The Tempsford Special Duties Squadrons
For a quick overview of the history and work of Tempsford an article from
the Evening Standard of 16th June 1945 gives gives a clear and concise
R A F Fly-by-nights
Tempsford is just a hamlet in rural Bedfordshire. Its inhabitants mostly work on the land. And none of them knew it, but Tempsford held one of the biggest secrets of the war. They knew that down a little side road marked “This road is closed to the public” there was an R.A.F station. In the Anchor and the Wheatsheaf they saw the R.A.F. men. But that was all. They had no idea of the job they were engaged on.
Names of the pilots and crews who did the job cannot yet be revealed, except for one, he late W/Cdr P.C.Pickard D.S.O and two bars, D.F.C., the famous “Target for Tonight” pilot. When he left Bomber Command, Pickard commanded one of the two “SPECIAL MISSION” squadrons which the R.A.F. created as a link with the underground movements in all occupied countries. He was an expert in “pick-up” flights.
The R.A.F. began this branch of its work immediately after the fall of France – with one Flight of a Bomber Squadron of No. 3 group. By March 1942, Tempsford was in operation, and finally, two squadrons were being employed.
From Tempsford they delivered Arms, ammunition, radio sets, food and other supplies to all the underground fighters from the Arctic Circle of Northern Norway to the Mediterranean shores of Southern France.
From big bombers – Whitleys first and then Stirlings and Halifaxes, they dropped their parachute containers. Every kind of supply went down from skis and sleighs for the Norwegians to bicycles and bicycle tyres – made in England, but cleverly camouflaged with French names – to the resisters in Western Europe.
For three years the airfield, built over what had been a large area of marsh, was the air centre of the resistance movements of all Europe. Night after night, villagers heard airplanes go off and probably heard them droning back in the small hours. But they never saw the people, men and women in civilian clothes, who were driven down the prohibited road from the airfield, the men and women who had been brought to England from Occupied France under the very noses of the Wehrmacht and Gestapo.
There were no secret devices to help this passenger service to operate. The R.A.F. planes simply landed in France, picked up their passengers, and flew off again to Tempsford. On other trips they dropped Czech, Polish and Dutch agents in their own countries. About 700 resistance leaders made the trip. Sometimes the R.A.F brought back documents, maps and messages.
Not all the story can be told even now. There is still need for secrecy about how the great organisation was built up.
The romantic – and hazardous – side of the job was flying the old unarmed Lysanders and bigger Hudsons to the secret landing grounds in France guided only by the dim lights of torches held by patriots. All the pick-ups were made in France.
One of the airmen who took part in the adventure said today, "We had to have decent fields, so we brought back men of the resistance movement to teach them the sort of places to select and what to do to help us to land. Then we took them back again."
"Others we brought back were trained in England as saboteurs and dropped again in France. One French agent was caught by the Gestapo who broke his feet in torturing him. He managed to escape from them and we picked him up and brought him back to England. He could not, of course, make a parachute jump again, but he insisted on returning to carry on his work in France. He was a brave man."
when a Lysander – one of the three seater airplane at one time used
for Army co-operation work – went out to pick up passengers, the
pilot flew unaided, with a map on his knees doing his own navigation,
looking in the dark for a small field somewhere in France. There was no
room for a navigator when passengers had to be brought back. Often the
Gestapo arrived just as an airplane lifted its wheels off the ground.
“There were many hairbreadth escapes like that.”, I was told.
A pilot was preparing to land one night when he saw that behind each torch
holder stood a German soldier. The pilot realised what was happening,
revved his engine and ……..He was shot in the neck but flew
back safely. “When one of our Hudson’s was grounded in mud……they
rounded up 200 people, 12 oxen and six horses and worked…..to ensure
the airplane could leave – with a number of important passengers.
"Even when high ranking officers who were not in the know asked about the work we were doing we had to lie like old Harry. It was court martial if we breathed a word about the job. Not even the mechanics knew about the passenger flights."
and......From the Bedfordshire Times
The "Scarlet Pimpernels" of the air
The Secret is Out: Tempsford H.Q. Fed Resistance Movement
One of the war’s best-kept secrets concerned Tempsford R.A.F. Station, situated just off the great North Road in Bedfordshire, which has a story comparable with the drama of Baroness Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel”. War-time security requirements were such that only those directly concerned knew of its special mission, that of fostering the resistance movement in Nazi occupied countries. Tempsford, in fact, was the headquarters of that part of the R.A.F. which specialised in taking, by night, saboteurs to lead, guide, and maintain communications with the underground movement; in supplying the Maquis with arms, ammunition, radios, pigeons, and food; in bringing to this country from the Continent those people of either political importance or important to the war effort. Operations ranged to 19 countries from the Arctic to Africa.
