Chapter 8: Bag and Baggage
‘Special mention’, says Eisenhower in his despatch, ‘must be made of the great assistance given us by the French Forces of the Interior in the task of reducing Brittany. The overt resistance forces in this area had been built up since June around a core of Special Air Service (SAS) Troops of the French 4th Parachute Battalion to a total strength of some 30,000 men. On the night of 4th/5th August the Etat-Major was despatched to take charge of their operations. As the Allied columns advanced, these French forces ambushed the retreating enemy, attacked isolated groups and strong-points and protected bridges from destruction. When our armour had swept past them, they were given the task of clearing up the localities where pockets of Germans remained, and of keeping open the Allied lines of communication. They also provided our troops with invaluable assistance in supplying information of the enemy’s dispositions and intentions. Not least in importance, they had, by their ceaseless harassing activities, surrounded the Germans with a terrible atmosphere of danger and hatred which ate into the confidence of the leaders and the courage of the soldiers’.
In this passage the Supreme Commander describes the culmination, in but one province of France, of more than three years of dangerous effort and patient planning for the day when the armies of Britain would return once more to the Continent of Europe, and with their American comrades achieve the overthrow of Germany. Nineteen hundred and forty had seen the fortunes of France fall as low as they have ever reached in her long history; yet by 1944 she had made a recovery all the more remarkable when it is remembered that most of her citizens and, after November, 1942, all of them, had been living under the proud foot of a conqueror whose methods of control were as severe as they were comprehensive. For the great majority this was regarded as a test of fortitude which they passed with flying colours; so that when the time came they were able to turn with fury upon their oppressors, and in so doing to render very great services to the Allies when at last they arrived.
The French were helped in their resistance and in the work of preparing for the day of liberation by two British organizations, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was concerned with acts of subversion and sabotage, and the Special Air Service (SAS) whose members wore uniform and were in touch with the Maquis and the French Forces of the Interior. SOE and SAS in their turn depended in certain stages of their development and during many of their operations on the aid given by the air. As recorded in Volume I (Chapter XIII), by 1943, methods and procedure had become more or less standardized, and the pilots and crews of Nos. 138 and 161 Squadrons were experts in the dropping and picking up of SOE and other agents, and the rescue of persons with qualities or information of value to the Allies. They had also been employed in dropping supplies to groups of Resistance workers pursuing their dangerous avocations throughout Western Europe. Towards the end of 1943 it became obvious that these two squadrons alone could not hope to meet the growing demands from the field. All over Western Europe the number of resistance groups was increasing and their appetite for supplies becoming correspondingly larger. Stirling aircraft of No. 3 Group were therefore allocated to these duties and were shortly reinforced by two United States Liberator squadrons which became fully operational by the end of February, 1944. By then the Prime Minister, always quick to appreciate the importance in warfare of the unusual, ordered an increase in the volume of supplies despatched to France from the United Kingdom and from Blida in North Africa, whence No. 624 Squadron, reinforced for a time in its turn by American bombers, had been carrying out similar operations. Additional aircraft were allotted to these operations from No. 3 Group and also from No. 38 Group. New bases, mostly in Southern England, were made temporarily available until the squadrons on Special Duty work were flying from fourteen airfields as well as from Tempsford, their permanent base. After ‘D Day’ their operations took on a less clandestine appearance and as many as seventy-two aircraft flying by day, with an escort of fighters, were able to drop their loads in the same spot. From Tempsford alone, between April, 1942, and May, 1945, about 29,000 containers, 10,000 packages and 1,000 agents were delivered to France and Western Europe. The containers—many of the later models were made by the South Metropolitan Gas Company—held 220 lb. of stores and were carried in the bomb bays, the packages were stowed in the fuselages, and with both the limiting factor was not weight but bulk. In these were cast down to the eager hands of resolute men a great variety of stores. Prominent among them were
small arms of every kind from pistols to PIATs1 with the appropriate ammunition. Hardly less important were explosives for the work of sabotage, food, clothing, wireless equipment, medicines and, grimmest of all, poison pills for those who, if captured, feared that they might not be able to endure the excruciating tortures which were so prominent a feature of interrogation by the Gestapo. Among the less usual items delivered were two hundred bottles of printer’s ink, none of which were broken, though the speed of descent of the containers was twenty-eight feet a second. In the later stages of the war, petrol and oil were dropped in considerable quantities.
