Britain Pulled Out All The Stops To Expose Nazi Germany's New Radar System

May 3, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIRadarIntelligenceEspionageMilitary

Britain Pulled Out All The Stops To Expose Nazi Germany's New Radar System

The Bruneval Raid was crucial to gathering information on a new and dangerous German radar system.

On his first wartime visit to London, Renault had met the Free French commanding general, Charles de Gaulle, who flattered him by assigning him as Allied intelligence’s eyes and ears for the entire French Atlantic coast. One of Renault’s early spy recruits was one Roger Dumont, an embittered officer of the recently defeated French Air Force.

Code-naming his new man “Pol,” Renault assigned him to keep close and vital tabs on Luftwaffe activity throughout the region. Dumont quickly informed Renault of a suspiciously well-guarded German radio installation just north of Bruneval. When Renault passed this information on to London, the British intelligence chiefs were very interested and commenced laying plans for the commando raid.

In Le Havre another of Remy’s agents, a mechanic code-named “Charlemagne,” was the purpose of Remy’s flight to England. Charlemagne’s real name was Charles Chauveau, and Remy was ordered to assign him the task of chauffeuring Pol from Paris to the coastal area near Le Havre so he could study the area and draw maps to be used to prepare for the coming raid.

When the two spies were examining the installation, they noticed the guards were awfully bored and not at all vigilant. They also saw a German enter the compound by pulling open a camouflaged door in the barbed wire perimeter and, showing no sign of caution, walk into the building across a stretch of open ground surrounded by “CAUTION: MINEFIELD” signs. After noting the guards’ blasé attitude, the location of the hidden entrance, and the bogus minefield, they examined the adjacent beach.

Careful to visit at low tide, they could see there were no anti-landing-craft obstacles that would be submerged at high tide, when the commandos would be coming in order to have a shorter distance to cover from the water’s edge to the radar post. After leaving the beach they visited a nearby black market restaurant Charlemagne knew of, and Pol studied the register and wrote down the names of all the higher-ranking German officers stationed in the area. By sending these names to London, Allied counterintelligence could learn from earlier obtained lists the designations and quality of the Wehrmacht units guarding the installation.

Meanwhile, a young physical chemist named F. Charles Frank, on loan to the RAF from Aberdeen University’s College of Natural Philosophy, was working on the project. While looking over a batch of recon photos of installations of the Germans’ older Freya radar sets, he saw something else interesting. There was an isolated house near the Freya installation. This structure was presumably quarters for the radar station’s guards, but there was an intriguing little path that led south from the house to the radar installation and veered to one side to pass next to a small black dot before continuing on to the radar shack. It was not big enough to identify, but the fact that the path connected the dot to the barracks indicated it was something important. When Frank reported this to his immediate superior, Professor R.V. Jones, also of Aberdeen University, Jones and his colleague on the project, mathematician Claude Wavell, ordered more photos taken of this intriguing dark speck.

These pictures led Wavell to conclude that this inauspicious looking dot might be the source of the 570-megacycle pulses that were responsible for the steadily increasing bomber losses over Germany. Information from this surreptitious set, which the Germans called Wurzburg, was being transmitted to the receiving stations in Berlin and Vienna, from where it was sent to coastal fighter airfields to vector aircraft to the British bomber formations.

Jones passed this information on to Lord Frederick Cherwell, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser, and from that point the raid on Bruneval began to take shape.

As data on the target arrived, C Company assigned code-names to the assorted aspects of the objective and the area surrounding it. The enemy beach defenses were designated Beach Fort, Redoubt, and Guard Room. The isolated house near the set became Lone House, a nearby farm was Rectangle, and the Wurzburg radar was Henry.

“The Raid is on For Tonight”

Frost reviewed his orders: “To capture various parts of Henry and bring them down to the boats. To capture prisoners who had been in charge of Henry. To obtain all possible information about Henry and any documents referring to him which may be in Lone House.”

