overestimating them by 50 per cent. The whole fantastic spider’s web of inventions was not just the work of the writing partners Pujol and Tomás Harris. They were advised by David Strangeways and LCS, and behind them, by the presiding genius of ‘A’ Force, Dudley Clarke.

Now Pujol’s role as GARBO went up a notch. Permission was granted to let ARABEL break the news of the Normandy landings, to give him even greater credibility with the Abwehr. So, just before D-Day, Pujol’s imaginary Agent FOUR apparently broke out of a high-security army camp at Hiltingbury together with two American deserters and brought ARABEL the news that the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, having been issued with 24-hour ration packs and vomit bags, had left the camp. This information was transmitted eight minutes after those very Canadians landed on JUNO beach, just before 8 o’clock on the morning of 6 June 1944. It was too late for the Germans to do any more to prepare for the landings, but Pujol retained his status as the Abwehr’s top man in Britain.

With hindsight, the Bailey bridge of history seems solid, with its incidents all bolted together in due order. But before the event, things are very different. On the eve of D-Day, the future was blank, unclear. Nothing was inevitable; everything was at hazard. Eisenhower knew it was a gamble he could lose, and handwrote the gloomy message he would have to give if the landings failed.

Winston Churchill was feeling his responsibilities, and his age. He had been Prime Minister for four long years, actively running a country that was fighting for its life in the greatest conflict the world had ever known. His mind went back to the past, to the ‘hecatombs’ of WW1 which he had survived but thousands and thousands had not. He worried about the D-Day landings too, telling an American visitor, ‘It is not because I can’t take casualties, it is because I am afraid what those casualties will be.’ At the back of his mind was Gallipoli, the amphibious landing that wrecked his political career nearly thirty years before. Things had also gone wrong in the landings at Narvik, at Dieppe, and at Anzio in Italy where it had taken four months for 125,000 men to break out from the trap of the beachhead. What would happen in Normandy? Six months short of his seventieth birthday, Churchill the warhorse now determined to be there, watching the D-Day landings from a bombarding ship. King George VI said he would do the same. This caused consternation. What if Monarch and Prime Minister were to be killed? Both men were finally dissuaded. On the night of Monday, 5 June, Churchill dined with his wife and then spent time in the Map Room, glaring at the dispositions. Before going to bed, he said to Clementine, ‘Do you realise that when you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed?’

Thirty years before, Philip Gibbs and the other journalists had been barred from the front by Lord Kitchener. But by 1944, media-savvy generals like Montgomery were welcoming news organisations like the BBC. At D-Day, Richard Dimbleby had eighteen reporter colleagues: Guy Byam jumped with the paratroops, Chester Wilmot went in on a glider, Richard North in a landing-craft, Stanley Maxted in a minesweeper, and other BBC correspondents were with different units and at SHAEF HQ with their 40-lb ‘midget’ recorders, getting actuality and eyewitness accounts from the battlefield. War Report, broadcast nightly after the nine o’clock news from 6 June 1944 until 5 May 1945, was a new kind of radio reportage. The war correspondent joined the combatants in the field on behalf of the citizens at home, bringing the front line into the back parlour.

Sefton Delmer’s radio scooped the world with its report of the landings at 4.50 a.m. on D-Day, taken almost verbatim from a teleprinter flash on Goebbels’s DNB news service, but augmented with extra disinformation. Delmer was also proud of that night’s edition of Nachrichten für die Truppen, which reported that the Atlantic Wall was breached in several places, and that attacks were taking place at the mouth of the Seine and at Calais. This claim was carefully coordinated with the deception planners to spread maximum confusion.

In operation TITANIC in the darkness before the dawn of D-Day, handfuls of SAS men from Fairford in Gloucestershire were dropped from the sky at four sites behind the German lines, attended by scores of dummy parachutists, the simple sacking ones known as ‘Paragons’, the more elaborate inflatable rubber ones christened ‘Ruperts’. They parachuted down with assorted pyrotechnics that simulated the sound and the chemical smell of battle. The few real SAS men shot off flares and fireworks, stirring up the ants’ nest with plenty of noise, and then slipped away to join the French resistance or to make their way back to the British lines. Because the best way to deal with parachutists is to tackle them as soon as they land, thousands of German troops were out scouring woods and fields inland, and so were not ready to fight the forces landing on the beaches.

Electronic and electromagnetic deceptions also played their part. Dr R. V. Jones, the head of British Scientific Intelligence, had kept a watchful eye on all German radar developments – the Bruneval Raid by Commandos in February 1942 was a scientific swoop on a radar station in Normandy made at his request – and now organised a massive fraud upon the German system. After RAF and USAAF fighter planes destroyed 85 per cent of the German radar chain, what remained was duped in two operations called TAXABLE and GLIMMER. As the huge invasion fleet pulled out from behind the Isle of Wight, it split. The bulk of the ships turned south towards Normandy, but a decoy flotilla continued eastwards. Above them, Leonard Cheshire’s 617 Squadron of Lancaster bombers flew back and forth in a moving grid, eight miles long by two miles wide, continuously dropping reflective tinfoil to create the radar image of a large fleet moving south-easterly at 8 knots towards Fécamp at the mouth of the Seine. Their sparkling snowfall of ‘Window’ was supported on the sea surface by a few launches using ‘Moonshine’, a device that produced multiple radar images, which gave the same impression of a large assault convoy to any airborne radar reconnaissance. At the same time, the Stirling bombers of 218 Squadron created a similar ghost image on the approaches to Boulogne.

Winston Churchill was not aboard the great armada sailing for France, but Norman Wilkinson was. The painter who had watched the Suvla Bay landings at Gallipoli in 1915 was now on the destroyer HMS Jervis, still wearing his old WW1 jacket but astonished by the thousands of vessels of every imaginable type. Nearly 350 British, Canadian and US minesweepers led the way, clearing ten approach channels, closely followed by the bombarding ships, including Jervis. Wilkinson was the only professional artist there on D-Day and he worked busily as 800 naval guns opened fire at 6.27 a.m. on the Normandy coast over six miles away.

Off OMAHA beach, Allied rocket ships fired 9,000 explosive projectiles. More than 300 B-24 bombers swept through grey cloud to drop 13,000 bombs. All of them missed the German defenders. The amphibious Sherman tanks were launched too early, and 27 out of 29 foundered in heavy seas and sank with their crews, as did 23 of the 32 howitzers in amphibious ‘Ducks’. An ‘inhuman wall of fire’ met the first Americans ashore. The photographer Robert Capa reached the Easy Red sector of OMAHA beach, but got out as quickly as he could. The photo lab accidentally destroyed all but eight of Capa’s ‘slightly out of focus’ pictures of men crawling though bullet-torn surf to shelter behind German beach obstacles. US Rangers who risked life and limb to climb up Point du Hoc found the big guns replaced by wooden dummies.

When the American reporter Ernie Pyle got ashore on the day after D-Day (known as D+1), he found the wreckage of equipment ‘vast and startling’ and the human litter poignant: ‘In the water floated empty life rafts and soldiers’ packs and ration boxes, and mysterious oranges.’ From a high bluff he overlooked the littered beach and ‘the greatest armada man has ever seen. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload.’ German prisoners also stood watching, on their faces ‘the final horrified acceptance of their doom’.

The invasion did achieve surprise. By the end of ‘the longest day’, 156,000 men had landed by sea in France as well as 23,000 from the air, although none of them had reached their planned objectives. The airborne and seaborne forces met up on 10 June, the beachheads did not link up till the 11th, and chaotic fighting went on for many days. Montgomery did not take Caen for six weeks, and the Americans did not manage to break out to the south-west for two months. In those first days, the Normandy bridgehead was only a toehold; the German Army’s resistance was fierce and the bocage backcountry of small fields and thick hedges made tank and infantry advance difficult.

The camouflage officer Captain Basil Spence had landed on Sword Beach. On D+2, the day that Montgomery came ashore, he watched British tanks destroy two beautiful Norman churches at Ouistreham and Hermanville by shelling their belfries to kill the German snipers up there. In their dugout that night, a friend asked him what his ambition was. ‘To build a cathedral,’ said the architect who was to remake Coventry.

Steven Sykes was also a camoufleur with No. 5 Beach group, helping to conceal stores from German bombing and shelling. He was putting a belching smokescreen canister into a beached landing-craft when he came across its occupants, a closely packed mass of corpses still pressed together the way they had all died twenty tides before. On D+30 he went to help 6th Airborne Division who had reverted to a static sniper war. He found himself making dummies dressed in Airborne camouflage smocks and demonstrating ghillie hoods, just like Hesketh Prichard in WW1. Mines, booby traps and snipers made progress slow, and cautious.

A huge storm, one of the worst of the century, blew up in the Channel on 19 June and raged for several days, wrecking the American Mulberry harbour and delaying the landing of vital supplies. The storm exposed the vulnerability of the forces ashore: lifelines could be snapped; the cable was fraying. In these early stages, if the Germans had thrown all their forces at it, the D-Day invasion could still have failed. Eisenhower’s ‘Great Crusade’ hung in the balance, and events could have tipped the scale either way. For example, when Churchill visited the Normandy beachhead on 12 June 1944 (see plate 26), he went to Montgomery’s HQ at Creully. As senior officers stood outside with the Prime Minister, South African Field Marshal Smuts sniffed the air and said, ‘There are some Germans near us now … I can always tell!’ Two days later two fully armed German paratroopers emerged from a nearby rhododendron bush, where they had been hiding all along. Had they used their guns and grenades on Churchill, everything would have changed.

Now came the culminating moment of all the lies and the spies, the ruses, dupes and lures that make up British military deception in the twentieth century. This is when deception changed the course of history. In the crucial days after the Normandy invasion, the second phase of the deception plan FORTITUDE SOUTH came into play. The genius of Dudley Clarke’s pupil David Strangeways revealed itself, because the FUSAG bluff did not evaporate, it continued to grow.

The German Army Group B in France comprised two forces: 7th Army in Normandy and 15th Army away to the east in the Pas de Calais. When the Allied Expeditionary Force landed in Normandy they had to deal with the German 7th Army. ‘Just keep the 15th Army out of my hair for the first two days. That’s all I ask,’ Eisenhower had said to the deceivers months before. He was requesting only hours. But every single day that the German divisions stayed away, fewer Allied soldiers died or were injured, and more Allied men and kit managed to get ashore, building up eventually to a force of nearly two million men.

Two days after D-Day Pujol hosted a fictitious conference of his imaginary agents – including three of Agent SEVEN’S sub-agents, DONNY, DICK and DORICK – and, just after midnight, sent his Abwehr masters in Madrid a two-hour-long coded message with a summary of his conclusions, laying out the entire FORTITUDE SOUTH gambit. In essence, he pretended to surmise that the Normandy invasion was part of a two-pronged attack. The landings had just been a feint, a diversionary manoeuvre designed to draw German reinforcements west. If Rommel’s 15th Army moved west from the Pas de Calais to reinforce the 7th in Normandy, Pujol warned that they would fall into the trap. The currently inactive FUSAG – with twenty or twenty-five divisions – would cross from south-east England to land the second blow behind them in the Pas de Calais. The implication was that this entirely fictitious second invasion, code-named MARS, would cut the German Armies off in Normandy, leaving the Allies and General Patton free to plunge towards Germany’s heartland.

The Spanish message from their trusted agent ARABEL went through several hands and translation into German in the eighteen or so hours it took to travel from London via Madrid to Berlin and arrive by teleprinter in Adolf Hitler’s headquarters at Berchtesgaden. Colonel Krummacher, the Ober Kommando Wehrmacht Intelligence chief, read it and handed it to General Jodl, who thought it was important enough to pass to Adolf Hitler himself. ‘Diversionary manoeuvre’ … ‘decisive attack in another place’ … ‘probably take place in the Pasde Calais area’ … ‘proximity of air bases’. It all made sense. Cancel the counter-attack on Normandy. Hold back the troops.

Sefton Delmer thought the FUSAG deception was brilliantly tailored to Hitler’s psychology, ‘his long-displayed lust for self-dramatisation’. Here he was, the hero Führer, confronting many enemies just like the heroic King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, at the end of the Seven Years’ War. And just as Frederick II in the eighteenth century was saved at the critical moment by the accession of the pro-Prussian Tsar Peter who pulled his troops back from Berlin, so now a providential spy, Pujol, had appeared like a deus ex machina with a message to save him. Hitler would never fall into Eisenhower’s trap by moving his forces west to Normandy! The great hero would be ready and waiting to crush the arrogant Patton at Calais. Hitler would still win the war.

And so twenty-one German divisions – two armoured and nineteen infantry and parachute crack troops – were retained in the Pas de Calais area, not for the two days that Eisenhower had asked for, nor for two weeks, but for nearly two months, until the end of July – by which time the Allies had established themselves in north-west France, and the Germans’ chance had gone. When the German forces did finally move west, Eisenhower called it ‘a belated and fruitless attempt to reinforce the crumbling Normandy front’.

