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  • Writer's picturePaul Press

Part 4: Operation Biting (Bruneval)

Albert states in his testimony that Operation Biting, the lightning raid on a radar installation in Bruneval, France, in February 1942, was his first action. However, it is likely that he was a member of ‘HQ’ Company at that time and it is widely documented that Operation Biting was undertaken by ‘C’ Company, under Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) John Dutton Frost. Interestingly, the 2nd Battalion War Diaries suggest that this is not the full picture, stating that it was actually “carried out by ‘C’ Company and a few men from ‘B’ and ‘HQ’ Coys.” This is also intimated, in part, in Taylor Downing’s book, “Night Raid: The True Story of the First Victorious British Para Raid of WWII” (2013), where reference is made to a group of “signallers” who would have been men from ‘HQ’ Company’s Signal Platoon, attached to ‘C’ Company for the raid. Similarly, Paul Oldfield explicitly mentions the inclusion of four Signallers, as well as a number of Royal Engineers, and some men from ‘B’ Company, in his book “Bruneval: Battlefield French Coast” (2013). Therefore, if Albert’s role was not that of a cook, then the fact that he was in ‘HQ’ Company does not necessarily preclude him from having taken part in the Bruneval raid.

Albert was one of the longest serving members of the 2nd Battalion, having been with them for over five months by the time of Operation Biting. Based on the evidence stated above, it is highly likely that he had already trained as an Advanced Parachutist by then. As an early trainee, he would have had experience of dropping from Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys, which were the aircraft available for this raid, and it would appear that his character was such that he was willing to put his life on the line to make experimental jumps and take part in airborne raids. He would have been an ideal candidate to take part in this operation, which, if true, would have been his first action alongside the likes of Frost and Timothy – two men of whom he spoke very highly.

Albert’s possession of a five Franc note is certainly suggestive of him having taken part in a raid in France which, if conducted during his attachment to the 2nd Battalion, could only have been at Bruneval. The issue date of 1933 on Albert’s bank note is consistent with the dates on notes issued to other men known to have been on this raid, which range from 1932 to 1939. Additionally, Oldfield makes mention of the fact that, in a time when military resources were scarce, the men who trained for Operation Biting were well equipped with “watches, torches…compasses”, and were issued with Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knives; all of which were found within Albert’s possessions.

The last remaining relative to remember Albert from the time of his active service, his sister-in-law Kathleen “Mary” Hartill, remains adamant that he was involved in Operation Biting. After the Second World War, her twin sister Dorothy (Dot) lived in Fécamp, near Bruneval. When members of the family visited Dot, she would like to take them to visit the Bruneval Memorial, based on her understanding that Albert had taken part in the raid there. Although, as Mary rightly recalls, “it was very secret for a bit”.

When the Bruneval Memorial site was upgraded in 2012 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Operation Biting, however, the new memorial incorporated a plaque with a list of Parachutists who had taken part in the raid, and Albert’s name is not on it. Albert’s name also does not appear as one of the men named in Peatling, although this list itself does not match that on the memorial. So, did Albert fabricate the narrative of his participation in Operation Biting in his testimony?

It is generally agreed that 120 men took part in this raid, with 12 Whitleys, each dropping a stick of ten men. At first sight, this seems to correspond with the Bruneval Memorial list, which gives the impression of displaying three equally-sized columns of 40 names; 120 men in total. When counted, however, the third column only contains 39 names, which are spaced ever so slightly further apart. Thus, there is one man’s name missing from the memorial. Peatling’s list also only shows 119 Parachutists, with Frost’s stick containing nine men, which is contrary to the full complement of ten men mentioned in Taylor Downing’s book, “Night Raid: The True Story of the First Victorious British Para Raid of WWII (2013). St. George Saunders also states that the raiding party “eventually consisted of one hundred and nineteen all ranks”, but, since his book “The Red Beret'' (1950) specifically describes the actions of men from the Parachute Regiment, this number may have excluded Flight Sergeant Charles Cox, the Radio Engineer attached from the RAF, as St. George Saunders later describes the party as being divided into three groups, of 50, 40 and 30 men respectively – a total of 120 men. Unfortunately, however, the 119 men on Peatling’s list and those on the Bruneval Memorial list are not in agreement; both mention two names that are missing from the other list. To conflate the lists would give a total of 121 names, which is too many to fit on 12 Whitleys. Therefore, if 120 men took part in Operation Biting, both of these lists must be incorrect.

