Operation Biting – Bruneval raid – February 1942

Operation Biting – Bruneval raid

Preliminary missions for the Operation Overlord

Location: Saint-Jouin-Bruneval

Date: Night from the 27 to the 28 February 1942

Allied unit: 2 Para Battalion

Outcome : Allied victory

The origins of Operation Biting

After the evacuation of Dunkerque from May to June 1940, the British secret services were very interested in the degree of advancement of the Germans in the field of radar technology in order to ensure, among other things, the safeguarding of the British territory . Indeed, with the support of advanced radar means, all movements of the Anglas would be anticipated and this aid could prove extremely paying if they came to lead a landing in the south of England. British air reinforcements could, for example, be countered even before they reach the area of operations.

Image : Le "Manoir des Falaises", situé près de Bruneval, et son radar Würzburg The “Manoir des Falaises”, located near Bruneval, and its Würzburg radar. Photo IWM

The information obtained by the Royal Air Force (RAF) reconnaissance aircraft as well as by the resistance (notably the network of the Confrérie Notre-Dame led by Gilbert Renault, known during the war as “Colonel Remy”, but also Charles Chauveau, a Haitian-born mechanic known as “Charlemagne” and aviation captain Roger “Pol” Dumont) find that the Germans built a major radar station located on the cliffs in Seine-Maritime between the towns of Bruneval and Of La Poterie-Cap-d’Antifer, a few kilometers west of Etretat. Facing the south coast of England, this station allows to measure the distance of the opposing aircraft, as well as their altitude and their orientation.

Image : Les deux modèles de radars présents à Bruneval : Würzburg (à gauche), Freya (à droite) The two radar models present at Bruneval: Würzburg (left), Freya (right). Photo: Bundesarchiv

The German radar system, which is of great interest to the English, is called Freya-Meldung-Freya (the aim of which is detection). Additional aerial photographs also reveal the presence of a “Würzburg” radar which is an artillery fire calculator: the combination of these two technologies makes it possible to locate the enemy while simultaneously directing the shots against him.

Image : Une autre photographie aérienne du "Manoir des Falaises" et du radar Würzburg Another aerial photograph of the “Manoir des Falaises” and the Würzburg radar. Photo: IWM

For the English and the Allies as a general rule, the control of this technology by their opponent has the effect of neutralizing any effect of surprise in the event of offensive, which can make all the difference in the battle. They felt it was urgent to be aware of any countermeasures that could eliminate the effectiveness of German radars in order to preserve this precious time. In order to achieve this, this technology (especially that of Würzburg) must first of all fall into their hands in order to be studied by a team of scientists led by Reginald V. Jones, an English expert in the field of military intelligence and Which specializes in radar technology.

The British Vice-Admiral Louis Mountbatten, who was appointed Head of Combined Operations in October 1941, then imagined a particularly risky raid to capture the German radar technology at Cap d’Antifer while believing its destruction.

As a result of the Germans’ installation of fortifications along the cliffs and, in particular, the outlets of the valleys, thus preventing a direct assault from the sea, the plan proposed by Lord Mountbatten on 8 February 1942 to the headquarters of the 1st Division British Air Force and the 38 Wing RAF Provides for the overnight drop of English parachutist commandos south of Cap d’Antifer, near the Manor of the Falaise, supported by French free air force aircraft. These paratroopers must seize German technologies and then exfilter themselves by the sea by means of speedboats of the Royal Navy who await them at the foot of the valley of Bruneval.

This initiative is one of the first inter-allied and joint operations preparing, at its scale, the organization of Operation Overlord: the landing of Normandy.

Mountbatten’s time to conduct the raid was February 1942: the weather conditions were slightly more favorable than in the months before and the troops were theoretically ready at that time. Since the tide must be rising and the moon must be full, this combination is possible from February 24 to 27, 1942.