In 1943, great efforts were made to make use of EUREKA beacons for the marking of dropping zones. Towards the end of the year a system of ‘depots’ was adopted in France controlled by permanent Reception Committees who kept watch for aircraft which had not been able to find their primary target. In this way many valuable cargoes, though they may not all have reached their original destination, were saved from the enemy and put to good use by the Resistance Movement. In this year, too, a specially trained controller, with a grid system of beacons under his direct supervision, was put into France and proved of the greatest value.
As the war went on, lights to mark dropping zones, though used to the end, proved more and more unsatisfactory. Not only did they endanger the lives of the Reception Committee but they were often hard to see. ‘There were two cardinal points’, says Flight Lieutenant Lord Decies, rear gunner of an Albemarle, supplying the Maquis in the early months of 1944: ‘first, at all costs, to find the dropping zone, and by finding it I mean make absolutely certain that it was the right dropping zone and not some other dropping zone or a dummy one laid out by the Germans; and secondly, to make quite certain that we received the right signals from the ground. It was, on occasion, a great temptation to drop the containers when you saw any sort of light flashing, because there were always night fighters about and you naturally did not wish to remain in the area longer than was necessary’.
S-phones, by which it was possible for the man on the ground to speak to the pilot or navigator in the air, were tried, but difficulties of language made their usefulness problematical. On one occasion, however, this was not so. A supply aircraft was searching, apparently in vain, for a Reception Committee in the Bordeaux area. At last the rear gunner saw their signals, and called out over the inter-comm.,
‘There they are. What bloody awful lights’. The reply of the receiving officer on the ground came back at once over the S-phones. ‘So would yours be’, he said, ‘if the Gestapo were only a mile away from you’. Before the necessity was over, there were more than 5,500 dropping grounds in France and Yugoslavia, beside those in Norway and other occupied countries. The choosing of suitable zones was greatly helped by air photographs interpreted at Medmenham, whose staff saved many lives. The Norwegians’ were extremely good at marking the dropping zones and at giving the correct signals from the ground’. This was fortunate, for aircraft of Nos. 3, 38 and 46 Groups, on missions to that far distant land of mountain, mist and snow, had but a brief half-hour in which to find the zone before shortage of petrol made return essential.
Warning that a supply drop was to be made was given out by the BBC with the French news. So cryptic a phrase as ‘Adolf a deux sous’ sent brave men and women out into the night with torches and their lives in their hands. In 1943, out of 1,349 Special Duty sorties to France, 615 were successful from the United Kingdom and 578 tons of supplies and arms were dropped. In 1944 these figures rose very sharply to 2,995 successful sorties with a delivery of 5,122 tons. The losses in aircraft were 19 in 1943 and 54 in 1944. The greatest effort before the summer of that year was that made in the previous autumn when, during August and September, the infant Maquis of High Savoy received 10,000 sten guns, 2,600 pistols, 20,000 grenades and 18 tons of high explosives. To drop this quantity the Royal Air Force crews made a sortie every other night. The Special Delivery sorties numbered 5,634 in four years from the United Kingdom. 293 men were brought into France and 559 taken out.
