RAF “Special Duties” Pick-Ups In France: Three Memoirs

Covers of three books about Lsyander pick-ups
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The whole of the effort put into pick-up operations in France throughout the war—measured by aircraft and personnel costs—was minute. In a well proportioned history of World War Two it might deserve a sentence or a footnote. And yet it is hard to imagine how the irregular forces in France could have developed to anything like the same extent without these two-way air links.

Hugh Verity, We Landed By Moonlight (revised edition) 2000

The Special Duties Squadrons of the Royal Air Force were highly secret operations, tasked with moving people and equipment in and out of occupied territory during World War II. Their major role was in Occupied France, in support of local resistance networks. They originated with Flight 419 (later 1419) in 1940, were expanded to form 138 Squadron in 1941, and then split into 138 Squadron and 161 Squadron in 1942.* Aircraft of 138 Sq. and the “B” flight of 161 Sq. were responsible for parachuting in agents and making supply drops to the French Resistance. But there was a frequent need to get people out of France, too, sometimes urgently. That’s where 161 Squadron’s “A” flight came in—a small group of pilots who would fly at night, often in bad weather, to land their modified Westland Lysanders and Lockheed Hudsons in farmers’ fields, the landing zone marked out for them with three flashlights tied to sticks. Their main purpose was “pick-ups”—extracting Resistance fighters (and their families) whose cover had been blown, evacuating people for respite or specialist training, ferrying spies with urgent information or documents, and repatriating Allied pilots who had been shot down in enemy territory. But they also moved people and equipment into France—resistance organizers trained by the Special Operations Executive, spies for the Secret Intelligence Service, radios, weapons, and wodges of currency to fund clandestine activities.

The first of these very different memoirs is We Landed By Moonlight, by Hugh Verity. It was first published in 1978, after which Verity was contacted by a number of people, including members of the French Resistance, who provided him with much additional information which he incorporated into a revised edition published in 1995. Verity held the post of squadron leader with 161 Sq. from 1942-3, and flew many Lysander pick-ups himself. So part of this book is an account of his hair-raising personal experience. But he also set himself the task of reconstructed the detailed history of the French pick-up flights. These were so secret that very little was ever written down in pilots’s log-books or squadron records—the pilots knew only how many “bods” or “Joes” they were supposed to collect, from a particular field, at a particular time of night. Sometimes they were surprised to find themselves ferrying heavily pregnant women, children, and babies. So Verity pieces things together from the code-names of agents who were picked up or dropped off, histories of the Resistance and the SOE’s activity in France, and the personal accounts of pilots and agents who had written memoirs or offered their stories directly.

So it’s a complicated read—waiting in the field (code-named A) are agents with code names B and C (later code-named D and E), whose real names are F and G, and who ran resistance networks (“circuits”, in the jargon) code-named H and I. And aboard the aircraft, we have a similar group. Verity tells us their fates, when he can—many were later captured or killed; a few went on to illustrious postwar careers; some (like Henri Déricourt) transpired to be double or triple agents. Appendices contain maps, notes, mission tables and a glossary, among other things—so its a real reference work. But the accumulated effect of all the detail is also to convey how complicated and dangerous the task of mounting and maintaining the French Resistance movement was.

It’s also a vivid personal account of madly stressful flights, both from Verity himself and the verbatim accounts of other pilots which he includes in the text. Despite efforts to train French agents in the correct choice of landing ground, in the panic and fog of war the chosen fields were sometimes dangerously inappropriate—aeroplanes encountered trees and hedges, lavender bushes and power lines, stampeding cattle, people standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and mud. Lots of mud, necessitating frantic efforts to dig or drag out a bogged aircraft and get it on its way so that it could get back to the English Channel before daylight. Here’s Robin Hooper describing the dénouement of one such episode, when it becomes apparent that the plane is going nowhere, and neither is Hooper or his pick-up agent, code-named “Georges”.

“Georges” burst into tears on my shoulder. I patted him on the back, said, “there, there,” “Allons, voyons mon vieux,” and generally tried to convey the impression that mucking around in several inches of mud, some hundreds of miles inside enemy territory, with a bogged Lysander, four bullocks and thirteen excited Belgians and Frenchmen was an experience that any officer of the Royal Air Force would take in his stride.

