Operation Biting

'Biting' was British special forces raid to seize components of a Würzburg radar equipment located at Bruneval near Le Havre in German-occupied northern France (27/28 February 1942).

British scientists led by Dr R. V. Jones needed to discover the technical, and thereby deduce the operational, details of the Würzburg radar, which was a key element in the German air-defence system, so that they could devise the countermeasures needed to defeat it. Jones thought that the Germans might locate Würzburg radars at the same sites as Freya radar equipments, and therefore asked for aerial reconnaissance of known Freya sites. On 22 November 1941 a Supermarine Spitfire photographic reconnaissance aeroplane recorded a Freya radar site in the grounds of a cliff-top hotel at Bruneval. On 5 December of the same year another photo-reconnaissance flight, at very low level, secured clear front and side pictures of the Würzburg radar with a person in the frame, allowing the diameter of the antenna to be assessed as about 10 ft (3 m).

Jones believed that this was probably a Würzburg installation, and the Combined Operations Headquarters, currently led by Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten, was asked to consider the feasibility of a raid. A plan was drawn up to use a team of commandos, drawn from those recently trained as paratroopers and known as the 1st Parachute Brigade, to effect the raid. A radar operator of the RAF, Flight Sergeant C. W. H. Cox, was to accompany the raiders, and he would photograph the radar in detail as the rest of the party fought off any opposition and Several of such German radar installations had been identified in aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by RAF aircraft during 1941, but their exact purpose and the nature of the equipment that they possessed was not known to the British. Some scientists believed that these stations were connected with successful German attacks on RAF bombers conducting bombing raids against targets in occupied Europe, resulting in severe losses of pilots and bombers. The scientists requested that one of these installations be raided, the technology it possessed be studied, and if possible key elements of the system be seized and brought back to the UK for further examination.

As the Germans had created extensive coastal defences to protect the installation from seaborne raids, the British believed that any amphibious undertaking by commando forces would suffer heavy losses and give the Germans sufficient time to destroy the installation to prevent its examination and/or removal. The decision was therefore made that an airborne assault followed by seaborne evacuation would be the most practicable way to surprise the garrison of the installation, seize the technology intact, and minimise the raiding force’s casualties.

On the night of 27 February, after a period of intense training and several delays as a result of adverse weather, one company of airborne troops under the command of Major John Frost was parachuted into northern France a few miles from the selected installation. The main force assaulted the villa in which the radar equipment was kept, killing several members of the German garrison and capturing the installation after a brief firefight.

An RAF technician with the force dismantled a Würzburg radar array and removed several key pieces, after which the force withdrew to the evacuation beach. The detachment assigned to clear the beach had initially failed to do so, but the German force guarding it was soon eliminated with the help of the main force. The raiding troops were picked up by landing craft, and transferred to several motor gun boats, which brought them back to the UK.

The raid was entirely successful. The airborne troops suffered relatively few casualties, and the pieces of the radar they brought back, along with a captured German radar technician, allowed British scientists the better to understand German advances in radar and thus to create the countermeasures required to neutralise them.

After France’s surrender to the Germans in June 1940 and the evacuation of British troops in operations such as 'Dynamo', much of the UK’s war production and effort was channelled into RAF Bomber Command and the strategic bombing offensive against Germany. Bomber losses on each raid began to increase during 1941, however, and British intelligence arrived at the conclusion that this was a result of the German use of advanced radar equipment.

The British and Germans had been competing in radar technology for nearly 10 years by this time, with the German technology often at the same level as that of the British or surpassing it as a result of Germany’s heavy investment in the fledgling technology. By the start of World War II, the UK had created effective radar systems, primarily through the work of Robert Watson-Watt, although much of the technology was still rudimentary in nature and the British scientists had devised an effective night-defence system in time to tackle the German night-time bombing of the UK in 1940/41.

Another British scientist working on radar systems and techniques was Dr R. V. Jones, who had been appointed in 1939 as the UK’s first scientific intelligence officer, and had spent the first years of the conflict researching the ways in which German radar was or was not more advanced tan that of the British, and in fact convincing the non-inconsiderable number of doubters that the Germans actually possessed radar.

