The parachute of aptly named Major J.D. Frost cracked open in the freezing air high above the French Channel coast at 12:45 am, and he commenced drifting down through the moonlit gloom. It was light enough for him to pick out the landmarks he had memorized from countless reconnaissance photographs. A foot of fresh snow cushioned and muffled his landing. He checked his combat knife and American .45-caliber automatic pistol. They were still with him and in good order.
After the din inside the Whitworth Whitley bomber, the silence of the nocturnal French countryside in midwinter was deafening. While Frost’s soldiers touched down nearby, he disconnected the red locater light on the equipment canister that had landed next to him. He led his men to the cover of a nearby tree line and hoped the softly falling snow would cover their tracks before first light. Everything had gone smoothly. So far.
The Funk Messgerat
On January 21, 1942, Lord Louis Mountbatten, as the newly appointed commander of the Royal Navy Combined Operations Department, presented to the British Chiefs of Staff a proposal for a commando raid on a cliffside facility on the coast of German-occupied France. The Royal Air Force’s Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) had detected a suspicious installation that counterintelligence thought might house a new radar device British agents had heard of recently.
This revolutionary apparatus could supposedly lock onto a Lancaster, Wellington, or Stirling bomber with a narrow beam and unerringly guide Luftwaffe night fighters to it. A pilot flying a Spitfire specially adapted for reconnaissance had recently taken a priceless photo of a worrisome mechanism resembling a huge saucer standing on edge. It was set up on a seaside cliff just north of the French coastal village of Bruneval. English technicians desperately wanted to examine one of these machines and devise a means of counteracting it before it could be brought into widespread, destructive use.
On May 8, 1941, a Wellington bomber, designated a Ferret since it was adapted to home in on radar pulses, had detected the signature of an apparatus on the revolutionarily accurate range of 570 megacycles. London frantically adjured its espionage operatives on the Continent to learn all they could about this unexpected technical development.
The agents managed to learn that these new sets were called “FMG,” but did not know what these initials meant. It actually stood for Funk Messgerat (radio-measuring apparatus), and the spies managed to pass the news to London that four of the mysterious devices were operating in Vienna. This was so deep inside the Third Reich that these sets had to be receivers, absorbing data sent to them from other locations.
Devising the Raid on Bruneval
Late in 1941 someone calling himself a “well-wisher in the American Embassy in Berlin” managed to forward to London a most interesting photograph. The print showed a newly erected flak tower in Hitler’s capital. On top of the tower was a metal lattice aerial that looked like a saucer standing on edge. A few weeks later a Chinese scientist working in Berlin visited the U.S. embassy and confirmed the photographic report. He described the dish as 20 feet in diameter and parabolic shaped.
Mountbatten was confident one of these new radar sets could be grabbed by a commando unit and returned intact to Britain. He asked for a company of paratroopers, a section of airborne Royal Engineers, a couple of RAF radar mechanics, a squadron of Whitley bombers to ferry the commandos to France, and adequate naval elements to return them to England.
Bruneval is located in a huge ravine that ends in a cliff-encircled beach that PRU planes could meticulously map. In agreeable weather the beach seemed an acceptable spot for landing craft to pick up the special unit. Mountbatten quickly obtained approval for the operation and contacted the commander of the Army’s airborne forces, Maj. Gen. F.A.M. Browning, to recommend a unit for the project. Browning selected the newly formed 2nd Parachute Battalion (virtually all of the Army’s experienced outfits were already occupied), which was assembling at Hardwick Hall in the Midlands.
Frost had been serving in a conventional role as adjutant of the 2nd Parachute Battalion when the order came to send one company to Wiltshire on the Salisbury Plain, where it would receive training for a special assignment. The unit selected was C Company (also known as Jock Company), and Frost, who had just turned 30, was its commanding officer. He was to train separately from his men at the RAF parachute training center outside Manchester.
The Race for Radar
When Great Britain and Germany had independently discovered radar in the 1930s, neither country knew the other had it. It was the British who would need it first, and if they did little else to prepare for the coming conflict with the Third Reich they did perfect an aircraft early warning system. By the time war erupted they had developed radar to an extent beyond that of any country in the world, but the Germans still knew absolutely nothing about the United Kingdom’s sophisticated network of radio direction finding posts.
This did not mean that Nazi technicians, mindful of their Führer’s impatient expectations, toiled any less feverishly on their own technology. By late 1941 they had produced an apparatus that threatened the existence of the budding Allied strategic bombing offensive. Across the English Channel, the British military prepared to react to this peril.
Back in November 1940, an RAF reconnaissance aircraft had photographed a couple of odd-looking circular depressions in the Le Havre area. At first glance they looked like cow pens, but closer examination revealed they were no more than 20 feet in diameter. Further overflights confirmed they were flak pits; but what would the Germans have in this isolated area that needed protection from aerial attack?
The following February, British radio monitors picked up radar pulses on 120 megacycles. This banished the mystery of the cow pens. They were antiaircraft installations placed to protect a radar installation, and presumably the worrying 570-megacycle sets would also have to be in this area since it was the only route Allied bombers had for their runs into German-occupied Europe. The realization that Hitler had not only the most powerful air force in the world but also radar to forewarn it of approaching warplanes was sobering. Something had to be done.
Headquartered aboard the landing ship HMS Prins Albert, Jock Company spent January 1942 drilling intensively and frustratingly on the rocky, windswept, icy beaches of Loch Fyne on the Argyll coast. The company’s center of operations was the town of Inveraray, and the unit endured an agonizing training period. Practicing nocturnal landing and embarking in landing craft on the boulder-littered beaches was not only difficult but also dangerous in the crashing, freezing surf.
The tides seemed always to be flowing in the wrong direction, and when drilling on how to pick up the commandos after the raid the landing craft crews had great difficulty finding the dark-clothed commandos on the beaches at night and frequently did not see flashlight signals and flares from the men on shore.
Although the troops could not help but wonder about the quality of training they were receiving, there was no doubt it was at least preparing them for the worst. They figured the mission could not possibly be harder than the training.
The British were not the only Allies working hard to ensure the success of the coming assignment. In Paris a French spy code-named Bob was a crucial part of the operation. His real name was Robert Delattre, and on the evening of January 24, 1942, he received two coded transmissions from his control center in London and passed them on to his chief, Gilbert Renault, the legendary Allied spy who went by the cover name Remy. Aided by his wife, Edith, Renault decoded the message: “24.1.42 TO RAYMOND CODE A NO 49 need information indicated questionnaire message that follows stop … inform us within forty-eight hours delay necessary obtain this information observing following conditions firstly do not act yourself nor gravely risk members your organization secondly do not compromise success operation Julie stop…to deceive boches in event your agent taken he be ready to reply same question not only for place chosen but for three or four other similar places on coast stop to follow….”
Although his cover name was Remy, Renault was addressed as “Raymond” in coded messages. Operation Julie was his impending air trip to London to receive his next assignment. The evening’s communications continued: “24.1.42 TO RAYMOND CODE A NO 50 questionnaire first position and number machine guns defending cliff road at theuville repeat theuville on coast between cap antifer and saint jouin latter being seventeen kilometers north le havre secondly what other defenses thirdly number and state preparedness defenders stop … are they on qui vive stop … first class troops or old men stop … fourthly where are they quartered fifthly existence and positions barbed wire [message] ends.”