This discrepancy prompted a search, by Howard Davies at The National Archives, UK, to find primary evidence, written at the time of Operation Biting. He unearthed three further lists; two that were written in regard to exercises conducted on 15th February 1942; one of which was for experimental weight trials carried out by the AFEE at Ringway; the other for a full-scale practice jump. The third document is part of the Operational Report on the raid, written immediately after the event, which took place on the night of the 27th-28th February 1942. This is likely to be the most reliable list, yet it still only contains 118 different names, with Sergeant Lumb’s name appearing twice, and a blank space in Lieutenant Nauomoff’s Number 8 stick, which appears to be Nauomoff himself. Needless to say, divergent spelling of names abounds across all documents.

From all of these sources, there is a combined total of at least 130 different names of men involved in preparing for, and carrying out, Operation Biting, but Albert’s is not amongst them. Although it is possible to determine the most likely 120 men to have actually taken part in the raid, this still does not account for men like Private Jack Grafton whose name appears on the Bruneval Memorial, and in Peatling, but nowhere else, and yet Grafton was a regular at Bruneval reunions (Peatling). If Grafton had claimed, while he was alive, that he was one of the 120 men on Operation Biting, then his verbal testimony was never disputed, even by others who took part in the raid. Nobody would, or should, deny Grafton’s participation, despite there being no written evidence of him in the records.

This confusion over names may not be surprising since, due to the covert nature of the operation, not all the men were who they claimed to be. Peter Nagel, of German Jewish origin, who temporarily attached to the 2nd Battalion from No. 2 Commando to act as an interpreter on Operation Biting, dropped under the pseudonym Peter Newman. When the men celebrated the success of the Bruneval raid by autographing each other’s foreign currency and torn sections of parachute, as souvenirs, Nagel signed his name as Peter Walker, an alias he had been given when he was first recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1941, and one he would later use on the St. Nazaire raid when taken Prisoner of War. Private Griffiths also appears to have signed at least one of the foreign banknotes after returning from Bruneval, despite not being one of the most likely 120 men to have taken part.

When Captain Ross, second in command on Operation Biting, was taken captive in Sicily over a year later, he assumed the name Private Ward because of his previous covert activity in Bruneval. Thus, pseudonyms were common, but they also had to be plausible in order to stand up to interrogation, so Nagel’s name of Newman was the true identity of another soldier who had deserted before the war (Oldfield). From this, one can only assume that Walker and Ward were equally tenable names, perhaps used interchangeably by men taking part in covert operations.

However, Peter Nagel could not use his adopted alias of Walker on Operation Biting, as there was already another man using that surname. A Parachutist named as Corporal Walker was in Timothy’s Number 9 stick, and signatures on some of the souvenir banknotes (“B Walker” and “Cpl Walker B.”) led the curators of the Airborne Assault Museum to believe this to be Corporal Bernard Walker, Army Number 2876202. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Bernard Walker, with this Army Number, suggests that he was in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, with a rank of Rifleman (equivalent to a Private). The belief that Rifleman Bernard Walker was the same man as the Corporal Walker on the Bruneval raid is, therefore, flawed on two counts; firstly, as a member of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, it is unlikely that Bernard Walker was a Parachutist; and secondly, by the time of his death in Greece in 1945, he had not attained the rank of Corporal. It should be remembered, however, that this identification was tenuously based on a signature on a bank note, written by a man using a name which was also used as a pseudonym (for a pseudonym), by another man on the same raid, who was a known member of the SOE.