The atmosphere of the time is well conveyed—the Germans pound stakes into suitable meadows, to prevent landings; the Resistance perfect a stake-extraction tool (and replace the stakes by morning); the local gendarmes make a point of heading away from any aircraft noise they hear, so that they can protest their ignorance to the Gestapo later. There’s a well-rehearsed routine in which inbound passengers and luggage are unloaded, and pick-up passengers loaded, in the space of a few minutes, with gifts of champagne and perfume handed up to the pilots during that frantic time; a perilous voyage back through the flak and night-fighters along the French coast, the passengers sitting on the floor of the aircraft, without parachutes; and then slap-up breakfasts laid on for returning pilots and their passengers.

And there’s tragedy, of course—aircraft, pilots and passengers were lost, on more than one occasion, when they crashed on English soil, attempting to land on runways blanketed in thick fog.

John Nesbitt-Dufort’s Black Lysander (1973) is entirely autobiographical, covering his flying career from 1930 to the early 1960s. The title references the overall black camouflage paint applied to Special Duties Lysander aircraft during the early period of Special Duties activity—Hugh Verity would later change the scheme to include a green-and-grey standard pattern on the upper surfaces, making the low-flying aircraft harder for night-fighter pilots to pick out against the moonlit terrain below. Despite the choice of title, only about a quarter of the book deals with Nesbitt-Dufort’s time in Special Duties. But they’re a fine read. He takes us through his experience in England, training agents in the vital skill of selecting appropriate landing fields; he accompanies agents on their flights to parachute into France; and then he begins flying pick-up flights. The chapter entitled “On The Run” takes us through the occasion on which Nesbitt-Dufort, carrying two French agents in the back of his Lysander, encounters “the most wicked-looking and well defined active cold front I have ever seen” as they fly back towards England. Vicious turbulence and icing conditions force him to attempt a landing in occupied France, where his aircraft up-ends into a ditch. He and the agents flee the crash site, and later open Nesbitt-Dufort’s survival package, which contains food, maps and currency:

Slowly and painfully I undid the pack and carefully unfolded the tissue paper map. Roger shone his torch down on this prized possession and for a second we were speechless; with our heads together and surrounded by the dripping hedge at 5 am on a freezing January morning slap in the middle of France, we peered down at a flimsy but detailed map of Germany! A hurried search of the remainder of the little escape kit revealed a substantial wad of reichsmarks, but not a single franc.

They are subsequently aided and concealed by a French family, and eventually evacuated by another pick-up flight.

The rest of the book strikes much the same tone, by turns entertaining and gripping—Nesbitt-Dufort was a master of the amused, off-hand account of hellish situations that seems to have been taught to all wartime pilots. We read of his early days in pilot training, his time as a pre-war instructor, his post-war experience during the Berlin airlift and as a commercial pilot, flying all sorts of cargoes in and out of Lebanon during the 1950s. The chapter entitled “Two Red Lights”, dealing with a disastrous flight through an electrical storm while carrying ten tons of 20mm high-explosive cannon shells in the back of an elderly Avro York with an undercarriage fault, reads like something out of a Brian Lecomber aviation thriller.

Barbara Bertram’s intriguingly named French Resistance In Sussex (1995) offers a completely different perspective on events described by Verity and Nesbitt-Dufort. She was the wife of Major Anthony Bertram, who during the Second World War worked as an “Escorting Officer” for French agents travelling on 161 Squadron’s pick-up flights. The Bertrams at that time lived in Bignor Manor, an isolated country house a relatively short drive from 161 Squadron’s operational base at RAF Tangmere. The manor house was pressed into service as a secret forward base for French agents—they would stay overnight on arrival in England, or before departure for France, with Barbara Bertram playing host to anything up to twenty agents in her four-bedroomed house (as well as her two small sons and a variety of pets). French Resistance In Sussex is her short (76 pages) account of her life in those years. Various cover stories were contrived for the comings and goings at Bignor, and the occasional appearance of Frenchmen playing darts in the village pub, but one does come away from the narrative with the feeling that the villagers probably had a pretty shrewd idea of what might be happening at the manor house, but kept a judicious silence.