Frost’s commando team would be divided into three 40-man sections, each group with its own distinct assignments. The units would jump at five-minute intervals, with the first 40 men parachuting at 12:15 am.

This 40 would move as quickly as possible to the beach. When Frost gave them a signal from his position slightly inland, they were to take Redoubt, Beach Front, and Guard Room, thus securing the company’s route from the objective to the beach. As soon as their area of responsibility was secured and swept for mines, they would signal the Royal Navy elements offshore that the raid was under way and the line of retreat was established. This aspect of the operation was perhaps the most crucial simply because it was impossible to be sure how many Germans would be manning the defenses after midnight, whether they would be surprised, or their quality and resolution.

The second 40-man element was to establish a defense line west of Rectangle to guard against enemy counterattacks on Henry and Lone House. They would also surround Henry and Lone House and then work on dismantling and bagging as much of Henry as possible.

The last 40 men would serve as a screen inland of the radar installation as a reserve in case help was needed by one of the other groups and to be a rear guard as the entire company withdrew to the beach.

As in any commando operation, speed was essential. All men would deploy as quickly and silently as possible. Due to darkness, Frost would be unable to tell for sure when his men were in position, but when he estimated it had been long enough he would signal for the attack to begin by sounding four blasts on his whistle. The drop zone was east of a dirt road east of the objective and running north to south. A nearby tree line would serve as an assembly point.

The raid was scheduled to commence during the predawn of Tuesday, February 24, 1942, but immoderate weather forced repeated postponements. At noon on Friday the 27th, Browning personally arrived at Frost’s headquarters in the Channel coast town of Tilshead and handed down the word from 1st Airborne Division headquarters: “The raid is on for tonight.”

That afternoon the Prins Albert took on her regular crew plus 32 Welsh commandos who would secure the beach departure point after Frost and his men completed the mission. Two destroyers and five motor gunboats escorted Prins Albert. The gunboats each packed two two-pounder cannon, four half-inch Vickers machine guns firing a mixture of tracer and armor-piercing cartridges, and four depth charges in case of enemy submarine contact.

At 9:52 pm in freezing, inky blackness, Prins Albert lowered six commando-laden landing craft into the cold Channel waters. Each vessel carried its regular Navy crew and four soldiers armed with Bren guns who would provide cover should the commandos be pursued to the beaches after the mission. Her task done, Prins Albert headed home.

The gunboats and landing craft then closed on the French coastline. There was a bright moon, good visibility, and little wind so far, but the wind was forecast to pick up uncomfortably early in the morning.

Frost and his command leaped into the night and touched down, but not all was well. Two of the 10-man light assault sections, composed entirely of Scotsmen and commanded by Lieutenant E.C.B. Charteris, were missing. Their planes had strayed off course and dropped them a mile and a half to the south, just east of the town of L’Enfer.

After waiting a few minutes, Frost realized he could delay no longer. He led his 40 men toward the Lone House to commence dismantling Henry. To their astonishment they found the door wide open and the structure’s ground floor unoccupied. The Wurzburg radar was unguarded.

As several of his men crowded inside and surrounded the apparatus, Frost stayed outside long enough to sound four piercing blasts on his whistle. Seconds later a solitary, half-asleep German on the second floor began firing his Mauser down the stairwell at the Britons around the radar set. Three commandos rushed onto the stairs and, as he was clumsily working his rifle’s bolt action, riddled him with their Bren guns. These three then searched the rest of the building and were amazed to find it empty.

Lieutenant Peter Young led a group of commandos in a charge against the radar dish and quickly overran it. Most of the Germans fled without hesitation, but the British managed to take one prisoner who had no desire to be a martyr. He quickly told Frost’s interpreter that he was part of a Luftwaffe communications regiment, just the kind of prisoner Frost was supposed to take; that about 100 of his regimental comrades were bivouacked at Rectangle; and that, although they were armed with small arms and mortars, as signalers they were not experts in their weapons’ usage.