In the conclusion of his Report by the Supreme Commander to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the Operations in Europe of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight Eisenhower wrote that the enemy ‘was completely misled by our diversionary operations, holding back until too late the forces in the Pas de Calais which, had they been rushed across the Seine when first we landed, might well have turned the scales against us’. In his history, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘Our deception measures both before and after D day had aimed at creating this confused thinking. Their success was admirable and had far-reaching results on the battle.’ And Bernard Montgomery wrote in 21 Army Group: Normandy to the Baltic, ‘These deception measures continued, as planned, after D-Day and events were to show that they … played a vital part in our successes in Normandy.’

SOE: The Trojan Horse

Henri Déricourt after arrest in 1946.

After the Second World War the interrogation of German officials provided evidence that Déricourt was guilty of providing information to Abwehr and the Gestapo that led to the arrest and execution of several agents including Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Gilbert Norman, Jack Agazarian and Francis Suttill.

In November 1946, Déricourt was arrested by the French authorities but did not appear in court until June 1948. At the trial Nicholas Bodington testified that he had been in charge of all Déricourt’s work in the field. He admitted that he was aware that Déricourt was in contact with the Germans but that no important information had been revealed.

During the trial the defence council argued that although the prosecution could bring plenty of suspicious indirect evidence against Déricourt, they could not actually pin any definite act of treachery on him. Largely on the evidence provided by Nicholas Bodington, Déricourt was acquitted.

When Jean Overton Fuller interviewed Déricourt for her book, Double Agent, he told her that leaders of the Special Operations Executive knew the organization had been penetrated by the Gestapo and that men and women were deliberately sacrificed in order to distract their attention from the planned landings in Sicily and Normandy.

Henri Déricourt was reported to have been killed in an air crash while flying over Laos on 20th November, 1962. His body was never found and some writers have claimed that his death was faked in order to allow him to begin a new life under another name.


The autumn and winter months of 1942–3 were unexpectedly lonely for Léon Doulet, the Air France pilot who had travelled to Britain with Déricourt. In September, after a week in a scruffy hotel near Victoria Station, he and Déricourt were separated from each other. Doulet was moved to an even scruffier bed-and-breakfast establishment, where he lived on his own in the strange city for the next four months. He had no idea of Déricourt’s whereabouts. Doulet had presumed they were both under the authority of the Air Ministry, but neither they nor anyone else could or would tell him anything about Déricourt. Doulet found British indifference very depressing. Having come all this way to fly he couldn’t fathom why he was being ignored. On three occasions, twice in October and again in November, Déricourt contacted Doulet by telephone and arranged a rendezvous at Piccadilly Circus. At their first meeting they had a drink at a nearby pub and Doulet railed about his abandoned state. Déricourt listened to him sympathetically but there was nothing he could do. In contrast to Doulet, Déricourt seemed to have found some occupation, though he wouldn’t reveal what that was or where he was staying. Finally, when Doulet pressed him on this, Déricourt hinted that he was staying with an ex-girlfriend. There was, of course, no girlfriend and Doulet knew it, but he left it at that. He mentioned that no one at BOAC seemed to know anything about Déricourt, but Henri made no comment.

It was remarkable that Déricourt was able to walk the streets with impunity, when everything that was known about him at the time should have been sufficient to ensure he was interned for the duration. He was a known black-marketeer with associates in the so-called Corsican mafia (Doulet at least knew that, as did the Americans in Marseilles); MI5 received reports by the end of the year that Déricourt had been seen in the company of Germans in the occupied zone (this too would have come to Dansey’s attention); and, as Dansey knew himself after his own enquiries, Déricourt was not the person he claimed to be, and was in fact a most accomplished liar. To put it simply, he had all the hallmarks of the kind of person the Germans would have slipped onto the Pat Line for espionage purposes. (It has been speculated that this was actually the case. But German archives contradict that view.) Far from being interned, however, Déricourt was already gainfully employed.

The next time Doulet met Déricourt, Henri led him to a luxurious flat that was shared by the two Belgians with whom they had sailed on board the Tarana. They were joined by ‘an English intelligence officer called FRANCIS, who was very brilliant’. FRANCIS asked Doulet if he had ever been up to Paris since the occupation. ‘Of course,’ he replied, ‘many times.’ He was then asked if he was prepared to do some secret work. Doulet declined. He had come to Britain to fly and that was all he wanted to do. The meeting ended amicably and Doulet departed. It was immediately obvious to him that Déricourt was somehow involved with ‘British intelligence’, and was probably going to return to France. They met on one other occasion, at which Déricourt warned him to keep silent about the meeting with FRANCIS and his return to France.

Déricourt had been working with MI6 for nearly a month. Once he had emerged from the Royal Patriotic School and been separated from Doulet, he was taken to MI6 Section IV – the Air Intelligence branch, where he answered questions about the aircraft he’d flown as a test pilot in Marseilles, gave what information he knew concerning the French aircraft industry’s involvement with German manufactures, made detailed lists of the names of French pilots and their current employment (Déricourt had been a minor official of the French airline pilots’ union), and described the intelligence he had passed to the Americans during the summer. Déricourt also repeated the somewhat startling revelation that he was acquainted with a high-ranking officer in German intelligence, based in Paris.

That kind of information was of little interest to Section IV, but it was something that interested Dansey. Once again, this important piece of intelligence was not communicated to MI5. Déricourt had been put up at a secret address in London, known only to Dansey or one of his contacts, and kept there in isolation until the right opportunity arose to use him.

Everything that Dansey did was cloaked in impenetrable secrecy, the whys and the wherefores often unfathomable at the time, but later revealing a cold logic. As the Deputy Head of MI6, he had the freedom to run his own private operations, answering to no one but Stewart Menzies, and then not always with complete frankness. His manner, both charming and terrifyingly vitriolic, ensured there were no prying enquiries into the precise nature of his work. He garnered new agents at an alarming rate and was reputed in the more mundane levels of the service to be running his own private army – at least, judging by his legendary expenses claims. Dansey enjoyed a singularly close relationship with all his agents, which was another thing that set him apart from his colleagues. ‘Uncle Claude’ made his agents feel that they belonged to an extremely exclusive community, which was deeply appreciative of their invaluable work. Dansey had a deep and genuine affection for his agents.

He was not enamoured of the more technical forms of intelligence-gathering like aerial photography. He preferred the man on the spot, the agent, the human operative – with all the attendant virtues and vices. For many younger men in the service this obsession with the ‘agent’ seemed positively archaic, but it took a lot to convince him that there was a better way of doing things.

It must be remembered that Claude Dansey was a man of 66, who had seen service in the last of the colonial wars, had worked in both MI5 and MI6 during the Great War and who had founded the Z Organization. He had seen it all and knew it backwards – and there were few who would contradict him. Certainly not his chief. Dansey had a talent for attracting the very best, the most unsavoury and often the downright criminal into his world of espionage, and also for extracting absolute loyalty from those he employed.

He also possessed a gift for having the right man in the right spot, someone whose unique position could be exploited with the very minimum of manipulation. He had a particular interest in people who were well known to the enemy. Individuals who had worked for the foe or were currently working for them were an extremely valuable commodity, Dansey recognizing that someone who had already established his credentials had far more value back in the system than locked away and at the mercies of the Special Branch. Déricourt had precisely those qualifications, with the added distinction that his contacts were with the ubiquitous Nazi spectre, the Sicherheitsdienst.

At the end of 1941 the British codebreakers at the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) had broken the Abwehr ENIGMA codes, the German military intelligence secret codes. Since then they had been successfully reading the Abwehr’s signals communications, a far greater prize than anything Dansey’s agents could deliver. The British had also broken the German Army, Air Force and Navy ENIGMA codes. The information that was extracted from ENIGMA codes, known as ULTRA, was the single most important British intelligence advantage of the war. Perhaps the most valuable ULTRA material concerned German intelligence operations in Britain and counter-intelligence operations against British agents in Europe – not just MI6 agents, but any British agent. But this intelligence, invaluable though it was, only concerned operations conducted by the Abwehr. The one and only ENIGMA code used by German intelligence that defied Britain’s de-crypters throughout the war was that used by the Sicherheitsdienst – Key TGD, known, somewhat misleadingly, as the ‘Gestapo Enigma’. This ruthless and extraordinarily successful Nazi intelligence organization had defied all British attempts at penetration – its dark internal workings were a complete mystery. Déricourt, if he was exploited carefully, could be a key to unlock some of the SD’s secrets.

It’s worth digressing for a moment to reflect on the price of ULTRA. British intelligence chiefs quickly appreciated how invaluable ULTRA would be to the British war effort, and for that reason great efforts were made to protect that advantage. No operation was ever undertaken that might have signalled to the enemy that his communications were being monitored. Consequently the manipulation of ULTRA was very critical; access to it was highly restricted and virtually at the discretion of ‘C’. SOE’s access to ULTRA material was, like any other operational organization’s, strictly on its ‘need to know’. The question one might ask is: whose needs were greater – SOE’s or MI6’s?

But in the autumn months of 1942, SOE’s access to ULTRA was the least of their problems. Their major preoccupation was their relationship with the RAF. The transport of agents in and out of occupied Europe was most successfully achieved by aircraft, and for this purpose the RAF had established the ‘Special Duties’ squadrons. In 1940 a single flight (419) had been established for MI6’s purposes. Then in 1941 this was reformed into 161 Squadron and later joined by 138 Squadron. They were equipped with Hudsons, Halifaxes, Oxfords, the occasional Beaufighter and of course the remarkable Lysander. The Hudson and the Lysander were designed to land on short rough strips, usually a meadow in some foreign field, where agents could be put down and others collected and returned safely home. MI6 had always expressed a preference for the Lysander pick-up where SOE preferred drops. However, by 1942, SOE had come round to the idea of the pick-up, even though the operation was far more involved.

It was necessary to have someone with knowledge of the right kind of fields for these aircraft to land, to communicate the correct map co-ordinates to London, to organize and transport the homeward-bound agents to the field, to correctly lay out a flare path safe from trees and bogs, and then to get the incoming agents away.

As SOE were expanding in northern France they pressured the RAF for more flights. But as the number of failed operations mounted, the strain began to show in the RAF’s sarcastic memos.

It is most unfortunate that attempts by the pilots of No. 138 Squadron to carry out this operation have been frustrated by the absence of a reception committee. The operation was asked for in all good faith in the belief that the committee would be waiting to receive personnel and stores….

…it is hoped that [in future] the Air Ministry and the officer commanding RAF Station Tempsford will have sufficient confidence in the organization [SOE] to believe that if we are putting the operation on there is a reasonable chance of the reception committee playing its part.

The RAF threatened, and not for the last time, to cancel all flights for SOE. And then, with miraculously good timing, the solution to SOE’s problems in France came to hand.

During the third week of November, the name Henri Déricourt was brought to their attention. By the end of the week, it had been sent to Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE’s French Section. Buckmaster liked the look of what he saw on paper and put a trace out to MI5, whose reply was received on 23 November. In the meantime, Déricourt was invited to the Northumberland Hotel to be interviewed by Selwyn Jepson, one of F Section’s recruitment officers. Déricourt had the most fabulous qualifications: he had good first-hand knowledge of aircraft similar to the Lysander and had landed them countless times on very rudimentary country strips; he knew the countryside around the Loire well; and he knew Paris extremely well. But Jepson was there to learn about the individual’s character as well as his qualifications, and there was an arrogance about Déricourt that was somewhat disquieting. When Buckmaster received the MI5 file on Déricourt it was a great disappointment – not what he wanted to see at all. It stated that although the RPS had given him a clean bill of health, they (MI5) would not recommend him.

Although MI5 were still under the false impression that he had been an Air France pilot in Syria – a story he maintained even long after the war – their suspicions were based on the assumption that Déricourt had passed through France before coming to Britain, and that fact alone made him a doubtful risk. For if the Germans knew he was bound for Britain, ‘[Déricourt] would have been a likely subject for German attention … [and therefore] … we do not feel [he] can be cleared from a security point of view’.

There is no doubt that if MI5 had learnt what Dansey already knew, that his entire story was a complete fabrication, then Déricourt’s name would not have got anywhere near SOE. As it was, they already felt he was untrustworthy. Was Dansey simply being derelict in not passing on what he knew about the Frenchman, or was there some other reason for his silence?

Then someone spoke up on Déricourt’s behalf. Nicholas Bodington had learnt that his old Paris friend was being considered for work within his section. He immediately declared that he knew the man personally and wouldn’t hesitate to employ him. ‘Déricourt is first class material!’ Bodington’s extremely timely recommendation went a long way towards suppressing any qualms.

But Déricourt’s qualifications were in fact so irresistible that there hadn’t really been any serious doubt about employing him. Buckmaster and his senior colleagues, Gerry Morel, Bourne Patterson and of course Bodington, were of one mind – Déricourt was the answer to their prayers. However, those feelings were not by any means universal. Vera Atkins, whose opinion was always greatly valued, was asked to go and see Déricourt and then report.

