Newsletter No. 518
SAMHS KZN Members gathered at the Natal University Campus, Howard College for our 13th June meeting to await our two guest speakers of the night. Our chairman, Charles Whiteing, introduced our speaker for the DDH, Darryll Abboo, a 15 year old student at New Forest High with a penchant for military history, collecting militaria and a passion for Air Scouting. Darryll's subject was THE BRUNEVAL RAID - OPERATION BITING. At his teacher's request, he gave this same lecture to his classmates in Afrikaans, not his home language.
In February 1942, men of the newly formed British 1stAirborne Division went into action for the first time. Their target was the German 'Wurzburg' radar installation at Bruneval. Their objective was to seize vital radar components and to bring them back to the UK for inspection by trained scientists.
Radar was one of the key, high-technology battlegrounds of the war. Without radar, the outcome of RAF Fighter Command's narrow victory in the "Battle of Britain", might have been very different. The Luftwaffe, meantime, were using radio navigation aids for blind bombing during the blitz. In 1941, Bomber Command extended its reach into the German heartland, forcing the Luftwaffe to develop its own defensive radars and Britain responded with jamming techniques. So the "battle of the beams" developed between scientists on both sides as they strived to gain the advantage. Heading up the British team, was Dr RV Jones, of the Air Staff.
Throughout 1941, Jones and his team formed a detailed picture of the developing 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 located on a cliff top close to the village of Bruneval near Le Havre. The beach below the instalation caused Jones to consider the possibility of dispatching a Commando raid to retrieve the Wurzburg array for close examination. Air Intelligence approached Combined Operations HQ, whose chief, Lord Louis Mountbatten, approved the plan.
From intelligence gathered by the French resistance, a frontal assault on the beach would suffer heavy casualties from enemy defensive positions. It was, therefore, decided to drop paratroopers inland by Whitley bombers under the command of Squadron Leader Charles Pickard. The plan envisaged the raiding party being recovered from the beach by the Royal Navy, with No 12 Commando providing covering fire against German coastal positions.
C Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Brigade was chosen for the operation - 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 Seaforth's. To identify the components of interest, they were to be accompanied by RAF radar operator, Flight Sergeant CWH Cox. He was a former cinema projectionist, ill equipped for such an operation since he had never been in a ship, or on an aircraft, before!
The utmost secrecy was applied to the project from the outset. If German Intelligence became aware of British interest in the Bruneval site, the whole project would be compromised with disastrous consequences for those taking part. The "need to know" doctrine was, therefore, strictly applied. The parachute unit, for example, believed the War Cabinet wanted them to demonstrate techniques and capabilities for raiding a headquarters building behind enemy lines.
Training took place 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 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 paratroopers 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, while the third, led by Lieutenant John Timothy, was to act as a rear-guard 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, was 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 days of anxious waiting for the weather to clear, the raid went ahead on the night of February 27/28th 1942. The Whitley bombers dropped the paratroopers 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. However, Charteris quickly gained his bearings and he and his men crossed the icy landscape to their intended drop zone.
Frost's section took only ten minutes to gather at their rendezvous point. They met no opposition as they moved on the villa, which they surrounded and then advanced towards the open front door. Frost blew his whistle and immediately explosions, yells and the sound of automatic fire came from the proximity of the radar set. His paratroopers rushed the villa, which was completely empty save for a single German firing from the top floor.
Flight Sergeant Cox and an engineer detachment hauled trolleys over a succession of barbed wire obstacles. Soon afterwards Cox, and the engineers, disassembled the Wurzburg's components, ripping most of them out by sheer force as bullets whistled nearby. Heavy gun fire, from German positions in a wooded enclosure about 300 yards (275m) to the north of the villa, was making life increasingly hazardous for Cox and the paras. Their safety was further threatened by the arrival of vehicles with mortar capability and, after half an hour, Frost gave the order to withdraw. However, a machine gun in a pillbox still occupied by the Germans, now barred the way to the beach. The Germans regrouped and advancing from the villa. Charteris' two sections arrived on the scene just in time, 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 and the raiders were not yet out of danger. Frost's signallers were unable to make contact with the landing craft which were to evacuate the raiding party. As a last resort, several red Verey lights were fired. Frost prepared to rearrange his defences to meet the anticipated German counter-attack when 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.
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 that pieces could be brought back to the UK for detailed examination by scientists. He did not survive the war (killed in Tunisia 1943). Jackie slid the largest radar pieces to the beach effectively 'riding' them down the cliff to get there faster. 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.
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 later, 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.
It has been suggested that the Commandos had orders to shoot Cox if his capture by the Germans seemed inevitable. True or not, there is no doubt that Cox's knowledge of British radar, had it fallen into German hands, 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. 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. 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 proven 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. In his letter, he said that the parabolic reflector of the Wurzburg at Bruneval proved too large to dismantle to take back to England so they sawed off its feet, 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 on the face of the dish!
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 whom was 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 . The FDTs provided vital radar and communications cover off Normandy from D-Day to D+20. Only when land based radar and communication 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.
More information was gained from the appreciative audience participation during the Q & A session.
After a short interlude, the chair introduced the speaker for the main talk, Nora Simpson, about her mother ROSE VANDACAR (WAAS) Nursing Services (WWII) - recipient of the Florence Nightgale medal the nursing professions version of the Vicroria Cross.
Rose Vandacar joined up with the SA Nursing Services shortly after SA declared war on Germany 3rd September 1939. Once she had completed her initial training she was posted to the Military camp in Ladysmith. Thereafter to Oribi Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. Not long afterwards she embarked thru the port of Durban on the hospital ship the AMRA for Egypt in North Africa.
They passed thru the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea and Westwards to Alexandria harbour. Here she disembarked for a railway junction named El Buseili where no. 104 SA General Hospital was located. During the retreat to El Alamein approximately 800 women from the WAAS were evacuated to the Cataract Hotel in the Upper Nile at Aswan.
When the Axis Forces had been halted at El Alamein the Allied women returned to Cairo and surrounds. Here Rose Vandacar was deployed to no. 5 Hospital at Helmiah Garrison located in a suburb of Cairo. Here no. 5 SA Hospital competed in an inter hospital hockey tournament and won all their matches. Rose Vandacar was a key player in their success.
Shortly after the Allies landed in Italy Rose was redeployed to no. 102 SA General Hospital in Bari. The SA Hospital along with the NZ Hospital and the Indian Hospital were located in the new but unfinished Poly-Clinic. It was during her service here on the 2nd December 1944 that the Luftwaffe bombed Bari harbour sinking Allied ships.
The hospital staff were busy for days attending to the wounded servicemen and civilians for which the Hospital was commended by the Allied Officer Commanding Area 54.
After the war, Rose returned to South Africa and in 1947 was presented with the Florence Nightingale medal by Jan Hofmeyer, the acting Prime Minister during WWII, during Jan Smuts' absences.
Once again the appreciative audience asked many questions and offered many anecdotes to Nora's story.
It was left to to give the VOT to both guest speakers for their hard work and diligence.
The Chairman closed the meeting by announcing the speakers for the next meeting on 11th July 2019
DDH: THE MARY ROSE by Guest Speaker Michael Jackson
Main Talk: LIBERTY SHIPS OF WW2 by Roy Bowman
South African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org