The Bertrams also have the task of checking that departing French agents have absolutely nothing in their clothes or baggage to connect them to England, and a supply of real, or fabricated, French items and documents. Bertram tells us that even a partially used bar of soap could be a potential give-away, since British soap produced a better lather than the gritty wartime French equivalent; and that the British attempt to counterfeit Gauloise cigarette packets was an initial failure because they didn’t disintegrate in use as quickly as the real thing. She also regales us with a description of being deliberately tear-gassed in her own bathroom by a couple of agents who were doubtful about the potential effectiveness of their secret-agent-style “tear gas fountain pens”. (The tear gas, Bertram reports, worked very well.)

And she describes the hideous tension these agents were under, and how this was magnified by the fact that they often had to cool their heels at Bignor for several nights before the weather permitted a flight to France. Some would read, some would help Bertram with her garden, and one of them went shooting on a neighbouring estate, where he was told he could shoot only rabbits. On one occasion he returned with a pheasant, which he claimed had flown between him and a rabbit. Then:

On the last day of the moon when they either would have to go or return to London he asked me what I would really like if he had been allowed to shoot anything. Knowing what there was likely to be I said “Wild duck.” Sure enough four ducks flew between him and a rabbit.

The agents, particularly returning agents, clearly have an immense affection for Barbara Bertram and the haven she created at Bignor. Many of them bring gifts with them on their return flights—including a set of French stamps for her stamp-collecting son, which she withheld until the end of the war as a potential security risk if they turned up in her son’s album.

And the book is full of fascinating detail about the Lysander landings themselves—how agents were able to pace out the dimensions of fields without arousing suspicion if they waited for the mushrooming season; and how the number of baggage items was carefully chalked on the black side of the Lysander, so that nothing vital would be mistakenly left aboard during the hectic minutes on the ground in France.

By turns amusing and poignant, it’s a great little read. If you’re interested, you can hear the lady herself reminiscing about those days in the Imperial War Museum’s oral history collection.

* Later in the war, Special Duties squadrons also operated in the Mediterranean and South-East Asian theatres.

5 thoughts on “RAF “Special Duties” Pick-Ups In France: Three Memoirs”

  1. All three of these sound like very interesting reads. I simply can not imagine the bravery of those agents who went into ‘Occupied Europe’. Nor the courage and skill of the aircrew involved in their transport. When I read a book like “Carve Her Name with Pride” I am simply amazed at what some people are prepared to risk for others..

    The Lysander was one of those aircraft that was a failure at its intended tasks but proved very useful for this operation.

    I was surprised at the mention of the Lockheed Hudson landing agents on rough fields. It seemed too big for anything but dropping agents by parachute. So I did some further reading and, of course, you are indeed correct. The Hudson had a pretty good service record during WW2. I was surprised that, even though it was not a fighter it was the first aircraft “operating” from the UK itself to shoot down a German aircraft. I knew that while in service with the RAAF it became the first allied aircraft to attack the Japanese by sinking a transport off Kota Bahru an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  2. After some experimentation, Wing Commander PC Pickard (then CO of 161 Sq.) established that he could land a Hudson at a ludicrous 55 knots and roll it to a halt in 350 yards. Verity describes how “Pick” Pickard demonstrated this skill to him while Verity occupied the right-hand seat. There was a certain amount of anxiety on Verity’s part, given that Pickard was flying the Hudson 20 knots slower than was officially recommended for final approach, and operating the throttles with his hand encased in plaster, having recently broken his wrist during a mess party.

  3. “Pickard was flying the Hudson 20 knots slower than was officially recommended for final approach, and operating the throttles with his hand encased in plaster, having recently broken his wrist during a mess party.”

    Sort of sums up the pilots who operated these flights I think.

    1. I think you’re right. I actually met one of these guys in his old age, and he told me the story of his wartime service, which involved capture, rescue and escape during the pick-up flights, then a stint in Bomber Command during which he and his crew were shot down. His matter-of-fact narration of a succession of astonishing and gruelling experiences was utterly humbling. (At the end of it all, while I was scooping my jaw off the floor, he told me that he’d never told the story in so much detail to anyone else. I’m very conscious of that privilege, so won’t post any more of it here.)

  4. That must have been a fascinating tale to hear and I am sure that you felt honoured that he opened up to you. I certainly understand why you wish to keep his confidences private.

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