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 carried off whatever components they could.

Aided by diversionary bombing raids, on 27 February 1942 Major John Frost’s raiding party, comprising 120 men of C Company, 2/Parachute, was dropped on Bruneval from 12 adapted Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers of No. 51 Squadron led by Wing Commander P. C. Pickard. The raiders met considerable German resistance but were able to photograph the installation, remove some of the key electronic elements and capture a Würzburg technician. As had been planned, the men of the raiding party then retreated from the cliff tops down onto a beach where their naval evacuation was covered by men of No. 12 Commando.

It was later discovered the Royal Navy flotilla involved in this part of the operation had been playing 'cat-and-mouse' with a German force of one destroyer and several S-boote, which passed within 1 mile (1.6 km) of the landing. The British losses were two men killed and four captured, and the German losses five men killed and two taken prisoner, the latter including the technician.

Back in the UK, examination of the components showed that the Würzburg operated on only a very narrow band and had no provision for dealing with countermeasures. However, the equipment was of modular design, which aided maintenance and made the identification of faults simpler than on similar British equipments. This was confirmed during the interrogation of the captured German technician, who proved to be less well trained than his British counterparts.

The success of 'Biting' was splashed across the British press and went some way to improve the public’s morale after a string of failures, of which the armed forces' vain attempt to stop 'Cerberus' (the dash up the English Channel by the German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen) was a matter of very recent memory. The success of the raid also highlighted to the British authorities how British installations close to the sea were potentially vulnerable to German commando raids. This prompted the relocation of the Telecommunications Research Establishment from Swanage on the Dorset coast to Malvern in Worcestershire.

In response to 'Biting', the Germans strengthened the defences of their radar sites, with the result that during 'Jubilee' raid on Dieppe, a subsidiary raid to capture Freya components failed. However, as is the tendency with the military in all countries, detailed plans were drawn up as to how the defences should be laid out: this aided British photographic reconnaissance because the particular and highly visible layout of the defences indicated the nature and location of the site, which could then be more readily bombed to destruction.