Destination Unknown

by Alan Thackeray

World's most secret airline aided resistance movements in conquered countries

The "Scarlet Pimpernels of the Air" have been disbanded. After three years of audacious warfare never mentioned in official communiques, this chosen group of British airmen can mark their mission accomplished. And their story can now be told to the whole world.

To call their work unique barely explains their role in successful air warfare against Germany. Assigned to the nebulous job of aiding resistance movements anywhere, at any time, the modern pimpernels dropped arms, ammunition and supplies to Maquis in France and Partisans in Yugoslavia. They trained saboteurs in techniques of parachuting, then dropped their anti-Nazi passengers all over the Low Countries. Between times, they ran the world's most secret airline, landing and taking off behind the German lines on split-second schedules which would do credit to any commercial operator. Moving human cargo more precious than life itself, this secret airline snatched resistance leaders, partisan military officials, and escaped Allied fighters from beneath the sharpest of German noses. Every return to England brought maps and reports which shortened the war by days if not weeks.

Throughout the war, these "special operations" — their official, if somewhat ambiguous description — were kept as a very close secret. Security was so strict that ground crews on the home airfield were unaware of the missions undertaken in planes which were always on the move. Pilots were never told of their colleagues' duties and it became a point of honor to neither ask nor answer questions. On one occasion, several high ranking Royal Air Force officers were informed by ground crew members that court martial would automatically and immediately follow any discussion of the select squadron's activity. So it was British security, no less than German watchfulness, which limited all flights to nocturnal hours, with "passengers" stepping directly from the planes to closed transports, never pausing at the airfield for more than a few moments.

In the beginning, pilots and crews assigned to this operation were commanded by Group Captain F C Pickard. Wearer of the Distinguished Service Cross and the DSO. with two bars, this late great airman won world recognition, albeit without identification, as the pilot in Target for Tonight. Commanding two Royal Air Force squadrons, a Polish unit, and an American squadron trained by the Poles, Pickard conducted the first of his "special operations" immediately after the fall of France. Three years later, his group had flown more than 5,000 sorties from their home base at Tempsford in Bedfordshire. Built on an isolated marsh, this single airport served as the air centre for all resistance movements in Europe throughout the war.

Flying without fighter escort, carrying no armament. and operating without lights on radio silence night after night, Westland Lysanders and Lockheed Hudsons flew singly on lone-wolf missions over the most heavily defended sections of France. Operating at low level, despite enemy flak and fighters, these ancient but rugged planes demanded the utmost in navigational skill from their pilots. In almost every case, the pilot did his own navigating. flying unaided with a map on his knees in search of a wheat field "somewhere in France." Three-place ships at best, the little Lysanders carried no navigators simply because no passenger could be left behind on the return flight. so the operational hazards of this anonymous airline were obvious.

In order to locate all usable landing fields in the Reich, men of the resistance movement were flown to England during the early days of Hitler conquest and learned how to choose landing fields and how to assist Allied aircraft in their nightly landings. Returning to their home countries, these specially-trained partisans held the key to all subsequent operations, giving landing instructions to British, Polish and American pilots by means of hand flashlights. Sometimes, though, the best-laid plans went awry. On one occasion, the partisans gathered 200 men together and worked with twelve oxen and six horses to dig a Lockheed Hudson out of a soggy field. More often than not, Lysanders and Hudsons returned to Tempsford with foliage and telegraph wires wrapped around propellers and wing tips. The best fields available for resistance activity seldom had the clear approaches which we accept as commonplace.

With so many natural hazards, "special operations" would have been suicidal under peaceful circumstances. But within a few weeks after the first undertaking, the Gestapo went into action, never relaxing their efforts to stop Captain Pickard's group. It was not uncommon for a crew to arrive over the preselected airfield to find Nazis and Maquis in pitched battle. Many times, the blazing headlights of approaching German cars lighted the runways for takeoffs. On one occasion, a pilot landed when he received the flashlight signal, only to find German pistols held at the backs of patriot signalers. Fired upon as his ship touched the edge of the field, the pilot managed to take off and return home despite a bullet wound in his neck. In their effort to stop this Royal Air Force operation, the Germans arrested and tortured several hundred members of the resistance forces. One Frenchman had both feet broken by Gestapo agents, but escaped and continued his work under Allied direction. But constant German vigilance could not halt the "special operations." More than 700 resistance leaders were carried safely to England in the course of 220 successful pickups behind enemy lines. One passenger gave birth to a child a few hours after arrival in Bedfordshire.

Although Lysanders, carrying three passengers on each trip, and Hudsons, accommodating ten passengers, were used most frequently on these flights, heavier planes also shared in the success of the program. Flying longer distances, carrying more passengers on each trip, the Douglas C-47 Dakota won workhorse honors on "special operations." Used on many flights, these veterans of America's commercial airlines won particular distinction on a mission late in February, 1944. According to the plan, a Dakota was to carry two important men from England to their destination in Poland — a field approximately 800 miles behind enemy lines at the time. A full load of passengers, possessing invaluable intelligence reports, were to. be picked up at the same point. Fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks for the long flight, the C-47 was originally scheduled to land near Warsaw, using a German airfield which patriots were to capture and hold for an hour or two. Other partisans were to capture a second airfield thirty miles away, to provide for any emergency. Circumstances were changed to such a degree that a beetroot field on the outskirts of a village near Lublin was finally chosen for the important two-way passenger flight. The crew stood by for more than a month, even flying to the selected spot on one occasion without accomplishing their purpose.