Preparations for Operation Biting

119 English commandos are selected to carry out this particularly risky raid. At the command of Major John Dutton Frost, they formed company C of the 2nd Parachute Battalion and were divided into five strong assault sections of forty Commandos bearing the names of English Admirals (“Nelson”, “Jellicoe”, “Hardy “,” Drake “and” Rodney “). The naval detachment is composed of Australian seamen under the command of Commander F. N. Cook, while the squadrons belong to the 51st squadron of the R.A.F. (No. 51 Squadron R.A.F.) commanded by Percy Charles Pickard and Nigel Norman. Thirty-two English soldiers belonging to No. 12 Commando were embarked aboard the Australian stars to cover and then collect Frost and his men during the exfiltration phase. Four of the stars are armed by the Free French Naval Forces.

Image : Le Major John D. Frost, commandant les commandos anglais pendant le raid de Bruneval Major John D. Frost, commanding the British commandos during the Bruneval raid. Photo: IWM

Aerial photographs of the R.A.F. Are studied in detail and German installations reproduced in real size in England to allow a particularly realistic training for the commandos. The French resistance makes it possible to obtain information which is particularly important and essential for planning and conducting the operation: positions, quantity and fighting value of German occupants, fortified points and their possible weaknesses, the location of the technologies envied by the allies.

The German device of Bruneval is composed of three distinct parts: on the one hand the villa (Manoir de la Falaise) 91 meters from the cliff and where the radar information collection station is located A set of buildings housing the transmitters and the garrison of 100 soldiers responsible for the defense of the site, and finally the radars located between the cliff and the villa. The Germans also have an infantry section located to the north of Bruneval, which is responsible for protecting the area around the station by arming the bunkers defending maritime access as well as permanent patrols.

Image : Le Major John D. Frost, commandant les commandos anglais pendant le raid de Bruneval Instruction of a cadre of No. 51 Squadron R.A.F. with the men of No. 12 commando. Photo: IWM

Airmen, parachutists and sailors work together and each of them informs others of their optimal weather conditions to accomplish their mission: a high and clear ceiling for the air force, a nil or moderate wind for paratroopers, calm sea or slightly formed for the navy.

The commandos initially trained at Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire and then at Inveraray in Scotland where they conducted several crossing exercises on Loch Fyne. The parachutes of training follow one another for several weeks, day and night, at all the altitudes, in good weather as in an abundant rain. The co-ordination measures, which are particularly important in a combined action of this kind, are elaborated with the greatest care and detail.

A final exercise was carried out on February 23, 1942, four days before the planned start of the raid. This was a failure as the vessels to re-embark Major Frost’s commandos ran aground on sandbanks, About fifty meters from the beach and their crews do not manage to bring them closer together.

Image : Vestiges contemporains de l'emplacement de la station radar Freya, au nord de la villa
Remnants of the site of the Freya radar station, north of the villa. Photo: DR

Based on the information provided on the German device, Major Frost gives various missions to its five sections. “Nelson” is in charge of seizing the valley of Bruneval in order to secure the access to the sea. The sections “Jellicoe”, “Hardy” and “Drake” must seize the two radar stations and the villa. Finally, “Rodney” is the reserved element, able to intervene from its position located between the villa and the zone of jump.

Conduct of Operation Biting

Weather conditions that deteriorated from February 23rd to 26th, 1942, are improving as of Friday the 27th. It is this date that is stopped for the launch of the raid.

During the afternoon, the English commandos boarded the twelve Armstrong Whitworth Whitley aircraft of Flight 51 at Thruxton Airfield. Meanwhile, the Australian and British fleets begin their crossing of the Channel by a calm sea towards the cliffs of Cape Antifer. The English planes take off at 8.30 pm and take the same direction: the crossing passes smoothly, except when the planes arrive close to the coast. Taken under fire from the German anti-aircraft defense, they survive without damage and reach the “drop zone” (DZ) which is snow-covered. Beforehand, the French resistance cut the German telephone lines in order to prevent any reinforcement on short notice.