So, who was Corporal Walker? It is noticeable that Walker does not appear in any ‘C’ Company photos from before or after the Bruneval raid and, according to the account of Sergeant Lumb, Walker was not someone he knew from the Cameronians. Since ‘C’ Company was mostly made up of men from this Scottish regiment, it would be fair to assume, therefore, that Walker was most likely not from ‘C’ Company. He was not one of the Royal Engineers either, since they are all accounted for in their records. However, he may have been a Signaller.

Oldfield states that four Signallers took part in the raid, taking the place of men from ‘C’ Company, yet only three Signallers can be identified within the Bruneval training records. They are listed with a rank of “Sig” and, furthermore, only two of these three are recorded as having taken part in the raid. It is likely then that the remaining two Signallers on the raid were Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), such as Corporals or Sergeants, and so their rank would have been written as “Cpl” or “Sjt” on the training schedule, rather than the lower “rank” of “Sig”. If Corporal Walker was indeed a Signaller, then he would most likely have been one of the men attached to the raiding party from ‘HQ’ Company.

St. George Saunders’ book was written based on personal testimonies, at a time when secrecy was still important, and many official documents, such as the 2nd Battalion War Diaries, were still classified. Although the author highlights that most men on Operation Biting were from ‘C’ Company, he also acknowledges that some of the men were from ‘B’ Company, and that the party included a small group of Royal Engineers. Unlike the entry in the 2nd Battalion War Diaries, however, St. George Saunders does not make any direct mention of men from ‘HQ’ Company. This could have been an intentional literary technique on St. George Saunders part, as he does make reference to Signallers later in the chapter, which would tend to imply that there were men from ‘HQ’ Company in attendance. Alternatively, however, it could suggest that the men from ‘HQ’ Company who took part in the raid, did so covertly; so much so that even their comrades were unaware of their backgrounds.

Therefore, it is not implausible to think that the man who identified as Walker on Operation Biting was a Corporal from the Signal Platoon of ‘HQ’ Company, operating covertly under a false name that was known to be an acceptable cover in the event that he was captured. Perhaps, after passing a trial where most of “HQ ‘Coy’ made a descent from the balloon at HARDWICK park” on 18th February 1942 (three days after the Bruneval training jump, and less than a week before the planned execution date of Operation Biting), a man from ‘HQ’ Company was substituted into the raiding party under this existing pseudonym. If Rifleman Bernard Walker is the best match possible for the true identity of Corporal Walker, then there are clearly no records of an alternative Corporal Walker from within the 2nd Battalion. This lends credibility to the theory that the name Walker was used as a pseudonym on Operation Biting.

There are records, however, of a Corporal John Walker from the 2nd Battalion being taken Prisoner of War during the Battle of Depienne in Tunisia, in December 1942, but it is not known whether he was with the Battalion at the time of Operation Biting and, even if he was, which Company he was in. Either way, it seems unlikely that John Walker would have signed his name on the banknotes with the initial “B”. It is also possible, of course, that the John Walker captured in Tunisia used a pseudonym too.

Whoever he was though, the man known as Corporal Walker on the Bruneval raid would have been given French currency, compasses, a watch, a signaller's torch, assorted survival equipment, and a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife to take with him; all items that were otherwise in short supply in the Army at that time (Oldfield).

If Albert had, as he stated in his testimony, joined a Commando Battalion prior to attaching to the 2nd Battalion, then he, like Peter Nagel, would most likely have used an alias if he had taken part in Operation Biting. Unfortunately, there is no written evidence in Albert’s records to corroborate him being in No. 2 Commando, or on the Bruneval raid. However, as has been demonstrated, it is almost impossible, at this stage, to determine the true identities of the men who actually took part in the raid. Thus, a man’s claim that he was a participant cannot be refuted based purely on his name not appearing in the records.

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