Finally the Dakota took off in late afternoon from an Italian airfield, with Flight Lieutenant Harrod at the controls. Crossing the Dalmatian coast at 10,000 feet, the plane had barely passed its second landmark when weather closed in, forcing Harrod to travel on dead reckoning for the balance of the trip. In spite of difficulties, he had the ship over the target just 40 seconds ahead of his estimated time of arrival. With identification signals flashed. and answered, the patriots laid down an avenue of storm lanterns, squared off at one end by red lights with green lights leading into the runway. When buildings loomed up in the glare of his landing lights, the only illumination available, Harrod made a second approach and set down heavily with excessive speed pushing his ship toward the red lights marking the end of the field. The plane stopped less than 25 yards from a massive storage barn. To avoid delay in takeoff, the partisans had deliberately instructed Harrod to land downwind — despite the risks involved.

Another C-47 operation which ranks with the most skillful military flights of this war involved a Dakota which participated in the evacuation of British leaders working with Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia. Informed in advance that their landing would be made on a field 700 yards long, the crew made a long but uneventful flight with no misgivings, realizing that the field would be adequate, though hardly roomy, for a lightly-loaded transport plane. Arriving at his destination, the pilot landed without incident despite the fact that his sandy runway ran sharply uphill. It was some hours later, after embarkation of the important passengers in a sharply-climbing take-off, that the pilot learned, his landing field had been only 496 yards long.

Although passenger pick-ups absorbed much of their attention, the "Scarlet Pimpernels of the Air" took a host of other special operations in their stride. Saboteurs were dropped by parachute along with ammunition, armament, pigeons, medical supplies, food, and short-wave radio equipment. Serving resistance forces in nineteen countries extending from the Arctic Circle to Africa, these versatile airmen dropped bicycles, skis, and truck tires — the latter specially made for the occasion with continental markings — from a variety of converted bombers, chief of which were the Short Stirling, Armstrong Whitley, and Handley Page Halifax. Usually, the targets were in isolated country districts but on one occasion their destination in southern France loomed up as a large, brilliantly-floodlighted factory. Instinctively, they avoided the illuminated zone. But after a few minutes, flashlight signals came from the factory roof and the bomber dived down to drop its cargo in the factory yard while partisans engaged the attention of German guards in a distant corner of the building. Although planes from Tempsford base were always ready to go anywhere, with any type of cargo, the major effort in delivery of supplies was directed toward Yugoslavia. on one operation, 500 planes were used to drop 1,200,000 pounds of miscellaneous war goods to Tito and his troops. The job was completed in less than forty-eight hours — and this may have been the most important two days of the war, for the Partisan army used the airborne supplies to block the escape of 350,000 Germans retreating toward Sarajevo. It was, how ever, one of the last operations which brought the greatest pride and the greatest sadness to Britain's most unusual air squadron. They call it their greatest exploit because it saved nearly 100 Maquis from the firing squad. But Group Captain Pickard, their leader for three years, lost his life in the effort.

In February, 1944, it was learned that a large number of Frenchmen were lying in the jail at Amiens, awaiting execution for their efforts in behalf of the Allies. Some had been condemned for assisting the escape of British and American airmen forced down in France; others had been leaders in guerrilla warfare. So it was determined to break down the prison walls, even though some of the patriots would certainly be killed by bombardment of the prison. A model of the jail was built within a few hours after special photographs had provided intelligence information. On the morning of February 18, 1944, plans were completed and the selected air crews determined to press home their attack in spite of bad weather. Because escape for all prisoners could only be assured by rupture of the jail walls at two places, while opening of the cells could only be accomplished by breaking both ends of the main building, six DeHavilland Mosquitos went in first to open the outside walls. A second wave of six Mosquitos divided over the target to open the main building walls and destroy quarters occupied by the German guards. A third wave was available in the event of any miscarriage of original plans. To appreciate the operational problems involved, one must only realize that accuracy of bombardment required tree-top approach to the target, that each explosion had to follow others in proper sequence, and that timing was of the essence in prevention of collisions over the prison. Somehow or other, every airman was prepared to die in the effort.

It was snowing when the planes took off for France. Within a few minutes, snow and rain were mixing in an opaque mess that fogged the windshields and iced the wings. Only fools or heroes will fly any plane in such cold soup that only the instruments have any idea of direction, altitude, or airspeed. The Mosquitos came down to less than one hundred feet before their pilots could see the Amiens prison in the center of snow-covered fields. One officer tells it this way. "A New Zealand squadron went in first; I saw their bombs explode. There were two annexes on the prison, and these housed the German guards. By attacking these, we would open up the prison and kill a lot of Germans as well. And that was what we did. We flew so low to drop our delayed-action bombs that we had to lift our aircraft over the high wall and then skid our bombs into the annex."

Circling over the top of the prison, Group Captain Pickard watched his squadron carry out the attack. After the first two waves had dropped their bombs, he saw that the mission had been completely successful and he ordered the third squadron home, their bombs still in their bomb bays. A photographic Mosquito then began its runs over the target with all cameras turning. Intelligence officers examined the films later and found both ends of the jail blown off, the outer walls breached, and a large number of prisoners escaping toward the open country.

Many of the exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernels are still to be told. Until all involved members of the underground are permanently safe from reprisal, the full story must remain among the secret records of the Royal Air Force. Someday other names will join that of Pickard on an honor roll which the French ambassador already describes as a "proud part of the story of underground Europe."

This article was originally published in the October, 1945, issue of Air News with Air Tech magazine, vol 9, no 4, pp 21-23.
The original article includes 7 photos and a drawing of a weather cock.
Photos credited to British Official, British Information Services, US Navy, British Combine.

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