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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
In 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!
A 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
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.
My 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 over 200 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books'
page which can be purchased on-line via the Advanced Book Exchange
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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).
Most Secret War by R V Jones published by Wordsworth. ISBN
1-85326-699. One full chapter devoted to the raid plus other relevant
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,
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
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.
Based on an article by James Paul.