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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!'
came inshore escorted by three gunboats. Each LCA had the additional
fire power of 4 bren guns manned by men of No 12 Commando.
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.
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.
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
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.
Prof Sir Maurice Wilkes who made his name after the war as one of the
pioneers of modern computing, and who was Schonland's radar expert in
the AORG at that time, felt that the Wurzburg was not a very
sophisticated radar and TRE learnt nothing special from it other than
they knew exactly how to jam it - which they did very successfully
during the D-Day landings.
Amongst the Schonland papers at the
Churchill Archive in Cambridge is a letter from Schonland, written
after the war, to Professor Leo Brandt, his German opposite number
describing the raid. An extract from it appears on p240 of my book.
his letter he said that the parabolic reflector of the Wurzburg at
Bruneval proved too big to dismantle and to take back to England but
they sawed off its feed which really was the significant component.
Also they took a few flashlight photographs of the reflector because
the Germans had very conveniently painted all the radar's
specifications of the face of the dish!
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
(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.
Air - 1 Whitley Squadron; Sea
- Landing Craft & Escorts; Land -
1st Airborne Division, elements of the French Resistance.
Sea - 1 Destroyer, 2 E-Boats;
- Infantry patrols & Bruneval defence force.
(Positive) - Wurzburg radar components successfully removed from
German radar installation + capture of an operator.
(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.
There are around 300 books listed on
our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from
the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner checks the shelves of
thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in or copy and paste the title of
your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no
obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click
'Books' for more
Further information & photos
- 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).
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.
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,
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.
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.
by The Ministry of
Information, published HMSO. 144 pages with photos. Includes chapter
1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London
1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1
Maze by Bernard Fergusson Pub 1961 by Collins.
on an article by James Paul.