The results of this and other aid were gratifying. Among the numerous acts of sabotage committed as the direct result of SOE aid brought by the Royal Air Force may be mentioned the burning of fourteen million litres of alcohol at Saint L’Aumont, the destruction of a thousand tons of rubber in the Michelin works at Clermont Ferrand, the virtual destruction of the Hispano-Suiza works at Tarbes, and grave damage to the transformer station at Le Creusot. The River Saone was closed twice, the Rhine-Marne canal once. There were also the BLACKMAIL operations, as they were called, in which the workers, in return for a promise not to bomb their factory, themselves put it out of action. This occurred in several places, the most notable being the Le Peugeot factory which was totally idle for a month and seventy per cent, idle for six. The Cheminots were also active, and on being assured that Fighter Command would not attack their locomotives—thus occasioning heavy loss of life—if they
took a hand, did so with such effect that, until the railway interdiction programme opened in the months immediately preceding ‘D Day’, they had been able to destroy more locomotives than had the fighters.
As with weapons and stores, so with men. No. 161 Squadron, originally formed by Wing Commander E. H. Fielden out of the King’s Flight, and subsequently commanded by Wing Commander P. C. Pickard, afterwards killed in the attack on the gaol at Amiens, began its delivery of agents and Resistance leaders to France and its recovery of them with Lysanders, reinforced later by Lockheed Hudsons, the first needing six hundred yards to land and take off, the second a thousand. The average length of time spent on the ground was three minutes. Hazardous though this work was, losses were very small, only two Lysanders falling to return in four years’ operations. The special training given to both agents and crews and the very high degree of skill displayed were the main factors in maintaining such a low rate of casualties. An elaborate ‘drill’ was worked out and enforced. When it was not, as for example, when the Hudson of Flying Officer Affleck was bogged in soft ground and had to be pulled out, an operation successfully accomplished in three hours of desperate toil by all the inhabitants of a French village, three horses and two oxen, disaster was only just avoided.
On the night of 11th/12th July, 1944, a ‘Pick-up’ by two Lysanders of No. 624 Squadron from Corsica was fraught with the utmost danger for much the same reason. Though they received no signals from the ground—the Reception Committee had not been warned owing to a break-down in communications—the pilots decided to land by the light of the moon and their own navigation lights. They did so, but one Lysander ran into rough ground and was damaged. Seeing what had happened, a farmer nearby hid the passengers, helped the two pilots to take off in the flyable Lysander, and set fire to the other. When it was burnt out, he rang up the police and told them that an aircraft had crashed on his land and been utterly destroyed. Being good Frenchmen, they believed him.
SOE agents also helped pilots and crews evading captivity to pass through France or arranged for them to be picked up. Several hundred airmen, British, Canadian, Australian and American, were so aided between 1943 and the end of the war. There were, in addition, many who were guided to safety by devoted French, Belgian and Dutch men and women. An elderly dressmaker of Toulouse and her assistant, a business man, a fashionable young wife in the Pau smart set, a Belgian schoolmistress now trying to shake off the tuberculosis contracted at Ravensbrück, the two Belgian journalists who ran the black market in Biarritz for the Germans, the Basque
mother and daughter who, week after week, hid the escaping airmen beneath the floorboards of the dining room in which the Feldgendarmerie who had taken over their hotel in St. Jean de Luz ate their meals, were but among the legion of brave men and women of all classes, ages, creeds and political convictions who repaid a thousandfold the efforts of the Allied air forces to free them from the yoke of Germany. Altogether they enabled some three thousand pilots and members of aircrew to return to the fight and many thousands more belonging to other Services to reach England where they could take up arms in the common cause. Their deeds shed glory upon them and upon their race, for they were of that staunch breed for whom the word ‘defeat’ has no meaning, the fine flower, who in the agony of humiliation, of ruin, which fell upon their countries in 1940 and lay like a cloak of night upon them for four long years, still contrived to hold their heads high. Though their feet might be in the gutter, their gaze was upon the stars.
Among the SOE agents who laboured in such perilous circumstances to contribute to the Allied victory the sixteen officers of the Royal Air Force and the ten members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force must not be forgotten. Among the men, Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas, who carried out three missions to France, survived the horrors of Buchenwald and lived to receive the George Cross, was outstanding. Such Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officers as C. P. Cornioley, B. Y. Cormeau, M. O’Sullivan, P. Latour, L. Rolfe, A. M. Walters, S. A. Sturrock and others risked death by torture to carry on the work. In only too many cases the forfeit was paid. Some were awarded the MBE, Military or Civil Divisions.
