~ OPERATION BITING ~
BRUNEVAL - 27th/28th FEB 1942
In February 1942, men of the newly formed British 1st Airborne Division, went into action for the first time. In one of the most daring raids of the war, they seized, and brought back to England, vital components of a German 'Wurzburg' radar installation.
Radar was one of the key, high-technology battlegrounds of the war. It secured R.A.F. Fighter Command's narrow victory in the "Battle of Britain" but the Luftwaffe also used radio navigation aids for blind bombing in the blitz. In 1941 British bombers began to take the war to the heart of Germany forcing the Luftwaffe to develop its own defensive radars. Britain responded with jamming techniques and a private battle, the "battle of the beams," developed between boffins on both sides to gain the advantage. Heading up the British team was Dr. R.V. Jones of the Air Staff.
Throughout 1941 Jones and his team built up a detailed picture of the German radar network along the channel coast. That autumn a series of low-level photo reconnaissance pictures revealed the presence of a newly installed 'Wurzburg' early warning radar. It was on a cliff top close by the small French village of Bruneval near Le Havre. Below the installation lay a beach and Jones saw the possibility of dispatching a Commando raid to retrieve the Wurzburg array from its exposed position. The idea was passed from Air Intelligence to the headquarters of Combined Operations whose chief, Lord Louis Mountbatten, approved the plan.
The German defences at Bruneval were reconnoitred by the French resistance. From the intelligence gathered it was decided that a frontal assault on the beach would meet heavy resistance. The planners decided that paratroops would be dropped inland by Whitley bombers of the R.A.F. under the command of Squadron Leader Charles Pickard. After completing the operation, they would be taken off the beach by the Royal Navy with No 12 Commando providing covering fire against German coastal positions.
The unit chosen for the operation was C Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Brigade - 120 men commanded by Major John Frost. Nearly all the men were drawn from Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, Cameron Highlanders, King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Seaforths. They were to be accompanied by a technical expert, an RAF radar operator, Flight Sergeant C.W.H. Cox. His job was to identify the components needed and to remove them from the Wurzburg. Cox, a former cinema projectionist, was ill equipped for such an operation. He had never been in a ship, or on an aircraft, before!
The planners knew that the project would be totally compromised if German Intelligence became aware of British interest in the Bruneval site so the "need to know" doctrine was strictly applied. The parachute unit believed that they had been chosen to put on an exercise for the War Cabinet to demonstrate techniques and capabilities for raiding a headquarters building behind enemy lines. Training was arranged at an existing training area used by the Glider Pilot Regiment so the arrival of another unit caused little interest. When naval units were involved most of the training was conducted at night in Scotland but it did not go well and ended miserably. Locations were often changed and during transfer all unit and qualification insignia were removed from the paras uniforms. Most sailors didn't discover the identity of the raiding force until the final stages of the training were completed.
The plan for the operation was simple. The paratroops were to be dropped in three units. The first under the leadership of Lieutenant John Ross and Lieutenant Euen Charteris, was to advance on, and capture the beach. The second, subdivided into three sections and commanded by Frost, was to seize a nearby villa and the Wurzburg and the third, led by Lieutenant John Timothy, was to act as a rearguard and reserve.
The raiding party was ready for action by February 20th 1942. A scale terrain model, made by the RAF's Photographic Interpretation Unit, had been used to familiarise the raiding force with the area around Bruneval. Until the last minute the various buildings were labelled by function without any geographical information. Full-scale exercises on the south coast of England completed the training. After several anxious days of waiting for the weather to clear the raid went ahead on the night of February 27/28th. The Whitleys dropped the paratroops from a height of 600ft (180m) on to the countryside below.
Lieutenant Charteris' two sections were dropped about a mile and a half (2.5km) beyond their intended position. Charteris quickly regained his bearings and he and his men set off, at the double, across the icy landscape.
Frost's section took only ten minutes to gather at their rendezvous point. They met no opposition as they moved on the villa. Flight Sergeant Cox and an engineer detachment, hauled trolleys over a succession of barbed wire obstacles. Frost's men surrounded the villa and advanced towards the open front door. Frost blew his whistle. He later recalled, 'Immediately explosions, yells and the sound of automatic fire came from the proximity of the radar set.' The paratroops rushed the villa which they found completely empty save for a single German firing from the top floor.