When I saw him, my heart sank because I felt that he wasn’t a man that I could trust. Why I had that impression I don’t know, but I suppose one does sum up people in one’s own way. Possibly it was his slightly mocking attitude, perhaps it was that he didn’t seem to look one very straight in the face; but I came back and said that I didn’t like him, and that I wouldn’t trust him.

Unfortunately on this occasion Atkins’s ‘instincts’ were disregarded. Déricourt joined the SOE on 1 December and began an extremely specific and condensed training programme.

Déricourt’s arrival at SOE was, however, far more involved than appears from the account above – in fact there is a great deal of opacity in the official record concerning his recruitment. It was generally held that the individual who brought Déricourt’s name to SOE’s attention was ‘…probably André Simon’. Simon was a logical guess, since he was responsible for liaison between SOE’s F Section and the branch of Air Intelligence concerned with organizing flights of the Special Duties squadrons. Déricourt encouraged this view by later claiming that he’d been in the RAF, flying with the Special Duties squadron when he was ‘talent spotted’ by Simon. Déricourt even fabricated his flight log to support that story. In France, a pilot who deliberately made false entries in his flight log faced a strong risk of losing his licence. Clearly, Déricourt felt it was a risk worth taking. When he left Marseilles in August, the Vichy authorities had just certified his log, which stood at 3658 hours daylight flying and 94.5 hours night flying. Then, a page or two later, commencing on 6 November 1942, Déricourt filled twenty pages of his log adding no less than 150 day-time flights, a total of 1243 hours, and sixty-eight night flights totalling 192 hours; all apparently with the RAF’s 161 Squadron. Not one of those flights actually took place. It was an invention of staggering proportions.

In fact, Déricourt was officially in the RAF. On 1 December, the day he was enlisted with the SOE, he was given an honorary commission as a Flying Officer in the Admin and Special Duties Branch of the RAF Volunteer Reserves. It was a technical requirement of the SOE that all its officers had to have an official rank in some other British service. But Déricourt never flew a single mission for the RAF, and André Simòn was not the man who brought him to the attention of the SOE. Despite what the SOE archives state, senior SOE officers recall that Déricourt’s name arrived at Baker Street at a much higher level.

In mid-November, Air Commodore Archie Boyle handed a slim file to his immediate superior (by then Major General) Colin Gubbins, with the briefest summary of Déricourt’s details. Once Gubbins had read it, he passed it to his deputy, Harry Sporborg, who let it gravitate down to F Section. Who, one might ask, brought Déricourt’s name to Archie Boyle’s attention in the first place?

Air Commodore Boyle’s background was Air Intelligence. After the outbreak of war, he became associated with MI5’s B Division, the section responsible for all counter-espionage work in the United Kingdom. By the end of 1939, B Division had succeeded in ‘turning’ a number of Abwehr agents and making them work for Britain. To operate double agents successfully, B Division needed a good supply of secret or highly confidential information that the ‘turned’ agent could affordably pass to the enemy, along with bogus or misleading material, so that he was not suspected. This genuine material had to be of a pretty high quality and would have to withstand the probability of being checked. Boyle became fascinated with the work of B Division and volunteered, without any official authority, a selection of genuine intelligence from his domain at the Air Ministry.

By 1940 the work of running double agents had grown more complicated. Not only were there more agents to run, but a number of these were operating abroad and foreign operations were technically the responsibility of MI6. It became necessary to establish a new section that would co-ordinate operations between MI5 and MI6 and provide a proper control over the material that was being passed to the enemy. In July 1940 the Wireless Board was created, a lofty panel of senior intelligence officers which consisted of Guy Liddell from MI5 (who was also the Director of B Division), Stewart Menzies (and sometimes Claude Dansey) from MI6, John Godfrey the Director of Naval Intelligence, the Director of Military Intelligence, and Archie Boyle. During this period, Boyle got on very close terms with Menzies and Dansey and although he never cared for ‘Uncle Claude’, he nonetheless admired his acumen.

In June 1941, Boyle became the SOE’s Director of Intelligence and Security and was a magnificent asset to the organization in that role. He used his good relations within the intelligence community to effect a high level of liaison with MI6 and the Security Service. It was from MI6 that Boyle received the name Déricourt.

Boyle was a shrewd and extremely intelligent man, but there is no evidence that he would have given a potentially unsuitable candidate like Déricourt his recommendation, unless, like MI5, he too had been misled. There were no more than three officers inside MI6 who even knew of Déricourt’s existence; one was in Gibraltar, another was Kenneth Cohen and the other was, of course, Claude Dansey. Dansey not only succeeded in slipping Déricourt into SOE, but in doing so he also managed to disguise his own hand.

Before he came anywhere near SOE, Déricourt was told that he would be sent to a section of MI6 that specialized in sabotage operations, called ‘special operations’. In a sworn statement to the DST in 1946, Déricourt wrote:

I was transferred to SOE, a unit specially concerned with sabotage. This service, like all Allied services at the time, was controlled by SIS (MI6). I entered into an additional commitment, through André Simon, about the secrecy of my work.

In a revised version of this statement, made in 1947, he circumspectly removed the reference to MI6.

It would seem, from other evidence too, that André Simon was aware of Déricourt’s links with MI6. Although his name sounds French, Simon was utterly English and, indeed, spoke French very badly. He was the son of the famous wine merchant and had a fairly comfortable lifestyle, with a place in the country where his wife lived and a flat in town where he tended to be for twelve months of the year. Sharing the flat with him was another woman whom he kept secret from his wife, but apparently not from his colleagues at SOE.

During the weeks before Henri was sent to France, he and Simon became good friends. In fact there was a trio of bon-viveurs who would congregate at Simon’s flat in Harley Street to sample his excellent collection of pre-war vintages, the other member being Nicholas Bodington. Bodington, better than anyone, knew about Déricourt’s connection with German intelligence, since he was the man who had introduced him to Boemelburg in the first place. In conversation, Déricourt and Bodington always referred to Boemelburg not by name but by the sobriquet ‘notre ami’. Bodington was also privy to Déricourt’s secret connection with MI6 – and he was the only one to suffer for it.

There was someone else in SOE who suspected a relationship with MI6. Gubbins’s deputy, Harry Sporborg, had been a solicitor with the city firm of Slaughter and May and had initially been involved with SOE’s operations in Scandinavia. He later became head of SOE’s London Group, the directorate responsible for all operations in northern Europe, and he was also the principal private secretary for SOE’s affairs to the Minister. Sporborg was Gubbins’s deputy while he was Head of Operations and then later when he became Head of SOE. The initial details about Déricourt that Boyle brought into Gubbins’s office were of no immediate concern. However, when Sporborg read a transcript of one of Déricourt’s initial interviews he heard the very first faint ring of alarm bells. Déricourt, under the impression that he was talking to another MI6 officer, once again declared his contacts in German intelligence. According to Sporborg,

It emerged during the initial questioning before he was engaged. I think he’d put it forward as an advantage, as something he could contribute, as a plus-point, you see. That he’d be able to get information for us whereas others couldn’t. That was knocked on the head and he was told that he would not be expected to do anything of that sort.

At first Sporborg simply doubted the suitability of the man for a sensitive role such as F Section had in mind. Later, however, his doubts were replaced with a dark suspicion that Déricourt had other allegiances. Sporborg’s account of Déricourt’s declaration has consistently been denied by those who hold the records.

These declarations of Déricourt’s would seem to indicate that he was not as self-assured as reports have made him appear. At least, not in the company of very senior officers. He repeated this detail about his German contacts on at least three occasions (upon his arrival, to Air Intelligence, and then to SOE), assuming, as so many Frenchmen did, that there was simply one great amorphous conglomerate called ‘British Intelligence’. (It never occurred to either the French or the Germans that SOE and MI6 were separate entities.) When he arrived in Britain, Déricourt knew he faced probable internment (no doubt Dansey even threatened him with it), but he also knew that a personal acquaintanceship with figures in German intelligence was currency he could bargain with. Being passed from one senior British officer to another, Déricourt never knew to whom he was talking at any one time. Eventually, he would learn to be more circumspect.

Claude Dansey had plucked Déricourt out of the stream of unsavoury life that inevitably washed up on Britain’s shores during times of war. He then disguised the truth of the man’s origins from MI5 and proffered his services to an organization that he knew was too naive and trusting to spot a ‘wrong ’un’ when it saw one, but at the same time was not so naive that it wouldn’t have been suspicious of a gift from Dansey. Consequently, and with Déricourt’s connivance, he carefully disguised his own hand in the transaction.

Why was there so much deception between the British secret services? Why had F Section officers like Bodington and Simon not reported to their superiors in SOE what they knew about Déricourt? Did they feel responsible to some higher authority?

Vera Atkins was the only F Section officer who expressed any reservations about Déricourt and, just to add grist to her mill, Déricourt made the irregular request to be given a few diamonds to supplement his planned operations in France. Diamonds, he assured her, were currently at a premium in occupied Paris. Atkins realized this was the bare-faced try-on of a hardened black-marketeer. When she protested to Buckmaster and company her objections were overruled and Déricourt got his diamonds. F Section just couldn’t wait to get him in the field.

On 5 December he was driven down to RAF Tempsford to be introduced to some of the pilots who would be flying operations out to him in France. One of these was the young Hugh Verity. He had just been transferred from Fighter Command HQ to 161 Squadron and was himself learning about the Lysander. In time Verity would become Squadron Leader and, later, Group Captain, but during that very damp December he was still a 24-year-old Flight Lieutenant, Oxford graduate, fluent in Spanish and French, with a few weeks’ training in Lysanders. He and Déricourt immediately hit it off. For Déricourt, RAF Tempsford was like a home away from home. The society of pilots, dozens of strange new aircraft to explore, even the scent of aviation fuel made a welcome change from all the pressures in London. Déricourt began to relax and a little of his old congenial charm resurfaced. For Verity, Déricourt was a figure of some fascination. He was ten years older than himself and clearly an extremely experienced pilot. But as well as his obvious experience, there was also an air of intrigue about him.

Déricourt told Verity some pretty tall stories. For instance, that he used to earn £300 a week as a stunt pilot with an aerobatic team, whereas in fact in the days of the flying circus he barely ever had enough money to pay for fuel. He claimed to have a flat in Paris, which he did not; that he was the mayor of a small town in France; and that he had escaped from France by trekking across the Pyrenees. Well, the lads in 161 Squadron certainly took to him. He wasn’t one of your typical ‘joes’ (the term they used for agents), he was really one of them, someone who had a genuine appreciation of the dangers involved in their work. His taciturn humour belied a sense of careful responsibility and dependability. Tales of the flying circus, or of his ‘adventures’ in the Spanish Civil War, regularly earned him drinks in the officers’ mess – hallowed ground to an outsider.

Déricourt quickly learnt the routine for laying out flare paths for the Lysanders and Hudsons, the rudiments of parachuting at Ringway airbase, and basic security procedures at one of the SOE’s training centres. On the night of 22 December, barely three weeks after joining, he was kitted out in a suit of French clothes, given a set of false papers for a Maurice Fabre (the new persona he was expected to adopt in France), the codename GILBERT, and a parting gift of a pair of gold cufflinks from Buckmaster. He sat and waited to be driven out to the Hudson, but by midnight the weather had closed in and the operation was aborted. Depressingly, the weather settled into a pattern for the rest of the week and the mission was cancelled until the next moon period, in January. Déricourt did not get home for Christmas.

He had about a month to kill before the next moon and spent some of that time back in London. On 11 January, Verity took him up in an Oxford bomber and gave him dual instruction. The same afternoon he was allowed to take a Lysander up and do a couple of circuits of the field; and that was the sum total of the flying he ever did for the RAF. At 10.30 p.m. on 22 January 1943, Operation OCTO took Déricourt and another SOE agent named Jean Worms in a Halifax across the Channel into occupied France. Worms jumped first, to a reception prepared by Andrée Borrel and Francis Suttill in a field near Chartres. Worms was the leader of an all-Jewish ‘reseaux’ (network) called ROBIN that would establish itself in the Marne district and become another sub-circuit of the PROSPER network. Déricourt preferred to be dropped ‘blind’, coming down twenty minutes later in a large field north of the Orléans Canal, near Pithiviers.

SOE: The Rules of the Game

UNSPECIFIED – circa 1944: Headquarters of french Gestapo ensured complete arrest of the group;;1er rang – 1st row : Fritz Bittner (1), Karl Doring (2), Sattler (3), Boemelburg (4), Hans Kieffer (5), Reiser (6), Fritz Mohr (7), Arthur Katzemich (8);;2e rang – 2nd row : Roeding (1), Hans Hoppen (2), Joachim Kleist (3), Hans Damelo (4), Adolf Tippner (5), Hans Hofmann (7), Grenzmeier (9), Richard Becke (11), Hans Knittel (12), Herbert Richter (13), Paul Thummel (14), Vogt (15), Willy Muller (16), Georg Froitzheim (17);;3e rang – 3rd row : Willi Netzer (1), Richard Baldeweg (2), Joseph Daumelang (3), Willi Meissner (4), Ludolf Kroenke (5), Karl Braun (6), Hans Oppelt (7), Konrad Metscher (8), Richard Hamann (9), Heinrich Einfeld 10), Alfred Saalberg (11), Grunewald (15);;4e rang – 4th row : Lackert (1), Noehring (3), Richard Schroeter (4), Otto Schwab (5) (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Karl Bömelburg

During the early morning hours, Déricourt walked across the frozen open fields towards the little spur line that runs out of Orléans to Poitiers. He caught one of the early morning milk trains that rolled slowly into Gare d’Orsay around mid-morning. His first priority was to get warm and get some sleep. He turned up at JuJu’s flat near the Place des Ternes, knocked but got no reply. His old flame, Julienne Aisner, had become quite serious about the young lawyer Charles Besnard. Besnard’s own flat was not far, in the Avenue Malakoff, but Déricourt decided not to disturb them. He took the Metro to the Gare de l’Est and bought a ticket for Reims.

