Operation Aquatint

'Aquatint' was a British special forces raid on Ste Honorine near Port en Bessin on the north coast of German-occupied France by an element of the Small Scale Raiding Force (12/13 September 1942).

The SSRF had been created at the instigation of Commodore the Lord Louis Mountbatten, heading the Combined Operations Headquarters, during February/March 1942 to be a permanent 'amphibious sabotage force' of 50 men under his direct command, and was actually a redesignation of the 'Maid Honor' Force already formed by the Special Operations Executive, the title being derived from the Brixham trawler named Maid Honor which the SOE had requisitioned and converted for its purposes and fitted with substantial armament. Mountbatten negotiated control of the SSRF, which remained within SOE based on Station 62 (Anderson Manor near Blandford in Dorset) but now came under the operational control of Combined Operations Headquarters with the cover name No. 62 Commando, which had been created in 1941. Major Gus March-Phillipps, an artilleryman, continued to lead the force and was its main inspiration, and Major Geoffrey Appleyard remained its second in command. Both men formed the original 'Maid Honor' Force when specially chosen for that duty by Brigadier Colin Gubbins, the military head of SOE, from B Troop of No. 7 Commando.

The object of 'Aquatint' was for a small force to land on the beach near Ste Honorine des Pertes, a coastal village near Port en Bessin, on the coast of Normandy to the north of Bayeux. The British troops were then to record information of interest about the surrounding area, take a German guard prisoner for subsequent interrogation, and return to England. The SSRF group was taken across the channel in a motor torpedo boat, MTB-344, and comprised Appleyard, March-Phillipps, Captain Graham Hayes, Captain Burton, Captain Lord Howard, Lieutenant Hall, Maitre André Desgranges (French), Company Sergeant Major Winter, Sergeant Williams, and Privates Hollings (Dutch), Orr (a Pole whose real name was Abraham Opoczynzki) and Leonard (a German-speaking Sudeten Czechoslovak whose real name was Lehniger).

During the raid Appleyard remained on board the motor torpedo boat as a result of a badly twisted ankle, which he had sustained during a recent SSRF raid. Also on board were Lieutenant Freddie Bourne, commander of MTB-344, and his crew. The final plan was to land in the area of Ste Honorine, which had been clearly identified from aerial reconnaissance: on the sea front there was a small group of houses believed to be occupied by Germans, and these houses were to be attacked with the object of taking at least one prisoner.

The motor torpedo boat reached the French coast near Barfleur at about 22.00 on 12 September, the darkness being compounded by a thick sea fog. The motor torpedo boat navigated toward St Laurent at a distance of 4 miles (6.5 km) from the coast to avoid minefields and at a speed of 12 kt on its auxiliary engines, which were considerably quieter than the main engines designed to yield a maximum speed of some 40 kt. As the boat moved closer to the shore Bourne reduced his boat’s speed still further, and came to a halt at about 00.05 some 440 yards (400 m) from the beach.

A low valley, spotted along the coast, was identified as Ste Honorine but was in fact St Laurent about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the west of Ste Hororine. The landing party scrambled into a collapsible boat intended to hold a maximum of 10 men, and at about 00.20 headed slowly toward the right side of the valley. The party reached the beach at about 00.30 just after a bright light was seen on the crest of the hill above the shore.

The commandos considered their position for about 20 minutes but then, at 00.50, small arms and machine gun fire poured down onto the beach from above and from the village. Grenades were thrown onto the beach from a closer position lighting up the whole area in flashes. The Germans attempted to bring a searchlight down onto the beach to provide illumination, and cannon fire from a more distant location to the west joined in the mêlée. For half an hour sporadic fire continued to pepper the beach. It was a chaotic situation with much noise, running around and gun fire from many positions in the black of the night. A German patrol moved forward to the beach front. Hall seized a German and dragged him toward the boat, but was hit on the head by another German.

At about 01.20 German gunfire was directed out to sea, presumably as the motor torpedo boat had been spotted. Howard, who was guarding the boat, was hit in the leg by a bullet. As the commandos scrambled into the canvas-bottomed boat, the Germans concentrated their fire on the British party as it struggled out to sea in the direction of the motor torpedo boat, and the boat turned over. Howard and Desgranges managed to keep a grip on the up-turned boat, but everyone else had disappeared.

At the back of the beach there is a shingle embankment, and it is reasonable to assume that surviving commandos headed toward this area. The beach was now being enfiladed by fire from the west and east, from above and now from a German patrol near the road above the embankment. Several mortar bombs flew over the commandos' heads in the direction of the motor torpedo boat, now visible to the Germans, but none hit its target. The commandos stranded on the beach made a desperate attempt to reach the boat by swimming out to sea but to no avail.

The motor torpedo boat’s captain ordered the anchor to be raised at about 01.30, and the two main engines were started to take the boat out to a distance of 2.3 miles (3.7 km). It soon became clear, however, that the boat’s transmission box had been hit by bullets and damaged. The engines were throttled down to reduce noise in the hope that the Germans would believe the boat had left the area. No more sounds were heard from the beach and it was assumed that the commandos had split up and headed inland to hide, as was planned in case of a failed landing. Ten minutes later the boat headed back to St Laurent using the 'silent' engine, to within 880 yards (805 m), and then held this position for 45 minutes, but there was no sound or other sign of life from the beach, except for the occasional glimmer of light from the Germans on the hill.

At 02.30 heavy mortar and machine gun fire was opened on the motor torpedo boat after flares had rendered it visible from the higher ground above the beach. One mortar bomb fell within 20 ft (6 m) of the motor torpedo boat. It was now too risky to attempt any kind of rescue from the beach, so the motor torpedo boat pulled back again, this time to 2,000 yards (1830 m) off the coast. The damage to its transmission meant that the motor torpedo boat could no longer attempt a high-speed withdrawal from the area, so Bourne decided to head in an easterly direction through the German minefield in preference to the longer westward route toward Barfleur.

The crossing of the minefield happened without incident and air cover, spasmodic as a result of the weather, became available from 06.45. The motor torpedo boat reached Portsmouth at 07.45.

The raid had been a total failure, and none of the 11 men who landed on the French coast returned. March-Phillipps, Lehniger and Williams were dead, Hall and Howard were seriously wounded, Winters and Desgranges were captured with minor injuries, and Burton, Hayes, Hollings and Orr managed to escape the immediate area. The Germans probably anticipated this possibility and launched searches which quite swiftly netted Burton, Hollings and Orr. With the aid of the resistance, Hayes escaped to Spain, but here he was arrested and handed over to the Germans, who killed him on 13 July 1943.