Its 02:00 hrs on a cold autumnal night in the countryside of Northern France, 1943. We crouch waiting in the darkness, hidden from sight by the hedgerows that surround the field in front of us.There is silence except for the wind in the trees behind us. The moon light makes shadows across the field, the flickering of the lights from our marker lanterns display the letter “L”, inverted. We start to hear the faint low sound of an aircraft engine in the distance. It gradually grows a little louder, then a little more. We cannot see anything. Then all of a sudden from the darkness appears a small plane, very low over the tree tops. Its a Westland Lysander. Having already done a reccie of the landing zone the pilot brings the Lysander into land, and comes to rest feet away from the marker lights. Engine still running we run towards the aircraft as it begins to make a turn. On the side is a ladder added to these planes especially for those being picked up so they can climb quickly aboard. We clamber up and lift open the canopy and jump in. As we start to close the canopy the pilot is already throttling up the engine moving the plane off in a taxi towards the end of the field nearest to us. The pilot spins the plane around on a sixpence and shifts the throttle up to full power. The Lysander reacts and picks up speed, its new cargo being bumped around as the plane speeds across the uneven field. We attempt to fasten our safety belt. The aircraft lifts off, we are airborne. From landing to taking off has taken around only 10 minutes.
We are heading home after what was a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.
This is typically the experience of the very brave agents of the Special Operations Executive and how they were picked up to return back to Britain during World War 2. But what of the pilots sent to collect them? Flying in complete darkness over the channel, then over the occupied French coast encountering countless anti aircraft batteries and flak as they made their way to a designated pick up point. Often navigating by landmarks like rivers or other features that would be visible on a moonlit night. These pilots were assigned to the Royal Air Force Special Duties Service. Comprised of four squadrons this unit flew support missions in all theatres during World War 2. The first and second squadrons flew in northern Europe, the third added to specifically serve the Mediterranean area and the fourth to serve in the Far East. Missions were not only related to the dropping off and picking up of secret agents or high ranking officers and dignitaries. The unit also carried out drops of supplies behind enemy lines to help the resistance effort in various countries. Anything from food, to ammunition, to medical supplies and even ink and bicycles were dropped by parachute from Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, Stirling and Halifax bombers. All three aircraft providing great options for the quantity of cargo required in any given drop. Later on in the war the ever so familiar Dakota was also employed by the group, its ability to land and take off on short air strips or just in fields being extremely useful.
But it was the Westland Lysander featured in our articles image and in our narration at the start that perhaps is the most iconic of aircraft used. Adapted and modified to make the missions of drop off and pick up more efficient they were the main aircraft used to carry the agents behind the enemy lines. Not a particularly fast aircraft the Lysander was a sitting target during any normal operations on the front line. Where it came into its own was in the ability to land and take off on even smaller fields than that of the Dakota. From this point of view and of course before the days of helicopters the ability to be able to get down and back up again in a tight area was priceless. When extra fuel capacity was added plus a ladder attached to the side, with also the freeing up of space inside the aircraft they could carry 2 personnel in addition to the pilot. The pilots of this most vital of RAF units are probably amongst the least known heroes of the war. Their tenacity, skill, ability to work alone and sheer bravery meant they were a special group. They flew tons of vital supplies to help defeat the enemy but also risked their own lives to deliver or collect the secret agents of the Special Operations Executive.
Aerospace & Aviation 2019
Image credit: Shutterstock
Sources: Foot, 1999 and various