Sometime that afternoon he arrived at the little village of Coulognes-en-Tardenois. He waited in the small bar until his mother returned home from work before knocking on the door. He slept most of the day and woke about ten that night to talk. His mother knew from experience not to believe much of what her son told her; his father said nothing to him at all. Sitting by the fire in the large armchair, the even larger frame of Alfred Déricourt seemed to his son to expand with every breath. Henri, on departing, left his mother a large wad of notes from the cash the SOE had given him.

By midday on the following day he was outside Juju’s flat again in the Place des Ternes. When she opened the door she had to catch her breath. After another of his characteristic disappearances there he was, as large as life. She would never get used to his unpredictability. He explained crudely that he was working for the British, which of course she didn’t believe, and that he was going down to Marseilles to collect his wife and bring her up to Paris. Could she find them somewhere to stay? JuJu said she’d try. He then left her some of his SOE cash and took the train to Marseilles.

Rémy Clément had been stood down from Air France when that company was forced to cancel its few remaining routes. He got employment in the office of the La Bourne company in Marseilles and was sitting at his desk, his mind a long way from his work, when the phone rang. It was Jeannot. She was nearly incoherent with joy, but the gist of her message was that Rémy should come round to her flat on his way home that evening. She said nothing else, but Rémy was in no doubt, Henri was back. Déricourt opened the door and ushered Rémy into the small room at 50 Rue Curiol. There was much embracing and nods and winks as Déricourt began to reveal his purpose. He wanted Rémy to come up to Paris with him, to help in a secret operation for the British. Secret agents were flown in and out of France late at night and they needed someone to organize the flights, discover the right fields, lay out flight paths – gradually Déricourt went into the whole operation for the SOE in great detail. Rémy was extremely tempted but at the same time very wary. Déricourt was such an outrageous adventurer.

I had a good job, but it had no future. I felt up against a wall and with the occupation I felt trapped. He was offering me something I was craving for. To be involved with flying again.

Against this Rémy had to weigh up two things. He didn’t like the idea of having anything to do with secret agents, and he was terrified of being caught by the Germans. He asked for some time to think it over. Déricourt explained that he and Jeannot were taking the first train in the morning. He would have to know Rémy’s answer before they left.

At five-thirty the next morning Clément slowly climbed the steep hill of Boulevard d’Athenes to the Gare St Charles. At the station he told Déricourt he would come but needed some time. He was not restrained by doubt but by bureaucracy. In a few weeks he would be due his holiday pay and didn’t want to forfeit the cash. In three weeks he and his wife should be in Paris. His only condition was that he would never be expected to have anything to do with agents. Déricourt didn’t have much choice; he agreed. Sometime during the journey to Paris, Déricourt decided to dispose of the bogus identity papers SOE had given him. He was too well known, he could never pass himself off as ‘Maurice Fabre’, so he sensibly remained Henri Déricourt.

In Paris he and Jeannot stayed the first few nights with JuJu, sleeping on the bare boards. His wife knew all about Henri’s relationship with the other woman, but seemed to cope with the temporary discomfort with no complaints. However, it was clear the arrangement could not last.

Sometime within the first three days, Déricourt contacted Sturmbannfuhrer Karl Boemelburg. He was collected somewhere in the Bois de Boulogne by a black Citroën and driven around the maze of small roads that weave through the Bois. Naturally, there is no transcript of the conversation that took place, but it has come down through ‘Gestapo folklore’ (absurd but true) that Déricourt managed to convince Boemelburg of his strong political feelings. The conversation went on the following lines.

Déricourt described, in minute detail, the process by which he’d been transported out of France via the Pat Line, to Gibraltar. This satisfied Boemelburg that the black-marketeer probably had been in touch with ‘British intelligence’. Then Déricourt embarked on a vivid description of a Britain on the verge of mass revolt, where the government was riddled with Socialists and Communists, and where the ordinary Briton felt no sympathy for Churchill’s warlike policies. Because of his own special qualifications, Déricourt had been recruited to organize the transport of secret agents in and out of France. However, sickened by the sight of rampant Bolshevism, he had determined to offer his services to the only people who knew who the real enemy was and how to fight it – the Nazis.

Whether or not Boemelburg believed Déricourt doesn’t come down with the rest of the story. The old Nazi was a highly suspicious man and would have required a great deal more than mere tokens of political empathy to convince him. One thing that would have impressed him, indeed always did impress him, was Déricourt’s remarkable calm and self-assurance. There was something about his quiet, careful speech that radiated confidence, and it was Boemelburg’s confidence he wanted. They arranged to meet again before the end of the day. At that second meeting Déricourt emerged with a valuable envelope in his coat pocket. Henri’s and Jeannot’s accommodation problems had been solved.

On their third day in Paris, Jeannot and Henri packed up their belongings and strolled down the Rue du Fauborg St Honoré, to the Hotel Bristol, where he presented the man on the desk with Boemelburg’s letter of authorization. The Hotel Bristol was a German-controlled hotel. It was not occupied by Germans but by their guests, civilians mostly; Vichy officials, bankers and industrialists. It was a discreet and convenient meeting-place where private enterprise could meet and be entertained by the Nazi authorities. It was almost the most expensive and certainly the most exclusive hotel in Paris. Highly polished marble floors reflected jet-black jack-boots and the glittering lights of the crystal chandeliers. For Jeannot it was an experience she never forgot. Having lived in Marseilles and away from the more obvious manifestations of the occupation, the sight of so many German uniforms absolutely terrified her. She couldn’t bear to eat in the restaurant because the sight of so much black and grey made her uncontrollably nervous. She had no idea of the significance of the place and knew nothing of her husband’s arrangements with the Germans. All she knew was that she didn’t like it. Henri, on the other hand, revelled in it.

Of course, living at the Bristol was an extraordinary risk to take, if only because he might have been seen by a future contact from PROSPER’s network. There was a convenient back door to the hotel which opened onto a small lane that led to the Rue de Penthièvre. Henri and Jeannot would slip out to eat at a small black-market rendezvous they called La Conte where they met up with JuJu and others. JuJu hadn’t told Besnard about Henri for fear the respectable lawyer might disapprove of the black-marketeering pilot. He would certainly have disapproved of her having anything to do with the Resistance. Déricourt convinced JuJu that his work in Paris was serious and that he needed someone else to work with him, to be his courier. She was at first incredulous, but was eventually intrigued by the prospect and agreed to help. JuJu never found out where Henri and Jeannot were staying – nor, of course, about his contacts with Boemelburg.

The arrangement at the Bristol couldn’t last. Three weeks later, JuJu mentioned to Déricourt that his black-market contact Bladier had a flat for sale in the 16th Arrondissement, not far from the Avenue Foch. The simple two-room apartment on the third floor of 58 Rue Pergolese suited them perfectly, but there was a great deal of work to be done before it would be habitable. Meanwhile Henri and Jeannot moved into a room at a hotel in the Avenue Colonel Moll until the accommodation in the Rue Pergolese was ready. Déricourt was absolutely tickled at the prospect of owning an apartment in that area. There was a small black-market restaurant 100 metres from his door and less than ten minutes away, around the corner, was Boemelburg’s headquarters at 82–84 Avenue Foch.

Towards the end of February, Rémy Clément and his wife arrived and settled into a wonderful artist’s studio flat in Montmartre, with a view of Sacre Coeur from the window. Déricourt’s little group was now gathered. It was codenamed FARRIER. They were contacted by some PROSPER people; Andrée Borrel, who would share courier duties with JuJu, and Jack Agazarian, who would provide radio communications with London. Déricourt and Clément created a simple telephone bell code. Two rings: meet me at La Conte; three rings: meet at Chez Tutulle; one ring and then two: news from abroad, and so on. Almost immediately Rémy was despatched down to the Vienne to make a survey of possible fields to use as landing strips. But before these arrangements had been made, Déricourt had already entered into his understanding with the SD. There were a great many lives at stake already, and the game hadn’t even started.

During the last week of February he was contacted by Lise de Baissac, who wanted help to get some people back to London. One of these was her brother Claude, the organizer of another extensive network that stretched along the Atlantic coast, called SCIENTIST. The SCIENTIST and PROSPER networks were linked both geographically and strategically, Lise de Baissac being the conduit through which most information flowed between Claude de Baissac in Bordeaux and Francis Suttill in Paris. These two great men had a great deal in common, but the most critical element they shared, along with innumerable other networks in France, was their reliance on the SOE’s Air Movements Officer, Déricourt.

Déricourt’s first operation, which they called TRAINER, was planned for the next full moon in mid-March. It would be a double Lysander; two aircraft landing, one after the other. The Lysander could carry three adults in the rear cockpit – or, at a pinch, two adults and two children. It was a single-crew operation, no navigator or gunner. With his maps spread out across his lap, the pilot would fly out to the given co-ordinates and then, by the light of the moon, be guided by the rivers or railways to the field where the reception committee was waiting.

On 17 March, four men bought tickets for Poitiers at the Gare d’Orsay and, having made visual contact with Déricourt, boarded the train and sat themselves at intervals along its length. At Poitiers they all went separate ways, having arranged to rendezvous after curfew at a spot on the outskirts of the town, where Déricourt waited with half a dozen bicycles. They pedalled in single file, Déricourt – with the only lamp – in the lead. He was taking them to a field SOE had given him in London. Already tried and tested, it had been coded B/19.

Throughout France over eighty such fields had been identified as being suitable for clandestine use. Those used for MI6 operations were classified RED and carefully segregated from SOE fields, which were classified BLUE. Officially pilots were not supposed to know either the identity of the people they carried or the service for which they were working, but by noting whether he was flying out to R/12 or B/31 a pilot could deduce whether it was an MI6 operation or one for SOE. When the coded references were translated into soil and trees, one begins to appreciate the extraordinary courage of the men who brought aircraft down into the French countryside in the dead of night.

Déricourt left his passengers in a small gully shrouded by trees at the top end of the field and ran off to lay out the flare path. It was vital that the pilot had a clear approach to the field, so that he knew he could descend comfortably without fear of clipping the top of a tree or electricity cables. The precise direction of the strip depended on the direction of the wind, which was faintly from the northeast that night. A hard frost had created a firm crust on the soil – in theory, it should go well. The entire field had to be at least half a kilometre long, within which the flare path, some 150 metres long and 50 metres wide, was marked out with torches in the shape of an inverted L. The top end of the inverted L gave the pilot the width of his strip; two, sometimes three lights set into the wind gave him the length.

Back in the gully, sweating and breathing great plumes of steam, Déricourt rejoined his passengers. With an hour or so before the aircraft would be due, they took out some coffee and bread and tried to keep warm. Amongst the four passengers were three important SOE officers. The SCIENTIST organizer Claude de Baissac had been in France since June 1942, and was returning to London for a rest and re-briefing. With him was France Anthelme, the organizer of the parallel but much smaller circuit to Suttill’s, called BRICKLAYER. Come D-Day, BRICKLAYER would be responsible for creating secret supply lines of food and finance for the invading army. He too was closely associated with Suttill. With him was a wireless operator, not identified. The fourth, Raymond Flower, was the organizer of the MONKEYPUZZLE circuit, based around Tours. He had been in France since June the year before, but his little group had never got off the ground and he was returning to London, although he didn’t know it at that stage, to take up a liaison post.

Soon after midnight, the sound of the Bristol Mercury engine could be heard drifting in and out of the wind. Déricourt told them to stay hidden until his signal and then made a dash to the torches, turning each one on and then standing at the command point with his own torch in hand. As he made visual contact he would flash in Morse the identification letter ‘D’. The Lysander would respond with the same letter. Flying Officer ‘Bunny’ Rymills banked his aircraft and descended to about 300 feet, flying over the row of lights, re-orientated, and made another approach. Then, coming down quite low, he made another pass, getting the feel of the wind. His final approach was perfect and he put the aircraft down at 12.30 a.m.