France was not alone among the occupied countries of Europe to receive help from SOE and SAS Holland, in the spring of 1943, saw a group of clandestine organizations in existence and at work. The task of the Royal Air Force of bringing them supplies was so hazardous owing to the strength of the German defences that for several months all operations had to be cancelled. In 579 sorties, twenty aircraft were lost, and though this may seem a low figure, it was in fact very high considering the small number of aircraft used.
Aircraft losses over Belgium were lower than over Holland, but higher than in France. The Belgian Resistance Movement received 350 containers from the Royal Air Force in 1943, and out of 62 sorties flown in May of that year 32 were successful, a high percentage. In Norway, in addition to supplying arms, Royal Air Force aircraft carried some of those who so successfully attacked the Norsk Hydro ‘Heavy Water’ plant in March, 1943, and thus ruined Germany’s chances of being first in the field with the atomic bomb.
By 1943, flights to Poland, though of great length and hazard, had been made many times. They were continued, but since the aircraft had to pass through areas where German night fighters were especially active, the risks, far from diminishing, increased. It was, therefore, decided to operate SOE aircraft from the Mediterranean theatre, and accordingly No. 1575 Flight—raised in 1943 to squadron level as No. 624—No. 1586, the Polish Flight, and No. 148 Squadron were based on Blida, Derna and Tocra in North Africa and in 1944, airfields in Italy were also used when necessary. Bari was used, and on occasion Foggia, but Brindisi became the main base. From these airfields all the Balkan countries as well as Southern France, Czechoslovakia and, towards the end, Austria and Germany itself, were visited by Royal Air Force aircraft freighted with agents, resistance leaders and supplies. The attempts to deliver arms to the Poles in Warsaw in August and September, 1944, were largely frustrated by the USSR. For this reason, and because of the great distances involved, the Polish Underground Army could not be adequately supplied from the air. Out of eighty-five Special Duty sorties flown by the RAF from England in 1943 sixty were successful.
The largest in scope and the most successful operations were those directed to the Balkans, especially to Yugoslavia. To this country 8,640 successful sorties were flown, 16,469 tons of arms, ammunition, food and other supplies conveyed, 2,500 persons landed and 19,000 removed by British, American, Italian and Russian aircraft.
While Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Commands of the Royal Air Force could, and did, report immediate results—the delivery of so many tons on an industrial area, the shooting down of so many fighters, the sinking of a U-boat—the squadrons on Special Duty Operations had no such comparatively simple means of assessing success or failure. They were a Transport unit of a special kind, it is true, and the explosives they carried were not in the form of bombs. Armies, even those which are secret, must be given supplies or they cannot remain in the field. They must also be assured of means of communication. All these to a greater or lesser extent were furnished by the Royal Air Force, who acted as the uncommon, but most welcome, carrier of necessities without which the agents on the ground would have been virtually powerless. To the Royal Air Force, therefore, a certain but definite measure of recognition is due for the many acts of sabotage which its pilots and their crews helped to organize by delivering the persons and the material by whom and which they were performed. The technical efficiency displayed by the Special Duty squadrons, especially in navigation, was very
remarkable. An exact pin-point had, on almost every occasion, to be discovered. Though it was in the heart of country occupied by an alert enemy, the drops had to be made from a certain height with the greatest accuracy if the containers or, worse still, the agent, were not to be set down far away from a Reception Committee whose members waited for them at the risk of their lives. Between 1942 and 1945, in round figures, 6,700 persons of eighteen nationalities were dropped or landed in Europe, and 42,800 tons of supplies conveyed to their correct destination in 22,000 sorties, many by American pilots and crews. It was no mean achievement.