Through examinations of leaked German documents, Luftwaffe bombers which had crashed on British soil, decryptions of Enigma-enciphered radio traffic, and interrogation of German prisoners of war, Jones discovered that high-frequency radio signals were being transmitted across the UK from points on the European continent, and came to believe these signals came from a directional radar system. Within a few months of this discovery, Jones had identified several such radar systems, one of which was being used to detect British bombers: this was known as the Freya-Meldung-Freya array, and Jones was finally able to see concrete proof of the presence of the Freya system after being shown several unknown objects visible in reconnaissance photographs taken by RAF aircraft near Cap d’Antifer in Normandy. These each comprised a pair of circular emplacements in each of which was a rotating 'mattress' antenna some 20 ft 4 in (6.2 m) wide. Having found proof of these Freya installations, Jones and the other scientists in his team could begin devising countermeasures against the system, and the RAF could begin to locate and destroy the installations.

Jones also found evidence of a second part of the Freya system, referenced in Enigma traffic as Würzburg, but it was not until he was shown another set of RAF reconnaissance photographs in November 1941 that Jones was able to discover the purpose and nature of Würzburg. The Würzburg radar device comprised a parabolic antenna about 9 ft 10 in (3.0 m) in diameter, which worked in conjunction with Freya to locate British bombers and then allow German night-fighters to be vectored onto the bombers. The two systems complemented each other: Freya was a long-range early-warning radar system, but lacked precision, and Würzburg had a much shorter range but was far more precise. Würzburg FuSE 62 D, also had the advantage of being much smaller than the Freya system and easier to manufacture in the quantities needed by the Luftwaffe in defence of German territory.

In order to neutralise the Würzburg system effectively, by the development of countermeasures, Jones and his team needed to study one of the systems, or at least the more vital pieces of technology of which the system was composed. One such site had recently been sighted by a Supermarine Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aeroplane of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit during a flight over part of the French north coast near Le Havre. The site was located on a cliff top immediately to the north of the village of Bruneval, itself 12 miles (19 km) to the north of Le Havre, and was the most accessible German radar site that had been found so far by the British; several other installations were sited farther inland in France, and others were as far away as Romania and Bulgaria. A request for a raid on the Bruneval site to capture a Würzburg system was passed to Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten, the commander of Combined Operations. Mountbatten took the proposal to the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee, whose members approved the raid after a brief debate.

After receiving permission to conduct the raid, Mountbatten and his staff studied the Bruneval installation and its defences, rapidly reaching to the conclusion that the presence of extensive coastal defences in the area around it meant that the installation was too well-guarded to permit a seaborne commando raid. The planners rightly considered that such a raid would result in high casualties among the attacking troops, and could not be sufficiently speedy to capture the Würzburg radar before it was destroyed by the Germans. Believing that surprise and speed were the essential requirements of any raid against the installation to ensure that the radar was captured, Mountbatten saw an airborne assault as the only viable method. On 8 January 1942, he therefore contacted the headquarters of Major General F. A. M. Browning’s 1st Airborne Division and Group Captain N. Norman’s No. 38 Wing RAF, asking if they were able to conduct the raid. Browning was especially enthusiastic, as a successful operation of this type would be an excellent morale boost to the new airborne force he now commanded, as well as an excellent demonstration of its capabilities and value.

The two commanders believed that the relevant training of both the airborne troops and the crews to deliver them could be completed by the end of February, when there would also be a good probability of the type of meteorological conditions needed for the undertaking. Training for the raid began immediately, but encountered several problems. No. 38 Wing was new and still in the process of formation, so Wing Commander P. C. Pickard’s No. 51 Squadron was selected to provide the aircraft and aircrew needed for the operation, although Norman would remain in overall command. Another problem was the state of training of the airborne unit selected for the raid on the installation.

At this time the 1st Airborne Division comprised a mere two parachute battalions, of which only the 1st Parachute Battalion was fully trained. Desiring to keep 1st Parachute Battalion intact for any larger operation for which the division might be selected, Browning ordered 2nd Parachute Battalion to provide a company for the operation, and Frost’s C Company was chosen. This company had been formed so recently that Frost and many of his men had not yet completed their parachute jumping course.

The level of security imposed on the planning for the raid was so high that when Frost was first briefed by a liaison officer from the headquarters of 1st Airborne Division, he was informed that his company was to take part in an airborne warfare demonstration for members of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s war cabinet. He was also informed that C Company would be divided into four sections for the exercise, which was contrary to a plan Frost had devised for the exercise and therefore led to a measure of confusion. It was only after Frost had raised several objections with a more senior officer at headquarters that he was informed of the intended raid, after which he dropped his objections and turned his attention to training the company.