Déricourt flashed the signal to the men in the trees, who scrambled up the slope and across to the Lysander. Out of the rear cockpit, where a gunner used to be positioned, three men gingerly made their way down the ladder. He picked out three of his four passengers to go on the first aircraft and ordered the newcomers to help them on board with their luggage. Seven minutes later, Rymills pulled the throttle back, released the brakes and let the plane roll down the bumpy strip until she gained enough velocity to be lifted, almost vertically, into the air. Meanwhile Déricourt and the three newcomers plus Anthelme walked back to the gully to wait. Normally on a ‘double’, the second aircraft was just a couple of minutes away. On that occasion he was nearly half an hour behind his leader. As the new arrivals waited, the rush of adrenalin had begun to dilute and the first anxieties about being dropped into enemy-occupied territory were diminishing. Déricourt always kept a flask of cognac to loosen up the tenseness.

At about ten to one, the sound of Vaughan-Fowler’s Lysander drifted slowly into earshot, and Déricourt clapped Anthelme on the back, as if to say, you aren’t going to be left behind after all. Vaughan-Fowler’s pick-up didn’t run quite as smoothly as that of Rymills. The ground was particularly bumpy, which shook the Lysander badly and caused the engine to ignite. He taxied to a halt with flames licking the engine cowling. Déricourt climbed up the wing struts until his face was virtually inside the cockpit, where there followed a brief conversation, conducted at the top of their lungs. Out of the rear cockpit clambered Madame Agazarian, the radio operator’s wife. Once she was down, Déricourt leapt up the ladder, grabbed a spare Mae West (an inflatable life-preserver) and stuffed it into the engine exhaust, which had the effect of suffocating the flames. Meanwhile Anthelme, terrified that the whole aircraft would blow up, stood motionless at the foot of the ladder. Déricourt made a swift jerk with his thumb and Anthelme scrambled on board. A signal to Vaughan-Fowler and the engine was throttled up. He was off the ground by 1 a.m.

Back in the gully with his torches, Déricourt began to sort out the new arrivals. The first few hours that incoming agents spent in France were often the most gruelling. Having flown through a freezing black night into a foreign field, they needed that first contact with a friend in hostile territory. They were also hungry for news, for an assessment of their situation, any trivial little thing that they might need to know which London had neglected to pass on. Déricourt abandoned his usual mute efficiency and chatted to the agents, apparently just to put them at their ease. But in the cold light of the morning after, many of these agents reflected on Déricourt’s inquisitiveness. He made it his business to learn as much as he possibly could about everyone who passed through his hands. He had a prodigious memory and soon built up a mental record of who worked with whom. Apart from Madame Agazarian, who had come to work beside her husband, there was John Goldsmith, who had had a brief and unprofitable career with CARTE in the south but was now working with the Paris-based networks; Henri Lejeune, who was with the Gaullist section (RF) but who seemed to have links with F Section networks; and Roland Dowlen, a radio operator for a small network in Paris, separate from but in communication with PROSPER, called CHESTNUT. Hardly key figures at the centre of the northern networks, yet all with one single common factor; all had links with PROSPER. This in itself was of no great significance, but it did impress upon Déricourt that apart from a common link, there may also be a common purpose. At that stage he knew very little about PROSPER’s stategic significance, but he did know that it could not be long before he met the man at the centre of the great network.

The party pedalled in single file down the pitch-black lanes towards Poitiers. Their security procedures had been well rehearsed in London. Each had his own cover story, false identity papers, the return stubs of pre-purchased train tickets and so on. At Poitiers they separated, filling in the hours until dawn, when they converged on the railway station. On the platform, where they waited for the train for Paris, they mingled inconspicuously with the early morning crowds, avoiding the impulse to glance at each other. Though their paths would doubtless cross again, for the moment they were on their own.

Déricourt had to remain to deal with the bicycles and took a later train that got him into Paris after lunch. From his point of view, Operation TRAINER had been a success.b He found the agents were on the whole fairly at ease with him. His professionalism seemed to create a sense of confidence and in that mood many of them were very talkative. In fact the whole operation had been quite exhilarating. It seemed as though the business might have its moments. Back at the ‘Coll Moll’, the hotel in Avenue Colonel Moll, Déricourt collapsed on his bed and slept through until the following morning.

Within days of the March operation, there was another meeting with Boemelburg – a kind of re-appraisal, with a view to formalizing the situation. At that meeting Déricourt provided Boemelburg with a detailed description of everyone who had travelled in on the Lysanders. Boemelburg asked him if he knew anything about PROSPER, to which Déricourt replied that he had heard it had something to do with the invasion.

The relationship that developed between these two men was one of the great partnerships of the secret war. From the beginning it had all the hallmarks of something that would endure, and it was significant not for what it involved but for what it did not involve. It was the experience of most senior officers at the Avenue Foch, and Boemelburg especially, that coercion was not an enduring basis for any intelligence contract. It built up resentment and threatened the security of everyone involved. Coercion was fine for the short term when immediate results were the essence of the contract, but it did not hold any promise for the future. Money had traditionally been essential to these arrangements and it was well known that the SD had almost unlimited resources. But here, too, Boemelburg was remarkably circumspect. He did not trust anyone whose motives were purely profit. Like Dansey in London, he knew not only the value of money but also its worth. If every man had his price, then it was extremely unwise to base an understanding on the vagaries of the free market. On the other hand, the SD were also extraordinarily correct and they would have been equally suspicious of anyone who would not accept any money at all. SD archives reveal that, unlike most of their informers, Déricourt did not receive a regular salary, though of course he did accept the odd bit of largesse that came his way. (There is a massive archive of signed receipts which the SD extracted from all their informers, which now rests in the vaults of the French DST in Rue Saussier. It is guarded as though it were a national secret – which it probably is.)

Déricourt was officially identified as BOE/48 – Boemelburg’s 48th agent. Soon after that meeting, Boemelburg introduced the name GILBERT (synonymous with BOE/48) to a few of his colleagues at Avenue Foch, most notably to his immediate subordinate, Josef Kieffer. Boemelburg had already placed GILBERT within the larger context of the expanding phenomenon known as PROSPER. Déricourt’s confirmation of PROSPER’s strategic position guaranteed the relationship would proceed from first stages. But here lay a fundamental flaw in the way the Germans operated their double agents. The man who made the initial contact always became the controller – it was a matter of some personal pride. But it was also a critical error, for the controller then lacked the objectivity to run his agent wisely and his judgement was often biased when analysing the intelligence he received. In Britain, it had long been appreciated that ‘doubles’ were a volatile species and were passed on by those who had made the first contact to professional controllers who were more dispassionate. In Déricourt’s case there was the prospect, for Boemelburg, of information that would be immediately verifiable. So upon that basis their mutual trust grew.

What, then, was Déricourt’s role? Why was he there and what was he doing? German and French archives confirm that he entered into an arrangement with the Sicherheitsdienst in February 1943. Before examining motives, it is worth making one small point here about the issue of money. British authorities have always claimed that Déricourt did what he did for financial reward. He was paid by SOE to organize Lysander operations and was paid again by the Germans for delivering intelligence on those operations. Of course he was a ‘Déricourist’, as his friend Clément once described him, but if he went into the arrangement with the SD just for money, then he didn’t do particularly well by it. Taken over the course of his entire mission, the money Déricourt earned from the SD didn’t amount to much more than any typical black-marketeer earned during the course of the war. In fact, it was a matter of some resentment with Déricourt that he didn’t do a good deal better.

Whatever Déricourt’s private motives may have been, his approach to the SD was, in fact, carried out on instructions from Claude Dansey. Karl Boemelburg was the highest-ranking SD officer in France. (Above him was the SS officer Standartenfuhrer Dr Helmut Knochen, who reported directly to Himmler.) Boemelburg reported directly to the head of counter-espionage and counter-sabotage at the RSHA in Berlin, Horst Kopkow. Boemelburg was the most important counter-espionage officer in France. If it were possible to win the hearts and minds of the SD in Paris, then it would be a tremendous advantage to Dansey’s own intelligence operations. If Déricourt could get an insight into the SD’s operations, it would be a coup comparable to deciphering their ENIGMA codes.

But how would Déricourt get any information out of Boemelburg? Surely the SD weren’t going to sit down with Déricourt and discuss their operations. Of course not. The basis for Déricourt’s operation rested upon the old maxim that questions are far more revealing than answers. Dansey’s real objective was to discover what Boemelburg wanted to know. It was a classic double-agent operation. First a British agent approaches the Germans and offers to pass them information about British operations, and then gives them material that could be quickly verified and evaluated. Once that had occurred, their expectations would begin to rise. ‘If he can deliver information about X, perhaps he may know something about Y.’ As their confidence grows, coupled with their appetite for information, their questions become more expansive, more greedy – more direct: ‘Have you heard anything about a wireless operator who was travelling down to the Jura?’ ‘Do you know anything about a group up near Compiègne?’ ‘Can you find out something about a certain doctor in Toulouse?’ ‘Do you know of any contacts of the Abbé in Tulle?’

Like the French, the Germans never imagined SOE and MI6 to be two separate organizations. They were simply seen as different departments of something called ‘British Intelligence’. Boemelburg’s pre-eminence in the SD’s counter-espionage operations meant that his enquiries covered a wide range of networks, some of them Dansey’s. Déricourt would make a careful note of all Boemelburg’s questions and send it to one of Dansey’s contacts. In London, a patient process of listing, collating and cross-referencing those questions would gradually reveal what the enemy already knew, what he needed to know, what were his preoccupations and, most importantly, what were his priorities.

A steady stream of this material would enable London to create an extremely clear picture of the SD’s operations in France. Of course there was a price for this information. Just as with ULTRA, Dansey’s freedom to act on this intelligence was restricted by the risk that such action might compromise its source. For example, an enquiry about a group near Rennes would reveal that an operation was being conducted against the SOE’s PARSON reseaux. Whether Dansey alerted SOE to that fact depended upon the result of his weighing up the value of saving PARSON against the risk of compromising his source. For if Boemelburg decided to arrest PARSON and found they were no longer there, he would naturally conclude there had been a leak and eventually Déricourt would no longer be trusted. The same calculation would also have to be made if the intelligence concerned one of Dansey’s own groups. Intelligence about the enemy’s counter-espionage operations always presents the dilemma of how to use it. Do you take evasive action – or somehow exploit the situation? There was of course another price to pay for this operation: Déricourt’s answers. The more Boemelburg’s expectations rose, the more answers BOE/48 would have to deliver. Some of these answers could be deceptions, others would have to be verifiable.

How did Déricourt communicate with Dansey? There were at least two routes. The first was through a particular bank teller at a branch of the Credit Lyonnaise in the Rue Caumartin. He was a ‘mail drop’ left over from the Z Organization. The second was through PAUL, the barman at the Bar Lorraine in the Place des Ternes, who came on the scene in 1942.

But was it really possible that a senior British intelligence officer would feel it was worthwhile jeopardizing the lives of other British officers for the sake of an intelligence advantage? Harry Sporborg, the deputy head of SOE, was in no doubt: ‘Make no mistake about it, MI6 would never have hesitated to use us or our agencies to advance their schemes, even if that meant the sacrifice of some of our people.’ It was common practice in war for a commander to sacrifice some of his men to gain some strategic advantage. At Dunkirk the British Army took over 68,000 casualties in rearguard actions while nearly 340,000 men made it safely off the beaches. However, Dansey’s game actually threatened an entire operation. Would that have been worth the sacrifice?

Trying to make sense of a personality as complex as Dansey’s is all the more difficult because he entrusted so little to paper. At the beginning of 1943 it probably made sense to his vindictive way of thinking that it was worth giving a little SOE information away in return for some insight into the SD’s operations in France. The problem was, and Dansey must have been aware of it, how to restrict that information when Déricourt was operating on his own over 150 miles from London. There is good evidence from the German side that for some time the information Déricourt gave away was pretty insubstantial and that it was the promise of what he might give that made him so attractive. It is the modus operandi of all double agents to provide thin material to begin with, coupled with an undertaking to deliver the earth tomorrow.

But that was the problem with this operation. It was Boemelburg who was asking the questions and it would be he who effectively set the stakes. On the other hand, Dansey had no qualms about exploiting an organization he absolutely despised. If Déricourt was going to be any good to Dansey, then he needed to win Boemelburg’s absolute confidence. That would be bought with first-rate, verifiable information – and the only information Déricourt had that was worth anything was what he knew about SOE operations.

As far as MI6 were concerned, this particular operation was one of Dansey’s private enterprises, probably known to no more than two of his most trusted associates. But despite his obsession with secrecy, a thin trickle of information about his activities would occasionally leak out and inevitably appal the new breed of young intellectuals that hovered about the dingy corridors at Broadway. One of those wartime recruits from the academic world, Hugh Trevor Roper, now Lord Dacre, described Claude Dansey as ‘an utter shit; corrupt, incompetent, but with a certain low cunning’. Malcolm Muggeridge, equally damning of him, added, however: ‘He was the only true professional in MI6. The others at the top were all second-rate minds.’

Unfortunately for SOE, they had few friends at court. Most MI6 officers still considered them a bunch of undisciplined amateurs who were more a danger to themselves than to the enemy. Added to which, everyone was terrified of Dansey and would never have dared blowing one of his operations. Now that the fuse was lit, they would just have to wait and see.


