Operation Titanic

This was a British series of four special forces operations by Lieutenant Colonel R. B. Mayne’s 1st Special Air Service and the Royal Air Force in the area of Carentan in German-occupied France to deceive the Germans into the belief that the Allies were launching a major airborne landing in this area (6/10 June 1944).

This was one of four RAF deception operations carried out in this period just before and after the launch of ‘Overlord’, the other three being ‘Glimmer’ by No. 218 Squadron, ‘Taxable’ by No. 617 Squadron, and ‘Airborne Cigar’ by Nos 101 and 214 Squadrons.

The ‘Titanic’ undertakings involved the use of a few men and larger numbers of dummies. ‘Titanic I’ at 02.00 on 6 June in the area to the north of the Seine river in the area between Dieppe and Le Havre by two SAS parties and paratrooper dummies was designed to simulate the landing of an airborne division and thereby enhance the simulated landing of 'Taxable. The cancelled ‘Titanic II’ of 6 June was to have taken place in the area to the east of the Dives river, where sufficient dummies were to be dropped to simulate the descent of an airborne brigade and thereby deter the Germans from sending local reserves to reinforce the forces facing the real landings. ‘Titanic III’ of 6 June involved the landing of dummy paratroopers in the area to the south-west of Caen at the same time as the real descent of the British 6th Airborne Division. ‘Titanic IV’ of 6 June was the dropping of small SAS parties as well as dummy paratroopers near Marigny at the base of the Cotentin peninsula.

In overall terms, therefore, the objective of the operation was to drop small SAS parties and 500 dummy paratroopers in areas away from the ‘Overlord’ landing beaches in an effort to persuade the Germans that the invasion was spread over a greater area and thus entice troops away from the actual invasion zone.

In ‘Titanic IV’ a party of seven men was parachuted into the area together with sand-filled parachute containers, dummy paratroopers, small devices designed to fire Verey lights and detonators intended to simulate small arms fire. The drop was very widely scattered, however, with the result that the SAS troopers had only their personal weapons and were forced to hide. The Germans discovered the men on 10 June, and after three of their number had been wounded in the resultant firefight the men surrendered.

The Allies planned and implemented several deception undertakings in association with ‘Overlord’, the most important of them being ‘Fortitude’ in its two subcomponents as the ‘Fortitude North’ feint against German-occupied Norway, and ‘Fortitude South’ designed to persuade the Germans that the Allies’ main invasion of France would occur in the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.

The RAF’s ‘Titanic’ operations were subcomponents of ‘Fortitude South’. The RAF’s four deception operations comprised two in which ‘Window’ chaff was dropped over the English Channel to simulate the approach of a large fleet (‘Glimmer’ and ‘Taxable’), a third intended to jam German radar (‘Airborne Cigar’), and a fourth to confuse the Germans forces in north-western France (‘Titanic’). For ‘Titanic’ the RAF provided four squadrons of Air Vice Marshal R. Harrison’s No. 3 Group of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command: these units were the special duties Nos 138 and 161 Squadrons flying Handley Page Halifax and Lockheed Hudson aircraft respectively, and Nos 90 and 149 Squadrons flying the Short Stirling.

The Special Air Service provided 12 men commanded by Captain H. Fowles and Lieutenant N. Poole. The task of the Special Air Service personnel was to engage the Germans on landing, but at the same time to ensure that some Germans escaped to spread the word that hundreds of paratroopers were landing.

The primary task in the ‘Titanic’ operations was the dropping of dummy paratroopers containing a rifle fire simulator, ‘Window’ chaff and an explosive charge: the last was intended to destroy the dummy and leave ‘evidence’ that the paratrooper had left the area after burning his parachute. ‘Titanic I’ was the simulated drop of an airborne division in the area to the north of the Seine river with drop zones near Yvetot, Yerville and Doudeville in the Seine-Maritime region and Fauville in the Eure region. On these four drop zones 200 dummies and two SAS teams were parachuted in. ‘Titanic II’ was to have been the dropping of 50 dummy paratroopers east of the Dives river to draw German reserves onto that side of the river, but this mission was cancelled just before 6 June. ‘Titanic III’ was the dropping of 50 dummy paratroopers in the Calvados region near Maltot and the woods north of Baron sur Odon to draw German reserves away west of Caen. ‘Titanic IV’ was the dropping of 200 dummy paratroopers near Marigny in the Manche region and, as with ‘Titanic I’, was intended to simulate the dropping of an airborne division. Two SAS teams were also dropped in this area near St Lô. This group commanded by Poole landed at 00.20 on 6 June, some 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

The SAS teams carried recordings and amplifiers to play the sound of rifle and mortar fire, together with shouted commands. The recordings lasted for 30 minutes after which the SAS team withdrew from the area. The operation proceeded according to plan, and the only aircraft lost were two Stirling machines and their crews from No. 149 Squadron in ‘Titanic III’. Eight SAS men failed to return, either killed in action or taken prisoner by the Germans and later executed in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

At 02.00 on 6 June the Germans reported the landing of paratroopers in the area to the east of Caen and in the Coutances, Valognes and St Lô areas, and the sound of ship engines out to sea. Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army was placed on full invasion alert, but General Hans Speidel, chief-of-staff of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’, decreased the alert level after it had been reported that only dummy paratroopers had been found. However, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, ordered more than half of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Fritz de Witt’s 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’ to deal with a parachute landing on the coast near Lisieux before this was found to be ‘Titanic III’ dummies. The dummies and SAS teams of ‘Titanic IV’ caused the diversion of Kampfgruppe of the 915th Grenadierregiment, which was the only reserve element of Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division, away from the Omaha and Gold Beaches as well as the drop zone of Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s US 101st Airborne Division. The regimental Kampfgruppe spent the morning of 6 June searching the woods for the paratroopers. ‘Enigma’ intercepts from the area of ‘Titanic I’ revealed that the German commander reported a major landing up the coast from Le Havre, well to the north of the real landing beaches, and that his forces had been cut off by them.