Bruneval, the site of a German radar unit 12 miles north of Le Havre in France, was the location of the second airborne raid by British Forces during World War II on 28 February 1942. The objective of the raid was to dismantle one of the latest Würzburg radar units used by the Germans to help vector their fighters onto Allied bombers and to get it back to the local beach for collection by the Royal Navy. The raid was a complete success and became The Parachute Regiment's first battle honour
The raiding party was split into three sections, named after famous sailors, each of which had a designated role to perform in the operation. John, as Lieutenant, was officer commanding Rodney detachment which had the responsibility for blocking any attempts by the enemy to reinforce the radar station with the German troops based at Le Presbytère (a wooded enclosure containing buildings 300 yards to the north of the House and radar unit) or from Bruneval village.
John’s recollection of the Bruneval raid is recorded below:
“We were told that the company had been given the chance to go on a raid. Johnny Frost was adjutant at the time and he took over C Company. Something was on, but I don’t think even Frost was aware of the details initially. We began intensive training down at Tilshead, night after night, and we did one practice jump with 51 Squadron, who were flying Whitley bombers. We trained quite hard. Then it came to the time when we got the impression we were about to go on the actual raid rather than just doing a dry run. We were sent up to Scotland, to the Combined Operations base at Inverary for more training, and exercises involving landing craft. Lord Mountbatten came up and blew the gaff, as it were, although we still did not know exactly where we were heading or what we would be doing. There were medics and all kinds of people there for the planning. It turned out to be the Bruneval Raid. We went back to Tilshead and prepared to wait.
Eventually we were shown models of our target and were briefed extensively on what was required of us and we did a couple of rehearsal exercises. We knew very little about radar, but they brought a chap in who did – Flight Sergeant Cox, a very brave man who had never jumped before. They sent him up to Ringway and he did one or two jumps and joined the Company. Captain Dennis Vernon from the sappers was given a bit of training to act as number two to Cox.
After we returned from Scotland we did some more practice runs on the Dorset coast. Eventually we transferred to an airfield near Bournemouth. There we were in our various parties - C Company was just about 100 strong, plus two or three sections from the rest of the battalion, plus Para medics and Para sappers. I think we had chances on 4 consecutive nights and each time it was scrubbed but they extended it one more night and we eventually took off. My party was called Rodney which was a reserve force comprising of about 40 men. Our equipment was carried in containers fitted in the bomb bays of the aircraft. We dropped last onto several inches of snow but it was fairly clear conditions.
It was a very good exit and landing, but when we came down the first thing I noticed was that some sections and containers had gone a bit adrift. It turned out that Junior Charteris and his sections had gone down out of position and had to make a mad dash to get back and link up. We marched down to take up our positions. The main party moved up to attack the radar station, which they achieved virtually without opposition. My group was in the rear for clearing operations, mopping up pockets of German resistance, which entailed some pretty heavy skirmishes.
The only trouble was that some of our radio communications were in the containers which had gone adrift and the others that we did have were playing up. This meant that we were using runners to maintain communications with Major Frost while we were engaged with the Germans. One of the men in my party was killed as a result of the fighting and we also had a few wounded. Unfortunately some men got left behind and were captured. Because of the radio communications problems, when we were ready to leave we had no contact with the Navy. John Ross fired Very lights to attract the Navy’s attention. By now we had been waiting over an hour. Sergeant Major Strachan who had been wounded in the raid was beginning to feel the cold and I lent him a cricket sweater I had with me. I had brought it to keep warm in the Whitley on the flight over. Although we had dealt with the local troops there was the possibility of reinforcements arriving and a real risk of us getting onto a hiding for nothing. Fortunately, a couple of sub-lieutenants came ashore to have a look and we were taken off by assault landing craft (ALC) and transferred to gunboats. The lift off from the beach went fairly smoothly although we did come under fire from the Germans as we were trying to get off. The radar material, wounded and prisoners were taken back by fast gunboat to Portsmouth while the rest of us remained in gunboats which accompanied the ALC’s back to port. This took a pretty long time and we were all a little sea sick by the time we eventually arrived back at Portsmouth. I am glad to say that Sergeant Major Strachan recovered but I never did get that cricket sweater back! ”