General Heinz Guderian with an Enigma machine in a half-track being used as a mobile command center during the Battle of France, 1940

The main German cipher machine, derived from a Dutch invention that failed in several commercial models in the late 1920s. Various models of increasing complexity were used by the Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, and in diplomatic traffic. It was also used by the Reichsbahn (German railways). The Italian Navy used a derivative machine, the C38M. Polish intelligence partially broke Enigma ciphers in 1932. By 1939 the Poles had a foothold understanding of the original Dutch machine and therefore were able to rig replicas of its German descendants. The French also made headway from 1938. Polish intelligence Enigma replicas, and dearly acquired knowledge of German ciphers, were supplied by the Poles to the Western Allies in July 1939. The French and Poles passed additional information to the British in 1940. The British broke the naval code for the Italian C38M in September 1940, a year before that cipher was withdrawn. That greatly aided the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean naval campaign in 1940-1941. Naval Enigma rotors were recovered from a sunken minelayer U-boat off Scotland in February 1940. That told British intelligence that all German ships and U-boats carried them. Thereafter high priority was assigned to capture of U-boats and other enemy craft. German trawlers off Norway proved especially vulnerable: capture of Enigma code books or rotors from two trawlers led to breaking of the Kriegsmarine code. In May 1941, U-110’s Enigma machine was captured intact along with all code books. That and such capture or recovery successes were kept at the highest level of secrecy, including by deceit of captured U-boat crews or separate incarceration from other German prisoners.

The British built “bombes”-machines that mimicked and thus helped work out Enigma’s rotor sequences. There were never enough bombes to meet the demand of the code breakers at Bletchley Park, plus all the armed services and Britain’s clamoring allies. If the British had been more willing to provide technical information to the Americans-which they did not for mostly valid security reasons-it is conceivable that many more bombes would have been made much earlier. That was certainly Admiral Ernest King’s firm view, but in fairness King was not the most cooperative ally either. U. S. intelligence decided to make their own bombes in September 1942, with the first poor quality models available in May 1943. By the end of the year, 75 better quality bombes had been manufactured in the United States, greatly increasing code breaking capacity. It was still an infernal problem to decode: the two inner settings of the German naval cipher were set by officers only every two days, while naval cipher clerks changed the two outer settings every 24 hours. Enigma operators then chose three of the machine’s eight rotors, each of which had 26 point positions. All that provided 160 trillion potential combinations. On the receiving end, each U-boat had two nets of six frequencies each (“Diana” and “Hubertus”). And yet, Bletchley Park broke into the cipher.

The Kriegsmarine added a fourth rotor to its ciphers in January 1942, creating a prolonged “information blackout” that reduced enemy ability to detect wolf packs and divert convoys around them. The British made it a top priority to capture another machine from a U-boat or weather ship. U-559 was forced to the surface on October 30, 1942, by a sustained depth charge attack by five destroyers and destroyer escorts. Its documents were recovered, but the machine went down with the scuttled submarine. Still, it became clear that German operators were not fully utilizing the fourth rotor. An American ASW Support Group captured U-505 off Cape Verde in June 1944. The haul of Enigma material was enormous. It was also current and forward looking to new naval codes. Deciphering signals was greatly aided by COLOSSUS I, the first electronic computer put together by the brilliance of Alan Turing and engineers at Bletchley Park and elsewhere. It made processing and reading German ciphers faster than ever, often close to “real time.” COLOSSUS II came online in June 1944. A measure of how Enigma proved vulnerable to stiff-minded German overconfidence is the remarkable fact that the source of most intercepted signals, Admiral Karl Dönitz, went to his deathbed in 1980 convinced that no enemy ever read his Enigma ciphers.


“Secret writing machine.” Siemens & Halske T52 A German cipher machine that turned patterned holes in paper ribbons into transmittable radio pulses, or back into readable messages. Its 10-rotor system made the code-breaking task of British intelligence at Bletchley Park extremely difficult. The British did not break the Geheimschreiber until they developed the COLOSSUS I and II mechanical computers by mid-1944. When the Western Allies did break the code, they gleaned much information of high value, for the Wehrmacht used Geheimschreiber machines for its top-level headquarters’ communications.


“Station X.” The site of, and usual shorthand reference for, the British Code and Cypher School founded in 1919 and located about 80 miles north of London. During World War II it housed the critical code-breaking operation run by MI6. It employed some of the most brilliant British minds of the century-notably Alan Turing, inventor of the fi rst computer-as well as cryptanalysis specialists from Allied countries such as France, Poland, and the United States. The Americans actually took a long time to arrive and longer to be fully integrated: the first U. S. team did not reach Bletchley Park until April 25, 1943. Work at Bletchley Park was compartmentalized by “hut,” with groups in different huts listening to various of the hundreds of Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, or Wehrmacht codes. Signals were passed to code translators in Hut Three, which accepted its first Americans only in January 1944. There were over 10,000 people working on or otherwise supporting the extraordinarily complex and crucial work done at Bletchley Park by 1945. All their extraordinary work was kept secret for several decades after the war. Outposts of cryptanalysis tied to Bletchley Park were also maintained overseas, such as the “Combined Bureau, Middle East” in Cairo.


U.S. code for intercepts of Japanese diplomatic messages, and some military communications. This body of information is sometimes referred to as “the other ULTRA.” Cryptanalysis of the U.S. Army’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) broke Japanese “PURPLE” machine encryptions before the start of the Pacific War. The intercepts allowed American intelligence officers to read exchanges between Tokyo and the Japanese Embassy in Washington. While providing important insight into Japanese political and foreign policy thinking and relations, MAGIC did not provide operational or other “actionable” intelligence-mainly because Japanese diplomats were not told about Army or Navy operations in advance. MAGIC thus did not provide advance warning of the attacks on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), the Philippines, or Hong Kong. MAGIC traffic from Japanese Embassy officials in Berlin and European neutral capitals provided indirect intelligence on German plans, including the build-up for BARBAROSSA in mid-1941. Useful information was gleaned from 1943 to 1944 about some secret Wehrmacht weapons research and about planned strategy and dispositions along the Atlantic Wall.


U.S. code name for the Japanese electronic cipher machine that encrypted diplomatic messages. That cipher traffic was broken and read by U. S. Army intelligence agents of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) by late September 1940. The intercepts that resulted were code named MAGIC. The U. S. gave a copy of their PURPLE decoder machine to the British, who then also read Japanese diplomatic ciphers. The Japanese never knew that their diplomatic traffic was read by the enemy. They revealed much of military value as a result.


“Very Special Intelligence.” Code name for the initially British system of interception and decryption of German signals intelligence from 1940. ULTRA also intercepted and decrypted Italian signals. Its intelligence was shared by the major Western Allies by formal agreement from mid-1943. Although the relationship was uneasy at first, it proved one of the major successes of the Anglo-American alliance by war’s end. The code term “ULTRA” was later applied to Allied interception of Japanese signals intelligence, though not to diplomatic or political intercepts. Vast amounts of German signals were spewed out by Enigma machines and Geheimschreiber machines used by a variety of German military, diplomatic, police, and intelligence sources. ULTRA understanding of some intercepts-the Germans used nearly 200 code ciphers during the war, many of which were never penetrated-was greatly aided by widespread and often sloppy enemy tradecraft, especially within the Luftwaffe. For instance, Luftwaffe and other German operators often repeated signals on the same topic at the same time, permitting content analysis to identify certain key terms or coded locations, which provided clues to penetrate deeper into the cipher. There was also much real heroism and risk taken by Allied agents, and sheer mental sharpness and perseverance by code breakers starting with Polish and French intelligence before the war.

Winston Churchill was a key supporter of British signals breaking. He read ULTRA reports daily. British ULTRA decrypts aided defense during the Battle of Britain in 1940, helped RAF Bomber Command carry out its extended bomber offensive, and significantly aided British 8th Army win the desert campaigns (1940-1943): intercepts revealed German logistics problems and allowed the Royal Navy and RAF to further cripple supply. Probably the single most critical contribution of ULTRA was to support Allied victory over the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945). German historian Jürgen Rohwer estimates that ULTRA intercepts reduced Allied shipping losses by 65 percent as early as the end of 1941. ULTRA intelligence was also key to understanding to what degree deception operations succeeded or failed in land campaigns, up to the level of directly influencing the operational and strategic thinking of Adolf Hitler. Notable confirmation of deception success came in the BARCLAY and related MINCEMEAT operations, and for a series of critical deceptions called COCKADE. Unknown to the Western Allies, John Cairncross was a Soviet double agent in place inside Bletchley Park and MI6. He fed Moscow ULTRA intercepts that contributed directly to the Red Army’s success at Kursk.

Such important successes made ULTRA one of the top secrets of the war. ULTRA was so crucial that some operations that might have been undertaken were not, out of fear of revealing to the Germans that Enigma codes were compromised: ULTRA was just too strategically important to risk for any one tactical or operational gain. ULTRA not only aided operations, it helped shape Allied strategy at the highest levels of leadership. The secret of ULTRA was kept by at least 20,000 people for over 30 years. It was not until the 1970s that the first quasi-official accounts were authorized, and not until 1988 that the British official history astonished the historiographical world with rich detail that illuminated and altered understanding of many key events of the war.

Suggested Reading: David Khan, Seizing the Enigma (1995). R. Lewin, The American Magic (1982). Ralph Bennett, Behind the Battle (1994); F. H. Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War (1979-1990); Simon Singh, The Code Book (1999).

50 Books on World War II Recommended by John Keegan


When news of this first Soviet missile test site on the Volga in the Ukraine, southeast of Moscow, filtered out in 1952 following reports from returning German rocket technicians and prisoners of war interviewed in the WRINGER program, a modified Royal Air Force Canberra B-2 from 540 Squadron at Wyton photographed it on a flight from Giebelstadt in West Germany, which overflew Soviet territory in 1953 as Operation ROBIN and landed in Iran. The plane apparently sustained some damage from Soviet air defenses. Kapustin Yar, constructed in 1951 with German labor, remained the Soviet Union’s principal IRBM development facility throughout the Cold War, and was a priority target for overflights. Telemetry from the range was monitored from a National Security Agency intercept station located across the Black Sea, at Sinop in Turkey.


A small village outside the Turkish Black Sea resort of Samsun was the location of a large American radar station that became operational in 1955 to monitor Soviet missile tests at Kapustin Yar. In May 1957, Diyarbakur detected the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile launch, the same month as the Jupiter IRBM was successfully fired in the United States.


One area of RAF Canberra photographic-reconnaissance history that still remains shrouded in uncertainty and conjecture is the aircraft’s rumoured operations over the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s.

The USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was placed under the command of the charismatic General Curtis LeMay in October 1948; high on his agenda was the desire to get radar photographic coverage of as much of the USSR as possible, in order for SAC bombardiers to recognize potential target areas. Of course, at this time a significant amount of mutual suspicion existed between the NATO powers and the Soviets, in what was known as the Cold War. Consequently, LeMay’s ideas of setting up SAC reconnaissance flights over the USSR were officially flatly vetoed by the White House, so that the Soviet Union should have no excuse to carry out military action against NATO.

However, aircrews did experience ‘errors in navigational equipment’ and aircraft did ‘stray’ over Eastern areas of the Soviet Bloc during the Korean War. Also, in April 1950, a US Navy Consolidated PB4Y-2, engaged on an electronic intelligence (Elint) flight over the Baltic Sea, was shot down by Lavochkin La-11s; their pilots said it was a B-29.

The RB-45C variant, also served with the RAF (35 and 115 Squadrons), as part of Opertation Jiu Jitsu. As the USAF was forbidden by the US President from overflying the Soviet Union, but the British Government had no such problems. Therefore, 4 RB-45C aircraft were operated to fly reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. This lasted till 1954, when the RB-45C was withdrawn from Soviet Union flyovers, when one was nearly shot down. Stuart Fowle

In view of Washington’s official reluctance, discussions between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of Britain and the USA, worked out a deal. RAF aircrews would fly American aircraft from bases within the UK, as the Canberra’s electronics were, at that time, still being developed. Radar target plots obtained would be shared between the air forces of the two countries. The aircraft selected for these missions was the four-engined North American RB-45C and, in the autumn of 1951, a small party of RAF aircrew, under the leadership of former No. 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron member Sqn Ldr ‘Micky’ Martin DSO, DFC, AFC, was established. Martin failed the preliminary medical for high-altitude flying and his place was taken by Sqn Ldr John Crampton, the Commanding Officer of No.101 Squadron, with its Canberra B. 2s.