Soon afterwards Cox, and the engineers, began to dissemble the Wurzburg's components, ripping most of them out by sheer force as bullets whistled around their ears. By this time heavy fire from German positions in a wooded enclosure about 300 yards (275m) to the north of the villa, was making life increasingly uncomfortable for Cox and the paras. The arrival of vehicles threatened an imminent mortar barrage and, after half an hour, Frost gave the order to withdraw. However a machine gun in a pillbox, which was still held by the Germans, now barred the way to the beach. The Germans were regrouping and advancing from the villa. Not a minute too soon Charteris' two sections arrived on the scene having already had a brisk encounter with an enemy patrol. The pillbox was silenced and the beach taken.
It was now about 02.15 hrs but the raiders were not yet out of danger - there was no sign of the Royal Navy! Frost's signaller's were unable to make contact with the landing craft which were to evacuate the paras. As a last resort several red Verey lights were fired. Then, just as Frost was preparing to rearrange his defences to meet the anticipated German counterattack, one of his signallers shouted, 'Sir, the boats are coming in! The boats are here! God bless the ruddy navy, sir!' Three LCAs came inshore escorted by three gunboats. Each LCA had the additional fire power of 4 bren guns manned by men of No 12 Commando.
Allen Mitchell reports; My father's elder brother - John (Jackie) Mitchell - was one of the Para Engineers on the Bruneval raid as part of C Company. He was one of those detailed to dismantle the radar so pieces could be brought back to the UK for detailed examination by scientists. My uncle did not survive the war (killed in Tunisia 1943) and my father has now passed away, however one sister is still alive in Annan, Dumfriesshire. We both remember many stories about this time, including one of Jackie sliding the largest radar pieces to the beach effectively 'riding' them down the cliff to get there faster. We also recall that they destroyed the remaining radar installation to obscure the real purpose of the raid by making it appear to be a search and destroy mission.
I also have access to some family memorabilia - though this is mostly in UK (Norwich) and I live in Zurich, Switzerland. These include a French Franc note issued to the paratroopers in case they became separated in France and had to make their own way back. This is signed by about 10 or so of C Company REs (I partly recall there being 2 "John Mitchells" on the raid, but mine went by the name Jack or Jackie). There are also blackened badges and insignia worn by Jackie at that time. After the raid they got leave immediately and Jackie returned to the Borders, apparently still pretty much armed to the teeth!
I've visited Bruneval with my father where there is a monument unveiled by Mountbatten. It is very close by the famous cliffs of Etretat, near Dieppe. I also took him to the Airborne Forces Museum, then in Aldershot, where I recall finding another French Franc note as described above.
The evacuation into six landing craft, with the sea running high and the Germans firing, was anything but orderly. Two of Frost's signallers failed to rendezvous and were left behind. However the Commandos managed to keep the German troops at bay until 03.30 hours when the last LCA left the beach area under heavy German fire. The raiders, and their precious Wurzburg cargo, were transferred to gunboats. They learned that the Navy had been delayed by the presence of a German destroyer and two E-boats. The German warships had passed within a mile (1.6km) of the landing craft but had not spotted them. With the dawn Royal Navy destroyers and a squadron of Spitfires arrived to escort the flotilla to Portsmouth. The Destroyers played 'Rule Britannia' over their loudhailers. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Foster. Annotated on the reverse by Sam Tunstall "Taken coming back from Bruneval after the raid on the radiolocation station Feb 1942)
It is said that the Commandos had orders to shoot Cox if his capture by the Germans seemed inevitable. True or not there is no doubt that had Cox's knowledge about British radar fallen into German hands, they would have gained some advantage in the 'battle of the beams.' However, a much greater prize to German intelligence would have been the capture of Don Preist. Here is the account from the author of the book Schonland - Scientist and Soldier (see 'Reading Material' below for details);
In 1942, Schonland was Superintendent of the Army Operational Research Group (AORG) and he personally trained the R.E. sappers under the command of Lt Vernon, who accompanied Frost's paras with the specific purpose of dismantling the Wurzburg radar at Bruneval. I corresponded with D.H. (Don) Preist (not 'Priest' as in most accounts of the raid) who was the radar expert designated to ensure that the crucial components of the Wurzburg were recovered. Since Preist, who worked at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), was very knowledgeable about British radar it was decreed that he would not land at Bruneval but would accompany the RN recovery team and control the removal operation from off shore. The risk of his being captured alive by the Germans was just too great to allow him ashore. Flt Sgt Cox, often described as a "radar expert" was a highly skilled radar technician who supervised the actual dismantling of the Wurzburg but he had nothing like Preist's in-depth knowledge of radar in general and so was far less of a risk should he be captured. The story that the Paras were under orders to shoot Cox if his capture looked likely is one of those myths that appear after the event.
