Talk – Tuesday 15th September 2015 ‘RAF Tangmere and the Special Operations Executive’
Mr Dudley Hooley
This talk followed our AGM, and our speaker began by giving us some background to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was a British World War II organization. It was officially formed by Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940, to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, in occupied Southeast Asia also) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.
At the time very few people were aware of SOE’s existence or its activities, and even to those who were part of it or liaised with it, it was sometimes referred to as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. The organization directly employed or controlled just over 13,000 people, about 3,200 of whom were women.
Many of SOE’s employees eventually became agents who were sent to occupied Europe, and RAF Tangmere was one of the airfields used to send them to and receive them back from their ‘postings’. By far the majority of the SOE pick-up operations conducted during the Second World War from Tangmere by No 161 Specials Duties Squadron was undertaken by Westland Lysander aircraft.
The Lysander had originally been designed for Army cooperation work. It was described by pilots as “a beautiful little plane to fly and very maneuverable and ideal for getting in and out of small landing grounds”. For Special Duties work, all armament was removed and the normal variable pitch propeller was replaced by a constant speed three bladed version.
A 150 gallon, permanently fixed, fuel tank was added under the fuselage which increased the aircraft’s range from 600 miles to about 1000 miles with an endurance of 10 hours flying. The normal gunner’s compartment was modified considerably.
The canopy was replaced with a one-piece unit that slid rearwards on rails to allow quick entry and exit. A ladder was permanently fitted to the port side to allow ease of access and the floor was lengthened and strengthened. The bulky radio was replaced with a much smaller one and a rearward facing bench for two passengers was installed with a locker underneath. A shelf was also built at the rear of the compartment which could also serve as a seat
Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents were required to keep in touch with London by sending and receiving Morse Code messages on a wireless set. To avoid their detection the wireless sets had to be portable and light enough to be carried by hand or on a bicycle without attracting attention. SOE conceived the idea of placing the wireless transmitter and receiver in an ordinary looking continental suitcase.
The average survival time for an SOE radio operator behind enemy lines was 6 weeks.
Our speaker described some of SOE’s ‘unusual’ arsenal of sabotage devices, two examples of which are shown below.
Exploding lump of coal
He also made particular mention of two of the incredibly brave women employed on SOE duties, Noor Inayat Khan (executed at Dachau in 1944) and Violette Szabo, captured by the SS and executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp, and later awarded a posthumous George Cross.
The museum at Tangmere contains a lot more information on the role that the airfield played during the Second World War and the exploits of the SOE – see www.tangmere-museum.org.uk.