WWI: Behind Enemy Lines by Aircraft I


British ‘Sophwith 1 1/2 Strutter’ biplane

The Second World War was not the first time that intelligence agents had been flown behind enemy lines. A quarter of a century earlier, soon after the outbreak of the First World War, one of France’s most remarkable pioneer aviators became the first pilot to fly these dangerous special missions.

Jules Védrines, born to working-class Parisians in 1881, grew up with an interest in all things mechanical, becoming a chauffeur/mechanic before learning to fly at Pau after witnessing Wilbur Wright’s demonstration flights at Le Mans in 1908. The ill-mannered, bad-tempered Védrines proved to be a natural flyer, and in 1911 he embarked on an extraordinary series of record-breaking flights. He began by winning the Paris to Madrid race in a Morane-Borel monoplane, flying over the Pyrenees to arrive in the Spanish capital after being airborne for a total of 15 hours, spread over three days. With no instruments, Védrines narrowly missed winning the Circuit of Britain race in July 1911, but over the following year he was to make the World Absolute Speed Record his own.

Flying a revolutionary Déperdussin monoplane with a highly polished, wooden monocoque fuselage, Védrines pushed the speed record from 90 to 108mph in seven separate attempts, becoming the first pilot to break the 100mph barrier at Pau on 22 February 1912. He also won the prestigious Gordon Bennett race of that year in the United States, and in November 1913 made the first overland flight from France to Egypt – a total distance of 2,500 miles – in a two-seat Blériot XI.

When war was declared Védrines was one of the first to volunteer to join France’s Aviation Militaire (the French Air Force). However, hardly had the war begun when the French authorities ordered that the fragile Blériot and Déperdussin monoplanes be withdrawn from service, leaving many experienced pilots, including Védrines, without aircraft to fly. Adding insult to injury, at the age of 33 he was also considered to be too old for front-line service. Undaunted, his navigation skills and experience of flying over unknown terrain were soon in demand to fly secret agents to and from behind enemy lines. Védrines was also one of the few pilots who had experience of flying by moonlight, another prerequisite of a special mission pilot. Early flights were made using a two-seat Déperdussin monoplane, the pilot risking not only capture by the Germans, but also being fired upon by French soldiers when crossing the lines.

Two experimental Blériot monoplanes were delivered to the Aviation Militaire in late 1914, one of which was acquired by the French intelligence service for Védrines to fly. Powered by a 160hp Gnome rotary engine, the Blériot had a bulky, streamlined fuselage made of papier mâché covered with linen fabric, prompting Védrines to christen it La Vache (The Cow). Unusually, the engine and two tandem cockpits were protected by 3mm-thick chrome-nickel armour plating, and a door was fitted on each side of the fuselage under the wing to enable the observer to fire at targets on the ground. When used for special missions, however, these doors proved to be a convenient method of entry and exit for an agent in a hurry.

In 1915 Védrines taught a young pilot, Georges Guynemer, who would later become France’s second most successful air ace, the skills required to fly behind the lines. Serious, ascetic and frail, Guynemer was the exact opposite to the assertive and bombastic Védrines, but he was never lacking in courage. Posted to Escadrille MS3 in May 1915 soon after gaining his wings at Pau, he carried his first ‘spy’ across the lines in a two-seat Morane-Saulnier Type L parasol monoplane. The experience led him to acknowledge the dangers faced by those who flew regular special missions, such as Védrines, and others who would remain unknown. However, one of these anonymous heroes left a graphic account of the dangers faced by these early adventurers well behind enemy lines.

    I had flown to the outskirts of Laon. There was a deserted corner, a sort of hollow basin where an aeroplane could stay without attracting too much attention. It was also an excellent strip for taking off. No main road passed nearby, and the only roads around were seldom used. It was impossible to find a better place to land for an operation of this kind. My mission was to pick up a passenger. The agreed signals were given and I let myself down to the ground to let him come aboard. He was late, and you can imagine the anguish that gripped me. I risked capture at any moment and could not stay there indefinitely. He was, however, the bearer of precious and compromising documents, and had no other means of safety than my aeroplane. What would happen to him if I were forced to abandon him?

 A half an hour passed by, which seemed like half a century. I expected to see him come out of a clump of trees located nearby. The full moon was shining over the entire terrain, and under its pale light, objects seemed to come alive and move. Attentive to the slightest noise, I watched the horizon at the same time. Suddenly I heard steps, and behind the thickets two shots followed in quick succession. A man was running. Nervously I triggered my carbine, which never left my side, and, ready for anything, I awaited the fight. I finally saw my man appear.

         He was running with all his might, and behind him several shapes were already in view. Without a doubt he had been followed, and I, for my part, fired away in order to take the pressure off him. I owe him this, that in such great peril he thought only of me. Still out of breath from his running, he shouted to me, ‘Quick, leave! There they are!’ I told him to get in, and with a gesture, I showed him the empty seat. There was barely enough time. I realised, once in the air, that several metal plates had been pierced. Fortunately, the petrol tank was intact, but my companion was wounded. ‘That’s all right,’ he said. ‘I am not ready to go back there again. I wouldn’t go back to that place for 100,000 francs.’