Nos. 138, 148, 161 and 624 Squadrons, and the rest who performed Special Duty Operations, belonged to one kind of transport organization. Another, less dangerous, but equally important, was that controlled by Transport Command. On 19th February, 1943, the Air Council reviewed the existing organization of air transport and reached the decision that a radical change was necessary. Up till then Ferry Command had been responsible for bringing American aircraft for the use of the Royal Air Force across the Atlantic and to Africa. How it operated has been described in Volume II (Chapter VIII). The Command also took a hand in the delivery of aircraft to Australia and India, and bore supplies to bases in far-off Labrador, Greenland and Newfoundland. By February, 1943, it was flying some 66,000 hours a month and the pilots and crews were ferrying every kind of aircraft. One of the groups—No. 44—controlled in flight all non-operational aircraft approaching or leaving the United Kingdom to the south and west for approximately 1,000 miles. This group received, prepared and despatched aircraft reinforcements from the United Kingdom, trained crews for air transport duties, and also operated Nos. 24, 271, 510 and 511 (Transport) Squadrons, based in Britain. No. 216 (Transport and Ferry) Group performed similar duties in the Middle East and Africa, as did No. 179 Wing in India. In addition to these Royal Air Force organizations, there was the British Overseas Airways Corporation, which maintained, with a somewhat motley fleet of aircraft, services to Canada, Portugal, Sweden, West Africa, South Africa, the U.S.S.R. and India. The policy governing its operations was laid down by the Air Minister on the advice of the Director General of Civil Aviation.
For the first three and a half years of the war, British air transport was, it is true to say, conducted by a variety of bodies, acutely short of aircraft, and maintaining themselves by a system of more or less successful improvisation. Not until a larger number of suitable aircraft were produced could matters be placed on a more rational basis. The opportunity came early in 1943, when about ninety
York aircraft, a transport version of the Lancaster bomber, became available. Accordingly, on 25th March of that year, Transport Command came into being and was placed in the capable hands of Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, who set up his headquarters at Harrow. The new command was made up of No. 44 Group in the United Kingdom, No. 45 Group (up till then Ferry Command) in Canada, with two Wings, one, No. 112, operating over the North Atlantic, the other, No. 113, over the South, No. 216 Group in the Middle East and No. 179 Wing in India. Its relations with the British Overseas Airways Corporation, with which it was to work in close co-operation, were settled by the end of March.
Expansion of the activities of the command began at once, and by the beginning of 1945, Nos. 46 and 47 Groups had been added to those in Britain, and No. 229 in India to fulfil the requirements of the South East Asia Command. Transport Command stations were by then dotted all over the Allied world. They numbered thirty-six, and the aircraft of the squadrons and flights using them flew along between staging posts, of which the number rose to 100. They were the beads on the long string of communications running in every direction. In some, such as Bahrein, the ground staff sweltered in torrid heat, in other, in Goose Bay for example, intense cold was the enemy for many months of the year.
A young pilot making the crossing (of the South Atlantic) for the first time might well be excused a tremor of nervousness toward ... the first span of the Bridge, between Natal and Ascension Island. This island, which comes under the administration of the British Government at St. Helena, was visited by Captain Cook on his third voyage in May, 1775. The modern pilot is required to fly for fourteen hundred miles over the empty sea to find and to make a landing upon this precipitous and lonely place. The flight, moreover, must be made by night in order to arrive at first light. The reason for this—unique to Ascension Island—is the Wideawake birds, thousands of which live upon the rocks during the day. These birds, rather larger than gulls, spend the hours of darkness in flight and return in the early mornings. When disturbed they fly up in such dense flocks that they are a menace to aircraft. For years they had been under the attack of cats, once domestic and now wild, who make a hearty, if monotonous living out of them. Civilised man was forced to resort to egg picking parties to reduce them, and when that method of reduction was not quick enough, the Wideawake birds had to be bombed.
The distance, therefore, the small compass of the island, and the birds, might seem to add up to an extreme hazard for the pilot: but by careful navigation, by the use of radio aids and the ‘range’ station upon the island, and by the efficiency of the landing arrangements, the accident rate is so low as to be negligible.2
Nor were passengers neglected. The standard of comfort was not, perhaps, that of the British Overseas Airways Corporation, but the travellers were for the most part members of one or other of the Services and were glad enough to exchange the amenities of a troopship for the comparative luxury of a York or a Liberator.
