Key point: The operation was very risky, but Churchill approved it. Here's how it went down.
Through the long, lovely days of the summer of 1940, Royal Air Force Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes turned back the might of the Luftwaffe over southern and southeastern Britain. The Battle of Britain was won by the professionalism and courage of a handful of young pilots, by just enough of two fine fighter aircraft, and by a sophisticated system of fighter direction.
At the heart of British ability to concentrate outnumbered fighter assets against the mass of German attackers lay radar, then a relatively unheralded device. Britain had the lead in radar development, but it was no secret that the Germans were working on it as well.
England and Germany Locked in Technology Race
The radar war had begun well before German troops invaded Poland in the fall of 1939. The Germans were intent on discovering whether Britain was developing radar, and if so, what its characteristics were. Accordingly, as early as July 1939, a German zeppelin was dispatched to hover off the English coast and listen in secret for electronic emanations that might give some clue. In this and subsequent flights, the Germans learned nothing, for they were looking for radar pulses on a wavelength entirely different from what the British were using.
For their part, the British were aware of German Seetakt,a maritime gunnery radar, and of a flak radar the Germans called Freya,after the Norse goddess of love and of the dead. Before the device was ever identified, the British had heard about Freya. Dr. R.V. Jones, the wizard of British radar, knew that in German mythology the goddess Freya had a magic necklace, guarded for her by the servant Heimdal, who could see for a hundred miles. Could the Germans, wondered Jones, have been so dense as to name a radar Freya for this reason? The answer was yes.
Measures and Countermeasures
The British developed the means to jam Freya,which in time had extended its range to about 75 miles. They could even feed it false data and translate the messages it was sending to night fighters and flak guns. By the end of 1941, however, it became apparent that the Germans had developed something more effective than the Freyageraet, for German flak and night-fighter defense had markedly improved. Royal Air Force losses increased to about 4 percent per raid, an unacceptable level. Wellington bombers on reconnaissance missions had picked up many emanations from some new device, and now British intelligence went to work to find out what the Germans were up to.
Reports from the French resistance, plus photographs by the PRU, the RAF Photo Reconnaissance Unit, suggested that a new radar apparatus had come into service. It was short range, only 20 miles, and it had a very narrow beam, but was very accurate indeed. And it could give the altitude of a target as well as its bearing, which Freya could not. It was made by Telefunken, and it was called WürzbergWhen one of these new devices appeared on a cliff some 12 miles north-northeast of Le Havre, the PRU set out to get a really good picture of it.
Aerial Reconnaissance Reveals New German Radar System
And so, in early December, Flight Lt. Tony Hill pushed his souped-up, unarmed Spitfire across the English Channel and took a superb set of aerial photographs. The results were clear. There it was, a thing that looked like a large dish, pointed across the Channel toward England. Just behind it stood a large, Victorian gingerbread villa, surrounded by fields.
The next step, of course, was to devise a countermeasure for this new radar, but to do that the British scientists needed to know more about the device. The best way to find out how it operated would be to examine it closely. Lord Louis Mountbatten, newly appointed head of Combined Operations, quickly came to the logical solution. If the scientific boffins needed to study the thing, the British would simply go over to France and steal them whatever they needed.
And so was born Operation Biting. While the concept was elementary—simple larceny—the execution was complex. In the first place, the objective sat on a very steep, 400-foot cliff at Cap d’Antifer, not far from a village called Bruneval. Getting there, Mountbatten decided, was best done by parachute … at night. The raiding party would be paratroopers, therefore, with an RAF radar technician going along. The RAF man would expeditiously denude the Würzberg of vital parts, while the paras fought off the enemy. Then the raiding party, carrying the booty, could be evacuated by sea.
A Difficult Heist Indeed
It did not look easy. About 400 yards away from the Würzberg and the gingerbread house, surrounded by a wood, stood a farm called Le Presbytère. It was known to be garrisoned, and there would surely be other German troops in the general area. At the base of the cliff below the German radar was a small cove with a beach, the way home for the raiders. A rugged track led from it, up a ravine to the top of the cliff, and on to the village of Bruneval. Partway up the track sat a villa called Stella Maris and a small hotel.
The Germans would be on guard and were well aware of possible danger from raiders. In March 1941 British commandos had struck the Lofoten Islands off Norway, destroying 800,000 gallons of oil and gasoline and sinking some 18,000 tons of shipping. They also brought out 300 loyal Norwegians, some German prisoners, and precious code wheels for the German Enigma encoding device. And just two days after Christmas two commando contingents landed at Vaagso on the Norwegian coast. In fierce fighting they had beaten up the German garrison and destroyed another 15,000 tons of shipping, fish-oil plants, dockyards, and other shore installations. There had also been a series of raids in North Africa, including a daring but unsuccessful raid to kill Rommel. After all of this, the Germans would surely be alert all along the French coast.
Nevertheless, Mountbatten’s daring scheme appealed to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who approved the idea, and the operation was on. Mountbatten’s headquarters borrowed C Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, then in training in Derbyshire. To the paras were added a troop of 12 Commando to cover the withdrawal to the beach, a Royal Engineer detachment, and the all-important RAF technician, a Flight Sgt. named Charles Cox. Cox volunteered for the mission, but he was not a parachutist, which got him a trip to the parachute training center at Ringway near Manchester.
The para company was commanded by a remarkable officer, Major John Frost. Frost came from an Army family, a graduate of Sandhurst, the British military academy, a rider and hunter. He joined his company at Tilshead Camp on Salisbury Plain and began to rehearse. Frost was a driver, pushing his men through the mud of Tilshead Camp with little time for anything but hard training and physical conditioning. Major General “Boy” Browning, the Guards officer who headed the British Airborne, inspected the strike force and told Frost to issue everybody a new uniform, for “that is the filthiest company I ever saw in my life.” Nevertheless, Browning, a strict disciplinarian, liked what he saw and directed that Frost be given whatever he wanted in equipment and supplies.
Real Objective Kept From Trainees
Frost’s men were joined by Lieutenant Dennis Vernon’s detachment of airborne Royal Engineers. Since the force would spend some of its rare free time in the town’s pubs, the paratroopers were told that they were training for an important demonstration, a practice attack on the Isle of Wight. Understandably, that notion aroused little enthusiasm within C Company, even after its men were told that if the demonstration went well a real raid into France might follow. Frost, of course, was soon told the real objective, but could not tell his men.
Also slated to go along on the raid was a soldier named Newman, a fugitive anti-Nazi German whose father had fled the fatherland for fear of the Nazis. Newman’s command of the German language might well be useful at Cap d’Antifer, and his English was perfect. He was a small, humorous, cosmopolitan man who seemed to have lived all over Europe. Frost was a bit uneasy about this unusual man, wondering whether he might be a German operative planted as a refugee by Hitler. But Mountbatten reassured Frost, and Newman would go along.
A Scotch Blend Complete With Bagpipes
While Vernon’s sappers were Englishmen, as he was, most of the infantry were Scots, largely men of the Black Watch and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Major Frost himself was an officer of the Cameronians. His executive officer, Captain John Ross, came from the Black Watch, as did Company Sgt. Maj. Strachan. Befitting its heritage, the unit—inevitably called “Jock Company”—even had its own piper.