The party was detached to Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) in Louisiana for the necessary training programme, which was continued at Langley AFB in Ohio, until December. Then, the party transferred to Sculthorpe in Norfolk, from where the US F 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing operated the 322nd Reconnaissance Squadron, one of three RB-45C squadrons stationed around the world. Four aircraft at Sculthorpe were painted up with RAF roundels and large, non-standard fin flashes, but were not allocated serial numbers. Three of the RB-45Cs were flown on the first missions, in the early summer of 1952, on courses set over north, central and southern areas of the Soviet Union. After the flights, the aircraft were returned to the USA and the RAF aircrews rejoined their respective units. Early in 1954, Sqn Ldr Crampton was put in charge of another mission and his navigator was again Sqn Ldr Rex Saunders. This time, their brief was to penetrate further into Soviet airspace than they had in 1952. Crampton and Saunders took radar photographs of over thirty different targets during a flight that covered more than 1,000 miles (1,600km). Again, following the missions, aircraft and aircrews returned to their squadrons and nothing has officially been released about these episodes.

Coupled with these known RB-45C flights, rumours have referred to Canberras taking part in an Operation Robin. What is known for fact is that, in 1951, the Soviets set up a missile production plant in the Kapustin Yar area of the USSR, and ATO was extremely anxious to find out just what type of missiles were involved. It is also a known fact that No.13 Squadron, which had moved to Fayid with its Mosquito PR. 34s on 5 February 1947, had a detachment deployed to Habbaniya, in Iraq, at the end of 1948, in order to carry out intelIigence-gathering flights over southern areas of the USSR.

No. 540 Squadron had started receiving Canberra PR. 3s in December 1952, while still operating with B. 2s. Its records show that, on 27 and 28 August 1953, various crews flew long-range missions connected with Operation Robin. B. 2 WH726 and PR. 3 WH800 were used, with Wg Cdr Ball, Sqn Ldr Kenyon, Fit Lt Gartside, together with Fit Sgts Brown and Wigglesworth listed as taking part. Another of the squadron’s PR. 3s, WE 142, participated in the New Zealand Air Race as ‘No. 2’ and is confirmed as having ‘strayed off course a little’ on 8 October during the race. This ‘straying’ went over Communist territory. Furthermore, the aircraft was ‘delayed’ at Basrah and took third place in the race results. Whether anything can be deduced from these facts depends on an interpretation of semantics.

During 1953, the squadron was loaned an American camera, fitted with a 100in (250cm) focal length lens; it is known that B. 2 WH726 was converted to accept this massive piece of optics. When the camera was being tested, locations in London were photographed while the aircraft was flying over the English Channel. With a camera having that type of performance on board, it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that WH726 took part in a Kapustin Yar overflight. There was such a flight and this has been confirmed by no less an organization than USSR intelligence.

Soviet records state that Lt Mikhail Shulga, flying an undisclosed type of MiG fighter, was vectored by ground control on to an aircraft in the Kapustin Yar area, recognized as a Canberra. At about 50,000ft (15,200m) and still below the Canberra, the Red Air Force aircraft was at the stall and Shulga’s intended interception had to be aborted. Whether the Canberra in this event was WH726 has never been confirmed, but what has is the fact that this aircraft was something of a special B. 2, which was also operated from Wyton by No. 5 Squadron. A Fit Lt Gingell of that squadron flew WH726 to the USA in March 1954, for a series of joint RAF and USAF trials, quoted as Project Robin and American records cite the aircraft as being a ‘modified Canberra B. 2’. The trials occupied six weeks, after which the aircraft returned to the UK and is confirmed as being on Wyton’s strength on 10 April 1954.

Later in the same month, an Operation Robin mission was flown, followed by two more on 8 and 11 May. On 26 August and on 30 August, further Operation Robin sorties are known to have been carried out, with all being accepted at Wyton – but officially unconfirmed – as reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. Perhaps the correlation between the red-breasted bird and the national colour of the USSR reflects a typically British sense of humour.

Predictably, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refuses, on the grounds of ‘international sensitivity’, to release files relating to Operation Robin, even in the current atmosphere of improved relations between the west and the former USSR. However, surely the simple fact that Whitehall holds these files is some proof that all is not conjecture.

Operation Jiu-Jitsu


Junkers Ju 86 high-altitude reconnaissance/bomber

The Junkers Ju 86 was a twin-engine medium bomber. Six military variants were produced by Junkers Flugzeug und Motorenwerke AG: the Ju 86 D, E, G, and K bomber series and the Ju 86 P-2 and Ju 86 R-1 reconnaissance variants.

The aircraft was originally designed as a high-speed, ten-passenger civilian plane and medium bomber with a four-man crew based on Luftwaffe specifications. It was in competition for Luftwaffe contracts with the Dornier Do 17 and Heinkel He 111; all three received contracts, but Heinkel dominated the industry with He 111 production ultimately reaching 6,556 aircraft while Junkers built 910 Ju 86s.


Engineers for Junkers Flugzeugwerke AG designed a bomber similar in construction to those built by the company’s competitors and characterized by all-metal construction; a broad, rounded fuselage tapering toward the rear and ending at a twin-stabilizer-and-rudder system; and a low-wing design featuring double flap and aileron configuration. The series went through several cockpit configurations in size, shape, and glazing. The early Ju 86 A and D variants were powered by Junkers Jumo 205C diesel engines; later variants were fitted with BMW 132N radial engines.

Two Ju 86 D airframes were converted in 1939 as prototypes for the Ju 86 P-2 Höhenbomber (high-altitude bomber) and the Ju 86 P-1 Aufklärer (reconnaissance) aircraft. Structural modifications to the Ju 86 P-2 included a smaller two-man pressurized cockpit that reduced overall length by three feet. Three vertical cameras were installed in the bomb bay. Defense armament consisted of a single fixed, rear-firing MG 17 machine gun. The P-2 was powered by two 1,000-horsepower turbocharged Junkers Jumo 207A-1 diesel engines providing a maximum speed of 224 miles per hour (420 kilometers per hour). Approximately 40 P-1s and P-2s were built.

The unarmed Ju 86 R-1 followed with four-bladed propellers powered by 1,100-horsepower 207B-3/V diesel engines with nitrous oxide injection boosters for the superchargers. Wingspan was nearly 21 feet (6.4 meters) longer than that of the P-2. Conflicting information confuses the record on specific performance data of the reconnaissance variants, especially the R-1’s maximum service ceiling; some sources cite the aircraft as capable of reaching more than 49,000 feet (14,935 meters), some 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) higher than the P-2’s rated ceiling.

Combat in the Stratosphere


The Ju 86’s service life as a frontline bomber was rather brief, as it was outperformed by the He 111B, which was approximately 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) faster. In addition, the diesel engines of the A and D were difficult to maintain in the field. Most Ju 86 bomber variants were taken out of frontline service during 1939. However, demand for high-altitude bombers and recon aircraft remained strong, and the Luftwaffe requested that between 37 and 40 Ju 86 Ds be converted to the Ju 86 P bomber and Ju 86 P-1 photo intelligence platform. The Ju 86 P-2 prototype (W.Nr. 0421) first flew in February 1940. Luftwaffe units equipped with the aircraft began reconnaissance operations that summer. The P-2’s rated service ceiling was 39,300 feet (11,980 meters), but there were instances in which 42,000 feet (12,800 meters) was obtained, an altitude that was beyond the capacity of conventional enemy fighters for some two years. Approximately 16 Ju 86 Ps were upgraded to the Ju 86 R-1 recon variant, with W.Nr. 5132 becoming the first of that type delivered to the Luftwaffe in early 1942.

Aufklärungsgruppe (Aufkl. Gruppe; reconnaissance group) (F)/Ob.d.L. was equipped with the Ju 86 P-2. Some of these aircraft bore Lufthansa markings and began unmolested flights over Britain in the summer of 1940, followed by missions over Soviet territory during the winter of 1940 and 1941 from bases in Poland and Hungary. On 15 April 1941, a Ju 86 P2 suffered engine failure and was intercepted by a Soviet fighter near Rovno, Poland. The Russian plane opened fire, damaging the port engine and forcing the German pilot to make a crash landing. The pilot and observer were caught by Soviet authorities but later escaped and joined advancing German forces at the opening of Operation Barbarossa. Between 1942 and 1943, 1./Versuchsverband Ob.d.L. (Experimental Unit) conducted recon flights over Soviet territory with the Ju 86 P-2; Aufkl. Gruppe (F)/Ob.d.L overflew the Middle East with the Ju 86 R-1.

When Aufkl. Gruppe Ob.d.L. was disbanded, four R-2s were transferred to Crete in June 1942, followed by one more in August, for operations with 2(F)/123. To counter the German reconnaissance plane, the British and Soviets modified Spitfire V fighters by removing most nonessential equipment, including all but one wing gun. According to British records, the first successful interception took place north of Cairo on 24 August 1942, when a Spitfire of No. 103 Maintenance Unit (MU) brought down a Ju 86 from Aufkl. Gruppe 2(F)/123. However, German records show the Ju 86 R-1 returned to base safely, though damaged. One more reconnaissance variant was lost to the RAF on 6 September and one Ju 86 R-1 was recorded by 2(F)/123 as lost due to engine failure on 29 August. Encounters with the high-altitude RAF Spitfires led to the field installation of one rear-firing M 17 machine gun in recon Ju 86s. Still, two more aircraft became operational losses during November and December 1942. The group was down to one Ju 86 R-1 by October 1943 when it completed conversion to the Ju 88 recon variant.


Retired. The Ju 86 P-2 was withdrawn from frontline service by mid-1943; the Ju 86 R-1 was withdrawn in July 1944, as within months of acceptance by Luftwaffe units, it, too, could be intercepted by aircraft such as the Spitfire IX. Junkers exported the Ju 86 K bomber to several countries but none of the reconnaissance variants were sent abroad. The only known survivor is a Ju 86K in the Swedish Air Force Museum.

Specifications (Ju 86 R-2)

General characteristics

    Crew: 2 (pilot and radio operator)

    Length: 16.46 m (54 ft)

    Wingspan: 32 m (105 ft)

    Height: 4.7 m (15 ft 5 in)

    Wing area: 97.5 m² (1,049 ft²)

    Empty weight: 6,758 kg (14,900 lb)

    Max. takeoff weight: 11,530 kg (25,420 lb)

    Powerplant: 2 × Junkers Jumo 207B-3 diesel engines, 746 kW (1,000 hp) each


    Maximum speed: 420 km/h (261 mph) above 9,000 m (29,527 ft)

    Range: 1,580 km (980 mi)

    Service ceiling: 14,400 m (47,244 ft)

    Rate of climb: 4.67 m/s (920 ft/min)



        1 x 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 17 machine gun remotely controlled in rear fuselage, firing aft

    Bombs: Up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb) of ordnance in four internal ESAC 250 bays rated at 250 kg (550 lb) each

        4 × 250 kg (551 lb) (1,000 kg/2,204 lb total)

        16 × 50 kg (110 lb) (800 kg/1,764 lb total)

        64 × 10 kg (22 lb) (640 kg/1,410 lb total)


Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

Developed under the code name Senior Crown, the SR-71 Blackbird became the ultimate Archangel, the capstone in the lineage that began with the first A-12. The SR-71 has the distinction of having served for more than three decades, while the A-12 was in combat for barely a year. No other aircraft has ever had the distinction of being the fastest operational aircraft in the world from the day it entered service until the day it was retired three decades later. No other aircraft has ever set a world speed record on its retirement flight.

In 1983, in a flightline conversation at Beale AFB, an SR-71 pilot told this author that the Blackbird represented “high nineties technology that we were lucky to have in the sixties.” Today the nineties have come and gone, but there has yet to be anything else quite like the extraordinary Blackbird.

“The Blackbird was a wild stallion of an airplane,” Ben Rich, the program manager, recalled in his memoirs. “Everything about it was daunting and hard to tame—building it, flying it, selling it. It was an airplane so advanced and awesome that it easily intimidated anyone who dared to come close. Those cleared to see the airplane roar into the sky would remember it as an experience both exhilarating and terrifying as the world shook loose … with the roar of an oncoming tornado and the ground shaking under [one’s] feet like an eight-point earthquake, as the engines spouted blinding diamond-shaped shock waves.”

One of those “cleared to see” the SR-71 was CIA Director Richard Helms.

“I was so shaken, that I invented my own name for the Blackbird,” Helms later told Ben Rich about watching a nighttime launch at Groom Lake. “I called it the Hammers of Hell.”

Five feet longer but largely similar to the single-seat A-12, the tandem seat SR-71 evolved out of Kelly Johnson’s suggestion that the US Air Force should consider a reconnaissance aircraft like the CIA’s Archangel. While the A-12 and YF-12A aircraft were originally delivered mainly in a natural metal finish, SR-71s were coated entirely in a dark blue-black paint, earning them the Blackbird name.

The first SR-71A (tail number 61-7950) made its debut flight at Palmdale, California, near Edwards AFB, on December 22, 1964. Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland, a veteran of the A-12 program, was at the controls. The second and third Blackbirds made their first flights during March 1965.

A total of thirty-one Blackbirds rolled out of final assembly at Palmdale between August 1964 and May 1967. These included twenty-nine SR-71As and two SR-71Bs, the latter designed as trainers with an elevated rear seat in a fashion similar to that of the A-12B Titanium Goose. In the SR-71A, unlike the A-12B and the SR-71B, the rear seat, accommodating the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), was not elevated.