While Preist sat just off-shore in one the RN vessels he had with him
a special receiver with which to monitor the Wurzburg's radar
transmissions from which he could deduce many of its characteristics.
This intelligence would have proved to be very useful had the raid
itself failed. As it turned out it was hugely successful and TRE were
able to rebuild the Wurzburg from the "stolen" sub-assemblies and had
it working within a couple of weeks.
little reported fact about Operation Biting was the involvement of a
section from 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance RAMC, who provided
medical cover. Lieutenant A Baker and twenty men travelled from
their base at Chilton Foliat together with C Company of the 2nd
Parachute Battalion to Inveraray in Scotland for specialist training
prior to the raid. Later practices were held off the coast of
Dorset. On the raid itself they sailed part of the way on the MV
Prins Albert, a former Belgian ship, before transferring to ALCs,
LCSs and a Motor Gun Boat to act as medical support to the returning
paratroopers. Several casualties were treated on the journey home.
[For more details on 181's involvement see Chapter 2 of the book Red
Berets and Red Crosses - The story of the Medical Services in the
1st Airborne Division by our member N Cherry, 3 Church Road, Warton,
Lancs PR4 1BD. Click on the e-mail button below.]
Two men were killed in the operation and six were missing, all of whom survived the war. Two German prisoners were brought back, one of them the Wurzburg's operator. The German report on the raid commented: 'The operation of the British Commandos was well planned and executed with great discipline... although attacked by German soldiers they concentrated on their primary task.' The raid had been a great success due in large measure to the element of surprise. Even while reading an account of the action in a newspaper the Supply Officer of the Glider Pilot Regiment, whose training area the paras shared, did not associate them with the raid.
It is not easy to quantify what was gained from the operation...but it was very significant indeed. One of the many off-shoots was the construction of three radar and communication vessels known as Fighter Direction Tenders (FDT 217, 216 and 13). The FDTs provided vital radar and communications cover off Normandy from D-Day to D+20. Only when land based radar and communications units became operational in France did they move off station. Their design incorporated two types of radar, one using British frequencies and the other using German frequencies.
Allied Forces: Air - 1 Whitley Squadron; Sea - Landing Craft & Escorts; Land - 1st Airborne Division, elements of the French Resistance.
Axis Forces: Sea - 1 Destroyer, 2 E-Boats; Land - Infantry patrols & Bruneval defence force.
Outcome (Positive) - Wurzburg radar components successfully removed from German radar installation + capture of an operator.
Outcome (Negative) - Two men killed & six missing.
Grandfather, William Balloch, was one of the paratroopers who took
part in the Bruneval raid and I would like to know more about the men
he served with and to see any photographs prior to and post the raid
itself. As part of this I will be contacting the Public Archive at Kew
and the Imperial War Museum in London but any information, especially
from veterans or their families, would be very much appreciated.
*Schonland - Scientist and Soldier, by Brian Austin (2001), published by the Institute of Physics Publishing, ISBN 0 7503 0501 0. *(later Sir Basil Schonland CBE FRS).
Most Secret War by R V Jones published by Wordsworth. ISBN 1-85326-699. One full chapter devoted to the raid plus other relevant background information.
A Drop Too Many by Major-General John Frost. His tale starts with the Iraq Levies and goes on the major airborne operations in which he took part - Bruneval, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Arnhem.
The Red Beret - The Story of the Parachute Regiment at war 1940 - 45 by Hilary St.George Saunders, first published by Michael Joseph Ltd, 26 Bloomsbury St, London W.C.1 October 1950, 7 more impressions published through to 1952.
The Bruneval Raid by George Millar. Pub by Cassell. (About one third of the book devoted to the raid the remainder covering early radar and photo reconnaissance) ISBN 0-304-36221-2.
Combined Operations 1940-1942 by The Ministry of Information, published HMSO. 144 pages with photos. Includes chapter on Bruneval.
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson Pub 1961 by Collins.