Operation Josephine B

'Josephine B' was a British and Free French sabotage undertaking in south-western France organised by the Special Operations Executive (11 May/7 June 1941).

The operation was initially stalled by a lack of up-to-date information, but ultimately succeeded in its main objective, which was the destruction of an electrical transformer station in Pessac near Bordeaux. Six of the eight transformers were destroyed, resulting in the hampering of the Italian submarine base at Bordeaux for weeks and a variety of other problems for the Italian and German occupiers. The operation was SOE’s first success in occupied France and it considerably enhanced the organisation’s standing.

The transformer station in Pessac had long been recognised by the SOE as a target of particular interest, but was difficult to reach by air. The plan was to paradrop a sabotage team which would break into the transformer station in order to attach demolition charges and incendiaries with delay timers. The charges would wreck the transformers and the incendiaries would set fire to the transformer cooling oil to complete the destruction.

A team of six Polish volunteers was trained and equipped for the operation, and departed from the RAF base at Tangmere in Sussex, but a technical fault released their two equipment containers prematurely, over the lower reaches of the Loire river well to the north of the planned operational area, and the party had to turn back. The aeroplane crashed on landing, killing some of the crew and seriously wounding all the members of the SOE party.

The SOE then turned to its Free French section, and Sergeant J. Forman, Sous-Lieutenant Raymond Cabard and Sous-Lieutenant Andrť Varnier were briefed for the operation. Forman had recently returned from 'Savannah', the first attempt to insert SOE-trained Free French paratroops into German-occupied France. That mission had failed, leaving behind some of the agents including JoŽl Letac, who had then travelled to Paris. The sabotage team was sent to SOE’s Station XVII for training in industrial sabotage by Cecil Vandepeer Clarke.

The Norwegian Wilhelm Holst, an early recruit to the SOE and Chef de Reseau Billet in France, were asked to be the new party’s local contacts after crossing the demarcation line between German-occupied France and Vichy France, on its escape out of France, and for this the SOE party was to remain in communication with these two individuals until they found a way to leave France. The SOE asked Holst for any help or suggesrion he could provide in this direction.

The three-man party was parachuted into France on the night of 11/12 May, and on landing hit its container of equipment and undertook a reconnaissance of the target. The men were dismayed to discover a high-tension wire just inside the top of the 8.9-ft (2.7-m) high perimeter wall and the sound of people moving about inside the walled area. They also failed to obtain bicycles on which they had planned to make a silent escape. Thus discouraged, the men lost heart and gave up.

The team missed its 20 May rendezvous with the submarine sent to retrieve the men, and instead set out for Paris. Before departing for the mission, Forman had been given a couple of possible addresses, and at one of these he met Letac, who had been compelled to abandon 'Savannah', but Letac refused to accept the 'Josephine B' party’s acceptance of faiiure. Letac rallied the party and travelled with it back to the Bordeaux region.

In the night the party seized a truck to travel to Pessac, but when the ruck broke down the men resorted to bicycles. They quickly relocated their explosives where they had hidden them on the first night, a mere 110 yards (100 m) from the transformer station. Varner quickly verified that the detonators were still operable.

On the night of 7/8 June, Forman climbed the perimeter wall and jumped down into the yard while carefully avoiding any contact with the high-voltage cable. Then he simply opened the door for his comrades, who carried all the equipment. In less than 30 minutes the boxed plastic explosives, each with a magnetically-attached incendiary, were placed on each of the eight main transformers. The four men then departed as rapidly as possible as the explosive detonated and flames rose into the sky. German-manned searchlights scanned the sky as the first conclusion was that the facility had been attacked by British bombers.

The team asked for evacuation by Westland Lysander single-engined aircraft of the type much used for the support of clandestine operations into France. The aircraft were not provided and the men were instead ordered to return to England via Spain.

The sabotage team made for Spain at a leisurely pace, spending 250,000 francs over a period of two months. Cabard was arrested just before the men crossed the Pyrenees, but the other three returned to England during August. Cabard later escaped and was back with SOE by November.

Six of the eight transformers were destroyed, and the SOE’s assumption was that the explosives on two of the transformers had slipped off as they were very wet. Work in the Bordeaux submarine base and in numerous factories was held up for weeks, and the all-electric trains from south-western France had to be withdrawn and replaced by steam locomotives. All the spare transformer oil in France was needed to effect repairs, which were not completed for a year.

The commune of Pessac was fined one million francs, 250 local people were imprisoned and a curfew from 21.30 to 05.00 was imposed. A total of 12 German soldiers were shot for failing to protect the station against the saboteurs.

News of the attack’s success reached the UK on 19 June.