Operation Starkey

This was a British and US combined air offensive against German air strength in the west by means of a feint against the Boulogne area within the 'Fortitude' scheme (16 August/9 September 1943).

Including the later stages of ‘Harlequin’ and some of the 'Forfar' series of reconnaissances, the operation was designed in the short term to prevent the Germans from being able to redeploy forces to the Eastern Front in the USSR, and in the long term to provide tactical lessons which might be useful in the eventual Allied return to the mainland of German-occupied Europe.

Initially known as 'Domesday' and then 'Broadsword' (i), 'Starkey' was thus a bogus British and Canadian amphibious invasion into the Boulogne area of northern France, for which verisimilitude was provided by a major air effort. In the original plan, developed by the COSSAC (Chief-of-Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander [Designate]) staff under the supervision of Lieutenant General by F. E. Morgan, the USAAF was to fly 2,300 heavy bomber, 400 medium bomber and 3,700 fighter sorties against targets near Boulogne, and the RAF another 3,000 heavy bomber sorties into the Boulogne area. 'Starkey' was to culminate with a large feint involving an amphibious force of 30 ships operating off the Boulogne coast in the hope of luring the Luftwaffe into a major air battle in which its strength could be significantly degraded.

The 'Starkey' plan faced problems right from its inception. Major General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the US 8th AAF, was critical of the plan on the grounds that it would compel the USAAF to abandon its strategic bombing offensive and, in a letter to SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force) wrote that 'Starkey' called for 2,300 heavy bomber sorties over a 14-day period at a time when the 8th AAF had flown only 5,356 combat sorties in the past eight months. Although Eaker managed to persuade SHAEF to reduce US commitment to 300 heavy bomber sorties, he promised to provide as many bomber sorties as possible from new bomber units undergoing training. By the time 'Starkey' was over, the 8th AAF had flown 1,841 bomber sorties.

Other problems were also raised. Brigadier General Frank O’D. Hunter’s VIII Air Support Command noted that the 'Starkey' planners had difficulty agreeing on the rules of engagement for targets in occupied France. The British and US forces unwittingly duplicated their efforts on several occasions by flying the same missions within a few days of each other, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, commanding RAF Bomber Command, called it 'at best a piece of harmless play-acting'. The Royal Navy did not fully endorse the scheme: the planners had wanted two battleships for the amphibious force to act as bait for the Luftwaffe, but the navy were unwilling to risk battleships in such a manner. Because of opposition of these types, the planners were compelled to make several amendments.

In overall terms, though, the 'Starkey' plan remained substantial and very ambitious. Many thousands of British and Canadian troops had to be readied for feint landings on beaches between Audresselles and Ambleteuse, 6 miles (10 km) to the north of Boulogne, and between the mouth of the Brone river and Hardelot, 7 miles (11.25 km) to the south of Boulogne, with subsidiary attacks by commandos, Royal Marines and paratroops. The seaside resort of Le Portel was targeted for a further landing by sea to defeat any German effort to destroy the port of Boulogne before its seizure by the invading forces.

'Starkey' was steadily eroded in scale for a number of reasons, among them a lack of resources and, as noted above, opposition by senior commanders. While the commitment to an assault by land forces was dropped, the apparent threat to the Germans throughout that part of Northern France was to be maintained by real naval and air operations and extensive troop movements in southern England. Lieutenant General A. G. L. McNaughton’s Canadian 1st Army moved into deployment areas in the area of Portsmouth and Southampton, and Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s British 2nd Army into the area of Dover, Folkestone and Newhaven sector, while landing craft were assembled along the coast between Portsmouth and Dover.

In the preliminary phase of 'Starkey', between 16 and 24 August, some 680 USAAF and 156 RAF aircraft bombed airfields as well as transportation, industrial and other targets, and in the preparatory phase, between 25 August and 8 September, the bomber forces were increased to 1,754 and 640 respectively, with the weight of the bombs dropped increasing from an overall 1,454 tons to 2,683 tons and the target list being broadened to include ammunition and fuel dumps concealed among the forests inland from Boulogne. In the culminating phase, on 8/9 September, the USAAF and RAF bombers switched their attention pointedly to artillery sites on the grounds that the Germans would perceive this as clearing the way for an amphibious invasion force to land in the Pas de Calais.

The break of day on 9 September found the English Channel busier than at any time since the 'Dynamo' evacuation from Dunkirk in May and June 1940. An assembly of 355 ships heading toward France included self-propelled Thames barges, cross-Channel pleasure steamers, minesweepers and destroyers, but no troops. Then. at 09.00, the issue of the codeword 'Backchat' signalled a reversal of course and the vessels headed back to English ports.

'Starkey' in fact attracted little German concern, but nonetheless caused many deaths and injuries to members of the French population: there were more than 500 deaths in Le Portel alone, as well as the destruction of almost 90% of its homes, as this little town lay between two key artillery sites targeted in the culminating phase of 'Starkey'.