Image : Parachutage de commandos anglais depuis un appareil Whitworth Whitley English commandos dropped from a Whitworth Whitley aircraft. Photo: IWM

At 12.20 pm, on Saturday 29 February 1942, the commandos were dropped above the DZ with the exception of half of the “Nelson” section, parachuted too soon, three kilometers south of Bruneval.

Image : Peinture de Mariusz Kozik décrivant l'attaque de la villa par les commandos de Frost Painting by Mariusz Kozik describing the attack of the villa by the commandos of Frost. Image: Mr. Kozik

Without losing more time and after having recovered their equipment, the commandos reach the rallying point and then go towards their respective objectives.

The “Jellicoe”, “Hardy”, and “Drake” sections encircle the villa and, at the command of Major Frost, open fire: a German soldier, who retorts from one of the manor windows, is shot down by the commandos. Two others are taken prisoner and a rapid interrogation reveals that the bulk of the garrison is lodged in the interior. Nevertheless, some of them live in the set of buildings near the radar station.


Bruneval raid plan
(Click on picture to enlarge)

Image : Les vestiges contemporains de la villa appelée aussi "Manoir des Falaises" The contemporary vestiges of the villa also called “Manoir des Falaises”. Photo: DR

The latter, alerted by the first shots, moved towards the villa and responded in turn: one of the English commandos was killed during the exchanges of fire. For Major Frost, the situation deteriorates all the more as his men detect enemy vehicles heading towards the villa from the woods to the south. Moreover, its radio does not work: it is not able to have the connection with the other sections on the cover. He did not abandon his mission: his commandos were accompanied by Flight Sergeant C. W. H. Cox of the R.A.F. Charged with photographing and dismantling the Würzburg radar installation to transport it to Great Britain, which immediately set to work under an extremely fierce fire.

Once the sensitive equipment has been recovered by Cox and installed on trailers specially designed for this purpose, Frost can order the three sections near the manor to retreat towards the valleuse de Bruneval to carry out the exfiltration. The first part of the mission is a complete success, the second phase begins, under the pressure of enemy fire.

Image : L'itinéraire longeant la falaise jusqu'à la valleuse, emprunté par les commandos The route along the cliff to the valleuse, borrowed by the commandos. Photo: D-Day Overlord

On their way to the coast, the commandos were fixed by the firing of a German machine-gun which had not been destroyed by the “Nelson” section in charge of seizing the valleuse: it seriously injured a warrant officer of the company . Frost ordered the “Rodney” section and the “Nelson” section elements present in the area to reduce the opposing position while returning to the villa with the other elements. Indeed, the mansion is once again occupied by the German defenders and the English major wants to settle there until the route leading to the beach is secured.

Image : Tableau (librement inspiré par son auteur, inconnu) décrivant l'opération Biting Painting (freely inspired by its author, unknown) describing Operation Biting. Image: IWM

Meanwhile, the allied flotilla moored anchor off the cliffs. A spotlight on the heights of Antifer Cape repeatedly sweeps the shore in search of possible ships: it is destroyed by the shooting of one of the Australian stars. A German maritime patrol crosses the area and approaches only about 1.5 kilometers from the flotilla without detecting it. On several occasions, the Australians are persuaded to have been spotted and maneuver discreetly not to reveal themselves. They are now awaiting the commandos signal ashore.

Shortly before 2 am, the villa is again under allied control and the section “Nelson” has seized the various German positions prohibiting access to the valley of Bruneval. Frost ordered his units to break contact and head for the beach, this time for good. At 2:15 in the morning, the commandos are in front of the shore but they can not find the Australian commandos and sailors to re-embark. The section “Nelson” then places itself in front cover to the south while Frost pulls a white flare in the direction offshore at 2 hours 40: a few minutes later, the evacuation boats reach the beach while the Germans approach Dangerously from the cliff.

