Operation BITING – a truly combined operation and the Parachute Regiment’s first Battle Honour

RICHARD MADDOX

IN THE AIRSPACE HANGAR AT IWM Duxford is the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Assault Museum. Amongst the medals, uniforms, paintings and uniforms is a small model of a villa and a series of paths leading from it.

The well-detailed model – windows and brick work are shown –  was constructed at RAF Medmenham near Marlow-on-Thames in Buckinghamshire, England for use in the briefing on Operation BITING; the official name for the raid on the German radar site near Bruneval on the coast of northern France.

This action would became the British Army’s Parachute Regiment’s first Battle Honour.

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The Bruneval briefing model in the model makers’ workshop at RAF Medmenham.
Note the cliff edge at the extreme left of the model. © IWM (D 7821). Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205220533 

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A close-up of the same model in the Airborne Assault Museum at IWM Duxford, April 2018. Image © R Maddox 2018.

From April 1941 RAF Medmenham – a requisitioned country house and now a hotel – was the home of the RAF Central Interpretation Unit. (1) Here specialist analysts scrutinised images captured by aircraft of No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (1 PRU) which flew from nearby RAF Benson.

At this time RAF Intelligence were aware of the German FREYA radar antennas – named after a Norse goddess. These installations equated to the CHAIN HOME long-range radar sites that enabled the RAF to detect incoming attacks during the Battle of Britain in September 1940.

Although FREYA could detect incoming aircraft at a range of around 50 miles they were unable to determine their height. (2)  Together both components were vital in order to direct Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft (flak) guns onto any incoming attack.

As Operation BITING would reveal, that would be the task of the WÜRZBURG radar installations.

In autumn 1941 reports of a possible new radar appeared on the desk of Professor R V Jones of Scientific Intelligence. Slowly more information became available and other pieces of the puzzle began to be collected.

A significant piece was supplied by Squadron Leader Antony Eustace Hill RAF, a gifted pilot with 1 PRU who would later die of wounds after being shot down in October 1942. (3)

Flying Supermarine Spitfire R7044 (unofficially as another squadron had been detailed for the sortie) Tony Hill brought the first back detailed photographs of a possible new radar installation at Bruneval.

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One of two images taken by Tony Hill’s of an object near the ‘Manoir de Falaise’ taken from a Supermarine Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft on 5 December 1941. Professor Jones described these photos as classics of their kind, which enabled a raiding force to locate, and make off with, the WÜRZBURG radar’s vital components in February 1942 for analysis in Britain. Image © IWM (D 12870) . Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022388

Technically this was a difficult task as the camera was mounted behind the pilot, pointing downwards and slightly backwards. The pilot had to fly past the target and when it had disappeared from view guess when it would be visible to the camera and then fire the shutter, all the time controlling his aircraft at high speed and at times 50 feet (less than 20 metres) above the ground and guarding against enemy fire from the ground or the air.

So significant was the raid and its outcome that in his book ‘Most Secret War’ (1978) Jones devotes a complete chapter to it as well as separate chapters to FREYA and WÜRZBURG radars. In the chapter titled ‘Würzeburg’ he writes:

… As I write this book and look at Tony Hill’s picture of the Bruneval Würzeburg… I am once again amazed at the precision of his photography. Just two photographs on each occasion, one full view and one profile, almost in the centre on each exposure from an aircraft travelling at more than three hundred miles an hour and the photographs taken over the shoulder… (4)

Elsewhere Jones describes how he on occasions disregarded security in order to allow pilots like Hill to understand how vital their work was.

… [P]eople like Tony Hill knew exactly why we wanted the photographs of radar installations. There were times when we were criticised for that on the grounds of security; you were not supposed to tell more than was absolutely necessary – I thought it was absolutely necessary. There was a risk that if a pilot was shot down, one way or another, he might be persuaded to talk, but I always took the line that if at all possible you should tell the pilot exactly what you wanted and why, and furthermore show him how his work fitted in with the overall picture that you were trying to build up. The consequent enthusiasm was one of the most rewarding things that you could possibly experience… (5)

It was as a result of Hill’s images, Jones’ need for up to date information and intelligence on the ground provided by local French Résistance groups that convinced the newly-formed Combined Operations (headed by Lord Louis Mountbatten) that a force could be dropped by RAF aircraft to carry out an armed reconnaissance of the equipment in February 1942.

The group of 120 soldiers were dropped by Armstrong Whitley aircraft of No. 51 Squadron RAF and included men of ‘C’ Company, 2 Battalion Parachute Regiment under the command of Major John Frost.

Frost would later command the battalion in the epic defence of Arnhem Bridge during Operation MARKET GARDEN in September 1944.

