Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Kings of the Air: special missions

Mention of Jules Védrines in my last post leads me inevitably to Special Missions. While the French had some success intercepting German wireless communications, they also wanted to establish a network of agents behind the German lines, either for intelligence or for sabotage.

The basic plan was to fly over the Front at night, at an altitude of around 3,000m, deposit the agent, and leave him to it. The first mission seems to have been in November 1914, and they continued for the rest of the war, but their peak was during the Champagne offensive of autumn 1915, with twelve taking place between 23 and 25 September. After several days, the agent would be collected either at a pre-arranged location, or one set up by the agent, communicating with the pilot by carrier pigeon. The technique evolved during the course of the war, with some agents inserted by parachute (the first in October 1915), and exfiltrated through the Netherlands. At first, the Dutch route was an expedient whenever the collection went wrong, but later this was the preferred route home.

The pilots were all volunteers. It called for both skill and nerve, and Védrines had plenty of both. 'All you needed to pull off a special mission was willpower,' he recalled after the war. 'Above all you had to stifle your instinct for self-preservation. As in all my hazardous exploits, thinking of my children helped me to take off cheerfully [enough]. It comforted me. I marvelled at the poor bugger accompanying me ... [now] he really did have nerves of steel. Comparing his lot with mine made me dwell less on the dangers ahead. We had a decent enough plan. I would fly over the lines at normal height and head straight for the designated spot, while trying to confuse any enemy observers. If I spotted any kind of activity in the vicinity, I made sure that I landed behind a copse, where my plane could remain unnoticed and my passenger had a better chance of hiding in a hurry. Then, after making damn sure I was clear to depart, and checking as far as possible that my 'package' was alright, I would open the throttle as far as it would go and regain my previous height, giving no sign of my point of take off.'

Not everyone was as sanguine. Georges Guynemer took part in two missions, but after nearly falling into a German trap, he had had enough: 'Special missions? They were filthy work!' And when his first three 'passengers' were killed by the Germans, Jean Navarre (MS12) became convinced he was a jinx, refusing to take a fourth. Even when the third agent turned up alive and well, Navarre would not go again: 'combat takes up all of my energies now.' A number of the pilots were rewarded immediately with the Légion d'Honneur for his work on special missions - Guynemer, Védrines (who already had the civilian version), Navarre, Adjudant Billard (also MS12) and William Hostein (C6) - unlike the agents, who had to wait until the end of the War for their decorations.

One mission, unusually, involved two aircraft. The two pilots (Eugène Bertin (MS38) and André Boyer (M36)) hated each other, and refused to speak (one observer thought 'women trouble was at the bottom of it'). Both landed and deposited their agents, but one had hit a wire trap and couldn't take off, so his comrade landed again, picked up the pilot and brought him home. 'As they descended he refused the hand of the man he'd just rescued, saying he'd only been doing his duty and that nothing had changed between them.'

The agents were frequently Customs officers displaced by the invasion, and their task a dangerous one. During the course of the war, five officers were caught by the Germans and executed. One senior officer did little to sugar the pill when he addressed one group. 'I'm looking for a volunteer,' he stated baldly. 'Frightful job. One-way trip. Anyone game?' Agents were trained at an establishment at Hermonville (Marne), run jointly by French intelligence (both the Deuxième Bureau and the Sûreté) and the aviation commanders of 5th and 6th Armies.

Adjudant William Hostein (C6) made several attempts in May 1915 to deposit Douanier Letannoux behind enemy lines in the Ardennes. The first two attempts were unsuccessful; the third failed because Hostein's Caudron G3 had been destroyed in a bombardment; the fourth was successful. And returning several days later, he collected Letannoux, who ended up having to take a few pot shots with a carbine at an over-inquisitive Aviatik on the way home.

Douanier Charles Goulard was one of the unlucky ones. he was landed by Guynemer at the end of September 1915, and blew up some railway track in the Hirson-Guise area (Aisne), but took the opportunity to visit his wife at Gernelle (Ardennes). While there, he was betrayed by a neighbour, arrested, and shot on 28 October.

Did the missions have any real effect? Porch's sources would tend to indicate not, particularly after much of the network was rolled up late in 1915. But French headquarters attributed the failure of one German attack (on the plateau of Quennevière (Oise) in June 1915) directly to information received from Douanier Léon Houblot. They claimed that some 2,000 Germans were killed, and a further 8,000 taken prisoner. Unfortunately, Houblot was captured just as Védrines landed to pick him up.

Did the Germans perform similar missions? They surely had skilful pilots as well, so it would seem strange if they did not at least try. Documents in the archives at Vincennes, dated 5 and 19 October 1915 and 27 May 1916 call for a network of traps and extra patrols in the area Chateau Thierry - Montirail - Coulommiers - Provins, with the emphasis laid on protecting the railway network. In addition, appeals were made to the civil population to report any suspicious packages in the countryside. This would certainly suggest that the French were worried about the Germans landing agents behind French lines, but there does not appear to have been any further action.

Pictures: Védrines in 1916; Jean Navarre with his Morane Parasol; William Hostein, from Albin Denis' excellent site.


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