The Bruneval Raid, code name Operation Biting, was a British Combined Operations raid that took place on the night of 27-28 February 1942 during World War Two and this year marks its 75th anniversary. The purpose of the raid was to capture German radar technology located near the French coastal town of Bruneval in Northern France.
The Germans were improving their radar technology in 1941 and their network was expanding along the northern coastline of France. They had also increased their ability to jam our radar signals, which was hardly noticeable over a period of time, but resulted in our radars being somewhat worthless. Because of this, it was important for the British to discover just what the Germans were doing and develop ways to counter their work.
During the autumn of 1941, the RAF took low level photographs of the French coastline. The photos then went to the Photographic Interpretation Unit based at RAF Medmenham, Buckinghamshire located in Danesfield House (pictured below).
Here the photos were examined very closely using a stereoscope (pictured right). This was basically a Victorian invention that allowed them to view photographs of enemy territory in three dimensions.
In a seemingly innocuous photograph, a PI (Photo Intelligence) gatherer noticed a small blob next to a cliff top chateau near Bruneval close to Le Harve, Normandy. Another low level photograph was taken and with this one of the enemy’s best kept secrets had been discovered; Wurzburg radar. Rather than destroy this radar the British would raid the radar installation and dismantle, and steal as much of it as they possibly could. This would then be taken back to Britain where it could be studied.
The Wurzburg was the primary radar used by the Luftwaffe and German navy and worked in conjunction with the Freyer radar. The Freyer system was a long range radar that picked up formations of aircraft over twenty five miles away. Once the aircraft were within the twenty five mile range, the Wurzburg would tell the Germans the height and size of the formation as well as where they were heading.
With the Wurzburg being located on top of a 400 foot cliff, it was thought that the Royal Marines would be best suited to perform the raid. However as the radar complex was heavily defended, a frontal assault up the cliffs would run a higher risk of failure. It was therefore decided that they would use paratroops from the newly formed “C” Company of 2 Para.
In what would be the first ever airborne raid in British history, they would land near the site, secure the area and dismantle important components from the radar and take a number of photographs. They would then make their way out with the stolen parts of the radar in tow down a long slope that led down to a small beach located a few hundred yards away. A party would have already secured the beach and once here the Royal Navy would pick them up.
The raiding party would consist of 120 men and would include six combat Royal Engineers and some signallers. To dismantle the Wurzburg they needed someone with knowledge of radar technology. This task was given to Sergeant C.W.H. Cox. Cox was a non combatant and had never parachuted from a plane before and was sent immediately for training.
The company was to be led by Major John Frost. Frost’s plan involved dividing the men into five groups. These groups were named after British Admirals and were called Drake, Hardy, Jellicoe and Nelson. Their tasks were as follows:
Drake was to move north of the Radar HQ, codenamed Lone House, and the radar named Henry. They would contain any German counter attacks that would come from a square wooded area that included a small farm and was known as the Rectangle.
Nelson group commanded by 2nd Lt Charteris was to capture and hold the beach. They also have to take out cliff top defences known as the Redoubt and capture a large beach castle/fort called Stella Maris. Rodney under the command of Lt Timothy would remain as a reserve.
Frost would lead the Hardy and Jellicoe groups. One group would surround the radar HQ (Lone House) and once this was taken the group containing the Engineers and technician would move on to the Wurzburg radar unit and begin to dismantle it. This would all happen when Frost was in position and blew his whistle.
Twelve Whitley bombers would carry the paratroopers. The lead plane was piloted by Wing Commander Percy Charles Pickard. Pickard was famous for playing Squadron Leader Dickson in the propaganda film Target for Tonight in 1941. He would go on to lead the Mosquito raid to bomb Amiens (Operation Jericho) in which he lost his life.
