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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
all the story can be told even now. There is still need for secrecy
about how the great organisation was built up.
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.
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."
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
How secret it all was may be judged by this comment……………….
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."
the Bedfordshire Times
"Scarlet Pimpernels" of the air
Secret is Out: Tempsford H.Q. Fed Resistance Movement
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
squadron has its own insignia: A released shackle, with the motto