Evolved after the fall of France from the desire of occupied countries to resist the invader, the special operations unit was at first a very small force, operating from East Anglia. It moved to Tempsford early in 1942, and the first special operation went from there on 23rd March of that year. The aircrews on the station were “hand-picked” men who had proved their worth on at least one complete tour, comprising thirty operations, in Bomber Command. The majority were British and of the Dominions, but there were also nationals of the occupied territories, while Poles were in sufficient strength to maintain their own unit. Americans were trained there, and moved to their own station.
The life of the special operations airman was that of the lone wolf; he had no fighter escort and exploited low flying under the most difficult conditions, contending with “flak” and fighter defence. Moonlight nights were favoured for their sorties, but it was highly exacting work, requiring pin-point navigation (that is, purely by calculation), and when the tiny hand torch signal was seen at the appointed place and packages and containers dropped, they experienced a mighty sense of relief and exuberance. Once over the spot, the aircrew had to work hard in unloading their cargo quickly enough to prevent the packages being scattered. There were times when the partisans would delay flashing in order to establish the identity of the plane – a delay which caused the pilot to fly around in the vicinity and risk arousing the defences against him. Sometimes he had such a hot reception that he had no alternative but to “skate off”. On one occasion, when the objective was reached in the south of France and anxious eyes swept the dark countryside below, there was no signal. Instinctively they kept clear of a well-lit factory which they could see, but after a short time, to their amazement, a torch flashed from the factory roof, and they dived in and dropped their cargo in the factory yard, under the very noses of the Germans. Usually, however, packages were confined to isolated spots.
A forced landing in a French village occupied by Italian soldiers caused great confusion. The plane crashed in a baker’s shop, and everyone in the village started shooting everyone else. The pilot was the only survivor of the plane, and after a hazardous journey found his way back to England.
When the saboteurs arrived among their brother Maquis, it was amusing to see that despite the tension of the journey and of landing in enemy infested territory they could not resist the characteristic French greeting of kissing on both cheeks and embracing. Aircraft arriving for passengers required the guidance of lights, and in order to indicate the area available for landing, electric hand torches were used by the Maquis. French gendarmes who had received instructions from the Germans to keep a look-out for English aircraft carried out their orders literally, and joined the other partisans with their torches.
The risk of arrangements going wrong was always great as the Gestapo, like bloodhounds, were always on the trail. A pilot one night landed at the usual torch signal, only to find that the Maquis signaller was under the threat of a German revolver at his back. When the plane landed it was immediately fired upon by the Germans surrounding the ground, and realizing the situation in a flash the pilot made off again, luckily with only a slight wound.
Finding landing grounds was a continuous problem and finding a pitched battle for possession in progress between the Gestapo and the Maquis was not an uncommon experience, whilst on other occasions the plane would make its escape just has headlights indicated that Gestapo cars were near.
Just as saboteurs were taken from Tempsford to the Continent, so were people of political importance, women partisans as well as men, brought back to this country. Among passengers who had arrived in this way was a woman who, three hours after landing, gave birth to a baby.
Many notable personalities in the air war have served with the squadron, including Group Captain P C Pickard, D.S.O and two bars, D.F.C., who was the pilot of “F for Freddie” in Bomber Command’s epic film “Target for Tonight”. He was afterwards killed in action.
Another was a 49 year old French navigator, known as “Philippe”. He was one of the most influential industrialists in France before the war, and had fought in the last war in the French Army. After the fall of France he joined the R.A.F. Ironically, his chateau in Normandy remained unharmed while occupied by the Germans, but was severely battered by an R.A.F. Typhoon.
Although it has not been possible to reveal the actions which have won high awards, it is significant that one squadron alone received no less than 142 decorations.
The squadron has its own insignia: A released shackle, with the motto “Liberate”.
Sunday, August 7, 2022 11:02