‘Just under 1,400 miles is Accra, on the Gold Coast. It is a dull journey, insomuch as all that the traveller sees is ocean: but the sight of the steaming coast of West Africa is an adventure in itself to the passenger making the trip for the first time. Excellent light meals will have been served in the Liberator during her passage south and east. There is good company, for the captains and crews who regularly fly across the South Atlantic Bridge have seen much of the world and have a good story to tell. Flying over the beaches and waving palms which adjoin the airfield of Accra another continent is reached and with it another vista of the world-wide organization of Transport Command. The Atlantic is bridged north and south. The crew of the Liberator will return immediately with passengers, for a short rest in Florida before their next scheduled run. Under the hot sun of Africa Royal Air Force men are already at work on the deliveries.’
Ground staff formed the backbone of the new receiving organizations. Their first problem was to familiarise themselves with American-built aircraft which they were called upon to overhaul after an ocean crossing prior to a continental crossing. ‘I arrived in Accra’, writes a Flight Sergeant, ‘with twenty-three men in February, 1943. We came from the place known as the land of sweat and toil, so we thought we were in for fourteen days good rest, but we were not long in finding our mistake. ... On arrival we were told that we had to do fifty-hour inspections on Baltimores—planes we had heard of but never seen—and that was our first fix. Our next fix was that we had English tool kits which were no good on American planes, and on asking for American tool kits we were informed that there were none, but if we looked through the Baltimores we might find some belonging to the plane. So we got to work and found a few tools. By the time the day was finished we found that Accra was also the land of sweat and toil. One day Dakotas arrived. This was another aircraft we knew nothing about. Then we had our third change—Marauders’.
At every station and staging post Royal Air Force ‘tradesmen’ such as these were to be found, able to service and test all types of aircraft, of which many thousands passed through their hands before victory was won. Theirs was often a monotonous existence in places far removed from the bustle of Glasgow or Cardiff, the public
houses of Belfast, the clamour of the Old Kent Road or the tranquillity of the English countryside from which so many of them came. Yet their task was something new in the history of war, something of importance and merit. Their patience was great—it had to be—and if, as in only too many posts, their sole recreation was work and yet more work, the reward, at least for the imaginative among them, was greater than the toil. They were the servants of those who, as unmoved by rain, dust-storms, winds and thunder, as by sunshine, moonlight and fair breezes, had come nearer than any man yet born to emulating Puck’s boast to Oberon.
Very Important Persons, VIPs as they were called—to which, in the later stages of the war, was added the refinement VVIP—were carried by Transport Command, many of them by No. 24 Squadron flying Yorks and commanded by Wing Commander H. B. Collins. In York LV.633 he took the King to North Africa on 11th June, 1943, and on 22nd July, 1944, to Naples. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and other high personages were also conveyed in this and other aircraft which travelled as far as Teheran, Adana and Moscow. During the Moscow conference in October, 1944, a courier service to and from Northolt was maintained by No. 544 Squadron of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit at Benson, under Wing Commander D. W. Steventon, flying Mosquito XVI’s, fitted with drop tanks and stripped of armament and cameras.
Though the rate of loss due to weather or accident was very low, on occasion a York or a Liberator failed to arrive. On 1st February, 1945, York MW.116, of No. 511 Squadron, en route for Yalta, owing to a navigational error came down off Lampedusa. Four members of the War Office staff, four of the Foreign Office and one of Scotland Yard lost their lives. Some two months later Liberator AL.504, the famous ‘Commando’ which had several times carried the Prime Minister, disappeared in the South Atlantic on a flight to Canada via the Azores. All on board were lost, including Commander R. A. Brabner, MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Air, Sir John Abraham, Deputy Under Secretary of State at the Air Ministry, Mr. H. A. Jones, its Director of Public Relations and the Historian of the Royal Air Force and Air Marshal Sir Peter Drummond, the Air Member for Training. Altogether, aircraft of Transport Command flew more than a million hours between 1st April, 1943, and the end of the war.