Image : Le débouché de la valleuse de Bruneval, lieu de récupération des commandos anglais The outlet of the valley of Bruneval, place of recovery of the English commandos. Photo: DR

Contrary to what was done during the exercises, the six landing craft presented themselves simultaneously on the beach to embark the commandos: during the exercises, only two boats appeared at a time. But this method has not been entirely satisfactory, this last-minute decision is chosen. The crews support the maneuver and sweep the heights of the cliffs where the opposing soldiers crowd with their fire. But this change from the original plan (two boats at the same time) and the pressure from German fire caused a certain disorder on the beach and barges leave the shore half empty while others are overloaded with men and equipment.

Image : Récupération et évacuation des commandos anglais par les embarcations Recovery and evacuation of English commandos by boats. Photo: IWM

In spite of these difficult conditions, the sailors embark all the commandos, their prisoners and the valuable technological information on the German radars. They headed offshore where they were escorted to Great Britain by four destroyers as well as by Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes.

Image : Les hommes du No. 12 Commando à bord des MTB australiens The No. 12 Commando men aboard the Australian MTB. Photo: IWM

Assessment and consequences of the raid

Two English commandos are killed during the operation, three are wounded and six are taken prisoners. The Germans count for their part five killed, two wounded, two prisoners and three soldiers missing.

Image : Les hommes du No. 12 Commando : Frost est sur le pont, deuxième à partir de la gauche The men of No. 12 Commando: Frost is on deck, second from the left. Photo: IWM

On March 3, 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill interviewed Major Frost and several officers who participated in the preparation of the Bruneval raid. Nineteen medals are awarded including the Military Cross for Frost, the Distinguished Service Cross for Cook, and the Military Medal for Cox.

Image : Lord Mountbatten passe en revue les militaires ayant participé au raid de Bruneval Lord Mountbatten reviews the soldiers who participated in the Bruneval raid. Photo: IWM

The technological information provided by the equipment retrieved by the Flight Sergeant Cox and by the interrogation of a German technician make it possible to reassure British scientists that their adversaries are not as technologically advanced as the Allies and the mechanisms of their radars Are much simpler than those of their English counterparts. The British then tested an already developed countermeasure system called “Window”: they are simply aluminum strips that, when dropped by air, send out important echoes that mask or transform the real information. These data are checked on July 24, 1943 during Operation Gomorrah (bombing of the city of Hamburg in Germany): in parallel to the air attack, the bombers drop thousands of Windows which, due to the massive increase Of the number of echoes, blind the opposing radars.

The Bruneval raid provides additional information to the Allies: the network of barbed wire marking the radar station’s protection system is identical across the entire Atlantic wall, as indicated by the reconnaissance aerial photographs available to the British : Thus, most German stations are quickly identified and can be destroyed in a future air attack as part of the preparation for Operation Overlord.

In order to avoid a German retaliation attack, the British relocated their radar information processing center located at Swanage plus inland to Malvern.

This operation, which is a great success, intervenes after several months of waiting without major victory after the defeats of 1940-1941. This success reinforces Allied morale and highlights the use of paratrooper units: the British set up a training center for airborne troops in Derbyshire in April 1942 and decided to convert a number of infantry battalions into infantry battalions Paratrooper, thus creating the first British paratroop regiments.

The work of Lord Mountbatten’s teams in coordinating the different units in the combined operations provides many lessons for the Allies. This information is particularly useful insofar as new operations are envisaged, on the same or more important scale. They show the importance of the joint arms dialogue, of the necessary knowledge of the specificities of each and the primary role of intelligence, provided both by French resistance and air reconnaissance.

However, these lessons are still limited to small operations, with simple objectives and small numbers. It took another two and a half years and several other raids (such as that of Dieppe in August 1942) to ensure that one of the most important combined operations (in terms of objectives to be achieved and means deployed) Be achievable: Operation Overlord.

Today, two monuments commemorate the bold allied raid on the heights of the valley of Bruneval: a granite slab was inaugurated by General de Gaulle on March 30, 1947 in the presence of numerous veterans as well as 20,000 deportees, and one A monument more imposing, designed by André Malraux and designed by G. Chavigny, was installed in 1975. In 2012, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bruneval raid, a permanent exhibition in the form of a historical fresco describing the facts is installed.