In addition to the paratroops were a detachment from No. 12 Commando (to provide security as the group departed by sea) together with Royal Engineers who were to dismantle the equipment under the guidance of Flight Sergeant Charles William Hall Cox, RAF a former cinema projectionist. (6)

At one point Cox (who previous to the mission never been on a ship nor an aircraft – let alone made a parachute jump) was working under fierce enemy fire when a bullet struck the item he was removing at the time. (7)  He would receive the Military Medal for his actions on the raid. (8)

Having been landed by air and with cover from the French Résistance the raiding party made their way to the beach amid fierce German opposition and experienced further difficulties getting away. However the Royal Navy eventually managed to get the waiting landing craft to the beach and with fast motor torpedo boats (MTBs) as escorts made their way back to England. (9)

Casualties were light on both sides with the British force of 120 experiencing two dead, two wounded and six captured. The Germans (with a similar sized force) had five men killed, two wounded and five missing – including two taken as prisoners to England. (10)

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A WÜRZBURG radar in the Second World War Gallery, IWM London near the forward fuselage of an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber. Image © R Maddox 2018. 

The raid gave scientists at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (who had developed the British CHAIN HOME radar system) an indication of German radar technology and influenced the design of ‘WINDOW’ (or ‘CHAFF’ as it is now called) a simple but effective weapon to flood enemy radar with information and thereby ‘hide’ attacking aircraft in plain sight.

There is little doubt that it helped save the lives of untold aircrew as the war progressed.

As a consequence of the Bruneval raid the TRE site was moved from Swanage on the English south coast inland to Malvern in Worcestershire.

 

Sources and further information

(1)  https://danesfieldhouse.co.uk/concierge/history

(2)  http://www.ventnorradar.co.uk/Germ.htm

(3)  ‘Most Secret War – British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945’ Professor R V Jones (Hamish Hamilton, 1978). Chapter Twenty-six, ‘Würzeburg’ – Page 231.

Twenty eight year old Squadron Leader Hill, DSO, DFC and Bar, RAF would die on 12 November 1942 from injuries after being shot down on 21 October while photographing bomb damage to the Schnieder armaments works at Le Creusot, France.

According to his book, Jones arranged for him to be rescued from hospital by the French Résistance but he died while being carried to a waiting aircraft.  He is buried les Pejoces Communal Cemetery Dijon France, see https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2685975/hill,-antony-eustace/

The National Portrait Gallery in London has a photographic portrait of him. See https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw227695/Antony-Eustace-Hill

The aircraft he was flying on the Bruneval raid – Supermarine Spitfire PR IV serial R7044 – would be lost in the hands of another pilot (Warrant Officer William John Payne) on a photo-reconnaissance mission over Norway on 13 January 1943.

See http://610squadron.com/wwii_pilots/ and ‘Aces High: A Further Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Air Forces in WW II’ by Christopher F Shores (Grub Street, 1999) Volume 2 – Page 155.

See also https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=fKV2BQAAQBAJ&pg=PA155&lpg=PA155&dq=spitfire+r7044&source=bl&ots=nMnzdEn7Gk&sig=XQ2IgFVKBdyHFaoJpXUSKshRj1k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiE24G5z-baAhVLJ8AKHQIuCqkQ6AEIUjAJ#v=onepage&q=spitfire%20r7044&f=false

(4)  ‘Most Secret War – British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945’ Professor R V Jones (Hamish Hamilton, 1978). Chapter Twenty-six, ‘Würzeburg’ – Page 231.

(5)  Proceedings of the Royal Air Force Historical Society, Issue No 10,

‘Photographic Reconnaissance in World War II’ Seminar, Royal Air Force Museum, 10 June 1991 – Page 73

(6)  ‘Most Secret War – British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945’ Professor R V Jones (Hamish Hamilton, 1978). Chapter Twenty-seven, ‘The Bruneval Raid’ – Page 237.

(7)  http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/the-raid-on-bruneval-to-capture-german-radar/#addcomments

(8)  http://ww2talk.com/index.php?threads/bruneval-flight-sergeant-cox.58076/ Flight Sergeant Cox was awarded a Military Medal for his part in the operation. His citation reads:

This N.C.O. volunteered to carry out a hazardous task in the parachute raid on Bruneval on the night of 27th/28th February 1942. The success of the operation on the technical side depended largely in the performance of the duty allotted to him. After being dropped by parachute, Flight Sergeant Cox had only a few minutes to complete a task which had previously been estimated to require half an hour, and during this time he continuously was under enemy fire. He displayed great courage, skill and devotion to duty in completing his task in spite of these difficulties, thereby contributing greatly to the successful execution of the raid.

(9)  http://www.dday-overlord.com/en/d-day/preliminary-operations/biting-bruneval-raid

(10)  http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/the-raid-on-bruneval-to-capture-german-radar/#addcomments

‘The Window Woman’ post on this blog gives more information on the development of WINDOW.