The company spent time on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, and then travelled to Inveraray in Scotland for specialised training on Loch Fyne, practising night embarkations on landing craft to prepare the company for evacuation by sea after raiding the radar installation. After this, the unit returned to Wiltshire and began carrying out practice parachute drops with the aircraft and aircrews of No. 51 Squadron.

Despite the fact that the aircrews had no previous experience in the carriage and dropping of paratroopers, these exercises proved were successful. C Company’s working-up was aided by the creation of a scale model of the radar installation and the surrounding buildings by the Photographic Interpretation Unit. During this period, Frost was introduced to Commander F. N. Cook of the Royal Australian Navy, commander of the naval force scheduled to evacuate the company at the completion of the raid, as well as to the detachment of 32 officers and men of No. 12 Commando who would arrive in the landing craft and cover the company as it withdrew from the beach. Frost also met Flight Sergeant C. W. H. Cox, who had volunteered to accompany C Company: as a skilled radio mechanic, Cox was to locate the Würzburg radar, photograph it, and dismantle part of it for transportation back to the UK. Derek Garrard of Jones’s team asked Jones to obtain an army uniform and identification number for Cox, as he would be the object of special attention from the Germans if he was captured in air force uniform, but the War Office refused.

Accompanying the attack force was a 10-man section of Royal Engineers of the 1st Air Troop led by Lieutenant Dennis Vernon: six of the sappers were to dismantle the radar and the other four laid anti-tank mines to protect the force from counterattack.

Information about the Bruneval radar installation was also gathered during this period, often with the help of the local French resistance movement, without whom detailed knowledge of the disposition of the German forces guarding the installation would have been impossible. This information was gathered by Gilbert Renault, known to the British by the codename 'Rémy', and several members of his resistance network.

The German installation comprised two distinct areas: one was a villa, about 100 yards (90 m) from the edge of a cliff, which contained the radar station itself, and the other an enclosure containing a number of smaller buildings used by the site’s small garrison. The Würzburg antenna was erected between the villa and the cliff. The radar station was permanently manned by Luftwaffe technicians and surrounded by guard posts manned by some 30 guards. The buildings in the small enclosure accommodated about 100 German troops, including another detachment of technicians. One platoon of German infantry was stationed to the south in Bruneval, and was responsible for manning the defences guarding the beach designated for the evacuation: these defences included a strongpoint near the beach as well as pillboxes and machine gun nests on the top of the cliff overlooking the beach. The beach was not mined and had only sporadic barbed-wire defences, but was patrolled on a regular basis, and it was believed that a mobile infantry reserve was available at one hour’s notice but stationed some distance inland.

Based on this information, Frost decided to divide his force into five 40-man groups each named after a famous British naval commander: Nelson, Jellicoe, Hardy, Drake and Rodney. Nelson was to clear and secure German positions defending the evacuation beach, while Jellicoe, Hardy and Drake were to take the radar site, villa and the enclosure. Rodney was the reserve, and to be placed between the radar site and the most probable German approach in order to block any counterattack along that axis.

It was considered that the combination of a full moon for visibility and a rising tide to allow the landing craft to manoeuvre in shallow water was vital for the success of the raid, and this narrowed the possible dates to a four-day period between 24 and 27 February. On 23 February, a final rehearsal exercise took place, and was a failure: despite ideal weather conditions, the evacuation landing craft grounded 60 yards (44 m) off shore and could not be shifted despite the efforts of their crews and embarked troops.

Adverse conditions compelled the delay of the launch of 'Biting' for several days after the 23 February rehearsal, but on 27 February the weather proved to be ideal, with clear skies and good visibility for the aircraft of No. 51 Squadron, and a full moon which would provide illumination for the evacuation of the raiding force. Cook’s naval force departed during the afternoon and the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engined transport aircraft carrying C Company took off from Thruxton airfield in the evening.

The Whitley aircraft crossed the English Channel without incident, but as they reached the French coast they came under heavy Flak fire. None of the aircraft was hit, however, and No. 1 Squadron successfully delivered C Company to the designated drop zone near the installation. The drop was an almost total success, with the majority of the raiding force landing on the edge of the drop zone; however, half of the Nelson detachment landed 2 miles (3.2 km) short of the DZ. Once the other detachments had gathered their equipment and orientated themselves, they moved off to undertake their arranged tasks.