The men jumped into freezing conditions and landed on a snow covered terrain. Charteris and half of the Nelson group had been dropped in the wrong position but he decided to move north towards the beach. Captain Ross took command of the second half of Nelson group. He divided his force into two sections (heavy and light). The light section was sent to clear the northern cliff tops and the pillboxes (the Redoubt) and taking the heavy section he set off to clear the road leading down to the beach. These two sections would then come together and secure the beach. Frost (pictured right) then moved his men to the radar HQ and surrounded it. When everyone was in place they stormed the villa and all hell broke loose.
Frost and his men stormed the villa with automatic gun fire and grenades. A German guard was killed as he returned fire from the upper floor of the villa. Two other Germans were taken prisoner and upon interrogation Frost discovered that the majority of the garrison was stationed further inland.
Once at the radar Cox and the sappers began to dismantle it and take pictures of the Wurzburg. Components were loaded into carts to move to the beach. Throughout this they were under heavy German machine gun fire but the dish of the radar offered some protection.
Frost could see vehicle headlights in the distance and realised that the Germans were being reinforced so decided to withdraw to the beach. They moved towards the pillboxes but came under heavy fire from the south cliff and one of Frosts sergeants was wounded in the stomach. The villa that acted as the radar HQ was occupied by the Germans and Frost had no choice but to lead a counter attack and drive the Germans off. This was successful and he began to withdraw once again.
At the beach the Nelsons’ heavy section was pinned down. At this time Captain Ross could hear gun fire from the southern cliffs. This was Second Lieutenant Charteris who had worked his way through the town of Bruneval and was now attacking the gun emplacements on the southern cliff. With these cleared, Charteris moved down towards the beach and attacked the small castle known as Stella Maris. On entering the door he was confronted by a German Corporal called Schmidt. Schmidt happened to be a radar technician and was taken prisoner (pictured right).
The raiding party now moved down to the beach for extraction by the Royal Navy. Unfortunately the radios did not work and with no way to contact the landing craft off shore to come in and extract the team, signal flares had to be fired. This gave the teams position away and the Germans began to fire down onto Frost and his men.
Frost began to fear that soon the Germans would bring up heavier weapons and mortars and this would bring the raid to an abrupt end. The decision was made to fire a second round of flares and this worked.
Eight landing craft came into the beach. The first men aboard were the Royal Engineers and the components from the Wurzburg radar. This was followed by the wounded and the rest of the men.
Frost and his team had been on the ground fighting for two hours and had pulled off a successful mission. The cost was two men killed and six missing, presumed captured.
From the intelligence gathered, the British were able to work out how to defeat the German Radar. “Window” was developed whereby strips of tin foil would be dropped to confuse the radar. At Normandy on the cliff top above Arromanches (pictured left), the base of a Wurzburg radar installation can be seen. This was captured by elements of the Dorset’s on D-Day and can be seen whilst on our Normandy and the D-Day Beaches battlefield tour.
Frost went on to command 2 Para and led them into Arnhem where he held Arnhem Bridge until having to surrender due to no relief and expending his ammunition. The bridge at Arnhem is named after him and you can visit this on our Arnhem “Operation Market Garden” battlefield tour. Frost stayed in the army after the war rising to the rank of Major General.
What of the others? After the war Charles Cox (pictured left), the technician, opened an electrical store. Second Lieutenant Charteris was killed nine months later in North Africa and Captain John Ross was awarded the DSO for his military service at the age of just 21.
The raid showed the value of Paratroops and soon two divisions were formed. Also the raid showed to the Americans and the Russians that Britain, although standing alone, was still up for the fight!
The battlefield today is somewhat different. The villa used as the radar HQ has been demolished but the paving stones that John Frost stood on prior to entering are still set in the foundations. The rectangle is still visible, much as the raiders would have seen it. The pillboxes are removed and the Stella Maris had to be knocked down and rebuilt and does not resemble the original building. The earth bank that surrounded the Wurzburg is still visible and as with all battlefields there is a memorial and a number of information boards.
Lest we Forget