In addition to the A and B variants, a thirty-second Blackbird was designated as SR-71C, which was completed in 1969 using the salvaged rear section of a YF-12A.

In January 1965, as a home for the incoming Blackbirds, the US Air Force activated the 4200th SRW at Beale AFB as a component of SAC. The subsidiary 4200th Support Squadron (later 4200th Test Wing) was the umbrella organization for the D-21 program at Groom Lake. In October 1965, the 4200th SRW was redesignated as the 9th SRW, assuming the lineage of the 9th Bombardment Group, which dated back to before World War II. This wing was comprised of two strategic reconnaissance squadrons (SRS), the 1st SRS and 99th SRS. In July 1976, in a strategic reconnaissance consolidation, the U-2s of the 100th SRW were reassigned to the 9th SRW.

Aerial refueling support was initially provided to the 9th SRW by KC-135Q tankers operated by the 9th and 903rd Aerial Refueling Squadrons (ARS) of the 456th Bombardment Wing. After 1975, the squadrons were reassigned directly to the 9th SRW.

The first Blackbird to arrive at Beale AFB was an SR-71B trainer that came in on January 7, 1966. The first operational SR-71A reconnaissance bird arrived on April 4. The first overseas deployment came two years later, by which time all of the SR-71As and SR-71Bs had been delivered.

Even before the aircraft had much of a chance to prove themselves, the Nixon administration counterintuitively decided that there should not be more Blackbirds—ever. They went so far as to demand that Lockheed literally break the mold. Aside from the single SR-71C hybrid, no more Blackbirds were built.

“One of the most depressing moments in the history of the Skunk Works occurred on February 5, 1970, when we received a telegram from the Pentagon ordering us to destroy all the tooling for the Blackbird,” Ben Rich recalls sadly. “All the molds, jigs, and forty thousand detail tools were cut up for scrap and sold off at seven cents a pound. Not only didn’t the government want to pay storage costs on the tooling, but it wanted to ensure that the Blackbird never would be built again. I thought at the time that this cost-cutting decision would be deeply regretted over the years by those responsible for the national security. That decision stopped production on the whole series of Mach 3 aircraft for the remainder of [the twentieth] century. It was just plain dumb.”

Indeed, the fascinating career of the Blackbird had barely begun.

Beginning on March 8, 1968, the 9th SRW formed a detachment of Blackbirds at Kadena AB on Okinawa, where they operated alongside the CIA A-12 detachment until May 8. Nicknamed “Habu” after a pit viper indigenous to Okinawa, the SR-71s would remain at Kadena for more than two decades until early 1990. During most of this time, they were known as Detachment 1, although they were originally called OL-8 (for Operating Location 8, numbered in sequence with previous SAC U-2 detachments).

Another SR-71 nickname that came into use was the term “Sled,” which was widely used by Blackbird pilots, who referred to themselves as “Sled Drivers.”

The Kadena detachment’s first mission on March 21, 1968, was followed by 167 more through the end of the year. The numerous wartime missions through the next few years included key battlefield surveillance missions, including those that helped planners assess air support for major battles, including the siege of Khe Sanh.

Other missions were conducted over North Korea and the periphery of both Chinese and Soviet air space—the latter including surveillance of the Soviet naval facilities around Vladivostok. Detachment 1 also conducted long-range missions over the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Detachment 4 of the 9th SRW was established at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom in 1976, hosting short duration SR-71 and U-2 deployments until 1984, after which it became a permanent fixture through 1990. Missions included routine surveillance of East Germany, Poland, the Baltic Sea, and Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula. In April 1986, Detachment 4 Blackbirds conducted pre- and poststrike reconnaissance of Libyan targets that were attacked during Operation El Dorado Canyon.

The 9th SRW also operated SR-71 missions directly from the United States. In 1973, they conducted overflights of the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War, staging from Beale by way of Griffis AFB in New York and Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.

Under operational code names including Giant Plate and Clipper, the 9th SRW conducted routine overflights of Cuba through the 1970s. Unlike the more vulnerable U-2s, the fast, high-flying SR-71s were essentially impervious to any form of air defenses that could be brought to bear over Cuba.

During the 1970s, the US Air Force authorized the SR-71 to come out of the shadows long enough to give the world a sense of its capabilities. On September 1, 1974, Major James Sullivan and Major Noel Widdifield set the speed over a recognized course record while flying 3,508 miles from New York to London in just under two hours at an average speed of 1,435.6 mph.

On July 27 and 28, 1976, three SR-71s were used to set three separate absolute world records. Captain Robert Helt and Major Larry Elliott set the record for absolute altitude in horizontal flight (by an aircraft taking off under its own power) of 85,069 feet. Major Adolphus Bledsoe and Major John Fuller set an absolute closed course speed record of 2,092.3 mph. Finally, Captain Eldon Joersz and Major George Morgan set an absolute straight course speed record of 2,193.2 mph that still stood in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The Blackbird’s full potential of speeds in excess of Mach 3.3 and operations above 100,000 feet has been repeatedly rumored but never made part of any official record.

The actual top speed of the SR-71 is still classified. Some people say that it was far beyond Mach 3.3. Others have said that it was never reached, that the Blackbird never was accelerated to its full potential maximum speed. An SR-71 pilot once told this author that if any other aircraft ever took away the Sled’s absolute speed record, one of the 9th SRW pilots would just go up the next day and “step down a little harder on the accelerator.”

The record still stands.

In another conversation, this author was speaking with a former ground radar operator who tracked an aircraft, not a missile, flying at Mach 6, and he nearly panicked. If there was ever a case of a truly unidentified UFO, this was it. The man reported this bogey to the officer in charge, who glanced at the scope and assured him, “Don’t worry, it’s one of ours.”

In his book, Sled Driver, SR-71 pilot Brian Shul recalled a radio exchange that occurred as he was over Southern California at 68,000 feet. Monitoring various radio transmissions from other aircraft, he heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its groundspeed.

“Ninety knots,” replied Los Angeles Center.

A Twin Beech asked for the same and was given a faster speed of 120 knots.

At that moment a cocky Navy F/A-18 pilot came on.

“Center, Dusty 52 requests groundspeed readout.”

The response came, “525 knots on the ground, Dusty.”

Unable to resist, Shul and his RSO clicked their radios simultaneously.

“It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew,” Shul recalls. “We were both thinking in unison.

“Center, Aspen 20,” Shul said, addressing Los Angeles Center. “You got a ground speed readout for us?”

“Aspen,” the controller replied after a long pause. “I show 1,742 knots.”

Shul notes that “no further inquiries were heard on that frequency.”

Though the SR-71 was probably never seriously threatened by enemy countermeasures, its ultimate undoing was, ironically, another Lockheed product, which was not an airplane.

As Lockheed’s Skunk Works was building spyplanes for the CIA, Lockheed Space Systems was developing spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). During the Cold War, if there was anything blacker in the metaphorical sense than the CIA and the black jets of Area 51, it was the NRO and its satellites. These were operated under the cover name “Discoverer,” but were known in the black world as “Keyhole” after their Itek high-definition cameras. Indeed the NRO itself, and the work it was doing in the 1960s and 1970s, was not declassified until the 1990s. Information about the work it is doing today is not something for which one should hold one’s breath.

The NRO was formed in suburban Washington, DC, in 1961 specifically to centralize work being done by the CIA and DOD to develop reconnaissance satellites. The NRO was separate from the CIA, although there would be extensive interaction, and many former CIA and black world spyplane hands, such as Ozzie Ritland and Richard Bissell, played a role in NRO’s early days.

Lockheed Space Systems and the Lockheed Missile Division, which were later combined to form the Lockheed Missiles & Space Company (LMSC), were created in Southern California but moved north in the late 1950s to what later became Silicon Valley, finally settling in Sunnyvale. It was responsible for the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident submarine-launched missiles, as well the NRO spy satellites.

The Discoverer/Keyhole series included the KH-1 through KH-3 satellites, which were part of a program code named Corona. Also coming under the NRO mandate were the KH-4 Mural, KH-5 Argon, and KH-6 Lanyard. Operational through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the early Keyholes were “film-return” systems in which photographic film was dropped back into the atmosphere from outer space, retrieved by specially modified aircraft, and processed. Through 1972, the KH-1 through KH-6 spacecraft exposed 2.1 million feet of film and took 800,000 pictures.

In many ways, the early Keyholes were operationally inferior to the SR-71 and its fellow Archangels. While the resolution of the cameras was the best that money could buy, the satellites orbited 75 to 100 miles above their subjects, while Blackbirds flew less than 18 miles above. Aircraft could also be sent over a specific target at a specific time, while satellites were confined to specific orbits. Finally, the process of retrieving the film capsules was complicated, difficult, and not always certain, despite techniques having been honed to a fine art by those doing the retrieving.

All this began to change late in 1976, as the NRO deployed the first of its KH-11 satellites, which now used electro-optical digital imaging. As the KH-11 satellites matured, and as at least a half dozen were launched during the 1980s, photoreconnaissance changed completely. No longer did film have to be retrieved, and no longer did decision makers have to wait days to see their coveted secret pictures. They could now see them instantaneously.

Despite the retrofitting of digital systems and communications links aboard the SR-71s, which allowed them to deliver imagery in near “real time,” the US Air Force itself recommended the retirement of the Blackbirds.

“General Larry Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, staged a one-man campaign on Capitol Hill to kill the program entirely,” Ben Rich wrote in his memoirs. “General Welch thought sophisticated spy satellites made the SR-71 a disposable luxury. Welch had headed the Strategic Air Command and was partial to its priorities. He wanted to use SR-71 refurbishment funding for development of the B-2 bomber. He was quoted by columnist Rowland Evans as saying, ‘The Blackbird can’t fire a gun and doesn’t carry a bomb, and I don’t want it.’ Then the general went on the Hill and claimed to certain powerful committee chairmen that he could operate a wing of fifteen to twenty [F-15E] fighter-bombers with what it cost him to fly a single SR-71. That claim was bogus. So were claims by SAC generals that the SR-71 cost $400 million annually to run. The actual cost was about $260 million.”

Both Welch and SAC commander General John Chain testified before Congress that the SR-71 should go, and so it did.

As Rich so aptly reflected, “a general would always prefer commanding a large fleet of conventional fighters or bombers that provides high visibility and glory. By contrast, buying into Blackbird would mean deep secrecy, small numbers, and no limelight.”

Blackbird operations, except training flights, were officially terminated in November 1989, having been eliminated from the FY1990 Defense Department budget.

On March 6, 1990, one Blackbird famously set a series of world speed records on its “retirement flight.” The SR-71 with tail number 64-17972 was flown from California to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, where it would eventually go on display. In the process, it set the official National Aeronautic Association coast-to-coast speed record of 2,086 miles in one hour and seven minutes, averaging 2,124.5 mph. It made the 311-mile St. Louis-to-Cincinnati leg in less than nine minutes, averaging 2,176.08 mph.

Within a few months of this much-publicized flight, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army had occupied Kuwait and the United States was involved in the Desert Shield buildup that culminated in Operation Desert Storm in January and February 1991. During that conflict, many operational commanders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, lamented the absence of expedited reconnaissance that the SR-71 might have contributed.

Mounting concerns about the situations in world trouble spots from the Middle East to North Korea led Congress to reconsider the reactivation of the SR-71. In 1993, Admiral Richard Macke, director of the joint staff for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that “from the operator’s perspective, what I need is something that will not give me just a spot in time but will give me a track of what is happening. When we are trying to find out if the Serbs are taking arms, moving tanks or artillery into Bosnia, we can get a picture of them stacked up on the Serbian side of the bridge. We do not know whether they then went on to move across that bridge. We need the [reconnaissance information] that a tactical, an SR-71, a U-2, or an unmanned vehicle of some sort, will give us, in addition to, not in replacement of, the ability of the satellites to go around and check not only that spot but a lot of other spots around the world for us. It is the integration of strategic and tactical.”

In its FY1994 appropriations, Congress authorized a reinstatement of funding to permit a revival of part of the SR-71 fleet. By that time, many of the twenty surviving SR-71s were being prepped for museum displays, but at least a half dozen were in storage at Palmdale or flying research missions with NASA.

The US Air Force moved too slowly on the path to SR-71 reactivation, and in October 1997, using a line-item veto, President Bill Clinton deleted the funding. The Blackbird was permanently grounded by the US Air Force in 1998, leaving just two at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB.

One of the last NASA missions for the SR-71 was the Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE) series conducted in 1997 and 1998. The object was to study aerodynamic performance of lifting bodies combined with aerospike engines such as would have been used in the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works X-33, the demonstrator for the conceptual VentureStar single-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane. The latter program was abandoned by NASA in 2001 but pursued by Lockheed Martin thereafter.

In signing off any discussion of the Blackbird’s demise, Americans are left with the words that Senator John Glenn spoke on the floor of the US Senate on the day after the 1990 “retirement flight.”

Said the former astronaut, “The termination of the SR-71 was a grave mistake and could place our nation at a serious disadvantage in the event of a future crisis. Yesterday’s historic transcontinental flight was a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”