The Jellicoe, Hardy and Drake teams encountered no opposition as they moved toward the villa housing the radar installation, and after surrounding the villa Frost gave the order to open fire with grenades and automatic fire. One German guard was killed as he returned fire from an upstairs window, and two more were taken prisoner by the paratroopers and, on interrogation, revealed that the majority of the garrison was stationed farther from the coast. There still remained a substantial German force in the buildings of the small enclosure near the villa, and this now opened fire on the raiding force after being alerted by the initial firefight, killing one of the paratroopers. The volume of fire rapidly increased as German vehicles were spotted as they moved toward the villa from the nearby woods. This concerned Frost as the failure of his company’s radio equipment left him with no means of communicating with his other detachments, including Nelson which was tasked with clearing the evacuation beach. Cox and several sappers arrived at this time and proceeded to dismantle the radar equipment, placing the pieces on specially designed trolleys.

After securing the radar equipment and now under heavy German fire, Frost ordered the three detachments to withdraw to the evacuation beach. It soon became clear, however, that the beach had not been secured by the under-strength Nelson: a German machine gun opened fire on the paratroopers, severely wounding the company sergeant major. Frost ordered Rodney and what was available of Nelson to clear the defences, while he led the other three detachments back to the villa, which had been reoccupied by German troops.

The villa was soon cleared of Germans once again, and when Frost returned to the beach he found that the machine gun nest had been destroyed by the mis-dropped men of the Nelson detachment: avoiding other German positions, they had reached the beach and taken the machine gun position in a flanking movement. It was now 02.15, but there was no sign of the naval force that was to evacuate the paratroopers and the specialised men they were shielding. Frost ordered Nelson to guard the inland approaches to the beach and then fired an emergency signal flare. Soon after this, the approach of the naval force was seen. The operation’s original plan had called for two landing craft at a time to land on the beach, but this had never been satisfactorily achieved during training, and instead all six landing craft arrived at the same time, with the covering troops in the landing craft opening fire on German soldiers gathering at the top of the cliff.

The Combination of this deviation from the original evacuation plan and the German fire caused considerable confusion on the beach, with the result that some landing craft left the beach in an overloaded condition, and others departed half-empty. However, the radar equipment, German prisoners and all but six of the raiding force were embarked and transferred to motor gun boats for the passage back to England. On the return passage, Frost learned that the naval force had received no signals apart from the signal flare, and had spent much of the time hiding from a German naval patrol that had nearly discovered it. The passage back to England was uneventful, with the force escorted by four destroyers and a flight of Spitfire fighters.

The paratroopers had lost two men killed, eight wounded and six who did not return to the landing craft and were later taken prisoner by the Germans. German reports found after the war indicated German losses of two soldiers killed, one seriously wounded and two missing, and three air force men killed, one wounded and three missing. A member of the French resistance movement who had participated in the previous reconnaissance in Bruneval was subsequently captured and executed by the Germans. A Frenchman and his fiancée were deported to concentration camps in Germany for providing help to surviving British paratroopers in their attempt to return to the UK.

The success of the raid had two important effects. Firstly, a successful raid against German-occupied territory was a welcome morale boost for the British public, and featured prominently in the British media for several weeks after the event. Secondly, a more important result of the raid was the technical knowledge that British scientists gained. Examination of the components of the radar array showed that it was of a modular design that aided maintenance and made the rectification of faults far simpler than on similar British radars. This was confirmed during the interrogation of the captured German technician, who proved to be less well trained than his British counterparts. Examination of the radar array also allowed British scientists to conclude that they would have to deploy a countermeasure that had recently been developed, codenamed 'Window'. Examination of the Würzburg array showed that it was impervious to being jammed by conventional means used by the British during the early years of the war, and this called for the use of 'Window' chaff to saturate German radar screens with a multitude of false, and therefore confusing, echoes. The efficacy of 'Window' against Würzburg radar arrays was confirmed by RAF Bomber Command’s 'Gomorrah' raid of 24 July 1943 against Hamburg: the use of 'Window' chaff and all of the radar arrays in Hamburg were blinded and their operators confused, unable to distinguish between the radar signature of a real bomber and 'Window' chaff giving a similar signature.

For the British, an unexpected bonus of 'Biting' was the Germans' efforts to improve defences at Würzburg stations and prevent similar attacks. The radars were surrounded by rings of barbed wire, which increased their visibility from the air and thus rendered them more easy to target before 'Overlord'.

One final consequence of the raid was that the Telecommunications Research Establishment, where much of the Bruneval equipment was analysed, and British radar systems were designed and tested, was moved farther inland from Swanage on the southern coast of England to Malvern to ensure that it was not the target of a reprisal raid by German airborne forces.