Special missions were not the sole preserve of the Aviation Militaire, and the longer the war continued, the more important human intelligence became to all sides in the conflict. A few weeks before British and French armies began the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) two-seat aeroplane landed at an airfield a few miles north-east of Amiens on the Western Front. Lahoussoye was the base for No. 3 Squadron, equipped with a varied collection of French Morane single- and two-seat reconnaissance machines; but the visitor was an anonymous BE2c, an artillery observation biplane that had been among the first British types to be deployed to France two years earlier. The BE2c taxied up to the furthest hangar away from No. 3 Squadron’s crew hut and parked, with its engine idling. A few minutes later a ‘civilian’ hurried out of the hangar and climbed into the empty observer’s position in front of the pilot, who turned the aircraft into wind and took off from the grass airfield, heading east. The ‘civilian’ was a French spy who was being flown across the lines and landed in enemy territory.

A few miles north of Lahoussoye at Boubers-sur-Canche near Arras, the home of Naval Airship Detachment No. 4, a young Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) midshipman, Victor Goddard, was preparing for clandestine, long-range operations to insert and extract secret agents to and from behind enemy lines. Trials had been taking place at RNAS Polegate near Eastbourne, using Submarine Scout (SS) airships powered by a wingless BE2c suspended beneath in which the crew sat. Its young crew, led by Sub-Lt W.P.C. ‘Billy’ Chambers with Goddard assisting, conducted a series of trials with a new airship, SS 40, specially designed for its clandestine role; it was painted with a matt-black overall finish and had a silenced engine. These trials impressed the War Office so much that SS 40 was sent to France on 6 July 1916.

After a protracted flight to Boubers due to a broken oil-pipe, a Lt C.R. Robbins parachuted safely from 1,500ft, along with a number of homing pigeons in baskets, on 13 August. Several high-altitude, night-reconnaissance flights were made across the lines, of between three and four hours’ duration, but night landings without the aid of a handling crew met with less success. During the summer of 1916 the Somme was being lashed by storms that turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and Chambers and Goddard were forced to abandon their attempts to carry any spies over the lines. SS 40 was flown back to England in October, never to return.

Meanwhile, the more conventional way of inserting secret agents – by aircraft – continued. On 3 August 1916 Lt C.A. Ridley of No. 60 Squadron who – according to British ace James McCudden VC, DSO, who had flown with him as an observer the previous year – was ‘a dashing and enterprising pilot’, picked up a French spy at Vert Galand, north of Amiens. Soon after crossing the German lines, the Le Rhône rotary engine of his Morane BB two-seater failed. Having made a successful forced landing, Claude Ridley and the agent managed to avoid capture for more than three weeks before making their way towards the Belgian border. There, the Frenchman left him to his own devices; speaking neither French nor German, and by now wearing civilian clothes, Ridley himself was liable to be shot as a spy if captured.

By bandaging his head and smearing it with iodine and blood from a cut in his hand, Ridley pretended to be an injured deaf mute. He managed to board a train travelling towards the Dutch border, but was arrested for having no papers or tickets. As it slowed down, he knocked out his captor and jumped from the train. He hid during the day and walked another 50 miles at night, navigating by the stars, having little food and being in constant danger of capture. Almost eight weeks after he took off for his two-hour mission, he was discovered asleep by a sympathetic Belgian, whom Ridley persuaded to find a ladder so that he could climb over the electrified border fence into neutral Holland. On 9 October he rejoined his squadron, which had by then moved on to Savy on the outskirts of Arras, bringing with him much valuable intelligence.

Lt William Harold Haynes of Military Intelligence was a British agent who had been flown behind the lines, and who had also escaped across the Dutch border on more than one occasion. After a year as an agent in the field he transferred to the RFC, learned to fly and in 1917 joined No. 44 Home Defence Squadron, flying Sopwith Camel night fighters from Hainault Farm in Essex. Its role was to intercept German Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers carrying out night raids on major cities in south-east England. Flying aeroplanes at night was then in its infancy and, after much trial and error, the home defence squadrons devised a simple but effective flarepath. It comprised several two-gallon petrol tins cut in half and filled with cotton waste soaked in paraffin; these were placed in an inverted L, with the long arm pointing downwind and the short arm marking the limit for the landing run. They were lit when the returning fighter was heard over the airfield.

Bill Haynes’s training as an agent stood him in good stead, and so when a ‘well-connected’ Norwegian joined the squadron and soon became notorious for the lavish entertainment of his fellow pilots, his suspicions were aroused. After Bill had alerted his former colleagues in Military Intelligence, the Norwegian was posted away and later charged with espionage and imprisoned. But by then Capt Haynes had met a tragic end, just two months before the war ended. Serving with No. 151 Night Fighter Squadron, he had climbed out unhurt from his overturned Camel after clipping a ditch during a night landing at Vignacourt, and was standing in front of the wreck, when his mechanic accidentally fired a round from the Lewis gun while checking it to make sure it was safe. William Haynes was 23 years old.

Although by no means a common practice, the RFC and RNAS undertook many ad hoc clandestine flights at the behest of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), or Military Intelligence Department 6 (MI6). There were no dedicated units or aircraft assigned to the role, but it is interesting to note that when RFC Commander-in-Chief, Maj-Gen Hugh Trenchard, asked for parachutes to be made available for RFC trials in France, the request was refused. However, twenty Calthorp parachutes were authorised to be issued for dropping agents behind the lines. The most popular type of aircraft used for clandestine flights was the obsolete BE2c, whose main virtues were its inherent stability and docile handling, both important factors when attempting night landings on unprepared surfaces. During the last year of the war the rugged and adaptable two-seat Bristol F2B Fighter (Brisfit) was favoured. With pilot and observer positions close enough for easy communication, the Brisfit’s rear cockpit was large enough for agents to parachute from in safety. By this time a special duties flight had been established under the command of Lt Jack Woodhouse, a pre-war motor cycle racing champion.

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