In addition to Bowhill’s squadrons, the aircraft of the British Overseas Airways Corporation flew along their chosen routes. BOAC also operated a Return Ferry Service across the Atlantic,
and by 1943 this, which in 1940 had begun as an adventure by no means without peril, was a matter of routine. In 1943, too, a. similar service between India, Australia and South Africa was opened by Qantas3 Empire Airways, an associate company, in conditions of great, but in the circumstances exaggerated, secrecy, for the presence of aircraft in the air flying on a regular route cannot be long concealed. The flights made regularly between Western Australia and Ceylon, a distance of 3,513 miles over open sea, were the longest ever attempted and maintained by civil aircraft. Among those used were Catalinas converted in the workshops of the Corporation in the United Kingdom. In May, 1945, a new service, operated partly by Qantas and partly by the British Overseas Airways Corporation, brought Sydney within three and a half days of London.
A shorter but far more dangerous service, begun in 1941, was that maintained between Stockholm and London, a distance of some 800 miles across the North Sea and the Skagerrak, of which both sides were, by April, 1940, in the hands of the enemy. Not only were there most urgent diplomatic reasons why this route should be kept open, it also became the channel of supply to the United Kingdom of a commodity without which the operations of every aircraft of the Royal Air Force would have been seriously curtailed. Small and very accurate ball bearings, in the manufacture of which the Swedes excel, were an urgent and continued necessity. To these were later added supplies of a highly special tool steel, of watch springs for the maintenance of the watches of navigators, and certain electrical resistances obtainable only in Sweden, lacking which the railways in England could not have resumed operation after damage in air raids.
On the Stockholm run the unarmed BOAC aircraft had to fly continuously over a minimum of 250 miles of heavily defended areas in occupied territory, and without the navigational aids that safeguard civil flying. Between 1941 and VE Day more than 1,200 trips were made, of which nearly 500 were in 1944. The enemy was very well informed concerning this service, since he could watch all its comings and goings at the Stockholm airport. Squadrons of fighters were stationed along the last part of the route to shoot down the British aircraft. The Germans had radio-location posts along the Norwegian coast so that it was impossible for BOAC aircraft to escape detection.
Above and beyond all these dangers, weather conditions on the route were frequently appalling. Moreover, meteorological reports
were often many hours late and very erratic, so that pilots had to take off in almost complete ignorance concerning conditions of weather. Nevertheless, the service was not only maintained, but increased year by year. One aircraft is known to have been shot down, others disappeared in the enemy patrol areas, and must be presumed to have met a like fate.
In 1943 two passengers had to be flown to Sweden in a very great hurry, for their mission was to forestall a German attempt to secure the whole of the Swedish ball-bearing output, following the American raid on the factories at Schweinfurt. By then Mosquitos were in use, and two were modified to make it possible to carry a passenger in the bomb bay. They successfully accomplished their mission. Thereafter passengers were regularly carried in Mosquitos. Many of the captains and other members of the air crews were among the eighty servants of the Company to earn awards.
Neither the labours of the British Overseas Airways Corporation nor Transport Command came to an end with the end of the war, and both are still in full operation, the first in close competition with very efficient rivals, the second in conveying personnel and equipment for the Services, all over the world.
Immediately after VJ Day an Air Trooping Programme was initiated. So great was the importance of bringing back officers and men of all the services for return to civil life, that special efforts were made, and as high a proportion as half the aircraft of Bomber and Coastal Commands were temporarily transferred to Transport Command for this task.’ The air trooping programme said a letter from the Chief of the Air Staff to Air Marshal the Honourable Sir Ralph Cochrane, dated 16th September, 1945, ‘will make a real contribution to the economic revival of the country’.
This was still in the future. It is time to return to Europe to follow the activities of the air forces in the final advance to victory.